Sign Here, 2017, performance lecture for Samuel Freeman Gallery. 

A performance lecture that explains the genetics and social implications of red hair. Jessica Chastain is compared to two other female avatars: 4chan’s Vivian James and Pierre Huyghe’s AnnLee.


TRANSCRIPT:

Sign Here

In the December 1st edition of Edit Magazine an interview with the actress Jessica Chastain appeared in which she addressed her feelings on the 2016 presidential election. “…I think Trump being so popular is really an example of why feminism is so important,” she said. “Unbeknownst to him, he is bringing it all to the forefront, and I am very grateful to him for doing that.”

The idea of Trump “bringing it all to the forefront” echoes a familiar proposition in which the presidency of Donald Trump would act to galvanize the American public, exposing the realities of racism, misogyny and economic stratification. This logic is one of “heightening the contradictions,” or “accelerating the crisis.”



According to acceleratethecontradictions.blogspot, the first instance of this line of argumentation can be found in Marx’s 1884 manuscripts, in which he writes of the transformation from aristocratic landowner (with all the illusions of birthright and higher purpose) to “prosaic capitalist,” a shift which he claims will “simplify and sharpen the contradiction [between capital and labor] and hasten its resolution.” In 1897, Lenin fully articulated “heightening the contradictions” as a “revolutionary strategy,” writing, “The ‘disciple’ [of dialectical materialism] believes in the present course of social development, because he sees the only earnest hope of a better future in the full development of these contradictions. The first and last trends therefore strive to support, accelerate, facilitate development along the present path...”

In this line of reasoning, the Trump regime acts, unwittingly, in the interest of the feminist subject by heightening, sharpening or developing already existing inequities, thereby pushing society to a boiling point. Unable to live in the space of irreconcilable contradiction, the newly awakened feminist subject is moved to revolutionary action.

Chapter 1: Vivian James

In 2014, users of the website 4-chan created an avatar for their community, and named her Vivian James. A representation of a female gamer, the name Vivian James is a phonetic play on the phrase “vidya games.” She wears a green and purple striped hoodie in reference to the Piccolo Dick gif, and wears 4-chan’s four leaf clover insignia attached to her headband.

Vivian was created under the auspices of Gamergate as a response to feminist game designer Zoe Quinn. Quinn had been singled out by the largely antifeminist 4-chan as a symptom of corruption in video game journalism. She was accused of having sex with various video game reviewers in exchange for positive reviews of her work, although no evidence of sex for professional gain was ever uncovered. To the members of 4-chan, Quinn’s brand of feminist game design read as evidence of the insincere, opportunistic posturing of an SJW. 4-chan believed that Quinn’s feminist politics were false, that she was adopting the mantle of feminism for self-interested motives. When a Reddit user accused Quinn of deliberately sabotaging a game-jam organized by feminist gamers The Fine Young Capitalists in order to promote her own game-jam, Rebel Jam, members of 4-chan saw an opportunity to pit Quinn against her allies in the feminist gaming community and expose her perceived hypocrisy. 4-chan raised over $25,000 for an indiegogo campaign sponsored by the Fine Young Capitalists, and as part of the deal were invited to submit a character of their own design for inclusion in the female designed game. Thus, Vivian James was born, the avatar of an antifeminist community of gamers, bound together by their ironic desire to raise money for feminist gamers, thereby spiting other feminist gamers.

4-chan designed Vivian as a fake-out, an appropriation of the language of feminist media meant to subvert and confuse. One user suggested that Vivian should be, “Just an average female gamer to troll everyone. All the tards in the media will expect some sort of pedocrap or LOLSORANDOM shit and we will just give them a simple average girl.”

“Approximately 14-16 years old, Vivian has red hair, freckles, and is a stereotypical antisocial gamer. She often has bags under her eyes due to lack of sleep from long gaming sessions, a perpetual look of veiled irritation on her face, and wears the same clothes day in and day out.”

Users declared her to be 4-chan’s daughter, and offered each other congratulations on the birth of such a beautiful girl. She is notdesigned to be a sex object, but rather an ordinary girl who evokes fatherly feelings of pride and care in her creators. She has red hair.

Chapter 2: Red Hair

Approximately 1-2% of the human population on earth has red hair. Red hair is produced by a mutation of the melanocortin-1 receptor (MCR1), a protein involved in the regulation of animal skin and hair color. About 25% of the population carries the mutated MCR1 gene that, under the right circumstances, can produce a redheaded child.

At birth, we inherit two sets of genes, one from each of our parents. Because the mutated MCR1 has weaker expressive abilities than its non-mutated counterpart, a child with one of each type will show only the dominant trait, and will not be a redhead. Only when a recessive gene is paired with another recessive gene will the red hair coloring and pale skin emerge, a one-in-four chance.

Thus, an actress might have several biological sisters, all of whom display brunette coloration, while she alone struck the genetic lottery that expresses itself in red hair. Redheadedness, because of its rarity and tendency to “pop up” in otherwise visually homogenous family groupings, carries with it a sense of being apart, of difference. According to Jessica Chastain, “I didn’t like looking different. Being a redhead, you can’t fit into the group.”

Like Vivian James, Chastain’s red hair sets her apart. She’s someone who doesn’t go along with the group. She is obsessed with her job, with getting things done. She’s passionate, and perhaps a little myopic. She’s different.

But the flip side of this special, chosen status is a creeping insecurity, a feeling of alienation that might blossom into outright paranoia. To be redheaded is to be a stepchild, disinherited and without birthright. To be redheaded is to be haunted by the specter of illegitimacy.

Question: Where did you get your pretty red hair? Answer: The mailman. 

Chapter 3: A Professional Woman

As I have detailed elsewhere, Jessica Chastain tends to play characters who, although they are imbued with a distinctly feminist agency, act almost exclusively on behalf of a larger institutional system or power structure, such as the CIA, NASA or the family. 

In the 2014 film Interstellar, Chastain appears almost solely as the vehicle for her absent father’s accomplishments, devoting her life to the pursuit of a mathematical equation that will save the planet, thus finishing his work and reuniting the father/daughter dyad. In this case, NASA functions as an institutional replacement for her missing dad, even providing her with a surrogate father in the form of her work supervisor.

Just like Chastain, Vivian James is an empty vessel for her “father’s” (4-chan’s) ambitions. Both women mime a post-feminist language of personal achievement and professional success, while acting on behalf of a paternalistic institutional structure – 4-chan, Dad – that speaks through them. What does Vivian want? What does Jessica Chastain want? We can’t know, because the impossibility of meaningful action or agency is a precondition of her birth. She is pure medium, an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the words and actions of her makers.

To be Vivian James or Jessica Chastain is to be a contradiction: an avatar of female power and accomplishment whose very existence is predicated on abdication. This is an impossible subject position, simultaneously embodying the irreconcilable poles of action and inaction, agency and inertia, animate and inanimate life. 

Chapter 4: Annlee

Annlee is a manga character, purchased in 2001 for $46 by the artist Pierre Huyghe for his collaborative project “No Ghost Just a Shell.” The character Annlee was designed for use in commercial cartoons or advertisements. Huyghe was interested in working with an empty sign, a support or platform for an external narrative. He invited several artists to make art with Annlee, to allow “different authors to speak through the character in a certain way,” temporarily imbuing her with meaning and life.

At the end of the project Huyghe and his collaborators were faced with a dilemma: what to do with Annlee? Now that the project was complete, could she retire?

The answer, for Huyghe, was to sell the copyright back to the sign. “…When you buy the character you become the owner of an object. We didn’t want to be the owner of that character, and so we went through a long discussion with lawyers. We decided that the character should belong to itself. We had to create an association, which was called Annlee, and so… if someone uses Annlee there would be a trial. She gained back her identity within that legal sense.” 

According to Hyughe, the transfer of copyright should act to release her, “liberating a fictional character from the realm of representation.” In fact, Annlee’s legal sovereignty ensures that she will never speak again; as a fictional character she is incapable of giving herself voice. Her liberation is purely theoretical.

The rallying call of the revolutionary subject in times of trouble is to heighten the contradictions, to exacerbate irreconcilable tensions to the point of rupture. For Jessica Chastain, the presidency of Donald Trump offers the promise of feminist liberation, that he will “bring it all to the forefront” thereby catalyzing emancipatory action. To be free is to endure hardship, to ready oneself for the moment of deliverance. Endemic to this promise is a vision of work and reward, suffering and devotion.

Jessica Chastain is trapped within this space of contradiction, the promise of freedom through labor - but at the end of the film, the absolution never arrives. As the next film begins, her status is unchanged. Jessica Chastain is a woman who works.

Conclusions

Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of a contradiction. The rhetoric of feminist emancipation meets the reality of a struggle that, by design, will never end.



Jessica Chastain is a woman born fully formed from her father’s skull. She speaks with his voice. He promises her freedom in exchange for hard work.

The answer is always yes. 

To be redheaded is to be marked, to await the moment of your disinheritance.

The artist Pierre Huyghe gave life to Annlee, but when the creative process ran its course, he “didn’t want to be the owner of that character.” To “free Annlee” was, in reality, to free Pierre Huyghe from Annlee. For her, to be “liberated” by her father was to be immediately and instantaneously rendered dead, lifeless, without agency or existence.

When Jessica Chastain’s work is done, she will be dispatched by way of a complicated legal maneuver that recasts her obsolescence as liberation. Just sign here.
This lecture was originally performed by the actress Leah Okada (who plays the voice of Jessica Chastain in all my videos) in 2017 as part of the exhibition Paratextual, at Samuel Freeman Gallery in Los Angeles. The show was curated by Asha Bukojemsky.