The Washington Post
‘Aversion’: A Jolt Of an Experience
Mary Coble walked into Conner Contemporary Art at 7:30 p.m. last Friday wearing all white. She looked stoic, restrained. She sat down in a reclining leather chair and an assistant attached two electrodes to her left forearm. The wires connected to an electroshock therapy machine.
Artists, collectors and spectators were so packed into the small gallery that some people watched Coble via webcast on a computer not 40 feet away from the performance.
“You could hear a pin drop in here,” said Leigh Conner, the gallery owner. “Nobody was moving. Nobody said a word. Nobody’s cellphone went off.”
A slideshow started playing in front of Coble, alternating images of scantily clad men and women. When a photo of a woman came up, the assistant zapped Coble with electricity, causing her left arm to rise up off the armrest and shake. This went on for about 30 minutes.
“Aversion” is the 28-year-old, Washington-based artist’s latest haunting performance for a cause. She was re-creating a psychiatric treatment that was performed until 1973 to recondition gay men and lesbians to be straight. Doctors shocked patients like Pavlov’s dogs when they saw erotic images of the same sex. Opposite-sex images elicited no shocks.
On the phone a few days later, Coble said she had fully recovered.
“I was a little more nervous than I expected,” said Coble, who is a lesbian. “I didn’t know what slide was coming up. I understood the anticipation — Is it going to be a female? — and when a male slide did come up, a part of me was relieved. That’s not to say in the end that it worked . . . but I was a little surprised at how relieved I was.”
Coble said she first heard about aversion therapy when she was in her late teens. She started researching it a few years ago. The rationale behind it — making gay people straight — echoes the message from groups such as Exodus International, which advocates “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.”
In the fall of 2005, Coble performed “Note to Self,” in which she had the names of 438 murdered gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people inscribed on her body using a tattooing needle without ink.
“It’s not about hurting myself,” she said. “It’s the only way I can think to express these ideas that my audience will have a strong enough connection to.”
Artifacts of “Aversion” are on view at Conner through June 30, including the slideshow, the leather chair, electrodes and photographs and videos of a hand clenching and releasing during shock therapy. Some of the visuals are for sale, for $1,250 to $1,500, but Coble’s May 18 performance is not on view or sale. Coble also created a 21-minute video of people telling real stories of experiencing aversion therapy, though she would not comment on whether the video portrays actual patients or actors.
“I think there have been some performances lately that are just harm for harm’s sake,” Conner said. “Mary is conceptually very strong. It’s form following function.”
Portraying Our Troops
Husband-and-wife team Brandon Millett and Laura Law were fed up with the portrayal of soldiers in film and media. Millett’s breaking point came when he read an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that criticized people who support the troops. Law reached hers when she saw Joaquin Phoenix play a drug-dealing military man in the 2001 film “Buffalo Soldiers.” The result of their frustration is the inaugural GI Film Festival at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center this Memorial Day weekend. Millett and Law will screen 22 films at the threeday festival. They hope to attract both Hollywood and military types.
“In movie after movie, all you see is soldiers raping and killing,” Law says. “That’s all that ever gets portrayed. . . . We want to show something a little more positive.”
All of the films in the festival “portray soldiers with respect,” Millett says.
The lineup includes a drama called “Divergence,” about a wounded soldier returning from Iraq to his home town on the New Jersey shore. Comedian Jeffrey Ross will be on hand to screen his documentary “Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie,” about his 2003 United Service Organization (USO) trip to Iraq with fellow entertainers Drew Carey, Kathy Kinney and others. Pat Boone, the 1950s hit singer, will attend the festival to present a documentary about his new anthem for the National Guard.
The festival’s marquee guest is actor Gary Sinise, who will screen 1994’s “Forrest Gump,” the film that won him an Academy Award for his role as Lt. Dan. Sinise travels the world entertaining troops with the Lt. Dan Band (he plays bass) and serves as the national spokesman for the Disabled Veterans’ Life Memorial Foundation. The GI Film Festival is honoring Sinise with a VIP reception Saturday night.
“I have Vietnam veterans in my family, my side and my wife’s side,” Sinise said. “We all remember what happened with them when they came home from war. It was a national disgrace the way they were treated. I don’t want to see that happen to our active-duty service members.”