‘Aver­sion’: A Jolt Of an Ex­pe­ri­ence

The Washington Post - - Style - By Rachel Beck­man

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.”


In one of Mary Coble’s un­ti­tled works, above, a hand shows the ef­fects of shock ther­apy. Coble, right, re-cre­ated the psy­chi­atric treat­ment that was once used to re­con­di­tion gays to be straight.


Founders of the GI Film Fes­ti­val Bran­don Mil­lett and Laura Law, left, are air­ing films that show re­spect for the troops such as “Ar­ling­ton: In Eter­nal Vigil,” above.


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