ACTIVISTS IN SEXY SOLIDARITY (THE MYTH OF LAYLA)
“Activists in Sexy Solidarity” (ASS) is a live reality TV show performance. It is part of my body of work, The Myth of Layla (TMOL), which explores the corruption of an Iranian-American activist’s political ideology through participation in the American media system. TMOL is set in a near future in which the U.S. has declared war with Iran—a fear of mine as an Iranian-American artist—and large media conglomerates have taken over all media channels. While the larger TMOL narrative deals with representation of Middle Easterners in the American media, ASS focuses on the value systems at work in reality television. As Laurie Ouellette states in her book A Companion to Reality Television, “reality television does not just tell stories about processes of lucrative self-production; it materially enacts processes of commodification and promotion by marketing goods, services, and most significantly, people,” or “hybrid ‘person-characters.’” She goes on to say, “here, being is labor and produces value, both for the individual person-characters and for their producers and networks,” or, in the case of ASS, a fictional but omnipotent media network called The Network, and myself as the artist.
In this work, audience members are encouraged to become participants on the show and those that do so become laborers in this value-generation system. All audience members, participants, and non-participants alike, have the opportunity to bear witness to this system in operation, however, participants may realize that they are being commodified for the benefit of The Network and myself as the artist. During the show, challenges are posed and the participants are ostensibly evaluated on their performance. The staging includes areas where cameras record the participants and their responses; the production of an actual television show takes place on stage. Participants find that their will is not entirely free as the outcomes, and occasionally their responses, are determined by a script. In fact, the show’s judges exist as pre-recorded video and will always declare the main character, Layla, the winner. Thus, participation and outcome are not linked; participation, the labor of “being,” serves only to generate value within this system. By choosing to perform ASS as a live, participatory reality show, the audience, by entering the performance space, regardless of whether they participate, is made complicit in both the value-generation system of reality media and the commodification of the participants themselves.