Sometime around 8PM on Friday, August 26, 2011, after two hours of drifting amongst the various works installed on the street above the mall at Underground Atlanta, I finally found a map for the events and artworks sponsored by Elevate / Art Above Underground. Of course, I had seen most of them in my aimless wandering, but had not yet ventured out to the corner of Peachtree and Decatur streets for what would be the highlight of my night, Nathan Sharratt’s interactive performance and installation, Be My Blood Brother.
(Note: the Elevate map is slightly off. Be My Blood Brother is located at 6 Decatur Street, not the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Peachtree Street.)
This was Sharratt’s third run at Blood Brother. He first performed it for a sculpture class at the Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta, then publicly in March of 2011 at The Granite Room in Castleberry Hill. Although I briefly saw the performance in Castleberry, the Elevate opening was my first real interaction with this work.
I walked into the small storefront to find it transformed into what may be best described as a slightly futuristic mashup of a doctor’s office, the DMV, and a shaman’s lair. In the center, Sharratt, looking more like a serial killer than a doctor, was seated on a small white stool, facing a small white table, wearing all-white coveralls with fake blood stained across his chest. Opposite the artist sat an identical stool, empty and inviting. Various syringes, jars, and beakers stood on the table flanking the main props for the interaction: a small crimson puddle of fake blood, a butter spreader, a rubber stamp, and a stack of card-sized certificates. As newcomers entered the sparsely decorated red, gray, and white room, Sharratt’s assistants guided viewers to their assigned tasks.
First, I sat down with the artist, who welcomed me with a deadpan question, “Would you like to be my blood brother?” Upon accepting, he asked me for my name and wrote it on a certificate that he also stamped with a serial number. After this, he did not speak. Sharratt mixed the “blood” on the table with the completely blunt butter spreader, pretended to cut the flesh of his hand, and left the red residue in his palm. Then, with an obvious gesture of sharing, he offered me the knife. As silly as this felt, I played along, repeating his actions with my own body. We then justified our actions by clasping our “bloody” hands. This is where it became real … .
Sharratt took a firm grasp of my hand and began to peer deeply and purposefully into my eyes. Maybe it was a minute or two, but it felt much longer. I felt helpless. I did not attempt to release my grip, but was fully and overwhelmingly embarrassed. Something metaphysical changed. Through the artist’s gaze, I had been subjectified.
With “artist’s gaze,” I mean to arouse Jacques Lacan’s idea of the almost benevolent gaze that art allows, as found at the end of his essay “Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a” (from Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis). Generally for Lacan, the gaze is a property of inter-subjectivity where, when one perceives that he or she is being viewed by another, one is objectified by the other. This can be extended to include interactions where observing an object reminds one that he or she is also an object. The gaze is first encountered in early childhood during Lacan’s mirror stage, and remains as a reminder of our inherent lack, the source of desire.
According to Lacan, the best art requires that an artist put his or her desires into the work, giving the viewer a rest from the gaze by revealing that the artist is vulnerable as well. Art that is created this way presents an image that shows itself as such. In understanding that the image is a veil to be looked beyond, we are relieved, feeling that we have seen something more real. We, in turn, also feel more real. In Be My Blood Brother, this scenario plays out perfectly.
In an interview on Google+, Sharratt shared with me the way that his family thought of his adopted father as his biological father—so much that his mother sometimes forgets, worrying that Sharratt will develop similar genetic traits. Be My Blood Brother translates this meaningful bond between father and son via the sharing of fake blood. Similar to how the Christian Eucharist is a way of joining a church family, Sharratt sees his “bonding with a new Brother” as a way of constructing a bond that is as real as possible. The artist describes it as “try[ing] to be a mirror through which [the participant] can see themselves.” Taking it a step further, Sharratt provides a digital forum for initiated Blood Brothers to share their stories. Here, he gives a stage for what was once a group of strangers, a collection of others, to surrender their gazes and acknowledge each other’s subjectivity.
Maybe I have romanticized Be My Blood Brother by espousing qualities usually associated with relational aesthetics and interactive art. But what I do know for sure is that, for at least the rest of the night after I became a Blood Brother, I felt very real.
Sharratt’s next performance of Be My Blood Brother is on September 9, 2011, 6-9PM, with more to come after. He also is in the middle of his Words On Shirts Project and is busy finishing an installation for Art on the BeltLine, serving as Martha Whittington’s studio assistant for the Working Artist Project of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, and preparing his Ground Floor installation for Dashboard Co-op in October.