Iva Kontic: The four-and-a-half video, GAKUSEI is developed around the representation of femininity in the east Asian, specifically Japanese culture which imagery it explores through a series of postures performed by a young female in a school uniform. Can you tell me a bit about the given geographical cultural reference of your work—which is emphasized by the title itself meaning ‘student’ in Japanese? What is its relation to the realm of high school and the sexually charged gender stereotypes that the work seems exploring?
Federica Zotti: I believe it is possible to assert that at the heart of every disciplinary system is the norm of attention to behavioral and attitudinal rules. In this sense, the teacher is a supervisor and educator, while the student is a form in the making to the extent that the teacher gives him the opportunity.
Every competence that the pupil develops is closely related to this form of overpowering the teacher over the malleable mind of the pupil. The formation of the pupil, and his realization in the human and professional field, is related to an idea of an “empty vase”, a “virgin” territory on which the instructor imprints his passage.
Reasoning around the ambiguity of forms of discipline and education, the Japanese context, characterized by strong contrasts between tradition and contemporary acceleration, is a rich area of case studies from which to draw the necessary elements to develop a view.
The Seifuku, the iconic Japanese school uniform, adopted in various declinations in both public and private institutions (and become a popular fetish in both Japanese and Western culture) was introduced in Japan in 1921, based on the uniforms of the British Navy, and is still synonymous with conformation, adherence to tradition and also for this reason a symbol of “subordination”. Also through its presence in manga and anime and the importance given to the representation of its materiality (think of the way in which the lightness of a skirt is emphasized, and the erotic references that this presupposes) it has become part of a wide repertoire of fetishized clothing and inclinations.
The Seifuku becomes a stereotyped skin to which to enclose a body; it is not strange that for the young Japanese gangs of the ’70s, the Sukeban or the Bosozoku, it was transformed (lengthening or shortening the skirts, applying pins and matching backcombed hair and so on) to become a symbol of rebellion against society and claim an independent identity. The concept of “rigidity” of Japanese uniforms is a theme that reaches the West (therefore filtered by a Western vision) in a placid but intuitive way; through the mainstream productions arrived, a sort of visual memory is created that makes the uniform the very emblem of Japan, as sushi or kimonos can be.
In November 2020, to emphasize the perception of the rigidity of the school dress code, there is a news that sheds light on the intransigence of some institutions; in which sometimes the use of hair dyes different from the natural color is prohibited or, “to prevent a hyper-sexualized climate among adolescents”, the obligation of white underwear for women. In this evident disparity and discrimination of gender, the constrictive element (the uniform, the simple white underwear – which is also usually attributed to an infantile sphere) becomes even more eroticized and transforms itself into a representation of desire, innocence and control.
IK: In the video, the non-diegetic audio commentary narrated by a gentle yet distant and monotonous female voice describes meticulously various postures that are visualized through a series of stills and gif-like sequences. It often appears anticipating, leading the image, as if some kind of instructions to which the image responds. I wonder how this centrality of the voice works with the normative idea of feminine behavior and performativity proposed by your piece?
FZ: In this work, I was interested in working with the voice, trying to outline with it an environment or territory, attentions, in which different elements could coexist alongside the images. To continue the work of school discipline, there is a significant production of behavior manuals aimed at regulating areas of social life that are outside the scope of school education.
Examples include 1950s American video tutorials addressed to an adolescent audience. Among the manuals there are titles such as “What to do on a date”, manuals of good manners for boys but above all tutorials of beauty and behavior for girls and young women. In the case of films directed to both sexes, the voice over is almost always male, as opposed to those directed to female audiences. Whether it is a matter of solidarity rather than relegation to a circle “Of women only”, from which the male counterpart wants to keep voluntarily distant, these “tutorials of femininity” unfold over the years, changing with the change of society and with its new requirements.
In this sense, the calm voice, almost like that of a sister, or a mother, is the tool used to collect, exchange and implement the conduct to be followed; which will be immediately portrayed and remarked through the visualization of the same acts described.
IK: Watching GAKUSEI, one can notice a strong predilection for fragmentary aesthetic, both in terms of female body and montage. The head and face are mostly cut off and we can’t ‘glimpse’ at the girly figure in its totality; nor it is allowed to fully perform the postures on screen. At times, the depicted parts of the model shrink to such extent that they visually disappear within the white non- space dominating the video image. What was the intention behind such a reduction of the performer’s presence, that is her reification?
FZ: In my work I always prefer a sort of fragmentation of language, sign or body. A practice (sometimes diaristic) in which the narration is formed from the prolonged observation of a part of the story. Thanks to the reduction of the “visible”, the impression acquires a central value, and the questioning that results inscribes a new picture. The gaze conveys all on the arrangement of each element of the constructed landscape.
In opposition to the traditional oriental concept of emptiness, in which white and absence represent possibility, being filtered by the western eye and being constrained by the rhythmic presence of the voice (which gives little space to another interpretation), the video/white space pages a manual of instruction and education to discipline, which winks at the “patriarchal” idea of the woman coveted only when perceived as docile, and waiting to be corrected.
The near absence of the face commodifies the model’s body, which becomes a utopia of an ideal erotic performance. Its existence is “useful” in proportion to its performativity. The position of the limbs, how they are placed in relation to the surrounding space, the tension that they must have, undoubtedly refer to an imaginary of the body that resemble the “rigidly feminine” schools, aimed at teaching good discipline.
In this regard, Roberto Calasso formulates with his “Deesses Entretenues” an important reflection on the description of the physical training of the girls who populate the House in the Park of “Mine- Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls” by F. Wedekind:
” The maidens of the park do not belong to a family, least of all to themselves. Like the ‘exposed’ children of mythology, they are promised a mission: not, however, a heroic one, of unique beings. On the contrary, their upbringing will refine them to endless permutation, to the interchangeable,
that is, to equivalence – to the great Western practice of substitution, of detachment, of arbitrariness. They will become algebraic and erotic beings. The maidens of the park are a social property, which society sacrifices to itself. Behind the isiac veil of the walls, the ghosts of the process of exchange become bodies, and in particular newly minted bodies of women, for that mechanism of inversion that Marx encountered at every turn as the signature of capitalism. […] “
” Here the content element prevails, offering us the closed formulation of a system, an educational method, which totally excludes the spirit and places the emphasis only on the body. Certainly, as the image of a dream of desire, unconcerned with the problem of its realizability […] “
A utopia of the body that could also be defined as a heterotopia of the body, and that reminds us of the various historical attempts of containment (of impulses, of affirmations, of freedom) that cyclically return, and that Paul Preciado also investigates in his “Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics”, reflecting on the “Playboy Bunny Manual” given by Hefner to every aspiring Bunny at the Mansion.
In two opposite surveillance buildings (a school for girls/a “bachelor’s house” where the Bunny’s is a full-time job), Teaching is all in the body.
“We felt our selves in our legs and feet almost even more than in our eyes and fingers.” from “Mine- Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls”, 1975.
“ Your public and Playboy expect you to be a beautiful, well groomed young lady who projects warmth and graciousness at all times. Therefore, you will always want to look your best and be the perfect personification of “Bunny Image” from “ The Playboy Club Bunny Manual ”, 1969.
IK: Being a young female Italian artist, living and working in Milan, how do you personally relate to the subject of GAKUSEI? Returning to the particular geographical context it outlines, do you think that your work might be read as a form of cultural appropriation?
FZ: The visual culture that arrived in the West from Japan, amazing Generation X, finds a field of landing in the Millenials (of which I am part). The image of manga and anime became daily bread for most of the children and adolescents who lived in this era, when Italian animated drawings were meager and “simpler” compared to those that arrived from Japan.
Being the graphic sign and therefore the drawing in Japan not only confined to a childish world but pure and valued expressive method, it follows that the stories arrived to us (approved, censored and modified), transmitted through the Mediaset network included themes and representations much more seductive forming (more or less unconsciously) new sexual imaginaries.
Exactly like girls-oriented italian TV media culture of the ’90s (think of “Non e la Rai”, where the bodies of the adolescent girls who participated in the program were to be made spectacular) , likewise the Japanese cartoons that arrived on our screens became, at times, the manual of behaviour (and posture) of an entire generation – modelling tastes and infections.
In this sense, what could be defined as cultural appropriation is the result of the intersectional shift that took place between a certain overseas image and the mixture of Western reading (perception) and feeling, a transformation that over the years has become both sociological and visual.
Federica Zotti (b. 1991) is an Italian artist living and working in Milan. After studying Graphics at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brera, she achieved a BA in New Technologies – Cinema and Video at the same. Her research moves within various mediums (mainly photography, video and installation) reflecting on the narrative structures developed around sexuality, its fruition and the forms of disciplining of it, also in relation to the implementation of digital technologies.
Her works have been exhibited at Osservatorio Futura / Online exhibition; REA!Fair, Milan (IT); Finart – Festival Internacional de Artes Graficas (Sao Paulo, BR); Walk in Studio Festival (Milan, IT); Leave Them Girls Alone (Milan, IT); Unleashing screensaver / Online exhibition; Sine vol.1, Brescia (IT); Talent Video Awards – Careof – Milan (IT); Mulhouse 017, Biennale de la jeune creation contemporaine, Mulhouse (FR); Under the subway / Online videoscreening, Milan (IT), New York City (NY), Valencia (SP), Palma The Majorca (SP), Malaga (SP), Sao Paulo (BR), Madrid (SP); Videozero, Milan (IT), Photissima festival / Turin (IT).
GAKUSEI is a video installation that investigates the visual imagery developed around the idea of femininity in Asian cultures. The video, composed of a sequence of static and moving images, and accompanied by an audio commentary, shows a model performing a series of postures whose ideal and gendered character falls into pure stereotyping.
In GAKUSEI, the performer cancels her presence to take the form of the desire of the observer and viewer who watches the subject as an actor in a normalized narrative. By depotentiating the erotic capacity of the model, reducing her performance to a mere interpretation of a prefigured model, the viewer, safe from the inevitable otherness that the encounter with the Other would entail, deludes himself into believing that he himself participates in and is the proponent of that condition and narration.