Today I'm going to write about a contemporary representation of force feeding and its relationship to taste.
In this video, made by the Guardian in 2013, Yasiin Bey, formerly known as the rapper Mos Def, is filmed as he undergoes force feeding under standard Guantanamo Bay procedure.
This video was made in conjunction with, and in support of, the work of Reprieve, a group of human rights lawyers who, as their website states, 'provide free legal and investigative support to some of the world’s most vulnerable people'. This includes Guantanamo Bay prisoners facing human rights abuses and torture practices such as force feeding.
The aim, as stated on the Guardian's article about the video, is to 'draw attention to that fact that this is happening daily to 45 hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay'. With over seven million views, the video has certainly drawn attention to itself and the issue of force feeding. But, apart from the stated aim of the makers, what might it mean to represent force feeding in this way? And what does it mean to watch it?
One immediate response that comes to mind is that this video is not a representation of force feeding, or rather, calling it a representation of force feeding is slightly misleading. In the video Bey really does undergo force feeding and experiences the physical pain of the feeding tube being forced down his nose.
But there are crucial differences to the force feeding as represented in the video compared to the force feeding experienced by Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
-Bey's force feeding takes place in a London studio with a white backdrop. There is a lighting rig in the studio and, from what I can work out from the editing, at least two cameras filming.
-Before the force feeding begins, Bey stands in the studio, states his name to camera, and explains what he is about to undergo. He then reappears in an orange jumpsuit, and is put in shackles before he sits on the chair.
-From the video and the article, I can work out that there must be at least six other people in the room apart from Bey: at least two doctors to carry out the procedure, David Morrissey - a patron of Reprieve, the Guardian journalist Ben Ferguson and two cameramen.
-Halfway through the procedure, Bey 'free[s] one arm and writhe[s] so hard the tubes fall out' and, as the doctors are bracing themselves for a second attempt, Bey stops them by saying, "I can't do it, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." The doctors do stop, and as Bey weeps, David Morrissey rubs his back and says "It's OK, it's over now."
-After recovering his composure, Bey addresses the camera once again and states his name and what has just happened.
-From the article, it is clear that the group talk for a while before Bey puts his own clothes back on and is driven back to his hotel.
For the most part, the differences between Bey's force feeding experience and the experience of hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay are not about the 'reality' of the procedure, Bey really is force fed - although, there is no doubt that a marked difference is that the procedure is stopped halfway through.
I would suggest that the big differences are aesthetic - the way the video looks is not the way that force feeding in Guantanamo looks (or would look, if the U.S. government allowed the public release of 32 videos of force feeding in Guantanamo).
These aesthetic decisions on the part of the filmmaker (Asif Kapadia, whose recent work includes 'Amy' and the Oasis documentary 'Supersonic') place the video within certain cultural frameworks of taste.
The white walls of the studio are meant to evoke 'objectivity', and though this technique has been critiqued for many years, it is still meant to imply an attempt to strip away ornament and present facts. Just imagine if Bey's force feeding had taken place in a themepark 'torture chamber' version of Guantanamo.
The above image is from the London Dungeon, but you get the idea... The video would have been seen as supremely distasteful by the target audience of Guardian readers - middle class, white liberals used to seeing themselves as individuals who make decisions based on facts (no offence, I read the Guardian just like you do/pretend not to). They (we) dislike the idea of spectacle or theatricality when applied to the presentation of evidence in support of a point of view.
However, Bey is still dressed in the Guantanamo orange jumpsuit, complete with shackles. This decision may well be more about the look of the video than any kind of implied ethics - the orange jumpsuit is iconic, and, just like avocado on Instagram, the colour is so striking on camera (particularly on a white background) that even if it might seem crass, it probably contributed to the video's viral success on social media.
The shackles are striking for a similar reason. The accounts of force feeding at Guantanamo that I have read don't mention the specifics of how they are restrained, but the images of the force feeding chairs show that they have fabric restraints built into their arms and footrests. From other images we also know that Guantanamo prisoners have their wrists bound with plastic restraints - more like cable ties than metal chains.
My aim is not to designate the video as tasteful or distasteful, or to claim that it fails as a tool for activism because of certain aesthetic decisions, but rather to use this reading of the video to show how, as a representation, it is within the bounds of discussions of taste, i.e. it can, and has been, understood as tasteful or distasteful in a way that force feeding as a procedure that takes place in Guantanamo is not.
Because of this, discussions inspired by this video tend to focus on the cultural meaning of this video as a piece of political activism and whether or not it was a worthwhile act on the parts of the filmmaker and Yasiin Bay. The discussion stimulated by the video remains tied to the video - stuck on the representation of force feeding, rather than the raw brutality of force feeding as a procedure.