Film artist C.B. Cooke understands the allure of voyeurism
On the screen in the peepshow booth, a disembodied crotch was urinating in one bathroom after another, but some of the viewers were too busy groping each other to pay attention.
For the filmmaker C.B. Cooke, theirs was a new but not unwelcome reaction. The creator as well as “star” of his latest work, “21 Pees,” he was premiering it at the unlikely premiere location of the Ann Street Adult Entertainment Center near Wall Street.
“21 P’s” is a recent episode of his experimental video series “scopOphilic,” which celebrated five years on-air September 20 and runs very late Monday nights––12:30 a.m. Tuesday, to be precise––on channel 67, Manhattan’s public access television station.
Considering Cooke’s marrying of public access TV and peepshow booths, it makes sense that fellow public access provocateur “The Robin Byrd Show” is among “scopOphilic”’s inspirations. Like it, “scopOphilic” aims to startle and captivate the people that flip past it at midnight. But Cooke prefers to vary the subject matter of his episodes from introspective photography to sexually explicit imagery, or at times simply combine them.
Cooke’s work has been shown at the Sundance Film Festival, the New Festival, OutFest, on a wall near the Holland Tunnel, in the base of the Brooklyn Bridge and at the recently closed “Terminal 5” group exhibit at LaGuardia Airport. As provocative as the content of his films and video is, he’s also interested in non-traditional venues that push the limits of where his art is seen and who sees it.
Cooke and three friends began “scopOphilic” as a collective in 1999, but Cooke is the sole driving force now. The name, which means “the love of looking,” was inspired by Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure.” It described “circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at.”
In addition to Mulvey’s feminist film criticism and Robin Byrd’s––ahem––post-feminist TV series, Cooke drew inspiration from the photography of Duane Michals.
“He’s the person I can directly go back to,” Cooke said. “Because he took a series of still images and put a story to it [in Michals’ photo series ‘See Mount Fujiama’]––this guy, he’s laying on this bed, and they pull back and he’s sitting there in his underwear, and he’s got a hard-on, and it’s like this dreamlike sequence––that was very inspirational for me.”
Cooke also admires Andy Warhol’s movie portraits, particularly the ad-libbed “Screen Test” series, “where he just gets somebody to sit down in front of a camera and has them be themselves, do whatever they want to do, whether they want to go to sleep or tell jokes or whatever it was that motivated them,” he said. “And he’d just walk away and let the camera run. And they’d go until the film ran out.”
Each of Cooke’s influences used voyeurism in some part of his or her work. The fascination with looking at other people, for some of them, extended to mental as well as physical undress. And as Mulvey implies, those viewed are complicit too—from the fame that Warhol’s subjects gained to the return gaze of some of Byrd’s subjects, it’s clear that they’re also getting something out of—or just getting off on—this.
Bruce Morrow, a writer who was one of the four “scopOphilic” founders, remembered meeting Cooke when Morrow curated an exhibit that included Cooke’s early digital artwork. Cooke’s suggestion to do public access appealed to him, he said, since other artists before them had shown their work there.
“Those shows where you don’t know the name,” but become engaged anyway, Morrow said. “We liked this idea, and wanted to reach a new audience who might not be ‘into’ art.”
As “scopOphilic” has evolved, as though the video camera is turning toward him, the voyeurism in Cooke’s work has gone from looking at others to allowing them to look at him. In “21 Pees,” “scopOphilic” episode 36, even though the camera cuts out his head and upper body, he’s thoroughly and repeatedly exposed. In “Daddie,” an earlier “scopOphilic” episode, the series of still photographs layered together stay focused on Cooke’s enraged profile on a train ride to see his estranged father. When his father later developed cancer, Cooke accompanied him to appointments for two years and took photos at each visit. He fused some 600 of them into “Charlie and C.B.,” an episode made after his father died.
Part of the reason the voyeurism is increasingly directed at himself is that as the series became a solo endeavor, the focus naturally became more introspective.
“I made ‘scopOphilic’ more like my artwork,” Cooke said. And like many introspective artists, the work has become a way to say something that he might not otherwise.
Cooke isn’t opposed to airing “scopOphilic” in more mainstream venues. He likes the opportunity to be in the audience at film festivals like Sundance and MIX, which organized the screening at the peepshow booths, because it lets him see audiences react, something he misses with television.
“It’s instant gratification. You see them laugh at the jokes or the subtlety or the sarcasm, or whatever it is,” he said.
Film festivals have been more receptive than traditional art galleries, which often demand more hard-selling on the part of the artist.
“That’s not the thing I’m best at. I create. I’m not a salesperson,” Cooke said.
He’d also like to see the show syndicated, so that it can reach new audiences, “even if they’re in Idaho,” he said. Cooke paused, smiling faintly, and added. “Which would be kinda cool. It’d be interesting to get their response.”
At the same time, he’s not waiting to be discovered.
“I’ve got something to say, whether it’s about me, whether it’s about society, whether it’s about politics, whether it’s about everybody else in the world,” Cooke said, laughing toward the end. “And I hope that people will see my work and something in it moves them, or makes them think, or drives them to create themselves. Or change themselves.
“And that’s part of the reason why, because I have the TV show, I don’t necessarily feel overly compelled to get a gallery and show my work. Because I have. Every single week I have an art show.”
For more information, visit scopophilic.com.