Art Expanded, 1958–1978


Walker Living Collections Catalogue

What Is Normal Love?

What Is Normal Love?


Jack Smith’s richly colored feature-length jaunt through the mythological world of Normal Love is the focus of an essay by the Walker’s Benston Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap. Examining the complex life of the film, which was continuously reedited—at times during the artist’s live performances, being cut and respliced as it fed through the film projector—Leaver-Yap takes on Normal Love’s deployment of color, its depiction of mock violence, and its portrayal of the deviant “Other,” set within Smith’s deliberately fashioned, fantastical world of film.

Leaver-Yap, Isla. “What is Normal Love?” In Art Expanded, 1958-1978, edited by Eric Crosby with Liz Glass. Vol. 2 of Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2015.
Walker Art Center ©2015
Jack Smith, Normal Love (film still), 1963–1965, 16mm film (color), sound on CD; ed. 5/10, 120 minutes. Collection Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2012, 2012.8.1-.4. ©Jack Smith. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Normal Love is a 16mm color film by Jack Smith, shot in 1963, and shown in 1964. But Normal Love was not always Normal Love; the work was also called Normal Sex, The Great Moldy Triumph, The Great Pasty Triumph, The Pink and Green Film, The Pink and Green Horrors, The Rose and Green Horror, The Moonpool Film, and The Drug Film. And, in its initial incarnation, it was a short story about freaks, sex, and God. In its ineluctable multiplicity, Normal Love must be examined as emblematic of Smith’s legacy as a whole: it exists in many versions, is unfixed, and difficult to fully account for in textual form.

To consider the film Normal Love, then, one must first consider the personality, the ideals, and the life of Jack Smith. He was a perpetual revisionist; his art was always evolving and his work was all-consuming—of effort, of others, and of time that insisted on the priority of the present moment. Throughout his life as an artist, Smith worked in various modes: composing vibrant and exquisite photographic images that resemble film stills for nonexistent films; presenting performances in his New York loft apartment that ran for unspecified lengths of time and drew improvised players from the audience in attendance; and continuously reediting his films as they spooled through the projector. The fact that Normal Love is both referred to as an “unfinished” and a “complete” film underscores the paradox of discussing it at all.1

In an interview with poet and artist Gerard Malanga, Smith responded to the question of whether his audience would ever understand his films. “[The] appeal is not to the understanding,” Smith explained, but to “movement and gesture.”2 This drive is continually foregrounded both in Normal Love’s content and Smith’s intended form of interventionist display, both of which will be discussed further. An interpretation of Normal Love relies on various forms of remembrance and documentation as well as on Jerry Tartaglia’s edited version of the film that was completed after Smith’s death. Such an interpretation also carries with it an unavoidable sense of irony, given that the persona and the films of Jack Smith are most clearly characterized by their relentless desire to shun the ossifying structures of reason and methodology. It is a purposefully indeterminate work that drew much of its energy from the presence of its maker who, in his live edits, literally cut the work to pieces again and again. Despite this, the rich half-life of the persisting versions of Normal Love available to us still inspires contemporary scholarship that articulates the work’s exceptionalism. It revels in sensuality over sense, without a responsibility to narrative logic or even its own preservation and posterity. And although Normal Love’s exotic, violent, desirous, and foreign inflections are the mainstays of Hollywood cinema of the time, for Smith these tropes were also leveraged as emblems of an inner queerness, which marginalize the average, traditional, and general, and prioritize the abnormal and fantastic. Normal Love never attempts to “pass” as truly authentic, but enacts attributes of an ideal self. This is the normal love.

Making Normal Love

Although Smith embarked on several theatrical productions throughout his artistic life, dating from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, when he was dying of AIDS, the early development of his theatrical persona was crafted through the dissemination of image form, either through photography or film. The artifice of the image, its hermetic and highly choreographed quality, offered Smith a fantastical space uncorrupted by the humdrum “normal” life that he continually railed against. While the theatrical productions were fueled by Smith’s antagonism to the expectations of the audience, his films and photographs were glimpses into an ideal that might be aspired to and emulated. But most fundamentally, these works were based on real activities, performances, and moments that occurred in exception to societal norms. Reflecting on the 1960s New York scene, performance artist Penny Arcade describes the porousness between being and performing certain behaviors within Smith’s social and artistic circles:

Everybody performed all the time. It was a way of entertaining yourself and entertaining your friends. But it wasn’t self-conscious. It wasn’t like somebody was on all the time. It was a way of mediating your own personality. We didn’t have any model for the kinds of people we were. We were freaks in the real sense that we were not normal and were pegged as not being normal.3

As a film, Normal Love encapsulates Arcade’s analysis, not simply through its tongue-in-cheek title, but because it falls somewhere between a performance of bacchanalian excess and a motion picture document of the experiences of those who worked on it. The development of the film and the process of its making becomes therefore integral to considering the work not only a means to an end but also as a crucial activity in its own regard. Any analysis of Normal Love relies heavily on the anecdotes of those who were present during filming, along with Smith’s own preparatory notes.4 Both of these forms of reflection function as complements to the 1997 print, which was assembled and restored by the artist’s friend and collaborator Jerry Tartaglia and now serves as the primary screening version of Normal Love distributed by Smith’s estate. While the limitations of the personal journal, the anecdote, and a posthumously edited film are not difficult to ascertain, these documents nonetheless provide the foundation for the current analysis.

Normal Love was largely developed and shot during the summer and autumn of 1963. The film emerged at a highly specific moment, both in terms of the development of Smith’s own artistic practice and also in the context in which he was living—namely the New York avant-garde scene and its increasingly fraught relationship to censorship. While already known for his performances in the 16mm shorts made by painter and filmmaker Ken Jacobs in the 1950s, Smith was also recognized as a photographer, operating out of the Hyperbole Photography Studio, which he began in a storefront on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1957.5 As Marc Siegel notes, “The studio was less an opportunity to take commercial photos, than a chance at incorporating passersby into Smith’s elaborately staged, exotic and erotic photo shoots.”6 Harnessing the relatively cheap medium of C-print photography, Smith’s vibrant figurative images move between fantasy and document. Visually, these photographs approach the appearance of production stills, though their corresponding films were never made or indeed planned.7 These early photographs, which stage fantastical desires in erotic and elaborate tableaux, can be seen as clearly linked to the staging and fantastical enactments that appear in Normal Love.

While the storefront housed early shoots, Smith, like many New York artists of the 1960s, increasingly used the private space of his loft apartment as a central creative site. Venturing out into New York, he also found ad hoc movie sets among the semi-public spaces of Manhattan’s rooftops and industrial wastelands, employing these as safe and unregulated spaces of production and social collaboration. It was in one such wasteland that Smith, during the filming of Jacobs’s Star Spangled to Death (1957–1959), came to make Scotch Tape (1959–1962)—a three-minute 16mm film shot using Jacobs’s Bell and Howell camera; and it was on a rooftop of a now-destroyed New York movie house that Smith would later use to shoot his epic Flaming Creatures (1963).8

Necessary to a project of its scale and ambition, Normal Love was developed with the help of a large number of friends and collaborators, which included Smith’s frequent ensemble cast of figures. Among them were Sheila Bick, Francis Francine, Tony Conrad, and René Rivera—whom Smith enduringly renamed Mario Montez during the shooting of Normal Love (and who will be referred to in this essay as such). Bick, Francine, and Rivera had variously appeared in Smith’s photographic works that the artist shot in his loft between 1958 and 1962, and had also performed in Flaming Creatures. Conrad, a violinist and recent Harvard graduate, had previously assisted Smith on the soundtrack for both Flaming Creatures and Scotch Tape.

More financially stable admirers and enthusiasts were on hand to deliver the outdoor locations for the shoot—vital to Smith’s escape from New York City’s increasingly patrolled spaces.9 An estate belonging to Stable Gallery owner Eleanor Ward in Old Lyme, Connecticut, was used as a backdrop (Wynn Chamberlain was renting it at the time) as were the premises of collector Isabel Eberstadt on Fire Island’s Cherry Grove and Joan and Bob Adlers’s 14th Street apartment in New York City.10 Meanwhile, Jonas Mekas, working under the auspices of the New York Film-Makers’ Co-op, which he had founded in 1961, paid out checks for the film stock and printing.

Sequencing Werewolves, Mermaids, Mummies, and Snake Women

“I’ll tell you something about normal love,” writes Jack Smith in his journal with characteristically conspiratorial and sensual humor. “People should be able to caress each other during their quarrels. Then their quarrels can be really passionate. Scorpios: be jealous and quarrel on, that is your nature. We must be humorous, fair and affectionate even while we quarrel … the tender part of life depends on it. We can achieve this balance because we are incredible.”11

Spelling “normal love” in lower case, Smith appears to refer less to the title of his film than to a proposed terminology, wherein normal love describes the collective performance of passion. While “normal” is a word that is always relative, deferring to the least remarkable and most common, within Smith’s highly personalized lexicon, it tends to serve as a pejorative critique for conservative behavior.12 As a title of his film, then, Normal Love is unsurprisingly antagonistic. It is a masthead for a cinematic world of Arcadian pleasure and (mockingly) explosive violence, practiced by clusters of mythical beings who act out positive representations of sexually ambiguous behavior—of attraction, seduction, and aggression between werewolves and mermaids, bandaged mummies and snake women. Normal Love does not feature or promote what he would call “normal” people; the title and content offer both a parody of normality and a proposition for a new sort of normal.

Neither does the film have a normal sequence. During Smith’s life, scenes of Normal Love were reordered frequently—not only during the editing phase that followed the shoot but also for live screenings of the work itself, wherein the artist would show rushes of the film, splice together different sections as they emerged from the projector, and spool these recut scenes back through the player. After Smith’s death, the question of how to show this ever-evolving footage in the absence of the artist was taken up by Tartaglia, who used these fragments and, more importantly, Smith’s own notes to re-create a cohesive version. Out of necessity, Tartaglia’s 1997 restoration takes form as a single sequence; this is now the authoritative edition that resides in the Walker Art Center’s collection. For sake of clarity, and in acknowledgement of Tartaglia’s painstaking restoration, the descriptions provided here are based on this version of the film.

While Flaming Creatures was shot in black and white, Normal Love’s lush color signals a return to the vibrant and painterly qualities of Smith’s early figurative C-prints, echoing the aesthetic that the artist employed in his earliest films, Buzzards Over Baghdad and Scotch Tape. In Normal Love, he presents a series of chromatic registers that demarcate the various scenes.13 The significance of color, used here as an ordering principle and central element of the film’s impressionistic mood, is underscored by the terminology that has posthumously come to describe these seven loosely arranged sequences.

Tartaglia’s edit of Normal Love opens and closes with the “red scene,” or “moon pool” scene.14 Here, Mario Montez appears, made up variously as either Marilyn Monroe or as a mermaid. Languishing in a milk bath, Montez is interrupted by a spider and, later, a white bat. These interior scenes are distinct for their sense of enclosure and claustrophobia, the camera trained tightly on Montez. Formally, this scene most closely recalls Smith’s earlier C-prints. Shot in Manhattan interiors, his photographs cast his subjects’ bodies in full, flat, frontal light, surrounding them with colorful drapes and furnishings as if to hem them into a sealed fantasy world. While perhaps playing tongue-in-cheek with the Hollywood spectacular, referencing, specifically, Elizabeth Taylor’s starring role in the contemporaneous Cleopatra (1963), Smith noted that his bookending scenes of Montez’s thwarted bath are a possible expression of the character’s “inner psychotic world.”15

The action that then follows is ambiguously tied to the structure of an interior fantasy or, more specifically, Smith’s double fantasy—firstly of Montez’s superficial appearance on screen, and secondly, a nested fantasy of Montez’s inner state. This contrast between the opening scene and what follows is made all the more explicit by switching between claustrophobic interior scenes and lush exterior shots—the latter offering a vastly different range to Smith’s prior work, which is characterized by its settings within the enclosed spaces of New York City. The pastoral quality of the subsequent scenes thus follows a different logic, one structured less around decisive actions than on the presentation of different spaces of Edenic plenitude.

The “pink and green scene”—the first exterior shot in Normal Love—is sometimes referred to as the “swing scene,” due to its quotation of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Swing (1767), featuring lovers at play among the fauna of an orchard. The performance of innocence, youth, and beauty is foregrounded and displayed through close-ups of entwined feet and hands as well as abstracted reverse shots of bodies in tall grasses. In contrast, the following “swamp scene” shifts settings, leaving the lush pastoral ambience for a muddy swamp. In this segment, Montez reappears in mermaid form, reclined at the edge of the marsh. The mermaid is accosted and sexually assaulted by a creature Smith refers to in his notes as a “Pasty.”16 Pasty attempts to abscond with the mermaid but after finding the task unwieldy and impossible, he resorts to offering the mermaid a bottle of Coke, as if to deliver a punch line to the aforementioned assault.

The ensuing “blue scene” provides an ambient interlude to the phony violence of the previous sequence. Set on a seaside pier, it features lovers, a violinist, a bandaged mummy, and an infantilized character credited as “the mongol child,” who caresses a human skull. The characters here are slow, pensive, static, or else in deathly torpor, appearing as small figures against the watery landscape. The blue scene presents a circular and uneventful vignette, an evacuated utopia—a “nowhere” space, free of friction or action. This section segues into the “watermelon scene,” where the recurring figures of the mummy and lovers cavort among cows in green pastures, eat a watermelon, and drink pink and green milk—a reference, no doubt, to the preceding orchard scene.

Another duo is presented in the penultimate “cobra woman scene,” or “green scene,” in which the violinist from the pier plays to an entranced woman and cobra snake as they writhe among the rocks and in the dappled light of the woods. With a circuitousness that makes it seem formally akin to the blue scene, it is nonetheless most compelling for its iconic close-ups of the Cobra Woman. Performed by the transfixing artist and model Beverly Grant, the female figure mirrors the sustained and hypnotic camera movement that switches between close-ups of limbs, trees, and stippled light falling on nearby rocks.

The final “cake scene” features reveling dancers (described by Smith as “chorus cuties”) swaying on tiers of a huge Busby Berkeley–style cake designed by artist Claes Oldenburg. Andy Warhol has a brief and unexpected cameo as he wanders into the shot, filming the cake and its inhabitants for his since-lost “newsreel” on the making of Normal Love. In this, the climax of the film, the mongol child of the previous blue scene reappears and shoots everyone with a water-pistol tommy gun, before excitedly climbing to the top of the cake victorious.

Admittedly, there is some difficulty in talking of the cake scene as the finale to the film although it undoubtedly represents the climax of Normal Love’s ambiguous plotline. Smith also produced Yellow Sequence (1963–1965), which is variously described as a coda for, addendum to, and cut from Normal Love. Unlisted in Smith’s chronology notes and shot on a separate reel from Normal Love, Yellow Sequence thus retains some unresolved separateness from the longer film.17 So, while Tartaglia decided not to include it in the 1997 restoration of Normal Love, public screenings of the film are often shown with Yellow Sequence as an epilogue.18 While the rationale behind the separation was that the original Yellow Sequence reel, shot with Francis Francine, was lost (either by Smith or his film laboratory), Joan Adler’s anecdotal recollection of the sequence is particularly illuminating:

It was Tiny Tim’s Yellow Sequence that Jack eventually used, even though the Frankie Yellow Sequence turned up in the end. Both are overlaid by the images in Bob’s still pictures. Stills which are utterly vivid and vision-spun. Frankie dying in yellow golden-rod. Mongol and Frankie dancing finger-tip to finger-tip under the yellow umbrella, white-robed, flower-yellow gowned, heads raise, eyes lowered (Frankie, professional appearer) and squinting (Dave Mongol, apprentice appearer) in the bright sunlight which is, of course, behind the camera because Bob thinks technically, which Jack doesn’t. Jack can’t remember names of processes or negative or anything.19

“Every time I look into the mirror I could scream because I am so beautiful”

Articulating the contents of Normal Love does not imply a logical or narrative progression, but the appearance of chaos that unifies both its making and display seems debatably superficial, judging from the documents that surround it. Although many individuals who participated in the production recalled the shoot to be haphazard and indefinite, Smith had prepared a detailed outline of the film as well as cue sheets for the proposed soundtrack—though these careful plans remained unknown to many of the cast and crew members.20 Conrad discovered these notes and made a copy of Smith’s film outline. This document, paired with the cue sheet Smith provided for Conrad’s soundtrack, serves as the basis for Tartaglia’s 1997 version.21

The sheer scope of Tartaglia’s task of restoration becomes clearer when we consider how fragmentary the prints had become after Smith’s successive splicing, re-orderings, and cuts. The intended duration of Normal Love is indefinite, and Smith’s continual strategy of rearranging sequences and interspersing sections of the film with live performances and slideshows may account for some of the variance in audience recollections. Viewers have reported that the Normal Love screenings ran anywhere between one to four hours, though Tartaglia’s version now measures in at about two hours.22 In addition to changing the amount and sequence of the film shown, Smith would also occasionally repeat the same section within a single performance. His recurrent structure of scenes within scenes, akin to a musical reprise in which moments of action would give rise to moments of repetition, results in an enmeshing and looping of Normal Love’s time. The aesthetic recycling held an aggressive stance against any notion of creating performative screening events of a “sensible” duration. Yet at the same time, this technique also introduced a rhythmic quality within the images themselves, wherein the reprise served as both a marker of an alternative time and as a cinematic memory.

This musical metaphor is a key to understanding the film’s mutability. Like Smith’s previous films, there is no dialogue or spoken-word soundtrack. Normal Love’s visual and aural elements collude in an implicit untethering from the sequential requirements of both narrative cinema and narrative altogether. Indeed, the artist’s own cinematic references seem tied to the moment just prior to the advent of the talkies, taking the silent era—a space of musical ambience and expression based on physical gesture—as his inspiration. Smith writes:

In my later work, I have taken as my point of departure that moment before the arrival of sound. (The art of silent film was never perfected and that is what I have spent the last 20 years in doing.) The story is rendered pictorially and, drawing upon psychology, something like the logic of dreams is deployed.23

The soundtrack for Normal Love draws from the artist’s personal record collection to create a live musical accompaniment.24 During the film’s production phase, Smith did, however, announce a competition for the Normal Love soundtrack, searching for a voice-over actor. Printed in the Village Voice, Smith’s ad reads: “If you are able to reasonably duplicate the voice of Maria Montez, you are invited to submit a tape recording of the following quote: ‘Every time I look into the mirror I could scream because I am so beautiful.’” Despite this shred of evidence, one wonders if a vocal soundtrack was ever truly a consideration for Smith.25 But perhaps, even in its inception, this artifact points to the idea that the artist imagined Normal Love as something closer to live performance than to film. Certainly, the repetitious nature of Normal Love works to suppress any overarching plot, while Smith’s camerawork largely dispenses with focus and comprehension in favor of texture, color, and tone. Vibrancy is equated with movement, with people running through open glades, swaying to music that was originally played live (from records) to the audience at the moment of Smith’s projection. By contrast, death is signaled by the temporary stillness of his static creatures, playing out a simplified mortality that one might expect to see in a child’s game.

Although the onscreen contents of Normal Love lend as easily to a discussion of performance as they do to Smith’s continual reediting, it is these editorial interventions that contribute most significantly to the film’s performative liveliness. A quality that cannot be simulated by restoration (and can only be partially understood by the material qualities of the film and anecdotal memories of its display), the process of remixing and meddling is one of the defining qualities of Normal Love. While Hoberman has suggested that the process of recutting was a form of “autodestruction,” it is perhaps more accurate to describe Smith’s Frankensteinian approach to Normal Love as a continual expression of creative intervention, agency, and flux.26 Hoberman’s summary of the artist’s practice is clearly in accord with the material requirements of Normal Love: “The artist made sure that it’s just not possible to have ‘Jack Smith’ without Jack Smith.”27 In other words, the filmmaker’s body and his film became inseparable through Smith’s chosen mode of projection for Normal Love, which relied on his presence to splice, edit, and feed the film.

The impulse to create a permanently fragmentary work came at a critical juncture for Smith. Embittered and disappointed by the reception of his previous “finished film,” Flaming Creatures, he felt his name and work had been sullied by Jonas Mekas and the Film-Makers’ Co-op. Although Smith had initially given the latter permission to distribute the work, Mekas often screened it without the artist’s permission. Smith was appalled at what he viewed as the film critic’s desire for fame, and referred throughout his life to his loss of control over the work at the hand of “Uncle Fishhook,” a pseudonym he invented to refer to Mekas, both in his own writing and most notoriously in his 1978 interview with Sylvère Lotringer.28

By contrast, Smith’s strategy of cut-and-display necessarily hardwired Normal Love to his personal craft and kept the decision-making within his realm. Here was a mutable work dependent on the moment and the constant reinscription of his authorship. While some consider Normal Love to be something of a sequel to Flaming Creatures, it is instead better understood as a reaction to its apparent hijacking. As Smith noted:

Since Flaming Creatures, I’ve been involved in a working method that might be called “LIVE FILM.” Some of the work goes on through the screening itself. Someday, this might be imitated for there is almost no other way to dislodge film out of the bankrupt state it is now in, which can only be goosed up by more and more violence and synchronized chatter.29

“All sex fantasies are equally valid”

While Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, and Gregory Markopoulos were enjoying critical success with their experimental films in the early 1960s, Smith belonged to a group of underground filmmakers that Jonas Mekas—in his journalist role as the Village Voice’s film critic—would refer to as “disengaged.” This group of filmmakers, which included Smith as well as Ron Rice, Ken Jacobs, and Bob Fleischner (all friends and frequent collaborators), made work that was “without inhibitions, sexual or of any other kind.”30 After his rather polemical statement defining this new brand of cinema, Mekas aggressively defended his theory within the public platform of the Village Voice. His timely proclamation both heralded and actively courted a new wave of conflicts with authorities at a moment when rising anti-obscenity law crackdowns swept New York in advance of the 1964 World’s Fair. The same year that Smith was developing Normal Love, the New York Police Department confiscated his first and only completed feature film, Flaming Creatures, along with Andy Warhol’s “newsreel” that documented the making of Normal Love. Flaming Creatures was subsequently banned from public screenings by a New York Criminal Court.31

Although at the center of one of the most notorious incidents of the city’s censorship of experimental film at the time, Flaming Creatures was by no means alone in falling foul of tightening obscenity laws. Young filmmaker Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth (1963) and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964) were also banned from public screenings; while in Los Angeles, Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967) was seized by the LAPD for its apparent failure to comply with laws concerning onscreen sexual activity.32 Normal Love thus emerged during a moment when artists throughout the country were consciously rejecting (and inevitably reflecting upon) political authority and mainstream acceptability.

Seen within its contemporary context as well as within the dramatically different yet in some ways equally charged context of the present day, these ethical questions about Normal Love become particularly relevant. When considering the film and its legacy, it is necessary to mire through the numerous discussions of alleged racism, exoticism, misogyny, and sexual violence in this and Smith’s other films.33 Within Smith’s fantasy world, we may find frequent references to “Baghdadism,” Ali Baba, and slavery as evidence of his problematic Orientalist desires. Admittedly, points of contention are not hard to find in Normal Love: the “watermelon man,” for example, whom Smith also refers to in his journals as “Slavey,” serves as one of many examples. Better analyzed and understood within the framework of Edward Said’s Orientalism, however, Smith’s use of loaded language (as well as his self-Orientalization through his performance as Ali Baba, for example) never appears as straightforward citation; rather, the words are performed within a scabrous and critical vernacular.34 The artist was acutely aware that Normal Love is a space dominated by queer bodies who, through their sustained representation, are able to threaten and invert definitions of “normalcy.” The profane, too, is subjected to such oppositional performance. As performance historian Dominic Johnson notes, Smith’s exploration of Orientalist fantasy “exploits the apparent theatricality of Orientalist ideology, invoking a specifically metatheatrical mode to critique its normalized processes; as such, he burlesques Orientalist cultural orthopraxis in a parodic, comic-theatrical space of performance.”35

Certainly, Normal Love presents a deeply precarious movement between a fantasy of the Orient and how it is rendered into a material reality. Throughout the film, exoticism is invoked via costume jewelry, patterned chiffon, ribbons, and lace. Outlandish creatures are produced with poorly daubed body paint, plastic vampire teeth, and rubber toys. These are not objects seeking to persuade the audience of their authenticity; rather, they enter into the fantasy of the exotic while also betraying their throwaway provenance of the dime store. These kitschy objects are the future residue of capitalism’s excess in its lowest denomination. Smith’s tchotchkes reflect both his love of theatrical excess and his revulsion of slick cinematic persuasion. Thus the affectations of Normal Love are often at pains to be unbelievable. Smith’s provisional props and paper-thin backdrops continually exhibit an economy of means—they become signifiers that function just enough to achieve an effect. A custard pie is thrown at a perpetrator of physical assault; a Venuslike character (played by Francis Francine) is killed by a water pistol; and a toy spider attacks the bathing Mario Montez—these scenes follow the logic of Hollywood cliché and cartoon. They point not to a believable world but rather to the pleasures of fantastical realities onscreen.

Within this pleasure, however, is embedded one of the most controversial moments of Normal Love—the “swamp scene,” which appears to depict a classic rape fantasy. The scenario, though acted out with all of the campiness characteristic of Smith’s work, nonetheless portrays the naturalness of a male physical power to rape as well as a perceived vulnerability of the female, while also showing how the victim resists and eventually appears to enjoy the assault. Although the onscreen action is ambiguous (as the performances by both actors are theatrical and campy throughout), Smith was under no pretense in his journal notes on Normal Love, which are explicit:

  • Pan shot of LOTUS
  • Rene reclines & Pasty enters
  • RAPE

The intention of the swamp scene may well be beyond recuperation in terms of its ethics of representation of sexual violence, but there are nonetheless a number of factors in play, all of which Smith was undoubtedly aware. Just as the representation of the mongol child’s tommy-gun killing rampage in the final cake scene is not a promotion of murder, nor is the swamp scene a promotion of sexual violence.

The intention of this brutality is also veiled by the mythical characters who portray the action. The mermaid is performed by Mario Montez—a figure who engaged in various gender presentations both on and off screen—while the “pasty” figure is a comic display of over-the-top masculinity. In a posthumously published essay, Smith gives greater complexity to the notion of sexual expression—exoticizing, violent, fantastical, or otherwise:

All sex fantasies are equally valid. They are the means whereby the imagination leads the confused creature into sexual contact with other creatures which contact is difficult at best and can be impossible for the sensitive, the neurotic, the badly misinformed, the inexperienced, the young adults with very little in their experience that could provide a basis of rationality. Sexual fantasizing is the pitiful means whereby the truly unpleasant difficult sex function is swathed in glamour, perversity, and ultimately, simply, interest. It is necessary for the propagation of the species and ergo soundness of consumer economy. That is why it seems strange that municipal manufacturing interests give it the bad name of obscenity.37

Here, Smith outlines sexual fantasy as a paradox that is both exceptional and egalitarian because it can occur without the need to refer to reality or social norms. For society to name it “obscenity” is to reject the inner life of the individual and to ignore its vitalizing quality—aspects that are key to the world of Normal Love. This is a crucial point, as it shows how the work operates at the level of sexual fantasy in that, like sexual fantasy, Normal Love cares little for normalcy or reality in general. It does not seek to establish a safe space or a benign campiness that can be easily co-opted or humanized; rather, it derives its power from both seduction and aggression, within an economy of means.38

Smith’s Fantasy of Cinema

In “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez,” a short essay written and published the winter before the making of Normal Love commenced, Smith revealingly writes about the fantasy of cinema:

  • What is it we want from film?
  • A vital experience
  • an imagination
  • an emotional release
  • all these & what we want from life
  • Contact with something
  • we are not, know not
  • think not, feel not, understand not,
  • therefore: An expansion39

Here, Smith describes the communal desire of an audience (the “we”) in which he also figures. This audience is inarticulate and negative in its being, knowing, thinking, feeling, and understanding, but nonetheless possesses identifiable desires. The artist thus developed Normal Love at a moment when he was concerned with how to express such fantasies and indulge such desires in a way that did not emulate the professional distance of Hollywood, but rather aimed to collapse the space between audience and artwork, transforming the film into something that can be touched by or put into “contact” with its audience. Normal Love becomes a film whose desires are to be found and surfaced within the audience or, in the case of Smith, the self.

This note within “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez” is crucial in illuminating the early world-building ambitions of Normal Love—a film that endeavors to make a living context for itself, both as it is made with a community and displayed back to that same community. This is a space in which desire is simultaneously expressed, achieved, and transmitted in the hope of endless contagion. Normal Love is thus bound into an inescapable cycle of queer bodies—bodies performing, imaging, displaying, shifting, watching, and rewatching. The film does not attempt to convey narrative cohesion or even clear moments of identification of its constituents, but rather to produce and continually animate an aesthetic revelry of bodies, shapes, colors, and patterns.40

Smith’s negative invocation of things that “think not, feel not, understand not” is particularly interesting in this regard, as he points to places, people, and actions without representation.41 And while much of his work is indebted to the gestures and clichés of the Hollywood B-movie (actress Maria Montez, in particular), there is a sense in which Smith is also seeking to express negative or otherwise underrepresented forms of experience and identity—in short, expanding the pantheon of possible onscreen representations to include the mythological, the ambiguously gendered, and the ethically opaque. Critic José Esteban Muñoz describes Smith’s work as a process in which the artist “reformulates the actual performativity of his glutting B-movie archive,” and thus imbues his images “with a performativity that surpassed simple fetishization,” a strategy that Muñoz labels as “disidentification.”42 To consider and extend this further in relation to Normal Love, then, disidentification is not a purely negative term opposed to “identification.” Rather, it can be understood as the means through which Normal Love builds its world out of nonrepresentation. Presenting scenes that articulate fantasy via a kind of performance one would even struggle to describe as “acting,” Smith creates a space for these strange creatures, who—though mythological—can be seen as proxies for various “Others” within contemporary society.43 Smith’s film develops a new normal out of individuals and characters who, in the social and economic reality beyond Normal Love, would otherwise appear abnormal, marginal, deviant, or Other.

Johnson has referred to Smith’s work within the terminology of the “burden of disgust” and revealingly exemplifies such a burden within the aforementioned interview between Smith and Lotringer, wherein the artist comments:

It has just been my lot to have to clean out the toilets. I mean that’s the job that’s been inherited by me in life and I have run away from it. I spent the last fifteen years running away from it. Nobody wants to open a can of worms, but that’s the thing that has been handed for me to do.44

Smith frames his artistic agency within the inevitable, the marginal, and unwanted forms of representation; power is realized and leveraged from a position beyond the realm of good taste. Smith’s go-to referent was, after all, not the actual life but his interior fantasy of an already demoted Hollywood movie world. And in Normal Love, the fetish of the film star is not only held up for further idolization but also embodied and enacted by the players of the film. Thus, the movement between normal and abnormal, movie star and Smith collaborator, is imperceptible in a film whose internal logic cares little for the life beyond it. Normal Love was committed to building a world whose ethics are not simply antithetical to society’s own values, but a world that restructures the notion of value without ever needing to refer to a real society. In effect, Smith creates a frictionless and hermetic circulation of desire between the thing that produces it and the thing that displays it: the world of film.

Isla Leaver-Yap is the Walker Art Center’s Bentson Film Scholar. Based in Glasgow, she is also an independent curator who works with artists to produce essays, books, exhibitions, and events. She is currently working on publications with artists Andrea Büttner and James Richards, and recently cofounded the new artists’ moving-image agency, LUX Scotland. In New York, Leaver-Yap presented projects at Artists Space, Artists Institute, E-Flux, MoMA PS1, and Anthology Film Archives. She previously worked at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, where she co-organized the ICA’s landmark exhibition season, Nought to Sixty; founded the ongoing Artists Film Club series; and curated Rosalind Nashashibi’s solo show. Leaver-Yap received an MA in art history and English literature, and an MSc in art history research, both from the University of Edinburgh. In 2013 she was a finalist in the Premio Lorenzo Bonaldi Prize for international curators under 30. She has served as guest faculty at the Stone Summer School (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and the Banff Visual Arts Program. Her recent publication, Heat Island, is available as issue no. 7 of The Happy Hypocrite, published by Book Works, London.