Inside the womb of a railway arch in Vauxhall, the patrons of Club Antichrist are watching an amateur stripper take off her clothes to Marilyn Manson’s Freak Show. After the removal of her last piece of clothing, the lady ends her act and exits the stage quickly. Applause follows.
The crowd tonight all lean towards the more exhibitionist and latex-wearing side of kink. There is a dungeon where willing and eager participants take part in a voyeuristic whipping and spanking, in front of a quiet but interested group of spectators standing and sipping beverages. There is a middle aged man wearing nothing except heavy steel chains, wrapped around his waist, which meet and join together at a particular body part.
There is a dark room for couples only.
One might think all of this would add up to a Dionysian type energy, an overflow of body parts, red velvet and spilled wine, but no. The vibe is polite. Chilled even.
Following the amateur strip show, a different sort of show begins. One called Halber Mensch.
It begins with a naked man lying, almost lifeless, on a hospital stretcher covered in a white sheet. Loud industrial music sears through eardrums and into the psyche and then she walks out. A woman. In the guise of a twisted doctor, orchestrator, or villain, covered in a full face mask and strait-jacket.
Slowly and deliberately she starts inspecting her patient, sniffing at him, taking him in; trying to figure out the perfect prescription for this man’s next 15 minutes of existence. Each sniff and observation of her patient seems to leave her intoxicated.
All of this is feral. The movements are almost animalistic, like a hyena who’s found a carcass and is working out of it’s still good to eat: he is.
The strait-jacket is discarded, she twisted and wrestled her way out of it a few seconds ago. Another jacket has taken its place, a structured latex number that radiates authority and control. She is no longer a restricted creature huffing at body parts – a psychic shift has occurred. She is now a powerful being who has carte blanche over this body.
The woman in question is Venus Raven: a performer and photographer who explores her every idea and curiosity with force and commitment. Born in Athens, Greece, now living in London, Venus first caught an interest of the life less ordinary through film. “When I was young I wanted to be a filmmaker. I would watch films non-stop, very strange alternative indie films and obviously in those I got my first taste of ‘what the fuck is that?’!”
She remembers watching director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade. “Its got some very intense scenes in it, to this day I think they are masterpieces. Also the content and the context behind them; the political words behind them have strong fetishes projected so, yes, through film I had my first introduction into the world of fetish.”
Venus is quick to point out that the umbrella term ‘fetish’ is often confused with being directly linked to sex. “You realise anything can be fetish? Because at the end of the day who defines what it is? It’s purely subjective. But at the same time when it comes to our society, what we call ‘fetish’ has very specific connotations; bordering on the ‘kinky,’ whatever that means. I am very much part of that, but I think I’m more attracted to the ritual rather than the ‘lets be kinky and sexy. I don’t have an interest really in that,” she says.
“There is very very strong judgement towards people who are openly living a BDSM lifestyle, because there are so many preconceptions about what it means to do this and that. It’s a sensitive matter. Unless it’s not consensual then I don’t see why it’s anybody’s issue what we are doing; do what ever you wish and make sure it’s consensual. Enjoy life, it’s short.”What drives Venus in her performances is the idea of the ritual: going through a challenging experience to reach new understandings: walking through the fire. “When you look at different tribes and the history of humanity, we always had rites of passage and rituals and very affirm passages in our lives that would signify something, that you would become a man or a woman or something very crucial, now we don’t have those moments anymore.”
“Also because of the horror we have towards death, we don’t talk about death, we don’t talk about disease, we don’t talk about things that are truly scary now. I think there’s a very strong link to actually find a healthy way to deal with those things on a personal and communal level: hence the ritual.”
Back at Club Antichrist: Venus, or the character she is inhabiting right now, has gotten down to business. She closely inspects an assortment of needles placed on a medical tray, focusing with delight at the selection of the perfect tool. A long needle is picked up, and then pierced confidently through her patient’s body.
Another needle is selected and it too is pushed through the skin with an air of sadistic brutality, but her patient doesn’t flinch. The body parts chosen are specific and wince-inducing: the web of the hand, the middle of the forehead, awkward parts of the feet, and right through the penis. The latter provoked some audience members to “woohoo”.
The momentum of her actions are fast and slightly crazed: an unhinged maestro, quickly picking up and discarding needles, eager to locate one that feels right.
Venus preformed her first show “six or seven years ago.” Her first act featured Butoh elements (a form of Japanese contemporary dance which emerged in the late 50s). “It’s quite hard to define Butoh as it does have a long tradition, but at the same time it’s one of the very few genres of dance that defy and deny classifications. So they say Butoh is for everybody. Butoh is fallen from the broken bodied and fragmented disturbed soul.”
The first show went well, and it helped that the audience was filled with artists she respected. “It was perfect. It’s actually one of my favourite to date. I’d put so much energy and effort, my heart and soul into that and then it paid back, because this specific audience was understanding.”
Venus has now evolved into a performer who can explore her more experimental and extreme side to interested audiences, like those attending Club Antichrist, and is also able to size up a more commercial audience who do not inhabit the world of BDSM leaning fetish.
The commercial shows do, however, challenge her artistic expression. “It’s harder for me to put my soul in it. I know because I’ve had experiences were the audience doesn’t understand,” she said.
“When I performed at some clubs it was filled with drunk people and I had to cut down parts of the show because I realised it needs a very respectful almost theatrical setting for certain things to happen. Otherwise it’s just a shame, and nothing against the audience, but when I’m drunk I wouldn’t be able to sit down and watch a show that’s fifteen minutes, that has narration and is subtle in certain ways. They want somebody to just go on stage and start dancing and be a ‘freak’.”The ‘shock factor’ expected in some of Venus’s performances creates an interesting tension, on the one hand she doesn’t want to be boxed into being the ‘freak show’ although “I’m happy to be a freak,” she says. On the other it creates a space for her to explore different notions of ‘shocking’ entertainment and audience reactions.
“It can be very frustrating, but at the same time I am well aware that the stuff I don’t consider shocking most people in this society would. So then comes the question of am I trying to shock people? Or am I just exploring who I am and what I feel? Regardless of people’s perceptions and backgrounds and misconceptions and preconceptions about what it is they are watching? So it’s all very relevant and funnily enough if we could all go back in time and see different forms of entertainment through the years; if you think about ancient Rome where you had people thrown into the arena and you had lions devouring them in front of you and cheer, as if you are watching Star Wars. We have come a long way when it comes to violence and when it comes to shock. What is shock?”
Admittedly, this relationship between the audience and the shock factor, is one that, at times, Venus likes to play with.“There is a point of me thinking it’s funny. It’s entertaining for me to think that something simple would shock somebody, but at the same time I respect their boundaries. I have done some shows where I did milk the shock factor because the audience was so abhorred by some things and I thought: fuck it. I’m having a good time and I did become a ‘freak show’ and I enjoyed that because it was frustrating.”
Back on stage. Now that her patient is full of needles, it’s time for a cigarette break. Venus ceremoniously lights one up in the middle of the stage. The image of someone smoking a cigarette at an indoor venue is possibly more shocking than one of a needle through the privates. She takes full drags, her movements are graceful yet deranged, lifting up her arms as if she is conducting a symphony; there is also a sense of completion.
Whatever needed to be exorcised or experienced during this endeavour has been realised. She is satisfied. Venus as the maestro, leans down and breaths out smoke on the patients face and into his mouth. Soon after, the patient stands. Slowly raising himself off the stretcher, careful not to move any of the needles protruding from his body. The audience cheer at this man’s endurance and pain threshold.
In a show like Halber Mensch, where physical and psychological extremes peak, Venus often has to cultivate a certain frame of mind when preparing for this show.
“Maybe I woke up that day feeling all lovely and sweet and want to stay in bed and cuddle with somebody I love for instance, and then I have to go to a show where I cut somebody. I might not feel like that at all. It’s odd, it’s like being an actor having a shit day and having to do comedy. I have to remember why I do it. I have to remember what this act means to me. I have to remember that my partner trusts me and that we’ve done this before. It is a very different heart space and I have to go on stage and do this very emotionally ruthless.”
After stubbing out her cigarette on the man’s chest, Maestro Venus quickly starts removing the needles. She removes them easily, without much deliberation: out of the body and onto the tray.
The final image of the night is one of the removal of the forehead needles. She slowly pulls out one of the needles crisscrossing his face, but before it leaves him, she pushes it back in. Then out. Then in. As if she is playing a violin. The audience wince and cheer at the same time.
Once all the needles are removed, a scalpel or a razor is picked up from the tray and in quick succession, little cuts are made on her patients abdomen. She kind of hugs and rubs herself against him, which encourages droplets of blood to run down his pale torso.
The time has come for the now tired, but satisfied maestro to become the lifeless patient. She lies on the stretcher, and her former patient covers her body with a sheet. He now stands, in all his bloody, naked glory in front of a cheering audience. Scene.
[pullquote align=”right”]“Funnily or ironically through what looks as if we are ‘hacking’ the flesh, which is exactly the opposite of how I feel when I do these things, it’s a celebration”[/pullquote]Halber Mensch is not the only show where Venus’ uses Hypodermic needles. In another performance called, Hypodermic Aphrodisia, she, again, playing the unstable master, pierces needles into the body of a woman tied up with ropes.
Venus is aware of the risks involved in this ritual, ranging from correct sterilisation to aftercare. “When it comes to needles I have attended workshops and it is obviously something one has to be very careful about, when it comes to scalpels even more so. So it is something I respect and dread at the same time,” she says.
The act of needle play in BDSM is said to release endorphin and adrenaline within the body, with some saying they receive a ‘cathartic’ feeling through needle piercing, for Venus it is about connection.
“There is something about blood that is very primal. Primitive. So that, by default, in a way bonds everybody on a feral level of ‘we are all human, we are all mortal. The other reason why I do what I do is because I’m mortified of death, but at the same time I’m fixated by death because this was my main drive as an artist. Funnily or ironically through what looks as if we are ‘hacking’ the flesh, which is exactly the opposite of how I feel when I do these things, it’s a celebration. The means of remembering and reinforcing how it’s ending; it’s a paradoxical way of approaching it, but I couldn’t see it any other way.”
Featured image by Drucilla Burrell via Facebook