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Off Brand Video #10: Kenneth Tam’s “Tutorial”

by Patty Gone
November 14th, 2019

Men love going solo. In a recent ad for Bleu, Chanel’s “Parfum for men,” a dashing white guy abandons his co-workers to gaze out his condo’s floor-to-ceiling windows across the urban abyss. His eyes lock on a woman in an adjacent luxury high-rise and he knows what he must do. “Where’s he going?” ask his coworkers, laptops agape, as he ventures into the night in search of her. Chanel says Bleu smells “undeniably bold,” like “determination and independence.” He dives into a giant pool and sees her eyes on the water, but she disappears, and maybe she was never there, just a catalyst. Our hero doesn’t aspire to love or even lust, but to be mid-quest, to inhabit “the spirit of a man who chooses his own destiny,” to fuse with solo aspiration.

Kenneth Tam’s “Tutorial” opens on a Bleu de Chanel bottle rotating and inching towards the camera for over a minute, the viewer waiting on a maleness that never lands, a futile search. The fragrance fades into the body of performer Jeremy Rafal on a white background, who guides us wordlessly through ways the male body can share joy, pleasure, and frustration with other men. Rafal is a solo act, a Bleu man, but one who looks us in the eye, longing for proximity and touch. Through collaboration with Rafal, Tam wants to teach tenderness.

Watch “Tutorial” on your phone. Tam tailored its aspect ratio to fit snugly on your pocket screen, and at points it mimics the familiar Instagram scroll. A solo bathroom mirror selfie, then a man looking his best in a Gucci T and shades, slip vertically by. But Tam halts on images of men together. In one, seven men pose around a picnic table by a lake, many of them shirtless, an afternoon spent leaning on each other, united in leisure. Later, he pauses on twenty men blanketing the floor of a cabin, possibly mid-meditation. They lie on their backs on yoga mats, all in stereotypical bro outerwear: hiking sneakers, loose fit jeans, hoodies, Patagonia puffers. Tam harvested the images on Instagram through hashtags such as #men, #guys, #maleritual, etc, looking for “groups of men doing things that seemed surprising or atypical,” showcasing “a male intimacy that felt private.”  

All of M,” another Tam video released earlier this year, stages an all male prom. Six young men in white suits pose while Tam, just off camera, prompts them to “do something handsome.” They pet inner tubes that resemble punching bags and draw cute shapes on each other with red markers. At one point, two of them slow dance to the 1979 ballad “Sailing” by Christopher Cross, and I found myself laughing. Yet why would I or anyone automatically perceive straight men dancing together as a joke? Is finding tenderness and emotional connection on a night heavy with the passage of boyhood into manhood all that ridiculous? Doesn’t it kinda make sense? Tam says he wanted to find boys clubs whose “membership didn’t suggest something fringe or intensely subcultural, but could exist almost anywhere.” One of the later images in “Tutorial” features four men in red suit jackets holding hands in a circle around a man dressed in white. Their intimacy seems to both strengthen and nurture him. Maybe less Bleu is okay. Maybe Bleu stinks.

By “Tutorial’”s end, the Bleu bottle has morphed, still spinning but now decomposing, alongside another specter of virility: the red power tie. It first enters the screen dangling solo from above, but then Tam anthropomorphizes the tie’s wide and thin sides as two distinct men. In one moment, the wide end gasps, exhausted from a quest, and the thin end reaches over and rubs it gently. Later, the thin end visibly hesitates, then wraps itself around the wide end, a hug. Though the tie’s wide side gets the glory since it faces outward on the male torso, it can’t wrap around the neck without collaboration. Under Tam’s tutelage, the two sides don’t knot, but form an essential, long overdue embrace. 

Off Brand Video will return next month with a video premiere from Liz Magic Laser. Read our mission statement below.

Off Brand Video is interested in pieces that trouble, queer, and speak back to mainstream cultural production. OBV provides access to non-narrative video normally reserved for private collections, gallery spaces, one-off screenings, or personal Vimeo accounts. In a gallery or on YouTube, you may watch for a minute and move on. Off Brand Video is the place to take the time. Send recommendations for artists, videos, or archives to [email protected] 

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