Review: Exposure, Fierce Festival
There is something really satisfying about art that does everything it sets out to do and nothing more. Jo Bannon’s Exposure does exactly that. It eradicates the extraneous and achieves its aims with all the efficiency of a precision-engineered production line.
Born with albinoism, Bannon has spent her life attracting attention. Unwanted attention; uninvited stares. In Exposure, she’s sat in the dark and we’re sat opposite. Through headphones, we hear her recorded voice; an explanation she didn’t want to deliver in person for fear of messing it up in the moment, under the glare of our gaze. This way, she can stick to the script without worrying about holding eye contact.
Bannon’s been thinking about how she looks, recently – not just her appearance, but her perspective; how she looks out. Albinoism affects her eyes: her irises have no pigment. She clicks on a torch, which lights up her right eye. It’s grey, red around the edges. The beam moves slowly to her left eye, slightly lazy, slightly straining to focus. If she winks, that’s why. The torch clicks off. Darkness again. In photos, her eyes appear red: that’s light bouncing back off her retina. We see the cells that let her see.
When the torch clicks back on, it lands on a photo. Bannon, aged three, with her mother and sister: two brunettes and a bleach-blonde. It was taken at a hospital, a line-up. Even then, Bannon’s stepping out of the frame, as if trying to avoid being seen. She still hates the photograph, she says; its gaze is invasive, it looks for differences over similarities. Its motives, much like Bannon’s eyes, are see-through.
Exposure builds to a moment of illumination. Bannon’s voice lays the ground for it. In a moment, she says, the lights will come on and you’ll get the chance to look. But – and it’s a big but – know this: while you look, I’ll be looking back; seeing means being seen. It’s a trade, an exchange, a meeting. It’s a dialogue between dilating pupils. The lights flash one. You share a look. The lights go off. The image remains, burned on a retina, burned into memory, over-exposed.
I’m lucky. I blend in. It’s a special skill, a bit of a superpower. I can drop my eyes and disappear. I think that’s why, despite being 5’6” and preppy as a boat shoe, I’ve never been mugged. I don’t really know what it is to stand out, to attract stares. I get to choose, to be seen to be seen.
I think of Exhibit B, the way performers spoke about looking back at audience members. I think about stolen glances at attractive women on the tube. I think about my urge to people watch, to study their skin-tones and shapes. I think about David Foster Wallace’s ‘This Is Water’ speech, about the realisation that you can’t escape your own eyes. And, for possibly the first time, I think about the fact that I’m seen. I’m studied as I study. I’m judged as I judged. It’s another blow to my ‘Centre of the known universe’ theory.
Right now, I’m in a coffee shop window. I’ve been here a while. I’m well-framed and, people keep looking in. Some sneak a glance out of the corner of their eye. Some stare quite brazenly. What do they see? A man. A man with a laptop. A Starbucks customer. A man in a striped-shirt. A brown-haired boy. Somebody. Anybody, really. Who knows? Who cares?
I look back. I smile. I look down again and return to writing.
Photograph: Manuel Vason