Lily Benson, an animator and filmmaker, stayed at Room & Board in April 2016. For some time now, Lily has been working on an experimental documentary investigating the evils that lurk in the hearts of mentalists, hypnotists, and pick-up artists. Buttery Coldness explores the connections between Poul Thorsen, a mid-20th century Danish margarine magnate, amateur hypnotist, and prolific author of self-help books, and today’s disturbing pick-up artist culture, in which embittered men use, in addition to hypnosis, techniques like neuro-linguistic programming, cold reading, and simple magic tricks to manipulate women into sleeping with them. Lily, who last Spring received her MFA from the Malmö Art Academy of Lund University, Sweden, began researching Poul Thorsen after meeting the Thorsen Professor of Psychology at the university’s Centre for Research on Consciousness and Anomalous Psychology. Thorsen, whose books sought to help men control women via hypnosis, created the department posthumously to continue his researches. From there, Lily dug deep not only into Thorsen’s own books but also into the literature (such as it is) on pick-up culture. This research informs not only Buttery Coldness, but also the salon that Lily and I put together to screen an in-process version of it.
For both Lily and me, it was crucially important to present pick-up culture as a serious threat to gender equality, even though it sometimes seems quite ridiculous. While some of the techniques outlined in books like Neil Strauss’s The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists (ReganBooks, 2005) are harmlessly silly, and others are common-sense socializing tips for the terminally awkward, the core of pick-up culture is pungently misogynist. Practitioners of The Game develop, practice, and perfect techniques that have come naturally to sexist assholes since the dawn of time. They identify and amplify the aspects of our culture that already work effectively to instill feelings of insecurity, weakness, and inferiority in women. Such “technologies” exploit sexism for personal gain – for example, the “neg,” a back-handed compliment designed to make the target feel vulnerable and perversely eager to please her detractor.
The challenge, then, was not only how to convey this necessary background information for Lily’s nascent film, but also how to alert salon guests to the existence of pick-up culture and its destructive potential. Finally, we decided that the best way to teach The Game would be to follow the pick-up artists’ own playbook and host a seminar. Pick-up technologies lose much of their sting when the target can identify what’s happening. For lack of better options – and when it became clear that, through working on Lily’s project during her residency, I had become something of an unwilling expert on this culture – it was decided that I would serve as the evening’s “guru,” initiating salon guests into The Game. I invented my own version of the game, Enhanced Socializing, synthesized (i.e., stolen) from the most common techniques of pick-up practitioners.
This was perhaps the most difficult thing I have done since Room & Board began two years ago. It is of the highest importance to me that viewers feel welcome, wanted, and comfortable when they come to salons. Yet presenting a pick-up seminar could only be uncomfortable, upsetting, offensive. Art has the right – if not the responsibility – to challenge, but at Room & Board, viewers are guests in my home, who with goodwill and generosity agree to take part in an art event about which they know little. Was this the right venue? Lily’s project challenged my understanding of what Room & Board is about. These questions are still open for me, but looking at the crowd during the seminar, I felt I could see the sadness, anger, confusion, and comedy that I wanted to convey, that I had experienced while learning about this strange world and its strangely normal practitioners.
Presented near the beginning of the evening, the seminar in Enhanced Socializing provided an uneasy introduction into the social part of the salon. Each guest was provided with a piece of neatly-bagged lint for use in a classic neg, in which the target is made to feel disheveled and scrutinized: now where did that come from? As guests drank saffron-infused lemonade and spread margarine on pale bread, they may well have wondered which other techniques of social manipulation were being practiced on them. The margarine was from Thorsen’s factory, and was echoed in the yellow foods, drinks, and decorations. In addition to Buttery Coldness-themed condoms, we designed festively, suggestively yellow candies that, instead of the bland blandishments of valentine’s conversation hearts, offered the commands of a domineering hypnotist and a few choice negs from the pick-up artist’s arsenal. And throughout it all, two undercover magicians were plying their trade, demonstrating with slowly-mounting conspicuousness how easily and naturally a trained practitioner can manipulate a social situation. The climax of this activity was an act of public hypnosis, in which the male magician used subtle touch to control two women’s perception.
After that, the lights went down, and we were ready for Buttery Coldness.