I am going to see Ben Coonley’s Power Plant-hosted performance at the Harbourfront Centre’s brigantine room based solely and entirely on the strength of this video:
I have long been obsessed with the idea of cuteness as a weapon; the idea that relatively defenseless infants (animal or human) have only cuteness as a protective measure. I don’t think this is a strikingly original observation. Animal protection agencies use the seductive powers of cuteness all the time (I constantly wonder whether everyone would get behind baby seals if they looked like sea pigs — google them, they’re nauseating).
I admit to prior ignorance of Ben Coonley’s work, but some quick research tells me that “A Valentine For Perfect Strangers” is fairly symptomatic. The aforementioned video exists at this sticky nexus not only of cuteness, melodrama and cloying sentimentality, but of the internet-age deployment of these manipulations: YouTube as a vehicle for childhood nostalgia and personal revelation, the screaming success of cute-as-panacea sites like Cute Overload and I Can Has Cheez. This is already a potent confection, and a one-off viewing guarantees the video’s charm as an hilarious mash-up; Walter Benjamin and Balki Bartokomous quoted side by side by a lovelorn cat who speaks in a high-pitched computer voice? Oh, come on!
But Coonley pushes and pushes; his command of the mechanisms of this distinctly pop iconography and lexicography are such that he vaults past irony, and lands in a kind of giddy sincerity. Coonley doesn’t merely position himself as distanced and superior to the almost global predilection for vacating your senses in front of a JPEG of a kitty; he doesn’t just smarmily deploy cuteness, sentimentality and melodrama. He doesn’t “investigate notions around,” or “engage with concepts relating to”; He uses them like Willem deKooning used paint; he addresses, directly. “A Valentine to Perfect Strangers” is nothing but cuteness, sentimentality and melodrama. The intensity of of cheese is such that it decimates, like a hydrogen bomb; there is no air left in the room for irony or doubt or distance. Somehow, when this neutered cat confesses that the idea of loving without hope fills him with “romantic abandon and dread,” when he quotes a line from Perfect Strangers, alchemically transmuting it into poetry, it’s all I can do to stop myself from weeping. Literally. I got misty.
So I’m excited for his performance. I pray with all my heart and soul that it involves kitties.