by Carla McCormick
Make-believe, that most transient and transpersonal of intoxications, culturally relegated to youth yet embedded in us all as a private infantilism, is the Fantasy domain where we try out alternative identities, scenarios, events, and experiences. Such benign wish Fulfillments have surely existed in some Form For as long as we’ve been blessed with imagination and cursed with desire. There is something so startling about the little-known universe of cosplay that Elena Dorfman illuminates, however, that it’s tempting to take this exponential raising of emotional and physical stakes as a symptom of a more critical condition. Fortunately, Dorfman does not judge her subjects, but depicts them with respect and understanding, sparing us the condescending compassion, derisive dismissal, or agonized bewilderment typical of most anthropologically tinged documentations of youth subculture. In Fact, let’s just say it-Freaks that they are, the kids are all right. Sure, this has got to be one of the nerdiest collection of hopeless geeks ever assembled, but come on, they’re also way cool. Anytime so much energy is devoted to something so perversely obsessive, fractiously outré, and fleetingly supererogatory, it cannot help but transcend the mundane limitations we otherwise put on human endeavor.
Here narrative is stripped bare; characters so deeply enrapt in their own hermetic plots that they are bereft of context float as virtual signs given uneasy flesh and blood. They elicit that awestruck Feeling one inevitably gets when Faced with the oddity of nonconformity, a breathtaking “is that For real?” quality not without some unintended whimsy. If Dorfman proffers little of the germinal miasma whence these alien figures spring—the role these players serve within any particular anime or gaming cosmology-well, that doesn’t seem to interest her very much. Rather, compelled by effect over cause, she has isolated her subjects from the chaotic convention hullabaloo, cajoling them into the intimate void of her traveling photo studio booth, separating them from friends and family and, quite significantly, From most of their busy cache of props. They do seem so fundamentally alone here. Hers is, Formally, an uncompromisingly sharp Focus on the figure, all else blackened to the background oblivion of utter inconsequence. Psychologically, however, Dorfman’s decision punctuates the alienation endemic to youth, as they perpetually invent new modes of acting out. Isolated and enigmatic, Dorfman’s cosplayers are left to their contradictions, their myriad complexities layered within a mesmeric simplicity-empowered by the very terms of identity and intention that Form the heart and soul of the young, yet terribly vulnerable: self-aware, yet still seeking. Plain Janes dressed For the astral ball and warriors without a cause, ornate to the brink of goth-baroque, they dress up but cannot hide, rendered by this minimalist lens with a visceral, matter-of-fact immediacy.
The black-box device intrinsic to Elena Dorfman’s process here is both disarming [For the subject] and direct [For the viewer]. For Dorfman the sublimation of movement conveys a still, almost inanimate, sculptural presence. Just one more detail, please, somewhere else to direct our gaze-but no, nothing but the absolute, unrelenting Fact of being. There is so much tension in these photographs, but it’s hard to pin it down exactly. IF we could crawl into the minds of these costumed travelers, I suppose it might simply be the anxiety of inertia. I mean, they are so busy; don’t they really want to be doing something? Beyond merely quirky, these kids are crafted embellishments on the skin of idiosyncrasy. Dorfman does not ask why of these exaggerate apparitions. There’s no need For a backstory, not even the first question anyone would ask, landing in Oz: Are you a good witch or a bad witch? The point is, the individual persona is host to a fiction that takes precedence over all the mundane matter of quotidian life. These are people, of course, and as such belong somewhere in the lineage of portrait photography, but For all their eccentricity they are dripping with anonymity. They are, after all, not themselves. They are Other, and For artistic purposes they are utterly iconic.
Subcultural phenomena have a way of bubbling under the official radar for so long that once they emerge, apparently fully developed, they are easily construed as rootless, discrete eruptions of absolute novelty. Lest the uninitiated dismiss Dorfman’s cornucopia of curiosities as some deranged Halloween party gone awry, it’s perhaps Fruitful to consider the gene-sis and evolution of this highly articulated and aestheticized lifestyle. As long as Fans of the socially debased medium of science fiction have gathered to share their passion with like-minded fiends, they have always indulged, in some degree, in role-playing and costumes. From the very first World Science Fiction Convention [Worldcon] in 1939 to the purported coin-ing of the term cosplay [a typical Japanese linguistic contraction of the English words costume and play] by a Japanese studio executive at Worldcon 1984, the increasingly sophisticated and coded Fantasy of transformative outfitting has cross-pollinated across cultures, traditions, and media. It is still most closely associated with Japan, which has the largest, most visible, and least stigmatized cosplay subculture; the manifestation that Elena Dorfman documents, which has reached epic proportions in the United States, is its own peculiar admixture between obsessive Asian fans [otoku] and patently American vernaculars. Layered over Japan’s manga comics, cartoon animation [or anime], and video games, cosplay in.the United States has donned other preexisting mantles of identity play, From Renaissance Fairs to Star Trek conventions to Rocky Horror audience participations.
While initiates joke that Halloween is nothing but national cosplay day, most of us can hardly imagine investing so much time and devotion in making costumes for our trick or treat. We can more easily identify with the psychological transaction of identity that all costumed acts share. What is compelling, and to a certain degree disquieting, about Dorfman’s cosplayers is how closely they approximate simultaneously the mast innocent and the most per-verse aspects of role-playing. Already confused by the prurient gaze that both mass-mediates and denies the inherent sexuality of children, subject and viewer alike find the spectacle of eroticized idols, Fetish Fashion, gender-bending [“crossplay”], and hybrid confections of dominance and submission a delirious experience. All this searching, sublimating, and sui generis self-replication is inevitably supercharged with latent desire. Considering that the youngest acolytes are tweens, and the majority of cosplayers are girls in their late teens through twenties, the process of “becoming” here seems a natural extension [albeit significantly more ritualized] of the way we find out who we are by donning different personae. What fits, what’s comfortable, and what-no matter how brieAy-must be tried on at least once just to see how it Feels? Identity, as both a coded lexicon of social signals and a commodity, is like Fashion. [ splay teeters somewhere between a healthy semi-sanctioned and controlled way of acting out Fantasies and the kind of red flag that’s thrown up when you see a kid with a Fascination For his parent’s knickers. Enjoy or squirm before Elena Dorfman’s pictures according to your own level of comfort, but know that here is a celebration of beauty, not of travesty.
At first it seems that it is the oddity of the subjects that is so disconcerting in these pictures, but collectively the hardest thing to negotiate here is the Frisson between the apparent [the subjects look strange] and the intrinsic [beneath the prosthetics, makeup, and garb they’re prosaically normal]. To some degree, of course, we’re all Fantasists, all a little confused and quite suggestible, and all Fans. Elena Dorfman isn’t mining our capacity For empathy or identification-her photographs take human commonality For granted-but she allows that there’s a Familiarity to the bizarre that makes it work however people relate to difference. Fandom is simply the Force by which personal disconnect attains interconnectivity, a community of private Fantasy, a safety valve For obsessive tendencies that channels our most unhealthy attachments toward worthy pursuits. Fanaticism, then, is Dorfman’s allegory For how our intimate ideograms communicate as public language; the iconography of cosplaying [much like an earlier body of work in which Dorfman examined doll play] becomes a more open-ended metaphor For the condition of escapism, where the Aight From reality is irresistibly drawn to locatable archetypal zones by an invisible gravitational pull. Boys will want to dress like girls, girls will enjoy the chance to embody a brainy superhero, and everyone at some slippery point in their development has to start engaging the ambiguous zones of androgyny and sexual identity if they hope to get any traction on that epic slope of self-realization.
Amusingly, no matter how Far her work distinguishes itself From the expanded field of amateur efforts, the artist’s endeavor is itself part of the phenomenon of this largely unknown world. Just as cosplay is part of a diverse mutant subcultural semiotic that will probably soon gain entry into common syntax, it has its own word For the likes of Dorfman. Just as there are tens of thousands of people who like to dress up as their Favorite manga characters, there are legions who love to photograph them. The word in this case is cameko, another contraction, From camera kozo, or “camera boy.” Let’s just say that For every person who enjoys doing something, there will be another who likes to watch, and photography remains the preeminent medium of voyeurism. Much as I love looking at these pictures, I am equally sure that attending one of the mammoth cosplay conventions appeals as much to me personally as an extended weekend of dental surgery.
Depicted with remarkable clarity, Dorfman’s characters position themselves so well within the constellation of cosplay iconography in part because they are already representations before she even re-presents them. Perhaps the matter-of-Fact tone, even the black back-ground, helps to situate each figure as a symbol, removing most other considerations [From the mise-en-scene to personality or emotional depth] and flattering out the Focus toward pure archetype. But the primary condition-that these are real people pretending to be people who aren’t real, yet become so by virtue of Fanatical belief systems-is inherently Fractious toward reality’s authority and Fractal in regards to the shape of narrative. I imagine these stars of print, anime, and very small screen as endlessly replicate yet infinitely variable in their idiosyncrasies. This work also seems to present a problem in reading, or rather a range of difficulties that can be abstract and specific enough For us to allow them to Function as preceptorial tools. What we think of these kids or know about what they are doing is not intrinsic to the work, but it tells us a lot about our own preconceptions. On one hand our reaction to these pictures evinces our relative tolerance of, empathy For, or resistance to the Forces of Fanaticism in our culture, and whether we regard obsession as a creative or acquiescent practice. On the other hand, here we must measure the boundaries of identity, how Far we can stretch the skin of appearance before the anatomy of self loses its critical mass. Elena Dorfman is not answering these questions here, but her documentary methodology engages these issues just by the way it compels us to make sense of the mystery.
For all the dignity and honor Dorfman bestows upon her mesmeric and enigmatic subjects [a sympathetic pathos], the Fantasy is inescapable. What’s there is so implausible and incapable of articulating why. Thus posed, the subjects’ stillness is startling and utterly deceptive. Dorfman’s decisive moment is a construct built upon a Fabrication, not definitive but very much, in the artist’s words, “what’s on hand.” Imagine plucking these kids out of the maelstrom of a packed convention floor: You, come here, just a minute, no, leave that behind, quick, and that’s it. Like the phenomena she tries to capture, the process itself is all about speed and acceleration, its anonymity dictated by the abundance of material, the sheer stimulation, and Dorfman’s urgent need-not to lose her subjects. This is a moment, and a lifetime as well. Dorfman is just a visitor in these lives [whose, anyway?]. She knows that, and she likes it-staying neutral, not pushing herself on her subjects, not trying to connect, just enjoying the parade.
A Bellmer doll, star-struck-down like a JonBenét Ramsey beauty pageant contestant; Leda and Daphne [and countless other psychosexual metamorphoses]: 1950s comics; Dungeons f, Dragons; techie culture still raging but never discussed [like the elephant in the room]; or maybe the lady vampire, an exploration of darkness, a game of gore, but so light, silly, and Fun-loving-the common thread is the desire to be Other, transported to a different place. Dorfman has chosen these models not necessarily because they get there but For her own love of sci-fi, Fantasy, costuming, and Japanese youth culture. Try to Forget how weird it is, For it is positive, liberating, and surprisingly Free of orthodoxy. This is a fledgling cosmology, and Elena Dorfman has grabbed its billowing fineries and extraterrestrial firmaments where we might expect them [if we ever knew they were there], washed up on the way-ahead shores of California, where technology, proximity to Japan, and the perpetual slippage of history is the topography For the locus of personal reinvention. When Dorfman talks about cosplay, she deftly sums up the way amazement and acceptance converge upon the uncanny as Fact. “A lot of people know about cosplay,” she explains, “but most don’t know what it looks like.” The same could be said about the Future. Maybe this is it-but if not, what a wonderful relic of this mad moment we now inhabit.