The Slaughterhouse Project: In Medias Res
Jacqueline Millner

Manners are of more importance than laws, for upon them in a great measure the laws depend. The law can touch us here and there, now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarise or refine, by a constant, steady, uniform, and insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them or they totally destroy them. 

— Edmund Burke

How to diminish friction, how to promote ease of intercourse, how to make every part of a man’s life contribute to the welfare and satisfaction of those around him, how to keep down offensive pride, how to banish the rasping of selfishness from the intentions of men — this is the function of good manners.

— Daisy Eyebright, A Manual of Etiquette: With hints on politeness and good breeding


Manners, or the rules of etiquette, permeate the minutiae of our everyday lives. Most manuals of etiquette, including contemporary ones, cite the main rationale for such rules as the enabling of smooth social interaction, as providing a guide to the art of living in close quarters with others.

But what is so revealing about Burke’s assertion is the relationship between these seemingly innocuous rules of conduct in ‘polite society’— about how to hold your knife or how long to wait before you RSVP— and the broader, increasingly coercive, framework of social control. We may consider absurd the obsessive, frivolous detail of certain rules of etiquette, yet we must acknowledge their insidious pervasiveness, the serious side to their frivolity, the fist in the velvet glove. A 2004 etiquette guide for US university freshmen advises: ‘Engage in table conversation that is pleasant but entirely free of controversial subjects’; ‘Never spit a piece of bad food or tough gristle into your napkin’; ‘Place glassware back in the same position after its use in order to maintain the visual presence of the table’. Our movements, thoughts and instinctive reactions are strictly circumscribed lest we offend, lest we attract the wrong sort of attention, lest we be shown up as outsiders who don’t belong. 

Whether consciously or not, much of our behaviour, and others’ responses to that behaviour, is moderated by these rules — rules so long ago internalised that we only become aware of them when we breach them. Their breach signifies the transgression of a boundary, sometimes between classes, often between cultures. For manners not only betray our cultural provenance, being in large measure culturally specific. They also betray our cross-cultural awareness, as evident when a gaffe of etiquette costs you the professional respect of foreign peers. Of course, the transgression of the rules can also signal our deliberate defiance, our assertion that, while we are familiar with them, we consider ourselves outside the rules. 

In most cultures, knowledge and observation of the rules of etiquette are thought to demonstrate good breeding. Strange how in that very phrase the link between sex and manners is already explicit: the two themes that intertwine in the work of Australian artist Brad Buckley. Buckley has a long-held interest in exploring the boundaries that separate the proper and improper, the moral and immoral, good manners and affront. It is an interest that has inevitably led him to research rules of behaviour, for transgression is impossible without rules — widely known and accepted rules. What is inappropriate would be unrecognisable without knowledge of what is appropriate. 

In his installation for La Chambre Blanche, Buckley continues his investigation of the link between rules of social interaction, sexuality, and morality, although also in the mix this time are the identifying markers of cultural identity. In coming to Quebec, Buckley was intrigued as to how the Quebequois distinguished their cultural identity from the French as much as from Anglophonic Canada and the Anglophone behemoth to the south. The approach he selected to explore this delicate issue was the metaphor of etiquette: he focused on the interaction between different sets of instruction on how to behave, musing on how rules of etiquette, particularly that pertaining to eating, from different periods in Anglo and French culture have gone to determine (or not) elements of French Canadian identity. The metaphor allows the issue a free-form complexity that evades making any definitive statement about cultural identity. Rather, such identity can be seen as comprising an ongoing series of negotiations on the minute level of everyday gestures and phrases, while at the same time having broader cultural and political implications. 

Buckley has created a sleek and refined environment that recalls generic, ‘international’ nightclub decor. La Chambre Blanche, windows and all, has been rendered black. The only illumination is a neon tube whose dim light catches the white of two wall paintings of archetypal white middle-class social groups — a couple at a table, men and women sipping cocktails at a bar — rendered in the simple graphic style of the early 1960s. The air thrums to the smoky but broken strains of Chet Baker (cool, white jazz) interspersed with ‘chat’ that on closer listening turns out to be carefully enunciated rules of etiquette on how to eat. (The soundtrack produced by Sean Lowry, a Sydney based artist/musician, and features the voices of Fabienne Larese de Pol and Rachel Scott.) Into this highly structured, monochrome scenario, Buckley has introduced the scent, colour and suggestiveness of fruit — figs, apricots, bananas — whose presence promises sensual pleasure. And to mediate the two: a female performer — local artist Annie Baillargeon — in demure black attire (with a gash of red lipstick), whose role it is to consume the fruit through careful observation of these rules. In keeping with the nature of the project, namely a  ‘residence in situ’ over six weeks, Buckley’s installation thus combines elements created in Australia together with those developed in response to the specific qualities of the site.

The woman’s contained and measured movements as she bisects an apricot with knife and fork, the plate delicately balanced on her lap, creates a palpable sexual frisson, a tension between what is proper and improper. For her sensual pleasure is accessed not through wantonness and abandon, not through transgression, but by obeying the rules. This raises a series of questions that underpin much modernist critique: Is the avant-garde value placed on transgression diminished if the ‘transgressor’ is unaware of the requisite rules? What is the relationship of etiquette to class and hierarchies of social privilege? How much does pleasure, and the full subjecthood it requires, rely on the acquisition of certain social codes? Does etiquette repress feminine sexuality — as in the feminist criticism of the imperatives of ‘ladylike’ behaviour that estrange women from their carnal desire — or does it indeed enhance woman’s sexual transgression?

Buckley’s work generally brings us to a place where space itself feels as if it is cross-hatched with the trajectories of power — institutional, cultural, sexual. We feel the pressure of conformity, together with the expectation of rebellion; we sense the strictures of social exclusion, together with the means to short-circuit privilege. In In media res, the latest incarnation of The Slaughterhouse Project — an ongoing series of installations that takes its name from Georges Bataille’s idea that modern Western society has been diminished by its disavowal of death — these trajectories of power also include those of nation and cultural identity. The conjunction of elements in Buckley’s installation compels us to consider what interplay of discourses has produced not only this, our, particular subjectivity, but also this particular place, that is, Quebec. 


The original version of this essay was published in conjunction with the exhibition (La Chambre Blanche, Quebec, Canada, 2005).