Parascopic Media: Platformizing Performance with 3D, Dentistry, and Drag

Brendan McCauley*

Sorry honey, we’re stereoscopic now

Zamolodchikova qtd. in “Q&A with @jonathan sims”

Be Your Own Dentist (2021) is a “3D immersive film” hosted on YouTube that allows viewers to control the direction of the camera’s perspective throughout its runtime. Featuring a performance by Brian McCook’s popular drag persona Katya Zamolodchikova, Dentist demonstrates new avenues for artists to construct and utilize relational space through stereoscopic video. As part of McCook’s long-term audience production, Dentist also raises new complications for audiencing and access to branded para-social internet personae. I forward the “parascopic” here as a useful term for emergent forms of digital media which enables performers deeper control over their performance “space” even as they incite audiences to seek deeper access to, and manipulation of, the performer’s image and body. Zamolodchikova’s use of stereoscopic video both leverages and subverts parasocial audience expectations when she takes a camera that can potentially look anywhere and aims it inside of her own mouth.

Keywords: Parasociality, immersive video, drag performance, new media, video art, stereoscopic

This paper rehearses a digital performance analysis of Be Your Own Dentist (2021), a “3D immersive film” hosted on YouTube that allows viewers to control the direction of the camera’s perspective throughout its runtime. Dentist is a performance work by Brian Joseph McCook, better known by their popular drag persona Katya Zamolodchikova, a former reality television contestant with a massive online following. The film unfolds within a computer-generated environment as a guided meditation featuring Katya’s voice alongside multiple choregraphed versions of her body and culminates in erotic self-administered tooth removal. McCook’s performance demonstrates new avenues for artists to construct and utilize relational space through 3D immersive technology. However, as part of a multi-modal oeuvre of McCook’s creative works, Dentist also raises new complications for audiencing and access at the intersection of mediated encounter and branded parasocial internet personae.[1]

To untangle these trade-offs, I forward the “parascopic” as a useful term for emergent forms of digital media which enable performers deeper control over their performance “space” even as they incite audiences to seek deeper access to and manipulation of the performer’s image and body. I argue that Be Your Own Dentist meaningfully draws from traditions of video, installation, drag and performance art, and yet can only survive within the network of fantasmatically intimate, digital social relations that Katya has built through the YouTube platform. To illustrate this bind I begin with a close reading of Dentist and then discuss Katya’s audience development as a necessary ground for understanding her performance within it. I then examine the capacities of 3D immersive performance, and the “platformization” (Nieborg and Poell) of the performing body, as a set of affordances for online forms of audiencing and as a set of practices that produce an intimate “encounter via mediation” (Tecklenburg) with an artist-as-brand. I conclude by discussing how Zamolodchikova’s use of stereoscopic video technology is able to flip it on its head even within the confines of parasocial audience expectations. What relations are being enacted when Katya takes a camera that can potentially look anywhere and aims it inside of her own mouth?

Paying Close Attention

Be Your Own Dentist opens with a straight ahead shot of Katya Zamolodchikova directly facing the eye-level camera as its “neutral” position. If you do not notice the clickable buttons which control the camera’s direction in the frame’s bottom left corner, then this is where the camera’s gaze will remain for the entirety of the film. Katya, in shimmering red ruffled gown, sits cross-legged with eyes closed on the floor of a patterned, tiled room, attended by two duplicate Katyas to her left and right. These doubles are dressed in darker clothing, similarly posed, but with faces covered by sequined veils. If we do begin to pan the camera around the room we will find two more Katya’s in lighter gray behind us, also veiled, facing the first trio. These two Katyas flank the camera’s—and therefore our—position, which tells us that we complete the second trio, and are presumably also seated given the camera’s height. The position of our gaze is fixed, meaning it cannot deviate from its axis, but we can look around as if moving our head while seated. If we tilt it straight down, we find a metal grate below us, much like a shower drain, but framed in neon light. Directly above us, a skylight opens the room to an unsettling rose colored sky. All of the Katyas breathe slowly.

The center red Katya opens her eyes. “Hello there,” a calm, assured, voiceover welcomes the viewer, “I’m so glad you could join me today.” We know by her direct gaze that the central Katya is speaking, but her lips do not move. The mimesis of a drag-queen lip-sync is already broken from the start. Continuing her steady address, Katya situates us within the parameters of what will be a guided meditation; we will be taking this time to relax. All that is needed for this exercise is our body, our breath and “a pair of stainless-steel slip joint pliers that you can set to the side for now.” The red Katya draws her pliers out from her folds of fabric and displays them to the camera in her left hand before releasing them off to the side where they will float weightlessly around the room should you choose to follow them. As Katya begins to issue breathing instructions, her voice provides continuity as the scenery changes. The room falls away to outer-space, a nebula of floating disembodied Katya heads, each manipulating their jaws, and then a hazy, purple, CGI forest where yet more Katyas adorn a rocky streambed. Returning to the tiled room and its two trios, Katya’s voice directs our focus to “the mouth.” At this moment, all the Katyas open their mouths wide and additional hovering mouths appear around them. We are asked to reflect on how much daily traffic our mouths have to deal with and are invited to be “a little bit bad” by digging our fingers into our faces to explore its musculature, which the Katyas do orgasmically. The pliers have now made a full orbit around the room and return to Katya’s right hand.

We are asked to open wide, to locate an upper molar with our tongue and then follow through by clamping down the pliers on the selected tooth. Take “a firm and steady grip” and some deep breaths to remove moisture. Upon exhaling we are told to summon a great amount of force and wrench the pliers in a circular motion until the bone breaks. We are allowed to “notice” this sensation but not be distracted by it, to “be patient,” “deliberate,” and to expect a slipperiness that will require us to adjust our technique while moving from tooth to tooth. As blood oozes out of the floating mouths and those of the seated Katyas while they jerk their pliers around, our position is now engulfed inside another large computer-generated mouth looming behind us. If we pan away from the central trio, we may stare down its throat. When this mouth fades away it reveals that the room is now constructed entirely out of CGI teeth and additional, non-CGI, teeth float around it in a lazy orbit similar to that of the pliers. Katya coaches us to return to our breathing. We now share the room with just one large, floating, bald, Katya head. She holds an open-mouthed ecstatic smile with blood running down her chin and then fades along with the camera to black. This leaves us amid the ring of floating molars as credits appear in the void behind them.

Parasocial Mediation

If I wish to follow Steve Dixon here by analyzing how this performance by McCook utilizes technology “to create different types of content, drama, meanings, aesthetic impacts, physiological and psychological effects, audience-performer relationships, and so on” (5), then I must ask: Who could this video possibly be for? Dentist is billed as a “3D immersive film,” but such films do not yet have a dedicated audience. It is technically a music video, as its audio layer doubles as track #5 on Katya’s album Vampire Fitness. But that same audio takes a back seat to the intense visuals here, and it is certainly not seeking engagement with actual dentists. The audience that is best equipped to make sense of this film, and which may value its immersive format, is the parasocial network specific to Katya, which already lives on the YouTube platform.

Horton and Wohl first forwarded the parasocial interaction as one where mediated life and real-life collapse into one another as a result of communication media presenting a performer to an audience as if in a direct, face-to-face encounter. This mediated encounter gives an impression of an intimate association to viewers that may develop over repeated impressions as if a real social relationship is being formed. Chen further extends this to YouTube as a “mediated experience [which] can provide a rich source of symbolic materials,” which enable multiple, digital versions of Goffman’s strategies of self-construction, self-presentation and impression management to be enacted. Through both traditional avenues, such as television, alongside the social media platforms Twitter, Periscope and Cameo, audiences have had sustained long-term access and connection to both Katya as a performed character and McCook’s personal life. Dentist is perhaps the first of McCook’s performances to be fully articulated through, and for, these established parasocial relations as a unique audience because it is the first to design a (simulated) space for them.

Promo trailer, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, Season 7. Accessed 7 May 2022

Rupaul’s Drag Race may have first introduced the character of Katya to an audience beyond Boston gay clubs, but it was YouTube that garnered her massive and obsessive fanbase. This was initiated through videos launched on her own channel, in collaboration with producer Avi Paul Weinstein, which creatively rehashed and responded to her appearance on Drag Race. Later short films on Katya’s channel issued drag advice and documented the life of the recently, and dubiously, sober Bostonian drag-character “Trish Thompson.” A year later, the web-series UNHhhh, co-hosted with drag-artist Trixie Mattel would premiere on the World of Wonder YouTube channel to immense fan response. UNHhhh is now in its sixth season, after its host’s one-year departure to produce The Trixie & Katya Show on the television channel Viceland before returning to YouTube, with episodes collectively garnering over 74 million views. The duo has gone on to work with Netflix, release multiple albums, produce a documentary titled Moving Parts, publish a New York Times best-selling book titled Trixie and Katya’s Guide to Modern Womanhood, and in 2020 they began airing the podcast The Bald and the Beautiful, episodes of which are now also posted to YouTube as videos.

Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova in the web-series UNHhhh.Accessed 7 May 2022

Cross-platform output is both common among former Drag Race contestants and crucial to Katya’s audience production. McCook’s career exemplifies David Gudelunas’ claim that for Drag Race contestants “the exposure provided by appearing on a national television series is just an additional tool in building a sustainable fan base. YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and other digital tools are equally critical” (241). This is based in the ways that the Drag Race program itself “embraced digital extensions across various platforms including social media sites” (231), making the show both a launchpad and a training ground for performers as savvy operators within a new media landscape. The terrain of that landscape has been described by Jenkins as a “convergence culture” wherein previously separate mediums and content formats permeate and absorb one another. On the audience side, this is experienced as an “integrated system of watching” (Moe et al.), since their engagements with cultural content combine both primary screens (in this case television) with secondary screens (computers and cellphones) and inter-audience interactions on social media. In anticipation of this, the cultural production of media content by both RPDR and its talent aims at “spreadability” (Jenkins et al.), meaning an easy circulation across platforms and the ability to be picked up and reused by fans for their own purposes. In the case of McCook, who is no longer attached to and anchored by television through the Drag Race program, it is a persona, meaning Katya as a performed but otherwise fictional figure, that is stretched, reproduced and reiterated across platforms to meet the expectations of a fragmented audience. McCook’s performance of Katya is therefore divided from the outset and then converges back together, as Katya’s fans reassemble her into an intimate relationship with themselves through their consumption of her across these varied outputs.

I argue that both the particularity of performed drag personas and Katya’s presence across multiple media forms complicates the form of the parasocial relationship by simulating another level of relation beneath what McCook produces for a drag audience. The parasociality enacted by Katya’s fans extends beyond both television and YouTube, as primary and secondary screens, and additionally incorporates aspects of acquisition and participation such as the searching, sharing and communing activities they perform through audience engagement. RPDR’s voyeuristic reality competition format initiates this by introducing both Katya as a performed drag persona and McCook as her performer simultaneously. Fans thus meet McCook already within the process of creatively producing Katya as a backstage encounter. This deviates from other reality television formats where it is unclear if we are ever presented with a person or a production of one. In watching McCook overcome challenges through an invented persona, fans have been along for the ride of “making” Katya, which extends their intimate relation with Katya into a feeling of creative co-construction of that character alongside McCook. The result is two entwined relations: a fan-relationship with Katya as a character and parasocial friendship with Brian as an artist who has created that character in front of them, if not with them.

While failing to win her season of Drag Race, Katya nevertheless stood out favorably among competitors due to her oddball drag aesthetic and McCook’s vulnerable exposure of personal details including struggles with addiction and anxiety.

This positive reception, in addition to the mainstreaming afforded by RPDR as a televised brand, was then leveraged by Katya into a long-term touring career and access to media outlets and opportunities not previously available to underground drag performers. YouTube has been the site of this leveraging from Katya as a persona into her own brand. Alongside this, social media output maintains a close bond with accumulated fans, where the vulnerable exposure of life struggles and personal details continues the kind of backstage access previously offered by the reality TV format. As Salvato shows, YouTube as an emerging platform for amateur performance has shared much in common with American non-commercial theatre and, similarly, draws performance value from the notion of a controlled “sincerity” reliant on “the (fiction of a) stable subject required for its (ostensibly) transparent production” (72). The open artifice and hyper-elaboration of drag performance would be at odds with this. However, within their integrated systems of watching, fans may still access a supply of sincerity from Katya’s social media outputs where McCook performs an “authentic self” apart from the Katya persona.

McCook has, however, frequently expressed discomfort over the new average age of his fan base given the adult nature of Katya’s performances and difficulty with setting and maintaining boundaries with this expanding and unexpected audience. Drag performance at a gay bar entails a fair amount of exposure wherein there is often little to no physical distance between the stage and an audience of drinking adults. This kind of burlesque or provocative relation between performer and audience in a queer, mostly male space with already very different norms concerning lewd social interaction simply does not translate when one finds themselves attended by a global audience of young, mostly straight viewers, who access you through their cellphones. The mediated mistranslation of intimacy and exposure here has had some negative real-world consequences as early as 2015, when she was first introduced on a mass platform. These instances have been expressed in her YouTube performance as, “Hi Katya. I’m a 45-year-old woman who wants to bring my 12-year-old out to the side of a gay bar to may or may not have the chance to meet you at probably 2 in the morning. Will you please give us all of your time and attention for no money? No” (“UNHhhh Ep 34”), and as a direct address to fans through social media, “A. You can’t come to my house. B. Stay away from my dumpster” (“Katya’s One Woman Periscope Panel”). The latter statement now lives on YouTube, having been recorded off the Periscope platform and reposted there by a fan. McCook continues to incur upsetting fan encounters and recently describes needing to flee a fellow drag artist’s performance mid-intermission following “a very unfortunate series of fan interactions” (“Hell Hath No Fury Like Teenage Twitter”).

Katya’s substantial YouTube presence is only partially of her own making. Fans record video of her live performances to re-upload them to the site and re-post video clips from television, live-streams or social media there as well. This is all documentation of Katya that is collected in order to be carried back to YouTube, shared and discussed. The primacy of the YouTube platform for her fanbase cannot be understated. YouTube is how they know Katya. It is where their connection continues to live and remains “live.” Much research in consumer studies is dedicated to how mediated parasocial relationships with branded celebrities or opinion leaders might be used to steer viewers toward certain products, behaviors or views. Less is spent on how this constitutes a performative enactment between an artist and their audience that might be heightened into a kind of self-conscious art or theatre. Dentist is an example of how that may be done and how the platform itself plays a formative role within a digital cultural production process.

Going Para-Scopic through Platformization

Gudelunas notes that “for all of the new media innovations and social media savvy bundled into the RPDR experience, the core audience still clamors for offline interactions” (240). When discussing this desire with her co-host Trixie Mattel, Katya is asked, “Why are people obsessed with seeing people on podcasts?” and responds, “I think it’s a question of more, more, more, that’s how I want it, that’s how I want it. You know people just want more” (“The Niagara Falls of Vomit”).

Be Your Own Dentist (Official 3D Immersive Film). Accessed 7 May 2022

To engage, and perhaps appease, a parasocial audience, Dentist presents a media that is “parascopic.” It meets the demand for a heightened relationship with Katya through more access, more looking and more control over what is seen. Miriam Ross traces how a desire for the offline might be folded back into the digital by stereoscopic technology that shifts viewers from a cinematic or optical visuality into what Laura Marks calls a “haptic visuality.” This second kind of looking “tends less to isolate and focus upon objects than simply to be in their presence” (332). The kinaesthesia afforded by a stereoscopic viewing experience speaks to the desire to “make images that appeal explicitly to the viewer’s body as a whole” and “a cultural dissatisfaction with the limits of visuality” (334). Via the presentation of a “seemingly touchable, depth-rich stereoscopic body” and the sense of proximity, “manipulation and mastery” of this body it suggests, Ross charts the long historical entanglements of stereoscopic technologies with the pornography industry (550). Their use in Dentist carries this desire into the nearby industry of social media celebrity. The parascopic entwines two desires together here: the desire for a sensuous “more” of haptic visuality’s acquisitive access and the desire for a sense of participatory agency within an ongoing parasocial relationship to the persona of Katya.

Dentist’s stereoscopic manipulation shakes off some restrictions of the scopic regime (Metz) that are enforced by a fixed camera frame as authorial control and, instead, enables viewers to select their own framing with a keystroke or a tilt of the head. The trade-off is that even the ability to simply look off to the side without the permission of a cutaway shot disrupts the ability to construct narrative through montage. The challenge for Katya as a performer conceiving her own multiplied performance is “overwhelming . . . it’s a lot” (“The Niagara Falls of Vomit”). The challenge for Sims, who describes himself as an “immersive storyteller,” is that “you can do things to try to encourage them to look at a certain place but it’s your responsibility to really create a whole immersive world that’s interesting no matter how you engage it” (“The Niagara Falls of Vomit”). A para-visuality that enables a parasocial gaze to access “more-more-more” risks offering too much more, as it is impossible to take everything in at once. The construction of this video in the surround also required four times the amount of footage to be shot, and four times the performance demanded of its subject. This is on top of the layers of video performance utilized within each stitched-together quadrant. The total amount of work this takes is described by Sims as the difference between telling a story and “making a world,” with the worthwhile opportunity being the ability to “decide what the world is” (“The Niagara Falls of Vomit”).

The labor invested in creative worldmaking troubles understandings of the parasocial relationship as a consumer audience, rather than an art audience. The dubious return on value underlines this as well, as revealed in another conversation between the two drag queens around cost:

Katya: “It wasn’t cheap I would say that”
Trixie: “More than 5?”
Katya: “Um, oh yeah oh yeah”
Trixie: “Ten?”
Katya: “Yeah”
Katya: “Did you make the money back?”
Trixie: “I don’t know”

While 360° cameras for live streaming have been available at reasonable price for some time, Dentist requires a studio quality stereoscopic camera to carefully join two videos together as if they were captured by left and right eyes. Sims notes that even iPhones have some stereoscopic functionality, but the camera rig at use in his studio does not have an equivalent prosumer model that might enter the hands of more dilettante artists looking to make novel kinds of work. Still, it is not the novel camera technology that hailed this film into production but the affordances of the YouTube platform. Because Katya’s audience engages her primarily on YouTube, if its interface did not afford the controls that allow Dentist’s parascopic movement, it most likely would not have been made. This film is not just platformed but platformized.

The platformization process, as described by Nieborg and Poell, attends to the tense and fluctuating relation that both artists and users have with the functions and conventions of digital distribution platforms wherein “cultural content producers have to continuously grapple with seemingly serendipitous changes in platform governance” (1). On these shifting sands an artist’s output becomes an endlessly contingent commodity wherein a performance’s “liveness” as its ability to be accessed or circulated is continually in question. Creative work must adapt to, and be re-shaped by, the formal affordances of the platform’s interface and the whims of the business model behind it. Cultural production’s economic and aesthetic ties to technology that constantly outmodes itself leads to archives that are more transient than one would hope and nearly transforms YouTube into a fickle artistic medium to be creatively negotiated and pushed.

The YouTube platform not only allows the publication of 3D and 360° video as an affordance; it also offers extensive instructional materials, tutorial videos and downloadable resources for these formats to potential creators and even an “intensive 3-month learning and production workshop . . . along with a grant towards their dream production” (“Community—YouTube VR”). These resources and attempts at community building through events, meetups and a newsletter to connect creators to one another indicates that YouTube is invested in pushing 3D as a substantial portion of its hosted content, or at least in laying a claim to 3D within the content hosting market. Should one open Be Your Own Dentist with YouTube’s interface set to HD instead of 3D, the construction efforts of the platform are laid bare. You will be presented with a disjointed grid of sideways strips of video—an unassembled map of footage that the interface fails to read as a form of vision. The platform is doing a lot behind the scenes to render this visual information legible and easily manipulatable with the click and drag of a mouse. The same platform does yet more work to smoothly insert the bizarre space built by McCook and Sims into the expansive stream of videos it hosts and into the viewing behaviors of its audience as a kind of “flow.”

In-Between Acting and Looking

McCook has training and a degree from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in performance art and video (Infante), and when explaining the intended form of encounter for Dentist, Sims references “immersive theatre”. Both are therefore appreciative of what it means to create a unique performance space that is unbounded in some ways from formal conventions and the limitations of the physical. The space they have manifested together is not so much unbounded from “real” spaces but, rather, in-between a few of them. It is not Katya performing on stage and not Katya performing in the bedroom of a fan. Rather, both meet in a digital middle where the sense of intimacy and immediacy is produced in an inverted fashion through ever more intervening layers and removes; it is nearness as a composite or compilation of distances.

During the coronavirus lockdown, countless drag performers lost access to live venues. This cost them a platform for presenting their art, an avenue of compensation for its many costs and a meaningful audience relationship all at once. Many performers with both local and online audiences pivoted to producing digital drag shows as streaming video events, which allowed the collection of tips through various apps. Dentist, also released during the pandemic, is a significant departure from this format that in no way attempts to recreate a live venue experience. Dentist, importantly, created and distributed a simulation of an inhabitable, shared space during a coronavirus lockdown wherein the entirety of its viewership upon release observed it from within some form of confinement. But the type of space afforded stands apart from Katya’s prior touring productions. This is not due to the 3D technology in play, but the structured encounter that Katya aims it towards.

Katya’s live performances also use video projection and immersive audio and have done so at large scale that surrounds. This transforms the venue into a kind of “live” music video that both she and her audience are within for the duration of the song. Dentist’s use of this technology is, however, more akin to contemporary installation art. Artists like David Hannon also produce immersive video environments where they perform within computer generated landscapes through the use of green screens. These video performances are also projected into/onto built sculptural environments within the gallery space which Hannon may also perform within “live.” Together, these efforts effect a bridging of real and digital spaces through complimentary kinds of artifice across which multiple versions of the artist may perform together. Such installations often feature immersive sound and lighting to sink viewers into a deeper experience of a sensory environment where they are meant to dwell over time.[2]

What artists in this medium insist on, however, is a physical site—a “real” space—for encountering the artwork or other viewers. To propose that physical spaces may be made or inhabited differently, or that digital and real spaces may enter or affect one another, requires some real space as a departure point. Installation artists therefore draw on site-specific conventions, whether that means gallery conventions or train-station conventions, to assist them in shifting audiences from the habitus of one space to another or to merge them together.

Dentist departs from an already digital location and instead draws its local conventions from YouTube, an already fantastic place composed of interfacing forms of “content.” This means emulating video formats and content common to the platform, from yoga channels to how-to guides. There is even a touch of ASMR[3] content in Katya’s hushed voice over the jittery clicking sounds of pliers on tooth enamel. Dentist is not a translation of, or replacement for, a live drag performance or an evolutionary extension of immersive art installations. Rather, it draws on aesthetics derived from both in pursuit of the relational values and forms that are of, and for, YouTube as its own kind of venue.

That Dentist’s digital release is flanked by numerous videos and interviews promoting its production and intent indicates that the YouTube platform is, at least in this instance, being taken up as a serious professional platform for artistic output. Still, that a filmmaker, performer or visual artist would consider YouTube as the final or primary destination for their work remains exceptional. The platform functions well as a distribution point but lacks a convivial (and controlled) sensory encounter on the other end that is structured to social convention, such as the theatre’s darkened rows of seats or the gallery’s “white-cube.”

What Dentist relies on for this absent other side of YouTube is the parasocial community which Katya has developed through the platform; a social space that precedes and enlivens the digital one constructed by the 3D film itself. Her audience has been “in” this relational space for quite some time, they are accustomed to its codes which they have been relating to each other through for years. Putting theatre on YouTube is not treating YouTube like a theatre. These are not just mere modes of spectatorship but different cultures of viewing and evaluating performances developed over time by discerning audiences. Instead of a translation within a single medium—physical to digital theatre— Dentist must reconceive theatre from the ground up within YouTube’s formal terms, towards the performance values pursued by its native audience as parasocial development.

UNHhhh Ep 34: “Kids and Parenthood.” w/Trixie Mattel & Katya Zamolodchikov. Accessed May 7, 2022
“Wrenching, Tugging, and Twisting”

Even as Be Your Own Dentist demonstrates some possibilities for the YouTube platform as a kind of 3D digital theatre and the parasocial as a (problematic) relational intimacy that positions audiences within it, Dentist also sets about inverting the promises these forms make to viewers. This occurs wherever Katya’s performance works against the formatting affordances of the platform and inverts her fan’s scopophilia back onto them. Instead of a deeper penetration into Katya’s life or freer movement around her body, we find once we are immersed that a multiplied Katya has us surrounded. Through her copies, Katya already audiences herself, which reduces us to another unnecessary and anonymous reflection by our position within the triadic groupings. The freedom to pan or tilt the camera’s frame is traded for the fixed position on its axis in the space. Conversely, Katya’s omnipresent, non-diegetic voice is everywhere, reclaiming any narrative control that the camera’s movement might have given up. Whether or not the viewer responds to her commands, the visuals always do. As the digital environment conforms to her instructions, Katya’s imposed desires become the new scopic sequencing that structures meaning.

If this video is taken seriously (it should not be), then it instructs Katya’s fans to remove parts of themselves at her command. This inversion of a self-care injunction to mindfulness refocuses any hailing of attentiveness or embodiment onto an act of reconfiguring self-harm that is visibly excruciating. By merging the yoga studio’s “just breathe” into a dentist office’s “just relax,” Katya confuses aesthetics with anesthesia; and by the time the walls are made of teeth, she has devoured us in her manufactured mouth. Rather than entering Katya’s world, we have submitted to some dominion over ours. This is not unenjoyable by any means, but it is also not the pornographic exposure, or experience of ownership, that fans may have craved; Katya’s abjection is paid for by the audience’s subjection to its gross display. The body being served up is an artificial one; a placeholder for the real thing that is nearly as fabricated as the computer-generated elements. Drag performance always operates in a double-bind of exposure and obstruction as performers make themselves vulnerable to audiences within cramped gay clubs and, at the same time, are made of many layers of make-up, foam padding, costuming, wigs and silicone prosthetics. Should you reach out to grab a performer (a common risk of the profession), you are highly unlikely to contact actual flesh.

Dentist doubles down on this paradoxical distance. You can get as digitally close as you want to all the parts of Katya that are not real – even her insides are evidently fake (take a good look). The promise of the parascopic to offer unprecedented views is taken up here only to pursue abjection and artifice from yet more angles, to multiply and then discard a facsimile of the body again and again. As for the floating molars: “all fan teeth submitted through the mail. USPS” (“Q&A with @jonathan sims, 2021”). The only “real” body parts on offer here are those collected from the fan community, who are thus more present within this video performance than McCook is. The parascopic affordance of more looking here also casts the looking off to the side, offers a copy, a substitute, or is too much to take in. Through these deferrals, Katya reclaims some space for herself within a parasocial landscape that agitates against privacy and personal boundaries.

In a twist, the 3D immersion that promises greater access to Katya’s presence and a freer gaze is the one video she is most removed from and has most control over. The loss of authoritative meaning management in a parascopic space is reasserted through the performance at its center. Ultimately, it is Katya who may see, or be, anything she wants here, while her fans are bound to her image and the affordances of the interface. Katya thus serves the fan experience back to her fans as its own aesthetic enclosure. In so doing, McCook demonstrates some ways in which a performer who has developed intimate relations within digital spaces may construct, utilize and subvert their audience expectations and social conventions. Despite the turned tables, McCook treats his YouTube viewers not as a consumer base but as an educated audience for new kinds of self-reflexive theatre. The best indicator that this audience may be a receptive one for experimental theatre is their now established willingness to be manipulated by an artist’s expanded vision. 


[1] For such online figures, “parasocial” does not just mean that their screen image is experienced as if in an intimate face-to-face encounter but also as an ongoing relationship that is actively and intentionally produced by performers over time as a brand-building effort. 

[2] Documentation for some of these works is accessible here.

[3] Videos produced to engage the bodily sensation known as “autonomous sensory meridian response” through sound.


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*Brendan McCauley is a PhD candidate in Communication Studies at UMass Amherst, where he teaches video and television production alongside film studies and screen cultures. He is also a painter, gallery director and curator of fifteen years having organized over 100 exhibitions across New England. His research bridges cultural production and performance studies to locate instances where artists must “perform” their production for third parties in order to pursue how such performances are in turn “produced.”

Copyright © 2022 Brendan McCauley
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