More in this project

Essay: Milking

by Erin O'Brien .

Isabella Blow and Detmar Blow at a pie-throwing party held by Robin Birley.
Nowhere is the possibility of milking as self-annihilation more evident than when it involves a beautiful woman with flawless styling. Guinness observes later that 'self-annihilation is a prerequisite to growth'. The milking of a model is the fashion equivalent to Jimi Hendrix smashing his guitar.

Milking began as an in-joke among young male Newcastle University students, a little light relief during exam time. Young people took bottles full of litres of milk and emptied them on their heads, for no discernible purpose other than that, for a time, it seemed like the thing to do. Milking quickly caught on through YouTube, generating tens of thousands of views, and spread to other British cities and towns, including Edinburgh, Oxford and Cirencester. People milked in trees and from a second floor window, soaking the man below and his cereal.  Participants competed in choosing the funniest, most unexpected locations for their milkings, just as others had done with the phenomenon of 'planking'. 

Planking involved lying stiff as a board in a surprising spot, and became the quintessential Internet meme. Because of a rush to outdo other 'plankers' in choosing an outlandish site, a variety of injuries and one fatality resulted. So far milking has proven harmless, unless you consider the fate of the milk itself. In fact, milking was displaced by the invention of 'porting' at Durham University, in which male students pour a bottle of port over their white dress shirts (which are thus ruined) and dark suit pants. Although port is much more expensive than milk, no one can construct much of an argument regarding the importance of its preservation. It is hard to argue that those who waste milk are improving the world, but some might see a virtue in those who waste alcohol. These competing memes (from competing universities) can be seen on YouTube, which critic Wayne Koestenbaum refers to as a kind of 'shame-kiln' in his book Humiliation (2011),[1]

Director Nick Knight’s suggestion began as a joke on the geographic spread of the milking craze, from its origin in Newcastle to Bruton Place, Mayfair, the most expensive neighborhood in London. Multimedia artist and model Daphne Guinness hadn’t heard of milking before, but quickly latched onto the idea and saw that it was the best way to celebrate a pending move.  Location was on Knight’s mind. 

In fact, on the next day (1 February 2013), SHOWstudio itself moved to a new site on Motcomb Street, Belgravia. Milking Mayfair had the adults paying tribute to a meme developed by youth, and restaging it in a formidably expensive, grown-up context.

The Newcastle students received a considerable amount of criticism for their waste of milk and money. Some viewers responded angrily and left messages on YouTube. Newspaper coverage (in The Daily Mail, The Guardian, and The Australian), was disbelieving and outraged in tone. Milking is done in order to shock - and it did, given that it was performed in the context of the worst economy since the Great Depression.  In numerous European countries, social services are being cut to unprecedented low levels, and more people are participating in programs providing food stamps, food aid and soup kitchens than ever before. The need for staples such as milk is tremendous. It is maddening to some spectators to see such shameless waste as perfectly good dairy products, in significant quantities, are simply poured onto the street and contaminated. The standard sized container of milk used in milking is a full two liters, the same quantity as used by Guinness. The financial element of the performance is referred to in the opening shot of 'Milking Newcastle', in which a student begins his milking action by withdrawing the money with which to buy milk from the cash machine. The shock value of the various milking videos cannot be overstated. As 'rational economic actors', First World citizens are conditioned away from such destruction.

A few quid is an extremely modest outlay for the manufacture of a work of art, however.  A painter would spend much more for his canvas and paints.

Milking: the Daphne Guinness version

How does the action change when it is undertaken in Mayfair, by a female fashion icon known for her extreme wealth, whose ex-husband is a billionaire? Such a woman is surely an exotic, dwelling in an exclusive, unknowable world. Does the gesture acquire new meanings?  Though Milking Mayfair may have begun as a joke between Nick Knight and Daphne Guinness, it acquired other resonances in its execution, becoming, in its self-consciousness, a performance piece. As such it demands to be looked at on its merits.  After Guinness had spent the day making a rock video to accompany her first single, Fatal Flaw, Knight proposed to drain the last of her energy in a final artistic gesture.

While YouTube milkings usually take place facing the camera, Knight directed Guinness to confront her own reflection while pouring the milk. Guinness had already provoked astonishment when she confessed in an interview that she wore Rick Owens t-shirts as workout gear at the gym. For the milking, she quickly changed into an all-white wardrobe, wearing another two Rick Owens t-shirts as a long-sleeved dress, along with a piece of chiffon as a scarf. Her outfit is completely white (“I literally threw it together”), apart from a pair of her trademark, handmade Mary Jane shoes by Massaro of Paris (this time in silver).

The sound of two litres of liquid hitting the floor is usually the sound of domestic disaster.  Guinness holds up the two liter jug of full cream, and goes to work. She passes the jug thoroughly over her face and then back onto her hair. Before she can fully cover herself, she runs out of cream. By its very nature, the cream is intrinsically erotic, thicker and more substantial than milk, clingier and more sculptural.  Guinness’s clothes become semitransparent when wet, an erotic trope familiar to Bollywood cinema. In India, the wet sari scene appears in their conservative culture in lieu of nudity. These scenes appear as formulaic events starring beautiful actresses in blockbuster films.

In the opening seconds of her milking, Guinness staggers forward a few steps, the cold milk, straight from the fridge, providing a shock to the central nervous system. In a series of tweets to amused fans, she remarks: 'It was [awfully cold], but I didn’t survive boarding school, cold showers, + freezing countryside etc for nothing!' She invokes the freezing cold of private school, which Prince Charles, a veteran of Gordonstoun, complained about at length.  Frigidity is the temperature of the upper classes, which inflict Spartan conditions on their young. As Jilly Cooper observed humorously in Class (1979), the aristocracy seems to regard the very idea of heating its historic houses as decadent and vulgar.

The clean, opaque residue of the milk on Guinness’s face makes her resemble a marble sculpture. When the plastic jug is empty, she stagily extends one arm, releasing the jug with a certain amount of comic timing and pizzazz and allows it to clatter to the floor. Knight had instructed her that there was time for only one arm gesture. She pivots, and stalks back toward the camera with confidence and defiance, clearly pleased with her experiment.

Her milking is a complete and unsurpassably quick transformation (the video is 26 seconds long), changing her very state, not just her wardrobe, by going from dry to wet. (Guinness gives the milking another, emotional dimension when she tweets 'I am baptized in MILK, heading for the shower.') Nowhere is the possibility of milking as self-annihilation more evident than when it involves a beautiful woman with flawless styling. Guinness observes later that 'self-annihilation is a prerequisite to growth'. The milking of a model is the fashion equivalent to Jimi Hendrix smashing his guitar. Guinness performs a wipe-out gesture of her own. 

Guinness, whose lawsuit regarding the repeated flooding from her bath was heavily publicized, has flooded herself. Off camera, she and her conspirators at SHOWstudio quickly get to work with some mops.

Dada

The Dada movement investigated irrationality, illogic and a kind of civil disobedience in the face of the authoritarian socio-political forces which had lead to the Great War. It positioned itself against art, war, the bourgeoisie, nationalism and colonialism. (When I ask Guinness about her political affiliation, she jokes that she is an anarchist.)

Each Dada performance, like a milking, was an irrevocable, one-shot deal. One early practitioner was Arthur Cravan, who randomly fired a pistol a few times during a lecture at the Salles des Société Savantes. The central elements of the Dada gesture is its originality, disruptiveness and its documentation. Documentation by film directors and photographers is crucial, as it is for performance artists, because it is typically the only remaining evidence that the action ever took place.  The comparisons with the milking phenomenon are obvious.

Salvador Dalí, a neighbour and friend from Guinness’s childhood in the Spanish artists’ colony at Cadaqués, had a milk fixation. In his Fountain of Milk Spreading Itself Uselessly on Three Shoes (1945), breast milk from a woman atop a plinth rained down on parched soil. In the 1930s, Dalí had a disagreement with Louis Aragon, a lifelong Communist, about whether a substance symbolic of life itself could be, in good conscience, wasted. Dalí wanted to invent an extraordinary dinner jacket that would somehow be festooned with glasses of milk.  Aragon thought it was outrageous to play around with and waste milk, while there were children who needed it.[2]

Celebrities

The inverse of Guinness’s gesture is found in the Franco-Belgian tradition of splattering pompous celebrities with pies. Assaulted in public, the celebrity is humiliated and his authority is immediately undermined. A Belgian provocateur known as Noel Godin has made a career out of targeting the well-known, from Marguerite Duras to Bill Gates. He has published books (including Entartons, Entartons les pompeux cornichons!) and maintains a rather adorable website. Calling himself an 'anarcho-situationist', Godin targets 'authority, depressing laws, the return of the moral order, nuclear power, any form of political power.'  One of Godin’s famous victims is the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy (an intimate of Guinness’s), who has been successfully targeted seven times and counting.  At public readings, in an airport and at the Cannes film festival, the otherwise resplendent BHL has reacted to pieings with fury, which only inspires his stalker to another attack. One senses this is not over, with the two men still alive.

For celebrities whose image is constantly perpetuated by cameras, the fear of being undone, of having one’s public persona destroyed, is also a fear of the very exposure that is necessary for their celebrity. One minute the portrait of cool, the next minute a laughingstock. In 1977, when Anita Bryant was hit with a (fruit) pie while making homophobic remarks, her public career as a conservative commentator was ended and her fearsome influence was immediately neutralized.[3]

The milking makes Guinness vulnerable. She is, after all, primarily about visual flawlessness.  Should we fail to buy into her performance, she risks looking like a fool. Milking can be seen as a form of aesthetic suicide. For anyone unfamiliar with this meme, the total gesture would be deeply disturbing gesture of self-mortification. Guinness has coated her face, hair and clothes with a foreign substance. She has also obscurely rejected fashion, establishing that she can take it or leave it in its traditional forms. Her hair and makeup ruined, she seems to have annihilated her reason for being as a model, at least for the day. She has elsewhere permitted herself to be seen unflatteringly, including in SHOWstudio’s Fashion Fetish short film (2012), in which she is seen weeping, with eyes red and mascara running. For the December 2012 issue of Harper’s Bazaar China, David LaChapelle portrays her as the Bride of Frankenstein, with big rubbery breasts being sewn onto her slender body.  By participating in the take-down of her own image, Guinness reveals an unexpectedly goofy, cavalier attitude to her own careful, classical beauty.

What makes Guinness’s gesture remarkable is that as a 'fashion icon', as she is invariably called, the stakes in obliterating her own image are higher than those for university students in shorts. It is genuinely impossible to conceive of any of fashion’s exhibitionists (Anna dello Russo, Vivienne Westwood, the late Anna Piaggi) doing such a thing. But there is a kind of precedent in fashion: after a pie-throwing party, Isabella Blow, Guinness’s fashion maven friend, is pictured with her husband Detmar, casually smoking a cigarette, both annihilated with cream.

Guinness is the high school girl who would take the dare and march triumphantly back, stunt performed, to the hoots of her friends. In fact, she is also celebrating her merger with SHOWstudio, a creative collaboration which involves permanent residence with its existing staff. Where other celebrities find abjection, Guinness finds celebration. She can reveal how she can construct or destroy the trappings of her beauty more or less at whim. The head of SHOWstudio and his wife made up Guinness’s elite and specific audience. Then, Guinness says, the three 'fell about laughing.' Her milking is opposite in every way to the celebrity pieing.

With thanks to art historian Elizabeth Legge, Chair of the Department of Fine Art, University of Toronto, for her suggestions.


[1] (Coincidentally, he published a volume of inquiry titled The Milk of Inquiry (1999).)

[2]Clifford Browder, Andre Breton: Arbiter of Surrealism.  (Geneva: Librarie Droz, 1967), 32.

[3]  Wayne Koestenbaum, Humiliation (2011).