An Interview with Nina Arsenault
As promised (or threatened), for my column this week, to follow up on last week’s discussion of the scary potential new school of serial killer, I present an interview with Toronto-based artist Nina Arsenault, who about a decade ago dated Luka Magnotta, the Canadian psycho du jour that many people seem to be fixated on–some in the most disturbingly inappropriate, fanatical way. It should be noted that at this point Magnotta has been accused of one horrifying murder and has entered a plea of not guilty. There is also some conjecture that he may have committed other murders, but it has not been substantiated. This interview is based on speculation about his psychology and motivations if he is indeed guilty of these crimes, which the evidence seems overwhelmingly to indicate.
Nina is a transgendered performance artist whose work posits herself as a kind of living sculpture, having transformed herself, through a variety of surgical procedures, from a biological male into an idealized version of her own ultimate female form. Her one-woman play, The Silicone Diaries, is a riveting, emotionally honest autobiographical monologue about her life and art that documents this transformation. A book about her work, TRANS(per)FORMING Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work, also features some of my photographs of her. (The above photo is from a series we did together—a visceral, expressionistic response to a bad breast job she once had which necessitated the traumatic removal of one of her silicon implants.)
What interests me with regard to Magnotta is the number of parallels between Nina’s productive, creative journey and his destructive, malignant path: the narcissism (Nina is one of the few people I know whose narcissism is entirely justified), the plastic surgery, the sex trade work, the transgendered issues, etc. But where one of them ended up becoming an empathetic, positive artist, the other became a psycho killer (allegedly). What gives?
VICE: Nina, you received over two hundred interview requests to talk about your former relationship with Luka Magnotta, but you turned them all down except for a few. How did journalists find out about it, and why did you decide to speak to the ones you spoke to?
Nina Arsenault: I was asked to comment on him because some journalists found TV footage of Magnotta when he was a contestant in a male modeling contest in Toronto–a reality TV show called Cover Guy on Out TV –and I was one of the judges. It was strange because this reality show happened well after I dated him, and he’d had so much plastic surgery since then that he had to come up and tell me who he was. He’d altered his cheeks, which is something that can radically change your appearance. The journalists at CTV and CBC both asked me to look at the footage right before interviewing me on camera to see if I remembered anything about him, so it was a bit disconcerting because it was only when I watched it that I discovered that this guy in the news had been my ex-lover! After that, I turned down interviews because I wasn't interested in having low-level, salacious conversations about a human tragedy. I said yes to a few interviews, like Dr. Drew on CNN and the Today Show because they seemed to be reputable, and I was interested in offering a social commentary that was more analytical. I think I have something to offer in this way.
Narcissism obviously played a part in Magnotta's demented psychology, and it's a subject that also applies to your work and life. Can you talk a bit about your thoughts on narcissism and how it needn't necessarily be a psychopathological impulse?
I think it’s important to differentiate between narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. To my understanding, having NDP means not being able to have empathy for others and to habitually manipulate others for your own gratification. People with this disorder lack an emotional understanding of the feelings of other people, that others have needs and an existence that continues after you leave the room.
Then I think there is a narcissism that is not necessarily pathological, but probably more and more prevalent in society, which is the tendency to understand our own lives and the lives of others based strictly on the value of our visual image. Our lives become like the movies we are watching or the video games that we are playing, having a certain emotional detachment. Cinema, video games, and social networking have taught us that we can imagine ourselves as an avatar of our being, as a (glamorous) moving image. This can be good or bad, depending on how you use it.
You and Magnotta have both altered your appearance through plastic surgery. How do you think this relates to narcissism?
Multiple cosmetic procedures allow you to sculpt a new image of yourself into your very own body. As an artist who uses video images, online media, and plastic surgery,
I wanted to explore this phenomenon. I’ve used autobiographical material from my life, and I’ve never tried to deny my narcissism. Instead I’ve tried to investigate my tendency to understand myself as an image, wanting to be a pure image, and the impossible desire to have no thoughts or feelings, to be just an object in some sense. I needed to get into this part of my psychological landscape, not to escape or deny it, and to search again for an authentic self. Because I am an artist, I do this by expressing it publicly, by making work.
Sure. We could also get into ideas of objectification and how that figures into sexuality and issues of dominance and submission. I’ve always been a believer in Freud’s theory of the tendency toward the debasement of the love object, for example. So it’s interesting how that might relate to new models of objectification or self-objectification.
Yes, it’s complex.
You've mentioned that you think the porn angle and Magnotta's "porn star" identity contributed to his dementia, that in a sense it seemed like he was just "taking it to the next level." Can you expand on those thoughts?
Millions of people have watched his mutilation-sex-murder video now. Millions more have talked about it. He knew this would happen. It seemed to be the twisted endgame of everything he was building with his online personae, with his YouTube videos, and with his Karla Homolka obsession. It was a snuff video that he ended up “marketing” like his porn videos, but this time giving it to a gore website.
[Homolka was the girlfriend of Paul Bernardo, the Canadian serial killer who was convicted of the sex slayings of three teenage girls, including Homolka’s own sister. She was sentenced to 12 years in prison for manslaughter for her part in the murders. In many respects they were the Canadian version of the British “Moors Murderers,” Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.]
It’s interesting that you attended the trial of Karla Homolka. I’ve also always had a keen interest in serial killers myself–I used to read a lot of books about them when I was in my twenties. But this kind of morbid fascination has been around forever–the Hume Cronyn character in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt comes to mind. Can you tell me the story again about how you ended up going to her trial, and your discussion with Magnotta about it when you dated him several years later?
I was living as a guy at the time, and I had been up all night at a bathhouse. I got out of there a bit drunk and was walking around the city at night. I saw the line-up for the testimony of Karla Holmolka and because it was so early I got in. At the time people were lining up for those spots in the middle of the night, and selling their seats to reporters and the public. Apparently the spots were selling for $200 a seat. I think it was about 7 AM when they let us in. She was behind a bulletproof shield. I remember telling Luka when I met him years later that she seemed like a shattered human being—as if she was barely able to talk, barely able to be. To me, she looked like someone who had taken herself into so much trauma that she was never going to come back.
It’s odd that Magnotta claimed to have dated her, that he incorporated that into his bizarre fantasy world.
In our conversations you also had some interesting ideas about the sad, recent death of porn star Erik Rhodes, who appeared in my movie L.A. Zombie. How do you think this relates to the Magnotta story with regard to the porn world?
Through blogging, Tumblr, and his porn films, Erik Rhodes seems to have produced and documented his own suicide through methamphetamine use, steroids, mental illness, and the sex trade. Magnotta has done the same with homicide. The age-old show business question about fame is, "How badly do you want it?" Would you be willing to kill for it? Die for it? It seems symbolic that these events happened so closely to each other. The way that a lot of porn stars use Twitter and Facebook is like their own continuing reality TV show, and sometimes it seems like they are forced to go to greater and greater extremes for attention.
Gonzo porn works kind of like that. Of course it has to be said that many porn stars are very well-adjusted and have a handle on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. But you’re right, it seems like Erik Rhodes internalized all the negative aspects of the porn world and turned them inward against himself, becoming suicidal, while Magnotta projected them outward and became murderous.
Previously - Psychopathic Fame Monsters, Part 1
Check back next week for the second part of Nina's interview.