The Pleasure Principle (2019)


A silent short film commission for New York City’s legendary Film Forum. The film played in the lobby for the entire month of February 2019. Other artists commissioned for the “Lobby Movies” installation included Cindy Sherman, Kelly Reichert, Thomas Allen Harris, Jodie Mack, Travis Wilkerson, Alfred Guzzetti and Paweł Wojtasik.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jeremy Bentham. A few months ago I visited his auto-icon at University College London. There his mummified but well-dressed body sits in a glass-fronted wooden case in a busy corridor. I stood before Bentham’s humble remains and thought about our bodies. Their material reality. Their animal drives. The body is all there is when it comes to the human animal – at least, I think so?

Bentham is considered the founder of utilitarianism, the moral philosophy which says the best actions are those which provide the most pleasure to the greatest number of people. “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” he wrote. “It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.” Bentham’s hedonic calculus of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain proclaims, “hey! it’s all just math!” – but it was also an acknowledgment of the driving force later named the id by Sigmund Freud. For Freud and Bentham, the pleasure principle is life’s motivating force. All else flows from there. They’re probably right?

I went looking for “The Pleasure Principle” in educational / amateur / industrial films, mostly from the Wellcome Collection but also from YouTube. Pavlov’s dogs drool at the sight of a lightbulb. Lab rats outfitted with pleasure-producing electrodes sticking out of their brains, pressing the lever over and over. YouTube tutorials on wireheading (the pleasurable stimulation of the brain via electrical current), meditation and tantric sex.

Special thanks to Angela Saward, moving image archivist at the Wellcome Collection, who helped me find much of this material, and to RCO who did the online/color. And, of course, to Karen Cooper at Film Forum for commissioning it!