By Benjamin Gunsberg, Utah State University
Jay Paine’s video-poem, “Billy’s Birthday Cake,” elicits disgust to critique consumerism and to remind us that comfort, wealth, and ease float atop a mountain of noxious waste. At the start of the video, we learn that “trash” turns young Billy away from art and toward mass consumption. He does “what anyone would do”— buys a bunch of plastic junk and throws a party for himself. We see trash piled in heaps, plastic party hats, dead mice stirred into cake batter. Presumably celebrating his birthday alone, Billy digs into the cake with his bare hands. After pausing twice to gag, he continues stuffing frosted fistfuls of mice-cake into his mouth. This is binge eating as an encore to binge buying. Cast in black and white, the final shot shows Billy battling nausea and feelings of alienation, approaching the camera, opening his battered jaws, and swallowing the viewer whole.
Billy’s story is not a happy one. The images are grotesque, the soundtrack jarring, atonal. Panic. Like a Burmese python distorting its body to swallow a deer, consumerism, swallowed whole, distorts the human body as well as the body politic. It also poisons rivers, oceans, and forests. Who is Billy, really? “Bill,” as in request for payment? “Bill,” as in the currency we exchange to wax our cars and widen our screens? My favorite aspect of this piece has to do with the juxtaposition of language with image. Compared to the disturbing visual arrangement, the written/spoken strand of “Billy’s Birthday Cake” seems mild. I like how Paine grinds the critical edge of his poem against the exaggerated grain of the grotesque. Add creepy, unrelenting synth sounds and the piece musters even more unsettling critical force. No one wants to be Billy and yet the final question, “Tell me viewer, is this what you would do?” suggests that Billy’s monstrous hunger may rumble in everyone.