By Antonio Verelli, Oakland University
“Billy’s Birthday Cake” had me both disgusted and wanting to see more—much like the horror genre this piece borrows from. In the short YouTube clip, Paine runs us through a gauntlet of unsettling and nausea-inducing visuals, daring us to look. Watching this, I was disgusted by the yellow, syrupy fluid that ran down the canvas in the opening shot, and then by the feeder mice baked into Billy’s “birthday cake.” I didn’t like how uncomfortably close the images of rodents and mucous were to food and consumption. I revolted at the thought of Billy crunching on mouse bones, and at the look he gives the camera afterward to close out the video. Still, after such a negative experience, I wanted to see more.
After the third or fourth watch, I stopped focusing so much on the disgust and began to wonder what the images were doing next to each other. What did feeder mice have to do with a blank canvas? Or a birthday party with consumerism? Paine asks us in his reflection to explore the relationship between art, trash, and consumerism in his work. Like any good poem, it makes the reader do the hard work of finding meaning where there are only details. To me, this meant creating a Google Doc and mapping different images in the poem to ones they are closest to thematically.
For example, the strobing lights that you see in the video, and in black and white horror films, are an aesthetic choice that Paine made. In many ways, it’s a genre flip from the type of visuals we’d expect from a video titled Billy’s Birthday Cake. Not that birthday celebrations are a genre, but we typically think of bright colors and a positive, hopeful message when we imagine them. Our expectations are subverted. Birthday cakes symbolize the decadence of a birthday celebration, which, again, are typically light-hearted and positive. But with birthdays also come a whole lot of stuff—needless stuff, like party hats, confetti, and plastic plates.
This brings us to the problem of consumerism in our society. More specifically, the problem of waste. Most of the things we buy are thrown in the trash the next day. But trash itself can have several different meanings. As the expression goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. To most of us, trash is trash. But to Paine, perhaps it’s an opportunity to create art, with the canvas being a symbolic representation of the limitless possibilities that lie ahead of us.
Chernetskaya. “Beautiful birthday cake with candles.” Dreamstime.com, https://www.dreamstime.com/beautiful-birthday-cake-candles-beautiful-birthday-cake-candles-white-background-image121433653
Limarch2. “Happy Birthday celebration card. Design with black, white, gold balloons and gold foil confetti.” Dreamstime.com, https://www.dreamstime.com/happy-birthday-celebration-card-design-black-white-gold-balloons-foil-confetti-background-vector-image184746885
Kapona. “Male hand with pen from splash watercolor image vector” www.Vectorstock.com,https://previews.123rf.com/images/kapona/kapona1909/kapona190900090/130825999-male-hand-with-pen-from-a-splash-of-watercolor.jpg?fj=1