Process/The Body Builders

Maastricht, 28 September – 5 October 2014
By Amy Bell

 

 

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I’m pretty sure it’s not a co-incidence that when speaking of an artist’s output we speak of a ‘body of work’. For me this rightly anchors creative enterprise in messy, mutable fleshiness. This connection between pieces of work and the physicalities that produce them is perhaps at its most obvious in dance and performance where the two are inextricably linked. But even when artistic practice results in an object, event or experience outside of the artist’s own body, the work’s very materiality and affective power is still a manifestation, an off-spring of the artist’s subjective corporeality. This is perhaps why on encountering a work we don’t just think about it, we in turn experience it physically; we are moved, shaken, touched or struck, our responses are embodied because the work is itself a body of sorts, an extension of the artist’s.

 

The phrase a ‘body of work’ also lets us imagine works as living art-subjects, vulnerable to change, decay and embroiled, like us, in processes of continual becoming, rather than discrete art-objects. We might consider the Mona Lisa a pretty discrete art-object but, seen in this way, even this work’s status and physical reality is continuously brought into being by the repetition of behaviours such as exhibiting, viewing, reproducing or selling, behaviours that are dictated by societal forces and environmental factors, changing over time. So like us, a work may breathe, age and wrinkle, it may be perceived as traditional or radical or any number of things depending on the context and it will be physically affected by those perceptions too. Like us, a body of work may therefore be thought of as subject to a process of continually becoming something, perhaps never to arrive and never to lay claim to an essential, stable self.

It was looking at the works of performance artist Heather Cassils in San Francisco that these thoughts and their connection to Performing Gender became more palpable for me. Cassils’ works not only reveal but actually consist of the very physical processes of becoming one’s sex, gender or sexuality. In Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture (2011) she uses time-lapse to chart the crafting of a super muscular physique, gaining 23 pounds of muscle in 23 weeks by following an extreme body building regime. By tracing the process of literally building or constructing her body, she points to the way that societal forces create and shape our body-minds and our feelings of selfhood in the most visceral sense. Specifically, she dramatically transforms her body into a conventionally hyper-male form but yet she remains a woman. Cassils in effect runs with de Beauvoir’s assertion that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’, and queers this idea by radically remodelling what could be meant or recognised by the category ‘woman’ or indeed, ‘man’.

 

In this way Cassils encourages us to consider an artistic work as a form of corporeality and our corporeality as a form of creative process. Re-reading the word ‘body’ as both an individual’s physical being and their artistic corpus, I can see a favourite quote by Judith Butler in a new light:

I wanted to work out how a norm actually materialises a body,

how we might understand the materiality of the body to be not

only invested with a norm, but in some sense animated by a

norm, or contoured by a norm.

 

Cassils and Butler remind me that identities are not simply a set of abstract labels or ideas we can slap on like make-up. Nor is the notion of ‘performing’ an identity about ‘putting on’ or ‘playing’ certain roles willy-nilly. Transgender writer Julia Serrano angrily criticises the glib assumption that performing a gender might be as simple as slipping on a wig and a pair of heels, effectively reducing the trans experience to creating a fictional persona with no physical anchor. Instead she asserts ‘my gender is a work of non-fiction’, meaning that each performative act undertaken is in fact a contribution to a tangible physical reality, the body. Performance is then not pretending as if one is somebody else, but creating some-body; fashioning the embodied self as a fabrication but not a falsehood.

 

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PG artist Alessandro Sciarroni tapped into this tension with not a little pathos in Frankenstein, his work for PG Maastricht. Recalling Mary Shelley’s novel, Alessandro thought of identity as being akin to Frankenstein’s Monster, fabricated ‘unnaturally’ but still formed in living, breathing, sentient flesh. To underline the physical rawness of this and the cruelty that can come with the perceptions of others, Alessandro worked with teenage performers. At a most poignant moment in the process of becoming they struggle, as we all continue to do, to reconcile their rapidly changing bodies with their often fragile sense of identity and self-confidence. Alessandro made this all too physical fragility the material, the stuff and body of his work. The teenagers were given a score of laughing and not laughing, switching between the two seemingly arbitrarily. Individuals were periodically left isolated, unable to get the ever-evasive ‘joke’ and wondering if they themselves were the butt. Between rolling belly laughs and shaking sniggers, moments of genuine toe–curling awkwardness emerged which generated a deeply affecting choreography of self-consciousness and vulnerability in both audience and performers, speaking volumes about the painful regulating forces of society, our deep seated fear of exclusion and ridicule and our capacity for empathy.

 

All this is not to say that drag and playing with iconography and image in the realm of performance don’t also have, perversely, an authenticity. Perhaps Julia Serrano not is objecting to drag per se, but the overlooking of the body-building possibilities of performative acts and dominant discourses, particularly by those in positions of privilege. Flippant appropriation of aspects of marginalised identities by those who have rejected them can be infuriatingly offensive (e.g. a straight, white male appropriating drag aesthetics has the potential to be offensive, while a trans performer appropriating hegemonic masculinity might be legitimately criticising norms). For me however, the slippage of surfaces and meanings, usurping of traditional models of power, the beguiling, serious silliness of ‘playing’ at gender do all have profound physical effects precisely because of the clash between physical reality and imaginative fantasy. This does not make light of the painfulness and profundity of coming to terms with the paradoxes of embodied identity but rather expresses and enlivens them. One only had to see Jordi Cortés’ intensely focused and playful Whowantsmybody…? for PG Maastricht to see how seriously he took the absurdity of the clashes and convergences of body and image. Wedging his sturdy, middle-aged frame into heels, figure hugging dress and eventually revealing an itsy-bitsy sequinned thong, he used his extraordinarily cat-like physical articulacy, and more importantly, an intensely subtle engagement of presence to shift through startlingly different forms, genders, sexes, ages, abilities and sexual orientations, taking inspiration from audience members around him. Far from making light of moving between different identities, Jordi gave this process weight, poetry and warmth. Sweating, shaking, crumbling, falling, seducing, searching for connection he shared his very real vulnerability by dint of his sheer physical and performative heft. He perhaps suggests that one is most ‘authentic’ when being ‘fake’, that a truth (if such a thing is possible) is best revealed in the clothes of a lie.

 

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Watching Jordi however, I couldn’t escape the knowledge that his body, unconventional as it may be by traditional dance standards, still sings loudly of his years of dance training and practice. The finesse of his gesture, the stamina and profundity of his physical awareness and his earth-rootedness have all been created through repetition and gradual incorporation of various techniques and, yes, the dreaded norms they imply. I think again of Cassils and wonder about my own practice. Perhaps dancing is not as far away from body building as I might like to think. I’m not about to get a spray-on tan, gulp raw eggs for breakfast or pump dumbbells in a bid for bodily perfection any day soon, but I realise that as a dancer with a fairly conventional training, my body, inseparable from my identity, is just as contoured and even distorted by regulatory forces as Cassils’. Where she subverts the norms, I realise I have, to some extent and especially as a child, been passively incorporating them. The dance techniques I’ve embodied (more or less successfully) re-enforce (more or less convincingly) the norms of aesthetic taste, good practice and acceptable gender and sexual identities. These norms create my body; they create my movement. These norms chart the routes of co-ordination through my nerves, shape my fascia, they move me. I love them as I love myself, somewhat ambivalently. These norms for women in dance training are often intrinsically conservative, feminising, desexualising. These norms that move me also make me ill at ease, as if they sit uncomfortably beneath my skin, at odds with the beliefs and desires that pulse through me. I began to suspect that the very training that defines me, also prohibits me from finding a way to physicalise fundamental aspects of my identity. I wondered, can I ever escape this and move differently? Can I re-craft myself? Can I expose the forces that form my body through my body, the very means by which they exist?

 

A key aspect of PG offers a fascinating way into these questions: the cross-pollination between visual art and dance. Both participants and partner organisations come from a mixture of visual art and dance backgrounds, with choreographers finding themselves creating for art galleries and visual artists encouraged to be physical. PG then suggests that by taking the perspective of another discipline, one may find strategies to challenge the norms of one’s own practice so entrenched they may seem invisible or ‘second nature’. In Maastricht particularly, this approach also meant that the values implicit in the project itself became subject to the same process of scrutiny. Perhaps due to the weighting of participants and partners overall, a more dance-orientated perspective seemed to dominate. But perhaps because we were resident at the Jan Van Eyck Academie (a visual arts rather than a dance institution) and because most of the artists working on the project in this city had a non-dance background, the accepted norms of creative processes in dance were healthily scrutinised.

 

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It was in PG Maastricht then that I could particularly see how dance and visual arts can make explosive but sometimes uneasy bedfellows, tussling and fumbling together under the blanket term ‘performance’. For instance, the need for dance studios, physical rehearsal, working with outside eyes, gaining feedback, even the need for the presence of a performer in the work and, crucially for the bodies of and at work, the nature of artistic guidance offered by a workshop leader were all questioned. Here I really noticed that artists with a dance background are generally much more accepting of hierarchies, a notion perhaps not surprising for a discipline which often rests on a regime of diligent bodily imitation as its primary learning model. This means that on one hand dancers are often more willing and able to surrender themselves, physically, to new ways of thinking and doing. However I wondered if it might also mean that, on the other hand, they are too ready to compromise, to accept a place within the existing pecking order of power than to step back and challenge it as visual artists seem more able, if not conditioned to do. It seemed we had much more to learn from each other than I had imagined.

 

In Maastricht the physical effects of the project’s wider organisational politics also came into focus. During a Dutch Dance Dialogues lecture, theorist Mikki Stelder noted that the majority of the participants were white, able-bodied, gay men. She questioned the efficacy of a project seeking to destabilise the dominant discourses when, in her eyes, it perpetuated the prevailing power dynamics in dance, the existing work-body-building regime, if you will. How could this create movement and change? In response, PG partner Daniele Del Pozzo highlighted the dangers of selecting artists for creative enterprises such as this according to dogma. For him, the first concern of the project had to be the quality of the artists not the fulfilment of a tokenistic quota of diversity since such an approach almost always undermines the credibility of the marginalised groups they hope to promote. Despite the genuine complexity and beautiful quality of the work I saw throughout the project, it was true that I did miss experiencing a fuller variety of voices and in particular trans and lesbian physicalities in the project, a pattern frustratingly familiar to me, and of course a product of the dominant discourses in dance.

 

Having said this however, I can’t ignore and fully appreciate that it was Performing Gender itself that posed these questions in my mind and the minds of the participating artists in the first place. Even if such questions remain unresolved, raising them does itself create movement. By participating, the PG artists all explicitly confronted the soma-policial regimes at play in the on-going creation and re-creation of their identities and bodies. What norms have moulded them or have they kicked against to become the people they are continuing to become? How are their bodies and identities built over time? What approach to duration, continuity and change might this generate in their work? Alongside such lines of enquiry PG also offers an implicit investigation of the norms affecting modes of artistic practice, programming, performance and the cultural infrastructures that hold and enable them. The project models this itself, creating the working conditions of the artists that form the actual body of work itself. PG is therefore a kind of body builder itself, generating a rich corpus of diverse works. Through it I came to see body-as-work and work-as-body as intimately related ideas, if not two sides of the same coin. Simply summing this up in an echo of de Beauvoir, and claiming the synergy of work, body and identity as the definition of artistic practice, Ecuadorian PG artist Oscar Santillan observed, “You become an artist (they are not born) when you are finally able to connect who you are with what you do”, a sentiment at the very heart of the project.