A conversation between artists Paul Maheke, Louisa Martin, Mary Hurrell and Alejandro Alonso Díaz, director of the nonprofit art space fluent, following the Body Ecologies performance program and centered around some key notions of the cycle, such as corporeal pataphysics, autistic perception, cognitive potentialities, and cosmological thinking in relation to embodiment.
Alejandro Alonso Díaz: I would like to start this conversation by invoking Louise Meintjes, who notes that in Zulu cosmology, “anger and emotion are considered to be located in the internal throat…also the location of eloquence, speech and song.” Following on the idea that specific parts of the body relate to immaterial and spiritual aspects of our inner self, it would be interesting to know more about your preoccupations with how bodies can perpetuate existing representational systems or escape fixed identification instead.
Paul Maheke: For the last two to three years, I have been looking at the ways in which the body stocks information and its potential to use its physicality as a pathway to share knowledge. My recent performances focus on forms of embodiment in relation to history and meaning making; dance holds a great role in these scenarios, which aim to confront (mis)representational systems—that emerge from Western imaginations—as they often speak to erasure and violence when put in relation to marginalized positions.
Louisa Martin: Paul, I love “physicality as a pathway to share knowledge…” But before I answer, I just want to double check on the nature of the reference to Zulu culture in the question—it being potentially problematic—I’m afraid I’m totally ignorant about Zulu culture and the work of Louise Meintjes, and I want to be sure we’re not casually referencing a minor culture to back up a theoretical enquiry, which would be the opposite of freedom. I think there is also much at stake in acknowledging the validity of our individual positions without the need for it. To answer the question, I am interested in how embodied experience is produced and structured by human-invented conditions, spaces, ideas, and representations, and how the possibilities for these might be exercised towards new freedoms. I work with immersive installations, more recently with synchronized sound and light, and also sculpture, text, and video. Often the focus is on sensorial, affective, and sublinguistic modes. A recent project explored neuroscience as a field of thought which claims to describe the body but in fact also produces the body; my intention was to redirect some of its thinking to make escape routes, loopholes—to instrumentalize it for other means. To point to experiences and bodies which cannot be accurately represented within such systems of thought and are rendered invisible within them.
AAD: I agree it can be a problematic reference, but just to give a bit more context on why I decided to bring it in, I would start by saying that in your work, I see a common will to recognize nonhierarchical, decentralized forms of sensing the world. On a parallel note, as I’ve been reading some of Louise Meintjes’s work in the last few months (mostly passages from “Ethnomusicology” and “The Reorganization of the Sensory World”), I’ve become aware that our interpretation of how the body is constituted through a hierarchical form of cognition does not correspond to the understanding of this in many other cultures, and it could potentially be a modern legacy that needs to be questioned. For instance, the relation between sound and body in the Zulu culture is based not on a phonocentric interaction but on the many physical possibilities that sound implies, from vibration to the affection of the body organs and so on. Thus, considering the current interest in the visual arts in expanding what cognitive experience means, I thought it would be interesting to recognize other cultures’ ways of thinking/using the body as a means to frame this, not just as an interest from contemporary art but rather as a way to imagine other forms of articulating experience, which in fact already exist (for instance, the Zulu understanding of sound).
Mary Hurrell: I’m interested in surfaces/spaces where emotional and psychological perceptions meet through the physical and sensory. My work articulates an internal and nonlinguistic language through a “female” body, using the sensual as a tool to deconstruct and invert centralized systems. I work from the intuitive as a feminist position. Alex’s reference to Louise Meintjes’s notes on Zulu cosmology resonates with me in a couple of ways…. The throat/mouth is an important site and metaphor for the body in my work, as a transitory organ space which is articulating and knowing through touch and without sight. It also makes me think about Xhosa overtone throat singing, which produces an amazing spectrum of emotions and physicalities at once and can strangely sound electronic. Within sub-Saharan African cultures, there is an emphasis on the whole, whereas Western culture tends to split things into parts. I was born in South Africa and grew up in KwaZulu-Natal until the age of sixteen, which I believe gave me an incredibly rich and complicated relationship to the body. Having lived in the UK since, I’ve never felt totally Western or in tune with Western body/mind cultures.
AAD: Louisa, in your work, the body is presented as a complex and elusive substance, which leads me to ask how this notion of the body as an ambiguous entity plays within the logics of environmentalism, specifically in regard to the implications of human-centered regimes of power. I ask, in part, because I like to think of Body Ecologies as an artifact/program that enables us to understand human subjectivity as crossed by natural and technological forces that have always shaped corporeality.
LM: In a research project funded by Wellcome Trust, I was able to speak to neuroscientists who are looking at embodiment and, for example, the idea that we have internal working models of the world, informed by past experience, as well as the cognitive and cultural systems used to interpret and organize those experiences into a consensus reality; also that the technologies we use for thinking—both internal and external—are forms of prosthesis, extensions which are part of us, pen and paper but also cognitive technologies such as language, concepts, and ideas; they produce a particular way of being. I was interested in using the philosophical idea that these organizational structures become so embedded as to no longer appear as working models, as fictions (for example, binary gender, “race,” and so on). My personal interest was in perceptual differences—for example, in autistic people who have a heightened emphasis on sensory information and patterns, and attune more easily to the cyclical, tonal, rhythmic, and affective rather than representational. In which case you need a very different way of organizing and systemizing —consensus reality doesn’t work. Not only that, but in the case of autistic people, those perceptual differences are constituted as a problem because of not being able to conform to dominant representational systems and a particular reality—because they contradict it. To go deeper, if your experience of your body is subject to a greater level of change than can be accounted for by the term “body,” or with representational language… if the self is not experienced as such a fixed entity, then you might anchor coordinates of knowing via other means. For example, collapsing body and surround, redefining selfhood as a specific kind of frequency or energetic interaction, or aligning with rhythmic, cyclical, or pattern-based phenomena and locating meaning within them. I was interested in co-opting the language of neuroscience to speak to bodies which sit outside of the limitations of the thinking systems of neuroscience. To ask: if the dominance of those widely accepted forms of “cognitive technology” effectively render you invisible, how to create agency and self-definition when you embody a technological omission.
AAD: Thinking about how you compose embodied glossaries, I’m interested in the way that new technologies are transforming the relation between physical, emotional, and ecological worlds. Body Ecologies follows this change in terms of how the body becomes central to new forms of organization, now that mostly everyone is fluent in this new technological language, this new choreography. There is an interesting connection in the ways you use the body to channel these relations. Can you talk more about this?
MH: I don’t think I’m attempting to channel these new relations—rather, something that is deeper and whole, which can get fragmented or divided externally by central systems of understanding…. Similar to Paul, I am working within this peripheral space, which relates to the way I think about my work taking on the physical properties of a skin or an edge, to be experienced through touch and sound. It is a channel from which the feminine can speak.
AAD: I am interested in exploring the possibility of carrying out research through performance, and in this I also wonder what would be the outcome of this kind of nonlinguistic investigation. If we think of Body Ecologies as a research project capable of articulating a cognitive vocabulary where the body exists in a permanent state of dependency, what kind of tactics/strategies do you activate in order to produce a type of knowledge that escapes linguistics and arises as inherently corporeal? Can you tell more about how you think movement, gesturality, and sensory experiences are able to allow knowledge to take on a different, perhaps more intuitive, life?
MH: I was thinking about the difficulty in describing work which is inherently resistant to linear definition. I employ words to score my work, but to mobilize openings to circular multiplicities of meaning and movements. My recent body of work this year explored mapping an amorphous body across three spaces, fluent’s Body Ecologies at Centro Botin, Kunstraum, and Flat Time House, London; each part was aligned to an evolving state of water. I wanted to experiment with expanding a notion of consciousness, body or presence as mass, moving and forming in counterbalance to time. To fold memory and imagination into the present tense, I was thinking about how the works’ perspective could shift from internal to external points, the idea of stereoscopy as a collapse between two polar states.
PM: For me, being physically present in the work was stemming from the frustration of not being able to escape and circumvent representational politics whenever I appeared near my work. For many years, my practice used various strategies of disappearance and withdrawal. At the time, I mainly worked in public space, leaving objects behind that may have or may have not been associated to artworks; I was obsessed with the idea of solitary artifacts offered to an unaware audience. But as soon as my work started to be included in exhibitions and people could place a face on those anonymously led actions, which they often affiliated to Postminimalism (an implicitly white art form), my body as a queer artist of color became the inevitable focal point in the conversation they would have around my work. I often say that black and brown bodies have a specific vibration—as other marginalized bodies, they have the potential to shake a space, especially “when thrown against a sharp white background” [Zora Neale Hurston, How It Feels to Be Colored Me (1928)]. This vibration often generates a whole set of situations that can be harmful. Think of Serena Williams on the Wimbledon tennis court—whether she wins or loses, her body will still be talked through. By making my body explicitly visible, I decided to take control over how it will be talked through. This is how I came about including movement. So it’s the opposite of the search for more intuitive modes of existence. In my case, it’s an exercise of acknowledgment that language and words often fail.
AAD: The three of you share an interest in combining elements of sound, light, performance, sculpture, and video. Is this an attempt to interrelate different senses as part of an open experience, or is the work structured according to specific narratives?
MH: I’m working with the elements of light, sound, and movement as extended “everyday” materials, attempting to reconfigure perceptual and sensory experience into an immersive environment which could be something like a skin or a space hinging the internal and external. I’m interested in tuning these elements to produce an elevated physical/emotional architecture. Having started out as a dancer, the body has remained at the core of my practice, developing a language of the body through sculpture, garments, and electronic sound production. Performance, for me, is an interwoven whole, a polysensual and synesthetic experience. Personal narrative and research are embedded within the work, but what is presented is distilled form, free from overt narrative so as to open and extend to the audience’s body. The audience’s “body” is integral in activating the work with their own subjectivity and physicality, it the work is not about my body alone, it attempts to resonate with all bodies.
LM: My work with sound, performance, and later adding light, comes from an interest in first destabilizing the senses, and then reanchoring within an affective field. I like the idea that every aspect of an environment is up for grabs because it can somehow be absorbed into a performance as material, become enlivened, and communicate a sentience. Senses become two-way communication channels, and new affordances emerge. Mary, I share your interest in resonating other’s bodies—transferring an experience into the body of the audience. For Proxy (2017) [Bluecoat, Liverpool, United Kingdom], I conceived of the audience as a proxy for the performing body; there was no body, only an immersive space (sound and a programmed lighting sequence), which aimed to induce a specific set of states in the visitor. I wanted to work with “body as physiological state,” as opposed to “body as physique.” A body that can be transferred and transforms the physical. I’m taking a similar approach for Body Ecologies, in that I’m making a performance with no performer in the traditional sense.
PM: Similarly to Louisa and Mary, the work often builds itself up around moments of sharing and exchange. Sound, movement, and light are so effective to that extent; for instance, they allow for both my body and the audience’s to resonate with and echo one another (physically), to be revealed and to hide in a communal situation (I want to say choreography) that can only exist momentarily, very much in the way a concert or a night at the club would do. Which makes me think back to a comment a friend of mine once made about artists borrowing formats to pop culture as a way to fulfill their desire to become actual pop stars. I am not sure I agree with this, but I totally see how I would like my work to connect with its audience in the way Beyoncé’s performances hook me immediately. I’m saying this without any irony. I do believe there is something that pop does that art can’t really achieve… I’m not trying to sound like a watered-down Warhol, but it might be worth reactualizing this old conversation, for we are yet to understand (bodily) how deeply ingrained and embodied power relationships can be—especially in the West, where the divide mind/body still prevails. Since being a kid, my relation with the world is made of sound and movement. That’s how I relate to others and the complexity of their interaction with me.
LM: There is so much to discuss when it comes to Beyoncé! Your event “Beyond Beyoncé” was great for that. I’m with you on her performances. She immediately embodies a statement of undeniable power.
AAD: In Beyoncé’s last performance at Coachella, this ubersynchronicity is particularly powerful. You can really feel that power emanating through the articulation of all elements involved and, of course, her own body—but there are also moments of transition when uncertainty is more visible, which I guess makes it easier for the audience to engage. How do you envision those moments when creating your own performance work?
PM: To me, Beyoncé rarely seems vulnerable onstage. She sure knows how to stage herself as a deity (well imbued with capitalist imagination), which is why her figure can be overpowering and/or outshining… which is an understanding of power that I’d personally like to distance myself from. In my performances—and my work at large—I’m consistently adjusting the distance between me and the audience, the objects and the space, the inside and the outside of the exhibition venue. In that process, the moments of “deflation” are key because they broaden up the cracks, allowing for the audience to slip into them. Have you ever heard of vulnerability hangovers? That happens to me a lot… especially after having performed… it’s like being open to all sorts of energies. Most of the time it doesn’t feel great; I cannot even imagine how massive they must be for Beyoncé as her gigs are giant energy vortexes—that’s probably why she can’t possibly present herself vulnerable on stage, she can’t be human, that’s not her role.
MH: I’ve unfortunately not seen Beyoncé live! I have definitely experienced performance hangovers. My whole body can ache and feel stiff—this can be even when there is no movement within the performance. It highlights how palpable energy is; it has weight and texture. I like to think of the shape of works or performances in relation to the void they create post.
AAD: Mary, you mentioned that some of your most recent work expands on the notion of consciousness or presence. At “1 Pitch” there was a strong sense of an acoustic presence, an invisible body somehow invoked through a very physical sound atmosphere. Also, the figure of the ghost in Paul’s work is a fruitful metaphor that speaks of memory, invisibility, and presence. How does your work engage with these notions of absence and presence?
MH: I use my voice through electronic manipulations and compositions to explore an extended or prosthetic body. Sound is physical and chemical; I love the way it unifies bodies in space and time. For me, it is a way to empower softness and intuitiveness. It can be erotic and intimate but at the same time confrontational and uncomfortable. Parallel to sound production, I make sculptural garments which hold the body in particular forms; in the same way, I want the soundscapes I make to “touch” or hold the audience. The “performing” body I see as a mirror, a signifier or pointer, like a word or sound opening and closing spaces. I am quite interested in presence without theatricality, a kind of nonperformance.
PM: I love the idea of a movement being presented in its underperformed form and a presence without theatricality, although I’m not sure it’s possible at all to achieve such things in an art space, or any space where things are being isolated in order to become valuable or legitimate. Often my performances oscillate between states of inflation and deflation. They explore a range of intensities and contrasts. My practice at large revolves around moments of appearance and disappearance and alludes to what’s present, what’s absent or left untold. For example, in my current show at Chisenhale Gallery, artist Sophie Mallett composed a soundtrack that is only fully audible once installed in the space as some of the sounds are not actually present on the audio file but are generated by the reverberation against the concrete walls of the exhibition space.
MH: I agree that performance without any theatricality is near impossible—the theatrical can be so cathartic too—but I think by the term nonperformance, I mean something like a truth to material, without acting, a transparency.
LM: I like how the theatrical in performance can reveal the theatricality of everything else, such as in the films of Jacques Tati. I also love Susan Sontag’s notion of “camp.” For the past five years or so, I’ve been using an extended metaphor of a “body as lighthouse” as a kind of productive way to think through ideas around invisibility and presence, as well as synthetic intimacy. This idea of an outlier on the edges between, and in the dark but “looking” out over water. A signaling, rotating consciousness, which is only visible through its own production of the means of seeing, which is also producing images. I also think of it as a pataphysical body, a way to reposition invisibility as a kind of potent and fertile power. A void body is an outlined absence, is a site of imaginative potential, and is therefore a body which emerges outside of the laws of physics, embodying infinite possibilities and alternatives. It has to invent itself.
AAD: It seems like these interests in a performance without performer, an invisible presence, or the underperformed quality of the work are revolving around something that’s being left out or a presence that is still unformed. And I think of Paul Preciado’s definition of “the model of radical invisibility, of the non-representable. In this case the real isn’t accessible to the senses and is by definition what cannot be apprehended by empirical means.” Is this thinker a reference in relation to these ideas? Are you interested in his work?
LM: Very much so. My book Lossy Ecology puts forward the idea of an ecology of realities, reconfiguring cognitive disability, and autistic embodiment in particular, as nonrepresentable within existing body technologies. I am indebted to Paul Preciado, whose work has been a huge influence on my thinking in this project.
MH: His concepts for Documenta 14 and the temporality of performance as a resistance were great. So much of what constitutes a body or identity is beyond the visible, representational, or definitive, but the fact of having this body in the world, its inescapable physicality, with limitations and misalignments, social or biological, [is] a constant reminder there is so much to navigate beyond, to equalize, and the need for what is left out to be made visible/audible/felt. “For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society” [Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic].
PM: Beautiful Lorde!
There is so much we can say about invisibility… For example, the work I presented as part of Body Ecologies is totally informed by Kindokisme—a Bantu (Bas-Congo) practice and/or form of witchcraft and/or system of belief and/or magical thinking (English fails to encompass the multiple meanings of the term) that operates from the shadows, from the realm of the invisible, yet manifests into the visible and shakes it up. Like Louisa’s lighthouse maybe… In the same way, my practice explores peripheral positions in order to address the center/s: “sometimes [political action] is more effective when launched from the shadows” [Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly]. Similarly to Butler, Preciado continues to enlighten me to an understanding of history that first and foremost exists within the body—embodiment over representations. Certain bodies are failed by history and representations to the extent that they’ve become only flesh (I’m borrowing this from choreographer Ligia Lewis) and face the impossibility of coming to “radical invisibility,” or rather, transparency! Especially on a stage. In this regard, I find translucency extremely helpful to think about how my presence plays out in the performances or in my exhibitions.