Written on the Body

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Alex Herod is the deputy editor of the amazing website For Books’ Sake. She’s also an incredibly talented writer/artist as those of you at our Manchester gig will attest. And now she’s about to embark on a fascinating project as part of the (in)xclusion project, a 24 hour event over February 25th-26th at the Patrick Studios in Leeds (more of which later this week). The project wants to take a close look at what exclusion means, and Alex will be inviting people to write on her body for a whole day, raising all kinds of questions which it has been my pleasure to ask her about. If you’re anywhere near Leeds, please go along.

DH: You must be so excited…

And nervous…

 If I may digress a little before (I promise) getting back on track. Graphemes. One of the things I’ve often talked to Marc Nash about is the point at which meaning breaks down (or is built up). Just how far do we have to divide the “stuff” of language before it becomes meaningless? Does even that become meaningless, or is it even more meaningful simply to make a senseless mark because everything is focused on the act of making a mark itself an all the political connotations behind that. So, back on track – does any of that chime with what you are doing?

AH: Yes, it does. For a number of reasons (and I might digress a little too here!)…

I think one word in the right context can convey as much as a thousand. That’s the beauty of language. Not that we shouldn’t strive for complexity, just that there is a purity in basic elements. The tiny component parts get overlooked in favour of the big communicative, ‘I’m saying something’ whole. But without them, there’d be no meaning in the first place, so maybe all the rest – the structure, the combinations – aren’t necessary after all. The vital, raw materials are there, and we can make with them whatever we want, but why should we make anything at all when we can play with them just as they are: raw. I’m fascinated by language and word play and looking at different ways the ‘stuff’ becomes meaningful. I think that whatever is done to language, people will find their own patterns and meaning regardless of how much it is built up, divided and rearranged or broken down.

BUT, despite all I just said, I chose the title ‘Grapheme’ for this piece because the whole is important in this case. Each individual contributor to the work (each person who writes on me over the course of the 24hours) has the power to change the meaning but the ‘meaning’ only exists when the individual units combine – it’s an inclusive art work that will transform over time, but I won’t know what has been written until the 24 hours is over and the text can be viewed as a whole.

In terms of senseless marks, I’m not sure if it’s possible to make them. Making a mark that doesn’t make sense for a political or other reason acknowledges what mark or action would make sense in that situation. To take a stand you have to be aware to some degree of what you are taking a stand against. Perhaps. Take the Dadaists – they rejected convention and rigidity, instead creating irrational, nonsensical works. But the irrationality was deliberate, the movement political – challenging cultural and aesthetic norms, protesting against war – and the influence far-reaching. What they created did have meaning, radical meaning; through ripping up the rule book, the senseless made sense… and round and round we go!

If all goes to plan, this will be the first in a series of live art/performance works, each exploring aspects of semantics and shared narratives; looking at proxemics and measurable distances in interactions between people, how punctuation could be performed, speech and vocalised signs (working title, Phoneme, o’ course!)… I’m looking forward to getting my geek on with some digging and research at which point I’ll probably agree and disagree with all that I have written here many times over.

How many different meanings does exclusion have for you?

Feeling alone in a room full of people

Feeling detached from your own thoughts and actions

Being told you don’t know

Being told you can’t

Pressing up against glass, peering through

Pressure to conform

A whisper drowned out by roars

Having no words at all

… and …

On a personal, social and political level, ‘exclusion’ is an incredibly powerful word. That’s what initially drew me to (in)Xclusion as an event, the celebration of the Outsider, the sense of belonging with those that don’t belong, positivity instead of negativity. There’s tremendous power in that.

Backtracking, the act of writing – marking – has a lot of connotations of possession, even aggression. You are inviting people to write on your body. What exactly’s the power dynamic going on there?

I am inviting people to write on my body, to mark and transform me in what is a fairly intimate act, but I’m inviting them to share in something bigger and to reflect on what they’ve seen, how they feel and what exclusion means to them. On both sides, it’s quite an exposing thing to do. Of course, I realise that people might not want to write on me (or I might just end up with a gigantic comedy penis scrawled on my face…) which does shift the power away from me. That’s one reason I wanted to do this piece and developed it in response to the (in)Xclusion mission statement – I will be naked in every sense (nude, without sight, without a pen), and excluded from what is happening around me. I am interested to see how that feels over the duration of the 24hours. I write, and feel at home writing; I feel connected when I’m able to interact with people, see them; and I often create work alone. So to be in a position where I can’t see what’s being written on me, I am reliant on other people’s writing and engagement with the work and I’m not able to look into their eyes, reach out and connect, I am stepping far outside my comfort zone – which I hope will encourage people to do the same. I have experienced performances and art works where the artist has asked the audience to give a lot, expose themselves, to essentially create the work, but given very little in return. That’s curatorship. And it’s arrogant in my opinion. It’s all well and good waxing lyrical about what people will get from participating, but why should anyone take risks or challenge themselves if you’re not willing to?

I want to create an intimate experience where boundaries are crossed and moments are shared. I think the acts of writing and being written on are incredibly beautiful and empowering for both the scribe and the inscribed. It can be cathartic, enabling, uncomfortable, erotic – something that has the potential to be so raw and so unpredictable means the power dynamic is hard to pin down. Which is what excites me about this piece.

To expand, do you feel as though you are injecting your own subjectivity into something that would be happening anyway? Is this a reaction to violence, to society’s gaze/possession of you, or is it rather a question of making yourself visible?

Eesh. I think there’s a whole other blog post – or twelve – in considering society’s gaze, the body as [art] object, violence. The short(er) answer would be that I am taking ownership of my own body and creating a live experience exploring insecurities, signifiers, means of expression and individual reactions; exploring those things within boundaries that I am setting. So yes, in a sense, there’s subversion afoot! You will mark me because I have given you the tools to do so, here is my body as I choose to present it, your individual action changes in meaning as part of a collective experience, etc.

Hmm. More than those things though, Grapheme is about connection. About the smaller pieces of a puzzle coming together: collective creation and expression.

It is about visibility, not of me so much as of the words of anyone (everyone) who takes part, of the other performances in the space, of the event, of the myriad meanings of exclusion. That might sound trite – “I just wanna do some good, man” – but this is a sincere piece. I do hope I learn from it, I hope people find a connection or take the opportunity, I hope it serves as a document of the event… I’ve never been one for too-cool-for-school nonchalance, and have little patience with people who plump for irony over passion and enthusiasm and curiosity. So there, I’ve said it. Sincerely.

What issues has this project made you face?

The nudity is a fairly big challenge for me. I’ve never performed fully naked before (stop sniggering at the back, I mean in public) and I’m not sure how that’s going to feel. I am not fully comfortable in my own skin, so really this piece could go either way – I could be traumatised by the whole thing and hide in a box forever more, or it might make me fearless… It’s not that I’m ashamed to be naked or worried what people will think of how I look, more the fact that I sometimes just don’t feel as if I fully inhabit my body, so to have to be present and aware of it for such a long period of time with little to distract me is daunting.

What do you want your “writers” to come away with?

A feeling of being part of something.

Do you have any preconceptions about what ways the “writers” may feel excluded?

If not one person writes on me, then that in itself will be pretty interesting! Some people might not be comfortable with the physical contact, the proximity, or indeed having other people read their words once they’ve moved on. Some people might decide it’s not their cup of tea. Other people might feel the whole thing is just a bit wanky and feel excluded by my presumption that their innermost feelings would make Good Art. To be honest, I’m trying not to think too much about that as I don’t want to end up tailoring the piece to manipulate the outcome too much.  I can only make decisions on how I present it, how it’s received is out of my hands.

Which of those questions makes you feel the most uncomfortable?

The question about violence, about the gaze and possession. I’m not sure I know how to respond to it or how to decipher, navigate and articulate the many things it makes me feel. I don’t know if I ever will. I’ll get back to you on that extra blog post if I do!

What do you think would make you feel most uncomfortable full stop?

Only being able to communicate vocally.

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