REVIEW: WOMXN IN MOTION
A brief recount of a nurturing gathering.
Womxn - that is, intersectional feminism - in motion, is a proposition for art workers to engage with the transitory nature of the current socio-political phenomena. Womxn in Motion was staged this October in Basel, as the continuation of The Womxn's Factor, a think tank whose aim was to assess, develop, and propose new social languages and methods to understand the role of womxn in all knowledge areas that are interconnected with the arts and cultures today. For the last two years, the Art Institute and the Instituto Susch, a joint venture with Grażyna Kulczyk and Art Stations Foundation CH, has been hosting womxn from the world in order to connect to their practices and move through them, into a new understanding of art as a craft, as technology, as language, as life, as struggle. Importantly, all of them defined the ideas and iterations of performance.
This motion, evoked by Quinn Latimer and Chus Martinez, responds to a transformative horizon, to a great amount of work put into producing for an audience beyond a physical space to share. While feminism and intersectionality are often simplified as identity politics, at the Art Institute the students and guests are revisiting and questioning these as decisive tools for social and political movements that are able to change oppressive power structures that feminism still rises against today. Taking an existing gender gap in the arts as a departing point, the symposium was constituted by a combination of interventions in space, lectures and perfectly staged zoom conversations between the participating practitioners, the students and the audience through live stream, performing equitable forms of relating with each other.
Structural changes are necessary not only to influence the social dynamics in which art is being defined, but also to collectivize the notions of labor. “I can’t imagine the world without labour as I can’t imagine the world without art”, stated Martinez, director of the Art Institute, who is known for surrounding herself with womxn in an ideal work environment for herself, where everyone feels invited to attend to a minor question as a major discursive and logistical problem: Feminism is often treated as something external to the art discourse, as something an exhibition can be crafted around, but in daily practice such intentions get completely suppressed by misogynist expectations.
"If injustice is predicated on creating and instituting bodies that do not matter, performance— and all its variously embodied practices—is the medium where, critically, new forms of justice, space, and critique have often emerged. Presence, proximity, voice, movement, and performative relations (both online and off) are the tools by which many contemporary artists, in unprecedented ways, continue to explore how to create equitable space for our ever-regulated, dully delimited bodies." (1)
The symposium served the practices examining performance as a means, may it be as Bhanu Kapil's print-out pasted to the bathroom walls, Sonia Hernandez Pan moderating thoughts in-between conversations, or the opening occasion by Isabel Lewis reflecting on the pressing legitimization of core inequity, violence and gender hierarchies where women are often cornered as a political issue, surrounded by shame. I went to the bathroom to water my face, dry out from the mask, to discover Bhanu Kapil's notes on shame and performance on the mirror:
"Undeveloped writing: a question or proposition that is working for change but which cannot do its work at the time in which it is written. Is there a link, for example, between psychological oppression and writing that does not resolve as a book? I am thinking of the body load, in particular, of racism, sexism...the effects of chronic, unremitting and deflected attention (the combination of extreme hyper-vigilance and exhaustion) upon the desire to write a book in the first place.
Writing these words, I recall a performance at Kelly Writers’ House in Philadelphia. Lucas de Lima introduced me then sat down. The audience, mostly white, as it is with the experimental poetry scene in the United States, filled the first fifteen rows of the venue. At the back, on a navy-blue velvet sofa, sat the five people of color in the room. It’s possible that I am mis-remembering the number of the rows, the chairs, and the color or fabric of the sofa. I had the sudden, terrible feeling that I did not know who I was looking at, and I did not know who was looking at me. Performance, in that instant, was a way of restoring my dignity.
There’s documentation of the event, of what I did that night, in order to continue on with the reading itself, but when I try to write it here, as a description of what happened, it lacks power and meaning."
The memorized poem and the bodily performance manifest kaleidoscopically that day, with Isabel Lewis introducing the premises for a struggle related to cultural profiling and performing an identity. Tessa Mars rehearses a posture of defense before painting and so reenacts an inner process against child abuse and collective trauma, thematized in the pictures she shows us on a huge screen, and her huge smile and huge glasses ideally enact an emancipation from that past, channeling a physical presence for present words.
Language, the heart of performativity, and the question of its improvement in order to do things differently, is the basis for all conversations throughout the program. Language as the key for mutual care, where apathy can be recognized as crime. To work ideally, language can be structurally transforming, just by learning how to come to terms with one another. To work against orders of cartesian separation, conquering, killing, in order to survive, means to be subverted for the experimental. Quinn Latimer embraces that challenge - to let performance change within these formats - in terms of gender and colonialism by quoting Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory:
"This particular King Kong has no prick, no balls, no tits. There is no shot that allows us to assign a gender to the beast. It is neither male nor female. It is just black and hairy. A pensive herbivorous creature with a penchant for humour and displays of strength. There is no scene of erotic tension between King and the blonde.
Beauty and the beast tame and protect each other, they are affectionate and gentle with each other. But it’s all resolutely asexual. The island is teeming with creatures that are neither male nor female: repulsive centipedes with slippery thrusting tentacles that are wet and pink as women’s cunts, worms with heads like cocks that open to reveal toothed vaginas they use to bite off the heads of the crew….
Other creatures more closely relate to gender iconography, but of polymorphous sexuality, hairy spiders and a herd of identical grey brontosauruses that look like oversized spermatozoa…
Here, King Kong serves as a metaphor for the sexuality that existed before gender distinctions politically imposed in the late nineteenth century. King King is beyond female, beyond male. It exists on the cups between man and animal, adult and child, good and evil, primitive and civilized, black and white. Hybrid, before the enforced binary. The island in the film is the possibility of a super-powerful, polymorphous sexuality. What cinema wishes to capture, to display, to distort and eventually eliminate." (2)
Keeping an eye on a transformative horizon awaiting the social and cultural system we work in, to turn its profoundly exclusive, discriminatory basis into a democracy of minorities, the social dimensions of this democracy must be placed in relation to economic and aesthetic systems that guarantee its political power. It is wonderful to see this as a main lesson for art students, the future art workers. It is about finding new rhetorics of public space and building institutions of care that could replace the logics of control and policing. Everyone is talking about care. But what does that mean? It means that everything is about performing it. The chaos before gender in King Kong, in the human-non-human relation, performs a cinematic trope for racial oppression, postwar capitalism, and a figure that lives in ‚Skull Island‘, that is, the island of the mind. King Kong is thus the display of strength, of genderless beauty, of something that shouldn’t be domesticated, but protected.
Barbara Casavecchia turns to ataraxia, Greek word for calmness and passivity, to state the crushingly unsustainable pressure to perform perpetual radiancy and motion online. Just like the philosopher Sadie Plant that day on her lecture against speculation, both plea for an embodied and entangled relation between art and politics, artists and activists, by (un)learning together, dancing on empty streets, and crying in the same space, find stories that are missing, becoming a new social body. Because, as Fernandez Pan puts it, you don’t only want to touch with your hands, hear with your ears. You want moments to be immensely productive, sensible, and that is the bio-political force of moving between the library and the club, the home and the streets, between new bodily distances to be choreographed fairly. Not moving linearly, but in circularity, in humbleness.
The conversations move to the public sphere to create spaces of togetherness, and as we long for the public life shifting to other places, we need to understand how to defy the massive normativity that we need to extend beyond the capitalist spectacle of segregation. Could it be otherwise? With actual people. Actual time. Actual work. The work of art. Thinking of this extending spaces opened during the symposium, being shaped by Martina-Sofie Wildberger’s slapstick performance Scream, brought Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism to the center:
"A glitch is an error, a mistake, a failure to function. Within technoculture, a glitch is part of machinic anxiety, an indicator of something having gone wrong. This built-in technological anxiety of something gone wrong spills over naturally when we encounter glitches in AFK scenarios: a car engine calling it quits; getting stuck in an elevator; a city-wide blackout.
Yet these are rather micro examples in the broader scheme of things. If we step back further, considering the larger and more complicated systems that have been used to shape the machine of society and culture, gender is immediately identifiable as a core cog within this wheel. Gender has been used as a weapon against its own populace. The idea of “body” carries this weapon: gender circumscribes the body, “protects” it from becoming limitless, from claiming the infinite vast, from realizing its true potential.
We use “body” to give material form to an idea that has no form, an assemblage that is abstract. The concept of a body houses within it social, political, and cultural discourses, which change based on where the body is situated and how it is read. When we gender a body, we are making assumptions about the body’s function, its socio-political condition, its fixity. When the body is determined as a male or female individual, the body performs gender as its score, guided by a set of rules and requirements that validate and verify the humanity of that individual. A body that pushes back at the application of pronouns, or remains indecipherable within binary assignment, is a body that refuses to perform the score. This nonperformance is a glitch. This glitch is a form of refusal.
Within glitch feminism, glitch is celebrated as a vehicle of refusal, a strategy of nonperformance. This glitch aims to make abstract again that which has been forced into an uncomfortable and ill-defined material: the body. In glitch feminism, we look at the notion of glitch-as-error with its genesis in the realm of the machinic and the digital and consider how it can be reapplied to inform the way we see the AFK world, shaping how we might participate in it toward greater agency for and by ourselves. Deploying the Internet as a creative material, glitch feminism looks first through the lens of artists who, in their work and research, offer solutions to this troubled material of the body. The process of becoming material surfaces tensions, prompting us to inquire: Who defines the material of the body? Who gives it value—and why?
These questions are challenging and uncomfortable, requiring us to confront the body as a strategic framework and one that is often applied toward particular ends. Yet, along this line of inquiry, glitch feminism remains a mediation of desire for all those bodies like mine who continue to come of age at night on the Internet. The glitch acknowledges that gendered bodies are far from absolute but rather an imaginary, manufactured and commodified for capital. The glitch is an activist prayer, a call to action, as we work toward fantastic failure, breaking free of an understanding of gender as something stationary.
While we continue to navigate toward a more vast and abstract concept of gender, it must be said that at times it really does feel, paradoxically, as if all we have are the bodies we are housed in, gendered or otherwise. Under the sun of capitalism, we truly own little else, and even so, we are often subject to a complicated choreography dictated by the complicated, bureaucratic, and rhizomatic systems of institutions. The brutality of this precarious state is particularly evident via the constant expectation that we as bodies reassert a gender performance that fits within a binary in order to comply with the prescriptions of the everyday. As political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott writes, “Legibility [becomes] a condition of manipulation.”
These aggressions, marked as neutral in their banality, are indeed violent. Quotidian in nature, we find ourselves fending off the advances of binary gender as it winds its way through the basics of modern life: opening a bank account; applying for a passport; going to the bathroom.
So, what does it mean to dismantle gender? Such a program is a project of disarmament; it demands the end of our relationship with the social practice of the body as we know it. In his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, writer and activist James Baldwin’s protagonist David darkly muses, “It doesn’t matter, it is only the body, [and] it will soon be over.” Through the application of the glitch, we ghost on the gendered body and accelerate toward its end. The infinite possibilities presented as a consequence of this allows for our exploration: we can dis-identify and by dis-identifying, we can make up our own rules in wrestling with the problem of the body.
Glitch feminism asks us to look at the deeply flawed society we are currently implicated by and participating in, a society that relentlessly demands we make choices based on a conceptual gender binary that limits us as individuals. Glitch feminism urges us to consider the in-between as a core component of survival—neither masculine nor feminine, neither male nor female, but a spectrum across which we may be empowered to choose and define ourselves for ourselves. Thus, the glitch creates a fissure within which new possibilities of being and becoming manifest. This failure to function within the confines of a society that fails us is a pointed and necessary refusal. Glitch feminism dissents, pushes back against capitalism.
(...) Glitch feminism demands an occupation of the digital as a means of world-building. It allows us to seize the opportunity to generate new ideas and resources for the ongoing (r)evolution of bodies that can inevitably move and shift faster than AFK mores or the societies that produce them under which we are forced to operate offline." (3)
Kat Anderson shares in her film a collection of audiovisual notes on oppression, Black liberation and the white imagination, originally streamed on Transmissions TV of Somerset House, an online platform commissioning artists to present their work within a DIY TV show format. As a visual artist and filmmaker, working under an artistic and research framework called ‘Episodes of Horror’, Anderson uses the genre of horror to discuss representations of mental illness and trauma as experienced by or projected upon Black bodies in media. There is something familiar in the tracks, in the patchworked quotes from the internet that we see and unsee in Anderson’s Film Bad Man Nuh Flee.
After the shooting of the black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020, the painfully realistic aphorism ‘Jogging while black’ has started spreading on social media, addressing the everyday predicaments of black men whose sheer existence is threatening to the social order, prior to any act of transgression. Anderson’s collage of black men running is superimposed with the writing BLACK PEOPLE AREN’T YOUR STOCK, unsettling the viewer with an emotionally charged portrayal of Black fugitivity and continuous dispossession.
The film ends with a black cube, voices screaming, voices with remarks, such as Anderson herself and Ashlee Marie Preston urging people to speak up and join the conversation. “Most of the things we are talking about, it doesn’t hit the most directly. It doesn’t hit the ground of the people who don’t even have a cellphone, internet, that cannot join this conversation. It is hitting the ones who are in the middle of a pandemic and don’t have a home to quarantine in. It is still hitting some of us that have to go to the hospital to get a COVID-19 test and don’t get one because the current administration has made it ok to be discriminated against and turned away. So, (…) Yes we love glam, we love to live unapologetically, but that is not what the work is about. It’s about reaching people at their point of need.”
Thus gender, race, class, geography, and technology remained in the foreground of it all, even if not directly addressing the issues that were to focus on what performance itself can mean and entail: The bodies, the movements, both suggesting the singular, but pushing towards the collective. Bodies in tender, private efforts, are now facing a second wave of COVID-19 spreading through hot spots of the world; bodies that need to format anew on stages, bodies that engage corporeally and spiritually in communal action, recognising life that has to be defined between other bodies. To them is this womxn labor dedicated.
Symposium WOMXN IN MOTION ran from 7 – 8 October 2020 at Institut Kunst an der Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst FHNW in Basel, Switzerland.
Guests: Kat Anderson, Julieta Aranda, Barbara Casavecchia, Mayra A. Rodríguez Castro, Pan Daijing, Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė, Ingela Ihrman, Pauline Curnier Jardin, Bhanu Kapil, Lynne Kouassi, Isabel Lewis, Tessa Mars, Sonia Fernández Pan, Sadie Plant, Martina-Sofie Wildberger
Moderated by Quinn Latimer and Chus Martínez
Research Assistant: Alice Wilke