Uncontained bodies in anticipation and practice

BY Pip Wallis

The contained body is not. It splits across histories and spaces of relationality. It is perceived, described, subjective, communicated, maintained, instrumentalised.

But the body is also a conglomerate – a body of water, body corporate, of government, a museum. Within the museum are artworks that tell the experience of individual bodies. As an artistic method ‘identity politics’ is a collectivising of bodies brought together by a shared experience of oppression, an important mode of building force and cohesiveness with which to challenge silence and effect change. In embodiment, artists have sought to shift the historical narrative, to become visible and to carve out space in the body of the museum.

Though we have not yet carved out that space, though we still, as Hannah Black writes, attempt to exonerate the institution of its ‘role in the reproduction of domination’.1 We look for a larger shift of episteme in the body of the museum − in the narrative it tells and the language it employs. This body is a structure that might be shifted, edged apart to create a new relational mode of self and organising. The relationship between the individual, intimate body and the structural, institutional body is intertwined. Sarah M Harrison and Rindon Johnson’s work point out how bodies continue to be employed as mechanisms of colonialism in Aboriginal communities where self-determination is removed by mechanisms of the state and private interest in order to, in Foucault’s terms, ‘make live and let die’; carefully calibrating collective life to allow only so much agency as is necessary to uphold the state of play.

There is another kind of bodily relationship to power − less monolithic, less cohesive − that expands perniciously in the sprawling plain of contemporary biopower. This neoliberal slip converts life processes into economic terms whereby we are governed by mechanisms that operate on our bodies, and simultaneously on our subjectivities and interrelations. Our subconscious utterances, urges, desires become capital through the mechanisms of digital economies; from the medicalisation of gender to the gathering of online habits the social media hall-of-mirrors, to the tracking of financial transactions. In this way Adam Linder’s choreographic services chart a shift from Marxist understandings of the body’s ability to conduct labour to the contemporary monetisation of subjectivity, where life itself is the economic commodity.

Because our selfhood and relationships are presented and enacted very often online, our digital bodies have an ambivalent relationship to physical space. Yet despite this temporal and spatial dislocation, our online bodies are still bodies since we find nourishment, pain and pleasure there. The potential for creating bodies away from the physical and biological realm is apparent in a lineage of works of art that seek the aesthetic potential of art as a productive space of imagining. Artists such as Andrea Crespo embrace the digital expanding of this space. Crespo depicts a plurality of selves, within online communities, where alternative subjectivity and bodies coalesce in a space of digital possibility. Online these bodies, otherwise unrealisable or dismissed, express corporeal experience and connect by compiling and sharing testimonies and images. The work levitates us into a sensual and yet non-physical space giving form to bodies and libidinal desires that are until that point unrealised. Sex and desire online is particularly auto-erotic and Rindon Johnson, like Crespo, shows the blurry intimacy between self and other, and self and self.

So beyond the body we have imagined many futures. The liberatory future-making mission of thinkers like Donna Haraway dismiss the essence and stability of the body through a feminist and decolonial method; the patriarchal hierarchy of self and culture [man] above Other and nature [woman, colonised] is dismantled by a cyborgian union of human, animal, machine and matter. And yet it is unambiguously evident today, in the present that always exists just prior to any future-making, that the material experience of some people remains violent. The ways are innumerable; locally we see these experiences in the carceral impulse of Australia’s refugee policy, the selective amnesia of Indigenous histories, the refusal of queer autonomies.

Clearly there is a gap between discursivity and practice that haunts the relationship between art and politics. It is no more apparent in our experience of and anticipations of the body.

‘Every form of subjectivity is also a form of exclusion and coercion’,2 writes Michelle Kuo, since identity is imposed from all directions and is as relational as it is personal. The body comes into contact with the collective, a contact which creates identity. And so identity politics, is just that: politics, polis, the collective. If we are to avoid stratification and hierarchy, dissensus must be the mode (rather than political consensus) which in a necessarily uncomfortable field of difference, refuses the policing of identity categories:

But all that’s special about this or that exclusion is the refusal of this or that exclusion. If the notion that this or that modality of suffering is special requires disavowing the intensity of the entanglement of privilege and precarity (when that entanglement is so crucial to our necessary comportment toward the open end of world and time), then special needs to get let go in a continual enactment of that ceremony we keep finding, were being singular plural is dispossessed in a plain of sēms.3

So knowing acutely that bodies are subject to the experience of actuality, and also that we must continually move beyond the yoke of that actuality; we are in search of what Rosi Braidotti calls the ‘body [that] is a surface of intensities and an affective field in interaction with others […] Feminist emphasis on embodiment goes hand-in-hand with a radical rejection of essentialism’.4 Her feminist methodology requires us to situate any inquiry in lived experience. The agency and potential, beyond the boundaries of the human body, is enacted through an intricate overlapping of the in-human − machine, animal, organism, fossil; a body overflowing its borders in a constant metamorphosis. Open-ended, interrelational, multi-sexed and trans-species interact with others exploding the boundaries of the human body. This trans-subjectivity is a nexus between the physical, the symbolic, and the sociological. Its promise and potential is not bound by categories of gender, race, sexuality or class, nor by fixed conceptual divisions between animal and human; human and machine. Rather the body is in an endless process of becoming.