Composition: Skin Has Two Sides
by Adriana Disman
Whose body is this?
“This is my performance,” I singsong quaver. Again and again. Returning to this tune throughout the whole performance, like a bridge or echo between other things. This is my performance. The line born from a desire to feel as much. Chuckling to myself about its ambivalent performativity: in the saying of it, it is so. And, it is also not. This is my performance … these kinds of things can’t be only mine or yours; they’re just as co-constituted as me is. Toward the end, the audience follows me outside of the Calgary theatre. I’ve somehow talked the staff into letting me use the big digital marquee out front. Its red letters are on, running dog-chasing-its-tail laps: WHOSE BODY IS THIS? WHOSE BODY IS THIS? WHOSE BODY IS THIS? As I stand under it — the big cold chatty giggly staring audience across the street watching me — some bro’s voice cracks out of a way-too-big car driving past: WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO?
I look at him, deadpan, as the traffic lights change, then yell: THIS IS MY PERFORMANCE. WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU TAKING UP SPACE?! Everyone on the other side laughs. People love it. It becomes a running gag with the pitch perfect punchline. People talk about that moment months later. It was, to me, the most impotent moment of the piece.
I try to always make agreements beforehand with the photographers and videographers who document my work. This is sometimes difficult in that it’s unusual and things in performance art are often last-minute and thrown together and shit falls through the cracks. But, when I can, I propose that in the instance that I were to sell a photo, they’d get a small percentage of the sale on top of their fee—something like 4 percent, a number originally suggested by an experienced performance documentarian. I’m not sure if I think it is fair to offer such a small percentage but I don’t have anything to sell beyond my live body. I’ve never sold a photograph, it’s just some weird art-world idea I got told along the way and a piece of my fear-of-starving claw caught it. But we all know the money isn’t in performance art. It’s in porn.
Some years ago, I discovered that documentation photos of one of my performances had been appropriated by porn sites—along with some shots of Marina Abramović and Pipilotti Rist from when they were younger and naked-er— titled something like ADRIANA DISMAN BIG BUSH STARLETTE. I could only have the documentation removed by filing a copyright claim which I wrestled with myself over, not able to agree with any possible position provided. (In the end, the copyright claim didn’t do shit anyway.) I wondered if I should write to the other artists to let them know their work was there, just in case they didn’t.
The first and only time I met Marina Abramović, she asked what I did and when I said I was a performance artist, she took me by the shoulders and told me like a wise auntie: Document Everything. Later, I curated some great artists online in relation to a small-time DIY space. They made an endearing spoof of some Abramović-Ulay works with puppets and got slapped with a cease and desist letter from her French lawyers.
I looked around Montreal and realized that all my elders in performance art who are women — all of them — are either literally struggling for rent from month to month or married to rich men.
The “my” in “my performance” is not mine as in possession or individuation (as in, what’s mine is not yours, a reflex capitalism bred in), but a mine that means mutual difference entwined with respect; means my body is made of play; means my nipple hairs can do karaoke; means I am the sensation of almost falling; means that in performance I can tell you the stories that I can’t tell anyone because we are all no(t) one together. Means I can drop it quick and jump cut to the next thing:
I face a huge wall, nose to brick. And turn my head back and forth and back and forth and back and forth forever. Which ends when the skin on my nose goes raw enough to bleed and mark the wall. I thank them for witnessing and they clap.
Given the biopolitical organization of the body, liberation (an interdependent and as-yet-unknown state) is hard to imagine. We police ourselves. Power is diffuse and hard to expel because it is us. In our marrow, in the mirror, in our heads. To whom do the insides of this body belong? The physical interior? Do you feel you have a right to your blood, your gut, your bone? A doctor can cut you open but if you do, you’re sick.
Professional? Tick yes/no
Rojava, located in the northeastern part of Syria, is a de facto autonomous region that was declared as such by Kurdish revolutionaries in 2012. It runs through semi-direct democracy and focuses on gender equity and decentralized power. There, medical care is knowledge for everyone to take turns learning. In this way, medicine becomes accessible to all either through direct learning or through administration by others who have learned. It does not become cut off from some (i.e. “professionalized”) because it is not based on information that only some can pay for.
Across the globe, historically and presently, vast numbers of colonized peoples are cut off from practicing their healing knowledges, which are violently extracted by colonial powers, packaged and sold as headache pills, plant fertilizer, powder for your morning green smoothie.
Women were (and are) called witches and their birth-related medicines privatized while they burned. Processes that now have us convinced we do not know our bodies.
Abortion access: the ultimate biopolitical crossroads between (racialized, classed and gendered) control and health care. Wombs are the most public of body parts. In the wake of Christian anti-abortion morality laws, my social media is filled with cute illustrated How Tos on abortive herbs that can
be administered at home. Maybe we’ve got this, I think. Maybe we just have to rebirth these knowledges through the internet.
Friends of mine lived in a direct-action anarchist home. They were taking care of one of their own who had decided to go cold turkey. They were taking things in shifts, caring for him, walking through this with him. They’ve got this, I think. They don’t need the state and it’s fucking beautiful and inspiring. But then he suddenly died. He fucking died in their home on their watch in their hands. I can see in their eyes that they will never be over that. Something broke, splintered. And it makes me scared that we will never be free of the organizing power of private medicine.
The correct use of the term “gaslighting”
The only time I’ve felt genuinely suicidal as an adult was when I sought the help of a doctor. He dedicated himself, during two 15-minute monologues, to convincing me it was all in my head. We’d just met. No tests had been done. He kept repeating that with some patients it takes time for the penny to drop, but it always does in the end. My inner fairy gawdmother said to him: Look bitch, I’m from a place where pennies were cancelled years ago. If you’ve got money to throw around, by all means, toss it over here. But if you’re not dropping me some pennies then shut the fuck up and stop telling me what you feel as if it’s more fact than what I feel. My mouth said: Yes, I understand. Thank you for your thoughts. Scared he wouldn’t treat me anymore and that I’d go into an unwell period and wouldn’t have a GP, I shut up and summarized my findings into a new mantra: Depression is the New Hysteria.
In my earliest performance art works, I offered my body to be touched anywhere, be kissed, put needles through. I sat in silence, blindfolded, for long, long periods. People did different things to me. Now, I can’t help but hear the voices inside asking whether those performances were all just unwitting re-enactments of violence I’ve lived—psychology’s moth to a flame. Even though it never feels true, the voices have kept chorusing the question throughout a decade. Now I’m writing a book on how not to pathologize performance practices and I doubt even that will stop the voices. They’re deep in there.
I send my anarchist friends this text and they tell me his death didn’t break their fight but transformed it. Humbled them. Birthed an irreversible connection to the spiritual in their struggle. Connected their fight to the dead. Now, they strive harder because their work is extremely serious. Now, they know, it is life and death.