Editorial: Body Language
by Jac Renée Bruneau
Early in the autumn, we issued a rare call for pitches that didn’t lead with a theme, giving our communities and contributors a chance to have a say in shaping the next issue in a time of such trenchant irresolution. In response, we heard meditations on the rampant shift of the art world’s activities into online space; pained expressions of longing for IRL connection in the forms of exhibitions, openings, residencies, house parties, sex; ruminations on health and non-health of physical, mental, and psychic strains; and reflections on the now dramatically apparent reality that the self is an assemblage of continually unravelling experiences, many of which hinge on the involvement of others. Body language—that mysterious, intuitive social science and gestural repertoire that allows us to send and receive messages without words—in its straight-up definition, and in the more imaginative discursive possibilities it makes space for, seemed a fitting centre for these disparate parts whose tethers are perhaps only discernible in the light of our collective hindsight.
Dovetailing with our previous issue, “Gather,” which offered a multifaceted study on ideas around coming together, this issue brings focus to the idea of the individual as inextricable from the collective, conceiving of identity as accruing meaning, definition, and transformation through relationships, interactions, and impressions with others—in both physical and non-physical ways. While this effect of others on who we are is at once involuntary, in-built, and natural, the contributors to this issue make a strong case for the wilful porousness of the self as a way to shed toxic pasts, make stronger, stranger bonds, access experiential wealth, and, simply: survive.
In “‘Cells interlinked within cells interlinked’: On Ambivalent Contamination,” Alex Quicho reflects on the pandemic’s impact on our conceptions of intimacy and the erotic pulse that shoots through new negotiations of proximity, considering all the while the broader risks of our new-ish requirement (preference?) for distance. Flirting with the fine line between desire and disgust, she vouches for porousness as a methodology for relation—always, but especially in spite of our protracted hermetic conditions and the momentous exacerbation of societal inequities. “[P]orousness felt more grounded, more active, than simply being impressionable; a sponge, after all, is not fundamentally altered by any liquid that soaks it.” Through the work of Anicka Yi, Victoria Sin, Patrick Staff, and others, Quicho assembles a compelling and shape-shifting paradigm for practicing this sensibility. I can’t help but think of Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz’s invocation of Amador Fernández-Savater in her introduction to the “Health” installment of the Whitechapel Gallery’s Documents of Contemporary Art series; she writes that Fernández-Savater “tempts us to transform ourselves, create new logics, populating this ‘exception’ with our thoughts, affects and desires so we don’t merely become spectators or victims of this crisis: to ‘inhabit the exception so we don’t simply return to a ‘normality.’’” I think of this as a kind of bone-deep queer opportunism.
Harking to another wet metaphor (fitting in this age of droplets), Preston Pavlis discusses Shikeith’s “embrace of the spill.” Reckoning with his identity as a gay Black man who grew up Christian in America— with all the attendant ghosts in each faction of his being—the artist blurs possibilities for ecstasy, relief, and liberation that are available through them all, even when they might be seen to be at odds with each other. Shikeith convenes not only with the ghosts of his ancestors whose experiences he inherits, but with the whole living group of those possessed by the same osmotic forces. As he says, “To spill is to resist being constrained to boundaries, it is to take up the form of freedom. It is known as a failure or an accident, everything that people think is wrong. […] To spill is to point towards a sort of self-determination and a freeform way of being, way of existing.” This concept is in conversation with Anna Binta Diallo’s artist project, guest curated by Noor Bhangu; the collaged figures bookending the issue represent the latest iteration of the artist’s series Wanderings, which aims to tackle some of the shortcomings of identity politics by creating unexpected confluences of artefacts, references, and textures that angle toward more intercultural conver- sations. As Bhangu writes in her accompanying text, this “work embodies a move toward relationality that is vital for creating pathways to a less divided future. […] [T]here is a clear message that identity is not singular but dispersed.”
Diallo’s rhizomatic and sometimes even speculative triangulation of facets of certain histories, cultures, and belief systems with others—without concretizing the relationships she’s mapping out—primes the viewer for Isabel Lewis’s entry in this issue’s Composition column. Here, the artist and choreographer best known for her “hosted occasions,” which are lushly diffused gatherings that sensuously dismantle hard-coded sociality to see how we might find each other anew under other conditions, offers an invocation of something similar in text. At once a meditation, performance transcription, and reflection on the unique intersubjective exchange inherent between performer and viewer, Lewis makes yet another case for the unbounded self: “The constancy of your movement renders you uncapturable as an image. You are many-headed, many-limbed, and monstrous, desperately attractive to the eye which must engage differently to see you at all. […] This form of seeing is active, almost muscular; it can neither identify with nor plunge into the depth of a single image and so surrenders to immersion. In lieu of the possibility for sharp focus, in the ambiguity of blur, other sensual pleasures emerge.”
Speaking of such pleasures, the artist Dayna Danger, who is perhaps best known for their deployment of Métis and Anishinaabe material practices in creating BDSM implements (think: a handmade, intricately beaded black gimp mask), writes about bundles in our One Thing column. Comprising “precious and sacred medicines” both material and immaterial, a bundle is engaged in a reciprocal relationship with the person it belongs to—at once requiring care as well as generating it, as I understand. Danger generously details some of the contents of their bundle—“one braid of sweetgrass, Redbird matches in a Ziploc, empty pill bottles full of ground lavender and weekay, an abalone shell for burning medicine, red broadcloth, a leather-bound goose fan,” as well as numerous kink narratives— illuminating the range of influences that contribute to one’s central support system. Having been taught about bundles from their mother, and acknowledging the significant impact of finding and communing with other kinky BIPOC and Indigiqueer ancestors, Danger’s piece ends with a poetic, erotic offering to inspire the next generation of Two-Spirit folks: perhaps something to add to their bundles.
Lauren Fournier’s feature, “The (Im)possibility of Healing,” engages a long-standing, evolving conversation about healing, intercultural sharing, and inevitably, (mis)appropriation. The focus is on the work of the queer, Crip, Berlin-based, Canadian artist Lauryn Youden, whose most recent exhibition Visionary of Knives at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien brings together a substantial set of materials that she uses to treat her ails. Though the artist had intended to use the exhibition opportunity as a much-needed gathering space for the Sickness Affinity Group (SAG)—a collective of chronically ill and disabled artists, activists, theorists, and their allies who support each other—the pandemic obviously prevented that. And so, Youden’s project of making the space tangibly community-centric and polyvocal was challenged, forcing her to consider how else the multiple influences, sources, and collaborators in her care regime might be represented, thus coming up against some of the challenges of intercultural exchange that Diallo’s project earnestly lays the groundwork for without necessarily plumbing its depths.
Johanna Hedva, the artist, writer, musician, and astrologer, is perhaps best known for their searingly vital essay “Sick Woman Theory,” which articulates the complex paradox of wanting to congregate in the name of social resistance, but because of illness or disability, not being able to IRL, and so thinking about resistance as deeply embodied—sickness and protest as having this ouroboros relationship—and operating from that place. Here, in “Soft Blues,” they offer an autopathography of sorts, drawing thought-provoking parallels between symptoms of mania and those of toxic masculinity. As with many medical conditions, in mania, women and non-binary folks get the short end of the stick—being villainized for embodying the same characteristics that are lauded (or at least permitted) in bodies socially coded as male. In this text, there’s a sharp honouring of the fact that the body speaks for itself, that language arises from its chemistry, afflictions, experiences, and ways of knowing: notably, the text centres around the coinciding of the author’s first period of mania with an especially acute reckoning with their gender identity (italics indicate where the writer temporarily occupies a male subject position). In a non-linear mode, they meticulously stitch the personal into the social, the systemic, and the historical, concretizing that individual health issues are always but a thread in a wider web. Recalling Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of “the flesh of the world” and Karen Barad’s satisfyingly scientific shattering of the nature-culture binary in “Nature’s Queer Performativity” (2011), Hedva seems to ask: what is your body saying to you, and how do cultural norms colour your interpretations of those messages and shape how you act on them?
Theodore (ted) Kerr’s feature importantly links the ongoing history of HIV/AIDS to the latest pandemic, focusing on Oliver Husain and Kerstin Schroedinger’s ongoing project DNCB. The title is an acronym for dinitrochlorobenzene, a chemical created for use as a photochemical, but taken up in the ’80s and ’90s as an experimental topical treatment for AIDS, and/ or AIDS-related opportunistic infections. In the duo’s latest installment, a video work, bodies enact care on other bodies, applying a visual proxy for DNCB to each other’s skin and bandaging it up, all while a deep, thick club track throbs in the background. (I’m reminded here of Lewis’s summoning of “the beat of that pervasive bass, dragged out at 60 beats per minute, like the human heart during rest” and Shikeith’s conception of sweaty basement parties as sites of healing.) As Schroedinger explains, she and Husain sought “to diffuse the naturalness of skin as a sort of boundary of the individual subject (as if the body ends with the skin).” This uptake of porousness is not just physical, either; further solidifying threads of interdependence and entanglement that run through the issue, much of the duo’s project has been focused on connecting with queer folks who watched DNCB circulate in real time who, together, assemble a rich portrait of the wherewithal of a community alienated by government, press, corporations, and the medical establishment. Taking up Didier Fassin’s notion of the “embodied past,” Kerr writes that “no one can actually know something on their own, even as it relates to one’s own past. Information is not (just) content, it is also the result of collection and assemblage, which, when explored with others, can highlight the multiple stakes undergirding a life, a movement, or even a shared community ethic.”
By activating unexpected and familiar intersections between performance, disability, illness, queerness, community, intimacy, and eros, “Body Language” offers numerous channels through which to consider how subjectivity is being dramatically re/mediated and re/thought by current conditions, when we are at once more aware than ever of the microbiome that unites us (like it or not), and yet forcibly (and foreseeably) keeps us apart. In this issue as in the world, practices that destabilize the notion of a singular state of being—as in static, but also as in normative: healthy, productive, heterosexual, legible—critically inform, cohere with, and complicate new reflections on selfhood that are coming to bear. As Hedva writes: “Am I defined by the house I was born in? Or, can my definition come from how I’ve gotten lost?”