Week 38 – Josh Wright and Guillaume Vandame – 21-27 September

photo by steph wilsonIt is not emptying your mind. The instructor explains to the class,

Meditation has got nothing to do with blanking your mind. My favourite quote on yoga is “If you want your mind to go blank, get your best friend to give you a healthy blow on the head.”

Oh God, but my mind is blank. Should it not be? Think about things. Concentrate. I mean, meditate. So it’s not just emptying your mind then?

You wouldn’t want to encourage your mind to be blank, because your mind is designed in a way that is supposed to connect you with the world around you. So why would you ask your heart to stop beating, why would you ask your digestive system to stop working?

CQAqK9TWIAAvx5oDidn’t Houdini slow his heart down or his breathing so he could escape from padlocks under water? No matter. Some gentle stretches. She asks us to move our hands in front of us, and to project an imaginary ball of light in our hands. Oh wow! I can see it, right there in my hands, a big imaginary ball of love or cosmic libido. My body and I are one! Meditating is pretty far out.

We are going to be practicing slow movement, controlled movement, to match our breath, so that our awareness can follow.

I like the stretches and the breathing and the ball of light, and the lying down. I could lie down all day, all night even, just breathing. She tells us to touch one nostril with your thumb and the other with your finger and breathe in through the left nostril and out through the right. But I can’t. I can’t breathe through my nose. This is agony. This is excruciating. I have never been so frustrated. This is not relaxing. Meditation is sheer hell.

What we are trying to achieve through meditation, a sense of stillness, a sense of peace, tap into that sense of stillness and peace within us, something that you carry with you all the time wherever you go.

Seriously, how do they get away with it, the Bedroom Tax and the Welfare Bill, the death of Bdehoobby Sands and parking tickets. I definitely did not ask to be born. This is cruel. My body has dissolved into feelings. At that moment I notice that the ball of light in my hands is a horrendous flaming ball of pure hate.

We are not looking for achieving something unattainable, we are tapping into something that is within – sense of stillness, sense of peace, sense that everything is well.

Everything is not well. The meditation session was not cathartic. After it’s over the guy next to me says, with a bovine docility, that he found it peaceful. In my mind a menagerie of Boschian monsters commit grave acts of bestial cruelty to each other in a landscape of flames and death.

In case you came here with the expectation of blanking your mind, it is not what we are looking for.

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fig-2_38_50_14In Week 38 of Fig-2 Josh Wright and Guillaume Vandame turned the ICA studio space into a participatory art gym. The idea was to invite artists as well as exercise instructors, and encourage people to try new things and to promote healthy living as opposed to the impossible ideals of body image, with a social platform to discuss issues inspired by Marjolijn Dijkman’s Salon sessions held in Week 22 of Fig-2 which used the space as an open forum for discussion.

fig-2_38_50_15During the week there were sessions of Pilates, Zumba, Chi Kung, meditation, and eight types of yoga- Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hatha, Meditation, Yin, Dru, as well as the mysterious “Everlasting Yoga” sessions run by artist Karimah Ashadu, the movement and meditation session that so severely stressed me out, and VOGA, an ungodly but logical mashup of Yoga and Voguing, the ‘strike a pose’ semi-static dance style that Madonna stole off the New York gay scene; logical because yoga is also a kind of semi-static dance of held poses, and ungodly because oh God just Madonna.

victoria-beckham_784x0[1]Vandame and Wright are strongly influenced by Vanessa Beecroft, and their week was in a sense an application of her sculptural use of actual human bodies. The participants in the classes become part of the human sculpture, as well as integral to what are in effect participatory performances. Guillaume says “the classes work within this framework about body image, gender, sexuality, etc. but are also much about chance encounters and possibility — what can happen in these situations and questioning expectations of both performance art and traditional exercise classes.”

TeaserFB-IMAGEIn the sessions from three invited artists, the idea of a performance and exercise class as participatory performance were mixed up so an exercise class that is instructive becomes a participatory art event. Visitors are in a sense objectified, becoming sculptures within the installation. Objectification is a dangerous subject, beginning with how people are perceived and then defined and then repressed according to single objectified aspects of the their sex, gender, race, culture. Tellingly, the doors to the space stayed open, to foreground the aim of inclusivity. So the show’s repurposing of objectification takes issues or representation of the female body as a starting point and extends it to issues of race, sexuality, and so on through the whole list of ‘Tory low priorities’. It addresses perceived alienating effects of performance art (and indeed exercise) by inviting people into the performance.

what-happens-when-a-turner-prize-nominated-artist-leads-an-insanity-workout-body-image-1443199006Zing Tsjeng has written in Vice about “This is insanity!” the class/art performance led by Turner nominee Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, giving such a vivid and amazing account that it made me wonder if I was even at the same event.

INSANITY® is a provocatively competitive workout – the hardest ever! says the promo material. Chetwynd explained the hideous beast and took the class through some of its moves. It involves high-intensity one-minute bursts of strenuous activity (we did thirty seconds) followed by relative chill. This I guess means the body can’t become adjusted to either, which makes it work harder. It’s obviously stupid, but I suppose some idiots want to give themselves heart attacks.

adhamAdham Faramawy’s “Post Rave Sweat Fatigue Workshop” was a high-intensity session combining the dance moves of rave with standard aerobics. I enjoyed this very much, but it’s hard to dance. An hour of rave anthems was pretty tiring. How the hell did we do this all night long in the nineties? Oh, drugs. Drugs were pretty good, right? I’m glad we got those tattoos.

tumblr_l8brdwNFqL1qdazefo1_500[1]High-intensity exercise is one thing, but nothing compared to what artists and bodybuilders have put themselves through. Francesca Steele is a kind of case study for pushing the limits of body modification as both an art and personal project. She was featured in the Superhuman exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, a show about body modification, and in the first salon discussion session at Fig-2 she spoke about her lifestyle and being a bodybuilder as an art project she did in 2008, physically changing her body and how that changed her identity, particularly regarding gender. Her diet was so rigorous and extreme, full of eggs and spinach and drugs, that upon being invited to dinner with art legend Marina Abramovic she declined because she didn’t want to deviate from her diet. It caused such a personal strain to the extent that she ended up divorced from her husband.

Screenshot 2015-10-05 21.46.42At the second salon session Fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek theorized that the week invites a “critical framework” in which we discuss what forces are at play in “subjectivity and socially engaged art, how we define what is a healthy body and how art deals with this modern subject”. The mirrors along the side of the ‘gym’ were intentionally fragmented, as a visual comment on body image, which was pretty neat.

Developing this theme, three TVs showed one-hour edits of exercise and dance routines taken from movies and videos from the 1970s-80s. Guillaume explains “The exercise videos formally deal more with wider issues of representation and identity in terms of nationality and race — how these identities are constructed and formed across various cultures at various points in time. As well the issues of beauty, normality and difference on display – what it means to be masculine or feminine or the assumption that the individuals are heterosexual because they conform to a heteronormative ideology/society.”

That sounds very theory heavy, but it really resonates. I’ve always had a problem with these kinds of videos. They’re just so sexy. I can’t desexualise them, if anyone can. Can you? The lines of the body, particularly the crotch, are emphasised by the tight-fitting lycra gymwear. It brings out my inner prude. It’s something about the screen, whereas in real life nothing is at all sexy. Rhythmic movements of the pelvis are inherently embarrassing.

toolsAppropriately, therefore, one sculptural aspect of the show was along one wall tools wrapped in lycra. Tools, wrapped in lycra. But seriously, ahem, it’s emblematic of the show’s mixing up of high and low culture to present the hard utilitarian teleology of hammers and saws wrapped up in the soft gaudy kitsch of spandex.

hannah_omshanti_20secsThe classes and events I went to over the week involved me in physical activities that were well out of my comfort zone. What you’re reading now is in a sense a sequel to my piece for Week 27 of Fig-2 in which I dwelt on the chance encounter of my misanthropy and self-hatred with the spiritual and physical rhapsodies of Kundalini Yoga. With hilarious consequences, of course.

I do have a cosmic streak, so I wondered if my broadly positive reaction to Kundalini was more about that rather than the exercise side, and whether Week 38 would answer this. In the case of me getting so stressed out in the meditation class, clearly not.

CPtKVwsXAAA4XVSThe yoga session on Sunday morning was a classic straight-man funny-man double act with Josh (literally straight) performing standard yoga moves, while Guillaume (literally funny) plugged into his iPod and singing along to a playlist of pop songs themed around breathing. The Daniel Johnston-like tuneless strangling of Taylor Swift and Sting was a disruptive art intervention into yoga. It actually made it easier for me to concentrate on the yoga; a sort of focusing distraction. I’m the sort of ADHD guy who generally has two TVs and a radio on while I’m writing while I’m driving while I’m on the tube while I’m on the phone, masturbating and making charcoal sketches.  

File 04-10-2015, 21 03 08The session was nothing like my previous yoga session. It definitely felt like art, art as sustained wind-up, the neo-Dadaism of Fluxus and Naim June Paik. One of the other participants was sustainedly wound up and began ignoring Josh and performing her own yoga shapes, before finally leaving the room for a few minutes, then returning, resuming her own thing, and finally getting so frustrated with Guillaume’s off-key singing that she exploded “Shut up!

In the process of turning the studio space into an ‘art gym’ one of the interesting references that came up in the salons was to Marc Augé’s concept of ‘non-places’, those liminal spaces that are both or neither somewhere or nowhere – airports, shopping malls, motorways, supermarkets – and, why not, the gym. “The art of supermarkets, convenience stores, and so on have been explored,” Guillaume says, “but no one’s really explored the art of going to the gym. There have been references to the body throughout modern art and art history, but this context especially is unique.”

timthumb.php_1[1]In Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity Marc Augé draws a distinction between “anthropological places” formed by social bonds and collective history, and “non-places” of atomized, individual travel and consumption: “If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” (p63).

CMI2LGAVAAASOZM“Clearly the word ‘non-place’ designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have with these spaces […] As anthropological places create the organically social, so non-places create solitary contractuality. Try to imagine a Durkheimian analysis of a transit lounge at Roissy!” (p76)

It is not that the gym does not have a culture or that it’s not concerned with identity. For many the gym is active in the development and expression of their identity. It’s a hot-house for growing bodies. However, that phrase “solitary contractuality” crashes down upon it. Most people in the gym are alone. Nobody talks to each other, or exchanges are limited to a few technical reflections on abs or nutrition. It’s like being on the tube, another arena within which one is profoundly solitary not least because one is crammed into a tin with countless other people, none of whom you may interact with, not in conversation, not even making eye contact.

spaceGyms can be sterile, dehumanized environments that can be alienating or estranging, fuelling the suspicion of the exercise shy that it’s not for us, or that it’s for someone else, a body of people from which we are excluded just as ‘homeless spikes’ are not intended to promote a nicer society. “The non-place is the opposite of Utopia: it exists, and it does not contain any organic society.” (p90).

CP6SbfkWUAAzBHySolitary contractuality even extends to communal activities: exercise classes such as yoga or aerobics. Everyone is performing the same acts together, but all mediated through the class leader and each without reference to any other person in the room. It’s not a band, where if the drums stop you’ll notice, it’s not even like an orchestra where you could afford to have a few viola players pass out before anyone noticed anything was up. In these classes you are completely interchangeable, not even a cog in a machine for generating exercise, and if the gym is a non-place, then in the gym class you’re a non-person.

2000px-RegisteredTM.svg[1]I was surprised but not surprised to learn that Zumba® is a registered trademark. So is INSANITY®. I have kind of respect for the holistic integrity of Kundalini Yoga but you do have to wonder if the highly invented and marketed Zumba – never mentioned without its ® – isn’t blatantly like the Scientology of exercise regimes. It’s a huge turnoff, that ®, a reminder of the strongly capitalistic impetus of exercise regimes. That your body is a product that you sell to make you a better machine to generate revenue for the capitalist machine.

61b5ee51cbea456667138efaa4892292.image.435x431[1]By reclaiming the gym in an art context, Vandame and Wright perhaps suggested some ways in which we can go beyond the depressing eighties elements of exercise culture and really grow ourselves.

What I’d like to see is more of these free outdoor gyms. I walk past one in Anerley several times a week, and always think that’s bloody brilliant that is. Obviously I’m too lazy to actually use it, but I’d like to see these things everywhere, because proper gyms are expensive and terrifying. There is a massive moral panic about the burgeoning obesity crisis, so why don’t we build public gyms? Healthy living shouldn’t just be the preserve of the middle classes and the rich.

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Week 12 – Tom McCarthy – 23-29 March – Satin Island

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Present: Tom McCarthy (author, installation artist), Fatoş Üstek (curator, mathematician), Clémentine Deliss (curator, researcher), Alfie Spencer (Flamingo Group Head of Semiotics), Mark Blacklock (author)

Apologies: Claude Levi-Strauss (anthropologist), Levi Strauss (businessman), Bronisław Malinowski (anthropologist), Guy Debord (situationist), Paul Rabinow (anthropologist of “the contemporary”), Alain Badiou (thinker), Roland Barthes (semiotician), Jacques Derrida (deconstructionist), Douglas B. Holt (author on brands), Daniel Defoe (novelist)

  1. The Book

I find myself in the position of the narrator, U, in Tom McCarthy’s book Satin Island, surrounded by screens and data, trying to synthesise raw unconnected toomuchinformation into narratives. There are four elements: the Show, the Book, the Think Tank, the Company Report, and the Interview. There are five elements.

Satin Island is “a book about the general impossibility of writing a book about the general impossibility of etc.” U (a poor man’s Ulrich from Musil’s Man Without Qualities) is a corporate anthropologist who has been tasked with creating The Great Report, “the First and Last Word on our age.” To this end, he scrolls through countless images, circling around various obessions: oil spills, cargo cults, ethnographic objects, critical theory, the transport system in Lagos, the mysterious death of parachutists. Like Shakespeare’s Autolycus he is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. The book documents these obsessions but can’t unify them.

ACTION: The reader will consider whether the artistic success of the book at representing (even dramatising) the unassailable rag-bag nature of information/knowledge while revelling in curious and interesting detail, is achieved at the cost of the literary failure of the book, inasmuch as we are given a plotless novel with no proper characters or satisfying meaning. What are novels for, anyway?

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  1. The Show

I wondered if it was just a marketing exercise, turning the book into an installation and having the whole text read aloud (flatly as a “Company Report”). It turns out that Tom McCarthy is no stranger to the gallery space, and the book itself grew out of a 2010 residency projecting oil spills. In Satin Island, U creates vast dossiers from unrelated material, sticking them up on the walls of the offices of the Company and trying to find connections, like Beuys diagrams, or Benjamin’s Constellating Dots. Stage designer Laura Hopkins designed the space, littering it with U and McCarthy’s source texts, images and scrawled connections. It was an effective representation of the book, maybe with a cheeky viral bit of marketing thrown in.

ACTION: The reader will consider whether in fact all the work that takes place in any gallery space is in fact just a marketing exercise, and ask whether what is being sold is an idea, or the work, or the career of the creator of the work.

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  1. The Think Tank

The Think Tank aimed to trace anthropology through corporate culture and literature through a ‘brain-storming session’ that was actually somewhere between a lecture and a seminar. A “golden triangle” was postulated combining literature, corporate culture, and anthropology. This was an exposition of the book, but interesting in itself as an interrogation of meaning-making and information gathering in several different spheres. Fatoş Üstek (who as an undergraduate studied topology) mind-mapped the event on a huge wall mirror, “curating in a semantic sense”.

Clementine Deliss (curator, researcher, publisher) discussed anthropology and ethnography, and asked probing questions about the impulses of ethnographers and museums. The anthropologist is a ‘bug chaser’ a collector writing everything down in detail, but Levi-Strauss himself advised that we should forget objects and study culture and behaviour: the oilspill of modernity.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider what is the nature of hoarding, classification and acquisition, and whether it can be subversive when there is also immaterial culture. If authenticity refers to a local identifiable product of one culture, how do we refigure authenticity in the context of globalisation?

Alfie Spencer (the amusingly titled Head of Semiotics at the Flamingo Group) presented a theory of branding in relation to the meaning-making. Beginning with his self-definition “I brand (verb) the way an author says ‘I observe, I interpret’” and that his position (which is analogous to the central character of Satin Island) is at an intersection between production, commerce/business and capitalism. He helps corporations make money by analyzing what it is to brand versus write versus interpret. There is a confrontation between how objects resist language and can be made to ‘speak’ via branding. Writing remakes, interpretation asks what it can do within a form of life, and branding makes a future for it. In this sense, branding is a process of closure, whereas writing is open.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider whether writing would love to be branding, whether interpretation lusts after branding’s finality, and to consider this in relation to a novel whose open form resists closure, and further to consider whether the ambition of branding is the same as that of propaganda, and whether Alfie Spencer is therefore a tool of The Company, a footman for the Ruling Class Apparatus, forcing final forms on us.

Mark Blacklock offered up literature as a site for “speculative anthropology” and discussed Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe is a corporatist, a bookkeeper, reducing everything to information, just like U in Satin Island. Information gathering becomes the central theme of Defoe’s novel too, which is also tied to the acquisitive research methods of ethnographers in putting together collections of objects that create narratives about societies.

ACTION: The reader is invited to consider whether to answer Blacklock’s call for “an anthropology of solitude” with regard to Robinson Crusoe, bearing in mind Alix Mortimer’s priceless tweet: “To get your New Paradigm name, take your real name and put An Anthropology of… in front of it”

Mark Blocklock also reported that “Robinson Crusoe spends three years using his craft to craft a craft – a boat – which when finished can’t be moved, so it becomes a sculpture.” I love this in and of itself, but this is also a teleological point that reminds me of one of the paradoxes of ethnographic objects: that whatever their original purpose was, once they are put on display they become art objects.

ACTION: The reader is further asked to consider whether this pipe is or is not a pipe.

  1. The Company Report

The reading of the complete book out loud was a homage to On Kawara’s One Million Years, in which huge ledgers filled with all of the dates from a million years ago to a million in the future are read slowly and neutrally, monotonously. Perhaps McCarthy intended this to draw attention to the contrast between vast empty timescales and the overwhelmingly data rich present.

ACTION: The reader will consider the meaning of alluding to On Kawara in the performance of Satin Island being read out loud in the style of a ‘company report’ and whether this is a comment on timescales or the sheer implacableness of data.

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  1. The Interview

The author Tom McCarthy claims that authors are byproducts, that to think the author is the source of meaning is like saying a plastic bottle is the source of the water it contains: it’s a straight-up category error. The author is a byproduct of literature. There are author patches swirling around the Pacific Ocean as we speak, redundantly and useless. Yes, meaning is a bundle of relations that goes back centuries and forward too, but in Barthes’s seminal essay he announced the death of the author and even now people act as if it never happened. What digital culture pushes to the forefront is not even the death of the author or even the redundancy of an act of writing, but the question of which routes to pursue, the methodology of navigation. This is what the Situationists were asking; they saw things as simple as walking the ‘wrong way’ round Paris as an act of resistance and as an artistic practice. Not for nothing does the book Satin Island share the same initials as Situationist International.

ACTION: The reader is called upon to consider what writing is, and what writing would be if everything is already written. How can we understand a writing or literature that would operate differently? Can we imagine a form of writing as resistance to grand narratives, devoted to opening up ambiguities?

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider whether Tom McCarthy is a byproduct.

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  1. Any Other Business

Grand narratives are back. Okay so there’s no codex unlocking the master meaning of the age, but there is a master programme, and it is being administered by Apple and Google. The Company. The Corporation, Leviathon, processing vast amounts of data. Every keystroke is sold to the NSA. Apple’s locked-down battery-flattening PC-poisoning products now fill me with as much dread as the horrific self-belming output of Microsoft, the tech equivalent of those dreadful Hollywood movies that are obviously stamped out by committees rather than creatives. Is Google’s motto still “Don’t be evil”? I can’t even remember.

The world is literally being remade: the Universal Texture is a rather terrifyingly named Google patent for mapping textures onto a 3D model of the entire globe. Sometimes this goes wrong, and for a moment the workings of the Universal Texture are exposed, and it’s like being Neo seeing the Matrix, or a glimpse of the Mind of God. Clement Valla has a wonderful project documenting examples of these surreal/cubist mistakes in Google Earth when large structures are reconstructed wrongly.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider the question “Who might inhabit these landscapes?”

How do the totalising corporations get away with it? Satin Island’s Koob-Sassen Project is explained away thus: “It is… a pretty boring subject. Don’t get me wrong: the Project was important. It will have had direct effects on you: in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it is secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring.”

In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King we also learn about the efficacy of ennui to make invisible, to stifle politics: “The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull. […] The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting. People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it.” (85)

U’s relationship to media is almost gnostic, pursuing a deep secret that is forever elusive, a Godhead beyond the veil. It is fundamentally a literary relation. The whole world is an encrypted text. McCarthy notes that we can trace this back to a theological impulse – the world was a script for god. Not to mention structuralists, and he notes that Walter Benjamin’s and Jacques Derrida’s epistemologies come out of Jewish mysticism. Digital figurations are fascinating but not categorically new.

ACTION: The reader is thanked for reading, and invited to have a lovely day. Do comment!

Date of next meeting: Wednesday 22 April, London Review Bookshop, Tom McCarthy in conversation with Nick Lezard

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