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 9 – Deborah Coughlin with Gaggle – 2-8 March

This week in Kabul, Afghan artist Kubra Khademi was forced into hiding after publicly wearing a metal suit featuring exaggerated breasts and buttocks. The suit was so designed because “this is all that men see of women”, to highlight the sexual harassment of women. After only eight minutes a mob of men shut her down.  On the 20th anniversary year of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality, a new United Nations report finds that violence against women around the world “persists at alarmingly high levels.”

On Sunday 8 March civilization celebrated International Women’s Day while a depressingly familiar male sub-class complained about it. Sunday was also the last day of fig-2 Week 9, in which Deborah Coughlin with Gaggle (her all-female experimental choir and performance group founded in 2009) presented Yap! Yap! Yap! — “a celebration of women’s voices. Uncovering the great things that women have said throughout history and also saying new things, now, very loudly, with a roster of incredibly special guests. It’s like the Vagina Monologues only not just about fannies.”

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In the same week that Gaggle were in residence at fig-2 I went to a number of different shows that made me aware of the diversity of approaches within fine art and performance that are concerned with gender, or explicitly feminist in theme or intent, or that made me think about the unprecedented number of female artists working today in the UK.

Are there more women involved in and interested in fine art than ever before? The group show Eccentric Spaces (selections from Deptford’s Bearspace Gallery, curated by FutureCity, exhibited at Foyles) featured eight women to four men. Similar ratios seem to apply with the artists chosen for fig-2, and at the Eccentric Spaces private view (perhaps the Yap! Yap! Yap! opening too) there were more women than men.

I suspect that it is the case that at a lower profile women abound but as you go higher up the women disappear, and men predominate. There are some Emins but few. There is a similar case with acting, I believe, with many female actors and few female roles, and I see it in science with many female postgraduates but few female professors. This might chime with examples we find in sociology of the feminization of the workplace in which initially spaces such as the workplace (or by extension fine art practice) are proletarianised at a low level and the work devalued; following on from this devaluation women are suddenly allowed to permeate. I cross my fingers that this analysis is just me being cynical, and that the increased numbers of women creating work at this level will be replicated in time higher up.

One theme that seemed to predominate in the shows I went to this week was space, and spaces, in which women in particular can be, perform, and collaboratively imagine new worlds.

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The Eccentric Spaces show seemed to take off from architectural imaginings of space. Similarly, at Mirrorcity at the Southbank in December 2014, Tai Shani’s Dark Continent was an installation and three-part performance taking the structure of an allegorical city of women, exploring feminine subjectivity and experience, complete with a commissioned theme song.

Best of all though, in the same week as Gaggle, was Fannying On, a weekend of installation and collaboration in a reclaimed office space off Chancery Lane. Kayleigh O’Keefe has founded an imaginary country called Gash Land (of which I am a Citizen – apply here!), or imaginary cuntry, that is also a real ongoing collaboratively generated art project, a “Utopian Cunt Wonderland”. Fannying On included Psychedelic Menstrual Huts (where men can learn about what it’s like) and a strongly in-your-face emphasis on female physicality, which, in keeping with the prevailing paradigm of inclusivity, was welcoming of everyone. Radical feminism’s ‘Angry Snatch’ has become the ‘Laughing Gash’. Kayleigh O’Keefe’s videos about flab, fisting, big labia, queefing, pissjaculation, and menstruation, are hilarious. And very NSFW.

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What Gash Land, Dark Continent, Eccentric Spaces, Yap! Yap! Yap! have in common is a concern with creating new spaces for female engagement. This relates back to Woolf’s ‘Room of One’s Own’ and female self-determination, and forward to the notion of ‘safe-space’ where gender and sexuality can be freely expressed, but also has a uniquely modern performative element that spins metaphor into reality without ever losing its ideality or its applied real world seriousness: it is ideally political.

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This duality was well captured by Deborah Coughlin. Over the week the ICA studio space was used to create a “collage of pop and ideas, great nobodies and brilliant nobodies, clever words and weird noise” with performances and installations. When I arrived for the opening night the space felt the most excitement I’d experienced there yet. The bulbs had all been changed to pink and green, and the space very quickly filled up with people (a queue remained all the way up the ramp until the end). On the walls were quotes from feminist writers from Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf to Andrea Dworkin and bell hooks. Speakers blasted riotgrrl bands and anthems, such as the Raincoats’ version of the Kinks’ classic transgender anthem Lola. A drum kit had been set up, and mini stages made ready for the twenty-piece choral force of Gaggle.

It felt like something subversive could actually happen in a gallery space, which was unusual. Perhaps it was the club vibe and my age, or the effects of the free gin cocktail, which this week was called LADY PETROL, and which was INSANE (it involved triple sec, angostura bitters, London dry gin, lemon peel, and, for all I know, petrol).

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Across the space the imagery had a hipstery edge to it, garish and a bit gross, familiar from the look pioneered by political-conceptual-theoretical-performative-musical duo The Knife, who must be a touchstone in the intellectual background to Gaggle. The open-mouthed motif that was scattered around Yap! Yap! Yap! is familiar as the Rolling Stones logo from when they had some counter-cultural cachet, as well as having been co-opted by the 1980s kids TV programme ‘Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It’ and is broadly symbolic of freedom of expression and the rebellious speech act.  The hooded members of Gaggle rolled in wearing thick black lip makeup that seemed a defiant reclamation of makeup and dress from traditional uses of these to service and please the male gaze.

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Between the Gaggle choir’s songs, Ruth Barnes introduced readings. Charlotte Church read from Mary Wollstonecraft a passage part of which was excerpted on the wall: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces.” Paula Varjack read from Virginia Woolf’s essay in which Woolf discusses ‘killing the Angel in the House,’ that tormenting self-sacrificing phantom coming between her and her writing.

Ama Josephine Budge and Dana Jade performed two recent dialogues between transfemale actor Laverne Cox and feminist thinker bell hooks, discussing “liberatory images” in the Normativeheteronormativeimperialistwhitesupremacistcapitalistpatriarchy and whether Beyoncé is a feminist; and the notion of ‘safe space versus risk’ in terms of (trans)gender and love.

Wollstonecraft and Woolf are both pioneering figures of First-wave Feminism, which is concerned with the basic emancipation of women, while Cox and hooks’ concerns are more those of Third-wave Feminism’s focus on queer theory and ethnic experience.

In Week 5 of fig-2, Rebecca Birch’s ‘Lichen hunting in the Hebrides’ studied a women’s community choir who preserve Gaelic women’s work songs. In Week 6 Young In Hong’s ‘In Her Dream’ referenced Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), a classic work of rediscovery of female artists from history. Such acts of rediscovery of historical female figures and practices are familiar as a process of late Second-wave Feminism.

While Young In Hong used these references, the work itself centred on a more third-wavy exploration of the intersection between Western and Korean female experience. Similarly, Deborah Coughlin’s work Yap! Yap! Yap! seems to telescope generations of feminist thought, but with an emphasis on the performative, the socially constructed nature of women through images, that is associated with postmodern feminism, such as you find in the work of Cindy Sherman, where female images are deconstructed but there is also a certain joy in ‘dress-up’.

Too many isms? Too much theory? Near the gin, across one wall the following lines were painted up:

Timing…
When can I stop
on the wave?
Different place might
be the right time

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Overly rigid historically overdetermined delineations of feminism in the arts, such as I’ve employed in separating various impulses out into First-, Second-, Third-wave and Postmodernism Feminisms, don’t seem as helpful as they have been in the past. Structuring the discourse may have hardened it. Perhaps we are moving into a different place, a new space, a kind of feminism in art that includes all the best of the previous waves: emancipatory, historical, multicultural, queer, militant, dadaist, absurd, imaginary, real… This would make it a more postmodern (that is, decentred) kind of feminism than postmodern feminism itself, but with a renewed militancy. Fourth wave feminism? Post-wave feminism?

On another wall, Coughlin spelled it out:

Speeches

Past – forensic
Present – ceremonial
Future – political

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The struggle for equality varies wildly across the world, and we can’t describe one simultaneous female experience, other than a broad inequality with men, which is still a universal truth.  Much of the Middle East area still practices sexual apartheid in 2015, which means that feminism occupies a complex position there, directly suppressed but also, where possible, informed by conceptual advances imported from places where human rights have made greater advances, or where they have not been pushed back to the middle ages.

In certain areas, what this simultaneity of intellectual experience and disparity of political position between women across the globe means is that in some places feminist activity and activism has skipped a few steps; if you can imagine the Suffragettes in England over a century ago employing the imagery and means of Pussy Riot. Perhaps the next steps in developing feminism in the arts are characterised by not just the Third-wave’s “ceremonial” inclusiveness and congruence with respect to gender and ethnicity, but also to the First- and Second-wave’s “forensic” means, theories and strategies we employ to move humankind forward: perhaps even, however problematically, a new “political” unifying feminist modernism.

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The last word goes to Ruth Barnes: “Let’s have a dance — set yourselves free!”

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POSTSCRIPT: One of the Gaggle opening evening’s special guests, Dana Jade, is the founder of Clit Rock, created to raise awareness and funds to combat FGM. The next fundraiser is on March 27.