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 27 – July 6-12 – Karen Mirza – The Ectoplazm of Neoliberalism

“This is yoga. Lots of smart people do it instead of going to church.” – Stewie Griffin

Each Wednesday they announce the following week’s Fig-2 artist. Today they’ve announced that next week the ICA studio space is going to be given over to physical activities. Like zumba and yoga, and dancing. Sounds dreadful, I know. When I was at school the PE teachers gave up on me and just let me sit in the corner of the gym reading Ulysses. I used to go orienteering, which is running around a forest with a map and compass racing against other fans of sci-fi and fantasy, but even this physical activity counts against any claim I might have on any kind of sporty jock cachet.

Apart from a ten-kilometre ‘fun run’ I did two years ago I don’t get any exercise. I no longer go running. Seriously, I don’t even run for the bus. I didn’t do a stroke of training for the fun run and I did the run partly to raise money for charity but mainly just to be ironic. Several people refused to sponsor me because they didn’t believe for a second I was going to do it. But I done it, not only that but I dressed up as a fairy with wings and a pink codpiece. I even live-vlogged it as I done it, and I raised £240.

Fun. I started being physically sick after two kilometres and continued to chunder repeatedly while sweating out my whole pituitary gland for the next three kilometres. After that it was sort of okay. I finished within twenty-four hours and noone had to call out Mountain Rescue (the run (okay, jog, bit of walking too) was through central London).

I wouldn’t blame you if you were not entirely amazed, therefore, to learn that I have never participated in the activity known as yoga. Or rather, this was the case until Week 27 of Fig-2 when as part of her week at Fig-2 Karen Mirza organised a session of Kundalini Yoga. Of course I had to go along. Valerie Solanis said that a man will swim through an ocean of snot if he thinks there is a friendly pussy on the other side, but a writer will drink the same ocean of snot if they think there might be a good story at the end of the draught.

Fig-2 Week 27 was Karen Mirza’s first solo exhibition in two decades. I don’t mean she’d been coaxed out of retirement for one last mission like in a cop movie. She usually collaborates. In her Fig-2 interview with Fatoş Üstek she says her relationship with her collaborator is strong enough now that they can do their own things. That’s okay. In the film Coffee and Cigarettes Iggy Pop tells Tom Waits that ever since he quit smoking it’s you know okay and you know now he can smoke! Bam! No, I’m sure they’re fine.

The week was called “The Ectoplazm of Neoliberalism” and involved private and public conversations via astrology, occultism, radical politics and yoga. In this it bears a similarity of content to Suzanne Treister’s Week 14 in which we explored HEXEN 2.0’s cybernetic history of everything according to conceptual tarot cards. Similarly Karen Mirza employed a range of approaches to explore her themes: silkscreen print collages, collaboration, borrowings from the archive of the College of Psychic Studies, her own desk and using the space as an office, and of course the yoga session, which I’ll get to.

It was an interesting week but sadly I missed the crucial event for the last day, the “Workshop of Ideas” that would have explained everything about what was going on and what the “Ectoplazm of Neoliberalism” is all about. Karen Mirza says it will take her two years to unpack what happened during the week. But I don’t know what happened because I missed this bloody key workshop.

Why did I miss it? I was volunteering at a soup kitchen after driving a school bus full of orphans to a children’s opera. In which I was singing. To raise money for charity. In drag. Okay, I went on my friend’s stag do and got trashed on a canal-boat resulting in Sunday being devoted to a £90 hangover, if you know what I mean. I’m definitely too old for this stuff. Who gets married in their mid-thirties anyway? You should get it out of the way in your early twenties for the sake of the physical health of your mates.

I did make it to the yoga session on the Thursday though, remarkably. Remarkable not only because it was in the morning at some horrendous hour like nine after a boozy band rehearsal the night before, but because this was during a tube strike. A sign on the door said noone would be admitted after 9.15am. It was.. oh dear.. or was it? The door opened. I was in. For however briefly, I was now a yoga bear.

Siri Sadhana Kaur encourages others to experience themselves as joyful instruments of expression and transformation.”

Now, I am not naturally a joyful instrument of anything. When my batterie of phone alarms and clock radios prises open my eyes in the morning, I force them shut again for as long as I can take of Hell’s bells and overly entitled twats being twats on the Today programme. I get up with complete loathing of self and world to swallow the bitter dose of hemlock that is another day of the futile slow death that is existence. From that moment on it gets worse until I can take no more of it and go to work, where my brain is slowly petrified in ennui and incompetence until I can take no more of that either and go home, whereupon I drink a litre of whisky neat from a Doc Marten boot and take prescription drugs and crystal meth until I can’t feel my feelings any more and then I strangle myself with my own hands until I pass out, then next day when the Alarm Chorus goes off I do it all again. At weekends I do the same but in high heels.

“Come back to the breath, come back to your inner experience. Just listen to your breath. Kundalini yoga is not yoga without munthra (mind, cut across) – cutting across the frequency of our mind against those thoughts that block us. Munthra cuts through it and creates a different space.”

Yoga leader Siri Sadhana Kaur was leading a chant when I crept in to become the tenth yogist. I peeled off my skinny jeans, put on some baggy pants I’d borrowed from a competitive eater, and lay down on the floor. For the next three hours or days, Siri led us on a journey into our own mind-body, releasing mental and physical blocks with a combination of soft speaking, guitar, breathing exercises, lying down, and a massive gong.

“Through the repetition we don’t understand the world, it takes us out of the logical explanation of things, puts us into a different space. Training the mind to come into a different frequency rather than did I do the washing how was the traffic this morning. The invitation right now coming into a place, the frequency of another state of consciousness. Through munthra calling in that, we implode to explode. The frequency that we put out is the intention that we create and set within. To tune myself to the bigger aspect of who I am, that capacity, potential ultimately. That’s all kundalini energy is, our destiny, our gift, why are we here, are we an ant, or do we have something greater.”

Kundalini Yoga is a Raj/Royal Yoga that was brought out of secrecy in the sixties by Yogi Bhajan (the famous cartoon picnic basket whisperer from Jellystone Park). It’s one of the more far out forms of yoga. Bikram in its American bastardization is a kind of group boil-in-the-bag intended to make you look and feel like a kipper on steroids. Kundalini is philosophical. It’s holistic and uses cardiovascular exercises that seem gentle but are cumulatively tiring: stretching postures, and lots of lying down that relaxes you after all the cardio, and breathing and meditation to calm your special little insane mind. These together with the channeling of the kundalini energy through mantra give many people a sense of greater physical and mental clarity, energy and focus.

The word yoga means union, and the philosophical and mental elements of the practice are often overlooked and the whole thing reduced to a bit of rolling around on mats during your lunch break to make you feel a bit less worse about having ordered takeaway again the previous night while finishing off the last season of Dexter.

“In yogic and spiritual traditions we each have a unique and spiritual gift. Are we gonna direct and traject our lives and align with that greater aspect or are we gonna get caught up with our own agenda? Through the sound journey you allow that frequency of consciousness and bigger vibration of consciousness to come into play. So we’ll take a deep breath now. We come into sound, making noise, just vibrating. A sigh. Sighs. It’s just nature’s way of detoxing and releasing.”

Life. I sigh all the time. The deep wearied sighing of a boy-man who knows he is wasting his time. My sense of futility is so overwhelming that in order to distract myself from it I fill up my life with as much crap as I can possibly take. A gig or a show or an event every night, crazy projects like writing a haiku a day for two years or an essay for every single week of Fig-2, a couple of bottles of wine a night, a full-time job, learning Italian on Duolingo, books, films, music, being in two bands, constant commuting and never stopping for a minute, just to block out the abiding awfulness of it all — an ironically joyous and life-embracing response to an emotionally crippling inner nihilism.

There is a cult of busyness which a lot of clever modern people are members of. People who are seemingly too busy doing their job to do their job are just the tip of the human iceberg floating towards the shambling Titanic of collective mental health meltdown. We’re all so busy being busy. As Ferris Bueller says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around for a while, you could miss it.” Only we’re far, far too busy to dream of taking the day off.

“With munthra you’re allowing space through the breath you create that capacity to release space and open up to the bigger you. A different ok this is who I am right now. Keep open to that invitation to yourself, through the munthra – truth is my reality – rather than all the other conversations, history, etc. Truth truth truth, I am truth, I identify with truth. That’s all you’re repeating, it’s called jaffa and through that we create a new reality. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Fill into those cavities, those spaces within. Soften, then exhale, let yourself go. Inner massage through the diaphragm, exhale, feeling that internal massage. You might start to already feel the tension in your body that’s ok. And exhale.”

I enjoy an internal massage myself, like any red-blooded male mammalian metrosexual. But the demands yoga makes of you in breathing and stretching are as strange as dancing when not completely plastered. Self-consciousness and the sense of ridiculousness have to be overcome, which is not just difficult in itself but because these things are crutches. Embarrassment is a way of avoiding having to do things at which you might be good. Noone wants to be good at anything because if you’re good at something you have to keep being good at it otherwise you fear everyone will be disappointed, though really it’s just you that’s disappointed. Noone else cares.

“Through the munthra, through the posture, the breath, align yourself to truth. To your inner wisdom. Throughout this session we’re gonna start to do some postures, transformative postures from a master, use the munthra and then go into relaxation and then have a gong. So you get to experience a greater sound that cuts through the mind and the mental habits. By the time we’ve done the physical postures they’re there to exhaust you to take you into a transformative space.”

I have no inner seriousness at all. This is why I’ll never win the Nobel Prize. That, and because I know nothing about Physics. My natural mode is ironic and tricksy, which is another defence mechanism that has experienced a resurgence among Millennials or Generation Y, or basically among all of us born into the howlingly absurd world of Reaganomics and reality television.

Millennials are often afraid to express a firm opinion on anything in case someone gainsays it and they feel embarrassed. Instead of saying you like the new Nob Jockey album you describe it a bit, and if someone says they hate it then you hate it too. Until then there is the Schrödinger’s Cat situation of ironically detached fence sitting. This is a natural mode of adolescence anyway, but it’s uniquely perpetuated by digital natives sitting on all of the information in the world and unable to comprehend it. Everything levels out, and as it is in Brecht and Weill’s dystopian protoprelapsarian sin city Mahagonny “everything is available.”

“The gong is a deeply powerful sound unlike any other sound. A guitar string is plucked, there’s a peak, there’s a sound maximum then decay of sound. Just as sound decays the gong has an overtone of harmonic that confuses the mind that gives the trans-spatial experience. Expansive self to come alive. Allowing the energy bodies. We’ve got ten energy bodies in philosophy and you’re allowing those energy bodies to really come alive. Whenever someone walks in the room you meet their aura. Nine seconds if you’re in an interview and it’s based on this meeting. This is what the gong means.”

The gong is genuinely sublime and transporting. I did kind of get into the mantras and the soothing spiritualism and idealism of Kundalini yoga, but not completely. This would be something to pursue in further sessions, to learn to basically get over yourself, which I suspect is what the whole activity is for. But the gong. For half an hour we lay on the ground in a group sensory deprivation experience, drifting away on the sustained ebb of the gong.

The sound gently laps over you, lapping the sides, oneiric and beyond time. It’s not like driving on the motorway on a long journey when you’re alone with your regret that you hadn’t done everything you’ve done differently, that you hadn’t fucked up everything that ever happened to you and pissed off everyone you’ve ever met. There’s no thought. The alpha and delta waves kick in, and there’s just you and the gong. There’s just me and the gong. For a moment it could seem as if I could even be happy.

“Inhale. Exhale. Close your eyes and look to the pituitary gland, the master gland of the endocrine system but also the third eye. Look to the pituitary and inhale, exhale – inhale forward, exhale back. Keep looking at the pituitary gland. Come into vibrating – come into the heart centre.”

[They start breathing in and out really fast and noisily…]

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