Text Your Body

Speakers at "Finding the Body: The Last Transgression"
From left: Evan Ifekmya, Hannah Black, Cadence Kinsey, Patricia MacCormack, Giulia Smith, Hannah Quinlan, Rosie Hastings,

From strategies of exposure to those of concealment, feminist artists are finding new ways to address the female body as a site of projection, voyeurism, or even dissent. Theorist and educator Maria Walsh attended the “Finding the Body: The Last Transgression?” symposium in London last week, and offers her take on the dialogue between feminisms old and new.

Curator and gallerist Rózsa Farkas (of London gallery Arcadia Missa) was invited by Central Saint Martins lecturer Emma Talbot to bring current debates around feminism and the body to the art institution, hence the symposium "Finding the body: The Last Transgression?" which took place at CSM, Kings Cross, on Saturday April 23. Humorously hailing it as the “redux version” of the 2014 conference "Re-Materialising Feminism", Farkas introduced the day’s agenda to the sparse audience whose numbers were fleshed out by the seven presenters: a mix of artists, largely from Arcadia Missa's stable of artists; art historians Giulia Smith and Cadence Kinsey; and philosopher Patricia MacCormack. 

Farkas began by casually telling us what she means by feminism in art, i.e., that it is “an umbrella” term for sheltering “non-male art practices that address identity”. The aim of the symposium would be to readdress what an image of the body might look like in contemporary feminist art practice given the commodification and recuperation of mainstream historical feminist art. Rattling off a number of feminist artists from Maud Sulter to Adrian Piper, Farkas referred to a political agenda of visibility and invisibility in the use of the body in today’s web 2.0 cultures, an agenda which was succinctly theorised by Kinsey in the final presentation in which she proffered two modes of self-representation that predominate in digital art practices by women artists: concealment, in which explicit representation of the body is deferred, examples being work by Jesse Darling, Andrea Crespo and Bunny Rogers; and exposure, as found in Amalia Ulman’s and Ann Hirsch’s work. Kinsey connected the present tension between visibility and invisibility back to 1980s cyberfeminism in which technology was both a site of liberation and exploitation of labour, desire, identity ... the main difference today being the ubiquitous underpinning of a pornographic aegis in online capitalist culture in which bodies are measured and exchanged as hypersexualized commodities regardless of intent. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. 

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Following Farkas’ introduction, Giulia Smith presented a very thorough yet altogether traditional methodology of rescuing of an overlooked female artist from the dustbins of art history - Magda Cordell McHale, a Hungarian émigré affiliated with the Independent Group in 1950s London. Smith aligned Cordell McHale’s “ambitiously lurid” representations of biomorphic female forms with new imaging technologies such as the x-ray as well as to the esoteric sci-fi literature that Cordell McHale’s later writing on futurology would be inspired by. Her “radioactive” paintings, she said, rather than depicting monstrous fecundities, image “identity as a constant process of self-regeneration”, beyond or outside of reproduction. 

Disregarding the leap in time from 1950s figuration to contemporary digitalisation, this idea of identity as a mutating abstraction segued nicely into Hannah Black’s presentation of two of her videos, The Fall of Communism, 2013, and Bodybuilding, 2015. (Black is one of Farkas’ stable of artists, an ascending star in the art world since her essay on the hot babe went viral.) In her fast-paced, syntactically fragmented introduction, Black inferred that the work might have something to do with how moving to New York around this time allowed her to express fractures of race, gender and class that are silent in the UK/Europe and so escape her educational context of absorbing the ideas of “Marxist white guys”. In The Fall of Communism, an oneiric non-seeing digital-eye travels through magnified renderings of bodily orifices and venal passages and out into gravity defying vertiginous wave spaces. A collaged soundtrack of digitally altered renditions of Black’s voice as well as Whitney Houston’s speaking about how tired she feels and how she would just like to go eat a sandwich punctured the on-screen agitations between micro and macroscopic gaseous fields. The entropic ghosting of the bodily in this video put me in mind of Hal Foster’s diagnosis in the 1990s that a ‘waning of affect’ and the desire to reduce everything to ‘a desublimatory beat’ were symptomatic of postmodern modes of resistance to image-saturation. I wondered if this kind of joyless evisceration of the body is what young feminist artists are left with if they want to avoid capitulating to its reduction to an object from which capital value can be extracted? 

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Black followed this by insisting on reading lengthy passages from Linebaugh’s and Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000) which puts forward a thesis about the first wave of capitalist globalisation in the 17th and 18th centuries and the slavery, genocide, and exploitation that it entailed. I looked this up online as I found Black’s projection of her inner reading patterns hard to follow. Sometimes less is more, but I appreciated the ideas about black people as descendants of commodities (Fred Moten) and femininity as vulnerability that abounded in her introduction to Bodybuilding, a video that used a limited palette of digital tools to connect the actions of bodybuilders and the geometry of urban development in Azerbaijan. 

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Evan Ifekoya’s performative lecture demonstrated a “thinking through the mouth” that operated as a weapon of resistance to the image, in this case the 1839 engraving by Jacques Etienne Arago of a black male slave with an iron muzzle over his mouth, an image that has transmogrified to become a portrait of a black female slave Anastacia who is worshiped as a saint and heroine in Brazil. Ifekoya’s refusal to show this image of violence was understandable, yet the allusions to eating in her video Chew Rostrum Test, 2016, and in the poetic text she performed by reading from a stitched loop of cards, were difficult to assimilate in relation to its absence. Bodies were to the fore in Patricia MacCormack’s presentation on the inhuman ecstasies of “interkingdom becomings” that might emerge from encounters between spectators and art. Taking a journey, inspired by Luce Irigaray, through mucosal and angelic thresholds, MacCormack presented images of this majestic, monstrous, “openness to alterity in the other”: Hokusai’s Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, 1814, and Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52, in; Picasso’s Untitled, 1903, an image inspired by Hokusai’s, out – “that’s just a woman with a phallic thing”; Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981), in, but Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), out. As philosophy, the idea of a mucosal energy that pulls us into these sticky encounters is hugely exciting, but without the Irigarayan/Deleuzian meld, what is really being inferred here is the concentricity of the female orgasm that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was always trying to probe in the multiplicitous folds and pleats of Bernini’s sculpture. Key to the evolving threads of the symposium seemed to be a type of seeing or feeling that might be possessed without being possessive, but there was no room for discussing this. From the get-go Farkas had informed us of the ungenerous decision not to take any questions or responses to the presentations until the very end of the day. By then, the already thin on the ground audience had dwindled to half and were unable to break out of this spell of passivity, though Farkas’s fans didn’t mind – the final words from the floor being “Rózsa we love you”. Given that all the speakers, apart from MacCormack, were roughly within six years of graduating from either under or postgraduate education, I had hoped to witness some dynamic peer group exchanges between them and the largely undergraduate audience. While I am more interested in cross-generational exchange, young artists can often be either in awe of or dismissive of older generations, especially in relation to new technology, and this can inhibit discussion. (I myself was once called a “stodgy feminist” by this generation.) It was a real shame that dialogue with current art students outside the clique was foreclosed and that the few older women in the audience felt alienated by what seemed like a repeat of the art and fashion worlds’ cult of youth. 

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The afternoon began with a screening by Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, a collaborative duo from Farkas’ stable at Arcadia Missa. Tifkas, 2015, was shown as part of their @Gaybar project at which they host events that question the new sociability of the queer body. The video uses CGI techniques to render a post-apocalyptic landscape inferring death and a yet again, a desublimatory entropic drive towards emptiness. The desert-like terrain, littered with ephemera from the remains of gay club nights – a leaflet warning of AIDS, an empty beer can, a badge-pin – as coded signifiers of alternative spaces and eras, contrast to the hyper-visibility of queer desire in networked culture. While this is conceptually interesting, the image-rendering techniques in the videos seemed very homogenizing, samey. Is this because of minimal budgets, intentionality or due to the restricted nature of this militaristic technology? Related to this impoverishment of the image, it seemed to me that all the artists came out better as poetic/performative writers than image technicians – Quinlan and Hastings also read from their fan fiction publication, a kind of lesbian purple prose narrative that, while set in the same post-apocalyptic landscapes as the videos, was a lot more fun and experimental. 

At the risk of sealing my reputation as a “stodgy feminist”, I want to conclude with some “Marxist white guys”. Mark Fisher and Jonathan Beller, from their differing perspectives on contemporary capitalist spectacle, have both referred to the scrambling of language-as-a-critical-tool that has been affected by networked culture. I half agree, but think this is too absolute. In conjunction with the decimation of critical language in twittering, texting and posting, there is also a turn among artists to the materiality of language as poetry, gesture, performance. Dematerialising the body-image and rematerialising the body-text, maybe this is the "last transgression" referred to in the symposium’s byline but not mentioned at all during the event? Maybe this is why Hélène Cixous, referred to in passing in Farkas’ introduction, is newly born in young feminist artists’ methodologies? —

Maria Walsh is a writer based in London who teaches at Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London. She has published on art, feminisms, film, psychoanalysis and critical theory.