Sense as Consenus: An Interview with Justin Cabrillos

February 1, 2012 · Print This Article

"Troupe" photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

Many of these discussions about hybridity seem to center on the borders of identity: those places we feel something might end so that another substance, or self can begin. Language is essential in the communication of those boundaries; it enables a consensual agreement. The very act of naming, for instance, differentiates one body from another. I am curious about how language is embodied and how an artist invested in movement-as communication might explore that position. I thought I could interview performance artist, Justin Cabrillos. He is particularly focused on how the body and language relate: what seemed like an additional progression from my last discussion with Vanessa Place. Drawing on elements of dance, performance art, poetry, and sound art, explores an inefficient use of breath, the valleys of nonsense and physical exertion. Cabrillos was an IN>TIME Incubation Series artist-in-residence at the Chicago Cultural Center, and a 2011 LinkUP Artist at Links Hall. He recently collaborated with Every House Has a Door in a performance for artCENA in Rio De Janeiro. He is the recipient of a Greenhouse grant from the Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum.

Caroline Picard: I’m interested in how you integrate language and the body: there is something about this process that makes a lot of sense to me, in so far as both the body and language are mechanistic. In your performances, you seem to embody the two at once, calling attention to the ways in which the body gives life/animates language. At the same time, I feel like you also illustrate a kind of twitch or glitch in both, as they merge  — is there some way that you could talk about this?

Justin Cabrillos: That’s a nice way of putting it. The body does give life to language. I’m particularly interested in the twitch, tremor, trauma, and the body in crisis because it calls attention to those different kinds of bodies, which language can inhabit and can be transformed by. In my most recent piece, Troupe, I often worked with generating flow in movement and in text, which I would then disrupt, physically or vocally, with a twitch. Somehow that moment of twitch or of crisis speaks to one of many processes of giving life to the body and language. When I was making Troupe, I would often  develop movement and language separately and then superimpose them on one another. Other times, I would read about P. T. Barnum’s discussion and publicity of the different figures in his circus and I would use that to develop some of the choreography. There were moments where I sang selections of P.T. Barnum’s autobiography, but then my gestures would align with the singing and other times where I would create a gap between the image of me singing and the actual song. I might flail my arms, while I was whispering. Or, the rhythm of my gestures would be staccato, while the singing was legato. In general, this is a kind of strategy I use because I am interested in picking apart a very familiar experience and then offsetting it slightly, so that you can experience elements of the familiar and the unfamiliar simultaneously. I guess the strategy itself is mechanistic in that it is informed by digital processes. It’s kind of like watching a movie in which the soundtrack is slightly off. Though the body and language are related, I also think that they are different in many ways. Each has a different presence on stage and has different strategies for meaning making and unmaking. Dance can do things that language cannot do and vice versa. But, I’m interested in how the different things they can and cannot do bump up against one another to do something else.

"Faces, Varieties, Postures" photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

"Faces, Varieties, Postures" photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

CP: Where do you imagine the body ends and begins? Does that conception change depending on whether or not you are performing?
JC: For me the body doesn’t begin and end at the skin container, so to speak. It’s easier for me to think about bodies instead of the body. I got injured a few times this Fall, and I’ve been curious about these different bodies that these different injuries have produced. After the injuries, my body has never been the same, but that showed me even more that my body was never the same in the first place. I am interested in the way spit, feces, food, and lovers are all extensions of our bodies. The anthropologist Nadia Serematakis discusses this way that our bodies can extend beyond what we normally think of as the boundaries of ourselves. In much of the choreography and writing that I do, I often look to pulling from outside sources, music I’m listening to, books I’m reading, movement I observe in a museum—which I then alter in different ways. In Faces, Varieties, Postures, I performed several images from a Civil War Era etiquette book depicting men with their guns. I am not interested in where bodies end, but I am interested in how bodies begin and begin again. This concept doesn’t change much whether I am performing or not. I think there are multiple bodies, the performing body, the social body, the injured body, but I am invested in all of them when I think about a body because the perceived differences between them highlight their differences and commonalities. I don’t really believe that there is a neutral or blank body, whatever that would look like, and so I don’t believe in a body that ends. It just becomes something else.

CP:  What is the function of breath in your work?

JC: When I did On a Corner, this was a central concern. In the piece, I recite the alleged origins of the Corner Bakery, which are printed on their cup sleeves. I inhaled instead of exhaling the words, and allowed myself one breath between each line of text. I lost my breath and started going into spasms because of the task’s effect on my body. There I wanted to deal directly with the breath in relation to language. However, the piece became something else, as it was also a way of connecting with the audience. The sound and image of someone breathing can move someone else to breathe in a similar way, as in a Yoga class. The way we move our breath can lead us to move and breathe in different ways. This in turn can lead someone to feel different emotions that are associated with that pattern of breathing. In performance and in generating material, I play with different ways of using and misusing breath. I am drawn to different language and different vocalized sounds, like weeping or laughing in Troupe, that are somehow as basic as a breath. These sounds, among other effects, mirror a response to the audience and that somehow can construct empathy, coercion, and manipulation. At the end of Troupe, I lie on my side and laugh for several minutes with my mouth in a held smile. I have dealt with laughter in other pieces as well, but this time, I was curious about the laugh track in sitcoms. I slightly altered the usual “heh” sound to a laughed “i” sound. The repetition of it produced some laughter from audiences, while I struggled to hold myself up and push myself across the floor. Laughter was just one of many responses, but I welcome those other responses. I often use the voice and movement in ways that can create fields of responses that can conflict. I am fascinated when an audience member has an ambivalent response, and when audience members have very different responses from one another. An audience member might be laughing at something that is suffocating me, while other audience members might be well aware that I’m suffocating. I don’t see breath as having a singular function in my work, but I do think that it often establishes a sort of visceral connection with the audience that may help tap into some of the other issues I’m dealing with in a piece.

"Troupe." photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

CP: Where does sense come from?
JC: I think sense is neither objective, nor completely subjective. It is akin to consensus, and is similarly grounded in particular disciplines, social groups, and individuals.  When making a performance, I think a lot about the contract that a performer establishes with the audience. I try to establish different buoys for an audience, so that we can move further into “nonsense” and perhaps create some consensus out of that. Ultimately, I wonder how something that is called “nonsense” or that is outside of  “common” sense or that is socially awkward somehow, speaks both to the consensus of a particular group of people and to the dissensus of others.

Like Pages They Flip Depending: An Interview with Vanessa Place

January 18, 2012 · Print This Article

photo by Robert Ransick

When following an agenda or thesis of some kind — in this case, my steady and probing look at hybridity — one often tries to fit multiple practices under one umbrella: there is a desire to keep everything neat and tidy, in order, I suppose, to embolden an intuition with evidence, to make that intuition feel reasonable, and therefore true. Theoretical exercises might resemble murder investigations in that way — one wants to find proof beyond the shadow of doubt. At least, that’s what I find I do, and in this particular case it’s amusing, because my original inquiry is centered on an unstable concept. Hybridity is intentionally resistent to categorical thinking. The minute categories are defined, the hybrid wants to transgress and muddle and undermine the categorical thought it inhabits. Thus, I take some deep pleasure in printing the following transcript. It shows how I began to get too comfortable with what “hybridity” might mean, and thus how I began to apply it, suddenly and smoothly, to anything. The following transcript marks a failure in that attempt. It is not so simple, (as I had originally and perhaps hastily presumed) to call Vanessa Place’s practice a hybrid one: yes, she is both an esteemed lawyer and experimental poet. Yes, her legal work — the plethora of accrued documents — has become, literally, her poetry. And with these two yes’s, combined with my own experience of her performance — during which she read, word for a word, a trial transcript — I imagined she was combining two worlds. I thought I could convince her to talk about her work in those terms, under my umbrella. Instead, Place calls attention to the slippery nature of words;  meaning falls slick through our grasp like sand, ever sensitive to context just as it is always capable of transformation. In fact, words, like people, like bodies and chairs: are fickle, multifacted, both present and out of reach. Vanessa Place has published many books, including  Dies: A Sentence (2006), La Medusa (Fiction Collective 2, 2008), Notes on Conceptualisms, co-authored with Robert Fitterman (Ugly Duckling Press, 2009), and The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and Law (2010). In addition to her own poetry and legal practice, she is also the co-director of a magnificent, experimental poetry press called Les Figues.

Caroline Picard: In some ways, it seems like you lead a double life as a criminal appelate lawyer and literary force. These two occupations could require a split in your mind, but you have managed to integrate them: How did this possibility first occur to you? 

Vanessa Place: It was more a matter of capitulating to the inevitable; one learns not to avoid the trap, but to walk into the trap and see if it can be trapped.

CP: Are traps generally trappable? Do they have inherent weakness (by virtue of being traps)? Or are those weaknesses a result of the expectations we impose upon ourselves? (For instance that one must choose to be one thing or another).

VP: Traps are always trappable. The trick is to want the trap: see Brer Rabbit. The other trick is to have no expectations.

CP: How is the poet most often trapped? How does this compare to traps in witness testimony?

VP: Both fall for the truth-trap.

CP: Is language itself a trap?

VP: Wittgenstein said so. If so, it is the unavoidable trap. As is meaning (though there is no difference in this).

Vanessa Place, "Statement of Facts" @ Instal 10 at Tramway, Glasgow on Saturday 13th November 2010 photo: Alex Woodward @ Crimson Glow Photography

CP: When I saw you read here in Chicago you read a transcription of a domestic assault trial as poetry. Would you consider that transcription a hybrid text? Does the hybridity rely on the performance/context? Or does it exist just as well in a court of law?

VP: It exists simultaneously as a legal document and as a poem. It’s not a matter of hybridity, but of transubstantiation. In other words, words only exist in context, in whatever language game in which they happen to be deployed. Content is context.

CP: Can the human body be similarly transubstantiated? Are texts and bodies synonymous? This would make us like chameleons, in some way…

VP: Not chameleon because the chameleon remains chameleonish. That is to say, it alters not when it alteration finds. Texts, like bodies, are capable of complete metamorphosis

Vanessa Place, "Statement of Facts" @ Instal 10 at Tramway, Glasgow on Saturday 13th November 2010 photo: Alex Woodward @ Crimson Glow Photography

CP: How is it possible to communicate meaning if meaning is always contextualized (and therefore, I presume, relative to each subject)?

VP: Subjects are always sobjects, amalgams of subjects and objects. Consider whether it is possible that we are meeting at the point of our mutual thingness rather than our mutual selfness.

CP: Is it possible that mutual thingness is an experience held in common by all things — living and nonliving alike? Would a text’s thingness be equivalent to a chair’s thingness?

VP: Yes.

CP: How much does your performance of the material influence that context? When I saw you read, for instance, it was as if each word was given the same treatment and weight, as though you removed the emotive passion of the spoken words.

VP: Performance is another context, thus creating another piece. Similarly, one performance context, such as a reading in a gallery, creates a different piece than the same performance occupying another context.

CP: Where does the animation come from? Is there anything especially remarkable about words said via breath vs. words written on the page, or on the ground, or letters scattered on a refrigerator?

VP: Not remarkable. They are different creatures, however. In other words, you tell me.

CP: Does something essential about that “found” manuscript transform when it is recontextualized by a poetry reading? Or maybe, more generally, what happens? (For my part, I remember being astonished both by the horrific violence you were relaying, what was nonetheless paired with a simultaneous experience of beauty — the beauty of language, for instance, the beauty of a vernacular and the beauty of appropriation, even the visceral experience of horror).

VP: What happens depends on the receiver of the text — all of the things you describe are absolutely true — for you. Another person might be blinded to any potential for beauty, another, aroused by the violence. There is nothing essential in the text itself: the text is dead. The context, on the other hand, remains quite animated.

 

Vanessa Place from editionsere on Vimeo.

 

CP:  Is violence a necessary tool for animation? Or, more generally, what does violence do? What is its function?

VP: It insists on.

CP: How can an impersonal force contain insistence in all its manifestations?

VP: Think of shame.

CP: Does violence have a mutual thingness?

VP: No.

CP: How does violence impact a given page? Does the trauma it inflicts reoccur each time that page is read? Would that somehow be equivalent to someone who, in retelling the story of his or her violence, reenacts the incident in some way?

VP: Pages are people too. Like pages, they flip, depending on who they turn to.

CP: I have a friend who went to law school initially because he said he wanted to learn more about human language and (in his words) “the scaffold of reason.” How do you feel your relationship with language has changed with regards to your legal background?

VP: You assume it has changed.
This is how it has changed.

The Borders of Society: An Interview with Timothy Morton

January 11, 2012 · Print This Article

Given that these weekly discussions address the subject of hybridity, it seemed worthwhile to expand the conversation beyond the bounds of art practice per se and foray into those scientific, philosophical landscapes which so often inform the art one makes. In this particular case I had the opportunity to interview, via email, Timothy Morton. Many of my questions about hybridity came into focus after reading his book, The Ecological Thought, (Harvard UP, 2010). You can imagine, then, how awesome it is to communicate with him directly, and especially on the heels of Tessa Siddle’s performative embodiment of plants and animals.  In addition to The Ecological Thought, Morton teaches at UC Davis, and has published a number of articles, essays and lectures (a number of which can be read/listened to here). His first book, Ecology without Nature was published in 2009 (Harvard UP).  Morton deals specifically with the interrelatedness of  life forms— a framework that incorporates and integrates the society of all creatures.

Caroline Picard: I am especially interested in the interstitiary borders between species, animals, plants and (even) robots. In your book you suggest that those borders are not fixed, but constantly in flux. At a certain point, our attempts to differentiate a robot a non-robot are become arbitrary. (I love your example of a computer virus vs. a flu virus, for instance). Thus the human tendency to delineate and classify boundaries between this and that are both aggressive and artificial. It reminds me of this idea that, Adam for instance, had no connection with his environment before he began to name the animals. Yet in naming he imposed distinctions that separated different objects and creatures. Is there another kind of strategy to learn about one’s environment? Or should we think of our names and categories as temporary scaffolds that may change at any moment?

Timothy Morton: Well, one could think about science as assuming that we might be wrong about something, and then investigating the contours of a thing to assess whether we were wrong or not. One of the most inspiring things about Darwin’s work is that he was ready to let go of categories such as “species” and “genus” that had held since the days of Linnaeus.

But there might be a problem with this approach, not so much in the practice, but in the attitudes that swirl around it. There is a widespread assumption that things such as butterflies and chimpanzees have no intrinsic reality because they have no essence: you won’t, for instance, find a chimp-flavored piece of DNA as opposed to say a daffodil-flavored piece. The trouble is not science per se, but scientism, including the philosophy that thinks it’s above other forms of philosophy because it cleaves closer to what it thinks science is saying, namely that smaller things like atoms are more real than medium-sized things like horses.

When we see a horse not as a category or as a species, we see it as this unique entity galloping towards us. I think that the refusal to put too many labels on things doesn’t have to blur everything into grey fudge, but rather it could allow things to be just what they are, which in my view is totally unique. At that point it’s all right to say “horse,” because you know that it’s just an arbitrary designation. But the rippling, neighing beast in front of you isn’t nothing at all, nor is it a grey fudge sculpture. It’s a real horse, an actual horse.

There is a weird Möbius strip quality to this way of thinking, then. As you continue to dissolve concepts about things, the things themselves become more vivid. Ecological awareness, which is becoming the default mode of human being on this planet, just is this strange blend of vivid and unreal.

CP: Can you talk a little bit about the ways we have personified Nature in the past? And how your work disassembles that vision, in order to integrate our consciousness into it? (I don’t know if that’s how you would suggest using your idea of the mesh, but I had a feeling in order to embody that idea, something fundamental would have to shift with regard to my understanding of self, i.e. that I was somehow able to expand that idea of self, or imagine it porous and (also) fluctuating.)

TM: It is not so hard to imagine yourself as porous and fluctuating. Perhaps in the old days mystics only could do this, but now all you have to do is have a blood test or read a biology textbook. They will tell you that your body is full of mercury, radioactive materials, and so on. The book will show you mitochrondria, which are bacterial symbionts with their own DNA living in each of your cells, without which we would keel over unable to live at all. Mitochondria are in hiding from the environmental catastrophe they caused, the one we call oxygen.

Nature is not a concept we can take with us into an ecological age. It’s a relic of an agricultural life that has been dominant on Earth for three thousand years but which shouldn’t persist forever — remember that it’s responsible for an awful lot of global warming. We’ve just gotten used to seeing the world that way: as bounded, with a horizon — the sun comes up, the sun goes down, hopefully there are no windfarms on the hill to spoil the picturesque view. Nature just is a picture postcard, not actual coral or bacteria or aspen trees.

Nature is a product behind a glass screen in a shop window. The glass screen is the windshield of your SUV. You drive your SUV through the wilderness to get a couch potato experience of watching Nature as if on TV. Or you watch TV shows of other people doing it, so you don’t have to. Nature is a combination of agricultural framing of the world with its rolling hills and horizons and sheep; and of industry, with its processes and automation. Nature is a modern product that is antiqued to look ancient and premodern. But modernity is over — the writing is on the wall, or rather in the thin layer of carbon deposited from 1790 throughout Earth’s crust, beginning what is now called the Anthropocene. We created a geological era that now intersects with human history: think for a moment about how scary that is. Now we know it — so Nature, which just is “stuff over yonder” — is no more, because we now know that “over yonder” doesn’t exist: it has a real name, such as Pacific Ocean or wastewater treatment plant or neonatal tissue. There is no “away” to which to chuck things anymore.

CP: Do you feel like there is something fundamentally human? And (this may not be related, but I was curious nonetheless) what is the role of our imagination in all this?

TM: According to evolution science, there are two things humans do very well, but they are a bit of an ego blow: throwing and sweating. Everything else is also done by nonhumans, including consciousness, feelings, art, tool use, you name it. I am not a fundamentalist at all so of course, there can’t be something fundamentally human. Many philosophies and beliefs tell us we are uniquely good or uniquely evil, including some environmentalist ones. Those ideas are getting in the way of what we need to do right now, which is simply to recognize that nonhumans are, and always were, on “this” side of social, psychic and philosophical space. Crows and slime molds are already part of society: just think of the crows that use suburban streets and cars as nutcrackers, dropping nuts just in front of the wheels. This is not such a strange idea if there is no away any more. Everything is “here.” We have to widen our ideas about what democracy is: it includes cows, corn and clouds of methane.

Read more of Morton’s thoughts, interests and observations on his blog, Ecology Without Nature.

The Chimera In Me Greets The Gobot In You: An Interview with Tessa Siddle

January 4, 2012 · Print This Article


Tessa Siddle is a transgender video maker and performance artist based out of San Francisco. In her work she regularly embodies hybrid forms — bleeding her self between animal, human, singular and multiplicitous identities — in order to challenge a tidier, pervasive binary tradition. What I find particularly interesting about her work is the way in which it relies as much on the performative, physical body — make up and costume effects — as it does on technology advances, like the blue screen for instance. The effect is itself a hybrid of effects that coalesce to become an illusory, allegorical space. Tessa also organizes and curates an experimental film series, The MisAlt Screening Series, in the Bay Area.

"Flopsy Loves Mopsy Says Flopsy" (2010), Installation View

CP: You often deal with hybridity often in your work — in your performances you sometimes embody animals, in other instances you are at once one person and two people at the same time. Can you talk a little bit about how you think of hybridity? 

TS: I feel like a lot of people in the arts are talking about hybridity using very different (and I think more or less equally valid) definitions which occasionally leads to a little bit of confusion. I have often heard the term “hybrid forms” applied equally to visual depictions of chimeras and other hybridized figures and to the use of organic forms, mixed-media, and composite materials.

My personal interests in hybridity comes out of the convergence of my life-long fascination with combined human/animal/machine forms (most notably the chimeras of ancient myth, anthropomorphized animals in children’s literature, and human/machine/extraterrestrial hybrids of science fiction and UFO mythos) with my exposure to critics like Donna Haraway who use the figure of the cyborg and other hybrids to critique dualist social constructions and the idea of personhood and individual agency being bound within a unified and independent bodies. This exposure roughly coincided with the beginning of my desire to confront my long-time (and continuing) discomfort with binary gender and I was constantly on the look out for alternative theories of the body and I found the concept of cyborg bodies whose slippery existence is held together by constantly shifting relationships between humans, machines, animals, and institutions to be extremely exciting. It is largely in this spirit that I go about creating work in which I split
myself into various animal and plant versions of myself.

 
 

CP: It seems like there’s a way that hybridity can question assumptions latent in, say, gender binaries or species distinction. Even in terms of what you’re addressing with robotic/mechanical vs. organic/self-determined structures. It’s like you’re decentralizing ideas of self-hood and self-determination, while undermining traditional power structures. Having said that, I’m not really sure I know what I mean when I say “traditional power structures” except that I feel it manifests itself visually in my mind as a kind of monolith. A giant cultural pillar with neat and tidy assigned parts. Do you feel like your efforts are anarchistic? Or are you looking for a new kind of order? In other words, should the hybridity remain unfixed and unfixable? Or would do you aim to create a new kind of identity that is, say, part cheetah with human hindquarters and a robot arm?

TS: I feel that when talking about power structures it is important to distinguish between models of power (the ways of looking at power) and the organization of power into social institutions. I think that the traditional way of looking at power is the monolithic model of which you speak, in which power descends from a (often divine) pinnacle of authority on to the people beneath. There is also the bottom-up view of power, which is a democratic inversion of the monolithic model, in which the legitimacy of the authority on the top comes from the power of the people below. I subscribe to a model of power in which power is radiating from everyone, everywhere, in all directions — without a top, bottom, or center. I think that this is the structure of power regardless of the institutions and social constructions into which it is molded.

What the monolithic model and the bottom-up model share is that they are both preoccupied with the legitimacy of existing institutions and constructions. Things are the way they are, they say, because of divine (or scientific or natural) order or popular consensus. Under these models, binaries are presented as part of a natural or innate cultural order, part of the way things are.

I think that what hybrid figures do to binaries is to show that they are actually the way things are not (or that binaries, if they exist, are extremely rare). I think, for example, that the human/non-human binary falls apart as soon as we look really closely at the human body. A classical (humanist) reading of the body considers it to be a unified, holistic, 100% human form — the most human form — however if we take out our microscopes, look onto and beneath our skin, look deep into our guts (take a literally very close look) what we see is that the body is host to colony after colony of (mostly benign) bacteria, protozoa, viruses, very small animals, and fungi. From my limited understanding (I am not a biologist) the health of these colonies is essential for the health of the overall body to the point that we can look at the human body as already (and always) being inhuman.

I feel that in my own efforts, I am not trying to prescribe an anarchistic role to hybrids or to suggest a new world order, but rather I am attempting create semi-fictional realities in which the already slippery relationships between humans, animals, and plants are amplified in their slipperiness.

 

 
CP: Can you talk a little bit  about how that slipperiness plays out in some of your work?

TS:  I think in a lot of my work I’m attempting to create situations/environments/performances that play with the boundaries between things that are frequently placed in opposition with each other. When I perform as a community of fox/people, a family of rabbits, a bouquet of flowers, or a forest ecosystem I try to borrow equally from scientific, mythological, historical, pop cultural, autobiographical, and autofictional sources to create the text, structure, and logic of my characters and the worlds they interact with. My hope, is that by fusing these elements together I can create alternate realities that feel natural, magical, confessional, and opaque at more or less the same time. I also try my best to give these worlds a logic that seems coherent but also transparently artificial and frayed around the edges.

 


 

 

The Taste of Potassium: An Interview with Sebastian Alvarez

December 28, 2011 · Print This Article

âš«â– â–¼ Video Still. 2011

In thinking about hybridity, performance artist Sebastian Alvarez seemed like an important person to talk to. For instance, I saw a piece of his at the Hyde Park Art Center in which a series of different people looked up at the camera, their faces surrounded in a sea of dirt. They seemed to be part of the earth, speaking through it, while nevertheless remaining distinct. In other work Alvarez has done, he photographs the body mid-flight, sometimes it is ascending, sometimes it hovers almost perpendicular to the ground, frozen impossibly in defiance against gravity. I find his work to be tremendously hopeful, walking a line between the tension of consumer audiences and transformative experience. Where do we position ourselves? Are those distinctions (between body and earth, self and other) as vivid as we would like to presume?

Caroline Picard: What happened to your impression of dirt once you ate it in public?

Sebastian Alvarez: Soil is always hard to grasp. Especially if it comes from Central Park in New York. The first time I tried eating soil was, like many of us, at a very early age. Unfortunately, I do not have a clear memory of that moment but I remember seeing a photograph of my face decorated with dirt around my mouth. Perhaps it was really chocolate but I prefer to think that it was soil because I was in a park. Years later, my second interaction with this organic matter happened in a desperate situation as I was hitchhiking to Cuzco, Peru from the south of Brazil. It was in a late afternoon after not being able to find a ride nor anything to eat. Upon arriving to a small farm in an isolated area, I stole some potatoes I found laying on a piece of burlap fabric. After franticly running without any reason — since nobody saw me — I stopped away from the farm and contemplated the three little sad potatoes in my dirty hands. Having no utensils to boil the rather miniscule potatoes, I gave a bite to one of them, realizing that I could not even chew it. Obviously, they were hard as rocks due to the cold weather. So after spitting the tuber out, I craved something soft and tasty. Without thinking it twice, I grabbed a bunch of soil with my left hand I took it into my mouth, and I clearly remember thinking that I wanted this soil to be delicious and nutritious. I thought it so emphatically that I could no longer pay attention to the particles going through my throat. Its texture was actually soft and pleasant on account of the fact that it was topsoil and it did not contain any pieces of rock. One handful was enough to bring me into a silent state of mind where I began perceiving my surroundings as a nurturing space. Seconds after this peaceful sensation, my mind started sending me the common human thoughts that would populate any civilized person’s mind: What am I doing? I really need to find something to eat, and am I going to get sick or die? All these questions kept reconfiguring themselves in my head as I felt the satisfactory sensation of having experienced something transformative. Hours later after walking on a small road again, I was picked up by a generous farmer with an old truck and driven to the nearest town, Mirador Caracoto. During this micro-road trip, I kept the soil incident to myself. Once in the town, I was able to sell a couple of jackets I had in my backpack and eventually made it to my “final destination.” I tell this story because it reveals values that are central to my art practice. Journeying as an exploration of the unknown, acknowledgment of ignorance, and transformation are points that guide and organize my understanding of what I do as an artist.

Five years later when I became acquainted with performance art I thought of contextualizing my experience with soil in a “performance video.” However, when I did it for the camera I became very conscious of the situation I was creating and how contrived it was. The scenario I constructed was completely different. This time I was in New York, and created a prologue to accompany the act of eating dirt. The first part of the video was about the occasional nauseous feeling I have when being overexposed to advertisements and consumer culture. The second part is about entering a public park (Central Park) to eat soil. The area where my friendly cameraperson and I spontaneously decided to shoot was actually closed for maintenance. I obviously felt tempted to jump the fence and ended up removing a piece of grass to eat a small portion of the aforementioned substance. A few pedestrians walking their dogs saw me and noted the presence of the camera, creating that typical mediated environment/situation that weakens the authenticity of such normally undocumented events. I never felt the same serenity as that first time at the farm again because I became too aware of my actions, and slightly paranoid to be penalized for jumping the fence and defacing public property.

Being born in a culture that has always defined Earth as a mother and the Sun as a father, I developed an appreciation and respect for these beliefs. However, when the Mother Earth icon was imported into western culture, it became a component of the linguistic structure of patriarchal dominance. Thus, perpetuating the image of the mother as unconditionally generous, fertile and inexhaustibly abundant.  When I moved to the United States, one of the things that I paid attention to in language was the relation between the word “dirt” and “dirty,” especially because dirt is often used interchangeably with the word soil. So, whether soil is dirt or an aspect of Mother Earth is personally irrelevant, the essential part to me is how the metaphor that defines the relationship between us and the “natural world” creates a different engagement with our surroundings. Perhaps, this is why I find the metaphor of “eating soil as a way of reconnecting with a source” fascinating. For instance, if you research some of the cultures that have embraced geophagia — that is the practice of eating earthy or soil-like substances such as clay and chalk — you will find out that the elements that make up soil are potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and manganese which are also present in the human body. In many parts of the developing world there is earth even available for purchase that is intended for consumption; they consider geophagy to be a beneficial, nutritional approach to promote well-being. Of course, I am aware that the contemporary condition of soil in many places of the world is deplorable and highly toxic. I am further aware that there is a significant difference between the soil I ate on a small farm in Peru and the dirt from a metropolitan public park where there is the potential encounter with dog excrement, 70’s heroin needles, or fingers of gangster victims that did not pay their dues.

 

Stills from Westoxication. 2006. NY

CP: Is there a difference between performance and presentation for you?

SA: Although these two are similar in that they both comprise an event in which an individual or group of individuals behave in a particular way for another group of individuals, they are slightly different to me in terms of how they make the recipient individuals feel. Presentations, as we usually know them, carry a didacticism that make us focus on the content of what is being presented rather than the presenter. Performances, on the other hand, bring our attention to the performer (his/her physical, emotional, and kinesthetic characteristics that I perceive as organic) and the contextual features around him/her or them (architecture and props, which I perceive as inorganic, when they happen indoors). After engaging into different forms of investigation (both formally and informally) about performative genres (which I perceive as modes of communication) I see them as forms of channeling energy. Today, one can play semantically in order to find new possibilities, and expand upon notions. For instance, one could say performers perform, and presenters present or performers present and presenters perform. One could also think performances present performers, presentations perform presenters, and so on. To me, presenting implies a detachment from what is being presented. It is a humbler approach to communicating an idea or intention. Most religious and devotional rituals involve presenting an offering (whether something tangible or intangible) to a worshipped being. This makes me ponder the idea of the audience as a worshipped entity receiving the offerings of a performer. In any case, however the performers or presenters decide to interact with their audience (whether they are physically present or not), I believe it is important to allow the energy that is being conjured to be transmitted as intended, unless they are dealing with unknown forces outside their cognition and this is the intention.

CP: How do you consider the audience/performer relationship? Is this a dynamic that is porous? And where is the power located? 

SA: There a long list of sociologists, philosophers, dramaturges, performance theorists and researchers who have dealt with the audience/performer subject in multiple ways. To me, it is important to have an understanding of the origins of theater, performing arts, sports, and social gatherings as well as how the relationship between the performer and the audience changed into one of producer and consumer. There are specific instances that mark the breaking down of traditional boundaries between actors and spectators. For instance, the formation of the Living Theater in New York by Julian Beck and Judith Malina changed how the audience was engaged through direct personal and physical contact. Likewise, when Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal (influenced by theorist and educator Paulo Freire) developed the Theatre of the Oppressed, within which performance was intended to entertain, educate, and raise consciousness. I am obviously omitting the extensive list of people, events, movements, and disciplines that have contributed to what we categorize today as relational aesthetics, participatory art, and social practices. However, whether one is aware of this information or not, these contributions are already engrained in the sphere of human cognition.

But anyway, most of us with Internet access are aware of the omnipresence of videos depicting different kind of events, open source lectures, webinars, presentations, performances, and practices that share the process of how subjects and objects are made. The ones showing rows of seated spectators facing a raised platform particularly fascinate me. In the broadest terms, the “performer-presenter” may be seen as an enthusiast, or critic of society. In âš«â– â–¼, one of my current projects in process, I explore this setup, the body language of the presenter and the audience, and their potential to alienate. From my perspective, presenters perform an almost priestly role when in front of a large screen or projection that informs the audience or devotees in a semiotic mass. However one sees it, I think there is a consensus about the need to gain greater awareness of the implications of systematic image distribution in power-saturated contexts and human relations – particularly in this media-laden society.

 

âš«â– â–¼(live) Video still. 2011. Chicago.

CP:  What is the relationship between shape and identity? I’m partly asking because the way you use shapes quite often in your work–circles and triangles and squares…

SA: In this project, I began by acknowledging these historic associations:

a. the circle, the one, the point, the center, the ellipse, the circus, the circuit, the speaker, the divine, the sun, the transmutation, the emotion, the liquid, the circulatory system.

b. the square, the quartet, the structure, the area, the perimeter, the room, the site, the group, the audience, the collective, the concentration, the cardinal points, the mundane, the solid, the digestive system.

c. the triangle, the trio, the creation, the interaction, the elements, the magic, the media, the message, the subject, the intellect, the illumination, the direction, the gas, the nervous system.

1. the logo: the word, the discourse, the argument, the rhetoric, the religion, the emblem, the identity, the transcultural diffusion, the union and interrelation of three physical states of water (solid, liquid, and gaseous).

Logos.

The logo (1.) is an inverted 17th century “sign” that illustrates the blending of geometric shapes, and elemental symbols. Then, it was used by medieval alchemists to represent the elements and forces needed for magical work in order to reach physical and spiritual transformation, and immortality. Today, these concerns are that of transhumanists who explore bio-enhancement technologies (intellectual and physical) and the elimination of aging. Some even seek the elimination of death such as Ray Kurzweil and his sympathizers. Whether we like it or not, our human condition is transforming and non-biological intelligences are growing exponentially.

Adopting the alchemical sign as a logo/brand is a way of bringing attention to the subject of transformation. To me, this is a way of coming to terms with a personal feeling that I think we all share: the feeling of being driven by a larger force beyond one’s control. When appropriating the alchemical sign as a logo I thought of myself as a corporate force that imparts, shares, and distributes information. Using the alchemical symbol upside down is my way of acknowledging a return to the basic, to innocence. What I mean by basic is my prelinguistic life, before I was educated. Hence, I am interested how we educate the “uneducated,” how infants acquire language, and how we are constrained in our use of language by our particular social and psychological realities.

The inspiration for âš«â– â–¼ emerged after watching several hours of web conferences, and online lectures on subjects I am passionate about. Also contributing to the impetus for the project were my notes and memories on how I have been feeling inside authoritarian architecture — mostly churches and military sites, classrooms, and various institutional sites since childhood. Some memories, which I perceive as “light,” are more personal, comical and embarrassing; for instance, when things collapsed in strictly controlled situations or in demonstrations of vulnerability in public. The other memories, which I perceive as “dark,” are aggressive and fear inciting; for example, acts of civic disobedience and public panic. Here, I specifically refer to the attacks of the two main rebel groups, Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, who operated most forcefully in their effort to destabilize and overthrow the Peruvian government.

I also include my memories as an audience member in large sport events, massive music concerts, raves, mosh pits, in addition to intimate-level events such as presentations/performances in small venues, galleries, and studios. All these social assemblages (cultural or sub-cultural) are highly affected by the architecture in which they take place. I like to think about the physical states of water — liquid, solid, and gaseous — as an analogy that provides a different way of understanding different types of social gatherings. Consequently, I think of water containers, and temperature. What happens when you boil water? What happens when you freeze water? Can certain places solidify us? Which places keep us moving and flowing? In what place do we boil and become gaseous? How is in charge of the temperature?

Online, we articulate ourselves as databases in social networks. In doing so, we use our names as our brand, our logo. I began paying attention to this when I started a blog called Wanderlustmind where I was aiming to collect relevant information and archive my digressions over the Internet. By using the template provided by the semantic publishing platform, I became statistically aware of my “followers’” locations, their traffic, and their preferences. Similarly, when performing or witnessing a performance, I also pay attention to the structural characteristics of an audience. This makes me wonder if blogging has awakened a desire to know more about my audience or if it is a natural tendency I have. Regardless, once I wanted to “boost my traffic,” I opened a page for my blog in the popular “Book of Faces.” Here, as part of a community of millions of sentient beings entrapped in a platform created by the idiosyncrasy of a Harvard sophomore, I pondered existentialism once again and therefore the questionnaire began. What behavior am I adopting? Which model am I following? Am I becoming a hybrid of machine and organism? Am I aware of what produces major changes in my cognition? Am I really able to perceive this transformation during my lifetime? Did I abandon the religion I was brought up in so that I can be indoctrinated into a new one prophesying technological utopianism? Will my grandchildren meet humans who were born in times where the Internet did not exist? Is it worth having children considering the current conditions of the media environment? Will I bio-engineer my own children? Do I already have children? Are they blogs or social networks that I maintain daily? What do I feed them? Is my affection enough as a simple XOXO?

As I press the keyboard and quantify myself through a luminescent screen that stores binary numbers and manipulates data, I associate my writing (or your reading) to the comfort and anonymity of a passive audience member sitting in the dark. Obviously, as you read these words in a rectangular display composed of liquid crystals (that is if you did not use a inkjet or laser printer to print this on paper), there are people around the world who are still reading books illuminated by a candle. Should everyone use the Internet? Are there other forms of networking we are ignoring or dismissing? Should indigenous people conform to the dominating attitude of the patriarchic media? Can these groups participate in the decision making process of how technology should operate? Should cultures that have not come up with “new technologies” be consigned to history? Wouldn’t you be concerned if the same nations that brought you sugar, processed foods, GMO’s, and mass pollution were offering you new useful technologies?

⚫■▼ Video still. 2011.