Falling together at bodily thresholds

This text was published together with a selection of drawings in The Catalogue of Failures: Issue 3 (2023), featuring contributions from 15 international artists and practitioners, including illustration, horticulture, drawing, poetry, painting, collage, performance, research and somatic experience. The project aims to generate conversations about success and failure, accepted norms (and the unacceptable), worthiness, and value.

Falling together at bodily thresholds

I started drawing my body sensations seven years ago. This has supported me to be more curious and open towards my experiences, including troubling ones. Beginning with the phenomenological qualities of a symptom or sensation, I track and develop an experience further through colour, texture, movement and association. Not aiming to correct or reach a definitive understanding, I explore how to enter and make the experiential information more available to myself.

I began this practice at a time when I was struggling to keep up with studies in an arts educational setting. I felt like a failure, unable to perform. The undermining effects of this on my self-image and social interactions were finding expression in unruly psychosomatic states. When I began drawing these, there was some relief in staying with an unwanted experience rather than trying to suppress it. The drawings formed the basis for a performance at the end of my studies.

I’m on Notebook 32 at the moment. As I’ve continued and learned more about engaging with somatic processes, the drawings have evolved in different ways. Sometimes they register sensory responses to events in the world or in my personal life, states of pleasure or pain. Sometimes they record changing phases of a sickness or a persistent chronic symptom over time. They amplify qualities of a sensation, helping me get in touch with emergent forces within the experience. They depict the nature of the body as a shifting interface of relations and interdependencies.

The word symptom derives from the Greek symptoma – a happening, or an accident, or a disease. Its etymological roots can be traced back to the words syn-, ‘together’, and piptein, ‘to fall’. A symptom might then be understood as a falling together, a coinciding of happenings. In a society ordered by forceful demands for productivity, perfection and individualistic ascension – where falling behind is deemed a personal failing – the need to trouble what is actually dis-ordered feels pressing to me.

When befallen with the inability to go along as ‘normal’, what coinciding physical-cultural- ecological conditions are laid bare? Acknowledging the unequal distribution of harms falling together with some bodies more than others, and taking care not to romanticise the challenges of symptomatic bodily experiences, what information do our bodies hold? Could the failures to maintain a sound state in an unsound society reveal thresholds to errant intelligences?

Dialling into Channel B

I wrote this while participating in Sophia Kosmaoglou’s Art + Critique course. Due to Covid restrictions, I was unable join my peers in person when they visited Nine Nights: Channel B at the ICA in November 2021. The text describes my experience of the exhibition via my browser.

Dialling in remotely, my experience of Nine Nights: Channel B is mediated by others navigating the exhibition physically at the ICA. Their phones are like appendages, scanning and reconfiguring the view – mostly dark – with sound and image coming in and out of focus. My perception is fragmented, subject to the jolting choices of my guides. Like archaeologists examining a network of chambers, they advance inwards and describe what they meet. There is a mood of excitement as passages open up to new discoveries. They relay fragments of text, reminding me of clues or warnings encountered on a mission in a game.

I can’t get a clear overview and although restricting this is also generative, stirring my imagination to fill in and expand the gaps, like in a dream. From what I gather, the experience of being there is immersive, participatory and multi-sensory, eliciting physiological responses. I imagine rumbling bass permeating skins and accelerating heart rates; dilated pupils contracting as flashes of light and colour illuminate the faces of those exploring.

My initial associations are of a nightclub or adult fairground in a dystopian present or future, with different rooms offering different forms of entertainment: a wellness area with projected visuals, a gaming station where multiple players can interact in parallel spaces. This strikes me as superficial at first, a form of escapism maintaining the short-term ‘pursuit of desire-satisfaction’ Adriene Piper describes as feeding and fed by unrestrained free-market capitalism.1 But there is something more complex going on.

I catch a glimpse of an inverted sun radiating darkness. Inversion as a motif keeps recurring to me. The classic white cube gallery with its distancing qualities has been transformed into a dark space obscuring ordinary vision, inviting attention towards other ways of sensing and sharing space together. And there is a politically subversive dimension to the way Black-owned art, music, and creative initiative Nine Nights have repurposed the gallery and its structures to centre the experiences, narratives, and wellbeing of those usually marginalised and exploited by these structures.

I read on the ICA website that throughout its duration, the exhibition is hosting contributions by a network of Black performers, musicians and artists, rearranging its functions as cultural platform, activist campaign and site for celebration and visioning. Interrupting individualistic tendencies in art, Channel B is utilised as a medium for redistributing resources, redefining rules of ownership and reclaiming the terms for imagining, in service of uplifting Black culture and communities.

As a remote spectator, it feels pertinent for me as a person racialised as white, member of the dominant, centred group, to be perceiving this from the margins. Reading the Nine Nights manifesto I feel challenged to reflect on my own position and to be ‘be part of the change, not the problem’. Something is compelling about the participatory nature of the installations on view, and the ways in which bodily responses are elicited by Channel B. They conjure the implicatedness of all bodies as positioned within, not outside of the societal dynamics addressed by the exhibition. It invites me to think about my own choices and agency in how I distribute resources, the channels I choose to tune into and amplify, and what forms of world making and imagining this serves.

1 Piper, Adrian. (2008) Political Art and the Paradigm of Innovation, p. 9