Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Transcendent Flesh – Sequential Selves

Honours Thesis 2009

Grace Kingston BFA

College of Fine Art - UNSW


This thesis is predicated on the limits of flesh and the exploration of its synthetic extensions. I aim to mirror the process of body modification and sexual exploration - cumulative bursts of energy to complete a narrative of experience. This concept has been explored in two ways; my studio work is based around a collection of mixed media works revolving around latex, rubber and inorganic material used as a metaphor for the artificial body. Whereas my thesis paper is based around the medium of Twitter; this concept stems from the idea that online persona(s) are an extension of the embodied identity and can therefore be considered a new form of costume.

Twitter

Twitter is a social networking concept consisting of short status updates that seek to answer the question “What are you doing right now?” When you Twitter something it posts your message in the feed of whoever is following you, similarly you can read what all your friends are Twittering in your own feed. You can only post text on Twitter and there is a limit of 140 characters for each Tweet, which approximates around 25 English words.

“Like SMS and texting, Twitter forces users to economize on the many superfluous articles demanded in formal English, generating a simplified grammar like a pidgin. Some of the same quirks of English that are eliminated in Twitter-speak are also neglected in different vernacular dialects, things like helping verbs or articles.”(1)


Image: Twitter Screenshot from twitter.com

Twitter isn’t limited to personal friends, or indeed to individuals at all. Many celebrities, businesses, brands and blogs have signed up to Twitter to use as a publicity tool. Essentially what makes twitter so appealing is the fact that it is free, quick, global and easily accessed on personal mobile devices.

“The rise of the internet has challenged our minds in three fundamental and related ways: by virtue of being participatory, by forcing users to learn new interfaces, and by creating new channels for social interaction. Almost all forms of online activity sustained are participatory in nature”(2)

By posting this paper through free online avenues I have not only made it more accessible than a physical essay but similar to the spirit many Fluxus artworks were made in. I have posted a set of instructions and have actively opened up a chance for interaction, a dialogue between myself and the reader through the opportunity to comment.

“Fluxus works create a diverse experiential framework, one characterized by the dissolution of boundaries dear to Western epistemology, including the traditional distinction between subject and object on which much of Western philosophy was historically based. The result is [a] “non-hierarchical density of experience.”(3)


The twitter component of this paper becomes a collection of aphorisms, sensory descriptions and personal reflections by a fictionalised online persona. This online persona was developed through research into personal accounts of people aiming to push the limits of their flesh, such as but not limited to: sex workers (working in both the straight and BDSM domain) (4); professional body modifiers and enthusiasts (5); eating disorder or body dysmorphic disorder sufferers (6); and transgender individuals (7).

I feel that the nature of the topic of body modification and sexual practice can only be truthfully investigated through a personal narrative, as opposed to the detached and impersonal character of the essay.

“… the erotic still arouses acute moral anxiety and confusion… the strong emotions it undoubtedly arouses gives to the world of sexuality a seismic sensitivity making it a transmission belt for a wide variety of needs and desires: for love and anger, tenderness and aggression, intimacy and adventure, romance and predatoriness, pleasure and pain, empathy and power. We experience sex very subjectively.”(8)

The name of this online project comes from Marques De Sade’s ‘120 Days of Sodom’, in which a story is told each day by the story teller to inspire the content of the libertine’s orgy that night. Similarly I have started each ‘session’ of twitters with a quote to inspire the content of discussion. And like the vastly different backgrounds of the storytellers of ‘120 Days of Sodom’, the origin of the quotes chosen to inspire the tweets range from figures of pop culture to philosophers.

Each session can be considered a short chapter in which I have discussed respectively:
1. Exploration born from restlessness and anxiety
2. The western obsession with sterilisation and therefore the disconnection we feel with the natural processes of our bodies
3. Body as a business site and the western shame condition
4. Beauty, perversion and power dynamics
5. Pain as a valid sensation no less enjoyable then pleasure and the comfort of control
6. The power and the disposability that comes with sexual liberation
7. Gender roles, the in-between and how gender play eloquently reveals societal attitudes
8. How Unconventional practices can bring us closer to a state of transcendence.

The sessions do bear much relation to each other, like a traditional linear narrative would, but are instead a collection of separate bursts of energy, like separate modifications united on one body. The final session discusses a suspension, which many practitioners describe as a euphoric experience, and aims to portray a sense of transcendence and spiritualism.

Social networking sites are one of the most popular forms of social interaction in the 21st century, indeed many people employ them exclusively for things like event promotion and to remember important dates. While in theory social networking sites were set up to help one re-connect with old acquaintances or friends abroad, it has instead diminished the need to physically socialise with anyone at all. We feel reasonably satisfied that we have caught-up with someone on our “friends list” when we hear what they’re doing via status updates or through the pictures they upload. Most of the time all the major news of an individuals life can be found by simply scrolling through their profile page, new jobs, fun parties and the ever-vexing ‘relationship status’ is all there, along with comments from everyone on their friends list about the changes.

Our profile page can be personalised to represent ourselves as individuals, unless of course there aren’t enough boxes for you or appropriate options on the drop down list. The most obvious of these are the forced gender roles, when twittering my project I wanted to stay anonymous and gender neutral, as well as objectifying my persona, so I substituted the symbol “X” wherever a name was needed and “Y” wherever a gender pronoun was needed. The introduction of symbols purposely upsets the flow of the narrative in a similar way a transgender individual upsets the flow of western society (9) by not adhering to norms. This theory is supported by the fact that the readers find themselves unconsciously substituting a gender pronoun where the symbol is present to make sense of the information more easily. Unfortunately during the set-up process I was forced to choose, male or female, there is little room for trans individuals and in-betweens on social networking sites or indeed within society itself.

"...our notions of what a human being is problematically depend on there being two coherent genders. And if someone doesn't comply with either the masculine norm or the feminine norm, their very humanness is called into question."(10)

Each action or change an individual makes to their online account is noted down on their profile, like mark making or modification: the sum of these actions is an ongoing narrative of the body. It is this point exactly that I make with my studio work.


Artwork

My studio work is a collection of latex and mixed media works ranging in scale and dimension. Each of the pieces is mounted on the wall, pinned down, or placed on plinth/cabinet type surfaces. In some cases there are simply outlines of pieces suggesting an absence of body. By presenting the works in this way they are suggestive of a cross between a handyman’s tool shed, a fetish dungeon’s equipment panel and a niche boutique.

Image: the Main Dungeon at Sydney’s ‘Salon Kittys’ (11)

I have used materials and taken inspiration largely from the places that aid in the experiences I seek to reference, sex and fetish shops as well as piercing and body modification parlours. Latex as the primary medium is used to represent simulated flesh, the artificial additions to the body.


Image: Kingston, Grace: Stuffed Latex Handcuffs

A sense of tension, or the feeling of pain that accompanies modification is felt through a variety of features in the work. Such as objects protruding behind the latex, - suggestive of silicone subdermal implants. Or hooks stretching the latex out to the brink of taring - similar to modern day suspension practices.

Image: Robert Valenti doing a suspension performance at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum with the performance group Modified Souls (28/08/09). (Photograph taken by myself)

It should be noted that many contemporary body modifications are rooted in traditional indigenous cultural practices, and bring up moral issues of cultural appropriation.

“Modern primitivism both confounds and plays on historically produced borders between so-called primitive and civilised bodies. The modern primitivist movement self-consciously rejects the deeply ethnocentric tradition of the West, and instead extends nostalgic views of indigenous cultures as more authentic, natural, and communal. It does this partly as an extension of modernity’s longstanding unease with its own technological advances, ecological destruction, and cultural homogenisation, generating images of primitivism that appear to offer alternative, more traditionally rooted modes of negotiation nature and the body. At the same time, the movement also employs very contemporary, post-modern notions of identity, culture, and he body, presenting each as malleable and elective.” (12)


I am aware that I owe much of the inspiration for my artwork to artists like Orlan, who have explored these ideas in works like ‘Self Hybridisation’. However much has already been said about the Modern Primitive phenomenon and it is therefore not the aim of this paper to delve into this area any further.

Image: Orlan: From the series ‘Self Hybridisation’ sourced from orlan.net

Similarly I have purposely avoided one area of body modification – tattoos – for the simple reason that as a 2D image sitting on top of the flesh, they do not change the topographical nature of the body (besides the slight raised nature of a fresh tattoo) and are therefore not stretching the limits of the flesh, but rather, altering the aesthetic of the skin. Also their cultural and historical nature is simply too dense to fit in a justified discussion of them in this paper.

My practice has previously revolved around figure painting of which I have explored both traditionally and through abstraction. The crux of inspiration for this collection of work is the limits of the flesh – stretching, pulling, perforating, tenderising and constricting - and how, through these acts, we aim to reach a state of transcendence. This voyage into the unknown was previously taken in a literal way, a change in locality. But since the onset of Globalisation and through the establishment of the Internet, the world has become accessible so there is virtually nowhere left to be explored and tested, except the personal locality of our body.

Many pieces have a wooden frame that serve to anchor the work in the discipline of painting. All the works have rounded edges to pay homage to the humble dental dam, which is in many cases stretched over the frame, as it was this material that first inspired this collection of work. The dental dam as a concept is highly unique in this sphere as Latex clothing is worn primarily for aesthetics and sensation and condoms are worn only for birth control and to stop the transmission of STDs.

Image: Grace Kingston from the series 'Transcendent Flesh' 2009

However dental dams are viewed by most people as superfluous, their point was to stop the transmission of STDs through cunnilingus or anilingus, and are known jokingly as “lesbian condoms”. But there are few people who actually use them, as it is reasonably difficult for most STD’s to spread from oral contact with the genitals.

“Candida and bacterial vaginosis were common. Trichomoniasis, genital warts, and genital herpes were infrequently diagnosed, and pelvic inflammatory disease, chlamydia, and gonorrhoea infections were rare. It appears that trichomoniasis, genital herpes, and genital warts may be sexually transmitted between women, but there is no evidence for woman to woman transmission of gonorrhoea, chlamydia, or PID.” (13)


In fact the only demographic that really uses Dental Dams are sex workers, owing to the logistics of their work.

The Dental Dam acts as a latex barrier to direct sexual contact, it masks the impression of the intimate. Similarly much of my studio work involves the impression of the body, photographically and literally through mould and casts. The artificial nature of latex smooths out the natural dimples and imperfections of the body, like an airbrush on a photo. However it also clings and suffocates the body, forcing a sweaty reaction from it, a poignant metaphor of the post-modern condition.

Some of the bodies and parts of bodies are my own, whereas some are of guests, male and female. It is easy to draw comparison between my own work and Julie Rapp’s, in particular ‘Vital Statistics’ (1997) and ‘Untitled (after Manet’s ‘Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe’)’ (2002)

Image: Rrap, Julie: Vital Statistics 1997 (14)

Image: Rrap, Julie: Untitled (after Manet’s ‘Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe’), 2002 (15)

In particular Rrap’s obsession with exploring the body and the forms it takes on expressed in a multi-disciplinary approach. Many of the mediums and palettes are similar to my practice as well, using rubber and flesh tones (16) as a base, intermixed with the occasional hyper-real colour.

However there are some critical differences, namely that the subjects of my works is not only my body, or of my gender, but of others as well. Through this critical difference I am to steer away from the traditional feminist discussion that comes with the inclusion of nude female images in art. Rather through these impressions of and on the body, of varied permanence, I aim to suggest a continuing discomfort with our bodies as they were given to us.


Image: Kingston, Grace: from the series ‘Transcendent Flesh’

Another theme throughout this collection of work is that of the hammer and the anvil, a metaphor originally used in ‘Venus in Furs’
Image: Kingston, Grace ‘Flesh Hammers’

“You must be hammer or anvil' it is absolutely appropriate to the relation between man and woman… Woman's power lies in man's passion, and she knows how to use it, if man doesn't understand himself. He has only one choice: to be the tyrant over or the slave of woman. As soon as he gives in, his neck is under the yoke, and the lash will soon fall upon him.” (17)

From this I have developed a number of soft sculptures of hardware tools, sex toys and BDSM equipment with fleshy latex and jelly wax, some direct impressions and some sewn translations. The flaccid nature of these mediums subverts the original meaning of the phrase, and intends to be a discussion of the grey area of power relationships that are discovered through Sadomasochistic sexual exploration.

Image: Kingston, Grace ‘Flesh Anvil’

Conclusion

Through this work I discuss and explore, rather than find a definitive answer to a contemporary idea of the new body and the reasoning behind the modern rituals and practices we take part in. I have achieved this by producing a multi-disciplinary collection of studio works based around the medium of latex as a symbol of artificial flesh and synthetic additions to the body. I have also investigated these themes in a theoretical sense through a collection of aphorisms authored by my fictional online character, based around the idea that online identities through virtue of being anonymous are a new form of costume and can therefore be considered a temporary theoretical modification of the self.


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  1. http://neuroanthropology.net/2009/04/14/fear-of-twitter-technophobia-part-2/ acessed on 10/09/09
  2. Johnson, Steven ‘Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making us Smarter’ New York, New York, Penguin Group Ltd (2005) Pg. 117-118
  3. Higgins, Hannah ‘The Fluxus Experience’ California: University of California Press (2002) Pg. 12
  4. Information was gathered from and aided by Sydney’s Scarlet Alliance – the Sex Workers Union, and mistresses from Sydney’s Salon Kittys.
  5. Information was gathered from BMEzine.com and from the staff at Sydney’s Polymorph Body Piercing Studio.
  6. Some information was gathered from personal accounts but the majority of which was gathered from various pro-anorexia websites such as http://www.proanamia.com/
  7. Much of this information was gathered from Sydney’s Gender Centre website and their publication Polare. Other information was gathered from individuals from Sydney’s queer community such as performers at the Sly Fox hotel and attending discussions with queers and ‘gender terrorists’ from Tu-Tu (formerly known as NewQ) Queer-space at 22 Enmore Rd.
  8. Weeks, Jeffrey ‘Sexuality’ (1986) New York NY Routledge, Chapman and Hall Inc. Pg. 11
  9. I use the term “Western Norms” here as many traditional indigenous societies have space for more then two genders, such as Polynesian Fa'afafine and Aboriginal Australian Sistagirls
  10. Butler, Judith ‘The Believer Magazine’ - Interview - Issue 2, published online at: http://www.believermag.com/issues/200305/?read=interview_butler accessed on 19/08/09
  11. http://salonkittys.com/salonkittys/tour/main.shtml accessed on 19/08/09
  12. Pitts, Victoria ‘In the Flesh: the Cultural Politics of Body Modification’ New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan (2003) Pg. 124
  13. http://sti.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/80/3/244 BMJ Sexual Health e-journal. Accessed on 19/09/09
  14. Image sourced from: http://ngvartbeat.org.au/collection/pub/itemDetail?artworkID=60694 acessed on 19/08/09
  15. Image sourced from: http://www.roslynoxley9.com.au/artists/32/Julie_Rrap/78/35145/ acessed on 19/08/09
  16. It should be noted that the term “flesh colour” refers to the pinkie-white colour of Anglo-Europeans, which is generally considered the norm within western society.
  17. Sacher-Masoch, Leopold ‘Venus in Furs’ New York, NY: Penguin Classics, Penguin Group Ltd (2000) Pg. 14