Dancing into writing

I recently started writing for the arts blog Bad at Sports that’s based in Chicago. My first article, “Watching Touch,” looks at the Atlanta-based Full Radius Dance, which is a physically-integrated dance company, meaning the dancers have a range of abilities. This article coincides with my more recent growing commitment to dance and movement-based performance work. These interests have created profound shifts in my dissertation work – it’s looking different every single week…

Testing out the Flesh Machine

Current reading: Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics by Jenny Reardon.

Pardon my absence from posting in the past couple weeks – classes have been crazy and I’m currently working on a conference paper for the “Visualizing Disability” Panel at the Southeastern College Art Conference at SCAD in November (more posts to follow soon about the conference) that has been taking up major time. So, this post may be a bit all over the place.

Reardon’s book discusses the history of one particular project, the Human Genome Diversity Project, as a way to illuminate the debates that occurred, and still are occurring, about the use of genetics research in studying humans, human populations, and races. She lays out the issues of how race has been studied scientifically and how it relates, or doesn’t, to social discourses and constructions of race. She asks us to consider how race is defined in society and in genetics, and which differences become the ones with meaning in each discourse.

We also watched a video featuring James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA’s double helix, called “Pandora’s Box” in the series on DNA by PBS. In the video Watson describes his interests in studying genetics and a “new eugenics.” He claims that “If we don’t play God, who will?” The stakes for Watson are high. Statements of his about the intelligence of African Americans caused major controversy; not to mention the oft-forgotten fact that his son has a mental illness. An article in The Independent from 2007, “Fury at DNA Pioneer’s Theory: Africans Are Less Intelligent Than Westerners” describes Watson’s theory and the ensuing response to it. It quotes from Watson’s new book Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science:

There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.

This is where Reardon’s book becomes necessary in order to contextualize Watson’s work in the history of genetic research. It is easy to dismiss Watson here; his comments are brash, but we need to know where they come from. However, are we supposed to entirely dismiss genetics as well? How can we position Watson in the landscape of genetics and scientific research; in Isabelle Stengers’ notion of an “ecology of practices”? Reardon also claims that we can’t necessarily sanctify or condemn science; so what are we to think of this research? (Reardon 7) Many geneticists, on the other hand, who proposed and worked on the Human Genome Diversity Project were considered anti-racist, though they too were criticized for propagating further racism. The use of race in science and genetics has been fraught and tricky for us to get “past.” Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a leading scientist in the Project, was an anti-racist, and so therefore argued that studying human “populations” instead of human “races” would work to undermine racism in society. He, however, believed that race still did exist on the genetic level and there were certain differences between groups – this he was criticized for. How is our genetic make-up, our material, responsible for our social position, our race, and all other factors that make us who we are? Does our internal code really determine all aspects of how we will be?

Genetic testing is a contentious issue for disability proponents. Questions about who has the right to live become apparent here: if a fetus is found to have genetic disorders, should it be terminated? What are the qualifications for human-ness? What do we consider a “good” human? Though Reardon’s book mainly addresses the issue of race in genetics research, these other questions are there all the same. Questions about expertise and who has the authority/right to constitute the human emerge. Reardon brings Michel Foucault’s writing on “power-knowledge” to the issue, which can be important for thinking about new eugenics and reproductive technologies. Reardon asks: What kind of human diversities matter? And to this I ask, who decides what matters and how? What is the particular criteria to arrive at a judgment?

Critical Art Ensemble, Cult of the New Eve, image found at http://www.artnet.com

Art collective Critical Art Ensemble explores many of these questions in projects of theirs including Flesh Machine (1997-8), Intelligent Sperm Online (1999), The Society for Reproductive Anachronisms (1999-2000), and Cult of the New Eve (1999-2000). These projects all point to the utopian attitude conferred on new biotechnologies, and ask how to respond to this attitude and technologies at our disposal. The language of these projects mimics the language used by geneticists, eugenics and new eugenics practitioners, and arguably public health scholars as well. In the statement for Cult of the New Eve, CAE writes:

We are entering an age in which the secrets of creation are not in the hands of God, nor are they at the blind mercy of Nature. We control our own destinies… Once and for all, we shall know that humankind is not spiritual – it is material.

What separates this language from Watson’s claims that we need to take responsibility into our own hands for human progress, is that CAE is using the configuration of a cult to expose the underlying utopian project of eugenics and new eugenics. CAE is calling for us to be critically aware of these projects. In their position paper for the project, they talk about science’s position as new religion and that “its power lies only in the particulars of knowledge production.” However, as we have learned through Foucault, this knowledge production can’t be divorced from the production of power. How is the relationship between science and religion similar to the way the relationship between genetics and anthropology played out in the Human Genome Diversity Project – with genetics as hierarchically higher than anthropology? Who is really working for the “public good” and what does that really mean? What are the differences between us that actually matter?

Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine – image found at http://greenmuseum.org

Ecology of Practices: Santiago Sierra

Santiago Sierra’s work is controversial, obviously so I would say. His projects include paying prostitutes to  tattoo a red line across their backs for money for heroine (160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People, 2000), paying unemployed works to sit in cardboard boxes for four hours a day for six days (Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 2000), and hiring workers to act as buttresses to hold up a wall for five days (The Wall of a Gallery Pulled Out, Inclined Sixty Degrees From the Ground and Sustained by Five People, 2000). Claire Bishop, whom I wrote about last week, counters her criticisms of relational art with Sierra’s confrontational work.

Bishop claims that the relationships set up by Sierra don’t collapse into the work and are not meant for a sense of belonging like Rirkrit Tiravanija’s and Liam Gillick’s whom she criticizes: “The relations produced by their [Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra] performances and installations are marked by sensations of unease and discomfort rather than belonging, because the work acknowledges the impossibility of a ‘microutopia’ and instead sustains a tension among viewers, participants, and context” (Bishop 70).

Santiago Sierra, 160 cm Line Tattooed On Four People, 2000 (image found at http://bombsite.com)

While reading Isabelle Stengers “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” I thought of Sierra’s work. She begins by describing the stakes for physics: either it defends itself as keepers of the knowledge of reality or it must suffer as just another social practice. To deal with this issue of science’s truth claims, Stenger develops the notion of an ecology of practices which is defined as a non-neutral tool for “thinking through what is happening” (Stengers 185).

Stengers talks about our attachments, our obligations, and our responsibilities; attachments to her are “what cause people… to feel and to think, to be able or to become able” (191). It is our mistake when we take these attachments as “universal obligations” and feel “free to go anywhere, to enter any practical territory, to judge, deconstruct or disqualify” (191). What can this mean for Sierra’s work? Work that judges without judging, disqualifies without actually disqualifying? Sierra brings the prostitutes and unemployed workers into the gallery where they become both performers but also objects of art. Their previous societal disqualification makes them fodder for Sierra and they are transformed into highly expensive works of art, though after their time of occupation, what has changed about their original disqualification? How do we see these people now? What is our (the audience’s) responsibility to the people who for a period of time became art? Bishop says that “Sierra knows there is no such thing as a  free meal: everything and everyone has a price” (70). Is Sierra simply a “nomad” pointing out the problems and exploitations of the world while still participating in them?

Santiago Sierra, Eight People Paid To Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 1999 (image found at http://www.medienkunstnetz.de)

What does it mean that Bishop claims Tiravanija is working in a “major key” and Sierra is in a “minor”? (71) Is this at all akin to Stengers’ insistence on working in a minor key that “avoid[s] the center stage”? Like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work on minor literature, a literature that works from the inside through  the dominant language? Sierra in these works is using the dominant language of gallery, gallery patron, artist, art object, but the question of his complicity within this dominant language has been raised. According to Stengers, “there is no practice independent of its environment” (187). To this, Sierra responds that he doesn’t “believe in the possibility of change” (Sierra 2002, 15 quoted in Bishop, 71). But what kind of change is he talking about here? A change in the politics of labor exploitation, or a change in the mechanics of art? Or are the possibilities for change wrapped in both?

How are Sierra’s practices, art practices, implicated in Stengers’ notion of the ecology of practices that does not “describe practices ‘as they are'” but rather “aims at the construction of new ‘practical identities’ for practices, that is, new possibilities for them to be present, or in other words to connect;” “as they may become”? (186) How can Sierra’s work be in a process of becoming? To view Sierra’s work as just another instance of exploitation is to, I think, dismiss another side of the work – some sort of nuanced truth claim, but not Truth. Stengers mentions philosopher Leibniz’s take on Truth: to “not appeal to the strong drug of Truth, or the power to denounce or judge, to deconstruct and criticize” (187). The very notion of the critique while participating in the practice being critiqued seems to throw a wrench into the smooth machine of criticism. Do these works empower in Stengers’ sense of the word or mobilize? What about the witch’s ritual she describes and its effect that is “not becoming aware of something which others already knew, of understanding some truth beyond illusions – her effect is enacting the relation between belonging and and becoming, producing belonging as experimentation while it is always in danger of being some kind of psychological habit”? (195)

Monkey Myths and Elephant Ears

I completed When Species Meet by Donna Haraway for this week. To say the least, there is a lot in the book to find problem with in terms of its side-treatment of disability related issues – consider the chapter “Able Bodies and Companion Species” and not to mention the off non sequitur, “Not simple, these aged and needy parents!” (203) Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe it was just not what I expected. HOWEVER, this post will focus on another artist working with animals as material and subject matter.

Deke Weaver, a performance artist who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has a life-long project devoted to animals, The Unreliable Bestiary.

The Unreliable Bestiary is a series of performances, a website, and a set of books about our precarious moment in natural history – an ark of stories about animals, our relationships with them, and the worlds they inhabit. The project will present a performance for each letter of the alphabet – the letter representing a particular endangered animal or habitat.

The Unreliable Bestiary also seeks  to unveil the “connections between science, behavioral observations, economics, politics, spirituality, myth, and imagination.”

(Image found at http://interactivefutures2011.wordpress.com)

I have seen two of Weaver’s performances: Monkey and Elephant. I did a brief write-up on Monkey for The Green Lantern’s blog, and when I look back on it now, I did not give enough credit to the animals, the monkeys, apes, and the others.  I was shortchanging the animals as allegories for humans, and I believe I didn’t pay enough attention to the animals themselves, their lives, their histories, their stories. Partially through reading When Species Meet and also through my own work on Franz Kafka’s animal stories and reading of Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari has made me more aware of this mistake of mine. I can’t believe I didn’t realize this sooner! The stories narrated in Monkey were not just about human genocide as I was thinking before, they are stories of the experience of monkeys themselves and should not be read solely through anthropomorphic lenses. Elephant should be read similarly; we are to mourn the elephant dying in the midwestern snow by itself, far away from home, for itself and not necessarily as a metaphor for our own struggles with loneliness and isolation; we should pay attention to the elephant’s own existential crisis, not just our own. We are to “regard” these animals in Haraway’s sense of it:

I see the regard I am trying to think and feel as part of something not proper to either humanism or post humanism. “Companion species” – coshapings all the way down, in all sorts of temporalities and corporealities – is my awkward term for a not-humanism in which species of all sorts are in question. For me, even when we speak only of people, the animal/human/living/nonliving category separations fray inside the kind of encountering worthy of regard. The ethical regard that I am trying to speak and write can be experienced across many sorts of species differences. The lovely part is that we can know only by looking and by looking back. “Respecere” (164).

I think maybe Weaver is engaging in these narratives to pose questions similar to the ones Haraway asks “Who are you?”, “Who are we?” and what it means to be “partners-in-the-making” (208). Unlike Haraway’s text-based project and her narration of her relationship to her dog, Weaver embodies the animals in his performances through costuming, movement with choreographer and dancer Jennifer Allen, sound with musician Chris Peck, and video. It is not a simple thing of “becoming the other,” and I don’t think that Weaver would claim that that is the case. It seems to be more of a rethinking of human exceptionalism and a paying attention to the “unruly edges” between species (Haraway 218); Weaver is putting himself in the “contact zone” and bringing us with him, for “most of the transformative things in life happen in contact zones” (219). (However, for some other time perhaps, an examination of the “contact zone” is required along with its seeming reliance on Levinasian ethics and the face-to-face encounter – the issue of what is a face and who has a face was not fully addressed, I don’t think in When Species Meet).

Weaver’s animal embodiment is not a simple engagement with the “contact zone” and the “encounter of the other,” rather, it looks toward “becoming-animal;” “to participate in movement, to stake out a path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone, as do all the significations, signifiers, and signifieds, to the benefit of an unformed matter of deterritorialized flux, of nonsignifying signs” (Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, 13). Like with Kafka, Weaver’s animals don’t simply “refer to a mythology or to archetypes,” but show us more of the animal in its intensities (13).

When Bunnies Meet

It has been a while since my last post – I recently moved to Atlanta and started a graduate degree at Emory University in the ILA (Institute of Liberal Arts), so it has been a busy time. Getting back into writing posts has been a bit daunting for me (am I running out of things to say??), so I decided to repurpose a class I’m taking for blog posts. The class: Feminist Science and Technology Studies.

This week we are reading Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet, Part I: “We Have Never Been Human.”

Haraway starts the book with 2 questions: 1. “Whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?” and 2. “How is ‘becoming with’ a practice of becoming worldly?” (3). From here, a good portion of the book consists of an examination of her dog, her dog’s history, and Haraway’s relationship to this history. How does the history and cultural context of her dog’s breeding implicate her? What does it mean to be a companion to another species? And, what are our obligations/responsibilities to them? What are theirs to us? How/what does the dog respond?

I am interested in her examination of breeding practices versus genetic diversity practices, which seem to be opposed to each other. I am confused, however, by many of her statements that seem to be contradictory to each other (and, for me most importantly, those statements that seem to implicate the existence and continued  birth of humans with disabilities – hopefully I will address this another time). Her chapter “Examined Lives” presents a complicated history of purebred dog breeding and genetic diseases. Like with humans, genetic diseases in dogs are also stigmatized and kept hidden. Many of the players in the chapter argue for a thorough screening of genetic diseases before breeding to eliminate/prevent the possibility of passing down certain genetic diseases including epilepsy and CEA (collie eye anomaly). This seems a bit too reminiscent of eugenics practices, and surprisingly enough Haraway discusses briefly the screening for Tay Sachs amongst the New York Jewish population (see 127 and footnote 52, pp.354-5). I am not trying to say that we should be thrilled to have genetic diseases. I am, however, saying that the discourse surrounding the prevention of genetic diseases amongst dogs seems a bit problematic in its rhetoric and aims.

I am still grappling with Haraway’s writing on genetic testing and genetic manipulation. She claims that bioethics is “boring” (136) and I’m not exactly sure why though she claims that bioethics “is firmly on the side of society” and that this “categorical dualism between society and science, culture and nature, is a setup to block a grasp of what is going on in technoculture” (136). This is something that I am interested to find out: is bioethics always on the side of society and does it work to maintain this division. As Harway then claims; bioethics “will have to get real” (136). Still to come…

An artist working with biology as a material in “bioart,” and project in particular, GFP Bunny, came to mind while reading. Eduardo Kac has an entire section of his website dedicated to his bioart practice. Many of the projects feature transgenic work, like GFP Bunny. Alba, the bunny, is a transgenic bunny that glows in the dark.

Kac writes on his website:

Transgenic art, I proposed elsewhere, is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created.

What does it mean for us, the viewers, to look upon this work? How should we react? Should we be appalled or delighted? What would Haraway think? She claims in chapter 3, “Sharing Suffering” that she “does not mean people cannot ever engage in experimental animal lab practices, including pain and killing.” Though she does mean that “these practices should never leave their practitioners in moral comfort, sure of their righteousness” (75). How much of this statement is a testament to art? A practice that is supposed to affect us and at times make us uncomfortable; to open up questions? What does it mean that, in the 2nd to last page of Part 1, we are left with a new metaphor of dogs – “great companion animals are like works of art”? (156)

How am I to think of Alba as an artwork, an animal, a science experiment, but also as a pet, a companion animal? At first it appears that each of these categories needs its own set of questions and methods of judgment, however, I am not sure if that would be the best/most appropriate way to view this image of the being named Alba. Like the question Haraway started with in her book, I guess I may end my post: Whom and what do I see when I look at/regard/gaze at Alba?

raw mushroom hiatus

I attempted to make raw portabello mushroom bisque the other day and it did not go over well. Maybe it had something to do with substituting almonds for Brazil nuts. Not sure if that change-up is something you could do successfully. I’m a little dismayed by the failure and am going to give myself a moment of cooked food – something I know how to do.

However, my friend Kristen’s blog live.love.laugh at enjoythisorganiclife.blogspot.com has some raw recipes that I’m going to be trying out sometime soon. When I’m feeling more upbeat about soaking various nuts and seeds and grinding them to make different concoctions.


vegetable pasta

Last night for dinner I decided to make pasta, but instead of boiling water and boiling wheat-filled pasta, I made living pasta; pasta that is made from raw vegetables. I found the recipe for “Live Fettuccini Alfreda” in the cookbook Vegan Fusion World Cuisine, put out by the chef for the Blossoming Lotus Restaurants. This cookbook has so many delicious looking recipes – all of them vegan, and some of them raw.

This pasta was so colorful on the plate! However, I don’t have a picture of it because I ate it first… but it’s on the cover of the cookbook!

“Shanti Gabriel’s Live Fettuccini Alfreda” (pg. 82)


Sauce: 1 1/4 cups water, 1 cup macadamia nuts (I didn’t have these so I used cashews and soaked them for 1 hour and drained them before use), 1 tablespoon lemon juice (fresh squeezed), 2 teaspoons shoyu (I used Bragg’s Liquid Aminos), 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic (minced), 1/2 teaspoon raw apple cider vinegar, 1 1/2 teaspoon nutritional yeast, pinch cayenne pepper, sea salt and pepper to taste

Pasta: 1 1/2 cups carrots, thinly julienned or grated; 1 cup zucchini, thinly julienned; 1 cup gold bar squash, thinly julienned; 1 cup red bell pepper, thinly julienned (I didn’t have the pepper and it was fine); 2 teaspoons basil, chopped; 2 teaspoons Italian parsley, chopped

Directions: Combine all sauce ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Combine all pasta ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. Serve pasta on plates and pour sauce over top. (I found that there is enough pasta for 2 servings, but depending on how much sauce you like to use, I had leftover sauce.)


alternative mashed potatoes?!

Just thinking about making mashed potatoes in my too-hot-Chicago-apartment makes me overheat. However, there is something very comforting in eating mashed potatoes; a creamy comfort food. Linda Page, Ph.D., a naturopathic doctor, suggests in her book Healthy Healing, eating comfort foods such as mashed potatoes, oatmeal, and yogurt to help with anxiety. I was feeling the need for some comfort today, and decided to find an alternative to the sweat-me-out-of-my-kitchen dish. Here’s the delicious raw substitute I found: cashew cauliflower mash! I found this recipe in The Goddess of Raw Foods by Nwenna Kai, who is actually an alum of SAIC (School of the Art Institute, my former graduate school)!

“Cashew Cauliflower Mash” (The Goddess of Raw Foods, 105)

Ingredients:  1 small head cauliflower (chopped), 4-6 garlic cloves (I used 4 and it was very garlic-y, so if you would like to tone it down, I’d suggest less garlic), 1 cup cashews (soaked 1 hour and drained), 1/3 cup fresh chives, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast, and this is my addition: salt to taste

Directions: Process the cashews first in the food processor until smooth. Then add the cauliflower, oil, garlic, and the nutritional yeast and process until smooth. Place in a bowl and stir in the fresh chives.

Yum! And, calming…

Dr. Linda Page has a website called “Healthy Healing” with a newsletter and other info; to check it out, click here.

To check out Nwenna Kai’s healthy food project, click here.

some recipes!

I’ve been in a cooking slump; not excited about preparing or eating anything that I usually do. I’ve been eating out a lot more recently, and I’m starting to feel the ramifications of that. I woke up this morning and felt achy and fatigued even though I had slept 12 (!) hours. I decided that maybe I should just mix it up a bit and actually utilize the cookbooks I have and friends’ suggestions. On top of that, I also decided that I’m going to try to incorporate more raw and fresh foods into my repetoire. I’m vegetarian already, but sauteing/steaming/baking veggies every night is getting a bit old. Plus, some of the nutrients are lost during these heat processes.

These next few weeks are going to be an experiment! Now that I’m taking a bit of a break before my PhD program begins, I figured this is the time to forge new habits. Maintaining health is going to become super important come end of August, and hopefully some of these new food ideas will keep my energy up.

Here are a couple recipes I’ve tried in the past couple of days – these come from ani’s raw food kitchen by Ani Phyo.

For breakfast: “Coconut Breakfast Cakes”: Substitute for pancakes that are usually packed with gluten! (ani’s raw food kitchen, 78)

Ingredients: 3 cups flax seed meal, 2 tablespoons liquid coconut oil, 1/2 c agave or maple syrup (I used part honey instead of the agave and that was ok – agave is more liquidy though so probably works better), 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, 1/4 c water

Directions: Put flax meal, coconut oil, agave, salt, and water in large bowl and mix well. Form balls with the “dough” and flatten into a pancake shape. I served these up for myself with dollops of yogurt on top with fresh berries and bananas.

Now on to lunch! “Cabbage Kale Slaw in Simple Greek Dressing” (ani’s raw food kitchen, 94)

Ingredients: Salad: 1/2 head kale, any type, destemmed, 1/4 head red cabbage, I also used 2 shredded carrots; Dressing: 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, 1 teaspoon thyme (I used fresh)

Directions: Thinly slice the kale and cabbage, shred the carrots, and place all in large bowl. Add the vinegar, oil, salt, and thyme to the bowl and toss well. I preferred to wait a few minutes to eat the slaw so that the kale softens and marinates.

And now for some after lunch dessert! “Carob pudding” (ani’s raw food kitchen, 73)

Ingredients: 2 avocados, 2 bananas, 1/4 cup carob powder (I used cocoa powder instead because I didn’t have carob), and this is my addition: almond milk for smoother consistency.

Directions: Put the avocados, bananas, and carob powder in blender and process until smooth. (The original recipe calls for a food processor, but I used a blender, thus the almond milk addition.)