Thursday, April 23, 2009

Seriousness and Fun

The binaries I encounter as an artist (form/line, depth/flatness, shape/color) recall the doubleness of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Chiasm and Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the grotesque, which, like my practice, is grounded in the body. Bakhtin's analysis of Rabelais articulates the grotesque as "a body becoming," the opposite of the Classical ideal of the body, much in the same way that Merleau-Ponty's theory of subjectivity is the opposite of the Cartesian "Cogito ergo sum". This "becoming" is not specifically in terms of consciousness, but in a broader physical exchange and overlap with the world. The body becoming is a universal body, a body without borders, in which functions of the lower stratum, the guts and the genitals, are emphasized. Bodily processes where inside and outside are mixed, as in eating, sneezing, farting, sex, defecation, are manifested and celebrated in the grotesque, and Bakhtin extrapolates a revolutionary and affirmative power in the Renaissance laughter that accompanies the grotesque in Rabelais. It is a laughter that withholds judgment, that acknowledges and diffuses fear, that acts as an equalizer between social classes, young and old, men and women, the ugly and the beautiful.

My own imagery is not quite as frank as Rabelais's, and my attraction to the grotesque is grounded in its contingency and evasiveness, the fact that the grotesque is in process and cannot be pinned down. I make drawings and objects that are appealing and pleasurable on the surface, like so many innocuous objects and products are, and I situate them in impossible or untenable positions. These are in-between, liminal positions; a carefully cut and stacked pile of foam on the ground may be sculpture, garbage, drawing and floor at the same time. I draw materials from common experience; things that we all know by sight and touch, like felt, glitter, fur, paper, and try to coax them into unfamiliarity.

Bakhtin and Rabelais are writers divided by a great deal of time, geography and culture, from me and each other. Rabelais and Bakhtin are concerned with social stratification in Renaissance France and the Soviet Union, respectively. The act of situating myself in terms of art history and theory always comes retrospectively for me; my gut instinct to deal with material and form. This excludes remediation and planning, and that is appropriate for me. When I do need to look for a context and language for the work I do, finding theorist, writers and artists who foreground bodily experience is important. Rabelais and Bakhtin do not address certain issues, such as gender, that are important to me, but their ideas are broad and flexible, and they acknowledge bodily specificity.

I also need to acknowledge the association between the decorative and the grotesque, which goes a long way to explain the repetitive nature of a lot of the work I do. Decoration is often thought of in opposition to form, as an attribute of form's less-important opposite, surface. I don't really see how either pole of this binary (which could be understood as inside/outside, too) can exist without the other. Like the grotesque body, it is a generative and self-defining exchange.

Beyond that, all my decoration and repetition is an excuse for me to bliss out (or space out) and inhabit my body in very literal, physical terms while making work. Because I do not have the steadiest hand in the world, the fact that a fallible, sometimes tired and inexact person made the work is obvious. But the patterning is there for other reasons, too, otherwise I could just weave or jog or something. The patterns are feminine, but not terribly ladylike. They are fun but I want them to be a little off. I guess I want people to wonder whether I'm crazy or having a ball. In addition the ideas of femininity and pleasure are not taken too seriously. Obviously, I think seriousness and fun are not and should not be mutually exclusive.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading Rosalind Krauss by the Size Queens

Hey Everyone,

I just wanted to share some stills with you from a music video I made in collaboration with Raph. The song is called "Reading Rosalind Krauss" and it's by this band called The Size Queens. I know Rosalind Krauss hasn't really written on the grotesque, but I feel like my interpretation of the song qualifies. I will be posting a link to the video when the final edit is up on youtube. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Between Science and Fiction: Mirror Neurons and Hyper-Empathy

My posts on the grotesque and empathy are based on research I did for my Jan Van Eyck application to work as part of the Cross-Cultural and Counter-Modern Research Group led by Kobena Mercer. This post looks at empathy through science fiction and neuroscience.

Octavia Butler, 1947-2006

Octavia Butler on Writing and Hyper-Empathy

My rule for writing the novel was that I couldn't write about anything that couldn't actually happen. So my character couldn't have any special powers. Oddly enough because my character has a kind of delusion of empathy that is brought on by her mother's drug use--she has a particular syndrome that is supposed to be the result of her mother's drug use--some people have thought that this was a power, an extra-sensory power that she had. What my character has is--she calls it "hyper-empathy syndrome"--the inability to observe someone in pain without feeling pain. So she really does feel your pain.

And I remember talking to some people who thought this would be the perfect affliction to make us a better people because it's a kind of biological conscience, and you wouldn't be able to hurt people without feeling it. And I immediately began to think about ways in which that wouldn't be true and ways in which that would be disastrous.

Ways in which it wouldn't be true, for example: If you had money, you could pay some other people to take the pain, you know. Go out and hurt this person and OK, it's going to hurt you, but what the heck; you're going to be a lot richer when it's over. Or little boys discovering that they can be macho by being able to take more pain as they give it than other little boys. It would happen.

And the worst is who would want to be a health-care professional if hyper-empathy syndrome were real. Imagine being a dentist. (Laughter). Anyway, I give my character this affliction, not power but affliction, and force her to respond then to the misery that she sees around her. And one of the responses that she comes up with is this religion of hers.

MIT Lecture - Devil Girl From Mars: Why I Write Science Fiction

2005 Interview with Octavia Butler on Democracy Now

Mirror Neurons and Empathy

Excerpted from Interdisciplines Website, Eurpean Science Foundation:
The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of macaques and their implications for human brain evolution is one of the most important findings of neuroscience in the last decade. Mirror neurons are active when the monkeys perform certain tasks, but they also fire when the monkeys watch someone else perform the same specific task. There is evidence that a similar observation/action matching system exists in humans. The mirror system is sometimes considered to represent a primitive version, or possibly a precursor in phylogeny, of a simulation heuristic that might underlie mindreading.

Excerpts from "Intentional Attunement: The Mirror Neuron System and its Role in Interpersonal Relations," by Vittorio Gallese

On Mirroring emotions and sensations:
Emotions constitute one of the earliest ways available to the individual to acquire knowledge about its situation, thus enabling to reorganize this knowledge on the basis of the outcome of the relations entertained with others. The coordinated activity of sensory-motor and affective neural systems results in the simplification and automatization of the behavioral responses that living organisms are supposed to produce in order to survive. The integrity of the sensory-motor system indeed appears to be critical for the recognition of emotions displayed by others (see Adolphs 2003; Adolphs et al. 2000), because the sensory-motor system appears to support the reconstruction of what it would feel like to be in a particular emotion, by means of simulation of the related body state.

I Feel Your Pain: Empathy and the Grotesque

Mikhail Bakhtin defines the grotesque body as unfinished, perpetually changing and rough and one which is opposed to the classical body which is finished, complete, smooth and achieved. At the heart of the grotesque is an unstable and always shifting growth defying categorization which threatens anything that is fixed, stable, permanent or ideal. The logic of hybridity serves in many ways as a twin to the possibilities of contestation present within the grotesque.

Like the grotesque, which serves as perpetual agitation or growth, empathy throws fixed boundaries which constitute the self and other into crisis. Empathy is understood as understanding and entering into another's feelings; being able to experience the interior emotions of another person as if they were your own. Recent discoveries of Mirror Neuron Systems have been linked to a biological basis for empathy. Dr. Vittorio Gallese from a paper titled, “Intentional Attunement. The Mirror Neuron System and its Role in Interpersonal Relations” writes about the subject of a study that experiences disgust and then witnesses its simulation through the facial mimicry of another. The other’s emotion is understood by means of an embodied simulation producing a shared body state. This is thought to be achieved through a shared neural mechanism between observer and observed and enables a direct experiential understanding. Moving from science to science fiction, another model of empathy was articulated by the writer Octavia Butler through a protagonist that suffers from the affliction of “hyper-empathy” in her novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talent. This character directly experiences the pain and pleasure of another and is frequently incapacitated by the violence unfolding around her. Through the ability or affliction of hyper-empathy, she gains insight into others through a process that threatens the limits of her self.

If the Grotesque can be understood as the center of hybridity, as a space which defies categorization and has the ability to address that which is abject, empathy overlaps it and is understood as exceeding the physical limits of the body and becomes the basis for experiential modes of communication and knowledge production such as intuition and mind reading. Empathy then offers a possibility of knowing without adhering to physical limits and boundaries.