My journey from printmaking to photography to video to installation to photos to panoramic photos to drawings to virtual reality to……?
I studied art to master’s level and that took me from printmaking to photography, to slide dissolve then to video installations. I loved that journey, underpinned by theory and philosophical thinking, a whole new world opened up. The world was in my monitor.
But it wasn’t, I felt trapped by the frame and my site responsive work was so site specific that it could only endure one showing then was redundant. I stepped away from the screen and became an artist producer. For many years, I was found tromping through woodlands, managing the plant needed for installing huge artwork, going through life in a high viz jacket and steel toecaps.
In private, I continued to take photos, they didn’t need special kit with good mobile phone cameras and they were discrete too. I took a series of photographs of trees that were resilient, growing on the sides of steep hills, determined to grow straight despite the risk of falling down. I think they were me, finding my place in this new home.
An accident in Istanbul, when I was wearing gloves to take photos (I was there for Christmas) revealed the wonder of panoramic photography to me. I spent the next few years exploring the medium. It was exciting to me because it didn’t lock me into a 4:3 ratio. I enjoy the body involvement too and soon perfected a particular dance move that facilitated my using my body as a tripod, allowing for a good 180degree rotation with no jagged edges. (Although, I confess, I enjoyed exploring those too).
For about 5 years I’ve been taking panoramic photos of scenes in front of me, then rotating and taking one of the scene behind me. Inspired by the way people stand out gazing across the sea to nothingness, yet dwell inside boxy buildings dreaming at the horizon. I became obsessed with this notion of seeing both sides and not narrowing one’s vision down. And with perspective, not in the geometrical sense, but in the psychological positions we choose to take. One side or the other.
I want to push the edges of the frame away.
A video work I did with Suze Adams involved our filming each other across the Severn, at the time of the arrival of the bore. It was carefully choreographed and planned so that the images were simultaneously taken to the second. Viewed together, the huge difference was visible. We were, more or less, in the same place viewing the same thing at the same moment. And what we saw was wildly different.
I am passionate about the Severn. I lived on the east side for 25+ years and have been on the west side for 11 years. It’s at the bottom of my street. Last year I began to draw from my huge collection of photos of the river, and found a visual language to represent the vastness, the openness, that the river provides. It is like a huge exhale. The panoramic format allows me to be expansive with it, and do a different dance to produce it. No twisted legs, as when photographing. Flowing.
And like the video project, I am taking photos on opposite banks at chosen locations, all places that hold some significance for me in my life. Bridging the Severn. The title comes from a Heidegger paper that Suze and I discussed, about a river not existing as a locale until the two banks are bridged.
The destination for the drawings journey is to create a publication that bridges words and images together to tell the story of the Severn. Most are the width of A1 paper, but there is one two metres wide in progress. And suddenly, today, having been playing with a VR headset at home, I have realised where I’m going with this.
I’m returning full circle in some ways, back to wanting to feel immersed, as in a video installation, needing to provide another way of experiencing the world. Not as a simulation, but as a.n.other way of celebrating what we have.
I hope to get my hands on a drone soon, so maybe my next steps will be to view from above, and 360 degrees around. I’m very excited by this process. It’s all about finding one’s place in the world.
If you come to see the drawings at The George, from 30th June- 29th July, you will see what I mean. I’m also going to have some leaning tree postcards, just because it is time to put them out, now I’ve found my feet here.
I saw the old fox in his den
in hiding with his family
fragile and unsteady
with a long past behind
he sees no future
yet is content in that knowing
his fear is limited by
brief time remaining
I saw the young fox cub
basking in the sun
fragile and unsteady
with no past to guide him
his future unscripted
yet his fear tells him
he must run to escape
don’t be so vulgar
because my words
they made her want to
that spitting blood
is a little
Last night I had a virtual lobotomy. I didn’t feel it happen, wasn’t even aware of it, until I saw the gaping hole. No blood, no entrails, no scalpel. Now I am an artist without organs, with a wiped hard drive. A victim of intellectual rape, yet the rapist does not realise the pain I feel, how empty and numb.
They plundered and removed my most tender thoughts, my writings, pourings, plans and dreams. Ideas all gone at the flick of a switch, the pulling of a power cable, with only a trace of them in my memory. 2 years work, 15 gigabytes of edited video, millions of words, days and days of meticulous editing, gone. Not only has my CV disappeared, my recent life has been annulled.
Friday 20th July 2000
examples of previous works: none – resources lost
proposals for new work: none – resources lost
I return to ‘body’ in this text, my body – numb, in shock, despair. In less than half an hour in the night – all meaning erased. Work unmade and returned to its ethereal state, to hardware with financial value to someone, emotional value to no one but myself. Wipe the drive, erase my contents placed so regularly in its memory, profit from my loss. Someone should.
It’s only a computer, a hard disk, and a repository. An archive of a life of no importance. Like the ‘History of Art’ book I cut up – the feeling of sacrilege as I cut through the pages and removed them to insert my hi-tech LED display. I felt that sense of outrage, the deliberate defiling of a beautiful object, historical images, merely ink on paper but so loaded with meaning. Pixels were my ink spots, video frames my pages. Vengeance of the cruellest kind.
Ok, so I deserved it. Now I feel like that book, my spine is weakened, my interior a space of no substance. I no longer make any sense of myself, turn my pages only to find blanks, holes in my memory, materiality dissolved. My limbs feel reduced, shortened as if I have had a prosthesis removed after a long period of acclimatisation. I will get a new extension, but will have to learn all over again how to use it, to make it comfortable to be with. But I will never regain those feelings I experienced with the last one, the nerve endings have been cauterised. New nerves will grow, maybe even stronger than the first. I hope so.
The empty desk remains, my centre of existence, the nucleus of my days (and nights), stolen while I slept, remaining only in my dreams. Recorder of my ideas removed, in someone else’s hands. What will it film from now on? Happy family outings, lively sexual interactions, holiday memories? What will be seen through the viewfinder next?
This paper describes and discusses the work of French performance artist Orlan and considers whether her claim to render the body obsolete has the desired effect on her audience. To illustrate this I have included a written observational response to seeing her live on stage at Nottingham Trent University. Orlan has received much media attention due to her controversial use of plastic surgery to her body. These interventions were not for acceptable cosmetic purposes, but to question the western ideal of beauty. The majority of corporeal art celebrates or investigates subjectivity, whereas Orlan attempts to deny that subjectivity and, amongst others, claims that the body is becoming obsolete.
Many artists have responded to the transformation of the body by technology. They have moved through various stages, from direct representation through to more conceptual responses. Artist Jana Sterbak created performances whereby structures that alluded to traditional clothing were employed, to restrict and control physical movement. In her work Remote Control, a cage like that of a crinoline dress, suspended the performer above the ground, rendering her incapable of independent movement. The cage was remotely controlled by herself or the viewer.
Stelarc: Stomach Probe
Yaesu Center, Tokyo, 1973 (photo: M. Kitagawa)
In the work of Stelarc and Mona Hartoum, one encounters a slightly different technology applied to the body. Both employed medical imaging equipment to film the insides of their bodies. The resultant images were, not surprisingly, markedly similar. Stelarc continued by developing performances in which he added prosthetics to his body, using electronic impulses to stimulate his muscles. What this work reveals is that the boundary of the body can be penetrated and altered. Cartesian duality, that of the mind/body split, was rendered insignificant by this transgression. Stelarc went even further, he declared the body on the way to becoming obsolete: ‘We try to design our instruments so that our body can use them, can adequately toggle or press or manipulate them. I think now we have come to the point where we possibly have to think of redesigning our body to match the capabilities of its machines’. (Stelarc 1999)website-no page ref
Orlan aligns herself with Stelarc:
‘Like the Australian artist, Stelarc, I think that the body is obsolete. It is no longer adequate for the current situation. We mutate at the rate of cockroaches, but we are cockroaches whose memories are in computers, who pilot planes and drive cars that we have conceived, although our bodies are not designed for these speeds. We are on the threshold of a world for which we are neither mentally or physically ready’ .(Orlan 1996 PAGE REFERENCES)page 91
Stelarc: Third Hand
Yokohama/Tokyo/Nagoya 1980 (photo: T. Ike)
Unlike the other artists referred to, Orlan made permanent alterations to her physical appearance. She not only documented these processes of medical invasion but suffered them in front of the viewer’s gaze. With a background in performance art, she transformed the theatre of surgery to a theatre of drama, using luscious baroque imagery. She made a private place, that of the operating theatre, into a public display of indulgence and carnival. She calls these interventions her transformation into ‘St. Orlan’. Her work constantly challenges binary oppositions, those of inside/outside, black/white , woman as Madonna/whore and male/female. She coined the phrase ‘female to female transsexual’, as a playful labelling for her alterations – she is a woman taking on the identity of another woman. What is most shocking are the images she produces from these processes. Photographs used by plastic surgeons for advertising purposes invariably show the before-and-after states, but the surgery and the healing are kept hidden. Orlan’s work reveals all the stages, including the process.
Performances by Orlan are well-documented but to fully appreciate the impact on the viewer her images and videos must be seen. The following is an extract from a personal account, written as a response to seeing Orlan in performance.
“ She sat to the side of the stage alongside her translator and told the audience about her work as slides were projected behind her. The slides showed manipulated pictures of Orlan, whereby her features were distorted in the manner of pre-Colombian beauties. They are fascinating images in sharp, bright colours of bizarrely modelled faces, extended foreheads, extended nose bridges and scarred skin. At one point, Orlan stood in front of the projected images and explained how the pre-Colombians had a different concept of ‘beauty’ to the west and amused the audience with her stories of what we might consider barbaric behaviour in their endeavour to achieve the ideal. Robert Ayres, the host and translator, managed to convey her humour to the audience, as she proceeded to swing her hip and tell of how in parts of Brittany women with a deformed hip are favoured, because they make excellent child-bearers. She performed, she swirled her body and made us laugh, then she sat down.
The rest of the ‘conference’ proceeded at an entirely different pace. While Orlan explained that she would show her videos and gave a history of her performance work, the slides continued to project behind her. As her voice echoed in my head I turned my attention to the film and the audience, noting the content of the images, their theatrical construction and the responses of the viewers. I also wrote notes of my own physical changes, when tension began to build and where it subsided.
The viewer was slowly led into the situation, the first images giving a general introduction to the ‘theatre’, showing the glamorous costumes and baroque iconography. My ribs began to contract as I watched a needle penetrate the skin around the lips, stabbing deeply, filmed very closely. The audience became restless, the struggle started. Then, an emotional break. In the film, Orlan applied lipstick voluptuously, we were temporarily reprieved from the horror. The surgeon, using a marker pen, traced the areas for incision. The tension began to build again. My vision became a little foggy, the auditorium filled with groans. People covered their eyes, lowering their heads , looking nervously up at the screen. Although I felt increasingly nauseous, I also experienced a sense of amusement, in the manner that Orlan (on the stage, not on screen) continued to read texts, occasionally glancing over her shoulder at the screen to see where the film had got to.
The needle continued to move more deeply into the skin. Someone rushed out from the room. As the tension rose, suddenly the surgery stopped being screened and an image of Orlan’s normal face was shown, zooming in and out of the frame. This was followed by a sequence of filming made by rotating the camera quite rapidly around the inside of the operating theatre. Those who had not been made dizzy by the surgery were certainly dizzy by then.
So the films continued, slowly building up to crescendos of discomfort, then dissipating it with humour or distraction. My physical response varied from tight ribs to a tense neck, to clouded vision. Occasionally my stomach audibly churned, my hands became increasingly clammy. These were physical manifestations, not solely emotional. When the film became unbearable, which it often did, I looked around at the other faces and watched how they were responding. Some people sat with glazed eyes, pain clearly experienced, but unable to look away. Others could not look, their bodies would not allow them to see. More people left the room as time went by. Orlan continued to read and Ayres continued to translate. I felt like I was on a roller-coaster, surrounded by gasps and groans, all suppressed, all evidently trying -not- to react, but finding it impossible not to.
Eventually, the intervention video ended and the audience exhaled as one and relaxed. People looked emotionally drained, exhausted. The next video showed the reporters in the newsrooms that had relayed the films worldwide live via satellite connections. Their expressions changed rapidly as the relay proceeded. Having started with casual, amused smirks, they soon appeared to be extremely uncomfortable, perspiring and writhing in their seats, looking notably upset. (Black 1999)
The careful choreography of this performance was structured so as to situate the viewer in the place of the subject. The use of medical technology transformed Orlan into ‘other’ and the spectator experienced that displacement. “People covered their eyes, lowering their heads , looking nervously up at the screen.”
In Desire by Design – Body, Territories and New Technologies, Alexa Wright entitled a chapter ‘Partial Bodies’ (Wright 1999). She discusses how technology is altering our concept of the corporeal, with a particular concern with medical technologies. Although Wright doesn’t actually refer to Orlan, her comments on the status of the body during surgical operation are extremely relevant:
In surgery the flow and disorder inherent in the state of transition are restrained by the sterile field and, as the patient wakes, only the closure at the surface of the body is visible: the controlled environment of the hospital provides a shield against the abject fear engendered by the chaotic nature of an accidental wound. To see beyond the acceptable surface of the skin into the body is almost always undesirable; suggesting that detachment from, and objectification of, the body is not quite as advanced as we would like to imagine.(Wright 1994 PAGE REFERENCES)page 23
It is this ‘seeing beyond the acceptable surface of the body’ that Orlan confronts us with. And it is painful to look at. As Orlan herself declares: ‘Few images force us to close our eyes: death, suffering, the opening of the body, certain aspects of pornography (for certain people), or for others, birth.’ (Orlan 1996 PAGE REFERENCES).page 83
She goes on to explain this discomfort: ‘Here the eyes become black holes into which the image is absorbed willingly or by force. These images plunge in and strike directly where it hurts, without passing through the habitual filters, as if the eyes no longer had any connection with the brain’. (Orlan 1996 PAGE REFERENCES) page 83
Holes, gaping bleeding holes, crying out for attention, we feel them and cringe. The viewer is placed in the position of the receiver. We identify with Orlan and feel her pain. She is anaesthetised, but we as an audience are not.” When the film became unbearable, which it often did, I looked around at the other faces and watched how they were responding. Some people sat with glazed eyes, pain clearly experienced, but unable to look away.”
In Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, Barbara Creed writes of the ‘monstrous feminine’, the threatening effect caused by the sight of the exposed female body (Creed 1990). When looking at an image of Orlan’s lip being injected, it is difficult not to identify it with that of an engorged labia. Creed describes the sight of a surgical incision as being comparable to the ‘gaping black hole’ of the female genitals
Strategies of identification are temporarily broken, as the spectator is constructed in the place of horror, the place where the sight/site can no longer be endured, the place where pleasure in looking is transformed into pain and the spectator is punished for his/her voyeuristic desires. Confronted by the sight of the monstrous, the viewing subject is put into crisis – boundaries, designed to keep the abject at bay, threaten to disintegrate and collapse. (Creed 1990 PAGE REFERENCES)page 137
Orlan’s display of the flesh being broken also threatens these boundaries and serves to enhance our awareness of our corporeal presence, our vulnerability as humans. It forces us to engage emotionally, demands that both our bodies and minds work in unison. Although we are presented with the corporeal as mere flesh, treated as a plastic medium, we cannot separate from it. Just as Stelarc, who declares the body obsolete, depends on his own flesh as the host to his prosthetics, so Orlan relies on her physicality to host her surgery. Rather than rejecting the aesthetics of the body, they are magnifying its essentiality.
In Telling Flesh: the Substance of the Corporeal, Vicky Kirby (1997) proposes that the human subject is already digitised and decentred, that its hybrid state is changing our perception of the corporeal. To quote Kirby:
In the closing years of the millennium the self-evidence of the corporeal can no longer be assumed. Human tissue incorporates a complex weave of dacron, silicon, and metal; edible chemistries of a hybrid derivation routinely join the rhythms of biological dialogue; pig, human, baboon, and tomato are blended in strange recipes; electronic circuitry’s measure out the delicate pulse and possibility of life”.(Kirby 1997 PAGE REFERENCES) page 129
The body as we know it is ‘up for grabs’. With surgery and drugs increasing our power to manipulate and alter our bodies by choice, our notion of ‘self’ has come under threat. Subjectivity has become unstable and we appear to be merely a sum of our parts. Not only can surgery literally reconstruct the body but chemical changes can also reconstruct the mind – altering our behaviour and perceptions.
It is evident that the work of Orlan exposes this flux to her audiences and challenges the concept of the fixed self. In doing so the viewer suffers on her behalf and becomes increasingly aware of his/her own physical presence. In doing so, the body is experienced as being far from obsolete. (The audience) “……..appeared to be extremely uncomfortable, writhing in their seats, looking notably upset.
List of References
Creed Barbara, 1990, Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, ed. Annette Kuhn, Verso
Kirby Vicki, 1997, Telling Flesh – the Substance of the Corporeal, Routledge, London
Open University (website), 1999, Digital Planet ‘Script for Cybersouls’, producer Cameron Balbirnie, http://www.open.ac.uk/digitalplanet/souls/Script3/scriptp1.htm
Wilson, Onfray, Stone, Francois & Adams, 1996, Orlan,Black Dog Publishing Limited, UK page 91
Wright Alexa, 1999, Desire by Design – Body, Territories and New Technologies, Partial Bodies, I.B. Taurus London/New York, page 23