This Thracian megalith - The Womb Cave is located near village of Nenkovo, Bulgaria. It was discovered in 2001. The temple has a vulva-like shape. It leads into a cave deep about 22 m. and wide 2.5 m. A human hand shaped it into a place of conception constantly washed by water seeping through the walls.
The description leads us further into the cave where we can find a womb-shaped altar. Everyday, sun enters the cave through a “special opening ”creating “ a perfectly recognisable representation of a phallus onto the floor.”
As a man - made temple the cave offers one of many possible visions of the space of celebration and sacrum. Upon entering the spaces of cult, of art, of creation and reproduction we discover how they shape our behaviour, how they set limits to our thinking or activate our imagination. The space of gathering becomes a container filled with preconceived ideas, intentions and histories. Some containers are softer than others, more porous, and we might look for the abolition of ‘phallic regimes’ there.
In the empty hall of Agora spaces of work and of spectacle are not fixed. The re-arrangements of space move us all and they organize our movement, our gaze becomes subject for re-adjustment and we are included in the dynamism of proposals, offerings and ideas. We are invited to play. Playfulness is a manifestation of freedom.
Work and refusal to work
Kathy Weeks in her lecture on Historical Materialism talks about implications of the refusal to work deriving from the Marxist theory, which would necessarily include a refusal to work ethics that buy into capitalist demand for waged work as the only source of value and means for social reproduction. To dissent from the role of desiring producer who can consume fruits of her own work but at the same time gets consumed by the growth of the capital, is to say ‘no’ to consumption and exploitation of what’s alive and reclaim the economies that bring us together rather than set us against each other. We are no wolves. Still, we have to prevent the capitalist patriarchal monster from eating us.
Artistic practices can contribute to restructuring of society, as they facilitate space for testing of ideas, they ask us to imagine the future that is different from the present. Feminism at its core caries a utopia, it is providing a critique of the Now where equality, demilitarization, overcoming racism and imperial violence are still matters of futurism. But, as those changes remain still a future to come, they are already at work.
To develop concepts and strategies that would occupy the cultural space and propose a transformation of productive regimes and structures of social relations, we need artists to insist on the possibility of utopia and prove that ideas can be tested. And, through the disposition of art, the change could be carried into the world. Choreographic thinking could be a revolutionary tool for the transformation of society. By looking at the body and structures of relations in space the choreographic gaze, when amplified, can grasp structural problems and help bringing relations back into flow. But to gaze like this one must bring the body to the foreground, as it is were we reside, and what constitutes us and where ideology works. Choreography can become a tool for reviving and healing structures, both of an individual and of society.
Choreographer proposes a variety of relations - through listening and observation she develops a sense of interrelations and is able to work upon them. Structure for choreography includes necessarily bodily and spatial relations, temporality and the world of affects. It proposes a complex and affirming understanding of what it is to be a human with her embodied experience. As bodies we are ultimately equal, and choreography should start from that. For it to radiate change we have to dance through that revolution.
Female Trouble as a collective of choreographers enables various spaces of collaboration and experimentation to emerge. Their curatorial project aims at inverting structures of visibility, as such it puts feminism to practice. Spaces and formats facilitated and curated by Female Trouble carry the sense of choreographic thinking. The structure of Vulva Club mobilizes different modes of spectatorship and on the 1st of May it invited us to move around work.
According to the Industrial Workers of the World’s website the May Day tradition can be traced back to the late 19th century, when the US-American workers had been struggling to establish an 8 hour work day in place of the highly unregulated,exploitative ( up to 16 hours per day) working regime. Industrial Revolution created a high demand for labor force, and child labor reached its historical extremes. Both growth of profit and efficiency of production in Britain and USA were possible due to the regular influx of immigrants ( plus women and children) who were immediately rendered cheap, exploitable workers. Life expectancy in some industries was not higher than early twenties. The fight for 8 hour work day was accompanied by the attempt to shift power relations and establish an industry that would benefit workers as much as factory owners and entrepreneurs.
On the May 1st, 1886, 300 000 workers marched across United States demanding the change of capitalist structures, they called for safer and more just working environment.
In the following days mostly male crowd of protesters confronted the police, a bomb had been thrown at the police officers, gunshots were fired in response and some people on both sides were killed.
Vulva Club on the May 1st, 2018 was a peaceful gathering. No deaths were reported, though, once we sat in the circle, there was an undeadness creeping in.
Come chase the night with me
They say I'm bad, you say it back
But you know you don’t believe that
Eat the fruit that feeds your spirit
On your knees, now baby eat it, eat it
- Abra, Fruit
With an opening proposal for the May Day’s Vulva Club, we were invited to, literally, feed ourselves. The semi - monstrous cake was offered without any excessive care about its presentation. The fact that we were eating it together was at stake rather than whether we wanted to eat or not.
Female Trouble’s invitation was for anyone to deliver an idea for testing / further development / activation, while people attending the event were there to work ‘for’ them. Throughout the afternoon notions of work as well as ‘working for’ would undergo several twists and reformulations.
So, the cake.
It carried work that had been done before our arrival. The preparation set an intention for that brief moment of coming together, turning the process of making the cake into an act of anticipating us, who came to eat it eventually. Soft push. In this non-spectacular moment, to trust and to honor someone’s request and offering happened to be work. While passing the tray around we looked at each other digging with bare hands into a pile of non-identifiable ingredients. As we were chewing on it through several rounds, the cake started to overpower us. We smoothly transitioned from private space into a more collective event of eating, eating even if it was too much sugar.
Vulva Club, from its beginnings in 2013, was meant to challenge the regimes of visibility in the art context and reshuffle the distribution of resources in terms of space, attention and recognition. To engage with the space of vulva is to place peripheries at the centre. It requires some deep listening, delicacy and duration.
Work and labor
Bojana Kunst in her book “Artist at work. Proximity of Art and Capitalism” writes about art’s entanglement with capitalist regimes of production - production of capital and of political subjects. Art provides space for ideological appropriations - both of imagination and body, but it can also become a site of resistance and dissent, it can bring about a re - definition of the subject and transform structures of dependencies that constitute a world.
(...) the political subjectivization that can take place in theatre, for instance, is not the recognition of the community as it already is, nor is it the recognition of those who are right or the recognition of things we have in common. Subjectivisation gives rise to a certain new multitude that calls for a different enumeration.
Vulva Club proposed a format that allowed me to be present in the shared space through / with my body, and the experience it produced unfolded across the senses. Breaking with theatrical distance and change of contract with audience seem to be ever-present themes in the post-modern and contemporary performance and choreography. It took years to establish what Bojana Cvejic called “another regime of representation”, that emerged as a bitter finale of the contemporary art’s continuous exploration of its field by means of inside gazing. By looking at themselves, as well as examining the frames of creation and questioning their audience’s place, artists entered yet another dimension of alienation - an artistic breakthrough got stuck in existential loops of the late modernity.
To overcome alienation in spaces of creation we might look first at social interactions that occur through participation and co-working - even if those do not immediately inspire a formation of a community, they might serve as a way toward an accumulation of disturbances that drip into and, eventually, through the fixed social tissue.
Shortening of distance between bodies and their mobilization in space can inspire different kinds of engagement and bring about reformulations of effort, work and production. We need spaces in which we can interact with others beyond obligation of productivity and away from the narratives of competition and struggle. By coming right at us, artistic framings shape our presence. We become essential to an emergence of events, we put someone’s ideas into action, we work. The author dissolves in the proliferation of small contributions, in accumulation of gestures of solidarity and playfulness. We are in this together. We have to make it work.
Once the cake was set aside, the circle we sat in was penetrated by something much more uncanny (than cake). Surprisingly terrifying zombie’s entrance pushed me out of my comfort zone (a little bit). Nearly unbearable proximity of the zombie that seemed to be, at the same time, alien and distant, made me want to stay in the circle, though a little bit contracted. The erotic zombie dance show was there happening for me, for us. Soon after, we could all learn how to zombify ourselves. Not a bad treat for the 1st of May. As Lars Bang Larsen in his essay "Zombies of Immaterial Labor" wrote
The zombie as a figure of alienation is the entranced consumer suggested by Marxian theory. It is Guy Debord’s description of Brigitte Bardot as a rotten corpse and Frederic Jameson’s “death of affect”; and of course what media utopianist Marshall McLuhan called the zombie stance of the technological idiot. Thus zombification is easily applied to the notion that capital eats up the body and mind of the worker, and that the living are exploited through dead labor.
If in the corporate culture death has come upon both subject and affect, the expression of the zombified face – contorted and hellishly grotesque, carried a radical potential – it came too close to us, it was too much in its self-unfinished, undead makeup. From that point of terror and confusion it eventually posed a question that was not to be ignored or dismissed, question painfully real, that demanded an immediate answer. However, to the condition it revealed there seemed to be no immediate solutions.
Why is the sexworker dead?
She/ he / they are dead due to the discriminatory law that does not protect workers while securing the existence of the market of sexual labor. The deprivation of rights that is being experienced by (sex)workers in the economic system which reduces people to abstract data, statistics and disposable workforce cannot be reversed or opposed through an individual act of protest or a singular disagreement. While we were learning how to cheaply put on a zombie face and playing with fake blood, we learnt also something that we did not know, or did not know enough about. And sometimes sharing knowledge can be a step toward a revolution, or at least a change - but only if we make a step toward it.
Zombie was born at the plantations, it was a slave that attempted to steal himself from his master. He was a slave forever, bound to his workplace, never returning home. To invert the power relations we could, as Larsen suggests, make friends with the zombie and learn something new.
The zombie isn’t just any monster, but one with a pedigree of social critique. As already mentioned, alienation — a Marxian term that has fallen out of use — is central to the zombie. To Marx the loss of control over one’s labor — a kind of viral effect that spreads throughout social space — results in estrangement from oneself, from other people, and from the species-being of humanity as such.This disruption of the connection between life and activity has monstrous effects. Today, in the era of immaterial labor, whose forms turn affect, creativity, and language into economical offerings, alienation from our productive capacities results in estrangement from these faculties and, by extension, from visual and artistic production — and from our own subjectivity. What is useful about the monster is that it is immediately recognizable as estrangement, and in this respect is non- alienating. Secondly, we may address alienation without a concept of nature; a good thing, since the humanism in the notion of the natural state of man (for Marx the positive parameter against which we can measure our alienation) has at this point been irreversibly deconstructed. In other words: the natural state of man is to die, not to end up as undead.
Work through Anger
Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.
- Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality
The third work proposal of the vulva afternoon was the only one coming from a woman-artist. In the seated, semi-theatrical setting we could determine the mood of the piece (reflected or angry) and join a “Feminist Activist Healing Object Activation”. The majority decided in favor of an angry feminist.
Audre Lorde in her “Uses of Anger” writes about women responding with anger and standing against personal and institutional oppression. It is a non-defeated disagreement to an unquestioned privilege, exclusion, stereotyping and silence. And to respond to what is communicated through that anger with guilt and defensiveness is to stay complicit in the process of building a wall
against which we will all bash our consciousness, unless we recognize that they can be taken apart.
If anger’s object is change, we should also be reminded that change, transformation or healing must be founded on inclusion and listening. As long as we are not all freed, we are not free at all.
Object in the process of healing is set before us as a container. It signifies, it can tell multiple stories but it is its place within a structure of meaning and value that requires choreographic intervention. Activation can be understood as bringing back to life, into an active position, into visibility, agency and audacity. Often what it ‘tells’ us when we look at it is not what it really ‘says’. Material historicity demands digging all the way through an object of healing and attempting to renew a mobility of signification which would imply also - confronting what this object does to us, and them - who might be contained in it but not immediately visible.
An apple breaks and when we realize what the structures of its production are, we might suspect that this apple is a poisoned treat offered to us by an exploitative hand of capitalism. And that is meant to immobilize us and put us to sleep. To define healing solely through the spectrum of self-care is not enough. We must acknowledge the position from which we attempt to introduce change. In the global entanglement of production forces and the flow of capital, voices of the most impoverished are often times the one’s assumed, misheard or ignored. If in the current stage of capitalism we are all globally implicated in the exploitation of land, resources and life, we have to question everything that constitutes our idea of the world and how it is structured. We have to pause over our consumption and come to terms with our silence and privilege.
To undo structures that set us apart from each other and the world at large, we must evaluate our decisions and set different goals, we must allow different stories and voices to leak into spheres of our political identifications and dare to imagine the future that would be making of the new, future that is a radically better place for all.
The practice of organization, creation and sharing could be a feminist work in itself. For the distribution of resources that does do not permeate patriarchal structures of recognition and validation we need female gaze, a visionary female gaze.
There is a reflective distortive surface placed in front of the spot where people are about to gather. Mobile phones are catching the details of the reflected bodies and mediate how one inside is seeing it. There would be many different perspectives and points of seeing enabled through this proposal that came as the last one in the evening. John Beger in his “Ways of seeing” wrote about
seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.
Later in the book Berger would write that to see something is an act of choice. To look can be both affirmative and depreciating. We chose not only what we see but how we see it. Responsibility is inherent in our conscious becoming in the world that we come to know and understand not only through words, but also through images and affects.
We were invited to create an assembly of bodies, to form a living sculpture based on a shared task. It turned out to be playful. Through engagement we learnt how to recognize ourselves as a part of a bigger picture, we participated while figuring out how to do this. And to look at oneself was one possible choice, another could be to bring attention to what one was doing to the rest of the assemblage and decide how one wanted to cooperate and what was there needed. It was also possible to step out and see from the outside what was being produced, to distance oneself and reflect on the sculpture in its ongoing process of mutating and emerging.
Participation re - humanizes a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalist production
- Guy Debord, The society of the spectacle
Choreography deals with multiple dimensions of what is being experienced and transmitted. It brings both symbolic and physical space as context for the identities, relations and transformation to occur. The opening of spectrums of identification and ideological entanglements emphasizes fragility of the living that becomes a condition for change and reformulation to happen. We must not only be mobilized but we must be susceptible to movement, willing to be moved. We must exercise our fragility in the process of the political becoming and find ways to direct change for the sake of more collective emancipation. As inherently social, our bodies partake in the radical transformation, and by our re-positioning within the structures of power we can cause oppressive systems to collapse.
(...) the intense power of transformation through which the crisis of subjectivity enters the field of performance as power, a force of negativity, and a conglomerate of affects and desires. In this context, I see radical consumption as the consumption of the body, presence, human actions and abilities, physical strenght, spiritual nature of subjectivity and , in this way, also open up the relationship between performers and spectators. It drives the live communicative situations in contemporary performance beyond the conventional, established representations and powers of signification.
- Bojana Kunst, Artist at work, Proximity of Art and Capitalism
Work of feminism
Feminist as an adjective is being applied on our thinking of style, iconography or authorial intention. We should however pose a question about feminist forms of organization, curatorial practices and re - distribution of powers, that open up space for what Griselda Pollock sees as
the transformation demanded of the very art historical concepts by the force of feminism as intervention and effect
- Griselda Pollock, Action, Activism, and Art and / as Thought: A dialogue with the Artworking of Sonia Khurana and Sutapa Biswas and the Political Theory of Hannah Arendt
The First of May was perhaps a good occasion to engage with re-formulation of how we work and how we talk about work. The change of contract is important both to audiences and artists. Through the leakages in the almost impenetrable spaces of cultural distribution Vulva Club offers a format that activates questions of friendship, collaboration and responsibility in the frame of making and enabling art.
Art, if freed from the supremacy of phallus, obligatory competition and productivity, can become a site for exercising utopias. Those not yet existent frames of living and sharing can be speculated into the tissue of society through the insistent well-informed practices that bring about not only new ideas, but at the same time, they establish spaces for testing of ideas. Audre Lorde wrote that
The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.
Thanks to the artists ( in order of proposal appearance) : Flupsi Upsi, Antoine Carle / Tchivett, Alexa WIlson and Andre Uerba, And to Female Trouble: Agata Siniarska, Roni Katz, Xenia Dwertmann