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Listening to Bodies: Bio-Narratives of the Self


Notes: A Neurobiological diagnosis with aesthetic, cultural and philosophical implications.
Part 3: Co-Evolutionary and Aesthetic Practices

My work on phantom limb phenomenon began with a series of artworks that explored ideas of the social affects of trauma and illness. I then turned my attention to other projects, but came back to it, and wanted to address this subject more directly. At that time, I had been doing work that explored ideas and constructions of subjectivity using 16mm film, video, photographs and three-dimensional materials. Looking back at this work, I understood it to be an investigation of somewhat more generalized notions of subjectivity, and I wanted to get specific and go for detail. I was interested in the way that material culture is a reservoir of meaning. I was also interested in the rules, stories, rituals and codes of the culture one is from, which is usually set out by the various institutions such as the medical and beauty institution, the family, religion. In addition, I wanted to use narrative in my work.

In this next installation, I wanted to surround the viewer with different parts of a story told from different perspectives.
This body of work is called The Healthy Body the Sick Body and was done in 1992 – 93. It includes six pieces, a few of which I’ll show you, that explore the relationship between a brother and sister, each of whom is in various states of health and illness. Their relationship is set up by their involvements in the beauty institution and the medical institution.

The work looks at how separation happens within the context of a Jewish family, through eroticized identifications, and the particular ways gender roles are created along a process of loss in death.

This piece is called Flashpoint. The frames are made of vacu-formed, flocked plastic, which is a material that is used to package cosmetics. I wanted the frames to billow in order to look like pillows. The text is written on body tags, which are the tags that are tied on toes in the morgue to ID people. The tags worked perfect in the piece as they are body tags, and the string from the tags worked well as hair, and the tzitzit that hang at the ends of Jewish prayer shawls.

flashpoint

I shot the images on site at a salon and a medical office. I liked the contrast of sitting up in a chair and lying down on a table. I like the aspect of vertical and horizontal as part of the narrative.

Flashpoint tells the story of a brother and a sister at the time of puberty.

The sister is going to the beauty salon as part of her ritual emergence from a period of sexual latency, she’s 13. There she is looked at and touched all over. At the same time at the other end of puberty the brother is becoming gravely ill, and he’s being looked at and touched all over, but by the medical institution. As the story continues they switch positions. She starts feeling pathologized because of this relentless attention to her body, and he tries to do something about his deteriorating appearance as a kind of last vestige of control over his body.

In the story, the brother has his leg amputated due to his illness. I set up the story in such a way that the missing limb has many coordinates.
I’m going to read parts of Flashpoint.

Text in Flashpoint

1
At 13, it was now time for her to make an appearance at the salon. She needed a style for her hair – all the girls were going for that sort of thing. Her nails had become unmanageable, her eyebrows overgrown, yes, some make-up would do.

2
School was difficult for him – he didn’t understand the written language without a mirror – the print was not legible to him otherwise. He had to memorize the whole Haftorah for his Bar Mitzvah ceremony two years ago. Everything was different since then, everything was different since his dad died shortly after. He took his dad’s place as head of the family – quite a position for a 15-year-old. But this was law according to Talmud.

3
Her schoolwork came easily, she became involved in the school play, the quarterly paper. She and her brother studied dance together. He won the trophy, but she was good in sports. Once each month she would go along to the salon with the older girls, her cousins, aunts, her mom. The ritual engulfed ever more of her body, touching every part, opening, sensitizing. Her body, now an open pore, was treated with grains, oils and herbs – feeding, softening.

4
His skin had become calloused, the work for the family was never done. He watched himself in the mirror. More hair appeared on his face. Each new follicle that surfaced advanced his skin tone by a shade of grey. As he surveyed his shifting textures, he realized that something was not quite right with his body. He hadn’t been feeling so well, and now he had gotten worse. He needed help, that was clear. The doctor – surely he would know how to fix his trouble. He would be the one to help.

5
She was packed in mud, enveloped from head to toe, the mask peeling off the dead skin. The dead ends of her hair were removed. Her nails and cuticles were clipped back – the dead tissue manicured to look like new. She missed the presence of her brother since he slid into position as father. She didn’t want another father – she needed that place to remain empty.

6
It was more serious than anyone could have imagined. He went in for tests and came out missing a limb. The ghost pains of his severed leg made this absence so tangibly present. Now at the doctor’s office, when he looked down, the examining table replaced the missing part. Before he was two men – the father and son. Now he felt like only half.

7
What was missing in her anyway? All these treatments – was she not good enough to begin with? The chair swung toward her and froze in place as if notched to her axis. As she watched herself getting her hair cut, she realized she felt stronger before. It had become a painful thing, letting go of this dead stuff – there must be something wrong with her, to be so attended to.

8
The treatments made his hair fall out. Could someone help him fix his hair? Maybe his sister would know what to do, she had an eye for fashion. The prosthesis now filled in the missing part, but maybe it was a place better left empty. It was hard to use – but it did make him look good.

9
Her brother was not going to make it. Witness to this boundless ruin, was she next in line? Twisted by incongruous sensations, she felt disfigured as compared to others. Did they know she had something missing? Yes, there was definitely something wrong with her. She needed help, that was clear. She needed to be doctored up.

10
He began to look forward to having his hair done. Even though the end was near, at least he could go out in style. For the time being, it made him feel alive to primp. It was nice to have someone fuss over his appearance. After all, he could have the final say.

Throughout the text, what was missing rang through like Poe’s purloined letter. It shook up different registers and got passed along to the next site. She missed her brother since he slid into position of father, the brother now had a missing part (leg), what was missing in her anyway, the brother then had his missing part filled in, did they know she had something missing – she was anticipating her brothers death and thought it showed in her appearance.

The chairs are empty so they can switch positions and so the viewer can project into that chair.

This next piece that is part of the brother sister work is called Phantom Phantasies (1993). It’s constructed of panels perpendicular to each other, and uses 3 images (one on the left panels, one in the center and one on the right panels), which montage together.

In contrast to the cinema where images move for a stationary viewer, here it is the viewer’s position and movement in space and real time that cause the images to intercut and combine providing various associations.

These are the three images in this piece:

cohen

I wanted the montage to generate stories for the viewer.

I have several stories that were generated by this work. I produced one as a text piece that I wrote as a companion piece to this work. I wanted it to exist separately, to be published in a journal for example, and I got the opportunity to do so when I was invited to curate a section in Zingmagazine. It was a 12-page section called “Phantom”, in which I contributed this text with a couple of the images of this work as well as images of other relevant works. In addition I included the work of three writers, Sarah Bayliss, and Juli Carson and Lindi Emoungu working together. They contributed one fiction piece and a theoretical text taking up ideas of the phantom, with reference to the work of Nicholas Abraham.

I’ll read you the text piece:

Slick with the sweat of his trouble and squirming on his belly now, he burrowed through the sheets searching for answers, the throbbing phantom propelling his movement. Suddenly he noticed how easily he slid on his belly, his cylindrical body exuding a rich liquid for frictionless gliding along the surface. With his skin highly sensitized from increased contact, in his mind’s eye he caressed his new shape as his limbs melted into a single svelt unit.

He became smooth, elongated, a curvilinear movement from his head down to his one foot. Carving out a tunnel through the pillows, his thoughts turned to his childhood when he spent a lot of time outdoors, examining the creatures, the bugs and small animals. He got the most pleasure playing with the earthworm, for as many times as he cut it, it would grow back, again and again.

About a year after I made this piece, I saw a story on the news about a young girl with leukemia who couldn’t find a donor for bone marrow due to her unusual type. Her mother was pregnant with a baby who had the matching tissue. Since they couldn’t wait for the baby to be old enough to be a donor, they used tissue from his umbilical cord to effect the transplant. The doctors felt that the operation was extremely successful and they were considering having all mothers freeze their umbilical cords – just in case something comes up, which now is common practice.

In this text, the brother starts to interpret his physical state in another way. Metaphor gives way (is not). His sweat starts to be the secretion of the worm, and allows his sliding along the surface. He squirms on his belly out of his extreme discomfort, a movement the same as a worm. Because of his movement against the sheets, he feels his body in its new shape – as a new surface, and this gives him a different image of his body in his mind. He understands his body as long and narrow now, missing a leg, and curved at the hip to make the jog to a singular leg. In his new form, he moves through the bed sheets, carving a tunnel through the pillows, and remembers the incredible abilities of the earthworm as this becomes a satisfactory root out of his dilemma, and into a more adaptive form.

There are other narratives that came out of this triptych. Another source of extreme difficulty for the brother was how different he now felt from everyone else. A story proceeds from this point:

After the operation he longed for company, someone he could relate to that would understand. The pain of his phantom limb was matched only by the isolation of his marked condition.

Lying in bed, he tracked his phantom sensations as they hooked up to the long cord that had supported his life at first. His severed leg which had thus far gotten his body about reminded him of his severed cord at birth. He had grown his own umbilical cord to reach into the environment, to access what he needed to develop. Before it was cut, it had been an appendage of exchange for his vital resources. Did he have phantom sensations from that cut as well? Did everyone else? This possibility reconnected him with others, for surely everyone had been through a similar predicament.

The umbilical cord looks like an earthworm resembles the shape of a leg. Through condensation, these share with each other their qualities. When the umbilical cord was cut, did I have phantom sensations from that cut? How does this operate as a phantom, is it a blueprint for another function, regenerating as another form?

This next piece is called Untitled (Slipper).

This is a photograph of a high-heeled shoe that I composed out of glass laboratory pipettes. A single strand of hair is drawn up to each pipette, hair that doubles as an effect of the brother’s treatment of his illness, as well as a focus of fashion, both intimately involved in the formation of the sister’s feminine identity.

Laboratory pipettes narrow down to capillary action at one end, and are used to transfer liquids in medical labs. I thought this material acted as a good metaphor for their relationship, as their identifications were fluid and exchanged.
With this left shoe, constructed from medical hardware, the sister inhabits the space of the brother’s missing left leg. It grows in the place of the phantom limb.

After this body of work on health and illness, I became intrigued with the conceptual parameters offered by the phantom limb phenomenon.

Though I turned my attention to other projects, the phantom limb phenomenon and by extension the phantom had become a cipher for me and seemed to provide me with an important key within my work, which gets played out in different ways.

* * * *

In 1995 I had the opportunity to work with another artist to do an installation about violence in our culture, and specifically about combat veterans and war. The 50th anniversary of the end of WWII was coming up, and we felt it was a good time for this project to happen. And so, I began a collaboration with Michael Talley, a Vietnam Veteran and artist. Together, we produced the exhibition entitled Pillars of Salt.

We chose and manipulated specific found materials and fabricated particular forms that would allow us to unveil the histories and aesthetics of war and violence buried beneath the surface of our everyday life and material culture. We were especially focusing on WW II and the war in Vietnam.

In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament, Lot and his wife were told to leave these two evil cities, they were to be destroyed. God warned them not to look back at the destruction of the cities lest they be turned into a pillar of salt. Lot’s wife did look back, and she was turned into a pillar of salt.

One way to keep codes in place is to not look back, not talk about them, then the codes get passed to the next generation, embedded in the behaviors of the elders to the younger generation.

Don’t look back at what happened, otherwise things might change. Military soldiers are trained not to talk about war, WWI, for example, was called The Great Unmentionable.

This exhibition is about looking back, it is about what happens when combat veterans come home, how does it affect them and how does their presence, as well as the aftermath of war, affect society.

In the late 1950’s Alexander and Margaretha Mitschlerlich published The Inability to Mourn focusing on post-WWII German culture. Their thinking was that what Hitler and the Third Reich meant to many Germans embodied a deep-seated emotional connection and symbolized a cherished utopia that they had to abandon in its formative stages. These generations of Germans after the war were unable to express these feelings of attachment and loss for fear of showing any connection to Hitler and the punishment that might ensue. And so they were unable to mourn the loss of this man and promised “reality”.

In 1990 Eric Santner built on the Mitschlerlichs’ findings in his book called Stranded Objects, Mourning, Memory and Film in Postwar Germany, which looks at contemporary film and cultural production. The condition of postwar Germany and its inability to deal effectively with the reality and memory of WWII, he says, is seen mostly in the second and third generations “who have inherited the melancholy that their parents had managed to hold in abeyance by a variety of defense mechanisms.”

He continues:

“…The legacies … of the Nazi period are transmitted to the next generations… within the context of a certain psychopathology of the postwar family. The postwar generations face the complex task of creating stable self identities by way of identifications with parents and grandparents who, in the worst cases, may have been directly implicated in unspeakable crimes, thereby radically impeding their totemic availability.”

He goes on:

“The postwar generations have inherited not guilt so much as the denial of guilt, not losses so much as lost opportunities to mourn losses. They have inherited the psychic structures that impeded mourning in the generations of their parents and grandparents.”

There are many similarities between the state of affairs in the U.S. due to the war in Vietnam, and that of postwar Germany, although it has been much worse in Germany. That we too, in the US, are in denial of the horrors of our war, that there is something inherently wrong with the family structure (family values) that were a big reason for the war in the first place, that we too have an inability to mourn. There was a basic inability of the nuclear family to deal with the Vietnam Veterans physical and psychic trauma.

These accounts resonate strongly with a structure that speaks to the way that a trauma such as war becomes something that the person must conceal or bury within themselves, which gets passed to the next generation and perpetuated. It seems to me this structure embodies the problematic of the phantom, as laid out by psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham in “Notes on Phantom: A Complement to Freud’s Metapsychology.” The figure of the phantom, he says,

“is meant to objectify the gap that the concealment of some part of a loved one’s life produced in us. The phantom is, therefore, a metapsychological fact. Consequently, what haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others. …What comes back to haunt are the tombs of others: the burial of an unspeakable fact within the loved one.

The phantom is a formation of the unconscious that passes from the parent’s unconscious into the child’s. It works like a ventriloquist, like a stranger within the subject’s own mental topography. … It is sustained by secreted words, invisible gnomes whose aim is to wreak havoc from within the unconscious… The words which the phantom uses to carry out its return, … [and to give it sustenance,] do not refer to a source of speech in the parent. Instead, they point to a gap, that is, to the unspeakable.”

In our installation, we tried to focus on the way that these buried signifiers live on in culture, the afterlife of the war effect, covered over by a slick gloss, forming products and images for consumption, being passed along by the family and structuring our daily lives. The exhibition tries to walk the line of excavation to find where a fissure, a crack may still be found.

In this piece called Three Fighting Men, we used a plastic model of the other Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a bronze figurative piece with the same name. Each figure stands on top of a military motion picture tripod.
We refigured the models by changing the positions of the bodies and adding accoutrements, so that each portrays one of the main media stereotypes of the Vietnam Veteran: the psycho killer couch potato, the pathetic – the beggar, the misunderstood rebel.

Adrenaline is a racing motorcycle that’s 18 feet long. It’s made from one of the drop tanks that were used as napalm bombs dropped by jet airplanes in Vietnam.

We were planning to run it at the Bonneville Salt Flats, to race it there, where amateurs can clock land speed records.

Here, the figure of the veteran sits inside the shell of the bomb that acts as his exoskeleton. He is part man part weapon. His own body having been a weapon of war – GI means government issue – this event allows him to physically re-inhabit that state, including the mind/body state that accompanies war – adrenaline. At the same time his “transformation” assigns it another meaning, a value more socially acceptable – that of racing.

These next slides are part of the Booty, Spoils and Plunder Series that is a series of x-ray images in light boxes. We wanted to address in metaphoric terms what veterans bring home with them that is not readily seen by the naked eye.

“Booty” are war trophies, “liberated objects”, similar to souvenirs but paid for in a different way.

The prosthetic leg holds various fetishized objects: drug apparatus, a suicide kit, military medals, burglary tools, jump wings.

This is a portable radio with weaponry in it.

“War was a place where you discovered things” one father who has been to war might say. Such a father doesn’t talk about it that much, but it is an experience that holds a large charge which the child can feel. The father comes home with all these trick objects and booty, also heavily invested. His dad’s experience becomes a charged fantasy for the boy to go and find out for himself – it has an aura of mystery and excitement and adventure. The son calls it his destiny to go to war.

Shivah (Mourning Stool) consists of a small plaster replica of the David, truncated below the knees, immersed in a salt-filled footstool that is turned upside down.

The footstool is overturned to reference the short wooden benches one sits on during the Jewish mourning practice called Shivah.

David, the warrior who slew the giant with just a slingshot, is here melting into salt. I was thinking about the way that America lost more than the Vietnam War at that time. It lost its innocence, its adolescence.

David – the young boy hero – is a symbol of who America thought it was prior to this war. This symbol melts into salty tears as the need to grieve the loss of this icon is expressed.

The image of David, truncated below the knees, recalls the disappearance of the heavily-invested identification of ourselves as a nation, an image dependant on a kind of persistence of a cultural inner vision, but no longer true to actual form.

My work on health and illness still occupied my thoughts and had opened up some paths of thinking that I wanted to continue to explore. One such avenue came from the work Phantom Phantasies. I produced Earthworm, Phantom as a culmination of this trajectory of thought. Earthworm, Phantom is a piece still in progress – the mound is to be completed. The earthworm is made of many materials, but the outer material is cast paper. It stands about 5 feet tall.

* * * *

At this time around ‘96 or ‘97, I had been thinking about the transformations in our culture owing to advances in technology, specifically in the fields of robotics, prosthetics, genetics and artificial intelligence. New sets of social relationships were beginning to take shape, as was a new framework for thinking about the construction of bodies. Conceptions of the hybrid have been present throughout history. I became interested in the specific ideas of the hybrid in grotesque realism during medieval times – like the gargoyles that were part of the architecture.

In writing about the 16th Century author Francois Rabelais in his book Rabelias and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin comments on the body of grotesque realism he finds there:

Contrary to modern canons, the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed complete unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world. This means that the emphasis is on the apertures or the convexities… the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose.

…This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body the link in the chain of genetic development, or two links shown at the point where they enter into each other.

I made 2 Belly Button Ball works at this time. This one is made of bronze (7”D) with a layered flesh-like patina, the other of resin (20”D). The Belly Button Ball works are made of cast belly buttons making an irregular, somewhat awkward sphere.

I am interested in the excessive, or “more than” nature of the grotesque and its regenerative potential. The belly button is a scar; it is a place where we once were more. Now that more exists as a phantom, the belly button operates as the site of a phantom limb. It is a place that marks a metamorphosis. I was working it through also as the ability to transform. I was thinking about the umbilical cord as a phantom limb and as a signifier of the continuum we live on, a physical and empathic connection. Cumulatively, each person’s visceral, morphological memory (of the cord) adds up to a phantom presence in culture.

In medieval times, when someone greeted you, instead of patting them on the back, they would pat you on the belly.

Bakhtin characterizes the essential principles of grotesque realism

as degradation, that is the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract to the lower bodily sphere – the intestines, the anus, the genitals, the belly. Copulation, pregnancy, birth, growth, old age, disintegration, dismemberment. During carnival in these times, this was played out as an ambivalent parody in order to devalue these ideals, but also to regenerate them.

The grotesque body is a body full of potential, a body and spirit renewing itself, in a more expanded communication with the world and the broad spectrum of other presences in it.

In the spirit of carnival, the earthworm piece operates as an alter ego, a body double. It resembles intestines. The earthworm is of the lower bodily sphere – a site of the ambivalent devaluation and regeneration of higher ideals – that place where old forms sprout new paradigms, possibilities. In keeping with grotesque imagery, the open mouth is its distinctive facial feature. It is at the same time a phantom umbilical cord.

I had become interested in investigating our relationship to animals. Civilization’s progress and technology’s relationship and debt to animals is clear – without animals to test our medicines and perform experiments on, we wouldn’t have the quality of life that we enjoy today. Now, animals are being used to grow or to farm body parts for humans – pigs are being bred small to provide hearts for xenotransplantation, a human nose was grown on the back of a mouse. When robotics are designed they use animals’ sensory systems as guides and models – as they are so much more developed than we are in that respect.

Our relationship to animals, as many have pointed out, has also paved the way for our justification to kill – to reduce the other to “an animal”, thereby rendering it inhuman — was a justification in the pogrom, and ongoing.

In this next and last body of work that I’ll show you today, Splice, I was thinking about the way that we are intimately connected to and extending ourselves, now more than ever, through the non-human world of objects and animals.

Phantom limb phenomenon, while rooted in physiological conditions, allows for a transformation or reclamation. When certain amputees wear prosthetics, their phantom sensations seem to merge with it, animating it in a way and reaching to include it within the map of the body. In this way, phantom limb phenomenon speaks to the regenerative possibility of incorporation. For me, this is connected to Mikhail Bakhtin’s grotesque body of medieval times. “It is a body that is not a closed and complete unit; it is unfinished, it grows beyond itself”, pushing past its boundaries. Life is depicted in the ultimate state of incompleteness. “The unfinished and open body is not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries, it is blended with the world, with animals, with objects”, with other bodies.

Animal being offers a non-human world that presents an extraordinary otherness at the same time that it presents a world full of possibilities.

We have a connection to the animal world that is persistent and vital. They are an important part of us, our bodies extend to and through them and their existence depends more and more on our collective decisions. My work speaks to this continuous relationship with animals as well as objects, playfully positing images of people whose surfaces are supplemented and extended to include them. It is a phantom sphere as we have become much more cut off from them as a culture, however they continue to come forward, re-emergent.

In a book by Akira Lippit titled Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife, he explores the nature of the animal world and its relation to the human. Far from the distance many would put between the two, both domains of the animal and the human necessarily constitute each other.

Contact with animals turns human beings into others, effecting a metamorphosis. Animality is, in this sense, a kind of seduction, a magnetic force or gaze that brings humanity to the threshold of its subjectivity.

He goes on to discuss the close relationship between animals and technology, animals and the photograph and cinema:

He says: “animals were particularly useful in the development of technical media because they seemed to figure a pace of communication that was both more rapid and more efficient than that of language.” He has alternately referred (following terms established by Deleuze and Guattari and Sebeok) “to a communicational tissue through which information passes amongst animals, moving toward the constitution of energetic ontologies, or a pathic communication.”

Lippit likens this process to transference, which allows film to communicate, just as it enables the psychoanalytic process to substitute a set of projections to stand in for the “real analyst”. This operation of transference is like an unconscious of the film. “Animals, and photographs “, he explains, “can be seen as resembling the unconscious. (One can interpret the animal as a version of the unconscious in nature and the photograph as a technological unconscious.)”

According to Lippitt, animals and photographs are akin to each other in several ways:

A direct relation between the two resides in the look – it is a look without subjectivity – they both return your look from a place lacking in subjectivity.

Animals and the photograph do not die (philosophically, animals cannot imagine death, so they cannot die, what happens is they perish. They have no language to be aware of death, they are part of a large collective. The beings in photographs do not die).

Animals and photographs can both be seen as resembling the unconscious.

For one, animal being highlights the bodily unconscious. In my work, I propose an addition to our bodily understanding, our bodily well being, to include the animal, the object.

We are confronted with a form, a form of life that communicates to us, but uses other forms of communication, other than language – it is non-verbal, a communicational tissue.

As Lippit suggests, animals (and photographs) resemble our unconscious. By bringing this relationship to the surface of our body, we make it part of our everyday reality. How am I related to animals? What is their intelligence like, and how is it different than mine? Do I have some of the archaic qualities of animals latent within? I wish I did. As with some animals, can I regenerate a missing part? I wish this were possible (technology addresses this desire). One time when I was swimming, doing the breaststroke, I thought about a frog swimming, and that image guided my own movements through the water so much smoother and more efficient than before.

Judith Butler after Freud, has posited that the ego is a projection of a bodily surface. By imagining that I am a frog, will I understand the world a little bit differently? There is a moment in our development as children, when we are unaware of the separation of our body from that of another child – a sibling for example. In a stage of development called transitivism, when one child falls down and hurts herself, the other child cries out ouch. This crossing over bodies may persist into adulthood, and puts into question the boundary between us. Are animals’ ability to function as a group somehow related to this? Highlighting these questions is what I aim for with this work.

For Deleuze and Guattari, multiplicity is the key element in their theory of becoming. Animals are the prime example of this, as they cannot be reduced to individual beings as humans can. Each animal, they say, “is fundamentally a band, a pack. it is an essential group ness. Becoming-animal involves a relation to multiplicity which Deleuze and Guattari say is at the center of all becomings”.

The works of Splice address the current uneasy alliance between human and animal or technology. I used the process of felting as it seemed appropriate for this work – it seemed like skin. Felting starts with clouds of wool and works them into a piece of autonomous fabric. I made hand-felted forms in white wool of animals, objects, and body parts that attach to or connect with the body. I think of these as phantoms or phantom limbs as part of what gets dropped out of our picture as a culture is our very important and dependant relation to animals, and it points to our neglect of this very critical relationship.

splice4

In my first exhibition of Splice the limbless torso’s made of stuffed, black fabric have appendages added on, like wound dressings and replacement parts. They inhabit the floor, while photographs of individuals with felt appendages supplementing their bodies hang on the wall.

I had read the book Limbo by Bernard Wolfe, written in the 50’s, which was a civilization of pro-pro’s, a strange breed of people that voluntarily became amputated to receive very powerful prosthetics that made them superhuman.

In the final form of Splice, several felted forms are on individual shelves, alongside the photographs of people with felts attached to their bodies, although not necessarily the same ones.

splice6

To have a felted object on one’s body, your body image grows to include it, if it protrudes your sense of bodily boundaries shift and you alter your movements so you won’t bump into things with your new perimeter. You become more aware of that part of your body as your boundary is different. You become more aware of that animal as a presence with your body. When you take it off, you feel that it is missing.

I was thinking the felted appendages through as a way of becoming something else, of beginning to embody an alteration of the self. Here the animals (and objects) are part of larger pieces of felt that together act like bandages.

These forms protect and describe the open place where fantasy and desire form the body, which continues to metamorphosize.

They materialize the phantom limbs of an historical relationship that contemplates the continuum one lives on, and emulates an expanded intelligence other than ones own. It contemplates the project of becoming-animal.

The video Mermaid Parade was shot from the hip and documents this parade, an event that takes place in Coney Island, Brooklyn each summer, in which people dress up as mermaids, and all things of the sea. It’s great because people with all kinds of bodies, all ages and backgrounds participate in it. I love this parade, and I use it in the installation, as it shows the fascination we have with being part something else. It is popular culture’s engagement with hybrid forms, with becoming-animal, engaging the non-human.

There is a brilliant intelligence within the animal world, and an imparted intelligence in the world of objects. My image of myself is what guides me through the world. It is an expanded image of myself continuous with these other intelligences that I explore within the work of Splice, and that presents a reality that makes the most sense to me now.

The phantom limb, when thought in the ways developed in these pages thus far, becomes a space of possibility. This place once physically occupied but now empty – can this hold an energetic space where lies the potential to extend one’s powers into new realms? Trauma also pierces the normative boundary of the body and psyche, opening the way to a different relation to the world. The non-human, the animal being presents us with fresh opportunities to relate to the world and to each other. To incorporate an other is to understand ourselves as part of a continuum; to be able to cross over between bodies is an archaic but present potential ability. Through these practices one can hopefully find a very much expanded adaptation to life. To incorporate an other, in the sense of animals or objects, is to expand the notion of becoming-human.

Elizabeth S. Cohen is an interdisciplinary artist working in Brooklyn and Rochester, New York. She has shown her work both nationally and internationally at galleries, museums and festivals including The New Museum, Blum Helman Gallery, Nikolai Fine Art, Apex Art and Franklin Furnace in NYC, The Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, The Davis Museum at Wellesley, The Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville Florida, Korean American Museum in LA CA, The Bonner Kunstverein in Bonn Germany, Cimelice Castle Czech Republic, and The Bogota Film Festival. Her recent solo exhibitions include: “Splice” at the Miroslav Kraljevic Gallery in Zagreb, Croatia and “Random Access” at Sideshow Gallery in Brooklyn NY, the Bowman Gallery, Allegheny College, Meadville PA. and The Rosefsky Gallery SUNY Binghamton. She is part of an upcoming exhibition entitled “Scrambled Messages” at the Koffler Gallery in Toronto Canada. Cohen received an ArtsLink Award for her exhibition in Zagreb as well as to do a workshop with several of the artists there. Her artwork is included in many private collections as well as the Henry Buhl Foundation Collection. Elizabeth S. Cohen is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Rochester.