Thursday, October 6, 2016

On the Eat Shit Collective: art, violence, death and fluids

Last week,  Galeria Border presented a performance by the Colectivo Come Mierda as part of it's annual thematic programming, Kamikaze.

We walked into the gallery a few minutes late. A cross-dressed, masculine presenting body bathed in a red light hung on the wall. They was visibly in distress, despite their dissociative demeanor and expression. On the floor, the artist(s) had arranged various objects, clearly meant to be used by us to engage with the body. All of the objects invited the viewers to become part of the spectacle, to take agency over the submissive form hanging on the wall using knives, scissors, pliers and other tools.

In speaking about torture, Elaine Scarry describes the language of this situation. The tools used against victims of torture serve as means of transference of power from the violated body into the hands of the agent. This becomes, in her analysis, a performance of power investing the fictions of power of the regime with the reality of the wounded body. In straightforward language what this means is simple: torture is enacted as a way to give the regime's story about itself reality; the wounded and de-personified body confers reality onto the ephemeral fiction of State (or other) power through the use and display of the tool.

No one in the space, besides other artists from the Colectivo Come Mierda, (The Eat Shit Collective), were willing to engage in this (re)presentation of torture.

The exhibition continued with several different (re)presentations of violence and humiliation. A thin, femme body walked on all fours, high heels on her hands and feet, facing up. When she became exhausted, she curled over herself and urinated abundantly on her own face; then she lay on the floor exhausted.

Another artist danced sexually to electronic music. The dancer rubbed their ass on one member of the audience who seemed visibly distressed at being touched without consent. After that physical engagement with a viewer, the dancing intensified until their body appeared to be at risk of collapse. From my vantage point on the floor inches from the dancer, it seemed that they risked not only collapsing and hurting the viewers around them, but also of breaking their own body in their ek-static movements.

In another moment, the artists carefully and tenderly take the suspended body of the wall. This scene was eerily reminiscent of the deposition of Christ.

Luis Hernandez. Deposición de Cristo, oil on canvas,  2015

The collective then placed the limp body on the floor in another part of the gallery, where another artist (re)presented acts of violence and humiliation on them. The artist spits on, caresses, and manipulates every part of the (“dead”) body while covering it in pitch-black ink.

While this is happening, another artist beats a hammer against a wall. Another artist sits in a chair while images of murdered, humiliated and disappeared men are projected onto their face. 

Another artist distributes print-outs of facts about corruption and violence in Mexico. This artist engages with the viewers directly. Asks us questions. Makes many of us uncomfortable. Throws the pages at some of us.

The performances end without a climax. The intensity has been static the whole time. There has been no narrative arc, no catharsis. I am left feeling defensive, on edge, ready to fight. A few people clap.

One of the artists, in a soft voice, asks us to leave the gallery so that they can clean up enough to make space for a talk. They invite us to have a complimentary cocktail while we wait.


I didn't know what to think or feel after this. It felt wrong. What are these (re)presentations of violence about when they are performed for an art-audience, in a fancy cultural center, in an up-scale and safe neighborhood?

And then I asked myself, am I the intended audience? Is this for people who live daily with (the threat of) violence and its aftermath?

In my own body, all could feel was panic and fear, a desire to fight back and take power from these young artists.

Slowly the dynamics of this performance began to make sense.

I was reminded of acts of violence that I have experienced in the same way, as more than just a voyeur. This relationship, between the (simulation of the) act of violence and the viewer is, to my mind, understated in how we tend to understand violence (in art); the language of violence, its poetics, depends on the gaze. Without it, I wonder if human violence would exist.

I don't want to explain; I want to tell a story:

I went to a Catholic primary school. And, even though this was in the 70s and 80s, the nuns were of the pre-Vatican II variety; there wasn't a drop of hippie-love or liberation-theology about them. Violence, humiliation and coercion were the norm.  One day, a little girl, our peer of 6 or 7 years old, took too long changing for gym class. Sister Mary Camille* became agitated. She started calling out. “Where's Linda?* Linda?  Linda?  What's taking so long? Come out right now. What on God's earth could you be doing.”

We were all dead quiet. Linda did not come out. We could hear Sister Mary Camille beginning to pant. She stormed from behind her wooden desk with a yard stick in her hand. We were shocked; the nuns never hurt the girls physically.

A second later, Sister Mary Camille drug the girl by her red hair to the front of the room. Linda stood there, mostly naked, in pink panties and a cotton t-shirt in her hand. Her body was covered in freckles. One of her tiny arms tried to cover her chest. She bent her knees slightly. She tucked her head slightly. She was too scared to curl up into a protective fetal stance. We all snickered at her. She cried.

“Stand up straight.” Sister Mary Camille slapped the ruler on the desk. “Now, tell the class why you are so important that we all have to wait on you.”

Linda couldn't speak. She smiled nervously.

“Class, do you think it's fair for one person to make all of us wait?”

A few kids murmured. Angela Du Lac* raised her hand. “Sister, it is wrong for one person to put their needs above another. We are all equal in the eyes of God.”

“Very good Angela.”

I don't remember how this ended. My memory stops here. But I do remember one thing clearly. Sister Mary Camille used us to harm this girl. Without us – without our gaze, nervous laughter, agreement, and our empathy for the victim – the poetics of this event would have been fundamentally different. As a kid, I understood these poetics in a naïve way:  this was merely authoritarian abuse; a woman in power terrified and humiliated a little girl in order to communicate to us that violence could spring at any moment from the vestments of (God's) power. But now, I see it as participatory. We created the fiction of the nun's (and thus God's) power by our complicity. Not only was our silence consent, but our identifying with the victim amplified a single act of humiliation into a means of social control. We knew that any one of us, at any moment, could be subject to the same treatment. Thus, we collaborated not only in hurting that little girl, but in amplifying the voice and power of her abuser, an agent of God.

The scene quoted extensively in the opening of Discipline and Punish makes this relationship abundantly clear. The effect of the spectacle being described rests on the identification between the regicide and the population; their gaze transfers and transforms the suffering of the criminal into  power in the body of the king.  The intervention of the clergy in this torture is key; we have to see the victim as a human being like us, worthy of care, for the power of the king to be reified in his suffering body.

Violence, abuse, domination is always already participatory. The Colectivo Come Mierda recreated this structure for art. I am only left with questions. What did they hope to accomplish? What are we to do?

*not their real names

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