Beyond the Body Project

Art and the interaction of communities
By Derek Simons and Richard Pinet

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The Body Project originated in discussions we had about the level of interest shown both by the arts and academic communities in issues concerning the representation of the human body. We decided to try to bring together performance artists, visual artists, and academics sharing these interests in order that they might share their insights with each other. We are now at the end of the project, and as a result of the issues raised, are beginning a process of re-examination of our initial conceptualizations. At this point, we want to present a preliminary overview of how our understanding of the issues has changed.

One of our initial organizing ideas was simply to present a variety of viewpoints on how people come to be embodied in the way they do; by 'embodied' we mean the struggles, pains, and pleasures provided for and by their bodies. It was obvious to us right from the beginning that people are not only embodied in particular ways, but that they organize themselves in 'communities of embodiment,' groupings based upon how this embodiment is perceived.

We thought the main questions that would arise from such an examination would be: How much 'choice' do people have in the communities of which they are a part? Do they choose to join communities? If so how and why?

On a simple level it appears communities can be divided into voluntary and involuntary associations. One voluntarily chooses, more or less, to be tattooed, or to join a weight loss program. One doesn't choose race or body type.

But the question of apparent choice is actually more complex than that. Some examples of this complexity may be reflected in questions such as: how much choice does a woman have about getting a breast implant? There is usually no overt force used to make a woman surgically change her body. But there is an undeniable and powerful pressure on women to conform to certain ideal body types. How much choice does a woman really have if she has been convinced she will have a better life with bigger breasts?

Conversely, why are racial characteristics such as skin colour such a powerful organizing element? On one level, the answer is obvious: because such an organization is a convenient conduit for the dispersemnt of power in our society, benefitting some, and disadvantaging many. But why do these powerful interests operate through race? Why not hair colour or height? How does race get established as a major means of distributing inequality?

With these questions of race and identity in mind, we invited two South Asian artists, Sherazad Jamal and Chris Creighton-Kelly, to participate in The Body Project. In both cases we tried to pair the artists with academics working on what we felt were related issues. For example, Creighton-Kelly's performance of «P.C.» dealt with how racial issues are addresed in our society, and we tried to pair him with Phil Vitone, who researches the communicative aspects of social interaction. In the same vein, Sherazad Jamal created an installation on the constituent elements of her identity as a South Asian woman, and we placed her work alongside a presentation by Norbert Ruebsaat exploring how males are represented in contemporary advertising. As we expected, all these participants showed different aspects of how people come to be socially constructed, and explored how much real choice people have in that construction.

But the pairings didn't quite work out as well as we had hoped, in part because of our inexperience as producers. We failed to get Vitone and Creighton-Kelly connected at all, and the connection between Jamal and Ruebsaat came off clumsily at best.

But notwithstanding problems in production, we believe a more fundamental reason underlay why these connections weren't entirely succesful. It's all very well and good to say we wanted to bring together people from different communities with their varying perspectives on the body, but the fact is that, for the most part, people from one community aren't necessarily interested in the viewpoints of another. To a great extent, the mostly white, academic, straight audience that came to see Ruebsaat's presentation paid only polite attention to Jamal's work, and people from the South Asian and women's communities who came to see Jamal's installation seemed to sit through the presentation only in order to have more opportunity to look at her art. To describe what ocurred between the two groups as a meaningful exchange would be a misrepresentation. In fact, dialogue between various communities consistently arose as an issue throughout The Body Project. So, the question now arising for us is, specifically how and why should members of different communities be brought together?

We believe the answer to this question lies in the way individuals operate within and between communities. Every individual negotiates their relative position to more than one community. For example, Sherazad Jamal's installation was structured around four poles of identity: her race, her class, her sexuality, and her gender. Each pole has a corresponding 'community—the South Asian community, the middle class, heterosexuals, women—and furthermore, through her artwork she places herself within the 'arts community.' Like Jamal, everyone operates within a constellation of communities. A gay male South Asian multi-millionaire would probabaly share some of Jamal's interests, but not others.

On a simple level it appears communities can be divided into voluntary and involuntary associations. One voluntarily chooses... to be tatooed...One doesn't choose race or body type.

As members ourselves of a particular constellation of communities (white/male/academic/artistic), our programming for The Body Project was informed by the values of that constellation. By starting from the attempt to bring together the arts and academic communities, the Project necessarily was informed by the concerns of those communities. One of the fundamental concerns that arose during the series was the question of normative or transcendent values. We'd like to now briefly describe our understanding of how this question is debated within the art and academic communities and then critically assess this debate in light of our experience producing The Body Project.

Both the arts scene and academe tend to valorize communities that make claims transcending their own perceived self-interest and address the interests of other communities as well. So, overall, academe, as a 'community', tends to support principles of freedom of speech, or rational argumentation. Whether or not this support actually benefits other communities in fact, or merely provides a hegemonistic or leitimizing mechanism for perpetuating the values of a small group (usually white, straight, male), is a matter of considerable debate among academics. But for all their attempts to deconstruct or decode in various ways how values are in fact interests, few academics or artists question the need for transcendental values. Instead, various competing groups within academe or the arts debate whether or not their values are truly the most genuinely transcendent ones.

For the most part, players in the academic and artistic systems who question the need for transcendental values are relegated to marginal positions. For example, some feminists in the Eighties began to conclude that men are socialized so thoroughly in ways antithetical to women that as a gender they are incapable of accomodating the authentic interests of women. In other words, these women deny the possibility of both men and women finding common values that authentically serve both their interests. As a result, some 'essentialist' work seeks to exclude men as completely as possible, both practically and theoretically. By and large, their work is not taken seriously because of a concern that, in deciding to eliminate the considerations of a significant group, radical feminism creates a 'closed loop', with a weakened ability to affect its social environment. Unable to respond to new input, critics feel it cannot develop new strategies reflecting changing circumstances. Whatever its merits at present, eventually such a 'closed' loop is in danger of becoming academically irrelevant.

The same scenario plays itself out in the arts. Ultimately, the reason big-eyed girls painted on black velvet are so abhorrent to the arts community is that they signify an apparent lack of any mechanism to respond to the needs of anyone other than the relatively small group who find big-eyed girls significant. Lacking that input, big-eyed girls get painted the same way, over and over again. Being so programmatic in concept, they fail to carry any expressive content.

After our experiences in The Body Project, we're not sure this reasoning about 'closed' groups is in fact correct. For example, Sandra Lockwood, who is a white performance artist, did a presentation on her appropriation of Japanese culture. On the second night, some of the people of colour in the audience vigourously denounced this show as perpetuasting racist stereotypes. After some heated debate, they declared their refusal to educate whites, and left. In subsequent discussions the classic argument about closed loops was raised: the refusal to continue to engage in debate meant neither side learned anything. On the contrary, we feel there was considerable evidence that in fact this group of people of colour, as well as their opponents in the debate, were not acting in a 'closed' way. For example, both sides politely respected our efforts to moderate the discussion, even though we are white and the debate centered on how whites dominate other races. Obviously, there was a willingness to engage in dialogue, although not for as long or as thoroughly as we would have liked.

We are coming to believe that the open/closed model of community interaction needs modification. All communities are a relative mixture of being open and closed. We believe there is a need for research into how 'open' and 'closed' get defined, and by whom. This is a notoriously difficult subject to tackle without on the one hand seeking confirmation of a predetermined normative condition (either oppositionally or by embracing it) or, on the other hand, maintaining a pretense of 'objectivity'. But we believe the academic and artistic communities are among those best equipped to handle such a difficult problem. What other communities largely define themselves through the breadth of cultural expressions that they explore?

We also recognize that this belief springs in large part from our personal interests as members of the arts and academic communities which are presently facing a crisis because of their 'closed' nature. This is particularly true of the arts community, which faces a funding crisis from, on the one hand, failing to develop very wide audiences willing to pay to see cultural work, and on the other, failing to generate the political support necessary to maintaining government subsidy of the arts in tough economic times. So, the whole question of being 'open' to the needs of other communities is a matter of life and death for us.

Therefore, the first task we face as producers of future projects is to seek artists and academics who share similar research interests. The most disappointing moments for us in The Body Project were when presenters offered simplistic, black and white analyses. They were disappointing precisely because they threatened to alienate people from outside the academic and artistic communities, who don't share the presenters' parochial language and concerns.

The best parts were works such as Jamal's, which presented with subtlety and wit some of the ambivalences of identity. For example, her use of a 'Barbie' doll showed how this cultural icon represents women in a highly specific and usually unattainable manner (thin, white, blonde, etc.). But it is also a loved toy. Or, while Jamal's image of a marriage ritual reminded us how women are institutionalized as property, it also showed us how marriage unites clans, and emphasizes the spirituality of human interchange.

The second challenge we face is to organize projects such as this one with a more specific focus. We now feel our failure to bring together an interchange of different work and audiences was in large part a failure to clearly articulate goals for the project. Ideally, we would have worked with the presenters earlier in the series to determine mutually agreed upon, substantive goals. Subsequent claims for attention by presenters could then have been evaluated in terms of whether or not they contributed to that end. For example, if we had more clearly identified the problems of cultural stereotyping as a key concern in advance, then we could have perhaps presented Sandra Lockwood's performance next to Sherazad Jamal's installation, followed by a performance by Heavenly Alarming Female, a group of lesbian women of colour. A follow-up panel on cultural stereotypes could then have been organized. A clearly articulated project goal would also allow for a more focused audience orientation, so that people would arrive with at least similar expectations. The Body Project brought together people (both audience and presenters) with such varied agendas that many were inevitably disappointed.

The third point we have come to recognize is that 'communities' are not monoliths; they are fractured by a number of competingforces. The 'art community' exists in many ways in name only. People who use that phrase often do not include Toni Onley or Amir Alibhai or Henry Tsang.The same appears to us to be true of the South Asian artistic 'community,' which fractures along lines such as traditional Indian artists, artists doing traditional Western forms such as landscape painting, or those such as Jamal and Creighton-Kelly in The Body Project who do hybrid innovative work incorporating Indian and Western ideas. Again, a clearer idea of the goals of the project would help us have a better sense of upon which levels the various communities might interact.

We hope we have been sufficiently clear in our comments that we are not presenting our views here as some kind of final or complete analysis, but rather are attempting to negotiate the difficult terrain of opening artistic and academic work to broader audiences. Obviously, critical response is essential to this negotiating process, and we welcome feedback on whether undertakings such as The Body Project offer the possibility of exploring the dynamics of community expression.


Richard Pinet teaches in the Communication Department at Simon Fraser University. Areas of interest are media studies, cultural studies, and new communication technologies.

Derek Simons is the Director of Basic Inquiry. He is a visual artist who works in painting, installation, and performance art.

Basic Inquiry Centre for Figurative Arts is devoted to art exploring representations of the human body. It runs life drawing sessions, courses, a gallery, and performance art events. #5 - 901 Main Street, Vancouver, BC V6A 2V8

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Derek Simons
Derek Simons is a visual artist who works in painting, installation, and performance art.
Richard Pinet
Richard Pinet contributed to Rungh Volume 1, Number 4.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
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Bookhug Press
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