Some of these words were written while in the house of A.L Steiner, an artist whose practice is abundant with intersecting threads, beginning with her strong, wide lesbian and queer community and weaving outward into environmental activism and racial politics. At her current exhibition in Los Angeles Come & Go, one can request to view any pile of photographs from her archive housed in a set of draws in the centre of the gallery. There are decades of images, which in their vast number capture lovers, friends, holidays, landscapes, events and non-events. On the walls are photographs hung on a string as though clothes on a washing line, layered and flapping as loosely as the idea of ‘body’ in this work. They show images of people, naked and in an exhilarating variety of forms, holding babies or puppies in a blur of loving and caring. Above on the far wall is a projection that shows various statistics: the amount of CO2 emissions produced this year, the hectares of desert created from previously fertile land, and the number of species extinct, ticking over like the reproducing body-clock.
What is made apparent in the exhibition is the web of structural effects on, and created by, our modes of living in relation to ourselves, each other and the ‘natural’ world. The membranes between beings, bodies and their structures are dissolved in this profusion. Posthumanist, or new materialist perspectives are evoked—those that map a history of feminist engagement and its potential beyond the rigid confines of the human subject. Within these perspectives, agency becomes entangled between a complex variety of ‘non/in-human’ intra-actors, such as fossils, animals, machines.1 As Australian born philosopher Rosi Braidotti writes, ‘the body is a surface of intensities and an affective field in interaction with others […] feminist emphasis on embodiment goes hand-in-hand with a radical rejection of essentialism’.2 Braidotti insists on a body overflowing its borders in a constant metamorphoses and proposes the ‘nomadic subject’, a concept that rejects dualistic and fixed modes of social constructivism. A point of overlap between the physical, the symbolic, and the sociological, Braidotti’s trans-subjectivity, in its promise and potential, is not bound by categories of gender, race, sexuality or class, nor by fixed conceptual divisions between animal and human, human and machine, but rather is in an endless process of becoming.
This contingent space of overlap though, inevitably takes a shape. Offering a different (yet not oppositional) perspective on the body, Sara Ahmed accounts for the body also as a surface of possibilities, yet one that is inevitably contorted by norms that are performed and repeated with force.3 Speaking back to the valorisation of movement within Queer Theory (a tendency that resonates with Braidotti’s nomadic vision), Ahmed correlates this fluidity with a freedom from norms—a ‘freedom’ that is not evenly or universally available, nor totally realisable. As she goes on to write, transgression is not simply an individual choice, but is available according to how subjects can and cannot inhabit pre-existing social norms and ideals. For Ahmed, to embody a queer ideal is inevitably dependent on the complex and situated interconnections of other orientations—the way in which complex and embodied histories of race, gender, class, and ability converge within a given subjectivity—this being critical to the space in which one is allowed to move.
Working with these two conceptions of the body, and considering how political struggle is not necessarily translatable into everyday life, what role does art have to play within this second overlap—between identity, subjectivity and radical politics?
Art, although necessarily limited—it cannot give us political solutions—is no doubt crucial in destabilising and disarticulating ‘common-sense’, or in other words challenging the regulating logic and force of what is considered ‘normal’. Political theorist Chantal Mouffe considers art not in relation to politics, but as inherently political in itself, the question being how can art remain critical within the blurring lines of art and capitalism, and other hegemonic forces at play.4 For Mouffe, this struggle is inevitably bound up with the production of subjectivity, art needing to offer alternatives to how ‘the current capitalist system needs to constantly mobilise people’s desires and shape their identities [to maintain its hegemony]’.5 Thus for art to remain critical, it must offer new possibilities for subjectivity, in turn offering new possibilities for thought and action. In this way criticality does not have a fixed formula or condition—for instance a need to maintain an outside position or to withdraw from institutions—but rather it arises through art’s active engagement in reshaping public space and the norms that regulate it, working towards an ‘agonistic’ model where hegemony always has the possibility to be otherwise. Although not explicitly stated, embodiment becomes foundational to Mouffe’s conception of art’s critical potential, in the sense that both art and the body are embedded and entangled in public space and its production, and both necessary to the process of realising different political and social futures.
With this in mind, this issue of un Magazine addresses the contested shape of the body within art, gesturing towards the transformation of hegemonic practices across Australia and the surrounding region. Multiple and divergent positions on the experience of embodied subjectivity are layered here in a way that engages both Braidotti’s radically fluid nomadic subject and Ahmed’s contextualised, located body. These gestures do not amount to an intersection of connecting points, but rather we hope this issue proposes a layered shifting of contours and surfaces, a contingent space for multiple movements between different identities, a space of overlap.
The theories alluded to here are diverse and specific, this writing in no way accounting for the complexity of these movements. Theorists particularly relevant to our thinking for this issue are Karen Barad and Rosi Braidotti, among others. ↩
‘Interview with Rosi Braidotti’ in New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, eds. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, Open Humanities Press, 2012, p. 34. ↩
Sara Ahmed, ‘Queer Feelings’ in The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2004, p. 152. ↩
See the chapter ‘Agonistic Politics and Artistic Practices’ in Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics, Verso, London, 2013, pp. 85–107. ↩
Mouffe, Agonistics, p. 90. ↩