Bodybuilding can be seen to be about nothing but failure. [...]
I always want to work my muscle, muscular group, until it can no longer move: I want to fail. As soon as I can accomplish a certain task, so much weight for so many reps during a certain time span, I must always increase one aspect of this equation, weights reps or intensity, so that I can again come to failure. [...]
Intensity times movement of maximum weight equals muscular destruction
Is the equation between destruction and growth also a formula for art?
– Kathy Acker1
In Neil Bartlett and Stuart Marshall’s video Pedagogue (1988), Bartlett performs a monologue for the camera while Marshall interrogates his dealings with students at Newcastle Polytechnic, where they both taught at the time. As the questions shift from the professional to the personal, the gap between what is being said and shown grows, making apparent that the truth has been stretched to fall in line with Margaret Thatcher’s forced closeting of homosexuality.2 Clad in an open denim shirt and black leather jacket, Bartlett unpacks the contents of his briefcase: a metal ring and chain are described as ‘modern jewellery’, black latex gloves are to fight Newcastle’s cold weather, while moisturising cream and a vial – of poppers, we presume – are a means to ensure he presents ‘a fresh, healthy face to the world and in particular to [his] students’. Naturally, a men’s fitness magazine is just another tool of pastoral care, ‘to teach students the importance of the classical adage “a healthy body in a healthy mind”’. Despite the irony that riddles Pedagogue, certain forms of ‘bodybuilding’ had in fact become a central concern in Marshall’s work since the early 1980s.3 In the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to which he would lose his life in 1993, his efforts as an artist, writer and activist focussed on undoing the social and political construction of the neoliberal body. At the same time, through coalitional politics, he sought to build a new, collective body able to confront the state’s use of the health crisis to suppress unsanctioned forms of intimacy.
This issue of Afterall addresses this dual notion of ‘bodybuilding’ as a mode of practice that attempts to wrest embodied subjectivity from the clutches of economic and political abstraction and, from that degree zero of situated and embedded experience, to rebuild the social. As artist and writer Hannah Black writes in the opening essay, the reduction of the body to mere property or possession is acutely evident in the liberal subject’s structural dependency upon the slave relation – the physical and symbolic subjugation of blackness, which perseveres in the systemic racism of contemporary institutions. Yet, Black also writes about the social life that emerges from social death; that is, the specific forms of sociality internal to blackness’s structural negation, which are not a function of the individual subject but rather its antagonist. ‘Collectivity’, she notes, ‘is exactly not a gathering of points, but a blur or smear.’ From domestic artworks that seek to dissolve the borders of individuality to cooperative structures wrought in the heat of political activism, the artistic practices featured in this issue are situated in the nexus where, as Lauren Berlant puts it, ‘the inwardness of the intimate is met by a corresponding publicness’.4
Born, like Marshall, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Ion Grigorescu responded in his early work to the transformation of social and cultural life in Romania in the late 1960s and 70s. As Nicolae Ceauşescu’s regime tightened its grip, Grigorescu withdrew from public life, staging numerous self-portraits for the camera that depict a vulnerable and often split image of the male body, at odds with Ceauşescu’s incarnation of the Modern Man. Kathy Acker’s fascination with the materiality of the body stems from a similar desire to erode abstraction. Working out was for her a means to come to terms with the body, and thus with ‘change, chance and death’5 – although, as Chris Kraus recounts, Acker’s actual fear of mortality was inversely proportional to her literary obsession with time, failure and chaos. Holly Herndon’s electro-acoustic musings, on the other hand, extend the problem of corporeality to our present-day, technologically augmented selves. Turning her laptop into a sonic mirror and pitching it against her own voice, she amplifies the newly found intimacy between organic bodies and their high-tech prostheses in an attempt to tune in to technology's ‘emerging pleasures ... and potential for changing the rules of the game’.6
Building on Raymond Williams’s anti-determinist theory of media as social practice, Marshall also believed in the transformative potential of technology. Having begun to experiment with sound art under Alvin Lucier, Marshall later turned to video as his weapon of choice in deconstructing television’s ‘voice of authority’. His works from the late 1970s, for example, appropriate televisual formats such as the sitcom, the travelogue or reportage to perform a self-reflexive analysis of television as a medium. In doing so, they interrogate the specific ‘institutions of intimacy’7 conveyed in such shows – the narratives of love, friendship and family relations that regulate and sanction social life. While these tapes circulated primarily through art institutions and community video networks, in the mid-1980s Marshall began to produce films for Channel 4, which challenged the mainstream media’s misrepresentation of homosexuality and the AIDS crisis. This, in effect, was a way to infiltrate neoliberal mechanisms of dissemination to manipulate them from within.
Yet, as Terre Thaemlitz reminds us, given the astonishing capacity of today’s social media to absorb and equalise any oppositional practice – and to make a profit from it – nurturing opaquer means of communication might be more conducive to the construction of queer intimacy. Because of her desire to keep her work out of indiscriminate, online circulation, Thaemlitz found herself in the ironic position of appearing to have asked for copies of her recordings uploaded by users to be taken down from YouTube due to copyright infringement, when in fact, as a DJ and theorist who often samples others’ work, she actively opposes copyright laws. As it transpired in his dealings with YouTube following the incident, filing a copyright infringement claim was the only option available to him, exposing the extent to which online ‘public space’ is heavily policed by the market. Like Grigorescu, then, Thaemlitz suggests that withdrawal is not the opposite of sociality. Rather, these artists’ preference for embodied forms of reciprocity can be seen as an effort to create forms of social intimacy from which to reimagine what life in common might be.
With their elastic collaborative ethos, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson’s lifelong experimentations in art and publishing, which criss-crossed several countries, languages, media and disciplines during the twentieth century, offer one possible answer to the dilemma of opposition versus transformation: the invention of makeshift technologies that allow for closer ties between representation and dissemination, makers and viewers, bodies and words. Stefan explained that, for them, invention was a means not so much to make what they wanted, as to find out what was available to want. The Themersons’ bibliography is thus deeply intertwined with their biography – an interpersonal formula for collective life-work.
This issue of Afterall also marks an important landmark in Afterall’s own biography, as we launch a two-year programme of research in association with the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, who join the journal’s long-standing partner M HKA in Antwerp. Starting with a series of seminars and lectures in Toronto this spring on decolonisation, in this new chapter we hope to learn from the different constituencies that make up the journal and to shape a collective body together – one that strives towards the adequate balance between destruction and growth that Acker found to be the equation for bodybuilding, and possibly for art.