The Body, Again


Henry Andersen

I.

In the video, it is February, 2015. We see the chambers of the Turkish parliament in Istanbul. The parliament is in session to debate newly proposed legislation that would give increased powers to the Turkish police. The room is relatively full—members of the public are in attendance, some holding banners and chanting in opposition to the laws. Süleyman Çelebi, a member for the leftist CHP party, is invited for his turn to speak and takes the podium. With the exception of a few yelled sentences at the very end of the speech, Çelebi’s entire parliamentary address consist of only two words – ‘Kahrolsun Faşizm’ (‘Down with fascism’) – which he repeats a total of 237 times over 5 minutes. His voice, as he speaks, is rhythmic and regular, like an early Steve Reich tape piece. His hand beats soundlessly at every word. Only in the last few minutes of the speech do we hear the strain and excitement in is voice begin to show through. Ironically, he mispronounces a couple of the last repetitions as ‘Kahrolsun Faşizmi’ (‘Down with my fascism’).[1]

The subject of this essay is repetition. Specifically, what I will here call manual repetition—those (almost) identical actions performed again and again by a single human being, as opposed to the digital or mechanical repetitions made possible by machines. In contrast to digital or mechanical repetition, manual repetition is a product of the human body—a body that tires, that faults, and that is both the source and the point of application for political power. As such, manual repetition is carried through both the realms of the personal and the political. It is at once a question of both the individual body that moves and the placement of that body within a political context. It is toward the notion of repetition as an act of personal and political agency that this text is dedicated.

When he speaks in Turkish parliament, Çelebi’s words are surprising, a shock that is almost entirely dependent on how violently out of place such a performance feels in a parliamentary setting. We quickly recognise his words as a foreign body. For those living in Turkey, or otherwise attentive to the country’s politics, the phrase ‘Kahrolsun Faşizm’ invites an immediate link to the Gezi Park Protests that had seized the country in Autumn 2013. Here, ‘Kahrolsun Faşizm’ was a popular slogan of protesters opposing the hard-right, interventionist policies of the Turkish government. As a slogan, it is typical of street protests. It is direct, forceful and easily chanted repeatedly. In the context of a rally, neither Çelebi’s choice of words nor his delivery would seem out of place or carry the same shock they do in parliament. In parliament such an utterance is still radical and this radicality derives from the friction between the words themselves, their repetition and their context.

Parliamentary procedure in Turkey, as in any country, is essentially a set of rules and agreed upon behaviours which govern the parliament’s members as they debate new legislation. There are rules that dictate who may speak, for how long and at what time, and what the subject and form of the address may be. Within these rules, members of parliament are allowed a degree of freedom (play, interpretation) as to how they choose to operate within this framework. Crucially, parliamentary procedure is a highly regulated and systematised framework for an individual actor to relate to politics. It is a kind of ‘script’ or ‘score’ (one could go so far as to say a ‘medium’) through which politics is enacted. Its vision of political progress is one that is slow and not prone to radical shifts in speed or direction. This slowness and steady forward motion is the function of the parliament, and it preferences a particular notion of political progress—useful at times, problematic at others.

In such a bureaucratic environment, therefore, concerned as it is with progress by small increments, to refuse that forward moving rhythm by repeating oneself is tantamount to a kind of glitch or nervous tic in the system. It is a failure to move forward (or a failure to move  in a way that appears to be ‘forward’). On a vinyl record, when the needle skips and repeats, it signals a scratch, dust or other foreign matter in the grooves of the record. The forward moving choreography of the stylus is inhibited and forced to retread the same ground again and again until the obstacle is removed or the record player is shut off. Importantly, it is in these moments that the limits of the medium—the physical susceptibility of vinyl to dirt, scratches and warping in the sun—is brought to our attention. As Stephen Graham insists in Cities Under Siege, “For most of us, design is invisible until it fails.”[2]

So what is made visible by Çelebi’s glitch? Foremost, we see the limits of parliamentary procedure as a political medium; a sudden awareness of how artificial and constructed (how designed) such a scenario is, with all the attendant questions of whether or not the medium is a useful channel for political opposition. Secondly, Çelebi’s repetitions remind us of the presence of some outside force that has (however momentarily) made itself present in the parliament.

In an essay for the group exhibition Forms of Distancing (curated by Stefano Collicelli Cagol and Luigi Fassi for the 2014 Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz), political theorist Nadia Urbinatti outlines the way in which representational politics allow the words and actions of an individual actor to speak for wider political ideas. Individuals in a society defer their ‘political voice’ onto an elected official who then speaks in parliament on their behalf. The politician therefore, is seen as acting not only according to his or her own will but as ‘representing’, at a distance, the opinions of those who voted her or him into power.[3]And when that voice skips and repeats the same two words, we should be careful not to treat it as an isolated stunt, but rather allow it to remain representative. Because whether his constituents agree with him or not, the function of the parliament relies on the idea that Çelebi’s repetitions speak for more than just one man.

Çelebi’s actions, radical as they are, are symbolic more than they are actual. His primary audience is not those MPs who heard him speak in the parliament, but those at home who saw the video broadcast or who watch it now on YouTube. It is a reminder just how foreign and ‘other’ the impassioned voices from the street feel when they are brought into the parliament. Çelebi’s appropriation of the phrase ‘Kahrolsun Faşizm’ in the Turkish parliament should not be seen as a solitary act of Çelebi himself, but as a representation of the voice of dissatisfaction from the streets of Istanbul. The strain in Çelebi’s voice, certainly, is his own—the limits of an individual body—but the symbolism of the action stands in for a wider glitch or obstacle in the progress of the Turkish government’s right wing agenda. The political body is always both itself and more than itself.

 

II.

For most of us, the body is invisible until it fails. One recalls this fact in the work of Brisbane-based artist Liam O’Brien. Mostly, O’Brien’s works are performances, either documented by video and still photography or occasionally performed live for an audience. In O’Brien’s earlier videos, the artist typically sets himself some impossible task and then repeatedly tries and fails to achieve it. In ‘To Laugh in the Face of Futility’ (2010), for example, the artist is fastened to a street lamp by a long, strong chord—one end tied fast around his torso. As he continually tries to ‘outrun’ this constraint the chord tightens and he is thrown against the hard asphalt below him, again and again. In ‘I’m Too Drunk To Tell You’ (2011), O’Brien proceeds (with impressive commitment) to repeatedly “consume 30ml shots of whisky until [he] is unable to continue”, with predictably brutal results.[4]

 

Liam O’Brien, I’m Too Drunk To Tell You (detail), 2011, High definition single channel video, 10 mins, ed. of 5, Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.

Liam O’Brien, I’m Too Drunk To Tell You (detail), 2011, High definition single channel video, 10 mins, ed. of 5, Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.

 

Here, once again, we see the intimacy between repetition and failure. There is an undeniable, brute physicality to O’Brien’s performances. They are visceral and hugely unsettling to watch and most of this physical discomfort comes from the failure and self-abuse of O’Brien’s body. By the end of ‘To Laugh in the Face of Futility’, the artist’s white linen shirt has bled right through from wounds sustained on the hard street. ‘I’m Too Drunk To Tell You’ finally ends with O’Brien physically unable to keep drinking, tears and vomit collecting in his dark beard. Whichever form O’Brien’s works take when they are shown in a gallery—video, still photographs, live performance – the artist’s principal medium is his own body. It is a medium whose limits he is intent on making visible by pushing the body until it fails.

As before—with the skipping needle on the vinyl record, or Çelebi’s glitch in parliamentary rhythm—it is in the moments of failure that the limits of the medium are most visible. My intent here is not to fetishise the extremity of O’Brien’s commitment to his performances (this would only reinforce a well-worn and overtly masculine stereotype of the ‘artist-as-hero’ or ‘artist-as-martyr’ ala more Jackson Pollock, Mathew Barney and Martin Kippenberger) Instead, I would suggest that in O’Brien’s performances, the artist’s exploration of the limits of his body have less to do with heroism or martyrdom (with the marking of the artist’s body as ‘special’ amongst bodies) than it does with the body as a point of application for political power.

In a 2012 interview with curator Richard Stride, O’Brien claims that ‘the majority of [his] work can be summarised as a critical response to the aspects of capitalism that inhabit personal freedom – specifically in relation to the body.’[5] Such a statement immediately invites comparisons to Michel Foucault and the notion of biopolitics. Biopolitics, as described by Foucault, is the extension of the state’s power into the physical bodies of its populace via an ‘active, intense and interventionist social policy.’ The logic of biopolitics insists that if the individual’s body is a constituent part of the state, the state is then entitled to decide on the function and treatment of that body. Essentially, biopolitics is a means of denying the ownership and responsibility an individual has over their own body and instead transferring that responsibility to the state. ‘There is no limit to the objectives of government when it is a question of managing a public power that has to regulate the behaviour of its subjects.’[6]

Under biopolitics, the individual is alienated from their own body, which becomes no longer a tool for political agency but a medium through which political power is exercised. In light of such mechanisms of control, the acts of self-abuse and and flagellation that O’Brien practices in his videos take on a decidedly political character. They represent a means through which the artist can reclaim a degree of agency and ownership over a body which is no longer fully his own.

 

Liam O’Brien, Proposal #3 (detail), 2010, High definition single channel video, 03 mins 02 sec, ed. of 5, Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.

Liam O’Brien, Proposal #3 (detail), 2010, High definition single channel video, 03 mins 02 sec, ed. of 5, Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.

 

In a series of videos called ‘Proposals‘ (2010), O’Brien enacts a series of small actions in public spaces in Brisbane. These actions (such as emptying a bag of flour onto a public bench, or lighting and then putting out a small fire) may be read either as acts of petty vandalism or as political activism (how one chooses to distinguish between the two spheres of action often has much to do with which side of the power divide the viewer is on). Vandalism is the ‘intentional and malicious’ (mis)use of public or private property over which the vandal has no entitlement or ownership[7] As a political gesture, vandalism—particularly of so-called ‘public’ property—can be seen as a frustrated attempt to claim ownership though usage over property whose legal use one has been denied. In the era of biopolitics, therefore, it is no great stretch to see self-abuse (binge drinking, self-flagellation and so forth) as an act of vandalism performed by the individual against their own body.

O’Brien’s willingness to harm his body is not only an act of personal machismo or heroism. It is a resistance to that body’s instrumentalisation by outside political forces. O’Brien’s blood and vomit, the strain in Çelebi’s voice—these are the limits of an individual body in repetitive motion—but the actions these bodies perform are representative (in the sense of Urbinati’s definition) of wider political notions. It is important, I believe, that we allow these actions to bear a degree of symbolism, to be representative—rather than reducing them to the lone actions of atomised individuals. Each repetition stands in for some wider glitch or nervous tic in the medium that surrounds it.

 

Liam O’Brien’s ‘I’m Too Drunk to Tell You’ was shown at Bus Projects (Collingwood) as part of the group exhibition To Not believe in the Divine, Yet Always Aspire to Reach It, curated by Callum Ross. The exhibition dealt with the intersection between ritual and repetition, and repetition as a continual forestalling of closure. Works by Austin Buckett, Omar Chowdhury, Avni Dauti, Dara Gill, Liam O’Brien, Mira Oosterweghel and Clare Rae. Text by Henry Andersen. July 22 – August 8 2015.

 


 

[1] Video, author’s description: “Süleyman Çelebi’den Kahrolsun Faşizm Rekora (237 kez)”, uploaded to YouTube February 21, 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nr9H1nXczMo. I am thankful to my friend Atalay Yavuz for sending me this video and translating the Turkish phrases. Accessed 22/06/2015

[2] Stephen Graham, Cities under Siege: The new military urbanism (Verso: London, 2010) 263

[3]Nadia Urbinatti “Sharing with whom?” in Forms of Distancing: Representational Politics and the Politics of Representation ed. Stefano Collicelli Cagol, Luigi Fassi and Steirischer Herbst (Mousse Publishing: Milan, 2014) 87-109

[4] Nicolla Scott, “Wall text for ‘I’m Too Drunk To Tell You”, Griffith University Art Gallery. 2011

[5] Richard Stride, “Liam O’Brien Interview” Current Projects Blog. 13/08/2012. https://www.sullivanstrumpf.com/assets/Uploads/1.-Stride-Richard-Liam-OBrien-Interview-Current-Projects-Blog-Aug-13-2012.pdf
Accessed 03/07/2015

[6] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics trans: Graham Burchel, (Pulgrave: New York, 2008). Originally published in French by Edition de Seuil: Paris, 1988.

[7] “Vandalism”, Legal Dictionary Online. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Vandalism

Henry is a composer and artist from Perth, Western Australia. He is interested in notions of space, language and the intersection between these two fields....


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