Writing with the Body
Luc Vander Vennet*
The Skin project: writing with bodies
In 2003 the Californian artist Shelley Jackson created her Skin Project. She wrote a novel on the skin of 2095 volunteers by means of tattoos. Volunteers who wanted to participate to the project had to write a solicitation. If they were accepted they got one word that they had to tattoo somewhere on their body. She possesses a video fragment from each volunteer exposing his/her tattoo and pronouncing the word. When she had collected 2095 volunteers – ‘words’ as she calls them- she wrote a novel with them. Assembling all these videos in a movie in a certain way makes appear a novel text. So she literally writes with bodies.
She herself called this Skin Project a ‘mortal work of art’: “From this time on, participants will be known as ‘words’. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the words they bear, but as their embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed text, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words”
Shelley Jackson was born in 1962 in a little bookstore in California. She teaches actually in New York (The New School) and Switzerland (European Graduate School). Reading around her autobiographical works we discover a subject with particular problems concerning her body and her relationship with language, and more specifically with the articulation of both. Her whole artistic oeuvre tries to deal with it from the beginning to the end.
When a subject doesn’t dispose of an established discourse about the function of the body
Let us start with the body. In her digital project, A patchwork girl, she makes a digital rag doll, an assembly of different parts of female bodies. When you click on the different parts, a text opens. Within the text appear several hyperlinks that conduct you again to other texts. So you can navigate in several different ways through several parts of the body and several texts. The goal is very clear: to ‘patchwork’ a woman. “To become a whole, a unity, you will have to puzzle me together like a collage, an assembly wherein boundaries, limits and borders will always stay obscure and vague.” We notice also that while she is writing her texts she chains herself to the table with her piercing in her belly button so that her body doesn’t ‘run away’.
Another digital project, My body. A Wunderkammer ( http://www.altx.com/thebody/ ) , reveals us still more clearly her problem with her body. She made a drawing of her naked body and once again you can click on the different parts of it. A text opens in which she writes her experiences with that body part. Several hyperlinks conduct you again to several texts. Let’s quote some fragments of these texts. Clicking on the breasts we read: “The arrival of breasts was traumatic. I hated having breasts, dangling, ridiculous extras. Gravity had a taunting grip on me.” We click on the hips and read: “I never understood hips, what or even exactly where they were, though I knew the womanly hip was supposed to be a desirable entity from occasional soft-core pornographic passages in novels (I remember the phrase, “churning hips”). My hip was an indeterminate straight stretch connecting my stomach to my legs. There was nothing there to linger over.” We continue with the vagina and read: “The landscape between my legs was hard to map, any more than these other organs, mooted about, whose functions I hardly understood.”
So she testifies in several ways of the impossibility to experience her body as a whole and that she doesn’t dispose of an established discourse that prescribes the function of the body and its organs and the way to behave with it.
Language as a parasite infiltrating the body
The second problem is the invasion of the language into all the holes of her body without any barrier. She herself describes it as her ‘libidinal attachment’ to books as a result of the ‘love for books’ that was developed during her childhood in the bookstore. But we will see that this love and libidinal investment has to be understood as a jouissance, as the invasion of language into her body. She describes that she started putting pages of the books she read in all the holes of her body, her mouth, her vagina and her anus. Pulling out the moistened pages she discovered that the ink and the words had flown out so that the text was changed. “So I had rewritten Joyce with my vagina. I decided to become a writer.” And she became indeed a writer….with bodies.
In a first step she started to scratch a labyrinth in her bottom that her lovers had to ‘read’. Then she cut out her initials in a piece of textile that she draped on her shoulders when she took a sunbath. The sun burned the red marks of her initials in her body. Then she put two tattoos on her body but she hated the questions people asked her about it and she decided to let the whole of her body be tattooed with an ink that was of the same color of her skin. Her whole body was virtually covered with a tattoo that was only visible as white lines when her body was burned red by the sun. She teaches her lovers to read her as a book. So she became a book herself.
It was only in a next step that she started writing on the bodies of others by means of tattoos. Bodies that became in this way the embodiment of words with which she started writing novels. She literally writes books with bodies. We let you discover yourself one of the examples that circulate on the internet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viF-xuLrGvA
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