How to render reading bodies between gender and technology? An e-mail conversation with the artist duo Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė also known as Young Girl Reading Group (YGRG).
In their work, Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė address feminist inspired theory and fiction as well as technology-driven emancipation. As Young Girl Reading Group, they investigate the act of reading as an intimate experience while creating the potential for public performances through the »outlouding« of words. YGRG is a community that looks for a different way of approaching text and reading and sharing knowledge.
You produce intimate publicity by sharing your performances live on Instagram. How do you thoroughly acquaint yourself with a topic or a text?
We initiated YGRG in 2013, and for over two years we ran weekly meetings that were not only our continuous commitment to text and theory but a form of community building, operating from our home in Berlin. YGRG readings started with the semiotext(e)-published translation of Tiqqun’s »Preliminary Materials for a Theory of a Young-Girl«. The polar image of the Young-Girl gave the name to our project and opened up the problematic networks of ideas to be explored and confronted. Paul B. Preciado identifies the book as a »technology of the self«: a technology of production of subjectivity through discipline and surveillance, but also through identification and pleasure production. We are very interested in the way that reading developed as a solitary and internalized practice within modern society, and the influence that must have had on desire and the sexual experiences of individuals. The reading group for us was never about gaining thorough knowledge or full understanding of a text or topic, rather it was about finding a way to approach reading from a non-academic, non-hierarchical, horizontal point of view. The porosity of a queer reading enables us to observe the constellations of history as engulfed in capital and governed by an invisible grid of regulated spaces, actual and virtual like.
Creating a community based on shared knowledge and building a »collective text body« seem to be integral parts of your work. In this context, your Facebook group should be mentioned as well. But instead of giving you my interpretation, I would like to ask you if you could elaborate a bit more on your artistic and nomadic practice?
YGRG is an artistic strategy fluctuating between the virtual and actual, where both the digital archive and online conversation are as important as the presence of the readers during our meetings and staged performances, including their remnants (i.e. the objects, garments, fragrances or video works). Following Donna Haraway, feminist embodiment is not about fixed locations in a reified body, female or otherwise, but about nodes in fields, inflections in orientations, and responsibility for difference in material-semiotic fields of meaning. We like to develop our practice in view of this instability and formulate a respond. The body is re-textualized through technology, and the reading is made public and embodied by positing the interdependence of the text, the body, the environment and the technology.
You are looking for new collaborators in every city you visit. Exposed by this strange situation of reading out loud and being in kind of uncomfortable or awkward loungey positions, they perform an elegiac movement pattern. How do you develop this – let’s call it – choreography? Is there a collaborative process, an act of sharing with your performers?
Through our work we try to create spaces that resist the logics of normativity and provide room for experimentation, a reading and play for a group of performers. Here, the desire is pronounced through text and gesture, and simultaneously documented and shared. We look for movement references across social practices, art forms and timeframes, but most of all we look for it within the accumulative archive of the previous movements proposed by our performers. In our performances, we examine the relationships between reading and distraction, togetherness and disunity, bodily and virtual presence, live action and documentation, self and environment. The performers’ bodies mimic one another and, at the same time, borrow freely from the images on the multiple screens present in the space at a given time or from images long gone from the Instagram feed. This interaction between mediated image, live event and memory of movement contributes to an embodied vocabulary, a physical archive with which the audience navigates through the fragmentary exchanges between the performers and the traces of those objects, images and online videos left in space. Through this feedback loop, we want to suggest the physical augmentation of the text experience and put a focus on considering the relationship between the body of the performer, the gesture, the text being read and the surrounding objects and environment. Each new performance is developed within a workshop, where the presence, movement and self-representation of each participant is being renegotiated.
With specially designed smells you explore other kinds of documentation of your performances. What other interests do you have in this blurry relation between ephemeral archive and olfactive supercharged emotions?
In our work, we employ smell in order to underline that the boundaries between public and private, internal and external are increasingly permeable. At ANTI - 6th Athens Biennial, we presented a new piece titled »YGRG159: SULK« (2018), in which the fragrance »RYXPER1126AE« was conceived in collaboration with International Flavors and Fragrances Inc (New York branch). This new smell bears a poetic sign or the memory of belonging to a collective experience, a sentiment for a shared moment. We are interested in treating smell as an olfactory method of documentation, both in terms of the performance and space as well as in the parallels this could offer in observing the passage from virtual to real. Scent is nomadic and volatile; when it is released, it cannot be fully recaptured, fully undone. Smell is somehow positioned outside of foregrounded awareness, navigating and activating our internal spaces according to procedures that defy easy explanation. Smell is perhaps the only of the five senses that does not have its own substantive, its own abstract and specific terminology. Marginalization of olfaction is most visible when we realize how poorly olfactory sensations translate into words. We think of smell as a performative play on the molecular level, conversing with Preciado’s Testo Junkie and underlining the breaking boundaries between us, the other and nature, flowing through and across humans and machines, life-forms and non-life-forms. It is interesting for us to think of smell as a hazy medium that following this same train of thought is speculative. With smell, bodies possess this particular power to create the unpredictable, the experimental, the new — we believe it to be a site that can resist the capitalist imposition of universal exchangeability. Thinking in terms of Foucauldian biopolitics and a pharmacopornographic regime (again Preciado), we can no longer understand bodies as finite unities but instead as fluid, porous cartographies or distributed networks of corporate agency (Margarida Mendes). Through my nose, through your every pore, we change.
By feeding the platform with theories about the interface between gender and technology, you are cultivating content that is normally marginalized on these mainstream platforms. But on the other hand, the people – mostly male, white and heterosexual – who are programming this deep learning intelligence have a tendency to reinforce patriarchal structures. Where are the possibilities to reshape or overwrite this biased background?
Our performances render the reading body and its surroundings as the site of an active and ongoing set of relations, positing the interdependence of the text, the body, the environment and the technology. We are interested to see the tools of self-promotion in service of creating a sonar-social architecture of shared curiosity, recognizing the need to »outloud« the text in order to make desire, and especially queer desire, visible. Having said that, there is no doubt that the architectures of social media have long ago ceased to give any illusion of expanded commons and are in fact private spaces where data is collected and sold. We provide its layers with our data — we insist to be seen by it, to sign ourselves over. The feedback loop is made of living color — of »reality« on one end, in its multiverse of plurality, its irreducible multiplicity, captured and then interfaced, mediated, flattened, simplified, displayed back in cinematic hues of post-technicolor tablets, phones, screens, surfaces, buttons, clickables, splintered into versions (Metahaven). Still, we must realize that these spaces are key structures that build today’s reality and shape a framework of our daily experiences also those of sexuality and desire - and we must attempt to reclaim them, at least, temporarily. Instead of thinking up a fantasy of an »elsewhere«, we should find existing alternatives to hegemonic systems of white patriarchy that permeate our digital and physical lives, shape the way we interact and use our bodies. We need more non-male, non-white, non-straight, etc. voices to be involved in creating possible visions for our future but also to be able to actively shape our desire now. We need a wider variety of voices to be involved in building communities and making visible those diverse experiences. I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning and situating, where partiality, and not universality, is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives. I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity (Donna Haraway).
Last question: What’s your favorite book or text right now and why?
The last book we finished reading was »How to be Both« by Ali Smith, which tells the parallel stories of sixteen-year-old George grieving her mother’s death and of the XVth century Italian painter Francesco del Cossa. We were particularly moved by the depiction of this painter and their fluid gender and identity, and we are now on our way to see their »Allegory of Spring« frescos at Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, that were described in detail in this book. Words can change the orientation of bodies, of what bodies orient towards, which brings us to the other text that is very important to our work - Sarah Ahmed’s »Orientations: Towards Queer Phenomenology«. Bodies, like words, acquire orientation by repeating some actions over others, as actions that have certain objects in view, whether they are the physical objects required to do the work (the surface, the pen, the screen) or the ideal objects that one identifies with. The nearness of such objects, their availability within my bodily horizon, is not casual: it is not just that I find them there like that. Bodies tend toward some objects more than others, given their tendencies. These tendencies are not originary; they are effects of the repetition of tending toward.