"In the audience, we hold the space as if it were in many hands – Now, we are palpably many sharing a sort of metastability. It feels like being ready for a very different form of stage diving - sitting before bodies burning of a warm light, incandescent, ready to jump."
Incandescent Bodies — in harm's way 16-18.03.2023 — a reflection by Livia Andrea Piazza
For the chapter In Harm’s Way: a conversation about sexual violence, self-defense and artistic strategies on 16-18 March 2023, imagined and proposed by Carolina Bianchi and collaborators, we invited Brussels-based writer and researcher Livia Andrea Piazza to accompany us during those three days, and share reflections, traces and questions around workshops, studio visits, performances, lectures, conversations and a concert, to accompany her through a written text. Have a good read.
A text born out of the program In Harm’s Way. A conversation about sexual violence, self-defense and artistic strategies by Livia Andrea Piazza
A Work Pregnant with Another - In Harm's Way DAY 1
‘A work pregnant with another’ is how Carolina Bianchi describes where she is situated at the moment. As a small audience group, we (1) are also in a specific place: a studio apartment furnished with two beds, a table, a kitchen, a bookshelf functioning as a wardrobe, and a desk, from which a line of different sitting options draws a circle for the audience to sit.
In the past ten days, Carolina Bianchi has lived and worked there on the second chapter of her trilogy Cadela Força, The Rape Scene. Together with Carolina Mendonça, she is waiting for us to sit in the space, now prepared as an entry point into their research. Upon entering, I almost stumble on a trash bag, a pool of blood leaking out of it.
The residency space has been re-staged to incorporate traces of violence. They are explicitly fake and carefully arranged in their fakeness. As I sit in a white armchair that feels uncomfortably centre stage, I notice how I am paying attention not to touch, with my feet, the half-washed away stain of blood on the floor and the broken plate in the centre of the room. These traces push the boundaries of the room accommodating the public into a space that has been very private up to that moment.
Sitting there, in a cosy room filled with traces of violence, I realise where we actually are: in a metastable state among private and public, between puddles of blood and a calm, open welcome from our hosts. Inside a lump, in a work pregnant with another.
Metastability is the pseudo-balance characterising a substance before it shifts in a stable state, for instance a melting solid, like magma, or a liquid in the process of freezing. Under the appearance of stability, the matter is moving to another state. Like an open wound with blood clumping.
In chemistry or physics the shift is triggered by an external energy source. In the apartment, it’s two voices shifting the weights, punctuating the space, making it public. They come in different languages (Brazilian Portuguese and in English) and stir the precarious balance.
Sometimes it is a private dialogue happening in public, sometimes Carolina speaks to us.
The question of staging violence is unpacked through films, essays, performances, fictions. Some women join us, like Ana Mendieta, Olivia Laing, Pippa Bacca, Andrea Dworkin: (auto)biographies of rape whose traces we don’t see but hear in the apartment.
Settling into English, Carolina Bianchi and Carolina Mendonça linger on one specific story of violence. They talk at the same time, so we also have to shift weights to tune in with a voice or the other. They tell the same story, as it settled in writing in two different forms, produced by two rounds of recollection. I tell you my story, so you could write it down, so you could tell me what you remember of it, and I could write it down again. In these repetitions, the traces of violence are re-collected and confided in one another and in the audience, who listens, pricking out one ear or the other, collecting and re-collecting.
The wound is alive, and the blood is clumping, yet this is not about healing.
Self-defense, Theory and Practice – In Harm's Way DAY 2 and 3
Self-defense, theory and practice. Jumping into it in one day is quite a stirring experience. The affects that appeared in between the lines are now piercing into the body.
It’s my first jiu-jitsu class: a rollercoaster of gaining and losing confidence and observing others in the same processes. Attacking is sometimes very playful, sometimes very careful, but it’s never an actual attack, even in the framework of a self-defense class. Defending feels easier if one lets their body put together something but slow and counterintuitive if one tries the technique suggested. It’s a first time and it doesn’t work: the layer of things to learn and unlearn is too thick to push my body through it. I recognise myself in one of those bodies who has always been told to be careful (2). In the jiu-jitsu class, I cannot help but be extra extra extra extra careful, and I fear getting hurt all the time.
A feeling of sadness surfaces. Yet, I notice my body is bursting with a peculiar energy generative of something else. I taste what self-defense as ‘exercising being powerful’ might feel like. A sense of precarious balance balances out, and I think that metastability must be the positive side of precarity. How the two states share a sense of being on the edge, when a little push can provoke quite a fall. I wonder, what would it take for my body to fall into feeling powerful?
In the words of Elsa Dorlin, feminist self-defense is not about learning to defend but about unlearning not to defend oneself. In the book Self-Defense - A Philosophy of Violence, she describes it as ‘establishing a new relationship with the world through practices of the self that correspond to political, bodily, and intimate transformation. […] As they learn self-defense, the militants create and modify their body schema, which, once in action, becomes the crucible of processes generating political consciousness’ (3).
In her lecture Briser les genoux du patriarcat: manifeste d’autodéfense féministe, she calls it ‘a training to become oneself’.
Later that night, 13 songs for the unspeakable speak to becoming oneself also as becoming someone else. The recount of how that might have happened takes the form of an (anti)heroic journey, which Gérald Kurdian tells with one digression after another, a story starting once again and landing somewhere else. The narration appears in the interruptions between the songs, which make more and more time for shared (auto)fictions and transformations. The scar has healed, and a line fills the air: I’m the goddess with a gun.
Back to self-defense. Against the de-realisation that makes people subjected to gender and racial violence so easy to kill, Dorlin sees feminist self-defense as a way of pushing a body into reality. Opposed to a combat form that ‘distils reality to extract the effectiveness of a gesture’, feminist self-defense is about plunging one's body in the social texture of violence, to accumulate experiences of being powerful – ‘a training to become real again’.
Sticking the finger into the wound.
In the workshop The Burning Words, Carolina Bianchi invites us into wounds as places to write from. In some cases, a safe space doesn’t do.
We talk about writing.
Writing as healing
Writing as fiction
Writing as self-defense
Writing as re-writing
Writing as resurrecting
And here comes the question, what to do with the corpse?
Where I am writing from, you ask, I think it’s from my right clavicle. Where the hands land when I touch that place.
Fiction as something that does not heal
Fiction as a tool to resurrect
Bring a zombie into the world
An undead remainder of violence
Deaths by Means of De-realisation and Resurrections by Means of Fiction – In Harm's Way DAY 3
Deaths by means of de-realisation and resurrections by means of fiction.
This is the formulation I would use to describe how the works and thoughts of In Harm’s Way come together around the question of violence trying to find an (artistic) language for it. They sense the dynamic of de-realisation described by Elsa Dorlin and respond to it with fiction. They pick up bodies made unreal by violence, easy to kill, and bring them somewhere else, attempting an artistic resurrection.
In the first chapter of Cadela Força, resurrection is explicitly used as a dramaturgical device. A Frankenstein made of wounds keeping a body together and alive. In 13 songs for the unspeakable, a goddess is being born out of the unmaking of a hero. In Zones of Resplendence by Carolina Mendonça, two warriors might have been deadly hit once. Yet, their wounds were infected by plants out of which women grow. Resurrection as something else one might do with a corpse.
These fictions are mine and the artists who made these works might choose different words. In an artistic resurrection, the bodies coming out of the process can hardly be foreseen in advance. One has to stitch together the fragments, put in the chemicals, and use the body as a crucible, where things slowly melt at very high temperatures.
All these three works tell stories. The storytelling is tortuous, the sentences and the temporalities are not linear, their grammar is choreographic.
Their forms are a reminder that ‘it’s about transforming rather than healing’ – these are their words.
These narratives cherish the clotting wounds that do not settle into shape. When they do find a body, it is a metastable one.
‘Is there a way of relating to breaking that does not aim for restoration?’ writes Sara Ahmed in her reflection on fragility and Audre Lorde’s ‘refusal to aspire to be whole’ when choosing not to wear a prosthesis after surviving breast cancer. Focusing on the fragments, she imagines them ‘on the way to becoming something else […]: an assembly. In pieces. Becoming army.’ (4)
An army of two has already settled on stage as the audience enters the gouden zaal, for Zones of Resplendence. They are rooted into a mass of green threads. Their vulvas are body centre, and sometimes their legs move like algae in the sea. The sea is calm, and I catch myself wondering if underwater carnivorous plants exist, but mostly I look at a completely different way of being in the world as a woman. The first time they speak – their heads coming from far deep in the soil, their gaze finding one another again above ground – they talk about a transformation in the body, 'as if the fluids inside it were different’.
They give us hints of how we got here.
They speak about rage and guns.
Carolina says, it’s striking how little we kill, if we consider how much we are killed.
They give us hints of where we are now.
The light is warm, this army has conquered a lot.
Their bodies are radiant with power and potency.
‘There is no easy transition to where we are going.’
We are going back to the past. In this specific history of violence, the transition between then and now cannot be represented: it was centuries ago, and it just happened.
The body as ‘a crucible of political transformation’ produced another body. This time is resplendent in the aftermath of an explosion: Bodies made real by means of science fiction.
In the audience, we hold the space as if it were in many hands – Now, we are palpably many sharing a sort of metastability.
It feels like being ready for a very different form of stage diving - sitting before bodies burning of a warm light, incandescent, ready to jump.
(1) In the text, the first person singular and plural alternate as did my perception of being one and one among many during In Harm’s Way. Among the many people, I would like to thank Carolina Bianchi, Elisa Liepsch, and Carolina Mendonça, whose work and thoughts stayed with me while writing this text. Also some people in the audience, who attended the three days, became important conversation partners during the writing process. Among them, I would like to thank in particular Zrinka Užbinec.
(2) Sara Ahmed, “Fragility” in feministkilljoys, posted on 14 June 2014. https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/06/14/fragility/
(3) Elsa Dorlin, Difendersi. Una filosofia della violenza, Fandango Libri (Rome, 2020), 108. My translation.
(4) Sara Ahmed, “Fragility” in feministkilljoys, posted on 14 June 2014. https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/06/14/fragility/