A Response-able Search for Coherence
Review of 'Ballast'
Author: Dr Denys Blacker
Extract from PhD thesis: 'Interconnection, Synchronicity and Consciousness in Improvised Performance Art Practices'
Victoria Gray has developed a difficult-to-define, embodied thinking in her performance practice. In the work, ‘Ballast’ (2015), Gray attempts to change the physical structure of her body, through a cellular consciousness, in which she experiences her organs, muscles, fluids, and fascia, as dissolving into energy. Although her attention is focused inward, much of what happens to Gray during Ballast is happening beyond the conscious self, where she has an intuitive sense of transcending the material restraints of the bounded, singular body.
Her experience of the transformation of her physical body through nonconscious processes, can be understood as a kind of apprehension. In such an apprehensive state, where consciousness is focused on an inner space of cellular function, Gray experiences her physical body as existing within an equally complex, energetic network of other feeling bodies. Gray’s experience of the body, as a receiver or processor of energy in a web of interconnected relationships, could be understood as (a) being ‘in nature’ - a holistic experience of life-force, that permeates every cell of the body.
At this cellular level, the separations between body and environment become difficult to define, and matter is transformed into energy. In Taoism, this vital energy is called Ch’i, and is associated in ancient texts with mist, fog and moving clouds. Ch’i is the energy that runs through the human body along meridians or energy channels. It is in the food we eat, and the air we breathe. It animates nature, and is present in intangible perceptions like intuition or foreboding (Khon, 2015, p.18). This energy, for Gray, whilst having a deep interiority, moves beyond the body.
In the Taoist text, ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’, this paradox, whereby the body is in a deep meditative state, whilst at the same time, experiencing a degree of alterity, is described as such;‘[I] try to find [my] body, but cannot find it’ (Nagatomo, 2012). For Gray, this experience, whereby the physical body loses its heft, and becomes, as in Ch’i, like mist, fog and moving cloud, can feel destabilising, even distressing. When such vital energy is set loose within performances such as Ballast, it can have unexpected consequences. As Gray reflects, opening yourself to (becoming) such energy can feel potentially dangerous, particularly when such experience borders on parapsychological and paraphenomenal dimensions. For Gray, this has led her to think deeply about the “status” of her works, and performance more broadly, particularly those that wilfully court such destabilising experiences.
In dialogue with Gray's work, a set of urgent questions, applicable, but not limited to Gray’s practice, emerge; How does the performance of energetic work, as art, begin to merge with therapeutic and spiritual forms of communion? What of the artist as therapist or facilitator of such dimensions? And, what are the affective politics of making such work in times of biopolitical and neoliberal regulation of the senses?
These are questions that require deeper thought, if we want to fully understand the work of artists like Gray, for which the transformation of self and other is an intrinsic part of the motivation for making embodied performance art works. Works transmitted and received in a nonverbal immersion of the energy of being, where conscious and unconscious co- exist.
In Ballast, and in her performance practice broadly, Gray finds ways to go underneath appearances, connecting to a less appreciated level of existence that she sees as atrophied or neglected. The ineffable aspect of such experiences is not only artistic, but spiritual and therapeutic. It is, for Gray, a political act to reconnect to these ways of sensing and making sense in her work. It is in the political context of feeling, beyond the physical limitations of the body, and beyond the frame of art, that I sense, in Gray’s work, the possibility of a political/spiritual/feminist approach to re-doing our world. A ‘re-worlding’ as Donna Haraway puts it (2016), in which, through performance, we challenge the definition of sensory normality, and ask ourselves how we wish our worlds to be.
This is more than an existential, artistic preoccupation with a ‘being-in-the- world,’ but rather, an ethical imagining. A desire to forge new ways of ‘being- for-each-other,’ in what I call a relationship of ‘porous generosity.’ In this sense, Gray’s work can be understood as a tentacular experience of body that breaks through the confines of a singular body defined by the Capitalocene.
Being for the other is opening your space - mental, emotional, spiritual and material - to the possibility of communion and intra-reciprocity, where personal gain is not the primary aim. Rather, it is in trusting this spontaneous ethical sensing - making sense and becoming sensitised - that we resist the numbing and demoralising effects of neoliberal politics. Through performance, as in Ballast, our small but accumulative gestures of intra-active engagement articulate a new approach for surviving the contradictions and anxieties we live with, in a response-able search for coherence.
Welter & Autistic Perception
Review of 'Welter'
Author: Artist, Richard James Hall
Commissioned & published by Shape Arts, UK
Welter (2021) made by artist Victoria Gray in collaboration with Sam Williams is one of the most important pieces of performance artwork in relation to autistic perception, presentation, and performance that I have seen.
As an autistic performance artist myself, Welter touches on something that I have personally found difficult to convey in any clear form or with any clarity in written text, spoken language, or even performance itself.
Neurodivergent individuals, and indeed collectives, constantly have to process and negotiate with the world around us, regulating ourselves according to how we have learnt or been taught to deal with the various sensory encounters that can overwhelm us.
Our subsequent behaviours of self-regulation, such as stimming, are often viewed by neurotypical onlookers as ‘quirks,’ strange, or even offensive behaviour, disruptive of the usual and anticipated daily interactions expected of people. We are judged by our behavioural patterns, which can lead to interrogation, mockery, and even physical confrontation.
The very act of behaving in such a manner and encountering its consequences means many neurodivergent people are forced to self-moderate, to mask in order to protect ourselves from harm. By performing in a way that is more likely to be perceived and engaged with well by others, we must mask our real selves with a façade, the labour of which can add to the mental and physical exhaustion of interactions taking place on neurotypical terms.
To attempt to explain what is happening within ourselves as neurodivergent people in these situations through the frames of language – be it written or spoken – is something I have often found challenging. We lack the necessary words to convey succinctly the experience. Without the tools, or the space to develop them, neurodivergent people often find themselves operating within neurotypical parameters, measuring their experiences using a system that was never designed with them in mind.
In contrast to this experience, Victoria Gray has delve straight into the heart of this ambiguity in Welter, allowing the work space to exist without committing to a thorough or convenient explanation of itself, or at least not an explanation that can be understood entirely linguistically. Welter speaks to its audience through more: through movement, sound, embodiment. It speaks in a way more familiar to many neurodivergent people.
Heavy Duty Body Work
Review of 'Ballast'
Author: Artist, Fortner Anderson
Commissioned by VIVA Art Action, Montréal, Canada
Victoria Gray began the second night of performances at Viva with a powerful minimalist somatisation that held the two hundred spectators that surrounded the performance area in rapt attention.
As Gray’s website describes it, somatisation involves the work 'to bring dormant psychosomatic / traumatic memory to consciousness'. The idea that mental trauma and memory were imprinted in a physical form within the body was developed by German psychologist Wilhelm Reich in the 1930’s, following his break with Freud. In 80 years, this research has been refined so that it now includes a much more subtle understanding. In Gray’s work she is seeking to communicate memory and trauma that 'subsists at the sentient level of the bones, muscles, organs, fluids, glands and nerves'.
Gray prepared the physical performance and mental space with a keen performative sensibility. Gray’s performances work with the idea of the empathetic communication of kinesthetic movement. Each of her performances is attuned to the specific site and to the public surrounding her. Using the house lights, ancient flourescents set high above the former metal-working area, they bathed the space in a cold and unforgiving light. Their electric ballasts created a loud constant hum. Gray later described this hum as the sound of a nervous system. But this mentality was intense, relentless and inhumane, whose inescapable presence helped enhance a feeling of dread within the space.
Gray entered the performance space after a long pause, giving time for the ambiance to do its work. Nude torso, wearing black pants and white socks she took position crouching in the centre of the performance area with her hands lifted slightly above and in front of her. Here she began the performance, which could be described as dance, with barely perceptible movements of her fingers and hands, as if each was beset by a cascade of tiny febrile spasms. These micro-movements developed very slowly as her crouch position collapsed leaving her to roll on the floor of this working metal shop.
The holding stressful physical positions for long periods was used in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere as effective physical torture. The effort to attain the extremely slow deliberate movement and changes of position within Gray’s performance often left her limbs and torso trembling and shaking. As she displaced herself over the rough concrete work floor, red-tinged dust covered her body, the residue of a hundred years of the shop’s production.
In the Atelier Jean-Brillant, it seemed as if we had been transported to a makeshift 19th century surgical amphitheater. We sat watching with great attention the emanations of long held pain and trauma, as if we were the students of Charcot witnessing the discovery of the corporeal manifestations of hysteria. But, as we watched, the action also slowly undermined this position of spectator by communicating directly and intensely into the body, resonating with our own memories held in the flesh and in the blood. With a slow introduction of calming movement and restful breathing, Gray concluded, elegantly and gently, leading us back to our ego and super-egos.
A Foot to the Chest
Writing on 'Ballast'
Author: Roy Claire Potter
Extract from 'A Foot to the Chest' - published in 'Ballast' a Study Room Guide - supported by Arts Council England and Live Art Development Agency
A woman sets about crouching into a starting position. Her haunches are a few inches from the floor and knees are slightly wider than hip-width apart. From where I am sitting I can see her head is lowered and ground-facing and both her arms are held at shoulder level. Her hands crown the pose, crossed at the wrist. An all-together different starting position to the one that begins the quick, straight race. The duration of this squat that looks like supplication is achieved by a counterbalance. The arch of each foot meets the ground flatly with both ankles bent inward to centre the body’s weight. The woman has trained her body to contain what is plainly discomforting in these actions. Her fingers twitch as blood drains along the arms down toward the heart. The muscles that flank the visible side of her torso spasm as she lowers herself to the floor and endeavours to control a descent that appears to result from some invisible force causing her to move back. The legs extend and her torso lowers to press her back against the floor. While the left leg stretches the knee on the farthest side remains bent and is bended further and suggests the opening sequence of the recovery position—foot set down at inner thigh, body’s weight pulled over by the knee—but no manoeuvre for recovery emerges. Instead the arms line the torso. Hands hold the groin. The right knee stays bent and the left leg hovers a margin above the ground while tracing a curve outward to align with her hip. The body bears its weight down on the foot’s heel then transfers it to the shoulder blades so as to shift the hips over. She lies back with her legs apart. Hands hold the groin still. Feet set as if in stirrups, arched, taut.
The woman who performs these actions that blend one into the other, has trained her body to hold positions which we imagine to be uncomfortable. We base this assessment of her discomfort on the capacity and experience of our own bodies: you know from your own body that weight is more easily borne when you’re in resting contact with a surface; you know from your own body that weight is distributed more readily the more contact with the surface you have. To see her make such slight contact tells us that if the surface is not bearing her weight then she is holding her own. Her weight is held in clenched muscles, in the tautening of tendons that pull balance this way and that until she is centred in a counterbalance, a freeze. Temporarily she is a still image. These freezes in choreography are held long enough for our shared social imaginary to operate, for our imaginations to shift from the physical presence of her body to its common value in symbology. From figuration then to the possible actions her gestures illustrate, and finally the shift toward the self—the recalled, refined, images of our own experiences. All images, not only figures, strain the boundary of separation between selves and what is patently not them. Images are received like a contagion. They are fought or assimilated by memory and in this way we are mutable, a motley body formed at any given time by infection. We are atomised selves who happen to be together when we are simultaneously infected by some image, and this begins the process: Body. Symbol. Illustration. Action. Experience. Me. Me. Me, a shared imaginary. The image of a shared imaginary: grouped naked witnessing.
Spine. Ribs. Breasts. The tender skin of underarms. Waist. A gap in waistband of heavy black jeans. Workwear. White sports socks. These men’s clothes. That woman’s body. This next to that. This or that. Cut at the waist. Denim or delicate on concrete floor. Strip light. Grime aggregates on white socks. Dirt marks the body. Semi-vulnerable-signing body, writhing, marked. The space for these manoeuvres the performance of these actions is made from space where others are not. The audience forms a stage. A stage is an absence of watching. A group of bodies watches one body. Watching together this single body before us. Together, watching. The single body is not watching together. Cannot watch together with us. Not together with the group of bodies watching. Watching together. Together reading while watching. Reading the single body by our imaginary order so eventually we might take our separate positions but in the process we are together. For a short while, together. A body constituted for a short while. For a short while constituted by a single body read as images. Single body making and made of images for group watching. It taps the imaginary. A group charge. An imaginary charge. One being outside the group. One outside makes the group charge. Consummates the grouping. Brief wild binding motley. Charged. A violent consolidation at the expense of an individual before positions are necessarily taken.
In this space both private and communal, charged with images of bodies, I’m unsure of, and therefore testing, the definitional parameters of self. Variably through such mimetic readings I permit the overextension of my self. I trade images for images. I interchange the woman’s traverses in this space with my own. Shoulders forward concaving the chest, torso moved back with limbs outstretched out is not me, is the woman performing these actions, and yet the image she makes produces an affect I understand it for myself, as myself. I substitute, sacrifice. I read her articulations as images that serve me as objects to launch my self from: a woman sent into the swell by a foot to the chest in the sea.
Writing on 'Berthing Bone'
Author: Emma Cocker
Extract from 'Manual' - published by Arts Council England and Nottingham Trent University
SEEING BEYOND THE VISIBLE || Foreseeing the unforeseeable is a skill that can be honed. Pay heed to the stalker or the poacher, she who anticipates the direction of flight in advance of its taking form. Before movement is ever actualised it can still be felt or sensed. Even before intention there is intension. Before extension into space, movement has intensity, the rising of energy that precedes resolve. Prescience is the art of knowing things before they happen. Before the term clairvoyant meant that capacity for seeing into the future (foresight), it referred to a quality of insight, keen perception or clear-sightedness. Clair (clear) + voyant (present participle of voir, to see) - an intuitive ability to see or see-k out things as they really are. So open the eyes. This does not mean look harder but rather more receptively. Cultivate a different retinal attention. Look twice; activate second sight.
AS LONG AS || Experimental practices require time, resistant to being rushed or ushered quickly to some goal or destination. They take as long as they take, set their own pace. Clock-time measures the passing moments according to what can be accomplished therein - experimental practices might then strive to do as little as possible. Failing to fill or spend time productively draws attention to the passage of time as time. Changing the speed of one's action can change the experience of time itself. Slowness and stillness have the capacity to stretch and elongate duration. Time becomes elastic, no longer fixed. Slowing one's habitual responses extends the space of hesitancy, liberating attention from the deliberate (directly purposeful) towards deliberation (weighing up).
TEST OF NERVE || To encounter time stripped of its familiar beat and meter can be disconcerting to say the least. Dislodged from the tenses of past and future, time is experienced simultaneously as now and forever, inconstant. An experimental practice locates itself on the trembling edge as time unfolds, uncertain. No longer scripted in advance, here, every next action has to be called up, conjured, summoned into play. The temptation might be to fall back onto a repertoire of familiar forms and practiced rhythms. The body wavers at the cusp of action, stalls from making too swift a move. Instead, remains expectant, anticipatory. Hopeful. Intrepid. Not without some unease. For, it takes some nerve to lean into the unknown, to be open or vulnerable to what lies therein. So, test the nerves. Exercise this most fragile of the faculties, for unattended nerve is easily lost. Lean then, into the void; remember - we don't know what a body can do.