Last night I had a dream that my skin melted into the wool of my long red coat. I dreamt that from wear, my skin seeped into the fibers like Sillyputty and I couldn’t get it out. I’m realizing my body is already everywhere. I am shedding, I am swallowing, weeping, moving, breathing my surroundings.
As someone who was raised in a rural environment, since moving to Toronto in 2015, I have become interested in how spatial arrangements of contemporary cityscapes influence human behavior and movement. In rural areas, I have observed that architectural development and urban planning are necessarily conceived of in conversation with the local geography. Roads often follow the venous paths of waterways or valleys while places of settlement are selected prioritizing proximity to natural resources. The movement of the body as well as vehicles and goods, occur as informed and allowed by the organic contours of the land. The city of Toronto was once a marsh, it has been flattened, filled in, and artificially extended into the water. I am fascinated by how the agency of a body in motion is affected by the dialogical relationship between it and a man-made geography as opposed to a naturally occurring one. If we can understand the motion of the urbanite’s body as a translation of the ideologies of industrial capitalism, perhaps we can decode it to provide a blueprint of this intangible power. With this premise, it is also possible to use movement as an act of resistance… to utilize the body as an implement for disrupting this power by purposely misreading its directives. In my Undergraduate thesis work titled Forming Body Structures (OCAD University, 2020), I developed various propositional models meant to assist urbanites in becoming more aware of the influence of their architectural environment on their movement and how they might gain agency by fitting into, combining with, and learning from the constraints of their local architectural surroundings in unexpected ways. This research manifested in the form of prosthetics, multi-person wearable interfaces, movement studies, and pedagogical practices. In this article, I will be discussing two works from this project made between 2019 and 2020.
In 2015 Toronto-based artist Gillian Genser was discovered to be suffering from heavy metal poisoning. After years of misdiagnosis, she realized her body was being affected by the toxins accumulated in blue mussel shells, a staple material in her art practice for over a decade. Common blue mussels are filter feeders, they pump several litres of water per hour through their permeable bodies. The toxins in their environment accumulate in the mussels’ flesh and become sedimented in their shells. This sediment became airborne in Genser’s studio when she ground them with sandpaper to reveal their sinuous striations. Heavy metal poisoning can occur through the skin, mouth, and nose. Mimicking the naive bivalves, Genser absorbed the toxic particles in her environment unknowingly; an irreversible synthesis.1
Architects-turned-artists Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa coined the term the Architectural Body in their co-authored eponymous book in 2002. The term refers to the body as “a complex organism that is always in the process of reading its surroundings [and must] be defined together with that within which it moves”.2 This proposed indivisibility of the body and its surroundings is the guiding theme of my research for my work. I am interested in the similarities between the porousness of the skin and concrete; the calluses covering the hands of construction workers formed from the motions of erecting buildings, the smooth worn dips in the stone steps leading to an old church’s entrance.
Brazilian Neo-Concrete artists such as Lygia Pape, Lygia Clark, and Helio Orticia conceive of art as a quasi-corpus (quasi-body), “something that amounts to more than the sum of its constituent elements”.3 To them, art is something that “continuously makes itself present”.3 Through a process similar to digestion, it in-corporates4 the spectator and the characteristics of the space it occupies into itself. These artists often created work to be worn activated by one or many bodies through movements such as dancing (Parangolés, Orticia (1967-1980)), walking (Divisor, Pape (1968)), or cutting (Caminhando, Clark (1963)). The Neo-Concretist wearables are programs created to open the individual's behaviour towards a collective, intersubjective experience.3 During Lygia Clark’s time as an instructor at the Sorbonne’s Faculté d’Arts Plastiques St.Charles in Paris 1972-75, she taught a series of “participatory propositions” (294) that took the form of multi-person actions. The Neo-Concrete Manifesto by Ferriara Guller, as well as, the work of the aforementioned artists have been important references in relation to the material and theoretical development of this body of work.
Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofido extend this notion of in-corporation to the body as it functions in both physical and informational space. They propose the body and space as “interdependent constructs, inseparable from the cultural forces that have shaped them”.5 Fifteen years later in 2009, cultural theorist and political philosopher Erin Manning refers to this mutual formation of body and environment as a becoming body. This is a body that is involved in a reciprocal “reaching-toward” that “in-gathers” its surroundings as it forms itself.6 Through this lens, space becomes configuring as the body constantly recomposes itself while moving within it. In this way “both body and space are experienced as alive with potential movement”.6 Using found construction materials to create bodily sculptures and interactive wearable art, I hope to stimulate the viewers’ and participants’ awareness of this vital exchange.
Awareness of this exchange involves understanding the porousness of the body and our surroundings. Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) describes the human and non-human as actors/actants: assemblages (or clusters) of compatible components connected through shifting networks of material and semiotic relations. All actors are entangled in these rhizomatic webs. Though this is a rather vague theory, ANT can assist in denaturing our perception of materiality as solid.7 When the body and its architectural surroundings are removed from the hierarchically organized ontological environment of western industrialism and placed into a flat ontological plane, unexpected compatibility and relations between components become visible.8 It is here that the potential develops for new bodies and structures or hybrid body-structures to form through a process of denaturation and reformation. What can be gained from this denatured perception of the body and its surroundings? What actions or mechanisms can stimulate the formation of body-structures? What does a body-structure look like? How does it function? These questions animated the works in my Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis show (2020): Net Interface and Movement Studies in Angular Space.
“Loving clumped earth, snails go along glued bodily to it. They carry it with them, they eat it, they excrete it. They go through it. It goes through them. An interpenetration in the best possible taste because, as it were, of complementary tones: passive and active elements. The one simultaneously bathes and feeds the other, which covers ground at the same time that it eats”.9
There is a derelict demolition site at Baldwin and Spadina. In the pit are the remains of what might have been a home or a business… A building demolished for new real estate emblematizes the self-cannibalism of the urbanscape. Like the cud that is in a constant cycle of being chewed up and regurgitated by cows, what once were kitchen counters, office windows and bathroom sinks are all folded into one another and turned into a new compound substance: rubble. In this city, development cannot seem to occur without first leveling the existing architectural structures. As rubble, specific objects previously separated by a local taxonomy of use, are finally allowed to freely mingle. Sites such as these are often made invisible in the urban environment by high, opaque fences. These fences are strategically deployed, it seems, as stand-ins for the solidity of the structures that used to occupy the space. We are not supposed to see this sort of object socialization because it allows us to understand that the virtually impenetrable architectural structures of the city are, in reality, composite bodies made of many smaller components connected through synchronized networks. These places present an opportunity for new bodies to form while the building’s components are raw.
Net Interface (2019) is a proposition for a new body that might emerge from the rubble of the urban demolition site composed of both human and nonhuman components. Borrowing from the strategies of Lygia Pape’s Divisor (1967) and Mike Kelly’s Lumpenprole (1991) which use opaque drapery as a method to obscure and amalgamate the contours that divide bodies from objects, a large sheet of heavy forest-green privacy netting is draped over the site and five human subjects. In an action similar to swallowing, the net combines the forms of the rubble and bodies beneath its surface. Eight long gloved sleeves extend from the surface of the sheet made of the same green netting to be worn by the human subjects. Attached by the gloves, the human subjects move through the rubble together beneath the netting. The net-skin inhibits the participants’ individual motions and obstructs their vision making them more sensitive to their movements in relation to the space and other human subjects. What results is a writhing building-sized body-structure or compound actant with both architectural and human attributes.
To understand one’s self as a component of a larger actant requires an intentional receptivity towards the potential physical activations of the body’s various surfaces and appendages by its surroundings. This demands physical vigilance but also empathy. The perceived hardness of the body’s surroundings in an urbanscape has a dual function of allowing humans to objectify the non-human world with indifference while alienating the human subject from its environment because we believe it is separate from us. The Net Interface is an assistive mechanism for stimulating the sensitivity needed to participate in a dialectical exchange with one’s environment.
Just like the snail of Ponge’s Escargots, bodies are constantly shedding onto, being marked by, and digesting their environments. Both Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape refer to the Möbius strip to approach the continuous relationships between inside and outside.10 Net Interface is one of many investigations I have conducted using wearable mechanisms such as masks, prosthetics, and performance suits, to narrow-in the focus on specific gestures that activate our awareness of this cyclical exchange. I have come to understand that these wearable mechanisms act like braces or training wheels that condition the body to eventually do certain motions autonomously. The understanding of one's self as a component of a larger actant is not contingent on any device. It can be stimulated when your body is engulfed in a shared net-skin with other human and non-human materials or when confronted with a strange form that is simultaneously human and non-human. The net-skin is just a stand-in for the body-structures forming beneath its surface, like a building undergoing (de)construction.
Every time I walk downtown, I can’t help but think about how poorly my body would fold into its corners or how little of me would touch the level sidewalk if I laid down on my back.
Following Pape’s “participatory-proposition” model,11 Movement Studies in Angular Space (2020) are propositions of how body-structures might form unassisted by wearable mechanisms. Without a wearable to organize participants' actions, I turned to pedagogy as a tool to disseminate that which I have learned through my own attempts to reciprocally commune with my urban surroundings. Based on my previous movement study, How to Move Properly in a Courtyard not Meant for Bodies (2017),12 I developed a three-part lesson plan that addresses how the body’s movement is influenced by the local architectural environment. The supplementary material accompanying this lesson plan comes in the form of a pocket-sized pamphlet* which details three field exercises designed with the intention of having the students embody new modes of inhabiting space.13 In line with the tenents of parkour or free running, my hope was that my students would interact with the physical constraints of their urban environment in a generative and playful way, detached from the normally accepted mores and rhythms of the city.14
The denaturation of structures into their component parts to be recombined into compound body-structures does not have to be as physical a process as demolition. It can also be achieved through a shift in perception, a productive forgetting of object-programmed motion. When we are able to recognize ourselves and our surroundings as raw materials, like Lego blocks, we can combine with each other in new, unexpected formations. These are structures created through a dialectical exchange between bodies and objects, models of symbiosis rather than materialist enterprise. If we turn away from the stratified hierarchy that locates human power as stronger than object power, we can see our bodies on a flat-ontological plane, eye to eye with our surroundings. To the traceur,15 this perception shift is called parkour vision.14
Parkour was developed as a form of military training in the late 1980s by French army man, Raymond Belle. Parkour is most often defined as a physical discipline in which the aim is to move as smoothly and quickly as possible from one location to another, overcoming obstacles on the way by using them as stepping stones.14 I argue that when the body moves through space with parkour visionII, it is rapidly moving through many series of body-structure formations. The intention of the movement studies in this lesson plan is less about learning to move efficiently through space than to learn how to combine with it, to understand the body and its surroundings as one reticulate organism.
During this workshop, students were given one hour to document themselves in the urban environment performing gestures informed by the strategies laid out in the pocket-pamphlet. Intuitively and with excitement, the students climbed up the underside of outdoor staircases, experimented with fitting their arms in the spaces between fence posts and folded their bodies into the angles of rectangular window frames.
The paper prints integrated into the sculptural work, Movement Studies is Angular Space (2020), were captured by Wearable Art students who participated in the workshop/seminar I instructed on February 12th, 2020 at OCAD University with the generous support of Professor Sean Smith. Mimicking the actions of the students’ bodies, the images are draped over the metal forms without fastening materials, their shapes informed by the structures beneath them.
This work is not finished; like a Mobius strip, it will continue to turn itself inside out. These ideas will keep recombining with bodies and materials every time they are taught or learned or stumbled upon. Though there are objects on display here, they are not static; they are constantly in-gathering their surroundings.
I began this work hoping to create objects that would catalyze osmotic communication with my environment. This work has taught me that the reaction I was seeking, this mutual becoming between my body and my environment, is already happening. The impenetrability of the cityscape is as permeable as my skin when I take the time to caress it and stick my fingers in the cracks.
1Sheena Goodyear, “This sculptor got heavy metal poisoning from working with mussel shells”, cbc.ca,
CBC Radio, December 4, 2018.
2Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa, Architectural Body (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019), xx.
3Ferreira Gullar, “Neo-Concrete Manifesto,” in Readings in Latin American Modern Art, trans. Dawn Ades (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 174, 175, 178
4 Helio Oiticica in Ivan Cardoso, H.O, Helio Oiticica, Youtube, 1979. Video, running time: 12.51. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGYHJaGXHOU&list=WL&index=2&t=0s
5Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Flesh: Architectural Probes, (Hudson: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 39.
6Erin Manning, Relationscapes (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 6, 15
7 “Denaturation involves the breaking of many of the weak linkages, or bonds (e.g., hydrogen bonds), within a protein molecule that are responsible for the highly ordered structure of the protein in its natural (native) state. Denatured proteins have a looser, more random structure; most are insoluble. Denaturation can be brought about in various ways—e.g., by heating, by treatment with alkali, acid, urea, or detergents, and by vigorous shaking” (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Denaturation,” last modified January 03, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/science/denaturation).
8 Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005).
9 Francis Ponge, Escargots (1942), quoted in Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa, Architectural Body (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019), 25-26.
10 Luiza Proença. “Walking on a Möbius Strip- The Inside/Outside of Art in Brazil,” Bauhaus Imaginista 2, (2019): http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/3822/walking-on-a-mobius-strip
11 Eleonora Fabiao, “The Making of a Body: Lygia Clark’s Anthropophagic Slobber,” in Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art 1958-1988, ed. David Frankel, Kyle Bently, Sarah McFadden, and Evelyn Rosenthal (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014), 296
12 Eija Loponen-Stephenson, “How to Move Properly in a Courtyard not Meant for Bodies,” Youtube, May 8, 2017, video, 2:45, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CowV5bhF0o&feature=emb_title.
13 Please refer to Movement Studies in Angular Space pamphlet accompanying the exhibition.
14 Lieven Ameel and Sirpa Tani, “Everyday aesthetics is action: Parkour eyes and the beauty of concrete walls,” Emotion, Space, and Society 5 (2012): 164, 165.
15 A “traceur” is a practitioner of parkour. Ibid: 165-173.
Compelled by an interest in relational exchanges between bodies and the architectures they inhabit, Eija Loponen-Stephenson’s work investigates how spatial arrangements of contemporary cityscapes influence human behavior and movement. These investigations manifest in the form of assemblage sculpture, large-scale installations, performance, and various wearable mechanisms. Originally from rural British Columbia, Eija currently lives and works in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). She holds a BFA in Sculpture and Installation from OCAD University and will be beginning her MA in Art Education at Concordia University this coming fall.
Reach Eija on Instagram @antmomm or check out their website here.