What are the possibilities of a body? This is a question that is answered best by thinking prosthetically. After all, the possibilities of a body extend beyond flesh and bone. Asked another way, one might query: what are the affective capacities of bodies—animal or otherwise? Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari focus on affectivity as capacity, on what the body does or can do; thinking through Baruch Spinoza’s writing on the body, they state, “we know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects” (257). If bodies are defined by their affective capacities, I wonder: how can prosthetics be used to alter dominant and dominating relationships between the human and the non-human animal, particularly as these relationships bear on questions of race? In this essay, I forward a contemporary media installation, “The Slug Princess”, as a productive site for thinking through the prosthetic possibilities around issues of race, animality, and aesthetics. I contend that the Degenerate Art Ensemble’s installation works through uncommon prosthetics to activate what Deleuze and Guattari describe as becoming-animal. While animality has historically been mobilized to perpetuate Orientalist logics, I argue that DAE’s becoming-slug rethinks the capacities of the body prosthetically, and in so doing dismantles the hierarchy of the body normativity.
The Degenerate Art Ensemble (DAE) is a collective of artists with international showings co-directed by Haruko Crow Nishimura, originally from Japan, and Joshua Kohl, from the United States. The ensemble is based in Seattle, Washington, USA. The group’s name is a reference to the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich, Germany, organized by Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party. The exhibition staged 650 works from what Nazi officials referred to as “art stutterers”, the pieces were confiscated from German museums and defined as works that “insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill” (Spotts 163). DAE “selected this politically charged moniker partly in response to the murder in Olympia [Washington] of an Asian American youth by neo-Nazi skinheads” (Frye). DAE’s namesake is thus an embrace of bodies and abilities deemed unworthy by systems of corrupt power. With this in mind, I argue that DAE’s work provides an opportunity to think through intersections of prostheticity, animality, and race.
“The Slug Princess” is part of a larger exhibition of their work shown from 19 March to 19 June 2011 at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. The installation is comprised of two major elements: a crocheted work and a video projection. For me, both are prosthetics.
A Crocheted Prosthetic and Orientalist Animality
The crocheted garment is not immediately recognizable as a prosthetic. It is displayed on a mannequin that stands mostly erect. The piece, described as a headdress, is however by no means a traditional garment. Yellow spirals and topographies flow and diverge in tangled networks of yarn that sometimes converge into recognizable form. The knit headdress travels in countless directions, somehow assembling as a wearable fibrous entity that covers the mannequin from head to ground, spreading out, away, and behind the figuration of the human. In slumped orbs, green knit “cabbages’ surround the slug princess headdress, exceeding the objects they intend to represent in mass, shape, and affect. In this bustling excess of movement, the headdress hints at how it is more than a costume, but is instead a prosthetic.
The video projection makes the prosthetic nature of the crocheted headdress evident. It is a looped performance of Nishimura that runs from ceiling to floor and spans the semi-enclosed space in which it is displayed. In the video, Nishimura walks, then crawls – slowly, awkwardly – through a forest. She also eats whole cabbages, supporting procedure with mouth, foot, and appendage, throwing the function of her body parts into question. The crocheted element is vital to her movement and the perception of her body’s capacities.
As Nishimura becomes slug princess, the DAE begins to intervene in complex regimes of racial identification. It is imperative to note that Nishimura’s boy gets caught up in interpretive schemas of Western constructions of Asians as animals. For example, in the early diaspora in the United States, Chinese men were often identified with the figure of the rat in 19th-century political cartoons. Mel Y. Chen points to the ways in which these racialized animalities have long reinforcing the idea of the yellow peril through metaphor (Chen 110-111). These images were instrumental in conjuring fear around the powerfully dehumanizing idea that hordes of rats were infesting national purity. Such fears were significant in leading to the Chinese exclusion acts of the United States and Canada. Western tropes of Asians find traction in animal symbolism. From dragon ladies to butterflies, Asian femininity in both women and men has been captured by simultaneous notions of treachery and passivity. As Nishimura’s body is enabled by prosthetic, it is also caught in a regime of problematic signs. Animal symbolism persists throughout Asian diasporic gender construction and Western fantasies of the East. Rachel C. Lee refers to the “process whereby the human is reduced to the insect, rodent, bird, or microbe” as zoe-ification, which she illustrates as a resolute means of excluding Asian Americans from species-being (Lee Exquisite 48). DAE’s Slug Princess, I argue, joins Lee’s energies herein by providing and performing alternative modes of understanding animality.
The stakes of prosthetics in becoming-animal lie in the problem of domination through definition. Orientalist animality functions to devalue Asians as animals, ultimately justifying forms of subordination and exclusion. I want to suggest that becoming-slug, as I will elaborate below, provides a mode of resisting this narrow function of defining bodies by enacting prosthetic process. In doing so, it aligns with the ways in which prosthetics redefine the points of delineation against normativity. As Margarit Shildrick illuminates, “once it is acknowledged that a human body is not a discrete entity ending at the skin, and that material technologies constantly disorder our boundaries, either through prosthetic extensions or through the internalization of mechanical parts, it is difficult to maintain that those whose bodies fail to conform to normative standards are less whole or complete than others” (24). DAE’s Slug Princess transmutates how animality functions to Orientalize Asians as the degenerate other, heightening the ways in which prosthetics can resist the racialized ideologies of normative wholeness.
Why Prosthetics? Or, a Comparative Case in Aesthetic Animality
DAE is of course not alone in their animalistic interventions. In order to isolate what I find uniquely productive about DAE’s prosthetic performance, I turn to another artistic alternative to traditional modes of Orientalist animality. Xu Bing’s performance installation “Cultural Animal” (1994) at the Han Mo Art Center in in Beijing, China can serve as a useful foil. “Cultural Animal” featured a live pig and mannequin in positions that evoked queer bestial sexuality. The pig was covered in inked nonsensical Roman letters; the full body of the mannequin was similarly tattooed in jumbled Chinese characters. The piece was a part of a larger project entitled “A Case Study of Transference”. According to Xu’s website, “the intention was both to observe the reaction of the pig toward the mannequin and produce an absurd random drama—an intention that was realized when the pig reacted to the mannequin in an aggressively sexual manner” (Xu). The photographs, which were a component of the piece, indeed evoke the difficulty of the concept of transference, imbricating species, languages, and taboos. The piece more generally enacts the unexpected excesses of performance with non-scripted bodies. The pig at times caresses the cheek of the mannequin. The sensuous experience is inked by the cultural confusion that images the seeming sensibility of each language. Amidst the movement of the pig and the rubbings of the ink, the mannequin is motionless, bearing a look of resigned openness. His eyes are closed, with a slight furrowing of the brow and calm downturned lips. The performance piece enacts crossings that reorient the historical symbolic force of racialization and animality.
These forms of species and cultural miscegenation evoke for Mel Y. Chen a form of queer relationality that exemplifies “animalities that live together with race and with queerness, the animalities that we might say have crawled into the woodwork and await recognition, and, concurrently, the racialized animalities already here” (104). As such, Chen does the work of pointing out how Xu destabilizes notions of proper boundaries between human and animal, positing a different form of human-animal relationality. In short, Xu’s Cultural Animal chooses relationality. This relationality does not extend the body’s capacities. I argue that by focusing in on the pivotal nature of prosthesis, DAE’s slug activates a becoming-animal that goes beyond relationship, instead rethinking what a body can do.
Becoming-Slug: Prosthetics as Intervention
By way of differentiation, how might “The Slug Princess” function beyond symbolic universalism and in excess of human-animal relations? In an effort to understand this distinction, I forward DAE’s installation as a practice of becoming-animal. Becoming-animal is a theoretical intervention in hierarchy, highlighting a minoritarian tactic to resist domination, akin to Shildrick’s description of prosthetics.
DAE’s installation enacts becoming-slug, as illustrated in an elaboration of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept they argue: “Becoming-animal always involves a pack” “a multiplicity” (Deleuze and Guatttari 239). The banner of becoming-animal is “I am legion”. DAE is and are a propagation of artists working together. They enact legion. Led by a pack of collaborators, DAE engage a range of artists in continual, ongoing, and fluctuating process. Their current collaborators include (and surpass): architect/designer Alan Maskin, costume designer ALenka Loesch, dancer/singer Dohee Lee, performance artist/expressionist/songwriter/shape-shifter Okanomodé, and sound/installation artist Robb Kunz. For the broader exhibition at the Frye, they listed the biographies of fifteen artists and the names of around 200 artists. Yet, it is not the mere number of collaborators that render DAE a multiplicity – it is the collaborative excess of their process that generates potential at the intersection of performance and prosthetic.
Notably, it is important that the wearable prosthetic headpiece used in “Slug Princess” was created in collaboration. “The contagion of the pack, such is the path becoming-animal takes” (Deleuze and Guattari, 243). Created by Many Greer but worn by Nishimura, it weighs on Nishimura’s body in ways that steer her performance. She is unable to stand erect as the mannequin in the exhibition. The prosthetic changes her capacities in unpredictable ways. The unexpected headdress causes her to hunch over and crawl, pushing her body into slow contact with the earth. As the flowing garment slows her forward progress, it activates new modes of movement. Snagging, and undulating, Nishimura moves slowly over the uncertain terrain of a forest. As Greer’s creation collides with Nishimura’s body and the practice of the dance, they enact becoming-slug. This is to suggest, then, following Deleuze and Guattari’s affective understanding of becoming-animal, that prosthetics have a productive role to play in disrupting normative modes of embodiment.
Further, as Deleuze and Guattari indicate, becoming-animal is non-affiliative (Deleuze and Guattari 238). Becoming-animal is that which is “not content to proceed by resemblance and for which resemblance, on the contrary, would represent an obstacle or stoppage” (Deleuze and Guattari 233). Likewise, Nishimura’s becoming-slug is neither imitative (305) nor mimetic because it functions in the way of displaced doing through prosthetic process. Deleuze and Guattari describe in the example of Little Hans and his horse, becoming-animal occurs in putting one’s shoes on one’s hands to move, as a dog: “I must succeed in endowing the parts of my body with relations of speed and slowness that will make it become dog, in an original assemblage proceeding neither by resemblance nor by analogy” (258). The headdress engages an active bodily process of moving as a slug, rather than looking like a slug. Nishimura’s body begin as her body human begins, upright, but it is pulled down and made slow by the collaborative force of the wearable piece. As such, DAE enacts “affects that circulate and are transformed within the assemblage: what a horse [slug] ‘can do’” (257). This assemblage of affects pushes beyond the limited capacities of the screen, offering new productive entanglements.
The Stuplime Loop as Prosthetic
To the extent that conceiving of a headdress as a collaborative bodily prosthetic flows from common understandings of prosthetic, the medial interface perhaps stirs up a more foreign example of prosthesis and becoming-animal. The medial performance of DAE’s “The Slug Princess” operates through the video loop, transecting the human, animal, and technological in a way that displaces being in favor of becoming. The looping video creates a spatio-temporal contraction and elongation of the experience of time in relation to viewing. It functions as an experiential prosthetic, reworking the ability to think in a codified manner—altering the capacities of the body. Time play breaks the chronological experience of straight time and time as mastery by turning to the temporal experience as questioning normativity.
Specifically, “The Slug Princess” creates productive indeterminacy through what Siane Ngai designates as “stuplimity”. Ngai’s punning contraction of stupidity and sublimity works in relation to Deleuze’s thinking on repetition and difference. Ngai poses the idea of stuplimity as beginning with “the dysphoria of shock and boredom” and culminating “in something like the ‘open feeling’ of ‘resisting being’—an indeterminate affective state that lacks the punctuating ‘point’ of individuated emotion” (284). Ngai characterizes this affecting openness and stupefying: it stops the viewer in their/her/his tracks. This importation of the affective state cannot be overcome through the exercise of reason (270). Departing from Kant’s description of the sublime, Ngai turns to the uglier, less awe-inspiring, and perhaps more debase form of aesthetic encounter. This is the collaboration of the stupid with the sublime. Stuplimity operates outside reason and sublimity but in alliance with their processes.
Viewers seem to get “stuck” at “The Slug Princess”, lost in the stuplimity of the loop. Some affect of the looping videos generates not thoughtfulness or reflection, but perhaps cultural stupidity – the relative and temporary cessation or abatement of cultural logics and aesthetic valuations. The video loop comes together with the medial enactment of becoming-slug in such a manner that performs into stuplimity. Stuplimity, in this case, creates an opening of an affectively stupid or illegible (per Xu) space/time alternative being/becoming. The loop is, of course, not unique to the installation and is a common feature of museum pieces. Yet, the performance, the becoming-slug itself, creates sluggishness. Ngai posits that sluggishness works out the boredom of repetition, which I argue is created through the loop of becoming-slug. The slug princess’ slowness, played in the loop creates a “stuplimity [that] reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as totality” (271). That is, the loop, by virtue of its sluggishness, opens up becoming-animal not as a finite thing, but as an ongoing, cycling, and thoughtlessly tedious process.
DAE’s installation thus demonstrates an attempt to adopt prosthetics to rethink the logics of control and power. In his writing on contemporary shifts in prosthetic function, Paul Preciado argues that digitalization is a core component of the transition from prosthetics to what emerge as “microprosthetic”, in which “power acts through molecules that incorporate themselves into our [bodies]” (78-79). I would like to consider the stuplime loops of becoming-slug to counter what Preciado describes as an “ensemble of new microprosthetic mechanisms of control of subjectivity by means of biomolecular and multimedia technical protocols” (33). Emerging in the same fashion as microproesthetics, which function as modes of control, the stuplime loops instead suspend the logics of control and power enabled by dominant modes of microprosthetic technologies. Rather than infesting one’s body with modes of control, the stuplime loops hijack the digital message and present the possibility of thinking otherwise. In her writing on queer cyborgs, Mimi Nguyen argues that “as technologies of the self, prostheses are both literal and discursive in the digital imaginary. They are a means of habitation and transformation, a humanmachine mixture engaged as a site of contest over meanings – of the self and the nonself” (373). Binaries perhaps structure a thinking between human and animal, but prosthetics as process goes beyond the idea of the cyborg as a mixture and maps a new terrain altogether.
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