Carolee Schneemann’s six-decade-long body of pioneering feminist performance art
by Sukanya DebJan 07, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Rahul KumarPublished on : Apr 26, 2023
A couple of months back there was a barrage of messages on a social media platform that I am a part of. The topic—visual of an artwork titled Ways of Peeing, in what seemed like a performative intervention, the artist creates a pattern by actually peeing on the ground. Most felt it was disgusting, others ridiculed it by saying that it was just another gimmick in the name of contemporary art.
I, on the other hand, was intrigued to research more. The artist, Sophie Allerding’s practice has roots in storytelling. Learning from her Latin American ancestry, layered with eco-feminist concerns, she likes to raise awareness of the invisible and to make animism sensible through respect for the interconnectivity of different entities in the world. “There is a saying that if we want to transform the world, we have to change the stories we tell each other,” she says. A visual artist, designer, educator and feminist activist, her visual art focusses on the creation of spaces of meaningful encounters. Allerding is particularly fascinated by myths and challenging oppressive and destructive narratives that shape our reality. For instance, the superiority of humans over nature, or men over women. And she does this by re-telling histories and creating new stories.
STIR speaks to Sophie Allerding about her practice and recent works.
Rahul Kumar: Why is there a need to “re-tell histories and create new stories?"
Sophie Allerding: The stories we tell each other shape the world around us. They tell us how the world is set up, how to look at things, and what signs are read. Stories are the architecture of our reality. We live in a world full of social injustices, power structures like patriarchy, capitalism, racism or exploitation and destruction of the environment, are supported by stories that justify or cover them up. It is important that we look at what stories we tell ourselves and why because if we want to change the world, we have to change the stories we tell each other, which sometimes means that stories have to be modiﬁed, reinterpreted or even reinvented.
I like to refer here to Ursula Le Guins’s essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, in which she proposes that the earliest human tool was a bag and not like as generally assumed a spear. It may seem simple, but it changes things, and it is exciting to look at the reasons why we prefer to tell each other it was a weapon and not a container.
Rahul: The use of the human body is recurring in your images. How does it support your narrative?
Sophie: Two recurring themes in my work are the relationship between humans and nature or his environment and the role of people read as female in our societies. Both themes are closely related to the body. On the one hand, it is about the question of the borders of the human body and how far and in what ways it is connected or isolated from its environment, and on the other hand, it is about why certain bodies are treated differently from others.
But there is also another reason why I work a lot with my own body: When I am dealing with a question or a topic, it usually takes place on several levels. On the one hand, there is the intellectual and informative debate, but there is also a physical exploration of it. There is a lot of knowledge that sits everywhere inside our bodies. My explorations and examinations often take on an embodied aspect, and I work a lot with role-playing. Sometimes I also ask others to embody, and role-play for me, but often I also just do it myself, not at least also for practical reasons.
Rahul: Further, some of your work like Ways of Peeing could be seen as repulsive, thereby alienating your viewers. Does that impact the very purpose of creating the work?
Sophie: No. My intention is not to disgust or shock people, although I do ﬁnd it somewhat problematic that such reactions arise, in the sense that women's bodies are supposed to be beautiful and sexual, and when the image deviates from that, there are exclamations and complaints. Any kind of liquid coming out of a woman's body causes exclamations of outrage (except for squirting in porn) whether it be breast milk, spit, menstruation or pee but it's just a bit of ﬂuid, and it's part of life. But don’t get me wrong, my message here is not to encourage people to pee everywhere, I just like to show images we don’t see otherwise.
Rahul: How does the work (Ways of Peeing) further your aspiration of feminist liberation and gender equality?
Sophie: The image of the urinating woman is not one that belongs to the public, in addition, the sexualisation of the female body also makes it a dangerous risk in some places. Women have to hide, go off the beaten track and sometimes hold back until it is dark enough to relieve themselves.
Ways of Peeing is a visual liberalisation and a piss on the impossibility of the restrictive conditions that surround us. In addition, as a kid, I was annoyed, that it was somewhat ‘okay’ that boys would pee figures into the snow while I as a girl was not supposed to have that fun. In a way, it’s also about having fun, which I think is empowering.
Rahul: Please talk about the development of your recent work titled The Web Conference: Imagining the Arachnopocene.
Sophie: The Web Conference: Imagining the Arachnopocene is an online role-play and collective world-building experience, taking part in a speculative future in which spiders have left Earth, and we are facing the consequences of their disappearance. In fact, we would not be able to breathe anymore because the air would be so full of insects. At the conference, participants investigate the relationship between humans and spiders.
When I was thinking about big struggles like patriarchy, capitalism, environmental destruction or colonialism, I always started to get this image of a web in my head, because it is not possible to think one struggle without the other. Everything is interconnected and dependent, but the web is so big, chaotic, and confusing. You quickly feel too small to understand and grasp it, unless you are a spider living in it.
Spiders are widely disliked among humans, and arachnophobia is one of the most common phobias.
To be honest, when I see a spider, I also get a shiver running down my back, and I was curious to look where all this fear, disgust and hate comes from and where it can lead to. In addition, I started to see that I, a woman, and spiders have some more things in common: there is the craft of weaving and spinning, which spiders do, and which is historically associated with women's labour. The spider is also culturally connected to the stereotype of the femme fatale because some of them eat their partner after mating.
Are we intimidated by their haunting strategies, which are technologies we are only weakly able to mimic? Are we overwhelmed by their hunger for life, which includes cannibalistic behaviour sometimes? Or are we xenophobic because we just don’t possess the ability to imagine how life would be with four times the number of legs and eyes, mummifying the prey and sucking it out as a meal? Looking at the spider tells us mostly something about ourselves.
For a long time, role play was more of a research method for me. When it comes to dealing with environmental destruction, extinction and climate change, I mainly associate feelings of frustration and helplessness. Role-playing opened a different space to talk and think about it. Taking on a role helps to break ordinary thinking patterns; we get different ideas or have the possibility to access knowledge and intuition within us that are denied to us in our everyday routines and is it also fun. I believe these are all important factors for fruitful discussions and conversations. In a role play, you are a participant and not a spectator, you are actively confronted with your own position within the story and experience agency inside of it. This can be empowering when it comes to issues where we often feel rather small and powerless.
The role-play is nourished with audiovisual material which is the result of my artistic research on human-nature relationship, alienation, and knowledge production, using the spider carrier of the story.
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