Article HART magazine
In a series of articles, HART magazine, together with Netwerk Aalst, highlights the project The Bodies. After an introductory interview that appeared earlier, they now give the floor to writer-in-residence Agnieszka Gratza.
You can read the full article below. It was originally published in HART.
A date in the form of a chiasmus that folds in on itself like a Moebius strip seems fitting for the start of this chronicle, charting the uncertain course of The Astronaut Metaphor and the meetings of its Bodies over the projected three-year lifespan of our mission.
Incredibly, we're a year into it already. Sporting masks hand-painted by Laure Prouvost, drawing tarot cards and hanging out at Alex Cecchetti's Love Bar during the opening of their duo show at Netwerk Aalst this time last year somehow feels light years away. Intended as a palate cleanser allowing for a (partial) change of crew between missions, Occupie Paradit was also a soft launch for The Astronaut Metaphor. With hindsight, these feel like the days of innocence, albeit with Snakes in attendance, ready to engage visitors in discussions concerning such recondite matters as the Music of the Spheres.
On the eve of another carnival, in a capital city once renowned for its own riotous carnevale festivities, I think back to my residency in Aalst last February, timed to coincide with the three days of collective madness that ordinarily take hold of this otherwise sleepy Flemish town, for better and for worse. Not so this year. All that talk about a 'Sabbatical year' turned out to be prophetic. There will be no themed floats, no lavish costumes, no expectant crowds hoping to catch the golden onion, no drunken revelry lasting into the wee hours. 'A local TV network will broadcast a compilation of previous carnivals, with some commentary thrown in', my informant tells me, 'but that's all we get.'
Stijn and I met at Netwerk where preparations for the Sunday parade, which started out literally on its doorstep, were in full swing. As in previous years, Netwerk had graciously let different carnival groups use its space as their dressing room. Disguised as a company of butchers with tall hats resembling old-fashioned weighing scales and necklaces of pungent sausages strung around their necks, Stijn and his mates were ordering a round at the bar. Never mind that it was only mid-morning. We struck up a conversation, the first of many sporadic exchanges conducted via text messages that made me feel connected to Aalst and Belgium as Carnival gave way to Lent, ushering in the Coronacene era.
The inaugural meeting of the Bodies, eagerly awaited by all concerned, had been scheduled for March 2020. Given the extreme measures arguably called for by these extreme times, it soon became apparent that this was not to be. As weeks and months slipped by, and we began to gradually adjust to the new virtual realities, the likelihood of an actual gathering tentatively rescheduled for May became ever slimmer. Come September, willy-nilly we settled for a 'provisional' online encounter so as to touch base, as the Mission Control folks split between Aalst and Vienna put it. Borne out of necessity, these analog simulations have since become our modus operandi.
Half a year and a handful of zoom meetings later, we're finally getting into our stride. Trying to lend momentum to a project long in the planning but seemingly cursed by circumstances, and to build a rapport between geographically dispersed Bodies, confined to their respective capsules, hasn't been easy. 'Bodies are nothing more than isolated nodes, extremely prone to bad connectivity', muses the narrator in Athens-based artist Kyriaki Goni's short video The Portal or Let's stand still for the whales (2020), which attempts to convey the day-to-day experience of the pandemic – in a city that could be any city on the planet – to someone living in a post-apocalyptic future.
We compared notes. The pandemic has made several of us reassess why we live where we do, now that our chosen 'base' has ceased to be just that. A lot more is at stake, after all, when you're faced with the prospect of having to stay put somewhere for weeks and months on end. To quote Nick Aikens, who has been tasked with steering the initial meetings: 'We work in a field premised on movement between countries, on physical presence in the form of exhibitions, performances, symposia, meetings between people such as the Bodies. [...] Equally, and on a more personal level, many of us came to live and work in countries we are not from and now find ourselves having a more complex relationship to our current homes, and / or the places we left.'
Back in December, Aikens had us watch on our respective devices the first seven minutes or so of Derek Jarman's Blue (1993), the last feature the British director made before he passed away. As an exercise in collective synchronized viewing, it did not quite pan out, owing to some technical issue, but the film itself was an inspired choice – not least because of the narrator's wistful evocation of 'a journey without direction where our paths cross for a while', which speaks to our own doomed enterprise. One hesitates to call this ode to the melancholy colour, which the AIDS-stricken Jarman saw in flashes after he had gone partially blind, a film: Blue is essentially a soundtrack with a voiceover that accompanies a single static shot of International Klein Blue. It made one participant, Bianca Baldi, think of another shade of blue – Classic Blue – that the American company Pantone had selected as the colour of 2020, ironically enough, because of its apparent ability to instill calm and a sense of connection.
For all the careful social engineering, planning ahead and behind-the-scenes work, at times it felt as though we were a rudderless spacecraft with no one very obviously in command telling us what to do. We had to work it out for ourselves. Ideas have been floated and then put on the back burner, judged premature or having failed to win universal approval, as if the Bodies could only act as a single body, despite disparate backgrounds and competencies. Those of us whose paths had crossed before pursued their private conversations and collaborative endeavours, facilitated by Netwerk Aalst. I congratulated myself for getting in on the act and doing a residency there while the going was good.
For one thing, that way I got to hang out in Aalst with Wendy Morris. When we met at the opening of Occupie Paradit, she was about to move into the studio space made available to her by the city museum located in the former 't Gasthuys hospital. She offered to show me its enclosed medicinal garden set up by nuns in the seventeenth century, which she was secretly planning to fill with emmenagogues (plants with contraceptive and abortive properties); lent me items from her Library of Books Withdrawn; got me dreaming of expeditions from Cape Town to the Copper Mountains of Namibia over cups of rooibos tea; and introduced me to the motley company of literary personae she variously embodies – Muriel, Orlando, midwif, the Emissary to the Past, the Wandering Womb and I, the Ear among them.
News from Aalst would reach us intermittently. On January 22, 2021, an unusually bright fireball on a collision course with the Earth shot over Belgium at 6:52 UT (7:52 local time), and was last observed at a height of 27 km above East Flanders, before adverse weather conditions prevented further camera capture. Its fiery trajectory was visible even to the naked eye, according to a number of witnesses who claimed to have spotted it on their way to work. Given the final velocity of the object – believed to be Asteroidal in origin – the landing site was estimated to have been somewhere north of Aalst and south of Dendermonde, giving rise to speculations such as 'Did meteorite debris land in so and so's garden?'.
Jeremiah Day’s proposal to explore alternatives to the more discursive modes of virtual interaction at the last but one session met with enthusiasm. This was to take the form of a score or several, drawing on contact improvisation and specifically Simone Forti's Logomotion work, which combines movement and speaking. To the uninitiated, the next meeting might have looked and sounded a lot like guided warm-up exercises, designed to rid us of anxiety or ambivalence ('But ambivalence is good,' someone protested to no avail.) These segued into 'movement, memory, snapshot', where you relate a memory – preferably in your mother tongue – then move it and shake it around a bit. It took a while for this to sink in. Snippets of stories told in English, French, German, Spanish, Flemish, and Polish were borne out by the odd eloquent gesture. We took it in turns, and completed another round, before getting the hang of it.
As we venture into another lunar year, the hoped-for summer get-together is still but a distant prospect and hardly one we can rely upon. If all else fails, we can always explore the potential of mind-to-mind communication, taking our cue from Pauline Oliveros's Sonic Meditations (1974). Telepathy beckons.