Jennifer Taylor: performing the post-human

By: Emily Hartless

The post-human is a theoretical challenge to how we conceive humanity and as a result, the human body. Since the emergence of the term in the 1970’s, academic discussions and theorisation of the post-human has focused around defining and visualising this new ideology. As a result, accompanying the scramble to unbind the body as post-human is an urge to classify and order what is left in accumulative networks, glossaries and experiments. For example, the Posthuman Glossary, from which this quote is drawn:

“Some contributors question which images can be taken of the post-human condition; is the icon the spectacular, shiny mechanism of the cybernetic mechanism? Or should we rather value the more humble icon that is the anti-contraception pill?”(1).

What is proposed by the authors of these texts is a strange question. In effect, it asks how can we order what is left from the restructuring of the body to visualise the condition we are already in, are, be? What is the new binding icon or symbol of a space we already occupy?

It is within this state of categorising the un-categorisable, questioning and pondering the form of the post-human condition, that the performances of Jennifer Taylor make the most surreal sense. Taylor is an artist based in Cardiff, who constructs installations and performances. She graduated from the Royal College of Art’s MA sculpture programme and attended the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford and Camberwell College of Art. I met Taylor on the first day she moved to Cardiff to begin a residency at G39 gallery. Ever since, I have been revisiting her work and my own struggle to discuss and understand it; My understanding has settled through beginning to relate Taylor’s work to discussions of the post-human. Taylor’s work does not invent the category of the post-human body or accurately depict it, rather she makes a form of conceptualisation visible; enacting the cyborg, Anthropocene, Chthulucene, the many forms of human shape (2).

But if Jennifer Taylor’s work is enacting the post-human body- the second question is- how does her work perform these changes? All forms of performance are bound by rules and boundaries, systems that are often made less apparent by the nature of the performances themselves – be that the bizarre, the humorous or the apparently  spontaneous. The collection or purchasing of performances by institutions, does not buy the act of the performance, but the rules and boundaries which construct it. It is these rules or boundaries which performances have historically been, and continue to be, documented through. From the earliest iconographic rules of festival books to the presentation of the work of Teching Hsieh at the Taiwan Pavillion’s contribution to the Venice Biennale in 2016 (3).  Therefore, to understand how Taylor’s performances symbolise the post-human is to identity the systems and rules which unify them. This was the underlying principle to the curatorial framework built to exhibit her work at Oriel Mwldan (Cardigan, Cereidigion, West Wales) where the multiple videos of previous performances contextualised her ongoing work through a framework of rules.

 

  • The suit

 

The performances start before the audience start watching; When the participants are helped and manoeuvred into one of Taylor’s motifs: the silver morph-suit. It is the covering of the body, the donning of the suit, which begins the process – the shift from a markedly human to a post-human. Recognisable as the covering used to provide anonymity, worn at hedonistic parties – the morph suit relates to gendered connotations of the masculine performativity, carnival and costume. It is important to understand that the use of a morph-suit at a celebration or festival and within Taylor’s performances relates through the both symbolic transition to another state. One of party and hedonism, visibility and performance- a second skin.

Once sealed in the morph suit, the agency of material and body is inverted. The body becomes the technology that mobilises the material of the suit. As such, it stands as a continuation and departure from the history of performance; The body is still the tool, but our experience of it is mediated through the plasticised material. Made from a mix of polyester and spandex, the morph-suit’s “secret blend of materials” are elasticated enough to stretch to encompass the human body’s form. It also causes a deprivation of breathing capacity and sensory abilities, as the chemical processes of exchange that fuel and situate the body are limited. This impacts the emotional, physical and psychological states of the performer.

Post-human is often described as a condition in which our biological state is mediated through the artificial materials, as well as  the digital technologies. The wearing of a second-skin which negates the biological potential of the body, enacts the post-human in the performance by making the sensory adaptations or mediations strikingly visible. By physically adapting the body through the perimeters of the morph-suits’ plastic, the performers bring the biomechanical and bio-political impacts of digital technology on the body into an uncompromising perspective. They evoke the inane and inconspicuous virtual skins, skin of the avatars and Facebook profiles, that we readily adopt. This is amplified through the choice of silver material; the clingy low-tech solution to a cyborgian future-self is reminiscent of a low-budget sci-fi, a 1970’s impersonation of a robotic u/dystopia. It is an ironic, humorous reflection on the high-tech future humanity was promised and fantasised about in twentieth century art, music and film. We were promised flying-cars, immortality and sexualised shiny surfaces. Taylor’s performance query that perhaps all we get is ourselves- in a restrictive, revealing, somewhat repulsive second skin, acting and re-enacting the same behaviours.

 

  • The environment

 

The choice of performance costume, positions the body as an extension of Taylor’s sculptural environments. Taylor reflects on the relationships of our bodies to matter, an ever-evolving link to her background in sculpture, through accumulating mass, stuff and materials. The states of excess and waste draw entangled comparisons to times, geographies and spaces of consumption. They privilege ecological and urban environmental factors that create discomfort and attempts to exert power and control, like bacteria, mould or hoarding waste. For example, a disco-inflected club environment serve as the layout for a performance at G39 evoking the consumerism of the 1970’s and ‘80’s, and the hybrid film sets of moulded neon rocks form the basis of the production of residencies: a neon-horror Star Trek. What unifies these settings? Effectively, these environments inverse the tradition of performances where the body is the subject.They are jarring, overwhelming, disconcertingly familiar, and constantly competing against and disrupting the bodies of the performers, creating a body/ object collision and competition. This would suggest the performances function as a form of commentary on our excessive and unresolved idea of the future of humanity and our current state of existence.

 

  • The Process (Or the performance)

 

The processes of the performances compound the evocations of an anonymous and objectivised body. In Taylor’s unscripted scenarios, the body enters, intersects and playfully interacts with the environments she has created. For one piece, she proposes the performers enter the space and blow through tubes from a communal hookah or  that someone blows up and occupies a balloon. Most recently, her re-interpretation of Roman mythology and durational performance of mechanised legs have formed the loosely-scripted and propositional inter-sections of the body and setting.

By allowing the performances to evolve around scripted points of interaction, she adds to the narrative and the incidentally of their evolution. The organic responses of man and material, the automatic psychosis of the performing bodies and the watching bodies of the audience, creates a reflection of the constant intertwined nature of the organic and mechanised. But, by drawing on, referencing multiple time-periods and situations, the performances propose the futuristic post-human emblem and body. It suggests that our current ‘post-human’ existence is perhaps something older, more familiar and present, than we have realised in our last thirty years of obsessive conceptualisation and categorisation in academic spheres.

 

References:

1. Braidotti, Rosi & Maria Hlavajova, ‘Introduction’, in Posthuman Glossary, (Bloomsbury 2018), pp.11

2. Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York; Routledge, 1991).

3. Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, ‘The Early Modern Festival Book: Function and Form’ in J.R. Mulryne, Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly and Margaret Shewring (eds.), Europa Triumphans: Court and Civic Festivals in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2004) vol. I, pp. 3–18.

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