London, June 2001: In an empty shop in a run down shopping mall in an economically deprived area of South London, an artist’s body is being encased in brick. Inside the bricks the body is wrapped in bandage, covered with plaster moulds and buried beneath sand. Suspended supine in a monument of brick, flesh and mortar, only the artist’s belly and knees are visible in tiny gaps. The body will be encased for eight hours, the duration of a working day. The artist cannot be released until the bricks are demolished.
I am the body that was in the bricks. Called "Remnants of the original," the encasement in brick was a culmination of a decade of investigating on how I could make my body a place that I called home: an embodied home. Transsexuality is a powerful example of a person seeking an embodied home. Their birth sex does not reflect who they are, so surgical sex reassignment is a step toward their embodied home. Although transsexuality would not describe the internal questions that led me to me encasing myself in brick, I did feel at odds with the social identity ascribed to me.
Growing up in a narrow, working class, rural British culture, I initially found that feminist and leftist languages armed me with the tools to fight for my survival. By redefining the terms of power by which a body is signified male, female, gay, straight, black, white, working class, middle class etc., such identity definitions were effective in representing claims to civil rights. But those terms limit the body. Transgender, bisexuality, and mixed-heritage are tips of the many icebergs that trouble the power-based languages produced by feminist and leftist ideologies. In my own alienation, I sought different models of knowing my body that did not deny the terms of power through which one becomes known as a social subject, but refused to limit the self in the way that terms of identity do.
"Remnants of the original" was a sculpture in which my body could be known through something other than identity. I was visibly human and therefore known socially but not limited by identity because the terms of my identity could not be known. This artwork, for me, constituted a moment of embodied home, but it was necessarily only a temporary moment. As the body that is encased in brick, I cannot do the things that a "bisexual, white, English male" can do. I need a national passport to travel, I need a residency that corresponds to the passport to work and to vote, I need a sexual identity to have a sexual relationship. The identity these activities require is constituted through terms that limit the body. At the same time it endows me with rights that I don't want to give up. I long for a place where I can engage in freedoms that identity afford, but where I can exceed the constraints that identity demands.
In the late 90's an international network of transgender activists, artists, and others were engaged in a dismantling of the terms of sex, gender and sexuality. Momentary spaces where terms like male, female, gay and straight were suspended. Definitions were mutating, multiplying, and collapsing. Who you were, who you fell in love with and who you fell into bed with was only limited by your fear, of letting go. For me, the center of this ‘movement’ was Amsterdam. In Amsterdam I didn’t experience the same proscriptions I felt – and fought against - in London, but felt instead supported and nurtured in the ways I exceeded the bounds of my identity. I lived there for five years, and the Dutch culture of tolerance, its patterns of social intercourse and traditions, even the language, became the soil in which I thrived.
Holland’s cultural and political structures was until recently based on a ‘pillar system’ in which everyone was allowed their set of beliefs, their lifestyle, their religion, as long as it didn’t infringe on anyone else’s: an ethic of sober pragmatism which avoids confrontation. It was in sharp contrast to Britain, a heavily confrontational class based society where you know your place, and if you don't like it you have to fight like hell.
The British culture I grew up in was rife with violence and fear. Full of open expressions of aggression against gay people, women, and certainly anyone who was anything remotely other than white and English. When I was five, to stop us from arguing, my father put his foot through a game that my brother, cousin and I were playing, then he threw the broken shards of plastic onto the coal fire. At 12 we used to play a game at scouts called "British Bulldog" which was basically beating each other up in an organized fashion. At 15 I was chased out of school for being queer, in that raw pre-1990's recuperation sense of the word. Holland was different, I felt – believed. I remember the first time my Dutch boyfriend kissed me in the middle of the rural Dutch town-square where we met at 2 in the morning. I was afraid we would get beaten up. "You're in Holland now," he said to me. So Holland became, in a real sense, home. And it remained home when I returned to live again in Britain, and even when I moved half way across the world to Los Angeles.
Amsterdam, November 2004: On the day that Americans will go to the polls to re-elect Bush, the outspoken Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh is murdered as he cycles to work. In broad daylight on a busy street, his killer shoots him repeatedly in the head and chest, stabs him several times, then slits his throat open. He leaves behind a letter stuck to the body with a knife - a death threat, written in a mix of Arabic and Dutch and flourished with quotes from the Koran. It is addressed not to van Gogh himself, but to Dutch Parliament member Ayan Hirsi Ali, with whom van Gogh recently made a controversial film criticizing the position of women in Islam. The killer is arrested in a shootout with the police: he is 26, a ‘dual-national’, born in Holland to Moroccan parents, and carries a ‘martyr’s letter’. The media immediately link the killing with September 11 in New York and March 11 in Madrid. In the weeks following the murder, churches, mosques and Islamic schools are set on fire across the country. A government minister declares the country to be ‘at war’.
As places of religious worship burned in Holland, I was in New York. While the US media joined its Dutch counterparts in portraying van Gogh as the latest victim of ‘Islamic terrorism’, the most common reaction I heard from Americans I knew was "You see, we knew it all along, the Dutch are such racists underneath that tolerant veneer." Their comments made me angry; their vision of Holland didn’t mesh with mine. In my pain and confusion, I reached out to my friend Sarah, an American I got to know when we both lived in London, who’s now been living several years in Amsterdam. She wrote me:
A few weeks ago the papers were full of the story of a Turkish football player. Normally a member of the Amsterdam-based Ajax team, he found himself faced with a choice, in an upcoming international competition, of playing for Turkey or Holland; this because, like Theo van Gogh’s killer, he was a ‘dual-national’, holding both a Dutch and Turkish passport. In one memorable interview he declared that his ‘head’ belonged to Holland but his ‘heart’ belonged to Turkey. And although in the end he went with his head and played for Holland, his statement that his heart belonged elsewhere clearly rankled many. The general consensus was that if he couldn’t say without doubt that his heart belonged to Holland, he should give up his Dutch passport, pack his bags and go back ‘where he came from’.
It’s a phrase you hear a lot these days in Holland. One politician, Geert Wilders, has even started a new party based pretty much solely on these premises. I’ve been asked more than once which country I would support were America playing Holland. The question sent me hurtling back through time and space to another country, another debate: the 1980s, Thatcher’s Britain, do you remember? Conservative Norman Tebbit challenging residents to the ‘cricket test’ – if you supported England you belonged, but if you supported, horror of horrors, West Indies or India, you should get packing. It wasn’t long after Thatcher’s famous statement that ‘there was no such thing as Society’, her justification for destroying public services, national health, welfare, all what she termed the "Nanny State”. Tebbit seemed to be offering a sort of consolation prize to those Britishstill looking to belong to something, somewhere... Though of course, belonging wasn’t open to everyone.
Here it has become common to hear that multiculturalism has failed. As if that were the end of the story – oh, well, that was an experiment that just didn’t work, we’ve got to be brave and admit it. It’s a kind of fatalism which offers no answer apart from the fantasy of national purity. And it feeds on all kinds of emotions - loss, anxiety, sadness, confusion, fear – recuperating them into a pat story for easy consumption. Not that this is surprising. What does surprise me though, is the almost total absence of opposing points of view. And it’s not even just that. It’s as if there isn’t even any language to express opposition. Coming from countries with traditions of resistance steeped in years of civil rights and anti-racist struggles, I find myself lost. It’s as if it never happened here.
When I lived in Amsterdam I never witnessed the kind of racial tension that I saw in Britain, but now and then I got inklings that all wasn’t kosher. A Surinamese radio presenter once told me that Dutch people like to brush race problems under the carpet. A Black British dancer commented that her work was reviewed with a lack of sophistication about ethnicity that would've caused outrage in Britain. And then there was Pim Fortuyn. The populist, openly gay politician who rose rapidly to power in 2002 on a platform which combined an anti-establishment critique of politics and politicians with a xenophobic approach to immigration and immigrants alike. Fortuyn was also shot, by an ‘eco-warrior’, in May 2002, just weeks before an election he probably would have won.
Thinking about all this from my new home in Los Angeles, I began to wonder if the lack of pressure toward self definition that I'd enjoyed in Holland wasn’t just the flip side of what Sarah was now experiencing. Perhaps their culture of non-confrontation had left the Dutch without a language to negotiate the strains of multiculturalism in the face of economic, political and cultural instability. I realized that the events in Holland were in some sense an inverse mirror of events in the US. Not long before Theo van Gogh’s murder, the media reported that an Amsterdam mosque was distributing a book called "The Way of the Muslim" which promoted beating your wife if she 'misbehaves' and throwing gay people off tall buildings. This kind of rhetoric is comparable to the American experience of Christian fundamentalists demonstrating, as they did in Topeka Kansas outside the funeral of Mathew Shepherd, who was murdered for being gay, that he will burn in Hell. What is unique to Holland is that Islam is seen as threatening women’s and gay rights, while in the US the demonizing of Islam is part of a conservative agenda which also demonizes gay marriage and abortion rights.
More than anything, what’s happening in Holland has filled me with a terrible sense of loss. For me, the linking of sexual liberation with anti-Islamic nationalism has been the disintegration of a sense of being at home in the world. Amsterdam was the safest place in the world to be who I am. Its very existence diminished my lived experience of oppression wherever I was, particularly when I found myself in more hostile environments. My own sense of a loss of home may hold parallels with the emotional fallout from economic, social and political shifts that opens up questions of belonging and national identity. In moments of political and economic anxiety, locally, nationally and globally we are weak to the polarization of who belongs and who doesn't by the stratification of identity. In the new Holland, where "Multiculturalism hasn't worked," white Dutch people occupy the most privileged position of belonging with anyone else belonging somewhat less. In the US post 9-11, you are ‘with us or against us’. In a historical moment of extreme anxiety, false security is created for a majority through identifying those who belong less, or who openly admit to dual allegiances.
Narratives that manufacture security through polarizing those who belong and those who don't are steeped in fear of ambiguity. It's about establishing who's on your side. There's no room for anything in-between. This fear of ambiguity is demonstrated nowhere more clearly than in the story of the Dutch-Turkish football player, who literally embodies ambiguity. His body is seen as troubling for national unity, hence the calls for his uni-polar allegiance. Ironically this collapsing of human complexity is the very simplification that forced me to look for models of the body that critique feminist and leftist identity terms. I have found myself reacting from the gut, with an abundance of emotion - pain, burning anger, fear, grief. It is arguably a highly appropriate response to the diminishing sense of security and loss of freedom globally and locally. But how can emotion become a resource, a source of resistance rather than a burden?
In the past it has been art spaces which have allowed me to lever my complex self into communication because they are sometimes more able to sustain a degree of ambiguity which legal contexts or contexts of political representation cannot. So it was there that I returned to search for the protest of the body's emotion in terms that were not mediated by identity, and where complexity was not forced to collapse. I contacted Lauren, an artist and curator who I knew to be passionately interested in the relation between emotion and progressive change. She wrote me about her own vision for a new politics:
One cannot resist oppression while suppressing one’s own human needs. One cannot motivate oneself to act against another’s oppression while in an emotional state that does not permit self-love or love of another … I want to talk about weakness as strength, empathy as hardcore social activism, and compassion as a tough skill to cultivate. Can we reinvest ideas of strength and recognition with concepts of flexibility, openness, confusion, kindness, foolish generosity, failure, helpfulness, and interdependence? Rather than allegiance to detachment, to celebrity, to rage, to success by any means necessary, we can help each other by placing shared value on these skills, which must be learned. At the same time, I think it’s vital that we not be made to learn these transitions alone. They won’t succeed as individualized ideals for self-improvement. One has to have safety, but safety must arise from shared values built on the belief that complex human life is valuable and that human beings can learn new behaviors that reflect this.
Lauren’s vision really spoke to me. Experience has taught me that my life my body, are more complex than models that describe unidirectional discrepancies in power through gender, race, sexuality, class etc. I am touched both personally and politically by questions of oppression and liberation, but ask me to "take sides" and I'm an unreliable ally. Dealing with the current swing to the right defined by polarization in both Europe and America, the absence of an effective language of resistance can be overwhelming. Crucial for political change then, or even resistance at the moment, is a new language to which allows the experience of ambiguity, while more than hinting at possibilities of protest. The current culture of detachment following an age of anxiety is demanding Art that has a clean read. Yet the contemporary fear of ambiguity can be juxtaposed with the inevitability of ambiguity, of which the body is the privileged site. It is from here that a new language must arise.
Santa Monica, July 2004. Boy Cry: a collaboration between performance/live artist Doran George and filmmaker Barry Shils, curated by Lauren Hartman at Crazy Space. Over a hundred photographs of Doran's crying body, taken over the period of year cover the walls. An audience is invited to come and witness Doran taped up on the wall alongside his crying image. His body, momentarily, an exhibit of emotion.