Watering the Dirt – Micha Cárdenas

Dirt is what you build home with. That was what I thought as we carried the dirt in from the car. After months of being unhappy with Los Angeles’s excessive urbanity, the noise, helicopters, concrete, and speed of it all, you started gardening. I thought you were finally making a home for yourself here, finding something soothing to spend your time doing, shaping a space that made you feel comfortable. You walked around the neighborhood stealing clippings of succulents from all the rich people’s mansions in the Silver Lake hills and came home and planted them in dirt.

In the song “Dirt,” by Submission Hold, on the album What Holds Back the Elephant, Jen Thorpe’s voice hauntingly soars, backed by long vibrato notes on strings, punctuated with aggressive hits of drums and guitars together: “She is a survivor / She is a survivor / Testifying. She is a survivor / Death defying.”

A body lies on the table, covered in dirt. In Regina José Galindo’s performance Alud, which translates as landslide or avalanche, she lies on a metal table with raised edges, conjuring an image of a morgue, with her entire body covered in dirt. It is caked on her skin, seeped through her hair, and lies in large chunks in some areas. The audience is invited to clean her with a hose and small cloths, and they do.

In an artist statement on the Thessaloniki Biennale’s website, she states,

My body not as an individual body but as a social body, a collective body, a global body. To be or to reflect through me the experience of the other; because we are all ourselves and at the same time we are others.

A body that makes and makes itself, that resists and resists itself; creating projects that reflect reality while also intending to modify it.

Each piece, each action are quotidian scenes of day to day, or they could be. In each one of these scenes, power relations are always present, and this is what I find most interesting, to work with power, so to subvert it, and like this create a parallel reality where power loses its strength.

Reading this, I am both inspired and challenged. I am inspired by the potential of the body in performance, without language, to potentially enter into a liminal state of global signification. Yet at the same time I am unsure whether or not I think that any artist’s body can become a global body. I wonder how my own body, as a mixed-race Latina with light skin, may or may not read as global. Or how the gender of my body, as a genderqueer/transgender woman who has been on hormones for about five years, may prevent my body from being seen as global or collective with some other bodies.

“I’m not gay,” was the first thing you said to me after you flew home to your parents’ house in that small town and called to say you weren’t coming back. What hurt wasn’t just the words, or the fact that you had told me months earlier that you thought you wanted to be a lesbian and now after seven months together decided that you are not. What hurt was also the way you stretched out the syllables, twisted the inflection of your voice when you said it. That sentence didn’t even sound to me like your voice, but the voice of someone else who I didn’t know. “And you clearly want to be a woman, or want to think of yourself as a woman,” was how you followed up that thought. When I talked to my friends to process the intense pain of your leaving, and they told me they thought some of the things you said in our breakup were transphobic, I told you so. You said then that I was “spreading horrid gossip,” giving people the dirt about you so you couldn’t come back, which wasn’t true at all. I was just trying to find a way to bear the absolute grief of losing you. I still am. You had a round-trip ticket because you said you were just going to visit your family, but now I know that you’re not coming back. Today is the day you were supposed to come back. Today is the worst day.

Galindo’s complexion is clearly not white, and reads to me as Latin American. Yet Latin Americans have a vast range of skin tones, as Diana Taylor (2003) describes, “visual practices and technologies of identification that have developed in the Americas to fix and catalogue racial categories – from the casta paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to nineteenth and twentieth-century photography – stall before the dilemma: Latino/as are not identifiable by race” (122). Yet the off-white skin tone that Galindo appears to have in some photos can be read as the kind of mixed-race coloring that is often associated with neoliberal efforts towards multiculturalism. For example, a recent issue of Los Angeles magazine featured interviews with a handful of mixed race people who live in Los Angeles as proof of how racism has been overcome in the twenty years since the Los Angeles riots. Does the body of a Latin American artist become a global body because of the fact of the global migration of peoples in the post-contemporary age, or through a neoliberal rhetoric of colorblindness? Galindo’s performances are highly critical of neoliberalism and its resulting global economic dominance by the United States, so her concept of a global body opens up possibilities for other ways of bodies to be global. Does a body like mine, with parents and ancestors from Europe to South America, become a global body with all of its connections that cross continents? Or, in the case of Alud, does Galindo’s body represent a global or social body in its apparent state of death, pointing to the global persistence of violence against women and necropolitics more broadly? Do bodies become global through shared embodied experiences, like heartbreak?

My skin isn’t white as the porcelain mask you hung in our bathroom, like your skin, which I always thought was so beautiful. You were breathtaking getting out of the bathtub and sitting on our burgundy microfleece blanket. Mine is brown, but not brown like dirt, more brown like the sand by the lake you swim in now. My mother has skin like yours but my father is Colombian. He still has light skin, but not white, and he has lots and lots of freckles.

A major part of my aesthetic as an artist has been a choice to place personal risk and intimacy at the core of my practice. This choice is inspired by artists such as Carollee Schneeman, Sophie Calle, Gloria Anzaldúa, Linda Montano, and Hannah Wilke, who have chosen to make their personal lives and their intimate relationships the subject of their work. Often, this is a feminist strategy of making the personal political. As Chris Kraus writes in I Love Dick (1997), an intensely personal and theoretical book of memoir/fiction, “to be female still means being trapped within the purely psychological. No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her” (196). In another part of the book, on the work of Hannah Wilke, Kraus says that Wilke’s work was focused on the question “If women have failed to make ‘universal’ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal,’ why not universalize the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art?” and says “to ask this question, to be willing to live it through, is still so bold” (211). I’m still trying to understand this and live it and all its complications with my life. I’m trying to understand how this kind of poetry and writing functions in a world where TMI Facebook status updates are common to the point of banality, yet poets like Ariana Reines and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, who write in a direct personal style, still move me to my core.

The song “Dirt” careens through angry, fast, loud portions. Growing into a crescendo with these lines “It’s the world rearranging and transforming / Despite all opposition, against all downward motion / She is a survivor.”

After the succulents, you started planting food, in a plot that has to be watered at least once a day. Then you started composting and we bought bags of dirt and a box of worms. The worms were so gorgeous, shiny and bright pink like creatures made of freshly lubed latex, writhing on top of the dirt, burrowing in, making their homes. I never saw them again after the first day.

You said to me that I didn’t need a pussy of my own because I had yours. But now you’re gone and I miss your pussy and your calm presence and your warmth in my bed and your love, so, so deeply. I’ve been crying for two weeks straight, any time I’m alone. I cry so hard I get a headache and then I keep crying and I get nauseous. I cry until I’m about to puke and then I take too many Advil and try to wait until the pain goes away a little bit. Now I’m the one who waters the garden, which I was never very good at. I water it everyday, the basil, oregano, strawberries, and yellow squash, and think about how much I miss you. I emailed you to ask how much to water it and you said “until there are little puddles everywhere.” I’m building my own home now, or trying to learn how to.

References

Regina Jose Gallindo. http://biennale3.thessalonikibiennale.gr/en/artists/Regina_Jose_Galindo

Ann Herold. “Check One, Please.” LA Mag. http://www.lamag.com/features/Story.aspx?ID=1679232 (22 July 2012).

Submission Hold. What Holds Back the Elephant. (Winnipeg: G-7 Welcoming Committee Records, 2005).

Diana Taylor. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2003).

Image:  Courtesy of Regina Jose Gallindo by Eleftheria Kalpenidou

Micha Cárdenas is an artist/theorist who works in performance, wearable electronics, hacktivism and critical gender studies. She is a PhD student in Media Arts and Practice (iMAP) at University of Southern California and a member of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0. Her project Local Autonomy Networks was selected for the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial in San Jose and was the subject of her keynote performance at the 2012 Allied Media Conference. Her book The Transreal: Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities, published by Atropos Press in 2012, discusses art that uses augmented, mixed and alternate reality, and the intersection of those strategies with the politics of gender, in a transnational context. Micha holds an MFA from University of California, San Diego, an MA in Communication from the European Graduate School and a BS in Computer Science from Florida International University. She has exhibited and performed in biennials, museums and galleries in places around the world including Los Angeles, San Diego, Tijuana, New York, San Francisco, Montreal, Colombia, Egypt, Ecuador, Spain, Switzerland and Ireland. Her work has been written about in publications including Art21, the Associated Press, LA Times, CNN, BBC World, Wired and Rolling Stone Italy. She blogs at transreal.org and tweets at@michacardenas.

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