October 2020 revolved around embodied practice and embodied research. The pandemic created this condition where I was at home with myself in a controlled and stable environment with people who love and support me in the ways that I want to be loved and supported. That allowed me to deepen my relationship with my body. As relates to my body I’ve had many major milestones this year : I learned to swim; I learned to float, to entrust myself be care of water without knowing its depths; I learned to cycle for the fun and freedom of it, not just to get somewhere; I returned to capoeira; I’ve been learning to drum. All of these processes have changed me and by changing me have also changed my artistic practice. In addition to these moments there are two others that stick out as major moments of transformation. In October I repierced my nose. As in I personally pushed a sharp object through my own flesh to puncture it and kept pushing through the pain, the pop, and the feelings of invasion until I hit air on the other side. In October I also tied 7200+ nooses. One for each prison, jail, detention center, youth detention center, immigrant detention center, psych jail , youth jail, youth detention center and other carceral facility in the United States. The rigor, intensity and emotional weight of that process took a toll on me. Together these two experiences helped to pose important questions about my relationship to pain, my relationship to body, my relationship to practicing care for myself.
In preparing to re-pierce my nose I became really interested in my relationship to pain. While I waited for my new nose ring to come I wondered what my capacity for intentionally inflicting pain upon myself could be. Could I push a needle through my skin to pierce it? How would it feel? I thought that it would be difficult, strange, new and unsettling. It was not. It was surprisingly familiar. It felt like the same pushing through that happens when I am in workflow and I decide to ignore my body’s needs for food, for sleep, for going to the bathroom, for movement, for social interaction. This pushing through felt fine. That startled me. How had I developed this practice of regularly pushing my body into pain and holding it there? How could I restore my relationship with my body?
I could write a whole book about how society is structured to train people who hold the identities that I hold--poor, Black, queer, gender-fluid, chronically ill, disabled, assigned female at birth, etc etc etc--to not only bear our own pain but to also carry that of everyone else. At this moment though, I want to focus on that second question: How could I restore my relationship with my body?
Shortly after I re-pierced my nose, I began work on the sculpture that required the tying of 7200 nooses.
In October 2020 I was building a sculptural piece for a group show that would open in November at Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art ( formerly know as Greater Reston Art Center). The piece, “Noose Nap Flag,” is part of an immersive installation that includes large scale video installation and an installation of hanging ropes and black compost. The video installation “ Where DO Monuments Go To Die?”, another new work made for this show, is of my hands tying and untying a noose.
To complete “Noose Nap Flag” I had to tie over 7200 miniature nooses. One for each prison, jail, detention center, youth detention center, immigrant detention center, psych jail , youth jail, youth detention center and other carceral facility in the United States. My hands were already familiar with the knot from an earlier work, one that this new work directly references. That familiarity did not mean that I could escape the physical aches and pains that come with repeating the same motion over and over again 7200+ times. It did not help that this repetition took place in a fairly short window of time. This kind of repetition is what leads to stress or overuse injuries.
This body likes variety and novelty. The body is also an interconnected system. What impacts a part, impacts the whole. When I began to tie 400 - 600 nooses a day the pain from repetition didn’t just show up in my hands, my wrists, my fingers. The pain made itself felt in my arms, shoulders, back, chest, neck. The pain crept over to the left side of my body which began trying to compensate for my overuse of the right side.The pain made its way down into my hips and took up residence in my achilles heel and the arch of my foot.
Earlier in this post I wrote about how I had developed and become aware of my habit of pushing through pain in order to get things done. My newfound awareness of this habit birthed the question: How could I restore my relationship with my body?
Another way to ask the same question: How could I restore my relationship with my body after a lifetime of neglecting it, abusing it, and ignoring its requests for support and care? How could I work towards building trust and open communication with my body after I had done so much damage to it and allowed others to do the same?
The process of making this sculptural piece, the pain that it created presented me with an opportunity. I could keep pushing through pain as I had always done or I could do something different. I chose to do something different.
In October 2020 I began understanding pain as a communication from my body that meant that I needed to stop or change what I was doing. When I am in the studio and in workflow I push myself to work through pain. I ignore my body’s needs for food, for sleep, for going to the bathroom, for movement, for social interaction. I push through the pain in pursuit of my own idea of perfection. I push myself until I break. This kind of pushing is accepted, expected and celebrated even as a part of the artistic practice.
Though we artists are trained socialized to abuse our bodies in these ways we are not taught how to recover, how to restore or how to pre-emptively prepare. We are taught to take care of all of our other tools. I know that I must regularly sharpen my shears, never use them to cut anything but fabric, never store them so that they are resting on their point, never allow them to be wet or rust, etc. knowledge of how to care for, preserve, use and store all manner of tools and instruments has been drilled into me from an early age. Yet somehow, even though my body is my primary tool for creating my work, the one that I use everyday and every single time, in the course of my various studies no teacher has ever taken the time to truly impress upon me how important it is to care for, preserve, use and store my body properly. Instead as I said before I have been trained and expected to, celebrated for, pushing my body beyond its breaking point over and over again. Meanwhile I’ve been banned from a sewing studio for repeatedly breaking sewing machine needles while sewing sequins. The message here is clear : physical tools are less disposable than me, a whole human being.
Well as I said in the previous two posts, once I became aware that I had been trained to abuse, neglect and dismiss my own body as disposable, I decided to retrain myself. To rework my relationship to pain and to my body. I started doing pre-emptive bodywork and restorative bodywork to support my studio practice. With the help of Janhavi and my capoeira teacherI developed a daily mobility and stretching routine. I began to map the contours of my physical limits. I learned how different conditions and contexts impacted my ability to be able to work without harming myself. I began eating on a non-negotiable schedule. I started intentionally putting myself to be and going to sleep on time.I began to respect my body’s boundaries and to be uncompromising around those boundaries. This meant that some days I planned to work and couldn’t. It also meant that when I did work I was able to do so without fear or repercussion.
My posture has gotten better. Moments of work related pain are smaller, shorter, and less frequent. I am able to assess and respond to different kinds of pain quickly and efficiently. My recovery time is shorter. I sleep better. My energy levels are higher and more stable.
Yes, I do spend less time each day with my hands on studio work. The day still only has 24 hours. The fact that I am eating and sleeping and stretching and mobilizing means that I literally have less time for work each day. The flip side is that I spend less time incapacitated and I have more capacity to be present to myself, my loved ones, and my work.
I now often find myself daydreaming about what life would be like if we artists were trained to treat our bodies with the same respect and care that we lavish on our tools and our work. I wonder what the world would be like if everyone learned about mobility through middle and highschool? What if mobility breaks, restorative practices and incorporating movements and postures that support the physical architecture of our bodies were embedded in our culture? Seems like such a simple way to improve our quality of life.
It feels so good and supportive to know that there is something that I can do to address the root causes of at least some of my pain. I’m still working towards choosing my body over productivity 100% of the time. Old habits die hard. I will get there sooner rather than later. I’m worth it. You are too.
A thought for later: How might the restorative practices that I have implemented around my body help me to create restorative practices for other relationships with people and communities in my life?
Books that have supported me in restring my relationship with my body
The Body Is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor
Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Marie Brown
Revolutionary Mothering editted by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, Mai'a Williams, and Loretta J Ross
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. ( Full disclosure this author is a cis het white man who is a known abuser. This book has been really important in helping me to heal from my own body based trauma, some of which is based in the kinds of abuse that this author perpetrated against women and girls. I am holding that complexity while acknowledging that this resources has been invaluable to me.)