The Transformation Marathon is literally in full swing when I get there. As in, there are people on the stage, dancing along to swing music. This is the tail end of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s ‘It Looks Very Chaotic but Somehow It Makes Sense’ presentation. The hip guys on stage aren’t actually dancing that convincingly; it brings back memories of a music video I watched a couple of years ago –a set, filled with bright young things, self-consciously 90s but contemporary, doing dad dancing well. This isn’t quite the same; a similar atmosphere of controlled exuberance, but styled by Cos rather than American Apparel, as it were, and the dancing isn’t so compelling. They freeze on command.
Having left Frieze Art Fair the day before with a bad case of PTSD presenting as a crushing sense of existential angst that hasn’t yet fully worn off, I am not filled with optimism for the day. As they finish, a lady I assume must be Gonzalez-Foerster tells them they’re beautiful: “You are angels. You are my angels.”
Hans-Ulrich Obrist takes the stage after this –he’s compère for this section –and he looks frightening. Actually, having never seen him before, I rather think he looks exactly as I suspected he would. Black everything, most people here are wearing black everything, and long hair grown backwards from a bald spot –a wig, as it turns out, he’s in disguise. Obrist introduces Jimmie Durham, Abraham Cruzvillegas and Mark Godfrey. They converse, but the sound is still being adjusted and only bits of it get through. It’s quite a useful window, a moment to adjust to the sort of metaphysical-seeming space created by the endeavour of the marathon.
It’s a daunting thing to approach, 24-plus hours of solid talks and discussions (although I’m only here for five) and in a specifically designed space, Zaha Hadid’s pavilion, in Kensington Gardens, surrounded by embassy-luxury and clean, elegant buildings. The dissonance between this London and South, say, is actually very useful in snapping into the kind of tantric-engagement that this quantity of undiluted cultural-engagement requires.
The four men on-stage finish their conversation, and Obrist introduces Alice Rawsthorn, who takes over as compere so that he can go and change. Rawsthorn discusses design, its transformative power, and the strength of a designed identity. She introduces Gabriel Ann Maher, who has designed the stage, and they explore how gendered design can be. They discuss a project run by Maher that highlighted stark imbalances through information analysis, and break down the stats in a design magazine’s headlines and pictures to reveal that regardless of received wisdom/naïve hope, the playing field is still very far from even. They also tangentially explore the innate functionality of design (versus visual art), as Maher outlines its potential as connective tissue, a kind of solidifying bridge realising the conceptual in performativity.
Later, Obrist returns looking dressed for the event, rather than costumed like a B-Movie evil scientist. I realise a transformation has occurred. Before he introduces an extremely strong series of lectures that take us from 1300 through to 1600 hrs, he tells us a bit about the durational art-works that are happening throughout the marathon.
I have been looking around for Patrick Staff and Candice Lin’s piece, and I find half of it in the Transformation Marathon booklet. The other half is an offering, a baggy containing a smaller baggy and also a rolling paper. Too wide to be Rizla, if I had to guess a brand I’d go OCB. The paper is printed with an ouroboros, circled by a benzene ring. “The shape of the benzene molecule came to the scientist August Kekule through a trance vision he had of… a snake eating its tail. The mystical nature of science.”
“INHALE A FINE HORMONAL MIST” the OCB says. Transformation, here, comes in the consumption of the organic material supplied in the smaller baggy in the bigger one. Transform it how you want; eat it, make it into tea. Smoke it. Staff and Lin’s piece is called ‘Reading and Smoking’.
The project developed out of research into the actual, empirical transformative power of herbalist remedies, the powerful biological effects of naturally occurring and unadulterated biological materials. “What is ancient about herbalism and what is modern about gender transition?” the text asks. “What is modern about herbalism and what is ancient about transitioning?”
Samson Kambalu’s Doing Time is one of the other major art works of the day. Audience members are handcuffed together, Obrist calls it a spatial intervention, a physical drawing. It’s supposed to be inclusive; a means of realizing a physical network. Handcuffs, though, are always ugly. It’s hard to forget that their usual purpose is normally either unsavory or vulgar, sometimes both.
Aimee Meredith Cox converses with Adam Greenfield next. They’re fascinating, and this is the closest I see the day come to acknowledging the kind of liberal-utopian bubble that often surrounds well-meaning people in nice clothes. Cox has recently written a book, Shapeshifters, based on her long-term observation of young Black women in a Detroit homeless shelter. Her background is in professional dance, and she sees a kind of choreography at work in the complex social and survival mechanisms enacted by her objects. “Social choreography, as performed by the young Black women in [her] book,” she writes, “privileges and celebrates the instability and flexibility of identity in variously configured locations.”
In her text in the Transformation Marathon booklet, Cox draws parallels between the choreographer’s command to the dancer: “Stay in your body!” and the necessarily politicized self-occupation of the women in Detroit. “[They] stay in their bodies to rewrite the socially constructed meanings shackled to them… they are aware that if they rely on socially determined assessments to define their self-worth, they would be exiled from their own bodies and any home spaces they might establish for themselves –a state of eternal homelessness.” Cox expands on these notions of home in conversation with Greenfield, exploring bourgeois ideas of safety, reflecting that a safe community is defined as much, if not more, by who it excludes, as by who it contains.
They describe ‘smart citizens’, citizenship as belonging and personhood contingent on access to social structures. “The more privilege you have, the easier it is not to have that sense of connectedness”. They only describe the bubble, though, missing an opportunity to pop it. Rather, the discussion ends with a slightly dispiriting discussion of how it feels to have written a book, while I ponder the resonance of Cox or Greenfield’s phrase, “a rhetoric of openness.”
The Marathon changes gear, here, as Adrian Hon leads the themes away from the explicitly social, and into the web. Hon invented that app that makes you jog faster by synthesizing a zombie apocalypse over headphones, and his experiences in unconventional narrative give weight to his observations about the fundamental conservatism of storytelling and narrative form in the face of technological development. How will we cope with the intensity of what is around the corner, he wonders, when the arts have yet to succeed in capturing one-to-one communication in narrative –fictional cell phones are still unreliable –let alone one-to-many? He also talks about 4Chan, the notorious, anything-goes image board, which I’ve always been a bit too scared to go on; the way it destroys individual identity so utterly through its lack of avatars or handles that the individual transforms. Everyone can be everyone, or just one lonely nerd.
Gabriella Coleman also discusses 4Chan, its role in incubating hacker-cabal Anonymous and the ‘parasitical politics’ of the hacker. The genesis, Coleman says, was in Copyleft, the incredibly clever and subversive safeguard against the co-option or privatisation of freeware or public domain works. What she outlines seems like the most positive case I’ve heard for the capitalist realist rejection of explicit ideology –perhaps better termed as dogma –where digitised fluidity facilitates cooperation between cells; where being a vegan (her example) isn’t a prerequisite for participating in an action. As if to emphasise this point (although I still haven’t quite decided if perhaps it just undermines everything) she tells us that TOR, the anonymity-protecting online invisibility-cloak, is at least partially funded by the US government.
The Marathon transforms again, now, into a territory whose academic strength is reinforced with subjective/emotional experience. Juliet Jacques frames her discussion of transgender experience within a critique of the simplistic and sensationalist poles of the ‘before’ and ‘after’, rejecting the binary that belittles the deeply complex process of transitioning. She presents us with examples, images depicting only the most unreasonable of gendered extremes –bloke-y soldier becomes “Blond Beauty”–and describes how unhelpful and also inaccurate this reportage is. In the course of blogging her transition, Jacques says, she realised that it was simply too slow to provide a consistent narrative; that media’s salacious focus on physical transformation neglects the equally gradual and highly meaningful effect of transition on identity, the self.
Following Peter Wächler‘s reading from a new text, the Marathon changes tack again, as François Jullien is introduced. He’s a very important continental philosopher. Whilst introducing him, Obrist welcomes Gustav Metzger, an activist-art institution, which is exciting but I can’t see him and he doesn’t come on stage. Little portable radio sets are dished out, and Obrist tells us that Jullien is going to be giving his talk in French, and we ought to take one to listen to the interpreter if we don’t speak it. It’s very odd hearing French in one ear and English in the other –especially since the interpreter keeps an irregular rhythm. He’s obviously extremely good, as he keeps pace with Jullien throughout, but it definitely doesn’t help when it comes to understanding the lecture, which is about, I think in part, the differences between Taoist philosophy and Greek, how both are underpinned by different understandings of and relationships to time, and its transformative effects.
He makes a point about cumulative change; we don’t notice ourselves changing until one day we are suddenly old. He says that in Chinese language (I don’t think he specifies which –I assume it’s Mandarin though it could be all) there are no grammatical structures that express tense, that this reflects a fundamentally different approach to time. Of course it does. It’s a fascinating train of thought –where we are, how things are different if we can’t locate ourselves linguistically in relation to the past and future. Forever in the present, presumably. Seeing and engaging with transformation’s process, not pinned to the banal western binaries of Before and After. Before the Marathon it seemed long. After, I was tired. During, there were moments of illumination. **
See here for ‘Looking back at Transformation Marathon, p.2 (EST)’.