Bodies of Evidence – Ethics, Aesthetics, and Politics of Movement

Researchers Gurur Ertem and Sandra Noeth edited the volume Bodies of Evidence: Ethics, Aesthetics and Politics of Movement, published by Passagen Verlag, 2018. Instead of approaching the topic from a disciplinary specialist but limited angle, the book gathers different voices and transdisciplinary perspectives on the topic.

Bodies of Evidence takes up the challenge to rethink corporeality today and underscore the intertwinement of aesthetics, politics, and ethics. While artistic practices based on expanded notions of choreography, performance, and movement constitute the springboard of the book, it gathers voices from various fields and practices to reflect on the following questions: How can we understand the body as the source, site, and target of emotions, pain, and desire? How can we account for the body as a sociopolitical construct and/or mediation, and still move beyond disembodied theories of agency? What does it mean to document and bear witness to atrocity and violence? Given the centrality of the body in current »crises«— as in migratory movements, the re-entrenchment of bordering processes, and state violence — the book probes whether corporeality can be envisaged as a site of recuperation where vulnerability can become a source of resistance.

The volume treats the body as a point of entry to interrogate the present. Here, the understanding of the body in, as, and of evidence is less inspired by the judiciary evidential paradigm as in classical forensics that’s mostly concerned with ascertaining identities than from critical historiography. [1] That is, the notion of evidence is not approached as a transparent window that provides unmediated access to reality. Neither do the texts and their authors call for a return to the body as the last result of authenticity and immediacy. Nevertheless, they invite us to consider what these bodies might be evidences of not only by attending to their truth claims but also to their incongruences, dilemmas, gaps, miscommunications, and distortions. They call attention to the need for better interpretive frameworks to grasp the complex reality with what they reveal as well as with they cannot reveal through gesturing towards that which is withheld, silenced, and concealed.

»One crucial starting point for the understanding of ethics here is that bodies always exist in response: in relation to and in interaction with other (human and non-human) bodies.«

While the relationship between politics and aesthetics has been widely explored over the past decade (that is, with debates on what constitutes the »political« in the arts; on the aesthetics of recent anti-austerity and anti-authoritarian movements), the ethical dimension and its broader implications have not been sufficiently investigated. One crucial starting point for the understanding of ethics here is that bodies always exist in response: in relation to and in interaction with other (human and non-human) bodies. It opens up a crucial link between individual and collective bodies that most authors address in their chapters: how we participate in social and political processes, how we are involved in the production, maintenance and representation of normative and unequal structures, and how we challenge these dynamics. The texts address questions of responsibility, vulnerability, and the integrity of the body and propose a bodily-grounded notion of care as a position to act from. Also, the ethical dimension entails questioning how we, as artists, curators, and scholars may be contributing to and collaborating in practices of exclusion, rendering some bodies invisible?

The contributions to this collection include commissioned essays, case studies, dialogues, interviews, and performative interventions by artists, critical journalists, and scholars of humanistic social sciences. Having gathered divergent approaches that would otherwise lead separate lives in speciality books, journals, subfields, and communities, we conceptualized the book as a transversal medium that puts in dialogue, negotiates, and cuts through different fields of inquiry and creative practice.

The book opens with the writer Agri Ismaïl who outlines the arbitrary nature of borders and the unequal distribution of mobility rights based on racial and economic inequalities. He introduces the relationship between the shifting ideologies of map-making and the invention of the notion of the border, and discusses how the passport gradually transformed from being a status marker to something that both constructs and discriminates identities. Furthermore, Ismaïl addresses how corporeal markers got linked to the notion of identity, determining the right and the ability to move across borders. He shows us pungently that while those who are most in need of the freedom to move are the ones who are most deprived of it; the privileged are willing to pay for further privileges to avoid border controls that are increasingly being privatized.

The artist and visual cultures scholar Ayesha Hameed focuses on migrants’ destruction of their fingerprints via various techniques to avoid being detected by the Eurodac, the centralized database that documents asylum seekers’ first point of entry in the European Union. Based on field research conducted at the infamous migrant campsite the Calais »Jungle« in France, Hameed reflects on how the skin »acts as a terrain whose topography both enables and restricts movement.« She exposes how the self-inflicted violence of »cleaning« fingerprints is at the same time a way of asserting agency and folds this contemporary gesture of trace erasing onto other histories of border crossing.

Drawing from his experiences as a choreographer in Europe since the late 1990s, Manuel Pelmuș provides pieces of »unintentional evidence« about the shifts in the wider historical and political backdrop. His personal story of multiple border crossings —between national borders, between and within artistic disciplines—documents the parallel processes of »othering« in the dance field and the broader social and political realm. Pelmuș elucidates that although border crossing for Eastern Europeans became a legal possibility with the enlargement of the European Union, borders and bordering processes began to be introduced and performed by other means.

»In other words, Noémie Solomon interprets dancing bodies as evidence: as sites of layered historical and political operations where singularities are nonetheless manifested.«

The artist and writer Lina Majdalanie discusses in her essay Mal au Corps the conflictual and fragile position of the body in Lebanese society. She opens up to actual experiences of pain and intrusion as well as to more diffuse and subtle sensations that bodies encounter when moving across urban, medial, and symbolic spaces. Revisiting a series of artworks that have taken place in public spaces in Beirut after the official end of the civil war in 1990, Majdalanie addresses the status of artists and the experiences they create in a society that is torn between different poles of power, namely, between modernism and traditionalism. Beyond their representational qualities, she investigates these bodies’ potential to spread and stir disorder and their capacity to open up connections between desire and politics.

In the light of George Bataille’s insights on the paradoxes of sovereignty, the dance scholar Noémie Solomon proposes to approach choreography as a sovereign operation that both constructs and deconstructs the subject. She examines several contemporary artistic practices in Québec in relation to questions of identity formation and Québecois nationalism. Solomon traces the movement of these works away from normative political institutions to outline alternative—feminist, queer, indigenous, and nomadic—choreographies of territoriality, identity, and belonging. Attending to the breaches, ruptures, and gaps within the sovereign project, Solomon argues how the exiled and the foreign become constitutive figures of the field. In other words, Solomon interprets dancing bodies as evidence: as sites of layered historical and political operations where singularities are nonetheless manifested.

Political theorist Banu Bargu discusses how through carefully planned and staged radical aesthetic-political performances, the Russian artist and »actionist« Petr Pavlensky puts into question the legitimacy of state institutions as well as the dominant ideology that induces individuals to conformism and passivity. She articulates how Pavlensky combines anarchist politics with materialist aesthetics that goes beyond conventional performance art. Linking the legacies of the artistic avant-garde to that of Marxist radical vanguardist politics, Bargu proposes the concept of »the corporeal avant-garde« as a lens through which one can analyze Pavlensky’s aesthetic-political strategy that entails deploying the body not (only) as flesh but as weapon. She discusses how Pavlensky’s actions »un-conceal« the workings of the state apparatus that would have otherwise remained invisible in its being extremely diffuse and omnipresent and how, in turn, the state reacts by pathologizing these acts of radical dissent relegating them to the realm of insanity, diluting their political claims.

The question of how stories of the past can be deployed to illuminate the present is at the core of the conversation that the editors initiated with the artists Kattrin Deufert, Thomas Plischke, and Tony Chakar. Rather than dedicating their artistic work and research to the reconstruction or reinterpretation of the past, they discuss how weaving through different mythological traditions, notably Greek mythology and the Bible of Christian theology, open possibilities to negotiate contemporary issues such as the conditions of being together, participating in society and politics, and positioning oneself. Combining symbolic and iconographic stories and materials from the past with individual and collective bodies that assemble today, they open up more subtle readings and experiences of the body’s entanglement in contemporary realities.

»Despite the transformations that journalism is undergoing in times of body enhancements and artificial intelligence, the immediacy of bodies to each other in conflict zones still matters and cannot be outsourced, Ferry Biedermann argues.«

Drawing from his experiences as a conflict reporter in the Middle East and Africa since the 1990s, journalist Ferry Biedermann reflects on the ethics of covering violence and atrocities with regards to the depiction of mutilated bodies and death. Despite the transformations that journalism is undergoing in times of body enhancements and artificial intelligence, the immediacy of bodies to each other in conflict zones still matters and cannot be outsourced, Biedermann argues. As witnesses, survivors, reporters, and most importantly, as human beings, journalists grapple with the psychological challenges of being in physical proximity to death and constantly navigate the paradoxical coexistence of Thanatos and Eros. Because the dead body as evidence of grief and human suffering may be a point of entry to empathy, Biedermann asserts, it is imperative that journalists do not normalize death and become indifferent to this ultimate boundary of life if they are to remain humane and dedicated translators of the suffering of others to the wider public.

136 Days in Prison is the reprint of the widely read (and also widely criticized) interview that esteemed journalist Ayşe Arman conducted with the award-winning novel writer, physicist, dancer, and human rights activist Aslı Erdoğan shortly after the artist’s release from prison. [2] The interview exposes a poignant account of the vulnerability and resilience of bodies, the courage and resistance of women, and the persistent creativity of human beings despite the most dire of circumstances. It is a haunting testimony on how prison conditions, especially those under the ongoing state of emergency rule in Turkey, are hostile to any form of life. Also, it reveals how fascism attempts not only to capture and colonize one’s external world but also its words, language, and inner life.

Anthropologist Nicola Perugini and political scientist Neve Gordon focus on the »liminal bodies« of today’s diffuse spaces of armed conflict. The authors discuss the evisceration of the notion of the »civilian,« one of international humanitarian law’s axiomatic figures, in a context where new distinctions are invented and operationalized between civilians and combatants. They discuss how militaries have created a post-humanist »apparatus of distinction« through a complex array of institutions and actors that functions not only as an operational technology but also as a force that creates liminal subjects as aggregates of data instead of human beings. The essay also shows how military lawyers produce new legal categories such as »enemies killed in action« and »human shields« to reclassify people killed unintentionally by drones and justify the casualties. The authors thus underscore the confrontation of law and ethics and pose the crucial questions: Can there be an ethics of violence? Can there ever be a »just war«? Does the legal justifiability of violence render it ethical?

»One body is no body, because bodies exist only in relation to other bodies,« prompt Arno Böhler and Susanne Valerie Granzer in their dialogical exchange on the bodily grounds for ethics. Situated in their own philosophical and artistic practice, they turn to the stage as a place where the exposure of the body and the manifold ways in which it interacts with other bodies are visualized and experienced. Belonging, they state, is grounded in meaning and physicality alike, it is at the same time ethical and aesthetic. Thus, »when response and responsibility meet,« they opt for an »ethical imperative« which is not abstract but situational which takes the corporeal and imaginative dimension of our being-together serious.

People on the move, displaced by famine, war, persecution or oppression, are the starting point for theatre scholar Sophie Nield’s piece, which feels even more relevant and timely today in light of current migratory movements across the globe and their hyper-mediatized representations. Bringing, in her analysis, Bram Stroker’s notorious 1897 creation Dracula into dialogue with late 19th century Jewish migration, she examines connections between the body of the vampire and the body of the migrant. She brings to light how public health management, anti-Semitic politics, and monstrosity were discursively constructed by the depiction of migrants as potential carriers of contagious infection or disease, or, »more literally, as being themselves embodied diseases.«

»Jaime Shearn Coan and Will Rawls examine AIDS not just as a medical and political crisis, but also as a cultural phenomenon that finds aesthetic resonances in the work of body-based artists today.«

The conversation between the poet and performance studies scholar Jaime Shearn Coan and the dancer and choreographer Will Rawls grows out of the Lost and Found Platform that Rawls had co-curated at Danspace Project in New York in 2016. Coan and Rawls examine AIDS not just as a medical and political crisis, but also as a cultural phenomenon that finds aesthetic resonances in the work of body-based artists today. Coan and Rawls reckon with the narrativization and historicization of AIDS as primarily a white, gay male disease whereas, in reality, the populations that are most affected by AIDS are communities of color. Considering AIDS from the perspective of the structural violence/erasure of black, brown bodies from aesthetic and medical histories, they discuss the decolonization of the black body from the margins of dance and a theorization of how AIDS must be considered as a central part of somatic and cultural legacies in dance.

An encounter in the archives, »a message from another time,« triggered dance historian Eike Wittrock’s investigation in what he terms »queer evidence« at the intersections of art photography and modern dance history. He grounds his research on a close analysis of multiple layers and qualities of queering in the photograph of dancer Alexander Sacharoff, taken by Heinrich Hoffmann around 1912, in order to discuss the status of marginalized, minoritarian performances in archives as well as the ability of documents to register feelings or sexual orientation. What projections of queerness does the record testify, invite, and promise? And how can the latter be understood as a historical fact, as bodily evidence?

The book concludes with The Stage and the Intellectual, a commissioned performative text instigated by the artist and cultural sociologist Hakan Topal. It is an allegorical take on the power dynamics of the art world and the neoliberal dystopia it has increasingly come to represent. It takes place in a temporarily occupied, public-yet-intimate space and unfolds as a dialogue that debates how, despite the many transformations that the notion of the stage has gone through in theatre and dance, deconstructing the classical theatre paradigm to challenge the condescending power apparatus it represented, it is ironic that the notion of the stage as a site of »preaching« has become reintroduced by other means. The conversation addresses the problems with contemporary physical spaces of cultural consumption, the politics of curating, and the ethical and political responsibilities of intellectuals in an age of extreme media circulation where public relations and the packaging of information has become more important than the content. More importantly, it offers insights into what is to be done if a new idea of the public and a set of communing practices are to be imagined.

The publication is supported by the Alliance of International Production Houses, funded by the the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media/Germany as well as by the European Dancehouse Network, co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. tanzhaus nrw is funded by the City of Düsseldorf and the Ministry of Culture and Science of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

  1. Jump Up Carlo GINZBURG, Clues, Myths and the Historical Method. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
  2. Jump Up Aslı Erdoğan was arrested in August 2016 for allegedly belonging to a terrorist organization and »undermining national unity,« because of her role on the advisory board of Özgür Gündem, a pro-Kurdish newspaper. The newspaper had been closed by court order for having supposed ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK], which is considered a terrorist organization by the US and the EU. Aslı Erdoğan spent more than four months in prison awaiting trial. Although some of the charges against her were dropped in November 2016 [such as the life sentence for »membership to a terrorist organization«], she still faces seven and a half years imprisonment for charges of »propaganda for terrorism.« Therefore, Erdoğan currently lives in exile, in a perpetual state of travelling and border crossing.