Looking On

Reviewed by Gillian Whitlock

The aim of Embodied Politics in Visual Autobiography is not so much to survey this emerging contemporary field of autobiographical practice, the editors suggest, as it is to model ways of ‘thinking with’ the embodied politics of visual autobiography. The twelve essays in this collection and the two extended essays by Brophy and Hladiki that have the first and last word, range across a diverse array of ‘texts and tactics’ that reflect on how contemporary visual autobiographies envision, situate, and circulate multiple forms of critical embodiment. What are these texts and tactics? The essays muster a series of arresting and often confronting case studies. Some feature monstrosities: Virgil Wong and Lee Mingwei’s collaboration POP! The First Male Pregnancy is a cyber- and real-world installation that creates a cybernetic pregnancy, a fantastical embodiment at the threshold of reality and fiction, biology and technology, West and East, male and female, science and art. Pro-anorexic autobiographical representations online construct ‘Ana’ identities that feed on trigger material called ‘thinspiration,’ that draws on mainstream contemporary culture in contradictory and complex ways. Hybrid and collective forms of autobiographical performance, such as Big Judy, create narratives of subjectivity that question the individualization of fat experience and mobilize collective and fantastic performance to transform shame into activism. Others feature bodily transformations: autoethnographies of straight men that re-examine heteromasculine sexualities; the politics of normative depictions of FTM masculinity that draw on individual worth and patriotism; ‘wound culture’ and representations of plastic surgery on reality TV, such as The Swan. Finally a series of essays focus on specific historical and political locations where embodiment is a critical issue in campaigns for social justice: Indigenous epistemological practice in the museum; Mona Hatoum’s video installation Corps étranger that ‘scopes’ her corporeal landscape in connection to autobiographical inscriptions of Al Nakba, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in 1947-1948; visual witnessing in okay bye-bye, Rebecca Baron’s independent autobiographical documentary film about US military complicity in the Cambodian genocide; and racial melancholia in Carmin Karasic’s autobiographical digital artwork with Liberty and Justice for All, an interactive engagement with the racist legacies of slavery in the US.

These case studies are ‘arresting’ not only in the diversity of historical, social and cultural contexts that come into view here but also because much remains to be said about each of them, and no singular reading or interpretation quite satisfies the issues on embodiment that play out here across the fields of visual cultural studies, autobiography studies, and disability studies. In their two extended essays the editors focus on visual artist Rebecca Belmore (Anishinaabe) and her performance video Worth, now archived on YouTube, a ‘fleeting, poignant, public self-crucifixion’ staged on the sidewalk in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery on September 11, 2010, a day when catastrophic national loss is commemorated. Drawing on Jill Bennett (whose ‘politics of empathy’ is a key concept for the book) and Judith Butler, whose theories of precarity, visuality, and embodiment return throughout the essays here, Brophy and Hladiki take this text and tactics as a symptomatic example of the uses of the body as a medium for communicating the material conditions that shape both Belmore’s career as an artist and the histories of Indigenous women. Visual autobiographical performances such as this summon us. They suggest, and mobilize affect, although the spectatorial encounter does not necessarily command recognition. So, for example, the testamentary address of Belmore’s performance demands an ethics of spectatorship that reflects on the spectator’s relationship to injustice and (following Butler) the question of what responsibility will look like.

These concerns with summoning the spectator link across to Lynette Hunter’s Disunified Aesthetics, the product of an extended project of ‘embodied research’ that might well appear in Visual Autobiography as a case study of text and tactics. This book, unexpectedly, gave me a key piece of a puzzle that has eluded me for some time. In 1997 at the ‘Women and Texts/Les Femmes at les Textes’ conference held at the University of Leeds Hunter, one of the convenors, presented an all-day performance piece that is recalled here by Teresa Smalec, one of the attendees. Throughout the day, dressed in blue overalls, Hunter laboured physically to carry trays of cookies into the building from a van in the parking lot. In the afternoon, to conclude the performance, she removed all her clothes and curled naked inside a small metal box. We waited, and after what seemed like an interminable time of looking and increasing anxiety about the non-response of this naked woman, and our right to look—twenty minutes, Smalec recalls—we began to talk amongst ourselves, till the final plenary was announced and the naked woman walked silently out of the room. The consternation remains with me still. This performance, ‘Bodies in Trouble,’ is the focus of a mixed genre script performance, an interview between Hunter and Susan Rudy taped in 1998 and conducted in two parts on the page here.

This performance is a component of an extended project, a series of studies in twenty-first-century aesthetics in the context of recent Canadian writing—on broad topics such as Indigenous women’s writing and women’s writing more generally, on Robert Kroetsch, Frank Davey, Nicole Brossard, Alice Munro, bpNichol. Hunter is looking to challenge the form of the conventional literary critical essay, to explore a ‘disunified aesthetics’ that incorporates performance art pieces that are available online as website materials, or incorporated as typographic and visual art on the pages of the book.

Visual autobiography challenges the book and print-based media. It raises the question of whether disunified aesthetics, for example, can flourish on the limits of the page. I yearned for my ipad when turning the pages of this book, so the weblinks and images could come alive digitally at a touch of an LCD screen. Both of these books testify to the demands on readers, viewers, and communication technologies made by visual autobiographics now that flourish off the page on sidewalks, in new media, and in shape-shifting embodiments that remain arresting.

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