1 June 2022
The Technological Body
This third and final installment of the curatorial narrative linking corporeal depictions by young GCC-based artists will consider how technology expands, projects and amplifies the artist’s body. Mediation becomes a means of re-materializing the body and the negative spaces it inhabits in virtual space. Through distortions, duplications, glitches, and the act of voicing the machinic, the body moves beyond digital circuitry—deconstructed into a language of gestures, and forms.
Riyadh-based performance artist Sarah Brahim has been working on a body language of grief ever since her mother passed away. She has deep interests in unseen or hidden aspects of how we store and externalise the pain that resides in the body, as well as epigenetics and the burden of life experience carried across generations. This research stems from her studies in medical anthropology in Portland during the second Gulf War and her subsequent training as a dancer in San Francisco and London. In the performance Our Cup is Broken (2021), she articulates the mediated body in collaboration with Portland-based video artist Fernanda D’Agostino. A commission for London’s Shubbak Festival, Brahim performs live in Riyadh through a webcam, prompting questions such as: what are the ways in which the body can express itself through the machine? How does the body get outside of itself? What does a self-estrangement look like when cast in a digital space?
Our Cup is Broken explores the possibilities of presence in 15 different digital rooms using the software Isadora, a hyper-performance tool that multiplies Brahim’s body in a world of mirrors and shadows. Each room is activated by live movement and programmed to live sound. The work marks a collapse between interiority—a landscape of vulnerability created through live improvisation—and the subject, or persona projected through dance. The results are hallucinatory. By isolating parts of her body through movement, Brahim draws on a vocabulary of hand gestures—praying, pleading, ecstatic. These independently moving parts are part of a larger study on signs of grief and collective mourning in communities, in which gesture becomes the vessel for inquiry.
In some rooms, Brahim forms electronic doubles, transforming against a landscape of ruins. In others, she appears like an X-ray vision, a disappearing outline in chalk, drawing the monochrome room with the surface of her skin. She uses her own body to index constant metamorphosis, tracing the edge of movement between multiple selves. In this technological environment, Brahim’s phantom figure becomes a body unbounded, fluctuating between physical and virtual space.
Emirati-American artist Aliyah Alawadhi’s modes of performing the body are of a distortionary nature, and employ digital manipulation, forms of fragmentation and dissolution. Her interest in glitch art emerges from a background in 3D-modeling and game design; but where her visuals have often focused on found footage and animation, recently she has been featuring her body in digital work, usually in environments only accessible to the viewer through a screen.
In her video Rhythmic Eating (2021), Alawadhi zeroes in on her mouth biting into an onion. As she chews openly, the effect is visceral and meant to be repulsive. The work is inspired by a childhood memory of scarcity and staking a claim in a first-come, first-served environment. Onions were a vegetable no one else wanted in her household and Rhythmic Eating powerfully subverts a child’s anxiety about nourishment.
Using the program Pixelsynth, Alawadhi transformed the image of a text into a harmonious sound that contrasts with the intensity of ingesting a raw onion. Both text and body here are redacted—cut with solid black geometric shapes—the mouth extricated from the rest of the body. But while the text is abstracted visually in Rhythmic Eating, her skin close-ups are hyperreal.
This aforementioned text, which comprises three short stories by Alawadhi, is voiced from the perspective of the onion in relation to different family members/aggressors. It is read out in her film, Three Devourings of an Onion (2021), where she creates an ad hoc environment of mobile walls, a floor mattress, a chair, and a single potted plant. She reads nonchalantly, never directly facing the camera, in a language that has a sci-fi apocalyptic feel and a non-human-centered point of view. Her body becomes the container of the violence she orates in a scripted space.
When it comes to other bodies, Alawadhi’s use of the glitch blurs the boundaries between the subject and its surroundings, warping the sense of time. In her series Science of Man (2020), one clip entitled Master of Destiny excerpts from the 1954 French film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, where the torso of the belly dancer (Samia Gamal) dissolves into pixels, losing hold of any kind of figurative coherence. Performativity is equated with textuality as Alawadhi juxtaposes these illegible, seemingly censored visuals with a poem by Abu Nuwas on love and intoxication. The poetry references a time of eroticism in Middle Eastern dance, before the religious dictates that came with the rise of Wahhabism. The splicing of body-as-image into body-as-text uses a post-internet vocabulary to disorient, dislocate and reappropriate cultural forms associated with the golden age of Egyptian cinema. By resisting representation through forms of digital decay, Alawadhi asserts a kind of bodily autonomy in her work.
Language forms a large part of Syrian-Palestinian artist Mays Albaik’s practice. In her performances, videos and installations, the elocution of Arabic words and their derivations are an attempt to pinpoint the beginnings and semantics of utterance. Tracing words back to their root verbs, Albaik offers a layered process of subtraction and addition which parallels the ways in which her body sculpts sound. It is as if she is asking, where does the voice reside? How can we locate the place from which speech emerges? What happens when place becomes a non-site?
Albaik investigates and situates speech by moving the lens in different directions. One movement projects 3D laser frontal scans of Albaik enunciating variations of the terms ‘expatriate’ and ‘resident’ in Arabic (Dictionary Utterances series, 2020)—a linguistic deconstruction of different modalities of non-citizenship in the UAE. Another provides an internal view through blinding apertures to the insides of her mouth, those moments before sound, as in her recent work for Tashkeel, (Window, 2021).
In A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway, one of the artist’s literary influences, asks why our bodies should end at the skin, indicating a disintegration of boundaries between the inside and the outside. In Dictionary Utterances, Albaik’s constantly morphing figure shifts with a technicolor gradient that indexes the distance between a LIDAR camera and points in the body, calling boundaries—between texture and skin, solid and fluid, meaning and root—into question.
Dictionary Utterances 2020
Screens configure the relationship to place and physicality by mediating texts in fluid, online architectures. In her recent visual essay for Darat al Funun, "قيل أنها مريضة"("It was said she was sick”), the title taken from a poem by Ibrahim Dawud: https://online.daratalfunun.org/projects/postcolonialecologies_en/maysalbaik/?fl_builder, Albaik explores the Palestinian longing for placehood through Walid Sadek’s notion of a labour of the missing. Sadek’s theory is positioned in relation to the disappeared in Lebanon during the civil war. Those who are still present seem to have ‘over-lived’ the interrupted lives of those who are absent, which linger as objects in excess.
Window from "قيل أنها مريضة"("It was said she was sick")
Passport flips from "قيل أنها مريضة"("It was said she was sick") 2021
you think of your physicality only when you cannot avoid it
you lived in your screen
in its flat
two-dimensional abyss you go to work
have fights, make friends, end relationships
but your body?
your body exists only when it bothers you
when you have to pee
when your knees cramp
physical borders might be tightening
but we, like anything in this physical world, expand and contract
and the space we need
when we can’t occupy it with our bodies
we find virtually
[to display help, become your paperwork.]
but you no longer want to think through distance
there is always a here in the now
even when we are simultaneously in multiple heres and nows
can we look after a corporeal here and now?
the simple, humble, here and now?
the one where i am typing this
the one where you are reading these words
[Excerpt from Teleprompter (A Terranean Love Note), Mays Albaik, courtesy of the artist]
She takes it further in her latest work commissioned by the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Awaiting Weightlessness, in which three video sculptures are again positioned on disembodied casts of her feet placed at different angles—not quite grounded. As sculptures they are screens embedded in separate aluminum bodies. Words flash to different rhythms in a world that fluctuates between timekeeping and timelessness, place and placelessness. According to Albaik, time, as a unit of measurement, reflects the body’s accumulation of experience, and its perceived stillness is in fact a dynamic spatial configuration. The act of waiting in this video is an active one similar to Sadek’s labor of the missing. Bracketing the space between her feet and the sky, she is in the constant process of relocating herself in multiple placehoods, likening the diasporic experience to the digital one. We are left with questions: What is it like not to recognize your own image? When does the ground hold you? What is a borderless space of being?
Awaiting Weightlessness 2021