The deaf body in public space

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“It’s rude to point,” my friend told me from across the elementary-school cafeteria table. I grasped her words as I read them off her lips. She stared at my index finger, which I held raised in midair, gesturing toward a mutual classmate. “My mom said so.”

I was 6 or 7 years old, but I remember stopping with a jolt. Something inside me froze, too, went suddenly cold.

“I’m signing,” I said out loud. “That’s not rude.” Pointing was a truly fundamental act for me; it was how I expressed what my grown-up scholarly self would call relationality — the idea of being in the world in relation to others.”

When hearing people learn to use sign language, “they must overcome the cultural taboos about excessive movement, pointing and gesture.” As well as gestures, sign language involves what hearing people would see as exaggerated facial expressions. Meanwhile the “listener” maintains a continual gaze (in order to follow the signing) which hearing people can find uncomfortably intense.

“Hearing culture presents us with ideals of speaking with good elocution, restraint and self-control. Now, I admit, I see these ideals as visually impoverished, inaccessible and uninteresting: They produce spaces full of immobile talking heads, disembodied sound and visual inattentiveness.”

There is so much here I’d never thought about before.

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Keys, umbrellas, fingerprints

This morning I rode past a hand-written sign saying “Lost your keys? Message me which Disney character is on the keyring and I’ll get em back to you.” They wanted to make sure the keys went back to their rightful owner, not just any sneak who called up and claimed them.

Which makes sense with wallets and jewellery and handsome tartan umbrellas, but if you don’t know what Disney character’s on the keys, how do you know which lock they fit?

I realised that you could stumble across the keys to the national mint, the Louvre, to every door in Berrimah jail, and they would be utterly worthless if you didn’t know what they were for. Keys are a treasure that depend on a very specific piece of information.

It was known in the early 1800s that people had unique fingerprints, and that these could be lifted from crime scenes, but it was only really useful if you already had a suspect. Otherwise, what – are you gonna compare the one from the crime scene to every single fingerprint you have on file, one by one, by hand and eye?  It wasn’t until a system of categorisation was developed (by length, width, type and direction of whorl, etc) that fingerprints became look-uppable, and about a billion times more useful.

You see what I’m getting at. Context and connections are what makes something valuable.

Assuming that somehow having the keys to the mint also gave you the legal and moral right to take everything you found there, money only has value because people agree that it does (if it was from the mint, it would have sequential serial numbers, and it could be declared worthless. Then you’d have to see how many people you could convince it was still money before you got caught). Art is a bit more objectively valuable, because you have an emotional reaction to it that has intrinsic worth, but financially it’s bizarre. The Mona Lisa is valued at US$790 million but it’s also worth US$0 because you couldn’t sell it.

In conclusion, go for the handsome tartan umbrella every time.

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Let’s talk about house clothes

That is, the clothes you only ever wear at home. I just bought my fifth robe / dressing gown so I am extremely qualified to talk about this. People tend to wear pretty ugly house clothes – I don’t mean that I find them ugly, which, why would you care, I mean that people wear house clothes they themselves find ugly.

You go out of your way to buy nice outdoors clothes, but indoors you just sort of where whatever. This isn’t some Coco Chanel thing about keeping up standards, I just think you theorise that it doesn’t matter but you end up feeling frumpy and sleepy and ineffective, and unspecial, like, you dress pretty to see other people but not for yourself?

Esp if you’re mental health is not good, feeling like you look awesome when you’re bumming around at home really helps. And then when you get changed into them when you get home, it’s a reward to yourself for having bravely left the house.

Pretty much you have to take the nice fabrics route, I think, because you still want to be gloriously comfortable, and exactly the right warmth. And obviously don’t wear an underwire bra, obviously.

Also about house clothes: they can be costumes, they can be the clothes you kinda wish you would wear outside but won’t (the most recent robe is a rainbow space galaxy with sweeping sleeves and a watercolour unicorn on the back). I mean, you can buy Hogwarts house robes online. Pyjamas come in way cuter patterns than jeans. You can go from naked to amazingly dressed in two seconds. They are blankets you can walk around in!

Esp for men who are kind of expected to wear the most dour shit as their day to day wear, you can wear just any kind of colours and cuteness, or like, leggings printed with chainmail armour.

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The Honeybee Industrial Complex

The case for not saving the bees

Controversial but interesting! I’m gonna try and summarise this long read on all the stuff that’s missing from the conversation:

  • There are many many pollinators, honeybees aren’t even that great it.
  • Industrial agriculture relies on bundling up pollinators and taking them from farm to farm:
    “Domesticated landscapes bloom all at once, and die all at once. If you’re a pollinator, that means that you’ve got a ton of food, and then you have no food”—not a sustainable living situation for an insect. “We’ve created a system where we need to bring in an outside pollinator. And the honeybee, being stackable, is what we selected.”
  • STACKABLE. So yeah, we rely on honeybees because they’re portable.
  • Only 5-10% of honeybees are wild, the rest are part of this industry.
  • Our much-talked-about reliance on honeybees is not natural, it’s a result of a disastrous lack of biodiversity.
  • Don’t save the bee, become less dependent on the bee!
  • Lack of pollinator diversity is a bigger threat than Colony Collapse Disorder.

Okay obviously there’s a LOT I haven’t included here, but oh my gosh, CONTRARIAN DELIGHT. Read the full article.

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Tell me you don’t wistfully long to take a vow of silence

The piece below is an (emailed) interview with monks who do the vow of silence thing. I’m constantly drawn to this idea. It feels like it would be more like a vacation than a fast – freedom from words rather than the imposition of silence. I wonder, if you stopped communicating in words, would you stop thinking in words as well? Or would you constantly be mentally composing all the bits of dialogues you couldn’t say?

I went to a silent interactive performance art party/event last year and it was both liberating and deeply discomfiting to be robbed of the ability to explain myself. I could apologise, with facial expressions or gestures, but I couldn’t give context, make clear my intentions or motivations, “here’s what I was thinking when I… here’s what I was aiming for” – which is something I do almost constantly. You just had to let your actions stand for themselves (but also, people were more forgiving, because they knew there was stuff you couldn’t say. Which is good practice for dealing with the rudeness of strangers: there’s so much context they can’t give you that might explain their actions).

The other tough part was seeing some cool thing in one part of the event – a silent drag show, a mime competition, a strawberry tasting – and then not being able to tell your friends what you’d just seen and where you’d been. You could point, and make your eyes shine – it was amazing! – but that was about it. You had to just accept that you were not capable of making yourself fully understood, and that you were not capable of fully understanding anyone else. There is a meaning here, but I cannot access it. (Again, good practice for the rest of life – it’s much easier to assume, when you’ve heard all the words, that you get what there is to be got. But you probably don’t.)

I’m trying to think of ways to make this acceptable – parties is the obvious one – but another might be something like the 40-Hour Famine, Movember or Dry July. Not everyone would do it, but people wouldn’t find it strange that you were, because it would be a Thing. You’d just gesture, and they’d get it.

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Pussy Riot, ‘tactical frivolity’, and other responses to authority

I’ve been getting pretty annoyed with the simplistic coverage of Pussy Riot – they shouldn’t be in jail, but they’re not exactly good guys, either. Most of the art they’ve been persecuted for are just regular ol’ crimes as well. Essentially, it’s complicated, but interesting. So I wrote the following article for Das Superpaper:

In response to authority

“How can you treat a police officer seriously when he is asking you: Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of gnomes?

In 1982, in Soviet-occupied Poland, Waldemar Fydrych began painting orange-hatted gnomes wherever he saw fresh paint spots on the streets – wherever the authorities had painted over anti-regime graffiti. This was the first happening of his newly-formed collective, the Orange Alternative, whose stated agenda was the use of ‘tactical frivolity’ to destabilise the authority of their oppressors.

Meanwhile in Prague, a forbidding IS-34 tank loomed on a five-metre high pedestal as a monument to Soviet tank crews. One night in 1991, artist David Černý crept up to it and painted it pink. To vandalise or destroy it would have been to acknowledge it as a legitimate opponent, to fight it as an equal. By painting it pink he made it frivolous.

Authority is not power, it is the perceived right to power, and it only exists as long as the populace chooses to believe in it. By committing ridiculous protests, the Orange Alternative forced the Soviet authorities to become ridiculous themselves in their response. This is the beautiful effect of absurd art. (In Australia, the controversy over the Skywhale resulted in some poor Hansard clerk having to make the term ‘Hindenboob’ a matter of parliamentary record.) The Orange Alternative’s comedic happenings cheered up their fellow citizens (which is far from valueless) and also attracted media attention. In Fydrich’s words, “the Western World will find out much more about the situation in Poland from hearing that I was sent to jail for handing out sanitary pads to women, than from reading books and articles”.

This is the tradition to which Pussy Riot belongs.

It has been said that the imprisonment of Pussy Riot – or rather, of 2 of its 11 members – is a telling moment for Vladimir Putin, one which reveals his unreconstructed KGB heart. And yet the sentence, two years in a penal colony, is relatively light for an alleged political persecution, and even that Putin didn’t support, remarking “I don’t think that they should be judged so harshly for this.” It’s also difficult to view it as a simple witch-hunt, given one of Pussy Riot’s previous illegal artworks, a 65-metre long penis painted on the Foundry Bridge, was awarded the Ministry of Culture’s ‘Innovation Prize’ of 400,000 rubles (approx AU$13,000). The performance in question, A Punk Prayer – Mother of God Chase Putin Away­ appears almost embarrassingly adolescent and unskilled and furthermore would have been illegal in most Western countries, albeit only as a minor public disorder offence.

So why did it become such a cause celebré with the West? Why did Madonna perform in Moscow with ‘Pussy Riot’ scrawled across her back, and not, say, the names of the 98 journalists who have been murdered since Putin came to power? (Madonna’s support for Pussy Riot, incidentally, earned her the title of ‘moralising slut’ from Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, which I’m pretty sure is a compliment. He also told her to “either take off the cross or put on underpants”.)

As art, Punk Prayer feels a bit simplistic: straight-up blasphemy with nothing meta going on. But maybe that’s the art Russia needs right now. And maybe it’s the art the West needs right now, since it garnered so much more attention outside the country than within it. In fact, the furore around A Punk Prayer tells us far more about the West than it does about Russia. And what it does say about Russia we haven’t been much interested in hearing.

The first thing to note is that the women were charged on religious, not political, grounds. While some Russians felt that the verdict was excessive, many were outraged at the desecration of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a symbol of both the Russian state and the Orthodox Church (of which 46% of Russians are members). Non-religious Russians also endorsed the right to peaceful worship. One commentator said “if these women wanted to protest against the authorities, they should have gone to Red Square, not the cathedral.” Russian authorities say the prosecution had no political aspect at all.

Meanwhile, Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova claims that their performance was solely political, that it was in no way intended to be disrespectful to the Church, although she must have been aware that occupying one of the most sacred places in the country and shouting “shit of God” would offend believers. I suspect both sides are being disingenuous.

Punk Prayer is fairly typical among the works of Pussy Riot (or their parent group Voina), in that it’s a simple, blatant message, expressed theatrically, with a cruel edge. Operation: Kiss Garbage consisted of kissing female police officers without warning or consent. For Fucking Prometheus they broke into a police station and set a paddy wagon on fire. In Mordovian Hour they threw live cats over the counter of a Moscow McDonalds, to “break up the drudgery of the worker’s day.” It’s all very Tyler Durden.

One of the Voina performances I find least problematic is their most infamous, brought up by the prosecution at Pussy Riot’s trial specifically to smear their characters. In How to Snatch a Chicken, an artist walked into a supermarket, took a whole chicken out of the refrigerated section, inserted it into her vagina and walked out without paying for it. This is an act with a feminism-to-ick ratio of precisely 1:1. That is, if you stand by the idea that a woman ought to have control over her own vagina, then that extends to the right to do things you find distasteful with it. Homophobes are disgusted by women putting their vaginas near other vaginas, right-to-lifers are disgusted by women having abortions through their vaginas  (or perhaps simply by women using their vaginas for non-reproductive sex), and I am disgusted by women putting whole raw chickens in their vaginas: we can all shut the hell up, as it’s none of our business. If your belief in bodily autonomy only covers things that don’t make you uncomfortable then it’s a weak principle, and some of us haven’t had ours tested in a while.

But for a self-proclaimed feminist group, some of their actions don’t hold up. The allegedly pro-lesbian work Operation: Kiss Garbage is literally indecent assault. Their 400,000-ruble winning giant bridge-cock might be funny, but it also uses the image of a penis as a symbolic violation. (I’m aware that most people who draw a penis on their passed-out friend’s face aren’t thinking “I’m symbolically violating you” but in a world where being female or gay wasn’t considered ‘lesser’ I don’t think a penis would be the sharpie-wielder’s go-to image.)

I asked earlier why Punk Prayer had captured the West’s attention when neither the other works of Pussy Riot nor the other crimes of Putin had. I think part of the reason is that so many of our current problems – the economy, immigration, climate change – seem very complicated. We want to fight for what’s right, but there’s no fight available, just letter-writing, door-knocking, enrolling to vote. No political party seems worthy of our allegiance; the bad guys are woven through every public institution and might even be ourselves. But feminist punks vs. humourless tyrant? That’s easy. There are no shades of grey, and the victory conditions are clear and tangible: the release of these young women. Much more viscerally satisfying than, say, a re-wording of the carbon tax legislation.

And, of course, ‘Pussy Riot’ looks good on a t-shirt.

Does that sound cynical? Remember that in a world where government-sponsored murder is a very real possibility, media attention can save a dissident’s life. Looking good on a t-shirt is a form of self-defence. I strongly suspect Edward Snowden, the man behind the recent NSA leaks, embarked on his string of very public interviews as a calculated strategy to make it harder for the US to disappear him. Attention-seeking instincts are survival instincts, and tactical frivolity may offer better protection than sobriety. Remember those 98 journalists.

There’s another interpretation of Pussy Riot’s actions: maybe the performances weren’t the artworks – maybe the trial was. It was certainly theatrical, with bomb threats, tearful monologues and a security dog that barked people to order when they started shouting too loudly. (The defence lawyer had the dog ejected on the fourth day of the trial.) The Orange Alternative viewed arrests as a piece of performance art on the part of the State. On one occasion they provoked the police into arresting 77 Santa Clauses. On another, they staged a sarcastic pro-Communist rally in which everyone wore red – the police not only arrested everyone wearing red, but also everyone eating pizza with red ketchup on it and the street vendor who sold it to them. When the police responded to Mordovian Hour, they arrested the participants, but they also took two cats as evidence. Maybe Pussy Riot are provocateurs in the true sense, not so much artists themselves as an incitement to art in others.

Waldemar Fydrych of the Orange Alternative said “every policeman is a piece of art.” Certainly the visual aspects of a State’s instruments do not come about by chance, whether its architecture (from Grecian columns that echo the birthplace of democracy to Soviet Brutalism), the design of its police uniforms (and how distinguishable they are from the military’s) or the names of government departments (for example, the Howard government’s change of the Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship). They are carefully designed to create a desired emotional response: awe, pride, intimidation, fear, etc. If the people with power are using art as a tactic, people resisting them would be foolish not to.

It’s been argued that tactical frivolity is ineffective in democratic regimes, where guerrilla marketing by ‘edgy’ brands has made the public distrustful of such acts and difficult to surprise. But I think anywhere where the authorities are humourless and have an inflated sense of their own dignity and importance, it’s likely to have some power. Try it on a ticket inspector and let me know the results.

This article was originally published in Das Superpaper in July 2013.