A playground for the encounter of one's body as an-other
Text by Marialena Marouda
“If your momentary presence would unfold into a material form, how would it look? What would be its form, colour? What would be its texture, materiality? How would it feel to wear it?“
In Helena Dietrich’s and Janneke Raaphorst’s piece of the same title, “Elastic Habitat” is used as a synonym for body. The work is concerned with the different ways in which bodies are perceived and inhabited by selves. “Elastic Habitat” is a participatory work that challenges its “guests” to think the body as the habitat that it is. If the body is a home, can words be found to describe how it feels to live with/in it?
One can describe the work as having mainly two parts. In its non-public form, “Elastic Habitat” takes place as a series of one-to-one sessions whose aim is to increase awareness and sensitivity towards individual bodily perceptions in all their complexity and multiplicity. Participants are invited to produce detailed descriptions of what it feels like to be in their bodies. As a next step, their accounts become materialized as “textile sculptures” that can be worn and explored.
At the moment of public presentation, visitors are invited to enter a space similar to a playground. In this protected and sensitized space, they enter another’s “materialized body perception”. In other words, visitors are invited to momentarily inhabit the body of another, previous participant and to interact with it. In the dialogue between one’s own body and the other, strange body, there is the potential to encounter, even fleetingly, the form, weight, colour or elasticity of one’s body in an unforeseen and unknown way. To become aware of the alien within oneself, and to learn to love this alien, could be what this work is about in its last consequence.
On the narration of bodies and their material(s)
“Elastic Habitat” is essentially based on the narrations of participants regarding how they experience their own body. The verbalization of those bodily perceptions is powerful and of great political potential. It takes place during the individual sessions of approximately three hours that include multiple steps. Participants, or guests, enter a rather empty space in which they can find different materials. They are asked to make themselves comfortable in the space by defining which materials they want to have in their proximity and which not. The perception of one’s body is subsequently sensitized by means of movement, touch and the use of the voice. One is invited to draw one’s body in the way that one perceives it and to make a movement improvisation according to how this body would move. Guests are also given a questionnaire in which they are asked to describe, among other things, the form, texture, colour and character of their perceived body. Finally those body perceptions are given names such as “The Light Traveller Future Animal”, “2D” or the “Cocoon”. Each bodily perception becomes a book, in which the text is a combination of the oral bodily descriptions during the private sessions, and the answers in the questionnaire.
Those texts are very intricate, complex and full of metaphors. The body is often described as a “shell” that the self inhabits. This shell is at the same time familiar and alien to the self. The narrations share a sense of alienation towards the own body; indeed the very act of being able to describe the body in which one resides in such detail implies this alienation. What is more, the bodies are mostly described as “it” or “she” and very seldom as “I”. The shell is primarily described in relation to movement, but also in terms of its colour, texture or even sound. “Cocoon”, for example, is a perceived body resistant to movement, opaque and “thick” as a trap, preventing the inhabitant from exiting or even interacting with the outside world. But a body can also be light and comfortable to carry around, with bags, so that the hands have something to “hold on to”. Such is the case in “The Light Traveller” or the “Diagonal”.
When reading the books, it becomes clear that those bodies are in a state of constant flux and transformation. There seems to be no stable “I”, separated from the world. On the contrary. The body can constantly transform from human to animal and back, as in “Eagle”, for example:
[T]here is something strange about her ankles and feet: one moment it is as though her legs are turning into goat’s legs with fur, and another time it is as though they are eagle’s feet.
The body further oscillates between being the positive space that grounds or holds the self, and the negative space between one-self and another. This instability is described as an exploration of ones body and its capabilities. As, in the “Diagonal”, where the narrator and her body seem to almost dance:
Now we’re leaning on each other. But it’s a negotiation, because if I lean too much on it, on her, I don’t give her support. It’s a tension between resting and being active. There is a feeling of being in between things.
On the level of their rich and varied materialities, the body descriptions of the “Elastic Habitat” form sensitive narratives on how one relates to one’s surrounding shell(s). They manage to increase awareness and sensibility about relations towards habitats that surround us on different levels of intimacy—from body to home to city to world—realizing the complex ways in which they can affect us.
On the level of definitions of selves, however, those accounts reveal something even more radical: an insistence on instability and becoming-other as the core of bodily experience. The body is presented above all as a site of constant transformation. The gender of the bodies is as fluid as is their age or species. Not only borders between human and animal but also between the animate and inanimate seem to blur. Placing indeterminacy in the centre of bodily experience is what makes those texts inherently political. Almost every bodily description defies the ideology of the “individual” body as a stable unity, separated from the world.
This property of instability is not a source of fear or anxiety. On the contrary, those bodies induce curiosity and pleasure in the selves that narrate them; they are as strange as they are friendly. There is even a certain advantage or opportunism to be found in the body’s multiple forms. Since they are described as constantly transforming, bodies can serve different purposes according to different needs. Those alien bodies are mostly providing support and help to the self that resides in them. Almost as if preparing for a future attack on their indeterminacy, they appear to be training their different skills and functions to ensure the survival of the self.
The narrator of “The Light Traveller Future Animal” for example, describes her body as something that…
might have a secret pocket. [...] If circumstances get even weirder,
you might need this.