Rosanna van Mierlo London, UK
- Intimate Narratives of Appetite -
“The termite focuses on the tiny, the ornery, the wasteful, the stubborn. He is metonymically determined.”
Carol Mavor, Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion of Camera Lucida, La Jetée, Sans Soleil, and Hiroshima Mon Amour (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 97.
In her book Black and Blue, Carol Mavor quotes Manny Faber’s figure of the termite as a way to differentiate between what she calls “white elephant art,” i.e. the heroic, useless, empty and prize worthy, and the tender, inquisitive and detailed approaches of the termite. ‘Termite’ art practices revolve around an axis of desire, presupposing desire as an eternally unfixed state of being - always moving, always changing, always ‘eating their own boundaries.’ Using the works of Chris Marker and Faber as examples of such ‘termite activity,’ Mavor presents the termite as a generative force, not merely a creature of destruction. I suppose the termite is interesting to me because of its unfavorable position; neither food not pet nor farm animal they are merely perceived as a pest. Their appetite for wooden structures is a direct threat to suburban dream, lined with white picket fences and decorated with oak furnishing, its wooden foundations buried deep in traditional values.
Where white elephant art is caged and contained by its own artistic worth, termite art relates to the worthless, the undesirable and the useless. It is essentially anti-capitalist. White elephant art forms are revered in dichotomous relation, approached from the outside with a clear definition of object-subject. They live asleep in fixed states, eternalized in the stillness of marble and the distant tranquility of the museum walls, with their strict policies of what can and cannot be touched. They remain there, forever unchanged, under merciless fluorescent lights. Termite art, on the other hand, is all about touch and movement. It is constantly one step ahead of us, leaving only traces behind - tiny black marks on wooden table legs, small pellets of wood in the corner of the room where you forgot to look. This type of artistic production approaches the object from the inside, digging away at its structure with a thousand tiny mouths, expanding in every direction until the structure is left behind forever changed and you might not even notice until it is too late. The object you thought you knew is now hollowed out: deep blackness lives inside it. Mavor suggest that termite art is essentially engaged with the void, enamored and trapped by the melancholic desire for what used to be or what could still happen, unable to be satisfied with the present state of things.
As an example she brings up the deconstructive architecture works of Gordon Matta Clark. Yet these works still adhere to the monumental: their ‘termite’ influences don’t really cut deeper than the surfaces Matta Clark breaks through. They are still exotic, static, and finite. The other work she mentions, however much briefer, is the FOOD movement Matta Clark was involved with from 1971. Often wrongly ascribed to Matta Clark alone, FOOD was a collaborative practice that involved many artists in many different capacities, without clear hierarchies and without a set plan of development. It just happened, out of sheer desire for something. In the FOOD movement I do believe to see a more accurate performance of the termite, one that is not related to the termite as a creature that ‘digs’ but rather one that ‘eats’ which I argue is eventually based in an intimate desire for participation, social relations and collective practices. In what follows I aim expose the termite nature of the FOOD experiment in three areas: as a capacity to form attachments that originates in the stomach, as a breakdown between stable identities due to introjection, and by reimagining eating as an act of social exchange and intimacy.
- The Heart in the Gut -
“Put another way, we could say that the belly is physically alive to the infant. The first mind we have is the stomach-mind.”
Elizabeth A. Wilson, “Underbelly,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Culture 21, no. 1 (2010): 204
In Underbelly (Wilson, “Underbelly”) Elizabeth A. Wilson displaces desire from the heart to the stomach. In a way ridiculing the age old saying that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Wilson sides steps gender biased notions of who is giving or receiving love and instead proposes the gut as uniformly assigned to the origin of desire. Our humanity lies in our ability to love and to respond to love. The infant’s human identity is formed through negotiations that pre-exist understanding through language but take in the world through the mouth, the throat, into the stomach. Feeling around blindly, the infant’s hunger is communicated as a cry for its mother; a desire that presents itself as a gnawing feeling that demands address. The hunger pangs of the infant’s stomach are crucial to the development of mind and the capacity to be attached.(Ibid., 204) Following Mavor, we can see that the stomach is also a dark void. It is where things go to disappear, to change beyond recognition. Like the termite, we take the world on firstly through the mouth, by nibbling and gnawing away at it.
Mavor’s description of the termites’ chewing activity as a distinctly careful and loving subject-object relation stands in surprising contrast with the usually violent or shameful attitudes we keep towards the act of eating. Fine dining has gone to great lengths to re-create eating as an enlightened activity; supplying smaller and smaller portions, napkins to prevent the food of going where it shouldn’t go, an array of knives and forks to keep the hands as far away from the food as possible, music and soft lighting to accompany the experience and strict rules on what is to be eaten when. This anxious attitude towards ‘proper’ food indicated a fear of eating the ‘wrong’ thing, or eating it in the wrong way. The infinite curiosity with which children approach their food – often even playing with it – is replaced with a scrutinizing fear of what we put inside our bodies, reflected in dietary regimes, phobias and lying to waiters about niche allergies. Enjoy food too much and you’re branded as gluttonous, enjoy it too little and you must be suffering some bodily disorder. The desire and subsequent attachment, as described by Wilson, are cause for suspicion.
Desire is always a negotiation of a limit, an act of trespassing if you will. Desire always exists at a distance at first, before it can be resolved by fulfillment and sink back intounconsciousness. The mouth is nothing if not a limit between the outside world (that which we can see as different from ourselves) and the private, inside spheres (which we cannot fully understand). The mouth is a sensory organ through which we explore the world, in taste, temperature and meaning. Mavor’s termite embodies not the immediate break down of inside and outside worlds, but its slow disintegration, an infestation of the proper body. This fear is highlighted by the bodily associations that termites (and insects at large) call into mind; thinking about them brings about a physical shudder, a ‘crawling of the skin,’ a physical manifestation of revulsion and expulsion.(See Stephen Loo and Undine Sellbach, “Eating (with) Insects: Insect Gastronomies and Upside-Down Ethics,” Parallax 19, no. 1 (2013): 12–28) The abject object that enters the body brings about a physical contraction; the body tries to shake the bad thing off, albeit metaphorically. A ‘material sign’ creates an intense, bodily response for which the reason may yet be unknown to us. (Mavor, Black and Blue, 124)
- I Won’t Eat Anything with a Face -
“But bucca is puffed up cheeks; it is the movement, the contraction and/or distension of breathing, of eating, of spitting, or of speaking.”
Jean-Luc Nancy, Ego Sum (Paris: Flammarion, 1979), 162
We are all held up by tensions, I suppose. Anxiety, depression, overwhelming feelings of happiness or even just the rather tepid feelings of minor irritation; tension, in its many shapes, continuously tugs at us ever so slightly. Although the FOOD movement most likely must have started at a dinner table, at someone’s house, or even at the pub on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon, most readings point to a group of friends, amongst which was Matta Clark, gathered under the Brooklyn Bridge to roast a whole pig. The images that exist of the event show a young group of people, almost all men, hanging out between the waste and water, clad in grey, sullen colors that give the whole act the grim, illegitimate atmosphere of mystical ritual. It is almost as if eating a whole body, whatever it is, is somehow different than eating just a piece of it. “I don’t eat anything with a face,” my friend said. Somehow this is more of a murder than what usually happens around the safe edges of the dinner table. This feels like a crime scene on the outer fringes of the city.
By displacing the act of eating from the safe environments of the clean, warm home to an outside area that tastes of despair and a loss of control, the group, in a way, establishes itself as outside of societies’ norm, outlaws, the young and the brazen. They flirt with the idea of a brotherhood as they sharpen their knives. Brotherhoods are always infatuated with blood rituals and, if you read with Freud, are entrenched in the accursed ‘family feast’ in which the father’s murder and underlying threat of cannibalism are cause for the subject’s schizophrenic identity formation. Man, riddled by guilt, fear and grief over this heinous act, can never again exist (or eat) without inhibition. (Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, trans. James Strachey. London: Routledge, 2001) Post primordial feast, the lines between what is proper and improper, inside and outside; male and female indicate not only a division between good and bad but also inherently announce the possibility of failure. “[…] the initial division of body/breast into good and bad opens onto a paranoia that the good may not be good.” (Sara Guyer, “Buccality,” in Derrida, Deleuze, Psychoanalysis, ed. Gabriele Schwab. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 85)
Derrida is fully aware that the act of eating is in essence a problematic of paranoia and that division of good/bad inherently leads to missteps, mistrust and misuse since it never relays responsibility, only judgment. Thus the infant or schizophrenic “tears apart” the good object for fear that it is deception and that, beneath its apparent goodness, evil and destruction lurk. (Ibid.) Paranoia lurks at the root of any dichotomous system of value. Derrida finds a solution this question of ethical responsibility with the imperative of ‘eating well’, which encompasses within it the inextinguishable violence that remains part of nourishment and hospitality both.Ibid. In short, even this display of ‘cruel’ and ‘uncivilized’ eating can still be ethical at its core by embracing buccality as a relation to the other prior to the self that is ordered by the mouth and not the face. (Ibid., 93) Viewed as such, the scene can be interpreted in a different, more constructive way; as the start of something new for which a sacrifice might be needed, but is acted out within ethical awareness.
Mavor’s description of the termite as distinctively tender is not only surprising but also – deliberately or not, I wonder – joins concepts of buccality (chewing, feeding, gnawing) with a certain loving affection and a sense of homing. Nourishment and hospitality are joined in an unsuspected agent; that of the insect, culturally branded as pest or plague, for which we bear none to little sympathy. “[…] the association with the semiotic suggests the abject may also be productive of new relations upon encounter with other bodies and their instincts.” (Loo and Sellbach, “Eating (with) Insects: Insect Gastronomies and Upside-Down Ethics,” 20) It is this tenderness that fascinates: the slow and steady nibbling that resembles a lover’s impulse, a secret murmur that is paired with some light biting of the ear. The termite, with its insatiable hunger and by lack of a ‘human’ face exists before language (Guyer, “Buccality,” 91) and, as such, before the origin of human subjectivity so devastating in the primordial feast narrative. Its ‘faceless face’ is the non-human’s questionable birthright. It is pure mouth, devouring mechanism, blind desire. It acts before the question of ethics, on a bucal instinct that is about movement and desire before consciousness but as a way of being.
This tenderness of the mouth that both eats and loves makes a return in Mavor’s description of the work of Anne Hamilton, who performs pinhole photography through her mouth - of her son, amongst other things. Her lips act as the shutter, each time they close the subject is hungrily scooped up and ingested in a performance of what Mavor calls “aim inhibited eating.” (Mavor, Black and Blue, 101) Hamilton’s politics of tenderness are a reflection of the processes of introjection; the subject of love and desire is taken into the body in an act that is simultaneously embracing and violent. The image shows psychoanalysis’ terrifying mother from a first person perspective, a subject motivated by a multifaceted form of hunger: a mouth without a face.
- Making a Home -
Any collaborative movement or alliance is rooted in a form of exchange, whether it is money changing hands, words being uttered, or signatures drawn. Relationships are fabricated through the rituals of exchange, but this exchange is usually distinctly dichotomous and linear. Stock rates go either up or down, money is transferred over the horizontal planes of tables or cashier counters. Contracts are signed on a dotted line to seal the deal. There is no room left for error or a little trailing off. After its initial kick-off under the Brooklyn Bridge, the FOOD movement settled down in more traditional form as a restaurant in downtown Soho, a meeting place for artists to cook, eat and meet each other. Carol Gooden, Tina Girouard, Matta Clark and others dreamed of facilitating discussions, creating network opportunities and mobilizing the artistic community. Less performed as a ritual and more constructed as a social space in which everyone was invited to partake, FOOD ‘s value as a work of art might be hard to discern. Amalgamating the social strata’s of the family home with those of the café and the artist’ studio – Matta Clark made works here -, the space defied singular classification yet exhumed a certain sense of movement. People traversed and destroyed borders between the public and the private, the personal and the professional, as they walked in and out, dragging their lives over the doorstep. The void, as described by Mavor as an almost mystical emptiness – or lack off – of a deep, deep black, makes an appearance here in the hungry mouths of the artists attending. Their opened lips indicate a desire for attachment, connection, some sort of gratification. The soft chewing sounds remind us of the termite chewing through the foundations, all the while making a home for itself. The chewing becomes a form of nesting, of feeling like you’re a part of something. The space will be hollowed out eventually – and it did, in 1974 – but the movement doesn’t die. It simply moves on, for that is the nature of the hungry collective.
- Bibliography -
Mavor, Carol. Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion of Camera Lucida, La Jetée, Sans Soleil, and Hiroshima Mon Amour. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Translated by James Strachey. London: Routledge, 2001.
Guyer, Sara. “Buccality.” In Derrida, Deleuze, Psychoanalysis, edited by Gabriele Schwab, 77–104. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
Loo, Stephen, and Undine Sellbach. “Eating (with) Insects: Insect Gastronomies and Upside-Down Ethics.” Parallax 19, no. 1 (2013): 12–28.
Wilson, Elizabeth A. “Underbelly.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Culture 21, no. 1 (2010).
Rosanna van Mierlo trained as an academic scholar in the broader field of contemporary art criticism, her writing focuses on the blurring boundaries between feminist thought, poetry, animal studies, performative writing, photography and literature. As such, her work fits within the tradition of fiction-criticism, merging fiction with analysis.