Image of a piece of watercolor paper, a cream-colored approximately 4” x 6” rectangle against a similarly colored wall. The words “risk more deeply” are painted on the card in black water soluble soft carbon, with an ink outline.

Risk more deeply

What stands out for me as I look over 2019 is the conversations I had not had before. The people I let into my life. In person, or otherwise. Questions, gestures, know-how…ideas and emotions they brought into my world that became part of me risking more deeply.

It’s a lot of small stuff really. I’m not saying I even agreed with, or wanted more of their view of things, though some of it was beautiful, brilliant and needed. Just that our interaction became part of my momentum. My expression. Also my capacity and interest in what is not me, in what is possible, if I go further than what I already knew about any of us. If I go slower than sureness about who you are, and what you would be willing to do with me. If I asked you.

What helps you to risk more deeply?

For me, it’s getting feedback. It’s you listening while I try to explain, trip over my thoughts, a rush of air through an unexpectedly open door. And me surprised by what you saw,  focused on, or asked for. “That’s not it,” I want to say. “I’m over here. Why are you over there?”

But I don’t ask that. Somehow I know not to. I try not to brute force connection.

I try to just take notes. What can I do with what you said? And just get back to work. Go again. Go deeper. Go again. I hate it when you don’t understand me. I need you in this with me. So, I will keep going, peel off everything that is in the way of me clearly expressing what moves me, so that it moves you too.

Whether I bristle against it, ask you to explain further or just thank you for getting into it with me, you may be transformed by your internal conversation. Or by something or someone in your life that I know nothing about when they are added to the mix sometime later in the week, or whenever, and who knows what that will lead to, or what you will see, or focus on, or ask for the next time we talk.

It is not a switch to turn on and off. Connecting us. I don’t know what it is, but it is not that. All I know is that I have to go deeper into what I don’t know about this if I am ever going to make it happen. So, I’ll keep going, peeling off the layers that have not so much kept me safe, as still.

An image from the “Embodied Scores–the poetics of data excavation in the crip body” presentation, where Yo-Yo Lin (left) and Pelenakeke Brown (right) sit on chairs, a small red table with a plant, water and wine between them, facing the audience (a few members can be seen in the front row seated on the floor, here, looking over their right shoulders directly into the camera lens). Above them, behind Yo-Yo and Keke is a screen projecting an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, which reads “ In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear — fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. …And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”

Transforming silences

Recently, I attended a presentation by two artists making inquiries into their bodylife stories, Embodied Scores–the poetics of data excavation in the crip body with Yo-Yo Lin and Pelenakeke Brown [1]. You can see the artists above in the photo. That’s Yo-Yo Lin on the left and Pelenakeke (Keke) Brown on the right, reading a quote from Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”.

Their methods of inquiry, art-making and storytelling resonated with me. In addition to thinking further about each of them specifically, their bodylives, and for the first time, intentionally considering the individual experiences of disabled or chronically ill or crip bodies (I had not heard the phrase crip bodies before), as well as internalized ableism, it got me thinking about women generally —not to generalize across our experience— but how the need to transform silences, when it comes to female bodylife, is universal.

When it comes to all bodies, there is so much we’re not talking about from an individual bodylife perspective, where we tell our own stories ourselves. It’s too personal to share or to trust our own experiences, the way we do information, data and opinions, provided by doctors, healthcare providers, political, religious and insurance company policymakers, bureaucrats and profiteers in other industries, scientists, researchers or any other “experts”. [1]

Though, personally —uniquely, individually—  is how we live so how can our personal experience of our own bodies, not be relevant or valued?

Here’s what Keke read to us: “In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear — fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. …And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” [2]

Speaking up is not easy. Especially in an environment and culture not designed with us in mind.

What are we gaining in our silence? Or losing in the exclusion and pain of not being seen or heard?

Thank you for witnessing that.

A practice of authentic, witnessed movement

This may have been the most important thing I heard said (and there were many that continue to affect me) — “Thank you for witnessing that.” In this authentic movement practice, Keke is dancing and speaking what she is dancing, with someone witnessing. During her talk, when Keke said the words, “Thank you for witnessing that.” I shook a little inside as if all the memories archived in me, at a cellular level, were considering the possibility of being seen and what it might mean. 

Embodying the visibility we fear. Including the viewer as part of the practice. The image on the screen is from Excavātion: an archival process.

Medical records transformed into poetry

In Excavātion: an archival process, Keke’s practice consisted of requesting and reading through the archive of her medical history (not such a simple things to do) and turning printed pages of it into poetry (as well as movement as in the image above). In the documents of her early history, especially around “her mother’s experience navigating the medical industry”, she was able to see how qualities of her healthcare experience shifted based on the postal code and skin tone of her caregiver, expressing inherent medical racism, and the politicalness of being a brown body in the world.

Blackout poetry is a form that embodies movement and words. What you see on the screens in the images below are projections of Keke’s medical records, much of them blacked out, and the visible words revealing and revaluing lived, and living, experience. Keke used the blackout practice to question who got to have a voice in her medical record…Who is speaking? Who is not speaking?

Keke said we can read it however we want. The captions are my readings. I didn’t transcribe Keke’s when we read them to us. I don’t know whether mine are different.

I saw she returns certain Repeat other side come out moon
She knows her body, extends, unsupported, up”…names “come here” “go away”.

Collecting soft data

“Soft data is data as human experience — full of opinions, suggestions, interpretations, contradictions and uncertainties”…[3]

An excerpt of Yo-Yo Lin’s Resilience Journal, here tracking a month of overlooked aspects of being.

Yo-Yo’s Resilience Journal is a physical ritual that she began in January. Her framework of soft data begins with a circle. Each circle is a month; each slice of the circle is a day and has seven dimensions to it, expressed in layers that Yo-Yo colored in with varying intensity to match her day. She also made daily notes on the facing page and incorporated symbols to commemorate certain kinds of moments. In her resilience journal, Yo-Yo is creating an archive of how her illness presents itself, including its overlooked, and sometimes contradictory, aspects.

Instead of coming from a place of needing to be fixed, she tracks what living is like. The seven dimensions of her days that Yo-Yo tracked are:

  1. Felt it
  2. Logistical (issues led to asking for help)
  3. Body image
  4. Social pressure
  5. Getting care
  6. Future visions (enacting in the present)
  7. Past (trauma, memories brought up)

The symbols are a little hard to see in the image, but if you look carefully, you’ll make out circles, indicating “I accommodated myself” and stars, indicating “People Accommodated”. The other three kinds of repeatable moments being tracked are open triangles, indicating “Someone asked about it”, an “X” indicating “Thought about death” and a filled-in triangle, indicating “Had to explain to someone”.

The monthly visualizations extend attention beyond a catalog of illness, they express healing as a process of continual becoming.

Yo-Yo shares her journal with us from the place of “This illness is not just my own.” The books are available to us, too, to track our own soft data. You can carry a journal with you, wherever you carry your body. I bought a journal and look forward to investigating and tracking…

There was so much that came up for me, as I sat, listening to Yo-Yo and Keke take us through their practices of process-driven art-making out of their personal histories, enlisting multiple media to give expression, visibly, audibly, and through movement, to investigate, record and reshape meaning. I left inspired, intending especially to keep at the project of speaking. I wish you could have been there.

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….it is not difference that immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.” [2]

Yo-Yo had posted on Instagram that she would be there on Sunday, so I came back to Eyebeam to take time viewing the work. Also, I hoped to talk with her. I did get that chance. Here she is with her friend (whose name I wish I had noted down!) her cap glowing. 

Yo-Yo Lin and a friend, at Eyebeam, standing in front of projected facing pages from the Resilience Journal.

References

[1] Embodied Scores–the poetics of data excavation in the crip body with Yo-Yo Lin and Pelenakeke Brown, taking place at Eyebeam in Bushwick on 12/04/2019, presented by Eyebeam Assembly in partnership with Denniston Hill and The Laundromat Project. For more on the event…

[2] “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”. Paper delivered at the Modern Language Association’s “Lesbian and Literature Panel,” Chicago, Illinois, December 28, 1977. First published in Sinister Wisdom 6 (1978) and The Cancer Journals (Spinsters, Ink, San Francisco, 1980).

[3] Yo-Yo Lin: Resilience Journal, 2019.

[4] Penelakeke Brown: Excavātion: an archival process, 2019.

Because we can’t do it on our own

That’s why I want to get together.

To see ourselves for ourselves. To be heard. To hear each other. To help each be heard.

When it comes to women’s bodies, not just how they look, but our bodylife experiences, there’s a lot more noise than information, conversation, or care. I want to fix that.

This we cannot do on our own.

That’s what the Art & Conversation Experiences are about. We’re just getting started.

If you are in NYC over Thanksgiving weekend, I hope to see you on Saturday at “Telling our own stories”. We’re getting together at Merge New York, a radically inclusive studio in Chinatown.

This experience is for, and about women. All kinds of women. Everyone who is biologically female and self-identifies as a woman. Come as you are. This is about us.

Here’s how I think we’ll do it

2:45pm — Doors open early. You can look around while I finish setting up.

3:00pm — Orientation, meeting each other, making the space our own, kicking off our story-telling cooperative.

3:30 pm — I’ll give a brief talk, we’ll view the vagina portraits, and continue on together, telling our own stories.

4:30 pm — Connecting it all, to our lives, to each other, to the evolution of the project.

It will depend on who shows up, when they arrive, what’s on our minds and in our hearts. This is a zone of safety and freedom. We’ll all be holding the space for each other. 

I’d love for you to be part of this.

It’s a two-hour program that will be a unique experience, both personally and collectively. I’ve been told that this work is brave, important, and the beginning of things changing for us…

Please register to attend, so I can expect you. If you will be arriving late or leaving early, that’s ok. Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/tellingourownstories-11-30-2019

Feel free to invite the women in your life. If you’d like to attend and the ticket price is an obstacle, email me and I’ll send you a promo code. You can attend as my guest.

Looking forward to getting together with you soon!

In sisterhood, solidarity and with love,
—Alex

Image of the Sharing circle at the vagina vérité art & conversation experience. Twelve of the women participating are visible here, listening smiling. Among them, the speaker is mainly out of view, but you can see her hands as she speaks and everyone turned toward her.

What will we talk about?

That was one of many questions that came up while working on the design of this experience and imagining into it: How will it go? Who’ll show up? And what will we talk about?

There was a lot to talk about.

I have to say I’d have been fine with silences. I mean, if that’s what happened, that’s what happened. There’s just no way to know and scripting it, going for a topics-list outcome, that wasn’t the point here. I just wanted to listen. To have the space to talk, to think out loud together. I don’t think we have enough of that. Not in group settings. Not with an expectation of respect. Not at work. At work is where so much of the day goes, too.

I think I’ve trained myself out of believing I have the space to talk things over, only saying raw things, still-thinking things when I couldn’t help it, and pulling back soon after. Not being ok with the silence that followed. Or the not getting it, not interested, not willing, not now because other things just have to get done. We already know what we need to know.

Besides, I’ve always been uncomfortable in a group. Easily overwhelmed by just there being many heartbeats working, and eyes, when they turn toward me. Performance anxiety, I guess. Definitely about getting it right. Even though I don’t believe in that.

Anyway, here, in this space, that was the point. To make room, free up space to say things aloud among us, and just see what was there. Intentionally hold space the space for each other. And ourselves.

At one point, we got into an inquiry into unsolicited dick pics. What are they thinking? What was the point of that? And demanding a pussy pick back. Having strategies, even if it sucks that we should need to, to address what gets thrown at us, or the internalized habits of apologizing for having a different view of things, of hiding what comes with having a female body, making ourselves smaller to fit someone else’s idea. I totally need that help. Strategies ready.

That moment after, when you realize that you caved vs stayed seated inside yourself, in your truth, sucks.

There was a lot of power in the room, compassion. We didn’t go around the room, telling each other about our backgrounds or anything, but you could tell that we weren’t coming from the same place. Or maybe I’ve sloughed off enough layers to just see how it always is. We just are different, we just are specific individuals, the subjects of non-interchangeable stories and even that is too containing to be descriptive.

I felt power, things I didn’t know or understand where there too, but I felt safe.

This group thing can be pretty cool. It can be like nothing I’ve experienced before.

This is just the beginning…

Lay down some intentions, lay out some vagina portraits, step into the circle, and… what will we talk about?

An image of text that reads: A shared, unflattened space, resonating with the sameness and inherent difference among us. Ganesh presents vagina vérité, an art & conversation experience.

What happens when we see the truth held in our bodies?

Later this week, we’re creating a space for the conversations we can have, and should get to have, with each other and with ourselves when engaging with art, with those in the room, with those not in the room, and with the truth and history held in our bodies.

I’m partnering with Kim Thai, founder of Ganesh, to present this new program, inspired by the many conversations I’ve had with women, and by Kim’s kind and peaceful approach to community,

and fueled by an abiding need in me to undermine the way that so much of female bodylife experience is routinely hidden, smacked with stigma and shame, marginalized, outright disrespected, mis-informed, mis-represented, under-researched, sanity-undermining, dangerous and life-threatening. More so if you’re a woman of color, non-binary, or noticeably non-conforming.

When it comes to our bodies, not just how they look, but our bodylife experiences, there’s a lot more noise than information, conversation or care.

Let’s fix that

We all deserve to live our lives on our own terms, to talk freely about our experiences, and to be able to take care of ourselves, based on our individual experiences and points of view, not on someone’s idea of how we should be.

I believe accessible information and open conversation are the foundation of a world where living a female bodylife is intrinsic to the design of our everyday lives. 

How we move through the world must be fundamental to public spaces, governance, privacy and opportunity. Not an add-on. Not something to be controlled.

On Saturday, Oct 5th, at Merge New York in Chinatown, we’re creating a zone of safety and freedom, where women can talk, on our own terms. By women, I mean to include everyone who’s biologically female and/or identifies as a woman. Our intention is for you to leave with a deeper connection to the truth inside your body and the story that you bring into the world.

vagina vérité, this experience, is an opportunity to be the Subjects of our bodylife stories, respected and empowered by sharing them, honored for how we live them. Not as Objects, defined by men, or by anyone, but as self-sovereign actors with complete authority over the course, meaning and value of our life experiences.

With Objectification as the norm and tool for knowledge and truth, and its weaponization effectively othering more than half the world’s population, Subjectification, I hope, will be the complement and the antidote, respectively.

What would the world look like, what would it feel like, if the stories we heard about our female bodylives  in so many public and private experiences, were based in our own voices as we speak for ourselves?

What would you do differently, if it was a normal thing for the world around you to reflect, support and respect what is true for you?

The birth of a social enterprise

This is the first live event in an ongoing project, where we share our bodylife experiences, and reframe reality.

Through live, remote and digital programs, I intend to build the Bodylife Library, so that the space for conversation, and for the truth held in our bodies, is everywhere.

To attend on Saturday, register here.

An image showing a variation of the vagina vérité logo daisy with the text, Ganesh presents vagina vérité, an art & conversation experience, on a black background to introduce the topic of this conversation experience.

Designed for conversation

This is going to be the first vagina vérité exhibition event designed for conversation. That doesn’t sound right, I know. But—I have to say, that until now, conversation has been an add-on to the overall experience design of vagina vérité. This time: it’s the heart of it.

Conversation…

That has always been the point, I think—of making any art, but the gallery-museum m.o. of installing on a wall or in a cordoned-off space, set-aside-for-viewing three-dimensional work (which has been lodged in my thinking for as long as I can remember) separates the viewer from the art in a way that does more than protect the piece or give it room to be seen in the first place. At least that’s how it works on me, and I’ve been carrying it forward in my exhibition designs…as if there’s a right way—to view art. Going into the first in a series of conversation spaces, I’m thinking about viewing (probably for the first time): what does it mean to view?

An excerpt of the page from dictionary.com for “view”, showing the meanings for view when used as a verb with an object. The first 13 meanings where for the use of view as a noun. The list here begins at 14. #14 to see; watch: to view a movie. #15 to look at; survey; inspect: to view the construction of a road. #16 to contemplate mentally; consider: to view the repercussions of a decision.# 17 to regard in a particular light or as specified: She views every minor setback as a disaster. And #18 Fox Hunting. to sight (a fox).
Source: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/view?s=ting art?

Using the reference in the image above, I can see that I’ve been stopped at the first, most surface meaning. To see, watch: to view a movie.

Most times, when I view art, there is this undercurrent nudging me along. It feels like I’m supposed to check off my view, piece by piece, and keep going to the next piece, to the next room. And, while I have bitterly hated it when other people talking interfered with my art-viewing experience, so call me out on that for sure because I give the meanest looks when I can’t hear my thoughts because you are talking, it’s all changing out from under me. I’m giving up my quest for quiet in the crowded of my city so-I-can-hear-myself, and replacing it with an abiding interest in conversation spaces. It’s just not enough to take it in. Like a movie. There needs to be exchange among us. Especially when viewing vagina portraits.

We need to talk

We need to talk. Not just compare and critique. Conversation—The kind where we get involved with the work, and with the others in the room and the others not in the room (and the individuality of people in the room and not in the room) and with the history held in your body. And see what emerges. Stay in the room for it.

As I write this, I wonder if this is  sounding challenging. I don’t mean for it to be a hurdle to get over. There is no requirement to reveal anything that isn’t comfortable for you, or of interest to you. Though I would like to get some of the stuff we carry around in our bodies and memories out, where there’s room and heart enough for them to be seen and heard. And for us to talk about whatever comes up. It’s an opportunity to share your views and bodylife experiences, to listen to and witness others.

Sharing space and stories can be inspiring, healing and a relief, in short: empowering and counteracting to the often-gaslighting idea that there is a right way to be.

If you come, you will have a unique and personal response. Some of that will take place out loud—maybe you’ll ask a question, tell a story, or offer someone insight, some of it may happen through writing, that may or may not be read by others in the room—if you feel like adding to the wall or privately leaving a note for the next event’s attendees, and some of it will be internal and yours alone.

There are many ways to be in conversation in this space.

Listening to another woman can be transformational for the listener

As I’ve mentioned to some of you, I’ve started holding listening sessions, unstructured interviews. There is no list of questions or topics to make sure we cover. Just an introduction to vagina vérité and the Bodylife Library project, how each got started, and what they’re aiming toward. The conversation kind of flows on its own from there. Listening to another woman like this is life-changing. We are each of us so interesting and living lives of so much. So much. You cannot tell by looking what we have and have not shared. Here’s a wordcloud of what’s come up in the first few listening sessions—

A rectangular image of a jumble of words, in different sizes and colors based on their frequency of use in several conversations about women’s bodylives.
A wordcloud generated by several bodylife conversations.

They were one-to-one private conversations, an hour or less each, and most of them were with women I only recently met, or only met once. It’s a word cloud based on frequency. The most common word, by a lot, was “know”. I think that’s because there is so much that we each do know that we don’t get to share. Much of this is just below the surface, affecting our quality of life whether we get the support, community or conversation we need, and maybe don’t even know we that we need it, until the opportunity presents itself.

So, we’ll see.

An invitation to women

You’re invited to join us in this zone of safety and freedom where women can

  • View a photography exhibition of over 100 vagina portraits. No stylists, no details about the model, just the elusive faces of the vagina in plain view;
  • Participate in conversations women don’t usually get to have—across the immeasurably wide landscape of what it is to live a female bodylife.

This gathering is for women, and by that I mean to say that everyone who is biologically female and/or identifies as a woman is welcome and included.

It will be the first in a year-long series of vagina vérité conversation spaces. They will vary. Each will inform the next, and together, we’ll grow the space available to us, public and private space, for open exchange.

vagina vérité, An Art & Conversation Experience takes place on Saturday, 10/05/2019 from 2-4pm at Merge New York in Chinatown. It’s brought to you by Ganesh, a community of people who are fueled by kindness. Kim Thai, Ganesh founder, is co-hosting with me. Through the many conversations Kim and I have had since we met earlier this year, about what matters most to us, as well as during the several Ganesh events I’ve attended, I have known the kindness, and the peaceful inquiry, that Kim brings to the room. You should come. Here’s where you can RSVP.