The Fat Trunk of the Baobab Tree

Performative reading by Kate Pickering for 'Wild Kind'. 

Mountain of Arts Research Event held at Goldsmiths College.

1st June 2018


 An African Baobab

An African Baobab


 Performative reading at Wild Kind, an art PhD event at Goldsmiths, 1st June 2018.  The Fat Trunk of the Baobab  was read through, above and under the  ‘Multiuser Table Interface’,  a table designed and fabricated by Ciarán Ó Dochartaigh. Photos courtesy of Kiah Endelman.

Performative reading at Wild Kind, an art PhD event at Goldsmiths, 1st June 2018. The Fat Trunk of the Baobab was read through, above and under the ‘Multiuser Table Interface’, a table designed and fabricated by Ciarán Ó Dochartaigh. Photos courtesy of Kiah Endelman.

The Fat Trunk of the Baobab Tree

 

I sit on the table-ground near the elliptical hole.

I’d like to invite us to gather to hear a story, by sitting underneath this table-ground. If you are tall or claustrophobic, sit towards the edge or outside, otherwise, gather your bodies in tightly. Feel free to move as you wish during the course of the reading.

The crowd moves and sit under the table-ground. I speak into the hole.

This is not a time to be cautious about personal space. If your stomach rumbles, let it rumble, if you feel someone else’s breath on your cheek, think of it as your own breath, if you feel a knee or elbow press into your back, know it is an extension of your own body. This is time to be togethernin the root-branches of a vast tree. This is the time for being in and of the tree.

I climb into the elliptical hole in the table-ground, body half under and half above the table-ground.

The roots of this tree push out rudely into the wide blue basin of the sky, whilst it’s branches hide coyly below the earth. This tree is unabashed, brandishing its leafless underparts for all to see. If you were to stand on your head, you would see it as it should be, the right way down.

But you still cannot see the branches. For that you would need to plunge below the crusty earth of this table-ground where the branches grow. You would need to be headfirst, soil deep, aping the tree. Let us be upside down trees together for a while. Let us plunge our heads down and in beneath the cracked ground of an arid land, which darkens as we descend.

I sit down with the crowd under the table-ground.

In the subterranean earth we peer around rock fragments, burrowing creatures and the decaying remains of plant and animal matter. Our vision entangles with branches that splay out into the hidden tree crown.

Whilst we are nestled in tight amongst the concealed root-branches I should tell you that this tree is a baobab: say baobab with me: baobab, baobab, baobab. Baobab babbles through our lips, the name is formed of sounds on the cusp of meaning. The name is also a little upside down and back to front. The mouth echoes the shape of the lemniscate, the symbol for infinity: the lips move out over the wide bloom of roots and into the tight ’b’ of the trunk’s pith, and out again into the spread of crown. It is also called the tree of life. This tree is a vast storage tank, hoarding up to 120,000 litres of water in arid climes. Outside the tree, the world is sun scorched and parched, inside the swollen trunk is an immense collection of spongy tissue storing up water for the thirsty. Atmosphere surrounds the root-crown. Earth surrounds the crown-roots. The tree is a site for gathering the living, a place where meetings were held by those in search of wisdom: now it is host to a vast and thriving community of variant life forms.

The baobab tree is both heights and planes. It spreads as wide as it grows tall. Its relations are with the earth but also the atmosphere and the networks of the ecosystems it supports and is supported by. We can orient ourselves in the trees roots at a central point, or peer upside down from the roots with dizzying abandon towards a stabilizing ground that is far away. We can look outwards, askance, from the pith, the core of the tree, as the tree pith. We are part of a watery body that moves within the tree. That leeches up-down into the roots and branches from the earth-sky, through the hard heartwood and into the rich sapwood to the small dark spot of the pith, its cells teeming and lively, across the rings, down-up into the branches and roots, and out in the atmosphere-ground. We will move in queer formations.

These queer ‘slantwise’ movements are a generative orientation, enabling us to think a different, but analogous structure, one that is hinged to the tree in thought. Queering is needed for a growth which will fractalise outwards, downwards, inwards and backwards and through into other space-times and dimensions. In this wild, weird fruiting, hybrid connections will be made. Some might endure.

This other structure is also heights and planes. It engenders a dizzying verticality from certain viewpoints, and its spread continues to proliferate until it encompasses the known horizon. It is also deeply rooted in both grounding earth and atmospheric sky. It is a building whose foundations stabilise a vast structure, planted not in African plains but deep in humid Texan swampland, close to the fullness of the Bayou. The foundations are concrete but they are also of atmosphere, brought into being by tongues within mouths that speak a story, a story which in its repetition has materialized into a stable ground. Inside the building a colossal air conditioning system branches inside the walls, expelling all moisture. The air is clinically crisp and dry.

But for now we are deep within the tree’s flows, we pass through the xylem cells in an efficient transport system that echoes the human vascular network. We are taken inexorably up by conducting tissues which begins in the roots and extend out into the branches. A negative pressure, extending back down the tree, as vapour leeches off into the atmosphere, creates an anti-gravitational tension down through the xylem pathway.

At this scale of the molecular, the micro is the twin of the mega. Crowds of particles are drawn towards each other, body-molecules touch in limitless interactions.

I stand up in the elliptical hole, body half below and half above the table-ground.

We are drawn up through the distended trunk of the Baobab tree, bloated with water. The Baobab holds its unseen gallons whilst the earth outside perspires to a hard and unyielding carapace. It lightens to a pale sandstone shade. An arid land causes thirst, and dehydration. The symptoms of dehydration, along with a dryness in the mouth, a swallowing where the tongue sticks to the palate, are weakness, fainting and dizziness. This can lead to disorientation. 

I sit on the table-ground and speak to the crowd into the hole.

Jeremiah 17:5-8: This is what the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.  That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives. “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.  They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes... It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit…I will give water to the thirsty land and make streams flow on the dry ground. I will pour out my spirit on your children and my blessing on your descendants.” (New International Version)

I sit on the table-ground. My legs dangle inside the hole.

The Baobab’s interior collection of spongy tissue, cells ballooning with water, is an excess of possibility. This watery excess produces lives lived in abundance. Lives that are saturated, that dwell in humid air thick with enchantment. The tree is a body-site, a site-body that fruits many bodies, bodies that are always reproducing and growing, it is a pure fecundity, a fullness that counters emptiness. It is a living house. The Baobab was once “bu hibab”, Arabic for fruit with many seeds. In the heady atmosphere of the damp Baobab trunk we begin to see images of people gathered into clusters emerge, these clusters swell, they crystallise into a vast horizon of bodies, an image of community, an image of togetherness. In the building, all the bodies form a wealth, a sign of the wellness, the fatness of that community. Communities build and grow, they bulge, become bulbous, outgrow the confines of walls and rooves and parking lots and new buildings have to be built or bought. This spread of bodies, at a certain tipping point, forms an image. It is an image of the mega, of greatness.

The word mega means great, mighty, epic. It is also a prefix denoting the multiple of a million for any given unit. The lemniscate is thought to be a form of the Greek letter omega (ω), the last letter in the Greek alphabet and often used to denote the last, the end, or the ultimate limit of a set, in contrast to the alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet. In Revelation 22:13 God declares: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End’. God declares himself an infinity, an infinite greatness.

Beyond and beneath the individual is the infinitesimal. The infinitesimal is a multiplicity: both the mega of the crowd and the micro of the molecular.

Let us trace this tributary of thought, drawing us osmotically outwards into an immersion in the fullness of the megachurch.

I sit down with the crowd under the table-ground.

We descend-ascend now through the ground into this other site. Hidden in the darkness, down past the weak topsoil and into the strong subsoil and rock fragments, the structural slabs of the deep foundation piles are still and enduring. These slabs have been thickened beneath load bearing walls and are reinforced with steel. They sit on top of bell pier piles which penetrate deep into the ground, down past the unstable section susceptible to wetting and into the stable zone. The foundation underpins our monumental tree-building of 606,000 square feet. The structure encircles a fearless community. The foundations of this site are strong, and water tight.

The name of this structure is Lakewood, it is water – lake, and tree - wood, a stadium that grew from a small barnstore in the Lakewood Forest area of North West Houston. The website reads: There is a new generation rising at Lakewood Church, a generation who doesn't believe in limits, and who believes all things are possible.  Every week, 47,000 people gather within the vast arena known as the Sanctuary, to hear wisdom, to feel consoled, to find belonging. Gatherings are televised in more than 100 countries, with an estimated 7 million viewers each week, whilst it’s international media broadcast has expanded into over 200 million households in the United States.

Megachurches are described in terms of a phenomenal wellness: ‘thriving’, ‘growing’, ‘flourishing’, ‘prospering’. They are strongly rooted and well-watered. For now they will continue to burgeon and bloom. The megachurch is an entity that has become fat with concentric growth rings of belonging: accountability groups, house groups, clusters, services, conferences, rallies, global networks. The megachurch is more than the sum of its congregants, its conditions propagate infinities, it aims for a total and global reach. The immersion in an image of an endless, frameless spread of bodies is a tangible sign of the infinity of God. At the heart of it, in the pith, is the individual bodily encounter with this infinity: the point at which the limits of the individual are breached. Belief is produced in the bodies of those who encounter the saturating atmosphere of enchantment. Their eyes search outward to an unseen other, hoping that this other will materialize excessively through pleasure, and through a proliferating wellness of thought and body.

Imagine now being crowded into a space that is so large it is hard to make out the individuals on the other side, where the far walls are barely perceptible. We are amongst the many thousands of bodies filling this vast structure to find belonging. This space is an oval womb, encircled by and bathed in the coolness of air conditioning vents. It is a holding space of curved lines containing the mass of bodies arrayed in rows upon rows of bleachers. In the centre of the stage an 11 foot wide sculpture of the globe, rendered in gold, slowly rotates. On either side streams of water flow over an imitation rock feature. The ceiling is painted black but downlit with multi-coloured LEDs, it resembles the dome of the night sky. The stage is also filling with people. Multiple screens multiply the faces. The waiting bodies reach out, faces upturned, eyes shut, palms open. We feel a presence in the prickling sensation in our skin, in the raised hairs and blood vessels dilating. Our breath quickens and our heart beats rise. Despite the cool air we sweat, our pores producing glistening beads which reflect the auditorium from every angle, the bodies endlessly arriving and joining the crowd. We have become dehydrated. Our mouths are dry, we are thirsty.

But the air is thick with magic.

I climb up onto the table-ground. I speak to the crowd through the hole.

In the voluptuous atmosphere of watery excess, molecule-bodies seep and return through the porous membranes. But they return with other body-molecules, cycles are repeated and repeated, bodies drawn together. A crowd inexorably grows, it breeches the limits of the trunk, it exceeds the confines of the site. The borders will no longer hold, the water is leeching out from the Baobab’s trunk and into the foundations of the stadium… a saturating atmosphere has drawn water molecules in and they glisten on the skins of the upturned faces and outstretched hands… the atmosphere has become humid, a mist has caused the sharp contours of the room to fade. Condensation fogs the image on the screens. Water is beginning to trickle down walls and the backs of seats. It is snaking its way across the polished acrylic floor of the stage. The carpet in the aisles is darkening as a bloom of water spreads across it. Rivulets gather, currents rise and swell. The lectern gently topples. A body of water is gathering, an epic inundation, soon the water will immerse us all.

 

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(UN)CONSCIOUS FALLING

Reading by Kate Pickering for a materiality workshop run by Rowena Harris. 

MARs Workshop Series on Materiality for Phd researchers, organised by artist and senior lecturer in the art department at Goldsmiths, Laura White. Studio A, Goldsmiths College

28th November 2017


 Falling Gamer Silhouette by Nora Panda

Falling Gamer Silhouette by Nora Panda

 

(un)conscious falling

 

and now you pitch forward into the void

arms wind-milling wildly

your cavernous mouth forms a dark

 

O

 

your

falling body

is stunned by

sublime terror

imminent loss of

a belief that is rooted inside you

that inheres in the fibres of your being

in this moment

you are uncoupled from your grounding belief in

 

as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end

 

a crisis of faith

 

it vanishes in an instant

 

it is violent

 

there will be no time to grieve

 

 

the force of the fall now pins your limbs to your sides

it winds you

it knocks out all former thought right out into the ether

 

you have ceased to load

your loading wheel mind circles and then freezes

jagged lines cut across your vision

you are blank

blank

error

code

error

loading

operating

system

 

you unravel down

a yoyo that will not be retrieved

slicing through air that leaves a vortex trail in your wake

in the newness of the blank screen

the slate wiped clean

 

the falling lasts forever

 

years peel away

mistakes and failures are flayed off like

old skin

you are stripped of accretions

now you are nothing but a core

a code

 

time

elastic

stretches wildly out into a distance you cannot decipher

your clothes cling to a leaden body without sensation

you cannot tell where it begins and ends

it no longer seems to be yours

 

a hand appears before you

it’s fingers spread

are your eyes open or closed

you cannot recall

a stab of anxiety

you are awake

it is your hand

your hand is reaching down towards something but you cannot remember what

your eyes fail to focus

 

it is dark

as you peer into the dark

you begin

with fear

to comprehend that you are falling

but you are uncertain what you are falling in relation to

there seems to be no end to the falling

and no ground

 

you breathe thickly into dense air

there is something obstructing your vision

your jumper has ridden up and become stuck over your face

with great effort you inch

your clawed hand upwards

you struggle to peel it away

finding that your surroundings are still a dim blur

you catch sight of some disembodied legs

flapping wildly somewhere above you

 

one shoe missing

 

the laughter dies in your throat as you realise the legs belong to you

 

temporal strangeness mingles with a sense that you maybe floating after all

fuzzy headed

you suspend between dreaming and blankness

producing clear thought requires

an effort you cannot muster

thoughts are viscous

refusing to flow they cling stubbornly

won’t combine into coherence

you thickly perceive the ground you are falling towards

the darkness is lifting

a landscape

has separated into half tone pin pricks of colour

passing objects in the periphery of your vision pixellate into a slow blur of movement

dark objects spiral off

they mutate

dissolve

disperse

 

below

you begin to make out an object moving upwards

with increasing speed

towards you

threatening a collision

 

you are falling too fast to change trajectory

 

blobs of undifferentiated shapes and colours rapidly crystalise

a rectangular screen

lit up

wireless and devoid of hardware

it displays an image you cannot yet focus on

it looms into view below you at high speed

it depicts the landscape beneath as a weft of contoured lines which peak into hills towards you and spread out into valleys

you cannot comprehend this doubling

it rises to meet you

it blocks out all vision

you tense and shut your eyelids preparing

your

body

for

 

the

 

 

but it does not come

 

there is no pain

 

you have fallen in

fallen through past the skin

your skin is it’s skin

you are smooth

and trouble free

 

Kate Pickering

 

POST-TRUTH CONFERENCE READING

'Bodily foundations: Enmeshments in the American Megachurch' essay presented at We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident: Post-Truth and American Myths

CHASE Conference organised by the British Association for American Studies, University of Essex

25th November 2017


Bodily foundations: Enmeshments in the American Megachurch

I’m going to begin with a visualization, in which we will orient ourselves in the space of this seminar room, and in relation to the other bodies here. You may want to close your eyes. Imagine that you are looking down on yourself, as you are seated, right now, from above. Picture yourself arranged in the rows amongst the other bodies, who are also sitting, waiting, expectant. You can see the top of your head, how you have positioned yourself in the chair, the fold of your legs and the placement of your feet as your weight connects with the seat and the ground. As you are looking down, your vision is slowly pulled back, like a camera panning out. Instead of this small number, gathered together in this room, the bodies are multiplying. Imagine the tables and the walls receeding. There aren’t just tens of bodies, but hundreds, packed in rows and rows of seating. You continue to pan out, the bodies continue to proliferate, dots of heads becoming specks, an accumulation of dark spots, a flecked pattern resembling a spreading mould. Now the crowd is in its thousands, now tens of thousands. Individual differences have disappeared into a great mass, all gathered together in a vast spectacle of one-ness.

Now you return to yourself, your body held in place amongst this great crowd. You feel your feet on the floor. Feel your weight pressing down heavily in through the chair and the soles of your feet through into the ground. Now you are pulled downwards through the floor, down past the weak topsoil, the strong subsoil and rock fragments and into the foundation which supports this crowd. Hidden in the darkness of the deep foundation piles, the structural slabs, reinforced with steel, are watertight and enduring. This foundation underpins a vast building of 606,000 square feet. The structure encircles and contains a fearless community, 17,000 bodies waiting expectantly in the megachurch auditorium.

You can open your eyes!

___

In August of this year, President Donald Trump’s response to a violent clash between white nationalists and counter protestors at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia intensified the controversy surrounding his conduct. A protest over the removal of a statue of general Robert E Lee in a response to Lee’s support for slavery, organised by white nationalist Jason Kessler, led to the death of campaigner Heather Heyer. Trump stated that there was ‘violence on many sides’ and drew equivalence between far right and counter demonstrators by describing an ‘alt-left’ that was ‘very, very violent’. [1]

In the aftermath, prominent business leaders distanced themselves from the Trump administration by resigning from their posts on business advisory panels, leading to the collapse of two panels and a council on infrastructure. Yet the president’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, which includes 25 megachurch leaders, prosperity gospel televangelists and conservative political influencers and campaigners, stood almost intact, with just one resignation.

This seeming intractability might be illuminated by considering both the culture and worldview of Evangelicalism, and the entanglement between Evangelicalism and Republicanism. Frances FitzGerald writes: ‘Evangelicals compose nearly a quarter of the population. They are also the most American of religious groups, and during the nineteenth century they exerted a dominant influence on American culture, morals, and politics.’ [2] As a significant voting bloc, the 81% of white Evangelicals who voted for Trump proved decisive in his victory.

Evangelicalism, a trans-denominational movement within Protestantism, is characterized by four aspects: salvation through faith, a literal interpretation of the Bible, the experience of being born again and the necessity of spreading the gospel message through evangelism. Megachurches, typically housed in giant auditoriums and amassing tens of thousands of worshippers, are the exemplary form of American Evangelicalism. Worship services are visually spectacular, theatrical lighting and vast projection screens multiply the presence and forcefulness of charismatic preachers, digital and media technologies are deployed to cultivate faith by intensifying the experience of a narrative of certainty.

Evangelicalism’s appeal can be located within its’ ability to produce an embodied sense of orientation. In creating a strong sense of belonging through its culture, it engenders an experience  of being held in a structure, being oriented in a disorienting world. It offers coherence, stability and  social order through the telling and re-telling of a story of stories. In this anxiety-soothing worldview,  the story is understood literally. Evangelicalism, in its fundamentalist forms, and as distinct from  other forms of Protestantism, views the Bible as divinely authored and therefore authorised, as  unquestionable and inerrant. Within Evangelicalism the truth of the story is considered paramount,  the ‘gap’ between the telling and the world is absolutely disavowed, word and world are one. The  telling is merely a necessity for allowing the world to speak itself as it truly is. To consign the  Evangelical narrative to the level of a ‘story’ (one story among others) is an anathema, it is to deny its’ deepest foundations. This narrative forms a myth that, in its repetition and reinforcement, orients a community, providing a foundation on which a community is built. Here the story is sacralised and concretised, no longer organic and mutable in the contingent world of matter, it becomes ossified into an immovable, indestructible foundation stone, producing a deeply embodied  effect of being grounded.

When the word myth is used, it is often mistakenly understood as a fiction, as a widespread, popular belief that is false. Yet, for Jean-Luc Nancy, myth has a foundational and operative power that materializes in the real, and it is a mistake to dismiss myth (or fiction) as immaterial. Nancy writes:  ‘The phrase ‘myth is a myth’ harbors simultaneously and in the same thought a disabused irony (“foundation is a fiction”) and an onto-poetico-logical formation (“fiction is a foundation”)’ [3]. Concerning the ‘myth is the myth’ Nancy writes: ‘it is not by chance that its modern usage in this  phrase that underlies our knowledge of myth – that myth is a myth – produces in a play on words, the structure of the abyss.’ [4] The repetition of the mise en abyme: a myth is a myth is a myth is a... ad infinitum, figures the dizzying fall which comes as a result of the collapse of founding structures. What the ancient Greeks originally called muthos was a true story, a story that unveiled the true origin of the world and humankind, for Evangelicals, the biblical narrative of creation, fall and redemption is the muthos that configures their worldview.

Nancy writes that mythic speech is: ‘a way of binding the world and attaching oneself to it.’ [5] Within the megachurch, the foundation story tells the story of how the community came to be. It produces  and underpins the community in which individuals understand their place. Life stories become  framed within and reinforced by the Biblical narrative. The preacher, the authorizing voice, leads the  chorus, (en)chanting this story, repeating and repeating in every sermon, bible study group, testimony, Christian rock song, until it becomes materialized into a stabilizing ground. The muthos authors and authorizes, holding communities within the totality of a moralizing and authoritative  framework, binding the world and attaching the community to it. Bodies speak this narrative of narratives into being, bodies that ingest and seep and pulse and in speaking find their footing. This is a deeply embodied experience.

The Evangelical preachers voice, signaling a pure authenticity, combining with the re-iteration of the mythic story, produces an impelling affect in the body of the believer, birthing an absolute community, which Nancy describes as the ‘remainderless totality’. In Evangelicalism a bodily entanglement with language, where narrative is expressed in the materiality of the voice and returns to the body through it’s telling and ordering of social and material reality, founds the myth.

William Connolly, writing from a new materialist perspective on the intersensory nature of perception, states that ‘language and sense experience are neither entirely separate nor reducible to one another.’ [6] Connolly considers that: ‘imbrications between embodiment, language, disposition, perception, and mood are always in operation.’ [7] In the body, the orienting narrative of Evangelicalism, reinforced and intensified in the spectacle of the crowd, emotive music, compelling preaching, bodily (bottom up) and thinking (top down) processes comingle to create a certainty of belief, a sense of validation. Connolly, in discussing the link between perception and belief, writes of the belief ‘in which creed and affect mix together below the ready reach of change by reflective considerations alone’. [8] He writes:

Belief at this level touches, for instance, the tightening of the gut, coldness of the  skin, contraction of the pupils, and hunching of the back that occur when a  judgement or faith in which you are deeply invested is contested, ridiculed, ruled  illegal or punished more severely yet. It also touches those feelings of abundance  and joy that emerge whenever we sense the surplus of life over the structure of our identities. [9]

The combination of the foundation story, a narrative which creates a stabilizing ground, with the embodied experience of the spectacular megachurch, the experience of being filled with the spirit and born again, a fabulation that can have ecstatic affects, creates an enchantment for the believer which folds into their being. Truth, for Evangelicals, is validated and located in the body, in the intersensory affects experienced within the narrative orientations of myth, and architectural and spatial orientations of the megachurch. This is a paradox in which the body is central in the birthing and sustaining of faith, and yet is policed in a socially conservative culture that exerts a strong influence over sexual morality. The efficacy of the megachurch muthos is contingent on its ability to adapt, whilst retaining and repeating the core story of salvation, to different contexts. American identity and Evangelicalism have become entangled: the confluence of Evangelical culture and conservatism has contributed to a partial dissolution in the traditional separation of church and state.

The Evangelical belief that everyone must be born again into a new and righteous life, combines with American exceptionalism or uniqueness: the idea of America as a model nation. Megachurches in particular represent a conflation of American traditional family values and a protestant work ethic with an ethos of unlimited growth and expansion, in terms of membership, influence and often wealth, whilst maintaining a hierarchical and sometimes controlling organizational structure and a culture with a strong adherence to moral boundaries and expectations. It is important to state that Evangelicalism is not always synonymous with conservativism. The Christian right (formed of the once opposed Christian communities of Catholicism and Evangelicalism, coalesced politically into a unified conservative group) are in contradistinction to the abolitionist, civil rights, and feminist traditions of mainline Protestantism, and there are a small proportion of Evangelicals who are liberal, progressive and gravitate towards the Christian left. Yet, from the 1970s onwards, the Evangelical right wing exerted an increasing political influence through campaign groups such as the Family Research Council and the Moral Majority in response to what was viewed as a declining morality. From the 1980s, politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, actively sought out the Christian Right, running for their presidencies on platforms of social conservatism, gaining 78% and 79% of the Evangelical vote respectively. A split in American culture and politics has been highlighted by James Davison Hunter as a polarization between ideological worldviews - secular progressivism and religious conservatism – and played out in a series of ‘culture wars’ over contentious social and political issues such as abortion, sexuality and education. Pat Buchanan, in seeking the Republican nomination for President, received a prime-time speech-slot at the 1992 Republican National Convention. He stated:

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself....The agenda [Bill] Clinton and [Hillary] Clinton would impose on America— abortion on demand... homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units—that's change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God's country. [10]

Trump’s running partner, the Evangelical anti-abortionist Mike Pence, along with the appointment of  the Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, garnered the support of Evangelical voters, aiding Trump’s  presidential victory.

The seeming paradox of the Evangelical advisory boards’ continued support of Trump might be found in an approach that views how he leads as of less importance than his ability to usher a more ‘Godly’ culture into society. Trump is considered a conduit through which Evangelicalism might  influence the political agenda. Frances FitzGerald writes: ‘..character and religious character...has not been as important as the kind of stances that Republican candidates have taken on issues important to the Christian right, if not all Evangelicals.’ [11] Trump’s actions in attacking what is viewed as an ungodly liberalism at large has a stronger imperative than whether he is covertly racist, sexist, fraudulent and dishonest. Josiah Hesse writes: ‘Trump has had no problem arousing hatred from... “worldly people”, creating what appears to some like an imploding presidency, while others see a heroic martyr against liberalism.’ [12]

An increasing entrenchment of polarised opinion has been expressed in recent events. A resurgence of right wing nationalism has resulted in the rejection of climate change, castigation of refugees, Brexit in the UK and the election of Trump. Zigmunt Bauman writes of ‘conditions of endemic uncertainty’ [13], whilst Franco Berardi contends that we live with ‘the painful sentiment that things are flying away, the feeling of being overwhelmed by speed and noise and violence, of anxiety, panic, mental chaos’ [14]. Socio-political events arise from embodied impulse on a spectrum between the needs for stability and change. In extremity, these become an unwavering rigidity, whilst at the other end of the spectrum is a dizzying lack of structure, a disorienting openness.

For Nancy, a possible answer to the totalizing community is the singularity and difference of literary fiction. The singular voice of the writer interrupts myth. This interruption is an:

'indefinitely multiple explosion’ at the geographical locus of the centre of  community, at which singular beings appear in common, communicating from one  singular place to another, yielding a passion rather than a will to power. The passion for dissolution, the passion to be exposed. [15]

This rupture, for Nancy, creates a new kind of myth that engenders community, not a totality, one in which belonging is contingent on domination and sameness, but one that produces a collective individual- the subject who is both different and open. The writer is the singular voice in common. Literature aids the formation of heterogeneous communities, communities where difference communicates from a place of desire, a radical openness and recognition of otherness rather than the domination of hierarchical power structures.

In writing and staging my own fictions, I attempt to both materialize the structures that orient, that offer a sense of belonging within Evangelicalism, and to complexify the aporia of embodiment within that culture. Drawing on my research into the materiality of Evangelical megachurches, I write and stage fiction in particular sites for the reception of contemporary art. I will finish with an excerpt from Empathy Structure, a fiction set in the main auditorium space, known as ‘The Sanctuary’, of a Texan megachurch and performed within the structure of an open stairwell at Goldsmiths:

The damp seemed entirely localized around and inside of the Sanctuary. It was mentioned in the church newsletter and on the website with apologies, and dehumidifiers placed around the stadium to reduce the excess moisture. The hum of the extractors initially halted the dampening atmosphere, the water levels inside them slowly creeping up until they had to be unplugged and emptied. Yet they continued to fill, and at a steadily increasing rate, until tubes leading directly from  them were placed into the drains, and the hum of the dehumidifiers was drowned out by the sound  of water gushing and spurting continually as though the building had entrapped an overfull but unseen cloud. Mould started to grow and continued to spread within the Sanctuary, the carpet squelched near the pinking walls, and the wooden lectern and balustrades warped and swelled. Hair  line cracks fingered their way along the interior plaster work, and out towards the polished floor of the reception area. On closer inspection, these turned out not to be cracks at all, but a network of filigree thin branches. They were a deep red in hue and seemed to be spreading, disrupting the flooring, which began to crack and bump up, as though a tree’s roots were sprouting. Along with the increase in humidity the temperature had also steadily risen until it settled on an uncomfortable 98 degrees Fahrenheit... making working in the building increasingly insufferable...The thickening mist began to give rise to unwarranted visual effects: the many rows of seating seemed more dense, as though they were both shrinking and multiplying into an infinite number. They also appeared to be vibrating at times, other times shifting in a wave like motion....The Sanctuary had been almost clinical in its polish and order, but now it had become fuzzed at the edges, like a biological organism might be infecting it, spreading out and feeding off its skin.

Endnotes:

[1] Quoted in Jacobs, B & Laughland, O (2017) ‘Charlottesville: Trump reverts to blaming both sides including 'violent alt-left'’ [Online] The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us- news/2017/aug/15/donald-trump-press-conference-far-right-defends-charlottesville [Accessed 24.11.17]

[2] FitzGerald, F. (2017) The Evangelicals Simon & Schuster p.2

[3] Nancy, J.L. (1991) The Inoperative Community University of Minnesota Press p. 55

[4] Nancy, J.L. (1991) ibid p. 52

[5] Nancy, J.L. (1991) ibid p. 49

[6] Connolly, W.E. (2010) ‘Materialities of Experience’ in Coole, D & Frost, S (eds) New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics Duke University Press p.182

[7] Connolly, W.E. (2010) ibid p.183

[8] Connolly, W.E. (2010) ibid p. 196

[9] Connolly, W.E. (2010) ibid p. 196

[10] Buchanan, P (1992) ‘1992 Republican National Convention Speech’ [Online] Patrick J. Buchanan Official Website Available at: http://buchanan.org/blog/1992-republican-national-convention-speech-148 [Accessed 24.11.17]

[11] Frances FitzGerald interviewed in Kurtzleben, D (2017) ‘Why White Evangelicals Are 'Splintering' Politically’ [Online] National Public Radio Website Available at: https://www.npr.org/2017/05/02/525452958/why-white- evangelicals-are-splintering-politically [Accessed 23.11.17] 12 Mark 16: 15 The Bible New International Version

[12] Hesse, J (2017) ‘Donald Trump is no saint, but I know why evangelicals love him’ [Online] The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/05/donald-trump-why-do-evangelicals-support- him [Accessed 23.11.17]

[13] Bauman, Z (2007) Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty Polity Press p.4

[14] Berardi, F. (2017) Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility Verso: London p.24

[15] Nancy, J ibid p. 61   

MATERIALITY AND THE BODY WORKSHOP

Workshop plan and documentation, led by Kate Pickering

MARs Workshop Series on Materiality for Phd researchers, organised by artist and senior lecturer in the art department at Goldsmiths, Laura White. Studio A, Goldsmiths College

21st November 2017


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MARs Materiality Workshop 2

3 - 5pm 19 participants

Through this workshop, Kate will facilitate a collective exploration of embodied materiality in the enmeshing of body, voice and site. The session will move between states of listening, speaking, reflecting and writing. Together, we will flesh out the following structure:

Starting with the micro and working our way to the macro, we will begin in the interior, listening to and projecting outwards the rhythms and vibrations of our own lively materiality.

Moving into the boundary between inside and outside, how bodily sensory perception allows us to interface with the outside world, we will consider the impact of listening to various forms of vocalisation to create embodied affects inside our bodies.

Lastly we will project the exterior into the interior through writing, exploring how site impacts bodies, how particular environments give rise to certain affects. What aliveness or liveliness is apparent in those sites, how do they materialise in our bodies and how do site and body become enmeshed?

As participants arrive: Play body sounds through the table, ask people to come and listen using their elbows/ fingers in ears and/or wooden mouth sticks.

3.10 pm Introduction

This workshop will focus on embodied materiality. This will be a chance to experience and think the lively materiality of the body and to see bodies as no more or less than another part of the world of matter. We’re going to think about how the seeming immateriality of language and emotion materialize in the body, how they originate from and return to the body, and how bodies and sites intermingle.

Introduce the workshop - run through the three sections, listening to our bodies, bodily vocalisations, writing body sites.

This will be an open space for exploring together, I’m not an expert, wanting to facilitate us all to make our own explorations into and with our bodies. Some of it might seem really basic, some of it might move us out of our comfort zones, sometimes we might feel bored or fidgety, it will be slow and unhurried, but as researchers let us recognise how we think through and with our bodies.

3.15p.m We will begin with a body scan mindfulness meditation

Get yourself in comfortable position, lie down if you wish. Settle into the cushions or onto the floor. Begin by bringing your attention into your body. You can close your eyes if that’s comfortable for you. Notice your body seated wherever you’re seated, feeling the weight of your body on the cushions, on the floor. Take some deep breaths.

And as you take a deep breath, bring more oxygen into your body. Pay attention to how this feels. And as you exhale, have a sense of relaxing more deeply. Notice your feet on the floor, notice the sensations of your feet touching the floor. The weight and pressure, vibration, heat. Notice your legs, pressure, pulsing, heaviness, lightness. Notice your back pressing against the cushion or floor. If your stomach is tense or tight, let it soften. Take a breath. Let your face and facial muscles be soft. Relax your jaw, soften your neck and throat. Let your shoulders be soft. Then notice your whole body present. Take another breath.

And now picture in your mind’s eye a patch of your skin on your chest. You are looking down onto it, your vision is enlarging, like a lens magnifying, tiny hairs and pores are becoming apparent, and the smooth surface is focusing into a furrowed and creviced landscape. Now you are descending into the soft layers of the epidermis through a pore, down through the dermis into the hypodermis, past sweat glands you see through subcutaneous fat globules, glistening yellow. You pass a tangle of pink connective tissue and go in through the dense fibres of muscle tissues and find yourself inside the circulatory system. You are in a vein, tumbling past nodules and glands until you are funneled into a capillary. You shrink still further and find yourself inside the concavity of a white blood cell. You descend into the nucleus. Inside the nucleus are nucleons—protons and neutrons, made of quarks and held together by the strong force generated by gluon exchange between quarks, subatomic particles with an electrical charge. Here is where the most basic units of matter exist in a lively interaction with themselves. You rest on the surface of the quark. You are touched by other quarks. Karen Barad writes:

Matter is not the given, the unchangeable, the bare facts of nature. It is not inanimate, lifeless, eternal. Matter is an imaginative material exploration of non/being, creatively regenerative, an ongoing trans*/formation. Matter is a condensation of dispersed and multiple beings-times, where the future and past are diffracted into now, into each moment. Matter is caught up in its own and others desiring fields. It cannot help but touch itself in an infinite exploration of its (im/possible) be(com)ing(s). And in touching it/self, it partners promiscuously and perversely with otherness in a radical ongoing deconstruction and (re)configuring of itself. Matter is a wild exploration of trans*animacy, self-experimentations/self re-creations, not in an autopoietic mode, but on the contrary, in a radical undoing of “self”, of individualism. Ever lively, never identical with itself, it is unaccountably multiple, mutable. Matter is not mere being, but its ongoing un/doing… [1]

Take a breath. And then when you’re ready, you can open your eyes.

3.30 pm Listening and vocalization

For this section we’re going to experience how the immateriality of language materializes in our bodies through communication and reception. Denise Riley writes that: ‘Language is impersonal: its working through and across us is indifferent to us, yet in the same blow it constitutes the fibre of the personal’. [2] Monique Wittig defends a materialist approach to language, writing:

Language casts sheaves of reality upon the social body, stamping it and violently shaping it… there is a plasticity of the real to language: language has a plastic action upon the real. [3]

Language is expressed in the materiality of the voice and returns to the body through its ordering and telling of social and material reality.

Sitting in a circle on the floor. With your eyes closed I’d like you to recall something that you listened to recently that produced a strong or obvious embodied affect or response in your body. It might be a piece of music, a speech or something that was said to you. Recall it your mind now. Hold that moment in your mind. Pay attention to any particular feelings the shape of the language, the tenor of the voice, the meaning of the words, give rise to in your body. Think about the sensations you’re encountering, are they located in particular areas of the body? Is it a stinging at the back of the eyelids, a tension across the forehead, a warmth in the chest, a weight in the gut? Feel it, don’t name it yet. We are going to materialize back outwards that material response in our body to language.

First, we’re going to listen to different forms of vocalization. As you’re listening to them, think where the sounds are arising from in the bodies of those who vocalise them- are other parts of the body used rather than the mouth or throat? What is the location of the sound? What affects arise in your body whilst listening?

Ululating https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfXauKtkiIM 5 seconds in

Throat singing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MbZCGhU3-Y 1.30 seconds in

Rugby Haka https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nv_6_mPqHok 1- 37 seconds

Polyphonic singing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vC9Qh709gas 25- 52 seconds in

Tounges https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDe_WXKM860

Choral https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRwhkBAeheM 2 mins in

Byork – Mouth’s Cradle https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fF8Uu3E3tII all https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEAeX5yZ108 til 2.40 secs

Matmos - Just Waves https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaJ-SsnxoNc 2 mins approx.

Marina Abramovic – Freeing the voice, 45 min performance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBVzJI6m72A 30 seconds in

Now I’d like us to find a comfortable spot and relax into it. Mladen Dolar writes:

There must be a body to support it and assume it, its disembodied network must be pinned to a material source, the bodily emission must provide the material to embody the signifier, the disembodied signifying mechanics must be attached to bodily mechanics, if only in its most intangible and “sublimated” form, the mere oscillation of air which keeps vanishing the moment it is produced, materiality at its most intangible and hence in its most tenacious form. The first obvious quality of the voice is that it fades away the moment it is produced. [4]

Close your eyes again. Breathe deeply and slowly. We’re going to revisit that place in our bodies where we felt the impact of the music, speech or voice we heard. Hear it and feel it again. Now I’d like to invite you to vocalise a sound from the point at which you feel that embodied emotion. Continue to breathe deeply. Picture the sound vibrating in that location in the body, picture it building and growing and coming up from inside. In a moment we’re all going to vocalise together, if we all do it at the same time it will be less embarrassing. Try to pay attention to your own body and voice, there is no right or wrong way to do this, but also listen to your voice mingling with the other sounds in the room. It might be rhythmic or one long sound, high or low pitched, it might be a word or a sound or a series of words and sounds. We will vocalise for as long as it feels comfortable, it might be 30 seconds, might be several minutes but feel free to go for longer. You can keep going until you feel as though you have emptied the tension out of that location within the body. Have that location pictured in your mind right now. I’m going to count us in: 1, 2, 3…

Would anyone like to say how that felt?

5 min break

4 pm Writing site bodies

(Show projected image of Pyura Chilensis)

Now I’d like us to think about the relationship between body and site. The human body is never static and discrete, so body and site intermingle physically, also, through affect, they become perceptually enmeshed. We are going to perceive porous boundaries between our bodies and particular sites. Stacey Alaimo proposes that we inhabit ‘Transcorporeality’: the time-space where human corporeality, in all its material fleshiness, is inseparable from ‘nature’ or ‘environment’. Alaimo writes, that in this thinking across bodies, environment is not an empty space or inert but ‘a world of fleshy beings, with their own needs, claims and actions.’ [5] Exchanges with our environments, how site and body intra-act, lead to recompositions and decompositions of our bodies. Similarly Nancy Tuana argues that we need to account for interactionism that acknowledges the agency of materiality and the porosity of entities. She writes: ‘The boundaries between our flesh and the flesh of the world we are of and in are porous.’ Tuana states the need to recognise: ‘an emergent interplay which precludes a sharp divide between the biological and the cultural.’ [6]

I’d like you to spend a few moments now remembering, very simply, how you felt in certain public sites. Remember the feeling of your body in these places. Remember the feeling of sitting in a school hall. Did being there give rise to certain affects? Where in the body did you feel these sensations? Did it affect how you interacted within or with the site? Now recall a time you were at a music festival or concert. Now think about a time you took part in a religious celebration or meeting in a religious building.

We are going to read 5 short extracts, 3 from literary fiction and 2 from memoirs. (Ask people to read them out):

Italo Calvino A King Listens (1986) p.38

Walter Benjamin Berlin Childhood around 1900 (2006) p.99

JG Ballard Concrete Island (1973) p 70-71

Charlotte Perkins Gilman The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) p.16-17

Marion Coutts The Iceberg (2014) p.258

Each of these readings describe a subjective and embodied response to sites of particular emotional significance in which site and body become enmeshed, from the King who listens apprehensively for the shouts of those within the palace who might come to depose him, the male executive stranded and unable to escape from a concrete motorway island, to the woman whose life revolves around the hospital in which her husband is dying of a brain tumor. I’d like to invite you to spend some time thinking about a site of particular significance to you. It might be a site that has proven significant in shaping how you see yourself. The site might be a place which forms part of your identity, or in which you’ve had a significant experience.

Think and then write the body from the outside in…

What is it about the particular combination of materiality that impacts on you? It is site dark, is it small and cocooning, on a domestic scale or vast and impressive? It is minimal, baroque, functional, theatrical? What objects would you encounter in the space? What materials do your body come into contact with? Spend few minutes visualizing yourself back within that site, feeling its material qualities. Write a list of words, phrases or short sentences that spring to mind. They don’t have to be descriptive. Don’t overthink, just write.

Now, think the body outwards...

What kinds of feelings in your body are evoked by being in this place? Consider how bodies are located/ placed within the site. How are social hierarchies materialised in the space? How does your body physically feel in that space? Is it comfortable, cold, disorientated, bored, expectant? Do you feel intimidated, free, a sense of belonging, anxious? And where in the body are those feelings located? Again spend a few minutes visualizing yourself back into the space, and then write a list of words or short sentences in response, whatever words, thoughts, feelings, sensations come to mind.

Now jumble up the words/ phrases/ short sentences. Recombine. Rewrite. No need to write a linear description, but write combinations of words in whatever format feels apposite where the liveliness, the agency in the site becomes apparent.

Provide opportunity at the end for participants to share their writing.

End

Endnotes:

[1] Barad, K ‘Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings’ GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 2, Nos. 2-3 (June 2015) pp.387-422 p. 411

[2] Riley, D. (2005) Impersonal Passion Durham: Duke University Press p.1

[3] Wittig, M. (1985) ‘The Mark of Gender’ in Nancy K., The Poetics of Gender, New York: Columbia University Press p. 78

[4] Dolar, M (2006) A Voice and Nothing More MIT Press, p.59

[5] Alaimo, S (2009) Trans Corporeal Feminisms and the Ethical Space of Nature in eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman Material Feminisms (2009) Indiana U.P.

[6] Tuana, N (2009) VISCOUS POROSITY: WITNESSING KATRINA in eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman Material Feminisms (2009) Indiana U.P.

Readings:

Extracts from these will be read out during the workshop, it is not essential to read them beforehand.

Eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman Material Feminisms (2009) Indiana U.P. (In particular Nancy Tuana VISCOUS POROSITY: WITNESSING KATRINA and Stacy Alaimo Trans Corporeal Feminisms and the Ethical Space of Nature)

Karen Barad ‘Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings’ GLQ A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 21, Numbers 2-3, June 2015, pp. 387-422 Available at: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/581607/summary

Eds. Diana Coole & Samantha Frost New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (2010) Duke U.P. (In particular William Connolly Materialities of Experience and Sara Ahmed Orientations Matter)

Italo Calvino A King Listens (1986) p.38

Walter Benjamin Berlin Childhood around 1900 (2006) p.99

JG Ballard Concrete Island (1973) p 70-71

Charlotte Perkins Gilman The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) p.16

Marion Coutts The Iceberg (2014) p.258

PhD proposal 2017

Practice based MPhil/ PhD proposal

Fine Art Research Department, Goldsmiths

November 2017


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Title:

Megachurch Materiality in a Post-Truth Era: Bodily Dis/Orientation and Belief

 

Abstract:

Examining the role of materiality in belief formation, this interdisciplinary, practice-based project seeks to understand the orienting appeal of Evangelicalism within a ‘post-truth’ political climate. Taking bodily orientation as key to belief formation, I examine how a body is oriented within the Evangelical megachurch (2,000+ congregants) by the materialities of: site (architecture, staging), spectacle (crowd, performance, screen) and narrative (voice, fabulation, myth). This analysis informs and is extended by my situated and performative art writing practice. Written and staged for the secular sites and audiences of contemporary art, this writing performs the entanglements of materiality, embodiment and belief. Three new art writing works in the form of participatory scripts address the audience as a diverse ‘crowd’ to foreground belief formation as contingent on material context and bodily orientation. In this way, the complexity of belief is materialized and a dialogic space opened to produce new, situated knowledge (Haraway, 1988) contributing to contemporary art as well as visual and material cultures.

 

Introduction:

The rising socio-political influence of faith-based groups - radical Islam in the Middle East and Evangelical conservatism in the US - is evidence of the global significance of religious belief. Yet the material culture surrounding religious belief lacks ‘serious empirical, let alone theoretical interest’ (Meyer & Houtman, 2012:1). Despite a range of sociological and anthropological research into Evangelicalism, there has been no in-depth, interdisciplinary study of the visual and material culture of the Evangelical megachurch, a world-wide and rapidly spreading movement; meanwhile, religious culture and belief remains underrepresented within Western contemporary art. This project seeks to redress this lack, utilising a situated and performative art writing practice to explore how megachurch culture produces a sense of bodily dis/orientation that is central to belief formation.

Within the immersive space of the megachurch, bodily experiences range along a spectrum from fixity to vertiginous freedom. This occurs through the repetition and reinforcement of a narrative that, intensified through scale, spectacle, emotive music and compelling preaching, creates embodied affect in the crowd. Bodily and cognitive processes comingle to create a feeling of certainty. This research will aim to explore this sense of dis/orientation in relation to a global political context of post-truth: ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ (Oxford Dictionaries [Online], 2016).

 

Research Background:

Materialism, the belief that we are nothing more than matter, is typically viewed as antithetical to religious belief; yet an engagement with spirituality has emerged within new materialism. These emerging theories refuse reductive dualisms and emphasise the embodied self in relation to networks of materiality. Matter is viewed not as inert but as agentic (self-determining) (Barad, 2007) and lively (Bennett, 2010), in a dynamic interplay with human actants. This revived transdisciplinary interest in materialism has had a wide impact on contemporary art. The focus on agentic materiality has led to an upsurge of interest in animism, the occult and shamanism. Yet within Western contemporary art, organized religion remains virtually absent, deemed too traditional and conservative in comparison with the progressive and liberal values of art. Curator Anselm Franke states: ‘An invisible background condition of contemporary art still valid today is that it stands outside of faith-based practices, only citing them at most. The historical break with religion continues’ (2013:1).

Sociological research suggests Evangelical self-identification as one of boundaried distinctness (Strhan, 2015). The ‘total institution’ of the conservative megachurch (Wade, 2016) appears at odds with art world pluralism and secularism. Mirroring this polarity, recent events in the US and Europe (Brexit, the election of Trump, a rise in nationalism) point to an increasing entrenchment of opinion between conservative and progressive ideologies. Situated amidst these cultural and political divides, I draw on my own bodily experiences in 7 years of attending a megachurch and 20 years involvement in Evangelicalism, as well as my knowledge of contemporary art culture, to expose the complexity and orienting appeal of belief within the largely secular arenas of art and theory.

Beginning with the supposition that belief is produced by cognitive processes, I draw on new materialist theory and mobilise a situated and performative art writing practice to explore how belief is also created through the orientation of the body, focusing on the phenomenon of the megachurch in the UK and the US. Stadium worship services are visually spectacular. Charismatic preachers on vast projection screens enthral thousands of worshippers with a message of certainty. Conviction is experienced as a bodily dis/orientation through the perception of being grounded through an authorised narrative, being enchanted into a collective fabulation. This will be examined within a contemporary art context and in relation to the divisions of a post-truth political context, adding knowledge of the role of materiality in belief formation while contributing to post-truth discourse and fostering dialogue between seemingly opposed positions.

I will ask:

How is a body dis/oriented by the materialities of site (architecture, staging), spectacle (crowd, performance, screen) and narrative (voice, fabulation, myth) in the megachurch? What role does this dis/orientation play in belief formation?

How can understanding the ways in which this dis/orientation reinforces worldviews and creates certainty shed light on the polarities of the post-truth political context?

Exposing the entangled complexities of materiality, embodiment and belief, how can a situated and performative art writing practice complicate binaries: religious/ secular, conservative/ progressive, immaterial/ material, truth/ fiction and enable empathy across secular-religious divides?

 

Goldsmiths will support this project through:

-    The art department’s expertise in art writing.

-    Prof. Kristen Kreider’s research into ‘material poetics’ (the meaning within materiality) and her performative site writing practice will prove crucial in guiding how I develop a theory and practice of material belief formation.

-    Dr. Bridget Crone’s research into new materialism, embodiment and staging in art practice.

-    Prof. Adam Dinham (Faith and Public Policy) and Prof. Chris Baker (Religion and Public Life) will support my research within the Faiths & Civil Society Unit (theology; sociology; anthropology).

-    The Pinter Centre for Performance and Creative Writing.

My previous art writing (internationally exhibited, performed and published) has explored the materiality of religious belief and site. My site based works 'Empathy Structure' (2017) and 'Cell' (2017) replicated megachurch conditions, foregrounding embodied belief within narrative and material structures. I have presented papers on the socio-political implications of Evangelical culture at symposia for art researchers (Goldsmiths 2016/7) and a CHASE conference (Post-Truth & American Myths, Essex 2017). My 8 years of experience in running participatory art projects will be applied to the project.

 

Methods:

In visits to UK and US megachurches I will consider how orientations within the culture make thinking bodies and bodies of thought (Ahmed, 2006). Combining qualitative and ethnographic research methods (interviews, participation, visual and material analysis, reflective writing) with a new materialist approach, a three-part thesis will explore belief formation through the impact of bodily orientation/ disorientation/ reorientation. I will draw on sociological research into Evangelicalism (Strhan, 2015; Wade, 2016) to link research to the current socio-political context, forming a significant contribution both to art and visual and material cultures.

Research will be extended and disseminated through my situated and performative art writing practice, enabling an embodied and tacit experience of the role of materiality in belief formation by a broad range of participants. Taking my position reflexively into account and abiding by research ethics standards, I will combine my experiences of the megachurch with my knowledge of contemporary art audiences to create three new performative and participatory works to enable a dialogic reorientation toward different beliefs. Writing will be informed by narratology and dramaturgy.

I will strengthen the shared research links of performance and writing between Goldsmiths and the Universities of Sussex (Prof. Gavin Butt) and Essex (Dr. Holly Pester) in organizing interdisciplinary workshops on new materialism and art writing to be developed into a CHASE symposium.

 

Timeline:

Year 1: Orientation

COMPLETED Included visits to a range of UK megachurches (Hillsongs, HTB, Kingsgate); congregant interviews; auto-ethnographic writing analysising narrative (reinforcement through preaching, bible study, public testimony, church manifestos/ statements of common purpose) and site (the believer’s vantage points within the verticality/ horizontality of the vast megachurch; spectacle and embodied impact) as orienting structures; new site based works; symposia/ conference presentations.

Year 2: Disorientation

-    Inquiry into embodied disorientation starting with my proposition that to be enchanted is to be particularly fixed within an orientation, with disenchantment/ loss of belief as a form of disorientation.

-    Consider in relation to belief formation/ loss in the megachurch; link enchantment/ belief to post-truth; focus on spectacle, performance and voice in megachurch visits, interviews, reflective writing.

-    Finish intro & chapter 1.

-    Create site based work on spectacle.

-    Upgrade December 2018.

-    Form interdisciplinary workshops on new materialism and art writing.

-    Organise symposium for CHASE institutions on new materialism and art writing.

Year 3: Reorientation

-    Consider the socio-political potential of situated writing in speculative alter worlding: how it creates new knowledge in highlighting the link between material reality and embedded/ embodied thought. Evaluate how practice creates an embodied experience of belief for diverse audiences.

-    Write chapters 2, 3 and conclusion: the historical confluence of Evangelicalism and conservatism in megachurch materiality for illuminating the post-truth context.

-    Refine final site based work on myth for exam with feedback from workshops.

-    Finish thesis.

 

Research Outcomes:

Thesis

Intro

How narrative creates orienting and authoritative structures for the addressee; the real: how narrative and matter enfold; overview of theories relating to the current moment of disorientation and post-truth context.

Chapter 1 Spatial & Narrative Orientation

Embodied experience within the vast crowd; church as participatory theatre (Kilde, 2002); dramaturgical structuring, affect and belief formation. Combine Bal’s (1985) theory of narrative, story and fabula with Nancy’s (1991) theory of myth to unpick the Evangelical narrative and its materialization in the megachurch; how the megachurch narrative appears naturalized rather than constructed; literalism and its embodied affects.

Practice 1

Narrative structure combines with the spatial conditions (movements between verticality and horizontality) of an open stairwell in a performative reading over seven floors. Multiple voices guide the ascent of the audience/ crowd.

Chapter 2 Dis/Orientation

Dis/orientating qualities of spectacle, performance and the voice; loss of belief in communicative failure/rupture.

Practice 2

A scripted participatory narrative conjures a sense of spectacle within an auditorium, moving between orientations: the vocalization of the individual and the crowd.

Chapter 3 Reorientations

Enchantment and (religious) belief in relation to post-truth; Evangelical belief in global domination and individualism within a socio-politically conservative culture (Hey, 2013; FitzGerald, 2017); the potential of situated art writing in the current moment of polarization to blur religious/ secular, conservative/ progressive, immaterial/ material binaries.

Practice 3

In a scripted reading myth is performed as a foundation upon which a community/ site is built. Antiphony (call and response) from differing perspectives creates a dialogic chorus.

Conclusion

The potential of a participatory chorus in creating embodied reorientations towards different beliefs.

 

Bibliography:

Ahmed, S (2006) Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press)

Bal, M (1985) Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (University of Toronto Press)

Barad, K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Duke University Press)

Bennett, J (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press)

Behrndt, S & Turner, C (2008) Dramaturgy & Performance (Palgrave)

Elkins, J (2004) On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (Routledge)

FitzGerald, F (2017) The Evangelicals: The Struggle To Shape America (Simon & Schuster)

Franke, A (2013) quoted in Ed. ‘Question of Faith: Is There a Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art?’ ArtMag [Online] Available at: http://db-artmag.com/en/76/feature/question-of-faith-is-there-a-return-of-the-religious-in-contempo/ [Accessed: 12.12.17]

Goh, R. (2008) ‘Hillsong and Megachurch Semiotics, Spatial Logic and Embodiment’ Material Religion Vol. 4:3 pp. 284–305

Hey, S. (2013) Megachurches (Morning Star Publishing)

Haraway, D ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’ Feminist Studies, Vol. 14: 3 (Autumn 1988), pp. 575-599

Houtman, D & Meyer, B (Eds.) (2013) Things: Religion & the Question of Materiality (Fordham University Press)

Kilde, J H (2002) When Church Became Theatre (Oxford University Press)

Massumi, B (2015) The Politics of Affect (Polity Press)

Mcintyre, L (2018) Post-Truth (MIT Press)

Nancy, J (1991) ‘Myth Interrupted’ in Connor, P (Ed.) (1991) The Inoperative Community (University Of Minnesota Press)

Schaefer, D. O. (2015) Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (Duke University Press)

Strhan, A (2015) Aliens & Strangers?: The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals (Oxford University Press)

Wade, M (2016) ‘Seeker Friendly: The Hillsong megachurch as an enchanting Total Institution’ Journal of Sociology Vol. 52:4 2016 pp. 661–676

Whitehouse, H (2004) Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission (AltaMira Press)

Empathy Structure

Empathy Structure

We begin, standing together on shared ground. We ascend from a firm foundation, finding ourselves held in a structure that both orients and lulls. But the Buffalo Bayou’s watery tendrils are working into the fissures, coursing through the subsoil, saturating the limestone. The bedrock is whispering a warning, soon it will be full.

A reading taking place at 11 am, Friday 23rd June.

Goldsmiths Ben Pimlott Building Stairwell, Ground Floor.

TIgersprung Symposium reading

'Roe v. Wade and the rise of the Christian Right' essay presented at TigerSprung - 1972

Fine Art Research Symposium, Laurie Grove Baths, Goldsmiths College

10th March 2017


Roe v. Wade and the rise of the Christian Right

 

‘You are in a vast room. It is familiar. Rows upon rows of bleachers form a curve towards you to welcome and fold you in. You are held in place by expectant geometries of grids and lines that coalesce around you, by the segments of chairs and rigging, the vertiginous steps and hand rails. The ceiling is studded with lights like the dome of the night sky. The room is filled with people, the stage is filled with people. Multiple screens multiply the faces. All the bodies know their place. They belong to each other, and belong to the room. This is your family, and the belonging is your inheritance. You thought you came here because you willed it, but now you know that it was meant to be. His eyes saw your unformed body; all the days ordained for you were written in His book before a single one of them began. Even the hairs on your head are all numbered.

 

The waiting bodies are now reaching out, faces upturned, eyes shut, arms straining, fingers splayed towards something high up and out of reach. At intervals, a body becomes a lightning rod for an unseen presence, the body writhes and jabbers or shakes and weeps. This presence in the room is materializing in desiring bodies. There is a laying on of hands. A healing work is taking place. A shout rises up in their mouths: ‘Thirsty! Thirsty! Thirsty! Hungry! Hungry! Hungry!’ Bodies fall in the spirit, crumpling under the saturating weight of His presence. The wave of falling bodies come closer up the stands. You can feel something drawing near in the prickling sensation in your skin, in the raised hairs and blood vessels dilating. Your heart beats quicken. You sweat, your pores producing glistening beads which reflect the auditorium from every angle, the screens and ceiling and banks of seating reflected in curved lines and pin pricks of light. Your head aches a little, you have become dehydrated. Your mouth is dry. You are thirsty. You feel a weight in your chest, you open your arms, you are ready. The anticipation has produced an excess of adrenaline, you move without thought, uninhibited, with the need to join in the writhing mass of bodies. Behind your eyelids you are tumbling through space.’

 

The perplexing aporia of embodiment within evangelicalism is both rooted within its’ traditions and timely. How the body is imbricated, oriented, enculturated and policed within Evangelical church communities is significant when considering that Evangelicals form almost 30 % of America’s population (1), and 81% of these voted for Trump (2), leading to a renewed attack on progressive policy concerning the body currently taking place under the influence of purportedly Christian morality. Evangelicalism, a trans-denominational movement within Protestantism, is characterized by salvation through faith, a literal interpretation of the Bible, the experience of being born again and the necessity of spreading the gospel message through Evangelism. From 1960 to 2000 Evangelicals grew globally at three times the growth rate of the world’s population and twice that of Islam (3), there are currently estimated to be at least 600 million Evangelicals worldwide and is continuing to spread (4). It is important to state that Evangelicalism is not synonymous with conservativism. The Christian right (formed of both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics) are in contradistinction to the abolitionist, civil rights, and feminist traditions of mainline Protestantism, and there are a small proportion of Evangelicals who are liberal, progressive and gravitate towards the Christian left. However, growing political pressure from the Evangelical right wing combined with republican soliciting of the evangelical vote from the 1970s onwards has part dissolved the traditional separation of church and state.

Just under three weeks ago, American Norma McCorvey, better known under the pseudonym ‘Jane Roe’ in the landmark Roe v. Wade case died at the age of 69. As a 21 year old, McCorvey, pregnant with her third child and unmarried, and wishing to terminate the pregnancy, began legal proceedings. The case, running from late 1971 and reargued in 1972, culminated in January 1973 in a historic 7-2 ruling by the US Supreme Court, establishing the constitutional right to abortion up to the third term of pregnancy. However, this relaxing of restrictions over abortion galvanized a conflict in social mores, activating grassroots movements on both sides, and highlighting a question over the role of religion and morality in the political sphere.

In the wake of Roe v. Wade, the foundation of several nonprofit political and issue-oriented Evangelical organizations including the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, aiming to influence policy with conservative moral reform, challenged the separatism of American Christian culture. At the same time, a focus on Evangelicalism in the media, with Newsweek declaring 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical”, was precipitated by the presidency of Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. The increased attention on and activity of Evangelicalism contributed to the establishment of the first Mega Churches within buildings large enough to accommodate congregations of tens of thousands.

The Moral Majority was founded in 1979 after a series of “I Love America” rallies by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell as a direct response to what he considered to be a decay in the nation’s morality. The organization consisted of conservative Christian political action committees to campaign over certain issues, including the promotion of traditional family life, opposition to acceptance of homosexuality, and the prohibition of abortion, even in cases involving incest, rape or in pregnancies where the life of the mother is at stake. At its height, it claimed more than four million members and over two million donors.

Politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, sought out the Christian Right as a significant voting bloc, running for their presidencies on platforms of social conservatism, gaining 78% (5) and 79% (6) of the Evangelical vote respectively. Debate within both the media and academia focused on the Religious Right as a powerful political and social force. Donald Trump’s running partner, the fundamentalist evangelical and staunch anti-abortionist Mike Pence, along with the appointment of an Evangelical Executive Advisory Board consisting of 25 right wing Christian leaders, garnered the support of Evangelical voters, aiding Trump’s presidential victory.

On Donald Trump’s first full day as president, he reinstated the 1984 executive order by Reagan, and later Bush, known as the ‘global gag rule’, to halt funding of any international NGO that provides, advises on or is any way associated with abortion, despite numerous studies providing evidence that to remove legal abortion fails to eliminate the practice, instead driving up the number of women engaging in potentially life threatening methods. According to the World Health Authority, the funding policy had previously spared an estimated 289,000 women from pregnancy and childbirth related deaths.

When McCorvey died of kidney failure in Texas earlier this month, shortly after the global gag rule was put back in place, it was after several decades dedicated to attempting to reverse the decision made in her name. McCorvey gave birth in 1972 whilst Roe Vs. Wade was in progress and the child was subsequently adopted, but McCorvey converted to evangelicalism in the 90s, becoming a vocal activist against abortion rights. Shortly before her death she exhorted Janet Morana, director of pro-life organization Priests for Life, to encourage fellow activists to continue the fight.

Comparative to other forms of Protestantism, Evangelicalism has successfully created a worldview which subsumes all doubt into a smooth and reassuring totality, through the in-folding of the believer into an all-consuming message and culture, one that has been honed to appear as an unassailable certainty. This in-folding particularly occurs in the appearance of a vast and affective homogeneity in the form of the Mega Church.

 Mega Church worship services are visually spectacular, amassing thousands of worshippers on banks of bleachers within stadium sized venues. Theatrical lighting and vast projection screens multiply the presence and forcefulness of charismatic preachers, cultivating faith through a message of certainty. This perception of both a visual and narrative totality is experienced as a bodily orientation.

 Lakewood Church, Texas

Lakewood Church, Texas

This is produced, firstly, through a visual and spatial orientation within the embodied, collective, screen, and architectural space of the Mega Church, and secondly, through believers’ narration of their own lives within the meta narrative of evangelicalism. The orientation of faith, not just the message of certainty, but the sense that one’s life has now been arranged into a coherent story, one of God’s ongoing intervention and guiding direction, creates an embodied stability: both a firm footing and a safety net in disorienting times. This form of storytelling within a larger narrative structure calls out to an embodied need for grounding, and continues to exert a seemingly universal appeal, regardless of age, gender, level of education or historical context.

The relief of finding a means to navigate the world, comingled with a sense of belonging to something collective and far-reaching, also produces an affective excess during moments of worship, which may be felt in the body as an immanent oneness. The orientation of evangelicalism may allow a structured type of falling during these moments of spirit filled excess, where disorientation is a positive productive energy, analogous to the energy of the shamanic ritual or the rave. The paradox at the heart of evangelicalism is found these free falling moments of collective worship, materialized in ecstatic bodily experiences, at odds with the normative, boundaried and restrictive culture in which bodily excess, outside of the confines of a narrowly determined morality, is viewed as a threat.

 Hillsongs Pentecostal MegaChurch, Belasco Theatre, Los Angeles

Hillsongs Pentecostal MegaChurch, Belasco Theatre, Los Angeles

1. (2008) How the Faithful Voted Pew Research Centre [Online] Available at: http://www.pewforum.org/2008/11/05/how-the-faithful-voted/ [Accessed 7.3.17]

2. Wead, D (2008) The History of the evangelical vote in presidential elections Doug Wead The Blog [Online] Available at: https://dougwead.wordpress.com/2008/09/11/the-history-of-the-evangelical-vote-in-presidential-elections/ [Accessed 7.3.17]

3. Johnstone, M (2015) Country Lists: United States of America, North America Operation World [Online] Available at: http://www.operationworld.org/country/unsa/owtext.html [Accessed 7.3.17]

4. Pulliam Bailey, S. White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, exit polls show Washington Post [Online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/09/exit-polls-show-white-evangelicals-voted-overwhelmingly-for-donald-trump/?utm_term=.0d2a0eb26cdb [Accessed 7.3.17]

5. Milne, B. (2010) Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief. InterVarsity Press. p. 332

6. Evangelicalism Wikipedia [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelicalism [Accessed 7.3.17]

 

Bibliography

Applebome, P (2007) Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority Founder, Dies at 73 The New York Times [Online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/16/obituaries/16falwell.html Accessed [3.7.17]

BBC (2009) Pentecostalism BBC [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/subdivisions/pentecostal_1.shtml Accessed [3.7.17]

Graves, L (2017) Trump once said women should be punished for abortion. Now, he's making it happen. The Guardian [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/24/trump-once-said-women-should-be-punished-for-abortion-t Accessed [3.7.17]

Jenkins, J (2016) Meet Donald Trump’s New Evangelical Advisory Board Think Progress [Online] Available at: https://thinkprogress.org/meet-donald-trumps-new-evangelical-advisory-board-6a5bfc5460d7#.fzy9q0j4r Accessed [3.7.17]

Johnstone, M (2015) Country Lists: United States of America, North America Operation World [Online] Available at: http://www.operationworld.org/country/unsa/owtext.html [Accessed 7.3.17]

Lausanne Movement Website [Online] Available at: http://www.lausanne.org/about-lausanne Accessed [7.7.17]

Meacham, J (2006) The Editors Desk Newsweek [Online] Available at: http://europe.newsweek.com/editors-desk-106637?rm=eu Accessed [3.7.17]

Milne, B. (2010). Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief. InterVarsity Press,. p. 332 Operation World

Pew Research Centre (2008) How the Faithful Voted Pew Research Centre [Online] Available at: http://www.pewforum.org/2008/11/05/how-the-faithful-voted/ [Accessed 7.3.17]

The Pluralism Project (date unknown) Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism The Pluralism Project [Online] Available at: http://pluralism.org/religions/christianity/christianity-in-america/fundamentalism-evangelicalism-and-pentecostalism/ (Accessed 3.7.17)

Pulliam Bailey, S. (2016) White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, exit polls show Washington Post [Online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/09/exit-polls-show-white-evangelicals-voted-overwhelmingly-for-donald-trump/?utm_term=.0d2a0eb26cdb [Accessed 7.3.17]

Redden, M (2017) Roe v Wade: plaintiff's death highlights weakening of abortion rights in US The Guardian [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/20/roe-v-wade-norma-mccorvey-death-abortion-rights Accessed [3.7.17]

Redden, M & Helmore, E (2017) Norma McCorvey, 'Roe' in Roe v Wade case legalizing abortion, dies aged 69 The Guardian [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/18/norma-mccorvey-roe-v-wade-abortion-case-supreme-court Accessed [3.7.17]

Theocracy Watch Website [Online] Available at: http://theocracywatch.org/introduction2.htm Accessed [3.7.17]

Wead, D (2008) The History of the evangelical vote in presidential elections Doug Wead The Blog [Online] Available at: https://dougwead.wordpress.com/2008/09/11/the-history-of-the-evangelical-vote-in-presidential-elections/ [Accessed 7.3.17]

Wikipedia (2017) Evangelicalism Wikipedia [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelicalism [Accessed 7.3.17]

PhD proposal

Practice based MPhil/ PhD proposal

Fine Art Research Department, Goldsmiths

December 2016


Site Writing the MegaChurch: Orientations and Assemblages

Kate Pickering

 

 Lakewood Church, Texas

Lakewood Church, Texas

 

Abstract

Taking as its starting point an understanding of ‘faith’ as socially constructed, the research explores how faith is materially constructed through site and body, focussing on the phenomenon of the Evangelical MegaChurch in the UK and the US. MegaChurch worship services are visually spectacular, amassing thousands of worshippers on banks of bleachers within stadium sized venues. Theatrical lighting and vast projection screens multiply the presence and forcefulness of charismatic preachers, cultivating faith through a message of certainty: experienced as a bodily orientation. Yet, conversely, the very embodiment which is implicated in the call to faith is repressed within Church culture, which locates value in the transcendent, reinforcing binaries of mind over body, interior experience over exterior action, transcendent immateriality over immanent materiality. This paradox and its effects forms the focus of research.

Developing a method of non-linear site writing, a readerly experience of disorientation is utilized to research how an assemblage of body, architectural site and screen space orients religious faith. Practically, research will draw on literary and affect theory to create a new body of site writing works, both audio visual and printed, within the MegaChurch. Embodied faith will be explored through plot (the collapse of the building), non-linearity (screen based disorientation applied to writing) and participatory reader response. Theoretically, a thesis in three parts locates the practice within the field of site writing through ‘critical assemblages’: a spatial method of art writing, informed by Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘situated knowledge’ and Jane Bennett’s articulation of ‘subject-object assemblages’. This will be applied to three artworks that exemplify grounding (Maria Fusco’s Master Rock 2015), ungrounding (Katrina Palmer’s End Matter 2015) and regrounding (Bedwyr Williams’ The Starry Messenger 2013).

 

Introduction

Taking as its starting point an understanding of ‘faith’ as socially constructed, the research explores how faith is also materially constructed through site and body, focussing on the phenomenon of the Evangelical MegaChurch in the UK and the US. MegaChurch worship services are visually spectacular, amassing thousands of worshippers on banks of bleachers within stadium sized venues. Theatrical lighting and vast projection screens multiply the presence and forcefulness of charismatic preachers, cultivating faith through a message of certainty: experienced as a bodily orientation. Yet, conversely, the very embodiment which is implicated in the call to faith is repressed within Church culture, which locates value in the transcendent, reinforcing binaries of mind over body, interior experience over exterior action, transcendent immateriality over immanent materiality. This paradox and its effects forms the focus of research.

Developing a method of non-linear site writing alongside a spatial form of critical writing informed by Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘situated knowledge’ and Jane Bennett’s articulation of ‘subject-object assemblages’ entitled ‘critical assemblages’, I will evoke the embodied conditions of the MegaChurch, and examine its social and political dimensions. In doing so, I aim to cultivate a sense of dis/orientation in the reader that mimics the materialisation of faith as well as the embodied repercussion of its loss. In this way, a readerly experience of disorientation is utilized as a method to research how an assemblage of body, architectural site and screen space orients religious faith.

This project considers orientation within this context as embodied through believers’ adoption of a narrative of faith. Disorientation is a state of confusion brought on by the loss of a stable horizon against which a subject may correctly locate them-self in space. Hito Steyerl, describing the effects of falling, writes: ‘Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft. While falling, people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people’ (2011: 1). The disorientation of falling may blur the perceived distinction between subjects and objects. Applying this to my art writing practice, I propose that: if linear narrative functions as a stable horizon, disorienting non-linear narrative creates the possibility of a perceived mergence with objects conjured by the narrative, allowing the reader to perceive themselves as both embodied and embedded within an agentic site and context, and recognize the materiality inherent in faith.

 

Research background and questions

Building on the idea that object based fictions provide conditions in which a future subject might emerge (O’Sullivan; Avanessian), the research asks how do fiction, reader and site relate through the following questions: how might narrative non-linearity combine with the immersive site-specific reading environment of the MegaChurch to disorient/ reorient the reader? How might disorientation disrupt the current verticality (in both its’ hierarchical social structure and its spatial construction of stadium worship) of the MegaChurch by introducing a horizontal/ flattened ontological plane through writing, which foregrounds site, screen, and embodied affects as central to belief?

 The research contributes to a context in which artists use experimental writing to explore the materiality of subject-object relations within the expanded field of contemporary art. New Materialism is a recent category of theories which refuse reductive dualisms and emphasise our embodied selves are part of a dynamic network of relations with matter. As a reaction to the linguistic and cultural turns of postmodernity, the revived transdisciplinary interest in materialism and realism and concurrent discourse around post-humanism has had a wide impact on contemporary art. Bringing Jane Rendell’s concept of site writing together with recent works by art writers Katrina Palmer, Maria Fusco and Bedwyr Williams, my research, informed by New Materialist and literary theories, extends art writing into a context that specifically resists recognition of embodied materiality. The project also utilises disorientation as a mode of embodied thought. Additionally, it brings religious materiality to the fore within the secular and sceptical worlds of contemporary art and academia, where religion continues to be viewed as an embarrassing irrelevance, an awkward hangover from an irrational past. Despite the global social and political significance of religious extremism, evidenced for example in the white Evangelical vote in the US, religious material culture lacks ‘ ..serious empirical, let alone theoretical interest..’ (Meyer & Houtman, 2012:1).

 My art writing practice, nationally and internationally exhibited and published, will be developed through the project. Previous writing has drawn on Evangelical Christianity to create affective narrative trajectories for the reader in exploring the materiality and agency of religious and corporate buildings. My arts project management experience in founding and running Peer Sessions, an Arts Council-funded critique group for professional artists, will be applied to the project. I have previous experience of facilitating participatory writing and discussion workshops, and am trained in the Visual Thinking Strategies method, which parallels the participatory methodologies to be adopted.

 The proposed research outcomes are:

·       A new body of site writing works, both audio visual and printed, which evoke disorientation within the MegaChurch as a method of exploring embodied faith, developed through firstly, reader response and secondly, interdisciplinary workshops focusing on New Materialism and fiction, held with theorists, creative writers and artists within Goldsmiths and CHASE institutions.

·       A thesis of scholarly writing which locates the practice within the field of site writing, applying ‘critical assemblages’: a spatial method of art writing, to three artworks that exemplify grounding, ungrounding and regrounding.

 

Research Methods

Through participating in the life of a UK MegaChurch, I will combine auto-ethnographic research methods and literary reader response through experimental participatory writing workshops on site. Ethical implications of research (recognising my own bias as a long term Evangelical Church member) will be considered. Site writing will draw on narratology (Bal; Genette) and adopt the visual language of the MegaChurch through immersive screen-based written narratives. Subject-object disorientation will be created and analysed through plot, non-linearity and reader response:

·       Plot: Writing in the second person, the reader is directly addressed and written into a narrative in which a disorienting collapse engenders a fusion of the screen space on which the reader reads, the MegaChurch projection screen (a significant actant in materializing faith), and a transformation of the MegaChurch, merging organic and inorganic, through the falling body of the reader and the collapsing body of the building.

·       Narrative non-linearity and affect: ruptures, layers or branching will occur at specific points both textually and visually through the sensory stimulation of audio and screen-based imagery. For example, can the de-spatialisation of screen based affects such as the zoom function on google maps, or layering of browser windows, be combined with or transposed into site writing? Non-linearity will be linked phenomenologically to affect (a bodily experience or reaction, both interior and immediate). I will consider how affect might impact on our relationship to objects and the formation of rational thinking and ideology (Massumi; Leys). This will be extended into a consideration of how the non-linearity of affect might enable a change in perception of objects conjured by the text (Connolly).

·       Reader response: I will convene groups of Evangelicals and post-Evangelicals to read/ write whilst immersed in the reading environment. Experiential (Rosenblatt; Bleich) and social strands (Fish) of literary Reader Response methodologies, whereby reading is always both subjective and objective, are applied to consider reader and text as part of an assemblage and evaluate the impact of disorientation.

 

Schedule of work

Year 1: Grounding

Beginning with Sara Ahmed’s ‘Orientations Matter’ (2010), ‘Grounding’ will consider how spatial orientation and context makes thinking bodies and bodies of thought. I will develop ‘critical assemblages’, a spatial method of writing, informed by feminist theorists Haraway’s ‘Situated Knowledges’ (1988) and Bennett’s concept of assemblages (2010) to write through the actants within Maria Fusco’s site-specific audio work Master Rock (2015). Bennett theorises assemblages as uneven but agentic groupings of elements which modify and are modified by each other (2010: 22). Critical assemblages will enable an analysis of how Fusco, working with site, body and voice, thinks through the vantage points of historical labouring bodies in relation to a resistant and agentic ground. This will extend into a consideration of MegaChurch vantage points: where the believer is situated within the verticality and hierarchy of worship. Haraway writes: ‘There is good reason to believe vision is better from below the brilliant space platforms of the powerful.’ (1988: 583)

Year 2: Ungrounding

‘Ungrounding’ will develop the concept of disorientation as a means to perceive becoming-with-context by applying ‘critical assemblages’ to the shifting ground of the Isle of Portland in Katrina Palmer’s End Matter (2015). Site, audio narrative and body coalesce in an assemblage that produces a violent subject-object mergence. These elements produce a means to think through the instability of a literal, historical and narrative ground. Within the MegaChurch context, research will consider potential strategies of uneven non-linear moments through the loss of authority in communicative buffering, stuttering and stalling to effect moments of disorientation.

Year 3: Regrounding

‘Regrounding’ will constitute a consideration of the socio-political potential of art writing in speculative ‘alter worlding’, how embedded and embodied thought: ‘…becomes a very material process, a performative process of the world, a form of worlding itself.’ (Asberg; Thiele; Van Der Tuin, 2015: 152) I will analyse how site, image and audio in Bedwyr William’s images of bodies merging with mosaic pieces and pebbles in the narrated video work The Starry Messenger (2013), assembles a non-anthropocentric image of body as contingent on matter. In anthropomorphising the MegaChurch building, my practice will point to the contingency of believers’ participation and complicity in its’ culture, specifically the problematic adoption of capitalist ideology through running for profit and propagation of the ‘prosperity gospel’ (Ellingson; Lee & Sinitiere). The research considers how the practice might reground the reader away from the seemingly coherent and inevitable systems and totalizing ideologies of growth at any cost within both Capitalism (Fisher, Toscano & Kinkle et al) and Evangelicalism, to differentiated and contingent bodies which retain collective potential.

This project contributes to site specific writing within contemporary art through adding disorienting fictions to the assemblage of the MegaChurch, and through ‘critical assemblages’: a spatial form of critique. A blurring of object/ subject boundaries seeks to reorient the believer from a spectacular verticality to a situated knowledge of how bodies and beliefs are produced within the mega populated and mediated church.

 

Selected bibliography

Alaimo, S ‘Thinking as the Stuff of the World’ O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies, Vol 1: 1 2014

Asberg, C, Thiele, K & Van Der Tuin, I ‘Speculative Before the Turn Reintroducing Feminist Materialist Performativity’ Cultural Studies Review Vol 21:2 2015

Avanessian, A ‘Speculative Poetics’ Realism Materialism Art 2015

Bal, M Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative 1985

Bennett, J Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things 2010

Bleich, D Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism 1975

Braidotti, R The Posthuman 2013

Coole, D & Frost, S (eds) New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics 2010

Crockett, C & Robbins, J Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism 2012

Dolphijn, R & Van Der Tuin, I New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies 2012

Ellingson, S The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-First Century 2008

Fish, S Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities 1981

Fisher, M Capitalist Realism 2009

Genette, G Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method 1980

Haraway, D ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial PerspectiveFeminist Studies, Vol. 14: 3 1988)

Houtman, D & Meyer, B (eds) Things: Religion & the Question of Materiality 2013

Kinkle, J & Toscano, A Cartographies of the Absolute 2015

Kreider, K Poetics and Place: The Architecture of Sign, Subjects and Site 2013

Lee, S & Phillip, S Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace 2009

Leys, R ‘The Turn to Affect’ 2011 [Online] http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/uploads/pdf/Leys,_Turn_to_Affect.pdf

Massumi, B ‘The Autonomy of Affect’ Cultural Critique No. 31 1995

O’Sullivan, S ‘Art Practice as Fictioning’ 2014 [Online] www.diakron.dk

Rendell, J Site Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism 2010

Rieger, J & Waggoner, E (eds) Religious Experience and New Materialism 2016

Riley, D Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect 2005

Rosenblatt, L The reader, the text, the poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work 1978

Steyerl, H ‘In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective’ E-Flux 2014 [Online] http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/

Calculus

Text presented for Speaking Through Stones

Fine Art Research Symposium, St. James Hatcham, Goldsmiths College

25th November 2016


Ballast

Presentation for Speaking through Stones 

Fine Art Research Symposium, St. James Hatcham, Goldsmiths College

25th November 2016 


Ballast
Kate Pickering

O Lord Direct Us (Domine Dirige Nos), is the motto of the ‘City of London’, the irregularly shaped heart at the proximal midpoint of the capital. The boundaries form arterial protrusions north over the Golden Lane Estate and east towards Shoreditch. Once the centre point of the world for business, and awarded top spot in the Worldwide Centres of Commerce in 2008, it forms a confluence of finance within one square mile. Within is the insurance industry, central to which is Lloyds of London, the world’s leading marketplace for specialist insurance. The huddled architecture of the area, having risen and fallen and risen, a stratified formation of tightly packed buildings and irregular narrow streets, has been part cleared into the geometries of civic plazas, shot through with vertiginous glass and steel paeans to finance, housing public galleries, sculptures and foliage.

 

you

position yourself over the grids and flesh tinted buildings between Fenchurch Avenue and Leadenhall Street and drop down twisting from real virtual into virtual real through concentric circles of Capital, City of London, insurance district and in through the central atrium of Lloyds as angles and lines warp and weft street view looms with a sudden surge 

STOP

lagging pixels catch up and the Underwriting Room crystallises around you. You compass a 360 degree rotation in a rush stop motion blurring partitions rectangles of glass and concrete studded with lights.… risk is being capitalised: costed and underwritten. Twelve stories of galleries look down upon an open space enclosed by glass which grids the sky, a vast conservatory resembling a net in the shape of an upturned

U

you are looking down on the carved rostrum housing the Lutine Bell…rung once for news of shipwrecked vessels when volatile weather conditions obscured the horizon, rendering instrumentation unreliable and navigation by the usual measures impossible

 

To be rooted is to be planted, to be stable, to have a certain future. To be solid, as solid as the foundation stone of a building. A building may be rooted in more than its foundations, and may be more than the sum of its bricks. Roots that reach back through the growth of a marketplace for the hedging of risk, birthed in a meeting in a coffee shop, through industrialisation and office blocks and world wars and globalisation to purpose built skyscrapers and financialised capitalism. Through a certain type of establishment, through the expectation that comes with history, reputation and class. Roots that speculate forward to the granulation of vast amounts of unstructured market data which will be anonymised, analysed, benchmarked, aggregated into value bearing units… projecting into the future through storytelling skills and insider expertise combined with Artificial Intelligence for maximum reliability, confidence and profit. Rooted now in the fabric of the building, rooted out into the hard drives, the flows of binary code, the algorithms which dance through superhighway worm holes meshing cities and continents, the vast arrays which self-regulate, which return bearing gifts.

Two moments in history, awkwardly rooted together in a jarring example of façadism: a Portland stone archway from the 1928 incarnation of the Lloyds building is situated in front of the postmodern loops and high tech polish of its current form. The Lloyds of now is also known as the ‘Inside Outside’ building, due to the decision, taken by the architect, to maximise space for market trading within The Underwriting Room, by placing all the services for the building, such as water, heating and ventilation ducts, lifts and toilet pods on the stainless steel clad exterior, leading it to be termed ‘a vast exercise in bowellism’ (1). The facade of Lloyds is not the typical seamless armour of a skyscraper, but has multiple surfaces and protrusions in a baroque and audacious display of its innards. Glass lifts chart a speedy course up and down vertical tracks, a series of loops reach up the height of the building, ducts, pipes, pillars and steel wires wrap the circumference, steel boxes are pock marked by porthole windows.

Inside the Portland stone archway on the west side of the building, is housed an inscribed foundation stone. The laying of a foundation, or cornerstone, is an event attended by ceremony, one which acknowledges the weight of a building’s significance. Historically, European and Asian religious ritual entailed a sacrifice of blood to ensure a building’s stability. Prior to animal sacrifice, where the animals blood flowed onto the foundation altar and the beast was buried underneath the stone, the practice of measuring a man’s shadow supplanted the immediate violence of literally immuring a person within the walls or beneath the foundation stone to ward against disaster and loss. A builder or shadow trader (traders who would provide architects with the shadows necessary for strengthening the building), would entice a man towards the foundation stone until his shadow fell upon it, measure the shadow and bury the measure. To bury the measure is to bury the shadow, is to bury the life and soul of the man, who, it is deemed, will die within the year (2). In creating place we displace, in rooting we uproot. Our foundation myths matter more than bodily matter, and so body, site and brick mingle.

1. Richards, J (1994) Facadism Routledge, London  p.60
2. Frazer, JG & Frazer, R (2006) The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion Oxford University Press p.106-107

Bowels of Steel

Research presentation

Fine Art Research Department, Goldsmiths College

29th September 2016


Bowels of Steel

Kate Pickering

 Figs. 1 & 2: Pyura Chilensis; Fig. 3: Lloyds of London.

Figs. 1 & 2: Pyura Chilensis; Fig. 3: Lloyds of London.

In Tom McCarthy’s recent novel Satin Island (2015), the protanogist U becomes obsessed with parachutists who have had their cords cut. He muses:

‘That final spur, the one that carried skydivers across the threshold, out into the abyss, was faith: faith that it all- the system, in its boundless and unquantifiable entirety- worked, that they’d be gathered up and saved. For this man, though, the victim, that system, its whole fabric, had unravelled. That, and not his death, was the catastrophe that had befallen him. We’re all going to die: there’s nothing so disastrous about that, nothing in its ineluctability that undermines the structure of our being. But for the faith, the blind, absolute faith into whose arms he had entrusted his existence - for that to suddenly be plucked away: that must have been atrocious. He’d have looked around him, seen the sky, and earth, its land mass and horizon, all the vertical and horizontal axes that hold these together…this realm, with all its width and depth and volume, would have, in an instant, become emptied of its properties, its values. The vast font at which he prayed, and into which he sank, as though to re-baptise himself, time and again, would, in the blink of a dilated eye, have been voided of godhead, rendered meaningless…Negative world, negative sky, negative everything: that’s the territory this man had entered. Did that then mean he’d somehow fallen through into another world, another sky? A richer, fuller, more embracing one? I don’t think so.’ (1)

The question of what happens in the moment of disorientation upon the realisation that the cords have been cut underpins my research, conversely functioning as a stable ground from which to try out prototype falls into the void. Is this strategy a fundamentally melancholy proposition, or can it be constructive? Can it elaborate how a subject, in that moment of self realisation and dishabituation, might perceive him/herself as object, and in doing so reconfigure and reorient both subject and object?

In the essay In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective, Hito Steyerl writes: ‘Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft. While falling, people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people.’ (2) She proposes that the disorientation of falling may blur the perceived distinction between subjects and objects, an apparent porosity opening up between them.

These images show a bisected Pyura Chilensis, also known as ‘blood rock’, a hermaphroditic sea squirt or tunicate which resembles a mass of organs enclosed by a rock like carapace. It is a filter feeder that eats by sucking in seawater and filtering out microorganisms. Fishermen typically cut it into slices with a handsaw, then use their fingers to pull out the edible siphons (which they refer to as tetas, or "udders") from it’s tunic, which is discarded. Pyura chilensis has a high concentration of Vanadium, a metal used as a steel alloy, resulting in a significant increase in the strength of steel.

The third image shows the facade of Lloyds of London, located in the ‘Square Mile’, the City of London’s financial district. Lloyds of London, not to be confused with Lloyds bank, was established in the 17th Century and is considered the world’s leading insurer, formed of a society of specialist insurance syndicates, who price and underwrite risk. It’s efficiency depends on a single market place under one roof known as ‘The Room’, the underwriters relying on the contact gained from working in this one open space. The Grade 1 listed Lloyds building, also known as the ‘Inside Outside Building’, was designed by Richard Rogers, and is a leading example of Bowellism architecture, in which the services for the building, such as water, heating and ventilation ducts, lifts and toilet pods, are located on the steel clad exterior to maximise space for ‘The Room’. Rising the full twelve storey height of the building, the room is described by Kenneth Powell as ‘..a heroic space that creates the same sense of scalelessness as the open sky.’ (3) Peter Cook in Architectural Review wrote that the interior is ‘so designed that it becomes.. the visionary’s dream of symbiosis between animal and machine…’ (4)

The functional bowels of the building are exposed in the form of looping stainless steel stairwells and curling ducts that wrap themselves around the facade, the obverse of the concentrated Vanadium metallic mineral hidden within the bowel like interior of the Pyura Chilensis. Both building and creature begin to elicit an uneasy anthropomorphism within the viewer, where the separation between organic and inorganic breaks down.

My practice, bearing both objects in mind, aims for a form of over-writing where the reader is precipitated into the negative world, negative sky, negative everything of McCarthy’s U. Where a sink hole opens up beneath Lloyds of London, whose motto is Fidentia, Latin for “confidence”, and in the process of collapse a reversal of the facade occurs, where objects are turned inside out, or outside in, the reader propelled into a disorienting space where they merge with falling building, where the safety net of insurance fails and accelerates both a metaphorical and literal cutting of the cords.

 

1. McCarthy, T (2015) Satin Island Random House p.79-80
2. Steyerl, H (2011) 'In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective' E-Flux [Online] Available from: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/ 
3. Powell, K (2004) Richard Rogers : Architecture of the future Birkhauser Verlag AG p.93
4. Cook, P Architectural Review October 1986 p.49