We sat down with artist Catherine Ryan to discuss The Two Body Problem.
Adhocracy – Vitalstatistix’s renown annual arts hothouse – supports the development of new art and performance. It runs September 2-4. Full details, including program, HERE.
Firstly, tell us about ‘The Two Body Problem’ – what’s the core concept that you’re exploring, and what inspired it?
‘The Two Body Problem’ is an experimental performance lecture that I have just begun to develop. The core concept is a simple speculative question: what if we had not one, but two bodies? What if every human consciousness had a spare body that it could use, instead of always being tied to the same one? How would this change the decisions we made? Would we take care of both our bodies and spend equal amounts of time in each one, or would we just spend time in the ‘good’ body and leave the other one at home? And what is a ‘good’ body, anyway?
As for what inspired it, in the most literal sense, like many artists, I have a huge document in my phone’s Notes app, full of half-baked ideas and questions that have popped into my head. One day, I was scrolling back through this vast collection of musings when I came across this question about what it would be like if we had two bodies. I don’t even remember when I wrote it. Was it something that I scrawled while I was out late one night, perhaps? I’ll never know. But it seemed compelling, even in the harsh, more critical light of day, so I started to draw more connections from it.
I have a background in European philosophy, so it occurred to me that there are swathes of thinkers who have considered the potential duality of the body. Early Christian theological disputes about whether God and Jesus were different bodies or not. Mediaeval political theology about the two bodies of the King. Cartesian accounts of dualism – the idea that the mind is separate from the body. And more recently, discussions within Queer theory about whether or not we can speak of there being a body, prior to its existence in language, or considerations within disability studies about the difference between impairment (which is in some sense ‘inherent’) and disability (which is socially derived).
And importantly for me, not only have philosophers and theorists written about multiplicity of the body – pop singers have sung about it.
The phrase ‘experimental performance lecture’ is a fascinating one – how does this differ from the more traditional concept of a lecture and how are you subverting the academic?
The performance lecture, as a type of performance, has a history that goes back several decades, to 1960s conceptual practice, which emphasised process over finished product. Early notable practitioners of the mode include Robert Morris and Andrea Fraser. Central to this type of work is its existence between the frames of performance and academic address. Performance lectures explore the gaps and tensions between theatrical performance and academic and pedagogical contexts. They often play with authority – the authority of the figure standing in front of you as “the expert”, presenting indisputable facts about the world.
In my performance lectures to date, this playfulness has often manifested in my choice to use cheesy, well-known pop songs as entrance points into the consideration of political or philosophical questions. My techniques have also included the interruption of authoritative textual address by singing, dancing and humorous over-analysis of pop music.
You’ve identified some intriguing pop music artefacts that you’ll be utilising – what inspired their selection?
One of the ways that I often work when making performance lectures is to select a small group of pop songs – usually songs that I like myself – and then use them as unusual ways of entering into questions of a philosophical or political nature.
One of the first tracks that inspired this project was SOPHIE’s Immaterial Girl. It’s a stunning track (and it’s awful that SOPHIE’s untimely death means that we won’t get more of her incredible work). Against a hyperactive synth riff, a chipmunky voice sings about whether she would exist and be gendered without all these things that she enumerates:
“Without my legs or my hair
Without my genes or my blood
With no name and with no type of story
Where do I live?
Tell me, where do I exist?”
What a question! She seems to be asking whether gender can be considered as this radically abstract thing that doesn’t need a body at all.
I then started thinking about how there are all these songs about the materiality of the body. There’s Beyoncé’s 2006 track Get Me Bodied, for instance. This song opens with Beyoncé dramatically intoning “9… 4… 8… 1… B-Day!”. These numbers are the date that Beyonce was born – the 4th of September 1981, her birthday, or B-Day. In the context of the song, this is the day that Beyonce got a body, or got bodied. Does this mean that, prior to 1981, Beyoncé existed in some form, without a body? Was there an eternal, incorporeal form of Beyoncé floating through the universe before this? How tied is Beyoncé to her body?
These are the sorts of questions that inspire me. Also, these are excellent songs, and it’s fun to think with them.
Where does ‘The Two Body Problem’ go after its appearance at Adhocracy?
Somewhere, I hope! This is a first stage development so the piece will need more work after this before it’s performable and tourable.
Anything else audiences should know?
I’d love for them to come along to some of the workshops I’ll be running over the Adhocracy weekend. As part of the development in Adhocracy, I’m planning on running some casual discussions about the opening philosophical provocations of the project. These will be small group discussions where we can think together about questions like: Can you imagine having two bodies? What would you do if they were very different bodies? Would you change how you lived? I’d love to consider some of these questions with new groups of people.