ON THE INSTITUTIONALISED BODY
AK: Let’s go back to where my interest in speaking about the institutionalized body comes from. We were meeting for the first time in Mitte in a café opposite of Clairchens Ballhaus on the end of May. It was an early summer day, we were sitting outside facing a construction ground. After, I would say, half an hour there came a chilly wind, as it is often the case in Berlin, and we went in. Do you remember what you were wearing and what I was wearing? Do you remember, how your body felt this eve?
SMcG: I have no sense of what I was wearing, I know it was a t-shirt, maybe a striped one.. You already came with your navy jacket on and I could hear that you were sick before. What struct me most was your bare feet and your cool flip-flops. I loved the mix. When you arrived I was busy with dealing with a broken phone, the screen was smashed into smithereens and it got wet in the storm a few days before when I and all the students in my workshop got half naked and dived into the plummeting rain that hit Uferstudios… We were literally swimming in the puddles that formed in the hof. A magical cathartic experience. And you know I was the only one that stayed clothed – hence my phone being in my back pocket.
AK: Yesterday a friend I met by chance asked me: Where are you going with your cool slippers and I felt caught in trying to be fancy. So again… Navy jacket? I don’t wear anything that could be connoted with military fashions …. Perhaps it’s my dream of living on the shores in combination with my habit to wear blazers. You were wearing a blouse with sleeves that could be pulled up or down. You pulled them down after a while. Your body expression seemed very calm and contemplating, it felt like you were sitting there already for a while… Indeed I remember the phone. You didn’t tell me that you haven’t been naked. When we went in because of the cold the term “institutionalized body” came up. We continued to speak about clothes. Is an institutional body linked with the notion of clothes even in cases in which we don’t speak about uniforms and dressing codes?
SMcG: I think for me there is a strong link that stems back to wearing a uniform since I was 4 years of age until being 23 almost. From primary school, high school and then later in a dance conservatory. In this period of being in high school we wore a navy skirt, a navy jumper with a blue line around the neck, a blue shirt and then a navy and blue tie. So basically all shades of blue. We also wore white socks, and not one pair of white socks, but actually between 3-6 pairs. And I remember spending at least 15 minutes every morning neatly creating folds in these socks. This was one of the ways in which we could deviate from the costume so to speak and also of course modulating the length of our skirt, depending on which classes or teachers we had. At that time there was a strong sense of belonging. And yet one of the things I struggled with was always being recognised or labeled through that – especially in terms of the political situation in Northern Ireland between catholic and protestant, which rendered me visible and other in different parts of the city.
AK: You mean 3-6 layers of socks? So you wore shoes which were two numbers bigger in order to make space for the socks? It makes me wonder what was going on when you were changing for the sports class and if your sports clothes have been formalized too. As for the public space: Have you been recognizable in the streets as a catholic by your clothes?
SMcG: Yes, 3-6 layers and yes, I often got a size 40 when I was size 39. And sports class was horrible, we had navy underpants to put on under our navy skirt (this time a different sort of style that crossed over) and a white t-shirt. The changing room was a horror for me because of growing up in a practicing catholic family, where nudity was always switched off if on TV. So I struggled a lot and it was even an all girls school.
AK: Its interesting this question about been recognized as catholic. When I was growing up many people would advertise their religion through football shirts, Celtic (catholic); rangers (protestant), or just simply by wearing certain colours and often you could tell if someone was catholic or protestant by how they dressed both in uniform and out. But it was rare that I went to nationalist areas as it wasn't so safe, I mostly navigated in Republican areas.
AK: Do you recognise a certain behavior in your body that is still reminiscent of these codes? And is there any link to the fact that you told me about “Bounty“ with Claire Vivianne Sobottke being the first performance in which you didn’t use costumes?
SMcG: No, I don’t recognise a specific behavior, I think I also worked hard to move away from these forms of religious identification, as the political struggle became diluted. I guess the shift of not focusing on costumes as a way to shift my gender reading, was also connected the new directions my work was taking. I had spent a number of years focusing on questions of identity and queering the body and costume was a big element of this work, in relation to both embodiment and aesthetics, often it was a companion in the studio.
AK: I’m not sure now, if you first denied the nature of my question and later on confirmed it. I wonder if this focussing on identity and queering could be somehow connected with my question. For example the project in which you engaged into gay romeo, in which you were dating as a gay man and hacking the codes of it: Could the formal interest in modes of self-marketing could be linked with a sensitivity about those self-representations of the body inside of certain frames?
SMcG: I think growing up in northern ireland during those years was more focused on a confirmation of how one identified, there was no other imaginable, so that is what I wanted to escape. In terms of the work I was doing around gay romeo, (posing as a gay man Sam Fox) this was not so much a behavior reminiscent of these codes, but more a subversive strategy and to actually take agency over my own identity beyond religious/political frames..
AK: What is a costume? Is it the kind of stuff you were in drag a costume, seen that drag might be a part of your so called identity or way of self-recognition? And wouldn’t you, thinking about “Bounty”, consider non-narrative nakedness – nakedness as a mean of aesthetics and – and colour on the nude body as kind of a costume?
SMcG: Sure, the work I was doing around drag was all about costume, dressing up, dressing down, opening up scales of representation and playing with the in-between, it was one of the main driving forces of my work then.. especially E series which focused around a body and I wig. Regarding paint as costume, my intention with this in “Bounty” was to actually at one point disappear into the space itself, so that the constructed space would take over the performative, in that way it worked as a camouflage, and before with the splattering and throwing, as kind of double surface. And with BOUNTY we tried to avoid nakedness in the work even when it came to paint on the body, we also didn't want to go into these frames of representation and objectification of the female nude.
AK: Camouflage as not the opposite but the invers of a costume? Since a costume normally hides parts of your persona for the sake of making believe that you are somebody else and camouflage hides part of your persona for the sake of making it disappearing without becoming somebody else…
SMcG: Exactly. Especially in that one scene of painting the corner blue then our whole bodies as a way of trying to literally join the spectacle of painted space to some extent.
AK: Why do you come back to it now in the group piece “JADED”?
SMcG: I don’t come back to costumes, or do you see that differently?
AK: When dancers change their clothes several times in a piece, doesn’t this have anything to do with costumes? Say you leave it to the dancers in how far they want to represent themselves or to use their own clothes more or less in the sense of the costume?
SMcG: I don't really focus on 'costume' per se I rather left it up to the performers to decide what they wear, which was their everyday clothes.
AK: Yes, but is self-representation really matter of a free decision? As for the University for example there is not a dress code but still you feel to represent somebody/yourself in a way that labels you. Isn’t it similar in the arts? As we know, institutions are not only buildings and formal organizations. Also the way in which people in the art field relate to each other is institutionalized. Also a queer framing is a certain labeling, isn’t it? If we go into this dichotomy of freedom in the arts and dependency in every day’s social life: Is art having a mission in unlabeling?
SMcG: I’m not sure if I understand art in this sense to have an emancipatory affect on unlabeling, like you already said, it’s a highly institutionalized frame, that operates on the level of self-representation and self-promotion. I like to think more about what you can do within these structures. One of the biggest problems is breaking them once they are set, especially when it comes down to be categorized in terms of what kind of work you make. I guess I'm also interested in playing with the 'labeling' – how to render that more fluid and to find ways that subvert these structures. I think for me that’s why I have been positioning my work both inside and outside the institution, the work with HZT [Hochschulübergreifendes Zentrum Tanz where Sheena works as an Artistic Researcher], the work with MOVE [self-founded art space in Neukölln] and also the work between the theatre and club space.
AK: I recognize this quite well. The in between free projects and being embedded. You could call it a shifting of forms and responsibilities, a balancing. But isn’t this an in-between that increases dependencies and neither let’s you develop the idea of the institution nor the one of the outside of it? If we consider institutions as organisations with a steady money fluctuation.