Issue 15: Gunpowder Body

Pilar Villela

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Body Without Soul

From a set of perplexities that for the writer and artist Pilar Villela involves the invitation to this issue, the author points to certain areas of tension and conflict of three aspects of the artistic that survive in the transition from the modern to the contemporary.

Body Without Soul [1]

Machiavelli…thinks of the fox not in terms of its internal nature as “cause” but only in its effects of semblance. To think that certain people harp on the “theater” of politics as if its reality and its discovery were new things!

Louis Althusser [2]

The following lines are the result of a perplexity or, to be more precise, of a set of perplexities that come from having to talk about the present state of “something” called “performative practices” within a defined geographical area (Mexico, Latin America, the American continent, etc.,) and how these practices could allow for “communing” through the body understood through the question Spinoza formulates in the scholium of Proposition II of Part Three of his Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order, which he begins by reminding us that: “[the] mind and body are one and the same thing, conceived first under the attribute of thought, secondly, under the attribute of extension[3] (my emphasis).
For purposes of context, I suppose that my invocation of Spinoza here corresponds to certain political readings of his work, particularly those of Deleuze and Negri. I believe that their ideas have been particularly useful in strengthening certain discourses of contemporary art that highlight—in different ways and with different emphases—a perspective of the political beyond that of certain forms of politics (the parties, the nation-state, the sovereign figure, the “seizure of power,” etc.,) and, to that extent, allow us to avoid some of the old pitfalls that the opposition of “committed art” with “art for art’s sake” used to imply, while preserving the emancipatory vocation of the artistic as antagonistic.
Here, it is assumed that an action, such as offering massages in the street, setting up a false call center, or choreographing, in a museum is capable of creating a community (short-lived, of course) thanks to the encounter staged between different bodies (which are in turn constituted, by virtue of this encounter, as a political body), while overlooking the fact that all of these acts are carried out as “art.” The problem then is that belonging to the “art” institution ends up serving as a guarantee and substitute for what a body can do. This would be a mere issue of verbal acrobatics if not for the following: although art (according to the modern Western conception of it) [4] insists on affirming its link with virtue (hence “the political”) that underlines underlies an important part of its operations—appearing in museums, university degrees, magazines, meetings, festivals—it is difficult to make an argument in favor of this virtue outside the canons of modern art [5]. On the other hand, I doubt that the apparatus could be sustained without this “ideological” component—that is, if art were only made in the pursuit of the commercial value that endows it, for example, with its rarity.
Here, I reconsider Spinoza’s question “from Spinoza” as a kind of game, aware that I am applying it to an object for which it is particularly ineffective: contemporary art, and performance as one of its genres.

The act is executed and flaunted as art in order to ensure that this act is properly political insofar as it “communes” not according to “simply” the act [6], but according to that act as art. It is enough to declare the autonomy of the political for the walls of the white cube to suddenly come falling down. “The work” (occurs) with or without spectators, participants, actors, performers, and others. It has “communed”/“received communion” in art, not because there is a transubstantiation, but because the profession of faith is the condition and not the result of the execution.
This occurs within a structure that, far from being historically constant, implies the specific articulation of three aspects of the artistic that survive the transition from the modern to the contemporary. It is an approach that invites us to talk about the peculiarities of the development of performance, action-art, body art, etc., in Latin America of the last decades and to do so from the point of view of the specificity of the body as the possible locus for the political follows [7].
First, when we come together to think about such a category as “performance practices,” we are also called upon to talk about a category that guarantees, a priori and externally, the artisticity of what it describes, whether under the rubric of the institutions that produce it and embrace it, or under the conventions. However, these practices appear to be excessive or deficient in relation to the institution, with a differential (the poetic, the artistic) or a power to effect changes outside of itself: that of its political efficacy.
Second, in addition to considering a particular genre or discipline, it remains based on the idea that art, in its autonomy, still has the power for future emancipation. In this case, the question is about its power to “commune”/ “communion,” to bring together that which is separate.
Third and last, this emancipatory power (2) of a particular practice—the specificity of a medium, performance, in concrete conditions, in the street, in the museum, or as it has been documented (1)—must be thought of from the perspective of a regional identity that is founded in a common history, language, and territory—either under the idea of nation (that is, the manifestation of the spirit of the people)[8]; or under the institutions of a state (not of the State, but of a state—its museums, schools, and systems of patronage, as well as its cantinas, bankers’ clubs, etc.)

By noting the presence of these premises in this issue of Terremoto (and I know that by writing a text that does not speak of what it must speak, but of another text that intends to present it, is, to say the least, unconventional) I do not intend to serve as the communication police, much less to denounce a deception or an “error” of thought. What interests me, however, is to point out the persistence of a certain articulation of these ideas as the explicit foundation for a set of practices despite the constant exercise of their negation in heterogeneous forms, either through forms of discourse, or through those of practice, and calling attention to this can point to certain areas of tension and conflict, or at least, to certain gaps.
To the negation (historical note: contemporary art does not concern itself with the specificity of the medium, a methodology that is considered “formalism”) of definitions correspond the anxiety about and the proliferation of definitions already under the form of convention, or already under the form of the institution. To historical, landscape, and genre painting correspond performance, installation, relational art, participative art, sound art, body art, etc. On the one hand, a code for reading, a language that marks the limits of the interpretable and the sensible of each particular case inscribed in a genre, is defined. While on the other hand— and as the genesis of these plots—it is understood, tacitly, as the expression of an essence over time (there is a confused, undifferentiated principle, which goes on developing until it materially manifests itself as an institution); the proliferation of the plots demands the subsequent proliferation of histories, as well as of their material records: in each recreation of an ephemeral work with its curatorial purposes is the fabrication of a history as genesis.
The denial of the problem of the emancipatory power of art is answered with the proliferation of projects that affirm the actuality of its power, either in the form of statements, or already in the form of concrete works and projects. The dilemma of art as a social program versus art for art’s sake implies a disjunct between the liberation of society and that of the individual, but not between an active art and an absolutely self-referential one (it is about its efficacy as an effect, and not of the causes). We cannot ask on one side whether art, in effect, liberates or at least makes us “better” (the question would be corrosive to the system), but—more or less statistics—the affirmation of its power over its potential does not settle the issue either, for it does not seal the future: still, the roll of the dice does not abolish chance.
The denial of being “them” in order to become “us” is answered with the same formula, but retroactively. The nation is an essence. This essence can manifest itself with time, so to speak, can start to individualize (express) itself, but it has always been there. Instead, the community to which we are summoned implies the constitution of a power (that of the common body) that in turn implies the actualization of many different powers [9]. This tension is currently settled under its retroactive formula, already under its projective formula.
I will pause here to go over the three points, but proceeding inversely:
There is a narrative (in bodies and thought) that presents us with “Latin American art” as the particular case of a necessary form of development. Out of the seed comes the tree; out of modern art, contemporary; of abstraction, conceptualisms. The passage from seed to tree is universal, and it is only necessary to define the peculiarities of the ahuehuete in Mexico, the chillijchi in Bolivia, or the ceibo in Argentina. A teleology that is established retrospectively (the owl of Minerva, flying at Night) and that, in doing so, would also seem to reveal the belief that “the body is set in motion or at rest, or performs a variety of actions depending solely on the mind’s will or the exercise of thought.” [10]
To this another division is added that enters now, like contraband (although I fear without ruse), where what forces the specification is an exteriority that implies not the simultaneous existence of two heterogeneous attributes, but a causal relationship.

The axes are aligned, predictably, giving “the Latin American” a political urgency (for it corresponds to a body of up-dated power), while reserving the place for thought for a “West” that, somehow, does not have a place (expanse), since its primary characterization as difference is not that of its actuality.

Here we return to the beginning: to performance or the performance. We return to the institution, not just a body, a community, and that which determines the mutual relations (defined or undefined) between its parts (a museum or an independent space). By institution I also understand that part of the work of art—and particularly that moment when it is indiscernible from that which is not art (the ready-made)—even if it is not exclusive to it, that is the convention. In particular, insofar as it is that convention which requests the recognition of one of the limits between the autonomy and heteronomy that delimit the work (the object, “practice,” or action) as a work of art. It is the cleaning crew that must ask whether or not to sweep up the wood chips that are scattered on the floor of the museum.
Before the indiscernible (the ready-made, but also the “invisible theater”) comes a profusion of conventions (the body art of action art; the performance from the performance; and the performance of resistance, of the delegate, of the relational, the participatory, the choreographic, the para-theatric, the sub-theatric, the extra- theatric, et al.) as an academicism. The profusion of conventions occurs to the extent that the unfulfilled promise remains: the promised liberation does not arrive and, therefore, the need to affirm the present-future, the millennial Angelus Novus, persists. Academicism is present in the form, while variety is introduced in a more or less delirious textual profusion that opposes the euphemism or the vagueness of a multiplicity of substrates upon the disenchantment of the convention. The question to be posed would be in its distance or its link.


  1. From the translation of “Cuerpo sin alma,” a song by Las Colombianitas: “That’s why youuuuuu will not / will not be for me / Because I look for a body, / a body but that carries in itself, / itself a spirit of love, of love and truth, of love and loyalty, of love and holiness.”

  2. Louis Althusser, “The Only Materialist Tradition. Part 1: Spinoza,” in The New Spinoza eds. Warren Montag and Ted Stolze (Minneapolis: University of Minessota Press, 1997), 167.

  3. Baruch Spinoza, The Ethics [Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata], trans. R. H. M Elwes (Adelaide, Australia: The University of Adelaide ebooks@adelaide. com, 2014)

  4. This doesn’t deal with how “art” could be a subject. Here, I am referring to its institutions, its agents, its speeches, etc.

  5. The idea that the revolution is going to be made out of the museum seems delirious, just as it seems delirious to say that an armed conflict will be stopped by distributing, building, or implementing tololoches. (The tololoche is traditional instrument from Northern Mexico, similar to the European double bass.)

  6. Of course, one should also doubt that sheer act or its conditions.

  7. I worked on this question for the first time in my undergraduate thesis entitled Discursos y arte alternativo en México
    en los noventas; una aproximacióncrítica [Discourses and Alternative Art in Mexico in the Nineties: A Critical Approach]. Although it has been read as a collection of stories, my main interest was to find a possible articulation between the autonomy of art, its capacity for political action, and its historicity by studying a set of concrete and local cases. That no one has read it in this way to date attests to the failure of that attempt. It can be consulted at:

  8. In this context, the opposition between the people and the multitude is significant.

  9. “For the body does not consist of one member, but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” 1 Corinthians 12:14-26, English Standard Version.¿por eso no será del cuerpo? Y si dijere la oreja: Porque no soy ojo, no soy del cuerpo: ¿por eso no será del cuerpo? Si todo el cuerpo fuese ojo, ¿dónde estaría el oído? Si todo fuese oído, ¿dónde estaría el olfato?” Corintios 1: 12, Reina Valera, 1909.

  10. Spinoza, Ethics.


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