14.01.2019

Towards a Radical Pedagogy of Proxemics and the Inhabitable

Tadeo Cervantes, architect and historian, talks with Lia García about her artistic work and her quest to frustrate the proxemics that defines public space and its consequent individual and distant construction among the bodies that inhabit it.

Towards a Radical Pedagogy of Proxemics and the Inhabitable

This conversation is intended to be thought of as a tactile gesture capable of touching other people. The work of Lia García, also known as La Novia Sirena, shares this aspiration. She seeks other ways of configuring the sensible in people and in spaces in order to transform them. Encuentros afectivos is a performative project that intervenes into the city and its different public spaces, in which Lia appropriates archetypes of femininity such as the girlfriend (Puede besar a la novia), the quinceañera (Mis XXy años), or the mermaid (Voz en construcción) to reflect on her own gender transition as a collective transition involving all the people with whom she shares space in her everyday life.
Through the invocation of these three archetypes, Lia reflects, respectively, on her social commitment as a trans* [1] woman in relation to the networks of people with whom she shares her life; on the collective celebration of her transition as a political act and as a platform for affective communication in an environment defined by machismo; and on the politics of voice, its construction among trans* individuals, and its effects on public space as an act of political visibilization and risk.
Proyecto 10Bis is a long-term project that began in 2016, in which García meets with incarcerated men living in the 10Bis dormitory of Mexico City’s Reclusorio Norte (North Prison). Using radical pedagogies, Lia seeks to use her trans* body to transgress the politics of stigmatization that control those bodies which the state does not recognize as “normal.”
In this text—and in a country where trans* people face widespread violence—we discuss her political and aesthetic experience in order to rethink how we are affected by difference and how distinct spatial phenomena affect or are affected by difference.

Tadeo Cervantes: In your various performances, you don’t necessarily need auditory language to speak, rather you place emphasis on the space using symbols or archetypes already found there which can reveal the discourses of existing voices. Speaking from your point of view as Lia—as a trans* corporality, what does okupying [2], inhabiting, and making space entail?
Lia García: Squatting in a space involves questioning that space. It really provokes questions. Only bodies that provoke questions are looked at. As people with trans* corporalities in resistance, we are highly visible because we eschew the hegemonic gender norms as they are understood through the male/female binary. Public spaces are designed to follow very specific embodied logics—mainly defined by whiteness and cis-heterosexism—that sustain a normative structure, which in turn obeys Western and conservative discourses. Due to this, all bodies that elude this structure question spaces. At the same time, I ask myself how space will inhabit me if I don’t comply with the logic of what it means to be a person in that context. How will such a space interact with a body whose presence rejects that space’s underlying discourses? To inhabit is an affective act. I inhabit a house, a bed, a body, and these acts are affective. Our spaces do not offer trans* people the affective possibility of inhabiting them.
TC: I would like to pose the question again: How can a body react to a space? In other words: In your case, space reacts to you when you do a performance; it shifts its orientation. You organize a party in the Alameda (Mis XXy años) and successfully occupy the plaza in a new way in relation to the hegemonic politics that (re)designed the space. [3] But what happens when space is that which occupies you, and not the reverse? In other words, there are spaces (prisons, schools, houses) that impose and establish certain logics of habitation, certain affective logics. How do institutions and spaces affectively occupy you? What does performance do in the face of this affective occupation?
LG: For me, institutions occupy me through rage—through my enormous desire to change them. Every time I visit the prison, I feel a space that angers me because of everything that takes place there. The space inhabits me by projecting into me everything I hate about it. As Jessica Marjane [4] says: as trans* people, we represent a rupture in space since it is not designed for us to live in. We are fed the idea that these spaces are not for us as trans* women. But through performance, space is reconfigured: my recurrent presence in the prison or at the engineering department (where the performance Puede besar a la novia was held) changes these spaces: I recreate them in my own way through memory and a logic of disobedience. They are institutions I have redesigned for myself, even if there is no plaque commemorating the transformation. In other words, they are reconfigured through my personal memory. From this moment on, they can no longer fill me with fear, anxiety, or any other emotion I don’t want to feel.

TC: According to Judith Butler, certain material supports are required in order to produce the public in space. In the case of your performances, the necessary support capable of producing a different space, one where the logic of incarceration is broken, is the archetype of the quinceañera, and, above all, the dress. Can you tell us a bit about this?
LG: I remember I once showed photographs of the performance to a girl. She praised the party and asked if the men who were with me were my relatives. I responded that they weren’t and that in fact, the party had taken place in a prison. “I would never have imagined that,” she responded.
The goal of these projects is precisely to bring down the prison. What the quinceañera does is blur the prison: by concentrating all of the attention on the celebration, the space disappears. In this way, the prisoners, who are in my party, recognize themselves as emotional men. When would we have thought that in our society, a trans* woman could let herself be affected by a cis, heterosexual man who is incarcerated for delicate circumstances? For me, archetypes are bridges. In the context of the prison, the quinceañera is a bridge for communication with another possible reality because it is a celebration laden with festivity and tradition that refer to the outside world. The quinceañera dress disarticulates space by bringing the outside in.

 

TC: We also inhabit spatial metaphors. For example, “coming out of the closet” is an expression that does not operate exclusively on a linguistic level, but also connotes a certain materiality. When we inhabit these statements our relationship with space is transformed. What do you think of these relationships: prison-closet, outside-inside, limit-border?
LG: One must think that prison reflects society and vice versa. In this sense, outside there are many prisons and many closets. Prison is just the tip of the iceberg. “Coming out of the closet” has to do with liberation, and oftentimes it is a liberation that leads you to another form of confinement. The closet and prison are concepts that help us think about confinement as an experience that is not unique to LGBT+ people. This idea—that only we come out of the closet—leads us to conceptualize the body on an individual level. Colonization led us to construct ourselves as individuals. Why does the Condesa Clinic make us believe that taking hormones is only for trans* people? I start taking hormones, I stand in front of the mirror, I start to see the changes. It seems like this is the transition, but it’s not the truth. I have a family and a partner, who react to these changes, as does the entire social structure. This tiny milligram of pill I take implies a brutal social change that no one sees. It’s not an isolated and intimate event since my body continues to occupy public space during the transition. That’s why my work is collective. I am never alone in photos of my performances: there are always other people with me, who are also displaying their transition. In this way, I am going through a collective transition. This doesn’t mean I’m homogenizing the term trans* so that everyone can now identify as trans*. In the end, the transition and trans* identities should be contagious. They should be able to expand to other terms, because a cis-hetero man who starts seeing me will also confront a series of social prejudices. This implies a total oppression. Although a certain branch of feminism may object to putting men in a position of victimhood, this is a reality. I reiterate, transitioning is not just about me, since there is a whole social structure that also transitions and comes out of the closet.

TC: I’d like to talk about how trans* people inhabit space, particularly in a context like Mexico where there are so many trans-femicides, including the recent murder of Alessa. [5]
LG: Your question is very relevant in the case of sex workers. Alessa’s case made it clear that the space of sex work trans* women occupy is deadly. Alessa inhabited the space of death and death inhabited her because it was in her workplace—the very place that was structurally designed for them (her murderers)—that she was killed. They killed a young, dark-skinned woman who was a sex worker, who was precarious and, furthermore, trans*. Space reveals which lives people respond to, which lives are important and which are not. Space inhabited her from a place of violence. We must ask ourselves why. What those who commit trans-femicides don’t know is that they are also killing a part of themselves. On the other hand, we must take risks to occupy spaces, because trans* people are always taking risks. How do you okupy space, how does space occupy you, and how do you make space inhabitable for other trans* people?
TC: What were the implications of the protests for Alessa and Paola? [6] What are the implications of closing down Avenida Insurgentes in Mexico City and okupying public space in order to show that these women’s lives did not matter and that death inhabited them?
LG: First, just as transitioning is collective, so is death. I remember that when Paola died, Kenya Cuevas [7] performed a very powerful action. She took Paola’s body to Puente de Alvarado. It was a political funeral; Paola’s body was present in the place where it had been murdered. The media questioned Kenya for taking this action, to which she replied: If it takes the presence of the body to demand justice, we will do it. How can we make space inhabitable for lives that haven’t mattered or that continue to be ignored? By means of such political actions—a march, a performance, or a political funeral. The voice that demands space for the body to appear permeates all of these actions. That is what these deaths have left us with: the power to return to the places of these deaths in ways that exceed fear, to make them inhabitable again, and thereby to okupy them. We make ourselves visible in these places because they have erased us. These protests show us how we are building alliances. It is sad to say so, but it appears that in this country death is we require death in order to occupy a space. Why do we need death or politicized mourning to make alliances? That is fucked up. Let’s make them beforehand and aim to prevent death.

TC: It seems to me that your work is a step towards building other types of tactile and affective pedagogies connected to corporalities. In this sense, how can we let trans* identity touch and affect us in the social field? What other types of touch can we learn?
LG: That’s why I work with the figure of the mermaid: when I put my tail on, the issue of borders is activated. The performance is an invitation for people to challenge their affective borders. To let themselves touch and be touched. We have assumed that proxemics [8] is natural for human beings. That people build personal space by isolating themselves from others. This is a science that justifies why we have individual space, which is made up of a sphere of several meters that maintains our distance from other people. It is very colonial and patriarchal. It is time to question what else we can bring to public space and to the moment when we encounter the tactile. It is about constructing a non-hierarchical and more simultaneous touch. This has to do with the people who touch us or with those whom we touch with our stories.
TC: While obviously recognizing the fact that there are women who don’t want men to touch them.
LG: This also speaks to a colonial history. This is a wound of colonization because when the Spanish arrived they sexualized and raped indigenous women. Feminine identity in this continent is the product of rape. Touch, associated primarily with sex due to rape culture, became fear of being touched. This is an issue that also involves trans* people: as women, we are historically sexualized by the hetero-patriarchal masculine gaze. The question is how to desexualize ourselves. This is why we have to learn other ways of touching. What are we touching when we touch? This is why I make use of the archetype of the mermaid—to invite people to enter into contact with another world and thereby activate fantasy. Why not resist from a place of fantasy? In the end, this is all we have left in such a violent world.
Faced with this dilemma, we have to break this spatial proxemics. How do you explain that there is proxemics at work in the subway even when we are touching and smelling each other at rush hour? There is resistance to activating our senses. There is distance between bodies, even when we brush against one another. I reiterate: Touch goes beyond sex, beyond sin and blame. My work is about a reconciliatory, pedagogical touch that allows us to circulate and break away from the idea that to touch is to sexualize. It could be eroticizing, but the erotic is political. Society is measured by the sexual and this seems very violent to me. As trans* women, we are highly objectified. It seems that as trans* women, we are only able to communicate with men through the sexual. How can we overcome this notion and position ourselves as other corporalities that question the sexual?

Notes

  1. The asterisk following the word trans* is used to indicate that this identity functions as an umbrella term for many transitionary identities. This mechanism opposes thinking of trans* as a fixed category that can be reduced to the well-known T in the acronym LGBTTIQ+ (transgender and transsexual).

  2. The term okupy, rather than occupy, is used here in reference to the political movement okupa (the term used in Spain for squatting) to indicate the right to reclaim space in buildings that have been stripped from the commons.

  3. The Alameda Central in Mexico City was remodeled during López Obrador’s term as mayor (2000–2005) as part of the Partial Urban Development Program for the Alameda Central, a program which initiated a process of gentrification, displacement, and social cleansing in an effort to break up the public space inhabited by working-class groups and minorities through “[the criminalization of] alterity and poverty with the aim of reducing insecurity.” Adrian Hernández Cordero, “Gentrificación y desplazamiento: la zona de la Alameda, Ciudad de México” in Perspectivas del estudio de la gentrificación en México y America Latina, eds. Victor Delgadillo, Iban Díaz y Luis Salinas (Mexico: Instituto de Geografía Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2015), 255–273.

  4. A Mexican lawyer and trans* activist.

  5. Alessa Flores was a trans* activist, sex worker, and sex work advocate involved in the Red de Juventudes Trans (Network of Trans* Youth). She was murdered on October 13, 2016.

  6. Paola Ledezma was a trans* sex worker who was murdered on September 30, 2016.

  7. Kenya Cueva is a trans* activist and human rights and HIV-prevention advocate.

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