REVIEW: Performing (at) the Body’s Edge: “This Is Just Like Life”

skinPerforming (at) the Body’s Edge: “This Is Just Like Life”
New York University, 15 November 2011

The fall CSGS calendar of evening events ended on an amazing note, with a conversation between Shelley Jackson and Rebecca Schneider, hosted by CSGS and NYU’s Department of Performance Studies. Jackson and Schneider, whose books include The Melancholy of Anatomy (Jackson) and The Explicit Body in Performance (Schneider), had a lot to say to one another about bodies. They focused their discussion on Jackson’s work and, in particular, on her short story, “Skin.”

In 2003, Jackson put out an ad in Cabinet magazine, calling for participants in a “mortal work of art”: a 2,095-word story that required as many volunteers to provide a surface for her text. Jackson joked that “Skin” is “one of the more expensive books ever published, at $50 to $100 a word.” The story is “still at the printers,” as it is being published one word at a time on living human skin, in the form of tattoos on the bodies of volunteers. Jackson described “Skin” as a project that “blurs to the point of collapse the distinction between body and language,” so that the relationship between body and language “becomes one of identity,” not simply of likeness. With “Skin,” she posits: “if bodies are words, then words are bodies”—and indeed she refers to the participants in the story as “words.” Jackson described her work more generally as “an extension of an obsession with having a body at all,” and a “fascination with how weird it is that we think of the world in terms of ideas” or meanings, instead of materiality—“and yet, we are made of stuff.” Her work plays with the also-weird materiality of words and ideas through the “fantasy of total translatability in the world,” which offers the possibility that “meaning might not be as abstract and remote as it seems,” and so it might “engage with us on a physical level.”

Rebecca Schneider suggested that “the project underscores an always-already operation of language and embodiment: words are always tactile, but we don’t always take note.” She offered a beautifully playful riff on the “incredibly, fabulously material” project, describing the ways it “undoes” the meanings of literature and the “stuff” of books, reworking them in terms of intimacy, collectivity, and consent. In “Skin,” “circulation has to rethink itself,” and “binding holds differently,” as the words “may be bound together in some way, but that way has become immaterial, or affective”—the space between words, and between word and reader, can either be “no space at all,” as close as ink on skin, or reflect the “outrageous expansion” of the physical location of the words, dispersed across continents.

If the meaning of the word literature is “acquaintance with letters,” then Schneider understands Jackson’s aim to be “to unsettle the term acquaintance into something more viscous, porous and flexible”—and, certainly, Jackson has “made matters more interesting.” The participants become the words of the story, and so an acquaintance with these words is relational, as “the words have lives: walking to the grocery store, showering when dirty, turning over in bed.” While Jackson described the participants’ experience in the project, Schneider spoke to the ways Jackson’s “words” might be encountered out of context, if the reader is a person accessing the word on or as another’s body. “Look around,” Schneider said, “surely we have some words among us; or we are all perhaps words among themselves, making a part of a story with spaces between us, as between words, the spaces that separate skin from skin.”

Jackson didn’t read an excerpt from “Skin,” as she has specified that only the participants, or “words,” can read the whole story. She did read another story—also called “Skin”—which she described as “one of the myriad of stories that is not [her] story, but that [her] story could form on an auspicious day,” as it was written using only words from the original “Skin.” Her reading of this brief and haunting version of “Skin” was accompanied by a video of the story’s text, commissioned in 2011 by the Berkeley Art Museum.

The video was cut and pasted together from short video clips of 191 of Jackson’s “words” pronouncing themselves. “Who are we, anyway?… We don’t remember who we are but we are certain we are not dead,” she intoned, as bodies flashed across the screen behind her, echoing her words: “This is just like life.”

–Julia DeLeon

Julia DeLeon is a PhD student in Performance Studies at NYU.