In quarantine, my creative process is an evisceration promenade: a public stroll without my organs and a quest for intimacy in isolation. Now, reader mine, I confess, there is a bit of a contradictory process going on here. I want to create intimacy in isolation, through the screen or in writing, but I also am insistent on becoming a stranger to myself in isolation. I am developing oscillation rituals between familiar and alien.
Some days quarantine melts my center, some days it hardens it. Some days I am puppet, some days puppeteer. When the world is reduced to one place, I find I do not stay in place. I hardly stay in space anymore, or at least I try my very best not to. I’ve long since reached the end of my drug phase, so I have to be much more intentional about finding methods of escape or adrenaline rites to enact when necessary or desperate. Drinking is a flawed strategy, I always end up drunk too early in the night because the winter took my 8pm and made it 4pm. Time is messing with me so I mess with it back. We are not on the best of terms, you might say.
My housing companions are keeping me alive and I lean on them like extra legs. Sometimes I feel wet, sticky fire on my skin and all my internal organs ache, longing to vomit, because my loved ones make me so anxious and angry, and everything is too tight and too loud, including the crowd of people I share a bedroom and a brain with. Sometimes I drown out the nervous voices of my brain family with the words of vindictive Artaud, or the sorceress Anzaldua, or the mid-bender brunch mood of Deleuze and Guattari. They all scratch a particular itch and it helps sometimes, but other times they can make me feel much worse, confronted with the peaks and valleys of creativity.
I have had to expand my subjectivity and proliferate it, to endure isolation. And no, this did not become an antidote to boredom or loneliness, I just met new selves who dwell in such states. We tolerate one another. We cohabitate in modes of peculiar familiarity. Sometimes I am eager to neglect and abandon certain selves. Their vengeance, though often frightful, is something to look forward to. Most events are. Any motion is interesting at the very least, if not entertaining, revelatory, or disastrous.
The existential planes of thought and feeling are as bold as the walls of my room. Nothing is ever as simple as these walls and their promise to contain. It is a deceptive offering; they can hardly keep me within and I can hardly even see them anymore, even though I keep covering them with bright art to counteract winter. And what occurs amid the shifting, false walls is performance; a special quarantine theater which I’ve named the Evisceration Promenade.
The Evisceration Promenade is a stubborn habit, documented delicately in writing and video. Evisceration Promenade is a mode of embodiment that functions at the degree of intensity where it becomes an objectification, a mechanism for receiving cosmic impulse. I find that it is a matter of befriending my organs, not transcending my body, for this can be dangerous and distracting. Activities that are almost transcendent but too inadequate and incomplete to achieve such an eventful climax, are those that simultaneously chisel and broaden consciousness.
Reader, please know, I do not gain consciousness by departing from my body, nor do you by departing from yours. Instead, I connect to all that I am not, by honoring my capacity to confront such forces; honoring the impossibility of being eternal; and surrendering to becoming. Becoming is necessarily a process that occurs in in-between space, in oscillation, and in proximity to limits. When I befriend my organs, they become receptors of divine messages and the impulses they receive channel into my voice, a chorus of the cries of organs.
Performance— a deceptively public art— is a mechanism for survival in isolation. The promenade claims movement as its imperative and evisceration refers to the drawing out of sputtering organs to brave the light and the air for the first time ever. When enacted together, these two gestures or rituals (a public stroll without organs) achieve a special embodied objectification (a result of outside gaze + relation to the organs as external friends). This particular embodied objectification allows one to name and redirect shadows, as Artaud suggests, a critical survival strategy when you’re stuck in a house with your own madness as your only companion. Organs inside the body never experience light. Once removed, they make shadows, like growths that collaborate with sun. My roommate put it rather eloquently in a text message on the matter, “Evisceration is to make painfully public the private… the sudden act of isolating a piece from itself… isolation is then, the reverberation of the first torn intensity.”
The circumstance under which I create performance requires simultaneous and contradictory impossibilities. I eviscerate: I have no organs because I am an object in relation to other objects, including the relation between self and the Body Without Organs. I promenade: I move through an externalized public because I observe and document assemblages and their components. My organs are my audience; my nerve-juice, joints, bones, tissue and blood are my friends and do not belong to me. If I held myself superior to them, I’d be trapped in subjective interiority that cannot be sustained while also trapped in a house.
Antonin Artaud states that theater exists only in the moment where impossibility begins to occur. In the pandemic, theater as it was known to me, became impossible: assembling crowds is impossible, standing closer than six feet to people is impossible, conversing with uncovered faces is impossible. Therefore, the theater that I am interested in, quarantine theater, began at the moment when the art form was banished to the untouched margins of possibility, where I await to meet it for the first time.
Truthfully, I feel as though I am making theater for the first time, which may come as a surprise to you. In quarantine, I must conjure an audience myself and weave it into my compositions, which requires great and reckless fortitude of the imagination. I must also conjure stakes high enough to put me in “danger,” for the actor experiences true affects in imagined situations. To believe that I am in enough danger to require enormous risk, while trusting I am safe enough to take them, I must ritualize entering into and parting from states of fight or flight. Deleuze and Guattari might refer to this as injecting doses of caution, the key strategy to interacting with the Body Without Organs. The BWO is a force that produces desire as it resists organization and the functional conformity of an organism. “The BWO howls: They’ve made me an organism! They’ve wrongfully folded me! They’ve stolen my body!” It is a body with no belonging or form, one that acts upon its violent desire for formlessness and “expresses the pure determination of intensity, intensive difference.” The disorganized body is encountered in pursuit of a dismantled self. It is dangerous. Deleuze and Guattari prescribe “injections of caution,” for the “human body is scandalously insufficient” so if handled thoughtlessly, the BWO can override the organism and destroy it.
Reader, my dearest, I have known it all along. Artaud knew it too. Impossibility and insufficiency are tools of the theater. Artaud opens his book The Theater and its Double with an essay called “The Theater and the Plague.” Timely, I think. The text pursues similarities between the bubonic plague and performance. Both pose disasters that must either be settled in death, or satiated by some remedy. He describes the agonized social psyche of the plagued era: the invasive imagery of dead people in heaps, loved ones blistered and passing one by one, the dreaded familiarity of various moans and groans that spurn or welcome death, the false privilege of escape into seclusion, the fear of dropping dead unexpectedly like the neighbor did yesterday.
Today, our plague kills millions, with a particularly brutal fondness for the most vulnerable people, abused by power structures and neglected by those privileged with resources. Many people rightfully fear this plague, and many others act as though it does not exist. Outside the house there is life-or-death risk bursting from the orifices of strangers and all they touch. Inside the house too, there is the risk of ever-approaching psychosis or of suicide.
Artaud writes: “The state of the victim who dies without material destruction, with all the stigmata of an absolute and almost abstract disease upon him, is identical with the state of an actor entirely penetrated by feelings that do not benefit or even relate to his real condition.” My favorite challenge of quarantine theater is that of enacting impossibility, rather than representing it.
In a paper about Tadeusz Kantor, Heidi Gilpin writes that such a challenge is precisely the function of theater. Theater manifests contradictions and utilizes them as affective materials that serve a sort of collective surrender to the ambivalent insistence of “life’s appetite,” which Artaud defends as a characteristic of the inherent evil of the universe.
Kantor’s work is centered around the bold, sneaky ties between performance and death. The importance of representing death in theater is reinforced by the fact that it cannot be represented. But when an audience does experience a spectacle of disappearance and enactments of death, they are confronted with the inadequacy of representation, and furthermore must reimagine their personal relationships with possibility. Since theater happens when impossibility begins, Kantor raises the necessity to witness death. It is the same necessity which I encounter more and more frequently: that which Artaud names as cruelty, and that which I outline as the shifting distinction between speaking the unspoken and revealing the unsayable.
Theater has a very important task in the face of impossibility and the unsayable. It can be accessed through the enactment of incompleteness, or insufficiency, in addition to repetition. Gilpin offers examples of repetition from psychoanalysis that function similarly to the repeated experience of witnessing disappearance in theater, which makes possible the impossible through self-referential, partial enunciation of that which is absent.
Repetition is a consequence of failure. It is an action performed from the desire to control past events, to overcome failure, but true repetition is impossible. In performance, the tight activity of repetition and its oscillating manipulation of memory, which eventually licks open scar tissue, fulfills the desire of the audience to view becoming. This particular form of becoming faces Artaud’s cruelty, or necessity of life. Gilpin names it as “a desire to witness survival mechanisms at work.”
The desire to witness trauma reenacted and inadequately confronted is connected to the spiritual inclination of theater to raise the unsayable. It is a measured injection of release toward the vast hazard-loaded landscape of the BWO. Artaud, in his section about the plague, elaborates upon my reflection, “... the action of the plague that kills without destroying the organs and the theater which, without killing, provokes the most mysterious alterations in the mind of not only an individual but an entire populace.”
Quarantine theater is Artaud’s theater that dispels evil. It is not made to rouse chaos, but to redirect it; “naming and directing shadows,” to reduce the frequency of mind spirals, sinking nihilism, claustrophobic grief, and other apocalypse-imposed madnesses. I have spent recent months inquiring about theater as a mechanism for survival. My writing honors performance as a source of life in isolation. It works as medicine, it is a worthy spine to wear through ambient collapse. During Evisceration Promenade, many things that had never known light before have now grown shadows, their gestures unrecognizable and complex.
The other day, one quarantine roommate took it upon themself to reflect back to me some observations they made about my behavior when I am creating during quarantine. I am glad they shared their study with me, for it delighted me greatly. They described the way I move erratically through the house, often bursting into rooms where people are consumed in quiet activities and I announce: THAT I AM HAVING AN EXPERIENCE, AN ARTISTIC BREAKTHROUGH, MAKING UNPRECEDENTED THEORETICAL COMPOSITIONS, FALLING INTO UNCANNY FRIENDSHIPS WITH THIS AND THAT WRITER. Or, on unfortunate occasions: A DREADFUL, INSURMOUNTABLE CREATIVE BLOCK AND IMMENSELY SPECTACULAR DESPAIR IN REGARDS TO MY WORTHLESSNESS AS AN ARTIST, STUDENT, AND PERSON. My roommate giggled as they told me all of this, and I cackled relief, in awe of the accuracy. They carried on, describing the daily inconsistencies and the conspicuous cloud of mood I invariably don. And I carry on too, careful not to lean too far into the trope of tormented genius, but parading my guts around my ever-shifting house as the fantastical, untethered prodigy that quarantine has taught me to be.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and its Double, Trans. Victor Corti. London: Alma Classics, 2010.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, vol. 2. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Gilpin, Heidi. “Lifelessness in Movement, or How Do the Dead Move? Tracing Displacement and Disappearance for Movement Performance,” In Corporealities. Ed. Susan Foster New York/London: Routledge Press, 1996, 106-128.