What was your desire and the questions when you started working on your solo Submission Submission?

When I first started working on Submission Submission, my desire was largely to study women’s lives in the medieval period in order to learn from the particular strategies that they were using to subvert their immediate circumstances and present. I was fascinated by their modes of self-organisation both within monastic and non-monastic settings, as well as the multiple techniques they were developing to learn to read and write independent of educational structures, and also the different ways of practicing and embodying spirituality on their own terms. This resilience which was corporal, strategic, and spiritual felt like an important material to practice aligning with. So the starting question was very much rooted in this, how can I learn from these women and in which ways can their strategies be relevant today, what is necessary to tell and how to tell it.

As I began to work more thoroughly with scholarly texts, very quickly I realised that rather than taking a historiographic approach, I was actually more interested in a hagiographic one. Hagiography, being the writing of saints’ lives, was actually one of the most popular literary genres in the medieval period and currently it is used as one of the important sources for historians to read first-hand accounts. In it, one can find not only biographical information about a saint but also persuasive tellings of levitation, miracles, phenomenal stories of healing, and beautiful exchanges between the human and heavenly realms. Hagiography, being theological, devotional, moral, and yet spectacular in nature, appealed to me because its aim is to convince its readers of a saints’ holiness. It doesn’t ask, did she actually levitate or not, but rather chooses to agree with her claim and then works to structure its narrative in order to affirm even the most inexplicable miracles.

A fundamental part of hagiography for me is also the fact that a saint’s life is never just told once, it is told again and again and in each version the details or emphasis change and another interpretation of her life is offered up. Essentially, it is a genre of iteration, retelling, and adaptation, which I feel even more offers up the necessity to keep the momentum of the story going. My desire therefore in Submission Submission is to use the versioning nature of hagiography as a continuum between historical and contemporary forms of narration. And by offering up my version, I am merely adding one more voice into the mix. My politics is here not to rectify history, mine is rather to participate in, adjust, and practice its narration – with my body, my words, her echoes, and the public. And to be honest, my ultimately hope is to smuggle these saints away from the canonising church and give them back to the public realm.

As I am only working on a small subgroup within the enormous landscape of hagiography, meaning women saints, I try to focus on the set of tropes that are proper to their lives and understand what are the commonalities and differences with exaggerating. A commonality being that she would use her body as a site of revolt and as her main tool to subvert insurmountable forms of power. A difference being the techniques she would use to do it.

In order to contextualise a bit more what these women were up against and to appreciate the profundity and nuance of her subversive acts, it is important to acknowledge that during the middle ages, a woman’s tongue was considered venomous and spewing lies. She was often hatefully blamed as the descendant of Eve, as being solely responsible for the fall of man. All sense of spiritual influence was extremely compromised as she was not permitted to teach, and rarely had access to a decent education. If and when she was able to exceed this widespread misogyny, she would be sure to face numerous denunciations – motivated by the devil, slave to her belly, a liar, a drunkard, and forever guilty – she will pay for everything at the Last Judgement. In order to manoeuvre the possible attacks, a holy women would have to strategically frame her words, body, and actions in order to produce her very own form of compromised authority both during her lifetime and after her death. For me what lies at the very core of a medieval woman saints’ expression of holiness is a nuanced terrain of submission as a political practice.

For example, one interesting and recurring strategy can be found in the writings of Hildegard of Bingen. There is one particular letter that I worked on for Submission Submission where she describes the nature of her visions, in it she explains to her addressee that it is not I that speaks, but rather god that speaks through me. In “her own words”, “The words I speak are not my own, nor any human beings…I merely report those things I receive from my supernatural visions.” In this instance, the holy woman submits her lips and vocal chords to a higher, heavenly power whilst simultaneously validating her own words and making it possible to speak.

Another interesting example can be found in the hagiographic writings of Raymond of Capua on the life of Saint Catherine of Siena, where he describes how she constructed (with the help of the holy spirit) an architecture within her own body, an inner cell, in which she could separate herself from the outside world to exist more independently. ‘[…] the Holy Spirit had taught her to erect a little cell in the interior of her soul, whence she resolved never to come forth, notwithstanding her pressing exterior occupations. When she was privileged with a room, she was often obliged to leave it, but, nothing could oblige her to leave this interior retreat — external truth has declared that the kingdom of God is within us.’

This invention of an interior architecture is also paralleled in the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila, in a book literally entitled The Interior Castle, where she says, ‘This magnificent refuge is inside you. Enter. Shatter the darkness that shrouds the doorway… Believe the incredible truth that the Beloved has chosen for his dwelling place the core of your own being because that is the single most beautiful place in all of creation.’ By constructing these interior spaces of spirituality, the saint manages to create the conditions by which she can practice her faith on her own terms. As we can read in the life of Saint Catherine of Siena, she was not privileged with having a room of her own for she was often obliged to leave it. So that even as she submits to an itinerant spiritual practice imposed by the outside, she is nonetheless able to have an interior cell to retreat into. That is, she constructed a conceptual loophole, a place which she could not be denied, to practice her own relation with god.

For me, all of these stories in their own ways use submission, or submitting to one’s circumstances, as a way to subvert them. In Submission Submission, I name myself an amateur hagiographer of these saints and their various acts. Amateur because I am both a beginner and an amator (latin root) or a lover of these saints. And my work is to submit myself to the labour of bringing them into body and this is conflated with my body and its labor.

Your performance is an ongoing collection of performative portraits of medieval women saints. Could you say something about the research, selection and working process for the portraits?

Maybe its first good to talk about the overall format or structure of the piece… the idea with Submission Submission, like you said, is to make a growing catalogue of performative portraits, but for each iteration of the performance I only choose four saints to embody. I like the idea that project is too expansive to fit into a single evening-length performance and that an audience member will only ever get a partial view into it. Like this, the work feels structurally open to me. In the sense that it is a performance that would rely on disparate publics in order to create an imaginary sense of whole. And if two audience members from two different versions of Submission Submission would meet, perhaps they would need to retell what the other missed and then it would slip beyond my own authorial grasp and into the gossiping lips.

Partially I choose this format because I felt that the literary, historical, and performative study that I wanted to engage with was so vast, that it was necessary to conceptually and dramaturgically build it a structure that it could accommodate for years of research and creation. On the other hand, as much of the work is about testing out different genres of performativity and particular relations to the public, it was also important for me to make sure that I could continue playing it even as it was still in creation. There was no real premiere in that sense – each time I add a new saint, she has a premiere, alongside three other portraits that are already finished. In time this way of working has felt different than I imagined. What is interesting for me now is that each time I begin working on a new portrait, the world around me, my physical state, my bodily training and theoretical interests have all changed and each time I have the luxury of taking another stab at challenging and refining the work.

The unit of the portrait is important, partially because it is a convention within hagiography, but also because the work feels most specific when I can handle each saints’ life separately. Each portrait is about 15 minutes long, and generally I add one new portrait per year. The choice of saint happens rather fluidly as she often quite readily presents herself to my fascination. First the encounter is through books, both secular and spiritual, all the different tellings I can find. Then I try to identify the specific (usually corporal) strategies that she was using; she might cut her hair off or take out her eyes to avoid a potential marriage suitor or prove her union with Christ by taking only the eucharist or even her own breast milk as her sole source of nourishment. Then there is a mysterious jump where I search for the genre or form of the portrait. It is usually intuitive and starts with a one-liner relation — Hildegard of Bingen is dance improvisation, Catherine of Siena is monologue, Christina of Bolsena is all-girl punk band, etc. — and from there it gains complexity by thinking through its narration. There is a hagiographer John Capgrave, who writes “My labour is to bringe them into o body.” I therefore try to ask myself: How might this strange and delicate exercise of bringing this saint ‘into o body’, against time, and into the secular realm be embodied and performed? But also… How does one perform historiographic and literary research of mystical or spiritual materials with all the tools one has at hand – one’s physical, digital, and extended body?

Even though I’ve been going at this subject matter for a long time, nonetheless when reading Medieval literature, I often face moments of non-comprehension, misinterpretation, and awe as the paradigms for everything, especially notions of the body, have radically changed. As a reader today, it often feels like Medieval literature is some kind of textual equivalent to the film genre of Body Horror, low-fi and filled with completely awkward scenes of body modification and limb dismantlement. Saint Christina of Bolsena has her tongue cut out, Saint Agatha has her breast cut off, Saint Lucy rips out or has her eyes ripped out and then carries them on a plate. Or perhaps with a bit more nuance, Saint Catherine of Siena who says that her heart was taken out and replaced by the heart of Christ and that she was gifted the foreskin of Jesus as a marriage ring. The integrity of the body was an extremely volatile terrain. But something like the notion of resurrection can actually give many clues. Throughout the medieval period, the resurrection of the body was a very charged and hot topic, which actually manage to route the question of what is a body through the question how will we come back to life before the last and final judgement. What age, height, and sex will we have in the resurrected body? Will all matter that has passed through the body at any point be resurrected? Must bits of matter return to the particular members (for example, fingernails or hair) where they once resided? What is interesting in these debates, which is reflected in saints lives, is the overarching question of where does a body begin and where does it end, how do we comprehend the continuity and transformation of self, and what is the relationship between the parts and the whole.

Beyond the miraculous stories of cut members, resurrection, and transformations of the body, I am also extremely fascinated by the performativity saints. During a saints lifetime, probably before she ever became a saint, because her actions are so extreme, the community around was often in distrust. Questioning what her ecstasies were motivated by – god or the devil? When making a portrait, I always try to evoke a similar dynamic with my public. I equate them to the community surrounding the saint. I want those that are witnessing me to be in a similar dynamic of wondering if this person before them is holy or a heretic. I flip between the position of the storyteller (the hagiographer) and the resurrection of the saint herself. An ambivalence of over-identification, penetrated by love, and transgressing the limits of the physical body. It is my own small confusion tactic for unsettling a clarity seeking public.

In Submission Submission, I often try to elaborate the narratives like a fan fiction writer would – imagining alternative endings, fantasising romances and scenarios unfounded in the original text. If we have been taught to mine a text for authorial intentions, historical content, and indicators of genre and style, we continue to practice modes of taking distance to a text. On the contrary, I try to work with text as a decaying corpse who ushers its readers to move into its tightened tissues and cells to make stabs at animating it, feeling out its contours, and appropriating it for the readers own needs. I try to propel these existing narratives by forcing its contents to snap to another grid of desire – the desire of the reader, myself. Opening up the frame wider and wider to accommodate for the dancing body, the writing body, the extended body within the reading of the text.

Submission Submission blends between your body / yourself on stage and the multiple use of video images, alternating between distance and proximity. How did you work with the creation of the video-images during the process and what place are the images taking in your work?

As I am interested in narration, I find it important to address the question of how and with what tools am I telling these stories. Though my body here is one fleshy problem, perhaps at the center, I also try to evoke through video-projection a second surface for reading, movement, and written text. As my computer is ultimately the place where the majority of my work happens, I try to integrate and interrogate what it might mean to physically, aesthetically, and practically use my computer as a participant in the performance. In fact, more than a specific meditation on the importance of images or video for the work, there is a more backwards justification to their use at stake. The logic I try to build for Submission Submission is a digital one, and the presence of my computer is merely an expression of the underlying tenets. I’ll try to flesh them out now…

As a metaphor for the structure of the piece I often use the image of a Medieval codex. Most simply, a codex is a sequence of grouped rectangular surfaces, superimposed and sew together. What is interesting about the advent of this kind of writing surface, as opposed to its precedent – the scroll, is that it engenders what we could call in retrospect ‘random access memory’ or RAM. That is the possibility to access an arbitrary element directly, rather than in sequence as one would read the scroll. It engendered the possibility for the reader to structure her reading herself and to renew the order of her page-flipping time and time again. For me, as there are only four portraits shown at a time, essentially in each performance I can flip from page to page, from portrait to portrait, depending on the context. The entirety of the performance therefore only exists on a virtual plane.

Another aspect of the digital logics present in the piece has to do with versioning and variation. As the intention of a hagiographic text is not necessarily to tell the whole story in all its truth, variance is always fair play for the aim is merely to portray the saint in all of her holiness. Perhaps rather than seeing variation as a threat to historical accuracy, maybe instead it can be seen as another way of constructing narratives across times and mouths and hands. On another level, I also think the processes of rereading, rewriting, and reactivating are an important part of contemporary technologies for circulation. Like re-posting, for example. When thinking about narratives, what if publishing is not about putting something in print, but rather circulating it? Additionally, when thinking about the larger-scale imperative for history to be rewritten, I think we have to acknowledge that the entire landscape of writing has changed. It is therefore important to ask the question – how has electronic textuality shifted and expanded our understandings about inscription, erasure, repeatability, variability, and survivability.

Perhaps the final aspect to bring up here is the computer as a writing, reading, performing, and publishing surface. The video screenshot work I am doing in Submission Submission has been a recurring technique and tool within my work. In fact, even the interest in submission stretches further back. In 2016, I made a performance called Indispensible Blue (offline) which is a computer choreography or screen-based poem or offline dance. It used the OSX user interface as its scenography and as its publishing surface. By burrowing poems into all usable desktop surface, opening folder onto folder onto folder, flickering between screenshot video and liveness – it was an attempt to use dance and poetry to escape the pre-programmed patterns which guide our daily computer actions. It chooses for the position of the computer user (not computer programmer) and tries to construct a poetics from within her illiteracy. One of the core principles is that it happened offline – the action of turning off the wifi was even integrated into the choreography itself. All materials for the performance (music, video, image) were made in duet with the softwares or in-built features already available on my personal computer: garageband, text edit, default desktop images, etcetera.

In many ways, I believe that the technologies one uses and the surfaces one touches always, in one way or another, exert a choreographic pressure on the user. Suggesting or dictating how it should be used and what it could be used for. The soft pressure our computers put on us both guide the movement of the user and the aesthetics of her expression. But the submissive thinking I wanted to arrive at here was: certainly one can take pleasure in leaning into the fulfillment of a demanded form. Falling into form can also be a way to detect what is being asked of you. Enjoying this submission can be a way to avoid conceptualizing or strategizing an attack. By looking at submission as possessing a range and a quality gives way to feeling out the more subtle uses, misuses, and abuses. And assumes the risk of losing the potential to re-gather and dominate by stepping away from the guarding of power and what it entails.

Photo: Michiel Devijver