Reading Feminism with a Single Hand
Members of Young Girl Reading group talk about reading as a feminist tactic, importance of online visibility and sensory aspects of performance as a medium.
D. GAWĘDA & E. KULBOKAITĖ, YGRG14X: reading with a single hand VII. Exhibition and performance initiated by B. Gregov and L. Vene (Organ Vida), Galerija Karas, Zagreb. Performing: M. Granić, M. Jonjić, M. Polanović
Young Girl Reading Group (YGRG) is a visual and performing arts collective started by Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė. The duo began their cooperation while studying together at London's Royal College of Art and started the Young-Girl Reading Group in 2013 in Berlin. Collective which started out as a book club and a way to make up for the deficit of feminist reading in the context of artistic education soon spread out into virtual spaces of social networks. Through their artistic practice, Gawęda and Kulbokaitė use reading as a performative strategy to explore interrelations of feminist theory and performance. Another important focus of their work is performative exploration of smell and olfactory sensibility.
YGRG recently staged their performance YGRG14X: Reading with a single hand in Karas Gallery. YGRG's exhibition, initiated and organized by curators Barbara Gregov and Lea Vene of Organ Vida, will stay open until 14th July. The title of their piece is a paraphrase of an expression which connotes masturbatory reading, though in the case of the performance it also reffers to the act of reading text from smartphone screens by performers, which was then streamed live via Instagram.
Kulbokaitė and Gawęda insist on the nomadic and horizontal character of their collective. Beside sharing knowledge online, they collaborate with local artists in each city they visit and include them in the YGRG's working and performing process. Therefore, Zagreb's edition od Reading with a single hand was performed by Martina Granić, Mate Jonjić and Mirta Polanović. We used this opportunity to talk to Dorota and Eglė about YGRG, the Internet, reading and other bodily acts and senses they incorporate in their work.
Young Girl Reading Group started as an actual, physical reading group you started with friends and people you know. Now it's a project that spread out both geographically and virtually, one that includes a worldwide network of different collaborators, both online and offline. How do you choose texts and topics for your work?
D.G: We started the project in 2013. In the first stage it functioned as a reading group with weekly meetings and we really read quite a lot and intensively in that period. Through the group we tried to find a horizontal approach to theory, which is reflected in an organic text selection. It's a non-academic way of sharing knowledge and traveling from one text to the next through conversation and common reference points that arise from the group dynamic. The group has read many texts which mainly belong to the body of feminist and queer theory. We also read fiction, mostly science fiction because it opens interesting ways of seeing certain topics through the lens of differently imagined worlds.
E.K: We started by reading Tiqqun's book Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl and continued reading texts that question gender. All the texts are recommended to us by the group and by now we have compiled quite a big list of materials we read and would like to read. It's developing as an accumulative archive of reading that comes from different sources since the people that participate also come from different contexts. We’re also planning to create a website which would serve as an archive of YGRG, which would include texts we’ve read and reading suggestions. Some of the writers we’ve read throughout are Silvia Federici, Sadie Plant, Rosi Braidotti, Shulamith Firestone, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Donna Haraway, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Luce Irigaray, Paul B. Preciado, Laboria Cuboniks, Richard Sennett, Luciana Parisi and Hito Steyerl.
Your collective name comes from Tiqqun's text which posits the Young-Girl as an ultimate figure of late-capitalist alienation, as a consumer model citizen whose triumph is the failure of feminism. She/he/they is sexually emancipated, but also completely commodified. Why did you choose this figure in the first place and what is your relationship to it today?
E.K: It was the first book we read, and it opened important questions for our following work. At the beginning of the text Tiqqun states that Young-Girl is not a gendered concept. Throughout the book it starts to feel otherwise because they strongly associate femininity with the capitalist system. We wanted to break this relation with the help of other texts we were reading, and to show that the relationship of femininity and capitalism is a much more complex one.
D.G: It's important to point out that Tiqqun is an all-male, all-white collective that hides under a pseudonym. We wanted to question what it means when people with so much privilege adopt the strategy which was historically used by women who couldn't write under their real names. We also wanted to discuss how easy it is for this "radical" collective to find and use a vessel of femininity which is very far from their own experience. Furthermore, we were interested in what it means for them to blame femininity for everything they hate about the world, while at the same time pretending it's not a gendered concept, whereas it is actually an extremely gendered concept. It was about reclaiming certain names and identities, and the importance of renegotiating self-representation. Such renegotiating seems really important to us, especially in the time of online presence, since social media is highly regulated by these types of people too. In that context, trying to think about the Young-Girl from a different type of experience is crucial to us.
I would like to talk more about reading as a practice. The title of the work you are presenting in Zagreb - Reading with a single hand – alludes to the act of solitary reading of a pornographic text. On the other hand, you make reading a group and public activity and you also perform in quite uncomfortable body positions, disturbing both the notion of solitary reading and the notion of relaxed reading. How do you see/feel the body in relation to reading and pornography?
E.K: In this particular work we were inspired by Paul B. Preciado's thesis in which he talks about how reading and sexuality developed in sync and in relation to the particular spatiality and architecture of the house. He shows how female reading was confined to the space of withdrawal and internalization and how both reading and sexuality were internalized. We got interested in the idea of subverting that relation by making reading public and by developing shared intimacy between a group of people. That intimacy is physical, and it's created in the public space of a gallery. It's also documented by the performers and shared online. In a way, reading has a double presence in the context of our performance.
D.G: Through the choreography of the performance we wanted to point out that reading is also an act which shapes the body. That's why we decided to push the performing bodies into awkward reading poses, wanting to explore how performance articulates the words in a way that is felt by and through the reading body.
Social networks and virtual space in general is a corporate dominated, heavily capitalist and heteronormative environment which, among other things, posits the body as a product. Social networks are also heavily scripted and offer limited possibilities. Yet you choose to perform via Instagram and to have a virtual Facebook reading group. How do you navigate such an environment?
D.G: The question of visibility is central here. We believe it's equally valid to question the visibility of certain bodies in virtual space as it is to question it in physical spaces. In both cases, the world is centered around a white, heteronormative point of view and this is by all means something that needs to be questioned. We feel that it's really important to make sure that different kinds of subjectivity and different shapes of desire are made visible as well. We shouldn't forget that spaces of social media shape experience as much as actual physical spaces and we feel that they should also be occupied and utilized.
E.K: We understand the limitations of technology, but also recognize that technology in itself is not necessarily restrictive. It's always the question of how you use it. We are trying to propose different ways of being online and being in the world. In both cases, there is no possibility of exit, so claiming the space(s) seems like a necessary strategy. Of course, retrieval is also a possibility, but we feel that the idea of not participating comes from a very privileged position, which is also an important part of the reason we decide to participate and be visible.
Do you see your social media practices as an act of reclamation?
D.G: To an extent, we do. On the other hand, one shouldn't be naive about it. It's also necessary to be fully aware of what it means to ”feed“ these algorithms, to provide the image and the text. We shouldn't forget that this is the case if you're a practicing artist in any other way or space, you also somehow ”feed“ the market by showing your work. Social networks are also a medium that is so present in everyone's life and they have the ability to give people superficial comfort. It's somehow nice to use a tool that is so common.
E.K: It's also a tool much more common than a book, and a medium which can reach a larger amount of people than any other mode of artistic interaction today. In a way, using online space is an education for us. Of course, it has to do with our art and aesthetics, but it's also an important way of learning, of sharing and adopting knowledge. We shouldn't forget that, in an online context, it's possible to find and read the texts that are not read nor discussed in schools.
As a part of your work on the construction of Young-Girl, you also developed a YG fragrance branded as a "smell of no one in particular". How did the process of developing that fragrance look like?
E.K: We work with the sense of smell on different levels, having produced multiple fragrances so far through a collaboration with the company International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. They provide us with technical resources necessary for the production of fragrances. One of our first fragrances BODY AI was developed with the Parisian scent designer Caroline Dumur back in 2017. With it, we wanted to explore what would Young-Girl smell like and to try to create the fragrance for a person with no gender and no particular personality.
D.G: In a way it was a classic way of working with a perfumer since we presented them with a customer. The difference was that we wanted this customer to be non-gendered and to not have a body in a fixed sense. The perfume industry relies on strict binary categorizations to a great extent. In that context, talking about the structures of a fragrance usually includes oppositions like organic/non-organic, animal/synthetic, male/female etc. Therefore, it was interesting for us to try and get rid of this kind of binarized thinking.
What were the following stages of your exploration of smells?
D.G: Most recently, we decided to shake up the classic way of perfume creation by developing another fragrance which is an olfactory documentation of a performance. It was a really interesting process in which we used technology that stores the fragrant object or air sample and captures the smell so it can be identically reproduced in the following performances. At ANTI - 6th Athens Biennial we presented a new piece titled YGRG159: SULK (2018), during which the fragrance RYXPER1126AE was conceived in collaboration with New York branch of IFF Inc.
E.K: We named the smell RYXPER1126AE which is basically a laboratory, generic kind of title. It was an interesting process in which we scripted the performance into chapters which are represented by the ingredients of the perfume. Our aim was then to replicate the intimate experience of the performance smells and to explore the ways of documenting in a more sensual way instead of using the usual, visual means. Together with a chemist, perfumer and smell designer we produced a synthetic molecular replica of the smell collected during the performance with the use of headspace technology. This new smell bears a poetic sign or memory of belonging to a collective experience, a sentiment to a shared moment.
So it all comes back to the different ways bodies are shaped and how they interact.
D.G: Which is also interesting to think about in a molecural way. Molecural dispersion of bodies is something that brings us back and again to Paul B. Preciado's theory. The act of the intermingling of different bodies and the importance of seeing them as not necessarily separate is also something to have in mind.
E.K: Exactly. With our fragrance work we wanted to touch upon the matter of molecural colonialism and the ways particles of the bodies are also something that is capitalized by various industries. On the other hand, bodies are always merging and contaminating each other, which is also a part of the public and shared intimacy of the performance.