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Magazine

30 August 2021
Feathered Body Logistic

Aimar Arriola

What does a body transport? What is its logistic? As I ask myself these questions, Miguel feels close to me .Miguel is close to me  and so is Nancy Garín and Linda Valdés, as we prepare our exhibition  Essays on Seediness: Reading of the Miguel Benlloch’s Archive . Miguel is close to me , right in front of me, as I review digital images and video clips of his performances on the computer. I have Miguel inside me, thanks to my memory of our conversations, shared laughter and trips together.

Miguel Benlloch (1954-2018) was a Spanish performance artist, poet, activist, and friend. He was also a body as infrastructure, that is, if we go by the first definition of the term as a “structure that serves as a support base for others.” Since the 1970s, through his political activism and cultural work and, then later, through his artistic performances and productions, Miguel dedicated his life to creating and disseminating in a collectivized way, a practice guided by the questioning of binary oppositions and in which life as a whole is understood as transition. The notions of displacement and circulation were important to Miguel, just as words like ‘movement,’ ‘transition’ and ‘wiggle’ are present in his performances and writing. We also see them in his work in favor of the free movement of bodies and against the immigration policies of the European Union, exemplified in performances such as Front Eras (2004) and Acuchillad+s (Stabb+d) (2013). And also in his occasional use of routes and means of transportation for the development of his art works, such as in his performances in rivers, for example, Immersion (1996) carried out in the Guadiana River, where Miguel’s floating body connects territories instead of separating them.

If I think about notions of transportation and infrastructure, the first image of Miguel that comes to mind is Tránsito(Transit, 1995), a performance carried out on a barge at the mouth of the Bilbao River, as part of La isla del ©opyright(©opyright Island), a project about free culture by the collective Gratis (Free), which in turn was part of the program Puente… de pasaje (Toll Bridge), curated by Corinne Diserens. Transit is a work I know of only from its video documentation: at night, a body, (Miguel), emerges from a bag that looks like a cocoon or larva sack. The camera follows the body from behind as it proceeds down a narrow catwalk while shedding brown overalls, the first layer of extravagant outfits he is wearing. A large plume of white feathers protrudes from his head. The body enters what appears to be an exhibition inside the barge, full of tables with documentation and other objects distributed throughout the space. The body is not alone, there is an audience and we hear one person say to another: “I think it’s a performance.” This strange body, partially dressed in a ski mask, gloves and long socks, as well as a swimsuit with a bib, moves through the audience, touching the material on display and randomly reading aloud from texts. The performance ends with the body perched on a beer keg while pulling a long strip of magnetic tape from its mouth, before disappearing through the hatch above.

In Transit, Miguel transports us from one place to another. To begin with, the irruption of his body on stage and its extravagant character imbue queer forms with value, forms that question the order of things by not fitting in and by insisting on being seen. If, according to Western thought, the true value of things lies in an interior quality (one’s soul, the depth of one’s being) while the exterior is always merely appearance and deception, Miguel proves that there is value to the surface. In Transit, as well as other of his works, Miguel explores “what a body can do” in ‘seedy’ but flashy clothes (shiny apparel, ornamental garments, bright colors) with a look which might seem extreme to some people . On the other hand,  even unintentionally, Transit seems to point out that rivers and maritime routes, highways, railway systems, and airports are not neutral places and that they produce certain models and forms of sociability and corporeality. If the usual reason for travel, and the use we make of public means of transportation, is profit and utility, the presence of the fantastic body in Transit alters this logic.

Transported by Miguel, and prompted by an email that has just arrived from a person I care much about who tells me about movements of water, sand dunes and other natural displacements, I decide to stop writing, close the laptop and get on a commuter train bound for the coastal town of Portugalete, the place where Miguel produced Transit twenty-five years ago. I resume writing the next day with some notes on my journey: I caught the train in Bilbao at the Zabalburu station, near the Bilbao La Vieja neighborhood, and got off one stop earlier than planned, at the La Iberia station. From there I walked to Portugalete, walking along the river on the old mining train tracks. I advance in the direction of the river under the attentive gaze of several seagulls and the audible and visible presence of the planes that take off from the nearby Bilbao airport. I pass by what is commonly known as Puente Colgante (Suspension Bridge), the oldest ferry bridge in the world and which, even more than its imposing aspect, I have always been attracted to the sensuality of its braided cables. On the way, I observe different boats at anchor, including a couple of small barges, perhaps near where Miguel performed Transit. The roundtrip train ride is full of Pampa grass plants whose swaying takes me to Miguel and his logistics.

According to Wikipedia, the Cortaderia selloana, known in English as pampa grass, fox tail or silver feather, is a botanical species native to the south of Abya Yala. Its feathery flower reminds me of the peacock tail that Miguel wore in his performance DERERUMNATURA (2016) and also the white feather headpiece he wore in Transit. Since 2013, silver feather has been declared an “invasive alien species” in Spain and planting and selling it are prohibited because of its threat to native flora and human health due to the alleged increase in allergies. Today, silver feather elicits the same rhetoric of risk and protection against the Other that underpin European migration policies as well as the violence towards all those who are different. Both silver feather growing on the sides of the train tracks near Portugalete and Miguel share the same splendor, ostentation and ability to spread. Each of the plumes of these feathered flowers produces tens of thousands of seeds a year that are dispersed in the wind by cars and trucks. Likewise, Miguel was a transport network in a human body, an exchanger with high connecting properties for all those he met. Silver feather can grow anywhere, from dunes and mudflats to ditches and abandoned land. For Miguel, any place was good to carry out a performance, always attentive to the questions that came with the invitations he received. The logistics of silver feather and of Miguel are quite similar: to prioritize flowering and circulation without fear of being seen, of being exuberant.

Today is a sunny day in Bilbao, the temperature is warm and the conditions for the propagation of feathered bodies are ideal. According to the Internet, it is during the month of August when the flowers of silver feather begin to grow and are fertilized. The campaigns aimed at stopping the ‘invasion’ of this plant recommend cutting the flowers at this time of the year and placing them in a closed plastic bag, making sure to not leave them on the ground as they might take root again. For my part, I decide to go out for another walk, this time to meet and be fertilized by feathered bodies.

 

References:

– The exhibition  Essays on seediness. Reading of the archive of Miguel Benlloch  can be seen at the IVAM in Valencia from November 11, 2021 to May 22, 2022. Curated by Alejandro Simón, Joaquín Vázquez and Mar Villaespesa, the exhibition will bring together works by Miguel and other artists, including Julio Jara, María Salgado and Fran MM Cabeza de Vaca, Guille Mongan, Álvaro Romero and Equipo re (composed of Nancy Garín, Linda Valdés and myself), invited to ‘activate’ the archive.

-The Miguel Benlloch Archive website is dedicated to bringing together the artist’s life and work, including his participation in the Andalusian Communist Movement, the anti-NATO movement and the Andalusian Gay Liberation Front. All of Miguel’s performances mentioned in this text, including Transit, are documented there.

– Co-organized by Carta Blanca, the  Puente… de pasaje project reflected on the notion of ‘the public’ in the post-industrial context of Bilbao. Corinne Diserens was recently invited to revisit the project during the 3rd Encounter. The Papers of the Exhibition (1987-1997), organized by Bulegoa z/b at Azkuna Zentroa Alhódiga Bilbao. https://bulegoa.org/el-ensayo-de-la-exposicion-1977-2017-ii-encuentro-simposio-internacional-de-comisariado-en-azkuna-zentroa/

– Pampa grass (known in Spanish as feather duster) entered Spain in the 1950s and was used to decorate roundabouts and highways, especially in coastal areas of the Cantabrian Sea, including the Basque Country, but soon expanded uncontrollably. Currently, the Spanish government’s Ministry for Environmental Transition has a “national plan for the management, control and eradication of the feather duster.”

 

(Featured Image: Specimen of cortaderia selloana or feather duster, Ribera de Zorrozaurre, ría de Bilbao, 8 August 2021).

Aimar Arriola works in art as a curator, editor and researcher. For some time now he has been thinking 'about' surfaces, in a double sense: paying attention to the presence of concrete surfaces, such as documents, bodies, or art objects; and reflecting on the differential status that the realm of surfaces has in relation to the deep. He holds a PhD in Visual Cultures from Goldsmiths, University of London and is currently a research associate at AZ Alhóndiga Bilbao. In August 2021 he was happy and bought a black cap.

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