In spring 2015, when the spread of Ebola invigorated an immune response for countries such as the United States to suspend air-travel in the face of a deadly epidemic, we speculated on vulnerabilities that loomed within and beyond the realm of public health. From ISIS to continuous global and environmental crises, the media’s pronouncement of threats posed to individuals and collectives alike were ubiquitous. As urgency slipped into a normative state of being, for Issue 24, we asked contributors to explore the various meanings of vulnerability in visual culture. If the rapid diffusion of the Ebola virus could be read as emblematic of the vulnerability of globalism to systemic failure, then what other figurative antigens and foreign bodies remained latent within the global collective?
While raising the question of “vulnerability” in our call for papers, we concomitantly held a graduate conference on the theme of “collectivity” here at the University of Rochester. The wide array of submissions to the call for papers and the conference quickly led us to discover that “vulnerability” and “collectivity” were inseparable from each other, as well as from considerations of the human body. Rather than engaging the familiar analogy of the body operating like a machine or mechanical system, we wanted to consider what it would mean for global systems and collectives to operate like bodies, so we turned to Jean-Luc Nancy’s 1992 essay “Corpus” to consider “the exposed body of the world’s population”1:
The final assumption of the signifying body is political. ‘Body politic’ is a tautology, or at least obvious, for the whole tradition, whatever its various figures may be. The political foundation rests on this absolute signifying circularity: that the community should have body as its sense, and that the body should have community as its sense. Consequently, that the body should have the community—its institution—as its sign, and that the community should have the body—of king or assembly—as its sign. Thus there’s an infinite presupposition of a body-community… politics begins and ends with bodies…2
While the word “corpus” denotes a collected body of written texts, usually belonging to a single author or a comprehensive collection on a particular subject, it also carries weighty connotations of individual and collective human bodies, in the most abject example of excrement, metaphysical example of the spirit, or communal example of politics. For Jean-Luc Nancy, it is a graveyard, it is a promise to keep silent, to not penetrate the realm of language, narrativity, and discourse. This issue—which constitutes a corpus itself—evolved to comprise texts and creative submissions engaging artistic corpora that oscillate between solitude and collectivity and that solicit sentiments inseparable from an intimate sense of material (and vulnerable) embodiment.
To remedy oversights in current literature on Hans Richter’s Rhythmus films (1921–25) that ignore or skim across his concern with collectivity, Erin McClenathan proposes to reunite disparate readings of the Rhythmus series through Richter’s own involvement in an overtly collaborative venture that coincided with his foray into filmic abstraction during the first half of the 1920s. Along with Theo van Doesburg, El Lissitzky, Raoul Hausmann, Mies van der Rohe, and Werner Gräff, Richter was one of the founding contributors to and the dedicated editor of G: Materials for Elemental Form-Creation. In their introduction to G 1, Richter and Gräff insisted that “new artists act collectively”—a sentiment borne out by the journal’s corpus of six issues, published in Berlin between July 1923 and April 1926. The issues contained a mixture of image reproductions, architectural plans, diagrams, photographs, film stills, cartoons, prose, and poetry that substantiates the numerous reappearances of Richter’s work in diverse disciplines and that demonstrates palpable tensions between the particular and universal, the individual and collective, that informed Richter’s Rhythmus project.
Sarah Abu Bakr’s essay “A Stranger in the Gallery: Conceptions of the Body through Art and Theory” approaches the work of artist Mona Hatoum, addressing conceptions of the body such as strangeness/foreignness, intimacy and vulnerability, self and Other, presence and absence, and horror/desire. This creative and critical text is a reflexive exploration of the figure of the Arab woman in the gallery, or conceptual spaces of exhibition.
Ali Feser’s creative written and visual contribution, “Fieldnotes from the Hy Meisel Slide Collection,” explores an archive of slides in the basement of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY, that were taken by Hy Meisel over the course of his long career as a machinist for Eastman-Kodak. His photographs encompass a creative photographic practice and document his personal and professional life, as well as Rochester’s rapidly changing cityscape in the early to mid-twentieth century. Closely studying hundreds of Meisel’s slides, Feser uses a first-person approach to ponder the physical vulnerability of analog photography and the materiality of the archive, foregrounding the temporal and affective dimensions of researching in solitude while engaging documents of collective history.
Erika Raberg’s video Alone Together deals with the idea of partnership in opposition. Drawing from footage filmed from the VIP section of a boxing tournament, it visually isolates a specific gesture from boxing matches in which the appearance of intimacy emerges briefly within an aggressive, hyper-masculinized space. Referred to as clinching, it is a moment of remarkable sculptural tension between bodies that looks like an intense embrace. These moments occur when, at the height of their exhaustion, one fighter pulls the other close to him in order to have the briefest moment’s reprieve from the fight. In order to rest, they must lean into one another. The video alternates between providing information through sound and through sight—most of the time, the viewer sees nothing but hears the background noise from the stadium, and when this gesture does appear, it does so in silence and only for a moment.