According to Aristotle’s Physics, Zeno’s Dichotomy paradox states: “that which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal.” In order to travel from point A to point B, you must travel half the distance between them. It follows that, halving the remaining distance, you then have to travel a quarter of the total distance, followed by an eighth, then a sixteenth, a thirty-second, and so on and so forth, never reaching point B as the distance remaining between you and your destination can still always be halved infinitely, the measurements growing smaller alongside an ever-widening, ever-deepening chasm: the void opening up between you and point B, an untraversable gulf; a spilling over, or rounding off, and a recursive churning moving into a fractal.
Anecdotally, in robots, computer animation, and other industries in which human replicas are constructed, the facsimiles create a stronger sense of revulsion in human observers the closer they get to being the most life-like. Which is to say that while we can find robots like WALL-E and R2D2 endearing and cute to a point, once their brethren begin to look a little too much like us, we instead become alienated. Personal experience would also suggest that once we become close to another individual—the more we understand aspects of their humanity and them ours—a similar disassociation can occur.
Analogously, consider the performer/audience relationship, which, at its heart, contains a depth of unknowing (as with any relationship), a similar void that exists as a result of our limited means of perception. Simpler yet, consider your relationship with your mother, friends, significant other(s), coworkers, bank tellers, etc. In any interaction, we attempt to communicate in words or actions whatever it is we’ve formulated in our minds to express. The myriad options possess a limited means and only through a series of compromises do we agree that our point has been taken.
To that effect, there is no being “on the same page” as another, as the page numbers come from separate books, with different subject matter and experiences. Artists take the subject matter (if any) of their works and create a methodological symbology to express it. It is the completeness of this symbology that allows a meaning (again, if any) to be expressed with any sense of impact or importance. The symbology trespasses the void. When a performance creates a “closed system” in which the symbology is both created within and supported by the performance itself, fewer compromises are forced to be made in a thinking audience member’s ability to interpret the symbols within. This is not to say that a symbol cannot have multiple meanings representative of multiple contexts. On the contrary, meaning shifts within the context of the space and time of a performance.
Hunger is also a void, or, more specifically, hunger is a symbol of a void in need of being filled. Biologically, it is a simple urge to keep ourselves alive by consuming food. Metaphorically, hunger means ambition, the urge to excel and a desire for validation and recognition brought about by offering the burden of proof of ourselves to others. Hunger is a force that will destroy us if not kept at bay, though it can also be harnessed. As dancers and performers our bodies are our machines, tools and mediums for the work that we create, and hunger signals when we need fuel, whether heeded or not. As it continually exists alongside notions of nourished or full, hunger is an anti-fuel. As the summation of our desires, ambitions, needs, and even ego, hunger creates a double of our selves: an anti-body of our own body fueled by anti-fuel that exists outside and in our shadows.
Hunger is a catalyst. As a form of protest, hunger has been utilized since before the Christian era and was a key tactic in the British Suffragette movement that gained women the right to vote, and was employed by the American Suffragettes as well. Most are familiar with Gandhi’s efforts at hunger striking in order to win India’s independence from British Colonialism. An even more contemporary example would be Bobby Sands, a volunteer of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died of complications resulting from self-imposed starvation on May 5th, 1981 while being held prisoner in HM Prison Maze.
Clearly, the most prescient example of hunger strikers, and the one exemplified here, are the 104 detainees, of which 43 who are being “enterally fed” (a military euphemism for force-feeding) and four who have been hospitalized for malnutrition, out of 166 detainees being held at the United States naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The current Gitmo hunger strike was brought to light at the beginning of March of this year and was started in response to guards allegedly treating prisoner’s Qurans with disrespect while performing routine sweeps in the center’s holding cells. Gitmo saw another hunger strike in 2006 for the same reason, where it became known and determined that inmates would voluntarily turn their Qurans over for searching to avoid the disrespect to their holy book.
The Guantanamo Bay Detention Center was established in 2002 by the Bush administration to hold detainees considered dangerous within the War on Terror off US soil and outside the Geneva Conventions. The closure of Gitmo was one of Senator Barack Obama’s policy points leading up to the 2008 election and his first term in office as President. Despite continued efforts to close the illegal prison and a number of troops having been cleared for release or relocation, on June 5th, 2013, Congressional Republicans in the House Armed Services Committee passed a new National Defense Authorization Act bill that not only makes it more difficult to transfer current prisoners, but also allocates an additional $248 million to spend on construction of the Gitmo facilities.
To be clear, 86 of these men have been cleared for transfer or release over a year ago. Some have been in confinement for eleven years. While at their most extreme they are calling for their release and closure of the prison, they are mostly advocating for the right to possess their family keepsakes and live amongst one another as a community. Currently they are sequestered and kept alone, unable to offer moral support to one another.
When truly perceiving something (which is to distinguish between seeing and perceiving, as can be done with hearing and listening) we go through an individuated process of categorizing and contextualizing that allows us to relate to the object being viewed. On a fundamental level we differentiate between “me” and “not-me” so easily we are unaware of the process of a decision having been made. By continually seeing the other as an actual “Other,” we maintain our own sense of privilege and entitlement. To that end, it will be difficult for some to find compassion for men labeled by our own government as “the Other” and as prisoners. These victims of the War on Terror are continually overlooked and castigated because they are neither seen nor heard. It is far too easy as Americans to fall prey to a line of thinking we use to treat many who are seen as Others, which, in this case, is “if these men did nothing wrong, they would never be prisoners to begin with.” To echo another of our nation’s recent scandals, this sentiment can be reduced down to the NSA’s “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
But privacy is tantamount. How we construct ourselves in private is far different from the persona we continually modify and refine for public presentation. The aforementioned void is not an Other but is an intrinsic part of our makeup. We rely on cues from Others to distinguish ourselves in ways obscured by the void’s presence and in this way we truly are social creations. The part that we harbor of ourselves and protect from allowing Others to see is in fact an idealized version. The best we ever do to protect ourselves is from our own status of Otherness to others.
A practical application of self-starvation is not synonymous with a suicidal urge. The hunger striker or hunger artist employs their lack of nourishment as a means of wresting control from a dominant force. It removes the interpersonal void (Zeno’s dichotomy paradox) by embodying it instead. It solidifies intention with action (or lack-of-action, as the case may be) by bending the will and rallying all available energy toward a goal’s accomplishment. In the case of a prisoner, it creates in high relief the absurdity inherent in keeping someone alive only to restrict their independence. In art, hunger can be utilized to contextualize a work’s process around a(n empty) center and elevates the contents therein, cementing the closed system and allowing symbologies to emanate. Hunger supersedes status by subsuming the void and shifting the body to the spotlight. We unleash the void within ourselves. Receiving nothing we give everything.
William Brattain is a writer, performance and mixed-media artist in Seattle, WA. He holds a BFA from Cornish College of the Arts. His work has most recently been seen at HardL, the parking lot of TUBS, Vermillion Art Gallery and Lounge, On the Boards (all in Seattle, WA), and at the Hungarian Multicultural Center in Budapest, HU. He is currently working on a new performance work in protest of the gay blood ban.
Image copyright Jason Leopold.