This is not an obituary.
Since yesterday morning Madeline Gins is no longer fighting against death; she finally embraced its entropic forces and her body will soon disperse in the “bioscleave,” a word Arakawa and her invented to describe the unfathomable forces at work in the material word. This platform is not an appropriate place for emotions, not even for those felt for a dear friend and inspirational mentor. This is why, I would rather celebrate the joy that was named Madeline Gins by, once again, writing about her work instead. Punctuating death is still to misinterpret it into an event; it was at work all-along, life — and what a life! — was the creativity resisting it.
Before exploring Gins’s writings, and since no poetic text — probably no text for that matter — could not possibly be considered the same way depending on the way it is read, I would like to give you the opportunity to hear her words through her voice directly as I recently recorded her, reading what she calls “the Reversible Destiny Declaration” :
Transcript: “Our species has made a declaration. Let us call this the Reversible Destiny Declaration. We will not just take it anymore. We won’t no longer throw ourselves into the mortality waste-baskets. Shall we put in the following gentle but firm way. Oh yes we shall! Enough is enough. We have decided not to die. And how do we go about doing this? Through architectural procedures, made explicitly to help us reconfigure ourselves. If you do not yet know what an architectural procedure is, you will know soon. Start with this declaration, and never back away from it: we have decided not to die.” (November 22, 2013)
In 1984, after the publication of Gins’s second solo book What the President Will Say and Do! (Station Hill, 1984, also accessible online here) John Cage stated that “any man, woman, or child who intends to lead itself into presidency should get a copy, reading it before taking any further steps.” This book is another proof if needed that poetry is not a category, but rather a language. Following (knowingly or not) 18th-century feminist Olympe de Gouges and her 1791 Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen), she included in this book a chapter entitled “All Men Are Sisters”:
One thing men haven’t realized is that unlike them (all men are mortal), women do not die — This makes all the difference — although some women, having been brow-beaten by sheer syllogistic brawn, have at times pretended. Most women do not look like themselves; although many women do assume the form of “woman;’ some are men, others gas and electricity, and still others are indistinguishable. (Madeline Gins, What the President Will Say and Do, New York: Station Hill, 1984).
Gins’ wink at Simone de Beauvoir in the first sentence — All Men Are Mortal is the name of a 1946 book written by de Beauvoir — unables us not to think of de Beauvoir’s well-known phrase that “one is not born a woman but becomes one.” What Gins brings to de Beauvoir’s statement is an acute sense of corporeality. One does not just become a woman, one — that means, a body — has to “assume the form of ‘woman’.” Forms constitute the semiotic recognized by the norm in its categorization of the bodies: “this one is a man, this one is a woman…” but they also stand for the material assemblage that a body — or “gas and electricity” — can construct in a manifesto against this norm.
We find this opposition to the normative processes in a later book written by Gins: Helen Keller or Arakawa (Burning Books, 1994). Helen Keller is the paradigmatic body — of course, paradigms create new norms — to whom Arakawa and Gins’s architecture is addressed, in particular the Mitaka Lofts (see past article) in Tokyo whose full name is “Reversible Destiny Lofts – In Memory of Helen Keller.” Keller could not see nor hear, two body characteristics considered by the norm as highly disabling, but why exactly again? The very concept of disability can only exist if the concept of ability also exists. What that means is that a given society is organized according to the way of operate of the normatively considered “able bodies”:
I find nothing I perceive to be essentially invisible. In a world of all blind people, everything would be non-visible, and it would be trivial to point out one thing or another as being so. To the blind, terms like “invisible” are but polite bridges (with much torque and of odd construction) to the sighted; curtsey, and say ,yes ,ma’am. When I’m not speaking in the other’s voice, I perceive things directly, fielding them as best as I can. (Madeline Gins, Helen Keller or Arakawa, New York: Burning Books, 1995, 2.)
It is common to say that the “blinds” — a category created based upon the supposed lack of something — develop a more acute sense of hearing in order to “survive” in the world. This constitutes a very simplified understanding of how a non-seeing body operates, a simple transfer of intensity of one understandable sense to another. What Gins describes through the person of Keller however is more complex:
Nevertheless, a having once been marked with the condition of invisibility goes so far — so far-going has it been in this marked vessel as to have completely spread through me — as to lead to where it began: myself unseen. Here’s the sum of all of that (and soundless!), plus a whole other set of X’s, hidden. As the provisional sum of all of these, I direct the traffic of weightedly perceptible “invisibles” from a within. The nearly perceptible is thoroughly perceptible enough to me. I have never been able to find the cut-off points for this within. Rather, this “within” acts as if it were boundlessly stretching out — if one were to include the full spread of all the ripples and ripplings — into a distance ambiguously endless. Of course, actions taken by me have a great deal to do with how this distance forms. More than fifty regular actions and easily the same number of micro-actions determine enveloping and the tissues of density near and far on which this depends. And this is the way I do inhabit the non-visible; as a stretched-out mass onto which the layout of the world is to be placed to be remembered. The “living canvas” is not a bad nickname for someone who strives to keep track of things the way I do. Distinct spots tell of themselves proprioceptively or kinaesthetically. What’s happening within my right shoulder is two and one-quarter feet distant from what goes on within the left one. One moment’s spot is another moment’s distance. I situate things and events by means of these. Spots, areas, distance expand and reduce to become one another, occasionally without my knowing it. I have what’s happening within my left shoulder cleaving slightly less than two and one-quarter feet distant from those events peculiar to my right one. I keep these two shoulders separate and at the distance from each other that they, by nature, by the nature of (my) body, deserve to be; only when I’m forced to move exceedingly fast — to go as swift as a bullet — do I allow them to be given as a single dot of a place named shoulder. (Madeline Gins, Helen Keller or Arakawa, New York: Burning Books, 1995, 3-4.)
Since, as noted numerous times on this blog, we still have a very poor knowledge to the Spinozist question, “what can a body do” (see past article), the entire artificiality of the norm appears clearly when it distributes grades of ability. This is why the work of Arakawa and Gins remain highly political, it takes as a predicate this ignorance and, from it, build a more acute understanding of what a body can do, while the norm pretends it knows what a body can’t do in order to organize the bodies that compose a society.
The joy named Madeline Gins does not form a body that compose this society however, her and Arakawa’s five-decade long work remains for us to carry forward this joy.