Entry Points

Entry I: The Stomach

The mouth, like a port, is an opening. A place of first contact with the outside. It regulates two ways of traffic: import (often oxygen, food) and export (often language, carbon dioxide). Whilst the opening and closing of the mouth can be deliberately controlled, the stomach knows what the mouth does not. The mouth pays lip service to representation. The stomach diligently works substance, prepping it to be radically transformed. In this, the stomach is a model of production, in continuous interaction with the exterior.

The stomach can be thought of as the port to the gut, a site where the outside environment comes to dock. Here, organic chemistry, social ritual and roles, as well as economic power truly interact, before valuable content is clearly separated from waste: it is a primary site of active, yet paced transition. A stomach can’t ignore so-called foreignness and needs to engage with it, either by prepping it to transition into the body cells, or by slowly deciding to send it back to the mouth.

The stomach, like the heart, is a muscle. It is the place where what we ingest becomes part of our bodies: substances are slowly transformed by muscular mechanics and chemistry. When our bodies are distressed our stomachs act up: their chemical balance directly corresponds to our emotional balance. Yet, inversely, who hasn’t felt butterflies in their belly when feeling elated? The stomach is the locus of true physical feeling and of metaphoric mood.

Liverpool’s port embodies intensified circulation and necessary interaction: as the world´s first commercial wet dock, it stands for the movement of physical goods, the transport and separation of bodies, protection, control and connection, as well as for incessant exchange of information and knowledges. There is production, invention, and resistance despite imposition and restriction.

Through the stomach, we zoom into the back-and-forths of that production: the minute muscular movements that develop – such as rhythm, gesture, and mobile forms of knowledge – despite the mandate to separate, dominate, standardise and streamline.

Entry II: Porosity

The human skin is a product of a journey as much as it is a facilitator of many journeys.

The story goes that human bodies used to be more hairy, and that when they started outrunning their predators (humans being better at long distances because their bodies could regulate body temperature through perspiration), they began to shed this fur. In other words: skin, and skin color, became gradually visible around the time humans turned into a so-called dominant species, developing not only their ability to run, but also their hunting, roasting, and dressing skills.

The human skin is an organ that counts for about 15% of a human’s bodyweight. It is a fine-tuned interface that *protects* by shielding the inner body from toxins, by preventing excessive water loss, and by regulating the body temperature. It also *communicates* by receiving and decoding contextual information: it can register and react to temperature variations, it can sense texture, and, most importantly, it can synthesise vitamin D from sunlight. It is, in other words, a medium.Think of how it can absorb hormones, nicotine, nitroglycerine, and even opioid substitutes from engineered patches; inversely, it can convey information to the environment through perspiration, rashing, or “breaking out.”

There’s the idea that the skin to-be-had is a smooth, uniformly tinted, glowing (yet never oily), tightly-stretched foil over the flesh it covers. The skin functions as a top layer that seals that which is within; the wrapper that acts as a mirror of the inside. That mirror, however, is rippled, hairy, oily, at times wet and salty, and with occasional dry, even flakey, patches. There’s nothing permanent about a skin: its upper layer only exists for 3-4 weeks before turning to dust. There’s also nothing pure about a skin: besides accumulating or absorbing particles from the environment, the skin hosts about 1,000 species of bacteria. Basically, it’s more similar to an ecosystem than to a single thing.

At the dermatologist’s office, a didactic poster depicts a cubic cross-section of skin, as if it were a charcuterie sample gone astray in a virtual educational space. The poster indicates the anatomic components of the skin: the hair follicle, the sweat gland, the epidermis, the dermis, the hypodermis, the blood vessels, the lower connective tissue. The single hairs pierce through the outer layer’s uneven surface,which shows modest ripples like a calm summer lake. There are horizontal vectors (veins) as well as vertical ones (the hair, the perspiration gland), while the fat clusters behave a bit more messily. On a metaphoric level, it’s the vertical vector in this cross section that speaks to traffic, contact, infection and exchange. To emphasise this in-and-out is to point to the humans’ necessary giving and taking from their environment. Without this verticality there is no life, just a dividing cling wrap film.

A pore is what we know as the smallest unit of the skin – it’s the part that acts up as a pimple or that freaks out as goose bumps. Our pores open up in warm, humid environments and they shrink in cold climates. They are reactive. The word “pore” is related to port and porosity: all sharing an Ancient Greek root, póros, which stands for “passage,” but also for “journey”.

The skin is an amalgamate of chemical passages and cultural journeys and that journey is distinct for every human. To ignore the differences in skins is to ignore histories and structures of dominance and brutal oppression. Most of these differences have been articulated through ideology, and ideology, in turn, is often turned into law. Both are created out of fear – a fear of losing power. The skin-as-divider is a screen of fear, a surface upon which to apply unspoken quantities of disinfectant, bleachers, self-tanners, toners, and whatnot – all to blend in and self-protect. This ideologised skin shuns touching other skin.

Acknowledging the porosity of the human skin and daring to touch another’s skin recognises the passing, weathering, vanishing, variating and exchanging that come with the journey. The skin knows this but it’s time we started poring over that.

Entry III: Kinship

Kin – a quaint enigma, like “kayak” or “kudo,” one of those rare words that start with a K.

Kin – not as in “kind” or as in “kinetic” (though a kind, kinetic kin is obviously appealing).

Kin – as in young birds helping their parents in rearing their own siblings or in nest building, even when they themselves are capable of breeding.

Kin – yes, as in “next of kin”. It’s an expression mostly associated with dread as it concerns planning for the transfer of belongings or debt after one’s passing. “Next of kin” also presents the question: who will take care of me when my body or mind starts failing? In many contemporary human cultures, the notion of kinship emerges at the crossroad of the nuclear family, legal obligations, and estate planning. These practices stand at a far remove from those birds that defend the parental nest, or the worker bee who foregoes breeding so that the queen’s offspring can thrive.

In zoology, kin selection (or kinship) is explained through genetics, which boils down to basic cost-benefit reasoning. A web search pulls up this quote: The gene that favors altruism spreads when participants are related and the cost to the individuals is low as compared to the benefit to the recipient. Therefore, altruism is promoted by kin selection and close genetic kinship.

The human animal, however, has applied this selective logic in a contradictory way. On the one hand, it has developed methods to subordinate and exploit other species as well as its environment to promote unsustainable population growth. On the other, it has created deep inner division within its own kin so that certain humans feel legitimized to exploit and subordinate other members of their own species. It’s the prime example of altruism meeting – and ultimately getting trumped by – selfishness.

We live in a time when traditional structures of division and belonging have become so deeply entrenched that the human genome has become too weak to bring about collective purpose. The pendulum has gotten stuck on the individualist end of the spectrum rather than on the genome-at-large end. In other words: a few humans experience economic, financial and maybe familial growth for an indeterminate, yet certainly finite, time, whereas all other human and non human animals, along with the environment, gradually go to hell.

So then what? In a time when genetic manipulation is rife, the altruistic gene + group fitness mechanisms seem outdated and insufficient to create a new, sustainable connection. Yet, I wonder: what if there’s a way to reverse-engineer kinship? That is, by activating radical altruism, could we experience that primordial sense of being in the same boat? I’m thinking about practices of giving and caring that would supersede logics of paternalism, pity and anthropocentrism and instead build connections: between humans, as well as between humans and non-humans – at times ephemeral, at times lasting til death do us part.

Now that’s kind, kinetic kinship.

Sarah Demeuse is a writer and translator who makes exhibitions and books. In 2010, together with curator Manuela Moscoso, she founded curatorial office Rivet. Demeuse was a member of the curatorial team for the 9th Mercosul Biennial Porto Alegre (2012-2013) and has independently worked on a variety of exhibition and mediation projects in Argentina, Brasil, Mexico, Spain and the USA. She has taught the Exhibition Making Practicum at the Master in Curatorial Practice Program at SVA and teaches a studioseminar at Barnard College about writing and graphic design. She is currently a strategist, writer and editor at design studio Wkshps.