Friday 14 December 2012

Belief suspended at the RAI

Pain. Some will go out of their way to avoid it, making use of all medical science to dull the sensations and make the feeling go away. Even the medical terms used euphemise it; a 'sharp scratch', 'mild discomfort' ensure that you are safely cocooned and protected from negativity. I don't pretend to know about chronic pain...I'm lucky, but there are migraine moments when my head, neck and eyes are clenched in stomach churning agony. It is a normal reaction for me to blindly reach for pain relief and sink into a proper sleep.

Except secretly I don't always immediately take tablets. I don't know why and I've never really questioned this but to lie there and feel the familiar ache is both comforting and oddly rhythmic. Without that monthly incredible river of brain sickness on that right hand side, I'm not sure how I'd feel. I consciously and carefully explore what is going on in my body observe the blood pumping into a furnace like head and wonder how much I can take. No, this probably isn't rational but a lecture last night gave a vague insight into what might be going on.

The RAI has become a bit of a favourite since my visit to the archives made me ponder on a load of ideas, and  this latest combined exhibition and film screening was no different. The title was 'Suspend your belief' and examined the practice of suspension of the living body from hooks. 'This has been practiced in various cultural contexts and places in the past, but today forms part of a growing global interest in body modification. This film shows a group of contemporary British practitioners at a weekend meeting in Norfolk and examines the experience of suspension, what it means to them, and particularly its role in their understanding of the relationship between their selves, their bodies and the world.'

As an introduction it was explained that the film was shot as Simone Jaeger's MA dissertation and proves that to be an anthropologist you don't need to travel far. Simone said this was done 10 years ago and inspired by her studies of ancient South American blood letting rituals. She couldn't ask those people about their lived experience and relished the opportunity to work with people who could explain why they did what they did with regards to body suspension.

This is the first anthropological film that I've seen so I have nothing with which to compare it. We sat and watched the film and to my mind it was neither graphic, nor harrowing, nor disturbing, nor sensational.This was despite the images of hooks going into flesh, blood, pulling skin and obvious pain. The reasons for this are many and were discussed after. Interestingly the group included A level anthropology students, seasoned lecture regulars and occasional attendees (me) so discussion was lively.

The first reason was trust. Simone was taken into the heart of the very close knit group and made welcome. With sensitivity, interest and consultation they knew that the film with its mix of interview and observation was not going to be sensationalist or misused; they could trust her to tell their stories. There was also a thread of trust through the group; their relationship with one another was what created such a safe environment for their practice. Each person was struggling to find a place in the world and with this shared interest, there was a close community bond. This bond was fostered by the sense of group egalitarianism. There was no sense of competition or uncomfortable pushing and no assertion of power. There was a mix of experience but it was about moving at your own pace and being exceptionally conscious of each other.

The gentleman that affected me most was a recovering addict. He was able to articulate the feelings that suspension engendered. It took on a mystical aspect; whilst he admitted that others inevitably there to assist, he was in control of his body. Drugs take away control and this was part of his treatment. Another interviewee explained that it was the connection with the corporeal, his physicality. Again he talked of control, claiming and getting to know oneself. Describing it as 'a unifying experience of working with your body', a very powerful experience. He didn't seem to connect it with a long cultural tradition of body modification, he hadn't thought of it, it seemed to be purely in the physical here and now. Interestingly, self harm was mentioned and this group exercise was seen as a positive step to preventing self harm; the same sense of emotional and physical release but in a safe environment.

We discussed prejudice. Firstly our own; how do you react to the scenes? Are they painful to watch? Do we have a preconception of the type of people that do this? Simone reported that they were kind, sweet, gentle, caring people. This group met in an ordinary suburban landscape and their back garden contained the suspension apparatus. Simone felt that they were not culturally diverse; overwhelmingly young and white which raises interesting questions. On the question of prejudice, Simone stressed that the whole point of this film was to simply understand why and pass no judgement, exhibit no disgust and just accept the community for who they were.

She noted that whilst she was filming, they were also recording the events. She didn't include any of their material but we agreed that it would be interesting to see the differences in focus. They would play previous suspensions back to each over, reliving the intense moments. They documented the way they looked during the painting and stitching and exclaim that someone was pretty. This begged the question what is pretty? What is the difference between beautiful and pretty? Why did they feel the need to modify themselves to feel pretty? Was the act of a tattoo, something permanent, a rite of passage?

This type of body modification has grown in popularity since she completed this film, with numbers on the website going from 6000 to 30,000, globally. Why is this? A raised awareness amongst like minded individuals or is it a hidden competitive aspect to pushing the boundaries of pain and endurance? I'm personally not sure, groups can have their own agenda, regardless of how egalitarian they are. Legal questions were asked, regarding consent, injury and whether this is bodily harm. This definitely needs more investigation.

Two final points were made - firstly regarding their experiences in pain research. Attitude and conditioning preparation would be illuminating for medical purposes. In her enquiries into blood letting she had asked experts about the effects on the brain and brain chemicals, there are some science questions. And finally given the age of the audience (16+), should this film have a warning? It is a very intimate view of graphic images. Would a warning sensationalise it? What is the viewing purpose? One student pointed out that this film is now almost 'mainstream'; given some web material, I would be inclined to agree. Overall this film shouldn't have a warning.

So where does this leave me and the testing of my pain boundaries? I empathise with the suspendees desire for control and their need to 'feel the pain' because only then do you notice the mechanics of your amazing body. Humans have a desire to push their physical boundaries regardless of rules/rationality.

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