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PISS, SHIT and Live Art by Thinker in Residence Hester Chillingworth

Hester Chillingworth is a solo artist, director of the performance company GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN, and Creative Producer (Participation & Engagement) at Forced Entertainment. As LADA's Thinker in Residence, Hester is exploring issues around Young People, Gender and Live Art, and has written a second blog as part of their research, which questions the significance and purpose of bodily functions in performance and Live Art. And how this has and can affect gender-questioning young people.


If a performer is on stage, performing away (maybe even acting) and this performer then pisses or shits on stage, for real, has what they are doing become Live Art? Have they pissed or shat themselves into Live Art? Same question goes for blood or cum (although maybe not spit, sweat or tears. WHY NOT? *). If, in the act of performing, the body is compelled or commanded to release some of the tangible stuff, the fluids, the mess, that’s normally contained within the walls of flesh, has a truth happened which is so undeniable, so provable, that the act of performance is perforce Live Art? I guess the answer’s no – nothing can be said to ‘become’ any kind of art without the artist positioning it as such (IS THAT TRUE?) – so maybe the question is more about how piss and shit (and the other stuff) function in Live Art, how and why they mark themselves as key materials that are up for grabs in, and relevant to, Live Art.

Maybe part of it’s about the process involved in producing the stuff from the body – maybe it’s about the liveness and the real-timeness of pissing and shitting. In the same way that maybe it’s about bleeding more than blood. Maybe it’s about how present the body becomes in those moments of live corporeal process, how it marks us as real, as occupying space, as being in territory, as being here, and how it announces itself as a thing that we are holding together (that is holding itself together), that is not the solid bastion that we present it to be. It is something that bits fall out off and leak out off. That has holes in. That is wrapped in a very thin, very breakable wrapper. That is mush, really.

When you piss or shit, sure, you know that the piss or shit wasn’t actually part of you before it came out (IS THAT TRUE?) – it was some stuff you were carrying around that you made from some non-you stuff that you put in to your body – but I think in some ways it does become temporarily part of you, or become yours. It’s not a shit or a piss. It might be to somebody else, if they came across it. But to you, it’s your shit or piss. You made it. With your body. You changed something into something else, with your body. What your body does is change. What your body does is change. It’s churning. It’s unstable. It’s moving. It’s no monolithic building. It’s a mass of slimy cogs. It makes shit. And it makes itself.

Of course, another thing that (sometimes) makes pissing and shitting a controversial performance act is that it necessitates displaying (or at least overtly using, stopping denying) your arsehole and your genitals. You’re admitting those things exist, if you’re using them publically. Maybe you’re even admitting it with no shame. And that is going to cause ripples. Society thrives on shame at the moment, I think – take a bit of it away, or say ‘No, where you think there is shame there is none’, and things, people, structures of power can become very threatened. Or at least it’s seen as a protest. It is, I guess, a protest.

Something’s coming together in my head to do with pissing & shitting/Live Art/gender-questioning young people/transness. Public toilets (sometimes even private toilets) can be, as we know, a site of terror for someone experiencing transness (in whatever measure. There is no measure). These gendered spaces that we have to piss or shit in, that children are shown via signs on the door that they can (must) or can’t go into to piss or shit, can compound shame so completely. Because they are where your body is in one of its ‘bodyest’ states. Here, it insists on itself.

These things that come out of us – piss and shit – as well as being our own special concoctions, are also abject substances. They are our waste products, the things we don’t need. They are the things we dump and leave without a backward glance (usually). So if, while these things are both happening (hyper-bodyness and hyper-abjectness), a person also feels shame that they are not good enough for the space, fear that they will be thrown out of the space or physically or verbally attacked, looked at as if they are the shit they need, or simply that they are wrong and mistaken and confused about where (what) they are, then the shame vortex is well and truly open. Toilets are the very place that we’re taught to be most ashamed anyway (go into a cubicle, lock the door, don’t look at anybody else in action, run the tap to cover the noise, hope nobody’s near enough to catch the smell), so to be made to feel additionally failed or disgusting or rejected in this place, is particularly brutal.

So, I suppose I’m thinking about how Live Art’s square-jawed pride in the value of bodily fluids, substances, mess, effluence could be important for gender-questioning young people. Even if that’s just in thought, in idea, in image – it doesn’t have to involve people getting their hands ‘dirty’. In the last GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN show we made, Number 1, The Plaza, Lucy and Jen spend the entire show smeared in fake shit, as well as presenting tupperwares of perfectly formed fake turds made from peanut butter and chocolate spread (top tip – use a piping bag). In my solo show, Shorty, my non-binary drag-child Shorty fake wets themselves using a Capri-Sun. Both of these shows own and advertise the notness of the piss and shit – it is fake shit, it is fake piss – there’s no intention of making the audience really think otherwise, and that’s precisely because they are both playing with/pushing towards Live Art from within a position of Theatre. There are fictions aplenty flying around in these pieces (as well as truths – ‘which are which?’ being half the game) (IS THAT TRUE?) and the fakeness of the shit and piss is about achieving some of the real effect of (response to) the real thing that we are fakely referencing, while ‘disallowing’ the audience from having the unthinking response that, because there is piss and shit in the work, it is over a line and not for them. Because there is not piss and shit in the work. There is fake piss and fake shit. So, it’s a way to bring a conversation about shock, about shame, about abjectness, about dirt, about the body into the room while attempting to remove the excuse of ‘those substances you’re showing are too much for me’ from the reasons people can use to absent themselves from the conversation. Being made of foodstuffs in both cases also allows for the ‘transgressive’ action of eating/drinking the ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ on stage, while always giving a nod to what it is that goes into our bodies to make it in the first place. There are ways to play with bodily fluids that don’t involve bodily fluids, if you want to avoid that. You can speak to that part of the material language of Live Art ‘safely’ and ‘cleanly’ if there’s a reason like age in the mix that would raise the social taboo on this.

So, it’s some kind of thought about how Live Art, with its affinity and comfort with effluence, could be a positive and generative mindspace for gender questioning young people, whose shame about pissing and shitting may be doubled, tripled, quadrupled due to the binary rules of the spaces we do it in. Or, conversely, whose shame about themselves may be doubled, tripled, quadrupled due to the experiences they have in the spaces we piss and shit in. A discipline which honours the abject could be a place of sanctuary, resistance and articulation for young people who are shown continually that they do not belong in this binary world and that even in the Shame-iest House In Town, there is no place for them.    


* Maybe because we’re more used to seeing these fluids in public, so they’re not as taboo and so their presence doesn’t shake the world so much, doesn’t push us into the real so much. But also, maybe because we associate spit, sweat and tears with emotional states or bodily efforts. We read them a certain way, we can resolve them narratively. That’s probably the same for cum in fact. This thought is unresolved. Is slipping and sliding away from me. Is pooling around me.


Catch Hester Chillingworth's Shorty at Camden People's Theatre on 22 September 2017, part of Come As You Are festival.

Banner image credit:

Shorty and Reggie Roberts, courtesy of Hester Chillingworth: Credit Christa Holka

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