karen elaine spencer,Palazzio del Quirinale, Rome, 2003.
Photo : Marie-Andrée Rho

the desire

I stop myself where body and food touch. I want to rest here, to stay in this place. To slow time and expand the moment before incorporation or expulsion. I want to exist alongside, to stall and stall the inevitable performance of merging or excluding. But I cannot linger for long; the impulse is so charged, so vital, so mixed up with all that I name life and living. This other I name food beseeches me to perform the most intimate relationship, with me, with life. In the writing of this text I am very subjective, very close, I allow hardly any distance between. To begin I have a story: a story of an onion.

the onion

It is the 27th of June 2003. I am in Rome. I am with my friends, and we are walking into the gardens of the President’s Palace. A guard stops us and tells us we are not allowed inside. I think to myself, this is the place. Here at the Palazzo del Quirinale, once the Papal Palace, and now home to the Italian President. This is the place to peel the onion from Sardinia.1 1 - The Italian island of Sardinia is where five members of Play Group (Vida Simon, Nicole Fournier, Marie-Andrée Rho, Taliesin McEnaney, and me) have been staying for the last two weeks. Here we have seen countless blue banners with white text hanging from people’s windows and balconies. The white text says “no” to a nuclear dump site. The Italian government is in negotiations to use Sardinia as a site for dumping nuclear waste from other countries.

I ask my friends to wait and alone I walk to the gate that leads into the Presidents Palace. I squat on the sidewalk with my back to the wall; I open my backpack and take out my onion. I cup the onion inside my hands, and then very slowly I start to peel away the layers. The guard, the same one who stopped us from entering the garden, is standing nearby. He looks at me and asks what I am doing. I tell him I am peeling an onion. 

karen elaine spencer
Palazzio del Quirinale, Rome, 2003.
Photo: Marie-Andrée Rho

The onion is beautiful. First there is the delicate thin outer skin, amber coloured it is translucent in the light. It is fragile and breaks easily. The sound of peeling it away is the sound of unwrapping tissue paper from something inside. The pieces are so light that in the wind they blow away. Underneath the amber covering the flesh of the onion lies exposed. It is white and moist and heavy. The sound of peeling it away is the sound of something tearing apart — no, something being torn apart — and then the very thin transparent layer that lies next to the fleshy part separates and the sound is higher. It is the sound of one thing being taken away from another. Each layer falls to the ground, and there is yet another layer beneath it. One layer leads to another layer, there is no hidden interior, only the continual peeling away till nothing remains. 

I slowly peel away the layers of the onion, I let the onion flesh fall to the sidewalk. The guard stands and watches me. He leaves and comes back with another guard. This other guard asks what I am doing, I tell him I am peeling an onion. He wants to be assured that I will clean up the onion peels, I tell him yes I will. He shakes his head. The first guard walks over to me and stands right in front of me, he is facing away from me and his body is blocking my body from view. He kicks the already fallen onion layers that are laying in a pile backward into me. I carefully re-arrange the kicked onion pieces into a new pile, but now the pieces are bruised and encrusted with dirt and dust. I continue to peel the onion. I see Marie-Andrée across the street, I peer out from behind the guards legs and gesture to her to take a picture with her camera. The guard calls to the men in uniform across the street. Two of the uniformed men cross over and ask what I am doing. I say that I am peeling an onion, that this is a harmless act, and that yes, I will pick up the onion peels once I am finished. They tell me that one does not do this kind of thing in Italy in front of the Presidents Palace. One of the uniformed men takes my backpack and starts to open it. I take it from him, I open it myself, I show him what is inside. I continue to slowly peel the onion. I say this is a small act, and I want to say that it’s not like it’s a bomb or something, although I refrain from saying the b word thinking this is all they need. Two women walk by and turn to go into the Palace, the first guard interrupts them and gestures to me while saying something I understand to be derisive. After I have finished peeling away the layers of the onion I stand up, I walk a little bit away and take two photos with my Kodak one-time-camera. I pick up the onion pieces and put them into a white paper bag. As I begin to walk away I stop. I look at the first guard, I look at him in the eye, I say thank you and I nod my head at him. As though I know that he knows what just transpired.  

the pea

What transpired.

The story of the peas. I was very young. There was the law: one eats everything on one’s plate. The story goes that my father would be feeding me and I would appear to eat everything that was on the spoon that was put into my mouth. However, in truth, everything was not eaten, I would stash the peas, like a chipmunk, in the corner of my mouth.  I would swallow everything else around the peas. I would not swallow the peas. At the end of the meal, my father, in frustration, would pick me up, carry me to the washroom and hold me over the toilet. Here I would open my mouth and spit out my stash of peas. No-one was going to make me swallow what I did not want.

The law. The violence of the law. 

It is a reflex to swallow. It is also a reflex to gag. To set up a barrier between yourself and this other. To exert influence over your body, to separate things from you. You spit out peas, you create divisions, exclusions. You claim your body as your territory and you as the sovereign ruler. 

the body and food 

The very boundaries of your being, the circumference of your identity, overflows itself to consume this other. And this other, this onion let’s say, if left to its own devices would sprout a long slender green shoot, it would send out roots seeking earth. It would grow and flourish. It is, after all, alive. 

karen elaine spencer
Prescription, event presented by Folie/Culture, Québec, 2003.
Photo: Yvan Binet

One life force is consumed by another; taken into the mouth, masticated, swallowed, passed into the stomach, the intestines, digested, converted and absorbed. This energy is transformed into muscles, nerves, tissues, bones and cells. You feed upon this other life to sustain your own.  You use this matter to grow and repair and give energy to your body. The very substance of your body is dependant on this external physical matter, matter that you must take into, enfold into, yourself. 

And that is the law. If you do not eat, you will die. You are either fed, or you feed yourself. It is your connection to life. Unlike breathing it is a deliberate act, a conscious act. It is an act of power.

power versus authority

An interesting relationship, this, the relation between power and authority. For although my father has authority over me as a young infant, I have the power to refuse his authority, pea spitter that I am. And authority that is refused is no longer authority, for authority is a performance of position. It is a relation that requires another to perform the supporting role guaranteeing its existence.2 2 - For example, you cross the street at an intersection when the light is red. You see the red light, you acknowledge its existence, and you are aware of its meaning and the structures that establish its rule; however, you do not comply. You do not perform as the red light (and all that it signifies) commands. Therefore, at this moment, this moment when you are crossing the intersection, the red light does not exercise any power.

karen elaine spencer
American can(‘t), Espaces émergents, Montréal, 2003.
Photo: Guy L’Heureux

The act of denying authority through refusal makes apparent the power that resides in being the one to confer, or to not confer, the authoritative position. For there is, in every demand, the possibility of non-compliance. This provisional fragility of authority, that it can at any time be refused, positions authority as a strangely vulnerable declaration. However, this vulnerability is vigorously protected. Legal and sanctioned fictions upheld through props of implied or actual violence attempt to produce the illusion of a stable placement for a position that is always uncertain. Those who ask want to be assured that their demands will be met. 

To refuse to allow nourishment to enter the body is, in extreme instances, often the last power a body has over itself in relation to an oppressive authority. The last place where any act of sovereignty can be displayed. It is something that Mahatma Gandhi understood in his seventeen hunger strikes against British colonial rule. Bobby Sands of Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland also understood.

Bobby Sands

In 1976, Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army, is arrested when a revolver is found in the car when he and five other men are stopped. During the subsequent holding and trial Sands refuses to acknowledge the authority of the court; stating only his name, age and address. He is tried and sentenced to fourteen years in Long Kesh prison.3 3 - Northern Ireland’s struggle for self determination is a long and complex one. Bobby Sands was not the first nor the only person to have embarked upon a hunger strik; however, his is a concrete and well documented case that has come to stand as a symbol for this action of deprivation. Here, I am interested in understanding how this action of refusing to eat becomes intertwined with issues of sovereignty and authority — and what affects this action produces.

karen elaine spencer
Bread Bed, galerie Verticale, Laval, 2003.
Photo: Stéphan Bernier

In 1980 the IRA inmates stage a hunger strike to have their political status re-instated. After 51 days of the strike, the British government agrees to their demands, but later does not concede. In 1981, under the leadership of Bobby Sands, a communiqué is released: 

We the republican POWs in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, and our comrades in Armagh Prison, are entitled to and hereby demand political status, and we reject today as we have consistently rejected everyday since September 14, 1976, when the blanket protest began, the British governments attempted criminalization of ourselves and our struggle…4 4 - See www.bobbysandstrust.org/blanket.asp for the full text, and for a comprehensive coverage of the hunger strike.

A hunger strike to death is begun as proof of their political convictions. Sands is the first prisoner to go on strike. Sixty-six days later, on the fifth of May, Bobby Sands is lying on a water-bed to protect his bones and he is in a coma. He is twenty-seven years old and he is dead.5 5 - Nine other men also died in the 1981 hunger strike, there names are: Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O,Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee, and Micky Devine.

this common matter 

When the performance of authority is unbearable, for whatever reason, the hunger strike to death is an extreme act of refusal.  The prisoner incorporates within himself the dual role of the dominator and the dominated, performing and exhibiting the violence of the oppressor onto the self’s own body. A take-over is performed where the prisoner assumes sovereignty over his own body in defiance of any other authority. This act locates the oppressor as passive spectator to the prisoner’s slowed and deliberate performance of a decisive violence. Identities are toppled and the body of the prisoner, through a kind of exaggerated mimicry, takes over the authoritative role, and now it is the prisoner who is demanding something.

karen elaine spencer
Bread Head, action with Jessica Maccormack under Turcot interchange, Montréal, 2003.
Photo: Guy L’Heureux

The solitary body, refusing to open its mouth, to take in nourishment, is removing itself from the material world, of which I, if living, am formed by and in. The act of separation always points towards the whole, that which it has rendered itself separate from. Hence, this single body, lying open to death, is making known the deep connectedness between my body and all living matter. Between my body and this other body. I mourn and I grieve this death because this body has been torn away from my body. I fall into pieces.

This inert body at the threshold of its oppressor knows that if there is no living body to have command over, authority falls apart because it is a relational lived construct. Between people. Authority separates, placing people into hierarchical positions. Death, on the other hand, dissolves distinctions, it is our common destination. No body on this side of life has authority over death. And death does not require any props to proclaim and maintain its position, for it has never ever been refused.

ultimate authority

I take this energy, this life, and I let it fall to the ground. It falls to the ground where your feet claim territory. It disturbs something of your order, something of your authority.

Your body too will fall to the ground, your life energy will be no more, and you will decompose and be considered as waste. All the layers of your life, as intensely beautiful as the onion you hold in you hand, will fall to the ground. There will be nothing other than this inanimate matter that some will want to kick away, and others will want to rest beside. 

As soon as there is life, death dwells within. It is a fact, everything that is alive is open for death at any moment.

karen elaine spencer
This article also appears in the issue 50 - Nourritures

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