In her work, Anouk Verviers does. Moulding with her hands, body, and mind, she gives raw materials historically informed shapes, looking back at complicated legacies and ahead with self-described “feminist science fiction experiments.” As a witness to this practice, I have repeatedly felt her doing in my bones, my muscles, and my flesh. I have sensed it in my chronically painful knee, which follows an unpredictable cycle of discomfort and dulling uncertainty.
Verviers also undoes in her work. She labours to dismantle what has been erected, untangling a complicated web of filiations and relationships. As a member of her audience, I receive this part of the process as a release, an emptying exhalation that restores a baseline. I am cared for in Verviers’s immersive worlds. As confronting as these dystopian universes are, I, as an engaged observer, am considered.
Verviers’s recent performance Building, destroying, and rebuilding cob columns as high as our bodies (2023), presented during the Goldsmiths Degree Shows in London, is heavily invested in shared, embodied actions of collective making and unmaking. For Verviers, who combines many media – research, video, sculpture, installation, and performance—in her multi-step process, the episodic, repetitive, and labour-intensive nature of her practice is informed not by a phallocentric, Sisyphean-existential struggle but by a journey to deconstruct the negative perception of cyclical tasks that must be repeated.2
Whilst pain might seem self-evident—we all know our own pain, it burns through us—the experience and indeed recognition of pain as pain involves complex forms of association between sensations and other kinds of “feeling states.”1
Instead of evacuating labour entirely (a pursuit that seems improbable, or even impossible, considering the work needed to be done in order to salvage our existence, make amends with our planet, and create new sustainable ties with likeminded individuals), Verviers leans into another type of practice. “Women’s work,” which is so often made invisible or overlooked, and “women’s pain”—like that caused by the endometriosis at the root of Verviers’s exploration in Building, destroying, and rebuilding—similarly under-studied medically and cast aside historically, become an entry point to dismantle the Western conception that endless, cyclical labour is necessarily destructive, soul-crushing evil.
In The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004), the philosopher Sara Ahmed writes about experiences of pain as something that materializes the environment around us. It is worth quoting her to understand how pain does and undoes our very being in this world: “It is through the intensiﬁcation of pain sensations that bodies and worlds materialise and take shape, or that the effect of boundary, surface and ﬁxity is produced. To say that feelings are crucial to the forming of surfaces and borders is to suggest that what ‘makes’ those borders also unmakes them. In other words, what separates us from others also connects us to others.”3 For Ahmed, an ethics of pain begins with accepting this incommensurable reality: pain is both an identifiable, shared experience and an irreducible corporeal knowing that cannot be essentialized or universalized.
Before even entering Verviers’s performance, the audience encounters a video titled Cybernetics hands playing in the mud (a community of bodies hosting migrating cells). In the film, Verviers narrates underlying aspects of the work through a robotic voiceover accompanied by a rotating medical illustrations of an ovary with endometriosis lesions. Certain sentences dig deep, suggesting the dissolution of masculinist romantic notions of the suffering, visionary artist. Instead, we are presented with a twenty-first-century feminist cyborg seeking sustainable, organic materials in a quest for newfound community care.
Verviers states, “I keep reading these essays about how oppression of women and oppression of nature started when humans settled and started growing grain instead of gathering nuts. Growing was a lot of work, and you would need many children to assist you as possible… My health is sponsored by the Anthropocene. I need this [medical] device to stop my womb from creating clusters all over the place.”4
In her performative spatial practice, fluidly adisciplinary, Verviers refuses to enforce the rules, codes, or norms of a Western art world that has equated heroic pain with virtuosity. Incessantly reaching for the top—competing to be the most miserable—is a feature in a self-perpetuating capitalistic nightmare of endless climbing. She counters this and any other sense of the sharp, violent, divisiveness of contemporary art as an invariably solo, miserable endeavour. Instead, she reclaims the act of cyclical labour by enmeshing the politics of chronic pain, the histories of patriarchy and sexism, and the contradictions of the Anthropocene in a sci-fi-inspired pursuit of kinship.
Understanding Verviers’s practice through performance helps frame her ability to evade the structures and strictures of an easily definable, immediately graspable single truth or essence. Each of her projects is a world in itself, and as such, it is constituted of multiple parts that cannot be isolated from each other. This worldbuilding is part of the doing and undoing, a performative, reiterative process that leads to no single place in particular but to a larger situation, encounter, or event. Building, destroying, and rebuilding performs this by sharing the work, decentralizing the sole, genius artist, and collectively doing and undoing together with her fellow performers—all of whom came from a reading group that she partook in called the Exhausted hybrid species feminist reading group.
The specific, unchoreographed, and flexible use of collaboration in this instance evokes the importance of play in Verviers’s practice. Speaking of the act of making cob columns for Building, destroying, and rebuilding, which ran daily during the Goldsmiths Degree Shows for a three-hour period, she creates a parallel with going for a workout.5 In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Ahmed addresses the cultural conditioning that surrounds pleasure: “Pleasure becomes an imperative only as an incentive and reward for good conduct, or as an ‘appropriate outlet’ for bodies that are busy being productive (‘work hard play hard’). This imperative is not only about having pleasure as a reward, but also about having the right kind of pleasure, in which rightness is determined as an orientation towards an object. Pleasure is ‘good’ only if it is orientated towards some objects, not others.”6
Herein lies Verviers’s most radical contribution to dismantling common conceptions of labour as a destructive cycle: she identifies the importance of detaching the artistic practice of doing from a teleologically oriented end pursuit, adopting it instead as a form of pleasure in itself. If the artist’s practice must continue, because the work of trying to cohabitate on this declining planet is not over, then our approaches to labour and labouring must change. Verviers is no nihilist; instead, she offers a self-sustaining and collective gesture that is not aimed at a particular “rightness” or “orientation” but invites us to join an open-ended, continuously unfolding, and playful cyborg-feminist ecosystem.
This new ontology is why I feel incommensurable optimism, hopefulness, and joy when experiencing Verviers’s work, as difficult as its subject matter might be. Even when faced with the chaos of my unpredictable knee, the collapse of the world around me, and the strictures of the art world, I am reminded that the key to detaching myself from this death spiralling is to play. To do and undo to my heart’s content.
1 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 23.
2 Email-exchange with the artist, October 1, 2023.
3 Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 24-25.
4 Anouk Verviers, Cybernetic hands playing in the mud (a community of bodies hosting migrating cells), video essay (2023), perfect loop, 4 min 53 sec.
5 Email-exchange with the artist, October 1, 2023.
6 Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 163.
The French translation of this article is also published in the 273 issue of Vie des arts – Winter 2024 and can be consulted here.