sitting with helene

Posted on September 14th, 2011

i sit on the concrete floor in the corner opposite helene vosters and watch. there is a materiality at play here. the body struggling. effort and attention are needed in the undoing of thread. the material is sturdy, the pieces of cloth sewn together with durability in mind.

i ponder visibility and invisibility. a part of me wants to be free from the visual, to “imagine” a woman, any woman, “somewhere” performing the task of unraveling. a woman who inhabits a hidden, but very real world. this woman is painstakingly undoing, unraveling, the uniforms of war. it is a life-long occupation, this unraveling.  this woman will never finish, never count “how many” never quantify her task in terms of time. she just does it. it is vital to her understanding of what it is necessary to do.

in this sense “seeing” helene at work makes material and possible a different understanding of what i “imagine” can be. this is not “any woman” this is helene vosters. this performance, by this performer, is visible and placed for me, for us, to witness. it is restricted by time, by location, by what the body can endure. the question arises, in performances of this nature, performances which seem half conceptual, yet also very based in the “doing” – is this seeing necessary and what are the prices the visible asks us to pay? on the one hand it feels crucial to “know” there is an actual doing, but what does this material proof of the performer performing her intention do?

i will sit with helene every day of the festival and spend time with her as she unravels. i want to feel what this bearing witness to the unmaking does.



  • It used to be that invisibility is what we didn’t see that would help us to see, what we did not know that we should have known and how our very imaginations are closeted and aloof from the truth. It became that invisibility is that which the media isn’t, it required the Helen Vorster’s of this world to do something that could cast our gaze to the invisible picture outside the rectangles.

    Maybe if we see Vorster in the visible rectangle, it might awaken enough of sensibility to see what it covers, what it hides, what we want to see and what it is enabling us to see. Our eyes are a conspiracy in the making, for we conspire with our attention to attend to things that seem visible, while protecting ourselves from the invisible.

    This is not just a cause of what war is, but the universal feminine – the culturally invisible way of seeing, that is the gift of a woman’s eye. The masculine visibility pours itself all over the history of mankind, making the past seem a clue rather than a perversion to the future. War is the cause of man as man thinks the world aught to be and most of all a man’s inability to see the invisible human inside that isn’t all man, and yet that isn’t all woman either.

    So the rectangles of media whether it be off a Gutenberg press or HDMI quality, that are in sum, the shapes of a coffin, which itself is the shape of war. How do we change the pictures in our head, if we don’t shift the pictures inside our head. We broadcast the past because we think the future is the past. The future is the invisible visible as much as we wish to see it, live it, make it, realize it – but there are centuries of weight in the visible, there is a weight we won’t let go. There is so much weight we need to let go.

    The invisible is weightless, it is free, it is a choice we can make, it is a mistake that we can liberate, it is so much that has yet to be born. War is the act of being stillborn century after century and awaiting a midwife of compassion to deliver our invisible belief. So much rides on the visible, that it becomes the comfortable couch, we don’t have to touch truth at all, we just have to speak it from head, while ignoring it from body.

    How then does our spirit succeed in bringing harmony to visible head and the invisible body? We must all feel mustn’t we? Or are we that ashamed of the feminine touch, that our masculine brutality, be it in woman or man – becomes the brush of death we watch on rectangles of media that are but coffins of hope, a false light we switch on, when the real light has no switch, for that is our human heart.


  • karen

    i’m not sure i fully understand your post thought spaces. but if you were saying some things need to be made visible i would have to agree with you. and if you were saying women’s place in the public realm has been overshadowed i would have to agree with you again. thanks for your coment, and hey, maybe helene vosters will understand better what you are saying and respond to your comment!

  • helene vosters

    “our eyes are a conspiracy in the making”–I love this line thought spaces! Your words remind me of two thinkers/theorists–Judith Butler and Diana Taylor–whose writings on how wars are framed by the media deeply inspire my work.

    Taylor, writing about Argentina’s disappeared during the brutal military dictatorship speaks of a kind of percepticide wherein people become blinded to what was happening right before their eyes. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo challenged (and continue to challenge!) this percepticide, or invisibilization, through there weekly gatherings in the plaza across the street from the government offices.

    Likewise, Butler talks about “frames of war” as material acts of war. By casting certain populations outside of the realm of grievability we render their deaths irrelevant.

    I’m not sure I believe in a universal feminism, however, I do believe that our gendered roles produce different rationalities, different ways of knowing and seeing. This is one of the things I’m exploring in Unravel: What rationalities are born out of task of dismantling militarism through a seam-by-seam, thread-by-thread dismantling of a military uniform? How might these differ from the rationalities that are born from or practiced in international “peace talks” or international “peacekeeping” operations?

    As Karen sat watching me yesterday, I felt a hint of our capacity to become “midwives” to one another delivering “our invisible belief.”

    Interesting these two very different notions of invisible that you’ve conjured. One that is a denial of what is, a collusion with invisibilization–and a second that is an investment in the not yet, in what we are told is impossible but our invisible imaginations tell us otherwise.

    • Wow, just the introduction to Butler and Taylor shifts my perspective greatly. I wonder how philosophical thinking would be different if instead of working on the base left behind the great men of philosophy, what would be different today if these great men had been great women?

      In using the expression “universal feminine” I am not seeking to focus on the division in gender, but the reality that for the sake of a gamete, we are all universally feminine. It is the act of procreation that supplies the y-chromosome that makes gender a reality, otherwise we would all be born female.

      Yet if that underlying rational is maintained, then the universal feminine becomes a metaphor for seeing my own life as a complete being, rather than merely as a man, who is immersing himself in matters of feminine thought.

      War is gender-neutral but much influenced by the philosophies of great men. I use the word great here as Britain does when it talks of Great Britain, and also in light of the term “standing on the shoulders of the great”.

      The prejudice that any form of division be it gender related, or nationalistic or other causes of indifference, stems from an act of protection. Then the question becomes, is it the masculine protection as a belief of the defender and breadwinner of the family, or the feminine protection as a belief in the values of motherhood?

      Once I look at just those two beliefs and consider their source, it makes me wonder about the unintended consequences of the philosophies of great men?

      Then it does not take much imagination for me to see fear and murder as an outcome, however I do see that it will take significant effort to stop imagining love and instead recognize the personal challenge of how the love we have within conquers the fear inside and out.

      It isn’t the other guy (or the other gal) who I advocate can do this, but our own given selves – so, in turn, if thinking through this moves me one inch closer to my own humanity, then I consider that quite worthy ingest (and not just invest) in the daily accumulation of practical education.

      I have linked a couple of books for my own edification and later perusal. So I thank you for taking your thoughts towards that direction:

      Disappearing Acts

      Undoing Gender