Communication and Construction of Monstrous Embodiment
June 15-16, 2012

Thursday, 29 September 2011

H.R. Giger's Biomechanical Aesthetic

Passionate about Alien films? Fascinated by the sublime beauty of the Alien creatures? Interested in the complex interplay of the senses, transgressions and fetishist imagery present in this type of artwork? Then take a closer look at H.R. Giger, the fascinating artist whose works inspired the Alien films and explore his surreal world of shifting shapes, mechanics, fetishes and sensualised body parts.

H.R. Giger is an acclaimed Swiss surrealist artist, painter, sculptor, designer and interior architect whose art is usually described as 'Biomechanical aesthetic' defined as 'a dialectic between man and machine, representing a universe at once disturbing and sublime'. This universe represents a unique exploration into the human body, sexuality, (de)form(ation), polymorphous creatures and their ecstatic and sensual merging with technology. Fetishist tentacles, fetuses, orifices, ruptures, skeletal structures and various fluids constitute a part of this rich space of alterity and possibility.

The best resource for Giger's works is his official website, which offers a glimpe into his immense creativity, from articles and discussions on Alien films, images of Giger bars, sculptures, furniture, books, music and theatre. It also includes an informative biography revealing more about his life and art.

The website also offers a link to the Giger Museum, which aims to engage (or challenge) our senses more directly. Situated in the medieval Château St. Germain in Gruyères, Switzerland, it houses the greatest collection of his works from 1960s to today. If you are unable to visit this magical place, the elaborately and engagingly designed websites might serve as a compensation.
Finally, I warmly recommend the 'Short films' section of the Museum website, containing numerous tributes to Giger and featuring some of his brilliant works.

Feel free to share your impressions on this fascinating artist and his creations and how this may relate to your interests / conference ideas on any of our pages!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, "Giants"

Julius Koch, Le Geant Constantin
Image courtesy of
As you can probably imagine, we are looking forward to the forthcoming Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters, ed. Jeffrey Weinstock, with great anticipation (it's hardly a stretch of the imagination to say that if you're reading this blog, you are too, and if you weren't before, you most definitely are now. Or at least you should be). To be totally honest, we simply cannot wait for it to be published.

Time travel was attempted (and subsequently abandoned), things were learned that cannot be unlearned, and our respective psyches were threatened with total destruction. As a result, we had no choice but to resign ourselves to the doleful realisation that, like mere mortals, we would have to wait.

But that wait has been made less torturous by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (who, just a small reminder, will be flying all the way from Washington D.C. to Edinburgh, Scotland to be a keynote at our conference along with Peter Hutchings and Margrit Shildrick). On the In the Middle blog, he was ever so kind last month to post a draft of his entry on giants, to which we now direct your attention:
The giant pervades every level of society, from popular culture and folklore to self-consciously artistic literature and scholarly discourse. With some notable exceptions, the giant is strongly gendered male. He often figures the masculine body out of control, demarcating a cultural boundary not to be traversed. The giant is foundational. The world may have been created from the body of a giant, as in Norse fable; or the body of the earth may spawn giants, as in classical tradition. He is so elemental that humanity cannot escape his abiding presence.
Keep an eye out for the encyclopaedia itself - definitely going to be a good book to have on the shelf. 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Constructing The Hottentot Venus

Those of you interested in nineteenth century freak shows and the complexities of exhibiting 'cultural otherness', or the (de)humanization of the 'freak' and / or 'specimen', will certainly come across the diverse and often conflicting views on Saartjie (or Sarah) Baartman also known as the Hottentot Venus.

Stripped of her cultural context, Baartman was exhibited as one of the most popular 'freaks' in the nineteenth century, whose body was exposed to curious viewers as a spectacle of 'cultural otherness'. Baartman was presented to viewers in a cage, dressed in a tight fitting costume which emphasized her distinctive shape. Her breasts, buttocks and hypertrophied genitalia became the nineteenth century symbol for excessive and deviant female sexuality and inspired numerous primitivist ideologies which equated her with an animal. This voyeuristic exhibiting of her body continued long after her death, resulting in numerous discourses on gender, sexuality, race, colonialism and ethnocentrism.

In case you have access to it, you might find useful Sander L. Gilman's influential and frequently quoted article entitled 'Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine and Literature' (Critical Inquiry 12, Autumn 1985) where he explores the representations of individuals in art which is frequently 'iconographic' in character, in which specific individuals represent particular 'classes' of people, especially when they are perceived as 'the other' and different to 'Western white male' concepts of normality. In referring to the Hottentot Venus, the article provides an exploration of racial stereotypes and their relationship to constructions of deviant sexuality. More specifically, Gilman discusses the 19th century fascination with Baartman's overtly sexualized 'anomalous' body parts, explaining it in the following terms:

Sarah Baartman's sexual parts, her genitalia and her buttocks, serve as the central image for the black female throughout the nineteenth century. And the model of de Blainville's and Cuvier's descriptions, which center on the detailed presentation of the sexual parts of the black, dominates all medical description during the nineteenth century. To an extent, this reflects the general nineteenth-century understanding of female sexuality as pathological: the female genitalia were of interest partly as examples of the various pathologies. (...) Sarah Baartman's genitalia and buttocks summarized her essence for the nineteenth century observers, or, indeed, for the twentieth century one.

This fascination with her body parts and her subsequent treatment as a preserved specimen additionally commodified her body, constructing it as simply another item to be collected and displayed. Dehumanized in medical reports, dissected and once again exposed after death, her voice remained largely obscured.
Another interesting article which highlights the importance of contextualization is Sadiah Qureshi's article 'Displaying Sara Baartman, the 'Hottentot Venus' (History of Science, Vol.42, 2004) which points to the processes involved in Baartman's objectification, politicization, exhibition and preservation. By examining these processes, it is possible to new perspectives on her story as well as 'historicize her tale'. Considering Baartman's agency, Qureshi writes:

A significant factor is the lack of agency Baartman inevitably possesses in any retelling of her story, since all the surviving records are accounts of her, rather than diaries or letters from her. Consequently, it is precisely the difficulty in recovering her agency that makes her amenable to employment as a cipher, even her minimal presence being enough; unfortunately this only constitutes further to her dispossession.

In the end, what can we know of Baartman's person? It seems to be an ever-evolving pursuit: by exploring the construction of the 'Hottentot Venus', critically reflecting on numerous existing discourses surrounding her (the sea of publications and biographies) as well as and contextualizing Baartman's story, it is possible to open new perspectives (and questions) on the life and experiences of this remarkable woman, whose real name still remains - unknown.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Plenary Speaker: Prof. Margrit Shildrick

"Lunatica", Fernando Vicente. From the series Vanitas
Copyright Fernando Vicente, 2008.
The Sensualising Deformity conference organisers are delighted to announce that Margrit Shildrick, Professor of Gender and Knowledge Production with Tema Genus at Linköping University in Sweden, will be joining Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, from George Washington University, and Peter Hutchings, from Northumbria University, to deliver a keynote lecture at the conference this June. 

We are honoured and excited to be bringing together such truly brilliant minds, each of whom offers a distinct perspective on the topic of monsters, monstrosity, and monstrous embodiment. They also reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the conference itself; despite their different research backgrounds, each have contributed significantly to our understanding of monsters and monstrosity, and are sure to add great depth and nuance to our discussions of sensuality and the anomalous body during the conference.

We look forward to offering a forum in which our speakers can communicate and engage with what we are positive will be an equally wonderful group of participants from across departments and disciplines, and encompassing the full range of the academic career spectrum.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Grotesque Bodies

If you are passionate about film and television monsters, featuring explicit gore, graphic violence and depictions of various taboos, Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media might have the right ingredients to satisfy your particular appetites. To be more specific, Intensities No. 4, December 2007, offers a special edition entitled Mysterious Bodies, containing a range of brilliant essays on alien bodies, vampires, ‘Gothic’ body parts, sex and violence in the Muppet Show, the dead bodies of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and many others.

Gerard de Lairess, Plate T.55, "Abdominal Organs, Uterus
and Placenta of  a Pregnant Woman" from Govard
Bidloo's Anatomia Humani Corporis (1685)
Images are copyright the University of Toronto Library
The edition includes an article by Peter Hutchings entitled ‘Grotesque Bodies and the Horror of Comedy in League of Gentlemen’ which deserves special mention, especially for its illuminating comments regarding the show’s dark humor, acceptability, graphic depictions of decomposing, dissected grotesque bodies and its distinctiveness resisting simplistic explanations and contextualization.

Opening the article, Hutchings writes:
The comedy show 'The League of Gentlemen', which first appeared on British television in 1999 and ran until 2002, was probably not to everyone’s taste. Themes explored through three series and a Christmas special included murder, kidnapping and imprisonment, incest , monstrosity and deformity, masturbation, transvestism and transexuality, dead children, cruelty to animals, the imbibing of urine, erotic asphyxiation, vampirism, voodoo, implicit cannibalism (a rare moment of restraint), limb grafting and a plague of nosebleeds. Add nudity, some violence and gore, the occasional use of the word 'fuck', and an obsessive fixation on bodies marked in various ways as grotesque, and you end up with a most unusual recipe for TV comedy.
This ‘unusual recipe’ produced a clever work whose very cleverness, in Hutchings' view, shielded it from ‘accusations of vulgarity and coarseness and made it a suitable object for critical praise.’ The show, comparable to Monty Python, intelligently invokes comic and horror traditions creating a rich fabric of cultural references. Hutchings also reflects on the characters’ physical grotesquerie, which served as a starting point for the show’s characterizations, driven by obsessive desires and impulses and the role of transvestism where the male performers frequently play the roles of both male and female. The article concludes with an illuminating examination of the grotesque bodies in terms of horror, parts of which deserve to be quoted in full:
Cornelis Huyberts, Thes: 7, tab. 2 (Brain with pia mater,
arm of a child, hydatiform mole, fetal membranes,
lips), from Frederic Ruysch,
Opera omnia anatomico-medico-chirurgica 
In this veritable parade of attractions, grotesque bodies provide some continuity, with body-anxiety a major theme, albeit one that is modulated in different, generically specific ways as the show progresses. The deployment of grotesque bodies, defined in relation to both comedy and horror traditions, also helps to articulate the peculiar televisual character of a show that seems very much to be defining itself in terms of the limits of what can actually be shown on television. (…) Repeatedly, the emphasis is on what we cannot see, with the limits of our vision of ten associated with partially glimpsed bodies. We cannot see the source of the infected meat (although we might presume that it is human flesh), we cannot see the monster above the shop, we cannot see Barbara in all her transsexual glory. Instead the show alludes to extra - televisual generic worlds that are not fully representable within television itself, with those allusions drawing the attention of an audience – or at least a generically knowledgeable audience – precisely to what they are missing. 
Finally, the monstrous, dissected, infected, distended, distorted and transgressive bodies featured in this article remain rich in allusions and contradictions, leaving us wondering, intrigued by their distinctiveness as we fill the gaps with our own imagination. Whether your exploration of monstrous bodies as depicted in both film and in television concerns gender politics, sexuality, horror, humor, the grotesque, gore, explicit violence, fetishism, breaking taboos and numerous others, the articles featured in this edition might inspire criticisms or simply - spark your research interests and encourage your imagination.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Cute & Creepy Exhibition in Florida

Sadly for us, all of the organisers of the Sensualising Deformity conference are based in Edinburgh, which means we cannot attend the absolutely fantastic and grotesque Cute and Creepy exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts at Florida State University in Tallahassee. But we can help encourage others to attend in our stead, and hope that they will bring back tales of their creepy experiences. The exhibit will be held between 14 October and 20 November of this year, so there's plenty of time yet to plan your trip; perhaps your family or friends might enjoy a trip to Disney World while you nip off for some monstrous pop surrealism?

The site's home page offers different examples of the work, or the kind of work, that will be offered at the exhibit, and based on that alone there is no question that it would be of interest to this conference and anyone reading the blog, but as if to ensure no further doubt, curator Carrie Ann Baade writes,
To see beauty in the carnivalesque or macabre, in freaks and in monsters, is a matter of aesthetics. Most of us can agree on the artistic value of a Monet or Titian but this work is for a daring audience, an audience open to exploring the strange beauty and the ecstasy inherent in our culture's aversions.
Travis Louis, The Curse of the Goat, 2006.
There is something that makes us uneasy when confronted by the weird or the unusual. Those who can appreciate both have come to anticipate and enjoy unexpected sensations. Work of this nature is not going to be an underground movement any longer: the grotesque is going mainstream.
The website also offers a tantalising excerpt of Nancy E. Hightower's essay "Revelatory Monsters: Deconstructive Hybrids, the Grotesque, and Pop Surrealism" that is included in the exhibition catalogue, which is worth quoting in full:
We need monsters in our lives.
We like to fear them, to run hiding under the covers or clenching a lover's arm until the monster is destroyed or banished to far off lands. they are wonderful like that, refusing to ever completely disappear from our lives, affording us the opportunity for self-introspection if we take a moment to recognize that monsters don’t die because they are essentially us(Cohen 5). Once they are eradicated from our cultural memory, we go, too. And that monstrous, wondrous body is at the heart of the grotesque. From the playful grotteschiunearthed in the Domus Aurea to demons of the illuminated manuscripts that overflowed from the margins onto the actual text, the monstrous body has always threatened what our culture has desired to contain (or perhaps more accurately, trapped, vetted, and fixed to incorporate whatever impossible standards it has set up to differentiate us from them). But the monstrous body is also prophetic in nature.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that as a “construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals’ that which warns…like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”. What sets up this kind of fulcrum is society itself: “The too-precise laws of nature as set forth by science are gleefully violated in the freakish compilation of the monster's body. A mixed category, the monster resists any classification built on hierarchy or a merely binary opposition, demanding instead a ‘system’ allowing polyphony, mixed response (difference in sameness, repulsion in attraction), and resistance to integration…”. These kinds of juxtapositions are what form the definition of the grotesque.
Greg Simpkins, Knightengale, 2008.
Of course, with such passages accompanying the examples of art included on the home page of the site, monsterphiles who, like us, don't live anywhere near the exhibition will be working out calculations in the vain hope that a trip to Florida this autumn might be within their budget (we feel your pain). But if you happen to be so lucky as to be in Florida, or close enough for a visit, we highly recommend visiting the exhibition.

If not, perhaps you will have to do as we are doing and wistfully pass on the information to any fortune-favoured friends you might have who could attend! In the meantime, console yourself, perhaps, with a closer look at the artists involved, whose work is engaging with monstrosity in such sensational ways.

Friday, 9 September 2011

British Medical Journal Teratological Memoranda

Images courtesy of the BMJ Publishing Group,
BMJ 1889, June 8; 1(1484): 1288–1289.
Those of you interested in teratology - 19th century especially - will probably already be quite familiar with the British Medical Journal's Teratological Memoranda, but if you haven't had a spare hour or two to browse through their older archives looking for reports of "human monsters", we would like to direct you to articles such as this, which describes the birth of three monstrous infants, a pair of conjoined twins and a limbless child whose birth is attributed to the mother having "seen a fish she never thought existed". Perhaps the most interesting thing featured in both reports is the woodcut included with each, that of the conjoined twins especially. 

In placing the figure of the twins against a black background, the gap between them and the band of flesh which binds them together are thrown into sharp relief; their faces seem closer, within kissing distance, because of the space between them. Their position seems transformed into a sensual one by the intense nearness, which is itself born of that crucial gap. Contrasted with the harshly tactile description given by the author of his involvement in their birth, focused on his probing hands and fingers, in this image it is the lack of contact which is the more sensuous.

The image of the limbless child, on the other hand, is memorable for the almost wistful expression depicted on the baby's face, its humanity over emphasised as if to counter the anomalous form below.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Audio Teratology

In the interest of inspiring discussion and debate, we draw your attention to some samples from The Teratologist music project, which released its third album, Cabinet of Curiosities Parts III & IV, this  June.

Descriptions of the albums include "an amalgamation of musique concrète, electroacoustic, harsh ambient and drone", "deep textures of acoustic and electronic composition", and "a[n] esoteric feeling generally stimulated by ritual music" - raising questions of how such industrial, electric, "harsh" music can be integrated with a project title that gestures towards a phenomenon that is more often soft, flesh-like, wrapped up within a body that is open or opening, moist, textured, palpable.

The samples do not pander to the senses, but deliberately offend them, evoking sensations that stand on the edge of paranoia, a rejection of sound which is an intrusion upon the flesh. The disembodied music forces a bodily response, tying the internal with the unnatural, external stimulus - eerily reminiscent of the teratologist himself, a figure of intrusion, of harsh metallic instruments who sought to inflict pain in his study of the monstrous body. In encompassing the discipline of teratology within a sensuous experience, what does such a project do to the monstrous specimen in the cabinet of curiosities itself, the figure which lies behind the music, which is denied any mention but remains an intrinsic part of it?

Questions, comments, disagreements, re-articulations - anything short of outright insults - are encouraged in the comments section.