Exhibition: 13th November 2015 – 31st January 2016
Performance: 29th January 2016.
Anna Zett plays with the physical end of language in a newly commissioned video and text work, with performance. Through the production of text and images emerging both from her own boxing practice and the archives of modern art and commerce, she searches for links that connect the experience of fist fighting with verbal and visual communication. The boxing ring, a square in fact, is re-imagined as a mythical space, created by boxers, artists and writers alike. Its ritual purpose would be to celebrate the dangerous transformation of monologue into dialogue, despite the extreme vulnerability of the human nervous system.
In 19th century England, boxing – timed fist fighting with gloves inside a ring – started out as prize-fighting and the most dubious kind of sports betting. Barely legal and often bloody, it emerged from capitalist society with the promise of fame, money and respect for young men who had nothing to sell but their labour power. Unlike a factory worker though, a boxer is left to himself in the ring, stripped of everything but his vulnerable, versatile, aggressive, alert physical self. Whilst completely focussed on one another as opponents, two fighters act out what the spectators recognize as style – the effect of choreographic training and consistent neuro-muscular conditioning, influenced by an individual body language that started to develop long before training began.
The US-American novelist Joyce Carol Oates, a serious boxing enthusiast described this spectacle as “a dialogue of the most refined sort”, “a dialogue of split second reflexes”. She assigned good boxers “an instinctive sort of tissue intelligence, a neurological swiftness unknown to ‘average’ men and women”.
Regardless of their neurological swiftness, women were banned from the boxing ring longer than almost any other place in secular Christian societies. To meet, with the ambition to channel physical aggression face-to-face is an ability seriously at odds with patriarchal notions of feminine competition. Like other martial arts, boxing is about regulated violence: about creating a zone in space and time, where equal beats equal. Subjected to the exact same rules, two equal opponents step into the ring to circle around each other in a violent form of contact improvisation. Male boxers were the ideal performers of early American silent film, before camera movement, before editing, before the language of film evolved – a solely visual spectacle of thrilling live action.
Boxing is a radical form of dialogue, just like a caress, but at the other end of language. A punch stands for nothing but itself, it isn’t symbolic; it has no meaning. It only relates to what Oates has called the “unique, closed, self-referential world” of boxing itself, “obliquely akin to those severe religions in which the individual is both ‘free’ and ‘determined’ – in one sense possessed of a will tantamount to God’s, in another totally helpless.”
A punch can’t lie, but it can trick you. Ideally you notice your opponents body move a split second before the punch, you notice their shoulder twitch, their arm fall, their foot step, their hip turn. But your response has to be quicker than a conscious decision could ever be. The material network of your nervous system has to be able to do its work independently of your experience of being in control.
Anna Zett works in video, audio, bodies and text. Playfully engaged with the tragicomedy of science and technology, her artistic practice tries to rely on voluntary vulnerability as much as it relies on historical inquiry and an experimental setup. Her videos have recently been screened at The Extinction Marathon, Serpentine Gallery, Serpentine Cinema London, Videonale Bonn, National Gallery Prague, Kasseler Dokfest, Echo Park Film Center Los Angeles. She occasionally writes for The New Inquiry and lives in Berlin.