by Mira Dayal
From the concrete stairwell, we watch foam bubbles of saliva trickle out of the woman’s lips, imperceptibly trembling around the slick edge of a plastic mouthpiece. She is still. Thin plastic wires center her and constrain her movements. Look around and watch the two other women blink slowly, breathe heavily, as they are trapped inside the matrix.
How did we get here?
Human vulnerability is depicted physically. It stems from psychological conditions, we believe. Relationships can be tenuous, physically damaging, mentally draining, and precious. When we find ourselves feeling vulnerable, we want to escape. Lizzy De Vita wants to hold you there, to actually create situations and entire relationships designed to hold you in a position of vulnerability.
“To be vulnerable comes from “vulner,” which means to wound in Latin. It means woundable,” she explains. It would be easy to dismiss this desire to seek out vulnerability as voyeuristic, or manipulative but this would be to ignore the facts of DeVita’s work.
Begin with Bedroom (Fear and Trembling), the artist’s most current work online. “I listened to hours of 911 emergency calls online, most of them through televised media, re-recording all of them in Garage Band,” she writes. “This was difficult at first; I could only do 15 minutes when I started. Sometimes after hearing an especially disturbing call, I would have to stop for days or weeks. My threshold increased so that I could listen to 4-6 hours of emergency calls in one sitting.” This is vulnerability in one of its most public forms; a human with a phone appeals for help (even when it’s too late) and their fear or desperation is made publicly available. But the point of this work is not to find pleasure in the pain of others, or even to hear the articulations of vulnerability; De Vita has edited out all of the audible words in the calls. The result is a quivering tone which we understand as human without finding any narrative. In fact, we can hear it as much more than vulnerability–it registers as intimacy, horror and sadness too.
“That moment, right before you make the call, is for me the purest form of prayer,” she says. “I once read in a novel that the moment right before you pray is the purest form of prayer, and I think that is kind of the deepest moment of human vulnerability. You’re actually asking for something, reaching out. Asking to be received or saved. The convergence of that and the horror and the sex is the crux of that moment… I’m just separating things out to allow [the listener] to see other things that are happening.”
Vulnerability has become for the artist a lens through which to see everything else that is happening, in our selves and relationships and lives.
“I think much of our lives–and much of the way we understand the world–comes through the stories we tell ourselves about the way things are, or should be, and those stories aren’t necessarily that close to reality… I’m trying to find situations where people come through to an acceptance of their vulnerability… There’s a fundamental, even radical humanity in that.”
I first approached De Vita for a studio visit after reading about You’re Going to Break My Heart Again, which now exists as email screenshots and a compilation of audio clips. While she speaks of it as unresolved, the work reads to me as her most real and visceral construction. When introducing the piece, De Vita first explains her belief in a “third person” created through every relationship who is a manifestation of the personalities and behaviors specific to that relationship. “I’ve seen relationships as a way of triangulating your place, your identity based on other points of contact. You understand how you are based on how this other person is.” The third person creates a point of stability but remains dynamic and inevitably dissolves alongside the relationship. Alone, we are vulnerable. Together, we remain vulnerable, but we may create an anchor between ourselves. How do we access, name, and image this third body as the site of a relationship?
With You’re Going to Break My Heart Again, De Vita chose two people who she thought of as “the most invisible” in our society: heterosexual white men. “I wanted to create an invisible piece that was also site-specific… I was interested in their, maybe, lack of identity as a site-specific ground on which to begin. I thought instead of a person I could create a landscape, a landscape of the evolution of their relationship, where the site-specificity would be that relationship as it evolved.” On this ground, De Vita grew a web of intimacy so dense that it surpassed her own intimacies with each of the men individually. Throughout the month-long process of the piece, the two men never met but called each other on the phone each morning and evening. The artist called them individually in the middle of the day, to ask them each a question. One of the most frequent questions De Vita asked was, “Where are you now?” Their responses could place them literally, mentally, or spatially. Everyone involved recorded their end of the conversation. This was their only contact.
“At the end, we went to this lake that I mentioned at the start. We would always be talking about it but had never been there… this real and imagined place I felt was the embodiment of the whole… I didn’t say where the lake was, what the lake was, why we needed to go to the lake. It was just a known destination. I felt like it was important that we have a vision of a body of some kind–and a body of water is very humanoid–that we could all just envision as the completion of our work together. I wanted it to create a myth of a real place that became mythologized. When the month was over, we all just got in the car, none of us brought phones, and we all just went to the lake.
“After the project, they met each other on their own… Their first meeting was kind of like a breakup. The process was over. They already missed each other. I’m pretty sure neither of them had ever been that close to anyone.”
Is this vulnerability? The two men did not see each other throughout the development relationship; in this way it was similar to many contemporary relationships that develop digitally, with little information (or, indeed, false information, which the artist too created) about each other from the start until the first meeting. Yet the process was clear from the introductory emails. The artist mentioned that she would intentionally manipulate each person without publicly exposing them. There are no real stories in the resulting audio clip; personal information was excluded. It was not the “meat and muscles” but rather the “connective tissues” that interested De Vita. Before the process began, both men knew they would be subjected to this culmination of intimacy only to be left with a relationship they could not sustain as it had begun.
If we fear feeling vulnerable, if we avoid exposure and wounds, why do we allow ourselves to become tangled into such webs? Visually repulsed by dribbles of saliva, sonically disturbed by calls of distress, and physically inhibited by the constraints of a two-part mouthguard, we also recognize that there is something powerful in our fragility. We recognize ourselves in our reception of these works, even if we were not part of their creation. While we coddle ourselves with comforts and safety precautions, we need to participate in digital communities and occasionally adapt anonymity to feel real.
Understanding vulnerability is not synonymous with being in danger, of course. We listen from a distance and watch from a safe space. We feel and mentally participate in an idea of vulnerability but do not feel violated. It is an understanding of our capability of being hurt that is difficult yet transfixing, not the hurt itself. This, of course, relates to all of our societal conventions for masculinity, femininity, and compatibility. Reflecting upon the fact that these were heterosexual men in a relationship of extreme intimacy, question the assumptions that intimacy must be sexual, that the pinnacle of relationships must reside in sexuality, and that societies must be built upon the foundations of literally productive relationships. Why do we assume that digital relationships must be lesser than physically grounded relationships? How can we remove the perceived danger of relationships that do not form conventionally while preserving their intimacy? How do we as a society encourage vulnerability without increasing violence? Is it only through art that we can succeed in positively framing vulnerability?
For De Vita, this last question may be the most provocative. Next, she says, she wants to try You’re Going to Break My Heart Again on a larger scale, with more people and more third persons. Of the existing relationships she formed, the artist reflects, “It became like this mini culture, a mini society.” In expanding the work, perhaps she could achieve more fluidity between her constructed society and our lived world of complex relationships.
Where are you now?