Flex. The word describes a bodily gesture—the contraction of muscles or the bending of a joint. Colloquially, it also describes a display of dominance, a usage directly linked to the power of physical might. I have long been keenly aware of the entwinement of these definitions, though from the other side—the many times at which anxiety and depression were evident to others in my slouch. I knew what good posture looked like. I danced from childhood into my teens and—while it felt like I had to break open the usual curve of my back—I knew how to hold the straight-backed balletic pose. Rather, hunching my back was an outward expression of my sense of invisibility, of my feeling that I was not heard and could not speak.
Since first being studied in 1952, nonverbal communication—or “kinesics” as it is dubbed in the field of anthropology—has gradually entered popular consciousness and psychology. In the iconic study “The Natural History of an Interview” (1956-1968), a group of psychiatrists, linguists, anthropologists, and kinesicists conducted a fine-grained analysis of communication within a single family, assessing spoken language as well as pre-verbal elocution, body postures, gestures, and facial expressions. A theoretical premise of the study was that these non-linguistic forms of communication were “repressed,” which is to say subconscious. The study not only attempted to catalog micro-movements as one would a language—but to note whether they were knowingly carried out, received, and responded to; “‘what signals are emitted and what orders of awareness does the signaler show by emitting other signals about these signals? Can he plan them? Can he recall them?’ . . . we are interested to know what signals reach the receiver and what signals he knows he has received.”
I wasn’t always aware of the ways in which my own body involuntarily revealed my emotions. Now, I listen to and control these aspects of my physical presence—learning about my own state of mind through posture and purposefully using my stance to signal confidence to others.
Flex is an improvised performance for video, in which I am shown rounding and straightening my back, articulating my spine from a hunched, protective position to one that indicates pride. Though working in time-based media, I think of this work as almost sculptural—molding the material of my body to communicate through a form of gestural symbolism.
Photography of the performance is coming soon.