How to Wear the Clinic

5-05

Provisionally Together

October 17, 2019

Having a body is a kind of truth. We’ve all got one. But that’s where its universality begins and ends.

We can tell you about how we took our bodies across Beirut in the heat of August, visiting clinics where we had no appointments. Arriving at Dr. Nassar Hospital, too sweaty and under-dressed for the over-decorated plastic surgery clinic, we found one of the spaces that promise to assist women in retrieving something “lost.” Virginity remains a concern for many women around the world, even for us as New York Feminists™. However far away it might feel to us in 2K19, our own formative years spent in Palestine and Southern Baptist America have imprinted the consequences of compromising this particular bodily value, a “delicate flower” or thin mucous membrane. Through Cosmo-Clinical Interiors of Beirut, we produced research that reflects the construction and maintenance of virginity across the Middle East and North Africa, where it’s felt more pervasively under the construct of “honor.”

We can also describe the spaces where women enter for the purposes of reconstruction. In the clinic, bodies are opened to the presiding feminine ideal, and desire is cultivated in the transaction of that ideal. However comfortably women are made to feel in plush waiting rooms and themed recovery suites, there is a lingering discomfort of choice, an inability to express its full complexity. These stories are embedded but less easily evidenced in the research and representations that have unfolded from that fieldwork in Lebanon. In our investigation of the corrective measures for a certain bodily lack—the ruptured, disappeared, and otherwise unintelligible hymen—we found something that was eminently procurable, however unspeakable. Women are reluctant to talk about a procedure that both betrays and corrects a matter of their “dishonor.”[1] Hymenoplasty and other virginity simulations are given a presence on the market in a way that they are rarely articulated in personal and shared knowledges of the body. And so, by putting ourselves in the spaces of their saleable appearance—all those strangely feminized clinical interiors—we shared an experience of sitting, waiting, and listening, in an effort to better understand.

This is not an empathy exercise, but we have insisted on a practice of care, especially as we prepare this research for public exhibitions. Instead of opening private matters to an abstracted and consumable view, we focus our gaze on the clinic as the operative, affective object. Cosmo-Clinical Interiors of Beirut has left the Levant to meet new publics in Prague, New York, and Singapore; where the gallery becomes a clinic for some feminist edification. In each iteration, we have outfitted our own sequence of rooms as an amalgam of the interior design eccentricities and the hymenoplastic medical apparatus we documented in Beirut. In the gallery, it hosts a modified set of procedures that goes something like:

You pull back the curtain and step into the carpeted exam-room. A seat awaits your body, inflated clear vinyl atop a reflective surface. Accepting the invitation to recline, you can take a minute to examine your own self, like so many of us have done with hand mirrors in childhood bedrooms, as curious odalisques across history. From this seated position, you choose to adorn yourself with an additional view. In lieu of attending medical instruments, an OculusGo sits atop a surgical tray. It’s by wearing the headset that you, the visitor of the clinic in the gallery, can enter the OR. There, your already-seated body is transposed via another layer of the clinic simulation: presented on the two screens playing in front of each eye is a dream-image of the operation room. You anticipate the surgery that will not happen to you. Surgical instruments dance overhead. Voices speak and expand the room where they weren’t before. Ham al-Banat lal Mamat. “Girls cause worry until death”, she whispers the phrase she heard all her life.

We have tried to locate reflection in the space of production, in a way that takes pressure off the body as an object of representation. We don’t need to exploit the body, already a site of evidence and medical scrutiny, by opening it to a compromising gaze. VR gives presence to the room where it happens. But in the simulated stirrups, your viewing body is not a proxy for the one you do not see in the OR. Those voices are not your voice; they do not come out of your digital or physical body. You are wearing the headset, not the body of another. You are seeing a simulation through your eyes, not theirs. As Jade E. Davis, a scholar of virtual communication and cultural knowledge, reminds us; there is no escape from one’s body, we are always already augmented: by language, sweat, sex, culture.[2]

VR, as it has come into more widespread use in the gallery and the museum, as well as in practice as a persuasive instrument of design, presupposes an empathy experience while asserting a loss of the body. But having a sense of privileged access to a high-fidelity reproduction, or an assured sense that you’ve successfully empathized with an “other,” doesn’t provide the conditions for solidarity, or at least, for understanding. Rather than playing into VR’s economy of empathy or escape-room tactics, we have to find other affective modes between a certainty of knowing her and the impossibility of occupying her position.

We can hold our unstable knowledge of another, in all its tension. We have to assume this in-between, because there is no objective position from which to observe the cultural production of something like virginity.

[1] Hymenoplasty remains a taboo where virginity culture is more acutely felt. Women are justifiably reluctant to make public disclosures about their experiences, given the possible repercussions. But the women we spoke to acknowledged that the procedure is a well-known option; they all seemed to know a friend or cousin or aunt who has elected to have one. For the narrative portions of our project that give personal accounts of the surgery, we sourced already published interviews with patients and providers.

[2] Jade E. Davis, MinneWebCon 2018 Keynote Address, streamed live on April 23, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KovtzAlkgH0.

feminist architecture collaborative (f-architecture) is a New York-based research practice and shared alias of Gabrielle Printz, Virginia Black, and Rosana Elkhatib. In addition to their promiscuous design efforts, they have written widely on matters of architecture and also about blood, protest, and Princess Nokia.