Thicker than Blood: How Participatory Art can Expose and Subvert Biopower
IN CONVERSATION WITH WITH ELENA ASCIONE
I had the pleasure to discuss with artist and curator Izdihar Afyouni her concept piece Thicker Than Blood, as well as her place within University, her drive to talk about race and, in general, the regulations she herself experiences on her own body on a daily basis. This piece is a critical, personal reflection upon her work and our interaction in relation to questions of biopower, neoliberal universities and institutions, labels and ‘loopholing’ practices.
There is a tension between feminism’s institutional politics and activism. One could certainly debate on what counts as political, however the institutional position from which knowledge is produced has dramatic repercussions on which ideas are considered valuable and thus rendered visible. I have found that one of feminism’s ambivalences resides in its double nature as an analytical-theoretical project and as a political project, and I have struggled either to find a balance or to abandon such a binaristic view. How can theory be grounded and practiced? Can we create a hybrid of theory and activism, participatory, animated, theoretical projects that go beyond limiting categorizations? Can art be a possible avenue where this can take place?
The work of Izdihar Afyouni Thicker Than Blood is an embodied practice that escapes and problematizes dichotomic categories and re-contextualises theoretical knowledges while subverting them. Izdihar Afyouni is a young Palestinian-Jordanian interdisciplinary artist and independent curator. Her work engages with concepts such as biopower and bio surveillance, processes of (in)visibility, eroticism and violence, often centering the fleshy body as the site of ideological struggle.
In my conversation with her, while discussing her place within academia, she said she had been immediately placed into boxes: she was labelled the “sexually liberated Arab, a fetishist”. Neoliberal universities often deploy inclusivity and intersectionality as buzzwords and tiptoe around issues of race and processes of racialization, a tiptoeing that furthers the silencing of people of color.
“With Thicker Than Blood I took all of their boxes and turned them into a stage”. 
These ‘boxes’, the micromanagement and regulation of bodies and institutionalized racism, are forms of biopower. Since the 20th century, race has become part of the institutional apparatus of the welfare state as a means to differentiate between individuals whose life is optimized and those who, by not being given the resources they need, are left to die, as Foucault theorizes in History of Sexuality v. I (1978), defining biopower as “power over life” or “power to foster life or to disallow it to the point of death.” However, the intersections between racism and the modern systematic hierarchization of people have deeper roots that sink also into the very complex and violent history of European Christianity of which we collectively need to be aware of, as Layal Ftouni explains in the catalogue for MOED’s exhibition What is Left Unseen.
Izdihar Afyouni’s immersive performance Thicker Than Blood is an exploration of the intersections between theory and practice, of biopower’s regulatory mechanisms and of individual complicity in upholding such a pervasive system of oppression. Afyouni’s work felt like it was asking me: how does power work? Do you feel it on your body? Can everybody see it now?
Thicker Than Blood: a concept
Thicker Than Blood is a “research project and series of participatory concept exhibitions that immerses the audience in an experience of the ethical and psychological implications of racial and genetic profiling policies”. Thicker Than Blood and Thicker Than Blood II were held in London in a BDSM dungeon and LGBTQ+ friendly space with a particular attention towards the arts. Participation to the first instalment was encouraged amongst people from the medical community as well as the fetish community, as Afyouni aimed at establishing a dialogue across different echo chambers – circles of people who come from the same socio-economic background, share opinions and beliefs and repeat them back to each other amplifying and reinforcing them. “If you want to talk about race and class only with people who are exactly like you, well…good luck” she told me laughingly.
Both events were free to attend and the only fee required was a drop of blood at the entrance; a choice that, on the one hand immediately frames the event as deeply personal, and on the other asks questions about the price of art, the privileges of seeing it and the power dynamics implicated in that, shifting continuously the focus from microscopic to macroscopic. The blood was taken by medical professionals and then tested on site while nothing was disclosed to the audience except that, according to the result of the test, their access to the exhibition would vary, indeed granting them privileges or restricting them by subjecting them to a completely arbitrary exercise of power. Later on, Afyouni revealed that the separation was based on the white blood cells count of each individual, which I found daringly ironic. No data was stored, and all samples and materials were secured until the end of the events when all blood samples were brought to a local hospital and incinerated.
According this procedure, participants were assigned one of the following categories: ‘Kindred’ who had access to the entire exhibit; ‘people in the middle’, who had access only to part of the artworks and performances; ‘Undesirables’ who were singled out, made to wait for a mock-interrogation and had no access at all to the event. The conscious choice to re-enact certain damaging categorizations with the aim of disrupting them ‘from within’, mimicking a social order in which everyone is passively immersed, is reminiscent of French linguist, psychoanalyst, and feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray’s “mimesis” concept, and then of American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler’s “performativity” theory. The process of conscious “repetition with a difference” can be mobilized in a subversive way “to make ‘visible’, by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible”, such as the workings of hierarchies and bio regulatory mechanisms.
Donna Haraway, influential contemporary feminist scholar, poetically explained how the way in which we do things and we think our ideas – our positionalities -, is always already a fundamental part of the things or ideas themselves: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties”. Thus, also in the case of Thicker Than Blood, it matters who re-enacts what. The artists, performers and organizers partaking in the event, were mostly women and queer people who engaged with the concept of the art evenings; hence, the result of the production of such a systematic hierarchy amongst the participants was a temporary nation state run by queer women; a dystopic, subversive, specular version of society.
“You have this electricity in the room between people who are having […] different experiences of the evening and they are aware that not everyone is having the same, and they can kind of see it and they can kind of hear it but they are stuck in their experience for the entire night. And in a way that is […] similar to the experiences that we have with being people of color, being white or being queer. You walk through the world in one way and you are aware of these different perspectives and ways of being […] but it’s never your experience. That is a very difficult concept to talk about in writing…I think it was just much more interesting to make people live it.” 
In Thicker Than Blood II, the ‘Undesirables’ – people who were singled out because of their low white blood cells count – were interrogated in a manner resembling the UK boarder agency interrogations of detainees. The interrogation room was inside the venue, adjacent to the exhibition, separated from it only by curtains. Thus, all participants were in hearing distance of what often sounded like a non-consensual exchange. The ritualistic nature of mechanisms of intimidation mobilized by nation states are re-enacted during the interrogations. Afyouni also worked with techno-DJ Miss Wanna to create a soundscape of the night, playing with the audience’s affective reactions through music, inciting anxiety by rising the beats to the maximum at one time and then dropping the music to almost silence at another, bringing on hesitation and dispersion.
Micro-management and artistic micro-subversions
Imagine being there, imagine being singled out and not knowing whether this is a game or whether this is reality. Imagine being ‘in the middle’, not feeling special, being ‘inconsequential’, being at the exhibit but not being able to see it all. Imagine being ‘Kindred’ and enjoying the whole evening with the privileges you have been granted because, somehow, your blood was ‘better than’. Imagine buying a drink for your friend who has been left outside and consequentially being stripped of your privileges and rendered an ‘Undesirable’ as well.
Thicker Than Blood looks at the manipulation of bodies as tools of structures of power. It re-enacts the workings of biopower by grounding its (abstract) pervasiveness to an art night, to an event that questions the separation between theory and practice and the interweaving of art and life. Biopower’s micromanagement of life is everywhere, but somehow it is difficult to expose and escape. Izdihar grabs this cunningly volatile system and compresses it until the point of explosion into her performance for the participants to be subjected to. She curated a night in which mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion of neoliberal societies pierce the skin of every single individual partaking at the event, their blood questioning notions of privilege, (in)visibility and boundaries. And the intricacies of the art night do not end here, as sexuality and fetish are interlaced with the thinking of biopower through race, art and institutions.
The choice of the BDSM dungeon as a stage for the art night brings back, once again, Foucault’s theorizations: “Sex was a means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species […] Spread out from one pole to the other of this technology of sex was a whole series of different tactics that combined in varying proportions the objective of disciplining the body and that of regulating populations.” The erotics of violence and the complex relationship between torture – Afyouni’s focus for most of her undergraduate studies – and sexual fetishisms are part of the concept. Blood, then, is literally and figuratively the red thread running across the exhibit, synecdoche of sex and torture. It can be seen in Afyouni’s own sculpture this twisted tortured mess this bed of sinfulness that’s longing for some rest (2016), a wooden St Andrew’s cross painted in bright red lacquer – an all but subtle nod to the ontological tension between BDSM practice and martyrdom that this object holds within itself. Blood is also one of the main characters, almost gaining a life of its own, in the performance of Venus Raven, a London-based performer that ended the art night with her piece Great Again. In this performance, created specifically for Thicker Than Blood II, Venus Raven, with sharp gestures, undresses a man clothed in business attire and then pins to his body the American flag, blood dripping on the ground and onto his body, drenching the flag. “There is something about blood that is very primal. Primitive. So that, by default, in a way bonds everybody on a feral level of ‘we are all human, we are all mortal.”
We are, however, also made aware in Thicker Than Blood, that some bloods are arbitrarily better than others, a fact to which we implicitly consent with indifference, ignorance and inaction. Vis a Vis contemporary circumstances there is a need to first expose, question and then dismantle this hegemonic order and Izdihar Afyouni does it also through her relation to the public, questioning the macroscopic social order and the microscopic order of traditional art events and the idea of public.
“The audience are too used to being held in high esteem, as though they are needed for the art to exist. I have deliberately chosen to destroy this expectation.”
The artworks in show were not labelled or distinguished by author at the venue. The traditional triangle of modernity – artist, art work, institution- crumbles as the project becomes a collective, participatory experience where the audience is not offered guidance and explanation and where the making of art is relational.
Thicker Than Blood keeps life and performance close enough to loophole oppressive practices that nation states put forth. Afyouni’s practice is situated, embedded and embodied, performative and affective. It pushes us to reflect on our own positionalities. It escapes single neat definitions and thrives in the in-between place that it creates for itself, a place where conversations about possible ways of thinking and living ‘otherwise’ happen. A place, where biopower is exposed and subverted, if only for a night.
According to a personal policy of transparency and accessibility, Izdihar Afyouni posted on her personal website all information, recordings of the performances and curatorial texts, creating a virtual gallery of her work. I strongly encourage you to visit it.
Elena Ascione is currently (2018-2019) a student of the Gender Studies Graduate Program at Utrecht University (NL). She has done a research internship at MOED – The Museum of Equality and Difference. She is an activist and an academic and she is interested in issues of representation, arts and politics, sexual health and education, LGBTQ+ rights and many other matters she is still in the process of discovering.
 “Animacy activates new theoretical formations that trouble and undo stubborn binary systems of difference”, Mel Y. Chen, Animacies : biopolitics, racial mattering, and queer affect (Durham, NC : Duke University Press., 2012).
 Afyouni Izdihar.
 Layal Ftouni, “The scene and the unseen”, in What is left unseen, MOED, 2019, 43–63.
 Afyouni Izdihar, “Thicker than blood : consequence”, Izdihar Afyouni (website), n.d., http://www.interventionistgod.com/consequence.
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 Afyouni Izdihar.
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 Irigaray, This sex which is not one.
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 Nada Akl, Of blood and bureaucracy: consequences of the arbitrary, Annotated video, 2018, https://vimeo.com/290222183.
 Foucault, “Right of death and power over life”
 Lucy Arup, “Venus Raven: Pain for pleasure”, Artefact, n.d., http://www.artefactmagazine.com/2019/02/26/venus-raven-pain-pleasure/.
 Izdihar, ‘Thicker than blood : consequence.”
Akl, Nada. Of blood and bureaucracy: Consequences of the arbitrary. Annotated video, 2018.
Arup, Lucy. “Venus Raven: Pain for pleasure“, Artefact, n.d.
Butler, Judith. Gender trouble. Routledge, 1990.
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Foucault, Michel. “Right of death and power over life”. In History of sexuality volume I: An introduction, translated by Robert Hurley. Pantheon Books New York, 1978.
Ftouni, Layal. “The scene and the unseen”. In What is left unseen, MOED., 43–63, 2019.
Haraway, Donna J. “SF: Science fiction, speculative fabulation, string figures, so far”. Ada – a journal od gender new media & technology, no. 3 (November 2013).
Irigaray, Luce. This sex which is not one. Translated by Catherine Porter. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Izdihar, Afyouni. “Thicker than blood : consequence“, Izdihar Afyouni (blog), n.d..
Lucy Arup. “Venus Raven: Pain for pleasure“, Artefact, n.d.