Vital practices: Self-experimentation as artistic and scientific form
Ana María Gómez López
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DStrains of speed

In pursuing Inoculate, I decided to commit to an indeterminate period of retreat and inactivity. My goal in so doing was to optimize my body as a physical substrate for plant growth: a stable environment that would not be disrupted by changes in temperature, agitation, or other unforeseen variables. I carried out Inoculate during a cold autumn in the northeast United States, characterized among other features by dry, bitter wind. Although the seed was confined to the punctal plug located within the tear duct of my eye, I deemed it indispensable to engage my entire body in the process by remaining warm and indoors, as well as restricting my individual movement in order to avoid any possible alteration. This isolation might seem excessive in hindsight, it nevertheless served to concentrate my efforts on the task at hand, while also providing a palliative encouragement that I was somehow increasing the chances for plant growth to take place. In a way, this choice to remain stationary resembles another plant-centred work, Skotopoesis (2015) by Špela Petrič, where the Slovenian artist cast a permanent light impression onto a field of cress by standing rigidly in place for 19 hours using a supporting back frame.38 Slowing down becomes essential when attempting to accommodate to such vegetative processes.

Creating the conditions for altering one’s mobility offers a range of self-experimental practices. For example, U.S. performance artist Lisa Bufano tailored limbs out of ready-made objects which she used as extensions to her own body. As a bilateral below-the-knee and complete finger-thumb amputee, Bufano experimented with various means for locomotion, an element featured in several of her works. A parallel approach is pursued by the French duo Art Orienté Objet; in their piece May the Horse Live in Me (2011), Marion Laval-Jeantet fabricated stilts resembling horse limbs, using them in a performance which accompanied a self-experiment involving the incremental injection of horse immunoglobins and full-spectrum plasma into her bloodstream over the course of several months.39 In his piece Visiting Hours (1993), U.S. poet and artist Robert Flanagan would be tied by his ankles and hoisted to hang upside-down from the ceiling in unpredictable intervals determined by his collaborator and dominatrix partner Sheree Rose—a common act in BDSM circles, but which proved of particular effort to Flanagan who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.40 Finally, in the previously described piece Art/Life: One Year Performance 1983–1984 (Rope Piece), Tehching Hsieh and U.S. artist Linda Montano remained tied together for an entire year, unable to move independently from each other save for a 2.4-metre stretch of cord.41

U.S. Colonel John Paul Stapp conducted a dramatic self-experiment on the sudden imposition of velocity on a static body. On December 10, 1954, Stapp, a flight surgeon and physician in the U.S. Air Force, took part in one of the most extreme speed trials to date. Strapped to the seat of a sled powered by nine solid fuel rockets named “Sonic Wind No. 1”, Stapp went from being in complete standstill to 1,017 kilometres per hour in five seconds, only to be brought to a full stop again a few seconds later. This acceleration and deceleration experiment at the Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, New Mexico was part of Project MX-981: Effects of Deceleration Forces of High Magnitude on Man.42 The entire process was documented in detail by sensors placed on his body and sled, as well as photographic cameras located at precise intervals around the high-speed track (for a U.S. Air Force film narrated on-location by Stapp and featuring original footage from the experiment, see the first five minutes of the 1968 documentary Space Age Railroad).

Stapp’s experiment was one of several which provided essential data for the development of pilot emergency ejection procedures, aviation safety criteria, and aerospace engineering. From the late 1940s through the 1950s, Stapp had participated in controlled simulations to study the effect of mechanical forces on living human tissue, serving as a research subject in several car crashes, wind blasts, and high-altitude skydiving experiments. At the time, aviation medicine was still not highly formalized, and there were few standard guidelines for aircraft performance, let alone future space travel. Stapp survived his self-experiment at near supersonic speed, earning him the label of “the fastest man alive” and proving that humans could withstand a force equivalent 46.2 times the gravity of Earth, or 46.2 g. He was bruised on his body and face, and suffered from severe retinal haemorrhages in both eyes, although he fully regained his sight afterwards. For comparison, today’s shuttle astronauts only experience about twice the force of gravity, and early astronauts rarely surpassed 10 times that amount. Stapp literally was “faster than a speeding bullet”: a .45 calibre shot from a pistol has a slower speed.43

U.S. artist William L. Pope (known as Pope.L) also personified Superman and emphasized the strength of human body undergoing strenuous movement, albeit under different conditions of speed. In his work The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2000–2009), Pope.L crawled along the entire length of Broadway in New York City. He completed this process in increments, dragging himself on the sidewalks for a few blocks at a time or for as long as he could stand the discomfort in his knees and elbows. Pope.L covered the full stretch of New York City’s longest thoroughfare during the course of nine years. Beginning with a ferry ride from the Statue of Liberty to Fulton Street, he ended near his mother’s residence in the Bronx. During several segments of his multi-year crawl, Pope.L occasionally wore a business suit and a Superman outfit, replacing the cape with a red skateboard tied to his back that bore the trademark “S” logo.

In its wrenching effort, Great White Way emphasized not only the mechanical force of gravity, but the staggering strength required to bear the brunt of everyday racism in the United States.44 In his practice, Pope.L has regularly addressed issues such as social prejudice, class division, and racial discrimination; it is not by chance that his crossing of New York City began on Ellis Island, the place where immigrants have historically entered the United States, and ended in the Bronx, by far the city’s poorest borough. Previous crawls done by Pope.L in New York City hold similar commentary within their structure. The Great White Way was preceded by the Times Square Crawl (1978) and Tompkins Square Crawl (1991), historic sites that acutely reflect New York City’s socio-economic contrasts, touristic consumption, and homeless life on the streets.45 In a 1996 interview, Pope.L describes his crawls as a way of “giving up verticality,” understood as a “physiognomic situation” and a condition of privilege or “urban power.”46 In enforcing this gruelling, ground-level exertion, Pope.L is thus addressing struggles of mobility in both physical and social terms.

Where does a seconds-long military self-experiment approaching supersonic speed meet the voluntary movement of a person crawling on their hands and knees on the street? In point of fact, nowhere. The U.S. military infrastructure that supported John Paul Stapp’s research was, and still remains, unrivalled worldwide; at present, expenditure on the U.S. armed forces is almost equivalent to the next seven largest national military budgets combined.47 Stapp’s impressive accomplishments, while commendable for their subsequent societal benefit (the common implementation of seatbelts and pilot safety procedures being two of the most significant), are dwarfed by the extent of these martial resources. In similar fashion, Pope.L’s individual actions are also overshadowed by the cumulative inequality of slavery, segregation, xenophobia, and social disenfranchisement in the United States. If nothing else, both of their self-experiments attest to the individual instrumentalization of the human body to defy questions of scale, be it in the context of technological innovation or the insurmountable cost of enduring structural violence.

  1. 38

    Špela Petrič, “The Conundrum of Plant Life,” Leonardo 49, no. 3 (2016): 268–269. For more information on Skotopoesis, see Petrič’s website: 

  2. 39

    For images of this work, see Art Orienté Objet’s website: See also Leon J. Hilton, “‘The Horse in My Flesh’: Transpecies Performance and Affective Athleticism,” Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 19, no. 4 (2013): 487–514. 

  3. 40

    Bob Flanagan, Sheree Rose, and Ralph Rugoff, “Visiting Hours,” Grand Street 53 (1995): 65–73. See also Linda S. Kaufmann, “Sadomedicine: Bob Flanagan’s ‘Visiting Hours’ and Last Rites,” Performance Research 3, no. 3 (1998): 33–40. For footage of Visiting Hours, see the documentary by Kirby Dick, Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan (1997). 

  4. 41

    For more on Rope Piece, see Heathfield and Hsieh, Out of Now.  

  5. 42

    See Richard F. Chandler, “Project MX-981: John Paul Stapp and Deceleration Research,” Stapp Car Crash Journal 45 (November 2001): v–xxii; Maura Phillips Mackowski, Testing the Limits: Aviation Medicine and the Origins of Manned Space Flight (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006), 137–172; and Erik Seedhouse, Pulling G: Human Responses to High and Low Gravity (New York: Springer, 2012), 1–21. Publications, reports, and presentations by Stapp on Project MX-981 are located at the Aviation Safety and Security Archives at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. 

  6. 43

    Craig Ryan, Sonic Wind: The Story of John Paul Stapp and How a Renegade Doctor Became the Fastest Man on Earth (London and New York: W.W. Norton, 2015).  

  7. 44

    For a more extensive discussion on Pope.L’s The Great White Way, see Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 260–288; Chris Thompson, “Afterbirth of a Nation: William Pope.L’s ‘Great White Way’,” Woman and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 14, no. 1 (2008): 63–90; and Valerie Cassel Oliver, “Putting the Body on the Line: Endurance in Black Performance,” in Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 2013), 14–19. 

  8. 45

    English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, 261. 

  9. 46

    Interview with William Pope.L by Martha Wilson,” BOMB Magazine, April 1, 1996.  

  10. 47

    U.S. Military Spending vs. the World,” National Priorities Project,