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Brenna Conley-Fonda, “Untitled (Photographs by SPC. Charles A. Graner, SPC. Lynndie England and SPC. Sabrina Harman)”  (2013) (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

CHICAGO — There’s always some sort of surprise awaiting you in the basement. Consent is not necessary here; you are allowed to freely descend the stairs of Woman Made Gallery, where two solo exhibitions by Brenna Conley-Fonda and Robin Hustle await. Both of these artists implicate their bodies and bodily experiences in their works, asking questions about how consent operates and, more importantly, who has control over the laws surrounding bodies.

Brenna Conley-Fonda’s A Way of Closing My Eyes actually allows the voyeur/viewer into artwork that is less abstract or theoretical, and more emotional, perhaps even poetic. Since 2005, Conley-Fonda has been working on a collection of hair drawings based on the notorious 2004 images of torture in Abu Ghraib prison. She isolates specific acts of sexualized violence and torture, and creates outlines of those bodies through the use of collected hair. We cannot forget the moment these images leaked, exposing the U.S. torture and prison abuse in Iraq. These are arguably related to the American Insta-Aesthetics of War, which my colleague Jillian Steinhauer further unpacked in this post. Conley-Fonda remembers when these images first became visible online; she didn’t have a reaction to them. Perhaps they were too obvious, just more images of sexualized violence in a culture that commodifies, abstracts and consumes bodies, seeing them as objects, and de-humanizing based on their class and race. Through re-creating these images with hair, Conley-Fonda brings a human aspect to them, perhaps even a personal one, again rendering the personal political even as the (body) politic arrives via mediated screens.

Brenna Conley-Fonda, “Untitled (Photograph by SPC. Charles A. Graner, SPC. Lynndie England and SPC. Sabrina Harman)” (2013) hair, glue on watercolor paper, 20 x 24 inches

Similarly, Robin Hustle’s solo exhibition interrogates bodies that are incarcerated, stripped of any consensual movement or access. Her video “How it Feels to Force-Feed” shows her performing on herself the type of force-feeding experienced by detainees on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, the controversial prison camp that Obama’s administration still has not closed despite his original campaign promises to do so.

Coincidently, the same week as these two solo exhibitions opened, Yasiin Bey, or the rapper known as Mos Def, underwent a similar voluntary force-feeding procedure to stand in solidarity with the hunger strikers at Gitmo. Hunger strikes are also currently underway at Pelican Bay State Prison, where inmates are using this form of passive protest against indefinite solitary confinement. But unlike the famous Mos Def, however, Hustle didn’t bring in a high-end production team to capture her in the act. For her video, she sets up a camera in her home with just enough light, and tries to look up at it as she performs the procedure. As it was happening, she posted some questions about it on Facebook, creating a voyeuristic experience without the actual video that may have left some worried or nervous. By performing force-feeding on herself, Hustle risked her own safety, and also implicated the viewer through abstracted notions of what was really going on.

Hustle is also in the process of becoming a registered nurse, and she will most likely have to perform force-feeding on patients, and especially the elderly who cannot feed themselves. Thus her performance creates a deeper conceptual connection between torture in prisons and in our medical system, calling into question who is allowed to give consent in the first place. Ingrained in this performance is a commentary on how we treat the bodies of the elderly, the disabled and any who are in some way oppressed or othered.

Robin Hustle, Detail from the video “How It Feels to Force-Feed”(2013) (image via Woman Made Gallery)

Across from this video installation, Hustle has printed a wall of Yelp! reviews of American correctional facilities, bringing full circle notions of the prison industrial complex and the viewer as voyeur activating the work. I thought I took photos of this work with my iPhone, but apparently I did not, and so I searched the internet, and happened upon this one from the San Quentin State Prison: “I had a tour through the prison. We were able to walk around the ‘yard’ and see the execution chamber. If you ever get the opportunity to go on a tour here definitely go,” writes William B. of Vallejo, California, whose post reads as a review of the facilities, readily available for consumers wondering if they should visit or not—as if this is a hotel or even restaurant that they may want to visit. “It was a great place to visit,” concludes William B, “but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Robin Hustle and Brenna Conley-Fonda’s solo exhibitions continue through August 22 at Woman Made Gallery (685 North Milwaukee Ave, Chicago).

Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...