PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001) 120-126
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Redefining The Body
Bill Arning and Joel Sanders, Achieving Failure: Gym Culture 2000, New York: Thread Waxing Space, 2000. Joanna Frueh, Laurie Fierstein, and Judith Stein, eds., Picturing the Modern Amazon, New York: Rizzoli/New Museum Books, 1999.
I moved to New York. Well I thought things would be all better there because people eat; the food is good. This is where I first learned to cook. I also thought this "big girl" thing would be over and done with because here everybody wears a different coat. We all look the same size. And gyms, forget it, people work hard in New York, and in factories or in offices, not on cell phones. When they get off work, they relax with a cigarette and a cup of coffee, not on some treadmill. . . . Well, I was wrong . . . I began noticing that all of my old friends from growing up here looked like they stopped eating. One after the other, we'd get together and I'd look at them, and the only way I'd remember them is if I imagined a little more fat on their face.
unpublished script for her performance
Butch in the Kitchen, 2000.
As Butch in the Kitchen discovered, even the unhealthy denizens of New York City have succumbed to the ubiquitous gym culture that has swept America in the past twenty years. Everyone, from the rural farmer in Kentucky to the ivory tower academic in New York City, goes to the gym in order to work out. Even overweight, masculine, working-class lesbians such as Butch feels compelled to join a gym, work out, get in shape, lose weight, and build muscle. Today, it is not enough to simply be thin. One must be thin and healthy, with low cholesterol, clean lungs, caffeine-free brains, and the correct ratio of body fat to muscle. Functional activities, such as lifting children or pets, walking, riding a bike or climbing stairs, are not enough to attain this ideal. One must by necessity join a gym, where a variety of machines and classes will help gym members attain these new ideal physiques. [End Page 120]
In their present incarnation, gyms, or health clubs as they are more commonly called out west, have been around for the past twenty years or so. Pursuing regulated in-door physical activity has been acceptable since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jane Fonda appeared on the radar of popular culture. Yet in spite of the ubiquity of gyms and working out, there has been very little inquiry into the phenomenon. Even the discipline of performance studies, which thanks to Richard Schechner and Victor Turner has been heavily influenced by an anthropological bent, has remained immune to the bizarre rituals and performance of gym culture. Instead, performance scholars have concentrated on reading the performative aspects of black-and-white photography or sixteenth-century texts. With its roots simultaneously in the working class/circus display of the (overly) muscled body as well as the puritanical--and hence Republican--discipline of that body, the gym, and gym culture, remains either a guilty pleasure to be secretly indulged or grudgingly tolerated, depending on one's love of exercise. Either way, it is not a fitting subject for academic inquiry, which has primarily been concerned with a theoretical reading of the deployment of the body in just about every social and private space but the gym.
It is only this past year that two exhibitions dealing with the culture and aesthetics of the gym have been mounted. Surprisingly enough, both of these exhibitions took place in New York rather than Los Angeles, the Mecca of fitness culture. Achieving Failure: Gym Culture 2000, curated by Bill Arning for Thread Waxing Space and sponsored in part by Crunch Fitness, deals with the performative aspects of gym culture in New York City. In weight training, to achieve failure is to take whatever muscle you are attempting to develop to the point of physical failure, to the point where you absolutely cannot, even with help...