December 15, 2017 - January 2, 2018 167 Canal Street, New York (map)
C. Vomitoria, featuring new work by Paul Gondry and a collaborative living installation with Duncan Boise.
Those days were marked as much by an obsession as they were by weakness and fits of gagging. I spent a fortune consulting pathologists and shamans, and in return they gave me tablets, tinctures and healing charms. But even as each prescription failed to cure me, and my funds began to dwindle, I came back just to hear them speak a little more of nausea. I was bewildered by it, everything from the feeling to the idea of it — the endless causes, the types of aches and pains, and nuances in the accompanying spells of dizziness. And then there was the detailed art of reading the vomit which came in different colors and consistencies, some of it from deeper in the digestive tract, and some of it with stringy beads of blood. Each unique spill told its own story of coming and pointed to potential diseases, ailments, curses and bitter ends. And then, despite all of an expert's attempts to understand, there is always the simple and unexplained passing instance of nausea.
But for as long as my unexplained condition persisted, so did my obsession. I carried a log and meticulously noted changing symptoms and habits. I logged dietary inconsistencies, humidity levels, and air quality. I isolated variables like sunlight, gluten, dairy, and even friends, sometimes inventing excuses to avoid the ones I suspected might infect me. "The girls are making dinner tonight" I'd tell them, painting a pathetically aspirational image of myself, when in truth, I was pouring over medical documents in my quarters with a bedpan by my side.
Nausea behaves like a spell. Words alone can conjure physiological upset and intangible symptoms like stress, uncertainty, and worry can make themselves known as very wet and dripping physical phenomenon. So when my isolation became unbearable, and I wondered if my thoughts were the cause of my condition, I sought an external explanation in others who shared my symptoms. And I was soon pleased to find that there were many more like me in the village markets and inns, carrying notebooks as they excused themselves to dry heave in the gutters.
When we found each other were like eager children just let out to play. We compared symptoms and cross referenced documentation of potentially noxious chemicals. While some doctors had written off our living hells as hypochondria, we thrived together-- teaching one another how to identify new symptoms, build better logs, and write more nuanced experiential documents. Lyrically layering science upon symbol and simile, the gifted among us could weave romantic tales of prognoses with the grand yarn of symptom description. Our sores became badges of honor and our distinct stench the warm marker of kinship and identity. As stench became style, we adopted the fly as a mascot, for swarms of them followed us wherever we went.
It became evident that this was not merely a plague, but opportunity for our shared spirit of reflection and inquiry. And through sickness came a fever dream of possibility, of community, of noble and heroic work that might find a shining light. Perhaps obsessive research into anything has the potential to discredit flukes of biology, but as consistencies in our notes and theories grew, the cause of our symptoms seemed increasingly knowable-- like the work of something or someone we could dismantle together, so that we could finally be cured.
Those dreams, however, vanished the summer the fly population doubled. When the villagers caught wind of our paranoid assemblies they could be found gathered in whispering crowds around puddles of vomit, spreading rumors of our newest theories of dirty factories and medical malpractice. But as soon as there was a growing distrust of authority, there was an equal distrust of the sick, who were dragged from their homes to be shamed and beaten in public.
As more villagers fell ill with the hysteria, and fly covered vomit flowed through the streets, a contagion of theories swept the town as if it were gossip of cheating wives and cuckolded fools. Theories of hidden foreign actors, of corrupt food regulators, of environmental stress, all continued circulating until the village finally arrived at the idea that the fly-- our cherished mascot-- was to blame. Every theory vanished in favor of this singular and absolute explanation that an influx of flies was the cause of the nausea. Perhaps the villagers were weak in spirit or so weak from sickness that they could not tell cause from symptom; Or perhaps they were so tired of the uncertainty of speculation and a public discourse ridden by paranoia that they were eager to trade inquiry for a semblance knowing. And so despite the scientific method I held so dearly, and a suspicion that flies only spread disease but did not cause it, I too took to the theory of the fly.
It is no secret that a fly relishes in a meal of vomit, just as it is a known fact that a fly vomits often. She has no ability to chew and so must liquify any morsel of food with digestive enzymes by bringing up a little regurgitated food and saliva. This method of feeding has been known to spread diseases like typhoid, cholera, and leprosy, and has thus cast the fly in lore as the bringer of death, and upon the shoulders of beezalbub in his depictions. This process by which she feeds and survives, however, has no malintention nor figment of generosity, it is only a fact of her nature that she can not defend. But what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is that the architect raises his structure in the imagination before she erects it in reality. And so like the Trompeloeil painting of a fly upon a fruit confused for a fly upon a painting of a fruit, the people raised the fly in their imaginations as the bringer of evil-- and the image of truth.
As our community was forcibly disbanded, the hysteria eventually subsided. And although occasional bouts of unexplained nausea and the banal existence of flies persisted, the villagers mostly returned to their lives and let that curious obsession slip into the shade of history. Sometimes when I think back to those days I wonder where our inquisitive work might have led if it wasn’t for the flies. Then again, I try to remember why I was really so entranced by the details of disease — by the colors and forms, the tactics and complexities — and if I was indeed only distracting myself from my own sickness. I remember those nights when theory after theory failed me and I found myself in the darkness that shrouded 90% percent of my body, when all that pulsing mush and poisoned blood that hid in the darkness under my skin remained silent. I remember those nights with my brothers and sisters when I was too tired to even brush the flies from my vomit encrusted lips. I would sing our opening prayer:
Oh Lorde, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.