The Experience of Being Enclosed in a Cell


The Experience of Being Enclosed in a Cell:

An inconclusive final text on a collaborative durational performance and poetry installation

Alisha Mascarenhas with Jordan Brown (2017)

Nature is not natural and that
is natural enough.

-Gertrude Stein


Imagine a budget secured by a line of credit: an infinite bank, transactions alientated from the work itself. Things become abruptly too real (debt) yet ephemeral and abstracted (numbers on a screen). This is why I couldn’t sleep. Debt’s slow assault finally knocked me out.

This strange distance between cash available yet not actually worked for provokes a return to childhood, unaware of the relationship between labour and money. The immediacy of a meal and the hours, lifetimes of play contained within a single afternoon. The kind of work that does not know its outcome, its result; its consequences sourced from an external and abstract reserve; the innocence of not knowing just what it is that provides.

Lovely snipe and tender turn, excellent vapor and slender butter, all the splinter
and the trunk, all the poisonous darkening drunk, all the joy in weak success …

I am trying to understand the possibility of work that is disassociated from capital. Motivations sourced in imagination, utopia, desires unmitigated by the pressures of money. Useless appreciation. Impractical activity that gives life to creative work separated from waged labour. Alternate economies that are aesthetic and pleasurable. Knowing that however well a thing may be produced, it will not quantifiably result in money.

Wanting neither to disregard the necessity of food, and yet needing another sustaining current of life-force that is not contingent o the fluctuations of the economy. In the invention of a new feeling-association that permits a satisfaction that is immaterial, what is strengthened? What becomes perceptible?


Having lost the sun, any distinct mark of time or change other than the appearance and disappearance of people, objects, the gradual fatigue of the body. It’s a little like going on a trip but never getting out of the plane. Or maybe walking through the airport but not really getting a sense of anything beyond your immediate surroundings. Becoming a quick expert of the layout, the sounds, the general sense of that single, contained place, existing within a much larger, changing place with all of those bodies and shifts in temperature.

There being nothing to do but wait for your flight, the next connection, going elsewhere. Being just dropped there and doing what one must do, possibly seeking distraction but surrendering to that particular time and place and all of the lives contained there, not on hold but removed from the immediacy of where living really happens.

The common thing between these places being the submission to a physical place and what occurs there. A class. A bus ride. All of these stationary or mobile containers and the feeling of being enclosed and choosing to stay. Maybe going somewhere chosen or maybe for no real reason at all.


It is terrible to knock one’s head against a wall over and over again, to scratch a key against one’s thigh and not really know what for, to slip that same key into a hole in the door and find an apartment loosened at the seams, cupboard, and drawers dumped into various piles. A whole life, a section of a life undone.

Rooms unpacked, dispersed and gathered again. Every room a new poem telling you what it is for the first time. The same room giving information that evokes a past and suggests a future, but is still just space; some light comes in. It is separate, solitary, flickering. It tells you very little just on its own, but that is not nothing.

It becomes imbued with sounds quite accidentally. What is elsewhere enters. Yet something remains. A sense of the space. A feeling. The way the colour hits your eye, the light, even as it shifts, develops a certain pattern over the course of a day. Everything happening in a room that is shared or singular or transitory. Something else happens when you sleep in a room and your dreams imprint it with another layer of consciousness. Something happens when you let a room tell you how it wants to be lived in. Something is always happening in a room.

A mess continues despite having been gathered up. A mess that is the result of living, and a particular state of mind. Mess being natural. Disorder seeming organic as opposed to a system and yet not quite believing this either.

By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. Does this mean it is already too late. Trying, anyway, to make space for what needs to be said to show up. It is tedious, and my hands ache, and it is very slow and mundane at times, unbearably fast at others. I am afraid that at the end of this I’ll have said nothing at all. I’ll leave things exactly as they were, which may or may not be worse than doing some harm but at least introducing a little movement. In retrospect, everything tends to look much smaller than it was at the time. I am both upset and relieved by this.

The Effects of Light and Surveillance on the Growth of a Single-Celled Organism:
Collected findings from a collaborative durational performance and poetry installation

Jordan Brown with Alisha Mascarenhas (2017)

We are all trying to leave our bodies behind.
– Toni Morrison, “Beloved”

ex. An amoeba. A body. A wide open field.

Welcome. You must make a home of it.


Black body incubating in the salty waters of our collective womb. Oh yes. It’s almost ready. A body that stretches from coast to coast, unraveling and awkward, perpetually falling apart. Diaspora. As I cleave from the umbilical cord, ingesting the placental goo, only half infant: what happens when a body has no person, and must simply inhabit itself?

Right. Pain. Keep going.

And myself, shapeless object whose single eye can ignore anything. A body, freshly birthed and growing more prickly by the minute, indulging its own unbearable hunger. Anywhere, and anything. And even indiscretion can be delicious. Keep going.

Returning to the subject of my birth: going, I mean gone. A principle of this condition requires two parents, and a principle of that condition requires an additional two sets of two additional parents, etc., so on and so forth. To save time, this was the easiest solution: create one body, but still all of those people too. Black. Comes out dark, meaty. Kinda lumpy. That’s history. Keep going.

Now, the aftermath: somehow I must inhabit, and simply become, this body. How? Unzip the small seam, located above the navel, pour in the mixture. Shake until thoroughly mixed. And a body mustn’t leak. Keep going.

One thing of note: the sloshing motion through my greasy, blood-filled body, I mean myself. I mean nausea: an ameboa without words, to and fro, only one hole to eat with. Though, hunger is a physiological need: I am alive. More! More! Keep going.


Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, I

They will not allow themselves the very foundation of beauty: fine mixtures of red and white, flowing symmetry of form. Incredible subtlety. On the contrary: rattling vulgarity; the body out of its grace. The negroes speak entirely with their bodies. At times: they may astonish you, their imagination glowing and elevated. Strange figures may contort from their hips. Strange tongues may voice from their lips. After all, misery is the parent of poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but still no poetry. Their love kindles the senses only; it cannot produce a poet.

Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, II

They seem to require less sleep. Often kept awake from midnight to morning, perhaps sensing a danger, though they do not go through it. Their fears are transient. In general, their existence appears to participate more of immediate sensation than of thoughtful reflection. Sleep too much of a distraction, and therefore unemployed. Only in movement, in action are they alive. In dreaming they are dull.

Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, III

The major proof here being the difference of condition. Millions of them have been born in America. Most of their own homes are gone. All have lived in countries where they don the veil that covers all emotion. Follow them from Africa, consider them here. All are unafraid to die.

Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races by Arthur de Gobineau

The negroid variety is the lowest—
the animal in the shape of his pelvis
determines his destiny. He will gesture
with narrow, circular movements—

a mere brute. Beware the negro:
behind his low receding brow,
signs of powerful energy. Desire

called terrible, called ravenous.
Such is the lesson of history.

All food is good to him. His inordinate
satisfaction: nothing too coarse, or
even too horrible. Meanwhile hot-blooded.

Meanwhile starved feral, memory
withholding. Mine only.

His senses are developed to an extent
unclaimed by others; and a creature
whose whole body is its brain.

His thoughts much wilder than you can imagine.
His own life is that of others.

We might even say violence.

Sometimes he speaks a strange tongue
unknown to myself and others.
He sounds lonely.

90% of my cells are not human.

My numerous organelles are the products of billions of years of invasion, incorporation, archiving. Ingestion by a symbiotic host.

And it’s true that even a body can consume anything, a physiological need—that is how I remember my humanity. That, and my superior ability to adjust accordingly—a different type of defense.

Allow me to explain myself:

A single body is a system, a temporal phenomenon that maintains itself for an allotted time, and then simply does not any longer. Subsistence. Repeat.

I admit: I must breathe. I must eat, everyday even. My body cannot exist if not for my surroundings continually gulped in.

Though: what happens when a body inhabits an environment that cannot be trusted? Bacteria, microfungi—a wide range of organic pathogens permanently inhabit me. And each with a unique system of coding, replication, communication, etc. Others too, undiscovered, lurk there, inexplicably within. Somewhere pulsating, a potential tumor.

Who is responsible? Myself, or the place where I live? Every step in my biochemistry integrates information from within my body, from outside bodies, and from beyond the cellular limits of all of us, along an emergent history.

So: I arrive in symbiosis, and Black—a construction that contains every white person to ever exist as well as myself, the emergent organism. After all, a body cannot exist in isolation.

Who benefits from this paradigm? Though I know the answer, let’s try an experiment:

Feed me. Give me a name, or many different ones. You will be astonished when your creation refuses to answer to them.


These are my notes on being witnessed throughout this process:

I reside within four white walls, above which metal pipes begin to materialize. Ricocheting above—sound from the adjacent room. Abstract movement. Whole bodies swallowed in.

A little cell where I may live and write. Completely curated, though completely doorless—a curiosity to see what might happen.

Someone is turned edgewise at the door.

First, one thing of note: I exist in this country as a member of the conquered class, meaning that my body has historically belonged to white CanAmerica. A principle of this being that the presence of my body carries the history of my condition—and yours too, as biased witness. Naturally, I am vulnerable upon sight.

But, as you have hopefully realized by now, that is an optical illusion: I do belong to myself.

Though: we exist in this country under racist paradigms; thus, your perception of me is wrong. All of the necessary failures are right here in this room: the white gaze, engaged and invested; the perceived neutrality of the gallery; desire for performance; maybe a dash of shame.

I am wondering why the white man in the doorway will not enter. Is he thinking, Do I dare enough to look?

Because when I write the words I am, I create a container: Yes, all that is here is me, come in and take a look. And myself, whole body to be studied from the door—the desirable, surface measurements. If I embrace this vulnerability, all poetry is possible!

I remain anonymous in this scenario, the easy Black body. A simple perception that reflects right back to its viewer. Without this mirror, I could be anyone, or maybe no one at all.

Maybe, I am you.

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