In recent decades, performance art has considered how intangible experiences, such as fasting and other acts of endurance, may be viewed as artworks. This is seen, for example, in Joseph Beuys’ I like America and America likes me, 1974, in which he spent three days locked up alone with a coyote. Similarly, several works by leading performance artist Marina Abramović have seen her undergo painful endurance disciplines such as being cut, burned, drugged and even rendered unconscious. Far from trying to glorify suffering itself, these works are rather a submission to particular, site-specific, physical self-restrictions for their – often social or political – symbolic significance.
Resonances with this are found in biblical history. The Israelite prophets engaged in highly symbolic, often inscrutable public acts. This is seen in Isaiah’s promenade around the city, naked, and in Ezekiel bearing the iniquity of Israel for 390 days lying on his left side, and of Judah for 40 days on his right side (Ezekiel 4:1-6). Through their performed signs, the prophets made a physical response to the bleak circumstances around them whilst also, mysteriously, experiencing within their physical bodies some fragment of Israel’s suffering.
Jesus, who continued the prophetic tradition of symbolic performances, as seen (for example) in his entrance to Jerusalem on a donkey, conveyed to his disciples that his imminent death would be a different type of performance, one in which things would be done to his body instead of by it. His sacrificial performance resonates with, and perhaps even served as inspiration for, works by Abramović and Yoko Ono. In Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (1974) and Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), the artists sat motionless and quiet before their viewers. In Rhythm 0, viewers stood before a table with seventy-two objects on it, in which they were told they were free to use any or all upon Abramović howsoever they wished. Similarly, in Cut Piece, they were given a pair of scissors and advised that they were free to use them upon Ono as they wished. In Rhythm 0, Abramović had her throat cut and blood sucked and eventually a loaded gun pressed to her head. Ono’s clothes were cut right off her but no violence was done to her body.
Out of their interest in these traditions, a London based collective (part of Community Church Harlesden) are developing an inclusive performance artwork exploring the place of collective enacted symbolism within social justice, with a particular focus on modern day slavery and sex trafficking.
Viewers-cum-participants are invited to make a physical response to the suffering of others through a shared performance: by becoming part of a living artwork.
The ongoing performance, set to begin in 2018 in London, is made of self-selecting participants who make an advance purchase of a gender-neutral ring containing a gemstone that has been ethically sourced from an area of the world where sex trafficking is common. All rings are then delivered to the exhibiting gallery. At the exhibition, buyers and other guests gather to observe the rings undergoing an electroforming process as a communal, ritual act within the gallery space. This involves collectively immersing the rings into a conductive copper solution and then hand painting over the copper plating with liquid silver. The process takes a few hours to complete.
Each gemstone becomes hidden and inaccessible to the light. This will create the ‘aesthetic fast’ as each ring owner commits to wearing the gem with the silver covering until slavery and sexual exploitation have been abolished in the area from which the gem has been sourced (or until other smaller goals have been met). At present, the project is focused on abolitionist work in Malawi, Sri Lanka and Tanzania on the basis of pro-bono research provided by international development experts Jigsaw Consult.
At the point if or when abolition is achieved in that area (or until certain legislative frameworks are in place, or other related goals are met) the wearer may have the electroforming process reversed to reveal the undamaged gem hidden beneath. In the meantime, the ring owners form part of an ongoing and expanding collaborative performance enacted in wearing the rings.
Aesthetic Fast is neither fundraising nor social activism, nor does it simply play a supporting or illustrative role for social justice work. It is itself—as a symbolic act—part of social justice work, broadly conceived. Participants in Aesthetic Fast experience a modest form of deprivation allowing them – in a small way, through performance – to share in the suffering of others. Yet, whilst wearing the ring, they also demonstrate a radical – perhaps even absurd – hope for abolition within their lifetime: ‘whilst my finger lives!’
One of the characteristics of globalization is an increased sense of connection with people (and their suffering) who otherwise continue to remain physically separate to us. This heightened feeling of both connection and disconnection simultaneously calls for more ways in which this complex mode of modern humanity can be positively nurtured.
Out of this, Aesthetic Fast proposes that elements of our lives (commissive or ommissive acts; symbolic or effective acts; things we do or allow to be done to us) may be understood in an aesthetic register; for their potential to create or represent relational forms.
This idea of relational form, or what art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud termed ‘relational aesthetics’ , has also been explored in major performance art works such as Rest Energy by Abramović and Frank Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay), performed in January and August 1980 as part of their series entitled The Other. In this exploration of ‘relations in space’, the couple stood facing each other and leaning outwards. They were kept steady by a bow and arrow through which they were joined. Abramović held the bow’s body as Ulay held the bowstring and arrow at the point of release, directed at Abramović’s heart. Should either have let go, the arrow would have impaled Abramović, Ulay would have fallen back and their relational form would have been destroyed.
The Eucharist offers us both a model and inspiration for this as a collaborative performance that has always united believers across borders of time and space and given form and sustenance to the Church.
At the Last Supper, Jesus invited his disciples to participate in the sacrament, the ongoing practice of which would each time enact the Church’s relational form. The Eucharist is also the Church’s primary mode of performing the hope of the world, and is therefore always crucially connected to its liberating work in all areas of social need.
The exploration of relational form through Aesthetic Fast leads us beyond art theory to the Godhead himself. The Trinity offers humanity a paradoxical ontology where the individual self exists through relationship. An ontology that sees – as David Bentley Hart argues – the space that differentiates one person from another not as something that needs to be overcome or destroyed, but as part of true form.  This returns us to the nature of the Holy Spirit, whose very being or form is the love or “relational space” proceeding from the Father to the Son.
The fictional film ‘above’ forms a visual aid or allegory of Aesthetic Fast. Stay tuned for our short documentary about the project to be released through Transpositions in 2017.
For further details visit www.aestheticfast.com, contact Jen at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow at follow us @AestheticFast.
 Bourriaud, Nicholas, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Presses du Réel, 2002.
 See Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2003, Part II, Section I, for a weighty exposition on Trinitarian aesthetics.