Allyson Packer: Words That We Feel: Work That Resides in Our Bodies

This paper explores the way writing is used as a tool to activate a viewer’s embodied experience. Words, especially when used in the capacity of a performance score or imperative text directed at the viewer, have the capacity to elicit a precise somatic awareness: When Bruce Nauman describes “tension in the muscles, pain where the bones meet, fleshy deformations that occur under the pressure” (1), or gerlach en koop state “Instantly enveloped by water, the surface closed above my head” (2), we feel it. The artists’ words in these examples, both part of text-based artworks, become a vehicle to deliver a distinctly physical experience. The artwork itself resides in our bodies.

At a time when our daily experiences are increasingly taking place in virtual spaces, there is an attendant cultural myth that our bodies are quickly becoming an irrelevant factor in interpreting our relationships to that material world. This paper interrogates that myth by exploring writing’s capacity to reach across the physical distance that virtuality creates and engage us in intimate shared experiences. It will cover both examples from the author’s own artwork, as well as contemporary and historical examples from other artists. Accordingly, the paper will be delivered as a lecture-performance, that, instead of creating a passive viewing experience, will use text and performative strategies to evoke the audience’s embodied responses. As we become more removed than ever before from the traditional sites of exhibition and participation, both author and audience will examine how writing may be used to deliver a physical immediacy that is missing in our current reality.

1. “Body Pressure” (1974) by Bruce Nauman
2. “Instantly enveloped by water, the surface closed above my head, I understood how my body made the sea level rise” (2017) by the collective gerlach en koop


Allyson Packer is an artist and educator whose work investigates what embodied experience can articulate at a time when it is increasingly less common to make physical contact with the people, spaces, and institutions that impact us the most. She has exhibited at Nahmad Projects in London and Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, among other venues. She is represented by Birds + Richard in Berlin and lives in Dallas, Texas, where she teaches at the University of North Texas.