“Making the Poem Physical”: A Talk With Kamil Guenatri, A Disabled Performance Artist

Pauline Picot //

Kamil Guenatri is a performance artist. He first started working as a computer engineer before changing his course entirely at the age of 25, when he decided to practice performance art. Since 2010, he has been creating and presenting his work in France and abroad.


Pauline Picot: Many people must have asked you questions about your disease already. Could you tell me about it in a way that doesn’t annoy you, or bother you?

Kamil Guenatri: I have a neuromuscular disease. It is a rare genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). It has a very early onset (right after birth), followed by a rapid degenerative phase during early childhood, from 0 to 6 years old. This disease affects the connections between the spinal cord and the motor muscles, but leaves the vital organs untouched. However, I have to live with all the consequences of this muscle loss and all its ensuing impacts: paralysis, swallowing difficulties and respiratory failure.

P.P.: Can your approach of performance art be dissociated from your illness? In other words, is the starting point of your performances always an affirmation of your diseased body, or does an image comes first, which you then bend your body to perform?

K.G.: In practice, the two are inseparable: the performances materialize themselves through my presence, and are therefore determined by what is possible to do with my body, with the intervention of my personal assistants or of my artistic collaborators. However, the writing of my performances is not linked, at first, to my pathology – although it sometimes comes to echo the particularities of my disability. The starting point of these actions is rather an image, a vision, a landscape, something set in space, an act. Then comes its incarnation through my body and its abilities: I make this starting point mine, either directly or with the help of my personal assistants or the use of space. Still, in this incarnation process, I try to go a little further than my own condition, and my own being; I seek to get out of them. I try to go from my motionless presence to something of an absence, or even a disappearance; I’m seeking something that would transcend me to flow between myself and the audience; to establish a link between them and me.

P.P.: I discovered your work through the duo you formed with Yann Marussich during Out Of the Box, a Swiss festival of inclusive arts (May 2021). Are you used to presenting your work at such events, centered on the non-normative body?

K.G.: I’m rather used to being identified with cultural programs focused on the body, and more specifically on disability and gender issues. It’s not a requisite to my being scheduled – I’ve been a part of other cultural venues – but festivals that revolve around the body and gender topics tend to take a more regular interest in my work. Four to five times a year, I present my creations in various places, in France and abroad.

P.P.: What are you aiming at through performance art? Does the first impulse come from your desire to create something out of your body, and/or from the audience’s perspective and how they are going to receive the images you are about to create ?

K.G.: The primary impulse of my work is the image, the poem. My body is a tool for creating images or situations: it makes the poem physical.

P.P.: Your creations often present your constrained body as though a mere substance for experimentation: it presents itself as a surface, a motionless prop upon which external gestures are performed. In « Machine à coudre » [Sewing Machine] (2017), your face is completely covered in woollen threads, like a ball of yarn. In « Corpulences » [Corpulences] (2014) or « Le drame d’un homme » [A Man’s Tragedy] (2014), someone slices lemons on your forehead or your temple. In « M©Pain » [M©Pain] (2013), bacon and eggs are placed upon your face. One could perceive this reification as an act of violence. What is your opinion on this? And what can you tell me about the connection between the way your body is handled during those performances, and the way it is usually handled, on a daily basis, by your home-based assistants?

K.G.: My performances indeed focus on this approach of the body as an object, as a prop, primarily because my body is intrinsic to the image that I create, that I visualize, that I show people. But why do I choose to abandon my body to others, whether to my assistants or to the other performance artists with whom I work? First of all, it is a necessity, as my immobility must be compensated for. But on a deeper level, surrendering my body to the hands of others is a reference to the way my personal assistants handle me in every action of my daily life. I try to transpose this fact from reality into fiction; to show something fictitious that is actually inspired by my own day-to-day life, in which I’m constantly being handled.

P.P.: You have a tattoo on your inside arm, the number 3637, i.e. the call number for the Telethon, a yearly fund-raising event hosted by the French Muscular Dystrophy Association. You told me this tattoo had been part of a performance. Could you tell me more?

K.G.: It was in 2016, in the French city of Pau, in a tattoo gallery. On the night of the Telethon, during the live TV show, I got tattooed in the gallery window. It was during the holiday season; for two hours and a half, the people walking in the streets that night could see this tattoo being made behind the window. Inside the tattoo gallery, there were also two TV screens on which the Telethon was being broadcasted. For the passer-by, it formed a layered visual installation, with me being tattooed by Caroline [Cottereau-Meurée] in the foreground, and the screens behind us.

P.P.: What is the meaning of this tattoo? Is it a way for you to highlight people’s propensity to identify you, at first sight, as a disabled person? Are you trying to shift the way people look at you and/or to challenge their general perception of disability? Or is this an extrapolation?

K.G.: This tattoo is a humorous, slightly cynical nod to the merciful tone of this show. It’s a kind of provocation: I now have on my skin a permanent sign related to a rather stupid event – well, which a lot of people find pretty stupid I think. Even the diseased people and the families who watch the show are receptive to criticism about TV’s sensationalist methods, which take precedence over the medical issue at stake. On top of the show’s overcompassionate stance, it also stigmatizes the disabled body even more, and thus contributes to accentuating a broader social issue. With this tattoo, I am showing that I am, in spite of myself and by the sheer fact of my existence, an ambassador of this event and an emblem of this cause. Carrying this mark on my skin also raises the question of the collective gaze upon disabled people: in any social context, one is immediately identified by one’s disease, and not considered, in their presence, as an individual. Even in the most basic social interactions, disability takes precedence: this stigmatization is systematic. This is what this tattoo is about.

P.P.: Finally, would you say that you perform with, despite, or against your body?

K.G.: Obviously I work with my body: it is the very first element of my creations. “Despite” or “against” are not really relevant in my case: it is what I experience in my own body that generates the performances.


Cover Picture by Pauline Picot
Proofreading by Aude Claret

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