Bodies, buildings

 ‘I quickly realised the more truthful I try to be in language, the more I lie. One immediately comes up to language and learns either to be defeated or to let language fuck one, to fuck with language’.

Kathy Acker, ‘Politics’ 1

I have a crush. A literary crush.

Not with an author, per say. Not even with a fictional character. But with a piece of writing itself. With a textual body.

Whether or not it’s subversive or simply downright perverse to fancy a piece of art, for the past three years, I’ve had somewhat of an (academic) on-again, off-again relationship with the late iconoclast Kathy Acker’s 1993 essay, ‘AGAINST ORDINARY LANGUAGE: THE LANGUAGE OF THE BODY’.2

(I type it capitalised because that’s how it appears in the free PDF version available online and well, it feels fitting—considering Acker never said anything quietly).

This unduly obsession started during the first year of my MFA, in late 2021. I’d never heard of Acker before, which now feels quite incredulous. A classmate mentioned this particular essay, in reference to contextualising some of their own work. I looked it up. Enter Yvonne Buchiem’s free online PDF and well, there’s your meet-cute.

Acker's essay begins with her explaining how, for a few years, she’s been trying to write about her personal experiences of bodybuilding, but that ‘time and time again’ she’s failed—observing that ‘...the ‘I’ who bodybuilds… was rejecting language…’.

Throughout the text Acker ponders on this conundrum, critically engaging with why the material act of bodybuilding seems to transcend verbal language, and why it’s seemingly so difficult to write about bodybuilding using ‘ordinary language’. Acker goes on to nominate the phenomenon, and in turn bodybuilding itself, as something she loosely defines as a ‘language of the body’.

‘If ordinary language or meanings lie outside essence, what is the position of that language game which I have named the language of the body? For bodybuilding (a language of the body) rejects ordinary language and yet itself constitutes a language, a method for understanding and controlling the physical which in this case is also the self.’ 2

On one, simplistic level, the text can be read as a criticism of cartesian understandings of the body—dualism between the cognitive mind and physical body3. But for Acker this was also an exercise, quite literally, in finding a new route for expression, namely expression that isn’t delimited by knowledge. Bodybuilding opened, as language can, a new form of world-making, possibility, vision.

My interest in this text, as I said, was initially purely academic. Like Acker, I’m a writer, an artist and I explore the boundaries between subjectivity, corporeality and linguistics within my practice. It just so happens that I also weightlift (or bodybuild in essesnce) a lot. So theoretically, it made sense for me to be crushing on this particular essay (academically, of course). 

But I found myself pondering on the text compulsively. Paragraphs would pop like intrusive thoughts in the weirdest of places—waiting in line for a pret cheese croissant, getting my hair buzzed whilst my barber talked about her cat, hunched over on the northern line nursing a Saturday morning hangover.

But perhaps more interestingly, I never seemed to think about it in the obvious place—the gym. As Acker describes, when one passes over the threshold into the gym, the outside world is forgotten—‘masses of swirling [verbal] thought’ vanish and are replaced by a sole focus on the physical. I too began to wonder if ‘ordinary language’ was eluding me.

Embarrassingly, for all my readings, re-readings, ponderings, musings, sticky notes, highlighted passages, blue-tacked printouts stuck to the studio wall—I could never fully grasp what Acker actually meant. The core conceptuality of the text was lost on me. The references to Canetti and Wittgenstein I couldn't quite piece together, the nuance felt too slippery, the dots subtracting.

One at this point might think, here lies the limit to my understanding—after all Acker was a voracious reader of philosophy and these were not easy concepts. But I’ve always had a penchant for pig-headedness so I did what felt natural—I lent in more.

I read more Acker, her other essays, plays, novels. I didn’t understand those either. I read her references, sources, listened to talks about her work by distinguished academics and writers—no avail. I will admit that this wasn’t great for my already heavy imposter syndrome but I figured, what is an artist if not performative?

So I discussed Acker, eloquently, with my MFA tutor. I made the 1993 essay the focal point for a seminar presentation. I referenced it in artist talks and added it to tuition materials for some teaching gigs—all the while too embarrassed to ask the one simple question to put me out of my intellectual misery—what the fuck does all this mean?

Like the ex that just won’t text you back, Acker was giving me sweet nothing.


Acker infamously stole from other writers. Whole sections of some of her works are paraphrased from other people's, ‘copy and pasting’ characters, plotlines, quotes. This plagiarism, as Acker provocatively came to define it, became the hallmark of her fiction. She did this unapologetically—using it as a conceptual method to challenge the repressive socio-political structures that insist we occupy simply one bounded self. As Maggie Dohert wrote in the New Yorker, ‘Her fiction asked not “Who am I?” but, rather, in a more philosophical key, what it meant to have an “I”—or several’ 4.

So maybe, I figured, I was coming at the text wrong—asking the wrong questions. Maybe it isn’t what is this text trying to say, but rather, what does it mean to be in possession of this text? I figured the last bastion of hope for me to understand Ackers words were to take a leaf out of her book quite literally—to steal them.

Face to Face with chaos
all eyes on my failures
arms outstretched to oblivion
i yield, i grow

This is the passage that I, not quite so provocatively, plagiarised (let’s call it appropriated), the original reading:

‘To come face to face with chaos, with my own failure or a form of death’ 2.

This is taken from the section within the text where Acker details the concept of pushing to failure within bodybuilding. Pushing to failure means pushing each muscle to do as many reps as possible with a certain weight, until you physically can’t move the weight any more. Pushing the muscle to failure is what’s required to grow muscle—effectively you’re breaking down and tearing the muscle fibres, followed by periods of rest and nutrition, during which the muscles respond by repairing and growing larger anew.

Acker describes how in order to reach failure one must no longer be able to move and then ‘move through failure’—observing that ultimately, in bodybuilding, you want to fail. You’re looking to bring the muscle to failure, but you don’t want to hurt or injure the muscle. To do this you strive for ‘perfect form’, or the most optimal movement pattern. In essence, you’re striving for failure in the face of perfection.

My appropriated text was digitally printed in the black font Cormorant Garamond, on four 3m by 90cm white cotton sheets, one line of text per sheet, and presented like a concrete poem. The sheets were suspended from the ceiling with steel wires and left to dangle with the bottom edges sitting around 1m above the floor. Below the sheets sit four grey, plaster cast troughs, which at first glance look like they could be concrete. The troughs were situated underneath each suspended sheet, as if ready to catch the tumbling words. The first trough, laid under the first sheet, which read ‘Face to Face with chaos’, was fully intact. The second, under ‘all eyes on my failures’, was slightly broken around the edges, visibly marked and cracked. The third, ‘arms outstretched to oblivion’, was almost completely destroyed, smashed into separate chunks dispersed within about 1m of the base of the work. The fourth trough, underneath, ‘i yield, i grow’, was again fully intact, but instead of sitting parallel to the base of the cloth like the previous troughs had, this one was pointing at an obtuse angle, toward a new direction. The piece was titled, ‘OBLIVION’.

The work as a whole is transient, it feels caught between two states of being—not quite complete, but not really in need of anything to complete it either. The sheets sway ethereally in response to the movement of bodies around them, whilst some of the printing ink has bled down giving the language a sense of inscription, like they’re lifting from the cloth, very visibility other to the material itself. There’s also something about the fragility and porosity of the plaster used to create the troughs, that by means of their production they’re rendered useless, despite on first glance looking like a staple building material. And then there's the obvious degeneration and reassembling of these containers themselves.

Contrary to the beguiling picture I’m painting of this work, I hated it at the time. In some ways, I still hate it now. The cotton sheets were too small and not heavy enough to have the bodily impact I wanted them to. Their ends were puckered and curled up, making the material look cheap and flimsy. The bleeding ink was messy, blotted with printing errors and the troughs had all cured slightly different shades of grey, carrying different degrees of moisture—which I thought both rendered the work technically not as refined as it could be. 

On reflection, all of these errors were minor, easy to look past or could have been corrected with another iteration of the work. But I dismissed it. I threw away the troughs in a studio move and recycled the other materials for use on other pieces. For a work that was inherently about failure, I couldn’t see past the failures I was projecting on to it.

Admittedly some work takes a while to grow on you, you have to sit with them, let them do their work. But some works you’re just not ready for yet. Those are the works that are hard to look at. Ironically, there was nothing visually offensive about this particular piece, in fact it was probably one of the most aesthetically palatable I’ve ever made. But it was the content I wasn’t ready for.


After I’d disbanded the work, I didn’t revisit the Acker text for some time. Despite the endearment I’d poured over it throughout my MFA, it was markedly absent from my final thesis. I accepted defeat.

Three months after the making and subsequent breaking of ‘OBLIVION’, I came out as non-binary. A year later, as I move closer towards myself, I realise more and more that, romanticism aside, William Blake was right—indeed hindsight really is a wonderful thing.

As Sin Wei Kin aptly put it in their recent panel talk at the Barbican—‘sometimes our practices know things about us before we do’ 5. Consciously, at the time, I may not have been ready to face my transness, and importantly, what it meant to be in possession of that transness—but my nonconscious cognition6 was already there, doing the work.

Imbued with its stolen, metamorphosed text, ‘OBLIVION’, was the beginning of understanding myself to be more than the limitations girl/woman had placed on me. The beginnings of viewing my-self to be multifarious—like Acker’s legacy7— ‘I’, the ‘I’ that bodybuilds, the ‘I’ that is the artist, the ‘I’ the writer, the ‘I’ the friend, the ‘I’ the partner, the ‘I’ the child, is more just one self. That one's identity can be porous, plastic, malleable.

Sculpture may have been the language I was finally able to talk with, to translate these unconscious feelings—but bodybuilding—namely this intensely physical act of resistance, failure, breakdown, repair—was the process by which I began to see myself more clearly.

On some levels, yes, that idea can be reduced to physical aestheticization—I moved from skinny femme to packing on a more traditionally masculine musculature. But in the face of identity, of gender, of transition in its essence, to say it was only bodybuilding’s output, its aesthetic result, feels reductionist, essentialist and, one could posit, binary.

For it’s this understanding, this closeness to failure, defiance to ‘a form of death’, as Acker puts it, or in other words, oblivion, and movement through it—that is transition.

Acker asks ‘is the equation between destruction and growth also a formula for art?’ 2. In so far as life imitates art, we could also ask—is transness also a formula for art?


After touching on Acker's text with my therapist in a recent session, I granted myself another peek. Astonishingly, it clicked. Acker's words were forming sentences, paragraphs I could digest, the verbs and nouns resonating beyond performative platitudes. I’d thought what I’d needed to grasp this language was to get under Acker's skin, to embody her process, to adapt her words—turns out it was about at last getting under my own.

I say ‘adapt’ here as that would be the correct literary term. But I prefer ‘expand’. Semantics, one might say. But here, the semantics matter.

The definition of expand, according to Google, is:

become or make larger or more extensive;
(of the universe) undergo a continuous change;
become less reserved in character or behaviour.

My partner recently asked me ‘what does transition feel like?’

I said, ‘expanse’.


  1. Acker, K. (1972). Politics. Papyrus Press, Chicago
  2. Acker, K. (1993). ‘Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body’, Bodies of Work, London: Serpent's Tail
  3. Grosz, E. (1994). Volatile bodies: toward a corporeal feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  4. Dohert, M. (2022). ‘Kathy Acker’s Art of Identity Theft’, Nov 28, 2022, New Yorker. (Available at:
  5. Wei Kin, S. (2023). ‘Sin Wei Kin & Planningtorock: Manifesting Alternate Realities’, Barbican
  6. Hales, K. (2019). ‘’Nonconscious Cognition’ & Kathy Acker’s ‘Language of the Body’’, Institute of Contemporary Arts London, (Available at:
  7. McBride, J. (2022) Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker, New York: Simon & Schuster,