Systems and The Body – Leah Willemin



Throughout the first half of the term, I’ve been working on Major Studio projects that investigate the relationship between large-scale systems and individual identity. I began by researching the history of the USPS, and ended by examining the history of ZIP codes. I found interesting rhetoric from the Postal Service, and also interesting histories of individuals and groups negotiating the surveillance and codification of ZIP codes. A document from the USPS characterizes zip codes “digitized surface space”.

One of the most interesting narratives I uncovered was related to the AIDS crisis. In the initial stages, as AIDS victims faced terrible stigma, advocates pushed back against the idea of tracking AIDs cases by zip code, as it was seen as a potential risk to individual privacy and safety. However, as the crisis went, advocates began arguing for the tracking ZIP code information, as it was necessary for advocacy, collective power, and improved data. These politics can also be seen in current census data collection, as the Trump administration declines to collect data regarding LGBTQ populations in the coming census.

I’d like to investigate interactions between the body, identity, large-scale systems, and technology. These are topics I’m working with for my Major Studio final, as well, and I’ll differentiate this Occupy Earth final as I think specifically about environmental installations. How does technology map physical space? How does this “mapping” of physical space extend to both the body and the environment? How does it affect the space and bodies it maps?

I’m specifically interested in addressing some issues that feel crucial to me in the creation of immersive environments. When creating environments—especially those that overwhelm the senses—I’m concerned about user agency and input. I’d like to make a piece that is thoughtful about entrance and exit experiences, and also permit the user to have some agency over their sensory experiences—less cinema, and more conversational, negotiating power and the gaze between the viewer and the created environment. How can the senses be engaged in a way that grants agency, sets viewers on a level playing field with technology, and heightens attention to the environment? I think this installation must use high-resolution materials and sensory input that create a liminal space between “natural” and “artificial” sensory experience.

In dealing with concerns about the body, I’ve been looking at the book The Politics of Touch by Erin Manning, which deals with touch and issues of the senses in contemporary society. I also recently read the book How We Became Posthuman, by N. Katherine Hayles, which is a genealogy of ways the body is constructed through technology, in science and in pop culture. I’ve also been thinking about polyrhythm and dance, and looked at the reading by Sable Smith. Finally, I’m thinking about ritual studies and theories of transformation, and reviewing the work of Victor Turner in describing ritual processes.


Postal Service Office of Inspector General Risk Analysis Research Center, Us. “The Untold Story of the ZIP Code.” (2013): n. pag. Web. 10 Sept. 2017.

Manning, Erin. Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty. NED – New edition ed., Minneapolis; London, University of Minnesota Press, 2007. JSTOR,

Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Sable Elyse Smith. “Esctatic Resilience.” N.p. Web. 19 Oct. 2017.

Turner, Victor W. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995. Print.