save your own skin

Posted March 6, 2017 in
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Inspired by the cultural influences of World War II and its effect on politics in the modern world, German native Tanja London utilizes her body as a way to make her voice heard through dance. With her upcoming local installation and live dance and music performance entitled save your own skin, London turns herself into a visual representation of the advancements of modern militant technology, mainly “bulletproof skin,” and encourages audiences to question when progress ceases being beneficial and becomes problematic. During a time when certain precious civil liberties and securities are at stake, London hopes that by encouraging an open dialogue through performance art, we can awaken to potential consequences and divert harmful cultural standards in the future. The save your own skin installation will be featured at the most northern Annex Storefront at the Salt Lake City Main Library Plaza from March 24 to April 1, with live performances by Tanja London on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1 at 7:30 p.m.


SLUG: Hailing from Germany, how have your opinions of assimilated military technology changed since coming to the United States for school and work?

Tanja London: Since the late ’90s, when I still was living in Europe, I had the feeling that public space was militarized but could not quite put my finger on it. It was not until my Master Studies at the University of Utah (2010–2013) that I took the time to really dig into the topic. I was looking at bionics, biomaterials, neuroscience, military technologies, artificial skin, terrorism, disaster—and war ethics. In 2012, I found this report of a Military Workshop titled “Capturing the Full Power of Biomaterials for Military Medicine: A Workshop Report” from 2004. It alerted me especially because of the following quote: “Recognizing that biotechnology advances would be as important in the 21st century as information technology advances were in the 20th century, the Army commissioned the National Research Council (NRC) to help it plan to take in the fullest possible advantage of biotechnology developments.” In this workshop the U.S. military introduced their needs to others from respective biotechnology fields, including universities. The goal was to figure out how the military can influence the research field earlier in the process to have their needs met.

Looking back, the war industrial complex was present all along. Canned food was developed for the Napoleonic War. Chemical agents were used in the First World War. The Second World War was big on driving pharmaceuticals, and I am sure you could find these historical strands throughout the history of mankind.

But it seems that the succession in which these war technologies enter the general consumer market is speeding up. In my lifetime, computers and the internet have become cultural standards. Since I live in the States, drones have developed from high-tech war and research tools to a high-end consumer product. I am certainly not the first one to make the observation that these assimilated military technologies have a major cultural impact. Patrick Lin, for example, wrote a great article about the “Ethical Blowback from Emerging Technology” in 2010, and I am sure there are earlier research efforts. But to sum it up: Since I live in the States, assimilated military technology started to scare me. If only a few of these biotechnological warfare/security products make it into the mainstream, we are looking at a very, very different way of being. I don’t know how much my sci-fi-educated mind is taking over this notion of fear, but these are possible life circumstances I just do not want to live in!

SLUG: What sparked the desire to work with such political themes throughout your career of film and choreography and for the save your own skin exhibition and performance?

London: I think it was an accumulation of things … Growing up in Germany as part of the second generation after WWll meant to have enough distance from the cruelties committed against humanity during the National Socialist Era to ask a lot of questions. I always blamed my grandparents for being political followers and at the same time felt guilty for crimes I did not commit. When I was 13, I very clearly remember gazing over the Wall into East Berlin, climbing the stairs to the watchtower as if to go watch some animals in the zoo—to just get confronted with the vast death stripe, its barbed wire and heavily armed soldiers. When I was 17, my circle of friends discovered more and more social and environmental issues, which led to my first career choice of being a social worker. In this field, I have worked with refugee children from Kosovo, people with heavy substance abuse, homeless women and immigrant teenagers at risk. I always tried to understand how their life circumstances evolved and what you can do to help create a better life for them. The interest in these sociopolitical phenomenon and realities as well as the desire to eradicate injustice maintained the same, although I now work in the arts.

SLUG: Could you speak to the other artists and collaborations that will be involved in save your own skin? What role did you take in reaching out to and curating the artists?

London: Carloss Chamberlin is a researcher, filmmaker, screenwriter and dramaturg, with a B.A. from St. John’s College, Annapolis. He has worked as a story editor in Hollywood and has written for the online film journals Senses of Cinema and Mubi Notebook. We first met at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival in 2013 and are friends ever since. He is a walking encyclopedia and has unique and sophisticated viewpoints, which kept our regular discussions very lively. I asked him to help me with the research for the thought exhibition, as it is just too much for one person. I trust his instincts.

Jason Rabb and Nick Foster both studied composition and percussion at the University of Utah. They are active performers and composers, with compositions selected by new music and electronic music festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe. They have collaborated in many capacities, including music for plays and dance (i.e. Ririe-Woodbury), chamber music groups and their longstanding electric guitar chamber/garage duo it foot, it ears. I got to know Jason as one of the organizers of 12 Min Max, a great artist platform at the Salt Lake City Library, when they screened my film occupation. It was also one Sunday at 12 Min Max when I first heard Nick perform an experimental percussion piece. I kept on running into them, talking and listening to their music. I just love what they are doing, and I was stoked when they were interested in collaborating for save your own skin!

Ami Hanna is a local light and video artist whose company, Luma Box Designs, provides services for public events ranging from the Pride Festival to guest performances by Bill T. Jones. We got to know each other when she was renting us gear for another performance. She simply is a tech wizard with a big talent for creating tangible atmospheres with light and video! I love to work with her!

SLUG: What has been some of the most rewarding work you’ve done over the past few years?

London: I really enjoyed working with Michael Schmidt and his tatraum projekte in Düsseldorf, Germany. He is a genius in discussing current sociopolitical phenomena through theatrical elements. Most rewarding for me are the site-specific performance spaces, the intimate interactions with the audience, as well as the actual learning and working processes. I love to spend intensive time together with others, wrapping our minds, emotions and bodies around current issues. As for the funding structures in Germany, we don’t get rich, but we can afford to work in a very immersive way as a group for a minimum of a whole month. I miss that when I am here.

SLUG: What insight have you been able to gain through your study of the effects of integrating military technology to human skin? 

London: First of all, I learned that if you change the properties of human skin, you will create another being! Second, I got reminded that history goes wondrous ways and that it is hard to capture in facts. There are so many different developments happening simultaneously that it is challenging to see the through line … But one thing seemed pretty obvious to me. Although skin grafting seems to go back to Indian medical practices from 1500 B.C. and made its way to the Western world via the colonization of India, the invention of artificial skin is a further development of skin banks that were a result of the Second World War. The current development in bioengineered skin, in my opinion, is driven by the War on Terror. Robert Kirsner et al. stated in the end of the ’90s, that  “Although, in the USA, serious burn wounds only form a minority (13,000) of wounds treated annually by physicians [compare with diabetic ulcers (600,000), venous ulcers (1,000,000) and pressure ulcers (2,000,000)], the needs of burn patients have been instrumental in the development of bioengineered skin” ( Kirsner et al, TIBTECH JUNE 1998 (VOL 16), p.247).

This is definitely due to the endeavor to increase the survival chances of severe burn victims. If you had more than approximately 30 percent of your skin surface severed before skin banks existed, you were simply dead. Today, they can save people’s lives with up to 98 percent burnt skin surface. Usually, they are treated with a patchwork of skin replacements ranging from cadaver skin to pig skin to bioengineered skin. They are still working on improving people’s quality of life after such recoveries, though. But another reason, in my opinion, why burn victims are instrumental in the development of artificial skin is the “marked increase in combat-related burns principally as a consequence of the ignition of improvised explosive devices [especially since the Operation Iraqi Freedom]” (Pruitt Jr. et al, “Total Burn Care” 2007, p.17).

The most recent insight is that governmental agencies have been interested in the knowhow of a “bulletproof skin,” for which the Dutch bio artist Jalila Essaïdi produced a prototype in 2011. Essaïdi used spider silk from Utah State University’s transgenic goats to manufacture a bio-scaffold for human skin cells to grow into. A slowed-down bullet was repelled by four layers of this artificial skin. Usually, bulletproof vests are made of a minimum of 33 layers of Kevlar and a ceramic plate. Although Essaïdi wanted to inspire a dialogue about the relativity of safety with her project 2.6g 329m/s and denied offers from governmental agencies, the idea is out in the world and of interest to governmental agencies.

SLUG: In what ways do you see our current cultural senses becoming altered because of technological progression?

London: There is certainly a striking change in regard to our sense of touch. It seems that the public touch taboo is acted out in constantly touching touch devices, which on the one hand leads to excessive social media use and also somehow diminishes real-time social interactions or even the ability to socially interact—definitely to a deadened public sphere. The list goes on … I think the spatial understanding of our surroundings as well as our relationship to it is altered by depending more and more on GPS devices. The private sphere basically evaporated because of our own choice, giving up data via the internet and social media as well as by accepting surveillance as a security measure. You can continue with air and light pollution …

SLUG: Technology has been advancing as a means of protection, but as you’ve mentioned, it has lead to some disastrous effects on mankind. What are ways in which we can obtain similar levels of safety without the negative after effects that come with progressive militant technology?

London: If I would know the answer to that, I would be tremendously happy. This is exactly the dilemma we find ourselves in. I am hoping to get a glimpse of a solution through discussing exactly this question with more and more people.

SLUG: What military developments do you believe poses the greatest threat to diminishing a stable future?

London: I think it is exactly this mechanism in which the military industrial complex pushes the limits of ethical boundaries to achieve military goals, which bleeds over into the ordinary consumer world and therefore into our lives. This might be somewhat tolerable if we still would have clear boundaries between times of peace and times of war, but these lines have been diminished by the ongoing War on Terror. It is much like the executive powers of the U.S. president. Once they are extended, they become the new normal, throwing whatever ethics and resulting regulations out of the window.

SLUG: In what ways do you plan on assimilating your ideas or concerns for the future into your upcoming performance?

London: There will be a thought exhibition (March 17–April 1), which will display some historical strands of military technology. The six performances will take place within the exhibition. The content is mostly driven by questions arising from the prototype of Jalila Essaïdi’s bulletproof skin. The performance grapples with being vulnerable and the various ways we attempt to shield ourselves from being vulnerable: numbed/armored senses and actions, retreating from our skin and the use of technology. I also utilize a what I call “quote clash text” with excerpts of Peter Sloterdijk’s poetic philosophy on the justification of the artificial and Claudia Benthien’s cultural analysis of the perception of the skin, woven together with my own thoughts.

SLUG: How do you hope your message will impact audiences?

London: I just really want to inspire people to think about these things and draw their own conclusions for their personal, social and consumer actions. Next to that, I definitely would love to convince everybody that it is a strength to be vulnerable and that a rich life comes from a multitude of rich sensory experiences in a thriving environment. In the end, we are sentient beings like the rest of the animal kingdom. I would like to inspire people to protect this way of being!

SLUG: What do you hope to most impress upon your audience with your upcoming installation?

London: Critical thinking.

SLUG: Where are you hoping to take this project in the future?

London: I hope to take this project and further develop it with the collaboration of a museum or just tour it at festivals. Mostly, the aim is to actually get the message out and get paid for all the work!

SLUG: What upcoming events or projects do you have scheduled?

London: Nothing is a 100-percent, sure but I might be teaching Choreography at the Beijing Dance Academy. There might be a project with war veterans, a residency dedicated to further investigating inherited guilt or another project with tatraum projekte schmidt in Düsseldorf. I definitely want to create a third screendance regarding the erosion of democracy and learn more about music. But in the end—it’s all up in the air.


The save your own skin installation will be featured at the most northern Annex Storefront at the Salt Lake City Main Library Plaza at 210 E. 400 S. from March 24–April 1, with live performances by Tanja London on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available for $5–$15 online at tanjalondon.com/save-your-own-skin.