Art and Personhood in American Fire Spinning
Susannah Crockford (Ghent University)
Paper short abstract:
An analysis of the concepts of personhood in the works of Gell and Strathern through a consideration of American fire spinning. The historical production of this form of performance art is presented leading to a discussion of how agency and gender are co-produced.
Paper long abstract:
Fire spinning is a form of performance art created out of a fusion of colonial and postcolonial encounters. The performer spins an implement, called a toy, with Kevlar wicks that are set on fire. This practice incorporates elements from Polynesian, Native American, East Asian, and European art traditions. Originating in the mid-20th century, it is now a popular practice in the American West, particularly in the countercultural festival and rave scenes. This paper examines the specific history and diverse cultural roots of fire spinning, based on two years' ethnographic research in Northern Arizona, including learning to spin fire with several different implements. Fire spinning is analysed in terms of both Gell and Stathern's notions of personhood. The art object in Gell's sense is the interplay of bodily movement, fire, and the toy. The performer uses their skill to 'enchant' the three and create art. The art object so constituted is granted varying understandings of agency by performers and audiences. A Gellian analysis of personhood is then juxtaposed with Strathern's concept of divisible personhood through outlining how fire spinning is gendered. Different toys and styles of movement have different gendered associations, and this links with their cultural histories in varying ways. This paper situates the theories of Gell and Strathern in a specific historically produced form of performance art. It also raises provocative questions about personhood and art. Does personhood change in the process of performing 'art'? Can a notion of divisible personhood apply in a hyperindividualised cultural context?
Art and Personhood in the Historical Moment: Rethinking Gell and Strathern.