Entry II: Porosity

Artwork by Dr. Lakra. Design by Helena Geilinger. Original design concept by Sara De Bondt and Mark El-khatib.

Artwork by Dr. Lakra. Design by Helena Geilinger. Original design concept by Sara De Bondt and Mark El-khatib.

This communiqué is written by Sarah Demeuse and is the second of a three-part episodic series relating to the 11th edition of Liverpool Biennial: The Stomach and the Port. 'Porosity' is is the second entry point after 'Stomach'. A third installment which focuses on 'Kinship' is to be shared later this year. This text was conceived prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the resurgence of the global Black Lives Matter movement – though it resonates with current times, it was not written from within the present context.

The human skin is a product of a journey as much as it is a facilitator of many journeys.

The story goes that human bodies used to be more hairy, and that when they started outrunning their predators (humans being better at long distances because their bodies could regulate body temperature through perspiration), they began to shed this fur. In other words: skin, and skin color, became gradually visible around the time humans turned into a so-called dominant species, developing not only their ability to run, but also their hunting, roasting, and dressing skills.

The human skin is an organ that counts for about 15% of a human’s bodyweight. It is a fine-tuned interface that *protects* by shielding the inner body from toxins, by preventing excessive water loss, and by regulating the body temperature. It also *communicates* by receiving and decoding contextual information: it can register and react to temperature variations, it can sense texture, and, most importantly, it can synthesise vitamin D from sunlight. It is, in other words, a medium.Think of how it can absorb hormones, nicotine, nitroglycerine, and even opioid substitutes from engineered patches; inversely, it can convey information to the environment through perspiration, rashing, or “breaking out.”

There’s the idea that the skin to-be-had is a smooth, uniformly tinted, glowing (yet never oily), tightly-stretched foil over the flesh it covers. The skin functions as a top layer that seals that which is within; the wrapper that acts as a mirror of the inside. That mirror, however, is rippled, hairy, oily, at times wet and salty, and with occasional dry, even flakey, patches. There’s nothing permanent about a skin: its upper layer only exists for 3-4 weeks before turning to dust. There’s also nothing pure about a skin: besides accumulating or absorbing particles from the environment, the skin hosts about 1,000 species of bacteria. Basically, it’s more similar to an ecosystem than to a single thing.

At the dermatologist’s office, a didactic poster depicts a cubic cross-section of skin, as if it were a charcuterie sample gone astray in a virtual educational space. The poster indicates the anatomic components of the skin: the hair follicle, the sweat gland, the epidermis, the dermis, the hypodermis, the blood vessels, the lower connective tissue. The single hairs pierce through the outer layer’s uneven surface,which shows modest ripples like a calm summer lake. There are horizontal vectors (veins) as well as vertical ones (the hair, the perspiration gland), while the fat clusters behave a bit more messily. On a metaphoric level, it’s the vertical vector in this cross section that speaks to traffic, contact, infection and exchange. To emphasise this in-and-out is to point to the humans’ necessary giving and taking from their environment. Without this verticality there is no life, just a dividing cling wrap film.

A pore is what we know as the smallest unit of the skin – it’s the part that acts up as a pimple or that freaks out as goose bumps. Our pores open up in warm, humid environments and they shrink in cold climates. They are reactive. The word “pore” is related to port and porosity: all sharing an Ancient Greek root, póros, which stands for “passage,” but also for “journey”.

The skin is an amalgamate of chemical passages and cultural journeys and that journey is distinct for every human. To ignore the differences in skins is to ignore histories and structures of dominance and brutal oppression. Most of these differences have been articulated through ideology, and ideology, in turn, is often turned into law. Both are created out of fear – a fear of losing power. The skin-as-divider is a screen of fear, a surface upon which to apply unspoken quantities of disinfectant, bleachers, self-tanners, toners, and whatnot – all to blend in and self-protect. This ideologised skin shuns touching other skin.

Acknowledging the porosity of the human skin and daring to touch another’s skin recognises the passing, weathering, vanishing, variating and exchanging that come with the journey. The skin knows this but it’s time we started poring over that.