I’m interested in a lot of things, some of which are: permanence, metamorphosis, control, carnival history, jewelry and value. Today, right now, right this minute, and for the rest of forever, I’m specifically interested in otherness and adornment. For me, these things converge and make up a large portion of my identity. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were something that was felt by most people: feelings of alienation, due to a certain sense of self, are commonalities that many people have with one another. But we don’t talk about it, well, not unless we know the other person feels that way. For me, the drive to become heavily modified is an integral part to who I am as a person. I knew this before I was old enough to understand what any of it meant. I knew it when I was in elementary school. I remember the precise moment that I knew, too. The person who showed me what it was, had no idea what he did. He probably didn’t even know I existed. If I saw that same punk rocker today, I know I could point him out. He had a HUGE septum piercing.. or, what’s what it looked like at the time. I knew that was what I wanted. Without saying a word, he told me that what I knew I needed to do was okay. On that day, everything changed. I knew where I was headed and I knew that there were other people out there who would understand me… I also knew that because I lived around a bunch of rich white people in the middle of suburbia, that it’d be a really long time until I was able to really find any of them.
I got into body modification a little late in the game as far as the contemporary American body modification timeline is concerned. Hell, when The Gauntlet started in the mid 70s, I wasn’t even born yet. I might be taking a big leap here, but I’d identify myself as a part of the last group of people who got into this before it got trendy. Maybe some of you who came long before my time would disagree, but, I’ll say this: I’m fucking dedicated to this lifestyle. My life and livelihood, much of my education and my career as a maker is rooted in this culture and this identity. It’s not a choice, well, not for me. Sure, it’s a choice to step into a tattoo shop. I get that. But the internal drive is not a choice.
A few years back I remember reading a blog post by Shannon Larratt, the creator of BMEzine. He compared the desire to become heavily modified with being gay. Later, I interviewed Shannon as part of my research for my MFA thesis work and he kind of turned on the statement. He stated, “I still think there’s a place for this idea, but because of how much society has changed — I don’t think anyone ever expected things to grow this large or this mainstream – it would be a little different in nature. In some ways we are a victim of our success. The sort of people who’d want to be a part of such a commune in the past needed protection from the mainstream unmodded society — now they also need protection from the mainstream modded society! We have very much fallen prey to gentrification.” On one hand, I agree with his statement because we have become so big. But on the other, I know that what he said in the past is true, because I still feel it.
I question the sincerity of the masses who have joined this community (if it can be called a “community” anymore) and I wonder what happened to earning your place within it. That’s an argument that I remember seeing often in many of the IAM/BME forums: What is the difference between those who have manipulated their body to the point of it seriously effecting their ability to navigate through mainstream society and those who choose to only have an earlobe piercing? They have both chosen a form of modification, so, what makes them different? I certainly am not stating that one form of permanent or semi permanent adornment/modification is better than the other – it’s an individual choice. However, I would argue that they are different and that the more extreme of those examples is driven by an internal force that is not felt by the masses. I’m not sure what the line is or how to articulate precisely where it’s drawn. What I can say for sure is that I know the line when I see it.
So, why does this question matter? I think it matters because it all boils down to identity within our greater culture. Adornment is a part of our individual identities – if we don’t express it in a form of modification, then it’s expressed in another way: the clothes we wear, any jewelry that we leave on and often forget about (like a wedding ring or small cross necklace), the cut and color that we choose for our hair, etc,. This aspect of each of our lives in inescapable and because of that, we should be considering it on the daily.
So, I wanted to share the private e-mail interview that Shannon was kind enough to grant me as a part of my first post here at Sacred Debris – even when he was feeling shitty, Shannon responded to me. He hoped to contribute to the academic sphere with regard to body modification. This was the last time I ever communicated with him. Despite knowing each other for years, we were never the best of friends, but, it is because of him that I’m married to my husband, that I have many of the friends that I do, and so many memories of an amazing community that has since dispersed. The community he built with us helped me to gain the confidence to do what I knew was right for me and it allowed me to find my footing. He got one thing right for sure, we have certainly grown.
S: I’d always thought of myself as a sort of historian or amateur anthropologist or even just journalist, but then someone told me that my role is “catalyst”. That is, to bring about change in others. To start fires in people. I liked that a lot and thought it was quite apt, because I haven’t just documented the world of body modification and body play — I’ve also promoted it and done everything I could to help it grow, and to guide it in that growth.
S: I started BME because I wanted to share what I was doing, to find other people like me, and I wanted to change the world so that the things that made me an outsider became normal. I wanted to create an space where people could safely express themselves in a positive and uplifting manner. In the decade and a half that I ran BME, it never veered from that. IAM was BME’s community arm, originally started so that I and others would have a place to blog.
To be honest, the biggest changes in BME are due to culture as a whole changing.
S: Yes, body modification is still a community, but in a different way than it was ten years ago, because it’s much, much larger and sits in a different — and broader — demographic space.
S: I still think there’s a place for this idea, but because of how much society has changed — I don’t think anyone ever expected things to grow this large or this mainstream — it would be a little different in nature. In some ways we are a victim of our success. The sort of people who’d want to be a part of such a commune in the past needed protection from the mainstream unmodded society — now they also need protection from the mainstream modded society! We have very much fallen prey to gentrification.
S: That’s very difficult for me to answer. I have very little affinity for the “normal” person.
S: Altering your physical form makes the statement that you control your destiny and your physical being. Redefining what you are is an essential part of the transcendent human experience.
S: I think that’s different for everyone. The popularity of tattoo removal and the reversal of stretched ears and so on shows that a great many people getting involved with body modification did it with minimal foresight or understanding of the level of commitment they were signing up for.
S: Probably. But I think that focusing on things like this can distract from the larger meaning and worse, create a stereotype.
S: I’m sure some people are. Others aren’t. I think that reflects on the person’s individual personality rather than anything universal to body modification. And again, I think that focusing on things like this risks creating a stereotype.
S: I don’t know if this is as true as it was in the past, because these days a broader set of people are drawn to body modification because of how popular it is as a fashion, but I believe that the body modification drive is as hardwired as sexuality is. There has been some research showing that there is a “cutter” gene — people who express their emotions through body play that is — and I suspect that’s the tip of the genetic iceberg on this question.
S: I think this is answered in your question about why I created BME.
With regard to any future posts that I make here at Sacred Debris, y’all can probably expect a more academic (not to be confused with dry) approach to the posts about many of the things that I stated earlier that interest me. I hope they interest you, too. I don’t know how often I’ll post, but I’ll try my best to put something up as often as I can. I really love what Shawn is doing here – I think it’s important, and I’m excited to be a part of it.
Rachel Timmins earned her MFA in Studio Art (Metals Concentration) in December 2012 and her BFA in Metal/Jewelry Design with a Minor in Sculpture from Buffalo State College in 2009. Her work has been shown in numerous exhibitions both nationally and internationally in venues like the National Gallery of Victoria, Snyderman-Works Gallery, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, the Design Museum London and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Rachel’s work can be seen in many publications such as Unexpected Pleasures published by Rizzoli Publications, Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective published by Lark Books and Jewel Book: International Annual of Contemporary Jewel Art published by Stitchting Kunst Boek. She can be found lecturing on her work and other related topics as well as giving workshops across the United States at various institutions and universities. Rachel lives in Baltimore, MD, where she often teaches at the Maryland Institute college of art. She resides with her pug, three cats and husband, Matt. To see Rachel’s work, please visit: www.racheltimmins.com