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The Surgery was a Success and the Patient is Dead

The Surgery was a Success and the Patient is Dead

May 25, 2016

Sophie Cassar

Part one:

My graft is like an eye shadow palette with colours swatched from an opal october birthstoneImage: http://jewelry.lovetoknow.com/October_Birthstone. Blue-grey-beige where grafted skin patches over tissue lifted from a donor site with an intact blood supply. Glints and flecks of peach and lilac to cover complex wounds in limb-salvage-surgery. The malleability of muscle allows it to effectively obliterate dead space, while the dense capillary network facilitates antibiotic depositionKlebuc, M., & Menn, Z. (2013). Muscle Flaps and Their Role in Limb Salvage. Methodist DeBakey Cardiovascular Journal, 9(2), 9599.. Finally the graft is encased in a baby pink scar. Accessorise the minced meat flesh with Hello Kitty bandaids and wash clean with Primrose antiseptic hand wash to help the sick girl prepare for hostile wound environments. These are images that support claiming disability as accessory, claiming illness as sick-girl-aesthetic.

Am I romanticising illness? Or accessorising it to make it look cute? — and to reclaim sick. In her essay, On Being Ill Virginia Woolf writes about the denied aesthetic, poetic, appeal of illness:

“Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache.”Virginia Woolf, On Being Illwith introduction by Hermione Lee, Paris Press (October 1, 2002)

Sickgirls online are questioning the desirability of a sick body, in a curated palette of soft pastel images. Change my name on Facebook to Rose Gold, when I was a young girl I insisted that my hair was not red, it was golden. Sickness is femme like my friend Izzy writing “I wanna plait rose gold”title of a poem by Isabella Rose Mahoney, instagram @imahoney, flushed cheeks, baby pink. When the imagery is sparkling with a fever there’s a danger that this soft palette of weakness is too fixed, too crystallised. Grafts like opals, sick like a fragile gem and then Audrey Wollen makes me question it

“I am not reaching for a crystalised, capitalist ‘happiness’ or ‘freedom’, but rather an acceptance of a permanently alienated girl-self, but a self that utilises its dislodged miseries and infuses them with meaning…”Instagram post by Audrey Wollen, @audreywollen

A light pink sick fog leaves everything washed out — stale afternoon light filtering through the hospital curtain and onto the lino floor of the ward. Limp arms and bruised legs are draped across hospital blankets, the girls in the images embodying a kind of dead-weight that aesthetically transcends the pastel sick-palette of the curtains. The hospital linen is blue, faint like your veins showing through when you hold your wrist up to the light.

The nurses will give you a baby pink hospital bracelet; visually coded online it becomes a signifier of “disability as accessory”Disability as accessorytweet by Aurelia Guo, 16 Jan 2015, https://twitter.com/aurelia_guo.

A sick bed is a grave which is why my work is a practice of digital_burial, signed off with “sent to you from my sickbed”,

Click here to join for,

“the aesthetic of material that looks shared”Gwyn Porter in email conversation, May 2016 because I only want to read if I can share screenshots with friends like “pics or it didn’t happen”, pics or I didn’t read it. Writing fuelled by “shared discourses at the edges of understanding as a self-organising community that communicates in writing and images more than anything much else.”Gwyn Porter in email conversation, May 2016

Your body is weak, but your desire is strong. Weightlessness as an idealised and aestheticised end-point for sick girls to reach, but you cant overthrow capitalism on an empty stomach. A collective girlhood-body built from iPhone notes, Instagram messages, hashtag Aesthetics of Recovery in my email inbox (thank you Madeleine)

​“Feed me the products that nurture my desire for death. ie. a smoothie late-capitalism and spirulina

starvation as a means of Distraction,

from an economy of men, from form, from love and cash and sex.

heartbreak as a Meal that Consumes Me.”‘hashtag Aesthetics of Recovery’ by Madeleiene Iona Lukács Smith

I love capitalism and I hate myself, I love pop culture and I hate the art world.

How to make soft private work and still assert it as art? Disabled labour. Non work.

To have a practice dedicated to the work of being well and this comes before any other practice because
Fragile health makes Fragile work.

Objectivity has been disabled when work is given form through sick-fog. Reading in bed is a form of deviancy but Virginia Woolf seems to deliberately allow this,

“We rifle the poets of their flowers. We break off a line or two and let them open up in the depths of the mind… in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and nostrils, like some queer odour.”Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”

Part two:

On August 27th, 2011, Talia Castellano uploaded her first makeup tutorial to YouTube.

“Mwah mwah ok, soo, you need hot pink lipstick or like a bright fire-cracker red lipstick.”Ripped lips – Great for Halloween!, Uploaded on 20 Sept 2011 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fi1GqWb8jM

Her channel, “TaliaJoy18”TaliaJoy18@ https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQ_aa1q_dpqRc5uATuslRzg documented a terminally ill teen girl who slipped in and out of different forms of subjectivity as she performed a “death mask” online through beauty and make-up video blogs that she posted to her millions of followers.

“What kind of cancer do you have? Neuroblastoma! Ready? Here we go, n – e – u – r – b – l – a -s -t – o – m – a . Oh! holy cow I did it yay! I did it, I spelt neuroblastoma. Yeah but it’s called neuroblastoma it’s a rare childhood cancer.”The answers are in…”  Uploaded on 22 Oct 2011 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQcueRHHh8c

This is the work of taking up a subversive position to re-embody online spaces that have often ignored or denied women’s & girl’s bodies, and their own account of them. Talia’s make-up tutorials have a distinctly teen girl, anti-patriarchal mode of blending influences and associations that filter through her videos so that a make-up tutorial becomes a subjective account of Talia’s experience of terminal neuroblastoma and pre-leukaemia.

“That’s why I really got into make-up and beauty because it just, puts on, it puts on a wig, and it makes me feel beautiful… a lot of people say ‘you wear too much make-up!’ I can do whatever I want, thanks.“Talia’s Life: Coping with Cancer!” Uploaded on 26 Nov 2011 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jp4Yzgpu2IA

During her palliative care she uploads a video telling her viewers that she’s not planning to leave the hospital, but she is planning another video. Talia seems aware of her uncertain subjectivity, that as a young girl she is expected to be a non-subject. Interrupting herself in the middle of a video, she comments,

“and it’s a pretty tough chemo it’s a very high dose chemo… from my understanding, this is from my understanding it’s not like, real knowledge up in the brain like I like to think it is, most of the time it is but.. if I’m wrong.. ah.. that’s just cos I, I, yeah.”“Vlog-Bad News…” Uploaded on 2 Aug 2012 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1SI3V1Ar20

I’m so scared to be a subject in this text, keep slipping in and out of Talia’s train of thought, this isn’t real knowledge up in the brain like I like to think it is… and then sliding outside of some kind of subjective boundary back into into myself (or something)… or something like, I don’t know, Being a “Girl” and doubting everything I write. I have to forget I’m publishing it to keep writing when the audience goes outside my email inbox. No wonder Talia doubts her subjectivity when posting to her millions of online followers.

Donna Haraway proposed in her Cyborg Manifesto that;

“in the fraying of identities and in the reflexive strategies for constructing them, the possibility opens up for wearing something other than a shroud for the day after the apocalypse.”Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. from Simians, Cyborgs and Women, 1991.

Rather than a shroud, Talia wears a death mask of cosmetics, false eyelashes and acrylic nails. In a video from 2011, two years before her death, titled “Tutorial: Glamorous Zombie!”, Talia literally paints her face into a death mask with zombie style make-up;

“Hey everyone! So today I have um this kinda like glamorous zombie kind of look and you can make this messy because, remember, you’re a zombie, not a contoured Barbie.”Tutorial: Glamrous Zombie!Uploaded on 27 Oct 2011https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5K_oM-wdMKg

Audrey Wollen asked “Should I get a manicure to impress my MRI technician?”tweet by Audrey Wollen, @audreams My fake nails are too long for me to press the keys on my laptop properly, but my physiotherapist likes them when I use the baby pink 1 kilogram weights that match my nails, pink weights colour-coded for weaklings like me. I need a new manicure to be a real cyborg… Centrelink cancelled my mobility allowance, now I won’t be able to spend it on getting my nails done, no more pensioner privileges.

Acrylic nails an extension of my body, like phone connected to limb as cyborg prosthesis… I’m a cyborg girl in a cyborg world but Donna Haraway’s utopian feminist online space is contaminated by the patriarchy too, like it doesn’t really exist that’s probably why Audrey Wollen left Instagram.

“girls that read the cyborg manifesto make me feel connected to something bigger
a huge (or Not?) network of cords (ribbon) —-

sad girls and sick girls and girls that sit on the sidelines because their legs

Don’t ‘Wanna’ Work.”poem by Madeleine Iona Lukács Smith

I write about the phrase “You look well!” as an insult because this is work. Survival is also work and maybe dying is too. Talia died at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Fern Park, Florida, on July 16th, 2013, about a month before her 14th birthday, after spending the last three months of her life in palliative care. An announcement was made soon after the time of death, at 11:22 a.m, on the Angels For Talia Facebook page.

“Coping with cancer! Bye guys!”Talia’s Life: Coping with Cancer!Uploaded on Nov 26 2011https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jp4Yzgpu2IA&nohtml5=False

Part three:

Email reply to Katherine Botten On 21st of April 2015, at 10:38 pm, <sophierose.cassar@gmail.com> wrote: “How much money did it cost to save my life?”

Katherine responds, “it’s like The Real Sickgirls of Online intro quotes.”in email conversation with Katherine Botten @ http://www.katherinebotten.com/

“I may be dead but I’m still pretty.

The bags under my eyes are designer.

Looking good and feeling like death is a difficult combination for people to understand.”“My Circle Got Smaller but My Vision Got Bigger” blog by Yolanda Hadid, March 23, 2016 http://www.bravotv.com/the-real-housewives-of-beverly-hills/season-6/blogs/yolanda-hadid/yolanda-hadid-my-circle-got 

Cancer might be the best way to die but it doesn’t have to be.

The girl who cried pain, invisibly disabled like, “surprise, bitch.”

The surgery was a success and the patient is dead.

Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are always “moving forward”. Yolanda Hadid’s slogan or catch phrase alludes to the accusations she’ll face throughout Season 6,

“Fake friends believe in rumours, real friends believe in you.”Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Episode 18, Season 6, Dubai Daze, Bravo TV, 2016.

Yolanda is both a “Real Housewife” and a “Real Sickgirl”. She could almost be a character of Dodie Bellamy’s essay ‘When the Sick Rule the World’, with a vague yet lengthy list of symptoms that tick all the boxes that add up to chronic illnessDodie Bellamy, When the Sick Rule the World, Semiotext(e), 2015.  Yolanda is the supermodel in a performative sick role, modelling Chronic Lyme Disease while getting a stem cell transplant like, “Touch me, I’m Sick”.  With her immense wealth Yolanda pays for expensive treatments overseas, travelling by private jet to Mexico, South Korea, Singapore — a holistic approach she calls it.

Aurelia Guo writes, “What sort of bodies are accommodated by what sort of structures?”Aurelia Guo @ https://twitter.com/aurelia_guo I ask all of my sick friends how they would buy their way out of pain if they were as rich as Yolanda. I can’t decide if the way she is capitalising on her illness by weaving it into her major plot line on RHOBH, is kind of feminist, like getting paid to be sick, or if it’s just upwardly mobile privilege propelling her even further forward.

Eleven countries, five states, 104 doctors later, Yolanda has had silicone breast implants removed to boost her immune system after having silicone free-floating around her chest cavity. She has mercury fillings removed from her teeth to avoid heavy metal poisoning. No more hair extensions. Ultraviolet Blood Irradiation. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy.  She also vows to not get highlights, botox, or wear nail polish. Cryotherapy . Neurofeedback.  Stem cell therapy. Detox.

Dodie Bellamy writes that,

“There is no such thing as a hypochondriac; there are only doctors who cannot figure out what is wrong with you.”Dodie Bellamy, When the Sick Rule the World

Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is becoming like a reality TV version of When the Sick Rule The World. This is the first time I have heard the word fibromyalgia on television — tune in each week for an episode of chronic illness drama, to hear Yolanda say;

“People don’t like sick people.”Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Episode 18, Season 6, Dubai Daze, Bravo TV, 2016.

Being in a sickbed is being invisible, unless your sickbed is broadcast on reality television, then there’s murky lines between illness as public or private or political.

The private is televised as the “M” word, in which the housewives accuse, or suggest, that Yolanda has Munchausen’s syndrome, a disorder in which those afflicted “fake” physical illness for sympathy and attention.

“There goes our fucking storyline”Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Episode 18, Season 6, Dubai Daze, Bravo TV, 2016.

This diagnosis of Munchausen’s Syndrome is handed to Yolanda from the other housewives based on evidence garnered from her Instagram posts that alternate between happy selfie, sick selfie, happy selfie, sick selfie…

“Okay, so, I’m just going to read you something. ‘True Munchausen’s Syndrome fits within the subclass of fictitious disorders and predominantly physical signs and symptoms, but they also have a history of recurring hospitalisations, travelling and dramatic, extremely improbable tales of their past experiences.’What Is Munchausen Syndrome? It’s Going to Cause a Stir on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, December 21, 2015, http://www.bravotv.com/the-daily-dish/what-is-munchausen-syndrome-its-going-to-cause-a-stir-on-the-real-housewives-of… It’s like, Yolanda’s ill and you can’t go anywhere and you can’t do anything but you choose to go [screen flashes to Brandi’s Instagram post] and spend time with Kim and Brandi. I don’t get it! You can get away with anything…. when you’re sick.”Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Episode 18, Season 6, Dubai Daze, Bravo TV, 2016.

This doesn’t make sense to the housewives, how one day Yolanda can post a photo in the sheets of her sickbed, needle in her arm for an intravenous vitamin infusion while she’s on another chemical detox, (because anything artificial will give the sick a headache) and the next day, a “happy selfie!”.  Meanwhile try not to think of Talia in her sickbed painting her nails with nitrocellulose. I post images on Instagram documenting my bruise progression, man-handled by orthopaedic surgeons who boast about breaking their surgical instruments on my bones. It’s a “boys club” when 90% of orthopaedic surgeons are men.

Yolanda Foster will reign When the Sick Rule the World, travelling in packs on porcelain-lined fragrance free busesDodie Bellamy, When the Sick Rule the World. Even if her illness must be diagnosed as “la belle indifference”. The words won’t reach her in the organic orchard of her $27 million Malibu Mansion. Picking lemons for the Master Cleanse 15-day lemonade detox, Yolanda is thinking of her childhood in the Dutch countryside — lemon yellow tulips. Yolanda is resigned to the gossip, writing on her blog, “I have chosen to no longer engage in the Munchausen story but rather preserve my energy and use it where necessary in my healing process. It is important for me to stay on my path of gratitude. I choose to follow the knowledge and clarity of knowing who I am and what I stand for rather than participating in insincere gossip about my disease.”Tonight’s Revelations Are Shockingblog by Yolanda Hadid, March 8 2016http://www.bravotv.com/the-real-housewives-of-beverly-hills/season-6/blogs/yolanda-hadid/yolanda-hadid-tonights-revelations

She stands firm though,

“…You can’t run over dead bodies to get a great show.”Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Episode 22, Season 6, Reunion Part 2, Bravo TV, 2016.

Another RHOBH, Kathryn, gets the same type of hearing aid that I have. Camille had cancer too and she holds a diamond jewellery fund-raising event, sound clip from Kyle, sometimes the only way to get people around here to donate is to shop. Show up to your funeral like, *diamond emoji* , $40,000 charity ring.

In the Children’s Hospital we were given free wifi but flowers were banned because they could hold germs that we were too immunosuppressed to fight off, leading to life-threatening infections. We were too sick for the gift shop flowers already romanticised and aestheticised for us. In an imaginary hospital room there are clean sheets on the bed and flowers on the bedside table.

Dodie writes that the sick are too sensitive for flowers,
“When the sick rule the world, roses, gardenias, freesias, and other fragrant flowers will no longer be grown. When the sick rule the world perfume will be outlawed. Dealers will stand in alleyways selling contraband Estée Lauder and Chanel no. 5. They will carry tiny capsules of perfume in their mouths, tucked along their gums, and when they open their mouths they’ll look like vampires with their extra row of liquid gold teeth.”

The immunocompromised need fake flowers with no germs, because the young girl doesn’t age she decomposesPreliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl,  Tiqqun, Semiotext(e), 2012, she’s already dead.

Fake flowers for cyborgs and sickgirls.
What will I be if I’m not a Sick Girl anymore? — maybe just crazyin email conversation with Vincent Silk, 2016.

Now there is coffin shopping online to elevator music. An endless playtime girl coffin on the screen, baby pink, teddy bears holding love hearts and you can click here for “tick”, yes, I like this oneImage: “LifeArt Coffin Range” @ http://www.lifeart.com.au/designed-coffins/lifeart-coffin-range, find your local LifeArt supplier at coffinworld.com.au.

Sophie Cassar is an artist and student from Melbourne.

Oscar Miller is an artist and student from Melbourne.

This text is an iteration of a podcast transcript produced for Status Effect.