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KEPONE. A Performance Triptych against Soil Poisoning


Written by Stéphanie Melyon-Reinette


KEPONE or Chlordécone ? This molecule, proven an endocrine disruptor, affects the reproductive organs and may ‘potentially’ cause cancer. This is an undeniable fact for men, with an increase of prostate cancers in males contaminated with Kepone, according to a study by INSERM lab (Boughriet, 2012). At the same time, in women was revealed an increase of precocious pregnancies. Consequently, questioning Kepone through art and political ecology is a matter-of-fact, for me – as an artist, a sociologist, an independent researcher and above all this, as a Guadeloupean woman. This issue is ever-present regarding its aftermaths though they are as latent and dormant as people’s reactions. Everybody knows about Chlordecone poisoning. The most impacted rebelled. Then, the fire in their hearts has died. Latency. Rumor. While operating a foray at the core of the territory’s history, before literally exploring the semiotics that impregnates them all, we will unweave the threads of this narrative to better seize the links between the bodies as they struggle to exist inside a destructive biophysical world, and their history ; Kepone and ethnocide.



KEPONE, the Body & Colonialism


Guadeloupe history is an unavoidable and inexhaustible source which feeds all the sociocultural and political phenomena which characterize, plague or single out the French Caribbean islands.


The prehistory of the Antilles is Slavery and Triangular Trade : an economic, industrializing pattern and scheme whose mechanic cogs are the enslaved Africans’s bodies. Millions of Africans were deported toward the West Indies by the European colonizers. Thus, appear the Black/White binarity of the world and the colorism which has been conditioning the West indians’s phenotypical-physical identifications. The French-Caribbean societies include various social strata and ethnic-cultural groups that are further divided into phenotypical-social categories ranking the colonizers at the top of the pyramid  and the African enslaved at the bottom, with an intermediary mulatto class in between (amalgamated quite soon to the Black mass by the Code Noir). What still remains today from this social-chromatic hierarchy, is the economic domination and monopoly of the Békés[1], in which thehe Master/ Slave-dichotomy has been turned into its ruling/ working class equivalent that pervades life and society as a whole ; its, politics and discourses. The class struggle is fundamentally color-motivated.


Furthermore, this instrumentalized/ colonized body is also desubstantialized through the physical bondage and the mental oppression it is submitted to. Through inferiorization, its imaginary is grangrened with subalternity : a resilience made powerless by the tenacity and tyranny of the dominant ones.


Chlordécone has been recognized and signalled as a nocive since the 1960s in the United States. In 1990, it became forbidden in Metropolitan France, but kept being used with impunity in the French Caribbean until 1993 by the banana planters - békés again – in a patent neocolonialism. Finally, chlordécone was taken out of use after many sanitary and environmental alerts.


Chlordécone was classified as endocrine disruptor as early as in 1979 by the World Health Organization (Boughriet, 2012). The first identification of high Chlordecone rates happened at the border customs in Le Havre (France), where a sweet patato shipment actually was refused entry to Metropolitan territory. Thus, the struggle against Chlordecone started in Metropolitan France and was not initiated in the impacted territories straight away. Thanks to the Chlordécone plans,[2] measures were taken and campaigns led to raise consciousness among the populations. Rates were fixed : RML (Residues Maximal Limit, in French LMR Limites Maximales de Résidus) and TBV (Toxicological Base Value, in French VTR, Valeur Toxicologique de Référence) to ensure a durable economy and consumption.


The contiguity of the territory makes the differentiation between sane and contaminated areas hard and abstruse since it is always thinkable that – like for GMOs – fluid exchanges and rainwater circulation are not fully controllable. Moreover, the still-fine or yet-unproven aftermaths of Kepone, such as the chronic diseases it may provoke, makes the phenomenon trivial in the eyes of some, misinformed people, and of others whoplainly choose to wear blinkers. How could we be impacted by an evil that is not blatant enough to keep us awake ?


Guadeloupe was coined « the island with beautiful waters » : beaches, rivers, waterfalls, natural elements are pouring everywhere, particularly in the Basse-terre region where the lands are the most contaminated : « The invisibility of the contamination and the fact that the « natural » and non-mercantile characteristic of their water make the compliance with the prevention messages concerning its utilization difficult. » (Torny, 2010, 69). Plus, the aftermaths can only be restrained through an incongruous prophylaxis, as those are only limiting measures. Curative measures are absolutely unimaginable as the effects on the future generations of West Indians contaminated with Kepone are still unknown, and since a few of those that are known, are hardly recognized.


The entire territory of Guadeloupe holds the signifiers of the Master-Slave dialectics : the colonizer has formatted the enslaved and the enslaved has built the colonizer’s wealth. The sugar cane savoured and the rum sipped, both brandished by all the West Indians as cultural symbols, are the very source and cause of the bondage their African ancestors have endured. French Caribbean reliefs and other cultural expressions are constant reminders of the black body being a centrepiece on the colonial exchequer : Lanmè Nèg Fè Kann kon Lanmè Kann Fè Nèg[3], the oceans of sugar cane and banana crops, the green gold of the Béké[4] agricultural monopoly. The more recent act of poisoning the colonized body with Kepone is a symbolic, physical and territorial manifestation of the centuries-old social/ racial conflicts and hierarchies pervading the island. It is in itself a double form of dominationwhere the colonial body is sacrificed on the altar of the capitalism and neocolonialism it serves : The territory on which the future of the population and the nation’s identity and economy as well as the nationalist perspectives: la Gwadloup sé tan nou[5]  rely, invisibly, but inherently bears the germ of death.



THE KEPONE-EXPERIMENT : A TRIPTYCH AGAINST FOOD POISONING








Relevance. Using a contemporary form of performing arts in a society whose artistic practices are firmly fixed in reality and memorial is not an easy task at all. Maybe the objective– if there is any – will not even be reached and perhaps that performance would be considered unachieved, useless finally. Guadeloupean art – except for the pictural and the traditional arts – is defined by an «  at last-revealed» character. Those are social chronicles whose form is vocal, verbalized and shared by all. Metaphors and double-meanings have been used since the first enslaved’s songs. The people owns the semiotic keys to decipher the performances : Gwoka music, its seven rhythms and its breaks (to which you need to be initiated though), folkloric music and dances, theater (far too often comical), the Mas[6] (Nèg Mawon[7]’s carnival) are artistic forms of the ‘thought and the visible’. In every instance, the metaphorically or litterally scandalous, rebellious, or other themes implying a social or political critique, are supposed to be seizable by the greatest number, and so subtly blatant! The sociocultural and biophysical contexts also fully contribute to the emergence of those art forms – carnal, telluric, grounded, dissenting artistic performances – deeply ideological in their « ostensible » style and and substance.  . However, rooted in our Guadeloupean culture, this is the carnival period that determines the time of performance, of cross-dressing, of ostensible transgression, of the abolition of taboos. Jérôme Pruneau et al. wrote : «  the preparing of the bodies, and then their mutation into other bodies, other identities, stands as the first step of a carnal process wherein the bodily expression cristallizes all the energy that will be displayed by the mas during the déboulé, with aims of collective claimings, but also with personal motivations,… » (Pruneau et al., 2009). The bodies are unleashed. The socio-cultural idiosyncrasies are embodied in them. Thus, the exploring of the corporeal language – especially through performance – is quite limited to specific fields : carnival, folkloric/traditional ballets, Bal Gran Moun (elders’s ball), rituals. Outside this frame, performances may seem soilless, transgressive, even outrageous, as Christianism strongly permeates and influences the Guadeloupean way of looking at the other.


Process. As an artist and sociologist, I am quite a nomadic person. It was in Paris that I first became acquainted with contemporary art (even though my parents’s openness largely contributed to this ahead of time).


I consider my performances as dissenting and committed. After realizing performances in Paris or Guadeloupe mixing poetry, painting and story-telling, on themes as comprehensive as my ancestors’s crucified history of enslavement, sociocultural rituals such as ben démaré[8] and other identity issues, etc., my preoccupations with the Kepone soil poisoning have imposed on me to answer Seismopolite’s call for papers.


This performance counts three acts. I designed them alone and performed them with my inalienable ally, my twin sister Prisca. Which effects did I expect from them ? None specifically. As there isn’t worse a purgatory for the artist than expecting something peculiar from the audience. As an artist, I decided to emancipate from anybody’s approval and censure a long time ago. Plus, opprobrium indicates that there was no room for indifference during the encounter with the spectators. But, the sociologist in me expected, at least, that the performances would be seen, watched, analysed, and maybe commented. Though, muteness and verbalization can be equally relevant.


Integrating my three-year-old niece – my twin sister’s daughter – was a way of involving our lineage to fix our consciousness and performances into a tangible frame. She participates by performing actions of daily life. There was no performance better and more true to life than those : eating (at lunch time) this iconic banana, symbolic in so many ways, and looking for her mother’s affection (at nap time). The final staging was achieved the day we shot. There was a sort of imperceptible spontaneousness in our determination to satisfy this urge of relating this drama, plainly and without embellishment (though the aesthetic aspect was sought).


The day before, I was still thinking about the space setting, the stage design and otherwise the discursive mode : What would I like to say and with which aesthetic? Should my performance try tocope with the subject matter from a distance of absurdity, anddivert the thoughts sparked by the first glance, only later to lead the spectator into a more direct and thorough reflection? Or should it deal with it in a head-on manner? Broaching the subject with the underlying violence implied by the soil poisoning phenomenon? Should it, instead, provide a set of discursive, common referencesto incite a debate? I chose the latter. Given the non-native character of this type of performance, it was fundamental to offer keys straightaway, and enable a natural deciphering. There was a need for seeding some iconic signs to catch the spectators’s eyes.[9]


The last element was not the least important: the spatio-temporal approach. I chose to broadcast a video digest of the performances, on the internet through the social networks. A debatable choice for a live performer, as I read Bouissac, who dislikes the idea of fixing live performance on videos : « the experience of those live performances is out of time despite the duration induced inasmuch as those series of events can be temporally manipulated at will : integrally repeated, interrupted and restarted, slowed or accelerated[10] » (Bouissac, 2011 : 105). He also adds that the performances’ « spatialization relativizes their temporality and reduces it to a sort of enchrony, an enclosed time, closed on itself, contained by the internal relations of a narrative structure which virtually escapes universal entropy.[11] » (Bouissac, 2011 :103). Questionable but arguably relevant with regard to the sociological experience undergone that aimed at questioning these performances through the internet’s virtual space, that carves the film in a supposedly endless time,the relevance of this performance also lies in its capacity to be seen and then commented by other than local people. For example, it was easy to involve the diaspora from the undeniably tangible and openly polemical place of the internet.


Setting. The first two performances were achieved without any direct audience, and the third one was a public in situ live performance on Place de la Victoire, in Pointe-à-Pitre, a historical place always crossed by passers-by.


A sentence had hit me – and was still inhabiting my spirit and reflection : « contaminé mais conforme » (contaminated but consistent/conform). Everyone knows that in soil or water poisoning cases, rates are established to determine if a water, or a soil are « conform ». And, to do so, certain noxious substances are taken into account, others eluded in the samples’s analyses, even as the real side effects are known – or they might still be ignored. Those are prophylactic measures that suggest a manipulation of the masses to ensure social order. This gut-wrenching sentence outraged me. I had to use it. It had to constitute a thread, a framework. An important outline. The common thread of this three-act performance. It was primordial to use banana trees or to evoke them ; more generally the natural context was essential , and with it, the invisibility of the poisoning that may be eating us all away, from deep down in the ground.


There was a large, green foliage around my sister’s house: lemon trees, bamboos, banana trees. Right outside her bedroom, as I climbed a couple of stairs under an entanglement of wild grass and little bamboos, I found an ideal spot between two banana trees, in a little gardened platform overhanging the parking lot. We were inside a greenish cocoon, in the hereabouts of the house – yet at the same time, also in the very heart of the city.



Kepone Dust


…or in other words, « Chlordécone  powder ». Knowing that Kepone is powdery in its initial form, I decided to materialize it in this performance. And that brought to my mind the Butō dance, that I practiced in Paris. A striking evokation, of meaningful plenitude. Butō[12] is a dance style that appeared in Japan after World War II, in reaction to the trauma caused by Hiroshima atomic bombings, among other things. Whitened, ghost-like bodies move with incarnated gestures. Introspection. Yet one could also undoubtedly ask, from within the Caribbean imaginary : Is this a kind of zombification ? Living deads ? Are we living deads ? I decided to operate a butō-style transformation with white flour. I did’t want our skins to be entirely whitened, but I’d rather try and obtain sensation of them being covered with a thin layer of Kepone, of dust. We got dressed with two old pillowcases transformed into loinclothes, and white crop-tops. This clothing might also be reminiscent of slaves’ clothing, made of white plain cotton or jute. I wanted my sister to feed her daughter with a banana to materialize the doom of self-poisoning we keep on facing and participating in… Bananas, just as the roots and veggies (yams, sweet patato, cassava, yucca, manioc etc.), are contaminated with Chlordécone, and this jeopardizes our food habits and traditions entirely.


Consequently, to take part in this performance, my sister had to feed her daughter with this ‘cursed’ banana. « We’re going to do a carnival. Will you do it with us Yanou ? » my sister tells her daughter to convince her to participate. My niece has a strong temper, and itwas not easy to get anything from her. Nevertheless, she took part in the process with great pleasure, especially with the perspective of covering herself with flour ! I put her high chair in the midst of the stage, and prepared two bananas in a plate with a fork. Reasserting a quotidian fact, through the performance, the coupling of death and daily life was symbolically reenacted on stage.


"Kepone Dust" from the Kepone Experiment by Stéphanie Melyon-Reynette. Photograph by Guillaume Aricique.
















Blue Code


The medical houses share a worldwide emergency code in order to provide the greatest amount of vital information about a patient with the minimum of misunderstanding, for efficiency’s sake. The blue code usually refers to a heart attack. It means that the patient needs intensive care such as reanimation and an immediate care, after a heart or lung failure. I also used blue color to refer to the color of plastic bin bags commonly used in banana plantations to protect the bunches. A blue atmosphere showing in the make-up, the denim of the jeans, the nail polish and the scenery (blue cushions, light).


To evoke disease, I had brought a box of tulle gras dressing and one roll of bandage. The bandage will be used for Yane-Rose and the tulle gras for Prisca and I. We placed the pieces of tulle gras to each other, on the left tit of our bosoms, and on the other a large medical dressing. Then, our breasts were pressed down and constricted by wrapping them in cling film. I wanted this to signify the violence of endocrine disruptors and the cancer-provoking potentiality, through a dance mixing isolated chest jolts, bumps and undulations, to value this aforementioned artefact, and plunging hypnotised looks towards the camera.



"Blue Code" from the Kepone Experiment by Stéphanie Melyon-Reynette. Photograph by Guillaume Aricique.
















Pópót Léta


For the third act, I had brought a big roll of black trash bags. We kept the blue code make-up, to which we added a tint of red lipstick, with the obvious idea that this color evokes sensuality. Through this aesthetics of the appearances that so much contrasted with the ugliness of the phenomenon, I wished to shed light on the manipulation of the colonized bodies and minds by government measures. ‘Pópót’ – doll or, to a certain extent, puppet – is a creole word which refers to a toy, but also to a ‘beautiful little girl’, ‘a lolita-like cute young woman’. Once again, here the idea was to perform the government-manipulated colonized body. We fashioned trash bag-made dresses and wore them above our jeans, and stilettos as « Chlordecone Barbies ».


We then headed to Place de la Victoire to pose as shop mannequins or models with labels stating: « Pópót Léta » (state-manipulated doll) and « Klówdékón Doll » (Chlordecone dolls), and a tag pinned in our backs that could read « contaminées mais conformes » (contaminated but conform )… We staged this performance on the square close to public benches where people sat to talk, surrounded by passers-by. The eyes stared, gazed at us. The passers-by stopped but avoided direct interaction. People watched from afar. They also moved away from the benches they occupied to avoid being in the camera shot. Not to interact. Questions in their eyes. But no answer-seeking interactions. Those reactions were expected. This kind of performance is not common in Guadeloupe and provokes interest-but-circumspection. A first experience that calls for other in situ performances. New perspectives.


"Pópót Léta" from the Kepone Experiment by Stéphanie Melyon-Reynette. Photograph by Guillaume Aricique.

















KEPONE-EXPERIMENT : Reactions and future development


After a quick internet search, I found several commentaries that show how the viewers’s analyses match our initial intention in many points.[13]


Some of the Netizens’s commentaries really prove how the representations can be impregnated with a variety of signifiers and meanings, in accordance with the watchers’s individualities. Kepone Dust, Blue code, and Pópót Léta are the three acts of my first performance about Chlordecone/Kepone poisoning,[14] and they call for more. More in situ performances, and maybe with a greater number of performers. Other creations are considered in banana plantations in Guadeloupe for a more oppositional approach with the economic and political protagonists. The ecological-political aspect of this performance remains quite untangible for the moment as we need to continue performing and give a larger echo and hopefully provoke a debate. By the way, releasing this article is the second primordial step.




Stéphanie Melyon-Reinette is a performance artist and researcher of the Haitian, Caribbean and African diaspora, primarily in the US and France. She is the author of a number of books, including Haitiens a New York City - Entre Amerique Noire et Amerique Multiculturelle (2009), Memoires de Jaspora - Voix intimes d'Haitiens enracines en Amerique du Nord (2011) and Marronnage and Arts: Revolts in Bodies and Voices (2012). Stéphanie Melyon-Reinette holds the doctoral degree in American Sociology from the University of Antilles-Guyane (2008).




Notes



[1] Name given to the colonizers and their offspring’s class that own the greatest part of the economy : a real monopolistic situation that ensure their control over the islands (Martinique, Guadeloupe). This specific class wouldn’t marry outside of their cast, especially not with the creolized afrodescendents. Up until today this  eugenics policy prevent any miscegenation and ensures the purity of the lineage.

[2] Plan I d’action nationale 2008-2010 (33 millions d’euros), plan II d’action nationale 2011-2013 (31 millions d’euros) et Plan III Surveillance et Recherche 2014-2020, 30 million d’euros sur le premier triennal (2014-2016). Sources : Ministère des Affaires Sociales et de la Santé.

[3] Translation: ‘La mer de Nègres a fait la canne’ comme  ‘l’océan de canne a fait le nègre’. On évoque ici les étendue des champs de canne à sucres où l’esclavagisé

[4] The Békés are the White, Creole, land-owners, descendent of the French colonizers who settled in Guadeloupe and Martinique

[5] « Guadeloupe islands are ours ».

[6] Pruneau et al. 2009.

[7] Maroons or Cimaròn : those terms designate the enslaved Africans who escaped the plantations and found shelter in the heights, mountains. Some founded communities taht still exist (for instance in Jamaica).

[8] Ben démaré : a ritual generally achieved each year on December 31st, to start and  enter the New Year washed from  all the sins of the previous, ending year. This ritual is performed either at dawn in the sea, or at the confluence of the sea and a river. People exfoliate their bodies with a codfish tail and throw it over their shoulder in the direction of the horizon, or at lest behing them And then, they take a regenarating herbal bath at home to call and bring blessings.

[9] Also hoping that they will go through Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic process as evoked by Bouko (2011). Three stages could be distinguished here, based on Peirce’s trichotomy : Primeity or observation (abstraction), secondeity or discrimination (through experience, reality), et tierceity or generalization (relation established between the object observed and representation).

[10] Translation of :« l’expérience de ces spectacles est hors du temps malgré la durée qu’ils impliquent dans la mesure où ces enchaînements d’événements peuvent être temporellement manipulés à volonté : intégralement répétés, interrompus et recommencés, ralentis ou accélérés »

[11] Translation of : « leur spatialisation relativise leur temporalité et la réduit à une sorte d’enchronie, un temps clos, fermé sur lui-même, contenu par les relations internes d’une structure narrative qui échappe virtuellement à l’entropie universelle »

[12] Butō : composed of two ideograms  « Bu » (dance) et « tō » (stomping the ground au sol), this dance characterized by its slowness, its poetry and its minimalism, with no fixed style (this is rather a print of the choreographer’s personality and inuendoes). Since the 19th century it has refered to western dances imported and has been nourished by the European artistic avant-garde (German expressionism, surrealism, etc.).  It also got impregnated with buddhism and shintō. Subversive dance which evokes universal themes, taboos, absurd extreme environments. A trend performed by naked bodies, painted in white, with or without audience.

[13] - « Ghost-like silhouettes of agriculture workers sacrified in the name of profitability, leading their offsprings into the lethal spiral of an agonizing earth/land… [as for the child’s presence] she marks the ‘after-us’, she and her contemporaries will be receiving the planet as a legacy, this is for her that we have to become aware of mankind’s destructive behaviour if we want the ''after-us'' to be able to live on our planet and perpetuate human existence. » (MCBT, Paris-based French-Caribbean female visual artist)

- « A few impressions in the heat of the first viewing… KEPONE DUST # are we still on life side or have we tumbled towards death ?! the bodies’s vitality fettered found a shelter in the – ''take care'' – embodied by your niece. BLUE CODE # mutation // cellophane tape as a new membrane ?! (the skin/membrane being the outwardness/inwardness frontier and all their interactions) // beauty, palpitation, dereliction breathless..), [incidentally what art is founded with, struggles against..] PÓPÓT LÉTA # public place, air & light, circulation (including with its interactivity or non-response, in all cases it calls to mind) artivism, ... Another interpretation came and superimposed on the first scene, the both of you as death or disease agent as the banana you fed her with had been subjected to air spreading.» (SY, Paris-based French-Caribbean man)

- « The first images where your niece (symbol of the future, already poisoned) eats the banana while the poison already has an effect on her mothers…. The second performance…. The disease zombifies us. Excellent. The 3rd scene… I really liked it. Potomitans*, we keep standing despite everything… But also, a politically-correct society, people poison themselves while still participating in the (bad-)consumer society. Hyper-consuming society : admittedly poisoned, but « beautiful outfit, nice stilettos »… I haven’t recognized the place where the last scene was shot, but I would have appreciated a more historical place (shooting in front of the statue of Solitude, the mulato would have been huge !)… to convey this message: profitability of the ones makes the enslavement (minds and bodies) of the others … » (OJ, Miami-based Guadeloupean female scholar) * Potomitan is a Creole word  which refers to an important, mythical figure of the French Caribbean culture. It is the popular term for designating what scholars would call ‘matrifocality’ – a female-centered family pattern, in which the mother stands single to raise and afford for her numerous offspring. The father(s) is/are missing, and/or excluded, and/or not involved. They are deemed strong, resilient, and are looked as sacralized figures.

- « So... In the first sequence I have only seized the aspect of Mother Nature’s poison… The second sequence reminds me of physical and moral oppression with the using of the cellophane that presses and suffocates your chests … the last sequence tells me that life goes somehow... In the three sequences I find a will of protecting the offspring… as for the absence of sound, I thought it was a deliberate choice as a governing principle saying… "Silence... we are killing..." Well... I don’t know if I’m being helpful but this is my feeling, rough and without any reflection...» (PF, Paris-based Guadeloupean male reporter).

- « … I really like the last one ; Art in the heart of the city ; the artist guiding the people by showing a reality they don’t want to see or don’t want to see anymore... questioning… calling !!! this is a transmutation happening there, have we become mutants? Your blue code scares me !! Is fright the point of it? brrrr!! Let’s flee !!!!! to another planet, unpolluted this one?!!!! Super this blue code !!! To be developped !!!» (JDK, Guadeloupe-based Guadeloupean female actor and student).

All translated from French by the author.

[14] Can be watched here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOeBa6wYKaA



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