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Hot Desk Extract: Proximities

As part of the Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Tiia Kelly worked on Proximities, a nonfiction manuscript exploring online performance, wellness, and relationships through a framework of art and popular culture. This excerpt is from ‘Cut Your Hair (Fix Your Life)’, a chapter about transformation, ritual, performance art, and people posting DIY haircut videos on the internet.

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Cut Your Hair (Fix Your Life)

I’ve been thinking about how multiple meanings of a single word might diverge and weave back into one another. The word ‘cut’ as in to pierce something, to chop it into smaller pieces, or take the thing away entirely. Cut! as in to call for a camera to stop rolling, allowing the film crew to prepare for a new scene set-up. The cut-up method of artmaking, breaking up and remixing an existing text to create something new. A cutting like the pieces of spiderwort my sister gives me in green repurposed beer bottles, so I can propagate them and grow something from her offshoots. To ‘cut up’ as in to play the fool. A remark described as ‘cutting’ to mean that it was hurtful, except maybe it’s not quite that bad, just a slight sting, really, like winter morning air before your body adjusts to the cold.

These implications of the word feel valuable to me somehow, like non-explanation explanations for what it means to seek change and not know how to get it. To pursue it, instead, in the small tasks it’s possible to set for yourself, minor adjustments located within the realm of control. The word ‘cut’ always feels alive. Active and nimble, the motion or consequence of a wielded object, a mixture of compulsion and control. The way people cut and shave their hair to play with expectations of beauty and gender. Physical transformations that are vital for people to feel at home in their bodies, to move on from (or cut off) past experiences.


Recently, a friend told me that she used to cut off chunks of her hair as a child with the intention of hiding them, either in the cupboard under the sink or between a pair of couch cushions. Perhaps hiding the locks for good, the way kids see magic in concealed treasures, or intentionally planting them to be found. Since then, I’ve been considering the longing to become diffuse. The desire to spread yourself all over, just because you can. To break off into carefully shaped pieces, dispersing scraps, keeping some for yourself and some for the public. It’s an urge I recognise everywhere: a joke that says nothing of what provoked it, a selfie depicting only half a face, an image of someone’s dinner that only half-insinuates what it might taste like. You’ll never have all of me, or you’re going to find me absolutely everywhere.


I borrow a book from the library on participatory artworks that I only half-read. I skip through looking for certain theorists’ names, arbitrarily marking pages with fluorescent pink sticky notes, judging the sentences some previous borrower has underlined in grey lead. On the cover, there’s a picture of Yoko Ono’s Painting to Hammer a Nail. I spend more time looking at this picture than I do reading the book. First exhibited in the winter of 1961, the artwork is part of Ono’s series of Instruction Paintings that require the contributions of spectators to co-create a piece.

For this iteration, she provided the following instruction:

Hammer a nail into a mirror, a piece of

glass, a canvas, wood, or metal 

every morning. Also, pick up a hair that came 

off when you combed in the morning and 

tie it around the hammered nail. The painting 

ends when the surface is covered with nails.

In accounts and analyses of the piece I read online, there is rarely any mention of the significance of the strand of hair in Ono’s instructions. Any images of the work I can find are usually blurry or otherwise of such low quality that the strands of hair, if present, barely register in the picture. The one exception is a series of images on the website for Mumok in Vienna from when the piece was exhibited there in 2005. A thick piece of wood, grimy and dusty from public exposure, is secured to a white wall. I have to strain to see the hairs, which aren’t quite discernible except for where the strands contrast against the light wall. But they’re there if you care to take notice, curling wildly out and away from the wooden plank.

I suppose the significance of the hair instruction is mostly self-evident, hence why it’s rarely discussed with any import; the participant is invited not only to co-create the piece, but to leave a part of themselves there. While Ono herself is almost entirely absent from the work, save for the instructions and materials she provides, those who contribute are conjured with real presence. Their bodies always remain. First, in the nails themselves, the force with which they’ve been fixed to the central material, how they jut out to imply the angle at which they were hammered by the participant. And second, in the hairs secured around the nails, marked with the individual’s DNA so they may claim their own handiwork. How even the smallest creative acts require giving something of yourself over to the work and the public conjured around it.

In a microlecture titled ‘Hair’, published as part of a collection of microlectures in 2000, Matthew Goulish threads reflections on hair with experiences of illness, his relationship to a woman named Brigid, and cultural analysis. He writes:

‘Could we say that hair – confused, removed, or lost – habitates the inarticulate consciousness struggling for language, or struggling to leave language behind?’

The question as I understand it is one of hair as a site of anxiety, where ideas of self and culture play out, the unspoken and the symbolic coalescing. Hair being marginal to the felt body, yet always of it, the dividing line between us and the wider world.  Goulish’s writing reminds me of Ono’s notion of instructures, which defines much of her interactive work and characterises the Fluxus movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. An instructure reflects

‘something that emerged from instruction yet not quite emerged—not quite structured—never quite structured… like an unfinished church with a sky ceiling.’

Ono’s conceptual works struggling to and from form just as Goulish struggles both for and against language. Indeterminacy that nevertheless feels ripe with meaning, reaching and resisting all at once. Goulish uses Ono’s Painting to Hammer a Nail to conclude his ‘Hair’ microlecture yet opts not to reflect on nor analyse it. The directive for Ono’s piece is reproduced in full, left for the reader to consider exactly what Goulish finds so potent about it in the context of his other threads. I don’t quite know what to make of it, except to wonder if to encounter the world for Goulish is to feel like a piece of hair hung on a nail, to be small and pliable and clinging to sturdiness. Or, to seek some sense of life (and self) in the everyday matter of the body, the mundanity of this, and the upheaval that ensues when such everydayness is threatened. The way hair tends to offer endless opportunity for transformation, and the loss of that state of emergence.

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