Blood sugar. It’s the index of the concentration of sugars in the blood.
Blood. It’s a noun and a verb and a modifier (blood feud, blood sport, blood money, bloodless...).
It’s a chemical substance, which in semantic compounds, answers for lineage and temperament (blood brother, bloodline) desire and violence (bloodlust, bloodshed) life and death.
Sugars are a class of soluble, crystalline, typically sweet-tasting carbohydrates found in living tissues. “Sugar” is also the street-name for heroin, an illicit psychoactive drug that is sold in the form of white powder and typically injected into the bloodstream.
So introduced, “sugar” crosses the blood-brain barrier — tipping the delicate balance of biology and disturbing the social equilibrium.
BLOOD SUGAR is an audio archive of conversations with 20 current and former injection drug users.
BLOOD SUGAR is a measure of the social and biological construction of addiction.
BLOOD SUGAR is an index of the concentration of desire and difference/legitimacy and license, at the boundary of the skin.
In 2000 I lived and worked in part of a converted paint factory on the bleeding-edge of a working class residential district in a part of east Oakland (California) known as “Fruitvale”. My home was in the border zone that runs along the narrow corridor between the elevated train line and the interstate freeway. The loft complex was a kind of bunker in the midst of a post-industrial wasteland. I had moved from an apartment in San Francisco to this relatively raw space but I didn’t actually need a studio with high ceilings and industrial surfaces. At that time I was engaged in the development of systems for collaborative and collective authoring online. I thought of the Internet as a public space and saw my work as ‘public art,’ but I was troubled by the delimitation of who and what could be considered ‘Public’ in this context. Every definition of “Public” I have found includes the phrase “the people”. In modern European languages the phrase “the people” always connotes the poor, the underprivileged, and the excluded. It is a curious contradiction that this phrase simultaneously identifies the citizen or political subject (big “P” people), and the class that is excluded from politics - the marginalized and technologically disenfranchised. The cluster of renovated factory buildings I shared with a population of other well-educated, middle-class artists, was enclosed by a concrete wall — outside the street was strewn with shopping carts, plastic bags and discarded syringes. Gazing over that wall, while I worked in the security of my second-floor studio, I began to wonder how, or if, information technologies and public art practices could effectively create a more inclusive public sphere – one that would engage both the big “P” public and the little “p” people just outside.
There was an HIV prevention program down the street that ran an open needle exchange three nights a week. I first heard about it on local radio where the non-profit’s director told of a city councilman’s attempt to force the exchange out of the neighborhood in an effort towards future gentrification. I believed in the efficacy of needle exchange, (albeit in an intellectual and somewhat detached way). I was intrigued by the paradoxical, outsider-subject of addiction, the borderline between dependence on licit and illicit drugs, the mystery and violence of the needle. I had reason to want to escape the privileged isolation of my own sphere – to cross over that concrete wall and into another world. This desire was sincere but also driven by curiosity, even voyeurism, and naiveté. Unlike prior artists and intellectuals who have pursued research in the arena of drugs (Freud, Benjamin, Burroughs, and De Quincy), I was interested in the social and biological construction of addiction — not the experience of the drug as such. I would cross over through the point of view of the addicted subject. My desire would be satisfied by listening and observing – and the responsibility I thus assumed would be left unresolved in my unsuccessful attempts to help one of my interlocutors.
I volunteered at the exchange. Eventually I started to interview people who came to the tent site to swap needles. Most of them lived on the street, had no official identification (either because they had a criminal record or no fixed address) and therefore had no access to basic civic or social services. Their absence in the data-space of the Public sphere had serious implications for them in the physical world. They were in a sense invisible - a kind of secret public.
I got to know one of the women rather well – the woman that I call A____ in BLOOD SUGAR. The needle exchange was the last frayed layer of the social safety net for someone like A____. I learned a lot from her about the third world inside the first. I learned that the realities of poverty, racism, social isolation, trauma, sexual abuse, and sex-based discrimination could make a person, even an extraordinarily intelligent person, vulnerable to addiction and psychosis. I learned a lot from A_____ about desperation and about resilience. I learned that the complex struggle over civil liberties and social rights in electronically mediated information space is materially different from the one on the street. There is another public outside – a secret public that is simultaneously visible and invisible, and to most, illegible and incomprehensible. The men and women who spoke with me at the needle exchange, and allowed me to record our conversations, are part of this secret public. They deserve to be heard and understood. The accounts they give are not natural, objective descriptions of an unambiguous reality. No one I met at the exchange described him or herself as a righteous dopefiend. On the contrary, each self-narrative began with a kind of confession or characterization of addiction as a weakness or disease. The messy details of each life history then unfolded according to the syntax and grammar of the disease-and-recovery discourse learned in the kind of therapeutic setting where we met. But the fact that the telling is inflected by its context and social construction does not mean that the lived experience so related is any less real, or powerful, or deserving of attention.
BLOOD SUGAR presents a public record of this secret public. It provides evidence and testimony through an interface to the many hours of conversation I recorded at the needle exchange. In the interface each individual interlocutor is represented as a waveform or “audio body” – these audio bodies are linked together through “parasitic” connections revealed in their stories of pain, violence, abuse, and despair. Overall, the space these bodies inhabit and the way they are encountered by the viewer is structured in terms of the social and biological construction of addiction – at the boundary of the skin. The recorded interviews are framed by a series of texts that I have written in response to a set of somewhat rhetorical questions posed from the perspective of the Public such as “what do we hold against the drug addict?” The texts incorporate my research into the neuroscience of addiction with my experience while interacting with the clients of the needle exchange.
In this work I have been more of an immigrant than an artist or ethnographer — crossing over from the objective to the subjective, from expertise or authority to unauthorized alien. As an academic I was once reluctant to include my own story in my work. But my position is not neutral; in theory or in practice, that would be an impossible place. So I have crossed over into what theorists such as Jane Gallop and Michael Taussig call “the anecdotal,” where theorizing and storytelling, together, constitute an intervention and a refusal to accept reality as it is.
It is my hope that the testimony gathered here, will challenge you, as it has summoned me, to refuse and resist the paradoxes of social exclusion and othering that attend the lives of those who suffer from poverty, alienation, and addiction.