When, in 2015, Evelijn Forrest felt an acute pain on the right side of her lower back, she knew exactly what it was that was hurting. A lifetime of the simple fact of womanhood was enough to work that one out. It was precisely the place where you might feel period pain, where you would feel contractions. There are some things that simply cannot be forgotten and this was one.
Within an hour of its onset, the pain had manifested itself in a more sinister form. Evelijn had lost control over her legs, her bladder, and her bowels and would spend the next 16 days holed up in the neurology department of a nearby hospital where she would undergo a battery of tests and hours of questioning. It was evident to Evelijn, as it would be to any woman, that the issue lay within her uterus. What was less obvious, however, was what to do next.
black box is the story of that injury and many others like it. It is one of inequality and of remembering, which seeks to situate themes of female silencing and bodily autonomy within their historical context. When, on that day, Evelijn’s IUD shifted slightly, by some dint of chance it came into contact with a nerve in her cervix known as the pelvic parasympathetic nerve. The pelvic parasympathetic nerve regulates the use of the bladder, bowels, and reproductive organs and is a key part of the autonomic nervous system. It is also the primary mechanism in control of the fight or flight response, a subconscious physiological reaction which can override our every thought in response to an imminent threat to our survival. It is, to our knowledge, one of the few systems that bridge the gap between the inherent and the intelligible. It is proof of the legitimacy of both that which is measurable and that which can only be sensed.
In both male and female bodies, you find this nerve within the sex organs. As male genitalia is external, the pelvic parasympathetic nerve is easily studied. In female bodies, however, this nerve is concealed by cervical muscle. Simple biology requires this muscle to be both incredibly dense and resistant to the feeling of pain as without those two caveats, both childbearing and childbirth would be rendered physically impossible. Unseeable and unfeelable, outside of childbirth, the cervix is to all intents and purposes wholly impassable. That is but for a minute opening, no larger than the size of a coil.
While the core of the performance gravitates around the movements of mother-daughter pair, Evelijn and Amelia Emma Forrest, the musical score, composed by Berlin-based producer Innocent Heretic is equally important. An alias of Vani-T, Innocent Heretic is another face of Tori Newberry, co-organiser and DJ behind Climax – a party which alongside Amelia, one of the organisers of Radiant Love is carving out much needed femme-forward spaces in the Berlin underground. In reflecting Evelijn’s pain, Newberry’s score is by admission “deep and tense.” It is the result of a shared experience in which the trio would spend weeks isolated in a barn in the Norwegian countryside, attempting to come to an understanding of each other deep enough to make music that “literally came from the gut”. By sampling Evelijn’s voice and making use of birthing frequencies, the score is an audible reminder that women must listen to, and trust their bodies. And when faced with a problem to which science has no answer, it is a way of tangibly interacting with the pain.
Evelijn maintains that she knew instinctively that this was a problem with her cervix. Her prior knowledge of embryology taught her the signs, but it was her intuition as a woman that made her convinced. It is a problem of empiricism that, that which cannot be observed cannot be proven. And doctors, much like insurers, are not in the business of the benefit of the doubt. Later, Evelijn regained partial control of her legs through a process known as neuroplasticity in which nerves are able to repair themselves to some extent. Upon her discharge from hospital, the diagnosis was of nothing more concrete than having suffered from a “functional disorder”, and she was recommended to see a psychologist. In other words, she was dismissed as hysterical.
In terms of dramaturgy, the performance is steeped in the history and iconography of the goddess. “We are our stories” explains Amelia, and this is not just the story of her mother but countless other women too. The expulsion of women’s bodies from medical science is a matter of fact. Pelvic parasympathetic nerve damage is a recognised and diagnosable system disorder in men, while for women, it remains, in the eyes of medical science, wholly theoretical. The erasure of female experience and expertise from the annals of history is an erasure of these vitally important stories. Through her invocation of the goddess, Forrest pays reverence to the rich history of the woman as healer. Crucial to black box is the understanding that there is no such thing as objective fact; the best we can hope to achieve is corroboration of observation and subjective experience. When faced by a medical condition that as of yet is unobservable and the experience of which is roundly denied as hysteria, we must find a way to express it.
In the face of the unanswerable black box leans heavily into the dark. It does so confident in the strength of three women who, at different stages of their empowerment, are looking to connect back to the story before the story turned to silence. Women have, willingly or not, taken on a shadow side of humanity’s healing function. “You go to your doctor as a woman, and you ask, and you trust, but we have to start remembering that we have a collective knowledge and this collective knowledge is in our bodies. We are not hysterical, and it is not in our heads, and we know our bodies, and we should trust them” says Amelia. It is her view that the cervix is indeed a black box, it cannot be seen into, but equally, it cannot be destroyed, and held within it is a universal truth that will last forever as long as we do not allow it to stay in the dark.
black box | Acker Stadt Palace, Mitte. Jan 15-16, 20:00. Pre-order the limited edition cassette release of black box at https://radiantlove.bandcamp.com/.