K. Hoell

The Project that Never was, the Project that was Everything

6. March 2019
Written by: Kristin Hoell

Body Suspension NYC

Dealing with loss seems to be something that is inherent to dealing with photography. There are all kinds of losses. Loss of data, loss of money, loss of people, loss of self, loss of time. I once lost someone before I lost myself in the process of finding a piece of him through my artistic work. His name is Pete. For a short time, he was my friend. Then he was gone. Just like that.

I remember his favourite spot in Central Park. The lake was covered with ice and snow when he took me to his place. Pete had Native American ancestry, so he was very connected to the natural world and the realms beyond. A big white dog, almost as white as the fresh snow, appeared out of nowhere and ran past us. I remember because I tried to take a picture when it majestically stopped to look back at us once more. I was too slow though. There’s just a tail in the picture. As quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. Just like Pete. Both shared an immense presence. 

A Guide to the Underworld

In Celtic animal symbolism, the stories of dogs regularly focus on them as guides to the underworld, and guardians of the crossroads where they keep a spirit safe and guide it towards a new life. I like to think that such a loyal companion brought Pete to the place where he truly belongs. I saw him there, once in a dream, after I’d finished my own journey into his underworld that eventually taught me so much about myself. It was one of those dreams that feel more real than reality ever could. It was very peaceful, we joked around and laughed. Then I saw his wings. They were incredible and definitely not of this world. I’d never seen anything like them before. Every now and then, they became visible. They shimmered goldenly and resembled a holographic, translucent field more than any material fabric. 

Black Door at the end of the hallway

Exploring the Body Suspension Scene in NYC

Besides being a chef and a photographer and a Dad, Pete was active in New York’s Body Suspension scene. He introduced me to a couple of people in 2010. After his passing, I decided to explore his world. I wanted to understand why he was involved in the scene and their rituals. So, I moved to Brooklyn for two months and worked with two groups who both knew Pete. The project was emotionally very challenging for me. I’m highly empathic. Therefore watching people who I really like and who I’d come to know as equally sensitive, wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for me. However, I managed to finish the project, showed it in a show in Germany, sent thank-you-photos to the people who were involved and turned everything in a book project. 

Alice in Wonderland Statue

Burying the Past

Creating a book somehow finalises a project. I produced three hand-bound books that I sent out to the leaders of each suspension-group and Pete’s best friend. And that was it. I buried the project. I knew that it had huge potential. Due to its catchy taboo-flair and its positioning in the subcultural realm of abnormality, I could have easily marketed it. I didn’t want to though. Some projects just need to be done for the people that are involved in it. Some projects are actually personal. I didn’t see that coming, because I still think it’s a beautiful project. It talks a lot about sensitivity in a brutal world, dissociation to get by, group support, spirituality and creativity. 

Body Suspension Planning

Grateful Resurrection

That’s why I’ve decided to at least resurrect it here on my blog. It might no longer fit my overall portfolio, but it is an extremely important part of my personal and artistic development. All the colour works wouldn’t exist without “The Distance Between”. It is one of the reasons that made me cry out all the black and white and greys in my life and let me open my eyes to the sensual colourful dance that happens on the outside of a shattered heart.

Body Suspension Scene Arizona

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING GALLERY
CONTAINS IMAGES THAT SOME VIEWERS
MAY FIND DISTURBING

Body Suspension Scene NYC

The Book Introduction

Hooked started out as a personal project about the ritual of body suspension. In 2010, during an internship at a photo studio in New York, I became friends with Pete Tobacco. We instantly connected. Pete was quite an everyday philosopher. What I did not know at the beginning of our friendship: my open-minded and gentle friend who was tattooed from head to toe had learned his wisdom through pain.

At the end of my stay in the States, he took me to a place that he considered part of his home: a so-called haunted house in Hell’s Kitchen. There, he and his friends regularly entertained people by scaring them. Pete tried to explain to me beforehand what kind of performance they would be doing. I had no clue what he was talking about, but nodded politely and agreed to come – neither my English nor my German vocabulary included the combination of words ‘hooks’, ‘body’ and ‘suspension’.

Body Suspension Scene NYC

It’s an understatement to say that I was a bit shocked when I entered the haunted house that night. In a room splattered with fake blood, I found out that my friend was about to be pierced with giant hooks which would then be connected to another person via a rope so that the two could pull each other. I was completely overwhelmed but managed to take some photographs because I had promised Pete. I left before they turned off the lights to start the actual performance.

Body Suspension Scene NYC

A week later I flew back home to Berlin. After developing the roll of Tri-X from that night I found the images to be rather intriguing and was a bit disappointed that I had not taken more pictures – something I really came to regret in late 2011 when Pete died from a drug overdose. This personal loss made me decide to undertake this project, which wasn’t strictly a project up until that point.
Suddenly, I was eager to learn about the reasons why people are literally hooked on doing suspensions. I became very interested in the history of this act, which is pretty much as old as humankind: certain Native American tribes used it in initiation rites, in Hinduism it’s still a spiritual ritual, and the art and performance scene became acquainted with this practice through the works of Stelarc in the 1970s.

Body Suspension Scene Arizona

One of the main reasons for undertaking the project was personal. I was curious to get to know the people whom Pete had considered his family. The first trip that I went on for the project led me to Phoenix, Arizona, in December 2011. There I encountered a completely different style of body suspension. The suspensions were performed outside using a carefully self-built construction in a backyard.

Body Suspension Scene Arizona

Body Suspension Scene Arizona

Black and white portrait of Steve Haworth, body modification artist

Steve Haworth, body modification artist

The day I photographed, two beautiful girls were suspended – one of them for the very first time, as a present for her 18th birthday. I was still extremely nervous. Seeing other people in pain was not and still isn’t on my photographic to-do list. Even though everyone was cheerful and the bright sunshine lifted my mood, picture-wise I didn’t accomplish much on that trip. My nervousness accompanied by shyness prevented a consistent photographic strategy from being applied. I was used to photographing in a very conceptual way – this wild topic and my on-site experiences defied attempts to work in my usual way.

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Another one and a half years passed until I was finally able to resolve the project. In March 2013 I went back to New York. Over the course of two months, I worked intensively with two different suspension groups.
I finally came to understand what Pete had loved so much about his friends. Not only are most of them warm, welcoming, sensitive and tolerant, they are also very supportive of each other. Performing a body suspension is a team effort that is focused on supporting the individual being suspended.

During those months I had the chance to photograph people on a quest to resolve their inner emotional turmoil by transcending their everyday bodily existence through out-of-body experiences achieved by the ritual application of pain.

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension Scene NYC

My sincere thanks go to everyone I‘ve met at Anchors Aweigh and the Disgracelandfamily in New York City and the body suspension scene in Phoenix, Arizona. Thank you for letting me explore your world and for broadening my horizon. You showed me love in one of the strangest places. The way you teach, motivate and support each other inspires me until this day.

Body Suspension Scene NYC

Body Suspension in New York City, NY, and Phoenix, Arizona

    Leave a comment