The Monthly Ekphrastic: Martha Friedman’s Two Person Operating System

Each month, Dilettante Army’s editors choose an exhibit or art happening for resident poet Molly Jean Bennett to address in a poem or short series of poems. This month, Molly takes on a new work of sculpture and performance by Martha Friedman. Our correspondent visited Andrea Rosen Gallery on a frigid Saturday to view Friedman’s solo exhibition Dancing Around Things, which ended March 11. The gallery is situated on one of those western-most Chelsea blocks, where gusts from the Hudson and the West Side Highway create hostile wind tunnels that make it seem as if everyone who enters the gallery has been literally thrust in from the cold.

In the entryway hung a large, white flap of rubber upon which a video was projected. A collaboration between Friedman and choreographer and dancer Silas Riener, it depicted both artists moving through and interacting with a thick web of gigantic, hand-cast rubber bands. Here, as in the rest of the exhibition, there is a “slippage between the abstract and the erotic in commonplace objects.”[1]

Atop a table in the center of the main gallery was a sculpture “made up of a latticed metal screen variously woven and penetrated with soft rubber tubes in hues referencing the four humors—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood—and metal spikes.”[2] This is not the first time Friedman has represented the four humors with rubber forms. Her 2015 work Pore, also a collaboration with Riener, featured rubber elements that evoked the body’s interior.[3] On the day that our correspondent visited, the sculpture was “activated.” That is, four dancers interacted with the sculpture in a performance conceived by Friedman and Susan Marshall and performed by Susan Marshall & Company. Together, the sculpture and dance are called Two Person Operating System. During much of the performance, two dancers at a time interacted with the sculpture, though at points all four converged.

The dancers threaded the rubber tubes through the cylinders in the metal screen and also placed, removed, and replaced the spikes. Maintaining neutral facial expressions, they alternated between small, precise gestures and exaggerated movements of the hips and shoulders. According to the gallery’s press release, “the project’s form…alludes to work and labor, from contemporary circuit boards to the archaic telephone switchboards operated by large workforces of women.”[4]

Two Person Operating System intends to “confound our expectations of the form and substance of the most ubiquitous of objects and materials, drawing parallels with the material condition of the body, beckoning viewers to contemplate their own corporeal situatedness.”[5] Indeed, our correspondent watched the movement of bodies and objects and contemplated her corporeal situatedness. Here is the resultant poem.


My/Your Body Is and Is Not Like a Machine
After Martha Friedman

I. Who Will Stab These Tiny Voids?

               There is a factory where
               all day women stab
               at steel holes. They thrust
               sharpened poles
               through a wall
               of cylinders, piercing
               only the air behind.
               Sometimes men
               come to watch them.
               the men stab too.

Here is a dream that comes to me often:
I am fighting an attacker I cannot quite

see. He envelops me or holds me
down as I stab, punch, kick without

connecting. My feet, my fists,
the knife I have somehow acquired

are no match for this liquid assailant.
I am sluggish. She is everywhere.

II. Bendable Tubes of Humor

               Sometimes the women
               pull the lever that unlocks
               the secret compartment
               in which the tubes are kept.
               Hollow ropes of rubber
               like garden hoses, but less
               stiff. Which is to say,
               more limp. They thread
               the tubes through
               the wall of holes,
               connecting something
               to something else.

If you were to remove your small
intestine and unwind it on the sidewalk

it would reach twenty feet, which is
the length of a shipping container

or four short women lying end to end.
But please don’t remove your small

intestine, or your large for that matter.
Disembowel is one of my least favorite

words in the language and please,
won’t you stay here awhile?

III. Leading with the Hips

               They step away
               from the wall of holes
               and when they move
               back towards it
               they lead with
               the hips, arching
               their shoulders
               back so the body
               becomes a crescent
               moon—strange, shy,
               necessarily nocturnal.

No one taught me to dance the way I do.
I absorbed what I know from telephone

wires and a dropped drawer of spoons.
I learned from a cucumber, an egret,

a brick path that was missing a brick.
I dance because I cannot not—the body

propelled by the brain which is
the body will not go off, will not ever go off.



[1] Andrea Rosen Gallery. “Martha Friedman—Dancing Around Things.” Press release. 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Meier, Allison. “A Battle Between Body, Blood, and Bile Through Dance and Sculpture.” Hyperallergic. 2015. Accessed 2017.

[4] Andrea Rosen Gallery. “Martha Friedman—Dancing Around Things.” Press release. 2017.

[5] Ibid.