dispatches

Atmospheres of the Undead: living with viruses, loneliness, and neoliberalism

Sam Lavigne & Tega Brain, Get Well Soon! 2020. (detail) https://getwellsoon.labr.io
The comments posted on gofundme.com’s medical fundraisers form an archive of mutual aid in response to a ruthless for-profit health system. It is an archive that should not exist.

AUDIO VERSION by Caitlin Berrigan.

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“I’m sick of being Mr. Good Patient. Gimme drugs.”
– Bob Flanagan, The Pain Journal1
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A virus is an undead vector that traces both the beauty and abuses of our mutual reliance. The porosity of our bodies is the very interface of our social being. Where we connect and communicate lies risk for contagion. Porosity affirms that we are already multiple, interdependent and entangled. A virus is not a metaphor.2 Different viruses trace divergent choreographies of vulnerability, sociality, and capital markets. Their movements within our social and material lives can draw our attention to critical nodes.3

One of these nodes is where notions of care and cure intersect, yet they must not be conflated. A biomedical cure for a virus depends upon—but is not the same as—the infrastructures of care-taking required to support complex needs for public health such as food, shelter, bodily autonomy, and mental health. Another critical node is where mystification and lack of open participation in decisions about pricing policies for publicly funded biomedical innovation enables the enduring power of pharmaceutical companies to prioritize profit over people’s lives in the face of public health crises.

How can I narrate to you the decades I negotiated life with one virus and situate all I learned within this emergent moment of the novel coronavirus? I feel like Cassandra, flailing Plebeian waif at the sidelines with a flood in her mouth, witnessing and warning of the toxic mix of racial capitalism and fear that will normalize and marginalize life with COVID-19 as soon as the privileged bodies are either cloistered or vaccinated, and the mood of solidarity subsides. Viruses are instrumentalized as vectors of ideology and biopower.4 The attentions I cultivated towards choreographies of risk and responsibility are again relevant to the present moment, as well as the contours I traced around the black boxed edges of the financialized global health sector. I will intertwine these viral narratives for you here, as they direct our attentions to the invisible gaps between us where we know material interactions are occurring, but we have poorly developed senses to perceive them.

Living together with a virus is a lonely way of being.

Living together with a virus is a lonely way of being. As my peers individuated from dependent adolescents into adulthood, my coming of age was not as a singular human subject. I was already multiple: a human carrying an alien viral load. My subjectivity was shaped by an awareness of having been seeded and colonized by an undead thing: an endless genetic proliferation with no known purpose other than to repeat itself in me and possibly to use me as a vector of infection. From the time of my medical diagnosis at the age of seventeen, this multiplied subjectivity paradoxically rendered me ever more singular, as the contagious effects of social stigma isolated me from other human beings. First, as an abject body to be feared; second, as a suspected user of intravenous drugs; and third, as an outlier: both an anomaly within the typical demographics of the diseased, and a chronically ill outlier among my carefree friends.

As we followed the North American middle-class rites of passage from high school into college, I was excluded from my peers’ deliverance of their bodies to each other during substance-altered states of sex and social bonding. The ecstatic self-destruction of these rituals would, I was warned, most certainly destroy my already overburdened liver within a few short years and necessitate a liver transplant. Given the unquenchable demand for livers, the logic of medical rationing was such that I would be placed at the bottom of the national organ waitlist since I would reinfect it with the virus anyway and damage a good liver upon receipt. Instead, I delivered my young body to the vast medical apparatuses of international health insurances, clinical trials, alternative therapies, and theories of harm reduction and self-care.

I had no one with whom to share my experience of this particular virus with a bland and confusing name. It emerged slowly upon the scene of public health in the 1970’s, categorized as a liver disease called “non-A-non-B” viral hepatitis. When properly identified in 1989, the virus gained its own letter: hepatitis C (HCV).5 The name perpetuates confusion in efforts to inform the public because it shares no relation to hepatitis A or B. There was no bestial, racialized or xenophobic outbreak narrative6 that could situate a foreign origin and infiltration of the human body in space and time, as those that accompanied viruses such as HIV, H1N1 Swine Flu, H5N1 Avian Influenza, and SARS-CoV-2 (the human coronavirus that causes COVID-19).7 With a slow but deadly disease progression, the hepatitis C virus has made itself hyperendemic within the human population without ever making a lasting impression on the social imaginary. HCV affects over 71 million people, second to hepatitis B as the most widespread chronic viral illness worldwide, and kills a loose half million each year.8 Despite an ongoing global health crisis of proportionately immense scale, there is little public awareness and scant patient advocacy. HCV affects disparate demographics of already socially marginalized people with intravenous drug dependency, the poor, people in need of mental healthcare, first responders, war veterans, and prisoners. Without the existing bonds of community, no cohesive “biosociality” emerged—a term conceived by Paul Rabinow to describe a biomedically-driven bond within stronger axes of shared identification that propels effective advocacy.9

It was hard for me to understand feeling isolated despite millions of people out there like me. Over time, I became aware that my loneliness was symptomatic of the permeations of neoliberal ideology10 within the broad and contested concepts of health and care.11 One ethical ideological notion of public health is as a common good that benefits everyone. When people are able to access the care they desire, they have greater capacity to actively participate in their lives and connect with others. The ability of the body to labor is of critical concern to politics. Taking measures to treat people with destructive contagious diseases prevents them from spreading. The multiplicity of interdependent bodies within this notion of public health contradicts how neoliberal ideology has shaped it into a transactional relationship between an individual consumer and a commodified health system that, for those in a position of access, extracts profit in exchange for life. As Angela Davis says, “neoliberal logic assumes that the fundamental unit of society is the (abstract) individual,”12 while simultaneously enacting en masse what Ruth Wilson Gilmore has called the “organized abandonment” of vulnerable communities from social structures.13 In other words, neoliberal biopolitics amplify and multiply the loneliness of wellness. Gradients of vulnerability to the effects of disease fade into the horizon of neoliberal subjectivation, as they become individual responsibilities rather than mutual concerns of the common good.
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Caitlin Berrigan, Transfers. 30 min looping, silent, 2k digital video. 2009.

A sharpened awareness of leaking accompanied the formation of my sense of self. The hepatitis C virus courses through the blood, but is not found in other bodily fluids. I followed the material movements of blood with fascination. Each time my skin opened and released a vital stain of iron, protein and virus, I covered the wound with hypervigilance and let no bloody flake of a booger escape biosafe disposal. I developed a sensory attention to where I deposited and picked up residues at all times, as one develops a subconscious awareness for the felt presence of the pet under the couch gone quiet, for where the baby has wandered. I adapted to view the world as a sea of particulate interactions.14

Multiple again, I am a particulate cloud, an assemblage, an unknown quantity as I move through the streets.

Cultivating attentive responsibility towards overwhelming biotic details has returned with coronavirus and it has proliferated.15 We are not just leaky vessels that drop fluids onto surfaces. We have become atmospheres. The clouds of others press upon us in awkward choreographies. I strap on a mask in an effort to contain my breath, but the gentle gas escapes through the relaxed edge of fabric on my humidified cheeks. Multiple again, I am a particulate cloud, an assemblage, an unknown quantity as I move through the streets.16

I contracted the hepatitis C virus as a four-month-old baby from a blood transfusion during surgery. It was 1981, the year HIV was identified. Ronald Reagan was president of the United States and hospitals paid the poor for their blood. The donations were fractioned and combined with the cells of thousands of other donors and turned into commercial pharmaceutical products. Concentrated human-derived plasma and clotting factors for hemophiliacs were especially lucrative.17 Despite the discovery of HIV and the subsequent deaths of thousands of people with hemophilia, the devastatingly infectious clotting factor was not immediately pulled from the U.S. market. My great uncle was a clinician-researcher among those who had developed an effective clotting medication that has been continually in use since its FDA-approval in 1964, and claims their alternative was ignored because it was cheap.18 Bayer continued to sell millions of dollars worth of its contaminated blood product reserves in Asia, Latin America, Canada and some European countries for a few more years until 1985.19 By this time, 50 percent of hemophiliacs had been infected with HIV and at least 90 percent with hepatitis C.20

After my diagnosis in high school, I looked for books about HCV and found only one with the frank title: The Silent Killer.21 Death itself did not frighten me, but the invisibly slow disease progression struck me as painful, abject, and lacking glamor. Since 1992, blood is screened for HCV, making contaminated drug needles the primary route of its transmission in the U.S.22 The association with drug use marks it with powerful stigma. In some countries of high prevalence such as Egypt and Pakistan, contaminated medical equipment drove transmission. Sexual transmission is rare.23

Inspired by HIV/AIDS communities and disability activism, I was open and unashamed about having hepatitis C, but I strategically withheld the origin story of its transmission unless someone inquired. It was my way to be a Bartleby: “I prefer not to” participate in the cycle of stigma by voluntarily excusing myself from being held individually responsible for “lifestyle choices.” Silence allowed me to monitor the mutating shapes of biopolitical discipline across speech and behaviors as people vocalized to me sundry assumptions and offenses. Alongside the health consequences of the virus, the social contagion of stigma was a life-changing force that required constant negotiation throughout my personal, professional, and medical encounters.

Framing drug use as a lifestyle choice fuels its moralization and the obstruction of safe injection programs at a time when new infections of HCV and HIV have been accelerating among the survivors of opioid and heroin dependence. This appetite for opioids in the past several years was, as we now know, deliberately cultivated by major pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. to create a market for their prescription painkillers.24 It is not a lifestyle choice, but rather organized abandonment when addiction and HCV burden especially the poor, people in need of mental healthcare, veterans and prisoners. The proximate and unhygienic conditions of incarceration make it a site of risk for contracting HCV, as it is for the coronavirus. Although the majority of people in the U.S. with HCV are white (as am I), prevalence is highest among Indigenous North Americans, and three to five times higher among Black and Latinx men.25 This incidence does not correlate to higher rates of drug use, but rather to the racial injustices of mass incarceration and the criminalization of poverty that make prison itself a vector of infection.26 The absence of a universal legal right to healthcare in the U.S. makes it challenging for the incarcerated to gain treatment.27 It took more than two years and a federal lawsuit before a judge granted treatment for hepatitis C to the renowned political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, and only then because his condition had significantly worsened.28 What happens in prison is merely the most concentrated form of how racism and organized abandonment are responsible for disproportionate disease burden and barriers to treatment for people of color. The logics of eugenics are at work in the effects of structural racism on health, and as the obvious and alarming explanation for the increased vulnerability of people of color to the ravages of COVID-19.29 Yet as medical professionals have said: “The response to the (coronavirus) pandemic has made at least one thing clear: systemic change can in fact happen overnight.”30

Half a million deaths each year from hepatitis C are utterly normalized because they are mostly the deaths of people with a low income and people who live in the Global South. The death toll is only an estimation, as coroners are not systematically required to track HCV, and many deaths are attributed to the virus’s secondary effects of liver disease or cancer. The excess mortalities of millions of people with preventable and treatable diseases are now the normalized measure against which data scientists estimate death counts from COVID-19 while infrastructure for testing and data tracking is lacking and suppressed.31

Living co-inhabited with a virus for 34 years has taught me that survivance is negotiation, not warfare.

Death is not our only concern, however. Living co-inhabited with a virus for 34 years has taught me that survivance is negotiation, not warfare. There is no invisible enemy and militarized battle rhetoric is meaningless against a virus. Vulnerability is the condition of being in a body and eliminating the risks of contagion are impossible. We must cultivate the language to favor some things and reject others, without abstraction or xenophobia.32 The success of health interventions is always dependent upon basic needs being met with stable shelter, food, hygiene, essential health services, and clean water. It is behind the popular refusal to return to “normal” after COVID-19, in which health and access to medicine is structured within a racialized global caste system. With the majority of the global population living with chronic conditions, illness is not temporary.33 The durational struggle lies in fostering collective mutualities of care, both interpersonally within our communities and formally across the health infrastructures of international and state institutions, including shared power structures for biomedical cures. Conventional pharmacological medicine cannot care for all health conditions, but when it can, we want it. It is ours. No matter how robust our networks of care, survivance of viruses puts us in negotiation with the Faustian pharmaceutical industry.

At the time of my diagnosis in 1998, there was only one medication: year-long, weekly high-dose injections of synthetic interferon34 that could cure HCV in a minority of patients, but caused debilitating side effects, and left some with permanent disabilities. A slightly improved version was on track for FDA approval, but it would not be available until after I graduated college, when I faced the possibility of being uninsured.35 My only chance to be cured of HCV was to enroll in a Phase 3 clinical trial without placebos while I was still young enough for coverage under my dad’s insurance to pay for it. Aged 19, I took medical leave from college, found a job to support myself, scoured clinical trial advertisements, interviewed with research physicians across the country, and was accepted into a Phase 3 trial that, luckily for me, was located two and half hours away in Boston.36 A nurse demonstrated how to self-administer the medication by injecting the refrigerated fluid into a pinch of belly fat. Acute symptoms of systemic organ failure immediately followed my first dose. Within days I was removed from the trial. The reason for the near-fatal reaction was not investigated. The clinical language was that I had “failed” the treatment, and counted as a statistical outlier.

Too late to return to college, for the rest of my medical leave I worked full-time as a production assistant at the Media Education Foundation, producing a documentary about the public relations industry called, Toxic Sludge is Good For You. I developed a sensory attention to identify cues left by pharma branding in footage that no local news agency could possibly afford to produce, such as whizzing Fordian factory belts of candy-colored lozenge manufacture—close-up with shallow depth of field on the pill imprint code—or the intimate interview with a healthy white mom, viscous with gratitude for her child’s new lease on life as he rolls naughtily in the saturated turf behind her in a rural region underserved by both independent media and hospitals alike. I learned to recognize how news related to medicine is rarely written by journalists, but rather lifted directly from press releases and video reels featuring paid scientists and patient narratives that were produced and distributed by public relations firms on behalf of pharmaceutical clients. Nine out of ten of the biggest international pharmaceutical companies spend more money on sales and marketing than they do on the research and development of new treatments.37 The signals of promising innovations are lures for shareholders, and encourage patients to request the patented drugs from their physicians, to whom they also market directly.

Since I had “failed” treatment, learning to live with the virus was the only other option. Without romanticization or rancor, I accepted the viral alterity within and the likelihood that it would remain incurable. I avoided alcohol and drugs and became that person at the party who dances with too much enthusiasm. Daily symptoms included deep fatigue and a dull liver ache that could turn into a sudden stabbing and rob my speech. I slept long hours and still woke up groggy or missed the alarm, often tardy for morning classes and docked for laziness. However, I resisted externalized guilt for sleeping, knowing my body was working and repairing. My dream life was long and vivid. Having spent so much time there, it feels coextensive with my memories. Friends, teachers and colleagues could not discern visible evidence of my illness and helpfully suggested it was psychosomatic. It was the era of self-optimization and neoliberal gaslighting AKA the law of attraction, popularized by The Secret (2006), a self-help book that declares all dreams come true by shifting your thoughts towards a positive outlook. Breathe in: gently inhale the idea that you alone are the master of your own destiny. Breathe out: expel-exhale-dismiss systemic racism, economies of marginalization, and pre-existing conditions.

The only way to maintain health insurance after college was to find work in a full-time job with benefits. One day, gazing out the window of my shared office in New York, I was overtaken by severe kidney pain and nausea. The mysterious condition persisted and for a month I could not walk farther than a block before collapsing in exhaustion. Wearing clothes hurt my skin. Federal sick leave benefits offered $175 a month to replace my full-time salary, while I spent $850 in co-pays on the diagnosis: autoimmune complications from stress-induced hepatitis. Like a 19th century novel, the only treatment was extended bed rest.

My 24-year-old body could not sustain the labor of a full-time job. I lost health insurance, but was still denied coverage under federal disability. My only remaining option was to live in a handful of states that offered Medicaid (guaranteed federal health insurance)—as long as I remained poor enough to qualify. Caring for chronic illness is impoverishing and precarious work. The coronavirus pandemic recession has put millions of people in the U.S. in a similar situation, having lost their jobs and thus, the health coverage tied to it, with women with disabilities and Black and Latinx women facing the highest job losses.38 At the same time, private health insurers have seen profit gains in 2020 that are anticipated to grow in 2021, as individuals take to the marketplace and pay higher out-of-pocket premiums than those negotiated in volume by employers.39

Drug pricing is unregulated and requires no financial transparency.

Reducing the impact of infectious diseases on all bodies requires that people be tested and treated, giving urgency to the adoption of a mandate for universally accessible public health insurance.40 Although it would expand coverage for the millions of uninsured, a public option does not guarantee quality coverage,41 and would not automatically lead to a reduction in healthcare costs. Drug pricing is unregulated and requires no financial transparency. New legislation will be necessary to empower the government to negotiate the price of prescription drugs.42 Because the U.S. pays an average of 40 percent more for the list price of prescription drugs over other high-income nations, what happens with health insurance and drug pricing policy in the U.S. influences pricing strategies for the global market. This inflation does not, however, subsidize research and development, or access for low income countries, but instead results in overall increased profit margins for corporations.43 This consistent practice of monopolization through patents and pricing biomedicines for what the market can bear anticipates grave global disparities in access to vaccines and treatments for coronavirus.

Like the cumulative effects of liver inflammation, HCV profoundly shaped the direction of my life over time. Massachusetts became my home for a period of years because it was the only state in the nation with universal healthcare. I reoriented towards a profession with a flexible schedule because I could never have expectations of when my body would perform and when it would refuse. Completion upon an able-bodied agenda was a lightly held aspiration. Unquantifiable accretions of hours elided into cycling through medical facilities, being probed and measured, waiting, resting, accepting. What we are collectively experiencing now as pandemic time, those with chronic illness and disabilities know intimately as crip time: lagging, letting go.44

Except that crip time is durational over a lifetime. I grew older than the 20-30 years it can take to develop life-threatening cirrhosis. Compounding health conditions, such as HIV, can accelerate inflammation. Even with little scarring, risk of liver cancer increases over time. I witnessed several activist acquaintances die, despite having had HCV longer than they did. I decided it was a waste of energy to think about my death unless presented with evidence of its imminence. But at 25-years-old, I began exhibiting tumor markers indicating hepatocellular carcinoma, a deadly form of liver cancer that is survived only with a full liver transplant. Even then the survival odds are just 5-10 percent, and due to the aforementioned liver shortage, I would not be a candidate. Death became more proximate, and I was closely monitored for tumors thereafter.

Two hours each month for ten years, I methodically prepared daily doses of forty tablets each of Chinese medicinal herbs, distributing them into tiny plastic towers. My fingers maintain the tactile memory of smooth, clear gelatin coating pungent, tawny powders. The herbs and acupuncture treatments were effective at reversing liver scarring and reducing fatigue. They demonstrably prolonged and improved my quality of life, but they were not a cure for this virus. Insurance did not shoulder the expense, making wellness feel like a luxury. My working-class dad helped me pay for the $500 monthly bill, cumulatively $60,000.

My doctors kept me in the loop of hopeful studies for new treatments, always on the horizon. However, the scientists who were just awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine45 for the identification of the hepatitis C virus patented its genome in 1993 upon identification (and numerous subsequent patents related to its genome and diagnostics), stifling research for two decades until the Supreme Court finally overturned an existing gene patent in 2013, ruling that naturally occurring genetic sequences are not novel enough innovations for patents.46 With research stalled due in part to the patent of the viral sequence, and meaningful non-prescription treatments an out-of-pocket expense, the care of a disease that affected so many millions of people was effectively abandoned to each individual’s capacity and income. Information pamphlets in doctors’ offices advised patients to avoid alcohol and drink lots of water, and encouraged us to join overwhelmingly white support groups in the lineage of Alcoholics Anonymous, a forum styled after Christianity to foster group identity around the locus of a shared wound.

Caitlin Berrigan, Life Cycle of a Common Weed, 2007. Performance document, photographed by Alia Farid.

Left alone to contend with the millions of viruses replicating in my bloodstream, I performed this loneliness in a work called Life Cycle of a Common Weed.47 I became certified in phlebotomy to draw my own infected blood and used it to fertilize dandelions which are an herbal treatment for liver and kidney disease. The dandelions enjoy rich nitrogen found in blood, and not being human, they remained unaffected by the virus. Dandelions are a maligned and weedy life form, just as I was an anxiety-provoking, loose container of viral multitudes. The exchange between us was unsustainable and absurdly inadequate: the herbal remedy was not enough to resolve my illness, while my need to uproot and devour the entire plant did not match the sprinkle of nitrogen I offered in return.

Gifts of any kind but especially of blood are highly ritualized and mediated across spheres of religion, the nation state, agriculture, and medicine. Humans are more likely to be responsive to intimate and identifiable people in need than to a generalization. A study of blood donation in Denmark offered insight into social choreographies that utilize human tendencies towards mutual reciprocity in order to maintain a stable flow of blood donations outside times of crisis.48 Denmark’s strategy involved nurses performing hospitality with offers of chocolate, orange juice, and gratitude for the gift of blood. In this interpersonal exchange, the medical personnel are surrogates for the abstract patient to be saved by the blood gift—despite its subsequent transformation into a commercial product with many possible uses.

The vaguely cannibalistic cycle of care in The Life Cycle of a Common Weed points to a tendency to sentimentalize the interpersonal intimacy of “mutual aid” as a micropolitical strategy of survivance when abandoned by organized infrastructures of medicine and social welfare. Self-reliance and mutual aid are often insufficient for the problem at hand, while they nonetheless call attention to essential needs and model how to care for them. Mutual aid can also be seen as a defiant expression of a lack of faith in normative political structures, and mutuality can be instrumentalized by strengthening those social bonds that concentrate political agency. It is an ideological praxis employed by movements with differing ethical frameworks, from the Black Panthers’ Free Medical Clinics and Free Breakfast for Children programs that pressured the government to prioritize Black health and child nutrition, to the controversial Dallas Buyer’s Club that circumvented federal regulations to speed up access to HIV medications, to faith-based groups that provide healthcare and material infrastructure in proximity to their forms of community and ideological messaging.49

gofundme.com fundraiser for Black Doctors COVID19 Consortium

Radical care and mutual aid are an empowering praxis of imagination and prefigurative politics. However, mutual aid should not substitute for robust social and healthcare infrastructures as our common goods.50 Many diagnostics and treatment innovations of technoscience that are capable of preventing mass death and suffering require production and dissemination that are not accomplished at this scale. At worst, disengagement from putting pressure on policies and practices of extraction and resorting to alternative care systems accomplishes the work of neoliberal ideologies of self-reliance.51 On precarious bodies, Judith Butler writes, “Reciprocally, (precariousness) implies being impinged upon by the exposure and dependency of others, most of whom remain anonymous. These are not necessarily relations of love or even of care, but constitute obligations toward others, most of whom we cannot name and do not know, and who may or may not bear traits of familiarity to an established sense of who ‘we’ are.”52 Assuming the radical alterity and proliferation of the virus is a strategy to resist both the isolation of neoliberalism and the limits of mutual aid driven by identification.

Assuming the radical alterity and proliferation of the virus is a strategy to resist both the isolation of neoliberalism and the limits of mutual aid driven by identification.

Neoliberalism obscures the fact that privatized innovations are extracted from our mutual efforts and resources. The intellectual property of the health care sector is the prize of capitalist technoscience and a prime example of this obfuscation. The common narrative of the pharmaceutical industry is that unregulated international markets compete for profits and drive innovation of life-saving treatments, while private investors take all financial risks. They warn that without the promise of high profits, no companies will be motivated to make new medicines and we will all suffer and die.53 Profit-oriented motivation currently neglects less profitable critical public health imperatives, such as antibiotic resistance and vaccine development. This narrative also ignores our collective contributions on multiple levels including maintaining a society stable enough to nurture and highly educate individuals for specialized careers in biomedicine. Immense, incremental knowledge production—academic, embodied, and narrative—provides the data and contextual understanding for pharmaceutical interventions to be effective within different environments and populations. We collectively provide our human and more-than-human bodies to experimental clinical trials.54 We collectively re-absorb through our permeable bodies the toxic byproducts of drug manufacture, primarily across landscapes and waterways in India, China, Kenya, and Puerto Rico, where environmental racism means that Black and brown people are disproportionately harmed.55

One third of pharmaceutical research and development in the U.S. is subsidized by taxpayers, who then pay an additional 40 percent markup on average for those drugs.

Let’s talk about money: we, the public, also contribute financially. Health spending in 2016 accounted for 8.6 percent of the global economy, of which 74 percent came from governments and 18.6 percent came from out-of-pocket spending.56 The majority of top pharma companies are headquartered in the U.S., with a handful of powerful companies based in Europe, China, and Japan. One out of every three dollars spent on drug research in the U.S. is publicly funded by taxpayers.57 Rest here on this important figure: One third of pharmaceutical research and development in the U.S. is subsidized by taxpayers, who then pay an additional 40 percent markup on average for those drugs. Meanwhile, the top 25 pharmaceutical companies enjoy an average net profit margin of 15-20 percent, versus most Fortune 500 companies that average 4-9 percent. Recall that drug companies spend more on marketing than on R&D. The narrative that the high price of prescription drugs is necessary to fund research is demonstrably false. Pharmaceuticals are among the most profitable companies on earth and we are dependent upon them for our lives. They are dependent upon us for their proportionately astronomical profits. Despite all of our public investments in the risky phase of innovation development, there are no regulations to ensure that benefits will come to global public health through equitable access and affordability.

The Black Doctor Covid-19 Consortium (2020, May 3). Bloomberg News. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2020-05-03/the-black-doctor-covid-19-consortium-video

Our mutual resources are siphoned into the commodified health sector, which allots the benefits through structural bias across race, class, gender and national citizenship. We are left isolated to contend with collective public health threats such as the coronavirus pandemic we are facing now. Nation states vie for exclusive contracts for vaccines and treatments. Individuals are responsible for personal protection equipment, clean water reserves, hygiene, viral testing, and socially distanced work and housing. Breaking mandated protocols can result in fines and criminalization. We are caught between the effects of loneliness imposed through neoliberal subjectivation—compounded by the aerosolized contagion of coronavirus that forces us to self-isolate and minimize contact with each other—and the subjectivation of multiplicity brought forward by viral replication and its indiscriminate proliferation across all human bodies.

Imagine if technoscience were participatory, shaped and led by a more expansive set of priorities than those of the governance and profit-oriented elite? It would be unrecognizable.

What models for survivance exist to contend with neoliberal necropolitics?58 Imagine if technoscience were participatory, shaped and led by a more expansive set of priorities than those of the governance and profit-oriented elite? It would be unrecognizable. To trace this vector of thought into political philosophy is to become ensnared in a matrix of uncomfortably overlapping ideologies: from intentional anarchist communities and the mutualism of marginalized leftist groups to free-market libertarians (dubbed “the hippies of the right” by Ayn Rand) and prepper utopias of motley flavors styled after Thoreau’s romantic notions of self-sufficiency in nature (that nonetheless overlooked its own foundation upon the genocide of Indigenous peoples). Here is a critical node. At stake in these political ideologies is negotiating uneasy boundaries between two fleshy abstractions: the individual and the multitude.

Mutual aid and philanthropy stretch the porous boundaries of the individual into a larger circumscribed group. They offer conditions of possibility, and networks of self-reliance and care. However, empathy and identification cannot scale up further to abstract swarms of anonymous social beings that make up disembodied, nationless humanity at large. This is the scale at which viruses think. This is the scale of being already multiple.

The scale of macroeconomics where global biomedicine interfaces with viral contagion is another critical node. My experience with hepatitis C demonstrates the urgency of advancing generalized transparency and policy to regulate drug pricing in the interests of public health. In 2013, news came of a breakthrough medication for hepatitis C. My doctors did not alert me, but instead I heard about it through a friend who is a medical journalist when she received a press release from a pharmaceutical company. The direct-acting antivirals eliminate up to 98 percent of HCV infections. The daily oral medications are well-tolerated and can effectively cure the previously lifelong disease within 8-24 weeks. The drugs inhibit viral replication, rapidly eradicating the virus from the human body. One might expect that the story would be all over the media: an innovative first! A drug that could effectively eliminate HCV in 71 million people worldwide. Absent from the headlines, the story was instead buzzing across the business and financial wires, accompanied by stock ticker symbols to entice investment. I burrowed through intellectual property and investing blogs for what negligible information I could retrieve about how patients might access the medication.

Gilead Sciences was the first to bring a cure to market, Sovaldi. It set the list price for a minimum course of treatment at an astonishing $84,000. A U.S. Senate finance report later found this price had no correspondence to patent, research, or manufacturing expenses.59 Instead, it was a deliberate strategy to establish a lucrative benchmark for the industry.60 Companies introducing similar cures for HCV have thus hovered near this price point. At this unwarranted and exorbitant price, Medicaid spent over $1.3 billion in 2014 to treat fewer than 2.4 percent of infections.61 The drugs can be manufactured for less than $100 per cure.62 One of the scientists attributed with the drug’s development worked together with the Nobel Prize-winning scientists who filed many patents on the discovery, genomics, and cell culturing of the hepatitis C virus, essential to research and drug development. Although patents are a major source of income for scientists and clearly played a role in keeping research within this close group of labs, he abdicated any responsibility for the commercial pricing of his innovations.63

Setting a price for the cure of HCV was the golden spike that has since emboldened pharmaceutical companies to accelerate ever higher prices for “life-saving” treatments and cures.64 No transparency or protocols in drug pricing are legally mandated, and no policies exist to ensure the public benefits from its own financial investments in research. When one primary market includes a pool of federal insurers who are legally barred from negotiating drug prices, pharma thus has the upper hand, with impacts upon health care costs worldwide.65 It is a myth that markets are unregulated for capitalist competition. Legal and political policies are firmly in place to ensure the mass transfer of public wealth from governments to corporations—such as grants for research—and also to ensure unrestricted monopoly pricing through patents, and laws that ban price negotiation. Unaccountable price hikes on existing medicines (such as insulin and EpiPens) have forced patients to self-ration medications and have led to many deaths. Since these scandals, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee has held hearings to make a show of berating top pharma executives. The executives emphasize the “complexity” in finding a price for life-saving drugs, while maintaining total opacity into their calculations. But pharma is clear on one point: they want to maintain independence from government intervention and international standardization in order to determine what they vaguely call “value-based” list prices for drugs. Meaning that a drug is priced to extract the maximum dollar its benefit is worth to customers: a life.

Against the outspoken objections of medical professionals who recommend treating HCV at any stage of the disease, the cost has forced insurers to ration drugs to the sickest patients. Hardly anyone can access the successful biomedical cure for hepatitis C. Curing HCV in the sickest does not reduce their risk of liver failure and cancer, which are exceedingly expensive to treat. It also does nothing to slow spread of a contagious viral infection hastened by the opioid epidemic. The most effective measures against the pervasive virus are to decriminalize addiction, lower drug costs, and treat everyone with the virus regardless of insurance status. Egypt, with some of the highest prevalence worldwide, has begun a mass testing and treatment program, and Scotland has followed this practice and eliminated HCV regionally.66 Global liver associations and the W.H.O. declared that strategic, worldwide elimination of the hepatitis C virus is logistically achievable—if only the medication is made affordable.

I was working as a researcher in Germany when the new drugs were approved. Germany has a mixed marketplace where public or private health insurance is mandated, but private insurers can deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions. However, the Affordable Care Act was going into effect in the U.S., which would be the first time in my adult life when I could not be denied health insurance. I contacted my hepatologist in the U.S. and he explained that, regardless of the new law, I would not be treated. The economic rationing of the cure was decided based on the extent of scarring in the liver, which meant that I did not qualify as sick enough. Evidence of a lifetime of disabling illness and deadly tumor markers were not the measures for the insurer’s rationing guidelines. He suggested I return to the U.S. where he would prescribe treatment. After what would certainly be several denials, I could then ask for patient assistance directly through Gilead, in a program originally designed to serve the uninsured (and which has since shut down). My doctor’s medical advice came permeated by the neoliberal ideologies of unregulated free markets: I was told to wait patiently several more years for the profit window to pass and hope that market competition would eventually resolve accessibility.

I called everyone I could: patient hotlines, doctors in the U.S., France, Germany, and Lebanon— even drug companies. In Germany, individual insurers negotiated the price with Gilead. Only France, with its single-payer public health system, was able to negotiate a somewhat lower price and receive rebates for cases that failed. I had no access to the capital required to pay for an $84,000 treatment out-of-pocket, but the undeniable privileges of being educated, white and multilingual facilitated my improbable plan B: I would attempt to obtain a residency visa in Germany, acquire mandatory health insurance, and find a doctor who would resist the price ration to treat me. It would take years, put me in debt, keep me 5,800 miles from family, and access was uncertain.

Back-up ideas included finding a way to purchase the drug in one of the countries where Gilead offers a 90% discount to public insurers. Even the discounted cost remains unrealistic for emerging economies. Unregulated online buyer’s clubs emerged, offering generics manufactured in India and China that could be ordered by mail for $800.67 Plan B was arduous and nearly forced me out of Germany when I was rejected by all private insurances due to pre-existing conditions. In March 2015, after months of battling immigration and medical bureaucracies, I was narrowly accepted into public insurance.

My doctor in Germany worried that if the insurance challenged his decision, they could demand reimbursement for the drugs and bankrupt his practice. But due to my low viral count, I was eligible for a shorter (cheaper) course of treatment. Insured, and thanks to German taxpayers, I paid 20€ out-of-pocket for two bottles of Gilead’s drugs. Each pill was priced at more than 30 times its own weight in gold.

On 1 May 2015, after two years of chasing access to the cure, I invited a few friends to be my lucky charms as I swallowed the first of the 1000€ pills with a glass of champagne. Just four weeks later, the virus was no longer detectable in my blood.

A few days after swallowing the last pill of the brief treatment, I woke in the morning with the exotic sensation of feeling rested and refreshed. Every other morning of my life, I tried to surface from beneath a deep weight of fatigue, despite 9-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep. The pain I had felt every day in my abdomen was gone. At 34 years old, I never knew what it was like to wake up in a healthy body without chronic viral infection, progressively destroying my liver and putting me at risk of premature death. Days before the New Year, my doctor called to confirm that my final blood tests showed no recurrence of the virus. I was definitively cured of my lifelong illness. Within a few years, my scarred liver would renew itself, and I would be at no greater risk of liver cancer.

The loneliness persists, however, as I am one among the mere 2-3 percent of people with HCV worldwide to have been treated.68 It is difficult for me to occupy this position of indebtedness and gratitude for the advancement of medical science to deliver such an astonishingly life-affirming possibility—amidst the deliberate abuse of public resources by the pharmaceutical industry, and the democratic governments that enable it to happen. There is no excuse for the immense privileges, international complexity and persistence it took for me to access the cure. It is beyond survivor’s guilt. As artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz said: “I’m carrying this rage like a blood-filled egg.”69

Inattention to the actuarial details of public health and biomedical innovation has put us in a precarious position now with respect to coronavirus. Gilead is continuing this pattern of speculative profiteering by resurrecting its failed HCV drug, remdesivir, for the COVID-19 market. The company received tens of millions of dollars in government grants to develop remdesivir. Nonetheless, at the start of the pandemic, they sought a special designation under a program for rare diseases to receive a seven-year monopoly on sales, tax credits, and expedited approval for the treatment of COVID-19. Following public outcry, Gilead rescinded this special designation and offered doses of the drug for experimental use in hospitals. The research of measurable benefits is minimal, but it appears remdesivir can reduce hospitalization due to COVID-19 by a few days in up to 47 percent of healthier patients. Gilead priced a course of treatment at $3,100, although they could break even at just $50. That is a profit margin of 98.4 percent. President Trump purchased the remaining global supply at this price for exclusive use in the U.S., preventing other countries from benefiting from the drug.70

Instances of exploiting the precarious conditions of the coronavirus pandemic are numerous in the biomedical sector. Vast sums of public funds are flowing from governments into research for treatments, diagnostics, and vaccines—as they should. But they do not serve public health without transparent accountability measures to ensure that outcomes will subsequently be made accessible and affordable to all.71

The United Nations Assembly adopted a resolution in May 2020 that called for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines to be treated as global public goods, but fell short of mandatory obligations or compulsory licensing that enables generics to be produced even when protected by patents.72 To better support policies of accessibility, medical students and researchers are tracking available data to map billions of dollars of public investments in coronavirus research.73 Peer pressure and grassroots campaigns such as Covax,74 Open Covid Pledge75 and Free the Vaccine76 have motivated many individual companies and institutions to voluntarily license their intellectual property to make innovations related to coronavirus freely available. Oxfam and UNAIDS organized an open letter signed by 140 world leaders and luminaries calling for a People’s Vaccine noting that, “Access to vaccines and treatments as global public goods are in the interests of all humanity. We cannot afford for monopolies, crude competition and near-sighted nationalism to stand in the way.”77

All of these strategies nonetheless treat the coronavirus pandemic as a state of exception, leaving intact the structural inequalities of profit-oriented biomedicine.

All of these strategies nonetheless treat the coronavirus pandemic as a state of exception, leaving intact the structural inequalities of profit-oriented biomedicine. Policies to change patent law and drug pricing that favor public participation and the commons are essential measures needed for a paradigm shift away from neoliberal biopolitics. The virus is a vector that traces us into this critical node where sociality itself is at stake. The narratives we construct to identify obstacles in survivance beyond this pandemic must foreground the abundance of resources and biomedical expertise we collectively possess, and reject the narrative that biomedical innovation is only possible when the structures of predatory pharmaceutical profiteering and health disparities are maintained. We cannot cure racial capitalism or COVID-19 with breathwork and Zoom yoga and homegrown herbs and garbage bags cut into PPE. We must name as our commons what neoliberal biopolitics dispossess from the public, and we must be specific about it.

My bloodstream has been emptied of one its viral others, yet this porous relationality of being multiple in the world remains. Our vulnerable bodies are reliant upon each other at the planetary scale, requiring both the intimate care of mutual aid and the cures of biomedical science. To live among viruses and survive our interactions with them, think like a virus: xenophilic, opportunistic, multiplied and many. Our resistance to neoliberal isolation must become so expansive as to saturate the atmosphere.

 

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank the editors Sarrita Hunn and James McAnally for the invitation to write this essay, and for their generous engagement and patience through its mutations. Many thanks to Miriam Simun, Keturah Cummings, Patricia Reed, and Yun Ingrid Lee, the thoughtful readers of early drafts. I am grateful to the organizers, participants, and speakers within the Coronavirus Multispecies Reading Group, for exposure to a rich dialogue that pointed me towards some of the cited scholarship. With love and deep gratitude to my father, Gary.


Caitlin Berrigan works across performance, video, sculpture and text to engage with the intimate and embodied dimensions of power, politics and capitalism. Her early works from 2006-2010 addressed viruses, spatial choreographies of contagion, medicine, and care. Her recent work, Imaginary Explosions was part of the Berlinale Forum Expanded exhibition (2020), the subject of a solo show at Art in General, New York (2019), and an artist’s book with Broken Dimanche Press, Berlin (2018). Her work has been shown at the Whitney Museum, Poetry Project, Henry Art Gallery, Harvard Carpenter Center, Anthology Film Archives, and UnionDocs, among others. She has received grants and residencies from the Humboldt Foundation, Skowhegan, Graham Foundation, and Akademie Schloss Solitude. She holds a Master's in visual art from MIT and a B.A. from Hampshire College. She taught emerging media full-time at NYU Tisch and is a Visiting Professor at Bard College Berlin. She is an artist, writer, and researcher affiliated with the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and NYU Technology, Culture and Society.


A Syllabus for Antifascist Cinema (part I)

What images and narratives, what poetics would allow for the emergence of a version of us that invests in the dignity and well-being of all of us? What life-long training, support systems, and affective mutual aid networks would nurture our perception of freedom as the freedom of all people? What tactile or olfactory experiences would boost our immune system against the competitive market mentality governing every aspect of our lives? What would make us gentler, but more committed to preserving our ability to protect one another from violence – which at the end harms not just the most vulnerable, but all of us? What kinds of exposures, ways of relating, sensual, libidinal, erotic, poetic and material possibilities may be explored for the germination of a contemporary subject less prone to embracing fascism and more alert to identifying and rejecting it?

It is a difficult task to learn how to debunk the myth of ‘protection’ promised by policing, militarization, concrete national borders and governance by finance when our education system operates under the same structures. It is not easy to reject the seemingly only solutions available to our many problems and failures when the media and all other realms of representation are replete with propagandas of such exemplified ‘solutions.’ it is even harder to do so when we all feel vulnerable, alone and desperate individually, yet we are too afraid to come together in our vulnerability, aloneness and desperation. We are kept separate by the echo chambers of competition and  individualization that tell us "You're not good enough if you don't compete hard enough," "all publicity is good publicity," that "you gotta play the game" and "run yourself like a business": your art, your body, your love, your kinships. It is impossible to listen to a voice inside of you amidst so much noise, so much chaos and a barrage of horrifying news — under what feels like a political sleep paralysis: you can’t move, you can’t scream or wake yourself up even though you are fully aware of this nightmare.

The emergence of a subject capable of refusing these terms is a primary task of antifascism. The germination of this antifascist subject is cultivated by action, but also by an intentional aesthetics. The aesthetics of antifascism, if we can conceive of such a thing, would start with a multiplicity of images, perspectives, stories, timelines and narratives; it would emerge in fragments, a collage of imperfections and flaws, revealing the seams of its constructedness, embracing the inability of the image to be one or whole. What representations of the world, what images and narratives from whose perspective can provide an alternative to what Jennifer Barker calls “the tyranny of images generated by aestheticized politics” in her book The Aesthetics of Antifascist Film: Radical Projection? And what medium is better fit than film for the “documentation of the fragments of history” to oppose “fascism’s insistence on an aesthetic simplification of reality”?78

When pondering the aesthetics of antifascist art, I begin with considering the possibilities of cinema as still one of the farthest-reaching and free-traveling mediums for the world’s working class. Both in the digital age, and under one global pandemic of possibly more to come, film can travel with much more ease than any object can afford. This aspect of the medium, in addition to cinema’s unique ability to construct reality, is also what has made it a favorite tool of fascists, most infamously in the case of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will and Olympia, among other Nazi propaganda. Today the entanglements of the US TV and Hollywood movie industry normalizing police violence, and spectacularizing imperial expansion through war and neocolonial conquest is not a secret. In this preliminary attempt to write a “syllabus” for antifascist cinema the central question was: What would make an individual more susceptible to adopting fascism as a solution to financial, cultural, psychological and political problems?

The questions of colonialism, racism, patriarchy, nationalism, policing, militarization, environmental violence and imperialism are not secondary, but central to the ongoing crisis of fascism. “It was Fanon, having escaped from Vichy-controlled Martinique to enlist in the Free French Army, who later posed the question in his decolonial classic The Wretched of the Earth: What is fascism but colonialism at the heart of traditionally colonialist countries?,” writes Nicholas Mirzoeff.79 “For DuBois,” writes Cedric Robinson, “the precondition for fascism was a civilization profoundly traumatized by slavery and racism.” “Like many ordinary Black people,” Robinson notes, “DuBois believed that the West was pathological and fascism an expression of that nature.”80 In a speech at Barnard Center for Research on Women, poet and writer, Dionne Brand states: “The triumph of capitalism has given rise to what is now called populism, but what is in fact fascism – the inability to conceal the sharing of the world and the demonizing and casting out of people who are blamed for being in the world. I have to say that it is not that I have not lived this before. It is not that this affect does not follow or hover. To me, Black people in the West have always lived under conditions of fascism. It is that in this particular moment there is an acute peak in the instantiation of fascism.”

The intent of this list is not subliminal advertising or indoctrination, but an affirmation of what Nicholas Mirzoeff calls ‘the right to look’ in his eponymous book, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. He states:

“Confronted with the disasters of the twentieth century (and now those of the twenty-first), antifascism has had two tasks. First, to depict the reality of fascist violence as violence, and not as an artwork. Next it must offer a different possibility of real existence to confront the fascist claim that only the leader could resolve the problems of modern society. It meant claiming a place from which there is a right to look, not just behold the leader. For both W. E. B. Du Bois and Antonio Gramsci, writing in the 1930s, that place was what they called the “South,” understood as the complex and difficult place from which resistance had to begin and also as the emergent future.”81

South-looking, what follows is not a definitive or a comprehensive list but the beginning of a provisional syllabus, a list in progress, a first draft to be amended, expanded and added to, a sketchpad for a collective drawing of the contours of antifascist cinema. The selected films deploy narratives, temporalities, and subject formations in relation to various historical contexts to form a cacophony of voices and multiplicity of perspectives, relations, histories and desires for a different world. In addition to being imperfect and incomplete, the list may also appear odd at first glance. Although some of the films are situated within a specific history of fascism, others take place in different moments in history under various forms of tyranny, looking back at our collective past to better understand how we arrived here.

The selected films depict life under occupation, colonial settlement, war, segregation and racial violence, carcerality, heightened nationalism, toxic masculinity, militarism and policing. These are stories of rage and alienation, but also love and joy under structures built to annihilate them. These films depict both fascism in its brutal, absurd and violent ways, and the material means and methods of resisting, combatting and fighting tyranny – an antifascist cinema free of “exemplary” tales where “the hero is the West; the value is individual freedom (in material or spiritual terms); the interdiction is authoritarian mass movements; the villain, charismatic leaders; the misfortune, fascism; the rescuer, bourgeois democracies; the struggle, the Second World War; the moral: “The hero was imprudent, but managed to redeem himself on his own.””82


1. The Conformist (Il Conformista), Bernardo Bertolucci (1970)
[MUBI]

Let’s start with a classic: Marcello begins working for the fascist secret police in pursuit of a “normal life” through heterosexual marriage. He is assigned the assassination of his former professor, an antifascist living in exile in Paris. (Also pictured in the header image.)


2. Love Meetings (Comizi d'amore), Pier Paolo Pasolini (1965)
[YouTube
]

No genuine conversation about antifascism, cinema or antifascist cinema is imaginable without Pasolini. While Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is a classic in the cinema of antifascism, Pasolini’s entire oeuvre can be looked at as an exploration of a poetics and aesthetics which resist fascism, tyranny and hegemony. My Pasolini pick is a film less ostensibly engaged with direct politics: a feature length documentary made in 1965 about sex, birth, sexuality, marriage and prostitution in Italy. Beginning with asking young children how children are made, Pasolini interviews a wide range of Italians from across different class, professional, generational, age, ethnic, gender and political backgrounds about a range of social taboos, specifically the deregulation and criminalization of prostitution in Italy. The film works as a portrait of a heterogeneous Italian society with as many different responses to a single issue as the number of people interviewed. Through the fragments of responses from factory workers, poets, young kids, teenagers, and mothers, this film opens a window onto the work of a poet and filmmaker who sought the erotic in political struggles.


3. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto), Elio Petri (1970)
[The Criterion Channel]

A Roman police detective reports his own crime of murdering his lover. Predictably, he gets assigned to investigate his own crime on the same day he gets promoted from the Chief of Homicide to the Chief of the Political Division. In one of the most unsettling and resonant monologues in the film, he preambles his acceptance speech with “Gentlemen, I hope you appreciate the novelty of this meeting. It’s American style!” and continues: “The difference between common and political felonies is dwindling more and more each day…. Inside every criminal, a subversive may be hiding, and inside a subversive, a criminal may be hiding.” All along the investigation, the only living witness to his crime is his murdered lover’s upstairs neighbor: an anarchist student, Antonio Pace who is arrested in a protest and perfectly meets the criteria for a criminal suspect: a “socially and politically dangerous individual.” During an interrogation scene, when the murdered chief dares Antonio to turn him in, the young student responds: “You are here and that’s where you’ll stay, a criminal leading the repression.”


4. A Song of Love (Un chant d’amour), Jean Genet (1950)
[YouTube]

The oldest film on the list, and the only film Genet directed; A Song of Love is a sensual love story touching on homosexuality, race, surveillance, militarized order, prisons, dreams and a concrete wall penetrated with a straw through a hole for two lovers to share a smoke (breath) between their prison cells.


5. The Wall (Duvar), Yılmaz Güney (1983)
[YouTube]

Yilmaz Güney’s last film was made briefly before he died from cancer in exile. Güney lived in France after escaping from prison in Turkey five years into a nineteen year prison sentence for the alleged murder of a public prosecutor in Yumurtalık. Güney’s films had been banned in Turkey since 1980 by the ruling military junta. Duvar takes place in a children’s prison ward in Turkey where a group of incarcerated children organize an uprising as their only way of being transferred to a “better” prison.


6. The Cycle, دایره مینا, Dariush Mehrjui (1978)
[YouTube]

Premiering first in Paris, then Berlin, the film was banned in Iran for four years until released in 1978. The Cycle follows Ali, a young man with an ill father in need of hospitalization. To provide for his father and himself, Ali starts working with a bourgeois doctor who runs an underground blood bank, soliciting blood from the most forgotten strata of the Iranian urban society: the extremely poor, homeless, and drug addicts, many with infectious diseases. The infected blood is then used to treat the upper strata of the society in need of blood transfusions and gets carried from one body to another without class, ethnic, gender or other discrimination. The film is said to have provided for the foundation of Iran’s National Blood Bank in 1974. One of Dariush Mehrjui’s most acclaimed films, The Cycle is based on a play by Gholam-hossein Sa’edi. Sa’edi had previously worked with Dariush Mehrjui on Gav (The Cow), a pivotal film in the history of Iranian cinema, based on one of his short stories. One of Iran’s most influential fiction writers with great sensitivity and awareness about racial, ethnic and class dynamics in Iran, Sa’edi spent the last few years of his life in exile. In Paris, Sa’edi was in conversation with Yilmaz Güney, a filmmaker he admired, to collaborate on a film script. Sa’edi died in 1985, almost one year after Güney without the two ever meeting in person. They are both buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


7. Born in Flames, Lizzie Borden (1983)
[The Criterion Channel] [Kanopy]

In Lizzie Borden’s dystopian sci-fi, the post socialist-revolutionary US is as sexist, classist, racist and misogynist as ever before. The film depicts, at times graphically, instances of everyday and structural violence and juxtaposes them with the more explicitly and institutionally recognizable forms of violence: the terrorist activities of The Women’s Army. Towards the end of the movie, after their two independent radio stations are burnt down, the women continue to broadcast from stolen U-Hauls and disrupt a presidential address after hijacking the state TV station and set the antennas on top of New York’s Twin Towers on fire in order to prevent the media from further disseminating lies and propaganda.


8. The Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett (1978)
[UCLA Library Film and Television Archive]

There are many movies from the LA Rebelion cinema that perfectly belong in this list. The Killer of Sheep takes place in post-Watts Rebellion Los Angeles. A signature of LA Rebelion defying tired Hollywood traits, the film opens a window onto small details of everyday life of a working class Black family. Stan works in a meat packing factory where he is ‘the killer of sheep.’ Scenes of preparing the animals to be slaughtered, hanging the meat, washing and cleaning up are interspersed with children playing, men meeting and making business deals, children and adults loving one another. Camaraderie, slow dancing, despair, alienation and loss are so tenderly woven into a story of everyday life on the margins of what is institutionally represented in the mainstream. Through the simplicity of its numerous tableaus, and juxtapositions such as “The House I live in” playing on scenes of children playing in the urban spaces of South Los Angeles, Burnett’s subtle cinematic critique questions the promises and core values of freedom, justice and other myths of US democracy.


9. As Above So Below, Larry Clark (1973)
[UCLA Library Film and Television Archive]

One of the most explicitly political films of the LA Rebelion, this dystopian sci-fi is set under a fascist regime. A former US marine joins an underground guerilla network of Black insurgents to organize an armed revolution.


10. Underground (Подземље), Emir Kusturica (1995)
[MUBI]

Spanning WWII, the Cold War and the Bosnian War, the movie begins with a communist taking his family and community to an underground bomb shelter during the German airstrikes on Belgrade. Time freezes for the community living underground who continues to believe the war is ongoing and the country still occupied by the German. By the time they leave the Underground, the war is already a thing of the past, distant enough to be reenacted and turned into movies. In the last scene of the film, the underground community gather together on a piece of land by the sea to celebrate the leader’s son’s wedding. Jovan, who was born and raised in the bunker, has only recently seen the world outside of the dark and drunken gun manufacturing shelter where he has lived his entire life. In a dream-like last scene, as people continue to celebrate the piece of land they’re on separates from the mainland and begins to float away. The film ends with the words “Once upon a time there was a country….”


11. Hate (La Haine), Mathieu Kassovitz (1995)
[Kanopy]

In the aftermath of anti-police riots in Paris, three young men, a Jew, a North African Muslim and an Afro-French boxer, spend twenty exhausting hours in the banlieues of Paris where they live.


12. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974)
[The Criterion Channel]

One of my all time favorite movies with the most poetic and ever resonant title! Taking refuge from pouring rain, Emmi, a white German widow walks into a bar where the voice of Lebanese singer Sabah is playing out of a jukebox in West Germany. “I pass by here every evening and hear that foreign music” she tells the bartender, clearly uncomfortable in this dark corner of her neighborhood she had never before stepped foot. There she meets Ali, a young Moroccan migrant and frequent at the bar. Played by El Hedi ben Salem, Fassbinder’s lover, Ali develops a romantic relationship with Emmi, leading to their marriage and more.


13. The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo (1966)
[Kanopy]

Deemed the most important political film of all times, it is not surprising to note the number of books, chapters and dissertations dedicated to more than Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers. The film is a favorite of both anti-colonialists and generals of ‘the war on terror’ – with a screening at the Pentagon in 2003 to demonstrate how the French had already figured out successful tactics, but failed strategically to control the Arab terrorists. The Battle of Algiers is a film for all times, as long as we live in the legacies of Europe’s problems. In the words of Aimé Césaire: “The fact is that the so-called European civilization — Western civilization — as it has been shaped by two centuries of bourgeois rule, is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem: that Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of “reason” or before the bar of “conscience.”


14. Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la Luz), Patricio Guzmán (2010)
[The Criterion Channel]

In the above cited chapter, Antifascist Neorealism (The Right to Look), Nicholas Mirzeoff reminds us: “The practice of “disappearing” anti-government activists, meaning having them killed and disposed of in secret—was begun by the French during the revolution and later exported by them to Latin America, most notably in Argentina and Chile. Such practices, far from forming a decolonized visuality, epitomize the secrecy of the police in separating what can be seen from what must be declared invisible.” One of the most philosophical documentaries about the history of the ‘disappeared’ and the atrocities of the US backed military dictatorship in Chile (among other countries in South America), Nostalgia for the Light is multidisciplinary poetry: “A revolutionary tide swept us to the centre of the world….around the same time, science fell in love with the Chilean sky. A group of astronomers found they could touch the stars in the Atacama desert. Enveloped in stardust, scientists from all over the planet created the biggest telescope in the world. Some time later, a coup d’etat swept away democracy, dreams and science.” The astronomers’ looking up at the sky parallels a group of women whose loved ones who had disappeared during the dictatorship were kept in concentration camps, tortured and killed in the Atacama desert—their bones preserved by the salt in the dry sand where nothing ever grows. Nostalgia for the Light cuts through the layers of violence that run parallel to the strata of the earth: “A people without memory are a people without a future.”


15. Haitian Corner, Raoul Peck (1987)

A carpenter by day and poet by night, Joseph is a refugee in Brooklyn, NY who has fled Haiti where he was tortured as a poet and activist under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Living in exile in New York, one day he recognizes the voice of his torturer.


16. The Prize (El Premio), Paula Markovich (2011)

Paula Markovich’s autobiographical film is set in San Clemente del Tuyú in Argentina where she spent much of her childhood. Set during the military dictatorship in Argentina, a young mother and her seven year old daughter hide in an abandoned beach house. One day representatives from the national army visit the small rural school to promote a writing contest about the Argentine nation. The conflicted seven year old writes an essay describing how the military has kidnapped her father, causing debilitating panic to her mother. In one scene, as the child witnesses her terrified mother burying “political” books in the sand, she imitates her by burying one of hers “for play.” The water washes over both of their buried books.


17. The Chronicle of Disappearance (سجل اختفاء), Elia Suleiman (1996)
[YouTube]

Elia Suleiman’s first feature film tells the story of the filmmaker himself who stars in the film under his initials, E.S. after returning from New York to Palestine. The film is made with a cast almost entirely of his family, relatives and other nonactors. Structured as a chronicle, in different chapters of multiple vignettes, the film is ripe with absurd humour that is the signature of Suleiman’s films. Made and released after the Oslo Agreement, it depicts mundane everyday scenes of life, leisure and business in Palestine with a recurring trait of mocking authority, especially the Israeli police.


18. Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017)

It is perhaps an odd choice to have a period film set in the 18th century in a list of antifascist films. Lucrecia Martel’s latest film, Zama starts with Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish functionary overhearing a group of indigenous women bathing and practicing the equivalents of Spanish words in Guaraní. It is a rare historical cinematic depiction of Spanish colonial rule in South America.


19. Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015)

Jen returns to her former school turned hospital where numerous soldiers with a strange disease are comatose for days at a time. There she is introduced to a woman “who helps the police with her ability to communicate with the spirit of those murdered and missing.” Jen, who's married to Richard, an American army veteran she has met on the internet, spends time with one of the ill soldiers during all his waking hours. Conversations throughout the film are interrupted by the soldier’s sudden falling asleep.


20. The House is Black (خانه سیاه است), Forough Farrokhzad (1963)
[YouTube]

In pre-revolutionary Iran ruled by a monarch, the avant-garde poet and filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad takes a trip to one of the most forgotten corners of the country, a small village where the patients with leprosy are quarantined. Reminiscent of Che Guevara’s volunteering at San Pablo leper colony, she submerges herself in the community to document the tender moments of life, intimacy, beauty and laughter.


21. Endless Poetry (Poesía sin fin), Alejandro Jodorowsky (2016)

Jodorowsky’s 2016 autobiographical fiction film bears an undeniable resemblance to the first segment of Bolaño’s 1998 novel, The Savage Detectives. Young Alejandro leaves his family to merge himself in a new life surrounded by poets, writers, homosexuals, outlaws and bohos in Santiago de Chile. During Carlos Ibáñez del Campo’s second dictatorial rule in Chile, Alexandro, an antifascsit poet, leaves his hometown for Paris. Only in a Jodorowsky movie you can find a character, the poet’s mother, who communicates in an entirely different genre throughout the film: the musical!


Gelare Khoshgozaran is an undisciplinary artist and writer who, in 2009 was transplanted from street protests in a city of four seasons to the windowless rooms of the University of Southern California where aesthetics and politics were discussed in endless summers. Her work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions at the New Museum, Queens Museum, Hammer Museum, LAXART, Human Resources, Visitor Welcome Center, Articule (Montreal), Beursschouwburg (Brussels), Pori Art Museum (Finland) and Yarat Contemporary Art Space (Baku, Azerbaijan). She was the recipient of a Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant (2015), an Art Matters Award (2017), the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2019), and the Graham Foundation Award (2020). Her essays and interviews have been published and are forthcoming in contemptorary (co-founding editor), The Brooklyn Rail, Parkett, X-TRA, The Enemy, Art Practical, Ajam Media Collective , The LA Review of Books and Temporary Art Review, among others.


The Work after Our Rage

The Work after Our Rage

Here we are again. A white knee on a black neck for a murderous and callous nine minutes. Nine minutes that echo across lifetimes. Nine minutes that are unbelievable and totally believable and beyond excruciating to watch. Nine minutes that yield waves of protest across the country. Nine minutes that may or may not yield any kind of justice for the murdered.

We wrote about this almost six years ago in a paper called A Case for Social Emergency Procedures. Since then our country has been on a downhill spiral that doesn’t seem to have a bottom. This particular juncture on the spiral is back to the one that we call a Social Emergency.

We are in rage. We are in pain. We are in the streets. And the work will need to continue after our tears, anger, pain and protest.

Since we wrote the initial paper on the Social Emergency, we have written a book called Ideas Arrangements Effects. We believe the framework can be useful as we look at the scale of the work ahead of us:

Ideas are embedded in social arrangements, which in turn produce effects.

Right now, violent ideas about black people are embedded in every arrangement of American society, and the effect is constant black death.

Most Americans—particularly those who are not victims of Afrophobic hatred and violence—relate to the social problem of state and culturally sanctioned violence one episode at a time. These ways of relating to it are all within the range of each effect. In this case the effects are the specific murders of specific black people.

And our response each time is righteous rage. We hit the streets protesting another set of back-to-back black deaths at the hand of the US carceral culture and state. This response is critical. It’s what makes the work possible. And it’s like a sprint. It increases our blood pressure. It takes adrenaline. It’s physically hard. It’s dangerous. And it’s tremendously urgent.

Another set of responses happen at the range of effects and the set of relational concerns that arise from the specific incident or set of incidents: We look after each other, lift up black life, worry about our children, share information, resources and prayer.

Each episode demands these responses and demands justice, absolutely. But when we dig into each episode as if it were an individual act, when we ask about the qualities and intentions of each victim and/or perpetrator, we go down a rabbit-hole of individuation. This makes a kind of distinct enclosure and separation possible. Separation from the act and separation of the acts from each other. It individuates conceptions of some kind of justice. It makes us fight each time, in each town and city, for a righting of a particular, individuated wrong. It is like fighting a swarm of locusts one locust at a time.

And as we dig in to fight each racist actor—each “rogue cop” or crazed “Ben” or privileged “Becky”—our focus separates these actors from the state. Our narrowed vision separates them from the social culture out of which they emerge and find the entitlement to act.

These actions are the state. These actions are American culture.

Our wave of protest and resistance is part of the first phase of confronting the effects of state and culturally sanctioned violence. In our scale and urgency, we point to more than one death. We begin the work of connecting the dots of centuries of injustice. But this protest phase will need to increase its durability to make the kinds of cultural and social transformations needed. It has to grow into a bigger second phase; one that’s focused on the many arrangements of American life that produce black death.

Once we move from this phase we are experiencing now, let’s move to investigating and dismantling the set of state and cultural arrangements that produce black death. This move demands that we shift our focus from individuated black death to focusing on the state and cultural context we are enmeshed with, participate in and seek safety from. To this end, we ask us all to make a conceptual and practical move—especially white people and others who are not victims of violent and lethal Afrophobic hatred. This shift ideally should erase the line between you and the state, between you and the racist cop or crazed, white 911 caller.

If we don’t move from effects to arrangements the cycle will continue. If we want to break the cycle, we have to contend with the arrangements giving life to the cycle. If the work of protest is like a sprint, this work is like a triathlon. It’s grueling, it uses multiple skills and above all, it requires endurance.

Here we lay out a proposition a set of assignments to help us with this shift.

Assignment 1 – Advocate for/ support / listen to /and build up ALL Black, Indigenous, and Immigrant led organizations and efforts in this moment

While we are in the heat of protests, many of you are looking to support your black, indigenous, and brown leaders. They will all be needed for this long haul struggle. You are checking in on them, asking about their emotional wellbeing and the like. This is awesome. Here’s the next step, especially for people with resources and/or philanthropic networks: Ask Black / Indigenous / Immigrant leaders about their organizational capacity.

Our organizations need fully funded budgets. We need the capacity to engage in this fight full force. And that looks like us having the wherewithal to increase our human capacity and to be able to engage for the long haul.

If you have the capacity to support, simply do it. If you know and are looking to black/indigenous/ immigrant leaders to lead at this time, ask yourself what connections do you have to financial resources, donors and philanthropic networks. Put your resources to work for all of the leaders you know. At this moment the work needed is simply too complex and daunting to not have all hands on deck at full capacity. And given the realities of Covid19, organizations that are needed the most to lead in their own way at this moment have likely lost funds, human resources and capacity.

Assignment 2 – We must address the ARRANGEMENTS

If you pay taxes to the state, if you vote, if you are protected by 911 and the police every day, you are part of the arrangements of the state. Come up and really look at the State, the state of your State. Come up and look at your culture, the state of your culture. Sit with and study how culture and state invest in and promote the behaviors found in these individuated effects. These are the social arrangements we speak of: our acceptance of policing our children in public education systems, our all white small towns and cities, the countless ways we prioritize white comfort in public space, the many ways we can hide racist fear behind white-washed regulations and “this is how things work”. These are places ripe for inspection and re-imagining.

Isolate all forms of militarized state police (including ICE)

We need to create ways to keep these kinds of actors away from the people they seek to destroy. As we speak, American culture has accepted concentration camps for immigrants at the border, tanks rolling in to our cities to fight protesters, and armed civilians and police killing Black people in their homes and daily lives. For those of us who don’t accept this, we need to step up and physically separate these forces from those they seek to harm.

Let’s work with lawyers and international peacekeeping experts to find the right way to describe a cease fire and spatial amnesty from all forms of police occupation in our communities.

Let’s work with choreographers, geographers, spatial and embodied thinkers and practitioners to imagine and deploy techniques that make this kind of work possible.

Conduct a National People’s Investigation – Make the Arrangements Public

Let’s map the overlapping arrangements that produce and accept black death. Let’s expose national patterns within and between the state and the culture.

For example, one arrangement we could begin by mapping is that of 911, a state arrangement that intersects with cultural ideas. As we map its connections back to ideas of white safety (and the arrangement of police in protecting that safety), we see how 911 is integral to the equation of white safety yielding black death. We see how white fear has been weaponized, but also how communities of color are left without safety when they call for help and the result is violence against them and their loved ones.

As a National People’s Investigation, let’s explore and expose such overlapping arrangements, using them as the bridge between the tragic effects they produce and the sturdy ideas that are embedded within them. Let’s learn from relational practitioners, like acupuncturists, anthropologists, process philosophers, and artists who focus of relation, pattern and form. Let’s look to the practitioners, activists and academics constantly working to challenge and change unjust arrangements. Let’s be co-led by grassroots organizations, intermediaries, diverse faith institutions, as well as academic ones. Let’s deploy multiple kinds of ethnographic techniques and participatory action research. Let’s keep our eyes wide open.

This project would not yet be for reconciliation. It is simply a project of truth. We advocate for a deep sitting with, a deep encounter with the truth.

Assignment 3—Let’s make the IDEAS public

When you back up one step further to the ideas embedded in these arrangements, it’s easy to say the idea in operation is racism or anti-blackness. And yes, all too often, even after lengthy fights to change arrangements— think police cameras, civilian oversight boards, decriminalization of marijuana, etc.—we find racism stealthily finding ways to circumvent these changes. This is, in part, due to the fact that racists hold so much power over the arrangements of this country. But it is also due to the ways in which this broad idea we call racism is too vague. It lets people who don’t see themselves as racist off the hook too easily. It individuates the problem again. We need to articulate the specific ideas / beliefs that make up the state and American culture’s will to kill.

What form will it take to change a nation’s ideas of itself and “the other”? Let’s fight for People’s Addresses, States of the Union-We-Need, where we can hear from thought-leaders who have spent their lives searching for more specific terms to describe the situation we find ourselves within, thinkers whose conceptual prowess in their fields is brave, counter-intuitive and eye-opening. Let’s engage the wisdom of elders who have connected so many dots, and the sharp insight and language of our youth. Let’s test new language from our artists, activists and academics. We need new kinds of perspective on the ideas at play within these arrangements, ideas that are sharper, clearer, more precise. And as we expose the tenacity of racialized ideas and the complex ways that we all embody them, we need to listen.

Protest as Birth

We’re hoping that this powerful current wave of national protest will give birth to lasting change. To ensure this, we must collectively shift from our tendencies to fall back into the old normal in between murders. We must shift from losing our focus as a particular black murder recedes to increasing our focus on the arrangements that produced it. And we must turn towards the deep work of undoing the ideas that will inevitably produce the next murder.

We hope that people will add to our assignments–our nascent ideas for National Investigations, mapping arrangements, People’s Addresses and more. Through our collective commitment to this work, we hope to find new levers for imagining, creating, and enforcing the kinds of change we need. We want nothing less than to change the ideas and arrangements that produce black death.

We see a powerful and diverse mix of interventions. We see collective bodies from the scale of small towns to large states stepping into unprecedented investigations into their carceral cultures and practices. We see the arrangements of national media covering People’s Addresses and Declarations in the ways they have covered Presidential ones. We see artists depicting the truths of these investigations in ways that require encounter.

This will not be easy. It will not be quick. Ultimately our goal is the total transformation of America’s carceral state and culture. We need a completely new model. This is why we have to increase the actors, gather our strength, and look for a long haul struggle. We are looking to fundamentally change the heart and mind of American culture. This is simply the doorway.


The Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) is dedicated to changing how social justice is imagined, developed and deployed here in the United States. We function as a creativity lab for social justice work in the public sphere. The Studio is a space where activists, artists, academics and the larger public come together to imagine new approaches to social change and new angles to address complex social issues. We also design social interventions that engage populations in imagining and designing new solutions to social problems.


Let's Not Be Afraid of Each Other

LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER

JULY 7, 2020 | IN DISPATCHES | BY UMI HSU and THEODORE (ted) KERR

LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER

JULY 7, 2020 | IN DISPATCHES | BY UMI HSU and THEODORE (ted) KERR

On January 17, 2020, METANOIA: Transformation through AIDS Archives and Activism opened at ONE GALLERY in West Hollywood in Los Angeles County. The exhibition is an archival examination of community-based responses to the ongoing AIDS crisis in the United States curated from holdings in the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives (ONE Archives) at the USC Libraries, as well as, The Center Archive in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center in New York City.

Curated by members of What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD?), at the invitation of ONE Archives Foundation (a nonprofit community partner to the ONE Archives at USC Libraries), Metanoia primarily centers on the contributions and experiences of Black cis and trans women and cis and trans women of color who have always been at the forefront of the movement, but often found at the margins of AIDS archives, art exhibition, and histories. Metanoia was first exhibited at the Center in New York City in 2019 before a three-month run in Los Angeles where the exhibition (with the original closing date of April 5, 2020) came to an abrupt end. As of the writing of this text Metanoia is still up, but not on view. 

In late February 2020, the news of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) started to circulate and it became clear that life was about to change. Since then, there have been over 525,470 deaths worldwide due to COVID-19, with over a quarter occurring in the United States. On March 12, 2020, ONE Archives Foundation, following city rules, closed the gallery to the public and awaited approval to re-open. Before the doors closed, the WWHIVDD? curators (Katherine Cheairs, Alexandra Juhasz, Theodore (ted) Kerr and Jawanza Williams) and ONE Archives Foundation were working to create an exhibition-related zine to debut at the LA Art Book Fair. After the LA Art Book Fair was cancelled, Umi Hsu, Director of Content Strategy at ONE Archives Foundation, suggested the curators still create a zine, but make it about COVID-19. The curatorial team agreed. 

Within days, amid social distancing protocols, emails went out to members of What Would an HIV Doula Do? inviting them to submit words and images that respond to a prompt that had been brewing in the recent days: What Does a COVID-19 Doula Do? The responses that came back illustrated a community already engaging with the COVID-19 crisis, with people who were committed to justice and care, drawing upon their skills as people involved within the ongoing HIV response. What emerged was a stand alone project that captured the urgency of the moment, while reflecting the larger themes of Metanoia. The exhibition’s title is of Greek origin and expresses the possibility of change through transformation. As Metanoia demonstrates, HIV/AIDS is a powerful agent of change and transformation that happens through community, activism, words, sex, care, and the materials that document these human efforts. The What Does a Covid-19 Doula Do? zine does much of the same work, updated for the times in which we live. 

In the following conversation, Umi Hsu and Theodore (ted) Kerr share their thoughts about the zine within the larger context of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and resurgence of powerful Black Lives Matter activism sweeping the world. The frame for this discussion is four questions that Kerr crafted early in quarantine as prompts to urge people and groups to archive history as it is happening.

On January 17, 2020, METANOIA: Transformation through AIDS Archives and Activism opened at ONE GALLERY in West Hollywood in Los Angeles County. The exhibition is an archival examination of community-based responses to the ongoing AIDS crisis in the United States curated from holdings in the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives (ONE Archives) at the USC Libraries, as well as, The Center Archive in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center in New York City.

Curated by members of What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD?), at the invitation of ONE Archives Foundation (a nonprofit community partner to the ONE Archives at USC Libraries), Metanoia primarily centers on the contributions and experiences of Black cis and trans women and cis and trans women of color who have always been at the forefront of the movement, but often found at the margins of AIDS archives, art exhibition, and histories. Metanoia was first exhibited at the Center in New York City in 2019 before a three-month run in Los Angeles where the exhibition (with the original closing date of April 5, 2020) came to an abrupt end. As of the writing of this text Metanoia is still up, but not on view. 

In late February 2020, the news of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) started to circulate and it became clear that life was about to change. Since then, there have been over 525,470 deaths worldwide due to COVID-19, with over a quarter occurring in the United States. On March 12, 2020, ONE Archives Foundation, following city rules, closed the gallery to the public and awaited approval to re-open. Before the doors closed, the WWHIVDD? curators (Katherine Cheairs, Alexandra Juhasz, Theodore (ted) Kerr and Jawanza Williams) and ONE Archives Foundation were working to create an exhibition-related zine to debut at the LA Art Book Fair. After the LA Art Book Fair was cancelled, Umi Hsu, Director of Content Strategy at ONE Archives Foundation, suggested the curators still create a zine, but make it about COVID-19. The curatorial team agreed. 

Within days, amid social distancing protocols, emails went out to members of What Would an HIV Doula Do? inviting them to submit words and images that respond to a prompt that had been brewing in the recent days: What Does a COVID-19 Doula Do? The responses that came back illustrated a community already engaging with the COVID-19 crisis, with people who were committed to justice and care, drawing upon their skills as people involved within the ongoing HIV response. What emerged was a stand alone project that captured the urgency of the moment, while reflecting the larger themes of Metanoia. The exhibition’s title is of Greek origin and expresses the possibility of change through transformation. As Metanoia demonstrates, HIV/AIDS is a powerful agent of change and transformation that happens through community, activism, words, sex, care, and the materials that document these human efforts. The What Does a Covid-19 Doula Do? zine does much of the same work, updated for the times in which we live. 

In the following conversation, Umi Hsu and Theodore (ted) Kerr share their thoughts about the zine within the larger context of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and resurgence of powerful Black Lives Matter activism sweeping the world. The frame for this discussion is four questions that Kerr crafted early in quarantine as prompts to urge people and groups to archive history as it is happening.

1. WHAT DID YOU DO?

TED: I am writing this on June 8, 2020, in an empty house belonging to my friends in Crown Heights where I am house sitting for the month, a big change from the Flatbush apartment I share with 2 roommates. I am drinking coffee in the backyard and the chirping of morning birds are a kind of silence from the sounds of police helicopters and sirens that have been tracking the powerful Black Lives Matter protests over the last 11 days. I share this all with you because my life right now is radically different than 3 months ago when news of COVID-19 began to hit, and we began to discuss the idea of making a zine. 

UMI: Thank you for sharing, ted. I am writing this on June 22, 2020, in my house, where we set up ad hoc workspaces since the Safer At Home orders from the Governor of California. Sounds permeate in this space. Between Zoom conversations from my partner’s desk and my own, I hear birds chirping, sprinkled with explosive sounds from fireworks of unidentifiable sources. It’s unclear whether the fireworks are set off by residents eager for the Fourth of July celebration, or a distractive tactic from the police. Occasionally, I hear LAPD helicopters hovering overhead to threaten the unhoused folks who have reclaimed public domain properties a couple of blocks away. In this soundscape of protests for Black Lives and housing rights, and the police suppressions of the uprising, I can no longer differentiate between celebration and contestation. Can you believe it was only three months since we started about the zine?

TED: It is hard to believe, and that’s why these questions are important to me. They provide an opportunity to parse out what has transpired in a short amount of time. And in that parsing, we can gain some insight into ourselves and the world around us. 

It is also nice to remember the order of things. For example, before we started talking about the COVID-19 zine, I had started working with a new friend and brilliant artist / organizer Ripley Soprano to create something to combat the growing fear people were having of each other in the face of COVID-19 and all the questions we had about how it was transmitted. We started using social media to popularize this phrase we were using between us: LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER. The “Let’s” does a lot of the phrase’s heavy lifting. We wanted to project something proactive, collective, and positive. 

Our common friend Virgil B/G Taylor made a graphic of the phrase for us. He paired our phrase with an image from the film SAFE (Todd Haynes, 1995). We used this graphic to promote a Zoom online gathering (originally slated for an in-person event) where folks could share their thoughts, feelings, and plans about the pandemic. Over 1000 people liked the image between Ripley’s social media posts and mine, which is a lot. And over 50 people came to that first Zoom gathering where we broke people up into break out groups so folks could be more intimate with each other. 

All of this was in motion, when you emailed with the zine idea, and everything fell into place. I emailed a lot of the Doula community and asked them to respond to the question, “What Does a Covid-19 Doula?,” phrasing it in that specific tense because I knew so many of us were already taking action. Virgil ended up designing the zine, and so many people – including all the curators of the exhibition, plus 30 other people, ended up contributing. I came on as editor, and one of the instinctual choices made in the process was to include work from the Metanoia exhibition, to create a line of activism across time, issue, and people. 

UMI: The moment we had to close the gallery doors, I realized that this was going to be a new era. Art and culture were going to look and feel different. The removal of physical experiences in our life would affect how relationships are forged. I remember leaning into the transformative spirit of Metanoia, both in the word and in the exhibition. I was trying to figure out how we at the ONE Archives Foundation and the ONE Gallery could transform not only the experience of the show, but also the experience of the pandemic. My mind began searching for a form of transformative agency that could create the conditions for community formation during this time of social distancing. 

Zine as short-form publishing has been a tool for cultural and community organizing since the pre-Internet era. An explosive community power is born out of the rapid creation of an object, a container of parts contributed by individuals who may or may not have been connected previously. Through contributing to a collective thing, individuals could be organized into a community. The idea of the zine was already on the table because of our previous commitment to exhibit at Printed Matter’s Los Angeles Art Book Fair. The form and function of zine seemed to make perfect sense, given our interest and necessity to contribute to our current historic moment.

Beyond the making and releasing of the zine, we organized a series of conversations that unwound over social media and synchronous events on Zoom. We hosted four virtual gatherings, each with a focus on a subset of inquiries that emerged from the zine – archiving a pandemic, decolonizing care and insurgent knowledge, how HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 compare, meditative grounding and spreading calm. The making and distribution of the zine was itself a creation of a micro community, a movement of change toward establishing collective care and reflections early during the COVID-19 crisis in the US.

UMI: Thank you for sharing, ted. I am writing this on June 22, 2020, in my house, where we set up ad hoc workspaces since the Safer At Home orders from the Governor of California. Sounds permeate in this space. Between Zoom conversations from my partner’s desk and my own, I hear birds chirping, sprinkled with explosive sounds from fireworks of unidentifiable sources. It’s unclear whether the fireworks are set off by residents eager for the Fourth of July celebration, or a distractive tactic from the police. Occasionally, I hear LAPD helicopters hovering overhead to threaten the unhoused folks who have reclaimed public domain properties a couple of blocks away. In this soundscape of protests for Black Lives and housing rights, and the police suppressions of the uprising, I can no longer differentiate between celebration and contestation. Can you believe it was only three months since we started about the zine?

TED: It is hard to believe, and that’s why these questions are important to me. They provide an opportunity to parse out what has transpired in a short amount of time. And in that parsing, we can gain some insight into ourselves and the world around us. 

It is also nice to remember the order of things. For example, before we started talking about the COVID-19 zine, I had started working with a new friend and brilliant artist / organizer Ripley Soprano to create something to combat the growing fear people were having of each other in the face of COVID-19 and all the questions we had about how it was transmitted. We started using social media to popularize this phrase we were using between us: LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER. The “Let’s” does a lot of the phrase’s heavy lifting. We wanted to project something proactive, collective, and positive. 

Our common friend Virgil B/G Taylor made a graphic of the phrase for us. He paired our phrase with an image from the film SAFE (Todd Haynes, 1995). We used this graphic to promote a Zoom online gathering (originally slated for an in-person event) where folks could share their thoughts, feelings, and plans about the pandemic. Over 1000 people liked the image between Ripley’s social media posts and mine, which is a lot. And over 50 people came to that first Zoom gathering where we broke people up into break out groups so folks could be more intimate with each other. 

All of this was in motion, when you emailed with the zine idea, and everything fell into place. I emailed a lot of the Doula community and asked them to respond to the question, “What Does a Covid-19 Doula?,” phrasing it in that specific tense because I knew so many of us were already taking action. Virgil ended up designing the zine, and so many people – including all the curators of the exhibition, plus 30 other people, ended up contributing. I came on as editor, and one of the instinctual choices made in the process was to include work from the Metanoia exhibition, to create a line of activism across time, issue, and people. 

UMI: The moment we had to close the gallery doors, I realized that this was going to be a new era. Art and culture were going to look and feel different. The removal of physical experiences in our life would affect how relationships are forged. I remember leaning into the transformative spirit of Metanoia, both in the word and in the exhibition. I was trying to figure out how we at the ONE Archives Foundation and the ONE Gallery could transform not only the experience of the show, but also the experience of the pandemic. My mind began searching for a form of transformative agency that could create the conditions for community formation during this time of social distancing. 

Zine as short-form publishing has been a tool for cultural and community organizing since the pre-Internet era. An explosive community power is born out of the rapid creation of an object, a container of parts contributed by individuals who may or may not have been connected previously. Through contributing to a collective thing, individuals could be organized into a community. The idea of the zine was already on the table because of our previous commitment to exhibit at Printed Matter’s Los Angeles Art Book Fair. The form and function of zine seemed to make perfect sense, given our interest and necessity to contribute to our current historic moment.

Beyond the making and releasing of the zine, we organized a series of conversations that unwound over social media and synchronous events on Zoom. We hosted four virtual gatherings, each with a focus on a subset of inquiries that emerged from the zine – archiving a pandemic, decolonizing care and insurgent knowledge, how HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 compare, meditative grounding and spreading calm. The making and distribution of the zine was itself a creation of a micro community, a movement of change toward establishing collective care and reflections early during the COVID-19 crisis in the US.

2. WHY DID YOU DO IT?

UMI: In a pandemic, time is a critical axis. Public health officials measure the spread of the virus in terms of time. Mutual aid efforts strive toward immediate impact. I started asking myself: How can a cultural reflection happen at the speed of epidemiology? What are the benefits of thinking collectively while in the midst of a seismic historic shift? 

As an organization that shares LGBTQ history, we center narratives about the LGBTQ struggles for liberation, against social injustices and oppressions. The HIV/AIDS history has taught us that successful movement work requires constant reflection. Art and culture have played a critical role in forwarding the movement, not just in memorializing it. Human reflections and cultural expressions fuel the momentum of change work, and bolster the spirit of the change makers. 

For the COVID Doula zine project, I wanted to create a critical space for the artists, curators, writers, and historians to dialog about social inequity and historical oppressions related to COVID-19. I also wanted to make available a moment of collective expansiveness to reimagine better possibilities in terms of health outcomes and uplift expressions of human dignity and resilience.

TED: I so appreciate what you say about HIV activism being about constant reflection. Informing my actions at this time was the years of HIV community work I had done where stigma is so pervasive. I knew that once we started being scared of each other, and seeing people as vectors, the virus would be the least of our worries: depression, blame, and inequality would all block any meaningful collective responses to the virus. In the Doula work I have learned that collective and individual trauma can block people and communities from the wisdom, resources, and skills that they could have at their disposal. In order to reduce harm in the face of terror, it is good to hold space for each other and remind each other who you are and who you can be. That was the bulk of what I saw as my task on this earth in the early weeks of the pandemic. The zine was a good way to invite people to reflect on what they were doing, and then share with the world, the different ways they could be.

As the zine was circulating on social media I was as excited when strangers liked the project. From the start I saw the zine not only as a source of information, and a model for others to build upon, but also as an archive in real time. In the first three months of COVID-19 I was really obsessed with people documenting themselves. From AIDS work, I know that we lose so much history and that loss hurts us in the present and the future. It is okay to re-learn some lessons over again, but there is a cost to all this re-learning that is paid by the people who lived through something the first time, and whose tactics and ways of being have been erased. 

These 4 questions that we are responding to are my attempt to normalize archival practice, specifically, normalizing being accountable for the good or even banal things we have done. Right now in our culture we speak a lot about people who do bad things being accountable, but why should it be only them? Why can’t we have a record of the ways we did not cause harm? 

UMI: Speaking of accountability, I believe that arts and cultural institutions should have a role in harm reduction and social justice. Programmatic work is not neutral, neither is archival collection. Preserving and telling history comes from a position and a series of decisions made about how history affects the future. The culpability and accountability of archives and museums’ work is unfolding in current conversations now. I’ve been following the work of Museums & Race. I’m hopeful for an institutional transformation.

Time is also a measure of financial output and capital investment. I wanted to put our investment into the creation of change that we knew was going to have a meaningful historical impact. Not all of what happens in history is monumental. Micro exchanges of emails, Zoom calls, Instagram stories, graphics and tweets as records of our time and behaviors will eventually effect large-scale change. These micro-level human stories have a resonance now and it will later have a further resonance over time. We’re putting a pin in the now for future resonance to reach across.

This is not typical history programming, and archival missions should not be limited to representing history. Can we start to reimagine history programming so that we can engage in the now, and create conditions toward possible change that is informed by history? I feel like this is a good question for all cultural institutions now.

3. WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?

TED: This is easy. I wish I had cast a wider net in who I asked to respond to the prompt. I got too scared to ask people I felt like I didn’t know well enough out of fear that they would feel imposed upon. What I failed to remember in that moment was often in crisis folks just want to feel useful, to actually be given a task that can help out the collective.

UMI: I wish that we had made a print version of the zine. Physicality is comforting. A physical format can invite multiple reads and further reflections. Conversation pieces, when embodied, can be more powerful. Community work is about repetition with familiar concepts within lived experiences. I want more of that. 

I also would have liked an opportunity to include more voices from non-US communities. The experience of the pandemic differs vastly depending on the location of people’s lived experience. A comparative perspective could help render some of what we see as impossible possible within a different set of institutional and social circumstances. We need a range of possibilities because change requires vastness in terms of creativity, difference, and tension.

4. WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN NOW?

UMI: I would like to see a Part Two of the zine that reflects on the pandemic and protests. I sense a productive tension to couple these two overlapping historic events. A rapid reflection can invite multiple perspectives into this moment of double rupture. I imagine that this volume would look and feel pretty different, with a distinct emotional tenor, but equal relevance from history. The information cycle is moving even faster now than it was three months ago. A zine would seem like a long-form expression now and would ask people to slow down and reflect on their current moment. 

TED: When Shelter in Place orders began, and COVID-19 really kicked in for many of us, I never imagined that the thrust of history would respond in its own powerful way. We can have all sorts of complicated feelings about the pandemic, health and protesting, but the resurgence of Black Lives Matter happening on a global scale feels like exactly what needed to happen after the initial phase of COVID-19 pandemic. Suffering and premature death in the US is not just about anti-Black racism within the justice system and healthcare systems. For the health of our fathers, mothers, parents, lovers, and friends, we need white supremacy to end. 

UMI: I agree with you, ted. I see the transformative spirit embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement that’s calling for a change across all systems and institutions inside and out. In the wake of the recent US Supreme Court ruling that expanded Title VII anti-discrimination employment law to include sexual orientation and gender identity protection, a civil rights movement that began in the mid-20th century, we question how long it takes for a change to happen. In this time of progress and upheaval, the fight for Black liberation and racial justice calls for a reckoning with history. COVID-19 is just the beginning of this reckoning. With more than four hundred years of institutional anti-Black racism behind us, we have a lot of work to do. Every march, conversation, email, Zoom meeting, text message, infographic, and social media post counts toward ending this history of violence and oppression.

TED: YES! And I think the work begins with the self and our communities. By exploring what we have done in the past – as individuals and community members – we can discuss intent vs. impact, and work with ourselves and others to be accountable to what we have done right, and what we will do differently going forward. I encourage everyone to use the 4 questions we’ve answered here as a way to both think about what has already happened, while also working towards progress. I would say take time to answer the questions yourself, but also share the questions over social media and invite others to be part of your elevation. Maybe even organize Zoom chats, or social distance talks in the park.

UMI: Let’s keep it rolling. With these 4 questions, we can be on a journey reflecting on past, present, and future. I’d like to imagine that each instance of doing this, we form a micro conversation universe, some overlapping with one another, and others reaching into places we haven’t been. Every bit of wrestling with history counts. What did you do? Why did you do it? What would you do differently? What needs to happen now?

What did you do? Why did you do it? What would you do differently? What needs to happen now?


The Theft of Time

Busy Bee. Bergman Salinas. Portland, April 2020

The Theft of Time

As we sit, observing the abundant early spring bloom of the undisturbed cherry tree in our backyard, reality is real. Reality is hard to believe, and yet there is evidence. Manufactured reality industries cannot generate its bullshit fast enough to keep up.

A striking fact, at home in isolation from each other, is that the most effective form of fight is rest. This is extremely so during COVID-19, but rest from manic growth will also lower C02, N02, high blood-pressure, slow illness, halt deforestation and glacier melt. Right now, we are taking the largest Sabbath in the history of the earth.83 Never before has there been a collective chill-out like this. There has never been such observance at once: around two billion people have paused their quotidian hustle. What will the world look like after this? Will society permanently adjust anthropocentric rhythms, spending long, unproductive hours staring into the advancing flora? Will we finally be in solidarity with each other — and with ourselves —  by working in solidarity with nature?

Louis van Houtte: Flore des Serres et des Jardins de l’Europe. 1865. Public Domain

To sing to a plant is to care for the animal that feeds on this plant and for all the unborn children whose totemic becomings will be the Dreaming of this plant, or the animal which feeds on it.84

As much of humanity lurches foolishly to maintain the illusion of infinite growth, Rabbi Heschel’s observations from 1951 weigh even more now: “How proud we often are of our victories in the war with nature, proud of the multitude of instruments we have succeeded in inventing, of the abundance of commodities we have been able to produce. Yet our victories have come to resemble defeats… it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.”85

The Week-end

The three Abrahamic religions set time aside for observance, and this became part of secular work life after the labor struggles of the early 20th century won the right to the weekend. Islam does Jumu’ah on Friday, Jews take Shabbat from Friday night to Saturday night, and Christians do Sabbath on Sunday. All faiths set aside sacred time away from work life: Hinduism and Shintoism take time out every day, (as do more observant Abrahamics) and, like Buddhists, take full days out each month following lunar cycles. When observance is a command to comply, it is a classic form of oppression, to bow down before a central authority, no questions allowed. However, observance also takes the form of the awareness of nature and its gradual cycles of renewal and decay. Ritual observance suggests a path to value time itself, to reconnect with nature and contract life away from the abuse of time as a base commodity.

Boring Solutions

Design for a gilt table clock. Lefebvre Manufactory, Tournai, Belgium. 1800–1825 Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain.

In a typical action narrative, the main character leaps from one extreme event to another, punctuated by wise-cracks and non-stop, sequenced jump-cuts. However, in a real disaster, we find mostly stillness, a sense of slowed time. Once an event occurs and then sinks in, extreme action happens in flashes, followed by calm. Most time spent on lock-down is down-time. Soldiers experience disturbing boredom while waiting for action, senses heightened with potential, then deadened with monotony, in a psychological spiral leaving few veterans well in the aftermath. A well-filmed narrative where a good person fights and wins justice is a great escape from a reality in which the opposite is usually true. However, reclaiming time (precious in our one-and-only life) is an act of observance. We observe that we are part of nature, mindful that we are also alone.

Interconnectedness

Mindfulness marketed as an individual coping mechanism against bio-busy-ness-as-usual is tenuous and temporary. Cosmo-awareness, corporate yoga backbends, and woke, narcissistic productivity mantras offer individualistic, topical salves against the horrors inflicted by non-stop hustling. Heal thyself by thine own bootstraps! Be “mindful” of private profit!  While “interconnectedness” is a cheap, new-age buzzword, there is one clear connection between ecosystem collapse, massive political violence, and rolling social disintegration: the extreme busy-ness of capitalism.

4/4 On the Floor

John Cage declared that percussive music is “future music” enabling escape from the chains of western notation and oppressive classical traditions in music. The future has arrived bearing new chains: dance music is among the most popular genres of music appearing with local twists in almost every corner of the world. The brutal, unceasing 4/4 beat of most dance music matches a heartbeat in stress. Potentially exciting, evoking physical exertion and mental sharpness, the effects of extreme sports or sex, dance music’s unceasing world party has become a death march. Today’s overtaxed heart suffers from hyper competitive overconsumption, hypertension, toxic air and water, toxic human relations and wholesale stress. A highly disturbing method of torture is loud, upbeat music that never turns off. Too much of a good thing quickly becomes horror: sex is great, but forced non-stop sex is abject terror. To be trapped in a pounding nightclub, forever, dancing exhausted, barely standing, while the security staff brutally beats random (disproportionately black and brown) people who try to stop dancing or escape, fires filling up the place with smoke, walls, roof and floor groaning with impending implosion: this is capitalism. These words may have appeared hyperbolic a few years ago, but now even the average taxpayer is beginning to feel something is amiss with their death dance and so they vote for conjurors who promise respite while accelerating the BPM.

Time is measured by natural forces and orbits, and as such is ultimately beyond human influence. However, time is felt by humans in psychological terms of awareness and consciousness. Performances of Bach have sped up 30% in the last half-century.86 Average length of shots in film has been decreasing, increasing jump-cuts.87 Time is decimal decimated by round-the-clock, just-in-time drudgery. Time became a tool of absolute oppression: a 24/7 system of extreme bondage, of oppressive and total compliance. Capitalism’s overreach has automated time into ruthless hurry where priorities are instilled from tyranny. Tech tycoon Jack Ma promotes the merciless 9-9-6 work schedule: 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week, etc. etc.

All, All, All Of Them. Bergman Salinas. April 2020 Portland, OR

If the forced “observation” of 24/7 capitalism sounds like the forced observation of an extremist religion, it is because that is exactly what it is. Capitalism is the largest religion in the history of humanity.88 Walter Benjamin’s reflections from 1921 are even more urgent a century later:

In the first place, capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.”89

The market is worshiped and revered like a malevolent, anthropomorphic god. It casts a spell to labor compulsively,  devouring time. Benjamin wrote in his unpublished notes that in Capitalism there are no weekdays, or in other words, every day must be filled with the obligations of piety. “There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper.”90 Market worship fills every day of the week, month, and year.

שָׁבַת Shabbat?

The word Shabbat שַׁבָּת means “rest” or “cessation” and it is related to the modern Hebrew shevita שביתת which means strike, as in labor strike. Rabbi Hershel wrote “Time is like a wasteland. It has grandeur but no beauty. Its strange, frightful power is always feared but rarely cheered.”91 In global capitalism, time and space lurch barren. Shabbat asks of us instead to lay down the “clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil.”92 The sacred (a human decision to value something) is often a place, an object, however since “time is the heart of existence,”93 Shabbat is thus a “palace in time.”94 In Judaism the rhythms of time are observed, and observance is sacred, celebrated by stillness.

All, All, All Of Them. Bergman Salinas. April 2020 Portland, OR

What does it mean to observe? Time is an essential element of observation: settling into a position, taking note, reflecting on meaning, and then, in science, forming experiments to test hypotheses that lead to further observation. Animals continuously scan and track time and space by instinct, enabling them to find food while avoiding becoming food themselves. Humans may also have the innate capacity of observance, however, it is a skill that is inconvenient to capitalism, so there are entire industries developed to wash this ability away in an opioid haze for those who have any free time remaining after toil. Extrapolation of reality through time-based observation of facts is undermined by self-interested industries. Observation is subject to manipulation and obscurantism via the false-narratives of capitalism. Observance to capitalism is snow blindness.

Time and resources on earth appear infinite to human perception. A walk through the Amazon, and a sail over the Pacific is an experience so overwhelming that a human being can barely comprehend the volume of water, and the abundance of life. Geologic time is even further beyond what humans can fully imagine.95 It was incomprehensible that humans could affect such vastness, however, human civilization has become a cataclysmic event itself. But unlike the great Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age, the anthropocene will not leave fertile valleys behind. Capitalism spurs growth and development as though it could happen infinitely, but it cannot. While the earth is large beyond our faculties, it is finite.

צמצום Tzimtzum?

This section gets even more uncomfortably esoteric, but in the spirit of free time and free improvisation free from the goose stepping of productivity, we assert that this kind of reflection is among the suppressed fundamental joys of living.

Universal Wheel. Savoy, France. Magic lantern slide, optical toy. 1780. Smithsonian Design Museums. Public Domain

In the Kabbalah, the concept צמצום tzimtzum speculates on the moment in creation where HaShem (‘The Name’ one of many Hebrew words for ‘the universe known and unknown’ — sometimes known as G*d) holds back, contracts, from infinity in order to create something finite. Creation, also known as the universe, is a mystery: why does matter exist? Galaxies, planets, and living rooms are finite, though there may or may not be an infinite number of them.96 According to Torah, Shabbat is the day HaShem rested from creative work. But if HaShem is infinite, (the opposite of an object), rest is an anthropomorphic concept, a placeholder symbol for something else. What rest means for HaShem is to revert back to infinity, implying that infinity is a state of rest. Contracting inwards, away from infinity, is necessary for finite matter such as life to exist. (A hammer is a hammer, it is not an infinity, although it is potentially part of infinity, and is made up of mind bogglingly smaller particles, but is recognized as a hammer nonetheless.) Objects therefore are contractions of infinity, they are tiny pieces of infinity that are no longer infinite. What makes objects finite is the perception (possibly and quite probably mistaken) of them as separate and discrete objects from everything else. The Earth is thus a finite object, unfathomably large for perception, but radically smaller than the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, and mind-bogglingly smaller, almost (but not quite) infinitely smaller than the Universe itself. The Earth is an object contracted — at rest — from infinity.

Plein Air Painting, John Riepenhoff. Painted at night, under only the ambient light from stars and the moon, from our backyard, Portland 2018

Contraction

Humans imagine that Earth’s resources are infinite, but in behaving this way, crash headlong into its limits. It is telling that Musk, Bezos, and others, have shifted their obsessions to space travel, having contributed their share towards depleting Earth’s resources, they look to the cosmos for more fuel.

However, when humans rest, when we contract into ourselves, into our families and friends, into time and place, contracting away from productive and creative labor, we experience suggestions of, whispers of, the infinite. Observation shifts both downwards into our own unknowable selves, and outwards into the unknowable universe. Total horror of looking at the infinite and unknown is one reason why humanity prefers to stay endlessly busy. This fear must be dealt with because endless busy-ness is self-negating. Capitalism is a humanity-wide machine to keep busy and avoid reflecting on infinity, that is, to avoid awareness of death. During no other time during its existence has homo sapiens had to work this endlessly for subsistence. Most hunter gatherers worked a few hours a day and spent the rest of their time playing around. Capitalism forces us to work longer hours to survive, and then we hustle even more in order to avoid reflecting on anything uncomfortable. Shabbat is a beautiful device that allows us to come to terms with the infinite: we are asked to sit with it, and ease the body and mind into the peaceful acceptance that we are profoundly small. We reflect that we are in fact alive, a contemplation that only fully blossoms when we understand that this is for a limited time only. To contract from the busy-ness of business, opens us up to the contemplation of nothingness, the infinite and of death, and this improves the quality of life on Earth. Time out spent in contemplation of death (and other abstractions on the infinite) improves life.

Pre-programmed Free-Time

¡Ay, ay, ay! La muerte ya viene Y a toditos nos agarra, Hay que suerte tan chaparra, Pues creo que ni madre tiene. José Guadalupe Posada. Woodcut. 1913. Public Domain

Those lucky enough to enjoy small amounts of free time are compelled to do leisure activities that are productive for capitalism. Sports, arts and entertainment, hiking, gardening, etc are all encouraged as healthy activities, pre-programmed yet again for more productivity. “Free time” is further compartmentalized into total environments called “campuses” at tech companies and universities where amusements such as ping-pong tables and climbing walls are provided within the workspace in order to appear fun and anarchic, but this is still serious busy-ness. Adorno noticed this already in the 1960’s writing “…free time should in no way whatsoever suggest work, presumably so that one can work that much more effectively afterward. This is the reason for the idiocy of many leisure time activities.”97 Furthermore, boredom according to Adorno, does not happen when one has actual free time to choose among meaningful activities. Therefore, activities such as art, philosophy, poetry, and science, when not employed by the market, tinkering, and other “useless” activities (that may in fact offer an alternative focus to production and consumption) are condescendingly called “passions” and then systematically marginalized until they can be reincorporated as packaged commodities again.98

Theft of Time

Clock. Citizens Savings and Trust Company, Nashville, Tennessee, US. 1920. Public Domain Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In addition to the loss of our natural environment, time itself has been stolen by its just-in-time commodification. The essence of capitalism is logical abstraction, that is, of the symbolic complexity of value formed by social process, wealth, commodity and time. Marx defines labor time like this: “What exclusively determines the magnitude of the value of any article is therefore the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour-time socially necessary for its production.”99 This “natural” and generalized way of determining normative value is quasi-objective in that it tries to assign a value of life through time, of existence itself. Value produced through labor does not recognize any individual life, rather individuals are subsumed as abstractions of commodity. Marx calls this a moving contradiction “in that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary.”100 This condition, named the “social division of time” by Moishe Postone, highlights the absurdity of “necessary” labor vs “surplus” labor.101 Profit is made by exploiting the surplus, in other words, by exploiting people’s time, that is, their lives, by paying as little as possible in exchange. The exploitation of labor is a shocking theft of people’s time on earth, of people’s lives. This theft is rationalized by market-based systems of “value” (capital + variable + surplus = value). The theft of time is justified by the mantra that “profit” is reinvested back into the system, however, the existence of billionaires and their infinitely absurd purchases (a Tesla orbiting Mars? a Russian doll of yachts parked inside larger yachts?) is evidence that this theory was developed in the trash bin of “free market” think-tanks. Market-based systems of value obfuscate the main aspect of the formation of such value, that is, “surplus” aka profit, aka the theft of time.

Time Poverty

The problem is generalized when we realize that the problem of a life wasted to generate or pursue profit is equal among all classes. There are very few individuals who do not spend the majority of their lives working for capitalism.102 No one is winning when the unquestioned expectation is that everyone should toss their lives into the supposed never-ending growth of capital, and the accompanying liquidation of nature. Of course rich people enjoy extraordinary pleasures and could opt to enjoy free time, however, rich people also pride themselves in the overwork necessary to build and oversee power.

Everyone is hustling, rich and poor. Minimum-wage workers must work many jobs to survive. High power lawyers also put in 60-70 hours per week and take an expensive, stressful “vacation” somewhere tasteless once or twice a year. Everyone is solving workplace problems at all hours of the day and night. The absurdly rich hustle to amass even more wealth and power. Some people fight on behalf of this system, and others fight against it, everyone wasting the precious time of their lives.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg has spent most of her life, day in and day out, fighting for what is right, and while we thank her for giving up the majority of her time for the benefit of humanity, we mourn the loss of her freedom. Charles Koch on the other hand, spent all his time fighting for what is wrong (ironically in the name of “freedom” which of course means the “freedom of the tyrant to exploit”). We all suffer because Koch spent his free time towards normalizing the consumption of ours. Both lives, like most lives, are characterized by extreme time poverty. This situation has grown beyond Marx’s concepts of alienated versus unalienated labor, exploited vs exploiter. Capitalism developed into a hyper-complex system where everyone works primarily for the system itself, absorbing its needs, conforming to the mores, morals, norms, movements, and demand for self-sacrifice on behalf of the holy market. More extreme than medieval Europe, no one escapes its dogma: even the lives of those fighting against capitalism are conditioned by it.

We only have one life, no matter how much power we have. Koch fought to amass power and resources of mind-boggling potential, but he died just the same, leaving behind a dramatically worse world by all measurements, and it is very unlikely he found peace in his lifetime. The political malevolence he wrought was beyond biblical, contributing single-handedly to the destruction of Earth’s resources to an unimaginably huge, superhuman degree. Koch’s actions are difficult to fully comprehend, but a simple way to to explain his drive is the human need for control (the illusion of control) magnified exponentially. The human need for control is driven by fear of the unknown and uncontrollable, especially death. This explains the ongoing war against nature itself, where humanity does battle with nature to increase its own safety, predictability and comfort.  Despite the power and wealth Koch hoarded, Koch died just the same, a finite object disappearing into infinity again, leaving behind sky-darkening industrial works and labyrinthine political machineries. While Koch as an object has disappeared, the world suffers, and would have been much better, much healthier, had Koch never existed, or if he would have lived a humble life. Koch the great industrialist, the great libertarian, the great political strategist, instead railed against death, all but guaranteeing the leviathan rise of nature — climate change puts in jeopardy all life on earth. Nature inflicts collective punishment on all of us because of this man, and those like him. There are unfortunately dozens of Koch clones, and thousands of mini-Kochs, and countless millions of Koch apologists, how are they to be denied before Earth stamps humanity out?

Eternity Again

Shrine (Malmö), Mikko Kuorinki, 2013

During COVID-19, most workers are more afraid of the economic consequences of being out of work, and paying for hospital care, than the consequences of actually contracting the virus. When the threat of disease is less impressive than the threat of unemployment then capitalism is the more terrifying plague.

Funny or sad — or perhaps both — the best chance we have to prevent mass death is to retreat to our monk’s cells, with vows of isolation. Freedom does not come in the terms that have been packaged and sold by capitalism: true freedom is wrapped with time.

Boredom

Busy-ness as usual in the artworld has been disrupted, yet art itself emerges stronger. The artworld is a small part of a society made in the miserable image of neoliberal capitalism: art and artists are exploited as any other resource. This could change. This needs to change. But while artists struggle to survive in the psychopathic marketplace, art itself can and does rise out. One important and overlooked strategy among innumerable possibilities is to strengthen the power of “boredom.” When art is not compelled to fulfill the impetuous demands of the creative economy, it opens towards humanity instead, and defragments time. Observation of time can be decelerated and savored, allowing the perception of slow movement. Art like this is sometimes called “boring” but those who choose to engage are rewarded. The act of engagement, of course, is observation. This power is not to be underestimated, and artworks that communicate on this spectrum play with and celebrate one of the most precious resources: free time.

The morning after
my death
we will sit in cafés
but I will not
be there
I will not be

-Etel Adnan

Cosmic Background Radiation, (the oldest light in the universe) ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/T. Kitayama (Toho University, Japan)/ESA/Hubble & NASA 2017. Public Domain

This essay is available to download as a tabloid PDF.



Art After the Future

Jose Joaquin Figueroa. 04/28/2020 "An experiment" from Drawing Archive 2005-ongoing. Commissioned by MARCH.

Art After the Future

Dear X,

How are you doing today? How is your breathing? Have you checked the news yet? Is this what you expected from your year? Do you think we’ll still have elections by the end of it? What have you been cooking? Are you taking the appropriate number of supplements? Are you getting in your steps? Are we living in a failed state? Do you like my YSL knockoff mask my friend sent? What art is bringing you solace? Are you still consolable? Do you want to share a cocktail over FaceTime later? When are we anyway? Are we already too late?

With Care,
Andrea and James


On March 4th, 2020, the Venice Architecture Biennale sent a mass email announcing the postponement of its intended opening date until the fall. Followed by a second letter on May 18th, 2020 delaying the exhibition until 2021, these deferral letters are the perfect artifact of the art world we knew before. Inadvertently cataloguing the acute derangement of the contemporary art world, the letters trace a persistent belief that both art and the world will be able to return more or less unchanged. They assume an after in which the Collateral Event103 of COVID-19 will be footnoted as a temporary inconvenience to be conceptually recuperated and otherwise overcome. Titled “How Will We Live Together?,” the exhibition’s theme and it’s too-timely deferral arrived at a moment in which perhaps the more proper question is: Will We Live? 

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Read the letters with comments on this open document.

This early postponement was an opening salvo for an indefinite and unprecedented sequence of closures, cancellations, delays, transitions, translations, and digitizations of presence that have marked the art world since. In subsequent weeks, most of the world’s museums went dark and Zoom became the primary medium of social persistence. Artists stayed home, submitted applications for emergency relief funding, and filed for unemployment. They made zines, made sourdough, made performances for Twitch, publications for emails, paintings for eventual outside walls, masks for themselves and mass deployment. The museums scrambled to digitize everything, started reading groups, activated the archives, led remote walkthroughs for maybe no one, wrote us all emails about These Uncertain Times and This Moment; about how Now More Than Ever Art will help lead us through. Art school went on, sort of. Degrees and debt were extended. Learning, in theory, occurred.

Wait, why are we using past tense? When is our present? Where is our future?

We write from within an ongoing all-world event. We began this essay when Andrea arrived in St. Louis for a residency at The Luminary (where James is the director) just as the Venice Architecture Biennale was first postponed in early March 2020. As long-time collaborators, we met at the train station, exchanged hugs, and headed to an event in St. Louis where dozens of people crammed into a classroom, chanted Assata and ate from shared pizza boxes while organizing to shut down the city’s medium security prison. That night, we caught up over drinks and tacos at a busy bar, easy among strangers. We shared some early concerns about coronavirus, playing out worst case scenarios that felt like science fiction. Within a week, our easy proximity gave way to cloistered communications from a few blocks away as distancing procedures set the pace of our days. This text began as a conversation, a shared air, and then moved to mediated sessions from one iMessage to another, from one bunker to another—much in the way that it circulates now between all too many screens.

Within the acute body of the art world, it is increasingly clear that beyond and around the coronavirus the market collapse and global uncertainty threatens an unprecedented slowdown—the proper economic concept for our confused time. Many of the impacts of this pandemic are unthinkable: the sudden global isolation into quarantine, the sheer volume of lost lives, lost time, losses of all kinds. Yet, within the art field, this moment has revealed structural fault lines that have been present for years, underlying conditions that require a rethinking of its core assumptions of normalcy and what worlds to which we will be able to return. As we enter a period of uneven reopenings in the coming weeks and months, into what future are we entering, and which art worlds will persist?

***

In a much-circulated speculation, Americans for the Arts projected that perhaps one third of the museums that temporarily suspend operations during the coronavirus outbreak will never reopen. Another major funder reportedly stated that, given the widespread collapse likely coming within the field, they were waiting to see which institutions would survive before infusing more cash. In other words, they would be there to lend support, but only to the survivors on the other side of this extinction event. Regardless of any stimulus offered now or later, thousands of museums may not reopen. Maybe even more than predicted. Closures will be delayed six, twelve, twenty-four months, as admissions disappear, contributors divert funds to other relief efforts, hotel tax funds dry up, and corporate giving and state support recedes.

Many Cities, States and Universities in the United States and elsewhere are already entering austerity procedures, shutting down Arts and Culture Departments and shifting funds to make up for shortfalls in other areas like healthcare and unemployment.104 Austerity is increasingly becoming a long-lasting assumption. In a well-researched article in The Art Newspaper, the president of the International Council of Museums (Icom), Suay Aksoy, warned, “This crisis has put numerous cultural institutions around the world on the verge of economic collapse,” and reports are dire everywhere. The pandemic’s impact is uniquely cutting across many sectors, forcing shortfalls in earned income as attendance plummets and tourism comes to a complete stop, impacting philanthropy of all kinds, and initiating cuts on a State level in most nations.

Even with emergency stabilization, hundreds of already overleveraged and underfunded organizations are teetering at best, resisting their own impossibility. However, these closures will inevitably affect the most fragile first: un-institutions, artist-run and DIY spaces running on volunteer staff and side gigs, rural organizations, and QTPOC+ run spaces already barely able to survive. In other words, survival will be unevenly distributed, as always.

Those with enough cash reserves and donor connections will sustain, for a time, absorbing a disproportionate share of bailout funds while rarely reaching down to support those more fragile (in art as everywhere), but even reserves can only go so far, as is already becoming clear. The existence of endowments and government funding to sustain institutions in the midst of a crisis is a myth that disappears as soon as austerity is socially acceptable. The museum director retains their full salary as the hundreds below them are on hold with the unemployment helpline.105 The building project goes on (or gets torn down), even as there is no one to enter the galleries. The losses aren’t indexed by the virus, but by the ways the virus manifests the inequities and brutalities of the systems we’ve enabled to exist. In this reordering of resources, which continues to play out on a global scale, a rearticulation of demands for other art worlds is now more urgent than ever.

Amidst these dramatic impacts of an economic slowdown, what we are not seeing is a corresponding personal or institutional slowdown. Instead, many artists and organizations are in the throes of an exhausting pivot to overproduction, including a scramble to new platforms. The current explosion of online content in our field feels frantic. In an opportunistic rush to capture quarantined attention spans, platforms are flooded with new chances to log on, participate, passively consume, and, of course, purchase. Most institutions, which are extensions of our anxious selves, only know how to just keep going. The organizational machine keeps making its way.

The silence, the strike or stoppage too closely reveals oneself to be non-essential—for a budget, to be sure, but also often for a public. Art institutions are built on perpetual motion. The inertia of activity always assumes a next: the next exhibition is announced as the previous one opens, the grant deliverables are always eighteen months out. Now, the programs are rarely cancelled, just shifted online, or indefinitely deferred. These crises at the institutional level inevitably fall on artists, who are asked to show up and reorient their work for a changed world no matter how their bodies or minds are managing. The moving assembly line of deadlines and mechanics of alienated hyper-productivity are at odds with pause, silence—or illness.

From within this truly exceptional moment, we are asking: can we not? Within a rupture in which the overwhelming waves of illness, of stoppage, of death is palpable, can we embrace silence for a moment? The rush to produce refuses the space to reflect on possibilities. Can we step back and witness the vectors of force that keep us in perpetual motion: the pressures from above and outside to perform, overproduce, and appear essential?

Another art world is inevitable. Which art worlds will emerge is not.

Jose Joaquin Figueroa. 05/2020 "Room -don't take hugging for granted" from Drawing Archive 2005-ongoing. Commissioned by MARCH.

COVID-19 is a serial link in a concatenated crisis of which any number of viruses could stand in as some shadow line of no return. These conditions, though heightened into a frenzy as COVID-19 has quickly spread globally across borders and bodies and markets and imaginaries, are not new. From the crisis of capitalism to its resultant climate disaster, any assumptions about how life and art go on a fixed timeline with infinite futures under continuous inflation should have been questioned for decades. If anything, the rapid insertion of quarantines, deferrals, cancellations and generalized shutdowns into our previously assumed near futures helps clarify where we actually were—and still are.

In this suspended state, it is clear how precarious any idea of the future is, as well as how much of our work’s meaning is dependent on some future that finally justifies it. The speculative structures of contemporary art and its institutions are a pinnacle of forever futuring that take the most fragile of forms, gestures, and ephemeral marks and attempt to extend them for posterity. This future is embedded into our economy, our institutions and societies, our daily rituals and artistic practices. Institutionalization of future economic opportunities and risks through debt structures, like the student loan pyramid or the many forms of market production, competition, and scarcity, is fundamental to our orientation towards work and reward: a capitalist imaginary foundationally about the future and the possibility of growth.

The infrastructures of the art world require the world to continue as it has been, supported by extreme income inequality and aspirational spectacles for prestige patronage, subsidized by artists willing to take on unsustainable debt to enter graduate programs, and enabled by assumptions of freedom of motion and frictionless exchange. Nowhere is this more clear than in the art world’s dependence on overwhelming resource burns: infinite oil for sprinter van shipments and freights and flights, coal for the climate controlled crates and precise air control in the museum, relentless data kept in cold server warehouses, Frigidaires the size of five football fields chilling our iClouds out in the desert.

How long are we keeping things locked in bunkers and for whom? What are we willing to burn to preserve these conditions? Coal and oil, of course, but what about its after-effects? The Australian bush, old growth forests, our backyards, an eventual future? The assumption of permanence actually creates the conditions for collapse. It seems cruel to single out individual institutions and artworks as not worth saving, yet simple to assess the entire system as unsustainable. We are living in the tension between impossible decisions. Haunting the edges of the art world’s obsession with futurity is the reality that this perceived future no longer exists.

What, instead, is an art that embraces no future? How does the understanding of the creation, circulation, and care of artwork, and support of the individuals, collectives and institutions that make up the art world shift when conceptions of deferred worth are removed? Certainly, artists and the infrastructures of art would have to account for the carbon footprint for all of the making, shipping, preserving, and flying that has defined the contemporary art world. Endowments and cash reserves would be suddenly loosened to support the thousands of already suffering fired and furloughed workers. Adjustments for accessibilities for immuno-compromised and disabled participants and audiences finally accelerated in this time would be made permanent.106 Artistic platforms would embrace slowdowns and refusals as form, and differing abilities were assumed at all times and spaces prioritize many other forms of expression and experience.

Some of these particular pivots precede the COVID-19 pandemic, and many have been working towards this groundshift. Numerous artists, curators, and organizations have been orienting to a more holistic relationship with the environment, the land, and the tentative commons we already inhabit to embrace this changed horizon in which no future can be assumed.107

To work amidst and beyond the virus is to embrace an art with no future, an art of the now.

Art after the future remains an open question —and our time requires a response.

Jose Joaquin Figueroa. 05/13/2020 "Indexical me" from Drawing Archive 2005-ongoing. Commissioned by MARCH.

When I wake up, where should my body be?

“If I survive, it is only because my life is nothing without the life that exceeds me, that refers to some indexical you, without whom I cannot be.” (Judith Butler, Frames of War108)

Coronavirus, perhaps like good art or film or fiction, has done incredible work on the collective imagination, and is rewiring our conception of what is possible. The acceptance of this rapidly shifting world requires us to process a lot of grief. Amidst the grief, there seems to be a new openness to change, and a renewed urgency to remake our systems and relationships to better care for people and the ecosystems we inhabit. What are our infrastructures and institutions capable of caring for this grief while creating space for communal mourning and communal meaning? Can we take time to feel our losses? For now, every day, we are asking simple questions: When we wake up, where should our bodies be? What do we owe each other just for surviving? How are we caring for one another through our own fragility?

What COVID-19 has urgently exposed is our interconnectedness—the sinuous bonds that keep us alive and truly living. This text has many we’s. It also carries interrelated I’s and you’s without whom we cannot continue.109 Just as the virus quickly became borderless and our social bodies were suddenly seen to be porous, both illness and recovery are intimately intertwined—community and immunity returning to their joint root. As the art world emerges from this restless slowdown, can it begin to operate out of the mutuality necessary in this moment?

Art after the future starts to see the world as it is: a fragile, contingent ecosystem in which we are never singular. This un-futured art understands that one’s survival is not in spite of another but with one another. How artists and arts organizations are reorienting now offers some grasp on what will be needed not just now, but what will be needed next. Care collectives, rent strikes, and coalitions of all kinds will be required, as well as an insistence on structural shifts for how work is funded, circulated and shared. The mutual aid and direct support for artists and vulnerable organizations arising now will need to be normalized by grantors, foundations, and the public as immanent life is prioritized. As the social body remains ill and unworkable, artists will need to embrace inoperability. Not-working for once. What work does emerge out of this time will need to not just be conceptually responsive, but materially and structurally responsive to a changed world.

After the reserves and emergency funds are gone, art institutions will need to embrace nestings within one another, and other collective forms of support such as shared infrastructure, space, and staff. Any ethical nonprofit attempting to sustain through this time will need to merge and morph into unfamiliar forms both within and beyond art, perhaps adapting strategies from public spaces like libraries to provide more services and shelter, absorbing more fragile organizations and artistic practices within one another, or abandoning their buildings in favor of grafted publics and partnerships. These recombinations may be necessary practically as funding dissipates, but also represent a moral position of taking up less space in the world: less physical space, fewer resources, reduced carbon consumption, but also making way for other voices to emerge as old forms necessarily change.

Within the unavoidable closures to come (and those already here) how will we embrace ethical endings that seed other futures through the redistribution of not just money, but space, equipment and expertise? Who are the institutional death doulas ready to guide graceful and inevitable exits, to preserve these fragile histories?110 As we take a step (and then the next), as we allocate our time, attention, stimulus checks, ourselves to the tasks on their way we must also ask: What forms of slowness or non-functioning should we preserve from this time? What do we learn from our own sudden emptiness? Inertness? Alertness to our limits? What institutions are worth supporting? What practices are worth preserving? What work is worth making?

We are loosened from time right now in the Great Deferral of 2020. As artists and arts institutions, we can rush in to fill the silence and occupy the time as we are trained to do from decades of over-production. Or, we can let some candles gutter, the fluorescents flicker, and go out. We can let artworks have life cycles, bodied like we are. We can let institutions age. We can take care of the lives they lead, serve as nurses in their illness, as caretakers in a plague. We can make work out of what is at hand. We can say no when our bodies need to. We can say sorry to the earth and each other. We can make space for loss and grief. We can continue to learn from contingency, fragility, slowness and impermanence. We don’t assume a future, but still we support one another today, and the next day, and the next, knowing that our survival is connected in a commons we already inhabit. This is how we will continue to live—together.


MARCH: a journal of art & strategy

We are proud to announce the outlines of our new platform MARCH, even as it arrives at an unprecedented moment.

As a “journal of art and strategy,” our mark and motion is to consider art and art criticism’s capacity to intervene in the world. MARCH is meant as a durational platform with singular purpose: to gather urgent thinking and writing with ideas, actions and forms that embody how we can better be together.

MARCH embraces publishing as an act of protest with which to
address the critical social and political issues of our time.

We have anticipated this announcement for over a year since sharing the closure of our previous project, Temporary Art Review, in March of 2019. However, we could not have foreseen the ways in which the world would encircle this moment with a global crisis that underscores the failures of our capacity to care, as well as the collectivities that are – and have been – forming in the cracks. What we did know is that the world had changed dramatically since we founded our previous publication back in 2011, and that the impending changes moving forward would require a new and extended form, balancing the concerns of the local and regional with those on a decidedly global level.

During this uncertain moment, and the ruptures it is making visible across a spectrum of spheres, our statement drafted months ago proposing that “MARCH emerges at a moment of deepening institutional crisis and is intent on advancing new forms of publication, critique and public action,” is only more true. This is not a manifesto in a moment of crisis, but an opening to a much longer procession.

We are con-temporary, with and of our time – an archive of the present and proposition for a future in which our ideas, actions and form embody this insurrection.

As our name’s multiple meanings imply, we are both noun and verb; idea and movement; located yet open; a borderland between territories in which new possibilities take root. MARCH will act as a gathering place for expansive thinking towards other art worlds, mapping global perspectives, and offering a site for deep and embodied institutional thinking. You may read more information on our introductory website and follow us on instagram, facebook and twitter.

As we announce this project publicly, MARCH is now not just ours, but yours. We invite your thinking and support as we build this platform as a ‘collective research group’ and begin responding to current global events as they unfold, as we can and in whatever forms are available to us. Yet, more urgently, in this moment we resist virality and aim to build deeper roots and quietly stitch together solidarities. In its many tendrils, MARCH is an invitation and a speculation: What is needed now? What is needed next? Who are we, collectively, and what will we make – in the days, months, and years to come?

Sarrita Hunn and James McAnally
Founders and Editors, MARCH: a journal of art & strategy