I’m one of the relatively lucky ones for whom lockdown is an opportunity to turn the mirror inwards. One person who I think about a lot is my grandfather who died of a stroke when I was three, but who I remember vividly. I think my mind is tied up in knots, knots comprised of all the half-remembered, half-truths that surround his mysterious life. He was a Jew in the Bukovina region, in a town that was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Romania, and eventually the Ukraine, all in his lifetime. He left it in 1939, when it was still Romania, fleeing the coming apocalypse.
What confuses me is that he had a wife in Romania who did not come with him who died, presumably. The story is that she was quarantined with Typhoid or Tuberculosis, depending on who you ask in my family, and could not travel with him. That’s all we (think) we know. The story sounds implausible, and at the same time deeply sad. It got me to thinking about what their relationship might have been like, that their must have been estrangement as well as illness when he left for Trieste and she stayed behind.
I wrote this speculative poetry in the honour of this woman I do not know but feel somehow intimately connected to.
Hand on the Glass
your hand against the glass
I was trapped behind
but my room is cold
I shiver beneath
the coat you left behind
cold and heavy
like your hand in mine
the last time we shuffled
along the boulevard
before the mobs
lips sewn shut by fear
I wanted to walk backwards
to the day before we met
when my fate was only
we walked on
to the statue
you kept me half alive
in a half light
a gloom in which
i could see my face
when the world was something
i could hold
like your hand
when you took your hand
from the glass
you finished what you started
years and years ago
you lived on
Two nights ago, I watched a man being arrested outside the studio where I am hunkered down in Berlin . I don’t know why. The man could not prove where he lived so he was taken into custody.
partner and I watched but we didn’t intervene, we didn’t ask the
reason or where the man was going. As non-citizens I feel vulnerable
at the best of times, but the chilling effect of the Covid-19
outbreak on civil liberties is real and needs our focus.
Let me be clear. The Covid-19 pandemic is a catastrophe and people should the advice of governments and stay at home. At the same time I consider it utterly essential that we question the acts of our governments in the days, weeks and months that follow.
these two seemingly contradictory statements coexist? Firstly, we
need to differentiate between scientists and governments. I trust
scientific consensus on issues like Covid-19 and Climate Change. I
trust governments only when I believe there is a good reason to do
so. Yesterday, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged people to
stay at home so as not to hasten the spread of this dangerous
pathogen. She is repeating, almost verbatim, the scientific consensus
of epidemiologists. In this context, I trust that Merkel is acting in
good faith and that this advice is sound. On the flip side I don’t
trust governments when they ignore scientific consensus, for instance
when, despite warnings from climate scientists, governments allow
coal mining, build airport runways and subsidise polluting
following the advice of scientists is not the same thing as blindly
obeying your government. There are two reasons why this is important.
The first relates to the current pandemic. We need to pay close
attention to the emergency legislation that is passed because of the
powers that it grants governments, agencies, police and the security
services. In the UK, legislation to halt the spread of Covid-19 gives
police the power to arrest anyone they suspect of having Covid-19.
Given that in a pandemic any one of us might have the virus, this is
essentially a power to arrest anyone at any time.
there are strong arguments that such powers are necessary to ensure
adherence to the basic behaviours necessary to save our own lives and
those of the elderly and immunocompromised, this power should still
scare us. We should ask, what oversight is there of these arrest
powers? What avenues exist to contend arbitrary detention? And
finally is there a sunset clause to these powers? Otherwise these
powers could continue indefinitely.
already from the September 11 attacks on New York City that security
services overreach when there is an emergency situation, that they
are eager to assume powers when everyone is so thrown by a sense of
crisis that they stop paying attention. I’m not arguing that people
reactively resist the directions of governments, police, health
agencies during this crisis, but that they pay attention and
question the powers these authorities grant themselves.
The second reason why critical thinking remains important at this moment relates to the question of how we got to this crisis in the first place – and how we will avoid or better manage future crises on a global scale. All the economic shocks roiling economies across the world – the grounding of planes, the halting of industry – were deemed impossible just months earlier when they were advocated by Extinction Rebellion to stop Climate Change. Now they are deemed inevitable in the fight against Covid19.
especially disturbing with this crisis is that epidemiologists have
long warned that human encroachment on natural spaces increases the
likelihood of the very event we are living through. Governments and
corporations would not act on these warning, or at best barely acted,
because it seemed somehow distant and irrelevant compared to economic
growth. now the entire world has stopped because the ruling class
rightly recognises that even their lives are threatened by this
crisis, along with entire social and economic fabric they rely on.
We know from the predictions of climate scientists that this will not be the last crisis that humanity faces, and that crises of this scale will come with increasing rapidity. Will we expect ourselves to suspend our critical judgement each time a new megahazard emerges?
The answer should be no. I urge you to read the legislation that governments pass in response to Covid-19, carefully watch the activities of police and security services and be prepared to call out overreach before it is too late and an expanded security state becomes normalised. And read widely. Haymarket Books just released 10 e-books for free including Angela Davis’ Freedom is a constant Struggle. My goal is to skip Netflix and educate myself on the broader context of these terrifying events now that my freedom to move is so restricted.
The destructive short term thinking that has created the 21st Century of crises will only change if we demand it and we turn a critical eye on the governments and corporations that direct our lives. Which is why it is important that when we implore others to #StayTheFuckHome, we also #StayTheFuckCritical.
Authors Note: I discovered recently that this interview does not exist online so I decided to repost it here. There is something appropriate about considering Stelarc’s relation to embodiment as we process are hypermediated isolation during the Covid-19 epidemic.
In his visceral and often violent speculations on technology’s massive power to dissect and reconfigure the human form, visual-performance artist Stelarc has never shied away from putting his own body on the line. In the last thirty years, he’s dangled 60 metres in the air with hooks through his skin, had his movements controlled by a mechanical exoskeleton; and inserted a sculpture 30cms into his stomach.
His latest work,
Blender, is a co-production with artist Nina Sellers. It consists of
a churning, spherical vat half-full of subcutaneous fat cut from the
pair’s bodies. Stelarc describes it as a ‘choreography of
blending and bubbling’, resulting in a ‘liquid body’. On
opening night, it looked like an elaborate bowl of carrot soup. I
begin the interview by asking him if it’s really just
an attempt to use an arts grant to fund liposuction.
Stelarc: I spent
$10,000 dollars of my own money just on the operation. What you see
in the blender is worth $10,000.
Really? Is it
And the blender
itself, the exhibition and the fabrication of the compressed air has
probably cost another $5,000. You’re seeing $15,000 dollars of my
own money, not arts-funded. People sometimes forget that artists are
committed enough to go both physically and financially out on a limb.
Maybe, um, we
should talk about the …
Well maybe we
should. I read on your website that you say ‘The Body is Obsolete’.
Could you explain this?
Well, by stretching
the skin high above New York and Copenhagen, the Suspension
performances were an attempt to explore the body’s physical and
psychological limits. So the suspended body was very much ‘The
The Third Hand was
an attempt to not just explore the limitations of the body, but to
extend the body in some way. It was attached as a prosthesis not as a
result of lack – it wasn’t a replacement for an amputee – but
as a desire for excess. So the body with the third hand was ‘The
Augmented Body’. Subsequently, the body with the internal Stomach
Sculpture was ‘The Invaded Body’, and the body with the
externally programmed body movements was ‘The Involuntary Body’.
So the body is
only obsolete in certain contexts?
People seem to
assume that these performances are about a desire to get rid of the
body altogether, but that’s not the case. When I say ‘The Body is
Obsolete’, I mean that the body in this form, with these functions,
It doesn’t mean
that we can be disembodied. This is not some kind of transhumanist,
transcendental yearning to get rid of the body altogether. Rather,
it’s saying that we can reengineer the body, modify the body and
construct alternate body architectures.
ideal vision for the modified human body?
Well there has never
been an ideal or utopian vision of the body. When you do things with
expectations, reality collapses. You make certain assumptions and
there’s a certain predictable outcome. Rather, my work has been an
attempt to construct projects and perform with a posture of
indifference. When you do something with indifference you try to
allow the world to unfold – you try to allow the performance or the
project to animate itself.
In what ways do
your observations and experimentations suggest the human body will
change in coming years?
I think what we’re
seeing now are a number of alternate strategies or trajectories for
change that have been generated by technology. On the one hand you
have the medical-military model of the cyborg body that has more and
more life support systems continually attached or implanted inside
it. On the other hand you have the increasing development of
artificial intelligence and artificial life; alternate sorts of
systems that might become interactive and responsive to their
environment and to other human bodies.
Then you have some
other intriguing possibilities. As technology becomes increasingly
micro-miniaturised, we may see that the cyborg body will play host to
all of this technology. So instead of bodies being in a landscape of
machines, machines will roam a landscape of soft tissue, cellular
structures and circulatory systems. The other possibility is what’s
happening now, where the internet functions as a kind of external
nervous system that connects myriad remote bodies. Here, the body is
a node of operation in a larger artificial brain composed of all
other networked bodies and machines.
“Unfortunately, the history of this planet doesn’t work on equal access. It’s simplistic to think that somehow everything develops equally at a steady pace and that there’s gradual and positive progress.”
I wonder how
universal these visions can be when such an enormous gap in access to
technology divides those in the Western crust from the rest of the
there are all sorts of dilemmas. Unfortunately, the history of this
planet doesn’t work on equal access. It’s simplistic to think
that somehow everything develops equally at a steady pace and that
there’s gradual and positive progress.
One of the things that Paul Virilio points out is that with every new technology, there’s a new kind of accident. Now he sees this in a totally negative sense, but I don’t see it as negative at all, because technology then is not the technocratic phenomenon that merely enables bodies in different sorts of ways. Rather, technology is a destabilising medium that actually forces us to reconstruct our paradigm of the world.
We have to be aware
that the relationship between the body and technology is quite
complex. As the technological terrain becomes more and more complex,
it also generates more and more constraints. A mundane example is
that now, with technology, I can easily accelerate my body to 100
kilometres an hour. But even as I travel from one place to another
very quickly, there is a proliferation of rules, regulations and
constraints that I have to be subservient to. I have to physically
restrain my body in the car, right? I have to stop at red lights. I
have to travel on the left side of the road.
I think it’s
simplistic to believe that in a technological terrain we can be
totally free. In fact, I don’t think we ever really did have free
agency. The human agent has always been a zombie; it’s never really
had a mind of its own. And it’s already become a cyborg, because
it’s already connected to technology. So we fear what we have
always been and what we’ve already become.
You deny human
beings’ free agency, but you still talk about the ‘I’ being
constrained while the body is destabilised by technology. What might
this self or ‘I’ be then?
I think that it’s just a convenient construction that we locate notions of self, mind and intelligence within a body. Expressions of the self occur between you and me; within the language that we speak, within the social institutions that we operate in, and within the culture that’s conditioned us. When I was a kid I read a book by Herbert Simons called The Sciences of the Artificial. In one of the chapters, Simons was trying to explain systemic intelligence, and he said that if you watch ants, they seem awfully intelligent. They scurry here, they move food over there, they seemingly collaborate socially and you go ‘Wow, how come such a simple creature can perform such intelligent operations?’
When you examine an
ant you eventually realise that it might go in one direction until it
hits an obstacle and that’s when it changes direction, or it might
go in one direction until it finds food and then it goes back to its
nest. The complexity of the ant is not due to its internal
motivations or desires, or notions of a self, brain or mind. This
complex pattern of behaviour is actually made up of very, very simple
behaviours which express the complexity of the environment.
To a large degree it’s the same for human beings – except that our behaviour is not only structured by the physical environment, but also by our social institutions and our cultural conditioning. It’s those things, and our relationship to technology, that enmesh with our genetic repertoire of behaviour to enable us to perform these complex and seemingly intelligent operations.
“I think that it’s just a convenient construction that we locate notions of self, mind and intelligence within a body. Expressions of the self occur between you and me; within the language that we speak, within the social institutions that we operate in, and within the culture that’s conditioned us.”
Is there any
worth, then, to the human species, or are we just functional nodes in
systems beyond our control and understanding?
Of course you value
human operations, human interactions, human culture. But what I think
is exciting is the possibility of hybridity, of human-machine
interface, the possibility of alternate life forms and the
possibility for alternate intelligence and logic that is generated by
these new technological directions.
This vision of
the human species and its future is quite particular to you.
I’ve been very,
very uneasy about appropriating simplistic sci-fi speculations about
the future. They’re often the result of writers taking present day
technology and simply projecting them a little bit this way or that.
As an artist, what’s intriguing is to actualise something – to
directly experience it, and then to be in a position of authenticity
to speak more meaningfully about it.
There is a
website that has proclaimed you as one of the first artists to bring
futurism into cyberspace. What do you think of this?
there were projects and performances … but, I mean, I’ve been
just as equally acknowledged in the piercing and body modification
communities. As an artist you do things, and sometimes they’re
acknowledged in different ways and generate different sorts of
associations. I think it’s the height of arrogance and
self-centredness that somehow anyone would consider themselves a ‘key
What you do [as an
artist] is an aggregate of a history and culture that you’ve
inherited, and a kind of individual contribution as well. Others will
go beyond that and contribute equally. What I find interesting about
art is that anyone can contribute meaningfully, because art is about
the individual articulation of aesthetics and concepts.
Stelarc is hoping
Blender will overcome biohazard issues and make a national tour of
Australia. For more information about Stelarc and his art projects,
go to www.stelarc.va.com.au.
In an era of megahazards, immediate concerns need to give way to the bigger picture of how human beings relate to the planet and one another.
Causality is not a chain, but a network
Whenever there is a natural disaster, for instance “once-in-a-century” floods, or when bush fires chewed up the whole south east coast of Australia, sober voices remind us that is impossible to say that any single event is caused by climate change. This, despite the fact it is clear to most of us that the fires exist in a network of events that includes the very massive presence of a climate changing rapidly under the weight of human activities.
Likewise, at this moment of pandemic, any analysis of what caused this crisis, beyond pointing the finger at the hapless Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, exists in a theoretical space far removed from the more important decisions of whether I should buy more toilet paper (no!) or extract all my money from the bank (what money?)
In the darkest of times, it has become a kind of ritual for the media to roll out Steven Pinker to remind us of how much more difficult life was before modernity transformed food production, warfare, and medical technology. Indeed, as a per capita average we are less likely to die of starvation, pestilence, or at the end of a battle-axe than in medieval times. It nevertheless seems observable that this accumulated benefit of modernity has run its course, and that new, megahazards are replacing death at childbirth, or a marauding army as frightening ways to suffer and die (although both remain very real ways to die in 2020).
Something feels wrong, has felt wrong for a long time. It feels good to say this, to rest for a moment in the imprecise totality of a feeling I’ve carried for as long as I can remember and not feel the need to censor this feeling by either tying it up in a chain of factuality, nor to dismiss it as irrational. It is not the virus that disturbs me. Or not only what disturbs me.
It is the crowd rushing the supermarket, instagramming photos of empty shelves before taking four packages of toilet paper, not making eye contact with the people beside them. Moments like these are observed as a curiosity, a passing phenomenon an overflow of panic to be stemmed so we can focus on the real necessary goal at this moment: infection control.
But it’s not the panic buying that is the problem. Or even the buying itself. It is the anonymity, the self-orientation, the emotional flows that are engaged whenever we buy toilet paper and take toilet paper home.
Let me say this clearly: There is a horror in supermarket shopping. In general. In times of pandemic and at all other times. You know this, but your forgot it. As I forgot and everyone forgot it in the trance of lives structured around consuming. We know, somehow, somewhere that these acts are straining the planetary resources, and that is alienation eats us from the inside, yet we feel compelled by an alien force to continue. These phenomena, alienation and environmental destruction I address as discrete because grammar forces me to do so, but they are in fact the same thing, or at least they are so tightly woven together that is not possible to extricate one from the other and need to be understood, as I said above, as a network.
I have distinct memories of reading ecologists who said that the expansion of urban space and the depletion of natural spaces will bring human beings into ever increasing proximity, and that this proximity will lead to new pathogens crossing the threshold into the human territory. Yet we continue, hoping that the inevitable will not come, at least not now, not this year, not this week.
Knowing that it will come. And then the shock that it has come. I had become so habituated to the idea that ruin lay just around the corner, but never here, where I am now.
What is new about this crisis, for me at least, is the realisation that this human species that has multiplied itself and fulfilled its needs at the expense of all other species now finds itself raw material for another entity to replicate itself and fulfil its needs. In colonising, modernising and territorialising every inch of planet, we have become a territory ourselves to be marked, mapped and mined by a pathogen that may or may not have spread from a seafood market in China.
By eliminating biodiversity from our planet, in the Anthropocene, we are becoming the territory we conquered, and so in order to innovate, life forms (if indeed viruses can be considered life) are learning to colonise us. Evolution is a mathematical proposition: through an abundance of time, almost every possibility is expressed. Most possibilities stumble, but in stumbling this collective effort of mutation learns the territory that is available, and evolves to it. In order to exist on a planet that has been extracted of everything except the human and what the human determines are its needs, life is evolving to exploit and destroy us. Viruses have always invaded human hosts, but as the planet earth becomes the human planet we can expect this to continue.
How will humans evolve to survive, except to hasten a trend towards crowded isolation? We are becoming human bodies organised into sequential units, sealed off from one another, ordering in, streaming content, and expelling waste.
What this crisis shows us is that proximity is truly multidimensional. We have never been so close to one another before, yet so far away, and in pushing nature to the brink, nature is responding by colonising us, and destroying us.
The thing to do, it seems to be, is to change something fundamental. Anything, to break the reproduction of this social order. Maybe it could be rational, like staging a die-in at an airport to stop planes from trashing our atmosphere. Or volunteering at a hospital. Or is it something irrational, like speaking every sentence without the letter ‘d’. Or walking backwards every Tuesday.
I don’t know exactly. But this world is ODD. And we need to do something to break the terrifying normality of an everyday life that deepens our isolation, and brings us to the edge of annihilation.