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A World Without Bones

Agustín Pérez Rubio


(This essay first appeared in: The Bones of the World, published by the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, 2020)

I. We Are the Virus

Today, after more than fifty days of solitary confinement at home in Berlin, I’ve decided to delete a previous version of this text and start all over. Everything that happened before has acquired a new meaning and subjectivity, and we must acknowledge this to find a way forward. We cannot forget what this pandemic is doing to us. To forget would be to dishonor the bodies of those who have perished or to dismiss the suffering of so many friends in different places who have lost family members. To forget would be to return to our daily routines in a world that looks the same as before without acknowl­edging that healthcare is a basic human right rather than a luxury for those who can afford it. To forget would be to disregard the lives and struggles of artists and thinkers like Amanda Mel Baggs and allow their vulnerability to overshadow the tribute they are due. To forget would be to normalize the fact that children are celebrating birthdays without friends and extended family, their loneliness ac­companied only by computers, cell phones, or tablets.

It would be wrong to reduce human exchange to a two-dimen­sional status quo of communication where all feelings are mediated by a screen. If the prophylactic changed our experience of sexual­ity after HIV/AIDS, technology now mediates how we interact with one another. It gives us a feeling of closeness and security, but it also influences our exchanges—just like the condom, which saved so many of our lives but also epitomized the fear of infection. Now this domestic technology (for those who have access to it) also per­forms a double play of proximity and distance: It brings us closer together and provides us a larger audience while also tracking, ex­cluding, limiting, and objectifying us. Those of us connected to the Internet experience a kind of mirage when we feel that we were not alone in this but are participants in a collective global trauma that has detained and separated us while also uniting us in various forms of action. The criminal actions of the US police and Brazil­ian president Jair Bolsonaro witnessed around the world—just two examples of global systemic police violence and state terrorism —have angered us but have also made us understand vulnerability in its purest form.

Technology has united us in the struggle against such conflicts and allowed us to raise funds needed to support individuals and communities in need. It is during these moments that many artists express solidarity, like Osías Yanov and his collective Sirenes Errantes [Errant Mermaids]. Servicio de Escuchasión [Listening Service, 2020] was conceived for those who feel lonely and isolated or have difficulty leaving home and being with others, including the elderly, high-risk or physically challenged individuals, or people combatting specific fears.

Beyond conspiracy theories, we must acknowledge that we have created this virus ourselves. It is the direct result of a capitalist system that erroneously assumes that all resources are unlimited and fails to consider that global warming and extreme weather events are part of a chain of events—a preamble to where we are today. What is happening now is far more perverse, because we have become like scavengers, devouring what little we have left—our own bones. Like vermin, we have gnawed away at the bones of an alienated modernity, cracking them open to consume those little bits of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, or fluoride that continue to perpetuate our privilege, like blood sucking vampires seeking immortality. We could expand this list to include copper, lithium, coal, precious minerals, and the abundance of water, flora, and fauna that Mother Earth has provided us. But we would also have to include the victims of the multiple genocides perpetuated by authoritarian regimes—their victims’ bones piled up in unmarked graves—as well as Indigenous peoples, women and girls, and transgender people dismembered by gender violence and machista transphobic barbarism and many others left to die alone in our current crisis. These latest victims have been denied the most basic of human rights; transformed into infected, contagious organisms that do not even deserve a simple farewell, many of their bodies have been disposed of in mass graves. We have eaten our own bones and become dehumanized; these terrifying images of humankind’s brutality haunt me.

All of this has happened because we have failed to heed the warnings of Mother Earth herself because our social and urban constructs have made us forget where we come from. As the Indigenous intellectual and activist Ailton Krenak (1) has recently reminded us, “I’m not sure if everything will continue this coming year as if nothing has changed. Hopefully, after all this, we will not return to so-called normality; if we do, the deaths of thousands of people across the world were for nothing. If this tragedy serves any purpose, it is to show us who we are.”

II. An X-ray: Examining Our Bones

Confined to my home in Berlin in the middle of this global par­adigmatic shift, I think about how our initial idea of producing a yearlong biennial was about slowing down the biennial machin­ery: such large events, closely associated to mass cultural tour­ism, are simply unsustainable. One of the most important issues for us was to understand that we should resist contributing to gentrification while searching for new ways to interact with local communities, which is why the neighborhood of Wedding and the ExRotaprint venue became important discursive sites. We were also committed to a porous and flexible curatorial process engaged with our surroundings. In exp. 1: The Bones of the World, we shared our four different backgrounds and research trajectories with the visitors who attended our events so that this exchange between the team, the artists, and our public became part of the process itself. The conversations we had with colleagues, team members, and neighbors had an impact

Over the last eight months, we have learned and acquired im­portant tools for coping with the current situation: the Feminist Health Care Research Group’s politics of care, our interactions with children from the neighborhood, the project’s desire to generate a more personal relationship with regular attendees, many of them young Latin American artists, researchers, or students who com­prised an audience unanticipated by both the curatorial team and the Berlin Biennale institution itself. Our activities thus far have es­pecially focused on revealing bodies vulnerable to systemic injus­tice, such as the migrating bodies of political refugees like Chilean artists forced into exile (the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allen­de); the endangered bodies of Afro-Brazilian women activists illus­trated by Virginia de Medeiros’s photographic homage to Marielle Franco; the prolific artwork of differently abled artists like Andrés Fernández or Mel Baggs who are frequently reduced to representa­tives of their medical diagnoses; the vulnerability of the Yanomami living in the Amazon, their lands increasingly exploited and defor­ested by large mining companies (Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe); mater­nal bodies demanding that reproductive labor be acknowledged, including that of cultural workers, even within the context of the 11th Berlin Biennale itself. These examples from exp. 1: The Bones of the World resonate more deeply now given the lockdown’s display of our physical vulnerabilities.

This crisis necessitated a restructuring of the social fabric on a global scale: it changed how we work, how we socialize, how we educate our children, how we care for our elderly, our disadvan­taged, or those without access to healthcare. After everything came to a grinding halt, we as curators had to decide how to move forward. We knew that the biennial would be postponed (or even cancelled), so we decided that if it were shortened (or did not take place at all), we would need to pay salaries and productions costs—regardless of whether recipients would actually be able to perform the work—and that contracts would need to be finalized to safeguard artists and collaborators. We refrained from making any public statements right away to avoid overwhelming a public already saturated with media noise, but remained in contact with the team and with each of the participating artists and collaborators.

The pandemic made it more urgent than ever to understand that the personal is political. We agreed on many other things, most importantly—in the words of the popular Brazilian political slogan “ninguém solta a mão de ninguém”—to not let go of anyone’s hand, meaning that no artist’s participation would be cancelled due to the crisis. We endeavored to preserve in the epilogue what we had ini­tiated with exp. 1 and continued in subsequent experiences—just in a different way. We took the time to carefully reconsider (and adapt, when necessary) each work and indeed every aspect of the project itself, while prioritizing the most important measure of all: to protect others and ourselves. It was paramount that no one be put at risk for this biennial, although it saddens us that over half of the artists may not be able to come and install their work and attend the biennial’s slow opening of doors (or its closure). But it was the artists themselves who wished to continue and send their contribu­tions to assure that the biennial would take place, with their works present in one way or another. We are confident of the measures we have taken to move forward despite a situation where so many of us are separated from our friends and families or the places we consider home, many still confined to a solitary daily existence that feels eternal.

III. Learning to Live with the Virus / the Unknown / Uncertainty: Epilogue

We should take a moment to reflect upon the positive and nega­tive aspects of this situation. We are suffocating—not just due to the virus that attacks our lungs but because the air is increasingly thicker, denser, and more toxic, stretching our bones with the last breath that tenses our muscles and skeleton. Thus we must raise the eternal question that is also a warning: is this a ground-zero situation—an apocalypse where isolation, fear, contagion, loneli­ness, confinement, the impossibility of travel, and the loss of the means to survive demand that we build a new and more sustainable society that guarantees care and affection?

This is now more crucial than ever, not only for our individual selves but also for the sake of all people at risk who face the great­est inequality of exposure, diagnosis, and recovery from the current virus. We desperately need to replace our culture of competition and success with one based on collaboration and a sharing of priv­ileges—where solidarity is not just empty rhetoric but part of a new vocabulary where we can stop selling out future generations once and for all. We must also consider the opposite scenario where technology, biopower, technological surveillance, the resurgence of nationalisms, dictatorships disguised as democracies, aggres­sive displays of racism, and mutations of this virus only further con­tribute to political toxicity and enlarge the gaps between econo­mies, ethnicities, genders, and species.

Perhaps a third way out of this tedious binarism is to under­stand the virus as nonhuman; the way to attack it is to not attack it but to understand and coexist with it. We have always known the richness of nature and its forms of knowledge, as shown by the work of Marwa Arsanios and the medicinal use of herbs—a tradi­tion transmitted orally by generations of women. These types of vi­sionary ideas come from ecofeminism and one of its most brilliant defenders, Donna Haraway, who proposes a new panorama where all species (including viruses) may live together in harmony. She conceives of our current epoch as one in which the human and the nonhuman are intrinsically united in “tentacular” practices: “If we appreciate the foolishness of human exceptionalism then we know that becoming is always becoming with, in a contact zone where the outcome, where who is in the world, is at stake.” (2) In her most recent writings, she advocates the idea of the “Chthulucene” rather than the Anthropocene, necessitating “sympoiesis,” or “making-with,” instead of “autopoiesis,” or “self-making.” (3) We must learn how to live and die together on our injured planet in order to conceive of a more sustainable model for survival. This is something that Indig­enous communities or first nations know very well since their rela­tionship to the world begins with their natural environment as well as a much more sustainable view of life and death.

The thought of how to live without bones—without a skeleton— gives me vertigo. I think about Teo’s drawing of three shapeless in­dividuals, with no bone structure, cohabiting with a bee that stings and infects them. It is a kind of living and becoming together, an acknowledgement of the problems, diseases, viruses, or forms of fascism that exist among us. As in Mauricio Gatti’s story where po­litical prisoners are likened to jungle animals, we must transform ourselves into an increasingly unstable structure to survive and re­main vigilant. Perhaps the solution to this dissolution of bones is to go beyond the human.

Hopefully we find ourselves at the beginning of a sociocultural revolution, of a blurry future that awaits us, where the old structures that have produced this virus have largely been overturned and dis­mantled. Perhaps by the time you read this essay, after the biennial has opened its doors (or not, due to the anticipated second wave), it has already become part of the past; or perhaps you have seen our epilogue, which still has no title as of this writing. We do not yet know how to exist without bones or how to learn to do this during this volatile phase. Nor do we know what kind of skeleton will sus­tain us in the midst of uncertainty. The way to arrive here is day by day, understanding that we have to take care of each other—of all living beings—and break our rigid bone structures in pursuit of a common, uncertain future.

Agustín Pérez Rubio

Berlin, May 2020


1 Ailton Krenak interviewed by Bertha Maakaroun, Estado de Minas, April 3, 2020,­cia/pensar/2020/04/03/interna_pensar,1135082/funcionamento-da-hu­manidade-entrou-em-cri­se-opina-ailton-krenak.shtml. Quote translated from Portuguese by Michele Faguet.

2 Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

3 Haraway, Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

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