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How Fear Can Dismantle a Body

Vis-a-Vis with two of four curators of the 11th Berlin Biennale

The 11th Berlin Biennale unfolds as a process through three sequential moments: exp. 1, exp. 2, and exp. 3. From June 13 to September 13, 2020, the upcoming edition of the Berlin Biennale brings forth all experiences at various venues. Our first step into the city of Berlin was to settle into the ground level space of a tower belonging to the architectural complex of ExRotaprint in the neighborhood of Wedding, Berlin. 

María Berríos: This next edition of Arts of the Working Class is named “Old Cracks in New Mirrors”. Where do you think such old cracks in new mirrors can be found today?

Lisette Lagnado: Almost everywhere. The mirrors may be new, but the cracks belong to old colonial constructs. We live in times in which questions regarding the protection of our life, mere survival, require an effective solidarity. Large parts of the world are literally on fire. The sense of urgency and the complexity of the present have reached the inconceivable, namely the end of human species on earth.    

MB: When I think of old cracks, I actually don’t necessarily conceive of them as the old problems we carry, but maybe the small gaps, the revolts that make anything new possible. The notion of something broken feels less colonial than the glossy new images that for me are glazed with the despair that you mention. 

LL: The most striking common feature in all parts of the world is the revolt of the masses against their governments, even those legally elected. I arrived in Berlin one year ago from Brazil where the political climate was already extremely tense. How to interpret those attacks on democracy? Brazil is known for being the champion record holder in terms of violence against trans people. This hatred is fueled in part by religious groups linked to the far right. Nevertheless, while queer bodies are facing a mortal avalanche of hate, their voices are also gaining strength. 

MB: I think it’s important to point out that it is their struggle, which is fierce, constant and takes place in almost every moment of people’s everyday lives that gives them this strength. These voices are strengthened through their fight. I don’t mean only queer voices, but all vulnerable positions today, BIPOC, women, people who are poor, those who are migrants or refugees. All of these positions are under attack today, all over the world. I am not celebrating the fact they have to fight for their lives, as I do not think it is acceptable to have to live this way, but merely want to point out that there is a politics of rage that makes up that strength, which is very different from the racist politics of hate that you describe and that is dangerously on the rise. The agency of these emboldened vulnerable voices comes from being a warrior of the everyday, and at very high costs: many do not survive. 

LL: Here, I would make a difference between hate and anger…

MB: Exactly, but I think both are political and require our attention. It is interesting how these issues have been present for so long. For instance in the book we just worked on together as a publication of the 11th Berlin Biennale, a new edition of Flávio de Carvalho´s 1931 Experiência no. 2, realizada sobre uma procissão de Corpus Christi [Experience no. 2, performed at a Corpus Christi Procession]. There you have a beautiful essay dedicated to these corpas [queer bodies] while at the same time you are addressing what they are up against: patriarchal power, and its bearings in fanaticism be it religious or nationalistic. Although it is somehow disheartening that despite a few dated terms and references, the issues put forward by Flávio at that time are so present today. 

LL: In De Carvalho's publication the patriarchal figure is shown to be deeply intertwined in religion and nationalism. The original publication documented his walk against a Corpus Christi procession, in the provincial context of São Paulo of the thirties, and his decision to conceptually analyze an experiência in which he narrowly avoided lynching. His drawings and writing are phenomenal in describing a defenseless body trapped in the destructive emotions of a crowd entranced in hate. When he published his book, De Carvalho dedicated it to Pope Pius XI and the then Archbishop of São Paulo, and I guess at that time this symbolic gesture was mainly meant to irritate the bourgeois morality, a reflection of his interest in a kind of sexual revolution. I wonder to whom would such a book be addressed today? Its contemporary relevance lies in the historical arc it spans from the 1930s to the current rise of right-wing extremist politics; from the Catholic religiosity of the De Carvalho era to the infiltration of Pentecostalism into many Latin American and African countries today. It describes psychosocial experiences that are at work in many of the conflicts of the present.

MB: Definitively the hate described in the book is very much alive, and as you say charged with a sexual politic that Wilhelm Reich was working on over here at the same time. But for me, De Carvahlo´s essay is also about fear, the dissemination and social politics of fear. I was in particular taken by the poignancy of his description of what fear does to the body. We have spoken frequently about it, I remember you telling me of how fear can dismantle the body, can dismantle knowledge and time. And for me this became so clear when looking at the drawings Flávio made of this in his Experiência no. 2. Although of course, as you also point out in your essay in the publication, it is quite sure that the result of his experiment would have been quite different if he had not been a well-dressed white man. The fear was real, but the situation in all had the safety net of modernist antiheroes, his body was not one exposed to everyday violence. I am not sure there is a Pius XI figure in the XXI century, we have so many fear-mongers to choose from, some are truly delirious, and some seem to come directly from the 1930s. Like the ex-Culture Secretary of Brazil that you in a way put forward as an equivalent figure, the one that sat in front of the Brazilian flag proudly quoting Goebbels when he called for an authentic national art of the spirit for Brazil, in a video. One expected him to turn into Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator” dancing around with the globe. I remember or maybe fantasized him sitting at his archaically conservative looking desk. 

LL: It was a fantasy. What you saw as a globe on his desk was actually a large wooden Christian cross.

For exp. 3 of BB11, Affect Archives, Sinthujan Varatharajah and Osías Yanov explore different tracings of the body and the imprints of its collective geographies. Their contributions center around the obstacles and objects that keep us apart, but that occasionally become penetrable, allowing bodies to press together, move through, and flow. How can we understand bodies as reservoirs of historical and sensual memories, bodies as borders in and of themselves? Varatharajah is a researcher building an archive of living memory; Yanov is an artist who excavates the body, queering it into a source of archaic meaning. At stake are not only different modes of reconstructing lost journeys but also ways of shaping the future memories of ourselves.

This conversation appears in print in Issue 10, 'Old Cracks in New Mirrors'.

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