One of three performances by Himali Singh Soin with David Soin Tappeser during „Vulnerable Beings“ at MAAT, Lisbon © BY Interactive Brands Agency

Isotopes of Interdependence

Architect and curator Bart-Jan Polman reviews the project „Vulnerable Beings“ at MAAT in Lisbon, Portugal

Hours before „Vulnerable Beings“ started in November 2021, news broke that immediate border restrictions were put in place for travelers coming to Europe from Southern Africa. A few days later we found out that the Omicron-variant of Covid-19 had already been circulating in the Northern Hemisphere at least a week earlier. Although unlikely, some started to argue it might even have mutated there first. Once again – in case it had gone unnoticed during the first waves of this pandemic – travel restrictions imposed by nations in the Western Hemisphere have done little to nothing to keep out the virus, and have created myriad other problems in return. Solving global vaccine inequality, on the other hand, would have likely helped reduce the risk of the virus mutating in the first place.

This mini-history captures all the ingredients of what the curators Andrea Bagnato and Ivan Lopez Munuera would call the politization of vulnerability. For their project „Vulnerable Beings“ at MAAT (The Museum for Art, Architecture, and Technology) in Lisbon, Portugal, they invited a wide range of interlocutors for two assemblies that mixed discourse from architecture, social activism, philosophy, history, and the social sciences. The first of these, „Tuning in“ was held this Fall, at the end of October. The second, that I attended, was called „Sounding Out“, and took place about a month later, in late November.

Covid-19 has put at the center of public discourse questions that Bagnato and Munuera have dealt with for several years now. Their research can be best described as an investigative discourse into the spatial repercussions of infectious diseases, and the possibilities these offer to think about new ways of cohabitation – both human and non-human. Bagnato, who was trained as an architect, has extensively studied the architecture and ecology of infectious diseases through his ongoing project Terra Infecta (specifically through the impact of infections on the territory in Southern Europe). Munuera, an art and architecture historian and curator, has studied the urban geography of the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis in Haiti and New York City, with a particular focus on the way this pandemic has shaped architecture and urbanism.

Questions of modernity’s relation to disease have gained increasing traction in architectural and urban discourse. (Think of Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map on the impact of the cholera epidemic on London’s urbanism, or about Beatriz Colomina’s recent X-Ray Architecture, a book that discusses the role illness played for the architects of modernism through an understanding of tuberculosis, for example, that informed modernist designs for clean and surgical spaces). While Bagnato and Munuera do engage with these authors, they look not only at how epidemics have influenced architecture, but how architecture and urbanism have shaped epidemics in return. In that sense their angle is closer to someone like the anthropologist Anna Tsing, constructively emphasizing the co-dependency of various species (including viruses) within natural, material worlds. They also try to highlight those instances in which modernity has failed to adequately deal with infectious diseases and epidemics; moving beyond a merely historicizing project while revealing a particular form of activism, as the curators also consciously seek for new forms of kinship. (A lexicon they developed can be found here.)

„Tuning In“ had included Meike Wolf, Marina Otero Verzier, Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb, and Cruz García, among several others. They joined for a series of screenings, talks, discussions and performances over three days. The curators deliberately decided on meeting in person in Lisbon, and to not live-stream the event. (No doubt a provocative position in a pandemic era shaped by climate crises, but also a decision that makes sense within their project-at-large of seeking new forms of kinship, one of which was beautifully rendered as „isotopes of interdependence“ in a spoken word performance by Himali Singh Soin. Sound-based excerpts will be released later, both as a means to combat the hegemony of screens during lockdown and to explore other ways of sonic knowledge.)

„Sounding Out“ kept to a similar format as „Tuning In“, and took as its premise the observation that Covid-19 is not unique, nor unprecedented. Françoise Vergès, in her closing keynote, reminded us that what is new about this pandemic is not that there are such things as pandemics. What is new is that white, western bodies had largely forgotten what a pandemic is. Indeed, as the ongoing histories of the HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis or Ebola crises show, many parts of the world have been dealing with pandemics almost continuously. (Judith Butler was paraphrased several times over the three days, with a comment that served as a thread throughout the weekend: We are all vulnerable, but some are more vulnerable than others.)

How, then, is such vulnerability shaped, instrumentalized, politicized, or spatialized? First of all, by acknowledging these are entangled processes – processes in which vulnerability should be understood as a construction, often with different degrees of being vulnerable. As it was argued by several participants, being vulnerable and the making of vulnerability happen at the same time. The architect Nerea Calvillo, who in her talk discussed how pollen have historically moved from being something that the body was sensitive for to being an enemy of the body – illustrative of the construction of a „good“ vs. „bad“ nature – emphasized that being treated as vulnerable could be privilege. One that allows you to work from home in a pandemic, for example.

Vulnerability is thus also a condition that is being imposed from the outside, inherently tied into structures of power. Who gets to decide who is vulnerable? The ongoing consequences of colonial power structures were central to such questions by the curators, and specifically included the ways in which ecological devastation by colonial capitalism lies at the root of several pandemics. They also triggered the responses that were most architectural in a traditional sense. A walking tour on Saturday morning by the historian Dr. Isabel Amaral revealed colonial footprints within the urban fabric of Lisbon, specifically around the area of MAAT. There is no doubt that the processes of tropical medicine, born between scientific expertise and a political agenda, altered the built environment. Especially pertinent in Portugal’s colonial history, with Lisbon as its main port, is the role of the water as understood to bring the epidemics from Empire to the land through slave trade and landscape extraction, where it would encounter the architectures of quarantine.

Countering such histories of construction (both of buildings and structures of power) was the project of destruction offered by Jack Halberstam. Building on his recent book Wildness (2020) Halberstam, a professor of gender studies at Columbia University, in his opening keynote distinguished between wildness as an emancipatory vector, and wildness as a component of colonial rule. Covid-19, it was argued in similar logic, is also governed by a wildness; illustrating to us the problem of a „world“ in which the vectors of the pandemic are the wealthy. While Queer studies, Halberstam’s field, often engages in world-building, he rather proposes a project of un-worlding; a dismantling in which vulnerability would have to be rethought through a different lexicon, a breaking apart of existing constellations (an argument he supported with a number of practices from the 1970s, such as Gordon Matta-Clark, Alvin Balthrop, and Valerie Solanas). Abstract, perhaps, but one only needs to look closely at vaccine access, pandemic stock market gains, supply-chain issues, inflation, or job-saving schemes to see how global inequality is shaped through domestic pandemic-related policies; a form of what Halberstam would call non-utopian worldliness that needs to be un-worlded for true progress to occur.

A related reading of the pandemic through global inequality was offered by Françoise Vergès, whose talk centered on the notion of waste. For Vergès, building on a definition of waste as the measure of capitalism’s success, the externalization of our junk has led to the construction of a „clean“ and „unclean“ world. (An observation that seems closely related to the construction of clean, green, gentrified urbanisms enabled by batteries full of rare earth minerals. Vergès reminded us that globally, most people still die from air pollution – a different pandemic of sorts). Depicted was a transnational extraction of care in which the global South services the North. The disproportionality with which women are affected – many of the „essential workers“ in the areas most affected by Covid are women – enables that vulnerability is often used to put forth a political agenda. (One example that was particularly convincing came from the ongoing migrant crisis. She argued how most migrants move without the help of human traffickers. Yet at the same time the trafficker is used to render the migrant vulnerable, as someone to be saved from. This in turn is then used to justify an agenda of specific detrimental migrant-policies that are applied to each and every migrant.)

Yet in terms offering a guide to action in the face of pandemic inequality, a discussion between Edwin Nasr, who has worked extensively as an activist in Lebanon, and Sarah Schulman offered the best examples, taken from their own histories as an activists. Schulman, an active participant in ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) revealed some of the strategies behind the massive effort they put with a relatively small group. With the clever instrumentalization of media such as camcorders they were able, as Shulman put it, to raise intelligence not to the problem of the virus, but the problem of society. (Work that, by the way, is far from done. She reminded us that because of the inequalities in the U.S. healthcare system, still around one thousand people a year die of AIDS in New York City alone.) And this brings us to the central question we were left with after the three days in Lisbon, perhaps the most urgent question in the face of our current time, brought up by the curators during one of the many discussions: How can vulnerability be reclaimed as an asset?

For a full program of both assemblies, and a list of speakers, see here.