BREATHING UNDER WATER22 - 24.10.21Villa Kultur, Copenhagen DK
Curated with Emil GrünerAna Gzirishvili | caner teker | Ella Bliss | Hito Steyerl | Jala Wahid | Javier Alvarez Sagredo | Keren Cytter | Kaspar Aavad | Malina Heinemann & Joseph Kadow | Nat Marcus | Rindon Johnson | Zoltan Ará
caner teker | shame manifesto, 2021 | Print on paper, endless copies, candle | In collaboration with Malte van der Meyden | Photo by Ali Asperheim
Javiar Alvarez-Sagredo | Untitled (The Research Of Ownership Distorted Theories Stressed Out Answers) | 2019 | Acrylic and denim on cotton canvas | Photo by Niels Vogensen Biasevich
Jala Wahid | Cry Me a Waterfall | 2021 | Single channel video, sound | 14’34” | Photo by Ali Asperheim
Nat Marcus | Headless & Vertigo | 2021 | Silkscreen on cotton canvas, silkscreen ink, acrylic ink | Photo by Ali Asperheim
Nat Marcus | Headless [detail] | Photo by Niels Vogensen Biasevich
Keren Cytter | Peacocks | 2009 | Single channel video, sound | 8’04” | Photo by Ali Asperheim
Queerness is not yet here…The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now's totalizing rendering of reality, to think a then and there. Some will say that all we have is the pleasure of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport: we must dream and enact new better pleasures of this moment, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds. 1
What is writing, if not a form of reflection and relation. Or better yet, writing as a form of digestion: a gastric acid that breaks down the observable world and spits it out as something other than before. Writing imaginatively alleviates us from the myopic present. It is a magic glass through which to envisage other possible worlds, realities and futures, though narrative also gives rare access to the uncertain, the undefined, the outrageous and the contradictory, even when sense-making escapes the purview of the linguistic.
The exhibition BREATHING UNDER WATER connects language intimately with world-making. Words and stories are figured as materials for construction in a collective imagining of the world-as-different. The title is aptly borrowed from “The Thirteenth Voyage” of The Star Diaries by the Polish novelist Stanisław Lem, a science fictional vignette in which the interstellar traveller Ijon Tichy finds himself captive on a strange and distant planet. Its aquatic inhabitants are a physically human species subject to an ideological social system that regulates civic life lived underwater, according to the heinous principle of “evolution by persuasion”; as Tichy duly discovers, the dictatorial proclivity to control life in such a way is in furious reaction to the planet’s arid past. Submerged gurgling, though violent and unnatural, has become the only acceptable means of communication, while occasional breathing above water is considered almost a political offence — though a necessary, if covert act. The population suffers from chronic rheumatism and yearns fearfully for dry land, owing to such artificial environs, yet is intimidated into silent acceptance by the unrelenting force of the state. In Lem’s story, to be piscine — especially to breathe underwater — is considered the highest ideal toward which every citizen should strive, despite the obvious shortcomings of subaquatic living to the prosperity of this alien nation. Hence, to dissent is simply to seek natural and comfortable conditions in which to survive. Lem relates his story metaphorically to the era of Soviet totalitarianism, likening state-control to water and freedom to air, and suggesting through fictional means that political non-conformity is very often a matter of life and death.
Hannah Arendt writes that “storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it,”2 setting out a relationship between truth and fiction that is both liberatory and transcendent. Though firmly committed to the life of the intellectual mind, Arendt recognised the essential nature of creative language and narrative to comprehend the fullness of the human condition. To Arendt, who herself wrote extensively on totalitarian regimes, to tell stories radically surpasses the rational everyday. To commit stories to paper constitutes an act of rebellion against such rationalism. Writing in particular about Isak Dinesen, Arendt attests to the faculty of narrative to grasp the burden of the twentieth century, a capability that often far exceeds that of soberly academic discourse. This recognition of narrative power is certainly resonant in the twenty-first century. Storytelling delivers us from the realm of pure reason and language acts as the means of rendering anew, to conceive of what could be rather than what is. As Arendt claims, narrative has a capacity for illumination that, unlike intellectual traditions perhaps, can transcend the here and now, oftentimes building quixotically sensitive practices to account for lived experience while also proposing an enriched hereafter.
It is not foolish to desire perfected — indeed utopic — future conditions, but to embrace this desire is also to recognise its futility. The word utopia first appears in 1516 in a book of the same name by Sir Thomas More and has come to describe an illusory place with ineffably perfect qualities. From the first, however, More’s conception of utopia was satire. Consider its etymology: the word derives from the Greek ou, for not, and topos for place, meaning no-place. In other words, “utopia” refers to somewhere impossible. Utopia is, by definition, always remote and unattainable; such perfection is beyond the scope of reality. Yet, in the contemporary text Cruising Utopia, the scholar José Esteban Muñoz draws a distinction between two forms of utopic projection, the abstract and the concrete, distancing queer visions for a utopian future from More’s sardonic fantasies. Within this distinction is the suggestion that the value in utopian ideals is not rooted in the assumption of utopia as a promised and attainable site — a structural blueprint for an imminent future, for instance — but rather, that utopic visions are the impetus that motivates the strive toward alternative realities. To Muñoz, utopia might be considered a set of practices, rather than a goal, and a developing of new ways to exist in the world that depart in essence from the flawed foundations of modern society. Muñoz’s queerness is thus a perpetual state of absence. “Queerness is an ideality,” he writes, proposing queer utopia as a future there that casts a warm and propitious glow upon the current moment. Muñoz further writes about hope as a hermeneutic: not as a perfunctory Obama-esque slogan, but as a methodology for wading through the magma of the intolerable present. Utopian dreaming in the queer sense, much like storytelling, is a method of care.
Writing is an interference, a breaking into and through the psyche (or, à la Anne Carson: “your mind a quiet lake, me jumping into it,”)3. Language is at the helm of nurturing new relations, new conditions, new subjectivites. Potent is the mouth forming around words, the pen dragging along page, the press issuing print. Literature that circulates moves like a gale wind; the spread of ideas is indeed a forceful thing. No doubt it is essential that there are those who tell stories, indulge fantasies and spin narratives. But this is not so as to live suspended in the unreality of dreams, at least not entirely. Instead, this dreaming through text, words, allegory and meaning is a means of deepening the relationships we have with ourselves and our communities. Writing is not limited to paper, nor is storytelling limited to the mind. They are each a form of world-building that require bravery to face the world as it is, as much as they require inventiveness to construct new worlds as they could be. And, surely, to imagine a different future is not only a possibility, it is a necessity.
1. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York University Press, 2009, p. 1.2. Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen, 1885-1963”, Men in Dark Times, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.3. Anne Carson, “Stillness”, Critical Inquiry, volume 48, number 1, The University of Chicago Press, Autumn 2021, p. 1.Text by Sarah Messerschmidt
Ella Bliss | ῥίζωμα (Rhizome) | 2021 | Paper, plastic, wax | Photo by Ali Asperheim
Ella Bliss | ῥίζωμα (Rhizome) [detail] | Photo by Ali Asperheim
Kasper Aavad | Decay (DK) | 2021 | A4 paper, acrylic on canvasMalina Heinemann & Joseph Kadow | Mouth of Ox (Musso I Voi) | 2021 | Single channel video, sound | 33’00” | Photo by Ali Asperheim
Ana Gzirishvili | The wooden door | 2021 | Performance prop installation | Artificial hair, wood, rubber bands | Photo by Ali Asperheim
Rindon Johnson | I First you (11/11) | 2018 | Single channel video, sound | 5′28′′ | Photo by Niels Vogensen Biasevich
Hito Steyerl | November | 2004 | Single channel digital video, sound | 25'19" | Photo by Ali Asperheim
L V J | Opening night performance | Photo by Ali Asperheim