A visit to Eduardo Navarro’s Gasworks exhibition raises Claudia’s awareness of the unsustainable pace regulating art workers, the responsibility of institutions and COVID-19’s unforeseen ally-ship.
When a second lockdown was announced in London, I fled the UK heading to my parents’ place in Italy. Since we were asked to stay at home, to transship from the outside world to an inner one, it felt right to go back to the place where I spent all my adolescence. Before taking off, I managed to visit Breathspace at Gasworks, the first UK solo show by Buenos Aires-based artist Eduardo Navarro. The artist’s original plan for this exhibition was to transform the main gallery into a giant breathing lung for individual and collective meditation. By sharing space with others inside of this body part, he wanted us to connect with each other, both physically and mentally. Tuning into an exercise of collective breathing, we would be leaving the chaotic ‘outside’ to recharge ‘inside’. However, as this was not very COVID-19 friendly, Eduardo chose a different approach.
In lockdown, Eduardo developed the main body of Breathspace made up of one hundred drawings. These drawings depict human body parts with mechanical and labyrinthic channels inhabited by critters. Two motifs in the drawings stood out in particular: a crab-eye and the spiral coil springs. In the gallery, a deep breathing sound and rhythm. Its source is situated in a darker room where the projection of an animated gargantuan head gradually expands and shrinks. In the presence of this rhythm, one cannot help but synchronise their own breath with it. The show features Self-Doll (2020), a stuffed human-esque figure stated to be an embodiment of the artist himself. Self-Doll is an attempt for Eduardo to lessen his physical absence, however was originally conceived as an emotional support tool for children1.Eduardo’s Self-Doll animates to communicate with the audience, even answering questions such as the ones I’ve asked in preparation for this text; thank you Self-Doll! When asked about the relationship between humans and nonhumans2, Self-Doll stated:
“Humans are an extension of planet earth. The virus is an extension of planet earth. These two forces are in a cosmic dance right now.”
Allow me unpack something here. COVID-19 is a nonhuman – a virus that has once more questioned the role of humans in shaping the environment they live in. It has equally led to all the related questions about the environmental crisis we are facing3. We see governments setting war to the virus, weaponising the sanitary system and policing bodies for their potential to increase infection rates in a desperate effort to “go back to normal”. In the case of Breathspace, Eduardo’s reaction was quite the opposite. He didn’t look back on what the show could have been, but rather embraced the present situation and took the virus’ ‘offerings’ as they came.
In its current shape, Breathspace presents a galaxy of nonhuman entities. These elements inspired me with a sense of calmness and, in their presentation of micro and macroworlds, made me aware of my place as an in-between and across things within the cosmos. As Physics tells us, nothing is created nor disappears in a void, rather everything transforms – humans connect with everything through their very existence. And so one thought immediately crossed my mind: our reaction to Covid-19 doesn’t exactly accommodate this principle.
Now a year under its influence, we still think of it as an antagonist to our lives rather than a transformative agent. Breathspace allows us to reconnect with the rhythms of our body that we take so much for granted. Meanwhile Self-Doll, just with its presence, represents the many nonhuman agents whose paths cross ours in infinite ways (think of our domestic pets, the Moon, the bacteria on our phones etc.) and the technologies we use to engage in these interactions.
As I had the opportunity to ask Self-Doll questions, it felt imperative to ask about the depiction of tunnels, relating to the change of pace and the invention of new rhythms that the drawings were depicting. Self-Doll replied:
“Neo-liberalism is like a glow in the dark prosthetic doughnut. It can only exist if there is a “human mind”, so let’s just keep imagining, do snails go to art fairs? I do hope they do one day. Certainly they would have a very different understanding of what buying art is.”
If we observe other mechanisms at work in nonhumans around us — like, for instance, snails at an art fair — then we might experience surprising new ways of dealing with the extraordinary pace of outer life. Through the juxtaposition of internal systems to outer environs in his drawings, Eduardo highlights the need for evaluating our own inner cycles, assessing our energy capacities, and listening to our body. Being snails, instead of cheetahs.
In the past few years, artists and theorists have worked around the question: what can we learn from our nonhuman neighbours?4 Perhaps another query to raise in the context of a pandemic would be: what have we learned in 2020 about our society and its pace? This is perhaps a question that institutions should be taking into consideration at a time like this. This year, we saw art organisations taking over the digital space in an effort to perpetuate their cultural offerings under an obvious pressure related to public funding and evaluation reports. A myriad of public programmes suddenly started to manifest on Zoom. People became bodiless floating heads participating in a new kind of spectacle5 produced and consumed online. But who takes part in the online events? The majority of people who follow art institutions and galleries on Instagram are other art workers, not my mom and dad, or other non-art world people. Nevertheless, the online exhibitions or digital art fairs have confirmed a widespread opinion: digital fruition just isn’t the same, yet.
With the financial difficulties encountered by so many individuals and small organisations, it soon became clear that our sector must reconsider its current priorities. Why replicate digitally the same accelerated6 and unsustainable system that raised so many concerns in the first place? The calendar of any art worker is ruled by monthly deadlines, a cycle of creation and dismantling and a global map of go-to biennials or museums. These activities are so demanding that it has made us blind to the conditions that such a productive sprint has imposed. Now, its replica is to be found online, at twice the pace of before, given the speed to which things become ‘obsolete’ and disappear from your Instagram feed.
Considering Self-Doll’s standpoint of the snail, Covid-19 has been perhaps the most precious ally in putting things in perspective again. We are now beginning to focus on what really matters to foster a healthier cultural sector in the UK as well as globally. Between May and June, a whole set of organisations and art worker unions emerged to offer real alternatives to what we have in the arts and education now: Darkstudy (alternative teaching), Hypericum: A code of Practice by Obsidian Coast (to create a new code of practice for the art world), The Black Curriculum (re-imagining education through Black history) are only a few examples. The issues prompting their emergence had been denounced by many. The cherry on top would be the treatment of precarious workers by institutions that appear to worry about their own survival more than that of those who make up for their existence and functioning7 in comparison to their overpaid executives8. More so, internalised racism roams freely galleries, foundations and universities9 and art education is turning into some sort of business with terrible customer service10. Perhaps, for this year, big institutions could have favoured processes, instead of thinking what else to produce.
“Imagine a dog chasing a butterfly. How can such ephemeral being make the dog feel so powerless by just floating in the air? It’s all a mystery.”
This quote from Self-Doll makes me think that the dog will be tired from doing something that didn’t really add anything to its existence. And by then, it will be too tired to realise it has stepped on a field of beautiful flowers and ruined them.
Would it not be more interesting for the future, if we used lockdowns as a moment to pause and twist the rhythms we have followed in the past? If instead artists would be paid a fee for researching or encouraging transdisciplinary connections? We are taught that institutions funded publicly (as in the UK) have a responsibility to “give back to the community”11. But which community are we talking about? What is it that “serves a community” during these unstable times? There are numbers of communities who wouldn’t necessarily step inside a museum to see the Turner Prize exhibition. And here exists an obvious glitch in the value systems that bigger and consumer-oriented organisations are using to make policies as well as in spending the funding they receive. It seems like grassroots or smaller organisations, as aforementioned and I include Gasworks in this as well, are doing more for culture at the moment than those with the power and the majority of funding. Membership organisations like The Artist’s Information Company or initiatives like Zelda Arts Advisory, advertised opportunities for financial relief to art workers but was that enough for the population or was it a matter of competition?
Eduardo’s drawings featuring tunnels and spiral coils illustrate systems that work in their own way, with a capacity to fuel themselves. Taking into consideration that tunnels were built over time, it is also the main reason why they have not collapsed. This idea can be used as a paradigm which applies to individuals as much as institutions. If one is allowed to sustain a life on their own rhythm, even temporarily, then we must identify new ways of working and shift our perspective from fast paced capitalist desire to a slower liveable pace, that can accommodate everyone’s circumstances; whether one is disabled, queer, trans, POC, working class etc.
Breathspace really is a starting point to talk about this ‘inner world’ and the much needed change of pace, maybe even that of a snail. With Eduardo’s acceptance of the virus changing his original plans, perhaps we can accept the virus as an element that can shift our perception rather than be an agent of microbiological terror. What if we started organising life following the spikes in Covid cases? One or two-month long lockdowns which facilitate research (or another ‘inner activity’) and preparation, followed by an ‘outer activity’ that supports the ‘inner activity’. Self-Doll is an example of the artist’s double sitting in the gallery, resting but ‘waking up’ at certain times to talk to us. Could we not take an opportunity to rest, breathe, reconnect with our inner life so that we may come back outside refreshed and with rested minds? While writing this article, I still cannot help but think about those eye-crabs, wandering through the cosmos in silence, looking out, breathing in. Self-Doll says to me:
“Well, the eyes can never see themselves. This is the ultimate consciousness of the eye, it’s ever changing as you grow, but it can’t ever distance itself from itself in order to see itself. What can we learn from a state of absolute being? An organ that’s blind to its own being? An eye-crab is a symbol of an absolute eternal blind self-moving sideways in the beaches of time.”
Breathspace is now (sadly) closed in line with government Covid-19 guidance. The exhibition was meant to run until 20th December 2020 so you may follow any changes on the Gasworks website or via their Instagram.
- Whilst volunteering at the 2018 London Design Biennale, I came across something similar that was conceived for children suffering from long-term conditions: a small robot called AV1 created by the Norwegian start-up “No Isolation”. V1’s purpose is to attend the classroom in place of the child, who can see, hear and speak to the classmates through a camera and microphone built in the robot. See: https://www.noisolation.com/global/av1/
- The concept of ‘nonhuman’ has come to the forefront of contemporary thought first through the work of philosophers from the 1960’s, like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. It was reinforced through more recent interventions penned by Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, amongst others. The latter have contributed with a variety of political and ethical interrogations stemming from the concept of anthropocentrism (i.e. the idea that the human race is at the centre of everything). The nonhuman turn seen in recent years has questioned the privilege that humans have held for centuries and their dismissal of other entities living on Earth: animals, plants, objects, and other organic and inorganic beings.
- Since lockdown started in March 2020, you might have noticed the rampant increase in pictures proclaiming ‘nature is healing!’ as the wildlife showed up in unexpected places. The news reported on the dramatic improvements in air quality in many cities and there seemed to be a renewed interest for discussing Zero Carbon Cities, amongst other things, to tackle our future impact on the environment. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2020/04/01/there-are-30000-more-coronaviruses-environmental-disasters-are-bringing-them-to-your-door/?sh=657b1a799e85.
- One cannot help but think of the work of Pierre Hugye, Professor Mel Y. Chen, Curator Lucia Pietroiusti amongst many, many others.
- In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), a book by French Philosopher Guy Debord (1931-1994), we learn about how in the 20th century, social life started to be replaced by a representation of it. Genuine activities amongst people began to be taken over by commodities (social status, prestige etc.), widening the gap between ‘being’ and ‘appearing’. This dynamic is almost foundational to many art environments, fortified by social media, where the ‘appearing’ is far more valued than the ‘being’.
- Italian Futurist founder Filippo Tomaso Marinetti loved speed, machines, factories and believed in ‘technological progress’. A century later, capitalist economy and its pace is rampant. Think of fast fashion, the average life cycle of your phone battery or the way the elderly sometimes say: “life was easier when conditions were worse”. Similarly, culture is presently condensed in museum works that have a similar life cycle to any other material goods. Cultural workers need to make sure that their aura remains untouched — through exhibitions, auctions, the art market. We take part in this circus because our individual value systems are based upon something that we do not possess just yet and chase for all our life, having been told that if we ‘work hard’ we will get whatever we want. For a precise and extensive account on acceleration and capitalism, see: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/11/accelerationism-how-a-fringe-philosophy-predicted-the-future-we-live-in
- Tate firing precarious staff with emails in the middle of the night and the Royal Academy taking their time to decide whether to sell an artwork or make their personnel redundant are — and will remain — infamous examples
- Department of Accountability emerged in early September 2020 amidst rising redundancies by arts organisations and institutions receiving Arts Council Funding: https://www.instagram.com/d.o.a.u.k/.
- Evan Ifekoya withdraws labour from Goldsmiths College claiming ‘institutional racism’. Via ArtReview: https://artreview.com/evan-ifekoya-withdraws-labour-from-goldsmiths-college-claiming-institutional-racism/
- Pause or Pay UK is a UK-wide cross-university action group led by students that emerged in April 2020 as a response to the disruption of studio-based learning by the pandemic. See: https://www.pauseorpayuk.org/
- The Culture White Paper (2016) is a document that sets out the Government’s mission and strategy for the cultural sector. It is divided into four sections, the second of which is titled “The riches of our culture should benefit communities across the country”. See: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/culture-white-paper