Basic Extinct

Kristian Vistrup Madsen on “Invocations” at SAVVY Contemporary

Attendees gathered around Tomás Saraceno’s Museo Aero Solar outside of silent green Kulturquartier, Berlin. All photos: Hannes Wiedemann.

I SPENT THE WEEKEND IN A FORMER CREMATORIUM thinking about death. The occasion was a two-day symposium organized by SAVVY Contemporary as part of their exhibition “The Long Term You Cannot Afford: On the Distribution of the Toxic.” The colloquium coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and though it had already been a month since David Hasselhoff made his traditional appearance for the official reunification day, a kind of kitsch-comedown still weighed on the festivities. I’ll admit that I hadn’t exactly looked forward to contemplating the apocalypse over a twelve-hour lecture program, but it seemed less delusional than celebrating “freedom,” so there I was.

November 9 was also the eighty-first anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Jewish shops and synagogues were attacked across Germany, as well as the day when, in 1918, Rosa Luxemburg was released from prison. A few months later, her body was thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal. When Shuddhabrata Sengupta of the Raqs Media Collective ran over these various local historical events—all lethal attempts at containment, partition, and purity—it was to argue that the “banishment of toxicities is an abomination and a folly.” He also shared that there will soon come a time when there are more humans alive than there ever were dead, a fact that takes a moment to wrap your head around. That day, in the hall of the crematorium, it seemed the dead or alive dichotomy ceded relevance to the much more inclusive category of dying.

The event began on Friday with a conversation about the systems of power and access that structure political engagement. Kate Sagovsky, a UK representative of Extinction Rebellion, argued for “putting your shoulder to the wheel where you can” while outlining the movement’s strategy of deliberate mass-arrest. Emilia Roig of the Berlin-based Center for Intersectional Justice was quick to ask, “Whose extinction does Extinction Rebellion refer to? Who can afford arrest?” As Moro Yapha, cofounder of the refugee empowerment radio program Wearebornfree!, pointed out, disobedience isn’t always a choice: “People who are vulnerable and oppressed are inherently also disobedient.” A member of the BPoC Environmental and Climate Justice Collective, Imeh Ituen, more or less summed up the program: “We can’t talk about the impending extinctions of today without talking about the extinctions that have preceded them in the past five hundred years as a result of colonialism and the globalization of capitalism.”

Angela Flournoy.

In a lecture about ethical food consumption, Alexis Shotwell (via Skype from Canada) spoke out against “buying purity” and “costly morality,” advocating instead for “an ethics based on having already failed.” Another Canadian with a similar platform is Alex Zahara, an academic who discussed the containment of wildfires in Saskatchewan. His research supplied a useful metaphor for understanding toxicity as a wildfire—inevitably ravaging but possible to contain. It is crucial, then, to consider the factors—how, when, and for whom—that determine containment and its opposite, a policy dramatically dubbed, in the context of forest preservation, “Let it burn.”

When it comes to the management of both flames and waste, Zahara said, containment is defined by leakage, and the leaks are structured by power. In a compelling personal essay, writer Angela Flournoy told of post–civil rights migrations of black people to newly built neighborhoods in Southern California. The new homeowners chased the Hasselhoffian promise of freedom but instead found cancerous fumes seeping out of an enormous adjacent landfill. Quoting Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams (1989), Flournoy proclaimed: “If you build it, they will come—even to the top of a hill of hazardous waste.”

Artist Tómas Saraceno and Savvy artistic director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung.

With that famous line ringing in our ears, we climbed into a giant plastic balloon, courtesy of Tomás Saraceno, which, previously lying dormant on the lawn, was now caught by the wind. “If it falls down, don’t get scared,” he reassured, providing a riposte to the unhelpful naïveté of Costner’s adage. I’ve been unimpressed while wearing a boilersuit on one of the artist’s oversize spiderwebs before, but as some eighty people fell quiet inside the patchwork of shopping bags, the exercise made a kind of intuitive, poetic sense. Like Flournoy’s talk, the affair spoke to the shared nature of our intimate entanglement with the toxic. Saraceno asked us to be still for a while and take it in. Through a hole in an H&M bag, you could see the trees.

Latedjou performing in the Kuppelhalle at silent green Kulturquartier, Berlin.

Musical interludes functioned as cleansing rituals and breaths of fresh air, easing the unintelligible pseudoscience buzz that inevitably fogs up this kind of event—imperatives to queer this or that, trans-bio-scenetic post-ontology. Latedjou, the vision of a sci-fi princess, dipped the room in soft sounds, playing ten instruments at once, while Liping Ting performed a kind of Artaudian meltdown, calling out all her various props as “the shit.” In a completely mesmerizing choreographed monologue, Ivy Monteiro repeatedly claimed not to “know much about climate change,” yet danced around with an enormous plastic veil like they alone had conjured the catastrophe—and possessed the power to make it go away. With Monteiro’s sassy hips and rattling necklaces in mind, I think I’ll one day happily die.

Matana Roberts also couldn’t stop thinking about death. “But not in a morbid way,” she said, gasping in between emptying her lungs into her saxophone. “I think about what a relief it’ll be; all the things I’m mad about, all the people I’m mad at—to realize that it just doesn’t matter. We are all dying all the time,” she said, taking another deep breath. Shortly before midnight, Abhijan Toto served some of the strongest hand gesticulations of the evening, big silver rings on long fingers grabbing charismatically at the air, as he spoke about apocalypse: “The world has already ended, and it will end again and again.” The Forest Curriculum, of which he is cofounder, argues instead for rewilding, a concept that moves beyond the false binary of pureness and toxicity. “The future does not require humans,” he ended, suggesting another reason not to fear death. “Remember, the body is just a bag,” Roberts said, tooting her proof into her horn. A bag, like Saraceno’s, which, with any luck, will get caught in the wind and fly away.