No Immunity: The Biopolitical Worlds of Eija-Liisa Ahtila
I want to begin with an apparently simple question, for which there appears to be no apparently simple answer: In Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s recent, cinematic installations, what do domestic space, immigration and colonialism, sexuality, gender and animality (to take only a few of the prominent concerns) have in common? Is there an underlying logic or framework that binds them together to form a unified exploration of related problems? One thing we know for sure is that her work is devoted to exploring the relations between the realms of the human, the animal and the divine (or transcendent). This is perhaps most obvious in her recent work, The Annunciation [Marian ilmestys, 2010], centred on the rehearsal and enactment of a biblical story. It begins with quotations about the phenomenology of animals by early-20th-century German life scientist, Jakob von Uexküll, and ends with a donkey – or, more precisely, a human and a donkey (both of whom have roles in the play), walking side by side, in a kind of existential partnership, as a voiceover sings, “If I had no place to fall, and I needed to, could I count on you?” We have already been prepared for human/animal partnerships by Ahtila’s earlier work, The Hour of Prayer [Rukoushetki, 2005), in which the main character says of her dog, Luca, “in a way, we shared our senses, and used them to think about our surroundings together.” And we were also shown by that work how the artist thinks of the mysteries of human and animal worlds as a kind of gateway to the realm of the divine and the holy; The Hour of Prayer begins in darkness, with the sound of barking dogs, a sound which, by the end of the piece has become its own “hour of prayer,” as the village dogs howl at the ringing of the church bells with each breaking day.
But, even as the worlds of humans and animals are shared in these works, species are also, by their very nature, closed off from each other in ways that can never be fully known or plumbed. Indeed, that is precisely why those other worlds are a permanent reservoir of mystery and surprise for us – even of the miraculous, as The Annunciation frames it. Such is the force of the quotation from Uexküll that opens that work:
We are easily deluded into assuming that the relationship between a foreign subject and the objects in his world exist on the same spatial and temporal plane as our own relations with the object in our human world. This fallacy is fed by a belief in the existence of a single world, into which all living creatures are pigeonholed. This gives rise to the widespread conviction that there is only one space and one time for all living things. Only recently have physicists begun to doubt the existence of a universe with a space that is valid for all beings.
Uexküll – influenced by Kant and, in turn, influential upon Heidegger and his analysis of the differences between humans and animals – provides an important precursor to the contemporary “autopoiesis” theory of biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, a theory which paradoxically insists that it is only by virtue of self-referential closure in their own highly specific modes of existence that different kinds of beings in the world can be open to any other environment or beings. In short, seeing is always also a mode of not seeing, and unavoidably so. And what one sees is not simply given but is, in a profound sense, made.
A near contemporary of Uexküll’s, the American poet, Wallace Stevens, provides his own sort of multi-channel installation on this problem in his famous poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and a close cousin of Stevens’s bird appears in the opening minutes of The Annunciation, framed, like Stevens’s bird, by a snowy landscape and evergreen trees:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
And then – just like that – we enter another “spatial and temporal plane” as we see none other than Santa Claus himself emerging from behind the trees, all in red, walking along a snowy path. Well, whose trees are these, anyway, Santa’s Christmas trees or the blackbird’s snowy home? And – a similar question that the work poses in the next moment – what’s the story with those other winged creatures in The Annunciation, not just the doves in the canonical paintings of the biblical subject matter and the pigeons hanging out in the rehearsal hall, but the angels? They seem to be opposites – the earthly animal body, on the one hand, the ethereal and spiritual winged beings on the other – but already Ahtila invites us to ask whether there might be some connection between them, as the poets have suggested for centuries. Both bird and bard sing of otherworldly realms, whether above (as in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”) or below (as in Poe’s “The Raven”). Ahtila suggests, however, that those realms are all around us at every moment, part of the here and now, but a here and now that contains its own secret passageways, its own magic, and, for that very reason, its own dangers, as the bird from Rimbaud’s poem “Enfance” warns us at the opening of Where is Where? [Missä on missä? 2008]. After all, what we find in the wake of that bird’s song is not jolly old Santa Claus walking on a well trodden path, but “footprints abandoned in the bushes.”
One way in which to tie this seemingly diffuse group of threads together is through a philosophical topos that has preoccupied a wide range of leading figures in contemporary thought, including Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida and Roberto Esposito: the biopolitical. A key distinction of biopolitical thought – one that Agamben draws from Aristotle – is between bios (or “form of life” in a social and political sense) and zoe (usually translated as “bare life,” life reduced to sheer physical existence and exposure). In its modern form, the fundamental work of biopolitics is to adjudicate and enforce the constantly shifting line between bios and zoe – a line that exists in a relationship of constant transposition in the distinction between “human” and “animal.” Exhibit A of modern biopolitics in the work of both Esposito and Agamben – the Holocaust – demonstrates what is evinced more generally in the history of colonialism, slavery and imperialism: that membership in the zoological category homo sapiens is no guarantee that one will not be reduced to a condition of “bare life,” a condition in which the human becomes subject to “a non-criminal putting to death.” At the same time, while it usually coincides with relegation to “bare life,” membership in the group known as “animal” may, in fact, afford a measure of protection and care, as the modern institution of pet-keeping well shows.
The biopolitical frame, then, draws our attention to the ways in which we have tended to recode the difference between the familiar and the foreign as the difference between human and animal (and have used designations of race and ethnicity in the same way). As Derrida, among others, has suggested, this recoding is itself a disavowal of the finitude and mortality we share with our fellow creatures as embodied beings. This helps to explain not only the constant, hovering spectre of death in Ahtila’s work but also its specific valences. The relevance of the biopolitical frame for a work such as Where is Where? is probably clear enough, where “bare life” is figured almost canonically – not only in the twinned bodies of the dead Algerian villagers and the flock of sheep being held in their pen (awaiting, no doubt, their own slaughter), but also in the lines of Rimbaud’s poem with which the piece opens, for which Agamben’s study, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, could serve as an extended gloss:
I am a saint praying on a bed –
like all the other docile animals, grazing
from America to the Arabian sea.
Death will drive everything away,
when there is hunger and thirst.
And that spectre is made even more explicitly biopolitical in Where is Where? which draws upon an historical event in which two young Algerian boys killed their European playmate in retaliation (so they testified) for the rounding up and execution of forty Algerian men in 1956 during the Algerian War of Independence – the so-called Massacre of Meftah, in which an ethnically marked group was suddenly subjected to “a non-criminal putting to death.” Where is Where? fits within the immediate post 9/11 context that also spurred texts such as Judith Butler’s Precarious Life and Frames of War which ask, Butler tells us, “whose lives count as lives? And, finally, what makes for a grievable life?” Is there a way in which the body “opens up another kind of normative aspiration within the field of politics,” in which we can “consider the demands that are imposed upon us by living in a world of beings who are, by definition, physically dependent on one another, physically vulnerable to one another?” For Ahtila, of course, “grievable life” isn’t limited to human beings alone, as her earlier work, The Hour of Prayer, powerfully demonstrates. And this makes the exclusion of human populations from the domain of care and interdependency, for reasons of race or ethnicity, all the more disturbing, as the events of both Gulf Wars, Butler argues, graphically demonstrated. That context, both geopolitical and biopolitical, is invoked in the opening moments of Where is Where?: a map of North America, the waves of the sea being crossed, then the Muslim call to prayer, posing the question figured by Rimbaud’s “footprints” and “path”: How does the artist (here figured in the guise of the poet) walk or stand between the two towers – Muslim on one side, Christian on the other – and the death they sponsor in the name of life?
With these different valences in mind, we can begin to glimpse an even more specific logic of the biopolitical at work here, one that enables us to address what all of this has to do with questions of gender and sexuality, domesticity and religion. It is what Derrida, Esposito and others have characterised as the essentially “autoimmunitary” logic of the biopolitical. As the name suggests, the fundamental insight here is that once we start drawing lines between “human” and “animal,” Aryan and Jew, Christian and Muslim as a means of securing immunity of “me” and “mine” against its pathogenic others, that logic is bound to turn back upon the space of bios itself (how human is human enough? how white is white enough? how Christian is Christian enough?), attacking it from within and exposing it to the very thing it wishes to avoid. (That logic is readily apparent, of course, in Where is Where?, while the main character’s remark in The House [Talo, 2002] – that the ships on the horizon are “full of refugees that come to every shore” – takes on a rather different and more specifically political cast when viewed in this light.) This logic of what Derrida calls “auto-immune auto-indemnification” is a kind of “fundamentalism” that links the idea of “us” and “ours” to “blood and soil, to the family and to the nation,” that drives us back to “the family (heimisch, homely), to the familiar, to the domestic, to the proper, to the oikos of the ecological and of the economic, to the ethos, to the place of dwelling.” And it seeks to recast – or purge – all forms of subjectivity in the name of an ideal of the self as a kind of “ipseity,” a sovereignty that is not hybrid, divided and pluralistic, but rather phallic, singular and masculine: the “auto-” of “autonomy” and of “man” as the “autobiographical animal” – none of which will be news, of course, to the strong post-feminist who burst onto the international art scene in 1995 with If 6 was 9.
The (auto)immunitary logic of the biopolitical allows us to excavate more deeply the relations between the works already discussed and earlier pieces such as The House and Me/We, Okay, Gray (1993), which centre on the domestic space, the home, the family, gender and their “proper” forms. In Me/We, the central character, the father, tells us “it pays to stand firm on what is decided,” and, when he tickles his child, it is his own face that emerges from under the covers. His daughter speaks, but out of her mouth we hear his voice. The toxic fallout of that form of subjectivity also pervades the space of Okay, where the male voice, issuing from the mouth of the female lead, reminds us that “the majority of men are animals,” and the woman herself tells us, “if I could only change myself, I would transform myself into a dog, and I would bark and bite everything that moves – WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF!” (a form of speech that turns out to be more meaningful and more truthful, in fact, than the concluding incantation, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay”). And Gray is quite literally biopolitical, as the questions of nuclear catastrophe and national borders force us to rethink relations between inside and outside, spaces of safety and spaces of exposure. (It is all the more suggestive, in this light, that one of the main characters is with child.)
Most striking of all in this context, perhaps, is The House, which we can now see is not “about” madness, exactly. Rather, that work explores the (auto)immunitary movement in which the more the main character seeks to protect and preserve a space of interiority and the domestic, the more she is exposed to an “outside” that she can’t control. The house “can’t keep things out anymore, can’t preserve its own space” – a statement immediately followed by shots of power lines and roads stretching all the way to who knows where. Algeria, perhaps. Pretty soon, the cow she sees on her television screen – a consumable image, at a safe distance – wanders through her living room, anticipating a similar moment in Where is Where? in which the roundup of Algerian men by the French forces is suddenly taking place in the poet’s own study. The two boys who kill their friend sit in a boat in her swimming pool, even as the poet walks among the corpses of the village dead, as if they had just been killed. (And yet, they are posed in mannerist fashion, as if drawn from the inventory of canonical paintings in The Annunciation, preserved for all time for those who will look and not turn away.)
The relation between form and theme in both The House and Where is Where? is clear, and the question of space becomes fundamentally an issue of relationality; it becomes, you might say, a qualitative rather than quantitative problem. In both pieces, as the artist puts it in an interview, the question is “how near or far things really take place – is it in our yard or thousands of kilometres away and how do we measure the distance?” (A similar question is figured at the opening of The Hour of Prayer, with its evergreen tree inside the hotel room of the dreaming main character, and its many opening shots of doors, windows and liminal zones, like the roads and power lines of The House.) One way not to measure it, perhaps, is with a sewing machine and the black curtains that the main character in The House hangs over all her windows – not because she is “wrong” exactly, but rather because, by the logic of the autoimmune, such measures will only intensify that which they attempt to hold at bay. Indeed, immediately after hanging her black curtains, she finds herself “outside” in every sense, floating among the treetops. And then it’s back to the “place of dwelling” that configures the site of immunitary protection, poised against the ships “full of refugees who come to every shore.” She learns what the main character in Where is Where? learns: “everything is now simultaneous, here, being,” and “no place is just one anymore.” But she responds to it differently. Not “wrongly”; it’s not a question not of being a “good” person or a “bad” person – a scene between a female priest and a poet, whistling to call up the devil in Where is Where?, makes this clear, as does Foucault’s analysis of “madness” in relation to the birth of biopolitics and the role of medicalisation and “health” in establishing its norms. Instead, it is a question of the bearing, or posture, that one assumes toward such exposure, how one is equipped (or disempowered) to take it on. And for the poet in Where is Where? and, by extension, for the artist herself, it is also a question of the responsibility one assumes in the face of that exposure. Here, we find a plausible explanation for the attraction to Rimbaud’s poem that opens Where is Where? – not only is there a bird, cousin to the raven, that opens The Annunciation, but also “his song stops you, / and makes you blush.” But why? Because it confronts the artist with the question of responsibility in the face of death and destruction. As the scenes with the female priest suggest, the artist will now take on the risk that religion no longer takes upon itself. But it quickly becomes a case of “be careful what you wish for,” because taking that responsibility seriously is precisely what leads to the violent biopolitical outcomes that we deplore. There really is “only one god,” as Where is Where? puts it, and, for better or for worse, that god is both the god of life and the god of death. The logic at work here is that one with no guarantees; after all, the immunitary logic is about proximity and exposure, proportion and duration. The exposure to a toxin, to the strange and the foreign, in the right proportion strengthens the body and opens it to a greater range of life and experience. Life has to be tested to be alive, but overexposure can lead to madness or morbidity. This is why the spectre of death must always hover around the edges of such questions. The space of the foreign, the other, the miracle is also a space of risk, a place from which one may return transformed – or not return at all.
The opening of The Annunciation poses this problem in the reverse: “how does one know what things are, unless they’re already familiar?” And the biopolitical frame not only helps us to stitch together the hardcore, epistemological questions raised by Uexküll and the geopolitics of Where is Where?, it also allows us to answer in the affirmative the question raised a little later in that piece, one that The Hour of Prayer prepares us for in its own way: “Can one be shaken with surprise by something one knows through and through?” The opening movement, from the foreignness of the raven’s world, what it sees and how it sees, to the familiarity of Santa Claus (with the evergreen tree as a kind of mediator, or switch point, changing from the animal’s natural habitat to the symbolic Christmas tree) is repeated time and again in a work that is (even by Ahtila’s rigorous standards) meticulously crafted in its composition and editing. As we move from the familiar street scenes of Christmas decorations to shots of the donkey that will appear in the play, we see his perked ears on one screen as Christmas hymns play behind decorations of the season on the other two, suggesting he is listening to the music we hear. But is he? He is listening, to be sure, but one might say (remembering our Uexküll) that he is listening for how (and whether) he will be heard, since we are told straightaway that “they’re misunderstood animals.” And then we migrate into a very different kind of soundtrack – barking dogs and bird songs. Will the donkey simply be a prop in our show, a vehicle and conveyance – not just for its human master, but also for the myths and customs with which we’re most familiar? Or can it somehow be taken on its own terms? And what are its “own” terms anyway, if, as we’re informed, all the donkeys of Finland are in fact immigrants too, originally from Africa, part of the larger story of the global traffic of human and animal flesh, cousins of those “refugees who come to every shore?”
The Annunciation wants to answer “yes” to the question it raises early on: “Can something already familiar fulfil the criteria for a miracle?” And it wants to qualify it by suggesting that traditional understandings of the transcendent actually miss the same point that they struggle to express, domesticating the wonder and strangeness of the worlds of others (whether human or animal), draining them of their capacity to leave us “shaken with surprise.” What is remarkable and mysterious, it turns out, is not so much the angel with wings who flies above the earth and comes down from heaven, but the humble donkey who is “misunderstood,” the lowly pigeon who just escapes our grasp, as in the “sorry, birdie” scene, in which a red-headed actress can’t quite get her hands around the bird she has scared away and is left to gaze up at this supposedly “lowly” animal. Similarly, anyone who watches the flying angel rehearsal scene can’t help but remember the floating women in both The House and Where is Where? – the first, floating in the “outside” of psychosis, let loose in the world she’s trying to wall out; the second, in the form of the female priest who, as it turns out, is all too “above” the moral complexities that our poet takes upon herself. Here, however, both are brought back down to earth, as it were, as the actress playing the angel, suspended by wires, flips upside down in the harness while rehearsing. Indeed, just afterwards she exclaims, “hey, I’m an angel.” Another act of meticulous editing cuts to another screen, to an albatross whose odd, dangling legs double with those of the awkward actress “flying” through the air. Whatever the “miracle” is here, it certainly doesn’t align neatly with the traditional Great Chain of Being, from animals at the bottom, through humans, to angels on high. And then, in the next scene, we learn about the amazing worlds of ultraviolet perception in which blackbirds live, even as a sustained shot of a stuffed owl on a branch keeps watch, every bit as domesticated as the vacuuming being done by the play’s director on the set.
It comes as less of a surprise, then, when in the next short scene, the actress playing Mary looks over her shoulder (as if rehearsing the various poses she takes up in canonical paintings of the Annunciation as she encounters the angel), and sees not the approaching angel, but rather the donkey that we thought “beneath” her. But the end of The Annunciation teaches us something different, its own “small song.” As the last scene of the play concludes, we cut to a shot of the actress who plays Mary walking down a country road beside the donkey, not riding on him, while, on a second screen, two, then three, then four horses mill about restlessly, and on a third we are given a sustained shot of a single, small evergreen tree. Whose tree is it now, Santa’s or the raven’s, or both? In the background, a vocalist with guitar sings:
If I had no place to fall,
and I needed to,
could I count on you
to lay me down.
I won’t tell you no lies,
I don’t believe it’s wise,
you’ve got pretty eyes,
won’t you spin me around?
Interestingly enough, the donkey, like two of the horses, is bare, while the actress’s red sweater is matched by blankets that two of the horses wear. This is interesting, because, as Derrida observes in The Animal That Therefore I Am, clothing is traditionally taken to be “proper” to the human (as part of the larger domain of technics and culture), while animals (so the story goes) are naked, but naked without knowing it, hence without consciousness of “shame” at their nakedness, hence “without consciousness of good and evil.” Is this relevant to the entire topos of the biblical story of The Annunciation? Certainly, and in multiple ways, but Ahtila’s work has a different story to tell. Here, nakedness and clothing, exposure and protection, zoe and bios, follow a different logic, and the question is not are you human or animal, divine or earthly, but rather – like the actress who exclaims “I’m an angel” only to be “spun around” – can I count on you to catch me if I fall?