When back in January we first started working on the next Biennial theme, our team was discussing the topics of corporeality, touch and the right to touch, and at the time we couldn’t have imagined the upcoming pandemic and the world’s transformation into the battlefield we find ourselves in today, discouraged, cut off from the physical reality, and drowning in the swamp of rumors, alarming news, and comments.
The last Biennial theme was Immortality. We studied the theories of cosmists inviting us to consider the ultimate stake, eternal life; we considered the alternative future scenarios; we sought for ways to talk about devastating existential experiences. Our team strived to elicit clear and personal messages from the incapacitating abstract notion of immortality. While trying to preserve this innermost attitude without sliding into pathos, we arrived at the theme of corporeality. Further discussions led us to the yearning to understand personal experience. We raised such questions as the awareness of the physical boundaries and capabilities of one’s body, the experience of physical interactions with others.
And while during the first meetings on the upcoming Biennial theme we were focusing our attention on the shifting conventions of interpersonal communication, #metoo, the mechanics of gestures, now we are facing the unambiguous impossibility of contact. The sensations and actions that once seemed indefeasible—to hug a loved one, to mechanically touch one’s own face, to push a door open with a bare hand, to pay cash—are now temporarily inaccessible to us.
Habitual minimal gestures that constitute the fabric of our everyday life have been cut out. Similar gaps are now found in the complex market systems that serve our comfort. The “customer’s sense of touch” that manifested, according to anthropologist Maria Pirogovskaya, in the 20th and 21st centuries is no longer possible. We can only touch those who happened to be shut in with us when the “high alert regime” was put in place—if we’re even lucky enough to be at home and share the experience with someone.
Sociologist Richard Sennett wrote in his work Flesh and Stone: “the modern mobile individual has suffered a kind of tactile crisis: motion has helped desensitize the body.” But now this mobility has been forcibly limited and the tactile crisis is combined with the crisis of movement.
Commentators of the present, from rapper Ice-T to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, direct our attention to the triumph of biopolitics, comparing our collective experience to being trapped in a spaceship, a hermit’s abode or a solitary cell. The images of the present and the past, designed to illustrate the universal disconnect from the benefits of the global world, refer us to the societies of control. So far, it is very rare to see a researcher or an artist to suggest a bold image of the future where the cascading consequences of this major breakdown have been overcome.
The lack of a global vision is compensated by tactical decisions. We see a lot of initiatives of mutual assistance and grass-roots support of various groups: artists, senior citizens, food delivery people, doctors and musicians. Humanity manifests itself through the cracks of institutional, bacteriological and geographical barriers.
And we would like to keep both the confusion and hope in our sight; both the baffled immobility and the instant mobilization of resources. No matter what transpires next, the experience of the current situation with the global suspension and the impossibility of intimacy will be imprinted in our further everyday life. We do not know what will happen in 2021, but we believe that by the time the 6th Biennial is launched, we will arrive at an understanding of the time we find ourselves in and will know whether we can hold our hope for embracing or whether we should still refrain from it.