Guest Editor Neringa Černiauskaitė
We need to talk about vulnerability. The urgency of it in the face of the flaming economic, climate and political crises. Facing each other in this crisis. We need to fix its image, its negative branding, into something shared, something with the immense potential to resist, to listen, to learn.
I received the invitation to guest-edit this issue of * as a Journal with a focus on the body in April 2022 – two months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Fragility was the only image that lingered in my mind when thinking of bodies over those past months. Vulnerability, however, seemed to hide an immense space underneath its dark surface, a space for potential encounters. And I read: ‘The conventional and tacitly assumed understanding holds that to be vulnerable is simply to be susceptible, exposed, at risk, in danger. In short, it is to be somehow weaker, defenseless and dependent, open to harm and injury. This understanding of vulnerability tends to function as an uninterrogated background assumption; in this way, vulnerability is overdetermined to the extent that it is construed as a generalizable weakness.’¹ Yet everyone, not only those on the losing side is weak, is vulnerable. Vulnerability is a basic human condition, it is just unevenly distributed.
It is also first and foremost systemic: capitalism made you vulnerable, colonialism made you vulnerable, imperialism made you vulnerable, social constructs made you vulnerable, language made you vulnerable. No wonder that limiting the degree of such vulnerability is the desire and goal, feverishly sought by many: those very systems of oppression carry the ability to turn themselves transparent, channeling all the blame on ‘weak’ individuals. But what if we bring a little more ambiguity into the term vulnerability? We could take heed from Gilson, who says: ‘vulnerability is a basic kind of openness to being affected and affecting in both positive and negative ways, which can take diverse forms in different social situations (for example, bodily, psychological, economic, emotional, and legal vulnerabilities).’²? To be vulnerable is, therefore, to be open. Open to violence, to gaze, to control, but also potentially to affection, comprehension, merging with other bodies and species. Could it be the basis or tool for ethically facing the other, for building communities, for transforming established structures?
‘Yes’, if we embrace the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas in which exposedness in a face-to-face encounter is key to building an intersubjective relationship. ‘Yes’, if we want to bring more ‘flesh’ into theory through a feminist approach and put the embodied subjectivity forward. In such a context, according to Gilson, vulnerability becomes ‘a condition of potential that makes possible other conditions. Being vulnerable makes it possible for us to suffer, to fall prey to violence and be harmed, but also to fall in love, to learn, to take pleasure and find comfort in the presence of others, and to experience the simultaneity of these feelings. Vulnerability is not just a condition that limits us but one that can enable us.’³ In other words, to be vulnerable is to be empowered.
For this issue, I’ve invited a group of thinkers, activists, artists, writers, and curators to dig deep into the notion of vulnerability, to expose its structure, to explore its potential. It was important, however, to push ourselves beyond the anthropocentric position when thinking of vulnerability and invite other bodies – planetary, vegetal, hydro or animal. ‘If vulnerability is openness to being affected and affecting, then invulnerability is a closure to certain modes of being affected.’⁴ And we don’t want that – we need to embrace vulnerability as a basic condition of interrelations!
This issue begins with naming the systems and ideologies that over centuries have created oppressive conditions and have written fear, anxiety and chronic illnesses into genetic codes of past generations and generations to come. Physician, activist, artist and writer Rupa Marya, in conversation with curator and artist Agnė Bagdžiūnaitė, explains how colonial capitalist cosmology with its intellectual thought tools and extractivist practices destroyed the web of life that produced bodies inflamed with enduring pain. While Western medicine focuses its lenses on fragmented body parts, Marya offers a method of ‘deep medicine’ to cure inflammation (both of human and planetary bodies) – to rebuild the disrupted web of life in which the individual is not seen as a central being, but a part of a larger ecosystem.
The doctor’s waiting room became the subject for Vaiva Grainytė’s poem ‘Waiting for the Gastroenterologist’, meanwhile curator Inga Lāce in her essay explored how technologies in medicine were reflected in the early paintings of the Lithuanian artist Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė and the work of the contemporary artist duo Pakui Hardware (consisting of myself and Ugnius Gelguda). Care and neglect, hope and hopelessness, physicality and virtuality – all of that is present in the works of Rožanskaitė, depicting X-ray and surgical procedures in the Soviet era, and in the installations of Pakui Hardware, which present fictional surgical rooms in which technological touch replaces that of a human.
The absence of touch gave birth to ‘Roots’ – a poetic text by the Lithuanian writer and curator Monika Kalin. Dedicated to her mother, it is a delicate reflection on the fragility and disintegration of a body through a consideration of the author’s own hair. It is through the roots that closeness is possible with an absent body.
In their conversation, Catherine Malabou and Kristupas Sabolius try to grasp the in-betweenness and plasticity of vulnerability that is born in or through an accident. ‘Are we equipped to receive the accident or, on the contrary, isn’t the accident what creates our availability to the accident? If that is true, I think that vulnerability is plasticity to the extent that we have to create the form of our exposure. And we do not know whether the form was already there or it has to be invented, or both at the same time. This is what makes it plastic.’ reflects Catherine Malabou.
‘You can take part in public life as a victim or as part of the cosmos.’ says the artist Gabrielė Gervickaitė in conversation with the researcher Jurga Jonutytė. Gabrielė’s drawings, collages and installations stem from her embodied experience of vulnerability, which for her is ‘a space where we can feel like ourselves’ as opposed to an environment restricted by cultural norms.
Constraining mechanisms embedded in language are central to artist Agnė Jokšė who attempts to expose the antiquated gender forms and norms in Lithuanian (and other) language(s) in her films and writing. Creating new, non-binary, vocabulary is a sensitive and laborious work that must rise from the ground up, from the community which embodies the non-normativity. ‘For me, a non-heteronormative Lithuanian language is primarily about etiquette and a space left for the unknown, where my own socio-culturally shaped knowledge remains open to change.’ writes Agnė in her essay ‘At a Loss for Words’.
Social standards and state control in the Soviet era were not only more rigid, but literally imprisoning for anyone that fell outside of the boundaries of heteronormativity. Curator Adomas Narkevičius examines the archive of Virgilijus Šonta – a Lithuanian photographer whose latent queer portraits of young men were long hidden away in drawers, even after his untimely death (an unresolved murder). This archive ‘suggests an artist whose work was, in huge part, dedicated to the precarious, prohibited, doubled lives, feelings and desires of gay men under the Soviet rule. He gave them a photographic form when simple representation was not an option.’ reflects Adomas Narkevičius.
Non-normativity produces vulnerability to this day. Suffocating routines – be it of a heteronormative relationship or of dull daily shifts at McDonalds – turned into scores for Anna-Marija Adomaitytė’s choreographic practice, presented in this issue by French academic and theatre director Eric Voutrin. Repetition is central to Adomaitytė’s choreography, which seems to be caught in a glitchy and uncanny loop, rendering bodies into cogs within the smoothly running machinery of capitalism and social norms.
Economic, political, social, and natural forces and their material effects on people, flora and fauna intersect in the transcorporeality – a concept coined by the theorist Stacy Alaimo. Interviewed by curator and writer Jennifer Teets, Alaimo guides us through various navigational methods that human and non-human species might take in the growing culture of risk.
The porous relationships of bodies and material, the semiotic and even digital forces around and within them are explored by writer Alice Bucknell in consideration of the multidimensional practice of the artist duo Dorota Gawęda & Eglė Kulbokaitė. Ecology and technology, science and magic, nonhuman intelligence and shared speculation are sewn ‘into a collective carrier bag that’s always generating new offshoots.’ writes Bucknell. These offshoots aim to erase the artificial boundaries of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ for good.
Here we are – in a loop, ending the issue where we began – with images of vulnerable bodies flooding our screens and minds from the lands of Ukraine. Curator and writer Valentinas Klimašauskas conducted and presented an analysis of the ‘Brutal poetics of dizzinformation’ that accompanied Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Navigating through the dense flow of online Russian propaganda and crowded troll factories, Klimašauskas analyses how a convincing alternate reality and zombification of citizens are constructed. To fight this colonisation of mind (and physical territories), we’ll need to invent new realities, and vocabularies that are non-discriminative and generate all-inclusive worlds.’ Valentinas suggests. ‘Words, ideas and actions alone, using old thought patterns will not be enough.’
There are also images – moving, painted, captured – through which vulnerability, exposedness and openness radiate in darker or lighter tones. Powerful works by Arthur Jafa, Anu Põder, Lewis Hammond, and Naomi Rincón Gallardo connect and stitch together the words and thoughts of other contributors, creating vibrant parallel visual narratives of their own.
I am immensely grateful to all the contributors whose thoughts and works, like gentle hands, have helped to unpack the depths of vulnerability, and to the editorial board for their trust and pointed references. And to you, dear reader, for holding your gaze and attention until this line. A line that ends with a question – can embracing vulnerability be a tool to fight and dismantle the systems of subjugation and restraint?
1. Erinn Gilson, ‘Vulnerability, Ignorance, and Oppression’ Hypatia, vol. 26, no.2, Spring, 2011, pp.309–310.
2. Gilson, p. 310.
3. Gilson, p. 310.
4. Gilson, p. 313.
Neringa Černiauskaitė is an artist, curator and writer. She completed her postgraduate studies at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and the A.J. Greimas Centre for Semiotics and Literary Theory at Vilnius University, and holds a BA in Art History and Theory from Vilnius Academy of Arts. She was co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Lithuanian online contemporary art magazine Artnews.lt (2008–2021) and co-founder of the online Baltic contemporary art magazine Echo Gone Wrong; the micro-publishing house and online bookstore Artbooks.lt; and the project space Editorial in Vilnius. Neringa is a regular contributor to Artforum and has had her texts published in Frieze, Flash Art, and Mousse as well as a number of catalogues. She is also one-half of the artist duo Pakui Hardware (together with Ugnius Gelguda), and has presented solo shows at MUMOK, Vienna; BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK; and MdbK Leipzig museum among others.
This article appears in full in Body as a Journal, No. 4
More in this Issue
Table of Contents
Kotryna Lingienė and Rasa Juškevičiūtė
Cormorants in Ancient Woods
A conversation between Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė and Mindaugas Survila
Jonathan Lovekin and David Grandorge
A Forest is Like a City – With its own Streets, Squares and Different Land Uses
Interview with Laura Garbštienė and Onutė Grigaitė by Jurga Daubaraitė and Jonas Žukauskas
Cormorants in Ancient Woods
A conversation between Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė and Mindaugas Survila
Thinking Things Through a Forest
A conversation with Nene Tsuboi and Tuomas Toivonen by Jonas Žakaitis
On how the Tree Became a Pellet: Capital Forests of the Baltics
A Forest’s Drive for Motion: Acoustic Ecologies and the Sonicity of Labour
For Potato Peel
Neringa Forest Architecture
Egija Inzule, Jurga Daubaraitė and Jonas Žukauskas
The Right not to be Offsetted
Interview with Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe) by Jurga Daubaraitė and Jonas Žukauskas
Forest Paintings by Algirdas Šeškus
On Forest and Time