"Cells interlinked within cells interlinked": On Ambivalent Contamination
by Alex Quicho
“It’s very, ah, porous,” warned my friend A of the house she had just started living in. Rainwater dripped in where the conservatory joined the main rooms, neighbourhood cats entered through a vestigial flap, and a resident fox often intruded to leave offerings: roadkill feathers, a half- eaten Sainsbury’s soup, a used diaper. Embracing the house’s spirit, we ate pizza with the doors flung open to the soaking garden—a bit of lueften, airing the virus out. A light storm rippled the atmosphere and spongified the earth. Porousness was both a running joke and a sensibility we embraced, a shorthand for staying open to others’ moods and influence.
Yet porousness felt more grounded, more active, than simply being impressionable; a sponge, after all, is not fundamentally altered by any liquid that soaks it. I associated it with the sensitivity of certain female narrators, such as Jo of Jenny Hval’s Paradise Rot, Anja of Elvia Wilk’s Oval, or even Faye of Rachel Cusk’s lauded yet reviled Outline trilogy. These women, especially Faye, are frequently described as open vessels for the lives of others, but their fluid demeanours and observational capacities are not to be confused with a lack of agency. Instead, they seem to exist in a flow state, cycling between self-discipline and social surrender. The ability to dissolve as easily as sugar, yet reassemble just as easily and at will, seems an indicator of secure personhood, though not so much that any one is impervious to perceived slights. “Maybe it wasn’t the house, but me that was porous,” thinks Jo. “Maybe I had to grow a thicker skin in this town.”1 The house in question is a poorly renovated warehouse she’d found after moving to rural England from Norway for college. Its paper-thin walls don’t reach all the way to the ceiling; its aluminum siding shudders with every window or door flung open or shut. Jo can hear her lone flatmate’s urine hit the toilet bowl, her teeth breaking the skin of an apple, even the swish of her woolen jumper as she sheds it, pulling it up and over her head. You can imagine how such relentless intimacy would draw her to her—the building’s deficiencies conspiring into something like star-crossed fate.
True to form—that is, in the contemporary feminist novel’s subversive interest in domesticity—these characters’ living spaces reflect their inner worlds; in Oval, a dystopian tale set in near-future Berlin, Anja and her partner live in a novelty eco-dwelling on an urban mountainside that is rapidly composting itself. The house’s collapse marks a breakdown in their cohabitating relationship, and indeed Anja’s commitment to urbane reality itself. The permeable interiors of Wilk and Hval expose how fine the line is between domestic and feral. In Paradise Rot and Oval, the return to nature is not a tale of embattled survival but one of relief, felt in the sighs of floorboards turning to loam, in plaster cracking under crawling vines, and the soft pop of mushrooms emerging from corners and joins. Rewilding is a process of benign release; it is civilization, with its incessant demands of maintenance and sovereignty, that is presented as the violent drive.
In performance artist Victoria Sin’s speculative fiction And at the pinnacle, the foot of a mountain (2019), humans aren’t merely returned to nature: they’re shrunk down until they’re at its mercy, diminished to their very atoms, yet finding, in diminishment, a new expansion. Presented as a 23-minute audio installation at the Site Gallery in Sheffield, UK, the work could be heard on headphones inside a maze of gauzy red curtain, where Sin incanted, with all the intonation and tautology of a spiritual leader, phrases of ego surrender: “What if it was all just the same thing? What if we were all just the same thing? What if we were the same being?” Freshly landed on a jungly planet, Sin’s protagonist is swept up in a storm of pollen that clings to their lungs and coats their tongue. As they cough and hack, they feel their selfhood begin to blur, becoming one with the carnivorous plants that surround them.
“I inhale and my breath within me defines my body and its limits. And I exhale and my breath without me circulates through the air to be breathed by everything which comes before me and everything which comes after me,” runs Sin’s first-person narration. Their description of breath as a connector across space and time counters the claustrophobic sovereignty of the virus where, as Paul B. Preciado writes in the 2020 essay “Learning from the Virus,” “the new frontier is the mask. The air that you breathe has to be yours alone.”2
Yet under the contamination hallucination other- wise known as obsessive-compulsive disorder, I feared bodily breaches as much as I adored permeable subjectivity, envisioning bacteria burrowed deep into food, invisible dirt prickling the palms of my hands. I was at ease with A because she and I were similarly vigilant in the pandemic, wandering around in the faint alcoholic perfume of sanitizer at all times. In Victoria Park, I watched her gently trace the lip of a canned gin and tonic with an anti-bacterial wipe. As weeks turned into months spun into a “new normal,” I kept visualizing plumes of toxic vapour escaping everyone’s mouths, viral particles settling like a fine ash on every surface. It was unbearable to accept that I was physically porous, let alone that clichéd LSD vision of world and body as one, molecules fizzing energetically between skin and air. In this way, my mental illness was not radical; it very much centred the sufficiency of the individual unit, hard-wired me to recoil from intermingling, from connection, despite that I desired both deeply and with desperation. I saw myself in Hval’s listless, sensitive narrator peering out from the back of a lecture hall, wanting worldly plenitude in theory yet repulsed by it in practice—a feeling intensified by how the pandemic was managed, primarily, through barriers to intimacy. “I couldn’t help but think about the spit bubbles on Lipman’s mouth, this population of tiny drops spread- ing like little wet seeds across the auditorium,” she writes, comparing Jo’s professor and his wet oration to a mushroom expelling reproductive spores.3 That the metaphor contained both disgust and desire was not lost on her.
Weeks before opening a show, scientist-artist Anicka Yi will run Q-tips over fecund surfaces, as she did in Force Majeure (2017), gathering samples from door handles in Chinatown and Koreatown; in Grabbing at Newer Vegetables (2015), she asked 100 women in power to swab their orifices. The material is then brushed onto huge slabs of laboratory agar, the nourishing jelly derived from algae that comes pressed into the bottom of Petri dishes. Over the course of the show, bacterial colonies will bloom, creating bright graphic spots and painterly streaks that disrupt the minimalism of the framed or floating rectangular slabs. Whether considering female power or the might of diaspora, these works associate certain bodies with immunological fear. From Foucault to Preciado to Roberto Esposito, theorists have long used the body’s immune system as a metaphor for biopolitical power, considering how the patriarchal nation-state sustains its supremacy through purging and excluding alien forms. Such fear is often embodied; in an interview with W, Yi recounts how cis men were mostly disgusted by her exhibition: “It smells like feces in here! I’m going to throw up! I need to leave!”4
Yi often shows her bacterial works alongside edible ones, such as ALZ/AZN, Maybe She’s Born With It, and Lapidary Tea Slave (all 2015), piling on sensory whiplash. In these shows, the list of materials reads like poetry: tempura-fried flowers, recalled powdered milk, MSG crystals, snail excretions. Fried flowers are piled into dripping pillars as rich and intricate as a coral reef, which are seated atop plinths, encased in protective bubbles, and uplit by LED panels, giving them the appearance of alien life forms on display. Especially with their feminized, faintly orientalized titles, it’s hard not to consider the fragility of the body and its ideological casing, or vice versa. I think, too, of Bubble Boy (2001), the true story turned Hollywood special of David Vetter, who lived his short life inside a sterilized vesicle because of severe combined immunodeficiency. Yet in Yi’s works, a motorized blower keeps the plastic inflated, disrupting the illusion that these bubbles are hermetic domains. Any connoisseur of food preservation will tell you that exposure to air brings about spoilage. So Yi’s prickly, delicate sculptures, cushioned though they seem from interference by their formidable plastic sheaths, are still subject to the disturbance of decay.
Even in their inflated pouches—which, like the glass separating viewers from the bacterial microbiomes, also offer viewers a sense that they are protected from the work—they exude a peanut oil stink that clings to the once-neutral gallery atmosphere, as any cooking oil lifts from the frying pan and into one’s clothes. At the heart of Yi’s work is a conviction that scent is a feminist sense, countering the oppressive male gaze or colonial mindset of empirical definition. Scent, after all, is an untameable contaminant—you can’t avoid breathing something in as you can shut out any vision by closing your eyes, or opt out of touch by jerking your hand back from the thorn or the flame. It enters and it floods, bypassing the reasoned wording
of understanding, catalyzing powerful desire or violent disgust. “Any intrusive, threatening smell—it really destabilizes people and creates a very hostile, tense environment,” says Yi to Scott Indrisek. “That’s the hardest part: dealing with people’s prejudice and intolerance for what they consider foul odors.”5 It is a concentration: of memory, of experience—a single whiff rolling open a cabinet of past sensations—and of a thing itself, if you think of the essences used by perfumiers, 4,000 rose petals distilled into a single drop.
Scent is pre-verbal and indeed anti-linguistic. The animal following its nose piques Yi’s curiosity about non-human intelligence, ways that instinct and sensory fluency can usurp human-centric conceptualizations of the self and world. Immigrant Caucus (2017) presents a trio of insecticide canisters, which are placed in- conspicuously on the floor and continuously diffuse an enigmatic scent. Viewers reading the exhibition material learn that this is the essence of both ants and Asian American women, the latter a distillation of sweat samples that took an hour, per specimen, to collect. On the one hand, this feels like a self-own, considering how ants tend to be considered invasive vermin, their traits equated with the immigrant stereotype of hard- working hordes that build and encroach. Yet Yi intends Immigrant Caucus to contain an “ant-human perspective,” appreciating how ants live in entirely matriarchal societies—a model she wishes humans would soon adopt. Finally, the title belies an attitude of gruelling co-operation from within and against all odds. A caucus is, in US politics, “a faction within a legislative body that pursues its interest through the legislative process,”6 as in the Congressional Black Caucus, or the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.
In the thick of lockdown, Yi posted the only material that penetrated my “tofu brain,” as my friend L liked to call it—my mind having become less porous and more densely waterlogged by depression, lack of stimulation, and an agoraphobic diet of rice and chickpeas. Yi was raised by a minister and a biochemist; during the summer of pandemic panic and racial uprising, she collated detailed studies into antibodies and viral spread alongside righteous resources for justice, intersecting racialization with contagion and ecology, and distilling these ideas for her confined viewership. I stayed as riveted as I could be despite my listlessness, feeling the extent of our mycelial connections. Our intrusion into wild habitats forced pathogens into the human sphere. The neoliberal nation’s hostility to social welfare allowed those pathogens to spread like wildfire, blazing through fields of the most vulnerable. The current world order, created by colonialism and sustained by racial capitalism, has ensured the pandemic will stay burning for as long as the Darvaza gas crater, and that vaccines will be unequally distributed and sold to the highest bidder—which is to say, forever, without serious and far-reaching intervention.
The advent of the pandemic brought a renewed interest in the machinations of globalization and, indeed, the permeability of borders. How quickly the virus leaped from country to country, its path following that of industry, its decentralized manufacturing, the atomized spray of distribution and sales. In his essay “‘Chinese Virus,’ World Market,” Andrew Liu writes, “It is precisely the unexceptional status of Wuhan as a second-tier Chinese city that is notable. What the global spread of the novel coronavirus from Wuhan suggests is that the culprit here is not the unique circumstances of a particular place, but rather the now-extensive commercial connections that bring ever more of these kinds of places closer and closer together, into a larger and larger whole.”7 Along with our entanglement with other species, living and non-living, the virus reiterates the enmeshment of the market and the people that sustain it. It has exposed how humans are not the Earth’s custodians, but its dependents.
“What comes from us will return to us,” reads the caption of a photograph taken by journalist Jilson Tiu, who rode his bike around the worst-affected boroughs of Manila following Typhoon Ulysses, which struck just hours after my arrival in the city. In the photo, huge masses of plastic are caught on a bridge’s taut cables, like iron filaments furring a magnet. Flash floods brought a deluge of trash, regurgitating what was once disposed of back into our consciousness. That garbage is “taken care of” remains one of our most stubborn illusions. Anyone living in a tropical archipelago will tell you as much. Trash appears without provenance, roiled back up onto our shores with the rainy season. This can be accidental, as with the outfall from villages located beyond waste-disposal infrastructure, or intentional: a few years ago, a brief scandal erupted as barges filled with North American garbage were turned back by the Philippine government, which had previously permitted private businesses in the country to sell waste-processing services to the trash-laden West. Plastic might be proof of the futility of national sovereignty: how easily shiny chip packets, cup noodle containers, dime baggies, twist-ties, bottle caps, and microbeads are churned by ocean tides across the globe, wandering and washing up indiscriminately.
Because of the storm, the power went out. I scrolled in bed. I thought about the intensified restrictions around travel, how it was only through elaborate transnational negotiations and agreements that planes could continue piercing the high atmosphere above my home country and discharge their diminished cargo into the testing cubicles, immigration queues, and hired cars that ferried us to our various quarantine facilities. These were cavernous hotels which kept their lights shut off to conserve power and made do with a “skeleton staff”—an exceptionally morbid phrase that is now doubly so. I felt small, very small, like a tiny cell travelling up a vessel and into the roomy atrium where I was destined to circulate for a few days, waiting for the all-clear from the testing facility, waiting for lost baggage, waiting for the powerful typhoon to clear the city. Just past midnight, five days into my quarantine, water suddenly began to pour from the smoke alarm and light fixtures. Porousness struck again. It would take some time before I could be moved to another room, so I packed up carefully around the water that leaked onto the carpet, down the walls, and into the centre of my bed. I was reminded of Patrick Staff’s exhibition, On Venus, at London’s Serpentine Galleries— how they’d transformed the former arsenal into a sick and labouring body with a leaky circulatory system of piping that dripped an acidic liquid into silver barrels scattered throughout.
A popular genre of TikTok this summer has been the quarantine food diary: a rapid montage of clips of people in quarantine detainment opening the prepackaged food dropped off at their door by—not quite a ghost but—said “skeleton staff.” Hearty meals at South Korean facilities contrasted with pitiful offerings from NYU dormitories. Before arriving, I worried, primarily, about what I would have to put into my body without my consent while waiting. This should have been the least of my concerns, consider- ing how much material—and how much violence—is smuggled into and out of our bodies unbeknownst to us. I have written about Staff’s molecular sensitivities, their consideration of how biomedical treatments, from chemotherapy to hormone therapies, are often discovered and derived through human and animal trauma. Chemotherapy was fallout from a study into mustard gas, while the most readily available sort of estrogen is usually collected from mares that are forcibly inseminated. While in the world of the healthy, there appears to be a clear binary between “healthy” and “unwell,” anyone who has lived through serious med- ical intervention knows this is not the case. Health is fundamentally ambivalent, so-called healthy society a careful calibration between damages seen, minimized, or unperceived. In conversation with Taylor Dafoe, Yi summarizes the upside to the virus, on the other side of the gruesome human toll:
“What I’ve learned during COVID-19 is that the teachings of this virus are such that it is here to regulate monoculture. It predates life, but it’s technically not living. It really destabilizes what we think about in terms of the living and the nonliving, and its implication of what that means for, let’s say, artificial machine intelligence. The idea that because something is not alive it has a different sort of categorization in terms of consciousness or life. The virus is teaching us that that binary distinction is obsolete now. It doesn’t really matter. The virus is here to promote ecological biodiversity. And the reason why we humans seem to be feeling like we’re being punished is because, in a sense, we are. Viruses punish winners. If one species becomes too greedy, if one species is too dominant, then it actually needs to go dormant for a while. Fundamentally this is good for the planet, because humans are not great for biodiversity. And humans have roughly 8 percent virus in their DNA—we are made of virus.”8
On the surface, Yi’s assertions ring of “wE aRe ThE vIrUs,” a well-circulated meme which took aim at eco-fascists using the pandemic to push forward racist ideas of depopulation. Yet, to consider how the virus might compel us to renegotiate our relationship with the world around us seems appropriate—and, to be sure, does not pardon the indefensibility of medical and governmental negligence. What the virus has taught me is that there is no simplicity in fear; as with the weaponization of “immunity,” it is the weaponization of the bone-deep instinct, where “blood-black nothingness began to spin/a system of cells interlinked within/cells interlinked within cells interlinked,” that tilts society toward greater harm.9 The political demands for more hatred, more insularity, and more exclusion can yet be countered by survival strategies of more care, more porousness, more interdependence—not denial of immunity nor fear nor the virus itself. The hardest thing to process has always been that we, on our own, are often also the enemy.