April 8, 2020


A deadly fog looms, hiding dark demons of fear. Like a hyper-object[1], it is all enveloping yet cannot be grasped. A sign of the times. Climate change and Covid-19, both ghosts hiding within it, are but invisible and difficult to trace to specific origins. A balance has been lost. A larger malaise presents itself. What is its nature, and how do we look at something we cannot see? Alongside, what kind of impacts could this moment have on art practice and art institutions?

Let us first examine the virus Covid 19 as an entity. It is a biological contaminant to the human species, invisible to the naked eye and apparent only through its symptoms. Largely similar to that found in bats, with whom it has co-existed and co-evolved over eons, not as a contaminant but in a symbiosis.[2] It defies classification is it living or non-living? Dormant, a strand of RNA enveloped with protein, it waits to come in contact with a human cell, before coming alive, wildly injecting its infection into the host, till it destroys it. Even if the host survives, it is marked as its metabolic systems are permanently altered. It cannot coexist with the innumerable organisms which already live in association with the human body, as assemblages and in entangled worldings (Donna Haraway)[3] with it. These entities are to the human what the Covid19 is to the bat. The human’s poison is the bat’s nectar.

However, how did it suddenly appear? Was the cause of the appearance of Covid19 a single mutation which allowed it to jump to humans? Or, was it caused by a host of interlinked interactions and triggers, which are not linearly traceable, but operate in a network of laboratories, defense establishments, wet animal markets, industrial farming, forest industry, pharmaceutical companies and capital markets? Maybe it is an object, the appearance of which is an outcome of intra-actions within such systems, rather than a single interaction, using Karan Barad’s[4] idea of agential realism. Imagine this ecosystem of capitalistic desires triggering off untraceable actions and giving rise to viruslike objects as contaminants of fear and death.

Sooner than later, we will find a medicine and a vaccine for Covid-19, but not before thousands of people have been sacrificed at its altartill the next variant appears, which we should have no doubt it will, given the recent evidence of MERS, SARS, Nipah, Ebola and AIDS. It is only a question of time. Climate change and Covid-19 are an outcome of systems of greed and the mindless consumption of nature, produced through institutional collaborations that drive capitalism. Today, almost all institutional human activity is under lockdown in fear of the invisible threat. However, if the true nature of this crisis remains hidden, and invisible, rather than be revealed, then the crisis will repeat itself time and again as though genetically encoded. Exposing it could threaten everything. The problem goes beyond the virus and climate change, it is a reflection of the world we have created.

These ideas of how objects are produced and rendered visible, through unseen and hidden institutional collaborations, have deep implications for art making and its institutional spaces. Art needs, and indeed has the responsibility, to be located in a critical discourse and reveal fresh perspectives rather than be complicit in reproducing the world as it has come to be. Is the current art world also such an ‘object,’ an outcome of such collaborations? If so, it will reproduce the problem rather than participate in the creation of new imaginaries.

Today, it is evident how implicated the art world is in capitalistic structures. Along with the collapse of the world economic order, it too seems to be collapsing.  Museums, galleries, art fairs have shut down and some may never recover. In turn many artists, some of whom are generally at the edge of economic existences, are in dire straits. It is time to re- configure things. The crisis points towards the urgent need for disruptions through new artistic collaborations with new actors, new ideas and new institutional ways of producing and sharing art, guided by ethical rudders of community, social responsibility and inclusiveness. A new art -life symbiosis ! Such entanglements could lead to new realisms which embody other type of agencies and give rise to new art worlds which produce more hopeful objects than contaminants such as Covid-19.



[1] Referring to Timothy Morton’s idea of entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place. First coined by him in context of indestructible materials like styrofoam in The Ecological Thought (2010, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press), and then referring to Global Warming in Hyperobjects: philosophy and ecology after the end of the world (2013, University of Minnesota Press)

[2] Anna Tsing et all, refer to the idea of symbiosis as a material interdependence of living beings as it being “mixed up with other species,” and these entanglements as a “near-requirement for life.” See Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt. 2017. Arts of living on a damaged planet. University of Minnesota Press. Pp M4-M5

[3] Donna Haraway, has used ‘worlding’ to refer to ways of ‘world-making’ in which different species, technologies and forms of knowledge interact. See amongst many –Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 2016. Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene.

[4]In Karen Barad’s theory of agential realism, the universe comprises phenomena, which are “the ontological inseparability of intra-acting agencies”. Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press. Pp 206.

Ravi Agarwal