To take part in the shipwreck | A conversation wit...

To take part in the shipwreck | A conversation with Agnes Questionmark and Arturo Passacantando on CHM13hTERT and other stories

In his Faustroll (1911), French writer and playwright Alfred Jarry expounds the principles and aims of pataphysics, defining it as a science of imaginary solutions, which aims to study exceptions, the strange, the particular, with the purpose of defining a universe additional to our own. The programming for the 2022/2023 season of spazioSERRA – an exhibition space and nonprofit association founded in 2017 in Milan – takes the title unpostoIMPOSSIBILE and has the same goals. Six artists/collectives are called to think about an unusual space, a glass cage reflecting the crossings of the Lancetti train station, to return an unseen “elsewhere”, in line with Jarry’s pataphysics. The latest project featured Agnes Questionmark (Rome, 1995), curated by The Orange Garden (Arturo Passacantando and Tommaso de Benedictis) and the team of spazioSERRA.

Agnes Questionmark, CHM13hTERT, 2023, long durational performance e installazione site-specific, a cura di The Orange Garden e spazioSERRA. Installation view presso spazioSERRA, Stazione Milano Lancetti, Milano. Photo Cristiano Rizzo. Courtesy l’artista e spazioSERRA

Alessia Baranello: When I came by to visit, you told me about the many mythologies that passersby at the station created around Agnes’ body and siren-like appearance. From this catapulting effect, one could infer the tangible efficacy of long durational performance in the construction of another place. Yet, everything seems to me CHM13hTERT except an “elsewhere”. Artificial wombs, genomic editing, the search for new habitats for human survival on a planet made infected, the poisonings of the pharmaceutical industry and its gatekeeping: these are parts of the real that are difficult to assimilate precisely because they are already part of it in their own right.
Agnes Questionmark: CHM13hTERT, before being the title of the performance at spazioSERRA, is the name of the cell line developed to be able to fully encode (using the hTERT technique – telomere to telomere) the human genome. Using new softwares, scientists were able to complete all the coding of a single DNA. Once decoded, the genome can be modified, reprinted and reproduced infinitely. We are lost, toward a path of no return. The human species is already changing. CHM13hTERT is the way a machine reads the human being: codes, letters and numbers. So, this is not a techno-scientific advance, nor even merely the achievement of a full awareness about the human being, but an ‘inevitable symbiosis between man and machine. Homo sapiens is now an analog term. Homo sapiens has become CHM13hTERT.

Agnes Questionmark, CHM13hTERT, 2023, long durational performance e installazione site-specific, a cura di The Orange Garden e spazioSERRA. Installation view presso spazioSERRA, Stazione Milano Lancetti, Milano. Photo Cristiano Rizzo. Courtesy l’artista e spazioSERRA

Speaking with Arturo, I was noticing several similarities between your performance and the freak shows, as recounted by Renate Lorenz. The freaks – apparently the subjects of a voyeuristic fetishism on the part of the audience – were, in fact, according to the author, in a position of power over traditionally dominant groups, who, in the shows, from “knowers” and holders of a certain historical and cultural production, become “dupes”, those who now do not know.
Agnes Questionmark: Thousands of people, during CHM13hTERT, stopped by to observe the newborn creature, taking, thus, part in a voyeuristic relationship towards me, subjecting me to an almost medical-scientific scrutiny. The spectator, the common passerby unconsciously became a scientist; taking pleasure in my suffering, objectifying and sexualizing my hybrid and transsexual body, he was complicit in a sadistic act. And then, crossing my vulnerable and suffering gaze, he was caught in the moment of sin. Embarrassed, he looked in another direction, then silently walked away. The glass case in which I was exposed had become my home, my habitat for 16 consecutive days. Passers-by saw me there all the time and I continued to live in their minds throughout the day, night and, perhaps, dreams. What I considered a science laboratory, a nursery room, became an exhibition pedestal, a zoo cage. Like a monster in the circus I was exposed to the judgment, laughter, scorn and appreciation, fury and delight of all who took the train or visited the Lancetti station to see its chained siren. So they called me, the Lancetti Siren. I became the legend and mythology of the station and was surprised at how the photographs and videos of the performance traveled between devices and algorithms, triggering the insecurities and projections of millions and millions of people. An implausible story: a girl depriving herself of food and water, unnecessarily (at first glance), and with a blank stare (for some), standing still in the same position all the time. Why? But, more importantly, what is she? Is it a man or is it a woman? Is it human or inhuman? Is it real or is it not real? The same questions that were probably asked during the freak shows.

Agnes Questionmark, CHM13hTERT, 2023, long durational performance e installazione site-specific, a cura di The Orange Garden e spazioSERRA. Installation view presso spazioSERRA, Stazione Milano Lancetti, Milano. Photo Cristiano Rizzo. Courtesy l’artista e spazioSERRA

Then again, no one was sure whether the “talents” that were presented during the shows were real or the result of prosthetics, make-up or costumes…
Agnes Questionmark: From curiosity springs the fetish of not knowing but wanting to discover that there is something strange and forbidden, and, at the same time, so satisfying, in what is in front of me. How many have laughed at me, hit the glass, tried to get into the locked case, for what? Why this obsession with wanting to enter, with having to codify, understand, study and define? As annoying as I may have been to their gaze, however, these people stood still to watch me and consume me, to film me so that my tedious and undefined image could nestle in the minds of those who resist the different, so that it could stop, for a few minutes, the day and shake the beliefs and prejudices of those who thought me dangerous. Taking the train to Lancetti has never been so harassing.

Agnes Questionmark, CHM13hTERT, 2023, long durational performance e installazione site-specific, a cura di The Orange Garden e spazioSERRA. Installation view presso spazioSERRA, Stazione Milano Lancetti, Milano. Photo Cristiano Rizzo. Courtesy l’artista e spazioSERRA

It is as if the audience’s staging and voyeurism, in this case, have taken on, also, a certain restorative and liberating force, as unhinging acts of social hierarchies and power dynamics, capable of recounting the presence of something or someone one would like to keep absent from cultural discourse.
Agnes Questionmark: Indeed, for other viewers and friends-perhaps most-CHM13hTERT became an act of liberation. Above all, women and children gave me kind smiles of compassion, joy and serenity. For some, it was also an empowerment and revolution. I recognized trans sisters and queer cousins coming around me to support me and protect me from the piercing and suffocating gaze of patriarchy, objectification, contempt and hatred. Anyone who has been able to let go of the restraints of society has also been able to enjoy my image; to be transported into an imaginary and fanciful world, which, at the same time, finds a way to become real and tangible because of its unquestionable controversy, as a place of debate and contestation. In CHM13hTERT, a new hybrid species has taken shape to give hope and to fortify the revolting army of a generation at the mercy of the incessant currents of frightened parents, who take their children by the hand and carry them away thinking they are protecting them from a danger from which they should not run but which they should welcome and harbor.

Agnes Questionmark, Right or Wrong I’m still the Captain, 2018, performance, installazione in legno, acqua. Installation view a Copeland Gallery, Londra. Photo Nicolas Feniche e Copeland Gallery. Courtesy l’artista

From your earliest performances, such as Right or Wrong I’m still the Captain (2016), the focus on water as a future and present habitat seems to be paramount. And – just as recurrent – is the act of drowning, linked as much to the religious iconography of life (baptism) as to a self-inflicted death. What is the meaning of drowning?
Agnes Questionmark: Holding the breath is an act of resistance: resistance to the human, to the body and to nature understood as a binary system, from which we expect some sort of identification. By holding the breath, the body changes. It enters a state of in-existence and survival. On the one hand, one abstains from the world; on the other, one enters ecstasy, one is unconscious. At that point, it is corporeality itself that calls forth the survival instinct. In fact, they say it is impossible to commit suicide by holding your breath: bodily reflexes will always lead you to reach for air, to breathe. In water, then, everything changes. Organs get smaller, lungs shrink, blood concentrates in vital places. Between one breath and another you go through transformation. Therefore, even taking a basin of water and drowning myself, in Right or Wrong im Still the Captain, was an act of resistance but, more importantly, the beginning of a deep search for the human being and his past, present and future on Earth. In that case, I created a stage with a swimming pool-sort of like in adult baptisms where the priest drowns the baptized person for a moment-and asked my friend Andrea to drown me for as long as she thought necessary. Then, one by one the spectators took part in this sadistic ritual and drowned me as well. Surrendered to their will, I knew I would not die. In a South London garage, I remained in control of the wrecked ship.

Agnes Questionmark, Transgenesis, 2021, a cura di The Orange Garden in partnership con Harlesden High Street e Underground Flower. Photo Henry Kisielewski, Courtesy dell’artista

Drowning, therefore, as a prolonged abstention from the present, a rebellion that desires to bring forth new realities and narratives and, to do so, needs the modifications that prolonged contact with water produces on bodies, when – as you say — there is a lack of oxygen and blood flows towards vital points of the body…
Agnes Questionmark: In the visual communication of the album Neptune’s Lair (1999), Drexciya tells a story of revenge and subversion. Shipwrecked from boats during slavery voyages, African mothers gave birth at sea, giving birth to new hybrid species. These creatures, half human and half marine, emerge armed from the depths of the ocean to defeat their oppressor enemy. The imagery of Neptune’s Lair is a power grab and an affront to the colonialism of a subjugated and denigrated race. An Afrofuturist work that uses, therefore, water and genetic transformation as a means of reconquest, a means of re-imagining a human rather than an inhuman future. Similarly, Octavia Butler tells of an alien species that feeds on the human to survive. In Xenogenesis, ruthless and unabashed, she outlines a body without organs, or rather a body whose organs are ready for consumption and carnage. These are the philosophies that continue to inspire my research and project my work on water and the power of transformation, toward a more sustainable future.

Agnes Questionmark, Octosapiens I, Transgenesis, 2021, a cura di The Orange Garden in partnership con Harlesden High Street e Underground Flower. Photo Henry Kisielewski, Courtesy dell’artista

You mentioned Octavia Butler and Afrofuturism. In general, a link between your research and transfeminist science fiction literature seems evident to me. Your performance Bodies of Water (2018), for example, avowedly recalls a fictional fact: that of an Italian scientist who used his son as a guinea pig to test Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s theories on Homo Aquaticus.
Arturo Passacantando: Undoubtedly performances like Squid Dinner (2018) or CHM13hTERT have the power to break the barriers between real and imaginary. Existing in this limbo between reality and fiction, they detach themselves from the typical notion of an exhibition or performance, evolving into a true hypothesis of the future. In this new form of theirs, the audience accepts them as such, therefore they do not admire them with the same distance with which a painting is viewed, but, rather, immerse themselves in them by accepting them as possible futures. At spazioSERRA this effect was taken to new heights given the location of the exhibition space; being inside a train station, the project was not perceived as a performance but was instead accepted as an anthropological experiment. In a place that exists at the center of normality, we managed to bring to life an emblem of experimentation. Many of the viewers who routinely went to see the creature were people who may have never visited art galleries. So, through this our use of the speculative fabula we have also managed to reach an audience that would otherwise not choose to engage with art. This process is vitally important because in a system that is increasingly mechanized and resilient to change, it is often the creation of new stories and mythologies that enables societal progress. Undoubtedly, one of the most exciting aspects of Agnes’ performance was her ability to generate tangible reflections on issues that are often considered controversial or unquestionable. Perhaps the question I was asked most by the audience was “why?” and it is in this question that the power of the speculative fabula exists, in its ability to question the world we inhabit. By presenting possibilities of the future we force the viewer to reflect on his or her present condition.
Agnes Questionmark: In Terramare, Ursula Le Guin recounts the journey of a young wizard, the Sparrowhawk, in search of truth. This is a story that is told against the heroic canons of patriarchy, a reading that challenges the ‘male gaze.’ In this sense, storytelling is key to passing on and more effectively promoting an egalitarian system that is open to change. Sparrowhawk, for example, uses knowledge and research as a weapon against the enemy-the darkness. In my work I have always tried to combine research with tactile experience, science with storytelling. The theories of Homo Aquaticus were only the first in a long evolutionary quest. For me, reading science fiction is as important as discovering new scientific papers. Creating new terminologies and symbols to be able to reflect in something more belonging to what I feel. I do not feel human, therefore I seek the inhuman. I do not feel binary, therefore I seek fluidity. It is fantasy and imagination that leads the scientist to experiment. Between artist and scientist, for me, there is little difference. My studio looks like a scientific laboratory and vice versa.

Agnes Questionmark, Squid Dinner, 2018, a cura di The Orange Garden, Roma. Photo Giorgio Benni, Courtesy l’artista

How, then, to make a performance bearer of a certain ecological thought, a trigger for the emergence of reflections on one’s present condition and new possible futures? In the very text that accompanies Squid Dinner (2018) you talk, for example, about how the traditional sublime dichotomously divides nature and culture, and, then, several times, about “technology” as a tool capable of establishing new coexistences and less polarized balances between the two spheres…
Agnes Questionmark: In Squid Dinner two tons of Roman tuff had been brought into the gallery of The Orange Garden, where an inhospitable path between ceramic sculptures and a stream of water led the viewer into a flooded room covered with algae and lichen. There I am, among the algae, submerged totally in still water – for now – waiting. I am there waiting for someone to rescue me or to jump in with me. It is a future projection with a clear reference to our past as water inhabitants. As fairy-tale as the image is, it is still disturbing and distressing to many. Is a future in the water possible? Would we one day be forced to hold our breath forever? Are we ready for a radical change in our life on earth? Also, what would we look like in water? What would our forms and morphologies be as aquatic beings? During my performances, my body becomes a political vehicle that transports the viewer to a stage of confusion and questioning. As Lucretius writes in De Rerum Natura, it is from dry land that the viewer contemplates shipwreck, and it is precisely because his feet touch land that he is able to perceive the event as tragedy. From a privileged and saved perspective one can perceive the tragic: this is the same concept that lays behind theater performances. My question is, how do I get the viewer into the water? To get them to jump in and take part in the shipwreck? For Cousteau, technological advances would have led us by now to live most of our time underwater. Unfortunately, the ocean is still an alien and unexplored place. The project Nemo’s Garden is already preparing for an apocalypse, by exploring the idea of growing plants underwater. In America, Project CETI is developing artificial intelligence that can not only translate conversations between cetaceans but also respond to and communicate with them. These are just a few of the many innovative projects pushing humans to create a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the sea and land creatures to bring forth new solutions and compromises with the inhuman. Let the fascists live on Mars, I remain alien on Earth.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.