Rado Ištok: The Trouble with the Good Old Imperial Days

A lot happened this summer, and perhaps the new wave of lockdowns across Europe can be an occasion to process some of these past events, overshadowed for some by the ongoing pandemic and its consequences on our daily lives. One of the defining moments of this summer was certainly the toppling of monuments commemorating figures associated with colonialism, racism, and genocide in connection with the Black Lives Matter protests against anti-Black violence and systemic racism in the US and Europe in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. How do we relate to these events in Central and East Central Europe (roughly the territory of the former German and Austro-Hungarian Empires), where public space is less commonly a site for colonial monuments?

Mixed news came from Berlin: in May, a golden cross mounted on top of the cupola of the Humboldt Forum, a replica of the imperial Berlin Palace, which replaced the GDR Palace of the Republic, triggered – alongside the biblical inscription at the base of the dome – protests,[i] while in August it was announced that Mohrenstraße in the Mitte district, whose name is derived from the term describing enslaved Black servants in the households of European nobility, would finally be renamed after the country’s first Black philosopher, Anton Wilhelm Amo.[ii] In June, a similar discussion was raised in Vienna about two streets in the district of Leopoldstadt.[iii] While the Viennese petition to rename public space remains without resolution, it seems that at least the owner of the Mohren-Apotheke is open to changing the pharmacy’s name after a meeting with local politician and activist Mireille Ngosso. Instead of Berlin’s golden cross, Hofburg’s dome is crowned by an innocuous decorative jardiniere, yet the former imperial palace’s entrance from Michaelerplatz is flanked by two rather more problematic 1890s fountains that seem to have gone somehow unnoticed.[iv] Die Macht zu Lande [Power on the Land] by Edmund Hellmer and Die Macht zur See [Power on the Sea] by Rudolf Weyr testify to an era when Austria saw itself as a naval power, with the ships of the Imperial and Royal War Navy “discovering” Franz Josef Land (1872–1874) and participating in the suppression of the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion in China (1899–1901). In terms of dealing with contentious monuments, many conservative Viennese would probably prefer to follow Berlin’s example of dismantling the Palace of the Republic and remove the Soviet War Memorial from Schwarzenbergplatz (alas, there is no asbestos in the monument).

In the meantime in Prague, an anonymous group of activists sprayed graffiti on the monument of Winston Churchill in June, exposing the former British prime minister as a racist, a few days after the same had been done to his statue in London’s Parliament Square.[v] Members of the Czech political establishment condemned this action as an attack on (… property, and) a great democratic politician who contributed to the defeat of Adolf Hitler. However, Ivan Konev’s contribution to Hitler’s defeat didn’t protect the monument to the Soviet marshal – who later participated in the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring – from its removal earlier in April.[vi] The various degrees of eagerness or reluctance in dealing with Cold War legacies on the one hand and imperial and colonial legacies on the other are quite symptomatic in terms of the respective countries’ self-image on the spectrum from “victims” to “perpetrators” and “accomplices.”

Although Prague, unlike Berlin and Vienna, has no street named after enslaved Black people, it does have other markers of an unjust past besides the Churchill monument – the focus on which inadvertently reinforced the impression that colonialism and racism are the exclusive legacy of Western Europe. In fact, Angelo Soliman (born Mmadi Make, c. 1721–1796) – the most prominent Black man in eighteenth-century Vienna and a contemporary of Anton Wilhelm Amo – was originally the valet of the Prague-born imperial governor of Sicily, Georg Christian, Prince of Lobkowitz, a member of the Bohemian nobility. After the death of Lobkowitz, Soliman was taken to Vienna, where he entered the service of the princes of Liechtenstein, who also owned vast properties in the Czech lands, and Moravia in particular, including the UNESCO-protected Lednice-Valtice Complex. While the later life of Soliman as an accomplished member of the Viennese intellectual circles and the indignity he suffered after his death have been the subject of exhibitions, books, and a film, he was not the only nor the first Black man in the service of Bohemian nobles. Joseph Reiske (c. 1698–1777) was captured in North Africa by the Bohemian Freiherr [free lord]  Mittrowsky of Mittrowitz and Nemischl (the Czech villages Mitrovice and Nemyšl) and baptized in Sicilian Syracuse.[vii] Beginning in 1728, he worked for three generations of the Counts Novohradsky of Kolowrat, all of whom held the highest political rank of privy councillor at the Viennese court. Although both Angelo Soliman and Joseph Reiske lived most of their lives in Vienna rather than Prague, their lives were intertwined with Bohemian nobles such as the Lobkowitzs, Kolowrats, and Mittrowskys.

It was, however, a member of another Bohemian noble family, the Morzins (one of which lends their name to the Morzinplatz in Vienna), who commissioned the Baroque sculptor Ferdinand Maxmilian Brokoff to decorate the Morzin Palace in Prague with two atlantes (1714) in the shape of Black men in chains carrying the burden of the balcony. Czech art history has routinely dismissed this as an “innocent” pun,[viii] as Black men were heraldic figures of the Morzins because the pronunciation of their family name resembled the German word “Mohr.”[ix] The fact that Count Morzin participated in military campaigns against the Ottoman Turks under Prince Eugene of Savoy, during which Black people were captured as prisoners of war, is rarely mentioned in this context. A few hundred meters downhill, on Charles Bridge, there is another sculptural group from Brokoff’s workshop that stands in stark contrast. In this group, Saint John of Matha and Saint Felix of Valois, cofounders of the Trinitarian Order, dedicated to ransoming captive Christians, together with Saint Ivan, are liberating a Christian man from chains (1714). Two other Christians are depicted in a prison cell guarded by a stereotyped Turkish guard in a turban and a watchdog. The two Black men in chains from the palace facade thus appear as a Freudian slip in the Baroque narrative of Christian Europeans suffering imprisonment and enslavement by the Muslim Ottomans.

Contact with the Ottoman Empire became a source of colonial imagery that was revived in both Austria and the former Czechoslovakia as late as the 1920s, and this imagery remains in circulation still today. According to popular legend, after the breaking of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, sacks of coffee were discovered among the booty, laying the foundation of Viennese coffeehouses.[x] As a nod to this legend, in 1924, the Austrian designer Josef Binder created a new logo for the coffee purveyor Julius Meinl featuring a young Black man wearing a fez,[xi] which has been criticized repeatedly by antiracist activists.[xii] The previous year, in 1923, the Czech avant-garde artist and graphic designer Zdenek Rykr designed packaging for the coffee-flavored chocolate bar Kofila, produced by the Prague chocolate factory Orion.[xiii] Rykr’s packaging used the figure of a Black man with a coffee cup dressed in orientalizing attire including a turban. It is likely he adopted this figure from the logo of Karel Kulík, the first specialized coffee purveyor in early 1900s Prague, whose graphic identity Rykr rebranded in the 1920s.[xiv] While tradition is the most common excuse for keeping racist logos today, there are no records suggesting that Kulík’s customers complained about the breaking of such tradition when its logo of the head of a Black man in a turban was changed for an image of an elderly Czech woman accompanied by the slogan “the coffee of our mothers.” At the same time, in the 1920s, a Black man serving coffee was not just an image of some distant past. When, in 1903, Christian Ebenezer (1890–1924) came to Prague from the Danish colony of Saint Croix (today the US Virgin Islands), he was employed as a page and a waiter in the grand café Louvre – impersonating colonial fantasies associated with coffee.[xv] Ebenezer died of tuberculosis a few months after one of his regulars, Franz Kafka, succumbed to the same disease, and both Jaroslav Hašek and Egon Erwin Kisch mention him in their writings.

In September of this year, an anonymous group of students and professors from Charles University in Prague published the “Manifesto of Decolonization” in order to open up a conversation about the possible decolonization of Czech institutions.[xvi] The conversation in part had begun already in January, when the online art platform published a thematic issue on decolonization, edited by the art historian and curator Vjera Borozan,[xvii] as well as in the projects of the platform, which also organized the new Prague biennale Matter of Art (July–November 2020). Yet, similar to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the 1990s and early 2000s, the current discussions on the colonial legacies of East Central Europe (including this essay) have been largely, although not exclusively, raised by white feminist and postcolonial scholars and curators. This is not just because Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) communities are smaller in the region,[xviii] but mainly because few BIPOC hold positions within the art and academic institutions where these conversations largely take place.[xix]

Compared to the recently toppled monuments in the US and Western Europe, the legacy of global colonialism and racism in Central and East Central Europe might not necessarily be considered monumental. Perhaps more telling is the racist and colonial imagery that, despite repeated petitions, continues to circulate through product packaging and other logos (something also recently addressed by various brands and sports teams in the US) under the veil of tradition and a fallacy that these images are somehow “innocent” because countries like Austria and the former Czechoslovakia did not have colonies. Yet, until these logos are replaced (for they will be), they can hopefully serve as prompts for conversations that need to be had and the remembering of historical figures such as Angelo Soliman, Joseph Reiske, and Christian Ebenezer that needs to be done. At the moment, unfortunately, it seems that a large part of Central and East Central European societies continue to seek refuge from the traumatic events of World War II and its Cold War aftermath in the warm glow of nostalgia for the “good old days,” before imperial palaces were bombed, before collapsed empires were replaced by republics, and before racial justice and sensitivity were demanded by the eternally vilified “political correctness.”

[i] Kate Brown, “Protesters Are Taking Down Monuments Across Europe. So Why Is Germany Redoubling Its Commitment to Conservative Symbolism?,” Artnet News, June 16, 2020,

[ii] Kate Connolly, “Berlin to Rename ‘Moor Street’ after Black Philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo,” TheGuardian, August 21, 2020, In the past decade, colonial monuments in Berlin received critical attention, such as through SAVVY Contemporary’s participatory archive and research project Colonial Neighbours. See

[iii] See, for example, Josef Gebhard, “Rassismus: Was tun mit der Mohrengasse?,” Kurier, June 30, 2020,

[iv] As Christian Kravagna has suggested, Vienna’s museum landscape must be first subjected to the defeudalization of the almost unbroken Habsburg identification, ignoring the turn to the republic, marketed for tourism.  See Christian Kravagna, “Hopes and Impediments,” Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften, January 2015, 115.

[v] Jason Pirodsky, “‘He Was a Racist’: Winston Churchill Statue in Prague Vandalized,” Expats, June 11, 2020,

[vi] “Moscow Opens Criminal Case over Removal of Soviet Marshal’s Statue in Prague,” Radio Free Europe, April 10, 2020,

[vii] A portrait of Reiske can be found in the collection of the Vienna Museum; see

[viii] I use the term “innocent” in Gloria Wekker’s understanding. See Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, Duke University Press: 2016.

[ix] Two other sculptures of Black men from the Morzin castle in Kounice (1718–1719), also by Ferdinand Maxmilian Brokoff, are today in the collection of the National Gallery in Prague, while the sculptural decoration of the Morzin Palace in Prague also includes an allegorical figure of a Black woman with a parrot symbolizing Africa. Another figural allegory of Africa, an “African king” seated on a lion, as well as two figures of Black men, were also part of Brokoff’s sculptural group of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1710–1711), originally on Charles Bridge and today in the Lapidary of the National Museum.

[x] The Ottoman tradition of coffee drinking was itself at that time just over a century old.

[xi] In 2004, the logo was transformed by the Italian designer Matteo Thun, who rendered it in a red monochrome, removing the figure’s Blackness yet retaining the orientalizing fez. “A Brand of Long-Lived Tradition,” Meinl Coffee’s website, 2020,

[xii] Similarly, the campaign NoMohr! targeted the logo of the Austrian brewery Mohrenbrauerei, which has its Czech counterpart in the Kounický Mouřenín.

[xiii] See Vojtěch Lahoda, “Zdeněk Rykr and the Chocolate Factory,” in A Reader in East-Central-European Modernism, 1918–1956, ed. Beáta Hock, Klara Kemp-Welch, and Jonathan Owen, London: Courtauld Institute of Art, 2019, p. 89–108.

[xiv] More detailed research on Rykr’s involvement with Karel Kulík, compared to Orion, is lacking.

[xv] Christian Ebenezer worked in cafés and restaurants not only in Prague but across Czechoslovakia.

[xvi] The “Manifest Dekolonizace” can be accessed at

[xvii] Vjera Borozan, “Heritage of Colonialism and Dangerous Consequences of the
Accumulation of Capital,” Artalk Revue, Winter 2020, y

[xviii] Filip Noubel, “Afro-Czechs on Visibility, Racism and Life in the Czech Republic,” Global Voices, June 13, 2020,

[xix] An adequate representation in academia and arts remains unresolved even in places like London. See, for example, Alex Greenberger, “Alleging Racism, Sole Permanently Employed Black Staff Member of Goldsmiths Art Department ‘Withdraws Labor’,” Artnews, June 15, 2020,

Rado Ištok (Slovakia/Sweden) is a curator, writer and editor based in Stockholm. He is the curator of the European Cooperation Project 4Cs: From Conflict to Conviviality through Creativity and Culture at Nida Art Colony of Vilnius Academy of Arts, within which he curated artist residencies leading to the exhibition The Spectral Forest (2020) and the workshop Dwelling on the Threshold (2019). He is also the project leader of Spaces of Care, Disobedience and Desire, a discursive research platform in collaboration with Marie-Louise Richards and Natália Rebelo, supported by the artistic research funding of the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm.

Recent exhibitions include Ala Younis. High Dam. Modern Pyramid (2020) at VI PER Gallery in Prague; Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn. Black Atlas (2019) at the Július Koller Society in Bratislava; Liquid Horizons (2019) at in Bratislava; Other Visions (2018) within the PAF – Festival of Film Animation in Olomouc (Czech Republic); and I’m fine, on my way home now (2017) at Allkonstrummet, Stockholm, and Galleri Gerlesborg (2018), Sweden.
His editorial work includes the artist book Crating the World by Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn (Athénée Press, 2019) and the e-publications Dwelling on the Threshold (Nida Art Colony, 2020) and Decolonising Archives (L’Internationale Online, 2016). He contributes to Flash Art Czech & Slovak Edition, Art+Antiques and artalk, as well as other magazines and exhibition catalogues.

The Availability of the East
A Conversation with Sónia Melo and Flavia Matei, conducted by Ana Hoffner ex-Prvulovic*

Ana Hoffner ex-Prvulovic*: Since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, it is often said that food production and care work have finally made it into the media. This gives the impression that these areas of work were not there before. In fact, the current system of employing harvest workers and 24-hour caregivers has a structure of exploitation, which has not just come into being recently. The two initiatives Sezonieri – Campaign for the Rights of Harvest Workers and DREPT – Representation of the Interests of 24-Hour Caretakers strive for better working conditions for these workers, while analyzing and making visible the economic, social, and cultural relations that create them at the same time. What exactly do Sezonieri and DREPT do?

Sónia Melo: Sezonieri has two target groups: the first, our main target group, are people who work in Austria as harvest workers – i.e., in the harvesting of fruit, vegetables, and wine. These people are mainly migrants. The core work of Sezonieri is to explain them their rights: through multilingual information folders, telephone hotlines, information videos, and work schedules. In addition, we offer to support them in enforcing their rights, and to represent them in court if they wish so. We offer this information and legal support anonymously and free of charge. The second target group is the public, the local population. We want to make them aware of the exploitation of migrant harvest workers through educational work and sensitize them for this issue.

We have been going to the agricultural fields with our information material since 2014, trying to speak with the workers, to learn about their problems and concerns, to present our services. At the same time, we inform the local population about the (lousy) living and working conditions of harvest workers in this country – through lectures, events, publications, video clips, media work, etc. That this exploitation is happening on their doorstep and not only in southern Spain or Italy, far away, still shocks many people.

Flavia Matei: The organization DREPT is a self-organized group of Romanian 24-hour caretakers and activists who fight for better working conditions. The word DREPT means “right” – because rights and justice are what is missing in this industry and what we are fighting for. DREPT was established as a non-profit organization in August 2020. However, the core team as well as the 24-hour caregivers and activists have been demanding better working conditions and fair labor laws for many years.

The group emerged directly from the 24-hour care community, out of need and desperation, and to create structural conditions that better protect against exploitation. The caregivers in this industry could no longer turn away from the abuse their colleagues were subjected to. And so they began to organize themselves: at the beginning informally, within their community, when colleagues were put on the street, when they were exploited by recruiting companies, or when they were accommodated in inhuman conditions. Donations were collected, emergency trips were organized, and appeals were launched. But at a certain point this was no longer enough; a formal and courageous representation was highly necessary. This is how DREPT was founded.

Our main services consist of educational work about the rights of caregivers, but also individual counseling and support, crisis intervention, press work, and political lobbying. We demand, first and foremost, a form of employment for all migrant 24-hour caregivers and see this as the only solution to break through the currently predominant pseudo self-employment. This year the solidarity of the caregivers has expanded beyond national borders: we have joined forces with our Slovakian colleagues from the organization Initiative24, and together we are about to found an umbrella organization to represent the interests of all migrant caregivers – the IG24. Our struggle is in Austria, but our solidarity is international.

AH: Flavia, you are confronting many authorities and politicians in Austria, could you tell us more about the demands that you make?

FM: The 24-hour caregivers must work as independent one-person companies, so they are not employed. In reality, however, this is a clear case of false self-employment because the caregivers are usually completely dependent on recruiting agencies or on the persons cared for and their relatives. They tell them when and where they have to work. The location of their business is the address of the persons they care for. That is why their employment can also be cancelled when they are currently without work. The organizational contracts with the recruitment agencies contain obligatory powers of attorney for debt collection for the caregivers. In this way, the agencies take over the entire accounting for the caregivers – often including the payment of social security contributions. All this has nothing to do with self-employment.

But because they are officially independent one-person companies, the protective standards of labor law do not apply to them either: there is no trade union representation, no minimum wage under collective agreements, no paid vacation, and no paid sick leave. Pensions are low and the caregivers are at risk of poverty in old age: after ten years in the sector of 24-hour personal care, the caregivers receive a pension of about 100 euros per month. The caregivers are theoretically represented by the Austrian Economic Chamber (WKO) as independent one-person companies. However, the WKO also represents all other companies – such as recruitment agencies. So if there are conflicts between caregivers and recruitment agencies, as is often the case, an obvious conflict of interest arises.

The bottom line is that there are no state institutions in Austria that represent the interests of the caregivers. As this situation entails that no government agency is looking after the 24-hour caregivers, they are easily exploited. And it is in the interest of the recruitment agencies, the state, and Austrian society that the 24-hour caregivers remain exploitable. If the caregivers would receive due justice under labor law, the care of senior citizens would no longer be affordable. It is only affordable if migrant caregivers receive two to four euros per hour and have no social security.

AH: Sónia, what kind of employment circumstances are there for harvest workers? Sezonieri also works together with the trade union. What does this cooperation mean?

SM: Sezonieri is a social policy campaign run by the PRO-GE trade union for non-members – PRO-GE is the production union in the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) and the responsible trade union for agriculture. In 2014, when the campaign was founded by PRO-GE, NGOs and activists were brought on board because seasonal workers are not potential members and are a group that is difficult for the union to reach. The traditional strategies of an Austrian trade union do not work there. Harvesters work very long hours, cannot speak German, and are very skeptical about trade unions (bad experiences in the countries of origin, lack of knowledge about interest groups in Austria).

That is why it needs another, active approach: going to the fields, multilingual knowledge, political work. This is what the Sezonieri Campaign is all about: different skills come together. The trade union has the legal knowledge, the infrastructure, the activists the commitment and other means to reach the people; the NGOs – UNDOK (contact point for trade union support for undocumented workers), LEFÖ (counseling, education and accompaniment for women), and MEN VIA (victim protection and support for men affected by human trafficking) – in turn, the specialized knowledge.

In general, employment in the harvest sector is regulated. Wages are too low, but in themselves the legal minimum standards are relatively good (compared to other countries). The problem is that they are not followed. Only a few people fight against these conditions because they are under a lot of pressure, they are afraid of losing their job, and, incidentally, have little time to think about it (300 hours of work in a month is not unusual). Here, too, there are two “classes”: harvesters from Romania and Bulgaria, for example, who have a European passport and thus free access to the labor market in Austria, are not under as much pressure as non-EU citizens, who receive an employment permit for a maximum of six months and are tied to the farm, which means they are not allowed to do any other job.

AH: In the field of care, there is a lot of talk about a “collapse” or “emergency”; in the food industry it is said that Austria is dependent on foreign workers. These narratives are part of a population policy that must always first declare its own, national state of emergency in order to subsequently enforce racist measures on the labor market. In addition, the ideology of physical care through nutrition and services has been part of the self-image of Austrians for many decades, and many demands for care are based on a self-image that is racist.

If the well-being of the body and the soul is in the foreground, hierarchy is created at the same time. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that in Austria there has never been mention of whether there is a need for care in Romania or how the harvest is going in Eastern European countries. It is always assumed that the national, Austrian body must be cared for. However, Austria is not the needy side of the global economy; on the contrary, it is responsible for the unjust distribution of work and wealth along national borders. For example, quite a few of the large corporations which have become new landowners in Eastern Europe and dominate the agricultural industry as a result of the benefits of EU policy are Austrian. I have often wished that this reversal of the discourse would be questioned, that the global connection between work and production with all its consequences would be analyzed, but this has not happened, at least not in the Austrian media. Can you speak about power relations in harvest and care work from your experience?

SM: The power relations in harvesting work are best illustrated with an example: Alina (name changed) was a small farmer in Romania. Her family had to give up farming when European products – including Austrian ones – were introduced into the Romanian market at low prices. She sold her fields to a major investor from Austria. As an EU citizen, she has free access to the labor market in Austria and does not need a work permit. Nevertheless, she cannot live on the low wages from the harvest in Austria (about six euros per hour), so she still has to live in Romania. How crazy is that: in Austria she harvests the exact products that destroyed her livelihood in her home country!

The argumentation of the producers and their interest groups is simple: the harvest workers earn good money in this country; in their home country they would earn much less. But in this way the workers in agriculture are perceived as pure “workers” – and not as human beings. As a counter-argument, I often raise a question: is it okay if Austrians working in Switzerland (which is common in the west of Austria) earn less than Swiss people just because they would earn much less here in Austria than in Switzerland?

Migration policy in Austria is so restrictive that power is granted through the passport. Which passport people have determines what rights people have or not, which things they have access to or not. It is even more difficult for non-EU citizens than for people like Alina: they get an employment permit that is bound to a company; they are not allowed to change companies/industries. This means that they are even more precarious and under even more pressure.

This pathological nationalism, this racism is not only felt in the harvest industry. When I speak publicly about the lousy working conditions of harvest workers in Austria, I often realize that as a migrant it is not my right to criticize Austria, to speak badly about Austria. I notice this in lectures, in the reactions of many “locals”. Migrants have to behave well and be grateful; they should not be critical and certainly not political. And I am one of the “good” migrants from a Western European country, so I feel much less discrimination than Eastern European migrants. And that’s only because I was born inside Fortress Europe, because I have a Portuguese passport, which is a coincidence.

What’s more, a small farmer is not equal with a large farmer. The market concentration in Austria is so big (three retail chains dominate 85% of the market) that producers are very dependent on their customers, the retail trade. Only the big ones are competitive and can sell their products so “cheaply”. Since many years, some farms have become bigger and bigger, and the small ones are under pressure and make losses until they have to give up and close the farm. So the trend is: grow or leave. The idealized notion that there is no industrial agriculture in Austria is a myth, it is simply not true. The image of family farms, that is what vegetable farmers like to advertise. But in reality, there are often farms equipped with the most modern machinery, which export and have wage laborers – namely harvest workers exclusively from abroad.

FM: You are absolutely right. Capitalism is based on racism and hierarchies based on racism. And on defining the others as somehow inferior, less valuable, less relevant – or ignoring them completely. This has been the case since the beginning of this particular, extremely destructive mode of production, and it will remain so until we finally replace it with something more human. This is also currently taking on a particularly damaging form in the employment relations of 24-hour caregivers. On the one hand, caregivers are seen as mere commodities, as carriers of work to be bought and sold, and not as people with needs, feelings, kinship networks, which need them and depend on them.

We saw this very clearly during the pandemic: while everyone else was told to stay at home, keep their distance, and protect themselves from infection, 24-hour caregivers were transported across several borders like goods on charter flights or corridor trains. They were responsible for the costs associated with the risks. The situation was particularly difficult for the colleagues who travelled via the train corridor between Romania and Austria. After they had earned nothing for months because of the lockdown, they had to spend a day in a hotel and get tested when they returned to work in Austria. They usually had to pay the costs themselves. But if someone had been tested positive, then the caregivers would have had to pay the quarantine costs themselves according to the legal regulations. They would have had to spend a whole salary on it, at a time when their situation was highly precarious anyway.

Sure, these “key workers” were applauded by the media and society – but de facto abandoned. If those who use their services were forced to see caregivers as human beings, the entire questionable moral order of this institution would collapse. On the other hand, the Romanian caregivers, in particular, are portrayed as well suited for the care profession. They are expected to be resilient, always ready to do hard work, and, worst of all, ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of others – with all the costs involved, mostly their own. This is the typical mechanism that hides the fact that caring and care work is work. It is reinterpreted as love. But love is also work. Maybe the hardest work. And it needs justice!

AH: “Love is also work,” what do you mean by that?

FM: We focus on reproductive work, e.g. raising children, caring for grandparents and seniors, domestic work, domestic help, all this is highly feminized work and a work that is mostly done by women – of course, without payment. This is work that is connected with love and closeness and family. From this work arise relationships and feelings. But it is work, and it should definitely be recognized as work.

This topic is especially important in the nursing work and personal care of seniors. It is often expected of colleagues in this sector to take on a maternal role toward their clients. But this important and close relationship with the clients is often exploited in order to push colleagues into precarious employment and force them to do additional, unpaid work. For example, at the beginning of the lockdown, the recruitment companies exerted emotional pressure to keep the caregivers longer in their jobs. But they all wanted to go home to their families, who they were very worried about. They were also at the end of their strength. They were often accused of being “inhuman” or “insensitive” because they wanted to abandon their clients when they needed them most. This has shown us how reproductive work can be exploited for economic interests. And how defenseless women are against such strategies. That is why the topic of reproductive work is central for us. If we acknowledge love, or rather reproductive work, as real work, then we also acknowledge that mothers, caregivers, and all women in these domains deserve fair labor conditions, fair wages, and protection from abuse!

AH: Situations of abuse and exploitation are produced both in food production and in the care sector. I attribute this to the fact that areas in which affective work is done have always been understood as the basis of capitalist production and not as value-adding, productive, or independent. The current state also indicates that the working conditions are actually not accidental, but serve to generate an unconditional, unrestricted availability of people as labor force. 24-hour caregivers were flown in, but also harvest workers – they too were simply exposed to the risk of infection with COVID-19. This indifference to the spread among 24-hour caregivers and harvest workers has shown who is classified as needy and who must do without their own protection, i.e. distance. How did you experience the politics of proximity and distance?

SM: When it came to flying people in for harvest work, we were ambivalent: on the one hand, people without income in their countries of origin were happy to be flown in and to be able to get work and income, otherwise they would not have had any. For although they come to Austria every year, as seasonal workers, they have a new employment contract every year, meaning many were stuck in their countries of origin, with employment permits in hand, but could not come to work and were not entitled to unemployment benefits or compensation for loss of earnings. On the other hand, according to very many reports, the hygiene regulations were not observed on the farms, and many were not paid for the time in quarantine.

Suddenly, there was talk of “qualified workers”, of “key workers”, who had previously always been considered unqualified in order to justify the low wages. A hypocrisy. So they were not treated better because they were so much needed – sometimes even worse. Some “locals” who worked as harvesters, students in particular, told us that they were more likely to work in the camp, so in the good jobs washing and packing vegetables, while the colleagues who had been flown in from Romania and Ukraine stayed in the fields and had to do the hard work. They, the students, earned more than the migrants. We have heard this from several people, in several federal states. They also reported about corona protection measures that were not followed, neither in the camps nor in the field; we received photos that prove this: no distance, no protective masks.

Corona has not made harvesters visible. In contrast to the 24-hour caregivers, harvesters are very well exposed to the public, they were even before corona. They work in greenhouses (many in Vienna) but especially in open fields. They were already visible: in fields next to highways, or next to train tracks … Many did not want to see them or still do not want to see them. This egoistic, nationalistic view (Kurz also always said “Thank you, Austrians”) goes hand in hand with the hype about regional products. True to the motto: it is about one’s own health and not about that of “others”, i.e. the “foreigners”. The main thing about food is whether it’s organic and regional; whether it is also fair, whether the corona prevention measures have been observed, that does not play an important role.

FM: During the corona crisis, the situation of the 24-hour caregivers has once again deteriorated significantly. At the beginning of the crisis, some of the caregivers in Romania got stuck because the borders were closed. Because the 24-hour caregivers have to work as one-person companies, they had no income during this time. This was an economic catastrophe for them. They also did not have access to the hardship fund as the conditions excluded migrant workers: forms were only available in German language, an Austrian bank account and tax number were required. And this in an industry in which people are paid so badly that most of them do not reach the tax limit and are therefore not liable to pay taxes. On the other hand, there were the caregivers who were in Austria and who were under enormous pressure to stay longer and often work for ten weeks at a time – every single day, without a single day off. And around the clock. They had no choice but to continue doing their work. Depending on the exact illness situation of the client, 24-hour caregivers often have to get up several times a night to care for the client. This extremely long period of work was grueling for the caregivers.

This time was also particularly difficult for us at DREPT: we were contacted daily by colleagues via telephone calls or messages who had reached the limits of their resilience, who had collapsed. They were completely exhausted from their work; they were far away from their families, and the corona cases were increasing dramatically all over the world. The fear, loneliness, and insecurity were very great for all of them. We quickly mobilized and organized psycho-social counseling in Romanian language for them in partnership with other Austrian associations.

Very little came from the state. The Stay-There bonus, the 500 euro (gross!) offered to this group of caregivers in all federal states, came with the same structural problems: the forms could only be filled out together with the persons cared for or with their relatives. These structural procedures created further dependencies for the caregivers on their employers or on the recruitment agencies as intermediaries. Many of these caregivers still write to us today that they have not yet received the bonuses. All these problems were already there before corona, but the corona crisis has made them even more visible. Austria did not appreciate its “key workers” and in no case did it provide sufficient support.

AH: It seems to me that the situation has become worse since the Eastern European expansion of the EU. Today’s caregivers are mostly women who have lost their professional positions due to post-socialist privatization. These are women who had much higher qualifications, and countries like Austria profit massively from their social and professional degradation. Hence, a similar phenomenon can be observed as in the agricultural industry, which has made people landless and unemployed. Are there parallels to the history of guest workers in Austria, all of whom came from impoverished countries, were employed in so-called “unskilled work,” and were subject to racist legislation (see the Foreigners Employment Act of the 1970s)?

SM: Seasonal work is the new guest work – it’s exactly the same, only much more restrictive than it was back then. At that time, companies put pressure to end the rotation principle (hence the word “guest worker,” the labor was regulated in such a way that after one year the companies would employ new “guest workers”). Now it is much more restrictive: a harvest worker from Ukraine, who has been coming to Austria for 20 years for six months to work, even to the same company, signs a new employment contract each year, each season. Even though she has been working at the same farm for 20 years! The EU pumps 60 billion euros in agricultural subsidies into agriculture, that is the largest funding pot in the EU. Social criteria are not taken into account at all in the CAP, the EU’s common agricultural policy; they are not an issue in the CAP whatsoever. And the agricultural policy is outdated. In the 1950s, it made sense to allocate subsidies according to area; there was a food shortage, and a lot had to be produced. Today, the trend is intensifying: grow or leave.

AH: But I also wonder to what extent contemporary colonial politics draws on the inner-European colonialism of the Habsburg Monarchy, for the division of labor was a racist and gender-specific one, too. While the West was industrialized, raw materials and agriculture were exploited in the so-called “crown lands.” To this day, it is believed that the Monarchy was not a colonial power, although the exploitation of its immediate surroundings bears many of the characteristics of colonization. In the centers – in Vienna and to a lesser extent in Budapest – women from the eastern part of the Monarchy had to work in the middle-class households or in the first factories. There were restrictions on access to education, limited property rights, and no prospects for life change for the vast majority of the non-German-speaking population.

The discourses of the East-West relationship have apparently long since fallen, but the geography of the new colonial forms constructs and solidifies according to the old model: for example, when the plight of the harvest workers is justified with the right of the farmers to servitude, which existed de facto in rural regions until the twentieth century. These and similar “memories” of the colonial times of the Habsburg Monarchy are by no means accidental; they form the symbolic attitude toward the uncontrolled and arbitrary production conditions of a neoliberal society.

In Austria, pressure from right-wing governments has also weakened labor inspections and production controls, so that compliance with labor regulations and thus the protection of workers no longer exists. This conveys the view that work is no longer a matter for society, rather a purely private arrangement. Accordingly, we are currently experiencing a renewed glorification of the colonial way of life with everything that goes with it: the ennobled family, life in the palace, and the servant relationship fit almost seamlessly into the reality of gentrification and delivery life. Such a society also applauds instead of increasing the pay …

SM: Right. Applause doesn’t get people anything, it’s so cynical. A round of applause from the balconies while the people on the field work hard for a few euros in any weather, in the blazing sun or under the rain – that’s so cynical. There are clearly new colonial conditions. In Romania, entire forests, including nature reserves, are being massively and in part illegally cleared; huge areas are being bought up by major investors from rich European countries for industrial cultivation, while people have to emigrate because their livelihoods are being destroyed there. And the Austrian large-scale farmers become very rich at the expense of cheap “labor” from these countries, as can be seen in the example of Romania. At a court hearing a few years ago in Tyrol, a large-scale farmer, who cheated two Romanian harvest workers of their wages in a major way for years, paid a lousy three euros an hour, far below the collective agreement, deducted a great deal of money for room and board, even treated them inhumanely (insults were the order of the day), said after the verdict in court, as a closing word: “I am very disappointed. They were like a family to me.” We observe this serf mentality in many farmers in Austria. Not even after a court decision, in which they have to pay several thousand euros extra, do they show insight for the fact that they treated workers like “serfs.” I think they really don’t see that, it is simply self-evident for them. Such conditions are possible because the labor inspectorate and the financial police are understaffed in all federal states, there is too little control, and if, the controls of the labor inspection are often announced in advance, that is allowed. In Tyrol, there is one single labor inspector for forestry and agriculture, one single employee for about 1,200 companies – that is 4,000 employees!

FM: Indeed, except that the legitimacy of oppression is no longer based on noble blood or some kind of mission from God, as in the past, but on money. Those who have money are among those who can buy the work of others. To ensure that we in Austria are also willing to sell our labor cheaply enough, capital ensures that the services that keep us productive become even cheaper. That is why the care work needed by our family members is very, very poorly paid. We can afford a 24-hour caregiver. And so the capital can make a nice profit with our work – we don’t ask for a pay rise either. We have many colleagues who have not received a pay rise for three, five, or seven years. Instead, we offer the caregivers a round of applause, and everything is set right again. Which is basically another way of denying that care is real work, that the caregivers are people who need to regenerate and feed and clothe their families, not just servants who support our privileged lifestyle. What I mean is that we must all act together against capital. It is the economic interests that create the primary oppression and the enmity between different types of work. But if we come together, across industries and across borders, regardless of our common history of empire and periphery, or perhaps just despite this history, then perhaps something very good can happen soon.

Ana Hoffner ex-Prvulovic* is an artist, researcher and writer. She* works within and about contemporary art, arts-based research and critical theory. She* has finished the PhD in Practice Program at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in 2014. Her book The Queerness of Memory was published 2018 by b_books Berlin.

Sónia Melo is a journalist and co-founder of the Sezonieri campaign. Since 2016, she has been a project collaborator at the Center for Migrants in Tyrol – ZeMiT, responsible for communication and public relations as well as the handling of projects (events, exhibitions, city walks) on migration. She was co-curator of the exhibition Hier Zuhause – Migrationsgeschichten aus Tirol (Here at Home – Migration Stories from Tyrol) at the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum 2017.

Flavia Matei graduated in architecture at the Vienna University of Technology. She is assistent professor at the University of Art in Linz. For four years she has been supporting the self-organization of Romanian 24-hour caretakers working in Austria. Together with them, she founded the association DREPT – Representation of the Interests of 24-Hour Caretakers and the umbrella organization IG24 – Representation of the Interests of migrant 24-Hour Caretakers.

Epifania Akosua Amoo-Adare & Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński: “Not on our watch!”

Belinda: On March 14, after my return to Vienna from a too-short stay in Accra, you sent me a link to Rufaro Samanga’s article that appeared on the OkayAfrica website. In this article, the author points to the ways in which European newspapers comment on COVID-19 on the African continent. Rufaro Samanga concludes that Europe is in “sheer disbelief” about how the continent seems to be not hit as gravely as Europe’s nation-states.[1] Also here, in the Austrian newspapers, articles on COVID-19 in Africa seem to be just in line with the texts Rufaro Samanga criticizes – with titles like “Afrika vor einer Corona-Katastrophe” (Africa before a corona disaster)[2] or “Die Explosion der Pandemie in Afrika steht noch bevor” (An explosion of the pandemic in Africa is imminent).[3]

Epifania: Samanga’s piece is, unfortunately, very telling of continually skewed race relations across the globe – even in a digital age when you would expect that access to nuanced information on Africans (on the continent and in the diaspora) would mean we all should know better. But that is not the case. Africans, especially here on the continent, are still perceived as being incapable of dealing with everyday issues – never mind taking hold of our own destinies. So, you find that in a global pandemic such as this, Europe still assumes that Africa is unable to cope with the situation, even as the opposite is true on the ground. For example, here in Ghana, the government has shown itself to be up to the task of putting suitable health and travel security protocols in place.

Belinda: True. My recent experience of both the Ghanaian and Austrian responses to travelers during the pandemic speaks to this point. When I left Vienna on February 29, everything was as usual. COVID-19 seemed to be a problem that could be handled. Yes, the numbers were rising in Austria, but hardly anyone was wearing masks, and staff at the airport did not check our temperatures. In contrast, I was met by another atmosphere in Accra. When I arrived at Kotoka International Airport, all the passengers were being checked with infrared cameras for a high temperature. We had to fill out questionnaires concerning our whereabouts before arrival. Staff at the airport were dressed in protective suits. It was the same procedure when I left Accra two weeks later: several rounds of temperature checks, questionnaires, protective suits. Meanwhile, there were only a few cases on the African continent, and most were connected to people with European passports. By the time I was leaving Accra, masks were sold out. I remember that you even had to organize getting two for me.

None of this security checking happened when I returned to Vienna on March 13. I remember that I was irritated: “Were they not going to check people at the airport?” Friends had told me that the situation in Vienna was bad before I left Accra. I was even worried that I might not be able to enter the country. And some days later, Vienna International Airport was indeed closed, and a nation-wide lockdown was announced. Social distancing was the word of the day, and the Austrian chancellor proclaimed a new normality that would include all of us knowing someone who would die of COVID-19 – which did not prove to be valid, but that’s another topic.

While in Accra, I had seen more and more people with masks, refusing to shake hands or hug. Yet in Vienna, we were just starting to discuss whether wearing masks could be a useful measure. Never mind the fact that I had returned to rising numbers of people being hospitalized or who had self-quarantined. Rufaro Samanga rightly states that “Quarantine and self-isolation are not foreign concepts to us [Africans], but they appear to be for the West.”[4] While the African continent has gained experience in dealing with pandemics, say Ebola or Sars, Europe was caught with its pants down, so to say. And the overwhelm showed in the new normal of half-empty shelves in supermarkets: people hoarding toilet paper, spaghetti, masks, and sanitizers. It was reflected in the closed schools, home schooling, restrictions on people’s right to move around, cancelled events and exhibitions, and the fact that people slowly started losing their jobs. It was also revealed in advertisements reminding people to a) be mindful of their contacts and b) to wash their hands.

It was only when the official lockdown was implemented in Austria that people finally began to wear masks on public transport and in institutions. And when they realized that yes, there was enough toilet paper for everyone, or that toilet paper is not the most necessary thing when in a pandemic, people eventually started to relax and refrain from filling their shopping carts as if these were their last days on earth. For most people here, it was possible to switch to working from home and – if they were responsible for children – to conducting home-schooling while practicing physical distancing. I don’t intend to say that it was easy for everyone. Grave differences between parts of the population have been exposed with new explicitness. For example, when it comes to education, some pupils are being left behind because their parents don’t have the means to support them with studying, or can’t access the infrastructure needed (e.g., computers, WIFI, etc.). Still, coming back to where I started, I wonder how you have experienced the outbreak of COVID-19 on the continent, and more specifically in Ghana.

Epifania: Here in Ghana, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the infection of 44,777 people, plus the deaths of 283 individuals – as compared to Austria’s figures of 29,087 infected people and 735 deaths (as of September 6, 2020).[5] The virus has greatly slowed down the economy, and produced negative effects on agriculture, industry, and services. The government of Ghana has also been faced with the challenging task of trying to implement social distancing measures in a context where numerous individuals (over 80 percent of the population) work in the informal sector, including many who also struggle to meet daily survival needs and so have to labor daily. As a result, the government was forced to lift the partial lockdown it instituted in March 2020 for about three weeks. The lockdown – which included the closing of mosques, churches, schools, and the border – quickly revealed stark inequalities, especially in the country’s education system, including even private schools. But Ghana’s coronavirus challenges are not an anomaly, since all countries around the globe are struggling in varying degrees to maintain their economies, keep their citizenry alive, and mediate the gaping social inequalities that the pandemic has exposed.

In fact, the onset of the coronavirus has taken us all into a series of revelations about our relationships and character, and none of it is pretty. It has revealed all the problems at home that I would say are due to a “colonial matrix of power” that underscores many of the world’s uneven development and unequal positionalities: be they personal, local, national, regional and/or global. The unknown quality and life-threatening capacity of the virus has exposed a general lack of good governance – irrespective of location –, and (I would say) it is all thanks to the general dismantling of the public sector in the face of neoliberalism that insists on a free market economy. In the case of the African continent, this took root in the early 1980s – through the IMF and World Bank’s enforcement of detrimental structural adjustment programs. Here, I speak to a time when these two international financial institutions used loans as pivot points to impose development programs, on countries like Ghana, with the requirement of crippling conditionalities such as the devaluation of currencies, the explicit use of technology and expertise from loan countries, and the dismantling of public institutions and/or regulation that prevented the free reign of market forces.[6] Consequently, all over the world, we see a general display of high social inequality, even if mildly differentiated, and this gross inequality can only be accounted for by the long and painful history of colonialism and its continued ideological and material effects through neoliberal global capitalism.

Belinda: Your argumentation points to the influence that Western policies had and continue to have on the continent’s fate. But in these articles we are talking about, there is no mention of the dismantling of the public sector in the 1980s, or even the afterlife of colonialism; i.e. the manifold ways in which the former colonial powers exploited and continue to exploit African nation-states. The explanation given is the same old record: corrupt political elites. And while this is often true, it is not the only explanation, and European journalists too easily forget that countries like Great Britain and France continue to influence African politics, sometimes through the very same corrupt elites that they criticize.

Epifania: Yes, indeed; hence, the recent debacle between France and the eight West African countries that have finally gotten the courage to stop using the CFA franc – a currency backed by France and used by its former colonies on the African continent years after their supposed independence. This financial change is an important statement of freedom from neo-colonialism, because it includes no longer having to hold 50 percent of each country’s reserves in the French Treasury.[7] Nevertheless, COVID-19 still remains a true mirror for observing our unequal global relationships and the racist character of our international interactions. This can be seen through the resurgence of colonial narratives about the “dark continent,” particularly the so-called “doom and gloom” that awaits it in the face of a global pandemic that already has both Europe and North America on their knees.

Belinda: Yes, there is a renaissance of narratives about the “dark continent” and its constant balancing on the edge, always in danger of collapsing. This is right next to a comeback of racist stereotypes about Asian people, and Chinese people in particular. Not that these narratives have ever gone away, but it seems European journalists have no other way of integrating and making sense of the lower coronavirus numbers on the African continent, except by conjuring up a major health crisis, plus an impending danger, that would in an all too soon future hit an unaware and unprepared African continent. And luckily (of course), Europe is here – the big brother, the white savior –, and once again it will have to take care of Africa.

After coming across more and more of these articles, I remember that I sent you a message saying that while reading them an image had come to my mind: Europe circling above the African continent like a vulture, waiting for the whole continent to crumble. But all the while, I could not understand why European countries even spent time looking at Africa. In my opinion, they had enough on their own plates. In reality, Ghana, at that time, had only seven cases. “All,” as you wrote in your message, “from folk who traveled in from their trips abroad.” For example, the Norwegian ambassador who threw a party at his residence for over 200 people.

Epifania: True, we here in Ghana – at that time – had very little to worry about. We were in relative comfort and safety as we watched videos of overwhelmed Italian and US-American doctors going viral.[8] In almost every video, Euro-North American frontline workers expressed their incredulity at how they could be experiencing a lack of basic health equipment (or resources) and the failed national-level coordination of basic public services – desperately required for an intense disaster such as this. Meanwhile, countries in Africa and also in Asia were quietly getting on with low-key, somewhat herbal, and often very commonsensical preventative measures – since they were in no doubt of the avalanche that would await them if they did not take the initial stages of the pandemic very seriously.

Unlike their Euro-North American, and in some cases Latin American, counterparts, they were not under any grand illusions of their defense capabilities. They were also not as interested in wasting time by deflecting attention from their own internal governance inadequacies by shedding unnecessary light on the failures of other locations around the globe, or by finger pointing at the proverbial alien (a.k.a. immigrant) enemy in their midst – in this case, the “kung flu,” as President Trump had the temerity to call it.[9] They also had no time for global posturing, as they had no historic allusions/illusions of authority to maintain – even when no one is looking or cares.

It is this very same (and sad) case of a persistent “white man’s burden” that has reared its ugly head in the rather bizarre and baseless narratives, as well as in the curious absence of the well-practiced international coordination that is normally seen when there is a humanitarian crisis in the Global South. Where were all the expressions of global unity and leadership that prevailed under Ebola and Sars? You know, when imperial foreign powers love to show how good they are at assisting the Global South that cannot save itself. How is it that suddenly there was no longer honor amongst thieves? A case in point: our witnessing of the US government shamefully (and perhaps gleefully) pilfering Germany’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) while en route,[10] all while also refusing China’s competent assistance for a totally failed US-national response that now supposedly makes “America Great Again” – sadly only through its first place on the corona list with almost 6.2 million cases and close to 200,000 deaths (as of September 6, 2020).[11] Such terrible and uncalled for statistical strength!

Belinda: Is it not telling that the majority of European leaders were not able to see that, in contrast to them, African leaders and health professionals are not new to pandemics? Why not, for a change, ask African professionals for advice? What would have been an opportunity, proved to be too much of a paradigm shift. The European self-image is still in need of the deficient Other – Africa – in order to be able to position itself as its functioning opposite. This is, as you have said before, the only possibility to imagine oneself as the superior savior. Never mind that the reality did and still does not account for this way of interpreting the current crisis. These are colonial repercussions; that is the past ongoing.

Epifania: Yes, we find ourselves in the continued aftermath of well over 400 years of transatlantic slave trade that underscored many subsequent years of colonialism which have us, here, still in a state of scramble for Africa – even within the throes of our giddy (and some may even say: failed) struggles for independence. So then, it is no wonder that the othering narratives of victimhood and helplessness prevail – in spite of the growing confidence of the Global South and the ever rising of Africa, especially within the cultural, and thus ideological, milieu, all thanks to the arrogant buzz of millennials and the steady growth of economic and social links made between the African diaspora and like-minded creative souls on the African continent. So, it is very much a crying shame that we still have a situation whereby even Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, had to put aside diplomacy in order to give public comment about the inappropriate (and preposterous) idea of French doctors using Africans as guinea pigs for testing any kind of coronavirus vaccine.[12]

Belinda: Discussions over a possible coronavirus vaccine have brought to light colonial ways of thinking more than ever. Jean-Paul Mira, leading doctor in a Parisian hospital, and Camille Locht, director of the INSERM institute (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research), which is conducting tests for a possible vaccine against the coronavirus on behalf of the French Health Ministry, were speaking on French TV at the beginning of April. Mira asked Locht – and I want to highlight here that he knew he was being provocative, he even stated that he would be – why the new vaccine shouldn’t also be tested in Africa. Furthermore, he said: “It would be a perfect testing ground as it is, so to say, a worst-case scenario; there are, for example, no masks, and no treatment opportunities. Just like HIV studies, it is possible to experiment on sex workers because everyone knows they don’t protect themselves and are exposed.”[13]

Wow, let that sink in. This is very open. Mira is not even hiding his mindset. People on the continent, but also in the African diaspora, have rightfully reacted to his statements with outrage. How he came to the idea that there are no masks on the continent and no possibilities of treatment is incomprehensible to me. I do not know where he got his information from. The credo that allows someone to think that former colonial powers could just go to any African nation-state they please and have people tested is telling. In this, there is both an audacity but also a real-time politics in which, as we have said before, the interference of European powers – often former colonial powers – is not an exception, but a rule. Furthermore, there is the total fading out of African health professionals. People who clearly have expertise on the question of testing, pandemics, and health crises. For example, Amadou Alpha Sall, director of the Institut Pasteur in Dakar who has been developing a rapid diagnostic test.[14]

The image of Africans/Black people being experimented on for the sake of white Europeans and Americans is, as we both know, not new. In the past, there have been lawsuits against European and American companies due to their unethical testing procedures on the African continent. Once again, I am reminded of the precarities that the afterlife of the enslavement of African people entails: “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment,”[15] says Saidiya Hartman by way of Christina Sharpe. But what seems to mesh the fate of African Americans, seems to also have validity when it comes to African life, even though the contexts differ. What I read reminds me of Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey, all subjects of James Marion Sims’s clinical research that he conducted on many more enslaved Black women in the nineteenth century; the names of many will never be retrieved. Or the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman again, whose cancerous cells were preserved without her consent. Black life was and is still not considered worthy.

The corona crisis is a magnifying glass through which to analyze and clearly see the relations that were built, not only on an individual, but also on a political and social level. The grave economic and social differences that have existed before are now mercilessly coming to light. The protests that we have been experiencing following the murder of George Floyd have once again shown that Black people are united in their experiences of anti-Blackness. I would wish that we – and here I am speaking to Black diasporans – would not only think about our own lot in the diaspora, but also start to criticize the countries we live in with much more pressure when it comes to their relations with the African continent and its people. Anti-Blackness is a climate, as Christina Sharpe rightly says, and this climate doesn’t stop at the borders of the African continent.[16] Our struggle here is connected to the struggle for true independence on the continent; the project of independence, so to say, is yet to be fulfilled.[17]

Epifania: And fulfill it we must, and perhaps will. Simply because there is, nowadays, a resounding difference in response from everyday people of African descent. This can be seen through something as simple as the many clap-backs of the Black Twitterverse and other responses through social media platforms, or more importantly through the unstoppable force of global movements such as Black Lives Matter[18] and Me Too,[19] both started by articulate, alert, passionate and fully woke Black women – some of whom also belong to LGBTIQ communities and struggles. These social movements, and related acts of organized resistance, resonate and resound alongside those instigated on the African continent, e.g., Rhodes Must Fall.[20] And together, they proclaim: Not on our watch! Not if we can help it. And yes, we most certainly can – especially in this highly interconnected and well-informed age.

Epifania Akosua Amoo-Adare is a feminist, artist-scientist, and writer who is based in both Accra and London. She is currently engaged in what she describes as “The Art of (Un)Thinking”.

Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński is an artist and writer based in Vienna. She is currently doing her PhD-in-Practice at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.


[2]; And I find more unisonous headlines:

[3]; see also “Why the biggest corona catastrophe in Africa is still imminent”


[5] Source (figures taken on Sept 5, 2020):










[15] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 5.

[16] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham/London: Duke University Press), p. 7.

[17] Again, I am reminded of this by way of Saidiya Hartman who speaks about the unfinished project of Black freedom. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2: p. 4.




Vlatka Frketić: hartes pflaster

hartes pflaster

wer hat sich schon die knie aufgeschlagen
auf dem harten pflaster immer wieder
so dass die wunden kaum heilen auf dem harten pflaster
von dem sich die meisten abwenden mit ekel
und lieber aus der ferne reden über dinge
die eigentlich
abstoßend sind
der gestank
aus toiletten ohne spülung
mit undichten fenstern
an denen im winter
eissterne blinzeln über dem
harten pflaster
wo kein bagger und auch kein bohrer
die steine neu schichten
für den absprung auf ein anderes pflaster
wo menschen authentisch sich äußern vor vielen
die glauben sie hätten verstanden
die aber nur kurz etwas gehört
und erröten
vor erregung bei nur einem gedanken
an das harte pflaster
an die beine
die dieses begehen
weil mehr ist nicht vorstellbar
im beredten schweigen
sich äußern im gleichsprech
da kriege ich angst
so richtig fest angst
oder dass ein kind sich halten kann an einer
behütenden hand und lachen kann auf dem
harten pflaster
ist nicht denkbar
und der kaffee im pappbecher jedes mal viel zu heiß
das liegt am harten pflaster
das hart bleiben soll
denn sonst wären wir viel zu viele
bekämen nicht genug luft
die wir brauchen um weiter zu schweigen
im gleichsprech
beim reden über den kaputten kühlschrank
vor jahren in der WG ohne heizung
in der wir uns alle
unter zwei decken aneinander kuschelten
und berührten
um uns warm zu halten
ja, wir wissen, wie das ist und vergessen das
geld der familie, das wir verachtend ausgaben
denn irgendwas mussten wir essen und denken
auch heute nicht daran, an das gras, das wir unter der
decke zwischen den berührungen wickelten
es war nicht vom himmel gefallen
der uns so nah erschien mit den indigoblauen
wolken der nacht, unter dem unsere körper
bebten manchmal in den berührungen
im gleichsprech den wir nicht mehr erkannten
weit weg vom harten pflaster
und jetzt die kinder alleine den ganzen tag
durch das fenster spucken
auf das harte pflaster
wo sind sie denn
was machen sie
fragt sich selten jemand im gleichsprech
was machen sie den ganzen tag
verloren haben wir sie
im gleichschritt des gleichsprechs

Vlatka Frketić is an author, writer and activist, who works in adult education as well as in the psychosocial and literary fields. She studied economics in Zagreb and linguistics in Vienna. In lectures, seminars, and in her artistic work she addresses social inequalities, discrimination, multilingualism, and power from a critical, discourse-analytical perspective. Her work is also present in the field of visual arts: 2017 she contributed to the participatory exhibition project Versuchsanordnung widerspenstigen Handelns (Experimental arrangement of unruly action) organized by IG Bildende Kunst Wien. 2019 she was Kültür-Gemma Scholar; in this context she developed a “word-project against homogenizing speach”, initiating collective processes to “empoweringly work through, articulate, and reshape experiences with racism and other forms of discrimination with text, word and image”. ( 2019 she received the Exil literary price. Frketić is a member of the authors’ workshop of edition Exil.

Her contribution for the Thirsty for Words series is a poem revolving around the phrase “Hartes Pflaster”, which could be translated as hard cobble or pavement, thereby calling up memories of hurting one’s knees when falling. However, another translation of the German “Pflaster” is “band-aid”, which by mischance in this case is too “hard” to be put on the wound. This image of something hard invariably covering up or repelling precarious and therefore vulnerable realities of life – and languages – functions as a metaphor for “gleichsprech” = “leveling speak”, or a language that homogenizes and by this sets up a tacit barrier against non-normative forms of speaking.

On October 1, 2020 Vlakta Frketić is guest of the conversation series Touching the Elephant: Practices and Politics of Social Distanc_ing.

Pablo Martínez: Fail Better – Notes for a Museum Yet-to-Come

In recent weeks the media has paid close attention to the gradual reopening of museums, following the lockdown period. Most of the television reports and interviews with various heads of institutions have focused on the various ways that exhibitions and events have been affected by the pandemic, as well as the new rules and guidelines for visits to these spaces. However, there has been little discussion about how museums should take these circumstances as a chance to rethink their ethical and political foundations, along with their structures and economics. Despite the exceptional nature of this pandemic, its emergence has merely confirmed what we have been discussing for years in seminars and debates in some museums and art centers: that the system itself is collapsing and decisive, wide-reaching action must be taken. In the case of the museum, the problem is a complex one, since, in the last few decades, the museum has proudly endorsed dynamics based on permanent mobility, the economy of exposure, and the logic of exponential growth. Therefore, as well as debating how social distancing will change the practicalities of museum visits, it is also perhaps necessary to reflect, collectively, on the urgent refounding of the museum, based on new sets of material and aesthetic parameters. The whole world as we know it is undergoing a process of restructuring, due to ecological collapse and the subsequent civilizing crisis. If museums want to play a key role in this restructuring, and make a commitment to climate justice, they have no choice but to give up their present mission and learn how to fail better.

In The Queer Art of Failure, cultural theorist Jack Halberstam analyzes how capitalism and the heteropatriarchy have produced normative ideals of happiness and success – ideals that must now be challenged. That which is often deemed a failure might in fact be, as Halberstam suggests, a genuine form of existence that simply does not conform to the prevailing logics. An act of rebellion against the imposed norm. If we consider Halberstam’s proposal from ecofeminist perspectives, this kind of dissidence would be enacted by dismissing any concept of well-being that is based on buying power, by spurning the accumulation of goods and by proposing ways of living that are more austere and therefore less harmful to the environment. In terms of museums, this approach would ideally lead to a model that pushes back against the overbearing logics of accumulation, productivity, value, property, novelty, and the constant pressure to sustain income from ticket sales, venue hire, and sponsorship. It would bring about a museum that is more internationalist than international, that supports the local without being provincial, and that refuses to keep adding to their already bloated rosters of international artists, star speakers, and low-paid workers. A museum that advocates simplicity, and that ditches all the conventional indicators that have, until now, been used as gauges of success. Because, as the Spanish ecofeminist Yayo Herrero has noted, all these indicators have helped shape a culture that is directly at odds with life itself. A museum that works toward the rematerialization of culture (or, rather, that becomes aware of its inherently material conditions, because it barely has anything to do with the immaterial) and that resolutely opts for decarbonization, across the board. Specifically, this decarbonization would ascertain the museum’s ecological footprint, as caused by its programs and structures, and act accordingly. On an abstract level, this process is just as complex and ambitious as trying to decarbonize the shared imaginaries upon which modernity was built, something that art historian Jaime Vindel has so aptly named the “fossil aesthetic.” This shift would be approached in two ways: on the one hand, by rewriting the narratives of art history from a fossilist perspective that would include not only a critique of the modern idea of “progress” but would also call into question collective belief in unlimited growth, which the art world has helped propagate, as well as the glorification of uncontrolled desire and futurist accelerationism, to name but a few examples. On the other hand, art should help create new shared imaginaries of lifestyles that are not so dependent on fossil fuels – that is to say, the exact opposite to what the biennialization of the art world has achieved. If, indeed, this process of biennialization, which began in the 1990s, has helped forge a positive image of globalization and a perception of mobility as a synonym for creative freedom and social dynamism, all with a steep ecological cost, perhaps it would now be fitting for the art world to assist in the undoing of this process, and to champion a kind of museum that participates in and promotes a libidinal economy that has a low ecological impact.

For some time now, I have been writing about the concept of the “museum yet-to-come” as an exercise in institutional imagination and conceptual production. As I have expressed elsewhere, the notion of “yet-to-come” has two sides: on the one hand, it draws a possible plan of action that adapts its operation and activity according to the biophysical limits of the planet, and on the other, it borrows a core concept from Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, published in 2009 by the Cuban American theorist José Esteban Muñoz. In his book, Muñoz defines “queerness” as something that is not yet possible, not reachable, yet-to-come: it is a rejection of the here-and-now, and a nod to the concrete possibility of a different world. He puts forward a kind of queer sociability or queer future that challenges the heteropatriarchal here-and-now by moving it into the then-and-there of minority groups who activate aesthetic strategies for survival, as well as imagining ways of being inside utopian worlds. In this sense, the act of queering the museum would entail the inclusion of all those minority groups who have long been excluded from participating in the creation of imaginaries or from telling other kinds of histories. Furthermore, this approach would spark the kind of imaginations that allow us to break free from the prison of the present time where our own imagination is held captive. Queering the museum would shake up its very purpose, betray its norms, and help create the new worlds that would inevitably emerge from the chaos. It would challenge the notions of “what must be shown” and “how it must be displayed,” and, in so doing, it would help overthrow the bourgeois notion of mass public order, of turning people into orderly visitors, which essentially means control, since art museums largely have a normalizing function – not only through the regulation of artistic work but also through the ordering of bodies, relations, and times. The challenge is therefore how to begin imagining the future of institutions that are so deeply rooted in the past, in a process that would take solidarity with other species as its starting point and that would dismantle consumerist imaginaries, rebuild cooperative communities, and recognize the individualistic and extremely fossilistic character of our shared imaginaries of apparent emancipation. The challenge is how to build a museum that is not only worth visiting, but also worth living.

In May 2020, the Spanish digital journal ctxt published artist and activist Marcelo Expósito’s inspiring conversation with Manuel Borja-Villel, director of Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía: “The museum will have to provide care like a hospital, while still being critical.” This idea, which is referenced in the title of the interview is both highly productive and provocative, since the invitation to prioritize care means that the museum will inevitably fail in some of its other remits. I suppose that when the director of Spain’s national gallery made this statement, he was proposing not only to provide a greater degree of care, but also to recognize the work of caring that museums have in fact been carrying out for decades, mainly through their educational departments and public programs. In this sense, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that the museum “will have to continue to provide care” or that it “must care for those who do the caring and improve the working conditions and status of educators, mediators, and all the staff who do outreach work.” The task of caring is crucial in these times of “capitalist realism,” to echo the words of the cultural theorist Mark Fisher, given that suffering is not limited to the museum’s visitors, but extends to its workers. It is therefore necessary to review the extent to which the museum is also the root cause of this distress, given the forms of production it favors: the present model allows and in fact demands that cultural producers work on several different projects at the same time, all of which are paid at dubious rates, are extremely precarious, require the tireless and hurried efforts of many interconnected people, and are in a state of constant mobility. In addition, in the case of European public institutions, the rigidity of the regulatory framework and the strictness of labor legislation – which has never taken into account the nature of artistic work or new forms of cultural production – play a large part in generating situations where the already precarious existence of artists is further blighted by bureaucratic violence. The idea of total mobilization is embodied in cultural workers, who are always ready and available, always on their toes. The pandemic allows us to see even more clearly just how fragile this model is – a model in which the artist, just like a juggler, has to keep moving if she does not want to be left empty-handed. Without a universal basic income, the system in its current form is unsustainable.

I would like to dwell a little more on the statement “The museum will have to provide care like a hospital, while still being critical,” and to invert its meaning, since the act of caring is in fact a prerequisite so that the museum can become, for more people, a critical space. This is because, as opposed to what the patriarchal knowledge structure has taught us, knowledge is not exclusively generated through critical distance but rather through the affects, which are what set off thought processes in most cases. This fact is especially relevant if we participate in a form of care that is based on mutual support and an equality of forms of intelligence, rather than a paternalistic idea of care. The hospital-like proposal is extremely apt in the way it shuns the privately managed public hospital model that has been implemented in Madrid over the last decade, and instead adopts the medieval hospital-temple principle that would welcome pilgrims with food, rest, and ecstatic pleasure. It would be a museum that provides shelter and encourages neighbors, fellow citizens, and pilgrims to find, within its walls, a place where they can “pass the time” – a time unlike that of productivity and consumption. However, I cannot finish this article without first sharing my fear that the idea of museums becoming more like hospitals might trigger a new curatorial wave and that, following the “social,” “educational,” “affective,” and “performative” turns of the last few decades, it will bring about some kind of “hospital turn.” This long line of “turns” creates an image of an art system that, just like a whirlpool, spins on its own axis. It is a flashy display of constant dynamism, but, in practice, it only ever deals in conceptual terms, and so it does little to actually encourage any radical change in the material foundations of the institution. If the museum wants to keep its head above water, rather than spinning on and on within these choppy seas, it will have to change course toward more ecosocialist waters.

Originally published as “Fracasar mejor. Notas para un museo por venir,” Ctxt: Contexto y Acción, May 28, 2020.

Pablo Martínez is an educator and researcher. Since 2016, he has been Head of Programs at MACBA Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and part of the editorial board of L’Internationale Online. He was associate professor of the history of contemporary art at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Complutense University of Madrid and, from 2009 to 2016, in charge of the educational and public activities of CA2M. His lines of research include educational work with the body and research into the power of images in connection with the production of political subjectivity. Pablo Martínez is the editor of the essay collection et al., published by MACBA-Arcàdia, as well as the editorial secretary of the journal Re-visiones. He is a member of Las Lindes, a research and action group on education, art and cultural practices.

Joshua Decter: Thinking about How to Think Again (June 2020)

“Moreover, what made this pestilence all the more virulent was that it was spread by the slightest contact between the sick and the healthy just as a fire will catch dry or oily materials when they are placed right beside it.”
– Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, ca. 1349–1352

“Don’t punish me with brutality”
– Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On,” 1971

It is difficult. It is difficult to know how to think, rethink, and unthink. What to write, what not to write. Thoughts form and then dissolve. Focus starts and then withers away. Events are happening simultaneously at such a fast pace that it is impossible to keep up, and to process. Social media, of course, is accelerating everything. The mind is present one minute, gone the next. Hyperdistraction. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City in March, I’ve been very hesitant to write anything. Probably because my brain has been scrambled. It’s no doubt a common predicament these days. One thing is for certain, however: I’ve been thinking far more about epidemiology than art over the past few months. Anxiety about the here, the now, and the future is persistent. Days flow into each other, becoming almost interchangeable – Friday feels like Wednesday, Tuesday resembles Sunday. Time is different. Hope and optimism are fugitive. One might say that there is a kind of spiritual exhaustion, along with intellectual fatigue. Even on a mundane level, a dilemma has arisen as to whether to leave the house to shop for food or to exclusively use e-commerce for all consumer transactions. But how can I complain? I’m one of the fortunate people. I have certain privileges, even though here in NYC, privilege and entitlement are always very relative conditions.

According to recent statistics, approximately 400,000 people left New York City from March through May, in an attempt to escape the pandemic. Including a few friends of mine. Some will return, others will not. Certainly, many people are experiencing significantly more harrowing challenges and greater precarity in their lives than me – such as essential workers and frontline health care professionals, who have been laboring throughout the pandemic, risking their lives for us and too often paying the ultimate price with their lives. And, so, I am endeavoring to put my troubles into perspective and to amplify my empathy. Less of me, more of we. In the midst of writing about our strange new global coronavirus reality, protests erupted here in the United States in reaction to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The May 25 incident was caught on video and went viral on social media. The footage shows the police officer (Derek Chauvin) kneeling on top of a handcuffed Floyd on the street, pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, appearing to asphyxiate him. At one point, Floyd is heard saying, “Please, I can’t breathe”—eerily reminiscent of Eric Garner’s last words, another Black man who was choked to death on a New York City street by another white police officer, in 2014, which was also captured on video and also led to nationwide demonstrations.

In the Minneapolis incident, three other police were present, but did not intervene to help Floyd. It’s a painful video, almost unwatchable. But millions have watched it. The world has seen George Floyd. Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and the three other policemen at the scene were not charged. The protests intensified, led by the Black Lives Matter movement, in response to what was correctly perceived as another example of the criminal justice system’s structural racism – a response that recognizes the long-standing injustices of a system that often engages in discriminatory policing and has led to outsize incarceration of Black people. As the protests multiplied throughout the US, the attorney general of Minnesota launched a new investigation into the incident, leading to the raising of the charges against Chauvin to second-degree murder. Charges were also filed against the other three police officers. It has become abundantly clear that people are protesting not only for justice in Floyd’s particular case, but also to draw attention to institutionalized police violence against Black people, which is one of the most disturbing manifestations of ongoing structural racism in the US, and elsewhere in the world. The protests have now gone globally viral, even as the world is still contending with the coronavirus. And this is all within the context of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, during which he has stoked racial divisions and tensions, provoking increasing social unrest with his inflammatory rhetoric.

The coronavirus pandemic has, like elsewhere, led to mass unemployment in the US. People have been quarantined and locked down in their homes because of the virus for months; they are anxious about their futures, have become restless about their present circumstances, and find themselves with more time on their hands. These disconcerting realities have dovetailed with – and no doubt fed into – the dynamism of the protests, and the apparent increase in social activism is a positive development amid all the gloom. Indeed, New York has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, and it is now also one of the epicenters of the protests. This intersection, or simultaneity, is tragic: the pandemic has already disproportionately impacted economically and politically marginalized Black and Latinx communities, which are the same communities that regularly experience the structural racism of the criminal justice system. The social, economic, racial, and political inequities of this city are haunting us, in real time, and the protesting is an attempt to exorcise New York’s historical and contemporary demons and, specifically, to create pressure for significant reform of the police. If the police can police communities, then communities have the right to police the police.

At the same time, another dilemma has emerged: whether to protest outdoors in the midst of a pandemic, in a severely hit city that has been locked down in order to curb the spread of the virus. It is a complicated issue involving morality, health, economics, politics, and personal behavior. There are no easy answers. We do not yet have clear epidemiological data as to whether there could be an upsurge in COVID-19 cases over the next weeks, or as to what might be the cause of it – the reopening of economies, mass events like protests, people not social distancing and not wearing masks, or some combination of these factors. If there is a significant spike in virus infections here in New York City, this would impact the very people who can least afford to be impacted, such as frontline healthcare workers and economically marginalized communities. I fear a kind of vicious circle, and hope to be proven wrong. If one is reluctant, like me, to go out into the streets and protest because of health concerns, there are various other ways to show solidarity with the racial justice movement, through forms of what might be described as “meta-protest” and “meta-activism,” acts of writing such as this among them.

Flashback to 1992, when I visited Los Angeles shortly after the demonstrations that resulted from the acquittal of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. A video of that infamous act of police brutality provided clear evidence of the officers’ misconduct and, yet, they escaped punishment. It was a miscarriage of justice – and incontrovertible evidence of structural racism in the criminal justice system – that outraged many people. That year in response, I wrote an essay for an exhibition catalogue entitled “The Fractious Hybrid State (of Things),” wherein I endeavored to think about those events in LA. Here is a small excerpt:

It is immediately clear what is happening: the predominantly black residents of that community have begun to protest against an acquittal which seems to reconfirm their worst fears that the country’s judicial system is inherently unjust to African-Americans, that it systematically favors whites. I am angered by a verdict delivered by a mostly white jury in a police brutality trial held in Simi Valley – a Los Angeles suburb with a mere 2% black population. The judicial system has failed in this instance. […] Following the verdict in the Rodney King trial, [the black] community let loose from years of pent-up frustration regarding the cycle of economic and social decay, disempowerment, and social marginalization. The class and race conflicts that always seem to simmer beneath the surface of this society reached a boiling point.[1]

Also in 1992, the American investigative journalist James Ridgeway commented about the unrest in Los Angeles in the Village Voice newspaper: “The Los Angeles riots were bound to happen. The country is always at war over race and class.”

In 2020, we can confirm that the United States is, indeed, continuously at war over race and class.

Over the past week, an unprecedented citywide curfew was imposed here in New York City (as well as in some other US cities). It was an attempt to reduce tensions between protestors and the police, but primarily to discourage people from engaging in vandalism, which had taken place in Manhattan and other boroughs. Significant debate about the efficacy of the curfew has been sparked, with many wondering if it hurt more than it helped, perhaps in fact exacerbating tensions between the largely peaceful protestors and the police. On the other hand, the vandalism did seem to cease. This was the first curfew of my lifetime spent here in New York, although the months-long pandemic quarantine lockdown has felt like its own type of curfew. The last time New York had a curfew imposed was in 1943, in response to a so-called race riot in Harlem, indicative of significant tensions between the Black community and the predominantly white police force during that period. These frictions have persisted for many decades and are some of the deep historical precedents for the contemporary situation. When communities are victimized by, rather than protected by, law enforcement, when they are discriminated against by the police, when they are politically disempowered, those communities have legitimate grievances.

This period in the United States reminds us that some people must be willing to live with less so that others may live with more. An equitable, redistributive form of capitalism is desirable, and attainable. We can develop a fair economy wherein a large, racially inclusive middle class is built and class divides are significantly reduced. The US used to have a substantial middle class, and it can again. It just requires human imagination and political will. At this time of intersecting crises, I believe that the federal government should provide a guaranteed basic income to people who need it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be forever, depending upon how effective it is, but, for now, as the real economy is unstable and mass unemployment prevails, it would substantially help millions of people and reduce social unrest. A guaranteed basic income would require, needless to say, a significant change in governmental leadership and thinking and in how governance is structured.

Events have moved so fast, that, as of today, June 7, the curfew has been ended. And, tomorrow, New York begins phase one of its reopening – an attempt to restart the economy amid the pandemic. In my posh, hypergentrified Tribeca neighborhood, quite a few stores and schools boarded up their windows over the past week, nervous about the social unrest and potential theft. The overall atmosphere these days feels mildly dystopian. In just a few short months, New York has become a different city, with an unclear future.

The pandemic has penetrated our subconscious minds. Recently, I had a dream in which I forgot to social distance from a friend I encountered on the street. Within the convoluted, nonlinear space-time of the dream, I hugged this person; subsequently, I felt my dream-self experience a sense of remorse that I had not social distanced. This made me think of the 1963 Roy Orbison hit “In Dreams,” and how an updated version of it may, in this time of pandemic, go something like: “In dreams I walk with a mask on, and social distance from you / In dreams I talk to you, while wearing a mask …”

Are we hallucinating the new pandemic reality, or was the pre-pandemic reality the hallucination? When you don’t know if you might die from a new disease, anxiety tends to interfere with normative rituals, even as one seeks the comfort of those rituals. For example, I rewatched one of my favorite films while in self-isolation for a few weeks with the virus: Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962). I still haven’t decided whether it was an appropriate or inappropriate choice, given the circumstances. And I still haven’t figured out how to cut myself loose from the quarantine, to make a prison break from the pandemic lockdown. But we must demonstrate self-control and quell our desire to be “free,” so as to not infect our fellow human beings and to endeavor to contain the pandemic. The usual dialectic of freedom/unfreedom, or … ?

This new coronavirus has us figured out, but we haven’t figured it out yet. It exploits our human weaknesses and stupidities. But I don’t blame the virus, per se. How could I? Viruses don’t have volition. The virus is not even entirely alive; it needs us in order to activate. Make friends, so to speak, with the virus that infects you, or it might just end you. I do, however, blame human volition. It’s people that we need to be worried about. The sort of people who don’t believe in science, and who have denied the dangerousness of this virus, leading to unnecessary illnesses and deaths.

Where is time now? The seeming foreverness and potential endlessness of the pandemic (whether one thinks in terms of waves, tides, peaks, and/or valleys), combined with a sense of uncertainty about nearly everything, has produced what might be described as “pandemic anxiety syndrome,” which is no doubt already a term in vogue with some psychotherapists. Combine this with the Trump anxiety syndrome that many of us have been experiencing since 2016, and it’s clear that we’re not only in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic but also an emergent mental health crisis. Indeed, for the first time in my life, I’ve had virtual psychotherapy sessions via a proprietary web-based platform, on my iPad. Let’s call it iTherapy.

While I was at home in self-isolation for part of March and April as I navigated the virus, and while experiencing a seemingly endless fever, I became obsessed with reading every possible research paper produced by any epidemiologist, virologist, medical doctor, scientist, or other health expert I could find. I sought to understand the illness I had and what might happen to me, in the best-case and worst-case scenarios. Art, as I mentioned earlier, was very far from my mind; it still is, to be honest. I just don’t know what to do with art now. I am uncomfortable with the notion, for instance, that curators should start organizing thematic exhibitions about the pandemic. This seems a bit too easy – trite, even. Let’s endeavor, perhaps, to not produce coronavirus kitsch. I also have no desire to develop a theory about the relation between art and the pandemic. It just seems uncouth. Some things are better left unthought, unspoken, and unwritten, at least for now. I do not want to fetishize COVID-19, even though it fetishized me. Or, to be more accurate, it occupied me, my body. And perhaps it still does occupy my body in a dormant, zombielike state, waiting to reactivate at some point down the line.

This is an unprecedented time for all of us; we are stumbling around in the dark, trying to navigate that which we still do not completely understand.

Here are some of the things that have happened for the first time in my life, thanks to the pandemic:

• Self-isolated in a single room for one month, with the virus.
• Was reluctant to fall asleep for fear of never waking up.
• Did not go outdoors for over a month.
• Organized my last will and testament and related legal documents, in the event of my death.
• Had a virtual appointment with my medical doctor using an iPad, while sick in bed.
• Social distanced from my dog for a month, so as to avoid contaminating his hair with the virus and prevent him from becoming a possible vector of transmission to my family.
• Purchased a fifty-pound bag of flour from a bakery supply company so that my family could bake at home during the quarantine.
• Got an excellent haircut from my twenty-year-old kid.
• Have not entered a store, a business, or even another building since March (it is now early June).

There’s another song I’ve revised for the pandemic: the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” from 1983, retitling it “This Charming Pandemic”: “I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got anywhere to go …”

Like many others, I have developed a bit of anxiety about going outdoors. When I do venture outside to get sun on my face, or to walk the dog, I am a devout practitioner of social distancing and mask wearing. As an atheist, I have no religion, but if I do at some point choose to adopt one, it will be based on new rituals of mask wearing and social distancing. I simply do not want to be around irresponsible, selfish, nihilistic, masochistic, or sadistic people who are not wearing masks or other types of face coverings and who don’t social distance; I consider them to be a threat to society, to human life. The urban environment seems considerably more threatening now than just a few months ago. I am traumatized, no doubt. My psychogeographic relationship with the city has been significantly altered. Indeed, I have not strayed beyond my immediate neighborhood in three months. In The Fall of Public Man, from 1977, the sociologist Richard Sennett muses:

[In] the frame of public life, I would define civility as follows: it is the activity which protects people from each other and yet allows them to enjoy each other’s company. Wearing a mask is the essence of civility. Masks permit pure sociability, detached from the circumstances of power, malaise, and private feeling of those who wear them. Civility has as its aim the shielding of others from being burdened with oneself.

Sennett’s thoughts regarding the literal and the socially symbolic function of masks could not be more prescient for our times. The future new society may turn out to be a society that is perpetually socially distanced from itself, where not only our identities but also our actual faces may be masked from others, and perhaps even from ourselves, and where COVID-19 may be our constant companion.

[1] This essay can be found reprinted in my book Art Is a Problem: Selected Criticism, Essays, Interviews and Curatorial Projects (Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2014).

Joshua Decter is a New York-based writer, curator, and art historian. Decter’s 2014 book Art Is a Problem: Selected Criticism, Essays, Interviews and Curatorial Projects, published by JRP|Ringier, examines contemporary art in relation to its various ideological, public, discursive, and social contexts. Decter is coauthor of the 2014 book Exhibition as Social Intervention: ‘Culture in Action’ 1993, published by Afterall Books.

Decter has contributed to Artforum, Afterall, Art Review, Mousse, Texte zur Kunst, and other periodicals and has authored numerous catalogue essays for galleries, museums, and other art organizations. He has organized exhibitions at MoMA PS1, New York; Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; apexart, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Kunsthalle Wien; and Santa Monica Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

He has taught art history, curatorial studies, art theory, and other disciplines at the University of Applied Arts Vienna; School of Visual Arts, New York; Cooper Union, New York; University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; School of the Art Institute of Chicago, New York University; University of California, Los Angeles; ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, CA; and Bennington College, Vermont.

Boris Buden: What Does It Mean to Be “In Crisis”?

The phrase “corona-crisis” is these days on everyone’s lips, and understandably so. We are faced with a deadly disease that, only a few months ago, was completely unknown and has in the meantime dramatically changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the world. They, no doubt, feel the crisis firsthand, but do they—do we?—really know what it means to be “in crisis”?

So far, the current public discourse around COVID-19 and its devastating effects has used the notion of “crisis” in almost exclusively descriptive terms, as if it were self-explanatory: a break from normality or, more abstractly, a temporary disruption of an otherwise stable preexisting condition. This overly simplified understanding of crisis is at the core of mainstream public propaganda about the struggle with the disease and its strategic goal, which could be summed up in a phrase that is heard everywhere at the moment: “return to normality.” This “return” is not only about what masses around the world, struck by the crisis, spontaneously want by themselves; rather, it is about what their political elites are promising them. Such a political promise, however, goes far beyond “getting things back on track.” It is much more a performative act of political mobilization, a call for action, which, as it is intrinsic to a political action, aims at shaping the future—a future that, curiously enough, looks like a status quo ante. At this juncture, at least, the notion of crisis becomes ideologically suspicious.

At somewhat higher levels of reflexion, the corona-crisis is regularly explained as a “revenge of nature”: what at first appears to be a sudden and dramatic salto of the virus from animals to humans—the “spillover event,” as scientists call it—is in fact only the final act of a long evolution-like process of transformation initiated and advanced by human agency and its ill treatment of nature. After having been misused for too long as a mere resource for a headless progression of humankind, subjected to endless extraction and exploitation that has led to what we today call climate change, nature strikes back. It is now exposing the intruder to the full scale of its contingency, which is threatening the very survival of the human race; the spilling over of a virus into the human species stands, in fact, for nature spilling out of control.

Bruno Latour is among the most prominent thinkers who have clearly put the global pandemic into the broader context of climate change. For him, the experience of the current health crisis is a sort of prelude—or, as he calls it, a “dress rehearsal”—for the major challenge ahead: the ecological crisis.[1] While the “war against the virus,” which an instructing and protecting nation-state fights with all the (biopolitical) means available to it, can have some success against this particular enemy, we are, Latour argues, totally unprepared for the coming “ecological mutation.” To cope with a crisis of this scale, an entire reorganization of living conditions will be required. The nineteenth-century model of a territorial nation-state, with its political and social infrastructure designed to uphold a particular (nation-)society consisting exclusively of, as Latour puts it, “humans among themselves,” is incapable of dealing with a pathogen that, unlike the coronavirus—which is only temporarily disrupting an alleged normality—“has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet.” For the French philosopher, there is no doubt as to what this pathogen, which is already causing the next crisis, is: humanity itself.

Latour’s diagnosis of both the current and the coming crisis sounds realistic. His distrust in the institution of the nation-state, which, as he believes, is helpless in the face of the coming ecological crisis, seems not to need any additional argumentation. Even his most politically explicit statement—the warning against an “archaic” return to the old regime of national borders, which has been reactivated to protect us from the virus’s spread—can count on our full support. But is that all? Can a radical change in our concept of nature and of the world of objects, and their cognitive admission into the very idea of what the human is, what society is, and what our historical temporality is—as Latour suggests—brace us for the impact of the coming climate crisis, which, as is becoming increasingly clear to us, we might not survive? In short: Can a radical turn in our understanding of nature really help us to escape its revenge?

What is today, in the context of the corona-crisis, called the “revenge of nature” has more than one dimension. It implies not only a reaction of nature to the human intrusion, but also its opposite of a sort: an intrusion of nature into human affairs—perpetrated, with an ideological purpose, by the humans themselves. We got a glimpse of it in the guise of social Darwinism, which was recently rediscovered by one part of the ruling political elites and spontaneously deployed in their attempts to confront the pandemic. Their policies seemed to follow the invisible hand of nature: letting the weak die and the strong recover as quickly as possible, so as to “get the economy back on track.” This, however, was not merely an accidental normative derailment. An overall ideological naturalization of the whole sphere of human affairs—a process whose devastating effects on our ability to cope today with the climate crisis cannot be overestimated—has been on track for quite a long time, at least ever since the so-called neoliberal turn. The entire realm of social relations has been polluted by the logic of natural processes up to the point of its total paralysis, which is why blind fatalism is leading us into the climate catastrophe. However, a naturalization of social relations necessarily implies their dehistoricization. What horrifies us as an apparently unstoppable extinction of a natural species is, in fact, significantly conditioned and facilitated by a no less fatal extinction of history. Celebrated, a few decades ago, almost unanimously as the ultimate victory of liberal democracy, the “end of history” has left us, in the meantime, locked up in a linear temporal continuum that resembles the natural flow of time, the tempo and direction of which are out of human control. Any orientation within the historical temporality that would rely on a reflected historical experience now seems impossible. A distant past may be easily mistaken for the present reality, or even promised as a desirable future; a society of the twenty-first century dangerously resembles those feudal ones we like to believe we have forgotten. Moreover, without a unity of historical time, the statistical data that count down the temporal distance to the climate catastrophe, to the point of no return, which will be reached soon, don’t translate into the will to change. Such a will does not exist in nature. Finally, a similar transformation has also affected political power relations. They too have acquired the character of natural hierarchies: the rich and the poor caught in an eternal stalemate, with no history to reignite the class struggle between them. In the costumes of a tragic global fable, humanity has already staged the dress rehearsal for the major political crisis that lies ahead. Before being burned by the sun, drowning in the rising seas, or dying of thirst, we will face each other on the political battlefields—armed to teeth but without the normative ideal of eternal peace on our minds.

There is, indeed, nothing natural in a crisis. Rather, it is thoroughly a historical phenomenon. According to Reinhart Koselleck, one of the twentieth century’s most prominent philosophers of history, the concept of “crisis” was an invention of the eighteenth century, specifically devised by the thinkers of the Enlightenment.[2] They, however, understood it only in its one, moral dimension. The political meaning of crisis remained hidden to them. For the crisis they cognitively grasped was, in fact, a political crisis—the crisis of an imminent political decision. This decision, as we know today, was made by the French Revolution, which provided the final answer to the question: What does it mean for the world of feudal absolutism to be in crisis? Everything speaks to the fact that we today have found ourselves in a similar situation—confronted with the question: What does it mean for the world of neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracy to be in crisis? Our answer, it seems, cannot be much different from the one given by the sans-culottes on the streets of Paris more than two hundred years ago.

[1] Bruno Latour, „Is This a Dress Rehearsal?”
[2] See Reinhart Koselleck, Kritik und Krise, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979.

Boris Buden is a writer, cultural theorist and translator. Born in former Yugoslavia he studied philosophy in Zagreb and cultural theory at Humboldt University in Berlin. Since the beginning of the 1980s Buden publishes essays and books on critical and cultural theory, psychoanalysis, politics and contemporary art in Croatian, German and English. He teaches at universities in Europe and lectures worldwide. Buden is permanent fellow at the European Institute of Progressive Cultural Policies, Vienna (eipcp). Buden currently lives in Berlin.

Adania Shibli: Living Safely

To get away from the dense city centre, with its unhealthy and unsafe atmosphere, and searching for some calm and serenity, he moved to this distant, isolated house on the northernmost fringes of the city, near the river. All that lay between the riverbank and the terrace of his house was a neglected yard, which was always empty, making it appear especially expansive. The terrace itself, only a metre above the ground, was expansive too, as was the sky, and even the window where this childlike sketch of a view peeked in. And all he had to do for that vast expanse to sweep him up was step through the terrace doorway, something he did every morning from the very first day. He would prepare his coffee, take it out to the terrace and sit with his back to the house, facing the yard and the row of trees that separated it from the river that ran behind it. He would watch the first ray of light reach the top of the last tree in the row and gradually expand to the rest of the tree, then the next two trees, then the entire row, and finally the yard. Like that light, he felt capable of moving effortlessly through the space before him, with nothing to stand in his way. Sometimes he would even leap down from the terrace to stroll around the sunlit corners of the yard before going back to sit in the shade. This was the peace he had longed for, and it now awaited him whenever he stepped onto the terrace or even went near one of the windows that looked out onto it.

One night, he was awoken by a strange wailing sound. At first, he could not work out where it came from, nor even as it went on. It was shrill and repetitive, like some birdcall he had never heard before, and came from right outside the window that looked out onto the terrace. This wailing set his heart racing and left a faint yet bewildering fear in his body. What kind of bird sang at that time of night? The strange sound continued to entreat him until finally he was overcome by sleep.

In the morning when he drew the curtains, the terrace, the yard and the row of trees came into view, everything appearing as expansive, quiet and safe as usual, save for a light wind that teased at the sunlight as it attempted to reach the top of the first tree and its dishevelled branches.

The memory of that mysterious night-time birdcall might have disappeared completely had he not awoken a few nights later to a new sound, stranger and louder than the one before. This time, however, he was woken by sound and fear simultaneously. It was a violent banging of metal on metal, and felt very close, as if it were coming from inside the bedroom. But when he opened his eyes it receded a little, to the terrace outside. He got out of bed quickly and turned on the light, to let whoever was banging know that they had woken him up and that they had better get out of there right away. And no sooner did he switch on the light than the sound vanished. He went to the terrace door and stood without opening it, not knowing whether the person who had been banging was still there or had run across the yard to hide behind the trees. Only once he felt reassured by the total silence around him, and certain that it was unbroken, did he go back to bed, but the agitation and fear did not go away.

The next morning, the sunlight had not yet reached the top of the first tree when he pushed open the door and went out to inspect the terrace. Nothing looked suspicious; there were no dents or chips in the sewage pipes, which were the only things there made of metal. Everything looked fine. He went back inside to prepare a coffee, planning to drink it as he sat like usual and watched the sunrise reveal itself in the light on the treetops, hoping to dispel the residue of last night’s angst from his body. But by the time he came back out, sunlight had already flooded the whole row of trees; still, the calm scene surrounding him restored his sense of peace and pushed the violent commotion of the previous night far from his mind so that only its echo remained, in the form of a vague perplexity as to what it could have been.

Until one morning, which seemed a perfectly ordinary morning to begin with, he was suddenly overcome by an inexplicable feeling of anguish and agitation. He could not tell why till he looked out of the big window. At first he was not quite sure what he was seeing, or perhaps he was not sure that what he was seeing was really there. In the middle of the bare, expansive scene, at the end of the yard by the row of trees, stood a dark shape, which when he looked more carefully turned into what appeared to be a huge creature that was staring right at him. Once he was sure what he was seeing, he quickly pulled back from the window to hide himself from sight. That morning, instead of going out to the terrace where he had spent all his mornings since moving into this house, he took his coffee back to the bedroom. After he had summoned up the courage, he went to the window to observe the dark form outside, but the view seemed to have gone back to normal, with no trace at all of the huge creature he had seen earlier. The wake of fear it had stirred, though, left a mark upon the scene.

A few days later, the back of the house was assaulted once again by an ear-splitting banging that made even standing near the windows to watch what was happening impossible. The blacksmith and his assistant had arrived early that morning to begin constructing a fence around the terrace, which they had finished by noon. When they went, they left behind not only a scattering of metal filings here and there, but an entirely new scene. The yard was no longer fully visible; now all he could see was the far end, where the row of trees bordered the sky. Then, when he pulled out his chair and sat down, even that meagre sliver of the old view disappeared, and all that was left was a narrow strip of sky that ran between the top of the fence and the roof of the terrace. At first he tried squinting through the narrow gaps between the bars of the fence, but doing this soon strained his eyes. In the end he made do with staring fixedly at the sky, taking care not to glance either up or down, not even slightly, otherwise his line of vision would collide with either the roof of the terrace, which he had never even noticed before today, or the dark metal fence. Still, at least he felt safe again.

But it didn’t last long; after a few nights, he was awoken once again by the wailing of that strange creature, this time louder than before. Then, some nights later, while he was asleep, a deafening banging cleaved his head, and this, too, was louder than before, coming as it was from all along the fence.

From that night onwards, as soon as he had finished making his morning coffee, he would go straight back to his bedroom and stand by the big window looking out, since the view was wider from there than from the fenced-in terrace, and it would be easy for him to spot the dark outline of that huge creature as soon as it came back. He would be waiting for it.

Translated from the Arabic by Katharine Halls

Adania Shibli (*1974, Palestine) writes fiction and non-fiction. Her latest novel is Tafsil Thanawi (Beirut: Al-Adab, 2017, forthcoming as Minor Detail by Fitzcarraldo Edition, 2020). She has also been teaching part-time at Birzeit University, Palestine, and is a researcher in the field of cultural studies and visual culture.

Judith Goetz: Gender as a systematically relevant category during the coronavirus pandemic

In the words of Marxist feminist Frigga Haug, crises “can be understood as interim periods, when the familiar order has ceased to function and a new set of rules have yet to be established.” This characterisation as an intermediate status quo is also true for the current coronavirus crisis, which has required millions of people to re-organise their professional and social life, as well as the gender-specific arrangements associated therewith in a breathtakingly short period of time. What might have been understood as an opportunity to re-negotiate gender relations, however, has ended up harbouring the danger of a further escalation of social grievances. This includes, for example, an increase in violence within the close social environments, the revival of traditional, gender-specific role patterns, and the resulting financial dependencies. Anti-feminists, on the other hand, are quite pleased with these developments.

Women: Relevantly dependent

The gender-specific effects of the pandemic and of the lockdown can be seen in the world of employment, amongst other things. Particularly the gender-specific occupational pattern, which has persevered until the present day, results in additional workloads for many women. Due to the fact that women are often subject to precarious employment or work in service-industry jobs that are not considered systemically relevant, they are affected more by low wages, terminations or short-time work, as well as an increased risk of poverty and existential fears resulting. In contrast, significantly more women work in systematically relevant professions, which also tend to be badly paid however, such as in the fields of food retail or nursing. Having been ‘pillars of society’ or ‘systemically relevant heroines’, during these past few weeks, they have not only faced considerable levels of stress and overload but also a greater risk of infection. On top of that, there are double or multiple stresses to cope with at their “home sweet homes”, where for instance, three out of four mothers, but only two out of three fathers, look after their children while working from home, and where women (often at the expense of their own financial security) take on the greatest portion of reproductive work, home education, and care for sick family members. The fact that men often have a higher income also leads to women giving up their gainful employment in exchange for childcare or other (unpaid) care activities. Already before the pandemic, roughly half the women in Austria were working only part-time, not least to make their familial and professional duties more compatible with one another. Thus, the findings from a study carried out by the University of Vienna during the coronavirus crisis hardly seem surprising: the study concluded that women are significantly more dissatisfied with the situation than men “because of the relatively high demands of household chores and childcare, which were mainly shouldered by women already before the crisis, the increase of which has multiplied a great deal since the beginning of lockdown restrictions.” A fair re-negotiation of gender-specific arrangements is nowhere to be seen; quite to the contrary – traditional gender roles that had been believed to be long gone and their related distributions of duties have come to new life during the current situation of crisis, and relationships of dependency have intensified.

Women, (rather not) stay at home!

It does not come as a surprise that initial data from other countries have shown a significant increase in domestic violence since the beginning of lockdown measures. This is in line with the many years of experience of Austrian women’s shelters, which see a rise in domestic violence whenever families tend to spend much time together, for example, during the Christmas holidays. This is heightened by the fact that times of crisis accompanied by the enormous psychological stress that is caused can be perceived as an insult of male pride, thus increasing the aggressive and violent potential of men with corresponding dispositions. It is not rare that frustration over a job loss, over-cramped living conditions or increased boredom, as well as job-related stress are taken out on their partners or children. One example is an attempted murder that took place in Baden (Lower Austria) at the end of March 2020. A man had beat his sleeping wife nearly to death with a wooden log in the middle of the night. When asked for the reasons during his interrogation, he said that working night after night from home had “overwhelmed” him. In Italy, a man even strangled his partner because he thought that she had infected him with the virus. In April 2020, the Austrian women’s emergency telephone service Frauenhelpline recorded a 70% increase in the number of calls while the number of restraining orders had increased only slightly. Experts believe that the lack of a significant increase in Austria up until this point might have a variety of reasons: it might not always be possible to make undisturbed phone calls; women might not be informed correctly about their options (or not informed at all); the driving force of an encouraging exchange with others might be lacking due to the contact restrictions, or financial hardship due to a job loss or short-time work might exponentiate dependencies. There are even stories of men taking their partners’ mobile phones away from them. The statement of the Austrian Federal Minister for Women and Integration, “We have succeeded in providing help to every woman in need,” does not only seem far-fetched, but also represents a minimisation of the situation. Particularly because violence in the close social environment is a permanent societal problem that only peaks during times of crisis, government measures like the campaign Sicher zu Hause (“Safe at Home”) or a budgetary increase for the women’s helpline have long been overdue. Already before the coronavirus crisis, many women’s organisations have been directing their criticism of the dwindling of financial resources for violence protection and prevention during the past few years towards the conservative/green government. This makes it all the more important and necessary to keep relevant campaigns and institutions funded even after the pandemic. However, as austerity measures can be expected with certainty, this might mean the end of this hope.

How anti-feminists are utilising the coronavirus crisis

For example, U.S. Archbishop emeritus Raymond Leo Burke construed a connection between the virus and anti-discriminatory gender policies: as he put it, “Great evils like pestilence are an effect… of our actual sins”, those being, amongst other things, abortion, assisted suicide, LGBTIQ* rights and the “devastating effect on individuals and families of the so-called gender theory.” In addition, he emphasised “the necessity of Catholics to pray and worship in their churches and chapels” despite measures of social distancing – otherwise, gender theory would be winning. Likewise, Turkish Minister of Religious Affairs, Ali Erbaş, linked the outbreak of COVID-19 in his first sermon on the occasion of the month of fasting, Ramadan, to homosexuality and being unmarried, which brought about illnesses and caused a whole generation to rot. It does not seem surprising that his statements received the backing of the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Quite in line with this, anti-feminists are overjoyed with the societal backlash described above, which has been forcing men and women alike back into more traditional roles and dependencies. They are glad that discourses of gender equality have been silenced, that mortality statistics do not indicate a third gender, and that access to abortions has become more difficult. On top of that, they feel that their concept of the heterosexual (nuclear) family as a bulwark in times of crisis has been proven right, thus receiving its duly wished-for revaluation. Particularly in crises, they argue, stereotypical role models bring about comfort and security. One of them, German anti-feminist Birgit Kelle, celebrates the fact that the coronavirus crisis created a “new self-confidence of mothers”, who “in the very moment when public order and its artificial pressure on mothers collapse, matter-of-factly return to a role that some never even left on their own accord, but which they were forced to abandon.” Another anti-feminist triumph is the fact that home-schooling “has become possible suddenly and extensively”, thus finally bringing education back under parents’ control – protecting children from the harmful influence of school education and the influence of early sex education in particular. Given the fact (or rather, the claim) that everything went so well, voices around the anti-feminist action group Demo für Alle (“Demonstration for All”) are demanding the abolition of compulsory schooling.

In conclusion, it can be said that gender is a critical category that is surfacing within the wide variety of effects the current pandemic has caused. Thus, problem-solving strategies that take this concept into account become even more important. In accordance with this, it cannot be sufficient to applaud the indispensable and yet badly paid employees who uphold the system once a day while no efforts are made to improve the working conditions and salaries of those occupational groups. This would be as important as financial security in order to combat dependencies, reliefs in view of multiple workloads (e.g. by means of a corona parental leave) or the sustainable funding of violence protection organisations. Another significant contribution might be seriously taking account of gender budgeting in recovery packages or the upcoming austerity measures, as well as the closer involvement of women’s organisations into the decision-making process. On top of that, the re-negotiation of gender-specific societal arrangements should not be forgotten after the crisis has passed.

Judith Goetz holds degrees in Literary and Political Science and is a lecturer at various universities. She is a member of the research group Ideologien und Politiken der Ungleichheit (“Ideologies and Policies of Inequality”, and of the research network Frauen und Rechtsextremismus (“Women and Right-Wing Extremism”,

Her main interests include women/gender and the extreme right, as well as anti-feminism. Most recently, she was co-editor of the anthologies Untergangster des Abendlandes. Ideologie und Rezeption der rechtsextremen ‘Identitären’ (Marta Press, 2017) and Rechtsextremismus Band 3: Geschlechterreflektierte Perspektiven (Mandelbaum, 2019).

Defiant Pensioners

We are happy to host the poetic voices of the Defiant Pensioners (Prkosni Penzioneri) from Serbia in our series Thirsty for Words. Throughout the last weeks of quarantine, the Defiant Pensioniers have continued to write poems, both from their retirement homes or under strict lockdown in their flats. The artist group ŠKART from Belgrade has made videos for some of them and also illustrated the poems.

The Defiant Pensioners are best introduced through their own words:

The garden of poetry is everyone’s
(some selfishly think – no one’s).
The defiant pensioners do not idle about.

They united their poetic tools in 2014 at a ŠKART workshop in Zrenjanin and have cherished their garden ever since, despite everything, keeping it from withering away.

Today in a Retirement Home

I chat up grannies, banter with greybeards
Everyone’s fiercely glaring at me
Corona is the word of the day
About it I have nothing to say

I read books, compose rhymes and then
Often resort to things forbidden
On YouTube I watch all sorts of clips
The teeth I’ve left are but three odd chips

All my books I have read,
My old worries I have shed.
What a joy, oh, poor me
Just junk remains eventually.

Now I’ll be sour awhile
And once again I will compile
Some Coronavirus hearsay,
So that I keep them at bay!!!

Dušan Todić, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, April 2020

Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART A Cat

A pair of beds
a chair
a door

Irma, my roommate
Sits alone
caresses the air
and moans.

What are you up to, Irma?

Feeding the cats,
Can’t you see?
I really am, I swear
On my mother’s grave.

Bogdanka Kelemen Lalić, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, April 2020

Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART Wall

Don’t want to socialize with walls
They are life threatening
They sputter loneliness
How to escape them with my fettered, bare feet
Me within my own four walls.

The four walls blurred the eyes easily
Clipped imagination’s wings
And gave me but an album to leaf through
Flooding me with the photos’ black and white memories

Within the four walls there is no image, or sound
Just a distant booming like when bells resound
And as for colours, all shades of gray thrive
How to endure this alive
Me in between the four walls

Pava Martinović, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, April 2020

Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART Masks

Stage masks.
Home masks,
Soul masks
How much more
This black carnival?
Hey, people,
Don’t go out
Stay at home!

Nenad Terzioski, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, March 2020

Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART Sharing

It is nice
to share
if we have something
to share
the little something
that we did
not share
has remained
to be shared

Mira Vasić, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, March 2020

Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART The Stare

With a persistent stare
Straight in the eyes –
I drive away unwanted strangers’ cats
from my yard.
I feed sparrows,
And with the cats, it all resembles a ploy.

I swear,
I don’t know which sense of theirs warned them
They first stood there frozen
Staring back
And then they withdrew.
I would never know
What these unfamiliar strangers’ cats
Had sniffed in me.
I dread
I’d be reborn
As an unwanted cat.

Rada Gava, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Bela Crkva, March 2020
The text was received via telephone (RG) and animated live, using auxiliary materials, a pair of hands and a pair of legs (Škart).

The Ears of the Neighborhood

“Quarantine is the latest craze!” my mom’s greengrocer says, and adds in soothsayer’s voice: “Do not just sit there like a load within your private nursing abode. Could you stay at least partially mobile perchance, by doing perhaps some comical dance? Don’t let them move you out of your own cozy bed, to where you’d recline under a stone overhead!”

Bata Kara-Pešić, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Belgrade, April 2020
The text was received via telephone (BKP) and animated live, using auxiliary materials, a pair of hands and a pair of legs (Škart).

The workshops hosted by Škart in various gerontology centers are supported by: IWC Charity Fund (International Women’s Club), Belgrade
PPP’s (Paper Puppet Poetry) animation is supported by: Borderline Offensive + CZKD, Belgrade

Special thanks to the wonderful translator Milan Marković and to Dragan Protić Prota from ŠKART for never giving up on poetry.

G. M. Tamás: The Nationality of a Virus

As it was to be expected, the authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe have used the coronavirus epidemic as a pretext to enlarge, to extend, to harden their power and, in the case of Hungary, to put finally the constitutional system out of its misery, where – for an idefinite period of time – the only source of law (Rechtsquelle) is now the supreme leader, Mr Orbán. What a bore.

Like always in such cases, people in richer and cleaner, better appointed and better equipped countries are asking themselves piously, how on earth could East Europeans put up with this sort of annoying nonsense.

Well, one thing is that people everywhere are prepared to submit to a new public order that has no precedent in interfering with individual, even physical, liberty to this extent, in regulating individuals’ movement and proximate human intercourse, prohibiting work, presence in public places and so on, something no outlandish tyranny would have ever dared to demand in the darkest of ages. In this, apparently voluntary, obedience East Europeans are no worse than anyone else, on the contrary, they are as a rule less disciplined than most Western nations.

But politics is different.

East Europeans are not protesting the loss of a liberty they do not believe in anyway.

It is not a question of the preternatural hypocrisy of the bourgeois order where individual freedom has been contrasted – for long centuries – with the lack of social justice. This is a little deeper and a little more specific than the old thing that (to quote Leonard Cohen) everybody knows.

In order to defend itself and its autonomy, a civic community will have to know itself as such, but East European societies would not dream of imagining themselves to be ‘civic communities’.

This, like most things, has historical origins.

In our backward and hidebound imaginations, we East Europeans have only one memory of a ‘civic community’, to wit, the one based on common ownership: not the ‘common ownership of the means of production’ in the strict old-Marxist sense, but the common ownership of everything that matters. Not only the factory, not only the barracks, not only the university, but also the family apartments in the council estates (or Plattenbau in the GDR or the Arbeitersiedlungen in Red Vienna), the summer camps, the workers’ clubs, the libraries and so on, meaning work and leisure, public and private, social and personal – literally, everything that matters.

A ‘civic community’, according to East Europeans, existed when the community seemed to own and to rule and to arrange for places to live and to work and to be ‘ourselves together’. Obviously, not everybody liked that, but those who didn’t, did not like communities either. When what was called, rather imprecisely, ‘real socialism’ was asked to join the company of everybody else, East Europeans calculated that politics – which appeared to them to be a question of commitment and mobilisation – has ended altogether. No community, no politics. Individual liberty equals the primacy and the preponderance of the personal. (Compare my earlier essay, ‘1989: The End of What?’)

As long as individual variety with all its quirks and styles did not seem to be touched by state brutality and prejudice was tolerated in its virtual infinity, the East European malaise was not thought to be a matter of freedom or not.

Power, of course, belongs to the owners separated from the community – as it has earlier belonged to the community of owners – hence there is no freedom for people who would constitute a civic community if they had power, the power of ownership. But they don’t.

So when people such as myself would make a fuss about the abolition of the ‘rule of law’, of ‘constitutionalism’ and such, i. e., about the suppression of civic liberty, East Europeans would ask, well, didn’t you guys of 1989 say that the state is there to protect us from its own interference. But now it isn’t the state that interferes, but the virus. The constitution was put there because there is no civic community which could defend itself even without such pieces of paper if it existed. But it doesn’t. So get lost.

It isn’t true that East Europeans don’t care about freedom. They do. But they were taught by quite respectable thinkers from Aristotle to Spinoza to Hegel that freedom without civic power is not much. If they could be tempted, again, by an idea of liberty, the political seducers will have to answer questions concerning common ownership and the ability of a civic community to furnish our lives – work and sex and leisure and study and art and sleep – with the ability only property confers, as both real socialism and real capitalism are teaching us without the shadow of a doubt.

I am in two minds about this.

Quite apart from my old dissident antipathy for ‘real socialism’, I believe – without any liberal illusions – that under capitalism (especially state capitalism that might take over from ‘neoliberal globalisation’ which had ceased to function a number of years ago in any case) the guarantee against arbitrary rule can only be a guarantee of paper, that is, a text, deemed to be uncontrovertible, both upholding and opposing the rule of fact which is, as everybody knows, money and firepower. Law is where you can, under capitalism, to negotiate liberty without an unmediated regard for property.

Many East Europeans think that this doesn’t make a great deal of difference. And it frequently doesn’t. However we judge this, arbitrary, lawless authoritarianism is growing, with a true religion of inequality (class, race, nationality, gender, age, health, education, housing, degree of pollution), and socialism – real or imaginary – is nowhere. But we must admit that constitutionalism is not anywhere, either. It has vanished without eliciting comment. The problem seems to be, are there enough masks, gloves, protective clothing, disinfectants, intensive-care beds, crematoria, cemeteries and dustbins. Nobody seems to be interested in where would they come from. The civic community is absent, the state functions in a vacuum – therefore inefficiently – and the increased powers refer to something (such as, say, ‘society’) the reality of which is rejected with our distinctive brand of humour.

Meanwhile, people are dying, alone, forced by the current etiquette to eschew saying good-bye to their children.

G. M. Tamás (*1948 in Kolozsvár/Cluj, Romania) is a Hungarian philosopher and writer. Forced to emigrate from Romania to Hungary in 1978, he taught for two years at the University of Budapest (ELTE) but was then dismissed for having published (and signed openly) illegal tracts in samizdat. He subsequently became a leading figure in the East European dissident movement. From 1986 to the present day, Tamás has held numerous appointments and fellowships (a. o. at the Central European University, Budapest/Vienna; Oxford (Columbia); Woodrow Wilson Center, Chicago; Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; University of Georgetown, New School at Yale; Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna). He was elected to Parliament in 1990 and elected Director of the Institute of Philosophy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1991. In 1994 and 1995, respectively, he has stepped down from both. Later, he lost his job at the Academy of Sciences – this instigated public protests.
Currently, he is Visiting Professor at CEU’s Department of Sociology, Budapest/Vienna.

The versatility of Tamás’ political philosophy and theory is remarkable: over the course of his lifetime, his views gradually shifted to the left. He is said to belong to the circle of heretical European Marxists.

Selected works: Essay on Descartes (1977), Törzsi fogalmak (Tribal Concepts, Collected Philosophical Papers, 2 volumes, 1999), L’Oeil et la main (1985), Les Idoles de la tribu (1989), Telling the Truth about Class (Socialist Register, vol. 42, 2006), Innocent Power (2012), Postfascism şi anticomunism (2014), Ethnicism After Nationalism (Socialist Register, vol. 52, 2015), Kommunismus nach 1989 (2015), K filosofii socializmu (2016), Komunizem po letu 1989 (2016).

G. M. Tamás’s piece The Nationality of a Virus has been published in German in the May issue of Tagebuch, a “leftist, unorthodox magazine” from Vienna, discussing issues of politics and culture.