Politics of Grief

(For the original German version, click here)   “What makes life grievable”, the philosopher Judith Butler asks again and again.1 What defines one’s connection to the deceased whom one never knew? This is a derivative question explored by the filmmakers Laura Poitras and Sean Vergezzi in a current exhibition at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Their show Circles is not the first time that I am confronted with these questions, as for years, I have not lost a close person and have only been connected with the dying through stories and articles, books and memorial plaques, always mediated, never through my own close experience.

Every time a stranger’s death touches me, I try to decipher the closeness I feel. Especially when the person lived a completely different life than I do – an existence I cannot identify with. Or when I learn of the passing of a person about whom I know nothing, or hardly anything – a human I can not identify. And then there are the many lives lived, of which I will never hear, of whose births and deaths I can only be vaguely aware, lives that are hardly grievable for me, for many different reasons. These questions can be pursued in silence, but they cannot be kept purely private. They are so big that they cannot be answered personally, neither ethically nor practically. They inevitably  escape into the political. They are negotiated and organized by societies, not only in the current pandemic or contemporary climate politics. Which life is protected and which death is mourned, Judith Butler emphasizes, depends on what counts for a society as a human.2 In the past and present, this humanity was rendered by patriarchal, racist, economic and colonial structures.

Butler explored the politics of mourning in the contexts of the Iraq War and the AIDS pandemic, later also in the light of the climate crisis and Covid-19.3 Laura Poitras and Sean Vegezzi uncover the politics of grievability in their film Hart Island on a cemetery island in upstate New York, where authorities bury plague victims, the homeless, the stillborn, and the impoverished, people whose funerals no one else would pay for or organize. In Hart Island, prison inmates and excavators perform the burying, using the soil of the barely one-square-kilometer-sized island. Hence, the film asks not only what makes a life grievable, but also who are the actual caretakers for the end of precarious lives.

Sean Vegezzi himself first approached the site and its dead through the stories of his brother, who served a work assignment on the island as a prisoner in the 2000s. In 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was rampant in New York, when so many people were dying that morgues were overcrowded, some bodies were brought to Hart Island. At the same time, reports were mounting that inmates in New York prisons were barely protected against Covid-19. Vegezzi, who like Poitras has been critical of U.S. security practices for years, assumed that despite the contagion risks, funerals continued to be held at Hart Island, by prison inmates whose health was exposed in the process. To prove this, Vegezzi tracked a transport of dead to Hart Island with a drone.4

Installation view Laura Poitras. Circles, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, 2021; Listen to the Hacks: Data Sonification, by Brian Eno, Forensic Architecture, 2021; Edgelands: Hart Island, by Sean Vegezzi, Laura Poitras, 2021 © Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) / Jens Ziehe

The resulting film shows this journey without comment and with few cuts. Only subtitles locate the action and name the particular process. The car first passes through a well-ordered residential neighborhood on the northern edge of the city. Then it enters a ferry. In the film’s final stop, on Hart Island, the drone hovers over a trench excavators have dug between leafless trees and weathered brick buildings. The camera’s movement mirrors the movements of a bucket loader rotating over the trench. Yet the burial is not done purely mechanically, but, quite as Poitras suspected, also by prisoners. At the sink stand people in white work overalls. They are taking care of what looks like elongated, neatly stacked wooden blocks from the distance, but probably are coffins. Probably, because the drone doesn’t get much closer to either the dead or the inmates burying them. The resolution of the flying camera determines how much closeness the public can gain to the deceased about whom they know nothing, or rather, about whom they can know nothing.

U.S. authorities have long kept the public at a distance from Hart Island. Possibilities of rapprochement have so far been created primarily by artists. Melinda Hunt, for example, has been running the Hart Island Project since 1994. The initiative maintains a digital platform in memory of the buried. For years, she has also been committed to facilitating opportunities for relatives to visit.5 Here, the deceased become mournable in retrospect through the intellectual and spatial proximity achieved through the project.

Poitras and Vegezzi approach Hart Island in a different way. For their drone is directed not only at the coffins of the dead, who cannot be mourned, but also at the gravediggers, whose lives are risked because they seem to the authorities not to be grievable either. In this way, the film reminds us that questions of grievability are not always asked too late and can at best be revisioned, but that these questions fold back into life. Now and in the future there are and will be existences that are considered negotiable, whose precariousness can thus be justified and exploited. Poitras and Vergezzi capture the connection between the precariousness of the living and the dead. The film hence documents the political nature of the opening questions. They not only force exhibition visitors to think, but also have had consequences for the New York authorities. The material was used by local media as evidence of violations of the rights of the inmates who had been contracted as gravediggers. The city had to resort to employing contract workers for the burials.6

Hart Island thus gained notoriety last year as a shocking example of a public regime of grief. This regime is more invisible at another well-known and reputable place of mourning, the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof, which is located right next to the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Numerous political, scientific and artistic figures are buried in the immediate neighborhood of the exhibition. By means of film, the show brings a mass grave close to this prestigious cemetery. It brings the deceased whose lives cannot be mourned together with the dead whose lives are remembered in countless biographies and obituaries, whose graves are even highlighted in Berlin travel guides.

Suddenly I ask myself what closeness I can have to people whose lives can be mourned, whose memory is as prominent as it is in Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof. I leave the exhibition and make my way to this different resting place. Here, no security apparatus holds me back; on the contrary, there are guided tours and information panels. This Berlin cemetery and the New York mass grave exist in the same world, they are connected. It is this connection that I am now literally pursuing by stepping through the exhibition doors and then the cemetery portal.

How can one create closeness to the deceased whom one has never met? Perhaps by describing the closeness and distance between them, the relationship between existences that seem to be universally grievable and the lives that are deprived of this possibility.  

Installation view Laura Poitras. Circles, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, 2021: Edgelands: Hart Island, by Sean Vegezzi, Laura Poitras, 2021 © Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) / Jens Ziehe

1 see Judith Butler, Precarious Life, London/New York 2004, p. 20.

2 see Judith Butler, Precarious Life, London/New York 2004, p. 31.

3 see Judith Butler, Precarious Life, London/New York 2004; Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, London/New York 2009; Judith Butler in conversation with Mikkel Krause Frantzen at the digital event The Culture of Grief – Philosophy, Ecology and Politics of Loss in the Twenty-first Century, hosted by Aalborg University, December 3, 2020, https://www.aau.dk/arrangementer/vis/the-culture-of-grief—-philosophy–ecology-and-politics-of-loss-in-the-twenty-first-century.cid455301.

4 see Sean Vegezzi in conversation with Theo Kindynis, Kaleidoscope, no date, https://www.kaleidoscope.media/article/sean-vegezzi.

5 see John Freeman Gil, “Hart Island’s Last Stand”, The New York Times, July 16, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/16/realestate/hart-island-planned-demolition.html.

6 see Sean Vegezzi in conversation with Theo Kindynis, Kaleidoscope, no date, https://www.kaleidoscope.media/article/sean-vegezzi.

Lena Schubert
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