It is only fitting that I ended up here, stamping my feet on the uneven stoned streets and chanting poorly enunciated slogans in a language I do not speak, for a cause that I feel fanatically towards in some way. It is International Women’s Day (IWD) and I am on the streets of Lisboa, shoulder-to-shoulder with three women I have recently met and barely know. A further several thousand people are behind us with whom I would struggle to communicate beyond ‘how are you?’ and ‘I’m sorry’. But this is the beauty of days like IWD. No one needs to clarify the cause. There are entourages of drums and cowbells, whistles and rhythmic verses paired with dance moves that, at times, make the heaving mass feel more like a street party than a protest. It is exhilarating and the required antidote to being alone in a new city; a solidarity salve for those mid-30-something years when relationships with fellow women get complicated, split apart, or renew. So we stamp our feet and sing along, one of us occasionally wiping away a mute tear for reasons that none of us know but all of us share.
Three weeks and three days is the time it took for me to go from feeling like Sabina to Franz – Kundera’s parade-loving protagonist of the Great European Left. What would his anti-parade lover think of me now? I reach up attempting to capture the signs and spirit with my phone, uncertain what to do with myself and this overwhelming feeling. It is joy and it is agitation. Hyperactive adrenaline that feels partial to chaos and change.
Apartments of weary wrought-iron dressing and powdery paints line the cavernous artery of Largo Calhariz and the jostling members of the march can’t help but lift their phones to the balconies. Grandmothers and tourists come out and watch us. Some of them wave and some take their own photos and video. Holiday-makers that pass us on trams elbow each other out of the way to capture their Instagram moment, a reminder that this scene we create is also a spectacle. We become a known visual reference point of Protest: rebellion, spirit, youthfulness, Europe. Viewing this intersubjectively I become temporarily displaced between their lenses and the rhythm on the street, uncertain of whether I am party to the entirety of this performance and the multiplicity of meaning that may be extracted from it.
Do you want a flag?
Her eyes are dusted in purple glitter and a female symbol is painted on each cheek. The purple cravat beneath her chin matches the tone and hue of the symbols, as does the flag she is eyeing in the hands of a man nearby. I suspect the flag is affiliated with a union movement and tell her so – I am used to this from protests in Australia. She goes over to the crowd and talks to the man, coming back with two purple flags that have the female symbol printed upon them in a light stencil, and in a lighter shade still there is the faint outline of a stick-figure shaped into a star.
It’s Liberal. She says it easily and with certainty as she hands me the flag, but I don’t want to take it. What do you mean Liberal?
It’s Left Block.
I ease her hand of the flag but I keep it low.
I don’t want to carry anything political. She looks uncertainly at the tousling fabric between us. No judgment though! I laugh to reassure her. I can see the doubt is growing as she thinks this over. It’s just a personal thing. Protests in Australia always get coopted by the Socialist Alternative or someone and I mean no harm but I don’t want to be part of any political messaging.
But it’s Left Block. And I know I’m Left Block.
She says this to me, but seemingly also to herself. She is from the States and she knows what Left means to her there. But I have been travelling for 12 months and realising that things don’t always mean what I think they mean, I end up returning the flag to the man. I don’t know what the Liberal Party stands for in Lisbon. And it could stand for something great or it could not. Whatever it is, I know that this is not something I wish to identify with my body today, walking down this street and ‘disturbing’ the peace. I tell her this as kindly as I can, and urge her not to be influenced by my choice but to make her own. A few minutes later, she turns to the other women we are with. Does anyone want this flag?
At this point I must abandon any conjecture regarding what came before. Because it is now unimaginable that anyone would go to such a march. In fact, it is difficult to commit to a gathering of more than two, let alone decide the appropriate mode of transport to get there. Portugal has declared a state of emergency and a #staythefuckathome policy. My ruminations about political parties, imaginary ideologies, performative revolutions and the self-policing nature of politico-religious dogma must be temporarily paused (or deeply compartmentalised) so I can manage the gutteral limbo-dance between panic and practicality because, as the saying goes: you can’t dance at two weddings. I become inadvertently plugged into a dripfeed of news about Covid-19: mainly because I have to write a report about it for work, but also because I have to interrupt writing said report to go to the supermarket for quarantine supplies. We meet each other there to help ease the existential overwhelm of WTF we are actually doing, stocking up for a threat we don’t really understand but have been told ‘is coming’, tempering each other’s teetering on the precipice of the panic-buy.
It occurs to us all in the fleeting in-betweens that the opacity of the threat is, possibly, beneficial to us on some sub-consciously formative level. The hyperobject that is Covid-19, a milky mirror upon which we are left alone with our mortal truths, primal instincts and conditioned minds. I clean blindly, fill shelves, take vitamins, do yoga, and attempt to ease back into the safe banality of routine, except it is now fraught with a pizzicato hovering; every action unfolding against the backdrop of an embodied expectation of chaos and sudden change. In some ways, it resembles the feeling from the march on the street. The adrenaline of a shaken can ready to burst licking quietly at our heels and minds. The key difference being that this time we are not to tempt the ex/implosion. Our energies are required not for bloody revolution (or a street party), but for the careful and invisible intricacies of immune systems doing their job. And, equally, of silence and deep solitude.
In between our conversation we hear clapping outside of the window. Later we will discover that it was Lisboa’s Italy moment. But we don’t stop to query it because we are deep in a game of Never Have I Ever. It is M’s birthday and without our anticipation also the last night of in-person socialising we can all foresee in the near future. The lines have begun outside the supermarkets. The urgent sell-downs, tables full of discounted cheese attracting masked and furrowed faces. Only the ‘odd’ vegetables – parsnip, radish, choko – are left dehydrating at the bottom of the plastic trays. An older woman eyes me as we line up for the ATM. I give her wide berth and wonder if the gesture is respectful or a reminder of my mortal threatening.
Tonight is our night. This house is Corona Virus-free
Nobody knows right? So if we are imagining fictions out there, why can’t we do the same in here?
Panic is seductive. Like ‘Tomorrow, When the War Began’ or Independence Day. Like a near-death experience. Like fucking. Or revolution. The actualisation of these scenarios has a neo-mythological licence for melting down and freaking out. The procession of the journey has been dictated, imprinted in utopian and dystopian fiction, intravenously saturated through Hollywood, and adapted to our sub-conscious and hallucinogenic visions. It goes something like: freak out/meltdown – near-total apocalypse – deep profound insight – miraculous recovery – happily ever after/return to ‘normalcy’. Right?
We will never be the same after this.
That’s what they said about the Holocaust.
J is holding an image before me. In the image, a large photograph of the Saint Charbel is affixed to a stone wall. A grassy rectangle before it is missing clumps of grass. It has been consumed by devotees convinced – thanks to a woman’s vision and a priest’s affirmation – that the soil will cure the virus. The purposeful incursions burrow an architecture revealing and definite: large mouthfuls, not small.
Sometimes you have to laugh because otherwise you’d cry.
I am out of coffee. The two bags I bought are beans, not ground, and I can’t use them. I panic-buy three more bags and put the macchinetto on the stove. The internet tells me that Portugal is closing borders. I try to keep the tension out of my voice when I talk to him. Just last night in a dream, I hovered before his face like a weightless ghost and held his head to my crest-bone. I imagine customs denying him, swathes of masked nomads cordoned in the clinical interior of the building. As a child, I told my dad that at the airport I felt like a cow, stranded idly in a tight pen.
Portugal will announce border closures on Wednesday. But he only lands on Thursday.
The gaping hole of it beckons me. Months of absence yet to come stretch long and compress in time and space, meeting me right up here where the air comes out through my nostrils. That’s where I can feel this heart beating. But if we can imagine fictions out there, then why not in here? The voices emerge a struggle on the line as wifi weakens and the reality of forced solitude materialises quietly. Dust in the corners. Hair in the drains. Something gets through though; our tones relate the impasse and we dwell in the silent communication of reality. A few lines later plans are changed once more: arrival time noon on Wednesday. I imagine the parliamentarians shuffling their papers before the Prime Minister enters and steadies himself before the mic. Simultaneously, this other he will weave his way through the cattle cords of customs, dewy from the transportive terrain.
We conceive realities and rest in them. The coffee burns on the stove and I pour it down the sink.
‘COVID-19: Evacuation of squalid Greek camps more urgent than ever in light of coronavirus pandemic’
Someone sets fire to refugee supplies in retribution for them existing at all.
I want to really drive something home here. It’s not that collapse “is happening”. What you call poverty, is collapse. Right? All those homeless people? That’s collapse. All those people dying without health insurance. That’s collapse. All those people who are addicted to opioids because their doctors will write them a prescription and their health isnurance will provide them a drug that will kill them. That is collapse. The thing about collapse is that it’s not until it happens to you or your immediate family or your closest friends that you recognise it as collapse. Up until then, it’s just economics. Right? The collapse is already here. It’s just not equally distributed. And that’s not something that came into existence accidentally. ’– Vinay Gupta talking to Daniel Thorson, Emerge podcast
I listen again to Gupta, and recall Eisenstein and Schmachtenberger, who draw on others – Bucky Fuller and Foucalt, and Jung. There is so much information we already have. Disembodied and distracted, it has not been reconciled. Collective actions interrupted, hijacked like comments in a Facebook post. Actualising political motivations and manipulations, each want to tell the story of their respective fiction. The story in which they are inadvertently the Hero.
On the one hand, the potentiality for change is palpable. The churn of utter bullshit that we have lived within has curdled and ripened to be torn from the brim. But do we know what to do with the madness that is underneath? Or will we, lilted by the swan song of chaotic optimism, perform a revolution with the same props that broke our backs in the first place? A theatrical ode to all the things we were told freedom looked and tasted like; an opportunity to make everyone believe the same things as us, use the same words as us, and chant our slogans in the street.
I want to awaken from this captive sedation. To co-actualise new realities. But I don’t want to sub-divide myself into another spectrum; to hold another flag. I want to live in a way where we don’t need them for our freedom, or our society, to mean something. What world narrative can deliver us there? A narrative not dictating every private thought or preference, but one that lets us walk in the street as we are, to drink water, to eat food, to read and write and draw, and to shelter and love.
Therein lies the quest of our apocalypse dress rehearsal; a Covidian* hyperspace we are given to divine from; a milky mirror balancing on a gravestone; an intersection of multiple realities. In Here, in existential freefall, we peek with unencumbered and challenging clarity to behold the task before us. An indefinite series of discontinuous acts through which we unplug from the Matrix in a seemingly impossible reckoning.
The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground. – Chogyam Trungpa
I try and make coffee but I need to dance. And so I dance.
J: It’s something I could never understand about our culture. We have bombs going over our heads one day and then we are partying the next day.
N: Do you understand it now?
J: I think so.
If you are interested in following my daily digressions during this time, please follow @discontinuousacts on Instagram. Please note that this account will explore themes of ranging intensity regarding mortality and mind your digital health in following or unfollowing. This project relates to a larger project entitled ‘An Indefinite Series of Discontinuous Acts’, occurring in residency with the Hangar Centre for Artistic Research, Lisbon in 2020.
* ‘an indefinite series of discontinuous acts’…
The meaning of the gesture is not contained in it like some physical or physiological phenomenon. The meaning of the word is not contained in the word as a sound. But the human body is defined in terms of its property of appropriating, in an indefinite series of discontinuous acts, significant cores which transcend and transfigure its natural powers. This act of transcendence is first encountered in the acquisition of a pattern of behaviour, then in the mute communication of gesture: it is through the same power that the body opens itself to some new kind of conduct and makes it understood to external witnesses. Here and there a system of definite powers is suddenly decentralized, broken up and reorganized under a fresh law unknown to the subject or to the external witness, and one which reveals itself to them at the very moment at which the process occurs.
–Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 1945
*Covidian: of the collective, metaphysical heterotopic existence actualised by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place I occupy at the moment when I look myself in the glass at once absolutely real conencted with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point over there.
– Michel Foucalt, ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopia and Heterotopias’, 1967