Threading Precarious Kinship with Spectral Entities

10/18 - 5/19

Upon learning about Cecilia Vicuna’s exhibition in New Orleans at the Contemporary Arts Center in 2017, I immediately felt a deep connection with the artist/poet/activist. Being someone born and raised in New Orleans, who lived through Katrina, and now an artist focusing on the effects of global warming and human influence on the planet, I could not help but be deeply and effectively moved by Vicuna’s call to awareness and her outreach to my home community. While devouring her recent book About to Happen, I was consumed by her use of connecting poetic language to what seemed to me to be the magic of objects and how humans are called to have a more planet-centric perspective as opposed to an anthropocentric kind of one-lane thinking. Vicuna, I argue, builds and connects these intentional objects as a way of "making kin", expressing community, and building a form of family with non-human entities.

There is an immense amount of pain and confusion and utter breakage that I do not often include in my recalling of my Katrina experience and its aftereffects, and I believe it is because those memories are much more difficult to articulate, especially in passing conversations. However, in Vicuna’s retrospective and writings, it seems to me that she is able to bring a depth of beauty and spirituality to this critical discourse of environmental awareness and destruction. Vicuna’s visual and literal poetry strings together and highlights the precarity of objects--blurring binaries and elaborating a fragility of time, space, and instability of place--she is able to shift perspectives from anthropocentric thinking to a more inclusive questioning of the world and our social structures within it. Catherine de Zegher relates Vicuna's work to "matrixial" space, forcing an experience of limitless time and continuous space that actually breaks our spatial habits--requiring haptic perception over optical perception.

Vicuna’s site specific installation, Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood, in the New Orleans retrospective brings the fluidity of still objects into a visual poem. The installation is approximately 42 x 6 x 11 ft. including debris, bamboo, willows, twigs, fishing line, beads, rope, net, and feathers. The included objects were materials Vicuna found mostly from Louisiana’s coastline, waterways, and streets of New Orleans, but some were also brought from Chile and New York. Objects hung by fishing line stilly dangle above a ladder-like configuration of sticks and bamboo resonating as a raft from the title. Local fishing culture of southern Louisiana is an immediate connection for me, specifically because of the netting, rope, fishing line, and an inarticulable energy that brings the smell of shrimp to mind. However, focusing on color and the relationship between each object, the installation reminds me of a party, of debris dancing in the street, dancing in the air, dancing in the water--very New Orleans, even the debris secondlines. The hanging objects, connected to the ceiling in particular precariousness, activate the space with their own renewed energy, aiding the viewer in seeing them as new forms from different angles as to understand the world’s basuritas (little garbages, debris) in new light and also allow for more thoughtful dialogue towards the debris of the world. The precariousness of this installation and other works in this New orleans retrospective is best described by Lucy Lippard’s definition. Exploring Vicuna's use of language, Lippard is able to fluidly trace the power within it. Lippard, an expert on art as social practice, traces how Vicuna's voice and work evokes empathy without imitation. Through analyzing Vicuna's practice, Lippard links Louisiana's recent ecological issues and disasters, and how Vicuna not only allows space for them but opens the dialogue within and outside of the community of New Orleans. Lippard writes:

“Precariousness is increasingly a description of human life on the planet, and precariousness is Vicuna’s element. Her art balances on the littoral or liminal edge, where land and water meet--places like New Orleans, where the devastation by Hurricane Katrina and the BP Gulf oil spill, five years later, is ongoing...The rapidly eroding Louisiana coastline predicts the waters’ triumph over human engineering, suggesting another beginning, birthing a new species less arrogant than ours...or perhaps a recreation of ‘us’ so the cycle can begin again. Vicuna dedicates her new site-specific installation--A Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood, constructed of basuritas (detritus) from the coast--to the climate refugees in and on the Gulf, especially the indigenous communities.”

The dematerialization and ephemerality of these ambiguous objects found along the Louisiana coast and their assemblage suggest layers of meaning, highlighing the ish-ness, the blurry non-categorizable nature of reality. Her piece, A Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood, immediately references, for me, a kind of indescribable feeling, like being debris yourself, caught in a still moment of experiencing an incomprehensible chaotic energy. The “raft” is unstable, unsafe, unfloatable, while still being the viewer’s mental resting spot, the solid base to bring us passage into a different, more fluid realm. My imagination adds the brackish brown water from the floods in my memories to the scene, flowing over and around the objects, washing them while dirtying them—embodying and empowering contradiction. The double-spiral rope brought to life as a snake sprawled on the floor slithers under the framework of sticks and bamboo, an arrangement that suggests to me that there is actually no real escape—chaos is not only all around but within each object.

Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood is a visual poem, using line and form to make the familiar strange. Vicuna demands viewers to “listen with wisdom” and challenges the people who write about art representing it as a form of entertainment. The power of her work does not belong exclusively in a museum—it exists within relationships, within communication, within empathy and harnessing awareness of the essence in all objects. This practice with objects that Vicuna demonstrates speaks to kinship with the objects themselves, with the world they/we are apart of, and with the communities she involves and invites into her work. And no one speaks better on making kin than Donna Haraway in Staying With The Trouble, "I think that the stretch and recomposition of kin are allowed by the fact that all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense, and it is past time to practice better care of kinds-as-assemblages (not species one at a time). Kin is an assembling sort of word. All critters share a common “ esh,” laterally, semiotically, and genealogically. Ancestors turn out to be very interesting strangers; kin are unfamiliar (outside what we thought was family or gens), uncanny, haunting, active. " Vicuna's objects are "critters" to me; they dangle and jump and act, even in their stillness. Additionally, in the kinship found between Vicuna and her work, as well as in the kinship found between viewer and object, there is a specific haunting. They are spooky friends, visceral specters of spirit, consciousnesses in their witnessing and being, ready for a nonhuman conversation. In Timothy Morton's recently published Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, he focuses more on solidarity and kindness, which resonates so deeply with Vicuna's specter-critters. His use of the word kindness connects to Donna Haraway's kinship, recognizing the relations that exist and not focusing on how to exploit them for human gain but to see the shimmering of objects without mechanical input, allowing objects to haunt and play and be aware within themselves. Cecilia Vicuna writes on engaging in this kind of haunting conversation with the ocean:

“My art began on a given day in the year 1966, in January, when I felt that the ocean was alive and had as much awareness as I do now. I felt in complete awe and my life changed in that very moment, because I had this awareness —an awareness of its awareness. I felt that I needed to respond, to make a sign to indicate to the ocean that I understood…I stood [a stick] up, and once I stood it up, making it vertical, I knew that in that change—between horizontal and vertical—I had woven my place in the world.”

Vicuna’s emphasis on connection and relationships between objects (of all forms, including humans and nonhumans, such as the ocean) speaks with Timothy Morton’s direction of Object Oriented Ontology (OOO). Reading Morton’s Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality in relation to thinking about Vicuna’s arranged objects brought a new outlook on her work for me. The basuritas Vicuna arranged in her installation were not art objects on display to be bought or sold or boast any ego; they were there as tangible manifestations of awareness, touched and cared about for what they were and not what they could be or once were. Morton describes what I think of as the wonder and awe of objects, “We live in an infinite non-totalizable reality of unique objects, a reality that is infinitely rich and playful, enchanting, anarchic despite local pockets of hierarchy, infuriating, rippling with illusion and strangeness. In this reality, objects are perfectly straightforward, with no transcendental or hidden aspects. Yet precisely because of this very fact, objects are completely weird: they hide out in the open, under the spotlight. Their very appearance is kind of a miracle” (55).  

The installation Precarios (2017), also in the New Orleans retrospective, is made up of over 100 different objects all arranged intentionally, each with their own specific gesture or balance. The objects fill the space and are the space--their relationships between themselves complicate the viewers’ experiences. When a viewer gets involved by being a viewer, they become a part of the work through their relationship to the small scale objects disrupting and redefining the loaded space. Vicuna emphasizes, especially in relation to Precarios, that an object is more than just its aesthetic. An object is a witness to a relationship. Not only a viewer’s relationship to an object, but relationships between objects themselves. This links to Morton's writing, "The existence of an object is irreducibly a matter of coexistence. Objects contain other objects, and are contained ‘in’ other objects”(45). A group of objects can be an object, and an object can be a group of objects, but each is unique in their own essence and subscends its appearance. Morton continues, “If there is no top object [object from which all things can be produced] and no bottom object [object which all other objects can be reduced to], neither is there a middle object. That is, there is no such thing as a space, or time, ‘in’ which objects float. There is no environment distinct from objects. There is no Nature. There is no world, if by world we mean a kind of ‘rope’ that connects things together. All such connections must be emergent properties of objects themselves… Objects don’t sit in a spatiotemporal box. It's the other way around: space and time emanate from objects” (48). There is so much agency available in this realization, which I believe Vicuna articulates visually, naming the unnamable. She demands a deep dive exploration into the production of meaning, especially in language, but also in the endless recombination and possibility of physical elements, encapsulating plurality. Catherine de Zegher relates Vicuna's work to "matrixial" space, forcing an experience of limitless time and continuous space that actually breaks our spatial habits--requiring haptic perception over optical perception.

I believe a specific power Vicuna has wielded in her work is delivery. She does this in both language and with physical elements. Through her own calculated delivery, such as her intentionality in finding and arranging installations in order to give voice to a greater awareness, she gives the viewer the opportunity to experience the objects in their emergent properties of allure and connection. The objects themselves--debris, sticks, rope, plastic, feathers, beads, etc.--are able to challenge notions of consumption, capitalism, environmental degradation, and anthropocentric thinking because of her thoughtfulness in the delivery of presentation and not just for presentation's sake whatsoever. Vicuna brings Morton's words to a visual realm yet again in my opinion:

"The object-oriented that the voice [of] an object with its own richness and hidden depths, translates the words it speaks--a spooky evocation of the encrypted heart of objects not via revelation but via obscurity--as were summoning forth an obscure dimension of language."

By activating these obscure found objects through delivery, Vicuna calls for different styles of listening. How does one not only see a basurita, but listen to its voice? Vicuna's use of poetry, almost as a translator, helps to lead me in the right direction. In A Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood, I hear the arranged items and debris talking about the storms of climate change, the over-consumption of humans, the degradation and pollution of the natural landscape by humans, the power of locality and the connections of community; the basuritas, the haunting-critter-objects, have so much to say if I just take the time to listen.

However, I believe that the objects do have a specific intensity that resonate when they are installed local to where they were collected. For example, when A Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood was recently installed in the Berkeley Art Museum (BAMPFA), its power seemed changed, not lessened but certainly changed, since the work was taken farther away from its context. The communities of peoples who view the work in Berkeley most likely will not experience the work in the way that viewers from Louisiana would, but that is not to say that the work is more or less powerful. A Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood is as powerful as an individual viewer makes it to be. It may be easier for a resident of New Orleans to empathize and draw meaning from the debris Vicuna hangs in the piece, but anyone who listens to the work with wisdom can hear and feel its spirituous voice.

I believe Vicuna's tangible manifestations of awareness integrate the realms of language and debris in order to make space for more ambiguity and more critical questioning through doing and undoing. Her work A Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood is made up of found objects arranged together in a chaotic dance evoking fluid movement and contradiction. Vicuna's lyrical spoken and visual languages intertwine shining light on the perpetual invention and shifting of meaning in order to give rise to new awareness. She does so through her delivery in written and physical poems, which emphasize the spectral witnessing of relationships and plurality through objects.


Vicuna, Cecilia, et al. About to Happen. Contemporary Arts Center, 2017

Bryan-Wilson, Julia. "Awareness of Awareness: An Interview with Cecilia Vicuna." In About to Happen, by Cecilia Vicuna, 110-123. Contemporary Arts Center, 2017.

Andersson, Andrea. "Vicuna in Retrospect." In About to Happen, by Cecilia Vicuna, 124-129. Contemporary Arts Center, 2017

Lippard, Lucy. "Floating Between Past and Future: The Indigenization of Environmental Politics." In About to Happen, by Cecilia Vicuna, 130-137. Contemporary Arts Center, 2017.

Gomez-Barris, Macarena. "I Felt the Sea Sense Me: Ecologies and Dystopias in Cecilia Vicuna's Kon Kon." In About to Happen, by Cecilia Vicuna, 138-147. Contemporary Arts Center, 2017.

De Zegher, Catherine, “Ouvrage: Knot a Not, Notes as Knots”. Hemmings, Jessica, et al. The Textile Reader. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Morton, Timothy. Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. Verso, 2019.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.

Morton, Timothy. Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality. Open Humanities Press, 2013.