May 31, 2018

Genre Wormhole #2: the goddess of no no no y no no no no y no no no no...

Content warning: This piece discusses rape, abortion, USAmerican imperial cruelty, childhood deprivation, poverty, and loss.

I’m here to talk about the artwork and writing of Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta, which is not easy to separate from their life. When I got to their place for a studio visit I was hungry and a little ashamed that I hadn’t taken care of my needs. They gave me lentil salad and snacks. Their archive was overflowing on the bed; we spent an afternoon there, rifling through boxes and photographs, talking about personal history and politics, gossiping, laughing, and getting melancholy.

Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta curating space, with visitor and archive.

Luboviski-Acosta showed me work in a wide range of media and materials, interspersed with family photographs, personal mementos, and sacred objects. They talked about their obsession with artwork as future trash: Who will collect this material in times to come, care for it, “hold it and hold onto it”? With these concerns in mind, Luboviski-Acosta began making artwork out of present, “literal trash,” bits not only of objects but also of times or experiences important to them that had fallen into fragments. They joked that their scavenged, collage aesthetic resulted in artwork that looks as though it were “made by crows”; I thought about the questions their work raised around care, how to value what is damaged or hold onto what is either fleeting or already lost.

A portable micro-ark made after Luboviski-Acosta’s grandmother’s death, containing, they said, “our mingled hair, shells from the Russian River, a piece of her jewelry, and a piece of bark from Gualala.”

From a collage series, fragments of experience: each painting brought together an experience Luboviski-Acosta had had, an element of a self-portrait, and flowers.

From a woven photographs series, in which Luboviski-Acosta loomed together images taken from slightly different perspectives or different times.

A week before my studio visit, I’d received an email from Luboviski-Acosta asking for supplies for members of a Central American refugee caravan hoping for asylum in the United States, which they were planning to drive down and distribute with their mother, sister, and niece.

Requesting supplies.

While I looked through Luboviski-Acosta’s art (striking both in its variety and in the aesthetic that unifies it, its meticulous care for finding and assembling what’s been damaged or discarded) visitors were delivering supplies. I’m writing these essays about the way artists interact with form and how such interactions build social and political practice. As supplies came in I began to think about care-work, reproductive labor, the way the rhythms of this work scaffold so many of our lives, and how Luboviski-Acosta is transforming these rhythms.

I had planned to look at Luboviski-Acosta’s work while considering the genre of war reportage and the narratives of revolutionary women. Thinking about reproductive labor, however, I’ve become interested in a gesture of the artist’s that I find even more radical as well as formally powerful: the way they include direct revolutionary action, up to and including revolutionary violence, as part of a continuum of care, and their use of this redefinition of care-work to rethink gendered paradigms.

Collage by Luboviski-Acosta used in their book The Easy Body.

In Caroline Levine’s book Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, she discusses the idea of a whole as her first example of a form: “Totality. Unity. Containment. Wholeness. For many critics, these words are synonymous with form itself” (24). Levine also offers a history of the whole as concept in critical schemas from New Criticism to New Historicism to deconstruction, and describes how bounded wholes in artwork have earned a reputation with literary and art critics as inherently oppressive.

Considering that a whole, if it is to be bounded, must exclude something or someone, this oppressive reputation is not unearned in the political realm: toxic immigration discourse, not to mention cruel border policies and borders themselves, all draw on the harmful and historically suspect rhetoric of a whole, healthy, bounded community that must exclude and expel undesirable “invaders.” 

However, Levine also proposes interesting ways to think about the possibilities that formal wholes might allow. Dismissing wholes altogether means dismissing powerful ways of organizing. Bounded groups form not just around fixed loci of identity, but also around the permeable solidarities of shared struggle; what Wendy Trevino usefully articulates (after Tiqqun) as “The We of a Position.”

One vision or version of a whole can also challenge another. The history of cloistered nuns is one of Levine’s specific examples as to how bounded wholes can be altered by interpretation for different political ends. The Catholic Church’s decree of strict enclosure reduced women’s freedom. Yet the church also associated cloistered status with holiness and purity: “To be precise, the boundaries of the convent afforded both imprisonment and centrality” (37). Nuns turned the rhetoric of the church against itself, arguing that their cloistered position made them more pure and thus more deserving of authority than were priests.

Saint-Guilhem Cloister, late 12th–early 13th century, Met Creative Commons public domain image. “In the wake of the French Revolution, many elements of the cloister were acquired by local citizens.”

Caroline Levine describes her goal as to “think about how one might put bounded wholes to work for strategic ends,” and I found this framing a useful way to think about Luboviski-Acosta’s work. The idea of “woman” can itself be thought of as a bounded form, a kind of mythic wholeness that essentializes and naturalizes women as healers and caretakers, weighing on those who have to wear that mask.

Luboviski-Acosta describes their own identity position as “a hard them who bleeds in a cyclical manner, with a strident philosophy that not all mothers give birth and not all people who give birth are mothers.” Their artwork pulls from historical and spiritual tropes of maternity and femininity but in complex, powerful, and unsettling ways, using these schemas at cross-purposes to transform the idea of womanhood, the idea of care, and the idea of wholeness. 

Two Pregnant Selenas.

There is a sense of sacred violence and sacred nurture in Luboviski-Acosta’s work, inflected through a vernacular Catholic spirituality of prayer cards and Madonnas, but powerfully anti-patriarchal and anti-capitalist. Luboviski-Acosta uses imagery and rhetoric associated with the maternal, peaceful madonna, but Luboviski-Acosta’s Madonna is angry, and is not complete without her revolutionary anger: “I was handed a child to nurse, / I was handed a gun, // I got on my belly” (The Easy Body, 82).

A red madonna. Luboviski-Acosta: “I made this out of three things I found beautiful and wanted to have around me.”

Luboviski-Acosta articulated this figure through their own experience of the state and interpersonal violence inherent within our current system of childbearing and child-raising, in which, as they told me, “It’s really fucking hard to be a poor person of color and raise a healthy child.” Luboviski-Acosta’s mother almost died giving birth to them and their memories of childhood involve periods of hunger and neglect, a result of the limited options available to their mother and grandmother.

“The house I was brought home to”: Luboviski-Acosta as psycho-geographer of their childhood.

When Luboviski-Acosta themself became pregnant after having been raped, they found out about the pregnancy because of an appointment they’d scheduled to have unusual freckles on their vulva and perineum checked. After their initial intake, the clinic staff came back saying “I’m sorry, we don’t see pregnant women here.” Luboviski-Acosta was suddenly in the position of making unexpected life decisions while putting their other health needs aside. While Luboviski-Acosta is a supporter of abortion and has worked an an abortion doula, they described their anger at discovering that getting an subsidized abortion through emergency Medicaid was substantially easier than getting food aid as a person who was pregnant. 

Workbook Luboviski-Acosta was given after having an abortion.

Workbook with one of Luboviski-Acosta’s collages.

Luboviski-Acosta’s workbook responses.

They spent the twenty weeks of their pregnancy hungry, poor, compulsively making art, and researching radical motherhood. Luboviski-Acosta told me, “I didn’t want to feel alone and didn’t know what to do. I’m a compulsive researcher so I threw myself into reproductive justice work. We live in a type of binary in which the right to choose abortion or the so-called ‘right to life’ are fought for, but not the right to be a parent: to allow your children to live, thrive, be able to get education.”

Luboviski-Acosta had felt terribly ill throughout pregnancy. When they ultimately decided they did not have enough support to complete the pregnancy, they expected the sickness to end after their abortion. Continuing to feel sick, they went back for a checkup and found that the unusual “freckle” they had been concerned about was the outward sign of an tumor that would have made it impossible to carry the pregnancy to term in any case. They had been forced into a false choice and the tumor, allowed to grow unchecked, had compromised their heath.

“I’m obsessed with maintaining physical memory. This is blood from the birth canal after my abortion, on embroidery thread.”

I want to pause here for a note on why I’ve included Luboviski-Acosta’s personal history here (with their permission). They told me that the pregnancy made them confront what they saw as their own internalized misogyny and racism, seeing themself suddenly as “another working poor Latina woman who was going to have a child by herself and be dependent on the state.” I fear invoking this stigmatized figure in the reader’s mind, whether as a figure of pathos or of scorn. However, I also want to think about my own readerly expectations of Luboviski-Acosta around their handling of personal, confessional, “difficult” material, and how the subversion of such expectations is an important piece of their work.

When Luboviski-Acosta discussed their rape, pregnancy, and health issues with me, I kept wanting to retreat or offer them an out from the conversation, worrying that it was triggering for them. Gradually, however, I realized that their ability to speak of this history matter-of-factly, without reducing its importance, was part of what gave their work its power. Luboviski-Acosta’s ability to be present with the prosaic nature of their own damage along with its emotional heat is a key building block of their art, which makes no distinctions between confessional and collective.

There is a lot to be troubled by in the ways in which comfortable audiences expect traumatized (racialized, feminized) people to play the martyr, but Luboviski-Acosta’s play with having-been or having-been-seen-as the martyr undercuts and transforms these expectations.

Luboviski-Acosta with painting made of their own blood, in progress. Who are you calling confessional? 😉

The work’s flat affect around its own abjection demonstrates how Luboviski-Acosta’s experience is a normal one, even a definitional one, under capitalism. Luboviski-Acosta mentioned that when they went into cancer treatment “I didn’t tell anybody that this was happening to me because I was so tired of being this person things were happening to.” 

Never have I ever / possessed the pleasures / of having the easy body, Luboviski-Acosta’s eponymous book says. Not having the easy body is the structural condition of living as a person things keep happening to — because you are poor and/or brown and/or have a child and/or are mentally ill and/or queer — while having to also hold the shame of being viewed as a body at fault, responsible for its own failures.

The Easy Body cover, based on Luboviski-Acosta’s collages.

Working on the design of The Easy Body.

Luboviski-Acosta’s work insists on radical transparency to think through history post-trauma and to transform concepts such as shame and evil that attach themselves to imperfect maternal bodies. I want to include Luboviski’s personal history to honor what they chose to share with me, and as a gesture to what I see as their collectivizing impulse of placing their experience in a lineage of difficult bodies: “Women rubbing charcoal of burned buildings onto their eyebrows, putting each other’s blood on their lips, cheeks, and eyelids. […] Women being bad victims” (The Easy Body, 54).

Luboviski-Acosta’s search for holistic, radical reproductive justice work led them to the Nicaraguan revolution and to coalitions of mothers in Nicaragua and nurses in El Salvador as “historical instances of women saying enough.” The resistance traditions of revolutionary women in Latin America that Luboviski-Acosta draws on are a powerful example of groups using forms to subvert forms: how, historically, women have transformed the roles that have been used by patriarchy to circumvent their sphere of action.

A source text for The Easy Body.

Revolutionary motherhood.

If women are traditionally viewed as private mothers and caregivers, these rhetorics can be used to deny them public voice and efficacy. But when the state is figured as harming a mother’s children, or when the “mother” is re-imagined as caring for larger groups (such as the dispossessed), women can re-imagine familiar roles (or “bounded wholes”) to gain moral authority for revolutionary or anti-state action. This is a way that revolutionary women in Latin America gained mobility against contexts of constraint such as the traditional family or re-imagined roles for themselves that have been imagined, then suppressed, then re-imagined in waves through historical time.

After their own horrifying experience with the health care system, Luboviski-Acosta decided to work in the field of reproductive justice, and worked as a birth and an abortion doula. While the work was satisfying in many ways, Luboviski-Acosta felt that there wasn’t room in the field for the full spectrum of their emotion: “Sometimes I feel disconnected from other birth workers because I’m a lot more angry.”

The rainbows are frayed.

In individual birth work, Luboviski-Acosta found it important to reduce each person’s stress, give them a connection, and stay humble in the face of others’ experience: “I had a reticence toward being didactic when I haven’t carried a child to term.” 

However, they also struggled with their knowledge that the capitalist system, the state, makes it a struggle for parents of color to keep children and raise children. The overthrow of this system would be the precondition for any larger act of nurturing, but the knowledge parents would need to act collectively is suppressed. Luboviski-Acosta quipped about the alternative lore offered to expecting parents: “Everyone knows they are going to shit themselves [giving birth], but they don’t know that the whole system is against them.” 

To create an “angry” birth work, Luboviski-Acosta turned to writing and art, where they could convey care in a way that did not accommodate to injustice. In their vision, gestational capacity becomes metaphorically linked to revolution in the sense of natality: imagining and shifting into the new, or, as Anne Boyer writes in My Common Heart, “How revolution is like a newborn child laughing in dream life / How before it has laughed it has dreamed of laughing.” 

Luboviski-Acosta’s work’s kinship to myth is as a place (like art itself) where dilemmas and dramas can be acted out in the symbolic register and connected to larger political and cultural themes… Central American history and culture; or the B-movie, Orphic revels of the “…bad girls. Who escaped the institution, / feasting on placenta / and / nursing their illicit shame” (The Easy Body, 56).

Luboviski-Acosta’s collage technique relates to their attempts to understand: to take the impossible (the contradictions of family history, personal trauma, the horrors of war and of gendered violence) and to bring it, if not within comprehension, within a field of vision, where it can be seen and handled. In its mythic registers, in its sense of the work of art as an experimental field, Luboviski-Acosta’s work feels both small and vast. It is drawn to the creation of worlds, to miniature forms such as the portable ark pictured earlier, or the film in a box below. 

This is a film about: women during wartime.

Film components.

My body gradually faded.

There is a horrific scene in The Easy Body that coalesces many of the themes I’ve discussed:

I am a child of the death of the revolution. Weapons

are now covered in cement.
I am not a mother

who stood up in tenderness & heroism,
caressing the delicate skin of my children with one hand,

& the other hand ready on my gun.

I am a mother

who saw a rocket hit my daughter’s shoulder,
who saw her heart and intestines, and
saw her in pieces,


I am a woman

who tried to put her daughter back together again,
who tried to put her little arm back in place,

and hold everything inside of her.

A woman

who let capitalism tell her that

she couldn’t protect her child, to not even bother trying — (25)

In this blazing moment of Luboviski-Acosta’s despair, the mother who can protect her child is idealized as the mother of wholeness, caressing the child and the gun. But this idealization is in service of a powerful alchemy: by bringing the capacity for violence into the saintly mother figure, Luboviski-Acosta transforms it. To be active in revolution, to have a gun in your hands is to cradle your child. The saintly maternal figure is traditionally passive, but Luboviski-Acosta shows that such passivity means acquiescence to capitalism’s creed. To be passive in this world is to accept its judgement that those who are not wealthy, those with brown skin, are unworthy of bringing up their children, and any violence perpetrated against their children is the parents’ own fault.

Installation by Luboviski-Acosta. A body disassembled.

Trying to think about authoritarianism and fascism in the current moment, I’ve been re-reading the crucial book Male Fantasies by Klaus Theweleit. Male Fantasies describes the rise of fascism through close psychoanalytic reading of writings from members of the Freikorps, the reactionary post-World War I German militias that came to form the backbone of the Nazi militia the SA and the early Nazi state. Theweleit zeroes in on the misogyny of Freikorps writings: women in these paramilitaries’ letters, diaries, and novels are either idealized and de-sexualized as “White” nurse or angel figures, or demonized as “Red” devourers (the seductive Jewess, the Communist whore).

Theweleit’s key insights relate to how this aggression that underlies fascism — the fear of sexuality and its transfiguration into a death-driven violence — are the normative contradictions of patriarchy, still visible in the incel movement, whose extremity can hide the fact that the misogynist thought-patterns it draws on are unremarkable and widespread. The Madonna/whore binary is one of these patterns, in which a woman with agency or sexuality is seen as destructive, damaged, or both: as incapable of offering selfless love and care. In the White/Red binary set out in Male Fantasies, the whore, the active woman, is the “Red Woman”, both dangerous and disgusting, whose defilement and destruction bonds the male group together.

Patriarchy would have the person who gives care be “perfect” in the sense of unruffled, impermeable, and wholly subsumed (and thus unthreatening to) the agenda of the person they care for. These cultural schemas still animate the demands for seamless perfection placed on women and femme persons: the “mommy guilt” of not wholly setting one’s desires aside for one’s child; the unique abjection that’s the fate of the woman who makes mistakes in the workplace. There’s a particular humiliation and contagion associated with female failure, a sense that a woman is at heart something whose inadequacy, once unleashed, cannot be contained, but will endanger those she is responsible for (children) or subservient to (men).

I lay out this framework from Male Fantasies both because I think it’s (sadly) useful for the current moment and because it clarifies for me the radicalism of Luboviski-Acosta’s work. As someone who is open about their experience with mental illness and about their own needs for care, Luboviski-Acosta presents figures in their work who are inherently damaged and imperfect.

Luboviski-Acosta’s “Hannah Wilke box.” From The Easy Body, 31: “In my coat pocket, I’d found some wax in different colors, that was malleable and I made shapes for the children who, like me, it seemed, either had hyphenated names, or no father, or their mother had probably been asked if she was their nanny while carrying them, or she had to work two jobs and left them with relatives who also had to work two jobs and left them with other relatives who either ignored them or beat them or raped them, in some cases it was all of these things.”

In Male Fantasies, the Red Women whom the Freikorps members fantasize about killing (and in many cases, actually did murder) are Red because of their politics: They are the German Communists the far-right Freikorps were battling and hunting down. Still driven by binaries of degradation and idealization, our culture is haunted by the Red Woman’s descendent, the ravening feminist harridan who always, ironically, seems to be on a “witch hunt” for innocent men and terrifies men by emptying femininity of its softness, its love and care.

By refusing binaries of degradation and idealization, The Easy Body offers a way out of this false dichotomy that centuries of misogynist fantasy have set up between revolutionary agency and maternal care. Luboviski-Acosta’s work offers an absolutely essential revaluation of the archetype of the Red Woman. In The Easy Body the Red Women, bad girls, freedom fighters, those of la mala vida, become figures that can integrate their own damage, forcefully resist capitalism and patriarchy, and yet still remain figures of care. Its characters breathe in harm and breathe out violence, and yet they are neither abject nor cruel. They are destroyed and powerful; violent and loving: “Our milk became fire” (The Easy Body, p. 45)

I will be eternally grateful to Luboviski-Acosta for their creation of a counter-myth that refuses binaries. The cosmos they depict in The Easy Body is blasted, destroyed, even apocalyptic. Yet its beauty is that it is overseen by “The goddess of precious things, the goddess of destroying / the hearth, the goddess that hunts rapist uncles. […] the goddess of no no no y no no no no y no no no no…” (27). This is the No that has to be said if we are ever going to imagine a real yes. The No that will nourish the collectivity of mothers.

I see my aunt throw the tear gas back.

We’ve collectively birthed a riot. (The Easy Body, 97).


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