COVID-19 Movement V: Grave
By Patricia R. Zimmermann
Originally written for the April 2020 issue of the -empyre- soft-skinned space listserv, titled “Interfacing COVID 19: the technologies of contagion, risk, and contamination” (moderated by Renate Ferro, Junting Huang, and Tim Murray). -empyre- soft-skinned space is a global community of artists, curators, and theorists, who participate in monthly thematic discussions via an e-mail listserv. This piece was published on May 1, 2020, and is the last of Zimmermann’s five COVID in FIVE MOVEMENTS postings.
April 30, 2020. Today. April 30, 1975: the end of the war in Vietnam, or, as the Vietnamese called it, the American War, or the war of US imperialism.
45 years later, on this same day, 63,733 Americans have died from COVID, more than the 58,000 who died in Vietnam. 233,000 dead around the globe. In the State of New York, where I reside, as do media and digital culture friends Stewart Auyash, Renate Ferro, Kathy High, Tim Murray, Stephanie Rothenberg, Paul Vanouse, all posting on the Empyre listserv. 18,321 dead.
My close friend from graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, David Ost, a political scientist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, posted the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War/American War on Facebook. He argued that the war, which killed between one to two million Vietnamese, had the effect of “making the American government one of the worse mass murderers of the 20th century.”
All these deaths, in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and then, in all the wars and epidemics following, from El Salvador, Rwanda, AIDS, H1N1, Avian Flu, SARS, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Argentina, forced migrations across the globe, surge through the neoliberal and the technocapitalist phantasms.
And now, the COVID deaths: stories of people dying, alone. As bioartist and friend Kathy High has stated so eloquently, and as I paraphrase and pirate, when we will be living with the virus?
What cracks and fissures will be exposed? To paraphrase Eduardo Galeano’s magnificent, field/political redefining 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, what are the open veins of coronavirus?
Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op 13″, also known as ” Sonata Pathétique,” from 1799, opens with a first movement in Grave (GRAH-vee).
Grave holds the place of the slowest tempo in music: slower than adagio, heavy, solemn. The tempo for our souls enduring a public health crisis of proportions we can not yet comprehend or navigate.
C minor is a key I love, but can not articulate why. It is tragic, emotive, stormy, unsettling, a key of tension and resolution, but also of struggle. C minor unsettles and opens up feelings and ideas hidden by the major keys. COVID, at least my experience of it both in my psyche and on the screens and machines and fears that define my life right now, performs in C minor.
And also, COVID-19 pounds in the tempo of grave, in both the musical and the literal senses of the term as grave, as well as the physical meaning of the term as a place to bury the dead. Grave. Graves.
If COVID breaks open the hidden veins of the pre-COVID world we all fought against in our art making, our teaching, our writing, then we might begin to play in the key of C minor.
We might have a chance to rest, recalibrate, reengineer, reimagine EVERYTHING: air, buildings, capitalism, classes, collectivities, death, disease, doing, economies, education, environments, feelings, food, genders, government, ideas, humans identities, land, loving, nations, nonhumans, private, public, races, speaking, technologies, theories, thinking, writing, and PUBLIC HEALTH.
COVID has not just wrecked our psyches, our economies, our bodies, our health.
It has also unsettled, like the key of C minor, our art making, our disciplines, our research, our theories. All are rocked and wrecked and shredded, like dissonant chords in the Sonata’s first movement, separated by rests, syncopated, moving toward resolution but not yet finding it.
My good friend and research assistant Julia Tulke, now sheltering in place in Athens, Greece, Zoomed with me. She had gone to there to conduct her dissertation research on urban ruins, comparing Detroit and Athens. She does ethnography, walking the streets, talking to people. COVID upended and gutted her research. She can’t talk to people. Getting out into the streets is difficult. She now photographs COVID graffiti street art.
She is unclear what to do about her dissertation about two cities, both dealing with the ravages of COVID now. Her research plans are blown apart.
She talked to me about something deeply bothering her: the emergence of the COVID culture industry, with book proposals and CFPs and manifestos erupting from various prominent and emerging scholars weighing in on the virus, the pandemic, and every note of the current crisis. COVID careerism? A different yet insidious virus?
Julia pondered the ethics of this emerging trend: this idea that one can just take what you know, the theories you have swum around in for decades, and just slap them on this catastrophe.
She said, “we do not yet know what we think about things. Everything we thought needs rethinking.”
And then we both talked about how everything is unresolved and that is the only thing we know. None of us are ready.
We all need time to marinate, to learn these new dissonances, movements, notes, scores, tempos, tensions, and resolutions of COVID. It looms as a new sonata we have not yet learned how to play because the key is difficult, the tempos changing, the chords complex.
My partner Stewart, who posted in mid-April in the Empyre forum, is a professor of public health at Ithaca College. With our son, we lived through SARS while teaching at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore in 2003.
Books on pandemics and health disasters from heat waves to AIDS to the drug wars to genocide to food insecurities cascade through his home study like myrtle groundcover. He receives many calls from various agitated friends and anxious relatives asking him what he thinks about the virus, when it will be over.
He will probably not like that I am quoting him, but this is one I wrote down overhearing him on a Zoom meeting when I was steeping my Irish Breakfast tea to fortify me for grading papers for my remote instruction theory classes and programming our Rapid Response Salons on COVID-19 for the Ithaca College Honors Program.
Answering someone repeatedly asking what will happen, he calmly (due to his emergency medical technician training in another life in another state before he was a professor) explained: WHAT WE KNOW IS THAT WE DO NOT KNOW.
The “Sonata in C minor” goes places we do not know.
I have played, or more accurately, struggled with this piece for over a decade.
I started to learn the sonata when I was recovering from surgery after a trap door fell from a ceiling and smashed my nose and part of my face fifteen years ago. The reconstructive surgery happened a few years after the accident. Bandaged, bruised, and recovering, I could not read books because I could not wear my glasses. So I listened to opera, and played piano.
The piece I sunk into was the Beethoven “Sonata in C minor.” Somehow, the unsettling chords, the grave, adagio cantabile, the rondo movements, the C minor key gave shape to my crisis and my traumas that I could not speak about.
Turbulence and unsettledness infiltrated my body, my damaged face, my dreams, my nerves. My face swelled from the surgery, where my nose had to be rebroken with a mallet and the insides reconstructed with micro-size surgical tools. This paragraph is the first time I have spoken about that accident and reconstructive surgery publicly. The accident changed my face, my nose, my breathing, my thinking, my programming/curatorial practice, my writing, my life.
Julia, Stewart, my accident, Beethoven, the key of C minor: together, they move me to assert: WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE THINK ABOUT ANYTHING ANYMORE.
And that might be the most ethical and most political place to be, to question everything, to go deep into the cracks and the crevices and the fissures COVID breaks open. We are in the first movement of this new sonata. The tempo is grave in every layered and multiple meaning of the word.
Some of what we did before, the theories we took solace in as a form of meditative retreat, the writing we finished, the films and new media and art work we made, now change their function.
They remain as training workouts for the marathon of the COVID world that sprawls unknown before us. The newly forming world demands we rethink and recalibrate and reimagine everything: our bodies, our communities, our food supply chains, our futures, our interfaces, our platforms, our political commitments to justice and others, our machines, our screens, our solidarities, our teaching, our theories, our work, our writing.
In a recent piece entitled “Society after the Pandemic” for the Social Science Research Council, which she heads, Alondra Nelson argues there is now an urgent need for scholars to bring our work out into the world and in conversation in the world. “Make it dialogic with the world it seeks to apprehend and improve. This is a time for creating knowledge pathways to a better world,” she concludes.
The confusion and turbulence of COVID: that is the place we all share now. It’s the first movement of the sonata, grave.
But most sonatas in C minor, by any composer in any era, end with spirit and gusto. They do what Alondra Nelson advocates: they forge new pathways. They take us on a journey for which there are no words, and in the end, leave us elsewhere, a place we did not know.
We may start in grave, move through cantabile, but end in rondo, allegro, forward movement.
So I end these five movements for Empyre the way all sonatas end: with a movement that leaps with hope, lifting the body, the heart, the mind, the soul, the spirits in consort with phrasing and structures that suggest a way forward, if we can let go. If we can know that what we know is that we do not know.
I started this COVID Movement V with death. I end it somewhere else: in media and science and policy and clear communication and parody and music and people.
I leave you with three grace notes, two that point to a new media world emerging, and one that invokes human connection:
The daily press conferences of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo (full disclosure: I am a huge unrequited fan), with their emphasis on facts, science, straight talk, and care for people. These pressers have accrued an international cult following. Some friends will not Zoom or text or talk on the phone when they air live.
In Art in America Shannon Mattern provides a visual analysis of Cuomo’s excellent PowerPoints and the staging of the press briefings with everyone six feet apart in the majestic paneled room of the state capital building. A professor friend extolled to me that every professor on the planet should study the Governor’s blue and gold PowerPoints for the clarity they bring to detangling complex concepts.
You can experience these press conferences on his website: https://www.governor.ny.gov/news
The Randy Rainbow love song to Andrew Cuomo and his brother, journalist Chris Cuomo, recovering from COVID. It parodies a song from the American musical, Grease. Watch it when you need a lift and an injection of hope:
A big thank you and virtual hug to close friends and comrades Renate Ferro and Tim Murray who had the sheer guts to know that Empyre could open up a space for us to say, together: WHAT WE KNOW IS THAT WE DO NOT KNOW
The Last Chord:
A huge shout out of SOLIDARITY to everyone around the world sheltering in place reading Empyre (and Rosa Mercedes) this month, where together, we showed, irrefutably, irrevocably, irreverently, that ideas will get us through all of this.
Patricia R. Zimmermann is Professor of Screen Studies and Codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. She researches and writes on documentary, experimental, and new media history and theory.
May 5th, 2020, 02 / Rosa Mercedes