Hierarchies of hardship (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 15)

This is the fifteenth instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH



Hierarchies of hardship

By Sara Blaylock

I find myself taking walks to add variety to my day. After more than two years of living in my neighborhood, which is close enough to my job that I walk there multiple times a week, I am for the first time attuned to such things as the contents of my neighbors’ gardens or the stages of their house projects, the way the weather will change the behavior of our local birds, and the slow progress of spring as it appears on the deciduous trees. Chives come first, then rhubarb. Crows enjoy a grey day; seagulls prefer moisture. Grackles have black iridescent bodies, cluck a bit like chickens, and will eat small birds and minnows if given the chance. When it’s sunny, I can discern the scent of a magnolia tree from a safe social distance of six feet.

Of late, I have also found myself a regular visitor to a construction site. It’s a daily dose of theater to watch cranes as tall as dinosaurs lower steel beams onto platforms, front loaders unleash rubble into dump trucks, or cement mixers steadily turn.

I have come to think of the construction site as the major cultural touchstone of my day. Its subjects are riveting, the changes constant, and the mechanisms profound. Really: that brachiosaurus-sized crane puts time into perspective, making more tangible the way the world may have looked when it teemed with life at that scale.

My neighborhood is likewise more exciting when I allow observation to be not only a way to pass the time but a method to make sense of its passing. The yards are beginning to be raked and mulched, making way for daffodils and hostas. The fishing boats are filling driveways. The scent of charcoal has begun to waft from back decks and patios. The calls of ships as their captains hail the lift bridge have returned to our daily soundscape.

Within the smallest scale of my world, as the eyes of my twin newborns begin to widen, my toddler––at home with us full time––is gradually transforming into a little kid.

Even with all this change I’m freshly attuned to, I still find this time exceedingly repetitive. The certainty of how each day will pass contradicts the uncertainty of the future but gives little comfort when I am at my most morose. This is not a confession of depression. To the contrary, it is a confession of the embarrassment I feel at not being able to rise to the pandemic occasion with more grace and self-awareness.

I live in a mid-sized city in the northern reaches of the American Midwest. I have an objectively easy life. I am not threatened by the pandemic; I am inconvenienced by it. My boredom is a sign of privilege. This has become a daily mantra, a reminder that pulls me away from a listless moment and back to the lilac buds growing from a plant that only two months ago quaked under the remains of three feet of snow and ice.


Sara Blaylock, Duluth, USA
May 9th, 2020, 02 / Rosa Mercedes

David Graeber (1961-2020) on What Would It Take (from his The Democracy Project. A History, a Crisis, a Movement, 2013, p. 193): “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse. But the primary question is: how do we even get there? What would it take to allow our political and economic systems to become a mode of collective problem solving rather than, as they are now, a mode of collective war?”

September 7th, 2020, Tom

T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via tranzit.sk:  “For artists, writers, and curators, as art historians and teachers, the meaning-production of an artwork is never finished, never fully appropriated and coopted, in my view, and we should never surrender it; the battle over significance is ongoing. We see that battle rise up in relation to racist and colonial monuments these days in the US, the UK, and South Africa. While the destruction of such monuments results from and is enabling of radical politics, it’s still not enough until the larger institutions that support and maintain their existence as well as the continuation of the politics they represent are also torn down. This is urgent as well in the cultural sphere, including the arts institutions, universities, art markets, discursive sphere of magazines and journals, all in thrall to neoliberalism, where we must recognize that it’s ultimately inadequate to simply inject critical or radical content into these frameworks, which we know excel at incorporating those anti-extractivist expressions into further forms of cultural capital and wealth accumulation. What’s required is more of the building of nonprofit and community-based institutions, organizing radical political horizons and solidarity between social formations.”

August 21st, 2020, Tom

Bernard Stiegler, quoted from The Neganthropocene (trans. Daniel Ross): “Does anyone really believe that it is possible to ‘solve’ the problems of climate change, habitat destruction and cultural destruction without addressing the consumerist basis of the present macro-economic system, or vice versa, or without addressing the way in which this system depletes the psychic energy required to find the collective will, belief, hope and reason to address this planetary challenge? Can this consumerism really survive the coming wave of automation that threatens to decimate its customer base and undermine the ‘consumer confidence’ that is fundamental to its perpetual growth requirements, themselves antithetical, once again, to the problems of biospherical preservation?”

August 14th, 2020, Tom
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