Things in lockdown (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 22)

This is the twenty-second 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



Things in lockdown

By Lina Hakim

In locked-down life, there is no shortage of things to find oneself caught up in, of objects asserting themselves as things. There’s the laundry, dishes, chairs, floors, walls, doors, steps, shelves, cot-bed, beds. There’s dust, dirt, food stains, paint stains, crumbs, hair, spilt liquids of all kinds. There’s toys, balls, mats, boxes, cars, dinosaurs. There’s books, piles of them that fall, board books, soft books, torn books, favourite books, reference books. There’s tools and technology that go missing or break down at the moment they seem most urgently needed: the phones, my specs, the TV, the remote, the laptop and mouse, the wifi router, the fridge, the hob, the sink, the washing machine, the bath shower. There’s clothes, shoes, scarves, stones, sticks, pinecones in all the wrong places. There’s scissors, tape, glue, cardboard, paper, paint. There’s cardboard masks, makeshift seesaws and all kinds of dens. There are plants that seem to revel in neglect blooming, there are plants dying, and there are sprouting avocado seeds in a plastic tub. There’s nappies, wipes, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, old dirty toothbrushes, a new dinosaur toothbrush.

The ‘great withdrawal’ has made the circulations that make up subject-object relations almost brutally concrete. Spending a lot more time amongst our things, relentlessly immersed in them, has brought to the foreground – inescapable phenomenological attention – their resilient thingness that can no longer be held at an objective distance by our thinking them. There are only so many things that can be kept up by our thinking at once (let alone in any kind of order). And in this frenzied circulation, all these things (or is it thinging?) – including us – weave our household into a communal and primary form, essentially one big mess, though often (and not often enough admitted as such) a joyful one.

Isn’t it telling that Michel Serres explains the quasi-objects (and quasi-subjects) that constitute social forms and processes, by comparison to popular child’s play? In the comparison, the quasi-object is the furet, a token passed around by players:

“He who is not discovered with the furet in his hand is anonymous, part of a monotonous chain where he remains indistinguished. He is not an individual; he is not recognized, discovered, cut; he is of the chain and in the chain. He runs, like the furet, in the collective. The thread in his hands is our simple relation, the absence of the furet; its path makes out indivision. Who are we? Those who pass the furet; those who don’t have it. The quasi-object, when being passed, makes the collective, if it stops, it makes the individual.” (Michel Serres, The Parasite, transl. Lawrence Schehr, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, 225)

The counterpoint of social withdrawal is an intense intimacy within our home. A state of constant attachement (or is it a re-attachement with the babies?). And this great being together in turn emphasises all the other ‘being there’ and ‘being together’ that we are missing.

Our indivision is shaped in the path of things. All kinds of chants, incantations, silly runs, quotations and recitations from favourite stories, singing games, pretend play, elaborate variations on inside jokes and litanies of nonsense rhymes seamlessly and constantly interweave more ‘normal’ day-to-day activity. Silly old mummy, doesn’t she know, there’s no such thing as normal anymore?

There is the temptation, which we often give into out of sheer exhaustion, to just play, fully, without trying to manage work around it, or even chores. We embrace play in a moment of surrender and remember how much fun it is, how essential it is, how it is, as Huizinga puts it in Homo Ludens, “an absolutely primary category of life, familiar to everybody at a glance right down to the animal level” (1955: 3).

Shouldn’t we rethink the balance of playtime and work-time? Isn’t this proper living time? Is this a glimpse into the revolutionary? But this kind of play, ‘real living play’, is always too enmeshed in things, too all-encompassing. It demands full absorption, so when our attention falters the spell breaks – “Don’t kiss the engine, Daddy, or the carriages won’t think it’s real” (Huizinga, 1955: 8) – and ‘real’ life rushes back in. That monstrous thing out there. Pandemic. The tragedy, the numbers, the grief, the worry. Is the virus very bigger and bigger mummy? No, it’s very very small, but it goes everywhere… Things that are difficult to make sense of, beyond grasp. Incommensurable, unimaginable, and hard to accept. Could this virus really be something we all have to live with indefinitely? What kind of growth, sharing, communal understanding will the children be able to experience under these conditions? Will we ever be able to be together again with family, loved ones and strangers?

When it all gets too much, get back to things. There are things to do, to clean, to tidy up, to play with, to wipe, to move away, to put back in, to dry, to read, to glue, to hang, to paint, to staple, to wipe again, to find, to hide. There’s ‘work from home’ to do mostly at silly hours after the children’s bedtime, laptop and mouse precariously balanced on a piece of foam from the play-mat over a high chair, a sad – because practical – version of Fischli and Weiss’ beautiful Equilibres. The ‘Second Shift’ is now employment. But the partition is leaky, the spheres merging: public and private, professional and domestic.

On Zoom meetings for work, I can glance us in one of the frames – such a bizarre feature of video-based interfaces that includes our image onscreen amongst the person(s) we try to communicate with. We’re a ready recreation of DaVinci’s drawing of the holy family for the Getty Museum’s challenge. I’ve always liked the way in which this image abandons the traditional posed or emblematic ordering of members in representations of family, in favour of an intermingled composition of figures, coalescing bodies and overlapping movements, a merged complex of gestures, expressions and intentions. Of course our version is messier, the baby clambering up into my arms, the toddler hanging by my hair behind me – Can I say hello? – any opportunity to socialise. Matt said we’re all now that correspondent whose children walked in during an interview, and I love that thought. I’ve always felt a need to resist this separation of spheres, even before motherhood. The need to share the mess of things we’re each always negotiating. Rather than the neat impersonal frictionless efficiency that has come to define professional practice, messy selves in collaboration, meaning-making friction, authentic moments of sharing. I didn’t say goodbye. It’s ok, you can say goodbye next time.

There are times when it all just gets too much, the weight of it all outside and inside, the global mess and the one at home. Then it’s survival mode: let things wash over us without pulling us down too much, keep an eye on the clock, it’s ok in Groundhog Day – wrap today up and start again at all this tomorrow. But then there are also – admittedly more rarely – moments of breathing space and objective order. Moments of extraction from the mess, when we can push away from things for a bit to look through objects again and maybe even find an ‘I’. This text was pieced in such moments, little treats, opportunities to step back and register things. And register our privilege.

Tomorrow the houses will get angry and the virus will get sad and then it will go away – go away virus! – and then we can see everyone again.

In the meantime, we’ll be staying with the things. Try to enjoy their play. There’s the drums, Matt’s guitar, musical toys, the mini-piano, the spoon on the radiator, clapping along with a song, for the NHS and keyworkers, and just because. There’s potatoes in the washing machine, a filled potty, a dropped plant pot, an upturned bowl of cereal, sticky sippy cups, squished peas in the carpet (at least I hope that’s what it is).



Lina Hakim is a researcher, lecturer and artist particularly interested in overlaps between the material cultures of science, technology, craft, and play. At Kingston University, London, she teaches Critical and Historical Studies, mainly to Graphic Design students.
May 22nd, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

A  word on “post-truth” by postcolonial and photography scholar Zahid R. Chauhary (from his 2020 essay “The Politics of Exposure: Truth after Post-Facts”):So perhaps it is not simply that truth acts (such as whistleblowing) expose what we already know, but that the place of knowledge in an atmosphere of fetishistic disavowal lends such disavowal a libidinal frisson. In cynical reasoning, truth actually matters a great deal because acting in spite of it is what endows the action with its distinctive fetishistic pleasure.”

October 26th, 2021

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020
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