By Antonina Stebur
“The body is an instrument of struggle and a source of hope”(1)
On February 6, my friend and Belarusian artist Maxim Yasinsky sent me a letter. It was a postcard, an unevenly cut piece of cardboard from a packaging box used for household equipment or dishes, wrapped in adhesive tape with a single word FRAGILE standing on it. On the back was the inscription, "Freedom to be vulnerable." The sentence is a paraphrase of the title of one of my articles, written long before the protests in Belarus and actually on another occasion. However, the present context requires this phrase to be rethought. The postcard itself was sent after Maksim Yasinsky was detained in November 2020 and spent 15 days in jail.
Perhaps, fragility is one of the central theoretical concepts and emotional factors that characterize the Belarusian protest and make it proportionate to the global context.
This fragility, as well as its associated emotional markers such as exhaustion, vulnerability, burnout, and insecurity, can be found in the statements and works of many Belarusian artists and activists. In her prison diary, LGBTQ + activist Vika Biran writes, “We are living people, and we are fragile”(2). Describing her bodily existence in Minsk during the protests, an artist Olia Sosnovskaya also speaks of the revolutionary time as a time of exhaustion, “Coming back from the march, I notice that my body is completely exhausted. Partly from the 12km walk — but more from a constant muscle tension caused by anxiety and extreme attention”(3).
Fragility comes to the fore in the works of many Belarusian artists — Antonina Slobodchikova, Lesya Pchelka, Nadya Sayapina, Marina Naprushkina, Aliaksey Talstou, and others. One of the important protest statements is the political performance of Ulyana Nevzorova. On October 22, 2020, Ulyana went down into the subway and unfolded a placard in one of the subway carriages with the words “This Poster Might Become the Reason of My Detention” painted on it. This action, performance, and happening is interesting because it is not heroic. Ulyana did not seek to aestheticize her bodily presence, she did not dramatize or exaggerate the body in her performance. On the contrary, she presented the body — its concrete bodily existence — as fragile. In this gesture, we can see an important political shift.
Typically, we view fragility as a negative trait that needs to be corrected or at least disguised, restrained. Moreover, the concepts of fragility and vulnerability are mainly used to describe the private sphere. They are most often depoliticized and even marginalized. However, what if fragility could be used as a basis for reassembling political relationships, creating new networks of solidarity? What if fragility and vulnerability are not a breakdown of an internal routine but an interruption of automatism and a new awareness of political, economic, social injustice?
We find an understanding of uncertainty as a political category in Judith Butler’s works(4), where she writes that through the awareness of the concreteness of our existence and its vulnerability, we accept, on the one hand, an understanding of the connection between our lives and the lives of other people, and on the other hand, a recognition of the need building infrastructures, which can also be designated as care infrastructures, “There can be no bodily life without social and institutional assistance, without constant employment, without networks of interdependence and care”(5).
In this sense, the place selected by Ulyana for her protest gesture is extremely important. The subway is a kind of shimmering object, a transgression space, a public space that is rarely seen as political. Hidden deep underground, it is a private space, connected to the daily network of residents, as well as a public space, where the routes of people unfamiliar to each other, of different social strata, ages and political views intersect. By being present in the subway with her poster, Ulyana does not set herself against the other passengers traveling in the carriage.
However, the presence of her silent, fragile body re-organizes the space, turning it into a political one. We can see this in the reaction of people: someone tried to take away her poster, someone reacted aggressively, someone unfurled a flag behind her as a sign of solidarity and support. Thus, nodes of resistance and solidarity are organized. And just as fragility and vulnerability, long associated with the private sphere and predominantly with women´s experience becomes a political basis for resistance, so does the grey area of the subway become a place of protest and public speech.
Indeed, if you look at the genesis of Belarusian protest, it was generated by two events both associated with the awareness of insecurity, the experience of fragility and vulnerability. The first political reactions of dissent were related to coronavirus as well as the government's complete denial of the magnitude of the pandemic. Until now, the Ministry of Health publishes numbers in which daily death rates vary between 9 and 11 people, while no one knows the official statistics. The denial of the problem by the authorities forced people to act independently. The first civic activities involving a large number of people were associated with support for the doctors, fundraising, and volunteering during the pandemic. The exhibition "The Machine Breathes, but I Don't", which opened in Minsk in 2021 and lasted for one and a half days (the exhibition was then closed and a number of its organizers arrested), was dedicated to comprehending the political consequences of the pandemic: how COVID-19 became an impulse for grassroots civic initiatives, as well as understanding doctors as political activists.
The second event was the one of unprecedented violence against peaceful protesters. During the periods of inactivity, almost 1% of the entire adult population of Belarus was detained, many were severely beaten, cases of rape were recorded, and torture was used. The shock from the quantity and scale of violence, especially in the early days of the protests, forced people to take to the streets in large numbers between August and October 2021.
Thus, fragility and vulnerability have become political categories associated with manifestation of the ultimate concreteness of our bodily existence. It is important that it is not subjects who go out to protests, but living beings whose bodies suffer from pain, who get tired; who cry, smile, tremble from the cold or feel warm when someone takes their hand. This leads to realization that such bodies need structures of mutual assistance and care in order for them to take political action.
In other words, as written by the curator and researcher Vera Kovalevskaya, “It could be more constructive to see the state of exhaustion as a horizon of the collective experience and to use it as a common denominator when building a particular form of solidarity”(6).
How can such structures of solidarity be organized, built from the starting point of awareness of our fragility? Perhaps the experience of art, seen as an instrument of political imagination, can shed light on such networks of relationships.
In her work "Dollhouse" Nadya Sayapina observes her prison life and the lives of her cellmates. She speaks of it not only as an experience of isolation and extreme frustration but also as the one of sisterhood, creating networks of support, as well as building invisible tactics of resistance. In a poem – it’s a part of her artwork – she writes about everyday experiences that, out of context, seem harmless and routine, “We washed and braided each other’s hair”, “We gave each other massages, improvised beauty treatments”, “We kept diaries and sang songs”, until at the end of the text we come across a sentence: “We spent our days turning a ten-person cell into a dollhouse.”(7) Trapped and marginalized, Nadya and her cellmates create their networks of relationships, where solidarity is built on recognizing the fragility of our existence. By their small acts of care, they oppose the strict hierarchy of power with its violent apparatus.
During the course on art activist practices, my students, burned out and tired by the protests and political repressions in Belarus, made a zine “Theory and Practice of Self-Care”, where self-care was understood not just as nurture, vacation, or treatment but as a “radical protest.”(8) In the manifesto to the zine, they write, "Self-care is a way out of the cycle of violence, it is an act of radical resistance."(9)
Self-care, despite the prefix “self-”, is a collective project and becomes possible only through the formation of infrastructures, cooperatives, and solidarity. The body, as one of the participants noted in the zine, is both an instrument of struggle and a source of hope.
One of the hypothetical self-care infrastructural projects that the female students proposed were Self- and Inter-Care Homes. These buildings-infrastructures, designed for bodily, emotional recovery, mutual support, take as a basis the already existing but not functioning system of the Dom Byta (public service center). The life of Dom Byta as a ‘Soviet ruin’, nowadays almost excluded from the system of economic and social relations, is marginalized, just as our exhaustion is marginalized but can be re-assembled and re-introduced into the political context.
Thus, an important starting point in protests is the recognition of the concreteness of human existence, its bodily representation. This is not a heroic body but on the contrary: a fragile, vulnerable, emaciated body that needs support and protection. Moreover, these requirements of care must be understood politically and infrastructurally, as it is these requirements that ensure the political participation of people.
When fragile bodies are excluded not only from political life but from life in general are endangered, and beaten, made to worry about loved ones, forced to illegally cross borders – then networks of support and solidarity built on mutual recognition of our fragility become an important instrument of resistance. This, I believe, can lay the foundation and provide the potential for a new understanding of power -– not as privilege and violence, but as a function of care for the weak and the excluded.
1 from the poem by Anna Zaprutskaya "They say your body is your business"
2 Vika Biran. From Okrestina to Berghain: 'I write, therefore I am'. – https://makeout.by/2020/12/07/from-okrestina-to-berghain-i-write-therefore-i-am.html
3 Olia Sosnovskaya. Future Perfect Continuous. – https://dingdingding.org/issue-3/future-perfect-continuous/
4 Judith Butler. Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London, New York: Verso, 2004
5 Джудит Батлер. Заметки к перформативной теории собрания. – М: Ад Маргинем Пресс, 248 – С. 86
6 Vera Kavaleuskaya. All I want to do is to hold Your hand and cry the tears of Joy. – https://no-niin.com/issue-4/
7 Nadya Sayapina Dollhouse // Кожны дзень. Art. Solidarity. Resistance. – Kyiv, 2021. – P. 49
8 Theory and practice of self-care, zine - from the archive of Antonina Stebur
9 Theory and practice of self-care, zine - from the archive of Antonina Stebur