(faltering to extinction)

11.1 / All the World’s End

(faltering to extinction)

By Vivian Sming November 6, 2019

Cosmic Interruptions

Have you ever been on the verge of having something important to say, only to be interrupted by an inexplicable force—a cosmic interruption? You’re in a moment of intimacy. You’re deeply present. You muster up the courage to share a thought or an experience. You open your mouth. Your lips take shape. Your breath starts to form into words, and then, something happens.

It starts to rain.

A truck drives by. 

Construction begins. 

A drink spills. 

Dishes crash. 

                                                            The lights go out.

Someone familiar says hi.

The atmosphere of vulnerability is polluted by this rupture, and to restore it means starting from the very beginning.

This is the curse I am afflicted with. I have been unintentionally holding and keeping secrets all my life. There are things I simply can’t tell you, and I am certain that if I try, the air will change.

Returning to the Earth, Returning to the Sea

Since the late 1960s, artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña has combed the land, carefully gathering bits and pieces from her environment: driftwood, twigs, feathers, pebbles, seeds, plastic, and other debris. From these “throwaway” materials, she creates found-object sculptures called precarios (precarious), held together by thread, wire, or at times, by each other. Over a hundred of Vicuña’s precarios (1966–2017) were on view at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive in 2018, as part of the exhibition Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen, co-curated by Andrea Andersson and Julia Bryan-Wilson. The show, which traveled from the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, where it was on view in 2017, continued at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle through September 2019.

Vicuña’s precarios are small. Most are made to a size that would fit in your palm. They are elegant and appear to be fragile, on the precipice of falling over or breaking apart. The precarios are ever-changing, living sculptures. With each exhibition, Vicuña continues to build upon and alter their forms. The compositions vary in abstraction and demonstrate a hand of both care and play. A few pieces resemble more familiar architectural forms—tents, houses, ladders, trees, bridges, and ships. Some are interspersed on the gallery walls, and others are displayed on a platform low to the ground.

Within the museum-controlled climate, the tiny seeds and pebbles of the precarios dangle on thin thread and shake from the slightest air-conditioned breeze. In their earliest incarnations, however, the precarios were placed directly into the sand on the beach, where the waves crashed and knocked them down. The sculptures were consumed by the ocean, eventually dissolving into tinier particles by the salty sea. For Vicuña, this act of disappearance is a “source of joy, renewal, and transformation.”1 Vicuña writes: “The first precarious works were not documented, they existed only for the memories of a few citizens. History, as a fabric of inclusion and exclusion, did not embrace them.”2 Now that Vicuña has been embraced by History through the international recognition of her work, it is unclear if her precarios will continue to breathe. For an institution or individual to collect these sculptures would be antithetical to her work, as the precarios would no longer be precarious—History would ensure that they be preserved in their static and fixed state. Yet, there is something satisfying knowing that even in this scenario, if the world were to come tumbling down, the rubble of buildings and structures housing the artworks would remain, while the work itself would be wholly vaporized. Unlike the marble statues of gods and goddesses, Vicuña’s precarios would be difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve. In their obliteration, they would perform a hopeful transformation, revealing their message of the ephemeral as a source of renewal.

In her film Symbiosis (Ritual Battle) (2015), the precarios are further activated and engaged. They are laid out like children’s toys on a small kitchen table, which is transformed into a stage or an amphitheater. In the hands of the artist, the sculptures are unafraid of their delicacy, and perform as stand-ins for warriors and deities. They knock each other down and stand back up. They dance. Their confident and swift movements demonstrate an underestimated resilience in the small, quiet, and invisible.

Vicuña speaks in whispers. As an exile living in New York since the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, she has found a shared identity and solidarity with the “abandoned remains / debris / little nothings / bits of crap,” declaring with assurance and without shame, “We are the basuritas, the throwaways of this world.”3 This commonality between person- and objecthood is linked through language. As the world moves toward a monoculture of languages and prioritizes what is written, thousands of spoken languages have become endangered or extinct, abandoned by centuries of genocide and globalization. Like the precarios, these spoken languages are made from castaway materials—with words that, through cultural denial, no one wants anymore—fragments of translations strung together and formed at the edge of the sea. When the waves come crashing down, these words evaporate into the body of anyone who happens to be listening.

Speaking as Being, Seeing the Spoken

“Some say our life is insane, but it isn’t insane on paper.”4

The terms Anthropocene and Capitalocene are an attempt to mark our current geological epoch. The former attributes this new epoch to human impact, the latter to capitalism. Donna Haraway proposes “a third story,” the Chthulucene, to account for the interactions and relationships between multiple species during this precarious time.5 These categorizations of epochs under the Cenozoic Era, both in the past and present, use the suffix “-cene” derived from the Greek kainos (new) and are determined by what is seen, or what is to be seen. In an economy that privileges the visible, History exists on paper. While our physical remains will become fossils, what will become of the spoken, sung, uttered, or breathed? Within the compressed strata of production and consumption, will there be someone to dig up and brush the dust off of the multitude of birdsongs, the crinkling of plastic bags, the sticky movement of the last snail of its species? Where do noise, laughter, whispers, and screams exist in the ———cene?

In her essay “Language is Migrant,” Vicuña suggests that as “complex public conversation goes extinct,” so are “the many species we are causing to disappear.” The extinction and endangerment of languages provide a multi-optic perspective to view the forces that have propelled climate change, migration, and displacement, in the face of rising nationalism, closing borders, and mass extinction. What does it mean to no longer be able to speak, whether due to the disappearance of one’s language, or due to the erosion of public discourse in today’s atmosphere? Vicuña underlines the discursive as an important part of the environment: language shapes our understanding of the world, which then informs how we treat it and each other. “The word ‘species,’” she writes, “comes from the Latin speciēs, ‘a seeing.’ Maybe we are losing species and languages, our joy, because we don’t wish to see what we are doing. Not seeing the seeing in words, we numb our senses.”6 Vicuña suggests that observing might be a way of healing, and asks that we urgently begin to see what is spoken.

Multimedia artist Susan Hiller brings one form of visibility to the spoken in her piece Lost and Found (2016). To create the single-channel video, Hiller collected statements and interviews from a variety of projects and research initiatives on endangered and dormant languages. Lost and Found is powerful in its simplicity. Centered on a black background, the image of green soundwaves moves and fluctuates to the vibration of the speaker’s voice. The wave personifies the speaker without an image or face, allowing them to be heard without any visual disruption or judgment. The language being spoken and its status—e.g. “developing,” “dormant,” “extinct”—are demarcated on the top left corner, with a translation on the bottom. In one instance, the Colville-Okanagan Salish “Alphabet Song” is sung to a repeated drum beat. Both singular letters and the drumbeat are represented in the waves, demonstrating that language is not just on paper.

A Convergence of Ends in the ———cene

two minutes until midnight
                                                                        tipping point
                                   one million species                                  canceled                                   
rising waters                                                                                                     
                        rising nationalism                       extinction rebellion                     on fire   
           resist                             refuse
                                                            strike                            walkout
                        abuse of power                           war
point of no return
           change                          disaster crisis                 catastrophe
                                    ban                                           impeach
the end of the world                   the edge of the world                              no surprise

one door closes, another door opens
one world closes, another world opens
one mouth closes, another mouth opens

Denialism and Abstraction at the End of Truth

In my lifetime of faltering and stumbling with language, I have turned to art to exist in the gaps between the unwritten and the unspeakable. I have gotten comfortable in the liminal, the in-between, the free-falling, the ambiguous. One mouth closes, an eye opens.

Vicuña’s plea to see what is spoken is urgently important during a time when language is being activated as a political tool. Voices are everywhere, and they are loud and disruptive. The noise is part of a concerted effort to empty language of all its meaning. 

Artists and poets have long been interested in the fractures between language and meaning. I, too, have sought these disconnections as emancipatory sites of possibilities. As a relativist, I questioned objectivity and science as forms of imperialism. I insisted that these understandings of truth foreclosed upon valuing the multitudes of experience and existence. 

Three years into the Trump administration’s repeated false assertions and denialism, I am instead looking for a ground to firmly stand on. I never thought I would say this, but, I am looking for facts. Rather than embracing indeterminacy, I now want clarity and hyperspecificity—I want words to mean something.

Like many others, what I have to tether to may be misguided. I offer up my pronouns (she/her/they/them), my Sun/Moon/Rising astrological signs (Libra/Aries/Sagittarius), and my Myers-Briggs Type (INFJ). Depending on who you are, I might also offer up my generational, immigrant, ethnic, regional identities, my sexuality, and while we’re there, my history of diagnosed and undiagnosed chronic illnesses.

These identifications are hardly scientifically grounded, but with this set of information, I expect myself to be suddenly knowable—as if all of these identifiers can encompass my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This desire for the hyperspecific is a response to the denial of identities, humanity, rights, language, meaning, and truth currently being exercised by governments and nationalist groups worldwide. Masking and obfuscation are no longer gestures towards the profound or transcendent, but rather strategies to assert control. The liminal space now feels like a violent one. The shifting of language is no longer an opening, but a foreclosing. 

What is art when our faces no longer belong to our bodies, and our words no longer belong to ourselves? How do we celebrate acts of disappearance as liberation when so many are disappearing? How do we embrace invisibility when so many are denied visibility? How do we retain the poetic while yearning for the factual?

Jonas Becker. End(s) of the World: Land’s End, Glen Canyon Recreation Park, Utah, USA, 2013; digital C-prints; 24 x 15.3 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Disappearing Secrets

There are many languages I have lost. My ancestral histories will only live on as hearsay that I am unable to verify. There is first shame in speaking one’s language, and then, there is the shame of having lost it in the first place.

In between misplaced languages and perpetual interruptions, I stutter, I repeat, I use the wrong words, I circle back, I stumble, I say things I don’t mean, I falter, I repeat.

In my silence, I have observed and I have spoken in other ways. As I gradually learn to speak, I lose my capacity to listen, to remember, and to attend to. I can feel this. 

Thus, I will retreat and take shelter in pauses and hesitations. I will stutter, I will repeat, I will use the wrong words, I will circle back, I will stumble, I will say things I don’t mean, I will falter.

To retain the poetic, there must be refusal. We must see what is spoken, and we must speak against denial. To continue, we must end—end one world, and leave both our eyes open.


  1. Cecilia Vicuña, “BKM Studio Visits: Cecilia Vicuña [Full],” interview by Brooklyn Museum, November 8, 2018, video, 03:16, https://youtu.be/9x2PFaBQQ30.
  2. Cecilia Vicuña, “Introduction,” accessed April 18, 2019, http://www.ceciliavicuna.com/timeline.
  3. Cecilia Vicuña, About to Happen, trans. by author with James O’Hern (Catskill: Siglio, 2017), 48.
  4. Emily Haines, “Nothing & Nowhere,” Knives Don’t Have Your Back (Toronto: Last Gang Records, 2006). 
  5. Donna Haraway, “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene,” e-flux, Journal #75, September 2016, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/.
  6. Cecilia Vicuña, “Language is Migrant,” South as a State of Mind, documenta14https://www.documenta14.de/en/south/904_language_is_migrant.

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