back to

e-flux conversations

Alina Popa: "Disease as an Aesthetic Project "


Introduction: Alina, Jaguar

by Florin Flueras

“Disease as an Aesthetic Project” was put together by Alina from her recent notes and sent to a group of friends. She was at the end of an intense two-year process with a hopeless illness. Unfortunately, she was also at the end of her life.

Actually, our lives as we knew them ended at the moment of her diagnosis. Everything changed in an instant. In time we became aware that the diagnosis and the hopeless prognosis not only described our reality, they created it. They were performative, making themselves real, establishing a heavy and difficult-to-deal-with reality.

One day, after extensive research on the internet, she told me that the only two people who had recovered from her type of illness did so through certain spiritual practices, mystical experiences. Some days later I found another case of a similar miracle. She was aware that a miracle is called “a miracle” because it’s unlikely to happen. Maybe a bit too aware.

Before her illness we shared a fascination for Amazonian ideas: The body as a bundle of affects and capacities, with powers to metamorphose. The world as full of ambiguity and suspicion—jaguars can be humans, humans can be jaguars—because the jaguar, as a shaman, exhibits the quality of an act, not of a subject. Reality as not multicultural, as we know it, but multinatural; different worlds can be activated by different perspectives, through different body affects and practices.

It is one thing to be fascinated and another thing to have to perform these operations not just in your mind, but on the body and reality. To become this were-jaguar who can travel to a different reality. She wrote before her disease: “In the accounts of Castaneda, Viveiros de Castro, and Kohn, taking the prey’s point of view may involve: doing a handstand while crying in the presence of a deer, drinking blood instead of maize-beer, and respectfully returning the jaguar’s gaze. Action alone carries and projects new realities onto the self-erasing chora of the forest stage. Space is specularly simulated through action, as if the act itself projected a social space like VR, or a 3-D movie.”

With her disease, she saw more clearly how disembodied thinking is unhelpful when things matter most, it can be a trap. Without a sort of embodiment and acting in the world, you’re locked in your own mind with the sensation that you’re already one with your thoughts. She realized that daring minds and daring hearts can be two completely different things. The most daring minds can be completely conventional in terms of action and behavior. But when an awful event comes, you can no longer separate your thinking from your life. Nor from your art, if you keep doing it. “The heart is the only thing I have,” she wrote under one of her last drawings.

Because of her medically hopeless situation, she was forced to go beyond the conventional approach to disease and healing. And she discovered over and over again the difficulty of doing this—it’s impossible, she wrote. The implicit views that circulate around you stabilize an overwhelming reality, they shape your implicit beliefs, the possible. You can search for another world, but this is difficult nowadays, because there is a homogenization of perspectives. She felt such relief and improvement in her health when she lived for a while in a weird healing community in Brazil, where everything sounded and looked sci-fi. The world was different, other things were possible, and they were happening.

Her process was a fight with disease, but even more than that, a fight of perspectives. She wrote to a friend: “I realized that in my situation it happens that I need to stay as much as I can on the spiritual plane and navigate reality from there. And in this world, there are not so many people staying on this plane. For many, and for many of my friends, this is not the ground (a lofty ground!) and then conflict arises. Because perspectives can cut wings and you end up with a terrible diagnosis and going down. It’s important to discuss this because it is not easy to navigate from the only ground, the lofty ground, that can give you wings, hope and the power to live and overcome the physical trouble every day. All the world around, the general perspective, cuts any hope for me. This is the process, the knowledge to stay where my soul needs to, so that I can be more powerful than a bleak prognosis.” Sometimes, when the wing-cutting perspectives were too much, she liked to quote João Guimarães Rosa: “At first, I used to like people. Now I only like jaguars.”

Disease was a calamity, but sometimes, when she was in a very good mood, she also saw it as a strange gift. Her life, thoughts, feelings, beliefs were twisted, transformed, amplified. Her health left her, but she felt that some numb perspectives and petty worries had gone too. In her last two years, she lived more than she had her entire life before, she said. “Healthy people don’t have a soul” is an Amazonian Wari’ saying that she liked. For the Wari’, the soul is instability, and the power to metamorphose can be activated in you just by a disease or a similar event. In this sense, and not only, her soul was amplified by illness.

She found new good friends, interesting healers and therapies, and some weird and beautiful microworlds. She started to perform like she intended her unpleasant, difficult sensations, states, and feelings. She created a jungle in her body, with different animals and plants taking care of her. She drew with her eyes closed, in a notebook on her chest. These practices, and many more, didn’t save her life unfortunately, but they enhanced it, easing her pain and giving her surprising periods of hope and improvement in her health. Her life was prolonged; she was on the slopes, skiing, when she was, statistically, supposed to die. Even when things suddenly turned very bad in the final weeks, she didn’t have to take painkillers, much to the shock of her doctors. She died peacefully, as she wanted.

Alina already mixed life and art long before her illness. In the last ten years she had been working with Irina Gheorghe, her friend since high school, in the Bureau of Melodramatic Research. Oscillating between office, research, and mostly melodrama formats, the Bureau often combined or collided cheesy, exaggerated girly emotionality with urgent global issues and abstract theory. They created new genres, where passions became abstractions and philosophy got melodramatic.

She loved to teach, and she did it beautifully. Recently, she had started approaching her workshops as artworks, her teaching was performative. She was sometimes puzzling, sometimes hypnotic, and always brilliant, fascinating, and sensitive. Former students visited her from all over the place when she was ill. They were touched by her soul. Many artists and friends did the same, helping out however they could. They gave and received a lot. They were part of a powerful process of a beautiful being.

Our last project was The Clinic. Together with some artist friends, we went to a Transylvanian village to develop therapies that could function as artworks. After Unsorcery and Black Hyperbox, The Clinic continued our idea of “artworlds”—mildly choreographed processes that establish as artworks not only products but production, research, curating, art making, forms of living—artworks as artworlds. The art space became a clinic in which aesthetic healing and performative therapies could happen. We wanted to create impossible hybrids between medicine and art, secretly hoping that, with no available therapy for her, maybe we could invent one.

In The Clinic she made You Are and Heal the Line, her last works, in which she, and a line representing herself, were mediums for strange and moving collective therapies. Life Programming (The Skete/Artificial Life) was the project we planned to do next. We wanted to experiment with artificially forming life, mainly through artistic and performance procedures. It was meant to be a contemporary skete without collective rules, where each of the participants could shape her own form of life, in proximity to the others. The project made sense therapeutically, because from her own experience and research she was convinced that her disease, and in general chronic diseases, are lifestyle related. She started to see herself more and more as a form of life that had to be reconstructed.

When your art is your life and your life is your art, and you’re very sensitive to everything, including external validation, you can be very affected when your work is less recognized. She loved her recent work and our work together, but sometimes, before her illness, she got sad because she felt that they were not well understood or appreciated. Maybe, as our friend and collaborator Ion Dumitrescu joked, it was “too early.” Now it’s too late… But most likely, this happened because the work was rather nonvisual, not so representation-based. Representation requires limits. “The border is a place of fear,” but the “jaguar has no borders,” she used to say, in reference to Zalamea’s remark that the bisons in the Lascaux Cave mark the beginning of geometrical representation.

We always found ways to complexify the dynamics between our lives and our art projects, and her illness just accentuated that. At the same time, some things were smooth and simple. We sometimes laughed about our very atypical, uncool relationship—addicted to each other, inseparable, and mostly happy. We knew that we were lucky because very rarely did we see anything similar—love. We were also aware that death was probably the only thing that could eventually separate us. And we knew not to talk too much about all this, because others would find it “pathetic” or “boring.”

In her last days she became so fragile and soft, like a wounded, very cute animal. She could no longer return the jaguar’s gaze, and she became prey, as she had foreseen: “a jaguar spirit coming to get me, to make me a free spirit, and I am flying over reality, jungled up, towards life or maybe towards death.” She was my world and she will continue to be. Her leaving is painful, painful, painful. But, in the end, it’s a pain that feeds the love.


by Alina Popa

Spirula and the Thing

When something intimately changes your body, your possibilities to move, your dynamic with the outer world, your identity for many people, your limits as to what you can bear, that thing forces you into inner transformation. I hate the thing, I love the thing. The thing forces me over my edges, I cannot squeeze it out of me, I cannot directly influence it, I can only take it as a challenge to my rational mind, to what I have been, to my own limitations. It has grown more than I have ever thought it could. It became big and ugly and part of me. I have to live and love myself with my monster. It is a visual enormity. I am to myself a visual enormity. I prefer to close my eyes.

This is no longer a social game, it’s within me. It forces me to be real, to be like an unwanted Star Trek character. To walk like an animal. To walk slowly, like an animal. To transform my showers into psychological thresholds. To be deformed, asymmetrical, slow, and clumsy, to eat in bed. To stay in bed. To not move, to stay only on one side, in bed, to struggle to turn. It pulls me to the ground, my leg heavy with it in it. My left leg doubled, tripled, and more. I am a monster. I am a visual enormity. I breath, I live, and I sometimes go through space.

It often feels that the struggle is not with a disease but between the huge thing on my left thigh and my mind. It plays with the limits of what I can bear myself to be. What have I become? How did I transform? It keeps me from moving freely. It numbs my hopes, it freezes my imagination. I can just be more free inside to allow myself to dare the impossible. Every time I am embodying a virtual walk through a forest I am calling the impossible. To toy with the possible so that without you noticing you are doing the impossible. It makes me find ways to keep myself from judging myself the moment I step over the border. I need to distract myself at exactly the moment I step into the fantastical. If I succeed, the fantastical is normal and real. And I can maybe walk a little bit faster.

I cry, I shout, I refuse to live in fear. I collapse with fever, fear has overtaken me, the thing laughs at my weakness. I am still here. I wake up in the night, I get up and sit on the side of the bed. It’s hard to sit. I am too asymmetrical. I despair. I refuse to live in fear. I want the thing to disappear, to stop harassing me. I have no break from it. I have no break from me. Who am I? I dreamed I was wearing the nicest, most pleasant and comfortable outfit and when I looked into the mirror, a monster head showed itself under my beautiful hoodie. I prayed to be delivered from this deformity but while praying my face kept changing, monstrous. Form didn’t want to settle on my face. I was surface, without stability. It’s past midnight. I want to put an end to my nightmare. I refuse to live in fear. I refuse to be obsessed with the thing in my leg. I want to get it over with myself. Terminate. I don’t know how. I only have natural supplements on my table. I despair. In one moment I realize I may not be able to escape, but I choose to live without fear, under any circumstances. My dear thing, I am looking at you from above.

I don’t know if you learn more by exploring the outside but I am confined to the inside. I remake the world in my bed. I draw what I see, what I am more tempted to look at, my leg. The world is my leg. The world is sheer deformity. It grows more scary than I thought it could. Looking into this world, with which I identify, I am appalled. I fear. And I keep looking, it’s my world. I start to explore it. I am representing it, drawing my fear, my obsession, my world. I am drawing the bandages on the holes on the thing on my leg. For every point I make a cell dies. I become obsessive about points. The tumor replies with needles. It wants more, more attention. You cannot make me fear, not now, you are my world. The needles I feel are like rain, every drop brings a sensation. I like this rain, it’s warm. This is a good day.

It’s like a moon of a distant planet. It has craters and a surface between skin and stone, a stone on a windy shore changing shape in a circular manner. It spurts thoughts, it spits ideas, it exhausts me. It tells me to be wild. Find snow, undress, throw yourself down, put the thing in snow, breath, enjoy, this is better than a hospital bed. There is no snow but I remember the shiny white surface where you can look and look, lose your mind to beauty. You have to do what it says, otherwise it grows bigger and soon you will be only its satellite. I want to gravitate around it, what if it is really alien, planet, biology, me, you, carbon compounds, or non. Doctor, I would like you to perform a planectomy on my leg. I promise I am a satellite. I will revolve. We will shape the space.

Spirula and Medicine

They tell me to go home and wait for my end. I fear going back home, jumping into the image they created for me. I am on the bed barely breathing. I deform it, the image, it’s the struggle between realities, they want to impose theirs because otherwise their ground becomes cracked. It’s easier to sacrifice a human than to shift your paradigm a bit. We know, human doctors think they know, they go to bed assured that I am a piece of meat. They made a script, imposed it on people like me, we have proof, we know better. Reality follows the script if it is believed and they spent centuries to impose it on us. My reality just performed a triangle choke on theirs. I am home, at Sana’s, on the bed, red cheeks and all, playing with my cats. I am alive.

I have a secret. Whatever horrible thought comes to me, from the planet within, or who knows from where, I embrace it. Come little dark thought, expand, I want to know why you are here. I will manipulate you and you will manipulate me and in the end you will be no more. Many thoughts or states sublimated within me during these months.

When I am agitated during the night, I am pretending this uncontrollable state is my will. I perform my states, I get out of bed and I let the restlessness take over. I am punching the air, I am raging like a wild animal.

Realization: I have never trusted my body and its responses. We are taught so by education. Fever needs to be kept at bay, symptoms have to be read by specialists, you don’t own your body, it is like a foreign coat you have to take care of and beware of, look for signs, gather evidence. You are outside of your body, you analyze it scientifically but what does this mean. It means that you are placing it in the scripts written by strangers who are afraid of the wonder of reality and want to restrict its vastness to a few predictable scenarios.

The body is real but what we think about it is fiction. Medical views are the fiction imposed on us by modernity and capitalism. This is a consensus fiction. How you regard the body, how you name, determines how you act upon it and also how it acts back. We are free, and the body actually calls for individual fictions, or for fictions that give it trust and freedom. Perspective creates reality. To change the standard perspective is almost impossible. It cannot be done mentally, it needs different practices—to practice ways to interact with the world that give back multiplicity to reality. We actually don’t truly interact with the world anymore. That is because we know too well the practices that are possible, and so they will give back the same outcomes. The body is as alien as the world. And we have to embrace its strangeness. Especially when we need reality to be crazy, when we are ill with no chance at survival from the standard perspective. I don’t want my reality normal. I need it off the hook.

Spirula and its Symptoms

What is a symptom?

Healing is a poem written with the language of symptoms.

Sometimes the symptoms require amplification, spatially, inside or outside the body, ignoring, fighting, acceptance by subjective study, transformation by imagination—metaphorization, deepening of their perception until they become something else, so abstract that they lose any conventional signification, and there are many other possible operations that one can perform upon symptoms. They can be danced, drawn, etc., or even just imagined in a physically passive way. There is also a rhythm of these operations upon the symptoms that is very individual for every person and even every period in a someone’s life. Healing is both the operation and the rhythm of the change of these operations. The rhythm is energy, life, it is what cannot yet be understood, that is why there cannot be any previous schedule, meaning, or explanation. The poem.

The body calls for a different language. You have to enter the unknown. It cries out loud through symptoms that it needs to become poetry not theory. This is a sign of intelligence of the soul.

Sensations—we feel them in one place but we can move them expand them shrink them keep them in movement project them outside the body make them circulate as part of a bigger language. This elasticity of sensations, discomfort, or pain sets the poetry in motion—it messes with the consensus language of the body.

I hate that the doctors nullify my poem with their order words.

Healing is an alchemical process.

Moving, reinterpreting, resymbolizing.

The body is abstract. It occupies more space than where it finds itself. That is why it can transform its anatomy into a jungle.

I grew a jungle on my body to handle my symptoms. I am delegating the care for my body to an imaginary world.

I have a volcano in my leg, a raging wild animal rising from the void in my lung, a rainforest amplifying my short breath, a wolf in my consciousness, a wild pig scuffing out the root node in my chest, a sloth calming the restlessness of my heart, a jaguar spirit coming to get me, to make me a free spirit, and I am flying over reality, jungled up, towards life or maybe towards death.

Spirula and Experience

The first to claim to actually be able to simulate the crossing of edges is the mind. Ideas tell you that you have done it or are about to, if you just dare to circle a bit more in the loop of thinking. It’s just that the spiral never ends and one day you find yourself burned out in bed being called by the body to the reality of the ideas you perhaps liked to fancy. I mean the alien, the radically unknown, the limits of experience, performance as life, life as art … The mind already replies aggressively that maybe you are in a loop with this as well but I reply that now my actions can take me from death back into life, that the edge is now fully lived.

If you are lucky to have escaped a disease conventionally you can go back to the radicality of thought as if nothing happened. Some may experience a new surge of life. Almost everyone wants to change, especially if the threat is big enough. When my existence has been put at risk, thought felt deeply humiliated, it stopped. For days I have been just feeling that I exist and that is my protection, like a lucid breath inhaled and exhaled by heart.

The diagnosis triggered two opposite forces: great fear and great courage—one that would overcome the greatness of the fear. In the great fear is a constellation of white-coat talk, alarmed best friends, and all Western conventionality regarding how you treat something for which medicine has no promise. Already in doing the list a friend shouts in my head that I am jumping to conclusions to think that there is no promise. I shout back, shut up , because I’ve been through the vicious circle of guilt too many times. And I know it’s not a real friend, it’s not even the friend, it’s me performing my own enemy as my well-meaning friend. I like enemies if they are like the Amazonian figures of enemies—the aliens whose perspectives I can eat to become what I could never alone become. In the great courage are my dreams, my energy, a deep inner feeling of abandoning myself to the unknown, my lover, my cats, my new friends and therapists in Vienna and Portland, Brazilian shamans, other crazy sick people, aunt Sana, the smell of the forest, the speed of skiing, all my enhanced experiences of nature, a butterfly on my hand for more than an hour, deer, jungle sounds, the feeling of the ocean, warmth in general, and I cannot but artificially close the enumeration.

Images: Drawings by Alina Popa made with her eyes closed, notebook on her chest.

unlisted #2

listed #3