25 November, 2020
…in the images that collected around […] disease one can see emerging a modern idea of individuality that has taken in the twentieth century a more aggressive, if no less narcissistic, form. Sickness was a way of making people “interesting” […] “The ideal of perfect health,” Novalis wrote in a fragment from the period 1799—1800, “is only scientifically interesting”; what is really interesting is sickness, “which belongs to individualizing.”
Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1978)1
This year, I fell hard into Star Trek. I had watched various seasons of the sci-fi franchise in my childhood, but, in 2020, I immersed myself in fan-favourite episodes from the ‘80s and ‘90s, cocooning from the risk of the outside world. During lockdown, a new series called Star Trek: Picard (2020) premiered—a sequel for one of Trek’s most popular characters, Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart. I watched every episode multiple times. Characters in Star Trek tend to face a crisis that they then solve—with a foolhardy commitment to a (dated) future-idealism—by the end of each episode. Everything in their lives returns to balance. These narrative arcs provide easy, utopian fixes—both hopeful and deeply frustrating to watch during pandemic lockdown.
The (dated) future-idealism of Star Trek is self-evidently uncool, but it offers moments of rupture with Queering potential. Like much of the serialised sci-fi of our popular culture, we know Star Trek to be tacky and ridiculous. As a genre, it lives firmly outside the border of high art. But ‘low art’ of this kind offers us aesthetic invitations or (Queer) gaps—spaces of fracture we can enter, in order to create new media readings. Speculative fiction, a wide umbrella-genre that encompasses this kind of replicative science-fiction serial, takes hold of our receptive bodies and invites the production of meaning in this (tacky) middle-space. The (Queer) gaps in Star Trek are an invitation to change physiologically and collaborate with mass media, to cause change in the receiver, and effect change back towards popular culture. To engage with (Queer) gaps is a two way act of speculative fiction, where viewers endow ‘quotation’ with a new meaning, which alters the original series in return.
When I was diagnosed HIV+ six years ago, I inarguably felt the individualising effect of transmission that Sontag described so many years before. This movement from collective to individual shapes the relationship between spectatorship and the infective in my body, a continuum where speculative fictions inform my practice. Star Trek is rich with these (Queer) gaps, which then allow me to shape ideas about seroconversion, transformation and the body politic in art. I see my art, writing, and performance-making, as mediums of potential (ex)change modulated by transmission. This idea has become heightened during COVID-19, with infection continually at the forefront of our collective mind.
In order to step into these (Queer) gaps, or receive these aesthetic invitations, we must first consider some myths about the pandemic. One is that we are ‘all in this together.’ This is not (yet) true, due to an unequal global footing, different degrees of isolation and surveillance, as well as increased government control. As Paul B. Preciado states, ‘the border is forever tightening around you, pushing you ever closer to your body […] The new frontier is the mask. The air that you breathe has to be yours alone.’2
While we may form a collective veneer, we breathe this air alone. The other myth is of recuperation: the idea that (both as individuals and as a society) we might get it, recover, and move on.
This myth replicates itself in our structures of art production. Everything, now, is framed as ‘Covid-recovery.’ But what are we trying to recover from, and what are we trying to recover back to? The already-existing narrow competitive field of grants and prizes reflects the worth of our status quo. We are returning to a system of exclusion that dictates who is able to understand, experience, or embody art. This aligns itself with the flawed and dying concept of the auteur—the individual genius, the suffering artist—that mimics how illness has been culturally defined: as a solo experience of the body, rather than a collective state.
But when I create—or receive—I want it to feel like a collaborative and infective act of kin-making, free from ideas of value. This has only become more apparent to me as a performance-maker this year, with necessary limitations on the material risk of performing in public theatres or even gathering in rehearsal rooms. Now, we frame and navigate our galleries, theatres, and publication houses, in a way that serves the isolated individual. These structures are prophylactic: intended to prevent the free transmission of ideas. Such limitations have helped me re-articulate what I yearn for in the interpersonal, intersubjective space of material collaboration, over and above the capitalistic isolation imposed by an individual, career-driven productivity. That is, I make collaborative work because I want to be physiologically changed by the act of making, or receipt.
We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.3
The 2020 series Star Trek: Picard leans heavily on the robotic species of humanoid aliens called ‘the Borg’, one of Star Trek’s most popular—and aesthetically inviting—entities. Introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), the Borg are envisioned as a cybernetic empire that assimilate entire species by turning them into homogenous, mechanised drones. Operating as a ‘hive mind’ in search of singular perfection, this alien collective antagonises Star Trek’s (and our) notion of the individual. The design of the Borg is retro-robotic, bearing a sickly green to evoke an aesthetic silliness, unique to sci-fi. The Borg assimilate bodies with needles that penetrate the neck—a vampiric, insectoid image that renders the victim infected and receptive, ready to become chrome-plated and the walking dead. These beings, now converted, resemble broken-down, robotic zombies. And, much like the zombie films of the ‘80s, these living dead reflect their cultural context with the fears they pose. The Borg represent an all-swallowing socialist threat; along with the ruined, viral body of the looming AIDS crisis, if we consider the social context of the times. But its collective mindset incidentally offers us a ‘positive’ message about communities of care and art practice.
Trained into solitary silence by the stigma (and often the legal restrictions) around HIV, both within and outside the gay community, living with HIV is, for lack of a better word, lonely. It is an ‘interesting’ body politic, as the poet Novalis would say, for it sets one apart, while threatening to supplant a new identity (albeit an isolating, temporally fragmented one). Queer theorist Tim Dean defines this superseding identity in a binary axis, arguing that ‘in yielding a binary answer, positive or negative, the test can seem to confer something like an identity, one that is subject to change only once. The HIV test apparently offers certitude.’4 The fractured temporalities of living with HIV inform this isolation: standing far past the ‘Lazarus moment’, or liminal zone, of antiretroviral treatment, but still beholden to a cultural legacy of fatality, or perceived abjection.5 The ‘status quo’ of one’s existence is complicated and challenged by temporal contradictions: ‘your life will stay the same’ / ‘this is a wake-up call’ / ‘it’s not the end of the world’ / ‘your life begins now.’
The transmission of an illness, whether the test returns seropositive or negative, invites the production of speculative fiction into our lived realities, a condition the general population has become more accustomed to, with the advent of COVID-19.
We are constantly engaged in this speculation: How do we get sick? When will we get sick? Am I already sick and do not know it? What will happen to my body? What is happening to my body? Will I return from this, or not? To live with HIV on antiretroviral treatment is to occupy multiple speculative worlds—one is always sick, and one is never sick.
There is always an element to seroconversion that feels like—and thus is—science-fiction, regardless of how much science can prove about our immune systems.
In the episode ‘I, Borg’, from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1992), the Starfleet human crew discovers a Borg crash site with a sole drone survivor. The fictional Captain Picard—traumatised from his previous assimilative encounter in the episode ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ (1990)—conceives a plan to infect the drone with a viral agent and return it to the hive, in order to ‘neutralise’ the entire collective.6 Ethical concerns soon call this plan into question, as Chief Engineer La Forge—the character tasked with effecting this Trojan horse—begins to form a friendship with the humanoid Borg drone, who he names Hugh (a play on the word ‘you’). Hugh is the abject twink of our sci-fi dreams, yearning for connection with wide-eyed fragility. He is played with fuckable naïveity by Jonathan Del Arco, who conveys a tubercular youth7 in a virulent romance with the Starfleet crew, and the audience. La Forge explains to Hugh that ‘losing that sense of individuality is worse than dying’, as the former tries to separate the latter from the hive—to make Hugh an individual.8 But without the voices of the Borg collective giving him certainty by buttressing his consciousness, the drone is impossibly lonely. The newly-individualised Hugh eventually opts to return to the Borg collective, and the crew speculates on whether his ‘individuality’ will act like a pathogen among the collective. But the Borg is already a viral community. Hugh’s yearning for kinship, which allows him to connect to La Forge despite being violently cut off from his collective consciousness, is part of his Borgness—his automated desire for belonging. His condition allows him to turn enemies into kin, forming micro-collectives despite being cut off from the hive mind.
The Borg’s craving for belonging, and inherent capacity to form communities of care, challenges the isolating structures built around the transmission of illness. Tim Dean relates the phenomenon of barebacking (and the narrower phenomenon of ‘pozzing’ / ‘bugchasing’ ) in contemporary gay relations as ‘a material metaphoric ‘viral consanguinity’…a new, experimental form of kinship that turns ‘strangers into relatives.’9 These phenomena take multiple forms, and are complicated by the (unequal) advent of PrEP, which allows seronegative people to take antiretroviral drugs to prevent transmission, as well as the advent of U=U (undetectable=untransmittable), or treatment as prevention (TasP) for the seropositive. While the subcultural phenomenon of ‘pozzing’ relates to the pairing of the (‘virally-charged’) seropositive with the seronegative, in either a deliberate attempt to transmit the virus, or a knowing ‘roll of the dice’ of risk, unprotected sex does not automatically equate to the desire to seroconvert. For some, prophylacted by PrEP or TasP, it might signify a more ecstatic form of pleasure, or a greater yearning for intimacy. Or it might simply ‘feel better’. Regardless, like a Borg assimilating others into the collective, these (im)personal relationships signify a kin-making strategy of skin-to-skin: either transmission itself, or the parody (or ghost) of transmission.
The new series of Star Trek: Picard (2020) is a gateway to think differently about the seropositive body, art and transmission. Star Trek: Picard introduces a new entity, the post-Borg, which is physically linked to the hive but is still unable to reach complete individuality, like an infective body relating to the legacies of a pandemic. These ruined post-Borg figures are abject, medicalised and legislated, lacking legal rights to be members of the ‘Federation’ society. Hugh returns, older but still earnestly sexy, providing care in service of his kin. ‘We’re the most hated people in the galaxy,’ Hugh says of his kind, in reminiscence to the AIDS crisis.10 The post-Borg embody a more complex relationship to the hive, for they exist at the crossroads of collectivity and individualism, same as the seropositive body relates to the collective history of an individual virus. Just as we are supposed to be repelled by the Borg, we might morally object to (or feel a visceral reaction against) barebacking, as a deliberate practice of risk. But, if we put this aside for a moment, and return to an idea of community and transformation, the post-Borg or post-medicalised body, we may consider the aesthetic invitation of the concept, rather than its material practice.
The notion of art as a virus, and spectatorship as transmission, emerges in this aesthetic invitation. As myriad COVID-19 clichés tell us: ‘we are in this together.’ We have direct encounters with art, where ideas spread like a disease, ‘together’. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a large portion of the art world into infective bodies, connected to a ‘hive’. Artists are infected with the idea and art is their mode of transmission—their creative ‘assimilation’. Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson pronounces the practice of visual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1996, as a viral strategy of this kind. He interprets his pieces as ‘carriers or hosts infected with the artist’s viruses’, where the spectator, who comes into contact with the art, contracts ‘the virus by engaging with the work and also being a carrier of the infection, spreads the virus through the body politic.’11 This exchange, like barebacking, occupies a liminal temporal reality that is haunted by the history of the virus, while also stimulating alternate world-making strategies.
This line of thinking, where ideas are a virus and art is the carrier, invites us to step outside cultural institutions, which act as barriers to a direct encounter or intimate experience. They are, for want of a better word, condoms, or masks, modes of prevention, for a post-Borg body.
The ‘post-Borg’ body gives a model for the new normal by offering a collective-yearning in our creative practice, as viral makers and abject spectators, within the same body. To consider art across these lines is to establish connections, un-stigmatise infection and gesture towards communities of care. This viral conception of art-making is a speculative fiction that creates kin across the impossible-seeming borders of time and space. Star Trek may not be Queer sci-fi but I have Queered it by receipt, in a two-way exchange. In the words of Paul B. Preciado, ‘we must go from a forced mutation to a chosen mutation.’12 These pop cultural (Queer) gaps are aesthetic invitations to transform and treat ourselves with fluidity, beyond fixed individuality. The utopian mission is to change physiologically with the making of culture and to seek kin. The moment of change occurs when we become abject to creative seroconversion, or assimilation, beyond the prophylactic structures (galleries, theatres, festivals) that regulate these exchanges. To have something unmoderated stick to us and join a collective body.
To accept that, in yearning towards kin, our artistic borders ought to be compromised.
- Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), pp. 30-31
- Paul B. Preciado, ‘Learning from the Virus’, Artforum (2020)
- Star Trek: First Contact (1996) dir. Jonathan Frakes
- Tim Dean, ‘Bareback Time’, in E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen (eds.), Queer Times, Queer Becomings, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2011), p. 85
- ‘Lazarus[ … ]refers to the expulsion of the person living with AIDS to the liminal zone of living dead…a social death of perpetual stigmatisation based upon the moribund image of the Saint.’ Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez, ‘The Lazarus Effect El SIDA/AIDS and Belated Mourning in Puerto Rican Theatre’, in Alyson Campbell & Dirk Gindt (eds.), Viral Dramaturgies: HIV and AIDS in Performance in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 369
- This might not be dissimilar to the Reagan and Thatcher-era response to the AIDS epidemic. There might even be shades of the current COVID-19 pandemic, and early calls to allow the virus to spread for the sake of a so-called ‘herd immunity’.
- In echo of the romantic conception of the tubercular youth that Sontag describes in Illness as Metaphor.
- A narrative trope seen in many American, serialised science-fiction properties, repeated at length by Star Trek with Voyager’s (1995-2001) catsuited Seven of Nine, played by Jeri Ryan.
- Tim Dean paraphrased in Alyson Campbell & Dirk Gindt (eds.), Viral Dramaturgies: HIV and AIDS in Performance in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p .8
- Del Arco, interviewed on his return in Picard, describes the experience of ‘liv[ing] through the AIDS crisis and watching friends die’ as an imaginative entry point to this fiction. Jonathan Del Arco quoted in Phil Pirrello, ‘“It was a Devastating Day”: How ‘Star Trek’ Actor Crafted Surprising Scene’, Hollywood Reporter (2020),
- Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson, ‘Contracting Justice: The Viral Strategy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’, Criticism, 51(4) (2010), p. 560
- Paul B. Preciado, ‘Learning from the Virus’, Artforum (2020)