Olia Sosnovskaya is an artist, writer, and organiser (Vienna/Minsk). She works with text, performance, and visual arts, intertwining the notions of festivity, collective choreographies, and the political. She is a PhD-in-Practice candidate at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. She presented her works at e-flux (New York), HAU Hebbel am Ufer (Berlin), Tanzquartier Wien (Vienna), Centrale Fiès (Drò), and PACT Zollverein (Essen), among others. Member of the artistic group Problem Collective and Work Hard! Play Hard! working group.
G. is an artist based in Tehran, Iran.
Olia Sosnovskaya and G. discuss the experience of revolutions in Belarus in 2020 and today’s Iran. Starting from language and its potential to create a common ground for dispersed bodies as well as to resist and to distribute imperial and colonial oppression, they turn to how the revolution is being experienced in — often weak — bodies.
Оlia Sosnovskaya: Hello, dear G. It’s such a pleasure to talk to you again, even at a distance. Actually, I appreciate a certain intimacy of voice messages.
It took me some time because it is always a bit worrying to start. I want to talk to you about language. Now I am physically distant from the political events that matter so much to me and have been affecting me for the past years. I’m talking about the 2020 anti-governmental uprising in Belarus after the rigged elections, which has been brutally suppressed with russia’s support and the overall passivity of the West. I am also talking about russia’s current full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in which Belarus is involved by providing its territories and infrastructures to russia for attacks. And, of course, I am also talking about multiple fights and struggles around the world, in which we are all intertwined but have very different degrees of involvement.
As I haven’t been in Belarus for two years, and I’m not there now and have no idea when I could be there again, one of the only relationships I can have with this continuing political event is through language and speech. By talking about it, perceiving it through reports and news, and then trying to make sense of it by putting it into words. It’s a way to try making it more solid — through repetition, articulation, writing down, and hoping that this act of pronouncing and repeating could bring back and preserve the sense of empowerment, possibility, and hope that was so physically present and real two years ago. Now it has evaporated almost completely, giving space to feelings of despair, exhaustion, and ruin. I still believe that these sensations stay in the bodies, but our bodies are now dispersed, and language is our connection. For example, I know that you have a practice of letter writing with your collaborators.
I also was thinking about the slogan of the Iranian Revolution: “Woman, Life, Freedom”. How it embraces something seemingly shared — but also something very specific to a particular place and time; how it embraces different histories and their transformation. Then I thought about how language operates in a moment of political resistance. It often fails, but then it also holds us. It can belong both to the oppressor and to the revolt. When is it possible to subvert the language of the empire and make it our own? And when is there nothing left to rescue anymore, and we should just give up certain languages?
I was also thinking about solidarity as translation: how certain fights, agendas, concepts, and words can be translated and shared. For example, to what extent the meaning of empire is shared everywhere? We’ve been seeing how comprehension of russian imperialism has been failing and denied in the West.
Maybe you could respond to the ideas and concerns I shared… Maybe you could also talk about what language means to you in the current struggle and how it is operating. What are the possibilities and limits of translation, articulation, and solidarity? We can start from here. I’m sending you a big, big hug and looking forward to hearing from you.
G.: Hello, my dear. The voice message I sent you is the sound coming from outside my windows. Every night, at nine o’clock, people shout, “Down with the dictator! Zan Zendegi Azadi” from the roofs, balconies, and windows. As I was listening to your voice message, I could hear the slogans shouted from the balcony, so I decided to record them for you.
I think the topic that you chose, to begin with, is really beautiful. I should start with a bit of the history of the debate about language in Iranian politics. As you may know, we have Farsi as the official language in Iran. There are other countries where Farsi is spoken as well — for example, in parts of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The geography of Farsi speakers is bigger than in Iran, but in Iran, Farsi is an official language. And then you have other minorities. They are Kurds, Lor Turks, and the Baloch. There are many parts of Iran where people don’t speak Farsi, but everyone must learn it when they go to primary school, and all official conversations are held in Farsi.
There is an old debate about the right to learn your mother language, and a lot of resistance is trying to make this right official. This discussion continues among different forces in opposition. And, of course, there is a form of nationalism that rejects this variety of languages in the name of the “United nation”. And there are leftists and socialists who believe in this right. They oppose that kind of nationalism, and for them it is one of the most important topics.
For a really long time, Farsi speakers didn’t realise how oppressive it is for other groups to not learn their mother language when starting primary school. Let’s say a Turk kid, who has never spoken Farsi before, goes to school, and they must learn to write in Farsi, while others around are Farsi natives who are learning to write in their mother language. It was quite difficult for many Farsi speakers inside Iran to understand why this is a problem.
And what happened in this uprising, this revolution, is that the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” started from Kurdistan. In Kurdish, it’s “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî”; it originated in Rojava and was first translated to Farsi during the student protest inside Tehran University. People come to study there from everywhere in Iran, so there are Kurds, Lors, Turks,.. — everyone studies there. The Kurd students translated “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” to Farsi, and it became “Zan, Zendegī, Āzādī”. This translation was really important — they made the bridge, and immediately, this slogan became the main slogan. It happened on the first day because everyone valued Zan, Zendegī, and Āzādī. And then it went to other languages — it became Turkish, Balochi, etc. The first time I read this slogan in Balochi was the first time in my life that I — an Iranian girl who grew up in the capital — read anything in Balochi. And before I read it, I knew it was “Woman, Life, Freedom”. It was written in my alphabet, but I couldn’t read the words, and I knew that it was “Zan, Zendegī, Āzādī” from the context, from it being written by other protesters that day. So there was a moment when I was reading a language I couldn’t understand, knowing the meaning before I translated the words.
It’s the first time in Iranian politics that things are not coming from the idea or theory formulated in Farsi and then translated into other languages. It comes from the Kurdish language and is translated into Farsi, Balochi, and other languages inside Iran. And it travels without translation. I even read it in the Armenian language, which has a totally different alphabet. It was written by an Armenian painter who lives in Iran, and I saw it on Facebook — he wrote it as his status. And I was sure that this was “Woman, Life, Freedom” before I used Google Translator because of how it looked and the day it was written on. It happened a lot — we heard or saw the words and recognised them, while we didn’t know the language. That’s why the topic you chose, language and translation, is the centre of everything we are experiencing now.
Olia Sosnovskaya: Hello, dear. Thank you so much for your message from yesterday. When I first listened to your message with the sound of street chants, I felt like all those things I said crumbled under the strength, reality, and immediacy of the protest chant. This also made me remember how people were shouting slogans from the windows in Minsk neighbourhoods in 2020. On the third day of the protest, the level of police violence got so extreme that many people did not dare to go out anymore. So they started chanting and making noise from their windows in the blocks of flats. And it was really powerful as it looked like a party or a celebration, with many lights. It’s like when you don’t have the power or courage to attack physically, you resist through language, through scream.
But, of course, language has its own power, which should not be underestimated. I still don’t want to talk about the Russian language and its domination and power in the post-soviet space, or, not even post-soviet, but post-russian-empire space. Why am I speaking Russian and not Belarusian? Because of the imperial policy of the russian federation. And now russia is using the fact that many people in parts of Ukraine are Russian-speaking as justification for the attack. And then, of course, it is important to claim many Russian languages, as well as many Englishes. And then it’s also a question of how to claim them, and when you’re actually powerless under the empire’s discursive and very real militant physical force. When should we just give up the language and learn another one? These are all open questions to me.
When you talked about Farsi, I realised that I don’t know how I learned the Belarusian language. When I was a child, there was nobody around me who spoke exclusively Belarusian. I’ve probably absorbed it from different sources and different people. It was interesting how you said that for the first time in the history of Iranian protest, things don’t come from theory or idea in Farsi but are translated and then travel without translation. I wonder if you could tell me what the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” means to you. How is its meaning being transformed in the current resistance? Or is it rather a continuation of the meaning it bore when it originated? Thank you.
Olia Sosnovskaya: Hello, dear. I was thinking more about your words: that, for the first time, the revolution is not coming from the theory formulated in Farsi. This led me to think about the relationship between theory and enactment. For example, it is often said that decolonisation is not a metaphor, but then this concept travels and becomes hijacked by Western academia. And then we see the meaning being washed out by its endless theorisation without any practice. Lately, we also see a lot of debate on how the practice of decolonisation could and couldn’t be applied to the Eastern European context. On the one hand, it is finally being pronounced here more often, but then suddenly, everyone feels like they’re an expert, simultaneously taking the idea of decolonisation out of its roots, out of its connection to race, out of the history of genocide of indigenous population in South and North America. This is not to say that decolonisation is not urgent for Eastern Europe or for undoing russian imperialism — not undoing, there should be another word.
In Belarus, we had this very painful but also empowering experience of a smashed revolution. So the theory of further revolution will now involve building on and learning from this experience in order to develop it into a continuous practice. So that revolution can be more than just a temporary break or a hole in the system of oppression, which is impossible to break, so to speak. Then it can become a continuous practice of revolution with its own dynamics: sometimes really burning, overwhelming, and incorporating all experience, the whole existence, like, totality. But sometimes, a little bit more dormant or developing, growing in our bodies, our tongues, our relationships, and connections through time. The only way to continue the revolution is to build a theory out of it. Something that could be spread, shared, developed, and carried further. Something, perhaps, less fragile than the immediacy of affects and fragility of bodies. These were my thoughts. Big hug to you, and looking forward to hearing what kind of response this message brings.
G.: Hello, dear Olia. Sorry for my delay. I couldn’t listen to the voice message last night because the Internet was really slow, so I tried to say some of my thoughts in the next voice.
Regarding the theory. I don’t remember my exact sentence, but I don’t think that I said that it’s the first time that theory is not before the language, and language and action are before the theory. I think, in general, theory comes out of what happens before, so it’s always after. Theorists try to verbalise, make sense of what already happened, and then create a theory. I’m not a theoretician, and I’m also not really good at reading theory, so maybe, I’m not a good person to discover this. But I know that there are things that happen before our minds manage to articulate them. What are those (pre-articulation) happenings? I like to call them a “package of senses”. Words that come to our tongue before the actual words; things that we touch, smell, and see. These packages of senses become Aesthetic before they become a theory. And this aesthetic is not something we can simply explain in words — they come from our bodies and in a constant rotation, when they appear as aesthetic, they affect our bodies again.
The uprising in Iran right now is really strong in this direction because people feel it in their bodies before they actually acknowledge it outside of themselves or verbalise it with their minds. It’s something really physical. Women are in the first line because they are the ones emancipating their bodies. When I see, with my own eyes, a woman without a scarf on the street, the thing that is happening to my body directly is totally separated from my mind, my theories, and my prejudgment about everything, from whatever I imagined of political change before. The ideas I had about change were coming from my mind. But what is happening now on the street is happening to my body. A middle-aged woman wearing pyjamas and a T-shirt, walking on the street, does something really strong to me — because she’s really natural, she’s who she is. This ordinary image is really strange because she’s not a young woman who wants to walk around with perfect hair or a perfect body and makeup. She’s just a woman that you don’t see normally. She’s a woman who is invisible in many ways: in society, in her position in the family, her labour at home is invisible too, and she probably works at home 24 hours. And suddenly, she appears in the city. She’s visible, she’s extraordinary; she’s revolutionary — a woman who walks on the streets risking her life by being herself.
G.: There is always a distance between these packages of senses happening to our bodies and our minds. Later on, the senses land somewhere and become sentences, a motto, maybe a narrative text…or a theory. But first it’s happening in our bodies, creating a kind of body intelligence. When I walk on the street, and I don’t wear the obligatory hijab — I’m really aware of my body. At the same time, I’m trying to normalise this situation by not thinking about it. As if I’m trying to make my unconscious take over everything, and yet I’m really present in my body because I want to run if the police come, or I want to be aware if a riot comes from the other side of the street. I’m actively looking with my eyes for other women, and when I see a woman coming from the end of the street, I become safe again. All of my instincts enforce my body intelligence to be present. These feelings and senses have a long, long path to my brain and my way of thinking — to become a theory, as we’ve discussed. I hope my response is related to what you said.
Olia Sosnovskaya: Hello, dear. First, I wanted to briefly say that your words made me remember, almost on a bodily level, the experience of protests in Belarus. I’m grateful that you brought this physical memory back to me. It also directed my thoughts, and I will speak about it a bit later. Remembering this reminded me how through this bodily sensation, you are able to grasp — not understand but realise the complexity of things, the way they’re so fragile and unpredictable. For example, the experience of women’s marches in Minsk showed that the idea of feminism is more nuanced than it’s often stated, and participation often comes before the clearly formulated theory. And, coming back to the start of our conversation on language, I, again, wonder: what can be suggested after this moment of bodily intensity? Can anything come after and be comparable to this bodily involvement? How can one imagine political change? Does it come through these fragile bodies, or can it only arrive after processing this experience?
When I was thinking about this feeling of being among other bodies, I recalled the marches in Minsk with hundreds of thousands of participants, and I realised that I had never been in such a crowd before. I’d never seen so many people on the streets of Minsk. These days I’m thinking about it a lot because I’m writing a text about collective and social organising, what it means in a place like the one I’m from — Belarus, post-socialism, Eastern Europe. Forms of collectivity have been undermined there by the experience of state socialism, its collapse, by its being imposed from the top down. Collectivity was further undermined by neoliberal transformations and authoritarian regimes that atomised people and deprived them of agency and any belief in alternative futures. It’s interesting to see how people search for new ways of collective organising that will not fail, that are not imposed, and that are also joyous.
I remember the yard celebrations during protests when people gathered in their neighbourhoods — and normally nowadays, in the cities in Belarus, you often don’t know your neighbours. So people got to know each other through this shared experience of searching for new ways of political resistance after a crackdown on street protests. They gathered to discuss what to do, but then they also started to arrange celebrations. Those events often didn’t have a direct political agenda, but the core reason for these gatherings was people’s political position and desire for political change. But they didn’t have the tools for it. These meetings were not safe, often being raided by the police, people getting arrested, and so on. And some of these networks are also sustained till this day, along with resistance tactics that emerged in the 2020 uprising, they are being transformed into antiwar sabotages and support infrastructures.
At the same time, many have left the country due to repressions — about ten percent of the population, as I’ve read somewhere. The question now is how to sustain these connections. With the war in Ukraine, many became disillusioned about the former ways of political organising. People became distrustful of nonviolent resistance. Though I still think it was not so much a moral choice but rather a necessity when facing drastic power disbalance, going up against armed police with no experience of violent resistance. Now, many are persuaded that any change of regime in Belarus is impossible without russia’s regime falling. That if, say, we overthrow the regime, we would just repeat Ukraine’s scenario and undergo a russian invasion. This is just speculation, but it reflects the mood of hopelessness in the re-evaluation of past actions. It is kind of a new crisis, new political ruin. It comes from realising the limits of one’s actions together with responsibility and accountability for the fact that Belarusian territories are being used to attack Ukraine. And that in the current situation, a civil society, which, after two years of resistance and oppression, has been atomised and repressed (today, there are 1442 political prisoners in Belarus, and almost all NGOs — over 300 — and independent media have been shut down), hardly has any real tool for resisting this. And it seems hard, but also urgent — to find this collective body again, to assemble it once more.
I repeated this story about protests in Belarus, mostly also to remind myself and everyone that it actually happened, that it was real, which now seems almost hard to believe. And that, as it happened before, there is a promise that it will happen again. But today, there is a huge gap. It’s not just between that point of revolution and the point of now, or between those who stayed and those who left; those who left safely, and those who had to cross the border through the forest; those who experienced imprisonment and torture and those who didn’t. And we can argue about the extent to which these experiences prevent us from claiming solidarity and from being empathetic to one another, but still, this gap must be acknowledged. And then today, there is another painful gap between me and my friends in Kyiv, who have no electricity, no water, and no heating after another massive russian attack. There is a gap between the comfort of my body and my feeling of powerlessness, which, perhaps, comes with this comfort. And the enormous gap between them and our friends in russia, which I won’t speak much about because I’m not the one to speak about it, but I’m not sure if this gap will be repairable in any foreseeable future. And the gap between my friends from Belarus and friends and colleagues from russia, who work in art and culture, and who are now losing privileges, which they perhaps only now realise they had, compared to the situation in Belarus. For example, being actually able to work in your country of citizenship because of the way resources are distributed.
But I’m not going to mourn this gap or accuse anyone. By not mourning this gap, I mean to also avoid reproducing this toxic narrative about the brotherly nations, which lies at the core of russia’s imperialism. There are some collective bodies we don’t want to be part of, like the state or russia. But I think we should face this gap and learn how to work with it. I don’t mean to say that connection, empathy, and solidarity are impossible, but they are not given. They’re always worked through in the process, and sometimes it doesn’t work — and then it just doesn’t work, and we have to face it. Look for what works. I should mention that now we are speaking at this platform of a former russian institution that this whole time has been sensitive to these things which I talk about, and they are my friends, and still, we’re all not free from these entanglements of power relations and violence. The least we can do is to verbalise them. I’m sorry that I brought in so much of our context, but I think it’s really important to think about.
G.: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I think, through what you said, I could see many details about the relationship between Belarus, russia, and the east of Europe. These important details, and textures, are not easily acceptable to us. There is always a texture of people, friendships, and relationships which are not visible in any form of the news. It’s also about languages — we can’t comprehend the feeling of speaking Russian between countries that are not part of the actual border of russia (this must be a really special feeling). We can’t grasp the ups and downs in the feeling of unity in resistance, unity as a form of community, or solidarity of people who can read each other’s words while they are cut by borders. The same goes for anger and hatred generated through discrimination by the central state and its central power structure above all of these similarities — these are things that are absent in many international conversations. What do we know about relationships between people with the common language in the lands divided by borders? About the climatic relationship between these areas? They are not just neighbours, but parts of a bigger body and, as you said, sometimes, a part of the body doesn’t want to be united with the other parts because it’s painful to be discriminated against… But a body needs its organs to be connected without borders, without forces that come from the centre.
What was really interesting in your thoughts was this experience of belonging to a bigger body. For example, Belarusian, Ukrainian and russian resistance, fighting for freedom and justice — is a bigger body. Or belonging to a geography that has the tool of speaking in a common language. Or being part of a political movement — waves, change, or whatever we decide to call it. Being part of an uprising like being in a river. And then, at the same time, having different positions of the bodies in many different details and textures. Being separated bodies that come from a common cause. One of you lives in Western Europe, and the other one lives in the actual war, with no electricity and water. The third one lives in danger of getting arrested every second in Belarus. The other one lives in a post-uprising depression. But it’s like we were once part of something, and we felt each other’s body in that, then, all of a sudden — we are separated bodies. Isolated from each other in different circumstances based on our privileges, chances, borders, and, our position within the hierarchical situation, our distance to the centre. As if once we experienced (dreamt of) equality. And then again, we were cut in unequal parts.
This is something that I’m really interested in because this is what’s happening to us as well. I have friends who live in Canada and Europe, and I have friends who live in Iran: some in Tehran and some in different parts of the country, where the conditions of daily life are much harsher. How can we feel that we all belong to the same movement? How can we still continue our political discussion and forget what unequal positions our bodies are in?
I notice how different conditions between me and my friends in Europe (even those with whom we were once really close) create a huge gap in our politics as well. The content that this distance is based on doesn’t matter. I have a friend who lives in the Netherlands, in a really cold and isolated situation — in a small apartment inside a gentrified neighbourhood in the city. I never feel that she is free in her body or that she can enjoy life. There is now a form of comfort in her body that makes her brain restless. And in our conversations, sometimes she wants everything to finish right now: we should win in this revolution tomorrow morning! She’s waiting for a victory as if it’s coming next week. To this, I answer that we should wait or be patient and think about the duration of change. Imagine this different speed, this different rhythm in our bodies — it also creates a huge gap in our politics. And at the same time, I can discuss these things with some of my non-Iranian friends more comfortably because this gap between us is actually shorter.
You and I, and many of our friends share the same feeling of being part of a geographical movement, that shares the same language. All this sympathy while being dispersed creates the feeling of being in exile constantly. Exile is a concept that I really like to talk about because, apparently, exile is our destiny. Doesn’t matter if we live at home without our friends who have left the country or we live abroad without friends who live in other cities. We’re carrying this feeling of exile, and I am trying to accept it. Ok, we are in exile. And what do we have in exile? With this distance that we have from reality, from each other, from the borders? Even If you live in the centre of Belarus, there’s probably a much harsher reality happening in another poor area of the country, which is not accessible to you, you are in exile from that part, and you probably have friends abroad that you both are in exile from. So let’s believe that we are in Exile, all of us.. with different concentrations.
Regarding your thoughts on the collective and the individual, and the defeated experience of being in a collective coming from a socialist system that failed — it is a similar experience in Iran, too. We had a revolution in 1979, and then, for a decade, we had a form of socialism (with a heavy suppression of all the opposition groups). That socialism transformed into another system of the economy a decade later. And now, any form of collectivism goes to this nation unification project of the state (the first decade of the revolution), which failed badly. And now people want to be different. They want to be outside of any form of unification, and they want to be as different as possible. For many years I was thinking: does it mean that we want to be individuals? Does it mean that we want to experience our individuality, or individual freedom, as what we see in the West?… Personally, I don’t believe in any freedom which is totally individual. But what is between that collectiveness, that project of unifying a nation (with oppressing all of the minorities) and individual freedom — what is in between? I think that’s what we are trying to discover. We are trying to discover what can be the scale of a collective. And how this collective can connect itself to something bigger and not suppress something smaller than itself. Everywhere, we are trying to discover a form of a collective that is not a nation-state or an imperialist project, or simply individual freedom. There are many things in between that we want to experience and discover.
Olia Sosnovskaya: Hello, dear. Sorry for being slow. For some reason, I was so tired yesterday. And the day before yesterday, we organised a discussion about strikes, care and feminism, and the role of women in the uprisings in Belarus and Poland. In Poland, there is a law that bans abortion almost completely. And there is a movement called “Women’s Strike”, started by women, of course, and supported in the wider society, that fights this abortion ban. It was not a literal strike, which also took place, but more like a demonstration, a disruption of normal life. In Belarus, during and after the protests of 2020, there has been the largest wave of labour unrest not only in the contemporary history of Belarus but also in the region. These were also not strikes, but rather different ways of protest by employees and workers.
We had a long discussion about a revolutionary movement, also in the context of the war in Ukraine. What are the alternatives to the heroic idea of progress? And what to do with all the hurt, exhausted bodies in need of taking care of themselves and each other, existing within a different rhythm and temporality? And there is this more intimate connection between people and bodies, which can exist on different levels of proximity: very close, like in the prison cell, where women share not only their emotional support but also their knowledge and skills, hygiene products, underwear, and so on. Or it can be bodies separated in space — people donating money from abroad to volunteers, to those fired, to political prisoners, and others. So there was a discussion about the scale of political action. Whether care and other small individual gestures in daily life, which go beyond and against the political regime, can still be considered political agency and activism — while it doesn’t stop the war. If railway sabotage and strike movements in russia and Belarus didn’t reach a scale enough to stop the war, what is a way to relate to this kind of political disruption? Thank you so much for your thoughts and very acute words and for noticing so precisely the condition many of us are in. It’s always so valuable to hear what you say. I will continue in the next voice.
I want to read the quote from Mirene Arsanios, a writer. I normally cite a lot: I think there is something particular in this repetition, the act of citation and repetition of movements, words, historical events, or historical scenarios. So, the quote. “When my language says “eau” in French, she doesn’t necessarily mean water. She also means emulsification or a phone call she will not answer. I don’t mean to say that my language can wield language to mean anything she wants it to mean. There is a colonial blueprint on her tongue that poetry can sometimes transform but not escape. My language doesn’t write poetry. She is barely awake when she writes. In intermittent bouts, she writes about a kind of love divorced from biological inheritance (of language, wealth, culture). A tongue imparted by future mothers, an extemporaneous and ascending transmission in which inheritance is divorced from property (of language, culture, wealth).”1
So I was thinking about one of the two colonial languages I speak: English and Russian. And there have been different writings about many Englishes, about how different versions of English coexist and how this broken English is a sort of resistance, the challenge to normative English. I think Mirene Arsanios has a text on it as well. 2But then there are differences in Russian. From hearing the speech, I can very easily identify a person who is from Moscow (not to confuse with someone who lives in Moscow, because many people who live there are not from there or not russian, meaning russian ethnicity). I would hear if it’s Lithuanian-Russian or Ukrainian-Russian; Belarusian-Russian would just sound normal to me, I guess. You talked about a common language — but how common it actually is? Maybe it is much less common than we thought; maybe those articulations and pronunciations weigh much more than the actual words. Or maybe it’s always a dynamic process. Most of us are simultaneously a part of the resistance and of regimes of violence. And this doesn’t make our resistance less valuable or inefficient. It doesn’t make it powerless. But we must acknowledge this.
It was beautiful how you were talking about this situation of our bodies which guides our capacities to be together in the fight. It made me remember the experience of protests in Belarus: basically, this bodily experience defined the political imagination and peoples’ moods. Feeling secure about victory, about tomorrow, or vice versa — feeling depressed. And it’s more of a speculation — but I think the police don’t allow people to gather not only to block the riot. It’s also to not allow them to catch this affect, which will perpetuate and charge the political desires, aspirations, and imaginaries. By blocking the bodies, they block you from imagining a better world and believing that it’s possible. For me, not being able to be among other bodies was hard. Once, I didn’t get to the march because I was so afraid to be outside — I felt like my body was paralysed with fear. It made me feel so low, sad, and pessimistic, and it gave me a feeling that the revolution would also fail, that we will all fail. Like I failed to join the march. And later, when I was not in Belarus most of the time, I wondered if I was allowed to say that I am a part of this movement if I’m not physically there. But then, where is “there” exactly? This place where we are together is, of course, larger than just the street, but it is also very concrete. So I was learning how to act through language, through writing and speaking, how to care about others through language. But part of the reason why these bodily constellations in protest, celebrations, and dance are so strong is because they are not only about language.
You were describing this distance and the impossibility of actually being together despite this distance, and it made me think about how writers are searching for new words for solidarity that will encapsulate all these nuances: differences in power hierarchies and privileges, different access to experience. You’re always searching for a concrete word that will be able to describe all the complexity of the situation, but in the end, it somehow fails anyway.
And it was really beautiful what you said about searching for forms of togetherness that are not imperialist or nationalist and also not individualist. I think about forms of togetherness in post-socialism, about this constant search for ways to be together beyond the ideology and neoliberal individualism, which are often precisely in the gaps between different political realities, substituting each other. Thinking about the protests in Belarus, people were also learning how to be together beyond the state, from which they want to dissociate. But in the end, most of them did not manage to go beyond the nation-state. There is a devastating situation on the border between Belarus and Poland, as well as Belarus and other EU countries, with refugees who primarily come from Iraq and Kurdistan, and other places as well. The people have been stranded by Belarusian and Polish border guards in devastating conditions, which caused some deaths. The Belarusian regime kind of encouraged them to come in order to threaten the European Union by creating a crisis on the border. Many people in Belarus who have been part of the anti-government protests — because Belarus is quite white and xenophobic, and also because these refugees were brought by the regime — didn’t separate them from the oppressor. Even though many protesters had to become refugees themselves, they failed to solidarise with these refugees. Not everyone, but it was kind of a general narrative that was perpetuated by the independent media as well. So there’s lots of work that is yet to be done; this brief experience of bodily proximity in the fight and togetherness has its limits and has to become a practice through time.
And regarding what you said about exile: I think it’s exactly this feeling of being in exile, the same as in your country, of trying to find indirect ways of living political life. In Belarus, it happened through the cultural and non-governmental sectors. Through activities that are not political but go against the system, against the normal state of things.
G.: Hello, dear. I enjoyed listening to you, and I want to go back to many things you’ve said. But among them, I want to stay on the topic of the body: the connection of experience in our bodies to representation in politics. Many things try to represent our bodily experience, while failing very badly. From politicians to activists, to imageries, to the news. How can we conserve or protect our body experiences from these representations? And from the violence that this corrupt representation puts on our bodies. For example, I know that in Iranian diaspora politics, there is always a fight about who represents Iran and the Iranian people. In a more general view, there is this question of who should represent the protest, protesters, and the revolution in a larger sense. And every day, there is someone who claims to be a leader, or there is a group that names someone a leader based on the number of followers or likes. We are in this storm of the fight for representation. And I was wondering if we would be able at some point to say something more than “this movement is leaderless”. That’s a sentence you hear a lot, but it’s not enough. It doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t create a structure that ends the fight for representation; that fight eventually becomes about who has the right to say this movement is leaderless — it maintains the same power structure. By saying this, I want to also say something else. I think Solidarity in general and the whole idea of solidarity is strongly against representation. I had this conversation with a friend of mine today in Tehran. She was telling me about the difference between the slogan “Be Our Voice” and actually amplifying someone’s voice. One is about representation, the other one is about the natural consequences of solidarity. For example, in this conversation with you, I noticed that I’m free from the fear of representation (you don’t force me to talk on behalf of the entire nation, and you understand my doubts when I talk about People) because of your experience in Belarus. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never been to Iran — your real political experience creates a safe place for me to express my feelings. I call that safe place Solidarity. I’m free from reminding you in every sentence that I’m not talking on behalf of my people, although I am constantly picturing “all the people”. It is as if we are both armed with the tools of compassion. I feel a free-floating conversation between our voices, between my body and yours, and our minds. I call that floating smooth background of this conversation Solidarity. The ground of solidarity allows us to exchange our experiences fearlessly. I know solidarity is an overused word. These days we cannot easily use it because it has become emptied of its meaning and function. But we must mention the invisible bridge in our conversation that makes things flow… And, of course, it allows me to go from one subject to another without the stress of representation, misunderstanding, misinformation or worrying that I’m making an image that creates an illusion for you. And this emancipation of all of these feelings, I think, is based on solidarity… We must reclaim this word.
Оlia Sosnovskaya: Hello, dear. Sorry for responding late. I was traveling yesterday and listened to your message in the evening. And today, I felt that I was getting a bit sick. So, I don’t think I can add much more to what you said because it is beautiful and so accurate and from an unexpected angle, too. I loved how you said we should protect our bodies from representation.
I couldn’t help but think about the text by Ana Vujanović3, which I can’t get out of my mind since I read it a few years ago, on the critique of representative democracy in Western societies. Through this critique of representation, she then argues that bodies in public spaces also don’t decide anything politically anymore. But what you said is really interesting and encouraging, that we should actually claim our bodies against this representation that obviously fails. There’s also an interesting loop to the beginning of our discussion about the language. Because, in the end, the language is a kind of representation. And it’s always interesting to me how to make language not just a representation but an action.
I loved how you were talking about solidarity as this experience of bodies beyond representation, as some central sensitive-affective experience that allows you to be unbound. Experience rooted in the place you come from but also helping you to go beyond it.
And it was also very interesting what you said about this leaderless movement. I think, in Belarus, everyone claimed that the protest movement is leaderless. And it’s true because all leaders were imprisoned. And people actually didn’t want to be leaders for that reason — being in danger. So even the assumed leaders, like the presidential candidates, were saying: “no, no, we’re not actually leaders, we’re just symbols, and the people are making the call”.
G.: Olia, sorry, I was horribly sick for three days, and I just came back to life. In the last three days, I have been thinking about how what we are experiencing is not even a representative democracy because we don’t vote for those people who are representing us abroad. Nowadays, we have journalists, artists, writers, analyzers, those who go to the media, those who talk on behalf of others, and those who claim the word “people”. They speak on behalf of us, but this wasn’t decided by voting. It’s not a representative democracy. I think it’s a long effect of looking at representative democracy as the best model of democracy: now, any other form of political imagination turned to a form of representation. And I think there is no way to avoid it, there is no way to not claim the word “people”. Of course, all revolutionaries must use this word, and it’s the power you gain for yourself when standing against something. But there are ways to keep this representation at least on a correct scale. Not the scale of an algorithm, not the scale of media, not the scale of megaphones with money, force, and capital. I don’t know how it should work, but these are my raw thoughts. First, we need to come back to the human scale, then with our equal voices, we can claim the word People again and discuss our ideas on a bigger scale.
Going back to the topic of the body. If you have a similar bodily experience with a group of people, and then represent them somewhere else, it can be really appropriate. In this way, the level of corruption (that usually comes with representation) goes really low. Because you talk on behalf of your body, you say things that are close to all the other bodies that were with you in that experience as well. If we all experience a specific moment of togetherness on the squares of our cities — later on, when we represent that protest with all of our different perceptions and different political opinions, we still describe a common feeling. Because we were inside the same bodily experience. Also, Exile is a really strong bodily political experience. I never undermine the experience of being in exile. In our political landscape, there are many strong texts that were written by writers in exile. We can also represent an exiled body; we can talk on behalf of “we” or “us” while we are talking about those bodies who are experiencing exile, especially in specific cities in the North and West of Europe and America (what we call the West), which are really specific experiences of the body.
And again, about the language. It’s true — language also is a form of representation. But imagine a common language where the words we use come through our bodies. If we write things that our bodies experience: what our bodies are seeing or feeling, or sensing, then, definitely, that will represent many things without distance between the word People and personal experience.
Olia Sosnovskaya: So sorry to hear you were sick, and I hope you are feeling much better now. I have also been sick in the past few days, not so badly, luckily, but I still was really weak. I was kind of having a never-ending cold. It’s somehow fascinating to think about it in the context of what you said about sharing bodily experience and the distance — and both of us being sick at the distance.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot and discussing these weak bodies in revolution with friends and colleagues. There is this concept suggested by Polish feminist and philosopher Ewa Majewska called “weak resistance”.4 But of course, she’s subverting the notion of weakness, criticising this heroic image of revolution and talking about alternative strategies of resistance, which sometimes can be a really small gesture, appearing really big. Then we were discussing with a friend and colleague, Andrea Anciera, how to avoid this opposition between weakness and strength without trying to reclaim weakness. So I was thinking about weak bodies that don’t have the physical capacity to fight the police, walk many kilometres in the march, and be vulnerable on the streets because they’re already this vulnerable. Not only in terms of physical weakness but also mental vulnerability and sickness, and exhaustion. How can you be a part of a revolutionary movement when you are sick, weak, exhausted, and so on?
I’m taking a big detour from the topic. But I loved what you said about it being hard not to claim the word “people” and this corporeality of solidarity and the critique of representation. I like the idea of seeing this distance and exile as some form of materiality that we should deal with and embody rather than treat it as an impossibility and barrier which forever separates us. I think this is a good point to wrap up the conversation, not because I want it to end, but because there is some time frame which we’re invited to follow. I don’t know if you want to add anything else. I want to say thank you for sharing these days with me through these voice messages. It has been a really important way of connecting. And thank you so much for sharing your ideas. They’re always inspiring and strong for me, and the way you put them into words is very dear. I hope and believe that the fight will be fruitful, and I’m totally sure of victory, in all the complexity of the notion of victory. I’m hoping to stay in touch from a distance, but near and close and connected, sending you a very strong hug and solidarity. Thank you.
I was thinking if I should wrap up with some kind of conclusion, but I think it’s actually ok to have an ending that’s a bit scattered and loose because there is no end. In the end, we’re in the moment, in the process, and thank you.
G.: I finally listened to everything you said, and I really enjoyed it. I think it’s good to keep it like this. And it was a beautiful ending/non-ending/open ending. There are just a few things that came to my mind about the weak body that you talked about, which was a really beautiful topic, and I would love to talk about it with you later. But just to add a few things.
The idea of resistance/strategy/tactics, in which weak bodies can be involved, is extremely important for us. One of the beautiful things about the uprising in Iran with the Woman in the front is the body that wants to liberate itself, doesn’t claim power, and doesn’t claim to have the strongest muscle. It’s a body that wants to liberate itself, to be as it is, with all of its weak points and inability. In the last two months, I thought about my body too. I felt my age for the first time in my life because I thought about the capacity of my body, its ability, and its inability. My whole life, I wanted to be a strong woman. Strong in terms of independence, in terms of not being scared. This word, Strong Woman, existed in my mind as if it was my homework to do, to become a strong woman. All of a sudden, during the uprising, I realised that I don’t want to be a strong woman anymore. I want to be a Free woman. Free even from being strong. This was a big change for me: from trying to be strong to trying and being free. I think a free body can be really weak, but as weak as many other natural things. As weak as the reality of human scale, as weak as a fragile child walking and playing in the street. We should imagine a world where all these kinds of bodies with a real scale of existence become free. Thank you very much, and I hope to hear about your project soon.
Оlia Sosnovskaya: Dear, thank you for the messages. I didn’t want to add anything, but I couldn’t help but add a footnote. I can really relate to what you said about strong and free bodies, that free bodies can also be weak. I just wanted to say that there was this quote by a dance scholar Andre Lepecki5, where he refers to Hannah Arendt and her talking about the political movement. She says that moving politically means to move freely, and this political movement is a commitment that comes through repetition, and with every repetition, it is renewed. I often repeat this quote. After what you said, it also gained a new meaning for me, as it’s interesting to think about movement in a double sense: political movement and also bodily movement. And this repetition is something that enables us to learn, to master something, to practice. But also, through this constant repetition comes exhaustion. And then it really makes sense that free bodies constantly move till they are exhausted. But this exhaustion doesn’t mean that they are somehow dysfunctional or failed. That could mean that this is how they become free — through this weakness. Thinking about the political movement in terms of the revolutionary movement or dance movement, you normally think of the revolutionary body as a strong body and a dancer’s body as a strong one, but it can also be a weak, fragile one. And it’s powerful in that sense. So, thank you very much. Love you too.
- Mirene Arsanios. “Notes on Mother Tongues: Colonialism, class, and giving what you don’t have” 2020 Ugly Duckling Presse.
- Mirene Arsanios. Many Englishes: On Editing and Power. The text is available at the link.
- A Live Gathering: Performance and politics in contemporary Europe edited by Ana Vujanovic, with Livia Piazza, Berlin: b_books, 2019.
- Ewa Majewska. “Feminist Antifascism: Counterpublics of the Common” Verso, 2021.
- André Lepecki, ‘Choreopolice and Choreopolitics or, the task of the dancer’, in The Drama Review no. 57 (4), 2013, p. 13.