Essay :: The Art of Becoming Alive

Shakeela Ismail, 2021

Leora Farber’s disquieting domesticities and vestiges of violence (or, the ghost in the house) (2021) demanded that I leave my humanist sensibilities behind. Here I was enveloped in darkness. I entered alone – without even my shadow. Farber’s installation led me to my own vulnerabilities.

The exhibition offers a painful realisation: the things we believe to last forever will not be so. Every artefact is a fragile impression of ceramics, foodstuffs, skin – with all of them as delicate and temporal as the next. Their and our mortality is promised; immortality belongs only to darkness, nothingness. We come and leave with nothing, perhaps without even our own consciousness.

Are we the ghosts? Are we what will be forgotten?

Farber’s thirty years of artistic practice has gathered and questioned our fears about ourselves, our lives, and our connection to all around us. She has expanded on her previous exhibition, intimate presences/affective absences (or, the snake within) (2020), through her inclusion of more objects and a greater potential for breakability. Her shaping of bio-material alludes to death – but also brings life.

The artefacts are vibrant in their being. In the darkness, there is still something that ‘lives’ and ‘breathes’. There is still life. There is still hope.

The doors open into darkness. An overwhelming emptiness. A never-ending blackness. Here, time is strangely out of joint (Farber 2020a:5).[1] We wade in the unknown – perpetually strung between the beginning of time and the very end. A morgue of a moment. With careful footing and mindful breath, we enter a space as mysterious as our unconscious. We are at the mercy of Nothing. Mystifying presences float through the abyss. Here, absence and presence fold out of one another (Harris 2015:20). Leora Farber’s collection of artefacts, titled disquieting domesticities and vestiges of violence (or, the ghost in the house) (2021), sits upon the light, claiming their own presence and awaiting ours.

Each of Farber’s artefacts is an impression of a domestic object – cutlery, crockery, and foodstuffs – cast from the thin organic membrane atop the tea solution to which Farber tended. The objects glow in the light, resting atop the black rectangular light boxes scattered throughout the room, their painted skin just delicate enough to be completely illuminated. Amongst the myriad of colours and objects lies a beautiful spectral table setting, brown and translucent, withering away. Strewn over a decaying decorative cloth sits an empty dish with impressions of polished silverware, a bowl of forgotten fruit, an unfinished wine bottle, and a delicate and fading china teacup and saucer. It waits for someone who left a moment ago, or someone long dead and long forgotten.


Based on the 17th-century Dutch still-life tradition (stillevens), Farber’s installation is a critical interrogation of luxury and its consequences. This messy composition of Farber’s works most particularly references the ‘Breakfast and Banquet’ paintings, delivering an abundance of food and drink, while many others resemble Ostentatious paintings (pronkstilleven), which bear a close relationship to the affluence and exotica brought by sea trade and colonialism (Ho 2018).

By the 17th century, highly profitable trade routes across the East were chartered by the Netherlands’ Dutch East India Company (VOC) and its sister company, the Dutch West India (Farber 2021a). The Dutch ‘Golden Age’ of trade, science, art, and military prowess allowed the Netherlands to be the paramount economic and maritime power in the world (Farber 2021a). Colonial commerce brought luxury goods to Europe from the colonies such as tea, sugar, coffee, spices, and porcelain, which the rising middle class regarded as status symbols (Farber 2021b). The middle class acquired cultural capital from trade, which in turn propelled their consumption of household goods (Farber 2021a). Paintings were commissioned as monuments of their wealth; the silent, still image of riches lasting longer than their owners.

The chaotic stillness of the 17th-century Dutch still-life tradition lingers in Farber’s exhibition through other artistic practices: the severe contrast of dark and light, asymmetry, and diagonal composition (Ho 2018). Traditionally, these illuminated the dynamism and exuberance of the Dutch Golden Age (Ho 2018), to which Farber’s artworks bear some semblance. But where stillevens mirrored reality closely (Ho 2018), disquieting domesticities rouses phantoms of these earlier traditions. Perhaps in its decay, the exhibition most resembles the Vanitas – we walk through a painting of colonial wealth that has started to rot. As a vanitas-like installation, the exhibition contains signs of rot and decay as a warning of mortality. It embraces the presence of absence, the melancholy of it all.

Even in this despair and disarray, this installation situates us in our bodies in this dislocated place and time. As we move through this space, we notice the blue ornamental designs spread across near-see-through china dishes. We notice how the edges shrivel. We still our breathing and slow our movements so the dish does not turn to dust. Frail, ethereal tableware evokes transience and death.

Farber’s chinaware alludes to numerous design styles, periods and surface patternings, such as Chinese porcelain and English bone china (Farber 2021a). These were the subjects of many a still-life, which narrated the cultural appropriations of the colonial enterprise. The chinaware prophesises the “possible patterning of worlds” (Hamilton & Neimanis 2018:504) as the Chinese blue and white willow patterns were reproduced in British 18th-century porcelain workshops, and the Delft blue porcelain was produced by the Dutch (Farber 2021a). Farber interrogates these stolen, mass-manufactured patterns that post-settler colonies deigned as “domestic classics” (Farber 2021a). British and Dutch imperialism and colonialism leave hauntological traces everywhere, in every colony, in every inch of South Africa (Farber 2021a). Farber’s impressions echo the colonial and apartheid legacies that haunt domestic spaces and plague the individual and collective imaginations of South Africa (Farber 2021a). Farber finds hers in sinks, in fridges, and on dinner tables.

The bowl forebodes a kind of death – its own and ours. It grows into an organic spectre of domestic ceramics. What we once recognised as familiar – idly adorning our cupboards or proudly holding our suppers – becomes uncanny. Farber’s resurrecting of domestic objects reminds us of the entanglement of a colonial past, present and future that does not declare itself loudly by banging the cupboard doors or tinkering with the static tv, but silently lingers in every aspect of our lives. As articulated by Jacques Derrida (1994:10) “[a]fter the end of history, the spirit comes by coming back [revenant], it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again”. For Derrida, ‘the ghost’ exists beyond metaphor (Harris 2015:17). Derrida‘s concept of hauntology is particularly relevant in the post-colony because it is troubled by the ghosts of justice – “justice which is always coming, by a democracy that is always coming, by a hospitality which is impossible but demands reaching for, by a similarly impossible forgiveness, and so on” (Harris 2015:17). The spectral occupies the space of possibility – making way for the potentiality of real, literal ghosts (Harris 2015:17). The ancestors, the jinns, the indigenous spirits articulate an existence beyond death and metaphor (Harris 2015:17). This haunting is a call to action (Harris 2015:17). Believing in ghosts is about “believing in justice, learning to live, discovering that the most disturbing of all ghosts – the stranger deep inside oneself” (Harris 2015:17). Farber exposes how these ghosts materialise, how they can be clothed in skin.


Upon closer inspection, we can read the lines in the material, an imprint of almost-skin, with broken capillaries mapping itself across the works. Farber’s manufactured skin looks like human skin – flaked off, shed, permeable and porous. Every artefact wrinkles, sags, softens. As with earlier series from Farber’s thirty years as an artist, this installation delves into the body and the self (2021b). In disquieting domesticities (2021), the domestic space becomes an extension of the female body in all its uncontained and enclosed forms. In this collection, the home exposes the weaponised white femininity. A white woman born and raised during the apartheid era, Farber attempts to navigate post-colonial South Africa by addressing the legacies and reiterations of the colonial state as a gendered and racialised entity. In this critical interrogation of white settler femininity, white women are not helpless onlookers of the colonial empire but complicit colonising, through maintaining a marginalised, yet exploitative, position in their homes (Farber & Klopper 2012:17). Women played a pivotal role in the colonial empire through the “cult of domesticity”, as to domesticate it also meant to civilise (Goosen 2018:32-33). To dominate. To own. To settle. To make homely.

Home, as Christel Stalpaert (2018:52) envisions, becomes a bodily-dwelling; the body as the hinge of the world. The skin as a boundary speaks of liminality, of an in-between space. The paper-thin distance between the inside and the outside. Skin in this setting functions less as rupturing vessels and membranes as in Farber’s earlier work (Farber 2021c), but more so on the uncontainable contained feminine, the layered enveloping of colonial monstrosity, and how the instability of bodily borders remains. In an interview with Ashraf Jamal and Lize van Robbroeck, Farber identifies a Leonard Cohen song as a means to understand systemic oppression, that it isn’t simply a skin to shed from ourselves, our ancestors, our parents, or our histories (Leora Farber in conversation with Ashraf Jamal and Lize van Robbroeck 2020). It cannot simply be sloughed off. We cannot leave the skin we are housed in.

Farber others whiteness by making strange of the familiar. She unveils the uncanny. She addresses the desperate need to pay attention to the everydayness of these colonial legacies (Taylor et al 2015:130). Farber’s impressions cite “uncanny spectres of disquietude; vestiges of violence that continued to inhabit domestic spaces” (Farber 2021a). The home becomes a sort of archive, documenting what is important, what has been conquered, and what is left forgotten. In this, Farber becomes a kind of archivist – concentrating on ghosts, disturbing dominant narratives, listening to those on the outside (Harris 2015:16). She pays heed to the ghostly voices of other places, languages and origins (Harris 2015:20).

disquieting domesticities is nothing if not a semblance of home. Farber (2021b) describes her exhibition as the exact opposite of the sublime: the insignificant, the small, the tiny, the overlooked, making it achingly beautiful in its un-spectacularity, whilst haunting in its absences, its memories, and its traumas. She speaks of how there is beauty in decay – how it clings to its former grace as time strips it away (Farber 2021b). For her, old colonial homes in disarray, with peeling walls and leaking roofs, offer beauty far greater and more haunting than those same homes in their prime (Farber 2021b). Jess Zimmerman (2021:27) states that “[i]f beauty is a thin spear surrounded by darkness then what lives in the darkness must either be ghosts – inconsequential, invisible – or monsters. Something to be reviled or ignored”. What does that make of us? What does that make of the rest that we do not, cannot, refuse to see?

Here, we return to absence. Among the spices, salt, porcelain, and various exotica, another kind of commodity was shipped – slaves, fungible objects of trade (Farber 2021a). Slaves themselves become the ghosts in these still lives, haunting the image from afar. Farber’s lively still-lifes look for the overlooked, the dead, and the dying. Who is the ghost in the house? Who cooks the breakfast? Who cleans the plate? Who packs it away? Who hurries the children into the bathrooms to wipe their mouths? Who eats alone while a family sits at the table? She is named but not seen in Farber’s works.


Like skin, the domestic worker embodies liminality, translating between the public and private (Baderoon 2014:176). This ‘inbetween-ness’ remains a stain of lasting ambiguity of Krotoa/Eva, who represents the beginning of black women pressed into domestic work in South Africa (Baderoon 2014:176).[2] During apartheid, black domestic workers resided “within but at the margins of white private life” (Baderoon 2014:178). Understanding this, black people’s private lives were sacrificed to serve white domesticity (Baderoon 2014:178). Domestic work in South Africa demands black people to be figures of servitude – reassuring, compliant, recognisable. Servants, in the domestic space of the house, always warrant a treatment of distrust (Baderoon 2014:185). Deep-rooted anxieties about the threatening corporeality of slaves, men and women, endure from colonial South Africa (Baderoon 2014:185). During the eighteenth century, the Cape colony depended on slave labour (Baderoon 2014:177). By the 1820s, two-thirds of Cape slaves, who formed most of the population in the Cape, performed domestic work (Baderoon 2014:177). Their symbolic figuring threatened the sanctity of a segregated South Africa, where the slave, and later domestic worker, lived in the same domestic space as the masters of the house (Baderoon 2014:185).

The absence of the domestic worker from Farber’s banquet of ghostly objects echoes the domestic worker’s disappearance into subservience (Baderoon 2014:185). Her corporeality is controlled by her uniform and generic persona, her enforced civility, her new name (Baderoon 2014:186-87). Black bodies are invisible until needed, lingering in the background until called (Baderoon 2014:186). She unsettles the intimate geography of the white house. She is a living ghost.

Esther Peeren (2014:29) argues that these living ghosts hover on the outskirts of Derrida’s readings of hauntology. Derrida, according to Peeren (2014:29), obscures specificities and shrinks, if not entirely shirks, the agential capacities of ‘living ghosts’. For her, Derrida favoured the haunted over the one doing the haunting (Harris 2015:18). They skulk in the shadows of Derrida’s theory as they do in society, “‘ghosted’ by structures and prevailing relations of power” (Harris 2015:18). As “the last bastion of apartheid” (Baderoon 2014:178), domestic work persists as both black women’s entry into the economy and as one of the dominant sources of employment in South Africa. Farber invokes the post-colonial domestic worker as the present but absent figure. The haunting and the haunted. The life left unlived.


Our mortality becomes more and more apparent as we move through the installation, as there is an inherent vulnerability built into everything. Farber’s artistic apparitions hint at our collective demise. The sixth mass extinction threatens our lives, our homes, and everything we hold near and dear, everything we thought of as forever. Here, we ask: what is the fate of all things?

The ‘Anthropocene’ – a term coined by Eugene Stormer and popularised by Paul Crutzen in the 2000s (Barla 2018:1), declares humans as the new dominant geological force (Sperling 2019:311). The most common narrative says that human civilisation, due to all its forward movement, has pushed the world into a very real, ever-unfolding catastrophe of rising sea levels, unprecedented species extinction, melting ice caps, severe weather changes, drought, famine, pollution of every kind, and increase of global temperatures. The Anthropocene lists all of us as its culprits. While Farber’s work does not directly engage the Anthropocene, the decay of ‘civilisation’ and ‘progress’ portrayed in this installation, suggests a feast or banquet of excessive consumption and evokes the systemic greed that enslaved bodies as it ravages ecosystems.[3]

For many, language is essential in the descriptive unfolding of the Anthropocene; it names those answerable for its advent (Sperling 2019:313). Its wording creates a world of equal human error, and as a result, the ‘Anthropocene’ has met plenty of critique since its conception (Sperling, 2019:311), especially since its use across disciplines highlights its flawed generality (Barla 2018:1). Defining the beginning of the Anthropocene is key to its name. If the global catastrophe was rooted when humans discovered fire, then all humans must carry the blame, although, if traced back to industrialisation, then the ‘Anthropocene’ falls upon North Americans and Europeans (Sperling 2019:313). However, even then, many cannot and should not carry that weight, as the ‘Anthropos’ is not, nor has he ever been, a neutral figure (Barla 2018:1), but rather is entangled in various histories of the conquering and the conquered. In other words, there cannot be the human without the nonhuman and the inhuman (Barla 2018:1).

One term used to erase the above-mentioned blanketing of blame is the Capitalocene, or elaborated as the racial Capitalocene. Jason Moore names and defines the beginning of the Capitalocene to the 16th century, where the world-ecology was forever changed by the genocide of indigenous inhabitants, slave trade, the division of colonies by Europe, and subsequently a global workforce that has been bound to gender and race (Vergès 2017). Racialised chattel – enslaved black and brown bodies – were the capital that underpinned the economic ideology of capitalism (Vergès 2017). These expendable lives are in stark contrast to those valued as lives (Fournier 2020:95). The latter is the consumer, the one who loves, while the former is discardable – destined to be commodities, to be consumed, to labour and die (Fournier 2020:95).

Farber’s work agrees with this definition, with its symbols of colonial wealth fading into undead terror. The ghosts of disquieting domesticities are racialised labourers who will never belong to the house they tend to, never own the cutlery they clean, never eat the first serving of meals they cook, and never be fully appreciated for raising someone else’s children. Just as they suffer in the dark of Farber’s work, they, the already marginal and precarious, will suffer the most (Krajewska 2017:7).

Despite not being recognised fully in New Materialism, race plays an important role in environmental justice (Vergès 2017), a relationship acknowledged in Farber’s work. Sonya Renee Taylor (2018:4) affirms that race is not a conceptual term; injustice is an opaque word until given a material reality. The violence in the world – oppression, poverty, injustice – happens to actual bodies (Taylor 2018:4). Minorities and people of the Global South are victims of environmental racism, including toxic waste, polluted waters and rivers, pesticides, polluted food (Vergès 2017). The environment has been shaped by colonialism and slavery, revealing how colonial and post-colonial economies carved exploitative meaning into towns, cities, rivers, beaches, fields, mountains, volcanoes, and large sugar cane fields, and the living areas of poor people and people of colour (Vergès 2017). White supremacy fuels ongoing colonial violence that damages the nature-culture landscape (Fournier 2020:95). But this violence is slower, more patient in delivering pain, and “not body-to-body but playing out over vast stretches of time through the medium of ecosystems” (Vergès 2017).

Our geo-history is thus a precarious feature of a colonial inheritance (Instone & Taylor 2015: 40). The Anthropocene is both the effect and the agent of colonialism (Instone & Taylor 2015:140). Sperling (2019:314) describes climate change as intensified colonialism through people of colour being severely affected by climate change with indigenous people, predominantly women, becoming the world’s first global climate refugees. Climate change is highly racialised and gendered, and it exacerbates pre-existing inequalities rather than unify the human collective through a single cause of climate change. There is no one humanity that can act as a political agent. How can there be when we continue to live in an entanglement of environmental and social injustices, violence, and power asymmetries? Settler colonialism prevails as an incomplete project; nothing is finally settled (Taylor et al 2015:129). Farber’s exhibition highlights colonialism’s continued existence in our lives, without an end in sight. In this sense, there is no post-colonial (Vergès 2017).


Farber’s art process for disquieting domesticities (2021) is rooted in kinship and care. If the colonial project is always becoming, then so too must the decolonial project. In the face of global crisis, we must make communities, make kin. There is a delicacy to Farber’s art outside of their china-form which Farber approaches with some tenderness. Farber experiments and engages with bioart – an umbrella term for various artforms engaging with bioscientific research (Farber 2021a). Drawing on kombucha tea-making, the impressions are shaped from cellulose fibre – a biomaterial cultivated through the symbiotic action of yeast and Gluconacetobacter xylinus bacteria (Farber 2021a). Farber (2021b) feeds sugar and tea to the growing matter, watches over the symbiotic culture as it ferments and forms a biofilm at the collusion of liquid nutrients and air (Farber 2021a).

She (Farber 2021b) maternally cares for them, tending to their needs though they are not dependent on her care. Without her, some might grow abundantly, others might get contaminated, a few might shrink up, and the rest might not grow at all (Farber 2021b). Farber’s role is simply as a caregiver, careful and care-full in practice. She bathes them and washes the dirty marks off them (Farber 2021b). She spreads them on a wooden surface and smooths them out to as thin a layer as possible, moving back and forth between artist and guardian, back and forth between wetting and drying the material to shape them.

The rest of the labour is dedicated to intricate painting with the minute precision of lacemakers as women’s work becomes an immersive experience (Farber 2021b). Her works absorb her, becomes a meditative process. The practice of patience evolves into its own kind of labour, needing the patience to allow microbes to metamorphose in their own time (Fournier 2020:106). These are practices that necessitate slowing down, becoming aware, being mindful, thinking through where we are, who we are, and who is with us (Instone & Taylor 2015:147).

In another corner of the dark space, a bowl stretches out, thins itself on the innermost parts to open for us to see. Soft pink in the middle traced with orange, and yellow at the rim. It breathes. It blossoms. At another angle, it appears almost as a sea urchin slightly swaying at the bottom of the ocean. Farber’s cellulose pots and crockery are not entirely earth matter, nor are they alive or even semi-alive. But they are not static. Farber (2021) contemplates on “stilled life, still lives, still alive” and through this, bioart becomes a bio-philosophical practice: What counts as life? Are humans more alive than everything else?


Jamal asserts that all things are projected onto by the human; everything we create, we make anthropomorphic (Leora Farber in conversation with Ashraf Jamal and Lize van Robbroeck, 2020). But suppose that we are not puppeteers drawing at life’s strings and making things dance, but are rather part of a much larger, much more powerful vibrancy. Instead, we are equally made vibrant by the things around us. We move in tandem with a vibrancy of all things, dancing with the universe. Farber (2021) is fascinated that, even in these still-life images and deadened material, there is some tenuous continuation of life. They do not grow as such – but they mutate – they deflate, they brown, they change their shape and colour. They are in a never-ending process of becoming – always mutating and shapeshifting. There is a life force of its own, one Farber cannot predict or name, but one I will refer to as ‘Vibrant Matter’ as coined by Jane Bennet.[4] Although Bennet overlooks fermentation practices specifically, the fermenting body exemplifies vibrant matter (Fournier 2020:94) and opens us up to an exploration of our body compositions and social structures alike (Fournier 2020:103).

The kombucha mother, an alive and vibrant non-human matter, converts sugar and caffeinated tea into an “effervescent tonic teeming with vitamins and acids” (Fournier 2020:94). All bodies are more than mere objects, as the thing-powers of protean agency and resistance (Bennet 2010:13). One key aspect is that the physical location of the fermenting body, such as the kombucha symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY); the fermentation body integrates it into its constitution, becoming something different than it was before (Fournier 2020:91). The process of fermentation itself holds a plethora of opportunities for various feminisms. It troubles the tension between living and non-living matter, or more accurately non/living (Fournier, 2020:94).

Speculating on the spectral, non/living bio-artworks offer a humble, yet cautious approach: whilst we mind difference and indeterminacy, we shall take responsibility for and towards the relations we enter (Radomska 2018:18). It is art demanding transformation (Krajewska 2017:22). Radomska’s uncontainable life “dwells in the sphere of the in-between: processual in its ongoing transformation/becoming, dynamic, and multiplicitous” (Radomska 2016:32). The non/living leads awareness to the entanglement of living and dying, blurring of boundaries between living and dying and growth and decay, and thus bring life’s inherent ‘uncontainability’ to light (Radomska 2016:35). Thus, life appears as always already non/living (Radomska 2016), where the slash (‘/’) suggests the inherent entanglement of these multiple processes that calls forth common conceptions of life and death (Radomska 2018:4).

Fermentation’s feminist relationship with survival and futurity questions what is life-affirming or vital, how to live longer, how to live well, whatever that spells in each context (Fournier 2020:100). Fermentation embodies both preservation and transformation, offering a generative feminism that is open to change and growth, one that must make kin with all (Fournier 2020:94). Fermentation encourages us to “consciously inhabit a world of mutual interdependency and finitude – a far cry from neo-capitalist views of self-directed striving and infinite limits” (Fournier 2020:103). In the face of the sixth mass extinction, one wonders if the drastic, violent climate change will disrupt symbiotic relationships, the potential unravelling of an entangled, interdependent cohabitation (McFall-Ngai 2017:5). If they fall, will we all follow, tumbling one after another?


Art can ask us to accept our responsibility, or our response-ability, amongst an ecology of agential realism where being and becoming is a production of knowledge (Stalpaert 2018:48). Matter is inherently storied, and knowledge, therefore, becomes an embodied practice (Iovino & Opperman 2012:455). The knower and the known, whether they be cells, humans, water, or teacups, reconstruct each other through the process of knowing, and more terrain stretches out within a flat ontology[5] (Iovino & Opperman, 2012:455). Knowing and being known are material-discursive becomings, and individuals and the world are changed through this intra-action (Iovino & Opperman 2012:455). Knowing is a process, to which all actors in a network contribute (Barad 2007:149).

Our intentionality, our seemingly superior intellect and ability remain within a site of co-emerging material configurations (Iovino & Opperman 2012:85). In our interconnectedness with all things, we are immersed in subjectivities, desires, emotions, and affect (Liljeström 2016:28). Affect is emotional intensity, the intuitive reactions, and the life force at play (Liljeström 2016:16). In its midst, the dualisms of our body, mind, of our culture and nature, and of ourselves and others are discarded. The affect contains everything; there is nothing beyond affective forces (Liljeström 2016:20). In our agentic powers, we affect and are affected. Where there is contact or connection, be it air or in conversation, there is affect. Affect is all there is (Liljeström 2016:20). Instone and Taylor (2015:139) affirm that being mutual affected and affecting occurs through “thinking in the presence of others”. Ultimately, the world is always in conversation with itself. Everything is strangely alive and things, as Serenella

Iovino and Serpil Opperman (2016:80) describe, and non-human and human presences release surprising consequences in their shared material world.

Therefore, the artworks are a collaboration between Farber and the microbial fibres. Farber (2021b) had to stop seeing herself as the autonomous artist that can bend the material to her will. After struggling in trying to create a perfect cast, she realised she had to work with the matter (Farber 2021b). Matter tells its own stories, from its body of living and produces its own meanings, weaves its own material and discursive interplays (Iovino & Opperman 2012:85). The material and the discursive intermingle. Language is not separate from the material, nor is it more trustworthy or dynamic (Barad 2007:132). Matter is relieved of its long history of automatism (Bennet 2010:3), and lives within and as a field of distributed agency (Iovino & Opperman 2012:451). Energy and matter collapse into one another; matter-as-energy defines itself and therefore holds the right to assume bodies that continually bump and rub against each other in the intra-active, busy becoming of the world (Iovino & Opperman 2012:453). Through the continual intra-activity of the world, matter comes to matter (Barad 2007:152).

Farber’s ghostly table settings are relational and contextual as opposed to universal, uneven and emerging as opposed to stable, and collaborative as opposed to pure. Being is relational; things remain separate and different but are always entangled with one another. Affect allows the art and the artist to merge into a material-semiotic assemblage, a melded, amalgamated expression of existence (Iovino & Opperman 2016:77). Through her affective process, Farber embraces a tactile connection to the creative activities of the microbes (Fournier 2020:103) and encourages the adventures of matter in her art (Iovino & Opperman (2012:450).

If Farber and her artworks are so enmeshed what does that say about the audience and the art? How can we recognise ourselves in enmeshment? How densely interwoven are we? How material are we (Iovino & Opperman 2012:499)? Fermentation shakes up commonly held perceptions of health, disease prevention, and immunity by reframing how we view bacteria and other microorganisms in our shared ecosystems, especially the populated landscapes of our bodies. Microbiology gives insight on the epoch loss, not only on species and macro-biomes but of complex microbial worlds both within and beyond organismal bodies (McFall-Ngai 2017:51).[6] Single-cell organisms are some of the most important creatures for all life on earth, birthing every life-form since the beginning of evolutionary time (McFall-Ngai 2017:59). They discard the common tree of life metaphor for a rhizomatic evolutionary growth (McFall-Ngai 2017:59).[7] The vast diversity of the biosphere depends on the microbial world for survival and sustenance (McFall-Ngai 2017:59). Microbes are a geological force (Bakke 2017:49). Microbe’s’ diversity, versatility, and superior metabolic diversity make them essential symbiotic partners for fungi, animals, and plants (McFall-Ngai 2017:60). Microbial life is vital for human bodily function, maintenance, and development. We are a nested ecosystem, holding as many microbes in our bodies as we do human cells thus even in our individual state, an ‘I’ is more accurately a ‘we’ (McFall-Ngai 2017:52). We are the strange, the foreign, the forgotten. We are assemblages through and through.

In this awareness, we must ask again: who do we regard as kin already? We are enmeshed, we with-ness[8] the suffering of others because we suffer along with them, we become ourselves in our intra-action with others. Therefore, decolonising the Anthropocene necessitates that we sever our colonial ties to shed our universal origin story that begins with settlers and embrace our multiplicity along shared hopes and vulnerabilities, and unite geological forces with social practices (Barla 2018:2). We must recognise the unevenness of our times (Vergès 2017). We must choose to “stick with the trouble”, as said by Barad (Instone & Taylor 2015:145) and embrace our multi-species cohabitation, our multispecies ‘we’ (Instone & Taylor 2015:145), a permeable ‘we’ (Hamilton & Neimanis 2018:504). Permeability welcomes a multispecies ‘we’ and a ‘we’ of an alliance with intra-human struggles (Hamilton & Neimanis 2018:514). Vergès’ politics of the possible rests on the imagination – on our capability to dream other pasts and imagine other futures other than those suggested by the Racial Capitolocene (Vergès 2017). Thus, Farber’s works prod us to remember ways we might gather and glean from tradition and history while collectively labouring to revolutionise society into one that is liveable and just (Fournier 2020:102).

There cannot be any violent exorcism of the world. Instead, we must conjure. New ghosts will be born and ghosts are still living. Spectres are ever-present, even if they do not exist (Derrida 1994:176). We must learn to live amongst ghosts. We must form kin with them. We must speak with them and speak to them. We need to slow down, take notice of things, to listen to the world. To find gentler ways of being. To lean into love. To use our unsettling to rearrange. We must return to inheritances to find sources and references for the struggle ahead (Vergès 2017). Our awareness must summon a justice – one that is always on its way, always becoming (Harris 2015:19). We leave disquieting domesticities/vestiges of violence (or, the ghost in the house) shaken, we enter back into the world with new eyes. Our future is uncertain, and our present is shaky. In Farber’s words, “all will unfold in time” (Farber & Klopper 2012:39).

Sources cited

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Bakke, M. 2017. Art and Metabolic Force in Deep Time Environments. Environmental Philosophy,14(1):41-59.

Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

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[1] Here Farber draws on Jacques Derrida, who in turn is referencing William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Derrida 1994:xxi).

[2] Krotoa was the first indigenous woman to be removed from the ‘Khoisan’ society and placed into the Dutch colony at the Cape soon after its settlement in 1652 (Baderoon 2014:175). She played many roles – a gifted linguist, a wife to a Dutch doctor, mother to their children, and an interpreter between the Khoisan and the European settlers (Baderoon 2014:176). However, her role was first as a domestic worker (Baderoon 2014:176). Krotoa’s legacy is one that has been reshaped to service colonial power structures, through making her a mother figure while stripping her of agency (Baderoon 2014:176).

[3] Though the Anthropocene is young, the consequences will be wide and long-lasting (Sperling 2019:311). Major coastal cities across the globe will be swamped if the global temperature increases by 3°C, promising floods of climate refugees, and a 0,5-metre rise in sea levels additionally brings war (Spratt & Dunlop 2017:13). Nature-culture assemblages emerge in the webbing of violent social relations and environmental degradation (Sperling 2019:314).

[4] Bennet’s (2010:x) “Vibrant Matter” describes all matter as containing some semblance of life, and indicates that there is a vibrancy that flows through every form of materiality in the universe.

[5] The flat ontology, a term coined by Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari, refers to ‘ontology’ as the science of being (Gunder & Winkler 2021:80). Flat ontology makes all forms of materiality exist equally, although they may be ontologically different. It denounces any hierarchical form of classification or forms of binary thinking. It is flat because it, in a monoist sense, contains all.

[6] Genomics research currently fuels revolutionary change across disciplines and our perceptions of ourselves and the world at large (McFall-Ngai 2017:51).

[7] Rhizomatic evolutionary growth is modelled after the rhizomatic germination shoot growth where living organisms propagate themselves indefinitely in all directions (Nicholls 2018:112). Everywhere is the centre. It emphasises that evolutionary growth has no beginning, no end and no hierarchy of development. It additionally highlights that all beings interact in an assemblage and are interdependently symbiotic.

[8] The word ‘wi(t)hness’, as coined by Bracha Ettinger, comprises a joint and simultaneous process of witnessing and being with (Note & Van Daele 2017). We are one with what we see and experience. It emphasises our responsibility for ethical behaviour. Wi(t)hnessing asks us to endure what has been done. Wit(h)nessing invites us to approach the mass extinction we face with as much compassion and respect as we can muster.