The first time I read Linda Stupart’s posthumanist sci-fi novella Virus was from an editable .docx. Every time I accidentally clicked into the page, hit a key or scrolled in the wrong way, the text would slither away from me in the long tradition of word documents.
The second time I read Virus was from an object – the book of it. Naturally, it felt steadier, more concrete, more real. I received it in pristine condition, and on looking at it again after a short time in my backpack, despaired at the bends and dog-ears that appeared. The steady object is mutable in its own way.
In setting up this interview, I wanted to honour both experiences of the text. Linda and I spoke about how to translate these qualities, both of which are vital to the work (the object-ness of the book, and the volatility of the digital copy). And so, with Virus in mind, I designed a tarot spread to guide our interview. Linda received a video of me shuffling my cards and selected a hand. Below is a discussion about the results of this spread.
LINDA STUPART: I guess it would have something to do with the interviewer (you) also treating themself as part of the ecology of the text (if that makes sense?) I was really interested in the mode of address, kind of queering and multiplying an ‘I’ and ‘you’, so an interview with an ‘objective’ or invisible subject just wouldn’t work I think…
RK: It was quite important to me to undermine the power dynamic between interviewer/interviewee by relinquishing control, or letting a conjoined power manifest through the cards – particularly with respect to your approach to writing/text/communion in the book.
Do you have a preference with how Virus is referred to? Book, work, object?
LS: I think book? maybe even text? But book or novella is good – it’s strange because I think of it as an artwork, but also I want to undermine the way, as an artwork, it’s made into something scarce, or not widely distributed. Novella is also a nice word. I guess something about rethinking the realness or authority of objects/bodies feels important to me.
RK: The back-and-forth negotiation of virtual/physical (shuffling with flesh hands, paper cards, sent to you in very ‘poor quality’, full of digital noise) also made sense to with regard to the novella as I understand it. Virus as an ‘art work’, and being in print like a novella is also in keeping with the idea of replication/proliferation that you discuss in the book…Gchat is struggling a bit, sorry for lagging!
LS: Cool. I forget we have first world internet here, for now anyway until the UK sinks into a swamp of despair/fascism or blows up or something.
RK: Then we find a barely habitable moon and establish a socialist anarchist community there and create a new language with no possessive pronouns (Thanks, Ursula Le Guin! <3)
LS: yeah i mean the one thing about the UK dissolving is it leaves room for an independent anarchist state❤. Feminist sci-fi has (obviously) been super influential in terms of rethinking gender and body possibilities for me.
RK: And that is really clear in the book too. Each character you introduce has such an incredible, wrenching bodily transformation. Which doesn’t ‘transcend’ physicality (as is often imagined in terms of Artificial Intelligence) – the materiality/form mutates and takes control of itself. The way you eliminated the ‘A’ in AI.
LS: The idea of artifice was something I really wanted to decompose a bit. I think ‘real’ (‘real woman’, ‘real name’ etc) can be almost as bad as ‘natural’ as a kind of violent naming.
RK: Decompose is a very interesting word, especially as a substitute for the word ‘deconstruct’.
LS: It makes me think a bit of unbecoming, as well.
RK: Have you read Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood/Xenogenesis ?
LS: I read Lilith’s Brood, although only after I wrote Virus! Which is maybe good in a way because now I can only think of her aliens as like the alien, and her version of sex.
RK: When you were talking about the idea of ‘unbecoming’, I was thinking about the character (I can’t remember its name), who crawls into the forest/jungle and loses itself, becomes more flora than fauna, because of it being unable to replicate/reproduce, and when you talk about Virus being dormant without a host body, not dead.
Following on from these ideas of replication, linkage, community – I wanted to segue into the first card!
So the first card placement is THE HEART OF THE MATTER, and you pulled the Three of Cups. The three represents friendship and community – a joyous rallying together. It depicts three feminine or ambiguously gendered figures in a state of revelry. I was so happy to draw this card at the centre – to have the rest of the spread grounded in what I am reading as queer love and victory.
Do you have any immediate reactions/feelings/thoughts about the card?
LS: I think for me it feels like an acknowledgement of me coming into queerness as a life position or practice – and that that happened through violence, but produces possibilities for a joyous future. I think there’s a sense that Virus is quite dark, or dystopic, but actually also I think it’s actually really hopeful. I guess it depends who’s reading it.
But this reminds me actually, I was working with this great political writer and editor friend of mine, Ray Filar, and when they read a draft they were confused as to why I wanted Lepht to die, when Lepht is obviously amazing (and is also a real person btw) and I was like no I LOVE Lepht, but dying isn’t necessarily the worst thing/the end of something – or maybe it’s that Lepht mutates out of sickness or something.
RK: Dying means something very different to me in the context of Virus. Not a fate, but a state, process or mutation.
[Author’s Note: Lepht Anonym is a biohacker in the novella who implants bits of technology into itself via DIY operations]
LS: But yeah re: dying – I mean both me and Buffy have died twice, but also I think there’s something in dying that challenges the kind of singular ‘survivor’ mentality that privileges those who don’t die, who ‘thrive’ etc.
RK: So, with the Three of Cups, there is obviously also heavy symbolism to witchcraft – the iconic image of the three witches.
LS: I think there’s something about the triple goddess figure and the kind of binary way that magic is often discussed (masculine and feminine energies) that can most effectively be shifted through the practice of magic, which is one of the things I love about it, and that even like with technopaganism, witchcraft is always sited on the body, it just might understand computers/the internet etc. as bodies.
RK: It was also making me think about this idea of replication – the dance that links and blurs the three characters that could almost be iterations of the same entity. Especially with the implication of consumption – of drinking/imbibing whatever is in those cups, becoming part of the bodies – metabolised.
LS: Yes! I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s true, like a virus that splits and multiplies. Replication which breaks heteropatriachal capitalist reproduction, or something.
RK: I want to talk a little about your own force/reserves/power with the next card placement which is simply YOUR POWER. This is what you drew:
LS: This is a great card.
RK:What I love about it too is that it came out reversed. The tarot interprets this kind of strength as a kind of level-headedness/patience – being measured and in balance in the face of danger. I was thinking about this card place as being representative of your power as a writer, a magic user, a queer person, and glad it came out reversed because actually fuck patience.
LS: It’s true. Patience/waiting is also such a feminised trait. I guess I saw it as a kind of intimate relationship with danger/violence maybe. I think obviously the violence in the text is important that sometimes change necessitates violence, especially when you live in a space that is always violent towards you.
RK: I was also thinking about the card and the way you write about animals in Virus, too. ‘Get that animal off that horse’ is one of my favourite lines.
LS: It’s excellent, but I also didn’t invent it – think I must have heard it at a protest or something, it feels like it’s part of a culture of anti-police protesting. I have a lot of fantasies about rescuing police horses <3. I think they’re an important part of the revolution.
RK: Okay, I am excited to introduce the next card because it’s such a good combo with this one and also so many things. The position is WHAT IS HELPING OR HINDERING: Death on a white horse (or Death as a white horse)!!
LS: I was a bit scared of this when I saw it but ofc now I remember I am really into both death and horses. Also this could defs be about Jck.
[AN: Jck is a character in the novella who is transformed into a horse]
RK: I’m just going to leave this excerpt right here:
“Behold a pale horse.
She’s a chemo virus designed to reanimate dead tissue… … and jump-start the brain’s motor function.”
Death is meant to symbolise radical change. In the image, there are kings pleading before it. It can indicate the end of a regime or era, and the beginning of a new one
LS: Like Carl Andre.
RK: YES. Also the skeleton – no flesh, no genitals, no gender. Just bone. The procession near the end (SPOILER ALERT) of Carl Andre’s living body and Ana Mendieta’s dead one, bound together to decompose/putrefy. And he is powerless to prevent his own putrefaction.
LS: This Ana Mendieta work really inspired that as well. The care and love for the dead, the skeleton who is also post gender. Or pre gender. Or something.
But yeah the pale horse chemo virus is great because she permeates these borders (skin/discourse/gender) and like you know a lot of these male artists can’t handle that.
RK: No, because they are used to having subjectivity which protects their bodily integrity.
LS: I mean why would you want radical change it you’re already winning anyway; they basically don’t have bodies.
Like when the world is oriented towards you, you effectively don’t have a body. Or your body only becomes visible at a moment of incision, or violence. I basically turned Jck into a horse to save them
RK: This next card is meant to represent the force and power of the work/object/book itself: THE POWER OF THE THING. This is a card of revelation, a way to negotiate between the self, the cosmic, and the earthly.
LS: Yes, also reading it that way the card makes me think about the narrator and their dissolve as the book ends, or their dis/reintegration into everything else. Although I tried to make it clear in the beginning the narrator is black.
RK: It was clear to me! Unfortunately there are, I think, no POC in this version of the tarot. Although it was drawn and designed by a woman of colour – Pamela Colman-Smith. She was also thought to be queer. The idea of the power of the book being in its ability to mediate between realms makes a lot of sense to me, though.
I wanted to talk about the Star with regard to how you feel it represents the power/force of the Virus? Or just Virus the novella?
LS: I guess looking at it again for me it feels it could be all about a kind of embodied and magical response to ecological crisis – like not a ‘getting closer to nature’ kind of thing, but rather an acknowledgement and active participation in ecologies of knowledge, of magic/science, and the ground. And I think the virus is like the manifestation of a kind of vengeful earth energy, but also of all the collective anger of the violable – so like traumatised, exhausted, ‘open’ bodies. And ofc she is magic and technological as well. Like the star in The Star card could also be like the internet.
RK: So with this card you get the biological, ecological, abstract, cosmic, and the virtual/digital. What was interesting to me is what the card was paired with in the reading: The Moon.
The light of the moon makes things strange and unfamiliar – it creates an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty. The dogs are calling to the moon, or transfixed by the moon.
The position this card was drawn in is THE FORM OF THE THING, so this is in reference to things like narrative structure, your approach to writing, the structure of a book/novella, and how Virus is conceived within those structures.
The Star is a card of revelation or so-called truth/clarity, and in many ways the moon is the opposite of that. It’s about uncertainty, anxiety, things being unresolved.
LS: That’s really interesting for me, because I feel like with the book, and with my work generally, I often feel a bit stuck or confused between wanting to make things really clear – like I think a lot of contemporary art is opaque or undetermined basically as a way for it to float freely away from bodies and politics, the worst thing your art can be called is didactic, so like I’m into didacticism as a practice, ‘didacticore’.
So there’s that, but then there’s also the wanting to undo linear teleological narrative and also to try write in a way that for me reflects having a body that is violable and traumatised.
RK: Yes – so with the dogs there is one clear road ahead – a linear path – but they are still unable to make the choice to follow it because of being caught up in an ambiguous atmosphere.
LS: Maybe it’s about recasting that indecision as refusal?
So a refusal to follow the ‘straight’ path which also becomes a refusal about narrative and traditional plot structure here.
RK: Right, yes. How do you feel Virus ‘progresses’ or unfolds in terms of plot and story?
LS: Introducing these characters, I was sort of planning on them doing things but then I realised that if the virus, or Virus, herself is the protagonist, she is always doing things to them. So I wanted to think about these characters as being active even though they’re being acted upon, if that makes sense?
But then I mean they do all come together to kill Carl Andre as well so that’s something. I guess insofar as the book has a plot, that’s kind of its apex or climax.
RK: The last card we’re going to draw is in the position of WHAT THE THING MEANS TO YOU/OTHERS. In this space I drew The Devil, which, I think, makes a lot of sense.
The Devil represents the confines/trappings of mortality, of materiality. The card is about being (trapped) in the body, which is usually interpreted as a negative space. The two figures trapped and chained by the Devil are essentially Adam and Eve – one of the most classic representations of an oppressive gender binary. It was making me think about how you treat and talk about the porousness of bodies, about how to escape or change them into other kinds of bodies, and that being held within a moralistic binary state is a violence.
For me this card is about the possibilities of transgressing assigned and oppressive bodies, but not of escaping flesh and materiality. One of the joys of reading Virus was getting to experience the mutability of the bodies of its characters. And, as a queer person, to feel that as some kind of relief, but also feel the tension of possibility that marks those transformations – the tension, I suppose, of desire. Of wanting the possibility of that for myself.
LS: Yeah, I wanted to think about some of the optimism of 90s cyberfeminism (we can escape gender/bodies/patriarchy online), but also to think harder about the real materiality of bodies, especially queer bodies, and the possibilities for revolt already existing in these kind of revolutionary, or revolting, clusters of affect, language and flesh. To think about transcending the limits of individualism, but also to redraw power relations between animals, people, technology etc. Also, obviously killing male artists.
RK: Yes ofc.
LS: Another thing which for some reason this card brings up, is trying to somehow escape ‘I’. I really wanted to write something which didn’t start from ‘I’ or from me in that kind of explicit truth position. Although I’m in no way denigrating this kind of writing, but there’s something about opening that subject position up for me that’s been super important; for me and for my work.
I mean sometimes it feels like I’m definitely there. And I wanted the sense that my very real anger is present and mostly unmediated. But I also sort of position myself as a reader (so much of it is plagiarised/very directly lifted from elsewhere). But there’s something about the ‘I’ of first person writing being a kind of God position. And I wanted to try to participate in the material I was reading and writing and making, and the bodies the text produces and describes.
The I always ruins its own story, despite its best intentions
Judith Butler said that btw not me, although I’ve said it now hah.
RK: Is there anything from the conversation you’d like to draw on as an ending point?
LS: tbh I think “The I always ruins its own story, despite its best intentions” is a pretty good end.
The Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck was used for this interview, published by U.S Games Systems Inc, 1971.
Virus is available via Arcadia Missa Gallery, London.