March 27, 2023

Lessons From the Blast Radius

Drawing on the disorienting experience of becoming disabled, the artist Johanna Hedva explores the feeling of being out of sync with capitalist time.

Johanna Hedva’s The Clock Is Always Wrong is a guide for telling anti-capitalist time. The installation, which opened on September 15th as part of the group show YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal at the Gropius Bau in Berlin, is centered around a collection of clocks. A piece titled The Clock Is Always Wrong (Mouth) consists of an hourglass filled with black ink that will take four months—the length of the exhibition—to drain into the bottom, and then never function again. The Clock Is Always Wrong (Ink) deposits a spoonful of ink onto a piece of paper every day at the precise moment of sunset. The Clock Is Always Wrong (History Is Occlusive) consists of two bowls filled with water from the Vltava River in Prague; on one floats a map of the moon gifted to Hedva by a witch, while in the other a colony of mold feeds on honey, overtaking a pair of submerged binoculars. Together, these clocks dispense with the dominant mode of keeping time—a unified system of measurement aimed at coordinating the demands of industry—and instead attend to the undulations of matter and spirit that mark all of life.

Hedva, who is an artist, theorist, and activist, rose to prominence in 2016 with the publication of “Sick Woman Theory.” Born out of the author’s experience of being too sick to participate in the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests, the essay challenges Hannah Arendt’s assertion that the political is any action performed in public, showing how chronic illness and disability expose the limits of that formulation. “How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” the essay asks. A politics of disability requires us to understand those who are too ill to make it to the march as participants in political struggle—and to transform the world to make their involvement possible.

The essay went viral. But interest in Hedva’s work didn’t automatically translate into material engagement with its implications. In 2019 Hedva published a “disability access rider,” which pushes institutions to move beyond legal compliance toward participation in the deeper transformative project that “Sick Woman Theory” began to imagine. When people invite Hedva to speak or perform, they receive a list of 11 requirements, including: captioning and wheelchair accessibility, travel and lodging for a care person who will accompany the artist, breaks in events longer than 90 minutes, and promotional materials that are transparent about venue accessibility. If an institution can’t provide something on the list, Hedva proposes having a conversation about accessibility not in order to fulfill a checklist, but to embark on a collaborative process of shaping a more supportive space. “That’s what I’m talking about when I’m talking about access. Everything fucking changes,” Hedva explained to me. “It’s not enough to just add captions. You have to rethink how you understand even time.” That might require asking yourself: What are my expectations for how much work will be done by what deadline? What might be done to attempt to move with—rather than against—disruption and delay? What might it feel like to embrace the reality that some people need to move more slowly or quickly than others, to prioritize time for caregiving and rest?

The Clock Is Always Wrong (History Is Occlusive) by Johanna Hedva from the exhibition YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal in Berlin, 2022.

Gropius Bau

What might be done to attempt to move with—rather than against—disruption and delay? What might it feel like to embrace the reality that some people need to move more slowly or quickly than others, to prioritize time for caregiving and rest?

In 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was first spreading across the globe, it felt as though the world was finally closer to being on Hedva’s time. Disability quickly shifted from a marginalized identity to a widely recognized social context, and accommodations that disabled communities had long demanded—virtual meetings, flexible work schedules, lenient deadlines—became new norms. During the early days of the pandemic, Hedva told me, as the regular machinations of capital came to something like a halt, “people started to have to live in the way that I normally live.” Yet not even three years later, these shifts have been rolled back in favor of the return of unfettered productivity, and Hedva—along with many other disabled people—has been thrust out of sync once again.

Still, Hedva continues to build out their abundant practice, creating art that exposes the temporal coercions of our social order and insists on other ways to be. The Clock Is Always Wrong makes explicit an aim that informs much of their work: to draw audiences out of their habitual, linear chronologies and into the qualitative experiences of time that have long been privileged in astrology, animism, and other spiritual practices. These alternative temporalities can be a matter of material survival for disabled people; disability activists have sometimes used the concept of “crip time” to describe their sense of living according to a different rhythm, and have celebrated the challenge it poses to dominant norms of compulsory productivity. But Hedva’s experiments complicate the prevailing rhetorics of pride and inclusion to make room for a more layered disability politics. Constellating life and death, capacity and debility, Hedva’s work honors both the desirable dimensions of disabled time—the promise of more rest, care, beauty, play—as well as those lessons we may least want and most need to learn: how to live with pain, with fear, with a body that eludes not only capitalism’s control but also our own.

As “Sick Woman Theory” took off
, Hedva’s name became nearly synonymous with the piece. “Everything I do began to be subsumed under my sickness,” Hedva told me, describing how the essay overshadowed their thematically diverse and genre-spanning body of work, only some of which is about illness. They’ve adapted ancient Greek drama into experimental feminist theater (in one performance, part of The Odyssey was staged inside a Honda Odyssey). They’ve written hagiography and theory about metal musicians and mosh pits. Their novel On Hell features a formerly incarcerated Icarus trying to biohack his way beyond gravity. They’ve made two albums as a solo musician: The Sun and the Moon, a constellation of industrial beats that samples writings from French philosopher Simone Weil, and Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House, a doom-metal-meets-Appalachian-folk epic that maps the ruinous cycles of grief. They have trained in opera as well as pansori, a traditional Korean style of singing in which, they explain, “you really try to ravage the vocal cords.” Hedva’s oeuvre resists any singular characterization, except to say that it attends to the splendor and brutality of the cosmos—a metaphysical seismograph registering when the present moment quakes in resonance with deep time and other universes.

Johanna Hedva from “Sick Woman Theory.”

Pamila Payne

“Everything I do began to be subsumed under my sickness.”

When I met Hedva over Zoom, late in the summer of 2022, they were in their apartment in Berlin, backed by an imposing wall of bookshelves that could barely contain their contents—each row of vertical spines supporting another layer of horizontally stacked books. A ceramic teapot, an evil eye talisman, a smattering of small photographs, and a print of Frida Kahlo occupied open space, lending the library the air of an altar.

Hedva grew up in Los Angeles in a family of deep and varied spiritual traditions, which formed the backdrop for a childhood marked by struggle. “I was physically and emotionally abused as a child, raised in an environment of poverty, addiction, and violence, where sometimes there wasn’t enough to eat,” they wrote in “Sick Woman Theory.” Their mother and aunt, who were raised Catholic, both identified as witches. Hedva attributes their occultism to the New Age sensibilities that were prevalent among West Coast white ladies in the 1960s and ’70s, when tarot, astrology, and reiki were practically ubiquitous. By the time Hedva was a child in the ’80s and ’90s, witchery was out of vogue; they were mortified every full moon when their mother and aunt dragged them and their sibling outside to pull the energy from the earth and thank the goddess. On their father’s side, Hedva traces their spiritual lineage to their Buddhist grandmother, who immigrated to California from Korea. She kept a shrine where a huge gold statue of the Buddha sat surrounded by incense, chanting emanating from a nearby cassette player.

Hedva rejected it all. “Ontologically, I have this very annoying punk impulse where telling me to do something is the easiest way to get me not to do it,” they explained. In particular, their mother’s belief system chafed: “At some point when I was a teenager, I was like, ‘This is all quackery. I want to be an intellectual. I read philosophy, damn it!’”

When Hedva was in their late 20s, an undiagnosed illness flared, leaving them unable to function. (They have since received a host of diagnoses including endometriosis, bipolar disorder, complex PTSD, and depersonalization-derealization disorder.) Too debilitated to continue their MFA program at CalArts, Hedva moved in with their aunt. “I couldn’t get out of the bed, I couldn’t even speak,” they remembered. “It just all went to sea.” The intellectual frameworks they had depended on proved insufficient; Western medicine offered few answers. Now Hedva’s aunt, whose beliefs they had long regarded with skepticism, became a vital source of comfort. “She was like, ‘Well, maybe we don’t have an answer for what this is, but we’ll get through it,’” Hedva recalled. “It took away a diagnostic pressure or pathological impulse.”

Though illness made it nearly impossible to read, Hedva was able to return to one of their aunt’s simple astrology books, which they remembered from childhood. Experiences that science had failed to account for suddenly acquired explanations: For example, chronic health problems are par for the course when a life begins with the sun in the Sixth House. Hedva had previously studied classics, physics, and philosophy; they approached their new discipline with a familiar rigor. After years of devoted practice, they became a professional astrologer. “Everything I’ve read by them is infused with a witchy spirit,” the feminist critic Jessa Crispin told me. “I don’t mean eyeliner and amethyst crystals, I mean blood and power and the layer of muck in a pond that divides water from earth, where everything is rotten and fertile. They have a real willingness to go to ugly places . . . to hold the ugliness of the world up to the light, not to scorn it, necessarily, or to shame it, but to look at it.”

“They have a real willingness to go to ugly places . . . to hold the ugliness of the world up to the light, not to scorn it, necessarily, or to shame it, but to look at it.”

It was this commitment to looking squarely at uncomfortable truths that led to “Sick Woman Theory.” Stuck in bed while the world around them convulsed with rage and grief over the state-sanctioned murders of Black people, Hedva noticed that many recognizable forms of protest—which often involve extended periods of walking, standing, and putting one’s body at risk of further harm by police—exclude some of those most imperiled by state violence. After all, due to poverty and other adverse social determinants of health, Black and Indigenous people are significantly more likely to be disabled than white people. These racialized exclusions, Hedva argued, are entangled with misogyny that reduces all forms of reliance on others to a feminized weakness. Hedva used the figure of the Sick Woman to epitomize the broad category of lives that are considered too nonproductive and dependent to matter. If at first glance the archetype seems to represent what society has made marginal, Hedva argued that the Sick Woman is in fact central to capitalism’s functioning: If “wellness”—in other words, the ability to work—is the default, and “sickness” is its opposite, then the need for care becomes by extension “not normal,” naturalizing the deadly logic that treats people as expendable and productivity as nonnegotiable.

But if part of the Sick Woman’s galvanizing appeal was its insistence on assembling a broad coalition, that capaciousness also led to a certain analytic imprecision. The disability studies scholar Jina Kim recalled that some academics critiqued the Sick Woman’s universalizing function, which risked evacuating any individual of their particular contexts: The use of the category to stand in for anyone who is treated as disposable under capitalism can overshadow the fact that “‘the disabled person who couldn’t go to the lecture on disability rights because it was held in an inaccessible venue’ is more resourced and less vulnerable than ‘a homeless person’ or the ‘mentally ill Black woman’ who had the police called on her.” Hedva was among the first to acknowledge that the figure of the Sick Woman had limits. Within months of publishing the essay, they released a companion piece, “In Defence of De-Persons,” which took up the question of whether proposing a new universal subject position was in fact a sound approach to opposing the—implicitly able-bodied and male—hegemonic norm. “To construct and nurture a version of a human against a version of the human,” the theory “still relies upon the master’s tools,” they wrote.

Hedva tells me that they wrote “Sick Woman Theory” within what they call the “blast radius” of disability—the initial period of shock and coming-into-consciousness that defines the early experience of being disabled. It’s a warping of time, in which the rhythm of your life falls out of sync with the rhythm of everything around you. You might be relearning how to do basic tasks while everyone else goes about their busy days, or you might find yourself lying on a heating pad and watching the seconds tick by at 10:30 pm on a Saturday, when only weeks earlier you would have been halfway into a night out with friends. People new to disability often don’t know what to do with this temporal collapse, and some hold onto misguided beliefs that they can restore their prior experience of time with regimens that promise a quick fix, like dieting or exercise. Though Hedva’s proposal in “Sick Woman Theory” was grounded in a much deeper vision of social transformation, they came to view their own belief that collective action could resolve their pain as another form of cruel optimism. “It’s true that solidarity can feel good,” Hedva told me. “But there are plenty of times when you still feel alone and frightened and all of these terrible things that aren’t solved by going to the march.”

Several years ago
, Hedva went through a period of jolting up nightly in terror as they were falling asleep, crying out, “I DON’T WANT TO DIE!” They tried medication, meditation, herbs, and consultations with a death doula—but the only thing that eased their anxiety was a lie mumbled by their half-asleep partner: “You’re not gonna die.”

Even as someone with an artistic practice dedicated to inhabiting spiritual realms, Hedva is not exempt from the human feeling that death is a difficult fact to accept. This is the dark matter that their current work traverses. Their forthcoming book, How to Tell When We Will Die: Essays on Sickness, Fate, and Doom, is driven by the idea that it is the fear of our shared fate that makes ableism and capitalism so hard to give up. These ideologies tell us that if we just do the right things with our bodies and our time, we’ll have enough health and money to transcend the reality in which, as Hedva put it, “everyone will decline until they cannot move anymore; everyone will get sick until they die.” This impulse to draw a bright line between the weak and the strong has been on display during the pandemic, as US political leadership and mainstream media have framed more than a million deaths as a tolerable loss of the elderly and infirm. Ultimately, though, none of us can escape physical vulnerability and suffering—neither through fetishizing wellness, nor through the promise of solidarity that a figure like the Sick Woman offers. As Hedva explained to me, “To work toward the abolition of ableism, you have to face the reality that you’re going to die someday. And before you die, you’ll probably suffer. And the suffering will probably get worse.”

Getting more intimate with unpleasant physical realities is a necessary first step toward imagining a world where pain and death can coexist with flourishing.

Hedva’s emphasis on the darkest parts of disability diverges in many ways from today’s activist paradigms, which seek to disrupt the ableist imagination’s conflation of disability with death, or with the not-worth-living. But often what pushes suffering into the realm of the unlivable is not the body itself, but the social and economic structures that amplify its pain, including the punishing schedules of wage labor, the necrotic negligence of privatized health care, and the isolation that comes with representing a society’s worst fears. And so, getting more intimate with unpleasant physical realities is a necessary first step toward imagining a world where pain and death can coexist with flourishing.

For Hedva, this means drawing on the lessons of the “blast radius,” confronting the experience of being out-of-time that disability—or grief or mysticism or doom or sleep—plunges a person into, and then teaches them to work from. “There are different qualities of time and kinds of time,” they told me. “Capitalism needs quantitative time. Eight hours a day, 40 hours a week . . . [But] with qualitative time, certain kinds of time are good for certain things and not good for others. How is February qualitatively different from March? What is the light doing, what is the temperature, what are the plants doing, what are the animals doing?” This is the kind of time that the clocks in Hedva’s new exhibition tell: weight, light, dark, dissolution, digestion, fruiting, decay. These are the fates that will greet us all, and our only hope may be in learning to greet them in return, to make that practice as regular as a spoonful of ink deposited daily onto a page. “God,” Hedva once wrote, “is an asphyxiating black sauce.” And inside that river of ink called time, possibility still pulses.

Liz Bowen is a disabled poet and scholar. She is the author of Sugarblood (Metatron Press, 2017) and Compassion Fountain (Trembling Pillow Press, 2022). Liz is a postdoctoral fellow at The Hastings Center and teaches disability studies at Bard College.