Ep 6: Rot as Erotic Act
En Id Pt

Ep 6: Rot as Erotic Act

Brigitte Baptiste
Lino Arruda
Runtime: 0:00

The conversation with Brigitte Baptiste took place on July 19, 2021, through the ZOOM platform. The script for the interview was developed by Marilia Loureiro, then curator at Casa do Povo, and Daniel Lie. 

Visual artist Lino Arruda was invited to react to the conversation with Brigitte Baptiste and made two illustrations and a comic book. The excerpts to which Lino responded appear highlighted throughout the text. 

The title of this episode is inspired by a statement made by Brigitte during the conversation with Marília and Daniel. The transcription of the conversation was edited by Ruli Moretti and translated by Daniel Lühmann (Spanish to Portuguese) and Kevin Kraus (Portuguese to English).

The conversation with Brigitte Baptiste took place on July 19, 2021, through the ZOOM platform. The script for the interview was developed by Marilia Loureiro, then curator at Casa do Povo, and Daniel Lie. 

Visual artist Lino Arruda was invited to react to the conversation with Brigitte Baptiste and made two illustrations and a comic book. The excerpts to which Lino responded appear highlighted throughout the text. 

The title of this episode is inspired by a statement made by Brigitte during the conversation with Marília and Daniel. The transcription of the conversation was edited by Ruli Moretti and translated by Daniel Lühmann (Spanish to Portuguese) and Kevin Kraus (Portuguese to English).

Brigitte Baptiste: Thank you for this wonderful and seductive invitation, especially because a show called Rotten TV seems to me the best.

Well, I’m Brigitte Baptiste. As Brigitte I’m 22 years old, and without that name, I’m almost fifty-eight. I studied biology in Colombia ‒ which gave me a very Amazonian perspective ‒ and I lived in many parts of the world, studying and travel ling. I’ve always been very connected to the university, researching ecology related issues, especially to landscape ecology – which interprets ecological facts from a cultural perspective.

When I became Brigitte publicly, I understood and was able to put into practice much of what I now believe to be the living, the living change and the living-world relationship – and also of the dead, obviously.

Marilia Loureiro: Could you tell us a little bit about your thoughts and ideas regarding queer ecology?

B.B.: I think the best approach is through art, especially literature, where the queer concept originates. When someone faces a novel, a literary work, an essay, a poem, a play, they end up entering a universe in which the relationships established between the actors and protagonists of the plot are almost always mistaken, full of ambiguities and intertwined messages – used in turn to create the effect of integrity and the dramatic becoming of the work. You do not get to know what is the identity of those involved in the plot and in the story. Your image or perception of the characters is always unstable, incomplete, and also very much inscribed in your own affections – which depend on how you intertwine with the work, who you side with – especially when much of the tension comes from sexual and gender identity, and how the desire that inevitably goes through any narrative is expressed.

The same thing happens in the ecosystem: we face a complexity of relationships between living beings, between inert and imaginary actors to which we give agency, and between ourselves, to a point where it is very difficult to capture the essence or a permanent and stable identity – if there is any – of those who participate in ecosystem relations.

In the novel you can try resuming some point in the narrative, reread and go back a bit; in the ecosystem, not so much, because everything happens in real time, and the force connecting all actors is a deeply erotic one, based on passions – which can be destructive, plundering, symbiotic: there is a whole collection of ways to approach one another. Behind this is the initial potency of sexuality, telling us all the time: “exchange, exchange your genes with those of whomever you can!”, because this is the business of evolution: I keep my same genetic load, I won’t be able to innovate and adapt to the changing universe of the ecosystem. So what happens is a linguistic relationship, because we are talking about a change of DNA. As in the novel, it is a genetic relationship, of growth, of new languages, and which is obviously full of uncertainties.

Thus, in short, queer ecology is an interpreting of ecology recognising, to a large extent, the irreproducibility of the relations produced every day in what we call nature; what is unique and powerful, the erotic behind it, since everything is built based on sexuality. From this, gender identities, heteronormative behaviours, and all the possibilities of being and combining being emerge, because we know that is where the continuity of life is found.

M.L.: This seems to me a very poetic and clear way to touch on this subject, as a way of reading, building concepts and creating stories, from other angles, with other lenses for the relations. Thinking not only about the human body – but also about vegetables, bacteria and all living beings – how can we talk about the notions of homogeneity and similarity, on the one hand, and also about what is fresh, on the other, considering that these are quite normative concepts, which build and guide a view of nature from the human perspective, and how does queer ecology rub this towards other concepts and narratives?

B.B.: In the origin histories and in the ecologies of the Amazon indigenous peoples, as well as in the Nordic, Greek, African, Asian or Hindu mythologies, there is a tremendously passionate interaction of human beings with the animal and vegetable world, which represents a much broader universe of life relations than those we are used to, especially under a reductionist view of nature, which comes, I think, from an anguish about movement and change, from a need for accumulation and safety that we have, or that has been imposed to us, not to take risks and to guarantee as much as possible the operating conditions ‒ of the body, the family, the government or the company ‒ because uncertainty is extremely frightening. There are several levels at which we feel or want to feel safer and surer about things. Hence, we invented a relationship of trust based on the classification of things, in which, obviously what looks more like me ends up being apparently beneficial to me because it reassures me. So, everything that is similar reassures me, and everything different generates anguish and produces fear – which was not present in ancient cultures, where the notion of safety was quite light.

We live a bit stuck in the paradox of not wanting to change, of protecting the present and what we have, but, at the same time, knowing that within us everything is moving ‒ that the bacteria in our guts are eating us a little every day, and that we have to feed them otherwise they will eat us all. So I think it’s a question of accepting a bit more the notion of being part of a great metabolism; the only thing we can be sure of is death, and yet we try to live in death. Therefore, the notion of freshness is also so persistent in our contemporary view of things. We have always wanted things to operate on our scale of time and space, and we humans have very particular sensory limitations: we inhabit a few hundred meters, sometimes a few square kilometers; we live a few decades – five or six with consciousness; in combining these two factors, we are little aware of most of the things happening around us, and this makes us deceive ourselves to the point of thinking that everything is okay, that the world does not change. But this seemingly comforting construction is nevertheless extremely denialist, especially in relation to the inherent capacity of all things to stay in motion and to go on transforming one another ‒ beyond the understanding that it is thanks to this movement that everything that is fresh, innovative or adaptive arises.

I also consider that the way we practice change is something that remains a challenge, and that only through the arts will we be able to re-establish the human regime, whereas sometimes even science gives us false tranquillity. 

D.L. Brigitte, I’m interested in how you understand rot, the rotting process, from the point of view of queer ecology. What are the agents acting in this process? 

B.B.: Rot is always the space where the useless become something else: it’s the possibility of leaving the skin in which we feel comfortable, allowing us to be consumed for something to weaken us and permit other things to emerge or appear in order to establish a metamorphosis; it is always necessary to break certain bonds: when snakes change their skin they leave it on the way, but for this to happen, some cells must be warned that “it is time to die”.

Letting rot or lead to rot is a fundamental creative act, which also works with ideas, with language, with architecture, with systems in general. And if rot is linked to an act of love or an erotic act, then it isn’t something that leads us to death, but to rebirth: each moment of change simultaneously gives you the possibility of rebirth or disappearing, which is very genuine and definitive, because rot, skin exchange, the egg hatching, the seed flying through the air is the most vulnerable moment of all, but it is also the one that concentrates the most power in terms of rebirth and expansion. In this sense, rot is part of a process of constant resignification of change.

In the Amazon, the organic change process is so fast that it forces you to constantly re-signify even your own condition as a living being. Something that, for example, in the mountains of Bogotá, at 2,600 metres high, is a little slower, less frightening. That’s why it costs so much and it still costs the West to inhabit the rainforest, as they always see it with threatening eyes, because everything is excessively bustling, it’s too alive – and so much life scares us.

D.L.: It’s pretty tough what you’re talking about. I’ve been observing rot as something non-binary, that is between life and death, which relates to what you say about the transmutation of matter, so often seen as repulsive, but which is also what regenerates, breed and allows other lives. Meanwhile, what doesn’t rot, what doesn’t have its own transmutation power, becomes garbage – as is the case with plastic, for example. What’s your take on this? The disgust with rot is also a disgust with death: I’ve been trying to reflect with people on Rotten TV how it would be possible to change this relation. How can we change the relation with death? It’s difficult to recognise when life ends and death begins, but this is also something that is very distinct in a human life.

B.B.: I’m delighted with all these images you bring, especially those that break with dichotomies and binary conditions. When you go out for a walk around the world, if you don’t have a grain of will to be affected ‒ or even infected ‒ by the world, you end up shutting down and losing it. Perhaps that’s where the fallacy of nature construction we’ve built in recent years lies, particularly regarding conservation. “Environmental management” is a terrible concept because it consists of stopping the world: conserving national parks as paradise filled bubbles. I don’t mean to say that you don’t have to take care of life but taking care of life by shutting it in a bubble, regardless of size, is contradictory. In biology I always had a problem with sacrificing plants or animals and then studying them in the lab: if I want to study life, what is the point of sacrificing a bird or an insect, and then, under the microscope, state: “Oh, that’s life!”? There’s a big problem there. Biological sciences are interpretations of relations sciences. It’s really hard not getting involved. That’s why farmers are usually the best ecologists, because they are always at the crossroads of having to eat their outcome, what they’ve raised, what they’ve cared for and reproduced.

All ecological and cultural processes were built largely on the predigestion of what we later incorporate into our body or into our culture. We exercise in building or destroying the things that we’ll integrate into our discourses, our ideas, our artefacts, or into our body. To be able to eat wheat, it’s necessary to make bread and put a fungus that softens it, preparing it to be eaten. It’s a graceful and very sensual relation. Yeast expands immensely and transforms the flour, an inactive medium, into something that, at a certain moment, we kill and eat. It’s almost like the spider that throws its gastric juices out to soften the food and then come back to eat it, which may seem disgusting, but it’s what we do with everything. It’s very hard to eat something raw, without a prior interpretation or transformation process. In this process, the identity of everything constantly changes. Yeast exists in this explosion of foam, and mixed with sugar and water, flour ceases to be flour to become starch and everything stops to be what it was to become something else. Culturally speaking, it seems to me to be an always intoxicating effect, because I also project myself on all the things I relate to in the world. I leave part of my skin stuck in the world and then reabsorb it into my affections. We dissolve a little every day.

When we give our blood to mosquitoes in the jungle, we say: “But why do they have to sting me? Why do we have mosquitoes in the world?” While I’m damaging the world on a hard to sense extent ‒ trampling dry leaves, compressing the soil, and changing the conditions of the micro-world ‒ mosquitoes are simply getting a small compensation in the form of a drop of blood, and so my metabolism feeds the jungle again. There’s no need to die completely to be involved in this exchange relation, it isn’t a symbolic or hypothetical exchange, it’s something alive, which happens constantly.

D.L.: It’s very interesting to me that you brought the word “intoxicating.” I’m in a grieving process right now. It’s been almost three months since my father died of Covid-19. At the same time, death has interested me for many years, its rites, a way out of this life and death binary nature and now I’m also going through a process of death of my own. But when you say “intoxicating,” I’m left with these fuzzy questions: why is there death? Where does it start? Where does it end? Why do things rot?

B.B.: Because they need to reorganise constantly; even in chemistry and physics the stability notion can never be complete, because if it were so the world would be motionless. So it takes an imbalance ‒ which can be quantum, atomic, molecular ‒ that propels the fall, propels the encounter; in biology this process ends up being putrefaction; in ecology, the disturbance ‒ a fire that destroys a forest or a flood that renews it. There’s no way for a planetary and environmental balance. This opens up a complex space in the climate change discussion, for example, and the world transformation. What are the limits of rotting not to make everything collapse and then end up like Venus, without being able to perform biological processes? What’s certain is that rot is the engine of transformations, but it works within concrete and delicate limits of possibility, which make things either be one or another.

On gender, we always feel very unstable, fortunately unstable, because it’s a sum of almost infinite attributes, full of possibilities and gestures and moments of pleasure and pain; throughout history, by a reproductive guarantee, our femininities and masculinities have tried to see themselves extremely simplified, which however no longer works, as we’ve reached a point where we’re collapsing into simplicity.

So, I say that we all have to become a little our opposites in terms of gender; otherwise, the macho affirmation, the authoritarian affirmation of solid becomes something immensely dangerous and even lethal, because it inhibits change, creativity, the possibilities of being. We don’t want a frozen world, we want a moving world, a world that is unstable, but not so unstable as to make it collapse, of course.

M.L.: In the first conversation we had with Giuliana Furci, from Chile, she told us that rotting begins after the peak of reproduction, and that from there, a being starts to decay and rot, and that the most important moment of a tree is when it falls, because from there other beings and other lives will proliferate. Daniel and I reflect a little on this difference between reproduction and proliferation, and how these concepts are distinct, but also dialogue in some way with the life and death cycles.

B.B.: I really like this analogy that the tree is surrendering, leaving the fungi, bacteria or plants to take their body to, finally, transform into soil and reincorporate into the rest of a forest.

Because in culture, to a large extent, this would mean that our task is to be able to surrender ourselves in terms of promoting life, not just biological life, but life in all its splendour of meanings and interpretations: symbolic life. And so not everyone needs to reproduce biologically to make sense – not all women must have uterus to be considered women, and vice versa as to the male.

I think that what is lacking in contemporary education is returning to the point where the new generations understand that this wonderful relationship with the biological is not something limiting or that defines us, but that it nourishes us completely. The fact we’re living beings fills us with meaning and, therefore, we always have the possibility and responsibility to take care of life in all its expressions, to feel alive and then to project life into the symbolic and creative world.

We have to experience [being] a coral reef, experience life at the top of a tree canopy with dozens of epiphytes and insects. This is unsuited to algorithms, and it delights me. We may represent ecosystems, but they’ll also be full of randomness, also full of uncertainties, as well as subject to the collapse or explosion of new living beings. These constant surprises are what give meaning to existence.

I have no [religious] belief, so for me, finding a fallen tree full of fungi represents a unique and wonderful discovery, which causes life to have all its splendour in that instant when the tree dies and the fungus appears. I would certainly like my death, both biological and intellectual, to be the same as this explosion.

D.L. Everything we’re talking about has, for me, one word in common: energy – in all its senses and meanings, in the sense of science, spiritual, scientific and in the many terms that are synonymous with the word “energy” – as something that always needs a constant reorganisation.

B.B.: We’ve always been told, at least in the West, that energy is light, and light is energy, and that light turns into matter in a miraculous way; this is obvious and it can perfectly explain photosynthesis, for instance. As light is captured on a leaf and transforms into sugar, as a banana is light changed into matter, they are absolutely splendid atomic or quantum processes, in which what is a wave transforms into physical matter – no longer into waves but packaged in another way. And so, with rot, the banana lights up again, because it releases its energy again; so we are simply a manifestation of light that for a while becomes matter and then goes back on its way; and it’s very beautiful to think that the light twists in such way, that the light is queer again.

Lino Arruda, Illustration 1: “I made this drawing thinking about the number of different agents comprising the human body (challenging human exceptionalism and offering a self conception less individualistic and more “eucological”). I wanted to portray microscopic agents and symbiotic lives with an ambiguous and monstrous burden: stressing the dependence and fragility of what this human body equation is. The main idea guiding this illustration was that of our bacteria and fungi eating us every day a bit more, and the need to feed them.”
Lino Arruda, Illustration 2: “I made this drawing based on the sentence ‘and so much life scares us’. I wanted to represent this unnerving attempt of detaching from the chaotic and unpredictable nature, in search of stability and likeness, denying and hiding the unruly processes organising body life on its own.”

Lino Arruda, Comic book: “I drew up this comic book thinking of antagonistic attacks of futurity (reproductive to non-reproductive) and the protagonism we give to human agents over the others. My goal was to start with the association of dildo to a queer sexual culture (delightful, creative, dynamic), and then completely extrapolate the human, focusing on the dildo power to produce and nurture other relationships (I was much driven by the idea of philosopher Jane Bennett on the concept of ‘vibrant matter’).”