1. Vital forms: the term is used by Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino to refer to her biomorphic ceramic shapes that can be reminiscent of organs, of eggs, of handfuls, of mouthfuls. Other, similar phrases might be resonant objects, or charged figures, but for Maiolino the idea of vital forms not only suggests potency but also necessity. Her sculptures’ tactile traces bear evidence of the needed and laborious procedures that mold them into being; a vital form is a demystified form.
2. Writing in July 2020, in a time saturated with escalating mortality rates due to the COVID-19 pandemic and activism around deathly state violence towards Black people, I think anew about vitality and necessity—about life and aliveness, about who and what is deemed indispensable. The category of the “essential worker” (ever-shifting and subject to redefinition according to political whims) has put precarious populations at the front lines of the virus. In a bitter paradox, immigrant meat-packers and low-wage grocery store clerks of color are deemed essential precisely at the moment when they have never been treated as more disposable.
3. As I type these words, I click on the plastic keyboard embedded in the metal shell of my laptop computer, a computer whose circuits and electronic mechanisms—those obscured innards—are made partly out of minerals like tungsten, copper, gold, and tantalum. Sometimes called conflict or blood minerals, they are often mined in circumstances that are brutally destructive for the environment and punitively exploitative for the laborers who do the work of extraction. Multiple injuries have been inflicted in order for this cursor to blink. Maiolino’s theory about vital forms asserts that these forms tell us, in some meaningful way, about their own origins, about the many different kinds of work that went into their manufacture. I do not see the minerals buried in the guts of my laptop, and global capitalism wants to insist that the people who perform these labors are also kept out of view.
4. I’m seated at my desk. It is made of wood; probably teak, because it is a Danish mid-century modern castoff that a friend gave to me, covered with stains that she found distracting and I find tolerable, even charming. To my knowledge I’ve never come face-to-face with a live teak tree so I cannot picture what its trunk or branches or leaves look like; teak forests grow mainly in places like Myanmar, India, Indonesia, and Thailand. How this Asian lumber became available, and fashionable, for Danish furniture designers and architects more than fifty years ago is something I am keen to trace as part of my research process, even for a footnote. Probably there are books about this: maps of the teak trade overlaid with maps of Scandinavian colonial outposts. But I cannot access my library—it’s been shuttered for months due to the ongoing shelter-in-place order.
5. Sitting here, my body is almost entirely surrounded by wood; my feet rest on the old oak floor. My back and legs are folded into a wood chair. I live in a small wooden house, a fact I ponder often and anxiously given that it is located just one block from the highest risk fire zone in northern California. I’ve been thinking a lot about wood. How it burns. How it thirsts. The two redwoods in my backyard are scraggly and underwatered; I worry about their survival. They are used to a more robust layer of fog, and to more consistent rains in the winter. All of the moisture that the trees depend upon for their survival is fading away due to climate change. When I look out my window I see parched brown hills.
6. Scientists warn that pandemics are more likely to explode where natural habitats are being displaced, at those friction points where wildlife is disappearing due to human incursion; the virus and climate change are thus intimately linked phenomena.
This is a writerly experiment about vital form which itself takes an alternative form: the form of the fragment. It is a meditation on life and labor and materiality which lays bare my own labor, my own material circumstances, and my own durational thought process, with all its digressions and dead-ends, as an act of unveiling.
7. This is a writerly experiment about vital form, which itself takes an alternative form: the form of the fragment. It is a meditation on life and labor and materiality, which lays bare my own labor, my own material circumstances, and my own durational thought process, with all its digressions and dead ends, as an act of unveiling.
8. Vita, Latin, from life. Vital as in critical: in the hospital they monitor vital organs, check for vital signs. If those signs are robust then the patient might stay alive. In some areas of my home state, Texas, especially in the largely Latinx south along the border with Mexico, the ICU capacity has been reached and people are being turned away from the ventilators they need to breathe. I monitor these numbers with piercing alarm. Within the racist, murderous logic of the criminally incompetent Trump administration, these people are expendable and thus they are denied air.
“I can’t breathe.” One of the rallying cries of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police has focused on the ability to breathe. At the large beautiful protests in Oakland, everyone takes care to wear masks, to prevent the spread of the virus as it is floats invisibly between us. Inhaling and exhaling has never felt more marked, more differential, more urgent, more dangerous, more privileged.
9. “I can’t breathe.” One of the rallying cries of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police has focused on the ability to breathe. At the large beautiful protests in Oakland, everyone takes care to wear masks, to prevent the spread of the virus as it is floats invisibly between us. Inhaling and exhaling have never felt more marked, more differential, more urgent, more dangerous, more privileged.
10. Yesterday there was a five-alarm conflagration in San Francisco, and its terrible smoke wafted across the Bay in our direction, blanketing everything in Oakland. Prevailing wind currents are often not kind to my city, the historically lower-income and more racially diverse neighbor of San Francisco, and the direct relationship between class, race, pollution, and chronic health problems are palpable across every metric.
11. The dense rainforests of the Amazon are referred to as the “lungs” of the planet—one of its vital organs. Under far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose motives are profit and anti-Indigenous racism, the rapid deforestation of the Amazon is accelerating. This devastation is akin to the COVID crisis, which is simultaneously hitting Brazilian Indigenous communities hard; the Earth screams as its breath is taken away.
In the English language, the origin of the word matter (or material, substance) is closely intertwined with the word wood (or timber), materia. Look back even further in time: materia comes from mater, or mother. Mother/wood/matter—I am struck by the profound intelligence of these linguistic associations. Wood as a mother, the feminine life-source of all necessary matter. Madeira, wood in Portuguese, retains the memory of some of these histories.
12. In the English language, the origin of the word matter (or material, substance) is closely intertwined with the word wood (or timber), materia. Look back even further in time: materia comes from mater, or mother. Mother/wood/matter—I am struck by the profound intelligence of these linguistic associations. Wood as a mother, the feminine life-source of all necessary matter. Madeira, wood in Portuguese, retains the memory of some of these histories.
13. Resisting the martial law of federal agents in Portland, Oregon, a “wall of moms” formed a human barricade, using their maternal bodies as a shield—mothers become strong and unbreachable as a wooden wall.
14. The Indigenous Brazilian artist Conceição Freitas da Silva, also known as Conceição dos Bugres (1914–1984), sculpted figures out of wood, using chisels to carve features and produce cylindrical totemic personages. Their facial features are schematic but also distinct and individual; with a little black paint and yellow wax, she renders hair, draws eyes and mouths, and indicates limbs. Beginning from the suggestive prompt of columnar tree trunks with their naturally occurring grooves and nodules, she enlivens their forms, translating them into differently recognizable living beings. Always emphasizing volume, her work is three-dimensional, solid; it rewards the viewer who can see it in the round. She explained in an interview in 1974 that she was inspired to work in this manner when a face appeared to her in wood; she felt that wood itself had the ability to gesture to, if not actually generate, the form it wanted to become. “The nature of wood is wise,” she says. “A natureza da madeira é sábia. Though her work is boldly innovative, she remains quite unknown, relegated to regressive ideas about native and folkloric traditions.
15. As with the art of Conceição dos Bugres, the gendered valences of Anna Maria Maiolino’s art are always present, both in Maiolino’s material choices (which include textiles and clay) as well as with her visibly embodied handiwork. There are major distinctions to be drawn between the two, since (art-school-trained) Maiolino sits within the capacious realm of abstraction while (uncredentialled) dos Bugres comes back again and again to figuration. Yet they both put forth a needed feminist proposition—which is that we should not shunt effort off-screen. Work and the procedures of making should not be out of sight but rather laid bare, even if raw edges and unfinished bits remain.
16. When approaching the topic of vital form, I, too, wanted to strip the essay-form down to its bare essentials. What, I asked myself, is core to this genre? What remains elemental when the usual academic niceties are shoved aside in times of emergency? By stating what normally goes unstated—shard-like observations about the multiple contexts that structure my own writerly body—I tried to foreground, as Maiolino does, process and physicality. This is a rough narrative of my own labors, from where I sit to how I think. I chose not to smooth it out into a detached argument, leaving the painful and pressing splinters in place.