Personal accounts of survival and repair. A conversation with Gabrielle Goliath

Marginalised identities – black, brown, indigenous, femme, queer, non-binary and trans individuals – have found ways to affirm their bodily presence in the world and “survive”, or even thrive in an adverse social environment. Born in South Africa in 1983, Gabrielle Goliath focuses her research on showing these practices of survival, carrying on a critical discourse on political representation of non-conforming bodies. Presented at the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, the immersive video-installation Personal Accounts (a project first initiated in 2014), gathers together several women and gender-diverse collaborators to share their personal accounts of survival and repair. In a further phase, all the spoken words are cut out: the bodies and their voiceless language, the hesitations, the sighs – it’s all that’s left. In a very powerful immersive experience, Goliath is able to overcome the voice/voiceless dichotomy of political representation. Disarming the role of verbal expression, the artist re-establishes the power of their physical presence, validating their experience despite the verbal content of their stories. We asked Gabrielle Goliath a few questions about the ideological and conceptual implications of this touching project.

Your work, Personal Accounts, is centred on the multiplicity of ways in which non-conforming individuals survive. Would you like to explain a little further what, in your experience, a “survivor” really is?

I speak of my work as attending and tending-to present-day conditions of differentially valued life (and I think of this as tender, urgent labour). Here, I am specifically addressing the structural ways in which black, brown, femme, queer, trans and indigenous individuals seek to live, love, survive and thrive, in-spite-of black femme negation and conditions of political impossibility that render (or produce) these lives as precarious, disposable and available to violence. I deploy the term ‘survivor’ not to side-step the traumatic experience and social inscription of victimhood, but rather to insist upon the insurgent, incendiary, quotidian practices of refusal, imagination and repair enacted in the everyday by these individuals. This is survival as active, agential political life-work. Ocean Vuong puts it beautifully: “We often think of survival as something that merely happens to us, that we are perhaps lucky to have. But I like to think of survival as a result of active self-knowledge, and even more so, a creative force”. 

Personal Accounts, 2024, multi-cycle video & sound installation, installation views, Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere, La Biennale di Venezia (2024), photos by Luc Meneghel

You’ve been working on this project since 2014. Which confessions impressed you the most, and how did they change your perspective on violence (if they did)?

As opposed to “confessions” (which could imply a measure of sensationalism or guilt), collaborators who work alongside me share personal accounts of survival and repair – gifting their presence and life experiences to the work. No account is comparable to another, but each is immeasurably precious, charged with transformative potential. These (life) offerings refuse the cold, rational calculus of the so-called testimony, and an attendant political frame of representation that determines who can and cannot speak, and of those who choose to speak, who will be heard or more critically, believed. It is also important to note that these accounts are not solely about violence. Yes, there are instances in which collaborators insist on recalling traumatic experiences of physical, sexual, emotional and/or material harm – or deliberately unpack the more incremental, everyday structures, norms, expectations and encounters that uphold anti-black, anti-femme violence. But in the shared gifting of these accounts, they also trace and celebrate the creative, often fugitive ways in which they, as survivors, assert life and possibility within and despite conditions of negation.

In this work, you cut all the spoken words – which shows the difference between speaking and being heard. In doing so, you bring back the body to the center of attention. Do you mean that our bodily presence is more eloquent and “believable” than lexicality?

I appreciate your note on the centrality of bodily presence and situated knowledge, which is key to the political, poetic, affective and conceptual impetus of the work, as it calls us into a different, more relational aesthetic encounter. It is, however, important to recall that not all “bodies” are equal, or equally “believable”, and do not enter into political representation on commensurate terms. An (anti-black/brown/poor/femme) index of differentially valued life continues to sustain an inequitable regime of representation, one in which white heteronormativity reads (and reads well) whilst the “affectable others” (to cite Denise Ferreira da Silva) do not. It is, therefore, a most political gesture when, with the consensual participation of my collaborators, the words in each account are withheld – an editorial strategy that for me implies agency, repair and restoration rather than censorship or silencing (such as ‘cut’ might imply). This introduces, as you suggest, a different grammar of eloquence, but also of difficulty – troubling our ‘reading’ with the intersectional sonics and somatics of these very proximate accounts: halting, humming, umming, coughing, laughing, crying, pausing, sighing, breathing… And it is in this disruption (of a presumed voice/voiceless dichotomy) that Personal Accounts asserts an “in-between” space for human encounters – for a relationality that exceeds commonality or “legibility” and asks instead for mutual recognition and care in and across differences.

Personal Accounts, 2024, multi-cycle video & sound installation, installation views, Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere, La Biennale di Venezia (2024), photos by Luc Meneghel

You “give voice” by “silencing” the interviewees. How can we – in our daily practice – overcome the voice/voiceless dichotomy of political representation?

Again, I would want to emphasise the agential political gesture of withholding (as well as of sharing) at work in Personal Accounts. This was not something I did as a kind of post-production edit, but rather as an enabling condition for participation, allowing collaborators to share in ways they may not otherwise have – which is to say, without the burden of “coherence” and “credibility” that polices and so regularly discredits survivors. The question here was how to create survivor-centric conditions for participation that did not further inscribe threat, violence or the need to perform a kind of “valid victimhood”. And so, in coming to the work collaborators could choose not only what they wanted to share – be it a detailed account of exceptional violence, or a poem, recipe or favourite song – but also how they wanted to appear: some choosing to share their names and show their faces (as a claim to visibility), others opting not to disclose their personal details or visual identity (as an equally valid agential claim to opacity and/or privacy). In this sense, it was never my objective to “give voice to the voiceless”, but rather to enable different conditions for sharing (and withholding), rooted in a black feminist, survivor-centric politics of community and care. How do we address, as a daily practice, a patriarchal politics of representation? It is, I believe, in this work of relation, in cultivating conditions of mutual regard that account for a normalcy of differentially valued life and actively affirm (rather than discredit) the wilful, wayward, insurgent, creative, giving – sometimes withholding – life-practices of black, brown, femme and queer survival.

The patriarchal system carries out a precise discourse on violence: its destructive power is not only effective, but a narrative tool to maintain hegemonic control. How do you manage to reverse this narrative?

Indeed, we need to recognise patriarchal violence as a normative frame, as an everyday order of representation governed by a long-engrained model of white heteronormative privilege. This is what Katherine McKittrick describes as “transparent space” – which is to say, the way in which the differential ordering of spaces and lives in the world is perceived (and constantly reaffirmed) as simply ‘the ways things are’. Rather than seek to reverse this normative narrative (read History), I believe a work like Personal Accounts draws us into a different register of resistance – a different grammar of being in the world: one of punctures and work-arounds, of fugitive practices, gestures of repair, of offerings shared and tenderly received. This is not the meta-masculine agenda of re-organising the world (again), but of performing it differently, in relation, in love, in difference, in-spite-of.

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Laura Cocciolillo
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