Quarantine and Containment: David Garcia’s Vital Ethics ///
Text originally written for DAMno41 Magazine
The following text is inspired by a conversation I had on the 27th of September 2013, with Copenhagen based architect David Garcia, in the context of my podcast-platform project called Archipelago. The topic I had chosen was inspired by the work of David’s office, MAP Architects, which dedicated its second issue of the series of publications Manual of Architectural Possibilities to the question of quarantine and containment. The principle is simple: one side of a folded, map-like document contains an inventory of factual and analytical studies assembled and formalised to meet the needs of the issue, while the reverse side introduces a few architectural projects, this time those specifically designed by David’s office.
My personal interest in the relationship between architecture and containment lies in the fact that architecture is inherently conceived as a potential space of containment, which requires a legal and political decision in order for such characteristics to unfold their power on the bodies that it hosts. In the context of quarantine, what was originally seen as the crystallisation of private property, walls, floors and ceilings, becomes a perfectly appropriate carceral space. This legal precaution, comprising of placing a body, or an entire population, in a space that is not in contact with the ‘outside world’ for a period of forty days – quarantine, coming from the Latin quadraginta, meaning forty – is a rather ancient means for a given society to protect itself from contagion. David recalls that the very constitution of ships, where quarantine was often applied, makes it easy for a given authority to contain a crew for the period of inoculation, after which, if no one is found to be sick, they are allowed to disembark.
THE BODY AS AGENT OF CONTAMINATION
David also mentions what is believed to be the first station built specifically for housing quarantined bodies: Venice’s Lazaretto. Built in 1423 on the small island of Santa Maria di Nazareth in the Venetian Lagoon, this station hosted – for almost two-and-a-half centuries –thousands of bodies suspected of carrying the plague. Indeed, many of them died of the plague on the island, without ever having reached the city. Centuries later, the immigrant inspection station at Ellis Island in New York Harbor, received more than 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. In order for a body to be allowed into American territory, part of what this inspection involved was a sixsecond medical inspection. The ‘undesired’ were inscribed with a chalk mark on their backs and either sent back to where they came from, or admitted to the quarantine hospital facilities on the island. Such practice effectively considered each body a potential receptacle of disease and, therefore, a potential agent of contamination, rather than an individual asking to become a citizen of the United States.
One aspect of the projects designed by MAP Architects is an attempt to reaffirm the status of individuals who are capable of emotions and feeling within the quarantined body. The Domestic Isolation Unit proposes, for example, keeping the quarantined individual in their home, thanks to a flexible and extensible inflated bubble that prevents them from transmitting to their relatives the suspected disease they might carry. The bubble even incorporates gloves as part of its membrane, to allow human contact. David, however, goes further than only providing a ‘caring’ piece of design that would at once register the designer as benevolent yet patronising. Involving what he calls the I don’t give a damn! option, this apparatus consists of a double zipper that offers the possibility for the quarantined individual and their partner or relative to join them inside the bubble, embracing the risk of contagion in favour of their relationship. We would be mistaken to see this option as unreasonable or as a gimmick. By introducing the ‘failure’ of design – since its purpose was precisely to avoid this scenario – within the very protocol of design itself, Garcia breaks the logic of what Michel Foucault called biopolitics.
“I DON’T GIVE A DAMN!”
Biopolitics constitutes the paradigmatic scheme that organises modern Western societies. It becomes incarnate through a sovereignty that undertakes the organisation of the (daily) lives of the society’s members. Foucault uses the example of a quarantined city touched by the plague to historically illustrate this mode of governance. In his 1974 seminar at the Collège de France entitled Abnormal, he describes at length the quadrillage (a word that is hard to translate, as it includes both the meaning of the grid and inspection) of a city in which each body is supposed to legally remain at home. The quadrillage consists of the daily inspection of each body’s health status, as well as an enforcement of the quarantine conditions, by various administrative and bureaucratic individuals. The motive behind these politics is argued to be aiming at the population’s own good, often favouring the end result rather than the means, in a narrative claiming to understand the ‘big picture’.
This is why MAP Architects’ I don’t give a damn! option is such a mighty one. By empowering the concerned bodies with an actual choice in their life conditions, they break the logic of biopolitics that assumes to “know what’s good for you”. In our conversation, David insisted on this notion of individual or collective sacrifice that, despite its apparent lethal features, actually creates a politics of empowerment rather than of subjectivisation to the transcendental will. He recalls the story of a mediaeval Irish village that, observing a few cases of the plague, commonly decided to build a wall around itself to contain the disease within, rather than taking the risk of spreading it into the region.
This notion of sacrifice led us to one last topic of discussion in relation to quarantine: about what David calls ‘quarantined landscapes’, which, despite their non-liveable conditions for humans, still house a certain number of individuals who refuse to leave the land with which they have a special relationship. In this regard, the sixth issue of the Manual of Architectural Possibilities is dedicated to the research that drove David to explore the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine 20 years after one of its reactors exploded. As I write these words, David is visiting the immediate environment around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant with some of his (volunteer!) students from the School of Architecture in Lund (Sweden), two years after it suffered greatly from the 2011 tsunami that triggered numerous radioactive leaks. “These quarantined landscapes”, says David, “are anthropomorphised, inasmuch as we treat them the same way we would treat human bodies that carry a deadly disease.” Nevertheless, beyond the actual human tragedies that these manmade disasters create, the quarantined landscapes constitute rare reservations of ‘natural’ elements, preserved as they are from human presence following the events that triggered their evacuation. The architectural projects designed for this sixth issue of the manual do not therefore attempt to strategise the return of humans within these landscapes, but rather, to emphasise the fact that they are made up of forms of ‘sanctuary’.
When we refer to quarantined bodies or landscapes, the strength of MAP Architects’ work thus lies in its indifference to presupposed moralistic logic that usually composes the arguments made concerning such topics. Instead, MAP prefers to construct an ethics of vitality: one that favours the immanence of individual choice and the inherent adaptation of a non-anthropomorphised natural environment.