In the spring of 2021, the New York-based Italian artist Adelita Husni Bey spent six weeks meeting over Zoom with Danish and American nurses, who recalled their experiences of deplorable working conditions and the consequent physical and psychological depletion in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting 30-minute video, On Necessary Work (2021), is part of Husni Bey’s exhibition, These Conditions, currently at the Annex at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park, presented by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, as part of the artist’s two-year fellowship project, The School of Pandemics. Curated by Eriola Pira and Carin Kuoni, the show also includes a sound installation, a room filled with work centered on the AIDS crisis, another room remade as a domestic space, a two-month-long political-theater workshop with necessary workers, and live performances.

The Annex was eerily quiet the day I visited. Without realizing that it had been built as a supply base during the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the emptiness of the exposed-concrete basement nevertheless struck in me an unsettling chord, offset by a beatific light streaming through windows — a fitting contrast, since the show itself pairs the resurgence and persistence of grief and trauma with a yearning to find commonality in pain, and to move not past but through it. 

Dancers from the group Duvet engaged in movement exploration

Some of the issues the nurses raised rang familiar from news coverage over the past two years: stories of loneliness, numbing daily routines, a corporate takeover of public health, and pressures to cut costs, which left hospital workers toiling beyond the already inhumane hours — as one nurse put it in the video, it felt as if working in urgent care were like “flipping burgers.” All workshop participants were women, so their complaint that hospital workers are “the lowest of the lowest rung” in healthcare had an acute sting of institutional gender bias. The women found a visual-spatial metaphor to express the absurd dissonance between being the desperately needed “essential” workers, yet seeing their work devalued: A hand enters the frame before the camera and yanks an item from a stack of objects, causing its collapse.

Husni Bey’s art-political environment evokes an echo chamber, especially striking since so much of what it reverberates is the anguish of silence and absence. The artist herself suggests this idea in the video, when she tells the nurses that their conversations — and the videos they shared — made her think of “a kind of ghost.” She follows her comment with extreme close-ups split across three screens of a nurse’s uniform, the camera slowly traveling up until it zooms out, in a framing that suggests depersonalization, but also a pervasive, disembodied haunting. Maybe the challenge then is not to exorcise the ghost — as we might rush to do after a trauma — but to find metaphors and tangible manifestations that capture its collective “silent roar.” 

Still from Adelita Husni-Bey, On Necessary Work (2021)

The impact of the show hinges on sensory deprivation not as a hindrance but as a pathway to restoration, starting with the space’s austerity, which suggests a kind of ante-room of feeling — or so it seemed to me as I wandered into the “living room,” delineated by plywood walls. The spare space contained a sofa, a table, a locker, and a few drawings in childlike hand. Rather than something to look at, it struck me as a holding place. (I later learned from Husni Bey that two workshop participants conceived it to recreate their own environments.) Nevertheless, having recently lost my father to COVID-19, I felt a peculiar ownership of it, and a tug of disquiet. 

The phrase “silent roar” comes from a violinist in Husni Bey’s sound work in five movements, Cronaca del Tempo Ripetuto (A chronicle of histories repeating, 2021) — five improvisations, in collaboration with Chamber Orchestra of Radicondoli, Tuscany, and the participation of Rabèl Theatrical Association, in response to pandemic lockdown — also featured in the show. In the accompanying libretto, the artist cites a book by the Italian writer Constantino Antichi, which describes gravediggers during the 1631-33 plague in Italy carrying bodies on stretchers, to avoid carts rattling on cobblestones — eliminating sound to counter fear. As an antidote to this silencing, Husni-Bey reinstates the deliberately staggered, piercingly solitary notes.

Husni Bey’s varied approaches make it harder to define her aims — what we often call the “pay-off,” following capitalist terminology — but her work does address the need for “recovery.” In the video, Cady Chaplin, a nurse from Chicago, speaks of crying when a coworker held her, as she suddenly realized she hadn’t been touched in months. But the video’s formal devices — a split screen, a multiplicity of windows — leaves open the question of whether or not Zooming provides a sense of connection. There was more closeness in the live performance’s dedicated close-eyed movement exploration, by the group Duvet. In the two parts I saw, a dancer first moved about the space blindfolded, while an accompanying guide prevented him from bumping into walls; then two female dancers performed, and at one point became entangled in each other’s arms. Body as armor, as protector, as a “nurse,” came to my mind, while in the adjacent space — another plywood room — The Ashes Action (DIVA TV, 1992), a video documenting an ACT UP! protest, showed gay men locking arms in a body wall, to prevent the police from picking them out, one by one. 

Dancers from the group Duvet engaged in movement exploration

The ACT UP! video was the one element in the show that directly reflected Husni Bey’s interest in social movements, and specifically social change, in the wake of crises. (Although one might ask what exactly has changed in public response to them — if anything, the show’s historical timeline stresses a tragic recurrence, with public health in the grip of pharmaceutical lobbies and profiteers, rather than undergoing a meaningful labor reform or empathic evolution.) In this sense, the show’s current configuration doesn’t yet fully delve into the sociopolitical dimension of Husni Bey’s practice. It may in the future, when she presents the video she’s currently making of the political-theater workshop, conducted in the space with a small group of necessary workers (it’s slated to premiere at the New School in the fall of 2022, and then at Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy). As she described it to me, it reflects her research on past pandemics and the workers’ experiences. What’s already clear, though, is the ambition of Husni Bey’s multivalent practice. It pushes art to be more than an exercise in spectatorship. Even if I’m not sure how sounds and other metaphors for the pandemic (all of which we so urgently need to survive it) may become a platform for broader social change, These Conditions nevertheless resonates as a passionately pedagogic, interdisciplinary laboratory for communal knowledge.

These Conditions continues at the Annex at the Brooklyn Army Terminal (80 58th St, Sunset Park, Brooklyn) through April 8. The exhibition was curated by Eriola Pira and Carin Kuoni with curatorial assistance by Camila Palomino.

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Ela Bittencourt

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.