Tulpamancy

This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 48, “Budo”

A man alone is always in good company.
(G. Gaber, “I soli”, in Il Teatro Canzone, 1992)

For those who had an imaginary friend as children: don’t you ever miss that buddy you used to spend your days with?
You used to have fun together, give each other advice, tell each other your hopes and fears. Such imaginary friendship – as you probably already knew back then – was nothing but a mental game; yet it helped you to find your way into the complex world of grown-ups; and maybe it was also useful to unload some frustration, or to ease some loneliness.
Of course, now that you are adults, you learnt that there must be just one voice inside your head. If grown-ups keeps talking with an imaginary friend, well, it means they are crazy.
Yet, let’s admit it: sometimes we wish we could evoke someone to get some advice, someone we could confess a secret to and know it will never be revealed…

Some people don’t give up.
Since 2010 there is a small online community, made by people practicing the so-called “tulpamancy”. Tulpamancy is the creation of secondary identities or, in a manner of speaking, imaginary friends. Such entities are called “tulpa”, and they are generated by using some techniques on the edge between Eastern meditation and psychology: a tulpamancer, i.e. anyone trying to develop a tulpa, makes it consciously and is fully aware of the fictitious nature of the character he has created. At the same time, though, they can give this character a unique and independent identity, and they can hear its voice and perceive it also in the real world – through visual, hearing, tactile, and olfactory deliberate hallucinations.

Tulpas can be very different from their creators, thus allowing different perspectives; they sometimes speak different languages or have an exotic accent; they can be vague figures or extremely detailed characters with their own clothing and accessories; they have their own personality, tastes and skills.
They can help their tulpamancer in the most various ways: it could be a simple chat, or sometimes something more.

For example, one of the most detailed research on this subject (S. Veissière, Varieties of Tulpa Experiences: Sentient Imaginary Friends, Embodied Joint Attention, and Hypnotic Sociality in a Wired World, 2015), reports the experience of a girl who one day was particularly cold: her tulpa put an imaginary blanket on her shoulders, and almost magically she felt really warm. There are even some techniques that allow tulpas to temporarily take control of the “host” body, which therefore finds itself performing tasks it wouldn’t be able to accomplish alone.

At first glance, it can look crazy to create a multiple personality on purpose: the dissociative identity disorder is a serious pathology (some years ago I interviewed for this blog a woman hosting in her mind 27 alter egos, and her life wasn’t easy at all).
The crucial difference resides in the intention of this act, which allows to manage it: since it was created intentionally, a tulpa is a projection of the mind whose purpose is only positive, productive, supportive. Thus, tulpamancy can’t be considered as a pathology, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the functionality of the person. On the contrary, people devoted to this practice report it generated significant improvements in the quality of their lives, and even in social interactions. Many of them report they found an effective method to escape from loneliness and fight anxiety. Some of them even have sentimental or sexual relationships with their tulpas (although the community frowns upon this point, which is still controversial).

Despite being a very limited underground phenomenon, tulpamancy immediately caught the attention of anthropologists and psychologists. The method for the creation of new personalities could be indeed extremely interesting for cognitive sciences, ethnology, ethnobiology, linguistic anthropology, neurosciences, and hypnosis social studies.

“There must be just one voice inside your head”, we were saying. Our culture pushes us to believe that our identity is unique, indivisible. Nevertheless, in the last twenty years of psychological research, the hypothesis of a multiple, liquid identity has become more and more plausible. According to some scholars, people could be divided into two main groups: those who keep a diachronic vision of their life, as if it was the autobiography of a well-defined first-person narrator, and those who perceive their existence like a series of episodes, and that see their past as made of different moments and evolution steps when their personality was totally different from the current one.

In other words: our interior narrations, the way we “narrate ourselves” to ourselves, are complex, and the famous theory of “One, No One and One Hundred Thousand” by Pirandello is maybe closer to the truth than we think.
So, as tulpamancers say, why don’t transform all this material into a true resource, by nurturing imaginary friendships?
We would all be a little crazier, but also happier.

La Morgue, yesterday and today

Regarding the Western taboo about death, much has been written on how its “social removal” happened approximately in conjunction with WWI and the institution of great modern hospitals; still it would be more correct to talk about a removal and medicalization of the corpse. The subject of death, in fact, has been widely addressed throughout the Twentieth Century: a century which was heavily imbued with funereal meditations, on the account of its history of unprecedented violence. What has vanished from our daily lives is rather the presence of the dead bodies and, most of all, putrefaction.

Up until the end of Nineteenth Century, the relationship with human remains was inevitable and accepted as a natural part of existence, not just in respect to the preparation of a body at home, but also in the actual experience of so-called unnatural deaths.
One of the most striking examples of this familiarity with decomposition is the infamous Morgue in Paris.

Established in 1804, to replace the depository for dead bodies which during the previous centuries was found in the prison of Grand Châtelet, the Morgue stood in the heart of the capital, on the île de la Cité. In 1864 it was moved to a larger building on the point of the island, right behind Notre Dame. The word had been used since the Fifteenth Century to designate the cell where criminals were identified; in jails, prisoners were put “at the morgue” to be recognized. Since the Sixteenth Century, the word began to refer exclusively to the place where identification of corpses was carried out.

Due to the vast number of violent deaths and of bodies pulled out of the Seine, this mortuary was constantly filled with new “guests”, and soon transcended its original function. The majority of visitors, in fact, had no missing relatives to recognize.
The first ones to have different reasons to come and observe the bodies, which were laid out on a dozen black marble tables behind a glass window, were of course medical students and anatomists.

This receptacle for the unknown dead found in Paris and the faubourgs of the city, contributes not a little to the forwarding of the medical sciences, by the vast number of bodies it furnishes, which, on an average, amount to about two hundred annually. The process of decomposition in the human body may be seen at La Morgue, throughout every stage to solution, by those whose taste, or pursuit of science, leads them to that melancholy exhibition. Medical men frequently visit the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fracturs, and injuries of every description occasionally present themselves, as the effect of accident or murder. Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river, or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets […]. The clothes of the dead bodies brought into this establishment are hung up, and the corpse is exposed in a public room for inspection of those who visit the place for the purpose of searching for a lost friend or relative. Should it not be recognised in four days, it is publicly dissected, and then buried.

(R. Sears, Scenes and sketches in continental Europe, 1847)

This descripton is, however, much too “clean”. Despite the precautions taken to keep the bodies at low temperature, and to bathe them in chloride of lime, the smell was far from pleasant:

For most of the XIX Century, and even from an earlier time, the smell of cadavers was part of the routine in the Morgue. Because of its purpose and mode of operation, the Morgue was the privileged place for cadaveric stench in Paris […]. In fact, the bodies that had stayed in the water constituted the ordinary reality at the Morgue. Their putrefaction was especially spectacular.

(B. Bertherat, Le miasme sans la jonquille, l’odeur du cadavre à la Morgue de Paris au XIXe siècle,
in Imaginaire et sensibilités au XIXe siècle, Créaphis, 2005)

What is curious (and quite incomprehensible) for us today is how the Morgue could soon become one of the trendiest Parisian attractions.
A true theatre of death, a public exhibition of horror, each day it was visited by dozens of people of all backgrounds, as it certainly offered the thrill of a unique sight. It was a must for tourists visiting the capital, as proven by the diaries of the time:

We left the Louvre and went to the Morgue where three dead bodies lay waiting identification. They were a horrible sight. In a glass case one child that had been murdered, its face pounded fearfully.

(Adelia “Addie” Sturtevant‘s diary, September 17, 1889)

The most enlightening description comes from the wonderful and terrible pages devoted to the mortuary by Émile Zola. His words evoke a perfect image of the Morgue experience in XIX Century:

In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. […]When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of the walls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing him appeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. […] Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. […] One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.

Zola further explores the ill-conealed erotic tension such a show could provoke in visitors, both men and women. A liminal zone — the boundaries between Eros and Thanatos — which for our modern sensibility is even more “dangerous”.

This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him. Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness. […] On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the [well-dressed ladies] standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet. She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.

Finally, the Morgue was also an ironically democratic attraction, just like death itself:

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.
Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had beenburnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

(É. Zola, Thérèse Raquin, 1867)

In the course of its activity, the Morgue was only sporadically criticized, and only for its position, deemed too central. The curiosity in seeing the bodies was evidently not perceived as morbid, or at least it was not considered particularly improper: articles on the famous mortuary and its dead residents made regular appearance on newspapers, which gladly devoted some space to the most mysterious cases.
On March 15, 1907 the Morgue was definitively closed to the public, for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Times were already changing: in just a few years Europe was bound to know such a saturation of dead bodies that they could no longer be seen as an entertainment.

And yet, the desire and impulse to observe the signs of death on the human body never really disappeared. Today they survive in the virtual morgues of internet websites offering pictures and videos of accidents and violence. Distanced by a computer screen, rather than the ancient glass wall, contemporary visitors wander through these hyperrealistic mortuaries where bodily frailness is articulated in all its possible variations, witnesses to death’s boundless imagination.
The most striking thing, when surfing these bulletin boards where the obscene is displayed as in a shop window, is seeing how users react. In this extreme underground scene (which would make an interesting object for a study in social psychology) a wide array of people can be found, from the more or less casual visitor in search of a thrill, up to the expert “gorehounds”, who seem to collect these images like trading cards and who, with every new posted video, act smart and discuss its technical and aesthetic quality.
Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the disgust, another constant is the recourse to an unpleasant and out-of-place humor; and it is impossible to read these jokes, which might appear indecent and disrespectful, without thinking of those “comical companions” described by Zola, who jested before the horror.

Aggregators of brutal images might entail a discussion on freedom of information, on the ethics and licitness of exhibiting human remains, and we could ask ourselves if they really serve an “educational” purpose or should be rather viewed as morbid, abnormal, pathological deviations.
Yet such fascinations are all but unheard of: it seems to me that this kind of curiosity is, in a way, intrinsic to the human species, as I have argued in the past.
On closer inspection, this is the same autoptic instinct, the same will to “see with one’s own eyes” that not so long ago (in our great-great-grandfathers’ time) turned the Paris Morgue into a sortie en vogue, a popular and trendy excursion.

The new virtual morgues constitute a niche and, when compared to the crowds lining up to see the swollen bodies of drowning victims, our attitude is certainly more complex. As we’ve said in the beginning, there is an element of taboo which was much less present at the time.
To our eyes the corpse still remains an uneasy, scandalous reality, sometimes even too painful to acknowledge. And yet, consciously or not, we keep going back to fixing our eyes on it, as if it held a mysterious secret.

 

Un’intervista a Bizzarro Bazar

sdangher

Se c’è qualcosa di folle, assurdo o malato noi ne parliamo o ne abbiamo già parlato o di sicuro ne parleremo.

Così si presenta il sito Sdangher (pron.: Sdengher), fanzine online senza peli sulla lingua, dedicata alla weird music e all’heavy metal, con frequenti digressioni nei territori della cronaca nera, dei film porno, dei clisteri (!), dei b-movies e in generale da ogni tipo di notizia bizzarra dal mondo. Il tutto con tono scanzonato, divertito e divertente, che nasconde però una seria preparazione culturale.

Francesco Ceccamea, uno dei curatori di Sdangher, mi ha rivolto una lunga serie di domande particolarmente gustose, e l’intervista è stata pubblicata oggi. Abbiamo chiacchierato soprattutto di cosa significhi gestire un blog, ma anche di libri, arte, cinema, musica… e ovviamente del gusto del macabro e del meraviglioso. Ecco un estratto:

La tua passione per il bizzarro ti ha condotto materialmente in posti insoliti, quali ti hanno lasciato un’impressione maggiore?

L’Italia, quanto a luoghi insoliti, non si batte. La nostra penisola è una vera e propria wunderkammer traboccante di meraviglie poco conosciute. È ciò che mi propongo di documentare con la collana di libri. Prendi ad esempio Roma: ad ogni angolo c’è una chiesa, e basta infilarsi in una a caso per scoprire capolavori spesso macabri. Scene di martirio, reliquie, cadaveri di santi esposti nelle teche, cripte decorate con autentici teschi… questi tesori nascosti mi danno un senso di continuità […].

Più che i posti in sé, però, sono le esperienze che contano, e la mia passione mi ha portato a viverne di indimenticabili. Ho passato giorni e notti fra centinaia di mummie a Palermo. In un Museo di Anatomia Patologica, ho tenuto in mano la testa disseccata di un bambino, e imparato come far cambiare posizione a un feto deforme dentro un barattolo di formalina senza aprirlo. Sono salito in treno con una placenta nella borsa termica, dono di una cara amica che aveva appena partorito… Anche se forse l’esperienza più vera, essenziale e a suo modo sacra è stata assistere a un’autopsia.

Qui trovate l’intervista integrale.

Death 2.0

Considerations about death in the age of social media

Chart

Take a look at the above Top Chart.
Blackbird is a Beatles song originally published in the 1968 White Album.
Although Paul McCartney wrote it 46 years ago, last week the song topped the iTunes charts in the Rock genre. Why?
The answer is below:

Italian articles about “daddy Blackbird”.

Chris Picco lives in California: he lost his wife Ashley, who died prematurely giving birth to litle Lennon. On November 12 a video appeared on YouTube showing Chris singing Blackbird before the incubator where his son was struggling for life; the child died just four days after birth.
The video went immediately viral, soon reaching 15 million views, bouncing from social neworks to newspapers and viceversa, with great pariticipation and a flood of sad emoticons and moving comments. This is just the last episode in a new, yet already well-established tendency of public exhibitions of suffering and mourning.

Brittany Maynard (1984-2014), terminally ill, activist for assisted suicide rights.

A recent article by Kelly Conaboy, adressing the phenomenon of tragic videos and stories going viral, uses the expression grief porn: these videos may well be a heart-felt, sincere display to begin with, but they soon become pure entertainment, giving the spectator an immediate and quick adrenaline rush; once the “emotional masturbation” is over, once our little tear has been shed, once we’ve commented and shared, we feel better. We close the browser, and go on with our lives.
If the tabloid genre of grief porn, Conaboy stresses out, is as old as sexual scandals, until now it was only limited to particularly tragic, violent, extraordinary death accounts; the internet, on the other hand, makes it possible to expose common people’s private lives. These videos could be part of a widespread exhibitionism/vouyeurism dynamics, in which the will to show off one’s pain is matched by the users’ desire to watch it — and to press the “Like” button in order to prove their sensitivity.

During the Twentieth Century we witnessed a collective removal of death. So much has been written about this removal process, there is no need to dwell on it. The real question is: is something changing? What do these new phenomenons tell us about our own relationship with death? How is it evolving?

Skull-in-Fashion1

If death as a real, first-hand experience still remains a sorrowful mystery, a forbidden territory encompassing both the reality of the dead body (the true “scandal”) and the elaboration of grief (not so strictly coded as it once was), on the other hand we are witnessing an unprecedented pervasiveness of the representation of death.
Beyond the issues of commercialization and banalization, we have to face an ever more unhibited presence of death images in today’s society: from skulls decorating bags, pins, Tshirts as well as showing up in modern art Museums, to death becoming a communication/marketing/propaganda tool (terrorist beheadings, drug cartels execution videos, immense websites archiving raw footage of accidents, homicides and suicides). All of this is not death, it must be stressed, it’s just its image, its simulacrum — which doesn’t even require a narrative.
Referring to it as “death pornography” does make sense, given that these representations rely on what is in fact the most exciting element of classic pornography: it is what Baudrillard called hyper-reality, an image so realistic that it surpasses, or takes over, reality. (In porn videos, think of viewpoints which would be “impossibile” during the actual intercourse, think of HD resolution bringing out every detail of the actors’ skin, of 3D porn, etc. — this is also what happens with death in simulacrum.)

Damien Hirst poses with his famous For the love of God.

We can now die a million times, on the tip of a cursor, with every click starting a video or loading a picture. This omnipresence of representations of death, on the other hand, might not be a sign of an obscenity-bound, degenerated society, but rather a natural reaction and metabolization of last century’s removal. The mystery of death still untouched, its obscenity is coming apart (the obscene being brought back “on scene”) until it becomes an everyday image. To continue the parallelism with pornography, director Davide Ferrario (in his investigative book Guardami. Storie dal porno) wrote that witnessing a sexual intercourse, as a guest on an adult movie set, was not in the least exciting for him; but as soon as he looked into the camera viewfinder, everything changed and the scene became more real. Even some war photographers report that explosions do not seem real until they observe them through the camera lens. It is the dominion of the image taking over concrete objects, and if in Baudrillard’s writings this historic shift was described in somewhat apocalyptic colors, today we understand that this state of things — the imaginary overcoming reality — might not be the end of our society, but rather a new beginning.

Little by little our society is heading towards a global and globalized mythology. Intelligence — at least the classic idea of a “genius”, an individual achieving extraordinary deeds on his own — is becoming an outdated myth, giving way to the super-conscience of the web-organism, able to work more and more effectively than the single individual. There will be less and less monuments to epic characters, if this tendency proves durable, less and less heroes. More and more innovations and discoveries will be ascribable to virtual communities (but is there a virtuality opposing reality any more?), and the merit of great achievements will be distributed among a net of individuals.

In much the same way, death is changing in weight and significance.
Preservation and devotion to human remains, although both well-established traditions, are already being challenged by a new and widespread recycling sensitivity, and the idea of ecological reuse basically means taking back decomposition — abhorred for centuries by Western societies, and denied through the use of caskets preventing the body from touching the dirt. The Resurrection of the flesh, the main theological motivation behind an “intact” burial, is giving way to the idea of composting, which is a noble concept in its own right. Within this new perspective, respect for the bodies is not exclusively expressed through devotion, fear towards the bones or the inviolability of the corpse; it gives importance to the body’s usefulness, whether through organ transplant, donation to science, or reduction of its pollution impact. Destroying the body is no longer considered a taboo, but rather an act of generosity towards the environment.

At the same time, this new approach to death is slowly getting rid of the old mysterious, serious and dark overtones. Macabre fashion, black tourism or the many death-related entertainment and cultural events, trying to raise awareness about these topics (for example the London Month of the Dead, or the seminal Death Salon), are ways of dealing once and for all with the removal. Even humor and kitsch, as offensive as they might seem, are necessary steps in this transformation.

Human ashes pressed into a vinyl.

Human ashes turned into a diamond.

And so the internet is daily suggesting a kind of death which is no longer censored or denied, but openly faced, up to the point of turning it into a show.
In respect to the dizzying success of images of suffering and death, the word voyeurism is often used. But can we call it voyeurism when the stranger’s gaze is desired and requested by the “victims” themselves, for instance by terminally ill people trying to raise awareness about their condition, to leave a testimony or simply to give a voice to their pain?

Jennifer Johnson, madre di due bambini e malata terminale, nell'ultimo video prima della morte.

Jennifer Johnson, mother of two children, in her last video before she died (2012).

The exhibition of difficult personal experiences is a part of our society’s new expedient to deal with death and suffering: these are no longer taboos to be hidden and elaborated in the private sphere, but feelings worth sharing with the entire world. If at the time of big extended families, in the first decades of ‘900, grief was “spread” over the whole community, and in the second half of the century it fell back on the individual, who was lacking the instruments to elaborate it, now online community is offering a new way of allocation of suffering. Condoleances and affectionate messages can be received by perfect strangers, in a new paradigm of “superficial” but industrious solidarity.
Chris Picco, “daddy Blackbird”, certainly does not complain about the attention the video brought to him, because the users generosity made it possible for him to raise the $ 200.000 needed to cover medical expenses.

I could never articulate how much your support and your strength and your prayers and your emails and your Facebook messages and your text messages—I don’t know how any of you got my number, but there’s been a lot of me just, ‘Uh, okay, thank you, um.’ I didn’t bother going into the whole, ‘I don’t know who you are, but thank you.’ I just—it has meant so much to me, and so when I say ‘thank you’ I know exactly what you mean.

On the other end of the PC screen is the secret curiosity of those who watch images of death. Those who share these videos, more or less openly enjoying them. Is it really just “emotional masturbation”? Is this some obscene and morbid curiosity?
I personally don’t think there is such a thing as a morbid — that is, pathological — curiosity. Curiosity is an evolutionary tool which enables us to elaborate strategies for the future, and therefore it is always sane and healthy. If we examine voyeurism under this light, it turns out to be a real resource. When cars slow down at the sight of an accident, it’s not always in hope of seeing blood and guts: our brain is urging us to slow down because it needs time to investigate the situation, to elaborate what has happened, to understand what went on there. That’s exactly what the brain is wired to do — inferring data which might prove useful in the future, should we find ourselves in a similar situation.road-accidents

Accordingly, the history of theater, literature and cinema is full to the brim with tragedy, violence, disasters: the interest lies in finding out how the characters will react to the difficulties they come about. We still need the Hero’s Journey, we still need to discover how he’s going to overcome the tests he finds along the way, and to see how he will solve his problems. As kids, we carefully studied our parents to learn the appropriate response to every situation, and as adults our mind keeps amassing as much detail as possible, to try and control future obstacles.

By identifying with the father playing a sweet song to his dying son, we are confronting ourselves. “What is this man feeling? What would I do in such a predicament? Would I be able to overcome terror in this same way? Would this strategy work for me?”
The construction of our online persona comes only at a later time, when the video is over. Then it becomes important to prove to our contacts and followers that we are humane and sympathetic, that we were deeply moved, and so begins the second phase, with all the expressions of grief, the (real or fake) tears, the participation. This new paradigma, this modern kind of mourning, requires little time and resources, but it could work better than we think (again, see the success of Mr. Picco’s fund-raising campaing). And this sharing of grief is only possible on the account of the initial curiosity that made us click on that video.

And what about those people who dig even deeper into the dark side of the web, with its endless supply of images of death, and watch extremly gruesome videos?
The fundamental stimulus behind watching a video of a man who gets, let’s say, eaten alive by a crocodile, is probably the very same. At a basic lavel, we are always trying to acquire useful data to respond to the unknown, and curiosity is our weapon of defense and adaptation against an uncertain future; a future in which, almost certainly, we won’t have to fight off an alligator, but we’ll certainly need to face suffering, death and the unexpected.
The most shocking videos sometimes lure us with the promise of showing what is normally forbidden or censored: how does the human body react to a fall from a ten story building? Watching the video, it’s as if we too are falling by proxy; just like, by proxy but in a more acceptable context, we can indentify with the tragic reaction of a father watching his child die.

A weightlifter is lifting a barbell. Suddenly his knee snaps and collapses. We scream, jump off the seat, feel a stab of pain. We divert our eyes, then look again, and each time we go over the scene in our mind it’s like we are feeling a little bit of the athlete’s pain (a famous neurologic study on empathy proved that, in part, this is exactly what is going on). This is not masochism, nor a strange need to be upset: anticipation of pain is considered one of the common psychological strategies to prepare for it, and watching a video is a cheap and harmless solution.

In my opinion, the curiosity of those who watch images of suffering and death should not be stigmatized as “sick”, as it is a completely natural instinct. And this very curiosity is behind the ever growing offer of such images, as it is also what allows suffering people to stage their own condition.

The real innovations of these last few years have been the legitimization of death as a public representation, and the collectivization of the experience of grief and mourning — according to the spirit of open confrontation and sharing, typical of social media. These features will probably get more and more evident on Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms: even today, many people suffering from an illness are choosing to post real-time updates on their therapy, in fact opening the curtain over a reality (disease and hospital care) which has been concealed for a long time.

There’ll be the breaking of the ancient Western Code / Your private life will suddenly explode, sang Leonard Cohen in The Future. The great poet’s views expressed in the song are pessimistic, if not apocalyptc, as you would expect from a Twentieth century exponent. Yet it looks like this voluntary (and partial) sacrifice of the private sphere is proving to be an effective way to fix the general lack of grief elaboration codes. We talk ever more frequently about death and disease, and until now it seems that the benefits of this dialogue are exceeding the possible stress from over-exposure (see this article).

What prompted me to write this post is the feeling, albeit vague and uncertain, that a transition is taking place, before our eyes, even if it’s still all too cloudy to be clearly outlined; and of course, such a transformation cannot be immune to excesses, which inevitably affect any crisis. We shall see if these unprecedented, still partly unconscious strategies prove to be an adequate solution in dealing with our ultimate fate, or if they are bound to take other, different forms.
But something is definitely changing.

La sfida della cannella

Sappiamo tutti come la rete favorisca talvolta il propagarsi virale di mode, tendenze e dei cosiddetti memi; se la maggior parte dei memi è innocuo e umoristico, alcuni di questi comportamenti possono essere piuttosto pericolosi, e la famigerata cinnamon challenge (sfida della cannella) ne è un buon esempio.

Diffusasi di recente, la sfida consiste in questo: si riempie un cucchiaio da tavola di cannella in polvere, e si cerca di inghiottirla. Ovviamente il tutto mentre un amico filma l’impresa, immortalandola per il popolo di YouTube. Cosa c’è di tanto pericoloso, direte? In fondo la cannella non è tossica.

La polvere di cannella non è altro che corteccia finemente macinata. Questa mistura è composta in prevalenza di cellulosa idrorepellente, e anche i restanti composti organici non sono particolarmente idrosolubili. L’aldeide cinnamica, ad esempio, che è la sostanza che dà alla cannella il gusto e il profumo, si scioglie nell’alcol ma molto poco in acqua. Un esperimento che può chiarire quanto poco la cannella ami l’acqua è contenuto in questo video:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EetH4igTK4c]

Questo significa, in poche parole, che una grossa quantità di polvere di cannella non può proprio essere deglutita. La saliva, che serve da lubrificante, non può scioglierla, e la polvere si attacca a tutte le pareti della bocca, del palato, della lingua… fino in gola, se cercate di inghiottirla. A questo punto, se provate a respirare, la finissima polvere verrà aspirata nei polmoni. E qui sta la parte davvero pericolosa; non solo un possibile soffocamento, cioè, ma anche il serio rischio di polmonite.

Eccovi una selezione delle centinaia di video che si possono trovare su YouTube:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNQEcTGkAgM]

Fra tutte le varie “bravate” che si sono diffuse fra i ragazzi negli ultimi anni attraverso internet, la sfida della cannella è forse una delle più sciocche: primo, perché è truccata, e non può essere vinta; in secondo luogo, i danni provocati all’apparato respiratorio possono risultare permanenti. E se un amico si diverte tanto a vedervi soffocare, come accade nel video seguente, forse è ora di imparare a scegliere meglio le proprie compagnie.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=pcO_8axg3Fs]

Arte pericolosa

La performance art, nata all’inizio degli anni ’70 e viva e vegeta ancora oggi, è una delle più recenti espressioni artistiche, pur ispirandosi anche a forme classiche di spettacolo. Nonostante si sia naturalmente inflazionata con il passare dei decenni, a volte è ancora capace di stupire e porre quesiti interessanti attraverso la ricerca di un rapporto più profondo fra l’artista e il suo pubblico. Se infatti l’artista classico aveva una relazione superficiale con chi ammirava le sue opere in una galleria, basare il proprio lavoro su una performance significa inserirla in un adesso e ora che implica l’apporto diretto degli spettatori all’opera stessa. Così l’obiettivo di questo tipo di arte non è più la creazione del “bello” che possa durare nel tempo, quanto piuttosto organizzare un happening che tocchi radicalmente coloro che vi assistono, portandoli dentro al gioco creativo e talvolta facendo del pubblico il vero protagonista.

Dagli anni ’70 ad oggi il valore shock di alcune di queste provocazioni ha perso molti punti. Le performance sono divenute sempre più cruente per riflettere sui limiti del corpo, generando però un’assuefazione generale che è una vera e propria sconfitta per quegli artisti che vorrebbero suscitare emozioni forti. Ancora oggi ci si può imbattere però in qualche idea davvero coinvolgente ed intrigante. Fanno infatti eccezione alcuni progetti che pongono davvero gli spettatori al centro dell’attenzione, permettendo loro di operare scelte anche estreme.

È il 1974 quando Marina Abramović, la “nonna” della performance art, mette in scena il suo “spettacolo” più celebre, intitolato Rhythm 0. L’artista è completamente passiva, e se ne sta in piedi ferma e immobile. 72 oggetti sono posti su un tavolo, un cartello rende noto al pubblico che quegli oggetti possono essere usati su di lei in qualsiasi modo venga scelto dagli spettatori. Alcuni di questi oggetti possono provocare piacere, ma altri sono pensati per infliggere dolore. Fruste, forbici, coltelli e una pistola con un singolo proiettile. Quello che Marina vuole testare è il rapporto fra l’artista e il pubblico: consegnandosi inerme, sta rischiando addirittura la sua vita. Starà agli spettatori decidere quale uso fare degli oggetti posti sul tavolo.

All’inizio, tutti i visitatori sono piuttosto cauti e inibiti. Man mano che passa il tempo, però, una certa aggressività comincia a farsi palpabile. C’è chi taglia i suoi vestiti con le forbici, denudandola. Qualcun altro le infila le spine di una rosa sul petto. Addirittura uno spettatore le punta la pistola carica alla testa, fino a quando un altro non gliela toglie di mano. “Ciò che ho imparato è che se lasci la decisione al pubblico, puoi finire uccisa… mi sentii davvero violentata… dopo esattamente 6 ore, come avevo progettato, mi “rianimai” e cominciai a camminare verso il pubblico. Tutti scapparono, per evitare un vero confronto”.

1999. Elena Kovylina sta in piedi su uno sgabello, con un cappio attorno al collo. Indossa un cartello in cui è disegnato un piede che calcia lo sgabello. Per due ore rimarrà così, e starà al pubblico decidere se assestare una pedata allo sgabello, e vederla morire impiccata, oppure se lasciarla vivere. Sareste forse pronti a scommettere che nessuno avrà il coraggio di provare a calciare lo sgabello. Sbagliato. Un uomo si avvicina, e toglie l’appoggio da sotto i piedi di Elena. Fortunatamente, la corda si rompe e l’artista sopravvive.

L’artista iracheno Wafaa Bilal, colpito profondamente dalle sempre più pressanti dichiarazioni di odio xenofobo verso la sua cultura, definita “terrorista” e “animalesca”, decide nel 2005 di sfruttare internet per un progetto d’arte che riceve ampia risonanza. Per un mese Wafaa vive in una stanzetta simile a quella di una prigione, collegato al mondo esterno unicamente tramite il suo sito. Una pistola da paintball è collegata con il sito, e chiunque accedendovi può direzionare l’arma e sparare dei pallini di inchiostro verso l’artista. Un mese sotto il continuo fuoco di qualsiasi internauta annoiato. Il titolo del progetto è “Spara a un iracheno”, e vuole misurare l’odio razziale su una base spettacolare. Le discussioni in chat che l’artista conduce aiutano il pubblico a chiarire motivazioni e moventi delle più recenti “sparatorie”, con il risultato che molti utenti dichiarano che quel progetto ha “cambiato loro la vita”, oltre a fruttare numerosi premi all’artista mediorientale.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcyquvDEe0o]

Eccoci arrivati ai giorni nostri. L’artista russo Oleg Mavromatti è già assurto agli onori della cronaca per un film indipendente in cui si fa crocifiggere realmente. La crocifissione non è una prerogativa esclusiva di Gesù Cristo, rifletteva l’artista, e infatti sul suo corpo, durante il supplizio, era scritto a chiare lettere “Io non sono il vostro Dio”. Ma non è bastato e, condannato sulla base di una legge russa che tutela la religione dalle offese alla cristianità, Oleg ha dovuto autoesiliarsi in Bulgaria.

Ha iniziato da poco un nuovo progetto intitolato Ally/Foe (Alleato/Nemico): il suo corpo, attaccato a cavi elettrici, è sottoposto a scariche sempre maggiori, come su una vera e propria sedia elettrica da esecuzione. Unica variabile: saranno gli utenti che, tramite internet, decideranno con diverse votazioni quante e quali scosse dovrà subire. Quello che l’artista vuole veicolare è una domanda: quando la gente ha la piena libertà di azione, come la utilizza? Se aveste l’opportunità di decidere della vita di un’altra persona, come sfruttereste questo potere?

Oleg è sicuro che questo tipo di libertà verrà utilizzata dagli internauti per farlo sopravvivere – ma è pronto a subire seri danni o addirittura a morire se il suo sacrificio dovesse dimostrare una verità sociologica tristemente diversa.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/2w2p6BB7fkE]