1960 Scholars Program with Macarena Gomez-Barris - “At the Sea’s Edge: Gold, Settlement, and Artistic Reconversions”

On April 27, the CES community welcomed Macarena Gomez-Barris, Timothy C. Forbes and Anne S. Harrison University Professor & Chair in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. Professor Gomez-Barris is a writer and scholar with a focus on the decolonial environmental humanities, authoritarianism and extractivism, queer Latinx epistemes, media environments, racial ecologies, cultural theory and artistic practice. She is the founding director of the Global South Center at the Pratt Institute in New York City, and is the author of dozens of essays and curatorial events, along with four books.

During the talk, Professor Gomez-Barris read fragments from her upcoming book, At the Sea’s Edge: On Coloniality and the Oceanic, which considers colonial oceanic transits and the generative space between land and sea. The book is arranged in 20 fragments rather than chapters, as Professor Gomez-Barris felt that this form was better suited to the kind of thinking her work engages. It is also a nod to Discourse on Colonialism, a 1950 essay by Aimé Césaire, a poet and politician from Martinique, and Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, a collection of poems by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, which are both in 20 parts and have enlivened Professor Gomez-Barris’s reading practice.

The book travels to multiple places throughout its 20 fragments. The two fragments that Professor Gomez-Barris read from explored the spaces of Zooma Beach in California and Ocean Beach in Durban, South Africa to demonstrate the way in which she seeks to “mobilize a queer femme episteme” in the book. 

Ocean Beach, at the edge of the Indian Ocean, is a highly segregated space — a premier destination for white beachgoers, it represents enjoyment for some built on suffering for others, at the hands of colonialism and apartheid. Professor Gomez-Barris is interested in how places can be understood in terms of the anthropocene moving in the opposite direction, eroding boundaries between humans and non-humans alike instead of enforcing them. These kinds of boundaries are apparent in deeply segregated cities, which she spoke of as cases of juxtaposition between holding autonomous units of bustling life and histories embedded with deep violence.

Recently, Professor Gomez-Barris has been working on a project in Dead Horse Bay, a small body of water in Brooklyn that was closed indefinitely in August 2020 due to radiological contamination. She described seeing a refrigerator float by in the water, prompting the questions for her of “what comes out of the waste of the neoliberal ruins?”

Her work there is engaging problems of toxicity and all its toxic conditions, and raises questions about who is able to occupy the role of detoxifier. Drawing on queer environmentalism, Professor Gomez-Barris emphasized that the conception of the detoxifier should be expanded, not limited to cisgender female mother figures.

Centering embodied knowledges, she said, is a key part of building a non-extractive future, as is looking for “shadow concepts” within a binarized language. Drawing on black and indigenous knowledge, Professor Gomez-Barris emphasized that “the apocalypse has already happened many many times.” 

This kind of thinking speaks to her project of “queering the normative timeline of extinction” and pushing back against the “normative work adaptation is doing to make us accept a certain kind of future.” As opposed to adapting to the dominant timeline of climate resilience, Professor Gomez-Barris’s work is interested in making life outside of a capitalist timeline. She asks what it means to think about the micro and the intimate, narrating from an autobiographical position as a way to push back on the dominant, top-down solutionist narratives around climate, while still engaging the systemic scale.