Die-Ins, Visual Poetics, and Community Engagement: Bringing Visibility to the Culture of Addiction
Do you feel safe? Do you feel represented? Is your safety valued?
Isolation from a year of varying levels of quarantine has affected many Americans in the realms of mental, spiritual, financial, and physical wellness. While conversations and activism have become centered around social justice, the reality remains that many people still do not have equitable access to health care, housing, food, education, and general safety. Artists operating from perspectives of experience or empathy create space for the humanity behind statistics and news reports. The disequilibrium of pandemic times especially impacts BIPOC and lower-income communities. The urgency is real, and artists can help us to connect to that.
This period’s instability and isolation have also resulted in elevated drinking and drug use, and more definitive substance abuse. A recent RAND Corporation study revealed increased alcohol use with adverse health impacts, particularly among women, and a 34 percent increase in alcohol withdrawals that required hospitalizations.(1) Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control noted the acceleration of already rising overdose deaths during the pandemic, with the most recent statistics culled between May of 2019 and of 2020. Disruption of services such as needle exchange programs, where active addicts can receive the counter-overdose drug Naltrexone, also impacts these numbers.
And so this is part of our “new normal,” or really another iteration of what we like to call “the new normal” as something different that we hope for, rail against, or begrudgingly accept. The past year’s substance abuse peak comes on the tails of the opioid epidemic, which included street drugs such as heroin, with some users starting out abusing prescription painkillers. In 1995, the FDA approved the highly “effective” painkiller OxyContin that would become “a focal point of opioid abuse issues that would continue to escalate into the late 2000s and beyond.”(2)
Projects that address the subject of addiction, and the conditions that surround and inform them, are presented in this essay. Artists Nan Goldin, Michel Droge, Tân Kánh Cao, and Anthony Dalton Jones (Cao and Jones collaborating as Children of War) operate in various media and site-specific works.
Responding as artist, activist, and recovering opioid addict, photographer Nan Goldin organized the P.A.I.N.-Sackler project in 2017 to protest the proliferation of OxyContin, to which she had been addicted. P.A.I.N. stands for Prescription Addiction Intervention Now. The drug was produced by Purdue Pharma, which is owned by members of the Sackler family, high-profile donors to various art institutions. Goldin documented her abuse of the drug and its attendant rituals as a gesture to make the personal political in a series of photographs, presenting her story as one of many. For visuals of this project, see the P.A.I.N.-Sackler website.
Nan Goldin also unleashed a series of public actions with P.A.I.N.-Sackler. They borrowed strategies from ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power movement that not only brought visibility and advocacy to people stigmatized by the disease, but also worked to sway legislation and public policy. Goldin employed their “die-in” demonstrations (picture a mass of bodies “playing” dead) within the hallowed art realms that bore the Sackler name to reclaim the space. Institutions such as the Louvre removed the Sackler name. And Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy last October after disbursing a slew of settlements to victims’ families.
Speaking from familial and personal experience, Maine artist Michel Droge’s Hiraeth works on a paper series employs unraveling Aran sweaters as symbols of addiction, loss, and longing. As legend goes, Aran sweaters were knit into well-guarded patterns unique to each family in coastal Ireland in order to identify drowned sailors; this dovetails with Droge’s own ancestral relationship to sailing, serving also as a metaphor for consciousness. The Welsh name for longing or homesickness, Hiraeth conjures the end of possibility—of life interrupted, undone.
The first of the Hiraeth works from 2008 was created in tribute to their brother who died of an opiate overdose. Unraveling and cutting the sweater, Droge ran the sweater directly through the printing press without ink, embossing the paper thereby implying the weight of a body pressed into sand. The metaphor of the drowned sailor is morbidly akin to an overdose death, as the sufferer’s lungs fill with fluid in the process of pulmonary edema. Later works in the series (2017) use the process of cyanotype, producing x-ray silhouettes of gesturing arms and torsos that are simultaneously otherworldly and elegant, flailing and isolated, through an eternity of ether.
Opening this series to the community, Michel Droge partnered with Professor Bernie Vinzani for the workshop Hiraeth: Recovery through the Arts at the University of Maine at Machias, in which participants were invited to share pieces of fabric that signified their experience with the opioid epidemic or of recovery. The swatches were stirred into a large batch of pulp, and the resulting handmade paper was then stamped with individually chosen words and disbursed to the participants creating poetically tactile and literal time stamps as a memorial.
Here in Louisiana, overdose deaths from mid-2019 to mid-2020 rose upwards of 50 percent according to the CDC.(3) Addressing the theme of addiction as it is enmeshed with generational trauma, racism, sexism, legacies of slavery, and poverty, the New Orleans collaborative duo Children of War makes text-and-image-based works installed at strategic public points in the city.
Artists Tân Kánh Cao and Dalton Anthony Jones chose their project’s name to reflect how their own respective ancestries are located within historical cycles of trauma: Cao, Vietnamese, was born in San Francisco, CA, and Jones, Black, was born in Richmond, VA, during the Civil Rights movement, among kin who were politically active in that period.
Framing sites that are conspicuous and often occupied by the unhoused, the addicted, their dealers, or a combination thereof, Children of War becomes a thorny refrain for neoliberal failures. While some works get whitewashed, two currently remain intact. A stencil piece situated in the French Quarter (read: heavy tourist foot traffic), We Remember Saint Anastacia, memorializes the 19th-century African slave woman venerated in Brazil, emerging as a symbol of Black femme resistance. She was a healer whose voice had literally been muzzled by her owners. The image of her shackled face divorced from her narrative “speaks” to the control of Black female bodies and also hints at the relationship to addiction as a tool of control in human trafficking, another epidemic not uncommon to port cities such as New Orleans.(4) Anastacia’s image is installed at the door of the Mansion of Delphine LaLaurie, the 19th-century socialite who had tortured and murdered her slaves.
In the South Seventh Ward neighborhood, Children of War’s other text-based piece serves as an intervention in its placement at a literal and figurative intersection. It reads, “Junkies You Are Beautiful Children of War.”
In conversation, Jones, a former academic in Critical and Cultural Studies, notes that the significance of this space—a small concrete corner lot that attracts junkies, dealers, prostitutes, pimps, and the itinerant—is also a gathering space for families and cookouts. As a generationally Black neighborhood, the residents had lost their greenspace to the urban renewal construction of Interstate I-10 in 1969. Jones adds that making this work was the result of building a “relation” with the persons who inhabit this space and that addicts need to see that they are seen: seen in the context of their disease, the systems that fail them, and their humanity.
And so do their family members and the rest of the city that passes by.
1. Pollard, Michael, et al., “Alcohol Consumption Rises Sharply During Pandemic Shutdown; Heavy Drinking by Women Rises 41%,” RAND 29 September 2020. Sharma, Ram A., et al., “Alcohol Withdrawal Rates in Hospitalized Patients During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” JAMA Network 3 March 2012.
2. The US Food and Drug Administration, “Timeline of Selected FDA Activities and Significant Events Addressing Opioid Use and Misuse and Abuse.” 2021.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Provisional Overdose Death Counts, webpage 2021.
4. US Department of State, “The Intersection of Human Trafficking and Addiction” 25 June 2020.
Image at top: Children of War (Tan Kanh Cao and Dalton Anthony), Junkies You Are Beautiful, high gloss exterior house paint on wall, South Seventh Ward neighborhood, New Orleans, 2018 (photo: courtesy of the artists).