IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Paolo Vignolo
Paolo Vignolo is an associate professor of history and humanities at the National University of Colombia, Bogota. His fields of research and creation deal with public history, cultural heritage and memory studies with a focus on geographic imaginaries, live arts and performance.
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the Fellowship?
It was love at first sight. Wow, a bunch of weird fellows committed to explore apocalyptic stuff. I definitely want to be in that number! That was my first reaction. Later I realized how much the idea of “apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic studies” generates strong feelings. Some people seem enthusiastic, some look skeptical, a few just horrified. But nobody is indifferent. I take it as a good sign. It means that it raises questions. It shakes beliefs and disbeliefs. After telling my mother about the fellowship, she confessed to me that the first thing she did was google the name of the center. She was sure that I was teasing her.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
In my view, to explore the history of apocalypse is a privileged way to explore the relation of Western civilization with time and with space. The biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, from Eden to End of the World, goes far beyond theology and Christian thought. It orients practically any field of our society: cultural practices, scientific theories, poetic and political representations, everyday behaviors...These religious structures inhabit us, often at a subconscious level. And, you know, it is always worth having a look at the beasts we have inside. I believe that exploring these apocalyptic depths can help us better understand ourselves and the world we live in.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve?
My research on the geopolitics of apocalypse deals with the spatial dimension of the end of times. I am now working on two different projects.
The first project deals with an anticolonial approach to the conquest of the “New World” (and of New Worlds) as a long-term western project that is still going on nowadays. It is part of a 15 year-long collective process of participatory research- action we have being building in the Darien gap, on the border between Colombia and Panama. Together with Guna, Embera, Afro-descendent, campesino and settler communities, we founded an historical-archeological Park in the site of Santa Maria la Antigua of Darien (1510-1525), the first city founded by the Spanish crown in the continental landmark of the New World, and a turning point in the history of the conquest of the Americas. Apocalyptic visions, discourses, and practices played a crucial role in the conquest, both as colonial strategies and tactics of resistance. But in the Darien region, conquest is a past that hasn`t passed yet. What are the geopolitical implications of conceiving the conquest of Darien in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic terms today? How can one write a collective history together with communities who have been erased from the map? Is it possible to build a decolonized site of memory on the vestiges of this colonialist history?
And the second one?
My second project has to do with world maps, from medieval times to nowadays. I am interested in the way mapamundis, globes and planispheres shape an image of the world and a history of the world: its origins and its end. I am looking after the religious framework embedded in these very peculiar artefacts, maps in a very broad sense. In line with critical geography, I consider maps as controlled fictions, where imagination, speculation and rhetoric play a crucial role. What kind of temporalities can we find in world-maps? What is the relation between geographic speculation and eschatology? And what about the relation between the end of the world and the end of history? How and why does the Book of Revelation eventually becomes a Map of Revelation?
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
In my research on the geopolitics of apocalypse, I am trying to articulate a number of different aspects of my work that overlap in random ways. You see, I have always felt uneasy with labels and boundaries. This is probably related with my own background. I grew up in Italy and moved to Colombia in my early twenties, living in various different countries for short periods. My early studies in political economy eventually turned into sociology, performance and history.
My intellectual fascination for eschatological visions, apocalyptic narratives and utopian projections (related with golden ages, carnavalesque lands and earthly paradises of medieval and early modern times) grew over the years and oriented both my scholarly and artistic work towards carnival celebrations, festive devils, rituals among living and the dead, and street-protest performances.
This one of the main reasons for which I consider a privilege to work at the National University of Colombia, a place where academic debates constantly interact with social and artistic movements to face daily emergency scenarios. It is a very stimulating environment...sometimes too stimulating. But I like to take part of international scholarly networks and at the same time to be exposed to the collective quest for a better society. This is a crucial drive for my work.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
One of the challenges of my project is to explore the entanglements between Revolution, Revelation and Reason. Political turmoil, millenarian expectations, and scientific research are strictly connected, and it is impossible to understand one without the others. In this sense the apocalyptic imagination hasn`t become obsolete, it just changed, framing the modern image of the world up to the present. Today we live in a society where technology has turned into a religion, our religion. A religion that is very much structured in eschatological terms.
What are the aspects you are looking forward to at CAPAS?
CAPAS is a bold experiment. It approaches an issue that concerns us all with a radical, ground-breaking, interdisciplinary approach. It is a difficult challenge, because it implies generating a common language that crosses academic jargon with technicalities. The gap between the scientific and the humanist approaches, for example, sometimes looks overwhelming. And we need far more collaborative work with artists, activists, and social and environmental leaders. So far, I have been thrilled to participate in discussions I was not very familiar with: Anthropocene, artificial intelligence, long-termism, post-humanism, prepper culture, light pollution...Sometimes a specific topic condenses a wider debate across different fields of knowledge, as with the idea of technology as eschatology. Another example is the implications of the philosophical notion of void in physics, finance, art, geography. Sometimes the starting point is a more existential question, as in the workshop we had on states of disappearance. In any case, apocalypse and post-apocalypse provide a shared narrative that enables participants to ground any specific topic (whether we are talking about the melting down of the artic or the impact of an asteroid) and to approach it from different perspectives.
What are some of your favorite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse?
As a child, I grew up with Mafalda taking care of her sick world globe and with Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator playing around with the world as it were a balloon. Later on, movies like Blade Runner, Stalker or Melancholia shaped my vision of apocalypse. At the same time, I have always been intrigued with collective performances, carnivals, festive devils, religious processions, and political marches. Rather than a specific cultural product, my suggestion for anyone seeking to feel what apocalypse is about is to experience collective popular rituals and performances.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
I would like to think we already live in a post-apocalyptic world. Just not to be misunderstood: I do not mean it in a catastrophic sense. I am not very keen on indulging in dystopic scenarios and Mad Max’s landscapes. What I mean is that we are now in condition to imagine a world beyond the apocalyptic narrative. We live in a world overwhelmed by millenarian resonances, but at the same it is possible, here and now, to calm the anxieties of Revelation, the fears of the Anti-Christ, the doom of a Last Judgement. It implies a huge cultural work, and still I consider it an ineludible task. To me, trying to study and better understand apocalypse is a way to historicize it, to grasp its ghostly ubiquity and to find a place for it. A way to exorcise the beast, so to say. To go beyond apocalypse, we urgently need maps to orientate ourselves in the unchartered territories of a post-Euclidian space, with no contemporary Gog and Magogs nor technological redemptions. Moreover, we need different calendars, to assume complex temporalities beyond a linear time directed towards the end of history. And, last but not least, we need to reinvent rituals to play with death, instead of projecting it into some prophetic Doomsday.