Breathing into the Ecological Trauma:

The Case of Gruinard Island

Christoph Solstreif-Pirker

It is a peculiar tension that unfolds in the final scene of Béla Tarr’s 2012 film “The Turin Horse.” In an almost pitch-black farmhouse, two people – a woman and her father – sit at their kitchen table and await the impending apocalypse. Their attempt to light a petroleum lamp fails, and so, all light fades in these last seconds. The protagonists are surrounded by the dimensions of a total darkness, in which no gaze, language, nor life seem possible anymore. The woman and the man have entered the state of an endless night, of which Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2005) says: “Night is not an object before me; it enwraps me and infiltrates through all my senses, stifling my recollections and almost destroying my personal identity” (330). In this final scene, only the narrator can speak from offstage: “We can hear them groping their way to their beds, we can hear them lying down, and pulling the blankets over them” (Tarr 2012). It almost seems as if Merleau-Ponty’s observation of stifling and advancing-toward-death is enacted at this very moment. At the same time, a precise image of the ecopolitical contemporary emerges as the site of trauma, doom, and annihilation of all life. Similarly, it functions as a representation of a predominant philosophical heritage, at the center of which lies the certainty of Martin Heidegger’s (1996) “thrownness into death” (232) as condensed in the formula “Da-sein dies factically as long as it exists” (233). What is more, in this film scene, one can find the manifestations of a posthuman narrative expressing a dystopian lament about the last days of mankind. But – and here lies the importance of this scene – the plot of Tarr’s film is not yet finished. For, the last sentences of the narrator are: “We can hear them breathing, only their breathing can we hear. Dead silence outside, the storm is over” (Tarr 2012). This inconspicuous epilogue means nothing less than the radical breaking of paths that have determined planetary life and death to this very moment in time. In this darkest, stifling moment, it is, paradoxically, breathing that persists. It proves to be a mere fallacy that the two protagonists are embedded in a space where no relationship, no life, and no breathing are possible anymore. For, particularly in this condition of impossibility, a new hopeful space begins to unfold. Anxiety has fallen silent; the trauma has been opened: “Dead silence outside, the storm is over” (Tarr 2012). In this intimate encounter with the unfathomable Real, “dead silence” ignites a spark of life. Béla Tarr’s film does not speak of an exclusive Heideggerian “being-toward-death” (Heidegger 1996, 219), but rather of an inclusive “being-toward-birth with being-toward-birthing” (Ettinger 2019, 183). For the two protagonists, the embedding in this traumatic place of darkness does not mean encountering the destructive drives of a war machine, but the fragile invocations of a peace instrument, making life flourish. 

Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse, 2011 (stills)

Youtube link

Reflection 1

Mungasdale, the Highlands, Scotland, July 27, 2018. When I first looked at the island in the bay in front of me – or instead, when it entered my field of vision – I only perceived a dark abstract volume, sharply defined against the light of the setting sun. My journey across the Scottish Highlands was marked with anxiety and awe in equal measure, for I was approaching a performative investigation in which I could die and yet, possibly, would have the opportunity to discover an alternative, entirely new form of planetary liveliness. At first sight of this dark landmass, my anxiety and desire were equally bundled in this object. Nothing was easier than to agree with Timothy Morton (2013) and to look at a transcendental hyperobject, similar to “special beings, like an angel or a demon or a god, sent to slap my objectification of reality upside the head by hurtling me into contact with a transcendental beyond” (136). Yet despite this situated demony, I perceived an immediate attraction to this place, bundled with the desire to embrace it, to comprehend it, and to absorb it into myself. My first encounter with this place was a distant view – a final restraint from my physical embedding in this traumatizing and traumatized architecture, scheduled for the following day. And yet, I became aware that the first moments of this planned encounter-event had already begun at the very moment when I took my first breaths in the presence of this ambiguous place. In my shelter on the mainland, I became one with Béla Tarr’s protagonists, who began “lying down, and pulling the blankets over them” (Tarr 2012). During my restless sleep, I was embedded in the “dead silence” raging in front of the house, breathing the air that passed from the place called Gruinard Island to me at every moment.


There is something underneath the surface. Encounters with a post-anthropocenic world, a “world without us” (Thacker 2011, 5), mean uncovering the planetary strata and experiencing that not only are they traumatized, but also us, in the same way. Such encounters speak of a mutual responsibility, of seeing the planetary environment as a medium that, in the time of the encounter-event, can pull one under its surface – into its fragile mechanisms – and let one become a co-carrier of all the memories, phantasms, wounds, and hopes that the hegemonic being-toward-death exclusively negates. This mutuality then is a being-in-the-world, an inclusive posture that enables the cooperative transcription between the human and the contingencies of planetary virtualities. During such a moment of becoming-inside, the fragilization of the human subject occurs, and strives toward becoming a particle, becoming-particular, within the wide traumatized ecology. Feminist artist and psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger relates the inside, very literally, to the female inside – to the maternal womb-space – but subsequently to all the performative acts and actions associated with this archaic dimension: conception, carrying, birth, and giving birth. In the further course of Ettinger’s theory, the physical space of the maternal in-side spans into a conceptual “feminine-maternal interior-pregnance-passage space” (Ettinger 2015b, 354) that becomes an alternative, ethical-aesthetic paradigm within the all-encompassing planetary trauma. It is no longer a question of the exclusivity of an individual being-toward-death, but of joint responsibility and mutual trust, as first witnessed at the inside of the maternal womb-space. In this jointness lies the responsibility for the Other and the fact that the Other has always been part of one’s self, just as one’s self has always been part of the Other. “Once you carry, you are carried too” (Ettinger 2015b, 355). The ethical implications that follow, Ettinger (2015a; 2015b; 2019; Kaiser and Thiele 2018) exemplifies with the concept of carriance, which entails the feeling, thinking, acting with/in the Other and the Real and the realization of the “impossibility of not-sharing with the [O]ther, nature, and the cosmos” (Ettinger 2019, 200). In such a co-carrying encounter with the unknown Other a proper space opens up in which “the storm is over.”

"X" Base Gruinard Island Trials 1942-1943

Youtube link

Reflection 2

The gear I donned the following morning as I boarded the boat heading for Gruinard Island revealed a key feature of my performative procedure of becoming-inside: a filtering dust mask 6360V, FFP3, with valve, 5/VE, and a DuPont Easysafe disposable protective suit, type 5/6, Cat. III, polyethylene fleece, size M. Paradoxically, it was precisely this protective second skin and this protective extension of my bodily respiratory system that was indeed necessary to face the island and its environment. For what was made clear here was nothing less than “the basic idea of terrorism in the more explicit sense” (Sloterdijk 2009, 14). Here, on Gruinard Island in July 1942, scientists from the British research institution Porton Down worked on the development of a military apparatus trying “to disseminate an aerosol of lung-retention size particles from a liquid suspension of bacteria in a bursting ammunition such as a bomb, delivered so that effective concentrations would be inhaled by anyone in the target area” (Carter 1992, 68). To test this airborne weapon and its invisible destructive power under real conditions before its planned application against Nazi Germany, the bacteriologists chose Gruinard Island to detonate several explosive devices with spores of Bacillus anthracis – nonhuman carriers of the highly infectious and lethal disease anthrax. The experiments, which lasted only for a few days, were of such otherness and deadly potential that, not only did the flocks of sheep specially positioned for the verification of the weapon’s efficiency quickly die, but also, the entire ecology of the island transformed into an isolated, restricted area to this very day. While, between 1986 and 1988, the traumatized biome of Gruinard Island was thoroughly decontaminated using several million litres of seawater and dissolved formaldehyde, its transformation into an illusionary normalized landscape has not succeeded: “The danger to humans and livestock remains undiminished and may persist for centuries; no one knows for sure” (Cole 1988, 23). Despite the darkness and atrocity emanating from this place, when I set foot on the stony sandbank of Gruinard Island, it was as if the transformed air that surrounded me in that first moment of encounter did not strive to kill me, but instead embedded me in an aerial in-side space in which I became part of an interspecific dialogue with the traumatized ecology of the island. Here I realized that it was the trauma that made me hope, the danger that made me feel safe, and the protective second skin that made me develop a new concept of my body. I began, still cautiously, to enter the daylit night and to start breathing non-air.  


Paul Celan (2014) exemplifies the plasticity of this joint and co-carrying space when he asks where this dimension of affirmative embedment in the planetary Real might be localized. “In night’s friable matter. / In grief-debris and -drift, / in slowest uproar, / in the wisdom-shaft Never. / Waterneedles / sew the burst / shadow together – it fights its way / deeper down, / free” (74). This is about entering the in-side. In the night-debris of unspeakable grief and in the depths of incessantly sewing, supple waterneedles of the planetary ecology, lies a truly liberating encounter. With/in this ecology, a relation becomes possible to the darkness, enabling life and freedom. The awareness of becoming entangled and being carried by the Other thus implies breathing non-air (Solstreif-Pirker 2020) in all its fullness. Non-air does not mean the negation of air, as if air had somehow been extinguished; rather, it means the mutation of air, and points to a relationality with those strata that have, so far, stifled any form of life. Breathing non-air allows the Other to be carried with/in the body and to encounter a space that takes one back before established elements, taxonomies, and ideologies. Non-air is the aerial equivalent of François Laruelle’s “One” as an instance before any attribution. It enables being, feeling, thinking, acting “according to the Real” (Laruelle 2013, 223), advancing “deeper down” (Celan 2014, 74). It refers to a pre-individual, archaic state and to the in-side of the maternal womb-space, where breathing has not yet been learned. In becoming-inside and breathing non-air, an investigative, artistic form of praxis emerges that includes not only ethics and aesthetics, but also wound and healing, oppression and freedom, death and life. It speaks about the need to relate to the threads, forces, and agencies that could potentially kill – in order to live with/in an epoch of post-anthropocenic barbarism.

Reflection 3

I had not prepared any performative vocabulary for encountering this dark ecology and the different way of breathing in its atmosphere. The awareness of being present here with my body and opening my physical boundaries to the unfamiliarity of the Other and the interspecific dialogue with the deadly spores of Bacillus anthracis was already enough. Nevertheless, embedded in this ambivalent environment, my actions were specific: rituals and micro-interventions that emerged intuitively, which only came into being in the somatic encounter with the island’s ambivalent spheres. An essential ritual was walking. But this walking was not merely moving forward, but a gradual fusion with the island’s soil layers. This place’s vegetation did not consist of any flat solid ground, but resembled a foam, into which I sank knee-deep, sometimes hip-deep. I immediately remembered Gilles Deleuze (1994): “This ground which is now on the surface is called depth or groundlessness” (275). As I continued my steps through this groundlessness, I also became aware that my walking meant a “walking-with” (Springgay and Truman 2019, xiii), in which a momentary togetherness and carriance occurred between me and the Other. With every step through the dense and deep vegetation of Gruinard Island, my feet not only pushed through the bushes, but a short moment later sank into the wet earth, which was repeatedly crossed by densely veined rivulets. My feet got wet and were the first limbs to approach the spore-saturated ground. Following Edmond Jabès, my steps and my dialogical walking were similar to “a subversive murmur, which emerges onto, or butts against a threshold where we are afraid, which emerges onto that very threshold which is the intimate” (Ettinger 1993, 31). But this intimate encounter with the fearful threshold occurred not only through my feet and legs but also in my mouth and nostrils. I began to dive into this groundless ground and to absorb the groundless air. With each of my steps and breaths, my perception – my aesthetic sensation – seemed to grow, and the place’s intensity increased. I looked around me, gazing into the droning aerial turbulences and feeling the earthy trickles that – snakelike – flowed through my protective, artificial skin. I noticed how Celan’s waterneedles had woven me into an incredibly dense, breathtaking web.



Ecologies of the present become a medium with/in which the traumatized relation between humans and nature can be re-entangled. In processes of becoming-inside – of becoming part of “night’s friable matter” and the incessantly shifting “grief-debris and -drift” (Celan 2014, 74) – an interplay occurs between partial subjects and partial objects of the Other and of oneself. Human subjectivity transforms into floating parts within a carrying dimension of otherness. The awareness of this co-performative and carrying space includes new alternative forms of thinking and acting. The claim “carrying is knowledge” (Ettinger 2015b, 353) entails a living knowledge that is actualized in the moment of an inclusive encounter-event and the unfolding of a psycho-planetary relationality and responsibility. My ongoing research project “Being-Together-With the World-Without Us: Performative Investigations into the Traumatized Planetary Space” emerges from this very claim to alternative, co-performative, and carrying knowledge production. Situated between artistic research, psychoanalysis, political ecology, and spatial theory, this research project investigates the novelty of a psycho-planetary continuity in a poly-disciplinamourous (Loveless 2019, 60) way, and attempts to set a discursive counterpoint to hegemonic ideologies-toward-death. The research project is closely linked to concrete knots, places, and densifications of the post-anthropocenic environment. Through self-fragilizing embedment in, and situated strategies for, these anthropocenic spatialities, the research project seeks to reveal hidden strata of traumatized liveliness and become part of the carrying non-air, in order to unfold a yet-unknown knowledge-toward-birth.

Reflection 4

The performative walking on Gruinard Island not only involved a direct encounter-event with the traumatized ecological layers of this planet. In these walking-with encounters, I also realized “some conscience of carriance, some conscience that includes (…) resonance of elements on the subreal level” (Ettinger 2015b, 353). This consciousness was an immediate one. In its immediacy lay the spark of something new and, at the same time, deeply archaic. After some time, when my initial awe had turned into a form of affirmative, resonating perception, my gaze fell on a gentle dent in a bush in front of me. Lightly bedded between the fragile green, yellow, and purple branches lay an artfully shaped white lime shell, bearing a few grams of almost black earth. I felt this small work of art as distant and immediately close; it even motivated me to come closer and to place this carrier on the palms of my hands. The shell was an object that spoke for itself and carried within itself – metaphorically and literally – the initials for alternative planetary thought and practice. In the encounter with this object, I became aware that a form of knowledge manifested itself here, which invited me to start carrying deadly earth within me. This impression was so strong and immediate that I perceived myself as such a carrying shell, just as I saw myself carried by this shell: I understood very directly that “once you carry, you are carried too” (Ettinger 2015b, 355). I decided to emphasize the importance of this knowledge practice I had just discovered through a situated ritual in which I continued to carry the shell and its contents in my hand – as they carried me – and opened a spiral procession, at the end of which I re-embedded the shell in the flowing vegetation. During this brief intuitive performance, there was an immediate relationship of trust, in that the spores in the earth contained in the shell opened an interspecific dialogue with me. At that moment, I was as dependent on them as they were on me; I was them, as they were me. I felt a deep relation and immediate awe in direct contact with the particles of ecological trauma. Here, walking had become a process of becoming-particular, which opened up nothing less than the horizons of a new way of thinking, and a knowledge that formulated itself through a thoroughly situational encounter.


Breathing, moving, and changing with/in the non-air of Gruinard Island unfolds practices that are essential for a hopeful encounter with the traumatized planetary ecology: the psycho-physical opening of one’s own body; the continuous transgression of established limitations; the affective listening, answering, and seeing with/in the Other; and one’s own self-fragilization, which includes assuming responsibility for the Other, just as s/he assumes responsibility for one’s self. It is not about knowing the Other but carrying her/him; about one’s own embedding in the wounds, traumas, and inexpressible situations; and it is about encountering one’s non-egos with/in the Other and caring for them. Such a feminine approach to the planetary trauma further introduces non-philosophical practices that lead traditional models of being-toward-death to a co-performative synthesis that relates “with experience, art, ethics, technology, mysticism, science, etc.” (Laruelle 2013, 49). The knowledge gained at the moment of entering the all-encompassing night – the night that is present right now – is a continuous spatial knowledge. It is a knowledge not about space, but one that is itself a spatial, dynamic, particular diversity; one that only arises through breathing non-air. It is a knowledge that becomes part of the unspeakable memory and remembrance and the grief and the pain, but also one that unfolds new liveliness for a planetarity-toward-death. This involves entering a deadly ecology only to propose, through the situated encounter-eventing, new and alternative practices for counteracting an ever-advancing ecocide. Before following the hegemonic being-toward-death, one must discover with/in oneself the truly humane capacity of mutual carrying and compassionate breathing. From the abyss of the sixth mass extinction, this breathing must become operative right now. The night has to be entered; the trauma of the present has to be embraced.

Reflection 5


During my last steps on Gruinard Island, I came across a large, round stone that lay anchored in the middle of the traumatized ecology. This rock acted paradigmatically as an island, as an object in which the place’s artificiality and atrocity were concentrated and manifested in all their strength. And yet this rock – like the entire traumatized planetary ecology – was not an object of anxiety, not an object of being-toward-death, but an object of craving, desire, and intimacy. With a thin piece of charcoal, which seemed to be a perfectly situated drawing material because of its etymological relationship to Bacillus anthracis (anthrax/ἄνθραξ literally means “charcoal”), I drew a line around the rock, which marked this object as a space that I entered shortly afterward. I climbed up on the stone and lay down on its flat surface, embedding myself in the previously circumscribed spatiality, to float as a particle in this flowing space of “wisdom-shaft Never” (Celan 2014, 74) and to directly experience the mutually carrying and forming condition of this spatiality. In this last situational ritual with/in Gruinard Island, I became aware of the immediate power of the vibrant and hopeful knowledge practices that emerged in embedding in this dark and, similarly, light space of the present night. Lying on this stone, a thought of freedom emerged, which lay in breathing the non-air, in embracing global barbarism and becoming one with the traumatized layers of this planet. Here I became aware that sustainable, hopeful, and future-oriented forms of action are only possible if they apply the involved and carrying character of human subjectivity and understand themselves as essentially transitive, relational, and feminine. The performative investigation of Gruinard Island can then be considered significant when my situational encounter is not regarded as a momentary, exclusively artistic practice, but is seen as an important political mission – in becoming aware of carrying and being carried by deadly spores. Gruinard Island finally disappeared behind my back, and yet remained within me.

Photo/video credit:
Christoph Solstreif-Pirker, Gruinard Island, Performance, ca. 360 minutes, July 2018, Gruinard Island, Highland, UK. © Christoph Solstreif-Pirker.

Many thanks to Professor Milica Tomić (IZK - Institute for Contemporary Art, Graz University of Technology) and Douglas and Hilarie Russell.



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