Alina, Jaguar

Introduction to "Square of Will in Square of Love" book by Alina Popa

"The square of will in the square of love" is written under one of drawings, in one of her small notebooks. In her last weeks she was drawing, meditatively, with eyes closed, the notebook on her chest. It was a beautiful thing to see. It was her preferred way of dealing with pain, fear, hopelessness, disappointment, sadness. Some of the drawings are at the end of the book.

Drawing by Alina Popa with closed eyes, notebook on her chest

Disease as an aesthetic project
, was put together by Alina from her recent notes and sent to a group of friends. She was at the end of an intense two-year process with a hopeless illness. Unfortunately, she was also at the end of her life.

Apart from "Future Synthesis" and "No One Speaks", the other texts are notes and drafts that I found in her notebooks and on her phone, where she did the majority of her writing. Many are unfinished. "Artificial Life" is interrupted in the middle of a sentence and has some abandoned fragments at the end. It's left like that, I hope it's not too confusing or too sad.

The book is a mixture of styles, subjects and mediums – theory, short fiction, poetry, drawings, SF, diary notes, it's unclassifiable, as she liked it… It is more personal and poetic than her usual writing. You can find her more theoretical texts in Unsorcery book.

Except for "Artificial Life" she didn't tell me what to publish. I'm especially not sure of "I go about in a Line", some of it may be too private. But certain notes there, and "Disease as an Aesthetic Project" are her only texts written after diagnosis. Her insights from that period are relevant and touching, especially for people in similar situations, all of us in a way, as she suggested:

"Receiving a diagnosis was the ticket to singularization. To live with a terminal deadly physical disturbance is to be in a state of exception. To step on the real ground of the subject – what is more common to all than our imminent bodily dissolution, our baseline vulnerability. You don't matter anymore as social token but as something scary and real, something that is scary because it is the easiest to identify with.”

Drawing by Alina Popa with closed eyes, notebook on her chest
Our lives as we knew them ended at the moment of her diagnosis. Everything changed in an instant. In time we became aware that the diagnosis and the hopeless prognosis not only described our reality, they created it, or at least contributed to it. They were performative, making themselves real, establishing a heavy and difficult-to-deal-with reality.

One day, after a long research on the internet, she told me that the only two people who recovered from her type of illness did so through certain spiritual practices, mystical experiences. Some days later I found another case of a similar miracle. She was aware that a miracle is called “a miracle” because it’s unlikely to happen. Maybe a bit too aware.

Before her illness we shared a fascination for some Amazonian ideas: The body as a bundle of affects and capacities, with powers to metamorphose. The constant ambiguity and suspicion – jaguars can be humans, humans can be jaguars – because jaguar, as the shaman, is the quality of an act, not of a subject. Reality is not multicultural, as we know it, but multinatural, different worlds can be activated by different perspectives, through different body affects and practices.

It is one thing to be fascinated and another thing to have to perform these operations not just in your mind, but on the body and reality. To become this were-jaguar who can travel to a different reality. She wrote before her disease: “In the accounts of Castaneda, Viveiros de Castro, and Kohn, taking the prey’s point of view may involve: doing a handstand while crying in the presence of a deer, drinking blood instead of maize-beer, and respectfully returning the jaguar’s gaze. Action alone carries and projects new realities onto the self-erasing chora of the forest stage. Space is specularly simulated through action, as if the act itself projected a social space like VR, or a 3-D movie.”

With her disease, she saw more clearly how disembodied thinking is unhelpful when things matter most, it can be a trap. Without an embodied thinking and acting, you're locked in your own mind with the sensation that you're already one with your thoughts. She realized that daring minds and daring hearts can be two completely different things. The most daring minds can be completely conventional in terms of action and behavior. But when an awful event comes, you can no longer separate your thinking from your life. Nor from your art, if you keep doing it. “The heart is the only thing I have,” she wrote under one of her last drawings.

Because of her medically hopeless situation, she was forced to go beyond the conventional approach to disease and healing. And she discovered over and over again the difficulty of doing this – it’s impossible, she wrote. The implicit views that circulate around you stabilize an overwhelming reality, they shape your implicit beliefs, the possible. You can search for another world, but this is difficult nowadays, because there is a homogenization of perspectives. She felt such relief and improvement in her health when she lived for a while in a weird healing community in Brazil, where everything sounded and looked sci-fi. The world was different, other things were possible, and they were happening. ”Artificial Life" is a fictionalized documentation of her experiences in that place.

Alina Popa, Heal the Line at
Her process was a fight with disease but even more a fight of perspectives. She wrote to a friend: “I realized that in my situation it happens that I need to stay as much as I can on the spiritual plane and navigate reality from there. And in this world, there are not so many people staying on this plane. For many, and for many of my friends, this is not the ground (a lofty ground!) and then conflict arises. Because perspectives can cut wings and you end up with a terrible diagnosis and going down. It's important to discuss this because it is not easy to navigate from the only ground, the lofty ground, that can give you wings, hope and the power to live and overcome the physical trouble every day. All the world around, the general perspective, cuts any hope for me. This is the process, the knowledge to stay where my soul needs to, so that I can be more powerful than a bleak prognosis.” Sometimes, when the wing-cutting perspectives were too much, she liked to quote João Guimarães Rosa: “At first, I used to like people. Now I only like jaguars.”

Disease was a calamity, but sometimes, when she was in a very good mood, she also saw it as a strange gift. Her life, thoughts, feelings, beliefs were twisted, transformed, amplified. Her health left her, but she felt that some numb perspectives and petty worries had gone too. In her last two years, she lived more than she had her entire life before, she said. “Healthy people don’t have a soul” is an Amazonian Wari’ saying that she liked. For them the soul is instability, the power to metamorphose that can be activated in you just by a disease or a similar event. In this sense, and not only, her soul was amplified by illness.

She found new friends, interesting healers and therapies, and some weird and beautiful microworlds. She started to perform like she intends her unpleasant, difficult sensations, states, and feelings. She created a jungle in her body, with different animals and plants taking care of her. She drew with her eyes closed, the notebook on her chest. These practices, and many more, didn’t save her life unfortunately, but they enhanced it, easing her pain and giving her surprising periods of hope and improvement in her health. Her life was prolonged, she was on the slopes, skiing, when she was, statistically, supposed to die. Even when things suddenly turned very bad in the final weeks, she didn’t have to take painkillers, much to the shock of the doctors. She died peacefully, as she wanted.

The Bureau of Melodramatic Research, Creativity Counseling for Artists
Alina already mixed life and art long before her illness. In the last ten years she had been working with Irina Gheorghe, her friend since high school, in the Bureau of Melodramatic Research. Oscillating between office, research, and mostly melodrama formats, the Bureau often combined or collided cheesy, exaggerated girly emotionality with urgent global issues and abstract theory. They created new genres, where passions became abstractions and philosophy got melodramatic.

She loved to teach, and she did it beautifully. Recently she has started approaching her workshops as artworks, her teaching was performative. She was sometimes puzzling, sometimes hypnotic, and always brilliant, fascinating, and sensitive. Former students visited her from everywhere when she was ill. They were touched by her soul. Many artists and friends did the same, helping out however they could. They gave and received a lot. They were part of a powerful process of a beautiful being.

Add captionUnsorcery, Alina Popa & Florin Flueras, at Atelier 35, photo Alexandru Dan
She loved animals very much, in her childhood photos if there are animals, there are in her arms. Animals where always present in her texts, lectures, performances – the minimal I of the tick and its simple but intense world, the line of cows eating each other, the lamprey and its self-alienation trick as the first gesture of an "I", the phyllia that end up eating themselves from too much blending into the environment, the praying mantis' alien perspectives, the crocodile that lives in an apartment with a tiger and a human, and even though the crocodile is locked in the bathroom because its blood is cold, it is still part of the community, the Jaguar that has no borders…

And she loved people very much, many times our projects were also occasions to bring our friends together. Our last project was The Clinic. Together with some artist friends, we went to a Transylvanian village to develop therapies that could function as artworks. After Unsorcery and Black Hyperbox, The Clinic continued our idea of “artworlds” – mildly choreographed processes that are establishing as artworks not only products but production, research, curating, art making, forms of living – artworks as artworlds. The art space became a clinic in which aesthetic healing and performative therapies could happen. We wanted to create impossible hybrids between medicine and art, secretly hoping that, with no available therapy for her, maybe we could invent one.

Unsorcery Launch at Salonul de Proiecte
Photo: Alexandru Andrei
In The Clinic she made "You Are" and "Heal the Line", her last works, in which she, and a line representing herself, were mediums for strange and moving collective therapies. "Life Programing" (Skete/Artificial Life) was the project we planned to do next. We wanted to experiment with artificially forming life, mainly through artistic and performance procedures. It was meant to be a contemporary skete without collective rules, where each of the participants could shape her own form of life, in proximity to the others. The project made sense therapeutically, because from her own experience and research she was convinced that her disease, and in general chronic diseases, are lifestyle related. She started to see herself more and more as a form of life that had to be reconstructed.

Alina Popa, You Are, at Salonul de Proiecte, photo Petre Fall 

When your art is your life and your life is your art, and you’re so sensitive, you can be quite affected when your work is less recognized. She loved her recent work and our work together, but sometimes, before her illness, she got sad because she felt that they were not well understood or appreciated. Maybe, as our friend and collaborator Ion Dumitrescu joked, it was “too early.” Now it’s too late… But most likely, this happened because the work was rather nonvisual, not so representation based. Representation requires limits. “The border is a place of fear,” but the “jaguar has no borders,” she used to say, in reference to Zalamea’s remark that the bisons in the Lascaux Cave mark the beginning of geometrical representation.

Just before her disease she started to feel that she's finding a path, a new trust in her work and writing. I felt the same, that after intense searching and doubting she stepped into something very beautiful, personal and singular. All was so brutally cut. We will never experience what she had barely started. Some of the texts here are unfinished but I will forever miss her unstarted works and writings, her unlived life.

Alina Popa, You Are, at Salonul de Proiecte, photo Petre Fall

We always found ways to complexify the dynamics between our lives and our art projects, and her illness just accentuated that. At the same time, some things were smooth and simple. We sometimes laughed about our very atypical, uncool relationship – addicted to each other, inseparable, and mostly happy. We knew that we were lucky because very rarely did we see anything similar – love. And we knew not to talk too much about all this, because others would find it “pathetic” or “boring”. We were also aware that death was probably the only thing that could eventually separate us.

In her last days she became so fragile and soft, like a wounded, very cute animal. She could no longer return the jaguar’s gaze, and she became prey, as she had foreseen: “a jaguar spirit coming to get me, to make me a free spirit, and I am flying over reality, jungled up, towards life or maybe towards death.” She was my world and she will continue to be. Her leaving is painful, painful, painful. But, in the end, it’s a pain that feeds the love. Love.
(Florin Flueras, February 2019)

Drawing by Alina Popa with closed eyes, notebook on her chest