Public Immune System


The second half of this piece is just as personal as the first.

In an interview, Daniel Askill is asked: "How did you choose the title We Have Decided Not To Die?" He responds thus:

A: You know, it's actually from something that I saw in a book. A couple of artists that work in the States called Arakawa and Gins and they did this book called 'Reversible Destiny'. It just felt like this crazy kind of statement. I just like the "matter of factness" of it. It seemed to sum up the kind of idea of where the whole film was heading.

When I first engaged with the work of Arakawa and Gins, now nearly a decade ago, I too wondered at the bombastic nature of their declaration, "We Have Decided Not To Die." Published by the Guggenheim in 1997, "Reversible Destiny: We Have Decided Not To Die", was plastered on the cover of their exhibition catalog. The words were unmistakable. "We", more collective than identifiable, "Have Decided", with certainty, "Not To Die." My initial reaction, as I'm sure so many others felt, was that this statement seemed so outlandish, if not prematurely and pretentiously absurd. I mean, really, "We Have Decided Not To Die." Ha! Nothing could be further from the "matter of factness" Askill describes.

Yesterday, a dear family friend, now nearing her seventies, recounted an intimate story. She was stricken with ovarian cancer nearly a decade ago. I don't really know any specifics apart from what she shared with me, but as I listened to her describe her circumstances, I felt that there were profound connections to the work of Arakawa and Gins. Basically, she said that when she received the news of her cancer she sought treatment from my father, on obstetrician who had done a fellowship in oncology. She said that she only had one wish when she received the news, "I want to live to see my grandchildren."

Well, ten years later, as we were chatting on a cold, Wintry morning, she went on to express with tears in her eyes that my father wouldn't let her die. Puzzled, I said, "What do you mean?", thinking of Arakawa and Gins. She responded, "Your father looked me in the eyes and said, "I won't let you die." What's at work here? What is this affirmation, or network of support (should we call it a public immune system?) that was created and put into play? Why was there comfort in the proclamation of a physician? Were his words no less bold than Arakawa and Gins's words?