Surrogacy, Money Shots, and Bit Rot

Sylvie Fortin

Jean-Charles de Quillacq, Faire Elle, 2018. Performance during the exhibition “Vos désirs sont les nôtres,” Triangle, Marseille, France. Image courtesy of Marcelle Alix, Paris. Photo by Dominique Milherou.

June 18, 2021

Meta is a collaboration between art-agenda and TextWork, editorial platform of the Fondation Pernod Ricard, which reflects on the relationship between writers and artists. Here, Sylvie Fortin explores ideas of hospitality, surrogacy, and profit, and considers how the pandemic has shaped her response to the work of Jean-Charles de Quillacq.

It took me a long time to write “Visqueen Lumisol Clear.” Looking back, I can understand why. It was the first project I managed to complete under Covid-19; in New York, where I had landed in confinement, confusion held the city in a chokehold, exacerbated by the profound inequalities laid bare by the virus’s spread of death and hardship. To get a hold of things—anything—I cast a wide web. My text, with its online-real-life shuffle, its windows and screens, its memory jumps and mind wanderings, and its leaps across scales, reflected a specific moment in the “life cycle” of our ongoing relationship with the virus. So did the human body’s insistent irruptions into the text.

In 2019, when I first encountered the work of Jean-Charles de Quillacq in Paris, I was beginning research for an exhibition that would explore the storied intersections of the body and hospitality in contemporary art. Jean-Charles’s proliferation of bodies, whole and in parts, and his material, conceptual, and social exploration of kinship, appropriation, and reproduction cast open a host of questions. His work’s desiring presence was irresistible, its libidinal energy contagious: it hacked my project, much as mRNA vaccines instruct our cells’ protein production. But we’ll get to that later.

Two years earlier, I had radically reconfigured my practice, centering an inquiry into the currencies of hospitality. This single, sustained curatorial commitment meant that I would also, eventually, have to put my writing to the test. “Visqueen Lumisol Clear” was a first experiment. How could writing embody hospitality? How to host both the work and the world in a text while refusing to play host(ess)? How to host the work without (en)trapping or arresting it, without serving or servicing it, without confining it to a critical “home” or the prison house of language? How to welcome its fugitivity and safeguard the multitude of relations that it smuggles? How to greet its ghosts and let them possess the page? How can writing—and reading—“with-nestle” (rather than witness) the work? At stake in these questions is my project’s central theoretical challenge: how to unsettle hospitality, how to free it from the home and attendant ideas of sovereignty, property, and propriety.

As I was writing, the pandemic, widely dubbed the “year like no other,” was reconfiguring the world, bringing it one giant step closer to neoliberalism’s dull and ruthless fantasy of profit maximization. Invoking exceptional measures for exceptional times, the game plan took on two fronts: the home and our cells, the seats of social and physical reproduction. While neoliberalism swiftly outsourced to the home a host of other “essential” socio-economic functions, including work, education, leisure, and care, the approval of “new but not unknown” vaccines was fast-tracked.1 mRNA vaccines also follow an outsourcing logic: they instruct our immune cells to make a piece of the virus’s unique spike protein, prompting our immune systems to develop antibodies to protect against future infection.2 Moderna’s chief medical officer explains it nicely: “So the traditional approach has proteins floating around your cells. An mRNA vaccine approach has the cells themselves in your own body making the vaccine.”3 How could such entrepreneurial antibodies lead to anything but a “recovery like no other,” with stellar profits for the pharmaceutical companies who own their patents? What’s truly peerless, however, is not the profits of these and other pandemic “winners,” but the deaths of more than 3,800,000 people, and their disposal in graphs and statistics, refrigerated trucks, and mass graves everywhere, like the one on New York’s Hart Island.4

Covid-19 alone did not produce the pandemic. The virus became a pandemic—a “battle” fought in language, emotions, and imaginaries as well as on screens, in space, and in bodies—thanks to its global mismanagement. It hijacked hospitality, to cast the body as host and the home as refuge. But, in order to speculate on hospitality, the pandemic had to manage the body’s contagious potential—its vectorial threat to remake host into guest—and the risk of viral home invasion. It had to safeguard hospitality against the threat of its welcoming “a global right to shelter-in-place,” as proposed by theorist Denise Ferreira da Silva, which would address the “effects of coloniality, raciality, and the environmental and human destruction perpetuated by the extractivist, exploitative, and expropriative mechanisms of global capital.”5 Instead, the pandemic’s promised future—the “return to normal” that we are presently delivering—will look a lot like a pleasure dome for vaccine-passport holders with bootstrapping antibodies marshalled to uphold the high-yield myths of individual self-reliance and resilient communities. After all, this “norm” can bank on a robust support system: a vast archive of branded social media images, money shots of our injection intimacies modeled after graduation pictures and algorithmically scheduled to erupt as “memories” on our streams, just in time for our booster shots.

This is what led me to write along, over, aside, under, and through Jean-Charles’s work—whole or in parts. I had to infect it, cannibalize it, and surrender to it. But I failed to detect one of its crucial dimensions: surrogacy, another form of outsourcing. I should have discussed it when I wrote about the family and familiarity. Paternity and legacy are, after all, forms of surrogacy. And mRNA vaccines employ surrogates—spike protein messengers with a 72-hour life expectancy. Non-fungibility, which has acquired currency status since I wrote the essay, also relies on surrogacy. Hirshhorn curator Marina Isgro recently defined an NFT as “a unique piece of data […] that can serve as a surrogate or certificate of authenticity […] in the digital and real worlds.”

Bits rot and we’ll all need booster shots next year—a year like all others. Yet the magnitude of our collective loss has yet to register. There are no surrogates for that. It will haunt all aspects of our social life for many years to come. Mirrors, glass tanks, and body fluids have appeared in Jean-Charles’s new work. But that will have to be for another time.


For more about the Center for Disease Control’s choice of expression, see “Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines” (4 March 2021),


Anthony Komaroff, “Why are mRNA vaccines so exciting?” Harvard Health Blog (10 December 2020),


“Fact Check-Moderna’s chief medical officer did not say mRNA vaccines alter DNA.” Reuters (8 April 2021),


WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) dashboard,


Denise Ferreira da Silva, “If Hospitality, Then the Duty Is to Repair and to Foster,” PUBLIC: Art | Culture | Ideas 61 (December 2020), 85.

Covid-19, Art Criticism, Health & Disease

Sylvie Fortin is an interdependent curator, writer and editor currently working between Montreal, New York, and Buenos Aires.

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June 18, 2021

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