‘Fears and Affections’ or how to love cockroaches 

Pro Helvetia South America, Arti sceniche, Arti visive

Nota: questo post è disponibile solo in inglese.

The result of a three-year collaboration between artists Tobibi Bienz and Victoria Papagni, co-creation project combines performance, installation and bugs to discuss inter-species relationships and empathy 

When Swiss artist Tobibi Bienz arrived in Hong Kong to present an exhibition, in 2019, one could feel the heavy atmosphere of repression. Amid the violent protests that unravelled against the Chinese regime, they witnessed a deteriorating and dehumanising climate, and wondered how to deal with their art in times of censorship. 

But one day, as they gazed from the top of a skyscraper, they found themselves falling in love with a cockroach. That infamous being, subject of despise and disgust, suddenly became the object of their affection. 

“If people came to me, I would show them the insect and ask: ‘Do you want to see my new love?’. I would talk about the human, the non-human, about relationships,” the artist recalls. Other than that, it was a form of addressing what was happening there (“cockroaches” is how police would call demonstrators during the Hong Kong riots). 

“But then, it became clear that I had, indeed, fallen in love with the cockroaches.” 

Tobibi smuggled the insects on the plane back home and has since lived with them. More precisely, with the Blaptica dubia species, a native to Argentina. This relationship, which included love letters, unfolded into a research on our anthropocentric perception, on fear patterns and how we can transform them. And, why not, if we are able to empathise with a cockroach, a symbol of marginality. 

hands of performer dyed in pink holding cockroaches in the middle of the forest
Tobibi Bienz with the Blaptica dubia in a frame of “Parasite Selfie – Homecoming”. The video was part of the research process that led to “Fears and Affections”

In 2021, still in the midst of pandemic restrictions, Tobibi started collaborating with Argentinian visual artists Victoria Papagni in an online residency. They partnered up for the virtual event ”Segundas Intenciones”, focusing on the intersection of art, science, and technology, with a transdisciplinary team.  

This was followed by an in-person residency, in late 2022, when Tobibi embarked to Buenos Aires and continued the investigation in cheLA cultural centre. Combining their artistic practices (visual and electronic arts, performance, and social activism), the pair conducted their research in labs, field trips, and 3D print studios. The idea was to deconstruct our anthropocentric perception through inter-species technological collaboration. 

In January 2023, they set out to the Yungas in Tucumán (in the North of Argentina), a natural habitat to the Blaptica dubia. The trip, which counted on the participation of entomologist (biologist specialising in insects) Monica Iglesias, from the Entomology Laboratory of the University City, the Lillo Institute of Tucumán, resulted in a video installation, “Parasite Selfie – Homecoming”, later presented at cheLA

Video of performers in pink on a pound
“Parasite Selfie – Homecoming” presented at cheLA

The collaboration continued during Victoria’s residency at Atelier Mondial in Basel, and finally in a co-creation project by the duo. Titled “Fears and Affections: that day we fell in love with vermins”, the creation combines their artistic languages, the themes they have researched over the years and, naturally, cockroaches. 

Presented between March and April 2024 at Proa 21 in Buenos Aires, and Gessnerallee in Zurich, the work is a mix of performance and installation, created by Tobibi and Victoria, though – one might say – choreographed by the insects. With their bodies dyed pink, a group of performers let the cockroaches walk over their skin, allowing the bugs to trace their movements. 

Performers with body dyed pink laying on the grass with cockroach on them
Performance “Fears and Affections” at Proa 21, in Buenos Aires

Accompanying this is an exhibition of audiovisual work, shot in the Argentinean jungle, the Swiss mountains, and open-air dumps, besides a display of 3D biomaterial sculptures, a terrarium designed from the perspective of a cockroach and shaped as Victoria’s self-portrait. 

3D sculpture of female head in pink
3D sculpture of “Parasite Selfie – Homecoming” presented at cheLA

“We created an installation, an empathetic ecosystem with audiovisual works, sculptures and performing bodies, cockroaches and humans, that invite the audience into a ritual of affections and fears,” stated the artists. “Together we explore issues of attraction and repulsion, intimacy, love and magnetism, and revisit power structures.” 

Open-air space with grass and people sitting on it. In the middle, performers with bodies dyed pink
Performance “Fears and Affections” at Proa 21, in Buenos Aires

The title in Spanish (“Miedos y Afectos: el día que me enamoré de las bichas”) also holds another meaning. “Bichas” can mean bug or vermin, but the term was historically used as an insult for queer people (who later reappropriated the word to affirm their identity in South America). 

In the end, “Fears and Affections” questions the fine line separating what attracts and repels us. 

Biographies

Tobibi Bienz is an independent Swiss artist working in the fields of performing, conceptual and visual arts. They work on the edges and blurry frictions of sections and genres, of art and politics, of plates and riverbank superstructures. Tobibi is a founding member #BigDreams collective in Zurich, which creates different works and actions around themes of structural racism in the media landscape in Switzerland. 

Victoria Papagni is an Argentinian artist working in the intersection of Art, Design, and Technology. She focuses on new media and post internet digital culture and creates in multiple formats and disciplines: video installation, 3D technology, performance, and sound. She has a degree in Electronic Arts (UNTREF) and attended the Film Program at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella. 

More on Co-Creation

The pilot measure was launched in 2023. Applications can still be submitted until 1 June 2024.  

Co-creation projects for cultural practitioners from South America

Co-creation projects for cultural practitioners from Switzerland