I’ve sought out Uma Breakdown’s solo exhibition EARTH A.D. 2 at FACT Liverpool as a refuge three times now. The first, I escaped to FACT’s upstairs darkened exhibition space amid a busy day. The second, I walked numbly through the installation after a challenging phone call; I found myself staring at a family of chrome hieroglyphics, attempting to make sense of them as they wriggled away from the wall. Last time, I entered for the quiet after the sensory overload of the street.
I have become accustomed to the familiar greeting of glitching projection images on the entrance highlighting the grimaces of strangers’ faces as they glide through the room. Green, snakelike eyes and teeth flash while dismembered animal tails and body parts gyrate. They watch me from all angles. In this room, you are always seen by these creatures – ‘in a good way’. Crude drawings and paintings of friendly disembowelled beings, faceless monsters and their eyes follow me from their homes within the installation. On a screen overhead a pulsing brain reminds me I am not alone; whatever organism it is, it surveils me wherever I am. Plinths are coffins here. As a visitor, you are an active contributor to the exhibition. Conceptually, the viewer-player-reader-writer is invited to peer, climb in and rest in abjection alongside the crudely made artefacts that reside on top. Peaceful yet posed for reawakening.
The installation is a self-described ‘save room’ or ‘safe space’; the former a concept often featured in gaming; the latter a practice often rehearsed in the arts. For Uma, this ‘save room’ is modelled on the bell tower in the game Resident Evil 4 that cannot be attacked. It is a place inaccessible to imagined and real evils, as well as a bolthole to store resources for future use. The ascension from FACT’s ground-floor galleries to this room emphasises its similarities to the bell tower Uma had in mind when building the exhibition. Tucked away, a floor above the street, there is comfort in entering the room. Somehow it feels like you are entering a different flow, level and time. An imagined bell strikes, something is different here.
Uma Breakdown is a queer, disabled artist, writer and games designer. Their work combines symbols and ideas from horror, gaming, speculative fiction and interspecies solidarity. EARTH A.D. 2 is the second part of a three-part touring show. I spoke to them over Zoom in late November, after attending an in-conversation event at FACT Liverpool with themselves and author Johanna Hedva in September 2023.
Uma’s work is inherently collaborative. Like many artists with a kinship with alternative forms of knowledge production, they argue their work is made within an ecology of information systems, peer networks and source materials. Thus, EARTH A.D. 2 is shaped in dialogue with others – friends, comrades, trans* and queer siblings, apocalyptic writers such as Evan Calder Williams, Dracula and other fictional and non-fictional monsters, and characters such as Agent Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil; the solidarity ecology is extensive. Without this interdisciplinary and collaborative lens, it is impossible to move forward through the open-ended narratives of EARTH A.D. 2 or respond to the open invitation to write your fanfiction.
Over Zoom, Uma tells me that they have cultivated a way of honing their practice through collaborative storytelling. This is clear throughout the exhibition, but most predominantly when playing Uma’s game EARTH AD: Live Burial (2022) through a small Raspberry Pi and gamepad stacked within scaffolding on the back wall. My hands flick through the scenes, and I pause at a passage that flickers in green and black, ‘the moon mutters of screaming’. I am invited to climb in and take part in the infinite telling and retelling of the story. Through building and rebuilding, the game remains unpolished, with the mutation of new ideas and channels brought by collaborators – in a good way. It is a process I have come to know well. Articulation (taking things apart) and re-articulation (putting them back together again) is a practice of constructing and reassembling a world we wish to inhabit, explore, escape to, travel through and rest within. This practice of ‘imagining-with’ our kin is a practice of speculative fiction writing and solidarity building that many of us – workers, practitioners, chosen family, queer siblings – have come to rely upon as a survival tactic when living in the real world with its horrific and illogical coinciding realities.
Within EARTH A.D. 2 the trans* lens reveals systems of radical solidarity. For me, this demonstration of solidarity unearths some of the systems that promise care yet fail to deliver them. At first, the idea of creating or emulating a ‘save room’ within the context of a gallery seems a stubborn pursuit of an impossible goal. However, after speaking to Uma the project is more akin to the trans* project of continually ‘dismantling and remaking’ bodies, selves, others. Uma describes this language-seeking and finding process in three ways: 1. to develop ideas and make sense of them when there is no language to define them; 2. to fold ideas into different forms like unfixed and unstable diagrams, always ready to be broken and remade; 3. to explore the tone of the work and somehow balance unspeakable grief or brokenness with wild playfulness to the point of slapstick humour. This methodology is underpinned by Uma’s experience of time altered through their disability – sometimes referred to as ‘crip time’ – or the idea that time is experienced uniquely by disabled people because ‘it requires us to break in our bodies and minds to new rhythms, new patterns of thinking and feeling’.
The flow of time in EARTH A.D. 2 is significant. Uma tells me how they often have no recognition of a piece of writing as theirs half an hour after writing it. Consequently, when fledgling ideas arrive it is vital to record and explore them immediately, otherwise they may vanish forever. This is just one of the many ways that crip time affects the ways that Uma has cultivated EARTH A.D. 2. This way of working makes for a provocation to the viewer-player-reader-writer, encouraging them to explore ‘the first thoughts’, or the ones that are commonly discounted for their proximity to being ‘unborn’ or nascent. A place to explore becoming. The invitation is to hold, nourish, care for fledging ideas that in any other circumstance would be discarded for something more developed or defined. This route of artmaking as research practice is completely at odds with the systematic approach of knowledge creation; where rationality and logic, over feeling or intuition is valued most highly. In this way, EARTH A.D. 2 celebrates and provides space for liminality.
Tools for the Apocalypse
Uma describes the artworks within EARTH A.D. 2 as toolkits. To this art world, the simple allure of the toolkit is seductive. They promise a set of instructions to reach a desired outcome; a neat way to complete a game successfully. Differently, Uma uses the framework of a toolkit as a noun or adjective. Active in their use, the artworks on display within EARTH A.D. 2 are to be used by those who are unthreatened enough to spend time with them – to engage with the DIY materials and open-source software offered.
All artworks in EARTH A.D. 2 are made to be reassembled. They were prepared in their dozens and in sections with the knowledge that they would need to travel – be compact, lightweight – with many of the objects made twice. They travel together bound with cord. An exhibition for the apocalypse. Their shelf life is limited. Uma and I discussed the choices they made about materials based on their capability to degrade. A USB stick stores images, animations, and coding. This technology will soon become obsolete. I wonder how much of this exhibition will outlive us. The words of 2023 Turner Prize Winner Jesse Darling ring in my ears: ‘the apocalypse is already here, it is just unevenly distributed’. Uma reminds me that you cannot unring a bell. The bell alerts you that something has already changed: a death, a marriage, a warning.
Uma’s ethics underpin EARTH A.D. 2 totally. Everything in this exhibition seeks to ‘look out for’ something in one way or another. The artworks are low waste and will decay over time. The intent is to leave as little impact as possible. The dogs in Live Burial have ‘got your back’ and are intended to help you find a way through the game. Another way that Uma attempts to ‘look after’ the solidarity ecology is through resistance. Uma’s care beats against the capitalist capacity of galleries when they state ‘galleries are not advertising machines – they are tools’. The contents of EARTH A.D. 2 invite viewer-player-reader-writer to reproduce the artefacts displayed here. During the previous episode of this exhibition at Wysing Arts Centre, guests were invited to join Uma in making bio-resin, a key material in the exhibition, with the ingredients shared online. These invitations resist an art world that fundamentally relies on systems of competition. I am ensnared by the promise of finding and experiencing what Uma describes as ‘an excess of joy’ via taking part in the active creation of escape routes, different beginnings and endings.
Really Bad Stuff
Underpinning EARTH A.D. 2 is the acknowledgement that Really Bad Stuff happens. When confronted with death – coffins, corpses, and dismembered bodies – we are forced to reflect on our own selfhood, mortality, feelings of liminality and porous stickiness. This concept was defined by Julia Kristeva as ‘abjection’ in her seminal book ‘Powers of Horrors: An essay on abjection’. Though the exhibition copy claims Uma’s body of work is about care, their work goes beyond that to explore where things live without a home in this world. It triggers embodied knowledge of formlessness and uncontainable selves, consciousness, and horrors; and within that, how acts of mutual aid become increasingly urgent after engaging in conditions that are violent or threatening.
For a long time now, I have been ruminating on the inadequacy of ‘safer space agreements’ that litter the worlds that I am accustomed to. I have become cynical of artworlds that skirt around some of this Really Bad Stuff as a way of ‘caring’ for people in the room, and that this approach is typically masked with languages associated with self-care and therapy-speak. Uma suggests that maybe arts organisations don’t want to talk about Really Bad Stuff because spaces become unpredictable or tyrannical (frequently, they say, it is them that queers this space). Practising care in fluid ways does this too. When I think about the moments when I have felt cared for most or my needs met, they are always in relation to other bodies. This method of care crosses borders, boundaries, and territories in haphazard ways that we cannot control – it is messy, and it is often painful.
Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed rumbles of conversations with friends, colleagues, and comrades about how ‘risk-aware’ and ‘risky’ spaces could be practised instead of promising ‘safe spaces’. Uma has also noticed similar conversations. This idea is informed by principles of aftercare associated with kink and BDSM communities – in a good way. Practising aftercare instead of promising the unrealistic goal of ‘no harm’ presents a radical form of care undertaken after the body has experienced impact. It requires active reflection and holding space for people after having undergone pain, discomfort, or trauma. We enter these spaces knowing what is ‘at risk’ and receive personalised care based on our experience and needs after the fact. It reminds me of the conversation between Uma and Johanna Hedva hosted by FACT last September to launch Hedva’s queer novel Your Love is Not Good. They half-joked that the truest form of radical solidarity is found in a mosh pit ‘where everyone is helping each other out’. Seriously though, when have you ever felt more cared for than when emerging – sweaty, bruised, smiling – from a circle pit hand in hand with a stranger? This idea of ‘looking out for someone without having to know who they are’ is crucial to the conceptual edifices of EARTH A.D. 2. This I see as an unwritten agreement that ‘yes, there might be damage and pain in these moments’, and ‘yes we may not belong’, but ‘hey, we’re all there together.’
EARTH A. D. 2 is on at FACT Liverpool until 28th January 2024.
Dr Emma Curd (they/them) is an artist-researcher, writer, producer and zinester.
This review is supported by FACT Liverpool.
 Throughout this article I reference Uma Breakdown’s text ‘The Speculative Dismemberment of Agent Leon Kennedy’ (2022) featured in A Wet and Heavy Noise, produced by Market Gallery, Glasgow. In this text, Uma refers to dismemberment and mortifying scenes with humour, ‘in a bad way’.
 Halberstam, J., (2018), ‘Unbuilding Gender: Trans* Anarchitectures In and Beyond the Work of Gordon Matta-Clark’, [online], Available at: https://placesjournal.org/article/unbuilding-gender/?cn-reloaded=1#0 [Accessed: 06/12/23]
 Samuels, E., 2017. ‘Six ways of looking at crip time.’ Disability studies quarterly, 37(3), Available at: https://dsq-sds.org/index.php/dsq/article/view/5824/4684. [Accessed 06/12/23]
 Higgins, C. (2023). ‘Turner prize winner Jesse Darling: ‘I’ve been a dancer, a decorator and a circus clown’. The Guardian. [online. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2023/dec/06/turner-prize-winner-jesse-darling-clown-dancer-skyfall-bond. [Accessed 09/12/23]
 As a queer feminist, I have historically rejected the word ‘seminal’ in relation to its relation to semen or ‘seed’. However, in this context, when describing abjection and its relationship to bodily secretions – where formless liquids bleed, seep, ooze, excrete – I playfully emphasise Kristeva’s work to examine defilement and consider its capacity to border-cross and rally against order, systems and categorisation.
 Kristeva, J. (1982). ‘Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection’, New York: Columbia University Press.
 Hedva, J. (2023). ‘Your Love is Not Good’. Sheffield: And Other Stories.
 Hedva, J. (2023). Johanna Hedva and Uma Breakdown In Conversation | FACT Liverpool. YouTube, uploaded by FACT Liverpool, 24/11/23. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjoLU-Vgjp0. [Accessed: 07/12/23]