This is an article about two stories, or rather, a story within a story. First, it is a reflection on the film ‘Inside’ as an allegory of collapse, a metaphor of what happens when we take breakdown and failure as a start rather than an endpoint. Then, it is also a story about how the film shaped, in a personal way, experiences to come. Since the first story –the film, its setting, its plot—wraps around the second one like the skin wraps the onion, let me begin there. Don’t worry, I won’t give away the ending.

Inside, a 2023 film by Greek director Vasilis Katsoupis tells the story of an art thief who is trapped inside the apartment he was supposed to rob. Nemo, masterfully played by Willem Daefoe, is dropped off by helicopter to steal paintings from a luxurious New York penthouse During the robbery, the apartment’s alarm system, designed to make the place impenetrable, shuts down and locks the thief inside. “Sorry, man. You’re on your own”, hears Nemo over the radio as he taps desperately on bulletproof glass and airtight doors. Collapse is, literally, the starting point of the plot. What ensues is a nerve-wrenching journey that tests the limits of sanity and a tale of human survival and creativity, of extending life by making able use of all the means at one’s disposal. Like so many good stories, this one works by overlaying meanings and being open to many interpretations. The metaphors of collapse and survival I write about are only a few of them.

Survival is a recurrent theme in cinema; just think of Riddley Scott’s ‘The Martian’, Danny Boyle’s ‘127 Hours’, or Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Cast Away’, to name a few recent. However, there is a difference between Inside and most of these films, particularly the last one: in order to survive on a desert island, Tom Hank’s character must rediscover fire and turn raw nature into sophisticated tools, retracing the steps of human civilization. In Inside, Willem Defoe’s character does not struggle against a ruthless nature but against the pristine and sophisticated world that humans have carved out of it. He carries the castaway’s journey further forward, not as progress but as an aftermath. He uses the tools of progress and social status to survive, extend his life and plot his escape.

The vacant apartment that Nemo intended to rob belongs to a Pritzker-prize-winning architect; it is filled with artwork, designer furniture, and state-of-the-art equipment. Whatever nature is inside it, it has been domesticated. The ‘black box’ of technology is represented in the film by a bright and ultimately unresponsive touch screen that reveals nothing of the system’s inner workings. As it breaks down, the screen simply displays what it is doing. It sets off loud alarms, seals all doors and windows, shuts off the water, and makes the apartment unbearably hot and then freezing cold, turning its pristine interior into a fortified and hostile environment where Nemo must now survive. Desperation follows as our character bangs on doors and screams for help. Then, creativity takes charge. Naturally, fish from the aquarium become food, an automated irrigation system provides drinking water, and books are used as toilet paper. But most importantly, the apartment’s furniture collection is rearranged and altered to make new systems and tools. Armoires and tables are assembled into an improvised ladder, held together with bed sheets and curtains, and Jean Prouvé’s signature Standard chair is turned into a primitive wrench in an attempt to open a skylight, whose simple construction is hidden behind layers of drywall. The makeshift furniture mountain that Nemo builds to reach the tall ceiling is an un-commissioned creative installation that challenges how we perceive and assign value. Its structural precariousness is a metaphor for other forms of instability, the pile of junk it creates is a critique of other modes of accumulation. Finally, Nemo’s patiently chipping away at the drywall and exposing the skylight’s simple construction speaks about the flimsiness of contemporary architectural sophistication.

As writer and scholar Sara Ahmed reminds us in her book “What’s the Use?”, use puts the mundane and the symbolic on a level plane; it is a word that creates environments by tying people to things, creating personal and social realms. Use also allows us to classify the world; it acts as an organizing concept. Following Heidegger’s classic example of the hammer, whose qualities as an object become evident when it is broken and we can’t use it as a hammer, Sara Ahmed argues that when we use something, its materiality fades. Only when things break is their ‘thingness’ revealed. To get to the gist of my story, we should take this logic further: not only when things stop working does their ‘thingness’ come to the fore, but uselessness opens them up to new possibilities. In this sense, collapse is a state where a thing’s conventional use breaks down. Collapse challenges ‘use’ as an established category, allowing new possibilities for familiar objects and questioning their previous status. Survival depends on a creative capacity to turn the familiar into something new. In the film, the value system that sustained the apartment collapsed, and its contents broke down with it. A different set of rules framed Nemo’s relationship to the objects around him. Everything became transient and instrumental, and only some things endured (in the film, that was art). In this sense, collapse is also a filter through which relevance passes.


Let me tell you about the second story. On June 29, 2023, I was on a flight from Madrid to Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. I was returning to my hometown for the second time after a long absence. My trip had an objective: finding out how migrants’ vacant spaces were being used and transformed amidst the country’s collapse. For the last decade, Venezuela has been immersed in political instability, economic decline, social turmoil, and the breakdown of essential services and infrastructure. The fast decline in living conditions has triggered a migratory crisis larger than the ones in Syria or Ukraine. As millions flee, left-behind domestic spaces are not abandoned or left to ruin. Rather, they are looked after, occupied, or transformed locally. The contents of apartments and houses –books, furniture, utensils, toys, artwork, cars, and plants—constitute a vast material accumulation that is at the center of practices of salvage, preservation, re-selling, or use. The sheer amount of stuff left behind by millions of migrants is so large, diverse, and scattered that no individual effort can sort it; no flea market can put it in circulation again. But before returning to Caracas, I didn’t know any of this. Sure, I had read migration statistics and interviewed cuidadores, local caretakers who earn a living by looking after vacant homes, but I hadn’t come face to face with the massive amount of stuff people had left behind.

As I sat on the plane and scrolled through the touch screen built into the seat in front of me, contemplating what to watch to kill eight hours of time, I came upon the film and pressed play. As I watched Willem Dafoe’s character explore the nooks and crevices of the apartment, destroy glass vases, tear up books, pile up expensive furniture, and disassemble chairs, the ideas about collapse and its relation to use began taking shape. What happened to Nemo in the end, whether he eventually made it out or not, became irrelevant. The important thing was the reinvention to which he subjected his environment, driven by a mix of survival instinct and creative impulse.

The film would stay with me for the next several weeks like a strong aftertaste. Before my trip, I had read about collapse and how it could be interpreted as a final stage and as the beginning of something new. Yet this idea remained an abstraction. The film made it concrete in a crude and direct way. It changed how I approached the work ahead and how I perceived my hometown as a city at the juncture of extinction and possibility, a place where the material residues of glorious and exuberant modernity are either the food for nostalgia (preserving the past as if frozen in time) or the raw matter for voracious destruction (buying cheap property and demolishing it).

The creative adaptation and transformation of material residues also throws theories of ‘overcoming’, ‘recovery’, or ‘restoration’ out the window. After collapse, reviving past glories or ‘returning to course’ is not an option. This applies to a poor Latin American country and to other global realities. However, this assumption still shapes crisis narratives, and professional discourses, guides policy and overlooks the fact that collapse is an irreversible state that one needs to work with. In other words, once the chair has been dismembered and its legs turned into a wrench, it cannot be easily put back together (and if it is, it will bear the marks of the whole process). But why would we want to put it back together if we can do other things with it?