Philosophy, like language itself, comes from an aural tradition. For the Greeks, thinking was a social practice, where knowledge became inflected by place, proximity, and presence. Such congress made for physical as much as epistemic common ground. Doing philosophy—in a Socratic sense, for instance—was a very localized practice of questioning and reasoning, drawing upon situated experience, and mining a knowledge that was already, to some extent, held in common. Rendered through Plato’s dramatic form, Socrates’ itinerant pedagogy unfolds on the scene of the arcade, the portico, the gymnasium, or party. We see the what and the how of knowledge emerge from the where and the who of each dialogue or colloquy. However, inasmuch as philosophy might be something like the doing of friendship, acquaintance becomes a form of provenance in a political economy of ideas. Socrates capitalized artfully on an always present differential of knowledge, drawing out the particularities of individual difference to inform shared understanding, while at the same time preserving a pedagogical hierarchy of his (or was it Plato’s) own making. Indeed, the aural practice of Western philosophy relies on the displacement of knowledge by and through the other in order that it may become consolidated.
Yet the tremulous materiality of speech—the way sound is muted by matter, the natural attenuation of tone, the plasticity of memory—ensures that knowledge as such can never be grasped. When we speak together, where is knowledge located? In the vibration of my vocal cords? In the sound waves between us? In the absorption of sound by our bodies? In, perhaps, a lingering resonance...In other words, how do the material qualities of speech and bodily dispositions of listening contribute the social practice of thinking? In his short volume, Listening, in which he entertains the question of whether philosophy might be capable of listening at all, Jean-Luc Nancy suggests, “To be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning, or in an edgy meaning of extremity, and as if the sound were precisely nothing else than this edge, this fringe, this margin…” He parses an ecology of cognitive faculties that include hearing, listening, understanding, and philosophizing to consider the affective, spatialized, and sonorous practice of sense-making. Nancy’s meditation on listening tunes us in to an interior relationality already implicit within the self, much as with others, and the alliance between how listening happens and what it can offer to a practice of philosophy and its attendant problems in epistemology and phenomenology. This line of questioning leads us to consider what the physiology of listening, (no longer sublimated to the dominance of sight) might capacitate in a sustained engagement with metaphysics.
• • •
It is within the context of these philosophical genealogies that, for me, the artistic practice of Ian Wilson resonates. Wilson, though a comparatively little-known artist, is perhaps best known for his series of “discussions”—a medium he made his own. These discussions have taken place sporadically over the past forty years or so, in homes and restaurants, galleries or museums, and are led by Wilson, who engages interlocutors in thinking around a central philosophical question. For the better part of his career, Wilson has dedicated himself to exploring the discussion as a format for art, a forum of exchange, and a form of pedagogy. More than this, though, for Wilson the themes of these discussions are not merely conceptual, they are consequential. Thinking with others about fundamental philosophical problems of time, known/unknown, presence/absence, and the absolute merges spiritual, epistemological, and social practice—becoming, for Wilson, a way of life—much in the style of the ancient Greeks. That this work is also considered art perhaps reveals the categorical drifting and shifting between art and philosophy over time, and the sometime alliance of these two fields of inquiry.
Yet talking about Wilson's work in the context of art is difficult because there is no thing to talk about. Where is the work? In the spoken word? In the memories of participants? Can the work only really be accounted for in the long arc of Wilson’s career? If description, the essential technique of an art writer, is a kind of writing that gets close to an object or event, that traces its contours in what is at once a redoubling of the thing and performance of (himself as) critique—here there is nothing to get close to, nothing that persists in its presence, or can be said to have even consolidated in an event. I can really only talk about Wilson’s work, in a prepositional sense, in an effort to circumscribe it. Throughout this essay I trace several broad circles about Ian Wilson and his work, and remain particularly attendant to the theme of Wilson’s most recent realm of inquiry: the absolute. I recount the experience of participating in a Discussion with Wilson last year at Dia:Beacon, where we contemplated how it might be possible to cultivate “The Pure Awareness of the Absolute”. I consider how Wilson’s ideas of the absolute may be inflected by consistent thematics running though the work of he and his colleagues during the 1960s and 70s, the social and political eventfulness of those decades, and philosophical worlds among which notions of the absolute have circulated. I endeavor to think with Wilson and a motley crew of others about the affective experience of the absolute, the pedagogical work of thinking the absolute, and the ways in which speaking and thinking come to participate in that which is perhaps immanently unspeakable and unthinkable.
Ian Wilson is underexposed by today’s standards. He is not one of those artists you know about because you have seen his work or name, you probably only know about him through some more immediate proximity. His works have not been widely publicized and the few images that float around the Internet are much older. There is no artist website, no Wikipedia page. There are no photographs of his discussions. In addition to a sparse catalogue of folios and notecards Wilson produced in the eighties, two monographs have been published (one in English). The extent of Wilson’s biographical information available in the public domain is roughly as follows: “b. 1940 (South Africa)”—thanks to the art industry standard byline that appears on curriculum vitae and didactic panels.
Wilson emerged on the art scene in New York City in the late 1960s, attending the Art Student’s League as a painter. He experimented briefly with abstract expressionist techniques before refining the Minimalist approach that would come to define the sparse catalogue of his early artworks. Around 1966 he produced a number of monochromatic paintings using layers of acrylic wash on canvas, resulting (apparently) in a stark, yet sensuous, pronouncement of visual tone. He soon moved from canvas to fiberglass as a base medium, which enabled him to experiment with the sculptural potential of an otherwise two-dimensional form. For Red Square, (in dialogue with Russian avant-garde painter Kasmir Malevich’s 1915 painting of the same name), Wilson created a radiant red-orange surface with imperceptibly chamfered edges, affecting a shadow-less color plane in slight relief from the wall. Continuing to explore perceptual effects through the relation of object and environment (in a similar genus with Robert Irwin, who eventually also abandoned objects but in favor of immersive light environments), Wilson made a series of Discs from unpainted fiberglass that, when hung, gave the illusion of a slight round protuberance convexing from the taut surface of the wall.
Wilson’s next few works, Chalk Circle on the Floor and Circle on the Wall (both 1968) can be understood as a critical hinge between his early object works and later language pieces. Drawn with chalk and graphite, respectively, the circles became legible through the building up of calcium and carbon dust. Wilson enjoined gallerists to create and then preserve these circles, asking that the line be retraced if its form were to be compromised—by the footsteps of visitors, for instance. Wilson first showed Chalk Circle… at the Bykert Gallery in New York in 1968. Subsequent (unlimited) editions of this and Circle…Wall are installed in galleries according to specific instructions that Wilson sends, along with signed certificates of purchase (amount unknown). The instructions for Chalk Circle are as follows:
Attach a white china chalk pencil to one end of a
3-foot long thin wire (the actual chalk center of the
pencil would be 3/8th of an inch before sharpening).
At the other end of the wire attach a nail. After
hammering the nail into the floor, draw the circle
around the nail, keeping the wire taut. Using the
enclose photo of the density of the white chalk,
gradually build up the line until it is ½ an inch thick.
When the circle is drawn, remove the nail from the
floor. From time to time using the above described
method, redraw any portions of the circle that have
been smudged, keeping the circle as clean and as
well defined as possible.
These circles were not discrete objects but the result of a process—they could be reproduced exactly, anywhere, ad infinitum, through the labor of tracing the continuous arc of a radius. And they could be as easily effaced. Wilson’s instructions are particular and worth noting: drawing a circle from a central point with a radius as descriptive and analytic tool is a very different experience than the alternative, where one might trace around a circumference. In the latter instance, the hand starts from a fixed point and ventures away before coming close to the body again. But to prepare the circle as Wilson designs, the whole body is implicated: I fix my arm as radius and my whole self turns in the process of its own inscription.
Wilson’s practice was, from the outset, embedded with an originary sensibility that was also its ethic: inherent in the impulse to create was the impulse to reduce, to express an idea using the most minimal means. His work has maintained this signature tension between conceptual and formalist concerns, even—or perhaps especially— when its minimal means became spoken words. Wilson’s work invites participants to consider, what is the form of thought? Wilson’s tendency to continually reduce form toward greater levels of abstraction is an effort to work ever more closely with concepts, and with that which does not rely on a metaphysics of presence. The same year Wilson produced Chalk Circle... his work turned exclusively toward language as a means by which to “grasp the non-visual world.” In an interview with Oscar van den Boogaard at the Jan Mot Gallery in Brussels in 2002, Wilson described this transition from circle to spoken word: “I discovered that thinking and talking about that circle had a greater abstraction than reproducing that circle on the floor or the wall. The circle could be represented by using the word 'circle'. The circle could be brought to mind by the signifier… A following step in the dematerialization of my art was to use the word 'Time'…The years after that I wouldn't say that I was preoccupied with 'time' but with 'oral communication'. This way the conversations became oriented more specifically to speaking itself and spoken art.” Foregoing physical materiality toward a purely linguistic engagement with semiotics, Wilson’s interests were free to move toward greater abstraction.
But I have concealed several significant moves in this sequence of ellipses. Wilson’s conceptual shift from circles to “time” is not occasioned by any kind of formal syllogism of hands working round circular planes; rather, he says that “the word time contained everything I tried to do in the white circle”. Talking about “time” better allowed him to evoke something, bring something particular into existence while resisting (its) objectification. I want to linger for a moment on Wilson’s account of his work with “time”, as told to curator and art historian Ann Rorimer:
I would be at a gallery opening and someone would
ask me: ‘so what are you doing these days?’ I would
reply, ‘I am interested in the word time.’ Later,
someone would ask: ‘But how can time be your art?’
And I might have replied: ‘As it is spoken, “time.” ‘
Another day, someone might have asked, having heard
I was using ‘time’ as my art: ‘So what are you working
with these days’ and I would reply: ‘ “time.” I am in-
terested in the idea.’ … I like the word when it is spoken:
‘time.’ And so the word was used over and over again.
This word, “time”, gets worked, manipulated like a daub of red paint or block of clay or pas de bourrée, in varied combinations and to differing effect. But it is not merely the phonetic materiality of the word that is exercised here, Wilson is aiming to do real philosophical work on the concept of time. How to work on that which is unyielding? How to think time? He resorts to a kind of word play: how can time be art? As it is spoken, of course. And though this plays enjoyably wry, (he uses humor to flip a cognitive switch like Duchamp or Broodthaers might have done), it is also, exactly true. He renders time, like language and through language, not as an object, but a medium. “Time” becomes a performative speech act, or better, perhaps, “time” becomes demonstrative of time as a tree becomes demonstrative of wind.
If the utterance became demonstrative (and analytic) of time, its meaning and function came to reverberate socially. Consistent with his reductive tendency, Wilson worked with language in such a way that grounded art production and exhibition in a common denominator of the social. The “work” is not discrete, but happens over time; each Discussion is a singular instantiation of collective thoughts. The Time Discussions spanned a year (1968-69), at which point Wilson segued into a series of Oral Communication Discussions that ran from 1969-72. These discussions functioned as a meta-reflection of oral communication itself as well as through art. Yet as the subject matter of these discussions evolved over decades, Wilson seemed to build upon the work he had done on each preceding theme; oral communication, for instance, offered a different way for Wilson to position himself with respect to temporality. Artist Robert Barry, a friend and contemporary of Wilson’s, said of the discussions: “I thought of it in terms of what I knew about art, about materials that artists use. I myself was using radio carrier waves which dissolve when I first heard about oral communication. I thought of it in those terms, or like the [inert] gas I was releasing in the atmosphere then, something that was gone, and you didn’t have a chance to do anything with it.” Wilson and Barry were among many artists at the time for whom questions of temporality and ontology, presence and knowledge became entwined. I circle back to this trend later.
Wilson turned more directly to questions of epistemology in his third series, The Known and Unknown Discussions, which ran from roughly 1972-86. A write-up in a 1974 issue of Flash Art documents the premise of some of these early discussions: “The artist suggested to precisely discuss the problems and methods of knowledge, starting from Plato’s proposition according to which there is no middle course between knowledge and ignorance and people are not able to say what is known and what is not. Such a proposition should have prohibited all discursive thought since it affirms the impossibility of expressing in general terms either a true or false judgment.” In other words, the premise of the discussion about knowledge was to consider the futility of discourse with respect to the adjudication of knowledge. Here is Wilson’s wry sensibility again. According to this proposition, speech is not only implicated in the moral and political consequence of knowledge, but becomes the very threshold of that which can be known. If to articulate the “unknown” is to enfold it within what is known, does speech, therefore, preclude thinking that which is truly unspeakable or unknowable?
During this time Wilson also experimented with printed matter as an extension of these discussions, exploiting the formal and material qualities of the folio, and the graphic weight of space against text as another way of thinking the epistemological dualism of known/unknown. Here is one example:
that which is both known and unknown is what is known
that which is both known and unknown is not known as both known and unknown whatever is known is just known
This text is manifold. Part poetry, part koan, part graphic art—it has its own style and analytics for mobilizing thought around, between, and through the knowledge binary. The long-vowel root rhythms structure the piece, while a sparse few modifiers hang around to positively or negatively mark difference. We see the flitting play of this division (known/unknown) run along ragged lines, but the real distinction is parsed by the clean edge, the apparent horizon that marks the space of the unknown. And there is something colloquial, almost flippant, about the last phrase—“whatever is known is just known.” It breaks from the formal decree-quality of the two preceding statements, and invites indiscernibility against the precision suggested by the “that which”. The specificity of the binary resolves into non-dualism.
In 1986, Wilson’s Known/Unknown Discussions came to a close. He took up residency in an ashram in upstate New York, where he lived, studied, and practiced yoga for eight years. During this time, Wilson did not hold any Discussions.
I want to take this opportune pause in Wilson’s (public) biography to discuss the social and cultural context surrounding his work. Writer, curator, and activist Lucy Lippard illuminates the conditions from which conceptual art and life-art emerged in the 1960s: “The era of Conceptual Art—which was also the era of the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the Woman’s Liberation Movement, and the counter-culture—was a real free-for-all, and the democratic implications of that phrase are fully appropriate, if never realized…The power of the imagination was at the core of even the stodgiest attempts to escape from ‘cultural confinements,’ as Robert Smithson put it, from the sacrosanct ivory walls and heroic, patriarchal mythologies with which the 1960s opened.” Institutional dissolution was happening all around, from schools, gender, and family to government, science, and knowledge itself. Heightened political awareness and activism took the form of disestablishment and social unrest as well as communalism and the back-to-the-land movement, in various permutations of the unmaking and remaking of social life. Art making followed suit, with new forms including institutional critique, land art, video, performance, and life-art.
And as art historian Rosalyn Deutsche has pointed to, many of these “formal strategies” were also a means of institutional and systemic critique. Earlier, I mentioned Wilson’s resonance with artist Robert Barry, for whom problems of language, ineffability, and expanded conceptions of the object are foregrounded in his practice. Among Wilson and Barry, we can also distinguish Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, the collective Art + Language, and Lee Lozano as contemporaries who shared a deep concern for the metaphysical work of language. Lozano, in particular, also worked in a discussion format, which she called “Dialogue Piece”. For her, there was perhaps more investment in producing herself in a social context removed from (but always in dialogue with) the art world, yet both “Discussions” and “Dialogue” exploit properties of ephemerality, chance, indeterminacy, and non-reproducibility. As with Barry’s inert gas piece and the pursuits of many other conceptual and life-artists of the 1960s and 70s, these works called into question the object/ive of art. This is to say—with the dissolution of the art object, art as a form of social engagement could assume broader programmatic capacities; the one is integral to the other. Since these works were free or inexpensive to produce, and in many cases did not require investments in spatial or material resources, artists could manage to make work even amidst widespread conditions of job insecurity and without formal patronage. Rejecting the commercialization of art and allied structures of oppression and exclusivity, artists bypassed institutions altogether, or used them as part of the work itself to produce new socio-affective experiences. They could elect whether or not their work would fall under the rubric of art, or to whom it might remain legible as such. Geographically untethered, artists were endowed with greater mobility to exist semi-autonomously within extant art contexts, and to expand into uncharted domains. A piece might not just be sited in other contexts like a desert or a city street, an intimate conversation or the basal rhythms of one’s own body, but might actually only be made possible by these places and the types of social and aesthetic engagement they elicited. As is characteristic of each wave of the avant-garde, here we see an integrated, three-fold effect: the rejection of dominant orders, the emergence of new aesthetic forms, and the manifestation of new types of social engagement.
Conceptual art and life-art created both an expansion and contraction of the art-engaged public: out, to include a so-called general public, and inward, to eclipse meaning and address from all but a few, or to obscure the work entirely. For many conceptual artists, including Lee Lozano and her colleague Stephen Kaltenbach, such newfound mobility projected them in and then through the realm of art back into life, leaving the art world, (unlike Wilson, unlike Duchamp), never to return. Kaltenbach describes his own exodus from the world of art as “a love of secrecy and the desire to commit oneself to a gesture so expansive in time that its overall form becomes imperceptible from any given point.” And as Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer writes of Lozano’s own withdrawal from the art world: “Persistent holes in our knowledge of underground, post-Dropout Lozano signify the importance of not knowing and not seeing as a vital extension of the privacy and incommunicability built into ‘Life-Art’.” For some, (including Wilson, for a time), the last frontier of de-objectification was the category of art itself. Kaltenbach and Lehrer-Graiwer’s comments also shed light on how the social affordances of conceptual and life-art, both expansive and delimiting, are part and parcel with Wilson’s particular proclivities and philosophical pursuits. In life as in knowledge, some things are just off limits.
That such barely discernible work might be considered art, and might eventually come to be revered within art institutions meant that curators, institutions, and financers were flexing too. Curators like Lucy Lippard and Seth Siegelaub were instrumental in coalescing notions of conceptual and life-art; their shows and writings in alternative venues central to the possibility of something like conceptual art being recognized as such at all. Lippard curated important exhibitions such as the 1969 benefit show for the Art Workers Coalition in the Paula Cooper Gallery, featuring non-object works in the large gallery by Wilson, Barry, Kaltenbach, Weiner, Carl Andre and Hans Haacke, among others, and a small side gallery filled with pamphlets, photos, Xeroxes, and other ephemera. Siegelaub, after running his own gallery for two years, was famous for his nomadic curatorial projects, including guest editing/occupying an issue of a British art journal, and producing Andre’s “Joint” (“183 units of uncovered common bailed hay end-to-end from woods into a field”) at Windham College in Vermont. Moreover, Siegelaub, as publisher, and Lippard, later as a founder of the artist bookstore Printed Matter, both explored the format of books and pamphlet publications as potential venues for the expression of conceptual work. This was yet another expansion of art in the public realm, a way of subverting the demands of the art market, and a medium that would let a new form of art live. Though the art object may have dematerialized, it did not disappear; it came to instantiate itself through more dispersed forms of information and experience. Lippard noted in 1969, “the new dematerialized art…provides a way of getting the power structure out of New York and spreading it around to wherever an artist feels like being at the time. Much art now is transported by the artist, or in the artist himself [sic], rather than by watered-down, belated circulating exhibitions or by existing information networks.” No longer shuttling between material and social production, the artist could be present. Eventually, of course, some of this work made its way back into larger institutions. This double involution—of artists breaking out, and museums letting in—meant an institutional absorption of dissensus, and the especially odd accommodation of non-objects into an object-based art economy. Although conceptual art could not entirely resist the rapacious advance of capital, this might say less about artists selling out and more about the weird conditions under which something like “nothing” can become commodified. Yet even within the museum or gallery, Wilson’s Discussion format still has legs in the way Lippard describes above. It becomes its own hyper-local niche, contingent, singular, each meeting full with its specific potentiality. As art writer René Denizot says of Wilson’s work, “It was the possibility of an art of which nothing would remain, an art for the present, making an event of a singular existence appear and disappear, always other than itself.”
THE PURE AWARENESS OF THE ABSOLUTE
Wilson resumed Discussions again in 1994, meeting only with individuals for another five years until 1999, when he had a public Discussion on the idea of the Absolute at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. For the last 15 years, he has held Discussions sporadically on this same theme, mainly at the Jan Mot Gallery in Brussels and the Dia:Beacon Museum in upstate New York. It was at Dia:Beacon (known for its collection of minimalist and conceptual art) last winter that I first became aware of Ian Wilson.
I sat in front of Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West for a long time, drawn to the geometrical voids. I was sitting on a bench that ran along the wall in front of them (the voids were very much there), and from this perspective noticed that the top of the glass partition (preventing anyone from falling in) ran contiguously at the same height as the base of the windowsills on the opposite wall. Eventually I wandered to other parts of the museum, and walked by a room with a number of very Platonic-looking wooden chairs arranged in an oval. The room was reserved, a stage set for a series of discussions that had once taken place and would take place intermittently in the years to come. The didactic on the wall outside of the room described Wilson’s practice:
My interest was piqued—I snapped this photo discreetly. Pressing on, past the Sandback and Beuys, I lingered with Richter’s vast, reflective gray panels, and hung out with Nauman’s videos in the basement. I walked slowly and often stopped in place. Before I left the museum, I had a coffee in the café and read Annie Dillard; she said that writing hangs out over an abyss:
Each sentence hung over an abyssal ocean or sky which held all possibilities, as well as the possibility of nothing.
About a year later I received an email from the Dia:Beacon list serve that Ian Wilson would hold a discussion on “The Pure Awareness of the Absolute”. I registered with the administrator and received a letter via email: “Dear Melissa Constantine, This is to confirm your registration for Ian Wilson’s The Pure Awareness of the Absolute/Discussions at Dia:Beacon on Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 12pm. For each discussion taking place, Wilson will engage with a small group of people at a time. The discussions will begin promptly on the hour, so please arrive early.” I took the 9:43 am Metro North train to Beacon a few weeks later. It was a beautiful day, just breaking into milder weather. Having arrived early, I took a coffee in the café and did some writing while waiting for the Discussion to begin. Just before noon the museum staff ushered a small group of participants into the room with the wooden chairs arranged in an oval, and we each took a seat. When we were settled, the curators brought Wilson into the room. He was tall and slight, donning a vibrant, high-texture wool sweater, earth-toned checked suit coat, and corduroy pants (what another participant called the “elegance and straightforwardness” of his attire). He moved slowly, deliberately and warmly acknowledged everyone with a nod. One of the curators gave a brief introduction, after which—
- SILENCE -
WILSON: Today, I would like to talk about how we might be able to have an awareness of the absolute. I would like for us to first think about what it is to experience the absolute, and then how we might come to gain awareness of this. I will ask some questions that will guide the discussion, and we will try to come to a general agreement before moving on. How does this sound, does everyone agree with this premise?
GROUP: [Answers affirmatively or nods.]
WILSON: Alright. To begin, I would like for us to think about what kinds of experiences come to mind when I say ‘the experience of the absolute.’ Has anyone had an experience like this?
GROUP: [Some nods or affirmative answers.]
WILSON: Where or when do these experiences happen?
ME: In the forest.
MEDITATING MAN: While breathing.
GIRL with BLUE EYES: ---
LADY FROM BOSTON: In the bath.
LADY FROM NY: While looking at art.
JOE SCANLAN: While making art.
PHILOSOPHY PROF. from MISSOURI: Sometimes while thinking.
WILSON’S WIFE: ---
These are not direct quotes, actually, but my imprecise recollection of the start of our discussion. I think this scene is close to how things transpired that day, although I have deliberately omitted the flutter of initial clarifying questions that were posed as our minds alighted on the subject at hand. We pressed on, and talked about the precision of aesthetic affect and the eventfulness of the absolute. If Duchamp had sought to capture the moment of an event, to pin it, under glass or in a diorama like some biological specimen upon which we might then fix our gaze, Wilson would invite us to inhabit that moment in the fullness of its withdrawal. As we rounded the half-hour, Wilson directed our attention to thinking about how we could sustain an awareness of the absolute, to maximize its durational capacity. Yes, why are these moments so fleeting, we wondered? And could they be infinitely explicated? But isn’t our awareness of these moments made possible only because they are relieved from the unremarkable continuity of mere consciousness? And in that case, isn’t this syncopation what makes it possible to know either? Wilson repeated, “But what could you do to try to make this awareness last?” MEDITATING MAN suggested breathing—(he was doing it right now!) I thought about how everything we do in the moments of unawareness also gives us a specific predisposition to the event of awareness of the absolute. I said, “Maybe there is nothing to do, but be.” Wilson asked pointedly, “Could one say that the absolute is always present?” His voice was constrained, flat, but textured by a soft airy rasp; his South African accent attenuated. Our discussion continued, never resolving, but coming to close around the idea that the absolute might well be present in every word without ever being able to be named.
Although we never collectively defined the absolute as such, everyone seemed to know something about it. But what were we really talking about? Was it simply reverie? Or closer to Heidegger’s alethia or Ereignis? Was it satori? Or Kant’s sublime? Of course, everyone was eager to contribute his knowledge of Plato/Wittgenstein/Heidegger/Husserl/Hegel/Honen/____, but when this happened, Wilson quickly redirected us toward other considerations. Like a bowerbird diligently preserving the design of his grounds, Wilson never allowed the conversation to become polluted by specific terms or philosophies. He, (and eventually we) maintained a common ground. The insistence on generic language seems to have everything to do with the task of talking about something as ineffable as the absolute. As I have come to understand Wilson’s particular usage, the absolute describes both the undifferentiated substance of all things, as well as the affective, punctuating experience that is the awareness of this substance. Thus, within this notion we find the ontological, epistemological, and aesthetic complicated and coexistent....
"IF YOU WANT ME OR THE STORY"
I'm looking closely at several queer scenes. These scenes belie a particularly pedagogical sociality. My looking is a thinking and in analyzing these scenes, I pay particular attention to the way knowledge becomes less thing-like and more transitive as it becomes laden with pleasure and desire. Knowledge begins to look like a kind of eroticism that runs through the body, although it may or may not be explicitly sexual. Such errant forms of pleasure are characterized by serendipity, surprise, transience—they have no history, no precedent, and do not sustain projected notions of futurity. Whether they arise at extremes of endurance or excess, these pleasures may come to resemble forms of care. They are at work or play in doubly creating social bonds and transgressing moral order.
In their introduction to a special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies focusing on “Queer Bonds” from which the following scenes are excerpted, Joshua J. Weiner and Damon Young consider the centrality of epistemology to the ontological fact of queerness, both in terms of a foundational knowledge of oneself (that one knows oneself to be queer), and in terms of early works of queer theory that explored the broad epistemological consequences of maintaining rigid socio-sexual binaries. The mediation of these foundational knowledges—the labor involved in shepherding, stewarding, and shuttling this knowledge between private and public realms—is the unfolding of lateral queer bonds much as the transgression of normative moral, legal, and social orders.
Weiner and Young question how the knowledge that emerges in queer bonds moves beyond mere positivistic and binary claims to include the cultivation of sexual, medical, relational, domestic, economic, spatial, and other practical knowledges that are essential to the thriving and striving of particular communities. Far from becoming fixed, these knowledges are improvisational, ad-hoc, and often unintended. These practical, social knowledges may sidestep, straddle, or inhabit those thresholds that seek to delimit them. As they consider how and what this kind of knowledge might work, Weiner and Young articulate a set of questions that I take up throughout this work:
Through Eve Sedgwick’s foundational work in
Between Men and Epistemology of the Closet, the
field of gay studies began with the argument that
sociality tout court cannot be adequately understood
apart from an analysis of these erotics configured
around the binaries like/unlike, known/not known…
Yet ‘queer bonds’ name a mode of recognition to the
side of this … How might queerness name a lived ‘knowledge’ rather than an emergence into the light
of knowledge? Under what conditions might queerness name, then, an epistemological caesura in the field of
the social, a radical uncertainty about what any event
of coming together or bonding will have meant, and
In my analysis of the three scenes of queer sociality that follow, I try to examine knowledge as neither negatively nor positively defined, but rather as something that moves across the space of difference. Its transits are animated by desire, originating from poles of excess or exhaustion. These fugitive pleasures give rise to new bodies, potentials, and ethical commitments that, in multiple senses of the term, elide social divisions. What is an epistemology of the plural? What do we call knowledge that is not of, by, or through, but between? What is the work of a knowledge that cannot be named or disciplined? I track these movements first in a scene between Wiener/Young and a “kindly female professor”, next in the language lessons between Elizabeth Povinelli and Ruby Yarrowin, and lastly in a scene of care and longing between Mel Chen and a couch.
Like Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner at the leather bar in "Sex in Public", I am looking with interest and infatuation, thinking with and asking questions of the agents and actions transpiring therein. I am using the scene as a method, (the way Kohn and Stevenson use the image, perhaps; the way Haraway uses the figure) an analytic that allows us to think the particularity of a given phenomenon. As a kind of trope, the scene reflects another historical alliance in queer theory—performance—and like the queer socialities that emerge therein, is characterized by temporality and transience. Like Berlant and Warner, I’m asking questions: how does knowledge itself become recast as embodied, volatile, disorderly? What new capacities are enabled by this fugitive knowledge?
SCENE 1: PREPOSITIONS
The actors/agents in this scene include a gay male student (the one, here, is made plural; a subjective ambiguity where the “I” is a “they” that is the two authors that might also potentially stand for many others), a (presumed) straight female teacher, and an overworked photocopier. Queer theory circulates among these actors, much as it serves as a kind of MacGuffin—an object of desire, the specificities of which we know very little, that is instrumental in driving the plot. The plot, in this case, is the unfolding of an incipient queer bond, described by Joshua J. Weiner and Damon Young. Here we find a different epistemology of the closet: “In [Leo Bersani’s] Homos, however, which a kindly female professor—knowing me (it doesn’t matter which of us) better than I knew myself—photocopied for me and which I kept literally hidden in my closet, I read about a ‘revolutionary inaptitude…for sociality as it is known.’ Had I not been waiting my whole life, without knowing it, to hear such words?” The queer sociality that arises here is instrumental in bringing about for Weiner/Young a kind of self that is both imminent and immanent, that is in the process of coming to be that which it already is (a distinct kind of ontology). Moreover, Weiner/Young describe an economy of knowledge that doubles as social bond, and the specific nature of the information is, in fact, activated and enlivened through their exchange. This nascent anti/proto-sociality that forms between the kindly teacher and student is itself doing theoretical work even as the theory is worked on. The two (or more) are bound, temporarily, by what they share: knowledge of, if not affective antipathy, to the “existing social order with its bourgeois false values and its murderous fixation on difference”; also, relief, validation, care, pleasure.
We can see how some stratifications of social order are transgressed by/through this extracurricular exchange. To begin with, the teacher must have first exceeded her set curriculum to extend herself, her knowledge of queer theory, and her photocopy account to Weiner/Young. What unfolds from these excesses is a different kind of affective relation that exists to the side of the normative teacher-student dynamic. Weiner/Young liken their excitement of the shared texts to the experience of a teenager who has discovered sex for the first time (the key terms are suggestively rhythmic). Their allusion to sexual pleasure here is not accidental—it points to the kinds of embodied pleasures that such knowledge inspired, as well as the way this shared pleasure begins to skew toward what is most verboten in a pedagogical context. Although it would never be that kind of pleasure that would transpire here (between these two incompatibly oriented individuals), pleasure nonetheless confuses social and moral order when it is found out of its prescribed place, when it arises in some social forms and not others.
There is another way in which social stratifications are transgressed in this scene, yet it is through their hollowing out. Queer sociality, as demonstrated here, goes beyond mere identity formation and identification through sexual practice. As Weiner/Young describe, “This bond was not quite a gay one—no one was quite gay, not yet, and certainly not together—but it was a queer one insofar as through it, homosexuality manifested not yet as sex but precisely as the incipience of a new but as yet unrecognizable sociability lodged…at the level of the body. It was queer not as the deconstruction of identity, but rather, we might say, before the disaster of identity had occurred.” They continue, “Queer bonds reach beyond sexual self-recognition because we need a theory of queer sociality that cuts across identitarian positionings that will remain forever incommensurate, and that articulates a bond spanning differences that may remain irreducible.” The queer sociality that is made of Weiner/Young and the teacher is one that exists somehow both before and beyond identity, (indeed, there is already some indication of this given the “they” of the first person), that spans differences without transcending them. To bring this back to the work of knowledge, I want to consider the queer sociality rendered here as a—if not privileged, at least unique—kind of philosophical community because of the way the intellectual merges with the personal, the personal with the pleasurable, and, of greatest political consequence, the way difference becomes navigable even as it is fortified, infinitely spacious as it is delimited.
SCENE 2: CONJUGATIONS
This second scene depicts Elizabeth Povinelli’s Emiyenggal language lessons with her late colleague Ruby Yarrowin. Here, Yarrowin elaborates variations in Emi grammar and conjugations of the verb –la (things done in a slicing motion) through stories and anecdotes that often carry erotic, sentimental, and poetic charge. Her explication of this particular verb class occasions stories and imagined scenes where one person might do violence to another (cut), love another (with the hands), or, deviating into other verb classes, describe the mournful cry of a Kurrwer bird when a human dies. As Povinelli recalls, these lessons often “veered away from the regularity of grammar into scenes of desire, violence, loss, and the law.” It is from within various structures of the law (grammatical or otherwise, as we will later see) that spontaneous excesses and exchanges of enjoyment, pleasure, and sorrow passed between the two, in turn marking a sociality with the capacity to move out of such bounds.
What are the divisions that mark the space of this particular queer sociality? Here, the context of language acquisition establishes a fundamental cultural and epistemological difference. The language differential performs this primary division and the means by which shared enjoyment is manifest; Povinelli writes, “If I, or she, had cared more about the pleasure of linguistic combination and substitution, my linguistic archive would be less grammatically spotty, but our social bond would not have been as rich. And at a certain point in my academic career I had to decide which mattered more.” She points to the fact that language acquisition is part of a broader economy of epistemological difference, that, though she maintains a healthy ambivalence about, still sets the stage for this relation. Povinelli and Yarrowin are brought into geographical proximity in the first place under the auspices of the academic—a whole set of resources has been mobilized in support of values that undergird the knowledge market. When we consider the tiers of bureaucratic, institutional, and even state approval required to facilitate this anthropological fieldwork, we can see that the context of epistemological difference that marks the space of Povinelli and Yarrowin’s relationship is already inflected by broader, liberal politics of difference and recognition that confer power and value unevenly to these subjects.
Cognizant of differences (such as these) as well as “differential spacings” (fluxes and flows of resources, pendulous legal and political swings, the varied ableness of bodies over time) that divide and relate Yarrowin and Povinelli, she asks whether, or when, or how it might be important to name the shared, emergent enjoyment that exceeds and is facilitated by its own divisions as queer. Does the representation of this relation as queer confer upon it a privileged status, or do violence to its constituents, to the bond itself? This question draws into relief further, equally essential divisions that mark the relation between the two. Povinelli offers that to name this social bond as queer, to say that she and Yarrowin exist outside “the charmed circle of sexual normativity” points to, among other things, a disparity of legal rights. In contrast to the previous scene, where pleasure eschewed something like a recognizable sexuality, and where sexual identity as such remained unconsolidated, here sexuality and identity become yoked to one another in the context of a politics of recognition and particularly with respect to Australia’s policies of liberal nationalism. For Yarrowin and her family members, particular Indigenous sexual practices were tolerated, seen as having inherent cultural worth, or made punishable by law in a succession of Aboriginal Land Rights Acts under the banner of multiculturalism. Amidst these national policies that by turns sexualized or spiritualized Indigenous rituals, for Yarrowin, engaging in so-deemed aberrant sexualities was potentially life threatening. Povinelli, by contrast, is endowed with the privilege of mobility by virtue of how she is recognized in different cultural contexts. What this shared pleasure gets to be signified as for Povinelli, then, is very different than what it can be said to be for Yarrowin given the distinct autological agency endowed, and genealogical constraint imposed on each. Thus, there is an odd dynamic tension that emerges among what actually happens (shared pleasure), what gets to be said to have happened and for whom, and whether it is necessary to represent what has happened for anyone at all. The question of whether this shared pleasure can be called queer is thus made doubly relevant and irrelevant in the same stroke.
Whether or not Yarrowin and Povinelli’s relation is named queer, its affective power remains indisputable. In fact, that it might not be named as such could confer a power in itself. Its illegibility and inarticulability especially by the mouthpiece of governance seems an important asset; that its name, whatever it is, might not be wielded to create public mis/conceptions of sexual deviance and commensurate forms of discipline, some kind of slight advantage. The bond between Beth and Ruby is a conjugation, in the biological sense of a temporary coming together for the sake of exchange, as yet unnamable. The spontaneousness of intimacy, pleasure, and care that transpires there mediates and remakes genealogical and autological determinations, thereby redefining each self, as well as the bodily capacities that serve to manifest new worlds. Povinelli describes this work as
[The] creation of a new background of bodies, life,
animacies, and destinies. In this restructured background sexuality would itself be reorganized, dehumanized by a
more active animate landscape…Conversations like ours
are the practices of the self that build the background that
in turn creates an ease of unreflective action in the assoc-
iations of desire and the uses of ethical substance. These conversations provide a dexterity of being that emerges
from daily practices of mouth, eye, and ear that trace and
retrace the movements of meaning, script, and sensory embodiment. And in relating these substances, memories,
and dispositions, they create practices of caring for and
being obligated to each other and the world in a new way.
And as Povinelli writes of her Indigenous colleagues in Economies of Abandonment, for them, “to know is to practice an embodied commitment to place that over time becomes an embodied obligation.” The kind of knowledge that emerges from these conversations, then, skews toward ethics where ethics is an embodied practice. Care and obligation, deeply felt, viscerally registered, become central to what it is to know. The queer sociality that this knowledge produces serves as a carnal mattering forth, disorganizing, reshaping, and relearning bodies against a corporeal and social ordering.
SCENE 3: TRANSITIVES
The final scene of coupling involves a human and a couch. Here we see a specific kind of pleasure-knowledge, a practice of self-care that emerges spontaneously and necessarily in a moment of exhaustion. For Chen (also a first person “they”)—an individual with extreme sensitivity to environmental toxins—navigating the urban landscape where they live means being subject to an onslaught of car exhaust, cigarette smoke, and human hygienic products. In an effort to minimize illness and bodily risk, during each venture Chen finds new routes (that may be inordinately long), and takes time to recover, when necessary, from particularly foul toxins. Despite their efforts, the susceptibility of Chen’s body gives rise to a particular awareness of its permeability, the ease with which toxins might infiltrate, and the fallacy of corporeal integrity. Fluctuations in environmental toxicity determine their bodily capacities, tolerances, and exhaustion within a span of hours, as well as its varied abilities over time and place. Although the physicality of the city may not change substantially, its chemical makeup may vary drastically from day to day, and so each outing may require Chen to learn the relation between place and body anew each time. After a particularly taxing day navigating their body and (or perhaps more than) the city, upon returning home Chen finds pleasure-care in the folds and corners of their couch. Unable to find comfort in the embrace of their lover, it is only with this inanimate object, and only then, that Chen is able to find a sociality that promises consolation.
Chen describes, “This episode, which occurs again and again, forces me to rethink intimacy, since I have encountered an intimacy that does not differentiate, is not dependent on a heartbeat. The couch and I are interabsorbent, interporous…These are intimacies that are often ephemeral, and they are lively…” I am compelled by how these inter-animate relations necessarily recast distinctions between living and non-living, agentive and passive, and knowing and non-knowing subjects. In Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Matter, and Queer Affect, Chen elaborates the notion of animacy, showing how it is indeed foundational to segregations of life and non-life, as well as race, class, and ability. Chen notes, “Animacy…has been described variously as a quality of agency, awareness, mobility, and liveness,” and the term itself seems to possess these same qualities, remaining transitive and somewhat indefinable in its use across various disciplinary contexts.
Mining the field of cognitive linguistics, Chen illustrates how the majority of world languages are laden with “hierarchies of animacy”, more or less running from the human to animal to inanimate objects to abstract concepts. The values of this animacy cline come to determine who or what constitutes a good or bad verbal subject. Resultantly, the hierarchy maintains various ontological and epistemological orderings, and is instrumental in biopolitical forms of governance that rely on such divisions. The animacy hierarchy also preserves social stratifications, as spoken acts of dehumanization and objectification, for example, rely on these embedded notions of animacy. Yet the elusive quality of animacy, while perhaps inescapably mobilized and mobilizing of political effect through language, also offers the potential to move beyond or even undermine this normative, seemingly ‘natural’ ordering.
Chen notes the centrality of queerness to animacy in its potential to transgress the established order of things: “My core sense of ‘queer’ refers…to exceptions to the conventional ordering of sex, reproduction, and intimacy, though it at times also refers to animacy’s veering-away from dominant ontologies and the normativities they promulgate. That is, I suggest that queering is immanent to animate transgressions,
violating proper intimacies (including between humans and nonhuman things).” Chen’s vulnerability to toxins can be seen as a kind of queerness that necessitates revised forms of intimacy and care. The comforts of the couch are a necessary inanimate sociality where human contact is temporarily impossible, and the knowledge that emerges is not, per se, knowledge of something, but knowledge that does something: it serves as a form of endurance. The inanimate sociality Chen puts forward here is a necessary form of care that emerges within something like Povinelli’s “active animate landscape”, where a plant or a rock or a chair has the potential to stimulate the same affective response as a lover or stranger.
Inter-animate affiliations are made through a kind of guesswork in moments of need, or the surprise of pleasure from where it might least be expected. Not forgetting the very real, and often unevenly distributed effects of toxins on individuals, Chen also shows how toxicity can lead to new forms of desire, recuperation, and sensibility. They suggest, “If we move beyond the painful ‘antisocial’ effects to consider the sociality that is present there, we find in that sociality a reflection on extant socialities among us, the queer-inanimate social lives that exist beyond the fetish, beyond the animate, beyond the pure clash of human body sex.” As we saw in the previous two scenes, queer socialities transgress social divisions much as they inhabit, complicate, or trouble them. Chen’s animate relations occupy the well-worn boundary between life and mere matter, maintaining irreverence for the foundational order of biopolitical governance as it opens onto new ethical commitments. Chen elaborates:
These affinities, however, demand fierce sensitivity to
their differences…Well beyond rejecting either secularism
or spirituality, I wish for an ethics of care and sensitivity
that extends far from humans’…own borders. It is in queer
of color and disability/crip circles, neither of which has
enjoyed much immunity from the destructive consequences
of contemporary biopolitics, that I have often found
blossomings of this ethics of care and sensitivity, queerings
of objects and affects accompanied by political revision, reworldings that challenge the order of things.
Thinking and feeling critically about animacy encourages opening to the senses of the world, receptivity, vulnerability… Radical affection does not require intentional politics; and subjectivity itself, with its attendant danger zones of nationalism, individualism, whiteness, and rather anti-
animate preference for typology and judgment, need not be
core to this account.
Chen’s particular sensitivities invite us to reflect—inquisitively—on the porosity, multiplicity, capacity, and potentiality of our own bodies, in and beyond the realm of human relation. If the preceding scenes can be characterized by a certain discursiveness that teeters on the edge of representation, something similar happens in the realm of animacy, where good and bad verbal subjects open a dialogue. Grammatical laws of the animacy hierarchy begin to bend, flex, break as we become otherwise oriented.
The project of knowledge since the Enlightenment, particularly the advancement of the social and natural sciences, has been associated with disciplinarily at the scale of populations as well as bodies. In contemporary late liberalism, the institutionalization of knowledge and institutions of knowledge have conspired toward social ordering (that maintains among others classist, racist, and sexist disparity), the temporal structuring of everyday life and life over the span of childhood through early adulthood, and the alliance of education with economic productivity (for the student, who’s education is intended to yield to professionalization, as well as the parents, who are freed of child-rearing responsibilities and able to work while the child is in school). Education is a tool of the state, in service to nationalist agendas: many countries have created laws that mandate compulsory education for 10-12 years, state-sanction curricula, and performance standards. Moreover, the codification of knowledge through disciplinarily regulated methods, histories, and paradigms is itself a kind of social ordering under regimes of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’, as well as how knowing gets to happen, which types of knowledge are accessible, and for whom. Instrumentalized through educational institutions and the applied sciences, knowledge, it might be said, has functioned as a magnetized field around forms of biopolitical power.
Yet other kinds of knowledge can effectuate other kinds of power. These scenes reveal knowledge as something that arises through errant forms of pleasure to move across the space of difference. Distinct from philosophical traditions that rely on sameness to constitute community—where difference becomes the unknown that is defined as a category within knowledge—or where friendship is used as a technique of knowledge that conceals the work of difference, here difference is neither politically determinative nor instrumentalized but “an ontological condition of sociality grounded in the material fact of our interdependence as bodily beings”. Power is a nameless social bond with the capacity to unsettle moral, legal, and identitarian orders, disorganizing bodies in the social space between the carnal and corporeal.
That these scenes are named for grammatical elements belies the inseparability of language and knowledge, but moreover brings into play certain dilemmas of perceptibility, legibility, and representation that are at the heart of these socialities. Throughout this paper, I have also been alluding to, but have not directly explicated, Lee Edelman’s “The Future is Kid’s Stuff” from his volume No Future, in which he uses Lacan’s theory of the Real and the Symbolic to posit queerness as a form of anti/sociality that perpetually undermines a heteronormative politics of reproductive futurism. (Although the socialities we have seen throughout this paper are not explicitly troubling a biologically-oriented futurism, I think there are other kinds of reproductive futurisms that are being antagonized here.) For Edelman, queerness inhabits this continual undoing as jouissance—largely untranslatable from the French, but approximated as transgressive enjoyment, oscillating as a function of self that seeks to libidinously and perpetually reconcile it’s alienated and exiled parts. Language is necessarily implicated in this attempt at self-recovery. It becomes part and parcel of identity formation, which is characterized by a basic, dynamic antagonism between an interior I and the self as object-projection, or, imago. Rather than perpetuate the impossible project of reconsolidation that gives rise to the realm of the Symbolic, queerness, as Edelman writes, “undoes the identities through which we experience ourselves as subjects, insisting on the Real of a jouissance that social reality and the futurism on which it relies have already foreclosed. Queerness, therefore, is never a matter of being or becoming but, rather, or embodying the remainder of the Real internal to the Symbolic order. One name for this unnamable remainder, as Lacan describes it, is jouissance, sometimes translated as ‘enjoyment’: a movement beyond the pleasure principle, beyond the distinctions of pleasure and pain, a violent passage beyond the bounds of identity, meaning, and law.” This seems to align precisely with Povinelli’s description of the mutual pleasure that erupts between she and Yarrowin, residing as it does “at the immanent nowhere of being within and beyond…multiple, partial, and distributed divisions.”
The title of this essay is a phrase excerpted from Povinelli and Yarrowin's exchange. It comes at, what for the reader, is the end of their session on Emiyenggal linguistics, when Beth’s brain is spent. She has reached a point of intellectual fatigue, and suggests they continue the next day with olden time stories, stories, “Like the story about the man, where that man, where…” Ruby, herself enlivened and still full of energy, says to Beth, “Yes, if you want me or the story.” Perhaps it is the case that the ambivalence of this phrase rings particularly, suggestively clear for non-Emiyenggal speakers; perhaps, as Ruby likely conceived, this ambivalence carries in Emiyenggal too. Beth seems to concede with the latter, noting, “And she marked this thing in referring to the undecidable desire between being the story and herself, the potentiality, the affect, that exceeds the realm of representation even as it is conditioned by this realm.” Within this jouissance lies the capacious, epistemological caesura of the social.
BY BERNADETTE CORPORATION
Reena Spaulings, you are this surface!...There is a person I imagine I want to be, someone different, different gestures, different reactions. I is had gone.
Bernadette Corporation is a fashion collective. Bernadette Corporation is a publishing enterprise. Bernadette Corporation is a filmmaker, an artist, a novelist, a poet. Bernadette Corporation acts like a person, a loose affiliation of people, and more: it surfs the channel of exponential x-factors that get thrown off as culture produces ever-greater magnitudes of complexity and excesses of signification. Bernadette Corporation is concerned with style, surface, image, and form; its ethos is affirmative, positivist, prolix, discursive. Its varied projects maintain a fun yet sardonic attitude toward already absurd congealments of power, turning critique into a form of play, “emulating a corporate image through ‘joke’ forms of business that are deadly serious.” It thinks critically against discrete subjects as well as collective forms that would reveal themselves through a representational politic. But instead of rejecting these forms, it uses them (like a body from which to make a Body Without Organs). In these projects, and through the open format of the corporation-collective itself, Bernadette Corporation experiments with forms of subjectivity that move, slip, spill, proliferate, or evaporate entirely. Creative techniques elide the partitioning of interiority and exteriority by which a subject commonly comes to be made and marked. Instead, the subject is its effacement, its continuous exposure.
Forms of discourse, and especially writing, are instrumental to such effacement of the subject. In his essay, “What is an Author?” Michel Foucault writes, “Writing is identified with its own unfolded exteriority…Writing unfolds like a game that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits. In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.” The work of Bernadette Corporation can be understood in this way. Each reformation of the group, each conceptual programme makes a space into which some subjects disappear, and other modes of being are enunciated. Bernadette Corporation is itself a diffuse subjective, expanding and contracting through collective modes of authorship, forged alliance, and coincidence. And it mediates other diffuse subjects (New York City, Reena Spaulings, Black Bloc) within the semi-fictionalized domains of its artwork.
With attention given to the particular effects of writing, this essay considers the relation between discursive constructs and modes of being in the work of Bernadette Corporation. Here I mean to conflate alternate uses of the word ‘work’: as a verb, to connote its own changing structures of production, and as a noun, to emphasize formal discursivity within the projects themselves. I consider Bernadette Collective’s novel Reena Spaulings as a case in point, and continue to think the intersections of discursivity, subjectivity, and critique with Foucault, especially in light of his lectures “What is an Author?” and “What is Critique?” Undoubtedly, the work of Bernadette Corporation is in dialogue with Foucault, and responds to some of the questions posed in these texts (indeed, in their very titles); yet such a response complicates rather than resolves the questions. There are also questions of Foucault’s that Bernadette Corporation does not answer, at least not explicitly. I will read these questions through Reena Spaulings, asking, what kinds of subjects are produced? What happens to them, and where can they drift? What are their effects and conceits? Where do they circulate, socialize? Finally, I reflect on the implications and possibilities for critique given these discursive modes of being.
WHAT'S IN A NAME
A corporation is a grammatical and juridical construct that entitles a group of individuals to act as a single entity, granted the equivalent rights of a person (given so-called “legal personality”). From Latin, corporare, “combine in one body”, the term designates the legal coupling of a certain kind of embodiment with a set of rights and responsibilities; in the case of “natural persons,” this is analogous to the endowment of inalienable rights at birth. (An important distinction between these two kinds of persons: the corporation is by design unbound by finitude—it outlives its constituents.) Historically, the corporation dates to around 350BC, with examples found in Indian and Roman empires. However, following the growth of the multinational corporation in the 1960s, and deregulatory economic policies established by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, privatization flourished. Under neoliberalism, the corporation achieved exalted status, enabled by greater economic freedoms and exploiting the gap in legal coverage between natural and juridical personhood. During the 1990s, increased mediatization, brand development, and expanded consumer markets led to the widespread corporatization of culture.
This establishes context for Bernadette Corporation. Excerpted from an early expression of their corporate vision published in the journal Purple Prose: “Corporations (bands of people forming a bodiless/flexible entity in order to do whatever they want—and not be liable) dictate the products in the marketplace and influence the general economy of daily life…Living by your own corporate morality allows you to define what is considered work and what kinds of work are worth selling.” Though Bernadette Corporation is not legally a corporation, its members adapt this model for the flexibility it affords. This becomes a pretext for experimenting with more or less organized models—or even genres—of production and their commensurate art forms, including for example, the fashion atelier, media publisher, or film studio. “Mock incorporation is quick and easy, no registration or fees, simply choose a name [i.e., Booty Corporation, Bourgeois Corporation, Buns Corporation] and spend a lot of time together. Ideas will come later. The perfect alibi for not having to fix an identity, your corporate image can be simply, ‘man, we’re a corporation.’” Bernadette Corporation incorporates—that is, makes itself a body—nominally.
Later in “What is an Author?”, Foucault asks, “What is an author’s name? How does it function?” He suggests that an author’s name, at least provisionally, is a proper name. Foucault cites philosopher John Searle’s analysis of the proper name, elucidating a number of complications that arise when the name (of an author, let’s say) is assumed to stand for a series of descriptions that qualify the named. Following Searle, Foucault illustrates how “the links between the proper name and the individual named and between the author’s name and what it names are not isomorphic and do not function in the same way.” He goes on to delaminate the discursive functions of the author, showing the multiplicitous aspects of what has come to appear as a cohesive entity. He shows how, at different points in history and in different disciplinary realms, the author has been constituted by turns as a singular subject or field of sources. In each case, the author is a discursive construct that serves to authenticate claims to authority, truth, or originality given the discipline. Furthermore, Foucault shows how the claim to the ontological soundness of the author is complicated by the spatio-temporal displacements inherent in that act of writing and in grammatical constructs including “personal pronouns, adverbs of time and place, and verb conjugation”. He enumerates the bi or tripartite “I” that is the author, irrespective of genre: in fiction, the author function is somewhere between the writer and the character; in scientific or theoretical texts, the author is neither the distancing “I” of the preface, nor the “I” that actively reasons (concludes, supposes, etc.), nor is it the “I” that insinuates itself projectively in future discourse. In the former instance, “the author function is carried out and operates in the scission itself, in [the] division and distance.” In the latter, the author function operates so as to effect the “dispersion of [the] three simultaneous selves.” Foucault’s reflections on the author function open onto possibilities for a study of the categories of discourse and the various modalities of “circulation, valorization, attribution, and appropriation” internal to each. Moreover, for Foucault, such a study would present an opportunity to consider the subject, not in order to ground meaning in biographical origin, but to “grasp the subject’s points of insertion, modes of functioning, and system of dependencies...analyzing the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse.” He asks, “How, under what conditions, and in what forms can something like a subject appear in the order of discourse?” His essay demonstrates how each function—authorship, discourse, subjectivity—complicates and undoes the others.
I take up Foucault’s questions again later in considering the collectively authored novel Reena Spaulings. But before moving on to these, I want to briefly introduce a variation on Foucault’s themes as presented in the recent work of Marco Deseriis, Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous. Working not with Searle’s notion of the proper name, but with Michel de Certeau’s notion of “a proper”, he begins, “Contrary to a proper name, whose chief function is to fix a referent as part of the operation of a system of signs, an improper name is explicitly constructed to obfuscate both the identity and number of its referents.” Deseriis’s examples include collective pseudonyms (“Anonymous”) and multiple-use names (“Ned Ludd”) employed by social movements, collectives, and Internet communities. One could also include as an example the radical Black Bloc movement documented by Bernadette Corporation in their video essay Get Rid of Yourself—a faceless (their faces are covered by black bandanas), identity-less (they all wear black clothing), multiple-bodied, dispersed force of resistance. An essential aspect of the improper name is its ready appropriation; within this rule, the distribution and circulation of the improper name can be more or less managed by the collectivity, to varying political effect. Deseriis continues:
Improper names do not engage dialectically with an
outside, that is, they do not tend to divide the social space
into two symmetrical, opposed fields. On the contrary, by making themselves available to unforeseen appropriations,
they let the outside slip into the inside, and vice versa. This means that improper names do not designate fixed identities. Rather, they are heterogeneous assemblages in which the
whole (the ensemble of an improper name’s iterations) is
unable to unify and totalize the parts, among which,
nevertheless, it establishes relationships and paths of communication.
For Deseriis, the improper name expresses “a process of subjectivation characterized by the proliferation of difference.”
I want to suggest that “Bernadette Corporation” is a name that functions in such a way as to endow a mode of being that falls somewhere between the multiplicitous-masquerading-as-unified author illustrated by Foucault, and the openly proliferated, differentiated subjectivity we find in Deseriis. Bernadette Corporation finds itself in an ironic mood, and under the auspices of a brand rather than an identity. How does the ironic claim to incorporation qualify the function of authorship for Bernadette Corporation? What’s the difference between a brand and an identity? If we assume identity, however flexible, to be performative, it necessarily relies on a metaphysics of substance (too often grounds for biopolitical governance). A brand, on the other hand, has agency not unlike an image: it circulates, drifts, and finds an excess of meaning even as it is desubstantiated. Later, I return to the question of how the BC brand works against the authorizing claims of identity within the discursive field of art.
Reena Spaulings is a novel. Reena Spaulings is a character. She exists in the context of said novel, and in the ‘real’ world. She has a productive career as an artist and gallerist. She is a character comprised of many people; she is a factor, a frisson; a mode of being in a risky, hyper-stylized, excessively signified post-9/11 New York City. Reena Spaulings is what happens to a subject when it is rendered by 150 anonymous writers. Reena Spaulings: unlimited. The novel follows Reena in her encounter/sordid affair with New York City. A romance? A Bildungsroman? The tone registers somewhere between a YA novel and Deleuzian fiction. To describe the plot in the most prosaic way: Reena works as a guard in a museum, becomes an underwear model, makes tons of money, becomes an artist and starts a pseudo-corporate agency called Vive la Corpse, plans a militant musical, becomes a terrorist. We might think these modalities far from one another, separated as they usually are by a biopolitical partitioning of discrete lives into individual bodies (that person is a terrorist, that one a model, and each is managed by different means). But the smoothness of transitions between each mode of being, the becoming of the subject that is Reena, reveals the already porous and infectious qualities by which each mode persists. Bernadette Corporation would have us know (anyone who’s watching, reading, or listening) that in a hyper-mediatized, neo-liberal today, everything is up for grabs.
This effect is made by the grammatical slippage and smoothness that runs throughout the novel. Verb and subject tense shift like wind changing direction. Sometimes this coincides with a line or chapter break, though it’s just as likely to happen mid sentence. These subtle inflections erode common interior/omniscient narrative tropes, affecting a declension of the subject. The privatization by which selfhood and sociality are likewise made possible, (and that, therefore also subtend these narrative inventions), is here perpetually thwarted. Everything is exposed; the writing exposes everything! Without familiar partitions and binary states, both the metaphysical conditions of being and the socio-spatial conditions of life are changed. As a reader, I am the I who was just laying next to a body in the dark, with my face in its armpit; just before, I was the she who walks in the rain in the dark, alongside traffic, and stops at a gas station payphone to make a call; by the end of the page, I am nowhere, amongst a no one rendered descriptively as the violent, chaotic events of radical political action.
Reena is neither deep, nor shallow, but always a surface ready to be worked; open to revision, interpretation, and appropriation. BC member John Kelsey said of Reena Spaulings that she “was a character but she was also a function device. There was this almost sadistic idea that she could be re-written, erased, deleted, changed by whoever felt the desire to do that in the writing. She was at the mercy of the people doing it. She’s a character, a name, but also a collective production.” Throughout the novel, Reena’s body functions as a palette for diverse manifestations of subjectivity. The epidermal—what contains a body in a very practical sense, and predicates humanism and identity politics alike—is textured, flayed, styled, perspired, and shot through. Whereas a secular notion of subjectivity is continuously and actively held together by grammatical, juridical, and economic laws (the subject is the same as his body, which is his to possess), here Reena constitutes a subjectivity that exists where these laws are suspended. As many authors created Reena, she became less a thing made pliable and more a force of myriad desires, less a discrete body and more a body of (collective, affective) work. A passage from Chapter 2, “Pretty Faces Going Places,” resounds within and without the fictional world of the novel, and seemingly describes a philosophy of the body shared by Reena and Bernadette Corporation alike:
It’s an attraction to something that gives a person their
shape, a life its form. A lifestyle is defined by taste, or
even by a taste for absence, but a life-form, here in the
city or wherever, happens when a body is affected by an attraction. And whatever a body leans toward also leans
toward it. So a life-form is something between bodies, in
every situation, and is always new each time. These
inclinations are reciprocal and improvised and intense.
This Spinozan ethic implies a fundamentally relational ontology, and a dislocated subjectivity. But what happens when the materiality of the body participates in this affective potentiality? When lifestyle and life-form provocatively produce one another? Far from becoming an afterthought, but beyond any attempt to congeal identity, Reena exploits the plasticity of the body in a continual désouvrement of the self. Later in the novel, Reena affects different styles and modes of being. Here, the writing, too, slips between styles, alternating between third-person narrative and the declarative tone of a self-help book or women’s magazine:
She hosted a number of arguments, wars, congresses,
liaisons, boredoms, panics, picnics, in the space that
might have been referred to as her self, our self. One of
the most assuredly human things is to be a conversant and conductive body in social interaction. Instead, be a rug.
Develop rug-like capacities of your speech, your express-
ion, of how you position yourself between the others at
social gatherings. Become an impasse, impassively ab-
sorbing without signification…Be only your matter—
opacity, density, weight—but an opacity, density, and
weight more alive than their liveliness! and more commun-
icative than their communication!...She deliberately gave
herself food poisoning and experimental hair extensions...
Reena began to use language differently…The body is just
one part of a ‘body’. Our expression organ isn’t necessarily
on our body. Nor our sexual organ…People want to be someones. But the really exciting challenge is to become
no one. And where will you find no ones? In nowhere.
Where things are exploding.
A tagline for Reena Spaulings might be something like, “Get rid of yourself (by making your self over and over)”. Through these endless makeovers, we see a nascent post-humanist being emerge: spontaneous affections bring forth new capacities; mimesis of inanimate objects condition sociality; the body’s organs are dispersed within a semio-techno landscape.
What happens to the very humanistic markers of identity, such as gender and sexuality as they are exploded? Bernadette Corporation engages stereotypically feminine characteristics of passivity (Reena is made and remade by Maris the art director), loquaciousness (the uninhibited streaming of language), and superficiality (playing with styles of the self) and renders them to the nth degree. Yet it, along with the group Tiqqun, has been criticized for its use of the Young Girl as a pliable form, and the insinuation of sexual violence through textual manipulation in a mode of free-form, anonymous authorship. While there is absolutely room for this account, I read the gendering of Reena as a critique of the objectification of the female body within art history (and by extension, in culture at large). We can think the novel and its treatment of the irrefutably female subject and body within an art historical lineage of female subjects, whose bodies have long occupied a nexus within the dynamic geometry of the gaze. Indeed, the novel is intended to be understood within an art lineage, not taken as a piece of literature, but it productively exploits the literary form within a field dominated by visual media. This allows it to function critically, especially as it renders a female subject beyond the gaze. It is not that text thwarts desire, but rather that it produces desire differently than an image. A novel, generally speaking, produces subjects, not objects; essentially, the medium resists objectifying Reena. But beyond the form, as has been discussed, Reena evades legibility as a discrete subject—she is a dispersion across time and space, and does not therefore hold still long enough to anchor a gaze.
In this way, Reena Spaulings is a deeply art historical work much as it is a commentary on the contemporary art world. The novel is also littered with references to paintings (Manet, Picabias, Fautrier, Balthus, Grosz, Dadd, Munch, and so on), and riffs on museums and artist-run orgs (getting annoyingly-eager interns from Cooper Union!) alike. But I think one of the most important things it does is to show what happens as images saturate life, infiltrate thought, and how each and every image also creates a possibility for life. One passage is particularly poignant. It describes a coke/booze-fueled creative meditation by an ancillary character named Maris, who works with Reena to create Vive la Corpse. For several pages, we get a kind of meteorological report of Maris’s thought:
She checks her brain while showering. She takes her mind’s
eye and quickly scans herself. Like you can do in the dark sometimes, when the edge of your mind is tired and there is
a vacuum forming inside. Desires are outsourced and the
vacuum remaining is massaged to provoke suitable responses
to emotional stimulants. With a little concentration, the busy
mind can train itself to check these responses. She was a
quiet dark shape to herself for a moment. She saw shapes in there…She settles the churning stimulated areas of her mind
into curdled floating sections and begins to think…It is quite possible that she is thinking as if sheets of metal were communicating with each other inside her, between the
curdled sections. A kind of futurist drawing, internalized…
In this solitary, stationary space, standing in the shower (a shitty janitor’s shower with dirty mop heads hanging over the radiator), “thinking cleanly,” as Maris describes, her mind is really moving—we are with her in this movement. And she is not just thinking of any thing, we are seeing the labor of creative thought revealed: she is coming up with the idea for the militant musical. She is pulling together images, funding strategies, marketing relations, casting decisions, possibilities detected from volatile encounters on the train. The time it takes to traverse the space of her thought is measured in several pages. Near the end of the chapter, we are relocated:
…Reasons to live and living it and doing it are taking shape
right in there in the water…Yes, she is still in the shower,
where it is possible to think like this…The futurist drawing inside her updates itself silently, and begins to become a
bulleted list selected from a toolbar. The metal sheets
dissolve into virtual bullets. Tightly.
Here we see the intimate and fluid movement between language and image—or really, among image, language, and thought. What does it mean to think an image? Not merely to recall an image and its circumstances, but to allow it to function as a technology of thought? The image does not simply index its content, but becomes charged with affective and philosophical force. And this force is internalized even as the subject is made diffuse through thought, and through the ‘work’ of ‘art’. The image that has saturated Maris is not just any image, but a futurist image—recalling an ethics of life-toward-technology, a fascination with speed and indeterminacy, an engagement with new urban modalities. The futurist metal plates give way to virtual bullets, (technologies of order whether militaristic or bureaucratic). This suggests the impossibility of containing the aesthetic within its proper domain of ‘art’, revealing the way it has seeped into nearly all aspects of daily life, especially the psycho-technical assemblages that regulate computer interface. One aesthetic gives way to another: the futurist image morphs into a format ready-made to accommodate the logistical labor that now constitutes art making. Here we see how images move, live, and work as they produce possibilities for life.
WHAT OF CRITIQUE
This essay has foregrounded the relation between subjectivity and discourse in the work of Bernadette Corporation, with a focus on the collectively authored novel Reena Spaulings. I want to draw a few threads together and close around the question—what kind of critical work is Bernadette Corporation engaged with? We have seen how, by introducing the novel into the visual domain of art, and by creating a fricative space where images are made particularly lively through text, the ground of objectification is eroded. We have also seen that the mode of subjectivity expressed within the novel and through the collective process of production frays the seemingly singular authority and marketable sui generis of author and artist alike. By foregoing artistic identity in lieu of mock-corporation, whose agency is enhanced by its brand, Bernadette Corporation’s projects are like wormholes, not inter or transdisciplinary as many artworks purport to be, but modes of production as space-time corrosions that make an art project the same as an actual fashion house, or a fictional character the same as a living artist. Bernadette Corporation is both completely at home in the art world, and barely there; it is dependent on its discursive premises, and treats these with wild irreverence.
I have focused on the dynamic between discourse and subjectivity, but have conspicuously omitted any consideration of ‘knowledge’, with which I might have effectuated a Foucaultian triad. But in the world of Bernadette Corporation, knowledge in a Kantian-Foucaultian sense does not seem to come into play. Knowledge and subjectivity are so deeply constitutive of one another, they are linked in a kind of parametric co-morphing. Where subjectivity becomes attenuated, disembodied, populous, knowledge transforms to such an extent that it becomes unrecognizable as such. It begins to drift outside its categorical bounds and become legible by other terms. It begins to look much more like information and affect—modes of power in their own right. I wonder: what implications do the subjectivities produced here (Reena Spaulings and Bernadette Corporation) have for the critical project Foucault elucidates? How do they complicate the knowledge/ subjectivity/power triad that forms the foundation of this mode of critique?
In his lecture, “What is Critique?” Foucault engages Kant’s article, “What is Enlightenment?” and illustrates the adjudicating premise of critique. Kant defines the project of Enlightenment with respect to the autonomy of the subject vis-à-vis the limits of knowledge. For Foucault, “Critique is the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth…critique will be the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability. Critique would essentially insure the desubjugation of the subject in the context of what we could call, in a word, the politics of truth.” The role of critique, then, is to deconstruct discursive formations where they fortify epistemological limits. Foucault goes on to say, however, that, “Instead of defining the problem in terms of knowledge and legitimation, it was necessary to approach the question in terms of power and eventalization…One always has to think [of power] in such a way as to see how it is associated with a domain of possibility...” The function of critique is not merely to speak truthfully, but to synchronize desubjugation with new forms of lived practice. Foucault hints at a different formation of power here: to use Spinoza’s differentiation, this is like potentia rather than the striated potestas. Such fluid practices do not consolidate into subjectivities that can be known, identified, managed, disciplined.
But when we move beyond consolidated subjectivities, as I suggest Bernadette Corporation does, the question is not, (again), what is critique, but rather, where does this leave the project of critique now? If critical theory and social science have pursued a project of critique over the past several decades that is commensurate with Foucault’s genealogical approach to understanding singularities, what kind of critical work is Bernadette Corporation doing as it moves in and through art worlds? Yes, it engages in a “desubjugation of the subject,” both through the characters it manifests and by exploring collective forms of political subjectivity. But its particularly discursive modes, its often ironic and skeptical yet exuberant attitude, allow it to occupy a space outside of a politics of truth, evading even the Foucaultian claim to decouple “elements of knowledge” from techniques of power. Bernadette Corporation plays out of these bounds. As Bennet Simpson writes in Artforum, “Though the many figures that populate their work…resemble nothing so much as a community of subjects disappearing their way through a century of imperial culture, it would be a mistake to read BC's refusals as symptomatic of art's recent backlash against identity politics. BC do not "get rid" of identity in order to get rid of politics. Precisely the opposite is true: It is identity that has ceased to be political.” Though a politics of recognition still exists, with very high stakes for many, Bernadette Corporation is playing a different game. As it experiments with post-humanist subjectivities that come alive through a series of hacks and syntactical slippages, it engages a politics of disappearance, a chameleonic politics, a mimesis. Its games are a realist reflection of “the comic horror of the fundamental fantasy.” By dispelling identity, Bernadette Corporation, like Reena Spaulings, gains a range of movement and possibility. What happens is always a question of attitude.
1.) A woman moves to a new place where she doesn't know anyone and then gets into lots of arguments
2.) She gets into a weird physical fight. It is weird and unintentional but she would be in a situation where she just ends up being physically aggressive somehow because the situation demands it. And then she doesn't know how or why it really happened and it is an unfamiliar response and she has to figure out how to deal with that. The fight would be kind of like, ambivalent aggression. Nothing would necessarily be discernible as a "punch" or a "kick", but weird awkward being overcome with anger and aggression.
3.) Refer to fight in Tiergarten that was like this: three people were having an altercation - two men were really upset with another man, and they were sort of tussling, and sort of like, kicking his bike - it was like this weird form of violence that they couldn't help but didn't know how to express in stylized ways that are easily recognizable as forms of violence. It was like trying to say something you don't have the words for yet.
4.) There is an argument scene in a Japanese whiskey bar where the waiters keep replacing the cocktail napkins constantly and make the people lift their drinks so much.
5.) Also maybe the fight happens and she and the other person are pulled apart and neither are really hurt except that she got a really good punch to the other person who is maybe going to have a black eye. The protagonist woman character ends up hurting someone but not getting hurt herself and then we see her leave, hyped on adrenaline and rage and anger, and then we see her start to process the next thing, that she has violently injured someone else
6.) Refer to a fight I was in in 6th grade. I don't understand why we were fighting. It was in the cafeteria in the morning - it was used as a holding area while all the buses arrived, and was just a kind of no-space, no-time at school. There was nothing in particular we had to fight about, but there was somehow just this weird animosity that escalated. I remember sort of hitting/pushing/wrestling or whatever? Somehow there weren't any teachers around or otherwise they didn't notice. I don't remember how it ended, it just did, and i don't remember ever fighting after that.
This is a reading of a reading of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Volume 1.
This essay employs psychological categories because
they [are] //incompatible with a general and intensive work imperative
I found the books on a shelf in my friend’s apartment. They were nested, one inside the other because he had been reading them that way. We joked this was like hiding a dirty magazine inside another more innocuous volume, giving a public performance that is a-sexual while privately tending the deep warmth of lust. Sometimes I think I never really read anything but only recognize my own feelings in another person’s language. What sort of epistemology is this?
I wanted someone but was not wanted
and this caused in me an odd refraction of desire. It floats about my body and
I wear it like a cloud.
I am looking for some recognition of the glitchy feeling I feel by making a mash up of M/F that evades logic, or is only tangential to logic. I am waiting waiting for a feeling I recognize in the world.
I put M to F and began to read them simultaneously:
The idea of libidinal work relations in developed / non-repressive sublimation. However, in his detailed // Rule of immanence / Relations of power-knowledge
are not static forms of distribution
What does that mean? Have we three described an open and effusive economy? Or something like a productive community of lovers in a fullness where power expressions are simultaneous which transforms the notion of power altogether if it becomes shared shared and not owned shared and not made manifest only through the domination of an other buzzing with power-expression-in-time synchronized effusive radiant work relations--
You see that power begets power and efficiency is playing a long game. We are thinking together about forms of power and the problem of being submissive to power in a repressive sublimation. Can production be dominated by efficiency or some alternative organizing principle and not rather dominated by power? Does this even make sense to say in this way, my available grammar does not allow me to construct the sentence as I would like…
M to F, F in M. Different access points and permutations. Begin left, justified in M, perform running reading across spine to F contiguous body:
Phantasy as a separate mental process is born //
of relations toward a problematic of the “flesh,”
I’m reading M/F to try to get a handle on this odd refraction of desire. I do not embody desire because I do not let desire converge with will. Where they would join, I never let catch, and so desire begins to float, to charge the air around me like a static. This is a surplus that does not manifest as discrete, discernible sex acts but
Freud’s libido theory. We may now be able to find
some / construction of the reality, coexisting with the
mature // end to pleasure where pleasure found / which
seems to underlie all that we are
ignore it altogether. The most notorious of “frauds,”
coitus /enables one to conceive power solely as law
and taboo. Sex // with an order of its own, governed by
different /principle[s] at the price of being ineffective
in the reality.
I wanted/was not wanted. This sort of thing is some kind of injustice that is possible in the world, yet it is perpetrated by no one. And in spite of this feeling having undergone some kind of transfiguration in me, it has lingered still. Naturally, power is a play, where things must dynamically shift. Perhaps we are cycling through a system based on its rule sets and material logics.
I revisited M/F for re-reading.
I checked the books out of the library and found they were heavily marked, a trace of other lovers. There were more people involved in this than just the three of us and isn’t that always the case. I opened the books to me then to each other:
The modes of domination have // to make room for
illegitimate sexualities, it was reasoned,
Page scroll, M moves down slowly down F. Inverted. Can power ever be shared? I set them on their stomachs, F on top behind. They have embraced each other tenderly.
seems to me that power must be understood in the
first //outside the realm of alienated labor. The more
complete // force relations which, by virtue of their
inequality, constantly // affect the very structure of the
psyche, alter the balance
I feel erotic, suspended in eroticism, yet unwilling to divest these energies. I am warm with lust. I radiate desire and this radiation keeps everyone away. It is easy to read trauma through power, or to know that power is a text that has been translated. My desire a power
which aims, not at curing individual sickness, but at
di- // ing for us to define the relationship between sex
Language is my
non-alienated libidinal work
when it keeps open, does not catch upon complete sense but gets caught in a feedback loop with Eros. The scale at which this is productive is nominal, but this invites different notions of productivity and other models of economy with weird, less discrete channels of energetic distribution. These do not require material infrastructures or telecommunication networks because this economy is scaled to my body I’m being this libidinal economy is hyper-local where my body is producer consumer infrastructure information informant; my body is a labor and my soul is never alien I’m immanent I’m in radical communion. The possibility of this ecstatic economy dies with me and only then do I retire, when its reproduction in its most real sense becomes null and void.
Now I am reading this reading to you a flattening of M/F, first to a page, then to this line, my body as a portable document which compresses to the point of transfiguration – I speak – and look at me
Do you read me How do you read me
In his well-known book How To Do Things With Words, philosopher J.L. Austin introduces the idea of a speech act. He calls out the speech act as a distinct kind of language that sets itself apart from both descriptive speech, as in “The sky is clear today”, and true/false statements such as “water is essential to life”. A speech act, says Austin, performs the thing it is saying, as in, “I promise”, “I bequeath”, “I apologize”, “I dare you”. To say something is to do that thing; speech and action consign themselves to one another.
Early on in the book, in a section titled “Can saying make it so?”, Austin writes these few short lines, which, because of the way they are laid out on the page, look like they could be the start of a poem:
“Are we then to say things like this:
‘To marry is to say a few words’, or,
‘Betting is simply saying something’?
Here Austin explores the other side of the speech act, that is: if we are to say that language, in these specific cases, makes something happen, does this also erode the significance of the event, as if to imply that it is only, or merely language that made something so? Or, as his example suggests, “To marry is just to say a few words”? No big deal (!). I can imagine this might be a useful counterpoint for anyone who has ever been nervous on their/her wedding day. (Which is everyone, I think.) If you’re anxious about the performance you will give today, if you think you have never uttered a phrase so heavy, don’t worry: you’re just saying a few words.
We can see how these speech acts might become, by turn, weighted with consequence or effervescently playful. The difference between these affects, I think, has something to do with how a speech act ties us to the future, and to the selves we might yet become as we waver indeterminately into that future. What does it mean to say, “I promise”, if a promise would conscript my and your future self? A speech act feels very heavy when we feel its consequence, the way it marks difference between what now is and what is to be. But the reverse can also happen: words that feel excessively light and playful, perhaps from a joyously provisional self, can, over time, create an immutable foundation.
One of my favorite writers, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, points out that for Austin, marriage is upheld as the exemplary speech act. He turns to it again and again throughout the text. Sedgwick says jokingly, that “a more accurate name for How to Do Things with Words might have been How to say (or write) ‘I do’ hundreds of times without winding up any more married than you started out.” While Sedgwick illustrates what is unique about the “I do” speech act, she also shows that for Austin, the ‘doing’ of the ‘I do’ depends so much on who is involved and how—the force of the marriage clause relies on male and female “I”’s to form a “we” in the presence of a “they” (YOU) under the auspices of state and church. Though this has historically been the case, for many partnerships, we know this stratification of power is undesirable, or simply foreclosed. Sedgwick also makes note that the grammar of the first-person, present, indicative common to all of Austin’s speech act examples, might not be true for some queer subjects, might instead be raised as “questions rather than presumptions”.
This might be an unusual amount of language philosophy and queer theory for a wedding, but it’s probably no more baroque than a reading from any holy scripture. And it’s going to get more romantic, I promise…I began with Austin and Sedgwick because they help us think about the consequence, but also the potential of language. They help us think about the push-pull of language and law that happens in the act of marriage. They help us think about how queer subjects and queer love has endured a similarly fraught relation with the institution of marriage, and indeed with various structures of law, whether grammatical or juridical. Certainly, it bears noting that this has been an auspicious year in America for gay marriage rights. Together, let’s acknowledge those who have persisted to achieve these rights—the right to speak love, and be witnessed; the right to act love in a broader public theater; the right to care for a loved one in the intimate spaces of sickness and health. To recall the long history of queer love is to recover it, is to revere it, is to place us within this history today.
Yet what can marriage look like, when the gender binary Austin supposes does not apply, when even subject pronouns like “I” and “you” and “we” might not seem apt, when power is decidedly not conferred by church or state? What might marriage be if it resists institutionalization, if it evades the boundedness of law: what would justice look like then? What does commitment look like when it is reconciled with the provisionality of self and the tenuousness of being, when we act ethically toward future selves and worlds we have yet to know? It looks, I think, like actual power, like deep, absolute love. bell hooks calls this “loving justice”, and describes it as an “active force that…lead[s] us into greater communion with the world…not aimed at simply giving an individual greater life satisfaction” but “extolled as the primary way we end domination and oppression.” It is life-affirming and life-intensifying. It respects life and lets it move openly, as Sedgwick says, not linearly but “diagonally through time”. Because, as my dear friend Gokhan recently wrote to me in a letter, “What we love in an other is life itself, but also life running through that specific other (life-through-this-other, rather than that-other), for life runs differently in each. We love…the specific way life runs through that other, that is [their] uniqueness, [their] compression and expansion of life in certain directions but not in certain others. In short, love is an encounter with life-as-verb entangled in life-as-nouns.” It is to life itself that justice is done, in the name of loving deeply, openly, absolutely.
But how to do this with words? You might take seriously the play of saying just a few. For example:
My love, the branches of the mountain ash, with their
thin leaves, are rustling. I can see them when I look up
from my desk. The joint of each leaf is so supple that
even the slightest breeze, a breath, excites a chorus. Each
time I see, I exclaim, Alie! The mountain ash!
Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “lover, gold-hatted, high bouncing lover,
I must have you!”
These passages are from S and A’s origin story, a prolific epistolary tale of some 1,000 letters sent to one another before ever meeting. The language is breezy and buoyant, yet moved by that feral gravity, desire. A relationship grows, so entire worlds, by these twinned physics that language does: it grounds, it floats. And so A and S. This is what characterizes their relationship, qualifies the texture of their togetherness. Their sustaining power is in their talkativeness, in their tendency to say, wait? What are we doing!? With words or otherwise. To ask all the time, what choices are being made, and what choices can be made. To say, “That’s so fucked up!” To continually unfold, to question, to think, to feel and act through language. To give an endlessly honest accounting of oneself. To try, in the words of poet Adrienne Rich, “to all the time extend the possibilites of truth between us”. And by us I mean all of us, because S and A’s practice deepens and opens their engagement with each other and with the world. And we have all felt that power. And it is what we are here to celebrate today.
EXTENTS AND INCIDENTS
EXTENTS AND EXCESS
A cut marks the edge and its ends. Severed from its prefixes, how can we repairatively read this text?
Without the gravity of first words to ground a reader's prosaic march from line to line, we must find another means of orientation. As we make the subtle slantwise drift across the text, sense gets reconstituted in every pass. And as we pass from the sans of this pure cut through its fragments to the full-formed words, a reading repairs us beyond the edge and back to its ends. In this ‘finality without end’, the blank space is not a lack but holds an excess of meaning.
As if watching a film, a mind fills the gaps, making sense from the sans:
make a public
and for the
forcing a public
demonition to occur,
these aims will not
but suffice for the nonce
The original text is a found fragment that was featured in Tim Simonds’ show In Corners at Cathouse FUNeral gallery in winter 2014. The words are printed in blue san(s)-serif font on a long piece of oriented strand board (OSB). It looks like the whole thing was run through a table saw, cutting right through the text. Tim found the board on the street and eventually incorporated it as the base of a mock-water filtration system featured in the show. He also stenciled the text onto the wall near the entry to the gallery. When I saw the text I wondered, Where did that come from? How did it get that way? And before I could ask—what can I do with it? —generated the stanzas above.
Writer Renu Bora, in his essay “Outing Texture” suggests that these questions—how did a thing get the way it is? and what can be done with it?—characterize the experience of perceiving texture.
STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING
Something has collected in the corner of my mouth or eye; needing self-care, maintenance, and care of the body.
Tim's other work to do with exercise, balance. Continuing meditation on cores and extremities included in How To Make a Body of a Limb.
Conditioning/strength and conditioning; so-called “conditioning machines”; conditioning greywater.
A reminder of decay.
Produce will rot.
The pristine, yet malodorous carpet.
Putting the carpet against the wall with the knee machine: relationship of body labor tool; thinking about architecture and tools of representation; how it was that tools of representation (for the making and building of form and space) came to be disassociated from the body; perhaps reference this lacunae, similar to the one in the initial “poem”.
The baby – growth, growing hand grabs the foot grab bars care and exercise grab bars vs. weight bars
MAKING SENSE THE BODY
Nietzche and Spinoza are philosophers of the body >> bodies of knowledge.
Excerpt from Tim body/limb text, “his body of knowledge…” etc, “I can grasp” “on the other hand”, etc.
Prepositionality: In Corners, as though the phrase itself were the ragged edge left severed from its preceding line, or just beginning a phrase to follow: something, or someone is In Corners…In Corners, some thing will happen, take position, or remain.
In corners places us at extents and intersections Something like exercise and care are anticipatory, poss pre-positional?
EXTENTS AND INCIDENTS
Tim described the show as being in a basement. what is in a basement? Thick carpeting; boxes; exercise equipment; plumbing and heating infrastructure. Though foundational, the basement is a space at the extent of a house; subterranean. And what happens there? First kisses, exercise, maintenance. Basements are where excess lives. Spiderwebs.
which is, in turn an exegesis of Kant’s article of the same name. Descending from a Kantian lineage of the adjudicating foundation of reason, crisis, Roitman explains, is always based on judgment. But whereas crisis is necessitated by judgment, “critique entails suspensions of judgment; and it ‘offers a new practice of values based on that very suspension.’ This suspension of judgment means that ‘the primary task of critique will not be to evaluate whether its objects—social conditions, practices, forms of knowledge, power, and discourse—are good or bad, valued highly or demeaned, but to bring into relief the very framework of evaluation itself.’” (Internal quotes are Butler’s.) Yet Roitman notes that in spite of Butler moving critique outside of an evaluative framework, the Kantian notion of epistemological limits (as described above) are still firmly in place. However, Roitman continues Butler’s thought, and circles back to Foucault: “‘One asks about the limits of ways of knowing because one has already run up against a crisis within the epistemological field in which one lives.’…For Butler, then, subject formation transpires through crisis: that is, crisis, or the disclosure of epistemological limits, occasions critique, and potentially gives rise to counter-normativities that speak the unspeakable. For Foucault, crisis signifies a discursive impasse and the potential for a new form of historical subject.”
The statements from Butler and Foucault both point to an immanent potentiality latent within crisis; crisis is virtually critique. But I want to call out a subtle distinction between the “disclosure of epistemological limits” and the “discursive impasse” as both are linked to the production of subjectivities. The difference between these terms will, I think, offer a way through some of the gaps that exist within the case study I have presented in this paper. In the case of the AIDS crisis, whose crisis is this? Which epistemological limit is being confronted? On the one hand, we see a limit of knowledge within the biopolitical dispositif constituted by medical, economic, and political apparatuses. The limits of knowledge about HIV/AIDS were very real for doctors and patients alike. But coextensive with this epistemological limit was a limit that was more voluntary or self-imposed, delimited by moral judgment and anxieties over a perceived threat to one particular kind of life by another. This limit was upheld by the discursive construct of “crisis.” Here we see a distinction between what is actually not known (or what cannot yet be known), and a discourse of power that prevents something from becoming known (or is disclosed to some and witheld from others). On the other hand, within queer communities, we see a structural similarity (a double limit condition), but with very different stakes. Rather than working within or toward the transgression of the epistemological limit that AIDS provoked, individuals and communities were occupying the limit, finding practices of living with. Instead of a biopolitical management of populations, we see the production of so-called “counter-normativities that speak the unspeak-able.” But here too the discursive double limit is also a formation of power (to use Spinoza’s differentiation, this is like potentia to the earlier potestas): dissolving at the limits of representation, fluid social and sexual practices do not consolidate into subjectivities that can be known, identified, managed, disciplined. I am reminded of the ‘hysterical’ women whose archive Foucault uncovers within Charcot’s clinic. Their deliberately exaggerated performances of hysteria (performed within the medical theater and preserved in photographic record) are a refusal to have their bodies be known, where knowing becomes a form of disciplinarity. These performances call into question how such knowledge is itself constructed—and exist as an original mode of critique.
Crisis is by turns a temporalizing concept, a discursive device, and a limit of knowing. Crisis is temporalizing in so far as it stakes moral ground, often making a distinction between the realities of today and the hope for a future. In the case of the AIDS crisis, however, the affective motive was not hope, but rather anxiety about perceived threats to the sanctity of a heteronormative way of life. These anxieties permeated the narration of crisis as it came to exclude the representation and recognition of lived temporalities of people living with AIDS. At least initially, this crisis produced knowledge and information in negative—that is, based on anxious anticipation of the threat of the disease instead of a positivist understanding of its lived realities. In discursive registers of public policy, popular media, and medicine where knowledge was produced in this way, representations of those living with AIDS were conspicuously absent. Informed by activist and grassroots efforts, it is within the discursive field of art, at least in part, where representations of lived realities and temporalities of those living with the disease could enter into the space of appearance, and become folded into the historical record of AIDS. Set along side extant representations from various “official” discourses, and arrayed within a public space, these forms of open narrativization invited viewers, readers, and visitors to take an active role, to form a historical consciousness of the present. These representations were created from the interplay of discursive modes and social forms. A reflection by Doug Ashford in his essay “An Artwork is a Person," succinctly describes these relationships:
When Group Material asked, ‘How is culture made and
who is it for?’ we were asking for something greater than
simply a larger piece of the art world’s real estate. We were asking that the relationships change between those who
depict the world and those who consume it, and demon-
strating that the context for this change would question more than just the museum: a contestation of all contexts for public life. In making exhibitions and public projects that sought to transform the instrumentality of representational politics, invoking questions about democracy itself, Group Material presented a belief that art directly builds who we are—it engenders us.
In light of this passage, I return to Ashford’s earlier phrase, “associative historicisms”, which we can now think in multi-dimensional terms. An associative historicism might refer to the representational technique that Group Material employed within the AIDS Timeline exhibitions; the sustained eventalization of loose non-representational and non- foundational subjectivities; the shared social practices, perhaps barely legible as histories, that equate critique with ways of living.
NOTES ON FIRECRAFT
1.) Some mornings there is a temperature differential between body under blankets and head out of cover. Sometimes wear wool hat to bed.
2.) The woodstove is a mediator between me and the fire.
Now more air
Now more paper
Waxed milk cartons work best
And now kindling
Building a fire is all about timing.
You have to look at it very carefully
But mostly you have to feel
You have to listen
Until it becomes second nature
3.) Squatting in front of a fire requires stamina in the legs and lower back. Chopping wood is also driven from lower back as well as shoulders. Carrying wood works the arms and shoulders.
4.) The night before I left the stovepipe burned brilliantly,
the metal glowing and throwing off high heat into the dark living room. Kreosote built up in the pipe. In spite of cleaning. We had to take it apart and wirebrush the thing the next morning before we leaving town.
5.) I don’t know who said: wood heats you three times
when you chop it
when you stack it
when you burn it
6.) You build your day around the fire, being around to tend to it. We were cash poor and couldn’t afford to buy all our wood for the season in advance. We bought a cord or two as needed, which often meant the wood was
7.) Always burning fingers on the iron, hands callused. But this allows me to touch burning pieces of wood directly to manipulate the fire…
8.) Body suffused with the smell of fire. Wool sweaters thick with firey musk and skin sooted by smoke.
9.) Had a bonfire in an apple grove. Burning dry brush culled from the grove. Wild dead wood made a pyre taller than I was. Wore red silk dress down to my ankles. Standing beside the fire, flame, dress jump the same.
“don’t get burned” he said
THE STORY OF LEE LOZANO
To understand the work of artist Lee Lozano, you have to tell her story. No one work makes sense removed from the context of her life, ethics, and relationships. While the same could be said of anyone, this is especially true in the case of Lozano. This forces a very different kind of art writing and criticism. My story is a retelling of stories from other art writers, including Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, Lucy Lippard, and Helen Molesworth. Those, in turn, are composite portraits, pieced together from accounts of Lozano offered by friends, lovers, curators, and art buyers. We can best understand Lozano like this – as a set of refractions, remembrances, embellished half-truths – indeed, as a myth.
Following Lewis Hyde’s portrait of the trickster as a prominent figure in a variety of foundational mythologies in his book Trickster Makes This World, my story frames Lozano as a trickster figure in the context of contemporary capitalism and its dominant cultural logics. Hyde characterizes the trickster as a figure who 1.) identifies and creates boundaries where they were not previously recognized, 2.) transgresses boundaries to bring about and create new worlds, 3.) transgresses in order to undermine cultural norms, yet overall helps to sustain cultural durability. He goes on to create a portrait of the artist-trickster as an example of trickster-ism in a more contemporary context. He says, “There is an art-making that begins with pre-seeking (lifting the shame covers, finding the loophole, refusing to guard the secrets), that uncovers a plenitude of material hidden from conventional eyes…and that points toward a kind of mind able to work with that revealed complexity…the hinge-mind, the translator mind.” I suggest that Lozano is a trickster par excellence according to Hyde’s understanding, and go further to consider the ways in which Lozano’s specific brand of trickster-ism works to undermine and challenge, but also make more elastic those contemporary mythologies inherent to capitalism and its cultural logics.
SETTING THE SCENE
Lee Lozano lived and worked in the ‘New York Art Scene’ during the 1960s and 70s. I emphasize ‘New York Art Scene’ because this context was itself instrumental in driving Lozano and her work, particularly her later pieces. For Lozano, New York was like a planetary body with large mass – caught in its gravitational wake, she was pulled into its orbit and flung out again like a comet. Or, perhaps, as Lozano’s own density became formidable, Lozano and the ‘art scene’ became mutually deformed under the weight of each another’s gravity. Born as Lenore Knaster in 1930, she grew up in New Jersey and moved to Chicago in 1948 to study science and philosophy at the University of Chicago, graduating in three years. In 1956, the same year she married architect Adrian Lozano, she began a BFA program at the Art Institute of Chicago and declared that in five years, she would move to New York City, which she did.
Lozano’s was a consummate process of oeuvre (work) and désoeuvrement (unworking). Thinking open the mind and body was for her a ceaseless practice of doing self-opening and self-shattering things: painting, drugs, sex, psychology, I Ching, risk, danger. As a prominent figure in the ‘life-art’ genre that emerged in the 1960s — perhaps the person to take most seriously its radical possibilities — Lozano was her work to the extent that it is almost impossible for the very phrase ‘Lozano was her work’ to suggest the thing I mean to say: it tests our most basic grammatical concepts. If words themselves are predicated on and produce cognitive discretion (I cannot confuse an ‘apple’ with a ‘persimmon’) language is always already part of that empirical project we call ‘knowing’. But for Lozano, it seems, categorical distinctions between subjects (and objects) were eroded; ligatures like prepositions and conjunctions therefore also became tenuous. Lozano was loquacious and libidinous in language, a wordsmith in love with jokes, puns, and portmanteau. Her play with language was a perpetual writing of her personal creation myth.
As an extension of this word play, Lozano went by many names during the course of her life. Born as Lenore Knaster November 5, 1930, 4:25 p.m. (she wrote in one of her notebooks that this set of time-place coordinates was her “only true name”), she became Lozano by marriage. Around 1971, she renounced patriarchal nomenclature altogether and began calling herself Lee Free, or Leefer (a portmanteau of ‘Lee’ and ‘reefer’, perhaps), Eefer, and finally, merely, E. When we organize these names differently, it looks like this:
It looks like the start of a Carl Andre poem (they were friends). I don’t know if Lozano ever wrote or saw her names like this, but I think its typographical form is quite telling. There are several ways to read it: perpetually slimming, reductive, essentializing; a bushy, feminist form; tornadic; reminiscent of her Pitch, Clamp, Cram paintings; an arrow pointing down. Naming was a way for Lozano to know the self as an indeterminate set.
PAINTINGS: OBJECTS, TOOLS, ALLOYS, WAVES
Her early work emerged from its context, riffing with Chicago Imagists to create a raw and psychologically saturated mix of comic book-surrealism, a deliberate contrast to the sober, minimalist works proliferating in New York in the early 1960s. Her love of comics was evident in her representational style, in the integration of text and image, and in her affinity for word play and punnery. Her use of text and image was not conjunctive, in this sense, was never image and text, one was never supplemental to the other. Lozano developed an image-language logic. Emerging from art school and onto the art scene, she made cartoonish, raucous, hypersexual drawings of objects, body parts, and icons, but forms and figures drift among these categories in various stages of becoming one another. Jewish stars are tits, tools are cocks, a revolver shoots out the head of a penis, “Cocks! Cunts! Tits! Balls!” are disembodied and sold by size like pairs of shoes. Curator Helen Molesworth writes of these drawings and the series that followed:
Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of the hookups between machines and bodies seem mild-mannered compared with Lozano’s whacked-out erotic porosity. Penises sprout from
ears and are propelled out of revolvers. Toasters get plugged
into cunts. Assholes spit Swingline staples. Tits harden in excitation to cocklike turgidness…In a series of drawings of
her studio, also made in the early ‘60s, electric sockets, water spigots, and radiators are conduits not only of energy and
heat but of a sexual life force that appears ready to vaporize
the architecture. Next came the tool pictures—hammers, wrenches, vice grips, all lushly painted and lustily suggesting
the violent, combinative nature of sexual desire. It’s around
this point…that you began to realize that the inanimate is not
a working concept for Lozano—everything possesses some
kind of energy, life, or drive.
Lozano’s early work showed an inherent aptitude for inhabiting the anterior psychic space of the fetishized consumer object. As much a critique of the patriarchal élan that runs throughout institutionalized forms of power (religion and capitalism alike) as an invigoration of libidinous energy into flaccid commodities (of religion and capitalism alike), Lozano’s drawings occupy the charged space of fetish and explore, in the words of Leo Bersani, the “proximity of perversion and subversion”. Her art, as much as life, became a medium for playing with tools of power, and exposing eroticism as a kind of aggression. At once expressive and propulsive, her cartoonish animation of objects took on double meaning, showing movement through drawing while re-energizing and invigorating the inanimate. Said Lozano, “My objects have become numens.” While most writers are eager to say all the dirty words, as if Lozano’s work gives permission for vulgarity in a medium (art writing) that has produced its own perverse genre, what’s missed is attention to the profound energy and movement these drawings index. Like Cy Twombly’s paintings, there is a forcefulness, not just in the imagery, but in the exertion of Lozano herself upon and in her work, on the surface of the page or canvas, as if the urgency to express some individual and collective visual consciousness was for her a bodily imperative.
Following this series of raucous drawings, Lozano made paintings of tools – wrenches, hammers, razor blades, clamps. Her fascination with metallic form was as much an investigation of base, elemental materiality as an attraction to objects by which one manipulates and gains mastery over form. What was the relationship between the tools she depicted and her own? Within the space of the same painting, we see realist techniques of representation — detailing precise perspective and shading around a threaded metal rod, for instance —and sketchy, impressionistic plays of hue. A tool as depicted by Lozano moves in a kind of directional warping (of its form and our perspective) to give the impression of an object in movement or in its imminent becoming. The tools were often distorted – hammer with three heads, wrenches inverted upon one another, hammer head wrapped into its own claw, clamps that are distorted, hammers and clamps wrapped up in one another. Does this plasticity suggest the tools are exuberantly useful (a hammer with three heads) or useless by redundancy (clamps that clamp each other)? It is important to note the size of these paintings, around 9’ x 11’; much larger than Lozano’s tiny figure. A larger studio space on Grand Street in SoHo meant she could work at this large scale, and collect discarded tools and mechanical debris on Canal Street with Carl Andre. Her body became an intermediary between these modes of collection and expression.
A hammer, clamp, nail, etc. are named for what they do or what is done to them. As if looking at the same thing under a microscope at a higher magnitude, Lozano created a series of charcoal, graphite, and pigment drawings of metallic geometric forms in relation. These were her so-called “Verb Paintings” made between 1964 and 1967. This is the list: REAM, SPIN, VEER, SPAN, CROSS, RAM, PEEL, CHARGE, PITCH, VERGE, SWITCH, SHOOT, SLIDE, CRAM, GOAD, CLASH, CLEAVE, FETCH, CLAMP, LEAN, SWAP, BUTT, CROOK, SPLIT, JUT, HACK, BREACH, STROKE, STOP. The titles are both aggressive and suggestive, and tell us how to understand each given relation between forms. The paint, graphite, and charcoal are often applied so that it actually looks like the material represents itself, as though built up on the canvas to reconstitute its original form. These are technically virtuosic renderings of sheen upon solid. Lozano explained: “For me, each painting is part of a monumental form, so that all my paintings are just details of a form that can be extended to infinity or a point in infinity.” Yet it is not the mere continuation of infinite form, but the expansiveness of form at different scale.
“In physics, all straight lines are really curved if you extend them far enough. And if you’ve been doing straight lines for a while, the next thing is to try curves. Where else is there to go but all the way round?” Lozano moved from solid, ferrous matter to light and energy. She created a series of Wave paintings (1967-1970) that merged an examination of phenomena of light and the arduous, technical labor of the body – both always factored by time. She intended for the series to be experienced first-hand, not through description or pre-presentation. Eleven vertical panels with “waves” of various curvatures extended (and exceeded) the bottom and top of the canvases. Each wave a different sherbet-colored hue. While the canvases and waveforms were vertical, the brush strokes were horizontal, creating a textile-like surface, whose textural relief allowed light and sheen to play like sunlight on a rippled surface of water. Viewers have described these paintings to produce directionally specific readings. Each panel has an even number of undulations in the overall waveform; these are determined with reference to the dimensional height of the canvas (96”). Each painting is named for the number of waves. 2-Wave, 4-Wave, 6, 8, 12, 16, 24, 32, 48, 96, and 192 (a graphite drawing rather than oil painting). Lozano exhibited the series in a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and specified a precise environment for ideal viewing – a dimly lit room with dark walls.
Lozano produced each painting in one discrete, continuous session. Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer describes the process:
The paintings are the oily residue of hours, days and
years of drugged exertion. As a rule, Lozano was high –
‘very stoned on hash throughout’ – and listed in her note-
books how many joints she smoked and when, in half-joint increments. The higher the frequency and shorter the wavelength, the longer and more demanding the labour. She
kept track of how long each painting took: the central form
of 32 Wave consumed an eighteen-and-a-half hour session, while 96 Wave went on for three days. This durational dimension shifted her focus away from art’s public reception
and toward the private experience of its production.
For Lozano, craft became a bodily practice indistinguishable from personal politic, a private labor. Through this kind of privatization of art, Lozano opened onto the possibility of resisting that other kind, the capitalization by which the entire sphere of art is simultaneously eroded and enabled. Molesworth again: “Lozano’s interest in the body as a holistic intellectual, psychic, and visceral apparatus was perfectly synthesized in these pieces, which are at once expressive, hard-edge, and conceptual…It’s easy to imagine that they must have felt totally complete, so complete that Lozano could experiment with the idea of not painting anymore.” Of the Wave series, Lozano herself said, “I was trying to combine science and art and existence. One thing I always liked was this idea of energy that is not contained by the edges of the canvas…the pictures refer to energy and they were brought into being with a great amount of energy. The more waves, the longer it took to do them…the oscillations were high energy.” Where Lozano began with the craft of painting as a bodily practice, around 1969 (with the completion of the Wave series), bodily practice became her craft. Like Isaac Newton performing experiments on himself – sticking a darning needle in his eye to see if color was produced from pressure on the eye (he deduced that light is made of particles), Lozano used her self as a medium of experimentation as much as expression. Her energy exceeded the frame of the canvas, flying into the space of everyday life.
FROM PAINTINGS TO "PIECES"
At a public gathering of artists around the subject of museum reform, Lozano issued this statement: “For me there can be no art revolution that is separate from a science revolution, a political revolution, an education revolution, a drug revolution, a sex revolution or a personal revolution…I will not call myself an art worker but an art dreamer and I will participate only in a total revolution simultaneously personal and public.” The Wave series became both a precondition and co-efficient of Lozano’s conceptual practice. She began a series of “pieces” that were always conceptual and literary – she used her notebooks as the place to document, challenge, and dream herself. Her writing became exploratory, a way to test out ideas — the way one (and Lozano had) made use of treatments and study sketches for paintings — but also contractual: once written, she held herself to these exercises with very few exceptions.
This form of writing was an extension of a practice Lozano called “verball”, as in, the endless, libidinous rolling of language. Her notebook “pieces” sometimes turned into “write-ups”, formal means of communication on 8.5x11” paper, as correspondence, formal logs, or to appear in exhibitions upon request. She was experimenting with the plasticity of self through a kind of mastery of non-mastery, exercising the will as an aperture that can constrict and also go slack. In one of her notebooks we find the imperative: “SEEK THE EXTREMES, THAT’S WHERE ALL THE ACTION IS”. This experimentation was not toward some aim, not toward “self-betterment” or progressivist enlightenment ideals. It was an open process (not progress), closer to Theodor Adorno’s negative dialectic than Hegel’s positivist one, less about end-games and closer to something like a game-in-itself.
Like Hyde’s example of Duchamp’s “corridor of humor”, Lozano always had an irreverent sense of humor and propensity for punning and joking around. The actions of Throwing Up Piece (1969) were to “throw the last twelve issues of Artforum up in the air”, a light way of expressing disgust for art-world practices, politics, and publicity. Some of Lozano’s other pieces include Stop Smoking Cigarettes Piece, The Lie-In-Bed-All-Day-And-Read-Comic-Books Piece, The Get-Fat-And-Lazy Piece, Keep Your Asshole-Virgin Piece, The See-How-Long-You-Can-Go-Without-Making-A-Call Piece. As if to play out Newton’s Third Law of Motion, (“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”), she often worked in sets: Masturbation Investigation and I Refuse to Masturbate Piece; Investment Piece and Poverty Piece; Make-No-Move-To-Hustle Piece and Hustle on St. Marks & 8th St. Piece. Here is the instruction for Grass Piece:
“Make a good score, a lid or more of excellent grass. Smoke it ‘up’ as fast as you can. Stay high all day, every day. See what happens.” she immediately followed Grass Piece with No-Grass Piece: “Go without grass for the same amount of time as Grass Piece, which turns out to be 33 days start immediately after grass piece.” Many of these pieces also happened in simultaneity with one another. The write-up for Masturbation Investigation notes, “Other pieces simultaneously in process: Grass Piece, General Strike Piece, & a withdrawal from humans & the outside world. I refuse to see my partner or anyone else.”
In the write-up for the Grass pieces, Lozano documents her keen observations and the extent of her psychological stress. Of going without grass, she notes symptoms of sleeplessness, anxiety, “uncontrollable sadness, deathness,” as well as heightened communication and “idea rushes”. In Lozano’s observations, we see moments of euphoria and deep depression, joy and total boredom, every kind of extreme. She called this pseudo-scientific knowledge “infofiction”, (Hyde might say this is “the playful construction of fictive worlds”). Lehrer-Graiwer explains:
The experience of self-experimentation warped her find-
ings, confusing presumed cause and effect while merging
fact and perception – thereby forming the basis of her
hybrid notion of ‘infofiction’. Heisenberg’s paradigm-
shifting uncertainty principle, published in 1927, addressed
the fundamental limits of how precisely pieces of related information, like a particle’s position and momentum, can
be measured simultaneously in a wave-like system. As one
thing comes into focus, another falls into blur. For psy-
chologists, it’s the ‘observer effect’: the act of observation always influences the behaviour of the observed. And when observer and observed are the same, wires get crossed and sparks fly: ‘the body, like photons, changes under
Lozano’s “infofiction” was also a critique of institutions of knowledge-making. It was a way of fusing scientific reasoning with non-empirical logics of art and selfhood. As a former student of science, “infofiction” was also a deeply inherent playing out of this broadly cultural dynamic opposition. As Lozano’s practice became increasingly insular and dense, her pieces began to have more social consequence. Three important pieces emerged:
General Strike Piece, Feb 8, 1969: “Gradually but
determinedly avoid being present at official or public
‘uptown’ functions or gatherings related to the ‘art
world’ in order to pursue investigation of total personal
and public revolution. Exhibit in public only pieces
which further the sharing of ideas and information
related to total personal and public revolution.”
Dialogue Piece, April 21, 1969: “Call (or write/speak to)
people for the specific purpose of inviting them to yr loft
for a dialogue. In process for the rest of life….The
Dialogue Piece comes the closest so far to an ideal I have
of a kind of art that would never cease returning feedback
to me or to others, which continually refreshes itself with
new information, which approaches an ideal merger of form
and content, which can never be ‘finished’, which can never
run out of material, which doesn’t involve ‘the artist &
observer’ but makes both participants artist & observer simultaneously, which is not for sale, which is not difficult
to make, which is inexpensive to make, which can never be completely understood, parts of which will always remain mysterious & unknown, which is unpredictable & predict-
able at the same time, in fact, this piece approaches having everything I enjoy or seek abt art, and it cannot be put in a gallery…what if I stopped doing different pieces & just did
the dialogue piece for the rest of my life as my ‘work’? I
could move to an exotic place & do it there; it has no space
or time boundaries.
Boycott Piece, August 1, 1971: “Decide to boycott women. Throw Lucy Lippard’s 2nd letter on defunct pile, unanswered. Do not greet Rochelle Bass in store.”
With the volatility of a free radical, we see Lozano oscillate between extreme sociability and solitude. She played out at micro level tactics of resistance and communality that were happening on a broader cultural scale throughout the 1960s in America. The Boycott Piece, which she somehow maintained for over twenty years, may be the most extreme example of her public play of personal politic. Helen Molesworth suggests, “By refusing to speak to women as an artwork she also refused the demands of capitalism for the constant production of private property. That she elided the fetishized art object and women was perhaps no mistake, as both share the same fate.” By her cunning, Lozano withdrew into extremism.
Around 1970, the idea for Dropout Piece began to coalesce.
A FORCE OF GRAVITY: DROPOUT PIECE
In an entry dated April 5, 1970, Lozano writes: “It was inevitable, since I work in sets of course that I do the Dropout (note pun) piece. It has been churning for a long time but I think its abt to blow. Dropout piece is the hardest work I have ever done….it involves destruction of…powerful emotional habits”. Like Zarathustra, she was pulled under. Where did she go? As Marcel Duchamp speculated, “I think the great man of tomorrow in the way of art cannot be seen, should not be seen and should go underground. He may be recognized after his death if he has any luck, but he may not be recognized at all. Going underground means not having to deal in money terms with society.” Lozano went underground.
Dropout Piece straddled the line between art and life, life and politics, sanity and madness, abandon and need. Lozano’s friend Stephen Kaltenbach describes his own exodus from the world of art as “a love of secrecy and the desire to commit oneself to a gesture so expansive in time that its overall form becomes imperceptible from any given point.” Lozano stopped participating in all forms of art world patronage. She no longer sold her works and ceased all forms of self-promotion. With General Strike Piece she had already stopped attending shows. She refused participation in exhibitions; most significantly, she declined an invitation to show in Documenta 6. Because she was no longer working to make money, she failed to pay rent on her studio, and was eventually evicted sometime in 1971. She stayed on friends’ couches for months on end, living the life of an itinerant, a vagabond. From time to time she made some cash working odd jobs, and eventually found a shared studio space with friend and artist Gerry Morehead, in addition to keeping a small bedroom of her own in a Lower East Side tenement building.
Lozano did not “produce” work in the studio, per se, but it became a place to play with (herself and) Morehead. They installed a piece they had previously made together called Time, which was, as Lehrer-Graiwer describes, “comprised of two parallel lengths of string nailed taut to the wall…that passed through a metal washer you could slide freely back and forth to change its shape.” Morehead also recalls Lozano dancing wildly with a massive dictionary, laughing and reading as she pushed-pulled the pages around, exploiting the book’s percussive qualities. Dancing became central to Lozano’s practice now, as she appeared around town at bookshops, bars, and music clubs. Lehrer-Graiwer suggests that Lozano was “cultivating her presence as a strategically manipulated and exercised force…Lozano’s mid 1970s work was primarily concerned with movement and the study of posture, stance, alignment and body language. She choreographed walking into stalking, going out on the prowl and carrying a transistor radio in her jacket pocket… Exaggerating lightness and gravity…she danced constantly, twirling herself into an engine of reverie around [the] loft or out at some dive…”
Thinking back to her paintings and her attempt to capture a certain force of energy on the canvas, her excess of that energy that exceeded the canvas edges, Lozano had by now exceeded edges of all kinds. Philosopher Simone Weil championed the work of self-effacement, calling such efforts for the sake of the goodness of others “grace” and the habit of self-servitude against which grace continuously distinguished itself “gravity”. It might be said that Lozano was subject to a similar kind of gravity, compelled by self-interest in each moment, yet this same force pulled her toward the ecstasy of self- annihilation. Lozano untangled herself from the trappings of identity, recording September 8, 1971:
I have no identity. I have an approximate mathematical
identity (birthchart.) I have several names. I will give up
my search for identity as a deadend investigation. I will
make myself empty to receive cosmic info. I will renounce
the artist’s ego, the supreme test without which battle a
human could not become ‘of knowledge’. I will be human
first, artist second. I will not seek fame, publicity, of suck-
cess. Identity changes continuously as multiplied by time. (identity is a vector.)
There is something adolescent in her denials: she resists all external obligation as a teenager asserts autonomy by resisting parental impositions. Indeed, these denials are also radical in that they repeatedly assert otherness in the context of dominant social normativity. Lozano refused to produce herself in terms of a patriarchal, capitalist, positivist order. Yet as we will see in the following examples of radical denial, something tricky happens when one becomes unhinged from social modes of self-production. Lozano records the bliss of free-fall: “Drop out from world, no calls no work no obligations no guilt no desires, just my mind wandering lazily off its leash…I have decided what I don’t want and am moving away from it, towards (o joy) the unknown (thrill of all thrills.)” Lozano was a trickster figure, operating along the well-oiled hinge(s) of cultural dyads, until she became unhinged altogether. I mean this in two senses: there is a notion of the trickster as mad, mentally unstable, and perhaps one would need to be to be as an outsider of the logos of cultural systems. But I also mean that for Lozano, the hinge itself—as a point of movement between oppositional concepts, became immaterial. Toward a true ambivalence as non- dualism, Lozano moved back and forth between, relating and separating laughable logics, until, like wing-beats, a draft was created. She floated on the updraft.
The story goes: Lozano lost her studio, slept on couches and took lovers. She shared a space with Morehead, and managed to keep a room of her own. She was active on the scene for another ten years or so, cultivating her presence and doing her philosophy. Lehrer-Graiwer reports that, “Before losing her studio, some of Lozano’s final painterly actions included cutting holes into previously painted canvases, creating openings (or exits) and ejecting, in the process, little discs of fabric like dropout satellites. She needed to vent: ‘confinement is near the root of my rage’. Dropout consolidated her ranging research into pictorial, spatial, temporal, anatomical, social and historical passage: ‘let worries fly out all holes at once.” We hear an echo of Hyde, describing the trickster’s propensity for seeking openings and opportunities: “Poroi are all the passages that allow fluids to flow in and out of the body. A pore, a portal, a doorway, a nick in time, a gap in the screen, a looseness in the weave–these are all opportunities in the ancient sense.” In 1983 when the gig was up, the city (and the world) began to change drastically, Lozano got out. While someone like Lozano could exist within a hospitable network of free lunches and couches of the 1970s, the city’s turn toward a neoliberal future meant closed shops and vacancies, a clean slate for speculation.
Lozano moved to Dallas where her parents had gone into retirement. It was around this time that she started calling herself “E” and demanding others do the same. Her behavior became aberrant, violent, and unpredictable, yet she had sufficient mental acuity, wit, and perspicacity to speak with dealers and curators who had taken newfound interest in her work. She moved from apartment to apartment, finding money when and where she needed. The record of Lozano’s life during this period is sparse. Lehrer-Graiwer notes, “Persistent holes in our knowledge of underground, post-Dropout Lozano signify the importance of not knowing and not seeing as a vital extension of the privacy and incommunicability built into ‘Life-Art’.” She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and did not want to fight it. She died in 1999. Lozano went off the edges, caught in a draft, through the canvas, underground....
I perform a convocation.
In speaking I call your attention to my voice – a privilege of proximity. I will also call your attention to moments of silence and song and touch, some ways of articulating meaning just on the far side of language. This convocation begins with a question: what can we do here together? In questioning, we draw nearer each other by that gravity of not knowing which is called curiosity. We draw nearer, several bodies, or one collective body.
This marks the third year of collective gathering at The Manse. Each year is particular, different from the year before and the one that will come after. We make this place. What do we call it? The task of finding language to describe and speak “about” what happens here is therefore particularly challenging: how do you describe a thing that that has not come to be? Similarly, the task of administrating and organizing this time together can be equally curious. With forms of organization as with language, we have taken a light touch, perhaps, perhaps sometimes too light! In our slow and clumsy and necessary inarticulateness we are trying to find a right balance, a way of using organizations of time and language to productively structure, yet not eschew, their potential as generative forces. This interplay between generative structure and a will to let emerge is a hallmark of creative work, love and living. We practice by doing, by giving to a relationship between a thing called COMPLIMENTA (all caps) – the thing that will come to pass – and the thing we call Complimenta – the group of friends who together give intentionality to this property by giving space for a thing that will come to pass. It makes sense that we use the same word to describe both of these things, (making typographic distinction mostly only for the purposes of grant writing) – so thoroughly informed by one another as they are.
I have recently been reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, in which he elaborates on a definition of “property” from the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia. He says:
“Property,” by one old definition, is a “right of action.”
To possess, to enjoy, to use, to destroy, to sell, to rent, to
give or bequeath, to improve, to pollute – all of these are
actions, and a thing (or a person) becomes “a property” whenever someone has “in it” the right of any such action.
There is no property without an actor, then, and in this sense property is an expression of the human will in things (and in other people).
We are called together to share this property. As we are here, to share this property and its proliferating and bountiful properties, let us welcome and thank one another now!
[Please turn to your neighbors and extend a welcome and gratitude and touch if you are so compelled.]
I call us to our question: what can we do here? What can we do together, here, as one or several bodies? What we can do here we have already begun. We do the work of being bodies together. To touch and be touched, to move and be moved, to love.
I want to take a moment to reflect on the privilege and precarity of our being able to congregate freely together here, particularly in light of current events in Ferguson, West Africa, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, and those many places that I do not name here. Let us reflect for a moment on how bodies in these places are sometimes congregated: some, for whose bodies the primary recourse for medical care and possible healing is through isolation, are confined within a cordon sanitaire. Those migrating or waylaid in refugee camps, suffering profound loss of loved ones, home, livelihood; those bodies destroyed by violence; those suffering hunger; those who also congregate to impose a will and suffering upon others; those many who occupy the space where one body no longer can.
These bodies teach us about the privilege and precarity of bodies. In Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, her book on war photography, she writes, “It seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others.” Yet it is not enough.
[I invite us to silently touch the earthen ground we share with all bodies.]
In these instances, we see egregious examples of racial and ideological discrimination, inequality and injustice, the destructive will toward domination. But moreover we see a trenchant and divisive battle in which the will toward domination threatens the possibility of living and being. When structures emerge from fear, from will to dominate, they snuff out potential life and liveliness, livelihoods, and a living-ness inherent to all things. It is terrifying to witness the terror imposed by regimes and individuals who are terrified by their own loss of dominant power. It is a volatile and dangerous situation. The battle takes place between regimes of power and individuals, and between individuals who are themselves both conscripted within institutions and private citizens. The battle is therefore interior as much as externalized. Individuals experience this inner conflict of power; a body grows or deforms under these forces of domination.
This is why female bodies, this is why queer bodies, this is why loved bodies must live now. Practices of feminism and queer politics emerge from epistemologies of oppression and very specific conditions of subjugation, but open toward broader practices involving the interrogation of power structures and forms of oppression wherever they may occur. Queerness and feminism elaborate embodied realities and political imaginaries. They are political positions that eschew binary modes in favor of proliferated positionalities. Feminist and queer politics involve a perpetual becoming that necessarily actively decentralizes power. Both epistemologies derive from a political and social experience of the body, from efforts to claim space, exercise love, seek self-actualization and empowerment. Self-actualization of women, minorities, queer and disenfranchised people must and can only happen in opposition to dominant patriarchal power structures, language, practices, and institutions. This of course includes capitalist imperialism. A queer and feminist sensation of shared empowerment that connects us to love and a will toward doing justice to each other and to this earth has not yet eclipsed this world.
My friend, Margot Lystra, in her essay "The Analogue Condition" offers, “It is one thing to logically understand the plight or pleasure of a different being – it is another to deeply feel the ways in which that being is another sensing, feeling body, one with whom you share space, air, and ground. Your body is the vessel through which you sense existence – as such it is the site for developing greater empathy with a vast, extraordinary, endangered, living world.”
Therefore today we come together with our bodies. We recognize the privilege and precarity of doing so. In “Trauma, Absence and Loss”, Dominick LaCapra implores,
Loss must also be addressed collectively, not simply at
the level of individual experience. Moreover, actual,
historical loss must be acknowledged and attended. The f
ailure to do so can lead to the conversion of the historical experience of loss into a structuring sense of absence, an ahistorical originary account that authorizes repetitions of violence and ideologies of subjugation. In this failure,
subjects may find themselves in an impasse of endless melancholy and impossible mourning, trapped in
naturalized, repetitive cycles that seem to be beyond their understanding and control.
I bear witness to blatant acts of disregard and dismissal of suffering human bodies and beings every single day, in culture and media, and in the city where I live. By this disavowal I feel terrorized. I feel anger and lamentation. When I feel wracked by contradiction, by the indomitable play of forces upon, within, and through this body, my relief comes from remembering that forces act upon, within, and through this body. This body - its animism and ability - is a great reconciliation. Yet we must be bodies together in order to collectively exercise love, care, humor, trust, curiosity, and self-assertion.
Together, how can we empathize with bodies who suffer
Perhaps especially those who create the suffering of others
How can we show reverence
How can we give
To speak about the role of what is called “art” in processing collective pain, loss, hope, and wonder requires an extended exegesis. Complimenta is certainly “about” art – moving around its common practices, invoking its name to call us together for a duration. We are gathered here now. Together, and alone, as one or several bodies, we will exercise these bodies, we will move, dance, sing, laugh, eat, sex, shit, cry, and speak. We will create. We create both social imaginaries and realities, doing that slow alchemy of turning what is possible over to what is real. In this time we have the privilege to celebrate the wealth of these animated bodies, these gifts of land and of each other. Let us call our bodies together, lets together give a convocation, call these bodies out loud – let us give a body call – holler out together calling out --
Let us give a body call
[Everyone calls out like animals]
NOTES ON LANUGAGE
A friend from the States put me in touch with a contact of hers in Paris. While waiting to meet him on the street near a metro stop in Montparnasse, a young couple on a bench nearby chatted me up:
- You are from America? - Yes, I am…New York. - Who are you waiting for? You are meeting someone? - Yes, I’m waiting to meet someone, he’s a friend of a friend. - What will you do? - We’re seeing a film. - He is French? - Ya, he lives here. - He will want to fuck you. - Oh?! Ah, I don’t think that will happen. - Why, aren’t you single? What is his name? - It’s Maxime. - Oh yes, he will definitely try to fuck you.
Which was a funny premise to meeting Maxime; when he arrived finally, we exchanged an awkwardly cross-cultural handshake-plus-cheek-kiss. (We were not inclined to fuck.)
We went to a café for wine and a small meal. We ate gnocchi and red wine and talked about cultural funding for the arts, changing political landscapes in both of our countries; he wondered about the real effect of the Tea Party. Was it rhetoric or revolution. We pressed on to the film, Jean Luc Godard’s One Plus One at the Swiss Cultural Institute.
Talking with our mouths full is a distinctly human thing to do. In other primates, this move is made impossible by an anatomical rule that disables an otherwise agile tongue when sound is emanating from the throat.
Was it evolutionarily advantageous for early Homo sapiens to talk with their mouths full?
A foot is a part of the body that enables our specific upright orientation on the earth, and makes it possible to walk; it is a unit of spatial measurement; it is an accentual-syllabic unit of speech, as in a verse. The foot is our most empirical scale and we use it to measure the world.
Imagine a group of proto-humans crouched on a rocky precipice, strategizing how best to capture gazelles below. They traverse the ground with eyes and sounds for feet. During this period, speech was in formation, perhaps little more than gutteral or gestural discourse.
In ecology, the word “convivium” is used to describe a population of species that has evolved distinct adaptive traits due to geographic isolation. A famous example is Darwin’s finches. The term is also used colloquially to describe a banquet or feast, a friendly and jovial gathering. Tracing the history of the word, we sense a fine confusion of gregarious practices – eating together and happy survival. This makes sense because one would always seem to imply the other; sustenance and communication have a deep correspondence.
The film was preceded by a two-hour lecture (in French) by a scholar and biographer of Dylan and the Stones. I don’t speak French. Even for Maxime, as he would later relate, the language was exceptionally dense and hard to follow. We suspected the talk would be less than an hour, more of an elaborate introduction, and so sitting through not difficult to bear. But he just went on…And finally, the film.
When we emerged from the theater, I found myself loosed from language. I felt estranged from myself, totally dislodged, homeless. I was totally fucked, stricken, split. (fuck: from Indo-European “strike”; shared by Latin pugnus “fist”). The sounds worked abstractly. Immersion in language without meaning. The senses rail against such immersion, but if you go under, there is a kind of liberation, like in the movie The Abyss, where in order to descend to extreme depths, the crew get special suits that allow for “liquid breathing”:
My mouth is full. There is a foot there, or sometimes your mouth
Bodies open bodies upon grounds
Corners are extents and incidents. A corner indicates a nether region, as in “the four corners of the earth”, marking out the extent of a territory. This phrase designates a kind of aporia – the globe with corners – unless we understand corners to be different sorts of referents, more like brackets, which might hold, embrace, contain, or define in more contingent ways.
These four corners might be something like Heidegger’s fourfold: earth, sky, mortals, divinity (on the earth, under the sky, among the mortals, before the gods).
A corner is more distinguished than an angle. A corner will lose its distinction as corner, becoming merely an angle, if there are fewer than four.
To see out of the corners of ones eyes or to have something in the corner of the eye
Striated field, marked off.
A cut-clean edge leaves the ends; rags a-tatter.
Joints, hinges, angles.
A corner has both an exterior or interior. Corners are nether regions, perhaps in the sense of the intimate corners of the body, but also the extremities. Corners are both regions (spaces) and meeting points (places).
A corner is a distinguishing marker. It is a structural imperative.
Being in the corner: a place for repentance, reflection, thoughtfulness; being put away. To be backed into a corner: restricted. To turn a corner: come around. Cutting corners.
Yet there is a way that a corner can hold. The corners of the body. The soft corners of one body can tenderly receive the corner of another in a splendid redundancy, doubling up and over of bodies; the leisurely and automatic slippage of the angle of one knee fitting into the hollow of another.
The way a hand can urgently or violently or powerfully grab, or grab out of necessity for a structure the body itself can no longer maintain – but a hand can also receive.
In a corner, it is possible to pull off the joke where you make it look like you are making out with someone but it is really you doubling your arms back on themselves.
NOTES FOR AN ADAPTATION OF AGNES VARDA'S VAGABOND IN AMERICA
1.) The Vagabond book: it is a novel that sets out to remake Varda's film in America. In this way it is a novel about poverty and class, capitalism and spiritualism in America. In the novel, the film is being made, and throughout the text, there are stills from the film (similar to the Akerman book).
2.) The film may/may not manifest as a film per se.
Agnes Varda V in America making a film/ not making a film writing a book
about the making of a film
3.) Why am I preoccupied with vagabonds and wanderers?
4.) Consider questions/problems of poverty and representation. Poverty and homelessness is inherently a problem/challenge of representation – because of transience, because of the want of institutions and agencies to make invisible, because of criminalization of homelessness in public places.
5.) ZA said something like: the process of representation cannot be a constructed fiction. What does this mean.
6.) Filmmaking can (does it need to?) confront questions of representation; how does this differ from the kind of representation that writing does; allowing for filmic and writerly forms of representation to exist in the same work/space allows the limits and agencies of each medium to be teased out/compared/used, etc., which, in their differences, bring up questions of how to represent…
7.) What are the ethics of Varda's film?
8.) What does it mean to remake Vagabond in America... There is a trajectory that the character in the film has as she dislocates herself from capitalist practices; it is somehow a metaphysical exercise. She has a will toward absence and makes a clear trajectory from the moment of refusal to the moment of death (same as Bartleby). When she refuses to participate productively in capitalist society, she also dislocates herself from her own desire and from an individuated drive toward the production of self. As her drive for self production diminishes, so does her will for self-preservation atrophy. Paradoxically, the un-tethering is done in the name of freedom but results in death.
9.) Two narrative structures within the film:(1) The structure of the pseudo-documentary meta-narrative begins and ends at the same point: we begin and end with the death of Mona. In this sense, the meta-narrative is stationary. but through the (2) straightforward narrative of the character, we are propelled in a circle from the initial point of Mona's death back to her point of death. The narrative of the character begins with Mona coming out of the ocean, and ends with her frozen in a ditch. Yet she doesn't just end up in the dirt, the point is made that Mona "froze to death" - some more extreme version of the stillness of death.
Mona's experience has real tactile, material signification. From water to earth/ground/dirt (a trajectory we all, more or less, experience: surrounded by aqueous fluid in the womb, and covered by dirt in the end). Also, we see Mona move from a state of relative cleanliness to one of grime, stench, dirt, shit, and piss. The magnitude of her stench is remarked on by those she encounters throughout the film.
These narrative structures mentioned also correspond to the ways Mona is known: in the first instance, a composite portrait of Mona is made through the interview-style reports of Mona by others. These are the people whom she has met along the way in her journey towards death, and they represent a range of class, gender, profession, etc. She is represented by and through these others, and in this way, we also see the way her personage and predicament come to reflect the values, sympathies, or antipathies of these individuals.
10.) Mona uses her sexuality to find/keep jobs, though she never turns to prostitution (a point made clear through her encounter with a prostitute). And she elects lovers. She has physical contact with other wanderers. She is also raped. Something lingers here I can't quite articulate, something about being a woman alone on the road. It is something at the intersection of empowerment, precarity, risk, and outright danger...
11.) Is the literary mechanism one of emulation? Is this a role I play? Do i write from her perspective? or the perspective of myself as author and "filmmaker"? Do I take on Agnes' role, in a sense, or something in between Agnes and Mona and Me? Am I trying to embody an experience or represent it?
12.) What is freedom in a French vs. American context.
13.) The original french title "sans toit ni loi" translates to "without faith nor law"
14.) Think about landscapes. Re-watch film with a mind toward its landscapes...its desolate winter landscapes.
KM talking about trucking across the American landscape. He said, in some landscapes, you "leave yourself behind. Your own spirit becomes a landmark amidst that horizon."
A greater challenge to power comes not through blatant opposition (which fortifies dichotomies) but by subtler means, by sneaking around and undercutting foundations. Like weeds. Like rats.
Prometheus was a demi-god by some accounts and a humanist trickster by others. His name means both “Forethinker” and “Thief of Fire”. His name tells his story: he is known for stealing fire from the ever- retributive Zeus and returning it to humans. This he did using a giant fennel-stalk – a flowering perennial weed- bush found in the rocky soils of Medeterrania. Funny this burned Zeus so badly, because stealing fire is not like stealing bread: the source is not extinguished only reproduced. One would think Zeus more incensed if fire could never be his again, but the worse offense, by his account, was to share it with humans.
A greater challenge to power is to reveal power everywhere is thereby to nullify power.
As punishment for this irreverent act Zeus banished Prometheus to barren hinterland---chained to a rock---liver feast for eagle every day.
Here, in the desert, one walks and imagines
an architecture in the distant haze. One measures progress by the disappointments
of its unfolding clarity. [Secession]
An image becomes abstracted and in this way gains a range of movement. What it loses in specificity it gains in ambiguity, which means multiple readings are possible. Abstract images get meaning-drift. They move around in historical space. They morph. Rorschach.
Here is a list of images I read In Mike Ashkin’s show, “Architecture is for Creeps”:
School Desk/Torture Chair
Rat Traps/Laser Trip Wire
You will notice that in some cases – as with Cigarettes/Dynamite, or Prison/Spaceship – abstraction also leads to a confusion of scale. Mike is making models in every sense – as representations, as systems, as examples – but standards of measurement are open, unclear. When I mistake a stick of dynamite for a cigarette, or a prison for a spaceship, I am visited by an even greater sense of uncanniness. I must recall an awareness of self and body in relation to the object. Faculties of perception, however variable, offer a reliable metric.
I wonder, what are the dimensions of our
world? We seem forever consigned to see
in terms of scale, not size, size being the province of certainty and God. Although we measure the world with a ruler, we observe
the ruler relative to its distance from our eyes. [Garden State]
Metonymy is a kind of model-making and this show is full of examples of what power looks like through time. Here are some of the ways we see that power can be instantiated:
That Cigarettes mis-read as Dynamite take meaning as Weapon[s]/Control/Occupation is in part because of a dynamic action of synapses, the spatial matter of the brain. It is also because we live in an environment. Culture is a landscape in which humans have lived for thousands of years. We keep living in this landscape longer, which produces at the same time more vastness and more density. This means more opportunities for either isolation or co-incidence . More opportunities for something like a “Stonehenge” to resemble something like a “Tilted Arc”.
The space of Mike’s show mimics this landscape—a sparse composition of discrete elements that is also available to an ecological reading.
Perhaps our only experience of unity comes
in fragile, overlooked moments. Today,
sitting on the railroad embankment, my eyes drifted in the direction of the unpaved service road and lingered there. For a while, I don’t know how long, I was conscious of nothing,
not even of looking. [Garden State]
Here is a list of materials used throughout the show:
Duct Tape (various colors)
2” x 2” Wood Studs
Hinges, Nails, Screws
There’s an economy of means in the materials – they’re often structural and aesthetic. Like the objects they emulate through assembly, these materials are weeds by their ubiquity. They are weeds creeping in a de-populated post-military-industrial complex. They are weeds at the ready for stealing fire because the thing is when you make a School Desk/Torture Chair out of scraps of 2” x 2” Wood Studs held together at one point with a Clamp[s] you get the sense that the whole thing (and by whole I mean the whole construction of power) is really rather tenuous.
There are other moments of tenuousness throughout – moments of real careful and precarious equilibrium: things are tied or taped or glued or missing some screws but just enough to hold together. Precisely.
As a representation of objects that are so demonstratively massive, the Stonehenge/Tilted Arc is made from weathered pieces of cardboard held upright and round by weathered pieces of masking tape. This makes the structural robustness of a small cardboard structure by Mike’s son Julius – suspended in bulbous daubs of hot glue – seem rather sensuous, rococo.
Elsewhere, cardboard towers top oblique posts affixed by clamps. Flag stem leans oblique over podium stuck into corner where wall meets floor/wood piece fixed oblique props cardboard prison model flipped flat to wall/2” x 2”’s jammed oblique ceiling corner floor. Sticks in the side of.
Here, I experience the seven characteristics
of the sublime:
We remain, as did Louis XIV, more in Pascal’s world than in Descartes’: “at a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes: the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from [us] in impenetrable secrecy.” [Garden State]
And like a thorn the show makes people around here a little uncomfortable.
Mike’s show is called “Architecture is for Creeps”, and it is being shown at a gallery in a building that is primarily used by architects. Designed by a famous one. The building is a big flat box suspeded on a concrete dome. It jettisons preccariously on either side, setting up to stalk the Foundry that sits precariously at the edge of the gorge. The building performs this trick by a structural ingenuity where a typical truss is combined with an open truss is combined with a Virendeel truss. This means it has both vertical and oblique members. Here is what it looks like:
I said the building sets up to stalk the Foundry, because it creeps like someone looking over your shoulder. In this diagram you’d find the Foundry at the left, just under the row of wavering sticks, and if it weren’t for the one upright at the very end, you can imagine the kinetics of the whole thing coerced by gravity falling finding Foundry falling finding gorge. The Foundry is where Mike works, where he keeps his studio. During construction of the building with the dome, it was discovered that the foundation of the Foundry was insecure, undercut and eroded. They had to reinforce the soil. In architecture, “creep” is a gradual, almost imperceptible deformation under stress.
These buildings are housed in a college of Architecture, Art, and Planning, where Architecture is first listed and not by accident. The College is situated within Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Mike Ashkin is a tenured-track professor in this context. Prometheus was a demi-god. Got banished anyway.
In the desert, life is marked by the separation between here and there. The world stands
there, but one’s death occurs here.
So who’s sneaking? And who’s the creep here? The word “creep” comes from the Germanic creōpan, moving with the body close to the ground; this is how we imagine Prometheus in his radical open-sourcing, all army-crawl, fennel-stalk in hand. Prometheus as sacred snake, detestable person.
The work here is representative of longer-term efforts that have unfolded throughout Mike’s tenure as an artist, an educator, and a thinker. He is perhaps metaphysically preoccupied, vexed by human moves to glean discretion from abstraction. He has made some effort to study this. Mike’s model-making recapitulates as it explores, and by careful empiricism considers borders, buildings, and languages. Tries to see the odd violence they do. The confusion of scale is really a precise technique that exercises perceptive abilities and asks, if by looking from a certain distance, we can understand anything any better. Here is a list of some of the things Mike has modeled:
I can’t speak more specifically. Better your mind skips like a small flat rock across these lists to mark an ellipsis. Imprecise syllogisms get made. When this happens in language, it can be called poetry. When it happens by visual means, it is often called art. Using both means it is sometimes called myth.
Surface, depth, distance, man, nature, God: these are the creations of language. These
are words which, like all other words, create their own paradoxes; words separating what
is not separable in the world.
For Descartes, space and size exist as a projection of thought. Yet with thought, we
have created only abstractions beyond the
reach of our corporeal beings…
To complete the act of stealing fire Prometheus moved prone to oblique: he ran. His body was wayfinding; a mark made from here to the future. In computer parlance, / tells of place, it gives you a map to a location and finds you the way. There is another German word I know – “da”. As a syllable-sound it is one of the most fundamental, the most ubiquitous the body can utter. It has been described to me as meaning that-ness and there-ness, here-ness and yet-ness. A word describing both immanence and imminence.
CRISIS, CRITIQUE, COLLECTIVITY
Group Material was a New York artist collective that produced projects and exhibitions between 1979 and 1996. A porous entity, many artists moved in and through the group during this time—with the exception of Julie Ault, a founding member who remained active until the group’s conclusion, and who later took on the task of creating an archive of the collective’s work. For the first several years, Group Material ran and produced exhibitions at a storefront art space in the East Village, but later created more broadly distributed works in public spaces, on billboards, and though print media. Upon invitation, they also exhibited in alternative art spaces, museums, universities, and biennale. Preceding the artist-as-curator turn of the late 1990s, as well as ‘relational aesthetic’ practices of the early 2000s, likewise occupying a place slightly to the side of more overtly political artist groups, the work of Group Material consistently brought together a diverse range of visual material to explore their expository and affective qualities. Historically minded and process oriented, they sought to preserve heterogeneity in lieu of singular narrative.
Group Material constructed fragmented histories, or what member Doug Ashford called “associative historicisms” through experimentation with narrative representational forms including the archive, the chronicle, and—as I consider here—the timeline. Julie Ault writes, “Group Material conceived of a timeline exhibition as a mapping scheme capable of generating immersive diagrams of past events and potential readings of cause and effect within which viewers could navigate constellations of information and in the process formulate history.” Within the visual-spatial format of the timeline, disparate material achieves a kind of parity, allowing for affective and associative readings to come to bear on the creation of historical understanding. The group created several timeline exhibitions, including Timeline: A Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and South America at PS1 in 1984, and several iterations, in exhibition and publication format, of AIDS Timeline between 1988 and 1991.
In this essay, I focus on the development of AIDS Timeline as a practice of critique, effectively countering public and political narratives that scripted AIDS as “crisis”. I explore how techniques of representation, modes of discourse, and forms of self-organization came to be enfolded in a lived practice of social critique. I first explore some theorizations of the unique social and political subjectivity of collectivity itself, thinking with philosophers George Bataille, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Maurice Blanchot. I consider how the organization and working processes of Group Material qualified historical constructs and representations. Secondly, I consider the case study of the AIDS Timeline to think about how graphic and spatial representational techniques created “associative historicisms”, where the distinct temporalities that conditioned the lives of people with AIDS could be shown and told. Finally, drawing on the work of Janet Roitman, as well as Leo Bersani, I think through the conceptual and biopolitical work that the narration of “AIDS crisis” engendered, and how the processes of Group Material served to critique the morally grounded aporias by which such a crisis persisted. My aim is not to cohere these contemplations into a reasoned argument, per se, but to instead allow them to occupy the same space. Learning from the techniques of Group Material, I intend for these materials to resonate with one another as they are set in relation.
I want to begin by theorizing the collective as a unique social and political subjectivity, distinct from the individual, fixed group, or multitude. The collective is determined less by what gives it cohesion, and more by what continually effaces it, opens or closes it as a constituency. Revealing a particularly liminal quality of organization, the artist collective (certainly Group Material, among others) can be taken as paradigmatic example. Each instantiation of collectivity is essentially incomparable to any other, arising from precise coincidences of the exigency and excess of life and material. Collectivity, in this sense, can be understood as an event in itself, where each expression has unique duration. I want to question what effect this distinct subjectivity might have as crisis is evoked, and what forms of critique it might engender. I want to suggest, at the very least, that the experience of collectivity, the being of this particular political subjectivity, came to inflect Group Material’s approach to narrativization, historiographic representation, and the practice of critique. I explicate Jean-Luc Nancy and Maurice Blanchot’s theorizations of “community” (following Georges Bataille) to this effect. Notwithstanding the etymological and discursive distinctions between the terms “collective” and “community”, which I do not elaborate here given the scope of this paper, Blanchot and Nancy’s theoretical engagements are useful in drawing out several important constitutive characteristics that apply to the work of Group Material, especially with respect to their work on AIDS Timeline.
Nancy, in La communauté désoeuvrée (The Inoperable Community), and Blanchot in La Communauté inavouable (The Unavowable Community), both published in 1983, elaborate a critical theory of community that draws heavily on the life and thought of George Bataille. In correspondence with one another as well as with Bataille’s work, these texts center on the question of how community might be theorized in light of the impossibility of theological hypostasy on the one hand, and the dashed expectations of communism on the other. In the wake of Bataille’s own experimentation and writing (between 1930 and 1960)—a personal and extreme striving for community that might exist independently of religious or sovereign governance, beholden to neither future prospects nor fictions of the past—Blanchot and Nancy elaborate the fraught space by which such community is constituted. The community is rendered here as effectively non-constitutional, and non-foundational. It is characterized by an unceasing communication that is the ecstatic, being-together of sharing finitude—a perpetual negotiation of difference (generally, within a spacing of ‘others’, and specifically, as each singularity toward its unique death) that comes to be the gravitational force of community itself. Here I briefly outline three essential characteristics of community as it is theorized: 1.) the twinning of ecstasy and death, 2.) the ‘work’ of communication, and 3.) the problem of representation.
—The twinning of ecstasy and death— Nancy writes, “Strictly speaking [ecstasy] defines the impossibility…of absolute immanence…and consequently the impossibility either of an individuality, in the precise sense of the term, or of a pure collective totality.” From the Greek ekstasis, “standing outside of oneself”, ecstasy is a self-transcendence. It is associated with self-shattering or self-effacing practices such as religious mysticism, sexual experience, or drug-induced stimulation. Nancy, following Bataille, calls the experience of community fundamentally ecstatic. In Bataille’s writing, the ecstatic is also twinned with death. He writes, “If it sees its fellow-being die, a living being can subsist only outside itself…Each one of us is then driven out of the confines of his person and loses himself as much as possible in the community of his fellow creatures…” Nancy explains, “A community is the presentation to its members of their mortal truth…It is the presentation of the finitude and the irredeemable excess that make up finite being…” The community reveals to each constituent singularity its existence outside of itself. The ecstatic names the very work of communication, the being outside of oneself that is being-with (others).
[Without dwelling on the subtleties of Nancy and Bataille’s theories, I want to point out that Bataille uses the term sovereignty to name this mode of being. Nancy quotes Bataille, who writes, “‘Sovereignty is NOTHING.’” Nancy continues, “Sovereignty is the sovereign exposure to an excess (to a transcendence)… ‘In’ the ‘NOTHING’ or in nothing—in sovereignty— being is ‘outside itself’; it is an exteriority that is impossible to recapture, or perhaps we should say that it is of this exteriority, that it is of an outside that it cannot relate to itself, but with which it entertains an essential and incommensurable relation.” Here we recall Kathleen Davis’s exegesis of Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology (1922). Schmitt identifies the paradoxical “state of exception” which, as Davis elucidates, makes the “foundation of…sovereignty… not locatable”, and goes on to illustrate how “medieval/modern periodization frequently serves as a substitute for this absent foundation of sovereignty.” Bataille’s mysterious Acéphale community explored the notion of beheading metaphorically (and to an unknown extent, literally), seeking to actualize a ‘headless’ organization; evoking a threatening critique of sovereign power from the French Revolution.]
—The ‘work’ of communication— Bataille observed that every extant community, whether secular or religious, is predicated on and attempts to make a work of death. Where a biopolitical enterprise (at the time Bataille was writing, anyway) consolidates its power through the death/sacrifice of soldiers, religious communities promise a fusional bond through the transubstantiation of mortal substance. Though the community Bataille describes is also premised on death, as we have just seen, the very nature by which a shared finitude occurs precludes the possibility of making a work of death. Nancy elaborates: “There is neither an entity nor a sacred hypostasis of community—there is…the sharing of singular beings and the communication of finitude…There is no entity or hypostasis of community because this sharing, this passage cannot be completed. Incompletion is its ‘principle,’ making the term ‘incompletion’ in an active sense, however, as designating not insufficiency or lack, but the activity of sharing…That is to say, a workless and inoperative activity.” Here ‘work’ refers to a project of sovereignty, as well as something like an oeuvre, or a generalizable body of work. Blanchot picks up on this notion in his essay, and with a mind (always) toward literary criticism and the impossibilities of language, he comments on the relation between the work (oeuvre) and a perpetual unworking (desoeuvrement) in the communication of the community.
—The problem of representation— Within community, there is no ground, there is only a network of distributions, which is the active work of communication. Blanchot engages with Bataille and Nancy, but also with the literary figures of Wagner and Marguerite Duras, to theorize a notion of community at various scales—considering a pair of lovers as well as the more extensive social group. As Blanchot explores the essential communicative nature of the community, he reveals the potentially political implications of this non-foundational constituency, especially with respect to language and representation. Describing these conditions, he writes, “They are there, then they are no longer there; they ignore the structure that could stabilize them. Presence and absence, if not merged, at least exchange themselves virtually. That is what makes them formidable for the holders of a power that does not acknowledge them: not letting themselves be grasped, being as much the dissolution of the social fact as the stubborn obstinacy to reinvent the latter in a sovereignty the law cannot circumscribe, as it challenges it while maintaining itself as its foundation.” And this non-sovereign sovereignty, extant as communication, but absent in its avowal, makes trouble for any attempt to establish a constitution through written or spoken language. “The ‘unavowable' community: does that mean that it does not acknowledge itself or that it is such that no avowal may reveal it, given that each time we have talked about its way of being, one has had the feeling that one grasped only what makes it exist by default?” Such community defies a representational politic, eschewing both self-constituted identity and externally imposed designations.
I want to hold these theoretical considerations in mind and move on to thinking about how the characteristics described above might be implicit in the work of Group Material. In particular, I ask how these aspects might qualify the group’s epistemology, approach to history, and representational techniques. To begin with, I will here introduce some excerpts from a text written by Julie Ault. She reflects on the distinct political organization of the group and the curatorial approach to its own historiography, as these were exercised in creating the Group Material archive at the Downtown Library at NYU, and the monograph Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material.
In “Active Recollection: Archiving ‘Group Material’”, Ault describes her resistance to creating a smooth historical narrative of the group’s disparate and fraught engagements. She writes, “When the group ceased its activities I was intent on preserving its ephemerality and not becoming history. Fearing a revisionist encapsulation in which conflicts and contradictions of collaboration are resolved in their representation, I resisted our work being defined or objectified in a monograph by an art historian, and reserved the right to cohere our history at some future point.” As Ault sought to organize the archive, and craft a historical representation that had greater fidelity to contradictory aspects of the group, she engaged with a number of salient questions that drove the project: “How does bringing documentation together imply shaping history and writing history? How do artifacts – whether material or informational – communicate?...What is gained and lost in the process of subjecting ephemeral activities to conservation, and inducting them into history?...How to make what is missing evident as a layer of historicizing…Can one effectively challenge history writing while writing history?” Working through these questions was much a curatorial concern—the political decisions that dictate what gets selected to be seen—as a problem of writing—working within grammatical laws that uphold distinctions between concepts and subjectivities alike. As a way of working through the latter problem, Ault refers to the group as a “collective subjective”, and in Show and Tell, (though this is applicable to AIDS Timeline too), “A depersonalized present-tense mode is used, intended to situate readers in the times of events and suggest collective subjectivity, distinct from first-person retrospection.”
The group’s curatorial strategies also experiment with narrative form, and attempt to break from the neat correspondences between perspective and subjectivity. Ault quotes historian Hayden White regarding the differences between chronologies and stories: “In his work to categorize history writing White has pointed out that a key problem of the (objective) chronicle or chronology is the notion that events tell themselves, in lieu of a (subjective) narrator.” The work of Group Material is marked by an effort to combine the objective and subjective through experimentation with different narrative techniques—in particular, deriving a hybrid chronicle-timeline form. I want to argue that this is not merely an aesthetic trope, but grows out of their collective process, and in turn comes to have political significance. Ault moves from White to philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who considers how “the effects of scale in history writing” conspire to create political consciousness:
What can be seen on a large scale are the developing
forces. But what can be seen on a small scale – and
this is the lesson of microhistory – are the situations
of uncertainty within which individuals […] attempt
to reorient themselves […] Therefore, when you write macrohistory, you are more likely to work with deter-
minisms, whereas when you work on microhistories,
you have to engage indecisions, that is to say, indeter-
Ault’s archival and editorial strategies attempt to accommodate both scales, but do so without preserving binaries of macro/micro. Instead, Ault, and I think this claim can rightly be extended to include Group Material, finds a historiographic sensibility that elides these binaries in order to reveal conditions of haecceity, contemporaneity, and relativity. A driving question becomes, How can we make sense of what has happened without in turn becoming overdetermined by these things? How too, do ‘we’ make sense? These questions circulated at different scales within the group as it endeavored to feel forth its own historical contradictions, and create work that sought to do the same within a broader public realm. We can see the ways these inform one another in the development of the AIDS Timeline project.
—Process— In a letter to the University of California Berkeley Art Museum, Group Material stated the aims of the AIDS Timeline project as follows: “The AIDS Timeline will recontextualize within a historical framework AIDS as an epidemic that, because of social and political conditions in which it appeared, became a crisis.” AIDS Timeline was in fact not one discrete exhibition, but a product of research inflected by various places and in collaboration with different constituencies. From these processes and the material archive that grew as a result, Group Material created several iterations of the Timeline, spanning three different museums and almost a dozen print publications. The project first began as a series of workshops and discussions under the rubric of AIDS and Democracy: A Case Study held at Dia Art Foundation between 1988 and 1989. In this context, Group Material facilitated events and presented information that included projects, videos, and practical knowledge from AIDS artist/activists groups ACT UP and Gran Fury, among others. The Dia project provided an opportunity for research, assemblage, communication, and mourning. As the AIDS epidemic had at that point subtended nearly the entire decade, the effects of the disease were deeply felt by queer communities, and, given a substantial overlap of constituents, the arts as well. The group conducted informal surveys with members of the visiting public about their intimate experiences with the direct effects of the disease, as well as the indirect consequences of a then systemic failure of public health and the widespread stigmatization, discrimination, and criminalization against homosexuality and people living with AIDS.
Having seen the show at Dia Art Foundation, Larry Rinder, curator of the Matrix program at University of California Berkeley Museum of Art, asked Group Material to create an exhibition centering on similar themes. The approach to the exhibition, as related in Show and Tell, is as follows: “The group decides to map the interlocking conditions that transformed the epidemic into a crisis,” surveying various fields of discourse including medicine, public policy, and popular media, as well as activist and grassroots efforts of people living with HIV/AIDS. And each instantiation of the exhibition was different. AIDS Timeline was reconfigured for the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford in the fall of 1990, and for the Whitney Biennale in the spring of 1991. “GM regards the Timeline not as a traveling exhibition, but as a flexible framework that takes into account the specificity of the AIDS crisis in a given geographic parameter, while also reflecting the development of the pandemic on a national scale." The exhibition as a form of publication, a mode of research, and a social process sought to understand how the AIDS crisis came to be constituted through an uneven and spatially distributed set of contingencies. The exhibition, it can be said, served to elucidate a genealogy as critique.
But as Ashford elsewhere narrates, “Group Material’s work was collaboratively produced and the social processes involved in its making are equally part of its subject(s) and content(s).” As it was a manifestation of social processes of collaboration (within the group and beyond) and the sharing and making public of a wealth of information and experience, the exhibition itself functioned as an artifact of the lived process of social critique. And though I do not dwell on the topic here, it is important to point out the significant demands of this affective labor. Ashford again: “The struggle to communicate even amongst those invested in a common project seemed at times insurmountable.” Inherent to the lived practice of social critique, or the “non-foundational foundation of political action” are very real contingencies. Potentiality is always subject to the limitations of both exigencies and excesses of life and material. By 1991, as Group Material began preparations for the exhibition at the Whitney Biennial, many in the group felt a general fatigue from the ceaseless work of communication—and a poignant sadness from experiencing personal losses. Participating member Felix Gonzalez-Torres, depleted from working on many AIDS-related projects, and had just lost his long-term partner, Ross. In spite of this, the group decided to re-stage the exhibition at the Whitney, because of the exposure it offered for the discussion of such a timely issue.
—Graphic and Spatial Form— Describing the array of materials that comprised the AIDS Timeline, Doug Ashford writes: “a newspaper and morbidity report, an AIDS profiteer sticker and a non-objective painting were all hung together…the comparison budgets for B2 bombers with the lyrics of ‘It’s Raining Men… To combine the editorial and the emotive was our purpose, a possibility of resistance found in abstraction, in the emotional connection to a history we are experiencing as it happens. We tried to think the aesthetic and the political together, formed within the context of art and its possible world of proposition and response and proposition – a multiplication of possibilities.” This heterogeneous information was organized in a highly graphic presentation, borrowing from the aesthetic of Russian Constructivism. The time line itself was rendered as a continuous black horizontal band of about 4 inches, each year marked out in roughly five-foot intervals, serving as a datum that stretched around the room.
But unlike its historical precedents, Group Material’s time line was less a structuring device that dictated reasoned causality than a means of orientation within which each viewer could navigate her own perceptions, (replete with contradictions), of history. Ault remarks on the correspondence between the content and architectural form at the Wadsworth exhibition: “We wanted to start with 1979, to start with the past and go up to the future…the architecture of the space is perfect because the ceiling is lower at the beginning where there’s less information then at ’83 it starts to really grow. ’84 the ceiling gets even higher. The room is designed for a timeline, an AIDS Timeline.” And as member Sabrina Locks notes, “Undermining the appearance of a linear progression over time, the Timeline also points to a failing holy modern marriage of scientific progress and political rationale as means for action or inaction (regarding matters of public health, the environment, technology)—and affirming against its fatalism in light of these failures, the right and the possibility to live with AIDS.” Beyond its original graphic format as an explanatory narrative, the spatialized version of the timeline implicated the viewer within these historical contingencies as it encircled the room.
AIDS Timeline undoubtedly unfolds from Group Material’s broader aesthetic and social proclivities. But because of its implicitly collaborative process and explicitly socio-political effects, the work posed a question for many art critics. How can a work like this be evaluated according to the normative standards of art criticism, which consider a work’s formal merits, or art historical precedents? One art critic, Glen Helfand, suggested the work was “critic proof”, stating, “At least from certain critical angles, that Felix was HIV positive and was a known member of the collective clearly shifts the ways in which the work could be seen.” While this may point to a crisis for the art critic (which, with the exponential increase of experimental art forms, has become quite an extended crisis), it also speaks to the unique capacity of the work itself to rupture the boundaries of discursive domains. As Michel Foucault asserts in his lecture “What is Critique?”, “Critique is the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth… critique will be the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability. Critique would essentially insure the desubjugation of the subject in the context of what we could call, in a word, the politics of truth.” Through a lived practice of social critique, Group Material disrupt the boundaries of the semi- autonomous realm of art itself in order to question the effects of power within and outside of its discursive domain.
—Lived temporalities— Before I move on to consider how AIDS Timeline demonstrates a practice of critique that runs counter to a narration of the AIDS epidemic as a ‘crisis’, I want to dwell on the kinds of temporalities that are implicit in the work itself, as it is both represented within Timeline and experienced within the social process of collaboration. More specifically, I want to think about what temporalities might condition the life of an individual with AIDS, and the temporal implications that widespread, rapid illness and death has within communities, given that time is transubstantiated into social bonds. I begin with a telling fragment included in the Timeline:
ACT UP demonstrators interrupt trading on the New
York Stock Exchange for 4 ½ minutes. The demonstrators
call for traders to sell Burroughs Wellcome stock because
the drug company profiteers from the AIDS crisis.
Simultaneous protests occur in New York, London, and
San Francisco. Shortly thereafter Burroughs Wellcome
lowers the price of AZT (the only federally approved
drug that slows the replication of HIV by 20%)
This excerpt highlights several groups of actors, their associated temporalities, and what is at stake for each. It shows the odd confrontation of those who have conceived of ‘crisis’ by those who practice critique. It reveals the geographic distributions and the local contingencies that qualify these confrontations. It shows late liberal interests and their biopolitical counterparts in a grim reveal of the qualification of life by capital. This salient detail is one among many included within Timeline that speaks volumes about the conflicting temporalities that mark the interplay of crisis as a moral and political strategy and critique as a fight for life.
What are the temporalizing effects of disease, and of AIDS specifically? My perspective is albeit a distant one, but I want to at least hazard a guess that the pacing of the disease, the social violence done, and a consciousness of the temporal limit of death itself qualified the temporalities of persons living with AIDS during the early decades. As Patrick O’Connell, Director of Visual AIDS quotes, “I’m an artist/art-worker interrupted. AIDS happened to us, and we had no choice but to stop and take note. We could not ignore it in our professional or personal lives.” AIDS undoubtedly complicates the horizon of futurity, and especially during the early years of its emergence; we might say Reinhardt Koselleck’s “horizon of expectation” collapses into the “space of experience” as the arc of one’s life is disrupted. Further, disease effects capacity, and the ability to know what or how movement and engagement will be conditioned on any given day. The demands of the body draw one’s consciousness toward the present; past and future become blurred peripherals. And for many who were infected early on, life moved through a kind of reciprocally inverse temporality whereby the slowness of sickness met the rapacious advance of disease.
But as we know, these temporalizing effects also changed over time: they have been inflected by developments within medicine, pharmacology, health care, and public policy—and in light of material and geographic differentials. For too long, AIDS remained an epistemological blind spot within these disciplinary and discursive fields because of a moralizing sentiment, heteronormative anxiety, and irrational fear. There is a very real and direct way in which the persistence of this epistemological blind spot came to condition lived temporalities of individuals and communities affected by AIDS. In a final turn, I explore the implications of these epistemological limits for the generation of crisis narratives and practices of critique, thinking with Leo Bersani and Janet Roitman.
THE CONCEPT OF CRISIS AND PRACTICE OF CRITIQUE
—Crisis— In his 1987 essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” theorist Leo Bersani critically reflects on the moralizing claims that undergirded the AIDS crisis. Throughout his essay, he thinks along with Simon Watney, citing excerpts from his book Policing Desire. Quoting Watney, Bersani states: “Watney's premise is that ‘AIDS is not only a medical crisis on an unparalleled scale, it involves a crisis of representation itself, a crisis over the entire framing of knowledge about the human body and its capacities for sexual pleasure’.” Throughout the essay, Bersani outlines
… examples of what might be called a frenzied epic
of displacements in the discourse on sexuality and on
AIDS. The government talks more about testing than it
does about research and treatment; it is more interested
in those who may eventually be threatened by AIDS than
in those already stricken with it. There are hospitals in
which concern for the safety of those patients who have
not been exposed to HIV takes precedence over caring for
those suffering from an AIDS-related disease. Attention is turned away from the kinds of sex people practice to a moralistic discourse about promiscuity. The impulse to kill
gays comes out as a rage against gay killers deliberately spreading a deadly virus among the ‘general public.’ The temptation of incest has become a national obsession with
child abuse by day-care workers and teachers. Among intellectuals, the penis has been sanitized and sublimated
into the phallus as the originary signifier; the body is to be
read as a language.
We could argue that the discursive claim made by the term “AIDS crisis” functioned more as an expression of heteronormative anxiety than a designation of those who lived (and died) with the disease, or as Bersani names it, a “general tendency to think of AIDS as an epidemic of the future rather than a catastrophe of the present.” The essay suggests that the “crisis” was at least twofold: the narrative construct of crisis legitimated violent homophobic expressions (verbal and physical abuses), and coincided with medical negligence that caused thousands to suffer unnecessary deaths. Furthermore, stigmatization and discrimination against gays (particularly gay men) became transduced as alienation, which dislocated gay men from their own desires, specific sex acts, and modes socio-sexual conduct. The crisis narrative of AIDS became a premise to renew old forms of repression—against both queer and ‘feminized’ sexual practices associated (terrifyingly) with passivity, promiscuity, and self-abnegation.
"AIDS," Watney writes, "offers a new sign for the symbolic machinery of repression, making the rectum a grave." … Tragically, AIDS has literalized that potential as the certainty
of biological death, and has therefore reinforced the hetero-sexual association of anal sex with a self- annihilation...It
may, finally, be in the gay man's rectum that he demolishes
his own…identification with a murderous judgment against
him. That judgment, as I have been suggesting, is grounded
in the sacrosanct value of selfhood, a value that accounts for human beings' extraordinary willingness to kill in order to protect the seriousness of their statements. The self is a
practical convenience; promoted to the status of an ethical
ideal, it is a sanction for violence.
Bersani and Watney suggests that, rather than resigning to monogamy (a form of intimacy slightly more recognizable within heteronormative values) as a consequence of the horrific threat of AIDS, queer sexuality develop a range of practices “through multiple encounters, shifts of sexual identification, actings out, cultural reinforcements, and a plurality of opportunity…for desublimating the inherited sexual guilt of a grotesquely homophobic society.” Queer identity then becomes diffuse and differentiated such that it is not easily locatable; it evades discursive constructions by which it would become subject to discipline, instead opening onto other forms of unconsolidated, unrepresentable subjectivity.
—Critique— We can see how a lived practice of critique becomes necessary to counter the moral inducements that render crisis legible. Janet Roitman demonstrates in Anti-Crisis, how concepts of crisis and practices of critique are always co-constituted; moreover, she shows that both crisis and critique (linguistic cognates) have temporal entailments. Roitman mobilizes the work of historian Reinhardt Koselleck, who suggests that historical concepts, rendered in and through language, serve to catalyze social and political potentiality, and develops this further, making the link between crisis and critique. She states in her introduction, “Crisis-claims evoke a moral demand for a difference between the past and the future. And crisis-claims evoke the possibility for new forms of historical subjectivity, transpiring through determinations of the limits of reason and knowledge. That is, crisis, or the disclosure of epistemological limits, occasions critique.” Various disciplines are sustained by claims to crisis, not least those within the social sciences. Bumping up against an epistemological limit is the self-sustaining engine of discourse. Seemingly, crisis maintains, crisis sustains, crisis refrains. In so doing, it perpetuates anticipatory claims for the future, to the extent that Roitman wonders later in the book—“Can we narrate a future without crisis?”—which I read in two ways: does the narration of futurity depend on the epistemological break that crisis designates, and, is a future without crisis possible?
Roitman traces a line within critical theory to think the entanglements of knowledge, judgment, and subjectivity. She situates this work within the discursive community of philosophers Immanuel Kant, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler: Butler engages with Foucault’s “What is Critique?”,