Devin and I curated a show at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport; it opened a week ago and tonight we’re having a mini-symposium called “Location/Location: The Mistranslation of Objects.” It’s an exciting show for us with some great work by Rebecca Mir, Carrie Gundersdorf, Heather Mekkelson, Ellen Rothenberg, Stephen Lapthisophon, Christian Kuras and Bad at Sports’ own Duncan MacKenzie, as well as Mark Booth and Justin Cabrillos. We were trying to curate a show that might explore an object oriented ontology. This exhibit closes on Wednesday, the 13th of June. It is open on Sundays from 1-4 and by appointment.
You have entered the Co-Prosperity Sphere: a large corner-space on a neighborhood block in Bridgeport, five miles from the Loop’s chain shops. The inside of this space feels old. It is massive — 2,500 square feet. A tin ceiling stands fourteen feet above you, not for stylistic preference — though it suits current vintage tastes — but due to an oversight; the previous owner of 40 years did nothing to maintain the building, using it instead as a hoarder’s storeroom. Before his time, when Bridgeport was prosperous and you could see cattle moseying to their death outside of the window, this space was a department store. The owner was the wealthiest man in town, and is said to have had the first car in the neighborhood, driving it across the street to the church on Sundays, throwing pennies out of his windows at children in the street. Since then the space — and the neighborhood — have been through a decline normal to working class neighborhoods in American cities. Hoarders bought the space in the 80s. Ed Marszewski moved in a few years ago and cleaned it up.
The wooden floor of the Co-Prosperity Sphere creaks when you walk on it. Light shines through a host of upper windows, reflecting off the wood like an old gymnasium. The new white walls and spartan emptiness assign the space to contemporary art exhibitions. This particular landscape is comprised of material — pillars, windows, floors, and doorways turn into wood, screws, pipes, bricks, plaster, glass and tin. The composition of this space exists on multiple levels. As concrete, discrete materials they fuse into one structure. More abstractly, these materials exist as indicators of past and present; each object tells a story through its own unique, associative system of influence. Sometimes the story is responsive — the sound of your footsteps or the water that runs through overhead pipes. Other times the story is inaccessible but conjured — the imagined sound of mooing cows or copper pennies against cement, indicating a different American economy. Or, the story is simply material — the unfinished areas of this space, the space beneath the stairs on the far white wall: if you peer around its edge, you can see the building’s insides.
What begins to emerge is an ecology that blurs the lines between life forms and inanimate material bodies. In Field Static we first wanted to create an opportunity in which relations between objects might be highlighted such that the field created via the installation of artwork would accent one’s material engagement. Each object within the Co-Prosperity Sphere would become focal point and periphery alike, suggesting both solitary histories and the peculiar synthesis of matter common to all things. Field Static rejects or, at least, torques art’s historically anthropocentric position — the poem is written by a human, the portrait is painted of a human — in favor of a more egalitarian engagement with objects.
Through this, we don’t mean to treat other species or categories of objects as citizens of another nation. Instead, we are trying to expand an established hierarchy where humans patronize other objects. How might a gallery show include the presence of bubble gum splotches, twigs, fan blades, icebergs — easily marginalized masses — in order to engender new political spheres? We hope to discover new ways of integrating experience and materiality so that less priority is placed on the human’s role amongst objects. This project is far-seeing: sentience in technology, impasses in distinguishing between “non-living” computer viruses and “living” biological viruses, and our current ecological condition all suggest the possibility that, to borrow the theorist Timothy Morton’s word, the mesh (1) we inhabit is much larger and stranger than we may have thought. This mesh is also able to exist, quite comfortably, without us. So how do we look at the relations between objects?
We became interested in curating a show around objects through familiarity with the work of Graham Harman, a philosopher and theorist based in Cairo, Egypt. Harman, along with Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, and a few other thinkers, is one of the proponents of object-oriented ontology — a metaphysics that, loosely defined, rejects a human centered worldview in philosophy in favor of something more democratic. Instead of privileging the human subject’s relation to the world, object-oriented ontology hopes to democratize the field of metaphysics though a general inquiry about objects, specifically the ways in which objects interact with each other and the world. Object-oriented ontology is a metaphysics that asks not only how humans engage with the world, but also how forks, bee pollen, James Cameron’s depth diving submarine, and Sancho Panza’s donkey relate to each other and the world. Harman’s work is less about deprivileging the human than opening up the nature of the field — examining the infinitely complex assortment of materials operating within a given frame of reference. As Harman writes, his “point is not that all objects are equally real, but that they are equally objects.”1 In order to think the world, we must think about the world and the many objects that make it up, not only our relation to it. It is exciting and truly weird work.
Harman’s theories work out in many different directions. One of the most interesting, for our purposes, is the idea that though an object exists as a bundle of relations amongst itself and with other objects, these relations never eliminate the full spectrum of possibility residing within an object. The Co-Prosperity Sphere is a node within Bridgeport, within Chicago, both rife with their own complex network of encounters. You are distinctly aware of these very real relations, and together they build up the space’s identity. At the same time, the Co-Prosperity Sphere could also, possibly, enter into a number of different relations that we might not have any understanding of: it could be used by a sect to summon demons, it could be eaten slowly by Larry Coryell to improve his jazz guitar, it could slowly erode a statue of itself in slate. These are humorous examples, but they reveal how objects can exist more fully outside of whatever relations they may exist in currently — whether they enter into those relations or not. Even if we were able to list every theoretical relation this space could enter into, it would still have other relations beyond our list. The number and variations of its relations is infinite but in every instance, whether micro or macro, the objects within that field can never be reduced to their relations. They are not simply indicators of signification, but exist within a network. Consequently, objects — as metaphysical bundles of all the possibilities of their relations with themselves and other objects — are ultimately withdrawn from each other and themselves. Objects are always at a remove from their relations.
Harman more fully explains this idea through the image of a sleeping zebra in CircusPhilosophicus, a series of alternately humorous and petrifying myths he wrote to explain the basic tenets of his ideas:
For first, [the zebra] rises beyond its own pieces, generated by them but not reducible to them. And second, it is indifferent to the various negotiations into which it might enter with other objects, though some of those might affect it: as when the zebra interacts with grasses for its meals, and predator cats for its doom. While the zebra is cut off from its pieces in the sense of being partly immune to changes among them, it cannot survive their total disappearance. But by contrast, it might survive the disappearance of all its outward relations. And this is what I mean by sleep, if we can imagine a truly deep and dreamless sleep…Sleep should not be compared with death and its genuine destruction of the zebra-entity: sleep entails that the thing still exists, but simply without relation to anything else…Sleep perhaps has a metaphysical function no less than a physical one: as a kind of suspended animation in which entities are withdrawn from the world. And perhaps this happens more than we think.(2)
Like the zebra, the Co-Prosperity Sphere could be ripped in half by a giant and sacrificed to Goran, Lord of the Impetus, or it could play a game of Go with the bar down the street, and yet, through all of these changes, it still exists, partly, as a space for the community to gather in. As Harman writes, objects are “partly immune to changes among [its pieces].”2 Were we to remove all of the space’s outward relations — you, inside the space, reading this book about it, me writing this essay a month prior, thinking about the space, the printer printing these words about the space, the ink coming out of long tubes, the humidity wrinkling the pages, the recycling bin holding the book about the space, the recycler pulping the book — the space might still exist, withdrawn from these outward relations, in something like sleep. While it is impossible to gain access to the withdrawn aspects of an object, it is our belief that the best art, at least, allows us a place to exist in a type of still-sleep with an object. We’ve curated the artists in this show in the belief that their work engages with objects as bundles of relations in the field of the world, and yet, through their work, the artists show these objects as still, withdrawn, sleeping entities.
Still, the artists in Field Static engage the world of objects in different ways. The show should not be seen as as a grouping of artworks that fulfill any one approach to objects. While our curatorial impulse was inspired by Harman’s philosophy, we nevertheless present works that address objects in a variety of ways.
Of course, all exhibits exercise this interest; historically, art is the making and honoring of objects. However, the peculiar and various approaches these artists take to field and object-making seem particularly compelling, especially when their work could be assembled under the umbrella created by the Co-Prosperity Sphere. We are not looking to project human metaphor onto the state of these artworks — although those poetic nuances are probably an inevitable facet of an aesthetic experience — but rather to invite your imagination to consider the sleeping potential of these things in their thingness, their associative and personal autonomy in the world, each with its own discrete and, by now, non-contingent identity. A strangeness emerges — similar to the eyes of a fox, the unripe stem of a green banana, or Achilles’ shield — all familiar and unknown, a potency common to all things that nevertheless remains out of reach.
Rebecca Mir’s work is simple and understated. She often works with paper, small collections of objects, and her own body arranged quietly. This humility in equipment is connected to Mir’s infatuation with punk culture that shifts into an engagement with the landscape. She has also written love letters to the ocean. Perhaps the best way to think about her work is as an amalgamation of bygone Romanticisms — nature, the lover, the explorer, the punk rocker — that add up to rediscover the sincerity currently lacking in all of these labels. For this show, we were most interested in Mir’s engagement with nature. We gave her the storefront windows to fill up and she gave us hanging sheets of paper with flat black prints of icebergs on them. These are the most frightening objects in the world, slowly leading us towards underwater cities. Mir’s prints garble our response; we instead encroach upon the ice.
When we met Ellen Rothenberg to talk about this show, she shared pictures of older pieces she had made and used during performances: clocks on a pair of shoes, or a wooden shovel with words engraved on its mouth. They were tempting to curate into Field Static for their embodiment of an inaccessible past-use, an original context no less significant then their present status as formal, sculptural works. But then Rothenberg showed us a more recent piece she had exhibited in Berlin. In her installation, Constellations, Rothenberg establishes a literal field via small blue signs printed with arrows and red vintage price tag cards. She assembles these on a wall or in a room; the proportions of the work vary depending on the site. In every version, these small indicators create an enigmatic field or map. The price cards elicit a time when two cents might have been a useful sum — think of those children in dirty boots on Morgan Street. Relative to our current economy, the sums are so small as to be powerless and dismissable. The oblique arrows, meanwhile, propel the eye to wander among these many numerical islands. The precision of placement combined with the interplay of materials and time: the slick, contemporary instructional arrows, against the foxed, nostalgic price tags are fixed to the clean white wall by antique metal clips. A tension emerges flike a magnetic field as the viewer is absorbed in the act of looking.
In Diagram (2010), Christian Kuras and Duncan MacKenzie installed a multi-leveled series of roofless recangular rooms; the entire system looked like a complex model of a building site. Balsa wood rooms connected by ramps on cinder blocks, coffee cans, and side tables. Cords lay around the floor of the installation, a bare flourescent light tube, a lamp, a plant. In one instance an antique sign, “Girls Toilet” was legible. This assemblage conspired to portray some kind of institution — a university or a corporation — the ‘rooms’ clearly exist in a network, even if their function within that network is unclear. In an effort to grasp the purpose of this material system, you might lean in to read the pencil marks, left behind by the artists in the process of making. These do not unlock the piece. It remains at bay, undissmissable because of its sprawl and, even, the care toward detail. In Field Static, Kuras and MacKenzie work with letters, transforming a textual message in a game of anagrams. They began with one phrase originally mailed as an off-the-cuff collage from UK-based Kuras to Chicago-based MacKenzie. MacKenzie and Kuras reorganized the letters of the phrase into stacks, paintings, and phrases that may or may not be legible to the viewer. While connected to their original context, each new combination creates a new meaning contained in the original. The text is distant, distinct, and equitable to its physical counterpart.
Last winter, Mark Booth composed a durational performance at Devening Projects during his solo exhibition God Is Represented By The Sea. For one performance during that exhibition, the improvisational bellows and electronics duet, Coppice (Noé Cuéllar and Joseph Kramer) played music with Booth for roughly four hours. During that time, twelve individuals were asked to read Booth’s score: a stream of ever shifting phrases in a loop. The last word of one phrase became the first word of the following. “God is represented by the sea” became “The Sea is represented by an irregular shape” and so on until we arrived at last to “An owl is represented by God,” at which time the readers would begin again. The words became blocks, algebraic variables that could be swapped in and out of one another. Booth’s piece evokes an intuited, physical structure in language; he seeks to find an equivocation, a way to codify experience through metaphor. Here, he has installed a sound installation with flags entitled: I IMAGINE YOU SLEEPING SIDE BY SIDE AND WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING YOUR SOULS RISE TOGETHER LIKE A FLAG ON A POLE FLUTTERING SOUNDLESSLY IN A WINDLESS WIND AND THE FLAG OF YOUR LOVE IS SHAPED LIKE [...]
Objects are often manufactured by human beings; it is sometimes difficult to imagine their autonomy. We know rocks come from mountains and meteors, so they observe an obvious independence from the human sphere. But what about old tires or tennis balls? In what way can those objects boast a non-contingent being when their original purpose is tied to human activities? How can such an object fulfill its potential if its potential is reliant upon human use? Heather Mekkelson articulates one possible answer. Over the past several years, she has made a practice of fabricating distress. Mekkelson begins with new objects — phonebooks, traffic cones, caution tape, fans, or blinds — everyday, banal objects. Through a variety of processes she imposes the visible signs of deterioration and stress on each object and, placed in an exhibit, these objects evoke a traumatic narrative, as ready-mades discovered by accident in the wake of disaster. The distress of the objects suggests their secret lives or past, an encounter made more interesting given that Mekkelson’s objects never endured such trials at all. Their life was spent in her studio. In more recent work, Mekkelson has created a telling-point on the object that allows the viewer to see the artifice of distress. At one critical point of perspective the viewer can see both the artifice of distress and the object’s unadulterated newness — like on a stage set when you see at once the façade of a town and the plywood backing on which the town is painted. That point reveals a moment of interior instability; it is as though the object is telling you it is lying. The object is laughing at you, or winking, confessing its own ruse.
Alhough we first knew Justin Cabrillos as a sound poet, we’ve been lucky to see him as he’s developed into a somatic phenom. We’ve included his video Dance for a Narrow Passageway — a work that shows Cabrillos improvising a dance in a passageway. Before composing the piece, Cabrillos spent time observing movements in passageways, both his own and others: buses, subways, airports, even passageways in dramatic movies. He is embodying the influence that space and non-human bodies have on human choreography. The one rule of the improvisation: move like somebody would move in a passageway. When talking to us about the piece, Cabrillos emphasized his interest in the absence of other objects as he came into movement — the passageway encourages nothing but the supposed emptiness of transition. It also has a history: many bodies, winds, and drips have left their associative trace: that past is something Cabrillos is responding to as well, embodying it. Like a corporeal version of John Cage’s famous anechoic chamber experience — where the composer learned that the world was never truly silent — Cabrillos’ video indicates that one is always connected to other bodies.
Is it possible to imagine the inner life of objects? It seems we are not quite permitted to apprehend the idea. We cannot imagine what such a sleeping interiority would be like, especially when discounting the tools humans dream with — thought and words and pictures. Instead we must describe the possibility of an object’s interior space by activating a sense of its absurdity. In a kind of negative proof on his website, Stephen Lapthisophon shows a looped video of a potato, alone on a shelf. In the background we hear jazz music. Because of an automatic desire to anthropomorphize the potato, we imagine the potato — otherwise absolutely still and solitary in the frame — listening. The scene becomes comical. And yet it describes something about the constant, albeit invisible, movement of a potato: it is constantly deteriorating, or growing, or leaking, or emitting vibrations. Conceiving of its ability to hear and listen is a way to access, through metaphor, the potato’s experience of itself. For Field Static, Lapthisophon shows The Taxonomy of Root Vegetables, a long, crude shelf stacked with many different still growing, still rotting, root vegetables. The piece, to us, builds off Lapthisophon’s humorous depiction of a morose tuber. Instead of an attempt and appraisal of projected experience, Taxonomy suggests unfamiliar, mutating ecologies and locates the fruitlessness of our contrived negotiations as we seek to categorize and map our world.
The inaccessibility of individual objects can be compared to the inaccessibility of our environment — as our awareness of very small objects builds up, we bump against the infinite array of inner lives, and the very large mesh that consists of animals, insects, bacteria, rocks, ashes, oxygen. Slowly, we bump up against the sky, the world of planetary bodies: the sun, the planets, the stars, light. Carrie Gundersdorf observes, paints, collages and draws solar phenomenon on two-dimensional picture planes that reference modernist painting. In one collage, Gundersdorf collects a variety of different images of Jupiter. She assembles these images in a grid on one sheet of dark paper. One sees the many sides of Jupiter at once but we are no closer to apprehending this planet. This is not simply the result of scale or medium; Gundersdorf is very literally transcribing astral photographs. And yet Gundersdorf’s work shows how astral photographs are manipulated by space and technology. The picture of Jupiter has traveled through eons of space, been reflected on a variety of mirrors and then digitally enhanced with various colors and contrast in an effort to indicate data. Those manipulated images represent the source material that comprises our collective experience of Outer Space. In this show, we have included Spectral Trails with Absorption Lines, a drawing that depicts the spectrum of light. Here too one is called to consider not only the camera’s apparatus, but also the receptive reed of the body: the stereoscopic vision of two eyes — what is then intuitively and unconsciously synthesized into one cohesive whole. Add to this the limited capacity of our oracular perception: We can only see a very narrow portion of the spectrum. Given our minimal sensitivity to light, how could we possibly see all objects? What objects are we missing?
Hopefully these works, along with this book, will lure you into an experience of Field Static in which you begin to account, through perception, for the discrete fields asserted within discrete works; and then the field described by the works together; and then the field described by the entire show in the context of the space, a space in which we are immersed. It is an uncanny and perhaps anxious position, as we grow ever more aware of the inexhaustible relations between non-human things.
This essay was written by Field Static curators, Caroline Picard & Devin King. To schedule an appointment for viewing, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
2. Graham Harman. The Quadruple Object (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2011), p. 5
3. Graham Harman. Circus Philisophicus (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2010) p. 72-3
4. Harman writes, objects are “partly immune to changes among [its pieces].” Circus Philisophicus (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2010) p. 72.
What follows is an interview with three voices. I only started asking questions at the end; the conversation — and introduction, for that matter — began with Angelo Spoto at &Now Books. The interview takes place with Gretchen E. Henderson, a writer (now based out of Boston) who published two books with different presses, almost concurrently. Both of Henderson’s books ask and explore artistic questions. Her first book, Galerie de Difformité (&Now Books/Lake Forest College Press), operates like a kind of text-based exhibition space with pages. Her second book, On Marvellous Things Heard, was published by my press, The Green Lantern, and examines the relationship between language and music.
Deforming Forms with Gretchen E. Henderson (an interview)
When I first read Gretchen E. Henderson’s Galerie de Difformité, I approached it like I’ve always approached novels; start on page one, continue to page two, then page three, etc. But even before page sixteen, the book called me out on my traditional approach. “Do not read straight through this catalogue from start to finish!” it said or, it seemed, yelled at me. At this point, I realized Galerie de Difformité is nothing like any novel I’ve ever read. It’s a chose your own adventure story meets poetry meets the essay meets art catalog, all mixed up behind the cover of what appears to be a novel. Galerie is comprised of “Exhibits” created by “Subscribers” (who, on the Galerie website, posted deformed versions of Henderson’s writing) as well as Henderson’s own poetry, prose, and essays. Galerie focuses on deformity, and a deformed version of Dante’s Beatrice is the readers’ guide. (OR, ask “Tell me about Galerie de Difformité”)
Angela Spoto: What was the genesis of Galerie de Difformité? Why did you want to write the novel in such an unusual way?
Gretchen Henderson: The novel began as an essay, which did not want to be an essay.(1)
AS: What is an exhibit?
GH: An “Exhibit” is a prose poem, more or less, narrated by one of my main characters: a deformed reincarnation of Dante’s Beatrice.(2)
AS: Why did you choose to write about deformity? Usually, beauty is a more common theme.
GH: Exactly. (3)
AS: Beatrice is a reoccurring character/guide in the novel. She is typically associated with beauty, but you chose to focus on her deformity. Do you think Galerie challenges the reader to question traditional concepts of beauty?
GH: If we look at representations of Beatrice across art history (see “Exhibit A“), they appear wildly different in a way that makes me wonder: Are these differences beauty or deformity in action?(4)
AS: How do you go about writing a novel so unlike traditional novels? Was it difficult?
GH: In some ways, it was strangely easy—not to say it didn’t involve logistical acrobatics, extreme labor and patience over time, while the “baggy monster” of the novel slowly (re)generated its form.(5)
AS: You have a blog that is a virtual extension of the novel. Why did you create this website and what can readers find there?
GH: The website isn’t a blog, per se—more a virtual gallery that documents and suggests how the book grows in and out of itself through collaborative (aesthetic, cultural, social) deformation.(6)
AS: You invite everyone and anyone to create their own exhibits on your site and some of those creations (or deformations) have been included in the published book. Why did you decide to open up the novel to outside “Subscribers?”
GH: By opening up the project, I as so-called Author(ity) of my book don’t know how it ends, either in form and content—among other elements, even that expected teleology has the capacity to change.(7)
AS: What emotions do you hope Galerie evokes in its readers?
GH: Readers will get out of the Galerie as much as they put in. (8)
AS: Is there any author that inspired you to create Galerie?
GH: Many more than those indicated by the 28 printable pages of single-spaced, electronic endnotes.(9)
AS: Why do you write?
GH: I never intended to be a writer and fell into it as a high school teacher, now thinking that it’s my attempt—in some small way—to invite (re)perception of our vulnerable, culpable, and capable place in this world.(10)
AS: How has writing Galerie de Difformité changed you as a writer?
GH: I gave up trying to fit a book inside its inherited box, or body, to let the novel (and other projects) be what each wants to be, engaged and engaging with this moment in time.(11)
AS: There seem to be two Gretchen Hendersons. Gretchen Henderson the writer (whose name appears on the cover of the novel) and Gretchen Henderson the character/narrator/Undertaker. Why two Gretchens, and are they really different at all?
GH: Yes, they are different: among other aspects, I never was struck by lightning, neither of my grandfathers had a secret family, nor was either a medieval scholar (rather, a mailman and a chemist), and I confess to being an academic (of sorts).(12)
AS: The novel is almost like a game, but it has a serious side, too, touching on real-life issues of deformity and self-understanding. How do you want your readers to approach the Galerie, and what do you hope they take away from the experience?
GH: Notions of self and authority are constructs as much as the BOOK—all of which have changed across history and will continue to change within and through their (our) deforming bodies.(13)
AS: You wrote, “By the time this book is printed, it already will be outdated.” What do you think (or hope) lies in store for the future deformation of the Galerie?
GH: As more sensibilities and perspectives and media come to bear on “deformity” (and “book,” for that matter), I hope the more static definition starts to vibrate and take on a kind of reanimated life. (14)
Caroline Picard: You have another book, On Marvellous Things Heard, that we recently released through my publishing house, The Green Lantern Press. This essay, which you write is a “deformation and reformation” on the traditional, explores the relationship between literature/writing/language and music/silence. Was this essay at all influenced by your work with Galerie de Difformité?
GH: The two projects were written more or less simultaneously, albeit separately, so there may be loose links threading in and out of one another, through echo effect.(15)
CP: In On Marvellous Things Heard, you again return to the classics, playing off of Aristotle’s book of the same title. Can you talk a little bit about the work you do using old works and characters, and recombining them into new compositions?
GH: It’s being done all the time—I’m just making visible (or asking readers to make visible) otherwise invisible traces.(16)
CP: OMTH seems to study and expound upon music’s resistance to language. What was your process like, writing this book, when the tools you had to address your subject were admittedly inadequate from the start?
GH: Therein lies a timeworn question—to arrive back where we started, changed—not unlike sonata structure: exposition, development, recapitulation.(17)
CP: Or too, what would music’s ideal description look like? Do you feel like musical notation is more successful than grammatical text?
GH: It depends on the form for the content—there are different literacies involved with reading language versus music, and it takes time to learn and notate (to write into, to write against) those literacies—to then suggest the right notation for any given project (disclaimer: I don’t believe in a singular ideal).(18)
CP: How would you describe the relationship between poetics and music and sound? Do these facets of expression belong in a family?
CP: What are you working on now?
GH: Ugliness: A Cultural History.(20)
(1) Galerie de Difformité, began as a critical essay exploring aesthetics of deformity in eighteenth-century British visual culture. This was back in Fall 2004. As I wrote and organized my arguments around particular works of art—engaging an era dense with nationalistic enterprises, archaeological excavations of fragments, seeking and fashioning Ur-origins, outgrowths of private into public museums, varied notions of exhibition—the essay itself began to fragment into a kind of pseudo-exhibition. The final version retained the rhetoric of scholarship, if structured as a collection of curated micro-essays, each of which was prefaced by an image and captioned as it might appear in a museum or catalogue. Entitled Galerie de Difformité, that scholarly essay barely resembles the novel that came to be. That said, traces of the original remain in occasional sections titled “Deformity as…” (Curiosity, Misrepresentation, Caricature, Sa(l)vage(d), Sublime, etc.), heavily treated through constraints. Once the initial essay was completed, deformed aesthetics kept appearing in other material that I was reading—across literature, art, music, the gamut of disciplines—and the essay’s intermediate white spaces begged to be expanded through and into fiction and poetry, a kind of chorus, lulling and leading me to c(u)r(e)ate “Exhibits.” The novel just grew from there: suggesting missing parts, characters, narrative strategies, echoes, seams to stitch and loosen and tether together into this “baggy monster” (to borrow Henry James’ characterization of the Novel).
(2) “Exhibits” are so-named because they inhabit the larger Galerie de Difformité (as in a museum) and also suggest a kind of evidence (as with exhibits in a legal trial). Adopting alphabetic identities and allegiances, they are labeled “A” through “Z,” also archived thematically. (For instance, “Exhibit C” treads around color and chronology, and also might be classified as contortion or corporeal or _______ [fill in the blank]). A reader can bring their own sensibilities to bear on varied possibilities. As prose poems, “Exhibits” resist neat summarization. In the book they don’t appear alphabetically sequenced, nor do they congregate together, rather alternate with other genre elements (epistles, definitions, faux scholarship, images, etc.). Some even appear outside the body of the book—like “Exhibit Q,” which exists only in an endnote, and “Exhibit E,” which translates as a QR code on page 250 (the final page, where the colophon should be) and remains to be written (as a kind of End).
(3) Apart from beauty’s overriding positive connotations that often get attention, history has witnessed many cults of beauty where the nature of beauty (footbinding, corsets, etc.) changes. Beauty can be skin-deep, deceptive, even dangerous. Kathleen Marie Higgins writes: “[W]e cannot see beauty as innocent when the sublime splendor of the mushroom cloud accompanies moral evil, that aesthetic appeals congealed Hitler’s rallies, that beautifully embellished clothes and jewelry currently motivate teenagers to murder.” There are many examples that stretch this question into different periods and fields. (For instance, in 2005, it was estimated that Americans spent at least $12.4 billion on cosmetic surgery, which was more than the total gross domestic product for over 100 nations, including Albania and Zimbabwe, totaling over 1 billion people!) Beyond the usual binary that pits deformity against beauty, I am interested in muddying both waters. Deformity is fraught with historical baggage (see footnote 4 below) but also takes on positive connotations in different sociocultural contexts (like the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi,” or as Kakuzo Okakura describes in The Book of Tea a “worship of the Imperfect,” or as occurs in certain traditions of rug and other weaving, where a pattern is deformed deliberately at a certain point, to allow the soul to move in and out, to leave something unfinished for the imagination to complete, or so the weaver does not compete with a larger creator, or for other reasons). I am interested in deformity as a kind of investigation of these practices and priorities, not to mention the litany of terms that have kept company with deformity across history: grotesque, monstrous, ugly, asymmetric, crippled, handicapped, disabled, etc. Like Umberto Eco claims, “Beauty is, in some ways, boring. Even if its concept changes through the ages, nevertheless a beautiful object must always follow certain rules… Ugliness is unpredictable and offers an infinite range of possibilities. Beauty is finite. Ugliness is infinite, like God.”
(4) Deformity carries historical baggage, seemingly negative and static, but full of kinetic potential: deforming. In process. Within the word itself literally lies form—de(form)ity, dif(form)ite—evolving. Everything deforms around us: seasonal cycles, aging bodies, changes of all types. Beyond that, “deformity” becomes an aesthetic backdoor to the politically fraught term “disabled” and many types of “otherness”—like Aristotle’s claim that “the female as it were a deformed male” (or, in other translations, “a mutilated male”). Galerie de Difformité is packed with as many historical notions of deformity as possible, within a choose-your-own-adventure structure where a reader has agency to follow or break rules, calling attention to how we read books, bodies, and our perceptions.
(5) As mentioned in Footnote 1, Galerie de Difformité began as a very different project and for many years was a side-side-side project. It took time, too, to grope my way into my own redefinition of the Novel, first studying the long and rich history of that genre, then writing a first novel, wanting to offer homage and invitation through my reinterpretations. Rather than write into the too-strict triumvirate of fiction/poetry/nonfiction, I found that source material from different periods (alongside changing notions of genres and of deformity, mixed up by my background in music) encouraged a multifarious and malleable sense of form(s). Major life changes coincided and intervened along the way, some of which could easily have curtailed this project and more. I realized that, like life and all else, my novel had the potential to deform—physically, psychically, and otherwise—even to perform its deformity and be co-created as an aesthetic and sociocultural entity. This has encouraged me to chase down various paths, intellectually and technologically. The project tries to provide multiple access points, so any number of different readers can meet the chimeric creature on their own terms. Over a decade of teaching at different levels and in different environments indirectly influenced the interactive nature of Galerie de Difformité, and I’ve enjoyed working with the book in different classes to consider its pedagogical dimensions. Future documentation of the project will take on its own life, as the book will retreat into the background, as the larger collaborative deformation will swarm around it: slowly. Galerie de Difformité is like a creature that needs to be tended. I am constantly learning from it, as Subscribers’ contributions give me cues about how to tend the project’s future. (By way of example of a collaborative influence: An early Subscriber added his own constraint to the project’s constraint, choosing to submit four deformations in order to spell out a word (TOMB: see visualized alphabet below). Since his submission was early enough to be considered to illustrate the book, I chose two of his deformations to spell an embedded word back in the published book (OM). His dedicated involvement also encouraged me to go ahead with my plan to build an electronic library of deformity-related collaborative chapbooks, and he became the first guest editor.) Other future stages are planned, but along the way, plans will evolve based on collaborative interactions.
(6) The online Galerie de Difformité (sharing the novel’s title, since they grow in and out of one another) is a growing installation dedicated to deformity. It includes instructions about how to collaboratively participate. The site hosts “Exhibits” as downloaded documents (which were first mounted after they appeared in literary journals, to interface with contemporary print culture): materials that visitors can deform through whatever medium and concept. Deformants have chosen a range of approaches: from erasure and cut-up, to treating “Exhibits” as a canvas or freezing text in ice, carved in beeswax and soap, to more conceptual installations and videos, even floated away by balloons. The book is laced with QR (Quick Response) codes that can be scanned with mobile devices like iPhones to link to various parts of the online gallery and offshoots (a short film, an e-volume of archival papers of Ye Ugly Face Club, and other paraphernalia) that will change as more people participate in the communal deformation and bring their own sensibilities to bear on its constraints. Also online is the growing electronic library of collaborative chapbooks, broadly engaging deformity, both in content and form. The book is slowly being unbound, growing in and out of itself, bridging material and virtual realms, calling itself a book, functioning as a book, engaging the vocabulary of the book (i.e., What is a page?): to make visible that this technology-that-is-the-book has a long and rich history and is not at its apocalyptic end.
(7) I am only one person, and to engage the questions that I wanted to ask, I needed to appeal to and consult many voices, bodies, sensibilities, perspectives, and approaches. Writers, artists, musicians, and other creators never work in a vacuum. Galerie de Difformité makes that process visible to work against the notion of Romantic genius, against Author-ity, even as it plays up and into the notion of Authorship. I call myself the author while also postmodernly twisting my authority (including a Gretchen Henderson who is not me), undercutting and duplicating and triplicating questions about my authority, culling sources and source material from across centuries, putting these in conversation with one another, threading my voice through different genres and appropriations, so the narrative(s) occur between genres, between the lines, into margins, beyond the book—tracing and illuminating reading strategies where the reader is invested with agency and co-creates meaning with the presumed, authoritative “original.”
(8) Whatever a reader wants or needs, I hope they find. Galerie de Difformité is many books in one: a book that can be read quickly and superficially, or slowly and deliberately, even over the course of years (given the choose-your-own-adventure and growing paraphernalia that is tethered to the project). Each reading experience should be different, both because the book and the reader are changing.
(9) Where to begin? Where to end?
(10) As John Cage described his motivation for composition: not for self-expression but for self-alteration. “How do we change with the ever-changing world in a compassionate and graceful way? How do engage with a kind of impermanence?”
(11) How does a writer adequately thank those who help to wing her words into the world? I’m ever grateful to &NOW and the Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize for supporting this process. To receive logistical and financial support to publish such an interdisciplinary, intergenre, intermedia project is a gift of immeasurable worth. I am especially grateful to Davis Schneiderman at &NOW and Caroline Picard at Green Lantern for advocating for my inclinations, when other editors might have tried to box up and down the work, to make it conform rather than deform, which would’ve worked against its organic intent.
(12) In the novel, Gretchen is a construct as much as Bea as much as Gloria: the last of whose name doesn’t double in the book (though admittedly, her surname isn’t entirely unrelated to that of William Hay, an eighteenth-century hunchbacked member of British Parliament, who wrote an essay on Deformity in 1754). The narrators of the GdD exist as a sequence of diminishing mirrors, also reflecting and refracting readers as they get more involved in the labyrinth. But to return to your question: there’s also a triplicating of Gretchen Henderson, since both the fictional and real author, and Gloria, all share the same initials—G.H.—quadrupled with Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to GH, as quoted at the end of the introduction (page 8): “This is a book just like any other book. But I would be happy if it were read only by people … who know that an approach—to anything whatsoever—must … traverse even the very opposite of what is being approached … Over time, the character G.H. came to give me, for example, a very difficult pleasure; but it is called pleasure.” By including multiplied Gretchens, I’m not only appropriating a common postmodern construct (see Footnote 7), but also trying to give readers spaces and license to multiply their identities, their selves, and resist whatever classifications they may be hemmed into at this moment in time. (See “Application to be a Subscriber,” page 12). Essentially, the novel is about adaptation and change, whether engaging with the history of the novel, talking back to the identity movements of the last half century, taking a kind of Buddhist journey, or _______ [fill-in-the-blank].
(13) See Footnotes 8, 9, 10, and 19.
(14) “Deformity” has a number of sub-definitions, as I have tried to unpack throughout the novel (see Footnotes 3 and 4, or page 237 of the book, for starters). Because the Galerie de Difformité is a perpetual work in progress, partly based in new and evolving technologies, some parts of the story may become formally defunct along the way, unless translated into readable media. Additionally, the collaborative aspect multiples the potential ways this might evolve. What components ultimately remain, what parts mutate, and what else falls by the wayside will be part of the project’s larger documentation. To speak about one technology: QR codes were barely used when the book was planned, but now you see them on bus advertisements, in libraries, on real estate signs, almost everywhere. I am interested in textual and visual literacies, and how these combine, how technology is shaping our strategies for reading both old and new texts, where and how and why we create, classify, archive, and access literature.
(15) Each developing book suggests multiple possibilities, and my projects constantly cross-fertilize. I can’t work on a single project alone. Many lead to dead ends, but the processes invariably influence varied products. I finished OMTH before GdD, but all of my work has taken a long time to find homes (i.e., publishers). More than the GdD, OMTH has more of a relationship with my musically-structured first novel, The House Enters the Street, which is coming out third in the line-up (in Fall 2012, thanks to Starcherone Books). If it hadn’t been runner-up for the 2005 AWP Award Series in the Novel and received other nods, I might have chalked up that project as part of my learning process and shelved it away in a box. The suspension of a project across years lends an interesting sense of time—particularly if the book works against chronology—like a sign I once read in a subway (also quoted in The House Enters the Street): “Sometimes you have to go backward in order to go forward.”
(16) Older works, characters, and motifs always lie at our threshold, at edges, beckoning to converse with the present moment, not to be forgotten, providing fodder to dream of alternative futures. In a project like OMTH, there are a number of recombinations of old and new. Aristotle’s essay of the same title refers to “marvels” more in the vein of Herodotus, so my appropriation of “marvellous things heard” makes a sensory shift into the context of music, sound and silence—an appropriation also indebted to translations of various types (across languages, eras, cultures, disciplines), needling what gets lost and found in translation. By way of another example: my replacement of “she” for “he” in Aristotle’s essay becomes a process of imagined restitution, as a way of talking back to the author who described “the female as it were a deformed male” (see Footnote 4), shifting the peripheral “other” into the role of protagonist, to ask “what if?”—in the way that Karen Armstrong describes myth: “Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?’—a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology.” Across time, how many stories share the same plot, retold afresh for each new generation, wolves in sheep’s clothing, or sheep masquerading as wolves? Beyond the story or poem or essay, or intermediate genre, are its building blocks—our living language—comprised of many languages, changing as we speak and write, malleable, deforming and interacting with other languages within our changing world. Etymological evolution is at work all the time. We live in a moment that’s rummaging through the scrapheap of history amid unprecedented change, trying to imagine possible futures, trying to figure out how to build into that process meaningful reflection, the art of listening, attention to conscience, and conscientiousness.
(17) Like the Galerie de Difformité, whose content took awhile to find its interrelated form, the material within On Marvellous Things Heard went through varied incarnations: from faux to scholarly essays to a pedagogical collection of music-inspired writing exercises, etc. (The poems that ended up in my cartographic-based chapbook, Wreckage: By Land & By Sea, also went through varied incarnations.) My first attempt to harness the musical material was a faux opera lodged inside my first novel, The House Enters the Street. The more that I tried to reduce something three-dimensional to two dimensions, it resisted that attempt, needed to breathe, needed white space, interaction, call and response, counterpoint of voices, where my voice became only one in a larger chorus (cacophonic as that chorus may be).
(18) The content of each project searches for its own form. Notation follows accordingly. Just because I read modern English doesn’t mean I understand Old English, just as someone who can sing from the modern five-staff system doesn’t mean they can make music from medieval neumatic notation (before block notes, essentially appearing as squiggles and dots above and below lines of text, denoting relative pitch and duration: monophonic, not polyphonic). Regardless of what gets lost in translation, traces remain, trails of breadcrumbs to follow, ways to educate ourselves to read backwards (so to speak). There are so many different kinds of literacies across disciplines, languages, historical periods, cultures. What feels generative to me is putting these different literacies in conversation with one another somehow, if only through sensibility, appealing to sounds and senses that shift us both outside and back into our skins.
As aside: I’ve been thinking for a while about a musical notational analogue for On Marvellous Things Heard. If any composer might be interested in collaborating, please contact me.
(20) More important to me than creative writing is the enterprise of creative living: always a process in progress. I’m excited about the creative writing courses that I’m teaching at MIT, engaging interdisciplinary fields like book history and museum studies. But to return to Ugliness: A Cultural History, this might be considered another deformation of the Galerie de Difformité, growing out of a subplot involving Ye Ugly Face Club. (My faux introduction for the e-volume of this facetious society’s archival papers deformed into a scholarly essay delivered at the annual conference for the Association of Art Historians, forthcoming in an art history anthology, now deforming further into a cultural history of Ugliness for Reaktion Books.) While exploring ugliness, I will continue tending to the communal deformation of the Galerie de Difformité. If you’re interested in participating, please visit: http://difformite.wordpress.com. Thank you for reading. In the meantime, please listen to Footnote 19.
For the longest time I thought John Cage was an asshole. The first thing I knew about Cage was his infamous composition 4’33”—four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. To my young mind, this seemed ridiculous, a joke, a lark, or worse, a way to make fun of the listener. But I was a lazy music student, and never bothered to interrogate the assumption I’d formed at my local community college’s summer music camp. 4’33” continued as my sole association with Cage until I became interested in Abstract Expressionism and later Minimalism. Even then, I simply placed this work within that mid-century framework. It seemed to me like in the 50s if you were an artist, writer, or composer, and of course, male, there was nothing forbidden. I chalked this work up to nothing more than Cage seizing male privilege.
When I read an ad for Kyle Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”, I immediately ordered it up. Part of Yale University Press’s excellent Icons of America series, No Such Thing as Silence undertakes a lovingly enthusiastic investigation into Cage’s signature work. This is not serious music history, nor serious art history for that matter. What No Such Thing as Silence does is take an accessible look at a not-so-accessible composition. Gann places 4’33” into the larger art world discourse of the time, while also exploring the work through the lens of Cage’s Buddhist beliefs.
It’s still easy for me to view 4’33” as prickish, or more generously, arrogant. At least now I can appreciate the composition and its place not just within music history, but also within the history of Minimalism. Despite the highbrow subject matter, No Such Thing as Silence is a fun and illuminating read.
This past weekend the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago hosted a three night performance with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. For this week’s pick we check out Cunningham’s collaboration with John Cage, Stan VanDerBeek, and Nam June Paik entitled Variations V.
Via Media Art Net:
“John Cage made «Variations V» in 1965 for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He and David Tudor settled on two systems for the sound to be affected by movement. For the first, Billy Klüver and his colleagues set up a system of directional photocells aimed at the stage lights, so that the dancers triggered sounds as they cut the light beams with their movements. A second system used a series of antennas. When a dancer came within four feet of an antenna a sound would result. Ten photocells were wired to activate tape-recorders and short-wave radios. Cecil Coker designed a control circuit, which was built by my assistant Witt Wittnebert. Film footage by Stan VanDerBeek and Nam June Paik’s manipulated television images were projected on screens behind the dancers.”
For more information on Variations V check out Media Art Net.
…I’ll ask you to try this instead:
Go to your iTunes. Create a ringtone for John Cage’s 4’33″ (if you don’t want to spend money for it on iTunes, you can find a free ringtone for 4’33″ here).
Install that ringtone on your cell phone, and assign it to one of your frequent contacts. Keep it this way for at least a week (no cheating!).
The Hamza Walker-curated group show “Several Silences” closes this weekend at The Renaissance Society, so if you still want to catch it, best get there soon.