20/20 at the Carnegie Museum of Art

20/20: An exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, July 22nd through December 31st 2017

REkOGNIZE: An installation by Bradford Young at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, June 16th through December 31st, 2017

When you explore the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of images on display. That this museum connects to others—scientific and historical—and a grand library—filled with books with images as well—only adds to this effect. One knows as well that there is always more. In this sense of the museum as a collection of horded paints and statues, it is easy to miss the little contexts that ascribe the material place behind the unworldly image in focus. In particular, it is easy to look over the smaller squares of text in small-caps on the identifying tags and museum guides that explain how a particular piece came to the museum. A women’s collective raised the money to place a Greek statue of a naked, male torso in the museum in the early 20th century, a time in which female artists would be denied access to male nude models for life study. Dozens of paintings appeared in Carnegie International shows and were bought for the permanent collection, with a yellow tag to indicate the year they appeared. (Marie Cassatt’s Young Women Picking Fruit [1891] is an interesting example, having been featured in one of these shows but not purchased until several years had passed.) Many pieces offer a history in which the art was an exchange in which the artist was personally involved and had a notion of what was going to happen to the artwork once it was purchased. In a small area of the museum dedicated to African and pre-13th Century art—a deep red, narrow hallway—the identifiers become more elliptic. A large sarcophagus covered in carvings of gods in sensual pleasure scenes offers no information on where exactly it came from, though it is clear that this was removed from a grave site. What has happened to the body? The Asian, Egyptian, and Roman art contains identifiers that tell the story represented in the images, naming the gods and their relationships to each other. The African pieces—several of which are from the 20th century, and are mingled with little to distinguish from older works—often are described only as headdresses, masks, or sculptures. There is only mystery, not mythology. A 20th century mask from the Bamileke culture, Cameroon, is just “Mask,” followed by a list of materials that it’s made of, including human hair and shells which were weaved into the hair to create a beaded cloak. The description of the way it got to the museum is as follows: “Gift of Walter Ogrodnik, Peace Corps Volunteer, 77.16.” There is no volunteering of information.

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Mask. Carnegie Museum (Photograph by the author)

There is an uneasy relationship between Western museums and non-western—or “not-white”—art. The praise brought about for artistic representations from non-white cultures has often focused on the “primitive” or “unrefined” aspects of a piece of statue or a mask, rather than focusing on the merit of the image itself. The primitivist craze of early 20th century modernism had the effect of both creating new space for artists of color within the white gallery space, while at the same time compounding and reinforcing racist and eugenicist ideas about intelligence and development in those who wanted their ideas validated. “Whiteness is a kind of cultural canvas upon which American existence is depicted in myriad artful visions of the possible,” Patricia J. Williams writes in a preface to Maurice Berger’s White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art (2004). “And blackness has been for too many generations whatever was left over” (19). The space allowed does not offer much room for movement, and the tolerance that can proclaim and justify Duchamp’s readymade can, in the same paragraph, damn artworks made from found material by contemporary Brooklyn artists as “not art.”

The 20/20 exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of art, a collaboration with The Studio Museum in Harlem, is a means of addressing the schism between “white art” and “not-white art,” specifically black art. Inspired by a portrait of the young Lincoln by Horace Pippen from 1944, the exhibit attempts a fractal portrait of representations of blackness through the last century. The artworks are varied and travel in subject matter to address centuries of misinterpretation and the voluntary ignorance of assumption. Artworks in this exhibit have a tendency to lean towards the simultaneous depiction of multiple histories, commending on past and present in equal measure, occupying two spaces at one time. As the title implies, one of the aims of the exhibit is the correction of vision: not only the images of the black body in art, or what these images lack, but the black artist—particularly in their previous absence.

The photographs of Gordon Parks are so clear and crisply constructed that his images have the feeling of movement, emotional development, and existential resonance the longer one looks at them. Emerging Man, Harlem, NY, is a 1952 photograph taken to represent a deleted passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a literal representation of the protagonist’s return to the surface after descending into the sewers. Even with the sense of motion in the early day rising behind the subject, his eyes do not blink; nor do they break our gaze. The viewer breaks contact first. This image is contrasted with images taken for the Pittsburgh Courier by Charles “Teenie” Harris, documenting the lives of Pittsburgh’s black community. The subjects of Harris’s photographs look out at the viewer in many cases, looking out at our looking. I was reminded of a passage by bell hooks, from “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination”:

In white supremacist society, white people can “safely” imagine that they are invisible to black people since the power they have historically asserted, and even now collectively assert over black people, accorded them the right to control the black gaze. As fantastic as it may seem, racist white people find it easy to imagine that black people cannot see them if within their desire they do not want to be seen by the dark Other. […] An effective strategy of white supremacist terror and dehumanization during slavery centered around white control of the black gaze. Black slaves, and later manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving, as only a subject can observe, or see. To be fully an object then was to lack the capacity to see or recognize reality. These looking relations were reinforced as whites cultivated the practice of denying the subjectivity of blacks (the better to dehumanize and oppress), of relegating them to the realm of the invisible. (168)

In the Harris photographs as well, the range of expressions and “looks” is worth mentioning. A woman looks out from a distance as she mounts a motorcycle. Another woman, looking tomboyish and ambiguous, rests against the front door of Kay’s Valet Shoppe. This pose is mimicked in one of the last images of the exhibition, Untitled (Gallery) by Kerry James Marshall, which features a stylish black woman posed in front of a gallery wall. In both cases, the look is a challenge, demanding attention and asserting the subject’s own attentions directed at the viewer.

Kara Walker is represented by four large images taken from her larger series, The Emancipation Approximation. These shadow pictures revise the myth of Lela and the Swan, placing it in the context of both narratives of enslavement and narratives of reconstruction. These images recontextualize mythical sexual violence within the too-real history of sexual violence in slavery. Walker’s work is exceptionally difficult to address. Working primarily with the high-contrast of black silhouettes against a stern white backdrop, the details of these delicate pieces contrast with the subject matter. By Any Means Necessary, by Tim Rollins and K.O.S., takes pages of the Autobiography of Malcolm X and places the pages side by side on a giant canvas, covers them with a thin layer of white paint, and then creates a new signature across the surface with the M and the X coming together on a downward slope to spell his initials. Once more, the high contrast of black on white addresses the phenomenon of binary existence, in which all other racial identities are subsumed by the dialogue of race relations as a black/white thing. In the same way, this piece also makes a comment on the revising—the whitewashing—of black figures after their deaths by a white narrative.

Ellen Gallagher
Deluxe by Ellen Gallagher (Photograph by the author)

Ellen Gallagher’s 60-print series DeLuxe, presents a collage of images featuring beauty products marketed towards black women, mostly from the 1940s to the 1970s. Gallagher covers the advertisements with paint, clay, even pasta, to heighten surreal undertones of the images, turning these ideas of how beauty should-be into a different kind of beauty, one that questions the audience of the original advertisements. The scale of this work adds to the overwhelming sensation it produces: there are many ways in which one should “do” beauty; the advertisements proclaim that this product will make you look more white, this product will make you look less black, this product will make you look “authentically.” Beauty is beholden, and the contradictory messages about whether or not to embrace a sense of black-as-beautiful create a tension around the receiver.

Meleko Mokgosi’s text installation, Walls of Casbah, is a reflection on the way in which art historians and curators have perpetuated the cultural subjection of non-white cultures in both the gallery space and academic discourse. An exhibition catalog from the 2009 exhibition Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City becomes the basis of this work of critical theory and artistic engagement, in which the artist’s hand-written notes on the catalog—ranging from questioning word choices and sentence structure to pointing out the demeaning attitude behind particular words—are reproduced and enlarged on several canvases. In one example, Mokgosi’s notes break down and meditate on this sentence:

“Seen from the sea, European Algiers is nothing but crumbling walls and devastated nature, the whole a sullied blot.”

Focusing on “sullied,” Mokgosi’s commentary works from the definition of the word in order to express its impact and the general attitude it conveys:

“defiled or damaged integrity

‘soiled’

Shat on or shat on themselves

Blot (dark stain)

A region “belonging” to Africans (whatever this means) and associated with colonial rule—had been soiled—shat on—made into a dark stain.

Dark stain in the dark continent that only Le Corbusier could fix—bleach out and purify.”

This is a seminar of graduate theory represented in a few pages. It directly addresses issues of appropriation and the frequent missteps white audiences have slipped into when discussing non-white art. The legacy of colonizing attitudes and racist assumptions of superiority are very hard to erase, even when the white writer is attempting to demonstrate how they are “enlightened” to the problems of racism. Mokgosi’s engagement with the exhibition guide is a scene of reassertion not only of the artist’s power over those who write about them, the ability and the need for artists of color to respond to misappropriations of historical narrative, and the necessity of making black art that documents, invents, and cites the lives of the unspoken.

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Walls of Casbah by Meleko Mokgosi (Photograph by the author)

Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire) [Miss Black Bourgeoise] was a performance artwork by Lorraine O’Grady, documented in this exhibition by four photographs of her in the guise of artist-as-Miss America. These images contrast the notion of glamour in beauty pageants and the frequently racist (or racially-based) ideals of beauty remarked upon in Gallagher’s piece, while also calling attention to the relationship of black artists to the history of art. A successful beauty contestant is, by and large, not expected to be known for their ability to speak, but rather, to become a representation of vague ideals such as “beauty” and “purity.” In appearing as this fictitious representation, the artist is embodying a concept of tokenism as well as questioning the importance of patronage in the art world.

Basquiat is represented by a collaboration with Andy Warhol, a portrait of a dollar sign featuring Warhol’s signature silkscreen techniques and Basquiat’s devotion to graffiti and folk/traditional art techniques. The inclusion is mildly confusing to me, not because of Basquiat, but because his work with Warhol is, by comparison to his own, so slight. At the Warhol Museum, for many years these collaborations—which included videos, sculpture, and paintings—were represented by a large canvas (a commissioned portrait of a car that looked as though it was abandoned halfway through) and a sculpture piece of punching bags with each artist’s designs on them. Warhol, who in many respects represents the whitest of white artists, seems detached from Basquiat’s connection to lived experience; Basquiat seems detached from Warhol’s antiseptic and clinically repetitive late-80s work. The disconnect between the two artists, as well as their closeness, shattered by Warhol’s sudden death, was one of the few redeeming aspects of the otherwise troublesome bio-pic Basquiat. (Jean-Michel would die of a heroin overdose less than 18 months later.) Their collaborations feel often like two artists arguing with each other, rather than playing friendly, although this does not seem to be the biographical case. This is, perhaps, the reason that this collaborative work was included over a solo work of Basquiat’s, to represent the black artist’s engagement with the (then as now) majority white art culture and art establishment.

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Dollar Sign (Don’t tread on me)  Basquiat & Warhol (Photograph by the author)

Experiencing 20/20 before walking through the remainder of the Carnegie’s collection produces a (perhaps unintended) side-effect of refocusing the white viewer to the pervasive entity that is whiteness on a museum wall. It is, by and large, only with the movement towards 21st century art that we witness an increased range of representations in the visual arts, not just of the subjects on display, but also of the artists themselves. REkOGNIZE, by Bradford Young (June 16-December 31), a visual installation project running concurrently with 20/20 explores documentary photography and the history of violent images in American racial history. Many of the images I saw do not contain explicit violence as the center point, but the cutting between images and the pieces of computer code used to translate the images into a film creates a sense of violence in every moment. To the left and right of the main screen, footage of a streetlamp, barely demonstrating the motion that comes with the passage of time, contrasts with the central images and the score. The score, which is inspired by and modeled after the “raw data” that makes up the images, builds into a cacophony on the level of late Elliott Carter. The effect between the photography, the lines of code flashing on the screen, and the music, is such that the viewer is pushed to the point of having to leave the work within a few minutes. This is a cumulative artwork, a representation of the stress and emotional drainage that comes from violent histories and histories under erasure. The viewer leaves not because they do not want to see what is happening before them, but because the viewer can no longer stand it. It is interesting to contrast this with Howardena Pindell’s video piece, Free, White and 21, in which the artist discusses her experiences with institutionalized racism, starting with her mother’s being burned by a babysitter through to her experiences with institutionalized racism in the art world. The piece ends with a white-faced figure pulling a cream-colored stocking over her head and obscuring their eyes with large sunglasses. What should I care for all of these stories, the figure speaks, for I am free, white, and twenty-one! The declaration of not having to care, of the ability to deny attention, sympathy, and indignation to Pindell’s history, serves as a cruel reminder of the distance an observer can place between themselves and the oppressed.

Screenhot from Free white 21
Screenshot from Free, White and 21 by Howardena Pindell (Photograph by the author)

When looking through the Carnegie Museum of Art, after the experience of 20/20, the temptation to inverse the portraits became very strong. It was not a question of parity—to say that for every white artist, a black artist should be included; for every man, a woman, etc. It is not just a question of numbers, and including art for the sake of meeting a quota often results in the inclusion of disjointed and frankly just bad art. The drive to include a range of artistic representations seems often to be derided as a political stance, rather than an aesthetic one. (I have not noticed in the discussion of Charlottesville a great many people point out that treating whiteness as the norm is also an inherently political stance.) That-which-is-not-there in the gallery space remains a powerful force to be reckoned with. Whether this exhibition marks a start towards including a wider experience of artwork, or whether this is, like the rages of experimentation plucked by modernism, a moment for reflection before it is dropped for a new object, one does not know.

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Playing the Riot Box

The beat of the heart my love / Is stronger than the charts my love / Your water sign just lit my fire.

–“No Matter What Sign You Are,” Diana Ross and the Supremes.

There’s a lot of Motown sound coming out of a hole-in-the-wall bar on Christopher Street. That sound, that space, that park, changes with almost every year. The street changes so that elements of its past are forgotten; others are compartmentalized. The voices coming through the speakers are mostly smooth and harmonize with each other. The feeling is sentimental, in an uplifting way—exactly the sort of thing you would expect in any bar with a decent jukebox. Music, while it covers the air, doesn’t cover the less-desirable elements of the bar. You might not want to order a drink, sources say that they didn’t really clean the glassware, and some nights the bar gets so crowded that movement, dancing, even the flow of the music itself seems impossible. The whole scene can seem like something out of an upside-down wonderland. All of these people come together in this space after thinking for years that they were the only ones who lived and loved in a particular way.

 

Record and Glass
Photograph by the author

After the riots, the rebels of the bar go back and piece together the records in the jukebox. There are some questionable selections, but the list holds up, and eventually it is posted to the internet for world consumption. Diana Ross and the Supremes, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, the Fifth Dimension. You can still hold a pretty decent dance party to this list. I did just that, alone in my house for an afternoon with a friend and a bottle of vermouth between us. We put up tissue-paper lanterns and sunflowers on the walls and ceiling of my room and danced and talked in equal measure, making occasional platitudes about gay power and the need to reinvent our revolutions between trying on someone else’s heels.

 

The Stonewall Riots occurred in June 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City. To raid a gay bar was a common enough occurrence. Most gay bars were run by the mafia, and routinely enacted a strategy of blackmailing selected customers, knowing that they would lose their jobs if they went to the police, who had no interest in helping anyway. The bind of pre-liberation queerness—to be caught between the police and the mob—is the kind of drama that pulp novels were made for. Perhaps this is why so many of the first fictions to actually address the subject of homosexuality with explicit detail came out as cheap paperbacks with leery covers that suggested the scandal burning up inside—both inside the pages and inside the characters. The queer was walking down the thin line of their own lawlessness, waiting for the moment of discovery of madness that would tear them apart. Rarely did these stories have any kind of happy or redemptive ending. (Indeed, that’s part of the reason why the charm of Todd Haynes’ film, Carol, was completely lost on modern audiences—Highsmith’s novel was the first lesbian love story pulp to feature a happy, non-suicidal, ending. Even Gore Vidal’s “literary” The City and the Pillar ended in self-violence of one kind or another, depending on which of Vidal’s two endings you consumed.) The bars were dirty—who could complain? Dirty space is better than no space. Holding a space in the realm of Christopher Street was more than could be hoped for by those in suburban areas. The bar scene was mostly younger people, some of whom were not even eighteen the night of the first riot.

 

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A message from the Mattachine Society, a pre-Stonewall LGBT+ activist organization, painted on the window of the Stonewall Inn in the days after the riots.

Most of the major homosexual writers either frequented metropolitan playgrounds where queerness was an after-dinner reprise, or else left the states to find locations in Europe or some other land with more history and a tradition of classical/historical sexual ambiguity. Vidal alternated between Europe and the coasts, Capote lounged in the gilded worlds usually reserved for soap-opera wives (producing less and less, becoming more and more incoherent with drink and drugs), Highsmith wandered through Europe, settling in Switzerland and alternating between writing the psychological fiction that made her name and anti-Semitic screeds to the local paper, Paul Bowles lounged in Morocco, and Djuna Barnes wasted away in Greenwich Village, barely able to continue writing and being visited on her doorstep by cliques of younger women (including Carson McCullers) at whom she shouted through her window. James Baldwin returned to the United States to chronicle the Civil Rights movement, and witnessed friend after friend assassinated. He would live out the rest of his days in France, returning to the United States for speaking tours and to research for his books, but he would never return permanently. The nature of the city allows for something that the insular suburbs and rural world still do not—a difference tolerated as a new kind of eccentricity, the species “homosexual.” Reading the literature of the time, it becomes clear that to exist as a queer person, to discover one’s voice, one had to be born to one of these meccas, or one had to become an exile.

 

Of all the singers on the jukebox, Sinatra has the most unusual relationship to the gay men of the bar, courting them while reinforcing his own heterosexuality. Sinatra appeared in the film Advise and Consent as the disembodied crooner of the gay bar scene—the first gay bar to be featured in detail in an American film—in 1962. Sinatra’s voice was the object that the queer men were all lusting after, his crooning being directed back at him. How many of us changed the lyrics or the names of songs, adding in boyfriends to take the place of girlfriends? (I’ve sung “I’ve Just Seen a Face” by the Beatles about enough boys that it has almost become a running joke.) The terrible jokes “My Way” inspires have always made the song an object of pity for me, especially when Sid Vicious isn’t the one singing it. Sinatra’s version seems to strike an odd note between sincerity and absurdity, in which the man who did it his way was plodding and pedestrian, with almost nothing original about it. I can imagine someone putting it on at the end of the night, to make everyone go home. At the same time, it asks some of the foundation questions of theorists: “What is a man? / What has he got, / If not himself?”

When the fire comes up the night of the riot, and the police are pushed into the back of the bar, replacing those they sought to harass as refugees in this dark box of a back room, worried that they may have to shoot their way out through the crowd of street kids, the first lines of Sinatra’s song take on new meaning—it’s time to go home, because the world as we knew it this morning is ending. The softness of the voice and the twinkle of old blue eyes retain a hint of the young man photographed in a police mug shot—the crooner who rose up from looking almost like rough trade, growing into his face, turning into a tuxedoed king of the easy listening set.

 

Sinatra Mugshot
Sinatra’s Mugshot in Bergen County, 1938

 

I think about my friends walking down Christopher Street on a class trip and ask myself if I could bare to see them face fire and clubs. So many of the “street kids” involved in the riots were just that: kids. It is the rage and bravery of youths that comes through most in these few images we have. The marked difference between the documentary photographs and odd film clips we have of the Stonewall riots and the pride marches that follow is not ideology—Stonewall was about police violence and the systematic targeting of a minorities by the state; modern prides are about corporatized communities and, apparently, making straight people feel tolerant—but the total, unrepentant chaos of the riot in full motion. There is no pattern to the images apart from what might be seen by an overarching deity as the blood pours off a young person’s chest and a woman nurses a bruise. There is no denying that the first move towards modern pride was the release of a tremendous rage.

 

From A Gay News Chronology: January 1969–May 1975: Index and Abstracts from the New York Times (Arno Press, 1975):

 

4 policemen hurt, 13 persons arrested after hundreds of youths rampage, Greenwich Village, because of plainclothesmen’s raid on Stonewall Inn, bar which police say is well-known for homosexual clientele; police, acting on repts [sic] of illegal sales, confiscate liquor; Dave Van Ronk among those arrested. (6)

 

Listening to the music, looking at the photographs in detail, it is astonishing how much of Stonewall’s history has been whitewashed. There are so many connections with the burgeoning Black Power movement—the same songs that empowered a racial minority empowered the sexual minorities within it. There is no gay rights movement without the movement for black civil rights in the face of anti-black racism. Many of those writers who have commented on the Riots have stated that “Gay is Good” as a chant began as the direct descendant of “Black is Beautiful.” There is also no movement without the trans, gender-variant, and queer people. The movement for queer rights has always been about gender as well as sexuality. The number of Stonewall vets who have been read as white men “dragged-up”—that is, denying the reality of their transgender/gender non-conforming identity (how they present themselves, the legal name changes they applied for, the surgeries they stole for, the marriages to male partners after surgeries, the declaration time and time again that her name is Sylvia once and for all)—is astonishing. Pronouns are difficult and inconsistent source to source, and it becomes more complicated as our own vocabulary changes in the 21st Century. Respect for the names people use for themselves is thin in many accounts—it takes me a while to realize that various sources are writing about Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, because they refer to them by other names, deadnames, and treat their female identities as a form of roleplaying rather than a means of existing as themselves. Identity construction is an inherent part of any civil rights struggle, that is the ability to determine both where one stands in relationship to the world and what that world’s limits are upon your person; how far the world can cut into you, and you cut into it.

Chants beget chants: “Black Is Beautiful” gives us “Gay Is Good” in response. This leaves us asking, Queer Is…?” The mountains of paper generated by theory can only direct, not answer, this question. The riot was not a calculated, planned, act of rebellion asserting the autonomy of those who consented to be in the bar that night. It was born out of exhaustion—tired of being made victim yet again by a state that refused to view them as anything other than a nuisance.

 

Again, from A Gay News Chronology: January 1969–May 1975: Index and Abstracts from the New York Times (Arno Press, 1975):

heavy police reinforcements again clear Sheridan Sq area of NYC when crowds angered by raid on Stonewall Inn frequented by homosexuals sweep through area; 3 persons held. (6)

Riots are something you quell, something that is either beaten back or burns out the soul of their location. Watts, we are told, was never the same after the 1965 riots. Part of why the Stonewall Riots could go on was structure of the square where they occurred. The square is actually an uneven triangle, and it is not hard to run down one street to the other to stop the police for retreat. The triangle is the early symbol of Gay Liberation, reclaimed from the bodies of gay prisoners in concentration camps. The view from Christopher Street comes to a small triangle almost like the tip of a thin dagger. The intersections by Christopher Park are hellish, with traffic seemingly coming from eight directions at once. Even so, when I’ve visited in pilgrimage, the traffic has mostly been from young people exiting the subway. Standing in the Park, one can see how easy it would be to become trapped in this location. My friends and I run around the triangle, away from the Stonewall Inn, across streets with oncoming taxis, and finally back to the origin point, waiting there for us with a drink.

 

Streisand, too, is one of the few artists that step out of place in the jukebox. Already a gay icon by 1969, the exuberant lavishness of the Hello Dolly! soundtrack leaves the listener pining on. Remembering her role in the film of Funny Girl, the romantic build-up of “My Man” seems it would do better, mixing with Sinatra’s peculiar “way” of being in the back of a gay bar. Her early voice has the power to hold notes and go without breath for (seeming) minutes. Deviating from the playlist, my friend and I throw in the clip from Funny Girl where a tearful Streisand sings a song of devotion to the man who’s just broken her heart, pulling herself together to end the song—and the film—on a high note, and earning herself a permanent place in queer hearts, in the space that Judy Garland left behind. The seemingly anti-feminist message of the song takes on a different context when placed in the realm of queer triangles of relation, and the devotion that two men can have for each other. In Hello Dolly!, she reembarks into the world after the death of her husband, she makes this her coming out, a way to feel her heart coming alive, joining in the parade marching towards the future, rather than letting it pass her by.

If there is a modern gay pop aesthetic, one can see it forming in these songs on the jukebox. Under the beats, the messages that can be read into the songs demonstrate why they click in this bar. “No Matter What Sign You Are” suggests a love that triumphs over the universe itself, even if the nebulous forces threaten to crash everything. “The Young Folks” draw on the desire of protest and change; “You better make way” because things cannot be the same. The energies of these songs move towards a future desire, the love that is to come around the corner—I love you more today than yesterday, / but not as much as tomorrow. The music pushes towards the energy of love,  even as around the world, Vietnam continues to burn in the year after the My Lai (4) Massacre, Solanas shot Warhol, Martin Luther King is assassinated, and the specter called Nixon takes the Presidency.  The construction of the playlist of jukebox singles is in part a construction of queer identity. Under the rhythm, the beat of the oncoming disco explosion can be heard. The lyrics offer reassurance, the live performances offer a sense of life lived on a larger scale than most people could ever experience. I sometimes wonder if the theatrical bent so many of us queers seem to have has to do with the uneasy feeling that one is always playing a role—theatre offering a legitimate reason to reveal the act of role-playing itself. (When I dress myself, do I dress the part of a homosexual? Only when going to parties.)

White statues stand in Christopher Park today. In the aftermath of the first AIDS crisis, they serve as testimonials to the way the past still walks in the park if you sit and watch quietly. Blue plaques make clear that this is the sight of something important. The Stonewall Inn still operates, with a back room dedicated to the days of the riots, filled with memorabilia and collages to its history. It became a national landmark in 2015—the first dedicated to LGBTQ+ people—and in 2017 its status was “put under review” by the President—quite possibly a record for Government turnaround. The Stonewall Inn is proof that queer people have had something to contribute to changing the face of this country. That the memorial commemorates the progress made in part because of the combination of violent and nonviolent protest, it makes more sense that an agency of power, such as a government interested in making the queers disappear, would have an interest in forgetting it. This music provides a link to this riot and rebellion that would ignite the energy of generations of protest. This is the dance the offspring of Emma Goldman swayed in the sidewalks and narrow alleyways. This is where Edmund White walked as the City Boy he describes in his memoirs, heading towards the trucks that held dozens of bodies cruising in the night. This is the lane of red light neon becoming black streets walked on by all colors living out in the open one night a week, and those living on the street, wandering in to an apartment bedroom for a paid respite. This is where we gather together in a worship called love. This ground is sacred, and the music is our hymnal.

 

 

 

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To Love Edward Said

Edward Said
Edward Said

I must confess to my own sins here: there is a small part of me that has fallen in love with Edward Said. I do not mean this in the sense that I admire his scholarship and think of him as a role model (though that is very much the case). I mean that I have actually fallen in love with this man—the way that Patti Smith wrote about falling in love with the poet Rimbaud, who died many years before she was even born. Even as I confess to this, I wonder if I am falling into the trap that Edward Said has warned us against–if I am romanticizing the other, am I creating an idea of this other person to fill some need that I have in my own life? Looking at photographs of Said as a young man–and even as a middle-aged man–it is apparent that he cut a dashing figure, contesting the portrait I have seen of Derrida in a trench coat, walking along the streets of New York, collar up against the wind, smoking, and actively participating in the spiritual recreation of Humphrey Bogart as an Algerian philosopher.

Derrida as Bogart
Derrida as Bogart, from Derrida

I do not, at least, write Edward Said’s name with little hearts around it in my diary.

I recently saw a speech by Dr. Colleen Clemens exploring the way that the Malala narrative has been utilized in American discourse. She connected this narrative with the story of Mukhtar Mai, and I began to wonder where the differences lay. The attention paid to women’s rights in the context of Muslim and Middle Eastern identity, she says, shows less care for the rights of women specifically than for a desire to boost support for military operations: “I do not want to see the same thing done with Malala or her story, when she and it are no longer serving this country’s military or nationalistic needs.” I began to think as well about the ways in which particular women seem to come forward, hold a moment in light as the oppressed Muslim woman, suffering under terrorism and misogyny (which is a form of terrorism under a different label). Soon after, these women disappear, often without their situation vastly improving, or rather without a serious shift within the larger culture they belong to. Things go back as they were until the next military intervention. I see these books come in at my store all of the time–I am Nujood: Aged 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali, My Forbidden Face by Latifa, and even Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s duel memoirs, Nomad and Infidel—the former of which includes the subtitle I’m sure so many of us would itch to deconstruct: “From Islam to America.” There is something about these narratives that suggest sympathy and apathy at one. If they cause a change of heart in the ideological xenophobe, I have not yet seen it. I notice none of the people who read these books have any interest when I talk to them about Nawal El Saadawi.

I think of the picture of the “Afghan Girl,” a 1985 cover image for National Geographic that became synonymous with the refugee crisis arising from the Afghan War. Her name is Sharbat Gula. No one knew her name for almost twenty years after the picture was taken because the photographer did not record her name at the time. In 2016, she was deported from Pakistan back to Afghanistan for living there with false documents. Her children were deported with her. At the same time, her image was reprinted all over the world as the cover of various collected editions of the “Most Iconic Photographs” ever taken. Gula went to court before she was deported in a full burqa. Newspapers remarked on the fact that these famous eyes were now covered by the veil, forgetting perhaps that her eyes and her image belongs first and foremost to her—not any photographer on the court steps. There was a moment in which her image served a purpose (be it a valuable one) before she was abandoned and marginalized once the interest of the mainstream discourse shifts.

There is a need to develop a critical awareness of what the term “Orientalism” specifically means in this context. The specific locale, what might be termed the “Middle East” in the 21st Century (engulfing the idea of a “Near East”), and what was called “the Orient” until the mid-20th Century. Said places his primary focus in Orientalism on American, French and British perceptions of the “Orient.” The history of the term is a study of the varying ways in which a geographical territory was interpreted by three primary colonizing powers. The after-effects of these particular divisions in thought, and the discourses produced by them, are still lingering with us in some of the examples previously given.

Orientalism is the perpetuation of a “once-removed” perspective. The Orientalist perspective expands, cuts and repeats the narratives of other writers–journalists and travel writers–to create a fictional sense of a place as it sees fit. The Orient, as presented in the minds of these writers to their readers, is not a coherent place that can be marked as individual countries and cultures. These works were the frame on which to hang forbidden desires, the thirst for the exotic and fantastic, and the desire for adventure–often without direct experience of the lands being described. Talking for a moment about German perceptions, Said notes:

There is some significance in the fact that the two most renowned German works on the Orient, Goethe’s Wesröstlicher Diwan and Friedrich Schlegel’s Über die Sprache und Weisheit see Indier, were based respectively on a Rhine journey and on hours spent in Paris libraries. What German Oriental scholarship did was to refine and elaborate techniques whose application was to texts, myths, ideas, and languages almost literally gathered from the Orient by imperial Britain and France. (85-86)

It is through these manipulations, craftings, and reworkings of another culture that these Western empires were able to better to envision themselves. While one can question the importance of hindsight in analyzing how much of this was a consciously sustained practice (like the production of nationalist propaganda in a Presidential campaign), there is little doubt that this series of motifs were (and to an extent still are) perpetuated in a meaningful and detrimental way. Said again, “Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment” (75).

Music by Mohammet Fairouz, who has incorporated Said’s work into several of his compositions.

Orientalism “is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts” (80). It is a way of confronting the way in which colonialism is constructed. “…nearly every nineteenth-century writer (and the same is true enough of writers in earlier periods) was extraordinarily well aware of the fact of empire,” Said writes (81). This awareness of empire did not always connect to a critical awareness of the mechanisms of empire, and Said acknowledges examples of thinkers whose works advocated for republics and self-government for the “west” and colonization with limited control for the “east” (81-82). There is the Dr. Schweitzer quote that has followed all humanitarians either as a warning or an implicit guide: “The African is my brother, but he is my younger brother.”

I think it is important to recognize the directness with which Said situates himself within the context of his study. He addresses what he perceives as a misconception about the divisions in the Middle East and the way in which his experience has been, occasionally, misconstrued as perpetuating or condoning antisemitism:

In addition, and by an almost inescapable logic, I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret, sharer or Western anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism and, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch, Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth that only needs to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be perfectly understood (92).

As a term that historically does not always equate itself with specifically Jewish identity, Said finds an irony that he–a person who would be described as Semitic–could be accused of perpetuating antisemitism in a whirlpool of learned self-hatred. The famous photograph of Said—by this point no longer living leukemia but dying of it—throwing a rock (or a broken cell phone, depending on which story you have heard) at an Israeli guardhouse in Lebanon is a gesture not of antisemitism but of aggravation towards a body of power, as if to say, “Words have failed to impress you. Let me show you my feelings.” It was something little children do, and had been doing that day before Said came upon the scene and joined them.It was a moment in which the individual sees the power of the state and chooses to stand anyway.

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Said throws

Said suggests these Semitic, colonized cultures which are perpetually presented in the West as if they were doomed to perpetual struggle have, in reality, more in common with each other through their shared history of misrepresentation and abuse than they do with their colonizers or imperial allies. Said never loses the sense of urgency behind the cool collectiveness of his prose, and the passion of his debates are apparent in this text, which serves as the introduction not only to a particular book, but also to a life’s work.

A Late interview with Edward Said, discussing Reflections on Exile and other essays

An earlier version of this column appeared in PostColonial Minds as “The Love of Edward Said”

 

 

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The Looker: John Berger

I was making my way through Ways of Seeing when I stopped at the end of the third essay and sent a text message to my friend. Within a few minutes he had responded, telling me that he was reading the same essay, at the same time, for a class; he had the same thoughts and was going to get in touch with me. This was not to be the last time this would happen. I worked my way through the rest of the book, finding germs of the theoretical lenses I would be studying in theory-heavy courses outlined with concrete examples. It still guides many things I write about—many of the conversations I have had in the last year were sparked by reading John Berger.

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John Berger by Jean Mohr

Berger was a multidisciplinary thinker before we used words like “multidisciplinary.” The seventy years of his critical explorations reflected the radical changes in the way we think about art, politics and the act of thinking itself. Berger was, in many ways, responsible for starting the process of consciousness raising many of us needed and still need. His work made us question the preconceptions we brought to analysis in a way that was both serious and playful. I can sum it all up in a single painting by Magritte: The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas un pipe).

magrittepipe

The image appears as if it is a pipe; yet as many have said, the viewer cannot take the pipe down and fill it, light it, or smoke it. In the end, it is not a pipeit is the representation of a pipe. It is in this area of differencebetween the thing and its representationthat we find the best of Berger’s work.

The way that of Berger holds most of his influence is bizarre. He is best known for (essentially) a novelization of a television program he presented in the 1970s: Ways of Seeing. The actual program hasn’t been released on video because of copyright issues, so to admit to having seen it is to admit to walking in the grey area of copyright law. The book is broken up between essays and visual (wordless) essays. The two connect together and reinforce one another to the point that they cannot be separated. Seeing image after image reproduced side by side, themes that previously would have required travel around the world to different galleries, close observation, and the persistence of memory in order to connect between point A and Point B, become apparent. Ways of Seeing compresses the journey while preserving a small part of the overall experience. Once these changes are seen, they linger in our consciousness. We can place them in our own world.

I will never forget reading Berger’s essay on the female nude included in Ways of Seeing, particularly the last paragraph, which so many seem to have missed completely:

But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from mennot because the feminine is different from the masculinebut because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the images, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer. (64)

Reading this set all the lights in my mind ablaze. In terms of feminist consciousness, this was the moment in which the pose and figure of women across the history of art shifted for me. Going to an art gallery soon after, I came upon a picture and imagined that it was now a naked man looking at himself in a mirror, with a woman viewing from the bed, or two men: a study in homoerotic narcissism. I turned the youth and a wolf (playing with the wolf? being chased by the wolf? actively attacked by the wolf?) from female to male, and the ambiguity of the image was removedthey were playing, roughhousingbecause, my consciousness told me, that is how boys and animals interact. I thought too of my transgender friends and lovers, and the way that we assign meaning based on sexual characteristics that may not always be present in the equation. Eventually, I did not even have to go that far. I could look at faces and paint them androgynously, letting them become bodies that were neither female nor male. I could read a painting leaving these assumptions for later, after the pose was discovered.

Outside of his writing, Berger lived the radical practice he wrote about. Almost every obituary recounted how he had donated half of his winnings from the Booker Prize for his picaresque novel, G., to the London branch of the Black Panther Party and used the remainder to finance a book on migrant workers. This was also the man who translated the poetry of Cesaire and Mahmoud Darwish into English and supported revolutionary struggles for independence throughout the world with the same ease he would describe a work by Picasso. At the time that the world was becoming more industrial, Berger moved to France and lived the life of a farmer (who also happened to be one of the most influential critics in the world). This shift in his life was responsible for a new branch of his writing: Berger wrote about the connection with humans and animals in the same tender way he wrote about depictions of lovers in paintings. He removed the distances between a life of the mind and a life of activity, becoming more aware of the difficulties facing those whose work feeds us in the literal sense.

What I miss most about Berger is the constant appeal to looking, for discovering the unseen connection between images, of parts of a single image. In art history and art criticism, we were taught how to read paintings. Unlike the majority of printed books, there seemed no way to instantly grasp the way a painting should be read. One can start with the whole, or the upper left, or move from the right counter-clockwise. The advice to “show, not tell,” seems to run amok here, and art felt like a puzzle with missing pieces. What was it, I wondered, out loud in a gallery by accident, that these critics had done to understands this meaning behind the artwork? (In other words, what sort of drugs had they taken?) Berger made the process of looking, thinking, discovering, a program I could follow through on because he took the mystery out of looking while retaining the beauty of the discovery.

Berger is best in miniature. The strongest works were the most concentrated, as if they had been boiled down and mixed together on a stove top. He revisits the importance we ascribe to objects, either as artworks, historical markers, or personal reminders of past encounters with other people, other places. An essay about a wooden bird given to him by a friend invites a discussion, not about the bird, but about exile, craftsmanship, and a disappearing mode of life. Berger returned to vision again in his short work, Cataract, exploring the way the anatomy of the ocular device impacts the process of vision and thought. Recovering from cataract operations in both eyes, he wrote about the radical shift in clarityfirst in one eye, then in the otherthat made colors intense again. As he aged, he had become a critic operating in a diminished capacity for some time as things began to come in clearly. Now it seemed as though he was entering a second wind in his late 80s. And so it seemed for the rest of the man and his reputation: Verso had just put out two large collections of his art criticism, a documentary, The Seasons in Quincy, had just been released at film festivals, and it seemed as though the world was turning its vision back to John Berger. Even with this productivity, it was clear that he was slowing down. His death was not unexpected. Still, no one I knew was ready for it.

I think of the way in which so much about Berger is contained in the physical world still. He seems like a man of the 19th century, still working on crisp paper in a digital age. I wonder how he would investigate the new trend of the 360 degree film footage, meant to be viewed on a mobile device, based around the idea of being there without being there. So many of the questions he raised about our critical engagement with images remain unanswered: How do we see the world around us? How do we process what we see? How do we distinguish between the representation and the real? In response, the gentleness of John Berger’s voice keeps asking us: Look.

1926-2017.

 

 

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Deamon Love: Dennis Cooper

On a whim I went to the blog I had not checked in on in a long while, only to find there was no blog. Everything had been replaced with a page stating that the blog had been closed down for violating terms of use. This was not in and of itself surprising: transgressive artists should expect to face censorship challenges. It would not be anything remarkable if not for what happened after. Things disappear off of the internet all the time. The real puzzle was the reason behind the disappearance, as well as the complete absence of a warning that this would happen.

Dennis Cooper’s blog, The Weaklings, has been a wonderful place for those who wanted to find alternative representations of reality–a few degrees removed, darker than midnight. It is an alley many could walk down, and then quickly walk away from if (when?) it became too much. Eros and Thanatos are not just connected in the Universe of Dennis Cooper–they are permanently in each other’s arms, in the darkness of a corner room, open to each other and engaged in a perpetual state of procreation. The romance of Cooper’s most delicate and meaningful love affairs (the most tender one I have encountered yet would be in his graphic novel, Horror Hospital Unplugged, 1993) is always tainted by the reality that in a heteronormative world, in a world which promotes its dominance, its “rightness” by making these desires criminal, the ostracized queer will go on to become a criminal, to attract the darkness to them. To criminalize the queer is to make them a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is not some new dimension of fetish reduced through pornography, this is where desires hold both liberation of the self and the traps of social consequence. This is the territory of Jean Genet’s sailors on a phallic ship, where the structure of society is reworked.

Through high school, Dennis Cooper was the reason I cleared my browsing history before my parents could look something up on the computer.

Cooper’s blog is the only place where you can find detailed prose-poems about male escorts and the world of rent boys hooked on drugs and masochism, and esoteric and obscure reflections on the history of art, sensational crimes, transgressive and punk writers from the tradition Cooper helped initiate, and long lists of elaborate decorations or images, often without commentary, centralized around a theme. My personal favorite was a series of Halloween decorations that ranged from the mildly gross and humorously creepy to the outright traumatic, represented through a series of demonstration videos and .gif sets. Cooper’s interest is the only thing connecting it all. In many ways, The Weaklings was a darker corner of Tumblr before Tumblr existed. In my first year of college, I found a magazine called PYWSM?!? And in that exchange met a beautiful man who gave me hope for queer people hoping to create art outside of the rainbow paradigm. I discovered the films of Pasolini and the plays of the mad spiritual Artaud. The blog offered Cooper fans a place to interact with the author, in the form of a “PS” at the end of each post. Cooper responded to almost every person who left comments, and used the section as an opportunity to promote young artists he admired.

[Cooper, in an interview with Hilda Magazine, talks about his publishing history, including a large section about the composition of a blog post, including a discussion of the “PS”]

And one day it all disappeared. Cooper went public with his story about the removal of his blog and the deletion of his account, which cost him years of work, including a novel in progress. It was a moment that could have easily shattered another artist and forced them to close up shop. To lose a work in progress is one thing, to lose an archive at the same time is to feel as though your work never existed in the real world. I was reminded of the incident early in Hemingway’s career, in which he famously lost a trunk full of manuscripts, or the drunken remarks that Capote had finished Answered Prayers and put the book in a locker, where it has yet to be found. The lost work always holds out hope and dread. These are the moments in which the artist has to choose whether to continue working or to abandon their efforts. Following international outcry, the account, along with the blog, was returned to Cooper, with almost as little explanation as its disappearance. All that is left is speculation.

The Weaklings, or DC’s [NSFW] as it is now called, can be described in its new incarnation as an art project moving in two directions: a restoration of the lost material of the blog that Cooper originally wrote and published for over a decade, in addition to new posts, creating a space where the past and the future are unfolding at the same time. This archiving/creating project moves in conjunction with Cooper’s turn towards the digital form, exploring what writing means in a digital landscape. From his early career in the zine scene of the 1980s to his most recent print novel, The Marbled Swarm (2011), Cooper has focused on the breakdown and manipulation of language. The digital landscape has given him a new avenue to explore.

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A screenshot of the Title Page for “Zac’s Haunted House” a “GIF-Novel” by Dennis Cooper

Zac’s Freight Elevator, published online by Kiddiepunk.com right after the blog controversy, is the third in a series of highly experimental works composed entirely in .gif images. These works are freely available on the Internet, either as downloadable packages or as things you can scroll through on your web browser of choice. To call these works novels is to present them within a particular context that the genre hounds among us might find uncomfortable or unsatisfactory. They are, after all, wordless, and who created a wordless novel? (Lynn Ward and his woodcuts, perhaps, but no matter.) These works are exactly what you would expect from Dennis Cooper: dark, occasionally funny, twisted, disturbing, filled with images that will stick with you long after reading. The only difference is these are actual images, not  representations of visual events in words. Each text is made up of film clips, music videos, spinning rock lyrics, advertisements, and oddities found throughout the web. The images short-circuit what we have come to expect from literature.  It is, of course, the case that many of these images are tapping deep into your unconsciousness, sending signals not unlike the signals from the telegraph device featured in the preface to Zac’s Haunted House [NSFW], the first of his “GIF-Novels.” Imagine a silent film without title cards or music to accompany the action.

I read Zac’s Haunted House, in about 15 minutes. Reading is, I realize, a somewhat dishonest term–not because the book is wordless but because I scrolled through, not wanting to look, even as I kept going. It is traumatizing, a horror film you watch through parted fingers. Even still, there are moments of tenderness hidden in the work. Comfort is to be found in the arms of another man, even if this other man could also betray you and send you spiraling, as men so often do in Cooper’s work. There is love, but it is fleeting, snatched away before it can be turned into something sentimental.

These works dependent on the archival and collaborative nature of the internet. Each consists of found image sets, rearranged to create movement and contrasting scenarios. This is a new kind of storytelling that grew out of the blog space, one that lets readers create the context between images and situations. There is no specific plot. It takes the gaps of experience (the life we live between Facebook posts) and makes that the narrative structure. With each new work in this form, the form itself develops, resulting in a smoother, more finessed experience of Cooper’s juxtapositions. In a time when many of us scroll on by, Cooper has adapted to the scroll and made it part of his work.

It is in these narratives that Cooper is finding ways to present the world to readers anew. Like his prose fiction, it is dark and frightening, but it is also able to contain moments of great tenderness. It is the radical honesty Cooper demonstrates by placing his work in the world, that makes his blog and his novels in a new media form into avenues worth exploring in our digital wonderland before they are blocked off.

 

 

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Living InFinite Museums

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The Internet is a museum that goes on forever. This is what I want to believe, at least.

We are firmly in the grasp of the Digital Humanities revolution. This means things are irreparably different now. The Digital Humanities—and what that term is going to encompass is a question we are still working out—will bring us everything and nothing new all at once.

Do not ask me what that means exactly. No one quite knows. The best definition I found was a website that generated a new definition each time you refreshed the page. But we can mostly agree that the Digital Humanities probably involves computers and the Internet.

The changing reality of the Digital Humanities era means that we can no longer function in a single framework. We need to find ways to push beyond the frames we inherited, to find where that frame can be connected with others to form new structures. Periodically, these structures will be ruined so that we can begin again.

We are the first generation that is able to hold 2,000 books or more in our hand at one time without being crushed under them, on a device equal in weight and smaller in size than your average poetry collection. Whether we will remember these works and use them, or not, is another matter. This is one of many paradoxes of the Digital age.

A museum holds what we value, or at least what we are supposed to value. Value always has a particular concern behind it. We should always ask who is deciding where value is to be found. There are things we value too much for questioning. We call these things traditions. These are the things, of course, that we must question most.

The Internet is a museum that goes on forever. The art of museum directorship lays in having a knack for knowing what to keep and what to expel. No one vessel can encompass everything.

The Internet is the most democratic form that exists–so long as you have access to a computer, electricity, wi-fi, modems, consumerism, a capitalist world, money, time and the English language.

If you have access to this ‘launch pad’ you can find anything.

But as anyone who has tried to find Truth will tell you, it vanishes rapidly before your eyes. This is where we start to find our limits.

The Internet is finite and infinite, something that stretches outside of the dimensions of space, while still suffering from the borders of reality.

The Internet is a museum that can be demolished without the weight of a falling bomb.

On the Internet, things end with a whimper, not a bang.

We surround ourselves with the things we value, and the things we are supposed to value, both in reality and on our Facebook walls.

We can try to archive the Internet, either in other digital spaces, or we try to print it out as a form of banal artistry, only to find that it reproduces like a family of rabbits.

No one will ever see the entirety of the Internet.

It is imperative that we recognize the limitations of our space in the same way that we recognize what this same space capable of. We need to know how to break the frames of our existence, but to break them well, in the best way we can.

This is true of life as well as the Internet.

We exist in finite museums, sectioned off from an infinite world. That is the joy and terror of our condition in a sentence.

This finite space is here to find what is worth preserving and replicating, to find an aspect of the previously unfocused and unfeatured.

The Internet is a lot like the vanishing point in a painting. The Internet lives in that moment where space seems to go on forever. You cannot see the whole of the Internet. And yet you can put this image within a frame and place it on your refrigerator, to make it a smaller part of your larger world, to capture it if only for a moment or two.

We can still find space in finite museums.

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