There is a morning when it rains in the corner of everybody’s bedroom.
— Jack Spicer, excerpt from Oliver Charming’s Diary (1953)
I started a Tumblr in 2011 and called it Little-Richards. For it, I took screenshots of all the dick pics I received without solicitation from dating apps I sometimes use to flirt with other users. I applied two filters to each image. First, a nice sepia tone (Am I projecting? This is very common.), and second, a soft-focus, so as to strip each dick pic from its original context as misfed courage, and hopefully get to a place where each dick can tell me it knows what I want. Maybe something soft, but likely nothing at all. Then I posted them.
If Little-Richards is any good — and it may not be (none of the photos have gotten any likes) — it is because it stops short of benefiting the real-world context it came from. The conceptual operation at the heart of the project — that I would screen cap these images, fuck with them a bit, and repost them onto an ongoing Tumblr account — doesn’t provide a specific point of entry “into” the piece as a viable channel through which its viewer might gain access to its lurking compiler, nor anything necessarily to do with that compiler’s penchant for lurking, or for looking at dick pics. Rather, Little-Richards hopes to expose no more than the possible behaviors that such a penchant allows for. The preference to look at dick pics, here, is merely the hollow condition that led the compiler to feed on the dicks in the first place. Otherwise, I can say that if Little-Richards is any good, it is because the title makes a pun on the R&B singer’s name and then follows through, with the appearance of many dicks, which are, for the most part, not little. In any case, it is a good idea to bite back the boner that feeds you. If that’s not your thing, fine. Here are three hundred ways to pull out.
I went to Brown in March as an “artist in residence” for Interrupt3, a three-day conference on the intersection of art and text and digital things. I was anxious when I arrived because in the days before leaving people had asked me repeatedly what I would make once I got up there. I had no idea.
As soon as I arrived in Providence, I began seeing signs with the words “Imagine Brown” everywhere. They were on lampposts and banners and posters all over Brown’s (quite white — qhite?) campus.
Once at the studios, I stepped outside for a cigarette, hiding from the rain beneath a huge IMAGINE BROWN poster strewn along the whole wall of the arts building. Brown was begging to be imagined and I was there to be imagining.
I gathered everything brown and free that I could find in a fifty-footstep periphery of the studio. I photographed it with David’s fancy DSLR and printed it with the huge printer we were given access to. Brown, Imagined — here:
1 chocolate chocolate chip cookie
1 coffee cup
1 copy of the back of literallydead
1 Gertrude Stein quote from Tender Buttons
1 Helen Mirra/Fred Frith record, “Quail”
1 notebook that belongs to Michael Anzuoni
1 paper bag
1 pencil sharpener
1 sunglass case
1 trash can
2 packs of RAW rolling papers
2 pairs of glasses, both sun and regular
2 sheets of recycled paper at different stages of wrinkling
3 cigarette butts
3 pieces of cardboard, varying sizes
6 of the wooden sticks you use to stir milk or creamer into coffee
8 rubber bands
Sophia Le Fraga
Allegory and radical mimesis in Heriberto Yépez
Heriberto Yépez, Voice Exchange Rates, 2002. Is unoriginality already the preferred condition of USAmerican experimentalism?
“Talk-It,” the speaker-cum-software bot of Heriberto Yépez’s video-poem “Voice Exchange Rates,” describes itself as a technology “designed to help poetry return to the righteous path of the avant-garde” by automating the poetic endeavor: the program reads, translates, and composes in a variety of languages and registers in accordance with the preferences of its human user. This hypothetical division of the writing project into specific but related labors — the completion of which is achieved by outsourced procedural means — forces us to consider the stakes of such extreme mediation in literary practice, and to weigh the costs of jettisoning the “human” from artistic production.
We might begin by contemplating its assertion that the “next Octavio Paz is going to write like The New York Times.” Here, Yépez illuminates and contests the protocols that regulate the admission of nonnative, polylingual, and transnational voices to the institutionalized “avant-garde” tradition. Inevitably, the tariff assessed on these poetries is one of deracination: a body of writing only becomes properly saleable once it is stripped of its material and cultural specificities. By naming this gatekeeping as another syndrome of globalization, the poem poses a critical challenge to the literary institution of Conceptual writing: is it really so aesthetically subversive to write like The New York Times within the confines of the art institution — or, rather, to reframe and concretize this writing as commodified word-object — when this very same institution already imposes a regime of prescribed unoriginality (better yet: fluency) on writers who do not fall within its racialized and nationalistic tradition?
For Yépez, we sense, the proposition of “uncreative writing” threatens to recapitulate the globalizing logics that treat immigrant populations as reservoirs of disposable, recombinant, and plastic laboring subjects. If his work flirts morbidly with the obsolescence of the individuated and coherent speaker, it does so with the most pointed allegorical interest. We might say that “Voice Exchange Rates” works as a “radically mimetic” demonstration of the technological processes by which literary subjectivity is policed and homogenized — albeit one that signals the metonymic relationship between this phenomenon of exclusion (or selectively allocated and highly qualified inclusivity) and the larger patterns of sociopolitical marginalization and worker precaritization that order and stabilize the neoliberal state.
It is in this curious respect that “Voice Exchange Rates” shares much with the avowed methodologies and goals of the most visible exponents of Conceptual practice. I would furthermore hazard that the poem offers a prescient corrective to their well-documented (and eagerly claimed) critical failure before the fact. The piece is interested in contesting original authorship; it makes use of textual reframing; it is sensitive to the aesthetic and formal suggestions of nonliterary media; and it, too, theorizes writing in terms of the systems and technologies that facilitate its delivery and distribution. But at the same time, it is unwilling to marginalize or suspend political urgency in order to ventilate these concerns; rather, it sees these problems as inextricably related. This is to say that while the poem “mirrors” the “leveling and loading media” that govern the artistic production habits of a complacent neoliberal avant-garde, and even, perhaps, “[replicates] the error under critique,” it refuses to feign historical disinterest in the course of this performance, or to confirm the structural resignation that has defined the institutional commentary offered by the bulk of Conceptual writing — or, at least, its most visible practitioners and exponents.
Do Bush-era announcements of the “end of history” find their correlate in aesthetic affirmations of unoriginality and resignation? Yépez anticipates and rejects both of these propositions in this work.
Place and Fitterman acknowledge that the embryonic situation of this aesthetic development is a “repressive market economy.” For them, this operational predicament is “banal, [but] nonetheless true,” and more importantly, inescapable. Indeed, its very banality stems from the impossibility — hence familiarity and redundancy — of successful escape from market logics. But where Conceptual writing has, in the main, formulated its critique in materially dehistoricized and aesthetic terms — that is, in terms of the obligations (or liberty) to discard narrative in the wake of the “historical leveling” effected by the inception of the digital archive — Yépez examines the collapse of authorial and historical stability as a politico-aesthetic crisis that can be negotiated only through the proliferation of voices and authorships. I want to propose “Voice Exchange Rates” as a model for ethically and globally interested conceptual writing precisely because it eschews self-congratulation and insouciance: it offers incisive critiques of the imperialist tendencies of the Conceptual turn in poetry, even as it turns an eye to the ways in which authorial subjectivity is fractured, deauthenticated and selectively reconfigured under regimes of postindustrial capitalism that increasingly take shape along transnational lines and within digital spaces.
1. Yépez has described poetry as “series of techniques to construct — or, if [we] prefer, deconstruct — the subject” which rely on numerous literary figures, structures, and platforms, including voice, here “[understood] as the ways in which mind and body materialized, the patterns in which change interplays with memory.” (Heriberto Yépez, “Ethopoetics, What is it?,” Poems and Poetics, np.)
2. I’ve pulled these terms and concepts from Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009). But I do not intend to map their analysis onto Yépez’s work. Rather, my aim is to signal descriptive correspondences between these respective aesthetic accounts, which engage concomitant politico-aesthetic problems with varying degrees of commitment and urgency.
3. Of course, it would be inaccurate to say that the exponents of self-branded Conceptual writing have totally ignored the question of history. It is clear, for instance, that they maintain an interest in the question of technological advance and its impact on the history of twentieth-century art; and it is on this basis that they stake their claim to artistic relevancy: “In the 1990s, with the emergence of the Internet, as chronicled earlier, uncreative writing developed as an appropriate response for its time, combining historical permissions with powerful technology to imagine new ways of writing” (Kenneth Goldsmith, “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?,” in Against Expression [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011], xxi).
4. Consider, for example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s remarks on the remixing opportunities afforded by digitization, delivered in conversation with Dale Smith.
5. I do not mean to suggest an unspoken affinity between Yépez’s work and the appropriative or procedural strategies that tend to dominate the landscape — and the discourse of Conceptual practice. See, most recently, his essay “El escándalo del sujeto concepto: Kenneth Goldsmith,” trans. Guillermo Parra.
On Angelica Dass and Divya Victor
A collage of photographs from Angelica Dass’s ongoing Humanæ Project appeared on the cover of the “The Trouble With Race” issue of Foreign Affairs magazine in March 2015. Dass’s photographic pairing of human skin tone with swatches of PANTONE® color was selected for an issue slated to spotlight the global failure of multiculturalism. It is unlikely that Foreign Affairs was looking for a cover image that would serve as diegetic proof of this failure, but Dass’s embodied rooms of color could not describe more perfectly the perception of racialized bodies as artful abstraction that makes up the dominant multiculturalist vision. Dass describes her practice as a kind of radical visibility: she calls Humanæ “a pursuit for highlighting our subtle-continuous of our tones that make more equality than difference … our true colors, rather than the untrue Red and Yellow, Black and White.” Elevating the representative specific over the generalized untrue race, Dass offers “a kind of game for subverting our codes” in which the narrow racial imaginary is inundated with numerically identified bodies. The catalogue of human experience is limitless but trackable. The bodies undergo an erasure of qualities in order to attain this idealized and nameless “equality.” It is color — independent of race, ethnicity, nationality, history, or culture — that is emphasized to the complete removal of the personal-political identity.
The color category dangerously suggests that human bodies are each intrinsically colored without consideration of the psychosocially constructed and connotatively loaded ascription of skin color. One would assume that this Conceptualist pigment-worship as banquet of difference has enough historical and political fallout at this point to be recognizable as an act of pseudophysiognomic ecstasy. The supposedly subversive game that Dass is playing is a matching game in which visibility is produced for the purpose of expunging voice. The voicelessness is precisely what Dass claims ties her subjects to one another — it is their continuity. Dass’s subjects stand assimilated inside the colorized holding cells made for them, and they are meant to stay there, visible and voiceless.
This postracial framework stands in contrast to the interactive gameplay of Divya Victor’s Race Card, a performance in which Victor herself stands in as the object-body (à la Dass’s subjects), while audience members are solicited to assume the role of the artist/poet (à la Dass) in matching Victor’s body to a set of designated color swatches with the use of a worksheet. The problem the audience is then faced with is that despite being asked to perform the dominant role of the artist/poet, they must still play audience: they must watch themselves watch Victor. Victor’s circuit of self-consciousness is important. As Vanessa Place notes, “the cost of our comprehension is our complicity.” In the case of Race Card,each Glidden color swatch that appears on the worksheet is presented to the audience with a name as well as a number, lending a semantic absurdity that underlines the precariousness of the task at hand. Audience members are expected to select a swatch before the performance ends, or risk identifying Victor as invisible. Where Dass’s Humanæ accommodates the gaze of its audience, encouraging the commodification of visible bodies while decontextualizing skin color as a racialized identifier, Victor’s Race Card forces audience members to identify “the poet without a void: the unavoidable poet.” Victor’s audience must confront race. They are not permitted invisibility, and neither is Victor, making Race Card an exercise in burning down the passive-aggressive superhighway of postracial discourse.
Victor’s Race Card worksheet adopts the form of a Glidden-designed online form intended for customers beginning a new painting project. Victor’s Race Card closes with consumerist rhetoric (“please visit a Glidden Color Center at a participating retailer near you”) as embedded critique of the ease with which customer-audiences slip back into commodifying bodies as fetishized products of difference. Late capitalism wants this rhetoric as much as it wants Dass’s wiping of politicized identifiers for mass consumption by invisible audiences. By vetting Glidden’s pitch, Race Card asks audience members to watch themselves consuming race as they always have: as the socioeconomic value of visible bodies.
Conversely, Dass’s use of PANTONE® color in Humanæ signals a collaboration with corporate objective to the point of sponsorship. PANTONE® claims to be “known worldwide as the standard language for color communication from designer to manufacturer to retailer to customer.” Humanæ stays on message, standardizing skin color on the metric of the corporation; Dass delivers body-product as aesthetic spread. Perhaps this is why the press has celebrated Humanæ for forgoing political stakes. This neutrality is of course extremely political. Without identity in play, it is possible to focus completely on consuming the subjects of Humanæ. Palate ticklers like “the fresh colors painted from the subtle sherbet pinks to the creamy coffee and chocolate tones” suggest that we are invited to eat the deliciously serene faces of those made identifiably visible before us.
Humanæ’s production of complacent wonder is marketable. The audience feels good tucked away in invisibility, whiteness, affluence, cultural dominance, right, and righteous passivity. Race Card is an indictment of the performance of this routine. Its production of participatory self-consciousness creates and acknowledges the pain of visibility and forcible erasure for racialized bodies. It is unsellable, this pain, this painting project.
1. “The Trouble With Race,” Foreign Affairs, February 10, 2015.
2. Angelica Dass, “About,” Humanæ.
4. Vanessa Place, “Playing Divya Victor’s Race Card” (lecture, REVERSE — Copenhagen International Poetry Festival 2014, Copenhagen, September 19, 2014).
7. “About PANTONE,” PANTONE®.
8. “Skin Toning With Humanæ,” Digital Design Therapy, August 9, 2012.