[continued from a previous posting]
As the patterns are emerging from the small battered lawn—the patterns which are for her continuously seeping in from those in the long-ago linoleums . . . they begin to form before her eyes the patterns of a parquet floor . . . the patterns, even, of a kind of design she has seen somewhere before . . . watching, waiting, with ever increasing urgency, an urgency she feels violently and vividly coursing through her tautening veins . . . as the memory begins to clear . . . revealing to her both the floors and the ceiling of a Cinema she had frequented as a child . . . in some outlaying area of the small battered city . . . an area which she associates more with dream than memory . . . though, now coming back to her as the patterns grow ever clearer before her eyes . . . she finds herself involuntarily witnessing scenes from her childhood and early adolescence . . . entering into this Cinema with her family—entering in there on weekends—Sundays even—she now recalls, as the parquet floor and ceiling become ever more vivid, all the while themselves images superimposed over those of her now streaming memories—of her entering the Cinema as a girl in neatly pressed skirt and blouse . . . freshly ironed that morning, before Church, by her mother . . . the scent of her mother’s faint perfume comes back to her—the slight smells of freshly laundered dresses, of crisply clutched handbags in which various “secrets” of her mother’s ‘Woman’s Life” are kept carefully at the ready for the ever awaited “special occasion” which might someday “you never know when” arise . . . those scents of an expectancy which made her mother and everything about her seem to her, even now, “romantic”---all this flooding back to her now, superimposed over those lozenges, those patterns of the parquet—and the expectancy of waiting in line, there, at the ticket taker’s small glass enclosed booth---before entering the inner area where the popcorn machine towered, immense and alive, spouting furiously its fountains of pop corn, while the soda fountain poured forth a continual bright and multi-colored syrupy mist in her memory—a mist made up of all the exotic tints of the promising sodas . . . and then, then, her own taut veins now pressing ever more tightly against the skin—she could feel this—the tautness, like a bow being stretched back, back, back—about to launch the well aimed arrow—then—with a slight release of the tension—she sees herself entering into the Cinema—
El Colonel smiles . . . there in the darkness, he sees a person enter stealthily from the door way at the other end of the Cinema—on the other side of the middle of the three rows of seats . . . at the same time—he is aware of some one moving with equal stealth in the area of the balcony just above where the first figure is moving----and, slightly behind this figure, for the very briefest of moments—there appears another figure—which swiftly withdraws—into a shadowy area in which hovers the red light sign for the restrooms . . . something is taking place, El Colonel murmurs to himself . . . something is taking place—and he is suddenly aware, at the sound of these words uttered by himself, to himself, with as much stealth as the two moving figures are possessed of—he is suddenly aware that at this moment in his consciousness, and “before his very eyes as an observing consciousness”—he notes mentally—as an aside, whispered to the audience which is comprised by his own various suddenly alert consciousnesses---he is suddenly aware that the events which are about to transpire are occurring simultaneously as memory, dream, imagination and that form of conscious thought which is known to himself as “writing”---and that these events are triggering also, somewhere else, events in the consciousness of someone else—not only a reader—the reader who is himself of the writings which emerge with –with, as in a distinct and intimately close collaboration--himself—writings at once his own and some Other’s—as well as some other reader—and some other being, somewhere else, also writing—in their own way—these same events . . . aware of all these simultaneous events occurring—and of all these simultaneous awarenesses converging, here, in this spot—in these events now going on—El Colonel finds himself being drawn to an area to his right, in the middle aisle—in which the figure who has stealthily emerged form the door on the ground floor—has seated itself unexpectedly next to another shadowy figure—there in the dark—of which he had not previously been aware—and that this shadowy figure is now engaged in some form of exchange of both sounds and gestures with the figure who has emerged from the doorway—and placed itself practically on top of the shadowy, seated figure—in an astounding act of imposition---
El Colonel smiles. Casting his gaze upwards—he perceives the figure in the balcony slowly grope its way towards the front of the balcony—where, standing just overhead—it is watching the scene below, in which the two figures are exchanging rapid gestures and indistinguishable sounds—before suddenly separating—with the figure who had entered into the Cinema from the ground floor door—moving off and finding a seat at some distance from the other—while the figure overhead—suddenly is casting glances sideways and back—back towards the area where the hovering red sign indicates the rest rooms----
El Colonel smiles. Something is going on—he is thinking—when of a sudden in the area on the ground floor to his right—there enter two shadowy policemen . . . creeping carefully along the dim rows of seats—while, above—where the standing figure has been directing its gaze—he sees beckoning another figure—gesturing—towards a door marked “EXIT” whose light has suddenly come on and which swings suddenly open—open—to a hurried, scrambling rush of bright air and light---
The scene in the small battered backyard is flickering as the lights from neighboring houses go on . . . and for the first time she feels a slight disturbance in the scenes in which she is simultaneously entering the Cinema proper . . . inside the movie theater itself . . . this flickering catches her eye immediately she is inside the theater---and, drawing her gaze towards the peripheries of her vision to her right—she sees entering there suddenly a swift, stealthy figure . . . the flickering increases, as though there is interference from some other transmission . . . and for the first time she has the sense—a sense “like ESP”—that some one else, also, is watching this same scene . . . though from somewhere else—some other pair of eyes is also making out in the dimness the shadowy figure moving along the rows of seats until it finds one where a figure she had not been aware of, a shadowy, lumpy figure, is slumped---and practically on top of which she observes the swift moving shadow place itself—so nearly are the two figures placed they seem for a moment to merge, then pull abruptly apart—and between the two a rapid fire series of gestures and indistinguishable sounds is being exchanged . . . while, above—“out of the blue”—for all the darkness around her, the phrase comes to her—she notices a figure beckoning from the area where a dimly glowing red light announces “rest rooms”—and—following the line of sight towards which this figure is beckoning, she makes out another figure—dim, standing at the edge of the balcony—and—while she watches—she sees a door begin to open behind the man gesturing from the rest room area—and, as the door opens—she sees a patch of sky—feels even the slight in-rushing of a cooler air . . .
Even as she is watching, she becomes aware that she is seeing the arrest of Oswald in the movie theater in Dallas on “That Day”—and into her awareness come rushing the snatches of varying accounts of those moments—accounts pieced together from among the stacks of books she has read . . . with a growing intensity her vision is taking in each detail, each remembered moment of the action—in a kind of slow motion . . . a slow motion however, growing increasingly troubled by interference---by a kind of flickering in which the images “go in and out”—and sounds suddenly are leaking in as though from some other consciousness—not voices so much as sensations of wires, synapses, being crossed . . . she feels herself recoiling in a kind of horror as her suddenly sensed awareness of witnessing the multiplicity of possibilities of what may have occurred during those fateful moments—is being disrupted—by a transmission-- which she senses is not meant to interrupt—but is that of an other consciousness, also registering these scenes—though this other consciousness she senses, is somehow not aware, as she is, of what the scene exactly is—that is, the other consciousness observing these events is not interested in them—not in the way that she is, but at the same time from some other interest of which she has no idea, no remote idea of herself--—a horror from which she recoils—that some one else’s awareness of the events—is interpreting in ways completely other than her own—not out of malevolent design, as she somehow most powerfully feels—but out of an intensity of awareness happening within it, this other consciousness, which is equal to her own—and even—perhaps—even—she feels the possibility all too acutely—painfully—even more powerful than her own—yet not with any ill intentions at all towards her own. . . a consciousness which she feels suddenly withdraw . . . leaving her to observe—the now empty theater . . . after the sensed fleeing of all those who but a few brief moments before had been there—all those who had been present on “That Day” according to all the accounts she had read . . .
Everything is happening so fast . . . has been happening so fast—and now, so abruptly she feels herself nearly swoon . . . is so abruptly over . . .
Slowly, slowly her eyes become aware of the small battered backyard in which the shadows among the flickering light look like so many burnt out remnants of an intense explosion . . . the singed and still smoking remains of her intensity of awareness . . .yet . . . as she gathers herself—she thinks—having come this close . . .this close to finding the Truth . . . perhaps . . . someday . . . and she finds her awareness trailing away . . . trailing away into an immense and most welcome sense of relief, of safety, of rest . . . of a calm assurance completely new to her . . . and, as she drifts into this peace . .. she has all the while a feeling through its own shadowy, slowly retreating substance, of the still flickering presence of that Other . . . while it, also, slowly recedes . . . she has still the consciousness of an emerging “welcome memory, however faint”-- of this awareness which has brushed presences so intensely with her own, there, on “That Day”—in the Cinema of Catharsis . . . . .
El Colonel is smiling . . . lighting another cigarette, he uses its bright glowing tip to write in the gathering twilight sky . . . to write of the sensations of coolness and blue he had found himself drawn to in ascending to the second floor of the Cinema and exiting by the door which he had seen open . . . while all the while there lingers in his consciousness the sensation of having passed through an immense, and intensely concentrated, electrical event of some kind on his way across the floor of the theater, to the stairs and then up them . . . as though the immensity of the blue he finds on exiting . . . is the calm following a storm, a storm in his consciousness, to which, someday he may return—as he sensed within it—the presence, distinct and powerful, of some Other there in the Cinema, some other pair of eyes also observing the same mysterious scene—some other consciousness, some where—which might hold the key for him—of all that had transpired during this afternoon—this afternoon in the Cinema of Catharsis, in which he finds the writing taking him . . . on so many occasions . . .
[NOTE. David-Baptiste Chirot –born Lafayette, Indiana, grew up in Vermont, lived also Gottingen, Germany, Arles & Paris, France, Wroclaw, Poland, Hastveda,Sweden, Bostonand Milwaukee. Since 1997 essays, Visual & sound poetry, Performance Scores, prose poetry, poetry and book reviews in 70+ different print and online journals in USA, Brazil, England, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Chile, Australia, Yugoslavia, Italy, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, Turkey, Japan, Holland, Belgium, Uruguay. Chirot's own blog can be found at http://www.davidbaptistechirot.blogspot.com/, & Parts I-III of Cinema of Catharsis appeared previously on Poems and Poetics.]
Last weekend (October 25 & 26) was the occasion of the fifth annual Creative Time Summit in New York City. Creative Time is an organization known for producing public art projects, but recently it has become an important producer of conversations about the intersections of art and social justice. This year’s Summit was titled, “Art, Place & Dislocation in the 21st Century City.” Speakers included Rebecca Solnit, Lucy Lippard, John Fetterman (mayor of Braddock, PA), Rick Lowe (of Project Row Houses), Lucy Orta, Laurie Jo Reyolds, and many others. Panels addressed gentrification, sustainability, and grassroots resistance to urban development (all talks are available online).
One of the panels was called “Flâneurs.” The Situationist psychogeographer is often discussed in relation to the 19th century flâneur. Taking his cues from Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire described, the flâneur as “a man of the crowd”:
“The crowd is his element as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world….He is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’…”
At the panel on flâneurs, Vito Acconci said he had reservations about the term because it carried connotations of a passive person: an idler or a dawdler. He said that he was much more comfortable with the idea of the flâneur as “an activist, an instigator, somebody who causes trouble.”
Acconci then stated his belief that architecture has to move, otherwise people are subjected to it. The activist flâneur is thus someone whose walks can activate and change the environment. An example he gave was a project from the 1990s called “Personal Island” (see image above), where a boat is locked into the land as if it were water, and the rower can row her island out to sea.
Acconci made a point of explaining how he had no art or architecture training, but rather was the product of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He said “my stuff comes from words and since it comes from words, it comes from concepts.”
The concept of the “activist flâneur” has me thinking of a number of poetry projects that begin with walking. And although these walks might not cause trouble in the same way that a detachable island might, they do upset static notions of a place. For example, Kaia Sand's walk through downtown Portland, Oregon in Remember to Wave reveals that the site of a present-day roller derby was also the site of a Japanese internment camp during World War II. On a walk down “Dole Street” in Honolulu, Juliana Spahr reveals evidence of colonialism in seemingly neutral street signs and similarly bland public sculptures. On a walk through New York City’s Bowery, Brenda Coultas lists objects found in dumpsters or left at the curb in order to record a past that is being actively discarded in the face of wild real estate development. These poems ask us to bring “passionate spectatorship” toward a stance of critique.
Although Acconci stated his interest in a mobile architecture that empowers users, he also noted that flexible architecture can sometimes have the opposite effect. For example, “Courtyard in the Wind,” designed by Acconci Studio and built in Munich, Germany creates a kind of motorized turntable on the ground that’s powered by a wind turbine at the top of a nearby tower. As Acconci describes it, you could be having a conversation with a friend, sneeze, and then find yourself seven feet further around the circle depending on the wind. In this case the speaker/walker is at the mercy of the elements. Such a scenario reminds me of David Buuck’s Buried Treasure Island— particularly the moment when Buuck suggests that as part of his investigation of this former site of world’s fairs and military installations, he will ingest the toxins that saturate the landscape. He writes:
“Practitioners using psychogeography and counter-tourism can visit and leave, often taking the ‘art’ while leaving the conditions unchanged. For BARGE [The Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-Aesthetics], this has necessitated the consumption of the poisoned land itself into my body and bloodstream, the lungs and the eyes, if only as a small gesture of solidarity and tactical magic. If we are to take in the treasures, we must likewise taste of the fever…”
What you need, he said,
is another trip to the edge
And I thought he was joking.
EASE OF MOTION
This fantasy that has deluded many,
that you could open the door and walk
into another place,
just like that.
AMONG THE BULRUSHES
It must have happened all the time, a woman
giving a child to the river. But the misery, to think
that chance could better care for it—the conditions of famine,
slavery and such—and the fantasy, that the child, rescued,
would come to recognize itself
at the last moment, and free the tribe
from its wretchedness. It must have been that commonplace
to become their story.
A MESSAGE TO THE GODS IN THE BLOOD OF SACRIFICE
“See, we have horses.
Life is good.”
That red red rose is like my love:
thorns below and thorns above.
ADAM AND EVE
It's the snake, they think,
that renders tolerable
this insipid garden.
Moving her legs slowly against the water,
In gelid light
on either side.
Shock of the ocotillo's red spear
against the creosote's green and the yellow flowers
of brittlebush. Birds
there's a stranger here, while insects,
wild with delight,
bid me welcome as a source of liquid.
And the bees
suck at the mud where the stream
had overflowed its banks.
Oedipus the Riddle Solver becomes the answer
to the plague's question:
“What sleeps with his mother
and murders his father?
The pace of change being what it is
the homeland you dreamed of
is no longer there.
Like Troy to the Trojans, no stone
left as a marker.
Whose greatest worry was to paint the petal
A decent restraint,
when the moon seems the largest thing.
Stunned into numbness,
Who could have imagined
any of it?
Tastes like rabbit, the fox thinks,
slinking from the hen-house.
There's many a slip
twixt the clop and the clip.
We call it luck
to die by increments.
Dressed for the bridal bed
her shawl became the sky, her gown
I imagined a broken glass thing
My grandmother had a clock
built of mirrors in the form
of a palace. In my first
memory it was broken
Lovely, the way it glinted.
This was the broken thing
I had imagined.
You may go on to other things
now that you understand the mysteries.
The daily miracle and the daily curse.
Something about the dance
A NOTE IN THE PLACE OF A POETICS. Put two things next to each other and a third thing happens. Sometimes a series of short poems create their own world, but fragmented, like reflections on shards of glass. (M.W.)
The visual poetry of Amaranth Borsuk & Brad Bouse (in) between page and screen.
Dear Reader, open the pages of Between Page and Screen. Nothing but elegantly simple AR (augmented reality) codes. But then you point your browser (and here, Reader, I think of you, too, as browser) at the book’s website and hold the book within range of your computer’s webcam.
Where is the text? The text is a (g)host.
In Amaranth Borsuk & Brad Bouse's Between Page and Screen, the text literally hovers between page and screen. But of course, this, too, isn’t quite true. It only appears to appear in the virtual air between the reader and the website.
Between reader and writer. Between Page and Screen appears eponymously between page and screen. The text hovers like a djinn released, over the page. Reading ‘incarnate’ in an illusion.
And the reader? The reader is in the text. I literally see myself and my shelves through the text. “Page, don’t cage me.” Dear Reader, I see you seeing yourself.
But the reader literally controls the text. Can move the text.
Like a horse after the barn doors have been left open, reading is destablilized.
It’s left the cage of the page. It has burst out and, shakily, like a filly (or philology) balances, each movement of the reader’s handheld page, shaking its fragile presence.
The text itself isn’t stable either: Turn a page and it disperses, a “bouquet” of glyphic utterflies.
The codex has been destabilized by code. Computer code.
The symbiosis of reader and writer. Text and reader. Between page and screen, web and book, reader and writer. Both/and.
The book is a Ouija-board and reading is a séance. The text is a (g)host.
I spoke with Amaranth Borsuk:
GB: There’s a process of discovery or uncovery in figuring out how the book ‘works.’ There’s also a process of developing the required finesse in order to read it—perhaps reminiscent of the skills one has to develop in order to play a video game or use a updated version of a piece of technology. How do you imagine a reader ‘reading’ this text?
AB: You’re absolutely right that this is a book we must learn to read, training the body to hold and turn, to steady and straighten. But those are habits we also learned as children the first time someone put a tome in our laps. In re-learning to read, hopefully the reader is reminded that the book has always structured our relationship with it. I think there is more than one way to “read” this text, whether one spends time with the poems engaging in their etymological wordplay or whether one simply plays with the words, bouncing them around onscreen and watching them dance and fly apart. Reading is always a physical engagement with a surface, and hopefully this disorienting process reminds us of the body’s presence.
GB: The physical book (or as Coach House Books terms it, ‘the fetish object formerly known as book’) is a beautiful object. Minimalist and well designed, the black and white squares (AR codes) have an iconic simplicity that is appealing. But these codes aren’t just text, they are each an interface. A controller. And so, as reader, I make the connection between the fact that visual language, beyond its aesthetic appeal, can be a controller or interface when pointed in the right direction, when you understand its context and know how to use it, or if you understand what it ‘does.’ Can you speak about the visual aspect of the work?
AB: The visual aspect is central to me in how the text makes meaning—both literally, in that no text appears without those markers, and figuratively in the questions they raise about the encoded nature of language, about where the book’s meaning inheres, and about the legibility of page and screen (How do we read the book without a camera? What happens to the book when the site is defunct and vice versa?). In terms of the markers’ simplicity, they are built on the structure of FLARTOOLKIT, the open source software Brad used to program the website, so developing them was a lot like writing poetry in a given form or under a constraint (the asymmetrical grid). We liked the minimalism of those black squares, and one of our key tasks was to make each page distinct from the next to allow a certain memorability for the reader, since there are no page numbers.
I like the idea of the marker as a controller. We are not controlled by it, but rather our manipulation of that controller, our intervention, brings the text to life. Without a reader, there is no text—the book is inert, whether we are talking about augmented reality poems or a triple-decker novel. It strikes me that what you say about visual language, that it “can be a controller or interface when pointed in the right direction, when you understand its context and know how to use it, or if you understand what it ‘does,” applies equally well to all/any language. We need to learn to read the system that imbues words with meaning (linguistic, cultural, and political codes). This is the basis of signification—the act of translation that happens every time we read.
GB: The text of Between Page and Screen is a series of letters between “Page” and “Screen.” (I feel like we, speaking here, are their cousins: Reader and Writer.) Page and Screen write to each other through a trellis of text derived from the etymology of ‘page’ and ‘screen.’ I find it delightful that this very visual work thus abounds in sound: “charnel carnations, carrion incarnate.” Can you speak of the relation of sound between page and screen and in Between Page and Screen? Between glyph and mouth, “text’s fleshy network.
AB: Sound is important to the exchange between P and S in part because of its playful, bantering quality—they are teasing one another through oblique references and sending coded romantic messages. As you suggest by pairing glyph and mouth, sonic play is also important to the book because in poetry sound is historically the place where language comes up off the page and reconstitutes itself in a reading body. It situates the poem as a performance in the reader’s mouth or mind’s ear. I think of the text’s mouthiness as an extension of the book’s concept—it takes shape in the space between media bridged by the reader’s body.
GB: Authorship. Othership. The book makes us think about the role of the reader, but it also engages with notions of the writer. Not only in terms of the interaction that is possible between reader and text, but in terms of the collaborative aspect. The ‘writers’ here include a programmer. The book makes me reflect not only on the implicit expectations of the traditional codex, but also the “programming language” of the traditional book: the various design, printing, and production technologies and the involvement of others beyond the one who comes up with the text.
AB: To take a page from the book, the word “author” comes from an Indo-European root (“aug-“) that means “to increase.” The writer has always augmented reality. I feel that in true collaboration the work could not take shape without the contributions of each party—each increases the work in some way, an auxiliary authorizing the other’s risks and inaugurating their own. An author is an augur who sees ahead to what the work might become, and with more than one, the text’s capacities continually wax. For Brad and I, sharing authorship was surprisingly intuitive, since the authorial role here so clearly extends beyond the content and into the material and digital affordances that amplify the work’s meaning. To be fair, we each had a task, something to create, but what we desired most was increase. It’s the reader, of course, who opens up that crease.
Amaranth Borsuk is the author of the chapbook, Tonal Saw (The Song Cave, 2010); Handiwork (Slope Editions, 2012), selected by Paul Hoover for the 2011 Slope Editions Book Prize; and, together with programmer Brad Bouse, of Between Page and Screen (Siglio Press, 2012), a book of augmented-reality poems. Her collaboration with Kate Durbin and Ian Hatcher, Abra, recently received an Expanded Artists' Books grant from the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago and will be issued as an artist's book and iPad app in late 2013. She has a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and recently served as Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at MIT, where she taught classes on digital, visual, and material poetics. She is an Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell, where she also teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics.
Vagabond Press Rare Objects book launch, Sydney 2013
One of the best things about talking to people in real life is that they will sometimes say things that can affect you in unpredictable ways. Comments deemed disposable on Twitter or Facebook turn out to have an almost spooky resonance when delivered in person. Conversely, the unexpected turn can take on the hue of the foreseen as Sydney poet Toby Fitch discovered at the launch of Vagabond’s new triptych of ‘rare objects’ chapbooks by John Tranter, Kate Lilley and a. j. carruthers. Vagabond’s chapbooks come in numbered and signed editions of 100 and Fitch, an avid sports fan, almost asked for an alternative when he randomly chose the 87th copy of Tranter’s Ten Sonnets. In Australian cricket, the number 87 is ‘the devil’s number’ because of its 13-run proximity to the sought-after century. If I were to mention via Twitter or Facebook that Fitch decided to live with the omen and that his next randomly selected chapbook – The Tulip Beds by a. j. carruthers – was numbered 13 you might be given to dismiss the entire episode as mere coincidence.
But poets and numbers follow each other around as the first poem in Kate Lilley’s Realia demonstrates. Realia are ‘Real things or actual facts, esp. as distinct from theories about or reactions to them’ and though Lilley’s “GG” is ostensibly a list poem that presents ‘Select items of Property from the Estate’ of Greta Garbo it can be said to work as a compact treatise on the difference between accounting and mathematics. The listing, with its emphasis on the detriti of everyday life elevated through association with the famous actress, rigorously invokes the Real. What is a ‘Stim-U-Lax Jnr Hand-Held’ you want to ask and why did Garbo have one? A ‘yoga onesie matching headband’ discarded by you or I would more likely see out its ends of days in the bin of unsaleables at the local St Vincent de Paul but along with ‘troll dolls’, ‘knit heads’, ‘horsehair toque’ and ‘smoking cessation kit’, the onesie signals here the invention of a new kind of poetic object. As Clemens has noted, for Alain Badiou, ‘mathematics represents nothing – to speak Lacanese, its terms are Real, not Imaginary or Symbolic; furthermore, mathematics is the only possible basis of a rupture of common sense, and is hence genuinely egalitarian and aristocratic at the same time.’
Following the chapbook readings – which included Tranter’s memorable rhyming of babies with rabies and a series of generically engineered metaphors from Carruthers ‘in which a fossilized species deserving of the name Problematica is poeticized by a scientist, who found in the three lines of a stave an image worthy of the poetry of nature’ – I spotted the poet and Forbes scholar Sam Moginie and another man talking to a woman I recognized from her Twitter photo as the poet and editor Elena Gomez. Conversation quickly turned to the escapades of a mutual friend who had once been in a band named after a Rothko painting. By now weary of the rolling fortune of coincidences we almost didn’t notice we were standing in front of a calendar of Rothko reproductions. Gomez’s companion who I failed to recognize as the poet Rory Dufficy even though we’ve exchanged Facebook messages and I’m a fan of his poems remarked via T. J. Clark on the vulgarity of highfalutin ideas in art.
As I later discovered, Clark introduces his notion of vulgarity as a way of evading or as he might have it ‘passing through’ the impasse that rises up out of Hegel’s notoriously pessimistic figuration of art as ‘a thing of the past’. In what at first appears to be an optimistic assessment, Clark remarks that Hegel ‘could never have guessed that the disenchantment of the world would take so long’. What he didn’t account for, according to Clark, was the possibility that ‘the inability to go on giving Idea and World sensuous immediacy … would itself prove a persistent, maybe sufficient subject’ for art. From this perspective, the role of Modernism comes to be that which makes the ‘endlessness of the ending’ bearable through its persistent restaging. As Clark succinctly has it, ‘Every modernism has to have its own proximate Black Square.’
But Clark’s apparent positivism turns out to be doing a kind of double or even triple-duty melancholia through which he not only joins Hegel in mourning the end of art but goes on to accompany multiple modernisms on their touristic adventures to the various sites of the trauma. Which doesn’t change anything for art and, indeed, only makes things worse by re-enchanting the world ‘With a magic no more and no less powerful … than that of the general conjuror of depth and desirability back into the world we presently inhabit.’ Clark is lamenting the insistence of art as glittering commodity and the abandonment of one of the things that Hegel’s myth made possible – ‘the maintenance of some kind of difference between art’s sensuous immediacy and that of other (stronger) claimants to the same power.’
If Clark doesn’t go as far as someone like, say Badiou, whose “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art” urges artists to resist the ‘absolute desire for new forms’ that for him amounts to the ongoing synthesis of formalism and Romanticism, then he is at least on the same unguided tour when he writes ‘I find it hard to believe that the present myth of post-ness will sustain itself much past the year 2000.’ Clark’s way out of the impasse ‘comes from proposing another set of possible descriptions that the paintings in question might “come under”. The idea of ‘vulgarity’ is positioned as a way of thinking again about Abstract Expressionist paintings. One of the advantages of this move, as he writes, is that ‘discursively it points two ways: to the object itself, to some abjectness or absurdity in its very make-up (some tell-tale blemish, some atrociously visual quality which the object will never stop betraying however hard it tries); and the object’s existence in a particular social world, for a set of tastes and styles of individuality which have still to be defined, but are somehow there, in … the possibility of seeing at last, and even being able to describe, the ways they take part in a particular triumph and disaster of the petty bourgeoisie.’
In Handbook of Inaesthetics Badiou remarks that ‘we must above all not conclude that it is philosophy’s task to think art. Instead, a configuration thinks itself in the works that compose it.’ I suspect that Clark’s proposal risks functioning as a philosophical task in this sense. What is vulgarity but an ascription that arises out of morality rather than ethics? Back in Melbourne, I think about Dufficy’s remarks on vulgarity when encountering “Mother with Broom” by
J. S. Harry:
a young mad woman
with a post-natal belly
in great slow circles
to an audience of one: a dead child:
and Rrose Selavy by John Forbes which, published in 1981, can be read through the terms of Clark’s assessment as a spectacular loving list of the desired object’s attributes and/or a lament for the seemingly unavoidable commodification of love and art. At once aristocratic and egalitarian, the poem makes me think of that moment at the end of the Vagabond launch when the Gleebooks staff were gathering the empty wine glasses and Dufficy, Moginie and Gomez were getting ready to leave. Gomez, staring at the ground, said ‘I’m going to be thinking about this conversation for a long time.’ If I’d had more time to prepare I would have replied ‘Julie the hand-made spine of rare first editions sunburns / under the Eiffel Tower’.