Slant

On the Ground: New York

Odwalla88 performing in Jessi Reaves's exhibition at Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York, June 5, 2016. Photo: Bridget Donahue.

THERE WERE SIGNS.

History doesn’t graciously step aside for the new to waltz into the future. Remember how the 2016 calendar year began prematurely? Well, the untimely is the very rhythm of suicide—Chantal Akerman departed the October before last, and more heroes dropped off the further we hurtled along the narrowing line. The slow-burn view of her films, how the world looked when veiled in her stark patience, the picture never ending even after the movie was through, like a dire infection. Isn’t that how despair moves, spreading and multiplying across bodies, through the blood of trauma’s descendants?

The interminable preparations and cleanup of her Jeanne Dielman, 28 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), quietly tracing the path of James Byrd Jr.’s lynching in South (1999), or that shot of a ferry leaving Manhattan, and the film itself, in News from Home (1976), which refused to sing goodbye, or indicate what might come next—views of stillness and departure hovering in the present tense, just looking.

Everything feels barely possible right now. How do we steady our gaze? Just stay in it, like Akerman, champion of the hold? Maybe it’s like this: When the ground drops out from beneath you, think “I guess you have no choice but to revolutionize the world” on your way down. There’s a balance required between looking and doing—how much of the former to feel alive, and how much of the latter to keep devastation, or just unemployment, at bay. Every day you “yes,” until “no” comes to get you—or, being unable to stand the anticipation, you might simply, outrageously, rise to meet it.

This year there were moments of looking, riding shotgun with action—strolling into it even—which took root and congealed into a solid place to stand. The last day of the Wynne Greenwood show at the New Museum, I heard in a video:

“I’m tired of waiting for something beautiful to happen.”

“What, are you in college? Why don’t you make something happen?”

I recall something I read in high school. Christian Boltanski saying something along the lines of, “We should build the Holocaust memorial every day.” Tragedy cannot be allowed to become a still life—we must continue living with it. If we had to build our apologies every day, if reparations and justice were a mode of being in the world, what would that look like? How do we envision, and how much can we tolerate, the shared burden of a task that could never be finished?

Installation view of “Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective,” 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

I remember how I finally met Marcel Broodthaers, at his retrospective at MoMA last winter. How delightful, that faux-officiousness lightly taped over an aggressive independence; how pleasant to know him as unsolvable, as someone who, when confronted by the endless rings of history, took his stick and drew in the sand anyway. “This vague outpouring wanders on,” sighs one of his poems, titled “The Jellyfish,” while “The Little Finger” proclaims, “ ‘I’d like to invent astonishment,’ he says, and vanishes with his idea.” This patron saint of misfits and absurd, labyrinthine exercises did astonish, then vanish. I wandered out of his show as a vague outpouring myself, and have been falling ever since. So far, down there, I’ve been working on installing a network of illumination to find all the words I can’t say, especially not to you.

In celibacy, a body ideally becomes a conduit for heavenly conversations. The back-and-forth between the two members of Odwalla88 feels like a dialogue among angels who got bored with pursuing perfection. Their songs are pouches for catching chatty snippets; as lyrics, their repetition weighs heavy. Flannery Silva and Chloé Elizabeth Maratta came in the spring, for a performance at Bridget Donahue to close Jessi Reaves’s show of perversely graceful furniture. Wearing costumes designed by Susan Cianciolo that looked like the runway ten years ahead of its time, they did this thing where they’d repeat in unison “Crush you with this wall of sound” over skittish, blocky beats, delivering scattered voicemail missives and whatever parts of the manifesto that haven’t yet turned to total ash.

Should you need an introduction to the take-this-record-deal-and-shove-it group Death Grips, you can start with the 2011 mixtape “Ex Military” and work on from there. They played at Terminal 5 on September 16. I don’t remember any “hellos” or “thank yous” from them, just relentlessness. Their targets are brutally unfixed—everyone and everything within close range, at the very least, gets bruised. Any museum curator who’s interested in ending their career early, with a bang, should book them immediately. In a full-house audience, the boys, mostly white, rushed the stage first—and tired first. The rest of us get to the front anyway, and stay there. Just keep in mind, as from the track “Beware,” “I am the beast I worship.” Which reminds me, David Bowie is dead, but your love for him is still alive—can’t you embody that love yourself? If he’s no longer here, you be the Starman now, the Queen Bitch, or even a Hero.

I saw these things and had these moments alone, which may foil any of my calls for solidarity in this grim reality. It’s the trolls’ world now, and I was always a lurker. But I always had you in mind; there was my hope coiled up in the underbrush, there was my little fantasy powering the truth that dogs me. To be a thread or a cuff on a McDermott & McGough sweater, sprawled across the floor as in their show at James Fuentes in October, or offered as a Celastic rose in a Ree Morton installation. When you saw me around New York this year, when you will see me out there, remember that video Ed Atkins showed at the Kitchen last spring, and know that I am “precisely NOT here.”

Death Grips. Performance view, Terminal 5, 2016. MC Ride. Photo: Dana Distortion.

Some Americans would like to slip into a similar gap, something a little more comfortable, somewhere in space and time where they can stoke denial and sashay into a future they were promised by people who had no right to make guarantees, who built their own dreams on a foundation of genocide, slavery, and the domination of men over women. They have slammed the self-destruct button on the liberal project of incremental, diversifying progress. Where should we look now—behind, straight ahead, or with quick paranoid glances left and right for the rest of our days? The project of progress feels useless to those who have to live until the time such advancement arrives. Until, as Quentin Crisp memorably noted, people are bored enough by our difference that we cease to be threatening.

But a technique is needed: a concrete way to continue saying “yes.” The GALA Committee has some advice. They made props for two seasons of a fabulously profitable ’90s soap opera, Melrose Place, and received, by choice, no financial compensation for it. On November 12, at New York’s Red Bull Studios, where an exhibition of the group’s work was installed through the end of that month, GALA’s modest ringleader Mel Chin discussed how they operated under “insurgent mechanics of infection,” and spoke to the freedom afforded to art when it functions as a prop: “What happens if it isn’t selling anything but an option?”

Following what he dubbed the “Abbey Road effect,” they buried things on the sets of the TV show for people to find. If viewers didn’t get it the first time around, as one Barbara Kruger–style poster in the exhibition gloated, think of the reruns. Coming a few days after the election, Chin reminded us that night how “justice is something you do every day. We don’t correct them, we change ourselves.”

Didn’t we once dream of killing our parents? Or was that just an offhand command from some ’90s band? Time now to turn out the cops, robbers, and dads lurking in your own soul. GALA came together as a “conflagration of yeses”. Consider being expansive to whom, what, when, and where you can say “yes,” and know the “why” of it.

I’ve been writing this as a letter, and we know by now (qua Chris Kraus) that every letter is a love letter. I’ve embroidered drown on my back. I can’t be discreet, and we can’t wait around for the eulogy addressing what we sought and loved. There will always be returns, and reruns, but no one dominates transmission now. So please, don’t disappear without a trace.

Paige K. Bradley is associate editor of artforum.com.

Read the December issue of Artforum: David Adjaye, John Waters, Christine Macel, Hal Foster, Grace Wales Bonner, Cindy Sherman, Helen Molesworth, Christine Tohme, Tariq Ali, Johanna Fateman, Claire Bishop, Katharina Fritsch, Wendy Brown, Carol Bove, Thomas Schütte, Slavs and Tatars, and many more on the year that was.

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