Duke University Press recently published Sex, or The Unbearable, a long-form critical dialogue between theorists Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman. Through a series of close readings addressing the work of Larry Johnson, Miranda July, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and the short story “Break It Down” by Lydia Davis, the book examines the often unbearable pressures and cleavages sex can producefor good and for ill. Berlant and Edelman variously mitigate and amplify the theoretical, structural, and vernacular ambivalencies of intimacy, collaboration, and collective life. Berlant states in the book’s coda: “I do not read things: I read with things.” Indeed, she is known for producing readings with texts, objects, and events that are as incisively surprising as they are politically alive. Berlant here considers what “reading with” would look like if theorized as a methodology.
PERHAPS I SHOULD BEGIN BY SAYING THAT MY THOUGHT IS ELLIPTICAL; that is to say, it both tracks concepts and allows for unfinishedness, inducing itself to become misshapen in the hope that by the time you return to the point of departure, so many things will have come into contact that the contours of the concept and the forms associated with its movement will have changed. How can our encounter with something become a scene of unlearning and engendering from within the very intensity of that encounter?
If I were to theorize “reading with” as a method, I might begin with something about which I’ve recently written, William Pope.L’s Forlesen, an installation that was on view last year at the Renaissance Society.¹ The title sounds a lot like the German word vorlesen, which means “to read out.” In that piece of writing, I describe ekphrastically the process of learning to read with Pope.L’s work. When I walked into Forlesen, the first thing I saw was a peeling wall, and then I looked around and I realized: It’s a cock and it’s an architecture at the same time. I understood that the cock was providing the infrastructure for my encounter. Covered in a dark ketchup, the walls were racialized and also about surfacing. The architecture was undoing itself, drying out. The room was scattered with glasses of water, too, so the work is also about evaporation, the hunger of the world for your juices, for what animates you and the earth, holding it all together. Liquid is liveness, but it’s a medium for loss, too. At the same time, we are drying out together, though not identically. What’s the force of the overpresence of the cock?
The first time I entered the room I felt a little defensive or grumpy, like, “Oh, I have to enter into this cock now and follow out its journey…” And then I thought, “Well, I am kind of defending myself from the encounter before I get in there.” Whenever I encounter my own resistance to learning the thing that I have gone out of my way to take in, I have to laugh and try again. I have to reboot the relation so that my encounter with it is not mainly a defense against it. Forlesen is a multiple complex architecture. On one side of the room is a sculpture of the bottom half of W. E. B. Du Bois—upside down, legs flailing in the air—and on the other side of the room is a picture of the artist’s son. We move through the cock from Du Bois to the son. Inside the cock there are literary and pornographic archives, and the room is saturated with the noise of a little girl’s speech about the artist and Martin Luther King mixed with droning sounds of sexual arousal sourced from the porn loops playing there. At some level, moving through all that felt like moving from the political to the private.
That immediate defensive response was less negative than exhausted. The wish, of course, is that reading with, like being with, is a natural process that unfolds. Over time, the bad defenses will peel away. Over time, you will lose your terrible attachments to likeness and alterity. Over time, the right things will end up on the floor while the rest is taken in. There is a reason we call that wish fantasy.
Oh yes, the ellipsis! I’ve been working on ellipses as infrastructures of relation. When I saw the black balloons in Forlesen, I had to laugh, because they appear as a kind of exploded ellipsis, and Ellipsis turned out to be their title. Pope.L was playing with the flesh’s thingly temporality. At the opening, all of the black balloons were inflated, and by the end the helium had gone out of them and they were all on the ground—shriveled, sexual, uncanny and more, but not identical. That’s part of the show’s orchestration of negativity too. The balloons look like afterthoughts, the way they are scattered, because they don’t take up the same kind of concentrated monumental space as the big wooden cock. And yet…
The thing about an ellipsis is that it has a set of contradictory meanings.
An ellipsis is a sentence that I don’t end because…I don’t know how to.
An ellipsis is a sentence I don’t end because…you know what I mean.
An ellipsis is a figure of return that isn’t symmetrical.
Ellipses might be a figure of loss or plenitude: Sometimes it is more efficient to go dot dot dot. Sometimes it’s also a way of signaling an elision. Sometimes the referent is beyond words.
1. The observations that follow derive from the essay that will be included in the volume Hinge, ed. William Pope.L and Karen Reimer (Chicago: The Renaissance Society and University of Chicago Press, 2014).
Marielle Nitoslawska, Breaking the Frame, 2012, digital video, 100 minutes.
Canadian Marielle Nitoslawska’s feature film Breaking the Frame (2012) is a portrait of the American artist Carolee Schneemann. A collage drawn from interviews, excerpts from her private notebooks, and music composed by the late James Tenney, the film celebrates Schneemann as a guide for subsequent generations of artists. Breaking the Frame’s US theatrical premiere will run at Anthology Film Archives in New York from January 31 to February 6, 2014, and will be followed by screenings at London’s ICA. Nitoslawska and Schneemann will be in discussion on opening night in NYC.
MY PREVIOUS FILM BAD GIRL surveyed different representations of sexuality by female artists and activists. When it was finished I wanted to take a deeper, more personal approach to the topic of the body. Schneemann’s approach was closest to me. For nearly fifty years, Carolee had subverted art in thinking deeply about the female body and sexuality. And so Breaking the Frame closely follows Carolee’s beliefs, as well as her activities, her artwork, and it gives context for how all these elements have evolved together over time. I hope that people who see the film in one-hundred years will still be able to get a sense of an artist who was living in a particular place at a particular time—a woman who came into her own in the late 1950s and early ’60s—but who is also alive and still working in the twenty-first century.
Carolee’s aesthetic has always been very close to me, especially her way of working with the materials of daily life. I saw her film Fuses (1965) in my twenties at a little repertory theater in Montreal and it stuck with me. What felt so powerful and surprising to me was how the film rendered the feeling of lovemaking. The solely physical aspect is subverted, and instead we get into a person’s emotional experience. I had never ever seen explicit images of sexuality before then, but I didn’t find it shocking. It was warm, even hopeful.
I’ve read most of what’s been written about Schneemann—as well as her own voluminous correspondence with peers—I knew that my film had to be about her ideas and to go beyond language. It needed to be tactile, and to show things in motion. So I made a visually layered work about Carolee’s life and work with a lot of archival footage as well as with Super 8 and 16 mm footage that I shot myself, and with a narrative structure less linear than ephemeral, taking you through her works as though they were pearls on a string. I would connect these to her personal life, as they were connected for her. I would try to evoke, not teach but enchant.
I would also try to tell another, larger story. In 1975 Carolee wrote, “By the year 2000, no young woman artist will believe that our deepest energies were nurtured in secret.” I felt that I would include my own voice, sometimes speaking about Carolee in order to create the presence of an active female artist from another, later generation. I am one of the women she was addressing, and I felt that through me viewers could enter a once-unspeakable story about women artists, a story that must be told and retold. Carolee has also said that when she first began painting, she was a “visitor in the house of male culture.” Today our situation is very different. That, clearly, is partly due to her work. In its light, many feel Schneemann deserves a major retrospective in one of the world’s top museums, just like several of her peers have received.
Andrea Bowers, Courtroom Drawings (Steubenville Rape Case, Text Messages Entered As Evidence, 2013) (detail), 2014, marker on paper, dimensions variable. Installation view, Pitzer College Art Galleries.
Andrea Bowers is a Los Angeles–based artist whose work addresses issues of feminism, politics, and community. “#sweetjane,” her exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art and Pitzer College Art Galleries in Claremont, California, examines the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, high school rape case and its trial, drawing attention to issues of “rape culture” and the Internet-based activist group Anonymous, as well as to questions of ethics across social media platforms. The exhibition runs from January 21 to April 13, 2014, at Pomona, and from January 21 to March 28, 2014, at Pitzer.
I’M FROM A SMALL TOWN IN OHIO, and so the Steubenville rape case captured my attention. For this project, I decided to go to Steubenville to record some of the Anonymous protests, in which members rallied to end rape culture and to bring the alleged perpetrators to trial. Anonymous, of course, is an online hacktivist group that organizes and works mostly on the Internet, and they wear Guy Fawkes masks to retain their anonymity. It’s intense what they do, but I’ve become riveted by their Twitter account and a lot of their activities. The case concerned a high school girl who was either drugged or drunk and unconscious when she was assaulted at various parties by a group of boys, mostly football players. Two were convicted of raping her. It was one of the first public cases in which social media played a key role in the convicting evidence. The entire time she was being assaulted, those involved were Tweeting, texting, and posting videos of their actions online. The high school and local police didn’t seem to take the assault very seriously, and it was only through the efforts of Anonymous, also using social media, that this case got a lot of media attention and went to trial.
One of the things I found interesting about the case was the issue of anonymity. The victim, Jane Doe—a minor at the time—was kept anonymous to protect her identity. But this seemed to help the media focus more on the football players, because their faces, names, and backgrounds were publicly discussed. It seemed like it was so easy to dismiss Jane Doe simply because no one knew anything about her. I’m interested in how this type of anonymity is related to ethics: When someone is kept anonymous to protect their identity, how do publics treat them? And how is this related to social media? Is there a different set of ethics?
For the exhibition, I’m making a video composed of shots of the town, interviews with Anonymous members, and some of the news coverage and public responses to the case. I’m also using old footage of myself as a teenage cheerleader in Ohio, and pictures of women protesting in Anonymous masks. I grew up in the same sort of environment that Jane Doe is growing up in, where most of the young men were never told No and were culturally given the right to do whatever they wanted. This needs to change.
I’ve been working with many young women activists around issues of consent since my time in Steubenville. In the exhibition there are also some small figurative drawings of women wearing Anonymous masks while protesting. At first I was bothered by the mask, because it was white and male and women would wear it, but I noticed that some of the young women wearing them were afraid and used the mask as a form of protection. It changed my mind about how the mask functioned.
During my second trip to Steubenville, I was able to sit in on some of the trial. The day I was there, all of the text messages sent between the teens on the night of the rape were presented as evidence. Allowed only a piece of paper and a pencil, myself and two other reporters transcribed all of the text messages by hand as best we could. The reporters posted their notes online and I compared all three sets of notes, so I think I have the most accurate version possible, since the official court transcript hasn’t been released yet. I’m making a seventy-foot-long text-based drawing that displays this narrative. It is very violent and difficult to read. I’m also coming to terms with my own labor and aesthetic with this drawing. The entire negative space is filled in with different shades of blue marker and looks very beautiful, but the text is shockingly intense. It’s an experiment: Will I fail because I am aestheticizing atrocity, or will it work because it’s more than just a mechanically reproduced image?
When the official trial transcript becomes available, it will cost six thousand dollars. Still, one story of that night in Steubenville is told through these texts and hopefully in my work. What the boys said and how they behaved can’t be buried, forgotten, or silenced.
View of “Arlene Shechet: Meissen Recast,” 2014. Photo: Erik Gould.
A Guggenheim fellow and Joan Mitchell Foundation grantee, Arlene Shechet is perhaps best known for her formally complex, often humorous ceramic works. Her upcoming museum exhibition at RISD features art that grew out of work with the Meissen porcelain factory in Dresden over the past year and a half. Here, Shechet talks about her latest body of work, and her show’s both celebratory and subversive take on the long history of porcelain. The exhibition is on view from January 17 to July 6, 2014.
THOUGH I HAD NEVER WORKED IN PORCELAIN, I knew a lot about it and was very interested in working in a factory in a different country. And Meissen was the first place in the West to develop porcelain, in 1710—it’s quite the esteemed institution—so getting inside something so old and established and seeing that I could make something work was great.
My process there was quite open-ended. I kept thinking, “What is the essence of this place, and what do I really like about this place? What do I want to incorporate into the work I’m making?” I didn’t want to go to the factory and just make porcelain versions of my other work in clay. The place is just brimming over with plaster molds of every size, shape, and form. Most people don’t know—and I was even shocked by—how many molds it takes to create an object. For instance, a small figure, maybe six inches tall, could have twenty molds that went with it. These molds were industrial objects that looked to me like sculpture. They were very exciting visually, and the fact that they had a function made them even more exciting. The core of everything I did there became about exposing the mold in one way or another, revealing the system. Even in my pieces that have figurative elements, I’ve included the mold language of seams, parting lines, and symbols.
The workers loved it. People would just laugh—because I cast everything: serial numbers (the factory’s molds are all numbered), workers’ signatures, plaster drips. I wanted to make the series a celebration of the industrial object and the worker, but also to merge it with the extravagant object, the luxury material. Forming the hybrid was interesting to me. I pushed it by layering traditional motifs on some of the objects I cast—even gilding them and using platinum and twenty-four-carat gold—so that my production was a combination of high and low. And I think the workers—and then the executivesappreciated that what had been hidden was being exposed.
The show takes place in two areas of the museum: the historic Porcelain Room—an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century period roomand then in a contemporary gallery. In the historic gallery, most of the work is eighteenth-century Meissen, subverted with some of my recent works. In the contemporary gallery, it’s the reverse: my stuff with a smattering of historic things. My basic curatorial conceit is to use absolutely every one of the museum’s several hundred Meissen objects. Rather than creating a hierarchy of what to show and not to showfigures versus tableware, “art” versus the functional, what’s perfect and not—I’m including every piece in the collection. In the contemporary gallery, I’ve conceived the room as a whole to reiterate the idea of the mold. Two opposing walls include furniture I designed such that one side is the negative of the other, so the actual walls are like positives and negatives of one another. With the exhibition of porcelain pieces, protection is just a huge issue. I’ve tried to be innovative about it: On one wall there are sideboards and protruding shelves, and on the opposite wall everything is sunken and embedded. In other places, I’ve sliced through the wall so that you can see the fronts and backs of every piece.
Working at the factory, hanging these objects at the museum, and studying them for the last year, I’ve come to appreciate these eighteenth-century pieces from a contemporary point of view. I have things upside down and with their backs facing out, I’m using mirrors to do weird things, I’m stacking a bunch of plates and then putting figures in between them. Just about as much as the museum would tolerate, and so it’s a pretty racy view of porcelain. There’s wit and lightness in the original Meissen pieces, but also a dark side. I’d love for people to see them as new information.
In recent years, Ann Hamilton has created environmental installations at the Park Avenue Armory in New York and at the Pulitzer Foundation in Saint Louis. In a recent departure from her site-responsive practice, Hamilton organized “a reading,” a collection of objects and editions at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland, Oregon, providing the occasion for a highly focused examination of her working methods, Conceptualism, and her unique approach to literature, language, space, and materials. The exhibition is on view until January 11, 2014.
I AM ALWAYS TRYING TO FIND A PROCESS, or a procedure, where the words and the experiences are mutual forms of making. This generates a space where I can lose myself—immerse myself in a process whose particularities are fully absorbing and matter completely, but can then fall away and not matter at all. This is the paradox, where particularity arrives in abstraction.
Words and materials: The two always exist in a felt relation to each other. They are two sides of the same coin. A word has its own particular feeling on the tongue. Like a line in a palm, it is its own experience. The difference between the tactile experience of words and the tactile experience of things like cloth and clay is a space we are always straddling. Listening is one kind of experience. Reading silently another. Reading alone or reading together, or reading out loud, yet another; or reading with a pencil in your hand. Seeing words on a page copied out by your own hand, still another.
When I first began reading and erasing in public, I perceived a huge gulf between a word and an experience. There was always this problem of “what” particular text in relation to “what” particular process or act of reading. I was interested—and still am—in material acts of reading, how conditions of space and time make different experiences possible. Over time, the selection of particular texts to copy, to sew in a cursive hand, or to read out loud has been increasingly important and a significant center in my work. Through words I am led to materials. Perhaps materializing acts of reading in the work is my way of making time and space dwell in a text. For instance, I run my fingers across the weave of a cloth, recognizing materials and material processes in which acts of reading might become acts of writing and forms of embodiment. These, in turn, might become words in hand.
Making is powerful. I learned this while watching my grandmother take a line of yarn and loop it up and around a needle, then pull it through another loop, and another loop, and then loop after loop to make, in time, a sweater, which not only made me feel beautiful, but also kept me warm. Later, when I was just entering high school and at a summer camp, I was given the choice to go on a directional hike with one camp leader or, with a different camp leader, to hike nondirectionally—to hike to “nowhere.” I didn’t realize then that this was as much a philosophical question as a practical choice. One hike would hurry us along a path. On the other we would wander the side paths, follow wherever our attentions might lead, perhaps never arriving, yet taking the chance or opening the possibility of finding something wholly unexpected and wondrous along our way. Making can be nondirectional—if you let it.