Curator as author as curator

While on leave from my program at the University of Toronto, I’m taking a course at the Node Center called the International Curator Program. Enjoying it very much. The first assignment in our first module (Key Moments in the History of Curating):

Choose an exhibition from your country (either birth or residence) that you consider expresses the notion of curator-as-author in the spirit of Szeemann.

Harald Szeemann’s Live in Your Head (1969) and Documenta 5 (1972) have come to exemplify curation as authorship. That’s when a curator treats their exhibition as a composite language of things and words and images in which to express a sensibility or chase an argument. To think about the curator as author, I chose three authors who’ve curated – specifically, a show at MOCA Toronto that moved and provoked me when I happened on it.

Age of You
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Toronto
September 5, 2019 – January 5, 2020

1. The concept

Age of You, curated by Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Shumon Basar, was a didactic exhibition, developing an argument about the fate of the self in the age of social media. The self has been made “extreme,” they proposed, by the connectivity and instantaneity of our new media environment, and this deracinated self only feels real when packaging itself for consumption by a crowd.

Whatever delight the curators might have felt at this astonishingly creative media moment was eclipsed by their sense that it’s controlled out of view by forces bent on quantifying our every experience and harvesting the data generated for profit. “Guess what this century’s most valuable resource is,” they ask. “It’s you – and all of your online behaviours, enriched data sets and millions of meta-data points.”

In this process, a large part of you is extracted from you, and now exists everywhere and nowhere, independently of your five senses. Are you really built for so much change so quickly? And what if individuality is in fact morphing into something else?

The exhibition, with work by seventy artists, designers, filmmakers, photographers, performers, and composers from around the world, was really a single sustained essay. The curators’ text described the situation, the artworks exemplified and critiqued it. Every artwork was subsumed, as several reviewers noted, to an overriding curatorial intent.

I assented to the exhibition’s thesis. I was impressed by how deftly it used works of art to advance an argument about culture. And I was disquieted by the submission of individual works to an overriding curatorial vision. The show was a translation into museum language of the curators’ forthcoming book, The Extreme Self, which I’m keen to read – and doubt I’ll have the same issues with. Am I more forgiving of top-down control when I see it in a book than when I meet it in an museum? Why?

Installation view, Age of You, MOCA Toronto. Photo: Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Source: Pin-Up.

2. The curator as author

(a) Book

The exhibition was maybe the most bookish I’ve ever seen. It consisted mostly of text and images interspersed on rec­tangular panels. Black text on white ground evoked printed pages – pages large enough to warrant the regard you usually give a painting. Hung from the ceiling to create ad hoc walls, the panels suggested a book that had exploded into architecture. Arrows marked a path through the chambers and passageways, implying a single correct reading order.

Installation view, Age of You, MOCA Toronto. Photo: Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Source: Pin-Up.

The design seemed to me a spatial translation of the act of immersing yourself in a book – a sort of immersion the show said is fast becoming impossible. Others found it more like scrolling through an Instagram feed. As a chimaera of different genres – printed page, hung painting, online feed – this show about the costs of the attention economy was aware of, and often witty about, how it deployed your attention.

(b) Writer

The show asked for more careful reading than wall text or a curatorial essay typically does. The text was intensely writerly, moving through degrees of irony, multiple standpoints, and shades of ambiguity to establish a fragmented, multiple, postmodern narrative voice. Strangely, reviewers I’m sure are more internet-savvy than I am – alert to tonal nuances of acronyms and emoticons – took all the statements at face value, and saw a more dogmatic, monolithic show than I did.

Text: Basar/Coupland/Obrist. Image: Peter Saville by Yoso Mouri, 2016.
From The Extreme Self (forthcoming). Source:

(c) Author function

The leveling treatment of text and image nicely mimicked the samey-sameness of social media and subsumed the various materials to a single vision you could call authorial. There was more top-down command than Harald Szeemann maybe ever exercised. In other ways, though, the exhibition disclosed the author to be what Michel Foucault calls an “author function.” The corporate (three-in-one) authorship, the narrative voice with its multiple standpoints and shifting ambiguous tones, dispersed authorship broadly, cast it everywhere and nowhere – much as social media, as the curators argue, disperses the extreme self.

Whatever concerns I had about the exhibition’s overbearing unity, the subtlety with which it mimicked, undermined, and sardonically WTF’d, in its form, method and materials, its terrifying invisible omnipresent subject, was a thing to behold.

The image up top: Installation view, Satoshi Fujiwara, Crowd Landscape. Photo by Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Though I’ve de-emphasized them here, the exhibition also had works that were less flat page, more rounded object.

A Mostly Empty Interpretive Wonderland: Reading Robert Grenier’s Sentences

Adapted from a talk I gave in January 2021 at the graduate student colloquium of the Book History and Print Culture Colloquium (University of Toronto). The colloquium, held online, was called “The Book Out of Order: Structure, Inversion, Dissent.”


Web version of Robert Grenier’s Sentences (Whale Cloth Press).

Images of the physical book (Granary Books).

Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure” (Poetry Foundation).

Charles Bernstein and Robert Grenier in conversation (PennSound).

Robert Grenier, “On Speech” (Eclipse Archive).

A thing is the book of itself

A book offered to the eye alone is reduced to what it has in common with a painting. To meet a book on its own terms, you have to touch it, hold it, turn its pages. And yet the more a book is handled the faster it breaks down. That’s fine for a mass market paperback on your shelves, not so good for for old, fragile, or singular books your museum is tasked with preserving. It’s a general dilemma for museums: how do you reconcile two commitments – broad access, scrupulous conservation – when one seems intractable to the other? In the case of books, the answer that leaps to mind is digitization, and that’s where this piece begins. I should also say, I’m a beginner here, and the piece showcases my curiosity and my ignorance in about equal measure.

A Thing Is the Book of Itself

Exeter Book f. 123v. Note the runes four lines from the bottom
articulated by the punctus. The large gash is thought to have
been left by a hot poker or burning stick. Muir.

A couple of years ago I published a book of translations from Old English. It disappeared without a trace but never mind. Working with facsimiles of the Exeter Book, I had made new editions of the source poems. Though they were digital, those facsimiles opened my head to the materiality of the document bearing up the text. Mottled beige and cream of the parchment. Interlinear translations, folio numbers pencilled in, Exeter Cathedral’s stamp of institutional ownership and control. Little holes pricked by pins and big holes left by fire. I saw it all in facsimile. At times I felt I could touch the thing. I was drawn especially to the punctus, the only punctuation mark the scribe uses. It works as comma, full stop, paragraph break, section break, change of speaker and turn of thought. I call it material because its shape ⬩ a diamond the width of a nib ⬩ shows by its axis the angle the scribe held his pen at.

Exeter Book f. 123v, detail. S-rune, punctus, R-rune. Muir.

Made bold by remote access, I claimed more for the punctus than maybe I should have. I said its unsystematic use made the poems more heterodox and material, less doctrinal or otherworldly, than we had been led to think. I said scholars had suppressed material features of the poems in order to project their own Christian values onto them. I’m not now saying I was wrong – but there was something headlong about my argument that made it easier to shrug off. Facsimiles let me fly to conclusions I might otherwise have marked a path to others could walk. I did note that a facsimile is derivative, removed from what it simulates. Was the closeness I felt to the poems just an artefact of my practice?

The Exeter Book folios are out of my reach. I have instead good digital facsimiles on my laptop. I can’t smell them or touch them or study the texture of the vellum at an erasure mark under different lights. But to zoom in on a hair space between an insular n and i feels … intimate. Is that close, or distant, or both? I would not be the first translator to have built their relationship to the poems, into the poems.

Since publishing Unlikeness Is Us I’ve left my teaching job and returned to school to study the exhibition of books and printed matter. And that has me thinking more about the facsimile. Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay on mechanical reproduction of the artwork, insists that by abolishing the work’s uniqueness and remoteness, mechanical copying destroys its aura, a glamour which had surrounded it ever since art sprang from the thigh of ritual. “[T]hat which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” he writes. “[R]eproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q. (“Elle a chaud au cul”).
Norton Simon Museum.

Aura arises when an esteemed object, no matter how close objectively, remains, through our memory of its cult value and its ritual function, subjectively distant. One copy made by machine lessens the distance: though inwardly smaller, it eclipses its original by proximity to us. A multitude of copies, cheap and disposable, think Mona Lisa on a coffee mug, a transmigration Duchamp had great fun helping along, closes it the rest of the way.

But a century’s traffic in cheap weightless images, moving now at a speed and in an excess Benjamin could never have conceived, has not made ordinary people more free, as he said it should, and, far from raising a bulwark against fascism, as he also promised, it seems only to have greased its rails. His prophetic essay is far from the last word on aura – that’s how dialectics go – and there are approaches to the auratic object that have little to do with the levelling of mechanical or digital reproduction.

Esteem creates aura, aura enforces distance, distance enhances aura, aura demands esteem. It’s a feedback loop establishing an oppressive homeostasis. The secrecy and remove by which our museums and libraries esteem an object – its removal from the sight and touch of all but a few its gatekeepers allow in – can only enhance that object’s aura. What would happen to that aura if a revered singular object were, instead, unhidden, made more widely, more democratically, available? What would happen to the object itself? How would those who meet it change and be changed by it? What costs would an institution charged with protecting it have to accept or endure?

The problem in the present context: exhibition of books and printed matter. Books are made for physical handling, but most of the books institutions find worth holding are too old, fragile, or singular to be touched by just any hands. Only the gatekeepers – archivists, librarians, conservators, curators – and the scholars they admit may meet the object as it was made to be met.

Again, books are a technology for the cold storage of thought, and they must be acted on, their pages lifted and turned, in order to release their contents. Even to be met as an art object the book must be held in hand. Then it enlivens many sense faculties at once: sight, touch and proprioception, smell, hearing. The typographer-poet Robert Bringhurst puts it well:

The book is a flexible mirror of the mind and the body. Its overall size and proportions, the color and texture of the paper, the sound it makes as the pages turn, and the smell of the paper, adhesive and ink, all blend with the size and form and placement of the type to reveal a little about the world in which it was made.

But it is generally felt that, when exhibited, a book must be protected from such handling. As Graham Foster, of the University of London’s Institute of English Studies, explains, “More often than not, the manuscripts on display are extremely valuable and delicate, so they are contained within cases, meaning only one opening can be displayed.” A book in a vitrine is reduced to what it has in common with a painting. By design, its own and the vitrine’s, all its other surfaces are hidden from view, beyond what a mirror behind it might reveal.

If aura supervenes on distance and secrecy, then stilling the book in one posture, for viewing and admiration at a remove, may only cement that aura. Such operations can improve ticket sales, but they do not serve the thing or its human encounters.

This is a functional and epistemic dilemma for any museum or library committed to displaying vulnerable books and manuscripts in its collection. Show a well-guarded book inadequately, or lay it out more broadly, and expose it to damage and degradation? The problem grows keener as curators heed the call for more-interactive and hands-on displays. Participatory exhibits responsive to visitors’ wants and needs are part of the sector’s work to democratize, diversify, and decolonize its own culture. A museum or library that holds its books at a protective remove bucks that trend, and risks appearing, and maybe being, an elitist preserve for experts and initiates.

I want now to look at some approaches museums have taken to this problem of access and maybe unpack some of their premises. I should first state a few of my own. One I’ve already alluded to: encounter with a book is haptic – tactile and proprioceptive. A book offered only for looking has been treated as a painting.

A second is a book’s haecceity or “thisness,” a Scholastic concept I map to the Buddhist notion of Tathātā, “suchness.” Suchness is what about a thing makes it that thing and no other. An eye of suchness opens sometimes in the Western counter-tradition, as when William Blake, printing from plates a book with no two copies the same, inscribes the words “every thing that lives is Holy.” That it’s usually printed “everything” is the whole problem in capsule. And Deleuze and Guattari gist suchness when they say, make a map, not a tracing. Suchness does not admit of copies, only navigable resemblances.

Western museums, given by long habit to generalization and classification – as if things were merely degraded versions of the Ideas we have of them – are slowly coming to a more concrete, immanent view. “In every work of art,” Hölling, Brewer, and Ammann write, introducing The Explicit Material, “there is an irreducible singularity; the work remains indescribable, reluctant to the assignment of a singular meaning or interpretation.” That singularity will change over time and may be realized only phenomenologically. An intuition of suchness may stir a feeling once dismissed as “primitive” for an object’s sentience or life force:

[M]aterials have more recently been considered as having agency, the power to act, and lives of their own, thus challenging the anthropocentric, post-Enlight­enment tradition…. [M]aterials are ineffable. Established concepts and categories fail to pin them down. This is why we have to follow them – their joining with other materials, forming into a work, becoming an object of conservation, and decaying. Materials are … vibrant intermediaries.

Suchness accounts for the charge of meaning objects have with no appeal to aura.

A third premise is impermanence, often conflated with materiality, because matter showcases it so well. Everything compounded falls apart. Hölling et al. question the “continuing assumptions that artworks and artefacts are made of static, inert matter – inactive, stagnant, and passive ‘objects’ of investigation, subordinated to hygienic orders of museum vitrines or of preserved historical sites.” Later in the same collection, David Lowenthal avers:

Every inanimate object, like every living being, undergoes continual alteration, ultimately perishing. Cumulative corrosion extinguishes every form and feature. Things either morph into other entities, dismember into fragments or dissolve into unrecognizable components. Gradual change may be imperceptible within the span of a human lifetime or even longer, but it is eventually inexorable. All of us, not only curators, confront mortal dissolution. But awareness of it goes against the grain.

Fierce conservation and timid display practices together make museum objects stays against entropy. And I get it, I feel the impulse myself, I too would like to live forever, vicariously. But the Western hallucination of Eternal Being is near neighbour to schemes of social and racial hierarchy – not to mention the colonial project they spring from – we’ve said we mean to dismantle. We live among nouns, but we live as verbs, and so do things in our care, to the degree we let them.

A book in the ether

Lindisfarne Gospels f. 27r. Incipit page to Gospel of Matthew.
British Museum.

A high-resolution digital facsimile appears to solve the problem. It’s weightless, almost instantaneously transmissible, and in principle infinitely reproducible. A volume like the Lindisfarne Gospels can be unbound, translated into bits and packets, bound again, and returned to its lightless, climate-controlled shelf unharmed. I have loved these images. I pore over them in my study in far-off Washington State. They’ve helped draw me toward a new career in museums. And they attune me, somewhat, to the artistry that went into slaughtering goats and processing their hides for parchment, harvesting oak galls for ink, and liquefying gold for illumination, and to the centuries of trial and error, apprenticeship and mastery, that go into an Insular Half-Uncial a.

Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 3r, detail. An illuminated O. British Museum.

I say somewhat. These images are to the tangible page what a photograph of a sunset is to being there. Vision is, as all the senses are, synaesthetic, and seeing that ordinary a or a majestic illuminated capital O, I have a sense of touching it also. If my sense remains dim, that’s because the image is two-dimensional: all the page’s close-pressed layers have been jammed into one surface. What Robert Bringhurst says of the letterpress page, its roundedness, is even more so in manuscript.

The cast letters are locked in a frame and placed in a printing press, where they are inked. Their image is then imprinted into the paper, producing a tactile and visual image. The color and sheen of the ink join with the smooth texture of crushed paper, recessed into the whiter and rougher fibers surrounding the letters and lines. A book produced by this means is a folding inscription, a flexible sculpture in low relief.

A facsimile trades depth and intimacy for ease and ubiquity. It’s a sometimes fair trade that often hides its real terms. And innovations meant to improve those terms seem merely to distort them. For instance, the British Museum’s Turning the Pages software, which “digitally recreates the manuscripts so that the user can virtually turn pages and examine every word” (Foster), is a parody of the act of reading a book – a simulacrum of the sort you might find in Madam Tussaud’s (if they had a book-arts wing). Plato got two things right about the image: We want very much to take it for what it’s an image of. And as long as it’s that sort of derivative, it disappoints.

A book mimicked

You can make high-quality physical facsimiles of a book. Artisanal bookmakers like A.P. Manuscripts do it. The images, as images, are exquisite, and the books are lovingly made, with heavy paper stock, sewn and glued bindings, bespoke cow-skin covers. But it’s paper, not parchment, and books are sewn and glued in the house style, so to speak. The book itself is no facsimile, only the images in it are, and they suffer the same limitation as digital ones, of existing flatly, in two dimensions.

A few years ago, I taught Anne Carson’s Nox, a facsimile of an artist’s book she made after a brother’s death, in a visual poetry course. The images reproduce the look of crinkles and tears of paper scraps, tea stains on receipts, the fading of old photographs – physical objects in Carson’s original – in a sort of photostatic trompe d’oeil. And the fidelity of the images only widens the gulf between them and their originals. The image of a tea-stained receipt steps in as a flat, mute, inert substitute for its original; you reach out to touch it, by hand or in mind, and find you’ve been fooled. You may feel a subtle loss here, traces of sadness, frustration, anger, or dismay. How, I asked my students, does this distress we feel relate to the loss the book is quote-unquote about? A consensus formed that the published book is an elegy for the singular original Carson made: it translates an otherwise unsayable human elegy into a language of materials.

Anne Carson, Nox. Writing with Images.

Having led them down this path I discovered I couldn’t go any further on it. In one of those moments of self-discovery I love and miss teaching for, I found myself holding the book up high and crying, “it’s document porn, people! document porn!” I meant that the dynamic the images create is more erotic than elegiac. The thing stirs bookish desires. Promised contact with an actual other, offered the tactile vibrancy of notebook paper, receipt paper, paper crinkles and folds, impress of pen on paper, you get a semblance instead, and when the encounter’s over, you feel that much more alone. Maybe this is what happens whenever a return smalls itself to replica.

Why not make a new freestanding thing? Jen Bervin and Marta Werner do it in their Gorgeous Nothings, producing facsimiles of envelopes Emily Dickinson composed on, without asking you to imagine you have a sheaf of envelopes in hand. Instead the book wholly recontextualizes them, offering the panels as self-sufficient thing-poems, with diplomatic transcription and commentary. A physical facsimile may be a useful adjunct in the display of rare books, but it falls just as far short of the original as a digital one does. Even if a facsimile were to capture all the layeredness of its original – even if it reproduced the original atom for atom – that original would still be out of reach. Its past and future, its human exchanges (possession, interpretation, modification), its material conditions (placement, movement, growth, decay), all belong to its haecceity, this moment.

The Gorgeous Nothings, Jen Bervin and Marta Werner’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s
envelope writing, culminates in this majestic visual poem.

A book unbound

Compositiones variae unbound in its storage box.
Lucca, Biblioteca Capitolare Feliniana. Photo by Thea Burns.

Rare books are often removed from their bindings for repair, digital scanning, or storage. In her account of the material changes undergone by the Compositiones variae, an eighth-century manuscript held at the Biblioteca Capitolare Feliniana in Lucca, Italy, Thea Burns writes that the book under study is presently stored unbound, “the loose folios … kept in a custom-made box alongside the leather-covered wood boards and a now separate spine lining.” Why not unbind a book for display? Recall, the twin problems confronting those who display old or fragile books are, first, that the books must, for their own good, be protected from haptic encounter, and, second, that the codex, when intact, by design hides, even when open, almost all its other surfaces from view. Unbinding the folios would address the latter issue while leaving the former untouched. Glass cases like those at the German Museum of Modern Literature (see below) might set out pages in reading order to be wandered among. With mounting, mirrors, and lighting, the obverse of the page could also be seen. Have I missed exhibitions that take this approach? Does it pose dangers to the leaves I don’t know of? I am a neophyte.

A book as architecture

Claire Hughes, an English exhibition designer, describes a visit to the German Museum of Modern Literature at Marbach, where literary and para-literary documents are displayed in an unusual way. She tells of a domain of “flickering banks of documents, stacked in sectional displays, vertically lit by gorgeous LED wands.” The exhibition leaves books intact but lays out them out among documents for maximum visual contact. Hughes describes how the exhibition’s “multiple layers of views, reflections and shadows echo the complex points of view and layers of meaning within literature,” which squares with what I’ve seen online of the exhibition and the architecture framing it.

The presentation seems to translate, not a book, but the experience of reading a book. It makes me wonder, if a book must be protected from physical contact, might a curator’s own tactile, haptic, proprioceptive experience of it be translated into a publicly accessible form – into, for instance, architecture’s language of materials, objects, and spaces, of sightlines and pathways?

“Three dimensions of a literary archive: lit by LED wands to be seen from all sides in plan, elevation and section.
Die Seele Exhibition at the German Modern Literature Museum in Marbach.” Photo and caption by Hughes.
Susan Howe, from “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards.”

The poetry of Susan Howe shows that translation is possible in the other direction: her fragments of documents work as glyphs in a collage-language which translates the experience of roving through archives in search of pattern and meaning. Could a museum translate the kinetics of reading – eye movements, hand motions, all the sensations a book gives via its contact with a body – into the kinetic language of museums: eye movements again, standing in place, shifting in place, breaking left, circling round – all the ways a body moves exploring?

Maybe a museum honours the book by expressing it – the experience of reading it – in the museum’s own phenomenological language. Then the book can be safe and happy, knowing it has been found meaningful as text and as thing. To have digital facsimiles made of you must be discouraging – as if you were only good for death masks now. But to be translated into another kind of language! That would mean you mattered as matter.

“It’s not just architects who need construction plans. This is one of many ‘Phantasiebauplans’ [imaginal blueprints]:
a drawing of the narrative construction for a novel.” Photo and caption by Hughes.

Leaving the exhibition, Hughes felt powerfully that “a poem takes up quite a large space in the world and, as for a novel, well, it’s a positively towering three-dimen­sional object that should be seen in section as well as in plan.” This approach would literalize her insight.

A book touched, a page turned

Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Center, Art Gallery of Ontario.
The facility is open to the public at specified times and by appointment.

If showing books by translating the experience of reading them is the most extravagant conception in this essay, and allowing a sacrificial book to die at the hands of its humans is the most irresponsible, the most sober-minded is just to grant to ordinary people the privileges given scholars and archivists. Let more people meet the damn books in person! The Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Study Center, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, gestures in this direction, inviting members of the public to view, under the supervision of museum employees, prints and drawings in their collection. The need to book an appointment a month in advance likely deters casual visitors. There is no reason in principle the practice couldn’t be applied to at least some old or rare books, and the wait time shortened, for that matter. Instruction and supervision would be more intensive than for prints and drawings, and a museum would have to commit considerable resources to the undertaking.

A book let die (immodest proposal)

I’ve left this one for last. Am not sure I want to be held responsible for it even as mere idea. The idea is just to let the book weather under human use. It would mean affirming the artefact as a life that begins and ends. Elizabeth Pye, in The Explicit Material:

The concept of biography has been used to portray the changes that objects may go through during their existence (their lives), including social encounters and changes in fashion and values…. Material “life events” embracing making, deterioration, repair, discard, and so on, all clearly shape the perception and significance of an object before it enters the museum.

The artefact is a lifeform and lifeforms are transient. Everything compounded comes apart. We like to think an object entering a collection is at that moment plucked from from the stream of history for preservation and study – but acquisition may just be another stage in the its life story. In The Explicit Material, David Lowenthal puts curatorial intervention in such terms:

Metamorphosis – abrasion and accretion, dissolution and amalgamation – varies not only with natural processes but also with human interventions. The pace of change reflects efforts to slow or speed alteration or demise, to restore or improve on previous integrity, to prevent or promote transformation into something else.

The life of an object intersects at all points with our own. Its story can acquire meaning only at that intersection – from which, for us too, there is nowhere to stand apart. Paul Eggert writes in the same collection: “We may think of ourselves as standing outside the life of the work, but in truth we cannot help but edit or conserve within it, take our part in its ongoing life.” If our artefacts can only be towards their deaths and we don’t like it – if we can only be towards our deaths and yet refuse it – if we keep raising metaphysical architectures for the surfaces they offer to our projections of eternal life – if we really are this bad at dying – maybe a book can, as it is let go, teach something inscribed nowhere on its pages.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room, before visitors. TateShots (Tate Gallery).

My immodest proposal. At intervals choose a book to return to the event stream it’s been withheld from. Place it on a table in a room any part of the public could enter and sit down at. Maybe offer foam props, a magnifying glass and gloves, some handout describing how archivists and librarians treat the books in their care. Or maybe not. Visitors could turn the leaves, feeling their texture and pliability, or lift the book to feel its heft as a vessel for storing and pouring culture. They could take in with eyes and fingertips the crizzling of an initial’s illuminative gold, and the scribe’s record of the motions of a hand across the leaf’s surface, whether it’s intelligible or looks to them like an asemic garden party. They might walk away having understood nothing! Address that with some supplemental text – or maybe don’t. There’s something to be said for getting nothing.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room, during visitors. TateShots (Tate Gallery).

Well, I love the idea in abstract, hate it applied to any particular book. Can I really imagine Isadore’s Encyclopedia, or a copy of Mandeville’s Travels, or some tattered Book of Hours forgotten by everyone except by a collections database, acquiring marks of human use as freely and spontaneously as Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room acquires spots of color the artist invited visitors to set down? The book might not survive long, but it would live what remains of its life, doing what it was made for. The image coming to mind is human sacrifice. The cost is real, the loss felt deeply, yet a community or even a family might do it anyway, just to get right with reality. And here I’d thought to leave aura behind. 

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room, after visitors. TateShots (Tate Gallery).

POSTSCRIPT. This week in the mail, Printing History, journal of the American Printing History Association, with an essay by Sarah Werner, book historian and digital scholar, called “Working Toward a Feminist Printing History”:

[I]f you are, as I am, committed to the belief that every single copy of a text is unique, thanks both to inevitable printing variants and to the vagaries of its individual life, then an awareness of repetition and variation [in printing] makes an aesthetic based on Penelope’s weaving all the more compelling.

The kinship of text and textile is as powerful to me as that of matter and mother.


Burns, Thea. “The Material Forms of the Past and the ‘Afterlives’ of the Compositiones variae.” The Explicit Material, edited by Hanna B. Hölling, Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann, Brill, 2019, pp. 209–235.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt Brace & World, 1968, pp. 219–53.

Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographical Style. Version 3.2, Hartley & Marks, 2008.

Carson, Anne. Nox. New Directions, 2010.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. “Introduction: Rhizome.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, U of Minnesota P, 1987, pp. 3–25.

Dickinson, Emily. The Gorgeous Nothings. Edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner. New Directions, 2013.

Foster, Graham. “The Challenges of Exhibiting Manuscripts.” English Literary Heritage, 25 November 2014. Accessed 2 December 2014.

Hölling, Hanna B., Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann. “Introduction: Material Encounters.” The Explicit Material, edited by Hanna B. Hölling, Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann, Brill, 2019, pp. 1–14.

“How We Do It.” A.P. Manuscripts. Accessed 2 December 2020.

Hughes, Clare. “A Story of Rooms.” Clare Hughes (blog). Accessed 30 November 2020.

The Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV, ca. 700 CE.

Lowenthal, David. “A Sea-Change Rich and Strange.” The Explicit Material, edited by Hanna B. Hölling, Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann, Brill, 2019, pp. 17–63.

Muir, Bernard J., editor. The Exeter DVD: The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. U of Exeter P, 2006.

Patton, Christopher, translator and editor. Unlikeness Is Us: Fourteen from the Exeter Book. Gaspereau, 2018.

TateShots. “Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room.” YouTube, uploaded by Tate, 14 March 2012.

The gaze is made out of sight

A piece I wrote for a class this fall on museums & cultural heritage. We were asked to respond to a performance piece by Deborah de Robertis called Mirror of Origin – her rejoinder to Gustav Corbet’s L’Origine du monde.

The Gaze Is Made Out Of Sight

Ishtar Vase ca. 2000–1600 BCE. Louvre.

I have in mind an exhibition on the history of looking. One object in it would be a terracotta vase with the goddess Ishtar incised on its face. Her wings look like pubic hair gone mad and mean astral power. The notched tri­angle where her legs meet, from which the Sumerian cu­nei­form fig­ure for wo­man is ab­stracted Woman sequence, means a coitus so holy it turns the earth. Around her are spokes­animals of the wetlands – fish, tur­tles, ducks, bits of world she’s ori­gin to. La­ter a diluvian patri­arch will set them out in pairs and rows. After some ad­ventures (my wall text explains) he’ll find a jewel­led necklace in the sky – the god­dess set it there in re­morse for drown­ing the people (Gilga­mesh XI) – and mis­take it for a rain­bow say­ing The crea­tures are all yours now (Genesis 9:1–3). In de­noue­ment, a son sees him drunk and na­ked, Dad gets pretty pissed (Gen. 9:20–25), banishes his seed.

Noah’s story is a parable of the birth of pat­riarchy from the morning star’s reces­sion, Ish­tar’s clay flower fading. The vase is borrowed from the Louvre where it lives behind glass and alarms. It wants to be held, filled, poured from! though I too must guard it. If seeing it nonetheless feels almost like touching it – as if your eyes had finger­tips you could brush against its face – that’s because our sense experience just is man­y­stranded.

[A] raven soaring in the distance is not, for me, a mere visual image; as I follow it with my eyes, I inevitably feel the stretch and flex of its wings with my own muscles, and its sudden swoop toward the nearby trees is a visceral as well as a visual experience for me. The raven’s loud, guttural cry, as it swerves overhead, is not circumscribed within a strictly audible field – it echoes through the visible, immediately animating the visible landscape.

That’s David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous, giving voice to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who took our everyday perceptions to be both synaesthetic and participatory.

My senses connect up with each other in the things I perceive, or rather each perceived thing gathers my senses together in a coherent way, and it is this that enables me to experience the thing itself as a center of forces, as another nexus of experience, as an Other.

Setting outer creatures in or­der, Noah set the inner creatures in order. The recession of the morn­ing star is among other things a strait­ening and sorting of percep­tion. Think of an exhibition that has only one right order of encounter.

Before Ishtar was Inanna, god­dess of Sumer of every­thing hu­man. An impression obtained from the Oriental Institute:

Inanna-Ishtar with morning star. Akkadian cylinder-seal ca. 2254–2193 BCE. Oriental Institute.

She took by guile the me, the gifts of civiliz­ation – blade­work, la­men­t­ation, carpentry – from her father Enki, god of the flood­waters, to give to her peo­ple. The story of her world-onsetting theft begins:

She leaned back against the apple tree.
When she leaned against the apple tree, her vulva was wondrous to behold.
Rejoicing at her wondrous vulva, the young woman Inanna applauded herself.
                     (“Inanna and the God of Wisdom”)

That notch is origin of lifeworlds.

Clay Halaf figure ca. 6000–5100 BCE. Louvre.

Inanna is the sharp edge of a stone tool most of whose facets are lost to us. A Neolithic figure, filched from the Louvre, hints at how they angled. Its apparently distorted features, bulging breasts and thighs, tapered head and feet – a “lozenge form” – has led its owners and handlers to take it for a fertility idol. But these ubiquitous figures from the late Stone Age are only “distorted” when seen from out­side. See them with their own eyes and they’re wholly naturalistic. According to Catherine Hodge McCoid and Leroy D. McDermott, they’re simply a woman’s body as “seen by a wo­man looking down on herself.” One figure joins multiple perspectives: looking down (your belly looms large), bending forward to look down (your thighs are foreshortened, feet furthest off), turning to look at your backside (the top of your buttock is foreshortened). The face is indistinct because without a mirror – recall de Robertis’s title – you can’t see your head with your own eyes, any more than a pen can write on itself.

The apparent misrepresentation of height and width in the figurines results from the visual experience of [the] anatomical necessity [of bending forwards to see her toes]. The location of the eyes means that for an expectant mother the upper half of the body visually expands toward the abdomen, whereas the lower half presents a narrow, tapering form.

These figures are objective offerings of one or more women’s self-relation: from her sight of her own body, she made an object she could hand to another, to think about with their own hands. Or reflect on herself – McCoid and McDermott propose the figures had pragmatic use, maybe as obstetrical aids, “the relative sizes of the abdomens helping women to calculate the progress of their pregnancies.” Their work suggests that, long before Picasso or Gris, Neolithic women were assembling, out of divergent viewpoints, a perspective that is coherent, singular, and relational. (Picasso had to break women up to get his perspective to cohere.) They made a perspective as novel as the retreating lines of an aristocrat’s lands converging on an abstract horizon, or a Cubist collage breaking things apart to return to the eye its multiplicity.

In another room, Europe, stung by Noah’s rebuke, is revisiting the human form it got from Greece, working out, with the aid of oil paint and linear perspective, how to clothe a naked figure in the seeing of it. Nude women you can touch with your eyes become a cottage industry. Most of them look like merchandise. John Berger: “What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can get your hands on.” The European nude confirms the male gaze in its patrimony. Oil paint, exploiting the synaesthesia of vision, and linear perspective, confirming the landowning individual as sovereign viewpoint, together clothe the naked form in a form of looking.

Sir Peter Lely, Nell Gwynne, mid-1600s. Private collection.

Berger uses a painting by Sir Peter Lely, most likely of Nell Gwynne, lover of Charles II, to make the case. Two gazes can be seen here and a third cannot. The child, ostensibly Cupid, looks down in reverence or mischief toward a corner of the white silk bedclothes draped over the woman’s sex. Gwynne, thrust into the role of Venus, looks with a languid, unfocussed gaze toward the viewer. It could be dreamy interiority, but her pose, reclining, passive, unclothed and turned near-frontal, suggests her inner gaze is self-surveyal on behalf of an owner-spectator she’ll never meet. In other words her inside is not hers. Berger again:

Whilst [a woman] is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually…. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

I would add that the erotic power of her look depends on being both available and not. So Gwynne’s head turns to the left as her eyes look forward and a little down, as if she were a bit too shy, or just coquettish enough, to meet your gaze. The fabric across her pelvis achieves the same effect, withholding something also promised. The man’s gaze is the third here and is set out of sight. Just as you can’t see light, only what it lands on, the gaze is invisible, known only by its evidences. And while evidence of the woman’s gaze and the child’s may be found in the painting, that of the man lives outside the frame, where history is.

The wo­man’s looking and the child’s looking are fixed realities, nounal, paintable, while his looking acts, verbally, as it were. It would take a form that moves in time, a book or a piece of performance art, to make such looking palpable.

Gustav Courbet intervened in the tradition of the nude when he painted L’Origine du monde. His model has no hands she could work with, nor feet to walk off with, nor mouth to speak, nor eyes to convey an interior or create resonance with a viewer. The frame only takes in enough to define her by her sexual attributes, breasts and vagina. In another context, the bedclothes that frame her might look like tissue paper round a gift just now unwrapped, but here they are at least half a shroud.

Gustav Courbet, L’Origine du monde, 1866. Musée d’Orsay.

Whatever the critics have said, the painting is in no way erotic, having dispensed with the illusion of a mental interior. I was relieved to learn I’m not the only one to find it deathly:

The pallidness of the skin and the mortuary gauze surrounding the body suggest death. This body … cannot see us and never will.  Whosoever buries their head “there” is implicated in a game of necrophiliac orality that ignores the violence and the optical objectification laid out in the painting. (Uparella & Jauregui)

Going down here really is going down. Inanna, at her journey’s nadir, is made a corpse and hung on her sister’s kingdom’s wall, and this is pretty much that.

In Courbet’s intervention, all the erotic possibility that the European nude has, for centuries, mobilized by arranging in pigmented oil illusions of an in/accessible interior, is transferred to the title. The Origin of the World. It’s magnificent, grandiose, risible, sublime. You cannot say for sure whether it’s earnest or ironic, truth or hyperbole, mythological or anthropological or satirical. Does this title, an invisible frame hovering between the painter and all viewers, make the truncated form of Courbet’s model, Joanna Hiffernan, who herself painted and drew, though she never showed her work (Jiminez), a goddess of stone or earth, or an avatar of Inanna, or an anatomy poster, or a capitalist meat machine? The painting is celebrated for its realism – finally a thatch of pubic hair true to life! But the ambiguity Courbet’s realism has drained from the painting has filled the title up.

On May 29, 2014, an artist named Deborah de Robertis enters the gallery of the Musée d’Orsay where The Origin is hung. Wearing a gold-sequined cocktail dress, she walks briskly to the painting, sits down below it, and spreads her legs to show her va­gina, holding her labia apart with her hands. Her pubic hair is the colour of Hiffernan’s; her dress matches the gilding of the frame. Her videographer holds the camera’s gaze shakily – it’s the video of an amateur, such as anyone there might make. Within seconds, guards arrive. They engage her in discussion, sometimes blocking the camera’s view of her. We hear the other visitors begin to applaud. The camera swings to take them in. Once in clumps of private contemplation, they stand now in an arc focused on her. The camera pans back to her. One of the guards has taken up a position in front of her, hiding her from view: a shin in the role once given to diaphanous fabric. Another guard comes to consult. All the guards thus far are women. They are affronted by this violation to museum decorum, but they also seem a little protective of the violator. There on the floor, artist and model at once, de Robertis has the placid expression of models before her, but her eyes blink and rove as they please. The guards begin to try to escort the audience out. Soon there are more guards in the gallery than visitors, one or two of them men. Someone has fetched a screen the colour of Courbet’s bedsheets. By the five-minute mark the energy in the room has begun to falter. Scattered applause. The camera starts to have trouble finding her. The performance peters out indefinitely.

The task of controlling access has passed from the Musée d’Orsay to the disembodied gallery of YouTube.

No – it disperses, leaving the gallery as its participants do, in twos and threes. The piece includes the museumgoers who applaud her and the guards who obstruct her, and it spreads ever more broadly, to include the video made of the performance, the interviews and reviews, the lawsuit two guards later file against her for “sexual exhibitionism.” De Robertis does not break persona for any of it – she continues to perform herself for the papers, in the courts, and on social media platforms. The piece includes its aftermath. She has torn a page here from Fluxus, whose artists incorporated into their work happenings “outside” the work: chance elements, audience responses. And I’m reminded of John Cage, for whom the audience shifting in their seats, the street sounds through cracked windows, may be the composition – though for Cage, the aleatory is a formal occasion, for de Robertis, a political one.

A stilled object on the wall becomes, as our eyes travel down from the painting to the floor, a living subject, autonomous, with agency. Then the gaze disperses without dissolving: the work reaches out into the public sphere, dismantling the erotic mechanism the tradition of the European nude had built. The artist’s self-exposure is an act of aggression (against the male gaze), of transgression (against museum rules and decorum), and of commonality (with all the female models and artists before her). It has none of the come-close–stay-back of Lely’s portrait, or the countless nudes it keeps company with, or the French lingerie and Superbowl beer ads that have followed in their delicate footsteps.

It might seem de Robertis wants to demythologize the vagina. And yet, having launched her work from Courbet’s, subverting it, rebuking him, she takes his most grandiose claims and doubles down on them. Her account of her work in the press implies a metaphysical scope that eclipses Courbet’s:

The painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin. (Sutton)

The realist who painted is not realistic enough (in fact the painting is not so accurate anatomically), the artist who titled, not metaphysical enough. Is she trolling Courbet? Her look in the video is as placid as Inanna’s on the vase across the street across the room. One of its three audio tracks confirms the work’s mythological dimension:

I am the origin.
I am all women.
You haven’t seen me.
I want you to recognize me.
Virgin like water.
Creator of sperm.

Like Inanna, gambling with her drunk uncle, de Robertis fools the hoarder of power into handing it over. In turn, she gives it to other people, and in being given, it grows larger.

The holy me were being unloaded.
As the me which Inanna had received from Enki were unloaded,
They were announced and presented to the people of Sumer.

Then more me appeared – more me than Enki had given Inanna.
And these, too, were announced,
And these, too, were presented to the people of Uruk.
            (“Inanna and the God of Wisdom”)

Inanna claims and shares and adds to the powers of culture. De Robertis, her daughter, claims and shares and furthers the power of looking. Our senses cohere in her, the way the me cohere, sitting on the pier.

Cohere and disperse, the way light does on a gold-sequined dress. Gold holds light – why it’s called illumination in old books – while sequins scatter it. The artist, likewise, has drawn and held then scattered our gaze. The camera movements (jerky, handheld, amateur), the dispersal of the museumgoers (each in their own shell of looking), the continuation of the artwork across locales and discursive genres (video, interview, legal filing), they all scatter our looking, while holding it whole. Against the monolith of the singular “male gaze” washes this dispersed and democratized looking. Is it going too far to think de Robertis has, with her Fluxus compeers, created a new perspective? A perspective scattered and broken like the Cubist one, but coherent and whole when taken for that of a crowd. It’s a strange, tenuous whole, but we recognize it: in the internet age, a thought or a conversation is whole in the same way, though spread out in time and housed by servers on several continents. Like her Neolithic forbears, she makes a coherent form for the autochthonous gaze. In those figures, the gaze is compact, discreet, singular, and solid across time. Today being what it is, de Robertis’s is dispersed, multiple, collaborative, and fluid over time, changing forms as it ripples outward from a gallery in the Musée d’Orsay and spills into the streets.

Print works referred to

Ishtar’s eight-pointed star ca. 1180 BCE.
From the stele of King Melishipak I.
Wikimedia Commons.

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. Pantheon, 1996.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin, 1973.

Cuneiform for “woman.” Nicholas Fay, T. Mark Ellison, and Simon Garrod, “Iconicity: From Sign to System in Human Communication and Language.” Pragmatics & Cognition, vol. 22, no. 2 (Dec. 2013), pp. 243–62.

“Inanna and the God of Wisdom.” Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, edited and translated by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer. Harper & Row, 1983.

McCoid, Catherine Hodge, and Leroy D. McDermott. “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female Vision in the Upper Paleolithic.” American Anthropologist, New Series, vol. 98, no. 2 (June 1996), pp. 319–326.

Jiminez, Jill Berk, editor. “Joanna Hiffernan.” Dictionary of Artists’ Models. Routledge, 2001, pp. 275–78.

Uparella, Paola, and Carlos A. Jauregui. “The Vagina and the Eye of Power (Essay on Genitalia and Visual Sovereignty).” H-ART. Revista de historia, teoría y crítica de arte, no. 3 (2018), pp. 79–114.

Speaking with things

Last fall, in my Curatorial Practice course, I worked with five other students to propose an exhibition of contemporary installation art by women. We chose works that investigated the domestic sphere in diverse and exciting ways. Inspired by Foucault’s notion of a “heterotopia,” a space where norms are suspended to make new perceptions possible, we called our exhibition Otherspaces.

It was a fictional exhibition, so we dreamed big, imagining we had the social capital to land big-name artists and the funding to secure and adapt our ideal space: an airplane hangar (where planes sleep and are fed when home from other places) in which we would build a stage-set house with a room for each piece.

Each of us also wrote a curatorial essay for the show. Some wrote on the feminist dimensions of the works. Some explored the works as other spaces where the familiar is made strange. I like to think of an exhibition as a collaborative, multimodal, interactive work of art, so my essay reads Otherspaces as a poem made of things.

It is / here / it is.

Speaking with Things

To be and to know or Being and thought are the same.
		– Gerard Manley Hopkins, on Parmenides (Robert Bringhurst trans.)

I’ve been thinking lately about words as things. Words exist physically, as grooves in stone or electrons on a screen, and they have physical effects: striking your retina or eardrum, they induce limbic arousal, or a surge of oxytocin, or a protest in the streets of a capital.

We know some things speak – any thing used as a word does. Things may also speak at other times, as themselves, of the inner life of matter. If that sounds merely poetic, recall that physicists are talking these days about physical events as acts of information exchange.

In Otherspaces, artists ask how things may work as words, in a language humans and objects co-create. And they hint that things work with us in this way because of something thoughtful about them, and their participation in our inner lives.

1. Rooms

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.
		– Jack Spicer, “Thing Language”

“Thing Language” is a one-stanza poem. Stanza comes from the Italian word for “room.” The poem is a one-room house where words are taken for things.

It insists, by disjunction, non-sequitur, and its rough­house actions at the line end, also by pretty much saying so, that its words don’t mean any more than the ocean, salt and pepper, or death do.

Of course, the words do mean, in that they refer to concepts, but that kind of meaning doesn’t exhaust their function. They have another kind of significance too. Consider the difference between “I know what you mean” and “you mean a lot to me.”

Otherspaces is a six-stanza poem that speaks with things.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room (photo: Stuart Addelsee, Azure)

Begin with a blank: white walls, white floor, white ceiling, white furniture. It’s not hard to see it as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, such as we once thought the mind is at birth, waiting to be marked by thought.

Visitors to Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room are handed sheets of stickers and asked to place them on surfaces however they wish. Some make geometric patterns that recall those grids of dots on paleolithic cave walls. Others tag a surface with their own name. Many make a beautiful mess a bit outside their control, à la Pollock or Cage. Being participatory, the piece is also aleatory, allowing chance into its composition. By gradual accretion, a dead pure blank empty sterile white space acquires the marks of human use, human habitation.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room (photo: Stuart Addelsee, Azure)

Each sticker is a trace of a mental act – a speech act. Artist, visitor, and stick­er all help to utter it, though the artist has left the room. After the visitor leaves, the sticker continues as a record, a record that becomes unintelligible in the babble of so many others. It’s like a marketplace in which you hear intersecting rivers of human speech and cannot make out a single word.

Traditionally the origin of Chinese logograms was traced to bird tracks in river sand. A language, whether of sound, gesture, picture, symbol, or object, is always a human-nonhuman hybrid – human and air, human and clay and wedge, human and electron beam. These Otherspaces are full of chimaeras.

Saya Woolfalk’s Empathic Cloud Divination envisions a post-human future of soul uploads to the Cloud and teachings of human-plant hybrids. Semi-abstract patterns cover the floor and walls. From the ceiling, projectors throw kaleidoscopic displays over the room’s surfaces. They are the minds of astral beings (Empathics) taking a physical form congenial to them. (Greek gods and Milton’s angels did the same.) Boxes like computer screens on the walls show glyph-like objects suggesting, as asemic writing does, a possible yet unparsable language.

Saya Woolfalk, Empathic Cloud Divination (photo: the artist)

Woolfalk’s matriarchal Afro-futurist vision offers rest from the peripatetic gazing one so often gets lost in a gallery. Beanbag chairs invite reverie and a respite from all the thoughts of self and other, past and future, getting and spending, that typically populate us.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed is a centaur: one’s head on another’s torso. A painting on the wall, Turner’s Rough Sea, looks over its shoulder in astonishment at a dishevelled bedroom, its new body.

Tracey Emin, My Bed (photo: Stephen White)

The piece depends not so much on the room’s surfaces as on its function – the acts, thoughts, feels and words we sense a room is for. A bedroom – therefore, intimacy, sleep, dream, waking, and private emotions.

Bed and painting together make what Ezra Pound called an ideogram. The ideogram is a way of saying concretely something unsayable otherwise.

My Bed, detail (photo: Naomi Rea)

You make one by joining two or more tangible realities. Making a poem you conjoin verbal images. Making a film you conjoin photographic images and you might call it montage. Both practices trace back to a (mis)understanding of the Chinese ideogram because both are ways of speaking with things.

When you do it with objects you have an installation. Emin uses things – a painting, a bed strewn with tissues and coins and condoms – the way Pound thought pictures of things were used in written Chinese. (He was wrong about Chinese but right about how a poem can work.)

Whatever joins the sublime mess of storm in the painting, to the messy abyss of grief on the bed, is not sayable another way. The painting and the bed “speak to each other,” as the saying goes.

2. Objects

My essay is an attempt at an ideogram – its strokes six artworks, two poems, and an inkling.

Plates and a dinner set of colored china. Pack together a string and enough with it to protect the centre, cause a considerable haste and gather more as it is cooling, collect more trembling and not any even trembling, cause a whole thing to be a church.
		– Gertrude Stein, “A Plate” (“Objects” 15)

Stein enters the inner life of objects. From the outside, a plate is a plate. Inside, it is stained by experience, and bears knowledge of its own formation and destruction. Were it sentient, its thoughts might move at about the speed its molecules quiver at – string | haste | cooling | trembling. The poet’s own voice enters at the end: “cause a whole thing to be a church.”

Formerly, our access to the inner life of objects was sacral. For a Modernist like Stein it’s hieratic and indeterminate. Today, it grows scientific, in the form of Integrated Information Theory. I doubt any of the artists here would use any of these terms. But each endows objects with something lifelike from which they are equipped to speak.

We’ve looked at things put in rooms. Rachel Whiteread’s Place (Village) is rooms accreted as things.

The work’s an assemblage of 150 doll houses collected over twenty years. The Victoria & Albert Museum, which has lent it to our imaginal exhibition, describes the houses as “devoid of both people and objects.” There’s no furniture, but there are carpets, wallpaper, curtains, and artwork on the walls.

Rachel Whiteread, Place (Village) (photo: Cela Libeskind)

The windows of these houses are lit with life – maybe it’s the houses’ own sentience. Try seeing the windows as eyes looking back. Once you have, you can’t unsee it.

The happy variety of rooflines affirms their diversity. Curiously, the V&A finds a “haunted atmosphere” here. What’s a haunted house but a site where our repressed sense the objects we’re aware of are aware of us leaks out of the mental basement?

One can imagine entering one of the rooms here – possibly to find a gallery like this one. It’s a nested arrangement. So too of course is Otherspaces: a hangar, etymologically a “house yard,” holds a house, the house holds rooms, a room holds a village.

In The Poetics of Space, his study of the “oneiric house,” the house of dream-memory, in his chapter on nests, Gaston Bachelard writes:

If we were to look among the wealth of our vocabulary for verbs that express the dynamics of retreat, we should find images based on animal movements of withdrawal, movements that are engraved in our muscles. How psychology would deepen if we could know the psychology of each muscle! And what a quantity of animal beings there are in the being of a man! But our research does not go that far. (91)

Neither does ours. Just a bit further is good though.

Like Whiteread, Chiharu Shiota works in miniature. Claude Lévi-Strauss writes of miniatures in his essay on the “science of the concrete”:

A child’s doll is no longer an enemy, a rival or even an interlocutor. In it and through it a person is made into a subject. In the case of miniatures … knowledge of the whole precedes knowledge of the parts. And even if this is an illusion, the point of the procedure is to create or sustain the illusion, which gratifies the intelligence and gives rise to a sense of pleasure which can already be called aesthetic. (24)

In the same essay he describes the artist’s work as halfway to bricolage, “making do with what is at hand” – think Duchamp’s chimaera of stool and bicycle.

In Shiota’s Connecting Small Memories, little wholes are made parts in a constellation. They are found wholes, so this is bricolage. Small objects – toy chest of drawers, washing basin, rocking horse – are linked by threads, as if, her title suggests, our thinking were material and external to the mind.

Chiharu Shiota, Connecting Small Memories (photo: Sunhi Mang)

Of course, it could simply be that physical objects symbolize mental objects, and their assemblage stands for something mental. Dig deeper, though. Shiota’s piece touches on the participatory quality of perception – how the object helps constitute our subjectivity. The threads here don’t just represent, they perform, acts of mental association.

Connecting Small Memories, detail

How? Your eye follows the thread from one thing to another, and as it moves in its circuit, your mind does psychically what the objects do physically.

That makes a false distinction though. Try instead: The physical objects threaded together are mental objects threaded together. You know it because you enact it.

In A Subtlety, or, The Marvellous Sugar Baby, Kara Walker makes the Sphinx, a creature of the desert wastes, domestic twice over. It wears a skin of sugar, that ordinary kitchen substance, with slavery and the global commodities trade curled at the bottom of the bowl. And its visage is the stereotypical Mammy figure, the hale and happy house slave whiteness imagines devoted to its needs.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or, The Marvellous Sugar Baby (photo: Creative Time)

Walker first installed the work in a disused sugar factory, calling it “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World” (Creative Time). To set it in a courtyard, as we have, domesticates it a third time: a courtyard is a yard within a house, an outside brought inside, as paradox, an intimate other.

And it is another chimaera: a sphinx made by joining human head and torso to lion haunches and paws. In this guise it appeals for its power both to the Great Sphinx at Giza and the Greek one riddling Oedipus.

The former is monumental stone built by slaves. Here it bears the righteousness of peoples oppressed by slavery and global capitalism to the heart of the colonial house it gives the lie to.

The latter crouches there asking mortal questions of a tragic entitled ruler. Styrofoam and sugar become stone that speaks, intelligent matter, but what riddle?

Detail of sketch by Kara Walker (Creative Time)

More about & by each artist

Yayoi Kusama.

Saya Woolfalk.

Tracey Emin.

Rachel Whiteread.

Chiharu Shiota.

Kara Walker.

The image atop is a picture of Yoko Ono’s Half-A-Room.

A sampler like in the old days

This morning, in the mail, from Gaspereau Press, A Plague Year Reader – a sampler of the books they published in 2020. My book of poetry Dumuzi is one, and this collection confirms what I’d long suspected, I’m in fine company.

I love when an old form like the sampler is made new again. As I said to a fellow student today across the electron exchanges that bind & part us, I’m at least as neolithic as postmodern.

As with most literary publishers, the real disruption has been to the traditional in-person promotional activities that help us to connect authors to readers – reading tours, book launches, festivals, lectures, workshops. While digital technologies have allowed a lesser version of these activities to carry on, we realized that we were well positioned to return to a simpler and older method of connection, one in absolute sympathy with the kind of books we make.

– Andrew Steeves, editor

As a member of Gaspereau’s Class of 2020, I’m grateful to have work in here alongside poetry by Robin Dunford, Annick MacAskill, Shalan Joudry, Sue Goyette, & Carmine Starnino, and prose by Don McKay, Anne Simpson, Harry Thurston, Ray Cronin, & Jocelyne L. Thompson.

If you’re on Facebook you can see some more images of it here. Want to get your hands on one? E-mail while supplies last!!!

Below, my Q&A with Andrew, for the book.

1.  What interests you about these figures from Sumerian mythology, Dumuzi and Inanna? Is there something about their story that is particularly relevant to the present day reader?

They seem a long way away, right? What’s that ancient couple got to do with us? Their stories live on in museums, on musty tablets & cylinder seals.

I suggested to a class recently, it’s other people’s beliefs that look like myths – your own look to you like axioms. Space & time aren’t myths, right? They’re facts, verified by science. But if Benjamin Whorf got Hopi verb tenses even roughly right, not every culture sees the future as an expanse spreading out from the present wholly apart from mental action. Space, time & causality are myth for us – they arrange a world. A myth is a form of mind, often a story form, that has worked for some group of persons to make, on earth, of earth, a world. Myth is psychic terraforming.

I’m writing with my voice, and it’s funny how Apple’s dictation software turns “myth” to math, mess, Matt, met, Ms. As if Apple wanted to get free of myth, and trying to, made materials for a new myth.

I wanted in Dumuzi, which Apple calls And Get Amusing, to touch on the currency of myth. Dumuzi, wistful, curious, inept, persistent, horny, beaten down by his demons & not down for good, is just me. Inanna, his lover, sending him to hell, mourning him, in some versions rescuing him, is me too. A myth is a story you find more of yourself than you knew of in.

And of the world. By currency I also mean money. Dumuzi & Inanna begin in suchness. (Apple: “Do news he Andy Nonna begin in suction us.”) They are to each other meanings that can’t be sold off. And the story of their going, one then the other, to Hell, is the story of their fall into commodity. Wild grasses become fields of cultivated grain. The grain is cut down & goes to market. Eating the bread, you eat a god. In time grain becomes a unit of measure: in England 7,000 of them made a pound. And no one needs me to say how Inanna’s daughters have been made commodities by a look.

Dumuzi & Inanna fall into the exchange whose present end is capitalism. (Those who describe the benevolence of capital in circulation are recounting a myth.) The insight myth, language & money share is that everything is exchangeable. For a god, that’s the notion that anything can be anything else. For a salesman, it’s how anything can be had for something else. The capitalist gesture, in whose shadow Dumuzi cannot not be read, is a faltering reach for a spiritual fact. The book is, too.

2.  Can you talk a bit about the book’s form, such as the use of word grids and the use of illustrations built up from a single scrap of an envelope?

There’s a note in my journal, 20 years or so old, about the structure I wanted for Dumuzi (Dumb Uzi): “mixed as a weed plot shaped as a symphony.” Later I read Williams’s Patterson and thought I had found, in its heterogeneity & dispersed point of view, my exemplar. In the end, Spring and All, where he refracts his language through Cubist compositional techniques, was a better model.

The word grids or “colour fields” are my effort to do something sort-of-Rothko in words. Each of the fields alludes to a place: an orchard, an altar, a gravesite, a marketplace. As important, though, is the place the words are, on the page. The words don’t really do syntax, and the grid invites your eye to move in more than one direction. So the meaning you get depends on choices you’ve made. Similarly, you can start the book at any spot and read from there in more than one order.

The images were the last part of the book to come. I’d been working with security envelope linings for another project, & one started to yield representational figures, a fly, a woman fleeing, a man in meditation. It felt like discovering beings hidden behind the surface of the page. Bringing them out was rescuing someone – myself? a stranger? – from hiddenness. They remind me a bit of the stylized figures incised on old cylinder seals. Those are rescues too, of a form of the mind from forgetting.

In the crisis of the seen

The admissions essay I wrote for the Master of Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto – where I begin my studies, remotely, next week! We were asked to discuss an issue the contemporary museum faces.

John Berger writes of the plasticity of the image:

Now appearances are volatile. Technological innovation has made it easy to separate the apparent from the existent. And this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more. (11–12)

Years ago, Plato called the image trouble in the Republic, and things have just got tougher since then. Now we have deepfakes. Now algorithms construct photographs of faces that never were. Meanwhile, other algorithms surveil actual faces in the streets of London, Beijing, and cross-reference them with our browsing histories and GPS location data. Berger called it the New World Economic Order, and frames it here as a crisis of the seen, a crisis in which all of us who live by the image, artists, designers, museums, archives, are implicated.

From the Washington Post. Left: original (Mario Tama/Getty Images). Right: altered image (Salwan Georges/Post).

The U.S. National Archives are right now feeling heat for altering an image of the 2017 Women’s March, “so as not to engage in current political controversy” (Kennicott), an irony that would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high. Only in the high flood of images we move through could so crude a change ever have hoped to go unnoticed. Having been found and called out though it’s not neutralized: a manipulation doesn’t have to be effective to have effect. The change made here forgets the disinterestedness that should be an archive’s first principle, and that itself is a blow to the body politic.

Xu Bing, Unscrolled, still from Vancouver Art Gallery (YouTube).

Meanwhile, artists are doing, museums showing, work that investigates the image, what it does, and how, and to what end. At the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2015, Xu Bing’s Unscrolled made the thinghood of its picture manifest. You walk up to a luminous Chinese landscape, then around it to see the dreck it was made from, fir branches, cigarette butts, with florescent lightbulbs framing it. What seems a picture of something far off actually is some things right there: debris arranged in a fully exposed act of illusion-making. Another piece in the exhibit, Sun Xun’s Cosmos, put you in an oblong room with four animations of diverse styles on walls Sun had also inscribed with calligraphy ink. I was pinned through my head to a fifth wall not there to see. Usually, we take an image to be representation at a distance. Sun’s work made the image a construction you are inside. My verb tenses are liquid here because the image is always present tense.

Unscrolled, still from Vancouver Art Gallery (YouTube).

In my life I’ve gone three places to learn the world—books, universities, museums. Having spent my professional life so far writing books and teaching university classes, I’m hungry now for new ways to tackle the questions always at churn in me. What is an image? What does the physical book mean in a digital age? How does a museum founded on colonial premises decolonize itself? I have lots more. I don’t want to write essays or devise classes on them—I want to do deep, multi-modal, immersive, real-time inquiries, where I’m not the subject or main investigator, but a facilitator, and the gorgeous shapely tangle that results is open to public view and participation.

My writing and teaching have got me this far. As an artist, I see an exhibition as a second-order artwork, an assemblage of artworks, documents, ephemera, framing materials, made real by being together in a place. As a teacher, I see one as a many-tiered, experiential syllabus, with diverse modes and materials at play in an immersive, experiential environment. When I learn more about exhibitions, these notions may fall away as naïve. I won’t lose my sense that a good exhibition gives a moving, collaborative shape to cultural intelligence.

I want to foster culture in this new-to-me way. And I want to learn how in your pro-gram, more than any other I’ve researched or applied to. I’m drawn by the broad training you offer, also by your strengths in my areas of interest, exhibition design, museum education, curation. I’m buoyed by the thought of an internship under your faculty’s guidance; when I visited, I was taken with many things, but most impressed by how conscientiously you guide students toward their professional roles. And I’m drawn, as a writer, translator, and editor, by your relationship to the Book History and Print Culture program. I don’t know if I’ll end up in a small museum, doing a bit of everything, or at a large institution in a specialized role, creating exhibits, say, of ancient papyri or early modern incunabula, but I believe your program offers the best preparation I could hope for. 


Berger, John. The Shape of a Pocket. Vintage, 2001.

Kennicott, Phillip. “The National Archives Used to Stand for Independence. That Mission Has Been Compromised.” Washington Post, 18 Jan 2020.

Plato. The Republic. ca. 380 BCE. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Hackett, 1992.

Sun Xun. Cosmos. Vancouver Art Gallery, Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art, 2014–2015.

Xu Bing. Unscrolled. Vancouver Art Gallery, Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art, 2014–2015.

The image up top, though it bears the weight of Plato’s Cave Allegory, is massless & easily thieved. I took it from this discussion of the allegory as it pertains to screenwriters.

Colonialism, a museum construct

In a couple of weeks I’ll begin a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto. Need an outlet for my nervous excitement! So I’m posting a few essays I wrote during the application process.

This is the admissions essay I wrote for the University of Washington’s Museology program. (Everyone I met there was lovely & I wish I could take two programs at once.) We were asked to respond to a museum trend discussed in the 2019 issue of TrendsWatch, & I wrote on decolonization.

When Christopher Columbus landed on the island now called Hispaniola, he wrote home in wonder. The forests of Guanahaní, he told his royal patrons, were “the greatest wonder in the world.” “Divine Majesty,” he wrote, “ha[d] marvellously bestowed all this” on the Spanish Empire. The island inhabitants were “marvellously timorous” (Greenblatt 68–76 passim, all emphases added). Columbus drew his starry-eyed discourse of the marvellous, by which he dispossessed the Taíno of their lands, from medieval European sources: travelogues, encyclopaedias, bestiaries. John Mandeville, for instance, at the court of the Chinese Emperor: “And then come jugglers and enchanters, that do many marvels; for they make to come in the air, by seeming, the sun and the moon to every man’s sight” (155). When Columbus set sail, the West’s take on marvels and monstrosities in foreign lands had already been museological—awestruck, analytical, acquisitive—for centuries.

Image of the ydrus (water-snake) from the Aberdeen Bestiary.

The ydrus, or “water-snake,” said to be found in waters of the Nile. A fictive creature that “enters the crocodile through its open mouth, rolling itself in mud in order to slide more easily down its throat,” and eats its way out from the inside. Aberdeen Bestiary, ca. 1200. The Western practice of describing impossible fictions in close analytical detail, as if observed first-hand—as if in hand—goes back at least to Pliny’s Natural History.

Finding little gold, fewer spices, Columbus caught several Arawak to take home as exhibits—the first of many persons to be installed in display cases they bore on their own backs. Guido Abbattista:

“While not all of these people were transported for exhibition purposes, the idea of exhibiting them was never very far away, even when the primary role of the non-Europeans was that of informers, apprentice interpreters, future guides and intermediaries, or guinea pigs for Europeanization experiments.” (n.p., emphasis added)

Museums are, as a recent article in Trends­Watch makes clear, a colonial construct. Some own works taken from occupied territory; some use classification schemes indebted to racist pseu­do-science; some preserve power structures held over from colonial administration (“Confronting the Past” 25–27). But we should also say, colonialism is a museum construct. If explorers at their difficult, dangerous, and often (early on) profitless work had not stirred fully-formed museological longings at home—longings to marvel at, to label and classify, to collect and preserve, even at the cost of deracinating—the colonial project might not have got off the ground. From the start, a mu­seological frame, built of shining gestalts and occult dreams, gave the colonial project a form, diverse forms.

From Mandeville’s Travels. Mothers in the land of Prester John place their dead infants on a funeral pyre in great joy, for “they go to Paradise where the rivers run milk and honey” (189). Did such an image ready the eye for a woodcut like Staden’s, below? British Library, Harley MS 3954, ca. 1400–1450, f. 59v.

TrendsWatch describes the vital work of decolonizing the museum: repatriating artifacts, ensuring representation for indigenous parties, telling the truth about past and present injustices (29–30). But in settler col­on­ialism, we all have a museum inside, an invisible structure of labels, taxonomies, acquisition practices, preserva­tion tactics. And if that reckless, sweeping claim is right, then to decol­onize the mu­seum must also mean, to use a phrase from Aimé Césaire (31), decolon­izing the mind.

A woodcut (1557) by German explorer and shipwreck survivor Hans Staden (Warhaftige Historia n.p.). Michel de Montaigne took Staden’s account of cannibalism among his Tupinambá captors for truth in his defense of indigenous cultures in “Of the Caniballes” (1580). Other parts of that essay, Montaigne based on conversations with three Tupinambá captives on exhibit in Rouen (Hoffmann 209). Montaigne wanted to decolonize his mind and had only colonial encounters to do it with.

When I ask myself how a museum might decolonize its mind, the questions come out like riddles. What’s a museum that doesn’t fret to conserve its holdings? (I think of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.) What’s a museum run by its most disempowered stakeholders? (Recall Guattari’s clinic at La Borde.) A museum managed without internal hierarchy? a museum that makes no acquisitions? a museum that occupies no land anywhere? A museum-without-walls guides its guests from site to site by GPS locator. A museum-of-other-senses commissions sculptures, soundworks, & olfactory landscapes, hire docents hard of sight to guide, & turn out the lights, dethroning the imperious gaze …

Works Cited

Abbattista, Guido. “European Encounters in the Age of Expansion.” European History Online, Institute of European History, 24 January 2011.

Césaire, Aimé, and Rene Depestre. “An Interview with Aimé Césaire.” Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, translated by Joan Pinkham, Monthly Review, 1972.

“Confronting the Past: The Long, Hard Work of Decolonization.” TrendsWatch 2019. Center for the Future of Museums, pp. 22–31.

Cruz, Cynthia. “Notes Toward a New Language: On La Borde.” Harriet Blog, Poetry Foundation, 27 April 2015.

De ydro” [Of the ydrus]. The Aberdeen Bestiary, f. 68v. U of Aberdeen Library.

Greenblatt, Steven. Marvellous Possessions. Chicago UP, 1991.

Mandeville, John. Travels. Harley MS 3954, ff. 1r–69v. British Library.

Montaigne, Michel de. “Of the Cannibales.” Essays, translated by John Florio, London, 1603, pp. 100–107. Internet Archive.

Smithson, Robert. Spiral Jetty. 1970. Great Salt Lake, UT.

Staden, Hans. Warhaftige Historia und beschreibung eyner Landtschafft der Wilden Nacketen, Grimmigen Menschfresser-Leuthen in der Newenwelt America gelegen [True history and account of a land of wild, naked, fierce cannibals in New World America]. Marburg, 1557. Internet Archive.

The image up top: Thomas De Bry, Christopher Columbus Landing on Hispaniola (Wikimedia Commons)

On resisting compromises

In response to a white student, active in local protests & passionate about that work, exhausted by it, & frightened by white supremacists in the street & SWAT teams on the roofs nearby, asking that, in consideration of the enormous strain students are under, and so that they can focus on what’s important right now, I cancel the final exam for the whole class.

Dear ______,

I appreciate your sincere and heartfelt words, and I do take them seriously. We need your passion and commitment if crucial changes are going to be made to our unjust, unequal society.

For reasons I’ll try to lay out briefly here, I’m not going to cancel the final. But I can offer you the same accommodation I offered to BIPOC students in our class.

If you feel unable to write the final next week, we’ll have you make it up at another time. That may mean taking an Incomplete (K grade) and getting the work to me after the quarter is done. The make-up would be a short critical essay (1000 words) on ONE of the final essay topics. I’d be reading and grading this essay as finished essay, not as in-class writing, but if you are taking the P/NP option, you wouldn’t need to stress about that.

So why am I not cancelling the final, though it would mean a lot less work for me?

We’re in four simultaneous crises right now: pandemic, economic downturn, systemic racism, and fascist upsurge. You’re out on the street fighting the third. I’m insisting on these standards as resistance to the fourth.

One strategy of fascists, whether they’re on the rise or actually in power, is to attack independent institutions – universities especially. One kind of attack, and this can begin well before a state has become fully authoritarian, is to make it more difficult for us to conduct our business. Instructors, departments, administrations, students too, are put in positions where they have to cut corners, compromise; or just where it would be easier to.

And cancelling the final exam would be a compromise, because it would degrade your education by a little. Studying for an exam, writing an exam, helps students consolidate their learning over the course. Remove the exam, the course is a lesser experience.

If I did what you ask, out of my concern for my students’ anxiety and stress, I’d be giving you a short-term relief, at a long-term cost.

And the cost goes beyond the students themselves to the university as a whole. One instructor would have, because of violent cops and far-right paramilitaries, offered less to, and asked less of, his students. Fascist takeover is the sum of ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million such compromises.

I want to assist your fight against police brutality and systemic racism. I want also to remember what resistance to fascism requires. So instead of cancelling the exam, I offer an equivalent.

If you’re interested, I’ve written more about this here.

I hope these considerations make sense to you. If you want to take the alternative route, please let me know.

Thank you for your service,