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. 


WORKS CITED

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.

Student work: Write spring

The exercise was to write a poem that enacts or embodies spring.

Not a poem “about” spring, that’s easy. A poem that is spring, be’s spring, bees spring, in its flesh, its bones. How do you write a poem that’s green, that’s growth, motion, variance, blowsiness, or whatever spring is to you – no, in you – such that it comes across, takes root in reader, flowers and seeds there?

Many fell into the trap of subject matter, and that’s okay, it’s a good where to start from. By the time we were done talking of Williams’s Spring and All they got, I think, what it is to meet spring, eyeball-to-eyeball, a gist of it anyway.

And for sure our talk of the supreme importance of the spectacle

an elderly man who
smiled and looked away

to the north past a house—
a woman in blue

who was laughing and
leaning forward to look up

into the man’s half
averted face

and a boy of eight who was
looking at the middle of

the man’s belly
at a watchchain—

passing namelessly landed for me, and that was them teaching me, I learned more about the line there as such, its supremacy (if that word might ever be rescued for re-use) and ephemerality.

More than one did get what it was to enact spring but only one gave me hers back to post. This is by Hannah Bender and it’s made of joy –

YOU

—doublemint cars dusty ceramic roses unpainted fingernails white underwear white undershirt white ankle socks nineteen fifty seven chevy bel air in pink and cream leather pearly cocaine pears and game hen hospital wall green punch bougainvillea bunny teacup airplanes red velveteen movie theater milk chocolate strawberry gift wrap hair throw up cake mice tv saint francis bambi’s mother anne frank donald duck orange juice baths buttons—

I asked her about it, she said something like, you don’t have to wait for spring for it to be spring. You just take any moment and look at it close enough – spring is coiled in there. I hope I have that right; I think she put it better.

Anyway she put it beautifully – she got the intention of the assignment better than I ever did when I came up with it. Those em-dashes, I imagine reaching into any moment of perception, physically prying it open, and those dashes are the beams I prop in to keep it from slamming closed on me while I walk among the moment’s occult contents.


Cornell - Celestial
Which are the poem. Also come to mind Cornell’s boxes, which, whatever in specific they contain, have as one of their utterances spread evenly over all they hold, I’m glad you are.


Look topside. My “featured image” removes the boxed from the box. Why’s that feel like an injury? But it does. When’s sampling a denaturing? It is, sometimes. Spring couldn’t spring had it no winter to push off from.


Almost forgot the title of Hannah’s but you see how it matters. The whole poem’s a synonym for its title yes?

Student blog: The clothes we wear

Another student blog for you, come into its own, right here, on the threshold where the inmost being we are, touches the public sphere we move about in. Clothes, hair, eyes, lips, limbs, and how we make up and dress down, pierce and dye, stain or tear, tattoo or don’t. For, as Evan rightly says, not to is every bit as much a choice, as to.

I say this as one uncomfortable caring at all about how I look. So much more important to me how one sees. And yet it do matter don’t it. We are moving at all moments through a web of codes.

Merleau-Ponty noted, I think it was he, I’m taking this from my memory of David Abram‘s Spell of the Sensuous, that the eye can’t see without also being seen – can’t do vision without entering the visual. To see is to be seen. More, to see is to be seen seeing. A phenomenology of flirting might begin here. (Maybe also one of voyeurism, which maybe feels dirty because it breaks out of that reciprocity.) That, anyway, is our social being, to see and to be seen and to be seen seeing.

Is why we do not all wear Mao suits. Or, if we do, we want to look this good.

mao suit

Evan’s got a fine and punchy style going, a good model of, one, how to do blog prose, and, two, how to marry personal and social awarenesses. Light touch, nothing didactic. I mean it feels seamless to me, how her awakeness to her own life, and her wondering how the world goes, meet. Check it out.

Student blog: Wandering Words and Sights

Another student blog for yehs from my Art of Compost class now entering its sixth and final whirlwind week. Picture compost aloft in circuits in different densities in fitful gales.

This one, on the face of it, a travel blog, but under its careful surfaces, the transits are interior. Meditation with landscape as alterity mirror.

Something about the introspective quiet of this blog (you can find it here) puts me in mind of John Berger, whose Shape of a Pocket we’re reading this week.

I had a dream in which I was a strange dealer: a dealer in looks or appearances. I collected and distributed them. In the dream I had just discovered a secret! I discovered it on my own, without help or advice.

The secret was to get inside whatever I was looking at – a bucket of water, a cow, a city (like Toledo) seen from above, an oak tree, and, once inside, to arrange its appearances for the better. Better did not mean making the thing seem more beautiful or more harmonious; nor did it mean making it more typical, so that the oak tree might represent all oak trees; it simply meant making it more itself so that the cow or the city or the bucket of water became more evidently unique!

Beautiful man. That is eunoia, Christian, beautiful thinking.

Out of the mouths of nieces

By Isabel, age 10, nature poet in the key of blue.

From stoneWrites her dad (my bro): Asked if she had written a poem, Isabel answered, ‘No. It’s just words that were in my head.'”

My work as a teacher would be so straight & simple, if I could just put this at the front of the room, point, quote that, and go.

Sheeee-it, my work as a poet would be so straight & simple, if I could about forget making poems, & just put some words in my head on some pieces of nice paper.


P.S. Am I just being a foolish uncle or is it kind of exquisite how that raindrop hangs from that that more-than-line but not-yet-branch? Light as air and heavy like a pear.

Student work: Compost mural

A mural my students made last week in class. The prompt: using only the materials you have on hand, or can forage from the surrounding environment without breaking the law or hurting anyone’s feelings, express your understanding of “the art of compost.” Oh, and no legible text, other than found text.

Here it’s, as composted through my iPhone:

Interesting to watch them work. Each one herself, himself, just about perfectly. Last year I gave this, every one worked pretty much on their lonesome, class dynamics, long story, and it did come out okay. This time, some leaned toward solo, some into duo, some asked as to overview, but as they felt their way into the actual question at hand – are we one or are we many – those arrangements softened and shifted.

That is, as they composted their thinking, they found a rhythm where each had room to breathe, or so it seemed to me, and nice to see. Nice to be part of just in watching. Here ’tis, as panorama,

Compost mural 2015
Click on me to see (and again) compost understood


Sometime soon, a post on breath, breathing, the breath, which I’ve been thinking and not-thinking about, these days of hot high still air all round. How’s it I ever thought my breath was anyone else’s to order around? That’s my little bit cryptic thought of an evening, after a day hiking up at Baker, forest fire haze out of BC hanging on air, dulling Baker and Shuksan to the eye, but someone or something was watching lupines and mimulus shivering in wind bits, and what’s wind but earth’s breath, what we’re in.

Pattern play – making marks

Looking round for blogs for the blog unit for ENG 460 The Art of Compost 2.0 and came to this one. And this pattern, dunno if it fits for the course, but hells it sure is purty, more than purty, it moves and keeps on moving. Earths and skies and more skies and heavens in it your eye climbs. Or rock strata thought drops down thru. What I love most in it’s the move up & the move down in it, are one. Wow & wow.

Exercise — Treated page

So here’s the first exercise of the quarter for my visual poetry class. Cued by our wandering through Tom Phillips’s well known widely loved yet not for all that at all worn out A Humument.

The book’s an object lesson in the power of powering forward not knowing where the sweet bloody fuck you’re going. Glory of the aleatory. Here’s he in his Blakean vein —

The exercise. Treat a page of a prose work as Phillips has treated the pages of A Human Document.

Pointers. Be inspired by A Humument, by all means, steal moves from Phillips, but don’t imitate slavishly. The composition should feel to you like your process. Do take care with your erasure marks. They should do more than just cross out. They should express, manifest, draw eye and mind.


They’re doing beautifully by the way. What lovely conversations we have. We seem already friends in the free and easy wandering in mind I remember reading of in the Chuang Tzu … lessee if I can find it … nope. But this is as good, Chuang Tzu to Hui Tzu, who’s just told him his words are big clunky useless, like a gnarled and lumpy tree, so everyone ignores it, carpenters, painters.

Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or in the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it?

The sleep I want for my students when they make their poems.


P.S. Speaking of Cezanne, and Mont St. Victoire, saw a pretty indifferent one in Vancouver, apparently the only one he composed in a portrait orientation, and I saw why. But what blew me away, and made me excited about in and for the VAG for the first time in my admittedly little life, was an exhibit I wandered into mostly accidentally of contemporary Chinese art that poked and prodded and nursed and scowled at the long awesomely durable tradition of Chinese landscape painting.

I’ll hope to write more soon on what I saw there and what it seemed to see in me. For now a link to the curator’s intro for you.

One more for Elise

I thought I would post here, with her husband Steve’s most kind permission, the remarks I made at the memorial this weekend for Elise Partridge. It was a beautiful occasion, the afternoon. Our seats arranged such that our seeing went out the frames of the windows and frames of wood and frames of stone and frames of shore pine and out over ocean into the frameless mountains. (I have it in mind because two days later Stephen Burt spoke in that same space, differently em-placed, on the poetry and poetics of place.) One might almost feel one was a spirit passing through bodily frames, one, another. The words I said were about these.


In the weeks around Elise’s death I’ve been talking with some of my students about animism. The thought — to be a bit simple about it — that the world is alive. Every part of it and the whole of it. Which I think might mean, if it’s true, that when you go, you’re not really gone, you’re just differently here.

I start with that because I haven’t been able to get my head around it very well. Elise — here. Elise — gone. It’s the most elemental thing. We get to live so we’ve got to die. And, as Elise leaves the tangible world, I am finding it makes almost no sense to me at all. I keep looking for ways to find her not gone but instead differently here. And so maybe all I’ve got for you is four and a half more minutes of magical thinking.

It’s a sort of thinking Whitman was fond of. And Steve’s asked me to read a late poem of his. And so I guess through him Elise is asking me to read a late poem of his. It’s called “The Last Invocation” and it goes like this.

1.

At the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful, fortress’d house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks — from the keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.

2.

Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks — with a whisper,
Set ope the doors, O Soul!

3.

Tenderly! be not impatient!
(Strong is your hold, O mortal flesh!
Strong is your hold, O love.)

Whitman, who said we could find him underfoot. I don’t think of Elise as under our boot soles — I think she’d find the notion undignified — so much as behind our eyes. Entering our vision to sharpen it with us. Forgive me for going back to my class but they’re on my mind because they had to bear with a teacher thrown off his game for a while by grief. I might put it to my class this way. If the proposition of animism is, oh, when you go, you’re not really gone, the problem for us moderns is, yeah, we’re here, but we’re not really here.

That’s a problem Elise concerned herself with. In her work, in her life. Maybe the problem though I don’t want to presume. What, every one of her poems asks, stands in the way of seeing more clearly, hearing more kindly, touching more tenderly, feeling more feelingly. And go — the poems say, to whatever that what is — go stand somewhere else, there’s a life to be lived, fully, lived well, lived lovingly. The first lines of the first poem of her first book —

Nothing fled when we walked up to it,
nor did we flinch.

What a note to start a life in poetry on. “Everglades” is the poem. It has a vision of that swamp as a wild and wildering democracy —

Tropical, temperate, each constituency spoke —
the sunburned-looking gumbo-limbo trees
nodded side by side with sedate, northern pines.

“Gumbo-limbo trees”! What better evidence of a life well lived? (The phrase, I mean.) The line following —

Even the darkness gave its blessing

A darkness from which I’d like to think Elise blesses or raises an eyebrow at us.

I wanted to touch on her e-mails, how they quivered with joy on one’s behalf, and with outrage at banality, idiocy, herd mind, also how they made the exclamation point safe for human perception again — there may have been seventeen of them but you knew each was uniquely meant — but I’m about out of time.

Just this — a postcard from years back, after Steve and Elise had looked after my house and cat on Salt Spring, one of many times. I still have it on my fridge. It’s a photograph of Robert Creeley taken by Allen Ginsberg at a diner in Boulder, CO.

Postcard - front (cropped)

Ginsberg’s inscription: “I wanted to focus on a sharp clear eye — Robert Creeley’s friendship.” Elise’s inscription on the back begins: “Hello Chris! I admire your poetry! —Robert Creeley.”

Postcard - back (cropped)

Elise and I had gone down different paths aesthetically, and at this point in our friendship, she was feeling really kind of pretty unsure what the hell I was up to. And yet she found a way to express, with grace and class and decency, and without dishonouring her own instincts, encouragement and faith in me.

That’s love. That’s the love of a friend for another. It’s a rare thing and it doesn’t die. I don’t think it does, I really don’t.