Archives: July 2018

At Tate Modern: Joan Jonas

Brian Dillon for the London Review of Books
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Brian Dillon reviews Joan Jonas at Tate Modern for the LRB:

Joan Jonas bought her first video camera, a Sony Portapak, also known as the Video Rover, on a trip to Japan in 1970. In the history of video art, there is no more celebrated piece of kit. It’s said that on its release in 1965 Nam June Paik was the first artist to start using this newly consumer-priced set-up. Andy Warhol’s videos of the same year (including a dazed portrait of Edie Sedgwick) were made with a large borrowed Philips camera, but he too began using the smaller and simpler Sony in 1970. William Eggleston bought two, stuck fancier lenses on them, and documented the Memphis demi-monde for his film Stranded in Canton. Jonas, who at this point had worked mostly in performance and made one short film, realised that the combination of camera, monitor and recorder would allow her to see results straight away in her studio. Already preoccupied by mirrors and mirroring – Borges was an influence – she turned the Portapak on herself and executed what Rosalind Krauss would later call a ‘weightless fall through the suspended space of narcissism’.

‘Narcissism’ is not exactly a judgment, more a description of process. In her earliest videos, which one comes across quickly in Tate Modern’s ambitious but sometimes frustrating survey (until 5 August), Jonas appears as Organic Honey: a feathered 1930s-style starlet, wearing a close-fitting mask from an erotica store on Manhattan’s 42nd Street. In blurry black and white, Organic Honey stares into a broken mirror, then back at the camera. She distorts her features by pressing her face to a large glass jar full of water, into which she tosses coins as if it were a lucky fountain. The enigmatic action is periodically accompanied by loud electronic buzzing. There are more mirrors: small and round, large and triangular, close-up and getting smashed with a hammer. Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972) is a study of pictorial space, the performing body and Jonas’s relationship with certain eloquent objects, whose outlines she draws frenziedly: old dolls and fans inherited from her grandmother.

Though she is commonly referred to as a performance artist, both the content and form of Jonas’s videos from the 1970s make a good case for seeing her as a major figure in the medium. Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll (1973) is shown in the same room at Tate Modern. This time, Organic Honey examines her naked body with a handheld mirror, performs a belly dance, and jumps up and down in time with a regular upwards slippage of the video image. (Jonas tweaked the vertical hold on a monitor to make it break into something resembling the frames of a film, and then trained a second camera on this glitchy video feed.) Elsewhere in the exhibition, tucked a little shamefully into a corner, is the sparse installation Glass Puzzle II (1974/2000). Projected in black and white, Jonas and the artist Lois Lane pose (to a reggae soundtrack) in attitudes based on E.J. Bellocq’s famous photographs of prostitutes in Storyville, New Orleans, in the 1910s. There’s a child’s desk in the foreground of this video, and a later copy of it in the gallery. Nearby, a small colour monitor shows the two women standing beneath a horizontal pole that swings back and forth: a reminder that Jonas is as interested in minimally sculptural forms as she is in any sort of external reference point.

Glass Puzzle II operates very well as a single-channel video: a conceptually smart and formally arresting work in itself, and the record of an unrehearsed performance at Jonas’s SoHo loft. But like much of her art it has been reconfigured as a dispersed set of objects in the gallery, including props and images, which may function without the artist’s presence, and so provoke the question of where and how each of these categories – video, performance and installation – abuts or bleeds into the others. In 1976 Jonas had an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, where she began calling her installations ‘stage sets’ – these could incorporate performances, or stand in for them. The Juniper Tree, from the same year, was originally conceived as a performance for children, and is based on the Grimm tale of the same title, which the poet Susan Howe, an old friend, had recommended. (A young boy is beheaded by his wicked stepmother, served up to his father, reincarnated as an avenging bird.) The ‘stage set’ version at Tate Modern, constructed in 1994, has a recording of Jonas reading the story, projected slides of various performances of the work and an assemblage of paintings, props and costumes. It feels dense and lurid and generous, even in the absence of Jonas and her collaborators.

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What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?

Arundhati Roy for Literary Hub
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Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?’ – originally given as her W. G. Sebald Lecture on Literary Translation, delivered at the British Library on June 5, 2018 – considers the politics of language and translation in India:

At a book reading in Kolkata, about a week after my first novel, The God of Small Things, was published, a member of the audience stood up and asked, in a tone that was distinctly hostile: “Has any writer ever written a masterpiece in an alien language? In a language other than his mother tongue?” I hadn’t claimed to have written a masterpiece (nor to be a “he”), but nevertheless I understood his anger toward a me, a writer who lived in India, wrote in English, and who had attracted an absurd amount of attention. My answer to his question made him even angrier.

“Nabokov,” I said. And he stormed out of the hall.

The correct answer to that question today would of course be “algorithms.” Artificial Intelligence, we are told, can write masterpieces in any language and translate them into masterpieces in other languages. As the era that we know, and think we vaguely understand, comes to a close, perhaps we, even the most privileged among us, are just a group of redundant humans gathered here with an arcane interest in language generated by fellow redundants.

Only a few weeks after the mother tongue/masterpiece incident, I was on a live radio show in London. The other guest was an English historian who, in reply to a question from the interviewer, composed a paean to British imperialism. “Even you,” he said, turning to me imperiously, “the very fact that you write in English is a tribute to the British Empire.” Not being used to radio shows at the time, I stayed quiet for a while, as a well-behaved, recently civilized savage should. But then I sort of lost it, and said some extremely hurtful things. The historian was upset, and after the show told me that he had meant what he said as a compliment, because he loved my book. I asked him if he also felt that jazz, the blues, and all African-American writing and poetry were actually a tribute to slavery. And if all of Latin American literature was a tribute to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

Notwithstanding my anger, on both occasions my responses were defensive reactions, not adequate answers. Because those incidents touched on a range of incendiary questions—colonialism, nationalism, authenticity, elitism, nativism, caste, and cultural identity—all jarring pressure points on the nervous system of any writer worth her salt. However, to reify language in the way both men had renders language speechless. When that happens, as it usually does in debates like these, what has actually been written ceases to matter. That was what I found so hard to countenance. And yet I know—I knew—that language is that most private and yet most public of things. The challenges thrown at me were fair and square. And obviously, since I’m still talking about them, I’m still thinking about them.

The night of that reading in Kolkata, city of my estranged father and of Kali, Mother Goddess with the long red tongue and many arms, I fell to wondering what my mother tongue actually was. What was—is—the politically correct, culturally apposite, and morally appropriate language in which I ought to think and write? It occurred to me that my mother was actually an alien, with fewer arms than Kali perhaps but many more tongues. English is certainly one of them. My English has been widened and deepened by the rhythms and cadences of my alien mother’s other tongues. (I say alien because there’s not much that is organic about her. Her nation-shaped body was first violently assimilated and then violently dismembered by an imperial British quill. I also say alien because of the violence unleashed in her name on those who do not wish to belong to her (Kashmiris, for example), as well as on those who do (Indian Muslims and Dalits, for example), makes her an extremely un-motherly mother.

How many tongues does she have? Officially, approximately 780, only twenty-two of which are formally recognized by the Indian Constitution, while another thirty-eight are waiting to be accorded that status. Each has its own history of colonizing or being colonized. There are few pure victims and pure perpetrators. There is no national language. Not yet. Hindi and English are designated “official languages.” According to the Constitution of India (which, we must note, was written in English), the use of English by the state for official purposes was supposed to cease by 26 January 1965, fifteen years after the constitution came into effect. Hindi, written in the Devanagari script, was to take its place. However, any serious move toward making Hindi the national language has been met with riots in non-Hindi speaking regions of the country. (Imagine trying to impose a single language on all of Europe.) So, English has continued, guiltily, unofficially, and by default, to consolidate its base.

Guilt in this case is an unhelpful sentiment. India as a country, a nation-state, was a British idea. So, the idea of English is as good or as bad as the idea of India itself. Writing or speaking in English is not a tribute to the British Empire, as the British imperial historian had tried to suggest to me, it is a practical solution to the circumstances created by it. Fundamentally, India is in many ways still an empire, its territories held together by its armed forces and administered from Delhi, which, for most of her subjects, is as distant as any foreign metropole. If India had broken up into language republics, like countries in Europe, then perhaps English could be done away with. But even still, not really, not any time soon. As things stand, English, although it is spoken by a small minority (which still numbers in the tens of millions), is the language of mobility, of opportunity, of the courts, of the national press, the legal fraternity, of science, engineering, and international communication. It is the language of privilege and exclusion.

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An excerpt: A Terrible Country

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An excerpt from Keith Gessen’s novel A Terrible Country, published today:

I. I MOVE TO MOSCOW

In the late summer of 2008, I moved to Moscow to take care of my grandmother. She was about to turn ninety and I hadn’t seen her for nearly a decade. My brother Dima and I were her only family; her lone daughter, our mother, had died years earlier. Baba Seva lived alone now in her old Moscow apartment. When I called to tell her I was coming, she sounded very happy to hear it, and also a little confused.

My parents and my brother and I left the Soviet Union in 1981. I was six and Dima was sixteen, and that made all the difference. I became an American, whereas Dima remained essentially Russian. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, he returned to Moscow to make his fortune. Since then he had made and lost several fortunes; where things stood now I wasn’t sure. But one day he Gchatted me to ask if I could come to Moscow and stay with Baba Seva while he went to London for an unspecified period of time.

“Why do you need to go to London?”

“I’ll explain when I see you.”

“You want me to drop everything and travel halfway across the world and you can’t even tell me why?”

There was something petulant that came out of me when dealing with my older brother. I hated it, and couldn’t help myself.

Dima said, “If you don’t want to come, say so. But I’m not discussing this on Gchat.”

“You know,” I said, “there’s a way to take it off the record. No one will be able to see it.”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

He meant to say that he was involved with some very serious people, who would not so easily be deterred from reading his Gchats. Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t. With Dima the line between those concepts was always shifting.

As for me, I wasn’t really an idiot. But neither was I not an idiot. I had spent four long years of college and then eight much longer years of grad school studying Russian literature and history, drinking beer, and winning the Grad Student Cup hockey tournament (five times!); then I had gone out onto the job market for three straight years, with zero results. By the time Dima wrote me I had exhausted all the available post-graduate fellowships and had signed up to teach online sections in the university’s new PMOOC initiative, short for “paid massive online open course,” although the “paid” part mostly referred to the students, who really did need to pay, and less to the instructors, who were paid very little. It was definitely not enough to continue living, even very frugally, in New York. In short, on the question of whether I was an idiot, there was evidence on both sides.

Dima writing me when he did was, on the one hand, providential. On the other hand, Dima had a way of getting people involved in undertakings that were not in their best interests. He had once convinced his now former best friend Tom to move to Moscow to open a bakery. Unfortunately, Tom opened his bakery too close to another bakery, and was lucky to leave Moscow with just a dislocated shoulder. Anyway, I proceeded cautiously. I said, “Can I stay at your place?” Back in 1999, after the Russian economic collapse, Dima bought the apartment directly across the landing from my grandmother’s, so helping her out from there would be easy.

“I’m subletting it,” said Dima. “But you can stay in our bedroom in Grandma’s place. It’s pretty clean.”

“I’m thirty-three years old,” I said, meaning too old to live with my grandmother.

“You want to rent your own place, be my guest. But it’ll have to be pretty close to Grandma’s.”

Our grandmother lived in the center of Moscow. The rents there were almost as high as Manhattan’s. On my PMOOC salary I would be able to rent approximately an armchair.

“Can I use your car?”

“I sold it.”

“Dude. How long are you leaving for?”

“I don’t know,” said Dima. “And I already left.”

“Oh,” I said. He was already in London. He must have left in a hurry.

But I in turn was desperate to leave New York. The last of my old classmates from the Slavic department had recently left for a new job, in California, and my girlfriend of six months, Sarah, had recently dumped me at a Starbucks. “I just don’t see where this is going,” she had said, meaning I suppose our relationship, but suggesting in fact my entire life. And she was right: even the thing that I had once most enjoyed doing—reading and writing about and teaching Russian literature and history—was no longer any fun. I was heading into a future of halfheartedly grading the half-written papers of half-interested students, with no end in sight.

Whereas Moscow was a special place for me. It was the city where my parents had grown up, where they had met; it was the city where I was born. It was a big, ugly, dangerous city, but also the cradle of Russian civilization. Even when Peter the Great abandoned it for St. Petersburg in 1713, even when Napoleon sacked it in 1812, Moscow remained, as Alexander Herzen put it, the capital of the Russian people. “They recognized their ties of blood to Moscow by the pain they felt at losing it.” Yes. And I hadn’t been there in years. Over the course of a few grad-school summers I’d grown tired of its poverty and hopelessness. The aggressive drunks on the subway; the thugs in tracksuits and leather jackets walking around eyeing everyone; the guy eating from the dumpster next to my grandmother’s place every night during the summer I spent there in 2000, periodically yelling “Fuckers! Bloodsuckers!” then going back to eating. I hadn’t been back since.

Still, I kept my hands off the keyboard. I needed some kind of concession from Dima, if only for my pride.

I said, “Is there someplace for me to play hockey?” As my academic career had declined, my hockey playing had ramped up. Even during the summer, I was on the ice three days a week.

“Are you kidding?” said Dima. “Moscow is a hockey mecca. They’re building new rinks all the time. I’ll get you into a game as soon as you get here.”

I took that in.

“Oh, and the wireless signal from my place reaches across the landing,” Dima said. “Free wi‑fi.”

“OK!” I wrote.

“OK?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Why not.”

(…)

since feeling is first

Nuar Alsadir for Granta
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Nuar Alsadir considers ‘embodied knowledge’,  Janet Malcom and Audre Lorde  in her essay ‘since feeling is first’, featured in Granta:

It’s seldom the party I remember, but some small moment on the way. Such was the case one piercingly cold March night walking through Clinton Hill with my friend Sophie, a poet based in Edinburgh. I can’t recall where we were headed; she had been staying with me in Brooklyn while in town for a few literary events, so I accompanied her to readings, drinks, spontaneous dancing in the back of The Half King. She is one of those rare people I became close friends with simultaneous to our having met due to some ineffable sense of – what? resonance? recognition? I don’t know the appropriate term for the waves that carry the energy I’m trying to describe, or even the kind of matter it must pass through in order to be perceived. But when I tried, falteringly, to articulate it to Sophie during our walk, she immediately understood what I was grasping for and handed me a Dutch term vast enough to contain my slippery attempts. Uitstraling, which translates as ‘out-shining’, means to glow, radiate a kind of aura or charisma – although none of that, she explained, is exactly right. It’s difficult to pin down a definition of this sensation without leaning on phenomenological or loose terminology. But that doesn’t matter much in the end, as words and thoughts become unnecessary in its presence.

Thinking, according to psychoanalyst W.R. Bion, is ‘called into existence to cope with thoughts’. He explains this counterintuitive precept through a scenario involving a hungry infant who yearns for the breast to suddenly materialize and satisfy her need. When the infant feels hunger and expects the breast but no breast turns up, instead of the yearned-for satisfaction, she feels frustration, which then leads to a thought (‘the breast is not there’). The ‘development of an ability to think’ occurs as a way of coping with the thoughts that crystallize from frustrated feelings – or, in philosopher Emil Cioran’s terms, ‘Every thought derives from a thwarted sensation’. With breast – or its metonym – in mouth, however, there’s no need for thinking. You are free to feel.

For most of us, this felt reality – along with the sense of satisfaction it carries – is experienced only in bursts. However, Oliver Sacks writes in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat about a set of autistic twins for whom this state was sustained. Despite being unable to perform the most rudimentary mathematical calculations, they had an extraordinary ability to ‘see’ prime numbers – breasts of sorts – in ‘an entirely sensual and non-intellectual way’, and to ‘savour’ them through play ‘with almost holy intensity’. Others quoted by Sacks with similar sensory relationships to numbers experienced them as living things, like the ‘unanalysable essence of all musical sense’ based on tones that are like ‘“faces” for the ear . . . recognized, felt, immediately as “persons”’. This recognition, ‘involving warmth, emotion, personal relation’, is akin to the recognition of a friend. ‘3,844?’ Sacks quotes a mathematician saying. ‘For you it’s just a three and an eight and a four and a four. But I say, “Hi! 62 squared”.’

Certain feelings – like that of the mathematician encountering numbers – keep thoughts, and thus thinking, at bay. I have a framed photograph on the mantle in the front hallway of my home, a portrait of sorts, of the unanalysable essence of a moment I wanted to capture while studying at Oxford. I had just decided to drop my neuroscience major and was there to immerse myself in modernist texts after having experienced, through James Joyce’s Ulysses, the excitement (I will yes) of being close to a mind that had not been calibrated to ready-made forms. In discussing photographs, Barthes describes the part of the image we understand and can connect to contexts of meaning we know, the ‘studium’, and the ‘punctum’, the part that pierces us, resonates with our interior to evoke strong feeling. Barthes’ punctum is similar to Joyce’s idea of epiphany, ‘a sudden spiritual manifestation’ that allows us to apprehend what we cannot access intentionally. Reading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, listening to music, smoking cigarettes in my sunlit room at Trinity College, I was suddenly seized by an acute sense of my being. I wanted to record the moment, but realized, upon opening my notebook, that no words attached to the experience. So I took a picture. When people ask what the photograph is of, I say, happiness, even though I know that’s not quite right. But what am I supposed to say – holy intensity?

Occasionally, while moving through the studium of existence, I am pricked by a sense of profound feeling, like the beam of light Krzysztof Kieślowski shines into his protagonists’ eyes to indicate communion with another level of being. While reading, for example, I sometimes stumble upon a passage so evocative that it spills over the edges of my intellect and the surplus is transformed into a bodily sensation that compels me to slam the book shut, stand up, walk around. Work that excites, rushes out of the intellect and into the body – what Jorge Luis Borges calls the ‘aesthetic act, the thrill, the almost physical emotion that comes with each reading’.

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