It’s the beginning of the year; pages open up in computers everywhere. Time for constructing a good-enough narrative, or at least one we can live with. Selecting the best events and worst, sliding them along the board into position, mapping out a mostly arbitrary story. The psychic demand to name monuments in the desert behind us, marking evidence of progress, our getting better every day. Progress, a clear narrative of our body inching so surely through the world, with more learning and skill and [insert here]. In our wake, neatly shed skins of less ethical and capable selves on the journey to a radically, fully realized self.
Such fantastic stories we might write for ourselves, whether for comfort or some deep psychological need to be sure we aren’t treading water, can be limiting. Much like the curated profile of one’s mediated online self, the success story of a mostly triumphant year with manageable setbacks can absolve prickly and uncomfortable thoughts.
2016 showed us how reactivity now bounds our relations. Groups splinter, harden, formed in reaction to one another; our language is evolving to be more brutal and leveling. Sitting with one’s doubt, with being unsure of whether one is actually getting better, or instead is just becoming better at playing tricks, being skilled at sleights of hand, seems important. Maybe movement forward or on to the next isn’t always as useful as practicing stillness of perception, to be able to even see what is actually in front of us.
The metaphor of journeying in one direction seems less interesting to me than the serpent twisting out to the edges of the known universe and then back in to itself, out back again. Abandoning the track to visit the edges of knowing, risking no answer, often coming up short, feels more honest. And cycling out to the uncanny and back in a continual ritual process feels more optimistic and hopeful than the striving journeyman. There will inherently be too many factors that interrupt the journey – from breaking relationships to sickness to sidetracking and productive digressions – that linearity can’t account for.
Maybe year-end stories and year-to-come lists might be resisted in favor of assessing one’s position in a field. To instead chart out spaces, conditions, and presence. Robert Irwin, chronicled in the famous Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler, had lots of moments of abandoning position: the position of being sure, the position of certainty, the position of having come to the knowledge, experience, skills that one needs.
Irwin abandoned his work frequently; first, at 29, after his Felix Landau show in which he felt, saw, how terrible (to him) his work was. Then again, famously, returning to California after his MoMA show to find his works “didn’t make sense anymore. Something was wrong.” The question he was asking didn’t find any good answers in the materials and experience he had up to that point. As always, Irwin was not looking for answers but to ask the right questions. And the techniques he had, the expertise he had then, meant he would “essentially continue to do the same thing,” and the answer was to “get rid of all those habits and practices altogether.” He says:
I cut the knot. I got rid of the studio, sold all the things I owned, all the equipment, all my stuff; and without knowing what I was going to do with myself or how I was going to spend my time, I simply stopped being an artist in those senses. I just quit.
Irwin threw his supplies and returned his many presents from artists back to their makers, and then “went out on the Venice boardwalk, and for a long time, he just sat there.” He described the biggest loss not of the artist identity he had, but “the loss of a way of thinking.” For two decades, he had “thought in terms of making objects,” and now had to abandon his position, train himself to think in a different way.
He chose to drive: through the Mojave Desert, sometimes towards Mexico, long drives on which he found, after a few hours, the landscape “just suddenly stands up and hums … the presence is so strong.” His full-on, life-long interest in the very quality of presence (in light, in space) started here, on these desert drives, with no particular end, simply observing himself observing.
And what of it, if there is no movement? What if what one most needs is no movement in any particular direction? In uncanny convergence with Weschler’s account of Irwin leaving for the Mojave, I found this in Nocilla Dream, by Agustín Fernández Mallo: a man named Falconetti sits on a blanket in the middle of Route 50, just to have the feeling of a “250-mile table” stretching around him, remaining “seated, basking in the sun, in the center of the rhombus traced by the East and the West at their respective vanishing points.”
It was slightly wild to me that in the span of two days this winter, I opened two books to images of men in the middle of the desert, reorienting their perception by reorienting their positions. Seeing as Weschler also wrote a book just about the phenomenon of convergence (Everything That Rises), this particular convergence of images – two men in the desert, one fictional, one real, sensing their relationship to space – felt too much like an omen. Perhaps the two equally dreamy texts were presenting a course of action: to try and be still.
Falconetti takes out a book, in which “he read that you don’t need to circumnavigate the earth to find out that it is round, just pick a spot and stay there and you’ll see how it’s the others that do the circumnavigating.” He doesn’t pick up his backpack to walk again until four surfer girls driving a campervan nearly run him over. They hit a pothole and go flying. He gets up and reorients to the East and walks away.
I started writing this in September, after hearing the word position repeated dozens of times in an evening, as the theme of a fall artist’s talk at the Kitchen. This was the opening of their L.A.B. series , meaning, Language, Art, Bodies. The talks are meant to focus on a word, turn it around and around in space, and in this case, discuss “position” in contemporary art vocabulary, in institutions, in artworks and audiences. Writer Andrew Durbin and art-world star Thomas Lax spoke very well, with energy. D D Dorvillier, the dancer and choreographer, was more spastic, struggling to get her ideas across, but she managed, with pen and paper, and videos, to invite us into her practice.
Katherine Hubbard, the artist whose work was hung up all around the audience, mostly sat very still as the other three panelists jerked about and gesticulated. The three would speak, and in the silence, the audience moved all of its bodies around on the Kitchen’s wooden box seats to turn to Hubbard, whose voice was barely discernible, nearly a whisper. (Her artist’s statement opens, “I am haunted by the hegemony of language as the primary mode of meaning making.”) She seemed resistant to having to speak at all, to put her thoughts into language; she seemed to want to refuse any position language forces us to take.
The choice of pairing two willing participants with two resistant, distant ones seemed a play on ‘position’, too; the audience struggled to orient itself to hear the two women. Because Hubbard was so still, people kept turning to look at her, possibly expecting a big speech or big moment, especially having seen her visceral, outrageous performances.
She said that the excitement and potential of a space lies in part in who might be on their way to it, who might just find you inside it. She said, you inhabit a room and space in a kind of latent waiting, about to be discovered. Your position in the room is defined by who is outside of it. Your position in the space is one of potential, a sweet latency, tied up with the potential that you might be found there by someone.
As she described, I felt it there, in the Kitchen; I was hoping someone might show up, although I had no reason to think they would. I hoped that they hoped to find me, a kind of triply removed, dynamic erotic tension produced entirely by the positioning of our bodies. That a person would cross the space to be near me, that they would reposition themselves to be near, felt more delicious than any imagined relationship. The object of desire would be turned away and the desiring, waiting outside the object’s space.
What other positioning and situating do we do routinely? I read horoscopes idly, relishing the magical thinking in them, the systems of meaning or possible meaning they create. Minorly heartbreaking, these billions of mappings, one’s relationship to others, to one’s destiny, to the unknown. Will my Scorpio work with Leo? Will it work when positioned side by side with Cancer? What happens when Scorpio is pitted against Gemini? What alignment do I have as a Libra-Scorpio cusp? What precise intersection of fates will produce an ideal fate for me?
There is much power in reorientation, in changing posture: reorienting one’s body and mind away from what compromises towards what feeds. Rather than active discovery or claiming ownership of territory that doesn’t even belong to me, re-positioning myself feels much more within reach. It is slower, but more of a stay against despair, especially if you are lacking energy or resources (I am); you can turn, you can move a slight degree or two to experience a completely new affect.
Mentally we are predisposed to mapping, plotting, charting, orienting, then narrating the mapping as fate, as planned. Sometimes critical theory becomes part of that phenomenological charting; it can supplement life, understanding of love, nostalgia, perception, and solitude. It almost becomes second nature, a way of speaking and being in the world that I forget to question. Irwin went out into the desert because he felt trapped by his own thinking process, and wanted to undo his mental engineering.
Thinking of future positions is helpful. I have lots of weird self-soothing rituals that I don’t even realize I’ve made habit. I go through people’s vacation pictures, pictures of mountains in the sea and rocky hills near the sea with strange creatures with too-many legs, and feel a profound sense of calm and peace. Dreamy, heavily-cropped images of oceans at night with lights at the base of a hill, a town in this time and no time. Waves of people and families and communities passed through here in the drama of existing which minimizes and bounds my own.
There must be other positions which are more bearable, in which the body and past will feel lighter and more insubstantial, less dramatic. There must be another position in which I am waiting to enter the room, and someone hopes I will find them and see them. From being seen to seer and back again. Partial vistas from lives of people I barely know, transmuted through the dreamspace online, generate a sense of possibility. A sense of what could be possible. Simple: that is a place I could go.
I spent some time this month helping with translation of speculative scenarios that I had written two years ago, about AI that doesn’t yet exist, into German. I receive a letter from an artist pulling for me to write in a remote, alien landscape through a residency on an island.
This all means abandoning untenable positions, the most unbearable: that the adoration of someone great will make up for one’s own sense of unworthiness, inadequacy. If someone that everyone sees and adores turns their eye on you, you won’t feel unseen again. I think here of Jenny Zhang on trying fruitlessly to escape the politics of who one desires, how desire is structured by supremacy. How banal, for one’s ideas of intimacy to not have evolved, for the narrative to be the same. To find one’s ideas of love are untenable, because not modeled in anyone around; I have no models for the love I think of, so my love-thinking is without position, without reference.
So the position must be developed, it must be made. In the absence of good physical models, we have to simulate them; in an abstract space I have to imagine how people like me and people like those desired might come together, on what imagined plane, through what process. I try to bound and create rules for how the model might evolve over time, a live simulation in which our simulated bodies bop and weave towards one another.
If you want to go out to the desert, you can; if you want to abandon almost everything, you can. There is time to transition. You are bound to nothing but to position yourself in relation to the ineffable. I cannot live without imagining myself in a space beyond the present. I have to form a future, by reaching for the next handhold, the next grip, pulling my psychic weight along a vertical rock face. I do not get to be a significantly better human being. I only get to change position.