Field Notes: Extracts, an exhibition that ran from June 18 through September 27, 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn, offered the idea of note-taking as a conceptual frame for the interpretation of artworks from and about the Caribbean. In a roundtable with the artists on June 20, curator Holly Bynoe posed the question: “to what extent can art work as a documentation of a felt experience?” The word ‘work’ here reflects a unifying ethical concern implicit in this widely varied collection of pieces. What the show does is refuse to sever the art object from its labour—of feeling, of absorbing, of interpreting, of crafting—that preceded it, and instead present the process as still happening.
Given the geographical frame of the exhibition, its presentation of art objects that testify to an unremitting event of tender, whole-bodied, work—recasting ‘artwork’ as a verb—helps to articulate a corrective narrative with respect to the violent history to which labour and the labourer have been subjected in the Caribbean; first at the hands of slavery and then by free-zone manufacturing complexes and other machinations of the global market that have decimated the region in the wake of colonialism. With this in mind, the item shipped from a workshop overseas to hang on a New York gallery wall ought to be scanned for signs of the singular, immeasurable efforts that made it. The labour ought not be left hidden.
Field Notes explicitly positions itself to enlist this mode of looking. In solidarity with the move to open a space for attention to the artist’s continued work, and so as to not lose sight of the historical and present industrial conditions to which that work objects, my response to the art in question finds aesthetic impact in the nuts and bolts of a piece. What follows is a dialogue with three installations in the show, taken as signs of three different phases in the development of a product: processing, inventory and transport. In the case of Field Notes, I’d like to imagine these activities as infinitely energized by art-making, with no end in sight.
There is an immense pleasure to be found in aiding the development of a thing by means of labour and attention. I think we hunger for it innately; an evolutionary predisposition toward the joy in cultivation. The kind of drive I mean is not activated by a singular fixation upon a particular end; the labour it inspires is not that of strategy, or of assessing potential gains and losses, though these activities might play a role peripherally. It is the pleasure in testing the predictability of the tactile universe and then making friends with the materials in one’s hand such that their properties become familiar. It is the slow learning process by which one gets to know the characteristic actions of a given object, helping it to change according to the volitional tendencies it already has. And the work of the farmer, the chef, the builder and the sculptor in all cases modify the labourer along with her materials.
We use the term ‘processing’ to mean both the mind’s intake of data from its environment for incorporation into already internalized fields of knowledge and the actions applied to a physical substance in order to change it from its original state. Consensus seems to say that correctly translating information received by the brain and then implementing that information toward the manipulation of the material world is an effective way of getting things done; that is, the former definition of processing is seen as a useful precursor to the latter. To what extent is the reverse practice—where tactile engagement with the inanimate would inform the processing of thoughts, beliefs and emotions—beneficial for humans?
Jamaican-born, Trinidad-based artist Jasmine Thomas-Girvan cites the delicate labour of glass-making as one reason for her interest in using glass for sculpture: “The appeal of glass is intrinsic to its material qualities—its fragility/vulnerability/strength/integrity.” Her affectionate immersion in the mercurial activity of sculpting with this substance has been a practice of reception and acceptance. For Of Flesh and Ether, her installation at MoCADA, she learned glassblowing and flameworking, fastidious processes that require great skill and control. The material is dynamic and strong-willed; sensory engagement with it is always at first a submission to its enigmatic behavior, which requires the artist to agree to the ongoing possibility of botched plans.
Given her acknowledgment of the robust life-force exerted by her material, Thomas-Girvan’s work employs an animistic approach to materiality, which is echoed in her incorporation of the Taino zemi—a carved wooden deity said to harbor certain practical powers—into the set of symbols that constitute Of Flesh and Ether.She aligns art with ritual, and her work echoes Taino philosophy, which regarded devotional art objects as immediately useful in everyday life, either for domestic or ceremonial purposes, rather than as iterations of some abstract notion of beauty. Her materials for sculpture—glass, wood, horn, feathers, metal and paper—are thus treated as active sources of wisdom or help.
Belief in the everyday utility of sculpture—conceived as both an action and an object—is a dissident position to hold, given the definition of what is relevant aesthetic critique under the global regime of taste controlled by the West. We are told to judge a contemporary art object as ‘good’ if it displays an acknowledgment of critical opinions from the past alongside an ability to satisfy emerging theoretical-aesthetic demands. But we might instead call good the art object that works. Of Flesh and Ether looks like a biological apparatus, a kind of circulatory system for the conduction of some animating substance—perhaps air, water or light—across distances. The assemblage is suspended, bridge-like, between two totemic figures who face each other, pasted onto opposite walls. It appears tenuous, as if its elements could fall to the ground or float away at any moment. Like a body with all its organs intact, it gives the illusion of completeness, but it is in fact a contingent process, informed by the natural or cultural elements that feed it, and functioning as an instrument for the conveyance of those elements to where they are needed in the present.
For Thomas-Girvan, they aid in the comprehension of loss. She asks the question: “How do you create work that approximates grief?” The discovery her work makes is that grief itself is a decisive practice with pragmatic ends. She cites the Mayan notion of grief, according to which crying is akin to prayer and tears serve to feed one’s ancestors. Perhaps the work of surviving grief is enacted not in the mind but in eyes and hands—in the labour of processing the materials of one’s craft. Thomas-Girvan writes in the statement accompanying Of Flesh and Ether: “The act of faith of sending a message into the unknown with the hope that somehow the universe will exert guardianship over its destiny…Perhaps the amorphous offering of glass, birthed from sand, a material sterile (entirely clean), durable and luminous is the fitting medium to compose an Elegy to Love?”
One of the collages in Gilles Elie-Dit-Cosaque’s Lambeaux series shows the image of a woman superimposed over a cut-out illustration of an anatomical heart. The heart is sewn into the paper using red and blue thread such that the stitches suggest veins and arteries. The vascular motif is echoed elsewhere in the frame, where a map charting routes of passage between France and the Americas, crisscrossed with red lines, appears in the upper right of the overall composition. Anchoring the center of the collage is a photograph of nuns lined up on the terrace of what looks like a school or hospital. This image is layered with two cutouts depicting rows of people lying shoulder-to-shoulder, taken from the well-known 1788 Brooks slave ship engraving, an instructional diagram for the efficient transport of the largest possible slave cargo. “Lignes de la Nina Simone” is written at the bottom of the image, along with “love me love me, say you do,” the first line of Simone’s song, “Wild is the Wind.”
Each piece in Lambeaux is made to look like a 2-page spread from a notebook with a binding fold in the middle. Employing the trope of note-taking as its form, the series aestheticizes the labour that happens before a project is finished. Penciled arrows, circles and underlines appear as graphic reminders to oneself of the shape thinking takes during its pursuit of a meaningful endpoint. Staples, tape and thread attest to the labour of synthesizing visual ideas in an as-yet-incomplete composition. The particular collage described above illustrates a kind of ritual cleansing of labour-as-such, where the coldly bureaucratic inventory of human lives which was the everyday business of colonial slavery—leaving its remnants in the Martinique archive department from which Elie-Dit-Cosaque’s derived his clippings and photographs—is unraveled in a gesture of intimacy with the diverse physical traces (the lambeaux or “tatters”) of an otherwise buried history. The stitches, the soft tinting of the weathered paper, show signs of a patient, corporeal attention to the project at hand. The past labour of some colonial civil servant paid to catalogue humans like stockroom merchandise is thus hijacked and replaced by a palpitating, emotional work, as if in response to the entreaty made by Simone’s song.
In this image, the singularity of a given human life is held up in contrast to the figure of the multiple, the countable, the reproducible and the replaceable. Such singularity is also instantiated in the physical substance of the piece, where minute, evolving bodily commitments are expressed in the traces of Elie-Dit-Cosaque’s hand. Embedded in his project is the wish to facilitate the kind of looking which would see the work of every body—and the attendant web of historical forces that impel a body to move—as complex and unquantifiable. In the context of the colonial past of the West Indies—Elie-Dit-Cosaque has roots in Martinique—this aim has a special urgency.
Amid several events that were held at MoCADA accompanying the Field Notes exhibition was a screening of Elie-Dit-Cosaque’s 2008 documentary film Zetwal (Twinkl) about Robert Saint-Rose, a Martinican man who spent much of the 70s building a spaceship in his backyard in the Volga Plage quarter of Fort-de-France, before mysteriously going missing. Saint-Rose’s project was inspired by Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. The plan was that the ship, powered by poetry, would take Saint-Rose to the moon, making him the first Martinican in space. In the film, Marcel Celat, a politically active French teacher and former friend of Saint-Rose, describes an encounter in which the latter, pointing to a copy of Cesaire’s Notebook, said:
R.S.R.: It’s all there.
M.C.: Well of course it’s all there.
R.S.R.: No, I don’t mean your stuff…your politics. It’s good you told me to read this. Because when I read it I worked out how to get the rocket into space…
Here we are given the image of a man, singularly committed to applying the metaphysical messages of a surrealist poet as practical instructions for journeying to the moon; a most literally transcendent aim. Unimpressed by the political work in which his peers were engaged and in complete disregard of socially accepted judgments about what constitutes useful activity, Robert Saint-Rose set upon achieving the impossible. His eccentric project granted room in the rational ordinary for chimerical poetic imagery. Metaphor and reality melded into one. In an interview conducted for the film, Christian Lapoussinière, manager of the Cesaire Study and Research Center, speaks in support of Saint-Rose’s idiosyncratic logic: “poetry,” says Lapoussinière, “is how we can reach for the celestial mantle…the zenith!…The star-filled sphere.”
I take the bittersweet narrative of Robert Saint-Rose’s unwavering commitment, his failure—the vessel never took off, despite its maker’s dogged attempts—and his subsequent disappearance—after Saint-Rose became a laughingstock in Volga Plage, he and his spacecraft went missing, never to be seen again—as the lyrical tale of an artist wholeheartedly committed to a work despite its incomprehensibility to others. I like the attention Elie-Dit-Cosaque pays to the nuances of Saint-Rose’s labour: the mining of an old car for parts, the charts he drew, his collaboration with a skeptical but willing neighbor. Perhaps it works as a parable, depicting the generally unacceptable commitments of anyone whose daily efforts are driven by the belief that art can actually do something.
The Silk Cotton or Ceiba, a massive deciduous tree native to the American tropics, has long been regarded as a devotional object, due to its extraordinary height and diverse functionality. The Tainos believed the Silk Cotton housed spirits, and fashioned deities from its wood. The largest trees grew in the remotest parts of the forest, where gods—well-hidden from the ordinary work of the home and field—were said to show themselves to humans. When Columbus sailed to the Caribbean islands in the 15th century, he noted with amazement the size of the Taino canoes, which were hollowed out from single Ceiba trunks and often large enough to seat 100 men. European colonization and the West African cultures it brought to the Caribbean via the transatlantic slave trade led to the generation of new practical uses for the tree and new regional myths surrounding it. In Jamaica, tradition has it that mischievous spirits—‘duppies’—pass from the bodies of the dead into silk cotton trees. Duppies then drift from the branches like the tufts of seed-carrying cotton after which the trees are named, floating from the leaves like smoke and wreaking havoc in the homes onto which they land. In Puerto Rico, practitioners of the Yoruba-derived Santeria religion use the Ceiba bark medicinally while its soil, roots and leaves are harvested for various spells and offerings.
Holly Parotti’s we will not talk about it (silent sentinels), testifies to an effort of capture and transport. The photograph, the resin cast and the bark specimen are three different modes of preserving the Silk Cotton Tree for presentation as art. The piece seems to make a matter-of-fact statement: “here are my materials, directly or indirectly culled from the Ceiba tree; in three ways I will shape them into symbols of the object from which they derive.” But the implied claim that this artwork has somehow encapsulated the towering original along with its manifold cultural past in an accurate, transportable reproduction registers as tongue-in-cheek. Parotti has displayed a piece of excised Silk Cotton bark in the packaging box required by American immigration for the transport of foreign plant materials. What, in fact, has actually been captured? As contemporary viewers, we generally read artworks for cultural significance and thus view the transmutation of diverse cultural experience into a representative object as an integral part of an artist’s labour. Meaning culled from experience passes into the symbolic object, and is allegedly coded or captured there.
Rather, what we have in we will not talk about it (silent sentinels) is a work that functions like an arrow pointing to a meaningful past it can’t purport to signify. The value it holds isn’t symbolic, but actual. It lives in the bark and in the resin. The installation manifests its creator’s intention to physically transport the tree for viewing rather than represent it. This motivation was political from the start, given the historically exploitative practices attending the transport of goods between the U.S. and the Caribbean. Parotti describes the hurdles she encountered in delivering the bark specimen:
In order to gain entry to the U.S., Caribbean natives must meet the requirements of the immigration process. We not only need a passport, it is necessary to hold a valid visitor’s or student visa. Until 2009, U.S. citizens could travel to the Bahamas (and Caribbean) without such passport documents. A valid visa is still not required. The same discussion can be applied to shipping objects. There are no restrictions on packaging shipped TO the Bahamas from the US. However, any item sent FROM the Bahamas to U.S. soil must be entirely crated in lumber that has been ‘treated’ in arsenic or formaldehyde. These chemicals kill any living organism contained in the shipping carton. The sealed box that presents the bark is made from this lumber.
A component of Parotti’s labour in assembling the installation was the expensive, bureaucratic toil to which all natives of the ‘third world’ are subjected before attempting to leave home. In utilizing the regulation shipping crate for display in the gallery—and in full acknowledgment of the aggressive importation of cheap American goods into struggling Caribbean economies—Parotti makes this labour visible as art.
In a great essay for The Nation on a New Museum exhibition that ran during the summer of 2014, critic Barry Schwabsky quotes Wallace Stevens’ argument that in times of war, art automatically works more like a consciousness of outside fact than an activity of the imagination. Elie-Dit-Cosaque’s aesthetic invocation of the notebook consciously attends to both factors in Stevens’ equation, employing his subjective imagination toward a conjunction of colours, shapes and pictures while simultaneously preserving in his materials—and ironizing—the authoritative weight of objective fact. The work absorbs and then revises matter from the artist’s world. This practice of ingestion is thematized in Thomas-Girvan’s Of Flesh and Ether, in its resemblance to some organic apparatus for processing the very thoughts and feelings that generally lend art its substance. For Parotti, too, the activity of incorporating the objective, the factual, the real, into a space of imagination is what the artwork is positioned to make visible as her shipping crate images a laborious act of transmittance.
Schwabsky’s essay asks the question: how much of the pressure of reality can a work of art bear before it ceases to be art? What I learn from these artists is that excavating one’s own habits of mind in order to discover the mechanics of how one knows, helps to direct what can be known, what should be known, and what might be incorporated that isn’t yet knowable. If we can regard reality as the immediacy of one’s private experience, I think that the work in this show, taken as “field notes and extracts,” demonstrates that Schwabsky’s question ought to be reformulated as: how much of the pressure of reality can a work of art lose before it ceases to be art?