“Thank you for lingering here “
photography by Harol Baez
Since we last spoke, you’ve enjoyed the release of another book: A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books), which meditates on two texts nominally about America and American identity—The American by Henry James and Americans by Gertrude Stein. In the meantime, there has been a national reckoning on race, an assault on our democracy, and a serious inquiry into ingrained systems that have served to oppress and inflict violence. What steps does your work take to dismantle the white male heteronormative patriarchy?
I think of my artwork the way I think of my role as an instructor and the act of teaching in general; my task, I often remind students, is not to tell you what to think or even what I think but to urge you to ask the question, to ask yourselves why you believe the things you do and where that comes from, and maybe even why. In this pursuit, I think my writing and my teaching each invite a degree of accountability and critical thinking—an interrogation of self and culture—that is probably lacking far too often in both our institutions and across our various media platforms. A and B and Also Nothing made these pedagogical moves explicit when it turned its eye on the logic of the canon and its reproduction of dispossession, the absence of writers of color across literature and literary scholarship, all of this punctuated by the book’s self-conscious recital of its own theoretical sources followed by the line: Have you noticed that everyone here is white? This is how the literary-art world and the academy work in tandem; how many postmodern theorists of color can you name? How many avant-garde artists of color appear on the syllabi you received across the many courses you took as an undergrad and later, as a doctoral student? I think dismantling the white male heteronormative patriarchy requires that we first identify the often implicit ways in which white supremacy undergirds our actions, behaviors, traditions, consciousness.
Another side of the conversation about race, oppression, and state violence, is the discussion of access and privilege. Both of us have benefited from this privilege in different ways, but something that I’ve noticed in your works’ hybrid/porous nature is that it questions the stability of your own identity. There is something in your use of language and the coordinate visual bearing you cultivate that calls a straight white male perspective into question. How do you inhabit and deconstruct these sites of privilege simultaneously in your work?
Thank you for lingering here, because questions of access and privilege are inextricable from any discussion of white supremacy and the heteronormative patriarchy. We’re here today, able to have this conversation and provided with this forum, because of these power dynamics. I’ve had the privilege of passing my whole life, and while passing is not always a choice, it has always granted me a degree of mobility and access to various environments and communities, so many of which don’t necessarily “belong” to one another … and I guess that’s the point, or one of them: this desire to receive and be received, but also to want to join seemingly disparate communities or discourses, maybe to assert a logic of coexistence, which is also to turn back normative reasoning and the reproduction of cultural stereotypes, whether they are sexual, racial, ethnic, bodily, or based on one’s livelihood. This notion of belonging still confounds me today because even as my writing—and my life, as you suggest—wants to problematize fraught notions of identity that are as collective as they are exclusionary and flattening, I can’t help but often return to the feeling of trespass that might be the flipside of every act of passing. What I mean is the feeling of feeling like an outsider in so many of these environments, to which one does and does not belong. We’ve talked about this in the past—my discomfort within the academy, at gallery openings, really any occasion for the celebrification of knowledge and art—and it’s like this fear of being found out, the self-certainty or insecurity of not belonging here, even as I’m allowed entry, even as I’m invited to sit at the table. Maybe that’s what drives my work, to create from that porous space you’d mentioned, which isn’t even a space but the feint produced by movement: trespass/passing. To be hailed differently in different environments is a gift and a curse but I want to remind us that the very endeavor of wanting to destabilize the Western (white, male, heteronormative) markers of identity assumes a certain privilege that precedes the interrogation itself. It’s easy to call into question nationality or sexuality or race because of their epistemological grounding in white supremacy, their function as tools of imperialism, colonization, and oppression, and even easier to want to escape identity for a cisgender person who passes for white or “straight,” who looks the part even as they recover and reprocess the gazes they’ve been given, or expected to return. Nevertheless, I believe we need to continue to insist upon identity formations that resist the trappings of capitalism, that resist the trap of commodification, of turning ourselves into commodities. I think political, social, and cultural coalition requires, at the same time, that we can mobilize collectively without denying our individual, material realities; to coexist, then, in mutual difference and to celebrate that shared difference even as we critique and disarm the governing powers of differentiation, omission, and ostracism. I hope my work—visual or alphabetical or otherwise—asks us to acknowledge these categorial constructions of identity (identification) while making a space for undermining them.
As part of our ongoing discussion about our writing, the question of limits has come up more recently, especially your own. I find this a bit ironic because I see you as a writer without limits, as inexhaustibly experimental. What kind of limits, if any, do you impose on yourself, formally, pedagogically, physically? How do this help you to produce the variation of forms that you explore?
I’m interested in limits the way I aspire toward edges; to lean in, bend down, make room for another or trespass zones that have been otherwise marked as “forbidden.” This is what is at stake in any discussion of mobility. Limits can be great generators of movement, the way I could only write about myself through reading Stein and James, and I could only read those two artists through writing about my experience as if it was their own, or the reverse. To write is to produce a video diary; I try, as Barthes desired, to film my own reading in slow-motion. It takes imagination but also empathy, even if my experience of being an “American” as the son of two exiles is vastly different from the experiences of expat artists living and writing in the early twentieth century. I’m interested in a writing with / thinking with approach to artistic composition. Like Wim Wenders, who goes to Tokyo to pay homage to filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, and ends up creating a film out of his notes, his itinerary of images, his correspondence with the dead Japanese director, with whom he can only communicate in translation: by speaking with all the other persons involved in Ozu’s films—cameramen, actors, crew members. Wenders’s film is both a notebook and a diary but it’s also an autobiographical novel about loss, nostalgia, modernity, the recovery of images. In the film (Tokyo-Ga), Wenders doesn’t use subtitles; during interviews, he narrates, in English, over his respondent’s answers. The staging of “original” and translation melt. Who speaks? I like not knowing; the conflation of subjects, bodies, languages; the sonic beauty (discord) of hearing two voices at the same time, speaking slightly out of synch. I am interested in works of art that masquerade as reader’s notebooks, because the most intimate thing I can ever know about you is what turns you on; what you’ve been thinking about, and with whom, and for how long, and how you got there (got here).
You mentioned to me a number of artists whose work engages you or informs your writing and scholarship. What attracts you to an artist—what issues, processes, or forms excite you? Who are you looking at now?
I’ve only recently become aware of Kon Trubkovich’s work, but I’m enamored by his use of hyper mediation, re-processing as a form that composes content but also shows its material degradation. So much beauty in showing the stutter of a source code when it duplicates, transfers, disperses across different media. Those stutters—what we more commonly think of today as “visual noise”—serve as traces of the work and the work itself; holding both together reminds us that composition is an act that is unstable and infinite. I’m interested in artworks that enact these critical images, works that interrogate their own systems of representation through a series of veils and transparencies: delicious reversals that operate as striptease. In doing so, these “completed” works are neither finished nor finite, but open themselves up for further interactions. In my research and in my own art I try to attend to alternative forms of appearance, alternative forms of presence, taking seriously the responsibility of imagining a form of representation not tethered to visibility, and I think so much of these “glitch aesthetics” are rooted in the experience of passage, diasporic communities, migrants and their kin and our attempts to revise the representative territory of the collective—memory, citizenship, belonging, community—and the individual. I want to trace these maneuvers to Eastern Bloc self-portraiture and abstraction during the Cold War, especially as surveillance, censorship, and detainment intensified, but I think the endeavor to get outside the modern categorizations of identity produced and reproduced by white men is a long one. All of this has something to do with your question and the question of the “American.”
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Miciah Hussey holds a BA in Art History from Vassar College and a Ph.D. in English from the Graduate Center of the City University of York. His scholarship has been published in The Henry James Review and Victorians. He has also contributed numerous essays and articles on contemporary art and has curated and organized many exhibitions, including On Empathy at Bridget Donahue Gallery (NY) and Lyric on a Battlefield at Gladstone Gallery (NY).