The white wall in Ridgewood and the weather in Kenya

I think this is the first time I’ve posted on the MFA blog in my two years here. And now that I’ve graduated, Nayland has asked me to post something about what I am doing now.

I’m going to Kenya tomorrow. I woke up thinking about this white wall. This wall has scuff marks from dallies and drunk boots along the bottom quarter. It’s 15 feet long. Inoperable chains that used to hold light sources hang at the top in front of the wall, now lit only from one side with a fluorescent energy saver bulb. Columns surround the wall on both sides–industrial columns, not Corinthian, or any other type of ribbed stalk. Plaster columns–where half of its width disappears into the wall itself; columns that funnel out at the ceiling.

My friend Leeza asked me to be part of this group show at her newly formed collective in Ridgewood, in a building with long halls. Last night I dreamed about this building–and that you had to take a sideways elevator to get from one side to the other–where, dreaming or not, there is a perfect cracked glass window that looks out to an orange Manhattan sunset. My pre-grad school bones calcify every time I see this window, and I frame it. Thank goodness I don’t carry a camera around so much anymore.

Originally Leeza told me that she wanted to have someone in the show who was not a painter, but who was in dialogue with painting. I don’t think that my work is always in dialogue with painting, but it has been with specific projects in the past. For example, I went to North Dakota and took photographs of endless construction of hotels in the infinite landscape, and when I installed some of the images for my thesis show, along with photographs I took immediately before Hurricane Sandy, I thought about Futurist paintings with the ways I arranged the photographs on the wall–on top of large collages of abstractions of materials: plywood, and Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs. The glorifying of expansion and growth that Futurists touted in their manifestoes seemed to be echoed by the realities of the infrastructureless building in the Bakken Formation. Leeza is a painter, but fabric play a huge role in her work. She stretches spandex over entire buildings (she says this was a response to her Yale teacher who told her that textiles were too feminine of an art, and that she would never get anywhere in the art world being a textiles artist.) Leeza also repurposes umbrellas into multi-pod monsters and sews bags out of old lingerie and pours latex paint into them that they are deceivingly heavy. Whereas Leeza blows past the limitations of materials, I am constantly working with the “use” of photographs. At this moment, I don’t know where “materiality” fits into modernist discourse; talking about intrinsic qualities of the medium make me cautious, and I’m not sure I care anymore. It’s just that that conversation used to ground my work in something to talk about–cover my bases. So it would make my skin itch not to mention my embarrassment and the unavoidability of about making objects into which I’d put something of myself. Although I don’t have to talk about the violent history of the autonomous art object so frequently anymore, I haven’t completely let it go. I wonder what it’s like to redirect that lineage. I think Leeza’s found ways to do that.

A couple months ago, when Bridget and I were installing our work in the group thesis show, she ran into some problems–while she wanted to shine scrolling text bits through a transparency with a picture of waves in the ocean, the light from the projector was too dim to combat the ambient light in the room. She folded to using an LCD screen, but no longer had use for the transparency she printed, and had to find a way to deal with these clunky cords. “Why not just use a lot more cords than you need? What are the text bits describing, anyways?” I asked her as we walked to the Japanese restaurant in the rain. She told me that the text pieces were found threads from conversations about land use rights in South Africa, debates about the direction the national economy should take, if the mines should be nationalized, or if that would make them less efficient, if it’s in the economy’s best interest to restore land to the descendants of precolonial residents, and what negative ramifications there might be from such a blanket reconciliation, versus the racist implications of allowing the families of settlers to stay on the stolen land. She told me about corruption in other post-colonial governments, and how its not as simple as “giving the land back to it’s rightful owners” because, what constitutes a rightful owner anyways? How long is long enough? she continued. As we ate sushi as drops of water fell outside, what started out as a conversation about material decisions and the ways words get decontextualized in digital space somehow transformed into a conversation about politics in a place I knew nothing about. That was one of the first time that had happened. It felt useful.

A few days or weeks or months after (or maybe I had heard about this before) my dinner with Bridget, my girlfriend, Beryl, began to tell me about her friend, Mary Poole. Most of the things that Beryl tells me simultaneously intimidate me, excite me and confuse me. Often, Beryl shows me pictures of herself as a five year old, a ten year old, a fifteen year old in the ’60s, the ’70s, and I have no way to relate to these objects–they are just photographs. She describes vividly what was going on in her mind in these pictures, and for some reason I still can’t relate, even though I’m always the first to answer that the value of the photograph is related to the conversation around it. Beryl thinks so differently than the ways I do–she can tell right away if something is worth her time, whereas I am interested in the process of understanding something whether or not it’s function-less. Anomalously, her ability to rationalize hasn’t changed since she was a small child. I can’t put myself in her position when she describes the photographs from her past, which makes me wonder if that’s what I do when I relate to a story behind a photograph–empathize.  I wonder if because she is my lover I feel the need to understand from a first-person perspective what she was going through, whereas when I look at the photographs of people who I am not so intimately invested in, I hold myself less accountable for the thrills I get from aestheticizing and exotifying their experiences related to that foreign (picture) object.  I can’t empathize with her thought processes she describes in the photographs–so starkly matter of fact–even though her thoughts haven’t deviated much from the core, deviant, values she holds. However, and the part that’s strange to me, I have no problem empathizing with the way she thinks now. Is this the problem of the photographs, that my expectations for conversation around pictures are shattered when I juxtapose the attempted relationship allegedly forged with the pictures to the physical relationship I have with that person? Would it be different if she were able to tell me stories about how dumb she was as a teenager, rather than how, miraculously, save for circumstance, she had it together then as much as she has it together now? Is the synergy of talking about photographs dependent on thinking about how much has changed? If so, I must be bored of the faded colors of the 1970s and how odd it was that it was still politically correct to send your kid to a birthday party dressed as an Arab, when you have that person’s sparkling eyes and hanging lips and shoulders that fit cupped perfectly in my fat baby hands, and their own weathered hands, each one starkly different from the other, to breathe in.  Something about describing where one’s been that doesn’t translate, even though that place is still present in the way they are speaking in that moment.

Mary Poole was Beryl’s TA at Rutgers years ago, and since then, Mary took a teaching position at Prescott College in Arizona. Mary has become very closely affiliated with the Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition in Kenya. When she took her students to Africa for the first time, she wanted to see how her undergrads could be of use to the Maasai’s pursuits of getting some of the land back, land that was first stolen by British settlers, and then appropriated by the post-colonial Kikuyu-dominated government for tourism and game.  Maasai communities have long sustained on a semi-nomadic cattle herding lifestyle. They have carried out a nuanced, yet sustainable relationship with the ecosystem, including potentially deadly wildlife like elephants and lions. The land that they grazed on was slowly divided and privatized by exterior forces. This action catalyzed the Maasai to change their modes of operation into a far less sustainable livelihood. For example, water sources they once had access to in drought times were forbidden because their cattle interfered with the pristinely kept tourist vision of the expanses of Maasai Mara, or because the land now belonged to colonial cultivation endeavors. Conflicts with wildlife increased, because they were pushed into territories they would normally avoid. The Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition is an organization that is comprised of part Maasai activists and part state-side activists to weigh in on behalf of the Maasai to the convoluted debate between non-government organizations with an interest in European or American ethics, the post-colonial government, and the Maasai tribes themselves, who, on top of all of this, have long functioned, in photographs, as the lucrative, nostalgia-quenching image of primitive Africa with their ochre-painted hair and their warrior stance, directing traffic in parking lots to see the Maasai dance with their hand made spears.

During those first trips to Kenya with her students, Mary was unsure of how her students could aide the causes of the Maasai communities and the coalition. It turned out, to no one’s surprise, that the Prescott College students were not needed to build houses or sewage systems, but rather to do what academics do best–research. The students took to archives in Nairobi, eventually finding the confirmation needed to launch a court case to retrieve a plot of land that once was inhabited by Maasai people. In years following, students have done research to find out what all of the NGOs in the area are up to, have sustained dialogue with their Maasai counterparts.

So Beryl and I were walking down the street after seeing the Basquiat show at Gagosian–the colors and intricate codes and mind maps of longing becoming specimens against the white walls, yet the gluttonous amount disabling any sort of prolonged looking in exchange for the speculated value and overwhelming abstraction of the show. No wall text, no insight into the deeply disturbed yet highly fertile existence that might have provoked the artist to proliferate so much work in so little time. Just masses of people, masses of painting, and my girlfriend getting all of the historical references that I wish the knowledgable Gagosian curators would have clued me in on. Every art exhibition space needs a resident historian. While all I felt was dissatisfaction, Beryl was biting into ripe watermelon. That show confirmed my desires I have felt since I met her at a few months prior, to start over and get my Masters in History. I don’t take much convincing.

As we walked and I expressed my dissatisfaction with my education, with my disposition as an artist who really only knew how to analyze composition and the politics of the exhibition space, she followed suit and began lamenting about how stressed out she was with all of the busy work that goes along with being a tenured professor, and how rarely she finds teaching rewarding,  how she doesn’t think she’s that good at public speaking, and how insulated she finds academia. Maybe it was the heat, or the fact that the door to the bus we had just gotten off had just swung back and hit me in the face, but everything she was saying made me so angry. “Teaching is a privlege. I will more than likely never be tenured anywhere. You are so lucky to have a platform where people listen to you. Everybody has busy work, most more than you. We can’t always do the work we want to do. How can you not find teaching rewarding and effective. Look at the work your friend Mary Poole does. That is one of the, albeit few, but best examples of how academia can reach beyond its borders in a way that’s humble and useful.”

I’m not sure about the timing and order of what followed, but somewhere either before or after the Basquiat show, Beryl forwarded me an email from Mary Poole, that chronicled the recent events of her life. Her partner, a Maasai man, Meitamei Olol Dapash ran for Kenyan parlaiment and lost because the elections were nearly certainly rigged. The elections didn’t end in massive violence, but  there was some bullying at the polls. She’s gearing up to teach her Prescott class this summer. I emailed Beryl back: “I want to go. Do you think Mary would let me join her class?” She emailed back right away, “I’ll ask her.”

It took a bit of time for Mary to get back to Beryl, and when she finally did, all she said was, “let’s talk.”  When I found out it would likely be a two month commitment, I wrote off the opportunity as I needed to keep my job doing post-production work and running errands for a successful photographer who graduated from the ICP GS program ten years back. When Mary called Beryl and gave her more information, I reluctantly agreed to Skype with her the next day, and find out if it was something I was capable of committing to. In our call, Mary explained that this year, the students–young Maasai boys and the Prescott College kids, and the older activists in the area are ready to have conversations about different civil rights movements around the world. That they are ready to step up their game, and that she’s not sure what form that would take. She told me she heard I was a photographer, and that one of the things they’ve been meaning to do is document the collaboration, and equip the Maasai people with more tools to document their own struggle. I told her that I am not interested in taking many photographs, that I really want to go and see what it’s all about, but I am happy to be on hand to instruct on technical stuff, lend my equipment, and have conversations about representation as they come up, even though I’m not sure what that conversation would really entail in such a vastly different cultural context. At that moment my doubts about the usefulness of my education hit an apex. The conversations that were so riveting in David Deitcher’s class just a few months earlier seemed completely inaccessible. I didn’t even know what I meant by the word “representation” as it left my mouth. “I want to go,” I said. “Yeah, I think I do too,” echoed Beryl.

I am still not completely sure about the climate in Kenya. I read somewhere online that it is the dry season. When we asked Mary about noise issues if we are having sex in the tent we will call home for five weeks, aptly named the “Sugar Shack 3,” she said that it’s best to wait for the rain, and that being sexually affectionate in public is the equivalent of being naked in public in the States. This is sort of ironic, given my propensity for public nudity. I’m not sure if or when the rain will happen. I haven’t spent much time with the geography and climate of Kenya, except through the lens of the political context I’ve been reading about since we decided about a month and a half ago to go to Kenya together after only being together for a few months. Lesbians and their Sugar Shacks.

We have spent the past six weeks reading and amassing a large amount of documentary films about civil rights movements, elections and land-rights issues, ripping them from youTube and DVDS onto a terabyte hard drive that will hold the more files of images, sound recordings and videos once we get there. We have spent time looking for images and texts that exemplify or unpack  the “colonial gaze,” although the article that Mary found by Lucy Lippard in the book Partial Recall and the famous article, “Maasai on the Lawn,” by Edward Bruner and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett” really hit the nail on the head. I doubt anyone need share the learnings from the articles with the Maasai collaborators. It seems like this type of reading primes you to go into a situation where what is studied is lived in a completely different iteration. We also dug up some ideological and instructional articles on citizen-journalism programs, and bought some extra equipment–another zoom recorder, a Canon video camera and scores of extra memory cards, medium format film and batteries, and I hope that I can spend some time helping start a similar program with members of that community. While we gather as many resources as possible, it’s impossible to tell how and when these resources will be of use.

 

My photographer boss gave me the time off, and my friend, Sophie is filling in for me. The group show that Leeza wants me to be part of is happening while I am away, however she wants me to do an installation on that big, white wall in the long hallway outside of her space. I’ll do it right when I get back; it will be up for less time, but in conjunction with the group show. She says I don’t need to decide what I am going to do now; she’d rather I wait until I go through this experience first. That way, she says, I have my time in Kenya to dream about it.

 

So, in the expanses of the Maasai Mara, I’ll dream about this 16 foot white wall with useless chains, dim lighting, and unavoidable scuffings. I can grab onto this, because it feels like the inverse of the nostalgic idealization that fuels tourism, and to some extent my own desire to leave home to figure out how better to be of service to the problems I see at home. Yet the dreaming of this white wall aptly describes the longing for home that we feel once we go someplace else, that keeps us in check, and in service of our “Western” codes. I’m sure its much more complicated than this, and it’s possible I’ll just reconfigure the materials (yet again) that I used for my two installations of the North Dakota/New Jersey work. I don’t even know how this metaphor of the wall holds up in the context of the globalization of businesses, modernity and increased accessibility to “wild” spaces through the “gyroscope” (Bridget’s term) of the internet–when you are everywhere, but nowhere, where is tourism? Where is home?

I think that, if it pans out this way,  I’ll have the role of offering technical instruction on documenting, and I’ll be immersed in conversations I never imagined having. Oddly, having this role of not making, I might free up some space enter into those initial stages of making work–that experimentation, self-forgiveness, audience-less space I haven’t inhabited since last summer, when I started formulating work for my thesis with Cary, when we started drawing oil derricks and justaposing them with love letters and pictures of Lyndie England (not yet knowing it was going to turn into my thesis). Those are the thoughts I have right now, even if this inchoate space manifests just in the form of dreaming and writing. Who knows if I’ll dream at all when I am there. The Malarone isn’t the kind of anti-malarial said to induce strange dreams.

Since my thesis took shape, and I graduated I have only been working on things for other people– final piece:–a wall piece consisting of picture reproductions and stories from both community-sourced and a historic archives of for a barn, that chronicles bits of the equestrian history on Mackinac Island; and the publication compendium to the Symposium Bridget and I planned this fall. It will be nice to get away for a while, but, as always, I am wary and confused by the line between an escape from and a traveling into reality– whatever that means.

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