October 29, 2013

SECA 2012: Anne Lesley Selcer on Frank Ogawa Plaza

For the first time in the history of SFMOMA’s biennial award program honoring Bay Area artists, the museum has commissioned the four recipients of the 2012 SECA Art Award to create work outside the traditional gallery context. Their site-responsive projects are at several locations throughout the Bay Area. To complement these projects, Open Space has commissioned a piece of writing on each of the four locations. Today, Anne Lesley Selcer on Frank Ogawa Plaza, where artist Zarouhie Abdalian‘s work is installed.

Stephanie Syjuco, The Precariat (Material Witness), 2013

Stephanie Syjuco, The Precariat (Material Witness), 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery

I wasn’t at the plaza because my family broke up. I’ll put it like that. This weekend, I put on my most beautiful dress and went to a conference about revolution and language. There I saw many writers I met though my husband, who was never actually my husband, but who was supposed to be, the man who I knew two minutes before having a child with, and whom I loved. I loved him, or began to, because he was a socialist from France and socially awkward when the Americans in the living room where we met seemed too sunk into themselves to extend themselves to him. Identity came up at the conference a lot and I suppose this was American identity. And so I extended myself to him, and he extended himself to me. I had just arrived home from Canada and was also identifying as a socialist, and everything and everyone, including the way the Americans talked, felt slow.

I would have been at the plaza with my quick-made husband, but I was in an apartment watching Occupy Oakland on YouTube, having mouthed and written—in a courtroom, a social service cubicle—words spoken to me to describe what had happened in our wood kitchen. The words seemed so stupid and cinematic and to need lots and lots of padding before I spoke them, an explanation that I was “highly educated,” and that I had not been violence’s victim but rather, its refuser. There is a well-shaded part of me which wonders about never having been given a description of what happened in our kitchen. I would like to be able to write, “words call forms into being” but I cannot, quite.

The not-husband would have been at the plaza with me. He would have been happy, and telling everyone with nationalistic pride — even if his French classmates bullied him, and his mother, a refugee from Vietnam, had worked in a factory all week — how they do it at protests in France. I suppose this is identity too. Instead, I was watching flash-bang grenades and teargas clouds on a screen in my kitchen, mostly alone, after days of teaching my child to speak, paint, and ride a trike, having lost my teaching job at the for-profit art college, and going to work selling expensive dresses at a shop down the street which would soon close for lack of business.

I got on the BART with my 2.4 year old and went on the Port shutdown march.
I swung the Ergo around to the back for the long walk.
I took the BART alone to Poetry for the People, held each Sunday in the plaza at 12, sat alone quietly, then left.

I was treated politely, as I was ever increasingly by the writers I’d met through my not-husband, who were now at the plaza every day, together. I was thinking all the time about what motherhood was keeping me from, but did not have the vocabulary to understand it yet structurally. I felt incredibly buoyed when in at least two pictures of Voina — the bombastic, political art collective from Russia — I spotted a child packed sweetly into her Ergo. It wasn’t until very recently I realized that the child’s mother was likely Nadya from Pussy Riot, now famously in jail. My new job was our survival, and our survival depended unequivocally on that not happening to me.

The poems I wrote during Occupy were my first poems to contain an “I” in about ten years. The inalienable rights won in preceding revolutions, now boiled down to the right to express my feelings. One poem, which I cannot identify as something I would write, has sad feelings. I want to get on the train / to stride down the hill past the strip club lights, deep down into the financial district, then into the shopping district, then into the underground, warm and dirty; / to sit through the noise of the tunnel after the gentrified port, / to sit through the tunnel’s decibels pulling towards the clamor of five thousand people, / to pull past the failed development where there are houses but no grocery stores, / into the center of town, the other town, / which is not exactly the other town but not exactly another town, a town adjacent; / I want to think about being adjacent, symbiosis, resource use, resource drain. / I will not get on the train. / I will nurse my child, light a candle, read the news. Wooden floor, high rent, the spirit left clamoring East with all my friends, / I want to get on the train.

Occupy camp in the plaza. Photo: Jasper Bernes, 2012

I recently searched out a good description of agora [the ancient Greek gathering in the city plaza, upon which democracy is premised]:

The agora constituted human life as a novel and autonomous form. The concern of the polis was to make the world appear as fully as possible by enabling every free man to take a stance. [1]

To this, I ask how then can the female appear at the agora when her whole public history has been one of either overexposure or privatization, either a figure appropriated by the aesthetic, or formless resource reproducing everyday life in a series of non-waged obligations? A child is a private matter in the United States. In San Francisco, daycare costs as much as rent. Without man nor money, I was off the grid, and that showed up as a wrong morality in most of my interactions. The ecstatic feelings of fostering a brand new life, the ambitious plans of a proud parent, the personal graduation into motherhood, all got lugged behind me into a social service office. There, under florescent lights, our lives were reduced to an economic problem. Now I realize that aside from my frequent physical absence from gatherings and events, something else also happened. I sank below a line, below a line which communicates. I could talk, I could do my hair, put on makeup, show up. But I was not in full relation. It came up at the conference tentatively: the connection between not having the time to participate in Occupy, and being actually disenfranchised. I thought of the texture of everyday life for Oakland’s constantly policed, structurally antagonized populations (mostly African American), who themselves are forced into the representations of antagonism.

I was going to begin this essay, “I will find a way to appear my invisibility into everything I write.” The idea, more visual than anything, was about erasure poetics, the coming forth of articulation which is always also hiding, masked. I saw a woman recite a poem once in which, stuttering, most of the words never fully came out. My poems would cognizantly enact a masking. More than my personal problems, I was thinking about the National Security Agency and the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, and our forced, compulsory appearance in the current, bastardized agora.

When I consider the political will of the disenfranchised, I think about spirit, what is not materially there. I think about how giving it form may begin with finding a new shape with the mouth, through the breath, to inflect “housing is a right.” In Canada, I often encountered indignation — indignation which functioned to manifest a previous reality, real or not, that housing was a right, so why was it not being treated as such? It is easy to look at the violence with which Occupy Oakland was attacked, and see it as directly related to Occupy’s disinvestment from normative channels of political speech, speech which is channeled into clear, representative form, intelligibly advocating for its position on a fair field. It is easy to understand the way Occupy Oakland showed up in the cameras as a function of the cameras themselves, of the intense and all- pervasive separation and mediation upon which American social life is premised. If intellectually I worry over the physicality of Occupy, I mean the dogged physicality of Americans (as if your feelings could push politics into happening), I also understand it as the return, the flash which illuminates what has been forced into spirit back into the realm of the sensible. Also, it does not matter how I see it intellectually — those feelings came together in the plaza.

Days alone, lack of city squares, work schedules, the precedent of a privatized life, daily habits of violence, a city built for circulation of goods, laptop cafes, endless technologies of mediation. I was separated by four BART stops from the plaza while my child slept and my body flexed, alone in my apartment, toward Oakland. At this point, invisibility is an interest and an aesthetic. It has to do with resisting the spirit of vision altogether, its flattening effect, its ordering effect, its stupid way of knowing things, when each encounter is one of difference, identificatory, seeking to know instead of already knowing . . . and that was Modernization, but still we search, hit enter, search that out. From Sean Bonney:

“The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.” Marx describes the smooth transmutation of human love into stone, metal, money, information and power (the five senses of capital). The possibilities of statement that [Amiri] Baraka would seek to embody in his poem attempt a block on that trajectory, seeking to show that those senses were built from stolen materials, and that they have in any case been violently limited by the forces of capitalist need. In a recent essay Baraka has suggested that the limitation to five senses was produced by capitalist alienation, and that there may be infinite sense, reaching backward and forward into time “in modes and directions that we do not even know exist.” It is at this point that Marx and Rimbaud can be read together: the derangement of the senses, the derangement of “all” the senses, is the derangement of the labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.

In Reversal of Appearing

The plaza is filled with screens, the plaza is filled with pictures. What goes in the absence of a plaza. Sunshine then shadows.

Then ten people, a hundred people, a thousand people, a hundred thousand people fill the plaza. Then ten people, a hundred people, a thousand people, a hundred thousand people hold up a representation. Then ten people, a hundred people, a thousand people, a hundred thousand people stream from the plaza, an agora emptying toward the sun.

In the city in which each communication is already artifact / in the city in which each house luckier / breathing numbers, in the city in which the city does not exist.

Now the plaza is empty, mute with sun. Then instead of a crowd of 100,000 people, you have 100 crowds of 1000 people. Then instead of 100 crowds of 1000 people, you have 10,000 crowds of 10 people.

Here, ten people, a hundred people, a thousand people, a hundred thousand people on screen, become window, renamed for absence. Here, a mother holds up a child turned placard, turned window, turned screen, become sign: a renamed plaza.

At the plaza, line of men advances. At the plaza, elders sell cooking oil and boxes of cereal. At the plaza, the agora is rendered visible in the sensors of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. Sensing reversed, the senses redacted: the redacted rhythm of a plaza.

In which / the plaza was always a representation / turned to look / in the city in which / each house luckier, breathing numbers / in the city in which / a hundred thousand unsent messages amass and riot / in the city in which / a shadow recomposes identically over every redistribution of forms / in the city in which / the city does not exist / turned to look and my city was gone / at the plaza / the noise of its absence.

Occupy Oakland in the plaza

Occupy Oakland in the plaza. Photo: Jasper Bernes


1.  Niklas Damiris and Helga Wild, “The Internet: A New Agora?” Topologicalmedialab.net.

Anne Lesley Selcer is the author of Banlieusard, commissioned by Artspeak gallery. Her poetry is forthcoming in Fence and Tarpaulin Sky. Poems are up at Action, Yes! and the Dusie Kollektiv. Essays have appeared in Fillip, TV Books, and Formes Poetiques Contemporaines. She has composed texts for the Or, Center A, and the Morris and Helen Belkin galleries, among others. A longtime Northwest resident, including Portland, Olympia, and Vancouver, British Columbia, she currently works in San Francisco.

Follow the SECA 2012 series here. More about Zarouhie Abdalian is here. See Zarouhie Abdalian and the other SECA artists November 13 – November 17 as they talk with Michelle Tea at SFJAZZ. Abdalian will also be hosting a reception with teens at the Oakland Schools for the Arts. Learn more at sfmoma.org/liveprojects

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