November 20, 2013

On the Contemporary: erica kaufman, The Leaves Changed and I Didn't Notice: 10 Jilted Starts

This fall, Open Space will feature a series of reflections by artists, writers, and curators on “the contemporary.” Today’s piece is by New York–based writer and teacher erica kaufman.

the leaves changed & I didn’t notice: 10 jilted starts

for N.E. and S.W.

1.  My initial response to this question of the contemporary was to turn to Gertrude Stein and her sense of the “continuous present.” In “Composition as Explanation,” Stein writes, “the time of the composition is the time of the composition.” The contemporary is the present tense, and so our experience and knowledge is always present tense. But, I feel unsatisfied beginning here, as if it is too easy, not because Stein is easy, but because I always turn to Stein.

2.  A first few thoughts on the contemporary: the government shutdown; Dana Yahalomi’s performance work; the Stolpersteine in Berlin; the turkey found wandering around Battery Park; Nicole Eisenman’s sculptures — refiguring figures; the ferris wheel to join Staten Island; a talk I heard about the relationship between driving and testing out one’s relationship to “the state”; Joseph Beuys’s installation made of animal fat; Drake’s Bar Mitzvah video; visiting Halberstadt — the small town where John Cage’s As Slow As Possible is being rendered over the course of 639 years; Bill de Blasio and what might happen in NYC with education; why do I only cry on the subway; Bouchra Ouizquen’s HA!; the symbolism of the emotional electromagnetic spectrum in Green Lantern; and this list could just continue to continue. It does.

3.  Matt asks, “Do you want to write about how you miss the city as prosthetic device for managing noise, and how without it you feel you are swimming in stimuli but not registering it?” Petulantly, I say, “No.” The real answer is that I am always swimming and I don’t want to manage noise. I like my attention divide. Even now I am writing, gchatting, making a mix tape.

4.  Drake’s “HYFR” video begins with young Drake at a (his?) Bar Mitzvah, and announces Drake’s re-Bar Mitzvah. When a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah, he becomes fully responsible for his own actions. It’s not unusual to become re-Bar Mitzvahed — it’s a way to assert one’s rededication to the faith, or even just a symbolic gesture to mark big positive life changes. Drake’s video has all the bling of a Bar Mitzvah — we see him on the bima, he has a Torah cake, is bounced around on a chair donning a yarmulke.[1] But, what’s most interesting to me is the green shirt that OB O’Brien sports in the “outside the synagogue” scenes. What team/player is the shirt for? It is not a Maccabi logo, and I can’t find a matching JCC. Why do I need to put a name to 33? There’s been so much talk about this video, its “message” regarding Drake’s Jewishness, and whether it is another moment of Drake’s unfortunate “more pop than rap” style (Marc Lamont Hill). I want to know about the jersey, if I’m missing out on a secret basketball society, where I can find that green. The contemporary is confusing, isolating, reclusive, a place where one thrives as both “simp and player,”[2] where what’s familiar is always changing and everything real is also imagined.

5.  I read a draft of this piece to my students. They are reticent to comment. I am the teacher, I suppose. I voice my own questions about the piece — what am I trying to say? How do I write it if I am not sure what I really want to say? One student says, “I feel confused about what you notice.” I realize I’m trying to include every moment of noticing.

6.  Fat is the source of more than half of a body’s energy. But the contemporary impulse is easily to see fat as negative, as unhealthy, as diet-worthy. Beuys recognized its restorative and rehabilitative potentials and in 1977 he filled a “pedestrian tunnel” with animal fat, rendering the passageway a mold. Beuys refers to his use of this material as taking “an extreme position in sculpture, and a material that was very basic to life and not associated with art.” When I saw some of this work at the Hamburger Bahnhof, I was struck by the machines attached to the work — temperature regulating tools. I expected the room to have some kind of odor — of fat, of preservation — but it didn’t and I was disappointed.

7.  I am interested in avatars and cyborgs and machines and prostheses as signs of the contemporary. But, increasingly I’m even more interested in bodies and feelings. In a recent essay, “Painted Clear, Painted Black,” Eileen Myles writes, “Poems are not made out of words. They’re made out of emotional absences, rips and tears. That’s the incomplete true fabric of the text.”[3] I think, particularly with the omnipresent growth of all things technological, it is easier (at least for me) to employ language than to embody it. It hurts to attribute.

8.  I had two imaginary friends as a kid: avi and raptor. They were dinosaur-type birds. Like emus but a bit more prehistoric. A few years later I added Baxter the Bassett Hound to my menagerie. I remember how helpful these friends were before my sister was born, when I wanted a playmate, or a person to practice having conversations with. Increasingly, I find myself looking for these pretend pals, engaging in “self-talk,” wishing the woman in the drawing above my fireplace would say something to me.

9.  I’ve now begun this piece 34 times. I feel obligated to enact every thought I have, but get sidetracked by new ideas. And there’s no going back.


erica kaufman is the author of INSTANT CLASSIC (forthcoming from Roof Books) and censory impulse (Factory School 2009). she is the Associate Director of the Institute for Writing & Thinking at Bard College.






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