The pleasurable things always get delayed

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Photo: Suzanne Stein.

Last February, Open Space saw its first major changing of the guard when, after ten years at SFMOMA — eight of them founding and running this site — Suzanne Stein left the museum. Claudia La Rocco succeeded her as the platform’s editor-in-chief after 15 years spent mostly freelancing in New York.

We didn’t know each other before the long process of this transition began, but became friends during it. Over the course of this trading places, we decided to talk about it. These emails were exchanged between May and July; insertions, made during the subsequent editing process, are rendered in italicized brackets. The photos are those we found on our phones, taken during the time we were composing this essay-as-conversation.


 

Hi Suzanne-

I keep meaning to write to you, and then one thing or another intrudes… the pleasurable things always get delayed.

I can see hawks out my window. This is my favorite thing about being in the office — the actual fact of being in the office, which is its own specific thing, separate from work, though so hopelessly conflated in our society.

The last time we spoke, you mentioned you were training yourself (not the wording you used) to concentrate again, to concentrate for longer periods… I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Enviously.

C,

Of course, the hawks! The SFMOMA offices are pretty high up — I never saw a hawk though. Here there are wild parrots in the palms, which are ubiquitous, so the parrots are also. The correct collective, a pandemonium, is apt: noisy, sociable, always socializing. They rule the low skies, especially close to the beaches, they’re practically gangs. From the second-floor balcony where I’m staying I’ve been watching fleets of what I think are sparrows feeding, and hummingbirds, who hover in front of me until I look up from my book, then disappear. A pair of mourning doves comes sometimes to sit on the railing and coo. When I’m taking a walk in the neighborhood, it’s the bees I’m interested in. The jacaranda are in full flower and the sidewalks are littered with their purple blossoms — armies of bees industriously mine that floral trash. My attention’s on my feet, on the ground: I’m constantly worried about having my ankles stung.

Here’s my current feeling for offices: a week or two ago I read an amusing, appropriately horrific, account, in The New Inquiry, of the spectacular, promiscuous feasts of Caligula. In the face of the utter extravagance of edible international plunder plattered on silver and cedar, with threat of imminent death by mad emperor looming over every course, any guest to table, the writer imagines, must soon feel, as Trimalchio of Satyricon did, that “The disgusting abundance… made us prefer to die of hunger.” I’m replete with (high) offices. I’m very glad to be away from them for awhile.

The threat to attention, to concentration, still seems real though, in every way, despite my new, somewhat leisurely condition, despite my best effort or location. I meditate for a few days running, then forget to. What I’ve been focused on in recent days: what should I focus on? How should I narrow the view? What is the most meaningful thing to keep in mind? I try to stay present.

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Photo: Claudia La Rocco.

hiya S —

Jacaranda always makes me think of Joan Didion. I just did a Google search for the two, and came up with this:

“If you don’t travel much outside of the United States, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the jacaranda is native to California. In fact, it’s a fairly recent arrival, whose existence here is credited to Kate Sessions (1857–1940), who in 1892 leased thirty acres of land from the city of San Diego and introduced a variety of trees, including cypress, pine, oak, pepper trees and eucalyptus, most grown from seeds obtained throughout the world. Of these important imports she is most famously connected to the jacaranda, of which there are in fact forty-nine species, and which is native to South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean (though it has been successfully introduced to Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa, as well).

The species familiar to Californians is the blue jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia), and what writer, I ask you rhetorically, writing about Southern California, could resist the twin lures of the blue jacaranda’s beauty and metaphorical brevity?”

I like that this passage, written by James Greer, is from Oakland, where I’m now writing. No more office, high or low, for the day.

Another quote:

“Your time is not a separate thing from you; it’s not an instrument.”

That comes courtesy of Carol Bove, one of Amanda Nadelberg’s Listworthy picks. I have been thinking about that line a lot around the question of focus, and the (not so good) idea of working, specifically of tying worth & identity to working.

(I’m avoiding your descriptions of birds, as that is a wormhole for me. I could talk about birds forever.)

Xclr

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From Karen Weiser’s Or, The Ambiguities (Ugly Duckling Presse 2015). Photo: Suzanne Stein

C,

[Only now, while we’re revising, do I think to say: you and the jacaranda, fairly recent arrivals to California. In fact, I ignored your passages on jacaranda, & Joan Didion — maybe because I felt jealously protective of the irresistible, nostalgic feeling I was having for those flowers the week of this particular exchange.]

“Identity is a sham shack” — I tweeted that years ago. What did I mean? An unstable illusion, but maybe a comforting temporary shelter. A sham is a fake, a hoax, a phony; it’s also a decorative cover. Recently I read something about the danger of (over?) identifying oneself with anything external — what one does, produces, aligns with, loves. If any of those drop away, and they will, the self so constructed falls apart and there is suffering. If I found anything difficult — and everything was difficult — when I was in your position, it was the too-structured sense that I “was” someone, who did “something.” Specific. I mean, one has to. In any case. To eat. So that others understand how to pay one. But also, that identity preceded me, according to work. It precedes all of us, differently, in any public context; different in different context.  Anonymity is pleasing, because it is empty, but it only lasts as long as one isn’t saying anything. And you and I are both writers. Wearing any identity loosely seems to be the key.

Let me ask you something specific about this: What are you worrying, with regard to the question of work and identity? Also, where is “work” exactly?

As for the birds, I have probably exhausted all I have to say about them. That might be my best and only paragraph on nature. You could revise or elaborate on my sentences if you’d like to.

Love

S

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Photo: Claudia La Rocco.

S,

Well, there’s some old joke about New Yorkers starting every conversation with strangers with “So what do you do?” (Please tell me what the Bay Area equivalent of this is?) And of course there’s a lot of truth to that — a few years ago I realized I had become so specialized in what I did, and how I viewed the world, that I struggled to start and sustain conversations that didn’t revolve around work. And “work,” here, I suppose means “art” (which substitution is its own set of problems) — what projects are you working on, what does your work entail, what is your work trying to get at, who is your work in conversation with… all versions of the same tedious ego routine, it seems to me.

As the newly minted editor of Open Space, I am essentially being paid to learn, like I was years ago when I started working as a journalist (feels like a different lifetime). I am still doing my work, but, to take a stab at answering your “where” question, it’s more externally focused. This feels like a necessary corrective (and, frankly, a relief) after many years as a freelancer, and especially the last several as an independent artist. [It strikes me as deeply weird, and icky, that I labeled myself like this, like Independent Artist is the new Blue Period. Fucking hell.] Work and art, no longer necessarily conjoined.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this self-focus as a larger problem in the art world (to state the intensely obvious). Maybe that’s why so many conversations around art are so enervating — really they just revolve around the I, with fancier language to disguise that we’re talking about taste. Institutional critique as a stylish gesture. Social Practice as an entire shadow world constructed under the guise of engaging with the actual world, but instead simply running parallel to it. [These are big generalizations, but in the wake of the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the killing of five police officers in Dallas {and since then, so many more killings, everywhere…}, this separation at times seems acute; I was astounded by how little mention there has been of social unrest in many of the art world accounts I follow on Twitter — as if all of this pain and turmoil didn’t touch that moneyed elven bubble at all.]

Does “writer” count as an identity one also should wear loosely? At times I find the identity of “critic” rather unbearable; not my understanding of criticism, but people’s projections on what that activity entails, and what it forbids. (“Poet” also has its problems…) There was also the being tied to an institution; at a certain point my identity became synonymous with the New York Times: at shows I would sit in the seat that said “New York Times,” or I would see my writing quoted and it wouldn’t say my name, only “New York Times.” (And, of course, the Gray Lady owns all that writing of mine. Sigh. Grist for another mill.) I would imagine you had that a lot with SFMOMA — I can already see it happening to me.

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Photo: Claudia La Rocco.

“Everything was difficult.”

!

(Your bird sentences are perfect.)

I can’t think of an elegant way to segue to this: did you think of your work along gendered lines? (I don’t even think that question makes sense.) I have been told that there is a particular strand of sexism in the Bay Area; I don’t yet have enough day-to-day experience here to say whether it seems different from the good old sexism that’s always floating around.

Here’s another possibility, in case the above is too vague to be answered: something I’ve heard a lot here in my last few years of back and forthing between Oakland and Brooklyn — that there is a lack of criticality in the Bay Area. Do you agree? What does that mean or not mean to you?

I really like your twitter feed. All the clouds and colors. And Virginia Woolf.

Clr

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Photo: Suzanne Stein.

Hi Claudia,

[Well, when I wrote these passages the first time, I began with that colloquial “well”; then on seeing you’d also used it just above, I took it out. Then I put it back in. Then I took it out. I’m putting it back in.]

Well, it used to be that San Francisco was quick to talk about sex and slow to talk about money, now I don’t know anymore; I think in poet/artist circles vocation is on the tip of everyone’s tongue but what anyone actually does (or doesn’t have to do) to support their habit is still, mainly, conversationally verboten. Except to express rage at the dysfunctions of and demands to work under capitalism.

Without a more direct question about gender politics at SFMOMA (as I assume when you ask above did I feel my work as gendered, here “work” means employment), I can’t exactly answer.

I can tell a semi-amusing story related to gender here though. Sometime around 2011, I re-watched that mid-80s Roseanna Arquette-Madonna-Aiden Quinn vehicle about mistaken identity, love, theft, & shitty gender politics, Desperately Seeking Susan. In it, Arquette wears a lot of oversized men’s blazers and skinny jeans. Great look! I bought a bunch of blazers at the Albany Goodwill the next day. That became my new go-to-work uniform: men’s suit jackets and skinny pants. Immediately, bizarrely, just like it was 1978, I noticed I was suddenly being taken more seriously in meetings, that my male colleagues seemed to be speaking to me more respectfully, listening to me more readily. But not only the men; everyone. It was shocking to me. I confided in a female colleague, who told me she’d been reading up on men’s power gestures in the workplace, and I began experimenting with employing these gestures in meetings. You know, taking up as much space as possible by sitting with legs apart, draping one arm over the back of the chair while laying my other arm wide across the table, palm down. Or standing in a meeting instead of sitting. Listening with arms folded but shoulders back, or hands in the politician’s steeple. Within a year of donning men’s jackets as a fashion choice, and fooling around with power poses in meetings, I was promoted, received a 30% raise (though still under-market for my skill set—and lower than male colleagues at similar levels of responsibility??), and was able to add an assistant editor position to what had been a department of one. Anecdotal evidence at best, and research shows that power positioning has a direct and empowering psychological effect on the person enacting the postures…nevertheless…

As to difficulty — well, almost anything worth doing is difficult? [I add my question mark after the fact; like you, maybe I don’t really believe this statement either.] My use of the word “difficult” isn’t exactly a complaint; though I did leave the museum dead-dog tired. So much politicking! I felt my job was to create a kind of agora where many forms of discourse around art could meet. That meant soliciting and publishing examples of such that were often aesthetically, philosophically — politically, even ethically — in opposition to each other. I’m proud I did this; it was psychically taxing.

I’m glad you like my Twitter! For the last three years, that account has been the running draft of a long poem composed in public, in reverse; it was the notational safe space I had the time & mind for during the crazy period of rebuilding Open Space. Now I’m revising that draft.

For now, I’m going to turn the question of criticality in the Bay Area back to you; though I do have many thoughts on this, I’ll let you take the lead on answering your own question first. 🙂

Someone was saying to me that when people in the Bay Area complain about a lack of criticality, what they mean is a lack of national critical attention on their work. I am not sure if I agree with this, but… I do think certain repeated refrains form narratives that create their own realities (the echt NYC example: I’m just SO busy.); and it seems to me that there are a lot of critical conversations here around structure, taste, labor, class, race, gender, etc.… all the usual suspects. There isn’t maybe an adequate public forum for them? That’s probably part of why (external to institutional difficulties) your work creating and honing Open Space was so taxing; there’s a lot at stake. (There was? There is?)

I dunno. I find the generic art world lines of critique insufferable and empty. Institutional critique is the new institutional PR. [Independent Artist is the new Blue Period!]

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Photo: Suzanne Stein.

“almost anything worth doing is difficult.”

I think… I do not agree with this. But tell me more — I right away go to a certain puritanical New England belief system which I find abhorrent, and perhaps (probably) that isn’t what you mean.

I remember you telling me that about the clothing and male postures — and in fact, during a meeting the other day, I did find myself cataloguing how people positioned themselves, and mirroring the senior male body language. (Meetings are weird.)

The NYT was full of gendered junk like that. I know I wrote about some of that in the Work on Work I wrote for you (that was only August!). I remember noting a huge difference in how I was treated depending on what I wore; though I was very young when I started, and I think it had more to do with whether my clothing was “feminine” enough to attract a particular type of male energy and attention (v-neck vs. turtleneck…). No raises were forthcoming.

I never know what to wear at the office.

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Photo: Suzanne Stein.

Dear C,

I’m completely of the west — California born and raised and I’ve lived most of my life here, up and down the state — which is twice as big as all of New England taken together. And throw in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and D.C., and all their attendant psychologies of work, California is still bigger. We can even squeeze in Pennsylvania and that much east coast mind barely outscales California by ten thousand miles. To say: puritanical New England belief systems are not what drive me. The ground is unstable in California, we have to build our buildings flexible so they will shift when the land does and not be destroyed. The soil tells us we’re not perpetual. What else do people do here? Surf, and drive long drives. We’re close to a topography of continual shift. To persist distinctly might be one of a Californian’s challenges. Patanjali’s yoga sutra 2.46 reads sthira sukham asanam. Translated most basically, it means to take one’s position balancing effort and ease. Sthira is effort, sukha is ease. In order to create strength and stability in a posture, we have to effort; in order to stay fluid, unstatic, capable of change and open to change, we have to be easy. Also, change takes effort, so there is a loop, effort and ease inform and increase each other. I wanted some things to change and I hoped to offer a place where others could effect some change. I expended very much effort in creating these possibilities, and between institutional and extra-institutional wishes and my own desire to meet as many of those wishes as I could, which was part of my own vision for our work together, I found it hard to find ease. Perhaps this long effort without ease is one part of what I describe as “difficulty,” and perhaps this balance is something you will find more readily.

I think I understand what you mean when you say that right now you are essentially being paid to learn. I imagine you gathering a lot of information, on every level, from the politics and dress performances of the workplace to the wishes and demands of the extended community you are being paid to represent, as you determine the direction and vision of Open Space. Or as you determine what and who it is you wish to be paid to represent. Or are you representing? In your passages above, you seem to be expressing a generalized dissatisfaction with so much of the way an art world perceives and represents itself. Social practice, and institutional critique, appear to feel disingenuous to you; at best ineffective, at worst, shill practices for the superstructure. You point to the larger art world’s (self?) critique as “generic” (is it even bland, perhaps?), and the conversations you hear a lot about here in the Bay Area, “structure, taste, labor, class, race, gender, etc.”  you call (dismiss as?) “all the usual suspects.” So, you appear to be wanting something more, something different. Possibly you are in a position to help create that more and different. What will that different look like for you, or what will you do to help it come to fruition, and how? That is, what is at stake for you, what you will effort for?

I wanted to return to the question of ego you brought up earlier. It’s come up a lot in our many conversations these last months. You have often said to me a version of what you say above, that you became tired of your world being all about you and have been looking for a way to break free from that. I think I understand that one thing that appealed to you about taking the job at SFMOMA/Open Space would be the opportunity to work on behalf of others. This is my paraphrase/possible misinterpretation of what you meant. But it seemed that you were reaching outwards, and this also seems connected to your disillusionment with an art world or set of practices which gesture toward change, but are ineffective or disingenuous. You suggest that the art world you (we) circulate in is all about the I. Some practices may say or represent a set of activities organized around ideas of a social good, but they ultimately become nothing more than one part of a diversified portfolio of activity an individual can deploy to better compete for the narrow spoils of capital — social and otherwise — in the small subgroup of globalist economics that is the art world. And the poetry world. Lip service. I feel this. I mean, I wrote this! Do I put words in your mouth? I think to myself, well, yes, what you say is true; institutional critique is indeed too easily absorbed by institutions. Yet, what would it look like if everyone tired of making those criticisms? Does the critique fail, or does absorption also in fact mean integration? (In yogic terms the one precedes the other.) Integration is transformation. I’m no scholar of religion; a wild guess says that most spiritual traditions of the world suggest that ego transcendence is a first necessary tool toward a better life for all. Is anything more difficult — or, effortful, requiring persistence and ease—than to work towards transcending one’s own ego?

S

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Photo: Claudia La Rocco.

I would say the Bay Area definitely has something similar to a Bostonian puritanicalism. Very different from the soulfulness of Los Angeles, for example. [I had been reducing this already simplistic binary to a question of size, but lately I’ve been thinking heat: the way one feels one’s body in the sorts of prolonged heat waves LA and NYC experience — so different from New England and Bay Area climates.]

To clarify — when I was talking about “structure, taste, labor, class, race, gender, etc.” I was doing so in the context of the question of criticality, and how I hear people saying there isn’t enough of it in the Bay Area; wasn’t dismissing those conversations (which I am often engaging in) at all, rather saying that it seems there is a lot of criticality, but perhaps too few public forums for it. A separate issue from institutional critique (and also I guess I should add, if it’s not obvious, that I mean a mainstream form of institutional critique that has the function of court jester).

I think a lot about what meaningful institutional critique might look like now; mostly, it looks structural to me: making sure Open Space becomes W.A.G.E. certified [Can it?], publishing our fee structure online (working on it!), making our contracts as artist-centric as possible — things I know you also believe in; Open Space’s history of ethical behavior is in part what made me feel like I could do this job, after so many years spent largely on the other side.

The steps I just mentioned can feel like very meager things; we’re surrounded by such horror, and there is such palpable rage and fear around us (one need only take mass transit in the mornings, my god — and I say this not at all in jest). But to try to do right by people in whatever little ways seems like the place to begin.

What will the different look like, how to help it come to fruition… I dunno! Playing with how to meaningfully support investigative arts journalism, since there is so little of it happening; also thinking of networks of writers and artists from different cities and states and countries — what does fruitful dialogue mean for those individuals, and how can OS, as a small journal at a very large institution, be a conscientious member of the ecosystem? I think paying people more to do less is crucial right now; we’re all so overwhelmed, as makers and receivers.

Tell me about this (these?) poem(s) you’re writing… revising drafts is such a pleasure, no? [I’m enjoying revising this, and taking pleasure in the elegance & wit of your prose; I’m also struck by how uptight I am at points.]

xx

[I was struck by how uptight I am/was too!! I wrote that in earlier as revision too, and then uptightly took it out! And I keep thinking how loose, how fluid, how easy, how natural your writing always seems to me.]

The Bay Area has always seemed to me more messianic than puritanical. Puritanism and San Francisco, would anyone have ever said so before now? I’m amused by your calling LA “soulful” —truly the opposite of long-held prejudices about the shallowness of the southland, but maybe I agree with you. When I’m in LA, now, I feel a sense of openness and freedom that I away ran to the Bay Area for almost thirty years ago. A sense that more is possible, that one could disappear there, reappear as someone else, be surprised, discover something, daily. It feels like a city; how is it that San Francisco still feels like a town? Poor Suzanne, reneging on all her love for the Bay Area city that formed her soul. It was both the endless sense of possibility (sexual, social, cultural, economic freedom— once it was cheap to live here— pure joy) that San Francisco offered when I arrived at age 19, along with its insistence (and a civic history that believed) that it was possible, desirable, to change the world, almost by willing the new one into being— and that messianic tendency, that certainty that we could not just change but make a better, kinder, world by loving each other openly through the changing; these things seem to have disappeared in the Bay, or at any rate have been forced much underground. Has the hopefulness disappeared? The kindness has, the tolerance, the respect for other beings. Like so many other long-term local residents, my heart is broken by what the city seems to have become, what it’s lost. That the spirit of transformation is now merely the spirit of “entrepreneurship”, of “innovation.” Well, this is a digression.

But maybe not. I took too long to respond to your wonderful message, because I find myself still so worn down by having to think through the questions and problems the Bay Area arts communities continue to be forced to ask in the face of real economic devastation of same. How will we ever survive? In truth, the questions haven’t changed all that much in the 20+ (ulp!) years I’ve been working in the arts here. When Julie Deamer and I were running {four walls, in the late 90s, the problems were precisely the same: not enough critical arts journalism in the Bay Area; criticism which would help create a more dynamic sense of interplay and exchange between artists and audience, and help create, educate, bigger local and extra-local audiences about what is special about the artists here; collectors who don’t give enough support to local artists, taking most of their collecting $$ elsewhere; ever-shrinking opportunities for part-time, sustainable employment so artists have time to make their work; ever-rising rents. Those are the complaints; are the complaints reality? Of course they are; does it matter? I have always been confused about reality on the large scale, except for the ways I do believe it is torqued by reality on the human scale.

Here’s what I mean by that — what you point to in your paragraph about structure, and your aims for Open Space’s future, renews my sense of hope, a little. I feel grateful that you are taking it up, taking it on. It feels crucial, critical, that you work toward these things specifically. Uh, to keep it real. Keep it ethical. Know that one does get to make an ethical choice inside the structure. Pay more for less!! Strive for a true transparency. A couple of months ago, at a poetics conference on the other side of the country, the poet Katy Bohinc said, in response to complaints about “the institution,” that it would be better to think about the problem not from the question of institution, but of institutionality. That there is a choice for a person inside an institution whether to reproduce the forms of institutionality as such, or not to reproduce them. Open Space was formed, partly, to focus on the being-human side of the equation, to advocate for that. I am so admiring of the ways that you are there now doing your version of this, continuing expanding deepening broadening, even anchoring, improving on, the effort that meant so much to me for so long.

But also, the endeavor that I just didn’t have the energy or the spirit to keep at any longer. I’m idealistic and naive. Leonard Cohen: “they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom/ for trying to change the system from within.” In truth, I felt that, little by little, the institution wore away at my sense of being human. (Or I couldn’t keep myself open any longer, somehow.) You touched on this earlier in the conversation: the individual working in a place like SFMOMA or the Times becomes a metonym for the edifice, often, despite all the individual’s best efforts against that. The edifice is a distancing mechanism; on the one hand it hurts, on the other hand, it helps push some important things forward. (“SFMOMA pays their artists and writers a living wage, so should you.”) Some people thrive under these terms; they make things happen by being inside the institution. I was always at odds with myself about it. Is this a question of ego? An ego problem? From which end? The question seemed ever-present to me, are you individual or institution? Or, artist or arts administrator?

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Photo: Suzanne Stein.

The poem you ask after wrestles in its own way with some of these questions of ego, of institution, of the individual, of how one makes sense of the responsibility to hope and the responsibility or possibility of shifting a structure. And it wonders about where that happens. The poem is heavily citational (or multivocal, depending on your perspective); citing (retweeting) persons, literatures, bots. The spine of it was written, as I said, over the course of the years I was running Open Space (I said just the last three, but in fact the draft extends all the way back eight years), drafting it, composing it, consciously, in reverse, all that time, using the social media stream as the location of its composition. So live, in public, even if no one reading my stream could “read” it. As such. I have often worked live in public. Improvised text, improvised speech. Responsive to site or other. And the result is often published unedited. But in this case I am revising the way I revise my other, not-live compositions, that is, heavily reworking, revising sculpturally. The body grows up around the spine, new ideas, energies, are layered into it and around it. It gets multidirectional. That’s what I can say about it for now. But yes, revision is my favorite part, I love it, lose myself in it. I haven’t had an opportunity to get lost in something for a lot of years, so I’m very happy in it.

I want to ask after your own work, as an artist, and how or if (or yet) some of what we are talking about here affects or changes it, or changes how you work or think of yourself as an artist, now employed by an art institution. You too have been working in forms of live, improvisatory writing. Has anything changed yet for you, does it matter, is it too soon to tell?

xoxox

Suzanne

So much to say in response to your fascinating and (in some places) painful thoughts about California, and the Bay Area — I think one of the liberating things about leaving one’s longtime home is that one also leaves the narratives that build up over time. In this era, in cities like SF and NYC, those are often narratives of loss, fueled by some of the ugly realities of wild gentrification, and, certainly in my case with NYC, nostalgia was another fuel. Whereas here, I have no (external) ghosts, and my judgments about what is are still very much in flux — this is both destabilizing and a great pleasure, or maybe relief, after feeling that I knew where I lived so well; my world had begun to feel small. Blindness masquerading as intimacy. It’s good to have to look closely at what is immediately around me, since I can’t speak to the horizons. Maybe somehow similar to wanting not to be up high, but to lay oneself down in the earth … maybe. Also very different.

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Photo: Claudia La Rocco.

The tensions (there is a better word) you talk about, between individual and institution — I felt those so keenly when I was an NYT critic. Though it was an incredible job for a writer (paid only to look and record and muse!), it also obscured that identity under a mantle of power (the institution’s, not the individual’s), and at a certain point I wanted so desperately just to be seen as a writer… I couldn’t at that time see my way through to being seen as both an NYT critic and a writer — I started when I was so young, and my voice wasn’t at all mature, confident, etc. It had yet to get to the place of maturity that then only yields to more uncertainty… I didn’t even realize that place existed! Anyway, what am I trying to say? Oh, this: that maybe I got a lot of my institution-individual angst out of the way very early, and that now, or at least for now, after years of tussling with institutions, and eventually collaborating, more and more, I am not at present beset by that difficulty of how to be myself within an edifice. I wonder if this is a great, as in large, difference between coming to an edifice when one is already a mature artist, as you did, versus coming to one while a baby, as I did (I mean, my god, I was 20-something! Writing HORRIBLE poetry! Google docs wants that to be TERRIBLE, but I resist.). And so at a certain point I grew to believe that the only way to writerly freedom was to be an independent agent (well, I guess I always was independent, if we want to talk about things like health insurance. That’s another matter, if not unrelated). So I went after that independence, and it was marvelous — it was entirely necessary, as I think this move is for you (and also terribly [there you go google docs] hard, and therefore brave, and so good for you, not just to molder in a place where your ego could get stroked).

But then of course as always happens what had looked like (and was for a while) freedom, became something else, something more confining; we never can escape the self … and now here I am, back at another giant institution, this time with health insurance, this time making an adult choice… and after a few shell-shocked months, I think: yeah. This was the right choice. I’ve started making art again, but slooowly, and I have started (bliss) saying no to things, after so many years of feeling that freelancer “yes” neurosis.

I have space again to change. One last example, and then I throw it back to you, for the final word: I am right now writing a lecture to give at Naropa, in just a day or so, and I have been having an awful time of it, and I have only just realized that this is because the lecture is on a familiar topic (collaboration, performance… which we are now doing, our first of many, I hope), so familiar that it has become something of an institution, self-made, around myself (the brand of the solo artist. Ughhhhh [ughhhh]). To say it more plainly: it’s a narrative that I have repeated so many times that it has become an exoskeleton. It needs, in other words, shedding — which, luckily, is somewhat easier to do with lectures than with identities.

To be continued, & LOVE, [Jesus, CLR: did I really not thank you for your very kind words about how I am running Open Space?! Thank you, Suzanne, x2: You made a great thing.]

Love,

clr

C, you point to something so important in your last paragraph there — something I was trying to get at in another way. That is, the way we internalize forms of institutionality and become them. I don’t think it’s a form of adolescent angst to keep trying to understand this, I don’t think it’s something one ought to outgrow. When I said the individual becomes metonym for the edifice, I meant of course in both directions. You pointed to the individual-erasure that metonymy enacts in the negative, I felt that often too. And sometimes it really smarts. On the other hand, the converse of sitting in the chair that reads “New York Times,” and not “Claudia La Rocco,” is the way the institution makes all of those front-row seats possible. Even long after you’ve left it behind. The stain of privilege.

I think it’s imperative, as much as ever, to question how and who we are inside the institutions we inhabit, wherever they are. And to be vigilant in watching for the ways we assume their power as our own, or allow ourselves to be ethically defeated by them. The other day a friend employed the useful phrase “the alibi of the institution,” in reference to the way the structural (in)justice system keeps allowing white cops who murder black and brown men and women in cold blood, on camera, to walk away from their crimes with impunity. It’s just as important to distinguish between the individual and the institution they are caught (up) in. It’s not so far a leap as it seems to trace this line here: museums are still (but for how long?) extraordinarily powerful in the way they shape cultural narratives; for better or for worse, so especially are the individuals in them. Why else the litany of complaints on SFMOMA’s reopening, regarding the truly awful race and gender imbalance in the galleries? I mean, we’re all always both: individual and institution, wherever we are. No?

You say your narrative hardened around you; that narrative I’m guessing you’ve had to deploy in residency application after project proposal after bio statement after invited-lecture topic. (This isn’t an accusation! We are all forced into these narratives.) I love that you are in that place of change, shake, shift; that something new has to happen. (Wait, what did happen with your lecture? Where did you land?) I wore out a similar exoskeleton in reverse: always having to write the same, slightly evolving, narrative on behalf of Open Space. Year after year. I didn’t stop believing in it, but I stopped believing myself in it. So I had to move on. We really are on each other’s flipside: I’m thrilled that, when it comes to work, for money or for poetry, I wake up every day in service to myself. Myself in context and with others of course, but framed for myself, for the first time in so long. Or possibly I’m entering a post-institution late-style re-re-adolescent phase. “I have space again to change.” Me too. (The stain of privilege?)

We’re way overbudget on a word count here. To be continued and continued, I hope — seems like we’ve barely started. We should do this continuously.

Love,

Suzanne

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Photo: Claudia La Rocco.

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