Of the everglades and the fiction of solid ground

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I had the great pleasure of hosting a few nature-loving friends over the course of last week. Aside from the lizard and bird-spotting you can do pretty much anywhere in Miami, we also managed to head out for a day to the 15 mile bike loop in Everglades National Park, Shark Valley.

The ride is flat and easy. The glades engulf you as you trek further along. If you’re lucky (as we were), and it’s not too trafficked, you can ride for miles with only the local wildlife as company.

The alligator population is such that sometimes you actually have to swerve to avoid the creatures as they nap—their long, dark bodies sprawled half along the pavement, half dipped in the still waters alongside it. I lost count of the number of these odd beasts we spotted somewhere in the low twenties.*

The landscape is also, of course, dense with a wide variety of strange wetland flora as well. It makes for an expansive and alien environment for a desert creature like me. And beautiful.

I spent much of the ride thinking about two things: 1.) The impending flooding of Miami and its surrounding areas, which will, you can be sure, eventually make painfully clear the consequences of our shared disavowal of climate change, and 2.), the reminder a friend recently gave me that the outline of Florida you see on any given map is a fiction. The borders are porous in the state. Land is sometimes dry and sometimes wet. The water level, not the cartographer, marks the shifting outlines of this bizarre jutting mass, a sort of vestigial tail of the continental U.S.

Much has been written about the (political) trouble with maps.** But to my knowledge, considerably less so about the ecological consequences of ordering space cartographically. If we understand Florida as solid ground to stand on, we do so in part because we believe in the fictive representation of its borders on the maps we make of it. And that representation in turn allows us to ignore the material facts of ecology, and of our participation in it. Maps also, I think, quite likely aid in the disavowal of the material facts of the State.*** These are not separate issues. And their mutual imbrication will be made only more clear when refugees cross borders to escape ecological disaster just as frequently as they currently do by cause of political catastrophe.

Riding through the glades, despite the tourists and the paved path, is one way to encourage a different kind of map making: one more rooted in the body and the experience of place (both very messy affairs) than the ordered work of dividing land from water, self from other, us from them. It seems that we will certainly, in the coming years, need better ways to make alternative maps. Because the water is coming. And we might have been better off if we had acknowledged that it has always, in some way, already been here.

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* We also saw a female crocodile (apparently the only one typically in the park). And, of course, birds of various sorts flew alongside us as we rode.

**See, in particular, the lovely work of Michel de Certeau.

*** Think, for example, of the recent claims made by presidential hopeful (and all around asshole) Donald Trump about the necessity of a literal wall along the U.S./Mexico border.

 


Bienvenido a Miami*

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Oh comrades, dearest comrades! I have now lived in Miami for just over a month. What follows are the three most distinct (if entirely non-scholarly, anecdotally-based, wholly subjective, and only initial) impressions I have of this curious, sometimes brutal, sometimes astoundingly beautiful city.

As a woman of the West, born in the desert, whose baseline phenomenological landscape is one in which foliage is sparse and sunset reds and browns glow through the evening, the first thing that struck me about Miami was the plant life. Everywhere you go these massive, sinewy, insanely green and lush trees and bushes reach their leafy arms in all directions. There are flowering things, too, that might be something else entirely (and that look, certainly, as though they’ve grown underwater). This ubiquitous flora sends its various vines dripping down. It shakes off its warm winter rain collections onto the streets below. One feels sometimes, walking among such creaturely greenery, like civilization, infrastructure, and all the stuff of urban life, is teetering very near the edge of its annihilation at the hands of the hungry jungle upon which it was built. It is amazing. And sometimes terrifying.

Equally astounding is the linguistic diversity. It would be very difficult indeed to get through a day wandering around the city without hearing at least 3 languages. More if you could trace the incredible and dynamic shifts between the regional dialects of Spanish. But while this is, it seems, a Latin American more than a U.S. American city, Spanish is by no means comfortably holding an aural monopoly. Haitian creole, Portuguese, French, German, Italian… They combine in busy bars and restaurants, and among the crowds on Miami’s beaches, to make a cosmopolitan cacophony that sounds, if you’re in the right mood, like a strange, avant-garde piece of music.

Finally: the sprawl. I have written in the past of the potentialities (both positive and negative) of urban sprawl, but my time in Los Angeles did not prepare me for the bizarre machinations of sprawl as they exist in Miami. The way the city grew into and around its suburban and pre-urban enclaves and (from what I understand) its byzantine and likely corrupt collection of development policies and politics means that infrastructure is clogged. Cars are privileged while pedestrians and bikers and public transit riders are largely ignored. The arterial Route 1, off of which I live, is a hellish parking lot that I think I would be willing to claim is worse than Los Angeles’s infamous 405.

There is much more, I hope, I will soon write about the complex of neighborhoods and their particularities. For now, these three observations of the so-called Magic City will have to suffice. It is a jungle of both plant and automotive life, and of linguistic acrobatics. Miami is proving to be, if nothing else, fascinating.

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*When one is moving to Miami, one learns with terrifying quickness that Will Smith’s 1998 hit single “Miami” is the most salient cultural reference to the city (at least among my generation) for many, many people. One makes this deeply upsetting realization when one is forced to listen to many of one’s friends and loved ones sing the chorus again and again and again. The damage Mr. Smith did to Miami’s global reputation cannot be calculated.


Of thee I sing, oh Cleveland

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I am a swooner. I just am. People make me swoon. Weather can too. I swoon over good coffee. And cities. I am, perhaps more than anything else, a city-swooner.

I think I might have always been a seeker of special places. When I was a kid I used to make myself a tiny squat in a corner behind a huge houseplant in my parents’ living room. I liked the way the light shot in through the leaves, and that no one could find me there. I liked the idea that even the small animal that was me could choose a space, embed herself and her imagination in it, make it her own. That corner was likely the first clear indication of an obsession with place and space that has followed me across the three continents and 7 cities I have called home. And yes, I fell for all of those cities. Hard.

It might be safe to say, though, that I have never swooned with such intoxication and ecstasy as I did over the city of Cleveland. And my heart, though it has often been broken, has never felt quite so crushed by a departure as the one I now face, sitting as I do in my small apartment in Miami, far from the smoke stacks of the ArcelorMittal Steel Plant, and the grey skies of the Midwest, and the shores of the great Lake Erie. Oh Cleveland. My Cleveland. I long for you.

It is difficult to point exactly to what it is about the city that so captured me. Certainly the exceptional availability of cheap beer helped. And the first real snow falls of the season. (I only understood what Robert Frost meant by ‘downy flake’ after the winter of 2014).* I loved the architecture, even, perhaps especially, the dilapidated mansions of Millionaire’s Row and the decaying industrial warehouses all around. I even grew to love the Browns. Oh, and the dive bars. The not-so-divey dive bars. The Metroparks. The flats. The hot dogs. The utter, insane, giddy joy induced in everyone when, after so many dark months, the sun comes out on the first 60-degree day in Spring.

Mostly, though, I think it was Clevelanders. They are a scrappy, long-suffering, hard working, weird and sometimes misanthropic bunch. And even if they might say otherwise, sometimes, to each other, they love their city. And, after a while, an amazing crowd among them seemed to love me too. And god, did I ever swoon over them. So, so much.

But, woe, oh dear readers, this is my last Cleveland post for the foreseeable future. And thus, because I swooned so, let it stand as a declaration of my absolute, my undying, my completely sincere adoration for Cleveland and for its glorious, bizarre, and beautiful inhabitants. Let it be a call, loud and echoing, into the abyss of the internet. I sing your praises, Cleveland. I sing of your cursed sports teams, of your waterways once aflame, of your art, and your grace, and that strange smell still lingering from the hey day of industry that is sometimes carried by your bitter winds. I sing of your bagels. I sing of the market on your West and the snow banks on your East. I sing of your booze. I sing of your brunches. And I sing most of all for those within your borders, and those poor lost souls, like me, who long to return. I sing of your glory. For it is your own, hard-won glory. It is only, always yours. Oh Cleveland. My Cleveland. I love you.

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*See  his “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening“.


Play of the Day

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Comrades, oh dear comrades!

The play of this autumnal day is the publication of my most recent article (co-authored with my lovely and brilliant colleague, Katie Kelp-Stebbins) in Media Fields.

You can read it here if you so desire.


Play of the Day

6251267834_bd6b0b0e6e_oComrades!

Lo! And alas! The end of the summer draws rapidly nigh. For those of us in the great city of Cleveland, this means sucking as much warm weather marrow out of the season’s bones as it can possibly offer. And they may not offer that much. This is Northeastern Ohio. We know what’s coming.

For me, in particular, the close of summer requires an effort to maximize the number of hours I can lie, buoyed by fresh or salt or chlorinated water, with my toes wiggling toward the horizon. And so, on this Labor Day weekend, let me celebrate with you one play of the day that was not, in any real way, laborious: I spent the morning floating in the shallow, warm waters of the Great Lake Erie.

Lake beaches are fantastic. And since Cleveland has put in great efforts to make its waters more inhabitable, they’re usually* a great place to store up some vitamin D and take a dip. My personal favorite for you, oh dear readers, is Huntington Beach in Bay Village. I swam there for hours.

I’m pretty sure my totem animal is a sea otter. And maybe there aren’t any in the Great Lakes. But I feel like I might serve as a reasonable (slightly less furry and cute) substitute.

That’s my play of the proverbial day, friends. Now get the hell outside and find your own way to get some summer sun while the getting is still good.

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*Still always a good idea to check the nowcast. And if it’s been raining recently, maybe pick a patio somewhere instead of tossing your heat-weary body into the water. I’m told “combined sewer runoff” is a problem. I haven’t looked up what exactly that phenomenon entails. Nor do I intend to.


On hipster art, capital, and bodies

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Not long ago, oh kind followers, I went to see an installation at the Cleveland MOCA. The piece was “The Visitors” by Ragnar Kjartansson. It was astounding. Spectacular. And maybe a little bit upsetting.

I loved it. I really, really loved it. So much so that I went back a second time with a friend and demanded we sit in the dark room, surrounded by nine large screens, for the full 64 minutes. And, were the installation something more akin to a band on tour, I would follow it around the country. I would sit again and again, mesmerized by the house in Hudson in which the work was filmed, and by the ridiculously attractive musicians who, in real time, sing and play on their various instruments.

The piece is deeply affecting, in part, I think, because it does such work on the viewer as a body in space. Surrounded by screens that you cannot see simultaneously you have to move around, to choose where to rest your gaze. You also have to habituate yourself to being in more than one space, that of the gallery and of the house in which the piece was filmed, at once. The surrounding speakers and the music and other sounds they loudly deliver contribute to this effect, asking you to be both very much in your body and elsewhere.

Kjartansson seems to like to lull his audience in this and other ways. Repetition and reference are among his well-employed tools. But more than the dirge-like quality of the music, or the strange way his work both fragments and aestheticizes physical space, disorienting the viewer as it charms her, what threatened me by “The Visitors” was that it hit too close to the mark of my own aesthetic sensibilities. Kjartansson has been called a ‘hipster artist’ before and here he delivers something one wouldn’t be amiss to link to that banal (if slippery) cultural class. So I wondered if, perhaps, my love of the piece had something more to do with my data body in the ebbs and flows of late capital than it did with my own theoretical and aesthetic training, or my embodied experience sitting in the gallery*, or the strange pathways that led me to the piece to begin with.

There may be, though, a way in which the pleasures afforded by works like “The Visitors” aren’t just the same commodified and commodifiable aesthetics of hipsterdom (which is to say, of avant garde consumerism).

The answer likely lies in emerging theories of how to locate aesthetic practices in the contemporary moment. Nicolas Bourriaud has tried to trace such trends under the umbrella of the “altermodern,”** but I think I prefer the “metamodern” offered by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker.*** In their exploration of contemporary cultural objects they point to an insistence in many works on oscillating between irony and sincerity, between cynicism and utopic speculation. Kjartansson’s work does this to great effect. A kind of ambivalence might, in certain cultural contexts, prove critically potent.

If there is something I would want to add to the theories of contemporary art elaborated by Bourriaud, Vermeulen and van den Akker, it would be a closer look at the somatic. Hipsterdom can’t entirely conquer such terrain. My hope is that capital can’t either. And perhaps one way to read “The Visitors” is less to worry about the ways the viewer is interpolated by capital, and more to grab tightly onto the somatic joys the work offers her while still clinging to critical awareness.

I’m quite sure that capital can and does do its own metamodern work. And it’s worth worrying about the ways metamodernist art can and is appropriated by ideological forces to which I and many among us stand opposed. But perhaps there’s still an exploit for us somewhere, perhaps even somewhere in the ways our own bodies inhabit their environments and experience their worlds. I’m not sure. I’m cynical. But I am also moved, hopeful.

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*I both laughed and wept. Seriously.

**See Bourriaud, Nicolas ed. Altermodern. Tate Publishing, (2009).

***Vermeulen, Timotheus; van den Akker, Robin. “Notes on Metamodernism”. Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol. 2 (2010). pp. 1–14. [Special thanks to the talented Jeff Kruth for turning me onto the piece!]

 


Of the entrepreneurial spirit and its discontents

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Everyone, it seems, in neoliberal camps, in maker-collaboratives, in venture capital firms (although, I admit, in very different ways) is swooning over the figure of the entrepreneur. We, in contemporary U.S. culture, like the start-up company. We applaud the risk-taker. We cheer on people with big ideas and little capital who make things in their garages no matter what the naysayers, well, say. (And no matter that the ‘garage’ is likely not a garage at all).

I like productive outliers and do-it-yourself-ers. I like ambition, too. Don’t get me wrong. But I have developed, of late, a resistance to the rhetoric of entrepreneurialism. This will not be surprising to many among my (small in number but totally glorious) readership. And they will already understand why I want a way of describing creative, novel intervention that knows the banner of entrepreneurialism is a very clever way to obfuscate the facts of contemporary labor: that is to say, that it hides the logic of precarity by suggesting creative work (without pay, or with only meager compensation) done in one’s leisure time is an individual and social good. And, of course, by suggesting that those among the entrepreneurial ‘creatives’ who do their work well will both change the world and grow spectacularly rich doing it. The fact that very, very few entrepreneurs ever get rich seems to consistently escape popular notice.

What may be worse, however, is that the kind of entrepreneurial ‘spirit’ we seem so vocally to root for is never about real, culture and world-altering public good. (Which, by the way, we expect to just emerge and never to pay for.) What we want is for the entrepreneur to wow us with his new, exciting gadgets, social media platforms, and sexy, quick solutions to slow, difficult, problems. Such problems are not per se technological in nature but are instead enmeshed in social and political networks as much as they are in the world wide web.

The discourse around the entrepreneur has also sucked the marrow right out of creativity. ‘The creative’ has become equated with the entrepreneur. Producers of art are only ‘creatives’ if the result of their labors can be monetized. That sleight of hand, to swallow up creativity and spit it out as not a way of engaging in the world, of connecting with others, of authentically expressing desires and hopes and political critiques and inviting sustained thought and reflection, but rather as a way of getting investors is more than a trick. It is a violent foreclosure of alternative futures in favor of one, endless, awful reproduction of the capitalist status quo.

We may be deeply compelled by the ingenious creatives among us, but maybe, as Benjamin Bratton (in this very engaging and smart anti-TED TED talk) among others have suggested, we need not uncritically celebrate the idea man without an accompanying, difficult, slow and well-grounded critique of his ideas and of the idea of the ‘creative’ itself. That new gadget now being developed, we should all have learned by now, is not going to save us from ourselves and it absolutely will not save us from global capital.


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