A Day Paddle Boarding on Emigrant Lake and What is Underneath?

We drove a blue Subaru up the mountain across from Ashland where Emigrant Lake is indented like a tooth filling in the hills. Having been born in upstate New York I’m used to mountains like the Catskills with lush deciduous forests where the shape of mountains are obscured with layers of trees. But here the land alternates between crusted midsummer grass and rugged pines that darken portions of valleys and peaks. With a little concentration, it seems as though I could make out each blade of grass from across the valley. Georgia O’Keefe knew how old the hills seem, wrinkled, with their delicate crevices poised against the sky. Southern Ashland is the same. 

At the lake we were given life vests and paddles. Paddleboards are slightly raised surfboards. The paddle is measured to the elevated wrist, which allows for the paddle movement to begin at stomach’s core and swirl up the body like a gondelear. Getting on proved to be as wobbly as getting on a canoe at the beginning, but as I got my water legs I began with wide strokes. The movement was graceful to begin with. I picked up speed pretty quickly as I glided into the middle of the lake. But as the shore distanced I realized the wind had a stronger stake in where I was headed than I did. My paddling technique began to disintegrate as I barrelled into the center of the lake where the water had once appeared so placid. Through an awkward tacking technique I learned canoeing, I attempted to keep a straight line, though it buckled as the wind only seemed to strengthen. 

I had agreed to paddleboard with my partner and his mother earlier in the week. I had been canoeing, I had even been kayaking before and managed. I was a competitive swimmer back in the day and I am the type of person who would prefer to jump in any body of water that float over it. Unless I was headed for a narrow escape then might I would use a water vehicle, but even then, I would probably swim faster than I could paddle. Maybe I’m giving my swimming chops too much credit. But it’s just how I feel. My partner’s mother is a lawyer and a second degree black belt who has met Chuck Norris and absolutely loves paddleboarding. 

When we arrive at Emigrant Lake I was decidedly down on paddleboarding. I’ve seen too many yoga paddle boarding classes to take the sport seriously at all. All I think of is white upper middle class American women who want to feel centered swooping into downward dog position in a synchronized motion. I never want to identify myself with that. To stand on a board - not with short exhilarated surfing bursts like in Blue Crush, and not canoeing: a long form trip, that requires tenacity, planning, and strength, but, paddleboarding, an hour plus long foray of just standing. It seemed to me more of a show than a sport. People stand on the board, their form conspicuous above the water. They appear to be centered in the scenery, their figures unobstructed by anything, elevated above the placid water. The activity, if only aesthetically, seemed vain. And one can’t possibly do proper yoga on a paddleboard, it’s way too tippy. The entire activity is the equivalent of vaping, or tiny matrix sunglasses: the gemini of water sports. 

So there in the middle of the lake, the wind persisted, steadily, propelling me towards the opposite shore where I would keep company to a blow up unicorn that was pressed against the sandy rock shore.


“This lake is man-made.” My partner’s sister said as we walked down to the shore. She pointed to a swell of dirt and rock a quarter mile long, “that’s the dam.” The paddleboarding lady carried two paddleboards in each arm, which I assumed weighed about 10 pounds each, but were definitely closer to 40 when I picked them up later, and she may not have been human all along. 

I can’t describe it, but once you start seeing towns as colonies you can’t stop. Downtown Ashland is only an example of all of the towns nestled along the 215 mile long Rogue Valley and clusters of old wood houses of the Victorian inclination, but obviously windworn, smoke worn, tucked together in the Rogue Valley. Rogue was a slur for the native tribes that lived in the region. According the the Grant’s Pass government website it was, an othering term attempting to define the nature of the Native’s fight for freedom and representation: Rogues.

Oregon, the state which, for me as a child, took the form of one of the only computer games I played as a child in the mid 1990’s: The Oregon Trail, an educational game about people migrating west once the Pacific Coast was fully occupied by westerners. The trail began in Independence Missouri, where you had In a moment your wagon wheel could be broken in a river, holding you up for a vital week of the journey, as you are expressly traveling during the summer months. Or your daughter dies of smallpox, or your nephew was bit by a rattlesnake. I’m not sure I ever got to Oregon. I also cared so much that it made me sick to leave the computer and I ended up self sabotaging myself in the river for the passion of it. I never knew what to do with my competitive nature to begin with. 

Emigrant Lake is wishboned around the south Ashland hills. I took off my life jacket and slipped off the paddleboard into the water and thrust myself down as deep as I could. The water had a green murky quality and I found no bottom, with fuzzy underwater vision, I saw the paddle board waiting above me and my partner’s legs tread lightly. 

“It’s deep. There’s a town down there,” his sister said when I surfaced. “They moved the white graveyard and left the black one. Or that’s what I’ve heard…” she said, as if introducing a ghost story that sounded all too familiar. 

In the middle side of the lake, a pocket where the wind was lower and I could lay my paddle down and swim was where I found the joy in the activity, processing what I had learned against the wind, feeling slightly stronger than the blow up unicorn. How many ways have people, houses, environments been covered over by cement or water or language? And the rented paddleboard skims above it. This country is not subtle in its domination, and though the land is long and bubbling with diversity, the clusters of houses remain.


Footprints

After seven hours on the beach I return with charred skin to bone dry streets. With my burns pulsing, I lie on my floor in front of the fan. With the humidity it feels like 115 degrees outside. I feel I am becoming liquid as the sweat pools at my back. My burns are taught against my body and moving hurts so I stay still on the tile kitchen floor: the coolest place in the apartment. After a few hours of stillness I find that my digestion may be off. I have found it hard to work lately. Quitting my long time job and beginning a public life as a writer has made me ambivalent to all kinds of work. I drink a glass of water that was cooling in the freezer. 

I have become obsessed with salts and scrubs. Somehow it feels as if I exfoliate enough my true self will climb out of the flakes, especially on my feet, I scrub them down with what looks like large nail files. And it took until I was 29 to learn how to properly love my feet. Trust them when I build the courage to step away. I don’t want to say that “I’m finally growing up,” because becoming doesn’t take one step to achieve. I am not convinced that moving at all implies a fated final destination. I think it may take a lifetime of constant shifts. So this is just one transformation of many. 

Alexis Pauline Gumbs came to my graduate class in the early spring. Cherry blossoms swirled by the botanic gardens and collected in yards by the brownstones down Classon. The whole graduate in writing class formed a circle in the classroom. I don’t remember at which point she said this in the workshop, but the statement was clear and complete: we are going through breakthroughs all the time. This sounds exhausting. But the way she spoke was with a smile, with a sigh of relief. Here we are, never being the same and all the entanglements that may bring and loosen. Above all, it is not a thing to fear. 

Like an email without a heading. 

Like a story without a title. It doesn’t mean the narrative isn’t there. 

So when we are leaving we define what is left by looking back at the footprints. And footprints, like any print, require a pressing. As long as we have hands or feet, we will press with them. So language is a trace as much as weight is. Where type is the language of the voice and the head, footprints are the language of the body, footprints are also language of vast trends of people. Like signatures, the shape, the gait and movement move like a story across the ground, marking the movement of groups. Pressing implies a reproducibility and uniformity. Where script is a manual and expressive, a print is automatic. A footprint is automatic. It follows the joints and compression and set fluctuation of muscle. The automatic quality of print generally cuts away both expression and design, leaving a sense of apparent truth to the action. The uniformity of a footprint highlights trends. So only large variables are detected: a different species, or a different typeface. In the same way the effects of type on a page is generally consumed unconsciously, so too is gait. However a human body is propelled is natural to their form and rarely thought of in banal activities. The awareness of steps may produce intrigue, story. Courage literally means, to speak what is in your heart. This gesture is the point. Not out of contrarianism or rebellion. But awareness of the movement of the body the functioning of the step is the work that I charge us to.  

The term carbon footprint is batted around a lot. I became familiar with it in 2006 when climate change began to be marketed through movies like An Inconvenient Truth that described the alarming trends that were being detected in sea levels and the devastating effects of deforestation. I have some questions about the term footprint. It brings the issues of the environmental crisis down to the level of the body. While a carbon footprint follows human habits, I think that it points a punishing finger. Which is not to say that human habits are not responsible for the shifting climate. But, fundamentally, I don’t think any bodies are wrong. If anything must be fixed it is the printed word: the story must change. Because the story is what draws away from the real societal issues that create the environmental crisis. Rather than a footprint, we could say a structure, a highrise. The footprint is a system. Humans are so so good at systems, following systems, creating patterns. This might sound over simplistic, and probably quite capitalist now that I think about it. But the story needs to change. Not the story, but the perspective, like Roshamon, let’s find another perspective. It won’t be perfect, and it won’t necessarily save us. 

So we are wrapped in salty air at the beach, the sand is welcomed between toes and the sun is so hot it stings. The smell of sunscreen clouds the beach, and the umbrellas quiver like mirages in the heat. The water is so packed that we accidentally fell into people body-surfing. People find trash in the water and scream “what the fuck!” while picking up a sloppy piece of bag or foamy item and throw it a couple of feet away from them back in the water. I literally heard this several times over the beach day with regard to floating trash. 

I think about how ephemeral a footstep is. How unlike paving or planting. How it’s just pressing. After a soccer game a fielding is raw with steps leaving the story of the game marked in the land and the soil open and ready for new seedlings. Soil oozes up wet from the ground. I think of a trail, how, like an oral history, it winds through the land. It was not a car, or a plow, or a city official that collected these footprints. The logic of the trail seems to wind if looked at in a map. But its logic is deeply entwined with ancestral knowledge and understanding of the land, it deepens over time. The path requires new ways as the environment changes.

Something will grow where my feet step. Rather than the desecration left at the mark of a foot, I hope to make possibility and growth. Rather than covering over, our footprint may be a gentle farmer on the soil. I hope we can all imagine ourselves that way, as makers of beauty and potential with every step we take. And however we move forth, let it be in our bodies. Even if it is just the vibrations made from breath. That is moving. Let the moving be celebrated. 

Deconstructing Chivalry

Commuters run when necessary. Spot them at dawn and dusk darting gazelle-like into traffic breaks on a green light, or revving to pass slow walkers, hiding rush-induced rage at the sorry clip of the people in front of them. At Union Square we all get off the train to find a tangle at the subway stairs. Tens of people huddle to walk up at the same time. One older white man gestures to me wide like he is holding a platter and says, “go ahead.” 

Cities have cultures. And, of the cities I have seen, New York in the morning is open minded and short tempered. Priority goes to white working men and pregnant white women. Coffees are allowed on trains, snacks sometimes. There is room for all different kinds of people to get on the train, no matter what they’re wearing or how they smell, or what they bring on with them. People in the train are tolerated, though not always fully welcome. 

No matter how many people are on the train car, folks should never touch others with their body or their bag. It is necessary to remain vigilant of this as cars fill and empty between stops. The New York Post wrote an article about a guy who took a bat on someone because they didn’t take their backpack off in a crowded train. The New York Post is extreme. But, besides being a bad source for news, I wasn’t surprised to see the story. Bag etiquette transgressors upset a lot of New Yorkers. There are times when the proximity and anonymity is, not only annoying, but traumatizing.

I bring up the violence because it is evident and pervasive in everyday life. I bring up language because it succinctly, for better or for worse, defines a given situation. I have an instinct that language could have the potential to reform daily notions. Chivalry should be translated. 

Localized permissions permeate the atmosphere of a crowded subway. Back underground at Union Square, we huddle at the steps after the train has left the station. People funnel up persistently and the man tells me “go.” I wait two beats to see how long the offer stands. To let him think about the generosity of his claim. What does he mean to say this to me, to take this power and lift me up the stairway with his “go”? If I was old would he have offered? If I had a different skin color or gender presentation? If I was a man, would he have said “go” then? Instead he took that power and lifted me up, congratulating himself for making one white woman’s day a little easier. But in this act he had alienated all the people next to me and behind him. I have no more right than they do to go before him, as he clogged the stairway with his charity. 

I didn’t know how to respond, the opportunist that I am. I waited so that he could think about his offer, perhaps even to allow him to get a little angry at me (along with everyone else. Which is why it may not have been the smartest decision.) And then I went. The entire situation didn’t carry much weight in itself. But it is the very fact that the act is petty that intrigues me. No one has much to lose in the situation, but it still holds deep cultural significance. 

I thought about chivalry on the second train that barrelled through the Upper East Side. What does it mean for me to have priority? What does it mean for him to give me priority?

While I respect and admire the decency that living with a high moral code requires, the problem with chivalry is rooted linguistically. “Chevalier” means knight in French, or literally, horseman. A chevalier is also a lord, not a foot soldier. He lives in high socio-economic stature. So, at its base, chivalry has combative and classist roots. 

The word, chivalry implies aspects of duty, honor, and service. A knight is never himself. He is, without falter, an extension of his master. In tarot cards, knights have a vibrant, youthful energy. The knights are the messengers, never still in their motivations, but highly active players in the deck. They are truly romantics in character, living in the service of their idealized world. They are riders, which may represent both a mastery and relationship to their animal instinct that carries them. Or perhaps their horse is broken and, in Freudian terms, the power dynamic is the subversion of the id by the superego.  

I honor the extension of self, but not the erasure of it. 

To expect him to obey without thought, would deprive the knight of their problem solving, morality, and elasticity that makes them human. As a slightly obsessive compulsive person myself, I am constantly afraid of the chaos my right, monkey brain would unleash if left to its own devices (as if there is such a binary.) If the knight was to let go of his place in the order, would he be his own man? He may have more innate good than his previous station assumed, whose judgements are fixed, who provide orders. My therapist says that everyone has desires, and the floundering of those desires is visible in a person’s demeanor like something’s been left on the stove too long. 

The knight knows what it means to separate people. He stands at the border, or travels abroad, interacting with difference through the eyes of his king. This militaristic code has a model of boundary-making and expansion. Whatever good the individual is protecting is on the inside of their kingdom and the evil doing becomes “of” the other and the knights live like barriers from, or surveillance over the “foreign.” When citizens are to model themselves after soldiers, borders appear that the individual must protect, and the citizen must choose who their borders surround. They become like surveillance cameras, constantly judging and monitoring the geometry of each situation.

While the knight represses parts of himself, he travels as an echo of his kingdom, hence he knight will inevitably be unprepared for their conquest, and by extension, by mere existence, be hurtful to the land and the people on his travels. I think of the way people go to resorts in different countries and have no concept of the true culture of the place. Because somehow, still, even as a traveller, they need a buffer from diversity. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by Werner Herzog, the Spanish conquistadors trundle through Brazil, alongside the Amazon River. The men are laden with heavy armour, the women wear long medieval dresses on the mountains, and they bare canons down jungle ravines. The absurdity of the scenes are poignant and tragic. While floating on a raft on the Amazon, waiting to come upon a golden city, El Dorado, the company takes out a paper and declares themselves masters of the land they see. Throughout the entire film the conquistadors barely even see the native peoples. Arrows shoot at them from the brush. Their experiences simply can’t translate if the world is centered around a single belief system that they continue to carry with them. 

In so many ways the knight evokes a human desire that may outweigh the symbolic kings or queens. Knights live out a life that I think is ideal for humans. Games are small battles, requiring strategy, problem solving, and sharp decision making to the participants. These skills are some of our strengths as humans. Our brains can create elaborate and beautiful patterns that are constantly looking to trick and outmanoeuvre, naturally, and joyfully. We want to feel useful, we want to feel like we are doing good for the people we love. There is nothing wrong with that. It is human nature to desire movement, to travel, we desire to learn and continue to learn. We desire challenge. All of these aspects make up the core of a knight. 

But the common narrative of war is generally that it doesn’t make sense. All accounts of battle detail the need to survive rather than any type of strategy or discovery. More often, heroic acts are not of killing, but of kindness. The non-sequitur of war interrupts identity and narrative, both of which shatter and are replaced by history, written by the state, taught and administered by the state. 

And so chivalry continues, programmed into culture as an ideal. Romantically, chivalry should be dead. I am fine with holding doors, with paying for people’s meals, for helping people who need, who ask, for help. But the word comes out of a toxic intention within which is embedded a power dynamic. In On Photography, Susan Sontag describes the way in which plunder was/is a soldier’s pay. Being a soldier gave certain rights that may not have been morally acceptable on homeground. Hence, chivalry implies payback. So this man lets me walk up the stairs. But maybe in a way he has some sort of claim to me. 

Translate chivalry to compassion, which is akin to being of service. Being compassionate is a flexible and vibrant thing. Being of service has rules. Being of service has requirements and standards. Compassion can be as great or as small as it needs to be, yet requires bravery and malleability and attention that would match a knight’s. I say let duty go. Differences can be looked at, in the eye, our selves are not extensions of belief systems or leaders or rulers, but our ancestors. Compassion is not always easy. We are trained not to be kind to one another. We are trained not to be kind to ourselves, so these acts don’t appear to come naturally. We carry our ancestors. We have a responsibility to them, to see them, to forgive them, heal them, to heal ourselves in courageous compassion from within and out into the world.


The Season for Spiderwort

Windsor Terrace is subdued in the early summer afternoons after rain, when the clouds move along the sky in steady herds. I make it a point to become familiar with the plants that grow in any given region. But after ten years in this city, I found a flower I had never seen before. The shape of the petals caught my eye because there were only three, rounded against each other like a purple cup. The leaves looked like reeds that were long and collapsed over themselves like lax reins towards the ground.

To find their name I snapped a picture and googled “purple flowers in june nyc” and the answer came up almost immediately: Spiderwort. There are several plants with the “wort” suffix that I know of: St. John’s wort, mugwort, lungwort, bloodwort, and apparently the list goes on, down the page it went. The “wort” suffix comes from the Old English “wyrt,” a version of the contemporary “root” which connotes medicinal qualities. “Wort” plants are often considered to be under the umbrella of “weed,” their status hovering only slightly above common weeds, lifted only due to healthful properties. The suffix forms a hierarchy of plantlife, but the implication is inherently untrue. The common dandelion holds multiple health properties, as well as Queen Anne’s lace, jewelweed, and clover.

Around June 21st small purple flowers with explosive anthers extend out of meadows like a wiry unkempt beard from the centers. Like most weeds, spiderwort grows in open spaces, cultivated land, and meadows. It enjoys sun or partial shade in dried to well draining damp soil. It is resilient and stubborn. Its appearance is as wrangled and energetic as weeds come and fosters its name because it looks like a sitting spider with its long stems and leaves, and tiny buds like spider bodies.

Spiderwort is native to eastern Canada. Along the map it bleeds down the US eastern seaboard and east side of the Midwest into the Alabama region. They grow up to three feet tall on spindly stems. Their tiny blossoms open during the day and close at night. What I saw to be their cup-like form was a morning version of their flower as, throughout the day the petals invert before closing again in the night. The entire plant can be eaten, root to flower and is said to have health benefits including a neurological calming, stomach digestive. With the hums of strange serendipity, it also increases breast milk, which is what my friend who lives at the foot of the brownstone where I found these plants was hoping for (the scientific term for this is Galactagogue [like galactic]).

Tisane is usually a $4 drink at a fancy coffee shop. But in fact they have potentially powerful medicinal properties. These plants grow, for the most part, nameless in our midst. And, surely, why would any layman know much about them? In science classes we learned about chemical properties and chlorophyllic systems, but no properties of specific plants. So when we walked outside we viewed the plants as aesthetic or a nuisance, moving them into what would be an “art” or landscape. The separation of classes propagated a separation of life.

The concept of what is natural is always entwined with human movement and production. Specifically humans with money and power (hence the concept of the anthropocene). Embedded in forests of upstate New York are patches of apple trees that were once planted as orchards long forgotten. Unlike what I thought before, the trees don’t appear in clusters in that way naturally, but were planted side by side with hands or the blades of humans. What is native to this land has been so altered that even if it could be replenished, no one would know how the land looked before settlement. And the uprooting would unearth swaths of vegetation and annihilate thousands of species. Reparations for all that has been taken from the individuals who were taken to this land are left unpaid and the whole place is a burial ground. All of this is true, and the fact that I am talking about humans and plants and the environment is intentional and connected. In the forests of the moment I believe there are opportunities for a new nature. We can’t deny the past that has led to the story of the world now. But we can pay attention to the seasons.

I propose an integration, finding answers through the emerald spring leaves. Sometimes it feels like there should be a reason or a direction, the lack of which rattles me until I come out one morning or in the shower, or with a tarot card in my hand saying, “is this a sign?” And of course it is. And so flowers appear at my feet like whispers from the world. Whether it be the color, the shape, the property. It’s simply the season for spiderwort.

What I find interesting now is the concept of cleanliness. Having grown up in the country and nurturing my obsession with the properties of the plants that grew there, I moved to the city fully aware that the plants here were not to be eaten. This is obvious, I know. But I’m stating it in radical optimism, with the intention that cities can be redefined and reworked so that plants can be picked and eaten by people who live here. That while the land is mixed with native, invasive, and non-invasive non-native species, not to mention the physical structures that separate the land apart, there is a sense of being. An embodiment that needs to occur.


While outdoor living for plants, animals and people can’t be easy, I argue that, instead of just having encyclopedic knowledge of the plants, and the outdoor as a scientific or aesthetic place that is catalogued and monitored, and inside spaces are for emotions, relaxation, and play, it will be important to disintegrate the separation between indoor and outdoor. To locate yourself in the city, to embody the self as if it were a plant on the land. And, while on the beloved sidewalk, consider the animals, trees, and plants that grow in the cement cracks and learn about their qualities, watch their growth patterns in the seasons within the seasons. Each phase has a story to tell.

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A New Museum

When I was 18 I took the 6 train to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from near where I lived by Union Square, paid $0.25 and proceeded to cry, weep, just lose it in front of a Cezanne painting of a house through tree branches. It reminded me of my childhood spent in the woods. Fresh memories surfaced of the safety of the forest, the damp smell of the ground, and the anchor of an inert house in the distance. To me, the painting teeters on amateur. It is not quite the cubist masterpiece of Cezanne’s other work and the work that followed him. The trees are shabby and incomplete in the frame. The colors are not even very striking. Tonally it is like staring into a pile of dead autumn leaves. I imagined myself, symbolically out of the house and in the forest, making a trail of my own in a cement landscape, when all I wanted was to stare into a dead pile of leaves for the rest of time. To smell their slightly rotten musk beneath. To feel the undulations of dirt under my feet.

The Met felt safe and tight around me. The complete enclosure of the artwork embraced me like an oily and melancholic mother, the cost of whose love was essentially free, and whose halls were full of harmless zombies, suffocating from lack of oxygen flow and wandering in circles. I grew up with parents who were artists and spent most of my time, when we went to cities, in museums. I felt safe enough there to let go and often left wiping tears from my eyes. My twenties remain a second childhood, except this time there is very little in terms of guideposts, and people aren’t paid to “set me in the right direction” through school or by any other institutional means. Which is a good thing, but confusing and also requiring of a good amount of backbone which, for some reason I missed out on developing back when I was a real kid.

A few years later, Frida Kahlo looked at me sideways with a monkey on her shoulder. I had a down jacket tucked into my arm and an overstuffed bag on my shoulder. My feet grew sweaty in my large winter boots: visiting the scandinavian family in Minneapolis over the holidays. I was a woman, and also, not all feminine. I was a woman and nothing about my public body felt comfortable or right. Not since I hit puberty and not then. I would venture to say that every woman must unlearn despising her body and live in it fully, without shame. At 23, I was coming to terms with this physical self and everything else I had graduated from and was moving towards. And the world felt dark. But it may also have been a winter night.

I was familiar with Frida Kahlo. I knew the strong colors, the beautifully intimate frames where she contemplated nuggets of her life and experience. Each one was in fascination with her own figure and face as subject that seemed to bring into stark clarity a sort of narrative.  

My family was spread throughout the gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Art while I ambled behind. The permission Kahlo gave to mixing ecstatic color with personal pain, the courageous expressions of her shifting sense of self seemed to sink into me like a dose of medicine. The entanglements of plant and animal life that overtook the canvases. The askance gaze in her eye felt simultaneously frank and enchanting. The power gave me power the feeling of which didn’t wear off for several months.

This is the beauty of art, that it has the potential to communicate with our emotions with such complexity that it feels mystical. And while the artwork and the interaction with the artwork is personal, the politics and collectivity around artwork is fundamental in its creation. The artist then adopts collective social pains and anxieties, their narrative is marketed as culturally emblematic. In the sorry narratives of their lives, artists are portrayed as drunk, poor, with mental disabilities, with addictive personalities, helplessly possessed by their creative pursuits. And so, Kahlo’s narrative, as with many, is dappled with illness, pain, and genius quirkiness that fuel her and give her more legitimacy as an artist. As if this way of being is somehow unique.

The museum is awry. It is manipulating my emotions and running out of oxygen (I believe the reason why people get so tired.) Museums are melancholy heavens. Melancholy, as La Mar Jurelle Bruce, explains as pertaining to music in his essay Interludes in Madtime, is cyclic. While he describes music here, the same movement occurs in museums, the nostalgic returning, spiraling to some mythic time in which the work was produced. At their core, museums are tragic examples of colonization as well as toxic artistic celebrity under the guise of preservation. Museums are places where artwork goes to die. The pieta like a mummy in the corner. A sad matisse up on sharp white wall, the color escaping into the lights above. And by that time I can barely even look at the painting I am so ready to eat and drink water, and would much rather lie in the grass somewhere.

Across the stoney bridge from the Met, a show just closed at the Brooklyn Museum that I didn’t see. It consisted of Frida Kahlo’s “clothing and medical objects:” A surgical deconstruction of Kahlo through her illness, through fashion, accessories, and photographs that obsess over her “realness.” In an interview with the curators, Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa, they awe over the naturalness of her stone jewelry, the nativeness of her biology that gives her real pain and struggle. I am not trying to take away from the facts of Kahlo’s life that she worked through, or didn’t work through in her artwork. But I argue that her life and her feelings about her life are her own. What is to be found under a microscope of Kahlo’s belongings, but old Revlon nail polish?

Ultimately, I deviate from artistry being an outcome of suffering, and that we must pay the devil in order to have the kind of legacy she had, the way Robert Johnson, the mythical father of what became blues and rock and roll, did. The trite story takes away from the expression of her artwork and places her into a role in which she appears to be a Latina manic pixie dream girl. Just incapable of “fitting in” to being a ridiculously boring and unreal “normal.” As if no one dressed up to take photographs. As if no one wore jewelry from their native country. As if no one had a troubled marriage and opened it up, or had extramarital affairs. Give it up for yourselves, people, you are just as wonderful, plagued, and blessed as Frida was. Your pain is just as worthy of feeling, and expressing. Your feelings have bright colors. We don’t need an exhibit of this.

And the fad didn’t begin at the Brooklyn Museum. Frida Kahlo has bloomed like the million flowers on her canvases. Her face is everywhere from socks, to pens, and iphone cases. Kahlo is meticulously commodified.

Lately the Brooklyn Museum has made a point of focusing on people of color, women, and LGBTQIA artists and subjects, several rigid tick marks that Kahlo theoretically falls under. But there are other Mexican artists. There are other ways to create art encounters that are meaningful to contemporary culture that dance forward while looking back. To feed on Kahlo as a marketable object is not art, and it isn’t interesting. As an alternative, imagine a show about the ways in which Mexican artists are working with surrealism now and weave in some Kahlo pieces as inspiration. This world is rich rich. Let Frida Kahlo have a voice outside of her objects. We don’t need proof of her pain or her “nativeness” to coo over at the museum store.

Consumerism attempts to be mystical here when it is not mystical at all. This show simply takes Frida apart as a person of color, as a person experimenting with expressions of gender, as a disabled person. The celebrity of painters is tangential and completely irrelevant to the issues that are going on in the moment, it may in fact, do the museum good to reconsider their entire mission. For now the fact is Kahlo is a safe commodity.

I had a head cold in Rome when I met Edith Schloss. She was a painter who came up in the New York School of Painters, and was friends with the likes of Cy Twombly and Joseph Cornell. Her apartment was full of artwork of her friends, and family, and her own works. The apartment located, maybe in the mid-southeast section of the city, was narrow with tall ceilings in dark wood. Schloss led us to her bedroom where she opened a closet where she kept a file of her newest work that she had to reach up on a stool to take down. It was a large expanse of paper lightly toned with layers of watercolor, and two gods embracing in the air. Then she made us tea and considered the craft of Botticelli.

You don’t have to be friends with famous painters to have meaningful experiences with color, with framing. Schloss could have just as easily been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. But, Schloss, who worked well into her 90’s, understood who her family was. She understood and grew with the likes of Botticelli, of Cy Twombly. This was her chosen family.

I don’t know how museums should look anymore. But this is not working. Museums seem to be the location where art, study, and capitalism intersect. Or should I say, clash? Or should I say implode? I can’t seem to go to museums without feeling uncomfortable over the loss of the art there. The life withers under the microscope of gazes. What I want to say is that art has deep and profound possibilities outside of museums and socks.


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When Peace is a Bad Word

The trunks were thick in every direction, and the hills monotonous roils lifting and falling into the distance. This heavy oak forest north of Toronto was let free to grow by the Canadian government. I seem to remember these forests were called Queensland, but now I can’t find written proof. With only a five-minute walk from the main lodge, I had disappeared into the woods to “connect with them.” The camp where I spent summers working as a teenager connected me to this work opportunity in Canada. The place paid me as much as the train it took to get there, but I was in for the ride. It was a family program where parents, young kids, and teenagers would camp out and connect with nature in a utopian kind of program that was based in teachings of indigenous elders, but there were not many indigenous people I saw.  I knew almost nothing about the program before arriving, but once I got there I found my job was to lead a group of seven teens into the woods for the week.

 

I had experience hiking and camping with groups of children in the woods, but they were often woods I was familiar with. My walks in the woods before taking a group of kids out were usually to find plants, to see the way the trees grew and died, to get a sense of the land, and center myself. I was 20 years old with two years of New York City under my belt and thick thighs from walking. I was streaming with confidence, yet there I was, yards from the lodge and I could have been 5 miles north. It wouldn’t have made a difference to me. I was lost, and calling myself a complete fool for thinking I could jaunt into a huge Canadian forest I didn’t know. I believed, because I had happy experiences in the woods before, that they somehow loved me. This appears to be the difference between the city and the forest. The forest won’t give you limits or options. While there are directions to follow or go against in the city, the forest exists. While the city is the dream landscape of architects and city planners and regulators, the forest, everything in the forest is in the process of living and composting. It’s not a place, it’s a community.

I don’t remember much of being lost, just the way the trees, the speckled sky, and the ground appeared to converge and wind around me. I knew there were thousands of acres to the north. There on the seam between humans and forest, I looked for familiar cues to return and, not finding any, I considered my relationship to both.

I’ve always had a power complex about the word peace. I don’t know if I was born with it or if it was given to me. Like a spell, I believe it may have been cast at birth. My name, “Irene” is a name derived from the Greek “Eirene.” In Greek it is the name of the goddess of peace. It has since traveled all over the world. I have spoken to people of all different cultures who all have said that versions of Irene are common in their friends or families. Ostensibly, an outcome of imperialism.

At an event for Anemones, a zine published by Decolonize This Place, one of the organizers of art actions to protest Warren Kanders at the Whitney Biennial this year, a collaborator with the collective MTL+ brought up how New York is a little obsessed with Gandhi, who stands at the southwestern corner of Union Square. Having grown up idealizing the nonviolent resistance strategies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., it caught me off guard to consider another generative form of resistance. Especially when, for so long, I have relied upon a place of neutrality within myself to navigate difficult situations.

I looked up the word peace in order to get this all straight:

 

Merriam Webster

peace

noun

\ ˈpēs   \

     1: a state of tranquility or quiet: such as a: freedom from civil disturbance b: a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom  

      2: freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions

      3: harmony in personal relations

       4a: a state or period of mutual concord between governments b: a pact or agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity

        5: used interjectionally to ask for silence or calm or as a greeting or farewell

 

 

Dictionary.com adds:

synm

4. law and order, lawfulness, order, peacefulness, peaceableness, harmony, harmoniousness, accord, concord, amity, amicableness, goodwill, friendship, cordiality, nonaggression, nonviolence

Okay, I will take friendship. I may even take bouts of harmony. But leave the rest, it’s oppressive; inexpressive. I don’t want to live on an entirely peaceful planet if this is what it is. Cordial? Nonaggression? Nonviolence? Emotions must be expressed or they are suppressed.  According to the American Psychological Association, anger is a tool for action and problem solving. There exists a debilitating stigma against confrontation in “civil society.” Anger is a difficult emotion for me to articulate, as I am sure is true for many people. Anger is perceived as dangerous, wild, uncontrollable. An angry person is perceived as losing some of their personhood, which makes the irrational absurd and unreal, and the more rational is empowered to suppress anger. But to be able to see one another, we must be able to speak and to listen to one another. The texture of emotion is layered with strains of multiple emotions so anger flows with joy and sadness and all the rest. The expression of anger requires emotional action and sound. It requires disagreement, and I believe that there is an element of physical presence that goes along with the expression of anger. Like any emotion, anger is expressed just as much physically as it is verbally, which is why passive approaches to resistance are problematic.

The point at which I most gravely misunderstood the concept of “peace” was when I first started teaching. I worked with a group of third and fourth graders. During that first year (and probably into the second as well.), the quiet classroom was the peaceful classroom. But the kids were silently resenting me, saying I didn’t listen to them. And the silence became a contemptuous place. When the quiet cracked, it flowed, and the atmosphere became impossible for me to maintain with my force of will alone. It took a while for me to let go of my ego, and after some time healing relationships (some of which did not heal), I found that the most rich classroom spaces were not quiet, but places where clear, fair, and shifting boundaries were set that were based on the children’s needs and where they were open to express their feelings without judgement. However, a wonderful classroom environment can only go so far. We were still in a low income, primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican classroom, and here I was a white teacher invoking all of the privileges I knew.  And the classroom was owned by the school, and the school one day arrested a child for stealing a teacher’s money. This becomes, and I bring this back to land, an issue of space. 

No, I’m not a violent person. I am not implying that to resist means to take up arms. I strongly believe that hate produces more hate. This does not mean that nonviolence is equivalent to love. And this doesn’t mean that direct, intentional action and disruption is not love. The Civil Rights movement made very important changes in the laws of this country. Marches have made impacts on legislature. But it didn’t change the people it was asking to change. And while laws create the illusion of peace, laws, and to tug at this cliché, to pull this little chunk right out, laws are meant to be broken. As long as people do not empathetically care for one another, and actively communicate with one another, there are going to be digressions from the rule of law.

The air in the crosscountry flight is stale. Pale dull walls wrap around us like I imagine the insides of eggs gone bad look. We are close to one another, curled into pretzel positions waiting to land. East to west, we can see the land transform from green to flat and brown, all allocated into squares until we get to the Rockies where the thin divides of land shapes dissipate into peaks. The sequence of land across the United States tells a story of separation. This western (which has spread to almost all places on the globe) concept of land ownership begins within England in the 12th century and the British Parliament issued the “Enclosure Acts” beginning in 1730. This model began with the interest of landowners. It promised to protect their property and their serfs. Serfs were taxed to use their land (which was the beginning of rent). Law enforcement was created to protect these landowners, thereby keeping their piece: the peace. Thereby, when the English came to the “Americas,” they brought the “Law of Enclosure” with them. So since there was no “property ownership” yet, land was up for grabs. 

So I got lost in the woods in the search for peace. But peace is not an external, political state. Peace cannot be centered around the controlling and manipulation of space. Imagine a composting process. There will never be a static protection. We live like surfers on the backs of waves, we live on continental rifts, shifting tectonic plates and rotating soil, we live with constant overhaul, and the only disruption to that is the capitalistic push to encapsulate land. We do not live on a peaceful planet. Imagine this outlook spread from one to two years, to many. We can’t look at short term timelines. We reach to people like we are reaching into ourselves, across generations. Within our own bodies are the makings of our grandchildren. I imagine a bright light flowing from our gut, like a beacon for others, connecting each other in strong bonds of empathy, not unlike Donnie Darko.

Sometimes, in a city surrounded by people, teetering between worlds of media and reality, I feel my selfhood slipping, my identity changing. In many ways the changes in community affect identity changes in the self. Many of these discoveries happen when I am lost. Capitalism defines our identities. When our selves are transactional, we define our selves like places are defined and made static our changing selves become broken, which happens all the time. The solutions lie in the next transaction, forgetting the ongoing, the entire process that is existing within us at every moment, the gentle biomes and seeds that inform and change us right now.

There is a Bread and Puppet book I found during my internship with Printed Matter called I Am You. It’s a book about a man and a bird who discover they are the same and fly away. Bread and Puppet Theater is an activist theater group that uses large scale puppets and masks. To merge with others we must first acknowledge that in the merging we will become unrecognizable.

I sought refuge in the forest. I went to the forest because I thought I knew it and that I could identify it. In many ways I could, but the land was fundamentally not neutral. My understanding of land shifted in that moment. In a way, by being lost in it, I became it. Measured breathing allowed me to focus on the things I knew instinctually. Simply, the sun was veering to the west, so I gently watched it stay on my right as I eased down toward the lodge and back. I see myself, the history of my name, the violence in my body. I accept it and I must forgive myself. While I didn’t find that peace I was looking for in the forest, I did find a will inside myself, a sense of capability, and a challenge I continue to grapple with. And it is for the better. To be lost is a form of resistance: walking, solitude, survival, unproductive, inefficient. To be lost strengthens our senses. I encourage us to get lost, to let go of paths we once followed. I hope we see the world in a different way over and over again without feeling broken, while sensitively negotiating with land as we go. I hope we can engage with the world in a different way, to express ourselves with openness and the knowledge that we are keeping the peace by allowing disruptive, radical change.

What my teeth know

I grind my teeth when I sleep. I never used to, but for the last several years, though in denial, and in the depths of my subconscious, I know this to be true. In 2016, the dentist in Greenpoint looked into my jaw and traced the carnage. “See how the tops are worn down at the bottom, see the chipping?” Indeed, I felt the sharpening of my lower teeth, and felt a slight slant when I ran my tongue along the upper half of my mouth. In the place of reeling insomnia that dissipated when I was 24, there a clenched jaw. I woke easy on April 23rd, 2019 and I thought to myself, “well, I won’t always have these teeth to grind,” and that comforted me, and then I thought - “wait. But I’ll be dead at that point - that or very old and have other ailments I suppose.” Which made me uncomfortable that I had even had such a defeatist thought. Is my mindset to struggle through life without pleasure?


And will we get old? Or is it as close to the end of the world as we all think? I’m having a breakthrough and everything I make is crap. How can that be? Is it possible to become a contented and joyful being and still make terrible work? Being alive is not being beautiful in the commercial sense. But sometimes it feels like we’re being sold the apocalypse.


When I was 12 I ripped the black thread of my best friend’s friendship necklace because I didn’t want her to lose it. While we were zydeco dancing with our friend’s mom, I noticed it getting shoddy around her neck. Far too many of my precious things had fallen to the bottoms of lakes, or between wild blades of grass to have that happen to her. So I broke her side of our friendship necklace in order to save it. All of my precious objects seemed to disappear and so I kept things around me. I used them so that, in a sense they became me. Or I would wear them just so that I could monitor their existence. I didn’t trust anyone but myself, and so here they had to be - on me, in my hand, in my pocket. Even if that meant breaking them at my desperate hand.


This monitoring led to squirrel-like hiding places for objects, and feelings, kept precious far away from any other person who might not know how to treat them (remember how I ripped the necklace off of my best friend because I didn’t trust her?) Same. 


But it’s strange when the foe comes at night, and it comes from inside, and it comes for your teeth, which I don’t plan to take out anytime soon. And yet they become worn down and chipped and I run my tongue along my plagued bottom row and know that those imperfections mean I still have knots in my psyche. My body says, “you can’t control me, no, not by worrying and working all the time, and also not through procrastination and panic in tandem.” 


As much as it hurts me, as much as it is not symbolic the fact that I am grinding my teeth. I am quite literally destroying my teeth. It would be easy to go ahead and blame society, to blame the very fabric of my life. As Sun Ra said in This Planet Is Doomed, maybe we are living ruses that keep us from seeing reality. I waver and complain in the face of something which I don’t understand. I feel somehow helpless to the monotony and simultaneous banality and necessity of the smallest tasks. Where is respite but in solitary moments? Do they call this a breakdown or a breakthrough or just a busy season? Either way, my jaw takes some of the feeling my mind refuses to process. 


So. I would like to honor them. My teeth, that is. So I look up “what are teeth made out of” and though it makes me cringe to look at all of the names: pulp is one of them, along with dentin, and enamel. Like trees they have roots and within a thin layer of nerves and tissue. I settle into their uncomfortable, vulnerable complexity. WebMD asks me to ask my doctor about stress relievers. Or buy a mouthguard. Everything points to: meditate and train your body to relax. 


What I am engaging with regarding my teeth is manifold. They are unique, they will not grow back after that first losing of them, and they are right there underlining our faces like a choice on microsoft word document. They are the gatekeepers to the consuming of dense material. In a way they truly are our golden fortress, our protectors. From a smile to a bite, they are the shield and the shape, and a weapon on our face, defining us to the outside world, giving weight to our expressions. It is the teeth that insinuate existential fear, from a panther, a shark, a dragon, the teeth are the faithful warriors. And the fear of their disintegrating seems to be born from a fear of helplessness.


I have my father’s teeth. They’re weird because the lateral incisors are small. I have cracked them more times than I would like to admit. Several of them are patched up with some sort of tooth cement (and I would imagine this will continue to happen in my life. I am not yet 30 and my teeth are haggard.) 


Dentists have always been very lax with my teeth “your wisdom teeth are growing in. You have room.” It may have been true, but I remember the intense pain of wisdom teeth growing in. I was around 22, and I would be writing when all of a sudden I thought every single one of my teeth would fall out, followed by my jaw. The sudden assaults scared me, but I didn’t do anything about it until I ran my finger along the crests of newly formed teeth and knew they were the famed wisdom teeth that many a friend had uprooted, and so for days sat with cotton swabs in their mouths and apple sauce and mush strawed in. 


My mother used to take me to this real holistic doctor in Massachusetts - where all the holistic doctors were - not in upstate New York, where I grew up several towns over. In my memory he was a very old man, his skin paper thin white, nearly transparent hair. Something about his voice was buttery, clicking against the walls as he asked me if I wanted braces. I said. “No.” Of course not. Who wants braces! And more importantly, why would he ask? He’s the adult -  he’s the damn doctor, weren’t braces prescribed? Weren’t they just necessary. Anyway. He listened to my ignorant self, and here I am, with teeth as wrangled as a tornadoed mountain, strong, and worn. An overbite for sure. At 29? I’m too proud to get braces now. 


And as I grind them, as the jaw circles, it seems to be grinding over some expected words, something that must be said. I dream of them falling out. I dream of them rotting, or, are there still baby teeth in my mouth for some reason that just forgot to come out so many years ago? I dream of molars as wide as mountain ranges.  What am I not saying? What is the motion for me to ease out these ingrained anxieties? Is an anxious free life even possible? I believe it. But there’s something I’m not saying.

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Black Hole and Portal Studies

Somehow the black hole seemed impossible, a well-known figment of Einstein’s imagination. A mythical beast roaming the cosmos the way the lochness monster may once have swam in the imaginations of individuals, only to become real by the discovery of a giant squid in the ocean, or even a shadow crossing beneath the waves on a ship. Monsters have a way of manifesting. Now in the corner of our maps of the galaxy, we can draw it’s glowing ring and gaping mouth. Eyes looming from the depths of a furrowed brow, I imagine Freud telling us importantly all about the existential fear inspired by a mouth, Vagina dentata, or eye, all of which the hole could possibly resemble. Either way, the existence of it’s very image requires contemplation.

My first impression of the image was banal. Unlike graceful nebulas, the black hole is a goopy blip on a computer screen. And, like anything galactic, it is inconceivably far away. Sitting there, blithely. Oh, only the image of complete nothingness. I feel like nothingness shouldn’t even be pictured. Images should provide some understanding, the black hole does nothing but confirm that which was predicted: that it is there, it has a inconstant ring, and a hole. A portal. While our seasons whirr in the delicate balance of our precious solar system, there is a place with no season. The image of the black hole is the opposite of newsworthy. Sure, the way in which the black hole was discovered, as presented by The New York Times, making the earth a giant telescope, a giant floating eye, essentially… Which makes me really uncomfortable: The world is not an eye. It is as if the news outlets were to write a story on death’s inevitability. There is not anything we can do with this information, except wonder if it is inevitable that it, or it’s sister, swimming through the galaxy will one day eat us. And if it won’t eat us, earth will go crashing into the sun like a cherry blossom petal smacking a cheek on a spring afternoon and then the black hole will approach from afar and our beloved sun will be transported into the pit. After a black hole dissipates, which, according to Wikipedia, they do, it is unclear what will become of the matter it consumed. I have so little language for black holes and the cosmos, that it remains for me, in the mythic realm, constantly reminding me that the more we find out, the less we know.   

After the memes started appearing about the discovery of the black hole, it seemed as though the image has been latent in our subconscious for a while now and came out in the form of doughnuts, the eye of Sauron, cat’s eyes, the end of Natasha Lyonne’s cigarette (I can’t seem to find this artist, if you’re out there please let me know who to credit). The implication being: maybe it has been here all along…

Our world seems to be so tightly knotted in myth, humanity, the planet, the animals, the sky, all wound in history that, shortly after the image of the black hole went viral, the burning of the iconic Notre Dame was deemed a tragedy for the world, when St. Mary Baptist Church, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, and Greater Union Baptist Church were burned in a hate crime in Louisiana at the same time. Not to mention the huge ongoing environmental crisis that is occuring at this very moment, the attention to which will - I believe - heal aching divides between people. Notre Dame tells the myth of a monoculture. There is an element of representation in the burning of Notre Dame that is a homesick kind of longing for a white euro-centric politics that seems to feel threatened in the communal sigh of “what is the world coming to?” It adores a perfectly placed metaphor, it adores an image. I lived in Paris. I love Paris, the Notre Dame was stunning to have as a part of my life. But identities are not in objects.  

Afro-futurist and surrealist artists, have imagined portals in space, including Sun Ra, and George Clinton. Imagining a kind of freedom beyond the known structure embedded in imperialism, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and genocide feels like imagining a portal into space. The cosmos offers solutions and limits that are beyond our comprehending. Which is comforting. It is the complete trust in these myths this place of mystery has always held for us, and the surrender to magic.

And then I become unsettled in the presence of the black hole. What does it mean to have an image of a thing we cannot possibly understand? It must be mythologized. Space and time are our forms of measure, and they themselves are finicky in our experience of them. It calms me to see, within the bowels of Virgo the presence of nothing we can measure. The existence of a place beyond our imagination. It is in the biblical sense, awesome.

However, the black hole is an image now, one whose mysteries can’t be measured. We can’t help the existence of the black hole. So, rather than letting it be a place where we can hold our metaphors, our dreams, and impossibilities, I encourage we recognize these same mysteries are the fabric of our own bodies, our own every day lives - they are banal: a donut, the end of a cigarette, a feeling that we have. The more we pay attention to our selves the closer we can get to identify our own places of hurt, and begin to understand the deep and profound desires within ourselves, our families, our community. The unknown, the multiple fantastic futures and impossibilities - are right here.

The mist rolls off the city, revealing the sun like a golden tooth.  Morning is a promise.

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Future City

I hauled A Book of Signs to Printed Matter the last week in March. We orbit places. I orbit that place. But it moved from 10th Avenue to 11th, to a corner of Chelsea, further than the galleries on the west side. The store skims the river on a lonely avenue across from a BMW dealership. It makes me sad to go there. However, the decision was made years ago by a MoMA board member who was the director at the time. He knew that Hudson Yards was coming and probably thought it was for the better because all the wealthy, in those steeples by the river, called Hudson Yards might think it quaint. And the poors who live on Saint Mark’s can go to the Swiss Institute. I am crying with the representational logic this stinks of. I may be wrong. I’m sorry, I love Printed Matter. I would live there if I could, but instead I creep and write about it from a distance like all the time. Because I think their soul is golden but we live in such a fucking ridiculous social and economic structure.

(#hellohudsonyards is printed all over on banners, reminiscent of the coy salutation in Hannibal)

I stumble out into Hudson Yards from tunnels of escalators layered below ground. The square does remind me of Columbus Circle as it was referred to in the New York Times recently. There is a west-facing window in the mall, like a screen or a canvas against the bustle before it. The only green space I find is a splinter of white tulips, and a huge sign with foxgloves and hydrangeas printed in soft pinks and purples against the early spring twilight to announce an arrival the words of which I don’t see. But the synthetic petals do fine in the twilight, to ease and liven the grays. The entire place is dwarfed by the soaring buildings that anchor the square’s corners. As I walk into the center the sky is webbed with the most sci-fi structure seeming to grow right out of Metropolis: the famous basket-like structure known as “Vessel,” the presence of which feels like peeking into a keyhole to a future New York. The siding is rose gold, which is a color from 2016 that still haunts my dreams. Spilling from its vortex is deep blue LED light. You need tickets to go inside, and not to be too dramatic (but it must be said), Vessel reminds me of a depiction of Dante’s 9 layers of hell as people course along its thin layers bland as ghosts from this distance.

I am surprised at how claustrophobic I actually feel in the space, considering the amount architects at Kohn Pedersen Fox were probably paid to design this. The buildings surrounding the space appear immeasurably high. I feel vertigo just looking up at them. In the center, the apex, the meager ground these buildings extend from, is the focus: the “Vessel,” which to my surprise I associate to an inverted Eiffel Tower. The structure has the same shade. I know, it might not be fair to compare the two. But the vessel asks me to. It calls to the Eiffel Tower the way the Statue of Liberty calls to her smaller sister on the Seine.

The Eiffel Tower was built for the Exposition Universelle in 1889, 130 years ago. The tower was designed by Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier in honor of the centennial of the French Revolution. The Eiffel tower rises high above the low standing Parisian buildings as a beacon. The structure itself is echoing Foucault’s panopticon, as a location for surveillance. The height represented a power over, in this case, the power of the French democracy over the people. Which can also be considered a unifier, a border maker. From the post at its tip, all the land below is theirs (think The Lion King).

When the tower was first built, a group of artists protested the structure, insisting that it was not tasteful, that it was hard and horrendous.

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of Les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

The experience of being on the Champs de Mars and walking towards the Eiffel Tower is a classical design of space. The horizontal length before the telescopic height of the Tower expands the landscape, shrinks the surrounding buildings. As if it was a king over subjects, it sparkles every night at 10pm.

The “Vessel,” unlike the structure of the French Eiffel tower is completely hidden, in a covered valley rather than a theater in-the-round. Rather than a unifier, the structure is a metaphor or a parenthesis in a city that is becoming so high it disappears into clouds.

And then there are the webs and then there are the spiders. The structures themselves are made of strands of metal as if to take the weight of it off of their hefty forms. The “Vessel” takes over the entire square between the buildings, and the small space becomes smaller, there is no distance, there is no way to extend your thumb and forefinger to hold these giant buildings. In this space we feel small, traversing an immense web, the exits of which are not visible. Perhaps we are meant to flock to the vessel, or burrow into the honey light of the mall. Because the shrinking sensation is palpable in Hudson Yards. I all but already said humans are flies in this web.

Where it’s possible to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower one’s experience of it very personal, the tower can be fit in a pocket, seen from a distance. The bodies are not seen within it, in the presence of it, so the experience of climbing it is one of self discovery. While on the Vessel the entire interaction with it includes the others who are on it. It is impossible not to see the bodies upon it, which means immediately relationing the self to the distant bodies in the same way social media presents bodies as a form of comparison.

Inner Paris is built to frame the Eiffel Tower, and other of its landmarks just so. Let us remember the shape of Paris: Paris is often referred to as a snail, moving outwards in rings of neighborhoods. City planners, namely Hausmann reformed the city to essentially become a memorial of itself, vistas spread through the city of lights in constellations of star patterns. The Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe exist in planned views of themselves, even the beautiful Sacre Coeur, stands majestically and finally over the city like a queen, separating the city from the Banlieu. The city classified, literally moving from the inside out. The term “inner city” is not known in Paris. There is only “outer city,” this is where historically French Africans and other immigrants live. New York City seems to be taking on this strategy as well.

The word “playground” referred to in the Hudson Yards’ subway stop toys with the playgrounds that are in public parks. The vessel itself is a structure that says the city’s name as if it was a structure in a playground. Manhattan is solidifying from the inside out, gouging out old neighborhoods for huge high rises and compact, but illustrious parks. The city has not become bigger, the streets are not wider, but the use of space exists like hideouts throughout the city and the experience of walking into them is very much like stumbling from a tunnel into another plane. The highline, the Public hotel, the Williamvale in Williamsburg. These are “public parks” and yet they are so hidden, so surveilled that they crystalize standard expectations.

It’s hard to know now how Hudson Yards will integrate into the city. The geometry feels hard and unlived in. Yet people adapt. Inherently, the life in the city brings life to the buildings. It is our eyes that see the glow against the glass on the high rises at sunset, it is our bodies that know how to feel the movement of the train, it is our legs that know the feel of the escalator. When we are not used to them they feel forced. These things did once feel unnatural like breaking in a pair of shoes. Like the Eiffel Tower that may once have felt unnatural. And, honestly, it’s hard to imagine Hudson Yards including anyone who is not flying helicopters into the heli-launch on the southeastern building. Or even anyone who doesn’t have enough to buy shoes at Neiman Marcus. The people living in the city get used to a great amount of things, like how trees grow around and seep their trunks around signs, so the people who inhabit the city will learn to soar through it, the way we can grapple with Times Square. The way we marvel at The Verrazano Bridge. After 20 years the Eiffel Tower became an organ in the city’s communal body.  

But there is a certain point when we know the playground is not for us. City dwellers are people who live close to one another, work close to one another, are part of a community. Whenever I have lived in a city I have not been interested in the gawking of the city so much as the shape of the land and pacing of my legs within it. Speed and tempo are important signifiers that shape the life of a place. At various points in the city’s production, the way the bodies live in the city or not decide who stays and who goes. Who is included in this sci-fi future of the Vessel?

from Metropolis

from Metropolis

Vessel

Vessel

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Botticelli - Dante’s Inferno

Botticelli - Dante’s Inferno

Garden of Earthly Delights  Hieronymus Bosch

Garden of Earthly Delights Hieronymus Bosch