My Time in Wassaic
When I applied to Wassaic I didn’t consider myself an artist. I was a writer, more specifically an art writer. I was knee-deep in an essay collection entitled Why Art, which combined my interest in art with my academic background. In the midst of trying to communicate a point about Heidegger, I started to lose some of my excitement for this project and began a series of more personal essays. Just as I felt I was running out of material, I had a fateful conversation that got me thinking that not only could I be an artist, but that some of what I was already doing might be art.
Enter Wassaic. Despite the fact that I ventured upstate at least nominally as a writer, no one pigeonholed me or told me how I could or could not spend my time. At Wassaic I found nothing other than a supportive, welcoming, and challenging community. A rare find indeed.
with Joe Brommel, April 2019
You’re a PhD student at The University of Chicago as well as an art critic. How do you see your academic work as interacting with your writing practice?
They interact productively and unproductively.
[Laughs] Say more.
So in the beginning, there was a big learning curve because I would use lots of jargon and references, and editors would be like, “this is too academic.” On the other hand, I would like to think that — coming from the background I do — I'm always trying to make broader claims about the world beyond just narrating my personal experience with works of art.
In academia, we talk a lot about what we call the “so what” question. You’re tasked with producing something that fulfills two objectives: it has to be new, and it has to be interesting. Meaning not some curiosity, but that it moves a debate forward in a field. So part of my process is asking how I’m going to communicate — in 500, 1,000, 2,000 words — what looking at something tells us about the way we live in the world.
Taking it beyond just yourself and connecting it to these broader cultural conversations.
Yeah, and a person could have an individual experience that does tell us something about the broader social forces. But if you produce something that is just in your own little corner of the world, it feels solipsistic. And if you produce something that doesn't touch reality at all, it feels cold and bloodless. A big function of art journalism is that art can't travel the way that music or film or literature can, so there's this balancing act between giving someone a feeling of the embodied character of the work and at the same time tying it to something broader.
The task is finding the more general moment within the particular.
I think that's a good difficulty to have, insofar as the alternative seems to be relentless interpretation. When you're connecting to some broader thing, it leaves open a space for someone to experience a given piece differently.
This is a place where art criticism departs from art history. Art historians need to make decisions between competing interpretations. It makes sense in art history to say, “someone got Manet wrong because they didn't know or consider this thing.” Whereas the task of criticism is not to come to a definitive interpretation of something. I think good and bad art exists, but sometimes I say that I'm not an art critic because I don’t really like the word “criticism” — sometimes I call myself an art “meaning-maker” instead.
Art has this unique position in our culture where it's the only thing that can be anything. I can write a novel and say, “this is my art,” but I can't make a painting and say it's my novel. When art can be anything, what art ends up being tells us a lot about the world. Both good and bad art tell us something about the times and conditions in which they were created.
And that’s what’s anxiety-inducing about writing about the present. There was a journalist who said once that “journalism is the first draft of history.” I'm trying to call attention to things that I think are important, vital, vibrant, and challenging, but I could just be wrong. We know that Manet is an important painter because we have the benefit of hindsight. Art criticism and art history have very different temporal horizons.
What did you want to work on in Wassaic, then? And did that intent change or stay the same?
It changed very radically.
This is a huge topic for me right now. I have a lot of anxiety around accepting myself as a creative person. I’ve always told myself that I'm a critical person, not an artistic person.
I applied to Wassaic with a now-dormant essay collection entitled Why Art. But right before Wassaic I met with one of my art history professors to talk about my work and my frustrations with grad school and he was trying to reason with me. He told me there are two kinds of creativity: there's Pollock filling up empty canvases, and there's Warhol, manipulating the world as it exists to produce something else. He said, “you’re Warhol, and what we do in academia is manipulate bodies of knowledge.”
While that got me excited about my dissertation again, by the time I got to Wassaic this whole other world had opened up to me, where I started thinking about ways I could manipulate, repackage, and re-contextualize things to make them art. And I just started doing stuff. Like, I've been interested in the poet Anne Sexton for a while, so I got all these documents about her and made redactions to focus on the parts that associated her creativity with her mental illness. And then I did a reading of an essay about my experience with a chronic pain condition alongside MRIs of my spine printed on acetate.
Coming back from Wassaic, everything has just gotten more open. I’m taking a printmaking class where I'm working more with the Anne Sexton material. I'm making scaled-up versions of Lincoln Logs in this sculpture class. I’m making pieces where I take reviews of mine, blow them up, and wheat paste them in public places. There’s another wheat paste piece that I think is going to be entitled How to be an art critic, where I’ll print off all the correspondence and research that goes into one of my reviews and paste it to a wall. And coming to the art world as an outsider has made me very interested in the figure of the artist and I have a video piece A portrait of the artist, which is a compilation of depictions of artists in popular films. Another video, We have time for a few questions, is a supercut of me asking questions at artist talks.
A lot of this stuff is verging into what I take to be the future of institutional critique. Institutional critique has very much focused on the museum, whereas I hope to broaden it and consider what role things like lectures, talks, magazines, and conferences play in art. But I’ve gone from something which was fairly coherent, and understandable — writing about art — to making these weird sculptures and performances and videos. I have no idea what's going on. And Wassaic was the beginning all of that.
So I guess, thank you, Wassaic? But also: what did you do to me?
I think it's what you were talking about earlier. How art historians make a retrospective sense of things that happen. I think it's a good sign that there's an uncertainty about what you're doing now in that it'll probably cohere — at least in your mind — further down the road.
That's the crazy thing. I’ve starved the creative part of my brain for a lot of my life because I was like, “This isn't what I do. I go to school, I’m a student.” And it's been hard to quiet down the analytic part of my brain that tries to take everything apart. Academics are sort of gamblers, but they're also sort of risk-averse; an academic will spend 10 years writing a book, but I've seen people not get tenure because they made the wrong gamble 10 years ago.
Getting comfortable with the idea that I'm just going to do something has been both difficult and liberating. This performance that I did last quarter ended up in a totally different — and better — place than when I started, just by virtue of letting go and having people there to help me who understood what I was trying to do.
What did that performance entail?
It was for this class called “Performing Nonfiction.” I was adapting this essay “Love” I’d written about my parents’ divorce, and was incorporating interviews with my three sisters into it. We hadn’t really talked about the divorce that much, so the interviews got really intense. I was fumbling around trying to present this material in a way that felt appropriate, and found this artist, Rabih Mroué. He’s from Beirut and makes a lot of work about the Lebanese Civil War. He has this investigator-type persona, where it seems like he's improvising, but it's actually all scripted. I’ve been thinking about lectures and readings as kinds of performances, and the disconnect between his impartiality and this emotionally intense material was fascinating to me.
So I created this persona, called the lecturer, who gave a PowerPoint presentation about the divorce with characters like “the son,” “the mother,” “the father,” “the first daughter,” “the second daughter,” and “the third daughter.” The lecturer had a suit, a lectern, a glass of water, his hair was slicked back — the whole academic nine yards. He reads excerpts from the interviews, shows photographs, and then starts to play clips from the interviews themselves. Then he starts playing audio of me in the interview, and it becomes increasingly clear that the lecturer is the son.
It was such a strange performance. Really playing with the ideas of academic gravitas, how we make sense of difficult pasts, and how we try to stand above the fray even as we're increasingly implicated in it.
It sort of goes back to what you were saying about the coherence that happens in hindsight. For a long time I had this idea, “Oh, I'm going to be a professor, and I'll just cut away the parts of myself that don't fit that mold.” And now I'm just trying to do work that feels important to me. To reach into whatever pockets of my past to get at what I'm trying to get at.
And I don't know what's going to happen! It's infuriating and frustrating, but more than anything else it's incredibly, incredibly exciting.
Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby