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Now for the Doubters and the Sceptics and Those Who Like to Think of Space as Somewhere New to Go, I Am Going to Blindfold Myself

Jessica Higgins

 
 

Forty eight minutes and seven seconds. The slide reads: Question 2. Gap. Process 1. Next line. Where are your feelings? Next line. Locate them. And the next. Do not analyse. Locate. Line break. Are they in your heart, your stomach – next line – your lungs? Line break. Do not analyse – dot dot dot – locate. Short pause. Question 2. Process 1. Disappears. Short pause. Don’t analyse… locate flashes ten, or maybe eleven times.

A few years ago scientists plotted a route. It begins in our orb-like guts and the bacteria which reside there, fizzing in last night’s juices. A system of coordinates trails up through the intestines, climbs the spine, reaching all the way to the brain before heading back out again through the body’s intricate and seeping sections. The headline reads: Gut Bacteria Can Influence Your Mood, Thoughts and Brain. L tells us this at work one day as she places down the coffees. We gulp. We gasp. Makes sense. The discovery hangs in the air for a moment. I counter, recalling my new favourite fact. This one goes: sleep has not always, ordinarily, been a singular event. Rather, a night’s rest came with intermissions. Breaks. Pauses. Intervals. Sometimes, there was singing. It was the arrival of industrialisation, and with it the extractive power of the shift pattern which compressed the night into one neatly marked unit.

In Jane Arden’s 1979 film Anti-Clock our protagonist Joseph Sapha is not a shift worker, but a thought reader and professional gambler. He steps up for his performance. The room is full of your thoughts, ladies and gentlemen. And not just your thoughts. Last night’s thoughts. Last week’s thoughts. Endless thoughts. Thoughts hang around for a very long time, ladies and gentlemen. The crowd is silent. Tenter-hooked. Sapha is starkly lit, neon tubes flashing in a gentle rhythm behind him. A guitar melody rolls, reverberating and slightly modulated. Like a graze on the edge of a container. He wraps a slick black blindfold around his head. Ties it. The neons rise and fall in their holding pattern. A slow and measured pulse. He takes the microphone from the stand. We hear it clink and clank. It picks itself up.

Thoughts hang around for a very long time, ladies and gentlemen. To be precise, forever. The music dims and in its absence, the film’s never-quite-quiet intensifies. He continues: tonight, ladies and gentlemen, it is my very great privilege to read your thoughts. Before he does so, Sapha tells us about the Akashic Records. The eternal reality of all thoughts. That is, time’s circle back. Everything happening now, again, and before, it seems. He doesn’t say much more. He just lets us know it’s there, hanging around.

Another year. Another plot. Another day at work. P tells us about time sickness. That is, the notion that sensing time’s lack, its loss, its slip, its speed, can make you unwell. The mention was fleeting. I search for detail. What is this that afflicts us? Time-of-Day-Cue-Conflicts Directly Affect Health. Abstract reads: A daily rhythm that is not in synchrony with the environmental light-dark cycle (as in jet lag and shift work) is known to affect mood and health through an as yet unresolved mechanism. Its symptoms, I learn, are not not like motion sickness. I think of my exhausted gut bacteria and remember Flaubert’s definition of nightmares as things that come from the stomach, whereas dreams are any great ideas one does not understand. Locate the feeling. Is it in your stomach?

Twelve minutes and eight seconds. A stop frame motion. Sapha pays a bill. Thanks a lot sir. Thank you. The screen glitches. Its juddering feels like a lifetime. His hand reaches for his glass. Orchestration seeps and swells. Marching voices sing out their vague devotion. He, voice in a web, stuck on a refrain – one event – one event – one event – a phone rings. A hand. A reaching. A phrase. A voice from elsewhere speaks in his ear. The clock is the key object of your habit, goals keep you mobile, your relationship with money operates on the primary level and interlocks with time. The voice echoes. Its pronouncements make a scenery, their disintegrative repetition grafting interference patterns into the action. The phone rings again.

This was Jane’s final film before her suicide in 1982. Its unerring soundtrack is a temporal hash of voices, addressing and broadcasting. A performed record of one way conversations and indiscernible discourse. Meanwhile, a synthetic wheezing makes knots in the fuzz. Like tuning in, or the language I imagine wires might speak. Here, time is giving its testimony in noise. As the opening sequence unfolds, Jane’s voice braces the static. Each phrase lasts a breath, poised between the future and the past while the present sleepwalks by. As the song continues, her voice grows stronger. There, at the chorus, is the throat’s push forward. Its insistence is a thrust of air and will. Locate the feeling. Is it in your lungs?

 

this is what I really want / this is who I really love / this is what I think I really need.

 

The music fades and the clamour in Sapha’s ear grows. A montage of television broadcasts heralds a history. Some hungover atmosphere of war, ceremony and imperialism’s ornamentation flickers. This informational decor, a musical pattern for the inner ear, is an infrastructural tissue between the body and networks of power.

 

this is what I really want / this is who I really love / this is what I think I really need.

 

Anti-Clock’s companion piece, the book You Don’t Know What You Want, Do You? describes the film’s namesake radio station ANTICLOCK as a countersignal or notch on the tuning dial which, if you listen hard enough, might break through the thrift of the ‘control tower.’ A structure, as Arden writes, governed by the RAT-IONAL MIND / The manager of Affairs / The Weights and Measurer / The Divide and Ruler. As we watch him through closed circuit television screens walking down streets, turning corners, climbing stairs, entering corridors and rooms, Sapha tells us that ANTICLOCK is potentiality, responsibility and motion. Its frequencies ooze into the circular rhythms of time’s framing membrane. I like to think of ANTICLOCK’s signal threading itself through clock-time’s experiential measures, making cleaves in the architecture of past and future as it transmits its sonorous testimony of the present.

Through poems, games, and tracts against the institutions of the family, the school, the prison and the hospital, Jane’s book sustains a refusal to let the body fold into the past, or get its leg stuck in the locative motions which implicate the future’s course. Early commands punctuate clock training and start Rat running toward the future. The future is a very real place for Rat where he constantly hopes that with more effort he might arrive. Sounds familiar. I too spend days embalmed in tasks, carefully constructing them, fulfilling them, failing at them and grasping at them, as though they’re footholds for that something-to-come which, for what it’s worth, is unlikely to arrive in one piece. Reading Jane, I remember a line from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which stuck to me like glue in the back of my parents’ car. We, thick in the strange trouble of grief’s imminent arrival. It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise.

Though, this film is not so much about time’s passing slow, thick, fast, or thin. Rather, the clock finds itself in the crosshairs as regulator general. It follows, since nearly the entire catalogue of capitalism’s technological tools for conformism are preceded by the shift from sidereal time to clock-time, as that which patterns our daily rhythms. One of the first great pronouncers, the bell, rang out so that strangers and others within the sound of the bell on winter nights ‘might be informed of the time of night, and receive some guidance into their right way’. Not only that, but its chime would fill the air so as to remind men of their passing, and of resurrection and judgment. The bell is spoken as punctuation, scrawled in the ambient landscape of the corridor or street, where the hour is always on the horizon of our hearing.

Another clock. Another radio. In Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, her protagonist Macabéa learns everything she knows by listening to Radio Clock, a station which tells accurate time with a ping on the turn of every minute. Between each ping, the broadcasters serve a series of facts and advertisements. No music. Just the timbre of time’s turn and its attendant information. In her listening, Macabéa learns about animals and emperors in each drop for every minute that passed, which she draws from like a well. Sometimes, to impress men. Other times, to dwell in earthly knowledge. And imagine that! Enough facts to fill the whole of time.

Thirty minutes and thirteen seconds. It began with a paradox. A distant radio warbles. A shuffling song, drenched in transmission fumes. Sapha climbs a flight of stairs. Each step seems to mark an intent, careful and measured. Here is a light wave coming toward you. A potted plant in the corner. His form cuts across the frame. Exit stage left. A suited man runs up behind him, turns. Exit stage right. Suppose we can never tell if we are in motion or at rest. Camera cuts. A close up. Sapha, again. Feel the tempo of his movement in relation to the runner. The image fractures. A split screen, closed circuit. Two views. Sapha climbs a flight of stairs. There, and there again. Left hand image halts. Right continues to pan. Cut to a woman. Hair pinned. She’s watching something. She turns to face us. A voice says if a clock moves past you it goes slower.

 

As clock-time advanced through industrialising society, the development of the pendulum took the technology of time-telling from the public square – the bell ringing – and into the home through the increased ownership of clocks. The first pendulum was Galileo’s, who would synchronise his device with a patient’s heartbeat in order to understand what afflicted them. The pendulum would indicate its diagnosis from a number of descriptions such as ‘feverish’ and ‘sluggish.’ For Jane, the clock itself is the pendulum, swinging between two poles. That is, of time and money. RAT-TIME is always either a flood or a drought, too much or not enough, where RAT-MONEY is exchange and measure. Meanwhile, the clock oscillates back and forth, a gravitational transistor.

 

– interlocks with time – interlocks with time – interlocks with time – interlocks with time –

 

Another week. Another while. Feeling bored and thinking about being bored, like thinking about it would change anything, I read a 2010 study of civil servants who were asked to report their experiences of boredom at work. If a clock moves past you it goes slower. The study finds that those who declared that they did indeed feel bored on shift, were 2.5 times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease. Locate the feeling. Is it in your heart?

I turn again to our book, our guide, our companion. Here, Jane drafts an exercise for Sapha in order that he can better dissolve the Puzzle-Picture which keeps him reaching toward the past, while dragging the future along behind him. If the game goes wrong, she warns, the whole Rat-Nexus could collapse, leaving you desolate if the inner space is completely filled with event-fantasies. Event-Fantasies, she explains, are sustained by TALKING-MACHINE TAPES. Orchestras of information fed through the ear from Rat’s early years, greasing the mechanics of the Rat tower as it erects its scaffolds. A vibrational pulse of information which affects the body at the molecular level, leaving its imprints and its impressions.

During the final pages of The Hour of the Star Macabéa visits a fortune teller, who tells her that upon leaving the reading she will meet the love of her life. He will be called Hans, a rich man, and he will buy her a fur coat. To which Macabéa replies I don’t need a fur coat in this climate. Throughout their time together, the plot slows, becoming punctuated by a series of bangs (bang) for every new detail that furnishes Macabéa’s event horizon. (bang) Macabéa’s heart thumped furiously at the thought of seeing her hair grow. She leaves their meeting, elated, she kisses Madame Carlota (bang), remembers kissing the wall as a child (bang) and crosses the street in a daze. And then (bang) a yellow Mercedes knocks her over. Macabéa’s final words: As for the future.

The bang, it seems, was a foregone conclusion, the event, calamitously there. I hear Jane in one ear, most of us are absent from the present unless shocked into it, by, for example, being bitten by a dog (bang!), falling in love (bang!), falling downstairs (bang!) And in the other, the professor, an operatic voice in the distance, events are merely collisions. Occasions in the stratosphere. But the unfolding of that event leads back to the source. Are you reading my thoughts? Cut. Two glasses. A cigarette.

Fifty nine minutes and forty eight seconds. Neon shapes. Sapha, starkly lit. Now, for the doubters and the sceptics, and those who like to think of space as somewhere new to go, I am going to blindfold myself. He positions it. Neatens it. Picks up the microphone. It clinks and it clanks. Picks itself up. This way, I’ll be unable to decode any clues trapped in your facial expressions. A siren sounds somewhere in the background. He pauses. Listens. Right. I’m picking up something. It’s not difficult to hear. Just hard to find the right station. Cut. He sits across from a woman. She has the same haircut. A floral curtain rests behind their conversation. She asks: what’s the time? He replies. I don’t know, my watch has stopped. She smiles and says: you haven’t got a watch.

Our neighbour is learning to play the guitar. I hear it through the walls. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and some Thursday mornings. I’m on the clock. The melody lulls, up and down, around and around. A fret lower. Picked up. Stopped short. It never goes anywhere but back to the beginning, an insistent return. A graze on the edge of a container. Listen, it’s 11am again, time for the staff meeting, and there is the song. Listen, it’s time to put the potatoes in the soup, and there is the song. Time to do some paperwork, and there is the song. My body depresses. A strung clock. Boring. Bore. A hole. I read Eileen Myles’ new book in bed before giving it to E for his birthday. Safe from the beginner’s melody, I hear Myles speak about how writing is a privilege which allows them to roll around in the shit of time. And I wonder whether the minute or so it takes for the guitarist’s hands to fumble, slip, trip and break their rhythm is some perfectly scaled down evidence of time’s circle and return, and maybe, I should just try rolling around in the shit of it. Over and over again. Thoughts hang around a very long time.

 
 
 
 

 

NOTES

Unless listed below all quotes are taken from Jane Arden’s Anti-Clock. Full title: A Time stop in the life of Joseph Sapha. Co-directed and produced by Jack Bond, starring Sebastian Saville, the film was originally released in 1979 and restored by the BFI in 2009. The record label Low Company released Anti-Clock’s soundtrack in January 2021 which features original music by Jane Arden and Mihai Dragutescu. Accompanying quotes come from the book You Don’t Know What You Want, Do You? originally published by Polyantric Press in 1982 and long out of print, a reading copy can be found in the National Library of Scotland.

 

Flaubert’s definitions of nightmares and dreams are from Dictionary of Accepted Ideas translated by Jacques Barzun and published by New Directions in 1954.

 

It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise. Maggie Nelson, Bluets (Seattle: Wave Books, 2009), p.37.

 

References to Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star are from the edition translated by Giovanni Pontiero and published by Carcanet Press in 1986.

 

strangers and others within the sound of the bell on winter nights ‘might be informed of the time of night, and receive some guidance into their right way’ … remind men of their passing, and of resurrection and judgement. E.P. Thompson, ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’, Past & Present, Volume 38, Issue 1, 1967, p. 63-64.

 

such as ‘feverish’ and ‘sluggish’. G.J. Whitrow, The Nature of Time, (London: Penguin Books, 1976), p.63.

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Do You Remember Books You Haven’t Read?

Brent Garbowski

In 2015, my friend Betty was working at Anton Kern Gallery.

One day I get a call from her. ‘Are you free right now? I need someone to drive to Pennsylvania to pick up 5,000 books for a Jim Lambie show.’

I’m a yes person, so a few short hours later I’m in Queens renting a truck and then on the road to the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. The drive is like seven hours out and seven hours back, and I’m supposed to have the books to the gallery that night. You know, very urgent art stuff.

I didn’t really ask a lot of questions. The rate is good enough, and I have an address. I imagine that I’m driving to a massive warehouse, or some kind of facility that houses surplus books. Piles of textbooks filled with Dixieland garbage, or pulp novels sticky enough that even the charity shops rejected them. So I’m slightly surprised when I arrive at a small ranch-style house just at the end of main street. I’m greeted by a man in his mid-fifties, and his son who looks to be about fourteen. They explain to me that I should bring the box truck around and back up to the garage.

When they open the garage there are banana boxes filled with books packed to the ceiling. The man explains to me that each box has roughly 40 books, which means that we will be loading up 125 boxes. The three of us start putting the boxes on to the truck. Both the father and son are warm, but not chatty. It seems like an affectation that has been passed down for generations, a subtle form of kindness. Their manner is uncommon, but for both of them it feels natural. Each box is carefully labelled by genre and alphabetised by author.

After a few boxes are on the truck the father points out one box to me, explaining that it’s a really good one, filled with fantasy books for teens. He pulls out a book from the box. On the cover, a young heroine is surrounded by flames and portals. He comments on how the complete series is there and replaces the book carefully back in line with the others.

I start asking them questions and come to learn that the father used to own the local bookshop, Book World, which had been run out of business by Amazon a few years back. The contents of the shop had been saved in the hopes that he would be able to use eBay until he found a new location to open. But as years turned into the better part of a decade it became clear that the shop was not going to reopen. He explains the grief of losing his business, a story shockingly similar to my own family’s history. Unashamed to be vulnerable in front of his son, his eyes well up.

At this point I realise no one has explained to him what the books will be used for. In his mind, he had assumed that these were going to be sold in a book shop, that the books would be enjoyed by families and children. Or at the very least, that the books were being sold to be books.

I can’t explain to him that the books are to be used as the image of books in sculptures. That the assembling of this collection, his contribution to his community for decades before Amazon, the books that had fed his family and the mythical American Dream under which his son had been reared… were all to be art.

Globalisation had littered the garages of Middle America with tomes. And now I step in, collecting the raw waste material so that it might be reconstituted, removed of its bookness and pushed down the gaping maw of collectors who will ultimately deliver these books to climate-controlled storage units in Upper Manhattan. Their proper place, a new order, not alphabetised anymore. Just boxes in a garage (again).

We load the 125th box. Sitting in the back of the garage, there are roughly 30 boxes remaining. The sun has set, and we are standing in the light cast by the open garage door. Then, the man asks me if I could buy the remaining boxes from him.

In his voice I can hear the need to be done with this. That it was not about the money, but his need to get the ghosts out. I call Betty and explain the situation to her. I can hear Anton’s voice in the background as she relays my message. He does not agree to buy the extra books. The artist had asked for 5,000 and that was all.

I explain to the father that purchasing these final books is not my decision. I can see in the man’s eyes a hurried calculation. The particularly good box of teen books flashes before his eyes and I can tell that had he realised we would not take all of the books he would have been more judicious in selecting the remainder.

I can see an eternity of tedious eBaying laid out for this man in the dusty corner of his garage. Each unwanted novel trapped here until purchased. The son’s reaction is different. In his eyes I can see a decade of promises unravel. The father is beholden to these last few boxes and neither of them would be free of this dark god until every last remnant of hope had been cleared from the garage through a commercial transaction.

The son has a soccer game the next day. I wish him luck and drive away crying.

Morwenna Kearsley, Province (from the series Notch Code), 2021, gelatin silver contact print, 12.7 x 17.8 cm.

A couple weeks later I go to the opening of the show. I had taken to going to openings at Anton Kern. Betty and I would sit in the back room drinking tequila and making our snarky little jokes.

This particular evening Betty and I are flipping through one of the older Jim Lambie books in the office and find four grams of cocaine stuffed between the pages. Being rational art world people we are neither surprised nor impressed. When the opening is in full swing, I hear an explosion of anger, yelling from a group of gallery people in the back. The office is cleared and book after book is being thrown open. Eventually they find whatever they’re looking for.

Of the books I had picked up from the garage, not even a third had been used. Those that had were now spray painted. There is a little train hanging in the viewing room that blows smoke, an excellent metaphor for the show. Choo choo. All of the work has a shine to it that only halogen lights can give.

I go up to Jim Lambie at the after party. We are all drinking cocktails at some west village bar. I offer him some cocaine and tell him that I had picked up the books. I tell him about the father and son. I ask him for his email, and he gives it to me. Later that week I write to him explaining in greater detail about the family and the books. Jim never replies.

At the time I remember thinking that he owed this family some kind of conceptual resolution. That the remaining books should be purchased and used in some way to give this family closure. For a while I was obsessed with the idea of using the remaining books to build a bonfire on which we could spit roast lamb. Serving an easter feast to the local community. Giving that father and son one final meal out of their business.

Now I’m not so sure.

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Interview with Sky Goodden

Sky Goodden is the founding publisher and editor of Momus, an online art publication based in Canada. Since its founding in 2014 Momus has consistently supported nuanced and insightful writing on contemporary art, in the form of essays, reviews and interviews. Goodden also runs the Momus Emerging Critics Residencies and co-produces and co-hosts Momus: The Podcast. We wanted to speak to Goodden about her priorities in publishing, Momus’ origins and editorial approaches to the current political moment. In this interview, she offers a counterstatement to the continual talk of the crisis in criticism. We also touch on the collapse of Canadian Art, Toni Morrison, and International Art English.

CALUM SUTHERLAND: I’ve been reading Momus: A Return to Art Criticism Vol. 1, 2014-17. It’s great! The book compiles some of the best pieces that have appeared online for Momus over that period. It was published just after Trump was elected – one of the events seen as ushering in our current state of crisis. Did you feel a pressure to acknowledge that in the anthology? You touch on it in the editorial (‘toxic poles of elitism and populism’) and tackle it head on in your piece ‘Grieving in L.A.’, which comes at the end of the book. I just started reading Art Writing in Crisis, edited by Brad Haylock and Megan Patty, which places structural crises in art writing (lack of opportunity, systemic racism, the plight of print, and ‘fake news’) alongside the various aspects of the general crisis (climate, terror, xenophobia). I want to phrase this lightly as there is some melodrama to it, but is crisis necessary to undertake the task of writing, editing, publishing?

SKY GOODDEN: My mind runs to the people who wrote their way through a crisis, like Walter Benjamin or James Baldwin, and you think about how necessary it was for those writers to contextualise what was deadly obvious to them – the powers infringing on their ability to create or to live freely. Perhaps in the moment it can seem tremendously self-serving and redundant to extoll your crisis! [laughs] But you require those receipts as readers. So as a publisher and editor, I think we have a responsibility to mark the extremity of this historical moment. We should have some record of the shock. I read a quote by Toni Morrison recently (that is probably very well known, but was new to me), around insisting on the right to be shocked. (‘I insist on being shocked. I am never going to become immune. I think that’s a kind of failure to see so much of it that you die inside. I want to be surprised and shocked every time.’ – interview with Jana Wendt, 1998.) I think we should continue to insist on our own right to be shocked by these circumstances, in order to best respond.

None of this quite connects up with the ‘crisis in art criticism’, which has been rehearsed and performed by the best-paid among us for far too long. Art Writing in Crisis, which is waiting for me at a local bookstore – I’ve read some reviews – seems to shift the focus from a ‘no one’s looking at us’ crisis in art criticism, to the ‘crisis of circumstances we’re writing against and despite’. Not as some barometer of our relevance or impact on the art world but as backdrop. That’s an important shift, even if I wish we could reach for new language than ‘crisis’, at this point.

Just to tie this into our landscape here in Canada for a minute, there’s this iconic, long-running magazine, Canadian Art, that’s just folded here. It had – seemingly – tons of funding, a foundation, an education program; it had been around in some form or another for more than a century. There’s been a bitter conversation since it closed. People will claim that they didn’t read it and they won’t miss it, or that it was for ‘other people’. But at the same time, without a publisher doing that act of witnessing – and committing that witnessing to cultural memory – there is this shadow that falls. It’s one that could potentially stretch over a generation of artists. Nothing to say ‘we were here’ beyond the press releases, right? That’s where the real bitterness lies. There’s work to do, to fill the gaps. You know I read a great piece of Lucy Lippard’s recently, that says ‘art that has no one to communicate with has no place to go.’ (‘Hot Potatoes: Art and Politics in 1980’, published in Re-Visions: New Perspectives of Art Criticism, 1991). I would like to attend to these more local gaps; to perhaps get back into foregrounding that more regional ‘service criticism’ – everything I came to resent [laughs] – but make it better. I do believe you can reach for something everlasting in the briefest forms.

CS:  Tiny paragraphs. 50 words.

SG: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] Shotgun-review style. People love those! Maybe it’s all about what concision forces out, critically speaking.

Oliver Pitt, wad thin brim, stiffen sand sac, 2020, ink on paper, 15 x 11 cm.

CS:  Does Canadian Art’s collapse also spark a thought about how you would start an institution like that again? Once gone, how does anything on that scale return?

SG: Absolutely, though I don’t know that’s the direction we need to be going in with art publishing right now. We probably shouldn’t be trying to recreate institutions on that scale. Why do we associate size with stability? I’ve only seen it go the other way, honestly. And those are the losses we’ve seen in the last couple years – major art magazines that got away from themselves. When an institution takes on an administrative bloat, where there are more people being paid to apparently sustain the thing than there are people making the thing, I worry that the ‘editorial content’ becomes a critical decal. It’s just the shiny thing on the hood that pulls money in a bit closer. Most successful art publishing in the past five years is happening on a small scale. Smaller and leaner and online. I think there’s a tipping point – I don’t know exactly where it lies, but I fear it – where now you’re fundraising to fundraise. Shudder!

CS: And at that point the writing becomes directionless and inconsistent. There is a line in N+1’s ‘Hindsight Issue’ (40) about book reviews that draws out some other pressures on criticism. ‘The main problem is that the contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition – for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine, hopefully with better lighting and tools, but at the very least with better pay.’ What gets commissioned? What do people want to review and why?

When you read a few of those pieces, eventually you find yourself fairly unhappy. [laughs] You get frozen in crisis talk. Following his passing, I read a couple of interviews with Sylvère Lotringer and some of the conversation was similarly negative, really despairing about the age we live in.

SG: I had a similar thought about Dave Hickey, who recently passed away. He was meaningful to me. I interviewed him a few times when I was starting out, and then we would just get on the phone together. Early on, a lot of those conversations that I was bringing to him and that he was engaging with were around crisis. But I noticed when revisiting some of his work that he almost buttered his bread by grousing about it. He’d say, what’s the point of writing the ‘con’ review for Artforum if they’re going to commission somebody else to do the ‘pro’? Or, I was really trying to model a way of doing art criticism and obviously it failed because no one took after me. And I thought, well, that’s not true. They just didn’t do it as successfully as you, but your singular ability should not then be considered a failing, right? You were unmatchable!

The fact that we haven’t had a lot of anthologising around art criticism itself – the health of it, the relevance of it – since James Elkins and Raphael Rubenstein and company were throwing up their hands in, like, 2003, shows we have some inventory-taking to do. A lot has changed since then, and while the crises may simply have shifted rather than dematerialised, the language that we continue to use has a waving-your-hands-when-nobody’s-coming-for-you quality. This constant complaining about industry neglect as though we’re dealing with a bunch of bad students who won’t sit down and fold their hands in their laps – that is not going to reignite a larger audience’s interest! [laughs] We have to bring quality to the matter of reflecting on contemporary art in order to inspire readers to spend time with us.

There was a piece a couple years ago by Rubenstein (‘Where is the Audience for Art Criticism Now?’ Art in America, October, 2019) and he was just banging the same old pot. Nobody reads, and these kids today… I do these MFA visits and oh boy, are we in bad shape, if that’s the future… I don’t think people like Raphael are aware of just how much activity there is online – how many of these small publishers are taking up space and happily reaching audiences there. The space that used to be inhabited by, say, Artforum is now ARTS.BLACK or Burnaway or Spike or The White Pube, and so it should be.

Do you remember this moment in 2012 where David Levine and Alix Rule published ‘International Art English’? And that was like a lightning rod for the entire discourse. You had the October school coming out in defence of theory-driven art writing that required specialised knowledge to read. And then a bunch of artists and writers lining up to support the IAE argument, saying, there’s an impermeability to what we’re doing that excludes even us. Those camps were forming at that moment – and that’s 10 years ago! We’ve come a long way since then. At the time I just thought, what about the third option, which is just make better writing! [laughs] You can introduce complicated thinking if you pay more attention to execution, pacing and voice. That is the work of producing good writing, and it sounds dead simple, and of course it isn’t – but somehow it became secondary for art writing to be good writing along the way. And I think online readerships especially are shifting us out of that now. They don’t stick around for that which doesn’t compel them. As online publishers you can’t ignore what’s working – or what misses – and in my experience it has to do with how well the writing swings. And that doesn’t mean it’s light or easy, what the subject is. But it means you go with fourth, fifth, or seventh drafts. You make it good.

CS: Do you follow November? It’s an online publishing project edited by a crowd that has splintered from Artforum. Their writing and interviews touch on some of those legacies in art writing – poststructuralism, Georges Bataille, Hal Foster, Howardena Pindell, Hito Steyerl. It was interesting to read Joseph Henry’s essay in the Momus anthology, ‘The Suffering Body of 1993: Whatever Happened to the “Abject”’ which traces some of the same legacies, too.

SG: I hadn’t! But wow. That’s interesting. We’re still turning over the compost heap of the last generation. All this re-soiling. I was just rereading Arthur C. Danto’s book After the End of Art – talk about accessible writing introducing complex thinking, he’s one of the best for that – and he’s writing about how contemporary art had its own expiry date baked into it. And that, since then, artists have just been sort of floating away from any known gravitational centre…I could recognise that art criticism is very much doing the same thing. A lot of turning over and trying to deduce meaning from that which was metabolised too quickly in the first instance.

CS:  Maybe it is a good moment to ask, how did you begin doing all this? Did these arguments figure in that decision? Or perhaps a better question is, how did Momus start? You were working at Blouin Artinfo before.

SG: Do any of us start in a noble way? [laughs] Blouin Artinfo was a lucky gig in a way because I was so young and somebody was giving me a salary – not a very good one – but I could focus on being an editor full-time, and a critic. I had a budget, basically, to produce a lot of art writing for their Canadian site and work with a cast of writers. I was personally putting up between 3-6 pieces a week and editing/publishing about 5. Just going for it. I did three years of publishing there at a moment when Canada was feeling stale, and where online art publishing hadn’t been explored at all yet. I just thought, okay, let’s attend to this. And people like Joseph Henry, I mean, I was 27 when I started at Blouin and, crucially, Joseph was six years younger, or whatever – meaning he was connected to generational shifts that even I wasn’t. He wrote brilliantly about Cory Arcangel as the ‘depressive art bro,’ a new category within a late generation of Net Art. It was fun to be commissioning pieces like that – to work with new insight, bravery about naming the new.

The experience taught me several first principles, some hard-won because of Blouin being such a disaster. Like, pay your writers on time, for fuck’s sake. But also: work with emerging talent, and have some critical stakes.

CS: The relative stability but also the pace of the job allowed a little bit of risk-taking, experimentation?

SG: Yeah. It’s crucial when I’m talking about how I started Momus to pay some deference to that situation because it meant that I was able to test my own voice and my ability as a publisher-editor and know there was some mettle there. The years I spent there were enough for me to know that there was an audience for this. We were seeing huge readerships arrive to the Canadian site from elsewhere. I think that was a really important thing to know in launching Momus because I knew the conversation we had been resigning ourselves to, before then, was overly provincial and falsely fuelled by this notion that we mustn’t criticise, we must only celebrate. When Blouin fell apart, Momus emerged about six months later.

CS: To end, it would be nice to touch on the Momus Emerging Critics Residencies. How have those been?

SG: It’s been brilliant. I really feel amazed by the demand for it, and the impact in such a short time. I’ve been running these since 2019 and we’re about to host our fifth. I went through a Master’s programme in criticism where, by the end of it, I was like, ‘I still don’t know how to pitch an editor!’ [laughs] So mentoring emerging critics and editors on the practical aspects of entering the field, and bringing in some of the leading critics and art writers to discuss how to assert yourself, negotiate for what you want and need – especially if you’re a person of colour, which is increasingly the conversation we need to be having – it’s just overdue, and people are really into it. We’re also keen on offering this through mentorship, and not an MFA you know? We cover everyone’s tuition, and meet virtually so you can be joining us from wherever. Our Residency next week takes place across several time zones, centring Indigenous leaders and residents. We’re seeing results and it all stems from asking, like, how does one enter into art criticism? Asking that question out loud ultimately changes who enters.

CS: It’s important that it’s grounded.

SG: Yes. And, having said that, you’re never only talking about the practical bits – it’s constantly swelling into larger conversations around the health of the discourse, its potential and risks. I can’t tell you how much of a fire it’s lit under us in terms of what we’re doing this for. I really want to see us replant the forest. We shouldn’t only be talking about crisis. We should be talking about what is possible in this space that’s sparking with new energy, so that art has more people to communicate with.

Oliver Pitt, smith waft fan, insist card bend, 2020, ink on paper, 15 x 11 cm.

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Editorial II

In our interview for this issue, Momus editor Sky Goodden begins a discussion on the idea of ‘crisis’ with a quote from Toni Morrison: ‘I insist on being shocked. I am never going to become immune. I think that’s a kind of failure to see so much of it that you die inside. I want to be surprised and shocked every time.’ Similar sentiments appear to thread their way through this issue. In many of the pieces there is a sense of working against inertia, against prevailing attitudes and their hardening in moments of crisis. Often, that effort produces a certain unease, which manifests in unsteady movement – the writing cuts, splices, pivots, shifts tense. The images chosen to accompany the writing reflect this, seeming to turn in on themselves, with scenes and objects that feel difficult to pin down. Together, they register a need to return again and again to the task of marking extremity in the everyday.

For many of the contributors, time is of particular concern. In Tillie Olsen and Time’s Coal: Some Verses on the Limits of Practice and Discipline, Laura Haynes navigates the constraints of late capitalist time on the woman writer. Questioning a societal demand for the day’s optimisation, Haynes asks instead, where is the good-enough setting? In our Hybrid column, Jessica Higgins’ Now, for the doubters and the sceptics moves through the syncopated rhythms of office hours, clock-time and domestic boredom, cutting between Jane Arden’s film Anti-Clock and Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. In Do You Ever Remember Books You Haven’t Read, Brent Garbowski recounts a trip across Pennsylvania, tasked to pick up thousands of books for a Jim Lambie show in noughties New York. For our Writing Through column Rebecca O’Dwyer considers Rosemarie Trockel’s Manu’s Spleen 1, reflecting on its graveyard scene from the perspective of post-lockdown Hamburg, noting a world picking up where it left off. Aïcha Mehrez’s essay Ethically Surfacing Museum Connections with Empire and Slavery addresses the ongoing harm caused by Tate’s decision to frame its colonial history in neutral terms, and its refusal to acknowledge the institution’s power to shape national narratives.

Similar themes are outlined in exhibition reviews by Natasha Ruwona and Maria Howard. Ruwona looks at how Drink in the Beauty at GoMA falls short of its aims to address ‘current debates on climate justice and legacies of the British Empire’. At Tramway, Howard reflects on Amartey Golding’s Bring Me to Heal, its meditation on the generational trauma of colonialism and the iterative rituals that become a form of processing and resistance. Elsewhere, Ruth Gilbert reviews Life Support: Forms of Care in Art and Activism, last year’s major show at Glasgow Women’s Library. She looks at the ways care has been taken up by various women artists not only as a necessary tool for survival, but an ‘articulation of hope’. In a review of Thriving in Disturbed Ground at 16 Nicholson Street, Gwen Dupré questions the curatorial assertion that female empowerment can be achieved through reclamations of vulnerability and spirituality. Calum Sutherland writes on the assimilation of artisan materials into tasteful contemporary art via Tonico Lemos Auad’s Unknown to the world. In light of their shared experience of growing up in Belfast, Neil Clements considers Cathy Wilkes’ installation at The Modern Institute. Paul Barndt’s book review takes us through David Hoon Kim’s Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost, touching on language and translation, love and wasted time.

Frances Stanfield, Yellow Bull, 2020, monotype on Somerset Paper, 70 x 50 cm.

Our cover image, Poppy Jones’ Soul & Body (2021) depicts a tan jacket with one button fastened and one undone. Painted on suede, the work repeats itself, the art object and its subject indistinguishable. Cropped sharply and framed in aluminium, it focuses all attention on its detail, avoiding any definitive narrative suggestion. Jones builds the image through lithographic printing and washes of oil and watercolour in what becomes a palimpsest of process and routine. The nap of the suede bears traces of a hand passing, evoking both the immediacy of painterly gesture and the intimacy of dressing. 

After a glimpse of how things could be done differently, it is frustrating to witness a return to normal. Towards the end of the interview with Goodden, a question arises of what to do with the unease of this moment. She suggests the tension, if not defined in terms of crisis, can be generative, a well of energy for new conversations and practices. In Soul & Body, as with the rest of this issue, something hopeful emerges from the refusal to stop looking, despite the pressures of time and exhaustion. The past is unsettled in service of the present, and inertia is held at bay. 

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