Critique as Reverie:

Reflections on some conversations

In Spring 2018 I organized a series of three readings at MoMA PS1, called “Readings in Criticism with unbag.” The idea was to generate some conversation around the topic of this issue, which was then still forthcoming, while also giving some space to writers to share their work and get feedback on it.

I wanted to start more conversations about criticism after a project I did in Portland in August 2017, where I produced a two-issue magazine of criticism called Provision through a workshop with home school, an informal educational initiative there. The process of that project— face-to-face conversations that generated writing that appeared in print a day or two later—felt more urgent and exciting and rewarding than the editorial work I do in my regular job at Art in America, where everything is regimented, slower, and happens via email.

I knew it would be a challenge to replicate the experience of Provision. For one thing, in Portland I had institutional support—I had been invited by Converge 45, a new art platform, and they gave me a big printing budget, as well as a project budget that I used to pay participants in the workshop and feed them dinner. We got to use the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s space to meet and work. In New York there was no one asking me to do this. No one was giving me resources. What is more, people in New York always have so much to do. There are so many obligations, and inviting people to start a similar project, even a less ambitious one, would be adding another obligation where the only reward is conversation about art and writing, without payment or social capital. So I knew it would be difficult. But I wanted to try anyway.

The idea was to meet once a month in Fall 2017 and discuss some exhibitions with a lot of interest around them (in some cases, also hype and controversy): Kara Walker at Sikkema Jenkins, “Trigger” at the New Museum, Jimmie Durham at the Whitney. I reached out to unbag, a project that had some youth and energy to it, and they helped organize the discussion sessions, inviting people from their network. I liked the idea of bringing some older, seasoned writers (as well as poets and non-critics or occasional critics), from among my friends with the unbag group, to generate friction among different viewpoints. Some people think Kara Walker’s project of depicting suppressed histories is valuable; others think its exploitation of unhealed traumas does violence to viewers. Some people think Jimmie Durham’s past undocumented claims to Cherokee heritage preclude appreciation of his work; others think that the politics of blood quantum laws and the history of dispossession that severed family ties is too complex for them to judge, and are willing to approach Durham’s work on its own terms. I have found that younger people tend to take the more radical stances, but it is not clear-cut along generational lines. I wanted to get people who held these opposing views to listen to and learn from one another.

We got some of that lively antagonism. But the series did not take off. There was a good turnout and animated discussion at the first meeting. Only a handful of people showed up for the second one, and the third was attended almost exclusively by members of unbag staff and held at the apartment of one of them. We talked about Jimmie Durham for a bit, but also discussed how the project could be revised to make it more successful.

Perhaps part of the problem was trying to hold a critical conversation when the object of critique was not in the room. Some people came to the meetings a few weeks after seeing the show in question; some people came without seeing it at all. So it would be better if we could discuss something present. I also realized that it would be more successful as an event. I needed an institutional host. I needed to add money and social capital.

In late 2017 I approached PS1, and they agreed to include the project as a supplementary program for their Sunday Sessions. I invited writers to share their work, so they would headline the discussion. But to make it less of a reading, where authors say their piece and get a few scattered questions at the end, I allotted equal time to readings and discussions, so it was almost like a workshop or a critique, where conversation between the author and audience mattered even if the text read was a finished work, not one still in the process of being written. dj boyd read poem-like meditations on pieces of ambient drone music that they post as reviews on sites where these tracks are distributed: a parasitic, diffuse critical practice that, like ambient music itself, “aspires to the condition of perfume.” Rindon Johnson read a review of “Trigger” that was published in the Brooklyn Rail; it was a rigorous but intensely personal review about belonging to a community and seeing it represented, feeling oneself within art that invites empathy, thinking of gender as “a puddle in the front yard of the self.” Jessica Lynne read a pair of experimental texts commissioned for a dance festival’s catalogue, in which she considered how works by two choreographers embodied facets of a black American existence in movement and gesture. I could go on, but these three examples demonstrate how the readings explored critical writing across a range of genres, often veering into poetry, parafiction, and personal essay. They gave the audience grounds to discuss the purposes of criticism as well as the concerns germane to each writer.

I called the magazine I made in Portland Provision. In my project proposal, I said I chose the name not just because it was a temporary, or provisional, publication, but also because critical writing is necessary and nourishing, like the provisions you need for a journey. This was a good thing to write on a proposal to get funding. But it is not true. Critique does not serve an immediate need. That’s why it takes some offer of financial and/or social capital to make the production of it effective. Art is probably a necessary part of life, or else all humans everywhere wouldn’t make it or keep it around them, but the effort required to put your feelings about art into words is more of a luxury, a crystallization of a reverie. A communication of an inward turn. I just think it is better when people turn inward together, and share that experience of luxury. So I am going to keep doing it.