An interview with Christopher Clary
Queering the Collection is an ongoing exhibition co-curated by Emily Dunne at the ICP Library and Be Oakley of the GenderFail Archive Project to organize a variety of curatorial perspectives in contemporary investigations of gender through archives, libraries and collections.
On March 25, 2018, Dunne and Oakley organized a Lab event at the ICP Museum in which artist Christopher Clary hosted a show-and-tell workshop with visual producers working outside of mainstream discourses. Ten artists and collectives presented works ranging from zines, various forms of printed matter, and video. Full disclosure: I was one of the presenters. For the second installment of Queering the Collection Clary was invited to organize an exhibition at the Library and host another Lab event, Emergency Readings, at the Museum on May 24, 2018. Emergency Readings paired current photography titles in the Library’s collection with literary, fine-art, and video works from contemporary artists.
What follows is a conversation with Christopher Clary about Emergency Readings completed in June 2018, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Patricia: At the ICP Museum the other night you introduced the evening not as a reading but as a condition of emergency, so I’m curious to hear more about what you meant by that.
Chris: My mini manifesto for Emergency Readings starts with “It would be wrong to say we’re reading because of the current state of emergency. The underrepresented and underserved know this less as a state than it just is and always has been.”
I’m using ‘emergency’ here ironically — it’s pure click-bait. An alarmist tactic. A cis, white male strategy that’s, unfortunately, the norm in social and traditional media. Even cultural institutions like the New Museum give in and use titles like Trigger: Gender as a Tool and Weapon.
When I was researching concepts of safe space for an earlier curatorial project, I was amazed at how literal and didactic language is in these spaces. What I tried to do with that project and Emergency Readings is open up the dialogue. Question existing practices that are based in fear and inherently conservative.
Patricia: The role of triggers was mentioned, briefly. But not as scaffolding for the ideas presented throughout the evening.
Chris: Interestingly, most of the artists in Emergency Readings are against trigger warnings. And these are artists/writers who are creating on and around intersectional issues. Specifically trauma. So I had to carefully consider the spaces between the artist, the art-object, and audience. I’m drawn to simple, safe space practices that don’t use trigger nomenclature.
At ICP, the reading was intimate so I opted for an up-front content warning as opposed to a trigger warning. There is a difference. A CW is normally value-neutral in providing information about the contents of something. A TW attempts to identify what may cause panic attacks or related experiences of trauma. This is what I believe most of the artists I’ve worked with reject because it assumes the person issuing the TW knows the audience’s experience. It’s very presumptive.
After researching this for over a year, I’m disillusioned. Not that we can’t learn and use some of these safe space practices but that our online network culture is dying. I’m specifically thinking about the YouTube vlogger, Nasime Sabz and how she was characterized online.
Patricia: Sabz’s platform is consistent with how certain groups of people consume ‘emergencies’ these days: through video. Although there is a historical precedent for how ‘emergencies’ (which as you’ve hinted at, is just everyday life for a great majority) are consumed through video—from Greenpeace, to Rodney King, to Diamond Reynolds, and even very recently with the murder of a 20-year-old woman who crossed the border into Texas—video is still not viewed as credible evidence. Sabz chose YouTube as a platform and chose to critique its parameters for monetization as evidence of algorithmic control. What did you make of how Sabz was characterized online? Especially in relation to safe space making and networked culture?
Chris: I’m still processing all that happened. Not knowing of Sabz before the shooting it seems unfair of me to comment on her videos. We only know of them from second-hand sources because every platform including YouTube “terminated” her accounts. Which is where my interest lies. Social media is a corporation and we now know through leaked Facebook memos that they are willing to incite violence if it means connecting more people. So it’s not surprising that there was a YouTube shooter. It’s surprising that it was Sabz because she doesn’t look like other American shooters — cis, white, men. Because of this, her very realness, gender, race, religion, and art was called into question.
I come back to the image above because it represents where we are today. The network needs to die. We, as the underrepresented and underserved, should be able to connect without relying on systems of greed and violence.
Patricia: Speaking of connections and relations, how did you go about assembling each pairing?
Chris: It’s all about connections, new relations. An artwork is singular. Like a person. It has a voice. An aesthetic, or better yet in intersectional speak, poetics that are specific to that singularity. But it is not isolated. And that’s the beauty in pairing things. Knowing meaning can shift because of the curation and our relation to it.
In some cases, there was a clear idea to find a ICP visual equivalent to the artist text. Allison Parrish’s Our Arrival paired with Carly Steinbrunn’s The Voyage of Discovery is an example. I knew of Allison’ Twitter bot project that uses NASA photographs. Carly’s book is similar but even more dreamlike in that it feels like how I read Our Arrival.
Other pairings were more strategic, as was the case with Paul Soulellis’ book that documents how the Trump administration gutted the EPA website. We considered several books: a beautiful collection of war dissidents, Nazi propaganda, and finally a zine made after Trump was elected. Emily Dunne, the ICP Librarian, said the zine was created by Sebastian Hutchinson, a 15-year old who created it as part of the ICP Teen Academy. Pairing Paul and Sebastian was a hopeful gesture.
Patricia: What images or aspects of your selected books surprised you?
Chris: The biggest surprise for me was something that occurred at the reading. As I listened to American Artist read about Silicon Valley culture in Black Gooey Universe I heard something I didn’t hear before. Or didn’t hear something I was expecting: no one is named. Even the man who developed the graphical user interface — GUI or gooey — is just the “Founder of Augmented Research Center at SRI”. In American’s essay these technologists are nameless. We paired Black Gooey Universe with Portraits in Silicon, which explicitly names 33 white men and 1 white woman as historically important. I wonder if this is an instance where a white institution like ICP and myself as a white curator can commune with American Artists’ vision. Doing what they have chosen not to do — name names. Checking our industry, institutions, and most importantly, ourselves.
Patricia: How do you see Anouk Kruithof’s Automagic manifest trauma physically, in the construction of the series?
Chris: Automagic continually transforms images, layouts, and formats across 10 booklets. Trauma here seems somehow light, accepting, and caring in how it captures a way of being and surviving. I even love Anouk’s description that the books are without covers. Very queer. Which paired nicely with Porpentine’s Pyscho Nymph Exile. Both are future worlds that use our present debris of images and words.
Patricia: I was particularly struck by Nora Khan and felt an asymmetrical kinship with American Artist because of my previous employability in Silicon Alley here in New York. Khan identified a whole constellation of relations that threaded through the work of other presenters.
Chris: Nora is truly inspiring. When I was researching safe space in network culture I came across a precursor text that Nora wrote for the online magazine Palm Wine. In it she writes around safe space, triggers, and trauma. I say around because just as American Artist never names names, Nora never mentions safe space, triggers, or trauma in typical rhetoric. Both get at these issues much deeper. A personal, political level that’s guttural.
Patricia: Allison Parrish’s Our Arrival was so very enjoyable because of how pronouns are deployed in the construction of the work. Mainstream non-queer culture is increasingly aware of what pronouns signify, and the sociocultural dominance that pronouns enforce. Structuring a novel with two main characters, I and You, represented the basics of a civilization, of connection and/or departure, of political coalition or adversity, like a basic unit of human relations, which I found a striking choice for a work that was written through code. Pronouns already seem so quaint and analogue in a world too easily enamored with AI, but Parrish extracted new meanings for these two pronouns.
Chris: The I and you of Our Arrival is a perfect analogy for pairing. Not just in a literal sense. But I and you are inseparable from their surroundings. In fact, I was more enamored with lines like “mists scrutinizing the sky” than the slippage of pronouns.
Allison’s preface that explains the algorithm is fascinating. Her selection of natural world sentences and reversal of subject noun phrases is genius. Similar to Porpentine and Anouk, Allison is imagining a new world. Not just the subject and narrative but the actual writing of it. Her code is available on GitHub so anyone including Allison can run the algorithm and generate a new Our Arrival.
And that’s so good in how it screws with my idea of singularity. What is the art-object? The code? The PDF that Allison published as Our Arrival? Or someone else’s later version? Does it matter? It matters that we have ideas and because of shows like Emergency Readings I can change my mind.