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Nonsite Collective (Redistributing Poetic Effort part II)

By Thom Donovan

I first “happened” upon the Nonsite Collective in the summer of 2007 when I was in residency at the Headlands Art Centre near Sausalito, California. I called up some of my friends, asked if they’d be interested in getting together for dinner, and was invited to what was described as a “semi-formal meeting” at Jocelyn Saidenberg’s house. It just so happened that the meeting was either the second or third meeting of the Nonsite Collective. As I understood it, the organization, comprised largely of visual and verbal artists, wanted to stage “interventions” into Bay Area art events as a way to dislocate the assumptions about the stability of “place” and call attention to the relationship between art and the ideological state apparatuses that sustain it. Its name derived from the group’s readings and meditations on the work of Robert Smithson.
—Tyrone Williams

Nonsite may be nothing more than our unfulfilled potential for thinking, imagining, working, practicing, acting, and communing across otherwise hardened divisions of social labor, divisions that often keep poets from working with activists, archivists from working with visual artists, scholars from working with community organizers, healers from working with choreographers, etc.. What would it feel like to soften those divisions in our collaborative work? Nonsite is like a weak impulse toward a future from whose vantage point this unrealized potential haunts our present. Nonsite may be what will have been here right now would that that future were to come. In the meantime, we can nourish conditions of possibility for sustained engagement around a set of shared investigations moving toward this undetermined place, and we can only do this by disturbing so many policed borders. How might we participate in the struggle to dismantle the coercive neo-liberal structures that make use of these separations and divisions to insure against the work of commoning? No work in isolation! No event without the connective tissue to nourish and sustain its relation with other projects, practices, and discourses where our confederacy will find its common singularity.
—Rob Halpern

One of my focuses for the past four months at Harriet has been on re/directing “poetic effort” (the effort of those who write, teach, edit, publish, distribute, and read poetry) towards other fields of cultural production. Such a desideratum I believe is also expressed at Harriet by many different posters, and not least of all by recent debate between Kenneth Goldsmith, Alan Gilbert, Mark Nowak, and Linh Dinh. What else is “conceptualisms” if not a productive intercourse with visual art (i.e. ‘avant gardist’ materials), an injection of the visual artists’ concerns into contemporary poetic practices. Likewise, in terms of Alan’s and Mark’s posts in particular, the want to frame a discussion of ‘post-avantist’ poetries through “hybridism” (Alan) or “documentary” (Mark) speaks to a similar sense that poetry should seek its limits and find purpose within other cultural fields.

‘Post-avantist’ poetry, which includes poetries that take up ‘avant garde’ problems and strategies in the interest of tests of poetry, extend to a broad range of current practices. What these practices share in common as an intention, at the risk of being overly generalizing, is to overturn poetry as a thing-in-itself making it a thing-for-us and a thing, most importantly, for social practices instead. Thus expressing a belief that, to paraphrase Alan’s terrific book Another Future, form is never more than an extension of culture and, what’s more, that forms can embody and extend both ethical and socio-political commitments. Forms are not negative, therefore, for negativity’s sake (and therefore elide the reduction of poetics to antagonistic rhetoric). To quote Stephen Cope, forms become negatively culpable, rather than negatively capable.

An aspect of this desideratum too, is to gather differently, and to explore different platforms and social milieus in which poets can collaborate, converse, and connate. If this returns us to many projects deferred and abandoned by radical social movements ongoing since the 30s, that is because the desire has not gone away to embody a form of assembly that reflects radical content. Likewise, a desideratum of many of us is to seek out spaces that pose alternatives to the increasingly total administration of our lives by capital, the state, military-industrial complex, academe, etc. How better to exist in the interstices of neo-liberalism’s ‘uneven growth’, and in lieu of the ressentiment it does not cease to inspire at the somatic, spiritual, and material level? How to enact a conversation counter to our current socio-economic conditions that also admits complicity—the fact, for instance, that one cannot be a citizen of the US at this moment without being in some sense for Empire?

Since 2007, the Nonsite Collective (based in San Francisco, but born of the desire to be “nowhere”—both mobile and utopian), has been attempting to bring poets into dialogue with other culture workers, including activists, teachers, visual artists, healers, composers, archivists, and choreographers. As the Nonsite Collective’s website states:

The Nonsite Collective is a collective of Bay Area visual artists, writers, activists, archivists, independent scholars, and non-traditional learners, all working together to stimulate new forms of collaboration and public participation around a range of interdisciplinary projects. The collective is not only committed to promoting new work, but to sustaining discussion about the projects it promotes. We do this through modes of self-organized pedagogy, whereby collectively proposed “curricula” become ongoing series of interrelated investigations, presentations, study groups, and events. This allows participants—artists and non-artists alike—to test new ideas, while developing shared vocabularies across disciplines, stimulating new forms of discourse around the inquiries that sustain our work. Thus Nonsite creates multiple points of leverage for ongoing cultural engagement and social action.

Is gathering a form of poesis—a form of active making? Nonsite Collective has posed this question to me since I first participated in the collective at its inception. In the first spring of Nonsite, participants in the collective produced a document provisionally expressing the desires of the collective for action—the first “draft proposal.” Meeting for weeks in San Francisco (I could only participate from afar since I lived in NYC), participants wrote and revised the draft proposal together with the intention that the document could be continually revised and overturned whenever such a need was felt.

The first spring and summer of Nonsite yielded a series of events that I was fortunately able to participate in, which took place at Cameraworks gallery in downtown San Francisco, and at places around town such as the Prelinger library. At Cameraworks I gave a reading with Taylor Brady, generously introduced by Rob Halpern. Later during my visit, I led a discussion at the home of Jocelyn Saidenberg addressing “disaster” in the works of Jalal Toufic and Rebecca Solnit.

Since the spring of 2007, Nonsite Collective has organized a number of events, all of which contribute to the collective’s purpose of establishing curricular resources. This series of events includes talks and presentations by CAConrad, Frank Sherlock, Jonathan Skinner, Amber DiPietra, Bhanu Kapil, Norma Cole, Miranda Mellis, Kyle Schlesinger, Dont Rhine (of Ultra-red sound collective), Tanya Hollis, Taylor Brady, Michael Cross, Emily Abendroth, Kevin Killian, Bruce Boone, Alphonso Lingis, Eleni Stecopoulos, Robert Kocik, Brandon Brown, David Buuck, Susan Greene, Chris Nagler and many others. For the collective, events are not discrete (“No event in isolation!,” as Halpern says), but articulate one another—extend and intensify existing conversations, problems, lines of research and concern. The non-isolation of Nonsite Collective events—mediated by curricular documents—I find a crucial aspect of the collective’s practice, and a necessary alternative to events dynamics as they occur in other institutional and non-institutional locations. The poetics of gathering, and of event, in this sense is about generating new modes of attention and of collective problem solving, conversation, and action within a duration. It is also about the perpetual movement of site and nonsite, as expressed by the draft proposal; that whereas sites present ‘real’ conditions of socio-political disparity, nonsites abstract and mediate these realities as art, science, writing (metaphor, representation). Through the movement from site to nonsite to site, a negative dialectics forms whereby what remains is social conflict, discrepancy, and difference rendered visible, manifest, and sensible.

In the summer of 2008, I was asked by Halpern, the central organizer for the collective, to give a talk around what at the time we were calling “poetics of disability.” The chance to talk about disability made me nervous, because my research at the time was not about disability per se, but about ways that 60s and 70s live performance practices responded to the perceived vulnerability of the body imaged by news footage and photo documentation during the Vietnam War—works by Vito Acconci, Martha Rosler, and Arakawa/Gins (all non-identified as disabled) being my principal cases. While many of my ideas about how I was using the term “disability” were overturned during the one and a half hour long talk (interrupted by conversation, Q&A, etc.), it exploded the question of what disability was—both for me, and I think for the collective too. During the talk, it was especially important for me that I was able to meet Amber DiPietra, who has generously contributed a reflection about her personal history with the collective for this post.

I moved to San Francisco because there exists here the kinds of social services and community supports that allow me to live independently as a person with severe mobility impairments. The goal of finding an accessible life for myself, took precedence over the fact that I was also going to SF as a poet. Once I got to SF and began to relax into my new abilities—that included being able to get myself from my MFA program, to my part time job, to my apartment—without any assistance, then I started to look around at the poetry community that I had landed in, 3,000 miles from my home. In this community, I felt my disability being erased. Because I was not limited socially by how far I could walk or whether or not I could drive a car. This was thrilling. But I also felt my disability being erased because I found that I was trying to emulate an avant-garde poetics (which had not existed so much on the coast I came from) and in that poetics, there was less room for the “I”, for a body’s history, for emotion around that history. This was troubling as my embodiedness—which was/is very much a history (both in terms of ADAPTs radical public bus demonstrations to my own reality in which I had to cross the country to get around town) is the ultimate constraint-based method behind and present in my poetics. I felt divided also, because after getting to SF, I began to work as an advocate and service provider in the disability community. And in that realm, there is a great need for aboutness—for clear language and social action around the goals and rights of disabled folks. But in my new poetic environs, aboutness seemed scarce.

Then, one day I took a chance and wrote a blog post about this ambivalence I was feeling on the Nonsite Collective’s blog. I felt as though I were doing something risky and perhaps, not very refined. These were scary folks. They weren’t from the South (the opposite ended up being true), they were more intellectual than I and thus, had gone past the need to talk about the body (that wasn’t the case) and they wouldn’t know what to do when I pointed out that the Collective’s meeting space was not accessible (understandable since most non-public spaces in SF are on steep hills, up many flights of stairs). But in fact, my blog post was met with an amazing response—and Nonsite events on disability began to unfold. Ones in which many different types of thinkers who inhabit space and their bodies and various ways have presented and just chatted and eaten cheese and such. And about the stairs?—some Nonsite members called upon friends and a beautiful flat private studio near several bus stops presented itself. (Thanks Nichole!) The curriculum on disability has since been named the Aesthetics of Somatic Practice. Which is even better because now, non-disabled participants are not forced to use disability as a metaphor, but can enter and bring their body to the conversation in a way that is totally accessible.

And my newcomer ideas of conforming to an avant-garde style? That nervousness has disappeared into something else entirely. Into a larger body that has no hard and fast edges. In which everyone does their thing and in which I can explore just what I need to explore without compromise. I am so grateful to Nonsite and to Nonsite friends for having afforded me a space—in the largest invisible felt sense, in which to move.
–Amber DiPietra

DiPietra’s reflection eloquently reflects the organic growth of a curriculum through the attendance of a singular participant. Through DiPietra’s attendance of the collective’s discussion, bodies became cases for somatics rather than metaphors for dis/ability, thus making it necessary for the curricular name “poetics of disability” to be changed to “Aesthetics as Somatic Practice.” The curriculum for “Aesthetics as Somatic Practice” at the Nonsite Collective’s website, perhaps the most robust of the curriculum so far, includes materials generated out of events with Robert Kocik, Sue Schweik, DiPietra, Bhanu Kapil, Michael Davidson and others. It also includes supplementary documents introduced by myself, Patrick Durgin, Schweik, and Davidson.

As the collective ponders its future, I recall many possibilities participants discussed during the collective’s founding moment. These would include not only making curricular resources available for classrooms, free skools, and other alternative educational settings, but complicate ways that we think about the archive, about live dynamics, assembly, and the ways that aesthetic practices may intervene practically within particular cultural sites. That the collective foregrounds any number of metapoetic problems, framing one’s attention to gathering, distribution, reception, and production, is a reminder that what is produced as art and poetry is not removed from a social intention—the fact that we are among others and that, to paraphrase George Oppen, others wake us or we drown. Likewise, that despite the proliferation of Web 2.0 technologies, somatic practices (the fact that we have bodies, and that bodies are to various extents always coconstitutive with the social/political/ethical) is an ongoing problem. I hope Jocelyn Saidenberg’s reflection below may speak to this—group praxis leading to social praxis, bodily awareness leading to an awareness of socio-political disparity, difference, and complicity with built environments.

In Feb. 2007, we began the curriculum, Translation as Social and Aesthetic Practice, with presentations by Bruce Boone, Susan Greene and Chris Nagler. […] I am going to focus on Chris’s work and in particular the follow-up meeting.

Chris is addressing immensely complex issues in his translation work and in his discussions that contextualize both Alberto Masferrer’s and his own projects. I will let Chris’s work stand for itself rather than summarize or simplify. I would add that all of Chris’s engagements and activities investigate, through a variety of practices, the body, whether body of the dancer, translator, writer, citizen, activist, teacher, that multiplying and variously bodied experience, rendering and attending to those experiential relations in writing and movement. I can’t put it very well, but knowing Chris, collaborating with him, arduous backpacking trips with him and making many dinners and long conversations with him, I can say that his work continually invokes relations between bodily experience, ethical engagement and lived connection—kind of the antithesis, to my mind, of blogs and virtual communities—relations that happen in real time in shared space with aggregated articulations and consensual gestures. These investigations do not erase individual experience but rather provide a kinship via assembled narratives and movement, even at times when aggression and shame press into the content. Perhaps the following quotation, from Nagler’s translation of Masferrer’s The Cursed Currency, will resonate with my thoughts so far:

“this street where happiness and life descend in the morning and ascend in the afternoon changed to pain and death . . . this street that should be completely red, so much is the blood that has been ground into the dirt. Street of the Cane, street of Death, street of Prison, street of Slaves, street of Sickness. Yes, it should be called street of blood. Our street, yours and mine, ours. That we live and benefit by the blood that stains and reddens the ground of this street. By this blood – drained from bodies into the National Budget, where it crystallizes and congeals into the lie of Culture – by this blood we live and draw our privileges.”
—from The Cursed Currency, by A. Masferrer, trans C. Nagler.

During the follow-up meeting we met at Miranda Mellis and Dori Midnight’s house on Guerrero Street in the Mission. There were maybe 15 of us. Chris asked us to stand in a room whose space was cleared in the center. He asked us to hold in silence the following question as we looked each person in the eyes in turn: How has this body been damaged, or not, by US policy? He asked us to moved from person to person on a given cue—I think it was a clap or tapping sound.

My first thought was: Oh, I am so relieved so-and-so and so-and-so aren’t here because this would be too challenging, too focused on our actual, real bodies, too vulnerable and visible. Maybe I wished mine was not there, momentarily.

So I moved from person to person, as each one of us moved from person to person, looking into the other’s eyes as the other was looking into my eyes, all holding this question: How has this body been damaged, or not, by US policy?

It’s not like I knew everyone well that I was looking at and being looked at by, but don’t you think that was part of the experience? Encountering assumptions and doubts and questions and frustrations and attempting to make many of those hindrances more legible, articulated, somehow. It happened over maybe 20 minutes. Then we stopped. I think I hugged Rob and wept a little at the end. Chris asked us to talk about our experiences. As I recall, being seen, not seeing, caused most people the most pain.

The question in some ways was asking us to take in the other’s damage, pain, or not damage and pain, yet the pain of having our own pain read (or evaluated or intuited) on our bodies, our bodies being experienced in that way, caused the greatest pain and discomfort, maybe even a little anger, I sensed. It was not simply the witnessing but the kinship in the shared and simultaneous experience of our differently damaged bodies.

The conversation expanded on the immediate experience as some people talked about living in other countries, and about not being seen, and about “passing” as someone or thing one is not and the pain of that, and about wanting to be damaged, putting one’s body on the line, in protest, to receive that mark, a badge. More things were said, but I need to return to being a librarian today.
—Jocelyn Saidenberg

To participate in Nonsite Collective, an organization that wishes very much to become mobile, parasitic, and to not exist out of one social ecology but out of many, please sign up at Nonsite’s website, where you may also wish to propose events, curriculum, and projects.

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 30th, 2010 by Thom Donovan.