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NIKON, DON’T YOU SEE I’M BURNING? On Laura Goldstein’s awesome camera

By Divya Victor

In which I talk about reading Laura Goldstein’s awesome camera and Laura talks about making awesome camera

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Divya: Reading awesome camera

Tamil Nadu, India. 21 May 1991. I am 8 years old and waking up to my mother whispering in my ear: “I’m going to tell you something. When you wake up everyone will be talking about this. Rajiv Gandhi has been assassinated. You don’t have to wake up.”

While stopping to hug children on his campaign trail, a young girl, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, had walked up to Gandhi with 700 grams of RDX explosives snug under her dress.

For days after that, the photographic aftermath of the assassination sprawled on miles of inky front-pages, in The Hindu and Dinakaran, damp with splayed bodies vibrating in neon-purple at the edges or blackened by the RGB rush or grainy and scattered, abandoned in black and white. Flip-flops everywhere. Necks ending where they shouldn’t. I held the front-page up to my face, one inch away from my eyes. When no one was looking, I would try to peer into the holes in the bodies. They found the camera with the negatives capturing the blast which killed the photographer. He was survived by his photographs.

Pages and pages of bodies fallen like limp confetti and colored in leaky ribbons of soy inks tinted with prussian blue (iron, carbon, nitrogen), cadmium yellow (cadmium and sulfur), and chrome green (chromium, oxygen). Titanium white. Painted humans. Pain. A headline about a headless nation.

Months later, these newspapers would be used to line kitchen shelves and altars; to package dried-anchovies and sugar; to wrap fried bananas and crisp tapioca fritters. Vegetable oil glossed the bodies and darkened the dead. These images were then placed in picnic baskets, grocery bags, and school bags—with the history books.

This is how the photojournalistic image travels. The camera and its catastrophic trail. The photojournalistic image first makes sure that we are always at some stranger’s funeral, and then, that we are always asleep at the wake.

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I’ve been reading Laura Goldstein’s awesome camera, which is coming out from Ara Shirinyan’s incomparable and essential press, Make Now. Make Now has made me, now and before, pay attention to what I did not yet know would be great poetry—and then I did because it was made now. The press, which has published a diverse and challenging library—Kenneth Goldsmith, Yedda Morrison, Steve Zultanski, Christine Wertheim, Matias Viegner, Rob Fitterman, Joseph Mosconi, among some excellent others—always seems to know one fraction of a second before anyone else does. Make Now has had a preternatural shutter speed for this capture, and with Laura’s book, and the soon-to-be EXTRIGUE from Shiv Kotecha, it continues its tradition of editorial WTFing for everyone’s benefit.

Laura’s awesome camera is cored around the question of how “the media” mediates our witnessing of the suffering of strangers. The camera, like a tiny high-tech coffin, seems to trap both the corpse and the viewer into an uncomfortable intimacy that only one can survive.

From awesome camera:

Please don’t escape into the horizon. There’s hidden sediment. We’re watching you in a movie and you seem to have no lines. Others dress up better and crowd the camera. Close-ups show a flawlessness that can’t be replicated under head-to-toe coverings. I want to call out to you what I remember but my species doesn’t have access to those memories. Closed shutters in different colors. If you think it’s hot here, try wearing a mask in the desert! Pause. Please kill a chicken quickly. The blood drains heavily. Do not misconstrue. You may be tempted to keep ice on hand but instead drink at lukewarm. A summary erases the pulse under a map of colors. The rain makes it dark. It’s not quite the right time to rewind right now. It’s gotten dark. I asked around. Elemental motifs create natural barriers. I can hear. The heart dilates and traffic rushes through long puddles bending under the moon, their edges in the sand. We build ourselves into a box, a small opening at one end. The camera is awesome. are you?

The photographic image—that wily emblem of survival—thrives where there is stillness and death, and Laura’s book seems to know this very well. Laura is no stranger to the question of survival’s temporality—her first book, Loaded Arc, from Trembling Pillow, runnels through two narratives of floods—that of Hurricane Katrina and the flood of Genesis. Emily Dickinson claims that there is no Frigate like a book, and in Laura’s case, one might say there is no Arc like this book—both the harbinger of the end and the only vehicle of survival for the chosen.

The camera’s history has marched in tandem with death. In the nineteenth century, post-mortem photography, particularly of infants and children, conspired with the slow exposure time of the daguerreotype and silver-plate photography. This accounts for why children, when photographed alive, were for so long just blurry whirls with silver smudges for eyes, pale chiffon for hands, and gauze for faces. The longer the body remains still, the clearer its image, the more versimilitudinous its capture. The perfect image finds its resting place in the corpse: “We build ourselves into a box, a small opening at one end.”

From awesome camera:

Fingers standing straight up. Picture it. A crowd in bits. Across the calm world, small battles, people playing. The news continues to view the source and burn the details to ash. For a few fraudulent months, the debate followed the election. A year later, an article came out with images. The news neutralized it. Here, life is as young as the next generation coming. On the surface a language replicates itself for a republic, under the ashes the other is whispered, spreading waves through a community. The leaders are stronger than ever. Some say they control the newspapers. Policies of prices and prisons, security services and streets. On Friday they reported receiving a text message on their cellphones, “Dear Citizen”, it said, “you have been tricked by the media.”

 

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As I read Laura’s awesome camera, I have an uncanny feeling that these poems are ekphrastics of distraction. This book offers a productive contrast to T.J Clark’s The Sight of Death, which itself is an anodyne to the implications of distraction and partial witnessing. Clark’s project is an extensive, durational meditation on Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, which hangs in the Getty Museum (National Gallery, London). Whereas Clark’s deviational, meandering, and utterly unorthodox exegesis of Poussin revels in the variegations of attention and cognition in the morphology of light and affect, Laura’s rapid-fire and rhythmic lines seem to attend thousands of photojournalistic images simultaneously, calling out what they share, where they diverge, and what they cost. The spectacle of the auctioneer’s gallery has finally met its other in Golgotha; the gavel in the guillotine.

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Of the thousands of frames shot at any given scene of disaster, one or two become the singular surrogates of the event’s cultural capital. These photographs become indexes of public consciousness, golden effigies to our gasps or shaking heads: too bad, what a shame, oh my god—Nick Ut’s Pulitzer prize winning photograph of Phan Thị Kim Phúc (“napalm girl”); Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer prize winning photograph of the vulture hovering near the Sudanese child; Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer prize winning photograph of Diana Bryant and her goddaughter Tiare Jones falling from the collapsed fire-escape on Marlborough street. These photographs that make sure we can never unsee also insist on the immobility of the event and its developments—Kim Phúc’s body, later saved by Christianity; her hand holding a pencil in an air-conditioned room where she takes the Canadian Citizenship Exam (“perfect score”); Jones’ small child-body falling on Byrant’s, her fall cushioned by borrowed sinew and bone before landing on the concrete below. The awesome camera, indeed.

In the months after the attacks on the WTC, Susan Sontag observed that a large majority of direct witnesses described what they had seen as “unreal,” “surreal,” and “like a movie.” On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Mayor Michael Bloomberg reminded us that we could “never unsee what happened here.” We had “seen” a reality that remained “unreal” to us. This suggests that witnessing is, at its core, a struggle between (something like) reality and its mediated interpretation. The lens is cloudy, the aperture fickle, the image recurrent and inscrutable, every time. Every pixel of a photograph used as evidence in witnessing acts is structurally fraught with the fantasy of survival: it is, quite literally, the smallest addressable point to which we devote our ocular attention. Laura’s book, awesome camera, has reminded me that witnessing, however, is always caught in the cross-hairs of the ocular and the mnemonic: what you see is not what you get. What you see is what you forget. And thus see over and over. The iconic image of witnessing is a tactical analogue for the forgetfulness of the disaster— retinal post-it notes that blink breakable bodies blink bulleted lists of victims blink.

This is a closed set. Nikon, don’t you see I am burning?

Laura: Making awesome camera

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I started working on awesome camera after I got back from the 95 cent skool in Berkeley California this was a seminar that was conducted by Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover in maybe 2011 the summer of 2011 and the participants applied to be there and then were chosen by lottery to actually attend because of the limited space it was a really amazing experience we met every morning and afternoon to talk about politics and poetry and action and poetry what kind of poetry we should be writing or what should we be thinking about it what kind actions we should be taking as poets in order to make serious change in our culture which we talked about as being increasingly capitalist in a way that really damages culture damages people’s rights and freedoms and as poets we discussed you know what our role is in addressing that or possibly changing that and it was a diverse group in terms of ethnic backgrounds and educational backgrounds and age and when I got back from the seminar I was really excited to push those ideas forward in my writing and I wrote the poem awesome camera which is the title piece for the book and the occasion of this poem was an article that was published in the New York Times commemorating one year after the Iranian protests and there was a large picture of a protester with a green bandanna over their face holding up two fingers and I wanted to take this as an opportunity to consider how we receive information about the world that might construct our political consciousnesses and thinking about how manipulated that might be obviously for better or for worse and I wanted my poem to really be a site of consideration of those issues for the reader so I was doing a lot of you know the questioning and considering and I wanted to open up a space for myself and also for a reader and then the rest of the project followed suit I write series of poems as my practice and I wanted to find different occasions or opportunities to really think through how we develop our political views so the rest of the manuscript sifts into that idea and the title of awesome camera is supposed to be a reference to know ourselves in this idea of awesome it has you know positive connotation colloquially but I think that literally it’s really about how mind blowing it is you know to be a being with consciousness in the world and looking out at all of it with you know this ability of perception that is constantly shifting and constantly you’re being influenced and being manipulated so the awesome camera is both you and the media and also ourselves you know as McLuhan said media is extensions of ourselves and I’ve been working with that idea for many years now and in and a few different book length projects from different angles

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bibliography:

  • border comedy, lyn hejinian
  • s*p*rm**k*t, harryette mullen
  • black debt, steve mccaffery
  • the network, jena osman
  • way, by leslie scalapino
  • minced english, amira hanafi
  • hamlet, william shakespeare
  • wikipedia entry for “gold”
  • russia, hyman kublin
  • the new york times
  • parade magazine
  • five books of moses

Laura Goldstein has published poetry and essays in the West Wind Review, Denver Quarterly, American Letters and Commentary, Tenderloin, How2, Jacket2 and other fine publications. She has six chapbooks, including phylum from horse less press and let her from dancing girl press. Her first collection of poetry, loaded arc was released by Trembling Pillow Press in 2013 and awesome camera is her second full-length collection. She teaches Writing and Literature at Loyola University and is the co-curator of the Red Rover Series with Jennifer Karmin.

awesome camera is now ready for PRE-ORDER at Make Now.

 

 

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Wednesday, April 30th, 2014 by Divya Victor.