Dear Paul, (Part 2)
Further thoughts on friends, strangers, and publishing as public action.
Here is the second part of my long, slow, public letter to Paul Soulellis. I’m continuing to think through the idea of publishing as a form of public action, now in the light of friendship and stranger-hood, of what it means to convene, of fellowship, multiplicity, change, and choir.
If you missed the first part, you can catch up here.
Also, I’m experimenting with Substack notes, a space for shorter and more spontaneous postings and conversations. Join me there!
If you’re in Seattle, I’ll be reading from The Uses of Art at the Frye Museum on April 20, and I’d love to see you.
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Who is a stranger, and who is a friend?
Many years ago, in creating a project called The Free Biennial which was an open exhibition that took place in public space, I offered the potential participants a shorthand for defining ‘public space:’ ‘Public space’ was anywhere a stranger could enter. Michael Warner uses a similar framing when he says, “a public is a relation among strangers.”
But in approaching Michael Warner’s essay, am I really a stranger? I’ve had the book on my shelf for years, though I hadn’t properly read it until quite recently.
And Michael Warner himself? I spent election night 2008 with a dozen friends piled onto Michael Warner’s bed. Arriving at the party, I had been handed a pair of men’s briefs with Obama’s campaign logo printed on the ass. I promptly took off my jeans and pulled the briefs over my underwear; they were a bit too small, but I squeezed into them (embarrassed, elated). I’d only met Michael glancingly before that night—he was a friend-of-a-friend, or maybe more precisely, his circle of friends overlapped mine. And yet, our circles were tight enough that I spent a joyful night on Michael’s bed wearing his gift of uncomfortable Obama briefs and didn’t put my pants back on until I was heading out the door.
I agree with Warner that texts can convene strangers—I’ve never met most of the people whose writing has influenced me. I’ve felt the sense of conversation-among-strangers that he evokes. And yet texts are also circulated hand-to-hand, recommended by friends, by communities in discourse, and by other texts. Texts, I would say, make friends. As we convene around texts, in conversations and arguments, we come to know each other. Out of this kind of knowing comes both relationship and the possibility of coalition, of acting together.
Finally, texts speak to and with other texts as they circulate in networks of discourse. Only the newest and most recently published text is a stranger to other texts, and not for long.
I owe to to you, Paul, the idea of publishing as fundamentally an act of ‘making public.’ You have been using this definition to expand the possibilities within publishing:
To publish is to make public. All instances of the word work here: when we publish we work publicly, we make and serve a public, we make content available, we disperse material, in an exposed, public way, in the institution, in the street, in public spaces.
You gather in the widest possible meanings of ‘publish,’ including pamphlets and zines, twitter posts, internet memes, speeches, and even clothing printed with messages. Beyond the expanded field of media, you include acts of distribution and dispersion in your definition of publishing.
Publishing is political. Publishing can compel, persuade, inform, attract, confuse, script, or manipulate. Urgent acts of “making public” can mobilize communities and inspire change. In crisis, we see independent artists, community organizers, scholars, and activists collectively engaging with sophisticated modes of publishing to record and communicate in real time, while those in traditional positions of power use those same tools to engineer and control our defining narratives. It’s here that we can locate the enormous paradox of contemporary publishing: its potential to oppress as well as to empower.
During the lockdown days of the pandemic, you turned towards activities you described as “urgentcraft.” Urgentcraft is a form of immediate publishing that makes use of modest tools like google docs, zines, and letters to address community needs. You said, “Urgentcraft isn’t necessarily legible to everyone; its strength is in its specificity, designed for certain communities, while barely acknowledged by others.” The content of what is published matters urgently, but the manner of publication within communities also acts as a kind of communication, one that makes relationships.
For Michael Warner, publishing is centered on writing and reading texts which are then circulated by existing networks. The printing, distributing, and selling are assumed. For you, Paul, the making of the text is also important but it is the acts of dispersion that create community and solidarity.
Fellowship and Presence
Now I’m watching a video of the poet Fred Moten give a Sunday sermon at Trinity Church in New York, another one of your recommendations. Moten is wearing a black suit, and a tie with a feathery purple pattern. I am listening to him speak to the congregation about fellowship, about gathering, about call and response, or as the book of Common Prayer puts it, “collect and response.”
To collect is a call to gather, and the term insists upon that gathering. We are called upon to gather, to congregate, and because it is we who are called to gather, because when we are called upon to gather it is already assumed that we are gathered, it seems like part of what it means to gather is to think about gathering, right at the intersection of what we are and what we do.
Maybe we are being asked to consider that what we are is what we do, that we are nothing other than this beautiful practice of gathering, that if we have any identity at all it is, in the first place, shared, and it is in some place that might as well be before the first place, practiced.This week we are blessed to be called upon, and we are gathered here today to reflect upon our calling and our responding, and to consider that these are shared in our common practice.
I feel moved by this “beautiful practice of gathering,” and I find myself considering the way the sermon itself, or the repetition of Sunday sermon after Sunday sermon, gathers the congregation and allows it to know itself. The congregation is a fellowship, it is open to strangers but not composed of strangers. In fact, it makes fellows of strangers.
This pattern, this practice of gathering, is activated by the performance of the church rituals, its hymns and sermons, and by the call for a co-presence in space and time. The sermon is spoken (though in fact, you can see that Fred Moten is reading from a written text), and to hear it you have to be right there. This is a public that knows itself because it sees itself.
But you don’t, quite, have to be right there. That particular Sunday was January 19, 2020. I’m listening a couple of years later. I’d be surprised if I turned out to know anyone in that congregation, or anyone who was there that day. I am a stranger, proper.
Nevertheless, I am convened by Moten’s voice, his presence and his words. I am convened by him in a way that is distinct from the way the congregation he is speaking to is convened. I am convened at a distance of space and time, and I am convened by my own interest and attention, in just the way that Warner suggests a person might be. I am part of the public of Moten’s sermon.
Convened by Moten’s written and spoken words, I find I inhabit (at least for a moment) a new world. A world in which we gather, and we fellowship, a world in which we call and we respond.
I’ve been thinking, as well, about a phrase that Fred Moten has adopted from the poet Édouard Glissant: “consent not to be a single being.” In its awkwardness, the phrase itself is a poem. Moten uses it as the overarching title for a trilogy of books of essays (Black and Blur, Stolen Life, and The Universal Machine).
Moten describes how an interviewer (Manthia Diawara) asks Glissant what ‘departure’ means to him. Glissant says, “It’s the moment when one consents not to be a single being and attempts to be many beings at the same time. In other words, for me every diaspora is the passage from unity to multiplicity.”
Glissant equates unity with the enslaving will, and multiplicity with the anti-slavery will. To Glissant, multiplicity is something that is gained in the passage through slavery, departure, and the return to freedom.
What I mean is that those who were forced to leave as slaves do not return as slaves, but as something else: a free entity, not only free but a being who has gained something in comparison to the mass of humanity. And what has this being gained? Multiplicity.
Glissant is speaking specifically from and to the diaspora of slavery; Moten adapts Glissant’s phrase “consent not to be a single being” to his exploration of Blackness. Yet it strikes me that the values they are speaking towards are essential to the survival of all beings on this planet.
In my own recent writing I’ve been using the word ‘choir’ to express the sense that any meaningful political action, especially in relation to climate crisis, must be carried out by many hands. We have a collective anxiety about ‘preaching to the choir’—attempting persuade those who are already with you— but what if we turned this anxiety around? What if what we needed was the choir? What if change is only made by a choir?
The choir makes a glorious sound.
—To be continued next week.
Paul Soulellis is an artist and educator based in Providence, RI. His practice includes teaching, writing, and experimental publishing, with a focus on queer methodologies and network culture. He is the founder of Queer.Archive.Work, an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that supports artists, writers, and activists with access to space, tools, and other resources for queer publishing. He is also Department Head and Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Rhode Island School of Design.
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Reading at the Frye Museum in Seattle April 20
SAL RANDOLPH: ATTENTION AND THE USES OF ART
Reading and Discussion
April 20, 2023
6 – 7 pm
Frye Art Museum
704 Terry Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104
What is to be done with art works? Sal Randolph’s The Uses of Art is a memoir of transformative encounters with art, and it asks what it would mean to make use of art in the way we make free and personal use of music and literature. In search of answers, Randolph sits eye-to-eye with Marina Abramović, makes the pilgrimage to Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field, and returns again and again to a Tiepolo painting at the Met. The Uses of Art invites readers into new methods of looking, engaging with both the classic museum visit and with contemporary art, including the work of Lygia Clark, Ann Hamilton, Eva Hesse, Roni Horn, David Horvitz, Juliana Huxtable, Donald Judd, Ragnar Kjartansson, Agnes Martin, Bernadette Mayer, Aki Sasamoto, and Tino Sehgal. Liberating and emboldening, this book will change the way you experience art.
Tickets are free, but capacity is limited. Up to two tickets per person may be reserved prior to the program. Preregistration will close at 11:59 pm PT the night prior to the program. Parking can be an issue in our area, so please plan your visit accordingly. All unclaimed tickets (regardless of reservations) will be released to standby 10 minutes before the program.