NOVEMBER 12, 2020
Banner image: Rehearsal still from Clytigation: States of Exception by Michelle Ellsworth. Photo by Max Bernstein.
Featured image: SHORE in Mni Sota Makoce: Performance, by Emily Johnson, 2014. Photo by Erin Westover.
IN SEPTEMBER 2013, Colorado was hit by a 100-year flood. It was a perfect storm, as that sinister cliché goes, costing eight human lives and roughly $2 billion in damage. If you were not there or close to people who were, it is possible you don’t remember this particular calamity; we are, after all, continually contending with another sort of flood, one of remote-yet-at-our-fingertips horrors.
I remember this storm, because I was in it. I flew to Denver on the 11th of September, where I was picked up by the choreographer Michelle Ellsworth, whom I had just that summer met at the ninth Creative Capital Artist Retreat. I was to spend four days at her home in Boulder, helping her, in some amorphous way, with her current research.
I remember that the precipitation on the Denver tarmac did not seem particularly heavy. I remember asking Michelle to slow down as we sped through the rainy darkness. Later, she would tell me that she thought if she drove as if everything were normal, everything would be normal. I remember thinking, as we passed swollen, rushing waters, waters that in some places were grasping at the roads, that this might well be the sort of situation that precedes those nightly news images you see of submerged cars, taillights still on, occupants ominously elsewhere. How does someone get into that situation? Of course, it is just the opposite: the situation gets into you.
Close to Michelle’s house, a downed tree rendered the road impassable. As I remember, we cut across a steep slope, clambered up into the night around tall pines and through matted grasses. Is this how it happened? I was in sandals, like any dumb city girl.
Then followed a few days without power or running water, sitting in a vertical wooden box, submerged only in Michelle’s gorgeously delicate work — after which her mountaineering husband (the same man responsible for the wooden box) managed to drive us and their daughter back down to the flatlands through a maze of backroads and dead ends. What should have taken a half hour took the day. Hot shower, loud fraternity party next door, return flight: as if the whole thing never happened. But it did.
“I was there not as a consultant or grantee, but simply to observe,” I wrote in a 2013 piece for Artforum about the retreat, the first and so far only one of these events I have attended.
Of course, one never simply observes.
For most of 2013, Wanda Coleman was still alive.
I had the honor and pleasure of meeting her that June. We spent several days in Detroit, where we were part of the panel selecting the Kresge Artist literary fellows. I remember her humor, warmth, and keen intelligence. I remember noting that one would not want to be a fool she had to suffer. I have the memory of a note from her, written I believe to all of the panelists, remarking that such deliberations are not always so congenial as ours had been. I cannot find it now, but I am convinced it exists, and I do still have the books she gifted me with, each signed by her elegant, expansive hand. I open one of them, The Riot Inside Me, and find the line: “There is no such beast as objectivity in this jungle.”
(Wanda Coleman never won a Creative Capital grant, nor an Arts Writers grant. Let’s not wonder whether or not she applied; she should have won both.)
Seven years ago, Indigenous presence was rarely acknowledged within the art world circles in which I was traveling.
I am writing these words on Ohlone land. It is a sunny, mellow day. The noises from the street are muted. Birds are chattering in the backyard, and an airplane roars far overhead.
I was on the July 24 SFO-JFK red eye with David Kelley and Patty Chang; we were all going to the retreat, traveling from our residencies at Headlands Center for the Arts.
Patty, who had received a grant the year before, was one of many artists tasked with giving a lightning-round presentation of her project, a daunting task of reduction. I wrote in that Artforum piece, “what has stayed with me were the quieter, human moments — the film and performance artist Patty Chang, a 2012 visual arts grantee, talking about this being a big year for her, and then mentioning, without any flourishes, the birth of her child and death of her father.”
I remember sitting in the Headlands library with Patty, doing some kind of funny joint interview with each other; maybe we recorded it? Mists outside the window’s thin glass panes, and small yellow flowers anchored to the crumbling soil of a small hill. I was immediately taken with this straightforward, jocular person who made such shimmering art. I remember the video of her washing the dead whale, giving it proper rites.
The video is part of her epic project The Wandering Lake. Restless bodies of water and people. The Danjiangkou Dam in Hubei Province features prominently in the work. Did this new coronavirus yet exist in 2013? Did it lie coiled, waiting also to move?
Seven years ago, I was still on social media. Twitter was always at its most and least helpful when writing a piece like this. I would have wasted time. I would have asked, “What were you doing in 2013?” and someone would have responded with language I could use.
On the first day of 2013, I lay for the first time on a black sand beach, the grains glistening deeply like caviar. This was during my first and so far only visit to Hawaii. Later that year, I lay on my second black sand beach, actually more of a dull gray, an almost-always deserted beach adjacent to the Headlands residency. Emily Johnson told me about it. I would see her also at the retreat, where she, too, was presenting. Emily of the quiet voice and strong art. I remember we talked about the grief (mine already in advance) of having to leave the fog-wrapped, moody beauty of that wild place.
I find now that it is hard for me to muster the energies needed to write about people I don’t know. Who was that young woman who wrote thousands of pieces for The New York Times and Associated Press? What would we talk about now?
In 2013, I was still somewhat working as a journalist. I remember a New York Times editor fomenting himself into high bureaucratic dudgeon: if artists couldn’t figure out how to write proper press releases, we sure as hell weren’t obligated to review their shows. Can you imagine that being your criteria? This stupid professionalism into which we have all bought.
Now that I hang out with artists more than journalists, the trash talk vectors toward the journalists and curators and funders. But really, it is all the same ugly warfare, generalizing about what isn’t you. I have a strong memory of a line in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, something to the effect that any argument which depends on generalizing is not an argument worth making. I locate the book in the third bookstore I try and spend several nights speed reading. I cannot find the line, but I am convinced it is there.
Back and forth, back and forth. So much movement. And then it stops.
And then it stops.
And then what?
Claudia La Rocco is the author of The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands Unlimited); Quartet (Ugly Duckling Presse); I am trying to do the assignment ([2nd Floor Projects]); and petit cadeau, a novel published in print, digital, and live editions by The Chocolate Factory theater.