Metaphors are so tricky; I use one, it seems to perfectly encapsulate my meaning, but then I do a bit of digging only to find that my metaphor is rooted in the language of capital or war. ‘Outpost’ is exactly what I mean: I think of centers, of cores, and then, connected by an artery of some sort, a smaller node. That site is, in my mind, a nimble outpost – a part apart yet self-sufficient, rich in its own objectives and ways, marked by its own climate and topography. When I think of my work as an artist and as a teacher, I think of myself working in an outpost. This is strange because South Florida is, in several ways, not an outpost at all. It is the American center of the Caribbean and the major American terminal to South America. It is the corridor between New York and Kingston, Port-au-Prince, and Havana, or, further south, between DC and Lima, Buenos Aires, and Managua. Even so, there’s a stability to places like Los Angeles, Toronto, and the Twin Cities that is not characteristic of South Florida at all. Even the people who’ve been in the area for three of four generations understand the region and themselves in terms of mobility and change. Hurricanes can change and move everything and everyone. Boom and bust cycles, too. Like the sandy soil that plays host to our crabgrass lawns, South Florida roots and shakes people loose with ease.
My work and other people who do similar work seem to thrive in more stable urban centers. And I hear it all the time. Conceptual art and experimental classrooms belong in New York or Los Angeles or at some small liberal arts college somewhere or in some program in some other global metropolis. I think I’m stubborn. It’s not a word I would use to describe myself in any area other than my work in art and education. I firmly believe in the nature of both projects: conceptual art belongs to diverse communities of people; literature and the humanities rigorously pursued can form the foundation and shape of healthy, enjoyable lives. And, to my bones, I believe that neither urban centers nor elite institutional spaces should have a lock on people in communities who encounter, engage, exchange, and exist with the arts and humanities. The abstraction, the critique, the whimsy inherent in my artwork, the frameworks of understanding and the questions we ask of the texts we explore in my classrooms are all rooted in ideas of community. And it pisses me off to think that the only communities that are expected to be fully invested in this type of work are capitals of either nations or industry. Bleh.
So, I work in what feels like an artistic and intellectual outpost – not because there’s no art or scholarship in South Florida; rather, the specific ideas I engage are not as yet linked to the area’s wider systems of art and education. The more I move away from object-oriented art, the more I challenge the purpose of public education, the less connection I feel to most of South Florida’s existing art and educational institutions. But like I said, I’m stubborn. And, while I imagine I could be quite fulfilled doing my work in places where those conversations already thrive, I resent the implication: that here isn’t as good as there, that there’s something wrong with us here.
In both art and education, I’ve seen people who are deeply engaged in questions of aesthetic and narrative leave our area for other, ‘more supportive’ places. Curators and artists, students and educators go away to directly engage the plurality of voices in our fields. I did it to work on my MFA. Interestingly, even though I had the option of going to New York for my degree, I chose the Twin Cities because I wanted to think about and make work without fighting against a clamor of names and trends even as I sought more voices than those that are prevalent in South Florida. But, although it is far smaller than New York, the Twin Cities are hardly outposts of the art world.
Few of us who leave come back. Those of us who return often find ourselves fighting feelings of frustration at the lack of infrastructure and interest to support our work. My network of similarly-focused groups and individuals starts in Minneapolis and extends east and west to DC, New York, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Only now do I have nascent connections in South Florida. For the last three years since my return, I’ve wrestled my desire to stay in South Florida against the siren call of more established hubs. I’ve actively pursued both angles, and my efforts here in South Florida have yielded very satisfying if moderate results. Another person in my situation would continue this work and, in a year or so, take their show on the road. But I have decided not to do that. I’ve decided to stay and make a case for my outpost.
Well, I for one wish that someone had written a manual on how to do experimental work in the arts and humanities outside of traditional urban centers. No one that I know of has done this, so I suppose I have to do it myself. I imagine that I am not the only one who is so deeply in love with some aspect of their home town (the beach and the atmosphere and the overlapping diversity) that they would rather live there than in some place that already has everything and everyone (I’m looking at you, Brooklyn). For good or for ill, cosmopolitanism is the heart of outpost thinking. In those major cities and cultural centers, multitudes of praxes collide with one another and shape and reshape thinkers and practitioners. And, for good or for ill, this is where the military roots and capitalist applications of the outpost metaphor are most accurate: major cities and cultural centers protect themselves by drawing in everything and everyone that might possibly feed their enterprises. To do this type of work in the away is to build capacity elsewhere, is to resist the thrust of contemporary society that takes us far from the people and places that we genuinely depend on over the course of our lives.
Look, jobs with lots of money are great. Engaging the cutting-edge of a chosen discipline is stimulating, satisfying. We can and do make families out of friends and colleagues. But life inevitably takes turns where siblings and parents and children require historic resources, lineages with roots. I’m more interested now in what the hero does when she returns.
I like bright people. And by that I mean, I like people whose main focus is ideas. So I don’t mean that I think there are intelligent and unintelligent people – far from it; I can’t think of one person I’ve met that I would characterize as inherently stupid. I know narrow-minded people and lazy thinkers and thoughtless people. I know people who are so rooted in protecting some aspect of their identity or their experience that they refuse to think beyond it. I myself am often all of the above. But I’ve yet to meet someone who was, beyond faults of intellectual character well within our control, innately stupid. For me, bright people are interested in following a thought through to its terminus and make the space in their minds and their lives to do so.
But lately I’ve noticed that there is a way that gender shapes the way ideas are engaged. It might be something else, but it feels like gender. I am right at this moment reading Men Explain Things To Me so that I can position the following without recovering that ground, because there is something particular that I want to get to, and it is this:
- I and most women I know treat most encounters with others as opportunities to find out.
- When someone and I are in conversation, my interlocutor’s biography bears heavily on pretty much everything that person says.
- I practice critical thinking, and can and will entertain most generously and genuinely proffered ideas.
- Perhaps it is because I am a Black woman and within my Black communities my well-reasoned point of view is expected, perhaps it is because my early sense of self was shaped by my parents’ insistence that I clearly and rigorously and consistently explain myself, but I have very rarely ever felt the need to silence my perspective.
- If we are in conversation and I haven’t said anything for a while and you find yourself droning on, you should probably ask me what I’m thinking because those are the moments when I am withholding from you critical information.
- I rarely withhold when I’m in conversation with women.
There are among my friends a handful of bright men from whom I occasionally withhold information because, at that moment, they are more interested in being the ‘expert’ rather than having a chat between equals.1 This can happen even when the field of conversation is something like American public education or contemporary conceptual art. And, it’s funny, I’ve noticed that in their minds, my own biography plays against me as though I don’t know that or how my experiences have shaped me. In particular, they don’t see or dismiss as mere identity politics that I actively use my experiences as a critical foundation for my thought and action.
As a person for whom ideas are both pleasure and practice, I’ve found humility and sensitivity rather than territoriality and one-upmanship help flesh out new thoughts and move projects along. Because, for as much as I trust my own thinking, I enjoy people who think for themselves; other perspectives do expand individual horizons.2
- If you ever want to engage in a childish-yet-fun endeavor, make a list by name and gender of your kindred friends – regardless of how frequently you engage them and not including family (I was pleasantly surprised to see how long and equally balanced my list is) – and then rank them by conversational ‘quality’, ‘flow’, and ‘ending mood’. ↩︎
- Of course, there’s always ‘that guy’ who likes to take other people’s nifty ideas as evidence of his own broad-mindedness… sigh… THIS is the result of treating knowledge like capital. ↩︎
- Searching ‘you are the weather’ no longer pops up the weather! I was wondering when this would happen. And. Typing in ‘weather’ now comes with an ad. This is my last you are the weather post. ↩︎
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
My favorite thing about Get Out is the way that it taints the “Good ThingsTM“. It questions – as we should – the provenance, purpose, maintenance, and significance of leafy suburbs, interest in Black lives, and everything (milk and cereal, tea services, slacks, basements, hats, TV sets, law enforcement, the UNCF slogan… What signifies a poppet?) in between.
I’ve seen the film twice. Thankfully, it wasn’t spoiled for me the first time, so I went in pre-terrified; although I am my mother’s daughter and she is “more afraid of the living than the dead”, the paranormal can still keep me up at night. From the trailers I’d seen, I expected the supernatural consequences of the Americas’ Original Sins to provide the movie’s thrills and chills. I wasn’t disappointed.
The second time I went to see it, I watched to assess the way the corrections come to bear on the film’s cinematography. Toby Oliver does a fine job, I think, presenting all of the characters in their visual fullness. The movie looks like now, like this moment’s most sophisticated version, in fact, in terms of range of tones, shifting white balance, and depth of field. The way the camera handles Chris, the main character, is especially skilled: in scenes with other characters, there’s just enough distance between Chris and the viewer so that the viewer feels like something of a removed observer, but the camera is close enough for that removed observer to catch Chris’s micro-expressions as he processes his interactions. Thus, when Chris or other characters are in extreme close up, the viewer is sucked into the characters’ emotional vortices. Although close ups of Chris emphasize his red, distressed eyes, his face isn’t freakishly distorted by weird angles or try-too-hard lenses; he remains human, so the viewer remains empathetic.
That, the empathy for Chris the filmmakers engender in the audience, is remarkable. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris’s reticence, his self-awareness, his vulnerability, and his willingness to ‘give it a try’ with nuance, and, the filmmakers, through camera work and through narrative pacing, support that performance so that the viewer ends up caring for Chris in a way that parallels the viewer’s care for Chiron in Moonlight; we want both Chris and Chiron to be safe and loved. In Moonlight, Juan’s nurturing, protective presence guides the audience through their empathy for Chiron. In Get Out, while Rose might seem to serve the same function because she listens to Chris and appears to defend him throughout the film, there’s something cool and patronizing – and perfect – in Allison Williams’ performance that undercuts the validity of Chris’s sense of dread. The audience has to come to feel with and for Chris some other way, and the filmmakers achieve that with brilliant technical choices.
As with Moonlight, however, as far as I can remember, Get Out doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Does a movie have to pass the Test? Why is the Test even a thing? It’s a joke from a comic from a specific period of time with specific reference to particular women’s positionality in the culture. But, I’ll be damned if that basic three-part question doesn’t make me challenge my initial read of everything. First, I look for women characters, then I look at their interactions with one another, and, finally I run those interactions through the movie as a whole. What do they call that in art? Gestalt. In movies like Moonlight and Get Out that feature Black women, I am particularly keen to consider how we of varied experiences of this culture are portrayed. Get Out is very, very, very interesting to me in this regard with particular reference to my take on Hidden Figures and Lorna Simpson’s 2003 piece, Corridor:
In (a version of) that space, this face in Get Out is distorted:
Which, whoa… Horror movie, indeed.