October 31, 2010Posted by on
My interdisciplinary work takes up archived social histories of the everyday with tools and methods derived from contemporary art practices. Recently that has meant putting archival material to public work through installation and performance. The thinking and writing around this work has resulted in such phrases as discursive memorials, relational scholarship and artistic research. This project applies photography theorist Roland Barthes’s concepts of the studium and the punctum from his work Camera Lucida to the archive. Briefly, the studium is the unary reading of a photograph, what we might culturally all agree a picture is about. The punctum, on the other hand, is the idiosyncratic prick of a picture that launches a desire in the viewer, causing her to add something of herself, or as Barthes puts it, “to give myself up.”
In 2005, the Atlanta History Center concluded its Unspoken Past oral history project with the exhibit, The Unspoken Past: Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History, 1940-1970. The curatorial imperative ran counter to familiar narratives. Instead of documenting oppression up to the age of liberation, the work exposed robust social networks from lounges to the domestic sphere in which subjects with intention negotiated their lives in a time with different social and political imperatives. But this is the studium of the work, and as Barthes claims: “What I can name cannot really prick me.”
The subject of my work is the elusive character of William Deveaux Wilson in the Jack Strouss Collection. This was the first story I heard of him.
And then all of a sudden I got the last letter. And I never heard from him another time. And so, I took the bull by the horns and checked the time (inaudible), and I called that theatre, and I got a gentleman answered the phone, probably an assistant manager. And I asked him did he know the name and he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Well, is he there?” And he said, “He doesn’t work here anymore.” And that’s all he could tell me, and so that was the most I could do. It was really a dead end and that was very, very difficult, very sad. So, several months went by, and, this is a strange story, I might as well relate it, but I woke up one night, from a dream, it was so vivid, as dreams sometimes can be, someone had just leaned, it was just like an angel kissed me, and it woke me. And I just felt like there was a presence there. And the dream didn’t have anything to do with anything or anybody, it was just a sensation. And so I woke up, and just laid there, and I was so, it was so, it was just comforting, I guess. It was so sweet. And I thought, “That is a lovely dream. Was it a dream? What was it?” I went back to sleep. I woke up in the morning and it was still on my mind, and so I sat up in bed, threw my feet around on the floor, right into a puddle of water. And so, right away, I was going to scold the cat. I said, “But, that is a large pool of water.” And I looked and put my finger in it, it was just plain water, it wasn’t cat urine. And I looked across the room and the nearest water source, the bathroom, was probably twenty feet, at least. There was no trail of water, there was nothing leaking. That little puddle of water was there on the side of the bed, and I thought about it and I’ve asked people over the years, I don’t know anybody who is psychic. But, I just wondered, was that Bill telling me goodbye. Why the water? I don’t know. But I remember the kiss vividly, and how he used to come and stand by the bed when he would make those little night visits and lean over and kiss me. And what the water signifies, if anything, I don’t know, you can image all kinds of things, but I let that go. So, it was (inaudible) being, and I just let that be the closing. And I didn’t worry about it anymore, and I said, “Maybe that’s who that was.”
One of the first things that caught my attention in the actual collection was an unpublished manuscript of a melodramatic novel titled September Venus written by Bill Wilson. The dedication reads thus: “FOR: Jack Strouss, My Friend.”
The details of Bill’s later life were unknown to Jack Strouss prior to my research. One day, his correspondence ended, and he simply vanished. The title of this blog reflects the way Bill generally signed his letters.
I cannot tell you precisely why I tend to this particular archival relationship. As Barthes says of the punctum, “the incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance.” This site begins the work of bringing together the artifacts and results of my research so that I might give myself up through hybrid forms of work and collaboration.