THE BERMAC SESSIONS
Welcome to the Bermac Sessions. I’m LAN LI.
And I'm TANI BARLOW.
So today, we sat down with professors VICTORIA MASSIE and JOHN SPARAGANA to talk about what's broadly art and science. But something that really struck me is that Victoria and I were visiting John’s studio, and Victoria walks in, sees these blurry blobs of color–there are these thousands of tiny little squares. Victoria was looking really closely, and then suddenly, something clicked for her. She was able to use her work in science studies to actually recognize what John was doing in a way that I could not.
So what was your first reaction when you came into the room?
The first thing I wanted to know is how did he do this? Because I love to know how art is made. And this is the kind of art that gives me really, really strong feelings. And I want to know how people did that to me. So immediately, I went real close. And then I started looking around his studio, and I noticed that he has lots of razor blades. He has pushpins. He has different heavy weights of paper. And there were other things here that I can't identify.
Yeah. My initial reaction was that I connected it to weaving. But when Victoria saw it, she kind of jumped like ten thousand steps ahead of me and asked John if these were comics. Somehow that was a connection that I had no access to, which I thought was super, super interesting.
So I'm really excited to get into this conversation.
I am VICTORIA MASSIE, and I'm an anthropologist of science and creative nonfiction writer.
I'm JOHN SPARAGANA. I'm a visual artist. The work that we're discussing today started 20 years ago, directly post 9/11.
I was commuting from Chicago to Houston. I was in the airport constantly, where you see rows and rows of the same magazine, the same cover, the optimistic, slick cover, that sort of America's marketplace, and everything is terrific, almost like an art installation. And actually, on 9/11, I was flying from Chicago to Houston. I was at the airport early, and we saw what was happening with the towers. I had this profound feeling that everything had shifted because it was going to allow the Bush administration just to suspend basic rights. It just felt profound.
So I immediately went back, my kids were little at the time, and I went and checked on everybody. I took the elevated train back from the airport, checked on everybody, and went directly over to my studio, where I had stacks of magazines. And I started casting shadows on the cover of magazines, re-photographing them, so that some kind of shadow from the outside was creeping into that optimistic space, kind of retroactively because these magazines I had around. And they were a range of magazines from previous years. It's like a retroactive sense of an underlying shadow to this idea.
So I started to work in various ways, re-photographing, drilling holes in a stack of magazines and then photographing with that kind of tunnel into the space that also was sort of tearing up the guts of the magazine. So you had a beautiful surface, but then you had this tunnel in this space. I was slicing and mixing and interacting with different series. Sometimes I think of it as hijacking popular images. And most definitely shifting from an informational mode to a poetic mode. The trace from that moment to this series feels completely tied, even though the work is totally different scale in a different medium.
One series leads into the next there's a unifying intention, and a small range of methodologies, but often repeated methodology leading to very different looking work.
I had a friend point out that what's happening with this remix of a remix and the state that it's gotten to is when there's an elemental change where ice turns to water or water turns to fog. And I thought that was a beautiful analogy to what's happening with this iteration of the work.
The inability to know from the very beginning what exactly I'm looking at that, coupled with the scale. The microscale at which you're operating immediately tapped into that part of my brain. There was only at that moment that I could actually step back and actually see the comic strips. I feel like I'm cheating now because I know what they are. But even reflecting on when I first entered this space, it was going up to the first piece. It's these blocks of color, but I could not make any figure out of it. Not at all!
So I was trying to find my way from one slightly imperceptible piece to another, I guess would be the third. So, for one thing, the piece is not as brightly colored. But that allowed me to get into the details a bit more concretely than I had with the others. Like certain places where the colors were juxtaposed in such a way that I suddenly was getting a sense of the meticulous nature of the grid itself–these lines, these blocks, and even looking at the details within them. At that point, I got to get a sense of, "Oh, these are actually potentially cartoons, like comics."
For me, what's fascinating is how much it made me think about my own work on genetics. So in a world where we often use genetics as the truth, following the genes, whatever kind of puns we want to be engaging, or whatever, there's this sense that, yeah, genetics, the genome is the source of information for everything. And yet, when you get down to it, you can't intuit what this means. But we talk about it as if we can. So it's like that kind of image that brings that intuiting of DNA, it forces that confrontation. And then, in forcing that confrontation, creates space to reflect on "How do we know what we know?" which is a very classic science studies question.
That's a lot of what our conversation was last time. I realized my interest and how this work evolved is totally related to that a little bit in reverse, in that I always start with images from popular media. In this case, it's the mid-20th century, American comics with news media and fashion. All of those are delivered in a way where there's a complete set of assumptions about what's what. Iit seems like news media would be investigative or analytical, but often, it's just very simplistic. For instance, in this case, Dick Tracy comics it's generally about America's policemen and good cop and bad people. And I did a series on Superman, you know, the American century.
In every case with all of these series, there are interventions into popular media. I'm interested in making some kind of methodological physical interaction which disrupts that set of expectations and informational delivery, so that it must set the viewer back to negotiate this familiar set of images, which is now both an artwork and a destabilization of the image that they're familiar with. Some people have absolutely no tolerance for negotiating something they're not familiar with, temperamentally? Well, there's, there's a whole spectrum, you know, where some people really become curious, even if the source material is no longer evident, dealing with it as a visual field as a visual condition that reads a certain way from a distance. And then as you get very close, all kinds of optical phenomena start to spark and fire.
It just reminds me of how much some of this destabilizing or how people experience this work has a lot to do with how dependent people are on vision and on sight to orient themselves; it's almost like what we know is what we see is the kind of leap of faith that's required, when what you see is not giving you some kind of immediate feedback on what the thing that you're looking at really, allegedly is, depending on how you experience the world, that may not be intuitive, and it may be particularly counter-intuitive. It can even feel like an attack on the self or ego. For my own quirkiness, at least, like studying genetics, or being obsessed with genetics, probably since when I was 15, basically, like half more than half my life at this point. There's just like a level of scale, and I just operate that way.
Then you add on anthropology, which is just notorious for taking something that's familiar, and trying to find a way of making it as familiar as potentially humanly possible, in hopes of giving you the perspectives to kind of look at the things that we put out a day Since with maybe more a sense that those we distance are not as distinct as we'd like to think of we often presuppose, this is like an idealized version of what anthropology is. But there's power involved with sight. There's power involved with vision and a whole host of ways. And how much that leap of faith requires a level of humility, maybe even sacrifice, vulnerability, kind of making these like, kind of major confrontations.
Oftentimes, when people think about confrontations and art, especially at this moment, it's often thinking about, like, directly addressing politics. It doesn't even have to be that kind of spectacle. Or, just like literally, the problem of perception itself can address this. You know, when I think about my work, just someone who studies race and racialization, like spectacles being about death, and who's dying, and in what particular way, and all the visions that come with that, like police brutality videos, just ongoing spectacle, you still get the challenge of perception that oftentimes even gets lost sometimes and those debates and something like this.
Yeah, that's interesting. I mean, another thing that we talked about is that as an artist, if you're an artist, you're making something for the world. You want it to be somewhat challenging, in a positive way. It's not to punish people, but it's to shift perspective, open perspective, generate a new experience, the political work is really clear. It's quite a specific negotiation.
It was really interesting to hear you talk about your training and your fascination with DNA, this unseen material and anthropology as a way of approaching things, like part of your experience that that could provide a way to negotiate this, because I've tended to think about it a lot in terms of people's temperament. So my younger daughter is super super into astrology. And she has been since she was a little kid, just to speak really broadly, not even all those constantly shifting negotiations; I tend to think of that condition as a factor in how willing people are to deal with something unknown, or even desire it, you know, your desire that I want to put myself in an experience where I don't know what's happening. Then I can start to resonate with it and slowly feel it, absorb it, and see where I'm at.
But I'm going for fresh visual conditions that also feel very stable. They feel structural, stable, but like they're breaking some new territory.
Absolutely. We've gotten to a space where it's almost as if media exists, it's just there. And it's just there for us. We don't have to deal with any kind of origin. Least of all, who made it? Who did what with it? Yeah. And it's just literally the way that we've had a distorted gesture making quite literally forced us to pause. Because they aren't seamless. It's meant to be not seamless. And in so doing, I think we have to consider the kind of mode of production in a very literal sense, right?
So the biggest thing from my work is trying to challenge people and how they talk about DNA rhetorically. So, for instance, my work is trying to deal with the non-rhetorical dimensions of genetic African ancestry in Cameroon. When I say "non-rhetorical," there are a couple of things I have to break down. So, on the one hand, some of the rhetorical devices I hear especially come from social scientists, science studies scholars, trying to make sense of genetic ancestry, particularly genetic, African ancestry. And the specter of essentializing race as a kind of biological fact, through this construct is that people continue to say "race isn't biological," which like "yes, but also..." Somehow, while continuing to repeat this for the past two decades and seeming to have not much resonance with where the industry has gone (people haven't stopped taking these tests) suggests to us that we should be figuring out something else to say.
One of the things that people have forgotten from the early days of the Human Genome Project were people being explicit about genetics, like genetic information, these nucleotide sequences. They're completely distorting our understanding of biology. We can't understand DNA outside of what we make it.
We talk about typically "race isn't biological," we're talking about a Victorian-era understanding of biology. There's a essentializing quality of biology as essence. Again, DNA forces us to confront this; we can't just intuit. And yet we've said this, and somehow, when it comes to things like racialization, that's been completely lost. So when people regurgitate, "race isn't biological," and use blackness in particular to reassert, this is also a part of the rhetoric of people-as-not-having-culture-if-they-don't-have-history. And that because of the history of slavery and how it operated at least in the US and other places, the sense that black people (whether it be in diaspora or on the continent are not historical figures), not only they don't have culture, but that they can only have kind of biology with this technology.
So it's not just that genetic ancestry is not biological. But we're talking about genetic, African ancestry and blackness, that it can only be biology can only be essence, when people are engaging with this, even though we know it's always about labor, the labor making meaning. I think most people are just more interested in writing about race in the age of genetics, without seeing how genetics (if we take again, the meaning-making practices seriously) could be an avenue into figuring out what exactly race or understanding of race is today. That it isn't always about the "I." It hasn't always actually been about the "I." And especially for black people, who, for all the ways I get over-determined by visualizations, do not capture the very human nature, like the humaneness of being black in the world.
So for me, adding on to this of not just asking "what is genetic, African ancestry," but doing it with actual people going to the actual African continent, and clarifying it in terms of how it shows up in a place like Cameroon--it's these little steps of trying to get us out of the rhetorical devices that we've been using continue to use. These rhetorical devices quite frankly cut off the opportunity to bear witness to various worlds that are trying to be built but also being denied and the very vitalistic stakes in that.
There was a public discussion between two artists in the 1960s. And one was kind of a hero of mine named Philip Guston, really, really interesting artist. And he was having a discussion with an artist named Frank Stella, and Frank Stella, was part of a group of artists that were coming out of a very theoretical position. There was a critic named Greenberg, who sort of set the terms of what you could do and what you couldn't do. It can be one specific thing right now. And the rest is irrelevant or not, not right. And Gustin had a lot of literary connections and a lot of emotion around his work and so on.
But in this discussion, he had a statement that I think just clarified a lot. He said, an artist shouldn't want to be right.
And neither should scholars!
And I think that's a broad statement for people. It's really problematic, to, to need to be right. To want to be right to think you're right.
I completely agree. But I think more than anything this need to be right. What I'm just struck by is that it feels like there's something in the kind of way we engage with the world at this moment where there needs to be right. Like people aren't curious, and they won't take the risks to be curious because they can't take the risk to be not right, they might not even be wrong, but they can't take the risk of not being for sure aware that whatever they're going to produce or say, is going to be legible in a particular way.
Today, our conversation really involves perception. It involves a disruption of reality and hope, and also embodied disruptions, especially in Victoria's work on genetics.
The issue of intelligibility kept coming up and up and up, partly because of how John works. So my eyes really want to make something out of it, but it can't. It also moved very rapidly into intelligibility within a political framework. So John's story about 9/11 and many of Victoria's descriptions of not being intelligible in a way that is comfortable for her. She talks about not needing to create alienation in order to occupy a space of curiosity. That also came up in the issue of mix and remix and remix. Because these are sort of tied to a political event, and yet, they spiral into the making of something that seems to be quite mysterious.
Someone that I respect, you got to see this Sophie Taeuber-Arp show, I thought I know Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s work. I don't need to see the show. And I went and saw it. And it's like, I knew a little bit of what Sophie Taeuber-Arp was, and even what I knew, I didn't know viscerally.
There's a brilliance of material brilliance, a brilliance in the in the in the precision. But the precision is very human. It was an amazing… it was a revelation. And that's how one often approaches things like, “I know this.” “I don't need to know anything else. I already know it.”
I mean, the problem of perception, the body, temporality, desire--that's the kind of trifecta that often comes up with Black Studies.
It's critical to understanding the way that blackness has been constituted by a non-black, often Western, white, anti-black gaze. For instance, Hortense Spillers' "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe," published back in the late 1980s, one of the things that she's trying to do is deconstruct the figure of Sapphire within the various racialized black tropes, like the angry black woman trope that's Sapphire. And she ties it to these notions of failure of the black family and how much of this is rooted in black women being the central pathology of the failures of the black family. This is more of a bigger entry point to the Moynihan Report.
But what she does is try to recoup the power of Sapphire, in large part through this kind of psychoanalytic approach to the flesh, understanding blackness as constituted flesh but that we're not flesh. That's one slight distinction that people miss, that the flesh becomes, as she described as a kind of hieroglyphics. And so, having an understand kind of the issue of human versus a body versus flesh, it's easy rhetorically to essentialize a certain kind of pathology on black women as these masculine figures have these families without going to paternal nuclear figures, almost as if they're self-producing, but only because of the specter of chattel slavery. These women were producing, were being raped by the white slave masters, and there was no manner of accountability, which denies legitimate biological kinship, which was not possible. Black men, chattel themselves, could not claim a "father right."
So suddenly, you have these magical black woman figures who are basically like cloning themselves. They're just like giving birth to people without an alleged "other" counterpart. And also not being able to claim "mother right" is a different kind of notion of the body and flesh. So you are being overdetermined by everyone else. And what she tries to do is get us to think about what are we reading into this flesh in this hyper-reduced sense. Often when people miss, and it's like these gazes that shape how we do critique, I've seen people who, especially in this kind of wave of citing black women, will put in quotes that Spillers notes that black people are flesh are seen as flesh. That's only part of the story.
She's explicit that the goal was not recognition, which is a direct political confrontation with sight–with vision. My goal is not inherently to be seen, least of all by a gaze that has been produced to make sure it distorts who I am when it sees me. The goal of identifying the flesh is to refract back the crimes onto someone else. It's about identifying the flesh where someone else can take that burden–that burden can be relinquished onto the people who created that kind of perceptual gaze in the first place. And we can do that. You have to confront who has desires to continually reproduce this–and it's not mine.
Victoria's discussion brings to mind the basic spiritual premise that a distorted mind is going to read things in a distorted manner.
Tani, something that was interesting was during the conversation, you had a book recommendation for John.
Well, because the term perception was so much a part of the dialogue, I recommend a book by Donald Mingdah Lowe, called History of Bourgeois Perception. It uses Marxism and phenomenology to look at labor and certain class based perception. It was taken up by the then current stream of visual artists, performance artists, and seen as a way of understanding the problem of newness in modernist thinking.
I thought that was really interesting when you said that it joined Merleau Ponty and Marxism. I thought that was really, really cool.
Produced & Edited by Lan Li
Music by Paolo Pavan
Photos by Guangming Li