Friday, October 31, 2014

Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Sedgwick on Texture

In Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick's 2003 text, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, she charts a difficult but intriguing course in trying to account for affect as biological as well as nonlinguistic while playfully illuminating the surprising anti-essentialisms that such an approach can unfold. Using Tomkins' tomes on affect, an approach to affect that, unlike Freud and his intellectual kin, does not reduce affect to drive (as libidinal and sexual) but understands it to have multiple objects and even autotelic qualities. Another objective of the text is a generous reading strategy that resists the polemical application of a "hermeneutics of suspicion" or an easy cookie-cutter deployments of the "repressive hypothesis", instead, thinking "beside" instead of "beneath" or "beyond." (9-2) These approaches, she laments, involve the all-too-common "bossy gesture of 'calling for' an imminently perfected critical or revolutionary practice that one can oneself only adumbrate." (8)

She articulates, of such besideness: "Beside permits a spacious agnosticism about several of the linear logics that enforce dualistic thinking: noncontradiction or the law of the excluded middle, cause versus effect, subject versus object. Its interest does not, however, depend on a fantasy of metonymically egalitarian or even pacific relations, as any child knows who's shared a bed with siblings. Beside comprises a wide range of desiring, identifying, representing, repelling, paralleling, differentiating, rivaling, leaning, twisting, mimicking, withdrawing, attracting, aggressing, warping, and other relations.' (8)

In a listing approach, a performative writing of besideness in the practice of description as theorization, Sedgwick offers an account of affect that is as dynamic as it is complex, without elevating "beside" to the status of normative ideal. Instead, it is a complex descriptor for the human and object interactions that take place in a multitude of contexts. She further characterizes this approach as spatial, involving accounts of "systems description" (12) that may allow us to think about "the middle ranges of agency...that offer space for effectual creativity and change." (13)

Beside, then, offers a more humble approach to what beings can do with respect to social practices, it acknowledges the complexity of what it means to take and make forms in a world while, paradoxically, using systems theory and the notion of the "cybernetic fold" to resist a binary approach "accepting or refusing" (13).

It is here that touch as it relates to texture emerges as a way to think about how being beside emerges in sensorial interactions. Reading Renu Bora, Sedgwick explains that "to perceive texture is always, immediately, and de facto to be immersed in a field of active narrative hypothesizing, testing, and re-understanding of how physical properties act and are acted upon over time...Textual perception always explores...How did it get that way? What could I do with it? These are the kind of intrinsically interactive properties that James J. Gibson called 'affordances' in his 1966 book, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems..." (13) These questions about an object or surface's history, and a surface's capacity might stand out to rhetoric scholars. To understand a surface as a historical interactant that possesses capacities directly related to invention, is indeed, the kinds of concerns rhetor scholars might have about the communicative and participatory elements of space. To shift, however, from a more general concern with space, to a more particular and, as we will see, scalar approach to textures, further complicates what one might understand as "affordance" shedding light on the kind of sensations that inflect "middle ranges of agency," a register that is extraordinarily interactive.

Sedgwick continues: "I haven't perceived a texture until I've instantaneously hypothesized whether the object I'm perceiving was sedimented, extruded, laminated, granulated, polished, distressed, felted, or fluffed up. Similarly, to perceive texture is to know or hypothesize whether a thing will be easy or hard, safe or dangerous to grasp, to stack, to fold, to shred, to climb on, to stretch, to slide, to soak. Even more immediately than other perceptual systems, it seems, the sense of touch makes nonsense out of any dualistic understanding of agency and passivity; to touch is always already to reach out, to fondle, to heft, to tap, or to enfold, and always also to understand other people or natural forces as having effectually done so before oneself, if only in the making of the textured object." (13-14)

To perceive texture is to immediately understand oneself to be part of a long history of touch, of the making and unmaking of different surfaces, and to release a desire to continue to make a mark, to imprint one's own activities on the texture of everyday surfaces. Citing Walter Benjamin, who explained that the bourgeois uses "covers and cases...which preserve the impression of every touch. For the of the end of the second empire, a dwelling becomes a kind of casing...this style views [the dwelling] as a kind of case for a person and embeds him in it together with all his appurtenances, tending his traces as nature tends dead fauna embedded in granite..." (Citing Benjamin 46-47)

It is easy to see this obsession with imprint to continue in our contemporary moment. We need only look as far as the next smart phone, encased with covers that not only protect the object, but individualize it, plastic screens that maintain the oily traces of digits that swipe and tap, interfacing with a contemporary environment whilst always carrying linkages to digital screens. Whereas it is tempting to view modernist environs as textureless--sheer sheen--again, Sedgwick cautions against this dualism, quoting Bora: "smoothness is both a type of texture and texture's other" (quoting bora p 99, sedgwick p 14). Smoothness is texture, repudiating the trace of contact, whereas "texxture" "is the kind of texture that is dense with offered information about how, substantively, historically, materially, it came into being. A brick or a metal work pot that still bears the scars and uneven sheen of its making would exemplify texxture...but there is also the texture...that defiantly or even invisibly blocks or refuses such information...texture that signifies the willed erasure of its history...however high the gloss, there is no such thing as textural lack."(sedgeiwck p 14-15)

Thus, if we return to the now familiar context for this blog, the western city, we can see the jostling between texture and texxture, between imprint and high gloss, in scenes as ordinary as a buffed wall, or, even more disturbingly, new efforts to "sell" tags, a point of collision between bourgeois desire for ownership via individualized casings, and the graffiti writer's effort to leave their mark on otherwise smooth (imprint resistant) urban spaces.

Describing the "gift" of "authentic" street art, given by putting a tacky (high gloss) personalized frame around a tag, character, or statement, is characterized as edgy and cool. With the simple input of credit card someone with no connection to the graffiti movement ostensively can posit themselves as "owner" (because there is a certificate to prove it). Beyond the initial nauseau this might inspire in other readers who have attachments to the writing community, and may see this as crass commodification of what is often complex and risky practices, often by communities of color to be "owned" by upper class populations, there is something else. Enframing, cropping the tag from the wall itself implies a kind of replacement of texxture by texture: the first act of tagging, which is participatory and responds to the affordances of the wall, the paint can, the rhythms of the city, is aggressively ignored not touched but merely blocked off to create a new narrative of ownership, a capitalist imprint of commodification and fetishization. To put it simply: the first tagging practice is a multisensorial experience of smell, touch, heightened listening, and proximity and then distance, whereas the second collapses it into the visual, and the two dimensional, one that may imply the tactile, but largely as that which is lost.

Sedgwick helps us think about the relationship between vision and touch in texture. She notes: "texture itself is no coextensive with any single sense, but rather tends to be liminally registered 'on the border of properties of touch and vision'...other senses beyond the visual and haptic are involved in the perception of texture, as when we hear the brush-brush of corduroy trousers, or the crunch of extra-crispy chicken." (15) Moreover, scale impacts the dominance of some sense to others: "the increasingly divergent physical scales (and the highly differential rates of their change) that characterize the relation between touch and vision in the modern period result in understandings of texture that make it as apt to represent crises and fissures of meaning as metonymic continuities." (16) By way of example, Sedgwick describes the experience of airplane travel and seeing a forest below, "texture is what the whole acre of trees can proved" and then the experience of chopping wood "a single tree may constitute shape or structure within your visual field...texture pertains to the level of the cross-grained fibers of the wood in relation to the sleek bit of the axe." (16)
Finally, when embracing an object or a person, sight can be obliterated. Thus, "texture...comprises an array of perceptual data that includes repetition, but whose degree of organization hovers just below the level of shape or structure." (16)

In short, encounters with texture include the forest and the trees, the macro and the the micro. It includes smooth space, and sticky space, and has sharp implications for how inhabitants of urban space engage, create, and respond to their various casings. I can only hope that the engagement will tend more towards generosity and curiosity than simple avarice and ownership.

Works cited:

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, Duke UP, 2003.

Thoughts touched by discussion in the Gender and Affect Reading group hosted by Pitt's Gender Sexuality and Women's Studies program.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

MOS Mexico: Grafiteros Cómo Ciudadanos

I had the great fortune to attend MOS México in Mexico City this past weekend, the final of three MOS events in the country. It has been two years since I have been in the city, three since I have attended a MOS event there, so it was a pleasure, and fascinating, to see how the graffiti scene continues to evolve stylistically, but also with respect to its relationship to institutions and the media.

The first MOS this year was in Monterrey, then in Guadalajara. In Monterrey the event was intimate, and involved only 40 writes, taking place in the Monterrey subway "The first time a city has invited writers to paint near the trains!" organizer Gerso commented. In Guadalajara, on the other hand, it was a massive event, with around 170 writers on a wall that was a kilometer long. In Mexico City the event was more decentralized, taking place in the Zócalo, in the middle of a book festival, the Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico, Calle Regina, Calle San Jeronimo, Metro Garibaldi, and Fray Servando Teresa de Mier. These seven sites, located around the Centro Historico, are fairly easily accessible to each other by foot, and yet, and also fragmented, each in very different kinds of places.

At Zocalo the artists were located in the middle of the square, with the Palacio National and Catedrale as stunning backdrops. In addition to the thousands of tourists who visit the site, the artists were also observed and greeted by visitors for the massive, week-long book fair being held in teh plaza. On Regina, on the other hand, one wall was in the middle of the pedestrian-only street, across from restaurants, and the other was a local playground with a mural of the Familia Burrón on the front. San Jeronimo has a sculpture garden and fútbol park, but also a more solitary street near the Sor Juana building. Finally, the Belgians at Garibaldi had to contend with the hustle and bustle (intense bustle) of the Mexico City metro system, while writers at Fray Servando Teresa de Mier were left in relative solitude, accompanied by the whish of cars on the major thoroughfare, and the hawking via a megaphone installed onto a truck: "BOTONES....BOTONOES!" "SNACKS...SNACKS!"

Familia Burrón Mural.
Even so, a sharp contrast to the MOS I attended in 2011 was this very central location. Until 2012 the festival took place in suburbs, often in Nezahualcoyotl, the birthplace of graffiti in Mexico City. A former squatter settlement, Neza is not geographically too distant from the Centro (just to the east, near the Aeropuerto), but socially is almost another world, at least in the eyes of the bourgeois and the police. To move MOS to the center, then, is to enact a radical shift in audience and alliance. To get access to the center city, a difficult task, Gerso worked with representatives of the Fideicomiso, a government branch that serves as a "bridge" between citizens and government. I asked Oliver Bárcenas Cruz, Asesor of the Fideicomiso about his sector's involvement. He explained that the organization helps the festival get access, as part of the larger goal of enabling citizens, particularly youth, to feel that they have a stake in the cultural patrimony. Three elements are critical in fostering relationships between city, government, and nation, for Fideicomiso, Bárcenas Cruz elaborated: "Patrimony, Citizens, Neighbors." Part of their job is educating and making citizens feel that they have ownership and stewardship over the cultural patrimony, and that subsequently enables neighbors to feel more secure. Preempting an argument that I didn't make, he continued "But this does not mean gentrification...many people did not live here [in the areas where MOS takes place] until recently, because it was too dangerous." He concluded "We are very happy with how the festival has gone, and forsee it continuing in the future." His colleague, Rodrigo, echoed some of his sentiments, explaining how the festival allows for prejudices about graffiti as 'just vandalism" to be broken down as spectators can learn about the intense skill and discipline involved in graffiti as an art form. This link between government and graffiti is a new one. It was not long ago that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's "Zero tolerance" policy was imported by federal and local officials to respond to the graffiti "epidemic." On day two of the festival, however, one of the stern faced young police officers took a grey spraycan in hand, "cleaning" a grey pole. The writers encircled him, clapping and cheering, and it was clear some of his institutional coldness in demeanor was thawing at the edges, a stubborn smile at the corners of his mouth as he held onto the can long after.

Joyful buffing.
Despite Fideicomiso's optimism, there were some clear rumbles of uncertainty and mistrust by some of the writers, some remarking that the government has discovered that graffiti is a source of income, that it also enacts social control, that there is rampant corruption. Even so, there was also keen appreciation of the general role the festival plays as a point of union for a wide range of writers, a transnational meeting place.

Yems, from Peru, and Zurik, from Colombia, explained that in their home countries there were no festivals as big as MOS Mexico, and so the festival offered them the valuable opportunity to meet a wide range of international artists and learn more about their styles. Moreover, it is an important site for diversity, NEAR from Guatemala explained, echoed by Herso from Neza. Both of the latter artists attempted to represent some of this multiplicity in their pieces.



The festival does not just correct misperceptions about graffiti for Mexicans, but also correct prejudices and misrepresentations of Mexico for foreigners. Both Raso from Spain, and Ozais, from Marseilles, referenced negative media representations of the country, contrasting it with their warm welcome and the wealth of talent in Mexico. "It is not all drugs and trafficking," Ozais exclaimed, "there is art and people." Gerso explained that the festival(s) is a critical opportunity to spotlight the high quality of painting in Mexico, and make it internationally visible, a sentiment that motivated his shift to become an organizer instead of mere attendee. He created mode of organizing that was "bottom up...artist run, understanding what artists, paint, housing." True to his word,  I saw constant food and paint deliveries, as well as a dedicated spot for poster distribution to curious passers by, which became instant souvenirs, youth asking artists for signatures, tags on their clothing, or even tags on blank sheets when the posters ran out.

Mariela from Argentina, more street artist/public painter than graffiti writer, pointed to the affective effect of festivals and other public works, that offer a space to "open up" the city, for people to "recharge," and see differently. Gerso, by inviting nontraditional urban artists, like Mariela, also sought to internationalize and pluralize the festival, breaking with a restrictive definition of "style." Glo, her neighbor on her wall, based out of San Diego,exemplified one of these diverse styles, rendering an ethereal alien-like creature instead of complex letters.



For Mexican writers as well, the festival is a critical point for reunion. Diego Loza emphasized the role it played for the community, as did Motick.
Diego Loza
I saw old friends from MOS 2011: Reak, Yuka, Atok, Mser, persisting and evolving their styles.
When I asked Oliver, more pointedly, about what it means to take an art from the periphery and plop it in the center, he recalled an interaction he'd had with a vecina, a neighbor, an an event they had organized. After complimenting him on the event the old woman told him that what they had done was very nice, but places like the "Palacio de Bellas arts...estan para los ricos." Places like PBA are for the rich. And yet, not, formally. They are free and open. But what is free and what feels public are two different things entirely. And so, the goal is to render such spaces more porous through ongoing education and repetition.




I asked all the writers I spoke with the deliberately naive question: "Do you think graffiti can change the world?" All responded in the affirmative with important qualifications, that it effectuates a change in outlook and environment primarily, and perhaps a change in relationality and community secondarily. It is a means of bringing about spaces that feel more public, but it is a method that is intermittent, ephemeral, and necessary to repeat, again and again.






Hula Hooper.






MOS Signature Cans.




Festival pug.


Thank you to all of the artists for talking to me. It was wonderful.
Muchas gracias a todos las artists para platicar conmigo. Esta fue un evento increible.