Considering the Anti-Present
by Terri Witek
Looking at contemporary works and considering their possible DNA can make for joyful surprises. Behind the delight as things hook up in one’s head, though, another surprise often lurks. The work’s maker had been thinking nothing about / may not know the history or context that you find so enlightening. A living maker may be pleased by the historical comparison, or kindly wait as you show off your knowledge (we’ve all been to that Q&A ). But then doesn’t your happy connection tend to turn a bit judgy: how did this person not look at ______? Not ever have read _____?
As a cultural worker in an institution, I can attest that the next move often becomes production-based: we must somehow “fill” a perceived “lack.” One more course of study, one more required binder/filler. Best not to think of these actions as redress, though: people have their own full, complicated reference sets already (ask the disabilities communities about ablist views around “lack.”) Also, within 10 years our anxiety will seem nearly humorous: why did we ever think we needed a course in speed-reading (now, basically, using our phones)?. Filler moves may assuage some worry, but, like burying coins in a garden, they seem to be more about the burier than the coins. And don’t expect these ameliorating attempts to work as some sort of unifying cultural vaccination. We all know what happens to those.
Behind worry about what will happen to us and the things we know about and love, there often seems to be a belief that to be a “presentist” is a lighter thing. Social media posts don’t equal research in a database; one musn’t think of WikiDiff as a “source.” We seem to be evading work somehow by discovering things via capitalist algorithms and the creepy way babies answer Siri. Maybe it’s simpler still: we can avoid the unquantified terror of thinking there may not be a future by criticizing now’s myriad techniques of discovering and making–things we hope to shift into more recognizable (to someone) and therefore measurable (to someone) bites. But remember when online journals were considered less prestigious than print ones, a stance that now seems ludicrous? And who am I, known more for my visual poetry social media drops than my books, to say anything on the subject? The phone poet whose poems are always the same size and shape –I’d miss him on my daily scroll as he becomes whatever “famous” he will undoubtedly be in a place most of us won’t ever see. The artist in the Netherlands who became his friend hearts these poems + his kids’ photos. Me too.
Present: (real) worry: the past can be lost. A museum in Ukraine to war, in Rio to fire. So often even the present is brutally cut away: when our parents die, when the ferry sinks, when children are shot weeping in their classrooms. We keep warning ourselves not to forget (by this we also seem to mean repeat: and how is that going?). And might forgetting sometimes get slower while it seems always faster? We’ve also witnessed how some parts of some pasts don’t seem to stay lost: while melted down bronze may never return as statues, many monuments have a way of hanging around ( often with new signage to explain, say, their racism) . The Acropolis museum with each outlined, absent piece of the pediments politely explains who stole it and when. And things that have been with us are suddenly re-seen: for example, what a pleasure at the 2022 Venice Biennale to stand before big ,handstitched pieces by mid-twentieth century Chilean multi-artist Violeta Parra: mysterious, grabbing, fresh as dawn, and in at least one case, directly historical. And how about the Bienale’s Polish Pavilion given over for the first time to a contemporary Romani artist, Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, whose wonderful wall hangings, based on Ferrari frescoes, luminously insert Europe’s largest minority into European art history? As Brazilian visual artist Cyriaco Lopes elegantly reminds us, all art must be encountered in order to exist, and therefore every work only and always exists in the (joyously repeatable) present.
I move further into the Arsenale with Cyriaco’s words in my head to consider the great 1930’s Maskenselbstbildnis photos of wildly suited, outofthisworld Gertrud Arndt to suggest we’d also do well, when anxiously tightening our methods of time-honoring, to hang on to our space hats. For one thing, It seems a bit harder for institutions to criticize speculative makers, though they may also be a little discounted. These wooers of the future are buying us some extra minutes (or at least facing what’s left of them). We also might acknowledge that all our work –even theirs, for which we are astonished and grateful-–is built on loves which are also always biases. But let’s try not to correct on that basis: if we start with a believed-in past and a present discontent our days will tend toward hole-gardens and unfindable nickels. Besides, being a presentist is not as small-minded, I hope, as the committee suggests. I may not believe in the future though something’s glinting: I may not believe in the past, but I remember some and you do too.