Rowan McNaught

 

 

You told me that this would be the first birthday party for your book, so I’ll happily labour under that pretence. But: like every first birthday, it is more about the parent than the child. The child is already themselves, already individuated away, but the parents can’t see or understand this. They can’t tell the difference between themselves and their baby. And their friends defer. They also pretend not to see the difference.

So I am going to talk about your book but really I’m addressing you directly. To misadapt a Julio Cortazar poem that I always go on about, I’ll try giving you yourself for the book’s birthday.

Though I feel lucky to be your friend, I was a bit disappointed while reading the book that I know that you exist. I like the other possibility, that the book might attest to some character of uncertain existence, some figure of a fugitive order that is only whispered or written about. For instance, there’s this publisher, Pierre Marteau, who’s been circulating dissident material since the 1700s, always seemingly working one city away from wherever his books are found. But he never truly exists; he is just a name various printers use to print dangerous books under his cover. What I like about this is that Pierre Marteau’s become something like an uncoordinated joint  venture.

Perhaps you don’t exist? Perhaps you’re an uncoordinated joint venture? Perhaps you flicker in and out of existence, with  “Scandinavia” as a handy cover. The book offers little proof to the  contrary. It appears to author you, but you are scarcely the author, given you wrote practically nothing of it, save for the text on the cover.

Still. Let’s slow down, study the facts. I do know you exist,  because we are friends. I understand this book documents you rather than authors you. Any disappointment about that, however, is curtailed by certain fugitive elements that you keep up, in and outside of the book. Like Pierre Marteau, I think you understand that in order to maintain your own social integrity, it is best to have some of your qualities elaborated in others, and in outside things. (To gather from outside yourself the feeling of yourself.)

If you get this practice right, it perhaps doesn’t even matter if you exist or not, which I for one find comforting. And really I wonder ‘having some of your qualities elaborated in others’ is just an elaborate way to talk about friendship, which is, remember, really the only way I know you exist.

You are part-elaborated in your book by your artworks and  friends. Each letter details a past artwork from the vantage point of  some supportive player or friend, creating a representative document of the work. Documentation is the ostensible reason for the letters in the first place: they’re meant as the factual basis for your quasi professional practice on your quasi-professional website.

In other words, this all comes about within the ambient  imposition that one must be entrepreneurial as an artist, that you should undertake yourself as an enterprise. You’ve just shuffled the conventions of this imposition around, swapping a public one — the artist’s website — for a private one — the letter of support.

It’s resolute: no one likes being asked to procure a letter of  support. It’s a subjugation to someone else’s processes of judgment. Bleh! You have to try to prove yourself, your nature, by prior association. As if you were ever able to control who you depended on and who depended on you; as if you should control that.

On the other hand, being asked to write a letter of support is more of a mixed bag. Yes it entails dancing a jargonic dance. But, sometimes, if you are writing it for a friend, it’s a chance for you to make manifest some prior friendly encounter and share it in a paper trail. This kind of gesture can be embarrassing, but the official style acts as a mask.

A letter gives people roles. The letter of support in particular  creates three roles: the writer, the subject, and the reader. The writer and subject are familiar to each other. The reader wants to become familiar with the subject, and wants the writer to comfort them about  that want, reduce its risks.

A letter is an auxiliary thing between people, a thing that orients, drives and shapes relationships. Michel Serres gives this type of thing a name: a quasi-object, somewhere in between an object and a subject. When it’s still, it’s an object; when it’s moving, a subject.

The letter of support moves from writer to subject to reader. When it succeeds, it resolves in the writer ‘giving’ the subject ‘to’ the reader. In such an exchange, the reader is right to be wary.

There’s soft spots and risks all over. The reader must accept more than they understand: for one, they cannot really know if the writer actually exists or if it is just the subject in a mask. I have to tell you, it surprises me that this technique — inventing a writer — is not taken up more often by those taken to cheating or overstriving. It’d be so easy! And beyond the risk of invention, the reader may be poisoned  by the contents of the letter, be it with a false sense of the person’s background or experience, or worse, with love, which is very unprofessional.

Holding your book, reading the letters of support, we play the role of the reader, but in a floating, parasitic way. Most of us have no grant or job to offer you; only our private judgment, which we don’t even really offer you. But we are subject to you, the subject, open to persuasion. And the letter of support is a persuasive document, issued at a pivotal moment.

As its reader I found your book overpowering at times; I had to read it in sittings. Why? What was the active ingredient? What makes your letters of support different to others? In part, it’s the scale of it, the sense of reading them together, the amount of collective work that’s represented and documented. But there’s something else too, something in the way the letters are written. There is boilerplate and manners, the stuff that makes them fit the form, but here the writers veer more strongly between decorum and affection. Here the affect of  ‘support’ is laid more bare than usual, documented more completely.

There is a librarian and theorist I like, Ronald Day, who writes about how documents unveil the world. He thinks we are in the midst of a transition from strong to weak documentarity —from documents working as evidence of “types of universal essences” to “evidence of particular powers”. Documents used to inscribe how the world should  be; now we take what we can from them. They move from moral judgment to empirical sense.

Because we are still in the midst of this transition, usually,  documents seem to do a bit of both. It can be unclear what evidence a  document contains, what it unveils, and how we’re supposed to approach it. Artworks can have this dual, ambiguous nature too. Half judgment, half sense. It’s confusing.

To return to your letters, and what they document: you seem to  put this confusion to use, in order to unveil the actual support that might be stashed in the judgmental format of a support letter. You unveil that behind the convention and the boilerplate there is always a specific, contingent, powerful social dependency between people.

This is typical of the magic of your work. You’re attuned to  formats of communication — idioms, contracts, conventions — and how people are formatted by them. The intricacies and details of subjecthood can be downplayed or wiped clean by this type of formatting, but these processes also make people more useful to one  another, able to make changes to one another, through a common auxiliary format, via a quasi-object.

Your artwork comes to me as a format of formats, a way of  playing social formats almost like music, a means of playing what  Bernard Stiegler calls the general organology, the sociotechnical state  of the world.

I wonder if you work like this in order to drive and shape  friendships that would be difficult to foster more directly, because of  deferential resistances, because they’d be otherwise too much,  ‘something close to home’, to borrow some words from Ainslie  Templeton’s letter. You find instances when formats overflow, do something they shouldn’t, and shape relations in unexpected ways, slip from their ideals and deferrals.

How, in the book? Where’s the slip? Well, here’s a guess: usually, in a letter of support, people write about the work product of the  person, offer a judgment as evidence: “they write great reports, they turn up on time, they won’t fritter away your grant money”, and so on. Usually there’s a stable subject being evidenced towards a question of fitness. But in your letters, the evidence of the subject (you) is an artwork (yours).

An artwork, if it’s lucky, is a thing of active, tricky beauty, not a  thing of stable fitness. It gathers the feeling of itself outside of itself, formatting the collective of its makers and receivers. It pulls them together beautifully but it also interjects, introducing an interruption or interval. It offers a semi-external subject for everyone involved to refer to, like a soccer ball on a field, or a cat at a house party, or an artists’ book at a bar.

Each of your artworks works like a quasi-object inside the quasi object of the letter, interrupting the format, driving the writer to write about your artwork but really about you and them. This is actually less a slip than an overflow. Because of the activity of the beauty of the artwork, the letter itself is driven to overflow by the  overflow of the letter-writer.

There are five parties to this arrangement: The writer, reader, Jessie (the subject), the letter itself, and the artwork the letter refers to. Each has to operate and work together under the subjugation of apparently professional demands. Each is formatted to transact, be  instrumental, provide evidence, or exchange utility or courtesy.

However, the reader of these letters recognises and feels the  presence of an overflow of support outside and incompatible with the  pro forma administered world. This feeling countervails. It is felt  strongly, weakly, overflowing into existence, not as the rehearsal of an imposed format but as an incantation of collectivity, an uncoordinated  joint venture, one that protects against the unified disintegration of aesthetics by taking them up within the specific familiarities of friendship.