I walked into Emily Roydson’s show at Art in General last spring and was immediately delighted by the entire shape of the thing, the way the art filled the room, but not too full, and by the people I saw.
Everyone was there, including Emily’s mother Laurie, who was just standing there in the middle of everything with a proud grin on her face. I thought, Emily is a successful man, not a successful woman. She’s having a man’s career. Look at this. Right at her opening: her mother who loves her. No not just loves her but who is standing right there in the middle of the show. She’s part of it. Emily’s show was a whole lot of things. It was the agitprop you can take home. The shiny green poster patterned with figures in tights who are lying down, stretching, stepping, palming the fourth wall of the poster that’s covered with phrases: abstract like a function, repurpose, alive line, I can’t stop thinking about and in the midst of it is this quote from the painter Lygia Clark:
“What I wanted to do in the experiment was to deny the separate existence of the part of the picture within the frame . . . I then did no work on this for two years, not knowing how to make use of the liberated space.”
I’m thinking this three-line quote is the point of the show. Not like the show has a single point, but the quote is a kind of opening. It implies that what’s in here—within a painting or a room or a gathering of people—is not separate from everything that’s going on out there. We know this but we need to learn it again and again. It’s a beautiful thought Lygia Clark’s—her wondering and now Emily’s—what should we do with it. We are given all this unclaimed territory right there on the poster, intact in its partialness, the suggestion that to resist working on the very thing you can’t stop thinking about can be a profound kind of doing because you are allowing the idea to work for you as a heuristic device, a provocation which starts off as all language (which might be the twenty-first-century’s answer to the twentieth-century romance with “all art”) and then it smokes, expands, and amends, morphing into a variety of realms, formats, and organs. To take this turn is to be on the path of the philosopher and the producer and that is the arc of Emily’s new and yet very rich and varied career. And by standing in Positions, hands on hips, looking around at the work, your friends, smiling, chatting you are complicit, you are participating in what is actually a very un-American dream, one of non-containment and continual movement (while not taking anything away from anyone else), which even could be the abiding mantra for Positions, Emily Roydson’s first New York solo show. Uh, the mantra being? That provisional offering of freedom. “Not knowing how to make use of the liberated space.” I think to actually welcome not knowing is to honor the political moment we are living in and arguably it is also the most opportune and juicy space there is in which to make art.
The proposal that Emily is making—quietly but also very aggressively—extends the management of that space of not knowing by inviting friends and people she wants to work with from a wide variety of practices into the gap. It’s a philosopher’s goal with a tactile result. Designers and printers and performers and curators all become a team for realization.
When I’d left the gallery and just considered this show I realized that some of the odd pleasure of Positions is that it feels a bit like a legal document; it merely and extensively offers the complicated pleasure of proof. An uptick in knowledge is secured by each additional artifact of “it”: the videotapes, the leaning plaques with figures on them, the flats that show aerial views of the square where the performance was. Emily told me that she went to Stockholm with four words in her head, and that four words make a square, and then she discovered a public square that already existed and she decided to destabilize it with a performance—which is a political act, to insert the force of a presence somewhere and even a queer one—a crawling woman (who is not hurt) is moving through a public square. And her unconventional presence changes something. And then the presence of all the people who arrived at the opening of the show and the knowledge that all of us were someplace, that Emily has been there (meaning the place of conception); was somewhere else when she was making it, and now it has all come together here in this variety of formats, through the efforts and skills and gestures of the many torsos, heads, and hands. Which you could argue is the same as the realization of any show but why does it feel so good in here. I think because Emily wants “in.” And for us to stand together in that liberated space. We are sort of a human tattoo. The bugle call that says in a little while we will have to go, but the call chiefly tells us that we’re here. It’s a call to feeling. It’s a mortal thing. It’s a much preceded blinking of the lights. Cause we do have to go. We know that. It’s what’s so great about a human gathering. I think her show is after the fact and the fact itself. She’s like a freer Robert Wilson. Organizer is part of how Emily Roysdon describes herself as an artist, but she also says activist. There’s a uniquely different purpose to the work.
The two videos in Positions were from Sergels torg in Stockholm where Emily did the project with MPA in 2010. I asked the curator Dean Dedarko whether MPA describes herself as a performer or a sculptor. His eyes grew wide. She’s an exhibitionist, he said. MPA is a tall woman with a ponytail and a Mayan profile who in the video is lying on her side in a body stocking on the light and dark geometric tiles of the square upon which she is inching in a fashion that made me think of the earliest days of performance art in the ’60s when a handful of initiates would intensely observe the slow movements of a woman crawling across the floor. Which I never actually saw. One of the things I talked about a lot with Emily was the importance of the things we’d not beheld but had thought about for years. When I had heard that crawling account of performance art it was already half a generation ago. Performance art had gotten splashier, and now (meaning then, in the late nineties) it was consolidating its longer vision, which it is still doing, but then that meant it was being once again performed in apartments and private lofts for a handful of people but these people were on a tour of ten such spaces in one night and they paid $50 each for the entire trip and all of it was a benefit for Dixon Place. And now I think major museums are doing reenactments of “seminal work” and all of it is for history but where is it happening in there? I mean are we still in history. Which returns us again to liberating that space. Art in General. This one will do.
Emily’s work in Positions is exploding on a multitude of historical levels at once. All of these levels are strung together. The precise and slow public performance that was documented initially in Stockholm is now a videotape presented in New York in order for us to access the reality of the earlier event performed publicly in a European capital. It comes to us here, now. I’m sitting on the couch this morning looking at that video and I’m having the same reaction I had standing in the gallery in the spring. There was a close shot and a long shot. I’m looking at the long shot and the long shot is always the more political one. Because it includes the world. I really enjoy looking at the speck of the inching woman surrounded by dark clad Swedes going to work. It’s a tiny multitude of things. The geometry of the space is very satisfying. She being the wrong thing and everyone else being the right thing and altogether they are interrupting the square. A woman in a red coat passes. A man in lime green neon. Everybody has cell phones. Damn, I think, there’s nothing like color. And two different people with dogs come in and out of the frame. By installing this woman here in this square everyone (everyone Swedish and now us) has received the same potential information and they each may do with it as they will, which is nothing, or something, an interesting kind of day. Which is a pretty huge gift. Everyone in Stockholm who crossed the square was momentarily in a giant collaboration, more than they knew, a collaboration in time, a workshop of sorts. The project has already gone so far beyond the artist’s head. Which was never intended to be separate. The people walking by are not so much having their attention seized as being punctuated momentarily by the inching woman’s presence. Their attention is even being organized by Emily’s design. It is a clock.
Emily had some small plastic coasters in her apartment that represented the square. Can I have one. I wanted a souvenir. You get paid to write these essays but I just really wanted a coaster. No. Aren’t you going back there I accused. I got them here she said. At the store at the Swedish embassy. She’s heading back to Stockholm tomorrow. Emily is strangely and I would even say radiantly musically reluctant. And her reluctance is a force. She doesn’t seem burdened with that familiar sense of so many other female artists that if she doesn’t say the right thing, something will be taken from her. Emily, instead, seems to be all about the negotiation. Her theoretical intensity is mirrored by her personality. There’s plenty of room for laughter and distraction. She is both open and vitally awake. She says yes and then she says no. She doesn’t actually say yes. Her yes is like a stalactite in the cave. It’s the nature of her gravity. You can feel the possibility. No. I was looking at the paraphernalia in her apartment. I was spreading it out. The big diagram for Ecstatic Resistance, her show from 2009. There it is, overhead, framed. She’s looking for the notebook she wrote it in. She sits back down. I think it’s in Stockholm. Do you know who does this. I’m referring to the giant diagram on the wall. Poets do it. Yeats did it. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre.” You know that line. No. Jung did it. Lacan did it, she replies. It looks like a giant egg. It’s kind of yellow on the outside and pink inside with a diamond in the center and words: struggle, plasticity, telling . . . I brought all of it home. At one point today I thought all her art is propaganda. And you know I think that really is true.
There’s a booklet called West Street that elides photographs by Alvin Baltrop and Emily’s own—it’s an accordion photo book joining their two queer perspectives, decades apart, on the space of the west side piers. The executor of Baltrop’s estate had sent some of Baltrop’s photos to Emily in a response to one of LTTR’s calls. She said that those calls that went out for LTTR’s upcoming issues were the first writing she’d done. Did you think of them as a score. Well yeah, she laughed.
Do you think all your writing is a score. It’s been suggested. I think she said something careful like that. I remembered the LTTR parties and feeling at the time that the art world had changed. There was no longer a political space. There was this. It was art. And all the queers were there. Which wasn’t accidental. The journal LTTR, of which Emily was a founding editor, was chameleon-like in its format, in its frothy social reach, and in its dirty and theoretical intention. The calls for each issue in a convoluted way were the earliest invites to the party. Those titles—Practice More Failure, Do You Wish to Direct Me, Positively Nasty—were like messages from a night flickering, still months away.
Alvin Baltrop died in 2004 and he had had very little of his worked published during his lifetime. He was an African American queer, not from the art world, and while he was alive people even contested the fact that it was his work. Emily wrote a long skinny text for West Street and I was looking at it in her apartment. The poem makes the pilings in the photo look like language and Emily said nothing. Where did you write this I asked. I wrote it in a hotel room in Spain. Would you read it. I meant aloud. She said I have read it aloud. That was part of writing it, she explained. She said it in many different ways but what she said was no.
I’m thinking now that the elements in the show are like those coasters. The three separate shows (Stockholm, Berkeley, and now here) that Positions is made of were dropped onto each other like a close up of a lock in some spy movie: click click click. And everything magically opens. It’s the present. The panels from Berkeley that are leaning against the wall show those people in tights once again . . . often their motion continues from one panel to the next yet it’s all these moments of stillness like taxidermied animals in frozen postures and now the panels’ shadows are cast on the wall and they’re painted there too like a fetish of time, it lives there, mocking light, for a few months, for today, tonight for all of us to walk around. People are murmuring. I love the video. Yeah. Me too.
My girlfriend Leo said the show felt kind of Sgt. Peppery and it was entirely that. The ecstatic moment when pop went acid everywhere at once for a while. That group picture, that mural that went into every home, all collagey, and here the cutouts are all over the room. Big ones, small ones. A mock-up of a community. In a wonderful, inviting, livable space. If Emily’s not a man she’s Martha Stewart. She’s the Martha Stewart of the avant garde. Though in sequin panties and a nursing bra. That’s what she wore to one of her events. It’s pretty dirty. That’s not Martha Stewart at all.
In our conversations I kept pouncing. I didn’t want to be one of those call-and-response interviewers. Theory blah. Theory blech. I prefer the cartoon. The deeper diagram. She can go there too. Look it’s right on the wall. But it also felt like I was trying to expose her, being kind of like her family if a family kept aggressively asking what do you mean by that. I just genuinely wanted to know. I felt like if you didn’t say it that way, what would it mean.
She said that when she showed her photographs to Yvonne Rainer, Yvonne said, you’re a choreographer. Which is an astonishing thing for Yvonne Rainer to say. That’s great I said, but what’s a choreographer. I mean, what do you think a choreographer is. She said she realized that everything she talked about was getting people to move, getting people to do things. She said in college she studied social movements (that’s nuts I said in appreciation) and critical race studies. And Eqbal Ahmad, the political scientist and peace activist was her mentor at Hampshire, where he taught at the end of his life. His essay “How To Tell When the Rebels Have Won” explained what guerilla warfare really meant. Eqbal Ahmad was arrested in the ’60s by the FBI along with the Berrigans, Daniel and Philip, for a supposed kidnapping attempt on Henry Kissinger. In his essay he explains that in a guerilla war the rebel army does not need to defeat the ruling government. The true goal is to delegitimize them. To isolate them morally. One must out-administer the enemy. Eqbal Ahmad gives the word “administer” back to the language. It’s not just some horrible pastime in the halls of a bureaucracy or the academy. A guerilla army must take over the responsibility for the people’s welfare, their education, and health care and the food. Who’s Emily’s enemy? It’s the economic order for sure, the hegemony of heterosexist culture, the enforced isolation. So her work is even kind of literal. In a fantastic way. In her installations and shows she’s creating counter-worlds where people’s needs are actually filled. When we talked about Occupy Wall Street she seemed most excited by the fact that they are feeding people. In Stockholm (where everyone’s fine) the square became imaginary. Because to jettison convention is a need. We talked a lot about theater, one of her enduring interests, though Emily admitted that she never went. She just thought about theater all the time. So you’ll do something with it. Yeah she said. Proscenium stages, direction, actors, writing, the elements of theater. She likes that theater has rules. But she would never WRITE a play. To clarify she calmly explained for me her working process. I fantasize about a structure. I recognize it as a fantasy because I’ve never pursued it.
When we first met this fall I asked what she had been doing. What had she seen lately. Nothing she laughed. And her laughter created an awful lot of space in the room. It was very early on but that’s when I began thinking seriously about Emily’s gravity. What I call the style of her authority. There’s very little shame going on that I can see.
She did tell me about learning scuba diving. That’s what she did last summer. How come. I asked. It was for pleasure. She wanted to be in another space. At the end of our conversation she told me her constant dream is breathing under water. I thought in the continuum of people who do everything, the ones who are always touted for how much they do, there are also the people who assert that they really do nothing, sometimes, all the time, and adamantly so. It’s a little bit regal but, more importantly, it’s off-center. I’ve always been fascinated by that assertion and what it means. So if you’re not going out what are you doing instead. The answer is clear. You might be talking, thinking, preparing another world. And that’s what I think is going on here. I thought about qingtan, the art of pure conversation, which was practiced centuries ago by Daoist intellectuals in China. It was considered a way of leaving the world. I wonder if thinking itself is the purest kind of art. Perhaps the only way one can claim the act of thinking in America is to call it art.
I realize I’ve spent so much time on this “negativity” of hers, but what I mean is this: The artist’s true studio for creation is themselves. When I saw Martin Scorsese’s Dylan movie what I was most blown away by in the early Dylan footage was his composure. It’s totally zen. Which Emily’s also got. Surrounded by geeky photographers and journalists in big glasses when big glasses weren’t cool, one photographer asked Dylan to suck on his glasses. The arm of the glasses. You know that pose. And this is early sixties media so people were intimidated by them. But Dylan knew to say no. You suck on my glasses he said. He laughed and smiled. It was beautiful. No I don’t want to suck on my glasses. You want to suck on my glasses. He looked around.
When I talk about Emily’s gravity what I mean is that she is recognizing her time as a space and she’s being a player in it. There’s always an open space in time if you see it that way. And she does.
Published in the catalogue POSITIONS (New York: Art in General, 2011).
Easton, Maryland, USA