They turned to me, “What were the waves like?” I felt my heart drop. No one had ever asked before. Where would I begin? For me, it was the Caspian Sea, half a world away. The words refused to come together. Was it all the years since I'd last witnessed it? Was it how a body of water can be politicized and controlled? Where could I begin? With my nation-state and its government, the neighbors and geopolitics, the distance we saw as the horizon, the games we played as teenagers, the traces of the past walking these shores, all that we no longer remembered … These are stories I tell often. But suddenly all the words vanished; I'm trying to be engulfed in the waves again. How does one put that into language?
This collection of essays came together as I asked perhaps a simple question. How do we recognize, honor, protect, and cultivate mentorship in contemporary art? This is an urgent question for all of us that won’t fit in history books; we who make and write in a language that is not our own. Political, social, cultural, epistemological, systemic, violence has happened, is happening. The ground is shaking. I’m not unique in this. We’re surrounded by a world full of artists navigating this relation.
The fact that I
Am writing to you
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
how to explain to you that I
don't belong to English
though I belong nowhere else.
–Gustavo Perez Firmat, Bilingual Blues
I desire to claim a space for this contemporary art, a base for the body of our conversation. For us who've known erasure, what gives us historical ground? As artists, poets, and thinkers, how did we learn to make and write and move in this space? How do we teach?
As the guest editor of this Critic’s Page, I reached out to those I trust the most, those who I run to with these questions, those who made the asking possible. They are my mentors and teachers; they are artists I admire and students that inspire me; they are peers and comrades; they are those working on the ground and those imagining our no-place. What follows is in honor of “Generational Conversation that happens through and within histories of erasure.”
Below is a fragment of what I sent to our contributors:
A list of prompts I am asking myself these days in relation to this topic.
- Erasure as multitude
- Living in English (as a hegemonic language) through Firmat's "not belonging" and within "nowhere else." Can this language be a fault line where we hang?
- What does it mean to listen if we are to respect the ethical complexity of the unheard?
- Demanding a moment of shared silence as an act of protest against centuries of being silenced.
- How can we find and be witnesses to each other in our peripheral vision while refusing to fix our eyes to the hegemonic center?
- Recalling language at the limits of the written word: utterance, embodiment, and the made-up calligraphy of a bored school kid.
- Do you remember sitting on the stoops, hanging out, chatting, burning time? Can I claim that as history and refuse to write it?
As a contemporary artist/writer with no history to be found in books, I found your voice there. You have been my history, and I am grateful for you.
I am beyond words grateful for all their responses. A spacious silence. That’s what I longed to share. That’s what they have trusted me with.
Erasure means we know all too well what it is to be silenced. For so long, we've been given the task of putting that violence into language. To live in its memory and ramifications so it can be read, understood, and consumed by those who have never known it; those who have enabled it, those who imposed it.
Silence. Now, we've infiltrated their rooms. We've made space for each other on the periphery of language. It's a meeting ground where words refuse to make sense; utterance is all that is left; it's a gathering of accented hand gestures and the untranslatable body languages of our many elsewheres.
Months later, in the last weeks of summer in the Far Rockaways, I walked into the Atlantic. The waves were inviting and daring; they were playing with us. I turned to my friend: “Hold my hand.” As the waves hit us, we had to decide: do we jump or dive? And it was no longer an individual question. In our asynchronicity, we crashed into the water. For a split second, the wave enters my body with the full force of the ocean. And then it’s over. I find my friend; we are still holding hands. I remember the waves. They’ve always been.