A shape of paper trimmed by an astronaut—from a standard sheet into something like a letter M—floats in zero gravity. Through a hole at its center a tube, another blank page rolled and inserted there, transects the axis, making the object multi-dimensional. Air currents buffet it as they would a kite, and it arcs and bounces on its wobbly flight around the space station’s interior. The performance realizes a plan of the artist, Eduardo Kac, for writing untethered to gravity, letters multidirectional as planetary bodies. Video-documented and projected on an immersive room-sized portal’s wall, the paper form levitates before a backdrop of windows and an upside-down earth’s blue and white horizon.
Inner Telescope, curated by Fulla Abdul-Jabbar and Caroline Picard, opened the final season of Chicago’s Sector 2337. After five years of exhibitions, literary events, and performances, Sector will cease operations at the end of 2018. Midway in scale between the vibrant, volunteer house galleries and major museums continually expanding in size, budget, and collecting ambition, Sector housed exhibitions that could not easily situate elsewhere. Too many factors contributed to the closing to consider here. Proprietors Picard and Devin King stated in their announcement: “Spaces don’t have to last forever to have lasting impact.” As August turns to September, I consider sustainability. I ask myself what questions I need to ask. From the vantage of these “uncollectible streets” (Dionne Brand), what is missing? What has been lost? Is vanishing possible? To evanesce (from the Latin evanescere: e-‘out of’ + vanus ‘empty’) to pass from the field of perception and into the void.
Where does the middle come from, the idea of center? A drafting compass, or “pair of compasses,” that which encircle, consists in two legs, one adjustable at the hinge above, the other fixed, its fixedness a consequence of its needle-like point. The English word center derives from the Latin name for this compass point, and from the Greek kentron meaning “wasp sting.” What trace exists after the sting’s removal, continuing after its vanishing from the surrounding circle it initiated, anchored, and possibilized? The artist sees his floating M as a paper humanoid of sorts, the tube a severed umbilical cord. He sees it as a 3-D glyph-like rendering of MOI (French for “me”). I read M for middle. In my years of teaching writing in an art school, I have encountered the imperative to conceive of courses with interdisciplinary appeal. I seek a concept over which no discipline can claim authority. I need a subject like “systems” or “ghosts,” to set at the center, as one sets a table before a meal, to gather around. I might say that each specialist has singular authority, none more definitive than the next. Such a middle zone bears a sting in its otherness, the loneliness of the equidistant outside point, fulfilling its task of closing the set. The goad belongs to none and all. Moon orbits earth and us on its surface—distance as analogue for access.
Economist Amartya Sen has argued that the greater the distance between highest and lowest incomes, the greater the instability of a social structure. Income compression that produces a “middle class” results from labors of the most ordinary consolidations, the stabilizing work of taxation, minimum wages, unionization. I wonder whether the same principle holds true if transferred across dimensions. In his book, The Idea of Justice (2009) Sen wrote,
…the valuation of income is entirely as a means to other ends and also that it is one means among others. A more inclusive list of means has been used by John Rawls in his theory of justice through his concentration on primary good, which include rights, liberties and opportunities, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect…The worst of incomes cannot stand separated from the deeper concerns, and a society that respects individual well-being and freedom must take note of these concerns in making impersonal comparisons as well as social evaluations.
It remains a question (mine) whether inequality—of rights, liberties, and opportunities—destabilizes social structures as much as inequality of income.
In Dialogues in Public Art (2000) artist Vito Acconci wrote: “I’ve talked about coming in from the side, and coming up from underneath, and clinging on like a leech. I’d welcome the chance sometime, the risk, of having to start from the center; then I’d have to make my own center, I wouldn’t have the luxury of reacting.” Operating from this provocation, I ask whether avant-gardism has traditionally been considered an edge phenomena, whether an entrenched prejudice discriminates against middles of any sort—geographic, imagistic, economic, or symbolic—as a possible seat of philosophical and aesthetic adventure; whether coastal privileging extends to metaphorical thought, championing strange over familiar, new over old, minoritarian over majoritarian, extraordinary over ordinary, or generally the extreme over the moderate—as if to equate edge with the challenges of radicalism, and the center with a conservative status quo. I welcome Acconci’s rejection of that subtraction story, his generous, characteristic upending.
My mind returns to philosopher Charles Taylor’s notion of anti-structure, the carnival, the nonsense event, the dress-up participatory ritual of reversal. Anti-structure’s revelation of life’s inexhaustibility positions it as rejoinder to “the temptation to put into effect a code which brooks no limit,” that totalitarian urge that “lends a positive ring to such slogans as ‘zero tolerance.’” Intolerance arises from the belief that one has perceived the entire horizon of experience, rejecting the notion of more to life, to be invented if not discovered, as one must make a center of one’s own—a center in which to confront disappointment, to open oneself to the possibility of a further reality inside the apparent reality. Dances of encounter, of risk and reward, gather in middle space, harder to characterize than the durable extremes that surround it, more fragile, more patient, more necessary.
MATTHEW GOULISH is co-founder and dramaturg of the performance group Every house has a door, and teaches in the Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.