Gardens, games, and engravings
2022 in review.
I'm spending that awkward week between Christmas and New Years with my parents. As per usual, I've taken the lull as an opportunity to look back on the year's archipelago of memories to try and sketch a unity. Despite this being my second year in New York, it was a period marked by travel. It began in Brazil, with two months in Europe between Berlin and Rijeka, and peppered in trips to San Francisco, CDMX, Oaxaca, Kassel, Rosario, and Barcelona, with family and friends I hold dearly. Now, I'm writing from a small café outside Chippewa Square in Savannah (and afterwards from Florida, fueled by father's mate). The archipelago spans the spatial as well as the temporal dimension, however, the islands supervene on a few hot spots.
This was a year of harvest, small projects finally coming to fruition. A pastiched Jeanneret, through Enzo Mari, became the first chair I was truly proud of. I finally had the guts to install a public furniture project, where it remained for nearly three months. Some of these efforts around wielding tools were transposed into writing about folk interfaces. At Reduct, I matured from prototyper to a maintainer of a system, releasing a spatial canvas for video composition and bringing transcription in-house. Some of the media theory that motivated these nearly two-years of work became On video-text and a lamentation on the state of interfaces. Some fortuitous forwarding of these texts landed me in a writing retreat amidst the shadow librarians. Finally, an aguafuerte was wrestled out of some notes and remembrances from a week spent in Rosario.
In retrospect, it's clear that this harvest hasn't come from grinding, building an audience, or concrete ambitions for a career. I didn't fulfill my year's goals. I left most of the books I began unfinished. I was rejected from what I applied to and received no accolades. Those expectations only brought me anxiety and disappointment. Instead, the fruits were plucked from trees in a garden, a little plot of land which, unlike Voltaire's, was situated in collective space. Some days I water the plants, other times I wack weeds, but it's the reverberations of those neighboring plots and gardeners that have helped make the soil fertile (heterosis). Their companionship, ideas, and interventions build up a vibrant ecosystem. It is a constrained ecosystem: not everything can grow. How else to fight commodity and alienation than with the local and situated? Introducing a species may disrupt the ecology and must be done with care. Overwatering drowns. Only in these spaces poetry seems to live.
The greatest luck of this year has been the gardeners around me, across the Reduct offices, Hex House, 19 Weichselstrasse, Marcell's flat in Rijeka, and the apartment I share with Nick. I'm deeply indebted to Rob Ochshorn's mentorship in experimental software and his example in hospitality. From him comes a belief in the avant-garde, the power of bootstrapping, and the importance of tightening feedback towards interfaces of pure manipulation. The soirées at Café Reggio with our group of internet spelunkers has reinvigorated the evenings spent alone at home with a book of media or psychoanalytic theory. In an expedition to international gardens, an escape to Rio with high school accomplices, my latent Brasileiro re-emerged and its adoration for a Brasil leve e raiz. A week in Rosario with los Sciutto and Rodriguez, brought back a feeling of belonging to a boy raised afar as an immigrant. Lorena gave me the confidence to publicly install the Convivial Forms. She reminded me that art is a lifelong attempt at communicating what's left in the gaps.
This year I began to disentangle software from scale. I came to software with a desire for control: it was the means to wield the digital, the representation which has subsumed all others (text, image, and video). However, over the past two years, my Luddism peaked. I began to see software's abstractions as blind, a fetishization of formalizations that ignored the complexities of the symbolic and organic systems around them. This discontent spurred readings of media theory, psychoanalysis, and ethnomethodology. Reconciling these sentiments has required a reorientation, one which has been invigorating. It's core is the simple tooling of autoprogettazione that reveals the world to those who perceive it as immutable and allows one to repurpose industry through bricolage. Then, came software as applied semiotics, the definition of a grammar with compositional meanings and tangible effects, extending the speech act to the material.
From these new metaphors came a reframing of software at scale, a transition from the loss of aura of the first pages of Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, towards the political potential Benjamin saw in the less-read half. I began to emphasize a civic dimension in writing software, the sensibility which backs the free software movement. In my trade as a writer of software, I can provide and maintain utilities, putting me in the ranks alongside librarians, plumbers, and gardeners. Rather than disruptor, this circumscribes software within a politics of care and accessibility. This was the kernel of my learnings from Marcell and Tomislav on Cres, the shadow librarians of which owe you more later. As such, the subjectivity of maintainer has gained resonance for me: software as collective media infrastructure, perhaps epitomized by Fabrice Bellard's ffmpeg. These are the seeds which I can grow and disperse onto neighboring plots of land.
In parallel to this conception of software, came a desire to gesture at that world I felt under attack from abstraction. During the month spent in Neukölln, I picked up Los Autonautas de la Cosmopista. Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop drive from Paris to Marseille along La Autopista del Sur with two strict rules: don't leave the highway and travel precisely two rest stops a day. The Oulipian constraints establish the plot: 800km and just over 60 rest stops, 30 days of travel at around 25km a day. The Kombi is filled with supplies. Rendezvous points are coordinated with friends at each third of the trip for replenishments. Throughout the trip, a travelogue is co-written, with weather reports, kilometers traveled, and food eaten, as well as narrations of the fairies and demons that guide and tempt them. Underlying the whimsy lies an urgency: both had recently been hospitalized under severe illness. The trip had been postponed for four years, so when a chance opens they take it. The artifact they create best exemplifies Calvino's memo on lightness.
Cortázar and Dunlop embody a theory of poetics through play. When children create games, the rules are negotiated: the floor is lava, the couch is a platform. Once in place, improvisation reigns: first to the door wins! There's no writing of the rules, nor are there penalties. Rather than suspension of disbelief, there's faith in the suspension of reality. Homo ludens. This theory had practical resonance in my life when, three summers ago, Chapman and I set out on an eight thousand mile drive from San Francisco to Zapatista territory to acquire a pair of huaraches. "There and back? No planned activities? In that car?" we were asked. These leaps of faith are perhaps the meaning to John Cage's rule: "The only rule is work... It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to things." The technics and politics aren't premeditated: they emerge from the rough ground of everyday existence. The world folds into that game metonymically, a syntagm from the underlying structure. You just need to get dirty.
The Real, what I'm failingly gesturing at, is that elusive quality which resists representation, an unmodeled excess. In Francesco Rosi's film Il momento della verità, the Real appears between matador and bull. Notably, there is no direct access to the Real, a spectacle must be staged. Stand still, or run, and you will be impaled and the spectacle will fall apart. The matador, must dance in synchrony with danger, and in that sustained fiction, a heightened reality is manifest: the Real. For a formal manifestation, I return to Jonas Mekas' film Diaries, Notes, and Sketches. Mekas used any leftover film he could find to feed his Bolex, recording excerpts of life in various hues of emulsion. The three hour montage is edited "in camera". The fragments come in order—it is a diary, however without the retrospection of writing. All he does is repeats to us: "This is Walden. This is Walden. This is Walden." Not the ornate, nor the philosophical, but the quotidien.
Thus, this year two co-existing subjectivities have emerged: maintainer and cronista. I wander, a bit like Roberto Arlt on his expedition to Brazil, with two suits and two suitcases . One well-kept suit for his role as a journalist, for the decent people. The other, in tatters, paired with alpargatas, for the underworld. The first suitcase with minimal clothing. The larger one with papers, manuscripts, and a typewriter, aguafuertes of the world he cared to remit. In Species of Spaces Georges Perec concludes:
To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise straps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.
That is my wish, though it need not be words on page. The method, however, comes from a footnote in Bresson's Notes on Cinematography, quoting Montaigne:
A certain man demanded of one of our loytring rogues, whom in the deep of frosty Winter, he saw wandring up and downe with nothing but his shirt about him, and yet as blithe and lusty as an other who keepes himselfe muffled and wrapt in warme furres up to the ears, how we could have patience to go so. And have not you, good Sir, (answered he) your face all bare? Imagine I am all face.
That face is all we have.
"No tengo ningún programa, no llevo ninguna guía. Lo único que llevo en mi valija, son dos trajes. Un traje para tratar con personas decentes, y otro hecho pedazos, con un par de alpargatas y una gorra desencuadernada. [...] Pienso mezclarme y convivir con la gente del fondo que infesta los pueblos de ultramar. Conocer los rincones más sombríos y más desesperados de las ciudades que duermen bajo el sol del trópico. [...] ¡Qué multitud de temas para notas en ese viaje maravilloso que me hace escribir en la "Underwood" de tal manera, que hasta la mesa tiembla bajo la crepitación de las teclas! [...] Es curioso: he arreglado mis maletas (dos maletas: la más grande contiene papeles y manuscritos de dos novelas y cuentos que preparo; la más chica, la ropa.)" ↩