This winter, I asked my friend, the writer Tom Clyde, to edit a grant proposal I was about to submit. A couple of artist friends have been my go-to gals for this kind of thing, so I’d never asked him to do this before. I thought of him, though, because around the time the grant was due, he’d grilled me about some of my ideas — his take on my process and (awkward as it is to admit I have one) philosophy startled me radically, in a good way.
Tom agreed to edit my grant. Which he did, neatly, kindly, and efficiently. Then, he promptly sent one, then two, then a third email with all sorts of thoughts about what I was working on, where I might be headed, what it might mean or not mean. A riff! It was such a gift — different than anything one might expect from a reviewer or dealer or collector or symposium. As an artist, to receive that kind of attention, untethered to the machine of the Arts Industrial Complex — well, of course I wanted Tom to do that for everyone and everything else. It turns out, as that initial flurry of three lengthy, considered emails suggested, Tom is up for it! Go, Tom!
Submit for Riff is a curated site for Tom, and future guests, to riff on as wide a range of cultural production as we can think up. I’m the curator, and soon there will be guest curators. Please let us know what you think.
— Miriam Dym
Read the full Ur emails sent by Tom to Miriam, riffing on her grant proposal and other things here.
Below are excerpts from the original emails that got me going:
Email # 1 (excerpts):
I get that you have a more generous, more clear-eyed vision for the beauty of what most people categorize as “waste.” I think that is important and powerful and true — something you are compelled (rightly!) to share with the world. Waste, as we were discussing at Jeannie’s party, is usually associated in people’s neural networks with disgust, shame, infection, fear, shunning, separation. The body’s waste products are fetishized by some precisely because they trigger these powerful limbic-brain responses. They are taboo, hidden, involuntary. But there are two issues that you point out:
1. Most of these responses are, like so many of our evolutionarily-derived responses, not very accurate or necessary. We have ways to disinfect ourselves (soap, Purell, etc.). We have gone overboard in separating ourselves from body wastes to the point that many people NEVER really see it anymore. This is damaging to our psyches in that it walls us off from our own bodies and their processes. It promotes surface-shiny pictures of human beauty […] [A]side from athletes spitting tobacco juice, and college students vomiting behind their cars, and our own most private nose-pickings… and well, things that happen in the sexual context…and… well you get the picture, we have a blank, sanitized idea of human bodies. […]
2. More to the point of your work, this waste assocation has been applied to ALL of our trash. Dumpster-diving makes people shocked and appalled. Picking up garbage is done with icky care. When in truth, as you make clear, most of what we throw out is not “waste” in the body sense at all, not threatening to our immune systems, etc. It is simply MATERIAL. Can we educate people — through public service announcements or, as is your urge, through artistic shock and enchantment — to separate these two types of garbage out? If we can then, how?
— hold on, I’m going to send this and then keep writing on another one.
Email #2 (excerpts):
So — I have gone far afield. Sorry. So — what I’m trying to say is: the function of art — its USE — is always to promote a private vision. Even the most obscure, think Sappho’s fragments of erotic observation — and the most gigantic — think the onion domes on Moscow’s churches — they are all making the most tiny, private detailed notes of artists readable by others. The great thing about art is that it breaks and alters our received categories, it weaves new networks. When Vermeer showed how sidelighting looked on a checkered floor, the world collectively said, yes, I see that now (I always did but now see it consciously?). When you create shredders for our waste products people will say, yes, I see that now. But will they stop buying wasteful consumer items? Probably not. They will just have a new option to extend their use.
Beauty is — the luxury of beauty — is a perk of our contemporary world. Anything we do to bring attention to it — even if we characterize it as useful — is really a way of saying, I LOVE THIS! I WANT TO SHARE IT WITH YOU AND MAKE YOUR HEART SING WITH MINE! This is amazing. Your vision is amazing. But my conclusion of all this is this:
I think of you as akin to a Buddhist monk, widening our field of awareness of the sacred. You are like those photographers who started showing us the beauty of weathered faces in the 30s, dustbowl farmers, prostitutes in the 60s. The trick for them (as for you) is not to romanticize ugliness — look at that chewed bubble gum stuck on that soda pop label, look at it! — but rather to make it no longer ugly at all.
Email #3 (entirety):
Jyst reread what I wrote.
Bottom line: you are ruthlessly anti-nostalgic in your conception of art, you have no interest in the polite boundaries of what are proper materials or subjects. You are like a neolithic cave painter: of course you use the materials on hand. Anything else is bizarre to you.
The rest, the implications of it all… meh. You aren’t concerned. You simply must make beauty out of everyday things, including “waste” — let whatever comes of it (a less consumerist, disposable world? Nothing at all? Who knows?) come.
I like it. It is an original vision not because it is new but because it runs so deep with you that it is not forced.