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Afterword: Florida Arabesque

Postbox, Sanibel Island Florida, 2019. Photograph courtesy the author
Postbox, Sanibel Island Florida, 2019. Photograph courtesy the author

I belong to a generation […] that has lost all respect for the past and all belief or hope in the future. […] We are convalescing. […] The truth is […] that the things we love […] only have their full value when we merely dream them. […] We would be anarchists had we been born into the classes that describe themselves as underprivileged, or into any other of the classes from which one can fall or rise. […] Those of us who are not pederasts wish we had the courage to be so. […] Bereft of illusions, we live on dreams, which are the illusions for those who cannot have illusions.

– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Why do we remember the past and not the future?

– Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time

I owe two texts. The first, something about art, modernity and future utopias, for a Kunstverein in Germany. It’s supposed to be a ‘sequel’ to the modernity and antiquity text I wrote for documenta 12. The second, something about the contemporary condition of images, particularly moving images, to mark the twentieth anniversary of Afterall, the research and publishing project Charles Esche and I founded back in 1999. Charles tells me that this latter text should anticipate, look forward, predict even. Two texts, then, occasioned by two anniversaries, and both expected to summon memories of the future.

In November and December of last year, I was a resident at the Rauschenberg Foundation in Captiva, Florida. I went to Captiva ostensibly with these two writing projects in mind, but, during four weeks, failed to get anything down on paper. Over Christmas, my daughter Olivia tells me that the two texts I had meant to write are probably the same one. She also suggests that I use the idea of the residency, and my experience of it, as a way into the writing. Describe some of the characters, she says, share your thoughts about who you met and what you talked about. And throw in something about Florida too. In other words, I should use the fact that I did nothing as an opportunity. Maybe Olivia is right, writing about Captiva, about residencies and residents, could be a knight’s move. The six-mile-long, half-mile-wide island might just get me out of a hole. And aren’t artists’ residencies utopian prototypes of some sort, places for artists to prepare for their future – to dream and imagine things differently? Isn’t that the idea? Couldn’t that be a relevant theory, a hook to hang my disparate thoughts on?

Artists on residencies are often repeat offenders, or so I discovered. They search them out and go from one to another. Ana, whose studio was next to mine, loved residencies, and she was not alone. Over lunch one day I listened as she shared residency notes with Joanne, Mary-Jane and Jeremy. It turns out that Captiva was Ana’s fifth residency, Mary-Jane’s ninth, Jeremy’s fourth and Joanne’s somewhere in between. Their residency discussion continued for several more days via the group WhatsApp chat, with recommendations and experiences passed back and forth enthusiastically. Some residencies were rated higher than others, but all agreed Captiva was the best.

How large the eyes become here! They want at all times to possess only sky. … I place great trust in this landscape, and will gladly accept from it path and possibilities for many days. Here I can once again simply go along, become, be someone who changes.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, 1900

Artist residencies: Is there a history? Has it been written? A quick read of the internet reveals that the first artists’ residency was probably in 1666 with the establishment in France of the Prix de Rome. Recipients of that prize, painters, sculptors, etchers, were sent to Rome to live amongst the great, classical examples of their art. There was an ulterior motive. After their creative sojourn in Rome, artists were expected to return to France and produce newly inspired works glorifying and legitimising the reign of Louis XIV. But was the Prix de Rome really a residency as we understand it today? Until 1804, when the French government purchased the Villa Medici, there was no actual place in Rome for prize recipients to live and work. Artists had to search out their own accommodation and were seldom together in a single location. And strictly speaking, the Prix de Rome, no matter how partisan the intention, sent artists out intothe world, rather than have them retreat or withdraw from it. This latter idea would come later.

Perhaps the Prix de Rome’s insistence on classical learning, submerging artists into an ideologically parsed, aesthetically streamlined version of the past, does give this original artists’ residency some connection to a later, early twentieth-century iteration, when a residency retreat was often understood as a quiet rebellion against the advancing spectacle of modernity. Rilke wrote the lines quoted above when he first arrived, by invitation of the German painter and architect Heinrich Vogeler, at the newly formed artists’ colony in Worpswede, Germany. Worpswede’s founders hoped the region’s fertile nature, endless sky and advancing flat, sun-saturated landscape would inspire artists. Rilke arrived in Worpswede at the same time as the World’s Fair in Paris was demonstrating electrical invention, newly automated vehicular traffic, moving sidewalks, metro trains, radio-telegraphic communication devices – a phantasmagoria of modernity. In Worpswede, defended by nature, did Rilke and others close their eyes and ears to this landscape of invention? Was their retreat an artificial one, literally a sanctuary from their own time, from the idea of the future the new century promised?

On the residency in Captiva, I often felt this artificial isolation from our own time, and indeed from the residency’s own geo-political heart, South Florida. Rauschenberg’s compound is beautiful with (predominantly) tasteful architecture and a careful, rhythmically planned landscape, designed to invoke an imagined, wilder, verdant past. You could almost forget that you were in resort Florida, a land of increasingly banal design, almost completely denuded of charm and reeking of political malfeasance. Across Captiva and neighbouring Sanibel Island there are endless signs declaring ‘private road’, ‘private housing’, ‘no access to the beach’, ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’, ‘private security patrols’ and so on. Whenever I cycled passed these, many times a day, I couldn’t help but think of poor, murdered Trayvon Martin and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. As Somerset Maugham once said about the Riviera, South Florida ‘is a sunny place for shady people’. It’s a land scarred by tragedy, natural and manmade. It is also a region that has been rapidly transformed by the influx of older, predominantly white conservative refugees from the colder northern and mid-west regions. Everyone calls these people ‘snowbirds’. South Florida is a society of declinism. The future as wasteland, where snowbirds are replacing migrating birds.

When you can’t breathe through your nose, tomorrow seems strangely like the day before yesterday.

– E.B. White, On Visions of the Future

Thy letters have transported me beyond

This ignorant present, and I feel now

The future in the instant.

– William Shakespeare, Macbeth

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald invokes T.S. Eliot when he describes the ‘Valley of Ashes’, the land that lies between East and West Egg and the city, as ‘the waste land’. The rich live and play in the Eggs, but they act out their dramas of corruption and exploitation in the Valley of Ashes. It’s where Tom has his affair with Myrtle and where Daisy, in turn, kills Myrtle. For Gatsby, the Valley of Ashes reveals the poison of the American dream, it is a ‘solemn dumping ground’, where the detritus and rot of the wealthy and the ruling class are secreted. Fitzgerald located and based his description of the Valley of Ashes on an actual waste ground, the Corona Ash Dump in Queens, New York. It was here that for many years refuse from the vast archipelago of Manhattan construction sites was brought and disposed of. In 1939, the area was transformed into Flushing Meadows Park for the New York World’s Fair of 1939–40. The theme of the fair was Building the World of Tomorrow and its eagerly distributed slogan, in magazines and flyers, was Dawn of a New Day. The New York World’s Fair was a paradoxical event: its eighteen-month celebration included the inauguration of broadcast television, a Mrs Modern vs. Mrs Drudge dishwashing competition, the world’s largest scale model depicting an imagined 1960 world and a celebration of cities dominated by vehicular traffic and new communication technology. While all of this was being sampled and enjoyed by upwards of forty-five million people, totalitarian regimes throughout the world grew in power and influence, millions of Jews were rounded up for eventual massacre, and whole countries in Europe simply disappeared. What ever happened to ‘the world of tomorrow’? Why did it go so ‘wrong’? The World’s Fair of 1939 was built atop excavation waste from capitalism’s new shining ‘city upon a hill’, and on land that in the most famous American novel of the twentieth century was a metaphor for all that was wrong, repressed and hidden in The American Dream. If you were a psychoanalyst you might even wonder
if the location’s literary reference and its terrestrial history were not parapraxes.

E.B. White had a bad sinus infection when he visited the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows to review it for The New Yorker. It apparently dulled his ‘future recognition’ sensibilities. But the quote survives. It speaks truth to a century-long illusion, that you can simply abandon today because of a promised better tomorrow. If you spend all your time planning, building and proselytising for the future, you’ll never be, in Giorgio Agamben’s words, contemporary with yourself and your own time. Little wonder then that images of the future can feel old fashioned, tired, quaint, authored and often frightening. Tomorrow looks a lot like the day before yesterday, precisely because you have forgotten about, skipped over today where the materiality and the invention of the world is taking place.

Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, wants to celebrate the disposal of the ‘ignorant present’ and dream instead of ‘the future in the instant’ – a future where she and her husband will consolidate power and control much of everything. Stephen Greenblatt in Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (2018), cites this passage from Macbeth to argue, along with Shakespeare, that our best bet to escape tyranny and terror is to believe ‘in the sheer unpredictability of collective life’. The unpredictability of collective life is an effect of the present and the latter’s vital condition. It’s about struggles with the world as it is and not as it might or should be. And it is these struggles that will save us from both ‘idealists and tyrants’ – from those who want to gild the future lily, from the Macbeths; in his essay ‘For a Left with No Future’, T.J. Clark circles around the same idea. He wonders what it would be like for a left politics ‘not to look forward – to be truly present-centred, non-prophetic, disenchanted …’? A movement that left behind ‘the last after thoughts and images of the avant-garde’. Attend to the now. Decisively.

And don’t let the lure of prospective opportunity, wrapped seductively in the future perfect tense, blind you to the fundamental demands of extant public life.