Ephemerabiliaphilia: The (Unreturned) Love of Re-Collecting the Largely Neglected

My memory is poor, generally, and getting worse.  My desire to remember the forgotten – the ostensibly unmemorable – remains strong.  It is a love rooted in the need to champion the unloved, or, rather, the dis-loved, and abandon myself to the abandoned.  It is a queer thing, to my thinking, which is queer always and could not be otherwise.  To love, perversely, what has been discarded or deemed unworthy of consideration, means disregarding what is widely held to matter and instead be drawn – draw on and draw out – what is devalued as immaterial.  It involves questioning systems of valuation and creating oppositional values.

Commenced in 2005, this journal was dedicated to what I termed “unpopular culture,” the uncollected leftovers that linger on a trash heap beyond our mythical collective memory.  To this day, down to my current project, Asphalt Expressionism – a curated collection of images engaging with the visual culture of New York City sidewalks – I carry on caring about the uncared-for and neglected, the everyday past which others tend to walk without taking notice.

There is no such thing as trivial matter.  Nothing is negligible in itself.  What makes something worthless is not a particular quality or lack thereof.  Rather, it is an attitude, an approach, a judgment – itself often a product of a cultural conditioning.  Nothing is intrinsically trivial, but anything may be trivialized.  As I put it, years ago, when I curated (Im)memorabilia, an exhibition largely of mass-produced prints entirely from my collection – “Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter,” whereas “Memorabilia is matter we grant the capacity to mean differently.”

Low as a Kyte? A 1934 Wills’s Cigarette card featuring Sydney Kyte, a bandleader to whom no Wikipedia page is dedicated. The card sells online for under £1.

A 1930s cigarette card, for instance, may have once served the purpose of boosting sales by prompting smokers to collect cheaply mass-produced images of film stars or flowers or tropical fish.  Collecting them nearly a century later – long after the advertising campaign has folded and the image has become removed from the product it was designed to promote – means to extend the lives of such devalued objects by moving them into the sphere of our own temporary existence of which they in turn become extensions.  

Whether or not we take measures to preserve their afterlife, we instill collectibles with new meaning, give them value by investing them with our longings.  I, for one, never regard my belongings as financial investments; I do not collect calculatedly, anticipating that what I gather might be the worth something to someone else some day.

I also refuse to intellectualize my desires; I am wary of turning passion into an academic exercise.  That is, I do not rescue the marginalized for the purpose of demarginalizing my own existence by convincing others of the cultural value or historical significance of devalued objects – and of the case I make for their value.  Still, there is that longing to be loved, to feel validated, for all the reasons that many, I suspect, would regard as wrong.  

Why waste time on what is waste? Why dig up – and dig – what has become infra-dig through the process of devaluing, a hostile attitude toward the multiple, the unoriginal and commercially tainted to which we appear to be conditioned in a capitalist system that makes us feel lesser for consuming the mass-produced within our means so that we aim to live beyond those means, always abandoning one product for another supposedly superior?  There can be no upgrading without degradation, no aspiration without a looking down at what has been relegated to refuse.

I remember a gay friend telling me, decades ago, that when he was a child, drawing in kindergarten or elementary with other children, he would pick the color that was least liked by his fellow creatives.  I did the same thing when toys were being shared.  This unwanted thing could be me – this is me – is what must have gone through my mind when I took temporary ownership of the object of just about nobody’s affection.  And this, I believe, is at the heart of my impulse to make keepsakes of the largely forsaken.

I started writing this on the one-hundredth anniversary of the first radio broadcast in Britain – 14 November 1922 – by what was then not yet the BBC.  Sound, after all, is the ultimate ephemera, fleeting if uncollected, lost if not cared for.  The BBC used to erase recordings of its broadcasts, turning the potentially memorable into the immemorabilia beyond my grasp, and, in turn, turning my determination to lift them into my presence into futile longing, a nostalgia for the unrecoverable past.

ASMR Jungle: Rambling Notes on NYC Composed Out of Earshot

Chalk drawing on the pavement at Union Square. Not that I need an invitation.

Inhale.  Exhale.  Inhale.  Exhale.  I must try that some time without using a brown paper bag.  Just kidding – but only just.  It’s been a breathless few weeks.  Now that I am coming up for air, I’d like to say, if it were not such a hackneyed phrase, that I have returned from my long and long-delayed New York trip with a suitcase full of memories.  Not that I care to be reminded about my luggage, given that, owing to an absent-mindedness brought on by physical exhaustion and an acute state of all-over-the-placeness, my carry-on case continued its journey by rail without me.

Argh.  Among other things, the valise gone astray contained a rare copy of Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig (1943), a curiosity of a mystery about which, had I not, through my negligence, forfeited the opportunity of its perusal, I would have liked to say considerably more here, especially given that its story is set in Wales, whereto its English author, H. C. Bailey (1878–1961) retired at the end of his career.

My copy of the novel, before it got lost in transit.

While in New York, I did a bit of research at the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division on lost recordings of Bailey’s “Mr. Fortune” stories, nineteen of which were adapted for US radio in the mid-1930s and are extant as scripts.  More about that, and the pig, some other time, the lost-and-found department of Transport for Wales permitting.  Never mind flying.  Pigs might travel by rail.

Pardon the rustling of mental notes; but as recounted here previously, fortune did not exactly smile on me during my stay in New York, entirely overshadowed as it was, at least initially, by my former partner’s heart attack and my bout of Covid, which barred me from the ICU and turned my legs to lead as I dragged myself from one testing site to another.

Rasp.  Not that my sojourns in the metropolis are ever an unalloyed joy, tinged as they invariably are with a sense of loss and estrangement.  Each year, the city I knew most closely when I lived there from 1990 to 2004, is becoming less familiar, less recognizable, and generally less worth revisiting, especially since what was particular and once characteristic is gradually being replaced by the generic and corporate.

The pandemic has speeded up this process, with many of the remaining one-of-a-kind sites going under in a sump of sameness.  A few years ago, when I researched the career of the English printmaker Stanley Anderson for a catalogue raisonné and a series of exhibitions, I was struck by the sense of dislocation some of his etchings communicate.  A kindred spirit, I am alive to Anderson’s visual commentaries on a world that was vanishing – or was made to disappear – before his very eyes.

Edward Hopper, The Lonely House (1920)

I was reminded of Anderson’s alternative views of 1920s London – of construction sites and demolitions – when I came across the etching The Lonely House (1920) in the exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York at the Whitney.  New York City, as the show’s curators put it with platitudinous generality, “underwent tremendous development” during Hopper’s lifetime; and instead of focussing his attention on landmarks that are more likely to stay in place than the architecturally commonplace – an assumption proven false decades later by the pulverization of the World Trade Center, an act of religious fanaticism bringing home that iconoclasm on any scale demands the iconic – Hopper “turned his attention” to “unsung utilitarian structures” and was “drawn to the collisions of the new and old” that “captured the paradoxes of the changing city.”

I am likewise eschewing the presumably picture-worthy sites in Asphalt Expressionism, my upcoming exhibition of large format, printed iPhone photographs of New York City sidewalks that, in a tourist’s pursuit of views or selfie backdrops, tend literally to fall by the wayside despite being in plain sight.

However, it is not visuals alone that vanish or material culture only that is subject to erasure.  Sounds, too, face neglect and extinction.  Unless they are voices or musical compositions, aural environments are largely unheard of in most records of our experiences, public or private.  Sounds may survive as a backing track to our home videos, but rarely do they become the main event, the real thing of our conscious engagement with sensed reality.

Continue reading “ASMR Jungle: Rambling Notes on NYC Composed Out of Earshot”

Down and Out in NYC: Movements, Pavements and Pandemics

Well, it ain’t over ‘til the proverbial — and stereotypically plus-sized — diva, binary or otherwise, puts down her lozenges to launch a final attack on the lorgnette-clutching, socially-distanced crowds. In as plain a variety of English as I can bring myself to adopt: we haven’t heard the last of COVID-19. Done as we might think we are with the pandemic the US President declared over, the virus continues to catch us unawares and mess with our lives.

It sure is messing with mine right now, in a number of ways. Almost immediately on arriving in New York City two weeks ago, I caught some resilient variant of the bug I had managed to steer clear of for so long. And it caught up with me despite all vaccinations and boosters, having taken advantage of the first opportunity to have my last antiviral top-up just two days before my departure.

Imperative mood

This is my first return visit to my old Manhattan neighborhood in three years … but clearly things did not go at all as planned or hoped for. What makes matters worse is that I had intended to be of some use to an old friend and former domestic partner, who, just days prior to my arrival, suffered a massive heart attack and has been in intensive care ever since. Here I am, stuck in his apartment, just a 20-minute walk away from the hospital that is now off limits. No doubt, millions of New Yorkers felt like that during lockdown — when everything and everyone close by was suddenly out of reach.

Continue reading “Down and Out in NYC: Movements, Pavements and Pandemics”

Enclosure Acts: Radical Landscapes at Tate Liverpool

Navigating the docklands on my way to Tate Liverpool

Just what is a landscape? It is with this question that I open the undergraduate art history module Looking into Landscape, which I have been teaching at Aberystwyth University since 2016.  In 2014, I leaped at the opportunity of trialling the module in China, where the history of art engaging with the natural and human-made environment spans many more centuries than it does in the West, and where it bears little resemblance to what Westerners tend to regard as “landscape” when referring to artistic practices rather than the outdoors.  Landscape, that is, as a genre distinct from portraiture or still life.

But I am not lecturing.  Actually, I am on research leave, which will take me back to New York – after a three-year absence from my old neighborhood and the favorite haunts that may well have become unrecognizable or ceased to exist in the interim – in preparation for my exhibition Asphalt Expressionism, about which I shall have – and have to have – more to say in subsequent posts as I ponder just what I have gotten myself into this time.

To some extent, Asphalt Expressionism – a belated follow-up to my 2018 exhibition Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies – is a response to the question “Just what is a landscape?” It aims to explore, in a series of photographs snapped with my phone camera, the terrain of Manhattan from the perspective of a walker looking down on the pavement rather than ahead, taking in the sights.  It is an alternative approach, a looking away from what is privileged or deemed worth seeing.  It is also an alternative to the tourist’s selfie, as my feet will stand in for my face in pictures that say “I was here.”

Downtown Manhattan, 11 September 2019

Unlike selfies, my photographs will not be shared first, let alone exclusively via social media, from the platforms and forums of which I have largely absented myself.  Do these images belong in a gallery? Do they need to be printed and displayed to have a life, to find eyes and minds other than mine to serve other than dead ends? 

Is the gallery the habitat for creative practices engaging with the act and art of living? I asked myself just that the other day when I went to Liverpool in order to experience – or, as it turned out, in hopes of experiencing – the exhibition Radical Landscapes.  The show, at Tate Liverpool, invites audiences to consider many of the forms that responses to the environment can take and how those responses may be motivated, whether it is primarily to make a living or to fight for the survival of the planet.

Displayed among the commodifiable images of the countryside were sculptures, textiles, installations, photographs – among them early efforts by Angus McBean, whose later works are currently on show in the exhibition I staged with students at Aberystwyth University – videos of performance art, as well as living plants and early twentieth-century scientific wood-and-papier-mâché models thereof.  So, the question arose, again and again, “Just what is a landscape?” How is that term defined here?

Radical Landscapes, Tate Liverpool, installation view

The dissatisfaction I felt walking through Radical Landscapes – well worth the walk though it is – is not so much that it does define its territory so loosely.  It is that it still insisted on calling all those responses “landscapes” and declaring them to be “radical.” “Radical Landscapes” is not an oxymoron – Peter Kennard’s Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980) makes that plain – but it is certainly a misnomer.

Curators Darren Pih and Laura Bruni do provide some indications of how the theme or subject of their project was delimited by throwing a few descriptors into the mix, via the exhibition’s subtitle: Art, Identity and Activism.  Still, much of what is on show, from oils to soil, is not genre landscape.  What is radical in the creative practice of adapting to our changing environment or adopting ways of making the future survivable is activism, which may or may not yield a physical by-product displayable in a gallery space. You cannot expect to be walking a line in, say, Peru – or any line that, through radical thinking and doing, has temporarily been withdrawn between art and life or between objects and objectives – by looking at line, color and form in a cube, white or otherwise.

Peter Kennard, Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980) detail

There is evidence of radical engagement with land on the walls, mainly in the form of documentarian photographs.  But those images only remind us how galleries, by educating us about what is or was out there, also distances us from those radical approaches.  In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Helen Legg, Director of Tate Liverpool, makes the claim that the “gallery space for this exhibition has become inverted, with the outdoors brought inside: living sculptures, film, painting, photography and immersive installations transform the gallery into a new fertile terrain.”  For the most part, this is not achieved.  Radical Landscape is no New York Earth Room.  You can smell the difference.  Nor does it hand out shovels or seed.

Thoroughly researched and contextualised though it is, there is nothing curatorially radical about Radical Landscapes.  While the large spaces and open plan display enable stimulating interventions and juxtaposition – such as seeing Jeremy Deller’s Cerne Abbas (2019) reflected in the glass behind which other objects are mounted on the walls – it nonetheless rehearses what is part of the history it puts on view: the Enclosure Acts that, during the Industrial Revolution, did away with common land and restricts access to most of what remains of the British countryside. We can still see the countryside to which we have no access, but we can no longer experience it – unless we take radical action and trespass, invade, occupy or appropriate what has been taken from us so long ago that we are often no longer aware of that loss and the consequences of our detachment, the aftermath of which involves crises of identity and climate. 

Jeremy Deller’s Cerne Abbas (2019) reflected in a display of flower models by R. Brendel and Co.

Similarly, Radical Landscapes takes from the field of creative practice – from the domain that the radical insist on being public – and parcels out what now can only be contemplated at a remove, not lived.  “Developed,” as Legg reminds us, “in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when access to fresh air and green space took on special significance,” Radical Landscapes casts those venturing out to experience it as witnesses, not as participants. We end up looking at where life ends by ending up as art – at historical practices preoccupied with land whose future we are shaping by our actions and apathy alike.

Egg ‘n’ I Column: “Your Problems Answered by Claudette Colbert”

Who was it that said “I shall do my very best to be of aid to anyone who has a problem, large or small”? If the title of this, the 824th entry into the broadcastellan journal did not give away the answer, it might have been anyone’s guess.  And perhaps it still is, the black-and-white of legacy media notwithstanding.  According to Photoplay – a publication leaving more room for doubt than any self-respecting sceptic would require – that Nightingalean sentiment emanated from the pen of none other than Claudette Colbert, a leading lady most widely known for her Academy Award-winning performance in It Happened One Night – a lady, no less, who gave anyone involved in making movies no end of problems by not letting a Hollywood studio lamp shine on the right side of her face, a cheek that came to be dubbed the dark side of the moon.  

“And what might you want?” Colbert seems to be asking in this original publicity photograph from my collection.

Dear me, I thought, when, quite by accident, I discovered that I my favorite film star lent her name to a “Dear Abby” column over a decade before the pseudonymous Abby started answering letters from all and sundry.  Having written two letters to Ms. Colbert myself – albeit not until 1991, mind – I was anxious to find out just what advice was given in her name to alleged Photoplay readers whose last names were, as is both customary and convenient, reduced to initials.

Continue reading “Egg ‘n’ I Column: “Your Problems Answered by Claudette Colbert””

“You beat time on my head”: Thoughts on Being Older Than My Father

My father, Gerhard Heuser, before I was born.

“As all the pleasures of intellect arise from the association of ideas,” Richard Payne Knight reasoned in An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), “the more the materials of association are multiplied, the more will the sphere of these pleasures be enlarged.”  He argued that, to a

mind richly stored, almost every object of nature or art, that presents itself to the sense either excites fresh trains and combinations of ideas, or vivifies and strengthens those which existed before: so that recollection enhances enjoyment, and enjoyment brightens recollection.

While I am not convinced that the “association of ideas” always brings “pleasures” or ‘brightens recollection” – experiences that are not strictly a matter of “intellect” to begin with – I am so prone to raids on the store of memories, in varying states of neglect and disrepair, that any and all matter may turn up and, often unexpectedly, turn into reassembled “materials of association.”

Tracing the proverbial dots that speckle – or perhaps constitute – my mindscape, I invariably connect the tell-tale marks that, like splotches of blood, lead right to the heart of what is the matter with me, and, without any recourse to science, make themselves felt to match my DNA.  I am dotty that way.

Call it egocentrism, call it empathy, such provoked but uncalled-for recall can lead to discoveries decidedly beyond “enjoyment.”  The compulsion to relate – to find associations relevant and revelatory rather than beside whatever the point of anything may be, according to some – keeps driving home that the past, however processed or pasteurized, like spilled milk made longer-lasting to be cried over anew – keeps repeating on us.  Hold our tongue as we may, we can still taste it.  I am tasting it now.

Continue reading ““You beat time on my head”: Thoughts on Being Older Than My Father”

“Does a big fish ever break the line and get away?”:  Boris Johnson, G. K. Chesterton, and the Case of the Deadly Prime Minister

“A thing can sometimes be too extraordinary to be remembered.”  With that intriguing overthrow of conventional wisdom opens “The Fad of the Fisherman,” a short story by G. K. Chesterton, first published in 1921.  “If it is clean out of the course of things,” Chesterton expounds, “and has apparently no causes and no consequences, subsequent events do not recall it; and it remains only a subconscious thing, to be stirred by some accident long after.  It drifts apart like a forgotten dream….”

A contemporary illustration for Chesterton’s story by William Hatherell, showing the “extraordinary” incident.

In light of the extraordinary and memorable events unfolding over the last few days like a crumpled serviette disclosing the spat-out remains of a prolonged Partygate feast – the rules-breaking incident that contributed to the eventual if only reluctantly heeded call for the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson – the notion that something might be “too extraordinary to be remembered” does not quite ring true.  So much in politics these days is head-scratchingly, gut-churningly out of the ordinary, the Trump Presidency and its aftermath being a prime example.  And yet, the violation of established codes of conduct have become so flagrant and frequent that we, or some – or, I suspect, many – of us no longer recognize them to be unprecedented, unethical or unconstitutional.

It now takes greater effort to remember, if ever we knew, what once were assumed to be formal matters of procedure and protocol.  And we struggle as well to connect the tell-tale dots that, if they were examined closely – like some seemingly random Rorschach blots – and in relation to each other, might enable us not only to arrive at the “causes” – the egoistic and downright egomaniacal roots – of socio-political developments but also to realize the “consequences” of our inattention to pattern-forming details whose neglect profoundly compromises our ability to draw meaningful inferences from the reality of facts and fictions with which we are confronted: the erosion of trust in political figures who, instead of serving their country, help themselves and cling to power as if they were absolute monarchs.  How reassuring, then, are the ratiocinations that bring many a murder mystery to its logical if not always satisfactory conclusion.

It is the conclusion rather than the opening lines of Chesterton’s story – a story involving the unlawful actions of a Prime Minister – that brought to mind the astonishment with which I first reached it – a solution that I, appropriating shelved products of popular culture rather than reviewing them, am under no compulsion to withhold.  The by me highly anticipated conclusion to Mr. Johnson’s sorry and increasingly sordid Downing Street saga, meanwhile, remains unknown while I am writing this, the 822nd entry in my journal.  I might as well say it flat out: the Prime Minister in Chesterton’s story is a murderer who gets away with his crime.

Continue reading ““Does a big fish ever break the line and get away?”:  Boris Johnson, G. K. Chesterton, and the Case of the Deadly Prime Minister”

Penwomanship and Poison: The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes as an Antidote to Toxic Masculinity

The original dust jacket makes no mention of The Lodger; instead, it reminds readers of a more recent crime novel by Lowndes, which was adapted for the movies in 1932: Letty Lynton.

There is a lot of talk these days about ‘toxic masculinity.’  Making a strong case for the correlation of venom and virility, war criminal Vladimir Putin recently mocked the physique of world leaders who, by rolling their eyes at his shirtless posing, permitted themselves a moment of levity at his expense amid a crisis talk on Ukraine.  Meanwhile, COVID-19-rules violating British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself a noxious cocktail of mendacity and indiscretion, opined that, had Putin been born female, the invasion of Ukraine would not have happened.  Seriously, would the US Supreme court have decided differently on undoing environmental protection if more earth mothers were among the judges?

I thought the claim that toxicity is masculine had been conclusively laid to rest by Lucretia Borgia – or by Margaret Thatcher, at the very latest.  That the flip side of our fancies is still deemed to be “another man’s poison” makes me long for gender fluidity, itself a noisome notion to some.  Apart from lamenting the bane of binaries, I have nothing further to say here about exposed torsos or the merits of any remarks made by a disreputable Prime Minister.  And yet, there is no escaping the everyday – not even in the attempt to retreat into the presumably out-of-date, of pop past its sell-by date, for the sampling of which this journal was conceived.

Continue reading “Penwomanship and Poison: The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes as an Antidote to Toxic Masculinity”

“See what the boys in the [dark]room will have”: No Highway, Angus McBean, and Dietrich’s Face

Marlene Dietrich (1951) by Angus McBean, SoAM&G, Aberystwyth University
Purchase: Adrian Woodhouse (2016)
Funding support: ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and The Art Fund

Of all the pictures currently on display in Make/Believe, the latest in a series of annual exhibition projects I create for staging by students of my curating class at Aberystwyth University, Angus McBean’s 1951 photograph of Marlene Dietrich is my favorite. 

What draws me in is the blankness of Dietrich’s face, her eyes looking not at us but beyond us, at nothing in particular, with a lack of any definable expression, emotion or urgency. The vacant gaze, bespeaking an unavailability and a refusal to engage, suggests the subject’s control over an image that is all surface: like theatrical curtains, the lids may come down on those eyes any moment now, shutting us out entirely.

It is a blankness that is not nothingness, invested as it becomes with the spectacle it makes of our longing.  It is a blankness that is not openness; it gives nothing away while it commands our attention and inspires our awe at its sublime perfection – a perfection that belies the sprezzatura, the rehearsed effortlessness and nonchalance of the performance.

Nothing here encourages us to imagine what those eyes are looking at; nothing that invites us to see anything through those eyes.  Those eyes are the event in a face – a site – that is all look.  I am glamor, this face says, and what else, what more could you – or anyone – possibly be looking for!

The photograph holds me because the look withholds so much. What we are not getting is a portrait of the sitter, then in her fiftieth year.  This photograph, clearly, is not of Dietrich, the person.  It is the image of a mask that is already a persona.  In this masquerade, as intriguing as anything conceived by Cindy Sherman in her film stills, the image is a simulacrum – the fiction of a fiction of a fiction.

Continue reading ““See what the boys in the [dark]room will have”: No Highway, Angus McBean, and Dietrich’s Face”

“Bloody strange but not, I have decided, queer”: Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966), the Theater, and the Sexual Offences Act 1967

A scene from Grace and Frankie

“Theater Is Not for Fags,” the sign reads.  It was brandished, among other such boards, in a rather unconvincing crowd scene in “The Other Vibrator,” the possibly well-intentioned but insipid eleventh episode of Grace and Frankie’s third season, with which I eventually caught up only a few days ago.  The morning after, I finished reading Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966).  And the way that my wayward mind works, I put it down with that slogan in mind.

Retitled Death at the Dolphin, Marsh’s mystery novel was published in Britain in 1967, half a century before the Grace and Frankie episode first aired.  That means it came before the public just as the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalized consensual – and private – homosexual acts among adult males in England and Wales.  This being Gay Pride month, I am perhaps especially alert to anxieties surrounding gender and queer identity.  At any rate, I detected an unease – or a playful response to public misgivings, actual or perceived –about homosexuality in Marsh’s narrative, which features a single gay character, and a minor one at that, while most of the other players – actors and creatives all – are carefully coupled in more or less, and mostly less, cosy heterosexual bonds.  

Could it be, I wondered, that Marsh, herself a theater director, was sharing the sentiment that public playhouses – in swinging London, to boot – are not a platform for gay men?

Continue reading ““Bloody strange but not, I have decided, queer”: Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966), the Theater, and the Sexual Offences Act 1967”