Thick Velour on Thin Veneer: Steven Moffat’s “The Unfriend” and the Fraying of Our Social Fabric

Souvenirs of my London theater experience, March 2023

The London theater season in early spring 2023 was as droughty as the weather was damp.  Rarely was so little being offered to so many, and with such few discounts.  Being in town to attend the opening of the London International Print Fair at Somerset House, I managed to catch up with what I thought was worth my while and then worked myself down to what I would generally consider bottom drawer best kept shut.  No, not Only Fools and Horses: The Musical.  After all, you can lead European fools like me to water, but you cannot make them splash out on bottled nostalgia for supposedly true Britishness.

After belatedly taking in The Lehman Trilogy – hoping in vain to find some reference to my alma mater, named in honor of one of the title characters, or to connect meaningfully in any other way to what is basically a semi-dramatized performance of a PowerPoint – I quickly ran out of theatrical options.

I did go see – and was intrigued – by the twenty-first century update of Oklahoma!, which almost works, pretty much right up to the heretofore feel-good finale that it very nearly nixes in bloodshed and yet awkwardly depends on, thus proving the old adage that you can’t have your ammo and spend it.  

I also appreciated the philosophical and weighty if already slightly past its sell-by dystopia Marjorie Prime at the Menier Chocolate Factory, even though I could never quite tell Anne Reid’s AI character from either Anne Reid, the actress, or from the character’s fleshly alter ego.  There being nothing else to see for someone on my budget – and I draw the line well before subjecting myself to the firing squad of a musical experience such as Bonnie and Clyde – the last resort was a matinee of The Unfriend.  And no discount.

Turns out, I enjoyed the least ambitious of those four shows the most, however low the bar.  Essentially a Britcom mounted in the West End, The Unfriend is as thin as the decorated shell of an Easter egg that someone – television-trained playwright Steven Moffat, assisted by his Dracula collaborator, director Mark Gatiss, a renowned darkside devotee – blew, as is customary, out of all substance and traces of nutrition while managing to keep it intact for our amusement.  I mean, Edward Albee it ain’t.  More like Are You Being Stiffed? or Mrs. Brown’s Bodies.

Reflecting on the impotence of being English, The Unfriend taps into the self-consciousness of the British regarding their apparently cultural or just plain apparent politeness – I mean, ask any European how that civility manifests on the continent – and their love-hate relationship with their overbearing American cousin, or whatever the family ties of post-Brexit Britain to the US.

In The Unfriend, the American cousin by any other name is the brash and manipulative Elsa Jean Krakowski.  Elka Ostrovsky, Betty White’s similarly clad character in Hot in Cleveland came to my readily distracted mind at the mention of that name; then again, The Unfriend is so derivative a farce that it affords any number of associations.

In the 30 March 2023 matinee of The Unfriend at the Criterion Theatre, which, the program informs me, opened about 150 years earlier with a production of An American Lady, Elsa, who is more of a dame, was played con molto brio by Olivier Award-nominated – and Remain-voting – English actress Frances Barber, even though the role would perhaps be more fully and faithfully inhabited by Kathleen Turner – a former Serial Mom, no less. 

A denizen of the Colorado capital made famous the world over by Dynasty, Elsa is a widow – possibly a black one – of what with some lexical flexibility and generosity of spirit might still go for midlife.  Her velour tracksuit – underneath which she admits to be “chins all the way down” – is as plush as the veneer of British politesse is demonstrated to be ripe for the abrasing.

Well, in this game of rock-paper-scissors, Elsa has the upper hand, especially since the other hands are either flailing or shaking.  From the start – we first encounter garrulous Elsa onboard a cruise ship, a premise based on a true story told to Moffatt, where she meets the certifiably middle aged, and all around middling British couple Debbie and Peter (also based on real people and deftly impersonated by Amanda Abbington and Reece Shearsmith) – I felt encouraged to warm, however reluctantly, to the anti-mystique of Elsa, a hot mess concocted of shrewdness and forth-far-rightness.  She is too obvious to be deceitful, too in-your-face to be masking her true self … or so we are led to believe.  Who is Elsa? What is she, that all the swains croak on her? 

Then again, Elsa is drawn that way: a flat character devoid of the very dimensions or nuances that are also lacking in today’s political discourse, references to which pop up to give the farcical proceedings a tinge of relevance.  “I’d do him,” Elsa declares in the opening scene when confronted with the likeness of a similarly garish former US president.  Her stated reason for voting for him, a second time around, is that “he’s funny.”  Apparently constructed under the influence of conspiracy theories, her ramshackle alternative to logic may be summed up by her claim that “[h]e only lost because of fraud and people voting against him.”

Elsa, as her British hosts discover before she even drops in, as threatened on the high seas, is a celebrity of sorts, and of one of the worst sorts at that, the ex-President excepting: she is suspected to be a serial killer.  Only Fools and Corpses, anyone? 

The English characters, confronted with the possibility of their demise, are hamstringed in their attempt to get shot of her – legally, that is – by their sense of obligation toward their unwelcome guest.  “You English, you’re so polite,” Elsa gushes.  It is a courtesy Debbie and Peter do not extend to their neighbor (Michael Simkins) who, despite having lived next door for ten years, is not known to them – or any of us – by name.  Peter is too easily distracted by calls and text messages to pay attention to a man whose presence is less keenly felt as that of priggish Mrs. Grundy, to mention a long-established convention of British comedy.

The Unfriend, to be sure, does not belabor or foreground its dramatic heritage.  It goes all out for nowness.  And yet, as refreshing as it is to see a comedy that responds to and mirrors our present, the play is already beginning to feel dated in its efforts to keep up the appearance of keeping up.  It is as contemporary as last year’s smartphone technology, especially in its references to the pandemic that delayed its arrival.  Not surprisingly, Elsa has her own take on Covid-19.  Peculiarly but all the same representative of an all too familiar type, she reminds her hosts that the people she was supposed to have poisoned “were all vaccinated.”

Speaking of silent killers, real or imaginary, The Unfriend is ripe with all the crudeness of British toilet humor – a recurring threat in act one is the breaking of wind and a stool sample takes center stage in number two.  A farce invested in farts and feces, The Unfriend is not about British politeness, in a bad manner of speaking, or about the relationship between cultures who don’t see eye to eye on the distinction (“Tomayto-tomahto”?) between toilet and bathroom as much as it about human interaction – friendship, family and neighborliness – in the age of social media.  

Elsa tracks down her unwitting – and very nearly witless – victims-in-waiting via Facebook, and what Debbie and Peter learn about her, via the legacy media of tabloid television, they find posted on YouTube.  Meanwhile, Elsa connects with the couple’s son, Alex (Gabriel Howell), by playing violent computer games off which she also manages to ween him.

“Isn’t technology wonderful!” Elsa chirps.  Not that she remains convinced that such dubious advancements – or her new British acquaintances, for that matter – are quite so “wonderful” when she is confronted with her past.  “Why did you google me?” she protests.  “Why would anyone google a person like that? It’s so rude!”  According to Elsa, online research for the sake of self-preservation is more insensitive than bumping off your other half.

“Facebook got it right,” Peter moans.  What “the real world needs” is an “unfriend button.”  If The Unfriend were a college composition, that might be its thesis, as signposted by the title.  Luckily, it ain’t.  As a comedy, it invites us, especially those among us who remember a world before virtuality, collectively to roll our eyes and laugh out loud at the precarious state of what we once understood to mean “social.”

Hoarder Line: Some Notes on the Difference between Hoarding and Collecting

Early in 2023, I participated in a workshop at Aberystwyth University exploring collectibles and the collection of ephemera.  I was the only participant, among academics and museum staff, to talk about my private collection of ephemera.  So as to give that fruit fly of a presentation an afterlife, I have gathered my notes for this entry in my journal, which, after all, was created for the purpose of ‘keeping up with the out-of-date.’  

The presentation was titled “Making It Matter: Ephemerabilia, Queer Identity, and the Imperative of Being Out of Touch.”

I know, titles are like jokes.  If you have to explain them, they don’t work.  But, here goes:

“Ephemerabilia,” meaning, the love of the fugitive, the fragile, and perhaps even the futile.  All of the above – which may apply to any of our lives and bodies.  All of the above – but not ‘trivial.’  Nothing is trivial in itself.  Just like nothing is memorable in itself.  Someone has to make it matter.

For that reason, the word “minor” in Maurice Rickards’ definition of ephemera is problematic, as it devalues what it defines.  To quote myself: “Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter,” whereas “Memorabilia is matter we grant the capacity to mean differently.”

The need to make something matter and mean something, something else, no matter what, is, to me, intimately bound up with queer identity, with my sense of being, thinking, feeling, and loving differently.

And that is where, to me, the compulsion of being out of touch comes in: being drawn to what has been relegated to the margins, to matter that has been disregarded and discarded as presumably nonessential or unrepresentative.

I could have put the last two words in parenthesis; because sharing my passion for the untouchable – or the “not touched much lately” – means coming out with what drives me.  Making something neglected and presumably immaterial matter and mean something anew is an act of reification.

It means saying I matter.  But the question I keep asking myself, in relation to my collection habits, is “What’s the matter with me?”

Let’s say I say “I am a collector.”  Which question should I expect to follow? Is it “What are you collecting?” How about: “Why are you collecting?” “Why do you collect what you collect?”

What I collect is stated – and illustrated – on my website.  I collect ephemera related to products of what once was popular entertainment – early-to-mid twentieth-century, mainly US American, film, theatre and radio – that are lesser-known now.  I call it “unpopular culture.”

My collection is all fairly methodically put into actual and virtual drawers. Unlike in this scenario.  

The image on the left shows my ex’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  I once lived there, for about fifteen years, and, for over 33 years now I have stayed at that place whenever I am in the city.

Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t been back in three years.  In the fall of 2022, my ex had a heart attack just days before I was set to arrive there.  I looked after the apartment while visiting him at the hospital.  Anyway, I was shocked when I saw the place in such disarray.  My ex has always been a hoarder.  But the place had become almost unnavigable in the intervening years.

Obviously, hoarding is not collecting.  But is it so obvious? Is the distinction perhaps too obvious?  Sure, hoarding is chaotic.  It is indiscriminate, whereas collecting is orderly and discerning.  Collections are curated. whereas the compulsion of the hoarder may strike us as an infliction, an illness that may or may not be curable.

Curating is derived from the Latin word “curare,” meaning to care.  Does it follow that the hoarder is careless? While staying in my ex’s apartment, I took it upon myself to discard of some items I deemed trash.

Given that chaos, I thought my ex would never notice.  When my ex returned to the apartment after three months of intensive care, hospital care and aftercare, he emailed me and inquired about some of the objects I had discarded.

And he was so incensed about my attempt at tidying that he pretty much ended our 33-year-old friendship.

Seriously, to give up a friendship over a pile of cheap Chinese take-away containers, most of them without matching lids? That struck me as unreasonable, disproportionate.

But the fact that my ex remembered where what is in that chaos made me rethink the relationship between hoarding and collecting.

And it made me question whether collecting is not like hoarding in its illogical, perhaps even pathological clinging to matter that may not matter to most.  Something that takes up so much time and space, it can threaten to diminish rather than enrich our experience of life.

Possessions can take possession of us.  This is not vanity.  It is not conspicuous consumption.  For gay men born into decades of intolerance and legal discrimination, it may be a stab at making our existence more concrete and at leaving a trace or trail of it behind.  I should have known better than to mess with the mess that I found.

I have had occasion – or made it one – to examine the collection of the queer Anglo-Welsh Victorian dilettante George Powell in an exhibition I staged with my curating students a few years ago.  Powell bequeathed his collection to our museum.  But you might say he was a poor curator of his collection.  He did not collect methodically.  And some of the objects in his collections are fakes or copies of dubious provenance.

Powell had no offspring, even though he married toward the end of his short life.  Stating his intention to leave his collection to our museum, he referred to it as all he possessed of bigotry and virtue, meaning, bijouterie and vertu – trinket and treasure.

Powell left the lot to what is now Aberystwyth University.  In his book collection, for instance, was a popular volume called Book of Wonderful Characters, which contains a short account of the life of Chevalier D’Eon, who lived as a crossdresser for half a century and to whom we owe the term “eonism.”

I sensed that Powell created through that bequest a diary of sorts – an invitation, by way of visual and material clues among the objects he once possessed, to go in search of him.

The “it” in “making it matter” refers less to the collection than it does to the collector. Powell did not curate his collection to take care that what might reflect poorly on his character or cause suspicion as to his tastes.  To filter anything out would mean to erase what was at the core of his being, which is why Powell initially insisted that a museum be built to house it and that the collection be kept in one place, Aberystwyth, in its entirety.

He did not want to disappear behind his collection but reappear through it.  He wanted to be become readable, to be understood.  The Powell case made me more aware of the relationship between the private act of collecting and the public act of sharing a collection, of remaining visible through one’s collection.

Powell’s desire to remain visible, become readable and be understood becomes clearer to me in the contemporary periodicals he bequeathed to our University.  Here, he did not give us the lot – the magazines, cover to cover – but he cut out which articles he wanted to preserve and bound them in leather.  There is no telling whether he read the articles.  But it is clear that he thought they mattered and should matter to others.  And they are quite eclectic, ranging from articles on animal cruelty to drunkenness and insanity.

Articles on ‘Consanguinity in Marriage’ and ‘Marriages between First Cousins in England and Their Effects,’ which were no doubt of particular interest to him because his grandmothers were sisters and his parents first cousins.

Powell appeared to have been drawing attention to his struggle to figure out who he was and why he was the way he was.

Trying to understand what motivated Powell as a collector, I made a public display in the galleries of the School of Art Museum at Aberystywyth Univeristy of my own collection of cinema, theatre and radio-related ephemera.  In my gallery texts, I asked:

‘Do we collect things simply to indulge our passion for them? If so, why make a display of that passion? Showcasing seems calculated to raise certain objects to the status of ‘collectibles’ so as to advance the collector as connoisseur.  And yet, might not the urge to exhibit our personal belongings be rather more elemental?’

What are ‘collectibles’? What is collectible? Take, for instance, two different but related types of objects in my collection. Cigarette cards of once well-known but now mostly forgotten performers, in this case radio stars.  As well as movie posters and lobby cards of films of roughly that same period.

Both feature performers from the world of popular – or now less popular – entertainment.  Both are finite.  Lobby cards were generally produced in sets of eight.  Cigarette cards in sets of up to fifty.

The main difference is that cigarette cards were designed to be collected.  They were meant to be habit-forming, to encourage addiction.

Lobby cards on the other hand were not designed as collectibles.  In fact, as the fine print states, collecting them was prohibited by the studios whose property they remained.

By now, the industry that cigarette cards once served has become detached from them.  They no longer advertise and encourage addictive products, which makes them candidates for my belated affection, and which makes it possible for me to make them matter differently.

There are other intimate reasons why I mostly collect the likenesses of one particular actress: Claudette Colbert.

I became intrigued by the French-born US American actress watching a movie on television with my grandmother when I was 8 or 9.  I didn’t start collecting until decades later.  Nor did I know then that Colbert was rumoured to be queer.

My collection is also a catalogue of the love: more than 90% of my collection has been gifted to me by gay men, and almost all of which by my husband.  Original film posters are now almost out of my league as a collector.

I do not collect objects because of their monetary value, of which, due to the fact that the items were given to me, I often have no knowledge.  I have always been attracted to what is of little value to others.

A queer friend told me once that, as a child, he used to pick the crayon no other kid would pick up – the least popular colour.  Embracing neglected objects to me is related to the feeling of having been unwanted and misunderstood as a child.

Exhibiting my collection, I realized just how intimate collecting is.  I was very self-conscious about opening my drawers to display those objects – paper dolls, mass-produced pictures of performers few people today still relate to.  When I tried to exhibit the cigarette cards, I also realized they were too small to be impactful or readable for display.

So I created a slideshow of them.  There are objects in my collection that matter more once they are dematerialized.  I scan many books and scripts so that I need no longer handle the physical artifact.  It preserves the object.  But it also makes the object less meaningful if what matters is the visual or written information it conveys.  Not that I dispose of ephemera in my collection once I have scanned them.

The most ephemeral items in my collection are literally untouchable.  They are digitized sound recordings.  The cigarette cards of radio performers are, like scripts and contemporary books on radio, not the real thing.  They are a means to materialise the immaterial culture they commemorate: the world of sound broadcasting.

My (Im)memorabilia exhibition contained a listening station and featured a soundtrack of clips on a loop.  They are from my collection of audio recordings, now widely available online.  The files contain recordings of radio broadcasts from the 1930s to 1950s, most of them plays, almost all of which were part of episodes of series or chapters of serials.

The vast majority of plays were also broadcast only a single time.  Despite the recordings that gradually materialized from the vaults, they were as ephemeral as soundwaves.  That they survive at all is owing to their commercial value.

The recordings are evidence for the sponsor that the programme they funded actually existed and could be inspected – or audited.  As cultural products they were not valued.  They still are not valued much.  They certainly never received the scrutiny or status accorded to motion pictures or television programmes.

I organize the folders alphabetically by each series title.

And each subfolder contains recordings of broadcasts from those series.  Some subfolders contain close to one thousand recordings per series.  Cataloguing these immaterial objects, which I have written about at some length in my study Immaterial Culture and on my blog broadcastellan, involves adding and correcting information about talents involved in a broadcast play; verifying air dates by referencing old newspapers and magazines; checking for sound quality and recording speed; and replacing files with newer, cleaner, more authentic recordings.

It is not possible to listen to all of those recordings in full.  There are now over 30,000 of them.  It is almost impossible to keep track of them.

Unlike my ex, I have forgotten about many of the items in my collection. But like my ex, I would be very upset if only a single item went missing. Most of these recordings are readily available on the internet, copyright being a murky issue.  In my writing, I have argued for their cultural significance, their artistic merit.  But I have not been successful in making a career out of my caring.  I am wary of intellectualising my desire, and I am suspicious of such attempt by academics.

The difference between hoarding and collecting lies in the adding of value.  Hoarding is an act of accumulation.  Collecting is an act of accretion, of value added.

The ‘imperative’ in my title is the imperative of the matter – what drives us, what makes us who we are.  The ‘it’ in “Making it Matter” refers both to the ephemeron and the life of its collector who deems it worth preserving.  That my efforts have been futile only seems to fuel a desire that has been termed “The Queer Art of Failure.”

April Stools: On the Subject and Substance of Harry G. Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”

A few weeks ago, a former graduate student of mine dropped a copy of Harry G. Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit” into my pigeonhole.   In an accompanying letter, the sender stated that it was meant as a “thank you” for the thoughts my seminars inspired and the readings to which they led – but there is room for self-doubt on my part.

While replying to the student by “acknowledging [his] welcome addition to my shelf space-exceeding library, well suited as the volume in question is to the bedside table once occupied by chamber pots,” it occurred to me that my thoughts on the subject might be worth an entry in the broadcastellan journal, not the least since I penned my response to the sender – and to Frankfurt’s essay – on April Fool’s Day.

Having translated – for publication in an anthology of literary criticism – Nietzsche’s essay “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinne” (“On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”) and written about Thomas Carlyle’s classic but initially rejected and subsequently anonymously published Sartor Resartus – “Thoughts on Clothes; or Life and Opinions of Herr D. Teufelsdröckh D.U.J.” (1833–34) – in my post-graduate days, I may be permitted to lay claim to a fleeting acquaintance with the material some crudely refer to as “bullshit,” whatever its qualities, its substance or its purported lack thereof.  

Perhaps I may even argue myself to be an authority on the matter, given that I have long been a voluble piler-up and at times unwitting purveyor of abject failures in reasoning and, I must insist, to a lesser degree, imagination, the latter being more essential to “bullshit” than the former.

Continue reading “April Stools: On the Subject and Substance of Harry G. Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit””

“A Radio Tragedy”; or, Making a Song and Dance about Past Novel Experiences

The issue of Argosy in which “A Radio Tragedy” appeared.

Flicking at random, as is my wont when unwinding, through digital copies of decades-old magazines, I came across a poem so trifling as to catch my attention.  To be sure, the lightweight verse in question is titled “A Radio Tragedy,” which makes it stand out for a reader who is also a writer on the subject.

Penned by one John McColl, an occasional contributor of lines, rhyming or otherwise, to 1920s magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, “A Radio Tragedy” appeared in the 28 November 1925 issue of Argosy All-Story Weekly, a US American periodical then in its fifth decade.  

Unlike print publishing, broadcasting was still a new phenomenon at the time.  As I put it in Immaterial Culture, radio in those pre-network days was yet transitioning from “a ham-and-DXer playground to the bread and butter of virtual bill- boarders, from the site of an amateur cult to a scene of consumer culture involving, by 1930, over six hundred stations and sixty million listeners.”

Continue reading ““A Radio Tragedy”; or, Making a Song and Dance about Past Novel Experiences”

Retroactive Selfies: The Return to/of the Boy in the Avocado Bathtub

Asphalt Expressionism collage

For my exhibition Asphalt Expressionism (Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries, 13 Feb. – 28 Apr. 2023), I once again rummaged through decades-old photo albums in search of pictures of myself as a walker in New York City.  Some of them had been displayed as part of my show Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies in 2018-19.

As I browsed those old albums, I was reminded of an unsettling homecoming in 2022, when, on a dark December afternoon, I returned to my mother’s house for the first time in about thirty-four years.  I had lived in that house – one in a row of unassuming bungalows in a small town in the dull flatness of North-Rhine Westphalia – for about fifteen years, during which time, in the process of growing up that many deem concluded all too prematurely, I gathered a great many memories, not many of them great, that made me eager to forget the place.  And although my skin never developed the thickness of an elephant’s hide, I cannot but remember.

You can’t go home again, Thomas Wolfe reminds us; but when we do return to the places we once called home – whether by choice or not – it can hit home hard that whatever home may be is a construct the mind makes even when it is not made up on that point. A lot of what happened or befell us where we come back for a second or umpteenth look is bound to topple from the shelves to which we relegated some of those none-too-precious but relentlessly durable mental keepsakes.

The living room in my parents’ house was never my place, even though it held several attractions: a good stereo system, courtesy of my maternal grandmother, and, after years of resistance from my father, who held that the technology had not been perfected yet, a colour television set.  My room was more of a listening post; apart from drawings I made, the comics I consumed and the magazines I scoured for material to luxuriate in, vivid dreams were produced there, many with the aid of a radio and cassette recorder.

Since then, my Kinderzimmer had been repurposed, although its current state said nothing more distinctly about its present purpose than “spare.”  None of the cheap furnishings had survived, and the change of décor did little to revive, revise or confirm the images that, originating there, I had been carrying in my mind since the late 1980s.

It was the most private place in the house – the shared bathroom – that brought back the identity crises I experienced growing up queer: the shame of developing breasts that waited long for the development of pectoral muscles; the attempts at concealing the unseemly tissue by stretching my t-shirts and tying them around my genitals; the anxieties that caused me to scratch the skin off my ankles that, raw and oozy, were then soaked, doctor’s orders, in a bidet filled with salty water.

Memories tend to come back faster and with greater force when we return to the places where there were made.  That was certainly the case when I stepped into Mutti’s abode (my father having left and since died decades ago).  The interior was like a time capsule.  Not only the furniture was unchanged, but all the bric-a-brac was still in the same spots my mother had set aside for their display and regular dusting.  

The self-exploration that happened in that room also took a creative turn, as, transitioning from adolescence to dreaded adulthood, I took what I now call retroactive selfies: photographs of my body that I initially produced mainly for my eyes only but that I am now, in this post, making public for the first time via the social medium of blogging so as further to blur boundaries the maintenance of which can cause so much sustained and needless suffering.  

Once we do decide to “come out,” we soon realize that we do not come out once only: we must do so over and over again, and each time we come out – and come out looking – differently, like an inadvertent burst of digital photographs that, owing to a finger staying put too long, shows our poses changing and our masks slipping.

Excusing myself from the dinner table during my short visit to my mother’s, I secreted myself in the bathroom, that anti-parlour of abjection.  Not that I needed to go.  What I needed was to go look at myself in the mirror that, in my youth, became a lens of self-exploration.  I needed to return to the spot where I had once stood and posed – donning masks and dappled in spraypainted dots – a young person, once called “the battle of the sexes” by a classmate, learning to live in and with the strangeness of a changing body, an organism that I seemed to be invading and that rejected me as much as I was rejecting it.  

Uneasy, curious and ever self-reflexive, the boy in the avocado bathroom is not gone, though none may recognize him now.  He is a persona still grappling with the challenge of achieving personhood: a retroactive selfie.

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 arrival 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 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””