Als, Hilton. (2017)
[Extracts from] James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children, May 2 – June 18, 2016
Available at: http://theartistsinstitute.org/hilton-als
Words always argue for facts—for the fact of the word. A word is only itself and nothing else until the writer makes it something else, a poem, say. But even then it is still a poem. You can rearrange reality through words, for sure, but there is always the limiting power of the word—that which cannot be changed. Rearranged, yes, but never changed. “Cat” is cat and “sky” is sky— at facts.
Because words are limited they limit my body, whereas visual work takes my body, absorbs me in a painting, a lm, a sculpture, and makes me something else. The visual artist’s job is to make reality unrecognizable, and am I not part of reality?
Just as artists have changed the world right before my eyes, they have also changed me. I have often fallen in love with visual art- ists, or those who have some relationship to the visual arts. For instance, photographers. They make work out of the real, but they push aspects of the real out of their frames so as to better to concentrate on an aspect of the world that no one would see without them.
Is my mind like a camera when I look at art? For when I am in the presence of visual material that absorbs me, forces me to feel, to look, my mind closes against that which can be spoken, rather like an aperture. Leaving a gallery or museum, my mind drifts; words come later. Then I am a body whose possibilities are maximized by the eye’s imagination, and by that which didn’t exist before some artist—brave soul!—said yes to life.
I think the trick is to say yes to life, James Baldwin said, and who wouldn’t agree with that once you know the opposite of life is death? The things we lose in the gamble of living?
If you say yes to life you are, to some degree, saying yes to various realities that didn’t include you before you turned up and trusted the experience. Imagine!
For a long time before now I didn’t want to turn up. I didn’t want words even though I put them down. I am only using words now so as to introduce you to the artists in this show, all of whom I love because in changing reality, they’ve changed me. They’ve changed my sadness and my long period of not looking. Changed, too, my vexed and vexing relationship to words.
Years ago, before now, I looked a lot.
I did this with two photographer friends, Darryl Turner and Judy Linn. It was Judy who taught me to look up at the sky—an aspect of reality that most people didn’t think about, much let alone look at properly. The sky was the sky but it was also an opportunity to dream.
That was a profound lesson in photography: the thing was the thing, but it was also a real thing that could be reimagined through your thinking eyes.
Years ago, for roughly three years at the end of the nineteen-eight- ies and early nineteen-nineties, I worked with the photographer Darryl Turner on a series of installations that we showed at Fea- ture, the Simon Watson gallery, and others. We did not have a game plan, other than making things. Like when the actor Morgan Freeman said—bless him—that he didn’t play black, he was black, our work incorporated all that we were; we didn’t capitalize on our race or erotic history. We looked at things, and were moved, and tried to gure out—often without talking—how to incorporate them into a piece.
We were lucky because the people who were interested in us left us alone, curious to see what we might invent out of our most valuable asset: our shared imagination.
Making things together was a joy. And part of the joy was in the making, not in the language about it. When some writers hovered around us with “meaning”—those boxing gloves in that vitrine are there because you’re black, etc.—we laughed. Nothing could spoil our pleasure, not even critics.
Life went on. Things changed. AIDS. I stopped connecting to so many things, including the work required to nd people who were interested in our work. So little of it was for sale; it was ephem- eral, Fluxus with a sense of humor. And so much of what was for sale—ideological, thin—said that its point, despite difference, was to be commodi ed. I can’t speak for Darryl, but that added to my depression...
“James Baldwin/Jim Brown, and the Children,” is, in part, about the kind of work I used to do with Darryl. That work was perma- nent and ephemeral all at once, and looking back, it was about how much we loved one another. Two colored men together, which, apparently, is still a rather upsetting prospect (let alone reality) because in the art world One is Often Enough. It takes and then moves on to the next...
When I rst started putting this together I began thinking about black queer writers and composers who were not as famous as James Baldwin but who were, nevertheless, his children.
Julius Eastman (1940–1990)
Jesse Murry (1948–1993)
Gary Fisher (1962–1994)
My most intense relationship was to Gary. Years ago a friend of mine turned me on to his writing, which had been collected by his great friend and mentor, Eve Sedgwick. Gary in Your Pocket is one of the most seminal books about black gay life in America that I have ever read.
Gary took the complications that came about because of his race, and from growing up in largely white worlds—he was an army brat—and made them the nexus of his sexuality. He wanted to be a black slave to a white master. He wrote letters about this and kept a journal and wrote stories. Gary in Your Pocket blew the top of my head off, made me uncomfortable, made me want to scream. Here was America. Certainly, in my pocket, my queer America.
James Baldwin didn’t write about his sexuality directly until to- wards the end of his life. His essay, “Here Be Dragons,” describes, with amazement, being loved by a Puerto Rican street character when he was sixteen. I wanted to know more about that story. Gary wrote more about that story. He was Baldwin’s child, his rightful heir, not a certain heterosexual writer who stole from Baldwin to make a career for himself lled with glittering false prizes; an expatriate life made cushy by white attention, guilt and money. Baldwin was queer. Gary was queer.
They talked about a queer world.
I wanted to celebrate them both—the father (Baldwin), and one of his sons (Gary). And all the sons and daughters who followed...
Baldwin, the colored queer father, looks at his children and we look at him. I also wanted Baldwin to meet the new children he would love. For instance, even though the poet Ronaldo V. Wil- son is not in the show, he is Gary Fisher’s rightful son and thus Baldwin’s. His book, Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (2008) shares Gary’s obsessiveness about power and making love a kind of theater, and about how the queer black body can be a playing eld for love and hate, especially in relation to its presumed opposite—the older white male body. Divided into short chapters, Wilson’s book begins this way:
Our house is red, up on a red mountain. The house is windowless and cold. In the garage of the red house is a car and in that car is a red button. This button does nothing. The car is silver and has four black wheels with silver rims, one covered in dirt. The dirt is not from the mountain.
In the red house are a brown boy and a white man. They hate each other. It smells clean. Live is the smell of their hate. The brown boy in the red house imagines murdering the white man. Cutting up a body is a concern of the brown boy, but never of the white man, who is big and strong and innocent of such a thought...
The brown boy brings home clear shelves to hold newspapers and glossy cutouts of more brown people.
Not unlike Ronaldo Wilson, I build shelves here, in this gallery, to hold more brown people. And some white people, too. They sit on shelves, looking at Baldwin, the world, and time—mortality, that which will make their faces different next week and the year after that. Still, for now, there is the party. Party faces are like the faces we put on for photography—and just as real.
Words always argue for reality, even when they’re philosophical. Ideas are just as real as anything else and memories are just as real as the rest of it once you start handling the work of the dead (Murry, Fisher, Sedgwick) and the living (John Edmonds, Jennie C. Jones, Troy Michie, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Lawrence Wolhandler). They all shimmer with the energy of bodies, not artifacts. They live in their efforts to rearrange reality; so doing, they rearrange me...
Jim Brown’s hand is attached to his naked body.
He was the first colored man I ever saw naked. (I never saw my father naked.)
I was thirteen. I stole my cousin’s issue of Playgirl featuring Jim Brown and poured over the pictures.
I was thirteen. I was ashamed and amazed.
I fell in love with boys before then, of course. Boys I wanted to take care of. One guy was named Arnold. He had the biggest Afro on the block. Arnold was silent in the face of my admiration. Once, as he slept, I knelt down next to his sleeping face and didn’t imagine anything other than the reality of his beautiful sleeping face. He was a photograph in my mind—real and imagined—right then. And right then I determined I would take care of Arnold, even if he didn’t like me.
I didn’t have to take care of Jim Brown, or negotiate my love for him. He was just there, bigger than me, a presence.
Jim Brown was big, silent, and had hands that looked as though they could carry me. I wasn’t interested in football, or the bad movies he appeared in. What interested me was his silence and apparent strength and the possibility that he might take me, and in taking me, make me feel less ashamed about everything. Jim Brown was not Gary Fisher’s ideal but I had Gary-like fantasies about Jim. That I would be his son. That he would take those enormous hands and make my body different.
Part of what’s great about making things is that you live for a time in a world of intense associations.
I would not have remembered that incredible moment of stealing Jim Brown—stealing his hands and silence—if I did not think about James Baldwin, Jesse Murry, Gary Fisher, and the queens I love so much in my video piece, For Darryl and the Others. There, one meets a world of queer colored men who are not all gay. I could never get them out of my mind, just as I shall never have Darryl far from my mind.
I love them because the men on those monitors—James Baldwin, the artist John Edmonds and his friend, Charles Keith, a black queen doing Bette Davis impersonations and so on—are less “me” than a wonderful feeling of being, and being connected, once again, to James Baldwin, Jim Brown, Gary Fisher, Darryl, and others.
I am alive because they want me to be. I am looking at them be- cause they want me to see them, which is an act of love, among the more profound, and I am looking at the artists in this show and introducing them to you through words because it is all that is left to me here. Look at them and look at the love I have for them, individually and collectively. See how they make the world different, my living babies, Baldwin’s living children:
Troy Michie (1985–)
Paul Mpagi Sepuya (1982–)
Jennie C. Jones (1968–)
John Edmonds (1989–)
Darryl Turner (1961–)
Als, Hilton (2017) James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children. Online: The Arts Institute
Douglas, Aaron (2007) African American Modernist. New Haven: Yale University Press
Hughes, Langston (1926) The Weary Blues. New York: Knopf Publishing Group
Julien, Isaac/Lowry, Glenn D (2013) Riot. New York: Museum of Modern Art
Kasafsky Sedgwick, Eve (1996) Gary in your pocket. Durham: Duke University Press
Muñoz, José Esteban (1994) Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: Minnesota Press
Muñoz, José Esteban (2009) Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press
Packer, Renée Levine/Leach, Mary Jane (2015) Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music. New York: NYU Press
Ratton, Charles (2013) L'invention des Arts « Primitifs » Paris: Sakira Flammarion
Wainaina, Binyavanga (2011) One Day I Will Write About This Place. London: Granta