How brutal, really

We are tracing here the dynamic of a disaster, the disaster that capitalism is inserting into hypermodern subjectivity, the disaster of acceleration and panic. But simultaneously we have to look for a rhythm which may open a further landscape, a landscape beyond panic and beyond the precarious affects of loneliness and despair.
— Franco Berardi, _The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance_ 1 

In the traces of disaster, a landscape comes into view, one in which I am made vagrant. My subject is a string of projects by New Zealand–born, New York–based artist Kate Newby. All occurring in 2018, these projects are geographically spread, scattered over the earth’s surface. In the time of short-form speech and the drinking eye that notices the ground and crevices because there is no need to be guarded, everyone else has already gone, or not yet arrived.

The accident has already happened: economies implode, the ground is said to be uninhabitable. I have forgotten where I live, and all that is left looks like debris. It is to be itemised as a catalogue of nouns, not to redeem anything—there is no need to console—but to accept what is self-evident. Things are strewn and I feel like I am looking at sedimentation. I am mindful that some lichens grow at a rate of one thousandth of a millimetre a year.

This leads me to recall a film that documents the discovery of a cave in southern France containing rock drawings that had not been accessed since the Palaeolithic period, during which it was visited variously by bears and humans. 2  Crystals had grown over the cave’s interior like a heavy frost. In dating the drawings, something remarkable was discovered. Among a constellation of horses, a group of drawings had been neatly added 5000 years after the others. This sort of deliberation, restraint, dilated sense of time and decision-making, this artistry, seems relevant to a consideration of Newby’s projects.

In Bergen, Norway, Newby’s intervention into a modest, one-storeyed, white-plastered building of uncertain age looks like evidence of past itinerant habitation—like the tracks of someone who has come across an abandoned building, having wandered out of time. It will not be their last place—that is certain from the outset. Local materials, gathered and transmuted, are placed about the building, like elements of oracles, or, windblown, have been swept into a corner like leaves. They might be read like yarrow stalks spelling out incantatory words.

These interventions—alterations, accretions, aggregations—are collectively titled Nothing that’s over so soon should give you that much strength. Newby removed walls that about 15 years before had been installed to cover windows in the gallery space. Bright blue cord is threaded inside and outside the three windows, over and over in a thick, relaxed loop. The threading is casually non-programmatic, yielding to gentle gravity. There is not a trace of anxiety or haste in its appearance.

This confounding of inside and outside happens time and time again in Newby’s work. Earlier in 2018, inside the Kunsthalle Wien, she made I can’t nail the days down, a brick floor pitted and carrying small accretions of matter on its surface (sticks, stones, shells, shards, coins). Bricks like these are normally used for paving outside; this interior anomaly disturbs architectural decorum.

A terracotta gutter leads from the building, as if to drain away some substance that might have pooled inside. There is a channel, too, cut into the cobblestone gallery’s courtyard and into which Newby lays clear-glass blocks to make a sort of stream or shaft of light. The effect is amplified by the stones having been cleaned on either side of the glass blocks, the pale hue making them appear illuminated.

A similar effect occurs in her work in a dusty colonial-era yard on Sydney Harbour’s Cockatoo Island, created for the 21st Biennale of Sydney (A rock in this pocket). A large platform of dark bricks installed into the rusty ground has a lighter central section, seemingly illuminated by unnaturally bright sunlight. Harsh scratchings into the surface give the appearance of someone or something clawing its escape. The objects that are scattered and impressed across it could be a glacial legion’s dropped tokens.

Newby works on the ground or floor in the reverse manner to which an engineer or remedial builder might brace a crack. In Bergen, a series of small wedges modelled between her fingers and then cast in bronze are forced into the joins between the floorboards, to prise them apart. ‘The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home’. 3  And I wonder, do we really have no other home in this deregulated, globalised ruin?

In the northern winter of 2017–18, Newby is also resident at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where she works with clay and metal, and draws lines in ropes bought from what she calls ‘the cowboy shop’ (Swift little verbs pushing the big nouns around). She hangs spooned stacks of small, concave metal objects on a tree outside, and leaves them there to experience the weather. They blow in the wind like would-be catalysts in some kind of physical experiment. Hanging outside are garlands of fired unglazed ceramic and metal pieces—it’s hard to tell the difference unless very near—that are flattened by a thumb to make a shell or skip-ping-stone shape. One of these garlands is threaded onto a lasso.

She melts pieces of glass she has found on the ground into small puddles in petal-shaped ceramic objects. Things are placed, like devotional tokens, into recesses in adobe walls. On the ground outside there are peculiar gatherings of pebbles, partially glazed and looking sea-worn, alongside flat blobs of pressed-down clay or putty with accretions. Nails, flattened pennies, brass tacks and copper leaves sit in drifts with gathered shards of glass from broken bottles. Some large, flattish, pale ‘rocks’, which appear to be sandstone from which smaller aggregate pebbles have fallen out, carry patches of vitreous glass, marine-blue in hue. There are curious, empty drains made from ceramic that lead down into the bare earth.

Inside, a rope of long chimes hangs as if left by a witch or shaman. There are oversized glazed ceramic beads threaded onto blue rope across a space, with other calico-coloured cords forming shallow arcs and parabolas through the room. Large cracks in an old, pale wall turn out to be nails hung at intervals along wires draped in front of the wall. Leaves gather in corners like tidal drifts. Despite the cold, the doors are open to the elements. Whoever, whatever agent, did this has now gone. Maybe they did it to reveal or shift some secret balance, to change its effect—perhaps during the new moon or at a solstice. The effect is archaeological, like en-countering an opened midden.

Each of Newby’s sites has a poetic, textural quality that can be experienced as a migrant freedom—sadness and fulfilment at the same time. This ambiguity is rootlessness dressed as opportunity, requiring disorientation and reinvention on a regular cycle. It is as if each installation is an attempt to work out an equation missing too many elements to be solvable. And this is a conjecture we encounter, as do archaeologists, after the fact. As in the Chauvet cave, much of the work is buried under crystals.

Marfa is not a place Newby expected to go. Applying for the residency, she said she wanted to come and look at dirt and walk around. The temporal and spatial qualities of the place suit the artist, who remarks on the ability it affords her to just walk out-side. Habituated to city living, this kind of privacy is unimaginable. For Berardi, ‘poetry is what cannot be reduced to information, and is not exchangeable’; in this way it creates a new world. 4 

Newby’s art responds to these various sites as if they are already ruins. It works with the conditions of a world that has foreclosed on its inhabitants, who, no longer having le droit à la ville—the right to the city, sovereignty, subjecthood—are instead suspended perpetually. Her work might be an answer to this brutality because its interventions operate as poetry in the way Berardi conceptualises it: ‘… as an excess of language, a hidden resource which enables us to shift from one paradigm to another’. 5 

This creation of new worlds is at the root of how Jacques Rancière describes fiction:

A fiction is not the invention of an imaginary world. Instead it is the construction of a framework within which subjects, things, situations can be perceived as coexisting in a common world and events can be identified and linked in a way that makes sense. Fiction is at work whenever a sense of reality must be produced. 6 

The fiction and poetry in Newby’s works seem to spring from this deep need for some other time, for some other track, for different ontologies and ways of being. In an age of semio-inflation—when we discover that attention can-not be accelerated, that market and attention have become the same thing, and that ‘competition is the concealment of a war machine in every niche of daily life’ 7 —we must confront this collapse with what we have at hand, no matter how crude.

The crude is possibly best for its elemental strength; instead of war machines poked into every crevice, why not, like Newby, press a semblance of a stone? Or something with glass melted onto it, or an odd shamanistic bottle cap? Why not make our own crevices, and place objects in them to draw out and strengthen our critically weakened attention?

Attention mustered and rallied brings presence and care, and anonymous intervention is the best form of dissent—certainly a valid contemporary aesthetic formula for collapsing competition. And the outside (experienced in the discovery of crevices as holes and apertures) is where dissent and poetry can take place. This is poetry in the sense that Berardi means it, being outside of what is known: ‘This place we don’t know is the place we are looking for, in a social environment that has been impoverished by social precariousness, in a landscape that has been deserted’. 8 

‘How brutal, really’ is hand-written on a sign in front of three river stones, each the size of a fist or a baby’s head and made from clay and glazed on their tops in different colours, as if they have been glared at by different suns. They on a table among a crowd of vitrified remains, interspersed with signs that index fragments of responses, shreds of voice. This was part of Newby’s Mr+Mrs Hands, a 2014 show at the Arnolfini in Bristol, England, and set in proximity to a red rope threaded along the outside of the top floor of a nearby 1970s office-fortress building and back inside through the unglazed windows. ‘It is your bildung to swim through the hollow of your own invasion. There is no one left inside to know or care.’ 9 

The utterances of past works hang psychically long after encounter, swept into a pile like leaves: Maybe I won’t go to sleep at all / I memorized it I loved it so much / Great party, lots of dancing, no conversation with him / Two aspirins a vitamin C tablet and some baking soda / Maybe bigger. Deeper / Not this time, not for me / Plants. Songs. Food. Clothes / Let me be the wind that pulls your hair / Snow covered everything / A rock in this pocket / I can’t nail the days down / Get off my garden / Hold onto me as we go / All the stuff you already know / A puzzling light and moving / I screamed ‘I was there!!’ / For dinner every night / The having seems great.

Each sentence fragment, each clause, is a space opened with the breath involved in saying it. And who is to say what rightly follows? Newby seemingly deals in remains of speech or thought, phrases lost because there is only this life left for them. The time of these fragments is not that of ‘work’ as labour, or its successful out-come, and whether they indicate fatigue or solidarity is unclear. The attendant materials are found and altered: fingers pressed into clay, shards gathered and bricks laid down, objects arranged sparsely over the surface of open space, mounds established and lines drawn.

These works, if we can indeed call them that—perhaps they are better termed elements—appear to be slight, habitual, experimental incantations for providence, or simply for survival. They might be offerings for continued existence, rituals in a different privatisation of space—attempts, essays. Or they just might change space vibrationally through a function of different activity, or temporality, or connection, or separation (but as material, always a continuum; only separable in language).

In the way that a castaway (what sea? whose ship? what island?) might skip stones, or a child collect rounded things weathered by the sea, Newby’s glass, brick, stone and ceramic objects mark out space traversed by an absent (or a hollowed?) migrant people, ancient and futuristic at the same time. Collectively, these objects decorate spaces as if this people were free. When the artist presses things into small existing spaces, or hollows out or dents surfaces, or makes crevices, it is like smoking to show that one exists by making breath visible.

  1. Franco Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2012, p. 154.
  2. Werner Herzog (dir.), Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Creative Differences and History Films, 2010.
  3. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, HarperCollins, New York, 2007 [1974], p. 274.
  4. Berardi, p. 147.
  5. Ibid., p. 140.
  6. Jacques Rancière, ‘Time, Narration, Politics’, unpublished paper presented at CalArts, Los Angeles, 20 January 2015.
  7. Berardi, p. 95.
  8. Berardi, p. 149.
  9. Anonymous, The Rambler (newsletter of the artist-run Southern Cantonese Association, Los Angeles), no. 6, 2005, p. 1.