At times, over this year of posting daily on Minus Plato, an artist or an artwork comes to me, seemingly out of nowhere, as the fruit of a momentary alignment of interests that pass between a Classicist and their obsession with contemporary art. These moments are very special to me, because they highlight how this daily work that I have dedicated my time and energy to over this past year, is not the kind of project that is made possible either by the usual tools of research of the silent scholar (e.g. scouring scholarly articles, tracking down references etc), nor by shot in the dark Google searches (come on, Classicists, admit it, are you more likely to turn to L’Année philologique or this convenient search engine?). Working on “Minus Plato Today”, I have instead been able to embrace the discoveries and realizations that come from an accumulation of attention and how day-to-day events and, more and more, the regular outrages of our current epoch, often inform and frame these slow-burning discoveries, and, perhaps most surprisingly, keep their eye on a (better) future.
Let me offer you an example.
Today, amid the barrage of patriarchal atrocities (where to start? Let’s make a list: sexual harassment, shootings, a heinous tax plan, the interminable twittering Twump, did I already say sexual harassment?), I found myself thinking about Puerto Rico, about how in spite of all the devastation and continuing blackout following hurricane Maria, the island is still struggling to hold its own in the news and in our attention. At the same time, I had a vague memory that this year’s Whitney Biennial included more than one artist from the Puerto Rico, as well as the project about debt by Occupy Museums, that had a special section devoted to the island (see here for an account of this project). Now, the Biennial was on my mind, as yesterday I posted a video I cobbled together about Kamasi Washington and the epic of Gilgamesh. I first encountered Washington’s work at the exhibition and whose album The Epic I had just bought in Cleveland, and, as luck would have it, he was playing in that city on the same day (last Saturday) – don’t miss him in Cincinnati later this month! Anyway, recalling the presence of Puerto Rican artists at the Whitney Biennial, I turned to my copy of the exhibition catalogue and flicked through the pages, where I found two Puerto Rican artists: Chemi Rosado-Seijo and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz. I was immediately drawn to Salón – Sala – Salón (Live Workshop: Classroom – Gallery – Classroom), 2014 by Rosado-Seijo, given my own interests in conflating the classroom and the museum or gallery, and I also saw that he was involved in current projects of artists dedicated to the relief effort after Maria (see the link here). Yet, something made me focus my attention on Santiago Muñoz’s film works, which was rewarded when I encountered an installation called That which identifies them, like the eye of the cyclops, 2016, on her website, installed at the New Museum as part of the exhibition Song, Strategy, Sign last year.
Comprising a sequence of three films, as well as an assemblage of objects, this work expanded on the context for the 1969 novel by Monique Wittig called Les Guérillères. Here is a description of the work from a review of the exhibition in Art in America
“Song, Strategy, Sign,” an exhibition of Muñoz’s work at the New Museum, presented a three-channel video loosely based on Monique Wittig’s 1969 novel, Les Guérillères. The video is a work in progress that Muñoz developed during a residency at the museum. Wittig’s novel takes place in a future female utopia after women have defeated the patriarchy in a bloody guerrilla war; Muñoz restages the story in present-day Puerto Rico with a cast of women artists, filmmakers, and activists whom she has known and worked with for years. The screens simultaneously show disjointed scenes from the war and its aftermath. The women raise animals and tend gardens, deliver addresses over the radio, dance at an outdoor festival, pilot a motorboat through the channels of San Juan Bay. An asynchronous female voiceover weaves together quotes from the novel with occasional bits of narration that do not coincide with the action on-screen.
While I was intrigued by this work, especially its reimagining of late 1960s feminist utopia in present day Puerto Rico, I found myself looking to Wittig’s original text to understand the work’s title and, specifically, the reference to to the cyclops. What does it mean to identify these women ‘like the eye of the cyclops’? Here is how Wittig’s text offers an answer:
So, this reference to the cyclops was purely a way of focusing attention on the way women’s names are limited to a single forename. (This brought me back to a class I had just taught on ancient Roman women’s naming practices, while men had three names, they had one, derived from their fathers or husbands – e.g. Marcus Tullius Cicero’s daughter Tullia). Yet, this reference to the cyclops was also cued into other Classical myths in the passage that followed.
Like Santiago Muñoz‘s film, this passage demonstrated how Wittig was participating in her own reimagining, this time of Classical mythology, with the Sirens and Echo. Both myths, with their attention to voice, seemed to go against the limiting feature of the single name, as demarcated by the cyclops eye. At the same time, the O of the siren song, evoking ‘the vulval ring’, transformed the cyclops’ eye into a feminist symbol. This symbol appears on the very first page of the novel:
We seem to have come a long way from the patriarchal atrocities that started this piece and, potentially, here we could locate a feminist revolution. Sure, maybe I could have found Santiago Muñoz’s work through a Google Image Search for “Cyclops” and “Contemporary Art” (try it and see!).
Then maybe I could write an article on images of the cyclops, as culture model (i.e. of the anti-polis) and near-sighted sexual aggressor (cf. Ovid) in antiquity that would have incorporated Wittig on naming and ancient Roman naming practices, illustrated with a still from Santiago Muñoz’s films. In fact, a more interesting version of this latter course of action may become part of the next phase of Minus Plato (stay tuned). Yet what excites me about the process whereby I discovered Santiago Muñoz’s work was how it was not exhausted by the mere appearance of the Classical reference in Wittig’s novel. It focused my attention on the framing of the reference and drew me into its world, a world that combined Puerto Rico and feminist utopia a single image; the eye of the cyclops. Furthermore, and this is possibly the most exciting point of all, the path that led me to the Wittig, also took me to another artist, sair goetz, whose work (e.g. Me and My Army or Hold Yr Tongue) embodies a timely riposte to the forms and functions of the litany of patriarchal atrocities. Partially hidden on her website, goetz has a project called said, which is described as
the words of others
in my mouth
in your ears
During my reading of Wittig’s novel, I found myself listening to goetz reading Judith Butler and before I knew what I was doing, I was reading Les Guérillères along with her reading of Gender Trouble (click the image below if you feel compelled to do the same):
I would wait to catch up with her phrasing, pausing when she paused and tripping over words as she tripped over words. The only moment that I broke from this shadow-reading was at the moment in Wittig text when the names of women are listed. Then, I would space them out like punctuation. A name for a comma, a name for a semi-colon; a name for a full stop. Then it happened, listening through the dissonance of my own reading, I heard the name “Wittig” in Butler’s text and goetz’s voice. Somehow the path through the eye of the cyclops, from patriarchal atrocities to Puerto Rico, the 2017 Whitney Biennial and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz to Monique Wittig, with her Sirens and Echo, ended in Judith Butler, with the name “Wittig”, echoing in our ears in sair goetz’s voice. How tiny and insignificant the “Cyclops” and “Contemporary Art” Google Search looks from this heady perspective! How redundant the work of the silent scholar picking through the footnotes of other silent scholars! It is here that we can locate the feminist revolution – imagined by Wittig in the utopia of Les Guérillères, reimagined by Beatriz Santiago Muñoz in Puerto Rico and retold in echoing back in the voice of sair goetz. It is here, too, that Minus Plato finds our voice. And this is only the beginning. Watch (and listen to) this space! (Or, if you can’t wait, click the O below).