Read an excerpt from LABOR, published in The Brooklyn Rail in 2013.
Notes on LABOR: a Fiction and Installation
(This essay and installation was presented by Rattapallax in 2012.)
Reading as Ritual—Israel and Sadie Amter Papers (TAM 79) 1 box (.25 linear feet)—I Signed a Gag Order—Adjunct—Artist Statement—Hallways and Corridors—Fiction—The Matrix—Installation: A List—Embroidery—Recopying the Finding Guide—A Fern Pressed Between Pages—Handwriting is to Publication as Fern is to Document—The Virtual Campus—Handbook
Reading as Ritual
LABOR began in dizzying virtual space—in front of the computer, scrolling through the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive’s electronic finding guide, slipping into reading as a ritual act with no particular goal. It was November 4, 2008: the day of the presidential election and in my anxiety I scrolled through page after page of librarians’ entries: abbreviated stories of activists, radicals, labor, politics, and The New Left. I eventually pushed away from my desk, but not before digitally copying all of the entries and pasting them into a document I named “LABOR.”
In December I went to the archive, paid the $5 photography fee, signed some papers about credits and copyrights, and obtained a researcher’s card. I sat down and the librarians brought file after file to my wooden table. A sign over my right shoulder read “Marxist Study Center” and one of the workers behind the desk had a deep cough. Pencil in hand and camera ready, I did not get very far.
Israel and Sadie Amter Papers (TAM 79) 1 box (.25 linear feet)
I stopped at one file early in the finding guide’s alphabetical order: Isreal and Sadie Amter. Sadie wrote pro-labor poems that were didactic. Isreal had been a musician and composer. Proudly, he gave up art to fight for communist and pro-labor causes. I thought about how my movement had been in reverse: from a student of sociology, to literacy teacher, to union worker, to writing and art. Should I tell their stories or my own? How?
She Signed a Gag Order
If the archive is historical—something must have happened for your file to be placed in the archive—what is a worker to do in the present? Fiction.
If in the 90s she was fired for union activity but because of the shutdown of the federal government the National Labor Relations Board was swamped with cases and they urged her to take a settlement and sign a gag order, then this needs to be fiction and she agreed. If the statute of limitations has run out on the gag order, if there is such a thing, then her project is a way of marking a presence, but not that of hero or activist.
The teaching artist in LABOR visits the archive, finds her file, and eats it.
The activist visits the archive and covertly inserts her own fictional grievance documents and copies of letters of protest.
The professor with tenure never enters the archive, but makes a space in her office for the activist to come and work through the night when space is available.
An adjunct walks the streets of her city, toward her jobs. She crosses institutional thresholds disheveled, feels as if her seams are showing, as if she is spilling, leaving a trail of blood and papers and empty water bottles behind. She feels this word “adjunct” but does not understand her title as she watches so many others come in through the same doors.
The comforting and disturbing promise of C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination” leads me to meditate on the immense competition for “a good job.” I place my devotion to writing and teaching in this landscape and wonder how to ease the binds between desire, financial need, and “the odds,” knowing that I am not alone. Yet to speak openly about art, jobs, teaching, and money seems taboo.
Still, I walk away after teaching feeling light. I think that in teaching there is love, and in the hallways and corridors, and in the mostly un-surveilled space of the classroom, there is new life made from our bodies and ideas in transit, growth.
LABOR is not necessarily a comment on higher education hiring trends. Rather, it is about transformation—the transformation of the institution and a person: and in this case, an institution that ironically houses the labor archive and under-employs the teaching artist. The enemy or the war—said to structure all archives—becomes, as site of my transformation, itself transformed. I become the changed subject of a changed space.
Hallways and Corridors
Footage of a person walking down hallways, past classrooms, in and out of elevators, in and out of stairwells, stationary for just an hour inside a small room with a door that closes—the classroom. Other bodies are marked only by the appearance of legs and feet so as to preserve privacy, but also indicative of a downward gaze. These are images for LABOR.
From Elizabeth Grosz’s Architecture from the Outside: the outsider possesses power in the ability to see and to know the inside in ways insiders cannot. Thus, the importance of corridors and hallways—spaces of charged arrival and departure—where bodies are in nearly equal relation. Hallway: equivalent to the self who writes, a passageway, a notebook, a continual arrival, a not-quite-home feeling, liminality, a space of non-reproductive sexual exchange.The adjunct, with no place to sit and no location to claim, though others like her proliferate despite their title, becomes attuned to movement. This is her strength: a contingent status, contingent text.
… allowed me to imagine a future of adaptation and movement. The page: a place to orchestrate rituals of disobedience, rebellion, failure, release, healing. An act of conjuring: there is no separation between writing and life.
During the summer of 2009, New York City was caught in a weather pattern of salty, moist air—a trough of humidity regenerating itself from ocean waters—that held on to the city for weeks. During this time I wrote the haibun form incessantly: small vignettes featuring a woman who journeys to work, to the archive, and down to the brackish water where she deposits grievance documents of her own creation into a medical waste drop box.
The library at New York University, site of the labor archive, is infamous as a site of suicide. To curb this trend, plexiglass barriers were installed around the balconies overlooking the inner lobby/canyon. The vision to jump is preserved; the possibility to do so is hampered. This contradiction, modernity’s matrix: the library, with its promise of unfettered knowledge, as site of new life and premature death.
I arrived, went up in the elevator, and stood back from the barriers to take a picture. What was imprinted was a grid formed by the shape of the windows across the canyon and the light streaming in. Hard floor below with its grid of black, white, and gray tiles. Waiting outside the archive’s locked door, I stood inside this matrix of danger and possibility.
My leap into matrices on paper: I created a grid of nine “activities” over which hovered two sheets of transparent plastic: one called “stories” and the other, “forms.” For months each morning, at my desk, I shifted the matrices around and wrote from whatever combination occurred, writing into the future—not only into my memories but also into invention.
Installation: A List
1. Hand-embroidered tapestries of my own handwriting: fragments from my notes on LABOR.
2. Moving images from hallways and corridors, projected.
3. A dilapidated red chair—impossible to sit on—and a wooden table, also painted red, holding three unbound books:
4. One folio containing a stack of photographs of the covers of 99 of my writing notebooks, evidence of immense unpaid labor, half of which were destroyed last summer by a document disposal company.
5. A fictional employee handbook for a fictional workplace.
6. A hand recopied archive finding guide, copied on to oversized sheets of newsprint.
7. Archive gloves stitched with “please touch” placed on the table.
8. At the entrance to this room: three documents framed as didactics:
9. A letter of rejection of employment, placed at eye level and with names crossed out to protect privacy.
10. A framed drawing of the most recent statistics on higher education hiring trends placed at baseboard level, to quiet the tone of complaint, but to provide a context that potential employers rarely cite.
11. A framed cover page from a gag order, also placed at baseboard level to indicate shame and to signal fear: what is risked by creating this room?
A woman stitching is thinking. The repeated sound of the needle piercing a taught surface, the music of the pull of the thread, the sculptural shape of the slightly raised fonts and marks: somatic, sensual, a rhythm. She may or may not share her thoughts.
In the spring and into the summer of 2011, I spent weeks stitching nearly illegible notebook jottings onto unbleached muslin in black thread. In the cocoon of my studio, the thread of each letter on my lap in intense vibration as it came into being—so much vibration that I got ocular migraines nearly every week, the most intense of which came on after a day of stitching followed by a visit to the Glen Ligon show at the Whitney Museum: too much illegibility/legibility for one day.
Ten tapestries: partial sentences, arrows, extra-lingual marks. On unbleached muslin, they riff on the textile worker’s newsprint. They also signal my early literacy teaching experiences when I taught in rooms of an old house in Brooklyn where there were no blackboards so we taped newsprint to the wall. We took these papers down off the wall and typed up their contents to make our own photocopied and stapled books. This was my entrance into writing.
Recopying the Finding Guide
I calculate that it will take me thirty hours to copy every word of the labor archive finding guide onto sheets of newsprint. Desire to ingest—I am taking this often-silenced history into my body by writing each word. I listen to ragas, dub reggae, and Alice Coltrane while working. I videotape each hour of my hand moving across the newsprint again and again.
On July 4, after a second hour of recopying, I wrote, “Wondering if this will permanently alter my body. My hand. Notice an indentation in my right ring finger. I am moving my pen around to make this comfortable, manageable—pain of writing this.”
On July 9: “Beginning this today feels excruciating. I wonder if I am not sleeping properly because I am waking the dead in this archive. A feeling last night of a hand on my shoulder and no one is there and half asleep I thought, ‘Oh, it’s someone from the archive.’”
I now close my studio door every night.
On July 10 I realize that I will probably never have the mechanism to transfer 30 hours of videotape to a digital file. The archival problem of excess, storage, presentation. So I am making 30 mini videotapes to arrange in an archive box, probably never to be viewed.
A Fern Pressed Between Pages
As I turned the pages of the archive of Helena Born—an anarchist and early labor activist—I came across a pressed and dried fern: delicate organic matter and corrupting element. Installation note: include a “textual wildcard” in the form of a small stitched floral pattern. The over-feminized mark of floral stitching: an archival interruption of its own. The risk of beauty and the impossibility of preservation. Why do we pick up leaves and press them, feed them to our documents, to history?
Handwriting is to Publication as Fern is to Document
In the archive I was drawn to handwriting: marginalia, the extra comment, incidental and unofficial commentary. Handwriting: a trace of individuality, a singular voice within the chorus of “the cause.” Note: handwriting as dominant textual mode in the installation. Question: how to include handwriting in fiction—in a printed and bound book?
If the Interface Is Virtual
But what if a physical campus does not exist? What about the low-residency faculty body? The computer screen as interface between students, other faculty, and administration. The virtual campus and classroom pulsates between veiling and revelation, invisibility and visibility. Loneliness alternates with freedom. A lower wage is underwritten by the idea of freedom, yet a certain intensified loneliness, right at the edge of this freedom, settles in. And so volunteerism can result; the faculty body, hungry for contact, can easily overdo it, ending up spent.
As one faculty becomes obsessed with accounting, tracking nearly every minute of time devoted to this work, another faculty slips into the oblivion of exhaustion. As one teacher’s vision blurs, the other over-performs surveillance.
I wanted to write a book with actions, procedures, and rituals inside. And so LABOR contains “handbook” sections with directives that are unusual, impossible, or subversive. Yet through the use of numbered sections and headings before each paragraph, this handbook looks official, institutional, and may even suggest the sections and articles of the collective bargaining agreement. The union contract: a document that necessarily draws borders and protects.
To generate new life, a worker reads in between the lines and writes her own:
Push away from your desk and go for a walk that may or may not include a stop at the post office where you will mail your applications. Go down to the edge of the brackish water. Watch the cormorants dive. Go home and draw the shape of the pinecone you picked up from the sidewalk. Notice, as you sketch, that you know its shape less and less the longer you look.
(I am grateful to Bhanu Kapil, Rebecca Brown, and Douglas Martin, whose thoughtful feedback helped me cut a path through the forest toward LABOR. I want to thank Bhanu in particular for the matrix, fiction, futurity, and for referring me to Elizabeth Grosz. The idea that war structures the archive is from a paper by Allen Feldman presented at the 2010 New School University Memory Conference. I am also grateful to the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. The installation portion of LABOR is supported by a grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.)