contemplating Jill Magi's "A Community Cuts"
Haptic /hap-tik/ of or relating to the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception [relative perception]
This past March, my partner and I attended “Weaving Gender/Quilting Race: The Politics of Digital Labor,” an exhibit and artist talkback with metal-weaver Martha Friedman and quilter Vera P. Hall, which introduced Barnard College’s larger lecture series “Haptic Bodies: Perception, Touch, and the Ethics of Being.” The series considered how we, as global citizens, are accountable to each other, and how our senses—not only touch, but taste, sight, and sound—situate us as bodies in political and economic contexts (such as labor), as well as in personal and sensory ones. Further, the program invited inquiry into paths of transference, also visual methods to express intersectional stories of common history.
Several months ago, I reached out to artist Jill Magi, enamored by LABOR (Nightboat Books), her deeply studied and complex sociological autofiction taking shape as handmade employee handbook, installation, and fiction published in different iterations across digital media. LABOR engages the covalent transformations of an (higher education) institution and a person who has stepped into its archive, finding contact with a flurry of workers’ voices. The relationship between Weaving Gender/Quilting Race and Magi’s almost ethnographic stitchwork seemed poignant – her process sparkles with the questions in focus at Haptic Bodies, and sets devotedly to work untangling the various knots in knowledge constructions. I encourage you to trace and wander the matrices of LABOR (read an excerpt), and to float through them in the pieces at hand in “A Community Cuts.”
In correspondence, Jill and I waded deeper into her process and into a clearer articulation of her pieces. These visuals are, as Magi relays, more like sketches and meditations than finished works in themselves. Below you’ll find my early questions put to Jill’s statement and visuals, as well as her expanded response.
I'm interested in broadening or exploring with you some of the moments and collisions which arise in your statement, and in the visuals, with a nod to the phenomenological, and a bit to that which catalyzed your responses. What communities came to mind, as you also explored the community of materials and the realm of their possibilities? What did you become conscious of as you structured and constructed your pieces during located-dislocated listenings? Were there emanations?
As a sequence, “A Community Cuts” comes out of the following: listening to authors and interviews virtually on Penn Sound while oceans away from the location of their recordings; cutting random shapes out of fields of watercolors after working on a quilt for months; making my own carbon paper—a field of graphite—and randomly tracing words from notebook jottings I made while listening to the poets while quilting. I placed these cuts/traces on fleshy paper whose puckers, when photographed and “color corrected” on my computer, became translated into something like a body’s surface.
Because I will publish a book next year with a press situated inside what I have called “my poetry community,” and yet I do not live in New York City anymore where this press is located, and in fact I live very far away and don’t envision living in New York City again, I have been trying to apprehend what community means. I remember that when I lived inside the geographical space of this community of poets and venues, still, I was never sure of my belonging. For instance, I am not a “Penn Sound author” though many of my poetry colleagues and friends are. Listening, I was asking, “Does my work fit in this category? In this community? Is it about my work or is it about me?” Once again I come upon “community’s” borders, its cuts and inclusions, its hazy insider and outsider demarcations. And if I have anxiety about home and belonging, I probably made these works in order to suture and soften, to figure something out, and to suspend the comforting though untrue conclusion that it is fine and maybe even more noble to be an outsider.
Water, graphite, camera, computer screen, audio speakers, adhesive, pigment: combining as circuitry. It was an artist’s lesson in the spring of 2017 just months after I read in a liberal New York-based magazine that “the refugee crisis” is the defining issue of our day. What do I know about the refugee? Though I moved away from my country of citizenship out of economic necessity, I am solidly middle class and privileged enough to return “home” at least once a year. Though my father was a refugee of World War II, he achieved whiteness in the USA and was considered European, though his country has always been at the fringe of that definition. Though my parents enjoyed post-war upward mobility from working class to middle class, and this was underwritten by race, there was no extra money to support or subsidize my art desires. Though I am not a citizen of the country I live and work in, I enjoy a good salary, lots of travel opportunities, and I have an excellent job for the moment.
What complicated your relationship with and understanding of choice, especially when you thought about its removal? The mythical power (and "goodness") of choice is disturbed, and this is politically very potent. What occurs to me is the urgency of accountability to what, how, and for/by whom. There are inventive new worlds coursing here, and surely "new-life generating" space.
Again, what do I know about the refugee? I can say: when the choice to leave or stay is removed, or the word “choice” acquires a more complex texture, the concepts of near and far, cut and suture, community and self also become more complex. I live not too far from borders where refugees stream over. When I think about this proximity, I am amazed at how peaceful my life is and how easily I can imagine the quickness and perhaps relief of making the decision “let’s go,” as well as the pain that moves inter-generationally through families and communities. Refiguring the concepts of “choice” and “home” is a political way of life that doesn’t always register as “political.” It is new-life generating even as it is painful. The works presented here are manifestations of an aspect of this refiguring.
Jill’s work in rivulet 3 broadens the localized paths of intimate storytelling. Composed of nebulous endings and beginnings (of word, ink vector, time, phrase, or tessellating shape), “A Community Cuts” proceeds through physical and digital zones and offers a viewer compressed glimpses of a body daily transformed by distances. Here, perhaps distance in collages are the spooky action of remainders in durational embodied practice. There is a beautiful geometry formed in these three cut-sutures, each one distinct and particularly incremental (perhaps scalar), each one a distinct set which weaves in and out of community with the others. There is elegance in the recurring form.
Jill Magi works in text, image, and textile. Her books include LABOR (Nightboat), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse), and Threads (Futurepoem). Tashkeel in Dubai will mount Jill’s “Portable Horizon,” an exhibit of new painting, sculpture, and quilts this coming November. SPEECH, a poetry manuscript, is forthcoming from Nightboat in 2018. Jill teaches art, writing, and literature to students from all over the world at New York University in Abu Dhabi.
Review by Jhani Randhawa, rivulet editor.