Dear Larissa Hammond,
Though the following essay is meant as a letter to you, since we've never met, I couldn't address you in the letter in the second person. It's an extended thank you, apology, and defense.
When Theft of Art is Theft of Land
Turning my admiration for Hammond's exhibit, located at Tube Factory Artspace, into a text regarding some aspects of it, resulted from my theft of a piece of Hammond's art.
I attended Larissa Hammond's exhibit, the / a mind the b mind, first on 8/14/17, then the next day, and likely today, but today primarily for a different reason than previously. I was and remain in awe of the exhibit. The audio piece from the south wall is, for me, inseparable from the paintings; they are thoroughly bound. I want to return to the experience again, but afraid I'll be condemned from a variety of judgments from the keepers of the art space for returning so many times. I shouldn't care, and when I'm in the room with the Hammond exhibit, I don't. It's like home. I feel my emotional guards let down. I can relax. I am not in a place of condemnation or conflict, though I did wonder about the recessive gene statement being a cause of white people's passive aggression. I simply don't understand it – a play on words? Valid scientific study? Inciting reaction? My experience with my own passive aggression has been over the years to seek and destroy, dissolve my own and be as direct and caring as possible, still failing miserably at times. Passive aggression seems very personal, albeit commonly human, that must be done away with personally, and if needed or possible, with help, though it may have its uses. I had not considered my whiteness to be a factor; maybe it is. The statement passes, more arrive.
I am too dim-witted, or not rhetorical enough, to interpret art, even if I have repeatedly read “Against Interpretation” and intend to read the rest of Validity of Interpretation. Even so, I try to resist interpretation if I find it creeping through consciousness. Instead, I make efforts to experience it, which I did on 8/14/17. I did not read the explanation on the wall at the exhibit's entrance until 8/15/17. I had to read it for a long time, to get a sense of direction and concepts considered. Even then, going back in, I couldn't remember it all, though concepts from the explanation came forth from words and images and colors in the exhibit, and images and colors and nuances came forth from the concepts in the explanation of the exhibit. Then I looked at the dirt on the floor, next to the low table with the mirror and piles of dirt on it.
I am, or was, too deviant or inexperienced, perhaps, to understand certain sacred aspects of the art world. I am not a professional artist, not even a failed artist, though I do draw, paint, and do related visual design for friends and family, upon request, and make solitary and horrible music and found-sound compositions. I have no friends in the high-art field (my active, constant friends are artists, but struggling, freelance, or amateur – poet-filmmaker, writer, musician, translator). I rarely attend exhibits. I am struck sometimes by certain art and usually get to the location to experience it. Mostly, events speed by and I forget. I'm tired more these days, and easily intimidated by the intelligentsia and in-groups. Yet, Hammond's work struck me.
I hope Hammond will not strike me, since I transgressed, intentionally and ignorantly, the boundaries plausibly expected of the spectator at an art exhibit. I looked at the dirt on the floor of the exhibit, next to the low table. The dirt on the floor was not arranged in an apparent way, to me, maybe dropped there with a shovel. I wanted a little piece of that dirt. I wanted to take it and keep it and put something in it: Memory of my experience at the Hammond exhibit. I felt a tinge of wrongdoing by taking it, but felt compelled to, and though it seemed harmless, I concealed it from the artspace caretakers just in case it's technically wrong – taking a minute piece from a dis-shoveled pile of dirt on the floor. It's dirt.
No, dirt is not dirt.
Dirt is in contexts, interpreted, valued, given rise to actions. Dirt is land. Dirt is memory. Dirt is art, imbibed with meaning by the artist. And I hope Hammond, or the artspace caretakers, can accept that dirt is returnable like a library book.
However, this morning I woke to implications of my theft of the piece of dirt in the themes of the exhibit: Hammond said, “... what it really means and feels like to give consent …,” along with the many family photos and cultural artifacts in another room in the exhibit, unless I'm mistaken, portraying Hammond's matrilineal Afro-Caribbean heritage.
I woke to a ghost stating, “The dirt you stole is land.” That could be dirt from the land(s) of Hammond's ancestors, every piece of it being important, and any piece stolen, especially by a white man, a dual yet non-totalizing description of myself, presents in miniature, the unscrupulous attitude of whites (in the more recent extended historic expressions of imperialism) and of men, toward the theft primarily of non-Western lands and putting something in it to use – new meaning and uses through extraction and various material manipulations, for profit, and correlated with sexist power. Hammond did not give consent on any level for the spectator to take any piece of that exhibit.
Kant's moral imperative universalizes each and every action. Very roughly, perform any action if that action can be done by everyone in that context without causing harm. If everyone took a piece of dirt from the floor of Hammond's exhibit, it would be completely gone. Would it effect the experience of the exhibit? Yes, though I don't or can't know the significance of the difference. I saw it as a dis-shoveled pile of dirt on the floor. I don't know why the pile of dirt was there, aloof, next to the table on top of which was the clearly sculpted dirt. Others may know why. Even if not, I had no right to alter it as a spectator, nor would any other spectator, unless somehow they're in-the-know of the context of the dirt on the floor.
Even the dirt placed on the low table, and the dirt sculpture on the mirror no the table, presented a question of interactivity, for me. I wondered if I should play with the dirt on the ground, if I should sculpt something it, or add to the sculptures on the low table. I didn't consider asking the space's caretakers.
Dirt was always something to play in, to throw at each other, to cover oneself in as a child, in the mud, to brush off one's feet. To feel it's soft and firm pressure compared to the unrelenting cement or asphalt. To scrape off bicycle tires as dried mud, to hit shoe soles together in order to get dried mud off. To plant crops and gardens in. To rinse off in the creek or lake. To scrape patterns in the dried, cracked dirt tiles resulting from mud that had drained onto the old concrete slabs behind the dilapidated, junk-filled barn, rife with adventure, after heavy rains. Clearly a barbarous childhood. At least I rejected to desire to interact with the dirt in the exhibit, except to take a piece of it and put something in it. And, like extracting materials for use and profit from stolen land, I present this letter of apology, a profit of humility from stolen art. Only you are getting this letter. I will return the dirt to the Tube Factory and explain something or other and that I sent you a letter.
I will return the piece of dirt today. The exact piece of dirt, not a replacement piece of dirt. I don't now if the meaning of the dirt in the exhibit would change for Hammond or other spectators if they know or knew the source of the dirt, or if some piece of dirt were taken from another location.
I'm reminded of a Pakistani friend, years ago, who visited Palestine. She described how the dirt there tasted, when she bent down to kiss it, feel it with her hands: good, invigorating. A Palestinian acquaintance at the masjid once asked me if I wanted anything from Palestine he could bring back from a visit. I said a handful of dirt. I haven't seen him for a few years, being separated from that community by time, work, weariness, a sense of primarily external social intimidation, and disagreement with some ideas. Yet, if I recall correctly, upon return from his visit that time, he told me he was prevented from taking any dirt with him. Later, I think, he texted me that he brought me some Palestinian dirt, but I was too far away to meet him.
Thank you for your work. The voice from the south wall said something like, When I'm strong enough, I can free someone, too.
Of course, you could also imprison them.
Again, I'm sorry.