Thursday, May 15, 2014

Kinship: the Material Collective at Kalamazoo

You're invited: 
I've just grabbed the baton in the post-Kalamazoo relay and am going to run with it. There are great recollections out there already from Alexa Sand and Jeffrey Cohen, and Karl Steel. Look to the Material Collective website for Maggie Williams's excellent run-through of the "Faking It" panel sponsored by the Material Collective. Also look there for other writings and invitations from the Material Collective, a collaborative of art historians and students of visual culture. No dues, no deadlines - just exploration, and being collective. At Kalamazoo that meant many things this year: it meant gathering around multiple kinds of tables: seminar table, roundtable, dinner table, and those tiny, high tables you put your drink down on so you can gesticulate your point or get in one more dance move. It meant being together in very precise spaces and times (one of the visceral joys of Kalamazoo is to move from the virtual realm (join our Facebook group, too!) to the material one). So yes, embraces and smiles and touches to the elbow. I think that this warmth, and the palpability of human presence is what is insistently presenting the word "kinship" to me as I think about Kalamazoo 2014. The fluidity of "kith and kin" of friend and family, of kindred spirits and generational/sibling mentoring, gave this Kalamazoo its rhythm for me. And so, two moments: one of a collective here and now, another of collectives past and future.

Impossible Words
This session was the product of kinship: a meal shared, a question asked, answers noted, session organized (this is also the driving and generous genius of Jeffrey Cohen who gathered us all). "What's an impossible word?" was the question. There were enough to overflow the Kalamazoo cups, so there was an extra-conference session, dubbed "rogue" the night before at Bell's and the official (still pretty rebellious) session the next morning.  I've written about my contribution to the rogue session (a bit on gossamer), and so I think it's just mood I want to describe here. Follow the rhizome to Jeffrey's account (and great photographs) of the words themselves. Mood will be important to what happened the next day: to the shifts and emotions of all those gathered. A frame of songbirds sounds like a literary device and was certainly used that way in medieval dream poetry, but it's more than frame live: it's shape and volume and a physicality to the very air around us (more on acoustic ecology in a moment). The birds' aural adornment of our speech never let us forget the bigger picture, and the grass beneath our feet, the breeze, the beer, the sun setting - it all seemed to invite a constant gathering around each word. More laughter, more asides, more facial expressions than the conference hall. Crepuscular roguery forever.

Portable Altar, British Museum
 Treasures of Heaven show

I have a relatively impossible (ha!) work of art for our work here: a 12th-century portable altar from Hildesheim now at the British Museum which features the bones of 40 saints (whose names are inscribed on the back in a babbling, continuous flow of names) and whose porphyry stone is framed in an engraved copper-gilt surround adorned with walrus ivory pendants of the Crucifixion and the Virgin and Child above and below and painted vellum covered in crystal panels to the left and right. Its materiality collects such a diversity (vellum! ivory! bone!) and quantity (40! for a 35 cm x 25 cm setting!) of stuff that it brushes up against the impossible. It's also wildly divergent from modern aesthetics which demand more coherence of materials. And yet here it is, collected in a powerful collective (40 saints' relics in a tiny altar that is mobile). And so, the pieces of our Impossible Words panels came together: Randy Schiff on Bliss in and our of Pearl; Dan Remein on Survival and the mistrust of narrative; Karl Steel on Satisfaction and an interested deity; Chris Piuma on "I"and what the letter-as-word collects unto itself; Laurie Finke on Tolerance and the wild oscillations of its scale (from peanut butter to nation-states); and George Edmonton on community and its lacks, and melancholy. All too brief these annotations, for each one was a beautiful meditation on the word and what it could not contain, what it opened up onto that was much bigger than itself. Which is pretty much exactly what happened with the Material Collective's word Collective. I have the text for you down below, if your cup of coffee is deep enough, but it was the happening that mattered. The idea was to read our meditation, then invite audience members (provided with slips of paper upon which the phrases bulleted below had been written) to read statements about collectivity out loud and add their own thoughts - the growing rhizome, the expanding kinship. And what happened was exactly that, but with a power of physical presence that we had not accounted for in dreaming up our words in virtual space online with each other. For when the phrase "So Say We All" which was the manifesto language of the Material Collective three years back was spoken in the text, it wasn't just the four or five Material Collective members in the audience who spoke them, it was many people - was it 40 scholars whose voices were collected and concentrated? I don't know, but standing in the front of the room, the only phrase that described the shock I felt was "a wall of sound." CRITICAL MASS MATTERS, PEOPLE (and this is where I realize that writing about acoustic ecology and how sound creates environments overflows the bounds of this post - but must be addressed!). I love the sharp/gossamer/impossible space of the tipping point, and somewhere between 5 and 40 is it when it comes to people speaking the same phrase at the same time. Marty Shichtman brought us there brilliantly with the word "creepy:" when does a phrase/a collective go from rebellious to commanding? from protest to power? from many to mass? And you stand there before a sound that means something so far beyond words; you stand watching as sound takes over meaning, as associations override content, as history overtakes the moment. The conversation that followed was fascinating: Laurie Finke spoke about the problematics of the the word "collaboration" - even as her collaborations with Marty have become one of the most beautiful and effective models of deep collegiality. And we realized that all of these words have their tipping points, all of them (I invite you to think them through) - that perhaps one of the unifying impossibilities of these words were their volatility in terms of containment - that they are words that are impossible to fully contain and control. What's going to be interesting to continue thinking about is the volatility of words when embodied in voice, when embodied in many voices. Eileen Joy intersected two critical terms: solidarity (and please see Maggie's comments below) as an operation of a collective; and specificity, found in the operations of multiple and different collectives. The space of collectives matter as well. The space of the Material Collective has been largely virtual - and watching it make that transition into embodied presence was powerful indeed. The ethos and momentum stays the same: you're invited, there are conversations and projects, there's a striving to communicate and connect about visual culture and its inter-actors - the presence took on a new shape, one that enters a dynamic of collective and diffusion, of kinship and rhizomes extending in voice.

Materiality and Aesthetics
British Museum (the curve of the tusk!)
Which (segue!) is what brings me to the panel, "Materiality and Aesthetics" sponsored by the Material Collective, organized by Gerry Guest, and presided over by Beth Williamson. Sunday morning. 10:30 a.m. - hope of a full room questioned by the insistent sound of the suitcase wheels of departing medievalists all over campus. And yet, this session: full to the brim - not a seat left empty in the grey space of a Schneider room soon to be filled with lush, colorful images and thoughts on those who found them beautiful. Marian Bleeke outlined a bright new trajectory filled with interpretive possibilities for ivories, from earlier monumental entities (such as the Virgin and Child here whose lilt bespeaks the extent of the elephant tusk from which it was carved) to the more intimate examples of combs and mirrors whose availability to touch provided the evocative "tactility and transformation" aspect of Marian's title and talk. The trajectory takes a major turn when new trading routes and partnerships open up for Genoese merchants in North Africa and the material presence of ivory becomes much more prominent. The prestige and wonder never leave the medium: it is always rare, the color always complex and inviting, the response to human touch always warming. But how the prestige and wonder are manifested, and the role of touch in these transformations, is what Marian invited us to consider so brilliantly. Consider the agency of ivory in wonder, consider the agency of touch in aesthetic transformation.

One of my favorite hearts: dear Anne
of Brittany (Musée Dobrée, Nantes)

Marian's paper immediately established that this session's "aesthetics" would not only be the pursuit of beauty but also that of intimacy. Marguerite Keane's paper on "Materiality and the Reliquary Collection of Blanche of Navarre" brought us an inside look, through a careful consideration of inventories, at how already-beautiful things are further valued by love. "Look" is a term of desire here, as all of the items listed in the inventory are lost to us (the poignant reminder that resurfaces in every conference and every read of the medievalist, that we are working with bright glimpses only). But the descriptions are vivid, and vary quite radically according to audience. The 18 reliquaries given to churches are described according to their basic materials (silver, gold), their outlines (box, shrine), and their form (large, small, accompanied by a statue of Blanche and the Virgin). The 10 objects given to family members (to kith and kin, if you will) pop with color: gems are mentioned, cameos are cited, a sapphire heart reliquary we all especially yearned to see (thus my image of Anne of Brittany's heart reliquary) is bedecked with the description of an "Oriental ruby;" the reliquary belt of Philip VI (worn by him into the awful first defeats, which he would survive, of the Hundred Years' War; this king girded by relics, for me giving his nickname "Le Fortuné" new meaning) is given to Charles VI with the love of specificity. [Completely anachronistically, I saw here the first sketches of the designo and colore debate of 17th century painting academies stirring in the heart of dear Blanche). Aesthetics shift with emotions, Marguerite showed us, and setting, even necessarily imagined, matters.

St. Francis, bedecked,
Museo Proziuncola, Assisi
John Renner helped us see "The Beautiful Wounds of Saint Francis" treasured by so many - a beauty that can elude the grasp of modern aesthetics which are more materially contained and coherent (we can debate this, but having evoked 17th century painting academies and their love of the bounded frame, let's just say that's what I mean by modern). Saint Francis's body was itself beautiful material, sculpted by the divine, Bonaventure tells us in the Legenda Maiora (13.5). It's how that material proliferated in images that John pursued, tracing a multiplicity of materialities that collected around Saint Francis's unique beauty in wounds. No matter how many images of Saint Francis I know, love, and teach there are, it seems, more. The audience buzzed with the excitement of discovery (at least for many of them, myself included) of new images of Saint Francis, which John generously brought forth in his consideration of not just the beauty, but I would say the beautification of Francis's wounds: their adornments and frame, such as the example you see here of the saint before a cloth of honor framed in gold and glass on panel painted in tempera. This image in particular made me revisit the perceptual excitement of medieval beauty (yes! in the terms outlined by Mary Carruthers in The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages) in its multiplicity of materialities: wood, gold, glass, tempera - wound, body, saint, angels. There was a wonderful connection (yes again! kinship) here between the descriptions of Saint Francis being "squared like a stone... and brought to perfection by the honor of many tribulations" and presence of images of Saint Francis being crafted from so many resplendent materials.

Christ Holding
Saint Francis
Like stained glass. And here, Nancy Thompson invited us into depths intense with aesthetics, with beautifully interwoven chemical and mystical intimacies. In the aesthetic interactions of "Stained Glass, Fresco, and Material Transformation in Fourteenth-Century Italy," we looked at glass at the cellular level, its volatility there as its molten state shapes its solid one. We saw stained glass anew as a medium permeable not only to light, but to the material effects of molecules in the air, acids in the rain. Nancy's lucid explanations of complex chemistry accessed a familiarity with the medium that, for me, evoked the artisan's knowing gaze, his quick, sure nod of understanding. You can tell where stained glass comes from by the origins of the potassium used to cool it: beech is what they burned in the North, marshy materials in the South. Materiality here eschews iconography in matters of provenance (but let's call it "origins," too). From the knowledge of the artisan, Nancy brought us to knowledge of the theorist via Vannoccio Biringuccio's 1540 treatise, Pirotechnia, a text which revels in the fusings of fire (and is available in an inexpensive edition: highly recommended reading for the agency of the element of fire!). This intimacy of fusing (violent and volatile, but momentarily tamed by art) led us out of the workshop and back into the installation space of stained glass to one who stood before the glass: not the artisan, not the theorist, but the mystic. As all three previous papers had shown: the viewer's desires for the materiality of a work of art shape its aesthetics. Angela of Foligno's desires fused with the illuminations of stained glass. She has a vision before a stained glass window that leaves her screaming with the pain and beauty of the All Good. There is talk of an image, of Christ holding Saint Francis - is that image this window? is the mystical the material? The two fuse and spark in Angela's fervent vision. And so we ended Kalamazoo in wonder and intimacy, the last questions of a generous and energetic audience accompanied by the sound of the conference stirring itself one last time, as we all collected ourselves, our belongings and our thoughts, and traced our individual paths back to our specific locations on the rhizome, eager already to reunite with kith and kin next year.


ANNE: We wish to join the ranks of “collective nouns;” to link our impossibilities with theirs. We wish to be considered amongst a gaggle of geese, congregation of alligators, an array of hedgehogs, a piteousness of doves, a murder of crows… an academy of scholars, a gobsmack of enthusiasts - multiplicities on the move carefully contained with evocative words that seek to make singular their collective identity. To know that, on any given day, as we pull digital images and modern editions into teaching in our respective classrooms, we are doing it in multiple geographies and places and times - that as a filigree or a line of poetry, a gesture or an idiom slips into understanding and wonder in one place of the ever-shifting collective, it will re-emerge in another. We do this unknowingly, it is one of our impossibilities: to know our every move. To think about collective bargaining and the politics and economics of what we do and to want thriving for each other. To realize that good will is rigorous. That generosity is no threat to the field. We’ve been told those are impossibilities: we’ve been shown slippery slopes - and have jumped down together.

RACHEL: We want to live in impossible and intimate reflection with the works of material culture prized from the Middle Ages: cross, reliquary, fresco, enamel, panel, ivory, cathedral, stained glass, manuscript - all collectives: of craft, labor, animal sacrifice, ritual, stuff, fire, time.  All impossible because they should have never been possible. As is this field. As is this Kalamazoo. Collectives that gather out of sheer will and desire. We would want to move as one (SSWA!) (So Say We All!), but we and All The Things have trajectories within collectives - wanderings that create contingencies, that put the collective in flux. We want to stop and look at the collective in its impossibilities: in its disparate parts that make the momentary whole; in its pieces as they lay scattered, soon to be taken up. And so we invite you to, if you choose, to read your fragment of the collective, or fashion your own into the collective.

ALL/AUDIENCE: And so we ask what a collective does that is so impossible
  • a collective collects but does not necessarily keep
  • a collective is a space: virtual, magical, later tonight.
  • a collective is a rhizome: tendrils reaching out.
  • a collective is organic, it grows and moves.
  • a collective is a grammatical wonder: multiple in identity but singular in verb
  • a collective holds us up (holds us tight) but allows us to go off on our own in unexpected ways
  • collective is indeed a noun
  • a collective doesn’t really know what’s going to happen next 
  • a collective yearns towards itself
  • a collective collects itself in great bursts of collectivity
  • a collective cannot see itself in its totality
  • a collective is now, right now
  • a collective prizes kinship over category 
  • a collective can’t yet be the way we do things all the time
  • the collective hovers in and above
  • the collective rocks

ASA: Collectives are very active in their impossibilities. A collective memory is being created right here and now: fleeting, soon to be supplanted perhaps, but gathered and shared. Collective operates on scale – there is the collective memory of Kalamazoo, of academe, of Western culture to consider and critique. And that’s just the scale of breadth. Collective consciousness is a collective in depth – what we might all be aware of, what we might all know: not in sameness but in momentum – about human subjectivity, sexuality, our shared ecology. Any critique can become a collective. We can even go deeper: the collective unconscious – that which moves us without our knowledge. It’s murkier here because we really can’t figure out who’s in charge, who has agency. That’s all right: we’re all in it together. In the collective, as the collective, with the collective, the impossibilities are endless.


  1. Beautiful, Anne!

    I'd like to add that Eileen also used the word "solidarity" in talking about the unanticipated, collective response to So Say We All. I think that's hugely important to remember--we don't need to all say the same precise thing as long as we remember that we're in this together.

  2. Maggie: YES! That's actually prompted me to rewrite a bit. No text need settle in the blogosphere. And I'm remembering the longer conversation about solidarity, and Martha talking about _not_ speaking then and there. Opt in, opt out, work together. -- Anne