Tuesday, December 13, 2016

12/13 Sarah Minor: Curating Resistance at The Museum of Everyday Life

“This is real: the shiver we feel when we see a staircase in an old building worn soft in the middle, the proof of thousands of climbings and descents. This is love, the way an object holds evidence of us in itself, forever.” —"Second Manifesto"

The Museum of Everyday Life stands in Glover, Vermont, between a road, a pond, and a barn where the oldest pony in the county lives under the care of Clare Dolan, the museum’s Chief Operating Philosopher.

The MOEL holds just one exhibition a year featuring a single object "of no monetary value but of immense ordinary life consequence." A few weeks before I visit, the curators take down DUST, their most celebrated exhibition to date. Before DUST were yearlong features of the toothbrush, the pencil, the safety pin, and the match. By June 7th, "Mirror/Mirror" has been installed for two weeks. 

Orhan Pamuk writes that millions outside the western world are afraid of visiting museums because they are places that represent the state and present "the story of the nation as being far more important than the story of individuals." When Pamuk called for museums that turned homes into exhibition spaces, museums that re-created "the world of single human beings who have labored under ruthless oppression," he started to imagine a place like the Museum of Everyday Life.

"Look to the roach!
ALL OF YOU who are tired of waking up every morning with your mouths filled with the taste of timecards, the bitterness of business as usual, the power of the monolithic mega corporation and its puppet government, of crumpled dollar bills tucked under a garter by filthy hands—NOW is the time to look for and generate resistance with our minds firmly situated in our own cockroach reality.”

—"Cockroach Manifesto"

The museum is unheated, self-service, and open for twelve hours a day every dayOn the way there I buy a print on the side of the road outside Bread and Puppet, inside a defunct school bus stripped of its benches and painted with daisies. I leave ten dollars, on the honor system, in a ballot box near the steering wheel. The print has woodblock-cut thistle framing the words “I’D RATHER HAVE SCABIES THAN BABIES” which I think is amusing because, in the places where I come from, scabies are so much easier to be rid of.

The entire MOEL fits inside a single-story wooden house. I pull onto the gravel in front where a pair of wings is hanging from a single nail by the door. The object makes it difficult to recall the shape of a bird. Something has gnawed away the animal’s fat center and left two feathered limbs and a sacrum. Now it hangs like a horseshoe, either in greeting or as fetish, asserting something about artifact that I can’t yet explain.

“We promise exhibits free of the tyranny of facts, exhibits in which the genius of our curators creates new ‘truth’ and invents ‘the facts!’"

-"First Manifesto"

On the front porch, hand-painted signs welcome visitors and direct us to turn on the lights. I flip the main switch and step inside the great hall, featuring hits from previous shows. A set of five miniature “Matchbook Theaters” make a semi-circle below their laminate tag and a curtain made entirely of safety pins. Nearby, an “18+ Only” nook reveals three Erotic Matchbooks with holographic covers. There's a small glass cube labeled “Microscopic Cosmic Dust Sample from the Chief Curator of Cosmic Dust at NASA in Houston, TX." Further on, a 7ft pencil stands slightly shorter than its neighbor, a false taxidermied bear with four wooden stakes buried in its hard stomach. Copies of MOEL manifestos line the hanging shelves. At the entrance to “Mirror/Mirror,” an introductory text hangs above a patch of sand, a reflecting pool, and a human skull re-staging Narcissus’ undoing.

“Mirrors aren’t simple. Looking, real looking is demanding and fraught with unknowns…Nothing unhinges ill-gotten power and champions the underdog like speaking the truth, from Snow White to Edward Snowden. But the doings of mirrors do not stop with simple utilitarian truth-telling, either. Part of the mirror’s slyness lies in the fact that even as it reflects the world-as-it-is it also reverses….This is a mirror’s offering: the reciprocated gaze, the power of looking, which is after all, a way of knowing, never simple.”

The central gallery is mazy and lined with closed and open displays. Its floors slope in all directions. There’s a cozy disco room, curtained and painted black, offering a pair of earphones tuned to "You Spin Me Round," and a mirror cut with a line of white powder. There are mirrors for scrying and vanity and seeing Bloody Mary, large and small kaleidoscopes, periscopes, and a re-staging of “The Lady of Shalott.” There’s a diagram with instructions for Heliographic Signaling, and a collector’s edition of A.K. Brill’s building plans for "No Middle Myrtle," the 2-way mirror box that allows an audience to watch a woman being sawed in half. You’ll have to visit this year to see the rest.

Marcy Calabretta Cancio-Bello and Sarah Rose Nordgren at MOEL

A week later I sit beside Clare Dolan on the stone wall between the MOEL and the house where she lives next door. The yard is neatly mowed and strewn with clumps of silver hair from her shedding donkey, Nikolai, who noses my hands to life like an overgrown dog whenever I stop scratching him. I'm back because I want to know more about the MOEL's texts and the essaying impulse behind a place that insists on the power of a reality that is made and not given. 

Dolan started in Glover as a performer at Bread and Puppet, the radical puppet theatre up the road. Before that she studied bookmaking at the Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts where she developed an intense fascination with Encyclopedias. She began to see modern museums as an extension of the encyclopedic impulse, and it's she who writes all the manifestos. The first museum began as Dolan’s solo pop-up traveling show, as a way to tell stories with objects by repurposing curatorial vocabulary. Dolan still performs in a mode known as Cantastoria, displaying objects using sung narration.

the hurricane says:

'Now I have taught you how easy it is to revive the old fashioned practice of hand-to-mouth neighborhoodism… Like a Doe nudging her newborn fawn to take its first step, I said to you IT IS TIME TO BEGIN!... NOW re-think your everyday life and the concrete and asphalt expressions of your ambition!'”

-"Hurricane Manifesto #1"

At the MOEL

Before visiting I watched a video of Dolan performing Cantastoria in an incredible dress that opened into several painted scenes. When I tell her this dress reminds me of an embroidered scroll being displayed at the MacDowell Colony that summer, it turns out that Dolan is good friends with Anna and Elizabeth, the artists and musicians who make and perform these spooled panoramas called “crankies.”

SM: “It seems like Anna and Elizabeth are doing a kind of archival activism. The documents they select and preserve are fragile oral stories that record certain lives. And there seems a similar nod happening here in terms of how your work is like an essayist's. How it might be building a subversive frame, or even an activist outlet by curating certain items."

CD: “I mean an essay is a great form in all of its incarnations from the sort of traditional Jonathan Swift version to these more performative forms. In another way, I feel like when I choose the special object each year, the exhibit I put together is like my ruminations on that object. It does feel a little bit like writing an essay on the object, so that’s an interesting way to think about it.”

SM: “So, Anna and Elizabeth, they’re doing Cantastoria too?”

CD: “Well, in the funny small world of puppetry I even think of puppetry as cantastoria and crankies as cantastoria too. There are a lot of crankie performers who don’t know about cantastoria, but I’m an inclusionist so I sort of think it’s all connected and because I’m a puppeteer I think crankies are a form of puppetry because the important component the performance can’t do without is an object not a person. But I know some people wouldn’t call a crankie a puppet. People connect crankies more with moving panoramas.”

SM: “Ah—a crankie is cranked, or manipulated.”

CD: “Yes. It’s a performing object that moves.”

At the MOEL

Dolan is familiar with the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. The MOEL even displays matchbook copies of the portraits from the MOJT depicting the Russian Dogs who were once shot into space.

SM: “Nonfiction folks are really into Jurassic Technology because we can’t avoid talking about facts. I visited last summer and the place does seem like a project about truth and its control and permeability. I’m thinking, you know, that those dog portraits probably aren’t real...”

CD: “Well it’s hard to tell. I know that they weren’t painted by Russians, but I know they acquired photos of the dogs and had a portrait painter paint them...”

SM: “So, maybe manufactured is the word. And Everyday Life promises ‘freedom from the tyranny of facts’ too. Can you say something about that? Is that important to your activism?”

CD: “I mean it’s both playful and serious. You can play with how people read things when they’re couched in a museum’s structure or certain vocabulary. Like when I say ‘from the permanent collection’ you think I have a storehouse somewhere when actually it’s like a garbage bag in the basement. But it’s also serious because when I say creating new truth I guess I mean re-appropriating facts and shifting emphasis and focus and shifting meanings and that’s certainly an activist and a radical activity.”


In response to the six o clock news and things that happen far away and not here. NOW respond with the production of that special bile called COLLECTIVE ACTION and DISOBEDIENCE which eats away at the legitimacy of murderous governments!

NOW breathe deep the crisp air, take in the scarlet leaves, the sound of your own heart beating, and engage in the production of that particular glucagon called DELIGHT, which nine times out of ten results in Wisdom..."

-"Bon Vivant Manifesto"

Dolan says that when she's in the museum, nursing is her "secret double life" and that when she's nursing, her secret double life is at the museum. She imagines that all of her co-workers, the doctors and nurses, must have secret double lives too. On the days when she's not at the museum, Dolan works in an intensive care unit where she is certified to examine victims of sexual assault.

SM: “My closest friend from childhood does work with assault victims too and her experiences have really affected the way I move through the world. Sometimes it feels like hers is a kind of subversive approach to a problem that isn’t being addressed in other ways. Do you feel like your job as a nurse is separate from this place, or are there links between?”

CD: “No one has asked me that question before, but I think yeah a lot of the activities are similar. You can bandage a wound or you can administer a treatment but there’s an art to it because you have to respond to non-empirical cues too. I think the museum is kind of similar because when I’m approaching an exhibit I’m trying to read a thing in many different ways. There’s also knowing that I’m part of something that’s bigger than myself. I don’t have to decide if it’s worth doing—obviously it’s worth taking care of someone in distress. Somehow I feel like working in these kinds of efforts, like being involved in this kind of peripheral culture-making at my little museum is something bigger than me and part of a worthwhile effort too.”

At Bread and Puppet Theatre

After leaving the MOEL for the last time, I attend a show at Bread and Puppet with a group of writers and artists. The poet to my right is working on a letterpress chapbook of printed images and poems. The poet to my left is developing a video project projecting poetry into the space of small dioramas. During the show the entire audience walks from one barn to the next, followed by twelve-foot puppets on sticks and strings that sing and scream and are made real by the performers, in jeans and sweatshirts, moving below them across dirt floors. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen. Among the show’s final, sung refrains is “For we are responsible for our government, who continues to terrorize in our names.” The audience applauds forever and then moves reluctantly outdoors. We share bread, thick with garlic, and watch our cold breath hang in parcels.

A lot has happened since June. Brexit has arrived. The oldest pony in the county has passed away. The "heartbeat bill" has passed in Ohio. The circumstances in which I write now are such that the power of real, everyday experience—the way objects demand action and culpability from those who use them—seems a very different idea than it did this summer. There's something to say here about looking into mirrors, about truth as a resituated object, about unrecognizable bones. But what I want to describe now is the way that curation might be the same as acting out a kind of reality you want to live insidea resistance. Both are practices that reveal the subjectivity and the dire circumstance inherent to everyday encounters. These practices insist that rather than through the official, cyclical branding of a nation, the re-making of this world happens in single rooms, in pairs of hands defining their own realities with the help of familiar tools. They do the work worth doing. This last bit, at least, gives me heart:

“A simple household match hums with danger and hope. We strike it, for a moment we hold between finger and thumb the Promethean gift of Possibility. Each match is a tiny revolution, a promise of radical transformation.”

-"Second Manifesto"

Sarah Minor is a PhD candidate in Nonfiction at Ohio University in Athens. She curates the Visual Essays series here at Essay Daily and her recent work appears in Territory, The Normal School, and Passages North.

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