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Our Waste and Our Potential


When an object enters a museum’s collection, it is assigned an accession number, consisting of the date of acquisition, the order in which the material was accessioned, and a code identifying the donor.


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George Romney’s 1779 Mrs. Taylor depicts a woman leaning languorously against a brown column, golden harp propped against her bone-white arm. She is draped in a creamy Grecian gown. A red scarf billows behind her toward the upper left of the painting, its translucency offsetting the heft of the column on the right. The painting moves from right to left, weight to weightless, dark to light, architecture to enchantment. Her face, with its delicate, rosy cheeks, is tilted downward, chin tipped demurely. She looks out, but obliquely from the corner of her eyes.


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The encyclopedia entry on accession numbers describes their role as “achieving initial control of” acquired material, because they provide an enduring record of acquisition and serve as a method to track the object when it is lent to other institutions.


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Willem de Kooning’s 1953 Woman VI is rendered in hurried, thick slashes of paint as if the figure is carved from drafts and revisions of herself. Her stout torso encased in a red, corset-like shape, and her arms are tightly crossed under protruding breasts. She is not immediately legible as a human form. The viewer must move their eyes over the chaotic shapes to sense they are organized into a figure that sits atop a black clef gaping like a fish against the bottom edge of the painting. At the top, her miniature head perches, smudged with yellow for hair. Her barely discernable eyes look outward, a bit of pink—like an afterthought—where her mouth could be.


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In her 2010 video, “We R Who We R,” Ke$ha marches through a traffic tunnel as fire explodes behind her. She wears a leotard covered in fragments of mirror and torn fishnets as she half-raps her auto-tuned paean to excess. “We’re looking sick and sexified,” she declares, pushing her tit up with a fist. And indeed, she looks precisely that with her half-closed eyes, monotone delivery, and smeared makeup. “Our bodies going numb numb numb.”


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Sometimes a museum will accumulate a number of objects they never accession. These un-accessioned materials may have been bequeathed to the museum by an anonymous donor, unceremoniously dumped at the reception desk in a grocery bag by someone looking for a tax write-off. Or they might have been deemed unimportant by the curatorial staff and shuffled lower and lower on the preservation priority list until they just fell off. Other objects are in such poor condition that a curator can’t identify what they are and therefore which collection to assign them to.


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Sometimes girls go missing. Sometimes they come back alive. They return, but some part of their history is gone. They exhibit behaviors without provenance. They cut themselves. They lock themselves in their rooms. They can’t be around closed doors. They exercise twice a day. They eat almost nothing and whittle away. They eat compulsively and gain a worrying amount of weight. They drink until they can’t stand. They fuck stranger after stranger. They refuse to speak. They can’t stop speaking. They tell so many stories, even they lose track of which ones are true and which ones are made up. But it hardly matters. No one believes anything they say anyway.


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Los Angeles-based artist Gala Porras-Kim uses un-accessioned objects as source material. Her 2016 One Clump of Raffia Reconstruction is based on an object from UCLA’s Fowler Museum that has degraded so much it’s unidentifiable. In Porras-Kim’s reconstruction, it becomes a basket of sorts, fashioned from golden fibers that form gently curving lines while dangling from the ceiling and rotating slowly in the gallery’s air flow. It casts four overlapping shadows on the white wall. The center shadow is a complete imprint, as if the object was stamped there, then overlaid by arcs of other, lighter shadows, so that it resembles a cage within a cage or a corset or the seams of a hot air balloon.


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Sometimes a pain will arise without a cause or origin, like an object without authenticating documents. No bruise floats above the ache, no scribble glows on the x-ray. The patient has a normal gait, strong reflex, and average strength. And yet she insists an injury floats there behind the seemingly unmarred surface of the body, the pristine images snapped by the giant machine.


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Mrs. Taylor and Woman VI are accessioned objects in the permanent collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They once hung facing each other on either end of a long corridor of galleries as if mirroring each other or engaging in a stand-off.

“Look left and right,” the eighth grade art teacher at my all-girls school instructed. “What do you see?”

“One’s pretty and one’s ugly,” someone muttered, giggling behind her hands.

“One’s realistic and the other’s not,” another girl asserted.

“Let’s go with realistic and not,” the teacher said. “Or think of it as representational and abstract.”

I thought the more interesting line of inquiry was “one is pretty and one is ugly.” But I’d already had sex and none of my friends had. This set me apart from them as if I’d gone through an initiation they had only heard about. One that marked me as mature for my age or even precocious. You know some girls just grow up a little faster. My friends all wanted to know if it hurt and I said it didn’t. But it did hurt the first time and every time after, a repeated ripping, his stubborn insistence.


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Another term to describe what accession does is “rationalizing” the museum’s holdings because it provides a system to explain where an object is from and why it resides in a particular area of the collection.


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That day at the museum, this cluster of girls was introduced to the dominant narrative about modern aesthetics, one intimately involved with the body, specifically the white female body, disarticulated, splayed out. To convey the shock of the modern, painters presented the shock of a woman looking directly at the viewer, naked not nude, the shock of a white woman’s exposed flesh, its horrible, sickly tone.


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I was so young and cheerful in the emergency room with my infected wound and high fever. I deflected questions with jokes and tall tales. The doctors never considered the possibility of sex or coercion. Instead, they consulted with infectious disease specialists, studied photos of spider bites. Meanwhile I gazed at the IV’s glistening drip and thought of him, my first love, tried to remember the last thing he said to me, what he called out as I stumbled from his car.


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Toward the end of the video, Ke$ha stands alone on a roof ledge in a torn American flag t-shirt, glittery purple panties, and knee socks. She lifts her arms to the night sky, a rosary dangling from her right hand. She takes a deep breath and leans back to fall off the building. The music cuts out as she plummets through the wind, limbs clawing the empty air.


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PastPerfect, a software many museums use to assist with assigning accession numbers, describes the system as the “museum’s memory,” even though the only historical information it offers is when the object arrived and who had it immediately before its arrival.


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Next to the sculptural element of One Clump of Raffia Reconstruction, Porras-Kim hangs an elegant graphite drawing of her reconstruction. Without a background, the image floats on the creamy blank of the fine cotton paper. The wood frame echoes the sinewy lines of the raffia in color but contrasts them with its precise right angles. At the bottom of the drawing, Porras-Kim adds a profusion of tendrils like some part of the object is spilling out, as if the basket is being ripped open by the hungry mouths of sea urchins.


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I love Ke$ha in that video, her desperate energy, flinging her body into a destructive idea of fun. Her willingness to live up to everything the critics said about her: she’s juvenile, messy, even trash. She captures the need to keep moving, smashing your body into others. When I lived in New York City in my twenties, I spent nights like that, searching through the blur of drunkenness, hooking up at parties with a man who told me after that he wouldn’t call me because he didn’t date fat girls; a man who fucked me in a stairwell and returned to our office party to hold hands with his wife; a man who hit me across the face without asking and told me that I liked it.


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In an interview, de Kooning said, “Women irritate me sometimes. I painted that irritation in the Woman series. That’s all.” That irritation is evident in his brush strokes, slashed onto the canvas, erasing and smudging whatever mark came before. A figure emerges as much for the destruction of the marks as from the marks themselves.


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Sometimes pain appears like a spiderweb in a doorway at dawn, spreading along the metatarsal bones. I slowed to a walk, kicking my foot out and shivering in the February chill. The pain was isolated to a discrete triangle at the top of my foot. Perhaps I came down at an odd angle, I thought as I gingerly limped back to my office, perhaps running in the cold made my foot stiff. I’ll just take a few days off, give it a chance to recover.


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Like a lot of women in academic fields, I was inaugurated into my discipline by studying the work of men who hate women, who scatter them about as signifiers in their work on other topics and other themes, who vaporize them into metaphor, smear them across canvases, encase them in archetypes or in the role of muse.


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No, that wasn’t the last thing he said, whatever he yelled from the car as he set me free. He called me, months later, collect. I could hear him saying my name in the background as the operator asked if I would accept the charges. He begged me to answer. “Do you accept?” The operator asked a second time. I could hear him screaming for me behind her neutral voice as I slowly lowered the phone to its cradle, my child’s body realizing something it would take my adult mind decades to catch up with.


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Sometimes, as curators are working, they may discover an unopened drawer or a hidden box full of material that they then decide to accession and display. These objects as described as “found in collection.”


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That lunchtime run ushered in a three-year period of constant pain, which swelled at random intervals unrelated to what I was doing. I would be sitting in my office, foot propped on an open desk drawer and find myself curled on the floor, drenched in sweat, the pain condensing a brick of nausea in my gut while spreading up my shin or along my calf. Sometimes my right leg would turn shockingly cold. No longer able to walk or bike, I drove everywhere. In the cloister of my car, I screamed until my throat became raw and tasted of iron.


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When de Kooning’s Woman series was first exhibited in 1951, art reviewers condemned it for being violent and degrading. However, the critic Clement Greenberg, a kind of Abstract Expressionist kingmaker, championed the series, eventually securing its place in the narrative of twentieth-century American art. At the time, he was sleeping with the artist’s wife, Elaine, one of a handful of men Elaine slept with who furthered Willem’s career.


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Ke$ha is caught by the crowd and lifted above them, passed from hand to hand. Her arms outstretched and her head flung back so her features disappear into shadow, saved and sacrificed at once.


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Some memories are impossible to look at directly because they are so painful and others because they are so sweet. They suggest a future that runs alongside your own, a possibility forever inaccessible but still whirring its tape through the machine. Our skinned knees knocking against one another in the back of her mother’s station wagon, fingers knitted together under her backpack, singing songs we remembered from camp.


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Here are some things medical professionals prescribed: physical therapy, orthotics, acupuncture, massage, myofascial release, cortisone injections, an experimental treatment in which irritants are injected into the tendon to prompt an inflammatory response, gluten-free diet, plunging my feet into different temperatures of water, micromovements, Kinesio tape, weight loss, opioids, meditation.


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Elaine de Kooning was herself a painter of expressive and accomplished portraits, including a 1963 depiction of John F. Kennedy which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. She met de Kooning when she was twenty and he was thirty-four. He served as a harsh and stern mentor, demanding that she draw and redraw the same figure over and over again, tearing up her sketches if he was unsatisfied with her work.


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My pain-wracked body was simultaneously fascinating and repulsive to my boyfriend. He took on a saintly righteousness combined with a complete deference to doctors. He sat with me, going through stacks of medical records to prepare me for appointments. As we collaborated on my care, I felt smugly like I had recovered from whatever addiction I suffered from in New York, the grip of the need for sex, or attention, or the promise that this time things would be different, this time they would see the beauty and therefore the value in me.


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Considered art objects and attached to a specific creator, Porras-Kim’s reconstructions are given accession numbers and can therefore travel to other institutions. In a sense, what Porras-Kim does is set the objects free from whatever damp exile their uncategorized states consign them to and bring them into the light of the gallery.


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“That doesn’t sound right,” a doctor told me when I reported unbearable pain after using the $400 orthotics he prescribed. “That shouldn’t happen.” My treatment shifted from getting well to pills, which wrapped the days in a wet cotton batting. Before the injury, I could stand in front of a painting for an hour or more. After, I strolled haphazardly through museums, waiting for the timer on my phone to buzz, telling me fifteen minutes had passed and I needed to sit down.

I turned down invites to concerts, festivals, outdoor parties—anywhere I thought I would need to stand. Rising to sing hymns at my niece’s baptism prompted three weeks of agony. My boyfriend said I prevented him from doing what he loved, that he couldn’t hang out with his friends because I made him feel guilty for going out without me. I told him it wasn’t true, that I didn’t mind him spending time by himself, but he claimed I was lying. For months, I tried to convince him to believe me, but eventually gave up and accepted that he would come home from work, drag the rocking chair to the television, and play video games—the sounds of zombies’ groaning deaths and gunfire filling the apartment.


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Porras-Kim doesn’t really set the objects free. The objects themselves remain slumped in obscurity. Instead, she imbues the status of art onto something considered to be without value. It is the status that travels. Perhaps she is raising questions about value, about context. She is asking something about the nature of originary narratives and systems of worth.


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The pain management doctor had a line of rubber heads on his windowsill. The one on the left had a big, dopey grin that, as you moved to the right, drooped and crumpled, becoming a jagged line like a horizontal lightning bolt and finally opened into a dark maw of a scream. Waiting for the doctor, I would finger the nubby crew cuts of the men’s heads, considering carefully which one to point to. If I could only describe the pain with perfect precision, if only I could remember exactly what I did on that run, exactly how my foot came down, maybe the doctor could figure out what was wrong. But it hardly mattered. Whether I indicated I was at the point of a wavy grimace or a ripped-open hole, the doctors acted with the same mild confusion and lack of urgency.


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The final doctor I saw was Dr. Stone, a sports medicine specialist a friend recommended. Dr. Stone shuffled into the exam room in baggy chinos and took copious notes on a legal pad. He then rambled on about a study conducted by a consortium of Boston doctors that I didn’t understand and sent me home with a grainy Xerox of physical therapy exercises. A week into his new PT plan, I was visiting a friend in Indiana and spent the night perched in a taut curl, wrapped in a comforter trying to get my injured leg to warm up. On the drive home, my foot throbbed. As I eased into the passing lane, a chunk of rubber flew off a truck’s tire and I swerved perilously close to the Jersey barrier. I righted the car and continued onward, but I kept seeing the blur of concrete lurch up in my periphery. What if I crashed? I thought, imagining the car crumpling into me, shattering every bone. If I was injured that way, the doctors would have to pay close attention and care for me as I lay on the table unconscious and mute, unburdened of the responsibility to describe my pain.


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As my condition dragged on, my boyfriend stopped wanting to have sex. He refused to kiss me, once physically shoving me away as I leaned over to hug him so I tumbled to the floor. His stress continued to mount in part because he wouldn’t bike, one of his favorite activities and the primary way he relaxed after he quit smoking. I encouraged him to keep it up.

“How do you think I would feel?” he asked. “Biking while I know it makes you sad.”

“It doesn’t make me sad,” I replied.

“Of course, it makes you sad,” he shot back. As I gave up on trying to convince him that I knew how I felt at least as much as he did, I became suspicious and doubtful of my own feelings. Maybe it does make me sad. Is this what sadness feels like? Is this when I am supposed to be sad and, if so, how should I express that sadness, if I should express it at all?


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Or my head would fling back on impact, snapping my neck and killing me. I replayed this scenario over and over during the drive back from Indiana, returning to that image of me smeared along the ground and feeling an almost romantic rush of heat, longing, the beginnings of joy.


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“Without this number, an object may become virtually inaccessible,” according to a technical bulletin from the Oklahoma Arts Council on accession policies.


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Burrowed within yourself, examining every flicker of feeling and yelling out reports that echo up the cavern you’re hidden inside. You have an idea for how to get out, you can see the contours within, you reach towards the opening, the reconciliation, the solution. You are the only one who can see it. The people clustered at the entrance frown, “That’s not right. That can’t be happening.”


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I was diagnosed with various chronic pain conditions, including a few that, as I discovered in my research, are more common in women and people assigned female at birth. They are tied to trauma, haunting battered spouses, survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and victims of rape. I felt futureless, forever un-accessioned, an object too damaged to be identified.


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Over time, my boyfriend became more violent, throwing mugs that shattered on the wall, smashing his bag against the floor, and roughly pushing our cat off his lap. His actions were always just shy of physical abuse, firing a set of keys at me that scalded my palm and claiming he was tossing them to me, slapping the table next to my hand, sweeping everything off the living room table, including my most prized possession: a one-of-a-kind codex style artist book made of cherry wood with incised wells containing shark’s teeth behind windows of mica. The mica shattered, and the teeth rattled out.


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Of course, I stayed with him. I was dependent on him. I couldn’t do basic tasks like grocery shopping alone. Plus, I had quit my job to focus full time on getting well and needed his domestic partner benefits for health insurance.


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In 2014, Ke$ha sued to be released from her recording contract with Sony, alleging her producer Dr. Luke sexually, emotionally, and physically abused her. She reported that when she was eighteen years old, she awoke from a drugged stupor to Dr. Luke raping her and that he kept her strung out in order to control her. She added that he abused her “to the point where I nearly lost my life.”


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Greenberg wrote that de Kooning’s paintings were “the most advanced of our time” and placed the Woman series among the work of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Pablo Picasso as part of a “great tradition of sculptural draftsmanship.” Further praising the series, Greenberg described them as “savage dissections.”


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Here is the truth: I have two loving parents who would have gladly taken me in, fed me, helped me pay for medical insurance. I stayed not because I was dependent, but because I was desperate to pass the test. If I worked hard, I would be proven unbroken by my years languishing in the unnumbered drawers of the archive.


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My parents did, in fact, take care of me after the breakup. I moved in with my mother and, because I could only stand for a few minutes at a time, drove to my old apartment every day to pack little by little. I would make my way back as the sun set and rush hour traffic backed up on the 42nd Street Bridge. Inching along, I’d look for it out my passenger’s side window—the gap in the chain link fence.


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After a month of physical therapy, I was back in Dr. Stone’s office, where he politely ignored my sobbing and the snot pouring down my face onto my damp sweatshirt to bravely soldier on in his meandering story about the Boston doctors. Something about twelve runners with undiagnosed pain that came and went with no discernable cause. Each had something—a clicking jaw, an immobile big toe, a stiff back—that muddied the diagnostic picture. The point was not that cause and effect could be neatly matched up, but that these excess symptoms pointed to something unpredictable about how the nervous systems responds to injury. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was trying to tell me—by that point, I wasn’t actively participating in my care. However, I sat dutifully in the nurses’ station as she made an appointment with a surgeon to operate on my peroneal nerve, a nerve no other doctor had ever mentioned to me. She asked if I had a preference for appointment times. “Whenever,” I said. “I don’t ever do anything anyway.”


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A week before my surgery, I turned right instead of left at the end of the 42nd Street Bridge and parked my car at the boathouse. It took me twenty minutes to get to the gap in the fence, twice as long as any walk I had taken in over two years. I stood in the gap, looking at the black, glassy surface, and remembered my grace. How I used to row under this bridge, locked in rhythm with the other girls in my boat, the minute calculations—when to turn the blade, how much force to put behind it—pure instinct. How I could lift the boat on my shoulders in one motion or hoist the coxswain into the bed of her Bronco parked next to the river after practice when our parents worked late. Now, I was uncertain about every gesture, wasn’t sure if I could step on the ledge without falling backward. I leaned out, wondering how hard I would have to jump so I would clear the pylon and hit the water. If I ended up on the pylon, my body would remain instead of being swept away. If I ended up on the pylon, I’d leave evidence, a trace of my existence, a trace that would look like a de Kooning, and the point was to leave nothing.


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In her blog, Ruth Burwood, Museum Development Project Officer for Collection at SHARE Museums East, described a “dark moment… with a sob in my throat” surrounded by 138 men’s collars without correct accession numbers.


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The test I was so desperate to pass is the test to obtain happiness, to obtain a future—a future accessed through the portal of straight coupling. Like scholarship, the test requires close reading and careful study. It requires puzzling through the intricate dynamics of a man’s personality, tracing back his history in order to figure out why he won’t talk about his feelings, why he is wary of commitment, why he refuses to take care of himself. I would listen with utter attention, gather with other women over coffee or brunch to present our data, speculate on how to work around these various problems, insist “but he’s a good guy,” and rationalize his cruelty by finding its origins in his family dynamics.


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Often the test involves meeting a man’s cruelty with patience and equanimity. You gather torn papers from the floor, comfort him in his shame at having hit you, teach the beast to waltz and the spell unlocks his gentleness, unlocks the love that was meant for you.


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After three years of losing every legal claim brought against Dr. Luke and Sony music, Kesha dropped her suit and released her first single in four years, using her name without the dollar sign. “Praying” is a swelling power ballad driven by her strong vocals and dramatic phrasing. Her voice is direct and unfiltered by autotune. The song is about resurrection and redemption: “I can thank you for how strong I have become.”


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In preparation for my surgery, my dad stocked the fridge and my mom bought games and coloring books. The surgeon was realistic about our chances for success. Because my nerve had been entrapped for so long, there was a good possibility that it would never regain function.

“We will know right away if the surgery works,” he told me, explaining that when a freed nerve comes back “online” it changes color.


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I never passed the test. Of course not. It’s designed to make us fail, to keep our attention perpetually directed outward toward another’s happiness and to utterly waste our potential. And even if I did, the love it magically unlocks is, in fact, not the love for me. Instead, the love is caught in the gesture of curling back towards myself even as I ease further into her. I can’t quite place the sound she is making until I look up at her and see her head flung back—laughing.


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I want to celebrate Kesha’s re-emergence, her inspiring tale of healing, but I keep getting stuck on that line: “I can thank you for how strong I have become.” What could she have become without Dr. Luke’s cruelty? What music can be made in the absence of abuse? What kind of painter would Elaine de Kooning have been if her mentor pushed her in her work without tearing up her sketches, insulting her lines, telling her it wasn’t expressive enough, alive enough, energetic enough?


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In the twilight of the recovery room, my surgeon placed his meaty hand on my shoulder, fingers surely too thick to do the kind of delicate work he is called on to do. He asked me how I was feeling, and I said I was sore.

“We’ll get you something for the pain,” he said. “Oh, and by the way, I’ve never seen such a beautiful color of orange. Your nerve lit right up.”

In the fog of anesthesia, I was sure it was a dream, but I could feel the difference in quality of pain. There was a discrete and sharp sensation running along my surgery incision, but my foot felt normal. I tapped it against its twin, feeling the reciprocal sensation of touch, both feet equally freezing in the tundra of the hospital.


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The origin didn’t matter. Dr. Stone never figured out why my peroneal nerve was encased in scar tissue and sutured to my bone. Instead, the key was recognizing the significance of pain’s unpredictability. The point was the pain moved. The point was I wasn’t able to the describe my pain precisely. In the fumbling and imprecision, Dr. Stone heard the tell-tale signs of a nerve injury. My failure to describe it, my starts and stops are what ultimately opened the potential for relief.


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I never told my lover about how I stood on the bridge, watching reflected streetlights slither over water. I didn’t tell her about all the other options I considered, how I spooled out the potential pitfalls. If I stepped in front a bus, would people get hurt? In every scenario, there was always someone who would get hurt. I don’t know if my lover went through similar mental negotiations when she was a teenager. There was no one for her to consider, no one who considered her. If it wasn’t for a broken lock at the group home, she wouldn’t be here running her tongue along my surgery scar, making the new nerves shiver. And perhaps that is enough to know, perhaps love isn’t like solving a puzzle or passing a test, but rather a plunge into whatever is present, a plane you run your hand over not to look for a seam to open, but instead to feel all its strange and shifting surfaces.


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Wouldn’t it be lovely to think that our misery can be relieved, our paths redirected, our problems solved with a simple switch, like the gender of a lover or a new doctor? The year after my surgery, I was under the spell of such thinking, even as I sweated and ached through hours of physical therapy, even as my lover grew more and more distant. I assured myself that the gaps—which grew longer and longer—between our seeing each other was a healthy way of giving each other space, of refusing the relationship model of entanglement and codependence. I still craved a kind of forward-running cause and effect, a life modeled on school where you moved through levels, where each date inched toward marriage, where time stacked upward instead of unfolding in layers of simultaneity. I still imagined violence could be erased by later tenderness, instead of running alongside it, its trace erupting and subsiding at surprising moments. Presence sits inside absence like nesting dolls and is impossible to represent as a single line. Instead, it’s in the movement between drawing, sculpture, and wall. It’s in constellating iterations that casts restless shadows.


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At a July 2018 concert at the Summerfest Grounds in Milwaukee, Kesha emerged from a giant inflatable UFO in a sparkling white bodysuit and cascading rainbow fringe. “I’m a motherfucking woman,” she snarled, pumping her fist to the funk-inflected horn backing. There had been a steady downpour up until the moment her opening band played, so I got there late and stood at the edge of the crowd, relying on the giant screens to see her, still our beloved sloppy party animal, chugging beer or “baby-birding” it to the crowd by spitting it on them. She begged the audience for bras and panties, which she dangled from her microphone stand. “They’re so wet,” she giggled. “I love it.” When it was time for “We R Who We R,” Kesha began a rambling monologue about the how the song is about human rights, gay rights, the right to be an individual, to be whomever you are. She declared, “Every month is fucking Pride month.”


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Standing in the gallery in front of Porras-Kim’s distended cage, I slipped my notebook out of my bag and started describing it. In describing an object, I discover things I don’t see at first. For example, how the shadow is a third, perhaps unintended, representational gesture. I kept writing, into the space between the hanging basket and the shadow, feeling as if I was approaching something about the object and its double, or the act of doubling, or the act of reconstructing, of reconstituting. I wonder if it meant anything that an object with no story—no origin, trapped in a collection—could now travel, not as itself, but as a double of itself. As I wrote, I started to feel less convinced that this was an act of recovery or rescue. It did seem to me to be an act of considering a void or a blank and not trying to fill the blank but to create from it. Instead, it seemed that the work her art does is make visible the structures that consign some objects to obscurity while others are circulated within a system that mediates materials’ availability to being known.


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While trying to finish an essay on Porras-Kim, I keep getting distracted by another work. It’s a performance piece by Candice Lin luxuriously titled “the ungiving withdrawal of the memory, the experience, the shared event that lies within this contemporary still and porous object.” It’s always challenging to write about performance works because I often encounter them as documentation: a few pieces of paper and random objects in a vitrine. This is how I saw Lin’s work: a sliver of Lion’s Mane mushroom in a petri dish and a two-page typed description.


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Lin invited a group of her friends—queer artists and writers—to a gallery to eat congee to “lubricate the bladders.” Throughout the evening her friends peed into a common pot in the center of the room. The next day Lin distilled the urine and used it to cultivate mushrooms. Some they ate, some they left in the gallery.


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We ate this memory, this shared body of our waste and our potential. Some of the mushrooms molded from being over-touched by people who would visit them and were awed by their steamy beauty, pulled the protective plastic sheeting that kept them humid off, so that they could feel the softness of their flesh, the delicacy of their form.


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I fell in love with art tracing the careers of heroic male artists like de Kooning and Romney and their enduring objects. I fell in love with the future through the image of a straight happy couple building an enclosed intimate life that I then grafted on to a lesbian relationship. Now, I keep returning to collectivity, to art that is only temporarily still, and to objects that cannot endure, that fade and change as they are passed from hand to hand. I have no desire to recover them, or recreate them, or rescue them, but instead to feel along their feathery edges, the delicacy of their indeterminacy, to talk about what it is like to brush up against the fragments of something that has already been and will never return.


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Once a month, a friend and I show queer and feminist experimental films to a group of our indulgent friends willing to sit through forty-five minutes of grainy footage of people walking in and out of public urinals or obsessively scrubbing bathtubs. We show them at my friend’s tiny apartment, crammed onto the couch. Sometimes people double up in the armchair, or sit on the floor, wedging themselves between others’ legs. Afterward, we eat chunks of bread and drink cheap wine and talk about the angles of the shots, the quality of edits. I love this type of looking, of tracking the lines, of describing the compositions. Most of all, I love doing this type of looking in a space of togetherness, in meandering, circular conversations punctuated by jokes and gossip, our bodies overlapping, getting nowhere and arguing nothing.


 


ELIZABETH HOOVER is the author of the archive is all in present tense, winner of the 2021 Barrow Street Book Prize.  Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the North American Review, the Kenyon Review, and StoryQuarterly. She teaches in the English Department at Webster University in St. Louis.













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