remain        | un | conquered

11.3 / On Being Included

remain     | un | conquered

By Eunsong Kim April 15, 2020

There are days when I feel so invisible that I can’t remember what day of the week it is, when I feel so manipulated that I can’t remember my own name...There are the times when I catch sight of my reflection in store windows and am surprised to see a whole person looking back.

—Patricia Williams, “On Being the Object of Property”

not all the works of Mozart worth one human life1

—Diana di Prima, “Revolutionary Letter #31”

A few weeks ago, every few days, sometimes multiple times a day was my answer to the question: when was the last time you cried. I cried in front of others on February 22 on a video call with my best friends. During the conversation, a space was opened up for me to reflect on something so enshrined yet protruding I could no longer protect the location of my hurting.

Like many others, I have learned to cry as much as possible in private. My friends, lovers, and I erupt in the small and temporary spaces called home. I utilize small and temporary as descriptive, matter-of-fact terminology for the notion called home. The spaces I feel safe to react, to falter, to express, the spaces in which I feel protected, are small and temporary. Such is not an exceptional state of being.

Though I have spent the better part of my life working to become and then becoming a writer by profession, I have never considered this space to be my home. As in, I do not write to feel safe, to express myself, to be understood (or perhaps as white men sometimes do, the inverse: to proclaim evasion of self, to proclaim against expression). There are many reasons for this. As a student, I was convincingly instructed that this language and language itself was not mine. With every publication, the lessons are enforced. I am reminded that I will be read in bad faith, suspiciously, without ethos. Thus, I come to the page armed. Writing is not as an act of intimacy, but part of my professional commitment to present my thorough research, often performed meticulously in archives, as clearly and as convincingly (as if anonymous) as possible. It is not lost on me how the methods of my research perpetuate the very conditions I fight. I seek to contribute to the insurmountable evidence against colonialism, against capitalism, against the normalization of structural violence/the violence of structures (against the co-option that makes even this pronouncement empty and cache) through the colonial confines of academic research and clarity. While acknowledging this contradiction, my disassociation from writing to safety is too matter of fact. I do not profess the difference between the spaces constructed for my feelings and the profession of writing as a gesture towards melancholia, but rather, to point to the materialization between subject and object, intimacy and distance, desire and formation, and how vividly these forces live inside of me.

 *

Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you are already looking up articles that will prove me wrong, which I might argue, proves some of the above right. As in, the words I have utilized thus far have you racing for words you believe are better. In your abstraction of me, which is my language, there are better constructions? And in the next draft, I will work on better arguments, find better evidence, compose tighter metaphors? Until predictably, I cannot any longer.

*

I started writing this essay, which was to be a short treatise on the politics of institutional inclusion, before COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic, and have been revising its contents in a city under a “stay at home” mandate. It has been thirty some days and counting of my semi-quarantined status. The bodies I interact with are my lovely next-door neighbors. Everyone else has become a virtual presence. Such, too, is not (and then is) an exceptional state of current being.

The essay I planned to compose was pulled from the research I did while writing my monograph on the rise of late nineteenth-century robber barons and how their personal and private collections formed the foundations for US museums and libraries. I wanted to make explicit how the violence of their wealth—as predicated upon extractive and racial capitalism, which includes everything from the mining of natural resources to the suppression of labor unions and rights—are expressed and remembered in the legacy of their choosing: museums and libraries, forms which are considered liberal goods. It is in this history that the philanthropy of the Kochs, DeVoses, Broads, Sacklers, and Gateses might be connected, renarrated, and fractured.

I wanted to discuss most explicitly how much the robber barons cared about preserving their collections and crafting the place they titled: Museum. I set out to do so through an examination of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Frederick Clapp (the first director of the Frick Collection) and their correspondences concerning air conditioning. Institutional temperature control is a mundane and formidable detail in the preservation of objects. The detail requires research, discussion, and material commitment. In contrast, how much was considered before hiring private militia and open firing on the workers at Ludlow and Homestead? In contrast, how much was imagined and researched with regards to the mining of coal and coke and its future impact on soil regeneration? These are tactless questions and my lifelong obsessions.

I  state my original plans in order to be most explicit about my motivations and the context from which I write. Nothing has changed but everything. I still work to discuss air conditioning and wealth, but through an examination of my motivations. I want you to hear from me. I want you to know why this history, this present, has become important to me. The preservation of objects (art and otherwise) differs from the care I need and the care I want to give others. In examining this history and in living in this present, I believe the stakes between object & inclusion, neglect & erasure will become ever more crude and unforgiving? And thus, how to implode their connections, their terms.

*

Art objects require specificity and precision. First, someone must make it. Then, an artist who is recognized as a subject must proclaim it as theirs. In this process, a narrative concerning the object is constructed, which in turn locates a buyer, a collector, a curator of sorts for the said object. These steps are, too, called care.

If and when the object becomes included into the permanent collection of a Museum, its care becomes immortalized. (Is care even the word I’m looking for? I do not know) Inclusion denotes safety, legacy, and foundation. Part of what is being dangled in inclusion is the condition of object immortalization: air conditioning, guards, conservation experts, curators, educators, more. Whether or not objects are held hostage in a storage room or brightly showcased above, the implicit and explicit promise of inclusion is a future removed from degradation.

Thus, museum spaces are cold and alienating by design. They are mausoleums: legacy refrigerators, destination-quarantined-into(against)-the-future, standstill time machines of chosen objects. The museum is erected to conserve all that was selected to be part of its repository: its onset goal is immortality. In order to ensure this, exhaustive care was—is—paid to the most quotidien, the most mundane, yet essential foundations—such as, the best and most fitting temperature for objects to reside.

*

In discussing her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe metonymizes weather. She writes, “[T]he weather is the totality of our environments; the weather is the total climate; and that climate is anti-black.” Sharpe’s rendering of the weather has guided my interest in temperature construction. As in, what kinds of temperatures are artificially created in order for things to not melt, fade, brittle, or collapse (god forbid). What kinds of temperatures are required for the maintenance of legacy objects—and what are the politics of such pursuits? Museum environments, much like many neoliberal corporate offices, operate as safe havens from the realities of the climate outside; their artificial environments are constructed according to the standards of optimization. The safety of the inside is its contrast to the forces of the outside because to be sure, as Sharpe executes, “The weather necessitates changeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies.” The global climate (anti-Blackness) produces the ecology of the modern museum: a sanitized space supposedly removed from time. Which brings me to air conditioning.

The invention of the modern AC has been credited to Willis Carrier who was “tasked to reduce” the humidity levels at a printing company in Brooklyn 1902. By 1922, some version of the unit was available for purchase, and the technology was installed into government forums such as the House of Representatives in 1928 and the Senate in 1929. The exact installation dates are important as the House and the Senate would’ve been the ecologies actively maintaining and upholding segregation. And they did so, mind you, comfortably throughout the summer. Their homes are constructed, always constructed, around maximum comfort through the discourse of permanency.

The installation of this technology into their environments was prioritized by the segregating leisure class. Only a few years later by December 16, 1932, the board members of the to-be-opened Frick Collection in New York City, which included the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Andrew Mellon, and Walter Hines, received an “Air Conditioning Estimate” from the office of architect John Russell Pope, who laid out the intricate and slight variations between temperature controls as follows. I quote at length to demonstrate the seriousness of the venture:

A. Automatically maintain, summer and winter
75 F and 55 relative humidity; humidifier
For winter; remote thermometer and hygro-stat……..Approximately $4,000 [This would be $76,050.57 adjusted for inflation.]

B. Automatically maintain-
Winter 60 F and relative humidity 60%
Summer relative humidity not over 75%; remote thermometer and hygrostat……..Approximately $4,000

C. Hand controlled—Otherwise same as “B”……..Approximately $3,600 [$68,445.52 adjusted for inflation]

D. Automatically maintain-
Winter 60 F and relative humidity 60%
Summer straight ventilation using outside air as is……..Approximately $3,200 [$69,840.46 adjusted for inflation]

E. Hand-controlled—Otherwise same as “D”……..Approximately $2,900 [$55,136.57 adjusted for inflation]

Though the board was provided additional estimates by other consulting firms, the numbers provided in 1932 have remained industry standard. The “concurrent temperature control” of museum spaces such as SFMOMA was specified in 2018 to be 72.5°F ± 2.5°F (22.5°C ± 1.4°C). The consistency of the numbers is not the result of negligence, but so much research.

This fastidiousness can be witnessed in the boards’ correspondences and meetings about the issue. Sometime in April of 1933 for about a week or so, Rockefeller, Jr. departs for a hot-spring “vacation” in Virginia, during which he enthusiastically writes Clapp at least five times about various matters: the renovation plans, the organ, the basement, and so forth. He does not seem to be begrudgingly working while on vacation, but actively pursuing a passion project. On April 25, 1933, he sends a three-page, single-spaced letter nuancing his  problems, concerns, and agreements about the Collection. He concludes the letter by stating that he will return to New York by Monday, May 8 and can meet with “the architects Tuesday or Thursday morning at the architects’ office at quarter past nine….” Yet the issue remained opened as evidenced in a document titled, “Memorandum of Conference with Mr. Rockefeller 5:00-6:00 P.M. May 24, 1933.” Clapp writes,

Reviewed the air-conditioning system thoroughly and it was decided that it was a matter, as far its details went...was more or less a question of what the right amount of humidity and the right temperature would be, and that in that problem all the other problems were more or less tied. It was finally agreed that we would have a meeting on Friday at eleven o’clock at Mr. Pope’s office at which Mr. Eidlitz, Mr. Syska, Mr. Adams, Mr. Rockefeller, and Mr. Clapp would be present.

The archival record of their meetings distill Sharpe’s rendering of climate and ecological formation. There was, remains, ample time to construct segregated, segregating spaces. The climate encourages and welcomes such compositions. Such meetings crystalize how scarcity is a construct as there is no limit to the time and resources reserved for their proclivities.

Additionally and most plainly, their concern for air conditioning is triggering; I imagine it to be triggering for working-class and non-white workers, as well as those who’ve held and despised their bullshit jobs. The correspondences between board members and their minutes reveal how nothing was spared. Everyone was available to meet, to have additional meetings to revise and meet again. They had the time to get this right. The process was set to be injury-proof: nothing was rushed or compromised. They gave themselves space; they gave themselves what was required to make decisions. Together, they constructed the site we have normalized as the art museum. No details, no expenses concerning care for the space and its temperature—a care for its objects—were denied. For this, there was so much time.

*

Idealized object conservation at an elite institution, where the endowment cannot be researched too closely and the board member list reads like a diatribe against humanity, looks like: protection against touch, exemption from humidity, from environment, from too much heat or too little, from the notion of unruly temperatures. It looks like: optimal chances for survival

To remain intact, to remain undamaged and removed, from not just touch and harm, but from the possibility of context and history

At a moment (all the moments) in which who or what receives care, what kind of protection (against touch, against environment), and why seems to be the distance between life and death

*

Susan Cahan makes the argument that the founders and board members of powerful museums saw what was happening in the world, and purposely decided to keep museums as white and segregated as possible. Biographers of Carnegie, Frick, and Rockefeller have all remarked on how their philanthropic ventures began after strikes and union-busting. Their universities, libraries, and museums sprang directly from the forced wealth transfer made from the land and workers in the form of their-and-future working conditions. Everything they left behind was looted from them, and in turn, the future. 

And this was clear. Workers commented that Carnegie would build the town a library only after he had broken their union, wondering who the libraries were even for. They mocked, “Carnegie builds libraries for the working men, but what good are libraries to me, working practically eighteen hours a day?” The father of philanthropy would go on to “gift” almost 2,811 libraries in the US and UK. When I have tried to discuss this in contemporary conversation, I often cite James Cuno, President of the Getty Museum who absurdly affirmed the exchange between person as object by stating, “We do take refugees. I think we could take refugee objects as well.” The interviewer questions whether we can protect human beings, too, and Cuno responds by not responding, quibing pathetically that the objects are part of the world. Then the interview ends. Such associations—be it a denial of workers’ rights in pursuit of philanthropic enterprises to contemporary museum policies—lays bare the power dynamics between their future and this world, and how it does not differentiate between person and included object.

I imagine a reader responding that Rockefeller and Clapp could get their temperatures just right, that Cuno can say what he pleases, because it was is their money, their time, their freedoms. Do we accept, as Marx analyzed, that “in capitalist society, free time is produced for one class by the conversion of the whole lifetime of the masses into labour-time”? And that the museum space is simply another manifestation of their free time? And so, by extension, that a relationship to this space is foundationally tributary and measured through submission?

*

Some art objects—at times, not always—are included, displayed, cared for. Some of the people (do we call them artists? artisans? fabricators? workers?), the communities, the lives of those who make, surround, and do not make said objects do not receive this care. And then there are those entirely excluded from the echelons of the leisure and controlling class. To be included, yet not a member of this class—it seems, at best—is to be included as the output called the object. The formation called the condition of life—inconsequential, if at all.

Many vital critiques of these formations have been made before. In “On Being the Object of Property,” Patricia Williams analyzes the legal history of chattel slavery, anti-Blackness, and objecthood. She writes,

...white people see all the worlds beyond me but not me. They come trotting at me with force and speed; they do not see me. I could force my presence, the real me contained in those eyes, upon them, but I would be smashed in the process. If I deflect, if I move out of the way, they will never know I existed.

There is the life of Objecthood, and there is the measured immorality of the chosen art object. There is the temporary, tertiary inclusion of the output of your labor (the conversion of your whole life) into buildings that are constructed, controlled for a temperature in which you cannot reside. 

*

I am writing this as close friends send me lists of things to buy in case of an emergency. Are you okay? My current fridge is small, functionally-fit for one person and holds: yam noodles, hot pepper paste, strawberry jam, and some celery. The cold will protect them from going bad for about a few weeks, maybe more. Beyond this I work to remember everything I’ve ever tried to preserve but cannot imagine having something for more than a few years. Are you okay?

I remain foolishly and faithfully tied to evidentiary procedures. I want so badly to write things that supply us with ammunition for the present. I describe this endeavor to the people I trust, and they ask me why I continue to pursue a failed project, the colonial fallacy of: linguistic clarity, proof-submission, and academia? Their questions hold the most useful critique of not just this text, but the construction of my being. 

While I try to respond to these questions, the artist Juwon Jun asks me about a line in a poem I sent her a few months back, in which I wrote:

Your condition, as constructed in this moment in this body in this corner is so specific you hope it fails reconstruction. If there are no more yous to be understood. When there are no more yous desiring to be understood.

I don’t have an answer and I can’t seem to give up the procuring of evidence. Who am I even showing this to anymore? I have thoughts and then I do not know and:

For a long time I have wished for many things to be fully, and wholly, concluded. 

*

This essay began as an attempt to be a small compression of the research I’ve done the last few years on robber barons and their private museum collections, and from the beginning it was not enough—it could not say enough. Because, to be clear: more exists (beyond what I’ve collected), and beyond that, there exists much more. As in, there is much evidence that strives as proof. Instead, this essay became a mediation on all that remained never written through my research endeavors. I wanted to remind the abstracted reader and myself about the subject working through the contradictions of language: the medium in which my objecthood most intimately resides (how do you remain |un| conquered ).

In this communique I also wanted to say something about how there is no such thing as good accumulation (did I say this enough? was there enough proof was this point emphasized clearly?), the good capitalist (how does narrative give up on this narrative), or the good source of income, and simultaneously, nothing they have is theirs. As calls for wealth redistribution and wealth abolition become conflated and muddled by liberal calls for philanthropy, I wanted to say something about how we need not be apologetic for anything: “accepting” a grant, payment, salaries, needing simply needing. There is nothing to feel good or bad about. I wanted to say something about the necessity to overhaul the narrative that many accept and a few select benevolent give, and that it is up to us to ethically decide what to accept and reject. I want narratives that wholly deny them property: of singular ownership to resources, of legacy, of the possibility to project their visions into the future. I want the burden to be shifted from us (me) having to perform endless research into the facets of their ongoing anathema. I want the trial of our lives to be over. Not simply because I believe they are the guilty and never tried, but because I see how we carry the weight inside of us. I want to understand our desires for ourselves and the future and all I seem to understand is their desires and their future. Their hold is real and so is our lives. And so how to resuscitate the end.

I do not desire inclusion into their visions for the future the world. I want their monopolies destroyed.

And in the meantime, forgiveness for all that resembles surrender

Juwon Jun. Self-Study, 2020. Courtesy of the Artist.

________

Acknowledgements:

I wanted to thank Latipa and Yusef for inviting me to be part of this issue, and for their editorial and critical guidance. I am so grateful to have been read, edited and cared for by them. Vivian Sming provided me with sharp editorial suggestions; Juwon Jun shared her work with me and allowed me to reproduce her drawing; Michelle Caswell and her family have been sharing the vegetables from their garden and the presence of their lives, making the act of writing and living enjoyable. Thank you. Kim Nguyen, Jennif(f)er Tamayo, Lucas de Lima, William C. Anderson, Allia Griffin, Kylie King, Bhanu Kapil, Yelena Bailey and Joseph Kim have been my interlocutors throughout this process and I continue to be transformed by their love.

________

Juwon Jun is an artist living in New York. She currently studies Women's and Gender Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

Notes

  1. I thank the poet Cassandra Gillig for reminding me of this line on Twitter, some years ago.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content