From Napkins to Nappies
or, blood is thicker than water and poop is thicker than pee
by Michael Eddy
March 10, 2019
The chef had prepared gravy boats full of steaming small-batch donair sauce into which the congregants dipped carbuncles of bruschetta. Despite being ethically questionable for this crowd, Northumberland crab cakes were gobbled up because we appreciated the heart. People were both famished and full of ideas. Their voluble lips gleamed with oil in the candlelight. The room was close and warm and effervescent like a beach house wedding reception. I stood near the fruit table scattered with motley secondhand plates of macintosh slices and smoked island cheese cubes and observed the chemistry in action. Kitchen party.* My cardigan was oppressive and I removed it, and I stepped out of my shoes. A tall and beautiful figure dressed all in black stood nearby, waiting for a friend and sipping a bottle of beer. I tidied up some serviettes and cups but still felt I needed to care for something, as my profound nurturing instinct had to find its outlet somewhere, so I sidled over to the figure and broke the ice. Actually I knew who they were but I decided to conceal this factor, along with my motives.
So how have you enjoyed the conference so far? †
Yes. The weather’s been perfect.
Though present, the figure existed elsewhere, and I was very present. This was all I had going on right now, this conversation, and my awkward articulation. It’s interesting to see everyone all together like this, it happens so rarely. It’s like a reunion.
Like a family reunion.
Hm. I’ve never thought of it that way. I think of it more as a network.
I didn’t say this, Oh yes you would, well-dressed figure. But I thought it. For some reason, the notion that all this passion amounted to a network irked me. It sounded like best-practice complacency with being one step down from affirmative culture. It sounded like a debtless zone of free radicals jockeying for optimum nodal status. I said this: But it could be interesting to think of it like a family, don’t you think?
Honestly I couldn’t tell if the figure found it interesting, but all my chips were now in this game, and so I insisted, like a nerd, without decorum. What if our relations were not stilted and formal, but fraternal, sororal, I suggested. Would we take better care of one another, would we support one another and not compete? In the back of my ear I heard the unstated truthful response: Well then you have all to gain and I have all to lose.
The figure said, but we already do. I am not sure what difference it makes to call it a family. And there is a lot of baggage that comes with that term. Like exclusion. The words you used call to mind Greek-letter organizations—textbook examples of conservative, elitist and abusive institutions bent on re-inscribing particular roles like gender, class and race. Not to mention the mafia.
I felt the frisson of recognition. Yes, the language is an issue. But the problems of solidarity and equity still exist on a material level. Take families, for instance: why do artists who are parents still find themselves structurally neglected, expected to choose between professional and family life? ‡ Perhaps the familial metaphor of fraternities and sororities needs to be pressed toward reality.
The baggage is still there. How do you plan to cope with the hierarchies that structure conventional families? Who will be the artist-run centre’s Father, who the Little Sister? Also, and more fundamentally, the emphasis on families follows the larger culture’s obsession with reproductive futurism and the symbolic cult of the child. In the Western paradigm, the kid trumps the rights and desires of all others, and so there is an implicit heteronormative angle to the concept of family as an organizational metaphor. §
This assertion took my breath away, so to buy time I blurted out, I worked in China for a while, for a gallery where I sat six days a week. I didn’t know if this was a normal situation, and it wasn’t until near the end of my tenure that I asked about having a raise or regular weekends. My boss explained that I could always have negotiated my own schedule; they preferred to view the operation more like an art collective, or like a family. I suppose that meant there was give and take and improvisation based on the vicissitudes of life. There was indeed a certain amount of leeway in terms of authorship of certain roles. Not to mention they let me live in their apartment until I found my own. But we could never really directly talk about hierarchy.** Family here means dedication beyond the call of duty. So again, I think we are looking for another version of family that could inform a radical type of organization.
Two looks passed across the figure’s face in rapid succession. First, the look that China was very far from here, distant and hard to apply, perhaps an image open to development but thus far sort of glazed, exoticized, possibly irrelevant. Second that I was likely a Sinophobe. I think you’re skirting the issue, said the figure pointedly.
I don’t think we are talking about traditional families, I said. Perhaps the concept of making kin is more along the lines of how we should think of this: acknowledgment and furthering of the intertwining of our beings across territories along with numerous other actors, in other words extending family outward and deliberately toward others, within the horizon of crisis in which we find ourselves.†† Perhaps this, rather than hobnobbing, could be the frame of reference that binds us together.
The figure seemed to find some provisional sense in this. History and place also have to be acknowledged, they said, and tradition has to be defined somehow. Not simply in the terms to react against, like the nuclear family, which has held this continent hostage for the last few hundred years, but in terms of something to honour.
Yes! This seemed to be going in the right direction now.
Suddenly the figure looked past me and announced, Speaking of family, here comes my mommy!
Their friend arrived, a unicorn of affinity from an achingly distant city, and I sighed. Friends routinely replaced family as the compass of our ethical beings. It was the too-easy choice. As they chatted I turned obliquely to the emptying room, Great Big Sea marking closing time for the weary tech bro in charge of sweeping up the beer smell before this shopfront-cum-gallery space’s opening hours in the morning.
I found myself thinking of my son in class. It’s his first year but I think he has been enjoying it. He never complains except when we rush him. The class of youngsters has gotten so used to the daily rhythms established with the teacher that she doesn’t even need to tell them what to do in moments of transition like bells or pauses. They arrange their things in silence or at least without a fuss (Comme des machines, another father expressed at a parent-teacher meeting). I see my son in profile, putting things away diligently, watching his own fingers as they do what his mind tells them, as he grows and as the world around him changes drastically and yet barely and remakes itself from scratch each day and each moment. And I wished I had had the courage to have brought him here. But it is one o’clock in the morning now, and in any case I could never have controlled him all day, and then the cost of bringing him here, etc. etc.
His mother looks after the child while I am working. Despite my best intentions, it looks extremely incriminating, as far as gendered division of labour goes. I haven’t even used the new washing machine we bought when we moved into our new house, and have been hammering and drilling things like the hirsute penetrating chimpanzee of proverb.
Post-script, or, back at the ranch
Pray tell, father, but what became of that inscrutable figure?
I was impressed by my son, who uttered these words. Had he adopted the prep school style of speech that his father had always tried, by example, to instil in him? Loath to spoil the child with parental bromides in place of critical thinking, Child, I said rather sternly, thou shalt not address me as father. Just joking, but truthfully think of me as your pal and know that you are not some special saving grace for me. I am a human and so are you, and we mustn’t let our filial relation overgush what is essentially a meeting of the minds at this point. But my son rolled his eyes as was his wont and underscored his question, so, what you retreated with your tail between your legs as usual, pa? Well, this stung no matter how you cut it. I, er, well, I didn’t exactly admit the personal nature of my questioning, you see, so it appeared very much as if I was pursuing an abstract line of inquiry son, you see? With regard to the figure, I suppose they went on moving up the ranks, insofar as ranks exist here in Canada. Or they are happily living somewhere, maybe in Europe. There is no reason to be cynical about it. If there is anything I hope I have impressed on you, it is that there is no reason to be cynical. Have I succeeded?
* “Mustering the verve and warmth of an East Coast kitchen party, The Association of Artist-Run Centres from the Atlantic hosts the biennial gathering of Canadian artist-run centres in Charlottetown, September 21-24, 2017.” (italics added) Several events during the gathering took place in sheds or in small groups or involved food, lending a cosy, domestic feeling to the proceedings.
† Flotilla was the first Maritimes edition of the biannual national gathering of Canadian artist-run centres. This edition was coloured by a desire for a departure from the strictly talking heads style conference event, to prioritize presentations, performances and discussions by artists in a variety of scales, in partnerships between Flotilla as a temporary organization and participating artist-run centres, as well as individual artists. Candidly, there was a palpable distaste with the term conference, but it was used pragmatically anyhow. The alternative, festival, was much too lowbrow.
‡ “These questions drive this exhibition, asking artists (both parents, and not) to contemplate work that critiques the perception of parenthood—and more specifically, motherhood—as a liability, and move towards building a feminist space for the flourishing of labor-based practices that work with the realities faced by families.” Curators Amber Berson and Juliana Driever, from the statement for their exhibition “The Let-down reflex” at EFA Project Space (New York, 2016). Another exhibition project worth mentioning is “Invisible Spaces of Parenthood,” organized by Andrea Francke at the Showroom (London, 2012). A family or two with young children was seen in attendance at Flotilla, but nobody took up the childcare that had been on offer.
§ “ … the only oppositional status to which our queerness could ever lead would depend on our taking seriously the place of the death drive we're called on to figure and insisting, against the cult of the Child and the political order it enforces, that we, as Guy Hocquenghem made clear, are ‘not the signifier of what might become a new form of ‘social organisation,’ that we do not intend a new politics, a better society, a brighter tomorrow, since all of these fantasies reproduce the past, through displacement, in the form of the future. We choose, instead, not to choose the Child, as disciplinary image of the Imaginary past or as site of a projective identification with an always impossible future. The queerness we propose, in Hocquenghem's words, is unaware of the passing of generations as stages on the road to better living. It knows nothing about ‘sacrifice now for the sake of future generations’... [it] knows that civilisation alone is mortal.” Edelman, Lee. No Future, (Duke University Press, 2004) p. 31.
** In 2011 I interviewed the Chinese psychoanalyst Dr. Jie Zhong at his home on the outskirts of Beijing. Trained in Germany, the doctor attested to a certain amount of local cultural resistance to therapies that demand looking critically at one’s relationship to one’s parents, which can enter work through shades of enterprise familism. This is one of the risks of conceiving the field as a space of caring, that one might self-exploit and yet feel inhibited to bring criticism to others in the peer group, in the family.
†† “I also insist that we need a name for the dynamic ongoing sym-chthonic forces and powers of which people are a part, within which ongoingness is at stake. Maybe, but only maybe, and only with intense commitment and collaborative work and play with other terrans, flourishing for rich multispecies assemblages that include people will be possible. […] One way to live and die well as mortal critters in the Chthulucene is to join forces to reconstitute refuges, to make possible partial and robust biological-cultural-political-technological recuperation and re-composition, which must include mourning irreversible losses.” Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), p. 101. I avoided pointing out that Donna Haraway’s full slogan was “Make kin, not babies!”