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To Hold a We

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), Michel de Certeau offers, as a quintessential example of the tactical, the practice of “la perruque,” the worker’s poaching of time from within the factory, under the reign of the machine, to engage in an activity for the worker’s own enjoyment. It is an activity that is “free, creative, and precisely not directed toward profit,” a practice of consuming or wasting time that inscribes a different tempo and rhythm of being into the very space ordered by the abstraction of labor. For de Certeau, tactics—as an “art of the weak”—are produced out of the necessity to live under conditions of an increasingly inhospitable terrain: the tactical as a mode of habitation. Through tactical practices, one adapts to these conditions but also persists as differences-from-within. The efficacy of such practices lies in the tactic’s absence of a proper place, its wile, how it operates blow by blow, appearing as “cracks, glints, slippages, brainstorms within the established grids of a given system.”

Park McArthur, Ramps, 2010 – 14. Installation View: ESSEX STREET, New York. Courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET.
Park McArthur, How to get a wheelchair over sand, 2013, Digital C-print. 8 1/2 x 11 inches. Courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET.

As we reconsider the politics of the tactical, I offer another instance of “la perruque” as an example that qualifies de Certeau’s claims. In Harun Farocki’s film Inextinguishable Fire (1969), a worker at a vacuum cleaner factory pockets one part every day to build a vacuum cleaner at home, but the result of his assembly always turns into a gun. A student, played by the same actor, poaches parts from the same factory so as to prove that the factory actually builds guns, but the result of his assembly at home is always a vacuum cleaner. The sequence ends with an engineer at an electrical corporation, still played by the same actor, who declares, “The workers think we make vacuum cleaners. The students think we make submachine guns. This vacuum cleaner can become a useful weapon. This submachine gun can become a useful household gadget. What we manufacture depends on the workers, students, and engineers.”

Inextinguishable Fire was released during the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, and the film underscored the dispersed but coordinated system of the military-industry complex through which viewers at home are implicated in televised scenes of atrocity from afar. To bring the war home is to show that the vacuum cleaner is a gun, and that the gun is a vacuum cleaner. The sequence above emphasizes how practices of everyday life become part and parcel of “the established grids of a given system” through an intensified division of labor, and the production and exploitation of differences. How is the sphere of the tactical implicated in the reproduction of capital-labor relations? How might the vacuum cleaner become a useful weapon? How might the submachine gun become a useful household gadget?

In his cultural anthropology of consumer society, de Certeau’s evocation of the tactic as “a guerrilla warfare of everyday life” not only sought to assert the productive, creative aspect of the activity of consumption, but also insisted on its radical otherness. In his account, the activity of consuming, or “using,” is tied to the production of a lived, embodied space, and to the time of habitation, which adapts to but also persists beyond—and for a fleeting instance, possibly undoes—the grids of a strategically planned space. As an example of such habitation, de Certeau provides the famous example of “walking in the city,” emphasizing the mobility of pedestrians, “whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.” In contrast to the rational, geometric ordering of space, epitomized by the rigid 90-degree grids of Manhattan, the spontaneous, scattered mobility of pedestrians “remains daily and indefinitely other.” For de Certeau then, we do not merely conform to the order of things, but we live it, and, in living it—from the thicks and thins of the movement of our bodies and desires—we create differences-from-within. But, what of the grids’ materiality? Is there a temporality and contingency to be located therein, a temporality that complicates de Certeau’s phenomenological account of a binary of lived space vs. geometric space, precisely as the latter marks particular bodies as less mobile and therefore more expendable than others? How, for instance, would we locate the tactical in relation to the development of new technologies of surveillance and control that seek to capture and codify the “otherness” of lived, embodied space? What of the increasing precariousness of working conditions that necessitate the micro-scheduling of shifts according to ever more detailed calculations of needs and desires, conditions in which the routines of the everyday are now marked by the absence of routine and habit? What of the deterioration of living conditions according to which the grid itself is but a series of temporary fixes?

As a praxis of the politics of the tactical in contemporary critical art making, I offer a recent work by the artist Park McArthur that fleshes out the grid, as it were, bodying forth its logic of inclusion and exclusion, absorption and expulsion. Through McArthur’s work, we exceed de Certeau’s terms, to find the tactical not so much as a mode of habitation as negation.

In a 2014 exhibition at ESSEX STREET gallery in New York City, McArthur displayed, in the form of a grid, twenty ad hoc ramps, which, for the most part, had been provided to accommodate her high-powered wheelchair, upon her request, by various art institutions throughout the city from 2010 to 2013. For the duration of the exhibition, each institution from which a ramp had been removed was asked to display the following sign: “Ramp Access Located at Essex Street.” Displayed within the constricted space of the gallery as a sculptural installation entitled Ramps, the eponymous structures called attention to their haphazard materiality, the idiosyncrasies peculiar to each individual unit, as well as the lived experience of repeatedly negotiating (or not) the added steps necessary to enter through a door. Dislocated and disjointed, the ramps stood as evidence of so-many temporary fixes, materializing a pronounced distance between the sign and its referent, between the declared function of a ramp and its realization. We were made to confront an offer of access that was also access denied.

Which bodies or specific capacities of bodies are seamlessly absorbed into the social fabric to become a part of that mobility that de Certeau celebrated? Which bodies are resisted, rejected, and expelled, categorized as excessively dependent, burdened with an extra cost? For the critic Andrew Blackley, Ramps visualized an “interpersonal geometry” so that the elements of the work “described an impasse as much as they implied a correction to one, binding space as much as describing a division of it.” As McArthur explained, so many of the structural forms of “access”—“an elevator, or a ramp, or signage in braille, or affirmative action, or a loan”—depend upon “a minimal relational proposition.” “A ramp can get a person in and out of a place,” she continued, “but what about what happens inside?” This query echoed in the form of the URL McArthur posted on the wall opposite the ramps. That web address directed viewers to the Wikipedia page the artist had created for the disability activist and writer Marta Russell, who argues that we need to move beyond the demand for ramps, and instead toward an interrogation of the political economy that produces and reproduces disability as an incapacity that a particular person bears as an identity, a difference now policed by the shape-shifting logic of the grid.

According to an interview with McArthur about Ramps, her initial idea for the exhibition was to take ramps from three or four construction sites, to take them again if they were replaced, and to accumulate them in the gallery—an accumulation that speaks to, in her words, “construction as a never-ending reality in Bloomberg and post-Bloomberg New York [that] closes off sidewalks at every turn:” a monument of sorts to speculative capital as well as to the tactic of doubling back, taking up time, opening up another route. As the artist points out, “there’s always another set of possibilities when you double back.” In a 2013 work by MacArthur, How to get a wheelchair over sand,we see a makeshift road, another temporary fix, improvised by the artist’s colleagues and friends, so that her wheelchair would not spin and sink into the shifting groundlessness of the sand. If this work could be seen as a charged allegory of our time—the groundlessness of crumbling roads and buildings, soaring rent, rising tuition and debt, the lack of access to health care, pubic transportation, clean air and water—it is also a testament and love letter to the tactics of resilient labor and intimacies of care. From these series of relations, the correspondence between two or more bodies, their lexicon of movements, behaviors, gestures, and expressions, McArthur, in collaboration with the artist Constantina Zavitsanos, creates “scores”:

Learn how the you of your body and me of mine work our mutual instability together.
Learn how the instability of holding while moving is a moment.
Learn that to move is to hold a we.*

* Excerpt of “Score for Lift and Transfer” in Park McArthur and Constantina Zavitsanos, “Other Forms of Conviviality: the best and least of which is our daily care and the host of which is our collaborative work.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 2013, Vol. 23, No. 1, 128


Soyoung Yoon

SOYOUNG YOON lives in New York. She teaches at The New School and at the Whitney Independent Study Program.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2016

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