Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
– T.S. Eliot
This essay was originally published on August 21 2019.
To mark the centennial, The New School approached Anna Harsanyi and myself (we are both alumni of The New School) to curate an exhibition in the Sheila Johnson Design Center. For me, the task raised many questions, bringing me back to the audacity of a name: not a new school, The New School. The name evinces the bold hope that the school will never grow old. The word ‘new’ stands in for many things. Having carried the name this far, we assume its virtue and define ourselves against the ‘old.’ Calling oneself ‘new’ is a claim to the present, and a Sisyphean task. It demands the impossible — a relentless forward motion, a shedding of skin, a letting-go of the stable identity that comes with historical continuity. And yet we still want to celebrate turning 100 — we’ll have our cake and eat it too, thank you! The New School’s centennial is a contradiction in terms, a paradox that we must somehow continue to inhabit.
I am personally wary of the very idea of a centennial. After all, how do you pin-point the start of something? Beginnings are often nebulous; institutions begin and begin again, come together and fall apart. The New School in particular has had many moving parts over the past century and has gradually incorporated schools and divisions that antedate it. (Parsons was founded in 1896, and Mannes in 1916.) Centennials are inevitably retrospective fictions; cleaning up the past and organizing it into what we call History, they tend towards neat chronologies. They beget platitudes about a ‘spirit’ or ‘essence,’ and in so doing they generalize. At the same time, however, a centennial presents an opportunity to think and rethink the past, to contest what we claim of it, and what we bring with us into the future. By marking a moment, we can open space for its complexity. Perhaps it does not have to be all platitudes.
It was important to us, as curators, that we approach this exhibition with eyes open to this complexity. The exhibition’s title derives from the historical present tense (also known as the narrative present), which denotes a way of speaking as though the past were happening right now. In acknowledgement of the ways in which the past continues to crash into the present, we commissioned thirteen artists to make new work, but work that — true to the paradox — was grounded in the past. We sought to engage artists who had an interest in archives, who were good at delving into institutional procedures and who would be able to engage in a complex pas de deux with the past.
The first work that you see upon approaching this exhibition is a monumental inscription of the phrase ‘Don’t say you don’t remember.’ The piece, by artist Daniel Bejar, repurposes a slogan from senator George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign itself appropriated by New School student protesters. Taken out of context, it becomes an ambiguous statement in the imperative mood; it is no longer clear which past we ought not forget. Sheila Bridges paints test swatches of shades with titles like ‘White supremacy’ and ‘All White Jury’ to draw attention to the political implications of the ubiquity of white walls; Matthew Jensen catalogues the street trees within The New School’s urban radius; Lucia Cuba tells stories in a few brief words that might appear on protest placards and makes them into colorful garments; Jonathan Gardenhire pays homage to a work in The New School’s collection that he would pass en route to class every day as a student; Caroline Woolard creates a game that facilitates and troubles institutional meetings using conflict resolution techniques; Nikita Gale edits together recordings of lectures at The New School in which speakers try to find out if their words can be heard on the PA; Black Lunch Table will host a Wikipedia edit-a-thon to correct blind spots in the public domain; Camilo Godoy will dance in the Orozco Room to foreground the historical entanglements of Jose Limon and soft power; Domestic Performance Agency will host a closing event building upon her collaborative work with Parsons faculty around mushroom hunting and mycelium, echoing John Cage’s experiments with mycelium at the school in the 1960s.
To curate an exhibition is to come up with a lofty idea that looks good on paper and then to do battle with the material world to make it happen. A curator’s main task is often to ask artists to murder their darlings, or at least to cryogenically freeze them. The gallery is where ambition meets time, budget and interpersonal politics. It’s also where the idea comes into a different material reality; the histories of the New School look different in paint swatches, neon, garments and nets than they do in graphic layout — a book or a timeline.
One example of this is Shevaun Wright’s piece Double Redaction. We commissioned Wright knowing that she brings her experience as a lawyer to her work as an artist; since legal documents are an enormous and often unspoken framework for any institution, we asked her to review the school’s legal entanglements, settling on a particular case in 1990 when the institution sued the National Endowment for the Arts over an anti-obscenity clause inserted into a contract with the school. She visited the archives as well as the files in The New School Art Collection. She read transcripts of then-president talking about the trial, memos circulated to the New School community at the time, plans for the courtyard design that the funding pertained to, and the contract itself. She chewed over the language and the manner of its inscription. In the end, she decided to re-inscribe the clause on the wall, but went through many different material options, each with its own conceptual dimensions.
The scale, medium and placement of the text change the meaning of the words that Wright has extracted from the archive. So too does its place in the gallery. Wright’s piece reads as a figure eight neon from a distance. It is only by approaching it that you encounter the opalescent text of the clause. At that moment the neon goes from formal shape to a politically loaded erasure. The piece also changed when we installed it adjacent to Jonathan Gardenhire’s piece Memoranda/Speculations 1 (I Ain’t Dead Yet, Mother Fucker). This piece delves into a lexicon of homoerotic imagery that would have been unacceptable under the conditions of the NEA’s clause. (Indeed some of the pieces that the artist displayed were deemed too obscene to be exhibited in the graduate exhibition at The New School.) This is a wonderful example of how two works, brought into proximity, can deepen and enrich one another.
If, as Giorgio Agamben writes, the contemporary is “a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it,” then we must be, paradoxically, out of sync with the ‘new’ at the very moment that we commemorate it. Being ‘out of sync’ implies a discordant note — unharmonious and temporally displaced. The historical present tense folds the past into the present, and while this is perhaps not discordant, this exhibition does not lend itself to a singular historical account of the institution. Rather, it is prismatic; it might be helpful to think of these works as striking various notes that don’t quite add up to a symphony. Each has a story to tell, some at the level of the institution as a whole and some reflecting personal experiences within it. Each story — whether a legal battle written up in the newspapers or something one colleague said to another in passing — is as significant as any other. Each has historical roots, but lives in the present of the gallery, and perhaps gesture towards possible futures.
I’ve borrowed a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets as the epigraph to express the idea of the past as a contested and generative place: “time future contained in time past.” This demands the constant labor of revision. As professor Ann Snitow proclaimed at her retirement party earlier this year, “We are never satisfied. As no institution ever should be.”
“In the Historical Present” is open through October 6th, 2019 in the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery | Parsons School of Design
Macushla Robinson is a writer, curator and PhD candidate based at The New School in New York.