by Nat Castañeda
I wake up most mornings about a half an hour before I have to scramble down the stairs to go to work. My apartment is on the top floor of a brownstone, right below the 7-train in Queens. If I am feeling romantic, I like to think of myself as living underneath a roller coaster. Every morning, I walk exactly 279 steps door to door, pushing my way though what I secretly call the crowd of other mutants. I have a day job in an office at a news organization. Some days it’s hard to reconcile the restrictions I place on myself working a 9-5 job because I have always assumed the free don’t work in offices. There is something in the action of returning day after day to one place that feels unnatural, inhumane even, and I was always under the impression that the grind was for the I can’t think for myself, so will you? types, dressed in the daily uniform of forgettable.
I arrive to work between 8 and 10 am most mornings. My office building is a blocky tan and white stucco pyramid; a 1970s misstep plopped between the Lincoln Tunnel and Madison Square Garden. It’s always a little awkward entering the building. On most mornings, you will find me fumbling through my bag looking for my company security I.D. that gets me through the cascade of electronic glass doors, each one bringing me closer to my workstation where I take my position. I stay there until 5 or 6, give or take an hour spent meandering to friend’s desks and trips to the coffee machine. This would all sound like quite a death sentence if it weren’t for them, the Visitors, the ones who appear only to me. My official title is photo librarian if that tells you anything. It basically means I look at old news photo negatives all day, playing photo god, deciding which images are worthy of digitizing. My edits will be transformed into data, rescued and placed in the benevolent arms of the immortal digital ether, while others are sent back to decay, cradled between acidic envelopes and crumbling gelatin skins. The archive is quiet and removed on the back right corner of the 15th floor. I can’t tell you how many co-workers say they didn’t know we had an archive, many of them have been working for the company for decades.
The Visitors prefer to not be seen, so I am sure you can see why the archive is just the kind of place they would feel comfortable in. They first appeared to me during a large edit of late 1960s southern civil rights riots. The archive is deceiving at first; when you open the door the first thing you notice is the cold air and the forgettable avalanche 15 of beige splashed over the cabinets and floors. I can’t excuse the beige, but the cold air keeps the 3 million negatives it houses from disintegration. The archive feels like a morgue, it coddles the film and prolongs its life. I have proven a trust- worthy and efficient researcher over the years so my manager gave me permission to research any topic of my choosing. All that he asked was that I keep my numbers up; I was in a dream.
I called the first visitor Old Man South. He appeared out of a cloud of chemical smoke while I was sitting at my light table after hours. His skin was grey and wafer-thin, like cheap cardboard; his teeth were sharp and white. His mouth was fixed and open, like a defensive dog. He wore a floppy hat and his downcast eyes glowed as they were fixed to the ground. He appeared for less than a minute, but I was lucky enough to have my camera and captured his image before he disappeared. Days went by and there were no signs of him. I was perplexed by the incident, but I knew full well not to discuss it with anyone. A story like that will get you shipped right up to H.R. with a note saying something like “better keep your eyes on that one” placed in your permanent file. But keeping it a secret didn’t stop me from pouring over the image, analyzing every odd turn and dark contour. I simply couldn’t place this feeling, this experience of being in the presence of such a force. There was something terrifying about him; his bones were already partially erased - pulsating, disruptive, on the verge of I don’t know what. It was as if his very essence was suspended in the moment of his highest force of living and the oblivion of death.
The next time I encountered the Visitors they appeared in a group of three. It was November, and the archive was particularly icy and damp. At the end of the day, all of my colleagues left and I went out to grab my 16 sweater. I was preoccupied in my research and I was in no rush to go home. Manipulated image of a negative from the Associated Press’ photo archive of 1960s civil rights riots. Since my husband left, the idea of home took on another meaning. I knew what was waiting there in those unoccupied rooms. My own thoughts filled the space, just like office life. The sensation of moving between the two places, home and work, gave me a feeling of idling, of hovering; I felt weightless. My life’s rhythm was null and flat which made everything I researched all the more spectacular. As I reentered the archive to continue my research, I suddenly heard a rumble. It was coming from the corner of the archive. As I turned the corner and walked down the aisle to approach the source of the noise and I saw them. There were three forms joined and they hovered in a lavender haze like Old Man South.
From what I could discern, although the three forms were clearly connected to one another, each possessed a corporal independence distinct from one another. The first figure had lumbering movements and a masculine countenance, the second figure was ambiguous and moved in unpredictable formations, wobbly and warped. The third figure was feminine and her arms ￼17 dangled loosely; her body was bent and her legs were askew. All of the figures backs were turned to me, and as the billows of smoke expanded, I saw the outline of a wooden doorframe. The figures pressed forward and I realized that I had stumbled upon some sort of way station or open door. The passageway of the doorframe was clear, and off in the distance, I could see there was a multitude of forms. The forms passed back and forth, inside and around the doorframe. The doorframe seemed more like a symbol or a marker than an actual object of utility. The airy masses were reminiscent of a multitude of disintegrating paper dolls, descending and ascending shadows hovered all around. I remember there was a sense of acceleration and anxiety to the Visitors’ movements. It quickly became clear that the scene I was witnessing was a moment of crisis, the origins of which are still unclear. I started to get the sense that the Visitors were about to disappear, so I took out my phone and photographed them. Just as I suspected, moments later the Visitors headed into the doorway and vanished.
Tuesday came and went; I met my deadlines and started to wander in my research; C: Carnivals, Cats, Chorus Girls.... Perfect. Yes, Chorus girls; something feathery and weightless. I grabbed a stack of brown folders filled with acidic, aging envelopes, film negatives and captions. The captions were as telling as the images themselves; bygone sentences which charm and a certain sense of historical shame. I sorted through the pile of negatives, shuffling the thin blocks of emulsion, carefully taking them out of their plastic sleeves; semi-permanent impressions of fanned out beauties, affixed, but slowly fading. There were Japanese and American girls undergoing dancing 18 drills: the foxtrot, the rumba, the cha-cha, legs in the air, with gleaming faces, super-glued smiles and eager eyes. Image of a negative from the Associated Press’ photo archive of 1960s chorus girls.
They were aspiring young things from farms, desk jobs and schoolrooms, now ready to take their places on the chorus’ front line, or so the caption read. I carefully inspected each frame under the magnification of my loupe, marking it with a crimson red wax pencil. There are so many elements to a good frame and for those with a keen eye, the recognition is instant. You know a compelling image when you see one and the rest of the unmarked frames are forgotten, forced back into their obscure origins. It took about two days to get through all the negatives. I went into the archive and placed the folders back in their slot. It was about 3pm and this was always the time of the day when my energy dipped. I got up from my desk and walked toward the coffee machine in the main cafeteria on my floor.
Passing through the hallways always produces a certain level of anxiety. Do I make eye contact and smile at everyone I pass? Will they make eye contact back with me? In the end it never really matters. Everything fades into an equalizing autonomy. The speckled commercial ￼￼￼￼￼￼19 carpeting and hovering slim tubes of florescent lights are efficient guides as I travel between the separated workspaces. There are three glass doors in between my desk and the coffee machine; each door demands a swipe of my badge for entrance. When I finally reach the coffee station and I feel a sense of relief to see there isn't another worker present. Standing in front of the coffee machine, my mind begins to drift. I try to get a hold of where I am; even the coffee is sanitized, repackaged for banal precision. My older colleagues love to recount the ruckus days when men threw typewriters across the news floor out of rage, the days when darkroom workers snorted coke in the stairwells during lunch breaks. As I stared at the coffee packets, neatly divided into drawers dependent on blend intensity levels: medium, mild, bold, I realized how far from that unruly experience I was. This realization didn’t produce melancholy. The truth was I didn’t know any better. How could I miss something I will never experience?
G.T. Pellizzi | The Red and the Black
by Nat Castañeda
In the first iteration of G.T. Pellizzi’s dynamic installation, The Red and the Black (2013), the artist exposed the often-invisible inner workings of the art world. The art world can be separated into three general spheres of influence: 1) the artist’s labor, without which art works themselves couldn’t come to fruition, 2) the art market, which can, when working in the artist’s favor, propel said works beyond their origins and provide the artist with the financial support needed to continue their work, and finally, 3) what we can call the academy, which provides the pedagogy or conversations that permeates both the artist studio and the gallery.
G.T. Pellizzi, “The Red and the Black,” 2013. Plywood, oil paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Zack Garlitos.
Pellizzi’s installation title is taken from the late 19th-century French novel,Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal, where the protagonist must choose between the two dominant seemingly disparate social spheres of his time: the clergy and the army. Cleverly, Pellizzi draws a similar correlation between Stendhal’s proposed dilemma and the choices artists’ face today. Who or what are artists to pledge their allegiance —the market or the academy? To animate this dialogue, Pellizzi erected shiny walls, drenched in a brilliant shade of vermilion, reminiscent of the hue present on traditional Shinto temple torii gates. The walls act as a shell that hides the existing structure of the gallery space, creating a room within a room. After the artist completed the construction of the walls, he offered them up for sale at the going rate per square footage on the Lower East Side real estate market, where the exhibition occurred. The collector determined the slick black marks Pellizzi painted on the wall’s surface that divided each selected and sold plot. They were then required to disclose their identity on a ledger placed openly in the center of the installation. With this final step, the art process, from production to final sale, is played out to completion.
The second iteration of The Red and the Black occurred at Come Together: Surviving Sandy, a show that celebrated the resilience and production of artists. Placed on the third floor of the exhibit, The Red and The Black appeared in a transformed state; the structure was now void. All of the sold pieces were cut away from the frame and what remained was a skeletal outline of the previously complete room. On one side of the transformed structure, we see untreated plywood, and on the other, small slivers of the formerly filled walls. Black carpeting covers the floor of the installation and at the center sits the podium and sales ledger. A small section of cut up pieces of the wall are hung recessed from the frame on the only white space near the installation. In this new context, placed amongst works from other artists, who despite economic and environmental disasters continue to find a way to produce, The Red and the Black, reminds us of what cannot be lost even after a hurricane, and that is the first sphere introduced above; the very will and the tenacity to produce and engage in the labor and discourse of art regardless of the many challenges that arise.
Juan Eduardo Gomez | Mawinzhe