Fall 2015 Education Program Perspective — Frances Richard, Guest Instructor
Fall 2015 Guest Instructor
Frances Richard is the author of three books of poems: Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012), The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012) and See Through (Four Way Books, 2003). She writes frequently about contemporary art and is co-author, with Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi, of Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” (Cabinet Books, 2005). She teaches at the California College of the Arts and lives in Oakland.
Why are you interested in work that responds to a place/site? Does your personal writing practice involve site/site-specificity in any way?
I am interested as a critic in site-specific and site-responsive practices in a variety forms, from the work of postminimalist innovators in sculpture, performance, and documentary practices such as Trisha Brown, Joan Jonas, Gordon Matta-Clark, Ana Mendieta, and Robert Smithson, to that of contemporary practitioners like Ai Weiwei, Emily Jacir, and William Pope.L. Disparate as these examples are, they have in common exquisite sensitivity to materiality and kinaesthesis, blended with insistence on social, historical, political, and semiotic complexity. Bodies live in spaces, and spaces and bodies are marked and re-marked constantly by literal and ideological pressures—motion, weather, breakdowns, economics, narratives, assumptions, losses, memories…. These artists invent ways of activating such complicated simultaneities.
It’s more difficult to explain how, as a poet, site or site specificity interest me. I’ll answer by giving one somewhat unusual example. I was invited a few years ago to write a poem for a collection of commissioned works (organized by Kevin Killian) produced by SFMOMA on the occasion of Mark diSuvero’s installation at Chrissy Field. This piece for me was site-based in several ways. I’m interested in landscape and osmotic exchanges between finite body-and-mind and expansive physical setting. I’m also interested in quotation and citation, borrowing from extant texts as if those texts are sites with their own motion, weather, breakdowns, economics, etc.—which for me they are The resulting piece, “Composite Emptiness,” is on a basic level about just standing at Chrissy Field looking at container ships arriving from China; it’s also about reading diSuvero’s writings and trying to forge a relationship to them, and through them (or vice versa) to the bay, the field, the ships and their contents.
How did your practice and artistic interests complement the class focus?
The focus of the class was fourfold: Using Robert Smithson’s concept of the non-site as an organizing principle or refractive lens, we looked at the geology of the Nevada City area, the history of the gold rush, and the survival of the Nisenan people through near-genocide. Given my interest in the ways that history gets written into places and bodies, and/or the ways in which bodies become carriers for histories and extensions of places, these foci were fascinating for me.
Were you familiar with the site prior to the class? If so, what aspects of the site did you choose to explore, and why? If not, what aspects did you find most compelling, and why? Did you draw any parallels with places where you’ve worked before?
I had never been to FOR-SITE before Brian and I visited as he was planning the class. I think the most compelling part of my time there was the talk/performance by Shelly Covert, musician and tribal secretary of the Nevada City Rancheria. We sat at the flat rock overlooking the Histum Yani (Sutter Buttes), and Shelly talked about how the mountains seem to move at will, zooming close in crisp detail, fading into diaphanous silhouettes in the distance, disappearing entirely. For the rest of my time on the land, I checked the view every time I passed that way, and the mountains never seemed to be in the same place twice.
Since the diSuvero example above is a little odd—I don’t usually write by commission—here are two other poems inflected by place: again the San Francisco Bay and its shipping, plus a site in the San Pablo Bay marshes, plus my old street in Brooklyn where the warehouse owned by elderly Hasidic dry goods merchants was being demolished to make way for “loft-like” condos. I’ll leave it to any reader to decide how this parallels or doesn’t what I saw of the Histum Yani.
What is one impression that you took away from this experience?
Smithson is fascinated by deep time and the compression of geochemical layers into crystals—intensely weighty, physical processes. But the concept of the non-site insists that we can never capture or fully know a place through representation, through thought. The site always escapes. From the heat and dust of the walk through the Yuba goldfields that our class took with Hank Meals, to the Nisenan artifacts and stories presented to us by Chairman Richard Johnson, to the rocks and minerals passed around during David Lawler’s lecture, to the changing views of the sacred mountains that Shelly Covert pointed out, I felt the visceral, immediate impact of the land around FOR-SITE. But it was as if each of these elements fused into all the others, forming a faceted complex that I can’t lift or see through or measure or adequately summarize.