Kiskadee: Vacancies

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By Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Welcome to Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted, black-masked, ruffling and squawking celebration of nonhuman vitalities. In this column, you’ll find true stories of nonhuman beings living extraordinary lives, defying human comprehension, and inspiring masterpieces.

“Who or what will fill the vacancies after we have passed through?”

-Summer J. Hart, interdisciplinary artist

Shut down, locked down, empty, empty: One Commerce Square, a skyscraper in Philadelphia’s central business district; one of a pair of towers daring in glass and marble and office piled on office piled on cubicle the mere sky to challenge their prosperity; but the fountains are dry, the space-age lobby is empty, in a strange not quite triangular corner is no longer an ATM. Shoes don’t clack the marble floor, phones don’t jangle the air, demands and congratulations don’t trample the silence, don’t dare touch it.

Unsaid: What is prosperity and whose? Unsaid: Was this place ever yours? 

Not certain there’s ever been a silence quite like this. This silence you can hear under the sirens. Silence born from mortal terror of a microbe. Also from nonhuman trafficking via the exotic food markets and factory farms to which the microbe has been traced; the agrilogistic prosperity that some say is the foundation of human civilization. 

I can’t get to that corner where the ATM used to be. I can’t see that tower that was built to be so prominent. I can’t leave my island, nor can you leave yours. But how I’d love to run my hands through the secret in that little corner. The way it is in the jpeg makes me want to swim among it. A kelp forest. A ghost-white kelp forest with jellyfishes whose heads are light fixtures in the ceiling, their tentacles are paper leaves just like the forest, all is delicate white paper. Some of the leaves are hollow, some full white like little veils, so fragile I would be afraid to touch it even though I want to. 

Listen now, from a speaker hidden behind the foliage you can just hear… scrape and smack… if you’ve ever heard a parrotfish scraping bits off the coral reefs and munching, it’s like this… very quiet; you have to listen carefully for breath and snip. Perhaps it’s the jpeg, perhaps the reflection of the paper tresses in the marble floor, or just because I can’t visit the ocean, that makes ghosts of sea-forests and invisible fishes of these paper vines and paper sounds. They could be terrestrials. Vines of the land, weeds of the under-asphalt earth, rebels from the tree- and flowerbeds outside could reclaim One Commerce Square before the ocean reaches it. Them and the spirits of flora that were cut down to make room for this city in the first place. 

The white suspended boughless forest in the abandoned marble corner could be ghosts of the future, premonitions of what this place will be when the silence isn’t shelter-in-place but the gone-forever hollow of the extinct. Or it could be a manifestation of a long-ago murdered forest channeled by a medium, the artist, Summer J. Hart… Or it could be a new species, a “synthetic species,” proof that the human and humanmade were never not “nature,” even as what is envisioned here, what has crept into the skyscraper through this no-longer-prosperous corner, is a world without humans. Art about no one’s there. Or rather: this artwork called Unsaid, which is about those who were there, should be there, and will be, only they aren’t human although they will be born of what we have done in this Anthropocene. They will reclaim this place from the concrete and plastic which has transformed all kinds of forest beings into urbanites.

Photo: Courtesy of Summer J. Hart

Hart wrote to me: “I think of [Unsaid] as a single organism emerging out of the space. It is my first public piece & I installed it two weeks before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic & the world shut down. The idea of a synthetic nature climbing the walls & illuminating the inside of an abandoned skyscraper until the either the doors open or the earth pulls it down is sort of delicious, but hopefully it will be seen / heard as well. Hidden behind the wall hangings is a speaker playing, very softly, the sound of me cutting the Tyvek sheets out of which the pieces are made. It’s only audible by pressing an ear to the wall. It’s reminiscent of insects carving through a box bush or human breath. It’s the creation story of the piece.”

Tyvek is synthetic paper. It is plastic, not from trees, you can cut it and write on it but it won’t tear easily like dead-leaf paper. “The idea of creating an invasive, mutating, metastasizing nature that reclaims a post-human space out of a human-made product that mimics one made from cutting down that very nature, is compelling to me,” Hart wrote, not knowing Tyvek, designed by the DuPont Company in Japan, is what healthcare workers are wearing to protect themselves from this horrible microbe. She had no idea her vision of the beauty which is possible without us would share its material, its flesh, with the hollow man-shaped coveralls which are made to give us hope: it’s an accident of timing, a co-incidence; a together-happening of Hart’s quiet artwork, which from its forsaken corner reaches over temporal oceans to brush up against, with echoes, ecosystems past and future and the microbial-global crisis which has as if snagged every human and suspended us in the taut in-between-time just before the present moment topples over into the unsayable next.

Unsaid: One Commerce Square is the bud of what we call a ruin. A building that’s been abandoned by its humans. A giant leftover for the rats, the rain, the weeds of the earth. Ruins are ghosts and premonitions of every edifice’s future. Hart enjoys dreaming through “neglected spaces,” humanmade places humans forgot. 

“I’m drawn to former industrial buildings & the kinds of interstitial spaces that might go unnoticed. Under the stairs, odd corners, alleys, that kind of place… layers of peeling paint on walls… crumbling textures… Nature always creeps in to reclaim these spaces. I mimic this with a synthetic species.” 

Synthetic species. A building is a synthetic species. An anthropogenic structure has humanity in its inorganic flesh. Part of what makes a thing is its history. Another part of what makes a thing is its molecular constitution. If its history is human, its molecules selected and positioned by humans, then a building is part human. An artwork, any artwork, is another synthetic being. A thing that lives its own life in its own body born, like all of us, of shared histories and bodies. 

A building is human and not human. Is an abandoned building more nonhuman than it was? Is it more itself than it was before? Like a child that’s left its parents’ nest. Unsaid is “about obsession & storytelling,” Hart wrote. Obsessive as an artwork as a process: more snipping after snipping and more snipping, joining, joining leaf after leaf overleaf and more joining. Stories maybe of determined, of obsessive becoming: living is the relentless becoming between living and dying, living is always in between. For synthetic species like the building (synthetic: formed by combining elements, one of which is human agency), or like the human who is constituted of things like gut bacteria and digested oranges, living means trembling all the time between here and there. Between human and not, between water and solidity, between what is called reality and what’s not, between then and now and could, between betweens. 

Hart wrote: “This is an interstitial place—somewhere between waking and sleeping, life and death. It is both ancient and post-human. There is magic here, creation myths waiting to unfold.” She said, “the story is different for everyone.”

This Gossamer Promise. A promise of a life story or something like it in the place where we would least expect it, a place where we don’t go because we don’t expect anything from it, because it’s just an underside, a verso, and the upside is what we walk on. 

Hart’s Tyvek leaves and scraps of leaves, just shoots, just beginning, hanging like chrysalises from fine lines, like spiders dangling from their webs, neon yellow in the gloaming under the stairs where the light brushes but doesn’t grasp, filtering between the stairs; these beginnings of creatures are more kelplike to me than ever, are like tendrils of sargassum weed floating just under the ocean’s surface, and are also leftovers, off-cuts from Hart’s larger works. But again where I see water you might see terra; where many see cobwebs, signs of neglect and dirt, Hart sees life, creativity, metamorphoses: she said it was when “I found an under-staircase nook that was full of spiders’ webs—meticulously spun, ready to catch & consume—that [This Gossamer Promise] took shape.” Seven Days to Forget What’s Below is another of Hart’s under-stairs installations, as if the promise has been realized, no longer gossamer but with the overflowing density of jungle vines blooming rampant. As if to say this is what happens when we leave places alone…

Photo: Courtesy of Summer J. Hart

Bermudian author Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s award-winning books include the fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging, 2019); the nonfiction chapbook Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth, 2020); the essay collection Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, 2021); and the internationally acclaimed novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, 2019), which was a top finalist for American Book Fest’s Best Book Award for Fiction, an Eyelands Book Award finalist, a Permafrost Book Prize finalist, a Conium Review Book Prize semifinalist, and a PEN Open Book Award nominee. She is also the author of the collection Animals Across Discipline, Time and Space (McMaster Museum of Art, 2020). She holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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