“There is a kind of day that is very grey or brown . . . it is a mood or tone I often feel on a dreary day, waiting for a taxi before it rains or going to some kind of daily routine . . . It’s the experience of being on the street in open space, or just inside ourselves. What do we feel, what do we choose to notice and sense on a given day? It’s about the internal and external landscape of the place as I experience it.”

From "Taking note", by Nicholas Laughlin, in the August 2006 Caribbean Review of Books

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

little gestures

camouflage bench

I have been wondering about these little daily gestures and their meaning. I am drawing many little benches over and over. I may be creating another procession or grouping. Each has a name. This one is "camouflage bench." Another one, with guitars, I have called "lyrical bench." How radical are small modest daily gestures. For now they seem to suggest ways to make sense of the world by making things? I like something about the direct or blunt fact-ness of the bench image.
it is a cut-out not an image resting in a space as defined by the paper it is drawn upon....it can then sit or be placed anywhere as a sign.

Monday, May 14, 2007

looking-in sequence

looking sequence

I keep hearing this voice saying “...excuse me - do not let me prevent you from swallowing…” I feel that higher walls and tighter enclosures are really a reflection of a kind of guilt and or social aggression. Perhaps some people have given in or up - they just want to hide and have their pleasures and or privileges? Maybe they cannot help themselves but to have these things and they now see politics as about putting measures in place to protect and preserve the privilege of having…having even minor little things? The phrase "emerging head" sounds so 70's but I like it this "head" that pops up in my work all the time. It suggests being submereged in water or being behind a wall looking in. I think it also reminds me of the way bandits in cowboy movies covered their faces or some of today's revolutionary figures.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

one narrative thread


As I had said, the word “literary” could imply/require a narrative pursuit and that may limit me or demand a purpose or some kind of accountability. I do not really want to have a way through this or an idea of a way. I feel adrift, a bit lost and I am looking for and at signs. I do not want to frustrate the viewer. I am searching for empathy.
But images in sequence – flexible sequences - ones that are not fixed or overly determined feels more expansive. It feels like saying some thing twice or again the following day in another conversation and realizing some connection or what the idea was really about.
I will put forward one thread that I noticed or that just occurred to me while looking at the images. It is not new to my thoughts as someone who grew up here in the 60’s and 70’s though.
The thought of see-through jerseys, gun barrels and bodies has returned yet again. The Baldheaded jersey man operates associatively like some kind of distorted Papa Bois in the ideological forest. There was a temptation to go into the public archives to find that front-page image of the shot young woman on the forest floor but its reshaping and fluidity in memory seemed to be more capable in some way of saying something as well. It could become a way of owning that memory or feeling that I observed in those a little older than myself, then, of youthful dreams - that “Third-World-ism” of the era and in which the term “political disturbance” was used as if what is going around you – the stagnation was a normal or an acceptable or given political operation.
The “open drawers” responds to one columnist’s suggestion that our current political parties are simply opportunistic sieges on the state’s cash register by competing social cliques/groups.
So this “open drawers” seems to fit between two predicaments or characterizations that keep coming up. “Afro-Ophelia” makes a link between the Pre-Raphaelite image of Ophelia in my Nelson Reader, the book through which formal English was conveyed to me, and the front page images of the dailies which showed the dead body of a young woman who was part of a political group called NUFF. The other woman who is called “The Venus of Avianca” or “21 years and Over” brings up another related story of consumption and cash flow as we face yet another “boom.”


Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A writer's mode?

I’m looking again at the drawings, and musing over what I can’t help thinking of as the literariness of the whole sequence. I realise that they cast into clearer relief a certain literary quality of Chris’s entire oeuvre. I don’t mean just the fact that he’s an active, voluble practising critic. I don’t mean just that his works on paper, even at their most cryptic, almost always have a strong narrative sense. I don’t mean just that his groundbreaking early work, Conversations with a Shirt Jac, was in effect a soliloquy; or that his sound installations seem to play with elements of performance poetry; or that text--actual writing, the physical shape of words--recurs through his work. I mean--and I’m trying to understand--something about his mode of thought, the way Chris experiences and processes the world; his mode of thought seems essentially that of a writer. He has what I think of as a writer’s intense self-consciousness, a writer’s obsession with putting the world into words to keep the world from disappearing entirely. Drawing is his note-taking, he says, but I’m sure he also has that voice in his head that never stops detailing and describing, converting sensory facts into words and those words into sentences, so that each day is an epic novel of the mundane that will never get written, and memory is a series of inaccurately recalled quotations.


Friday, May 4, 2007

Tropical Night: random notes '06

"Right now I’m just declaring the vocabulary, and trying to get rid of some of the old stuff too . . . a lot of little ideas . . . some are just plain ambiguous. So you could see there’s a narrative -- I mean, a whole story could be told. I feel like in a way I’m still on the outside of the story, like I’m trying to get in -- it’s very much like a literary enterprise. It’s a narrative enterprise with images without really resorting to a straight comic book. So I’m using the vocabulary and trying to find my way through it."

I am not sure what I am doing with this new series of drawings.

Often, in my work, I move back and forth between the private singular process of making notes--taking note of things in the world around myself; investigating visual vocabulary--and public works aimed at a specific moment or context. Sometimes these personal reflections become preparatory notations for these public works, like “Attack of the Sandwich men” or “Terrastories”. However, over time, I have begun to understand or accept that the conceptual process itself becomes the actual work.

As a result, I returned to basic and direct materials such as pencil, paper and a few inks. I became curious as to how far these speculations/conceptualizations, with simple means, could go. I was never sure where it could, but I enjoyed the process and proceeded. I began to call it my “cultural autopsy.”

Being unsure is not very fashionable in the space in which I often find myself operating. I am more interested in conversations and investigations, rather than assertions about culture, identity and the competitive language of owning and knowing. I have always had to negotiate through and around such territorial enterprises. Of them, I have remained as wary as I am astonished.

A historical perspective?

The underlying premise that informs my perspective of art in this part of the Caribbean is derived from the knowledge that many of these islands were not supposed to be "societies" to begin with, after the period of conquest and plunder. They evolved into industrial sites managed by overseers and absentee owners. Today, it feels as if most islands are occupied by private and public regimes that continue to exploit this inherited structure or operation.

They were essentially labour camps created by Europe (an earlier version of the “Neo Con Jungle" perhaps?). The region, throughout the process, was very far away from the promises of the Enlightenment, but deeply embedded in industrial structure of Modernity. Some have argued that “plantation economy” is essentially Modern with its trans-national operations of forced and transplanted labour, extracted and transported raw materials and international treaties around trade routes.

The struggle of the creative individual in this century and particularly in the post-independence era has been about defining "value" in human terms. Today the "civic" promise, under the auspices of the "new state", is a tough product to sell to those whose lives and means of living are rooted in home-grown conventional responses to power and powerlessness. "Survival Business" for all involved is already debased and expediently shifty and shifting.

Anthropological surveys have already told us who we are, and what forms of "originality" we are supposed to entertain them with (too). So the story of our art is the story of a search for "truth". "Truth to ourselves?" It is a story about becoming, but on terms and conditions related to a historical dynamic and narrative in which we have something at stake. Questions remain about this “we” also.

Perhaps the monumental aspect of our reality rarely arises from edifices and objects but, more so, from actions, and from our very presence moving in space attempting to "be".

We were never supposed to be “ individuals” either. How to respond to something like this in a place with a history of slavery and contract labour?

The surveys now define us as units of labour or units of consumption. How to read our attempts to reconcile the traditional dichotomy between the private and public or cultural space? Often when I sit in my studio and make a mark on an empty piece of paper trying to imagine, dream or figure out something, it feels odd, as if I am boldfaced to even feel I could have that right or privilege. Who am I addressing and into what conversation is it being inserted? The drawings are as much actions as they are objects--they record an ongoing internal struggle.

The notebook page or compositional frame or territory became an arena from which or within which a sense of discomfort and outrage is navigated. So…what are these little drawings? Are they a declaration or assertion of self/experience through a series of symbolic arrangements? What am I up to in this symbolic field constructed with handwritten reflections and referential symbols appropriated or fabricated? Am I investigating my voice and voiceless-ness simultaneously and in the current social context?

Narrative & Personal Vocabulary

I am very wary of narrative, as it often feels like an imposition on experience; a rationalization that inhibits as much as it offers consolation or promises order or meaning…

Each image declares new paths and either lays to rest overly familiar concerns or allows them new readings in the shifting associative structure.

The movement from the private notebook endeavour to another, while being conscious that these drawings are now possibly intended to be displayed, has made them feel “performative.” Initially I had never imagined a viewer. I simply enjoyed the reverie and the moments of getting something down in a manner that either captured some thought or visual sensation as best as I could.

I often throw out the drawings and lose faith in them, and on other days they feel, if not look, better.

As the series grows, when I move them off of my desk and put them on the wall, the tone or the effect gets to something I sense or have always sensed while living in the Caribbean; the mood or tone of the ordinary daily visual space and its existential and or phenomenological register.
One can “read” or “view” the work from close up, or one can step back and see/experience the entire effect--the world they approximate.

During moments of political disturbance or on just bad days or dull ones…the world changes…the same street feels different according to various things like how much money you have in your pocket…etc…

the hunger


"Some people live here and others work here" is often repeated in various ways through regular conversation, and through the education and advertising systems. After travelling through the region and to other parts of the world, I feel like there is some kind of slow-motion genocide or erasure of so many lives and experiences… The image of Goya’s heavy sepia images came to mind, and of this giant devouring a smaller being… The giant looks to me like he is trapped within the horror of his own gesture.

This brown-ness or dark-ness--this sense of the night or of the recessed/repressed or the dark or in shadowed space that is not between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. with intermittent clouds, as seen on the postcards. But, this is what I know or feel often.

So I like this feeling I get--this engagement of the sensibility--something that just feels decadent?


However, each of these drawings/notations has a few lines of text, as they trigger some thought or reflection… The cake is about “manners”--being under it or having it. Imagine being sent to a party as a child and being told by your elders to never take the first slice on the tray, never take the biggest, and never take the last slice, or you will shame yourself and them. So then, why am I in the party in the first place? It's about watching a tasty but unattainable/unaffordable thing, and the way we were trained to never have such aspirations, while seeing as a daily norm others satiate themselves… and feeling like an ass in the process of understanding one's needs and interests… Like being able to see oneself as a real artist at all, like those people in the shiny magazines.


I draw a tiny mongrel that has pissed in the four corners of the paper. I draw a figure jumping from one stack of books (narrative/place?) to another… each time wondering as he descends if he will have the spring-action to land lightly so as not cause the pile to collapse, but also to be able to bounce back into the air to land on the next one as he moves around. This jumping figure recurs in my work.

In another image, it was about when you jump up into the air to look over a wall and you are about to return to the ground. You hover for just a fraction of a second before gravity pulls you back. At that moment you wonder if you will be able to spring back up again--the sense of the repetition of the gesture or effort takes its toll on you, and you begin to wonder if you could sustain it… Each time you hover you look over the wall and into some perceived domain or beguiling illusion of comfort that is so removed from anything you have ever felt or have been taught to expect in life…

hop, skip, jump

There is also the “pira” or little bench that refers to small incremental gestures that build up over time. It’s the kind of bench that people use to do simple humble daily things like weeding a garden or vending at the side of the road or shining a shoe and so on. It’s often portable and is often intriguingly worn or weathered into shape by use over an extended period of time.

To me each symbol or sign unravels over time. The old questions remain: Am I planning a new video, a series of performances, an installation, or are these notations the conceptual work itself?


Christopher Cozier

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

In the studio

Christopher Cozier's studio is half the ground floor of his house, perched on a hillside in St. Ann's. Almost one whole wall of the studio is a big wooden door that opens to the east, to the first morning light, and a view of the road below and a forested ridge above. Another wall is mostly covered by two of Chris's large drawings, from a series he worked on a few years back. The third wall is lined with untidy bookcases, disgorging art books and catalogues, and dusty hardbound volumes of classic West Indian literature discarded by a library in Port of Spain. On the fourth wall, dozens of evenly spaced pushpins make a sort of grid. Sometimes the grid is filled with drawings hanging from clips. Sometimes, like today, the wall is mostly empty.

A big wooden table sits right across the doorway. There is a strong lamp suspended above, and a tall stool pulled up alongside. On the top of the table there are bottles of ink, tubes of paint, jars of brushes; a telephone, scraps of paper with phone numbers, names, lists; a bowl of coins from various countries, a line of ornate old-fashioned soft-drink bottles, a photograph of one of Chris's sons, all sorts of odds and ends and strange objects, some of which may be artworks or fragments of artworks; and, on the only patch of clear surface, a stack of paper about six or seven inches high.

I like artists' studios. I like the sense of messy, energetic creativity I feel when I step through the door. I like examining artists' tools. I like thinking that any weird little object in the room, any little bit of junk, might turn out to inspire some unknown future work. I like catching glimpses of works in progress, peeking out from behind cloths or furniture. I like the smell of pigments and oils and turpentine, wood-shavings and clay-dust. I like the stains and splashes on the floor.

Apart from the tall stool near the table, there are three old kitchen chairs in Chris's studio. The are boxes in the corners, some labelled ("Unsorted Mail"), some anonymous. There are small shoals of CDs, bits of discarded clothing, what look like scraps of lumber. There are paintings and drawings in frames, stacked up facing the walls. There are children's toys, strayed from the rooms of the house above.

I am sitting in one of the kitchen chairs, sipping from a cup of milky coffee, staring at the pushpin grid on the wall opposite, and listening to Chris. I like visiting his studio and I like listening to him. He is a great talker, one of the best I know, never at a loss for words, plucking anecdotes from his capacious memory, weaving together recollections and observations and insights. He loves talking. One of his favourite words is "conversation". But in my conversations with him I mostly listen. Partly because I'm fascinated by his flow of words and ideas, and don't want to interrupt. Partly because his intense and effortless verbalness leaves me feeling, in turn, wordless. Images are supposed to be his medium, words mine. So why does Chris find it so easy to spin his phrases and lyrics, why do my own sentences feel like knots of barbed wire in my throat?

Several times over the last year I've visited Chris's studio to look at an ongoing series of drawings he calls Tropical Night. Sometimes the drawings--each about nine by seven inches, on thick paper--have filled the pushpin wall. Sometimes they are stacked on the table or the stool. Say seven by seven by nine inches, the stack of paper: a solid object. It has real weight. It casts a shadow. Chris talks about exhibiting the drawings like this: piled up, face down. The longer I stare at the stack, the longer it looks like a piece of sculpture, a cuboid with ridged edges, stained with brown ink.

When the time comes for me to leaf through the drawings, Chris usually finds a reason to leave the studio. I turn over the drawings like pages in a book. Each time, the order has changed. Some of the drawings have become familiar. Some of them are entirely new, not even variations on previous drawings in the series. The new ones shift the narrative, as it were; I thought I'd put the story together, but now there are fresh meanders in the stream of consciousness. I don't, after all, know where this is going.

Neither does Chris. "There are moments when I see a path, and I try to run it down." But: "Sometimes I don't want to prescribe the reading."

Reading. That is my urge: to "read" these images, like a story, like a book.

Maybe it's the "bookness" of the stack of drawings, sitting there like an unbound novel, with the patience of a book. (A book will wait five hundred years, then a reader opens it and the words unfurl fresh as flowers.)

Maybe it's the lines of text, in Chris's ornate, old-fashioned hand, that embroider the edges of the drawings, not naming or explaining, but reaching, it seems, for their own plotlines.

Maybe it's the many hours I've spent talking with Chris, or listening to him--maybe they've convinced me that he has the sensibility of a novelist, taking in everything, penetrating into the deep psychology of things and places and people. A poet's instinct is to pare away, a novelist's is to pile up, pack in, fill the room of the imagination with as much furniture, as much equipment, as much apparatus as possible.

Or maybe the "book" I'm trying to read is a reference work: a dictionary, or an encyclopedia, scrutinising the world, imagining its complexities into small constituent fragments, holding each fragment up to the light, describing it from many angles, enquiring after its pronunciation, its derivation, its possible and impossible uses.

What are the true names for these things? A small wooden bench, a distinctive triangular notch cut between its legs. A starburst shape that might be a flower or a leaf, a halo or a collar, or a setting sun. A medieval map of the Old World, continents with crinkled edges and rivers like roots or worms, writhing. Flights of hummingbirds, conspiring. Men jumping or swimming or trying to keep their balance. Monsters, sometimes one-eyed, sometimes two, stuffing their mouths with human flesh. Loaves of bread. Slices of cake. The numbers one, two, three, and seven. Dogs marking their territory. Feet. Cages and fences. The sea, or the horizon that hovers beyond. Women in Carnival bikinis. The silhouette of a young man, his bald head carrying absurd burdens, or filled with visions of all the above.

Of whose world is this a catalogue? Of whose history are these the chapters? Whose lexicon? Whose game? Whose fate?

I look up and for a moment it seems the images in the drawings have taken three-dimensional form and are populating the studio. Near-invisible lines of trajectory connect object to object, and object to image on the pages in my hands. I am caught in this web, and the whole room is washed in sepia ink. I close the "book".

My eyes readjust and once again I see chairs, bottles, boxes, scraps of wood.

The stack of paper sits on the only patch of clear surface on the table, jostled by jars of brushes.

Chris is saying: "Drawing is my note-taking, my handwriting."

I am thinking: This is not a book, this is not a novel, and in trying so hard to discern a "plot" you are seeing less and less of the actual shapes and marks before you.

Chris is saying: "I'm enjoying not having to account for myself."

I am thinking: Do these drawings "rhyme"? Do they have a "rhythm"?

Chris is saying: "If you just take this"--he picks up the stack of paper, holds it in the air for a moment, puts it back on the table with a gentle thud; it has weight, it casts a shadow—-"if you just take that as an object, what it says is, all of these thoughts are in there.

"There is no end in sight."


cozier's studio 2

[Also posted at nicholaslaughlin.blogspot.com]