Minh Nguyen’s essay response to Leena Joshi’s exhibition “home island bye bye”
stills from “Profit TV” single channel video. 2016
In the Middle Ages, European theologians asserted that melancholics, characterized by long-term despondency without cause, were gifted clairvoyance through vivid dreams. Sadness was sign of a wise spirit, a supple spirit, a spirit described by the Italian monk Tommaso Campanella as “more subtle and more gifted than the spirit that is too thick.” The thick-spirited sought in the melancholics to analyze their dreams for auguries. When my depression worsened this year, my horrible sleep yielded paltry dreams, and I became more depressed, paranoid that I wasn’t smart or deep.
2016 was a year of sleeplessness for both me and Leena, and 2016 was definitely not a year of foresight. Our sleeplessness is a symptom of our depressions, separate and simultaneous, that had been long-simmering, all to boil over after the election. When they boiled, hot foam frothed everywhere. We spoke about it openly. We sent each other photos of ourselves in bed with 5pm light on our faces, depression foam covering everything. The foam was even on Instagram. At one of the worst periods, the subject of our insomnia Instagram DMs got really specific: misguided instructional cooking videos. Videos of overly-complicated and inedible recipes. We shared them and tore them apart dramatically, distracting ourselves from the reality that we had to get up in a few hours.
“WHOSE LIVES ARE SO TOGETHER that they can arrange a serving of rice in a lattice of cheeses” – 3:45 AM
“It’s worse, it’s a lattice of egg!!!” – 3:45 AM
“I can’t sleep as usual, been trying for hours, lol” – 4:15 AM
There’s a joke that goes something like, how do you express your depression on the internet? Start with ‘I’m so depressed’, then add ‘lol’
“I’m so depressed lol.” The marriage between comedy and depression is eternal.
One of our favorite places is Bush Garden, a karaoke bar that paradoxically retains the feeling of being a secret despite the fact that everyone in town knows about it. We would suck our diluted gin-and-tonics through two small straws and brush our hands across the laminated pages of the karaoke book. Which tragic songstress would we be tonight? At karaoke, your anguish was melodic and it had an audience. Around Christmas, the trees come out in rampantly plastic blue and white, along with the colored lights that make the room look wet and smeared, an effect that backdrops movie characters in scenes of attractive tragedy.
I won’t go on about Bush Garden because there’s a whole essay in me about that place. I think there’s a whole essay about Bush Garden in most people I know. There have been long-time warnings the place will shutter its inviting double-doors for good, and many have written about its charms and powers. They call Bush Garden one of the last hold-outs in Seattle. There are so few ways to truly hold out.
“Let’s go sing one song,” Leena says after dinner. “One song” is the most blatant lie in our friendship. Folded into the plush booth seats among strewn bags and jackets as if in someone’s apartment, we typically outstayed everyone. On one occasion of this pattern, we had been talking about people moving away before we got to Bush. I pulled out my phone to read the Facebook status of my close friend Marcel, who finally left Seattle after years of dissatisfaction. I read his words out loud, pacing each sentence with gravity and emphasis. “I had to let some things die in order to give life to other shit. I had to quit.” Halfway through I started crying and Leena started crying. We cried at each other as someone’s pop performance washed over us. “I want to leave.” “We’re going to leave.”
Where was my origination? people always ask. you must tell others where your allegiances lie, to whom you are an ally, and that implies the fact that you know yourself. at some time when in between on a plane over the atlantic I got stuck. my skin stretched over the whole earth, thin with distrust.
– Intro text from ‘Profit TV’
We constantly talk about leaving, and moving away from Seattle is the literal idea. Sometimes I wonder if I’m mistaking the desire to escape what ails me with the desire to put my body in a fast-moving machine and let it jet me away. The older I get, the more aware I am that our so-called site-specific depression, this blame we place on geography, is too easy. It may meet up with us eventually, despite our grandiose plans to outrun it. And even if we could, even temporarily, where did we want to go? Somewhere we can sleep better? Somewhere we can read the news without feeling scrambled with nausea, fear and hopelessness? Somewhere we can be less suspicious of people’s intentions? Somewhere we could feel at home? I’ve mentally ran a magnifying glass across the nation to find this place but came up uncertain. We could go to the lands of our families, but our years in America are rubbed on us. Vietnam and India, those aren’t our homes either.
The word deracination comes from Middle French to refer to the literal uprooting and eradication of plants. It also means to remove something or someone from their “native roots.” I read about this word in an essay Keguro Macharia wrote called On Quitting, about his decision to leave the University. He expressed the feeling of deracination as “to be loosed, to be unmoored”, like when a ship is slipped away from its anchor. I’m not sure if I feel unmoored as much as I wonder if there was ever an anchor for my vessel.
Before Lauren Berlant wrote the widely-cherished book Cruel Optimism, she was part of an art collective called Feel Tank Chicago, which operated with the goal of expressing “public feeling” or “political emotion.” Unlike obscurantist art language, FTC was informal and tongue-in-cheek. For their International Day of the Politically Depressed parade, participants were invited to show up in their bathrobes to indicate their fatigue, or in t-shirts that read “Depressed? It Might Be Political!” They wanted to depathologize depression. Unlike the monks in the Middle Ages believed, depression wasn’t an innate gift from a higher power but the manifestation of the body’s response to external conditions. Depression isn’t your biochemical imbalance, your gift or curse.
Ann Cvetkovich, who authored Depression: A Public Feeling, writes that depression can be “traced to histories of colonialism, genocide, slavery, legal exclusion, and everyday segregation and isolation that haunt all of our lives.”
I never needed affect theorists to tell me that the paralyzing sense of hopelessness is political. As a person of color, that fact seemed self-evident. And yet, what Feel Tank Chicago never got to addressing was the tension between the performance of affect as a gesture of political protest and the internet’s techno-utopian project of the transcension of race through representational multiculturalism, resulting in what we have today as what artist manuel arturo abreu calls the commodification of identity. Political involvement in the art world can amount to a cherry-picking of marginalized identities (one queer artist expressing their struggles, one refugee artist, and so on), conflating the relationship between pictorial and political representation. Galleries and museums circulate affective art by the marginalized to gesture at political investment and solidarity with those communities at large. It is the foreign entrée in the aesthetic buffet. Behold! My depression.
A refusal to play into the appetite of the market, to speak to one’s marginalization and provide catharsis for those who mix up sympathy and political action, is often at the artist’s disadvantage. Capitalizing on the zeitgeist will help you get paid, and who doesn’t want to get paid? In times of fiery political unrest fanned by the online circulation of images through traditional and peer-to-peer media, there is even less investment in marginalized voices when they aren’t pedagogic by white standards.
You create straight-forwardly and voice your pain in a consumable way, and the industry traditionalists will sneer and call you obvious. You abandon making any appeal to your humanity, and risk losing a wide audience and thereby monetary opportunities. Art critic Merray Gerges writes, “BIPOC [Black Indigenous People of Color] artists are given two simplistic and contradictory options: 1. Make identity politics “your thing” as a native informant who epitomizes this category; languish in cultural centres funded by fickle equity grants; risk alienating white audiences; or, 2. Assimilate the language of white formalism; whitewash yourself to be palatable enough not to make white people uncomfortable; risk alienating your predecessors and others like you.
You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.”
I can only end by expressing what Leena’s work means to me. It’s about the fatigue of being a female-identified person of color in the specific terrain of art, but that’s not the nucleus of the work as much as it is the sheer but all-encompassing membrane. It’s about feeling that the place you’re in is not your home while suspecting that your home may not have geographic coordinates. It’s about how, despite the vexed history of sadness, sometimes the sadness isn’t articulate or interesting: you pace the streets and go to karaoke and lay in bed hours after waking, letting the foam bubble over everything.