Toying with Rocks, A Winning Essay in the New Art Writing Contest!
Dear readers, this week we are publishing articles by the honorable mention winners in the 2017 New Art Writing Challenge. Thank you to all of you who submitted your writing. Co-founder of the New Art Writing Challenge, Matt Kalasky, penned this lovely introduction for you…”I often use the analogy that art writing has become a fixed tool in the service of criticism. Like we are stuck using the same monkey wrench no matter what type of art we are talking about; no matter what type of art viewer we are; no matter what reader we are trying to reach. The winners of this year’s New Art Writing Challenge have, each in their own way, thrown aside the usual tools and have shown us the power of cooked spaghetti — or a flower — or a diary entry to talk about art. The best stopped trying to make sense of the work and started to unravel the art deeper into a personal mystery that epitomizes the experience of two humans looking at each other through art. This contest didn’t generate these new perspectives and manners of looking but rather it has illuminated the spectrum of writing that has always existed. This is an art writing landscape as complex, enigmatic, and empathetic as the art it examines. Get reading!” — Matt Kalasky, Co-founder, New Art Writing Challenge


Toying​ ​with​ ​Rocks
Jottings​ ​on​ ​​The​ ​Ardmore​ ​Cairn
By​ ​Nishat​ ​Hossain

“Let​ ​me​ ​know​ ​if​ ​my note-taking​ ​feels​ ​intrusive,​ ​and I’ll​ ​stop,”​ ​I​ ​inform​ ​John​ ​Muse as​ ​he​ ​sits​ ​cross-legged​ ​and hunched​ ​on​ ​the​ ​ground​ ​of​ ​a derelict​ ​lot,​ ​balancing​ ​a​ ​stack of​ ​rocks.​ ​He​ ​is​ ​building​ ​a​ ​cairn, and​ ​I​ ​am​ ​observing​ ​him.

“I’m​ ​too​ ​much​ ​of​ ​a​ ​narcissist for​ ​it​ ​to​ ​feel​ ​intrusive,”​ ​he​ ​says as​ ​he​ ​cradles​ ​the​ ​unsteady stack​ ​between​ ​his​ ​palms.​ ​“I​ ​like being​ ​watched.”

Documentation of "The Ardmore Cairn," 09/17/17; image credit: John Muse.
Documentation of “The Ardmore Cairn,” 09/17/17; image credit: John Muse.

The​ ​Ardmore​ ​Cairn​​ ​is​ ​a​ ​project maintained​ ​by​ ​artist​ ​John Muse​ ​in​ ​an​ ​empty​ ​parking​ ​lot, at​ ​the​ ​corner​ ​of​ ​West Lancaster​ ​and​ ​Ardmore Avenues​ ​in​ ​Haverford.​ ​As​ ​a frequent​ ​passerby​ ​of​ ​the​ ​lot,​ ​I often​ ​encounter​ ​Muse​ ​and​ ​his rocks.​ ​It​ ​is​ ​difficult​ ​not​ ​to.​ ​My eyes​ ​immediately​ ​jump​ ​to​ ​the visually​ ​unexpected​ ​little​ ​stone​ ​towers​ ​poking​ ​out​ ​from​ ​above​ ​the​ ​barren​ ​stretch​ ​of land.​ ​They​ ​are​ ​spectacles,​ ​as​ ​is​ ​Muse​ ​who​ ​trespasses​ ​onto​ ​the​ ​lot​ ​to​ ​build​ ​the​ ​cairns,​ ​and the​ ​Facebook​ ​page​ ​where​ ​he​ ​documents​ ​his​ ​builds.​ ​The​ ​more​ ​I​ ​watched​ ​Muse​ ​build​ ​the more​ ​curious​ ​I​ ​grew.​ ​Why​ ​does​ ​he​ ​build​ ​these​ ​stacks​ ​of​ ​stones​ ​every​ ​day?​ ​And​ ​that​ ​too, for​ ​years​ ​now?

I​ ​took​ ​to​ ​observing​ ​John,​ ​building​ ​cairns,​ ​interviewing​ ​pedestrians,​ ​and​ ​attending Township​ ​meetings,​ ​to​ ​answer​ ​these​ ​questions.​ ​The​ ​result​ ​was​ ​over​ ​fifty​ ​pages​ ​of ethnographic​ ​jottings.​ ​I​ ​concluded​ ​that​ ​the​ ​cairn-building​ ​on​ ​the​ ​site​ ​is​ ​a​ ​deceptively low-stakes​ ​form​ ​of​ ​play​ ​that​ ​draws​ ​attention​ ​to​ ​high-stakes​ ​questions​ ​about​ ​the​ ​legal and​ ​economic​ ​forces​ ​shaping​ ​the​ ​barren​ ​lot.​ ​The​ ​lot​ ​has​ ​been​ ​built​ ​on​ ​and​ ​bulldozed​ ​at least​ ​thrice​ ​now,​ ​with​ ​construction​ ​on​ ​another​ ​big​ ​box​ ​retail​ ​space​ ​due​ ​to​ ​begin​ ​soon.

I​ ​attended​ ​the​ ​Township​ ​Planning​ ​Commision​ ​Meeting​ ​discussing​ ​the​ ​details​ ​of​ ​this construction.​ ​A​ ​good​ ​part​ ​of​ ​the​ ​meeting​ ​was​ ​spent​ ​discussing​ ​how​ ​to​ ​minimize​ ​the danger​ ​that​ ​the​ ​increased​ ​volume​ ​of​ ​vehicle​ ​circulation​ ​resulting​ ​from​ ​a​ ​such​ ​a large-scale​ ​retail​ ​space​ ​would​ ​pose​ ​to​ ​elderly​ ​people​ ​who​ ​frequently​ ​walk​ ​by​ ​the​ ​lot. There​ ​was​ ​an​ ​analysis​ ​of​ ​potential​ ​left​ ​and​ ​right​ ​turns​ ​available​ ​to​ ​vehicles,​ ​and​ ​the means​ ​of​ ​design,​ ​structural​ ​nudges,​ ​with​ ​which​ ​to​ ​guide​ ​these.​ ​Also​ ​discussed​ ​were large​ ​windows​ ​that​ ​would​ ​allow​ ​pedestrians​ ​to​ ​see​ ​into​ ​the​ ​building​ ​and​ ​thus​ ​encourage window-shopping,​ ​while​ ​avoiding​ ​the​ ​closed-wall​ ​building​ ​styles​ ​of​ ​big-box​ ​stores​ ​like Rite-Aid​ ​and​ ​Wal-Mart​ ​the​ ​Commission​ ​found​ ​aesthetically​ ​displeasing​ ​and disharmonious​ ​with​ ​the​ ​historic​ ​architecture​ ​of​ ​the​ ​site.​ ​Planners​ ​and​ ​architects​ ​design spaces,​ ​public​ ​or​ ​private,​ ​with​ ​subtle​ ​nudges.​ ​Nudges,​ ​that​ ​increase​ ​your​ ​safety, encourage​ ​you​ ​to​ ​turn​ ​in​ ​a​ ​certain​ ​direction,​ ​or​ ​inspire​ ​desire​ ​for​ ​commodities​ ​displayed at​ ​a​ ​store​ ​front.​ ​They​ ​are​ ​nudges​ ​that​ ​guide​ ​how​ ​you​ ​utilize​ ​the​ ​space​ ​they​ ​are constructing​ ​for​ ​you,​ ​by​ ​promoting​ ​calculated​ ​behaviors.

This​ ​is​ ​why​ ​Muse’s​ ​misuse​ ​of​ ​the​ ​lot​ ​is​ ​significant.​ ​Rather​ ​than​ ​experiencing​ ​the​ ​lot​ ​as calculated​ ​by​ ​its​ ​planners,​ ​rather​ ​than​ ​following​ ​the​ ​little​ ​architectural​ ​nudges​ ​that signal​ ​certain​ ​uses​ ​of​ ​the​ ​space,​ ​and​ ​treat​ ​its​ ​users​ ​as​ ​imperiled​ ​and​ ​desirous—​ ​and​ ​thus in​ ​need​ ​of​ ​nudging—​ ​he​ ​uses​ ​the​ ​space​ ​for​ ​a​ ​purpose​ ​contrary​ ​to​ ​what​ ​its​ ​designers​ ​and public​ ​officials​ ​intend.​ ​The​ ​site,​ ​its​ ​rocks,​ ​its​ ​rubble,​ ​its​ ​waste,​ ​all​ ​thus​ ​become​ ​surfaces of​ ​potential,​ ​material​ ​with​ ​which​ ​to​ ​make.​ ​A​ ​private​ ​but​ ​commercial​ ​space​ ​is​ ​thus repurposed​ ​to​ ​become​ ​a​ ​public​ ​site​ ​of​ ​play,​ ​even​ ​if​ ​in​ ​a​ ​low​ ​stakes​ ​way.​ ​​The​ ​Ardmore Cairn​​ ​asks​ ​its​ ​passersby​ ​to​ ​think:​ ​How​ ​do​ ​we​ ​use​ ​our​ ​spaces​ ​and​ ​why?​ ​Who​ ​governs​ ​and structures​ ​them?​ ​Could​ ​there​ ​be​ ​alternative​ ​ways​ ​of​ ​using​ ​and​ ​structuring​ ​these​ ​spaces?

Or​ ​at​ ​least​ ​that​ ​was​ ​the​ ​neat​ ​analysis​ ​I​ ​arrived​ ​at​ ​the​ ​end​ ​of​ ​my​ ​ethnography,​ ​and​ ​am now​ ​tossing​ ​aside​ ​along​ ​with​ ​all​ ​my​ ​jottings​ ​and​ ​observations.​ ​I​ ​thought​ ​of​ ​asking​ ​John: Why​ ​do​ ​you​ ​build​ ​these​ ​cairns​ ​every​ ​day?​ ​How​ ​did​ ​you​ ​get​ ​others​ ​join?​ ​But​ ​grew​ ​afraid the​ ​truth​ ​might​ ​be​ ​so​ ​simple​ ​as​ ​to​ ​ruin​ ​all​ ​the​ ​intrigue​ ​and​ ​curiosity​ ​he​ ​and​ ​his​ ​cairns inspired​ ​in​ ​me,​ ​the​ ​intrigue​ ​and​ ​curiosity​ ​that​ ​drove​ ​my​ ​ethnographic​ ​research.​ ​So,​ ​I​ ​now turn​ ​the​ ​questions​ ​toward​ ​myself.​ ​What​ ​about​ ​these​ ​cairns​ ​moves​ ​me​ ​so​ ​much?​ ​Why​ ​is it​ ​so​ ​important​ ​for​ ​me​ ​to​ ​understand​ ​what​ ​they​ ​mean?​ ​Why​ ​is​ ​it​ ​important​ ​to​ ​me​ ​that they​ ​mean​ ​anything​ ​at​ ​all?

Perhaps,​ ​it’s​ ​John’s​ ​earnestness.​ ​Perhaps​ ​it’s​ ​the​ ​futility​ ​of​ ​what​ ​he​ ​builds.​ ​Perhaps,​ ​it’s the​ ​tenderness​ ​I​ ​feel​ ​when​ ​I​ ​see​ ​a​ ​new​ ​a​ ​cairn​ ​crop​ ​up​ ​and​ ​imagine​ ​John’s​ ​figure stooping​ ​beside​ ​it.​ ​Sculptures​ ​are​ ​objects​ ​to​ ​be​ ​pedestaled,​ ​exhibited,​ ​preserved,​ ​sold, acquired,​ ​and​ ​critiqued.​ ​Cairns​ ​are​ ​objects​ ​to​ ​be​ ​demolished,​ ​built,​ ​rebuilt,​ ​mocked, adored,​ ​greeted,​ ​and​ ​engaged​ ​with.​ ​The​ ​impermanence​ ​of​ ​the​ ​cairns​ ​throws​ ​into​ ​relief the​ ​effort,​ ​time,​ ​and​ ​energy​ ​expended​ ​on​ ​building​ ​them,​ ​and​ ​thereby​ ​the​ ​futility​ ​of building​ ​them​ ​at​ ​all—they​ ​are​ ​only​ ​ever​ ​built​ ​to​ ​fall,​ ​and​ ​once​ ​built,​ ​fall​ ​again.​ ​But​ ​it​ ​is​ ​in falling​ ​that​ ​they​ ​ask​ ​to​ ​be​ ​tended​ ​to​ ​by​ ​caring​ ​hands​ ​and​ ​watchful​ ​eyes—eyes​ ​and​ ​hands that​ ​have​ ​earnest​ ​investments​ ​in​ ​seeing​ ​them​ ​stand​ ​the​ ​vicissitudes​ ​of​ ​the​ ​lot.

How​ ​can​ ​I​ ​tell​ ​whether​ ​the​ ​curious​ ​object​ ​I​ ​find​ ​myself​ ​puzzling​ ​over​ ​in​ ​a​ ​gallery​ ​is​ ​art? Usually​ ​by​ ​the​ ​frame​ ​enclosing​ ​it,​ ​the​ ​pedestal​ ​supporting​ ​it,​ ​the​ ​repute​ ​of​ ​the institution​ ​it​ ​is​ ​preserved​ ​in,​ ​the​ ​price​ ​tag​ ​on​ ​it,​ ​the​ ​curator​ ​lauding​ ​it,​ ​or​ ​that​ ​new​ ​article on​ ​ArtForum​ ​I​ ​read​ ​before​ ​visiting​ ​it.​ ​How​ ​can​ ​I​ ​tell​ ​whether​ ​the​ ​precariously​ ​balanced cairn​ ​made​ ​of​ ​rubble,​ ​standing​ ​on​ ​the​ ​side​ ​the​ ​road​ ​is​ ​art​ t​​o​ ​me​?​ ​Because​ ​it​ ​engages​ ​and moves​ ​me,​ ​because​ ​as​ ​I​ ​walked​ ​past​ ​it​ ​on​ ​the​ ​way​ ​home​ ​one​ ​Monday,​ ​a​ ​cheesily decorated​ ​rock​ ​painted​ ​with​ ​the​ ​words​ ​“love,​ ​joy,​ ​and​ ​peace”​ ​sat​ ​by​ ​it,​ ​because​ ​I​ ​then stopped​ ​to​ ​look​ ​at​ ​this​ ​rock​ ​and​ ​laughed​ ​as​ ​I​ ​felt​ ​its​ ​cool​ ​coarseness​ ​between​ ​my​ ​palms, because​ ​I​ ​knew​ ​John​ ​would​ ​laugh​ ​similarly​ ​when​ ​passing​ ​by​ ​it​ ​later​ ​that​ ​afternoon.

Nishat Hossain is a BA candidate in Independent Visual Studies at Haverford College. Her works have exhibited nationally and internationally at venues including San Francisco Cinematheque, Anthology Film Archives, Woodmere Art Museum, and Mana Contemporary. She uses her body, the most cheaply and easily available material, to explore how its corporeal and psychic specificities clash with the habitus she continues to acquire as an artist and scholar, how her race, class, gender, sexuality, and mental illness misfire with the relationships and institutions she inhabits.


Haverford, john muse, New art writing challenge 2017, NISHAT HOSSAIN


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