Intended for Future Use
The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum of Assemblage Art is laid bare in the wind and the sun. The large-scale sculpture, a mix of architecture and assemblage of found objects, forms a kind of village, or small neighborhood, on ten acres of the Mojave Desert. Despite preservation of some of the major structures, nothing appears upkept. The collection of structures comprising the site resembles unearthed artifacts and edifices: softened wood, metal giving way to rust; brittle brown pages scattered from rotted books; stiff, sandswept clothing. There are columns of televisions, houses without doors or windows, dirt paths marked by street signs; real residences of a neighborhood in the distance. In an empty theater in a barn-like building, visitors may stand on the stage before a paltry gathering of metal folding chairs, or sit among those chairs and watch no one perform. No explanatory text, no explicit boundaries mediate the space between viewers and the work.
In late afternoon, there is a narrowing of shadows, and the flood of yellow light. To one unfamiliar with the desert, it does not feel like any time of day. Several hours from the site is Los Angeles, and Purifoy’s once-home of Watts, where he co-founded the community art center at the feet of Sabato Rodia’s Watts Towers. In the wake of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, Purifoy and musician Judson Powell took to the streets with wheelbarrows, collecting debris. Many objects they collected contributed to discrete sculptural pieces, and were exhibited years prior to their reassembly in this final resting place of the desert. Site construction began in 1989 and continued until Purifoy’s death in 2004. In those early years, the artist worked concurrently with the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the 1992 acquittal of the LAPD officers responsible. Between the events of the materials’ genesis and their ultimate, somewhat fixed form as a museum, is the passing of decades in which civil rights triumphs crumbled, and the practice of policing non-normative bodies, particularly those of color, increased in legitimacy as a method of organizing both public and private territory.
It is possible for art to commemorate history without explicitly setting out to do so; we know that an artist’s context might in ways infuse their thinking, process, and material. The Purifoy site is not a museological representation of the history of its materials, nor is it securely a reflection of the Watts Rebellion as an isolated event. The year of the rebellion is also the year of the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, and the assassination of Malcolm X. It reflects social conditions—racism, poverty, violence, abandonment—but also artistic ones, both pained and not, and within or perhaps despite the dark constraints a joy: there are gallows, halves of bodies arranged as if before a firing squad, a small graveyard; bright paint, mosaic pillars; inviting, shining, impossible structures; a building constructed in the style of a carousel, full of trinkets, trophies, an assortment of skis; objects unladen with any particular history. There are PVC pipes suspended at different angles, whose sole purpose might be to catch and amplify, to render tonal the rush of wind.
The material, though not the meaning, of the unreal must have come from—been wrung from, imagined by, feared by, wanted by—the real, in order to exist at this place of remove and reflection. I borrow here the Foucauldian mirror, the heterotopia, a site existing in “a sort of mixed, joint experience” with the reality it reflects. To touch the worn overalls hanging from the ceiling of one of Purifoy’s structures, to peer into a window of the dilapidated trailer, is not to relive a “real” event, but to interact with real material that was, however inanimate, a witness to and once-inhabitant of the real. The history of any one object that exists at the site is reflected elsewhere, in the textual ether of the rebellion; every object placed within the site is, as a found material, born from that ether.
The variety of the aesthetic and lack of institutional “voice” of the Purifoy site are an example of what Julie Ault terms a “decentralization model,” a museological exhibition characterized by multiple “projects feeding into or coexisting alongside one another nonhierarchically.” The museum reflects its own material’s genesis as well as narratives both within and outside of the site’s parameters. The images, the gestures considered surplus to historical fact, situate the site beyond data and beyond historiography while contradicting neither.
The site is physically made from materials from Watts, but it is not Watts; it mimics a neighborhood, is in view of a neighborhood, but is not a part of it. Every viewer, in the space of the heterotopic art site, becomes another piece of reflective surface, outside of reality. Writes Foucault, from the vantage of the heterotopic site: “I am over there, there where I am not; a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent.” The site’s existence is more narratological than historical, one of reorganized inter-object relations and concurrent temporalities. The viewer, by entering the site, has similarly entered a narrative role. They are a version of themselves, or, more specifically, they inhabit a specific version of their thinking—they become a narrator.
Mieke Bal defines narrative text as “a story that is ‘told’ in a medium; that is, it is converted into signs.” The designation of “museum”—like “film,” like “book”—establishes an artistic context, one with its own set of viewing behaviors, imposing upon the viewer a kind of self awareness as viewer, establishing “the relation between ‘who perceives’ and what is perceived.” The reader, in other words, is both reading and narrating. According to Bal, a narrator, in the most general and adaptive sense, can mean, “The agent that utters the linguistic signs which constitute text.”
The sign is divided between its sensual or material properties and its symbolic or conceptual ones; where these two “moments” meet is the dialogic site of interpretation, represented by Bal’s utterance of text. This interpretation might be most accessibly derived by the trace (Walter Benjamin), the mark of human use, the suggestion of autobiographical imprint left upon objects or spaces.
Ode to Frank Gehry is a small, square-ish white house on stilts; it cannot be entered or opened, nor can it be climbed. It is both recognizable and functionally unattainable: the modern middle class boom. Similarly, a set of bleachers are barricaded, but not by a separate barricade; there is a metal wall that is built into them, to close them off. A viewer simultaneously recognizes that they should be allowed to enter and that they are prevented from doing so. Through legible, readymade form and prohibitive addition, the viewer does not enter a physical structure, but the chimeric sensation of intuited access and denial.
State formation, or the drawing of physical and nonphysical territories, determines where and how we live. This framing teaches us what and how to desire; it instructs us in terms of failure or achievement, and how to apply these terms to ourselves. Territory (replete with visible and invisible boundaries as well as audible and unspoken permissions) is integral to the experience of the racialized subject, whose conditions differ implicitly from those of the dominant elite, both in public space and private artistic expression. “Territory is drawn from a milieu….It reflects or draws attention to intention, intention to frame, to imprint itself on the subject” (Elizabeth Grosz). This means that, for an artist, it is their intention, not merely the outcome of it, that is materially affected by the conditioning process of racialization. The architecture that frames the interiority of a subject bears in it the implications of physical spaces and how the subject experiences them.
In addition to these explicit framings, the racialized subject incorporates invisible elements of territory, cultivating a margin of expectation for their livelihood based on perception or experience of structural limitations. Ambiguity, contradiction, oblivion, and deferral might play major roles in how these subjects think, live, and create. Ideas of preservation, memorialization, or permanence—all recognizable desires of an artist for their work—might not in every situation convey the gravity or the intention of the work in question, and may even curb avenues of meaning, experience, and interpretation. I propose the following with the caveat that material permanence must be displaced as a hierarchical determinant of artistic value: if ephemerality has played a significant role in the ethos of an artist, then perhaps too it carries significance for both the symbolic and material reality of the work. The anxiety of erasure tempts artists as much as the aesthetic of the ruin tempts viewers, insofar as each presents an ineffable eventuality. But erasure cannot reveal itself with only the invisibility of an object; an object requires, in some notion or another, the trace, in order to bind its material to the violence of time. The Purifoy site articulates the condition of erasure through readymade moments of use as well as the carefully maintained atmosphere of a disappearance that is always actively progressing.
In her generation of the term “autotopography,” Jennifer Gonzalez further develops Benjamin’s concept of the trace as “a total phenomenon—a common and yet subjective practice of making identity materially manifest.” In her critical practice, Gonzalez focuses often on female installation artists of color. She examines the ways in which objects on display might constitute the “psychic body” of a subject, “a spatial annex to the mental images that, voluntarily or involuntarily, are projected onto consciousness.” An artist might populate a familiar display or archival system—such as a vanity table, or a grandmother’s living room—with unorthodox objects, to reorder the meaning that is typically assigned by or derived from religious, museological, or personal systems of organization and display. The autotopography “forms a spatial representation of important relations, emotional ties, and past events…a visible and tactile map of subjectivity…a metonymic link with past events and absent persons.” Objects reference an ordinary or domestic reality to better imply a living subject: “Clothing and cloth with all its scents and residues; furniture with all of its bodily imprints, shapes and sags from years of use; worn silverware and shoes: all of these serviceable objects receive the imprint of a human trace as the autonomy of their purely functional status is worn away by time.” The autotopography carves out human-shaped spaces, outlining absence; the key to creating an entrance into these spaces is the deployment of recognizable aesthetics of age and use. Under pressure of text, the quotidian is always at risk of collapse. It is the precision of suggestion, not of fact, which tempts sensation.
On a slow day at the art site, a viewer may find themselves completely alone. In the theater, the sound of the wind dies down. The viewer faces the altar of the stage. It is an artifact with a legible form, an obvious general purpose, and yet its narrative context remains hidden. A viewer may ask themselves questions, though these questions may vary in degrees of articulation and abstraction. Whether more related to the object within the context of Purifoy’s narrative—“What is the stage for?”—or pertaining to the role of the viewer themselves—“Am I permitted to walk onto the stage, to sit in the audience?”—these questions constitute the role of narrator. When the viewer reacts to or otherwise considers the objects of the site, they are in a sense encountering themselves as a site-specific material, as a producer of text, made of the fusion of their own thinking with the objects they come upon.
To what extent, then, can a viewer assume they are encountering Purifoy? We take into account the identity of the author—a black artist from Alabama, born in 1917, who later lived and worked in Watts, who witnessed the rebellion, who constructed the pieces of the Outdoor Art Museum during events surrounding the near-fatal beating of Rodney King—without reducing his work exclusively to a symptom of the oppression of black individuals in America. Trinh T. Minh-Ha advocates for a non-totalizing interpretation of meaning, in which the milieu of a work is not subsumed by any single interpretive factor. A work of art must be read for what it makes possible, not only for what it represents indexically. While the art field begs for decolonization in terms of artist identity and subject matter, reading art, as a practice, requires similar attention. “An art critical of social reality,” Minh-Ha writes, “neither relies on mere consensus nor does it ask permission from ideology. Thus, the issue facing liberation movements is not that of liquidating art in its not-quite-correct, ungovernable dimension, but that of confronting the limits of centralized conscious knowledge, hence of demystifying while politicizing the art experience.”
There is a way to read, to experience the Purifoy site as historical fact and social resistance; there is also the potential, through the agency of the subject, to experience the feeling of moving through materials and signifiers to experience an aspect of the historical that mixes with the concerns of the present. The water fountains segregated by race—think, for example, of water crises around the country—this is not the past. Through the windows of the locked trailer, there is wood and metal stacked against the door, and a sign proclaiming “Do Not Trespass”: a portrait of fear, of retreat, of the transformation of one’s home into a barracks—this is not the past. The historical is not absent; it surfaces in the cadence, texture, and atmosphere of the viewer’s experience; it speaks, through the fact and appearance of the material, to the viewer’s own invisible symbolic order. In this way the site is one of American lore, full of artifice and truth, woven into contemporaneous concerns as much as it imparts a sense of origin.
The Purifoy museum, by turns eroding and enduring beneath the heat and wind, worn by time and human touch, is a type of monument. Unlike most monuments, it is not defined by any smooth, cool density or permanence, but by its porosity and visceral, human-scale mark on the earth. “A general lack of cultural memory,” says Gonzalez, “within the public sphere of contemporary Western societies, is felt and expressed through individual interventions of memory against history.” History is not done away with in this process, but is reformed, expanded, and infused with memory. There is an eerie sense at the Purifoy site that the history that produced these objects is continuing to transpire; that the desert and time themselves enact the conditions of the state, winnowing away these structures until they one day turn to dust. Or maybe these are the conditions of memory—that which absorbs, changes, and carries off; awaiting the territory, and all that’s laid within it, to disappear.