In her biweekly column for Document, McKenzie Wark mediates on the work of Elysia Crampton, and the problem of letting otherness into our lives
We all go through transitions in life, some of us more than once. Sometimes, there are artists who get us through those tricky passages. I’m thinking about this while lounging in a beanbag at MoMA PS1, taking in an installation by Chuquimamani-Condori and Joshua Chuquimia Crampton.
The work features a giant wall hanging, stretched on a frame. It’s the kind of material used for the awnings of dry-cleaning businesses. The floor is brown synthetic carpet. There’s stations with headphones, providing an ambient soundtrack, while over the headphones one hears a series of voices: The artists have interviewed family members about their ancestors.
The English language title for the work is Cacique apoderado Francisco Tancara & Rosa Quiñones confronted by the subprefecto, chief of police, corregidor, archbishop, Reid Shepard & Adventist missionaries. You can see Tancara and Quiñones, who appear as revered ancestors, at the top, in an old black-and-white photograph. Flanking them are the cops and the missionaries. Below them are the remains of many centuries of cultural struggle, from ossified bones to plastic bags. As if to say: The violence of colonialism will ramify for millennia, but so, too, will the ways Indigenous people resist and negotiate it.
The artists, and their ancestors, are Aymara—Indigenous people of the Andes. The Aymara are a people who endured colonization by the Inca in the 15th century, the Spanish and the Catholic church in the 16th century, and, more recently, Protestant missionaries and the modern states of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. Cacique apoderado is a work that situates you in a long and complicated history of transitions between forms of power and ways of enduring them, from overt resistance to subtle forms of adaptation.
Over the headphones, I listen to stories passed down through family members, some of which have qualities of myth—inexplicable things that exceed both the tangible world and colonial versions of the intangible. Others are stories of everyday life from another time. Both fall outside recorded, preserved, officiating culture.
“No matter how shattering they are to us personally, in the larger scheme of things, the transitions most of us go through are banal, everyday affairs. If we weren’t such creatures of habit, they wouldn’t irk us.”
I’ve come to experience this work because one of these artists helped me with my own transitions, rather more banal by comparison. Chuquimamani-Condori is most widely-known as the recording artist Elysia Crampton, or sometimes, Elysia Crampton Chuquimia. When I first encountered their music, they presented in the manner of a trans woman. Now, I gather, they understand themself outside the Western model of gender—one that is far less universal than many people think. In an essay called “Extermination of the Joyas,” Deborah Miranda describes way colonial powers eradicated genders they did not understand as “gendercide.”
Crampton’s work has been special to me since the before times—before the COVID-19 pandemic. I was sitting in Washington Square Park one spring day with Q, who, like me, is a trans woman in the Western sense. She’d just helped me purchase my first swimsuit, since I came out. It had been an uneventful transaction. I’d been needlessly nervous. Sensing my fragile mood, Q shared with me, on her iPhone, the Crampton track she plays for herself in moments of need. It’s called “Recent Horizon.” Crampton’s spoken-word monologue starts like this:
“I couldn’t see you yet. You were right next to me, so close, eye-atom, unfathomably close, but I couldn’t tell. Pin-prick portal to yourself, you could be seen only through you… So when you appeared, (terrified of losing you that moment) I looked as hard as I could, nailing you with my gaze; arrow, I fell, exhausted in the wound of your being.”
The “you” to whom the song is addressed could be a future self, an aspect of self, or a divine other. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe they’re all the same thing. Or related things. What still affects me is the tenderness with which this “you” is addressed. There’s compassion for what is other—for what’s spooky and barely-known. It’s an otherness that is intimate, close, tender.
No matter how shattering they are to us personally, in the larger scheme of things, the transitions most of us go through are banal, everyday affairs. If we weren’t such creatures of habit, they wouldn’t irk us. And yet, transitions are passages that, if we let them, can reawaken the senses, the heart, cognition, to the deep strangeness of the world. Since Q played that track for me, I’ve been listening to Elysia Crampton, seeking ways back to that kind of wonder.
I’m not a religious person. Actually, I’m a third-generation atheist. Which means, in that droll phrase of Sartre’s, I have to reckon with being “condemned to freedom.” But atheism also leaves me without a language for those dimensions of being where thought fails and feelings get weird. Perhaps that’s what appeals to me in some of Crampton’s tracks, like “Morning Star,” adapted from a poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez. It starts:
“I feel you God of the future. Between my hands you are entwined with me. Here in the beautiful struggle. Of love just like fire with its own air. You are not my redeemer. Nor my exemplar. Nor my father. Nor my son. Nor my brother. You are the same and none, different and all. You are the God of the beautiful achieved.”
“For Sartre—or, actually, for all us unbelievers—the absence of God leaves us with the problem that there’s no point of reconciliation or synthesis between any two conflicting, mutually-defining points of antagonism. One has to live in uneasy relation to otherness. ”
If one is to speak of such things, one has to discard so much language—all that familiar verbiage through which whole religious empires sought power, controlling our fear of the inexplicable other. After discarding what the other can’t be, some fresher words stand in their place:
“You are formless. You are grace that has no support, that accepts no crown, that crowns and supports being weightless. You are free grace. The glory of pleasure, eternal sympathy. The joy of quivering. The light of clear sight, darkness of our touching, the depth of love, of zero. The horizon that sets no boundaries.”
For Sartre—or, actually, for all us unbelievers—the absence of God leaves us with the problem that there’s no point of reconciliation or synthesis between any two conflicting, mutually-defining points of antagonism. One has to live in uneasy relation to otherness. That unease can, among other things, provoke various fascisms. They often pretend to have religious inspiration, but are more a project of achieving wholeness through violence, through the eradication of otherness. Through the gendercide of those outside the two colonial genders. Through the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Through violence against any racialized other.
In “Sierra Nevada,” Crampton says: “You were so to make me think that you were you. To make me feel that I was you. To make me enjoy you being me. To make me shout that I was I. Upon the depth of the air I am standing on. Where I am animal of the depth of air.”
That rather complicates things. What’s other always seems to be implicated in whatever we take to be our separateness. To treat otherness as ambient, atmospheric, to feel like our ghosts might be friendly if we’re kind and respectful. To never forget the violence that was done to us—or that we did. To be open to what offerings are called for that there might one day be peace—maybe that’s the beautiful struggle.