Art as Reckoning
It is June 1665 in London. The bubonic plague is about to sweep through the city like a gargantuan wave, eventually claiming more than 97,000 lives. H. F., a saddler by trade who lives between Aldgate and Whitechapel, is confronted with perhaps the most consequential of a string of life-or-death decisions: should he stay in London, or should he flee?
“The best preparation for the plague [is] to run away from it,” said his brother.
“And what about my trade, my goods, my debts?”
“Is it not as reasonable that you should trust God with the chance or risk of losing your trade, as that you should stay in so eminent a point of danger, and trust Him with your life?”
Your life or your work.
H. F. stays. But instead of saddling animals and outfitting travelers, H. F. ends up dealing in an entirely different trade: he becomes a narrator. The narrator of Daniel Defoe's A Journal of The Plague Year (1722), a novel based on historically accurate facts infused with a significant amount of invention. Proof that our present situation, like most situations humans find themselves in, is not unprecedented.
Art at work.
A pandemic confronts the witting or unwitting artist with a choice: run away from it, or ‘abide’ it.
The dilemma is not a matter of content alone.1
The question is existential, and not just biologically speaking. Should an artist make a pandemic the epicenter of her work, or should her work be a respite from it? Does the artist have a documentary obligation?
The circumstances invite us to clarify a subject no less momentous than what the artist’s relation to reality is.2
The work of art—by which I mean art's work—is to manifest an artist’s temporally contingent relation(s) to reality.
One may, of course, relate to one’s contemporary circumstances by avoiding them. A pandemic, however, is everywhere, by definition. It is determined by geographic scope more than it is by mortality.
H. F.’s brother, too, is part of the (hi)story of the Great Plague of London. His choice not to abide, not to measure in facts and figures the historical tide he finds himself swept in, is as telling as H. F.’s graphic descriptions of infected people’s bodies, the hair-raising screams he hears on a daily basis, and the painstaking obsession he has with data, especially London’s ‘weekly bills of mortality’.
Side-stepping is a relation; a choreography in its own right. And a valid form of documentation.
So is nonsense and prophecy.
“Yet forty days, and LONDON shall be destroyed!”
A relation to reality as fast-imploding, a reality nearing its end.
When time ceases to be differentiated by the clock of social living; when it becomes clear that the ‘after’ we were planning for, that neat ‘ending’ we were hoping for, is a fallacy, who still dares to predict the future?
H. F.’s commercial mind makes him a meticulous accountant of the plague. His narrative work is a document of documents, and citation is one of its main modi operandi. H. F. copies and pastes a wide range of archival material in his journal: Lord Mayor’s orders, death bills, pregnancy statistics, magic spells, advertisements, parables. They function both as evidence and as a medium for his work.
H. F. accounts even for things he doesn't believe in: charms, filters, exorcisms, amulets, rumors, lies, and what he refers to as
“the strange relations that people give every day of what they have seen.”3
Alas, some things cannot be counted:
“Were it possible to represent those times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that everywhere presented itself…”
There are limits to H. F.’s document. They are the limits of (textual) representation.
Limits are an interesting place. These past few months we’ve inspected every nook and cranny of them, flashed a light into their darkest corners, measured their height and width with our wingspans, counted their perimeter with our steps.
Stay six feet apart, please.
Limit your purchase of hand sanitizer to two per person.
Like H. F., we stayed within the limits of our city. When there was nothing else to do, but look at each other and ourselves, we began taking stock. Of the number of deaths. Of the food in the house. Of our family and friends. We watched our nails grow, and our hair. We looked closely at our face in the mirror.
We started a diary.
Accounting is a mode of survival. A distraction from the precariousness of existence. Focus on counting and logging the sights and sounds of your surroundings, and you’ll find yourself before an interminable task that may very well help keep you alive.
In a pandemic, accounting is part of the work of life. There's always more to see and hear and touch and be wary of.
On my daily walks to Tompkins Square Park I record every discarded glove I find on the street with my phone's camera.
Whose hands? Why there? Where from?
Excerpting these photos from their context and citing them on Instagram makes them part of a story. The site of recording holds the seed of rewriting.
Accounting sparks invention.
One of Defoe's biographers called him “a great, a truly great liar, perhaps the greatest liar that ever lived”.4
Initially published without Defoe’s name on it, A Journal was first considered a historical account and a valuable eye-witness testimony of the 1665 plague. It was soon outed as a hoax and rejected as “sham history,”5 before being accepted as a novel; a particularly brazen example of historical fiction.
As one of the first British novelists, Defoe improvised the scaffolding for a different relation to reality, a novelistic truth.6 The process of situating fictional characters in the context of substantiated historical circumstances will inevitably, almost by fate, represent the struggles and dilemmas of that moment truthfully.
This relation to reality makes the claim that truth is not the prerogative of historiography alone. It can be sited in art.
A truthful representation is one that works seamlessly within the limits it has set for itself.
Does the artist have an obligation to truth?
Yes, to truthfully present her relation to reality.
On my first trip out of the city, I had to re-learn how to get in a cab, how to open doors, how to sleep in hotel rooms. I did so by observing myself as one observes another, by paying attention to the mechanics of actions that had up to then been the interstitial components of a mindless routine.
Accounting for one's processes is not just a mode of survival.7 It is a mode of self-accountability. A strategy for creation and change.
In the daily re-lookings, re-countings and revelations brought about by the seismic shifts of the past few months, life itself is revealed as work.
As with all works of reflection, “removing the scaffolding and cleaning up the area around the building not only is of no benefit…but [it] deprives us of something essential.”8
This global moment of pause, grief, anger, and protest centers the urgency of the work of reflection and the urgency of (re)examining our relation to reality.
The scaffolding itself is a document, a document of how we got here, and a document of how we choose to move forward.
From the unbridgeable distance of almost four centuries, Defoe’s A Journal reflects back to us much of our contemporary experience of the coronavirus pandemic, especially in heavily populated urban centers. The novel is a perversely comforting reminder of our non-originality. It is also a reminder that many of our canonical-historical points of reference continue to be overwhelmingly Eurocentric and Anglo-American.9
Despite its shortcomings, I turn to Defoe’s work in the context of an online artist project in 2020 because A Journal is ostensibly about the individual and collective processes of survival and resilience during a devastating plague outbreak, and because language more obviously unfolds to its reader as process.
Beyond the form and content of the novel itself, the countless pages of criticism it has spawned offer a manual for how art can navigate the limits of historical and contemporary experience both by transgressing and by adhering to them.
A Journal is a site of debate about the (over)reach of the artist, and as such it becomes an opportunity to take stock of how we ourselves expect art to create, mediate, or rectify reality for us at a time of individual and collective uncertainty.
D-S is another such invitation to view the work of art; to observe art at work.
Week by week, D-S has unfolded art practice as reflection, accounting, and scaffolding. With each set of weekly posts it has unfolded artistic practice as a matrix of process: impressions made and received; influences transformed or plainly cited; invitations extended and reciprocated; images, hyperlinks, drafts, sketches, and language.
All the work that may, or may not, make it into a final piece. The multiple relations to reality taking, and changing, shape during “the great visitation”10 of 2020.
In this moment of collective pause, grief, and overdue reconstitution, D-S offers a rare peek behind the curtain of contemporary art’s spectacle.
1 Although the contemporary designation of content—“information made available by a website or other electronic medium”—and the demands it makes on artists is a big part of the conundrum.
2 By extension, the question of reality itself is also at stake.
3 A relation is also a story. It is a narrative that connects two or more events. When communicated, it creates community.
4 William Minto, Daniel Defoe (1879). Minto’s accusation stems from an unspoken consensus that certain events should be treated with a deference that precludes poetic license.
5 Walter Raleigh, The English Novel (1894).
6 I borrow this term from Greek Egyptian author Stratis Tsirkas, best known for his trilogy of historical novels titled Drifting Cities.
7 Accounting for one’s modes of survival is documenting history.
8 Cornelius Castoriades, The Imaginary Institution of Society (1974, English translation 1987).
9 Three years before A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe authored Robinson Crusoe (1719), a novel whose history is inextricably tied to British colonization in the Americas, as it focuses on the adventures of a slave trader who is shipwrecked on an island near the Venezuelan coast and is stranded there for almost thirty years.
10 Visitation, n. 7. A heavy affliction, blow, or trial, regarded as an instance of divine dispensation; retributive punishment operating by this means. 8. The fact of some violent or destructive agency or force coming or falling upon a people, country, etc., Oxford English Dictionary.
Argyro Nicolaou is a Cypriot writer, filmmaker, and scholar based in New York City. Her research examines the representation of Mediterranean displacements in literature, film, and visual art, while her media practice interrogates the conditions of politics and art-making in ‘small’ and ‘unimportant’ parts of Europe’s Mediterranean periphery. Argyro’s writing has been featured in The American Historical Review, MoMA post, Boston Art Review, and The Journal of Mediterranean Studies. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University in 2018 and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University.