Open Letter to Arm Gallery

Dear john,


When D first approached me with the latest idea for a show he was planning, curating – though i think we prefer the term “bringing people together for”– all i knew was that the gallery space was a 2x4 square tattooed on a person’s arm. A guy’s arm, i believe he said. The arm belonged to a person who happened to be a guy, who happened to be white, i assumed it was safe to assume. My first impression was how personal, how embodied, even intimate is such a space. I felt to make and to share my work in this space would require me to honor the real lived body of this space, to at least try to know and in this way to honor the real, living person of this body. I thought about initiating contact immediately, to begin to know, to make the acquaintance as soon as possible, since my time was limited. As all of our time is, in coming to know anyone. But i did not start Googling names, extracting information from the vast web, something i’ve come to see perhaps as a false connaissance. D sent me two press links about Arm Gallery and i read through them once, quickly but not without care. There was one line i remembered, expressing that the johns behind Arm Gallery did not intend for the space to be about themselves. That Arm Gallery was an alternative model, a possibility realized, for what and where a space for making and sharing art can be. The space was not about the persons behind the arms, but an idealistic (if i may say) vision of a small, humble, common space in the most limited sense. I felt right away an affinity with the host, that i’d known john, that at least i knew john enough to qualify me (why me of anyone) to engage with and in this personal-public space. I recognized and identified with in myself, the (attempted) abdication of the self and an inclination toward the belief (that is to say, of a spiritual and unquestioning kind) in the universal. That there was such a thing as the universal. Of course, i don’t mean to project these things upon you (and in that sense hope you will write back). But those are as much as i gathered from a first cursory meeting via the virtual. And is it, in any case, ever possible to know someone? Does one ever know oneself enough to adjudicate that? These are not tangential but central to the purpose of this letter.


I remember when I taught briefly freshman literature and writing classes in the Midwest. One of the brightest, most motivated students in my class raised his hand to answer a question. I forget the exact question or context. It might have been The Bluest Eye but it could have been any book, anyone. But we were as a class, as a group of persons, wrestling with the problem of the exterior, of race (not racial identity), whose locus is on the surface, of appearance, the outward, of aesthetics, of race as a problem of aesthetics. Or maybe we were talking about the problem of beauty, which undergirds and overlays every one of those categories. Anyhow, the student responded in a fluent narrative of redemptive humanism, something so innocent and grand some of us really believed it in high school, believed it as an answer to the problem of surface. And the same narrative this star student was espousing now made me, later in life, privately shudder and wince. He went on for a while, rhapsodizing, but the gist of it was, “Beauty is on the inside. She fails to recognize that real beauty is not on the outside but comes from the inside. It’s what’s inside that counts.” I scanned the faces of my class (this being where it was, the faces were all white, though by then mid-semester they registered as just faces). I scanned these faces for other private shudders. They seemed to be rapt, listening, in suspense, but also impassive. And since a teacher learns much more from her students than they from her, i started to experiment, thinking out loud things that were not on my lesson plan. What if we thought of the surface as another layer of reality? I asked. Instead of denying its reality, and without saying it is everything, instead of casting it aside in favor of what’s inside, what is under, which is also real, which is no more and no less real than the outside. Because in that way, we do not deny her skin, surface, as a part of her reality. We do not deny that the problem of surface, the problem of race, is a real problem for her. As for us.


Someone who has talked to me will know i like to talk with my hands, arms, and i opened them wide then, as i took over the rhapsodizing. What if instead of denying difference, we recognize that differences exist, including on the real level of the surface? I chopped out with my hands a series of “differences” in a horizontal continuum in front of me. It seems that as soon as we have a set of differences, instead of recognizing them as just that, differences – here i swung my arms so that the invisible cross bar i was holding in front of me now stood vertical – we immediately start to place these differences in a hierarchy, and assign a different value to each. I’m a pretty physical person who also tends to the conceptual, and this was a little ambitious for fresh out of high school, but i think they were listening, and they seemed interested. I did not doubt that any of them did not recognize the existence of difference, or did not recognize what we do in response to being met with difference – itself free from any inherent value. This was the distinction i was drawing, and i don’t think it was earth-shattering.


Skin is like the soil. There is a top layer, which matters, which is visible, and then there is everything beneath what you can see. The bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, fungi, arthropods, mineral and organic matter, sand, clay, rocks that together make up the interdependent web of soil life. Each element has its role to play, and together they ensure the health of the whole. General interest in the invisible layers underneath us have grown recently, as can be attested to by the crest of activities such as mushroom foraging, of which i am an enthusiastic participant here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s clear such interests are not coincidental. They are needed models for the times we live in. They remind us that when we look at the surface, at what can be seen, for example, the fruiting body of a mushroom, we are only seeing a fraction of the whole. To recognize how much we don’t see but exists so vitally is awe-striking. There is so much more beneath the realm of the visible, which is no less material, biochemical, a web of constant processes that have nevertheless given rise to what emerges on the surface, giving us a glimpse of the true organic order of things. Skin is that glimpse of the real. 


I once ran into a person with whom I had engaged in a brief relation, who did not mean anything to me, whose various attributes (male, asian [American], athleticism, intellectual disposition) each made sense in fulfilling a particular aspiration in my life at the time. This person like me was purchasing frost-sweetened spinach from a favorite vendor at the farmers market. I only recognized this person after he had moved on from the stall, but my body had felt inexplicably drawn toward the mere entity of which he was composed. I had to wrack my brains to remember this person, even as my relations are few and far between. It was an attraction devoid of attraction. 


“Do you think that our cells have chemical memory?” I asked my friend Lisa, the pragmatic self-described serial monogamist, the next day. Probably, she side-nodded. If you can believe it, i wasn’t drawn to this person sexually, romantically, emotionally, not even barely. My (cerebral) memory had almost elided this person’s imprint, but my body, or everything underneath – the cells, their cellular processes animating my body – had not forgotten.


When I first encountered Arm Gallery, it was for me as thought experiment. For me this physical-bodily prompt would manifest in the virtual. Because living in Seattle, i did not foresee i would see the space in the flesh, so to speak, and imagined many others would not either. Because my friendship with D, one of the most important things in my life, our mutual love of friendship, has primarily sustained itself over the past decade across the virtual, through calls, texts, emails, with a few gift objects of note put through the mail. Because i’d only ever set foot in Visitor Welcome Center once, right before my flight back to Sea-Tac. And because the existence of this space for me, and my engagement with it, within this limited context seems also just fine. This was all before the newest strain of the coronavirus, then COVID-19, now SARS-CoV-2, shut us in and away from one another across the country (though it had by then already ravaged other parts of the globe, with us squarely in the US barely paying attention). 


When i first agreed to this experiment, i thought of the gallery space as containing, primarily, everything that was under the skin, just as a mushroom consists primarily of mycelium running underground, and only a very small part of it visible to us (the part we call colloquially a “mushroom”). In that way, the gallery contains a lot more space. But in considering the biological wonder of all that depth beneath a deceiving 2x4 frame, i was in the end drawn back to the surface. The promise of freedom in the guise of a universal unmarked truth drew me as it had convinced my star student. But i could no longer discount the surface. I did not want to elide it out of convenience, out of wanting an unfettered expansiveness, in pursuit of a feeling of freedom (that “it’s what’s inside that counts”). And so, my invitation to Arm Gallery became a problem of surface and depth, of that oscillation between. Of what i’ve felt to be one of the core dilemmas of my life. The incontrovertible particularities of any life: this much is made plain in the vast disparities and inequality in the world and, speaking to my own immediate lived realities, especially here in the US. But in the dominant discourse today, enamored so with the particular and the specific, in its approach of fronting race – race taken as more or less a reliable indicator of a person’s history – there is something grossly amiss. And i find myself closer, and think you may too, inclined toward the universal aspect of our existence. Though this is not popular to claim.


At the same time, it’s hard for me to imagine that Arm Gallery would or could function as a space totally devoid of the self, if the person whose arm it occupies was not white, and was not a guy, to use those terms purely descriptively. These days i’ve taken to negative-identification, as a solution to what i’ve always personally resented as entrapment in a series of categories. You can see me as you wish and put a name to what will help you make sense of me, if you must. But that is likely not accurate to who i am/becoming, since names are, language is, by nature reductive. In referring to myself, i try to identify only in the negative sense, as a way to approximate my actual wish for dis-identification and, giving rise beyond that, to a life practice of renouncing identity as a way of life, as my choice to approaching the world. I want to make clear this unequivocally respects and accepts others’ wishes to identify, but it also asks respect for this way.


As you can probably tell from the name given to me by my parents, or you have seen my face, or know me beyond the surface, i am not white, i am not a guy, i am not light-skinned (though i am lighter in the sun-deprived north than in CA), i am not straight, i am not American-born, i was neither assigned a gender at birth i agree with nor do i cast off that assignment. 

I guess what i’m trying to say is, it’s hard for me to imagine that a person who is non-this and non-that, who is a non-, as the site of the gallery. Let’s just hypothesize that i were the host of Arm Gallery. The response from artists-contributors would inevitably or perhaps obligingly consider race, gender, sexuality, ethno-culture, etc. in making contact with the brownish square framed on my arm. (If i showed a work on my own arm, it would be a document that reflects the sun.) Perhaps a space such as Arm Gallery cannot even be founded by a non-. I think many would deem such a particularized, raced, gendered approach to be necessary in today’s world, in order to begin the work of recognizing differences. But more often than not, the pointing to and fixation of these categories assume both the means and the end, further entrenching each grouping to its drawn boundaries, a slow suffocation or worse, the creation of a new world order – a new hierarchy with the boxes rearranged. Still in a vertical holding pattern. The structure shaken up but not dismantled. 


While it will be an unpopular and certainly difficult task, abdicating the self is especially important in a time when we’re told that the cure is to further rally around the self, to center the self, celebrate and put the self on a pedestal. Yes, to abdicate all that in light of divergent histories is a further burden upon those already burdened by being non-, precisely due to those visible differences on the surface leading to real experiences of bias, prejudice, harassment or worse, rape, murder, brutality, dehumanization, all accumulated and accumulating in a lifetime. But i believe this is the task and the weight we must bear if things are to become better than what is, if we are to break the cycle of suffering and ressentiment. 


The problems i’ve come upon in this letter are far from original. They are ubiquitous. And so, it is hard to imagine my fellow contributors have not also weighed them, will be weighing them, now more than ever in a precarious time. Whether this is done in choosing to or choosing not to address things directly, i am eager to follow these works, from a distance for now, as they unfold on your arm.  


It is possible some of what i’ve written you is very wrong-headed or naive on my part. It can only be helped by those who will. I hope you will write to me, as we begin to know one another. 


–r