Andrea Zittel, Rich Pell, Alisha Wormsley, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung
In Remote Control Issue 1. - Functional Openness, we've asked artists to recommend reading lists to help make sense of this moment. Pick up one of these titles when you need to power down your screen and get off the internet.
I’ve always been deeply interested in the ways that people have historically structured their lives and environments. And being in my own home all day through this period of pandemic sheltering, and focusing so much on my domestic realm, has reinvigorated my interest in this subject. I currently have three books on my desk that together are an incredible compendium of human nature, as well as the culture that we have manifested from our hopes, dreams, and desires. Each of these books covers a different time period, from the distant past, to the time when our country was being formed, to today’s contemporary culture.
• Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, Oxford: Signal, 2014.
Sapiens describes the evolution of homo sapiens and explains what makes us special enough to have out-survived our other homo species relatives. This book is on every bestseller list, and it’s popular for good reason – Yuval Harari winnows out the essentials of what makes homo sapiens unique (hint – a big part of it has to do with gossip), and he talks about the human construction of scripts and narratives that eventually lead to the construction of our capitalist state and invented entities such as corporations and money.
• Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings, New York: Random House, 2016.
Paradise Now traces the origin, aspirations, and ultimate downfall of five American utopian movements: The Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and Oneidans. This is the most fascinating book I’ve read so far on utopianism. It puts the utopian impulse into perspective – for instance, the early communal movements were as much about individual survival as they were about civic idealism. In the final chapter, Jennings breaks down how the Civil War led to the the downfall of larger utopian movements, and talks about how these early movements compare to the “back to the land” communes of the 1970s.
• Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, New York: Random House, 2020.
Trick Mirror is a series of essays about the spheres of contemporary culture through the filter of Jia Tolentino’s perception of herself, of this country, and of this era. Jia writes about selfhood and identity as “the engine of the internet.” She takes everyday experiences – things that we all know well – and then explodes these subjects by pulling in layer upon layer of research and dimensional observation. I will never eat a Sweetgreen salad again without thinking about her essay “Always be Optimizing.” Or look at a “#metoo” hashtag without thinking about her essay “The I in the Internet.”
• Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science by Rob Wallace, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016.
Big Farms Make Big Flu by Rob Wallace tracks the origins of pathogens directly to the economic systems that facilitate their emergence and distribution. This relatively recent collection of essays takes a hard look at the role that industrial agriculture and its concentrated mono-cultures play in incubating virulence in pathogens that barely register concern in the wild. Globalized shipping of live animals and meat, expansion of human settlements further into the global forest, and proximity of wild and domesticated animal cultivation are all implicated in this witty collection that asks the question "Why now?", and offers some sobering answers.
• Aesthetic, Necropolitics, and Environmental Struggle by Critical Art Ensemble, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2018.
Aesthetic, Necropolitics, and Environmental Struggle by Critical Art Ensemble takes a deep look at the elephant in the Anthropocene. It calls the bluff on the unacknowledged relationship with death that has long haunted environmental positions from the far left to the far right. Digging deep into the philosophical underpinnings of the many anthro- and enviro-isms, CAE returns with overlooked contradictions that have been historically and strategically ignored. In a time when political leaders are openly weighing human death tolls against market indicators, it is an ideal time to examine exactly how we go here.
• Earthseed Duology - Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler.
This book(s) through its prophetic narrative and in practice is a sacred text. It is for me the story of a black girl (becoming) woman - surviving. The doctrine according to Lauren Olamina is one of adaptation. God is change. Octavia Butler gives us space to be full and limitless by making change constant and divine. This work inspired a generation of Afrofuturists. Collectively we began to seek ancestral guidance to claim our futures. Adrienne Maree Brown developed an entire pedagogy from this book Emergent Strategy, Toshi Reagan wrote an opera based on the book and Leah Penniman started a movement of black farmers. This work was written in 1996 and in more ways than one is scarily foretelling - from the violent alt right christian capitalist leader’s “Make America Great Again” campaign to a global pandemic and lack of resources because of fear and greed. Through it all Butler encourages us to adapt collectively to survive.
• Thinking in an Emergency by Elaine Scarry, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
I have a habit of collecting books. Thinking in an Emergency by Elaine Scarry 2011 sat in my library until now, awaiting this emergency which has paradoxically provided time for reflection. “The question is not: Do emergency and habit go together? They do go together. If we can act, we do so out of the habitual. Habit yokes thought and action together. If no serviceable habit is available, we will use an unserviceable one and become either immobilized or incoherent.” Her writing surprises me. Politics and aesthetics are inextricable here.
Scarry proposes four models of emergency thinking: one body giving CPR to another un-breathing body, mutual aid networks responding to grain elevator fires in Saskatchewan, the Swiss Shelter System, a nationally regulated “vertical evacuation” (descent into the bomb shelter,) and the Constitutional Brake on War.
“The basic assumption during peacetime is that the world stays the same and persons change... But in an emergency this is inverted: the world is changing more quickly than we can change.” On September 11, 2001, I was 25, and since then, “state of emergency” is the constant, against which our perceptions, our attentions, scramble to adapt.
• Touch by Gabriel Josipovici, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Touch is the palpable but elusive other to images. As a painter and one who teaches painting, touch is the subject. Images proliferate, and their difference from material objects, grasped in the hand, is not palpable to a young mind raised on the culture of the screen. With the prohibition of touch, the epistemological lessons of holding, boundaries, distance, addiction, seem newly relevant. Josipovici writes personal essays following literary paths, tethered by the thread of pilgrimage, a spiritual compulsion we might see differently as borders close and life moves indoors.
• The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity and UFOs in the American Uncanny by Susan Lepselter, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016.
In Susan Lepselter’s The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity and UFOs in the American Uncanny, 2016, the metaphors of barely visible describe a way of being in the land, of paying attention, of making meaning. People describe planes the color of the sky. “You only see a shadow.” They say. “You can’t stop it,” he warned, “if you can’t see it.” - Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor in the WHO. Trump has called the Coronavirus “the invisible enemy,” and Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, said “That’s our prime mission, to get eyes on this thing.” I read, in Dreamworld and Catastrophe, by Susan Buck-Morss. “For the Western imaginary, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was an absolute threat from the very beginning. Bolshevism took on the fantastic image of a “fire,” a “virus,” a “flood” of barbarism “spreading,” “raging,” “out of control.” My partner Fox Hysen sits on the couch across the room, reading 24/7 by Jonathan Crary. She reminds me of his descriptions of our shadowless fluorescent lit world in which no one has privacy, sleep is denied, and vigilance is constant. We discuss our memory of the time of the negative in photography. Between the real and its representation, this darkroom pause, where the highlights become shadows.