Space is, among other things, a form of abstraction, and, like abstraction, it cannot exist in the eyes—or minds—of the beholder. Because once the beholder is involved, a taint (of subjectivity) surfaces and purity is lost.
This doesn't prevent many artists from attempting to know, or create works that manifest, purity, perhaps because many of us strive for the ideal, for perfection, as if it is possible to know these beyond concepts.
But what Emmy Catedral does with her search, however, is different from what many artists attempt because those artists believe the artist—via creation—is God. Catedral, on the other hand, searches by giving up the artist-as-God perspective.
This may be paradoxical, given how Catedral once described her intention (in a letter to me) for her series "variations of resistance":
I have been thinking of a way to introduce my work to you, and I realize that the legal pad series, which I've titled “ variations of resistance (http://emmywerks.dekarabaw.com/vor.html),” is probably the best project to start with. It's inception, or at least the moment I began thinking about the lined page as more than a writing surface was during a panel that you were moderating! It was at AAWW's Intimacy & Geography conference, held at CUNY Grad Center, which must have been sometime in 2002. Asked about her writing process, and before she even got into talking about the pieces of paper that she lays out on her table, [poet] Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (http://epc.buffalo.edu/
authors/berssenbrugge/) replied by calling the page a "plane of consciousness"—thus preferring it to the computer screen. I found it true for myself, that lined or otherwise, the piece of paper allows me small discoveries that would be difficult to come forth on the screen. I can cross things out on paper, connect a word to another, erase, create evidences of thought and response—in effect: palimpsests. With lined paper, however, I can demonstrate even more this control: I can defy the lines, obliterate them as I traverse the plane.
[…] And so it came to be that I began to manually alter pages of legal pads: moving the margins, writing against the lines, even cutting out the lines, or filling the page with margin lines.
In other words Catedral admits to beginning her project in part by exercising "control":
But Catedral also came to embrace the subsequent loss of control required by and in her process—a demand that, had she not accommodated, would have prevented her from making her works so effective. It is through that maturation that her manipulated objects grew into Art.
Art can be political but politics is not art. Catedral is a, as the saying goes, "political artist" (though I consider the phrase tautological since I believe all art is political). The political origin can be gleaned from the title of her series itself: "variations of resistance," as well as in how the title doesn’t have capitalized letters. Not to title the first letter of words (as often occurs in titles) is to avoid privileging one letter over another. Her political bent is also evident from how she chose to work with legal pads for her series:
I began thinking about the lined paper as readymade landscapes—that on these leaves of 99 cent store, utilitarian legal pads, I can question designated space lines in the more immediate sense of geography: political subdivisions of land, borderlands, territories, separation walls, and after reading Arundhati Roy, even the big dams. These factory produced yellow planes are not unlike the borders in the world: visible or invisible, they are unnatural, man-made.
However, what can make Art so thrilling is how its manifestations can transcend the artist’s own intentions. Though Catedral (initially) focused on geography and how humans manipulate landscape, I believe her project poses many more implications. Catedral is also resisting notions of silencing, marginalizing, making invisible, dominating, canonizing, colonizing—which is all to say, of Other-ing.
She is concerned with the lofty—Berssenbrugge's avowed "plane of consciousness." But Catedral's material is still the ubiquitous yellow legal pad. This mundane object rarely elicits our attention, serving mainly as a receptacle for our thoughts rather than as an entity with its own integrity(ies).
And while Catedral was just beginning her considerations of the implications of the margin, she thought to look off the page. Where? She looked down at yet another space to which we rarely offer attention and, indeed, walk on: the floor.
What the yellow pad and floor share in common is partly how they easily symbolize whatever elements a society or culture may least value: whether it’s the labor of undocumented immigrants, the opinions of the disenfranchised, or the rights of the impoverished. By drawing our attention to such lowly objects, Catedral ultimately suggests that we to pay attention, and be more caring, as regards our environment.
To make her case, Catedral, however, had to lose control of intention, as I suggested earlier. It wasn’t, I suspect, a big leap. For even in the beginning of this project when Catedral consciously thought of herself as in “control,” she already was reconsidering; one of the lines she was scribbling around her manipulated margins were these words by Edward Said (from his book with Jean Mohr After The Last Sky):
Every direct route to the interior and consequently the interior itself is either blocked or preempted. The most you can hope for is to find margins, normally neglected surfaces and relatively isolated irregularly placed spots on which to put yourself. You can only do so through much perseverance and repetition. So many have already done this ahead of you and in the knowledge that their distinction may well appear at the end and after much effort as a small nick, a barely perceptible variation, a small jolt irony, an imposition, odd decorum.
In other words, she realized that her goal was not the mark she would make, if only because any such gestures by her may be just “a small nick, a barely perceptible variation, a small jolt…” What Catedral understood is the critical role of the viewer to her work. That is, her art cannot be effective as abstract or pure or ideal. They need to be tainted by the viewer’s presence, the viewer’s perspective. If the viewer is absent, there is no work. The viewer inherently must be present, which is also to say, the viewer is not separate—or Other—from the work itself.
This is the implication of the hope Catedral expressed while still in the early phases of her project: “ The work requires close inspection, and I liked the idea of the viewer having to enter the margin in order to see the work. I am developing this into a series of installations wherein the viewers themselves have to physically defy or resist designated space in order to get to my discrete object at the far end of a room (I am thinking short cinder block walls for the next one, or putting blackboards with erasure marks in people's way).
In May 2005, Catedral was able to exhibit a part of her project in “Geography of Now,” a group exhibition presented by The Emerging Artist Coalition and exhibited at Pancake Gallery (New York City).
In planning her part of this group exhibition, Catedral wisely manifested “margins” by first asking the other artist-participants which parts of the gallery they wished to use for their works. Catedral then placed her art in between the spaces preferred by the other artists. She would come to relate this approach to Vito Acconcini’s thoughts in a prose piece entitled “ Life on the Edge: Marginality as the Center of Public Art, ” including the following:
Inside the gallery/museum, the artist functions as the center of a particular system; once outside that system, the artist is lost between worlds; the artist's position, in our culture, is marginal. The public artist can turn that marginality to his/her advantage. The public artist is forced, physically, off to the side; the public artist is asked to deal not with the building but with the sidewalk, not with the road but with the benches at the side of the road, not with the city but with the bridges from city to city. Outside and in between centers, the public artist is under cover; public art functions, literally, as a marginal note: it can comment on, and contradict, the main body of the text of a culture. (http://www.kunstmuseum.ch/andereorte/texte/
Thus, Catedral made strips of paper cut along the margins of legal pads and placed them hanging from the gallery’s ceiling. The paper pieces hover over the action, unseen unless people look up. Catedral’s strategy is smart as the act of looking up can be correlated to paying homage or respect. In other words, the margin-ed paper strips were not just allowed to litter the floor on corners of the gallery room, a position that’s more obvious as an aesthetic decision and a locale where dust and dirt also tend to congregate. What is marginalized, in other words, may still deserve honor.
Catedral also placed some of her works in the bathroom, a space not just away from a gallery where the primary activities unfold but a space that is usually hidden from view, and yet where the most basic acts of intimacy unfold, i.e. the release of bodily waste. By locating “art” in the bathroom, Catedral shifts our mental processes from moving into the forefront a space that is typically low in privilege. And why not? What we release from our body also defines who we are, doesn’t it?
With her bathroom installation, Catedral draws attention to an area that may not elicit much of our thoughts because, presumably, bathroom-related activities are just diversions from another, and more important, unfolding of our lives elsewhere (beyond the bathroom). In facilitating the expansion of our lucidity to acknowledge that our bodily wastes are part of who we are and how we spend our days, Catedral breaks down borders, or moves and erases what would be sources of marginalization (the bathroom as less privileged than the primary gallery space). Moreover, her process of doubling back to reconsider, essentially, Identity is also aptly manifested by the placement of the work to be reflected in the mirror.
Beyond the bathroom, Catedral involved the exhibition attendees into her works by bringing pads made from the thin strips of paper created from having been cut along the legal pads’ margin lines. She asked attendees to write into these thin pads. She then pasted the paper pieces against a pillar or gave the attendees pieces of tape and asked them to tape them wherever they please. Again, the gallery attendees’ roles are integrated into the works—indeed, if they didn’t participate, no works would come to exist.
How syncronistic that her favorite—and I love it, too—is how someone curled a margin-ed strip of paper (thus hiding what message would be written within it) and that the message is “dancing in the dark” (contributed, as I would later discover, by another Filipina artist and poet Erna Hernandez).
Relatedly, Catedral also noted to me that as she was writing about her project, “I came to a realization that my use of the margin as a subject is possibly even influenced by your bringing attention to the ‘footnote’."
Catedral was referring to a series of “footnote poems” that I conceived to be part of my book I Take Thee, English, For My Beloved (Marsh Hawk Press, 2005). As evident in this illustration, the poems are not laid on the pages as primary subjects. The pages are blank, except for 1-3 lines of a prose poem printed at the bottom of the pages. They are presented as footnotes, but they are the primary text available to be read. And just as Catedral asked gallery attendees to write on her margin-ed pads and become part of the art works, the reader(s) of my poems are asked to imagine the stories being footnoted by my poems—theoretically, the readers can be the ones to inscribe on the blank sections of the page, thus showing how I, as the poet, gave up authorial control. (http://marshhawkpress.org/tabios2.htm)
The most effective dancers are often those who give up control of their bodies to the music. It’s worth noting the openness with which Catedral engaged in the lessons generated by the actual process of making art. Her openness allowed her to continue extending the path of her series. For instance, at the end of snipping out the margins from the pages of the legal pads, whether the margin as drawn vertically on the left-hand side of the page or by the blue lines drawn vertically across the pages, she was left with much margin-less sheaves of paper.
She didn’t dispose of these paper portions which had been incidental to the creation of margin-ed pads. By not trashing them, she also ends up using her meditations on margins to question the categories of what are “considered “trash.” Often, what are marginalized are considered disposable elements and Catedral makes us pause again to reconsider our attitudes towards waste—not just items we may put in an actual trash container but also other elements that we consider disposable. Such enhances the political component of her work as disposability certainly relates to values, ranging over whether one, say, should always tell the truth to whether a “living wage” is a viable consideration in determining how people should be paid for their jobs.
Catedral took the margin-less sheaves of paper and created a “Gondwandland” that hearkens, she said, “ single continent before man-made borders, political subdivisions of land. ” She added that she “ very consciously did not want to create a perfect yellow ball, as I know a pangea is irretrievable. There are some bits of blue from the lines. The cut-out ones actually start to look green arranged as a nest-like pile because of the blue lines against the yellow...this is ongoing. I intend to keep adding to the ball maybe until I go insane, then I will stop. Maybe. ”
Catedral’s vocabulary in desiring and designing Gondwandland is telling: “a single continent before man-made borders [or] political subdivisions of land.” Legal pads, of course, are among the most basic tools of the legal profession—including what lawyers and politicians use to define borders.
As she kept layering paper sheaves over the ball to make Gondwandland, Catedral observed that the object “actually start[ed] to look green” and “arranged as a nest-like pile.” The result, therefore, is a homage, even if romanticized, to nature before man began imposing its presence. Or, a nest before, inevitably, the nest’s residents mature and begin changing the nature of its nests.
Still, one of the most brilliant works from Catedral’s series goes back to the roots of her exploration. That is, after cutting out the margins and lines from legal pads, she glued the paper pieces back together. But to do so means that, de facto, margins and lines are created through the seams of the paper sheaves.
The result is different, of course, from the predetermined margins and lines on the pages before Catedral began manipulating the pages. This time, the new lines are a function of where the spaces themselves end and overlap, rather than as vertical and marginal lines imposed against the pages and which the users of legal pads are forced to accept with no input as regards their placements.
Consequently, what Catedral illustrates is the integrity of the objects (the page before a factory arbitrarily lined it) so that Catedral shows how enhanced lucidity facilitates how we may engage with the world more respectfully.
Ultimately, Catedral has taken generally unloved objects (legal pads and the floor) and showed how they can symbolize Love— specifically Love as an infinite expanse. When Love comes with constraints, such borders do not surface as a result of Love’s inherent nature but due to any limitations we choose to or inadvertently impose. Catedral then shows how widening our vision inherently expands our capacities to Love.
© Eileen R. Tabios