Ten bridges, 07.10.2021
Paul Hughes, in response to a prompt by Verena Lercher
1. The Samuel Beckett Bridge – a sleek pale harp, a symbol of Irish nationalism and urban economic growth – on the river Liffey in Dublin. I was about 17 or 18, and obsessed with Beckett at the time – a lightning rod to legitimise my antipathy towards my middle-class and deeply Catholic school. I had a brilliant young teacher for a short time – who had been introducing me to performance, opera, poetry, art – and I told her that I thought Beckett would hate his name to be used this way. She disagreed: saying that he would love the metaphor of the bridge, and all that it stood for.
2. Half a decade later: a simple concrete bridge near my grandmother’s house in Kent, that crosses a small stream that separates one field from the next. I made an agreement with myself: between crossing this bridge and arriving to the other side of the field would be some kind of micro-residency for myself. An open time to experience whatever I experience. Walking across that field was one of the most intense and exhilarating experiences of my life: grass air sun wet bright open porous resplendence. A kind of John Cage or Agnes Martin-esque epiphany: permission for myself to just experience whatever it was I was experiencing.
3. Two quotes from Cherríe Moraga’s preface to the 1981 anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color:
“Our strategy is how we cope - how we measure and weigh what is to be said and when, what is to be done and how, and to whom and to whom and to whom, daily deciding/risking who it is we can call an ally, call a friend (whatever that person's skin, sex, or sexuality). We are women without a line. We are women who contradict each other.”
“The passage is through, not over, not by, not around, but through. […] How can we […] not use our bodies to be thrown over a river of tormented history to bridge the gap? Barbara says last night: ‘A bridge gets walked over.’ Yes, over and over and over again. […] I cannot continue to use my body to be walked over to make a connection.”
4. A collapsed bridge: for about three years I lived with a family member who I could crudely describe as being chronically depressed. They were unable to work, unwilling to go outside, and sank into an impenetrable silence whenever I needed them to make a decision. During this time, I would often ask myself the question: how can I form a bridge with someone who refuses to speak? Now I am more interested in the question: what was I trying to do in inviting and sustaining that situation? I was in my early twenties, living in a city full of choices and opportunity and freedom to explore – what did this relationship help me avoid?
5. Another bridge, also in Kent – but this time bigger and more elaborate, and crossing a still body of water. Bleached wood stats and railings. Picturesque. On the other side, a small meadow framed by willow trees and completely overgrown with wildflowers. Picturesque. Wildness, freedom, escape. I took a picture, uploaded it to Twitter. Chris liked it. Wildness, freedom, escape. Queerness. And two or three years later – complete devastation and heartbreak. Lauren Berlant: “I am interested in the ways people find sustenance and make survival happen in worlds that are not organized for them. […] Making worlds is very hard and losing them is devastating.”
6. The recurring image of dust – super-abstract shapes of floating Brownian motion – hovering above and around the dance floor in the 2017 film 120 BPM. It swirls around the dancefloor filled with AIDS activists, who retreat to this space after their victories and losses to ferociously dance out their glee, fear, humiliation, grief, desire. The dust swirling around new arrivals and in the hollows of recently deaths. It swirls around their dancing, but is produced by their dancing; composed of sweat and skin follicles that evaporate off their bodies. This dust pervades the film, connecting these different moments, the lingering presence of absent individuals that holds and is held by those who outlive them.
How far can this connection stretch? Beyond these particular young sick men, this dance floor? Can my dance floor connect to theirs? Jeremy Atherton Lin writes about his experience of the dance floor in San Francisco in the early ‘00s: “The music was our time machine. We were conscious the discs he [the DJ, Bus Station John] put on the turntable may have come from the collections of deceased gay men. […] Bus Station John told a local paper: ‘There’s not just a gap, but a chasm between generations that AIDS created. Their absence is felt by those of us who are old enough to feel it. But the younger ones are never going to know about them unless we tell them.’” Can throwing oneself into dance or music surmount this intergenerational chasm? Lin later goes on to describe the night club, and the dance floor as “a site of loss – losing inhibitions, our friends, our possessions, yourself. it’s a place to find something through abandonment.”
7. The figure of the facilitator, the host, the chair, the DJ. I think these roles – in their attempt to resolve some of the complexities of how we gather, across our differences – can carry a tremendous sense of responsibility: to be aware, skilled, capable, in control, to have it together. That these figures themselves must to be coherent for this or that particular group to cohere.
I want to make an appeal for the messy host, whose incoherence is the thing that enables and invites. As Rahul Rao writing of the character of Anjum, in Arundhati Roy’s 2017 novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – whose provisional shelter becomes a home for an unlikely constellation of misfits and outcasts – “it is the non-resolution of the contradictions in her subjectivity that underpins the radical democracy of this space.” My not-being-together might be the thing that makes space for you.
8. Words of challenge. Criticism can often to be understood – and experienced – as negative, distancing, destructive. But here’s Andrea Fraser writing on the artist Hans Haacke:
“It may be Hans Haacke, above all, who evokes characterisations of the institutional critic as a heroic challenger, fearlessly speaking truth to power […]. However, anyone familiar with his work should recognize that, far from trying to tear down the museum, Haacke’s project has been an attempt to defend the institution of art from instrumentalization by political and economic interests.”
It’s easy to abandon dickheads to their dickheadedness. Taking the time, energy and risk of speaking uncomfortable words can be deeply generous and loving; to take bell hooks’ definition of love as “the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth.” Of course, our criticism can easily fall into spite; or merely a way of imposing my desire of how I would like others to be.
9. A quote from Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, from the presentation they gave in 2020 for FUC (“a weekly online symposium organized by rent-burdened graduate students at the University of California”):
“The general strike is when we mobilize our needs, take them seriously as wealth—as shifting/shifted, historical essence, even, rather than as some depression from which we are trying to arise, or some deficit we are always trying to overcome, or some crisis we are attempting to (out)face, on the path to completeness or self-sufficiency. […] We need to generate our own strike fund out of the way we go, and the fact that we go, on strike—to withhold from them and share with us for social aid and pleasure and the cultivation of people’s needs. […] The landscape of need is dark and lovely.”
When I am trying to build a bridge with an organisation, an institution, a group of people, I am less concerned with their resources or capacities than in how willing they are to share their needs.
10. The bridge over the Nigula bog in Estonia that wobbles as you walk. Rather than bridging a known here to a known there, I am interested the in-between-ness of the bridge itself: where we’re all out on a limb, over uncertain territory, suspended and a little bit disoriented in our togetherness.
Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. (1981) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press.
Lauren Berlant and Dorothea Lasky (2014) I Don’t Understand the God Part.
MAKE. 23 February. Available here
120 BPM (2017) Directed by Robin Campillo. [Feature film]. France: Les Films de Pierre.
Jeremy Atherton Lin (2021) Gay Bar. London: Granta Books.
Rahul Rao (2020) Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Arundhati Roy (2017) The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Andrea Fraser (2006) ’From A Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique’
in Welchman, J. C. (ed.) Institutional Critique and After. Zurich: JPR|Ringier.
bell hooks (2001) All About Love. New York: Harper Collins.
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2020) ‘the university: last words’.
Presented at FUC, University of California, Irvine. Available here.