<Book Review>
Other Planes of There: Selected Writings
Renée Green
[Durham: Duke UP, 2014. 520 pp. 290 illustrations, incl. 249 in color]

In the introductory chapter to this extensive collection of writings spanning nearly three decades, artist, writer and Massachusetts Institution of Technology professor Renée Green shares an excerpt from her notebook: “letters—sending messages writing between people over distances and through time—are often necessary for survival, yet most have forgotten this need.” This need, as Green defines it, is for “poetry, song, letters—missives, correspondence back and forth, reciprocal exchange, open letters—pre-blog rants, manifestos … encountering and imagining these now, as there is a wish for them now …” (7).

Other Planes of There is, in effect, a rich collection of such letters. These missives include the form of notes, critical essays, film scripts, ruminations, interviews and artist statements. Some Green writes to herself, spoken from both inside her projects and during their critical aftermath. Others are reflections in response to her (not so) ordinary life. Her letters include conversations with other artists, thinkers and viewers—or what Green terms “perceivers,” as “this involves a more active and diversified process than does the notion of spectator, which implies a more static position, a vessel waiting to be filled” (383). Some move beyond written text and manifest as gorgeous color plates of details and wide shots of a selection of her artwork—photography and installation pieces in particular. In Green’s own words, “in this book are words describing different encounters and interactions. Encounters, in the most optimistic sense, take place between a perceiver and perceived works, events and places. Ideas, sensations, and emotions maybe be stimulated, perhaps sparking others ideas, during these moments of encounter” (17).

Green is a self-confessed “combination person” —visual artist, writer, vocalist, filmmaker, researcher, and teacher. She is an artist and scholar who has:

wanted to also focus more specifically on ways of becoming and being an artist in the world now, amid continual changes. My notion of ‘combination people’ began to develop when thinking of what doesn’t fit any standard narrative for the development of an aesthetic experimentalist born in the United States and how there are actually no standard narratives, even if some formations have been shared. (16)
Green’s films, essays and writings, installations, digital media, architecture and sound-related works have been exhibited and featured in museums, biennales, print form and festivals across the globe. Transcultural experience, public and private memory, archives, temporality and interrogation of systems are key themes in her work; she draws from many different media—often layering them in installation spaces—in order to investigate these themes. “My work,” she explains, “has for some time included multiple parts, created to coexist and this create a density of layers, spatially, geometrically, sonically, visually and textually.” (382)

The book is divided into five sections: Genealogies, Circuits of Exchange, Encounters, Positions, and Operations. Within each section, the selection of essays encompasses over two decades of thinking and making. Green confesses that she is fascinated by systems (circuits as “frames of reference”), translation between the material and the digital, of studies in geometry and its linguistic rendering as syntax. Within Green’s mindfulness of form, her careful choice of words and materials, and the composition of elements and space, it seems as if the book is both a chronology of this combination person’s “Ongoing Becoming” (the title of one of Green’s two retrospective exhibitions) but is also a contribution to the ongoing becoming of those who are privileged enough to read its pages.

The words span different forms; the writing throughout is contained, measured, metaphorically rich and poetic. A resonating theme across all the pieces is that of questions: “what will be saved (retained), transmuted (retained, recognized), understood (recognized)?” (9) What are the differences between documents and archives? (176) Writing, for Green, is a key methodology of making, searching, annotating, interrogating and dreaming. Writing forms both the foundation for, and the connection point between her many works and their wider temporal, spatial, intellectual and artistic context.

A key motif that emerges in the collection is the idea of the Contact Zone, a phrase Green borrows from postcolonial scholar Mary Louise Pratt. In Green’s rendering of the term, she proposes that art-making now occurs in a site which allows for the mingling and interaction of “the concepts of co-presence, transculturation, and aspects of interactivity and improvisation” (243). As Gloria Sutton says in her introductory comments, Other Planes of There “is another ‘contact zone,’ a foundational way to ‘provoke questions’ and ‘rethink established notions’ (21). [Green] desires, it seems, to counteract what she calls the ‘circulating cliché’ that thinking means to ‘think too much, and is in conflict with experiencing (which is thought of in binary terms…’” (107).

The writing in this collection examines political and project-driven art. Explorations into time-based media, the problematic nature of language, media, connection and the exploration of the concept of home—especially when one lives and works somewhat like a migrating bird—are all subjects to which Green turns her critical eye. “Much of the work I’ve done,” she explains, “has in some way to do with charting relationships between what is imagined to be home and what is imagined to be away.” Green explores how a human body can exist in different geographical locations, but also what are the possibilities that exist for a subject to position itself in virtual space, asking “in what ways do we position ourselves and are we positioned within networks of exchange?” (91) Green’s writings, although they take on such minefield issues as race and the dichotomy of curator and artist, remain consistently “balanced and insistent on art’s potential—not for transcendence or autonomy but for agency of a complex variety,” as Gloria Sutton notes in her introduction. (23)

The poetic, the mysterious, the un-named (unnameable?) pulses heartbeat-like through the diverse collection of writings. Green emphasizes her fascination with critical enquiry and thus exposes a vulnerability in her work that is not only intellectual but lived; we see this in her work on Secret (1992-1993) where she camped out alone in a ramshackle building complex—the Unité—in Firminy, France, and recorded her observations on the space, the people and memories she shared it with. Green notes in that “it’s my opinion that there is a mysterious interaction that can occur between visual, oral and spatial stimuli and text that can’t be completely equated with theory” (41.) She asks the question as to whether “humility, attention, and love as different states in which one can exist to approach a work? Can it be acknowledged that there are unknown, intangible aspects beyond the designator’s understanding that emerge when a work is encountered? Other planes of there?” (172)

Green examines “the dual poles of race and art” (43) and the negotiations she has had to undertake regarding what it means to be a woman, black, from the US and traveling extensively outside her own country. The idea of “other” is one she concludes has become largely a cultural industry (53). She prefers the name difference, because “unlike otherness difference implies the articulation of one’s own complex position in relationship to the matrix of cultural, political, and social relations suggested by class, ethnicity, and gender, rather than an imposed naming” (55). She discusses margins (“sites of survival … fighting grounds and site for pilgrimage” (123)) and centers, and the importance of having the “perseverance necessary to produce [work] without relying on ‘mainstream’ attention’” (122).

A fundamental consideration for Green is the dichotomy of art-maker and art critic/curator, and the (as yet largely unmapped) conversation that might emerge to contest that binary. She returns to this issue many times during the course of the book, asserting that “it wouldn’t hurt for more curators to acknowledge being indebted to artists’ ideas and productions as sources for some of their curatorial ideas, as this could allay some tension” (169). Deeply aware of lived, embodied politics, Green wants to “create a situation which demonstrates/allows the possibility of working on what one is really interested in in an enabling way and not merely as a reactive cog to an art system which seems to function as if it’s run by an invisible hand which determines tastes by bureaucratic corporatized interests” (122). Agency is another driving concern for Green, who is both fascinated and intimidated by “the hour of what can happen when unbridled power infects all aspects of living yet appears masked as civilization.” (315)

Green works both intuitively and within found and constructed systems, and notes the slippages in these systems. She feels her way into those spaces, explaining it this way:
A recurring strain in my work has involved the probing of in-between spaces, which can appear to be holes, aporias, absences. For example between what is said and what can be comprehended; between an event and its reinterpretation; that which takes place between the process of importing and exporting products, people, ideas; between organizing systems and their confoundation; between what is seen and what is believed; between what is heard and what is felt. (271)
The depth and range of media, genre and exploration into political, intellectual and artistic territory makes this collection of writing both an affective and thorough introduction into Green’s vast body of work. For those already familiar with Green’s art and writing, it re-contextualizes her thinking and making in a fresh and powerful way. Many disciplines encounter each other in this contact zone, and they make this book a useful, empowering and inspiring work.

     — Reviewed by Niki Tulk, University of Colorado Boulder

Niki Tulk is an ex-pat Australian writer and theater-maker, and PhD student in Theater at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has a M.Ed.from the University of Georgia and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The New School. Prior to her PhD, she taught practice-based research at Parsons The New School for Design. She has published a novel; and has poetry, fiction, and criticism published in Emergency Index, The Saranac Review, Rock River Review, The Sheepshead Review, The Feminist Wire, and The West Trade Review. She is currently fiction editor of Antipodes, and co-managing editor of PARtake: The Journal of Practice as Research.

» visit Niki Tulk's website

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License..