This page was written for Em Reed’s UNDO! Jam in February 2022.

Someday I’ll wake up and it’ll be like my life’s already over, because it’ll be dozens of years from now already and I’m still the same. Sets of mirrors facing each other, expanding space and me and every moment I’ve been here. Nobody knows me, because I haven’t left anything for them, and I can’t stand to look half of them in the eye.

- B.R. Yeager, Negative Space

Last time I contributed to one of Em Reed’s writing jams was two years ago, in 2020. In accordance with the theme then of speculation, I mostly spoke on José Esteban Muñoz’s depictions of queer utopia with regards to queer futurity, narrative and map making and the speculative utopia as a moratorium on my DIY life in Baltimore, Maryland. Two years later, a lot has changed to say the least. I largely want to approach the same material (topographies in online and digital art contexts), however this time in the context of transness, temporal community and pulling up roots.

A more design-minded person would perhaps bring up video game maps, mini-maps, quest logs, breadcrumb trails, etc. in some sort of comparison between a holistic approach to gradual immersion in retro games versus handholdiness in more modern games. Maybe in reaction to that reaction there’s a conversation that should be had about access and ableism in game design, options, what have you. I feel like this is some worthy element of discourse. I’m not a design-minded person really and I’m not equipped to make any of these arguments. In effort to appeal to this year’s prompt I suppose that I’m suggesting omission of conventional means of navigating a game world, or at least asserting that alternative perspectives or means of traversal provide meaningful experiences. I’m going to begin discussing this in the context of video games but will spin out into other fields and examples and hopefully arrive at some point later down the line. Bear with me as I get comfortable here.

For years now I’ve been enamored with the life and work of video artist, dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer. She is presumably most famous for her No Manifesto, her approach to dance and appeal to formalism:

NO to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image. No to the heroic. No to the anti-heroic. No to trash imagery. No to involvement of performer or spectator. No to style. No to camp. No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer. No to eccentricity. No to moving or being moved.

There’s a lot to be said here but what strikes me is how similar it is to Jordan Mallory’s now-viral tweet from 2020:

i want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and i'm not kidding

Sonic shorter games meme

Based on the tweet’s engagement, I’m definitely not alone in feeling seen in that sentiment. What is, at least somewhat, frustrating is that it seems like the way Mallory’s appeal is manifested is not in an appeal to more formal elements but to eras and aesthetics of video games when this felt like it was the norm. What I’m getting at here is that we can make shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less that aren’t throwbacks. At lot can be said in denying your audience something.

Around 2008 when I was still in high school there was a major blizzard in my hometown of Dallas, Texas in which we got about two weeks off of school. This coincided with my attempt to make ‘fine art’ while working on my applications to art school as well as the depths of my addiction to beta Minecraft. I really haven’t played the game since this time, so I have no idea how much of my experience is retained in the current game. Years later a playwright friend of mine would compare the organizational aspects of the game to Naziism. I don’t know if I’m completely there but I guess I can see it. In any case, I remember a huge selling point of the beta was how big the game world was. My manager at the art supply store I worked at would constantly rave about the game saying “the game world is three times larger than the real world we live in!” or something to that effect. At the time, you got shoved into creation in a completely random sector of the world. This was your respawn point if you ever died. If it was inhospitable it was up to you to establish a home base for your guy no matter how far away from your spawn point that may be. This added an element of survival to the game. If you prospered and were able to move further and further out from your base and/or spawn point you were increasing risk. I remember it being quite the thrill.

What’s more is that the further out you pushed, the larger the world became. The game world wasn’t loaded in as being “three times bigger than our world”. You had to push it to that point, and when you did the code started to break down. The world became glitchy and fuzzy and abstracted. What I love about this is that your guy in beta Minecraft wasn’t a temporal imprint with surroundings feathering out in all directions-the past was extant and the more past there was the weirder the future became.

Last time I wrote I mentioned the Worlogog, an obscure aspect of DC Comics canon that’s essentially a map that creates itself as the user learns how to interpret it. This extends to the real locations explained by the map coming into existence as they are defined and simultaneously understood by the viewer. I could easily compare this to living in a new gender, in a new city. I could also link it to a frustrating sort of ahistorical queerness that is a direct result of queer people being erased time and time again. Instead I’ll mention that recently I was watching The Mandalorian, a guilty pleasure, when lo and behold Amy Sedaris showed up as a recurring guest star. I took a screen shot and sent it to a couple of old friends who have absolutely no interest in Star Wars but with whom I’ve shared countless hours watching Strangers With Candy. The response went something like “Its insane we’ve lived this long to see culture get to this point.”

At the art supply store we would ask each other many hypothetical questions. One I remember was “if you could have a super power in real life, which would you choose?” I would say “Noclip in real life”. Floating and ghosting through a city, getting stuck behind a wall somewhere.

In her essay In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective Hito Steyerl writes:

Many of the aerial views, 3D nosedives, Google Maps and surveillance panoramas do not actually portray a stable ground. Instead, they create a supposition that it exists in the first place. Retroactively, this virtual ground creaties a perspective of overview and surveillance for a distanced, superior spectator safely floating up in the air. Just as linear perspective established an imaginary stable observer and horizon, so does the perspective from above establish an imaginary floating observer and an imaginary stable ground.

This establishes a new visual normality-a new subjectivity safely folded into surveillance technology and screen based distraction. One might conclude that this is in fact a radicalization-though not an overcoming-of the paradigm of linear perspective. In it, the former distinction between object and subject is exacerbated and turned into the one way gaze of superiors on to inferiors, a looking down from high to low. Additionally, the displacement of perspective creates a disembodies and remote controlled gaze, outsourced to machines and other objects. Gazes already became decisively mobile and mechanized with the invention of photography, but new technologies have enabled the detached observant gaze to become ever more inclusive and all knowing to the point of becoming massively intrusive -as militaristic as it is pornogrpahic, as intense as extensive, both micro and macroscopic.

Admin Minecraft guy floats around the world, building stuff and/or just fucking around.

In 2014 I took too many shrooms and went to the Dallas World Aquarium with some friends. What occurred was a spiral disappearance into a world of fake masonry and organized environments that shook me to my core and forced me to reorder my life from a chain of events to a spoke-and-wheel model or hall of mirrors.

Sets of mirrors facing each other, expanding space and me and every moment I’ve been here. Nobody knows me, because I haven’t left anything for them, and I can’t stand to look half of them in the eye.

It would be almost a decade before I tried any kind of psychedelic drug again.

Last year I read B.R. Yeager’s 2018 novel Negative Space under a close friend’s recommendation and was completely blown away. Normally I don’t really read or connect with novels but I felt a deep connection with the work in a way I didn’t really think would ever be possible again. The novel follows a cast of three queer teenagers living in a depressed town in New England and frequently bounces between their perspectives. One thing I really appreciate about the book is that it pulls no punches in portraying queer people who are very fucked up from being online. I find that the only “fucked up from being online” type of person portrayed in most media is, like, a white incel guy. I think its important to acknowledge how fucked up online spaces are, and especially were for queer people specifically. The characters in the books constantly end their recollections of past events with refrains like I’m still there, or I’m there now. Narratively this speaks to the fact that many of the characters ultimately exist as spirits haunting the physical locations of their most traumatic experiences. To me it evokes the sensation of unexpectedly being launched backwards into a horrible memory; an extreme time forgotten out of necessity.

Time compresses the older you get. Days turn to weeks turn to months turn to seasons turn to years, until your life resides in just one moment expanding forever, where each step and breath folds wrinkles into your face, carving minute, irreversible wounds between your joints. Pressing down the notches between your spine, driving your ankles and knees to ruin. I feel it now and it’ll only be worse in the future.

The character I most connected with in Negative Space was Lu, an autistic, closeted trans woman privately obsessed with suicide. Lu is, unsurprisingly, an outsider and consistently tangential to the material ins-and-outs of the plot. Sacrifice is endemic to her own becoming and, at a high point of the narrative, she is finally “seen” for the first time by her worst enemy in their only real-life interaction. From her recollection:

‘You’re going to die becoming what you need to be. But when that happens you won’t need who you are right now.’ He stepped forward and hugged me softly. At first, I pulled away, before letting it happen. ‘It’s starting. And now that it’s started there’s not anything you can do to make it stop.’ He let go and pushed past me, walking out of the room and own the hall and out of sight. I never saw him again.

Even though she is able to physically escape the setting and scenarios presented in the story, her trauma marks her and she never truly seems to find solace in her partners or the community she accesses once she leaves and accepts her transness. However, again I have to stress, this is what makes Lu a powerful force and how she is able to, at least for a time, protect the people and things in her life that are worthy of her love. She is able to leave the trouble and live a peaceful life. This life, however, careens forward until the point she is suddenly elderly, still there amongst her adolescent trauma. Being weird and trans might mean you’ll always be denied a community, but if you can learn how to hack it as an outsider things might end up working out.

Certain characters in Negative Space are physically and spiritually changed by their experiences and choices. Their perspectives and potentials are compressed; simultaneously they are literally flattened and broadened until the point their bodies become light and lose and flutter chaotically through the air.

The same friend who recommended that I read Negative Space recently released a new album, Pale Song of Tilth and Foison under the name World of Mirth, his first recorded music in over two years. I sincerely consider it a triumph and I’m honored I was able to hear it through so many permutations as he agonized over its creation. The album seems directly inspired by Negative Space. Brutal, complicated guitar tracks shimmer and fold over each other to the point of discord and comical, pointless termination. The standout track for me is Warmth, perhaps the only track that indulges in a sentimental self portrait of the truly kind and generous artist and friend. He picks me up at the train station. We talk about Frame by Frame by King Crimson but do not listen to the song. I’m still there.

The writer Lauren Berlant died in 2021. Her work was very formative for me. Spending time with my family her musings on humorlessness reverberate through my mind whenever I have to console someone immediately after I correct them on another casual misgendering. Forever with me is this passage from the introduction to her book The Female Complaint (emphasis mine):

The example of the intimate public organized by affect and emotion also forces questions about the centrality of economies of suffering to mass capitalist aesthetics, and the relation between the aesthetic pleasures in extremity and the redeployment and balization of violence and ordinary inequality. Why and how do specific kinds of collective but individually experienced pain get turned into modern forms of entertainment? How do we come to turns with the use of aesthetic conventions of excess (in melodrama, satire, comedy, romance) in processes of national cultural normativity and critique, especially insofar as these genres are depended on to express the true suffering and true desires of ordinary persons? How are different types of person and kinds of population hailed by the universalist icon of the person who loves, suffers, and desires to survive the obstacles that bind her or him to history? How are structural antagonisms refracted in the intimate anxieties of emplotted love, here mediated by conventions of addressing conventionality? What are the political consequences of a commoditized relation among subjects who are defined not as actions in history but as persons who shop and feel?

Another friend of mine writes:

everything is ‘just vibes’ now because language fails? or because everyone stupid

Transition reawakened in me the ability to access and have genuine experiences with art in general. Previously, I had considered myself deadened to this. After relocating to New York and essentially rebooting my life after 11 years in Baltimore sometimes it feels like I’m in a sitcom on its last legs. The sets have changed and only a segment of the original cast remains, all with vastly different and weirder relationships. At times it feels unnecessary.

At an art museum years ago I saw and connected with a piece by Kerry James Marshall. The painting contains an industrial cityscape of flat, one or two story warehouse and factory buildings as well as a scattering of people going about their business in the early morning. Atypical from his general body of work, the right side of the painting contains abstract patterns and blocks of color overlaid on top of the rising sun. When I first saw the painting, I was transported back in time to a typical Sunday morning years earlier. Hung over, driving through Baltimore to my studio as my car’s windshield breaks the morning light in a rotten sort of transcendental way.

For years after I searched for the painting online. I had no images and couldn’t remember the title. I bought an book of Marshall’s work hoping it was in there to no avail. The painting existed in my memory until, late last year, I discovered it again in an exhibition catalog in a stack of books in my friend’s bedroom. We talked about the painting while I reveled in the closeness.

KJM photo

I started doing psychedelics again in very small doses and only on special occasions like birthdays and Christmas. Coinciding with transition and liking art again I try to find some commonality between all of this. The fact that I feel awash and scattered through time and, even though this is a profound and intense feeling, its definitely extremely common and, I think, most people can definitely relate.

The best art, to me is art that elicits or provokes some sort of dumb epiphany or profound banality. If you want examples of what I mean, check out the movie Annette, the Kerry James Marshall painting I mentioned earlier, the 1988 movie Society, or the game Deadly Premonition. Consequentially, best part of transition is realizing that everything you've ever felt and thought has been felt and thought and deliberated a million times over by a million older/smarter/more experienced trans people and the only recourse is to experience dumb epiphany or profound banality. It makes me weep that some trans people actively reject this and exist ahistorically, as if they’re the only trans person to have ever existed. What we think and feel is only made more important because it’s been experienced and expressed so many times over. This doesn’t make it any less of an individual experience.

Recently I used some image generation machine learning algorithms to generate some reference photos for another artist’s paintings. Much of her work depicts lurid, derelict attic and basement spaces. I find the generated images to be very successful and compelling on their own. The thing that really strikes me is how the images are built. Objects are formed from deciphered chunks of pixels and are reconstructed as such. Rather than a 3d rendering of a room where geometry is constructed and plotted on a grid, or a painting where perspective and depth is created through overlapping shapes, colors and values, the AI-generated image creates a space by scattering pixels on a screen with no other steps involved. The flatness of this process makes my head whorl. I feel embedded in it, clipping through one of these image’s non-walls.

AI-generated attic image 1
AI-generated attic image 2
AI-generated attic image 3

I think I used to focus my relationships with friends and family based on how helpful I could be, what I could do to support them. I don’t think I did this for any sort of admiration or under the auspices of presenting myself as a good person. I think if anything beyond legitimately caring about the wellbeing of others and needing a distraction from thinking about my own wellbeing I was afraid of getting left behind if I was performing some kind of service. I’m still afraid of that, however I have no more desire left in me to care for anyone in that same way. I need to find a new way to interact with others, especially those whose lives I am still, for better or for worse, embedded in. Simultaneously, I need to find a new way to create art or a new context for where my art exists. At the end of Negative Space Lu, at the end of her life is visited by an unknown individual, who she only perceives as a blurry dot in the center of her vision:

The dot asks if I’d like to hear my life turned into a parable. I laugh a little and say, ‘Yes.’

‘Then let’s tell a story.’ The dot’s voice shifts to a British accent. ‘Let’s say that once upon a time there was a woman who no one could see, though everyone knew she was there. Often the villagers would speak to the woman as they went about their days, as one might speak to an angel or minor god. Each villager gave her a different name and kept that name close to their self, never sharing it with another.

‘They spoke to her about their quarrels, and she would listen whispering their quarrels back to herself, devouring each problem as though they were jelly beans. From these quarrels, she spun a golden silk ladder that stretched all the way to heaven. From the top rung she could see the gods-Silverquip the FAncy, Bolznoll the Vengeful, and Stalin the Lover-but still she was too far away for them to hear her voice. She, like all other mortals, was no greater than a flea to the gods. But she stayed up there past the clouds, atop the golden ladder, shouting at the titans in vain, until she grew old and gray.’

‘What did she yell?’ I say.

The dot doesn’t say anything for a few moments. Finally: ‘She asked them to keep the villagers safe, for they knew not what they did.’

‘And what did the titans do?’

‘They didn’t listen, no matter how loud she yelled, So she grew very old, And on her 91st birthday, she fell from the ladder, dying before hitting the ground.’

I laughed. ‘So what’s the moral?’

Another pause, and then: ‘One day, no one will ever know you were here.’