I canceled my Amazon Prime membership this summer but it had already been paid through the next year. Of course I’ll use it in the meantime. Sure, concern with Amazon’s bad labor practices justifies my relinquishment, but more of a concern for my own psychic energies drove the decision. Did I really need anything in two days? Or rather is it that I wanted to wait? It is certainly a thrill to receive unexpected mail but is it twice as nice to first receive word of the mail’s coming: as in a text message, ‘hey I’ve sent you a package’ and then some days later to actually receive the package? My most recent purchase: a hot water bottle that claims to be rubber. Surely it’s not, but it is pretty: translucent green with a white stopper. The water bottle is a gift, so I don’t, in this case, announce that a package is on its way.
In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the characters don’t yet know they’re in the Anthropocene. They’re in the 1870s. Wharton, writing with hindsight from the 1920s, dotes over the technological nascency of her characters’ lives:
“and at this opening, Madame Olenska twisted the talk away to the fantastic possibility that they might one day actually converse with each other from street to street, or even—incredible dream!—from one town to another. This struck from all three allusions to Edgar Poe and Jules Verne, and such platitudes as naturally rise to the lips of the most intelligent when they are talking against time dealing with a new invention in which it would seem ingenious to believe too soon.”
The miracle of modernity isn’t the instantaneity of communications but the multiplication of means: one can say the same thing twice. Not then that things are more convenient—simply more redundant. Yes, there are real effects of this redundancy: the growing island of plastics in the Pacific, the speculative reach of financial capitalism, the number of people graduating from MFA programs—but this redundancy is pleasurable too, definitely reckless, but comfortable too! “Buy it again,” suggests Amazon. Of course, I won’t, but it’s a fun idea.
“Welcome to the Anthropocene,” says the woman in the opening shot of the video. “It’s already too late,” says the embroidery on her hat. The video cuts. “Welcome to the Anthropocene!” she intones again. The word itself—anthropocene—is redundant, even before scene cuts and the character repeats herself: she’s situated in an industrial park that’s pretty in a lightly abandoned way: grasses gone to seed nodding in the air reflected in the probably contaminated puddle. Later the video supplies a bit more specificity: it’s an asphalt refinery—but in any case clearly the high Anthropocene. “Welcome to the Anthropocene” would be a terrible name for a show (I’ve already seen that show; so have you). Happily, the show this video forms part of has a much better name: “Reckless Comfort.” But the line is great in the video because here its redundancy is fired within the frame of the fictional. The focus isn’t then the exciting originality of the Anthropocene (the lack of which accounts for the dullness of a lot of shows about which), but the emotional cast of characters’ claims, the visual language of environmental wokeness, and the shape of a world that gives such animation to such a concept as the Anthropocene in the first place.
Reckless Comfort, co-curated by Jameson Paige and Budgie Birka-White, takes place at Extase, a fairly recent apartment gallery in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, and features work by collaborative duo Mia+Máire (Mia Ardito and Máire Witt O’Neil) (including the aforementioned video) and Jesse Meredith.
A lower floor in the apartment houses the show’s merch table. Unfortunately, the embroidered baseball cap from the video has already been purchased. (Or not; caps don’t suit me anyway.) A merch table, as opposed to a museum gift store because the show is about fiction: this is where one can try on the characters, rock their brand, feel out the contours of their world through the magic of fashion. Museum gift shops would be more exciting if they similarly operated on a cosplay model but that’s not their purview: the museum sells the souvenir of the visit, the merch table the immanence of identity. I don’t imagine I am joining the band when I put on their t-shirt but I am yet transformed, marked as a member of this special public of listeners—part of their fictional universe.
Mia and Máire are long-time collaborators (and from here on, I’ll try to refer to them with their singular Mia+Máire moniker): together they have created and performed in four seasons of their surreality TV series Sad Girls Club TV; while their contribution for the present show archives an offshoot production, Mad Girls Club TV (MGCTV), set in (where else?) a global climate crisis in which the series’ characters have become foragers, environmentalists, and doomsday preppers. In other words, we are walking onto a full-on fictional universe (whose convolutions and character lineages are mapped out diagrammatically on Mia+Máire’s website). While Mia+Máire’s work in the show does include several videos, the material bulk of their contribution comprises a large-scale woven carpet installation of acrylic yarn, melted plastic bottle caps, and plastic bags. Visitors are invited to walk on the carpet, from which vantage the words embedded and woven into the carpet are marginally more legible: “amazon prime / continue to shop on / that we can / big business so / underdog overcoming / narratives of the / by watching / satisfy morality” one woven stanza shakily seems to read.
In its spread—not only across the room’s floor but up and over several stairs too—and its half-readable poetic indictments, the carpet evinces the obsessiveness of work done in private, of compulsive expression. The work primes a sense of trespass, or a guarded invitation that doesn’t elicit a true/not-true evaluation of the carpet’s fuzzy lyricism. “The recklessness of the perpetual now is no longer supported on this device.” Damn. If only we hadn’t updated to the new operating system. Yet at the same time, a reminder in the form of an iPad propped from the carpet on cast plaster feet that this carpet isn’t the work of this world, but another, different fictional world: the iPad beams an episode of MGCTV, showing the characters in dark woods, eating crawfish? The carpet itself doesn’t appear in any of the MGCTV video material we are shown, but it is clearly a product of that world. Or a precursor to it: if not quite a prop, then concept art for that world, a plush portal on which one may tread, shuttle, and hover in fictional voyeurism.
In another room entirely (non-adjacent even), Jesse Meredith offers a different world, but again one that forces feelings of trespass. Here the arrangement is provisionally public—the private showroom of a gun collection. In place of guns, on wall mounted racks are slightly ragged sticks engraved with phrases all more or less blunt and all more or less slogans: from the literal slogan of “AMERICA RUNS ON DUNKIN” to “YOU WILL NEVER HEAR ME APOLOGIZE.” If this fictional universe and that of Mia+Máire are connected (and what is art criticism but a form of fan theory) then here we’re out of the woods, away from the asphalt refinery, tucked into a suburban enclave. Here we get our crawfish from AmazonFresh, not the mucky pond. Here the laws of spectatorship are Look Don’t Touch (which is not one of the present stick inscriptions but might well be). Included as well in Meredith’s installation is a doorframe stopped with vinyl siding, on which several holes are drilled at various heights: peepholes that reveal upon peeping another reflection of the suburban: an overgrown field, houses partially occluded by trees, and finally the viewer’s own peeping eye: in fact one is looking straight at a mirror reflection of the suburban backyard photograph that is hung on the obverse of the vinyl sliding door. The racked sticks and their slogans too are hefty, blunt. As clipped as they are (the sticks and the slogans both), they are finished, hence their display. Like the guns whose display the sticks mime, these might well be used as instruments of real violence (thwack!), but in their constellated collection they uphold a more abstract forcefulness. “EVERYTHING WAS GOOD,” one says. Ok, I do not feel like challenging that! “I’M NOT INSECURE YOU’RE INSECURE.” No doubt, man!
These two scenes write alternate relations to fantasies of remove and catastrophe. Meredith’s work is darkly avoidant. The catastrophe there is spectral—the figure whom such instruments might need wallop if not for the symbolic power consolidated in their display. Spectral too in its aspect of unreachability: the field fallow not for regenerative but exclusionary ends, and the sticks displayed not for their being more but less at-hand. Mia+Máire then, to be perhaps too neat, are neurotically un-avoidant: their carpet needs to be touched to be read, and even with one’s toes dug in, the woven phrases remain incomplete and untranscribable. The logic here is association and connectivity—which is pleasurable and humorous, yes; but endless too: reckless.
The apartment’s backyard is visible from the rear room which houses Mia+Máire’s carpet installation. This vantage affords a view of a piece by Meredith staged in the yard: again engraved wood but this time large stumps that sequentially ask “WHAT BLADE / CUTS / DOWN / THE / TREE / OF / LIBERTY”. The question doesn’t ask to be answered, like the sticks on their racks inside don’t ask to be touched. Not clear how these trees were felled but it’s clear something sharp was involved, someone strong involved in carrying them, and that’s answer enough. Does a NO TRESPASSING sign work better if it was bought at the local Ace Hardware or hand-etched? What about hand-etched but still purchased, still expensive. On the windowsill overlooking the yard is a final piece by Mia+Máire: this too hand-engraved wood, though apparently predating any plans for the present exhibition: a scrap of bark with a light scratch that reads “consent”. It’s scrawled on the bark’s underside as if it might be returned to the tree, the word for the wood, not the writer and not me.
When was the last time you made a large-scale change to your email and bank passwords? It’s clear enough that language, especially private, interior language, has some magic force, so all I’m saying is it might be a good idea to be deliberate about what phrases you are repeatedly inscribing in a cryptic medium. Send me your password and I’ll let you know what it says about your paranoid tendencies, about the kind of world you’re calling into being, about its suitability for inscription in wood or carpet. I’m thinking about changing mine to consent consent consent consent Con$ent1988.