Quintan Ana Wikswo has carved out a space of artistic living unlike anyone else. Her work bleeds into multiple disciplines, from fiction to poetry to photography to performance art to simply living in a sort of shamanistic kind of world, where every mundane or broken object becomes endowed with importance, where no story is off-limits from its telling. Her new work, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far, forthcoming from Coffee House Press, is a collection of stories and photographs that reads and feels like a dream map of a visionary’s brain. It is unlike anything else out there. The stories breathe with peripheral intensity. Upon reading them, one can feel how far and how deep they reach back and forward, what and whose stories they are trying to un-erase. Combined with the photographs - taken with broken cameras – the text begins to sneak into different places of the brain and back again. There is a rhythm to this movement, a music, a life. The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far may change the way you view the book as object, the story as word.
Devin Kelly: How do you view the relationship between words and images? A number of books have come out recently that employ both mediums, including, notably, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which uses images in a different way than your forthcoming work, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far. Your photos and text seem to occupy this same sort of secret space together. Can you talk about that?
Quintan Ana Wikswo: Our brains really light up when words and images are combined – it was probably one of the most thrilling moments for early humans who developed language, especially written language. I’m captivated by the mysterious, idiosyncratic and deeply intimate imaginative space that a reader can enter into with poetry and with abstracted images. So much freedom to dream and participate in the creation of a conjured world. My fiction is deeply influenced by poetry, and my photography is a tribute to dreamscapes – both are places where emotions and logic speak passionately to one another.
With the book, I was interested in that sensual, hypnotic rhythm that we encounter in our dreams, memories, myth, and fantasies. This netherworld of something that is barely glimpsed, tantalizing, and where reality always shifts a bit like light through a kaleidoscope. In these words and images, I wanted to create a kind of ancient, shamanic space for the psyche where “what really happened” is very much within one’s own mind, and is not wholly controlled or defined by the storyteller or imagemaker.
The stories and the images both have their own structure of mood, so that the book ideally becomes a journey through a narrative dance of the known and the unknown. Where the photographs provide time for the text to breathe and unfurl, and the text pauses to allow the mind to untangle new thoughts and language.
There is one main influence really behind the words and images – those enormous epic paintings of battle scenes, such as that absurdly moody painting at the Louvre by Antoine-Jean Gros – Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau. It’s about 25 feet by 17 feet, and it gradually becomes a very mysterious, occluded story that transforms into a mélange of history, emotion, occlusion and allusion.
All of my work is site-responsive – I create my stories and photographs at sites where history has been erased or lost. I spend months or years on small scraps of land where few fragments remain of the original events, and the sensory process of pausing to absorb every subtle clue has taught me patience, and of taking the time to activate all the senses to perceive and process the depth and complexity of time and space and self. I hope that in the book, these pauses between word and image offer readers an unexpected possibility to go more deeply into the encounter.
DK: Can you speak about your process? What comes first, the photo or the word? Is that even a fair question?
QAW: I do all my work in the field, so I spent five years around the Baltic traipsing around some very strange places with a backpack of broken cameras and typewriters, with my life interweaving itself with the places I encountered. But as deeply as my relationship with sites informs my process, my brain injury and temporal lobe epilepsy is really an equal instigator. I have temporal lobe epilepsy in both hemispheres of my brain – a part that contains how language, vision, time, and space are processed. One side of the brain is primarily verbal, and one is primarily visual, but due to my condition I have atypical neural passageways between the two sides. At the best of times, it’s like two lovers. At the worse of times, it’s like two enemies on a battlefield. So the image and the word are always holding hands, or crossing swords. It all comes together at once. Seizures cause incredible lightning storms between the two where language and image are alternately amplified and disrupted. Where one side would typically dominate, for me they often begin the most intricate dadaesque, surrealist conversations and disagreements, and that’s where my work is born.
When I’m working on a project, my creative process is profoundly responsive to that quite intense and unpredictable colloquy within my mind and my eyes and my hands. When I work at sites, some days all I can sense is the minute changes in the light, from golden to blue to green to grey to red, and while I am working with that photographically, I am also thinking narratively about what that says about transformation, about emotion, and the color of the light will end up becoming the spine of the words in a story.
The artist Chuck Close says that “virtually everything I’ve done has been a product of – or has been influenced by – my learning disabilities.” I understand the impulse behind formalized programs that teach process and practice for visual art and creative writing, and I have at times benefited and been damaged by both. But all my work comes from an understanding of how my own psyche processes reality, and then doing my best not to compromise, filter, or translate that intimate perceptual self. At the end of a day of fieldwork with my typewriters and cameras, I have reached total capacity in my eyes, my ears, and it’s a cacophony of word and image all intertwined and simultaneous. The art of making the book is to create a rhizomatic structure between the two so that rabbits can jump down the hole and play around a bit at the mysteries that dwell between.
DK: Some of your prose has this metered, rhythmic lyricism that calls to mind epic poetry. Where do you find yourself drawing and pulling from when you write?
QAW: I grew up in remote areas of the American South and Southwest, and that relationship to language has its legs wrapped around my DNA. The pace, the pauses, the intonations and inflections, hesitations, emphasis, nuance – all this drawn from nations that were often destroyed but can still be heard in slight variations of the lips and tongue – the lyricism and rhythm of place. I grew up around Mennonite and Amish accents that contained vestiges of 15th century Dutch intonation. African tribal languages, the Gullah of the South Carolina Sea Islands. Richly gorgeous mixtures of Comanche and Dine and Tohono O’Oodham meter and rhythm. My mother always hated dictionaries because they gave “official” pronunciations, whereas all around us were thousands of different ways to make English all your own. My father’s physics lab was filled with global researchers who helped me learn to read – I learned more about English from Sri Lankan speakers. More about rhythm from Koreans. I love how the full body of poetics allows anyone to put her own tongue all over language, and claim it.
For most of my life, I’ve primarily read poetry, rather than fiction - in particular, Aimé Cesaire, Paul Celan and the Serbian poet Novica Tadić’s’s entire body of work. I appreciate the structures and unstructures available in poetry, the occlusions and pauses, the agency for the reader to participate in the creation of meaning, and in the pace at which the words enter the psyche.
The poetry I am drawn to and inspired by has a command over the metaphysics of emptiness and lacunae – what is left out, what exists in allusion, what can be assembled from small fragments and broken parts. Also, the time required to inhabit a work of poetry is almost a ritual process of unfolding, a processional of processing compact intensities that for me often emerge moments, hours, or days after I have read a stanza.
DK: Many of your stories seem to focus or hover around the inadequacy of our containers – our bodies, our maps, our words – and yet, at one point, you write: “without the word all our utterances would be a scream.” What are your thoughts on this – on the inadequacy of language, coupled perhaps with its necessity?
QAW: When one thinks about it, why should it be possible for all of human existence to be satisfyingly contained by language? If existence were that simple, we would have figured out dark matter by now. Or how to get along with one another in between our hundreds of thousands of languages, extant and extinct. Language itself is one of the great mysteries – there are millions of lost languages, lost words, and behind those losses are occluded stories and emotions. Yet those needs to express ourselves still float out there in our minds, unresolved. We simply can’t contain the psyche into language – the dream is to come as close as possible. But perhaps that’s also a nightmare. We need private places inside ourselves where we are shocked and humbled by our own internal mysteries.
At the same time, the book is obsessively absorbed by this simultaneous passion for precision of language, and the sensual joy at celebrating its rebellious refusal to comply. I love the interplay of science, love, war, and dreams because these visceral existential crises are sites where our ignorances and passions are so huge, nobody even knows the language to wrap around the wonderment. Some mysteries cannot be tidied up. Some pains cannot be packaged. Some joys refuse to be bounded. And that’s as quixotic as it should be.
Inadequacy is very haunting and important to me. As a species and as individuals, we are inadequate in nearly every way – what happens when we die? What is gravity? How do you make amends to those you’ve hurt? Why can’t I fix your pain? Why does this emotion cause salt water to pour from my eyeballs? We write, and we write, and we talk and talk, and then we refuse to talk, or others silence us, or we silence one another, and these are at the heart of powerful crimes and revolutions. Language insists on reminding us of this haunting knowledge that we are contained by ignorance. There is a point, perhaps around age fifteen, when most of us realize that there is abject human ignorance at the heart of this entire planetary enterprise. It’s heartbreaking. Perhaps a few decades later, it becomes liberating.
The word figures highly in many creation stories. The word of the gods. The holy words, the sacred words. Lies and truths. To inhabit a container is to surrender to a system of language that tells us what reality is. If we step outside that container of accepted, dominant meaning, then we can liberate ourselves to step into our own realities, and perhaps have a glimpse of a different kind of freedom.
DK: There’s this haunting sense that comes while reading The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far, of words being bookended by photos of trees, or through trees. It’s an organic thing, almost natural. What was the process of organizing this book like? Was it a form, in a way, of curating?
QAW: Ah, trees are the most epic creatures – we climb into them to get a view, they are harvested for houses and for paper, and the ancient ones are the keepers of time in place. They are experts at transformation and metamorphosis, and are both resilient and fragile. On a primal level, their branches are just like our veins, arteries, and nerves. There is the tree of the life, the tree of the fruit of good and evil. Trees are worshipped and maligned, and they are primordial evidence of birth, death, renewal as the leaves grow and fall, and death is often only a winter illusion. The tree is one of our earliest companions as a species. We are old friends, and old enemies. Trees – like the sea and the sky – are talismans of this book.
Some of the last edits to the piece – and all of the photographs for the story Aurora and the Storm – were taken during hurricanes. Watching a tree in a hurricane is a life-altering experience. I did most of the editing of the book at several artist residencies at Yaddo, and at night the squirrels would scream at each other in the highest branches of the old oak trees. Once it began to snow, the branches themselves would make ghoulish sounds in the night as they froze and their sap shifted in their veins.
The stories are organized as a journey through various kinds of transformation forced upon us through ignorance and love, loss and metamorphosis – I chose the order of the photographs and stories based upon different sorts of encounters with these often violent unavoidable processes. Like the trees, the sea and lakes transformed with ice and thaw, sunlight and shadow, death and catastrophe, mystery, and enigmatic reflections as the foliage around them shifted. The sky filled with clouds, with the shifts of the sun and its colors in our atmosphere as our planet moves around and around, and the appearance of warplanes defying our own bodily ability to transcend the earth’s gravity that holds us.
It took about a month at Yaddo this autumn to curate and organize the book. I printed out about four hundred photographs and every single paragraph of the book, and tape each of these perhaps six thousand pieces of paper to the four walls of my studio. Every so often one would fall down and my service dog, Onophria, would quite delightedly eat it. My colleague at Yaddo, the Spanish artist Jaime de la Jara, would come to the door with a look of abject horror as thousands of pages blew in the wind, and the dog was eating the book, and yet I had a plan in mind. I didn’t sleep, but I thought a lot about ignorance and metamorphosis, and at the end of the month both I and the book were satisfied with the adventure.
DK: At one point, you write: “There is a second method for foretelling the future.” I love this line. It has its roots in the poetic, the occult. It echoes a line from Terrance Hayes’ poem, “Arbor for Butch,” where he writes: “Certain arrangements must be made / if you want access to the past.” Past, future – why are we drawn so much to these ideas? What’s there for us? What’s there for you, as a writer, a photographer, an artist?
QAW: Indeed, and the arrangements governing timespace are complex and based on abject ignorance – again this brings us to the idea of containers. We can find ourselves contained in the past, in the present, or in the future. The occult finds itself in communion in the sciences and religion – these battles over history (the past), reality (the present), and agency (the future). But it’s all just turf wars about our ideological mistakes, the admissions and denials of ignorance, the celebration and mourning of mysteries, the quest for power over knowledge.
Most religions encourage us to maintain our sanity by choosing – or glorifying - one or the other. My book is about physics, but mostly in the sense that they are taking on the great mysteries. In that way, it is also about love and religion. I remember the conversations between string theorists and dark matter physicists at CERN during the development of the Hadron Particle Collider, and the panic around what the multiverse is actually doing, and would we ever know, and if they someday thought they knew, would they be right, and for how long. And the conversations were identical to my childhood eavesdropping on my family of preachers arguing with the Amish, the Quakers, the Catholics, the Jews, the Baptists, and the backwoods witches about what was what and who was who. Again, this glorious ignorance. The desire for agency.
I was exorcised a couple times in my life, mostly because I ended up at sites where some people thought there was no logical explanation for how I would know about the secrets that transpired in those places. As Hayes says, “certain arrangements must be made,” and in my case it’s simply a relentless training of the senses – and it’s quite likely that we have far more than five.
I worked for twenty years in various branches of human rights work, from learning at the knees of veteran civil rights activists from SNCC and SCLC and the Black Panthers, to fieldwork on the disappeared in various nations. Everything I learned was to pay attention. To everything. All the time. To see everything. To hear everything. To look for patterns. To search out the invisible. To question the visible.
It’s a kind of skepticism that is required to survive the unsurvivable, and it’s time travel. Time loops upon itself in repeated patterns, but if we fail to make certain arrangements, we will not see that the location of the Best Buy or Costco is actually on a killing field where the Apache were slaughtered, and connecting that to the solid sea of plastic that is building in the Pacific Ocean - is that time travel, or is that simply keeping a close eye on existence?
DK: Your haunting piece “Fieldwork,” which was on recent exhibit at the Robert Feldman Gallery and is published online at Guernica, fluctuates between the startlingly specific and the surreal, and it elicits such an intense emotional response. How do you write and work around these issues of human suffering, of human survival? How has your work evolved over time to continue this sort of delving?
QAW: When I was about thirteen, I was fortunate to make photocopies for a group of elderly African American civil rights activists in Memphis who had been unacclaimed but pivotal, powerful figures in the movements in Mississippi and Tennessee. I’d known these people for years, but at some point it dawned on me that their relationship to human suffering and human survival was something of profound existential importance. They worked constantly, for decades, in an external and internal site that was simultaneously located in the past, the present and the future. Their obsession was the ethical action of human existence: human rights, human death, human dignity, human liberation, human transformation. Justice, retribution, forgiveness, recovery, revolution. It spoke to me in every quark of myself.
At that time, I was very much suspended between two worlds. My life and my own family heritage was suspended between rural and often impoverished working laborers, farmers, sharecroppers, and fundamentalist preachers, and the advanced research science departments of elite universities. One side of my family were similar to Mennonites, and the other side had worked on the Manhattan Project. The only thing that made sense was that both these people were committed on every level to delving into the very thorniest questions of human survival and destruction – as I got older and worked at hospitals and hospices, with survivors of combat violence in ten different wars and thousands of different hate crimes, and delved into my own personal history with suffering and survival, I woke up last week and realized it’s what I care about the most. Most of us always have and always will live around these questions.
For twenty years I worked in human rights – mostly writing and documenting and investigating. About seven years ago, I lost my faith in the exclusive power of institutions and I realized I needed to speak with my own voice and not the voice of an institution. I needed to express my own perceptions in as many ways as I could, and not file reports for governments who would never care.
To me, being an artist is about gaining agency, and ultimately escape from time, and place, and containment. My solidarity and allegiance is with others who have been deprived of agency, and who have been silenced and contained. My artwork is a love affair with the self and the psyche, but also an existence proof that humans possess the agency to find the language and point out its lacunae. The agency to learn and employ all the visible and invisible senses. The opportunity to leave our containers. To evolve into something more mysterious, and gloriously complex, than what the past, present, or future suggests is possible.
DK: You talked about working in human rights. Could you speak more about that, and, specifically, your work in relation to sexual violence? How has that informed your worldview and your mission as an artist?
QAW: I worked in human rights for twenty years, from the community to international level, from grassroots to governmental and nongovernmental agencies. My last two jobs as a professional human rights worker were helping set up gender violence shelters on the Tohono O’Odham Nation, and working with survivors of sexual violence during genocide. The female and female-identified survivors I worked with ranged in age from infants to women in their nineties, and spanned suburban transgender teenagers who had or were transitioning from male to female, and women who had been imprisoned in rape camps in conflict zones.
These two jobs showed me that as long as I represented an agency or organization, my own freedom to express my own truths, perspectives, and ideas for change would be policed and limited by others’ politics and agendas. I decided to become an artist in order to gain agency over my own self, to gain the confidence to speak my truths, and ultimately to more ethically advocate for the people with whom I am truly allied. I created the multidisciplinary projects MERCY KILLING AKTION and OUT HERE DEATH IS NO BIG DEAL to speak my truths about these last two jobs. After twenty years, these were my first experience as an unfettered activist with full agency over my own self-expression.
DK: What did you experience in those jobs that made you feel the need to break out, to speak and gain agency for yourself and others?
QAW: In one of my first jobs at nineteen, the majority of the female workers were sexually assaulted in the line of duty. I saw the policing of social power and control acted out against the female body via sexual violence. Over decades, I came to see sexual violence as an act of retaliative power against humans who are seen as prey – an action and a choice committed with nearly complete impunity in nearly all cultures, in nearly all situations. I never saw any true consequences against the perpetrators, especially if they were white and had any social power.
As I moved between agencies working on disability, race, ethnicity, and class, the thread that carried through was that a human’s gender invariably triggered violent yet socially acceptable abuses of power, and that sexual violence was rarely seen as a human rights atrocity. Every woman I knew had experienced sexual violence – often multiple times, across many years, and many generations. Even within the activist community of conscience - and even more so within universities, the military, private and public institutions, parking lots, nursing homes, day care facilities – gender violence is a commonplace war against female agency that begins at birth and ends at death.
DK: Your description points toward a culture and world where gender violence is a perpetual, terrifying norm. How does this realization affect you, and women you have come to know?
QAW: It was devastating, alienating, horrifying, and ultimately extremely radicalizing to experience the iron fist of this silent, informally-yet-formally organized war against women’s freedom and agency. It was infuriating to discover that gender violence in our society is so commonplace that when it occurs, there is a general sense of inevitability and silencing. That sexual violence is so deeply conditioned in the human reptile brain that it bypasses the primitive fight or flight instinct, and goes directly to a place of paralysis. Millions of untested rape kits. Millions of unprosecuted rapists. Millions of women whose first nonconsensual sexual experience occurs before they are old enough to walk. The female half of humanity is being told on a daily basis that the human rights atrocities that happen to us are just part of being identified as female. And the male half of humanity is being taught that they can choose to commit atrocities against women and girls without consequence.
DK: What pushed you in the direction of human rights activism and artistry?
QAW: I grew up with two major influences on my lifelong and perhaps compulsive commitment to human rights. The first was my family, in which my mother’s religious family and my father’s scientific family were both guided by idiosyncratic but strongly held conscientious beliefs and a labyrinth of complex cosmological and existential questions about the individual and collective role of humans within the cosmos – agency, action, responsibility, curiosity. This led some to go to prison for conscientious objection; others to help build the atomic bomb. They made active choices about their behavior in relationship to what they felt was humanity’s ultimate well being.
The second influence was growing up in the flagrantly bigoted rural south and southwest, both of which possess searing and active legacies of genocide and human rights atrocities, as well as ferocious traditions of resistance to these injustices. I was homeschooled, and as an early teenager had the great fortune to meet and begin working for veteran civil rights activists from the civil rights era – everyday, workaday people who had undertaken the dangerous and unlauded work of desegregating lunch counters and swimming pools, schools and busses. People who risked their life to make sure black southerners didn’t have to step into the gutter to let a white southerner use the sidewalk. I spent years going with them from tiny town to tiny town, watching their daily acts of conscience, and gradually realizing that the wounds of generations made these people put the safety of their own lives secondary to the creation of a more evolved society.
Artists are likewise everyday, workaday people who, if we choose, can step outside the structures of authority and use our relative freedom of expression to open windows and doors to realities that society’s institutions have otherwise silenced. Our acts can seem small, but represent enormously impactful choices.
DK: Based on your definition of the artist as one who has a relative freedom of expression, do you feel that artists have a responsibility to be activists? How do you define the role of an activist, socially and politically and culturally?
QAW: In a certain sense, all artists are already activists. In the United States, we are a bit irrelevant, a bit laughable…the court jesters at the feet of emperors of consumer capitalism. There is a radical power in being the fool – our social institutions quite effectively police and control our thoughts and expressions – artists can bypass some of that because we aren’t yet entirely commodified.
All artists – as private selves, within our intimate psyches - have a rare opportunity to inhabit less constrained, contained, and defined roles in our society, and traverse terrains with unmapped and unpoliced territories. That is already an activist role.
Living as an artist is one of many social roles whose fruits are rarely rewarded or even seen – the struggle towards communication and self-expression for many of us – artists included - results in invisibility. This is especially true for any artist who is not born into a white male body.
Activist artists – especially the ones who are still fighting invisibility - can be like superheros with invisible cloaks. A human enters a conflict zone (whether that’s the street-corner notorious for stop and frisk, or the Ukraine) as a representative of an international human rights agency and alarm bells go off everywhere, amongst everyone. Yet entering as a dreamy little painter or poet can at times be an asset – we can move amongst ideologies undetected. We can navigate the general confusion around what and who we are to sneak through the cracks in the policing of many issues. To me, that too is a tool of activism, much like being a spy.
Activist artists with public profiles have a different role. Entering Russia as an artist did not bring me freedom of movement – I kissed the ground of Finland when I crossed the border afterwards. Being a poet in China is clearly not an unscrutinized role. Being a video artist in Ferguson will not endear that artist to the police. Many prisons are full of artists.
The role of an artist is to create. And what we create is a choice. A choice that matters. The action of making decisions and having agency in the process of self-expression makes every artist an activist. I have a friend who is forcibly institutionalized in a psychiatric asylum right now. Every time she works with a handful of clay, she is being an activist. She is being a human, she is creating, and expressing, and that is difficult, resilient, and a beautiful act of reaching for the sublime.
All images courtesy of Quintan Ana Wikswo.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a co-founder of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. His collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence, is forthcoming from Anchor & Plume Press. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Drunken Boat, Armchair/Shotgun, Post Road, The Millions, and more, and his essay “Love Innings” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He works as a college advisor in Queens and teaches English at Bronx Community College.