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Response to Review of See You In The Streets: Art, Action, and Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

There is a sense in which I never fully comprehend my own work until it is reflected back to me by an outside eye. For such a long time the creature and I have been entwined, gently swirling in a dream world. The active witness severs the cord and I am tossed out. Shaken, a bit stunned to realize the beast now exists independent of me. It is bittersweet as I am forced to release my fantasy of the work and glimpse for the first time how it has actually manifested in the world. Dr. Chloe Ward’s review of See You in the Streets provided that startling moment of grace.

There is much to respond to in Dr. Ward’s insightful review but what genuinely surprised and touched me was how decisively she stood for my right to be an artist rather than insisting I be anything else. She took what is a terribly difficult task, reaching across the abyss between academia and art, and made it look easy. In response, I would like to expand a little on a process of art making and the necessity of a wide imaginative space in these turbulent times.

It is my animal nature to prowl and protect the odd ways in which my work is created. The projects are born from a sensing place, without words. There is an intuitive shielding as I feel out resonances beneath the surface. I am learning to sync my weight to a pulse of intuition, rocking with the wave until the force builds enough power to burst forth.

There is a peculiar way in which we live, unconsciously, in a time a little ahead of ourselves. Through a kind of raw openness I am feeling out that future world and the work I create is an articulation of that awareness. It can appear somehow clairvoyant, which it is not, but it often resonates with audiences because it is in communication with something which has already manifested within them.

The process requires keeping language and intellect in healthy relation but not overwhelming the raw lick and taste of the sensory. Introducing the oversized weight of words too early can upend the practice, inviting a slide into conformity. The little lies so smooth that we barely register them at all. I am wary of the many ways in which artists are forced to language in order to sustain support for their work; that translation is not neutral and can come at a great cost to genuine discovery.

The rigor to hone into those channels comes through the practice of craft. My body, as it moves through technical practices, the dance between eyes, hands, posture, force and touch, is a barometer. The ways our bodies tell us things all the time – the exhaustion when we are living in something untruthful, the physical clumsiness that comes from being off-center emotionally or the bounce when our joy is unbounded.       

One of the dangers of these dark times is that we are so desperate to do something that we become reckless with our most precious resources. With only minimal skill our craft can elicit fierce emotion, but feeling alone is not enough. Sentimentality is easily swayed to brutal effect. Even with seemingly positive community engagement there can be a convenient cheat for artists to avoid their own inner contradictions. Women artists in particular face the fierce beast of creative want pitted against moldy expectation that we should act boldly only on behalf of others and not simply for our own vision. But it is exactly that untethered voice which might be the jewel that saves us. It is not only through our work, but also our example of committed lives that demonstrates a crack in the system. Even now we can live differently.

I would like to stake a claim for the transformative power of art as the long game, a critical battle for our dream space; the imaginative wonder room where we can try on outrageous beliefs and pose other possible selves. The colonization of our privacy is an act of great violence. We become locked down, infested by screen noise, turning to false friends of rage and righteousness to create some minimal sense of personal space. Sick with toxic legacies of the past, our vision turns reactive. To break the cycle, intimately and politically rests in part on our capacity for imagination. Releasing the drunken lust for judgement, turning our energies from the ugly comfort of cycling with people and institutions that have no interest in true possibility.

A cacophony of voices is required. A shouting, slamming, flooding, rampaging diversity of visions to nourish a fertile life force. Giving back to the earth what we have only been draining; boldly, with laughter and vivid imagination stepping into the future we are already creating.

I was so touched by reading this review. Thank you Chloe Ward for witnessing my work and thank you for the threads of resources to pull. Your insight and nourishment gave me much to contemplate.

Thank you reader.

Thank you Danny Millum and Reviews in History.

It is the fight of our lives in the streets + on the plains.

See you in the streets.

Ruth Sergel is an artist + agitator. Her book See You in the Streets: Art, Action + Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire won a 2017 American Book Award

For more on her work please see: