Being-With, Being Known: Critical Fictions by Hannah Godfrey

Critical Fictions by Hannah Godfrey. ARP Books. Image courtesy of the author.

By Jaz Papadopoulos

“Learning changes when relational context changes.”

  • Leanne Betasamosake Simpson[1]

“[W]e could not hear a melody as melody if our immediate appreciation of the note before our ears was not accompanied by our ‘memory’ of the note just before and an expectation of the note to follow.”

  • Eva Hoffman[2]

 

Between the covers of Critical Fictions, the latest collection from poet, storyteller, and art writer Hannah Godfrey, a pulse beats: a lineage and testament of queer intimacies is alive.

The five artists discussed within its pages––Derek Dunlop, Kristin Nelson, Hagere Selam shimby Zegeye-Gebrehiwot, AO Roberts, and Logan MacDonald––Godfrey knows on personal levels. Winnipeg is a mid-sized Prairie city, full of artists and social atmospheres in which to meet them; it would be difficult not to. I have also met most of the artists in question. We’ve shared dance floors, studio visits, and the occasional diasporic lineage-seeking trip back to the home country. Herein lies the crux of the text: where formal fields of discussion and analysis traditionally prioritize distance, objectivity, and supposed lack-of-relationship, Critical Fictions knows that we must “hold things to understand them, not as a means of tactile analysis, but…as a means of being-with.”[3]

At her Winnipeg book launch, Godfrey was asked about her choice to write about the work of artists she knows. (The text goes so far as to name one of the artists as chosen family.)

Somewhat bashfully, Godfrey shared that she considers this book a “book of love,” a text about artists and artworks to whom she feels affectionately and intimately connected. Godfrey’s assertion––the right to write about those she loves rather than see it as a conflict of interest––is a transgressive act prioritizing proximity and intimate knowledge over normative analysis. This is especially poignant in a queer context: we know so little about our queer ancestors, our history, and our culture; it becomes imperative to share the queer stories that we do know well.

Beyond relationships themselves, Godfrey introduces readers to the codes of queer history and art, while role modeling curiosity and the process of meaning-making. Godfrey’s book intimately and responsibly documents queer bodies of work, ensuring they are not lost to time, spatial distance (physical artworks that only exist in specific places, if also the internet), and the erasure of hegemonic narratives. 

RELATIONSHIPS, KNOWING, AND UNDERSTANDING

Intimacy need not be complicated. It can simply be the act of knowing: pink is Derek Dunlop’s favourite colour; he rubbed this part of the painting with his fingers. Such simplicity gives a sense of purity and an ability to see things as they truly are.

Dunlop is an artist making prints and installations, many of which the book discusses in relation to queerness, cruising, and the outdoors. One piece in particular, an installation titled Garden, is composed of “found objects and mud taken from the banks of the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg.”[4]

Knowing this river is key to understanding this piece. I have walked its banks innumerable times, in all seasons, save for when it’s flooded its paths. Godfrey, a Winnipeg resident for nearly a decade, has also developed a familiarity with the river, going so far as to audio-record river walks to play on her former community radio show, MonkeySparrow. Without knowing this river, one might see metal, cement, and rocks when looking at Garden. With more proximity, one would know that this river is a site for gay cruising and is one of the flows that brought colonial expansion into the Prairies. Downtown, it connects with the Red River, a site often dredged for Missing and Murdered Indigenous women.

Neither understanding is truer. Just as we come to know a friend better over time, so too we can better understand art by learning more about it. It’s not that you can’t or don’t know the art, but that you can always know it more.

Intimacy allows a depth of understanding. It assigns meaning to the codes embedded in queer culture and artwork alike. Godfrey’s use of association shows how one can labour to make meaning. It doesn’t try to be exclusionary, but it does not hide from the simple fact that closeness leads to understanding.

CODES AND UNDERSTANDING

Codes: an in-group language composed of symbols that communicate information, often in layered ways that require the navigation of many possible meanings.

Godfrey is aware of how her own units of meaning––words––are also encoded symbols and wields them with both precision and generosity. Just as Godfrey supports the reader in learning some of the codes in art and queer art, she makes clear the sheer quantity of choices that (can) go into creating artwork.

The outcome? There is no reason to shrug something off because “it just doesn’t make sense” or you “just don’t get it.” Take AO Roberts’ Say It Ain’t So: a series of prints where, at first glance, four words are printed on a darkly painted background. In fact, the text is hollow, “nodding at the porousness of language and context,”[5] and the “paint” is actually lampblack: smoke captured by the page, seemingly in motion around and within the outlined bodies of the words. Each set of words is from a particular era in human history––all different eras, but all pre-Industrial religious ones. Recognizing these different components as intentional communication choices leads to a much broader meaning than simply seeing four unusual words on darkly printed paper.

Finally, Godfrey supports readers in their own efforts to both perceive art and interpret her wordage. For example, she writes “The partialness (incompleteness) of Dunlop’s depictions speaks to the partialness (bias) of information and dissemination.”[6] By connecting the two distinct concepts of incompleteness and bias through a shared spelling––partialness––Godfrey offers one mode of recognizing artistic meaning through a sort of linguistic/conceptual repetition. Similarly, she identifies motifs of bondage to refer to a sexual practice, a form of kinship, and indebtedness.

In this way, discussing art––especially within the specificity of queer art––almost becomes the work of translation. Anne Carson’s translation of Catullus prompts the question, “There are so many words associated with each one; how does anything ever get translated or settled upon?”[7]

FOOTNOTES, PHOTOS, AND PARENTHETICALS

Critical Fictions’ abundant footnotes and absence of photos further assert the value of lineage and reciprocity.

The footnotes––averaging over 50 per essay––highlight both lineage and context as important modes of understanding. Though Western culture’s art writing prioritizes the individual (and the intellect of the individual), other more collectivist cultures prioritize stating where you and your family are from, from where you learned ideas, and who your mentors and teachers are. Choosing to use footnotes, rather than a less visible Endnotes section, lays it all on the table: there are citations for quotes, but also extra contextual information, tangential references, and statements of gratitude to those who directed Godfrey’s thinking and writing.

The effusiveness of Godfrey’s citation points to her valuation of lineage and interconnected webs of knowledge and offers readers a path forward should they wish to continue exploring one of the topics discussed in the book.

Often, art writing is accompanied by photos––visual aids so the reader may see what is being described in the text. Critical Fictions offers no such concession. Relationships take effort and reciprocity. The piles of words thought, written, and ordered over 219 pages show Godfrey’s efforts: years of viewing, pondering, discussing, researching. The act of opening an internet browser and searching for the works and exhibitions described is the reader’s (optional) task. To understand something is to work to understand it; you will only be led so far without reciprocity. True, I did not look up each piece discussed, but I did search for each artist’s website and exhibit––all were easily found online, Zegeye-Gebrehiwot’s yaya/ayat the only one behind a paywall, and a modest one at that ($3).

This itself seems a light-handed approach to coding and withholding, demanding reciprocity. All the information is available but is not quite placed in your palms. To understand, you too must do some seeking.

Another way to interpret the lack of images might be a resistance to the impulse to mistake images for the Truth. In her section about Logan MacDonald, Godfrey quotes Daniel Francis in his discussion of the use of photography as a colonial mode of knowledge-creation: “The image-makers returned from Indian Country with their images and displayed them as actual representations of the way Indians really were.”[8] Where images assert an objective representation of photo-as-thing, a relational approach to seeking and understanding engenders a much more nuanced and subjective perspective. [9]

It must be said eventually, and here seems as fair a place as any: the structure of this book is unusual. It is composed of five sections, each concerned with a particular artist, each bisected into two smaller sections: an essay, and “Fictions.” In the Fictions, Godfrey responds to each artists’ work through creative writing: poems and short stories.

One story, “Found object (fur stretcher, elastic bands)” imagines the scene that led to the creation of Dunlop’s Device for speaking to the dead, (fur stretcher, elastic bands, 2016). Godfrey weaves together themes identified and discussed in her essay––wilderness, haunting, cruising, erotics, backtracking, colour––and builds a rather beautiful basket in which to hold the sculpture––28 coloured elastic bands tightly wrapped around a wooden fur stretcher, evoking cock rings, a door, a tombstone.

“Homage to Hannah Arendt” (within Kristin Nelson’s section) is an experimental poetry piece made entirely of punctuation. Where many would leave such a work to “speak for itself”––without regard for its (il)legibility in the eyes of a viewer––Godfrey kindly leaves a footnote explaining the piece’s meaning. In this way, she props the door open behind her, letting the reader peek through and understand. Through this generous guidance, Godfrey leaves her readers more and more ready to understand a future experimental encounter.

This approach to artwork––casting a wide net of associations and seeing what stays––is replicated in Godfrey’s fictions. It shows how creation begets creation, and though a piece of art has its own background, references, theoretical underpinnings, and meanings, there is an entirely other world of production made by simply creating something so that others may digest it and be spurred to their own thoughts and creativities. One way to perceive art is to seek to conceptually understand it; another is to be spurred into creativity.               

FIN

Make no mistake, this book is rigorous. I learned enough to sprout a prosaic collection of queer art history, no doubt. And yet, as is Godfrey’s style, it is a discourse given amongst friends, shoulder-warming on a couch surrounded by books. It is a reminder of what rigor can look like in queerness, before such political efforts were moved behind the doors of academia, hoarded by button ups and thick rims. It is the table before us, full of snacks, this one from an uncle’s olive trees in the Peloponnese, that one a recipe passed down from a beloved past friend, this bottle inherited from a lover long gone who we may still taste on our lips. The stories that live on in the quiet places, between kin.


[1] Leanne Betasamosake Simposon, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 165, quoted in Hannah Godfrey, Critical Fictions (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2023), 196.

[2] Eva Hoffman, Time (New York: Picador, 2009), 65, quoted in Critical Fictions, 79.

[3] Critical Fictions, 203. A concept shared in reference to Logan MacDonald’s artist talk.

[4] Ibid, 37-8.

[5] Ibid, 154.

[6] Ibid, 21.         

[7] Ibid, 58.

[8] Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992), quoted in Critical Fictions, 205.

[9] Similar arguments against photos-as-truth are made by Orientalist theorist Edward Said.

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