On Loneliness, Solitude, and Shifting Histories
Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each other. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.
― Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
Like many, I’ve been struggling to find a place of rest in the hyperreality of Seattle’s great change. The last time this happened was the late nineties. I left for New York where I became the newcomer. I learned that arriving to a new city means entering the territory of others, with histories to acknowledge and respect. Now I know to ask on whose occupied land we stand, whose histories need to be acknowledged and respected. We settlers were, ourselves, once new. In many ways we’re always new. Perhaps this causes a restlessness about what we call home. How then, do we make a home?
A LONE, a city-wide exhibition of video and visual art installations presented by Vignettes and Gramma Poetry in Seattle, seeks to inspire and provoke questions about what it means to be alone, to feel lonely, and to find a home within the cities we love, and leave. Seven artists from across the US and England including art world luminaries Sophie Calle and Martine Syms have placed ten works of art on billboards and websites to speak to these complex states in reflection of late-stage capitalism, gentrification, displacement, community, identity, and connectivity. The works speak to the often isolated nature of everyday life in a city, the feeling of disconnect, the stigma of solitude, and the need for beauty in the midst of relentless development and industry.
As generators of industry, cities continually construct themselves over the layers of their former selves. The city I left is not the city to which I returned. This is not just about Seattle, anymore. I carry the memory of two cities superimposed over one another like slices of time in a continuum. I’m simultaneously living the past, present, and future on a multitude of overlapping streets.
Loneliness is born of the wreckage of what was once familiar but now gone: the ghosts of your friends and communities past, of everyone’s stories of the way things were, of one person’s old being someone else’s new (and future old). Loneliness is arriving to a place where you don’t know a single soul; returning to a place so many others have left; remaining while your communities are leaving. It is loving a place that is becoming unrecognizable. Loneliness is a place going through “a fleeing” as A LONE artist Leena Joshi calls it, because desire is complicated by one’s ability to survive. To feel lonesome is to observe the romance of a changing city become tainted by the reality of what that change really means. This romance becomes repulsion when present in the place we love; and it’s the seductive draw of a place we’ve not yet been. Be careful of this romance. Loneliness is about feeling like only one of few, if not only one, in a crowd. Cities inevitably fail the most truly lonely and isolated of us all.
Brooklyn poet Tommy Pico’s sound piece iLONE—located on both the Vignettes and Gramma Poetry websites—defines the difference between being alone and being lonely as “Alone is a physical feeling, literal proximity, just not being around other bodies. Lonely is a desire, the urge for a companion or sympathetic compatibility; something on the other side of the country; something shivering, or feeling incomplete? right?….lonely is a kind of math.”
The math of loneliness dicates that sometimes mental health organizations take advantage of ad space to promote hotlines for those of us who may be feeling incomplete. There were more of these throughout New York in the wake of 9/11 than I could count. They besought our grieving, traumatized hearts to reach towards empathetic ears and reassured us we didn’t have to shoulder our burden alone. I should have called then, because in the years since I’ve never felt more lonely than I do in a city with no muscle memory of enduring the labor of that shadow. That shadow leaves me both alone, and lonely.
Emboldened by the memory, I called Laura Sullivan Cassidy’s hotline, found posted on a West Seattle billboard for A LONE, to see what kind of comfort it would provide. Faintly at first, across the line, there came a scratchy, staticy melody that bathed me in a great sense of nostalgia. A jangly guitar, hypnotic rhythm, and ethereal voice –Laura’s own— asked me if I’d ever been to the ocean; if I’d ever leaned over the mouth of a river; if I’d ever stood perfectly still in a dry creek bed. The music itself reminds me of Velvet Underground, but the poetry recalls the work of Steven Jesse Bernstein, a Seattle icon. Her cadence lulled me into a sense of remembering the very same Seattle that made us who we are today, awash in music and mysticism; volcanoes, tectonics, and waterways; the freedom to be. Where is that city, where is that teen, now?
Cities rewrite their histories even as they write their present day. For example, many would call the intersection at 12th & Marion — where Brooklyn artist Alexandra Bell’s wheat paste for A LONE is placed— Capitol Hill. That’s incorrect. It is historically, and still (according to city maps), the border between First Hill and Squire Park. It also happens to historically be a redlined district. But this is the way colonizers, capitalists, and developers rewrite a city. We override the names and the histories that belonged to it. This quickly follows the removal of the people who lived in it. How then does a city shape, thwart, and oppress history? Alexandra Bell challenges the assumption that the stories we’re reading in the news are accurate, well-represented, or representative. Her Counternarratives series reveals another side, a hidden story, a script that needs to be rewritten to bring into view. Bell’s editorial suggestions in red are presented alongside an alternative final version of the New York Times front page, nudging us into considering a different perspective, and perhaps a more concrete history. Through the shared knowledge of accurate history, can we build empathy?
In describing works and artists as empathetic, I draw a correlation between the breadth of human experience and the need to be tender. If we are each of us alone at some point, some time, then we need to have a point of contact between us. I come back often to what I’ve observed as a movement in Tenderness, running deeply through the work of many artists in this city and beyond. Tenderness is anti-capitalist. Tenderness is anti-isolation. Tenderness is the throughline between the tidal ebb and flow of West Coast cities; our boom/bust anthropology. The work in A LONE connects this tide to the larger scale of gentrification taking place across all our cities from the West Coast of the US to Europe. Everyone concerns themselves with the survival of the bust. But it’s the survival of the boom that we must find, and examine.
Leena Joshi’s billboard stands defiantly picturesque against the backdrop of the city’s industrial core, near the port. On the billboard is the familiar image of Tahoma (Mt. Rainier), towering larger than life over the West Seattle Bridge. The text proclaims, unabashedly:
WILL THE LAST BAD BITCH LEAVING SEATTLE—
TURN OUT THE LIGHTS
It does not ask the last bad bitch to turn the lights off. It demands that it must be done. It’s over. Once that bad bitch leaves, she’s gone. For good.
Unlike the billboard it references, Joshi’s proclamation is made during the boom times when jobs, revenue, and money are being made. This isn’t the disaster scenario of an economy gone dry. This is the battle cry of every person our current economy has displaced. Desire has been complicated by the ability to survive. Desire has been tainted by a lack of love, of tenderness, of nurture. This billboard says on behalf of many, Fine. If you don’t want us, we don’t want you either. This is the only way to survive a boom that feels more like a bust for the disadvantaged: one leaves, whether or not one wants to leave.
The style of communication in A LONE tethers individuals through the broadcasting nature of the billboard. This broadcast conveys the message that we are never really alone in our experiences. We’re in this together even in our isolation. Someone we may never know has made the effort to reach out and say it’s not just you here, feeling this way, doing that thing, dreaming that dream. Because of their isolated nature and tendency to rise up over their neighboring structures, billboards are the perfect medium for this poetic broadcast.
In 2016, Vignettes launched their Marquee series, a platform for text-based pieces, viewable to the public in front of the El Capitan apartments in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Some exhibitions featured projections, others featured poems, all presenting text on a small, backlit letterboard placed in the window of founder and curator Sierra Stinson’s apartment.
The Marquee was inspired by Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, a longstanding project featuring large, prominent text pieces in public domains such as subway platforms, storefronts, exterior walls and billboards. Like Holzer’s works and the Vignettes Marquee, the billboards of A LONE subvert their revenue-generating purpose, redirecting the dictums to purchase into something more nuanced. Unlike quick-grab advertising, these artworks ask us to spend time with them. They transform the broadcast into catalysts for thought on quips, queries, declarations, and provocation. They take up space to rewrite incorrect histories and narratives, challenge our assumptions, and convey a necessary message. They take back some measure of space in a city where space is swiftly being taken away.
This assertion, this pushback, is an alignment with tenderness—artists provoke us to speak, to contemplate, to recall with them so that in the end, though we may feel alone— and it’s ok to be alone— we don’t ever have to feel lonely.
A LONE: A CITY-WIDE EXHIBITION OF EMPATHETIC VOICES AND WORD-BASED CREATIONS; curated by Vignettes and Gramma Poetry, runs in public spaces throughout the city of Seattle during the month of May.
Header image: Leena Joshi, Will the last bad bitch leaving Seattle – turn out the lights, 2018 installation view of photo and graphic on public billboard. Part of city-wide exhibition A LONE, curated by Vignettes and Gramma Poetry. Photo credit: Sierra Stinson. Image courtesy of Vignettes, Gramma Poetry, and the artists.