Bernadette Mayer’s ‘Emotional Science Project’

Bernadette Mayer’s ‘Emotional Science Project’

An Emotional Science Project

Bernadette Mayer’s Memory.


Look at very small things with your eyes / & stay warm,” wrote Bernadette Mayer, addressing herself in the 1968 poem “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica.” “Nothing outside can cure you but everything’s outside,” she continues. For the past five decades, Mayer, the author of more than 30 volumes, has marked herself as a cataloguer par excellence of everyday life, attuned to the rhythms of the world and her position as an artist in it. Steeped in the conceptualism of the 1970s, her early work eschewed the boundaries of genre and form to capture life’s grand moments and its minute details. In 1971, then age 26, she set out to synthesize such experiences in an artistic investigation of memory by recording the world as she lived it over the course of a single month.

Each day in July 1971, Mayer shot a roll of 35-millimeter slide film and wrote an exhaustive log of events, impressions, and dreams that together provide a glimpse into her aesthetic and political development as an artist. The resulting installation, Memory, was financed by the gallerist and patron Holly Solomon and exhibited at Solomon’s gallery at 98 Greene Street in New York City in February 1972. Encompassing over a thousand three-by-five-inch snapshots arranged in a grid along a single wall, the installation was accompanied by a six-hour tape recording of Mayer reading her written entries to produce a total sensory experience. Reviewing the exhibition in The Village Voice, the critic A.D. Coleman referred to the project as “an enormous accumulation of data,” encapsulating the project’s contemporaneity and its exhaustiveness.

Over the years, Memory has taken many forms. A condensed version of the work was exhibited as “Remembrance” as part of curator and critic Lucy Lippard’s 1973 exhibition of female conceptual artists. In 1975, Mayer edited a version of the text, published by North Atlantic Press, without the accompanying color photographs. It soon went out of print but has since been made available as a PDF through Craig Dworkin’s online Eclipse archive. In 2016, Memory was restaged as an installation at Chicago’s Poetry Foundation, where the photographs were reprinted at a slightly larger size and the audio was made available to viewers on an iPad accompanied by headphones. In 2017, Memory was installed at New York’s Canada gallery, this time complete with the original photographs and accompanying audio track.

Never having seen an installation in person, I welcomed Siglio Press’s handsome hardcover edition of Memory, which combines full-color photographs with Mayer’s text in a single volume spanning 300-odd pages. (The full audio recording of Mayer reading the text can be streamed online through the library at the University of California, San Diego, where her archives are stored.) Introducing the new edition, she remarks that while Memory appears exhaustive, “so much is left out: emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light, storytelling, walking and voyaging to name a few…. I thought that by using both sound and image, I could include everything. But so far, that is not so.”

With its barrage of run-on sentences and its collection of haphazard, often blurry, dark photographs, Memory syncopates the ebullient and the mundane to approximate the unevenness of life’s passage—that combination of major joys, minor disasters, and moments that float somewhere in between. Flitting between the intimate and the impersonal, Memory’s combination of photography and written word mimics the flashing, fleeting experience of consciousness. Within its stream of text and image are spaces of recognition between Mayer and the reader, moments of synchronicity that collapse the decades-long gap between the hot July days of 1971 and our aching present and make Memory a hallmark of American conceptualism.

Born in 1945 to a conservative Catholic family in Ridgewood, N.Y., Mayer grew up a voracious reader. With her sister Rosemary Mayer, who would be recognized as a pioneering feminist artist, Bernadette Mayer studied Greek and Latin, demonstrating a particular attraction to the ribald verse of Catullus. After graduating from the New School in 1967, where she studied with the poet Bill Berkson, she became a fixture on the downtown scene, collaborating with Vito Acconci on the influential but short-lived magazine 0-9, where she published her poetry as well as early conceptual works by Robert Smithson, Yvonne Rainer, and Adrian Piper. In the 1970s, living in New England with the poet Lewis Warsh, with whom she raised three children, Mayer collaborated with a number of artists on epistolary correspondences and magazines and cofounded United Artists Press with Warsh, publishing writers such as Hannah Weiner, Robert Creeley, and Alice Notley.

Her early verse, detailing the vicissitudes of everyday living in a plainspoken, unaffected style, was placed in the second wave of the New York School with Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Anne Waldman, the poetic inheritors of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch. In 1970, Mayer was included with these luminaries in the first anthology of the New York School, edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro, the only woman among 27 men. Her contribution to the anthology speaks to the immediacy of experience she sought to capture: “The end which comes / is not as important as the motion / held in the air / pausing in its course.”

The thrum of the ordinary was as much of a political concern as an artistic one for Mayer, and throughout Memory, decisive events in the outside world barrel freely alongside internal contemplations. Reflecting on Memory in a 1989 essay, she writes, “I must say yes I did think that everyday life was good and important to write down because of our work with the committee for nonviolent action.” In Memory, remarks on the demands for better conditions by prisoners in New York’s Attica Correctional Facility—months before the riot in September 1971—sit next to details of the bohemian activities of Mayer and her then-boyfriend, the filmmaker Ed Bowes. With Bowes and friends, she records the stray sounds of the city for a film and takes the “taconic fantasy parkway” to greener pastures, picking up “two tabs for sunshine” to freeze for later enlightenment.

Mayer’s style has not infrequently been described as protean; Memory does little to dispute this label. Her prose ranges from crystal-clear descriptions of her surroundings (“a red car, top translucent white…a woman in turquoise with white trim”) to abstract comparisons (“he looks like a memory he looks like a visit in the middle of the night”). Her photographs, too, veer toward blurry indecipherability but are more often striking in their vivid detail—clothes pinned to a line outside in the sun, bright yellow cabs in traffic seen from a passenger seat, the white sails of a boat against deep blue waves. These generic observations are situated amid scenes of friends gathered around a dinner table and intimate shots of Bowes sitting naked in a bath or curled up in bed, images that convey warmth and familiarity despite their specificity. In between these vivid, personal encounters, Mayer continually reflects on what cannot be captured by word and image, describing, for instance, the “pink and purple insanity” of a “manic sunset” that remains unreproducible by film or her frustrations with her relationships and her art.

To follow Mayer across this period in her life is to track banalities and joys in equal measure. Despite its moments of exaltation, her chronicle is cut through with the realities of living as an artist and a woman, harassed by male strangers while carrying her camera and underestimated by her male peers. Her doubts often pulsate across the text. “This notebook’s just some step away from a fear,” she writes on July 29, “[and] that fear has to do with communication.”

What is perhaps most striking about Memory is its meditative reflection on its own creation. After taking her photos, Mayer had to wait for them to develop before adding her diaristic texts; thus writing Memory was always a project of reflection, of rewriting. The entries for July 20, double-exposure photographs in which Mayer layers images over each other “like a correction,” capture this reflexivity reflection with incredible poignancy, and as the project nears its close, Mayer’s text becomes more personal. “Feel crumbly lost ridiculous,” she says in the same entry. When a friend asks if she is glad to be finishing the project, Mayer reflects that her entries get more vivid and interesting toward the end, attributing this to the fact that “more began to happen.” Her last entry concludes, “To you past structure is backwards, you forget, you remember the past backwards and forget.”

Mayer’s influence is palpable. In its plain-mannered sensibility, her work furnishes a seemingly endless capacity for recognition and self-reflection. Since the 1970s, she has taught writing workshops to eager students, first at the Poetry Project (where she served as director from 1980 to ’84) in New York City and today on her front porch in upstate New York. At the Poetry Project, she developed a set of widely circulated writing experiments that reflect her philosophy of morphing conscious experience into creative output. (Among them, “Write a series of titles for as yet unwritten poems or proses” and “Write what is a secret. Then write what is shared.”) Often incorporating the Dadaist tradition and Wittgensteinian philosophy, her workshops were influential for a number of poets, including Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, who went on to develop the Language school of poetry, a style characterized by the deconstruction of language to facilitate meaning.

Of all Mayer’s works, Memory is the most astonishingly proleptic, appearing to anticipate networks of acquaintances and self-presentation on social media, from the gridded arrangements of Instagram to the Facebook timeline. Mayer has referred to Memory as an “emotional science project,” which gestures to the work’s systematic structure and its implied reproducibility. The self-imposed constraints of Memory served as inspiration for her future projects, including the 1975 work Studying Hunger, for which she kept a journal for 30 days, as recommended by her psychiatrist (who wrote the introduction for the 1975 publication of Memory), and Midwinter Day (1982). The latter, an epic prose poem written in its entirety on December 22, 1978, details Mayer’s experience as a mother and an artist over the course of a single day. By stripping motherhood of its sentiment and mythology, she directly influenced the work of contemporary poets such as Laynie Browne and Hoa Nguyen, as Andrew Epstein notes in a chapter on the “maternal everyday” in his 2016 study Attention Equals Life.

Despite critical acclaim, popular affection, and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Mayer lives a modest lifestyle in upstate New York, where she moved in 1998 with the poet Phillip Good, after a stroke she had four years earlier. Last year in a podcast about her financial life in The Organist, she described herself as “still poor.” “What I hate is capitalism,” she said. “I always tried to earn a living as a poet. I know it’s stupid, I know it can’t be done, but I figured let’s do it.” To contextualize her present challenges with the freewheeling radicalism depicted in Memory is to come to terms with the discrepancy between institutionally proclaimed support of creative life and the material shortcomings of this support.

This discrepancy is only one of the gaps made evident in Memory, a work that most strikingly points to the difference between living and documenting. Thumbing through the hardbound volume, I found myself nostalgic for the bohemianism of a time I never experienced. What becomes clear throughout Memory’s pages is Mayer’s ability to discern moments of grace within the quotidian and her scrupulous attention to the world around her. “Nothing outside can cure you, but everything’s outside.” In the book we see several images of Mayer gripping her camera as she photographs herself in various mirrors, as if steadying herself against the flood of her memories. Her gaze is stolid, strong. Like her influence, it will be immutable for years to come.

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