An aquarium

by craigepplin

This aquarium was among the things I saw last night:

It’s not a beautiful sight. The water is clouded by the accumulation of fishy waste. This photo doesn’t show it, but there where the light’s shining floats a fairly large dead fish. Among the still-living residents are a couple eels, some tottering crabs, and lots of little fish that seem to be feeding on baby mussels. (They’re not, of course; they’re just eating the plant material from inside their shells).

The eels are the mobile centerpiece. At least they’re what most people seemed to focus on. Lots of them tapped their fingers next to their faces, trying in vain to elicit some reaction. I heard one woman say that anago was her favorite sort of sushi. This collective fixation was probably encouraged by the title of the extensive group show of which the aquarium formed a part: To the Stars on the Wings of an Eel, an exhibit at the Gowanus Ballroom in the eponymous Brooklyn neighborhood.

As tends to be the case with large warehouse shows, the actual place matters a great deal here. The organizers are conscious of this, and they call attention to their relationship with their neighborhood’s history:

Throughout its history the Gowanus has inspired both utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares. The past four-hundred years have witnessed the site’s transformation from a fertile series of tidal wetlands to one of the busiest industrial waterways in the United States. The canal, once a source for sustenance and hope, is today tainted by a notorious legacy of pollution and decay. Yet recent activity in the area suggests rejuvenation is at hand.

“Rejuvenation” means, among other things, aesthetic intervention. At least that’s what’s implicit in the subsequent introduction of this particular show. We’re told that it “offers a chance to explore the urban unconscious of the Gowanus, to reimagine the past, decipher the present, and envision possible futures. Artists working in the neighborhood––some long-time fixtures, others recent arrivals––are breathing new life into a once stagnant and decaying quarter.”

Lots of pieces on display last night shared this desire to emphasize their relationship to the place itself. None more so than the aquarium, however. Below it was taped this little sign:

The small text at the bottom reads, “No more than 1,000 feet from where you stand.”

There are lots of ways to understand this emphasis on locality. It’s obviously part of the general, increasing valoration of  local everything. Sometimes this makes good sense; other times it’s banal. Either way, its corollary is a diffuse desire among certain folks for all that’s gritty, real, rust-belty and urban. This desire in turn has similarities with what Nathan Jurgenson calls the “IRL [In Real Life] Fetish,” whereby the multiplication of forms of being present in contemporary life leads us to yearn for the “simplicity” of face-to-face, body-based sociality. As he puts it, our “current obsession with the analog, the vintage, and the retro” owes to our anxiety to safeguard our “offline” existence. This has produced all sorts of consumption trends: “The rise of the mp3 has been coupled with a resurgence in vinyl. Vintage cameras and typewriters dot the apartments of Millennials. Digital photos are cast with the soft glow, paper borders, and scratches of Instagram’s faux-vintage filters. The ease and speed of the digital photo resists itself, creating a new appreciation for slow film photography. ‘Decay porn‘ has become a thing.”

The aquarium I saw forms part of all of that, but it mostly resonates with that last term. Not that the Gowanus is in decay, of course, but the idea of atemporality that is inherent in the romanticization of places like Detroit (see here for more) is fully at work here. That is, there’s the idea that the thing we’re looking at (this unceremonious glass case of fish) somehow doesn’t jive with everything around us. We are all here, jovial, tipsy, and art-sated, while these fish, who came from the canal a thousand feet away, seem to be slowly dying, suffocated by their own filth. It’s a dramatic disjuncture. I’m not generally inclined to draw parallels with Julio Cortázar stories, but his “Axolotl,” in which a man encounters his historical other in Paris’s botanical gardens, inevitably came to mind last night.

To his credit, Cortázar at least sought a way of crossing the glass divide between salamanders and humans, no matter how problematic his solution. On the contrary, the aquarium last night seemed to enshrine and even celebrate a similar divide. The point of the piece, that is, seemed to be the absolute impossibility of relating to the fish out there swimming in the canal in any way that didn’t involve immobilizing them. Which is sad, because there are other, better ways to relate to our species others–as well as to the places that we inhabit with them.