Moments of Kinship
I WAS FIRST INTRODUCED to Jessica Williams' work in the mid 2000s, when a friend sent a link to her website over AOL Instant Messenger, buried within a compilation of other artist websites. In the early aughts, Williams' approach to being an artist both in print and online personally provided a window out from the banality and predictability of suburban teenagedom. I was immediately drawn to the way she collected moments from her life, through images and writing, often editing them into a loose narrative and presenting them as extra-ordinary. Especially through her photography, I felt gently guided by her point of view to moments that she happened upon, an image as affect, that might've easily been missed by others. Throughout the years, before the use of social media by artists as we know it now, I continued to check in on her website every so often, curious to see if something new had been uploaded. Still today, there is an understated observancy to the way that Williams' approaches her interdisciplinary practice, and a generosity to how she brings other artists and audiences into the fold of her world.
About a decade after first seeing her work online, I invited Jessica to participate in an exhibition slated for May 2017, titled only to find, at the now defunct High Tide gallery in Philadelphia. High Tide was an artist-run gallery on the second floor of a mix-used warehouse space. Funding was barebones but somehow always enough, with members and invited artists usually providing all of the labor to put together thoughtful exhibitions every month or so.
I look back on it now and feel my own naivety and scrappiness—there was so much I wanted to say by pairing her work with Annie Bielski's—that was left unsaid. At the time I saw overlaps in their exploration of anxiety. The anxiety that comes from trying to figure out who we are and how to be an artist in the world. Having known of both artists' practices for a while, I found it coincidental that Bielski was foremost a painter but was beginning to experiment with performance and video, while Williams was beginning to bring objects of digital technology into the exhibition space. Both artists seemed to be exploring a shift in their practice but also a recontextualization of their identities in relation to where they had relocated to. I remember struggling to find the precise language when explaining the pairing to Williams' via email, to which she replied frankly, "honestly I don't see the connection but in a way that is also interesting for me."
I thought back to that response often as I attended a graduate program to 'professionalize' my curatorial practice soon after—how can I put into concise words or exhibition form, the immateriality of affect and the intimacy that comes from sociality? And how can I work with artists exploring these ordinary affects of everyday life?1 In hindsight and anticipation, only to find draws from similar concepts to (be)longing, focusing on the anxieties that come with struggling to belong, performing identities, and the necessity of vulnerability when exploring how a person should be in this world.
In an additional layer, (be)longing deeply considers the sensibilities of someone on the outside looking in—the longing and desire to be accepted for who we are individually, beyond initial and hastily received judgments and expectations. Paradoxically, Williams utilizes the loss of agency when we are perceived as 'other' or 'uncategorizable', in order to guide our attention to underrecognized forms and narratives. Ranging from an empty exhibition space, the blank pages of a handbound zine, to a yet-to-be styled webpage, Williams will navigate the ongoing uncertainties of the present in a yearlong exhibition that will evolve in collaboration with Júlía Hermannsdóttir, Vicente Mollestad, Robin Mientjes, Jelsen Lee Innocent, and others. Throughout her practice of creating artworks, publishing, and organizing community, there are glimpses of conviction interspersed through a collection of curious moments, which are revealed as observations about the world(s) that we live in.
Parallel to how some of Williams' publications and artistic presentations are unbound and could be read within the lens of live or social art, this year of exhibitions at programs for (be)longing will unfold with her guidance, in unpredictable ways.2 Williams' practice has always been open to a symbiotic relationship with the public. Her publics are found in person and digitally, whether she is: working with other artists as a publisher and attending book fairs; to inviting others to join a conversation in interview format; teaching workshops around zine-making and utilizing the risograph; making herself, the artist, wholly available for engagement during a weeks-long museum presentation; or designing and coding the particularities that come with presenting her work online. She brings her practice into direct contact with others, open to collaboration and polyvocality, a chorus of voices and narratives.3
As of finalizing this text in early November 2022, I know that the inaugural exhibition of (be)longing welcomes the viewer through a pink portal, with text on a forest green ribbon-like shape that states, I find myself simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the sheer quantity of man-made objects in this world. Still based thousands of miles away from the everyday of Williams' world, I look forward to encountering glimpses of (be)longing over time, not dissimilar to checking in on a dear friend, such as it began all those years ago.
1[Ordinary affects] happen in impulses, sensations, expectations, daydreams, encounters, and habits of relating, in strategies and their failures, in forms of persuasion, contagion, and compulsion, in modes of attention, attachment, and agency, and in publics and social worlds of all kinds that catch people up in something that feels like something. - Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects
2 Linguistically, the title (be)longing pokes at the duality of living and existing within a society that does not immediately recognize one as their own. Longing to belong. What is it like to live and want to contribute to a society while also falling outside the society itself based on the color of one's skin, native tongue, orientation, health, religion, or otherwise? Through openness and radical empathy, we will explore this question. - Jessica Williams, on (be)longing
3 One of the best definitions of cultural production is perhaps that of 'making things public': the process of connecting things, establishing relationships, which in many ways means befriending issues, people, contexts. - Celine Condorelli, Too Close To See: Notes On Friendship