The offseason in coastal Rhode Island is generally quiet. The breeze whipping off the Atlantic that draws the city folk during the oppressive heat of summer is exactly what keeps them away during the winter months. The ubiquitous clam shacks, surf shops, and ice cream parlors shutter their doors. The boxwoods enclosing shingled summer cottages, chiseled into bright green geometric shapes in the summer, wither into ugly brown knots.
Today one would hardly be able to tell that it is still mid-March, however, when walking down the seawall in Narragansett pier, the tiny beach town where my family resides. A long sidewalk, hugging the unimpeded expanse of open ocean, stretches from Monahan’s clam shack, under the grand stone arch that once marked the entrance to the old casino, to the town beach. As in June or July, the narrow tunnel between the fence of parked cars and the rocky coast was packed with families walking, donning down jackets and scarves in place of bathing suits. It appeared that nearly all of the permanent residents of southern Rhode Island had flocked to the shore for exercise and the solace of our shared sea in this time of uncertainty and distress.
As my dad and I joined the ranks of walkers we sensed a new edginess. In the summer as one traverses the seawall, one must always be prepared to be bonked by a surfboard, or sniffed by a sandy dog, or licked by someone’s sweaty bare skin. Today, when two groups of walkers approached each other, a strange dance ensued. Both parties slowed as they neared. You could see the cogs turning in the minds of each walker as they attempted to calculate whether both parties could maintain a six-foot berth while both staying on the sidewalk between the cars and the sea wall. As noses and mouths grew visible, chests rose as breaths were held. And at some point, both parties realized that there would be no possible way that both could pass side-by-side on the four-foot-wide sidewalk. Thus, in the finale of the dance, there was a standoff. Shoulders broadened, eyes narrowed, fists clenched, until one party ceded and hopped off the sidewalk, darting between bumpers, to pass on the road inside the line of parked cars.
I found this new fear of the bodies of other humans to be disturbing. I have tried to live by the ethical principle that when one sees the face of another, they should conceptualize them as a consciousness with an experience and perspective as rich and valuable as your own. This realization of the humanity of another is easiest when peering into their eyes, hearing their story, catching a glimpse of their inner life. How soon will we fall out of the habit of inhabiting the minds of others when we must place a six-foot distance between our separate realities? Can talking to a grainy image on a video chat ever compare to interacting with the overwhelming expressiveness of a human face in the flesh? Social distancing now strikes me as a strange paradox of a state-mandated dehumanization for the common good.
As we continued down the seawall, I surveyed the little sliver of ocean that has become mine over my years in Rhode Island. A thousand shades of blue were compressed into the line between the water in the sky – the flux below set against the stillness above. The open sea has always struck me as a place of refuge, the edge of normal life. Gazing into its vastness, as it churns with the emotion of the barometric pressure, is a reminder that great swaths of our planet are free from the frivolity of human affairs. At this moment, however, the sea suddenly felt more like a barricade rather than a portal to a simpler world. The virus is creeping, riding on the backs of New Yorkers and Bostoners fleeing to rental properties and summer homes, multiplying within the ranks of Rhodies. And I wait, squeezed up against the rocky coast, pressed against the edge of a world descending into panic.
In the lobby of an art hotel in Paris my mother and I discovered TOILETPAPER Magazine, a picture-based magazine founded in 2010 by venerable talents Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari. The magazine features brightly colored, surrealist, full page photographs often exploring themes of themes of the post-internet age. I highly recommend scrolling through their collage-gallery of a website!
I’m a longtime fan of the FRKWYS series from the Brooklyn-based record label RVNG Intl., which facilitates collaborations between some of the greatest talents in the Avant Garde electronic music scene. This week, I’ve been revisiting two of my favorite FRKWYS relseases: Vol. 15 from Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima, and Satsuki Shibano (Spotify, YouTube, RVNG Intl.), and Vol. 7 from David Borden, James Ferraro, Samuel Godin, Laurel Halo, and Daniel Lopatin (Spotify, YouTube, RVNG Intl.).
I have found a fitting reflection of this current moment in the work of photographer Aakash Bali, particularly his collection The Shadow Disrict. Here, Bali captures the way in which the cover of night can draw out a certain cinematic nostalgia from contemporary scenes. I can’t help but be reminded of main streets, shopping centers, and hotels in the time of COVID19, eerily quiet, the scenery of a (temporarily) lost reality.
Understandably, the defining emotion of the pandemic has been grief – grief not only for the lives that have been and will be lost, but also grief for normalcy, grief for future plans, grief for live events cancelled, grief for budding relationships now left stagnant. It may be soothing to remember how much beauty still remains, both within ourselves, in art, and in nature. The transcendent, serene landscapes of Cuban painter Tomas Sanchez are hopefully a reminder of all three.
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