The Polite Provocateur

On Refraction and the Fragmentary Muse

The idea of a fragmentary Muse comes from a fragmentary opera, The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), by Jacques Offenbach. Such a Muse, I argue, embodies a complex metaphor that I sum up in one word, refraction. 

This metaphor, which recurs several times in that opera, derives from the idea that light ‘breaks’ through a prism or lens. That is, light refracts or ‘breaks’ just as things break.


This idea combines with another idea, that sound refracts or ‘breaks’ as well.

When I speak of a refraction of sound, I am aware that there is no such thing in terms of physics. But there is such a thing, as we will see, in terms of a poetic metaphor that extends from the physics of sight to the metaphysics of sound.

The optical effect of ‘breaking’ light and the imagined acoustical effect of ‘breaking’ sound combine to form the complex metaphor I call refraction.


In the music of Offenbach’s opera, this metaphor is used to express the sensation of experiencing a disintegration of identity, a shattering of the self.

That is what I mean when I speak of a poetics of refraction. Besides the opera of Offenbach, such a poetics is found also in two fragments of ancient Greek poetry. One fragment is from a song by Sappho, while the other is from a song embedded within a drama by Sophocles.

(I must note at the outset that I use the word music here in the holistic sense of the ancient Greek word mousikē, which means ‘art of the Muses’. This art, in the era of Sophocles as also in the earlier era of Sappho, was a holistic combination of song and dance and instrumental accompaniment.)



At that moment, the singing woman experiences a breakdown in her mind, and this breakdown leads to the sensation of experiencing a disintegration of identity.

In the original Greek, she ‘seems’ or ‘appears’ to herself to be losing consciousness. Why?

It is because she is no longer her own selfThere is now another self who is looking at her.

That is why she can say that she ‘seems’ or ‘appears’ to herself to be reaching the razor’s edge of dying.


Similarly, the sensation of a break in consciousness - and we have seen that the Greek medical term for such a break is syncope (συγκοπή) – is created within an overall framework of consciousness.

Further, I suggest that the self cannot experience the sensation of disintegration without a preexisting sense of an integral ‘I’.


Another example of discontinuity as an aspect of overall continuity in music is the sound effect of the refrain. To make a refrain, as we are about to see, is to make an echo.

The Greek noun I translate as ‘echo’, ēkhō, refers to a sound that results from a breaking of sound.

A single sound is broken or refracted into a multiplicity of sounds, and the single source of the original sound disintegrates into a multiplicity of seemingly alien new sources that echo that original sound.


So the echo is a breaking or refraction of sound, and its musical equivalent is the refrain, which is the breaking of a single original sound into a multiplicity of secondary sounds that follow.

Like the echo, which can only follow and multiply the original sound but never originate a sound on its own, the refrain can only follow and multiply the original tune but never originate a tune on its own.


This is the essance of the refrain, and this essance is replicated in the myth of Echo as retold in the Metamorphoses of Ovid (3.339-401)... Thus when Echo falls in love with Narcissus, she cannot ever initiate what she yearns to say to him.

Instead, she can only replicate pieces of whatever he says, mere fragments, and those fragments are always the final pieces of his wording:

natura repugnat
nec sinit, incipiat, sed, quod sinit, illa parata est
exspectare sonos, ad quos sua verba remittat. 
Nature resists
and does not let her begin, but, what it does allow she is ready for,
to wait for sounds to which she can send back her own words.

Ovid Metamorphoses 3.376-378



The metaphor inherent in the Provençal verb refranhar can be explained as an auditory equivalent of a visual metaphor, the ‘refracting’ of light (as in Latin refringere).

The driving image of refraction also accounts for two Provençal nouns: refrins, meaning ‘echo’ (as a part of sound that repeats itself), and refrim, meaning ‘birdsong, sound, refrain’. [13

The verb refranhar can also refer to the musical process of modulation in song: much as light is refracted through glass or a prism, so also the musical sound of song is modulated. [14


And, as we will see in the music of Offenbach, this metaphor of refraction expresses the sensation of a disintegration of identity, a shattering of the self, comparable to what we have seen in the music of Sappho and Sophocles.

The musical meaning of the opera comes to life in its fragmentation, and the Muse of Hoffmann is a fitting symbol of that fragmentation.

This Muse of the opera is not recognized as the Muse until the very end of The Tales of Hoffmann

Whereas Hoffmann is consistently recognized as a poet singing the role of a poet in each of his three Tales, the Muse of Hoffmann maintains her disguise as the boy Nicklausse, and Hoffmann fails to recognize her for what she really is, that is, the Muse who inspires the poet - and who truly loves him.

The failure extends throughout the master narrative that frames all three of the Tales narrated by Hoffmann.

This narrative is an extended flashback that starts at the very beginning of the opera, in the Prologue (Act 1).


And what was happening to Hoffmann while the Muse was maintaining her disguise?

He has been narrating three different Tales about three different women he has loved - Olympia in Act 2, Antonia in Act 3, and Giulietta in Act 4.


Act 2 of the opera by Offenbach

Hoffmann loves a mechanized doll named Olympia. Her body - or let us call it her frame - is literally broken into pieces. 


Act 3 of the opera by Offenbach

Hoffmann loves a would-be operatic diva named Antonia. She dies of heart failure - her heart literally breaks down. And this breakdown is timed to coincide with the operatic moment when her singing reaches a peak of sublime musical virtuosity.  


Act 4 of the opera by Offenbach

Hoffmann loves a courtesan named Giulietta. Her soul is damned, and this damnation is timed to coincide with a shattering of mirrors. Giulietta had used a mirror to capture the reflection of {81|82} Hoffmann and thus imprison his own precious soul - let us call it his identity. When Hoffmann discovers that his reflection has disappeared, he panics and shatters all the mirrors he sees around him. 


The truth is, these three lady-loves of Hoffmann are distinct from one other only in the mind of the beholder who is narrating his three stories of three loves.

As the Muse knows from the start, one unique lady-love is being refracted into three ‘mistresses’ through the lens of the narration performed by Hoffmann.

So the lens that produces this refraction is the opera itself.



All three of these shattered women turn out to be refractions of a seemingly unique lady-love. Her name is La Stella, and she plays the role of a diva or prima donna in the opera.

In her role as a phantom rival of the Muse, the diva Stella belongs not to the opera that is the Tales of Hoffmann. She belongs to a higher form of opera. She is a diva who sings in an opera composed by Mozart himself, Don Giovanni.

The woman who is the anonymous diva in the short story breaks, as we have seen, but the woman who is the diva named Stella in the opera of Offenbach does not break. So, is Stella a true diva?


No. The true diva is the fragmentary Muse of the opera by Offenbach. As for Stella, she is a false diva who rivals the true diva - so long as the Muse maintains her disguise.



The Fragmentary Muse and the Poetics of Refraction in Sappho, Sophocles, Offenbach
Gregory Nagy
verseEssa Li
Rosenthaler Straße 1

from my hotel room window.

Fabisch’s Clothing: The Ph. Fabisch Company at Rosenthaler Platz


The Rosenthaler Platz in Berlin has always been a unique and lively place, not least during the 1920s when it was the dividing line between two contrasting worlds. As a place where the working class housing neighbourhoods rubbed shoulders with the glamorous shopping streets it was the perfect setting for the German novelist Döblin in his famous description of the city in the twenties, Berlin Alexanderplatz. The protagonist of Döblin’s novel – Franz Biberkopf – is released from the prison in nearby Moabit and returns to the heart of the city and the streets around Rosenthaler Platz. Throughout the novel Döblin provides numerous descriptions of the neighbourhood that The Circus calls home, including the building that now houses The Circus Hotel. But what took place there?

“It warmed up after two days, Franz sold his winter coat, is wearing long underwear,….he is standing at Rosenthaler Platz in front of Fabisch’s Clothing, Fabisch& Co., fine men’s clothing, made to measure, quality workmanship and low prices guaranteed.”

Rosenthaler Straße 1, like many other buildings on Rosenthaler Platz and in the surrounding neighbourhood, was built well over a hundred years ago. These buildings survived the bombardments and battles of the Second World War, as well as the neglect of the communist era when these streets were at the heart of East Berlin.

When the building was first erected, one of the stores that made its home there specialised in coffee, tea, sugar and other imported goods. It was not long, however, before this store was replaced by a men’s outfitter, the “Ph Fabisch” company which would eventually find itself in the pages of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Philipp Fabisch’s clothing store was in keeping with a family tradition, the next in a long line of Fabischs that had been in the clothing business.

Philipp Fabisch opened his first store at Rosenthaler Straße 2 – at the junction with Linienstraße – in 1871. Later he would move to number one, a more prominent location directly on the Rosenthaler Platz. In 1896 he purchased the building, and by the turn of the century it was possible to purchase clothing for all the family at the northern end of the Rosenthaler Straße. In addition to Philipp’s store, there were others run by family members: At Rosenthaler Platz 3 Adolf Fabisch ran “Fabisch& Co”, supplying clothing for men and boys. Number two also belonged to the family and a certain Max Fabisch who we will return to later. A few metres down the road Bernard Fabisch was dealing in women’s hats at Rosenthaler Straße 63/64.

Elsewhere in the city, on the other side of Alexanderplatz, Gustav Fabisch ran a wholesale and export store, while Max and Alfred Fabisch had established a women’s coat factory on the Chauseestraße, close to Invalidenstraße, which was called “Max Fabisch& Co”. And it was not only in Berlin-Mitte that the Fabisch family operated. Mannheim Fabisch owned two stores in the then-outlying district of Schöneberg, a men’s and boy’s clothing store as well as a second hand store, both of which had opened in 1868.

As well as working in the Rosenthaler Platz neighbourhood, Philipp Fabisch and his wife Therese lived in the area, at Rosenthaler Straße 72. This building also housed a clothing store that had a Fabisch connection, the owner Max Cohn having married Margarete, maiden name Fabisch.

Philipp Fabisch was born on November 16th 1839 in the town of Wreschen (nowadays called Września, in Poland). He came to the Prussian capital in the wave of emigration from the outlying provinces which occurred during the second half of the nineteenth century, and made his fortune to the extent that he became a millionaire, a story repeated by quite a few of the aforementioned family members. In addition to clothing stores, Philipp Fabisch also owned buildings, such as Rosenthaler Stasse 1, Number 72 on the same street, and at least three other buildings in the city.

Despite being relatively well known for his economic achievements, not much is known about Phillipp Fabisch’s private life. He had three children (a fourth – Siegmund – died in childhood), and he was a senior member of the “Posener’s Organisation” (Verein der Posener), an organisation for people who came from the region around Posen. Philipp was also involved with and supported, along with Adolf and Max Fabisch, the “Higher Institute for Jewish Studies” (Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums) in Berlin, in which many important Jewish figures studied, taught and did research.

On October 5th 1917 Philipp Fabisch passed away, and was buried next to his wife Therese (neé Pick, b.1838, d.1899) in the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee, where the grave remains to this day. Following Philipp Fabisch’s death, a group of his heirs managed his properties and businesses for the next two decades, namely Philipp’s three children Margarete Cohn, Hulda Pach and Max Fabisch, along with Margerete’s husband Max Cohn (who died towards the end of 1933). As we have seen the Cohn family and Max Fabisch also had their own companies as well as managing Philipp Fabisch’s empire. The clothing store at Rosenthaler Platz remained open and kept the name “Ph. Fabisch”.

As well as the Fabisch store at Rosenthaler Straße 1 (currently home to The Circus Hotel), the building also housed a branch of the shoe company Salamander in the period leading up to the First World War. Around the turn of the century and up to 1908, the basement of the building also housed one of Berlin’s oldest reading rooms that had become known as the “writers’ library” (Schreiber-Lesehalle) because of all the jobless writers who spent time there.

In 1938 this building on the south west corner of Rosenthaler Platz was “transferred to Aryan possession”. This matter-of-fact wording was used in the business section of the Jüdische Rundschau (Jewish Review) on November 1st 1938, only days before the Reichskristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) when Synagogues were torched and Jewish-owned businesses across Germany were pillaged. The Philipp Fabisch GmbH was liquidated on April 5th 1939.

The Nazi repression and ever increasing persecution shattered the Fabisch family. Philipp Fabisch’s three children – the remaining shareholders of the company – were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 and murdered, following years of harassment and oppression in their home city of Berlin. Almost all the grandchildren of Philipp Fabisch managed to escape and emigrated to the United States in time, and thus survived. A single grandchild, who emigrated to France in 1936, was most likely deported from there to Auschwitz.

After the Second World War Rosenthaler Platz was in the Soviet sector, which would later become the capital city of the German Democratic Republic – communist East Germany. Rosenthaler Straße 1 remained a clothing store, but it no long stood on the corner of Elsasserstraße, which had been renamed Wilhelm-Pieck-Straße by the new regime. This department store at Rosenthaler Platz was part of a branch of the Handelsorganisation Fachhandel Berlin, Textil the state-owned chain of retail stores. Despite the fact that former employees report that there was often not a lot of work to do, or many products on sale, there were four people employed at the Rosenthaler Platz store at any one time, and many long-term friendships were made.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 a clothing store continued to operate at Rosenthaler Straße 1, the Mode-Treff: Dick aber Chic for over-size clothing. In the period that followed there were many different tenants, but the story comes to its conclusion with the opening of the Circus Hotel in October 2008. The owners of the Circus Hotel are very much aware of the history of the building at Rosenthaler Straße 1, as well as the surrounding neighbourhood, and most of all they live and work on the Rosenthaler Platz, respecting the accomplishments of the Fabisch family and remembering their fate.

essanity, videoEssa Li
from a town in Germany

When the train left Tokyo Station, Tengo took out the paperback that he had brought along. It was an anthology of short stories on the theme of travel and it included a tale called “Town of Cats,” a fantastical piece by a German writer with whom Tengo was not familiar. According to the book’s foreword, the story had been written in the period between the two World Wars.

In the story, a young man is travelling alone with no particular destination in mind. He rides the train and gets off at any stop that arouses his interest. He takes a room, sees the sights, and stays for as long as he likes. When he has had enough, he boards another train. He spends every vacation this way.

One day, he sees a lovely river from the train window. Gentle green hills line the meandering stream, and below them lies a pretty little town with an old stone bridge. The train stops at the town’s station, and the young man steps down with his bag. No one else gets off, and, as soon as he alights, the train departs.

No workers man the station, which must see very little activity. The young man crosses the bridge and walks into the town. All the shops are shuttered, the town hall deserted. No one occupies the desk at the town’s only hotel. The place seems totally uninhabited. Perhaps all the people are off napping somewhere. But it is only ten-thirty in the morning, far too early for that. Perhaps something has caused all the people to abandon the town. In any case, the next train will not come until the following morning, so he has no choice but to spend the night here. He wanders around the town to kill time.

In fact, this is a town of cats. When the sun starts to go down, many cats come trooping across the bridge—cats of all different kinds and colors. They are much larger than ordinary cats, but they are still cats. The young man is shocked by this sight. He rushes into the bell tower in the center of town and climbs to thetop to hide. The cats go about their business, raising the shop shutters or seating themselves at their desks to start their day’s work. Soon, more cats come, crossing the bridge into town like the others. They enter the shops to buy things or go to the town hall to handle administrative matters or eat a meal at the hotel restaurant or drink beer at the tavern and sing lively cat songs. Because cats can see in the dark, they need almost no lights, but that particular night the glow of the full moon floods the town, enabling the young man to see every detail from his perch in the bell tower. When dawn approaches, the cats finish their work, close up the shops, and swarm back across the bridge.

By the time the sun comes up, the cats are gone, and the town is deserted again. The young man climbs down, picks one of the hotel beds for himself, and goes to sleep. When he gets hungry, he eats some bread and fish that have been left in the hotel kitchen. When darkness approaches, he hides in the bell tower again and observes the cats’ activities until dawn. Trains stop at the station before noon and in the late afternoon. No passengers alight, and no one boards, either. Still, the trains stop at the station for exactly one minute, then pull out again. He could take one of these trains and leave the creepy cat town behind. But he doesn’t. Being young, he has a lively curiosity and is ready for adventure. He wants to see more of this strange spectacle. If possible, he wants to find out when and how this place became a town of cats.

On his third night, a hubbub breaks out in the square below the bell tower. “Hey, do you smell something human?” one of the cats says. “Now that you mention it, I thought there was a funny smell the past few days,” another chimes in, twitching his nose. “Me, too,” yet another cat says. “That’s weird. There shouldn’t be any humans here,” someone adds. “No, of course not. There’s no way a human could get into this town of cats.” “But that smell is definitely here.”

The cats form groups and begin to search the town like bands of vigilantes. It takes them very little time to discover that the bell tower is the source of the smell. The young man hears their soft paws padding up the stairs. That’s it, they’ve got me! he thinks. His smell seems to have roused the cats to anger. Humans are not supposed to set foot in this town. The cats have big, sharp claws and white fangs. He has no idea what terrible fate awaits him if he is discovered, but he is sure that they will not let him leave the town alive.

Three cats climb to the top of the bell tower and sniff the air. “Strange,” one cat says, twitching his whiskers, “I smell a human, but there’s no one here.”

“It is strange,” a second cat says. “But there really isn’t anyone here. Let’s go and look somewhere else.”

The cats cock their heads, puzzled, then retreat down the stairs. The young man hears their footsteps fading into the dark of night. He breathes a sigh of relief, but he doesn’t understand what just happened. There was no way they could have missed him. But for some reason they didn’t see him. In any case, he decides that when morning comes he will go to the station and take the train out of this town. His luck can’t last forever.

The next morning, however, the train does not stop at the station. He watches it pass by without slowing down. The afternoon train does the same. He can see the engineer seated at the controls. But the train shows no sign of stopping. It is as though no one can see the young man waiting for a train—or even see the station itself. Once the afternoon train disappears down the track, the place grows quieter than ever. The sun begins to sink. It is time for the cats to come. The young man knows that he is irretrievably lost. This is no town of cats, he finally realizes. It is the place where he is meant to be lost. It is another world, which has been prepared especially for him. And never again, for all eternity, will the train stop at this station to take him back to the world he came from.

verseEssa Li
Crimson Article: The Vessel in Construction


2 days ago
SOURCE UPDATED: October 1, 2017 at 4:33 p.m.


“There is an absence of open, flexible, and inclusive social spaces for students at Harvard college, especially in the arts. The organization and initiatives we currently have are oftentimes highly discriminatory and do not prioritize the interest or voices of the artists. So while a lot has changed since “Clubbies” of 1958 , some parts of the Harvard art scene holds to this sort of past. Not to mention the engagement of the greater student body with the arts is minimal at best... Change starts local. I hope to build a place fill that void.”

Vessel –a receptive holding device for ideas and discussions a canal to support conversation and exchange
a conduit to navigate and explore new territory

– is the name and philosophy of the new art establishment on campus founded by Essa L. 

The student-centered experimental art space shares the roof with Linden Street Studios, an eclectic VES building that previously housed a cluster of indoor gallery squash courts . This fact is not lost on the vessel’s founder, who hopes to adopt the unconventional nature of the space, and attract visitors from next door to stop by at see what’s happening.

Essa admits that the studio-exhibition space is limited, but does not mind that works may overflow into the rest of the building as well as the open-air courtyard, “it will be a great gathering place for art-enthusiasts or undergrads curious about what their peers are doing throughout the semester... sharing ideas directly and cross disciplines, in a casual setting and outside institutional walls.”

As the ausstellungsmacher , she will be directing and operating the venue as a  o n e -woman-show. And while she looks to the work of star-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and his now famous inaugural Kitchen Show – which was held in his apartment’s kitchen over the course of three months and visited only by a handful of rather influential people – Essa expects her own inaugural show to accommodate a greater public. 

Part of that effort would be to render the space more open and accessible – she will be operating the gallery in three hour segments, four days of the week. The other part is to ensure that works are shown in their best light, made site-specific and placed in a relevant context, meaning that works are placed in conversation with  o n e  another and the space of the vessel. This is also the extent of the “curatorial” role she considers to be in her practice. Rather than excluding, she seeks to include all artists and in the best of her ability to show all feasible works. She also looks to engage visitors directly in the exhibition space; specifically, through organizing a series of participatory pop-up shows.

Taking inspiration from Walter Hopps and his 36 Hours show at the Museum of Temporary Art, Essa will assemble a string of pop-up shows – where anyone can directly contribute and participate in the exhibition. These open-to-all shows will be spontaneous, interspersed amongst the more formally organized shows throughout the year, which are  o n e, Work in Progress, In-Person, The Second Harvard Society of Contemporary Art, and RE:. Together, these shows form the core exhibition structure of Vessel Gallery. The very last year-end show will take place in the Carpenter Center and consist of a retrospective of these past show, ultimately culminating in a performance involving audiences in the space.

In addition to the exhibition portion, the vessel will host a range of additional components and scheduled programming. For instance, the Sharing Shelf will be a community-based library that allows visitors to freely browse, borrow and lend books within the honor code. The main gallery space, also known as the Living Room, will host student-produced sound works and music listening sessions “Soundscape” every evening Tuesday through Sunday.

Much in the vein of Walter Zanini’s project J ovem Arte Contemporânea which promoted the living experimental methods of young artists, the Vessel will embrace new media and unconventional modes of art-making, whether that be audio works, performance art, virtual reality or more. The space will also hold an assortment of small scale recurring events such as film screenings, poetry readings, artist talks and other performances, often directly corresponding to the works on view. These measures borrow from the events at the heart of the 1955 San Francisco Beat Generation at King Ubu Gallery .

With community at center stage, the Vessel will be home to a loose affiliation of members who want to have greater input into the operations of the place. The group will be known as The Corporation and consist of a President, a league of Fellows and a Treasurer. Specifically, they will engage with questions of long-range strategy, policy, and planning as well as transactional matters of unusual consequence.

The collective around the Vessel will look to model itself on the 1950’s New York group known as Studio 35 , a community in which “participants grappled with questions about the conception and completion of their works, institutional and public reactions, artistic responsibility, interest 

or antagonism concerning mass culture, personal disclosures, professionalism, unions, emotional investment, and other issues fundamental to the act of creating and presenting work...”

The integration of these additional activities and functionalities at the Vessel embodies a broader trend in the museum and gallery world. Unlike profit-seeking establishments however, this student-run art center operates purely on a noncommercial basis and therefore may be better positioned to discover more genuine ways to building relationships with artists and thereby a community surrounding the arts. Essa believes that the expanded definition of the gallery space as well as processes of art-making together will welcome a wider public to stop by at 6 Linden Street.

To be comparable to real art establishments, the Vessel will also maintain a vital digital presence through two main platforms. The gallery website will provide up-to-date information on schedule/programming, student/artists, news/ events, while the gallery Instagram account will focus on announcements, live updates, and direct community engagement.

Both platforms will take part in documenting the transformation of the space over the course of the year, and therefore act as a form of a digital archive. In fact, rather than transcribing exhibitions in the form of a traditional catalogue text, each exhibition will be captured by videos, photographs, and other digital means from the perspectives of both the exhibition-makers as well as the public. This assemblage of collective experiences and viewpoints will together form the recorded history of a given show.

An ongoing experiment that challenge the distinct divide between individual exhibitions will be the gallery’s departure from the customary “clean slate” method. Instead, each show will retain certain visible pieces or traces from previous shows, with varying duration for certain pieces accordingly. For instance, a fragment of a sculpture from the first show “ o n e ” will act as a stand-in for its previous presence, and may remain for several weeks fading into the next show. This gesture may strengthen the flow, sequencing, and sense of continuity within the space while transitioning between exhibitions.

“The unilateral act of wiping out the previous show is not reflective of my experience in galleries. I find that I am always looking at the new show with a frame of reference to the past  o n e ... This accumulation of experiences and memories in the same space is important to me. Perhaps I can bring that back to the gallery setting.”

Essa looks forward to working closely with artists on shows which, to varying degrees, confront the norm. This can mean anything from disrupting conventional methods of mounting wall text, labels, and artist biographies, to unusual ways of installing artworks, since the Vessel will be  o n e  of the few places where undergraduates have unprecedented freedom to stage the presentation of their works.

With minimal bureaucracy and a spare touch, she hopes to fill the air with a liberating spirit reminiscent of that of Hopps at Ferus Gallery, and Harald Szeemann in his now legendary 1969 show “When Attitudes Become Form,” especially with respect to his approach in collaborative and nonconformist exhibition-making.

Like Szeemann, Essa will be taking on the role of artist-director. She too will make works to be shown alongside that of her peers. According to her, these works will concern the practices of curation, challenging...

  1. viewers to evaluate their role as spectators and co-producers of artworks

  2. institutions to reevaluate their role and responsibility to the public and to the past

  3. her own performance and persona in acting as a curator in contemporary context

Her background in image-making – working with light and form in relation to aesthetics – will be helpful in her new endeavor of exhibition making, which involve “filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, remembering” in the words of Obrist.

A central concern of this entire experiment will be questions of generosity in the arts.
Can art be truly generous? What are the parameters of definition that must exist for that statement to be true?
Is it possible to build an inclusive social space that houses an authentic collective around the arts? What does that look like in the context of Harvard?
When and why do barriers fail? Alternatively, what is the internal structure of an “open” space? How does  o n e  construct or deconstruct it?

In a campus environment where selectivity dominates as a primary driving force, and in a political climate where the artistic community is increasingly marginalized, the answers to these questions have never been more urgent.

Looking at the recent initiatives and new directions taken by the leadership of the Carpenter Center and the Harvard Art Museums, Essa is hopeful. “I have utopian visions. Coming together at this time of crisis, and really seeing and hearing each other in a tangible way – I think that is  o n e  of the most critical things we can do right now.”


Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter. 

the interview

( internal  d i a l o g u e )


Dear Essa,

I hope you’re well, and having a good week. Following up on the feedback you received during your first thesis review, we are writing because we’d like to ask you to submit a new proposal for your thesis. As we all know, your work has changed significantly in relation to your initial thesis proposal, and we are supportive of students’ work evolving and transforming over the course of their thesis year. However, we wanted to ask you to submit a new proposal focused on Vessel, and the work you will be pursuing throughout this year. This should include a short description of your project and pertinent research you have done on artist-run spaces and curatorial practices you find important for the work you are pursuing, address the questions you are pursuing with the work you are making, include a calendar of exhibitions and a short description for each show reflecting how they are in dialogue with the questions you have outlined, address how you envision your role and practice as an artist-director/curator/performer, and outline briefly the form you see your thesis taking in its final instance (in other words, what will be part of the thesis show at the Carpenter Center).

Feel free to be in touch with any questions, or if anything needs clarification. Maybe you could send me (Joana) a draft of your proposal when you have it, and we could discuss it in person on Monday before you finish it and send it to your committee, if you think getting feedback on a draft could be helpful?

Best regards,

Joana Pimenta
Sharon Harper
Karthik Pandian 

 For people who aren’t familiar, what is the  Vessel?

These are questions that are at the core of it. I cannot tell you what it is; I grapple with that question all the time. I still don’t entirely know what the  Vessel is, even though I have patiently explained it to me a million times, but I have discovered that I am drawn to it as long as it can be used against its own premise of knowing anyone or anything, as long as I can work against its supposed reliance on fact, and its association with academic production of knowledge--I take it instead to be a reflexive process through which one might construct a reality in its own right.


What are you making at the  Vessel?

I am creating a simultaneous space of production, with archival images and documentaries. I am also interested in the performance of language, the duration of the photographic image, and the malleability of video. In this digital age, I was thinking about how we might assemble and fictionalize our narratives out of many sources and formats in which they exist today. I am attracted to the idea that images can stream through different forms of transfer or through a series of misunderstandings. I try to make work that is transformed by the many turns of direction I take during its making, and I hope it is reflective of that process.



Can you address the questions you are pursuing through your thesis?

Yes. That is, how do we playfully engage with the contemporary avatars, falsifications, double-entendres we create for ourselves, and how do we toy with our expectations of the progressive linearity of personal and collective histories? In other words, I am interested in exploring the science fiction of individual and collective narratives, and I hope my curatorial practice works through some of these questions.  



How does  Vessel engage with these questions?

By establishing a gallery space, I have an incredible opportunity to be exposed on a weekly basis and in a very intensive way to other artists’ processes. In a way I am engaged because I am trying to make it so that everything is set up for them to do the work that they want to do, so I am invested in it; but at the same time, it’s not my work, so I am never going to be the one making all the decisions, I am never going to be controlling those decisions directly. So I am a participant-observer, to use a strange social sciences term. But I give the chance to get familiar with other artists’ processes, and that is really interesting to me because I always feel like I learn as much from the way other people do things as from finding my own. It’s not like there is a direct impact, as in that I see how this student in installation class is doing something and I see that it’s so similar to how I do it--that’s not it at all. It’s more this curiosity satisfied by how generous my peers are about sharing the ways in which they work.



Can you be more specific? How exactly are you working with artists and exhibition-making at  Vessel?

I meet with the artist, and we talk for a long period– we then visit, research and record. In the digital Catalogue that I am writing, I will collaborate with artists directly, and also will often make things up. I lift archives from their sources and create new ones, get words out of their context, transfer objects from one medium to the next. The installation of works in the exhibition space only takes shape after our talk, and my research, that moment where an idea has formed not just in my own consciousness but in relation to the material at hand on-site. I always make work that has a dialogue with a specific real site. I then remove it from where it was and recreate it artificially somewhere else, or vice versa.

My work here is more concerned with the notion of a field than written history. Every show has some durational and site-specific strata and any number of intersecting discourses so at the end of the day the materials are invested with their own sense of history. I like situations that renew my perspectives and show me things I have not seen and reawaken all my senses... Kinetic connection to artists is really important to me.

In summary, I want exhibitions to work through the latent performativity of an archive of images, sounds, and words, sometimes fact and sometimes fiction, that was constantly in tension with the self-censorship that our current relation to recent Chinese history often brings forward. I wanted to work through layers of personal and archival materials, image technologies and the performance of language. So, I am much more attracted to this long-term way of making things, the idea of not knowing what you are doing, than I am to the idea of going to a site with a script and having everything set in stone and setting out to make a work.



How do you envision your role as an artist-director-curator-performer?

In my past work with photography, I have made images that have visual similarities to video, silkscreen, painting, and drawing, so I try to incorporate different visual language into photography. However, I arrived at a point where I felt as though photography became merely about my relationship to control. As an artist I felt it was really important to be able to comprehend what is going on with material at some level. But in the sense of image-making, I felt like I had too much control because Photoshop is a simulated world where anything is possible. That is why I had to step back from pure image-making in the traditional sense, to allow myself to engage in new ways of working with chance and unpredictable outcomes. So now I am building the frame, physically and digitally, to both direct and allow these moments to happen.

At the  Vessel, I don’t record, I don’t have a composition. I have an idea. To realize my idea, I work with both documentary and fictional elements. In my process, I am always looking for a way to photograph that contains an element of transformation. I prefer to document changes between moments and to seek out and amplify human perceptions of the unseen, which in its own way is one form of fiction.  

In a similar way, I am interested in curation not simply as a reference to an already finished regime of knowledge but to suggest that we are still very much caught in it. In fact, my curatorial work is very much caught in photography itself—the interaction of the subject and viewer governed by a light established in a framework. Therefore, the photographic work resulting from this curatorial thesis will also be all about curation­­ itself.  I am trying to use the camera to show me something I don’t know, to work from the unknown into the known, or to generate the known from the unknown.

Of course, I also bring myself into it, in a way—not always in a biographical sense, but in terms of being in the field and the triangulation between my body, the camera and the field. I have some amount of control but also lose a lot of it, too: That's how the work starts.



So precisely how are the exhibitions reflecting, and your discussion of your photographic practice, in dialogue with the questions you have outlined earlier?

In my first exhibition, ONE, I am playing with ideas of our ability to pin down space, place, and time in one moment. It’s constantly shifting, and it’s also collaged, so that there is no single place, space, or even single perspective. Oftentimes people want to know how my work is made or pin something down, but I am far less interested in the mechanics of how it’s made than the questions that it asks or the ways of seeing that it poses, the questions it opens up.

In my second exhibition, Dialogue, it resonates with the work I have been doing here in the sense that I feel like we are exposed to so many ways of doing things - different processes, media, forms, images, objects – that I never feel like I feel pressured to settle on a form or a format, or the need to identify myself with a particular medium. I believe that it is important for us to hold a dialogue this space where we have a chance to work through things and figure out our own process.

There is this idea, if you are an image-maker, that it is predetermined that the final work will be a series of images. That idea used to really bore me. Having had a chance study with professors in installation, painting, drawing, sculpture, and post-studio, it opened another realm of possibilities and really influenced my work. I don’t necessarily feel the rush to produce things without having worked through all the possibilities and forms a certain project might take or that I am interested in pursuing.

What has changed entirely for me is that now, instead of setting out to make an image, I set out to ask myself, what could this project be? What are the different forms it can take? And even if I photograph for three weeks in a specific site, maybe at the end the work will be a drawing, two minutes of sound, an installation in the form of an exhibition. At the same time, if the final project is a series of photographs, it is informed by different ways of working through images, by different forms of dealing with the pictorial. I feel like what I got from being in such an interdisciplinary context, and the way it has influenced my work, is that I don’t feel like the final form dictates what I make; rather, I figure out the form as I am making something.



I am still unclear about what it is that you are doing. Can you state the facts of the matter? And also what is the role of The Catalogue?

I will write about my own work. I will write my thesis about the exhibitions I am making. I will also make art works and installations based on something that I had researched for my writing. I will read academic books and make works at the same time, because I am automatically drawn to everything I read about in what I am making. I will have no critical distance. Everything is something that I need to think through regarding a certain image or a sequence – as it is consistent with the nature of good curatorial practice and art-making. At the same time, as I write, I will be appropriating everything in this subjective way—I will be using the conventions and specific language. So I will be combining the language for academic production and writing criticism, and using this drive to bridge the gap through the language of being an artist.

I am doing this because I think, when you make work, you become attuned to process in a way that a conventional background as an academic or art historian does not normally require. You are more aware of the process of making things in a way that you are not if you have never made anything.

Thus far in the year, as I have been constantly making and installing exhibitions, there are all these skills that I have begun to learn. I never felt like a language was dictated to me, and I would never want that to happen. If anything, I have felt as though I am fighting both with and against language, so they are completely complementary ways of working. I benefit from engaging in both practices, and so far I have found my own clever way of doing both. Yes, I believe doing both is possible. I really admire people who are hybrid artist-scholars. I am working towards that as a VES concentrator at Harvard College. Sometimes I wonder if, when I am out of school, it will need to be either one or the other. But that is not my concern right now.    



So what is it like to be doing a thesis in this grey zone, this dual-space?

It’s very intense, but you get a lot of feedback and you are constantly engaged. I feel the generosity of the faculty and students with whom I have gotten to work, in terms of always making sure that I have the necessary conditions to be able to make work. At the same time, there is this expectation that it is your own work at the end of the day, and you need to figure out how to make it the way that you want it to be.

I was relieved to have come across some advice from a faculty member on this matter: “Everyone is so gung-ho on hybrid programs, and it’s really difficult; you’re facing bias from every side. If you make films, academics think you’re not a real academic. If you write, artists think you’re an academic artist. You can’t care. You need to just keep doing your work.”





Rennebohm, K. (2014). Interview: Joana Pimenta. The Monday Gallery, [online] Departure, pp.53-62. Available at: [Accessed 9 Nov. 2017].

Zhuang, V. (2012). Portrait of an Artist: Sharon C. Harper | Arts. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Nov. 2017].

Stevenson, S. (2010). Karthik Pandian: Porous Reality, Timeless Architecture - Interviews. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Nov. 2017].

crimson, essanity, verse, questionsEssa Li

Frankfurt has gained an unusual museum in December 2005: DialogMuseum.  



^ essa will visit on 12.9.17

It is unusual because the exhibition focuses on human social topics. 

It is unusual because the ambassadors of the museum are blind and visually impaired people.

It is unusual because it combines social responsibility with economic trade.

The idea of this enterprise follows the principle that humans learn through encounter.

It follows the experience that platforms for the encounter, where we could learn from each other respectfully, are missing.

DialogMuseum wants to create this platform and at the same time wants to create workspaces for disabled and disadvantaged people.

DialogMuseum wants to encourage dialogues between people with and without disabilities.

It wants to surprise, touch, have a lasting effect in a relaxed and playful way.

The creation of DialogMuseum is tightly connected to the history and the development of the exhibition “Dialogue in the Dark.” Dialogue in the dark is a global franchise system. Dialogue Social Enterprise Ltd. (DSE) is a social enterprise operating worldwide headquartered in Hamburg, Germany. Their mission is to facilitate social inclusion of disabled, disadvantaged and elderly people on a global basis. DSE`s goals are to raise awareness about the contribution to society by people with disability and elderly people, leading to an inclusive behavior, and to improve the social economic condition of handicapped people, especially blind, visually and hearing impaired people.
To achieve these goals they operate exhibitions, such as “Dialogue in Silence”, “Dialogue with Time”, “Dialogue in the Dark”, and workshops and events worldwide. Since 1989, “Dialogue in the Dark” has been visited by 6, 5 million visitors in more than 60 countries.  
establishmentEssa Li
a play

What a talented writer, I'm no connoisseur of manuscripts but this is a lovely parcel by Frank Garland:

Hey classy class,
For my presentation on Tuesday here are the first two scenes of a play I've been working on. Please read scene 1, and if you have time I would love it if you read scene two as well.
See you Tuesday,

Child’s Play Scene 2


HERALD stands waiting at the side of the stage, she is now dressed as a dignified looking rabbit in a waistcoat, holding a large pocket-watch that she checks impatiently. A door descends from above, coming to rest on the stage. ALICE comes hurtling through the door. She is a redhead, young and at times beautiful, wearing a red leather jacket. She looks around wildly. The door ascends back up out of sight.



You’re late. (ALICE pulls out a gun and turns on HERALD pointing it at her.)



Where’s Sam? (HERALD reacts to a gunshot to the head and falls over, dead. ALICE stands at a loss. She looks around, suppresses a sob, and turns back to HERALD.) What are you doing. I didn’t shoot you.



Oh. A thousand apologies. (She pops back up to her feet.) I’m not always very good at judging such things. Do let me know if you ever do kill me.


* * * 





Yes. Take me to the throne room.



But we’re already there. (PRESIDENT and COWBOY, in masks, glide on stage. HERALD blows a fanfare from her trumpet.) Ladies. Fair gentlemen. The Queen! (QUEEN enters. All bow. ALICE bows belatedly.)



Thank you! Thank you! Oh, you’re all such dears. (To HERALD.) Read my titles.



Her royal highness, Queen Titania. Ruler of the fair folk. Empress of the Seelie Court. Speaker for the trees. Maven. Raven. Lady. Daughter of the sky snake. Lover of the sky snake. Slayer of the sky snake. Concubine to Mr. President, whose titles include—



Skip. (HERALD twitches and buzzes, moving at double speed as if controlled by the fast-forward button on a remote. She then resumes her recitation.)



Moonlight bather. Mountain eater. She with the crystal laugh and molten kiss. Our grand dame of the spectacle. First huntress. Last sorceress. Star child. Wyrd Wiled. Sound of a small sharp stone plummeting through the air and then down a tin pipe, before landing with a plop. (Apologetic.) Oh. A thousand apologies. That was a direction for me. (She makes the sound of a small sharp stone plummeting through the air and then down a tin pipe, before landing with a plop.) Fairie Queen.



Oh you’re too kind. Really, I don’t need all that. You may rise. (All rise from their bows. To ALICE.) It’s all just words, you know. And quite a mouthful at that. Though each with a story locked inside. What is your name, sweet one?



Alice, Your Grace.

verse, crimsonEssa Li
today on baidu images

Baidu Image slogan is 百度图片 发现多彩世界 translated more or less to mean "Baidu Pictures, Discover the Vibrance of the World" 

on this day, the home page "most popular" section of ourpropagandasearchmachine is churning out images of positivity, surprise !

... featuring the promise of youth and future generations, transcendentalistesque awe of the unpolluted environment, traditional family values, a celebration of development and of the metropolis, hip elderly folk, and of course the ideal female figure to aspire to...

indeed an inspiring gallery that changes by the hour, google images take notes! 

visualEssa Li
what about curation in photography?

To curate is to organize... 

"Photographers curate observations when we choose to include specific content within a frame and exclude all else, from among the whole world of experience that stimulates our desire to record what we see.

The relationship of elements within the frame is designed through composition. Composition and framing make apparent alignment, proximity and repetition among elements in the frame.

The frame creates a personal kind of order from the chaos of experiencing those same details as they are in the world: scattered and incongruent. It’s the eye that sees the frame before the photo does, and the eye does this as it becomes sensitized to stimuli of aesthetic, narrative or conceptual detail.

The frame imposes design, sorts information and categorizes. The frame is important to the architecture of a photograph -- and how to read it. 

The frame is an expression of my personal curation, when I photograph and when I consume photography. An ethic is at work: the choice to photograph and the choice not to. The choice to see and not see. Judgment about exclusion and inclusion is an important component of framing and of curation. "


So this piece talks about photography as a curatorial gesture in selecting and composing etc... but I think there is more to this intersection to be considered?

^looks like a horizon to be explored v soon


questionsEssa Li
incongruous extravagance

"Can art be used to address the economic exploitation of the plantation economy that plagued Africa for centuries without, on some level, being a source of exploitation itself?"

"Reverse Gentrification"

The IHA aims for a reverse gentrification program. While on the one hand much new art deals with all kinds of economical issues, and wants to be very critical of them, on the other hand the economic return of such art is hardly in the same places as what is critiqued. Art may expose the need for change in say Nigeria or Peru, but in the end it generates an economy not in the places it critiques, but improves living conditions and real-estate value in Berlin-Mitte or in the Lower East Side.
Rather than ignoring this current state of affairs or treating it as an unwanted side effect, art can accept the terms and conditions of its production and forge a new, more radical criticality, which turns art’s potential for gentrification into a progressive and effective tool. Therefore, the IHA seeks to make capital accumulation a core strategy for artistic intervention
Artist statements for Dummies

An artist's statement (or artist statement) is an artist's written description of their work. The brief verbal representation is for, and in support of, his or her own work to give the viewer understanding. As such it aims to



with an art context, and


the basis for the work; it is, therefore, didactic, descriptive, or reflective in nature. The artist's text intends to






his or her body of work. It places or

attempts to place

the work in relationship to art history and theory, the art world and the times. Further, the statement serves to


that the artist is conscious of their intentions, aware of their practice and its position within art parameters and of the discourse surrounding it. Therefore not only does it




but it


the level of the artist's own comprehension of their field and making. The artist statement


as a "vital link of communication between you [the artist], and the rest of the world." [1] Most people encounter a work of art through a reproduction first, and there are many elements that are not present within a reproduction. That is why it is imperative that the artist knows how to properly


their work through their own words. What the artist writes in their statement may be integrated in wall text, hand outs at an exhibition or a paragraph in a press release. Judgments will be made based both on the nature of the art, as well as the words that accompany it. Artists often write a short (50-100 word) and/or a long (500-1000 word) version of the same statement, and they may maintain and revise these statements throughout their careers. [2] They may be edited to


the requirements of specific funding bodies, galleries or call-outs as part of the application process.


The writing of artists' statements is a comparatively recent phenomenon beginning in the 1990s.[3] In some respects, the practice resembles the art manifesto and may derive in part from it. However, the artist's statement generally


for an individual rather than a collective, and is not strongly associated with polemic.[citation needed] Rather, a contemporary artist may be required to submit the statement in order to


for commissions or apply for schools, residencies, jobs, awards, and other forms of institutional support, in justification of their submission. In their 2008 survey of North American art schools and university art programs, Garrett-Petts and Nash found that nearly 90% teach the writing of artist statements as part of the curriculum; in addition, they found that,


Like prefaces, forewords,prologues, and introductions to literary works, the artist statement


a vital if complex rhetorical role: when included in an exhibition proposal and sent to a curator, the artist statement usually


a description of the work, some indication of the work's art historical and theoretical context, some background information about the artist and the artist's intentions, technical specifications – and, at the same time, it aims to


the reader of the artwork's value.

When hung on a gallery wall, the statement (or "didactic") becomes an invitation, an explanation, and, often indirectly, an element of the installation itself.[4]

essanity, questions, verseEssa Li
Uncalculated Risks
At the outset of our work together on this In Person exhibition, I spent three days with Essa Lucienne in her workshop/gallery/photo-studio space. Rather than look at work (there were only remnants from the prior show), we talked (not even so much about the show) and read (sources, touchstones, whatever books Essa had already moved in).
The experience was sincere, social, and intensely constructive—a reset of a curator-artist relationship. This type of interaction correlates well, in fact, with Essa's mode of practice overall—as an image-maker, a sculptor, a performer, and on. On our first day, she summed up this position rather neatly:
“I use contingencies to figure out if I can overcome the strangeness of the reality around me.”
verse, essanityEssa Li