6.21.2015

Jurisdictions

Sand is so demanding. With every step, it gives way, refusing my foothold, my traction, my balance, my ability to propel myself as I will. As I make my way across the beach, I must walk according to its laws. This is the land of sand, its jurisdiction, alternately generous and dictatorial.

Of course, this is only from one perspective and an admittedly cranky one at that. When my boy was little, like most kids, he was downright nuts for sand. In its domain, he found this incredible freedom — to roll, play, shape, dig. His body had different laws than mine — not only less sure footing but less need for sure footing. The fact that sand refused his every step was, in its way, familiar. And the fact that should he fall the sand would buffer the blow, offered a peace of mind, a respite from the hard surfaces of adults.

The terms of jurisdiction are always circumstantial and multiple. I think of airports which mark a complex intersection of legislative jurisdictions. Medical marijuana might be legal in California but it's not in the United States — which is strange seeing as California is in the United States. Anyway, the airport is one place these jurisdictions collide in a less than hospitable way if you happen to be carrying your Blue Dream through TSA security on the wrong day with the wrong agent working.

The fact is the Feds can, and do, bust any pot sellers and growers in California —despite Obama's early claims that he'd let the states prevail. I know people, as many of us probably do, who've done hard time thanks to Federal jurisdiction over California. Bigger guns, deeper pockets, and probing eyes prevail.

But even in such a world, the laws of the land do not define the land once and for all. Or, rather, the laws that prevail are not always explicitly legislated. The most obvious way to think about this is the difference between de facto and de jure: pot was — and, in fact, remains — illegal not just in California but in most places and yet no one I know ever had any problems getting their hands on some. What's written and what happens rarely correspond.

Questions of jurisdiction are ubiquitous. There is no site, no place, that is not inflected, that does not have its laws, its rules, its modes of operation. Sand gives way while creeping into every crease and crevasse — except when it's wet. Sky and sand work it out; the rules change. Rocks tend to be stubborn, set in their ways, and yet will often allow you a resting ledge, a place to sit and enjoy.

Roads and sidewalks are an excellent example of jurisdictions colliding in ever shifting configurations. We pave using this then that to try and smother the life that swarms below. But grass, like sand, is insidious, creeping into even the smallest gaps and setting up camp. Trees have more gumption: they don't need to poach, as de Certeau would say, on concrete's tendency to drift. Trees steal, pushing their way through, claiming the territory as their own. At this level of jurisdiction, cars and pedestrians barely matter.

Everywhere is always already legislated, even if the laws — de facto and de jure — shift with time and circumstance. All jurisdictional questions are complex and multiple because every site is multiple. Zones have their their rules and ways but zones overlap, collide, collude. They bleed.

Museums are interesting jurisdictional sites. There are so many complex rules at work. There are, of course, the guards who try to ensure a certain movement and noise level. I'm often told to move away from the art as I like to get close — really close — to the canvas. And there's a prevailing propriety of how long you're supposed to look at a work, where you're supposed to stand, the noises you're supposed to make (or not make).

But, for me, these laws of propriety are determined by the art, not by the social. For me, each piece demands — or asks, it depends on the piece — that I stand here or there, that I linger or move on. Usually, there's one or two pieces that really draw me in and I'll stand there for a while. But most pieces have me move on, quickly. The social suggests we stand and examine each piece for, I don't know, 35 seconds. But I tend to know quickly, very quickly, if something is worth my time. I tend to breeze by most work, even averting my eyes at times (I'm still nauseated by things I saw at the Louvre 20 years ago).

All these jurisdictions, often at odds with each other: There's the institution with its  admittedly quiet threat of violence; there's the social propriety which would have us move predictably through the space; there's the art which often contradictions both the institution and the social. I was kicked out of the Calder exhibit at SF MoMA on repeated occasions for fanning my brochure to make the mobiles move. According to the institution, mobiles are not mobile. But those mobiles really, really want to move. I felt like their agent, doing their bidding.

Which brings me to yet another complex zone with its local laws: me, my body, my drives and needs and desires. Just because a work wants me to linger doesn't mean I have to. I have my ways of going, my rules. And these rules shift as my body shifts. If I drank a lot of coffee, I may be super jazzed up but also need to pee which, in turn, changes how I make my way through the exhibit, through the space.

This is always the case with engaging art whether it's books, movies, TV. We know this all too well when we sit down in front of our TVs and decide to watch this or that. We say things like, I'm not in the mood for a movie, I don't have the attention for it. Or, on the contrary, we sometimes say, I really want to watch a movie. In these instances, we are adjudicating jurisdiction — the demand of a film and the demands of my time, attention, and desires. TV shows, especially reruns of things we've seen a million times, have a much looser grip so we feel free to talk over it, surf the web, talk on the phone.

This is the main reason going to live theater scares me. It is so very demanding. In a movie, I can stand up and walk out at any time. I may annoy the people around me (if there were any; I only go to empty theaters) but that screen, however big and demanding, is finally passive. But in a theater, oy! There is so much pressure to stay put and keep quiet. What if I need to pee? What if I'm bored or antsy or annoyed? What can I do here? Can I just leave? Can I yell?

This is one reason I stick to books. But even with books, there are complex jurisdictions at work. Most people like to legislate the book from afar, with concepts such as patriarchy, capitalism, ego, what's realistic. They don't follow the rules of the book!  These rules are not the author's; authority leaves her the moment she puts words down. But nor is the reader the authority, despite the pomposity of academics. Reading books, like perceiving all things, is a complex negotiation and adjudication of jurisdictional rights and ways.

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