Friends, colleagues, collaborators, and fellow travelers,
Jarrett Fuller here. You’re getting this newsletter because at one time, you signed up receive updates from me — updates about my work, links to things I’m looking at and thinking about, and whatever else is on my mind. Thanks for joining. If this turns out not to be your thing, no worries. Just hit the unsubscribe link at the bottom of this message. Easy!
When I started this newsletter, I imagined sending a new edition every month but we’ve seemed to settle into an every-other-month cadence. The last issue, sent early March, was fresh into social distancing. Classes had just gone remote, the work shifted. In that time it feels like a lot has happened and nothing has happened. I haven’t ridden the train since. I haven’t crossed the river into Manhattan. It no longer feels weird to wear a mask when I go to the grocery store. The semester ended, not with the usual celebrations but with a whimper, saying bye to my students over Zoom calls and Google Chats. I congratulated my graduate students and apologized for how the semester ended, unable to fully celebrate their accomplishments. After spending a year together, they ask me for advice in finding jobs. I don’t know what to tell them.
I’m trained as a graphic designer and graphic designers are taught that they are problem solvers. I’ve found when you’re told graphic design is problem solving, it’s easy to see everything as a design problem. But what if it isn’t? I’ve asked myself time and again how I’m supposed to respond to this, what I can do to help — what design can do. I’m not sure but what I do know that it’s not another poster campaign, it’s not cooler looking masks or speculative branding projects. There is no going back to normal. There is no normal. The world as we know it is being redesigned right before our eyes. How, then, do we shape it? How do we create a future we want to see?
It’s hard for me to process it all. I’m an introvert, always have been — I generally like staying home and avoiding people — so I don’t feel the effects of stay-at-home orders. Dare I say I love it? I already did half my work from home so the only difference is I now sit next to my family all day, negotiating who works when, who watches the kid, who gets to sleep. The separations between work and home, already tenuous, have fully dissolved.
We’re healthy. Everyone I know is healthy. Yet I read the news and see the death count continue to rise. Every day, sometimes multiple times in the same day, I read the obituaries of another well-known person whose work I admired/watched/read. In my immediate world, everything seems fine, but right outside, it’s all falling apart. I’m lucky, or at least, privileged. I think of the ‘essential worker’. I thank them for their hard work, for keeping the infrastructure running while putting their own lives on the line and wonder why I never thanked them before. When this is all over (whatever that means), let’s commit to keeping at least one thing this way: let’s reorient society so we’re always celebrating the essential, holding up the often-forgotten, making visible the all-too-often invisible. I hope, if anything, this exposes the viscousness of capitalism, the inequality that has plagued us for far too long, and prompts real action that moves beyond empty platitudes and Twitter rage.
Anyway, how are you? How are you holding up? How can I help?
Here’s Teju Cole, who always seems to write what I need to read:
Eventually, there will be good writing about our moment as well. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, perhaps a journal is the first rough draft of literature. But grief makes me sour. I feel as though I’ve read the same piece of white writing 30 times in the past month.
Much of it is concerned with inconveniences, and some of it is jokey. I understand these collective attempts at lightness, but I quarrel with them, because I know that in the United States there is no ‘‘collective.’’ Levity in the midst of sorrow can be a consolation if the sorrow is shared to begin with. But here, where everything is divided, where the unscathed can’t quite believe the wounded, the levity sounds like anything but solidarity. Covid-19 was initially heralded as a great equalizer, and there was some evidence of this in some countries. But it arrived in America and immediately became American: classist, capitalist, complacent.
And here’s George Saunders, who is exactly who I want to be reading right now, in a letter he wrote to his graduate students:
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger and we tend to live our lives there on its back. (We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger.) And now and then that tiger wakes up. And that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up and someone we love dies. Or someone breaks our heart. Or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He/she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always there have been writers to observe it and (later) make some sort of sense of it, or at least bear witness to it. It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer, too. Especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting, warts and all.
In the last few weeks I:
I’ve been finding solace in photo books these days. Early in the pandemic, my copy of Teju Cole’s new book Ferhweh arrived which felt strangely perfect for this moment. I’m also spending a lot of time with Jason Fulford’s new book, Picture Summer on Kodak Film (below) and Guido Guidi’s In Veneto.
Photography, as I wrote about recently, is perhaps the only interest of mine that’s sustained as long as design has and I’ve been thinking more and more about why that is recently. I’m drawn to photographs without people but environments that have been shaped by people. In an era of quarantines and social distancing, these images take on a new meaning, feeling almost apocalyptic, or post-human. But that’s not to say this work is distopic or dark. On the contrary, the photos in the books I’ve been spending my time with lately have been poetic, uplifting, meditative, spiritual even. (And the photos in this issue were all made in the last few weeks during walks around the eerily quiet neighborhood.)
And this, perhaps, is what I like about photo books, specifically, as opposed to Instagram feeds, websites, or single images. The book is the artifact — I like the paper and texture and the printing. But I also think about sequencing. About the narrative. About why these specific images were selected for this book.
I’ve been making photographs for almost twenty years and only in the last five or so have I thought the book to be the ideal container for the images I make. I’ve produced a few photo books over the years and I’d like to make more.
I loved this New York Times story on art historian and theorist Aby Warburg and his visual collages. Immediately reminded me of Gerherd Richter’s Atlas — a favorite book of mine — and made me think a little more seriously about my own archiving (which I always took seriously, but want to think more about it as an artistic practice).
We finally watched The Mandalorian, which we (surprisingly?) loved. (See my previous comments on Star Wars.) Is it weird if this is what I want Star Wars to be — just a simple, low-stakes western? I also blew through High Fidelity which I think I liked? I enjoyed it more as New York show than the story it was telling. In other words, it made me miss pre-pandemic New York City in a way I hadn’t thought about before.
You should listen to Ocean Vuong’s interview on On Being and you should really read his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which broke my heart and put it back together. I still think about it.
After reading Alex Ross’s New Yorker profile of classical pianist Igor Levit, we’ve gotten back into Beethoven, who’s now been the soundtrack in our house the last few days. I recommend both the profile and the music.
I recently stumbled upon this 2018 essay from the Guardian on post-work which resonated with me on multiple levels and felt especially relevant as any divide between work and life has completely dissolved:
Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.
To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic – and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. “Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change,” says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. “So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?”
One of post-work’s best arguments is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the work ideology is neither natural nor very old. “Work as we know it is a recent construct,” says Hunnicutt. Like most historians, he identifies the main building blocks of our work culture as 16th-century Protestantism, which saw effortful labour as leading to a good afterlife; 19th-century industrial capitalism, which required disciplined workers and driven entrepreneurs; and the 20th-century desires for consumer goods and self-fulfillment.
As we’re all reconsidering our work and forced to navigate whatever it is we even define as our work in new ways, now, perhaps more than ever, we can reclaim leisure time, free ourselves from the cult of productivity. Let’s continue feeding our starters and baking our breads, brewing kombucha and learning new languages.
I hope you safe and healthy.