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DISSONANT GRIDS: milk fills in the gaps

Published onMar 21, 2024
DISSONANT GRIDS: milk fills in the gaps

grids

“We have built a world of rectilinearity. The rooms we inhabit, the skyscrapers we work in, the grid-like arrangement of our streets and the freeways we cruise on our daily commute speak to us in straight lines.”1

“Some inheritances feel like unwelcome debts.”2

Textile artwork draped on a wall. The fabric has been screenprinted in red from a photograph of a milkweed plant with the side of a house in the background. On the right edges, there is a checkerboard pattern woven from beige fabric.

Abby Maxwell, milk fills in the gaps p. I, 2023. Screenprint on cotton with silk, cow milk and iron mordants, madder, hawthorn, and marigold.

Grid-play is a practice of refusing straight lines, of calling to disorder. I’m really not of a mathematical mind. Mine are grids that fail, that err, that tell no story, that lead nowhere. They can’t contain, but give shape to my sense of things; hold my memories quietly. I weave strips of milky cotton with the milkweed print, distorting its visage. The work requires a thousand pins and inexorably frustrates, baffles. It teaches me nothing. I am captured by all these puzzling pieces, I fall deeper in love at each crossing.

It has become the case that whenever I visit my family I leave with objects – I’m handed countless mementos, always more than I can carry home. Photos, mug sets, a stereo. I recently received my grandfather’s wool sweater; it scratches my neck. The other day I sat down with a needle and thread to hem it – my grandfather was very grand indeed, a towering and a peaceful man, a farmer and a Quaker, brought up in Iowan cornfields. The father of my father, in a line of third born sons, a sort of lesser lineage of which I too am part, both as member and rupture. I know Bob only in story, I know only his many representations. I don’t always feel at home in my family. Still, there is something home-like in that fleshy, scratchy thing.

I feel desperate to keep it all contained here, always within reach, as if these things might fill in the holes in my memory of my own life. Inheritance. All at once, it is the shape of my eyes, it motors the phrases that emerge from my mouth, half-consciously. It is my desires and my tendencies. It’s the lingerie and the Barcelona jerseys, the sewing box, the records, the letters. And it is my guilt, my grief, my uncertainty. What do we do when inheritance harms? Can we opt out of inheritance, move somehow else?

We turn right, turn right again, turn right again: back to where we started. The grids that compose our built environment engender the ways we live in the world, lining our senses with story; all that which moves us, laid down in rebar and cement atop the swirling shapes of worlds. We live amid the desired architectures of previous generations. I am watching ice fall from the power line onto the road beneath my bedroom window. I live in a big box with windows to see out, surrounded by other boxes. Each wall splits a box in two. When I look outside, all I see is more of the same. We live in these grids, which organize and fuel daily life – our reliance is made especially clear when a grid fails to provide its function; we get lost.


Grids are failing today in Montreal: after a 24-hour bout of freezing rain, a million people in Southern Quebec have lost power. The trees are weighed down by thick coatings of ice, causing huge scaffold branches to break off, crushing cars and blockading streets all over the city. When points along a line fail, the whole network is affected. When a body deviates, it is felt.

But time was wrangled into the grid plan first, hammered down, prepared into a long line for tidy intersections with Euclidian space. Here, time figures as natural, neutral, and moving at a constant rate; a continuity which progresses outside of space. Together, spacetime coordinates us, nudging our bodies along its gridded manifold. The nudging can go unfelt, unnoticed to those who have their bearings, who are well-oriented here. As Sara Ahmed explains in Queer Phenomenology, “things seem ‘straight’…when they are ‘in line,’ which means when they are aligned with other lines.”3 But we don’t all fit so neatly into our appointed slots of spacetime, our first inheritance.

Following Ahmed, inheritance is a gift that comes with a demand: the extension of its line. As a “straightening device”, genealogy ushers bodies into place along such lines of descent, forming a grid when crossed by other lines. Through this grid, the patriarch orders the movements of his children and the state organizes the movements of its citizens. Fully “democratized and dispersed into the life-world of ordinary people and the seams of homogenous national space-time,” the grid of genealogy reproduces the right (straight) kind of affinity: that which continues the line.4

An inheritance for some, whiteness gifts to its heirs the possibility of becoming universal: the “absent center against which others appear only as deviants or lines of deviation.”5 This is the position of the full human, subject, citizen: the positive figured through negation of the other. The human is productive; upon recruitment into the project of whiteness, he must take part in the efforts of maintaining its civilization. Becoming universal necessitates becoming immortal: whiteness imagines a body that does not fail, does not approach death–a single point on the line, enclosed and contained. But, especially under its reign, death is all around. Whiteness is, at its core, a killing machine; it lays the bricks and guards the gates of the “death-making institutions.”6 In the wreckage, we are trained to avert our gaze–to overlook this absolute otherness that is death, as something separate from its orderly world. The “gift” of whiteness is given in exchange for acts of alignment–so, whiteness, too, is a straightening device. When one inherits whiteness, they are made to “[invest] in the line of whiteness…to transform the body into a ‘part’ of it, as if each body is another ‘point’ that accumulates to extend the line.”7 When we inherit whiteness, we inherit the objects it holds close, including the “styles, capacities, aspirations, techniques, even worlds” in reach.8 Whiteness is the operation that converts earthly life into property. Bodies that pass as white are recruited as owners; all ‘others’ become the owned. Through the grid of genealogy, whiteness plots the world to write itself into and as the future.

time

“[A] queer politics would have hope…because the lines that accumulate through the repetition of gestures, the lines that gather on the skin, already take surprising forms.”9

Textile artwork draped on a wall. The fabric has been screenprinted in blue and white from a photograph of a milkweed plant with the side of a house in the background. On the left edge, there is a checkerboard woven from beige fabric toward the middle of the textile.

Abby Maxwell, milk fills in the gaps p. II, 2023. Screenprint on cotton with silk, cow milk and iron mordants, madder, hawthorn, and marigold.

In many ways, the grid is a tool for taming time, for inscribing into its mystery a logic of directionality. In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman names chrononormativity as the use of time to “organize individual human bodies toward maximum productivity,” rendering time into a form of linear progression, a sequence of “discrete units linked by cause and effect,” which necessarily imagines its own background as a “plenitude of ‘timeless’ time to which history can return.”10 She argues that linear time coheres through the notion of futurity, thus producing itself as progressive time, moving straight ahead, negating other temporalities as static, deviant, or outside of time. Our bodies are thus regulated by the assumption that life is lived between the inherited past and projected future. But, queer and trans people, in particular, are perceived as “having no past: no childhood, no origin or precedent in nature.” 11 Ahmed similarly concludes that, “to inherit the past in this world for queers would be to inherit one’s own disappearance.”12

These scholars observe that queer people have long denounced and destabilized all conventions of time, crafting distinct temporal homes for queerness into past, present, and future.13 For Ahmed, though, a queer time weaves throughout the tenses, since what has existed left a trace, and what exists now is already a force of disorientation. At odds with straight timelines, queerness crafts its own modes of transmission, moving in oblique lines from all the fissures in the grid-contract—what Eve Sedgwick describes as an “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances.”14

milk

“When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk…I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire.”15

Textile artwork draped on a wall. The fabric has been screenprinted in brown and white from a photograph of a milkweed plant with the side of a house in the background. On the left and right edges, there are checkerboards woven from pink and white fabric toward the middle of the textile, but not meeting.

Abby Maxwell, milk fills in the gaps p. III, 2023. Screenprint on cotton with silk, cow milk and iron mordants, madder, hawthorn, and marigold.

It takes time for the liquid to penetrate the fiber, to seep between the folds. I turn the jar over again and again, the thick milk follows, held back by its slight viscosity. Two days later, I remove the cotton from the jar. The milk is now beige, touched by the residue of oak galls caught in the fibers. Milk drips onto the bathroom floor, filling in the cracks between the tiles. Wringing out the sopping fabric into the sink, I see my hands in the mirror. I am thinking about sweet summer and toxic milk, oozing onto my fingers from the wounds of milkweed pods; poison, and a spell of protection. I guess it’s the first thing I ever drank, though I don’t remember. My first taste of the sweetness of the world: the milk of my mother’s body. Many bodies are full of milk: droplets of milk exude from seed heads of oat straw and from cracks in the arms of cactus. The noxious milk of milkweed protects itself and the monarch larvae living beneath its leaves. Milk moves in the interstices of the world, filling its cracks; a strange and momentary soothing. In its sweet, sour, and bitterness, milk brings delight, rich with medicine. It seeps into my blood and I salivate, yearning for whatever follows.

Milk travels in a circle. Moving within and across bodies, beneath the ground in networks, it weaves a fine mesh of silky white. Whereas blood is the imaginary fluid running down paternal lines, milk, too, signals the family, yet as the pure substance that passes from mother to child: a fluid tracing of the maternal line. But while milk is held as a symbol of the wholeness of both mother and child, what it does in its movement – its leaking through pores – is reveal the incompleteness of each. Milk transgresses the straight line, and nullifies its claim to the world. Entire life-worlds of people coalesce around the movements of milk – milk is sucked, suckled, pulled, pounded, blended, and drawn from nipples, nuts, seeds, stalks, beans, stems and needles. The human, upon graduation from the animality of infancy, begins to drink the milk of cow, sheep, or goat: non-human milk fortifies the human, in content and form. But, milk transgresses its own boundaries of signification.

Milk signifies chaotically; it is tethered to life force, health, strength. But the expiry of milk’s ‘goodness’ is always imminent: suddenly, the fluid may invoke disgust or fear for (and of) the body. The virtue in breastmilk always elapses all-too-quick, it becomes vulgar, in need of sanitizing, censoring. Animal milk, too, exists as an image of health and wealth when well- regulated. The moment its condition is compromised, milk horrifies, becoming disgusting, even dangerous. For Julia Kristeva, experiencing the abject draws us toward the place where meaning collapses—here, in confrontation with death via disgust, we are pushed to the absolute limits of our selves. The abject marks a latent memory of the (symbolic) separation of body and world, producing a momentary breach in the filial script. As she encounters the skin of milk, described in this section’s epigraph, “along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes [her] balk at that milk cream, separates [her] from the mother and father who proffer it.”16

Meaning coheres around the straight lines of grids that invoke not only a kind of filial extension, but also the fantasy of the individual point. Even if we don’t know our precise origins, we might craft a kind of heritage, some semblance of a family tree, or carry on the family origin story we’ve been told. The skin of milk tears the skin of the self: in that otherness we feel the presence of “a deep well of memory that is unapproachable and intimate.”17 Flooding the order of things, milk reveals the impossibility of such grids.

Milk invokes a hazy memory, not a future. Though also forming a kind of grid in its delicate mesh, moving between and across bodies, seeping into mouths and onto skin and leaking out and spilling over, milk’s grid maps nothing. It is the salve of boundaries, a balm for the dead and dying. It is Sedgwick’s open mesh of dissonance. To allow it in is to taste the secret of the world, to lick the wound of the milkweed or the chaya, and bear the itch.

grid (return)

“…there is nothing about the amorphous, grid-like way the Quilt is displayed to suggest a single direction of passage or journey. Instead, it invites wandering, looping, arabesque and squiggle. It is more like Joyce’s notion of ‘narrative origami,’ opening up space after space in which it is possible to become lost.”18

The grid is a structure and aesthetic of whiteness: its shape is weaponized as it organizes power, employed to devour anything not yet enlisted to extend its form. Whiteness is a mode that inlays grids into space-time, ordering bodies into taxonomic trees, gridding the imaginary. The form of the grid cannot be separated off from its use as tool of classifying and containing difference. Yet, while void of content, whiteness consumes everything in its path. The risk of lodging a critique of the grid is the remaining assumption that another shape might be invulnerable to its scouring. Whiteness uses and produces the grid as a mode of containment just as it uses and produces fluidity or mutability – morphing, reforming, co-opting – as a means of self-preservation at any cost.

The shadows of grids are, themselves, grids, but heading elsewhere; stretching diagonally, beside and opposed to the linear and the frontal, the well-lit or enlightened grid of the known and knowable. Another dissonant mesh, the shadow grid might be a structure and aesthetic of queer transmission.

Last week I drove to my grandma’s home in the Appalachian plateau to sit with my sister and our scanner on her apartment floor and digitize the family archive of slides. Over 2,000 35mm slides were stacked high in a cardboard box and housed in a cousin’s basement in Washington, DC. During my pitstop there, I followed a perverse, touristic urge to stand right beneath the Washington monument amid its circle of (I suspect, eternally) half-mast US flags, and look out over the Mall. Being there, all I could see were the hundreds of images I’d seen of the AIDS Quilt, boundless, swallowing the manicured landscape into its monstrosity. When it was last exhibited there in 1996, its 40,000 panels, strewn across the lawns of the US state capitol, contained both the objects and literal remains of those they named: the sequins and leather and condoms and teddy bears, and the ashes.

The NAMES Memorial Quilt is a grid that became a commons of the dead and dying: not a monument, but a maze—a place to get lost in time, in the tangle of life and death. As Cleve Jones, the project’s founder, writes in his memoir: “I began the Quilt in my backyard with the name of one man, a man I loved. The Quilt has grown and is now a monstrous thing—a terrible burden of truth and beauty and love.”19

Textiles, in general, contain this complexity, whether commemorating a loved one, shrouding a dead or dying body in its transition, or clothing a living body and, thus, becoming the holding place for all the dead skin cells and affective shedding of everyday life. The grid of the weave is another inherited grid: we collect the fabrics and fibers of the dead. Cloth is passed down and around, tracing relation. We find and lose and tear and mend cloth just as our skin is made and shed and hurt and healed. Nothing else more closely or intimately coexists with the skin of our bodies. Pure grid, textiles move to take, and make, the shapes of bodies, becoming both vehicle and vessel of quotidian memory. These grids, strange and ambling, lead us nowhere. We gather around, nonetheless.


Milk is thick and drags in time. Something in the structure of its molecules makes for a quiet landing, soft like otherness encountering itself. Something like Édouard Glissant’s right to opacity. He writes: “Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components.”20 Perhaps the skin of milk produces horror in its revealing of our relation. Skin and cloth enclose the memory of being not one, but many iterations that relate to one other, mapping out multivalent mazes of feeling. Opacity cannot be known but felt, and the textures produced through its convergences are in perpetual flux.

In milk’s deep well of memory, in the creases of fabric, other temporalities grow and move. The shadow of the grid is what escapes it; a fleeting, queer inheritance. Queerness transmits in time like the grid of the weave that sways on the line, that folds back on itself, a weaving that discovers nothing, and that “weaves no boundaries.”21

In inheriting the white world and its spacetime of possession, I am ushered into the project of domination via decipherment. This is a temporal relation: one hungry for the future, the pure apex of progress. To refuse this inheritance is to move toward a disheveling of what is, toward unrest. To grieve my own unapproachable memories. To make lines that stray, fray, or strain, making kin with my uncertainty.


My grandma’s refrain these days is that she is living on borrowed time; she was planning to be dead by now. I sobbed while I flew down the I-87 south; the container of my Honda, the quiet space and the movement of it, allowing me to shed the skin that I grew over the winter, a tough layer for protection, one that I could hide in for a while. I released it into the vehicle’s wake to rot on the side of the road with all the woodland creatures dying there, all the roadkill angels gathered on shoulders along the great American highway network.

I finished the milkweed triptych and hung them on the wall. My cat has a habit of clawing at them, pulling them down, perhaps lured by the smell of milk molecules saturating their fibers. In Montreal, the milkweed is about to bloom. I am waiting patiently, watching their dusty stalks, leafed with bright ovals and velvet bundles of buds, pushing up from pavement cracks in the alley, annexing city flowerbeds, empty lots and the abandoned gardens of the neighborhood church. Maybe now the prints, traces of last year’s milkweed pods, can become something else; compost, cat toys, love letters to my many iterations, maps that lead to mazes.

A triptych of textile artworks hang from a wall. Each reproduces the same photograph of a milkweed plant, screenprinted onto fabric. From left to right, the image was screenprinted in red, blue, and brown. Each textile includes checkerboard patterns woven into varying edges of the works.

Abby Maxwell, milk fills in the gaps p. 1, 2023. Screenprint on cotton with silk, cow milk and iron mordants, madder, hawthorn, and marigold.


Abby Maxwell is a queer interdisciplinary artist working with textiles, printing, dyeing, book-making, and growing gardens as attempts to temporarily grasp the sensory or affective imprint of a thing. She follows her own fixations on interstitial matter; milk, grids, medicine, ghosts, and dreams… grown from rituals for grief, her practice tends toward small and impermanent monuments for the dead or lost, not in the effort to fix something in time, but to index its trace. Abby’s research comes out of queer theories of ecology, time, and the body of grief. She is currently working on a research/creation thesis project at Concordia University in Montreal, QC. Her work can be found at https://abbymaxwell.hotglue.me/

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