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After Douglas Crimp Questionnaire Response: Gaëtan Thomas

Published onJan 05, 2022
After Douglas Crimp Questionnaire Response: Gaëtan Thomas

Answer Louise Lawler’s question in October: “What would Douglas Crimp say?”

“I love Louise!”

Imagine an alternative space to museums. Describe what this space might look like.

As I translated Douglas’ essays into French, I tried to imagine the alternative downtown art spaces in which he was invested during the 1970s and 1980s. This world feels so remote but I feel I can say with some certainty that it was less controlled by money and the desire for immediate recognition.

I personally enjoy spending time in encyclopedic museums and wish there were more palace-like complexes transformed into accessible, public, art-filled spaces. As a college student in Paris, I remember feeling most comfortable reading in one of the Louvre’s covered patios than in my tiny, claustrophobic apartment. Ironically, one my first conversations with Douglas – when we met in Paris – was about the Louvre, a museum he hadn’t visited in decades. A few years later, when the Buchholz Gallery organized a show around him in Berlin, we visited the Gemäldegalerie together (along with Jonathan Flatley) and spent time discussing the eccentricities and imagination of Cranach’s Fountain of Youth! At some point during our visit, he said he loved Poussin, something that stayed with me. I find myself seeking out Poussin’s paintings in museums during the last few years, perhaps as a way to continue this conversation with Douglas…

Share an anecdote or memory you have of Douglas. Or, if you had the opportunity to share anything with Douglas now, what would it be?

This might be a strange thing to say, but I would explain to him how difficult it was to answer questions from a French journalist working on his obituary. I felt unable to provide a comprehensive and coherent account of his life and work, which was being asked of me in this moment of sadness. I think I internalized something of the spirit of 1980s critique in resisting the reproduction of narratives around singularity and individual genius. I’d love to have a good laugh with him as I recount the memory of this awkward, and slightly frustrating, moment!

In Before Pictures, Douglas describes navigating between academia, life outside, and how each informs the other. Discuss leisure, and how academic work reflects personal life, or vice versa.

I try to insert what I personally enjoy into my work as a historian, but it’s a process of translation, imperfect and involving patience in finding the right moment to bring one’s own experiences into the text.

Share academic models that might push against linearity. Academia tends to be fairly linear, while dance is often fluid (unless it’s a line dance). Translate the linearity of academia into the non-linearity of a dance, and then transpose that non-linear dance back into the “linear” form of a diagram. In brief, submit a response as a score for a dance piece, or provide a diagram for a dance.

Non-linear trajectories in academia are actually more common than one might think! Many thinkers move through subjects, periods, even disciplines quite freely during the course of their careers. The work of intellectual biography and memorialization organizes these heterogenous productions into linear narratives, going back to my point of tension with the journalist writing Douglas’ obituary. I think the meandering pursuit of ideas and knowledge produces its own atonal score, if only we would listen! 

In the spirit of Douglas’s work with ACT UP: How do you understand the relationship between activism, arts, and academia?

It rarely happens, but when it does it must feel exhilarating, which makes it worth trying and trying again…

Gaëtan Thomas is a historian and currently a postdoctoral fellow at Sciences Po, Paris. He has edited, translated and introduced in French a selection of essays by Douglas Crimp (Le point du jour, 2016) and Craig Owens (Même pas l’hiver, forthcoming).

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