by Zachary Rawe
nobody but you
a nobody like you
since I got shot
there’s nobody but you
I’m still not sure I didn’t die
and if I’m dreaming I still have bad pains inside
I know I’ll never be a bride
to nobody like you
-Lou Reed, Nobody but You, Songs for Drella
Any account of history, whether grand or diminutive, is both fragmented and persistently past-tense. Where are the fragments from and how far in the past do they reach? Do you have a productive relationship with history? Do you even have a productive relationship with your father? Jen Nugent sets these questions into motion with her book Nobody, released on March 13th, 2015, as part of her exhibition at Temple Contemporary. Nugent conjures such questions, and more, by collaging her own texts and images with contributions from her father, politicians, and cultural theorists. This essay will focus on this one project from Nugent’s exhibition and unpack its literary and visual premises. This article operates, in part, as a book review that will examine Nugent’s difficult approach to history, which consistently finds confluences and tensions between personal accounts and political ambitions.
Nobody is hand-bound, and each cover is unique yet monochrome. There are no descriptive features on the cover or the back of the book. Only the binding has any detail, with “Nobody” and “Nugent” dumbly hand-written in black pen. The spine is a funny and flat-footed comparison between her last name and the word ‘nobody.’ As an object, it is underwhelming and offers little-to-no suggestion about what might be inside. The interior is a mixture of images and texts both found and produced. The images generally evoke a sense of nostalgia and history. For example, images range from vacation snapshots, year-book photos, and news paper clippings. The first page with text states, Nobody is “written, compiled, and plagiarized” with contributions from Jen Nugent, James Nugent, Donald Rumsfeld, and Walter Benjamin, amongst other famous and anonymous participants. Titling a book Nobody with contributions from celebrated theorists and politicians lets the reader know that there is a quietly aggressive humor between these pages. At the same time, the book’s text doesn’t give any indication of who said what and pushes each author, famous or not, into the same anonymity. That said, google searches certainly can help you find some of the original sources.
The text in Nobody is fragmented and doesn’t form an easily coherent narrative. Many of the fragments are short episodes describing painful experiences told in first-person. Consistent themes emerge relating to endless struggles, escapades of coming into contact with law enforcement, and time spent in prison. It’s worth noting that since these episodes bleed together and no names are cited, the reader isn’t sure if these are individual stories told by one person, or individual people telling a similar story. But confusing the authorship and locating broad similarities between stories is partially the point of this book. Many of the episodes describe a desperate, entrenched position as the primary mode of being. For instance, the first large body of text describes someone walking into a gas station and it sets the tone for the book:
…but when I opened the door he sucker punched me. And we fought right there in the doorway and man we were killing each other – this was the longest fight I’d ever been in, I mean, really this guy he just would not let up and we were both getting punches in and eventually, I got tired you know said ok, I can’t, I mean, ok I’m out, I’m done man, you can have this one.
In this episode and others individuals regard their present circumstance as lengthy and forced, whether that be incarceration or a fight outside of a gas station. Lofty theoretical and political speech about future possibilities contrasts these personal accounts:
Confidence in the future defines our course and purpose. We believe in something called progress. As I lose confidence in the future, I begin to close the door on my past.
These passages of the book stick out awkwardly, not only because they differ in tone, but because they suggest relationships with the past that can inform the future and maintain an emotional distance from the present. The juxtaposition of the two, without explanation from Nugent, confronts readers with the whiplash-like effect of reading from multiple perspectives. The pairing asks that theory and politics be met, at least partially, with skepticism and maybe even sarcasm. Through collage, Nugent sharply separates those entrenched in the present from those who can think about the future and suggests that rarely, if ever, do the two productively overlap.
Included with the texts are full-color pages of snapshot photographs, found historical images, and collages. These images act as documentary anchors to the past. For example, the first full-page spread includes two separate images. One consists of palm trees, cars, and a sign that states “TOURIST INFO,” with an arrow pointing towards distant buildings. It immediately registers as a snapshot taken while on a vacation. Opposite the first image is a blue sign on a white picket fence that states, “DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, HAYNESVILLE CORRECTIONAL HOTEL.” Both rely upon photography as a tool for memory. Like the text, the coupling of images often highlights inherent peculiar similarities, in this case aesthetic and linguistic parallels that are sinisterly comical.
There is a peculiarly sly and sardonic humor in Nugent’s book, which operates in two fundamental ways. First, humor is a collaging device. She is less interested in the “Correctional Hotel” image as individually humorous and more invested in the painfully comical relationships it can generate. Humor, in this example, is a tool to notice the latently cruel similarities between seemingly unrelated parts. The second way she uses humor is to double-back and make fun of the art object, in this case, her book. She does this, for example, through gestures such as comparing herself, like the other contributors, to nobodies. Entertaining the thought that anyone could be a nobody helps Nugent locate her skepticism and humor. The object itself, partially plagiarized, costs $22.00; you are in part asked to pay for what Nugent stole. Is art a space where future imaginaries can be produced, or is it messily stuck in the present tense? Paradoxically, the skepticism and humor in Nobody shift this book towards both criticality and an entrenched present, deftly articulating the difficulty of situating this book in one or the other.
Zachary Rawe is an artist, curator, and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. Rawe creates anxious objects and texts that animate the dissolved relationship between work and leisure.