Hi. I've been thinking about that day in the future when we meet again. How to speak of this—or anything not of this? What will we still know?

I break from the sea in pieces, turning at the surface to breathe. And you—in bright spirals refract'd—holding out a shell. The air, wild and thin, hums from within a labyrinth song.

It's a note. A love letter. Or, more precisely, Love Letters, where each “letter” is awkwardly inscribed in the landscape, piece by slow and semi-continuous piece. Most of us are familiar with the general concept—if not practice—of GPS (Global Positioning System) art. Using live software to track a walk, run, or bicycle ride, the vestigial traces of our embodied performance turned dis-embodied data make lines and curves to construct a pencil-like drawing on internet-based maps. The familiar red traveled paths on Google and Apple graphics or satellite images are planned in advance to become dogs or bicycles—or, as my first few image search results revealed: dinosaurs, Darth Vader, and stick figures.

But Kelly Kirshtner's ongoing series of mappings, and this particular piece—In the Shoulder Season (Love Letter #2) (2020)—took more than the standard twists and turns expected of one such drawing out. “Shoulder season” is an explicit reference to the period of time between high and low seasons of travel in the travel industry—a nod to travel, in between-ness, and perhaps some tongue-in-cheek around who can (or will) travel, and where to, in the current crisis. Kirshtner's work is the only long-ish form GPS project I could find. She calls it “satellite-writing,” and it was not the work she had initially planned while an artist-in-residence at Elsewhere Studios in Paonia, Colorado.1

But then, the pandemic (and quarantine) hit. Suddenly Kirshtner was on an extended stay, self-isolating, and distanced from her California-based mother, whom she suspects has some form of undiagnosed dementia.2 (This diagnosis is, of course, now nearly impossible to confirm—given the risks a trip to the doctor might hold, and how it might be low priority in the current crisis.)

IMAGE 1

“Labyrinth” from In the Shoulder Season (Love Letter #2) (2020) by Kelly Kirshtner; courtesy the artist.

IMAGE 1

“Labyrinth” from In the Shoulder Season (Love Letter #2) (2020) by Kelly Kirshtner; courtesy the artist.

So Kirshtner took a different trip. Over two hundred miles of loops over thirty days, she hiked a sixty-three-word poem for, and message to, her mother. Up to several words a day, between one half and one-and-a-half miles per letter (all while wearing a mask), Kirshtner “exhibited” the project over that month in slow, additive form via “story” posts on social media (as well as on her own and other websites).

Each day they were apart, Kirshtner found that her and her mother's regular conversations became disjointed. The latter had trouble remembering things, and more importantly got frustrated in those moments. Kirshtner, too, became uneasy, wary of this new person who resembled—but was not—the woman with whom she had grown up. Each simple catch-up phone call became something else entirely. Every connection was an attempt to simply make a connection, to re-member (embody again), to converse—despite what was missing.

But how do you find meaning, when you don't know what you mean? It is challenging enough to articulate affect as emotion, to name the intensities we feel in the heat of a moment. (“I don't know how I feel about this … yet … ”)3 Now imagine, as with Kirshtner's mother, if even that base vocabulary, normally at our disposal, was mostly lost. And Kirshtner? Imagine witnessing, participating, trying to engage or comfort in this space.

I've been thinking about that day in the future when we meet again. How to speak of this—or anything not of this? What will we still know?

The artist was at a loss as well. How might she listen to the unspoken? How could she communicate without understanding? What could she say without harm? She had to change her patterns, language, movement … And so she began to write, as many of us do in times of crisis. But it was in a kind of new figuring. As she says, it was a

slow, inexact communication—a body in motion anchoring a signal, translated by technologies both close at hand (phone) and distant (satellite). This isn't a seamless process—weather, data “noise” and other discrepancies all introduce variation, and I respond[ed] by adapting to the language (or font) of the satellite and improvising as needed. Like me, the satellite doesn't always precisely understand where I am.4

A wrong turn, a blockade, a street that isn't on the map could change her entire day, her entire mood, her meaning. A stop light, a truck in the way, a group of children crossing the street, could make the timing just off, as the satellite above moved, and a letter or word was lost for that particular trek, or longer. Kirshtner learned to write again, in this idiosyncratic space of new and different meanings and movements. She adapted her paths, slowed down, sped up. It was, I am calling it, a “distant contact”—satellite to land, quarantine to quarantine, daughter to mother.

But while Kirshtner's mother is aware of the project, and they talk about what it is, and does, and means, she does not know it is a letter to her. She suspects, of course. But, as her mother is unable to admit the possibility of her own dementia, Kirshtner has spared her this fact. All she knows is that it is a letter to a loved one.

And perhaps the letter is not for Kirshtner's mother. It is more likely that its writing and planning, its moving-thinking-feeling, is for Kirshtner herself. And also for us, the disembodied (at least to the artist) and distant art viewers, watching her find meaning … again. In front of our screens, locked inside, wondering when and where is safe and healthy for ourselves and those we care about, we are all looking for something as well: re-learning, re-writing, remembering and longing, in our own isolation. Looking for patterns, something to recognize, to re-cognize (that is, think-with, again), in the new normal. Do you know what it is we seek?

I break from the sea in pieces, turning at the surface to breathe. And you—in bright spirals refract'd—holding out a shell. The air, wild and thin, hums from within a labyrinth song.

IMAGE 2

Instagram Story Archive “scroll” (“turning at the surface to breathe”) from In the Shoulder Season (Love Letter #2) (2020) by Kelly Kirshtner; courtesy the artist.

IMAGE 2

Instagram Story Archive “scroll” (“turning at the surface to breathe”) from In the Shoulder Season (Love Letter #2) (2020) by Kelly Kirshtner; courtesy the artist.

IMAGE 3

Preparation for In the Shoulder Season (Love Letter #2) (2020) by Kelly Kirshtner; courtesy the artist.

IMAGE 3

Preparation for In the Shoulder Season (Love Letter #2) (2020) by Kelly Kirshtner; courtesy the artist.

After reading and sifting through the extensive documentation on Kirshtner's website (and elsewhere), I emailed her a few questions about the work. She has, I later discovered, reams of writing and images that reveal hidden meanings (the labyrinth and the shell), complexify more obvious ones (the shoulder and the in-between), and give leave for us to find many more intertextual references throughout. I absorbed it, and thought with it, but also left it with her—wanting to move … differently. In the Shoulder Season is obviously a profoundly personal piece for Kirshtner, yet the story about her mother—who, after the residency and while still quarantined (as of this writing), Kirshtner is staying with and caring for in the short term—only came out after I inquired a bit more. Like with all art, perhaps, the work is both for the artist, and not for the artist. A communal and quarantined “us”—including Kirshtner and her mother—is wondering what we will still know, in this difficult moment, and beyond.

IMAGE 4

“Pieces” from In the Shoulder Season (Love Letter #2) (2020) by Kelly Kirshtner; courtesy the artist.

IMAGE 4

“Pieces” from In the Shoulder Season (Love Letter #2) (2020) by Kelly Kirshtner; courtesy the artist.

And that is precisely what I decided to write with. This is where I am seeking new paths: separation and grief; collective distancing; words on terrain; masked and wandering, in pieces. Writing and editing, lost and adapting, in trauma—together and apart. Letters: inscribed and exscribed.

In her essay on philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and what she refers to as “disintegrating bodies,” feminist scholar Diane Perpich argues that in “the Western philosophical tradition, the body has been construed in opposition to speech and language: it is ineffable, passive, impenetrable, unintelligent, and as such opposed to the intelligible articulations of discourse.”5 Bodies and writing are, in other words, mutually exclusive.

But Nancy suggests, Perpich goes on, that bodies and texts, matter and meaning, mutually emerge outside of, and with, each other. For Nancy, inscription is located meaning, while exscription marks a coming signification. Inscription is mapped, but exscription is an active mapping. In being exscribed, we and our bodies and meanings both make sense, and come to sense, together.6 Here bodies and meaning actively produce one another, at once.

While writing cannot capture the body, or be a body, one needs a body to write in the first place. And that writing can only be through some form of material instantiation (be that paper or screen, tablet or “hard” drive). While we may not be able to produce any successful language or discourse that is “embodied” as bodies are, we also fail to produce any discourse without the body already in it. The body haunts writing. It is exscribed. And conversely, a body is only “known” in how we write and speak of it, in what it says and—performatively—does. It is inscribed.

Writing is always already a remnant of the bodies that write it—a sign, displaced. And bodies are always already bound in text—a mapping, fully captured, but never wholly present. Each is always in distant contact. They cannot be re-membered (embodied again), nor captured, as they currently are, once were, or will one day become.

And it is in all this potential, in all this isolation, in this distant contact, that we must read and feel Kirshtner's love. Her mother haunts each step, each map. The traces of every hike push through a labyrinth of labored communication. They are both essence and substance, quarantined yet together. Apart, but also “a part” of one another.

I am thinking and writing this review in my basement, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in late May. I hear my four children playing and banging upstairs. My pregnant wife just went to Target, mask on, belly bump out, worrying over how many people will be there, to get some supplies. The malls here re-open today, even as churches in other states close—the latter realizing they re-opened too soon, but only after losing some of their parishioners, while dozens more have tested positive.7

Now, I come back to do some minor edits more than a month later. I am in a hospital room with my wife—who gave birth to our latest edition just yesterday. We are wearing masks and isolated, and this week the US has had its highest totals of the virus ever. A culture war that shouldn't exist rages around us, and I can't help but feel profound love and hope as I hold my newborn baby, coupled with dread about the kinds of decisions the world is making at the moment, and what I should do in response.

Despite its “profoundly personal” interchange, this is what In the Shoulder Season stirs in me. This is its relevance, which I feel right now. Covid-19 haunts the landscape. Wherever you stand, or walk, it is both coded and physical, a figure and a tear. Worried over my family, I step only tentatively, piece by semi-continuous piece, wondering who will remember the damage we each can cause, and, as Kirshtner reminds us, “thinking about that day in the future when we meet again.”

NOTES

1.

Kelly Kirshtner, “In the Shoulder Season,” KK (kellykirshtner.com), April 25, 2020, www.kellykirshtner.com/shoulderseason.

2.

Kirshtner, email conversation with author, May 11, 2020.

3.

Nathaniel Stern, Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics (New England: Dartmouth College Press, 2018), 6.

4.

Kirshtner, “In the Shoulder Season.”

5.

Diane Perpich, “Corpus Meum: Disintegrating Bodies and the Ideal of Integrity,” Hypatia 20, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 84.

6.

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence, trans. Brian Holmes et al. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993).

7.

“All 50 States Have Eased Coronavirus Restrictions,” Briefing, New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2020/05/19/us/coronavirus-usa-live.html.