Afternoon Dust

Cathy Wade — As We Alter It

Excerpt from Cathy Wade's "As We Alter It / So It Alters Us"

Ok, so the full title of this book is probably As We Alter It / So It Alters Us, but it took me a while to notice the second half, embossed as it is on the back of the book. Besides, I like the first part on its own, which immediately struck me as a play on “as we see it”. So much of writing in or about art simply describes what we see, but in this book, comprised of letters sent and received by artist Cathy Wade during her Wheatley Fellowship residency at Birmingham School of Art, writing itself becomes malleable and subject to alteration. For the first 86 pages Wade collates and arranges snippets from various letters into continuous streams of text, sometimes converging around a clear theme, at other times meandering more freely; the rest of the book reproduces the content of each letter in full, identifying who was writing what to whom.

Knowing some of the participants personally — a group that includes artists, writers, curators, and designers — I had the pleasure of trying to identify them from the unattributed paragraphs cut and pasted into new contexts, seeking on the basis of topic choice, references to known events, or simply tone of writerly voice to link the words to their authors. The complete, intact versions of the letters showed me that I often misattributed, or missed where the voice of one friend switched to that of another, leading to misrecognitions and false histories. It was also surprising to come across a name I associated with a completely different context, that of Joe Panzner, here referenced in his life as a musicologist and author of a book on Cage, Deleuze, and Guattari. For me, the book traces and enacts interacting communities of shifting and mistaken identities, memories true and false, connections frequent and fleeting.

Wade’s thinking, familiar to me through the book club we both participate in, is so often tied to cities, and the images of inverted billboards, brick walls, and street graffiti inserted between the streams of cut-up text in the first part of the book underline this, as does the content of many of the letters. Yet the work’s title, taken from one of the letters, refers to not to the city nor to society, but to nature. And this brings things back to my discomfort with the (full) title. Does ‘nature’ (whatever we take that term to mean) have sufficient agency of its own to intentionally alter anything in the same way that we alter it? Or is this always another case of misattribution, a mirror or echo chamber of misrecognised faces and voices? Is nature a passive subject of human endeavour and appreciation, or an opportunistic force with its own designs on human bodies and societies? When we talk about nature, are we really talking about the city? This is probably a topic for another book…