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Systems of Governance

Washing Henry – a letter from New York

by Dave McKenzie

As a memento of the process, I received a letter that begins with “Dear Fellow American” and ends with “Welcome to the joy, responsibility, and freedom of American citizenship. God bless you and God bless America.” This change in status from resident-alien to American citizen can be traced not to patriotism but to new fears: fear of being deported, up-ended and sent back to “country of origin” for the most minor of offences. Uncertainty too. The uncertain consequences of living in Dubya’s America – an America, we were told, that no longer tolerated irony, ambiguity, nuance or complexity. You’re either with us or against us.

One by-product of going through the naturalisation process is the likelihood of being called up for jury service and winding up in a room similar to the one in which you swore an oath of allegiance. Five months after taking the oath of citizenship, I would find myself in just that situation – gathering with other potential candidates, all of whom, I am sure, were anxious about being selected, and thinking: “How do I get out of this?”

Getting out of it seems to be a part of the process and it has been said that juries are made up of 12 people too stupid to get out of jury duty. So it really came as no surprise when a significant percentage of the candidates stood up and walked out after an official announced that potential jurors who lacked fluency in English would be excused. There are of course a number of practical reasons for wanting to get out of doing one’s ‘civic duty’. Chief in most minds is the prospect of financial hardship. In New York, the most any juror can receive is forty dollars a day, which will be paid sometime within six weeks of the completion of service. Yet, a more substantive dilemma revolves around feelings of responsibility and the exercise of power – even as that exercise is through an official and sanctioned apparatus.

“Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of the individual: it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.” If power is as Hannah Arendt claims, then a court is a logical example of this empowerment and a trial is a further example of its temporary nature. When we learn that jurors who reach a guilty verdict are said to have trouble looking a defendant in the eyes, we can assume it is because their power is essentially at its nadir. The verdict reached, the jurors wash their hands of power so to speak.

Although called for jury service, I have never been asked to sit for one. But the trial that I would have served on involved a young man who was to be tried for felony murder and robbery. The shop owner of the robbery had died in a violent confrontation with the defendant’s partner. The defendant claimed to be ignorant of his companion’s intentions but by law he was to be held as equally accountable for the robbery and its aftermath. This summary is from memory so I might be getting some of the details wrong – like remembering that the young man was wearing a white suit – but what I do recall is wondering whether or not I could really sit in judgement of the young man in front of me. Could I, if necessary, be the lone holdout? Could I, like Scheherazade, keep going on and on in an effort to resist an inevitable outcome? Can one resist even as one participates? Are there other options for producing with uncertain materials?

As I look back on that day in the courthouse I also think of another encounter with an alleged criminal. I think of finding myself in a room with Henry Kissinger. I think of Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger and Kissinger’s disdain for the book’s (and film’s) premise, namely that Kissinger was complicit in several war crimes. I think about the other powerful figures in attendance, the heads and former heads of state. Still, it is Kissinger who holds a space in my thinking. As to why I was in that room, there were several reasons. I was there, at the American Academy in Berlin, because Richard Holbrooke, the former US Ambassador to Germany, had a desire to promote cultural exchange between Germany and America.

I was there because I am an American citizen;
I was there because I am an artist… producing culture?;
… there because of the stipend;
… there because someone else paid for the ticket;
… because the beds are warm and the towels are dry;
… because there will be wine and a chef;
… because the rooms overlook a lake;
… because you have to be somewhere.

But my presence or absence for that matter will not be remarked upon. More interestingly, Kissinger et al. were there. Technically, these former and current leaders had gathered to award and celebrate the achievements of Helmut Kohl, the former German Chancellor. They were there to pat each other on the back, to reminisce and to make sure the ‘narrative’ is correct. But, again and again it is Kissinger who I remember most when I think back to then.

For my friends who spent more formative years with Kissinger, Nixon and the wars in Southeast Asia, the questions swirling all have to do with a relationship created by touch. Do you shake his hand or don’t you? But since Kissinger was already an image to me, I got to work, I reached for my camera – the camera being the tool that allows distance and creates a wall between operator and subject, documentarian and document, me and you. I reached for a camera and a wall was created and I never had to answer the question: “Do you shake his hand or don’t you?”

I have wanted to make an artwork out of this encounter. An encounter that was never really an encounter; all I have are a few moments of digital video which may or may not be enough to construct anything. So, I dreamt of another encounter and the title of a work called Washing Henry – not watching but washing. It’s a film with a feeble Henry, a younger me and a bathtub. I spent a few days thinking about how to make this piece. My reflections on it crossed a threshold from excitement and fear, to fear and distraction. You can picture the scene of a feeble Henry and a younger me in a bathtub. And, as we know, anything can happen in a bathtub. I remember Whitney Houston…
I wanna take a bath with somebody,
I wanna feel the heat with somebody.
Yeah I wanna take a bath with somebody…

I repeat to myself sentence number 10 from Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art: “Ideas
can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All
ideas need not be made physical.”

Dave McKenzie is a Jamaican-born, New York-based artist. His works have been exhibited at the RE DCAT, Los Angeles AN D the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, among others.

This article was first published in the print edition of the Chronic. Buy your copy here.

It was facilitated by a publishing residency at the New Museum, Museum as Hub.

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