Closet Archaeology

Benjamin Clay
I think a lot about a suite of photographs that were made by my
mother in a time before mine. I think about the evening that I first
discovered these images and how, at the back of her closet, their
steely complexions warmed to receive my own. I could make out two
distant figures in one, walking down a path in Manhattan’s Central
Park. It was the height of winter and they, a street lamp and a few
gnarled trees were all that had resisted the night’s blanketing of snow.
I remember picking it up. Its yellowing backboard seemed to attest to
a kind of frustration, nearly thirty years in the making. Alike Barthes’
own ‘Winter Garden’, a photograph in which he found captured his
mother’s kindness, this snapshot had me staring into a scene through
a gaze so familiar. Where he writes that his mother lent herself to the
image, I have found a renewed sentience.
I think about my mother being the spouse of a working visa holder
when this picture was taken. She would often find herself left to look
on from afar. I think about how, through the lens of her Pentax, she
tried to make sense of an unforgiving city in a manner not dissimilar
to mine now. The camera is, after all, and to Sontag too, the ideal arm
of consciousness in its covetous mood—we ward off emptiness with
gathered shards.

I think a lot about mum’s Manhattan photograph and how its former
dwellings shape my own reflections on the conditional nature of
space today. After all, the darkroom and the closet are mutually dank
grottoes of complex experimentation. The darkroom is a lightless
monolith, inhospitable to those unaccustomed. The photosensitive
paper, like a person who has ever called the closet home, is
irrevocably transformed by their exposure.
I think a lot about exposure and how visibly queer people have theirs
predetermined. I think about the need to qualify my use of visibly and
its relation to queer. I do not mean that queerness is always seeable,
and like an object, reflects light back into our corneas and cameras.
Instead, it is something not invisible, or perhaps not imperceptible. It
is something akin to Barthes’ ‘punctum’, his means to discuss the
hearth of some photographs, the part of them that cannot be pointed
to but nonetheless ignite their perceiver. We remain detectably
different in space and are made subject to its politics.

Places welcome some bodies and not others. Often, these others are
made to negotiate stayless obstructions. I have learnt that space is not
the nothing around something but rather the thicknesses that dictate
our movement. Stand in your closet and close the door. Space is the
shelving that pains your torso and the hanging rail that you will hit
your head on. It is no wonder then that ‘the closet’ is a widely
intelligible signifier for the bizarre logic of homosexual becomings.
I think a lot about the camera’s aperture and how light and time
triangulate exposure. I think about how the mechanics of a lens can
articulate spatial entitlement. If I asked you to squeeze through an
aperture, the wider its opening, the more comfortably you would
move. Any smaller, and this would become increasingly difficult.
Though, liberty will forever risk overexposure, a blinding caused by
abundant access. “Overexposure makes the negative thick”, writes
author Theresa Junko Mikuriya, “so thick with light that at the time
of its printing, its very opaqueness…renders the resulting image a
dazzling white”. How my writing around luminous freedom returns
to whiteness is a telling accident. A wide aperture causes shallow
sight and Plato seemed to know this. There is a moment in Republic
when the prisoners, confident recognising campfire cast silhouettes
on cave walls, venture into the landscape. One prisoner is freed and
dragged up into the outside world where they are immediately
blinded by sunlight. Another ascends gradually, learning slowly to
discern the day’s shadows, the lake’s reflections and the night’s
constellations. In time, and with practise, the ex-prisoner can gaze
directly at the sun. Whether emerging from a cave or a closet, one
learns to see anew.
I think a lot about Baudelaire’s ‘Flâneur’, and how time, like light, is
a spatial tendril crowded by disproportion. The figure of the flâneur
nonchalantly treads the bustling city, much unlike queer peoples who
are notoriously fast walkers. What is admirable about the Flâneur,
however, is keenly practiced by queer communities—being there.
This being there immediately disrupts the amnesia that
heteronormative Late capital fosters and in which it thrives. We
embody a lingering of meaning, a disobedient loitering that interrupts
power’s need to forget.

I think a lot about shelter, and how in many ways, the darkroom
protected my mother’s photograph, the cave, the prisoner and the
closet, us. I think about the word escape and the loss that it implies.
On its journey through medieval Latin to English, the term came to
fixate on the losing of one’s cloak to the hands of a burglar. Both
leaving and leaving behind, escaping is a dual act.
But then I think about a line from Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology
which is never far from my tongue. He insists, in reference to the
German war bunkers that fleck the French littoral, that “the visitor in
this perilous place… is already in the grips of that cadaveric rigidity
from which the shelter was designed to protect them”. I pretend that
he is talking about the closet and nothing has ever made more sense
to me.

Roland Barthes, 'Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography'. Ross Chambers,' The Flâneur as Hero (on Baudelaire)'. Plato, 'Republic'. Susan Sontag, 'On Photography'. Keith Tester, 'The Flâneur'. Junko Theresa Mikuriya, 'A History of Light: The Idea of Photography'. Paul Virilio and George Collins, 'Bunker Archaeology'.