Buffy, 2022-2023 Curatorial Fellow
October 20, 2023
I’m driving eastbound on the New Jersey Turnpike from Philadelphia to New York. The sun blazes in my eyes as the last part of the glowing mass pulls away from the horizon and mounts the sky. A small red sedan whizzes past, weaving through traffic, followed by another small sedan, silver on the red one’s tail, sun bouncing off them both as they dart around other Saturday morning cars all negotiating three lanes designated simply as “cars-only.” Over this borrowed car’s stereo, rising and falling in its concertedly disordered rhythms, blares David Wojnarowicz and Ben Neill’s album ITSOFOMO (In the Shadow of Forward Motion), a 1991 recording digitized for iTunes in 2008 that originated as the score for a 1989 multimedia performance at The Kitchen that mobilized “applications of the phenomena implicit in the theoretical structures of motion within various media and their representations in the six senses.” (1)
ITSOFOMO’s premiere run at The Kitchen in 1989 included four evening performances, the first beginning at 8:30 pm on Thursday, December 7 and the last at the same time on Sunday, December 10. Named with an acronymic compression of In The Shadow of Forward Motion, a title Wojnarowicz used for his solo exhibition at P.P.O.W. gallery in New York earlier that same year, the performance ITSOFOMO is a multisensory, multimedia, multimodal collaboration between Wojnarowicz, who really only ever self-identified as a writer, and Neill, a composer and performer.(2) Don Yallech performed acoustic and electronic percussion and Gloria McLean devised choreography danced by James Reedy, Robert Yahner, Sue Perschino, and Walter Dundervill. These artists of ITSOFOMO assembled and activated a sensorium—a living collage of experience between light, sound, music, video, dance, and spoken word. On opening night it was twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit with mostly clear skies in Manhattan.(3)
Right now it’s thirty-nine degrees Fahrenheit with mostly clear skies as I leave Philadelphia the morning after a night of events. I went to a screening of artists Shu Lea Cheang and Jessica Hagedorn’s exquisitely disquieting 1994 “eco cyber noia” film Fresh Kill(4) and Niall Jones’s casually ecstatic and gorgeously collapsable performance Hahaha, 2023 (2023)(5), both part of The School for Temporary Liveness Vol. 3. (2023) organized by Lauren Bakst “as a para-site” to the institution, “a temporary zone for the unfolding of our improper and uneven assembly.”(6)
“. . . a temporary zone for the unfolding of our improper and uneven assembly.”(7) This phrase lingered with me from the night before into this morning, landing with me in the car as I pressed play on the bluetooth-connected iPhone that began transmitting ITSOFOMO through the speakers. I played ITSOFOMO twice the evening before on the drive to Philadelphia, but on the return trip, the recording hits a different register in the shadow of those words.
In a February 1989 tape journal, before the premiere of the exhibition and live performance of the same name which gave way to the album playing over the car stereo, Wojnarowicz disclosed a meaning for the titular phrase:
In the Shadow of Forward Motion. The meaning of that title is: Consider that you’re in a car and you’re speeding along an expressway, and everything you see out of the corner of your eye that doesn’t register in the pursuit of that speed, in terms of motion, is what’s in the shadow. It’s all the things quietly occurring within the absence of sight that take place in the pursuit of speed, in terms of motion.(8)
This car, this road between cities, this time just after dawn, and this very body, my body which drives and shifts in this seat to the flowing deluge of sounds and words, are all temporary zones colliding and crossing in each moment that passes. One could say they’re all “in the shadow of forward motion.”
Aggregation, Attempts at Formation
Wojnarowicz is known for his work across forms—text, photography, painting, collage, installation, film—and his fierce avowal that no work can escape the politics of its conditions. The conditions of Wojnarowicz’s politics were his life: his life as a boy from Red Bank, New Jersey who grew up in New York City; as an American who understood the absolute violence of this nation’s systems; as a survivor of childhood abuse; as a sex worker and drug user; as a dedicated friend; as a writer of dreams and nightmares; as an artist without healthcare or housing security; and as a queer man living with HIV in a society whose governing leaders’ general responses to queer people barely surviving the AIDS epidemic were along the lines of “You won’t be here next year—you’ll get AIDS and die ha ha…. ” This sentiment of intentional disregard and murderous mismanagement is iterated more fully in a one-sentence manifesto which appears in Wojnarowicz’s reverberating vocals in ITSOFOMO and in courier font text in the P.P.O.W. exhibition zine, David Wojnarowicz, In the Shadow of Forward Motion: Notes by Felix Guattari:
“If I had a dollar to spend for healthcare I’d rather spend it on a baby or innocent person with some defect or illness not of their own responsibility; not some person with AIDS…” says the healthcare official on national television and this in the middle of an hour long video of people dying on camera because they can’t afford the limited drugs available that might extend their lives."(9)
Wojnarowicz’s writing is often uniquely characterized by its meandering, pages-long sentences somewhere between stream of consciousness confessionals, fantastically emotive dream journals, and incensed political tirades, always multiple in form and method. Before the two became artistic collaborators, Neill encountered Wojnarwicz’s visual artwork. Taken by two specific pieces—collaged paintings of blue skies and cut out figures made of maps layered with money, acrylic, and spray paint(10)—Neill asked Wojnarowicz to synthesize aspects from each work into a new creation he could use as a cover for his 1988 album Mainspring.(11) Neill—who grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, studied in Youngstown, Ohio, and moved from Ohio to New York in 1983 to study at the Manhattan School of Music—is a musical experimenter and innovator. Dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what could produce sound and how, in 1981 Neill invented the Mutantrumpet, an electroacoustic instrument that began as three trumpets and a trombone combined into one with multiple bells and a slide. Later, with the help of groundbreaking synthesizer engineer Robert Moog, Neill integrated electronics and computer hookup. The instrument’s capability to produce many sounds through negotiations between analog isolation, digital synthesis, timbral modulation, and audio diffusion is emblematic of Neill’s “visceral, accessible,” and poetically expansive approach to music and sound.(12)
The collaboration between Neill and Wojnarowicz emphasizes their individual investments in multiplicity as it emerges through not only an electrical synthesis of sound and symbols, but also through a synthesis of forms as material practice in multimedia artistic production and live performance. They assembled combinations of diffuse methods that work toward both a nearly simultaneous synthesis and disintegration of forms—sound, language, light and their shapes, structures, and arrangements—as an aesthetic sensibility. What we might call “synthetic disintegration” is an intentional paradox. It spirals in and out focus through concerted chaos across ITSOFOMO’s multiple elements. “Synthetic” in this context does not signal inorganic but rather synthetic in the sense of the production of “compound light by combination of its constituent colors, or of a complex musical sound by combination of its component simple tones,”(13) while disintegration emerges as a process of “reduction to component particles, breaking up.”(14) If synthetic disintegration is the process, the musical composition is only a part of its beginning.
In the liner notes to the 2018 re-release of ITSOFOMO on vinyl, writer Sylvère Lotringer notes that Neill desired to craft a sort of “creative chaos” through the “deep resonance” achieved by isolating but not separating musical elements from one another. It was a similar “aesthetic of collage” that Neill resonated with in Wojnarowicz’s work. “With David,” Lotringer notes, “you always got the feeling that the pieces weren’t randomly chosen; they made some kind of underlying structure together.”(15) This sense, which Neill automatically picked up in viewing those two collaged paintings, drew the composer to call up the writer and propose they talk more. In the beginning the pair periodically met at Disco Donut on 14th Street in New York City and talked mostly concepts: theories on acceleration and scale, violence and technology, sound and form. The Kitchen offered Neill a slot to perform in late 1989 and the two decided they’d do a collaborative piece that became ITSOFOMO.(16)
Neill performed the original composition on the Mutantrumpet and computer-controlled electronics with Yallech beside him on a raised platform surrounded by percussives like snares and timpanis fitted with microphones alongside amplifiers and computer hookups. The musicians triggered via computer wailing sounds that resound, warble, and oscillate across the composition. The sounds are collections of moans originally recorded with condenser microphones on DAT tapes made during Neill’s visit to the 1989 National Hollerin’ Contest in North Carolina. Alongside Neill and Yallech, Wojnarowicz performed live, giving voice to his own writings. Four channels of Wojnarowicz’s films ran on television screens downstage in the performance space while dancers crawled, jerked, and slid between the monitors and the musicians, who were platformed upstage.
The moving images screened in ITSOFOMO were sourced from Wojnarowicz’s larger film archive. That fact makes unclear which sequences may have been custom for this performance and which may have been sampled from previous work or used in subsequent work, a common method in Wojnarowicz’s disorienting yet systematic use of fragments, bits, and cuts. Some of the cuts which appeared in ITSOFOMO include sequences seen in A Fire In My Belly (Film In Progress), (1986–87) and A Fire In My Belly (Excerpt), (1986–87) and portions for another unfinished film in memory of Peter Hujar.
The moving images come in rapid floods of clips and icons: fire, sparks, jellyfish, and whales; insects crawling over guns and a crucified and thorn-crowned Christ; blackness between sequences; swirling water, blooming explosions; darting eyes, lips stitched with red thread; city streets, anti-queer protesters lined along barricades, televised politicians yelling at gathered masses; crashing cars, spinning globes, Looney Tunes, and a live monkey tapping its its own body from ribs to groin; pages from art and history texts documenting Western painting and the genocide of Native Americans, coins dropping into plates of blood; christ bleeding, sparks flying from his eyes, flames consuming his face; strobes and guns flashing between snakes and skulls; queer men fucking outdoors cut to torsos and limbs tumbling and dancing, spinning their hips, sucking each other off. The television monitors presenting the films focus desire, pressure, history, and rage into four square portholes. Four transmissions of dreams and nightmares collaged in flashing projections and inflamed visions.
An excerpt from the performance script outlines the choreographic sequences and describes the movement vocabularies between sound and moving image:
Slides/video of blood cells Sex images, locomotives, parachutes, ships
Deep blue light spot on man lying on stage — another man pushing strobe light with head crawling across stage from opposite direction; pushes strobe on its back and does movement stuff with sexual overtones above its fractured pulses. Eventually pushes it over to reveal a figure lying down. More movement stuff with erotic subtext involving both figures.(17)
The performance at The Kitchen saturated every sense in every sense and then some.
ITSOFOMO’s third track, “The Attempts at the Formation of the Illusory Tribe - Intermezzo,” is a languid fifteen minute flow of elegiac musings on the brutalities of fleshly desire and the horrors of sociopolitical subjugation. Here—specifically in the context of queer survival against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic and American government, religion, and healthcare’s cruel structural negligence throughout the crisis—Wojanrowicz contemplates, “When I was diagnosed with this virus, it didn’t take me long to realize I’d contracted a diseased society as well. Meat. Blood. Memory. War. We rise to greet the state, to confront the state. Smell the flowers while you can. ” He repeats “Meat. Blood. Memory. War. We rise to greet the state, to confront the state. Smell the flowers while you can.” This comes over and under plucking and fingering that might be a synthetic approximation of an electric clavichord. Throughout the track the same instrument dynamically moves between various singular tones, alternating chords, and stridulating phrases. The sound indexes an enervated baseline pacing, disturbed and accentuated by short staccato surges as Wojnarowicz moves from an even-toned meditation to an impassioned harangue and back again. And again, with minor redaction, he recites “Meat. Blood. Memory. War. Smell the flowers while you can.” The final recitation notably leaves out “We rise to greet the state, to confront the state.”
I’m driving eastbound on a twelve-lane turnpike as the sun rises into a bright yellow glow in clear blue skies stretched over the field of vision with thin wafts of white floating like smokey whispers as if clouds keep secrets. Inside the car Wojnarowicz’s heavy voice floats with reverb’s slight diffusion and cacophonic intrusion. It’s like shouts and whispers and blaring horns and dampened sirens negotiating airtime for aspiration. His words linger until they drive forward, bang into tremolo strings and stuttering wails and howling cries and electronically synthesized motifs like steel spirals and industrial whirligigs assembling in transitory systems of sound like an incendiary garden.
ITSOFOMO indexes the plasticity and multiplicity fundamental to the time and place of its emergence—a late ’80s queer New York dripping with blood and draped in makeshift funeral shrouds. It indexes a moment undone by abandonment, attacked and left for dead by the state, marked by a clock running against time, as well as one shorn up less by hope than by desire. It indexes a time and place sustained by living love, by caring for those dying, by touch between companions and the wafting scent of both grief and possibility from flowers diffuse in the morning sun. I think Neill and Wojnarowicz and Yallech and all the others who helped craft this original performance and its echoes simultaneously engaged a practice of incisive historical analysis, intervention into and documentation of the present, and, whether they knew it or not, a foreshadowing cry into the future.
ITSOFOMO experiments with musical and sociopolitical acceleration along and against a condemning examination of state-sponsored genocide. The performance ITSOFOMO accelerates itself through disintegration, self-possessed as much as self-dispossessed. Intensely diffuse yet singular in its emergence each time, the performance is present through gain as much as it is present through loss. It uses an excess of forms and concepts not to lose us in abstraction but to ground us back into material intimations and lived experiences.
Following the 1989 New York City premiere, Neill and Wojnarowicz toured ITSOFOMO to arts and academic institutions across the US. They recorded the audio album ITSOFOMO in 1991 before Wojnarowicz’s death in 1992.
In May 1993, with Wojnarowicz’s voiceover recordings contained to floppy disks and amplified over speakers alongside the the live composition, Neill and Yallech restaged ITSOFOMO at The Kitchen in as part of the seventh annual Bang On a Can Festival which featured “82 musical works and theatrical performances [inspired] by socio political disparity in American culture.”(18) In an interview with Lotringer, Neill expressed his original hesitation at restaging the work without Wojnarowicz, disclosing: “I’ve been asked to perform it in a number of different places since David died, and I had mixed feelings about doing it. I didn’t want it to be like a funeral… It’s really sad to hear his voice on tape.”(19)Wojnarowicz’s voice, insurgently present given the intense and dynamic affect of his recorded readings, impresses a sound that, while still deeply mournful, activates and propels urgency in the name of life. In recent years, Neill and Yallech have performed ITSOFOMO in various iterations, notably at a retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s work at The Whitney Museum of American Art in December, 2018 —twenty-nine years after its premiere eight blocks up 10th Avenue at The Kitchen’s Chelsea location. ITSOFOMO has even been reinterpreted by other artists, notably by Nan Goldin and the Soundwalk Collective in their 2015 performance, A Memoir Of Disintegration, which both reiterates and reimagines different aspects of ITSOFOMO with text and media from Wojnarowicz’s broader archive.(20)
Reading ITSOFOMO’s titular shorthand as a single word from the vantage of 2023 I can’t help but to create an acronymic portmanteau of something like “It’s So FOMO,” to which my associative mind automatically responds: “I’m So, You’re So, It’s So FOMO.” Though a silly twist of words, I think this relation between “I’m,” ‘You’re,” and “It’s” emphasizes the very nature of ITSOFOMO as a strange, playful, poetic, and reactive unraveling of and against formal conventions between self, subject, and structure.(21) With the phrase “It’s So FOMO” ringing between 2023 and 1989, one might also hear “FOMO” with an emphasis on loss in relation to how we now might dread, however jestingly, the “Fear of Missing Out.” This coincidental resonance carries weight in terms of ongoing societal fixations on loss, loneliness, and isolation—loss marks ITSFOMO thematically and formally across times, health crises, and targeted attacks against queer and trans life. I hear in Wojnarowicz’s reading of politicians’ anti-queer speeches echoes of the contempt and disgust (read: obsession and desire) that characterize the anti-trans, anti-drag, anti-queer farce unfolding in today’s political arena, as those with hard and soft power kick those without, regardless of whether they’re already down or rising.
I’m driving eastbound on the New Jersey turnpike in 2023 with ITSOFOMO on, playing the album’s final track, “The Collapse of the Illusory One Tribe Nation - the Industrial Section/High Tech Accelerando.” At the end of the track a droning high-pitched tone disintegrates into the car’s air. Silence ensues and I hear again in my own head “…a temporary zone for the unfolding of our improper and uneven assembly.”(22) In the car I’m in a temporary zone of assembly with myself and my surroundings. I’m between destinations of assembly, routing from last night’s gatherings toward my shared home in Brooklyn and the other improper and uneven assemblies that make up my life. These varied assemblies that form and register at different scales come together and fall apart in a disjointed fusion. This process produces an iterative synthetic disintegration of living life with others—the only way to live this life. To desire its pleasures and confront its losses are ways I’ve found to be anything close to sustainable in the almost unbearable acceleration of each day’s public and private traumas.
From my time spent with The Kitchen’s archive I gathered that ITSOFOMO’s premiere was also a temporary zone, an unfolding, and an improper and uneven set of assemblies. The recording I listen to now, while not a live performance, bombastically ruptures spatiotemporal experience through its formal constraints. The sound is orchestrated, processed, blared, compressed, and disintegrated as aural spacetime through which listeners are seduced, ripped, shattered, and accompanied. Across its formal manifestations ITSOFOMO is a synthetic disintegration of motion and sound and sensation spiraling toward chaos— an underlying structure embedded like breath, rising and falling like a rib cage laying next to you in bed, one that belongs to someone you love but don’t always like. ITSOFOMO decomposes and rearranges its elements with concertedly synthetic yet deeply organic sensibilities. It is a visceral connective tissue, an orgy of time heaving between slow motion and fast forward where the space after forward but before backward is a blur of light and shadow.
Buffy (she/her) is an artist and writer. She produces and researches live performance and digital media. Sierra reads and writes about sex, science, fiction, and language. She composes text, dance, video, music, image, installation, and public programs. Her work examines embodied experiences of movement and sound in procedural settings, horror, and medical technology, usually with a spatter or a gush of transsexual glamour and gore.
CREDITS & FOOTNOTES
(1) Program for Ben Neill and David Wojnarowicz, ITSOFOMO (In The Shadow of Forward Motion) at The Kitchen, December, 1989.
(2) Writer and critic Cynthia Carr writes of Wojnarowicz’s relationship to identification and form extensively in her biography Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) and more conversationally in an interview with The Whitney Museum of American Art discussing works by Wojnarowicz in their private collection. See “I, YOU, WE: Cynthia Carr on David Wojnarowicz."
(3) Found within the weather history for New York, New York as cataloged in The Farmer’s Almanac.
(4) Released in 1994, Fresh Kill chronicles a short span of time in the lives of two lesbian parents who become tangled in a corporate conspiracy concerning Fresh Kills Landfill, ecocide, and the breakneck pace of cultural messaging in telecommunications and cyber space. The film condemns colonial, corporate, and capitalist systems and moves with a future-oriented lo-fi “hacktivist” sensibility. The film features a number of downtown figures like Karen Finley who performed regularly at The Kitchen in these same years.
(5) In Winter 2020–2021 Niall Jones was in residence at The Kitchen’s temporary Queenslab, developing a performance* A Work For Others*, noted in the descriptive text as: “A mise en scène in collapse. An erratic occupancy. A potential theater of dispersed fantasias, ruptures and un/assemblies. Remains under construction.” The performance was livestreamed and a recording of the performance is available here.
(6) The School for Temporary Liveness, Vol. 3 happened April 6–8, 2023 in Philadelphia on and around the University of Pennsylvania’s campus.
(7) This phrase appears online in the descriptive text for The School for Temporary Liveness, Vol. 3 and animates this particular listening of ITSOFOMO.
(8) February 1989 tape journal in David Wojnarowicz, Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz, edited by Lisa Darms and David O’Neill, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2017, 35.
(9) David Wojnarowicz and Felix Guatttari, David Wojnarowicz, In the Shadow of Forward Motion: Notes by Felix Guattari. 1989, P.P.O.W. and 2020, Primary Information. New York. This partial quotation is the beginning of a page-long sentence. It is a stream of consciousness-style screed against “the killing machine called America” placed toward the zine’s end; the page facing it is an NYPD police report calling for information regarding “the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Paul Him Chow, a male, Chinese, 26 years old.” Chow’s body was found brutalized and discarded at Pier 45 across the highway from W 10th Street. He was visiting New York from San Francisco.
(10) These two collaged paintings caught Neill’s excitement: The Anatomy and Architecture of June 19, 1953 (1987) and History Keeps Me Awake at Night (For Rilo Chmielorz) (1986). Perhaps considering these paintings as the originary point of encounter between these two artists underscores the relationship between methods of assemblage and collage through their individual work—Wojnarowicz in his painting and Neill in his music—and in their collaborative work.
(11) Know Wave–operating out of New York City, Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo–is an international community platform that promotes expression through music, exhibitions, interviews, and archival projects. Know Wave hosts a methodically assembled archive of ephemera, notes, interviews, photographs, and merchandise related to ITSOFOMO and its development since 1989 through 2018. know-wave.com/itsofomo
(12) Ben Neill accounts the Mutanttrumpet’s genesis and development with detailed reflection on his personal and collaborative practices on his website. benneill.com/portfolio/mutantrumpethistory
(13) “Synthesis, n. 4b.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, 2023, oed.com/view/Entry/196574. Accessed April 2023.
(14) “Disintegration, n. 1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, 2023, oed.com/view/Entry/54604. Accessed April 2023.
(15) Lotringer, Sylvère. Liner notes to David Wojnarowicz and Ben Neill. ITSOFOMO. JAB Records 01, 2018. Vinyl.
(16) Noted in the credits and introductory page from the program for ITSOFOMO (In The Shadow of Forward Motion) at The Kitchen, December, 1989.
(17) This choreographic notation appears in an annotated script hosted by Know-Wave in their online archive for ITSOFOMO. The premiere performance at The Kitchen was the only one that incorporated dance and movement with such robust presence.
(18) Information on as well as a grainy recording from this performance is available online via the Bang on a Can Festival’s archive as well.
(19) Interview with Ben Neill and Sylvère Lotringer in David Wojnarowicz: A definitive history of five or six years on the lower east side, edited by Giancarlo Ambrosino, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006).
(20) This performance between Nan Goldin and the Soundwalk Collective was part of the 2015 CTM – Festival for Adventurous Music and Art in Berlin and included a wide selection of Wojnarowicz’s writings and media.
(21) Instead of the perhaps more expected group of“I,” “You,” “We,” the “It” of the ITSOFOMO association gives us “I,” “You,” “It,” where “We” are “It,” as in “we’re it,” as in “we’re all we’ve got.” We, now, in this moment, as it’s happening, are all we’ve got, which was the point all along. Less in a recuperative positivistic way but in a fiercely desirous and unrelentingly provisional sort of way.