On Sean Negus’ expanded field of poetics
An introduction by Alexia Alexandropoulou. Published on 6 January 2022
I met Sean Negus in May 2021 while working for Hangar Artistic Research Centre in Lisbon, Portugal. At the time, Sean was one of the artists in residence there. In my role supporting the organization’s art residency programs, I was lucky enough to navigate in his world and to learn more about his practice. If I could describe his work in one sentence only, I would say that it is an open inquiry into the expanded field of poetics. As a transdisciplinary artist, he integrates poetics with various modes of multimedia and visual forms to explore these expanded boundaries.
Sean looks at the historical ephemera and the archival images he collects from a hauntological point of view. Hauntology is a portmanteau of the word haunting and ontology, firstly introduced by philosopher Jacques Derrida to describe a “nostalgia for lost futures.” Meaning that, Sean Negus examines various images and objects, as having a history that is encapsulated within them in a spectral sense. Thus, the past can sometimes seem like another realm, but the fact that the ephemera from that realm is still part of this world, is for him, the essence of hauntology. Through his artistic practice, he explores how to best reference all these relics of the past. He is also navigating how to combine different types of ephemera with each other. As an artist, he is highly interested in the bricoleur approach defined by Lévi-Strauss, in which every tool is a potential ally in the creative act. For him, it’s always worthwhile to collect leftovers from the past and to re-deploy them in new formulas and combinations. Experimenting with various media and transcending boundaries where relevant is a central part of his creative process. Different forms of lyrical inquiry come together through his work to synthesize new forms and meanings. Sean Negus proposes alternative ways to use artifacts without falling into the trap of trying to approach them solely as part of the past. On the contrary, he constantly tries to bring them into conversation with the present. Through his creative process, he inspires creativity and originality, making possible new ways to put all these relics together.
In the following interview, Sean introduces his creative work and speaks on the meaning of archives in the development of his artistic practice. He shows us ways in which the archive haunts, and thus shapes, past, present, and future cultural interpretations and representations.
AA: What is an archive for you?
SN: An archive is a kind of device whereby the past and its social signatures become legible and enterable, however minutely and imperfectly. The archive is an opportunity to reimagine and reanimate the traces of the past and redeploy its ephemerality to help us locate where we are in the present. Archives are also sites for inquiry and idiosyncrasy, and for radical forms of knowledge production – in their ability to bring to bear, with a measure of immediacy, the ‘historical’ to the ‘contemporary’. Archives, of course, are also reflections of their originating contexts. It is in the poetic curation of personal archives drawn from historical artifacts that the simply referential purpose of archives begins to fall away and reveal another potential: for the past to reconfigure the ways we imagine the world and negotiate its limits. In this sense, the archive as poetics reveals another kind of trace, one that occurs as a result of the rhizomatically configured. Like poetry in other forms, archival poetics exist in a field of relionality. Constellations of meaning arising from archival artifacts selected for their poetic significatory potential hold different potentials. These archives might be imagined as capable of redirecting and refashioning the limits of the merely referential, to enact through relational meaning, a poetics of the past.
The materiality of the visual reveals the tangible limits of the artifact and signals beyond itself. Access to the poetic is obtained by channeling the archive and ignoring its apparent limits, following the trance wave of the visual through to the intangible realms where poetry is found. In this sense, both the act of archiving and the formation of an archival poetics are of the same continuum. Each artifact is an instance and emanation of the archive and resources the whole. An archival poetics like this one seeks merely to retrace the poetry already present in all archives and make it visible, reenacting the gestural forms between archival artifacts by using the tools of poetic manipulation to excavate and articulate these polyvalent relations.
AA: Why did you choose to involve archives in your artistic practice?
SN: The archive, in all of its varied iterations in form, presents a robust opportunity to enact new relationships between differing media. As a poet interested in the expanded field of poetics, the archive’s immediacy and versatility initially seemed especially primed for the inter-mediation and hybridization of written and visual poetic forms. Beyond this, archiving as an active constructive process interested me as a way of exploring how research, selection, curation, and other acts can itself become part of the poetic. In question form, this approach might be articulated as, “How can archival work be potentiated by poetry?” Archival objects have embedded within their surrounded contexts, dimensions of meaning that the technologies of poetry can excavate. The contributions of poetry to ways of knowing are, I believe, essential as one approach for making sense of and knowledge from phenomenal experience, including archival objects. Poetry is unique in its ability to enter into forms obliquely and from this vantage, telegraph complex forms of relationality, oftentimes accounting for multiple contexts, while new syntheses of perspective become possible. The process of engaging with the archive is one defined for me by openness and inquiry, guided namely by a formal interest in the intermingling of poetic and visual forms. The traces that surface from these engagements organically form and help inform the direction of the work without much prescription or constraint; this sense of openness and play that I find in the act of doing archival work feels also like the rhizomatically liberated discourse of verbal poetry. The complement of image to word retains and reenacts the same structures and attributes of the poetic throughout the archive — a result that propels and inspires my work further.
AA: How do you work with archives?
SN: The work I do with archives currently is formed from materials – both found and researched – that come to form a personal archive of sorts. Ephemera, publications like newspapers and magazines primarily from the turn of the century, old comic books, vintage personal photographs, and various social detritus from the past come together as a collection of artifacts that can be examined and mined.
For a couple of months, while living in Lisbon and the surrounding area, I was hunting for these materials in second hand bookstores, flea markets, and antique stores. While I started with institutional archives, and continue to draw from many of the collections made available through a small circuit of museums, it was the uncurated, found materials that retained deeper traces of their origins and were less remediated by whatever institutional biases might inform an archive curated by others.
After taking some time to enjoy and interact with the material artifacts, I begin to identify which images contain some sort of pulse and start establishing a system to organize them. I then digitize the images, usually by taking high resolution digital photographs, and open the work up for a kind of visual inquiry where the tools of digital manipulation, like the archival object itself, enact a visual poetic. The original archival image, alive and resonating with its own aura of meanings, also suggests a direction or limit. Erasure, superimposition, collage, layering — all of these acts of visuality are also ripe with suggestive meanings that can be ‘read’ metaphorically. Lyrical traces serve to excavate latent meanings embedded in the artifact, conjuring and channeling the past while making contact with the visual.
The process of working with the archive extends beyond formal concerns, however. Poetic inquiry is the other side of this work. The archival imagery serves as material for scrying into the past. Poetic inquiry and language help to locate and translate the essence of these artifacts. In this sense, the writing takes on a kind of translative quality, where various archival traces from the past become articulable and accessible through writing in the present. This revelation is inscribed throughout the archival image, and serves to underscore, augment, and complicate whatever visual poetic has been found through manipulation of the image. In this sense, the entire text becomes an act of reading across the visual and written poetries of the archive. In each of these aspects are what can be imagined as striations of concern, the composite of which forms the major preoccupations of the texts I compose using archival materials.
Sean Negus is a transdisciplinary artist and poet exploring the expanded boundaries of poetics through multimedia, visual and translative practices. In his work, intermedia poetries and experimental forms of lyrical inquiry come together to deploy new artistic inquiries. Negus serves as an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts and works with other educational institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was recently awarded a fellowship with Stanford University’s Center for Latin American Studies and Global Studies Division, in which he examined poetic consciousness in Brazil. His first book of poetry, ‘Hurricane Music’, was published by Editora Córrego and Mocho Edições. A recent artist book, ‘Congeries’, was published in a limited edition printing.