A while ago I speed-googled the definition of “loiter.” I read: stand or wait idly or without apparent applause. (Loiter [verb]: stand or wait around idly or without apparent purpose). I laughed at the eager swapping of “purpose” for “applause” but then wondered if there was even a difference?
This year has felt like an eternal loiter. A long period of waiting with good reason but without purpose. Time slipped by on a heavily automated track of “stay safe”, self care, and an over-dependence on the afternoon walk. Just being could be managed but doing felt tremendously difficult, like I’d forgotten how to do anything when I wasn’t insanely busy. As social life began to move online there came a big ass wave of imposter syndrome in regards to calling myself an artist. I’ve been meaning to make a website, but haven’t yet. Somehow this extraneous thing that is not an integral part of being an artist, but nonetheless feels mandatory, has stuck on me. It bothers me that there is no public culmination of my work. It bothers me that this bothers me.
The global slowing, and the general down, has got me thinking a lot about the normalized enmeshment of purpose, applause, productivity, and hustle. Too often I feel my worth is determined by how productive I am. It is not an intrinsic value, but a judgement by the hungry eyes of the capitalist hustle. Eyes that seduce me into believing that if I ride with them I’ll not only find my purpose but find it, as Daft Punk says, “harder, better, faster, stronger;” each repetition entrancing me further into the perks of constant publicized production. A lot of social media content tells me this ride along is (a)rousing; that the fast-paced production levels may even produce endorphins, that the validation of a “like” will remind me what I’m producing is worth the effort. However, during this ride, self-promotion takes the front seat and the energy to make dwindles.
I’ve always covertly admired and overtly rejected this virtual form of mastery. Recently, I have wondered what rejection can generate in its wake. I am interested in the parts that snag— between artistic practice, production, and publication—during a time when participating in “public” requires a heavy virtual presence.
I first noticed the snag as a teen, in the days of my art Tumblr. I was charmed by each repost and like but faltered if the numbers didn’t continue to rise. Then Instagram seduced me deeper into the game, showing me nothing but “effortless success” scrolling below blue check marks and followers over 10k. I love-hated my way through each post—obliging this specific form of public legibility fueled by anonymous validation to keep up with externally driven notions of value and productivity. Social anxiety teamed up with a twisted sense of self-worth to make this golden logic: if people saw what I was doing and liked it then I was being productive, but if not, was I doing anything at all?
To mitigate e-angst, I avoided the entrepreneurial realms of virtual recognition and opted for as much face-to-face networking as possible. I always felt a little uncertain about the inauthenticity that accompanies networking, however, I could navigate this ambivalence better in-person. I was unsure if I was shooting myself in the foot or running the risk of falling behind if people couldn’t get a snapshot of me with a google, but social media has never gelled in my practice. I know I desire in-person connectivity and collaboration, and wish I could just leave it at that. I wish I could accept that, artistically, I thrive offline and stop worrying so much about making it online. I want to find ways to enjoy the virtual realm’s beauty without feeling that my participation is mere interpellation. So much of my artistic identity was formed through physical collaboration and serendipitous interaction that when it stopped I felt I suddenly lacked the talent to carve out the space I thought I occupied.
For a while I was relieved to give into dormancy during a collective deceleration. I felt I could take a breath without falling behind because, for once, everyone else was a little behind. But things shifted quickly. The focus turned away from the pause and back to the hustle, only the hustle now looked different and I felt more behind than ever. It wasn’t writer’s block or a lack of ideas—all I had been doing was collecting thoughts in a thot-less year—but rather I was unable to start. I lost the small amount of chutzpah I inherited and fell flat on my face like cheap paper sliding under the door of post-grad freedom. I emerged with a dirty front side, illegible and refusing to clean myself. I felt like I no longer existed in this year that played itself out exclusively online because I had simply refused to participate.
So I just didn’t for a while—no “producing,” no writing, no rebranding—only slow groping and constant googling of Anne Boyer’s “No.” The past few months, I’ve googled this poem so many times it made its way to my homepage. I finally bought the book when I started writing this because I kept trying to underline my computer screen. However, in the fashion of slowness, it “may take up to 10 weeks” to arrive. This poem has functioned like a cold shower during a heatwave, a heap of salve on a time of personal and global wounding, a crisp bit of celery after a year of sour milk.
As Boyer puts it, “in the enigma of refusal, we find—despite ourselves—that we endogenously produce our own incapacity to even try, grow sick and depressed and motionless under all the merciless and circulatory conditions of the capitalist yes and just can’t, even if we thought we really wanted to.”1 I thought I really wanted to. I keep spending my time trying to push past the incapacity to try only to end up back at refusal. If I want to thrive, or rather not become sick and depressed by the capitalist yes—the metanarrative screaming into our dreams that if we pause for one second we’ll fall behind and only produce our own obsolescence—I have to learn to say no and mean it. I’m beginning to think Boyer is right, that “we perfect the loiter before we perfect the hustle.”2 And we do it for a better reason than we often give ourselves credit for.
What can come from a time of “loiter” when the hustle is not possible in the same fashion we are used to, or no longer desirable in the same forms as it once was?
Loitering is often associated with refusal, with “no.” The delaying of an activity with pauses; a state of lagging behind. The action is described as idleness qua lacking plainly quantifiable worth or basis. This repetition of negative associations has taught me that the loiter is the antithesis to the hustle behind capitalism’s success—a success we are collectively taught to strive for. So whether or not I fundamentally agree, I’ve begun to believe that to loiter is to be rejected.
In the virtual sphere, loitering stems less from physical idleness and more from a lack of public legibility or applause. It’s not the loiter that is the point of contestation for me, but the perception of the lack that it implies. With the tools for self-promotion lying largely in my own hands it can be hard to navigate both professionalization and praxis. I get hung up on fantasizing over the seemingly endless potential generated through public recognition: global collaboration, travel opportunities, fame, etc. I get distracted by the public-facing and often supplementary elements of my own practice (a website, an art Instagram etc.) and neglect to validate the ongoing private praxis (reading/note taking/sound bites/running/glitching/ghosting/telling a friend). Maybe I’m overly nostalgic about pre-pandemic public interaction; networking in person was hard then too but the validation that came through personal community interaction had a balancing effect on my brain. The capitalist hustle has taught me to conflate public validation with personal affirmation. A failure to function or act decisively becomes a failure to launch to the realm of the capitalist yes.
But what if I do not launch? Legacy Russell explains: “this performance failure reveals technology pushing back against the weighty onus of function.”3 She says this type of failure is a deliberate and calculated glitch. A refusal in its own right that prompts another look into the parameters that have come to denote functioning. The kind of glitch Russell speaks about isn’t exclusive to technology, “glitch becomes a catalyst… it helps us to celebrate failure as a generative force,” and in doing so it carves out space for change.4 Bodies can, social movements should, and the future will glitch. In refusing just a little, or a lot, we interrogate the forms functioning takes, pushing back against the “shoulds” to simply make room.
The other day I pulled out my computer and sat down to write before remembering I had two blocks of ice in the freezer I’d been waiting on to use for a piece. I spent the next two hours making/performing for my empty home. I did no writing. When Kiel came home she paused in the doorway and looked at the work. The piece was inspired by a text her and Christian had written last year which has been living on the freezer door. She and I lingered a minute, talked about it for a while then continued on. That was all, but I felt seen.
The simplicity of this validation feels trivial, but maybe it can be that simple. I don’t have a clear understanding of what will take the place of the things I choose to refuse/reject because it’s inherently open ended. Refusal makes space and what we choose to fill it with is circumstantial and fertile.
When I went back to googling, it sunk in that “loiter” is also a verb, so when we loiter we do so actively. In refusing to partake we linger intentionally even if our intention is only internally apparent. It becomes a deliberate pause that provokes a productive critique of what this lag behind positions us after. Boyer puts it well: “[t]here is a lot of meaning-space inside a ‘no’ spoken in the tremendous logic of a refused order of the world.”5 I wish every no felt backed up by this tremendous logic, but her assertion gives me solace. In a roundabout way, no grants permission. Saying it doesn’t mean I won’t say yes later; sometimes I need to not and to glitch before I get to a yes.
The other day, Ocean Vuong posted a story on Instagram speaking to the importance of “having a theory of practice” or tending to what fuels one’s work. Through a beautiful, archetypally poetic, gardening metaphor he articulated the necessity of slowing down the production process to really acknowledge and care for all that goes into generating the outcome. He writes: “Any farmer will tell you, the time-consuming work is cultivating the soil. The harvest is the last part.”
In turning away from standards of productivity I am re-learning my own purpose for art-making and I’m enjoying the “applause” gathered from telling a friend.6 In the wake of rejecting the format of the “how to be” I’m finding the space to be. I don’t have a conclusive answer of what will fill the space generated by the no in the loiters wake. Instead I’m cultivating soil and not rushing to harvest.
–Yasmine Whaley-Kalaora, October 2021