026. The 2020 Reliquary

I’m sure you’ve seen more than enough reflections by now about this year’s relentless state of stress, anger, uncertainty, and change.

Hello friends,

I’m sure you’ve seen more than enough reflections by now about this year’s relentless state of stress, anger, uncertainty, and change. While we are all eagerly anticipating the new year’s slivers of hope, I thought I would share twenty things that kept me sane during this turbulent time.

TOUCH

It’s been almost a year since Eugene and I have adopted our leopard gecko, Banana! I always wanted a pet reptile and I could not have asked for a better birthday gift. This troublemaking teenager looks absolutely adorable hunting down crickets in his tank and like a sweet little ghost lizard each time he sheds his skin. Who knows! Maybe we’ll even throw him a 1-year adoption birthday. If you’re looking to donate or adopt, we highly recommend Sean Casey Animal Rescue here in Brooklyn.

Laura Hyunjhee Kim’s Entering the Blobosphere: A Musing on Blobs was one of the weirdest, most delightful books I’ve read in a while. Almost like a manifesto on blobs (as conceptual shapes and as tangible objects), Kim presents these amorphous forms as a new way of making connections and interacting with the world around ones, one that embraces the ambiguity and playful whimsy of our vast interconnectedness.

This year, I ended up buying a lot of handmade pieces from smaller, independent designers from around the Internet, mainly ones that reuse either fabric scraps or deadstock material. As I try to move further away from fast fashion’s wastefulness, it has made me so much more appreciative of the creative and physical labor that goes into these one-of-a-kind and small-batch creations. The items in question include a custom top by Rhidancey (pictured above), earrings by While Odin Sleeps, a reworked checkerboard Adidas top by Maddy Page Knitwear, and a two-piece set made out of a blanket by saltlakesluts.

One of my first outings after lockdown was a mushroom identification walk through Green-Wood Cemetery through the community lab, Genspace. It was a perfect day spent hiking through this sprawling historic cemetery, checking near graves and in between tree roots. I learned so much about the different species in this park by looking at spore prints and cutting open the fruiting bodies we collected (and even got to take a home a pound of foraged hen-of-the-woods). As someone who is a total amateur when it comes to looking for and identifying mushroom species, I was so grateful for the opportunity to study so many different fungi friends up close of all shapes and colors (like this lovely wood blewit, my personal favorite).

MoMA PS1’s “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” was an exhibition I found so moving, I couldn’t help but visit it twice. This curated show by artists who are either currently or formerly incarcerated reckons with life behind bars and the history of America’s carceral state that is so deeply rooted in racism, the policing of poverty, and the violent dehumanization of those caught up in this system. It was remarkable to see how these artists reflected on these experiences through limited access to materials (like bedsheets, erasers, lunch trays) and amplified the stories of those who are rendered invisible by prison walls, as well as the families and communities ripped apart by their absence. As the movement to divest from policing and mass incarceration grows, this exhibition is a reminder that a future without the American prison industrial complex, and its structures of surveillance and punishment without justice, is possible.

I was thinking about one particular work of art I saw this year that really hit home and finally settled on this sculpture, titled “Pasture Song,” by Nancy Winship Milliken on display at DeCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The wispy, fibrous materials that make up this environmental artwork are strands of horsehair reclaimed from discarded cello bows mounted on a wooden frame. With each gust of wind, the sculpture would ripple with life, cascading up and down with a golden sheen. I love how tactile this piece is (so much so that kids at the park kept trying to tug at the hairs) and that we are reconnected with animal life force that gives sound to our most prized string instruments. And, of course, there’s the undeniable music this piece makes as the wind blows through it: a rustle that feels both timeless and ancient.

LOOK

Phyllis Ma’s photography is some of the most delicious work I have ever seen. Her vibrant still lifes are juicy experiments in food photography, with a whole medley of colors and textures like plastic, petals, meats, and mushrooms that draw your attention to the strange beauty of her collection of specimens. If I could pluck any of her images onto my plate and gorge on them, I absolutely would. I am so grateful to my coworker, Alison, for introducing me to her practice. You can support her work by snagging a postcard, picking up her book of food photographs from her travels titled Special Nothing, or one of her Mushroom and Friends zines.

I’m not sure how to describe Evan M. Cohen’s wonderful comics expect as transcendently beautiful. Each surreal illustration feels like a moment of peace, a time to pause and take note of nature’s splendor. I love how these dreamy pieces play with animation-like qualities of comic panels, creating optical illusions as your eye moves from one side to the other. I hope you find his work as relaxing and enjoyable as I do.

LISTEN

My album of the year is, without question, Lawfandah’s The Fifth Season. I fell in love with this release after hearing her talk about her creative process and the inspiration she took from N.K. Jemisin’s science fiction trilogy of the same name on Resident Advisor’s podcast. It’s a poetic album, with ethereal tracks that’ll make you feel like you can fight God. One lyric in particular stays on my mind: “Born to hold the world under her tongue. / Don't swallow yet.”

If you’re looking for a way to stay up-to-date about healthcare policy and accessibility issues in America, you should start listening to Death Panel right now. With the motto, “Medicare for all now. Solidarity Forever. Stay Alive Another Week,” it’s been so refreshing to hear debates and learn more about the American healthcare system from a panel of disabled activists and writers who bring their first-hand experience and expertise to the table each week. Even in the bleakest moments of COVID reporting, their insight and dark humor has made me feel more empowered and more optimistic about the future of healthcare in this country. A couple favorites from this year include their conversation with Liat Ben-Moshe on decarcerating disability, their episode looking at how consulting groups like McKinsey have driven healthcare policy into the ground, and their Christmas episode about the Trump administration’s absurd plan to reassure the American public through mall Santas (yes, this is real).

The Magnus Archives is a horror fiction podcast that follows an archivist’s attempt to document encounters with the peculiar and the terrifying. I don’t usually have the stamina to sit through horror movies, but horror audio storytelling is always a guilty pleasure. When I tell you that episodes are scary, I mean scary. I like to listen to podcasts when I work, but I had to stop listening to this show when I did shifts alone because I would find myself suddenly spooked by what could be lurking in every empty office. Seriously, it’s a great narrative show with awesome writing that doesn’t feel like a regurgitation of the same old horror tropes. Give it a listen if you’re looking for something to unsettle you.

My favorite DJ this year was, of course, Avalon Emerson. Emerson’s been one of my favorite acts to see in New York and she never fails to get you on the dance floor with her eclectic, bubbly sound. In the dullest, most monotonous moments of quarantine, her mixes and tracks helped me get out of my slump and kept my outlook on future nice and bright. A couple of highlights: her DJ Kicks mix and the karaoke-style road trip music video for her cover of Long-Forgotten Fairytale.

I binged the short, but sweet, podcast Appearances in a matter of days. This experimental one-woman audio show is the brainchild of performer and audio storyteller Sharon Mashihi (who’s work you may have also heard on the equally as bold program The Heart). This standalone production is a lot of things in one, wrestling with existential themes of motherhood and community, growing up the child of immigrants in America, navigating relationships, toeing the line between reality and fiction through this painfully relatable narrative.

You’re Wrong About is a great show that revisits moments in history and talks about what’s been misremembered over the years and what really happened in these political events, celebrity lives, and newsworthy occasions. My personal favorite series they did this year was their five-part series on the life of Princess Diana, from her childhood all the way to her tragic death and all of the royal drama in between. They took this sensationalized history and broke it down into such well-researched episodes and what I really appreciated was the fact that they acknowledged biases in some of their source material (like the different biographies of Charles and Diana and media stories where Diana controlled the narrative). Can’t recommend them enough.

LICK

Emergence Magazine was not only my favorite magazine this year, but possibly my favorite publication of all time. This magazine tells environmental stories from around the world, taking us from narrative tales of rising seas and preserving Indigenous languages to poetic explorations of forests and an encounter with a dead deer on a hike. This beautifully-curated project, which also includes interviews with some of the greatest environmental creators and thinkers of our time, offers spiritual and cultural revelations about our ever-changing relationship to the natural world.

Yes, Haikyu!! is an anime about volleyball but, holy hell, who knew that such a simple premise would become my most addictive show and the best form of wholesome escapism if you love animated shows. It’s funny, ridiculous, and downright heartwarming in the way it explores friendship, ambition, and teamwork through a medley cast of characters all trying to bring a declining volleyball team back to the top of the leaderboard.

My friend Emma started her fashion blog, Mold Fashioned, this year and it’s been an absolute favorite of mine ever since. Each post feels like a revelation in styling, playing with texture, color, and silhouette in ways that boldly innovate in defiance of the monotony of viral trends. In a time when our relationship to clothes is marred by consuming massive, homogenous quantities of product each season, Emma’s approach to curating looks is an eclectic breath of fresh air.

Another one of my top creators from this year is bobbin lacemaker Elena Kanagy-Loux. Along with working at the Met’s Ratti Textile Center (where she also teaches classes on lacemaking), Elena has grown a huge following as a lace historian on TikTok. Her videos include tales of lace’s relationship to death culture, explanations about the process behind making these delicate pieces, showcases contemporary lace artists, and notes the historical differences between types of lace production. Elena turns this ornate, intricate craft into accessible slices of history. You’ll never take these decorative accessories for granted again.

This year saw the rise of virtual programming, providing unprecedented access to cultural institutions from around the world. Serpentine’s  live event “The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish” was a wonderful line-up of educators and artists reckoning with the Anthropocene through experimental short films, lectures, and research presentations. This multi-day series merged science with art through illuminating conversations with those documenting environmental change around the world. You can learn more about this ongoing project here.

CLICK

Malena Salazar Macia’s magical science fiction story, “Eye of the Crocodile,” is one of the most moving magical science fiction stories I read this year. This tale, of a woman going to sacrifice herself at the roots of a mythic, artificial tree, merges ancient Central American mythology with nanobots and space suits. It’s a gorgeous story, with such lush, powerful descriptions and unforgettable scenery. Read it if you’re looking for something beyond our mortal existence.

Then there’s Anya Ventura’s essay, “Vanishing Point,” about her time working in the butterfly haven of a natural history museum. This is such a gorgeous story, of the natural and unnatural world, of humanity’s interactions with untamable things and trying to find one’s place in these emotional ecologies. Ventura writes, “Sometimes, even under my vigilant watch, the butterflies did escape, and in the off hours, in the emptiest part of night, the custodians would find corpses in strange corners of the museum.”

Can’t end this without a few honorable mentions: MoMA PS1’s wonderful event in honor of Legacy Russell’s book Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, the K-pop group Stray Kids for taking up too much space on my Spotify Wrapped, my wonderful friends letting us travel to their homes and getting out in nature, getting to visit Walter Gropius’s house in Massachusetts, the Plants for $10 or less Facebook group, and James Blake’s EP Before for the perfect WFH music.


Thanks for taking the time to read! Feel free to share this little project of mine with your friends, lovers, and enemies.

As always, if you like what I do, you help feed my leopard gecko through Buy Me A Coffee. If you’re looking to learn more, you can find a list of books by the people I mentioned on Bookshop (I get a small commission through this and any Bookshop affiliate links in this letter).

Until next time,

Ellie