Robin Sloan
The Reading Room
March 2021

Reading Frank’s Corpus

A bronze model of a plump bird, presumably hollow inside, with elegant engraving all over its body. The bird's expressinon is a bit dopey.
Bird-shaped vessel, Iran, 12th century

For several years, I’ve followed Elisabeth Nicula’s documen­ta­tion of the scrub jays who alight on her back porch. The images are reliably inter­esting — birds caught in strange motion, or super close-up, or both — but it’s Elisa­beth herself who brings the project to life, with her winning captions (narrating the politics of the porch: there are crows, a cat, and the sad sack squirrel known as Cindy the Barfer) and her simple persistence.

This message was emailed to the Reading Room committee. The assumed audience is subscribers interested in art, urban ecology, and/or inventive writing. (Here’s more about assumed audiences.)

Now, for SFMOMA’s Open Space website, Elisa­beth has written a compre­hen­sive essay about the project, and it knocked my socks off.

Framing the scale of the imagery, she writes:

We know that I started Frank’s corpus on March 21, 2017. We know that I have taken 82,438 photographs since then, including today’s 115, whereas in all the digital years before that, I took 6,085 photographs. We know without question that since March 21, 2017, I have mostly taken photos of scrub jays. Therefore, according to Peter, “the average pic can be assumed to be a birdpic.”

Let me be honest: when I saw the link, I prepared myself to read this essay with, shall we say, “dutiful interest”. That’s totally fine; I’ll bet many of you browse these newslet­ters the same way, and I THANK YOU FOR IT!

But dutiful interest was, it turns out, not required, because the essay swept me away. I found it magnetic, provocative, totally absorbing. That’s especially noteworthy for a piece of writing that, as you’ll see, treads some gnarly terrain; it tangles with the analog and the digital, the ecolog­ical and the archival. In my estimation, the things at the heart of this essay are basically unsayable — which is one of the reasons art exists, right?—but/and Elisa­beth somehow makes them clear.

In the end, I’m not sure if this is an essay about the artwork, or if this essay is the artwork… but/and that blurred boundary operates as a feature rather than a bug.

Anyway, it’s great, and not in like, “one of the eight estab­lished ways an essay can be great”. Elisa­beth’s moves are genuinely risky (and successful!); this is not an addition to the high-end discur­sive memoir genre (yawn) but a new genre of one.

It’s an uncommonly interesting piece of writing, from an uncommonly interesting artist, about an uncom­monly inter­esting bird.

Or maybe that last one should be “commonly”, and maybe that’s the point.

Please read Frank’s Corpus.

From Oakland,

Robin

Sent to the Reading Room committee in March 2021