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