The Focus Group no. 1

friends of The Menial 7/2/17

This was our first Focus Group, and our de facto coming out celebration. It took place at Walter’s Downtown, a rock club, in Houston, TX, two days after Hurricane Harvey. We had been looking at the first iteration of this website (which was solely a journal of institutional critique, as institutional critique) for more than a year before the public was even aware of us outside of cryptic solicitations on Facebook. We finally curated an occasion we thought could used to finally be transparent about what and who we were. We, Maria Emilia and Hayden, read an annotated version of Ulises Carrión’s What a Book Is, called What a Website Is, as questionnaires were passed out to the audience members (nobody filled them out). David LeJeune recited a poem about The Menil Collection’s men’s room called A Shit with Artaud. Chris Stevens delivered a lecture on Lacan’s theory of the other while wearing a mask. Friends of The Menial all gathered to “perform” the work that they had contributed to us digitally, surrounded by distorted portraits of the de Menil’s in a still-damp warehouse. 

Now, as a more matured Menial Collection, we look back and wonder, “How transparent was this really?” How do you rename an institution as a critique of their opacity and then go on to perform it? If our critique of the de Menils started at their dated education policies, the accessibility of their cultural institution, why would we convey this with an online journal that was virtually inaccessible? Was that why the first Focus Group couldn’t focus? The short answer is that we built it on no budget, and the developer who generously lent us their time would only do as much as they wanted to, and why shouldn’t they. We were just happy that the website was painted the same color as the Menil Collection. 

A lot of this was realized the day of the event. We felt like we had egg on our face trying to arrange a Happening while half of Houston was physically and emotionally devastated. This spectacle’s intended audience quickly became clear, and we were confused about why we hadn’t seen this coming sooner. Luckily, this came with enough time to arrange the transfer of the proceeds from the door to the Houston chapter of the DSA, which went toward disaster relief funds for undocumented Houstonians. The Menial Collection that we had envisioned, the self-reflexive, crowd-sourced, and permanently impermanent collaborative revealed itself by requiring an immense amount of love and care. The givers and receivers of that care were still to be found. 

This sudden challenge (ing?) of our directives still serves as a viewfinder to us years later. The marriage of a group of critical participants and the responsibility that we owe each other to keep one another safe had to happen through librarianship. The name The Menial Collection was kept because it still defines us as a place that would always be friendly to people with whom our institutions, museums, and libraries weren’t. We still aim to combat the colonial value system built into those institutions, but we also want to aim it away from our friends.