When we got to Cardinal, on the corner of North and Park in Baltimore, a few blocks after a bombed-out, treeless black neighborhood suddenly flips into a leafy, well-maintained white one, Bonnie Jones was there, talking with a woman who was visiting. Bonnie was there one or two days a week for the duration of the monthlong exhibition, sitting at a table, answering questions, folding cranes, teaching people how to fold cranes. She hoped to fold 1500 cranes, to match the exhibition’s name, 1,500 Red-Crowned Cranes. The cranes were strung in the window like roast duck at a Chinese restaurant. Who knows how many she folded. The red-crowned crane is an endangered bird that finds its shelter in the fraught demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Bonnie suggested that we go upstairs first, then walk around the main space, then head into the back to listen to an audio installation she had composed.
Once upstairs, you look down like a factory boss at shelves hung high up around the gallery walls, let’s say where Felix Gonzalez-Torres might have painted a portrait of somebody. On the shelves sit various disjointed detritus: Goya cans, old radios, ceramics. Stuff. You look at it, you see a table below where maybe Bonnie is sitting, talking to someone or folding cranes. Maybe somebody in the main space is craning their neck to see the shelves that you are looking down on. When you walk down to the main space, there are small tables, partially concealed from above by the shelves, with more detritus. The tables have transducers attached to them, playing different fragments that would relate, later, to the audio installation in the back. To hear the sound, you must bend over and turn your ear to the table. The back room was so pitch black that my friend walked right into me while I was crouching on the ground. The sound—pink noise, sine tones, maybe some field recordings? or maybe that was actually just the traffic outside blending perfectly with the four-channel installation inside—washed over us. We sat or lay on the floor and listened to the piece over and over until Bonnie came in and told us we didn’t have to listen anymore. On the way out, I picked up a chapbook of short stories, We’ve, published for the occasion.
I read We’ve two weeks later, sitting on a porch in New Orleans, alternating between reading and watching the rain. In the stories, an accompanied narrator, a we, collects and reorganizes detritus: “[c]ans of pinto beans, carrots, we push these around with our hands too,” she writes in “There isn’t a single lie in this story.” The detritus that populates the stories is the same detritus that populates the gallery, which in turn centers the author(s) of 1500 Red-Crowned Cranes as the we from We’ve, a we that feels personal but vague, intimate yet inaccessible. Like watching a person fold 1500 origami cranes. Like craning your head to see something, or bending down awkwardly to hear something, or bumping into someone trying to hear something else. Like experiencing an exhibition that feels fragmented until you read the unassuming, thin chapbook that comes along with it, somewhere else, away from the exhibition. You can sit at the table but you can’t do the thing. Maybe you can get close to it: you can read the book, you can learn how to fold a crane. You can fly to the DMZ between North and South Korea and learn all about it. But you can’t have it. Why would you need to?