Our Favorite Cultural Artifacts of 2023

As has been our tradition for the past few years, we have put together an assemblage of our favorite cultural items of the year. We define “cultural item” loosely: the experiences listed are in a range of media, from theater to art to music to even fitness. Some moved us to tears, some to deep reflection; others inspired action or laughter. We hope that this list will introduce you to some new artists and experiences, will remind you to revisit others, and that the artifacts will affect you as much as they did us.

The Editors

Shamel Pitts, Touch of RED

I love going to see dance, but I don’t really follow dance. Thank god for my friend Marcel; I follow him. In April, I tagged along to see Shamel Pitts’s Touch of RED at New York Live Arts. The crowd in the Chelsea lobby was giddy and convivial as we waited to be escorted into the theater, where we were seated on four sides of a stylized boxing ring, an open cube. Pitts and fellow dancer Tushrik Fredericks were already mid-action, dancing loosely and playfully to the electronic score in a kind of flirtation, a prelude to the relationship that would unfold in several rounds of an emotionally charged duet—impossibly athletic, erotic, vexed, and tender. Their movements borrowed from boxing, yes, but also partnered Lindy Hop, and would eventually bring them, grappling, to the floor. Between rounds, they would retreat to their corners, hydrate, vocalize “okay,” and go back in.

Watching dance always feels to me bracing and quickening, a reminder of my body’s potential. That potential multiplies, of course, with two bodies, with many. It seems an important reminder in this current season of grief, rage, protest: bodies together in action create possibility. —Rachel Mannheimer, contributing editor

David Adjmi, Stereophonic

Earlier this month I went to see David Adjmi’s new play, Stereophonic, a show so dazzling that I left Playwrights Horizons buzzing with inspiration. Set in a Sausalito recording studio in 1976, where a band with more than a passing resemblance to Fleetwood Mac is working on a new album, the play captures the banality, exhaustion, and emotional drama of the creative process. Adjmi’s play doesn’t just use music (the catchy songs are by Will Butler, late of Arcade Fire); it is music. Thanks to Adjmi’s ear—for silence, timbre, pitch, rhythm—the script sounds like a score. He is also hilarious: a monologue about houseboats delivered by the phenomenal Will Brill as the character Reg is side-splittingly funny. The script is matched by Daniel Aukin’s brilliant direction, David Zinn’s amazing set design, and the stellar cast. I haven’t seen a new play this good in years. Here’s hoping the production moves to Broadway so more people can experience its glory. —Elliott Holt, deputy editor

Eslabon Armado and Peso Pluma, “Ella Baila Sola”

This month, Eslabon Armado and Peso Pluma’s collaborative single “Ella Baila Sola” hit a billion streams on Spotify. It is the first regional Mexican song to reach the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and the first to be performed on Good Morning America and The Tonight Show. Knowing Spanish is not required to enjoy it—this sierreño song is all vibes. It opens tightly to a pulsing ensemble of requinto guitars and brass instruments, seizing, only briefly, for an important question: Compa ¿Qué le parece esa morra? (“What do you think of that girl?”).

Eslabon Armado, Pluma, and other Mexican artists of their generation fuse regional rhythms with the influences of reggaetón and hip hop, resulting in genre-bending music that is recognizable by its descriptive twists on traditional styles: sad sierreño or corridos tumbados. Reviving the corrido is a project in itself, a ballad genre that historically celebrates the tales of Mexican folk heroes and narrates the disenfranchisement of everyday people living under war and revolution. Today, those epic lyrics are set to various genres including banda, ranchera, and norteño. “Ella Baila Sola” captures a simpler theme—approaching a girl on the dance floor. If the popularity of this song indicates more music to come, then good luck keeping your hips still. —Jessikah Diaz, assistant editor

Benjamín Labatut, The Maniac

I didn’t see Oppenheimer, but I did read Benjamín Labatut’s The Maniac, a fictional account of John von Neumann, who was another architect of the bomb, an originator of game theory, and a prophet of AI. As the novel circles around its dark center, we hear, in a mesmerizing rotation, from Neumann’s colleagues, friends, and family. It’s a smart way to make real a person who seems so inhuman—too smart, too pragmatic, too calculating, like the computers he helped to build. The maniac of the title is, it emerges, both von Neumann and the MANIAC (Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer). Reason’s proximity to madness is one of the novel’s guiding themes (there’s also lots of Scotch and gin martinis), and as the book (and history) demonstrates, the madness of a genius can lead to destruction. But one of von Neumann’s colleagues sees a way out, through the grace of irrationality: as he puts it, humans “can be highly irrational, driven and swayed by their emotions, subject to all kinds of contradictions. And while this sparks off the ungovernable chaos that we see all around us, it is also a mercy, a strange angel that protects us from the mad dreams of reason.” —Maggie McGowan, assistant editor

Christina Sharpe, Ordinary Notes

I’d pre-ordered Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe, and by chance—before my copy had arrived—an acquaintance gifted me a copy a few weeks in advance of the publication date. Though I am judicious when it comes to which books I keep, I cherish both copies. The book is simply magnificent. It is generous and sharp, accessible and resonant, personal and big. Its form and construction are as skillful as Sharpe’s writing, intention, and analysis. The book’s themes—being mothered, Black life and death, beauty, art, slavery’s afterlife, family, reading—are, to me, everything important and worthy of study. Reading Ordinary Notes feels like a generosity. It is the book I have recommended and gifted most this year, and it is a book I look forward to rereading. —Ama Codjoe, contributing editor

Laurie Anderson, “A Story About a Story”

The work that moved me most this year was a very short story—a parable, almost—by the artist and composer Laurie Anderson. I saw it in an exhibit of her work at MassMOCA, but she has included it in a number of exhibits through the years (including at the Hirshhorn Museum, which provides the full text on pages 22 and 23 of this booklet), as well as on an album, recorded in her own voice (which you can listen to on Spotify). In the story, she describes how for years she told friends an anecdote about breaking her back in a swimming-pool accident at age twelve, how she spent months healing in a ward surrounded by pediatric burn victims, how she loathed the infantile children’s stories that the well-intentioned volunteers read to her in the hospital. Then Anderson’s voice turns unexpectedly inward and self-referential, and we realize that the point of the story isn’t her injury at all. It is to share the experience of realizing that the story you spent years telling yourself and others missed the point entirely, that it was wishful, witty self-delusion—and that this is the danger attendant upon all storytelling. The whole text takes about sixty seconds to read, but it turned my year upside down. I’m still thinking about it. I hope you read it, too. —Spencer Lee-Lenfield, assistant editor

Cocaine Bear

When my friend and I settled into our seats at New Haven’s Bow Tie Cinemas to watch Cocaine Bear, I knew roughly what to expect. There would be a bear. There would be cocaine. The bear would eat the cocaine.

What I could not have anticipated was the way fellow audience members would transform the film with their astute observations. There is a moment, for instance, when the titular bear rears up in a coke-induced rage. Amid the threat of extreme violence, with the bear’s CGI bosom in full view, the elderly woman behind me remarked approvingly: “It’s a girl!”

Would I watch this film again? Certainly not sober. Yet the experience of convening with others who had paid good money to watch a bad movie was some of the most fun I had in 2023. I cherish these memories of Cocaine Bear even more now that the Bow Tie has permanently closed its doors. It was New Haven’s last movie theater. These days, I wonder whether I will ever share so much laughter with strangers in this city again. —Sonia Gadre, editorial assistant

Celine Song, Past Lives

Everyone told me that I would love Past Lives, but I emerged from the film disconcerted. The playwright Celine Song’s debut film portrays a love triangle between Nora, a Korean American woman; Arthur, her white husband; and Hae Sung, her Korean childhood sweetheart who visits her out of the blue years after they lose contact. The two men represent divergent fantasies: the possibilities enabled by immigration and the familiarity of the motherland. As the film delicately renders Nora and Hae Sung’s reunion, it probes the “what if” of attempting to reverse immigration’s sacrifice, and viewers are left uncertain about whom to root for: the disheveled but adorable writer with whom Nora shares a life in America or the earnest, handsome man with whom Nora shares a cultural background.

Several months after seeing the film, it struck me that perhaps I was unsettled not because of what Past Lives says about desire and race but because of what it says about home. I moved to America ten years ago. Now, on the cusp of leaving graduate school and stepping into a precarious future, I am often overwhelmed by a primal instinct to seek out the comforts promised by a place called home. But Past Lives reminds us that for the immigrant, home may not be where she thought it was. It may not exist at all. —Kathy Chow, assistant editor

Renee Gladman, Narratives of Magnitude

In March, I saw writer and artist Renee Gladman’s Narratives of Magnitude, a show of drawings at Artists Space in New York. Across many of the pieces, fine ink lines construct imagined skylines. Elsewhere, lines that look like text form no legible words; cryptic equations cascade down sections of canvas. Just when you get mired in these gestural details, a large swath or stain of color intrudes, requiring you to take a step back.

I took many photos that day—zooming in and out—but the one I’ve returned to most often is one with Gladman’s introductory statement for the show, which startled me. It begins: “I put something in front of my not-knowing; it was a line made from a blue pastel stick.” Confronted with the abstract magnitude of “not-knowing,” she makes a small and very concrete gesture. The text continues in this way; she negotiates “knowing” and “not-knowing” with marks of color, and the mysterious arithmetic of the drawings emerges (“I turned the orange and blue from lines into sectors, into veils. I wrote x then squared it”). In the moment, the text helped me “read” the drawings, as records of reaching for the known. I’ve reread it since as a directive for making: Put something in front of your not-knowing. Proceed step by step, mark by mark, word by word. —Will Frazier, managing editor

Nicole Eisenman: Prince

I can’t remember which came first: my love of Nicole Eisenman’s paintings or my respect for her reputation as a patron saint of queer life in New York. Though I’d considered myself a fan for several years, I knew very little about her practice as a printmaker before I visited the Nicole Eisenman: Prince show at Jordan Schnitzer Gallery in April, which comprised more than forty prints, including etchings, woodcuts, and monotypes.

Most of the work featured humanoid figures; all pulsed with a strange erotic vibrancy. I wafted around the gallery in something of a stupor, fixating on the fact that every image had been made by pushing a two-dimensional form up against a three-dimensional one. Was that process—of physical coupling followed by physical severance—at all related to the perverted tenderness I sensed in the images? Or was that just the same uncanny intimacy with which Eisenman approaches all her subjects, regardless of medium?

I stood for a long time in front of Threesome (2012), a lithograph of two faces in profile, hovering over two sets of naked breasts, with their eyes closed and lips pursed, as if about to kiss. Between them hangs a third, stippled, disembodied head. This figure is distinct from the other two; Eisenman created it using different drawing techniques, and it appears more cubist and unfinished, with one cyclopic eye gazing straight at the viewer. It occurred to me that this face might represent not an autonomous person but rather an avatar of the relationship the others shared: that spectral third being that emerges any time two bodies press themselves together. Maggie Millner, senior editor

Jessica Kirson

Jessica Kirson has been doing comedy for years, but I discovered her this year when I watched her 2019 Comedy Central special, Talking to Myself. Some comics shape a special with the ambition of a novelist; they drop and pick up threads, building into a culminating image or scene. That’s not Kirson’s tack: she bobs from scene to scene, impression to impression, offering vignettes from her life as a Jewish lesbian comic from New Jersey. Her stories are life fresh from the microwave—not cooked but warped. When a joke doesn’t quite land, Kirson turns around, lowers her head, covers her eyes, and gives herself a pep talk that inevitably also takes a turn. Then she returns to her audience with a satisfied smile.

Kirson is known for her crowd work, asking audience members questions about their lives to find the absurdity that lurks within them while wildly projecting her own. In November she released a crowd work special—fifty-two minutes of improvisation, appropriately titled No Material. She’s an uncanny people reader, and as soon as she catches a vibe from an audience member, she runs with it, and I’m left winded. —Samuel Ernest, assistant editor

Casey Johnston, She’s a Beast

Wellness voice of reason Casey Johnston writes the weekly strength training newsletter that was the best part of my inbox in 2023. It is a steadfastly sane, reliably funny missive that I look forward to receiving every Friday (and Sunday! The subscription is worth it, I promise). Motivating without being severe, it offers answers to the gym rat’s biggest questions—“Why are all the lifters running now?” “Does the number of reps matter?” “Are we allowed to talk about women’s bodies?” It also critiques the latest in dumb wellness fads: “Let’s take down the ‘hormone-balancing workout/diet scam,’” “#GymCreeps TikTok is not here to save us,” “Why the popularity of ‘low-impact exercise’ continues to chap my ass.” All of Johnston’s workout tenets are blissfully straightforward: (1) get strong; (2) working out doesn’t have to be complicated; (3) food is good for you. But it’s the fourth one that gets me to the gym: “a body is where you have to live, not just a thing for being hot, so you should make it nice.” It’s advice that will never go out of style. —Lacey Jones, assistant editor

Support for a Cease-fire in Israel and Palestine

2023 was a great year for books, art, and music, but this year I have been most inspired by the writers, artists, and musicians who have called for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It can be hard to know what to say or do that might feel adequate to the unending churn of loss that has followed Hamas’s October 7 attack, much less to the longer histories of oppression and displacement that preceded it. A growing number of culture workers nevertheless challenge us to speak and act, sometimes at great personal cost.

Jazmine Hughes and Jamie Lauren Keiles resigned from The New York Times after signing a statement by Writers Against the War on Gaza, an ad hoc group formed to oppose both U.S. military support for Israel and U.S. media complicity in the dehumanization of Palestinians. David Velasco was fired from his post as editor in chief of Artforum after the publication of an open letter that indicted art institutions for capitalizing on social justice while remaining silent about Israel’s collective punishment of civilians. The professional sacrifices here are of course minor in comparison to the mass slaughter there. But every brave gesture makes others more possible: in solidarity with Velasco, Artforum editors Chloe Wyma and Zach Hatfield, artists Nan Goldin and Nicole Eisenman, and a long list of contributors have severed ties with the magazine. These individuals are modeling ways that we each might, as a group of Jewish writers urged in n+1, “refuse the false choice between Jewish safety and Palestinian freedom.” —Sam Huber, senior editor

Originally published:
December 19, 2023


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