Double-Tracking: Studies in Duplicity
(Little Island Press / Carcanet, 2019)
Last week, I dined at a bistro-y Toronto restaurant called, “Le Swan.” The “Le” in the establishment’s title bestows an elusive value that helps assuage potential qualms patrons may feel about ordering meatloaf and mashed potatoes alongside a $158 Bordeaux. A short blurb on the restaurant’s website explains that Le Swan offers “bistro classics and diner standards: comfort food.” This fusion of basics rebranded to tempt middle-class culinary and cultural appetites reminded me of a passage from Rosanna Mclaughlin’s astute, new essay collection, Double-Tracking: Studies in Duplicity. “To double-track is to be both: counter-cultural and establishment, rich and poor, Maldon Sea Salt of the earth,” Mclaughlin explains. “Pablo Picasso’s immortal words fill the scroll: ‘I want to live as a poor man, with lots of money.’”
Crediting Tom Wolfe with coining the term “in 1970 as a means of describing the state of duplicity required to get ahead in the arts,” Mclaughlin suggests that double-tracking has metastasized from its art world origins to encompass all manners of lifestyle presentation. From fashion to architecture, interior design to website layout, mixology to vacation planning, high-low hybrids are white hot. Of course, this is no revelation—the persistence of modernist mash-up aesthetics has been well-documented throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The stakes of contemporary gentrification, a force indisputably linked to double-tracking, have been so well chronicled that the self-identified “liberal” demographic moving into neighborhoods recently made palatable by pop-up galleries and DIY spaces would be hard pressed to feign complete ignorance on the subject.
The fact that Mclaughlin’s subject matter is already so well understood, at least in lay terms, presents the author, an art editor at The White Review, with a particular task. Rather than persuade the reader of her observations’ legitimacy, Mclaughlin must instead present us with a compelling lens through which to consider the middle-class infatuation with workwear, utilitarian design, and retro aesthetics. In her introduction, Mclaughlin provides a sweeping overview of objects and ethos that appeal to the double-tracker: from “intentionally distressed brick walls [and] expensive local street food markets that replace markets already selling food to locals” to “workwear jeans [and] anything made by Carhartt” to “fake mud with which to spray the wheel arches of your four by four,” double-tracking dwells at the intersection of homage and appropriation.
The first reading pleasure of Double-Tracking may well be the satisfaction of hearing someone, or something, expertly called out. Mclaughlin refers to double-tracking as “a state of mind born of an ambivalent relationship to privilege, that, when perfected allows those with financial resources the economic benefits of leaning right, and the cultural benefits of leaning left.” How curious that authenticity and self-awareness, qualities one might otherwise assume to be intimately connected if not codependent, seem dubiously unbound in this cultural phenomenon. While Mclaughlin skewers Gen X and millennials for obsessing over Breton stripes, canvas chore coats, and “pretend dive-bars” that serve drinks in jam jars, her real interest is in the wider, socio-psychological context that has rendered clothing, accessories, furnishings, and nomenclature associated with physical labor, trades, subsistence farming, and prisons just so tantalizing.
Refreshingly, rather than launch into a series of reactionary, Boomer-esque tirades, Mclaughlin presents a series of engaging chapters in the forms of historical essays; droll, first-person commentaries; and satirical vignettes. In “Madame Deficit and Mixed Fortunes Couture,” Mclaughlin regales us with an account of Marie Antoinette’s aesthete excesses—the details might be comical if they didn’t so closely approximate the proclivities of today’s billionaire elite. During the 1760s, Antoinette renovated Petit Trianon, “a chateaux and grounds at the palace of Versailles,” in order to make it a more private, pastoral retreat. Mclaughlin explains that Antoinette’s “plans for revamping [included] a model village on the chateaux’s grounds, which contained a newly planted virgin wood, uprooted from the palace nursery, an entirely ornamental windmill, a barn, and a clutch of thatched buildings.” At this carefully curated escape, “the queen of France, a woman who thought nothing of wearing the 141 carat Regent Diamond pinned to her hat, wiled away her hours dressed as a milkmaid.” (Ironically, the inspiration for Antoinette’s rustic romanticism-inspired reno was supposedly a novel by Jean Jacques Rousseau, the political philosopher famously opposed to private property.)
Antoinette may be an extreme example, but Mclaughlin does an excellent job of illustrating contemporary instances of mining working class accoutrement or marginalized perspectives. Acerbic sketches of Frieze London in “The Pious and the Pommery: a case study of an art fair” and a tongue-in-cheek short story about a curator who hires a minority expert to revitalize his out of touch gallery in “A Funeral for Frank Broome: a case study in self-marginalisation” will feel uncomfortably familiar to anyone who’s experienced the art world’s half-baked efforts to appear democratized. More obscure accounts of voyeuristic double-tracking remind the reader of transhistorical poverty fetishes. In “Munby-Cullwicks,” Mclaughlin profiles Arthur Munby, a 19th-century “‘connoisseur of working-class women’ [who] spent his free time travelling across the UK in search of female labourers,” who he would then photograph and catalogue.
Whether exploring the limits of double-tracking in home decor (as in “Tobacco and Cedar: a case study in interior design,” a fictive chapter in which a couple import an American prison toilet and Austrian abattoir lighting for their brutalist loft) or the explicit role of money in the art market (as discussed in references to a debate at the Saatchi Gallery about the role of money in art fairs in “The Pious and the Pommery”), Mclaughlin’s reveals double-tracking as a through line interweaving art and commerce. The book’s greatest challenges are to avoid snideness or preaching to the choir, and Mclaughlin dodges both traps, instead drawing her reader toward a deeper questioning of working class appropriation and its perverse presence in the art world and middle-class liberalism.