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May 27, 2022

Emailing Emna Zghal


By Addison Bale



[Author’s note:      It’s fitting that Emna Zghal and I held this over email.

Normally we sit in her Bushwick studio surrounded by paintings in progress while sharing a meal, discusings poems, reading, and considering the differences in the translations of poems that Emna had in two or three languages. Up until this point, we have never spoken through writing beyond the occasional text message. Here we talk about the cross-influences of writing and artistic practice, following a short chain of emails into candid territory. Disguised in other topics, Zghal’s paintings are actually the silent centerpoints of our conversation through which all other matters can be considered. We discuss poetry, language, the art world, capitalism; the themes that contour-trace this artist’s life and work.    ]


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Addison Bale <sayhey.adi@gmail.com>         Feb 13, 2022, 1:42 PM

to Emna

Emna,

Remember sharing poetry over lunches? It was a short-lived arrangement but you still managed to show me such beautiful work, reading segments from The Tree, by John Fowles, and translations of Borges. I have his poem you read to me, "Ars Poetica," saved in my notes and, if I remember correctly, you have that same poem pinned to your studio wall. Can you talk about your relationship to literature in your life and practice as a painter?

*
Addison

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Emna Zghal <[...]@emnazghal.com>             Sun, Feb 13, 7:30 PM

to me            

Poetry lunches were great!  Literature has always been central to my understanding of art. My most cherished memory of my late father is him reciting poems on all occasions, mundane or solemn—at the dinner table, commenting on the news, or at family events. As a child, I didn’t always understand the words, but his delivery made me feel he was articulating the Truth. When I became an artist, these experiences of poetry remained the aesthetic standard that I  aspired to. In my undergraduate years in the school of fine arts in Tunis, I was devouring all the artist monographs I could put my hands on but sought guidance as an artist from poets like Adonis.


Arte Poetica—translated as Ars Poetica—by Borges both validates the beauty of infinity and of being lost. Poetry is immortal and poor, he says. The poem is an antidote for our current culture, which has little appreciation for the lost and poor. I named one of my paintings Arte Poetica in 2008. I often circle back to Borges to reconnect with what is important, sincere, and free of hype. I have that poem pinned above my palette table.   


The Tree by John Fowles is a book I bought at the New York Botanical Garden, and I read it three times in a row, because I found in it so much validation of my instinctive relationship with nature and creativity. It taught me so much, and still does, on how to articulate these thoughts. Our relationship with nature is mediated by this drive to name and classify everything, which passes for knowledge. Little is left for the personal and subjective experience one can have of a river or a flower, an experience difficult if not impossible to articulate with the clarity of science. I was intrigued when he mentioned that his novels come from nature, and how such a statement was dismissed by scholars who thought that only literary influences and theories of fiction and the rest of that intellectual midden, as Fowles put it, are valid keys into literature. How foolish! He spoke of the small and tidy garden of Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who invented the Latin naming and classifying system of plants and much of nature, as the opposite of a shrine for nature lover and akin to a nuclear explosion whose radiations continue to pollute much of the globe. I find this a terrific and terrifying image to be true.

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Addison Bale <sayhey.adi@gmail.com>                    Feb 14, 2022, 10:43 AM

to Emna

Can I see your "Arte Poetica"?

I love that anecdote about your father. Such a beautiful legacy to have left that in your childhood.

Borges' take on the Ars poetica is so good for it's attention to fluidity and futility; that poetry returns like dawn and sunset daily, as though begging us to see it; that it opens and closes the day, and maybe, for being an expression of daylight, is what begets our consciousness. So Borges explains without explaining, or rather, his examination of poetry is one that opens it up to be the most common, almost unthinking presence and yet so crucial to be the day itself. Borges allows for that subjectivity that we tend to lose when art and nature enters the classifications of academia or the institution. And this is totally what John Fowles seems to be getting at when he writes about trees and nature! And is, actually, what you are getting at too when you talk about painting.

We've discussed before this overarching sentiment you reach for in art and life that you work within the unclassified and perhaps, unknowable phenomena around us, and that in doing so, there is the potential for much feeling and energy to interact with life through art. It seems that by clinging to the jargon of academia and the frameworks of art history, we relinquish so much of the intimacy between ourselves and art, whatever possibilities lie in that interaction. Your paintings, which are abstract but visually recall natural patterns (zoomed-out as in landscapes or zoomed-in as in shells or plumage) seem to be reaching for this conceptual experience of dwelling in the unknown in the myriad perceptions of pattern and randomness.

Do you see your paintings as images in dialogue with the literature in your life?

Are there ways that you are responding to your literary influences (including your father, including Adonis) somehow visually with paint?

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Emna Zghal <[...]@emnazghal.com>             Tue, Feb 22, 10:25 AM

to me       

Of course, here is my “Arte Poetica”.

"Arte Poetica", 2008, oil on canvas, 32”x 48”


It’s interesting what you brought up about the calcified frameworks of academia and the understanding of art and art history. Somehow the emotional experience of art seemed to have fallen by the wayside or relegated to an order inferior to concepts and art historical positioning. It’s as if that subjective experience of art (and similarly of nature) cannot be trusted, and therefore cannot be something that contributes to knowledge. I touched on this subject in my artist’s book Plato/Pineapple/Poetry/Painting. I see a parallel between Plato wanting to banish poets from his Ideal City (governed by reason) and contemporary art, which abandoned poetry as the language used to speak about art, in favor of theory (aka reason); and all that derived from that choice. All the talk of “subversiveness” does very little to actually undermine power. Many artists rail against capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy; while little attention is paid to how nominally subversive conceptual art is very convenient for speculation. The making of art is outsourced to unnamed craftspeople or machines, and thus the possibility of failure is minimized and production maximized. The artist is now a brand and a studio CEO. It’s a far cry from being able to distinguish the hand of the master from that of the apprentice in yesteryears. What we lose, or lost, with this scheme is the sidelining of a whole realm of human intelligence. Being able to paint is a genuinely distinct form of human expression that is worth preserving, like dancing or playing musical instruments. Why should philosophizing crush all the rest? To the extent that painting survives, its validity is derived from an ideological content first and visual content second—if at all. Why would artists, critics, and art historians agree to this? I believe the answer lies in how intertwined the 1% is with influential institutions in the art world. Ready-mades are far more convenient for speculation. My ideas are heretical, not only because I was trained to paint and appreciate good paintings, but also thanks to the poetry that provides an anchor for me outside of the visual art world. Poetry emboldens me to operate with a different set of values. 

In that sense, and to go back to your question, I don’t see my work as a response to literature. Poetry, and literature in general, schooled me in a certain form of knowledge that is not necessarily averse to reason, but one that fully embraces the full scope of experiences, beyond just what we can rationalize. I remember a quote by Adonis I had on my wall when I was an undergraduate student in Tunis: “Sufism as a method of knowledge.” He refers to the mystical poets of Islam. It struck me then and challenged my views on religion. Yet, seen through that angle, I understood what religion, as a form of human thought, had to offer us. Arguably some of the best music, architecture, or painting came from religious traditions. Poetry is different, the most important Arab poets, like Al Ma’ari and Al Mutanabi, were not religious. I say this because I think that poetry is also a method of knowledge. What I learn from poetry, and literature in general, is that personal experience and feelings anchor me in truth and artistic authority stems from a distinguished personal voice,  ideals that the visual arts seem to have abandoned. I quote Ann Temkin, MOMA’s Chief Curator for Painting and Sculpture in my book Plato/Pineapple/Poetry/Painting: “Contemporary artists disavow transcendent goals of truth and beauty.” I think she’s right in her observation, yet I refuse to operate within that paradigm.

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Addison Bale <sayhey.adi@gmail.com>    Mon, Feb 28, 2022, 1:03 PM

to Emna

To your point, the tentacles of capital and market-influences operate differently between the fine arts and literature. Speaking for poetry specifically, there is simply much less money involved and therefore much less money at stake in the world of poetry. Compared to the art market, poetry is still an artform relegated mostly to basement bars and living-room readings. Though perceptions of poetry are shifting with this generation, with social media and the work of new poets, it remains less commodified (compared to fine artworks) and therefore its value is always going to be fixed to the standard of a small book. I have often felt that this is actually a good thing for the art of writing, which is largely so exempt from the possibility, however faint, of explosive wealth. Though making money as an artist may be insecure, there is still the specter of prospect and value: paintings are worth x amount of hundreds or thousands. On the contrary, a single poem has no dollar value and its value in a collection is exactly the same on every platform, every mode of download or hard copy—as long as the poem can be read its value is immortal. So as an arbiter of truth, poetry seems to defy (slightly, and not to ignore its own trends and the machine of publishing houses) the erosion of "truth and beauty" through capital...I say this hesitantly though, still thinking as I type.

What is it that we do then? as painters that live by day-jobs, painters that mostly paint in obscurity, hustling for opportunities but likewise wary of the world we tempt to be more deeply involved with?

I consider your work as unique for its unwavering vision and persistence to pursue a practice that explores abstract painting as a reflection of or maybe distillation of the natural world, the imagery of the natural world and the information you take from it—so by painting and continuing to paint against market trends, who are you painting for? Is your practice solitary? Do you paint with a wish against capital? How do we exist as artists and work around that very art market you describe? Is it just a matter of gritting teeth and carrying on?

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Emna Zghal <[...]@emnazghal.com>              Sun, Mar 6, 7:45 PM

to me       

So many interesting questions there. Let me answer the straightforward ones first. Is my practice solitary? Yes, on some level. Sure. Solitude is crucial for me to achieve any depth. I mix with very few people to shield myself from the uninspiring. To get to your other question, who do I paint for? I am seeking an audience that shares similar values. I believe they are out there. This interview is part of an effort to reach out. I can’t paint on the desert island. What’s the point of self-expression if I’m not communicating with anybody? Looking back at the years when I stopped showing my work, I was blasé. I felt that this purportedly postmodern and diverse artworld had no tolerance for what I wanted to do. I was not ready to toe the line expected from “the native woman” and dish out cheap exoticism and victimhood stories. I felt beat up. I had no support, and still don’t, in my stubborn pursuit of this sort of abstraction. Yet! Yet here I am at it again. I gathered some strength, and I feel like I can take some punches again without being entirely knocked down. I sorted out my immigration status, and I have a day job that allows me to be in the studio. It’s far from ideal, but it’s a workable situation. 

Do I paint against capital? No, that makes no sense. I steer clear from preposterous trendy and heroic claims of the sort. I do have a critical view of capitalism and how it functions in the artworld; and most importantly how it seeps through the mentality of art professionals: curators, art teachers, and artists. Books like “Privatising Culture” by Chin-TaoWu, “El Fraude del Arte Contemporáneo” by Avelina Lesper, and “La bêtise s’améliore” by Belinda Cannone are inspiring and empowering writings on this matter. Contemporary art posturing against capitalism is just that, posturing. The validity of a given work of visual art is no longer derived from careful visual examination, rather from statements, biography, and, above all, from market value. It’s lamentable that we, the art professionals, ceded our visual ground to literally stated ideas. 

The allure of rebellion and subversiveness is superficial enough as to not threaten any established order. There’s no outrageous art Banksy can do that doesn’t feed the speculation frenzy of his work, or otherwise leads to a concrete social change. It’s important to be lucid about that. When truth is abandoned, the difference between saying and being no longer matters. There’s a classical Arab song that goes like this: Not all who tasted love, know what love is/ not all who drank wine are wine connoisseurs/ not all who sought happiness found it/ and not all who read the book, understand it. Truth matters to me, and so does discernment.  I do believe nevertheless that making art and understanding it outside a framework of efficiency, purposefulness, and fame is a step towards lifting the limits put on imagining an alternative value system. That’s the value of being anchored in poetry, because, and as my friend Ammiel Alcalay says, poetry largely escapes capitalism. It’s not purposeful and efficient, it’s imaginative.

To go back to John Fowles and his critique of Linnaeus, it is legitimate to observe that the careful detached taxonomy of nature created all but an illusion of knowledge. Clearly, we’re hitting a wall. Knowing without humility and respect before the examined subject—in this case nature— is leading us on the path of self-destruction. Had we not sidelined emotions in the way we did, perhaps we would have been on a different path.  

How do we carry on in these conditions? I didn’t know how to go on for a while. Without ever thinking it could happen, I strayed from the artworld. I got into Argentine tango, and it was like falling into a hole. I applied myself to learn an art form I had no natural abilities in, and at the end, I learned way more than dance steps. Tango taught me anew how to value craft, communication, disciplined practice, and preserving a tradition while being creative. 

Now I feel I have a clearer vision of what I want to pursue. How to be a more poignant painter. In my case, the criteria is how to create images as mesmerizing and captivating as nature and its forms:  vast landscapes or small shells; while bringing the viewer somewhere unknown and imagined. Being a better painter is more fulfilling an ambition than chasing the next clever idea. It’s not just gritting your teeth and keep on going; it is that of course, but also striving to stand on ever firmer ground intellectually to carry on. The gatekeepers might operate with different values, but you can tempt them to embrace yours. It is a worthwhile pursuit.


 
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Follow Emna:


Web: www.emnazghal.com

Instagram: @ezghalart

Emna Zghal: 

Emna Zghal is a Brooklyn-based visual artist. She was trained in both Tunisia and the United States and has shown her work in both countries and beyond. Reviews of her exhibits appeared on the pages of the New Yorker Magazine, The New York Times, Artform amongst other publications. Noted public collections include Newark Museum, Flint Institute of Art, Yale University Library, The New York Public Library, The Museum for African Art, NY, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NY. She has received fellowships, prizes, grants, and residencies from: Creative Capital, The MacDowell Colony, Women’s Studio Workshop, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Cité Internationale des Arts (Paris) and others.



Addison Bale:

is a writer and artist from NYC. His work is viewable online: https://adi-bale.com



More from “Shedding”:









February 25, 2022




Kiko’s Practice One Year Later

By ADDISON BALE
In conversation with Kiko Bordeos



[Author’s note:]

[On January 8th, 2021, my first segment for The Quarterless Review, “Kiko’s Jeepneys,” was published online. The article was a narrative account of my first conversations with Filipino painter, Kiko Bordeos, emphasizing his daily practice and the influences from life in the Philippines visible in his paintings.

This article is a year’s long follow-up recorded as a dialogue between Kiko and I in late autumn. One year later, this conversation locates us, two painters who were strangers to each other not so long ago, as friends. As I type these words, Kiko is only a few feet away from me painting against our shared wallspace in the Knickerbocker studio where you can find us on most nights of the week painting side-by-side.]

The Smiths are playing in the background.
Here we are in the studio looking at Kiko’s works in progress…


 


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Detail image of “Dark Entries/Love Dormancy”

5:08
Addison: …you’re almost always looking at your work and then you never go more than 5 minutes without touching something on the surface. The image builds up.

Kiko: It’s definitely getting dense.

A: The density in this piece acts like a surrogate for speed.

K: It's very much like New York City.

A: Tell me more about these paintings. What's going on here?

K: I’m working on some foreground and background action. The background becomes a fun place to juxtapose minimal templates with lines and movements of colors. These simple plays are what I like about minimal art, you know, like Carmen Herrera. Right now I'm not really focused on clarity in my work. Maybe having a studio is what makes me want to go like, boom, boom, boom, boom. There's no story in it. These paintings are visual distortions; maybe, visual sonic booms, visual cacophony.

A: Do you think about specific things when you're working? Is your head noisey when you paint?

K: Not really. Recently I’ve just been looking at a lot of artists that I like, thinking about their work. Some of what I’m doing with paint is like a nod to them, homages to them. But I don't want to name names.
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8:01
K: Line and circle: for me being bilingual with English and Tagalog— I’m more fluid with Tagalog. I associate it with lines because I am more comfortable composing a painting through lines. I can’t really work with circles, so I think about them like my English. I began to think about how I enunciate words in English, which takes effort. It’s kind of like how I play with circles, introducing circles into the linear compositions. I don’t think I could make a whole painting of just circles.

A: You’ve never mentioned this before.

K: Never mentioned what, bilingual?

A: I know you're bilingual, but you've never made that explicit connection between English/Tagalog and line/circle which function as the basic elements of juxtaposition in your recent work.

K: Well, maybe it’s more subconscious really, because I want to explore other shapes but I feel like right now I can’t let go of lines and circles. But, I don’t know, maybe in a year or two I’ll be doing landscapes and going on trips upstate, expanding my shapes. [laughing]

A: Do you ever consider your paintings symbolic? Are these shapes filled with the symbolism of an idea or the idea?

K: Not really. I haven’t really thought about it, so not really. I usually just say: it's anxiety. Just make it crazy, sexy, cool. [laughing] I just make humor about it, about painting.

A: [laughing] It’s not easy to put words to your work, especially when it comes to abstract art. Do you know what you're gonna call these paintings?

K: This one is “Dark Entries/Love Dormancy.” I got it from a song. Oh, Bauhaus. I'll send you the song later. In therapy I’ve been talking about dormancy; dormancy when having to move through the changes like Fall becoming Winter…and then love is just such a complex word.

A: I love that love can be used for pretty much anything in English. I love you, romantically. I love pizza.

K: I love pizza. It can be so casual but when you want to say it to that person then it becomes hard.

A: What’s it like in tagalog?

K: Mahal.

A: And you can say it for a love of things?

K: Yeah. In Tagalog, when you say mahal kita it means I love you, but mahal also means expensive. Like, look at this expensive chair. Mahal kita…Yeah. So there's that duality you know. Layers. If you’re gonna say to someone in English I really love you, in Tagalog, you have to repeat. There’s a lot of repetition in the language. If you're gonna say, I really love you to someone, you got to say, Mahal na mahal kita. There’s that repetition.
    Just like this duality between Tagalog and English, line and circle, I’m interested in these values of love. How easy, unimportant it is, but then it has this emotional weight that is so intense when you are in love. I feel like you can relate to that.

A: I recently said I love you to somebody and they said it back. It was our first time saying it to each other.

K: I remember, didn’t you say it by accident at first? You were talking about plants?

A: [laughing] Yeah. My partner and I were watering my plants, and my plants have these long names, and I was like, wait I forgot their names now! I was talking to Xin-rui and I was like, wait wait wait—shoot what’s this one’s name again? And she goes, ILoveYou, and I was like, oh right ILoveYou. [laughing] The plant is named ILoveYou.

K: [laughing] Being bilingual, I'm interested in the philosophical mocking of words sometimes—mahal kita—these sounds attached to meanings we make up and agree on and how these sounds can build up so much emotional force over time. Yeah. Like, I would tell you who you are, you know, someone like, Oh, I love you guys. And I love this. That was, but if you're like, you know, that line of being like, romantically, seeing someone or just like, you know, it's just hard. Emotional weight.

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16:02

A: I remember talking to you a year ago, and you also explained a little bit about how emotions come through in your painting. How you remember emotions or periods of time when you look at your work, the work takes you back to how you were when you made it. Talking to you has made me ask myself, what form do my emotions take on the canvas, what colors do they come in, What imagery conveys emotion, for me. Do you feel like you have struck the visual language that you need to depict emotions?

K: Yes and no. Words don't come easily for me and this imagery doesn't come easy either. I have this painting in my head. I used to sketch a lot but I stopped because I just don't have time for it. Maybe if I don't have a 9-to-5 job I'll be sitting for like two hours and sketching stuff. But every time I do that, then I create final paintings that become different from the sketches.
    So I paint by being in the moment and if there’s feelings involved then maybe I'm kind of aware. But I probably see it more later. It’s a visual cacophony during and after. Did I answer your question?

A:  If you had to identify or just pick a shape that corresponds to the feeling of doubt. What does that look like?

K: Doubt?

A: Yeah.

K: Wow. What is that? That's amazing. Probably a half circle and a line interrupting it.

A: Wow.

K: You never see a half circle around. Yeah, probably a half circle and then a slash of line.

A: Maybe you look up sometime and see a half moon and a plane with a chemtrail bisecting.

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21:54
K: I didn’t use any red for this painting because I alway associate red with anger and violence. So no red for this guy who's a happy one. I have one painting that is 8-by-10 [inches], from the early days of therapy and dealing with anger and stuff like that. I’ll just show it to you. Do you want a visual right now? Because I feel like I show it to my friends and my friends are like shit. This is kind of violent for me.


“Seeing Red” Acrylic on panel, 2020

A: Oh, dude, I love this.

K: But every time I look at it now it’s just like a timestamp of what I was in the moment. It’s May, 2018. I think it was the first two months of being in therapy. Therapy is awesome by the way. Shout out to my therapist. [laughing] We talk about painting in therapy a little bit. She used to be a social worker and she deals with a lot of, like, creative people, also immigrants, people of color, so I feel like it's perfect that I fit in that category.

A: I'm really attracted to the earth tones in [“Dark Entries/Love Dormancy”]. 

K: The browns… I like how it like blends with the teal blue there. I've been trying to work with a lot mars yellow, yellow oxide, and.. Yeah I love yellow. Wiz Khalifa “Black and Yellow.” [laughing]

30:01
K: Three favorite yellows: diarylide yellow, hansa yellow opaque and dark cadmium yellow.

35:13
K: I can't help myself– [gets up to paint] Talk.

A: So what are you doing right now in this piece?

K: I'm just trying to add some more movements. I’m painting in angles that rival one another to create that tension for your energy— I’m thinking of sonic energy. That visual cacophony.

A: Do you consider your work illusionary, as in Op Art?

K: In a way. But I’m interested in the illusions of external forces and influences in my work– not really painting in that way though, playing with your eyes. The world does that work for you, like, you go out on Knickerbocker in 1990 and there's too much shit going on. You hear trucks, you hear people yelling, talking, cars, bicycles. So I feel like my visual references represent this environment; representing street noise, street energy. I don't know what my art would look like if I lived upstate. I’d probably become like Bob Ross. The Joy of Painting!

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44:20
K: I relate to your work because you depict windows. Some of my work from Prospect Heights was looking at windows, very influenced by Jonathan Lasker and Peter Halley.

A: I love windows. I love doorways. Love windows and doorways the most. I like hallways too. I keep coming back to those frames that act as gateways between the private and public hunan. I like the simultaneous transparency & opacity these gateways offer: a door opening/closing.

46:14
K: Do you try to look for a lot of symbolism?

A: I try to some degree. Then I try not to. Honestly, putting it like that, as straightforward as that is the first time that's ever come out of my mouth. When it comes to my own work. I'm aware of what I'm interested in but I can't engineer symbolism. What does it mean? It’s a painting, I don’t know. But this creates an issue for me as well. I reckon with other people’s theses through painting and still yearn to say something but time and again I know the best work comes as a great surprise against my initial intentions. I accept that the work will develop beyond my initial conception and hopefully, it surprises me.

K: Yeah. Surprise is good and sometimes it is like, wow, that’s good, and then again, it can be disturbing for being so far from your expectations. I like sitting around and just like carefully being thoughtful about what to do in the painting.

A: Me too. I'm just looking most of the time.

K: And you know it’s also about getting away from the painting, getting out of the studio, doing normal things, going to the gym or the grocery. It's all part of it.

A: Everything bleeds into it.






Completed work: “Dark Entries/Love Dormancy,” 2021. Acrylic on canvas.





Kiko Bordeos:

Kiko’s work can be followed on Instagram @kikobordeos where he also makes direct sales for interested collectors.

Kiko has at times dedicated the sales from his work to Bushwick Ayuda Mutua and we would like to share that for anybody also interested in donating or volunteering with them: https://bushwickayudamutua.com

Addison Bale:

is a writer and artist from NYC. His work is viewable online: https://adi-bale.com




More from “Shedding”:










August 22, 2021

Sculptural Autopsies with Yasue Maetake [Pt. 1]

By Addison Bale




 [ Author’s note:     This text traces month’s of correspondence and time spent with sculptor Yasue Maetake. To reflect the diverse nature of our communication, this article has been hewn out of email exchanges, journal entries, notes, observations, and some recorded content. The linear sequence of the writing is unimportant: any lines and paragraphs can be read variably, theoretically in or out of context, mismatched and replaced with lines from other sections. The only important thing to know is that my words as the author are non-italicized. I use italics when quoting Yasue’s words or emails, when quoting her husband, David, and for word or concept definitions. I use italics as opposed to quotation marks for Yasue’s words because most of the time I am not actually quoting her, but interpreting and restating.     ]


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A broken-down car, palette-fulls of Benjamin Moore paints, scrap metal, spare ladders, rolling shelf units, panes of glass, a charbroil grill, green True Value bins, aluminum rods, a blue steel rolling staircase, chassis, wood palettes, filing cabinets, planters, spare fuel tanks, rust-covered wheelbarrows, wagons, trollies, a forklift, crutches and a walker, trash cans, piping, milk crates, tarps, foam core, shopping carts, folding table, scrapwood, 2-by-4s, etc, all sit in the lot behind Platz Hardware True Value where Yasue also keeps her studio.

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Email from Yasue:

Hi Addison, you are welcome to stop by my studio anytime. Whether during the week w/o Ai or weekends w/ Ai. I am also fully starting to focus on the studio. For you to observe my real life, how messy and horrible practice, it might be interesting to look at. All past publications embellished my studio practice with cool material engagement, with cool pants with artistic paint marks on it but the reality is really more depressing and miserable being covered by dust than you think. Also, on weekends, I am mad and yelling at Ai while she is climbing 12 feet high scaffolding and tries sneaking to drive a forklift (seriously. she learned by watching David) so, there is no "cool picture" of artists meditating on their practice or a "smiling mother." 

Just letting you know for your head-up!


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Now I wanna kick myself for not having recorded more of our conversations. I feel like Francis Bacon painting people from memory and soiled photos towards an image of his own devices (often beautiful, often monstrous). I am scanning my notes and re-membering the things Yasue and I have done and discussed over the past few months of correspondence.

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Politics, for one. Do you consider your work political?

I say, “No,” but this is partly because I know that it is not received that way.

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Day with Yasue and Ai-chan ~ May 1st, 2021. From my journal:

Met at Myrtle-Wyckoff. Ai-chan eating a hotdog. We go to Printed Matter photo show on St. Marks place to see Gryphon (Rue), who is curating/founding D R O N E gallery at Hudson & Chambers St. Stopped at Sunrise Mart & Yasue bought a week’s worth of groceries; Ai-chan nonstop singing/complaining and creating diversions by talking to strangers everywhere we go.

Back on the subway, Ai-chan fake-crying.

Out of the subway, eating umeboshi & onigiri & curry pan & pocky in front of D R O N E, talking about family & poetry. Ai running around, entertaining a woman who is eating a salad.

Inside the new gallery space, Yasue checks to see if this chunk of exposed copper pipe in the cement floor could be used as a conductor for something…Ai-chan & I have moments of calm as she rests on a white pedestal & drinks Yakulte. I ask what she thinks about her Mamma’s art & she gives me a thumbs up. At the same time, artist Viktor (Timofeev) is in the process of muraling on the back wall of the gallery with water-based pastel, hand-painting/smudging them on.

Then → → → → walk across Chambers St over to Chinatown, stopping in playground for Ai-chan to play for a bit, then carrying Aichan all the way to galleries. First, M23 gallery, where a minor incident occurs: Ai-chan taps a resin-brick sculpture with her tiny foot, Yasue goes to re-adjust bricks, the gallery assistant screams at them, sharply and loudly and I am startled from across the room:

“Don’t touch it! Do you know how much that costs?? I am shaking!!!”

Ai-chan scared; Yasue, a sculptor, knows that resin is not fragile…

Then ATM Gallery: artist Kyoko Hamaguchi’s minimal houses of colored threads suspended in hand sanitizer dispensers. Ai-chan chats with gallery owner and people on the street. A cute puppy embraces Ai-chan. Yasue and I enjoy talking to Kyoko—then time to go!

Ai-chan cries, says she is tired and wants Mamma to carry so I take the grocery bags and Yasue takes Ai-chan and I walk them to the subway, promptly realize I have lost my wallet.

︎

Addison, maybe you can briefly explain: Chan (ちゃん) expresses that the speaker finds a person endearing. In general, -chan is used for the names of young children, close friends, and babies. It may also be used for cute animals and lovers.

︎

Notes after D R O N E show, “The Location of Serenity” :

Without a photo reference, I recall Yasue’s sculpture like a reaper, like a harpy, like an open heart with long stents, the stilted legs of Dali’s hungry elephants, bag-like and ribbed against a cloudless blood sky—the piece is larger than a person, except maybe an NBA player, though it assumes an airy, almost avian posture echoed in some of her smaller works. Unlike Yasue’s more recent sculptures, “Ascending Industrial Bouquets,” is not made up of animal bones or seashells. Very skeletal nonetheless.  This I remember. It is an anemic couplet of steel, brass, and copper with one semi-glossy shock of resin at the waist, and a second, stooped burst of resin suspended at the peak. Baby resin and Mamma resin. Somehow, a composite of materials found and manipulated still draws out the soul of something.

︎

Am I interested in owning the artwork? No, I told you. I don’t like to have the work around me. The urge ends in the studio. This urge—that is the urge to make, is unconditional and a bit scary—logically I can explain my other responsibilities, but the urge to make things is distinct and probably inexplicable, but nobody asks about this.

What do people ask you about?

Normally, they ask me how I got the camel bones. Then they ask me how much they cost.

Is it possible to understand the motivation that provokes you to make sculptures?

I should write down my thoughts during my process because something very close to the answers for my own process pass through my mind but then I forget. It’s all very elusive, come and go, come and go, so I fully rely on this elusive, ephemeral image. When I nail down this almost-there-form, it is about trapping and archiving it instinctively. Everyday I am thinking about these things.

︎

Seashells from the beach. Some bones too (camel). Most bones sourced from a taxidermist, some found. Many materials found or given. A neighbor is removing tons of bamboo overgrowth from their yard, so Yasue takes it. I show up at her studio in a moment when she is cutting and curving and grinding down rattan (similar to bamboo but different) as an echo of her other recent materials acquisition: old trumpets and trombones from a hoarder on Craigslist.

︎

I am back at Yasue’s studio, sitting between a rolling steel staircase and some rusting filing cabinets in the back of Platz Hardware True Value, her husband David’s store. We are talking about many things and then David comes out to say something—I take the opportunity to ask him about Platz:

How did you get involved with Platz in the beginning?

David: They were gonna shut it down, so my brother and I decided to buy. Because the Depots were coming to New York, all the old hardware stores were shutting down. Gottlieb’s, Harry’s—and I’ve been coming here since I was Ai’s age. You see one of my eyebrows, see this scar? That’s from this store when I was 4. If one more hardware store closes in New York, then we are the oldest continuously running hardware store in the city.

How long have you had the store now?

D: 21 years. Almost 22.

Yasue: Yes, so finally cleaning the junk out.

D: You know all those little comments that you try to stick in there, it’s not necessary.
[laughing]

Y: But do you know a lot of idiot art-folk think that this mess is an inspiration of mine!

D: No—I’m an artist also and this is my creation [gesturing to the variable heaps of refuse and backstock piled up in the ass-end of Platz.]

Y: Actually, David is good. He has a very good formal sensibility. Better than many artists. He has good eyes and is good with materials. And physics.


︎

Ai-chan stumbles over with Yasue’s phone in her hand, singing along to something, then singing loud enough to drown out the conversation. An ice cream truck jingles down the block. Yasue, referring to Ai-chan, says, She knows the vibe! Now we have more critical talk so she sings and distracts. She’s mean.

What is transmutation for you? Is it for us to see the unification of materials through form? Is it about the inanimate becoming free standing? Or brass sharing a leg with bones and bone sharing an arm with glass and glass sharing a spine with seashell…

Unification is certainly an interest of mine but not as an end goal. I view unification as a part of the transitional process of the materials and then we keep going—there is no stopping at unity. Transformation, changing—yes, changing—but after changing, I do not declare the finished product. It is about ever-changing, ever-evolving; continuity where I might have anticipated a conclusion or a logical terminus. For me, none of the sculptures are at their end, per se. The end remains arbitrary, even as I accept the end of labor. Movement and dynamics are how I see everything—this is how I view the world of substance.
Realistically, I am using stone, concrete, animal bone, and metal—these impenetrable hard substances, but my worldview, at least metaphorically if not also metaphysically, is that the distinctions between vapor, liquid, solid, are all unified by the same atomic units, and therefore, their barriers are always, on some level, psychologically imposed. I impose my perception of the world through the image of the sculpture. In looking, viewers can sense this fluid, transforming, dynamic materiality.


Ironically, you perceive the world through permeable distinctions, and yet you understand better than most people the actual compositional qualities that make every material unique. You know from experience what it’s like to cut through bone vs. steel, for example.

Yes, well I deal with the reality of these hard forms but live in a fantasy of transmutation, which is what the show is about.

︎

Continuity; not just abrupt optimism, but the aspirational journey at the confluence of tune, arriving and re-arriving at beginnings which are naturally optimistic. To begin again is in some way to always repeat. To either doom oneself to repetition or open oneself up to the permutations. The inanimate materials throw out some suggestions to the sculptor, Yasue, throughout the process: save me, assemble me, cut me, smooth me, grind me, melt me, weld me, glue me, fix me, break me, burn me, polish me, splice me, hoist me, name me, repeat me, etc. Brass plumbing rods become korean chopsticks become the bones of wings hinged to the grooves of actual bones, etc.

︎

Politics are undeniably present, always, somehow, but some people speak louder than others. People do not look for political angle in my sculptures; they look at my work and assess whether it is utilitarian or not, decorative or not. They tend to isolate the identifiable features in the sculpture and then they want to know,  how much do camel bones cost? Where did I find them? And these stones, and these metals—where to find and how much?

︎

Addison, can you write a brief sentence about this sculpture?

I want to quote and introduce you by saying : "My fellow Addison Bale told me "This piece is blablablbal XXXXXXXXXXXXX" that I really appreciate. Now we are working on some creative writing project together.  etc etc....."


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“Ascending Industrial Bouquets”: Grim reaper of brass bones and harpy’s wings: a sour-patch polymer with secret soul and it’s stalwart mother with the metal hood. (Baby resin and Mamma resin!)

︎

Another Japanese sculptor suggested that Americans focus on the material components of a sculpture over form/balance because there are no earthquakes here. Form is taken for granted. Precarity is little more than thematic. In Japan, form is the essential question at the heart of sculpture.

(Yasue’s skinny-legged sculpture, “Ascending Industrial Bouquets,” for example, might not survive in Japan!)

︎

Symbolism key to Yasue’s most used materials, according to the author:

Bone = beastial death (though since it is repurposed, it is either under examination or given a symbolic new life. Therefore, bone simultaneously represents autopsy, medical science, truth, and reincarnation.) Seashells = mathematics, repetition, whimsy, ancient history, and overfishing. Metal of any kind = human genius, hardness, softness, irony, cyborgs, and most importantly, the future. Stone of any kind = western fetishism, monotheism, and obesity. Paper = weather systems, fruit, and the Edo Period. Plant matter = motherhood, neighborliness, and non-judgement. Resin = regret, remorse, and retrograde.

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Even though I poetically claim to not see the boundaries between materials and states of vapor liquid, and solid, it is true that on the molecular level there is in fact no boundary. Sound is included in this.







Follow Yasue:


Web: www.yasuemaetake.com

Instagram: @yasuemaetake

Yasue Maetake: 

Yasue Maetake is a Toyko-born artist living and working in New York. Using a wide variety of influences, her sculpture evokes associations with Baroque Dynamism and Animism, along with futuristic variations of natural forms and industrial aesthetics. They partner directly with human customs and technology.


Addison Bale:

is a writer and artist from NYC. His work is viewable online: https://adi-bale.com



More from “Shedding”:










November 16, 2021

Sculptural Autopsies with Yasue Maetake
[Pt. 2]


By Addison Bale

Yasue outside NADAx Foreland in Catskill, NY. Photo taken by Matt Austin.




[Author’s note:        An important thing to note is that my words as the author are non-italicized. I use italics when quoting Yasue’s words or emails and for word or concept definitions. I use italics as opposed to quotation marks for Yasue’s words because most of the time, I am not actually quoting her, but interpreting and restating.     ]


︎︎︎

Addison, can you edit the below?

The truth is, I wanted to go to Japan for my upcoming show, but I found I couldn't, so I decided to invite my parents to come spend two months here this summer. During their stay, I have felt like I'm standing around like an idiot, moving at my middle-age speed like a turtle, facing a child and elderly parents whose company is like time-lapse video/film/montage? Passing in front of me—my daughter perhaps became 2 inches taller and I noticed that my parents needed more naps.

And I questioned, what I was doing?


︎

The weekend of August 28, 2021, we went upstate to the town of Catskill, NY, to see Yasue’s sculpture in NADA x Foreland. Her piece, Mass Inception, was well-positioned on the top floor of the exhibition illuminated by a corner of daylight pouring in from the south- and west-facing windows. Yasue introduced me to her gallerists, Elle Burchill and Andrea Monti of Microscope. We gave them a riso-printed copy of our article, Sculptural Autopsies with Yasue Maetake Pt.1. Yasue got to work, talking, moving around with people. I cruised the galleries, latching on and off to acquaintances for an hour or so before assuming a wallflower's posture at the edge of the room, performing intrigue while idling between the sculptures, arranging myself in relation to Yasue’s position, close by without obviously hovering.
    We took several coffee breaks. Just outside the fair at HiLo café, our friend Daniel Giordano had two gross and gorgeous sculptures dominating the window display. Ai-chan, who just learned to use the phone, was calling Yasue repeatedly.
    Back inside the exhibit, Yasue was spinning Mass Inception, trying to decide on it’s best angle in relation to the light coming through the windows. Microscope’s Elle and Andrea assisted the process of angling. I resumed my position by the window, pretending to write stuff down in my notebook.
    Later, we found surprisingly yummy Thai food on Main Street and Yasue dealt with Instagram, then fielded some very basic questions from me about sculpture. What do you think of the Pietà? What do you think of Richard Serra’s work? Isamu Noguchi?

I know I shouldn’t say it but when I think about any art of the old masters, I feel contemporary sculpture is often embarrassing... Myself included… Richard Serra and Anselm Keifer are influences for sure… Noguchi, perhaps… but the best of all is Toya Shigeo...



Yasue Maetake, “Mass Inception,” 2021. Terracotta, epoxy, polyurethane, coated styrofoam, synthetic paint, steel, marble, resin, natural soil, found bird’s feather. 45 x 43 x 41 inches. Photo taken by Matt Austin; courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery, New York.


︎

It’s just such a waste— $300 dollars for one night in Catskill? I mean, there is not even space for two people! But it’s my mistake. I misunderstand the pricing— it’s just such a waste.

The Airbnb listing was misleading. You showed me the photos— I also expected at least a bedroom separate from the kitchen.

It doesn’t matter what the situation; $300 for me to come one night to Catskill, a day I don’t take Ai-chan to gymnastics or be with her, be at home preparing for my new class’s syllabus tomorrow. I just feel it is a bit embarrassing, this being-an-artist thing sometimes. Why should this be a priority when I have a daughter? I feel bad. Doing all this— networking and leaving Ai-chan makes me feel that way.

It’s not about being an artist. We could be having this same conversation in regards to any other occupation all the same— for any number of reasons we become too busy, pulled apart; art isn’t embarrassing, it’s an occupation. And anyway, Ai-chan likes your work, she told me.

Yes but then Ai-chan gets bored of me. She literally says, No not sculpture again! And this is the 3rd Saturday in a row that I don’t take her to gymnastics. Ai-chan is not progressing as she was before...

What would be better, to be busy for some other reason?

I think about those mom’s that do everything for the children, putting them in music lessons, in sports; I feel I am such a self-centered mom sometimes. It feels silly because I am not some big important artist, I just have one piece in this fair and take my whole weekend to come here, to Catskill, spend money to come here, stay overnight, talk about sculpture. These objects are silly. Ai-chan could be learning things, being taken to lessons that maybe she loves or is prodigy and she grows up with a talent far superior to mine... but I will never know because I don’t take her. That is the irony.

Is Ai-chan particularly good at gymnastics?

Not really. But she is tough. She is better at climbing on scaffolding actually. And the forklift.

︎

[...] untalking, wordless shimmers of Yasue’s bone, metal, and stone compositions—the anti-narrative bedrock of her practice, which is a performance of tactility and translating the vision into object. In this way, her sculptures yield a totemic power, evoking the smoke of her, the artist’s intentions. On the other hand, there is no telling what they say. Just like Yasue, they are non-didactic. Who do the sculptures address? Do they speak in first-person, third-person? Or do they simply say, you.
    What if I write directly to you? Like a letter.

︎

You. I think I mentioned once this knack I have of hardly recording anything and my tendency to neglect note-taking until later on, trying to remember whatever it was we discussed together. While this has emerged as an integral exercise in our creative approach to dialoguing, it is also painstaking for me to get at the heart of things that left an impression on me, fighting to reprise a memory with some clarity. Even as you create new sculptures and I write these words, we are yielding to a consensual erasure of many things.


Whether to reenact the things we say solely from memory or to rely on the recording device for evidence: I accept both without making a hierarchy amongst them.
    But the most important thing is that I know how integral the absence of a recording device is— I mean, for us. Not because the connoisseurs tell me to choose so as to romanticize the artist's perception; we simply and inevitably keep forgetting to record our conversations. And the fact is that, because of this, the most important evidence has been missed, like our natural dialogue, or even a snapshot of us in Catskill. Now I know why I like Western classism. And Bacon.


︎

Can you tell me what “Mass Inception” is about?

“Mass Inception” was referring to mother nature, mood changes during pregnancy, and a more voluminous approach to form. It is an eruption caught in motion, a volcanic limbo between the land and the air. It is also my body as I became a small mountain, a mother.
    I built that foundation made of steel armature covered with urethane foam whose shape was curved by literal burning with blow torch and then coating with varnish. This was right before I retired from the studio practice for a while when I realized I was pregnant and I could not go on working with such materials. I walked away— I had Ai-chan. I thought, ah, now is my chance to stop with sculpture. I was so happy to become less competitive, less pressure to make. I was a mother. That was four years ago.
    I came back to the piece this year and applied the surface material which is like a faux-earth: terracotta blended with epoxy resin and spread over the surface of the charred foam.

︎

Did you see this piece in your head before you began? Or is its assemblage a reaction to the process of sculpting? While sculpting, are you re-interpreting and reacting to unplanned directions? 

I have the vision in mind. I get the visions beforehand. They can change, but I see the piece in my head always.

When do you get visions? Are you always open or do they come under particular circumstances?

I get them frequently, doing mundane things. I don’t need travel or to go foraging for inspiration. Actually I have the clearest ideas just doing my routines— I live over there, I take Ai-chan to school across the street, I go to my studio behind Platz where I find David— I see through this, and in moments of isolation. I have the best visions in the bath.

When you finish a sculpture, is it normally close to what you envisioned?

Depends.

︎

Have you thought about the timing?
    Should we have waited to write these things— waited for when artists are typically remembered, when you are old or dead?
    You just turned 47. You just spoke to me— you speak to me. You tell me about the cars drifting through the mountain roads in Japan. You saw them racing when you were a teenager. You tell me about driving in New York and seeing the architecture passing in blurs of color and material, fusing with your thoughts of sculpture, thoughts of combining what you have like terra cotta and urethane foam, paper, stone, brass...

︎

The toughness of being my gallerist is not because I make a grotesque aesthetic. The toughness is that the gallerist almost  has to treat/handle my work as a dead artist's rather than a living artist’s, i.g. the gallerist has to curate the work across the artist's age or time period of a life. My life.

︎

I’m in your studio again as we turn our attention now to translating Pt. 1 and organize a print edition to accommodate the Tokyo Art Book Fair in October (meanwhile, I am writing this, Pt. 2).
    By cc’ing me on every email with the translators, Rumi and Nahoko, I intuited that you want me google-translating every correspondence, observing as you coordinate the rewriting of our article, Sculptural Autopsies with Yasue Maetake Pt. 1, into Japanese. There and again I see you all separating the English into fragments, questioning word choices and double-entendres,  slowly equating the language to its Japanese mirror-image.
    As my original text became logographic, unintelligible to me, you can now read our article for the first time in your mother tongue and understand with clarity what was previously oblique in English. You describe to me the decisions Rumi and Nahoko made when ascribing certain English words to Japanese characters; how seemingly subtle distinctions in their interpretations influenced how to approximate sentiments from the original English text into Japanese.
    To lose understanding of my own article was to look once again at sculpture, or at least at yours, which dictate no narrative and no single language in their exposition— if I snag on them, something liquid and sentimental might escape me, dispensing a thought in its wake, a hard-to-say, fleeting thing that suggests I simply look twice at the shapes you’ve made.

︎



︎

[09/15/2021]

Email regarding the word “reaper” and its counterpoint in Japanese:


彼岸" leads to the "boundary" or “barrier” which appears later in the writing.  "彼岸" is an unstable "辺獄" while "あの世" is an absolute place, and that which is the antonym to "in this world". Therefore "彼岸"  is more oscillant.
    Perhaps you might think "辺獄" could also work as a translation. But the character "獄" is too strong and thus, implies hell unnecessarily. Since “Grim Reaper” will appear later, I also want to neutralize the questionable strong connotation of death and hell. Another reason to use “彼岸" is an image of a field and river full of natural light. That is more suitable for my "Ascending Industrial Bouquet," whose translucent body accumulates the light.  “彼岸" also means Spring and Autumn equinox, which is my birthday, too.
    As for the “大鎌”, I wanted to use the character “刈” which refers more a simple device (a scythe) with a more linear character form, as opposed to “大鎌” which is more arched and compact. The skeletal armature of “Ascending Industrial Bouquets” consists of the linear structure.

︎

See your hands turning the steering wheel of the car, which turns the wheels of the car, which brings you onto Forest Ave and home again. See yourself at home, alive and surprised (because you are a somewhat bad driver, or so says David). See yourself move automatically through the home. See yourself move deliberately through the studio: see yourself assembling, responding to the thoughts of laundry, thoughts of your daughter, welding certain arguments into lobes of resin, into cages of effort, her little knees, barely recovered from a scrape, air barely different than mesh, oil, seashell, wedding veil, hot glue, photos from your life coming through the glue, sculptures interrupting, air on air, thinly, daily, more shape, more memory in the form of a career, in the form of paper, wet pulp drying on metal whose rust leaves striking blue stains.

︎

Working on the translation of “reaper” became the same intensity as my sculpture making, in which I am constantly maintaining the oscillation between the two places where I regard only the essence can exist. I am very happy to come up with the word "彼岸."
    At this point, you perhaps understand that Japanese (especially Chinese) is based on the symbolism called logogram. I am living in a hieroglyphic view of the world while Japanese also uses a half phonographic system, like English. Hope this experience helps you understand. But even more so, I simply wanted to share with you this linguistic epiphany and happiness.


︎

As we talk, your life becomes a story we both remember, a memory imparting onto me or a confusion lying in wait... your patience with this portrait as I write this all down, as I try to tell us both about your life.



Follow Yasue:


Web: www.yasuemaetake.com

Instagram: @yasuemaetake

Yasue Maetake: 

Yasue Maetake is a Toyko-born artist living and working in New York. Using a wide variety of influences, her sculpture evokes associations with Baroque Dynamism and Animism, along with futuristic variations of natural forms and industrial aesthetics. They partner directly with human customs and technology.


Addison Bale:

is a writer and artist from NYC. His work is viewable online: https://adi-bale.com



More from “Shedding”:









April 2nd, 2021

A Year with Wang Chen


By Addison Bale



Multidisciplinary artist, Wang Chen, has been a participant of the year-long Roswell Artist-in-Residence program in New Mexico since last June. Now, after 10 months of residency, their new video-piece, “In the Woods,” is nearly finished, and two exhibitions of their work are forthcoming. What follows is a dialogue about those 10 months of residency, the process of making artwork as video, and the unique conditions that influenced Chen’s practice during a year of pandemic, protest, and a tide of violence against Asian people in the US.


Chen shares with me their love of performing in the video-pieces and as we discuss, I relate the year-long residency in Roswell to the legendary year-long performance projects of Tehching Hsieh. We come to acknowledge that art itself is performative: the performance of artmaking, performing the expectations of what an artist does and looks like. I realize now that Chen and I echo this phenomenon in this transcript, because it is in fact not a transcript, but a paraphrased dialogue—the text follows our original statements and sentiments with adapted language. The performance of an interview rather than an actual interview.

︎︎︎

CHEN
I was really naughty when I was a kid…I would always go to this arcade. I was like, seven, maybe. And then, I wouldn’t go home until pretty late at night, and when my parents found me they would be so angry they wouldn’t know what to do. I just got punished all the time.

ADDISON
So you’ve always been a rebel in a way.

CHEN
Yeah, I mean, when I wanted to do something, they really couldn’t stop me. I always found a way. I was obsessed with playing computer games since I was really little, I was so addicted and they couldn’t stop me at all. [Laughing] I remember when I was ten we got our first computer—I downloaded all the games and stopped studying. And then my mom was so pissed off, and her friend told her, you should put a password on the computer. Then one day after school I went home and I was like Noooo! How is there a password? What am I gonna do?? So I used a pen to leave tiny dots on every computer key, and after I finished all my homework I was asking my mom to put in the password to let me play. Then she typed in the password and after she did it, I looked at the keys to see which dots got wiped away so I could see what the password was. Then the next day, she came home after work and saw me playing on the computer and was like, I put the password! And I didn’t say how I figured it out so she told her colleagues like, my kid cracked the code and got into the computer, and they all thought that I was a computer genius.

ADDISON
[Laughing] Wow, so the art of gaming goes way back for you. Was there a time in your life when you decided to pursue art or was it just something that you were doing and you just let it continue?
                                     
CHEN
Well, I made traditional Chinese paintings really young as a kid, but that’s different than really thinking about art. But with this fundamental training, I went to art school. I dreamed of becoming an artist but it wasn’t until my third year in undergrad really when my own work shifted and I found a language through performance. I think I told you I want to be an actor. I love performance. So, when I was in grad school, considering this background in painting and drawing, I started combining drawings and performance together in video, and that’s when I felt very strong for the first time. I love to be different characters, you know? There’s so much potential and space to be not you when you are acting.

ADDISON
Is that a way to get away from yourself or to get closer to certain traits of yourself?


Young Chen with her paintings, 1998


CHEN
It’s so funny because when you think about it, when you’re an artist it’s all about you. But to be an actor you have to think into the mind of somebody else, into their thoughts and speech. You come close to being no longer you. For me, it’s such a relief. I like to be like that, it’s nice for me to have that outlet to get away from myself.

ADDISON
How are you during this residency? Are you comfortable enough to act in front of people?

CHEN
I’m doing good here, yeah, I am.

ADDISON
Is there any part of this year-long residency that feels like a performance?

CHEN
Partly yes. First, it is an excellent opportunity to be here, for an entire year, just to work on my project without any interruption. But for me, there is also a certain expectation of looking forward to the result. Like what I could accomplish or what I could achieve. So there is a routine in my time here that I go to the studio, even if I'm not working, but I still go.

ADDISON
Right. To a certain degree I feel like making art as an aspiring artist—talking about myself here—is like a total charade of seriousness. I have no institutions, nor any collectors knocking on my door for work, yet I treat my practice like it runs on deadlines and expectations so that I inhabit the work-state and mindset of an artist with clout and representation, you know? I am pretending to be a “good” artist in a way. [Laughing.]

CHEN
Yeah me too!

GIF excerpt from In the Woods. Video. Wang Chen, 2021.

ADDISON
Chen, I was thinking about something I wanted to bring up: the Roswell Artist in Residence program is one year long. This reminds me of the year-long performance projects of Tehching Hsieh back in the 70s/80s where he would confine himself to some very strict condition for an entire year such as living in a cage (Cage Piece 1978-1979), clocking in every hour on the hour (Time Clock Piece 1980-1981), or being tied to another artist at the waist (Rope Piece 1983-1984). I think the year for Tehching was not so symbolic as a physical or mental endurance challenge as much as it was just like, a unit of measurement for wasting time and existing through it…so, with Tehching on the mind, what is this year for you in Roswell? Do you feel liberated, do you feel trapped?

CHEN
I had a dream and I woke up crying. In the dream I was in this meeting and the people around me were bullying me, telling me I was useless, that I didn’t deserve to be there with them, I belong elsewhere. I started defending myself saying, No no, I am an artist and I have a purpose being here, and they were like No, you are nothing, you do nothing.
    The past year has been a big shift for everyone in the world, with all of the things that have happened. Politics, immigration, Covid...There is always a certain anxiety that exists in me. I mean, this residency, one year to just focus on work and make art, is obviously the best thing you can have for yourself as an artist. But at the same time, I don’t have the confidence to relax at all. I guess it is good and bad for me. Good for making work, bad for my mental health in some ways.


GIF excerpt from In the Woods. Video. Wang Chen, 2021.

ADDISON
When you were beginning the residency did you make a work plan for the year?

CHEN
I did. And time flies, I hope I can finish my plan on time. [Laughing].

ADDISON
Can you walk me through the process of making a video? How does that process start for you?

CHEN
All of my videos, visually, come from my drawings. I make drawings casually and randomly. The characters or marks, or a scene I see in my drawings become inspiration for my video work—I’ll develop characters, like draw new characters, or actual fabrication to create costumed characters and from there I begin to imagine plotlines. Then, I enact performances in these costumes utilizing a greenscreen. At the same time I also scan the drawing and layer the elements into composition to create an imagined space for the characters. Sound is also spontaneously growing while making the work.

Pencil and oil pastel on paper. 2019.

ADDISON
Wait wait, when you say, scan the drawing and layer the elements, you mean that you scan the drawings into the computer and then you bring the scanned drawings into Photoshop or Illustrator or something and use the drawings like layers?

CHEN
No I don’t scan the full drawings—I will isolate the elements that I want to repaint separated from the original image. Then I scan those so I can compile the elements that I want into layers. It’s another way of re-representing my drawings, the source materials, and allowing the characters and narratives that I imagined to assemble in new, unplanned ways once they are digitally rendered. In the digital medium, the narrative unfolds somewhat randomly, it never stays the same. As I go through the video making process, I get new ideas for the redesign characters or narratives or sound that make me change things and sometimes, I react and completely remake what I have if a new idea feels stronger. The narrative is very intuitive in this way also.

ADDISON
What programs are you using?

CHEN
I use Unity, After Effects, and Maya. And then for my sound I use Logic.

Acrylic and mixed media on paper. 2020.

ADDISON
Is your background in Chinese painting still an influence over your work today?

CHEN
Yes, not only aesthetically but also conceptually. I do think that my style comes from Chinese painting—feeling the brushstrokes and making them intuitive. As in Chinese painting, I am interested in imagery that captures the feeling of something, to see that things are more profound and express them beyond just an image or an appearance.

Acrylic and mixed media on paper. 2020.

ADDISON
And yet your video work is so labor intensive and meticulous! How is the process for you mentally and emotionally as you make videos? Do you ever lose interest or are you just in it  the whole time?

CHEN
It’s different…. Every medium has its own way of leaving a mark. By switching mediums, it always keeps me interested. Just like, existing between the digital and physical dimensions, layering them down and creating different possibilities. It’s more fluid.

ADDISON
What is the video piece that you’re working on right now called?

CHEN
In the Woods.

ADDISON
Do you already have plans for what comes after this project?

CHEN
Yes, I have been experimenting with clay while I’m at the residency. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will go.

GIF excerpt from In the Woods. Video. Wang Chen, 2021.
 



Follow Chen:


Web: https://wangchenstudio.com

Instagram: @ohyo_chen

Wang Chen:

Wang Chen (b. 1991. Hohhot, China) is a multidisciplinary artist based in NYC. Chen incorporates costumed performance, fabrication, drawings, sound engineering, gaming software, and now sculpture, into elaborate video installations. They received a BFA in painting from Virginia Commonwealth University (2014) and an MFA in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology (2018.) They are currently an artist in residence with the RAIR Program in Roswell, New Mexico, where their upcoming exhibition In the Woods, will open June 25th at the Roswell Museum & Art Center. https://wangchenstudio.com @ohyo_chen

Addison Bale:

is a writer and artist from NYC. His work is viewable online: https://adi-bale.com







Story by Daisuke Shen
༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ

MACHINE TRANSLATION

It had been invented after the tech contest we lost. My mom had entered it in hopes that we could win the grand prize of $6000. That was a lot for us back then. I don’t know what we were hoping for, really—I mean, the device she had made was cool, but useless. This stupid freezer-shaped thing that could only appeal to people with time and money to spare, which I guess was everyone in this city.  Put in a shoe, a chair, whatever, and then leave it in the freezer (properly named, it was the Frankenchine, but it’s embarrassing to call it that) for 15 minutes or so. And then you—oh, how wondrous—take it out of the Frankenchine, and it would have turned into something else entirely. When we first tested it out, my brother Mike had put in an old science textbook he had from middle school. It came back out as a cake, and there was a squeal of dolphins each time you cut into it, blue frosting the taste of ocean and salt.

Mom used to have dreams and apprehensions, wanted to become something other than a mother—that’s what she was thinking but couldn’t say, at least, whenever she showed us pictures of her smiling and laying around on the grass at Tokyo Institute of Technology, where she got her PhD in Electronic Engineering. She had written her dissertation about Marxism and data infrastructure, risk transference and the proletarian need to reclaim technology for use so people could disperse information, food, stuff like that. I don’t really remember the details very well.

Six years after she graduated, boom: kids, America, deadbeat husband who leaves, blah blah. But Mom was determined, had shown up at the competition at 11 AM, only an hour before it was supposed to start. Mom had spent all night testing, retesting. Putting in our leftover dinner (canned meat came back in the form of a weird chimera thing—docile, though, so we kept it in the yard), her old reading glasses (portrait of some lady who was probably? definitely? British, reading a collection of Yeats’ poems wearing Mom’s glasses), stuff like that. I guess she just wanted to make sure it worked even though it didn’t follow any definitive patterns, that nothing truly hazardous would emerge given the recent safety changes she had made to the software. She wanted other people to have fun even if she didn’t.

Mom, Mike, and I struggled to carry it up the stairs to the entrance. People walked past, wearing  expensive watches, their inventions being carried by the help of drones or workers. Something swooped by my head and the three of us ducked. I squinted up and saw a woman riding atop a golden bird the size of a small jet. It spat confetti  at us. The collar on its neck said “Frank.” Great.  Just fabulous.

We paused for half a second as Frank glided into the colosseum, landing with ease at the registration table before turning into a small golf cart. There was a burst of applause. Confetti stuck to one of my eyelids. It smelled like peaches.

I was glad I couldn’t see Mom’s face as we started moving again. The Frankenchine couldn’t fly. It could spit out confetti, though, if you fed it the right thing. Probably. “Fuck—them,” Mom grunted, “We—win.”

The Frankenchine was so heavy as we pulled it up the marble steps, the damp August heat soaking into our skin and hair. Mike, younger than me but still much larger, was carrying almost all the weight from the back. A man rushed by us and I felt my hands lose their grip. When I looked behind me, I saw Mike’s pink face spreading with panic as he tripped over his feet, no longer able to hold on.

Mom screamed as we watched the Frankenchine escape from us, clanking down the steps. None of us seemed to have the strength left to chase after it. We watched it tumble, dents appearing on the black metal surface with each fall, people jumping around to avoid it. It should be fine, I thought, as it started sparking white fire, two men running down with a fire extinguisher as it grew more and more out of control. This doesn’t seem so bad. Then it exploded.

Mike was still on the stairs, breathing heavily, as people swarmed around, tried to help pull him up. I looked back at Mom, who had sunk down on the stairs and was just sitting there with her head in her hands, unmoving. I hated to see her so embarrassed, and she was always so embarrassed—never enough money, aging rapidly despite all the skincare products she bought, kids who were sort of not the best at being anything but being average and manageable, thinking of herself as stupid, stupid, stupid because no one ever told her how smart she was.

I tried to do the good son thing. Put my arm around her shoulder.

“Don’t touch me, Marcus,” she said, and I knew even without seeing her face that she was crying. “Just don’t touch me.” So I left her alone. I helped Mike, limping with his newly sprained ankle, toward the car, the Frankenchine still smoking as we passed by it.

Eventually Mom showed up. She wordlessly started the car and we sat there stalling in the parking lot. There was a knock on the window. It was two of the conference people, asking Mom if she wanted the remnants of the Frankenchine that they had salvaged. Two plastic bags full of black metal. She shook her head. “No,” she said, and I tried not to look at her not looking at them from the rearview mirror. “But thank you. Thank you very much.”

***

This part is hard to talk about. This is when things get bad. She was working even harder than before, sometimes even calling out of work to come back home. We weren’t allowed inside the living room any more, after Mike bumped into it once and she  freaked out, screaming at him until he was sobbing on the floor.

After that, we grew up inside of our rooms, at school, at our friends’ homes, becoming 18, 19, 20, 21. 21 was the age I was when Mom  finally finished  it. By that time, we had both more or less developed a conscious way of forgetting that the living room existed. Mike had bumped into the couch late one night as we came back home  from getting snacks. We had both frozen, looking at each other with confusion. “I didn’t even remember  it was there,” he had whispered as we went down the narrow hallway toward our rooms, still hearing the buzzing and clanking of Mom working, “I really, really didn’t.”

But that night. That night, I had pushed through the apartment door, coming back from my girlfriend’s place after a fight about something stupid, how I had definitely been looking at that girl at the Adidas store the other day, you were looking at her ass, why don’t you look at my ass like that any more, I hate you get out, and when I dipped and came back home, my teeth clenched with anger, there was nothing but silence. Mom was usually up until 5 AM or so, working, punching things in, taking it apart, putting it back together, until she passed out and then got up again at 7 to go to work.

It didn’t make sense. I looked toward the forbidden zone. There it was, pulsing, humming, a steady rhythm of blue lights. Maybe I could just turn it off. I imagined her waking up in the morning, jostling Mike and I awake to ask us if we had done anything to it.

So I walked up to it. The screen was unlocked. Weird. I knew she must have had passcodes, two different types of security verifications, at the very least. There were six options to choose from on the menu interface. Something blurred that I couldn’t make out remained in the background.

「認知アーキテクチャ」Cognitive transference. 「自動モード」 Automatic mode. 「関係データベース」Relationship database. 「空白」Void. 「逆符号化」 Decode. 「ログ」 Log.

There was no off option. I could have just walked away. Instead, I pressed ログ。

The menu changed and suddenly, it was filled with complicated diagrams, equations, notes. I swiped through, barely looking, feeling something bloating inside of my stomach until it threatened to burst.

I wanted to check if Mom was in her room, so paranoid I even looked toward the kitchen as if Mom might have been hiding there all along. I stopped moving for a second. I could hear her, snoring. She hadn’t snored in years, ever since they had put her on Anxiolytics.


I turned back toward the machine. Flipped back to the first page of notes. Gleaned over everything from the beginning.

“Miscommunication...intuitive emotional understanding...chasm of inevitable corruption....forgotten modes of relation…imminent transactional nature of human interconnection…”

Her notes became more frenzied as I swiped through. Initial diagrams showed a small cube. The processor. You input the following: Name, date, place of birth, gender, race, relationship with the following, how long you had known them.

I swiped through, reading everything, feeling as if I were falling apart. The machine would then search all of the available data online about this person: Search history. Family background. Purchases. Social media usage. Medical and job history. Communication patterns pulled from texts and emails with other people.

The last page of the notes featured one last small addition.

Input transcripts of any conversations you had had, in person or otherwise.

She had designed something that translated other people’s emotions. Figure out what they really meant.

It was a total invasion of privacy. Very, very, very illegal. It made me feel terrified that the person sleeping in the twin-sized mattress right next door, the one who had once been so concerned about data surveillance, protecting others, who wanted to see people more unified, less broken, had become this.

I went back to the main menu, pressed on the relationship database button.

Cashier at grocery store.
Friend from grad school.
Friend from doctoral program.
Cousin (dead).
Best friend from childhood (dead).
Yasuhiro Okada. My father’s name.

I clicked on his. She had told us she was no longer in contact with him, could give less of a shit, but here was the truth laid bare. Hundreds of past entries unraveled onscreen, starting all the way back from eight years ago. The texts. Emails. Their translations. Mom had made notes in the corner, more and more frenzied as I flipped through. I didn’t want to read the messages; what was I looking for? I toggled over to just the notes section.

Lying...lying…04/08/2007
WHAT DID I EVER MEAN TO YOU??????  12/25/2008
Am I going crazy? What did I make?  2/22/2008.  
I can’t trust anonye. 04/20/2012.


I clicked back out. Looked at the entry from today, the LINE messages between her and my father.


2/8/2012

hello Read 1:30 pm

                                                hello Read 3:30 pm

how are you Read 3:30 pm
when are you coming home Read 3:35 pm
Yasuhiro? 3:45
Yasuhiro I love you 4:00
I miss you every day 5:05
did you miss me? 5:10
i’m sorry 6:25


Mirai chan, I'm sorry for not responding earlier. I was busy with work. But the answer is yes, of course. Of course I miss you, every day. I think about you all the time, even though things became what they were. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to not know what Mike and Marcus are up to now. I promise I'll visit one day soon. Eventually, maybe, we can be a family again. I love you always...always, always. Will respond more later.  11:46 PM


TRANSLATION:


MIRAI I AM SORRY I AM IN LOVE WITH MY NEW WIFE I DON’T MEAN TO HURT YOU BUT I HAVE BEEN MARRIED FOR FOUR YEARS NOW I FEEL GUILT I FEEL SADNESS I FEEL SHAME I FEEL A SENSE OF UNRAVELING AT ALL WE COULD NOT HOLD I DO NOT KNOW IF I EVER LOVED YOU BUT I THINK I LOVED WHAT WE HAD IN THE TIME WE DID DO NOT FEEL AS IF THIS WERE YOUR FAULT I AM NEVER COMING TO VISIT I WILL FORGET MARCUS I WILL FORGET MIKE IN TIME I WILL FORGET YOU


I looked at the printed out messages. I thought about my mother not looking at the men when they had asked if she wanted to take the pieces of the Frankenchine home, her blank disposition in the face of pain.

The only note she had put for this one was a smiley face. Thinking back now, I should have gone into the room. It was already 7 AM, the sun was splitting my head open, Mom would be late to work and angry, I would be a good son, I would check on her.

But instead, I went to sleep.

I woke up at 10 AM. Light was leaking through the window and then I saw Mike standing in my doorway, wearing my old soccer jersey, and the kid had tears on his face. I didn’t want to know. I turned away, facing the white wall, thinking about the different wires splintering inside my mind, the invisible wires that connected us to each other becoming frayed, split, cut open, trying to ignore Mike saying over and over again in his stupid fucking kid voice, “Mom’s dead. Mom’s dead. Mom’s dead.”


Daisuke Shen is a fiction writer. You can visit their website at www.daisukeshen.com.

Twitter: dai__joubu
Instagram: ginsengmasque


More From Tiding House 001...





FROM TIDING HOUSE ISSUE ONE

2 poems by Shy Watson


COOL BLUE SPRING OF KNOWLEDGE

my grief felt fraudulent
i entertained
a false memory
of the couch
it was a clear day,
a tuesday,
the sky a perfect shade
of 9/11 blue
i couldn’t worry myself
he showed me the diaper girl
until i said fine
at fort greene park
in the middle of everyone
cheering, dancing, drinking
accompanied by dogs
i experienced acute derealization
conceded it was
better than before
but maybe not
i had no hand
in the matter
& i wouldn’t have
even if i had







MM

i want my shoes tied
by you, you, you
just you

can’t fathom simplicity
i thrash stupid against it,
spill coffee on your sheets,
then hand you the rag

o, woe is me
i miss you
i take pictures of your spirit
from someone else’s phone

the montana sunset,
which i envision as plum,
will certainly be
a never-before-seen shade
of miraculous blue



Shy Watson is the author of Horror Vacui (House of Vlad 2021). Her work appears or is forthcoming in Fence, Southwest Review, Joyland, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at University of Montana. She also teaches classes online at Catapult. For updates, follow her on Twitter @formermissNJ.

More from Tiding House Issue One:







24 SHARD

        Momma
       Baudelaire
      laid an egg
       with his
        opium
         laced
          vagina
           invitations
             for your vodka noir
              your excessive
               talk about the
                recently paroled
                 cannibal
                 arms out
              sliding down
              the bannister
         bird of paradise
      between your teeth
             whispering
               his name
             last night
                not as
                   hot as the first time
                          quite grateful
                           you are vegan

CAConrad has been working with the ancient technologies of poetry & ritual since 1975.
https://linktr.ee/CAConrad88

Instagram: @CAConrad88
Twitter: @CAConrad88

More from Tiding House Issue One:






A Review of Kate Durbin’s Hoarders
By Emmalea Russo
༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ


POETIC ASSEMBLAGES UNDER CONSUMER CAPITALISM

I’m Marlena, the worst hoarder on planet Pink Sands Yankee Candle

My house is like a bomb went off at Walmart 

Begins Kate Durbin’s Hoarders (Wave Books, 2021), a book which assembles dynamic freeze-frames in the form of strange, disquieting, and tender glimpses into the lives of sixteen people who have appeared on the reality television show Hoarders: Marlena, Chuck, Linda, Shelley, Craig, Cathy, Noah and Allie, Jim, Alice, Dorothy, Hannah, Ronnie, Gary, Greg, and Maggie. Whereas each episode of Hoarders takes the form of a sixty-minute dramatized intervention into the lives of individual hoarders, Durbin’s Hoarders delinks the people from TV and places them in curious chorus. The frame widens.

According to the internet, hoarding is a medical condition marked by excessive accumulation of things, regardless of actual value due to a perceived or obsessive need to save them. To hoard is to collect and often hide away a supply of something. Kate Durbin’s book glimmers and stirs the mind-body quietly at first. Rather than telling us how to read the show or the book, Durbin’s fifteen portraits seep out from their pages and leave the reader to wonder how hoarding works on the whole weird world. Who or what decides a thing’s actual value? How does the market regulate our relationships with objects and each other?

Hoarders is timely. The top one percent own most things in the US; there are more empty houses and hotel rooms than there are homeless people; the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic saw people panic-hoarding mass amounts of toilet paper.

Hoarders, a reality TV show that originally aired on A&E in 2009, is filled with close-shots of accumulation which incite shock and squirmy feelings as we witness one sliver of the hoarding process: the hoarder surrounded by what their objects.  The episodes also offer the help of some kind of psychologist and/or cleaning specialist, decluttering experts who will apparently heal the hoarders.

The camera in Hoarders doesn’t roll back to reveal processes of accretion that the hoarders may have undergone or the factories and conditions under which these objects were produced so that the show itself doesn’t become a critique of capitalism.In contrast, Durbin’s book spills light onto certain televisual moments resulting in an exciting testament to what poetry can do in the era of the hyperreal. Away from the show’s close-shots and dramatic music which emotionally distance the viewer from the hoarder, Durbin’s tender translations invite us into the scenes. Here’s Linda from Washington D.C.:

My husband was an abusive sociopath fossilized rat

It was like living with Jim Jones dirty unmarked bottles of black liquids.

Durbin’s poems set up zones wherein we might sit with Linda, Gary, Ronnie, Greg, et al. and read, sense, see. Specific objects serve as windows into larger narratives as Durbin dismantles the show using its own tools. A main ideology of consumer capitalism is the use of brands  and products as identity markers. Durbin offers us insight into this reality without didacticism.

How can a poem and a reality TV meet each other, their conversation creating a third curious thing? How does a list of objects work? How do we relate to our stuff, to our lists of stuff, to other people’s stuff? How to navigate the seas of information, clutter, options, mass production of…everything? The final entry in Dorothy’s section begins:

I guess I’m afraid of not seeing The Walking Dead (2010-present), Downton Abbey (2010-2015), Chopped (2007-present), Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

The list continues for eighty-five more television shows and their lifespans. Dorothy’s voice arrives again at the end:

I couldn’t possibly watch them all if I sat down today and started

The list of television shows and their timelines is literally framed by Dorothy’s fear of not seeing them and knowledge that she couldn’t possibly watch them all. Durbin’s Hoarders is filled with quietly acute moments where lack, fear, emptiness, and profound sadness bump up against objects. The objects and the voices act on each other as the voice of the hoarder comes through in italics next to various material and spectral presences.  The objects Durbin chooses to list provide insight into the environmental, social, and psychological impacts of hoarding as a collective phenomenon. Simultaneously, Durbin makes surprising, musical, and strange poetic assemblages from Hoarders:

This is how I deal crushed Red Bulls

and

Last couple of years we’ve had a problem with Barbie Dream House with a pink plastic roof

and

I want desperately to change Marlena digging in neighborhood
trash bins, a flashlight strapped to her head; she pulls out Chase

credit card statements, Styrofoam food containers, Starbucks

reusable plastic cups

The show supposes that the hoarders need some decluttering and therapy, perpetuating what Mark Fisher has called the “privatization of stress” which “has aimed at an almost total destruction of the concept of the public—the very thing upon which psychic well-being fundamentally depends. What we urgently need is a new politics of mental health organized around the problem of public space.” Durbin’s Hoarders gestures towards this much-needed public space, for where the show deracinates these individual lives from context, Durbin’s book undoes the spectacle and gathers many moments together in order to weave a wider portrait.

Hoarders deftly lifts moments from the commodified medium of reality TV and assembles them into a poetics which resists commodification or happy endings, as the objects don’t get swept away, decluttered, or judged. Durbin names them, places them in a context, and offers space on the page for lingering. The final entry in the book, in the voice of Maggie, reads:

There’s definitely war on earth between good and evil dust billowing up from the ground; a shadow moving in the window


Emmalea Russo is a writer. Her work has appeared in many venues, including Artforum, BOMB, and Granta. Her books of poetry include G (2018), Wave Archive (2019), and Confetti (forthcoming from Hyperidean in 2022). She edits the multidisciplinary journal Asphalte Magazine.

Instagram: @emmalea.russo  

Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. Her books of poetry include Hoarders (Wave), E! Entertainment, The Ravenous Audience, and the iOs app ABRA, which won the 2017 international Turn On Literature Prize. Durbin was the Arts Queensland Poet-in-Residence in Brisbane, Australia in 2015 and 2020. Her art and writing have been featured in the New York Times, Art in America, Artforum, The Believer, BOMB, poets.org, The Atlantic, NPR, and elsewhere. She has shown her artwork nationally and internationally at the PULSE Art Fair in Miami, MOCA Los Angeles, the SPRING/BREAK Art Show in Los Angeles, peer to space in Berlin, and more. 

Instagram: @kate_durbin
Website: www.katedurbin.la

More From Tiding House Issue One...





An Interview with EXP TV
By Ben Shearn

AN INTERVIEW WITH EXP TV

The paradigm shattering shift from physical to digital home media came about so abruptly it left a society of pop culture orphans in its wake.

In an instant, the rental galaxy imploded and split into a sprawling multiverse of alternatives. Our options suddenly included the barely organized Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime libraries, as well as the YouTube archive of virtually all recorded media.With all of it on-demand, browsing thumbnails became a crippling and stressful omnivore’s dilemma.

Enter the algorithm.

Magically intuitive math automatically replenishing your content trough, relieving you of the soul search necessary to address the ultimate existential quandary: “What should we watch tonight?”

But (sigh) (naturellement) the algorithmic morphine drip was too powerful a tool to withstand corporate opportunism. YouTube now white rabbits you into a spiral of eerily targeted content, Netflix insists on an Orwellian replacement of all entertainment with banal originals, Hulu gaslights you to ‘continue watching’ a show you’ve never heard of...

The algorithm, once a beacon in the darkness of bottomless choice, now has an agenda and can no longer be trusted.

Enter EXP TV.

A sponsor-less, free-to-all, 24/7 live channel which is in its own words, “broadcasting an endless stream of obscure media and video ephemera.” And if that sounds vague it is due to the psychedelically indefinable quality of the channel’s programming.

Created by film/event curators, artists and all-around VHS mensa hounds Taylor Rowley, Marcus Herring and Tom Fitzgerald, EXP TV is a revolutionary return to appointment television in a remote entertainment landscape where schedules are as elastic as sweatpanted waistlines.

The program and times are posted on their site, and there is some TV Guidance as to what you’re in for, but the EXP TV experience is all about curatorial trust. Fixed programming to deprogram your compulsion to text, to scroll, to search, to hoard tabs, to grasp mindlessly at pop-ups and banners and featured content and staff picks. 

EXP TV is, in short, an extraordinarily and expertly pre-surfed and re-mixed internet by the kind of cultural crate diggers who unearth every bizarro canary in the media coal mines you never knew existed, but once you do, can’t live without. 





Ben Shearn: How did it all begin?

Tom Fitzgerald: EXP TV rose from the ashes of The Cinefamily, the LA cinematheque we all worked at, after it closed in 2017.

Marcus Herring: All three of us have a sickness that drives us to relentlessly collect obscure media, and we really enjoy sharing our loot with others.  That probably led us to working together at an arthouse. 

Taylor Rowley: We spent a ton of time in our late night off-hours hanging out, digging up stuff, and riffing off each other’s discoveries. Some of our most bonkers ideas were born out of that activity. Endless hours of one-upping each other and blowing each other’s minds. There were definitely many moments where I questioned our collective sanity.

MH: Maybe we all had this idea at one point or another, but personally, I had been wanting to do 24/7 streaming TV for over a decade—back when Twitch was still called Justin.tv, but I didn’t know exactly how to pull it off or even exactly what the programming would look like.

One of our primary goals initially was to remove all interactivity from entertainment, to take away the tyranny of choices and end the indecisive paralysis we all experience trying to figure out what to watch on the big streaming services.


BS: There was a spate of post-pandemic Twitch-based, arthouse-minded streaming channels (Cinephobe, Cathode TV etc) and EXP TV feels like an entirely new iteration of this almost entirely new format. Would you agree with this statement?

MH: I think the difference is that EXP TV has a distinct concept aside from just being a channel that streams a bunch of old shows back to back or full movies or whatever.  EXP is like a giant video collage made up of smaller video collages, and there is so much curation and craft going up and down.  Instead of just showing old material, we’ve made new shows out of the old material.  It’s a lot of work!  So the channel itself is like its own art project. 



BS: I wouldn't dare ask you to give away your magician,'s tricks but I am dying to know where and how you've sourced this overwhelming amount of material.

TF: I’ve been collecting video footage for years and years. Looking everywhere, from mom and pop video stores and VHS collector trading in the nineties all the way to good old YouTube today (as well as various odd connections, miracles, mishaps and accidents in between).

The reason for all this digging has been that, for me, hip hop is the only original and interesting art form from the last 50 years. Taking this and taking that and making something new, it has been a great inspiration for me since I was a kid. Nothing thrills me more than making a video mix that, for example, fuses —  a music number from a Mormon cartoon, a snippet of a seance on a public access show, a space shuttle blooper, a nightmare sequence from a Filipino kid’s show, on and on. Fuck yeah. That way of doing things informs EXP TV programming greatly.

MH: The sources are from all over the place, some hiding in plain sight and sometimes it takes an archaeological dig that leads to the filmmakers themselves.  Case in point, I recently tracked down a Euro DJ from the 90s who used to make his own animated CG music videos and never released them publicly.  I had seen some 240p (we meet again) snippets on Youtube, but the quality was unwatchable.  He was so appreciative that I reached out to him that he sent me the VHS masters to rip.


BS: It's impossible not to begin with the Video Breaks, which for the most part take up the 6am-5pm daily slots.

On your site they're described as: "Classic MTV style video collage series featuring never-ending and ever-changing archival clips on every subject imaginable." This is naturally the best overview of what's going on there. However there are additional criteria at play.  Are you able to elaborate on what those may be?

TF: Not to sound coy but, speaking for myself, everything I put in Video Breaks is simply a clip or scene I like. No other context. It’s just gotta be something that connects with me.

If I find the clip funny or strange or mysterious or beautiful, it’s in. As for the eras, I do respond most to the “look” of film (and some old analog video) much more than anything on HD etc (and I don’t like how cars have looked in the past few decades). That said, I recently pulled some footage of crunkcore from Caracas.

MH:  We all view what we do as some form of video art, so we like the clips to have a strong visual quality.  Is it something that looks amazing even with the sound off?  That’s the kinda thing we’d go for.  Sometimes the relative obscurity of the clip is a factor.  Personally, I skip stuff if I feel like it’s too well known.  I want the audience to be stimulated and mystified.  And most importantly—is the clip truly exceptional?  I think that’s something we all talked about a long time ago.  The clips must be truly exceptional or what’s the point?

BS: Video Breaks seem to be on shuffle mode, and furthermore the clips contain zero contextual information. This causes in me a profound ambivalence. At first, it's maddening. In the post-Shazam, post-YouTube age of instant algorithmic recognition it truly is a wild feeling to watch these incredible, completely anonymous, usually unsearchable clips for hours.

The more I watch however, the more a magical nostalgic sense of classic television takes over. There're so many hazy half-images of cartoons, music videos and commercials from my TV youth which haunt my memory, and even return in mysterious waves, like weird cultural acid flashbacks. I find that the unidentifiable Video Breaks uncannily replicate this hypnagogic quality of ancient channel surfing.

Did you set out to create this experience with the Video Breaks?

TF: Bingo! There is a specific intent to replicate the old school feeling of just flipping the TV dial at 4am and stumbling on something that is blowing your mind but you have no idea what it is. It took me years to figure what the “little girl at the basketball game who telepathically makes the b-ball explode” movie was. (answer: The Visitor [1980]). I looove that feeling, it’s like remembering a fragment of a dream, and thought it would be fun to let someone else feel it too.

TR: Exactly. I’m a lifelong insomniac, and some of my earliest and most formative memories are from staring at television in the middle of the night, not understanding at all what I was watching but completely transfixed and unable to describe what I saw to my parents the next day. Kind of like Carol Anne in the Poltergeist. Video Breaks are meant to evoke that feeling like you might be the only person who ever saw what you just watched. They’re the ghosts in the TV set.



BS: One program you refer to as a "culture jam." In a way, that term, as broad as it is, feels like a good place to start as far as an attempt to 'name' the EXP TV format overall.

Would you agree? I'd love to hear some philosophical waxing on this...


MH: It’s funny because your question got us internally discussing this term, with one of us opining that “culture jam” is a dad rock word, but in terms of EXP TV, it was just a throwaway description I used when filling in the caption for our show MELT on the EXP TV guide. 

I always thought of “jam” not in a Widespread Panic or Pearl Jam type context but “jam” like a log jam—or like throwing a monkey wrench in the works.  In that light, I saw “culture jam” was a way to obfuscate culture or mess it up.  MELT is a show that slows down audio/video to a point of trippy delirium.  If you sit back and take the ride, you start to experience the manipulated video in completely different, unexpected ways.  Sitcom themes become industrial art rock.  Unfunny standup comedy becomes deeply disturbing.  Dull local news segments become the funniest thing you’ve seen all week. 

TR: If we use Marcus’s definition, we do “culture jam” in real life! It would take too long to explain how we once created a connection between Corey Haim’s love for Japanese funk music and an old “I Feel Like Chicken Tonight” commercial, but I can say with certainty that my mind was never the same after that.


BS: The free-for-all and/or optional patreon-support model certainly keeps the format pure. This is of course a massively threatening idea to corporately supported streaming channels. If a free Twitch channel started to somehow outpace, say, Hulu, capitalist knives would no doubt sharpen. Historically, when these forms have emerged in the past, a corporate takeover inevitably kills it. Do you foresee any danger of this?         

MH: I would love to imagine a world where the content on EXP TV has grown so popular that it threatens the existence of Hulu, but I think the corporate execs can relax for now.  There’s not enough LSD on the planet to make that world a reality.  I will say that I see a wide range of possibilities for the EXP TV concept—a video collage TV channel broadcasting an endless stream of obscure media & video ephemera— on the media landscape from the big streaming platforms to cable TV. 

I would like to see EXP TV everywhere!


EXP TV can be accessed through its website, periscope profile and (most popularly) its Twitch stream.   

Benjamin Shearn is a film editor and writer. His latest work, the films Please Baby Please and Give Me Pity, premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2022 as part of a retrospective on Shearn's work with filmmaker Amanda Kramer. Their previous film Ladyworld, premiered at BFI London, Fantastic Fest, TIFF: Next Wave and was presented as part of the Frontieres Showcase at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Shearn’s work in narrative and documentary films has also been exhibited at ComicCon San Diego, the Louisiana Museum of Art in Copenhagen, la Gaîté lyrique in Paris, as well as official selections of the CPH:DOX, Melbourne International, Planete+Doc, TIFF After Dark, Court Metrage du Clermont, Chicago and Boston Underground Film Festivals, amongst others. For more of his work, go to benjaminshearn.com and/or follow his absurd Instagram account @actorsupset.

More From Tiding House Issue One...
















May 6, 2022

The Mathematical Catastrophe of (Analog <-> Digital) Love


By EMMALEA RUSSO


“Love’s curious arithmetic.”
Michel Serres, The Parasite

“It is not true that the more you love, the better you understand; all that the action of love obtains from me is merely this wisdom: that the other is not to be known; his opacity is not the screen around a secret, but, instead, a kind of evidence in which the game of reality and appearance is done away with. I am then seized with that exaltation of loving someone unknown, someone who will remain so forever: a mystic impulse: I know what I do not know.”
Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

“You’re even prettier in person.”
Pam & Tommy (2022)


Pam & Tommy (2022)


For an instant, the screen takes up nearly the entire frame. For an instant, the screen takes up nearly the entire frame. For an instant – Oh, fuck. – the screen nearly overflows the frame. For an instant.


READING AND LOVING

Every messenger is ambiguous — noise and signal making and breaking the channel — and the risk of receipt (Rilke’s Every angel is terrible...) is also the risk of all reading. In reading as in loving: zero guarantees. As modes of transmission change, as access to chaotic clumps of information is granted and as we meet with our own images again and again, a mathematical catastrophe ensues. There is so much. Love’s curious arithmetic is always catastrophic, filled with strange messengers and ambiguous geometries. Under digital conditions, the math changes. Alters the structure of relations. A spectrum of numbers and hues get translated to zeros and ones → many becoming 2.

APOCALYPSE

At the end of the world, there are no more secrets. At the end of the world, technology changes. Angels cease their bureaucratic functioning and continue singing glory. At the end of the world, all envelopes open. Apocalypse means uncover, unveil. And revelation: disclosure of information or knowledge to man by a divine or supernatural agency.

ANALOG + DIGITAL

    Analog describes a continuous stream ---->

    “Love is continuous, it’s a stream, it doesn’t stop,”       insists Sarah Lawson in Cassavetes’s Love Streams,

----->

    a video’s magnetic tape

- - - -

    Digital breaks up analog information into smaller pieces

    – 0101010 –

    resulting in quicker transmission.

Pam & Tommy, the partly-fictionalized Hulu miniseries based on the unauthorized release of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s infamous honeymoon sex and love tape, is not a show about consent, sex, or fame. It’s a show about the end of the (analog) world and the beginning of another (increasingly digital) one. Analog and digital are not opposites, nor do they exist in separate arenas.

Like the celestial and earthly cities that Saint Augustine outlines in his gigantic 5th century text City of God, analog and digital modes exist alongside one another: translating, transmitting, and overcoding. Augustine tells of the difference between angelic and demonic knowledge, which seems to come down to the question of how a channel holds information – (channel = computer, human, spiritual creature, air…) – writing: “The good angels hold cheap all the knowledge of material and temporal matters, which inflates the demons with pride.” The good angels which are more plentiful than humans in the godly/worshipful city – hold cheap that which they transmit and instead of clinging to it, deliver it straightaway. The demons are demons because of their knowledge, says Augustine. They get inflamed with what they carry. The angels cling to God and the demons cling to information. Eugene Thacker, in “Devil’s Switchboard,” claims that demonology is also the study of “noise’s assault on signal.” And as Michel Serres tells us in The Parasite, signal and noise are structurally hooked-up. When our messaging systems get overfull, we and what we transmit disappear by saturation, too much.




14th cen. Manuscript



ANGELS AND DEMONS

Near the end of “The Dedication” entry in A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes tells us that the visitor in Pasolini’s Teorema is definitely an angel, as he does not speak but rather “inscribes something within each of those who desire him – he performs what the mathematicians call a catastrophe (the disturbance of one system by another): it is true that this mute figure is an angel.” The silence of the angel engraves, leaves a mark. The silence is what happens. An encounter, a puncture, rippled beginnings of texture. Barthes’s “We are our own demons” entry begins with the assertion that the lover is sometimes possessed by a demon of language. The lover is inhabited – an inflamed vessel who babbles hyperspeak. Love and writing are processes of possession and exorcism – stretching bodies to catastrophic limits (the projectile vomit and spinning head in The Exorcist; the catatonia caused by the angel in Teorema). Babble, convulsion, expulsion, inflammation. One system disturbs another. Love> – > l … o ///*& v← )))) e.


Angels reading. Source: The Morgan Library.


Pam and Tommy searching for their sex tape on the internet at the Malibu Library.


DARK GLASSES

Pam and Tommy walk into a library and dial-up to the internet. Slowly, carefully, they type out a web address. Press enter. For an instant, the keyboard overflows the frame. Next, the computer screen. There, the mid-90s transition from analog to digital, video to web, flu to plague, unfolds before their horrified eyes. They see themselves. Their (intimate, sweet, stolen) sex tape is there – somehow – in front of them as the screen gleams their dark glasses. At a thresholded region between analog and digital registers. The breath changes. A stolen piece of data broken into bits and reconstituted as something that moves quicker. The breath changes.

In the “Dark Glasses” entry in A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes writes that weeping (“to weep is part of the normal activity of the amorous body”) swells the eyes and so the lover wears dark glasses “to darken the sight in order not to be seen.” Also: dark glasses are meant to preserve dignity, to dim the too-lit world. The dark glasses impel questions: what’s the matter? What’s going on? What are you hiding? Who/what are you hiding from? The dark glasses reinstitute opacity – shield the lover(s) from themselves. At this moment, Pam and Tommy are no longer two lovers falling frantically in love – they are two people on one side of a screen looking through dark glasses at their own images.

JUSTICE?

One can mistake revenge or punishment for justice. The first episode of the 8-part series opens with Rand, a broke carpenter whom Tommy Lee treats terribly and refuses to pay. (Eileen Jones wrote this interesting piece on the show’s class consciousness). Rand steals Tommy Lee’s safe, hoping to get the 20k he’s owed. When he finds the sex tape amongst the items, he believes himself to be performing a dutiful act of karmic justice by selling it: “The righteous, they get rewarded. The wicked, they get punished,” he says. Rand thinks of himself as an amateur theologian, his tone resembling self-appointed moral arbiters of social media. But justice is more than reward and punishment. It is also about complicating a situation with thorough reading and admitting we cannot know. Like love, it is without guarantees and according to Simone Weil, justice is about reading differently:

“Justice. To be ever ready to admit that another person is something quite different from what we read when he is there (or when we think about him). Or rather, to read in him that he is certainly something different, perhaps something completely different from what we read in him. Every being cries out silently to be read differently.”

OH, FUCK.

That a person is never an easy read. That a text is not what it seems. That justice involves close reading and careful attention to what overflows calculation. Jean Baudrillard and Byung-Chul Han have argued that digital communications proliferate societal obsessions with positivity, pornography, transparency, and painlessness. In The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard writes:

Nothing (not even God) now disappears by coming to an end, by dying. Instead, things disappear through proliferation or contamination, by becoming saturated or transparent, because of extenuation or extermination, or as a result of the epidemic of simulation, as a result of their transfer into the secondary existence of simulation. Rather than a mortal mode of disappearance, then, a fractal mode of dispersal.

In Pam & Tommy, love, intimacy, and secrets buckle under torpedoes of web-based transmission – images of selves sent back to selves ad nauseam – everywhere they/we look, there they/we are. With this hall of mirrors – Oh, fuck. – comes a freaky deletion as the tape’s repetition unspools their togetherness. As the series rolls on, the couple goes from talking about many things to talking about one thing. The viral video won’t go away.



Pam and Tommy search for their sex tape at the library.



The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, 1536-41.


In The Marvelous Clouds, media theorist John Durham Peters writes: “Google revives the ancient dream and nightmare of a ‘book of life’ in which every human deed is recorded for the Day of Judgment and thus stands in a long line of sacral and bureaucratic bookkeeping.” Enter → …///// oh. … // fuck. If love, as Roland Barthes tells us, involves not more understanding but a lingering around the other’s infinite opacity – which is not “the screen around a secret” but another kind of ground – a zone in which exaltation is delivered to the atmosphere as what’s unknown. If love is mystical. If love wears dark glasses. Pam & Tommy shows what happens when a secret gets revealed over and over again in plays of repetitive dispersal. If love means (re)locating textural and textual uncertainty – impenetrable velvet of love’s unknowable transmissions. If love. Then what..////…^^^ now?



Pam and Tommy wait for their sex tape to load at the Malibu Library.

VIRUS

The video was a flu but its internet circulation is a plague, says their lawyer. From analog copying to digital dispersal. Love plagued by plague. The point is not whether we like the show or not, whether we are offended by it or not, whether there is a lesson or not.

If the network holds love. If the network alters the transmission. If the form changes. If what was continuous gets broken up then made continuous again, repeat. If the angel should switch, cease holding knowledge cheap. If the air should morph a particle. If the future should be perfume. If memory is prophecy. If the ecstasy of constant communication should seem unmediated, thresholdless.

LOVE AND VIOLENCE, SIGNAL AND NOISE

Like love, transmission contains within it multiple modes, hues, moods. Not love or violence, consent or unfreedom, but the moods and perfumes that the words and the — can hold as they get altered. Love’s risky spectrum gets echoed in Georges Bataille’s famous statement A kiss is the beginning of cannibalism. Tenderness and brutality, care and cannibalism, analog and digital form complicated and contradictory geometries.

Angels and demons, like reading and misreading, signal and noise, are not opposites but ever-linked. In Transmitting Culture, Regis Debray writes: “A disconcerting reversibility of order into disorder. To synthesize, the devil is not necessarily God’s other; he can be God exercising his power. The noise is in the message itself.”

There is also the terror of too-swift transmission. Messages appearing one after the other in a glitchless zone. There is pain at the threshold and pain of not being able to feel the threshold. There is the demon of noise, a release from smooth communication into a thicker texture. What becomes of love under viral conditions? Baudrillard asks: “Is there still a form of the Other as destiny, and not merely as a psychological or social partner of convenience?” Destiny – often inconvenient, marks that which has befallen us.

HARM

How to read Pam & Tommy (and whatever…) beyond praise or scold, X or Y? Many people have boycotted and/or scolded the show because the creators didn’t get the explicit consent of Pamela Anderson, arguing that the show repeats the original harm of the stolen tape. (For one of many examples, see:Exploiting the Exploited: The Problem with Pam & Tommy.”)

Consent: agree, assent, accord, feeling together, giving permission. In her reading of the film Amour Fou in Life-Destroying Diagrams, film theorist Eugenie Brinkema writes:

“Any reading that would fixate on consent as the opposite of unfreedom misses the more radical stance that the opposite of consent is an opposite consent. The opposite of love is neither violence nor hatred, neither cruelty nor indifference, neither force nor violation.”

Likewise, readings of Pam & Tommy that focus on “consent as the opposite of unfreedom” fail to register the status of Pam/Pam as a more complicated person and character. Brinkema continues:

“The secret of love is neither kept to oneself nor shared between several–the secret is that the opposite of love is an opposite love, already contained within its bouquet of values–it extends in every direction at once, even toward the indecency of violation, even toward the realm of what would certainly wreck it from within.”

Are we to base what/how we read on what appears to have caused the least amount of harm? How do we define harm? Indeed, can anything promise to not cause harm? Is there also a harm of willfully rejecting the sight of evil, of offing the negative? Of not reading? Positivity, sedation, unveiling – a harm that masquerades as un-harm, safety, I read it so you didn’t have to. To attempt to abolish all potential harm/pain is also to expunge possibilities for reading love’s thrilling and scary “bouquet of values.”

Every angel is terrible.

A kiss is the beginning of cannibalism.

& & &

With the ambient violence of the viral comes a fear of contagion – as though reading or spending time with a particular idea, text, person, TV show, or politics might infect. But love and reading must remain open to contagion and unknowing. The logic of purity which separates and severs, where X is marked good/watchable and Y is scorned as bad/unwatchable, is closer to Rand’s misguided and vengeful crusade for justice than Simone Weil’s generous definition of justice as that which demands we read people more complicatedly. 

In The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard writes: “All this talk is of the minimizing of Evil, the prevention of violence: nothing but security. This is the condescending and depressive power of good intentions, a power that can dream of nothing except rectitude in the world, that refuses even to consider a bending of Evil, or an intelligence of Evil.” Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee were violated – they had a private tape stolen from their home. Does the show violate again by virtue of the fact that it tells a story that is already in the public domain? Is there a chance that the show – with its fun and sad depictions of these events – chases out some of the evil with evil? Readings of the show that shun it for being misogynist or anti-feminist or re-harming Pamela Anderson not only refuse to read the show beyond the closed circuit of either morally righteous or harmful/violent, but seize the agency that they’re claiming to fight for. Their good intentions are condescending, as they won’t allow Pam/Pam to be anything other than either a victim or an empowered hero. For all its faults, I would argue that the show casts her as a sacred victim/hero...

SACRIFICE

Pam and Tommy’s marriage fails coextensively with the video’s circulation. Pam is the hero of the show because she doesn’t react as Tommy does. Instead, says: give them what they want. Says, stop. Stops. Stops the velocity of transmission. Stops feeding the machine. Surrenders the secrets that are already exposed. Pam halts the velocity of transmission by becoming-sacrifice. To sacrificeto destroy and to make sacred. In Medium, Messenger, and Transmission, Sybille Kramer describes René Girard’s theory of the sacrifice and violence, noting that Girard talks about the immunizing function of sacrifice as the mediator of a transmission event. The potential for violence is transmitted to the sacrifice – in an absolutely literal sense – and it can then be allayed and overcome in and through the sacrifice. The special status of the sacrificed thus becomes significant; like the neutrality of the messenger, it is caught between competing groups enmeshed in the reciprocal use of force.” The show positions Pam as caught between – between Tommy’s rage and her career – between her lawyer’s advice and her own intuition – on and on – until finally she gives the Internet Entertainment Group the rights to the tape for free. Her sacrifice halts the viral attack, immunizes, stops.

SAVE THE WORLD

Erotic love is often described in geometrical or mathematical terms.

TRIANGLES, THREES:

THE LOVER [hypercharged space in-between, sometimes called EROS] THE BELOVED
SENDER [ANGEL-DEMON..HERMES…THE INTERNET…WHATEVER] RECEIVER

At Plato’s Symposium:

Love is connected to death. The tragedy of love. (Phaedrus)

We are halves walking around searching for wholeness.

Eros = pursuit of the whole that we were before we began and so  ½ + ½ = 1. (Aristophanes)

The parents of Eros =  Penia (Poverty) and Poros (Resource). Eros mediates between humans or god. Neither human nor god, Eros is a spirit – excess and lack – connected always to death, passion, and sacrifice. (Socrates with the help of Diotima, a wise woman)


A WEIRD NUMBERS GAME:

“Love’s curious arithmetic.” – Michel Serres, The Parasite
Love’s curious arithmetic, digitized.


INTERRUPTION OF THE BALANCE SHEET:

“Eros, however, represents an asymmetrical relationship to the Other. As such, it interrupts the exchange rate. Otherness admits no bookkeeping. It does not appear in the balance of debt and credit.” – Byung-Chul Han, The Agony of Eros

At the end of the world, there are no more secrets. Technology changes. All envelopes open. Pam & Tommy’s problem is our problem. An analog then digital tape’s maddening repetition forecloses the error that allows for encounter – the holy shit of love’s arrow – as networked air secretes secrets, as transmission quickens, apocalypse loops.

Love is mathematical catastrophe, mystical. Pam & Tommy reveals the catastrophic encounter with the Other, the shock of encountering a force that might alter the structure of a life:

Would you do me the insane honor of being my wife?

I would love to f*ck you in space.

What are you, the porn police?

I feel violated.

and the disruptive capacities of a new mode of transmission – secrets unveiled and gone viral – injects a catastrophe into the catastrophe, smoothing and stirring love’s deranged geometry. Saving the world means saving the Other – beholding the whole geometric spectrum of love, reading, messaging – what’s illegible, doesn’t add up, what’s crossed out, halts the drudgery of repetitive virality for the sake of silliness and tragedy. I don’t know. It is kind of supernatural.

I know what I do not know.



WORKS CITED

Augustine. City of God. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.

Baudrillard, Jean. The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. New York: Verso, 2009.

Brinkema, Eugenie. Life-Destroying Diagrams. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022.

Debray, Regis. Transmitting Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Han, Byung-Chul. The Agony of Eros. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

Kramer, Sybille. Medium, Messenger, Transmission: An Approach to Media Philosophy. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015.

Peters, John Durham. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Plato. The Symposium. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2002.



Emmalea Russo is a writer and artist living at the Jersey shore. Her books are G (Futurepoem, 2018) and Wave Archive (Book*hug, 2019). Recent writing has appeared in Artforum, American Chordata, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She's pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and edits Asphalte Magazine.

For more of Emmalea’s work, go to https://emmalearusso.com/ and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo

More from Cloudbusting...











January 7, 2021

On Spiritual Creatures

Analog and Digital


By EMMALEA RUSSO





The Net (Irwin Winkler, 1995)



On the winter beach something moves in the zone between where I stand and you speak. Thin gleam of sheet white light on waving repeat when into the space between I throw the light of this screen.

To see the messenger’s form and to make the middle glow or DICE THROW in an attempt to reach you I click on a link which writes its destination:

<a>
<a>
<a>

Wavelength (1967) plays a continuous zoom on an empty-full room —-->

IN
IN
IN

lens revealed as moving eye ruled by what it’s in front of and behind.





Material things, says Thomas Aquinas, must have something holding them together other than their parts. A slice of meat THROWN

into a field of light to make it loop, enter
a body, loop, leave a body, loop, become a body.

Angels and other immaterial creatures of organization (like us) are always dying. MOVING in wave disturbances. An energy-carrying medium.

An angel, says Aquinas, might be pure form. The distance between wave crests. “Spiritual substance” or the speed of a wave divided by frequency or “divine thing” or when the medium’s wings glow then vanish upon delivery. Delivery. Something speaks. A throw of the die’s knife-edge between there and here along wired-up

vertical
road
screen
sea.

When a form makes itself known. Brilliant frock coat appears. Again and again and again without end the wave breaks-crests-breaks-again. I have not reached you yet. AN ANGEL

falls too-bright light
becomes Lucifer as
waves freeze-frame
repeat where I stand
on the beach. Here
and there.

A very very awe-inducing morning star with white light of film and/or beyond. True or false light masquerading as air. Film in which there appear sprocket holes, edge lettering, dirt particles, etc. (1965-66) is a film by George Landow in which we see the form of the film’s trembling noise. The babble at the beginning of a world-film’s test strip. Dirt keeps bizarre time. The system moves. There is the risk of fire. Flicker and lettered glimpses. So close to the form we see its vision shooting from eyes in zigzags, swift dissolve. Wavelength, dying messenger, wavelength, repeated together.





A rebel angel adds its own sound to the message. Like me right now or sprocket holes as translucent form runs along the edge of the wheel. Wavelength getting closer to here. Medium excess gets hard to hold in the head. Light spreads its revelation, loop, wave, moving message.

I write to you and some of what moves thru

POETRY IS ALSO VERTICAL

I write to you and some of what moves thru

POETRY IS ALSO VERTICAL

me to you
sticks and escapes
blue digital
then analog
material between
sea and screen.
Something speaks.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes:  “The devil has the broadest perspectives for God; therefore he keeps so far away from God–the devil being the most ancient friend of wisdom.”

Alarmingly bright thing gets dragged across the sky in between permeabilities this distant vision can’t see. Use something other than the eyes. Rotting light leaving behind RESIDUE

clinging as this light
speaks through me
to you? Reach and decay
repeat
repeat
repeat
then leave the frame.

In a trembling cool white moment from Michael Snow’s Wavelength, a frame shows itself, projector blue's bleeding edge. Lengthy beep where light, angel-demon, gets heard and seen. Falling, something speaks. Dying flare pushing through screen:





What can the painting/screen/sea see?  A breeze a breeze a penetrating breeze. Light, meat, famous nativity. Wavelength was shot during one week in December 1966 after years of conceiving. The goal: a moment of pure filmic space time. The blue-green-yellow beep plays behind a scene. The message DELIVERED SMASHED

is delivered again alarmingly blue
serene we speak as we enter
the room. We are in the room
getting closer and closer while
eyeing the lit threshold of a film
moving with the reel. Hearing
it hum. Then we go. Thick
light on digital liturgy. The angel
Gabriel did a fine 3-part job:
deliver, explain, depart.

We end with a photograph of the sea on a wall. The head of a pin is a place. Angels are placeless. A text message’s lit-up blue holds part of the room up on this sizzling winged shelf MICROSCOPIC

not quite itself.
What can film fit on?
How many angels can fit
on the edge of its reel?
What film plays
on the head of a pin?
The text message is
a Paul Virilio quote:
“God has come back
into history through
the door of terror.”

In the 1995 film The Net, computers seem new and strange, digital screens with their own light suddenly mediating sky, ground, hand, film, fireplace. Sandra Bullock plays a computer programmer. All day she clicks. A hyperlink is a wired-up electronic door.

<a>
<a>
<a>

She enters chat rooms and talks to cyberbuddies. We don't know who animates these entities. Angel, skull, smiley face. Michel Serres says that the Annunciation asks the question of the intermediary: “...if he is too magnificent, he may intercept the message; if he is too discreet, he won’t make it heard. Must he appear or disappear? Both one and the other? How?” Serres describes the Annunciation as “the perfect message” because simultaneously “word and act.”




A messenger may fuck up.
Something speaks louder
than its end. Time passes.
A scroll unfurls from hand
hangs suspended midair.

In the above early 15th century depiction of the Annunciation, a scroll extends between the two figures, the angel Gabriel and Mary. An unwound reel. The sea is a fixed image moving on a wall. On screen, I scroll, click. All angels and waves recede for an instant and we’re left with what was delivered. FRIGHTENING

Or,

U

lacerating
catching
hook
Or,

THE MESSENGER IS A CHANCE like in Zorns Lemma (1970) when Hollis Frampton shows us many signs in quick succession, among them this flash of angel and dice:





Thomas Aquinas, angelic doctor, says angels are placeless but they can act upon places, pushing and powering arenas. A hook is the item Georges Bataille associates with chance. A fall blocked by the hook of chance, knife-arrow curved into U may rip and/or act as a saving grace. Bataille writes: “Chance, which eludes me, plays in the heavens. The sky: oblique link uniting me with those who breathe beneath its expanse; even uniting me with beings yet to come. How to bear the question of the multitude of particular beings?”

Innumerable spiritual creatures and oblique (hyper)links. Without divine order, chance mediates.

Alejandra Pizarnik’s poem “Exile” ends:

angels beautiful as knives
that rise up at night
as hope’s devestations.


LIGHT WRITES ITSELF IN LIQUID NIGHT, CUTS THRU

frenetic in Marie Menken’s Lights (1966). She writes: “Made during the brief Christmas-lit season, usually between the hours of midnight and 1:00 A.M., when vehicle and foot traffic was light, over a period of three years. Based on store decorations, window displays, fountains, public promenades, Park Avenue lights, building and church facades. I had to keep my camera under my coat to warm it up, as the temperature was close to zero much of the time.”





On the December beach I watch one surfer carry a surfboard out of the ocean like a heavy wing. Between us: air, cold phones, hair, ocean foam, light blur, something I can’t see or hear.






Emmalea Russo is a writer and artist living at the Jersey shore. Her books are G (Futurepoem, 2018) and Wave Archive (Book*hug, 2019). Recent writing has appeared in Artforum, American Chordata, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She's pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and edits Asphalte Magazine.

For more of Emmalea’s work, go to https://emmalearusso.com/ and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo









August 27, 2021

Undigested Fragments

Erotic Goo and Absent Messages


By EMMALEA RUSSO



DREAM STRANGER


I’m in a blue-lit room sitting near a beautiful stranger. We’ve communicated digitally, though his dream presence has a different resonance and texture. I notice new things about Dream Stranger in this dreamscape. For instance: he has a revolutionary message embroidered on his jeans. I’ve seen the message in a documentary, perhaps. Tagged in spray paint on a cement wall. I wonder what this fragment of text quietly displayed on his pant leg says about him, what I might surmise from the threaded message. The soft and pointed materials involved in the manual labor of its stitching. Sudden urge to photograph it, translate it to digital. But this is a dream and I have no camera.

We exit the blue-lit room and enter an abandoned stripmall. Skateboarders skate along the empty floor, back and forth as Dream Stranger and me stand in awe. Suddenly, a ringing flip phone in my trembling hand, brand new and very old. The ringing phone means I have to go, pulled away from Dream Stranger. Walking away from him and the mall, his mysterious textured pants and familiar look, our eyes lock, analog and digital and beyond, musical swoosh of wheels on old mall tiles.

Ahead of me: the star-like work of inscribing his message into our own uncertain future and the decay of light. But I already forgot the message. I carry the absence of the message into my day and for hours it hangs like a cloud between me and everything I see. What’s between me and the world is composed of loose threads and turquoise and pink toys, plush and smooshed like Mike Kelley’s old stuffed animals sewn together and hanging from a ceiling. Where is Dream Stranger? What was the embroidered message?

Everywhere: stuffed animals and thread and a foggy absence I carry carefully, trying not to walk through it, disperse it. The cloud’s a cloud. Then: night, the kind that arrives as a dazzling chandelier fuzzing-out the center of the field I’ve arrived in. A shadow of sewn-up cloud moving over Dream Stranger and me, Mike Kelley’s Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites. In the waking world, digitized, deodorized, I am met with a series of yes or no questions and a few boxes to check. I blink into the screen, then into the analog beyond, a mass of matted toys flattened and smoothed into pixels as my limbs leave the screen like candelabra arms in Jean Cocteau’s foggy Beauty and the Beast. Trapped, enchanted, both/and.

Click every image in which a skateboard appears. Click every image in which a thread appears. A thread appears. I attempt to type out the dream message, repeat its absence many times, cloud-like chunk of what I’ve forgotten and skulk around obliquely, no trail. I cannot name it. Outside at twilight, the absence of the threaded message takes on new resonance, sharp like the silver point in Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Thinking of You), where an unfastened safety pin presses into a fingertip. The red headline reads:

THINKING OF YOU.

Thinking of you, I repeat many times into the cloud I move around. YOU are not there. The absence of YOU is like a pin pressing into the finger. A safety pin is meant to clasp, hold things together. The finger is not yet punctured by the pin, though there’s the YOU’s distance and almost-wound at the flesh’s threshold. If YOU arrive, will the pin go into the skin? A painful relief-release? If YOU arrive, will the pin re-enter its clasp, secured?

Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Thinking of You). 1999

Desire, like writing, is an empty-full space of mediation and flux. Both are somewhat impossible, blood anticipation at the fingertips. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietszche, always reminding us that we write with our bodies, writes: “Of all that is written I love only what a man has written with his blood. Write with blood, and you will experience that blood is spirit. It is not easily possible to understand the blood of another...”



TRANSPARENT OPAQUE


Transparency is trending. As Byung-Chul Han notes in Transparency Society, transparency is meant to denote trust, but trust has been degraded in our society. Han associates a society of transparency with one of distrust, control, and hypervisibility where we suffer from overexposure and a lack of necessary opacity and those modes that thrive in cloudier zones: poetry, eros, sensuality, what’s hard to name, grasp, consume, digest.

In the book’s preface, Han writes: “Transparent communication is communication that has a smoothing and leveling effect. It leads to uniformity. It eliminates Otherness.” Constant exhibition and masses of information eliminate erotic assymetries, thresholds, edges, ambiguous goo and blurry edges of poetry, those undigestable pieces, toys hanging from the ceiling, stitched together, a needle about to press into a fingertip, writing with one’s bodily fluids. The dream returns, a virtuality I walk around and around, a cloud that secretly shapes my moves, weaving veils and glimmers which illuminate the past in uncanny fractures of light, threading slowly some possible futures.

Under consumer capitalism, information (clickable) is meant to be immediately assimilable. In our digital experiences, largely regulated by Big Tech, what happens to the Other? To the absent message? The dream—Thinking of You—stranger? Mystical experience, which Georges Bataille (following mystics like Angela of Foligno) sometimes relates to erotic experience, is cloudy and requires slanted points of entry, a negative theology, fuzzy and at times formless, risky.

“Formless” is a prose poem-like definition of a slippery term, part of a text that Georges Bataille wrote for the surrealist journal Documents in 1929. Philosophy, writes Bataille, seeks to “give a frock coat to what is.” A shape, form, name. However, to say the universe is formless “amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.” Bataille is suspicious of mathematical frock coats and modernism’s affinity for categorizations and mastery. Instead of bringing what’s apparently low or formless into dominant economies to be circulated and subsumed, Bataille brings art to base materialism in a reversal echoing Nietzsche, who often associated art with animality and the body.

“Formless: A User’s Guide,” a 1996 exhibition in Paris curated by Rosalind Krauss, employed Bataille’s ideas about formlessness and included the work of Mike Kelley, Mel Bochner, and Cindy Sherman, among others. Moments of continuity or formlessness, slippages or materials that overflow utility or may defy categorization and deal with what’s uncanny, abject, ‘low,’ bodily, erotic.


Mel Bochner. Transparent and Opaque.&nbsp;1968, printed 1998.

Mel Bochner. Transparent and Opaque. 1968, printed 1998.


One of the pieces included in the show was Mel Bochner’s Transparent Opaque, a series of photographs arranged in a grid, each one displaying ambiguous goo or slime in a variety of colors. Vaseline spread across glass or plastic and lit by pink, purple, turquoise light and opaque substances resembling shaving cream, sensuous and hard to identify. In On Nietzsche, the third book in his Atheological Summa, a trilogy of mystical writings composed during the second world war, Bataille writes: 

Sensuality is nothing without an equivocal shift—in which suddenly there is this glimpse of a demented ‘goo’ that, although normally escaping us, suddenly seems attainable. The ‘goo’ still gets away. But in the brief glimpse our hearts beat with deranged hopes. It’s such hopes as these that, jumbled all together and pushing forward, finally allow the surging forth of... Often, a deranged beyond lacerates us while we’re apparently bent on lasciviousness.

Erotic goo, unattainable but profoundly affecting, makes the heart beat with “deranged hope.” And in this brief and uncapturable glimpse, an encounter with an Other—Dream Stranger, digital, divine, or otherwise—formlessness ensues. One can’t capture the seepage, a deranged hope clouds the scene. His thought trails off after something—a space for something, surges forth, then picks up again.

In contrast to the “transparent communication,” uniform and flat, that Byung-Chul Han says we’re plagued by these days under digitized neoliberal capitalism, Bataille continues the above thought with an attempt to define an entirely different kind of communication, intimate and excessive, open but not exactly transparent: “The communication of two individuals occurs when they lose themselves in sweet, shared slime...” Selves get lost in a slime reminiscent of Mel Bochner’s gridded textures of colorful vaselines and creams. In an erotic and intimate communication, we can never really attain or grasp the Other, piece of art, text, atmosphere, on and on. We try, we slip.

On Nietzsche feels undigested and also resists digestion. A different, slower, and more divergent reading practice is required. Bataille writes from personal experience, at times diaristic and fragmentary. When I first opened the book, I expected to read about Nietzsche. Instead, On Nietzsche acts as a tilted guidebook filled with oblique and overgrown paths into Nietzsche via Bataille’s encounters with Christian and non-western mystical writings and Nietzsche’s work. Still, it slowly shows ways one might approach, read, assimilate, and leave undigested parts of any text.

In a way, On Nietzsche shows the dangers of thinking you’ve digested or fully assimilated...anything. Bataille attempted to save Nietzsche’s writing from posthumous fascist appropriations, showing how his work is resistant to easy subsumption into any political agenda or book. To leave certain parts undigested (opaque), to leave room for multiplicity and flux and bodily chaos of thought itself, is a kind of ethics. I’m thinking here about Simone Weil’s warnings against eating or consuming the object of one’s desire and Ingeborg Bachmann’s insistence that fascism begins in the relationships between people. About Bataille’s mystical wartime trilogy, Amy Hollywood writes: “These books contain ample quotations from Nietzsche’s texts and from those of the mystics—undigested hunks and fragments of these illusive writings...”


NOT DIGESTIBLE


Kelly, Milke. Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites. 1991-1999.


The slippery texture of digital communications seems, at least on the surface, to be of a different variety than Bataille’s shared slime, unnameable goo, Bochner’s pearly pictures, or my forgotten dream message. I scroll on my device quickly, trance-like. Ads pop up and I accidentally click, then leave, enter another grid. Mostly, things I can name. An advertisement for a new kind of candy bar. Digital and analog desires overlap and appear quickly, suggestions for things I might want. We can click on the name of a friend, lover, stranger, and the name, a link, leads to a window, another series of images. Looking, devouring. Digital and analog communications overcode and underwrite each other. Opaque clouds of not-knowing mix with digital storage.

In Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, which employs poetic and associative logic against totalities and colonialism, a crucial part of Glissant’s concept of relation involves opacity.

If we examine the process of ‘understanding’ people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgements. I have to reduce.

Relation is mobile, pushing against fixity. Glissant reminds us that we can relate to a person without understanding or grasping them. He continues: “Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity that is not enclosure within an impenetrable autarchy but subsistence within an irreducible singularity. Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics.” Against a closed loop of understanding, Glissant clamors for an opening that spills over as he illustrates these seepages in the text itself, linking-up poetry and relation through their weird weaves, loose threads and generative convergences which work to trouble reduction of place, person, idea.

Intimate communication or relation opens space for the other, erotic goo, intriguing though not exactly digestible. Always already overflowing itself in incalculable flows, hard to scroll over or forget and equally hard to store. Messages or Dream Strangers that resist legibility, opaque-shimmering thicknesses that stick to memory and arrive over and over in flashes. Clicks that may turn into punctures, thinking of you, a you that’s both here and not, an I that is also another, loosening the bones to gooey formlessness as it backlights another zone, perhaps pink and turquoise vaseline on glass, a grid of photographs, a deodorized mass.



WORKS CITED

Bataille, Georges. On Nietzsche, tr. Bruce Boone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1998, p.97-98.

Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess, tr. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p. 31.

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation, tr. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997, p. 189-190.

Han, Byung-Chul. Transparency Society, tr. Erik Butler. Stanford, CA: Stanford Briefs, 2015, p. vii.

Hollywood, Amy. Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 101.

Nietzsche, Frederich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p 27.



Emmalea Russo is a writer and artist living at the Jersey shore. Her books are G (Futurepoem, 2018) and Wave Archive (Book*hug, 2019). Recent writing has appeared in Artforum, American Chordata, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She's pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and edits Asphalte Magazine.

For more of Emmalea’s work, go to https://emmalearusso.com/ and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo









September 25, 2021

THE DAZZLING

By EMMALEA RUSSO



“There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it.
Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these.
-Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology



“I am not a philosopher, but a saint, maybe a madman.”
– Georges Bataille, Method of Meditation


“But this night of mine can’t be killed by any sun.”
– Alejandra Pizarnik, “The Green Table”




Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna (1969) shows a disintegrating relationship between Anna (Liv Ullman) and Andreas (Max von Sydow) in disjointed associative leaps. The present fills with residues of a past catastrophe which haunts Anna as an ominous future horror hangs over the film like another film. Mind and world deteriorate in plays of light and darkness. The film opens as Andreas repairs his roof which has “long been in disrepair.” He pauses and squints into the bright sky which contains multiple suns. The bucket of cement falls to the ground.

It’s a question of proximity. Glimmering trash on the ground, uncomfortable close-ups, multiple suns, tiny transcendences under minimart lights. Proximity to sun, lamp, page, face, experience.

Is there a right light for writing? Direct experience? Receiving messages from the dead? Is the light which facilitated a work always the light it emits? Or is there a gap, a spillover, light or night that can’t be accounted for? How does the persistent light of our screens delete and mutate proximity and distance? What facilitates dazzlement, being so close, too close -- to sun, lamp, face, divine, other, ground?

In “The Night, The Poem” Alejandra Pizarnik writes: “In fact, I do not write: I widen a breach so that the messages of the dead can reach me at twilight.” Writing is the process of creating an opening for messages, an active receptivity that is also not writing.

︎






When does the writer/lover/filmmaker/mystic’s passage-making and desire for union tilt into madness? Ingmar Bergman wrote The Passion of Anna “in a white heat” aiming to “make a black-and-white film in color, with certain hues emphasized in a strictly defined color scale. It turned out to be difficult.”

In an uncomfortable and hypnotic monologue half-way through the film, Anna tells Andreas about her former marriage, which she describes as a thrilling/dissolving oneness (similar to the way certain mystics speak of union with God) as her eyes gleam. Bergman makes faces into landscapes and here, Anna’s works like a dazzling sun we’re impossibly near.

The Mystical Theology, written by the 5th or 6th century pseudonymous mystic Pseudo-Dionysius and influential for Christian mystical traditions in the Middle Ages, speaks of the divine as beyond speech or description. A “brilliant darkness of a hidden silence” and a “darkness beyond intellect,” highlighting spiritual experience over understanding. The seven page text begins with a question: “What is the divine darkness?” Is this the night Pizarnik speaks of? The night of the poem? The “complete togetherness” that Anna recalls in the film?

In the trilogy of books written during World War II, Georges Bataille connects the writings of Nietzsche with those of the Christian mystic Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), whose bodily devotions included washing hands and feet of lepers and then drinking the water, stripping naked in front of the cross, convulsing, and meditating on portions of Christ’s crucified flesh. This unlikely connection, I think, has to do with unmediated experience. The I/eye of the philosopher, dazzled, might become the I/eye of mystic. In his book on Bataille, Rodolphe Gasché writes about the theorizing eye of the philosopher:

“Never looking up in order to avoid the danger of being dazzled, strips the perceived images of their materiality in order to perceive in them eternal forms and essences. But a look at the things themselves would dazzle his vision like a look at the sun, which still appears to the philosopher as the guarantee of every truth.”

In forsaking cool distance to look at things in themselves, philosophy risks a dazzlement which might swerve the old theory/experience binary. According to Angela of Foligno, the divine darkness shows the soul “nothing and everything at once.”

︎




The multiple suns at the start of The Passion of Anna divine the structure of the film. Just as the violence of the Vietnam War heightened on-set stress, interviews with the actors get interjected and trouble demarcations between reality/fiction, actor/character, nearness/distance. Liv Ullman says that while she sympathizes with her character’s need for truth, the quest has become dangerous. Not finding what she seeks, she takes “refuge in lies and imagination.”

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes: “When after a forceful attempt to gaze at the sun we turn away blinded, we see dark-colored spots before our eyes, as a cure, as it were.” Later, in his introduction to Twilight of the Idols (dated September 30, 1888, a few months before his nervous collapse in Turin), Nietzsche writes that the book is a kind of sunspot, a place to rest. When is the darkness a restorative retreat? When does the retreat become a hideaway? When might the hideaway open into terror, deterioration?

Sunspot writing. Philosophy becomes poetry becomes autobiography becomes divine revelation becomes silence. Sunspot writing is perhaps performed in bursts (Nietzsche often paused to write aphorisms while walking) alternating between afternoon sun and dazzling darkness, writing and walking. Walking is sometimes writing. Writing is sometimes not writing.

I often photograph the ground, glimmers that catch my eye or that I might ordinarily pass over, usually something discarded or dropped and curiously lit by sun or streetlight. Over the years, I’ve amassed a glittering digital archive of trash.

Beyond what Nietzsche named “permanent daylight—the daylight of reason,” the dazzled one has a paradoxical relationship to light. According to Bataille, Nietzsche wrote from a night emerging from excesses of light, and perhaps went mad from it:

“The tragedy of Nietzsche is the tragedy of night emerging from excesses of light.
His eyes emboldened and wide open, like an eagle in flight: the sun of immorality and dazzling malice left him blinded. 
It’s a dazzled man who speaks.
The most difficult thing.
Getting as far down as possible.
Down to where everything thrown to the ground is shattered. Your nose in a puddle of vomit.”

Light slips and splits. Things of this world, up-close, might unlock a sunspot, a place to write. Pseudo-Dionysius describes this divine darkness as higher than light. To be dazzled is to be so near to something (the sun, the divine, a lamp, a sidewalk, a text, a puddle) that it stuns and confuses. Dazzled knowledge is limit knowledge, perilous, often silent, hard to describe.

In “Sex, Night” Pizarnik writes, “Night opens itself only once. It’s enough. You see.” Then the self, like the sun in the film, multiplies: “Fear of being two in the mirror, and suddenly we’re four.” Often, one doesn't choose this dazzling darkness. It arrives through the breach in Pizarnik’s poem. It comes through poverty, illness, or other precarious situations which take a person out of/into the world in disquieting proximities to light, truth, self, other. I photographed dazzling ground in part because I frequently ended up there, having fallen during epileptic seizures, moments that felt mad, my eye/I dissolved. I have to write around these experiences. I can’t write from them. Still, maybe those falls and contortions are a kind of silent writing.

︎





Who gets to have distance? What (ir)rationality is inherent in collecting and organizing images and making narratives? Near the film’s end, Anna and Andreas communicate in a vacuum of inky darkness. There is always a remainder, a gap or an excess, dazzling or disorienting, between two people, between what happened and the story we tell, between the filmmaker’s vision and how we receive the film as viewers.

Georges Bataille’s brief essay “Rotten Sun” describes two suns, one productive and one combustive:

    • The reasonable and elevated sun gives form to our days. Distant, it allows us to see.
    • The rotten sun decomposes forms and melts Icarus’s waxen wings: “If on the other hand one obstinately focuses on it, a certain madness is implied, and the notion changes meaning because it is no longer production that appears in light, but refuse or combustion, adequately expressed by the horror emanating from a brilliant arc lamp.”

The sun, so often regarded in philosophy as an unwavering truth source, is also a perishable material. Blisters, headache, disorientation, nausea, and vomiting: symptoms of sun poisoning. Reaching a limit, the sun switches, it’s a dazzled man who speaks.

Up-close, we see other worlds, suns, selves born from rot. We encounter a bodily beyond engendered by proximal experience. Under what light and at what proximity to night, sun, sidewalk, does a person become a philosopher, a saint, a poet, reasonable, mad?

Alexander Irwin defines saint, in Saints of the Impossible: Bataille, Weil, and the Politics of the Sacred, in terms of corporeality and service:

“Saints are beings who, instead of trying to crystallize the abstract essence of courage or justice in yet another theory, enact courage and justice in real-life situations and inspire others to do likewise. Saints offer not airy discourse but their own flesh, a ‘saintly corporeality,’ risked in the service of the other.”

Currently, I’m sitting at my desk. The room is comfortably lit, and the blue light of the computer screen mixes with memories that return, words of various dazzled thinkers, and the film. It’s a question of proximity. I write around the dazzling, a moth circling a gas station light.

︎





Narrated by Bergman himself, we might also read the white heat of multiple suns at the film’s start as a distortion forecast. Productive and combustive suns hanging in one sky, hooking-up the film with the conditions under which it was made, theory with direct experience, an actor with her character.

Just as I begin to sink into the world of the film, an interview with one of the actors arrives to remind me that I’m in at least three worlds (with three suns?):

    • diegetic world of the movie
    • historical and temporal moment in which the film was made
    • my own material reality as I watch

The sun and screen light the room.

After a heated argument, Andreas gets out of the car and begins to walk. Anna drives away. The camera moves closer to Andreas as he paces back and forth. Closer and closer, Andreas blurs into the environment as the film ends.

What’s lost to/revealed in the dazzling?

There is no speaking of it.

Weather says: chance of rain then maybe-sun. A neon reflection in smudged glass, a perfume ad, a bottle of soda, gas station lights in a puddle, paused film, a piece of fabric weathered from overuse or sun.




WORKS CITED

All screen grabs (taken by Emmalea Russo) are from Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna (1969). Source: criterionchannel.com

Angela of Foligno. The Complete Works. Trans. Paul Lachance. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.

Bataille, Georges. Guilty. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2011.

Bataille, Georges. On Nietzsche, tr. Bruce Boone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1994.

Bataille, Georges. The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, tr. Michelle and Stuart Kendall. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Bergman, Ingmar. Images: My Life in Film. New York: Arcade, 2017.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. London: Penguin, 1968.

Pizarnik, Alejandra. Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972. New York: New Directions, 2016.

Pizarnik, Alejandra. The Galloping Hour: French Poems. New York: New DIrections, 2018.

Pseudo-Dionysius. The Complete Works. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.



Emmalea Russo is a writer and artist living at the Jersey shore. Her books are G (Futurepoem, 2018) and Wave Archive (Book*hug, 2019). Recent writing has appeared in Artforum, American Chordata, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She's pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and edits Asphalte Magazine.

For more of Emmalea’s work, go to https://emmalearusso.com/ and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo

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October 29, 2021

Derangement

Revolting Memories, Deranged Forms, and Lost Highways(s)


By EMMALEA RUSSO

“Night brings formal terrors: an obliteration of the grounding divisor of the horizon, a punctuated vision against an indifferent and unmarked field of duration, unmoored in time and space.” — Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects


“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” – Mystery Man, Lost Highway (1997)






AN EXCHANGE


DETECTIVE: Do you own a video camera?
RENEE: No. Fred hates them.
FRED: I like to remember things my own way.
DETECTIVE: What do you mean by that?
FRED: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happen.
Lost Highway (1997)


THE FORM OF THE HEADLIGHT


It begins and ends at night, David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” playing over the Lost Highway, smudges of white headlights emblazoning the road in fast flickers. The yellow line of road disappears under whatever vehicle we’re inside of. Again and again. A mechanism pushes forward and meets itself, affixing the start to the finish. Almost. Lines fall fast out of frame and into pure night. We appear to be rushing forward. Towards what? Line. Line. Line. The film, a line deranging into an almost-circle, feels like headlights pushing through plastic, illuminating in fuzzy defusions what moves.


DERANGED


To derange is to disarrange. A line thrown into disorder, made to curve and bend into chaos. A Mobius strip, affixed to itself and infinitely looping, cut. The clear plastic curves of videotape wound into reels. When we are beside ourselves. When we split, then multiply. A phosphorescent strip between what happened and what’s recalled.


LOST HIGHWAY


The exchange about memory and video cameras happens near the beginning of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). Fred and Renee are a married couple who’ve been receiving anonymous surveillance videos of themselves and their home. Memory is what returns flecked with forgetting, falsities, and imagination. To watch the film is to read the textured topology of lost highways and how they move, what moves them: fast asphalt, slow red curtain, deliquescent static, bright blue light, silver gleam of intercom.


YELLOW LINES


In Tales of Love, Julia Kristeva writes, “Like an image simultaneously composed and decomposed on videotape, love is only for the time being and forever.” Lost Highway unfurls in this temporal paradox, desire brushing-up against and becoming a horror never quite resolved. Yellow lines deteriorate as they proliferate.


At the start, someone is filming/watching Fred and Renee. Shots of the outside of their home give way to footage from the inside. Fred and Renee, disturbed, watch themselves sleeping from a bird’s eye view. Finally, the footage further invades, replacing or glitching Fred’s own head.


NOISE, STATIC, TRANSMISSION




Lost Highway is filled with technological mediums, recording devices, and bodies acting on each other. Like Francis Bacon’s paintings, where unseen forces stretch bodily forms to their bizarre limits – deform, dissolve, and spasm – Lost Highway reveals the deranging qualities of the medium we’re watching. As viewers, we’re always already on the lost highway.

Watching the film again, I’m struck by how much I’ve forgotten, by those parts I’ve remembered falsely or not at all, and by those elements which have stuck with me. Speaking about Lost Highway, David Lynch said “this is going to be a strange interview because I can’t remember so many things.”

A message delivered through a medium, disembodied, to layer a scene, not always sensical. At the start of the film, the first words we hear (“Dick Laurent is dead”) arrive through an intercom as Fred holds his finger on the LISTEN button. The film dilates the inter: existing between spasms, between transmission sent and message received, between experience and memory.





WAKING OUT OF THAT FORGETFULNESS


Composed and decomposed on videotape. In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes writes: “What does ‘thinking of you’ mean? It means: forgetting ‘you’ (without forgetting, life itself is not possible) and frequently waking out of that forgetfulness. Many things, by association, bring you back into my discourse. ‘Thinking of you’ means precisely this metonymy.”



If forgetting, as Barthes claims, makes life possible, what happens to life under instant digital recall, a phenomenon which Lost Highway calls toward. “The word digital points to the finger (digitus). Above all, the finger counts. Digital culture is based on the counting finger,” writes Byung-Chul Han in In the Swarm. But (human) memory cannot be counted or quantified. It involves the whole body and like Lynch’s film, it is filled with gaps, silences, and oblique on/off ramps.

Lost Highway gives us long unwieldy stretches of not-knowing. Are the terrifying turns that Fred’s life has taken (he doesn’t seem to remember killing his wife but the act is on videotape, for instance) a result of human or supernatural intervention? Memory, with its glitches and curtains mixes with memory (data storage, videotape) and a chaotic play of contiguous universes ensues.


SHORT LOOPS AND SPASMS


“The movement of translation occurs between two spasms,” wrote Gilles Deleuze in The Logic of Sensation about Francis Bacon’s paintings. Lost highways (surreal, spastic, textured, unruly, static-ridden) get truncated and paved over during times of algorithmic digital recall. In The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia, Grafton Tanner writes about this quickening loop, which works to immediately petrify experience into technological memory: “Frozen into data, posts and content can be called up at whim, instead of merely forgotten. Before the age of Big Tech, nostalgic cycles were wider.”

At the interstice between experience and memory runs a deranged highway along which forms compose and decompose. As Fred stares at his prison cell door on death row, a burning cabin appears, then reconstitutes itself. A dazzling blue light appears, an intensity portalling Fred somewhere else as he rocks back and forth in pain. A stranger stands at the side of the road. The sequence acts like a Francis Bacon painting, a body becoming a series of forces morphing, escaping its edges.

















DIVERGENCE, SPLITS, BOUNDARIES


The film splits. We enter the world of Pete and Alice, doubles of Fred and Renee. Eventually, near the end of a hallucinogenic love scene lit by car headlights, music mutates from angelic to suspenseful and the thin veil between seduction and horror breaks. Again, a switch. A world born from a broken-open instant, a blue light, the same note played on the same instrument in different weather.

We enter a dynamic sublime, blurs of sensation escaping frame and body. Here and elsewhere. Julia Kristeva, in The Powers of Horror: “Not at all short of but always with and through perception and words, the sublime is a something added that expands us, overstrains us, and causes us to be both here, as dejects, and there, as others and sparkling. A divergence, an impossible bounding. Everything missed, joy—fascination.”


BETWEEN


A divergence, an impossible bounding.
Here and there.
Composed and decomposed on videotape.

An uncanny residue, a line lit by a car we cannot see, moves between viewer and screen. In Cinema 2, Gilles Deleuze writes about interstitial moments in cinema – betweens which generate perceptual shifts, changes in how we see film and world: “Between two actions, between two affections, between two perceptions, between two visual images, between two sound images, between the sound and the visual: make the indiscernible, that is the frontier, visible.”

Interpretations of the film often revolve around the split between reality and dream, noting that Fred (Bill Pullman) enters an illusory space after his feelings of inadequacy and suspicion drive him to kill his wife. Zizek claims that the film is about “the enigma of feminine desire.” But there are also tunnels of visible yet indiscernible communications between viewer and film, bound to each other through plays of lost highways, surface tension, curtain, and static.


REVOLT AND STORAGE


In the blue-lit oneiric sequence between Fred’s prison cell and Pete, there’s revolt. A body in revolt: overturning, overthrowing and a body in revolt: turning, rolling back. A turn of the film, video, Mobius strip, road, body. Condensed pain moves across abstract frames. In Revolt, She Said, Julia Kristeva writes:

It is precisely a technocratic ideology that is supposed to abolish anxiety. But what I am saying is the opposite: anxiety, repulsion, nothingness are essential aspects of freedom. That’s what revolt is. When one abolishes revolt that is linked to anxiety and rejection, there is no reason to change. You store things and keep storing. It’s a banker’s idea, not an idea of a rebel, which spreads this technocratic ideology.

The hallucinatory flicker between scenes houses what cannot be stored, pointing us back to our own surroundings in the flat black silence framing an indiscernible blur, a body twisting in the corner of the frame. A form of revolt slips out from storage, interpretation, representation.


AN EXCHANGE


DETECTIVE: Do you own a video camera?
RENEE: No. Fred hates them.
FRED: I like to remember things my own way.
DETECTIVE: What do you mean by that?
FRED: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happen.
Lost Highway (1997)



BETWEEN SPASMS


With its doubles, almosts, déjà vu, repetitions, curtains, holes, and loops, Lost Highway shows the distortive aspects of technological mediums as both destructive and fruitful. New mysteries and mysticisms emerge, more devices through which messages get delivered, distorted, broken open. Bookended by spasms, an ending which touches the beginning as it escapes, we return to the same road changed, deranged.






WORKS CITED

*All screenshots (from Lost Highway, dir. David Lynch, 1997) are by Emmalea Russo.

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, tr. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, p. 157.

Brinkema, Eugenie. The Forms of the Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014, p. 232.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image, tr. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. 180.

Han, Byung-Chul. In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, tr. Erik Butler. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, tr. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolt, She Said, tr. Brian O’Keefe. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2002, pp. 101-2.

Kristeva, Julia. Tales of Love, tr. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, p. 125.

Tanner, Grafton. The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia. New York: Repeater, 2021.



Emmalea Russo is a writer and artist living at the Jersey shore. Her books are G(Futurepoem, 2018) and Wave Archive (Book*hug, 2019). Recent writing has appeared in Artforum, American Chordata, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She's pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and edits Asphalte Magazine.

For more of Emmalea’s work, go to https://emmalearusso.com/ and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo 

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September 15th, 2021


Writing the Wound: The Production of the Real in S.M.H.’s CICATRIZATION


By LEONARD KLOSSNER

S.M.H.’s full length debut Cicatrization is a hypnotic and extreme work of fiction filled with equal parts beauty and agony. Leonard Klossner takes a deep dive into this pseudonymous work, released on Infinity Land Press in 2020. 





Cicatrization does not reveal to us the sheer ugliness of its face right away, but grants us an odd respite before we will have suffered a moment of its insane barbarity. Instead, the text is prefaced by an interview of the author, S.M.H., by Martin Bladh, co-founder of the book’s publisher, Infinity Land Press. The author, asked if they believe writing to be an engagement which nears the violence of a criminal act “in the same way Jean Genet stated that his ‘impulse to murder was diverted into poetic impulses’,” S.M.H.  responds that, for them, writing “is a sublimated impulse to commit anti-social violence against the whole of the civilized world,” and that the highest honor would be for someone having read their work to become inspired to murder “someone important.”

Cicatrization finds itself at home with Infinity Land Press among a host of titles that share a thematic thread of violence, pathological obsession, transgression, and mania. Both founders of the press, Martin Bladh and Karolina Urbaniak, are well-established artists in their own right, working across numerous mediums (their latest, The Torture of the 100 Pieces, consists of Urbaniak’s photographs of numerous wounds inflicted by Bladh upon his own body; an exhibition of a similar fixation Georges Bataille suffered over the photographs detailing the Chinese torture technique, ‘death by a thousand cuts.’). In addition, they have published a number of Antonin Artaud’s more obscure or then-unpublished texts, as well as works by Stephen Barber, Dennis Cooper, and Philip Best.

Any reader who might have hazarded through Pierre Guyotat’s radical and relentless Eden Eden Eden may be steeled against what awaits them within the space of Cicatrization, since both texts are seething with hallucinatory sprees of brutality. Both books share a similar mutant textuo-genetic code, but whereas Guyotat’s Eden maintains a uniform grammatical style throughout (consisting of an endless and unbroken sentence which spans its couple-hundred pages), there are a variety of mutations which pervert the monstrous body of Cicatrization. Some segments of Cicatrization contain some degree of proper punctuation, capitalization, and other conventions, but many more do away with convention entirely, refusing to spare the reader a single moment to catch their breath until the end, subjecting them until then to an onslaught as unrelenting as the sadistic acts that occur in the text.

Familiarity with Guyotat’s work may also help to clue the reader in to what is at stake in Cicatrization, or what is being written about: writing itself. This text is a tangle of dreams, a ransacking of the annals of the unconscious, a series of episodes of oneiric wish-fulfillment, an exorcism of rabid neuroses, or, to state the matter simply, the text is concerned above all with the production of the real; of real death, and from this understanding we may begin to explore the spaces of Cicatrization.


Collages by Karolina Urbaniak at Infinity Land.



In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1); “the Word of atrocity / vibrating with psychic wounds.” S.M.H. goes on: “atrocities we commit in fiction / are real”. The figures that we encounter in the desolate landscapes of the text, then, are figures with real bodies, and what we bear witness to is real barbarity. As the text puts it: “This is real death.”

However, it would be a mistake to center our consideration around negativity. Consider the wound: the stab, the tear, the gouge. Certainly such an injury subtracts its share of flesh from the surface, but in its place appears a gorgeous array of beads or streams of vital fluid, and, later, a scab or a scar which serves as somatic symbol both of the act(s) that produced the wound as well as the incredible complexity of the organism. Wounds so often amaze and astound their witnesses. For some, such a gruesome sight, along with the symphony of pain scored upon its infliction—a composition notated by the blade or some other tool of inscription—throws them towards or past certain neurological thresholds. A wound is an incredible phenomenon. So, too, is it something given, something gifted; something radically altered, startled from its lazy stasis.

With all of this said, we may finally ask: What does Cicatrization steal? What does it take? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Instead, the text is intensely, obsessively, and violently productive. Because a wound (upon the flesh or upon the psyche) produces a radical change upon and beneath the site of its surface. Because to murder is to produce a corpse. The gouge, the slit, the cut, then, are dignified as artistic gestures like the brush of bristles across a canvas that, on their own or in series, all serve to create. The canvas wears what strokes cover its once unblemished flesh like contusions. Because the painted canvas itself becomes a wound. And in this same way, through this subtraction of flesh and this spilling of substance, Cicatrization produces, creates, and brings to life, over and again, this real death.

Real. As real as Real. Because, S.M.H. writes, “The world is fiction / the plague that binds us to this dream,” a declaration which dissolves the difference between textuality and reality.

To appreciate this work for what it is, what it becomes, and for what it accomplishes—the invocation and the production of the real—we need to understand how the artifice of the text—the book (as material, as product), the binding, the pages—becomes the frame in which the real comes to constitute itself; a real that is astoundingly similar to this ‘real’ we know ourselves to inhabit, because what is our world, our perception, and our thoughts but fictive productions? This earth, beyond what science can tell us about its material and atmospheric contents, is a frame in which a real—our own personal real—constitutes itself, because the imaginary helps to fill in the gaps of what cannot be described, of what we cannot or do not know. Yes, life may be but a dream as we sang in childhood, but the world, too, is but a fiction, a “plague that binds us to this dream.”

And now, finally, we can proceed into the work and the world of Cicatrization.


Collages by Karolina Urbaniak at Infinity Land.


“Cult,” situated somewhere in the middle of the book, functions as Cicatrization’s manifesto. This story centers on a murder cult sheltering away from civilization in a fenced-off acreage built of tarps, “old crates, barrels, [and] chunks of wood scavenged from the desolation.”

The leader of the cult speaks: “I AM ON A JOURNEY. […] The blood is the door through which I have entered and through which we must all enter to meet the favor of our lord,” and there in the following line it is as if the text defines the ways in which his metaphors write this world as a (corpo)reality, in which it brings to life the bodies which suffer within it.

Humanity suffers agony and injuries—so often self-inflicted—which the landscape, watching on throughout all of human history, cannot help but inflict upon itself. And though the particularities of humanity’s barbarism may shock us, they must not sadden us. After all, there is freedom in death, because God lords above the cult’s devotees; the “killer and killed//both plague and cure//night and day// //both light and dark//murder and birth//blood and bone.”

If our world is “the plague that binds us to this dream,” it is we who have spread (or have always been?) the sickness. Because a plague that cannot spread is no plague at all. Because every sickness demands a means, a surface, a territory for transmission; a zone whose dimensions in and across space could perhaps comprise or constitute a body or a network of bodies. Our bodies. And what is each body, with all of its various parts, zones and regions, if not a global organism? And what is this world, with all of its various landscapes whose features assume the postures and particularities of a body in misery, if not a global body?

This world—Cicatrization makes this clear—inherits our deformities as well as our ugliness. It mimics (mocks?) our disabilities (the drainage arching like a tortured spine; the spines of stalks of grass bending “in quiet agony”). It clothes itself in garments like our own (the spread of sky wearing a “butcher’s apron burning raw and red and black with blood”). It imitates the stillness and the silence of our own death (“He raises his hands in address, raises his voice to the dead wind”). It reproduces the convulsions of our flesh when we are afraid (“The air raw, each grain of sand vibrating with terror”).

“Cult,” as auto-manifesto, characterizes the broader text’s morbid religious ideation. The cult leader’s address is a treatise on the ethics of murder, and naturally we see a correlation between murder and illumination that we will encounter again in "Trail": “Each sacrifice will illuminate the world in light,” the leader says. “We Will See All Eaten / Both Good and Evil, Death and Birth.” A total devourment, the swallowing of all human life. They offer the spirit of those they kill to God—“both eater and eaten”—and it is within His gaping, abyssal maw that salvation from this world will be found. But the text here plays a trick on us; a bit of a phonetic prank. Because of course, when we come to see all eaten, then surely We Will See All Eden.

It could be no other way.



Collages by Karolina Urbaniak at Infinity Land.


The book’s first entry, “Trail,” demonstrates a curatorial prescience, understanding that the reader, too, will come to walk this trail where they will be led, leashed, to witness the text’s first gruesome murder.

“The man walked into the woods. The noise soaked land buzzed brightly in the heat. The man walked with a boy. The boy was not his son. The boy was no relation. The boy walked in front. A white leash looped around his thin neck, stretching out like spit.”

Everywhere the text animates the inanimate and brings the lifeless to life and gives the bodiless a body, making metaphor material; the ropes of saliva made thick from fear, braided and suspended taut like leather wrapped around the captive’s neck. The grass is “beaten” as the man and boy walk, “[t]he spine of each stalk bent in quiet agony.” Words gurgle from the man’s throat.

Everything here is grotesque, and everywhere there is agony. The trees, too, are made miserable from the cruelty of man, “hanged” as they are “in low witness.” The meadow burns beneath the “fire of midday sun.” Meanwhile the child is being strangled: “Rope cutting deep into thin neck, marking strange runes into the softness of youth. The roughing rope leaving burn marks blotchy and cruel on the horror of flesh.” But this child will soon be free; “soon / there will be light / and it will shine through your eyes / and I will drink it like honey.”

Yes, there is freedom in death, and so too is there beauty within the body, with murder as the means of furnishing its treasures. Torture, agony, strangulation; these gestures proffer “[t]he platter of goods [God] has set inside of you. / The platter of ripe fruits pulsating in the heat of your wounds. / The pink fruit pulsating in the beat of your organs, stretching the web of your skin.” A gorgeous spread. A marvelous feast, like a perversion of Claude Monet's Flowers and Fruit; a cornucopia of strips of flesh and blood for a banquet.

How grotesque is this boy’s murder which at first blush seems so senseless. But what beauty grows by the light of God and blooms like flowers from the body born of this murder. Because it is death and only death which brings this text to life. Need death always be so cruel? Need murder be so selfish?

No, because we see that it is kindness which conditions this act when the man tells the frightened child, “I am sharing these things with you.” Never mind the white of the boy’s eyes “straining open, burning black as beetles in the sun” because this—his agony, his delirium—is but a momentary labor. Soon the preparation of the feast will be complete, and “soon / there will be light.”

Collages by Karolina Urbaniak at Infinity Land.


The publisher, Infinity Land, characterizes itself as “a realm deeply steeped in pathological obsessions, extreme desires, and private aesthetic visions,” quoting the author Yukio Mishima as saying that “True beauty is something that attacks, overpowers robs, and finally destroys,” and, true to this obsessive pursuit of a beauty which destroys, a cat o’ nine tails awaits us on the otherwise sparse and dismal cover (as dismal as the material the cover encloses); this object of abject torture lying free from any hand—its tails of leather arranged and spaced decorously—invites us to wield the wood of its handle. Invites us to torture, to inflict what, according to its design, will become a constellation of wounds, but upon whose body but our own? To read Cicatrization is to engage in this ceremony of self-flagellation, this ritual act of bloodletting. Here’s the handle and here’s the whip, the cover seems to beckon. You know what to do.




Leonard Klossner:

Leonard Klossner has had fiction and poetry published in Expat Press, SELFFUCK and Ligeia, with work forthcoming from Fugitives & Futurists. He is one half of the editorial body of AGON, a literary, arts and theory journal.
IG: @communicatingvessels


David Kuhnlein:

David Kuhnlein lives in Michigan. His critical writing is featured at 3:AM, Full Stop, Entropy, DIAGRAM, and others. He's online @princessbl00d.


Collages by Karolina Urbaniak at Infinity Land.


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January 19th, 2022


Alternate States of Burning: Place and Personhood in Meghan Lamb’s FAILURE TO THRIVE


By ALEXANDRINE OGUNDIMU

Alexandrine Ogundimu reviews Meghan Lamb's debut novel Failure to Thrive (Apocalypse Party, 2021).





The cover of Meghan Lamb’s Failure to Thrive features a red sign with a white X over it. Black text reads “CAUTION: UNSAFE TO FIRST RESPONDERS DO NOT ENTER OR OCCUPY.” There’s a way to read this as titillation, as if the reader is being welcomed into something forbidden, but there’s another reading won out by the text itself: The lives the reader is about to dive into contain hazards.

The novel opens not with a character, but with the description of a fire, one that has been burning beneath a town near where the main action of the book takes place for fifty years: “There is a whole world pouring from the vent, a world made of heat. Go in the winter, you will see the sharp change in the atmosphere. The snow just stops. The moss stays green. The air feels tropical. A gust of pale fog. A humid sulfur smell.”

Between and within chapters, the fire comes back to the fore, making its presence known, to the point where the effect is not only one of foreboding, but of familiarity. The reader comes to know the fire as surely as they come to know the characters of the novel, and in time there is a similarity between them: Each burns steadily, not waiting to be put out but rather living, as they do, with the particular circumstances of their existence, as inevitable and familiar as the fire burning in the coal mines nearby.

Failure to Thrive
is organized into three novellas, all occurring within or around the coal country town adjacent to the ever-burning flame, broken up by interstitial and surreal chapters emphasizing the unreality and sickness of the land occupied by characters who necessarily intersect, though only briefly. This structure allows for close observation of people occupying very different bodies, roles, and consciousnesses, making it more of a survey bound together by the shared metaphor/location than living within a singular mind. It’s an organizing principle seen elsewhere, perhaps most famously by Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections, though Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburgh, OH also comes to mind, and here again there is a commensurate disorganization by dint of movement from one point of view to another. Lamb links these disparate perspectives through omniscient textual moments as we move from one to the other: Consciousness is briefly left, only to be dived back into a few pages later. It’s effective.

None of the characters are wealthy and the milieu of working class and semi-rural life gets a prominent second billing within the novel. It is often cold, characters are often concerned where their next meal will come from, the town is often described in terms that make the economic depression obvious. In the back there are photographs of locations within the novel, lending a kind of authenticity to the setting. It’s viscerally real and paralleled with the people who live within it.

Each section deals with disability or illness and caretaking, which is handled with a kind of raw, uncompromising respect that’s hard not to admire. If Of Mice and Men is the most obvious example of this kind of dynamic, Failure to Thrive is the exact opposite: All emphasis is placed on the disabled characters and their navigation of a world not designed for them, and any sense of wrongness comes not from the fires they must live with but with the world which refuses to make appropriate space for them.

The first section deals with Olivia, an ambiguously developmentally disabled woman (early in life doctors say she fails to thrive, thus the title), who is cared for by her mother Emily and abandoned by her father David. Her daily routine is disrupted when Emily does not get out of bed at her expected time, making it clear to the reader (but not Olivia, not at first) that something is wrong. From there the rest of the novella is told in flashback and forward, a stylistic choice which should feel tired but doesn’t. Lamb constantly moves point of view from Olivia’s, who sees the world very differently, to a more zoomed-out look at her parents’ lives, three perspectives so separate that the prose remains fresh through the movement.

Then there is Helen and her father. Helen cares for the aging and ailing man, blending his food into slurries thickened with powder so that he does not choke. He pines for an ice cream flavor that he has not been able to enjoy in years, Helen’s favorite, described by Lamb with unadorned but effective descriptive language: “She’d get the bittersweet: A perfect blend of plain vanilla mixed with tiny shreds of dark chocolate, the kind her mother used for baking. Every bite was true to its description – sweet and bitter – as she sat and licked and looked down at the green flecks in the tile floor.”

The minutiae of their days occupies this, the shortest section, and the balance Helen must and yet fails to draw between her own needs and her father’s. It’s as if she has been subsumed by him completely, which is treated as equal part tragedy and inevitability by the text.

The fire burns.

Finally there’s the story of Jack, a young, closeted gay man who suffers from a traumatic brain injury following a car accident. In his story there is the most struggle for normalcy and a different kind of pushback against the world he is forced to occupy: He doesn’t fit twice over and thus his effort made to nestle back in with his old high school friend group is doomed to fail. The theme of caretaking is pulled back a bit here, but still present, as Jack has been forced to return to his parents’ home following the accident. Again consciousness is an aesthetic consideration, as the prose reorganizes itself to better fit within the constraints of Jack’s condition:

“He gets confused, then. 1953 is...not today. Already happened. This fire...burned. Before. Today is after. Not today. Today is...He looks up, around him, at the streets he’s pedaled through and walked along so many times. He feels flushed. Embarrassed.”

Besides the melange of themes, it is perhaps the style of the prose which stands out the most within the novel. For the most part Lamb maintains a simplistic, effective minimalism, keeping to matter of fact reportage, but there are also typographical digressions contained within, formatting choices working with onomatopoeia to create an effect that threatens to become whimsical but instead feels more like a winding, luring invitation. These pages are more visual, more immediate than standard block paragraphs, but they come often and work towards a reading experience that is dynamic and changeable, and easy to fall into.



The immediacy of the writing in turn allows for both dips into human consciousness and embodiment of the town. The setting is itself an organism with a body, and its own consciousness finds its way into the text through the prose choices, as the reality of the injury that is the fire manifests through pure sound and typographical choices.

These choices also inform the immersion into the working class, itself suffering from sickness and disability just as some characters are, as reality is treated with blunt force while deeper truths are revealed through sound and shape of the text itself. This is particularly true with Olivia and Emily’s story, where the Marxist idea of alienation is present not only as human separation from the services Emily provides at her job but also in the way the burning coal town, embodied and disabled, is taken away from its original singular purpose.

Recurring story elements of family and caretaking, the return to and bond with parental units appearing in all three main sections, serve to further intensify the atmosphere. The poverty or near-poverty is generational, genetic, inherent to the space and eternal, cyclical, as the characters return home, one after the other, to be cared for by mothers who are intensely and eternally understanding.

The place of women in the novel is central, even in the more highly masculine third section which focuses on Jack and his male friends. Women are placed in the position of caretakers, if not literal mothers then functional ones, and the labor of women, for all the bluntness of prose, is undeniably treated with a surplus of style and sympathy. The depiction of caretaking never threatens to turn sentimental, rather it is the very stuff of the novel, swirled in with the themes of disability and illness.

The cumulative effect of the novel is sparse, quiet, unsettling comfort, where routine, sensibility, the body, and consciousness are given places to settle that are not ideal and yet the fit is perfect. Tone and typography bind together the disparate elements into a cogent, inhabitable world.

And perhaps the reader was already living in it before ever picking up the book.

The bleak, almost post-apocalyptic setting and themes of Failure to Thrive are naturally sympatico with the current state of pandemic horror. At time of writing the COVID-19 pandemic has been ongoing for 19 months here in the United States, counting from March when the first lockdowns hit, a nightmare for the working class and especially for the chronically ill and immunocompromised.

None of this is new. The working class of the United States has been squeezed for decades now, and if the tone of Failure to Thrive fits particularly well as a pandemic read, it’s because COVID-19 is a culmination of the pressures placed upon the working class. The same fire that burns at the heart of Failure to Thrive has been raging throughout the country since the beginning of the pandemic, only burning above ground instead of below.

If anything, that is the warning delivered by the cover, and the novel as a whole: The fire has already burnt everything up, over here. Enter, but be warned, there’s no redemption to be had, only the experience of observing the aftermath, made sublime by the aesthetics of the prose, the horror of living within fire and ashes. It’s a wonderful and terrible place to be. 




Alexandrine Ogundimu:

Alexandrine Ogundimu is a Nigerian-American transgender writer from Indiana. Her debut novella Desperate is available now. Her fiction can be found at Maudlin House, Exposition Review, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in Fiction at New York University and is pursuing a PhD in English at University of Illinois at Chicago. She runs the online literary magazine FILTH at filthlitmag.com, and can be found on Twitter @cross_radical.


David Kuhnlein:

David Kuhnlein lives in Michigan. His critical writing is featured at 3:AM, Full Stop, Entropy, DIAGRAM, and others. He's online @princessbl00d.


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June 11th, 2021


Dead to the World: On Bob Flanagan’s The Pain Journal


By ADAM MITTS

Bob Flanagan not only found pleasure in his pain but used his masochism to fuel his art. Adam Mitts revisits Bob’s final work of art, The Pain Journal, begun 408 days before his death in 1996, ending in tandem with Bob’s life.



photo by Sheree Rose


“I hate to be so monotonous but I’m still in awful pain,” Bob Flanagan writes on the evening of November 10, 1995. His partner is gone, his lungs and stomach are “killing” and “hurting” him—he is dying: “Sometimes I think they’re missing something and I’m going to die earlier than I have to before they catch it.” The uncertainty and risks of both medicine and temporality are magnified by how the body spends itself in its few remaining days: “I literally slept all day on the couch….The worst of it is the waste of time. Days like this filled with nothingness are horrible.” Dying isn't something that can be eased into, but rather is haunted at every turn by labor, as materialized in the journal: “I don’t want to write this crap but I’m forcing myself to.” This labor becomes “monotonous,” becomes “crap,” not because it is forced—after all, the libidinal desire to write comes as much from the contract as it does from mortality, the publishing contract which competes with the masochistic contract, itself a hovering, haunting presence throughout the text: “Sheree’s in Greenville….But she’s having fun and I’m glad I’m home….In bed. Suffering. Dying” (Flanagan 157). 

Bob Flanagan’s The Pain Journal, written while he was dying of cystic fibrosis at the age of 42, is many things, from a daily chronicle of the excruciating minutiae of chronic pain and terminal illness, to a bitter and often funny critique of end-of-life care, filled with subversive humor which disrupts the patient’s proscribed role as the one who patiently suffers. But what’s most interesting to me about Flanagan’s book is what it reveals about the relation of illness to labor, and the relation of the corpse to value—the valorization of the dying body. Flanagan’s is a dying which is relentlessly productive, in large part because the Journal’s form requires a daily writing habit, but also because of his financial needs and his work as an artist. But the value accruing in The Pain Journal as a commodity never arises from his labor alone. Flanagan is acutely aware that at least some of the value of his book springs from the inevitability of his death. As a result, Flanagan’s complaints about his bodily pain overlap with complaints about his writing, about its failure or impossibility under these conditions, the worsening conditions of a body suspended in a slow-motion animation of its own expiration, so that the pain of The Pain Journal is the pain of being in too much pain to articulate anything in language other than that: “I hate to be so monotonous but I’m still in awful pain” (157).

Pain used to be not only a source of pleasure for Flanagan, it was also the source of his livelihood, as someone who famously turned his masochism into performance art. However, it could be said that both his sexuality and his art had their source in his illness—Flanagan writes of dealing with the pain of childhood stomach aches by rubbing his penis on his sheets, for example, or how “when [he] was tied up as an infant in the hospital,” the mixture of his parents’ extra love and affection, and the painful medical treatments for his cystic fibrosis, made it so that “two contradictory feelings were fused together….the horrible things happening to me were made into something better; a sweetness is overlaid” (Supermasochist 12-13).


photo by Sheree Rose



One thing that Flanagan teaches us is that there are different levels of pain which are managed by different bodily techniques, and susceptible to variations in differing types of bodily energies. This is why, although his illness was arguably the psychological source of his masochism, none of his masochistic superpowers can hope to prepare him for the debilitating denouement of his illness. “I used to talk about using pain to reach an altered state: I’m high as a kite on a drug called pain,” Flanagan writes on September 19, 1995. “Well, this kite has had all the wind knocked of it” (Pain 122, italics original). At the time he wrote this journal entry, using drugs to reach an altered state was an abiding concern for Flanagan—in large part, because he felt doing so would improve the quality of his writing. His doctors, who Flanagan was convinced saw their terminally ill patient as some sort of junkie, refused to prescribe him a dosage which would dull his pain enough to allow him the psychic and energetic space necessary for aesthetic labor.

Two days later, he writes: “Missed a day of writing because I dropped off the edge of the world last night, exhausted” (123). Missing journal entries compound the sense of time running out, increasing in frequency as his illness intensifies. Meanwhile, Flanagan becomes increasingly distressed about the quality of what he has already produced. He stresses that he waits too long into the day to begin writing, when he only has energy to sleep or watch television (120). “So not try writing in the daylight hours, before I’m dead to the world?” Flanagan asks on July 23, 1995. “The question is, when am I not dead to the world?” (90). No matter when Flanagan tries writing, or how early in the day, pain and exhaustion block his creative faculties.

As Flanagan begins to question the aesthetic value of what he can produce under his current working conditions, he starts to question the project itself, “this stupid obligation to write this ‘pain’ article,” asking himself, “How come I’m still laboring over it?” (99). Flanagan’s reasons for continuing the project, in part, parody the publishing contract by making it replicate the masochistic one: “Discipline. The rules. Being a good boy. That’s why” (152). But more importantly, Flanagan pursues the project because he wants to do valuable creative work:

I need to be able to write great things again and be able to write them fast because, eventually, probably sooner than later, that’s all I’m going to have left is the writing and it damn well better be good (99-100).

As a result, Flanagan’s complaints about his pain and his writing begin to take on more radical dimensions. Bob Flanagan, self-proclaimed “disability poster-child from hell,” ends up arguing for the rights of people with disabilities to proper working conditions, but doing so in a characteristically perverse way. Refusing to be anesthetized into a passive “end of life,” Flanagan argues for quality of life, regardless of prognosis, and for access to conditions under which one can work when one is ill.

Much of the genius of The Pain Journal comes from how Flanagan exhausts the possibilities of the journal form. The daily, contractually obligated form of the journal replicates Flanagan’s lifelong themes of medicine and masochism in an aesthetically reinforced way, since the journal is also a serial, regular submission to a form of discomfort, one which eventually produces value the longer one patiently undergoes its temporal demands. However, the “monotonous complaint” also has a sense of urgency due to the temporal structure of the journal as a narrative form, since in The Pain Journal, the end of the book is already expected by the reader to be the death of the author.

Flanagan’s struggle with his doctors over painkillers isn’t only about drugs for Flanagan—it’s a struggle over working conditions and a conflict between two different regimes of value. In most instances where Flanagan mentions drugs, it’s so that he can “get some goddamn work done while I still have time to do it” (158). In making this argument, he frames his heavily medicalized life as a patient as a form of labor, and devalues longevity in favor of a pain treatment regimen which will capacitate aesthetic productivity:

Life is my full time job, and the pay stinks. I feel like a prisoner on the rock pile, pounding big rocks into small. Not only is there no pay, but I’m beginning to wonder what it’s all for, is it even worth it. Here’s where I think the advantages of IV pain meds at home would greatly outweigh the dangers. At the rate I’m going I’m at a much higher risk of saying fuck it all. I need some damitall spark to smooth out the rough edges so I can devote some time and energy to something else besides the constant bodily maintenance….[sic] (142)

To be clear, this “risk” which Flanagan figures as “Damitall,” a pun on the painkiller Demerol, is not expressing a preference for death over a painful life—rather, Flanagan is making a calculated decision to assume the risks of taking higher doses of opioids in the interests of decreasing his pain enough that he can perform aesthetic labor. Otherwise, what is the remuneration that Flanagan receives for the “full time job” of living with a terminal illness, where “nothing happens anymore but medical torture” (169)? What is the value produced by the medicalized torture of which Flanagan is “life tired” (122)? For the doctors, Flanagan’s longevity is valuable so long as he is a viable consumer; in contrast, Flanagan values his productivity, which means more control over the dosage and types of painkillers conducive to aesthetic labor.

Flanagan’s struggle with his doctors over painkillers isn’t only about access to drugs. It’s also about who gets to decide which forms of labor produce which forms of value from Flanagan’s dying body—whether he is profitable as a patient or an artist, and profitable to whom.


Bimbox zine cover, circa 1990s


What becomes truly life-sustaining for Bob Flanagan at the end of his life is not only the capacity to perform aesthetic work, but also the intrinsic provisionality and open-endedness to journal writing as a form of aesthetic labor. Much of the genius of The Pain Journal comes from how Flanagan exhausts the possibilities of the journal form. The journal is a form of aesthetic labor which makes practical sense for a person with a debilitating and painful illness. The “monotonous complaint,” as a literary device, uses repetition and seriality to produce a sense of the exhausting banality of chronic pain. Maurice Blanchot writes that creative work is

The exceptional moment when possibility becomes power, when the mind….becomes the certainty of a realized form, becomes this body which is form and this beautiful form which is a lovely body. The work is mind, and the mind is the passage, from the supreme indeterminacy to the determination of that extreme. This unique passage is real only in the work—in the work which is never real, never finished, since it is only the realization of that mind’s infiniteness (The Space of Literature, 88).

The provisionality of the journal, its openness to future entries and future revisions, is precisely this passage, this “lovely body” which Flanagan ingeniously collapses with his own through the temporal form of the journal as a narrative form and a form of labor—one entry a day, until there isn’t. While emotionally devastating for the reader, this provisionality was apparently life-sustaining for Flanagan. In the final entry of the journal, December 16, 1995, Flanagan writes about printing out the pages of The Pain Journal and reading them, and behind his usual self-deprecating anxiety over their contents, there is a legible sense of (albeit disavowed) pride at his handiwork:

I printed out the entire 1995 journal through October. 75 pages. There were some sparkling moments here and there—good writing I mean—but the latter months seem to have degenerated quite a bit. Too sick. Too distracted. But the journal was intended to be just a day to day record, a minimum of a paragraph a day, and never meant to be read unedited by anyone but me. It was a fluke that so many of the entries became exciting rants and observations that have lead to some good writing. I just hope I can sustain that voice to complete some sort of manuscript (italics mine). But in the meantime I’m going for a late night dip in the Dilaudid (172-173).

I would like to argue that this penultimate sentence, “I just hope I can sustain that voice to complete some sort of manuscript,” should be read in an expansive sense. This sentence makes legible an affective undercurrent of provisionality and open-endedness to the journal form, in particular, and aesthetic labor, in general, which sustains Flanagan through the project, and all his anxieties about its failure. This hope, of someday sustaining a voice he fears he doesn’t have, is what allows him to sustain the voice he has had all along.


Bob and Sheree’s wedding photo, 1995




Adam Mitts:

Adam Mitts is a poet from Michigan. They studied creative writing at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and are currently a PhD candidate in poetics at the University at Buffalo.


David Kuhnlein:

David Kuhnlein lives in Michigan. His critical writing is featured at 3:AM, Full Stop, Entropy, DIAGRAM, and others. He's online @princessbl00d.


More From Torment












May 21st, 2021


Closing the Gap Between Dreams and Reality: On the Work of Ta-Nia





By CAITLYN TELLA
Caitlyn and theater-making duo Ta-Nia discuss embodiment, multimodality, and afrofuturism. 
 
Dreams in Black Major at NYU Tisch / National Black Theatre. Photo Jeff Lawless.


Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, the late, visionary founder of Harlem’s National Black Theatre, was committed to art that “emanates from an African world-view and is grounded in spiritual tradition,” a standard, she wrote, that inherently “removes the separation between audience and stage.” Ta-Nia, a theater-making duo in Brooklyn, whose formative collaboration, Dreams in Black Major, premiered at the National Black Theatre in 2019, excavate that separation in their practice-based research. If the proverbial stage entertains limitless fantasy and the audience sits in concrete reality, what lies between? Ta-Nia intricately perceive the possibilities of that synthesis to build a new space. In their words, “a blk space in an anti-blk society.”

To understand what I mean when I say that Ta-Nia intricately perceive the liminal, participate in The Map Project. It’s a digital tour through the capacity of your own imagination to envision utopia, guided by meditations, video art, and dozens of prompts written by Ta-Nia. It works by initiating participants into the wisdom tradition of their own sensory faculties and applying that wisdom to realize the Afro-future. Ta-Nia crafted the experience to collect written material for A Map to Nowhere (things are), a performance/ritual in development through Soho Rep’s Writer/Director Lab. Since August 2020, over 150 people have participated, with over 500 responses recorded. “We find it crucial for our projects to contain the DNA of our community,” they say.






Screenshots from The Map Project. Website designed by Talía Paulette Oliveras.

In Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing, a poetry book that inspired A Map to Nowhere (things are), “The Device” tells the story of a new technology invented by “a hive mind of Black nerds” to communicate with and receive guidance from ancestors. Imagine the device through the aesthetic lens of Afrofuturism and you might picture a metallic, sleek, cosmic gadget. As it turns out, the device is “an inelegant hodgepodge, a reflection of the hands that made it.” One scientist's reflection: “It looked like in a hundred years it might be something you’d find at a yardsale. But of course...wouldn’t that be a success? Shouldn’t the device come to be so average and commonplace that it ceases to be magic and comes to be part of everyday life for regular black people all over the country?” This question expresses Mundane Afrofuturism, a tenet of Ta-Nia’s project.

Elucidated in Martine Syms’ manifesto, Mundane Afrofuturism is a framework for cultural production that combines the vision of Afrofuturism—–Black liberation–—with a critique of its spiritual bypasses. It applies the laws of physics (gravity) to Afrofuturism, and in doing so, roots the radical Black imagination on earth. “Outer space will not save us from injustice,” writes Syms, and “the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.” Sprawling mycelium networks, with their ancient abilities to nourish entire ecosystems and detoxify the environment, are, after all, mundane by definition. The Map Project and its spawn, A Map to Nowhere (things are), embody this type of technology to world-build. 


Nia Farrell and Talía Paulette Oliveras, photo Bianca Rogoff





In early spring I corresponded with Ta-Nia on a shared doc about these influences over the course of several weeks. While they mainly wrote as a singular entity, they are, by the way, Talía Paulette Oliveras and Nia Farrell. “Nia,” writes Talía, “is a master of puns and poetics, a supernova gracing us with its brightness, an infectious joy embodied.” While “Talía,” writes Nia, “is the manifestation of dreams and a catalyst for the possibilities of this world, with a rose in one hand and a machete in the other.” Together, they alchemize a way of working and being otherwise inaccessible.

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Video stills from The Map Project designed by Ava Elizabeth Novak, concept by Ta-Nia.



CAITLYN
Can you talk a bit about how you’re translating The Map Project responses from the virtual realm to the performance of A Map to Nowhere (things are)?

TA-NIA
We worked with two incredible archivists, Jordan Powell and Nina Attinello, who helped us sort through all the website submissions and track recurring themes, repeated dreams, and striking imagery.

With those 50-something Google doc pages of responses, we’ll identify the quotes and visual language that we want to incorporate directly in the script. Sometimes we’ll put responses in conversation with one another by creating a poem of different dreams for a character to perform. And other times, the submissions, individually and collectively, influence the physical environment. Colors, sounds, and textures that people included in their dreams may find their way into our collective theatrical space. One of our hopes as creators is that a person who participated in The Map Project walks into the space and sees or experiences their dreams actualized.

CAITLYN
“I wanted a map / not to know / where things are / but to know / where I am” appears in all caps in Eve L. Ewing’s book, Electric Arches. This also reflects the title of your show. Ewing’s poetry takes many forms, including sestina, narrative prose, epistolary, five-act structure, and the “re-tellings” where she uses her own handwriting to redirect and transmute a traumatic narrative. Her writing also continually insists on joy and meaning, not as divine privileges or future states to inhabit, but as the basis of her own perceptions, all in the context of the status quo of anti-Black violence. There’s a lot more to say about it. How does this particular book influence your piece?

TA-NIA
You identified many of the reasons we fell in love with Eve L. Ewing’s writing and this collection of poems in particular. As our project evolved from an adaptation of the book to a conversation with the book to a piece that is inspired by the book, there are two elements of Ewing’s that we’ve clung to.

First, the re-tellings. The act of re-telling and transforming an inherited or lived narrative is a powerful one. These re-telling poems remind the reader of their agency and imagination—two essential components for future-building. In the way Ewing activated us as creators to re-tell our stories, we want to activate our characters and audience to do the same.

The other element of Ewing’s work that serves as an emotional undercurrent for our characters and the structure of the piece is her core question in “The Device,”––how can we as Black people be free in a world that does not love us? At its core, A Map To Nowhere (things are) is a ritual for the audience to ask and answer that question for themselves.



CAITLYN
Martine Syms writes that Mundane Afrofuturism recognizes “the sense that the rituals and inconsistencies of daily life are compelling, dynamic, and utterly strange.” How does this inform the work you do as theater-makers to “make blk spaces in an anti-blk society”?

NIA
I’m excited for what Talía thinks about this question! The way I understand this quote and its relationship to our work is that, in isolation, concepts of actualization and manifestation might appear to be nonsense. But I think rituals are only “utterly strange” if they don’t lead us to action. Dreams of liberation that only remain in the head, now that’s strange to me! But dreams that become a blueprint for the future we will coexist in, now that’s just practical. My Afro-future isn’t going to drop out of the sky, it must be rooted in deliberate and intentional acts of community building.

TALÍA
A big part of making blk spaces for me has to do with recognizing the ways blkness is inherently complex, multiple, dynamic, ephemeral, transformative and so on. The rituals and inconsistencies of daily life that Syms refers to feel intrinsic and synonymous to blkness—it almost makes me think that, in our work, the first step to making our spaces blk is by leaning into the mundane.




Video stills from The Map Project designed by Ava Elizabeth Novak, concept by Ta-Nia.


CAITLYN
Syms also writes “to burn this manifesto as soon as it gets boring.” What is your relationship to building upon the legacy of your mentors and predecessors while remaining true to your aims?

TA-NIA
We thank and honor the ancestors and community leaders and mentors who have guided us to this point. It is because of their work we stand on a solid foundation that we aim to only add to—whether that be continuing the work or finding new ways that lead us to the ultimate goal: the liberation of Blk people.

We love that last line of the manifesto; it keeps us accountable to our people who we wish to service. We like to think of burning not as destroying, but an act of creating something new. The volcano erupts to make an island. The fire rages to release seeds and forge a new path. We hope that when the flames come for our work, it follows in that tradition of burning in order to see what other form exists on the other side.

And if our rituals no longer respond to the needs of the community, or worse, work in antithesis to the needs of the community, for sure burn it down! We hope that the future ancestors rise from the ashes anew.

CAITLYN
How did working at the National Black Theatre influence your approach to producing theater?

TA-NIA
A shout out to the folks at National Black Theatre (NBT) who supported Dreams in Black Major: Sade Lythcott, Jonathan McCrory, Nabii Faison, Abisola Faison, Denzel Faison, Belynda Hardin, and Kiele Logan and the entire facilities team—we are in deep gratitude for the space you made for us to actualize our dreams. We hope we made Dr. Barbara Ann Teer proud.

The energy of NBT fundamentally changed our piece. We didn’t have to carry the baggage of our work in a traditionally white theatre institution. No, we walked into a Blk space and immediately felt closer to our dreams. There’s a reason why NBT is called “your home away from home.” It’s where Blk artists undergo a soul journey to tap into the soul of what we do and how we can share that with others. In every rehearsal room and theatrical space that we’ve worked in since NBT, we bring that soul with us.

CAITLYN
NBT was the first revenue-generating Black arts complex in the country, capable of subsidizing their own performances. What is your vision for producing models (economically speaking) that would best support your theatrical visions?

TA-NIA
We've been dreaming up ideas around this a lot recently! At the moment, we're very interested in reimagining currency in regard to theatrical experiences. For example, we're interested in ways we can share our work with flexible ticket models—those who have funds can purchase tickets and those who don't can offer something else in exchange whether that's offering a cooked meal, leading a workshop another day, etc. In this same vein, we're interested in creating a community space where we can share our work, engage with our respective community through events and workshops, offer a safe space to just have a cup of coffee, house a community garden.

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Dreams in Black Major will be live streamed at Theatretreffen's Stückemarkt in Berlin on May 22. In fall 2021, A Map to Nowhere (things are) will be presented as part of Soho Rep’s Writer/Director Lab. Follow The Map Project @amaptonowhere.




Ta-Nia:

We are Talia Paulette Oliveras and Nia Farrell, collectively Ta-Nia, a theatre-making duo committed to challenging the limits of theatre to create unapologetically Blk spaces of liberation. As creators and performers, we focus on developing new work that foregrounds identity, collectivity, and celebrations of dreams. Since graduating from NYU Tisch, our work has been presented in Ars Nova’s ANT Fest 2019 and will be in Theatretreffen’s Stückemarkt 2021 (Dreams in Blk Major). Currently, we are members of the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab and finalists for SPACE on Ryder Farm’s Creative Residency 2020 (A Map To Nowhere things are). We are multi-hyphenate artists who apply our interdisciplinary nature to the art we create in both process and product. Talia has collaborated with Musical Theatre Factory, Big Green Theater, Theatre Mitu, JACK, Mabou Mines, The Public, and BAM. And Nia has collaborated with Theatre Mitu, National Black Theatre, The Public Theatre Mobile Unit, and New Ohio Theatre. Learn more at: ta-nia.com



Caitlyn Tella:

Caitlyn Tella is a theater maker and poet originally from the Bay Area. Her chapbook, Sky Cracked Open the Proscenium Frame, is forthcoming from DoubleCross Press. caitlyntella.com









December 21, 2021

COMMITTING TO THE FAKE: An Interview with Anh Vo




By CAITLYN TELLA
Caitlyn and Anh Vo discuss psychotherapy, performance, transcendence, and familial ghosts.

Anh stewing on stage, Summer 2021. Video by Caitlyn Tella.


I wanted to interview Anh Vo after watching this video of Red (For Communism). Performed at Judson Church in 2019, the dancer sails across the floor, skipping in clipped cadence, occasionally making perky, ceremonious leaps. I watched on my laptop, entranced by the lively near-precision of their steps and commitment to keep skipping for an annoyingly long time. As nothing new continues to happen, joy, set to communist revolutionary music, accumulates, and to my surprise, given the frequently bland conceit belying so much duration-as-content performance, so does a palpable lack of pretentiousness.


When the skipping ends, Anh jokes, “The white abstract part of the performance is over” and proceeds to attract an audience member to the open floor of Judson Church to play a little cross-examination game: “Have you ever been a communist party member?” “No.” ... "Have you ever been on the 23rd street of Manhattan?" “Yes.” “Are you aware the Communist Party USA headquarter is located at 235 West 23rd Street?” (Audience laughs), etc.


At the top of that performance the lights go out and a voiceover of Joseph McCarthy espouses evergreen American beliefs that communists have no freedom of thought, no freedom of expression. In the dark of this historical trace, I ponder the levels of self-denial I have achieved to manage to pay rent.





Anh at Herbert Von King Park in Brooklyn, where this interview was conducted. Photos by Caitlyn Tella.


The first time we talked, Anh told me they were dealing with the ghost of their grandfather: in psychotherapy four days a week and also with a shaman. Anh had experienced profound technical difficulties before performing BABYLIFT at Target Margin in February—a memory for no audience named after Operation BABYLIFT, the 1975 mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam to the United States that resulted in a plane crash killing 78 of them. After spilling coffee on their laptop the day before the show, Anh realized they needed professional, high-order guidance from a shaman before scheduling any further performances. “At least that’s how the message got translated into my consciousness,” they said.


Since then, I’ve seen Anh perform twice. In sweaty New York summer they stewed an aromatic soup on stage. Then, as if trapped in a spell, repeated an elegant loopy step, producing increasing sweat. In autumn at MOtiVE Brooklyn, I saw their latest iteration of Non-Binary Pussy, sexy propaganda fueled by Anh’s popstar persona, featuring video, intricate choreography and great raps like MY PUSSY: ZEN DANCE SLAPPING. YOUR PUSSY: BLAND STRESSED NAPPING.

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BABYLIFT at Target Margin Theater, 2021. Credit: Yekaterina Gyadu.





CAITLYN
What made you start working with ghosts in performance?

ANH
It was a very unconscious decision. I think people here have no relationship to death and in Vietnam there are many rituals around the dead and war. It felt culturally important.

I come from performance studies which theorizes this fake-real relationship—how the fake is always the real and the real is never truly real. So I decided to fake trying to conjure ghosts. I went into my memory of my father performing these traditions and just stayed with that memory. I didn't try to google it. I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, “am I offending ghosts right now?” And that’s the price I would have to pay.

CAITLYN
Did you have a sense of—oh maybe I’m on to something? How did you register a connection?

ANH
Things gained clarity over time. For BABYLIFT I did a five hour ritual before the performance, very rhythmical. And a lot of singing. That was the part where the ghost was there. My grandfather. I almost fainted. In Vietnam we usually call people who are susceptible to ghosts and haunting as having “weak aura.” People who are always pale and dizzy—fainting is one of the signs that the ghost incorporated into your body.

CAITLYN
When you were growing up were you interested in your ancestry?

ANH
Not really. That’s where the paradox is. I had to leave Vietnam to have some awareness of how important war is, for example. We never talked about war. Why would they talk about it? I know nothing of my mom’s life pre-1975. Or really, pre-1986 when capitalism was integrated. We just have an idea that there was a lot of suffering. Only when I left I felt the haunting of the war nagging at the present, informing why people are the way people are in Vietnam. But I have no investment in trying to find the truth of my family’s history. I think more of a unit where historical relations play out, where there’s this suffocation to death of a certain way of life, a certain possibility that could have gone somewhere else in history. Instead the U.S. suffocated it. Now here we are.

CAITLYN
So you’re exploring this undiscovered place that could have existed—the unknown.

ANH
I think so, and that’s why it’s so speculative. I don’t want to do an anthropological exercise of interviewing my parents. That’s not how the truth comes out. It comes out in random ways, so my sensibility now is to pay attention to how these historical traces emerge.

CAITLYN
Speaking of traces, you use a lot of repetition in your work. How do these things form?

ANH
I think it has to do with ritual. I’m drawn to repetition of very small movements. Committing to the repetition weakens your connection to this world and you transport somewhere else.

CAITLYN
Would you say it’s like a trance?

ANH
Very much like a trance. Like, transcendence. The shaman said, “I don’t know how dance works, but when I see you dance I see you leave your body.” And my analyst really dove into that. She’s like, “Hmmm, you know, a lot of people describe a traumatic experience in terms of leaving the body and watching it from above.” She connects so many things to me leaving my body. I have a very clear investment in transcendence. Devising techniques to transcend myself. I black out every time I perform.

CAITLYN
What’s your relationship to the audience in all that?

ANH
I’m really invested in asking, “Why are we watching these things? Why do you have to show it to somebody? Why are people watching me do this?”



BABYLIFT at Target Margin Theater, 2021. Credit: Yekaterina Gyadu.

CAITLYN
Sounds like those questions motivate you, but they could easily be—

ANH
Debilitating? The opposite, it’s very motivating. For me theater is a very colonial structure—the watching, the expectations. The audience stares, they sit in the dark, people sit in silence, as if they don’t exist. The invisible eye is so violent. Especially when it comes to me working with these Vietnamese materials, that anthropological gaze is so annoying to me. This curiosity of “art that is exotic.” Of course it’s subtle, but as a performer I feel it so clearly. That informs why I don’t let people sit and watch in peace. (Laughs) They have to be implicated in the work. I want to lean into the power dynamic, make it explicit.

CAITLYN
Do you think sexuality is part of how you do that too?

ANH
Oh yeah, 100%. The way I approach sex in my work is actually very psychoanalytic. Elusive, unreachable. In analysis, sex has a lot to do with repression, especially repression of infantile sexuality which is more sensational. They say that as an infant your body is an erogenous zone, open to inspiration, sexual possibilities, sexual potential. And then they say that as you grow up there’s discipline, punishment, shame coming in that force you to repress your infantile sexual surge. Of course you can never fully repress it, so it comes out—in symptoms, in dynamics.

CAITLYN
The humor in your work is also very unexpected and direct, it feels improvised.

ANH
Yeah, it just comes out. Usually the way I work—I don’t choreograph. I sit in the studio and develop what I call repertoire. I have a repertoire of movement, of narrative, of moments. That’s how I improvise. I’m much more interested in durational form where the repertoire can actually be responsive to the moment. Although I feel like with Non-Binary Pussy it’s going to be precise, it’s going to be like dancey dance. A lot of audience engagement too.

CAITLYN
Getting the audience to dance?

ANH
Paying them to. I have to have enough money first. (Laughs.) Paying people on the spot.

CAITLYN
Then they can feel like it was their autonomous choice.

ANH
I don’t think there’s autonomy in a performance space. I hope to create a communal space where people are not so fixated on this boundary of you and I. There are other models, more productive to risk taking and play.

CAITLYN
That’s your agenda.

ANH
It is. I use the word propaganda. I want to create a space where people feel compelled enough to play with me. I never just force, I draw them in—it’s a difficult task. You’re watching me, I’m giving you all of my existence right now, I’m asking a fragment of yours. Reciprocation. That’s why I hate “audience participation.” Asking the audience to volunteer and shit. Acting like you’re inconveniencing the audience, whereas it’s always the fucking audience that’s devouring you.

CAITLYN
That’s a good word.

ANH
They devour you with their gaze.





Film stills from a video version of Non-Binary Pussy by Anh Vo.

CAITLYN
What do you make of persona?

ANH
I definitely have characters, but not explicitly. Each character is a repertoire to me.

CAITLYN
Is it a defense mechanism against the audience’s gaze? (Laughs.) That was a very psychoanalytic way to put it.

ANH
(Laughs.) I think defense mechanism is part of it. A mask does that. It's an external thing that protects your inside but also manages to give you access to the inside you don’t know as well. Non-Binary Pussy is very clear pop star. I felt I needed to embody a charismatic revolutionary. I used to want to be a revolutionary leader, that’s where I draw from.


︎

ANH
This analysis process has been fucking me up.

CAITLYN
How long have you been doing it?

ANH
Nine months. I’d never done therapy before. Classic Scorpio. The first therapy I do has to be four times a week. I would never say “I work with trauma.” Of course I do, but the word is overused. The way people mobilize the word as some sort of description of a traumatic event doesn't get at the obliqueness of trauma—how it always shows up when you don’t expect it and how you never know what your real trauma is. That’s the point of trauma! It exceeds your comprehension. It comes out as repetition, as action. That’s something so radical about psychoanalysis—they don’t try to know. Of course the eventual goal is awareness of your patterns, transforming them to a point where it’s healthy in your life.

CAITLYN
Do you get the sense of your analyst as an audience, having control over you?

ANH
A performance space is very similar to what they call transference—the space between me and the analyst and what happens there. She’s not explicitly the audience, if anything she’s the performer. She’s fucking with me. I don’t know anything about her. The analyst has to push you beyond your boundaries and I get very frustrated. I feel very persecuted. That’s her word. A little bit violated. But it’s fundamental to the analysis process because you have to be pushed beyond your resistance, because you always resist their interpretation. That curious connecting of different events—I fuck with that. But sometimes she gives an interpretation and I am just like, “What the fuck.” But then I sit with it. And I feel like that’s how I work with audiences.

CAITLYN
It sounds like it acclimates you to not knowing yourself.

ANH
Yes, I talked with a college professor recently and she was saying a lot of psychoanalysis is about not trusting yourself. Learning to not trust yourself.

CAITLYN
That’s radical.

ANH
It’s really radical. To not trust yourself. (Laughs) Of course you cannot trust yourself! You cannot trust the stories you tell yourself about yourself.




BABYLIFT at Target Margin Theater, 2021. Credit: Yekaterina Gyadu.



CAITLYN
So what do you stand on?

ANH
Exactly—the standing on is always some sort of illusion, a coping thing, to help you move through life. I was very shocked hearing from my analyst that the club, which is a place I dearly love, is a space of mania for me. Shocked. Of course, all the fucked up kids turn to the club, turn to the night. It makes sense. People need that sort of escape, or manic transcendent euphoria, the ones that have been fucked up by society. That’s where I started dancing, really drunk with music. Being in a crowd. Blacking out.

CAITLYN
It’s very Dionysian.

ANH
Yeah yeah yeah. Very Dionysian. My work does strive for that place.

CAITLYN
If you didn’t have that outlet it would be a pathology.

ANH
For me, that’s where beauty is. I see her point. But I still believe in transcendence, I still believe in leaving my body. I definitely want to—I was going to say “do something” about this mania thing. But the whole point is if you do, you’re in the manic mode (Laughs.) I often try to do instead of feel. Which, yeah, in order to be a productive person you can’t feel too much.





Anh Vo:

Anh Vo is a Vietnamese choreographer, dancer, theorist, and activist. They create dances and produce texts about pornography and queer relations, about being and form, about identity and abstraction, about history and its colonial reality. Currently based in Brooklyn, they earn their degrees in Performance Studies from Brown University (BA) and New York University (MA).

Their choreographic works have been presented nationally and internationally by Target Margin Theater, Dixon Place, MR @ Judson, Brown University, Production Workshop, Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo (Madrid), greenroom (Seoul), Montréal arts interculturels (Montréal), among others. Their artistic process has received support from Brooklyn Arts Council, Foundation of Contemporary Arts, Women and Performance, New York Live Arts, Leslie-Lohman Museum, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation, Tisch/Danspace, and the Performance Project Fellowship at University Settlement.

As a writer, they are the founder and editor of the performance theory blog CultPlastic, the Co-Editor of Critical Correspondence, and a frequent contributor to Anomaly. Their writings focus on experimental practices in contemporary dance and pornography. www.anhqvo.com



Caitlyn Tella:

Caitlyn Tella is a poet and performer based in New York. Her poetry appears in Fence, Witch Craft, Dirt Child, Nat. Brut and MARY: A Journal of New Writing. She has two chapbooks forthcoming, from Double Cross Press and from Mondo Bummer. www.caitlyntella.com











March 26th, 2021

The Performative Self: On the Work of Leeny Sack


By CAITLYN TELLA
Caitlyn talks to Leeny Sack about spilling your guts, creativity as procrastination, therapy, and excavating intergenerational trauma through theater.


Leeny Sack in Our Lady of the Hidden Agenda. Photo: Jane Bassuk


All actors are terrified that they are bad actors, so they try hard to be truthful––a trap––because effortful verisimilitude reads as bad acting. The TikTok meme “What’s an acting performance that was so good you forgot it was acting?” highlights this phenomenon. Whether stitched with sincere, ironic, or correct answers to the question, the performance of the meme itself reveals the conflation of acting and psychological realism in cultural consciousness––good acting being the ability to conceal artifice, bad acting the failure to do so.

If good acting is marked by Oscars, then why do all Oscar clips scream: I’M ACTING? Instead of passing as straight (the literal jargon for this kind of performance in theater is “straight play”), “good acting” should be recognized as the highly stylized form it is: psychological realism. The cultural premium placed on this style and its codified gestures (think, STELLA! et al.), warps the perception of what emotional truth must look and sound like to be considered real and good.

When concepts of self hinge on psychological terms, “I” don’t get much leeway, and the question that performers are primed to ask—Who am I?—has only obvious (boring) answers. Antonin Artaud, a dramatic obsessed with liveness, wrote, “Psychology, which works relentlessly to reduce the unknown to the known, to the quotidian and the ordinary, is the cause of the theater’s abasement and its fearful loss of energy.”

For performing artist Leeny Sack, psychological realism couldn’t be further from the truth. Born in Brooklyn, Leeny dropped out of Julliard in 1971 to join The Performance Group, an experimental theater company led by Richard Schechner that focused on actors as sources of dramaturgy rather than interpreters of fictional characters. When the troupe eventually split and morphed into The Wooster Group, she developed a solo career. Her body of work has been mythologized under the title “The Performative Self.” It interrogates concepts of self, not by crafting chameleon personas nor by shedding masks to uncover the “real me,” but through ongoing engagement with performance as a consequence of living.

A couple years ago, afflicted by romance, I fell lifeless under the weight of fantasy. I’d known Leeny as a teacher and flew to see her in hopes she could help administer the performative like a medicine. I wanted to find a performance to free me from fantasy.

I recently spoke with Leeny again for the first time in a couple years. Here is our conversation about her work.




Leeny Sack as Kattrin in The Performance Group's production of Mother Courage and Her Children, directed by Richard Schechner. Photo: Clem Fiori, 1975



CAITLYN
You once told me that when you performed your underwear would get completely soaked because you were so aroused.

LEENY
I would get so wet. Because performing was such a full being engagement, everything was flowing. Eros. Life force.

CAITLYN
Have you experienced that life force in the past year?

LEENY
Maybe where I’ve experienced it most extraordinarily was with [my dog] Moose’s dying and death. The life force in the presence of death was astounding.

CAITLYN
How did you ritualize his passing?

LEENY
Some of the usual bells and whistles--literally, bells, candles. Prayers kept coming through. And this extraordinary tension between letting him go and holding him, and knowing I had to get out of the way to let him go. His body was here for almost 24 hours and I would touch him and feel the change in his body temperature, his literal dead body temperature, and watch and feel the--what do you call it when the body stiffens?

CAITLYN
Rigor mortis?

LEENY
I would watch the pain of the suffering, the illness, leave his face. It was an extraordinary, heightened time. After he died, and since, his spirit body has come many times. If I still had doubts about afterlife, I don't anymore. It's so palpable. A simultaneity of warm, loving presence. I don't have language for that.



Moose and Leeny at the Ithaca women’s march, 2017. Photo: Hayya Mintz


CAITLYN
I read in Michelle Minnick’s work that your desire to be an actress when you were young was to become immortal so you wouldn't die an anonymous death--

LEENY
Very much in relation to the Holocaust. Yeah.

CAITLYN
What drives you as a performer now?

LEENY
Hm. The great and very challenging disentanglement from my conditioned ideas about “performing.” The last piece I made, Subtitles, Signage, Signifiers, and Cogitations, I spent most of the month leading up to it in panic and anxiety. And, “How can I get out of this?” That was my preparation. But I'm working differently, not so much detailed scoring and rehearsal. Mostly object work and writing. What it means to be finished is different now.

CAITLYN
My whole creative process has been procrastination, then I'll randomly sit down and do something very quickly. I pretend the procrastination is some kind of gestation.

LEENY
It is, it's an incubation state. And the stuff around it, even the word procrastinating, is somebody else's word, and entrains all the ideas of making work and who we should be and how one is supposed to work. The grip of those ideas has deeply lessened during this time. I told you about the mucus plug, right?

CAITLYN
You told me I need to unplug the mucus plug and connect my sexuality to the earth.

LEENY
It's interesting you remember it that way.

CAITLYN
What did you mean?

LEENY
For a number of years I’d been feeling there was something in the way of my full work. A friend had a baby and she was saying something about the mucus plug. When she said that phrase, “mucus plug” I thought, oh my God, that's it! Somewhere in my belief systems I thought the energy of creative movement moved up and out. I had it directionally off. It was about birthing it back into earth, not going up into the heavens. Since then, my “energetic mucus plug” has slowly begun to dissolve. What I have yearned for is more accessible to me and I'm more out of the way of it.

CAITLYN
Do you relate the mucus plug to confessional forms? Like, spilling your guts out onto the stage.

LEENY
“Spilling your guts out” is a very personal thing. You're talking about accessing and “expressing” something personal. I'm talking about being able to get out of the way of things that are coming through. Maybe those things come through the word “I”, but it transcends that. When performing has really worked for me, it's this strange paradoxical thing of--look at me not being me. Look at something coming through me.

Leeny Sack in The Survivor and the Translator, 1980. Photo: Stephen Siegel

CAITLYN
The theater company provides structure, and the director provides structure, and the character too, but when you left The Performance Group you didn’t have any of that. When you started working on The Survivor and the Translator, you were alone.

LEENY
Yeah. I started in a studio alone, naked with a ratty old flannel gray blanket. And I didn't have texts yet.

CAITLYN
Was your intention to make a performance about trauma?

LEENY
Yeah, very much. First I thought I would do a piece on women, madness, and God. Rather large. I thought, how have I encountered those? That brought me back to being a child of Holocaust survivors. And that's the subtitle of the piece “a solo theater work about not having experienced the Holocaust by a daughter of concentration camp survivors.”

CAITLYN
How did you go from lying in the unstructured darkness to--

LEENY
I was inviting in the world of the Holocaust. It was so dark. To open to the deep, inherited memory and the deepest imaginable--I thought, no, no, no, I'm not gonna get through this … well. So I shifted and, completely antithetical to all my training and all my practice till then, I wrote. There was a great typewriter store on the upper West side and when I decided that I needed a typewriter I went up there and as I was walking in Elie Weisel was walking out. I thought, “a sign!” I bought this wonderful little electric Olivetti. The typewriter gave me focus and I wrote for months, researching translation, thinking how am I going to tell this?

Leeny Sack in The Survivor and the Translator, 1980. Photo: Stephen Siegel

CAITLYN
In the performance, your body is a vessel for memories that go beyond your first-hand experience. You are also the translator of those memories, translating between languages, generations, cultures, from memory into performance itself. Your body contains many voices. At one point the Survivor’s voice screams in Polish as the translator continues to translate in English, calm, matter of fact, split-off.

LEENY
The stories were imparted to me in Polish, or sometimes in accented English, or not good English, and also in silence. So that’s how I told it. One day my grandmother came over and started talking, as she often did, about the camps and the war. I turned on my tape recorder and when I transcribed it I tried to translate it into correct English. I would call my mother and say, “How do you say this in English, exactly?” At some point in transcribing I thought––why don’t I just get it down roughly, and then I'll fix it later. So I started listening and transcribing literally--out of syntax, “uh,” “Hmm,” silence, circularity, memory lapses. When I looked at it, I saw that this was the writing I was trying to get at all these months that I couldn't quite get. The space between the words. The failures of language. I threw out most of the writing that I had and began working with that text.

CAITLYN
In Therapy as Performance you strip off another layer of character. In that piece you staged real therapy sessions with three different therapists in front of full audiences. That piece makes me think about the deceit of self-concepts, how even in therapy, with its premium on honesty, whenever you tell your story, it’s contrived, and how confining it feels to only have words to tell your story.

Therapy As Performance (2018) video still. Leeny Sack, Moose, Jeff Collins, LSW, Meditation Retreat Leader.

LEENY
One of the things I was thinking about over time was exactly what you're talking about. The role of the characters of ourselves. I made lists of what roles I’ve played in the theater, what roles I’ve played in life. They got more and more specific, so it wasn’t only “daughter,” it was “my mother's daughter.” I just kept adding to that list. It does go on. 

CAITLYN
Can you talk more about “astrology as performance,” “genetics as performance,” “preparing to die as performance?”

LEENY
Nope.

CAITLYN
Why is it interesting to you to frame those things as performances?

LEENY
The blurring between art and life? It's not a blurring, it's actually very clarifying. As the astrologer Caroline Casey said, “If we don't ritualize, we pathologize.”




Leeny Sack:

Leeny Sack is an interdisciplinary performance artist, writer, postmodern ventriloquist, and originator of The Performative Self™. Her works on identity, including The Survivor and the Translator, Straight Man, PATIENT/ARTIST, and Therapy As Performance, are part of a 4-decade body of work addressing performance as medicine. She has performed extensively throughout the U.S., Europe, and in Asia at venues including the Venice Biennale, The Edinburgh Festival, The American Dance Festival, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the first World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors. She was original faculty of New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing (ETW), faculty at Naropa University’s Theatre: Contemporary Performance program, and cofounder of Pangea Farm retreat center for contemplative and healing arts. Sack is a certified Master Teacher of Kinetic Awareness®, the somatic practice originated by choreographer and intermedia artist Elaine Summers. She currently resides and teaches in Ithaca, NY, where she frames her work as Counter Stage, an intermedia performance series that takes place on her kitchen counter.leenysack.com/


Caitlyn Tella:

Caitlyn Tella is a theater maker and poet originally from the Bay Area. Her chapbook, Sky Cracked Open the Proscenium Frame, is forthcoming from DoubleCross Press. caitlyntella.com











February 12th, 2021

The Impossible Realm of Embodiment: On the Work of Haruna Lee

By CAITLYN TELLA

Haruna Lee speaks to making theater on Zoom and offers a writing exercise into psychic landscapes



What makes “~*real*~” theater so thrilling is the sensational feedback loop between actors and audiences, woven into the fabric of shared space and time. Unaided by the literal porousness of space that transmits breath and laughter, theater on Zoom plays out more on a psychic plane, which, actually, has its own erotic merits. Like masturbating, actors can only imagine they are being seen.

As far as theater architecture goes, Zoom’s fourth wall collapses into the first, second, and third walls, creating a very flat earth experience for everyone involved. An intense suspension of disbelief is required to get into it. Or maybe it’s an engagement with belief––belief that this is, in fact, a gathering, that I’m not just alone with my laptop watching, through the window, actors, who are also alone, do their thing.

Playwright and director Haruna Lee, whose body of work in experimental theater spans a decade (and recently earned an Obie for the conception and writing of Suicide Forest), took this most rudimentary constraint on the art form as an opportunity to exploit the very core of live performance in Beyond the Wound is a Portal, a production they helmed as a visiting artist at Stanford last fall. In a feat of collaboration with seven student writer/performers, the choreographer Sarah Ashkin, and musical director Sheela Ramesh, the entirely original Zoom show, created remotely, found ways to, as Haruna said, “reach through the box within the box and touch each other.” In Emergent Strategy, a book Haruna cites as an influence, adrienne marie brown portends, “the sacred comes from limitations.”


Beyond the Wound is a Portal digital backdrop by scenic designer Carlo Maghirang, depicting an altar of ritual objects chosen by each performer. The show was produced by the Stanford Department of Theater & Performance Studies in Fall 2020.

JULIANNA: What is there on the moon that you can’t find here?
DIANA: Space.
                    -Beyond the Wound is a Portal


Beyond the Wound is a Portal opens on a familiar grid of mini-prosceniums, each performer tucked into the box set of their own home. Alexa (all the actors play versions of themselves) welcomes the audience onto the Zoom platform, “a place that is nowhere and everywhere at once,” before each actor goes around *the circle* to share a recent dream and the name of the land they stand on. This paradox, where everywhereness (a gaping yet loaded void) intersects with the actors’ specific contexts on colonized ground, activates the non-linear journey ahead.

The tidy Zoom boxes dissolve. Glass breaks, and one of the actors, in simulated miniature, free falls in darkness, then through clouds of wisteria. Frames distort and cohere into a variety of potent, psychic landscapes throughout the show, technically composed by layers of live and pre-recorded action, as well as surrealistic 2D and 3D animations. The actors enter cabins, tunnels, clubs, and cosmos like lucid dreams and navigate their mysteries through song. Singing functions like a sensory faculty—–it heightens the actors’ perceptions of grief, longing, and bewilderment lodged in each environment.


A dollhouse full of inexplicable hedgehogs contains a claustrophobic mother-child relationship.


The mother, played by Julianna Yonis.

Club Waxing Gibbous, 2024. Surrounded by flailing limbs and broken beats, performer Alexa Luckey wakes up in the terror of a memory that encases and exposes her.




Morgan, grieving his mother, becomes trapped inside the loneliness of tunnel vision. “I want to go back to feeling safe,” he begs a globular, oscillating oracle, before a vaguely familiar tune catches his attention.
        
    MORGAN: I know that song. How do I know it?

“We all sing it to ourselves sometimes,” quips the oracle. This moment reminded me how pain can feel so alienating and spacious at once. The tunnel disintegrates and opens on a new portal: the cabin where Morgan finds a letter his mom wrote to him before he was born. He sings, “I wish that she could smile at me one last time / then I would know / and at last she could go.” His voice embodies a mix of self-declaration and keening. Throughout the show, singing seems to separate the actors from their pain by giving it its own voice. As a voyeur, this was soothing to experience.



Video and 3D Design by Matt Romein.


In Diana’s dreamscape, they are on a quest to live where pain has no lineage. They end up on the moon. There, a bunch of hedgehogs worry they will miss the earth. Even if they do, Diana says, “I don’t think the myth that would welcome me back [to earth] has been written yet.”





Structurally tied to the ever growing, ever shrinking moon cycle, the show has no resolution, no final healing touch, even as we return to the familiarity of the Zoom grid. Of course not. There is only process and possibility, and myths yet written. When it ended, I felt spacious, as if I’d just spent an hour lying on the earth, gazing into the night sky. The next evening, I met with Haruna on Zoom to talk about the show.



︎

CAITLYN 
The show made me feel incredibly soft. When it was over I thought it was odd that I’d gotten totally immersed in a performance on Zoom. I know the show was originally going to be in-person...how did you make something so intimate online?

HARUNA 
Yeah, I echo that there was something so tender and sweet about what came from that particular group of artists. I think there's something to the impossibility of having to create embodiment digitally. The fact that this group was game to move towards that, even though the impossibility was crystal clear, might've been what birthed the tenderness. Without a sense of care and lovingness, I just don't think it would have been possible to create a brand new show.

CAITLYN
The care was palpable. Also, watching it felt like a time capsule of early pandemic.

HARUNA
Yes, we played with that idea so much, so it’s amazing that you say that.

CAITLYN
What was the beginning of the pandemic like for you?

HARUNA
In the spring, summer, and fall of 2020, the grief was huge. I was thinking a lot about wounds. I had just had this show Suicide Forest that got cancelled midway through March. My mother was in that show with me, and the trauma of having to close it and having to make quick decisions with my mom about where her body should be, where would be most safe—–should she stay in New York? Do we send her back to Seattle? And slowly realizing the dissolution of the embodied arts culture as we know it... all of that was hitting us in the moment, and it felt like fresh wounds.


Haruna and their mom on their way to the last show of Suicide Forest before shutting down for the pandemic.


CAITLYN
So how did you start working on the show? It was made from scratch, right?

HARUNA
Yeah. Creatively, our show started with adrienne marie brown's essay Dream Beyond the Wounds. In the essay, amb asks us to use our imagination as if it's medicine to dream beyond the space of just wounds. What are the possibilities when we do this? A lot of early writing prompts with the cast were based on imagining the landscape of a wound.

After writing, writing, writing—–scenes, monologues, songs—–we arrived at this place where we were like, how are we going to organize this? The cast was really drawn to the moon cycle as a structure for the piece itself. We started with the waxing gibbous and we ended on the new moon. And we eventually created this very ritualistic, abstract, imagistic dream logic piece.

CAITLYN
I kept thinking “beyond the womb is a portal” because there were a lot of mommy issues being explored.

HARUNA
I wasn't intending on bringing that energy into this work, but I think some of the cast members had read Suicide Forest and the idea of the monstrous mother, which is something I explore in that play, was really present. The hungry mother, the dark sides of mother, as well as the generous light sides of mother, were all at play.

I also picked up on the family relationships they were working through because they were no longer on campus. They were all back home in their childhood bedrooms. So, a lot of intergenerational workings seeped through, a lot of parent-child dynamics, and the residual pain from that. The death of family members was also present throughout the process.

CAITLYN
Yeah, it felt very courageous, and raw. I mean, the actors played themselves, well, versions of themselves. I thought it was interesting how it opened with that slightly awkward thing of going around a circle to introduce yourself. That threshold moment with a new group before you dig into the guts of whatever it is you’re about to do. I enjoyed watching the actors perform a kind of ease with discomfort in that scenario, or a mix of ease and discomfort.

HARUNA
There’s a sweetness there. Finding a common denominator felt really real in a time when things feel so fractured and people are carrying so much grief and stress and tension. The idea that we have to be productive, and not having space to release and let go. I felt the group working through the biggest, most human ideas we can all relate with. And that somehow created care, like, let's just care for everyone! Can we do that? Is that possible?

But something I learned is that community care can’t necessarily be a learning space. It has to be just plain care. Rest and play, not more work, not more constructive conversations on race and racial dynamics and how that plays out in this piece and all that.



Beyond the Wound is a Portal production still featuring (clockwise from top left) Emily Saletan, Alexa Luckey, Julianna Yonis, Morgan Gwilym Tso, Chloe Chow, Diana Khong, and Obed De la Cruz at center.


CAITLYN
How do you work with images as a performance maker?

HARUNA
When I think images, I might actually mean landscapes. I think a location houses a collection of different images. In Suicide Forest, for example, I had just read Funnyhouse of a Negro by Adrienne Kennedy and was struck by the way she uses her own psychic space as the landscape of the play itself. I was really drawn to that as a prompt–—to find a dark psychic space that speaks to my Asian American identity. That led me to thinking about Aokigahara, which is ‘Suicide Forest’ at the base of Mount Fuji, and what a rep that place has from a Western viewpoint. I was interested in what would happen if that forest was actually full of possibility and love and reconnection with ghosts and mothers. Like, if it's actually an intergenerational space where the conversations that we could never have could happen. The first part of the play that takes place in the suicide forest is full of goats who are rock climbing!



Suicide Forest by Ma-Yi Theater Company production still by Maria Baranova.


CAITLYN
Oh! Maybe this is a good time to do a little writing exercise? I was hoping you could lead me through something you used in your rehearsal process to generate material.

HARUNA
Oh, yeah. I actually don't think I used this writing exercise for Beyond the Wound is a Portal, but it’s a writing ritual I return to all the time. I call it “The Cosmic Cellar.”



CAITLYN
When you go on these imaginary journeys, like in this writing prompt, do you fight with your brain about the images that come up?

HARUNA
Oh yeah, I think I do. I think I fight with my brain and play with it and sleep with it. That’s what's so beautiful about the image world—–it allows for so much messy simultaneity, and that's such a core of my… of me.

CAITLYN
Where does your life end and performance begin? Or maybe I mean, how do they overlap?

HARUNA
That is such a good question. Does my work create a shift in my lived reality? More and more I’m finding that's the case. That's what I'm getting off on in making art—seeing the ways the thing I make deeply impacts my lived experience and vice versa. My work continually moves towards a more relational, more community-based model. I just can't help it. I'm getting sucked into that.

My most recent collaborators are people I would want to be stranded on an island with. People I am so deeply inspired by and care about, their families and their livelihood. I’m grounding into how my sense of freedom and true, liberated self can be connected to somebody else's who is entirely their own human being. Really beautiful collaboration feels like a mirror of that, where we're allowing each other to be more free rather than less free.

CAITLYN
What processes or rituals have you been participating in lately?

HARUNA
Mmm, I think gathering is such an important ritual. This group came out of making Suicide Forest, which is the “Women-Trans-Femme-Non Binary Asian Diasporic Performance Makers Potluck.” Such a long title, but I feel with the first draft—just have all the words!



Women-Trans-Femme-Non Binary (WTFNB) Asian Diasporic Performance Makers Potluck (zoom version)



Throughout the year [this group] has been a touchstone for me—–the act of gathering and also [the fact that] within the group we’re actively coming up with rituals that help each other get through this time. We had one where we all, 30 or 40 folks, shared a word that describes something we're carrying in ourselves that we want to let go of. I wrote everyone’s words down on a piece of paper and went out to my yard and did a little burning ceremony with this piece of paper that had all of our words. As a group I think we realized like, “Oh, what that person needs to let go of is something I need to let go of too.”



Ritual objects Haruna keeps close.


CAITLYN
I think a lot more people have been dabbling in spiritual practices, like creating new solo rituals during quarantine. It's inspiring to hear you talk about a group ritual, a collective beholding. Having everyone there to watch makes it so powerful.

HARUNA
We really had to work up to that idea too. That group met a few times over the pandemic before we felt we could even go forward with this idea. We were like, “Wait, what would it mean for this group to perform this ritual over Zoom?” It didn't even cross our minds at first.



Beyond the Wound is a Portal production still.
Image created by Morgan Gwilym Tso.




Haruna Lee:

Haruna Lee (they/them) is a Taiwanese/Japanese/American theater maker, educator and community steward whose work is rooted in a liberation-based healing practice. They are committed to promoting arts activism and emergent strategies for the theater through ethical and process-based collaborations that challenge systems and legacies of power, while inviting the fullness of marginalized bodies and the complexity of lived experience to their practice. Recent plays include Suicide Forest published by 53rd State Press (Ma-Yi Theater Company and The Bushwick Starr), plural (love) (Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab; New Georges), and Memory Retrograde (UTR; Ars Nova; BAX). Lee is a recipient of an Obie Award for Playwriting and Conception of Suicide Forest, an FCA Grants to Artists Award, received the Mohr Visiting Artist Fellowship at Stanford University, a MacDowell Fellowship, the Map Fund Grant, Lotos Foundation Prize for Directing, and a New Dramatists Van Lier Fellowship. They were a member of the 2019 artEquity cohort, and are a co-founder and lead facilitator for the Women-Trans-Femme-Non Binary Asian Diasporic Performance Makers Potluck. They received their M.F.A. from Brooklyn College under the tutelage of Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney, and a B.F.A. from NYU Experimental Theater Wing. harunalee.com


Caitlyn Tella:

Caitlyn Tella is a theater maker and poet originally from the Bay Area. Her chapbook, Sky Cracked Open the Proscenium Frame, is forthcoming from DoubleCross Press. caitlyntella.com








July 15, 2020

WELCOME TO THE END OF OPINION

By BENJAMIN SHEARN 

This moment, the moment you’re reading these words, right now, whenever that may be, is – and yes, this is quite official – the End of Opinion.

The commonplace qualitative model of judgement, that tedious vertical Good-Bad binary, is now as unimportant as your vague reasoning for why The Lobster just “didn’t work for you.”

Hot takes are now hot trash. And yes, I completely understand how adrift you must feel.

Because without your arbitrary art rules, your peer-tested conjecture, your mountain of prop books and performative merch, without the abstract wreckage you refer to as your “taste”… why even watch a film anymore?

It’s an age old conundrum really: If a dude tees off on how Malick’s never been quite “grounded enough” and no one’s around to hear him, did he even ever see The Thin Red Line three times in theaters?



I remember in 2011 the New York Film Critics Circle hastily moved their awards date up to November, before many of the films in (supposed) contention had even been released.  

Some film journalists saw this as typical east coast elitism, New York writers flexing intellectual precedence by forcing their way into the inaugural awards position.

That, to me, was not the issue.

The rosiest, most benevolent view of a film writer is one of pop-cultural archaeology. There’s an altruistic sense of responsibility to unearth and champion the work you believe in to your readership.

And by ranking, by saying “this is the best film of the year,” you boldly pronounce strongly held aesthetic values. You compel readers and peers to debate, to examine, to ponder the nature of what makes film a true and vital artform.

If this is the level of artistic zeal the New York Film Critics Circle felt for the cinema of 2011, well then, I thought to myself, have at it. Flood the digital tributaries with your simmering passion which could not possibly have waited another two weeks to boil over into public view…



… the day came. And the NYFCC proudly announced their pantheon of cinematic prestige:

Best Film… The Artist
Best Actor… Brad Pitt
Best Actress… Meryl Streep

Ooookay, so let me stop ya’ right there if I may.

And just allow me to pose a simple question: Why... did you even... bother?

Every year the top ten lists come out and every year they’re just a deck-shuffle of the same 25 films.

Film criticism, in the classic Kael-ian model, has become little more than a social media-damaged conformity.

And this has had a significant trickle-down effect on the amateur dialectic. My generation and younger are so addicted to bandwagon-ism that when they’re confronted with dissenting perspectives the result is akin to LIGHTS ON at the rave.



Opinion is the new religion.

Its institution is corporate interest. Its church is Twitter. Every service is an all-night open mic. And yet every guest preacher really just wants to prosthelytize that “Yep… Get Out ruled!”

‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ are suppressant words. And like Huxley’s soma the words are pills to anesthetize conversation to the transactional complexity of giving out doggie treats.

Rotten Tomatoes is our Golem, and it’s trampled our brains into a barren landscape of Netflix thumbnails. Existential obedience to the algorithmic order of Silicon Valley.

No more.

Consider this Luther’s parchment nailed to the Church door.

Consider this a liberation.

Consider the question “Hey, is Zardoz actually any good?” as a FULL ON ASSAULT on your philosophical freedoms!

And together we will usher in a messianic age of opinion-less analysis.



Think of yourself as an alien, or post-apocalyptic future human, and consider films not as fuel for simplistic assertions of identity but as odd, potentially profound artifacts. Each one holding an insight into both the intricacies of the medium and the humanity of the message.

Some initial steps in this glorious new freedom:

  1. Watch What Lies Beneath and resist the urge to rage on its contrivances, its chintzy Hitchockian cheap shots, its huffy celebrity performances. Instead meditate quietly on its prophecy of cell phone technology ruining the classic suspense film.

  2. Watch every single James Spader movie in a row up to Crash and realize that it is a detailed chronology of the rise and fall of Yuppie Culture.

  3. Watch Body Horror films not just for their goopy gory payoffs but as subconscious statements of Man’s irrational fear of the Female anatomy.

  4. Watch Field of Dreams not as an uplifting balm of magical Americana, but as Baby Boomer apologist propaganda with Baseball nostalgia as its MAGA Trojan horse. 



Look beyond the vanity of auteurs, the vagaries and vulgarities of corporate marketing, the academic tyranny of the so-called canon, and crucially understand that all hype is hypnosis.

See the forest through the trees, don’t just see The Tree of Wooden Clogs and proclaim how much you “dug” all the tree shots.

Films are complex documents of unintended spiritual, political, societal, and institutional significance, and the century-plus reign of Opinion has suppressed these hidden meanings.

This column is an act of anthropological radicalism, of ideological detective work. An attempt to re-contextualize all of cinema, freeing films as feeble fodder for your feed, and lifting them up as profound reflections of your humanity.

Welcome, friends, to the future. Where should we begin?   


 


Benjamin Shearn is a film editor and writer. His last feature, Ladyworld, premiered at BFI London, Fantastic Fest, TIFF: Next Wave and was presented as part of the Frontieres Showcase at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Shearn’s work in narrative and documentary films has also been exhibited at ComicCon San Diego, the Louisiana Museum of Art in Copenhagen, la Gaîté lyrique in Paris, as well as official selections of the CPH:DOX, Melbourne International, Planete+Doc, TIFF After Dark, Court Metrage du Clermont, Chicago and Boston Underground Film Festivals, amongst others. For more of his work, go to benjaminshearn.com and/or follow his absurd Instagram account @actorsupset.














July 8, 2022

BODY HORROR (WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?)

By BENJAMIN SHEARN 


It’s been nearly 50 years of analysis and argument since Laura Mulvey summoned the Male Gaze into cinema’s self reflective dialectic.


Has there been enough talk, however, on what gazes back?


Allow me an infantile thought experiment…


… an Alien, one of superior intelligence yet total ignorance of Earth’s anthropological eccentricities, makes its way down the research curriculum to films.


They’re told by an overzealous custodian (some crumbling Boomer still huffing on Hitchcock fumes, think Ben Mankiewicz) that these “moving pictures” are a near-mystical conjuring of our deepest truths. Miraculous machinery recording history, externalizing imagination.


Yes- it’s almost certain the custodian will hard-sell the filmmaker as a portrait artist of the human condition, thinking mostly of Mr. Smith going to Washington. He’ll be dead right, of course, but less so in the triumph of the human spirit and moreso in the sickening surplus of female punishment that’s as vivid and disturbing in cinema as it is in society.


At this time of publication, there's nothing more horrific than the unthinkable setbacks for women's rights rapidly tightening their grip on America's fragile legal architecture. Body Horror, as both a genre and a concept, has for decades offered a prophetic and unnerving double-edged blade of violence against women in film.  More often than not it’s a transparent expression of mostly male filmmakers’ obsessive, conflicted and ultimately fearful relationship with female anatomy.


Underneath that fraught membrane, however, one can sense a feminine consciousness (sometimes intentionally, oftentimes accidentally) talking back - with yearning, sadness, defeat, rage and, inevitably, vengeance.


This short video essay, created with my eternal creative partner Amanda Kramer, is an attempt to harness that consciousness into a voice. It has very upsetting imagery from very famous films. Buyer beware.



Benjamin Shearn is a film editor and writer. His latest film Please Baby Please was the opening night selection of the 2022 Rotterdam Film Festival. It played as part of a retrospective on Shearn's work with filmmaker Amanda Kramer. His films have also been screened at SXSW, BFI London, Fantastic Fest, Sitges, Fantasia, Outfest, TIFF: Next Wave, ComicCon San Diego, the Louisiana Museum of Art in Copenhagen, la Gaîté lyrique Paris, CPH:DOX, Melbourne International, Planete+Doc, and the Frontieres Showcase at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. For more of his work, go to benjaminshearn.com and/or follow his absurd Instagram account @actorsupset.














August 14, 2020

ACTORS ARE IDOLS:JAMES SPADER

By AMANDA KRAMER

I’m often shit on for my Hollywood People-Worshipping of white straight men. It’s wildly out of fashion, I guess, especially for a woman like me. You don’t know me, but you’ll have to trust that no one around me wants to hear about how much I adore this popular actor or that rich actor.

Anyway fuck fashion: I LOVE JAMES SPADER.



Thinking about James Spader makes me physically ill. It twists my insides. But one of my favorite things in the world to do is think about James Spader; his motivations, his movements, his vibe, his voice. I take pleasure in every single acting choice he’s ever made. Like when he leans on desks or leans on cars, always this effortless leaning, like he’s too chill to stand but too chic to sit. James Spader knows intrinsically the James Spader character. He’s never missed a Spader beat. God I love thinking about him.



Here is a brag, a swagger, a triumph: I happen to know someone (well) who knows James Spader (well). I love thinking about this. He has James Spader stories, personal ones and professional ones. He’ll tell me the stories sometimes if I ask - I do have to ask, and ask without too much excitement, and then I have to listen, also without too much excitement, or he may not tell me another one again. Have to keep it “cool,” have to keep my energy “low.” But in truth my soul is fed by these stories. In every single one James Spader does exactly what I want him to be doing. He’s acting exactly like James Spader, and there’s a joyousness (a jubilation) in the storyteller as well - here are two people (one, a brilliant decades-long television director/the other, me) in agreement that James Spader is a marvel, an actual treasure. We’re also in agreement that if Hollywood brings back Columbo, Hollywood would be fucking stupid as fuck not to get on their knees and happily hand the role to James Spader.



James Spader is an enduring icon who has given us the gift of his work.

James Spader should have played Patrick Bateman, not Christian Bale, and I stand by that one hundred percent and don’t care about any opposing opinions. I am right. James Spader is a flawless 80s demon, a uniquely dimensional Reaganite, the personification of charmed smarm, a performance artist whose art is a disappearing act. He has wholly disappeared inside the James Spader aesthetic, which is a frightening, libidinal, impish, formal, magnetic, untrustworthy (in)human masterpiece. James Spader doesn’t do anything unless he’s doing it masterfully. James Spader is a legendary weirdo. We are lucky to have moving images of him.



Can you imagine being David E. Kelley? I try to imagine it all of the time. It’s an overwhelming thought experiment and that’s before I let my mind wrap around marrying Michelle Pfeiffer. Imagine you’re David E. Kelley. You want to cast James Spader in a role on a television show called The Practice. Yet every person around you, all of the people who normally tell you you’re a goddamn TV genius, is looking at you like you're a diseased lunatic off the streets. "You can’t cast James Spader! He’s the single most sexually charged nefarious symbol of class, the most bizarre seductor in the business!” And you cast him anyway and you win awards and he wins awards and the Spader Legacy mutates and transforms and deepens and enriches all of America into the 21st century. And that’s what it’s like to be David E. Kelley, a very important piece of the James Spader puzzle.

And it’s a puzzle that is ever-rewarding as its pieces continue to interlock.



Please watch Mannequin. No matter how you feel about Kim Cattrall. You won’t BELIEVE the Spader look, and even if you remember it, you only vaguely remember it, and need to interact with it again. It is undeniably strange and wondrous.

Please watch Jack's Back. In this film James Spader plays a Spader medical student. He also plays a Spader medical student’s Spader criminal twin brother. Here every opportunity for classic Spaderism is mined: shirtlessness on white sheets, compelling male blondness, charismatic night sweats, balletically-timed one liners, levels of sinister secrecy, jocular affirmations of alt-heroics, a complex comfort in the leading man as stranger/danger. Ebert watched. He then compared James Spader to Jack Nicholson, another created persona, another example of exuberant, mythical villainy. I would agree with Ebert there, save for the fact that James Spader is much, much more allegorical and intriguing than Jack Nicholson. As we all know.



Please go to YouTube. Click on the video titled “James Spader,” wherein James Spader sit-leans next to a very tall leafy plant and discusses his film Pretty in Pink. He wears a leather jacket with shoulder pads. He has the presence of a god. He’s hilarious, suave, subtle, unfazed, alluring. If a man can be a pair of dark sunglasses attached to a slightly wrinkled linen blazer, then that man is James Spader. He is entirely meant to be James Spader. He has an impeccable vocabulary.

Some people don’t want to meet their heroes. That’s absolute bullshit. What the hell is wrong with those people, nothing makes sense about that. Nothing. I want to meet James Spader and I want to recount back to him every moment of his career, I want to say his best and most potent lines to his face, I want to make sure he understands fully that his decisions (all of his decisions) have been perfectly executed and brilliantly designed. And more than anything I want to let him know that he is meaningful, representational, and amazing. He amazes me. He is a maze. He is an amazement.




Follow Amanda:

Website: afilmbyamandakramer.com

Bio:

Kramer's short films BARK, INTERVENE, and SIN ULTRA have played at Fantastic Fest, Monster Fest, Final Frame, Court Metrange Festival, Chicago Underground Film Festival and Boston Underground Film Festival's Dispatches from the Underground. Her screenplays have been accepted into IFP’s Emerging Filmmakers program and Frontierés International Co-Production Market in Brussels. Kramer's music videos have premiered on Vogue, LA Record, Flaunt Magazine, and Complex.

Her feature film PARIS WINDOW opened the Women Texas Film Festival and won the jury prize for Creative Vision at the DTLA Film Festival. Her feature film LADYWORLD was selected for the Frontierés Buyers Showcase at the Marche du Film at Cannes. The film had its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest ('18) and its International Premiere at London BFI Film Festival. LADYWORLD also showed at Denver International Film Festival, SF Indie Fest, TIFF Next Wave, Seoul International Women’s Film Festival, and Sydney Film Fest. Distributed by Cleopatra Entertainment, LADYWORLD had its theatrical and
streaming release in August 2019.










September 23, 2020

A BLANK CHECK FOR UNCHECKED ADOLESCENCE

By BENJAMIN SHEARN

I knew it was risky. And almost certainly... illegal? Echoes of a past scandal concerning Pee-Wee Herman and a movie theater and Florida rattled around somewhere in the muddle of memory.

And yet... I proceeded... slowly... outwardly covering my guilt with nonchalance. A tan windbreaker slipped off the back of my seat onto my lap - adjustments were made, both physical and psychological.

I wish the fog of recollection would allow me to round up in my favor, and that I could tell you the theater was empty. Sadly, it’s all still imprinted on my cerebellum with the same finality of light on nitrate. Surrounded by strangers in a midwestern movie house, I pursued my compulsion well before reason and restraint dissuaded me.

The film was True Lies and I was masturbating to the scene where Jamie Lee Curtis dances a goofy lingerie striptease. The year was 1994 and I was 13 years old.



How and why I committed such brazen self-gratification could be attributable to youthful fatuity. But I’d never tried anything like that before, or since. Only in retrospect can a case be made that I was acting out as a so-called ‘product of the culture.’

Hollywood’s output that year was more directly catered to (and in praise of) the straight male adolescent psyche, than any other demographic. The movie capitalists had red-blooded American boys in their crosshairs, and I was both victor and victim of the spotlight.
 


The box office tea leaves could not have been more overt. What started with Big, continued with Home Alone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hook, Encino Man, T2, Bill and Ted and Wayne and Garth. Here, movies whose central figures were adolescent males (either literally, psychologically, or magically) were winning audiences with overwhelming fervor.

The Age of Boy was nigh and the mid-90s were to be its apotheosis era.



Boys saved baseball in Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield and Little Big League.

They taught recalcitrant adults life lessons in North, The Client and The War.

They laid claim to the animal kingdom in The Jungle Book and The Lion King.

They revealed themselves as the inner-children of adults in Forrest Gump, Clerks, The Hudsucker Proxy, Reality Bites, Cabin Boy, Clifford, Crumb and of course the trifecta of Carrey - Ace Ventura, Dumb & Dumber and The Mask.

They even found time to free Tibet in Little Buddha.



But of all the boy-driven narratives Disney’s Blank Check, for me, held the most potent and indelible subtext. A film that offered up unapologetic adolescent wish fulfillment and was one of my key cinema enablers.  

11-year-old Preston Waters, by virtue of a car-on-bike accident, is handed a blank check connected to a money laundering scam. He fills in one million, gets his backpack stuffed by a buffoon banker, then proceeds to spend and live unencumbered by the restrictions and prejudices of the adult world.



Blank Check attempts to establish a clear ‘money can’t buy everything’ theme, inasmuch as Preston’s family wrongly preaches the opposite. Middle-class Dad berates Preston for a lack of income, and his entrepreneurial brothers make known their capitalist-fascist beliefs with a perversion of the Golden Rule, chanting: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.”

Clearly, the screenwriters intended to affirm the original Golden Rule but end up reinforcing this false one. If they had succeeded in their intended thematic cohesion, I’m not sure it would have been as impactful on my licentious 13-year-old psyche.



Preston uses the cash to close on a small castle, and does so under a false name of a false idol; Mr. Mackintosh. He fills the house with unbridled childish Id; walls of TVs blasting video games in surround sound, a wilderness of giant inflatables and the ultimate male adolescent wet dream home addition; a built-in water slide.

Preston flaunts it with limos and wardrobe montages and even an improbably romantic dinner with a pretty bank teller (played by Karen Duffy, MTV’s “Duffy” at the time). The teller is, in reality, secretive Shay, an undercover FBI agent who sees Preston as a conduit to criminals.

Preston’s impish clash of naivete and burgeoning bravado thaw Shay’s crucial adult layers of professionalism and age-gap skepticism. In only a few encounters, this child empowered by bottomless wealth is seamingly the perfect man and he seamlessly charms Shay into an unlikely romantic co-lead.



And this is where any of Blank Check’s original altruistic sentiments fray irrevocably into an unregulated glorification of adolescent instincts.

In the film’s final act, Preston’s exposed as a fraud, broke, and in massive debt. All of which, naturally, are forgiven and absolved by quaint Disney logic. A series of jarring moral reversals then haphazardly appear. Preston experiences firsthand the cold isolation of wealth and even goes as far as to swear off money in the face of family reconciliation.

However, this turnaround is shoehorned in so suddenly it reeks suspiciously of a desperate hail mary for moral catharsis. 



What Preston truly wants is plainly stated from the beginning; freedom and autonomy. He craves whatever force can transcend his child class and at the same time satiate his adolescent desires.

The eponymous Blank Check then takes on a symbolic prowess; Preston’s signature unlocks more than funds but an entire relativistic universe in which his basest intuitions are rewarded and worshipped.



All the adults of Blank Check are so passive and corrupt that Preston emerges as a God in a Godless world, self-generating all of his own moral quandaries and conclusions. Within this ethical vacuum Preston feels no pain, suffers no repercussions and is even decorated with the highest trophy of the gross straight male adolescent fantasy... the “babe.”

After all is revealed, Shay offers Preston both a statutory kiss and promise of future nooky once he’s of age or even ‘wink-wink’ before then.

With that, Blank Check accidentally offered my 1994 lizard brain a modern fable; the uncurbed ascendency of a boy king who discovers that his boyishness is fundamental to his power.



At the time Blank Check played like a fetish film for me. A revisionist myth that shifted away from adages of family, responsibility and morality, into an unambiguous exaltation of pubescent hedonism. Watching it tickled psychological pressure points with ASMR-like reward tingles, entwined with my subliminals, and endowed me with an overgrown sense of strut.

I felt as invincible as Preston, and that I lived in a world which would only ever cheer me on.

Of course, I wasn’t consciously aware of any of this as I was engaging in public self-abuse during a Schwarzenegger movie. Nor was I aware of the deep matrix of male privilege and empowerment driving all if not most of my instinctive actions.

Simultaneously I felt zero shameful misgivings or moral doubt. If I felt any fear it was only the fear of being caught. And not even from the potential for embarrassment. Only disciplinary repercussions. Even that fear was hypothetical at best. I felt more than safe that both True Lies and myself would reach denouement without incident.



If you’d ask me then, ‘why?’ I’d probably maneuver blame on to the power of runaway train hormones. Looking soberly back though, I see it as a sort of paradoxical and sad victory lap.  A gestural attempt to reinforce the idea that my adolescent vigor was as powerful as a bag full of money...


Benjamin Shearn is a film editor and writer. His last feature, Ladyworld, premiered at BFI London, Fantastic Fest, TIFF: Next Wave and was presented as part of the Frontieres Showcase at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Shearn’s work in narrative and documentary films has also been exhibited at ComicCon San Diego, the Louisiana Museum of Art in Copenhagen, la Gaîté lyrique in Paris, as well as official selections of the CPH:DOX, Melbourne International, Planete+Doc, TIFF After Dark, Court Metrage du Clermont, Chicago and Boston Underground Film Festivals, amongst others. For more of his work, go to benjaminshearn.com and/or follow his absurd Instagram account @actorsupset.







   






Stranded Prepositions


Poetry by:
SIMONE ZAPATA





Stranded Prepositions















Follow Simone:


Instagram: @_rebelgreen

Bio:

Simone Larson Zapata is a poet, printmaker, and educator from San José, CA. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts in 2021. Her current research draws on theories of cognitive linguistics to explore how grammar and punctuation establish relation between subjects on and off the page.


More From This Issue...





   






TWO POEMS


Poetry by:
SASHA LESHNER



Anima 



I’ve been a thousand years asleep 
inside the untied
anchor-patterned robe 

my mother got me on 
America Island 
where I first slept off 

a slight addiction
all castaway
all prince white garden 

still 
I would only regard 
the oleanders 

only so sated 
a patient snake 
cool 

belly-down and 
waiting 

for what was bound 
to happen
to give

the way a horse might rest 
its head
in a rider’s hands 

and just to stay
like this a little longer 

let the horse be grey 
and blind and 
follow 

where that leads the aching 
animal inside me 

I will get where I am going 
when I feel thirst




Where You Will Wait For The Rest of Your Life



standing across the aisles
in the stadium of my heart

everyone is waiting for the drum
to play beloved

the sky is always bright there
that last light-before-dark

when the colder water
turns the wrists with blessings

the swallows kick
their used-up wings against

the skyline
and I am not broken-hearted

everyone I love is there
even the resurrections

they do not cry out
do not mind the spectacle

of my oars my armour
ringing toward the red

shore that I call heaven
that like anything forbidden

turns an unblurred face
on where the details fade

from this still life this
slow-moving crowd

now leaning like departure
like planetary revolution

approaching an ending
and turning around







Follow Sasha:


Instagram: @sasha.lesh

Bio:

Sasha Leshner is a poet and editor from Brooklyn New York. Her work is drawn from the intersections of art, memory, and the possibilities of their articulations. She has an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University and a BA from NYU. Her work has been published and is forthcoming from ExPat Press, (M)othertongues Magazine, Pour Vida Zine, west 10th magazine, 89+ and the luma foundation, and others. Her poems are dedicated to the beloveds who beat her to the next world.




More From This Issue...















Two Poems


Poetry by:
CARSON JORDAN




IF YOU SEE THIS BEAUTIFUL [REDACTED], PLEASE KILL IT



I stopped hearing god
after heartbreak
some red wing muse
to pine over

hate to admit
I’ve begged before
Say It Right
say it with flowers
say anything

I visit a club called heaven
where I am bored to tears
sober as the dishes
sober as silence
sober as feeling

do I not have nine lives
do I not have angels on my side

what if god wants me
to steal more, untiy
an earworm
I am your favorite song
so hold it like your breath
passing a cemetery




C U NEXT TUESDAY


riding holy I gloat
how eroded of you
to be so gorged on me
bereft of dignity
glory, to be a god on high

my little peach
there is a remedy
love on days off
glory, to be a rave in my mind
a steamy receiving
a sugar glass crack
a bevy of very good girls
and virile bad boys

god made my honky tonk angels
and I just licked the jelly jar clean
in high, in heaven
there is a place, pray
that I am forgiven and hot




Follow Carson:


Instagram: @cahhhhson

Bio:

Carson Jordan is a clown and poet living in Brooklyn, NY. Her first chapbook, Good For Her, was released by Dirt Child in April 2022.


More From This Issue...











Excerpt from ‘VISIONS’


Fiction by:
MICHAEL NEWTON




I.

Jeannie is having feelings about the objects in the house again. She and Greg have talked about this many times. She agreed to try and  dim her senses to the messages which the objects send her. He encouraged her to try living in the real world and stop talking to the chairs and the toothbrushes.

Jeannie didn’t ask for this power (her word), this unfortunate capacity (Greg’s words). They do both agree that life is easier when it stays dormant. Because Jeannie is, in every other way, an exemplary partner (Greg’s words). She keeps the home beautifully and raises the children to be upstanding citizens. She prefers to spend her days working in the garden, paying social visits, and taking care of the shopping. But, when the power comes over her with all the randomness and intensity of a migraine, she has no way to stop it. She retreats to her bedroom, darkened with the shades pulled down, and suffers the buffeting waves. Countless social engagements have been broken as a result of these episodes.

Last night, for instance, she had to flee right in the middle of a dinner party, running up the back steps from the kitchen while Greg floundered about in the living room trying to keep the guests supplied with cocktails. The roast she was braising, left to smoke in the oven, set off the fire alarm and everyone piled through the door to escape the piercing sounds and billowing smoke. Out on the sidewalk in front of the house, Greg tried to collect the glasses from everyone before they disbursed to their cars. Just a touch of the flu, he said as he made his rounds, speaking as lightly as he could. But he could see from their eyes glittering under the streetlight and their soft dark muttering that his guests were not convinced. Back inside, the children were frightened and it took him more than an hour to soothe them. When he finally went to see Jeannie in their room, she looked pale and thin on the bed, her hand flung up to her forehead.

What was it, he asked her.

The wardrobe in the guest bedroom, she whispered.

The one we just bought at the antique store, he asked.

Yes, she said. A woman owned it who for years would get drunk in front of its mirror and lament her life. All the time it was like a prisoner, soaking up the energy like a sponge. This evening it just released it all in a burst. It was horrible.

Do you want me to move it or something?

No, she whispered. It got it all out. It’s a good wardrobe. It wants to be here.

Oh, that’s nice, he said, and sat perched on the edge of the mattress gently running his hand through her hair. He could feel her frame shake as she cried.

I’m sorry I ruined the party, she said.

It’s ok, it’s ok, he said. Don’t worry. He assured her it was all alright, but deep in his chest he felt a knot of coiling tension.

She drifted off and her face looked lovely in its slumber. But he couldn’t fall asleep, and he was awake to watch the stripes of dawn appear through the shades.

He sat at the breakfast table while she made him eggs and poured him coffee. The children were happy to see her looking well again and she enveloped each of them in a loving hug. Their youngest was obsessed with the theme song to a tv show, and was voicing its melody tenuously. Jeannie joined her, and then the other child joined in as well, until the three of them were singing a rousing rendition. They mugged for him, dancing, and he smiled his approval. But the whole time he was looking over their heads at a row of appliances gathered on a high shelf, trying to figure out if any of them were talking to her, and if so what they might be saying. He thought for a second that he felt a glimmer of something from the blender. It was a relief to get out of the house. He felt a sense of freedom as he worked his car through the bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic.






Bio:

Michael Newton lives at the Jersey Shore and works as a bookseller at the Asbury Book Cooperative, in Asbury Park, where he runs the used book section and hosts the Crime Book Club. He is also a member of the editorial collective at Ugly Duckling Presse, where he helps manage the journal Second Factory, among other projects. He is also co-publisher of Asphalte Magazine, an online journal. An essay of his, on Tommy Lee Jones' face, is forthcoming from In The Mood magazine.


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Two Poems


Poetry by:
RACHEL STONE





F41.1


and what a marriage
we know nothing of it

bette midler tweeted this
after prince philip died

ridiculous thing to tweet
or think, maybe true that

we know nothing of it
allegedly, though I think

no marriage can exist
and leave no trace, see:

my love of dragging
myself on my knees,

wanting for a clasped
hand, a man who will

turn any knife
I hand him. we had it all

figured out. us four
on a boat, lashed

against the black, cold
sea. what a shock then

to find it written on me.
I placed a few lilac stalks

in a wine bottle, so beautiful
to watch them wilt and blow

weeks later scanned inside the
dark glass to find the stems

thick with mold, white and
woolen, fuzz of pale lanugo.
 










Complaint


between me and the reason I exist, there is a gun. if I am ever
happy to be alive, I must thank it. we know this rule: a third
act, and the one to do the acting. not me though. someone

has to go through the motions of a good life,
pulling corn silk from the drain. years later

she’s crying, calls me to say it
(if you didn’t pick up,
she says, who knows what might)

it’s wrong to make promises I don’t mean to keep
said chekhov and his gun was right
where he left it. on the phone

the feeling was less of fear but recognition:
here. here it is. it’s been here the whole time.





Follow Rachel:


Instagram: @stone_of_arc

Twitter: @stone_of_arc

Web: www.rachelstone.org/

Bio:

Rachel Stone is a writer and reporter from Chicago. Her work has been published in BOMB Magazine, the Brooklyn Rail, and other publications.


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Two Poems


Poetry by:
GRACE DOUGHERTY





BIRTHDAY WISH

 
I’d like to faint in traffic
Fashion a big scene
Accident ahead
Entirely predictable
Obit written by mine enemy
“The only appropriate way for her to go”
Creating a sizeable disaster
Peak victim masochist whatever
Dear family please cremate me
I don't wish to expire into the sediment

This isn’t a suicide note
Just a list of wishes





BRAIN ZAP


Hey I almost rear ended your Toyota
I was wondering what about me makes you
Want to get high?

Worst critic, best place

I am coming to terms with
Coming to terms with you

How much longer until I can say the word no
Without wincing
Breathing in unison felt like God

You ran yourself through me
There are splinters in my mouth
Got a ton of words for a ton of people

Everything I wish to unlock

I walk to you in a stupid way
Of course we’re here
Boring as ever

Sign release form for my whole life
Tell everyone




Follow Grace:


Instagram: @graceodougherty

Twitter: @graceodougherty



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Working and Watching Woodpeckers Work


Fiction by:
NATHAN DRAGON




Juice


What-are-ya-gunna-do?
    It is what it is.
    Time to quit. Really gunna hafta.
    Winners don’t quit but for this time.
    Days spent drinking juice instead.
Healthy juice, he guesses, because that’s what it says in a way. The label says defense. Defense against what? He asks himself like he has the answer, and he does, he knows what it means. It’s for the immune system.
    He thinks, typically, I am defensive.
    What about an offense? Is there offense juice? A juice that powers the offense in the body. On the attack, but in a good way? He remembers watching basketball highlights, as a kid, top 10 plays on cable before breakfast.

This morning, he pours some juice, walks to the table, sneezes, tries to stifle it and spills some juice. And again a sneeze starts coming on, tries to stifle it, spills, sneezes, tries to stifle it, spills. Now the cup’s empty. Shit. Juice is kind of expensive.
    Still, pours another cup of juice. Hopefully it doesn’t all spill.
    Hopefully he doesn’t spill it all.
    It’s actually a mug of juice, a tall cup, half full might've been easier to manage than a short and shallow mug overfilled. The nice brown cup he had from the place he used to work 6 or 7 years ago instead of the little orange mug a friend gave him around the same time.

Last month he quit everything, he went to meetings last week. And earlier this week there was a small fire.
    He pauses.
    He should clean up the juice.
    He hates when everything’s sticky.
    Good thing he’s wearing his house shoes.
    Nothing worse than wet socks.







Working and Watching Woodpeckers Work


He thinks everyone knows that woodpeckers’ tongues internally wrap around their brains. It’s not cool to know this. It prevents brain damage.
    They always sound like blue jays mixed with seagulls to him, maybe that’s wrong.
    Seeing a woodpecker always makes him feel better. They make him feel lucky to see one.

At work he’s watching one.
    Guy he’s working with asks what he’s looking at.
    Tells the guy at work, look, a woodpecker. It’s either a downy woodpecker or a hairy woodpecker. I can’t tell. They almost look the same but one’s bigger — I forget which is which.
    The guy at work says, where?
    Right there.
    That’s a woodpecker? That’s not what I pictured, the guy at work says. I pictured Woody the Woodpecker.
    Yeah those ones, that kind lives around here too, they live around most of the country I think, he tells the guy at work. They’re called pileated woodpeckers. They get big, like a small hawk or something.

He likes this guy at work. This guy’s kind of down all the time, younger than him.
    One day he asked the guy, Do you want my old guitar? It’s missing a string, probably works fine otherwise.



About Nathan:

Nathan Dragon's work's been in NOON Annual, New York Tyrant, Fence, and Hotel. Nathan co-runs the publishing project Blue Arrangements. And—he's recently finished writing a collection of stories.


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Two Poems


Poetry by:
COLE BEAUNE




   the light
steps into itself



                                               
theory


                            forgets
––proof echoes


        movements
        ,
        orchestra
        in   ,

             ,,
                   ,

             :
      learners

            dogs at
            night






Woods: Revolving Dream



fever

        reflex
hours in-

to loose threads,
        enveloped



                        c
                        o
                        l
                        o
                        r
                        s


spa-
             a-
        a-
        a-
        ces    cast,
        : opaque
before rot-iron
            hidings
stop

in glassflesh

                    headtrails: i’ll understand

            a pine furrow
    where one       ––if one
                sinksing throat night, grass-footing
the long season


                        blotted    ––coil

        in watered-glimpse



   

About Cole:

Instagram: @col_bon

Bio:

Cole Beaune is a Canadian-American poet and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. His poems have been published in Issues Magazine, Former People, and forthcoming in The Vital Sparks, Dream Pop Journal, Blanket Swimming, and OF ZOOS. He is the poetry editor of Warm Milk Publishing, an in-print and online magazine dedicated to the publication of experimental and contemporary poetry/visual art from around the globe.


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Two Poems


Poetry by:
ABIGAIL SWOBODA



A shot clock to report



Awesome            players should
all        contribute Awesome
    players
all     contribute their     time.

             time.
    time.             Are you hooked
                    into
                            time.
                            next year?

            Are you            Awesome
        hooked into
    contribute        time.

She doctored    what
                  she could. Correct
       doctored        Correct            geo
                        for use. Mon beau
                next year?
                            Mon beau     geo

    Mon Awesome sapin.










Re-leap soft infusion


        This tray        is

    missing.

This account        should be

        transparent.
This tray is     transparent.
This account should be        missing.

    should be    should be
        is        is
This
    account        transparent
            is
    tray            missing

        Phone Numbers     Magic
Magic Magic Magic Magic Magic missing.
   Magic creature        survey.
       creature    account
                transparent    creature
survey.    Show love
                & cooking.






Follow Abigail:


Instagram: @honeymoonbeam

Twitter: @orbigail

Bio:

Abigail Swoboda is a poet, pre-K teacher, and practitioner of Pennsylvania Dutch Braucherei who lives in West Philly.



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Two Poems


Poetry by:
JED MUNSON





G-D


We get beat up.

the explicable, the explicable, then the. the prefecture, void
of harmony

We are not what I wasn’t
afraid of. Nor did that occur to you
just now: the back
door as an option.

He stayed up late looking: home
remedies for sKy-Attica
I tried unlocking

my jaw silently
from your name
came a syllable of stress,
then all this resting












Semblance of Rigor


I blame the powers of inference
       for the trouble
back there. We’re sorting it out
behind the scenes while I announce that
               there are thousands of ways
  of thinking about something,
I just happen to choose the one
about thinking
about something
dear to the people
  who aren’t thought about: fear
of money is branded
ideology, lazy
when fear of poverty is fear of people
            finding out they’re people,
so poor.

I work that out for myself so I can justify
the drink it took, the week
it didn’t. No one thinks: but attention takes time
       so why should I?
I think: no one thinks
about the people I know, no one prays
   for the guy who observes that
no one prays for him
because everyone’s heard the song
and digs it.

  I’m careful to assume the barrier
has a conclusion.
 I keep watching old milk
            spill, noting
its democratic urgency.






Bio:


Jed Munson is a Wisconsin-born, Korean American writer based in New York City. His chapbook, Newsflash Under Fire, Over the Shoulder, is forthcoming with Ugly Duckling Presse. Recent work can be found in Conjunctions and P-QUEUE.


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Affirmation


Mixed media by:
SALLY DECKER

& collaborators BRIANA MARELA and CAROLINE PARTAMIAN




affirmation



: for voice and delay

,,,,

signal path : voice (v) —> delay (d) :
dry and delayed voice amplified and in center of stereo field

begin with
delay time : 0ms /
blend : 50% (or 12 o’clock on EHX analog delay pedal) /
feedback : 0% and will not change /

italics used to indicate suggestions for character, delivery, or intention of the voice

total duration should be at least six minutes

optional addition : video camera zoomed into face, eyes, or mouth of the performer and this image projected behind them

,,,,

devise a sentence, phrase, or small poem that feels affirming to you: affirming in that you feel a positive resonance inside yourself when you say it:

max five words, max two syllables per word, no more than one two-syllable word in the phrase :

,,,,


i

v : start speaking the phrase with a small pause in between each word and keep repeating

d: turn delay time up a small amount after each repetition of the spoken phrase. move at your own pace, but keep the movement of the delay time consistent once you’ve found a rhythm

exact / steady / searching:


ii

v : keep repeating the phrase with pauses. attempt to follow the rhythm and pacing of the delayed voice returning, especially as delayed signal separates more and more from the dry voice. words can become more sung rather than spoken if desired

d : after delay time is at ~275ms (12 o’clock), start to alternate moving the delay time knob and the blend knob, increasing the blend. adjustments to the blend knob can be in greater notches than the delay time movement

moving / playful / curious :


iii

v : keep repeating. stop when you have completed a full repetition of the phrase without any delayed signal

d : once delay time is 550ms (or all the way up on EHX pedal) and blend is 100%, start moving the blend down (moving slower than when you first increased the blend) until you reach 0%

lucid / intuitive / confident :

,,,,



Graphic score interpretation by Caroline Partamian.




Bio:

Sally Decker is a composer, performer, and writer based in Oakland, CA. Her work explores the subtle emotional body and sound as a vessel for practicing presence. Her approach to form and process is psychological and sensory, rooted in the intent of strengthening a reflective focus toward our internal intuitive worlds. Recent interests include feedback systems, the voice, and utilization of language in performance. Her full-length album In The Tender Dream was released in August 2020 on NNA Tapes. More info & work at www.sallydecker.net.



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Two Poems


Poetry by: RHIANNON MCGAVIN



The phone rings 


        like a flock of jays surprised

out of an evergreen & you become

a quilt of daylight on the same device

that hacks up spam & headlines. Now, my thumb-

print smudges your chin’s spectacle, your laugh

cups my ear through this hole in the fourth wall,

a magic lantern that spins code & flash

bringing you closer home with each pixel

to say good morning as if you’re right here,

golden hour in my hand til I hang

up no you hang up first, talking to air,

to you. Tuesday starts & the call goes blank.

When I press my fingers against the screen

it’s warm, but not as warm as you must be.








Long distance song








Follow Rhiannon:


Instagram: @rhiannonmcgavin

Bio:

Rhiannon McGavin has failed the driver’s license test three times so far. Her work has been published by The Believer, Teen Vogue, and more. She is the former Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. Her books Branches and Grocery List Poems are both available from Not A Cult. As a 2023 Mitchell Scholar, she will be studying at Trinity College next year.


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