October 17, 2022

Clothing for Poetry:a Conversation with Chelsea G.

By Addison Bale

 Photo taken by Ada Navarro

March, 2022. This conversation happened in the studio of Chelsea Gelwarg, a US-American textile artist who has lived and worked in Mexico City since 2017. Pre-lunch with Chelsea: like poetry for clothing - grandma - almuerzo y más - friends are my artists / artists are my friends (!) - “normal” is?


Her cloth-book project, Fuerza, was still fresh on my mind after seeing it at the Avant.Dev group show, Unidades Materiales. Presented as an open book on a pedestal in a brick-laden corner of the gallery space, viewers could turn the pages of the book, wearing cloth gloves provided by the artist.
Photo taken by Ada Navarro


Addison : Where does voice come in for you? You have poetry in your work; does that installation extend into the performance space, into the spoken space?

Chelsea : The installation of the book and how I plan to install my next book is performative– exactly how you just explained it: the time that you have to spend with the piece. Putting on the gloves is an action so that you feel like you're part of the pages, right? You're covered in fabric. And that's why I'm interested in more, more fabric.

A : I like hearing about your relationship with fabric because it's multifaceted. You source fabric locally here in Mexico City but you also receive fabric from your family. There's antique fabric; there's heritage that’s being re-appropriated through these pieces that then come to light as tapestries and rugs, in clothes and books. Can you talk more about fabric?

C :  I mean, my practice started, as it exists now, about six years ago, because I was such a high consumer. I had so many clothes. And I literally just started cutting them up to make new things. It started with like trying to make this “jean monster” Halloween costume, and then I turned it into like, one of my first signs, which then became this six year practice of dedicating myself to only using scraps and use materials and old clothes. So, collecting. Literally everybody has clothes in their closet that they don't want. It was so easy. So I've become more picky in the past years as the practice has evolved.

A : What do you look for in clothes now?

C : I'm always looking for texture. I go a lot to the pacas now and I'm always looking for silk and wool, which I can find in the five-peso piles. I always find it. And then collecting from friends or my grandmother who has given me so much material, so much material. She also works with textiles. She crochets more than anything now. But she used to work more with textiles, and just has boxes of things.

A : This family lineage with art in textiles always struck me as kind of unique in your case that you, your mom, and your grandmother have a couple of things in common. And you're not the only artist in your family. Although you might be maybe the most rebellious? Rebellious superficially, I don't know.

C : What do you mean by that?

A : Stylistically, perhaps? But I'm projecting. I don't know your family.

C : You're so funny. My grandmother is for sure an artist but I don't think she would ever or has ever really used that word. She's just like, I have to have something to do with my hands. I always have to have a project. That's who she is, but she's made like, 100 decoupaged chairs. She’s also someone that taught me about re-using materials. A lot of the furniture that she uses is stuff that she found in the junkyard and repurposed.

A : Did she teach you to sew?

Chelsea’s practice connects textile with text: Employing fabric as surface, device, and image, her work ranges from sewn compositions that function like paintings, to clothing, to cloth poems in ambitiously hand-woven fabric books.

C : In a way. Partly. No, I started sewing when I was 11 because my mom and I used to go into this quilting shop and the woman who managed the quilting shop came to my home after school and gave me sewing lessons. I actually still have this box of buttons that she gave me. I've literally had that for almost 20 years now. It’s in the corner right there.


Chelsea in the studio with costume pieces from her collaboration with Lina _Bailón_ hanging on the wall behind her.

C :You mean, how has the culture or the city influenced me? I don’t know about that question. I feel like you asked me that before… I feel like I’m… I’m just me here, I suppose. You know, I’m someone who always goes to the same places. I find the lunch spots that I like and I frequent, I know the people, we say hello to each other, I really get to know my neighborhoods. I love to know the street names and geography of a city. It’s super important and exciting to me… understanding the map [of Mexico City] I think that’s the thing that influences me, that’s what helps me feel at home in the center of one of the world’s biggest cities.

A : Are you thinking about stuff artistically right now that you haven't described yet or that you feel are bizarre thoughts, concerns or unrelated things that are coming up for you?

C : Shoot, I don't know. I've been thinking a lot about applying to residencies recently. I did one. I recently delved into the collaboration of costume work and choreography for this recital with Lina, which was a fascinating experience. My work is usually very solitary. I mean—not solitary. Like, I can sew around anyone and be in conversation while I'm working. But it's mine. So sharing that was, I think, an incredible experience and really important and difficult and interesting.

A : How did you do that? Navigate the collaboration and develop the idea together?

C : Lina came through with a really clear color palette: she wanted to work with flesh tones. And then it was a series of conversations. She also was really interested in having all of the orifices visible and highlighted while covering other parts of the body and came to me with the idea of being inspired by burlesque dancers. And then we went to the pacas together and picked up a bunch of fabrics, everything from the five-peso piles in the color palette that we created together. And then we just had a lot of conversations, and were here sewing together. I have more textile skills, right? She has more choreography. So I mean, I think it was really beautiful. It was difficult. It was interesting. It's definitely a meeting of egos. The end result was so satisfying, to be honest, and it was so inspiring for me—I want to keep making costumes. I've been thinking a lot and actually my application for this first residency, I applied with this idea of combining my loose page series and a nice idea of textile books with my knitwear and costume work. So I'm interested in making an outfit that includes embroidery patchwork, and knitwear that is wearable. But also a book you know, like legible fashion. Delicate, soft.

A : To me it seems to be that you do not discriminate your work as art or fashion.

C : All the fashion I make for me is part of my art. And it's part of my practice. Dude that’s so— I [recently] met this person who is an artist. Well known. Everyone loves his work, (and he’s ultimately a really cool person, I enjoy him) but when I first met him, he was like, really interested in seeing pictures of my work. I told him that I also make sweaters and knit clothing. And he was like, “Oh, I want to see but I only want to see it if it's not normal.” Like, me dio tanta risa pero whatever I was like, of course, the knitwear I make is not normal, knowing all of the history behind how I found this yarn. I make the patterns from scratch. I taught myself how to do all this, like—

A : The word “normal” is also just so nondescript.

C : But that's also really interesting, because the conversation around selling these sweaters later— people look at it as fashion. And people have a certain budget for fashion and they think about it differently than other people. But I took a month to make this sweater and I mean, and that's really interesting to me too. Because like, obviously, I make money because I have to participate in this world. And yes, I'm interested in putting a good price on the time and energy that I spent making something but I also want things to be accessible. He saw the sweaters and immediately was like “these are normal.”Not in person. He didn't see the sweaters in person. He didn't touch them. He didn't try it on. He didn't smell them, you know? But again I’m just like, you know nothing. I wasn't offended. I just was like, I am now discrediting all of your opinions.

A : Just talking about that language again, “normal,” that is very goofy to me.

C : It’s goofy! The piece is normal because It has two sleeves, a back and a front? Anything made by hand isn’t “normal.” People don't put time and energy into the normal.

A : Accounting for normal as an inherent negative.

C : Exactly, and I also don't want to do that to the word either. I hate negative, even positive connotations. I feel like you should be able to use language in a very expansive way. I mean, that's why we're poets.


Photo taken by Ada Navarro

Photo taken by Ada Navarro

Chelsea napping in the studio. 
Photo taken by Ada Navarro

Chelsea Gelwarg:

I am originally from New Jersey and I have been living and working in Mexico City since 2017. I have been sewing since I was 11 years old. I work entirely with used fabrics, donated by family and friends and collected at flea markets and discount bins. Each time fabrics are recycled or reused they are given a new narrative, a new opportunity to be experienced. I feel connected to the practice of quilting in this way, the saving and gathering of intimate fabrics and patching them together generates an archive of memory which I believe makes any piece I create into a book even if it doesn't take on the stereotypical form.

Follow Chelsea:



Addison Bale:

is a writer and artist from NYC. His work is viewable online:

More from “Shedding”:

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.    ]


Addison Bale <>         Feb 13, 2022, 1:42 PM

to 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?



Emna Zghal <[...]>             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.


Addison Bale <>                    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?


Emna Zghal <[...]>             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.


Addison Bale <>    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?


Emna Zghal <[...]>              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.


Follow Emna:


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:

More from “Shedding”:

February 25, 2022

Kiko’s Practice One Year Later

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…



Detail image of “Dark Entries/Love Dormancy”

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.

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.



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.


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]

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

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!


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.

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:

Addison Bale:

is a writer and artist from NYC. His work is viewable online:

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.     ]


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.

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....."


“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.


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:


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:

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?



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.




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:


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:

More from “Shedding”:

Story by Daisuke Shen
༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ


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.

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.


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



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

Twitter: dai__joubu
Instagram: ginsengmasque

More From Tiding House 001...


2 poems by Shy Watson


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


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:


      laid an egg
       with his
             for your vodka noir
              your excessive
               talk about the
                recently paroled
                 arms out
              sliding down
              the bannister
         bird of paradise
      between your teeth
               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.

Instagram: @CAConrad88
Twitter: @CAConrad88

More from Tiding House Issue One:

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


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


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


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,, 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

More From Tiding House Issue One...

An Interview with EXP TV
By Ben Shearn


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, 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 and/or follow his absurd Instagram account @actorsupset.

More From Tiding House Issue One...

Volume #29 

Tuesday, March 30, 2023

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Volume #22

Friday, August 5, 2022

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Volume #28 

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Featured Artists:
  1. Eleanor Tennyson
  2. Parker Menzimer
  3. Matthew Corey
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Volume #27 

Thursday, March 23, 2023

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Volume #26 

Thursday, February 9, 2023

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Volume #25 

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Featured Artists:
  1. Terry Nguyen
  2. Serena Devi
  3. Nathan Stormer
  4. Giulia Bencivenga
  5. Torey Akers
  6. Sydney Smith
  7. Bradley King
  8. Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo
  9. Sophia Le Fraga
  10. Candela Perez
  11. Ruby Zuckerman
  12. Matthew Klane
  13. Ari Lisner

Volume #24

Monday, October 31st, 2022

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Volume #23 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

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Volume #22 

 Friday, August 5, 2022

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Volume #28 

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Featured Artists:
  1. Eleanor Tennyson
  2. Parker Menzimer
  3. Matthew Corey
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Volume #27 

Thursday, March 23, 2023

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Volume #26 

Thursday, February 9, 2023

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Volume #25 

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

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  1. Terry Nguyen
  2. Serena Devi
  3. Nathan Stormer
  4. Giulia Bencivenga
  5. Torey Akers
  6. Sydney Smith
  7. Bradley King
  8. Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo
  9. Sophia Le Fraga
  10. Candela Perez
  11. Ruby Zuckerman
  12. Matthew Klane
  13. Ari Lisner

Volume #24

Monday, October 31st, 2022

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Volume #23 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

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Volume #22 

 Friday, August 5, 2022

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Volume #27 

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Volume #26 

Thursday, February 9, 2023

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Volume #25 

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Featured Artists:
  1. Terry Nguyen
  2. Serena Devi
  3. Nathan Stormer
  4. Giulia Bencivenga
  5. Torey Akers
  6. Sydney Smith
  7. Bradley King
  8. Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo
  9. Sophia Le Fraga
  10. Candela Perez
  11. Ruby Zuckerman
  12. Matthew Klane
  13. Ari Lisner

Volume #24

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Volume #23 

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  8. Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo
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  10. Candela Perez
  11. Ruby Zuckerman
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  4. Giulia Bencivenga
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May 6, 2022

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


“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.


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.


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 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


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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...


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.


Erotic love is often described in geometrical or mathematical terms.


THE LOVER [hypercharged space in-between, sometimes called EROS] THE BELOVED

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)


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


“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.


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 and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo

More from Cloudbusting...

January 7, 2021

On Spiritual Creatures

Analog and Digital


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:


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


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


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


I write to you and some of what moves thru


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
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.


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




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.


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 and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo

August 27, 2021

Undigested Fragments

Erotic Goo and Absent Messages



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, 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...”


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...”


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.


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 and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo

September 25, 2021



“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.


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

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 and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo

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October 29, 2021


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


“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)


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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.”


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.


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.


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)


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.


*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 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


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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May 4, 2023

Intensive Maximalism: after Mike Kleine’s agbogbloshie

By PJ Lombardo

PJ Lombardo reviews agbogbloshie — the newest edition to Mike Kleine's experimental oeuvre, independently released in December of 2022.

Ekphrasis is creative intimacy. To love artworks, not as consumer objects, but as attributes of eternity: this is the task of ekphrastic poetics. In our time, both oversaturated & infused with scarcity, consumer desire gnaws through life & sails the scrap off without pause. Market-cynics claw to commodify every breath. Intimacy faces an existential dilemma. Mike Kleine wrote a book where something else is possible; the book’s called agbogbloshie, & the possibility is something like friendship (wrought inside music & turmoil).

Agbogbloshie is a place in Ghana. Tons of electronic waste arrive there all year (illegally). The logistical systems responsible are headquartered in so-called developed nations, which rely on punishingly cheap commodity flows to keep racing.  This is the only possible result of extensive maximalism, or “first-world” consumer economics.

Extensive maximalism exists solely at the expense of a much lusher (& more livable & more thoroughly gorgeous) intensive maximalism. The result of meticulous creative determination, intensive maximalism is limitless magic, an excess of focus that discovers abundance anywhere, independent of quantitative consideration. Think: aurora borealis, basement punk shows, the shimmer of everyday love. “the palladium witch emerges from the debths of the lake. she is all rott’d out.//g’wain retches.///endgodtransmission//there is a[n] chemical stench in the outside breeze.” Psychedelia against psychosis. Cognizant, ferocious, this poetics works to explode sense-perception, dismissing clinical objectification in favor of an undying devotion to the mechanism of feeling.

Intensive maximalism is achieved through art-works & love-works, like friendship or ekphrasis, or any other form of intimacy. Today, intimacy exists in peril as the machinery of the west tightens its psychic vice. Set an eye steady enough & the connection is obvious (“what we’re left with is/this tinted mish-mash of/diluted roses and brown/golds”). Kleine’s agbogbloshie writes camaraderie against depletion. In the book, a band of e-waste surfers course through heaps of garbage in some curious quest for survival. The horizon gunks & curls & blurs. “the sudden sunn-/concentration of//hedonic space tone/assessment cycles,//pushed by scented water/vapours/brings/forth//the/hyposmia.” Immiseration is neither ignored nor conceived as totalizing. Life on Earth is still possible, against all these afflictions.

However oblique, agbogbloshie is a narrative work. Our voyagers sift through gullies of abject glimmer, where “solemn lakes” ripple with threat. Characters operate in sum & in fractures. Many appear but once, as dashes of action, while orcs flash in dark light, “and/oh, how the fires/burn bright.” These figures produce a monstrous unity that waltzes past the individual. Gusts of texture, voice & harmony, spackle readers lustrous. Kleine doubles this jaggedness with structure. His lineation is thorny, slant & precise. His stanza-alignment proves volatile sensitivity. With irrepressible style, Kleine contributes thoughtfully to the project of intensive maximalism. “we dredge thru a corridor dotted/with haptic sensors. o’neal/loses a leg and we toss/aeroplane fuselage down one/of the grottos - to taunt/the beast.” agbogbloshie throbs odd, too runny to capture, sliding, swelling across every page. Arrhythmic punctuation clips, crunches like footsteps through torrented labyrinths. Tons of e-waste bubble frankensteinian inside a spelunker’s star.

agbogbloshie is futurist, but not the way some readers might expect. Kleine’s futurity has nothing in common with the hollow daydreams of the so-called first-world. True futurism derives from spontaneity, volatility, presence. agbogbloshie rings from the vector of history dissolved against unbelieving eyes. Futurity is not fantasy: it is the pressure of today’s contradictions, bleating in your ear, right now. The future does not belong to VC-slurping Bay Area “neo-feudal” rubes or the carnival barkers of capitalist exhaustion. Futurity belongs only to those who can learn how to live in the drek, in all its tedium & tragedy & persistence.

Precedents for the text include Will Alexander, Rene Char, maybe even the Book of Psalms: upheaval-poetics, cut against the traffic of exploitation. Any attempt to circumvent profit-sociopathy requires visionary surplus. Therefore, the dissolution of one’s own world-image always involves intensive maximalism. Put more simply: the future is a poem that shreds itself. “i toss a synaptic jammer into/the next room/without/looking…” Characters frequently dispatch these “synaptic jammers,” “pop-smoke” canisters, various sense-bombs. Goo-stung syntax defies itself inside agbogbloshie’s hurricane face. Lines break on the syllable; sentences suspend themselves in ecstasy. “Ecstatic” & “ekphrastic” share the etymological root ek, meaning “outside.” Kleine’s ekphrasis is committed to an art-life larger than contemporary narcissism. Outside the citadel of self: outside the consumption of oneself-as-object: there dwells creative intimacy & the determination we have yet to find.

Throughout agbogbloshie, doom-rock bands like Have a Nice Life or Godspeed You! Black Emperor wave their golden hand. Kleine leaves some opacity here: readers might not recognize “theEternalWorm” or understand why there’s a second n in agbogbloshie’s “sunn.” But the references blend well. There’s a greater friendliness to this technique, meaning Kleine’s allusions don’t require foreknowledge. Instead, the references are bent to operate more like features of the world & less like nods from an insider. The sonic massivity of HaNL’s deathconcsiousness twinkles the panorama eerie, spacious, gloomy-soft. Ekphrasis is psychedelic, in that it permits an exogenous addition to the experience of both writer & reader. This psychedelia could also be called camaraderie.

“there is a war happening in the/desert right now, becauseofoil not in the/desert.” Despite all travails, our ekphrastic voyagers face expiry, as agbogbloshie barrels towards faceless disaster. A “corpo office tower” casts its pall from the west. “i thought there’d be more time,” a voice interjects. I did, too. What Kleine’s latest release left me with was a great sense of urgency. agbogbloshie is a sky-wrought bleat. Kleine’s concluding prayer is for human life to be “enshrined” in “golden bitumen,” but this prayer can’t be fulfilled from a distance. The shrine can only be built inside a poetics of unity, relentless in its pursuit of art-life communion, courageous enough to crash against the vampires.

agbogbloshie: Stick your face inside the dumpster until your eyes flush gold.

agbogbloshie: Paint yourself a bitumen love.

Sam Pink, regarding his own novel, The Garbage Times: “You are always the garbage-person to your own life…You’re either a garbage-person, or [just] complaining about the smell.” Although Pink & Kleine seem to be very different writers at a glance, agbogbloshie shares Pink’s viewpoint. Trash-denial is untenable. The only life worth living is a life that incorporates junk into its terrain. agbogbloshie proffers a way in: solidarity & strangeness, blaring from one speaker, ekphrastic love to beckon readers towards the melody of our shared debris.

PJ Lombardo:

PJ Lombardo is a writer from New Jersey. He co-edits GROTTO, a journal of grotesque-surrealist poetry. His work can be found in Mercury Firs, Works & Days, Lana Turner Journal, the Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere.

David Kuhnlein:

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

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January 19th, 2022

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


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, 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


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


Web Columns︎

Every week TQR publishes a new segment from one of our rotating columns, created and edited by our contributing editors.

Show Abysmal 

Benjamin Shearn

Show Abysmal is a monthly column dedicated to publishing experiments in film criticism.                                          


David Kuhnlein

Drawing inspiration from writers working at the intersection of illness and art, Torment is a review column that venerates pain and disease in literature.



Emmalea Russo

Named for Wilhelm Reich’s controversial cloudbuster, a machine which attempted to alter atmospheric energy, Cloudbusting is a column by Emmalea Russo exploring memory, desire, death, light, and energy under digitized late capitalism.


Addison Bale

Shedding is an archival project of interviews, which trace the thoughts and imagery of under-recognized artists working today.


Caitlyn Tella

Rituals is a column about contemporary performance practice and how it gives meaning to everyday life in a time of social isolation.


(There’s no abysmal like) Show Abysmal is a monthly column dedicated to publishing experiments in film criticism. The series is edited by Benjamin Shearn. For inquires, email Ben at

July 8, 2022



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.


September 23, 2020



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.


August 14, 2020



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.


July 15, 2020



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.”



Shedding is an archival project of interviews conducted by Addison Bale, which trace the thoughts and imagery of under-recognized artists working today. For inquiries email Addison: