A Failed Essay on Failure

The topic of failure seems to be drifting in Seattle’s creative ether. I first started noticing the recurrence of failure while staring—somewhat tipsily—at the season playbill for Annex Theater. There was a quote on the cover saying something to the effect that Annex Theater’s motto is, “Fail spectacularly, drink, and fail again.” Seattle artist Kira Burge has been hosting a book club for artists (it’s called “Artists Read Too”), and their first book—selected from MIT Press’s Contemporary Art Series—was Failure. Burge was interested in the failure inherent in the act of making, and wanted to bring that private struggle to the forefront of the conversation. Local poet Joe Milutis just published a new book entitled Failure, a Writer’s Life in which he intentionally mistranslates poems written in languages he doesn’t speak. Jenny Zwick, a Seattle-based sculptor/photographer/installation artist, altered a series of trophies to read You Are A Disappointment To Yourself and Others:



This seemed like a whole lot of local failure, and I was interested to know who else was working on the theme. I was curious about the connections between failures, how the individual islands of personal failure fit within the context of a larger landscape. And so I put out a blanket call for thoughts on failure. My plan was to read over other people’s failures and draw parallels, to take something of a core sample and extrapolate a topographic map of failure in Seattle.

Well. I failed to do that.

The thing I learned about failure is that it is fiercely personal: it does not lend itself to overarching characterization. The failures I received were, for the most part, clustered around the topics that one might expect, in the areas in which we are all the most vulnerable: failures in love, in careers, in lives carried to destinations not of our choosing. But the means of expression were wildly different, and I am admitting defeat and abandoning my initial plan of creating a cohesive survey of failure.

Instead, I want to unpack my failure to write this piece, to explore why this survey on failure failed.

Joana Stillwell, a video and installation artist that I met on last summer’s Long Walk, wrote about how her understanding of failure is intimately tied to her own unrealistic expectations, particularly around the idea of productivity. “If I was bored, tired, or inactive,” she explained, “it was my fault that I wasn’t enjoying myself. I always had to be engaged in an activity or I would be wasting my life. This idea put a crazy and exhausting amount of pressure on myself to be and have more. Consequently, I had really high points that would follow low points and instead of understanding that there was a balance, I decided that if I worked harder at it that I could just have high points. I don’t know if it was greed, stubbornness, or fear that was behind this attitude. I eventually outgrew this idea although I’m still exploring it in some of my work.”

Stillwell’s point—that we experience failure based upon our own internal rubric—is something that came up in almost every response I received, and this is the crux of why it is impossible to truly comment on someone else’s failure. We can recognize a blatant external failure when we see one: the engineer’s bridge collapses, the politician resigns amidst the sex scandal, the high-profile celebrity marriage comes to its abrupt end, devolving into a morass of custody battles and shocking allegations. But what we will never be able to see is the response below the surface, the way that each person funnels that failure through the black box of their own processing. That is the interesting part of failure, and it is not something that one can convey in a briefly written response to a vague prompt: this is simply a failure of medium.

So how do we have a meaningful conversation about failure? As part of The Project Room’s programming for Failure, we’ve been hosting Successful People Talking About Failure, a series of presentations that is precisely what it sounds like. Each speaker has had a distinct and idiosyncratic take on the topic, but in each talk there has been a fascinating difference in perception between presenter and audience.

Genre-spanning sound artist and McArthur Genius award winner Trimpin—who moves his hands more than any human being I have ever seen—got through the majority of his presentation before mentioning in an offhand manner that the whole reason he began building bizarrely experimental instruments was because he had been forced to stop playing traditional ones. Trained on the horn as a classical musician, he developed an allergy to the metals in his instruments, and he literally could not touch the tools of his trade. For a while, he made paintings of the instruments he could no longer bring to his lips, and eventually he began crafting his own. The interesting thing?  It had not occurred to him to see this as a failure.

Trimpin seemed almost surprised by the audience’s interest in this aspect of his presentation, and if we hadn’t pressed for further information, the whole story of his allergy and subsequent need to abandon everything for which he had been trained would have been nothing more than a brief anecdote. To Trimpin, this was just a part of his story: he had so fully integrated this failure that it had ceased to be one.

This malleability, this openness to dialogue and reinterpretation, is precisely what is needed to really talk about failure. Failure needs to be a conversation, an open ended question to be placed in context. Because taken as discrete snippets, failures feel strangely irrelevant and incomplete—drifting islands of misplaced intimacy with no larger story to anchor them.

And that is what I learned in failing to write this survey of failure:  it is through taking the time and attention to closely explore one individual failure that we gain a sense of the structures and universalities of collective failure. The process does not work in reverse: taking a brief look at a large cross section of failures only serves to remove the impact and importance of the theme. It was the wrong approach.

So. Lesson learned: this essay wasn’t a failure, it just didn’t turn out to be what I thought it was.

And isn’t that how failure always functions? In his response to my call for failure, Marion Dawahare—who I met in passing at a friend’s brunch but stayed in touch with via facebook— talked about how he didn’t view the disintegration of his marriage as a failure because, while the life of his relationship died, that vibrancy was “passed on to our daughter. She is 6. She is every bit as bright and brilliant as the life of my relationship with my soon-to-be ex.” Things do not work out in the ways that we had planned, and we have the freedom to choose our own perceptions and responses: we decide whether or not we have failed.

In a sense, reading people’s failures was an oddly uplifting process. Most respondents seemed to have a healthy relationship with failure, an understanding of it as an inevitability to be acknowledged but not dwelt upon. Paul Nelson, a Seattle poet and director of SPLAB (spokenword  Performance, Resource and Outreach center), summed it up nicely: “Fail seven thousand seventy times, write poem number seven thousand seventy-one. You will still have failed, but with a certifiably human sweetness that makes you forget for a while that you have. This is the best we can get.”

Thanks to Greg Bem, Matt Spencer, DK Pan, Joe Roberston, Suzanne Tidwell, Courtney Hudak, Carrie Dresser and Chance Reschke for sending over your thoughts on failure: sorry I failed to include all of you.

Your Art Show Exhausts Me

This week’s failure is self referential. Discussions of the Seattle art scene invariably lead back to conversations about insularity, and whether or not you think that Seattle is a small town (let’s not open that can of worms, mmmkay?), there is undeniably a subset of Seattle’s creative ecosystem that is codified enough to be mocked. First Thursday Art Schlock, a Tumblr dedicated to lampooning the failures of Seattle’s art world with pop culture .gifs, arrived on the scene last spring and has been helping us laugh at ourselves ever since. Much like watching Portlandia and then staring uncertainly at the bird on your wallet, the humor makes you wince because it hits juuussssttttt a little too close to home.

Ostensibly, First Thursday Art Schlock is an anonymous endeavor. The project is clearly run by someone within the arts community, and if you don’t know who is behind it, it’s thrilling to look at your art world friends with delightful paranoia and rampant conspiracy theories, wondering if they’re secretly .giffing snarkily by night…

A personal request to First Thursday Art Schlock: can you please make a .gif about the joys of dating other artists and then having to go through inter-community breakups where you have to divide Seattle’s various cultural institutions to avoid each other?

Here’s a sample of posts for your enjoyment:

When an artist skips events to focus on work and, as a result, is soon forgotten about

When an artist skips events to focus on work and, as a result, is soon forgotten about

When no one bids on the piece I donated to your auction

When no one bids on the piece I donated to your auction

When the Painting Gallery Finally Tries Something Different

When the Painting Gallery Finally Tries Something Different

Steiner and Stratmann: Thoughts on the Failure of Abandoned Homes

Failure is a condition that is often intimate and internal, an emotionally-based point of view that is not always detectable from the outside. But architectural failures are visible: they quite literally lack the façades to hide their collapse, and so perhaps it should come as no surprise that two of the featured artists for our Failure series present—in very different ways—the physical disintegration of homes.


Over the past few months, we have featured Veit Stratmann’s documentation of the hauntingly failed city of L’Aquila. Now, in a complementary counterpoint—a counterpoint made stronger for its unplanned synchronicity—we will be introducing the work of New York based artist Gaby Steiner. Steiner describes her project, Public Home, as a book

…about a man who lives on his property without the protective walls and roof of a house. The house was demolished a few years ago due to potential collapse by New York City housing officials. Since then his furniture and personal belongings remain on the ground and in the open air…Jerzy Sulek came to New York in the 1970s from Warsaw, Poland, as a trained architect and his story today illustrates the paradox of public exposure and visibility alongside loneliness and isolation in society. His private life is exposed to the elements and on public display to everyone passing by. This situation is symbolic of the precarious position of the human condition in contemporary urban life and the vulnerability to constantly shifting relationships between public and private realms. It also poses urgent questions about ownership and personal autonomy in an era of diminishing property rights.

Steiner’s project documents the living situation of Jerzy Sulek, an architect who lives in Greenpoint, New York. A few years ago, Sulek’s house was demolished by the city because it was deemed structurally unsound. But rather than leave his property, Sulek simply moved his life outdoors, and he continues to live as though his life is still contained within the parameters of a home. Shoes lie in patches of dirt as though arranged on a closet shelf; a weight bench perches in the snow, sitting in such a state of assertive normalcy that one almost imagines it is set up in a garage or basement.


Both Steiner’s and Stratmann’s projects are about the failure of framework, about reinforcements eclipsing the very things that they were meant to support. In the case of L’Aquila, the structural salvation of the city became too imposing to leave any room for its actual inhabitants. “The city,” Stratmann writes, “is physically present and even largely accessible and potentially functional. However, that which bestows sense and form to the city—life and the temporality that life generates—has disappeared.”


And in the case of Sulek’s inverted house, the architect continues to live in a place that is no longer there, shaping his movements to adhere to the echoed constraints of phantom walls. “This property in Greenpoint,” Steiner explains, “is defined as ‘vacant land’ by the Department of Buildings in Brooklyn. The home of this man does not exist.” Sulek’s life is entirely inverted, and he lives in a state of heightened vulnerability with his intimate routines on display for any passerby until night comes and he can live unobserved under the cover of darkness. Sulek’s private life continues as it always has, but without any context to shelter it.

These two projects perfectly bookend each other: Jerzy Sulek inhabits a state of life without structure; the residents of L’Aquila, structure without life. But both projects pose the same fundamental question: how does one respond to the failure of an abandoned home?


What’s the First Thing You Ever Made, Antoine Wilson?

The first thing I ever made was a fishhook. I was six, probably. We lived on Lac Saint-Louis, a dilation of the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal. When it wasn’t frozen over or hucking stormy columns of spray across our picture windows, its limpidity allowed a tantalizing view of small fish swimming close to shore. I don’t know where the urge came from—some cultural image? innate murderous instinct?—but I knew as surely as I have ever known anything that I had to catch at least one of those fish.

I found a small nail, squeezed one end into my father’s vise, and hit the other end with a hammer until it bent like a fishhook. My mother inspected it, gave her approval, and helped me tie it to a piece of string, and the string to a stick. For bait, she provided bits of hot dog from the plastic packaging, cut into perfect little disks. (The smell of those hot dogs fresh out of the package is like Proust’s madeleine to me; it takes me back, immediately and involuntarily, to Dorval in the 1970s.)

I remember vividly sitting by the edge of the lake, on a little stone wall, hot dog disks at my side, watching the plump goldfish investigate my hook. They were wary at first, but it didn’t take them long to start nibbling away. When they’d devoured the bait, I pierced another piece of hot dog with my hook and dropped it into the water. This cycle continued for the rest of the afternoon.

I caught no fish, of course. My hook was not barbed. At the time, it felt like a failure. But on the few occasions I’ve gone fishing, whether because I was on a boat where someone handed me a rod, or staying as a guest of an avid fisherman, I’ve found myself wishing I were still holding a stick with a string and a bent nail at the end, just hanging out, enjoying the long summer day, sun glimmering on the water, watching fish eat.

-Antoine Wilson is the author of two novels, PANORAMA CITY and THE INTERLOPER. He’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a contributing editor of A Public Space. He grew up in Southern California and continues to live and surf in Los Angeles. He’s online at www.antoinewilson.com and on Twitter @antoinewilson.

An Introduction to L’Aquila, Empty City

An earthquake shook the city of L’Aquila on the night of April 6, 2009. It killed 308 people and injured at least 2000 others. ­­­­­

Initially, in order to facilitate rescue worker access, any survivors who were able to use their own means to leave the city were asked to do so. About 35,000 people—nearly half the city’s population—left the area. The remaining residents, unable to fend for themselves, were housed in emergency tents set up between 3 to 15 miles outside the city limits.

Gradually these tents were replaced by apartment buildings and single-family homes built in a dispersed manner in the countryside surrounding the city. The construction of scattered housing for the L’Aquila residents was accompanied by an official ban on returning to homes within the L’Aquila city limits. Thus, the city was entirely emptied within hours after the earthquake.


Next, as a prelude to the eventual reconstruction of the city, it was decided that the city buildings should be systematically reinforced by elaborate “exoskeletons”—either scaffolding or steel beams running from one building to another. These exoskeletons were constructed with such a high degree of complexity and precision, and of such expensive materials, that their building cost alone absorbed the majority of funds set aside to restore the city. In some cases, it now would be less expensive to destroy certain buildings behind the scaffoldings than to deconstruct the supporting structure itself. The exoskeletons literally prevented L’Aquila residents from accessing their own homes resulting in the decision to evacuate the city and to maintain the population at a distance.

To further the organization of the eventual reconstruction of the city, a classification system was supposed to be drawn up in order to prioritize the reconstruction targets. The categories were to include the ranking of buildings in terms of their relevance in art history and of their importance in the visual unity of the city. Other categories were to be centered on structural or city-planning issues. The budget allocations and response time for each restoration were supposed to be based on these categories. However, the description of each category and the criteria for classification were never clearly defined. No money was ever allocated because no buildings were ever formally classified. Hardly any official restoration work has been carried out to date.


The combination of these two decisions—the evacuation of the city and ban on returning to the city—has left the city in a state of suspended animation. The city is physically present and even largely accessible and potentially functional. However, that which bestows sense and form to the city—life and the temporality that life generates—has disappeared.

To walk the streets of L’Aquila is to be constantly faced with the impossibility of synchronizing the temporality of a human being with the surrounding non-temporality. Instead of offering a complementary experience between the person and his or her town, the encounter between a human being and this city creates rupture, incoherence and absence of meaning. The city is no longer a “part of things”. The inhabitants have become “outhabitants”.

The geographical dispersion of L’Aquila residents and the ban on returning to pre-earthquake habitations “dissolved” not only the city’s society but also the city itself. The fact that the “city” is traditionally and structurally the basic unit of politics in Italy means that the dissolution of the city brings about the annihilation of political space and societal structures. The administrative structures of the city exist, but the space in which they take shape and make sense has disappeared.

If one accepts the premise that politics constitutes, among other things, the art of structuring and sequencing the collective temporality of a society, then the evaporation of L’Aquila’s political sphere and the suspension of time can be considered interdependent and mutually perpetuating. The city is frozen in (or out) of time—and everything is suspended in a motionless state.

As L’Aquila is in a state of suspended animation, much like the absence of molecular movement at 0° Kelvin, its immobility cannot be modified. Any change of status is dependent on the possibility of putting something in motion, but no structure capable of activity exists in L’Aquila. Likewise, the absolute immobility of L’Aquila cannot be objectified but only experienced, because “objectifying” implies the possibility of measurement. And just as it is impossible to measure 0° Kelvin (because that necessitates the use of an instrument that could be colder than absolute zero itself), the measure of L’Aquila’s immobility would necessitate a tool even less mobile than absolute immobility.

I observe the current situation in L’Aquila much like a rabbit, paralyzed by the sight of a serpent. I cannot look away, nor leave, although I know the danger is great—and this danger risks annihilating my posture as an artist.

I traveled to L’Aquila thinking as an artist. In other words, I assumed that my role as an artist would allow me to formulate questions, to initiate debate and to identify different problems in (hopefully) an appropriate and sufficiently intellectualized manner. However my status as an artist should not permit me to formulate any univocal answers nor to propose any solutions to the non-art-related problems encountered, because any such attempt would completely undermine the pertinence and ethical validity of my artistic action, making it null and void. It would make art disappear.

Once in L’Aquila, I realized (with both horror and fascination) that the current state of things there perfectly materializes certain notions that I ponder in my own work: breaches of meaning, porous borders, the blurring of statuses, the posture of the spectator, the individual as a responsible being, who assumes his choices and takes can take a stance.

The fact that L’Aquila has fallen out of time and out of context generates a void or black hole. This non-L’Aquila sucks all meaning out of the surrounding environment. The city is that gigantic rupture of coherence that I try to capture and construct in each of my pieces.

On one hand, I had to be interested by L’Aquila. To be disinterested in L’Aquila would deprive me of a vast treasure trove of data relative to my work. It would deprive me of a physical and mental journey to the core of a space that represents the basic foundations of my work. It would deprive me of the exploration of the materialization of the driving force that maintains my artistic action.

On the other hand, L’Aquila is in an unacceptable state. And this status calls for real change. It appeals to the formulation of an objective—something that I feel should be avoided in an artistic posture. The necessity of identifying a goal runs the risk of transforming anything that I might accomplish in L’Aquila into “social work”, canalizing my thinking towards a univocal “solution” to purely non-art related problems. Art runs the risk of disappearing by its mere presence. And this risk is all the greater in the absence of any societal or historical structures, for the introduction of an artwork in L’Aquila would confer a special status to the work, underlining it as the only thing with a clear meaning and structure. Art would run the risk of filling the void left by the absent social structures and of self-effacing in its own presence.

My hesitation was reinforced as I walked the streets of L’Aquila. I had the overwhelming sensation of being in temporal desynchronization as a living being, faced with the surrounding structures in their out-of-time zone. I felt my inability to integrate myself as a social being in this context, which was bereft of any coherence, of any structures or of any frames of reference. These impossibilities—and the ruptures of sense they created—intrigued me so much that I could not resist wanting to “do something”.

I could attempt to fill the void. However, this first approach would lead me to propose a solution. Or I could attempt to pressure the fault lines to their cracking point and explode the status quo. In this case, I might be able to propose an artistically appropriate gesture. However, this second approach would be extremely difficult to defend from an ethical point of view, given the specific case of L’Aquila and the additional suffering that might be caused to innocent people. In either case, the impact of any work placed in L’Aquila would be rendered null and void in the absence of a public.

The only possible approach in order to infiltrate the situation seemed to begin with the de-dramatization of the relevant vocabulary: I needed to transform the notions of “artwork” and “artistic action” into the simple word “gesture”. This term designates nothing other than the idea that an artist—which I am—makes and produces forms. This term is sufficiently vague that it can be used in connection with L’Aquila without being taken for an attempt at a social or political solution, without it conveying the notion of being in contradiction with the current situation or constituting itself as a potential corrective agent.

I decided that I should carry out my gesture with intense discretion by documenting what I saw, writing in order to outline the stakes and to reinstate the results of my observation.

For now, I have two words with which I can work: gesture and artist. I need to create a tension and interaction between the two. I find myself in an insoluble situation, much like Chuck Jones’ iconic Wile E. Coyote, legs churning and suspended in mid-air above the gaping canyon with the elusive roadrunner just out of reach. Yet this impossible posture seems the only viable approach.



Images, from top: Scaffolding installed in 2009; post-it notes outside a local bar containing messages to the town written by former residents; a renegade knitting installation on public steps- its lack of foot traffic underscores the emptiness of the town; scaffolding holding up much of the oratory of a local aristocratic family- Veit was informed by the owner that it would be less expensive to demolish the building rather than remove the scaffolding; a typical city block in L’Aquila.

Veit Stratmann is a German-born artist who lives in France. His work is often created for public spaces, and responds to locations that are undergoing major change. Follow the making of Veit’s new body of work about L’Aquila throughout TPR’s Failure series, and join us for a visit from the artist in January, 2013.