Artist Devin Midori Hale reflects on her grandfather, his lessons of frugality, and the old blue truck of his that he gave to her, born exactly the same year as she was.Read More
I have nothing to say about Donald Judd, the Chinati Foundation, or the art scene of Marfa—only because we added it to our itinerary as a lark…a way out-of-the-way, too short, and (now we know) blessed lark. We knew we were supposed to be visiting because of those things, and we knew it would be difficult because of our arrival during the Film Festival. We got there at dusk one night and left before noon the next day. Most accommodations were reserved and we had struggled to book lodging (and only lucked out because of cancellations).
We had each done only vague research about the exact location of Prada Marfa along Highway 90 and sped right past it (how is that even possible? It’s surrounded by nothing, right on the road!) in our haste to get to the Thunderbird Motel and check in (and outrun the rainstorm).
But even without the aforementioned attractions, even with no luck getting into one of the cool restaurants (Dairy Queen dinner FTW, complete with West Texas houseflies!), even just driving around mostly deserted streets of mostly vacant-looking buildings, we were besotted. Everyone was friendly and had generous grins (except for the one hipster waiter who told us to forget getting a table). We circled past two folks sitting on the pavement in the middle of the street playing guitar and singing—almost willing us to stop and acknowledge their civic transgression with hopeful smiles. Truly free spirits or self-conscious and attention-seeking? Who cares?
We, too, would have sat there, had we brought guitars. We, too, leapt up from our DQ sundaes half an hour before the sun went completely down and raced 30 miles back up highway 90 to find the missed Prada Marfa before the incredible, big light left. We, too, stood in the middle of the blank road and turned around and around, sniffing the peculiarly fragrant air (I’ve since learned there are native plants there that would have been new to me and are unique to the area), marveling at the temperature drop, making common cause with the Australian guys who saw us stop and got out to take a few pictures, felt our hearts race with joy even as our heartbeats slowed. We, too, hopped through grass (WATCH OUT FOR RATTLESNAKES, CHAD MILLER!) to look at old, de-commissioned windmills.
Another small town we had visited seemed like a produced memory of a gold rush spirit, propped up by artifice, Old West reenactments, and bags of feed to purchase for the quasi-domesticated wild burros. Marfa, on the other hand, was buzzing with the rubbing up against each other of heritage (old family-owned store names retained on buildings), hunger (of new residents to make a life where Making A Life of making art was actually possible and non-exhausting), and hope (that old and new—politically disparate—Marfans co-existing might provide a counter-lesson to, say, what we see in legislatures).
It’s no wonder I slept like a baby, even as trains whistled just behind my room in the night. It’s no wonder we schemed about how to get back, even as we were driving out of town. It’s no wonder we looked at real estate prices and fantasized about opening various businesses.
And all without ever even getting to the art.
One Response to “Travelblogue V: Marfa,Texas (art not included)”
Without a doubt, there are two lives being led in Marfa: those of the artists that have taken up studio there and the farmers/ranchers of Marfa/Alpine. At the Thunderbird Motel, you’ll see the artists. At the Dairy Queen, you’ll see the native townsfolk (and flies).
What I didn’t realize until we were driving away is that this town of two lives perfectly mirrors the lives that Jenifer currently is living: the artist/the spectator and pre-operation/post-operation. Jenifer truly came alive, as it were, while we were traveling through Marfa and that in itself was its own lively adventure as I watched the resurrection of an artist left dormant.
The surgeons who repaired my CSF leak used cadaver skin to fashion the part of the repair that was on the “brain side” of my skull. Since the procedure, I have joked that any behavior on my part that struck someone as odd should be chalked up to a random person’s DNA being pressed right onto my brain—just like in those B movies in which a character’s severed hand is transplanted with one from a serial killer, which leads the character to then become a serial killer, too. I have hoped that my cadaver was an artist or—at the very least—a creative and compassionate person, with less tendency toward fear and procrastination and more inclination toward math, drawing, and making healthy food choices.
The fear of surgery was considerable. I bucked up publicly, but in private I trembled. It was to take place on February 14, and February 13 of this year coincided with Ash Wednesday. I was alone in my apartment (still recovering and in treatment for meningitis), and I took to ruminating over what could go wrong, what accounts were not settled, how much I wanted to survive, what people cleaning out my apartment would think about my music and books if I didn’t (but I didn’t have time to go through them and discard the stupid ones). I thought about the Christian ritual of the imposition of ashes, and its relationship to mortality and penitence. I was in no shape to go to a church, and so I reclined on my sofa, wrapped in a quilt, and lit a match. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. I extinguished it, let it cool, and harvested the ash from the match head. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. I made the sign of the cross on my own forehead, site of the leak, with a finger. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Somehow, improbably, standing in the dust of the high desert of Marfa at the end of 2000 miles of driving, I came to the liturgically and theologically bizarre conclusion that I was, in fact, not on vacation, but was on a pilgrimage, and that the ground and the air there were as holy as the water of Bernadette’s spring in Lourdes.
I left renewed, if only ephemerally.
Car antics, laughter, and cherry-lime slushes with Chad hadn’t hurt, either, and I felt a genuine lump in my throat when I had to drop him off to meet his family at a travel center on I-10 and continue my journey alone. As romantic as the notion of a solo, contemplative road trip had sounded to me, I had underestimated the right-setting of uninterrupted time with a kindred, generous soul (who, like me, would sing all the parts of Bohemian Rhapsody—melody, harmonies, and instrumental parts—simultaneously and at full volume). As I continued, I visited friends in San Antonio, had fried chicken and peach pie with cousins at “heaven’s cafeteria”—Bryce’s in Texarkana—and pressed on to Little Rock to see friends there, as well.
In the South, there are ceiling or oscillating fans in every room, and people still say yes, ma’am and no, sir to strangers and elders.
And finally, after nine days on the road, I reached my destination: Bee Branch, Arkansas, where I would spend nights in my uncle’s cabin and days attending to the work of going through my father’s things in the house down the road—my father, who had never discarded a negative, a contact sheet, a letter he had received, a copy of one he had sent, a draft of his books or speeches, a document, a bank statement, or a tiny pocket day-timer in his long life. Whatever I had remembered of him through my own experience, it was now being re-framed through what he had chosen to keep, and by the stories his brothers and sisters were telling me about him.
The more time elapses since his death, the more I feel I am running after his truck, Old Blue, down the road in Van Buren County, the road dust mixing with the exhaust trail, running, grabbing at it all.
He was the one that knew me. We shared a reputation for being quirky, peculiar, always-sure-if-not-always-right, intense, competent, generous with things and sometimes stingy with patience. I have his big personality, his tendency to hum under his breath, and his obsession (especially earlier in his life), with making a picture of everything I see.
I love this clip. We were on a road trip to see family in Nashville, Arkansas. I love that Dad is so eager to show my cousins and me his newfangled instant camera. I love that I will always remember him this way. I love that I am smiling and hugging and curious, freely swinging on an open car door—where I am not supposed to be—and I love that I have just re-acquainted myself, over the last 6500 miles, with that girl.
When I consider The Project Room’s question of how we want to be remembered, I know that the humble and truthful answer is not about My Life’s Work or my Contributions to Society—it’s about this. Just this: being no stranger to swinging on an open car door, and being smiling and hugging and curious.
Jenifer Ward is the Editor of Off Paper and Dean of the College at Cornish College of the Arts. Read her entire road trip series here:
#1: Travelblogue I: Solstice
#2: Travelblogue II: Perigee
#3: Travelblogue III: Key Lime is the Color of Grief
#4: Travelblogue IV: Road to Nowhere
#5: Travelblogue V: Marfa,Texas (art not included)
I want to be remembered as the lady who rolled up to the kitschy Flintstones’ Bedrock Village roadside attraction in rural Arizona with a fancy L.A. bakery box filled with a red velvet bundt cake, paid admission, went in, ate one sliver on a piece of Fred and Wilma’s garishly painted rock furniture with a travel spork, went out, and gifted the cashier with the rest of the cake.
She was thrilled. I would have been digging through it for white powder and razor blades, or explosives, maybe, but she just beamed at us.
Most of the memorials I had been seeing were for hard, enduring things: bridges, roads, stadiums. They were named after men—fallen soldiers, policeman, politicians. I started wondering what a gendered public memorial for women would look like. The only things I would want to be remembered for along the way were non-specific and non-concrete: a vista, a sound, an experience, an act, an intervention, a spontaneous gesture that led to a story a young Arizona tourist trap cashier would recount when she arrived home from work with a decadent (partially eaten) cake from a big city bakery miles away.
Outside of Oatman, Arizona, someone remembered “Bullitt” on a rock.
My friend Chad and I had dodged burros in the middle of the road in an old mining town in Arizona, had dodged tourists gasping at the thin air at the Grand Canyon, had dodged elk in the road from the Canyon back to I-40, had dodged a near disaster by going too quickly over railroad tracks in Flagstaff (no, really, we thought we had scraped the undercarriage clean off the car). Whoever was not driving was snapping iPhotos of the landscape or making iVideos of the trains—the many, many trains—from the passenger seat.
We participated in a summer music festival on the plaza in Santa Fe, had the best ever brisket and green chile burritos in a blazing hot parking lot in Albuquerque, cursed the spotty cell reception in Hatch, began what would become a refreshment trope for the whole trip—Cherry Lime slushes—somewhere near El Paso, were stopped at a border check along the Mexican border (“Are you both US citizens?” “Yes, sir!” I leaned over from the passenger side to say to the obviously FEMALE officer in my flustered and irrational fear of being deported, as Chad fumbled with the contents of his wallet, looking for identification). We laughed, we sang, we tried to take a photo of the “110 degrees” temperature reading on the dashboard readout.
On the Texas Mountain Trail just before Sierra Blanca, Texas, “Mingo” and “Lupe” have their names spray-painted on a stone.
By the time we veered south from the interstate onto Highway 90 toward Marfa, I had unfurled. We were the only ones on the road, slowing to try (and failing) to catch dust devils on video, gauging how long the far-off horizon rainstorm would take to reach us (or would we overtake it first?), and thrilling to the silver dollar-sized raindrops when they finally came. The hairpin turns of my first few driving days had corresponded to the kinks in my soul, but now the west Texas landscape was laying it out flat, smoothing it: I was getting a soul-ironing by the time we saw the large billboard just outside of town: “WELCOME TO MARFA.”
I worried on day 3 that I had made a terrible mistake. The adrenaline from the first leg of the trip left me around Gilbert, California, just as the scent of garlic fields replaced the eucalyptus. There were lots of RVs with bicycles mounted on the backs. The wheels of the bikes circled lazily in front of me, like pinwheels on a faint breeze, and I found myself falling into a Caligari-esque hypnotic trance (if Dr. Caligari had had a recreational vehicle). I also hit my first traffic, and inched along from just north of Santa Barbara clear in to Los Angeles (with a welcome break to see a friend at a packed-to-the-rafters In-N-Out Burger in Newbury Park. I was in California! It was a must!). But I found my second wind after studying the backs of my eyelids for a few moments in my hotel room on Santa Monica Boulevard, and ventured out for an early dinner with yet more old friends. We sat outside and I had my first occasion—in over a year—to utter the words: “the sun is hot on the back of my neck.” Also: did you know that serving a grown-up woman an ice cream float of housemade yuzu soda, vanilla ice cream, and vodka will make her giggle like a small child after 3 days of being mostly alone?
Truth be told, it would have been a straighter shot to Arkansas (my ultimate destination, my home) to go diagonally across the country and skip California altogether. Two things impelled me: 1) the prospect of picking up a travel partner, Chad, who would get a kick out of doing road trippy things with me; 2) the desire to see something my dad had always talked about: the La Brea Tar Pits. Once I penciled LA into the route, I added the James Turrell retrospective at LACMA with a set of college friends (California’s state motto should be: “California! State of Large Concentration of Jenifer’s Friends!”).
The Tar Pits were freaky. There were large fenced off areas with bubbling tar, but more concerning were the various spots where tar was just starting to rise to the surface, some with makeshift fencing, some as yet unmarked.
I worried that no one had really accounted for the unpredictability of the tar when LACMA was built and that one day soon I would hear the news that the whole complex had been swallowed up—artsy hipsters now lodged cheek-by-jowl with saber-tooth tiger and mastodon remains, but the subterranean resting place at least adorned with incredible art. And a gift shop.
Chad and I pranced around the grounds and then I met my friends for the Turrell tour. Cue record player needle scratching across a record: my reaction to the Turrell experience was unpredicted.“Key Lime” is evidently the color of grief. Going into that exhibit, the marker suggested to the viewer that one should allow at least 5 minutes with the work. I shuffled along in the darkness, hand on the wall to keep my bearings, and found the bench where I was supposed to sit.
It was quiet, cool, dark, and—within seconds—I started to cry. I have no explanation. It’s not as if I haven’t been immersed in darkness since my father died, but the light installation in front made this darkness so much blacker, so much more velvety, enveloping, visceral. No one could see me. I couldn’t see myself. I was unobservable, even to me, and—completely outside of time and space and reason—the tears bubbled up like the tar underneath me, sticky and inescapable.
I left the northern coast of California as the sun was coming up, hoping to see the redwood trees for the first time in my life before the light was too high. I hugged the ocean until Eureka and then turned inland to start the long trek on the Redwood Highway. I don’t know what I expected—I reckoned that I would see the giant timbers off in the far distance—but in fact they were inches from the road: the very winding, relatively narrow, light-jarred road. I was angling for dappled, but what I hooked was shards of light cutting through my field of vision down through the massive, dark trees—an unsettling and dangerous chiaroscuro, since there were other cars on the road, too, and since I was turning out to be quite the leadfoot, once unfettered (it’s hard to be a leadfoot anywhere in Seattle).
I saw a sign for “Elk Meadow” up ahead, which, as it turned out, was not the name of a quaint village, but an actual meadow with dozens and dozens of elk wandering and lying about—very (alarmingly) close to the road. By the time I reached Ukiah, I was both exhilarated and exhausted, my voice hoarse from screaming the one line about the redwood forest from “This Land is Your Land” over several hours. After a break for lunch and a pause to let some color back into my white knuckles, I took the wheel again and headed for the Bay Area. I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and rolled down my window, letting in the smell of eucalyptus as I drove along 19th Avenue through the city.[Pro tip: eucalyptus sometimes smells like cat pee when it’s filtered through a vehicle’s A/C system. Roll down the windows.]
I broke for the night in Menlo Park, since I have friends I wanted to see there. While my hotel room was probably more like average, it seemed luxurious, clean, and palatial by the previous night’s standards. I took my shoes off and walked, brazenly, to and fro across the carpet in my bare feet. My friends arrived and we went to dinner, our conversation the first of several similar ones I would have over the course of the next days:
“Why have we waited so long to see each other?”
Why, indeed? Because losing one’s father and almost one’s own life leads to a certain urgency to right such wrongs, to race across the country, seeing sights unknown and renewing friendships.
“Let’s not wait this long again.”
No, let’s not. Let’s develop some intention around cultivating and caring for one’s relationships, shall we? This is what we’ll want to remember when we’re old, right?
After dinner, returning to the hotel at dusk, we spied the rising perigee moon, the one that occurs on the night on which the moon is closest to the earth: the supermoon. I wish it had risen over something more mystical than the Stanford Shopping Center, but it rose nonetheless over a reunion of friends, in a car, laughing with the windows down. 5-year old Owen had given me a lollipop. I slept well.
I left on a road trip on the longest day of the longest year. I would drive with the promise of enduring light, the road unrolling over the darkness of months of stress, grief, confusion, and ill health: a slate-wiping or a full immersion baptism—either way, it would happen with music, sky, and a game-like hunt for the best gas prices and cleanest restrooms.
In German, there is an imposing word: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It means, quite literally, mastering the past. In a German context, it refers to the guilt-filled prospect of dealing with the Nazi past. In my own consideration of recent events, it was less a need to master them as it was an urgent desire to be IN them. My father, to whom I was close and from whom I received many of the traits that make me who I am, had died before the holidays—taking my identity mirror with him.
But just as I was about to dive, in earnest, into the process of grieving his loss, I came down with bacterial meningitis. That was followed by the discovery that the organism had gained entry through a small hole in the front of my skull, through which cerebrospinal fluid was leaking out my nose. What I thought was months-long sinusitis turned out to be my very brain fluid flowing away. Months of hospitalization, surgery to repair the leak, and tiresome recovery later, I packed my new little car and turned my face toward home: the South.
I only stayed on I-5 from Seattle to Roseburg, OR, at which point I took the “wagon road” over the hills toward Coos Bay and picked up US 101. Still—at one and the same time—wound up and depleted, still set-jawed, I tried to inhabit the role of Middle-Aged Woman On Epic Road Trip, Considering Loss and Identity, Remembering Who She Was and Is. I put on the right clothes, I donned the jaunty cap, I cued up the proper tunes. But I was acting. Mostly I felt like a fraud. Mostly I fought the urge to check email from work. Mostly I stumbled over song lyrics and shifted in my seat, gripping the wheel a little too tightly. But I committed to the role, and by the time I rounded the bend in Port Orford and saw full-out ocean—the waves-crashing-against-craggy-coast kind—I felt my brow starting to unfurrow. I stopped at the first “vista point” and stood on the cliff, listening and breathing in this different air from downtown Seattle for a while, and then pressed on to my first overnight of the trip: Crescent City, California.
Truth? Forgettable. EXCEPT that my hotel room was so scary that I put on the flip-flops I had packed for the eventuality of a hotel pool along the way, and wore them to bed. Yes, I was so afraid that I would get up in the night for an, um, comfort necessity, and would be too groggy to remember to put them on before shuffling over that infested carpet (infested with germs, with bugs, with dirt, with body fluids, with sad endings?) to the bathroom, that I WORE MY FLIP-FLOPS TO BED. I shouldn’t have been concerned. It was solstice, and I couldn’t sleep. I clutched the thin sheet to my chin (being careful not to touch the thin coverlet over it), and stared at the ceiling—with my feet against rubber soles—until I finally dozed off. Day One accomplished.
Jenifer Ward is the Editor of Off Paper and Dean of the College at Cornish College of the Arts.
Looking for the entire series? Click below:
#1: Travelblogue I: Solstice
#2: Travelblogue II: Perigee
#3: Travelblogue III: Key Lime is the Color of Grief
#4: Travelblogue IV: Road to Nowhere
#5: Travelblogue V: Marfa,Texas (art not included)
#6: (Final episode) Ashes and Dust
I walk the remains
of my village,
each step gasping memory from ash.
For six years
I have stalked the dry barrens,
plush comfort stark against
these black echoes.
I bend at a glint
a flattened silver perfume cap.
I know this smell:
desert, naked sun, relentless wind.
You promised me
the shabby gods
would show me the relics of me.
Squirrel pointed out the scars in trees.
Mouse showed me the orphaned diaries.
Sol, the opportunities lost.
showed me the bones of promises
along the trails I have walked.
See? You’re not at all a fraud.
Hiked up the steep rock
to the cairn at the top.
Sat at the base
and to the wind said, ‘Hello, again.’
I was there
when the last rock was stacked
and the priests walked away.
I remember their song sadly fading,
a Latin requiem
mourning, for all time, immortality.
The above poems were written in response to TPR’s big question, “How Are We Remembered?” by Patrick McGann of Twisp, WA. Patrick is a poet, reformed journalist, privatized whiskey peddler and co-founder of Methow Asylum for Writers.
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.
Hardly a day goes by without a news report on the European Union. The once so applauded opening of the borders between member states is currently under attack: aren’t the European countries making it far too easy for criminals and illegal migrants to move freely between them? And didn’t they rush headlong into a common currency without stopping to consider the consequences? Meanwhile, we have come to realize that some of the members are unable to meet the EU’s financial obligations.
Right-wing parties are winning voters by calling for stricter immigration policies – and even a return to border checks. Many people are also predicting the end of the euro. A collective plan to rescue the weaker countries can apparently no longer count on either financial or moral support. All in all, an uncertain and turbulent future awaits each of the member states.
Beneath the banner of a common flag, Europe has always been a patchwork of independent nations. The crisis has made it clear that a United States of Europe is still a long way off. An EU breakup, which would result in a prosperous north and a less prosperous south, is seriously being considered. In the future, further disintegration is perhaps a more likely prospect than political union.
These uncertainties sparked the series of works titled ‘Circus Europe’, which were created by Machteld van Buren in 2012. These eight large collages illustrate how the struggle for survival is being waged various European countries. Each country is depicted as an animal: the body consists of a map onto which the realistic head of an animal has been superimposed. Germany appears to be a bird of prey – not the traditional eagle, but a vulture. Great Britain is portrayed with a number of horse’s heads, which form part of the landscape. The awkward juxtaposition of these figures suggests that the UK is not only struggling with its position within the EU, but is also divided by internal strife.
The juggling acts which these circus animals have to perform to keep themselves going are indicative of how each nation functions. But just how the stunts work is not entirely clear. Rather than leaving it to politicians to define the Europe of today and tomorrow, it would be good to have artists depict it as well. Given the tone of the debate, alternatives with a playful or visionary element might actually be quite useful. So let the fun begin: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Circus Europe!’
Follow this process as more writing and imagery develops throughout 2013.
In January 2013 the Courthouse Gallery, Ennistymon (Ireland) presents CIRCUS EUROPE: an international collaboration of poetry and images. With eight large collages by Machteld van Buren (the Netherlands). The exhibition runs from January 12 – February 1, 2013.
Eight poets are invited to offer their interpretation of these images: Jo Slade, Frank Golden, Jessie Lendennie and Patrick Chapman from Ireland, Arnoud van Adrichem, Martin Reints, Lieke Marsman and Peter van Lier from the Netherlands. Irish publisher Salmon Poetry is publishing a booklet of this project.
Translated by Susan Massotty
Now that the balloons and streamers from The Project Room’s first birthday celebration have been cleared away, we here at Off Paper are having our own little party. Tessa Hulls, who has been editing “The Seen” section of the site in recent weeks, has accepted our invitation to join us as Assistant Editor.
Tessa is an artist/writer/adventurer recently back to Seattle after a long spell of wandering. Her work deals with themes of home and migration, and after a year that has taken her everywhere from Antarctica to Alabama, she’s excited to hunker down and help The Project Room explore the Big Question.
Jenifer Ward, Editor of Off Paper
Brangien Davis, Editorial Consultant
Jess Van Nostrand, Founder, The Project Room
Alison Bechdel is a graphic novelist and author of the new book Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). She visited TPR for a conversation about the process behind her work. Joining her were TPR Founder Jess Van Nostrand, Off Paper Editor and Associate Provost of Cornish College of the Arts Jenifer Ward, TPR Volunteer and artist Tessa Hulls, artist Sarah Bergmann, and TPR volunteer Fritzie Reisner. This is an edited transcription of that conversation, which begins with Alison’s arrival from a delayed flight from LA in the midst of her national book tour.
ALISON: I feel like my molecules are disassembled. I’ve been in a different city since May 1st. So I’ll either be really lucid today or really incoherent.
JESS: We’ll take either version. That’s fine. Well, congratulations on the success of the book so far. It’s been fun to read different people’s takes on it. I was reading this morning the Seattle Times and the Stranger. Both published today, I think, about you being in town, and it was so noticeably different, the styles…,They were both very positive, but it seems that because your book touches on universal issues, for lack of a better word—this mother-daughter relationship which I imagine so many people can relate to—do you find that people are responding in vastly different ways?
ALISON: It’s all still really new, so I don’t have a broad sample of responses to gauge from. People seem—the people who tell me it touched them or moved them, it seems kind of similar, like, “Oh, this is my story.”
JESS: Do you have people close to you who read it during the editing process?
ALISON: Not really. My editor and my agent. A couple friends would read it at various points, but it was very hard for anyone to read it, because when I’m working on it, it’s very unfinished. There are no pictures. The way I work is without doing a lot of drawing. I can show you—
[Alison clicks through slides documenting her process on her computer.]
TESSA: Jess brought in the New Yorker profile on you and it was interesting reading about your process in there, where it seems like your work is almost more printmaking than illustration in terms of the number of layers you put into it, and having to be so methodical in thinking ahead.
ALISON: I never thought about it as printmaking. That’s interesting. People always ask which comes first, the pictures or the words, and I can’t answer that, because they’re simultaneous—even though they might not seem that way.
FRITZIE: Do you think in terms of the narrative and then go populate the details of the individual panes? Or—
ALISON: This is how I get the narrative, is by mucking along like this. I’ll stop and—well, actually I started with a really crazy outline, like a giant spreadsheet. I kind of keep referring to that. It’s like the columns were different chapters and the rows were just different ideas or quotations or episodes from my life that I felt might fit into that chapter, so it [the spreadsheet] was a way to keep track of that larger structure. But that would change, too, depending on what happened here [points at screen]and in the writing… but I took pictures of everything. I took about 4,000 pictures for this book.
SARAH: But the drawings get progressively more defined…
ALISON: All that production stuff happens at the end of the process.
JESS: Does the color have significance? Because Tessa and I were noticing that Fun Home [your previous book] has a bluish color and Are You My Mother? is reddish.
ALISON: Well I just wanted them to be different, mainly, and there aren’t a whole lot of options when it comes to two-color printing in a way that’s naturalistic. Purple wouldn’t really work. Yellow wouldn’t work. Something greenish and something reddish were kind of my only options.
FRITZIE: I’ve only read the books and I haven’t read any of the reviews about you, just the two books…
ALISON: You’re our control.
FRITZIE: Did you, when you were writing the book about your father—was it sometime while you were doing that that you decided that next you’d be writing about your mother?
ALISON: No. I had no intention or idea that I’d be following that with a book about my mother. And in fact, my work on this book that turned out to be about my mother was at first going to be something very different. It was going to be a book about relationships, sort of Relationship. But over the years I realized it just wasn’t making sense. It was just vey abstract and turgid and personal. I realized I was writing and kind of avoiding the subject of my mother. My mother was a part of that relationship book, but I realized she was more of the main story.
JENIFER: How long until you realized that?
ALISON: Four years in, when my agent read a draft and said, “This doesn’t make any sense.”
JESS: And that’s in here, that’s in the book, which is really great. And the book is so much about process—and you reference Virginia Woolf a lot—and I was wondering if, from the artwork side, there is a strong influence in your work as well. You talk so much about the literary side and writers who you study…
ALISON: Well yeah, I’ve always read comics. Mad Magazine was a big influence, Edward Gorey’s work. R. Crumb,, Harvey Pekar, Norman Rockwell.
JESS: Well I think it’s so amazing how, with the facial expressions, you convey so much in an expression. If you look at it, it almost doesn’t look like that complex of a face, but then you realize how much you’re getting out of it…
FRITZIE: I wondered how whatever kind of journaling you do now compares in the sorts of things you capture and what you put down to what you wrote as a child.
ALISON: Well my journaling has kind of faded away. I remember once reading Keith Haring’s journal, and it was so interesting. Just really rich, amazing, dense stuff, and then it stops—because his life got so busy and crazy and he couldn’t keep a journal. And I feel like to some extent that’s happening to me, but I do keep a daily work log. It started out with where I am with my work, what I am going to do today, what will I start tomorrow. But that has sort of turned into my journal. Which makes it dysfunctional as a work log and a journal. It’s like I’m having a fight with my girlfriend but it’s in the middle of my notes from work.
JESS: One of the things that came up during our series [in The Project Room] on Beginnings was the idea of struggle, the struggle that you undergo while you’re making something, and you have this new idea but you’re really just at the beginning. In other words, you have to go through this struggle. And there are some really interesting, neat moments about this here [Jess holds a copy of Are You My Mother?], and I was wondering if you agree that struggle is inherent to the creative process, if you think you have to go through it to get to the other end.
ALISON: That is a big question. I remember reading that book, The Artist’s Way, in the 90’s and thinking, “Oh wow, maybe it doesn’t have to be painful.” And I started doing the exercises in that book, the daily writing exercises, and part of me scoffs at that “Paint by Numbers” approach to creativity. But I have to say that really was the beginning of doing Fun Home. It was from doing those morning pages that I really built up enough steam to start writing this memoir about my dad that had loomed over me for many, many years.
JESS: Do you think it freed you up?
ALISON: It freed me up, but it didn’t make the creativity painless like she suggested it might be.
JESS: That’s a little misleading right there.
ALISON: Creativity for my mother was painful. I remember when she would be in plays. She did summer stock acting and it would always be this completely all-consuming project for her. And as it got closer and closer to the opening, she would get more and more anxious and more and more upset, and it was like, “Why are you doing this?” but clearly she really loved it. And I feel like somehow I’ve osmosed that same pattern of… I don’t know if it’s necessary to suffer. So far for me it has been necessary to suffer, and I wish that it weren’t.
JESS: Well, I remember that moment in the book, and you ask her in the book why she does this and she says, “Because I have to.” It seems like that was a memorable moment—do you feel that same way? That you just have to do it?
ALISON: Yeah, I do. She told me an interesting story recently. Actually, she’s sort of cut me off from any more family stories because she knows I’ll put them in a book. But for that New Yorker interview, the Judith Thurman one, she talked to my mother, emailed my mother. And just incidentally, my mother told me something that she’d told Judith Thurman, which was that her father, my grandfather, would often—he worked on the railroad—but he was also an opera singer. He sang opera in the local opera house. And he was apparently really encouraging to people who he could hear had a good voice, and he would say, “God gave you this voice, you should do something with it.” Like it was their duty to use their creative talents. And I never heard that in my life, but I think my mother transmitted that to me somehow.
JESS: Your books touch on the idea of telling the truth. Is that a motivator for you, or is there a challenge or something that’s blocking your way that makes you start to work on a book? Does it come from a question or issue or problem?
ALISON: Well, the book about my father did. I felt like no one really knew the truth about my father. And I did feel a necessity of telling it. But I didn’t have that same compulsion with this book about my mother. And I really thought I was telling the truth in the book about my dad, I thought there was such a thing as truth, and I was very earnestly going to relate it. But since finishing it, since it’s been out in the world, I’ve realized that was naïve. There are lots of different truths, and this was just my version.
JESS: And you have a brother, correct?
ALISON: I have two brothers.
JESS: That’s really interesting, too, because there’s an artist—a musician—here named David Nixon who we’ve been featuring, and he’s working on a film that’s about his dad, who rose to the highest levels of leadership in a local Buddhist sect which was very cultish, even according to its members who are still alive. So he’s making a piece about what it as like to have this famous guy as a dad.
It just seems like really thorny territory to try to figure out what the truth might be, but you might find something much more interesting, if you set that aside and focus on other parts of it. That’s been his story.
ALISON: I kind of like that my mother has cut me off from more factual information because it lets me get to imagine things. It frees me up a lot creatively.
JESS: Does it sometimes feel like a burden? That you need to be factually accurate?
ALISON: I feel like I’m excited about facts and trying to make the random facts that I know, or the experiences I’ve had, into a story. And I’m kind of obsessed with keeping track of things. I feel so distressed that over these last ten days I’ve been so busy that I honestly haven’t been able to write down where I am. I just read an interview with Jeanette Winterson in which she says that if she can’t read everyday, she starts to feel ill. I feel like, for me, it’s if I can’t write even some basic, diaristic information every day, I start to feel ill or not right. But I am kind of obsessive about keeping track of stuff. I’m so glad you’re writing everything down [gestures to Fritzie]. It’s very reassuring.
TESSA: Kind of working off that idea of whether or not there’s the objective truth of one narrative, I was curious about how the experience of writing Are You My Mother? changed the way you look at the narrative you made for Fun Home. Do you feel like you came to a different understanding of the story of your father through the process of exploring your mother?
ALISON: I did. I feel like I know a lot less about my father than I thought I did. I feel like I don’t really understand my parent’s relationship. And I stayed away from some big, obvious, obligatory questions that I didn’t even go near in my book. Like what was it like for my mother to have asked someone for a divorce and then have him commit suicide? I can’t possibly ask her that, or certainly talk about it in public. And I feel like that’s a huge part of her story, and I don’t go anywhere near it in real life or in my book. So it was kind of like writing the book around an empty core, which was an interesting formal exercise to do.
JESS: What was the empty core?
ALISON: Just that thing I couldn’t say. Several things I couldn’t say. Things that I knew would be distressing for her. But to come up with a story nonetheless was a good challenge.
JESS: Were there things you made significant changes to along the way? Just getting back to the idea of process, I mean, I know you really changed what the whole book was about at one point. Are there other aspects that got removed or vice versa?
ALISON: There is so much that got removed… I want to show you my crazy chart that I started with….
[Alison shows the chart she uses to construct narrative.]
My initial idea for the endpapers of this book was to have two concurrent timelines, one of my mother’s life and one of mine. But it just got too complicated.
FRITZIE: When you first thought you were going to write this book about relationships, what made you want to do that?
ALISON: Well, I knew that I’d shot my wad with this one great story about my dad, and I knew I didn’t have any other stories like that. I had lots of small stories, so I thought… There’s a lot of pressure to write another book because Fun Home did really well. So pressure from my publisher and agent, but also I had to make money to sell another book. So I rushed into a proposal for something, and I thought I’d write about relationships. I was interested in the problem of the Self in relation to the Other in a kind of philosophical sense.
So I wrote a proposal saying I was going to write this book and it would be called Love Life and would have chapters that progressed along the arc of a traditional love story—you meet someone, you touch someone for the first time, you go through these progressively more intimate stages until you’re divorcing them. And that would be my story, but it would be made up with lots of other little stories from my relationships and stuff by other writers that interested me and fit into these categories. And then I realized it was just this Procrustean bed that I was trying to fit something else into and it wasn’t working.
JENIFER: So as you’re accumulating so many storylets under these themes, at what point do you go from “I’m accumulating” to “now I’m going to craft.” Is there a trigger? Is it different for every project?
ALISON: I don’t remember how I actually got started. Or even how the original version began. I don’t know, it was so long ago. It wasn’t so much a trigger or a bolt of insight as much as just being, “Ok, now it’s time to sit down and write and just do that.”
JENIFER: My first teaching job was at a college where there was an independent study thesis for every student. And I remember this one student who would come in every week with a stack of books and the stack just got bigger and bigger. And I would say, “When are you going to start writing?” And he would say, “Oh but I found this great book, it’s got great stuff in it.” And the next week he’d come back and the stack would be bigger… And finally I just said, “Dude, at some point you have to quit taking in and you’re going to have to start putting out.” [laughter] Not in that way. That would be inappropriate. Those would be some boundary issues. But to move from the place of taking in to putting it back out was excruciating for him.
ALISON: That sounds very familiar. My creative process is very accretive to the point that it’s so dense that I can’t even have another thought, and that’s the point at which I know I have to get rid of something. But that doesn’t happen until kind of late.
TESSA: And that comes up in your work. One of the things I was the most struck by in Are You My Mother? was how, with your own journals, you got yourself to a point of paralysis where you couldn’t write because you were trying so hard to be objectively true. And so your mom actually came in and helped you write, and that’s just such an interesting layer, and then at the end of the book you talk about how she showed you the way out and in so many ways gave you your creative process. And that was just really touching, that she was able to help you out of the paralysis of gathering—
ALISON: Yeah, that’s very analogous. My creative process has not changed since I was a kid.
JESS: That makes me want to ask you more about when you were young. Did you have a clear experience in which you thought that this might be the kind of work for you? Were you always a big reader? Was there a moment at which you thought you found your—well maybe calling is too strong of a word, I don’t know how you see it…
ALISON: I feel like I always knew I wanted to draw. At some point I learned that there was such a thing as a cartoonist, and then I wanted to be a cartoonist.
JESS: How did you learn that?
ALISON: Probably from reading the New Yorker, which we always had lying around.
JESS: That’s impressive childhood reading.
ALISON: Well, I would just read the cartoons, I wasn’t reading the articles. Even today I just skip toTalk of the Town where the cartoons start.
SARAH: I’m curious why you do the washes in watercolor and not Photoshop.
ALISON: I tried that. I was initially going to do them in Photoshop, but I didn’t like the way it looked, and I didn’t want to spend that much time on the computer. I’d much rather use a real brush and paper and have that organic experience than be hunched over and looking at the screen.
SARAH: And how do you do that? Do you use a light box?
JESS: And is there a part of that process you enjoy more than other parts? Do you look forward to a certain part?
ALISON: I look forward to the inking, when I’ve got all the hard parts—sketching and research—done and I just have my nice clean pencil that I get to ink. It’s just… pleasant. And I don’t have to use my brain, really. I can listen to TV or a book or something.
TESSA: With two parents who were both such advocates and practitioners of close reading, how do you feel knowing that there are people doing that with your books now? I mean, even us having your two books here, and clearly we’ve gone through and poked and compared… What’s your comfort level with that?
ALISON: I feel like in this sad, pathetic way, I invite it—like I want people’s attention, and I’m somehow desperate for people to see me. I don’t always read all the academic papers that are written about my work, but I like that people are doing that. It makes me feel sort of held, in a way, to have people analyzing me. Like in an analytic sense, a holding experience.
JESS: I was talking yesterday to some women who part of an oral history project [These Streets] about women who were very active in the Seattle music scene in the 90’s, which is known as the grunge era. And a big part of the way in which it is remembered is as a male dominated scene, but in fact there were a lot of really active women musicians who just haven’t been included in the books that are now coming out as this 20th anniversary thing. And one of them said that she actually got a little depressed when she found out that there wasn’t a Wikipedia page for her. Is there a legitimacy that you feel when you have a Wikipedia page? Or is it just knowing that people know you’re there? Does the work exist in the same way whether or not you’re written about in history?
ALISON: Maybe those people put up their own Wikipedia pages.
JESS: Wikipedia is probably not a good example.
ALISON: But that is a good example, because you do have to metaphorically put up your own Wikipedia page. You can’t count on other people doing that for you.
JESS: And there is an audience whether you want there to be or not. There is the greater world out there that could or could not respond to what you do. So how much does that matter?
ALISON: Well, for many, many years I had a very small audience. I had this very subcultural gay and lesbian following who read my work, and that was great. But when I started getting more recognition with Fun Home, when that came out, I feel like it… I haven’t really talked about this, so I can’t express it as clearly as I would like, but when you get support from the outside world, it’s a challenge. It pushes you to do more, it pushes you to go further. It’s like a chemical reaction or something. You’re given more opportunities that you can take advantage of. And if you can make the most of those, then you get more opportunities. So it’s like this continually escalating challenge. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it would be nice to think that it doesn’t matter what the outside world thinks of your work, but it does, and it’s an interaction. You get fed from other people’s responses and reactions, and the more of those reactions, the more you are fed and guided.
TESSA: Do you find it difficult to be as honest and critical as you might want to be, knowing that there’s a built in audience for anything you might write?
ALISON: Yeah, it was excruciating trying to write this book. When I wrote that book [Fun Home], no one had any idea I was even doing it. I was totally in this blissful solitude, this bubble of doing exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t even sell it for a long time; I was just working on it in this pure way. And this book [Are You My Mother?] I had to sell right away—I got a big advance, I signed a contract. People were expecting it, readers were expecting it, and that was really… Well, in some ways really awful, but also really wonderful because I had to do it.
JENIFER: Do you sort out in your own head those two kinds of feeding? So one kind of being fed is the response from your readers and the scholarly academic papers and those kinds of things, and the other is the literal feeding that comes from an advance or money from your publisher. Do those align in your head, or do you compartmentalize them?
ALISON: Well, for me they have been pretty much aligned. But I have so many friends who work really hard at their writing and don’t get published by a big press, don’t get a decent advance. So I know it’s just a fluke in my case.
JESS: We’ve talked about motivation a little bit, but I always like to throw out the big question that is the theme at The Project Room, which is why do we make things? Could you respond to that?
ALISON: I’ve been thinking about this. I think we make things because we’re trying to make up for something. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that my creative drive is compensatory on some level. I’m trying to get back to some pristine state, trying to get other people’s attention. Something I missed. I know I’m really pathologizing creativity, but I do think that creativity is pathological to a certain extent. Why else would you do something so painful?
TESSA: But that’s also the example you were given in both your parents.
ALISON: Yeah, so what do I know?
TESSA: It’s just curious, thinking, if you had been born into a different family, A: would you ever have become a cartoonist; and B: would you have a different understanding of what creative process has to be?
ALISON: I can’t even entertain hypotheticals like that. If I were born into an entirely different family, I would probably be a very happy CPA somewhere. But maybe that’s a cynical view of creativity. Maybe it can be fun; maybe everyone can do it.
I’ll be whining at home stuck with something feeling completely overwhelmed with self loathing and completely hopeless that I’ll ever finish anything, and my girlfriend will say, “you’ll finish it, you always do.” And I want to say, “What do you think—how do you think—this happens? I don’t just do it!” But that’s what it looks like from the outside. And I DO do it.
FRITZIE: So she was right.
ALISON: I know that I will do it, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
FRITZIE: In the book about your mom, there’s a lot of reference to the psychological literature. I wondered whether you, like now, when you’re not writing these books and other things are on your mind, do you read psychology stuff for pleasure? Or do you have questions that you’re pondering and then you look for references in psychology to inform your thoughts?
ALISON: I think it’s more that I’m looking for specific answers—I’m not just ranging around for pleasure. I’m just starting to read the work of this guy Murray Bowen who did something called Family Systems Therapy. I want to write yet another family memoir, but about the whole family and about how families work. I would not pick up—it’s this huge textbook—his book for pleasure, but I am very interested to find out what he says. And he did his early research with parents with a schizophrenic child, and from what I can tell so far, that is his general model of the family—there’s a schizophrenic center to every family. Don’t quote me, I don’t know enough yet, but I find that very compelling.
JENIFER: I actually read some of his stuff when trying to figure out how academic institutions work, administratively. Because people always referred to him, as in, “Oh, well, if you had studied family systems theory, you’d know why we’re so dysfunctional.”
ALISON: Yeah, what makes a family dysfunctional, and what makes a family functional? I’ve been so cynical about family. As a young feminist it was always “Yeah, fuck the family, fuck the state.” But now I see that families can be a really, good thing, and I want to find out what makes them work when they do.
JESS: Is that something you’re thinking about now as a future project?
ALISON: Yeah. I have to talk to my family about it, though.
An update to this post:
Jonah Lehrer resigned last week from his job at The New Yorker after admitting that he had fabricated quotes by Bob Dylan in “Imagine.” The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has stopped printing the book. This is sad news for Lehrer fans and for those of us who referred to this heralded book frequently in our work. The Project Room’s mission is to present inclusive programming that demonstrates the relevance of creativity in everyday life, and “Imagine” had been an inspiring resource during TPR’s first year as it defined and presented its early programming within this mission. It seems worth pointing out that a book touting the wonders of human creativity from a scientific perspective lost its credibility due to an imbalance between the creative (imaginative) and the scientific (fact-based) elements. We will post any updates about this issue as they develop.- JVN, 8/8/12
Science Writer and author of the new book Imagine, Jonah Lehrer visited The Project Room on April 9, 2012 for a conversation with TPR Founder Jess Van Nostrand and Seattle Magazine’s Arts & Culture Editor Brangien Davis. This is an edited transcription of that meeting. The discussion begins around the 1979 book The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, which Brangien has brought with her.
BRANGIEN: I suspect my mother— through this and other clues—was always trying to get me to loosen up and get more into creativity. So even though this is totally about brain science and what they had been figuring out in the ‘60s (a little advanced for a ten year-old to be reading)… I started digging into it again as a grownup, and I can actually get it.
JONAH: Drawing is one of those activities—studies have shown—that seems to loosen people up. It teaches you what improv is all about: getting outside your own head and turning off that sensor, that voice that’s always telling you not to do something.
There are these wonderful studies people have done that work with people who have suffered damage to one of their hemispheres. So if you asked a patient to draw—who has damage to the right hemisphere—to draw a house, they will draw all the doors and windows perfectly, but without a frame. If you ask a person to draw a house who has damage to the left hemisphere, they will get the whole right but all the windows will be in the wrong places—the details will be ass-backwards. There is of course the association we get from the hippies: the right hemisphere is the artist inside the head, the left hemisphere the accountant. And that’s definitely an oversimplification. But in general, the two hemispheres do process information differently.
The Freedom of Constraint
JESS: One thing I hear from artists a lot in my work is that they prefer some parameters when they’re making something new; that they don’t like complete freedom. And this comes up again and again, especially because we work thematically here (at The Project Room), which gives us something to go off of. Do you find that that’s the case in all fields, or is this specific to art making?
JONAH: No, you see it again and again in all fields. If you’re designing a gadget, you’ve got the constraints of technology. But [it’s] even in domains of art where you assume it’s better to be completely free, like with poets. Why wouldn’t poets just want to make free verse? It seems so much easier. Why would they want to stump themselves with sonnets and sestinas and haikus and all these forms?
I think it gets back to the value of constraints. You have to force yourself to think in terms of remote associations that make it easier for us to get to that place where we are actually coming up with something original and not just going with our first free association. A study that just came out looked at the value of giving people these kinds of constraints—like a flickering computer screen—and people were better at solving a problem when they were given a constraint to deal with.
JESS: Even though the problem was unrelated?
JONAH: Yes, just something that put them in the mindset of thinking outside of the box. A constraint gets you away from going with your initial idea and forces you to keep on searching.
JESS: There was a section [in your book] where you talk about how creativity comes from a problem, or a challenge of some kind. I find that when I survey different makers about this, I get different kinds of responses. Artists don’t necessarily see themselves as problem solvers—they see themselves as responders. Whereas an entrepreneur, for example, sees him or herself as trying to make something better, and therefore being a problem solver. Have you found that same kind of distinction?
A Problem By Any Other Name
JONAH: It’s definitely a language distinction we have. I’m not sure how meaningful the distinction is. When I’m talking to artists they are solving problems too—they sometimes have technical problems to solve, so sometimes it’s about stepping back because something doesn’t feel right, and asking why it isn’t working; so they are problem-solving and that’s not the language they rely on to describe that process.
Where brain science is helpful is in being a category-buster, so it takes the categories that we naturally cleave ourselves into (so there are artists who have artistic creativity and scientists who have scientific creativity, and all the rest) and from the perspective of the brain, they all seem like pretty much the same thing. We’ve got these muscles we rely on to help us invent new stuff. Problem–solving doesn’t jive with our romantic sense of the artistic process. It seems too mundane and too technical…
JESS: …or too definitive.
JONAH: Yes, because it makes it seem like there is a solution. Some of my favorite writing about the creative process, that I made myself read before writing this book, is Virginia Woolf’s letters and diaries. She often uses the phrase “problem-solving” when she writes that the novel isn’t working and she’s trying to make it work. It can come across as technical, too “insider-baseball” (she is a writer obsessed with writing), but I find that’s true in a lot of journals and diaries; it’s people talking about the nitty gritty, and you see what the everyday life of an artist is, which is a lot about problem-solving.
If you’re working towards an answer, you often have a sense of getting closer, which is totally befuddling to me: how do you know that? But we are able to do that, and my sense is that artists often rely on this feeing of knowing. It’s part of their process as in, “these edits are making it better,” or “I’m getting closer to what I want.”
BRANGIEN: I definitely have experienced that in teaching writing. You can teach writing as much as possible, but for some people you just have to tell them that the edits you made make it “sound better.” Even if what they had was grammatically correct.
JONAH: If we could articulate it, it wouldn’t have taken so long to make it in the first place. We’d all be better at this thing called creativity.
Expertise or Intuition?
JESS: I find that the more I trust my instincts, the sharper they get. And maybe some of this is confidence…
JONAH: …And that’s the payoff of expertise. We think of experts as having explicit facts they can rely upon, but when we have looked at experts in the wild we have found that they are mainly intuitive. There has been a big shift in scientific thinking about intuition. For a while we thought they were just these primal passions that lead us to take out sub prime mortgages and eat too much chocolate cake and do stupid shit. But it turns out they are actually where our experience gets vetted…and the reason experts log all those hours of experience is not so they can have more facts to quote; it’s so that you can have these instincts that have been honed by your past failures, your mistakes and all those years of training, so that you can think without having to explain why it’s so.
Struggle and Grit
JESS: Let’s talk about the idea of “struggle” and how important it is to making art. And how it should be hard, and it should be painful. In yesterday’s [April 8, 2012] New York Times Magazine, Jack White is interviewed as saying, “It’s sort of like I can’t be proud of it unless I know we overcame some kind of struggle,” in reference to using only analog methods for recording. He also calls using computer programs to record and edit music, “Cheating.” It’s like he is saying that technology has robbed people of the ability to struggle. Can we say that? There are certainly lots of people who use technology during their struggle because it’s part of their craft.
JONAH: Technology comes with its own constraints and struggles. Even if you’re using nifty tools, it’s still going to involve a struggle and plenty of frustration.
I’m writing an article now for The New Yorker about this new character trait being called “grit.” Levels of grit are the biggest predictors of success…the way people work up their grit is by failing.
My younger sister is a modern dancer. And I remember saying to her early on, “Just so you know, this is like the hardest possible career you could have chosen. You’ll make no money, you’ll have to work SO hard.” And she never thought about the opportunity cost—she was aware that she was spending her twenties doing this—she was like “Just because of what I need to do, because I have this single-minded goal.” I was always fascinated by that. That’s just the way she thinks.
Ignorance is Bliss
JESS: The idea that ignorance is really important when you’re about to take a big risk comes up a lot. We had a roundtable discussion here with a group of entrepreneurs from different fields, talking about what would be the most important qualities that you would need before you start something new and take a big risk, and everybody agreed on ignorance and persistence as the two biggest things.
JONAH: That’s grit, especially the persistence part. The ignorance part is especially important in risk taking, in part because you’re not thinking about what else you could be doing, about the possibility of failure. But it’s also because if we were rational creatures, who would ever start a business? Who would ever start a restaurant? Because 80% of them fail within five years. We would just have McDonalds. But thank God people are risk seeking.
JESS: So, what was the challenge, or the problem, that made you set out to write this book?
Here is a Pleasure That Won’t Get Old
JONAH: I’m just drawn to mysteries, to things I can’t begin to understand. So for me it began with moments of insight. We all have them all the time and they are so befuddling. And I knew I wanted to write a book on creativity because it seemed like a vague enough subject where I could tell lots of good stories, which is the other kind of subject I’m drawn to. But I kept bumping into creative people and asking them questions, and they couldn’t explain their epiphanies any better than anyone else. It’s just as mysterious to them. And that’s why I thought the science could be interesting. But the book I want to write about next, which comes from this same vague questioning, is about love. It’s about love of ideas, love of a pursuit, love of a talent, love of God, love of friends. I think what we mean when we say we love something, is “here is a pleasure that won’t get old.” I was talking with this animator at Pixar who spent twenty years just figuring out how to draw a character’s hair.
JESS: That‘s passion for you.
JONAH: It turned out to be an incredibly difficult problem, and it gave his work tremendous meaning over these twenty years. So when you find people who are really good at what they do, it’s because they’re in love with the idea—they’re in love with the questions. It’s why they keep on putting in the work when other people look at them and think they’re crazy.
JESS: I think it’s important to de-glamorize the part when you’re just working on your thing. So after you have your big idea, that’s plan A. But usually what you end up with is Plan C or D because there are all these changes that typically occur along the way. But there is still this romantic idea of this artist who in their studio in this beautiful place making things happen…
JONAH: …smoking weed all day long…
The UP Side of Depression
JESS: Our friend Dan Webb—a sculptor here in Seattle who carves wood—calls his process a “constant butt-clenching experience,” because he can’t necessarily go back and edit. He’s basically thinking, while he carves, “I hope I don’t F-up this piece of wood.”
JONAH: And it’s even worse than most people think. Because not only is it not romantic, but all the evidence suggest that it will make you sad. Extended bouts of focus make people depressed, and that’s actually a good thing, because when you’re mildly depressed, you’re more attentive to those details you’re honing in on.
But the editing phase is horrible; it is a “butt-clenching experience.” It’s amazing what creative people put up with. One of the lessons I took away from my book was, “Wow, they just really must want to do this ‘cause it sucks.”
BRANGIEN: I think it speaks to how powerful that epiphany moment really is. When you have the “eureka” then it feels so important and unusual that you are motivated, as in, “I gotta get back to that feeling.”
JONAH: You’re like an addicted rat. I was talking to my wife about this because I was complaining about book tours and how I hate getting reviews, and I hate Googling myself, and she says. “So wait—you’re miserable now and the book is done, and you’re miserable during the writing—why do you do this? Which part do you enjoy?” I think it is the euphoria of when it just clicks. What no one tells you is that it’s like thirty seconds of the process, but it’s such a high.
JESS: And you decide that it’s worth it.
JONAH: It’s not a conscious calculation and it makes no sense. If you added up all the pain and weigh it against the pleasure…but if it were rational, it would be easier to explain to other people.
Why Do We Make Things?
JESS: So I have to throw out the question that I ask everybody since this is The Project Room: Could you answer the question: Why Do We Make Things?
JONAH: I think we make things because we need to. It’s such a profound question…this, to me, gets at the core mystery of creativity that science has only begun to touch, which is what the human brain can do is that we look around the world, and sometimes we see something that makes us so inspired that we want to replicate it in a painting, or we want to write a poem about it. Sometimes we see a problem, like a flaw, and both those observations hurl us into this state of creativity where we want to fix it, where we want to respond, to make something, to apply. It’s a deep part of human nature. You can’t study it in a brain scanner. The closest we get is by talking about curiosity.
Curiosity is something I’m fascinated by, and there is no scientific research on it. How do you study it? The process starts with us saying, “I want to learn more about that. I’m curious about that.” I think we make stuff because we can’t help but be any other way. I don’t think science has even begun to understand this. But I think it remains the deepest, most wonderful, most mysterious part of ourselves.
Jess and Jonah in front of The Klavihorn
When Off Paper invited me to write a piece on why I make things, I forwarded that same question to people in my field.
Marked by my use of “DH,” my field is digital humanities; and in a moment I’ll point to some example work. For now, I should mention that digital humanities (or, for some, humanities computing) is defined variously. Consider the litany available at Day of Digital Humanities, which not only documents the everyday lives of digital humanities practitioners but also asks them to define the term.
Here, however, I’m not interested in articulating some conclusive, all-encompassing definition of DH. Doing so would only smooth over the differences that enrich the field and give it texture.
On Defining Digital Humanities
Of course, not giving digital humanities any definition would also let me too easily off the hook—allowing me to remove myself from its debates and distance myself from its politics. After all, in the last instance digital humanities still means something to me, and I still reference projects, practices, and methods, saying: “That’s digital humanities.” So for the unfamiliar I recommend the following starting points: HASTAC.org, A Companion to Digital Humanities, Debates in the Digital Humanities, and Digital Humanities Now. And in the interests of transparency, I’ll also cough up the definition I typically provide when teaching DH courses at the University of Victoria (UVic): “Digital humanities is the combination of technical competencies in computing with critical thinking in areas such as history, literary criticism, cultural studies, textual studies, media studies, geography, musicology, and information studies.”
I call what I’m doing “digital humanities” when I shift from treating technologies as objects of inquiry (e.g., a cultural history of magnetic recording) to actually expressing my work through them (e.g., using a platform like Scalar). In this regard, my work is significantly influenced by scholars such as Cheryl Ball, Tara McPherson, and Virginia Kuhn, each of whom is actively involved in “multimodal scholarly communication” (or blending multiple media, epistemologies, and forms of perception in order to enact a persuasive argument). I would also say each of them makes things, and—depending on the day and situation—I say the same of myself, too.
But back to that question . . .
And a few responses:
Process, Collaboration, Experimentation
Either implicitly or explicitly, these responses exhibit some pressure points across the field. There is an emphasis on process over product (e.g., “middle-state” publications at MediaCommons), collaboration over independence (e.g., CWRC), and experimentation over read-and-repeat strategies for knowledge production (e.g., Vectors and Humanities Visualization).
Many practitioners also tend to combine critical theory with practice (e.g., Queer Geek Theory), and—in higher education, at least—you’ll find them working in arts and humanities departments (e.g., English, history, art history, film studies, linguistics, music, and experimental media), information studies, computer science, and libraries, not to mention humanities labs and centers (e.g., the HCMC and ETCL at UVic).
As such, examples of making in digital humanities manifest in a number of ways, from maps (e.g., The Map of Early Modern London), digital archives (e.g., The Walt Whitman Archive), online exhibits (e.g., The Deena Larsen Collection), data visualizations (e.g., the Software Studies Initiative), and tangible devices (e.g., William J. Turkel’s “The New Manufactory”) to tools and platforms for text analysis (e.g., Voyant), bibliographies (e.g., Zotero), graphical expression (e.g., D3), and rich collections (e.g., Omeka). Projects as well as publications (e.g., A Companion to Digital Literary Studies and Hacking the Academy) are usually open-access and open-source, and discussions about building abound (e.g., Stephen Ramsay’s “On Building”).
Yet this array of examples does not directly address why people in digital humanities make things, and the reasons why cannot be collapsed into people’s practices or their stuff, even if both correspond with their belief systems. (And let’s be honest: claims to making are about as ideological as you can get.)
So, returning for a moment to the responses I received, in digital humanities I’ve found that people make things because they indeed find it fun and empowering. Echoing Matthew Fuller, to make is to become intricately familiar with “how this becomes that.” It involves shifts from conceptualization to execution and back again, to such a degree that time-stamping those shifts is tricky at best. Which is to say, the abstract and the concrete recursively relate in digital humanities work. For instance, an online map of early modern London is at once information and a digital object, some symbols on a screen and some physical artifacts inscribed somewhere on a server. Being involved in stages of its production (e.g., XML encoding) allows people to become more aware of its layered materiality, including its hardware, software, and (perhaps most importantly) the processes and labor required to compile source files into a well-designed argument.
Put this way, to make is to unpack what exactly you mean and to perform meaning for others. And for that reason, making through multiple modalities—mediated or not by a screen—pushes me to blend techniques and media and to avoid reducing creativity to a single paradigm (e.g., map-making, platform-building, or prototype-producing). I personally think this blend of techniques and media is central to DH across all the ingredients that may be involved: data models, markup, code, databases, text, video, images, audio, interfaces, microcontrollers, and bots. Almost by necessity, it troubles any neat distinctions between, say, human and computer vision, the authentic and artificial, the source and its expression. The production of meaning becomes a negotiation with objects, what they restrict and accommodate.
To Make Is to Create a Partial Memory
Although the stuff of computation may not determine our situation, it certainly exceeds knowability. That is, to make is to create a partial memory (the smells of sawdust and wood polish included). It is to remember, or re-compile, or re-construct; and—as Wendy Chun reminds us—remembering is anything but simple. It is complex and embodied, simultaneously intellectual and affective.
Again, the slip occurs when practices or stuff alone represent why we create things. Some synthesis between them must happen, and ideally that synthesis involves an awareness of our own subject positions, our privileges and contradictions, and the affirmative possibilities for transfiguring our social relations. For this reason, digital humanities practitioners are seriously engaging social justice issues (e.g., THATCamp Social Justice, #transformDH, and the work of Miriam Posner and Natalia Cecire) and the modes through which “coding,” “programming,” and “building” intersect with gender, race, sexuality, class, and neoliberalism. One ongoing concern is that the field’s emphasis on making could mirror conditions in other technology-oriented domains, where white cis male perspectives are the default. For instance, consider recent debates related to Wikipedia and Stack Overflow. The first step toward addressing such exclusionary formations is to acknowledge they exist and for whom. Another step is to articulate and perform alternative formations, much in the way HASTAC has done. I believe Fiona Barnett expresses it best: “Difference is not our deficit; it’s our operating system.” To ignore difference—or to act like we’re beyond it, or that it must resolved—is to treat it negatively. It also masks privilege and inequity. And in the particular case of digital technologies and making, it unfortunately convinces people that their tools are innocent and their cultures are value-neutral. There are things, and then there are instruments.
Happy Accidents, or: Against Mastery
Consequently, making need not imply some false sense of instrumental mastery over our materials and material conditions, and it isn’t always synonymous with control or transcendence. Throughout digital humanities, honest discussions of glitches, failures, surprises, and happy accidents run rife, and making rarely connotes “productivity” in any positivist sense. To make is to morph, not only stuff but also subjectivities. I, for one, often feel incredibly lost when making, and the effects are frequently not what I anticipated or intended.
Plus, there is no reason to believe that producing our own stuff automagically removes us from the markets to which we routinely contribute (knowingly or not). Here, I don’t mean to sound paranoid. Instead, I’m suggesting that making isn’t always about the do-it-yourself individual, or forms of self-ownership, choice, and voluntary action that ostensibly free us—Matrix-like—from the so-called “prison” of the mind, body, or economy. We can make with an awareness that our networks shape us, that human agency is not the end-all, be-all of the world.
To make is to think small and big at once, to enjoy learning about the particularities of material processes without convincing yourself you’re somehow outside them. In DH, this combination adds up, especially when cultural frameworks for science and technology inform the development of new things. However, it’s a combination that’s relatively novel to a lone scholar legacy of reading and writing in the humanities. That said, it’s tempting to situate digital humanities antagonistically against “print humanities,” “analog humanities,” or “traditional humanities” (whatever any of those mean). But such a gesture is misleading, reactionary, and naive at best. For one, it too easily distinguishes writing (the “old”) from making (the “new”).
The Transformation of Writing
I’m simply unwilling to accept that distinction. Even if it does seem odd to remark, “This week, I made an essay” or “I made fifteen footnotes this morning,” the real challenge is transforming writing in our current moment, articulating it not dichotomously with making but rather integral to it. Comparable to other kinds of making (e.g., sculpture, cooking, and knitting), writing—as Mia suggests—
gives people an opportunity to “do the thinking properly.” However, perhaps unlike other modes, it has been increasingly associated with distance from its object, especially in the case of academic and critical writing. “Please refrain from using the first person.” “Avoid arguments from experience.” “Remove yourself from your procedure.”
To be sure, critical distance is necessary in order to consider multiple perspectives, replicate methods, and produce abstractions (e.g., prototypes, diagrams, and maps). Yet we need immersion, too. Call it play. Or tinkering. Or hands-on learning, if you wish. It’s all serious. It’s also no more immediate, or authentic, or legitimate than its abstract counterparts. Rather, it’s one modality among many.
In the humanities and elsewhere, today we need distance + immersion not because making brings us closer to that enigmatic meaning, spectral source, or dodgy truth, always reinvented when it appears most at risk. Instead, we need distance + immersion now because our material cultures are increasingly cultures of conjecture and oscillation, constantly shifting from this to that, from the bird’s eye to the street view, from a concept to the grain. In such a moment, arguments assume curious forms, things become theories, and history is repeatedly re-animated.
Making, then, keeps us from kidding ourselves into believing we’re above it all.
I would like to thank English 507—namely Alyssa Arbuckle, Alison Hedley, Shaun Macpherson, Luke Maynard, Alyssa McLeod, Jana Millar Usiskin, Caleigh Minshall, Daniel Powell, Emily Smith, Michael Stevens, and Tara Thomson—at the University of Victoria for helping me think through the various issues mentioned here. Thanks, too, to Jenifer K. Ward for her feedback.
Jentery Sayers is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria. More about him can be found here.
4 Responses to “Making Things in the Digital Humanities”
March 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm
Working from a model of experiential education, I often wonder how writing can be further centralized…not merely as reflection, but as action in itself. There’s often a palpable tension between writing as something which serves other disciplines and writing as an essential act. Thanks for your point about the tension between immersion and distance; I think that helps articulate some of these issues.
Zsolt Almási says:
March 21, 2012 at 9:57 am
Thanks for this illuminating paper. I just like the ideas, also the demonstration of the power of Twitter to crowdsource problems and solutions.
April 18, 2012 at 8:10 pm
Great post. For me, making “stuff”—which has until recently been making film and video and essays and books and classes, and now includes my “video-book” at MIT a glorified web-site made with the Vector’s authoring tool that anticipated and allowed for many of the requirements of Scalar—has been a simple matter of hoping to talk to the many people I am interested in interacting with, in languages and forms through which we can engage most comfortably about the issues and concerns that matter to us and the things we hope to change. I think of this “making” as translating across forms, which are the “stuff” people use to engage.
How Maker Faire is Like The Project Room
Jess: I’m excited to talk with you because I think we have some things in common. To start, I’m guessing that Maker Faire is like The Project Room in the way it supports taking your ideas out of your head and your own little workspace and getting them out there; in fact, I don’t claim to know the answers to The Big Question I’m asking, or even know what’s going to happen here exactly.
Dale: Yes—I think what excites me most about Maker Faire is this kind of fleshing things out into the community that you wouldn’t otherwise know about. And each of those people becomes a resource to other people—not just the attendees but also the artist themselves, the “makers.” Someone may find that someone does something that they’re interested in, and it could be a guy they know who might live nearby who they didn’t even know does something like that. It doesn’t really have a home in the community, it doesn’t really fit into the art world, it doesn’t belong in science centers; it can, but you have to think about it that way. So [Maker Faire] is a good home for a lot of that. The makers are sort of renegade, on the outer fringe.
Sarah: There’s often a tension between the terms “artist” generically and “fine artist,” and I think that these people bring their own artistry to what they’re doing. There is this co-opting of the word “artist” to mean something else.
Mandy: I think about the difference in making for the pure pleasure of making art, whereas “art” becomes so connected to commerce.
How Dale’s Job is Like and Not Like Jess’ Job, or Is Dale a Curator?
Dale: You [Jess] said you wanted to pose a question and you’re not really sure of the answer. The art world tends to work from having the answers, you know?
Jess: OK, just to play the other side of the curator thing: curators, historically speaking, have an idea that we’re standing up for. Traditionally, that’s the thesis statement, and that’s the “answer.” So, you have something you really want to say, and you’re saying it through art. You’re using art as your evidence to prove your thesis. I really respect that format, so I don’t want to give up on that entirely because I still have something that I’m saying through this. So The Project Room not a complete open/unguided platform.
Dale: Couldn’t you say that the evidence speaks for itself?
Jess: That doesn’t totally work, because—to use art as an example—art can be looked at from so many different ways, so when you present it, you get so many different readings, it would be like having too much different evidence. So you say, “I’m looking at it from this perspective in order to ask you to think about something.”
Dale: But there are those who say you should trust the experience rather than the words around the experience. So, if you go to a Maker Faire, there is a kind of philosophy around making, but you tend not to put it out there. We trust that by making, you being to realize these things, connect with some of these ideas and shared values within a community of people, but not because we’re proselytizing ideas—because we’re encouraging them to participate. And when you go to Maker Faire, by talking and seeing people do lots of stuff, you create that narrative about what’s happening there.
Jess: But it still gets put together [by someone] with an idea.
Dale: It does. I wouldn’t disagree with what you are saying because making is an idea and that sort of draws in certain people, so I think you could put it in your category. I think the difference is that, when I find myself talking to art people, they are much more controlling and hung up on what fits their definition—maybe it’s the execution level. Science museums are a better example. For example, how do they know that freaky thing over in the corner isn’t science?
But I think that one of the things I’m learning is that I’m not there to make people do anything; they’re already doing it. I’m just there to showcase it and provide a venue for it. I certainly have a certain vision to all of this but I try not to box people into it.
Dale: Sometimes people come to me and say “we’re putting out a challenge to get makers to make X and Y,” and I sort of bristle with that. Or, “we can have a theme of this and get makers to do it.” Some editors give out blue ribbons and I shake my head at it. Some people say “what does it mean that I got a blue ribbon?” and I’ll say, “it means that you got a blue ribbon.”[laughter]
There is a lot of cool stuff going on out there. If you just open the process and to go out and look for it, it becomes not so much about looking for art as it is about being inclusive. It’s just like community development, yet there are many things that are challenge-based. The real beauty we have is in collaboration. We don’t want barriers to collaboration.
Maker Faire: an Updated County Fair With Robots
One group I love is Theatre Bizarre in Detroit. It’s absolutely wonderful. It’s grown up on the edge of Detroit across from the State Fair grounds, which are now closed, and they took over some abandoned homes and began putting on what started as a Halloween theme park. It started involving a lot more people, and its evolved into this fascinating world of performers. It’s in that same spirit, getting a group of people together to start building up this world.
Sarah: It’s about fantasy meeting reality.
Dale: Yeah, exactly. And again, you could just look at it as entertaining, and if you know these people, you would think of what they’re doing as counter cultural, but they are really just good people that are trying to create stuff. And you’re mixing that with tech culture, so people who are sometimes thought of as fringe, personality-wise, are doing something very much mainstream [in their day job] in terms of “hey, we could go to a technical conference and be big celebrities there.” This provides a different kind of community for them. If we made Maker Faire a technical conference, it would look a lot different. I kind of saw an opportunity for something more family oriented, more like a fair. We can do lots with them in that environment.
Jess: Is that sort of thing the seed that started everything?
Dale: Well, the initial seed was that these were interesting people, they enjoy each other, they enjoy talking to each other. And there’s art fairs, county fairs, world’s fair, Renaissance Faires—if you think of the word “fair” you can come up with just about anything. The agriculture/county fair is pretty dead—it’s a formula that’s just been repeated so much without any updates. We were trying to update what the county fair would be to reflect the kinds of things people were actually doing. We are not raising pigs for the most part, we are making toys and robots and things like that.
Mandy: People used to come from their farms to the county fair to see innovation.
Dale: Exactly. Similarly, we were thinking about showing things that don’t get seen very often. The idea with the farm was that it was a chance to bring your product to exhibit. I think it’s about seeing something people haven’t seen before, and the old traditional county fair now is just going through the motions.
Jess: You mentioned earlier that Maker Faire is more than exhibiting; it’s about improving your ideas because there’s all this interaction with other people. That’s important to what we’re doing here and why we’re operating transparently; there’s this idea that maybe improvement can happen if you open it up. So I feel very exposed as the founder because I’m making my process transparent at the start of a new arts space, and the idea of showing something unfinished is very uncomfortable to a lot of people, including me. As a curator, I’m expected to show a polished exhibition. So I’m curious as to how that plays into what you’re doing.
Dale: One of the things that we are trying to do more on the Make side is to show that process matters. I think even from an education point of view, it’s about teaching the process rather than the end product.
Think about something you make as a kid—or even as an adult—you make something and then get to play with it, and it sets you back to making. That’s a really good balance. So if it’s 90 percent build and 10 percent play that’s not a good thing, but if they are kind of even, or even a little bit more play, that’s a good thing. An example is when we have a group of kids making bristle boxes, which is a toothbrush with a silicone battery vibrator. They make one, they put it in a maze to see how it works, they try the others to see how they work, and then they make some changes…so they are kind of running back and forth. That iteration within an exhibition is fun to see.
Sarah: Because making can be play…
Jess: …And you see the thing better because you know all the parts of it. Sometimes when visiting a museum exhibition with a friend, I find myself reminding them that what they’re seeing was probably Plan B or C, and that you’re rarely seeing the artist’s first version.
Dale: That reminds me that the other thing that’s important to me is that we aren’t just bringing in the object; we are bringing in the people. We share a story about the object, but without formalizing that story too much. The questions to that story are, “how did you get the idea? Where did you get the materials?” Anybody can ask those questions from a non-expert level and engage with that person. Then that person lights up because they know all those answers and they care about them, and as a storytelling exercise, it’s really very effective. And the stories that you tell about what you make become very important.
It’s not [only] about executing something technically, but also being able to talk about it. I think where we struggle as humans is with blank slate ideas. If we ask, “do you know what you want to make?” you probably don’t. But if you walk though Maker Faire, you’re kind of lit up with ideas because you’re standing there looking at something and almost taking it apart in your mind.
I saw this little kid at Maker Faire once, and I went over and asked him what his favorite one was. He was like “the dunk tank thing with a basketball hoop.” He had gone behind it to see how it works, and I like that.
Jess: What is your background and how do you define your role in all this?
Dale: I was an English major. As a kid, I loved to learn but I didn’t really like school. Today we are a standards-based society with standards-based education. It’s so wrong. It’s this awful way of thinking, trying to elevate certain people to elite status and relegating everyone else to mediocrity. Yet, everybody can do stuff. They can all discover and think for themselves and do whatever it is, technology, art, whatever. It’s about being able to feel engaged.
So much of what kids need is connections to real community, real people, to be with stuff. School seems so artificial—it’s like an island you hope to get off of, like “how do I get out of here so I can get back to where everyone else is?”
All of this stuff existed before I started publishing, but I gave it a focus and the word “maker” emerged as something that we wanted to use because it could be a neutral term. You could be a crafter, a welder, but you would also be a maker, and I was really interested in how we could connect people across that.
Sarah: A conversation across disciplines.
Dale: And again that doesn’t happen in school. They force them to be the opposite.
Your Job vs. Your Making
Sarah: There are so many people who do their job and then do the fun stuff separately. And if you can find a way to meld those, then everyone’s happier.
Dale: There are people who purposefully don’t meld them. But many do—they want the thing they love to take over more of their life.
Jess: I’m experiencing that right now. I made the choice to do that, but it’s certainly not for everybody because it doesn’t ever turn off [points to brain] and my kids spend a ton of time here—it’s going to be part of their childhood. So Mike [Jess’ husband] and I had this understanding that we’re about to raise our kids with this thing because it’s so immersive. And we were like, “that’s ok, that’s good.”
Mandy: I think about my parents and how I didn’t know anything, growing up, about what they did.
Jess: Perhaps it’s feminist thing, but I like that my daughter understands how her mom is working and a mom. So rather than me telling her, “you can be anything you want,” she’s actually spending time here seeing that.
Dale: I’m interested in the idea of the journeyman. The apprenticeship was a model about a master dominating you and then exploiting your work. But a journeyman went to a lot of different places and worked with of a lot of different people who had different styles, the idea being that a particular region had its own style of doing things. So being exposed to other things was a way to develop what you prefer.
In the old model of working, you would stay with one company helping with small parts of the larger product, and it might be 20 or 30 years before you felt like you had made a significant contribution to the company. But with Silicon Valley and new companies, there’s the possibility of making a significant contribution right away. It’s almost like it’s the lack of baggage that succeeds there.
On the Unraveling of Institutions and the Building of Communities
Dale: I think we’re in this era of unraveling institutions. I don’t have much patience for them or faith in them.
One of the problems with institutions is that they’re not on the ground. And there are people who are on the ground doing really incredible, interesting things. Take urban agriculture: it was seen as, “well, that doesn’t make sense, they’ll never supply enough food to make an economic impact.” Well, there was this guy in Detroit who said, “I woke up one day—I’d lost my job—and I looked out at this empty lot across from me, and I thought, ‘you know, I’m gonna go clean that up.’ And once I cleaned it up, I realized that if I put a garden there, people wouldn’t throw trash.” And it was the first step towards starting a community garden.
It became a community building exercise, and then they got a community center, a bike shop where kids could get bikes and helmets, and there were no institutions behind it. That’s the kind of stuff you want to see. But if you start with the ideas at the top and then try to make a community happen, it just won’t work. And with the crochet parties here, it’s the same thing, where people come with their own thing to do or make or share.
Jess: And it’s the idea sharing that’s never a bad thing. And that’s what I get excited, about because it allows for people to make their ideas stronger.
Dale: And what happens to that lonely kid in high school who has ideas that no one else is interested in? Well, that kid is not alone, because he’s connected to so many groups beyond his own school now. And, believe it or not, tech people actually like to share tools and ideas.
Mandy: I’ve been doing crochet parties for a while now as part of my installations. It started out of necessity, because I needed help, and then I started doing them in public, where I talked twenty or thirty different times about what I’m doing [as people arrived]. And people always have had strong connections to make each time I would explain it, like “oh! That reminds me of a story, or things I’ve read, etc.”
Dale: Actually it makes me think, when you say that, that we are thinking about ways that more people can participate in the process. I work with a lot of teachers, and I think that basically the best way to teach teachers about making is to just consider them makers. Not using a lot of words about it but just letting them teach. So, we set up a table and have them sit down with everyone and talk to each other, sometimes about the work and sometimes about something else. It’s a very non-threatening conversation that almost anyone can enter. There’s a large project with kids in Berkeley right now where they’re trying to get kids to cook, and it’s the same kind of thing, seeing kids talk while they are baking and cooking. It’s comfortable, and the school context doesn’t provide that.
Mandy: There is something too about making that provides a place for something quiet to happen.
Dale: And I think being able to create that space for yourself is important, whether it’s alone or with a group. Particularly for kids, but even as adults as you get so distracted because there are so many things going on, it’s that feeling that you get when you are really immersed in something in that moment.
Hacking the Physical World
Jess: So, how do these experiences relate to Make Magazine?
Dale: Seeing people do things is like hacking the physical word rather then hacking software. I always wanted to do a magazine, and this is very visually oriented content, rather than something that is just totally text. In terms of a magazine, there are a lot of DIY magazines for cooking, gardening, woodworking. But you read these magazines because you do it, you practice it; you don’t generally buy a food magazine unless you cook. But, I thought: you know, there is a generation of people that are really enthusiasts of technology, but all the content in those publications is about what to buy, not about what to do with it. I wanted to shift it from what to buy to what to do. So a lot of stuff [in the magazine] tends to be project oriented. I looked at the Popular Mechanics magazines of the 40’s and 50’s, and I saw a voice there that was hacker oriented as in, “hey, you don’t think you can build a garage in a weekend? Well, I just went out and did it and here’s how!”
It was an invitation to see stuff. And I wanted to create that invitation and I wanted to create those details. I wanted not just, “look at something cool,” I wanted “here is how you do it.” It’s somewhere that you can share your work and people can follow it. Even just mentally, because when you start to do your own projects—even if it’s not exactly what’s in the magazine—it’s a piece of this, it’s a piece of that, so you learned the technique, you picked up an idea. I think what was kind of missing was the practice of making and how to build that up over time by doing things, failing, and trying it again. What I’d like to see is something a little more educational. This is how we learn, by trying to do things, not by reading out of a book.
Jess: Have you ever done anything with failed attempts?
Dale: We do, it’s always a theme that’s out there. Science often doesn’t talk about the failures, but I think that is an important side of it. You could research something your entire life, but if you don’t participate in it, you’ll never get there. Nothing’s perfect, nothing’s complete, but to engage is important.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed in Seattle for the last time on October 27 and 29. We asked members of the community to share their responses to this major artistic event- here is what you wrote:
I looked at it through the eyes of impermanence. I found myself thinking, “this is the last time I’ll have a chance to see this live.” For me it was like visiting a relative on their deathbed. The one one relative you didn’t get to know when they were well, but you now appreciate their stories. -Paul Rucker, musician and visual artist
After the inspiring and engaging conversation at the Project Room on Friday evening, I was curious to see the Saturday night performance. One of the topics that stuck with me from the evening focused on Authorship came to light touching about archiving. David [Vaughan, MCDC Archivist] mentioned that the only thing that really is not able to be archived is the “essence” of Merce Cunningham, however, David remarked that his essence is within the dancers. One of the things that was revealed to me at the performance was just this. The essence of Merce was alive in the movement and expression of the dancers.
The complexity of this performance was astounding, from the intensity of the choreography to the subtleties of the music, to the timeless costumes, and most of all the physical prowess of the dancers. I felt as though no detail was left unnoticed and each component of the performance fed the next. I was especially inspired by how each of the three dances performed fit so well together showing the breath of Merce’s choreography from 1968-2003. – Katie Miller, artist and The Project Room volunteer
I kept thinking as Duets unwound all over the stage: it’s like movement in its adolescence, movement discovering itself for the first time, awkward, guileless, and overwrought, the staccato gestures nearly always incomplete — jerked — truncated — executed with uninhibited childish triumph. Like rough-hewn toys wound and spinning out. These are the machines that god built, automatons executing a mystery.
I watched dervishes perform once, spinning nonstop for hours with one hand upturned, the other palm-down, pointed to earth; during the second part of Split Sides I was sure I saw this gesture iterated repeatedly.
Throughout the performance I’m aware of my attention being directed by illusory exaggeration and discreet, excessive detail in the décor and music (the apparent minimalism is misleading). Duets with its matte, sorbet-colored leotards (jonquil, coral, cobalt) that optically exaggerate, fatten, and accentuate every muscular striation of the torso, every heaving curvature of the rib and pointed nipple, is like watching a troupe of polychrome écorché figurines performing a rustic ritual coupling, while musicians hunched in the orchestra pit squeeze sound from ginger root and electronically vibrate popping metal cylinders and plastic drums and manipulate the percussive silk of horsehair and the leather soles of ballet slippers. Décor, costume, sound, movement informed by a roll of the dice: I am being toyed with. I am trying to connect dots and form meanings but am left just out of air and laughing.
RainForest: I could nearly see my reflection in a silver cloud tipping hesitantly off the stage into the orchestra pit. -Amanda Manitach, artist and writer
Sixteen months ago my life became focused on preparing for the Merce Cunningham Legacy Tour. As Coordinator of Cornish’s Merce Cunningham minEvent Project I spent over a year helping to organize workshops, exhibitions, screenings and giving talks drawing on my fifteen year old memories from studying with Merce. Then boom – the company was here. Then gone. There was the screening of Ocean at NW Film Forum, the packed masterclass at Velocity, the unveiling of a sculpture dedicated to Merce on the Cornish campus. . . and the performances. Watching Biped, I got a sinking feeling. I want future generations to see Biped live and in the flesh. It’s a masterpiece of a particular convergence between Merce’s ideas and the digital possibilities of choreography, lighting design and stage space. Yet, at the same time, I’m deeply relieved it’s going to disappear. Merce’s legacy plan insures his work can’t ossify. The view will change. That sums up so much of what Merce was about. His work survives in what he made possible. Would dance look the way it does without him? There are so many “new” ideas in Biped it’s mind-boggling.
A favorite memory: Robert Swinston’s evocation of Merce in Quartet. It was eerie and poignant. Robert’s been with the company since 1980. During the Q & A, I asked him to try to put into words what Merce and his work had meant in his life. Robert shared that he experienced Quartet as “a tragedy” and that Merce didn’t experience his own work as abstract. He quoted Merce saying that whenever you have two people dancing together, you have a relationship. I’ve always felt Merce’s performances vibrate with imagination. Robert put it well: “The unspecific specificity that is so unique to dance.”
The biggest surprise: that the performances were not sold-out and some of the local press, like The Stranger, didn’t deem the performances worth mentioning. It gave the week an aura of Merce coming home to say good-bye to his small town. Some of the neighbors will never be onboard, and rather than celebrate his incomparable achievement, they’d rather roll their eyes and wonder what all the fuss is about. -Tonya Lockyer, Executive Director, Velocity Dance Center
It was exactly what I expected and surprising at the same time (if those two things can both be possible.) The most breathtaking moment for me was when Robert Swinston got into position for the opening of Quartet in the part Merce choreographed for himself. He looked exactly like Merce did in all the images and video I had seen. It was like he had become Merce, but in an honest way that allowed for him to dance as himself (Robert) by dancing like Merce. What defines the difference between mimicry and tribute? It made me want to find out. -Jess Van Nostrand, The Project Room Founder
I was mesmerized by several works – especially BIPED. The experience felt whole to me with the integration of the music and visuals, sometimes jarring other times seamless. -Jim McDonald, Senior Program Officer, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation
As usual, Cunningham’s work makes me pay attention, both to what I see in front of me, and what I’m not looking at while I see other things. -Sandi Kurtz, Dance Critic, The Seattle Weekly
I was both transported to a soulful experience world and very much in my head. I kept thinking of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 essay about marionettes and the grace that comes from being governed only by one’s center of gravity (literally and figuratively). Kleist suggested that humans were too self-conscious to give themselves over to such grace–we had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge–and that only mechanical marionettes (with no consciousness) or gods (endless consciousness) could achieve it. And yet: here were these dancers (so close I could hear their exertion) making it so, illustrating the laws of movement and describing arcs of motion that Merce had envisioned with their incredible human body instruments, grimacing and smiling at each other, soaring and grounded and fully conscious. Embodiments of marionettes and gods, both, one. Dear Herr von Kleist, I wish you could have seen it. – Jenifer Ward, Associate Provost, Cornish College of the Arts, and Off PaperEditor
The Project Room has a simple mission. It explores a Big Question, such as “Why Do We Make Things?” in a multi-faceted way that will hopefully deepen one’s understanding or appreciation of that particular thing. And I say hallelujah to that. As well as good luck. Despite having so streamlined a goal, I worry that pulling off a seemingly simple thing is not always so simple in practice.
But regardless of the challenges The Project Room will face, it seems to me that what it’s up to really couldn’t be more important, or timely. Important because deeply contemplative exploration on a particular subject—any particular subject—is something that few of us do, and timely because we face complex problems of an unprecedented scale at the moment, and knowing a thing or two would seem to set us on a path towards getting out of them.
But the pragmatist in me can’t help but bring up the challenges first before celebrating the goal. And the main one I see is big, and it is this: focusing deeply on a particular subject is not a natural state for most of us, and probably never has been. Much has been said about the erosion of our ability to concentrate in the era of the Internet, and I see The Project Room at the very least as a hopeful retort to that conventional wisdom. Still, it stands to reason that how one goes about setting up a place designed to overcome such a natural aversion, however it has been arrived at, and however worse it might be getting, would need every advantage it could get. Plus, I have some serious questions about the state of the art world, which I’ll get to below.
Luckily, what I have seen so far at The Project Room has fulfilled its mission admirably. It has been interesting art that has linked quite directly with the Big Question, and from what I understand, there is more interesting art to come. But before The Project Room solidifies its identity with a curious public, I offer this simple plea: don’t be an art gallery. Seeing art in a space dedicated to its presentation equals a gallery in my books, and what I have seen so far at The Project Room is what I would consider to be art. Understand: if it walks like a gallery, and quacks like a gallery, then reasonable people might assume that it is, in fact, a gallery.
“But wait,” you say. Isn’t a gallery exactly what The Project Room should be modeling itself on? After all, aren’t galleries and museums designed to be those rare places of contemplation in a world virtually without them? Can’t they pry us free of our inertia, and get us to truly immerse ourselves in new ideas by presenting them in surprising and engaging ways?
Exploring the world subject by subject, agnostic about method or messenger, sounds fantastic, but it should be understood that museums and galleries don’t do that. Ironically, what they actually do sort of doubles down on the idea of asking a series of Big Questions by asking only one: how can we create complete autonomy for art and artists? Yeah, there are lots of ideas and issues raised along the way, but it must be understood that art constantly looks for the challenging, the new, the innovative, first and foremost. Try telling the next curator you meet that you are setting out to make non-challenging, non-innovative art that focuses on great ideas that will really involve people, and see how many shows you get. To suggest something like that absolutely goes against the grain of every artist and institution out there. So whether one likes it or not, walking into a gallery or museum involves a participant in a discussion about Art first, and often foremost, which would in my opinion make The Project Room’s Big Question a perpetual second stringer.
But wouldn’t bringing up anything at all skew the conversation? If a furniture maker came in and made a chair for example, or a survivalist showed people how to make a fire with a flint, wouldn’t the subject be the demonstrators themselves, to some extent? Yes. But if The Project Room decided to relocate to a furniture factory, or be permanently located in a yurt in the woods, it would skew its discussions by distorting everything through the lens of that context. Just as it would if people assumed it to be an art gallery. So don’t be an art gallery.
Ironically, what is interesting to me about The Project Room is that it’s doing exactly what museums and galleries should be doing right now, but choose not to. Artists have won their struggle for autonomy, so continuing to wage that battle seems redundant. There is no longer any debate about what constitutes an artwork. It’s anything an artist says it is. There is no longer any debate about who can make an artwork. Everyone can. There is no longer any debate about where an artwork can go. Say it with me: “anyplace.” A more interesting struggle by far would be to figure out what we get to do with all of our freedom. What do we want art to do? With whom do we want it to engage? Make no mistake, I understand why The Big Questions that art and artists have focused on for well over a hundred years have made nothing but sense in the modernist era. Attempting to answer them gave art the right to be critical of its environment by looking at it from a distance. To quote the academic Glenn Adamson, “This separation means that art is in a position to critique other institutions and cultural bases, whether they be commercial, political, social, economic, or religious.”1
So far, so good. But the price for this separation is steep, as well as paradoxical. If artists want to be free of the world they are critiquing, and they actually succeed in doing so, then isn’t their irrelevance towards those they critique the logical outcome? Separation is separation, after all. Ask people at the next party you are at to name five film directors. Then to name five musicians. Then to name five contemporary artists. I find that even asking undergraduate art students this question results in a struggle to complete the last five.
Of course, if artists wanted to be more memorable (I hear my non-artist friends say), wouldn’t a good first step be to make Art that understands that formal issues are moot, as is a historical narrative that only specialists understand? Does it have to be Art about Art?
And the short answer to that is yes. To the first part that is. No to the last. But there is a palpable resistance in doing so despite what seems a clear historical imperative. We have, by and large, participated in the system as it exists, and participated enthusiastically for reasons that are all too clear; inside the academy are the only people that really appreciate what artists actually do. This is because the academy has managed to become so large, and so autonomous, that it’s become its own audience, sometimes its only audience. Separation is separation after all. Mention you are an artist outside of that context, and suddenly it’s like you have the words “I waste my life” written in shit on your forehead. Those pesky questions about why art is so boring or impenetrable or fashion conscious get brushed aside with the serene assurance that a general audience doesn’t understand the art world. Well, exactly. Meanwhile, I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the phrase “Artists are the philosophers of our time!” uttered within the academy’s confines. No they aren’t. Philosophers are. Yeah, philosophers still exist, and reading them is an absolute joy compared to reading the gobbledygook that comprises most artist statements, or being lulled to sleep by most artist lectures.
The fact is that artists, in reflecting their time (one of their actual jobs), make it clear that we are in a world of hurt in terms of thinking in a disciplined manner. Good for them (us) for making that so clear. But while falling so far short of having something compelling to say could be considered informative in a kind of doublethink way, we need to ask more of art and artists to get a clearer picture of our world and our place in it. Please. Don’t. Be. An. Art. Gallery.
If you’ve read this far, you might have begun to suspect that I’m a little down on the whole gallery thing, and maybe even the whole art thing in general. Which is not exactly true. I’m down on art that isn’t good, and that unfortunately happens to be quite a bit of it. And I passionately want it to be good. But the truth of the matter is that this is an incredibly exciting time to be an artist, because a shift in thinking seems to be happening, and the things I’ve mentioned above have a pretty wide currency right now among a certain kind of artist. That’s good.
But all of this remains a peripheral issue to what The Project Room is doing right now, and I see nothing gained by including the vicissitudes of the art world in its mission, a mission that seems, as I said above, so beguilingly simple and streamlined: to explore a Big Question. In any way that shed lights on a possible answer. If the question was “Why Do We Make Art?” then by all means, go ahead and open a gallery. But it’s not. “Why do we make things?” is a far more open-ended question altogether, one with answers that could certainly intersect with art, but just as easily might not. Understanding the scope of our urge to Make, an urge that defines us in a primary way, seems diminished by only contemplating it through the lens of art. After all, it is a rare event to go into a room where everything calls itself Art. A far more common experience is to walk into a room where things call themselves Chair, or Floor, or Computer. The pivotal roles that chairs and floors and computers play in our lives, and the fact that we know next to nothing about how those things are made, seems every bit as valid a question as why we make art. Why we make art is a fascinating subject as well, and the answers to it form some of the most enduring acts of humankind that I know of. But that is not the question that The Project Room is raising.
Fortunately for all involved, there are lots of makers that can add to this discussion, and those many voices just might turn it into something amazing. If they do, call it art if you want to. Why not? Our era is equal opportunity when it comes to what constitutes an art experience, as well as where that art experience might happen. Linking an audience with something compelling is the only thing required, the need to call such a place a gallery, not so much.
1 Glenn Adamson. Thinking Through Craft (London: Berg, published in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2007).
2 Responses to “Don’t Be An Art Gallery”
Say it with me: Awesome.
Claudia Bach, who’s teaching “Fundamentals of the Non-Profit Arts Sector” at Seattle University, suggested I post this for relevant reading:
On August 7th, Mandy Greer invited a group of artists to The Project Room to take part in a round table discussion on the process of interviewing. All of these artists have at one point or another in their careers voluntarily integrated interviewing into their practices or projects. Preparing, conducting, and editing interviews requires more than a little effort after all, so the question of intention arises.
At the heart of the practice, I think, is a collective inquiry into aspects of identity, history, and geography particular to our region. At one point during the talk it was mentioned that Seattle is a city relatively without history: it is, psychologically and physically, one of the last frontier cities in America. It’s a place where gold-crazed hopefuls once settled in droves and where subsequently both material and intellectual counter-culture movements have flourished and attracted residents with wildly diverse backgrounds and a certain temperamental, restless energy. This restless wildness is difficult to communicate, let alone harness or record. As a result, the sense of history in Seattle is sometimes thin, almost weightless. Some find this harrowing, others liberating.
The compulsion to collect and archive interviews reflects a desire to discourse with this weightlessness. Throughout the conversation it becomes apparent that common to these artists is an interest in historical preservation beyond ordinary nostalgia; in fact, there emerges a sense of collective urgency to contribute to the creation of historical and regional narrative, to lend a hand to permanency in a place evocative of perpetual (and transgressive) transience. Seattle, as a city characterized by the lightness of eternal identity-making, of constantly-crystalizing and constantly-dissolving contemporaneity, invites the perpetual creation of new history, memory, and mythology, and the interview process becomes yet another tool in the exercise of identity-making.
This engagement with the subject of weightlessness (the impermanence of which finds its antithesis, its permanence, in the archive) is encountered again, reiterated, in the material practices of the artists-who-interview. It’s striking how many of these artists work in mediums that are materially fragile and anti-archival in nature. Mandy Greer’s sculptures incorporate well-worn textiles, often from pre-owned clothing, and she installs them in environments where nature indelibly corrupts, weathers, and consumes. Sharon Arnold and Joey Bates practice laborious incising of paper, and many of the others work on or with paper. The anti-archival nature of their material practice gives rise to an urgency to collect and create documentation of tedious labor that eventually disintegrates under the weight(lessness) of its material properties. The physical record of time and of labor expended, often inscribed in (but sometimes subtly obfuscated by) the complicated, corruptible surfaces of their work can, at least, find archival embodiment through extensive documentation of the making process and of the works themselves. The document assumes a degree of vitality and necessity, and in fact the artist’s identity can be tangled up in the residual document (or lack thereof).
With this in mind, the interview — as an extension of this greater compulsion to document — becomes a self-reflexive exploration. It’s not surprising to find that the interest in documentation extends beyond their own work and studios as a way to further explore the possible slippage of identity that occurs when material practice is so porous, liminal, and prone to dissolution. When conducted artist-to-artist, the interview can take on a mirroring quality of mutual self-examination (negation or affirmation), of exploration (Saskia Delores’ YouTube interviews are often prefaced with a literal mirroring visual effect, depicting herself divided and multiplied).
Jen Graves recently pointed out the recurrence of exploration as a theme in exhibits at Seattle Art Museum, and she wasn’t merely touching on a superficial coincidence: even exhibits like Kurt point toward our local obsession with identity. These kinds of exploration of ontological terra incognita and the rigorous examination of the self (through the art of the interview as well as a fascination with impermanent materials) find their roots not just in a superficial collective psychology of wanderlust and discontent, but in a visceral response to the physical terrain of the Northwest. It can’t be helped. Here a person finds him or herself at odds with (or intervening or interacting with) a constant, peripheral sense of the sublime. Individual gestures made by an artist feel dwarfed by the palpable, overpowering excess of nature at work, unceasingly creeping, blooming, whorling, spoiling, bursting, pullulating ad nauseam. Mark Dion’s “Neukom Vivarium”, a fecund, sixty-foot long nurse log housed in a greenhouse at Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, has become a (fallen) signpost for inhabitants of a city subjected to the unbounded, timeless, transformative processes of nature. To dialogue with these monstrous forces is unavoidable; to explore the tenuous (or not-so-tenuous) relationships between ourselves and the processes of nature overbearingly at work becomes a part of the regional discourse.
One facet of this discourse is a tendency to be self-effacing in the face of such superabundance, and a collectively dwarfed sense of self (a tendency to scoff at delusional grandeur and a compulsive self-negation are de rigueur) arguably informs and insinuates itself in the practice of many artists. A shared sense of humor, futility, and awe emerge in much of the work, and whether it finds articulation through transcendence or transformation, a tendency to address questions of indeterminacy and impermanence punctuates a multitude of practices, not least of which is the interview. After all, what is the interview but an attempt to document (like the cartographer in uncharted territory) a zeitgeist, an individual, a movement before it’s passed on?
Of all the artists participating in the round table at The Project Room, Rodrigo Valenzuela’s filmic interviews most literally tackle this subject. His work exemplifies one way in which the interview serves as a literal (and spiritual) medium by bridging persons and forming real, if momentary, relationships with a subject in transition. The first of his current projects involves hiring itinerant workers who have migrated to the Pacific Northwest and recording interviews with them about their individual histories. Valenzuela’s own history is mirrored to some extent in the stories about impermanent residence and migration, hence his fascination with re-invention and geographical location.
His other recent work brings together closely edited footage of interviewees (artists, corporate employees) captured during extended moments of listening or waiting. Stripped of sound and edited together, the interviews become a series of ponderous portraits striking for their sense of vulnerability and lack of context: the exploration of an unselfconscious pause and the space between thought or action — footage generally discarded — are poignantly underscored by Valenzuela’s treatment. The nuances of unintentional body language, either taut or slack with elliptical pause, extend out indefinitely. The physical incarnation of aposiopesis speaks ineffable volumes.
This treatment of these subjects is one of the most dramatic demonstrations of the use of interview as a strategy to occupy the space of impermanence and examine the process of becoming — a thread running through all the interview practices discussed at The Project Room. In fact, all the types of interviewing discussed, whether deconstructed, aestheticized, or direct, contain the potential to serve as a cartographic document of the self (its deeply shaded and largely blank terra incognita). This empathetic interrogation meanders, laces, zigzags — between the eternal return of bloom and rot that proliferates in Seattle — and eventually comprises an archive that illustrates a psychological and ideological landscape characterized by inquisition and flux, giving outline to an almost-mythological portrait of a place.