Saturday, December 31, 2011

Blue Santa

I’ve grown used to spending Christmas alone. There’s something therapeutic about it, and I’ve learned to really embrace the lows. I’m not looking for pity; I enjoy this way of celebrating. I’ve cultivated my own family-unfriendly rituals, stockpiling frozen pizzas and bottles of wine. Sometimes I join my friend Janelle for her Christmas-day tradition of seeing the shittiest movie in the theaters (Yogi Bear: The Movie; Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel). These are some pretty consumerist traditions—I won’t pretend otherwise. Yet there’s something weirdly purging about such solitary, small-scale binges. By the time the holiday’s over, I feel refreshed.

This year, I caved for a family Christmas. My boyfriend has a generous, welcoming family who lives in suburban SoCal and who really embodies the Yuletide spirit. They’ve invited me to join them in the past, and I’ve turned them down in favor of my usual solo Christmas. This year, though, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

It’s about presents.

I knew this, of course. I was a child in an American middle-class family, and spent a lot of time circling things in the Sears catalog. I watch TV, I see the wish-list fervor, I see the reports of injuries and mania that ensue in the rush of the holiday sales. I love to get gifts, myself, and while I could really take or leave Shopping, I like giving gifts, too. But, goddamn, the presents.

We spent a lot of time opening gifts. I mean, a lot of time, to the point where we were long past the point of feeling loved, where we weren’t getting things we needed anymore, but rather bracelet after bracelet, cologne after bottle of cologne, reindeer after nutcracker after angel. Because Santa and the gang were going gangbusters, Christmasland was out in full force (a kitsch that seems so cliché it’s not even kitsch): Caroling snowman families. Miniature ragtag pageants. Santa-capped puppies. Angler elves with baubles on the ends of their poles.

On the drive back to northern California, we made a stop at a thrift store, where all the holiday trinkets had been crowded onto a half-off table. In among the polar bears and wise men and sugarplum snowglobes, sat a holi-deity like none I’d ever seen. It was a Santa, not a Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas, but that twinkly-eyed, cotton-bearded type who was first drummed up by Clement Clark Moore. He had the black boots, the fur-trimmed jacket drawn close to his potbelly by a shiny belt. He looked jolly. But here’s the kicker: rather than red, he was dressed head to toe in blue. Blue Santa. I felt like I’d discovered some undocumented species of bug.

The variety of consumer goods is just that great.

Has the actualization of human desires become so perfected, that the diversity of trinkets has surpassed that of nature? Meanwhile, the number of plant and animal species that disappear increases each year. We sit around a tree, a dead evergreen—always—an evergreen that slowly sheds its needles. Perhaps someone hands us a gift-bagged ornament: a giraffe, the evolutionary marvel of its neck bedecked with twinkling lights. The giraffe, in all its evolutionary wonder, has somehow become entangled as it reaches for that star at the top of the tree.

And like that giraffe, with our everlasting plastic and our distant nations full of barely existing slaves, we too, reach for the star, or stars rather, until Christmas becomes about seeing how many shiny things we can hold in our hands. And once we have too many to keep track of, we panic.

We are panicking, right? We just don’t want to say so for fear of ruining Christmas?

And that’s why I like to spend the day alone. At least when I’m alone, I can create a psychic cap. There are only so many bottles of wine I can drink without dying, only so many pizzas I can fit in the freezer. There are only so many classic cartoon characters they can convert into CGI blockbusters, right? Only so many sequels they can squeeze out of each before one loses money.

And Santa—that most generous of spirits—Santa can only give so much before he drains himself blue.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Interview with Katarzyna Bazarnik & Zenon Fajfer

Katarzyna Bazarnik and Zenon Fajfer are a Krakow-based duo that coined the term liberature, a literary genre that focuses on the physical form of a text. “The term we coined for this kind of writing,” the couple says, “points out that it is nothing else but literature in the form of the book (one meaning of Latin liber), liberated from any literary and editorial conventions (another meaning of Latin liber)—it is a kind of ‘book in freedom’.” Baxarnik and Fajfer have released a series of liberatic titles under the Liberatura imprint for Korporacja Ha!art publishing house. They recently toured the US, where they participated in a “Liberty Poem” at an Occupy Wall Street action and visited Mills College here in Oakland as artists in residence. They graciously answered some questions for me this month, which are posted at San Francisco Center for the Book’s blog:

Friday, December 23, 2011

Letter from Pedestrianica.3

When I was in my early 20s and at the height of my intellectual hubris, I made a zine. It was called Now It’s All Behind You—appropriate, right, for something you pick up again years later and feel really embarrassed about? The whole thing is vaguely themed around physical space (and by extension, time), from comics about maggot real estate to artsy analyses of industrial displacement in Eraserhead and Daydream Nation. But the feature that’s really stuck around—both for the shame it causes and because it articulates a way of thinking I still haven’t outgrown—is something called the Pedestrian Manifesto.

Have you ever tried to write a manifesto? Well, this was my only stab at it, and I have to say it was kind of fun. I can feel it when I read it today: as cringe-worthy as it is, there’s actually a sort of energy that makes me want to keep going.

I may have been young and dumb, but I was smart enough to take a certain precaution: Irony (after all, this was the late ‘90s; what other stance could I really take?). I knew the other meaning of the word pedestrian, and how at odds it was with the urgency I was trying to create, as well as how perfectly that other meaning described the style of most political screeds. So excuse me while I pat my younger self on the back.

Because there’s A LOT in the Pedestrian Manifesto that’s not so pat-worthy. I make questionable use of quotes from Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire to advance my argument. I write lines like this: “How can the modern-day walker … waltz drunkenly amid the urban confines of right angles?” My levels of condescension are at an all-time high. I don’t allow for the privilege inherent in walking, and for the existence of physical disabilities. I also don’t get much further than a lengthy introduction before bringing out that lazy old standby: To be continued . . .

But, yes, irony: here you are, just like I knew you would be. Here to represent, to offhandedly deflect my shame. Because I didn’t really mean it!

And because all the while I must have secretly believed I would outgrow this idea.

And thus, irony has rewarded me. Can you blame me then, for the detachment I maintain today, as I pick up where I left off twelve years ago and write these Letters from Pedestrianica? Because it remains something I feel passionate about: The stale, unceasing onslaught of car, after car, after car, after car, after car. I mean this. I do. It’s a feeling I have yet to outgrow.

It’s hard to approach a utopian project without a certain level of ironic distance. Humor is protective. The levels of dysfunction and cruelty are staggering, the odds unbelievably low. I’ve been watching, a little at a time, Chris Marker’s protest documentary, A Grin Without a Cat, and have come away from it pretty discouraged. Patterns are on display here—popular calls for change and resulting state suppression—patterns we’re once again in the midst of repeating. But there is hope still, there in the moment, just before the cops show up with their scowls and their batons. And while A Grin Without a Cat is far from being laughably earnest, its disconnect is not to the extent that it doesn’t mean what it says.

But: By simply envisioning a different world, will it come to fruition? No. Especially if your utopia is as logic-less as mine.

Maybe utopias aren’t meant to physically exist, at least not in the ways they’re first imagined. And perhaps they’re better conjured, anyway, through a series of letters rather than a systematically propagandic presentation of logic. Especially, I guess, for a brain that’s twelve years further frayed.

So this utopia—the one I’ve named Pedestrianica—is a personal place, but it’s not exclusive, and while I’d like to see profound changes in the way we move, I’m not trying to start a movement (or am I?). When it comes down to it, I guess what I’m hoping for is some sort of confirmation I’m not nuts. Perpetually hyperbolic, yes. But not nuts.

Is it nuts to address a letter to a carless nation?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Interview featured on Michelle Embree's new blog

I recently had a great conversation with Michelle Embree, who posted it over on her brand new blog. Michelle and I were neighbors years ago in New Orleans, and she tells an anecdote about rescuing my artist's books from mattress-discounter junkies. Since then, Michelle has gone on to write a novel (Manstealing for Fat Girls) and two plays. Her play Hand Over Fist, which is about a quartet of post-Katrina con artists, was winner of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival playwright's competition. I hope to talk to Michelle soon about the narrative magic of Tarot.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Companion Collage

Here are two collages in celebration of my short story, "Warmth," which appears in the new issue of (what else?) The Collagist. The story is a Christmas-themed, fabulist, homosexual tragedy that was inspired by Depeche Mode's song, "Pipeline." Its villain is loosely based on Sarah Palin. Read it here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Interview with Myrtle Von Damitz!

I've started blogging for the San Francisco Center for the Book, and my first post is an interview with Myrtle Von Damitz, III. Myrtle is a New Orleans artist who founded the annual book arts exhibition, Babylon Lexicon, in 1999. She goes into the history and evolution of the exhibition, including what makes it unique to NOLA, as well as some context of the city's underground literary and journalistic history.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wedding Review.9

As wedding season came to a close, a storm was rolling in. This couple was making things legal just barely ahead of the months of heavy rain.

There were several perfumed candles burning in the entrance.

Fighting off a chemical headache, I uncorked the wine and took this time to reflect. I stood in solidarity, I'd always thought, with the spell each wedding attempts to cast; we’re doing similar things here, aren’t we? Me with my pen in hand and you with your better spun, less acerbic sense of narrative. Your signature cocktail, your monogrammed satchel of artisan sweets, the curated perceptions of those who give your toasts: themes emerge. Themes that sneakily defer both future and past to the present.

The fragrance of the candles was taking over, a rose-scented sort of bathroom smell. A smell that works hard to hide bullshit. This, then, weddings, was the difference between you and me. The cooks, who were concerned about the candles clashing with people’s appetites, opened up the kitchen door. The first few drops of rain were falling. 

You’ve always been a little neurotic, the maid of honor read from her notes, the tears lining up behind each awkward pause. But that’s what I’ve always loved about you. She spoke for us all when she said this. It was clear that tonight would veer toward bereavement, not chaos. Fizzle not bang, drizzle not thunderstorm. Sympathy cards all around for the bride. Either way, I regretted not saving that “November Rain” allusion for tonight. 

I went outside to the pantry to eat my dinner, letting the rain loosen up my food on the way. Nothing was going to clash with my appetite—even the raccoons, who despite the open pantry door, failed to make an appearance.

I pondered what sort of changes next year’s season would bring. Would pudding be the new tarts be the new pie be the new cupcakes? Would weddings tighten or ease their imaginative grip?

I went home with several slices of braised pork.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Letter from Pedestrianica.2

I’ve been doing a little marching lately—marching as in walking with a large group of people (not as in lifting your knees in sync with an external rhythm). This marching—which is a simple act, but which is cathartic, thrilling, terrifying, mournful, ecstatic—this marching is the action of the Occupy movement I can most fully get behind.

I’ve mentioned before the creative usefulness of walking, as have many others (Thoreau and Robert Walser, to name a few). And I’d like to explore it further in the future. But for now, let’s quickly touch on it again, and remind ourselves of the loosening that happens while in stride. The stagnancy of the desk gives way to air and stimuli; frontiers of the imagination expand. And what happens on an individual level takes place communally as well. A movement is about moving, after all, and that’s why the march is so symbolic. The world is changing right before our eyes; possibilities come into view that would have stayed obscured behind a windshield.

Not to say the more stationary aspects of Occupy are unimportant, the camps and the general assemblies with their well-honed ways of conducting large meetings. I tend to fear interacting with strangers, though, unable to articulate myself in ways I wish I could, easily annoyed by certain types within activist communities. Isolationism, then, is what I gravitate toward, ironically a symptom of car culture: each enclosed in their own machine, with no time or proximity to study the faces of those you pass. But that’s the way—for right now, at least—things are over here in my region of Pedestrianica. There are comfort zones that need to be transcended, and we’re working on it.

But marching. Marching is an act that doesn’t require verbal interaction. Most of the verbiage is canned and one way: chants. Still there’s an understanding, one that grips and that will crush you if cling too strongly to your feelings of separateness. One that after the numb refuge of individuality, can paradoxically be freeing.

And the power. Rarely do I feel such Pedestrianican power. I’m usually one small body in a sea of steel and speed, but when the crowd takes over the street (for there’s nothing more flaccid than a march that’s been restricted to the sidewalk), there is vindication. At last, one small slice of space and time not subject to the motorist’s tyranny. For once, this crowd says, you cannot go where you want, when you want. For once the streets are whose? Ours. The crowd brings to light the stupid, stunted, unadaptable nature of the car.

Which is dangerous, this smug reversal of violence. The names of the crimes in these instances—the infractions the police cite as reason for breaking out their “less than lethal” weapons—the names of these crimes are telling: obstructing traffic and pedestrian interference.

In the last couple days, the media focus actually seems to have shifted from violent protesters to violent police. News sources have been forced to address police brutality as more and more footage of it surfaces. But two of the most disturbing examples of violence during protests in the last few weeks have been at the hands of motorists. During a march in support of Oakland’s general strike on Nov. 2, a man appeared to deliberately run over two pedestrians, badly injuring both. After Oakland police failed to respond to a 911 call, onlookers ran to the nearest BART station to ask the transit police for help. After taking down information, the BART police let the man drive his Mercedes away from the scene.

And in Washington, DC, when Occupy protesters set up blockades outside of a convention center where the ultraconservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation was meeting, a driver plowed into the crowd, injuring four, including a pregnant woman and a 13-year-old boy. Rather than charge the driver, though, police chastised the pedestrians for being in the street.

It makes sense that police would be on the side of the motorists. So much of what they do is based on an ethos of bullying, and the driver’s right of way comes from a similar place: Get the fuck out of my way, pussy, I’m bigger and faster and more armored than you. And get a police officer behind the wheel? This kind of compounded power is terrifying, resulting in gratuitous high-speed chases. My old roommate was skittish about walking her dog after cops unnecessarily chased a car into our Oakland neighborhood, resulting in the deaths of two innocent people. This kind of fear is in the air on so many different levels. It divides us, which makes us even more afraid. On a side note, which is unfair, I know, and simplistic, but perhaps a topic for another time: it’s interesting that fascism rose in the years after our cities became fully infested with cars.   

There has been a call to replace the name Occupy with Decolonize. America stands on land that once belonged to other nationsthe Ohlone here in Oakland, for oneand the implication of the word Occupy is imperialistic to say the least. It’s staggering to think of the layers upon layers of asphalt and cement, these concrete colonizations that smother the ghosts and bones of those whose land was stolen. When you look at it this way, the cars are just the icing on the cake. Some heavy icing, yes, some icing that's not going to be easy to scrape off. But we need to start working toward that first step, slow down this needlessly constant motion, stroll around the block for a second, acknowledge our common humanity, and discuss how we can work toward righting the injustices of the past. It’s this kind of reflection that will allow clearer visions of the future to finally come into view.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dream of Aimless Unemployment

In this dream, I had a job where I was unappreciated—to the extent that my boss could never remember my name. I decided to walk. Perfect timing, as my grandma pulled up in a minivan to treat me to lunch. Sitting across from her at a table in a woodsy diner, I tried to explain the injustice of my workplace. She didn’t understand.

Circumstances became such that we had to leave the minivan at the diner and walk through a busy park. There were all kinds of men with mild, mysterious smiles, wearing red athletic uniforms and chucking soccer balls against a fence. My grandma walked confidently ahead, skirting the fence, the men pausing to let her pass. As I followed, though, they began to throw the balls again, and I could feel the whisper of each as it sped past my head. The violence was in strange contrast to their smiles.

Somehow I lost track of my grandma, and went inside a decrepit parks maintenance building to try to find her. There was something wrong with this place, I realized: it was rat infested, I could sense them scurrying around in the shadows. The building’s unease felt more like a haunting than an infestation. There were all sorts of spiders and webs and egg sacs which clung to me now, and which I couldn’t get to fully leave my skin.

The sunlight outside was a relief, the men and their soccer balls less of a visceral threat as I began to make my way back to the minivan in hopes that my grandma was there. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Even the most genius of jokes is doomed to not hold up

Interrobang?! has posted a very short story of mine called "Windowless Room, Silverless Fish". It's told from the point of view of a comedian whose vampiric existence is causing him to get a little existential. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Wedding Review.8

Why, I feel it’s time to ask, do we drink so much? Are we caterers such drunks because our work is more stressful than most, and thus we need more numbing? No. Martyrs aren’t the type to wear all black. Maybe it’s just because there’s so much alcohol around. Get it while we can, we think, or maybe we don’t think—we just unthinkingly reflect the behavior of our guests.

Or is everyone—weddings be damned—always this drunk?

This was a wedding that neglected to provide its guests with champagne. There was moscato, yes, there was moscato. But moscato is something that’s too sweet to consume like air. Thus I waited a few hours—of sobriety, mind you—I waited a few long, long hours before risking that telltale hematic wine lip: before going on in for the red.

The bartender was yelling. A man had grabbed her, and at the same time was threatening the structural soundness of the bar. Baby, just believe me, he told her. I can hold my liquor. She was torn, she said, between running away and standing there to prevent the bar from falling over. The bar—this was a wedding, after all—was not a bar, but rather a linen-draped folding table. Give and take, you might advise this bartender, trapped as she was between the two. But by now, something like this for her was second nature.

And weddings, perhaps, should now stand and examine their dusty old clusters of give and take. We all know who’s doing the taking, don’t we? The theatricality makes it obvious (The couple? The couple’s mothers? Just bear with me). And the giving, of course, is given unwillingly. The father had a tear in his eye as he gave the bride away.

The moscato, unlike champagne, seemed too celebratory to become habit. I went home with yet one more bottle of red.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I put on the best clothes I own and passed hors d'oeuvres

I just finished this broadside, which is a heavily fictionalized account of catering a children's birthday party. I wrote the piece last year, and, in a way, it prefigures the wedding reviews I've been writing for this blog: it's told from the point of view of an acerbic caterer and highlights the more sinister aspects of ritual. It does, however, run a little more freely into the realm of the absurd. I'm not sure how I feel about the visual results—I tend toward a cleaner aesthetic. The content of this piece, though, is so chaotic and debauched, I figured it was a good excuse to lay it on thick. To see more broadsides, visit my website.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Daylight savings. Such a slight adjustment, yet something, if you're sober enough, that reverberates, that scolds. The state finds it useful, amusing even, to remind you twice a year: they are the ones who decide who you must be and where you must be and when.

Nobody saw me do it, you can't prove anything

Here I am with my pals Bart and Tintin yesterday, as they graciously hosted me as Cartoonist in Residence at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Interpretive Propaganda

This poster is an idea (using a phrase taken from a Mekons song) conceived by artist Gabby Miller as a tribute to today's general strike in Oakland. "I was amazed by how quickly something unimaginable become a possibility," says Gabby, "and how rapidly the idea spread. For me, the Occupy movement is very much about going beyond the imagination." The layout was adapted from a silkscreened companion poster that teacher Miriam Klein-Stahl developed with her students. Chinzalee Sonami and Andy Turner bravely assisted us last night as we printed over 400 copies! We hope to someday invite artists to collaborate by filling in the poster's blank space. You can put money toward this project here. Gabby will be at 14th and Broadway today in downtown Oakland, handing out free copies!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Cartoonist in Residence!

I'm the November Cartoonist in Residence at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum! Which means I'll be there this Saturday, Nov. 5, holding court at a drawing table from 1-3 pm. I'll have some comics and zines for sale, and will display the just-finished originals from an illustrated essay memorializing the legendary drugstore, Super Longs. I also hope to get going on some doodles for an interview I did with fiction writer, Jincy Willett. The Cartoon Art Museum is located at 655 Mission Street, between New Montgomery and Third. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Wedding Review.7

Halloween was in the air, and so I prepared myself for a spooky wedding. There were pumpkins on the stairs, but was this a spooky detail? They were white ones, marshmallowy, like Casper the Friendly Ghost, so squeaky clean they threatened to outpure the bride. Rather than homage to terror, a concession to a less than fortunate scheduling choice.

Still, something about this wedding, in the beginning, at least, felt like a funeral.

All around the country—all around the world, in fact—people were haunting public squares with tents and signs and demands to open up a conversation about class. Thus, at this wedding, the difference between those who carried the platters and those who plucked things from them was starting to be more starkly lit. Half the wedding party spoke with British accents, which didn’t exactly soften the delivery of such lines as: Now that’s a caddy who didn’t deserve a tip.

The maid of honor, though, defied such trite dichotomies, dressed as she was in heroically tacky pink. She toasted the bride by calling her classy, then explained to the audience—again, heroically—that while her friend was touring Europe, she had been working at Hooters.

My boss left the wedding early to prepare for a costume party. Her costume: Marie Antoinette. Such a strange way of looking at the world, eyes hidden just beneath a prosthetic, sticky neck, a head in the crook of your arm like a big white pumpkin.

The funereal atmosphere began to melt away, the closer the guests got to being snockered. Is snockered the British word for being drunk? One of the cooks could hear the raccoons encroaching outside on the stoop, but when she went to shoo them away, she found they were guests.

At the end of the night, two of the guests sat their baby on the bar, and we all lined up to watch him joyfully suck on a piece of ice. The help was on one side of the bar, the helped on the other, yet how could we help but take a moment to act like friends? The baby’s head was so small and his temperament so serene, he could have crawled right out of a painting.

I went home with some risotto and a roll of toilet paper. Times were tough.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Letter from Pedestrianica

I go for a lot of walks. It’s how I get places, for one thing, but it also serves as a sort of therapy, a varied repetition that soothes and gets me safely past the blocks (after blocks after blocks) in my head. It can also help alleviate anger, but then again maybe it can’t: I’m talking about a theoretical world here, I’m talking ideologically. I’m talking about a world without cars.

A world with breathable air. A world without the relentless, numbing drone of motors. A world where we aren’t on that constant grave-robberly quest to unearth oil, waging eternal war, slaughtering entire populations, and, woops, poisoning oceans in the quest to get our next hit of gasoline.

A world with fast, reliable, comprehensive, cheap public transit. A world where we can bike without fear of dying. One where freeways become so extraneous, we make them parks. Where the transportation needs of the elderly and people with disabilities are given priority.

A world that is crisp rather than blurred, where we linger and pay attention to the spaces we inhabit. Where we don’t have to look for parking. Where we don’t have to look both ways. A world with some room to really move.

Am I being a diva here?

Self-righteous, maybe, I’ll accept self-righteous. And hyperbolic. But I’m just one small body in the face of a nonstop flow of hurtling, two-ton chunks of metal (how’s that for hyperbole?). There’s a power dynamic here, one that I never hear talked about, but one that becomes conversely clear in times when I ride inside those chunks of metal.

When we're behind that windshield, we are God.

We can’t go on like this. And this seems so urgent to me, and obvious. It’s seemed obvious for most of my life.

"Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries," Roethke said.

There was one walk I went on, a walk around my neighborhood the other night, in the company of a thousand other people. The Occupy Oakland movement had just voted to declare a citywide general strike for Wednesday, November 2, and I joined them as they walked around downtown in celebration. It was the kind of march that took up the entire street, the kind you usually need a permit for, but there was an odd absence of cops, which must have felt extra freeing to the marchers who’d suffered through the cops’ fascistic tactics the night before (those who weren’t in the hospital or jail). We walked: past the jail and past Mexicali Rose, past apartment buildings with people dancing on fire escapes. Past a club where my friend Gabby had gone to dance, and after seeing us all out walking, decided to come say hi. Past an enclave of condos the city subsidized but never filled. Past the freeway onramp, where a debate ensued over whether we should storm the interstate (I’m not the only one who wants to make it a park). Past my house, how convenient: goodnight.

Mainstream media pundits have complained about the OWS movement's lack of a focused message (here is a great article about why those pundits are mattering less and less). So let me walk around the block for a minute and complicate their message even further. On second thought, though, how complicated is this? One of the movement's favorite chants is “Whose streets? Our streets!”: cars, more than anything else, embody the unhealthy, unjust ways in which we occupy this planet. And the reason we all need our cars like we do stems from money. Los Angeles once had one of the most efficient streetcar systems in the world. Prior to GM's buyout of their public transit system, Los Angeles—the city whose name now conjures immediate images of gridlock—once strove for the same thing I want.

What I want is a world without cars.

The reasons for this are many, and to be honest, right now, I don’t even know where to start. So this is just the first of many Letters from Pedestrianica, the name I’ve decided to give this carless world I’ve been talking about. Even now, as I write this, those wavy red lines have attached themselves to the undercarriage of carless: Microsoft Word has decided that carless is not a word.

The software feels the same way about the word, classism. But at the rapid rate political discourse now seems to be shifting, we’ll see how long that lasts.

Welcome to Pedestrianica. It’s a mouthful, for sure, as we lift ourselves up out of the smog. But who knows what sort of things we’ll articulate, one day when we walk together, that day when we’ve finally freed ourselves of our dull and cumbersome cars?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

3 ways a contact lens, once lost, becomes a mask

I gave a workshop last week at Mills College on the art of sequential collage. We talked about visual themes, the narratives that form out of forced juxtaposition, and the similarities between typeset letterpress and collage (as well as the liberation that can stem from such material constraints). One student used the word collaboration—which I loved—when talking about the relationship between collage artists and their materials.
We also talked about the Kurt Schwitters exhibit currently at the Berkley Art Museum, and the inadvertent narratives that rise, even in work with nonsensical intention. I brought in my book Tarpaulin Kingdom, and we discussed the tactile nature of the book and the way it exists in a space between two-dimensional and sculptural art. We also talked about the exciting shift that can happen with the turn of a page.

We approached our assignment with this shift in mind, creating simple collaged trifolds with interlocking imagery, such as the one above.

For homework, I would encourage pondering the word manipulation while watching this video from Mark Leidner and keeping in mind the following quote from Lautreamont:

Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Personic Truth: An Interview with Jasmin Lim

A few months back, one of the display windows at San Francisco's Artists' Television Access (ATA) was packed with a mishmash of photocopied news snippets, photographs, collages, and quotes on the nature of truth. At the center of the display was a TV with the image of a burning book: Sarah by JT LeRoy.

Yes, that JT LeRoy. The teen hustler/literary prodigy who wrote four works of fiction, received accolades, and befriended celebrities before being exposed as a “fake.” LeRoy’s critically acclaimed books, it turned out, had been written by Laura Albert, a woman in her 30s, and his public appearances had been performed by a costumed accomplice.

The backlash that followed was nuts. That image of the burning book is appropriate; a witch hunt would work, too. LeRoy/Albert had simply pissed off too many powerful people. The thing was, what Albert did was something fiction writers do on a daily basis: she pretended to be someone she was not. Who she was and was not, however, remains up for debate. Albert describes LeRoy as a “veil” rather than a “hoax” and maintains that the persona was not simply a scam; rather, he was an avatar created to indirectly express past traumas. Albert, who lives in San Francisco, continues to write and recently explored issues of sexual abuse in an essay on Roman Polanski over at Fandor. Last year she spoke about her experience as JT LeRoy on The Moth.

The window at ATA, Untitled (Persona Case Study), explores some of the complex issues of identity raised by the case of JT LeRoy. It was created by Jasmin Lim, an artist who has developed a close bond with Albert. Lim is no stranger to questions of perception. Her photographic experiments have featured altered perspectives via slight manipulations such as folding and tilting. I love the tactile nature of Jasmin’s work and am fascinated by the layers of identity involved in the case of JT LeRoy, so I was excited to get to ask her some questions. She talked about her relationship with Albert as well as the ATA installation, which at some point she hopes to adapt into a zine. 

Laura has talked about JT LeRoy as being a coping mechanism, a kind of way of dealing with past sexual abuse, as well as an integral part of her creative process. In this way, JT seems to straddle several dichotomies, one of which is that of healing/destructive figure. Do you see destruction as being key to the creative process, either as initiator or result? What about healing?

I think for many of us, especially when you grow up around abuse, violence is normalized, and when we choose to redirect that energy, it is healing. Laura often quotes writer David Milch, "People say that my writing is dark. And for me it's quite the opposite. It sees light in darkness and it doesn't try to distort darkness. The essential thing is that the seeing itself is joyful."

Art can be a practice of deprogramming ourselves. Like the Indian deities Shiva and Kali, destroyers of illusion. They grant liberation by destroying illusions of the ego.

Do you have a relationship to JT LeRoy? Is he a presence for you in your interactions with Laura?

Yes. He is a manifestation of Laura’s inner world, and I feel the contradictions and complexities she embodies are important to explore.

One of the most interesting parts of the conversation you and Laura had in August [a panel discussion at ATA moderated by Chuck Mobley] was when she talked about the photo of her as a child wearing a T-shirt that reads “I Want to Be Me.” There’s something so haunting about this image and the way Laura discussed it in the context of identity. Can you talk a little about this?

She said that her mom had her wear that shirt, but at the time, “being me” was the last thing she wanted. At the same time, it was the thing she wanted most without realizing it. 

There is an excerpt I included in the window, by theorist Jose Esteban Munoz, about survival strategies the “minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere”. It describes the contradictions we negotiate in forming our identity, like identifying with something that you are simultaneously in conflict with; because we absorb ideologies around us, we become a site of conflict.

Of course at her core, Laura really did want to be herself, but the external pressures to conform were often louder.

There are several other quotes from theorists featured in the window. Can you talk about the significance of some of these?

There is a George Steiner quote that says, “It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past."

This quote is like theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman’s concept of the "adjacent possible," that the “complex systems best able to adapt are those on the border between chaos and disorder.” The adjacent possible describes both the limits and the creative potential of change; that we can only work from the framework that currently exists; that innovation is a recombination of what we already know. And everything we do increases the possibility of what is possible next. So imagining that there are realities beyond what we are capable of perceiving right now gives us room to perceive something beyond literal truth.

The Jorge Macchi quote says, “I’m absolutely against categorizations. Their function is to tranquilize the spectator."

Both of the quotes describe how focusing on literal “truth” neglects a deeper meaning. If we allow for ambiguity, then more complex understandings can develop as previously separate ideas coalesce.

Another quote is from the Authors Guild, regarding the lawsuit brought against Laura and what it means for authors who want (or need) to write under a pseudonym or anonymously. There is a clear miscarriage of justice here that will have ramifications for the literary community, yet I rarely hear it discussed. Can you talk about this?

The production company, Antidote International Films, bought the rights to Laura's book Sarah. After her identity was revealed, they didn’t want to just adapt the book anymore—they wanted to make what they called a "meta-movie, like Being John Malkovich," incorporating Laura's life into her fictional book. Laura said no, and they sued her for fraud because she signed the contracts as JT LeRoy—even though the contract signature does not change the fictional book they purchased. 

They spent four times more on the case to supposedly recover the cost of optioning the book. Laura's case became a principled issue to demoralize her. During the court case, the plaintiff's lawyers said they wanted her to "behave." Somehow the ambiguity was threatening to the president of the production company, who made an example out of Laura to retain his sense of power. That they won sets a precedent. The Authors Guild amicus brief for Laura's case states, "the district court's decision which holds that Laura Albert's use of pseudonym breached the Option and Purchase Agreement, is one that will have a chilling effect upon authors wishing to exercise their right to write anonymously."

There is a photocopied collage in the window that features images of computers and softcore porn. Where did this collage come from and how does it fit in with the window?

It is about 15 years old. Laura made this collage before JT (Jeremiah Terminator) was JT. Maybe at the time JT was just Terminator—I'm not sure. She only faintly remembers it and doesn’t really know what she meant to make.

More than softcore porn, it is bondage imagery combined with images of communication technologies at the time: early computers, telephone land lines, floating CDs, and flying saucers that share the same scale, etc. It's about buying fantasies of people and what is being communicated during these exchanges.

There is so much visual information all arranged in a dense mound that takes up 90 percent of the paper. Each time I look at it, I see something I didn’t see before or draw new associations between things inside the collage. I also make connections between what I imagine the conditions were while it was made and what they tell us today, now that we have 15 or so years’ perspective.

It’s similar to how the information in the window operates. There is so much information that I continue to understand it differently as I change and the world changes.

Can you talk about some of these juxtapositions that happened as you were assembling the window? Did anything become clearer to you through pushing separate fragments of writing together?

When I immersed myself in the materials, it seemed like nothing made sense; each individual piece had many layers within it, and combined with other pieces, you could draw infinite associations. 

I couldn't make decisions about what to exclude. This response seemed appropriate. The framework that I normally position things in became more fluid and open, and there was less hierarchy because each article or excerpt took approximately equal real estate. In this way, the concept became about how we process information, how we restrict our perceptual potential, and how reframing shifts our interaction with information.

The window’s centerpiece features a copy of Sarah hollowed out with an unlit candle inside. A couple years ago, you engaged with the book/movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar in a similar way, creating an image of a hollowed out paperback copy of Mr. Goodbar with a candle inside. What led you to approach these two works in this way? Are there thematic similarities between Mr. Goodbar and Sarah

Both Sarah and Looking for Mr. Goodbar have protagonists who can't be themselves in their cultures/environments. Both of these books are also expressions of real events: Sarah is a figurative expression of Laura’s experience with trauma and abuse, and Mr. Goodbar is both a book and a film inspired by the brutal murder of Roseann Quinn.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Reading this Saturday at SOMArts!

I'll be reading as a part of Gathering the Embers: a Día de los Muertos Tribute Show this weekend. It's a stellar lineup of writers and performers including Fredrick Cloyd, Carolina De Robertis, Jennifer Derilo, Kenji Liu, Vickie Vértiz, Amanda Vigil, Natalia Vigil, and more. It happens this Saturday, October 22, from 7-9:30 pm at SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan St. San Francisco. Tickets are $5 in advance or purchase at the door.