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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pity (in the City) Party feat. Isaac Babel & Jules Renard

For a long time, I’ve wanted a writing residency. It’s embarrassing, but I’ve sunk a lot of money and time into applying for the things, without any real results. The last year I spent living in a windowless apartment in Oakland, my nature starvation reaching epic levels. Still, though, I managed to stay inspired and produce a lot of material. I even used my tomb-like surroundings as a setting for a short story, “Windowless Room, Silverless Fish,” which appears in the latest issue of Interrobang?!.

But besides the toll the natural disconnect took on my mental health, I also worried my writing process was being affected. I read Isaac Babel’s “The Awakening,” a memoir-ish short story where the young Babel spends a summer skipping violin lessons to try to learn how to swim. His efforts are mostly unsuccessful, and he’s told by the gentile “water god,” Nikitich, that his ignorance of nature is going to hamper his dreams of being a writer. Nikitich asks him,
“What’s that tree?”
I didn’t know.
“What’s growing on that bush?”
“What bird is that singing?”
I knew none of the answers. The names of trees and birds, their division into species, where birds fly away to, on which side the sun rises, when the dew falls thickest—all these things were unknown to me.
“And you dare to write! A man who doesn’t live in nature, as a stone does or an animal, will never in all his life write two worthwhile lines. Your landscapes are like descriptions of stage props…” 
It wasn’t the comparison to stage props that worried me so much—I’m into the intersection of the natural and artificial. I just felt like there was this essential element, this green-glowing life force I was neglecting. Still there was one fairly large tree on my block, and as luck would have it, it stood just outside the ventilation system’s intake. My desk was right up next to the vent, and at the height of the tree’s blossoming, I could smell it. There was something weirdly liberating about this, the constraint of every sense except one, and I felt like I was experiencing the tree in this way few others had access to.

Anyway, events have conspired since then to offer me a sort of impromptu writing residency. I moved into an apartment with windowsand an office. I also lost my job, resulting in my getting unemployment benefits, which feels like I’ve received some sort of art grant. I also have more time to go out into nature and walk around; yesterday I spent a couple hours on the eerie paths of San Francisco’s Glen Canyon Park. There were informational signs there, and I came away learning a new word, chert, which I can’t define much beyond the fact that it’s a type of rock. Still, though, maybe Nikitich would be proud.

I’ve been reading Jules Renard’s Journal, and he writes, “It is in the heart of the city that one writes the most inspired pages about the country.” Maybe what he means is that precision isn’t so much necessary in describing nature, but rather surrender, a concession to its (decreasingly) sprawling mysteries. Is this something that’s better understood from the enclosure of the city?

Babel’s great ending to “The Awakening” seems to suggest so:
The moonlight congealed on bushes unknown to me, on trees that had no name. Some anonymous bird emitted a whistle and was extinguished, perhaps by sleep. What bird was it? What was it called? Does dew fall in the evening? Where is the constellation of the Great Bear? On what side does the sun rise?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Wedding Review.6

My commute was once again monomythic. First a train, then a ferry out across the bay, which was clotted with Fleet Week sailboats. Overhead, the Blue Angels, those bullying otherworldly visitors, flew in formation, smoke rings and insurance ads drifting in their wake. Once back on land, I climbed a mountain, relieved to be overwhelmed by trees, the earth finally soft and dark. A group of teens drank beer and watched the planes make swathes across the clear, deep sky of the bay. On the other side of the mountain, I crossed a meadowed valley. I stopped to take a leak, was approached by a deer that almost seemed like a man. This was the sort of peace that was ripe for hyperbolic mosquitoes: the Blue Angels had followed me across the bay.

The wedding party was assembled in the grass and seemed to be taking it all in stride. The lack of craning necks was refreshing. Of course, they seemed to be thinking, the planes grandstanding just above. This was fated. This was their Something Blue.

There’s the bride, someone said, and I turned to see a woman in an ill-fitting pink floral dress. Is it possible, I wondered, could there ever be a bride this brazenly un-vain and impure? The answer was no: this woman was the groom’s twin sister. The bride, despite being pregnant, wore her dutiful white with vigor.

Toward the end of the evening, my voyage caught up with me: my knee gave out. Stairs became epic, carrying buckets and bus tubs now a Promethean task. Many of the guests, I thought, had traveled much farther than I. Under less rigorous circumstances, granted, but still, I understood that nagging, not-drunk-enough doubt: the instant where the event of a lifetime becomes an afterthought. This is why we must work so hard to make memories.

Due to a lack of hard alcohol, the guests all left in a timely, ordered manner.

I went home with two small bunches of parsley.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Wedding Review.5

The evening, for me, involved a lot of sweeping, because this was a wedding that was fraught with broken glass. Yes, the guests were drunk, and they dropped their drinks like they always do. But there was something stronger here, more constant: unity must be disrupted. What has been joined together must—over and over and over again—be divided into a thousand skittering glass chips.

I swept and I swept, a blister soon forming: a circular flap of skin dyed blue from the broom handle’s cheap paint. A Cinderella in search of a wicked stepmother, I tore that piece of skin right off.

My stepmother soon surfaced, a glamorous guest who wore black but still outshone the bride. Sunhat, pearls, dazzling bracelets over arm-length gloves, a possibly lifted face: this guest had attended the Joan Collins School of Beauty. Her one against-type trait? She spent the evening drinking not white, but red wine.

Meanwhile, bees, confused, drifted into the banquet hall to die. Outside, the raccoons were gathering momentum; it must have been a bumper crop year. I looked at the circle of raw, damp flesh that punctuated the crook of my thumb and forefinger. It seemed so alarmingly permeable. It was going from red to purple, getting closer to the unnatural blue it had been before. Is this what it feels like, I wondered, to be a tree in the fall?

I went home with a pot of hardy-looking succulents.