A Radical Cut In The Texture Of Reality

November 30, 2016

Some favourite things from my 2016

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[It seems I really do love lists. (Thought perhaps not quite as much as I love quotes.) As with previous years, many things on this list were released prior to 2016. I have listed them more or less in the order they gradually came to me. Also, I don’t know quite how it happened, but I read so many good books this year, it really helped me get through it all…]



Books:

The Hills of Hebron – Sylvia Wynter
Outlaw Woman – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
The Mushroom at the End of the World – Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris – Elizabeth Hall
Zong! – M. NourbeSe Philip
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars – Kai Cheng Thom
Accordéon – Kaie Kellough
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio – Pu Songling
Oscar of Between – Betsy Warland
All We Know: Three Lives – Lisa Cohen
From the Archives of Vidéo Populaire – Anne Golden
Dark Pool Party – Hannah Black
Counternarratives – John KeeneSalt Fish Girl – Larissa Lai
Style – Dolores Dorantes
Pamela: A Novel – Pamela Lu
Her Paraphernalia – Margaret Christakos
Double Teenage – Joni Murphy
Testament – Vickie Gendreau
Job Shadowing – Malcolm Sutton



Albums:

Good God! Apocryphal Hymns
Larry Levan – Genius of Time
Noname – Telefone
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Solange – A Seat at the Table
Blood Orange - Freetown Sound
Isaiah Rashad – The Sun's Tirade
Duckwrth – I'm Uugly
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
The Last Artful, Dodgr – 199NVRLND
A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders
Above Top Secret – Above Top Secret
The Internet – Ego Death
Jay Arner – Jay II
Lolina - Live in Paris
Abra - Rose


Films / Videos:

Cemetery of Splendor – Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Painting with history in a room filled with people with funny names 3 – Korakrit Arunanondchai
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen – Zacharias Kunuk & Norman Cohn
The Prison in Twelve Landscapes – Brett Story
Arabian Nights – Miguel Gomes
No Home Movie – Chantal Akerman


Performance:

Decomposition of a Continuous Whole – taisha paggett
…Truthteller… – Eroca Nicols (Lady Janitor)



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November 13, 2016

All Profound Distraction

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[This text was originally published in Fiktion: Concentration.]


All profound distraction opens certain doors. You have to allow yourself to be distracted when you are unable to concentrate. —Julio Cortázar

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. —John Cage

1. 
I don’t think I know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I think I’m doing. I stare at these two sentences. I know they each have a distinctly different meaning but for a long moment can’t intuit which means which, or which one I mean. Either way, I don’t know what I’m doing and haven’t for a very long time. This ‘not-knowing’ is something I tell myself I believe in, and might be reformulated as a fairly specific kind of concentration. I even find myself searching for a ‘more real’ not-knowing, while at the same time experiencing anxiety that I’ve accidentally fallen into a false one: that I do actually know what I’m doing, only pretending I don’t in service of some half-articulated ideal of how an artist should or shouldn’t proceed.

Directly next to any not-knowing I perform or attempt to conjure while creating work, there is another, perhaps more honest, not-knowing that keeps me awake at night, and that, more often than not, makes me almost unbearably sad. This awake-at-night not-knowing has something to do with all the injustice and suffering in the world. Why don’t we simply just know how to reduce it, fight it, undermine it? This must be pure naiveté on my part, but I cannot believe it would be so impossible or so difficult. Yet apparently it is all that and more. I can think about these problems endlessly, read about them endlessly, turn them over and over in my mind, and get virtually nowhere, back around in circles to things I already know and seem so obvious that there was little need to give them any thought in the first place.

So what I now find myself wondering is: what is the connection between these two aspects of my not-knowing? Between not-knowing as a longing for artistic breakthrough, as desire to leave behind both acknowledged and unacknowledged habits, and not-knowing as not knowing how to save or even slightly improve the world?



2.
When I write I often listen to hip-hop. On a line by line basis, I have to admit that my comprehension of what they’re getting at in any given track is, to say the least, somewhat limited. Some things are of course clear, others I’ve listened to hundreds of times and remain, for me, in the realm of multiple possible meanings. As a writer, at least I think it’s because I’m a writer, when I listen to music I focus on the lyrics. So listening to hip-hop while writing is often a distraction that almost completely prevents me from actually writing, focusing on lyrics I’m perpetually unable to fully decipher instead of on the blank screen in front of me I’m supposed to be filling with words. My solution is to turn down the volume until the track is barely a murmur. This hip-hop murmur pulses in the background as I type and somehow gives me a feeling that somewhere in the world there is an energy greater than the dull silence in the room that surrounds me.

My computer is full of hip-hop that I mainly listen to on shuffle. Often when a track comes on that seems too sexist or homophobic I simply delete it. I don’t know if this is the right thing to do, but I’m nervous about sexism and homophobia seeping into my subconscious through tracks I listen to sometimes hundreds of times. It might be stating the obvious to say that this hip-hop also exists as an artistic otherness, completely removed from anything I immediately identify as part of my daily life or experience. Many tracks speak of socioeconomic experiences I haven’t had: life-threatening poverty or almost comically conspicuous wealth (or both at the same time.) I also listen to a lot of hip-hop that has nothing to do with either of these things yet the modality of the language itself is mostly enough to separate me from relating it to my own experiences too directly. (It just occurred to me that I delete tracks that are too sexist or homophobic, but don’t delete tracks that are too capitalist, which might be equally important.)

When I ask myself why I like hip-hop so much there is one aspect to the pleasure that is fairly straightforward. I am a writer with a certain faculty for language. In many ways my writing is performative; it asks to be spoken aloud. However, even mediocre hip-hop displays a virtuosity of spoken language that I could never approach or aspire to. It is simply something I can’t do. The pleasure I get from it might be analogous to the pleasure I assume others get from watching sports, seeing someone do something that you could never possibly do that well yourself.



3.
I remember something I said in a recent interview and go looking for it in my computer. When I find it I’m disappointed; it doesn’t quite say what I had hoped. What it does say is: “I’m searching for breakthroughs, if one is still allowed to think in such romantic terms. At the given juncture of any breakthrough one momentarily feels there is no precedent. It is only later that one might see how everything fits (or doesn’t fit) into various histories and narratives.” This feeling, this momentary feeling that there’s no precedent, must in another sense be a kind of concentration, almost tunnel vision. A radical openness combined with an equally intense focus on a few key aspects of a current endeavour. Do artists still want to have breakthroughs? Do people? Is it something we can still imagine having at every stage of our life, right until the end, or is it only for the young?



4.
Thinking about the many ways my love of hip-hop is problematic, I begin to think about Descartes as one of the foundations for white Western thought. How he decided to sit in front of that fireplace and simply concentrate on the core philosophical problem, get rid of all distractions, all assumptions, and begin again. Descartes wanted to know, to get to the truth of the matter, while when I concentrate on a given artistic question I claim to want to not-know. But either way, isn’t there something a bit anaemic about this idea of what it means to concentrate—to block out distractions and focus—when another word for distractions might be life: other people, the sensual world that surrounds us.

My thinking takes places in dialogue with so many things, texts and people, and yet I most often feel I’m working in almost complete isolation. I regularly complain about this isolation but now also wonder if it is a sort of Cartesian ideal that I claim not to want but perhaps actually do. What does it mean to actually want something you claim not to want? I know relatively little about Descartes but he is an unquestioned stand-in for something in the daily habits of my thought. He is a stand-in for a mode of scientific thinking that focuses on certain questions at the expense of everything else. To give a cartoon example: that focuses on how to get the oil out of the earth as efficiently as possible at the expense of all the repercussions involved in doing so. This also has something to do with a desire for certainty, often connected to domination of things and/or people. Within a certain theoretical framework, much of this has also become, over time, a cliché.



5.
I’ve made 20516 posts on Tumblr but only two have gone viral. The first was from a Rwandan speaking as part of the Moth podcast ‘Notes on an Exorcism’:
We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave. They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.
The second was from Walter Benjamin:
Mankind’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.
In the space between these two quotations lies almost the entirety of the problem.



6.
In 1953, Mohammad Mosaddegh, the then newly elected president of Iran, was overthrown in a CIA-sponsored coup . His crime was his desire to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. I often wonder what that part of the world would look like today if he had successfully managed to build a working socialist-democratic precedent in the region. When I lie awake at night, more and more often it is history that fills my thoughts: Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, Patrice Lumumba in the Republic of Congo, Salvador Allende in Chile. There is another moment I often think of: shortly after Mussolini was elected he apparently managed to either kill or jail almost every single card-carrying member of the Italian communist party.

When you start reading the history of the left, stories like these pile up one atop of another. (As I’m writing this I chance upon a New York Times piece about Operation Condor: six South American military dictatorships meeting in 1976 to “concoct a secret plan to eliminate their left-wing opponents.”) It is stories like these that form the background for Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative.” The more I read the clearer this background becomes: over the course of the twentieth century, all attempted alternatives have been systematically undermined using money, propaganda, dirty tricks and, whenever necessary, extreme violence.

Of course, we can’t change the past, things that are done cannot be undone. But how to effectively think possibilities for the present and future while at the same time keeping this history at the front of one’s mind? How to actually feel the fact that the world we currently live in didn’t just happen, that battles were fought, won and lost, and in so many ways we are living the desired outcome of the victors. Through posing these questions, I am attempting to walk myself towards activism. In most of what I have witnessed, single-issue activism has the greatest chance of success. But I always fear this is little more than blocking out larger realities in favour of short term gains. Is it possible to have a genuine overview and still effectively fight? This fight might resemble the familiar slogan: think globally, act locally. In this sense I can always get behind the hope of setting a precedent: success in one context can create a sense of possibility elsewhere—a sense that there is, in fact, an alternative.

If I concentrate my energies on the specific activist battle at hand, it does not necessarily mean I am ignoring the global history that has brought us to this point. But I do feel there is something painful, almost enervating, in attempting to focus on both levels of reality at the same time, both on the devastations of history and on possible gains in the present moment. So many battles have already been lost that the playing field feels almost nihilistically askew.



7.
There is a most-likely apocryphal story I’ve seen mentioned in various forms over the years. In it, there was a secret meeting of all the major record labels at which they decided to work together to promote gangsta rap, to make gangsta rap the dominant form in hip-hop. Whether or not this meeting actually took place, any hip-hop fan can’t help but notice that the lyrical content of early hip-hop was considerably more varied, often more sunny, and generally more political than it is today . When one form dominates, other perspectives fall by the wayside. Even if marginalized, however , they never completely disappear. When concentrating on the things directly in front of us, our peripheral vision remains rife with every possibility not currently pursued. The peripheral might be seen as a distraction or it might, perhaps as effectively, be seen as our only chance for discovery.



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October 27, 2016

Every Song I’ve Ever Written in Montreal (Nov 4-11)

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PME-ART presents: 

Toutes les chansons que j’ai composées
Every Song I’ve Ever Written

Friday Nov 4th
Karaoke Version
Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal 
Nocturne de la Biennale
9pm 
Facebook Event

Monday Nov 7th
Solo
La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines
6pm - 11pm
Pay What You Can
Facebook Event

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday / Nov 9, 10 & 11th
Band Night
La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines
8pm 
Facebook Event
With:
The Besnard Lakes 
Catherine Valéry 
Jef Ellise Barbara 
Mozart's Sister 
Elena Stoodley 
Tickets: bit.ly/2e3zy9o 


And at all times the website: http://www.everysongiveeverwritten.com


World premier of the entire project 
Presented in partnership with La Biennale de Montréal 
In collaboration with Usine C as part of Actoral festival 


Les beaux malaises de Jacob Wren
Un mariage spectacle et «talk-show»



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October 15, 2016

An ongoing list of possible titles

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[It seems my main activity these day is trying to think of a title. I will attempt to continue this as an ongoing list.]



Never Having Experienced Jealousy

Past, Present, Future, Etc.

Imperfect Love

Unfinished Love

The Unfinished Present

My Apologies

How Not To Be A Hypocrite

Desire Without Expectation

Unfinished Love / Imperfect Love

Some Future

Life is very short and should not be spent crawling at the feet of miserable scoundrels

On Being Not Consequent

On Not Being Consequent

The Depressed Saint

Ashes Without A Phoenix

Not of the Ruins

Unfinished, Imperfect, Untitled

Everything Has Not Been Done 

My Plan is to Stay Calm



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September 18, 2016

The BookThug Interview with Jacob Wren, author of Rich and Poor



The BookThug Interview with Jacob Wren, author of Rich and Poor



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September 14, 2016

On Tori Kudo, Reiko Kudo and Momus

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I can’t remember how long ago it was now when I walked into the Montreal record store Phonopolis and, over the sound system, heard a record I absolutely loved. The album was Rice Field Silently Riping In The Night by Reiko Kudo. It is an album I have come back to again and again. Not a year goes by in which I don’t listen to it at least a few times, and often many more.

Around that time, I wrote to a Japanese friend to ask her if she’d also heard it. I was surprised when she wrote back suggesting an artistic collaboration between Tori Kudo and myself. I was already in the process of listening to absolutely everything I could find by both Tori and Reiko. The owner of Phonopolis was also obsessed with their music so it was possible for me to find almost everything they’d put out.

From January 24 to February 23, 2012, I went to Matsuyama and Kochi to begin working with Tori and figure out what we might do together. Tori suggested we begin by making pottery, something that not only had I never done but in fact had never even considered. Over a month I got to know Tori a little bit and we made some things. I have previously written that “all the artists I admire are such a strange combination of completely open and completely stubborn,” and Tori might be the perfect example of this phenomena. (Of course, the same might be said about me.)

The music of Maher Shalal Hash Baz represents for me some kind of perfect balance between structure and freedom, between pure music and impure anarchy. Tori’s complex, and at times self-defeating, virtuosity meets the energizing non-virtuosity of so many different band members over such an expanse of years, each member twisting the project ever-so-slightly in their own direction. It is classical pottery full of spirited cracks, with the cracks built in, pushing forwards and retreating against the pure timeless spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and glorious punk.

Reiko Kudo’s music feels, to me, timeless in a different, perhaps deeper, sense. Timeless like dust. Like gold dust. Fragile melodies from multiple other worlds. You can hear Tori’s anarchy informing the background and yet it is clear that Reiko is so precisely and delicately in charge. I of course don’t understand Japanese so I often don’t know what she’s singing. But like the very best singers somehow I do know what she’s singing because I imagine that I can feel it through and against the limits of language.

I do of course know what Momus is singing. More so than with most singers because I have so many of his old songs memorized or almost memorized, like they have been with me from almost before I was born. There was a period of my life – the period in which I wrote many of the songs from Every Song I’ve Ever Written – in which I listened to Momus every day. There were many, many days in which I listened to nothing else. With Momus I imagined the pop song as a literary novel, the pop song as a philosophical tract, the pop song as perverse détournement of everything else that wasn’t a song by Momus.

And speaking of a perverse détournement: in Tokyo it is very possible we will have Momus performing the songs I wrote twenty-five years ago which were, at the time, almost completely inspired by Momus. (But, then again, he might also choose different songs.) My teenage self could have never imagined things coming full circle in quite this way. A story of time travel that is almost, but not quite, worthy of a Momus song.



Every Song I've Ever Written will be performed at Sound Live Tokyo on Sept 17 & 18, featuring Momus, Reiko Kudo, Maher Shalal Hash Baz & The Hardy Rocks (Keiji Haino).

You can listen to the Momus covers here.

And find a playlist of my favorite Tori, Reiko and Maher Shalal Hash Baz tracks here.

 

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August 29, 2016

Betsy Warland and Anne Golden

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A few days ago I finished reading Oscar of Between by Betsy Warland. I’ve been wanting to write something about it constantly since. This is definitely not a review, just a few thoughts and much literary enthusiasm. (For a review I would highly recommend Julie R. Enszer’s considerable insights over at Lambda Literary.) Back in June, I heard Warland read from Oscar of Between at Across No. 3. in Toronto and was instantly hooked. What is this book? Why didn’t I know about her work before? I thought about this question more than I probably should have and a somewhat related question: why don’t more people read the books I love? I thought of both of these questions more than I should have while reading Oscar of Between because Warland raises them herself on more than one occasion. For example, a few brief passages from Part 7:

The literary seen. For decades Oscar within but not: a knot cinched tight. Her own growing complicity. Recently removing some evidence of this this when preparing her second round of literary archives; speaking less and less to her writing friends about being ostracized, understanding their need to stay on the right side of the right people, understanding the greater the force of denial the greater the force of losing personal power.

[…]

During the 1980s then ‘90s, Oscar fell in love with two literary men’s partners. Although the falling in love was mutual, Oscar was blamed. Since then, Oscar’s observed, literary men are not ostracized for becoming lovers with literary men’s partners.

There. Lies. The just. Of just-us.

[…]

In a 2013 Margento essay for the first time Oscar wrote:

“In hindsight, I realized that I emerged as a feminist lesbian author and this was an aberration. Other feminist lesbian writers’ lives hadn’t unfolded this way. In their early publishing years they had had close friendships with, a number had romantic relationships with, and nearly all had been students of literary men. I had not. Consequently, my inclusion in the poetry community was significantly limited.”

This reminds me of Chris Kraus, the exhilarating feeling I had back when I read I Love Dick and Aliens & Anorexia for the first time. A dangerous willingness to call out slights and abuses one is apparently supposed to take in stride in this or that world of art. The sentences also often reminded me of David Markson: a certain poetic crispness and lucidity. At other moments the Maggie Nelson of Bluets came to mind. But Betsy Warland is nothing like Kraus, Markson or Nelson. When reading something new one might be forgiven for searching out comparisons.

Oscar of Between is a work unto itself. Fragmented yet cohesive, it continuously surprised me. I rarely had any idea where it might go next and yet each step along the way thrived with its own strong desires and inner logic. It is memoir driven by experimentation and driven by honest yet unexpected thought. It makes itself as it goes along and questions its own methods in ways that always add forward momentum. Another brief passage:

Oscar of Between initially subtitled “A Story of Failures.”

Several writer-friends recoiled, “No one will want to read it with a title like that.”

The longer she lives, the more interested Oscar becomes in failure – what we consider it to be. How so often it’s the unnamed force that shapes the story.

All of this also somehow made me think of another book I recently read and loved: From The Archives of Vidéo Populaire by Anne Golden. (Actually, what really made me think of it was Sara Spike’s beautiful review in the Montreal Review of Books.) I first read From The Archives of Vidéo Populaire when I was asked to blurb it. Here’s my blurb in full:

I couldn’t stop reading From The Archives of Vidéo Populaire, found ever word convincing, almost as if it had happened to me and my friends. So many aspects of Montreal that I genuinely haven’t encountered before, visions of the Seventies and Eighties, all written up in compelling, magnetic, verbatim detail. A book for everyone who has every considered doing the impossible and perhaps, at least partially, succeeded. A book to give us strength in such heartfelt endeavors. Early video art has finally found its literary masterpiece.

I read From The Archives of Vidéo Populaire at the beginning of the year, so it’s not nearly as fresh in my mind, but what I remember most is the same feeling I had reading Betsy Warland: I can’t believe how unexpected this book is, how energized and surprised I feel reading it. This is literary pleasure. Books that value thinking, that embody thinking as writing, and embody thinking as writing to deeply think about the world in which we live.

Betsy Warland and Anne Golden are both Canadian writers. Both of these books came out this year. And I suppose I’m also a Canadian writer. I’ve often thought how strange it is that it’s easier to identify myself by nationality than it is to identify myself in relation to any specific aesthetic, artistic or literary affinities I might have or desire. I’ve definitely spent most of my reading life engaged with authors from elsewhere and perhaps somewhat neglected Canadian literature in the process. I’ve also, a bit stupidly, longed for some international literary movement that I could join but, like most of the artists I admire, wherever I look it seems I don’t quite fit. At any rate, by the time I started writing the age of artistic movements was apparently over and done.

Often when I’m in Europe I’m asked to recommend some Canadian books that I like and I’m embarrassed that off the top of my head I can’t quite think of any. And reading Oscar of Between I really felt that the problem is me, not Canadian literature, that I’m simply not searching hard enough. (I also made this list of favourite Canadian books that I can hopefully use to answer the request if it should ever arise in the future.) Sometimes I feel that Canadian literature is too small to support a truly lively counter-literature, a body of works that really show there are completely other ways of writing books. (If we’re talking about poetry the question is a bit more complex. I suppose I’m mainly thinking about novels.) I’m perhaps also thinking of the Semiotext(e) novels that I read throughout the eighties and nineties (and continue to read), an endless series of books that showed me again and again how another literature is possible. How what I’d previously thought a book could be was actually only the very beginning. Oscar of Between and From The Archives of Vidéo Populaire both clearly suggest, at least for me, what a Canadian counter-literature might look like. I will definitely be reading each of them again.



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Lisa Cohen on style

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“What is style?” the American modernist Marguerite Young has asked. Her own reply: “Style is thinking.” A riddle of unconscious excitements and conscious choices, style is a way to fascinate oneself and others – and to transform oneself and the world. It is an attempt to make the ordinary and the tragic more bearable. Style is a didactic impulse that aspires to banish doubt, a form of certainty about everything elusive and uncertain. Style is at once fleeting and lasting, and it has everything to do with excess – even when its excesses are those of austerity or self-denial. It is too much and it is nothing at all, and it tells all kinds of stories about the seams between public and private life. As a form of pleasure, for oneself and for an audience, and as an expression of the wish to exceed and confound expectations, to be exceptional, style is a response to the terror of invisibility and isolation – a wish for inclusion. Above all, it is a productive act that, although it concerns itself with the creation and experience of brilliant surfaces, is powerful because it unsettles what we think we know about the superficial and the profound.

- Lisa Cohen, All We Know: Three Lives 



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August 28, 2016

Titles

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Instead of actually working on a book, I am producing an endless series of titles for said book.


An endless series of possible titles for a book I will probably never write.


For years now people have been telling me that I'm "good at titles" and it seems I'm finally choking under the pressure.


Title-shyness.



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Some Favourite Canadian Books

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Islands of Decolonial Love – Leanne Simpson 
Zong! – M. NourbeSe Philip
Oscar of Between – Betsy Warland
Thou – Aisha Sasha John
From the Archives of Vidéo Populaire – Anne Golden
Salt Fish Girl – Larissa Lai
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars – Kai Cheng Thom
Accordéon – Kaie Kellough
Picture Theory – Nicole Brossard
Canadian Healing Oil – Juan Butler
Ethics Of Luxury – Jeanne Randolph
Bodymap – Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Debbie: An Epic – Lisa Robertson
The Sorrowful Canadians & Other Poems - Wilfred Watson
The Swallower Swallowed - Réjean Ducharme
The Well-Dressed Wound - Derek McCormack
Pandora - Sylvia Fraser
Saudade: The Possibilities of Place - Anik See



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