A Radical Cut In The Texture Of Reality

December 11, 2019

Some favourite things from my 2019


[As previously mentioned, I really do love lists. As with previous years, this list is in no particular order and many of these things did not come out during the previous year.]

Delayed Rays of a Star – Amanda Lee Koe
Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) – Hazel Jane Plante
Turn This World Inside Out – Nora Samaran
XYZT – Kristen Alvanson
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments – Saidiya V. Hartman
Tonguebreaker – Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Appendix Project – Kate Zambreno
Overthrow – Caleb Crain
Twelve Clues – Hassan Khan
petit cadeau – Claudia La Rocco
Radical Doubt: The Joker System, After Boal – Mady Schutzman
They Will Drown in Their Mothers' Tears – Johannes Anyuru
Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow – Michiko Ishimure (translated by Livia Monnet)
The Taiga Syndrome – Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine & Aviva Kana)

Spellling – Mazy Fly
Mourning [A] BLKstar – Reckoning
Sacred Paws – Run Around The Sun
Meara O'Reilly – Hockets for Two Voices
Richenel – Perfect Stranger
Little Simz – GREY Area
Angel Bat Dawid – The Oracle
Combo Chimbita – Ahomale
Outro Tempo II: Electronic And Contemporary Music From Brazil, 1984- 1996
Davis Green – Parakeet Suite
Mega Bog – Gone Banana
Sault – 5

Music I like perhaps mainly because it makes me feel a little bit better about getting older
Edwyn Collins – Understated
Edwyn Collins – Badbea
Robert Forster – Inferno
Robert Forster – Songs to Play
Peter Perrett – How The West Was Won
Robert Wyatt – Comicopera

seeds cast afar from our roots – Angie Cheng, Winnie Ho and Chi Long
My Mother Was a Keypunch Operator – Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
Neuter Ality – Yunuen Rhi
Tour – Mardon + Mitsuhashi
Le pouvoir expliqué à ceux qui l'exercent (sur moi) – Système Kangourou

Visual Art
Leyla Majeri – Garden Archive
Shuvinai Ashoona – Mapping Worlds
69 Positions: Porter témoignage | Our Vanishing – Curated by Jamie Ross
Moyra Davey at the Ryerson Image Centre
k.g. Guttman – Visiting Hours


December 6, 2019

I’ll Never Leave Ravicka


Where is Ravicka? A prosaic answer to this poetic question is that Ravicka is a fictional city-state within the recent novels of Renee Gladman. You may already know these books: Event Factory (2010), The Ravickians (2011), Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013), Houses of Ravicka (2017). Ravicka is shifting, disappearing, possibly under attack, difficult to translate. There is a crisis and this crisis can be variously understood. And though there is a crisis, you are not allowed to call it that, at least not in front of government officials. I once thought these books were a trilogy, but there are already four and I understand at least two more are on the way. I recently reread the Ravicka novels one after another and would recommend reading them in exactly this fashion, in rapid succession. Each book complicates the others. Their status as a series calls into question what it means for books to exist as a series, each book troubling timeline, narrative, and geography alike. For me, The Ravicka novels desire not just to be read quickly and in succession, but to be reread. This desire might be rephrased in the form of my original question: Where (or perhaps what) is Ravicka? The more you reread the less you are able to satisfactorily locate it, as each new aspect you learn (or relearn, or unlearn) continues to resonate.

In several of the books, a governor none of the protagonists like or respect appears. “Our governor Ludoc Vlati sings the city’s praises; we are against him. While I will also adore our city, we are not against me,” says the Great Ravickian Novelist Luswage Amini. We don’t know anything about Ludoc Vlati, but also we do, since of course we instinctively know all the ways a politician can be wrong. This is Ravicka, a world at once identical to our own and absolutely nothing like it. In our world, buildings and neighborhoods are moved out of reach through gentrification and rising rents. In Ravicka, the buildings literally stand up and walk away. (But do they do so literally, or in some other way? This is never fully explained.) Ludoc Vlati is a politician claiming everything is all right, when everything is clearly not alright, when things are falling apart, though it is impossible to know the severity of the disaster. We don’t know enough about him to gather whether he really believes that everything is all right or if he’s simply lying for votes. Or, rather, do we know that everything is all right for Vlati and his class, and he’s bet the farm on the assumption things will continue to be so? Vlati is rarely mentioned, only a few times. It’s unclear why I’ve begun with him. He’s not significant.

Ravicka is a land of many customs. Most of these customs involve putting your body into it, bending and twisting as custom requires: “But there was a gesture I was to make upon entering a place that was already peopled, something between ‘hello,’ ‘sorry,’ and ‘congratulations I’m here,’ and I could not remember what it was. As subtly as I could, I bent here and there trying to jog my memory: was I to do a shake, a roundoff? […] A child approached me and asked if I were sleepy. Why it was this question that recalled the missing gesture, I shall never know. But there it was: you folded your body as though you were taking a bow with your legs spread apart, and then, after holding that posture for several seconds (depending on your age) you brought your legs together quickly.” The physicality of such customs make Ravicka a land of continuous social dancing. But we think of dancing as fluid and graceful, while so much of Ravickian social life comes across as awkward, aspiring to grace but falling short. Perhaps the physicality of the customs themselves are graceful, but those performing them are no more graceful than you or I. Might this also be how I perform whatever social customs I encounter in my own daily life, which mercifully require less physical acumen than those of Ravicka? “…no culture performs as extensively as the Ravickians. You cannot enter a place without proving to the occupants that you have a body. Not just to display the limbs and skin you carry around with you, but to prove you are in dialogue with them.” When I am reading I am often not aware of my body. Perhaps one of the reasons I love reading so much is it allows me to temporarily forget my considerable bodily limitations. But Ravicka never lets me forget. Every few pages I am reminded that to properly interact with others requires one’s full physical presence: eye contact, open and welcoming body language, a hug or no hug, a shake, a roundoff or whatever else the encounter might desire.

Ravicka is a city-state in two parts, divided by the all-important bridge. (I would like to further explain the importance of this bridge, but also must admit that I still haven’t fully grasped it.) “But in which place? There were reasons for choosing either: cit Sahaly because it was gorgeous and ancient and from it we could watch the spectacle at the other end of the bridge, or cit Mohaly because it was the spectacle.” I can never quite keep these two places straight. The old world and the new. Is it true that most large cities have a part of town where much older buildings remain intact? Or does this only apply to cities with an unbroken history, cities in which older buildings haven’t been eliminated by extensive redevelopment or war? “I wanted to sing and I wanted to draw, so I moved to cit Mohaly, as every other creative person does. You go there or you go to cit Sahaly – to Sahaly if you’re looking to practice art at the level of science, if you want to be an architect, for example, or a cartographer…” I wonder if I will ever fully comprehend the many tangled differences between cit Sahaly and cit Mohaly. This wondering is also a reminder that I’m still a newcomer here, in Ravicka, still a tourist, almost a child, unable to fully understand what it means to be in one neighborhood rather than another, though I definitely understand it means a lot. Perhaps everything.

I have been thinking how each of Ravicka’s narrators are embodied neurotics, since their internal struggles are rarely, if ever, kept inside. (I say this as someone who works very hard to keep my own neuroses hidden.) Instead they actively and repeatedly embody their dissatisfactions and confusions, playing them out in each of their wanderings and carefully unbalanced exchanges. In Event Factory, an unnamed “linguist-traveler” arrives as a tourist (or researcher), and then continuously attempts to keep up, so many newly made friends and acquaintances slipping past her, uncertain to what degree her understanding of basic matters is shared by others. Or, in The Ravickians, the Great Ravickian Novelist Luswage Amini pines for Ana Patova in an ongoing arrangement that never quite coheres, getting purposefully lost on her way to hear her old friend, the poet Zàoter Limici, read a few poems that soon become an entire chapter of their own: “I am not sure if I have ever just gone anywhere. In Ravicka, you walk out into the city and want immediately to get swept up into an adventure, and it is only after this adventure, which might take the better part of the day, that you wish to arrive at your destination.” Then, in Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, Patova writes (or, at least, starts writing) book after book, reaching towards the contours of the ongoing crisis, her friends a swirl of unreliable information and beautiful semi-communication around her, every chapter unspooling like the next stanza in a poem: “I wrote a book whose title I withheld from the book for a long time as I wrote it and slept on it and not because I didn’t want the book to know itself (I had no influence on that), rather, because I feared that once I put the two together they would go on without me.” And finally the overconfident—and, one suspects, rather incompetent—Comptroller Jakobi in Houses of Ravicka, author of Regulating the Book of Regulations, wanting to be fully in charge of situations as they unravel. For example, dragging his close friend Triti away just as she’s claiming to have discovered the lost house he had originally enlisted her assistance to recover. (Triti was about to find it down a manhole.) Yet who wouldn’t be neurotic in this world of physical social customs? The air is yellow (or not yellow but dahar, a Ravickian word we can only translate into English as yellow, though it is not yellow), the population mysteriously leaving or in some other way diminishing, the buildings moving of their own accord. Indeed, because of the crisis, you might even get run over by buildings slowly moving through the night. Of course this is the only world the Ravickians know, saved by the ways the dahar air is sometimes beautiful, “and as I pass through I am brushing glitter from my skin,” reflects Luswage Amini.

The formal shifts within each Ravicka book, and from book to book, keep me elegantly off balance. When, in the final section of The Ravickians, we drift into a fragmented poem of misdirected dialog between friends, the section reads like an absurdist stage play. Or, when the “linguist-traveler” in Event Factory begins living homelessly, I also felt myself slipping into a different, and precarious, method of literature and feeling. (A method that doesn’t require the reader, or writer, to fully understand all aspects; that allows our understanding to ebb and flow within whirlpools of desire and unsatisfied anticipation.) Then there is the perspective shift in Houses of Ravicka, moving from Jakobi, who is searching for house No. 96, to the occupant of the invisible, corresponding house No. 32; from the world of the pompous professional to the world of artistic living. Such shifts are a blast from nowhere, the sound of an author surprising herself in some genuine and flourishing way, and rereading them renders them no less uncanny.

Ravicka is also a land where national writers are nationally beloved. (This is very different from anything I know in real life.) In almost all of the books, The Great Ravickian Novelist is sought after, her titles searched for, encounters with her fulfilled or imagined. In a moment of great stress, trying to recall the books on his bedside table in order to calm himself, Jakobi wishes he was currently reading something by The Great Ravickian Novelist, instead of The Days Were Done by Gunnezet: “I wish I were reading Amini right now. How The Very Long Array would fortify! But Gunnezet is the man of the hour.” Of course Gunnezet is never mentioned again. The “man of the hour” vanishes just as quickly as he appeared—and can’t we all think of at least a few writers who fit this description? What is this disintegrating world where writers and literature are continuously important, to so many different kinds of people, yet in an everyday sort of way, as if the books we read cannot help but be at the center of our lives. “Passerby would suggest I read Patova’s I Thought of Architecture, which I had read many times and knew many passages by heart, as most everyone else did.” These writers struggle to solve a crisis, through writing and action, that at the same time they cannot officially acknowledge. And has any crisis ever been solved through a writer’s struggle with words?

As I’ve already mentioned, there are aspects of each Ravicka book I don’t completely understand. And I hope, no matter how much I explore them, that some parts will never completely cohere. That Ravicka will remain a labyrinth in my mind, entire swathes of the city just out of reach, what these swathes are changing over time in my memory and rereading of them. In Eileen Myles’s blurb for Event Factory she compares the novel to Kafka’s Amerika, and Gladman does often make me think of Kafka. Yet, as soon as this comparison occurs I know I’ve taken a wrong turn. A wrong turn on the road to answering the question: Where is Ravicka? Gladman is nothing like Kafka, yet both writers are consistently uncompromising—in their language, in the fragmented worlds they have, paradoxically, so seamlessly and convincingly created. There is a quote from Kafka I sometimes see online: “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” Ravicka is the story of one writer’s merciless obsessions and the city-state that embodies them. These obsessions, mirroring our own world, a world that is also disintegrating before our eyes, miraculously manage to find joy and relief in the most unexpected of ways and places.

The rumor that more Ravicka books are to come is a rumor I hope is true. The next in the series is rumored to be about the grasses of Ravicka, grasses where the ancestors long ago lay down and dreamt what Ravicka might someday become. Future books, of course, will have to wait (even future books taking us further back into the past.) So perhaps I’ll just let Ravicka have the last word: “It was amazing to imagine your city was a novel, and that for you to walk around within it meant that you were in language, you were in a thinking text; pages were walls that enclosed you, the ground was the floor of the book, the horizon of the sentence, and all you were doing was walking up hill, going for coffee, hanging clothes to dry. We were inside a living structure, ourselves living, and went on this way for a long time.”


December 2, 2019

Block Diary Confabulation


[This text was originally published in Sarah Pierce's catalogue No Title.]

For the past few years I have had the worst writers block in my life. With this text, like everything else I have recently been invited to write, I find myself wondering if I should push through and force myself to write something, or if instead I should write to Sarah and say I’m sorry, I tried, but I just can’t, nothing will come out, and then hope against hope that I’m allowed to graciously pull out of the project. The fact that I have now already gotten this far makes me feel, for now at least, that I’ve chosen to push through.

Along with the block comes an enormous and ongoing rush of anxiety. The anxiety has many shades and aspects, but mainly it wonders: will the rest of my writing life be like this? Will I never be able to write easily and with great natural pleasure again? Has something been permanently lost or is this just a temporary phase? I think of this anxiety as a subset of a larger anxiety about getting old.

Leonard Cohen died last week. I live in Montreal where Leonard Cohen is so much part of how the cultural city thinks itself. I don’t really want to write about Cohen but he died last week and he’s in the air, and as I consider getting older I remember this morning, fresh out of the shower, examining my hair in the mirror and noticing how much more grey there was since the last time I could remember examining my hair. Instantly the opening lines of that song are happening: "my friends are gone / and my hair is grey / and I ache in the places that I used to play." And then the next line: "and I’m still crazy for love / but I’m not coming on." My friends aren’t gone. In fact, most often I announce that I don’t have any friends (while at the same time telling myself that I really have to stop saying that.) And I’m not still crazy for love, in fact most often I say I’ve never been in love and I don’t exactly know what people are talking about when they say that love is so important. But my hair is getting grey and more and more my writing life feels like a struggle to the death with some sort of neurotic block.

I believe that artists should do less, should make less. So in one sense the block falls very much in line with my more general beliefs. I no longer watch films, but when I was younger cinema was important to me. Back then I also thought that artists should do less. I was struck by how Leonard Cohen made eight albums during the same time period that Bob Dylan made nineteen, and believed that Cohen’s albums were each considerably stronger and more consistent because of this fact. I noticed that Andrei Tarkovsky made only seven films and attributed the remarkable consistency of his work to his relatively limited oeuvre. And then, years later, I read Tarkovsky’s diary Time within Time and was startled to learn that there were dozens of other projects he had begun to develop, that he absolutely desired to make, but for mostly bureaucratic reasons could not get made. The small number of films he made was not because of any great artistic purity, discipline or quality control on his part but simply because of worldly obstacles that prevented him from producing more. And this made me question my theory that artists should make less, made me realize that so many artists I admire had this enormous creative energy, an energy that just wants to keep producing and producing, and it was often only extremely frustrating obstacles that created an artificial degree of quality control. That an obstacle might force an artist to decide which of their many ideas, which of their many potential projects, are actually the most important to them, which ones they abandon and which they push through. My current creative life is certainly not without obstacles, but it occurs to me that, along with the grey hair, there are also now somewhat fewer worldly obstacles blocking my practice than there were in the past. And to compensate I need to become my own worldly obstacle, which may or may not have something to do with the aforementioned block.

I feel completely stupid when I write or say this, but my greatest fear about getting older is that my work will start to suck. This fear has something to do with gradually losing my faculties, losing sharpness, but also, simply put, with becoming old-fashioned, outmoded, out of date. It makes me question the ways in which my conceptions of art are in confluence with our advertising-driven, youth obsessed culture. I now know how problematic it is, but I can never seem to completely divest myself of the idea of the radical or modernist break, that the most striking art breaks into us in the form of a paradigm shift. But new ideas are most often variations on old ideas, often stolen from other places or other cultures, most often falsely pretending that there was nothing there before. And yet a more circular idea of art and life, while now striking me as more honest and true, is also tainted, for me at least, by stogy, conservative ideas of respecting and preserving traditions. What traditions to keep and what traditions must be burned to the ground?

As was frequently noted, the week L. Cohen died was the same week Donald Trump became president. I want to write something like: it seems that American imperialism is entering into some sort of strange fascist senility. But I’m afraid to make light of the situation in any way, thinking of just how many people will be harmed and killed in the years to come. We are living in dark times and I’m sitting here worrying that as I get older my work will begin to suck; perhaps a metaphor for the artist in relation to the world at large. It is because our lives are relatively short, and we often find it so difficult, on a day to day basis, to see beyond them, that as a culture we are not able to more fully reckon with the world we are handing over to future generations. Does the world get older as well?

I have now written enough that my claims of writer’s block seem somewhat unconvincing and yet I know, or at least feel, that this text is only a small oasis in the desert. I strike out blindly at larger-than-life questions as a cover for the fact that I have so little relation or connection to the small daily struggles of actual life. When I got the invitation to write in parallel or in connection to the theme of dementia my first thought was that I should write about my grandmother. I clearly remember her saying to my mother, quite near the end: "I feel so crazy. Why do I feel so crazy?" My grandmother suffered from manic depression her entire life, frequently underwent electroshock, and I felt very little connection to her as a child. To this day my mother strongly believes that my melancholy outlook on life is the hereditary remnants of my grandmother’s manic depression, which may or may not be true, I honestly have no idea. For the most part my depression doesn’t interfere with my ability to work or to be an artist, which I suppose is why I tell myself that it’s all right. But then I look around, I look at the world, and it seems that nothing is all right, and I wonder how much of this observation comes from my melancholy perceptions and how much comes from the actual world. And what kind of art to make in such a situation.

I’ve never thought of my writing as stream of consciousness, but it is often a kind of structured (or unstructured) improvisation. I’m continuously trying to surprise myself, to walk the line between control and out of control, but in real life, even with much drugs or alcohol, I am so rarely out of control. I don’t know what it is holding me together but it’s definitely something. And yet that something constantly feels on the precipice of slipping away.

An artist should do less, should make less, in order to have more time for experiences that connect him or her to the world. Art should be a reflection of living, not an activity which prevents it. In this respect I have always done it wrong. Quotes I noted down when I was young:

Friedrich Nietzsche: "Witness: I do not live, I write."

Thomas Mann: "I tell you I am sick to death of depicting humanity without having any part or lot in it."

The older I get the more clearly I see the error of my ways. Two more quotes that strangely influenced my formation:

Henry Miller: "Celebrity is merely a different form of loneliness."

Pier Paolo Pasolini: "Success is the other face of persecution."

I look at these quotes and can see the path I long ago set myself upon and that I’ve now lived. But I also don’t want to be melodramatic. I usually try to avoid writing that seems like little more than a plea for therapy, but somehow the theme has unlocked it in me. Getting older is a form of looking back. (And I know that I’m actually not that old. But it’s starting.) Writing and thinking are so close to one another, so close together. Writing is also a form of memory. Someday people will forget that Cohen died the same week Trump was elected, but then perhaps someone will read this text, or some other recently written thing, and the facts will be revived. Whether or not, at that point, they will seem in any way significant is another question altogether.


November 28, 2019

Recently cut passage from the work-in-progress Dry Your Tears To Perfect Your Aim


He started with my very first book. He said he admired the youthful energy, the punk spirit, how I saw literature as a war and my book was like a one-man army fighting off all contenders. I certainly wasn’t fond of the military metaphor but it was clear this wasn’t a discussion, rather it was a critical monologue on his part and my job was to sit there, cowering in fear, and simply listen. About my second book, he spoke about how encouraging it was to watch me, step by careful step, marching toward something that resembled a more conventional novel. I realized he was telling me all this to get inside my head, or to show that he was already inside my head, that he already understood me. I tried to remember what it was actually like for me to write my second book, thinking that if I could reground my thoughts back toward my own lived experience it would help me resist his misguided analysis of my work. Did it feel like marching toward a more conventional novel. For a moment, under the potential threat of further pain, I thought that maybe it did, but he was already onto my third book, which he said was like a concise summation of the history of leftist defeatism. This was a topic that clearly interested him a great deal. He carefully explained to me how the root of winning any battle was believing in the strong possibility you might win. Of course this principle could be taken too far: as had frequently been proven, over-confidence could also easily lead to defeat. But he would always prefer over-confidence to under-confidence, for the simple reason that winning a battle required a certain effortless arrogance, or at least that was how it had always seemed to him. It was starting to amaze me just how much he loved to talk, loved the sound of his own voice, felt emboldened by the sight of me strapped to this chair, an absolutely captive and terrorized audience. About my fourth book, which he also seemed to know was by far my most successful, he said that it was fascinating the degree to which my take, my approach, to the topics of sex and violence were so completely opposite from his own. He wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that for him sex and violence were for all intents and purposes one and the same, but his thinking was clearly more along those lines. What is the libido without the urge to dominate, what is desire if not the thrill of the chase. Fucking might also be love but, then again, love might also be terror. By this point I was no longer quite following him, losing interest, all my concentration spent in an effort to stay awake, in the fear that if I fell asleep I would be awakened by a jolt of pure pain. I couldn’t even begin to understand what he thought my take on sex and violence was. I think maybe he just assumed they were two things I was afraid of, which in retrospect might not be so far from the truth. About my sixth book he felt he had to admit that he didn’t understand why so many people wasted so much energy criticizing capitalism. Capitalism was just another part of life, no better or worse than anything else. Why so much obsession with the evils of capitalism? He was sure he would never completely understand it. What would our world look like if you took away all the products and comforts created by capitalism? He was sure no one knew, and if no one knew why even bother thinking about it. He told me that I must agree with him so I agreed with him. I barely had the energy to hold my head up. At that moment the evils of capitalism did not seem like such a pressing matter. He then admitted he hadn’t actually read all my books because he hadn’t read my most recent outing, book number six, yet. He had ordered it but for some reason it hadn’t arrived with the others. So he would have to get back to me on that one. And we could stop there for today. I was really glad I hadn’t written any more books. He did not comment on my seventh book for the simple reason that I had not yet written it. My seventh book is the book you’re currently holding in your hands.


November 21, 2019

My First Reaction Was To Cringe


[This text was originally published in the publication Post-Punk Art Now.]

In her book Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys., Viv Albertine – guitarist for seminal female punk group The Slits – tells the story of a young pre-Sex Pistols Sid Vicious, accused of throwing a beer glass at The Damned during a show. The glass shattered against a pillar, sending shards into the face of the lead singer’s girlfriend, who incurred severe eye injuries. Sid went to jail but continued to maintain his innocence. He didn’t do it. It was only much later, after he was released, that he admitted it was actually him. That was punk, spitting rebellion into the face of the world but cowardly if there were real life consequences.

This is Simon Reynolds, writing in the liner notes of the Young Marble Giants Colossal Youth re-issue:
Postpunk and “perfection” rarely went together. This was an era of experimental over-reach, of bands catalyzed by the punk do-it-yourself principle attempting to expand the music by embracing genres (funk, reggae, jazz) that in their original context relied on virtuosity and slickness. Artistic ambition and anyone-can-do-it amateurism make for uneasy bedfellows, and many of the key groups of the period made records that were closer to sketches towards an ideal of a new music than the fully-realised deal. Even some of the accredited classics that defined the era […] have the odd moment or several that are substandard, botched, or simply misconceived. And really, that’s okay, because perfection wasn’t the point of postpunk. What was? Throwing out ideas, setting challenges for band and audience alike, keeping the collective conversation moving.
Punk opened the door and postpunk walked through it. A rebellion against society transformed into a rebellion within music. It resembles a lesson in emancipatory politics. The vanguard, despite its limitations, pries open certain realities previously assumed closed, and then the next wave makes considerably more use of the freedoms that have now been created. If they can do all that, perhaps we can do even more. Only eventual entropy can stop us. Or maybe this is too simple. The energy of music, and the flash-forward social scenes that surround it, often make me feel a sense of political potential that may or may not actually exist.

There is a story about The Ramones I often think about. The first time they toured the U.S. there were no bands to open for them. But the second time suddenly there were. During that first tour, in every city they played, some kids saw them and decided to form a band, a new band that would then end up opening for The Ramones the very next time they came through town. For me, this is almost all that art actually is. Something contagious. You see it and think: I want to do that too. But not only that. You also want to take it further, test the limits, see how much more it will stretch, how far you can go.

My fantasy is that this is all emancipatory politics might actually be as well. You think: the world doesn’t have to be like this. There must be another way. Some activists try to open up a little bit of space, it works for awhile, and you start to wonder how much further it could go, what strategies might take us there, how you might play a role. The difference is the repression and co-option you will be subject to are on a vastly larger scale. The more you succeed the more they kill you.

When David Clersen invited me to write for this publication, he quoted back to me something I had previously written about kindness and taking care of each other:
Here we are in a territory of fragile humanism, about as far away from the ‘no future’ punk rock nihilism that was one of my personal entry points into art and creativity. If I can get past my anxiety that all punks become boring hippies in the end, I can see that conceptual strategies that allow for more generous social relations, to put it rather bluntly, often feel good when you take part in them.
When I read his email, and re-read my earlier words, my first reaction was to cringe. Over the past few years I have written more about the fact that privileging kindness can be radical, that our ability to take care of each other might be the most political thing we can do, that dog-eat-dog Darwinism must be replaced with new visions that pay careful attention to the symbiotic interdependence of all living things. But punk and postpunk still have my heart. In some sense, all my ideas about art and politics still have to do with wanting to rip things up. Which makes me think of the very first line of Sigurd Hoel’s 1927 novel Sinners in the Summertime: “You are a self-deceiver and as such belong to the last generation.”


November 18, 2019

Thirteen quotations on fame


Down in Atlantis the curator showed me around the space, gesturing to invisible artworks that will soon be expensively shipped from far away to fill the room. I am the least famous and the least rich and the least well paid artist; I am paid partly in the fame of other artists. I am paid pyrrhically in the currency of my desire to be seen on my terms. My desire has almost as many social claims and credit operations on it as a straight man’s sexuality; both are supposed to justify the movements of capital that provide the basic infrastructure of contemporary art. Overdetermined, my art-making suffers the fate of all socially appointed agents of desire; it becomes intermittently impotent, and terrorized by the threat of its own softness.
- Hannah Black, Dark Pool Party

By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, with all these puzzles, rebuses, and arabesques, I became famous, and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortunes, riches. And today, as you know, I am celebrated. But when I am alone with myself I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, and Goya were great painters; I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and has exhausted as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere.
- Picasso, Libro Vero, 1952

I think it’s more obvious when the fame stops and the person cannot continue putting out and putting out and putting out – and so the public or the press stop being flattering, and then it’s very painful. People can spend a year being famous, the talk of the town, and then, gradually, there is a kind of lessening of it until in the end there is none of it. It can destroy people. Almost like someone they adored died, or something inside them died. I saw that happen with a couple of people who were friends of mine. And I thought, I certainly would not ever wish not to be famous but if I ever am famous I promise myself to be very, very, careful.
- Maria Irene Fornes

In a 1954 letter to Reina Reyes, his fourth wife, Felisberto Hernández outlined a story he had just “discovered”: Someone has had the idea of changing the Nobel Prize so as to give the writer who wins it “a more authentic happiness,” and prevent the fame and money currently attendant upon it from disrupting his life and work. The new idea consists of not revealing the identity of the winner even to the winner himself, but using the prize money to assemble a group of people – psychologists for the most part – who instead would secretly study and promote the writer and his work for the duration of his life. The conferral of the prize would be publicly announced only after the winner’s death.
- from the Prologue to Lands of Memory by Felisberto Hernandez

It’s very difficult to not get crushed by too much popularity. You want to please people and meet their expectations, and expectations are just the worst thing. They’re the worst poison. They should be absolutely prohibited and fought against, actively. I sense that also: that people when they meet me have expectations. They have a whole story in their mind and then when they meet me and I’m just me it’s somehow ah, I’m not what you expected me to be. But that’s a trap, the expectation, and I try to avoid it. I try to not have expectations, because most of the time you’re going to be disappointed. So why live a life of disappointment, when you can live a life of joy?
- Laetitia Sadier

Success is the ethical quagmire par excellence of commodity culture because it jeopardizes our relation to dissent, to resistance, to saying no, as fame is precisely about what one is willing to do, how far one is willing to go, and how much (low in the form of high. Going low in order to get high) one is willing to say yes to. The road to fame is made up of assent. This is what gets you to the literal and figurative top. And this is why fame is almost always a parable about losing (not finding one’s way). About being led astray. “Making it” is not the struggle to become, as it’s always been said, but the willingness to be made.
- Masha Tupitsyn

I understood, but could not forgive, the temptations of celebrity hunger. I had my own “fifteen minutes of fame” in 1968-70 in the women’s liberation movement. Such attention can replace a fragile sense of self, so that only more attention can fill the void that remains, and more attention is never enough.
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War

Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything.
- Rainer Maria Rilke

Work your ass off to change the language & dont ever get famous.
- Bernadette Mayer, Experiments

If you really want to know something about solitude, become famous.
– James Baldwin

Celebrity is merely a different form of loneliness.
– Henry Miller

Success is the other face of persecution.
– Pier Paolo Pasolini

I don’t need no fame
- Robert Forster, No Fame


October 25, 2019

Patti Smith Quote


When I was really young and struggling, the advice that William S. Burroughs gave me was, build a good name, keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned about doing good work, and make the right choices, and protect your work. If you build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.

– Patti Smith


October 24, 2019

In love with the movement of the world


[This text was written for Ula Sickle's project Free Gestures - Wolne Gesty presented at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art. It is also published in the book of the same name.]


I raise my arm. If I were to have done this in an auction I might have just purchased something. Something I most likely can’t afford. If I were to have done this in a classroom I might have had to give the answer to a question or my thoughts on a specific topic. Answers and thoughts I might not have. I raise my hand on the street, at random, or here in the gallery and perhaps it means nothing. It is bad pantomime. I reach for something just above me, just out of reach. A metaphor or analogy. I raise my hand with an open palm or with a fist. I have to decide if I raise my right hand or my left, if it makes any difference which one I choose, or if I would prefer that someone else decide. If you have to raise your hand before you are allowed to speak, and I would prefer not to speak, nonetheless I raise my hand. In the group, at the meeting, we decided decisions would be made based on the desires of the majority. After lengthy debate and discussion, these desires would be ascertained through an open vote, your participation in each vote would be signaled by raising your hand. All in favor: I raise my hand. All against: I raise my hand. I know I am not allowed to vote twice but I raise my hand.


Across the street I see a person. They are a bit too far away. I cannot tell if they’re male or female or some other gender. They are walking along with the rest of the crowd and during this time I do not notice them, they do not stand out. But then they do the thing. I can only describe the thing as suddenly, unexpectedly raising both arms. But the thing is not raising both arms. It is something else. The arms are involved but the rest of the body is involved as well. It is always only one person who does the thing but everyone else is involved as well. Everyone on the street and everyone in their thoughts. I am watching the street and think I see them do the thing but then believe I’m mistaken, that I haven’t actually seen them do anything. I have a theory. My theory is that the thing is a small form of everyday political protest. It involves lifting both arms but also involves the entirety of the body, of the person and of the social setting that surrounds them. I have no particular evidence or reason for believing my theory to be true. It is less like a theory and more like a feeling. It is true. When I have a few hours to kill, when I’m unsure what to do next, I aimlessly stare out my window hoping by pure chance to see someone spontaneously do the thing. I think maybe I saw it yesterday. I think maybe I will see it again tomorrow.


I said: I understand that you’re angry at me. And if you want to express your anger you can punch me in the face. You have my permission. You can punch me in the face gently or with great force. This is not something I’m saying to you now. I don’t want you to punch me in the face. I’m not, I repeat, not giving you my permission to do so. This is something that happened to me many years ago. I knew she was angry at me and wanted to give her permission to express her anger. To effectively and physically express her anger. I said: I understand. And what I understood was anger. I was wondering how to give it permission to become physical. She did not punch me in the face, suspecting that I most likely didn’t actually want her too, and she was most likely right. I told myself: these are all questions of relative freedom. It is misery to possess anger and yet have absolutely nothing to do with it. If we had taken a vote, a vote as to whether or not she should punch me in the face, she would have voted no and I would have voted yes and it would be a stalemate. She said: I don’t want to punch you in the face, I want you to change your ways. I said: I don’t want to change my ways, I want you to punch me in the face. This only made her more angry. Still she didn’t punch.


I lie down, stiff as a board. You have to lie down for what you stand for. You don’t only have to stand. You can also lie down. I lie down alone in the most public of spaces. I know what it means to be tired but that is not the reason I lie down. That is never the reason. Some people think lying down has something to do with sex but I know they are wrong. I’m going to change the topic now. The new topic is looking straight ahead but at the ceiling. Looking straight ahead at the future which also happens to be the ceiling. It is not the glass ceiling most known to us through metaphors of inequality. It is the ceiling you see while you are looking straight ahead as if looking off towards the horizon. It is the ceiling one finds by lying down in public but ceilinged spaces, by lying down during a protest, by letting ones body go limp. In this position you can raise one leg as if raising an arm, as if you know the answer to a question in the classroom or wish to signal your desire to make a purchase in the auction hall. You can raise one leg as if raising an arm but the gesture is significantly different. We have all raised a hand but not all of us have necessarily raised a foot. It is not the way we vote. Not yet. A mischievous flexing of the ankle. In order to vote I lie down. I put myself in the way. I put myself in the way of those who are not lying down.


She made an obscene gesture. And because she made an obscene gesture I fell in love. It was so obscene. It made me want to take off all my clothes and raise my hand. Ask for permission. She did not make this gesture in order to impact me. She made it for herself. Of her own free will and for her own free will. She made it to piss off the world. While I stood there naked with my hand raised high, I wondered for a moment just exactly what I was voting for. If I had a choice, I think I would scream: I am voting for the obscene gesture and I am voting for love. They are one and the same thing. (Everyone can see they are one and the same thing.) But I am making this about me when really it is about her. I always do this. We all know the real question is this: how exactly do you imagine the obscene gesture? And how would you make it yourself when the time comes to do so? An obscene gesture is like an army. I am avoiding the question of how I fell in love. But what is love when placed against the strength and fortitude of the obscene gesture. I am writing this in secret. From the depth of our most secret hideout. The secret society of the obscene gesture. Raising both arms in the air. Raising both legs in the air. Arms and legs that know nothing of love. Something to do with the fingers and pelvis and muscles and blood. A small, obscene form of everyday political protest. Of social process. The obscene gesture can also fall in love. In love with its own obscenity. In love with the movement of the world.


October 10, 2019

Lindsay Nixon Quote


So it was that MDMA, and queer love, forced me into my body: my mouth, and my sweaty skin pressed against the rest of the crowd. And it was the dance floor that facilitated queer love. Every weekend, without fail, my young queer kin and I would situate ourselves on dance floors of the prairie rave scene, in an abandoned warehouse or a rented community centre, chasing feeling. We had all been dissociated from our bodies too long, told they were sick with fem mannerisms and thick thighs that were just a little too plentiful, too greedy, for public space. As queer kin, we gifted each other the ability to name desires I had been told I wasn’t worthy of, and let me believe I’m worthy of love, worthy to take up space, and worthy of being fucked, in the small-town queer communities we birthed at those seedy warehouse raves.

Was it Hollinghurst who said the gay novel is dead, even though he should have just said that the yt dude gay novel is dead?

- Lindsay Nixon, nîtisânak


October 1, 2019

An excerpt from Authenticity is a Feeling


[What follows is an excerpt from Authenticity is a Feeling: My Life in PME-ART from the chapter concerning The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information:]

There are a few stories we tell (and don’t tell) in The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information that so clearly resonate with my own ongoing struggles with collaboration:

A story about the Fall. About how the Fall had over sixty members, and the reason there were so many is that Mark E. Smith kept firing them. It goes without saying that many former members were less than happy about this situation. Mark E. Smith didn’t write any music and didn’t play an instrument. He only wrote the (generally brilliant) lyrics and spoke/sang them, and also gave commands in the studio and onstage as to how precisely the songs should be played. (In general he wanted them played with greater simplicity and more ferocity.) So members who were no longer with the Fall had written all of their best-known riffs and melodies, and then were later replaced with others who did the same. But Mark E. Smith said they shouldn’t complain, that if past members were all so great then why hadn’t they done anything as great after they left. For Mark E. Smith, himself plus anyone was the Fall. Or as he once notoriously put it: “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”

I believe, or at least hope, that I’m a much gentler soul than Mark E. Smith was. (Or at least more Canadian. And I’m certain that I drink exponentially less.) But the evidence on the table shows that there are many who have worked with PME-ART in the past who no longer work with us. I certainly didn’t fire them, but perhaps there were some who wanted to continue further than they did. Or maybe, on the other hand, they really, really didn’t. I don’t actually know. Over the years there have not been many conversations along these lines. In one sense, this is simply our roots showing: we are structured like an (experimental) theatre company that works with creator/performers on a project-to-project basis. We invite people to work with us on a specific project and then see how it goes. But most of the work is so highly collaborative that this way of explaining the structure never feels completely right to me. I do gravitate toward the idea of “projects,” artistic endeavours with a beginning, middle, and end (as one can see from the way this book is structured). And, at times, I have also felt that me and anyone (and yer granny on bongos) is PME-ART. But most of the time I realize just how untrue this actually is.

(Perhaps all of this also reflects a decision semi-made all those years ago, after sitting in on the Forced Entertainment rehearsals, when I asked them if we should stick with the same people or open up to new collaborators. But it also seems to be a decision I am continuously making and unmaking. I can’t quite let it rest one way or the other.)

The story we tell in The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information about Pavement has to do with their final concert before they broke up (and also a few years before they once again reformed). The lead singer, Stephen Malkmus, walked onstage wearing handcuffs, holding his cuffed hands high above his head, and said: “If you want to know what it feels like to be in a band, this is what it feels like to be in a band.”

But there are also two stories about Pavement that I’ve never told in the show. The first is about how, after Pavement broke up, I read an interview with Malkmus in which he said that Pavement was basically all him: he wrote all the songs, wrote all the guitar parts, and often had to teach the rest of the band the songs several times before they were able to properly play them. (In their early days Pavement recorded a number of songs that were a bit too obviously influenced by the Fall.) Malkmus has now released a number of solo albums (some with his new band, the Jicks) that, in my humble opinion, are nowhere near as good as anything he made with Pavement. So the other members of Pavement clearly must have been contributing a great deal. (Also, to give Malkmus the benefit of the doubt, that was just one interview, maybe he was having a bad day.)

The second untold Pavement story is more apocryphal. I believe my favourite Pavement record is Wowee Zowee, made while they were still high off their first somewhat mainstream success, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and its single “Cut Your Hair.” Wowee Zowee was their most experimental and adventurous album, pushing in different directions with every track while still holding it all together. It was also a relative flop. And I feel they were overly stung by its reception. After that they were less likely to take risks, more likely to play it safe. Somehow I’ve had analogous experiences with PME- ART. Some of our most adventurous works (Unrehearsed Beauty-Le Génie des autres, HOSPITALITY 3: Individualism Was A Mistake) have also been the hardest to tour. I always need to push myself back toward taking artistic risks again. To remember that Wowee Zowee is still the best Pavement record and the world just needs to catch up.

These stories about Pavement and the Fall are perhaps ways for me to reflect on my different position within the group, within any given PME-ART creation process. How I am both one of the gang and the boss, and I suppose it’s not really possible to be both. And yet that is the struggle of the work. The ethical/artistic struggle that can never entirely be solved. Since, at the same time, I’m never only in charge. Within a PME-ART process it is always possible for me to be outvoted or to change course based on the desires of the group. It’s happened often. How to be transparent about my role within the collaborative dynamic? I often hate the lived experience of collaboration but somehow still so fiercely believe in it, knowing it would be so much better if it was the opposite: if I loved collaboration then I wouldn’t even particularly need to believe in it.

(Marie Claire writes that, yes, within PME-ART the leadership is pretty clear, even though it is subject to discussion. But also, it was only through her learning The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information that she came to understand just how much Claudia and Caroline hold and lead the work with me. For the HOSPITALITY/HOSPITALITÉ series, this has been absolutely true.)

The story about Parenthetical Girls is one we used to tell in the show but for some reason don’t anymore. When I saw the Parenthetical Girls play in Berlin there was one moment that will always stick with me. During a split-second pause in a song (I no longer remember which one) they all smoothly and effortlessly switched instruments. The drummer stepped over his drum kit and slid into the guitar strap that was held open for him, as the guitarist stepped over to the keyboard, the keyboard player was handed the bass, and the bass player sat down behind the drums without missing a beat. Or at least that’s how I remember it. This is also a story about collaboration, about those ecstatic moments when it really works, all the pieces sliding together without a hitch. I wonder how many times they had to rehearse it before it worked, or if it happened that smoothly every night. A moment of grace that can only be achieved through fully working together. (This actually isn’t the kind of thing I usually like in performance. Too virtuosic for my tastes. But in this case it caught me off guard and lodged in my memory accordingly.)

Another story about Parenthetical Girls. In 2016 I had a residency in their hometown of Portland, Oregon. And, while there, I would tell everyone I met that I loved the band. And everyone responded that they knew frontman Zac Pennington, or one of the other members, but no one had ever seen them live or listened to any of their records. (Parenthetical Girls put on a phenomenal live show.) As someone said to me: “Of course I know Zac. He’s really good at karaoke. Is his band any good?” As the French expression goes: you can never be a prophet in your own village.