August 29, 2016

Betsy Warland and Anne Golden


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.


Lisa Cohen on style


“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 


August 28, 2016



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.



Some Favourite Canadian Books


[When I'm in Europe I'm often asked to recommend Canadian books I like and generally can never think of any off the top of my head. When I read Oscar of Between, I was really blown away by it, and somehow it inspired me to make this (obviously really subjective) list. As is my habit, it is in no particular order. I think the list might get a bit longer in the days, months or years to come...]

nîtisânak – Jas M. Morgan
Islands of Decolonial Love – Leanne Betasamosake Simpson 
Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) – Hazel Jane Plante
We, Jane – Aimee Wall
Zong! – M. NourbeSe Philip
Oscar of Between – Betsy Warland
Accordéon – Kaie Kellough
Dominoes at the Crossroads – Kaie Kellough
Thou – Aisha Sasha John
From the Archives of Vidéo Populaire – Anne Golden
Our Lady of Perpetual Realness & Other Stories – Cason Sharpe
You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. – Sheung-King
Bodymap – Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Tonguebreaker – Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Salt Fish Girl – Larissa Lai
This Is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars – Kai Cheng Thom
Antigone Undone – Will Aitken
The Subtweet
 – Vivek Shraya
Sitting Shiva on Minto Avenue, by Toots – Erin Moure
The Swallower Swallowed - Réjean Ducharme
Listening for Jupiter
- Pierre-Luc Landry (Translated by Arielle Aaronson and Madeleine Stratford) 
The Obituary – Gail Scott
American War – Omar El Akkad
Little Fish – Casey Plett
Canadian Healing Oil – Juan Butler
Ethics Of Luxury – Jeanne Randolph
The Baudelaire Fractal – Lisa Robertson
Prison Industrial Complex Explodes – Mercedes Eng
The Sorrowful Canadians & Other Poems - Wilfred Watson
The Well-Dressed Wound - Derek McCormack
Debbie: An Epic – Lisa Robertson
Pandora - Sylvia Fraser
Saudade: The Possibilities of Place - Anik See
Smoke Show - Clint Burnham


August 22, 2016

A User’s Guide to Authenticity is a Feeling / Short Project Description


2018 marks twenty years since the first PME show En français comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize. To celebrate this anniversary, co-artistic director Jacob Wren has written a book entitled Authenticity is a Feeling: My Life in PME-ART. A compelling hybrid of history, memoir and performance theory, the book will be a highly subjective, chronological retelling and questioning of much of what has happened in and around our work over the past twenty years. Sometimes Jacob also jokes that what he’s writing is in fact “a novel about PME-ART.” It begins when Jacob meets Sylvie Lachance and Richard Ducharme in 1996, and traces a line through collaboratively created performances such as Unrehearsed Beauty-Le Génie des autres (2002-2004), Families Are Formed Through Copulation (2005-2006), HOSPITALITY 3: Individualism Was A Mistake (2008-2012) and The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information (2011-). It is a book that aims to change the rules for how interdisciplinary performance can be written about.

But books about performance never feel quite right, or at least never feel like enough on their own. Addressing performance requires performance. Therefore, we are also creating an accompanying work entitled A User’s Guide to Authenticity is a Feeling. It will begin with Jacob reading excerpts from the book and showing photographs of the works in question, and then gradually move towards an ever more personal and artistically vulnerable perspective on what the past twenty years have meant. It is an artist talk turned inside out, an artist talk that tells more about artistic struggles and challenges than about any worldly success, raising complex questions as to what exactly it means to be making performance today. It is an author in dialog with his own strange book, and with his own life spent making collaborative work, casting new behind-the-scenes light on just why we do it, why we continue to believe so stubbornly in the fragile but essential act of “being yourself in a performance situation,” and how we continue to hope against hope that our destabilizing tangle of art and politics might still, in some small way, change the world.

The performance will also document the reactions all of PME-ART’s past and current collaborators had to the book. What they agreed with and what they found unfair will also become part of the piece, demonstrating how our shared artistic history creates collaborative dynamics that are complex, fascinating and all too human. Finally, in an ongoing manner, the performance will be altered for each place we visit. In each city there will be a section of the performance that speaks directly to all the times PME-ART has presented there in the past, to the specific relationship between our work and that venue and city.

A User’s Guide to Authenticity is a Feeling is our most personal, direct and honest work to date. It gets to the very heart of what PME-ART means and, in doing so, opens up new artistic possibilities for the future. It speaks to how sometimes the only way to move forward is by first looking back, and how the unique ephemerality of performance creates a sense of time and memory that is perhaps one of its greatest qualities.


A User’s Guide to Authenticity is a Feeling was on tour in 2018:

Malmö / Inkonst: October 26 & 27, 2018
Düsseldorf / FFT: November 7 & 9, 2018
Reykjavík / Everybody’s Spectacular: Nov 15 & 16, 2018

Was in Montréal at La Chapelle: April 17 & 24 / May 1 & 8, 2019

And was in Vancouver at PuSh on February 5 & 6, 2020

You can also order the book Authenticity is a Feeling: My Life in PME-ART here.

Bonus: all the links about PME-ART currently available on the internet.


Peter Pál Pelbart Quote


In 2005, Alejandra Riera came to São Paulo and got to know the Ueinzz Theatre Company’s work. Shortly after she arrived, she proposed a collaboration with the theatre company involving a project she called Enquête sur le/notre dehors, along the lines of her previous research. Out of this, a device was activated with the actors from the company for a very specific, though open, inquiry and recording. It consisted of a group outing every day for several days to some place in the city suggested by the actors, where the group would approach someone of their choice – a pedestrian, street vendor, a student, a police officer, a stranger, a homeless person – and directly fire at them any questions that came to mind. In an unusual situation where the interviewee knows nothing about the interviewer – but sometimes perceives a certain strangeness – the rules of a journalistic interview are reversed and everything starts to go wrong, without anyone managing to detect the reason for the derailing. Postures begin to come undone, the personal, professional or institutional masks which everyone dearly holds onto fall to the ground, allowing a glimpse of the unusual dimensions of the disturbing “normality” which surrounds us every day, as the artist used to say. With a displaced camera that questions the anchoring point of discourse, a hiatus is created between image and speech, and thus a suspension in the automatism of comprehension.

Let us take one miniscule example. We were in front of the Legislative Assembly in São Paulo talking with a peanut vendor. One of our actors asks him what the magic of this place is. The street vendor does not understand and asks if the interviewer wants to know how much he earns. “No, I wanted to know what is your happiness here?” “I don’t understand,” says the peanut vendor. The actor, a little agitated by his interlocutor’s deafness, asks him point blank: “I want to know what is your desire, what is the meaning of your life.” Then everything stops, there is a suspension in the dialogue, a silence, and we see the man sinking into a dimension that was totally other, far from any journalistic context. And he replied, quietly, with a certain difficulty: “suffering…” This is the basis without a basis of the entire conversation, the disaster, which already occurred, the exhaustion which cannot be spoken of; it is the bitter isolation of a man cornered in front of a monumental building which represents an unshakable, but nonetheless empty power; everything which only appears by means of a sudden interruption, triggered by a sort of vital irritation. An interruption provoked by the one who is supposed to be drowned in his own abyss – the crazy actor. And here everything shifts, and the spectator suddenly wonders what side life is on, and if that question still has any meaning, since it is nothing but a whole context of misery which emerges from this unusual dialog. What causes an eruption is the psycho-social instability upon which everything else rests; and also, for fleeting moments, the germs of something else. In making the situation schizophrenic, for a time there is the impression that everything may become derailed: functions, places, obeisance, discourses, representations. Everything may fall, including the device itself. Even if we encounter what was there from the very beginning – suffering, resignation, impotence – we witness disconnections that make so-called normality flee, along with its linked automatic reactions; and also the evocation of other possible bonds with the world. As Riera says, this is not social reporting or a survey with humanist ends, but the recording of an experiment. It has no make-up, no claims to denounce a situation, and no inclination towards aesthetics. At the end, we do not really have a proper documentary, or a film, but an unusual object, a trace of an event that when seen may trigger other events – as was the case when some fragments were shown in the La Borde clinic, where Guattari once lived, in the presence of dozens of patients and psychiatrists, including the founder of the clinic, Jean Oury. In the enormous central hall of this decaying castle, one late Friday afternoon in September 2008, the people were waiting for the “Brazilian film” made by a theatre group, according to the rumor that was going around. But there will be no “Brazilian film,” nor any “documentary,” nor any “film,” nor any “theatrical piece.” Absence of work. How to explain this without disappointing such high expectations? The weekly meeting ends, the hundred people seated in the auditorium turn toward the screen, already stretched, the windows are closed in order to allow for the showing of the “Brazilian film,” and Alejandra Riera compliments those present and straightaway points out that she does not intend to show a film. She explains that this is only an experiment, that it is very difficult to talk about this… and instead of giving a talk on the project, on her intentions and its logic, as one would expect, she confesses that she has experienced great difficulty working lately… that in the end she could not manage it any more… to work or to build… imagine the effect of this talk on people who long ago had abandoned the circuit of “work,” “projects” and “results.” She then adds that lately all she could manage was to take things apart. She does not even stop from taking apart the tools with which she once worked, such as the computer… And she takes from her handbag two plastic bags with fragments of the disassembled keyboard: one of them contains the alphabet keys, the other the functions (Delete, Ctrl, Alt, etc.) She then passes around the transparent plastic bags containing the pile of pieces so that they can be circulated among those present. The spectacular expectations of a film gives way to an extraordinary complicity with an artist who does not call herself an artist, who does not bring her work, who confesses that she is not able to work, who shows the remains of her computer, pieces that have been dismantled, evoking a project whose impossibility is immediately made known, leaving only the impasse, the fiasco, the paralysis, the exhaustion that is common to us all, whether we are lunatics or philosophers, artists or psychiatrists… Only once the link between “art” and “audience” is short-circuited, once the glamor, entertainment, culture, work, or object which could be expected from that “presentation” of images us undone, and the central protagonist who leaves the stage is “de-individualized”: only in this way can something else occur – an event as the effect of suspension. A projection of fragments can even take place, or a controversial discussion, at times accusatory or visceral, that drags into the night, into the twilight of the auditorium, which no one has taken the trouble to light up and which ends with the hilarious question from a patient: “Do you all have a project?” As if reconnecting to Alejandra’s initial speech, in which she confessed about her difficulty in working, in constructing a project, in doing work, it evokes Blanchot’s intuition on the common ground existing between art and unworking, or Foucault’s idea about the relationship between madness and the rupture of work. Perhaps this is where we can find a performative exhaustion of the project or of the work, so that inaudible voices and improbable events can emerge.

- Peter Pál Pelbart, Cartography of Exhaustion: Nihilism Inside Out


August 13, 2016



Those who do know history are doomed to endlessly dissect it.

Trying not to repeat history is a repetition of others who have tried not to repeat history in the past.

Those who don’t know history are doomed to think that things are worse now than they were before.


August 4, 2016

Jean Claude Fignolé Quote


But if we are to link Spiralism to its antecedents, then we must also look to the movement developed in Veracruz [Mexico] known as la ronda which premised that art itself was of circular form and movement. In addition, there was the Guatemalan author, Emethias Rosotto, who wrote in his novel Mr. General that art could only be spiral. This formula worked for us, because our writing style is spiralistic and not linear. As we write, we turn and we turn and we can embrace all as we turn.

- Jean Claude Fignolé

[Read the rest of the interview here: Becoming Actors in History]