November 18, 2019

Ten 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

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

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


November 12, 2019

Another short excerpt from Chapter Three of the work-in-progress Amateur Kittens Dreaming Solar Energy


A few weeks later, as promised, they were met at the train station by a young woman with two bicycles for them. At first Rana sped out ahead to lead the way, but it didn’t take long for her to realize that Petra and Veronika were keeping a much slower pace – they were doing everything more slowly around that time – and, being a good host, she slid back to match their rhythm. What would normally take four hours on that day took almost seven, but the extra time and slower pace allowed them all an opportunity to talk, a long and winding conversation that began when Petra asked Rana how she first ended up at The Vicinity and Rana replied it was really a long story, that she had spent most of her youth in a refugee camp, and there was a group of activists who would sidestep the guards, slipping under the fence to monitor conditions, report any human rights abuses to the media, and in this way some of the abuses of years past were at least partly curtailed. Another thing these activists would often do, whenever they had a chance, was teach children to read, as many children as they could gather, and Rana was one of the few children for whom these lessons basically became her lifeline, her only hope for staying sane within an often hostile containment. There weren’t many books on site but whatever books there were circulated widely, passed from hand to hand, and there was one book she became increasingly obsessed with in that way you can only become obsessed when you’re young and have not yet encountered enough of the world. The book was called Helpless Laughter. She was particularly obsessed with Chapter Five which was entitled The Uprising and documented an earlier event at a much different kind of encampment in which those interred rose up and took over, finding a way to organize the site (and themselves) using overlapping and multiple forms of self-governance. Later they struck a deal with the authorities allowing them to, in many ways, continue their experiment of autonomy as long as they remained within the confines of the fence along with a few other concessions. (Rana wasn’t sure why, but the chapter didn’t specify just exactly what these concessions were.) During those years, the more she thought about Chapter Five, the more obsessed she became, wondering if it would be possible to organize a similar uprising where she lived, in the place she had basically spent her entire life so far. So she went to work but because she was so young she was often not taken nearly as seriously as she wished. For many years she encouraged everyone she met to read Chapter Five as the book continued to be passed from hand to hand. She also regularly organized small discussion groups on the topic – it was important the groups remain small so as not to draw too much attention from the authorities – where they discussed all the many pros and cons of working toward self-governance, either through an uprising like the one in the book or through some other means.

And then came a day that completely changed her life. We’ll let her continue in her own words: “In those days, sometimes I would run. I’d run the inside perimeter of the fence over and over like a track. I told myself it was for exercise but knew it was also to tire myself out, since I did it mostly when I felt angry so that gradually the anger was replaced by exhaustion. Sometimes I’d imagine an opening in the fence that I ran through and just kept going. I was feeling especially angry that day, so at the moment I would normally stop I instead began running faster. It rapidly became apparent I had much more energy and stamina then I previously knew. I was feeling angry because I’d heard a rumor, heard it not once but three times, from three different people. It was a rumor about another uprising, something that happened in the past weeks or months, an uprising brutally supressed, where everyone was killed. It was only a rumor but there was no reason to believe it wasn’t true. People were telling me, three different people, because everyone knew how interested I was in the possibility of someday organizing an uprising. They were telling me to dissuade me and telling me perhaps to see how I’d react. Each and every time I responded with calm curiosity, saying that I hope we can learn more about it in the future. And if it’s true it makes me sad. But it didn’t only make me sad, it also made me angry. I knew if I seemed too impulsive or headstrong or angry my attempts to build resistance would be taken less seriously, would seem less credible. Already, even at that young age, I knew I needed to work carefully, through charm and logic and quiet confidant determination. And of course I also wondered how much easier it might have been if I were a man. (Not to mention how much easier it would have been if I were a white man.) But there’s enough macho bullshit in this world and I was dreaming about something completely different. There was so little wealth in that place and therefore no ostentatious displays of wealth. We all had about the same amount and therefore it cost us so little to share. At least with books, we were always sharing them, passing them around. I realized this was not the complete picture of our reality, but it was the reality I desired to work toward, and therefore it’s what I most often focused on. But on that particular day, as I was running and running, I was no longer sure if an uprising was worth the risk just because I read about it in a book. Books are beautiful things but, on that particular day, I was also asking myself if they can sometimes lead you astray. Or how often they lead you astray. Books are beautiful things but they are not reality. Reality was the people I saw every day sitting out in front of their tents and offering to share their tea. Reality was my closest friends who slept beside me every single night in the tent and who I would never want to see harmed in any way. And yet I remained convinced we should all continue working toward self-governance. The only question was how.

As I turned the corner running along the inside of the fence, for the seventh or eighth time – I’d actually lost count by that point – off in the distance, just a speck, at the far end of the site, there was clearly something going down. Even though I couldn’t see it clearly, I believed I already knew what it was. A group of activists were cutting away a single panel of the fence. They did so from time to time, when they wanted to load in things that were too big to slip underneath or throw over. It looked like they had a stack of large cardboard boxes but I had absolutely no idea what the boxes might contain. As I got closer they were cutting with their wire cutters and then just as I arrived they managed to pull the entire panel free as I ran straight through the opening and kept running as if for my life. (I didn’t see any guards then realized they wouldn’t be opening up the fence if there were guards around.) Many times in the past I’d imagined this happening and at that precise moment it seemed to me such imaginings were not fantasies but premonitions. For the first time in my life I had completely left the site and was running hard and long though I had absolutely no idea where I was going nor why. It was never my real fantasy to leave that place, or so I’d previously thought, though actions speak louder than words. My real fantasy was always to stay and work together to make something better for everyone. But there I was, a split second and everything in my life had completely changed. All I could think to do was run, keep running, I had no idea how far or for how long.”

As they pedaled, Petra and Veronika were both completely taken by the story. For a while they all biked in silence, with Petra or Veronika occasionally asking some further question which Rana ably answered before the quiet cycling resumed. Then Veronika had another thought: “You’ve told us how you escaped the camp, but that doesn’t really tell us how you ended up at The Vicinity.”

“That’s true. Maybe I’m not ready to tell you that yet. Maybe when we know each other better. But I just remembered something else. Something I haven’t thought about in a long time. I’m actually not sure I’ve thought about it since I lived there. Telling you the story must have triggered the memory. A good memory. Maybe one of the best from my entire childhood. Once or twice a week we all used to play a game. The game was basically soccer but for some reason we played it differently. After every point we would all stand together in a big circle and then everyone would take one step to the left. I’m not completely sure how to explain it. We were taking turns, one at a time, playing on both teams. After every point we each took a sideways step and the invisible division cutting the circle in two constituted the new teams. I never really asked myself why we did this but I suppose it was more fun that way. And of course it also made it more fair. At the time I just thought of it as something we did, I actually didn’t know any different, but now that I’m thinking back it feels almost like a small miracle: egalitarian children inventing a more egalitarian version of the game. Everyone gets a turn playing on both teams, but also the teams are constantly changing, every point bringing one new team member. That was the way I learned to play it and I wonder if there was ever a specific moment when I learned that it wasn’t also the way people played it everywhere. I must have come to know that more banal and less egalitarian reality at some point, since I know it now, but I don’t remember any specific moment when I learned it.”


November 10, 2019

Second short excerpt from the work-in-progress Dry Your Tears To Perfect Your Aim


After having read all four letters, after so much all-too-accurate criticism of my work, I have to ask myself the most difficult question: is there any real reason for me to be writing this book? And even if I manage to finish, is there actually a good reason to publish it? More than anything, I wish for any book I might write to concretely help those on the thin strip of land, or at the very least to vehemently express my infinite admiration and support for them. But will it? Does it? I think long and hard about this question and realize what I feel: so much guilt that I’m an artist and not an activist. Reading over what I’ve written so far, I can see that in so many ways this is one of the main topics. That I’m an artist and not an activist. A topic (and guilt) which of course helps no one. However, there is me with my tepid struggles. And then there are those on the thin strip of land whose struggles are considerably more important. I can’t tell the story from their perspective. I can only tell it from my own. Then there is also you, the reader. If I have been ineffective, there is no reason why you can’t read this, learn from my mistakes, and choose to be more effective than I could ever be. How you might do so is something I’m not able to tell you or even suggest. Why, having read this story so far, would you have any reason to listen to me. Of course, we all know you must never try to save anyone. Must always work in solidarity with others’ struggles, asking first what they need. (I’m directly addressing the reader while still unsure if I will ever finish or publish this book. Always getting ahead of myself.)

When I look back at the history of a certain kind of literature, I often see myself. In writers like Franz Kafka, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Musil, Robert Walser, Roberto Arlt, Sadegh Hedayat, Witold Gombrowicz, Cesare Pavese, W.G. Sebald; depressed and literary mostly European melancholiacs – often published posthumously – who could do little other than write and whose writing fed their alienated melancholia and vice versa. It is telling that none of these writers ever attempted to write an anti-war novel. Many of them never even got on a plane. Sometimes I tell myself: now is the time to change. If I believe, with all the injustices that surround us, that activism in our current moment is so much more important than art, then I must step up, transform myself, be the change I wish to see. (Like Prince at the end of Purple Rain except with politics.) But then I feel I’m only lying to myself. If I am good at anything, and of course I’m not so sure I am, it will always have something to do with art, it is only through some kind of writing or art that anything might happen. So here I am, again trying to write this book. From my own all-too-flawed perspective. Once again unsure whether I’m doing right or wrong. And I remember this quote from an interview with Myung Mi Kim: “The undecidability of whether I am making a difference or not – that ambiguity is part of the answer. Part of the work of answering the question of social efficacy has to include the ambiguity. If you actually had an answer, you wouldn’t be taking in the whole full weight of the questions.” For the moment there is no other way, finish the book first and only then decide if it should be published. Only then attempt to make the impossible decision as to whether it will do more harm or good. And when that moment comes, I very much hope it is a decision I will not be making alone.


November 7, 2019

Short excerpt from the work-in-progress Dry Your Tears To Perfect Your Aim


In the preface my friend writes: “Is it possible to write about my own death as if it were also the death of capitalism and patriarchy?” And, strangely, in the unreal way he has written up his travels, he (in some sense) does die four times, once at the end of each section. Unfortunately this last time was for keeps. Which makes me wonder: do capitalism and patriarchy need to die or do they only need to change? (If they change into something clearly unrecognizable as capitalism and patriarchy do we say they changed or do we say they died?) As we know, some people would rather die than change and I’m still trying to figure out whether or not my friend was one of them.