Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read an excerpt from Scott McClanahan’s So I Went Away.
I went away from this place and I lived somewhere else. Years passed. When I came back, it was all the same. It had been years, but the place was the same. I started teaching at the school I went to as a boy. It was a substitute gig. The original teacher needed surgery and she would be out for three weeks. There was a little girl there in the 5th grade class and she was so shy she could barely speak. The other 5th grade teacher told me that the little girl’s mother was on drugs. She told me not to get close to the kids like that because they never made it through the school year. They always ended up moving or just disappearing. She told me that she had been to a funeral just a few weeks earlier for a student’s mother who had overdosed.
I discovered a few days into teaching that the little girl couldn’t read. I stayed after school and tried to teach her. I told myself I was helping her, but who knows. Then I went home in the evenings and waited for the next day to come.
I tried looking for Bill, but I couldn’t find him. I asked around but nobody seemed to know. I drove by Ruby’s a time or two, but the house was falling in now and it usually just made me sad.
Augustus Thompson on making art in the shower, Instagram and his solo show at Ed. Varie.
For Augustus Thompson’s latest installation at Ed. Varie in New York, the artist has taken on the role of organizer and collagist of cultural information. Building an archival self-portrait by appropriating images from social media feeds, personal photographs, music videos and texts, Thompson layers printed works to form a floor-based collage. Compositions where Chicago rapper Chief Keef’s Instagram “selfies” meet aerial shots of the Grand Canyon are superimposed on images of the artist’s studio, construction sites and consumer objects. A seemingly infinite combination of potential narratives and associations opens up in the juxtapositions of these prints, resulting in a personal image stream where the mundane and everyday meet the extraordinary.
Antonia Marsh For Hold Tight, which will be your first solo exhibition of 2013, you’re preparing a site-specific installation for the gallery, is that right?
Augustus Thompson Yes, the installation will be around 40 or so digital prints on 13”x19” watercolor paper placed on the floor covered with a clear vinyl. I want the audience to walk on the prints, and although hopefully they won’t get damaged. I do want a tension to be there because it feels slightly strange to be walking on artwork.
Paper Clip is a weekly compilation of online articles, artifacts and other—old, new, and sometimes BOMB-related.
Filmmaker and photographer Olivia Wyatt on her new film, working in East Africa, and maintaining balance between analog and digital techniques.
Olivia Wyatt’s documentary Staring Into the Sun—funded with a shoe-string budget using grants from Sublime Frequencies and money from Kickstarter—is a kaleidoscopic exploration of various tribal cultures in rural Ethiopia. Shot and edited by Wyatt, Staring Into the Suns cacophony of music and images makes it more of a visual essay than a traditional documentary. By keeping commentary and ethnographic contextualizing to a minimum, the sights and sounds of the countryside speak for themselves without the benefit (or hindrance) of description. Moving between humor and seriousness, ritual and daily life, Staring Into the Sun gives us an outsider’s perspective on a variety of East African cultures, yet remains refreshingly unconcerned with their interpretation or valuing.
A Brooklyn-based filmmaker and artist, Wyatt had studied photojournalism at the University of Missouri before moving to New York several years ago to work for Magnum Photos and later Magnum in Motion. It was then that she first began making documentary films, including a number of films documenting voodoo rituals among New York’s Haitian community. I spoke with the filmmaker about Staring Into the Suns upcoming screening next week (along with a number of other incredible films) as part of BAM’s Saharan Frequencies series.
Jonathan Andrews What prompted your interest in Ethiopia in the first place? How did the idea for the film first come about, and how did you manage to fund the project?
Olivia Wyatt Ethiopia fascinates me because there are around 80 diverse ethnic groups, and since the landscape is so harsh, many have maintained their traditions and are living as they have for thousands of years. So I decided to apply for a Fulbright to work on a project with the Dassanech tribe in Ethiopia. While I was applying, my boyfriend at the time sent me a link to the Festival of a Thousand Stars, which showcases the music of each of the 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. I said, “If I get the grant, we gotta go to the festival together.”
Sarah Gerard on the calculation of life’s value in Sam Savage’s The Way of The Dog and Joshua Abelow’s Painter’s Journal.
It is surprising that Sam Savage would write a book about a character who has never had a profession—before writing, he worked as a bicycle mechanic, carpenter, crab fisherman, and letterpress printer. What is not surprising is that the protagonist of Savage’s latest novel, The Way of the Dog, is an elderly man reflecting on his lifelong struggle to make art; Savage, himself, published his first novel at sixty-five. Since then, he has gone on to publish four more novels, all of which feature protagonists who are somehow frustrated in their art-making. Like the rest, Harold Nivenson lives alone at the story’s open. Mourning the death of his dog, and the life he had hoped to live but ultimately failed to, he records snatches of thoughts on index cards, hoping that, along with the detritus of his dilapidated mansion and the dusty pieces of artwork left behind by a onetime friend, they will add up to something: a statement of purpose, the legacy of his life. Perhaps, if nothing else, his life will be his art.
While similar in his design, what sets Nivenson apart from the rest of Savage’s protagonists is his seriousness. Unlike Firmin, the titular literary rat who stars in Savage’s breakout novel, or Andrew Whittaker, the rambling, self-absorbed landlord-cum-editor/publisher of his third novel, The Cry of the Sloth, Nivenson’s afflictions are not comical. He is searching and introspective, longing without the levity that lines the rest of his books. Nivenson contemplates suicide, citing many artists (mostly writers) whose lives ended that way: Gertrude Stein (although in reality she did not take her own life), John Berryman, Vincent Van Gogh, and others, including Peter Meininger, a former friend and partner whose career overshadowed Nivenson’s own. But his evaluation seems to be that, as a final act, one’s suicide only carries value insomuch as one’s life has had value. And the question of how to valuate permeates The Way of the Dog.
Though Nivenson dreamt of making his own art, and even attempted to at times, his feeling now, at the end of his life, is that he wasted his time “failing privately as a great artist and succeeding publicly as a minor dilettante, a man locally famous as an art appreciator and utterly unknown as a literary failure.” Whereas Savage’s other protagonists persist relentlessly—arrogantly—in their writing, despite their obvious lack of talent, Nivenson gazes backward from the end of his life over a vast, empty gallery of paintings he never finished and pages he never wrote. Whereas Meininger’s suicide shocked, Nivenson’s would doubtless be forgotten. And without recourse to suicide in his final days, he is left to ask: What has been the meaning of my life? And who has lived it? And what will remain of it after I die?
Aura Rosenberg—whose “The Golden Age” harkens back to the politics of appropriation of her earlier work—discusses her use of pornography with husband John Miller.
Aura Rosenberg began using pornographic imagery in her work about 25 years ago. After a period of intense activity, she stopped and moved on to other subjects, only to return to it in 2011. Much, however, had changed: the porn “industry,” the social acceptability of pornographic images, the kinds of cameras used to produce them and the kinds of media used to disseminate them. In short, very little stayed the same. Instead of taking a “bad girl” stance, Rosenberg raises the prospect of a feminine gaze. In the interview that follows, she and I discuss some of these issues and what they might imply.
John Miller When did you start working with pornography?
Aura Rosenberg It was the summer of 1988.
JM We already had been together for four years at the point.
AR No—more like two years. When we met I was making paintings by imprinting my body on canvas. We were just getting to know one another when you suggested we collaborate on these paintings. You built some shaped canvases—a cross and an x—and painted my body brown. I always felt that was your version of “Come up and see my etchings.”
Watch Matmos’s new video, directed by M.C. Schmidt, for “Luminous Rings,” a bonus track from their recent album The Marriage of True Minds, out now on Thrill Jockey.
Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor on their visceral and experimental new documentary Leviathan.
Leviathan is a strange and gripping new documentary set aboard a fishing vessel navigating treacherous waters off New England’s coast. Filmmakers Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor took to the sea themselves, strapped cameras to their bodies and to the bodies of the fishermen they worked with, and were able to secure dizzyingly visceral footage exploring the extreme world of commercial fishing. In rough seas and freezing cold, Taylor and Paravel filmed the fishermen as they slaved without much sleep or pause or even the chance to get warm and dry; it isn’t difficult to trust that fishing boasts one of the highest mortality rates of any occupation.
Leviathan could be viewed as an art film, a collage of beautiful and chaotic images flowing together without explanation: hungry birds soaring above the boat in packs, piles of fish sliding on the slippery deck floor, smashing into one another, bleeding and dying, eyes bulging; the creaks and groans of machinery and the violent claps of the ocean hurtling the ship back and forth like a bath toy. It could be read as an anthropologic study, rendering the specific (and fast-vanishing) lifestyle of a commercial fisherman. The film could even be considered one of the first of its kind—a document of human activity seen not from the perspective of human beings, but from that of the natural world itself: the soaring point of view of a bird in mid-flight, a crazy kaleidoscope of sea and sky alongside the miserable viewpoint of the captured fish, clumped in nets, dying together.
As our conversation makes clear, Taylor and Paravel believe they have captured something important, in that their film can return us, once more, to the “fabric of the world”—a world that many of us have long since lost touch with.
Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read four poems by Bianca Stone with art by the author, selected by Daniel Moysaenko.
An uneasy crowd gathers in the morning sun
and I should live a little more each day.
The marks on my arm
appear in the cold.
In the shed out back, stretched
across the big chair,
there is a book about the brain opened
on my lap. Enough about brains
I say to my brain.
and make vigorous love
until you feel less huge
and more human.
If I had a yard I would abandon
washing machines in it
then listen to that song that gets me
late at night,
my friends’ poems
circling my head like a flock
of yellow finches.
I believe in our pets buried
in the pines.
I beat the hell out of a white handkerchief
before waving it.
Do you know any horror stories?
Every night I tell God one more
and like Scheherazade, for this,
he keeps putting off my death.
Teddy Wayne on tween-speak and the titular child star of his novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.
While Teddy Wayne’s impressive vocabulary is always on display in his pieces for McSweeney’s, The New York Times, Esquire, and the myriad other publications he has written for, both of his novels have employed protagonists that prevent him from showing off his extensive verbal talent. Instead Wayne shows himself to be adept at narrating from outside his own experience. In Kapitoil, Karim Issar, brand new to the United States, is still learning the difficult idioms and cultural references necessary to fit into the cutthroat business he has chosen. In Wayne’s second novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, the protagonist is an eleven-year-old pop star whose meteoric rise has produced a boy whose premature vocabulary is not only riddled with the colloquialisms of video games and tween culture but also the business-speak of the corporate board room. Jonny’s world is an odd and saddening combination of normal boy things, an exposed celebrity life, and the high pressures of business and marketing in pop music. Despite choosing a narrator with a limited, unique vocabulary, Wayne forces readers to examine their own roles in a culture that creates pop stars and millionaires while providing vulnerable, lovable, relatable, though imperfect characters, all with a good dose of humor.
Alexis Boehmler Can you tell us what the experience of publishing your first book was like as compared with that of your second?
Teddy Wayne For a first book, you have no clue how the world will react and the stakes feel impossibly high. For a second book, you still have no clue how the world will react and the stakes somehow feel even higher. The main advantage to the second one is that you have a better understanding of how the process operates and you’ve built up a readership and reputation that, ideally, can make people take you more seriously.
AB The cover for The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is, as you described it, “shiny, iridescent” and “useful if stranded on an island,” making it quite different from the more staid cover of Kapitoil. Am I sensing mild discomfort with the final cover for The Love Song of Jonny Valentine? It seems perfect as a representation of Jonny himself, his genre and his market but perhaps not something you want to have to look at every moment for months while promoting it. Or do you like it a lot but have some other covers you can tell us about that you also liked? Finally, were there moments when you felt a bit like Jonny in a one of his record label meetings during the editorial or cover process?
TW I love it, actually—any references to its shininess were in jest. It does feel like an excellent visual metaphor for the book’s subject matter and themes about glitzy packaging; it’s a perfect autocritique. Free Press didn’t show me any of the early covers, but called me into the office so I could first see it, since its full reflectivity is apparent only in person. I was blown away and signed off immediately. At the eleventh hour, they did show some alternate covers that used holographic foil only for the title, and I’m sure if I’d seen it first I would’ve liked it equally, but I was already sold on the original.
AB I was surprised when I started The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and discovered your subject matter. I’m assuming it’s not just that you’re a huge Justin Bieber fan—what inspired you to choose a tween-idol as the protagonist for your second novel?
TW The child star occupies a strange role in America, one that’s growing each year as our culture becomes more infantilized and youth-obsessed. The adolescent celebrity is neither quite a child, nor quite an adult, but occupies some nether region. The same could be said for a number of putative adults in the country, particularly those under 40, who are staving off adulthood as long as possible.