Pop-Up Poets: Yedda Morrison on Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson

Yedda Morrison closed out the summer with a fantastic talk about Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson’s Swamp:


Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, Swamp, 1971

Yedda Morrison, The Sun Became a Monstrous Light-Bulb; Field Notes on Feeling.

(You can watch Holt and Smithson’s video here.)

Yedda Morrison is a writer and visual artist. Her books include Girl Scout Nation (Displaced Press, 2008) and Crop (Kelsey Street Press, 2003). Darkness is forthcoming from Make Now Press in Los Angeles. Morrison is represented by Republic Gallery, Vancouver, B.C. (republicgallery.com); for more of her work, see www.yeddamorrison.com.

Third Hand Plays: The Comedy of Association

This next comedy might be the one most associated with electronic literature, as it corrals work in both hypertext and computer-generated writing. I describe hypertext a bit in the first blog post in this series; it is basically the association of different text blocks, called “lexia,” through links embedded in the text itself, commonplace on the web but still exotic in the 1990s. Important early works in hypertext include Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork Girl” (1995), Stuart Moulthrop’s “Victory Garden” (1995), and Michael Joyce’s “afternoon: a story,” often considered the founding text of “serious hypertext,” first published in 1990. Computer-generated writing has also been touched on; Noah Wardrip Fruin’s “Regime Change,” for example, links texts together via algorithms which attempt (but often fail) to create meaningful, syntactically sound sentences out of a corpus of preexisting sentences.

The comedy of association might have been born out of a brief statement in Isidore Ducasse’s (the Comte de Lautréamont) proto-surrealist novel Les Chants de Maldoror, in which he describes a young boy as being “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” This seemingly irrational juxtaposition opens up a deep chasm in signification: umbrellas and sewing-machines might be classed as rather trivial everyday objects, but the dissecting table, with its notions of torture, death, not to mention the Enlightenment quest for knowledge, render the sewing machine malevolent — think of the machine in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony that imprints the judicial sentences of offenders into their bodies — relocating the umbrella as the third, stray term (though umbrellas, too, have been known to kill). These orchestrations of chance in the service of demonic (often pointedly anti-bourgeois) humor would become a major property of surrealist writing and art.

An early collection of computer-generated writing is “The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed,” created by a simple 64k program written by William Chamberlain and Thomas Elter. Like with Surrealism, the impact of these charming poems is often based on chance juxtapositions, with the addition of every poem being associated with an “I” that is ghostly, irreverent, charming but menacing. The Surrealism can actually be quite subtle; some of the poems resemble haiku as if written by the Brothers Quay: “Cut a face, cut a visage / Remake appearances to blend / The sky with earth / Then will little people fall.” Christian Bök writes in “The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed: Notes Towards a Robotpoetics,” that “‘The Policeman’s Beard Is Half-Constructed’ is … an obit for classic poets … an untimely synopsis of their own demise …” Arguing that Racter represents the first step for computers of writing poetry for their own (and not human) consumption, he states that in ignoring this book, “we might unwittingly miss a chance to study firsthand the babytalk of an embryonic sentience, struggling abortively to awaken from its own phylum of oblivion.”

"Stream of Consciousness: An Interactive Poetic Garden"

Some works that play on this comedy don’t necessarily aspire to surrealistic effects. An installation piece by David Small and Tom White called “Stream of Consciousness: An Interactive Poetic Garden” is composed of an artificial stream covering a 6×6-foot area; projected on the stream are words which appear to be floating down the stream itself, slowing at turns around rocks, speeding when flowing over a fall, etc. The user can interact with the words by moving a beam of light through the water, thus getting them to sprout new words with which they are associated. In the most mundane version (it works with different algorithms and data sets), these new words are often merely synonyms of the original words, and so the piece seems little more than a concrete version of the Visual Thesaurus. A really effective application of this engineering feat would be to sharpen the associations, if not to make them “surreal,” at least to give them some literary bite. This is a particular problem with some literary electronic works: they solve problems of mechanical and computer engineering and only later engage with the semantic and syntactic properties of language, not to mention aesthetic and political dimensions.

Automated poetry generators like “Get a Google Poem” (no longer functioning) played on the comedy of association by creating new texts in classic poetic forms — the sestina, the sonnet, etc. — based on Google search strings. The functionality of this software operated on an early version of Google’s search algorithm which weighted pages largely by how many other pages linked to them; links embedded in text created by a blog writer, for example, as I have done several times in this series, either to inform or entertain, became the etiolated human input of a largely automated creation. The movement of Google toward a more commercial ranking has largely corrupted these procedures, as the authored associations of a gazillion writers have been replaced by sales rankings.

Nonetheless, a whole league of poets united under the name of “Flarf” has taken the rapid (and often vapid) juxtapositions inherent in a Google search and learned how to craft funny, often wildly satiric, poems out of the results. Known as “Google sculpting,” the basic practice involves collecting large chunks of text based on text searches — bland ones like “dear head,” or loaded ones like “chicks love war” — and culling from the results resonant, often decidedly “unpoetic” texts, and arranging them into episodes of sonic Rabelaisean humor. Writers associated with Flarf include Gary Sullivan (the founder of the listserv where these poets first posted their work), Michael Magee (author of My Angie Dickinson, a series in [Emily] Dickensian quatrains in honor of the movie star), Drew Gardner (author of the “Chick Loves War” poem, which has become something of an anthem), K. Silem Mohammad (author of Deer Head Nation), and Sharon Mesmer, whose book Annoying Diabetic Bitch is considered by the renowned Mexican poet and critic Roman Lujan the masterpiece of the movement.

Ultimately, the challenge in the “comedy of association” is in making sure these links — whether those connecting lexia, as in a classic hypertext, or those embedded in the cut-and-paste techniques of a computer or Flarf poet — are as engaging and precise as those in the original formulation of Lautréamont. Michael Joyce’s “afternoon: a story” is among the most economical and varied examples of how to manipulate links and lexia: some lexia can be as brief as a few sentences, some more involved, and he handles the issue of how to keep the reader engaged in a nonlinear, wandering narrative by pulling from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s bag of tricks: start with a death, leave the narrator cold and inscrutable, and maintain a clear, refined eye in visual description. “afternoon” is also a textbook for the use of seductive links, the best ones operating in a way that creates a refracted, rather than “nonlinear,” relationship between lexia. The story itself revolves around a host of figures and perspectives, expertly linked through engaging motifs, suggesting a relationship to any number of curiously shaped narratives from La Ronde to Rashomon. In this way, Joyce’s links become seductive rather than merely invitations to wander; the linking words themselves can be seen as a caption for the following lexia, obtaining a text-to-image relationship.

Six Lines of Flight: Tangier, Beirut, Cali, Ho Chi Minh City, Cluj, San Francisco

Beirut Art Center, Beirut, Lebanon

I do in fact have a job with fabulous perks: yesterday’s three-hour meeting-by-requirement was to attend a compelling set of presentations, in a closed-door session, by a fantastic group of artists from six cities around the globe. These artists have been instrumental in building artist organizations or collectives that continue to make dynamic impacts on their communities (as well as having, in some cases, international reach and presence), and they all spoke eloquently about their organizations’ resources, missions, goals, and aims. They’re going to recap these talks, in public, for free, this Thursday — a program I’m going to highly recommend.

The group has been assembled by SFMOMA Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Apsara DiQuinzio, who is organizing an exhibition called Six Lines of Flight, to be presented a year from now, and many of the artists are in town this week to meet and talk with each other, and meet and talk with a number of local collaborators.

The artists, and their organizations, are Lamia Joreige, Beirut Art Center (Beirut, Lebanon); Oscar Muñoz and Sally Mizrachi, Lugar a Dudas (Cali, Colombia); Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Sàn Art (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam); Mihai Pop and Adrian Ghenie of Plan B and the Paintbrush Factory (Cluj, Romania); Akram Zaatari, Arab Image Foundation (also Beirut); and the Bay Area’s own Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine of Futurefarmers.

(Also part of Six Lines but unable to be here this week is Yto Barrada, whose project is the Cinemathèque de Tanger, in Tangier, Morocco.)

Cinematheque de Tanger, Tangier, Morocco

Each artist spoke about his or her organization’s relation to the art scene in its city. It was a fascinating snapshot view into six working collectives and local scenes, in cities or countries perhaps most often viewed as “peripheral” to what are usually considered international art centers. The convergence of attention from these far-flung places was quite interesting, especially the commitment to bringing contemporary art and local communities into dialogue with each other; to creating open environments for critical discourse, argument, and conversation; and the reliance on private funding in countries where there is little or no government support (or worse).

Also listening in on the conversation yesterday morning was a group of writers, curators, and others who work closely with Bay Area (and national, and international) artist organizations and communities: Ted Purves, Renny Pritikin, Moira Roth, Rick Prelinger, Joseph del Pesco, Pam Lee, and Hou Hanru — they’ll be joining the artists in conversation in a second closed session tomorrow. (Julia Bryan-Wilson and Blake Stimson, also participating, are expected to join the group later in the week.) A handful of my SFMOMA colleagues were present, as well, and with so many interesting people in the room and, I expect, present at the panel this Thursday, the week promises to continue to be engaging.

It felt and feels like a rare opportunity to hear from these artists, in person, about their organizations and the political and social environments for artists in their home countries; please do come down, welcome them, talk, and ask questions:

Six Lines of Flight

Yto Barrada, Cinemathèque de Tanger, Tangier, Morocco
Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine, Futurefarmers, San Francisco, USA
Lamia Joreige, Beirut Art Center, Beirut, Lebanon
Oscar Muñoz and Sally Mizrachi, Lugar a Dudas, Cali, Colombia
Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Sàn Art, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Mihai Pop and Adrian Ghenie, Plan B and the Paintbrush Factory, Cluj, Romania
Akram Zaatari, Arab Image Foundation, Beirut, Lebanon

Phyllis Wattis Theater

7 p.m.


Note: Yto Barrada can’t be here in person this week, but has sent materials to be presented in her absence.

The Paintbrush Factory, Cluj, Romania

Six Lines of Flight is funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Wayne Koestenbaum: The Desire to Write (II)

In celebration of our landmark exhibition The Steins Collect, Open Space is pleased to present a special two-part feature from essayist, cultural critic, and poet Wayne Koestenbaum. For this year’s Phyllis Wattis Distinguished Lecture, SFMOMA commissioned Wayne to write and perform a new work related to the exhibition. His topic: painting and writing. The result: “The Desire to Write.” Enjoy. (Part one is here.)

Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, 1905; Tate, London, purchased with assistance from the Knapping Fund, the Art Fund and the Contemporary Art Society and private subscribers, 1954; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about André Derain

Matisse’s 1905 portrait of André Derain attracts me because thick paint slashes form a coercive band around the subject’s neck, and because equally thick paint slashes provide Derain with a breastplate. On his chest, green-blue slashes crawl up to the yellow lines above, but remain dwarfed, humbled by yellow. The green-blue lines yearn to be something other than blue; they seem doomed to lose their marine identity in an undifferentiated whiteness, a whiteness that illustrates a desire to be obliterated, a whiteness that confesses a temptation not to announce a theme but merely to indicate the presence of a brush, knife, or fingertip. The fingertip exerts steady pressure, pushing the paint, in channels, runnels, or ruts, into the ready canvas, a canvas that, like the bedroom wall of my childhood tract house, had no personality of its own, but passively received projections. A blue-green line bisects Derain’s neck, travels up the beard’s periphery onto the mustache, ascends the rim of hair above the brow (half-hidden by red beret), and then soars up to the empyrean unspecificity (Percy Bysshe Shelley would have called it the “intense inane”) above Derain’s head. Into the creamy, naïve blue background, Derain’s mustache seems to tumble; a mustache always means a drunken loss of control. The art of painting, for Matisse, in 1905, implied a Faustian exuberance I long to imitate in my body language, as if a satyr-like tendency within my ribcage could emulate Matisse’s aggressive brushwork, its taffy-like gusto, its suggestion of pressing, smashing, denting, pushing — the eye thus inciting the hand to take on, by transference, the neediness (or pushiness?) of a painterly facture that paradoxically signifies madness and a decisive intellect. Today at lunch a young poet told me that he had wordless sex recently with a financier — wordless except for one sentence, when the financier said, abruptly, “I’m ready to come.” My young poet friend, like me, is a cross between a cocktease and a professional lubricator of interlocutory atmospheres: we specialize in keeping conversations running. His beard and mustache are thick and tangible, like oil paint pressed into grooves. Portraiture, as a genre, alternates between modesty and boastfulness. A portrait is always boasting about its resemblance — or its lack of resemblance — to its subject. A portrait is always modest about its status as merely a portrait — a genre with limits. However, Gertrude Stein, in her word-portraits, was rarely modest; boastfulness is intrinsic to aesthetic innovation. You can’t make it new without bragging.



Pablo Picasso, La Rue-des-Bois, 1908

The Desire to Write about La Rue-des-Bois

If I wanted to insert narrative into a description of Picasso’s La Rue-des-Bois, 1908, purchased by Gertrude and Leo Stein, I’d need to anthropomorphize. The trees are easy to anthropomorphize; they come in pairs — two sets of bony twins, tall as Franz Liszt or Abe Lincoln, but without virtuosity or eloquence, and substituting for flashiness a puritanical leaflessness. The leaves, when they finally arrive, are few but chunky, almost qualifying as bushes, lampshades, or balloons. My heart, however, is not in the leaves; my heart is in the green, its monochromatic domination of the field. The green’s decision to wipe out dissent (to silence the rebuttals of red or blue) reminds me of any decision to stick to one color, one action, one book, one body, one house, one desire; any monotheistic fidelity puts to rest the brain’s traffic and simplifies the horizon, even if such radical simplicity (I choose green, and only green), like all abstentions, takes discipline. Two nights ago I dreamt that a literary critic I no longer love was flossing his teeth in my bathroom; this critic (I’ll call him Leo Stein), naked from the waist down, was semi-erect, not because flossing was an aphrodisiac, but because he didn’t belong in my bathroom, and intruding on a former rival’s property can be a turn-on. If I were to declare an erotic allegiance to any element in Picasso’s La Rue-des-Bois, I’d choose the green horizon-curve that cuts, like a sickle or a bent bow, across two thin trees; this curve ignores the two trees it cuts, but also nonviolently includes them in its sinuous embrace. If there weren’t curves in this proudly vertical painting, with its upright trees, I’d feel abandoned; curves offer me a surge of liberty. In my dream, Leo Stein’s penis curved — perhaps because he was only half-hard. His penis, unable to make up its mind, chose to curve instead of aiming its missive at a single addressee. And his undershirt, in the dream, billowed outward, like a maternity shift.


Francis Picabia, The Acrobats, 1935

The Desire to Write about The Acrobats

I sat in the sex room, a waiting room. I’m often sitting in this underfurnished, underlit room, a space (heated, windowless, cramped) devoted to the religion of the under: undercover, underground, underwear, underarm, under erasure. Into this undemonstrative room, a room without connotations, another man entered. He had, so far, no name; I’ll call him Francis Picabia, the artist whose painting The Acrobats, 1935, I’m looking at while I write this account. Picabia, whom Gertrude Stein admired and encouraged, walked into the sex room and sat a few feet away from me on a white horizontal platform. He crossed his legs to conceal his penis, which I had little desire to see. I prefer the area surrounding the genitals — the penumbra of inferences and speculations tripped into motion by the presence (real or imagined) of a penis. With dispassionate scrupulousness, Picabia rubbed his thighs, as if to verify their palpability, or to wipe off scum. Then he uncrossed his legs and put his hands over his crotch, to shield me from a display I might find appalling or disappointing. His modesty wounded me; as retaliation or compensation, I wriggled out of my tight blue uniform, as a clumsy Salomé might execute her final dance, and turned to face Picabia, to give him my nudity’s veined ultimatum. Picabia, whether to avoid my advance, or to show more of himself, stood up from the white platform and turned around. On his right buttock, a large brown mole, not disfiguring, was uncannily beautiful and individuating, much like (if you’ll forgive the sacrilege) the late Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty mark, a flaw that highlighted the presence, below, of famous breasts. If my stranger’s name weren’t temporarily Picabia, I’d say that his buttocks were Rubenesque; in this context, it might be more appropriate to say that his buttocks had the dark gravity — the heft, the humor, the consoling solidity — of Gertrude Stein’s body, clothed in eccentric, Buddhist/Maoist garb, in photographs by Cecil Beaton, Man Ray, and other apotheosizers of the surreality that animates a fashionable body. I placed my hands on Picabia’s buttocks, to judge their worth — and he moved toward me, until his buttocks were level with my mouth. Paradoxically, by capitulating to my desire, he was punishing me. His buttocks, their cooperativeness, wordlessly aimed invective at me, and I became a nullity, a receptacle for his contempt. Picabia’s buttocks smelled of vetiver; when he finally turned around, I noticed that his crotch and its complicated vicinity smelled of lavender mixed with turpentine, the oil painter’s companion.


Henri Matisse, Madame Matisse (The Green Line), 1905; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, gift of The Engineer J.Rump and Wife Fund, 1928; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about The Green Line

A green line bisects the face of Matisse’s wife, in a painting Henri made in 1905, and so we call the painting The Green Line; the line’s unreasonable presence overshadows the woman it besmirches. Or does the line have nothing to do with the woman? Should we leave her out of it? Before I felt the desire to write about The Green Line, I felt an overwhelming desire to write about a 1922 Man Ray photograph of Alice B. Toklas entering the atelier she shared with Gertrude Stein: Alice hovers in the doorway, maybe entering, or maybe standing frozen, commanded by Man Ray to strike a characteristic pose; I felt a desire to write about Alice’s threshold status, her occupation of an ambiguous point between arrival and departure, but I felt a stab of remorse when I realized that Toklas reminded me of a friend whose husband had died a decade ago of heart disease.

Man Ray, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas in the atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris, 1922

Though I was not responsible for this man’s death, and though I would be doing no damage to his widow by writing about Alice entering the atelier, nonetheless their resemblance chastened me and made the prospect of writing about the Man Ray photograph seem an act of premeditated violence; to write honestly about this photograph, I would need to write about the widow, and to write honestly about the widow, I would need to describe the outline of Toklas’s breasts beneath her dress, a smock that modestly veiled her body but allowed the breasts to declare their existence with an unembarrassed directness that corresponded to the steady, large grace of Gertrude Stein seated (in that same photograph) at her desk. Stein’s blouse, tucked into her skirt, bunched in the back; this bunched place, a site of pressure and crowding, underlined Stein’s physical amplitude, her regal comfort on her writing throne, a seat she occupied in a suspended present she would have called a continuous present. Permissive, unbroken, the time of writing (and the time of reading) didn’t stop at the gate to pay a subservient toll but stretched into the past and future with a lazy (and secretly splenetic?) unfetteredness. If I were to write honestly about Stein’s body and about her writing process, and if I were to write honestly about the visible implication of Toklas’s breasts within her floral dress, then I would also need to describe the body of my friend whose husband died a decade ago of heart disease, and I would be trespassing on her body by mentioning it; to write about her body, I’d need to describe my torpor, as if I were drowsing in a Florida room whose jalousies admitted a variegated light, like the operating theater in Suddenly, Last Summer, or the ward where Tennessee Williams’s sister Rose received a lobotomy. Afternoon torpor, redolent of jalousies and lobotomies, overtook me when I considered writing about Toklas entering a room suffused with a fine dust; and so I decided to write instead about Matisse’s portrait of his wife, a portrait subtitled The Green Line. By defecting from Toklas, and hiding behind The Green Line, I felt cowardly — guilty of shirking my vocation’s duties and cowering behind abstraction (the green line) as a way to avoid the hard work of describing ambivalence, destructiveness, guilt, and fatigue. The green line attracted me because it permitted a face to say two things at the same time. The green line permitted one half of the subject’s face to be burdened (or heightened) by flesh-pink brushstrokes, wedges of conspicuous paint that offered a pressured statement, a demand, an exhibition; the other side of the face, yellow and flat, unenhanced by thick paint or emphatic brushwork, nonetheless borrowed enough green to cloak the eye-socket. Thus the face’s downtrodden side flourished, albeit in a mephitic, doomed fashion, a dignity composed of too much green. Matisse’s abundant green signifies a luxury that, for a writer, can only be approximated by the silence that follows an act of composition: the ordeal of sequential language, word following word, has been surmounted, and now the complicated respite of green, an indescribable green, can begin.


Pablo Picasso, Strolling Player and Child, 1905

The Desire to Write about Strolling Player and Child

Last night I dreamt that my father killed himself, but first he divided his property, and explained to me the division. I would receive one portion; my siblings would also receive one portion each. (My father’s fortune, in the dream, was divided into “portions,” each symbolized by a medicinal lozenge — a cough drop.) My stepmother would receive merely one portion. My mother (my father’s ex-wife), however, received three portions, although they’d been divorced for nearly thirty years. I hoped that the news of this inheritance would cheer her up and remind her of my father’s noble sentimentality, a trait he shared with Goethe’s Werther; perhaps the inheritance — three portions! — would revise her pessimistic narrative of their marriage and its final shattering. I looked forward to using my father’s suicide as a ploy to wrest sympathy from my friends, who, in the dream, had grown angry with my unreliability; now they would understand my neurasthenia’s paternal origin, and they might forgive my selfishness. The night before I dreamt about my father’s suicide, I dreamt that my lover fell off a superhighway’s entrance ramp. When I saw him lean over its edge, I restrained myself from criticizing his imprudence; I scold him too frequently. And then he fell over the edge. Looking down, I saw a small figure plummeting faster than I have ever seen any object fall. From a distance, he looked like a minnow or a dandelion. The instant he fell into the water, I forced myself to wake up; my own body felt bruised, a woundedness antithetical to the blue and orange pastels in Picasso’s 1905 Strolling Player and Child. The boy-child’s blue costume — like pajamas — is essentially the same blue as the backdrop (wall, sky?); against that background he stands, his shoulders touched, with a companionable or paternal watchfulness, by the tall Pierrot, dressed in an orange whose docility equals the softness of the boy’s blue apparel and of the blue atmosphere dispersed behind him. Who exactly are the boy and his clown-protector? They might be brothers, or father and son, or merely coworkers, belonging to a motley troupe, itinerant players granted license in sexual and sartorial actions. By writing about Strolling Player and Child, I try to join a guild of orange- and blue-appareled wanderers, writers, artists, loners, fantasizers. I don’t understand color theory, but my eye tells me that orange moves forward, and blue moves backward. The boy’s blue atmosphere — a domineering shroud — exceeds the puissance of the older player’s orange; the boy’s blueness proposes that moods and fantasies overtake the categories in which we try to keep them contained. I’m afraid of this writing session ending; without the fountain pen in my hand, and Picasso’s blue boy and orange man, in reproduction, in front of me, I’d lack blood and skin. I’m the one ending this paragraph, but I feel as if the paragraph were ending me, choosing me as the victim of its violent wish to terminate anything blue, abundant, and flowering. I often feel like the victim of my own elation; excitement overtakes me when I write (though lethargy, too, tampers with my onward motion), but excitement then becomes my persecutor, a figure holding a whip and urging me to walk forward, even when my body aches. Excitement, my persecutor, gives me the illusion that I inhabit two bodies at once — the small blue body of my raptness and motility, and the large, slender, punitive, orange body of my caretaker, whose calves are muscular from hard labor, whose eyes are narrow and judgmental, and whose hands grip my shoulders with a tightness I earlier called companionable but now I will call coercive. The caretaker’s grip is no more coercive than syntax, my blue master, with its adjectival arms, its participial thighs, its orange litanies. Last night I dreamt that I flunked math and couldn’t graduate from high school. I argued about my grade with the math teacher, who doubled as art teacher; his face, lightly bearded, seemed irrevocably lodged in the Gay Liberation movement of the early 1970s, as interpreted by Vincent Van Gogh and André Derain. The point of writing — of my writing, at least — is to travel forward under the guise of traveling backward.

Wayne Koestenbaum has published five books of poetry: Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, Model Homes, The Milk of Inquiry, Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, and Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems. He also has published a novel, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, and seven books of nonfiction: Humiliation, Hotel Theory, Andy Warhol, Cleavage, Jackie Under My Skin, The Queen’s Throat (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and Double Talk. His next two books, forthcoming in 2012, are The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (University of California Press) and Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background (Turtle Point Press). Koestenbaum is a distinguished professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, and also a visiting professor in the painting department of the Yale School of Art. He lives in New York City.

Hey! Open Space has been nominated for a 2011 Web Award

Thanks to the marvelous readers of SFWeekly, who have nominated Open Space for a 2011 Web Award for Best Arts Blog! We’re honored and excited to be in a stellar group of Bay Area nominees (which includes some of our fantastic collaborators).

You can help vote Open Space into the finals from now through August 30, when the online voting closes.

AND: @SFMOMA has been nominated as Best Arts Twitter Account, too.

Thanks and thanks again to my super crew of writers, artists, editors, interns, photographers, and contributors for all your Open Space efforts, and thanks to all of you, our readers!


Third Hand Plays, “The Quick Brown Fox …” by Alan Bigelow

Alan Bigelow has been one of the stalwarts of electronic literature for over a decade now, careful never to stray too far into what could be simply called “digital art” or even avant-garde poetry, building an impressive body of multimedia works that are both innovative and accessible. The artist statement on his website, “webyarns,” describes his practice as being centered around three basic principles: that the “stories should be multimedia events,” that they should be easy to navigate, and that they should be interactive. A primary characteristic of his work, unstated here, is that his text-objects usually provide the user with more than merely the next set of imagery but some response — a movement in the graphics, a sound effect, or something more unexpected — which, like in a good video game, creates a visceral “rewards” system for the user.

Bigelow calls his pieces “stories,” though in fact they can take many formats one wouldn’t associate with narrative. For instance, “Science for Idiots,” one of a series he calls “Brainstrips,” is more of a collation of facts concerning the deleterious effects of human industrial progress on the Earth, ending with a playful questionnaire that ties these facts directly into the vicissitudes of your life — “What was the speed of your last relationship?” is one of the multiple choice questions. Some of his pieces concern themselves quite strictly with issues of love, such as “Love Is,” a light, humorous collection of a variety of very personal, occasionally perverse, definitions of “love.” Others are satires, such as “When I Am President,” which conveys with text movies reminiscent of Young Hae Chang nine softly subversive acts POTUS Bigelow would enact once in office, such as outlawing the use of the word “Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” the longest word in the English language.

Like the work of Jason Nelson, who also primarily programs in Flash, Bigelow’s pieces are often overloaded with graphics and sound, and are never less than friendly in their social satires. Many of Bigelow’s pieces, especially the “Brainstrips” series, are basically interactive comics, though none with the epic grandeur of, say, Electric Sheep Comix — Bigelow prefers the quick, clean, and dense consumable experience over the indeterminacies implicit in the “infinite canvas” (in Scott McCloud’s phrase). Another web piece that comes to mind is “They Rule,” by Josh On, which to my mind is unique for being what I think of as “database satire” — all it allows you to do is connect the various board members of the top U.S. companies with the other boards they are members of, and thereby create intricate graphics of nepotistic nature of the very rich which you can save to be viewed by others. Sure, these are just facts, but with the aid of graphics, interactivity, and the network, they make the reader/user actively complicit in the machinations of their own downfall.

Alan Bigelow was the 2011 winner of the BIPVAL International Prix de Poésie Média. He was also a 2010 finalist for the International New Media Competition of the 24th Stuttgart Filmwinter (Germany), a 2010 finalist for the New Media Writing Prize at the Poole Literary Festival (U.K.), and a 2010 finalist for the Screengrab New Media Art Award (Australia).

His work, installations, and conversations concerning digital fiction and poetry have appeared in Turbulence.org, Rhizome.org, Los Angeles Center for Digital Arts, 14th Japan Media Arts Festival (The National Art Center, Tokyo), FAD, FreeWaves.org, the Museum of New Art (MONA, Detroit), Art Tech Media 2010, FILE 2007–2011, Blackbird, Drunken Boat, Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus, E-Poetry 2007–2011, IDEAS, the Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum (Turkey), Electrofringe, New River Journal, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, and elsewhere.

Recently, in addition to teaching full-time at Medaille College, he was a visiting online lecturer in creative writing and new media at De Montfort University, U.K.

You can see Bigelow’s work at http://www.webyarns.com.

Pop-Up Poets: Brent Cunningham on Hanne Darboven

Brent Cunningham talked about Hanne Darboven:

Brent Cunningham with Hanne Darboven’s 51 Drawings, 1971-1972


Brent Cunningham, Number, Visual Art, and Writing.

Brent Cunningham is a writer, publisher, and occasional visual artist currently living in Oakland with his wife and daughter. His first book of poetry, Bird & Forest, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2005, and his second, Journey to the Sun, is forthcoming in 2011 from Atelos. He and Neil Alger founded and run Hooke Press, a chapbook press dedicated to publishing short runs of poetry, criticism, theory, writing, and ephemera.

Tomorrow night: Yedda Morrison on Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson’s Swamp.

Third Hand Plays: The Comedy of Duplication

Coming or going?

My seventh comedy ties into many of the tropes common to new media discourse. Most prevalent among them might be the loss of the “aura” — that which obtains around an object of religious veneration, in Walter Benjamin’s original formulation, partly because only the elite were allowed to be in its presence — in the digital object, which has no true physical original. A “duplicate” of a digital original is not a simulacrum or representation of the original but the original itself brought, by magic of transporter beam, into your very computer (though unlike with Kirk, an original is also left behind). I have a half-dozen programs on my laptop that no longer appear on the web (due to legal issues or just plain scruples); in time, these might be the last remaining copies of these programs — all, in fact, originals.

The other major trope would be that of network distribution, which allows an artist to create a series and have its duplicate appear on countless other computers around the globe. In Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture, he outlines the progression of messages from those singular things carried, on parchment, by couriers across great distances (messages which, of course, might warrant the assassination of the courier himself), to messages conveyed by the broadcast model, sent from towers to numberless receivers who, nonetheless, have to be within proximity of the tower, to the present model of networked distribution. Networked distribution is characterized by the duplicates described above, but is also notable for the receiver of the message also being a broadcaster — we can “talk back” to our TVs now (in the form of YouTube comments, for examples, or even mash-ups of other videos), and rebroadcast messages on our own special channels. Of course, we could always send mail and make and show videos, but it’s the rare sender of letters who has acquired the immediate stardom of, say, lonelygirl15 or Shit My Dad Says.

"Alternumerics" by Paul Chan

The artist Paul Chan, whom I mentioned earlier in the context of conceptual writing, has utilized the network in projects ranging from straightforward political activism to his more esoteric investigations in forging a culture of carnivalesque spontaneous creativity, a program based on his synthesis of ideas of Charles Fourier, the Marquis de Sade, and various other strands of libertine libertarianism. He came to the attention of the art world with his long video Happiness (Finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization — after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier, which depicted Darger’s Vivian Girls in a prismatic landscape doing all the things that the Vivian Girls do — running away from the baddies, having sex, eating and shitting, and just lying around. He is the one artist I associate with font-art, which is the creation of typefaces that are often themselves composed of words. His “pron” typefaces, which are directly influenced by de Sade, allow you to rewrite texts of Gertrude Stein, for example, as if they were a very crude, repetitive form of porn. A more humanistic venture might be the “Self-Portrait as a Font,” which is composed of phrases Chan says in conversation, which can find a analog in Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, which is entirely composed of things he actually did say. The apogee of Chan’s network activist work might be the posters he created of life in Iraq (which he visited in the months before the invasion), and made available for distribution on the web for postering anywhere.

A similar work is Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg’s “Implementation,” a “novel in stickers” which they posted to the web in blocks formatted for Avery 5199-F size label, which is two columns of five stickers each (used to label video tapes). “A novel about psychological warfare, American imperialism, sex, terror, identity, and the idea of place,” the website allowed users to upload photographs of their labels in situ; about 1,600 photographs came in from places around the globe (though, not surprisingly, most came from the U.S. Northeast). Novelist Shelley Jackson’s Skin: A Mortal Work of Art alters this polarity, moving from text to flesh to photograph. For the project, she allowed visitors to her website to claim individual words in a short story she had written, which they would then have to have tattooed to their body, photographed and sent back to Jackson. The project appears to be stalled; she’s received 1,449 of the 2,095 words in the story.

A little appreciated aspect of Young-Hae Chang Industries internet texts is that they often appear in several different languages, none of them claiming to be the “original” text of which the others are translations. Their piece “Samsung,” for example, has versions in English, Korean, French, German, Spanish, as well as a “Tango” version (also in English). While most of their works have English versions, and some appear only in English, we are never explicitly given the impression that the versions in Korean (which Young-Hae Chang might very well have written) and German or Portuguese (which one assumed benefited from some help) are “secondary.” They all have the authority of the original in much the same way Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is an original (no one will ever, of course, make their own translation of En attendant Godot). This further unlinks these texts, emanating from Seoul, Korea, to geographic and cultural specificities; likewise, it makes any sort of true intertextual reading of the texts — in which one relates the textual events in the object work to works in other literature of that language — since that would require reading across the literatures of nearly a dozen world languages (including Turkish, Swedish, Russian, and Galician, spoken only in northwestern Spain).

These projects are often merely allegories for the properties of digital technology described above; the duplication of stickers from a novel in another part of the world, or the duplications of “originals” in different languages, are not the same thing as the repetition of a string of bits. The most famous photographic allegory of this property is probably Wendy McMurdo’s “Helen, Backstage, Merlin Theatre,” though some artists like Anthony Goicolea have based a body of work on the principle. The poet Charles Bernstein’s ’90s visual essay “An Mosaic for a Convergence” theorizes the implications for poetry of this utter separation of language from the singular body and material page, and effectively uses cut-and-paste graphics and neon scribbles to drive the point home.

"An Mosaic for a Convergence" by Charles Bernstein

Wayne Koestenbaum: The Desire to Write

As we enter the last few weeks of our landmark exhibition The Steins Collect, Open Space is pleased to present a special two-part feature from essayist, cultural critic, and poet Wayne Koestenbaum. For this year’s Phyllis Wattis Distinguished Lecture, held on June 2, SFMOMA commissioned Wayne to write and perform a new work related to the exhibition. His topic: painting and writing. The result: “The Desire to Write.” Enjoy. (Part two, next Monday.)

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra, 1907; The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about Blue Nude

Writing, alas, is never nude. Grammar clothes me with adjectives, prepositional phrases, and dependent clauses — a costume I didn’t choose, a costume that clashes with my native inclinations, which respect no division between the body’s secret holes and that bleak fringe of futurity where Matisse, in Blue Nude, 1907, might have wished to point, if paintings can point, if paintings can embody a wish to plunge forward.


Henri Matisse, The Young Sailor I, 1906; Private collection; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about Young Sailor


I could exorcise my love for this Matisse painting by writing about the patch of unadulterated blue, a triangle, which represents the receding plane of the sailor’s chair. Because this blue patch echoes the blue sky, mimicry modifies our ability to read the chair as a surface; instead, the seat becomes the brightest horizon we’ll ever receive an invitation to traverse and to destroy. I don’t want to write about the young sailor’s crotch; my desire to write about Matisse’s colors exceeds my waning wish to describe his evocation, in black and green, of (according to the catalogue) “a young fisherman he had met in Collioure.” Trying to pronounce “Collioure,” I pucker: an agreeable astringency.


Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Elise S. Haas; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about Woman with a Hat

Language’s impoverishment contradicts the voluptuous blue, green, orange, yellow, and purple that Matisse employs to render a woman whose hat is twice as big as her face. The green beside her head is a detail I seize to avoid being inundated by a bewildering superfluity of colors; I cling to this green as an island, a hermit’s cell, like the rock cleft where Willa Cather’s heroine Thea Kronborg, in The Song of the Lark, hides. I want to hide in Matisse’s combustible, multiform colors — especially the curvy hat’s preposterous blue. Am I espousing an aesthetics of the curve and of the swerve? Yes, but I’m also trying to be straightforward. I’d rather paint than write; now, with an unaccustomed sobriety of tone, I’m trying to contemplate why I might want to write about Woman with a Hat, and what I might say about Woman with a Hat were I to begin the unmanageable project of writing about it.


Pablo Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse, 1905–6

The Desire to Write about Boy Leading a Horse

The desire to write about Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse is accompanied by — and nearly drowned by — a contrary desire: the desire not to write about Boy Leading a Horse. This entropic tendency, the desire not to write about Boy Leading a Horse, a desire I’m afraid to encourage, itself depends on a desire even more obscure — the desire to be the boy leading a horse, or to be that boy’s companion, his mirror image, his compatriot in the art of being nude. His feet grip the ground with a firmness equaling the firm black outlines surrounding boy and horse. These outlines, meaty and obtuse, give more satisfaction than any emotion we might attribute to the boy, a troubled cipher; the emphatic outlines, as if carved in wood, speak of the artist’s pleasure. I want the pleasure of the line-making hand more than I want the pleasure experienced by the boy leading a horse, or the pleasure of trying to approach that nude boy with these emphatic yet nebulous words.


Henri Matisse, Boy with Butterfly Net, 1907; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about Boy with Butterfly Net

“I am an exhibitionist,” I said to myself, while walking home from the doctor’s office after my yearly physical — an appointment, this year, marked by an episode of unintended tumescence, mine, while my kindly general practitioner, a gay man my age, with hazel-colored wavy hair and hazel-colored eyes, palpated my testicles. In response to my arousal, he said, “You’ve been blessed,” and I’m still not certain, five hours later, exactly what he meant. Any painter is an exhibitionist; so is any model, even if underage. Children are the least remunerated exhibitionists in the history of Western painting; Matisse and his model, Allan Stein (subject of a novel by Matthew Stadler), shared, according to the exhibition catalogue, a “mutual affection,” though the only aspects of this mutuality that the painting captures are the mutuality of blue and green, the mutuality of red and brown, and the mutuality of realistic portraiture and its thrilling demise.


Pablo Picasso, Self-Portrait, 1906

The Desire to Write about Self-Portrait

When I look at Picasso’s Self-Portrait, 1906 (or at a reproduction of it), my right index finger wiggles. My fingertip, in air or on my right thigh, traces the outline of Picasso’s face — especially the left eyebrow’s exaggerated semicircle and the oversized nose, whose comic magnitude makes Pablo seem a simpleton, a vaudevillian clown (Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Jackie Gleason) we’d mock and reject. Alternately, the rotund nose, in conjunction with the Oedipally effaced eye, makes Pablo seem like sexy Gérard Depardieu in Bertolucci’s 1900. My right index finger, connected to an inner eye that wishes to prove the act of looking to be always covertly haptic, doesn’t know how to navigate the faint crosshatchings beneath the grey background. These crosshatchings might be the voice of the raw canvas itself, whose grain outsings the grey oil paint, either because Picasso applied only a thin layer, or because canvas’s élan vital, its honeycomb signature, overpowered his efforts to silence it. I want to write about this self-portrait because of its small size — a mere 10 1/2 x 7 3/4 inches. Its modest — infantile? — dimensions match the tidy boxiness of a paragraph, the container in which the desire to write compels me to dwell; I enjoy a paragraph’s outer edge, that moment when a sentence decides to terminate its journey.


Pablo Picasso, Woman with Bangs, 1902

The Desire to Write about Woman with Bangs

The desire to write about Picasso’s Woman with Bangs may echo my desire to lift this depicted woman from her depression. (A painting can’t be depressed; this woman is only an effect of blue oil paint applied in 1902.) Because both the background and the woman are shades of complicated blue, the totality of blueness suffusing this scene allows no exit — no chance for a joke, a candy bar, a trip to the laundromat. My desire to write about the blue woman’s gloom (and thereby to reinforce it) is a diseased enterprise; I can’t alleviate an imagined woman’s desperation by writing complicated sentences, or by presuming that the color blue — when it swamps background and foreground, without distinguishing between woman and wall — is a logical dumping-ground for my hothouse empathy. This woman’s heavy-lidded eyes imply a roof of bone, a skull I’m eager, when I finish this paragraph, to ignore, so I can pay attention to the yellow-eyed beans boiling on my stove.


Henri Matisse, Landscape: Broom, 1906; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Elise S. Haas; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about Landscape: Broom

The looseness with which Matisse applied oil paint to his pencil sketch, in Landscape: Broom, 1906, a miniaturized venture into the louche and the smudged, inspires in me a wish to practice, in my own life, an analogous looseness — whether a looseness of morals (I will allow myself a variety of unsanctioned sexual escapades, and I’ll vow not to berate myself afterward) or a looseness of writerly technique, whereby I launch into the sentence’s open field without a plan, accompanied only by a wish to intensify my experience of random greens, violets, and pinks. My desire to write about this looseness — Matisse’s combination of chromatic opulence and austere omission — is a desire to participate in a practice of attentiveness that doesn’t shut down, out of prudence or shyness, when writing begins. Attentiveness intensifies as the sentence progresses; the writing session, whether fifteen minutes or two hours, affords a plein air openness to mental stimulation. I write to multiply occasions for stimulation and to magnify my power to experience pleasure. The pinkish-orange center of Matisse’s composition contains white horizontal brushstrokes, which seem to be moving left to right, as if striving to approach a blue semicircle that is itself yearning to approach a tree where small black and green strokes — animals, shrubs, or flowers — huddle. The purples and the oranges (especially the orange tree trunks) stimulate my body (I inhale more deeply, as if gasping); I don’t want to brag about my hypersusceptibility to purple and to orange, but I didn’t fly all the way to San Francisco from New York to lie to you about my clandestine relationship to color.


Henri Matisse, Interior with Aubergines, 1911; Musée Grenoble, gift of the artist, 1922; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about Interior with Aubergines

Writing about Matisse’s Interior with Aubergines, 1911, seems the antithesis of the stupor incarnated by the five-petaled blue flowers that Matisse has plastered (with distemper) over floor and wall equally, in a room whose mood of reverie and escapism is Moroccan by proxy — the patterned, imageless universe of the Alhambra. Does the term “all-over” describe the abstract expressionist version of this Alhambran impulse, which, appropriated by Matisse, authorizes stasis and meandering as two sides of one ethereal coin? Matisse’s blue flowers, courtesy of Novalis, repeat. Their mandate to erase depth perception in favor of an entranced flatness allows me to become that giddy flatness by writing about it; writing about the proliferating, block-print-like flowers, I side with them. I ingest the flowers, and take on their no-nonsense wish to totalize, to level distinctions, to bliss out. I’ve lied; depth exists in this painting, but these mini-tableaux of depth are framed vistas that resemble flat panels. By writing about Interior with Aubergines, I want to legalize my own blue-flowered interior — my word-cave, the brainy hollow behind my eyes, where jasmine petals in my childhood house’s front yard are still unpicked and fragrant. Those flowers, in 1962, weren’t jasmine; of unknown genus, they embodied the numberless, the oppressively uncommunicative.


Henri Matisse, Red Madras Headdress, 1907; The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about Red Madras Headdress

Last night, I dreamt that I was scheduled to give a piano recital, whose pièce de résistance would be Schubert’s final sonata. In the dream, I hadn’t mastered the sonata, and so, with relief, I canceled the recital, even though my brother had already inscribed it in his calendar, a notebook he considered sacred, not subject to the indignity of last-minute cancellations. In my fingers, as I informed my brother of the cancellation, I could feel the melancholy opening theme of the sonata’s first movement, a melody I realized I would never play in public; in my fingers, I could feel the injury I was inflicting on my family by canceling a concert that, though negligible, had become our only nourishment. Later in the dream, a large clump of orange-yellow wax fell out of my left ear; the wax was the color of the chair on which the woman, in Matisse’s Red Madras Headdress, 1907, sits — a yellow reminiscent of banana, papaya, summer squash, and Sauternes. In the dream, I bragged to everyone about my ear’s waxen trophy, this honeyed evidence of auditory prowess. Like Odysseus, I was now prepared to endure the song of the sirens; tied to the dream’s mast, I no longer needed a waxen encumbrance to shield me from a lethal melody.

[Do return for part two, next week]


Wayne Koestenbaum has published five books of poetry: Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, Model Homes, The Milk of Inquiry, Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, and Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems. He has also published a novel, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, and seven books of nonfiction: Humiliation, Hotel Theory, Andy Warhol, Cleavage, Jackie Under My Skin, The Queen’s Throat (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and Double Talk. His next two books, forthcoming in 2012, are The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (University of California Press) and Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background (Turtle Point Press). Koestenbaum is a distinguished professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, and also a visiting professor in the painting department of the Yale School of Art. He lives in New York City.