October 15, 2009

Sara Seinberg in America

Sara Seinberg sits in front of me in the Sister Spit van, wearing a red flannel, her leonine hair piled atop her head, putting together this evening’s opening slide show on her computer. Seinberg does this every day in the van – assembles what has become a sort of opening credit to our nightly show, brightly moving pictures we project onto a screen or a curtain or in the case of last night, the back of some signage from a realtor’s office. We were performing in what was essentially an unused hallway of the office, a narrow room fashioned into a sort of bar (though one that does not serve alcohol since this is all going down in Salt Lake City), one that has a stunning amount of Sponge Bob Square Pants merchandise where bottles of whiskey and tequila should stand, a space that was donated to us for the night and otherwise functions as a meeting room for Salt Lake City gays and the site of a monthly women’s comedy jam. Anyways. Every night on this tour we sort of don’t know what’s going to happen – what our venue will be like, how many people will show up, if it will be a rowdy audience that gives us energy or a passive, silent crowd quietly withering our self-esteem with their inscrutable stares. And so Seinberg’s slide show is the perfect way to open each performance, as it too is a explosive, colorful unknown: what photos will she present, in what free-associative order, which of the photos will be of YOU, which photos of YOU will have been taken, um, earlier that day, when you weren’t noticing that Seinberg was aiming her lens at you while you were texting or reading a magazine or doing Pilates stretches outside a rest stop in Nebraska. And, since all the songs are set to music, our nightly theme song is a surprise as well, meaning, in no small way the sort of opening vibe of the show is in Seinberg’s hands, and unknown to us until we hit play on the computer and watch the opening images flash across the screen – close up of light bulbs reminiscent of Jack Pierson, taken outside the Guggenheim during the Catherine Opie retrospective. And we’re off.

Sister Spit has long been a literary roadshow, but so many of the writers we’ve been working with over the past decade have branched out into visual art, and then there are all the writers working in comics and graphic novels. Sara Seinberg was brought on this tour as a writer, but her photos are so lush and grimy and gorgeous they had to b part of the show, too. Later each evening Seinberg reads from her novel-in-progress, its working title “The Madness of a Simple Red Stone” (she’s talked about changing the name, but in Olympia got a tattoo of an open book bearing a simple red stone), which reinterprets the myth of Pandora, setting all the action in contemporary Brooklyn. Pandora is a dyke, a waitress, charged by the gods with hauling around a purse heavy with all the ills of the world buzzing in a glass jar. Prometheus is a chain-smoking, alcoholic cab driver. His brother, Epimethius, is dim-witted. Dionysus is a queen who runs a disco. Demeter is an earthy lesbian and Persephone’s death rock. Zeus and Hera are like incestuous Beckams, all strung out on sex and power and immortality. If you think this sounds like the coolest book ever you are correct. The only thing that trumps the concept is the writing itself, which like Seinberg’s photos is blooming, intricate, packed with symbolic meaning, aiming for maximum drama and emotional response from the reader, or listener, or viewer, depending on which of the artist’s mediums you’re taking in.

Right after rolling into Wyoming, on our way to a show in Laramie, Seinberg dragged our road manager, the filmmaker, fashion designer and Wyoming native Sarah Adams out of the van to photograph her under a “Welcome to Wyoming” sign. Coming into Wyoming all anyone can think of is Matthew Shepard. I’ve been struggling to resist this as there have been hate crimes in every city we’ve ever played in, the entire country marked by anti-queer violence. But if all I associate with Laramie is a murdered fag, what must it be like for the queers who live there? To have all their activism and visibility be in the shadow of this famous killing? It sounds hard. They recently held a memorial marking ten years since the boy was murdered, with a panel and an updated staging of The Laramie Project. Our show each night has its moments of darkness too –all these artists are invested in keeping it real, and reality is often painful – but overall our show is intensely joyful, and funny, and we are psyched to be a ray of sunshine for our Laramie comrades, without blowing any of said sunshine up their asses.

But back to Seinberg! Standing atop a rock before the Wyoming sign, Sarah Adams whipped off her shirt and swung it like a lasso above her head. With her aviator shades and wild hair and spandexy shorts she looks like the singer for the most amazing Western metal band you’ve never heard of, and it is almost certainly bound to turn up in tonight’s slideshow. Wait, let me just ask Seinberg about it.

Can I talk to you right now?

Sure I’ll just figure out what the song will be later.

What songs are you considering?

Yaz, Only You. Twisted Sister, We’re Not Gonna Take It. Tears for Fears, Everybody Wants to Rule the World.  It may or may not turn out to be any of those.

Are you thinking about Laramie and the weight of that place while you make your selection? Do you consider the cities we’ll be in when you pick the music?

I am thinking a lot about Laramie, which is where We’re Not Gonna Take It came from. It’s a true statement, and also the nature of Twisted Sister makes it a little ironic, I think. I try to consider where we’re going, but at the same time I can’t possibly know what that will mean til I get there. A lot of times it’s just me and the headphones.

What are your considerations while selecting the images?

Well, whatever new photos have been taken I take into consideration. Generally, when I arrange the actual credits (individual slides listing the names of each performer) I don’t put people in them. I put birds or animals in them, or still lives. I try to intersperse color with black and white, urban with pastoral. I try to cram a wide range of feeling into space.

When did you really start taking pictures?

Seriously? In 1998. I had writers’ block and I still wanted to tell stories and I didn’t know how to do that, and my dad gave me an old camera of his. I was visiting my parents. The writing resolved itself along the way, but I kept taking pictures regardless.

And then you went to grad school at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

I got to a place where I felt to go further I needed resources. I needed a darkroom, I needed to print. I wanted to sort of immerse myself in a visual language that wasn’t available to me in every day life.

And you liked going to art school.

I really did. It may end up being the only time when it was my job to make art all the time. For three years. I feel really lucky to have had that opportunity. I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to pay the government back for it, though.

What moves you to take a picture? Like, when you’re looking around, how does something grab you and say, Picture!

I think at the heart of things I am always trying to tell some kind of story. Even when there is no human in the pictures. I feel like taking photographs is a lot like working in translation. Everything you’re trying to convey to another person – you’re trying to use all the tools at your disposal to convey something genuine to that person. So I think that in a visual way I am trying to convey certain feelings I have that could never get words.

Are there favorites things you like to photograph?

I don’t have favorite things so much as I watch themes emerge. I definitely have people that I’ve been photographing for over a decade now because they’re in my life. I just photograph my life, I don’t generally set things up ever. There are recurring themes. I take a lot of pictures of birds, which I didn’t notice until last year.

What’s that about?

Well, first of all there’s my very basic Libra rising problem of just thinking they’re pretty, but it’s also about freedom and wondering about an untetheredness to the world. Maybe I’m having a fantasy about what birds have. Do birds think? I don’t know. But from the ground, having their ability looks utterly free to me.

Your photos make it look like you live in this world that is totally celebratory, full of people having this amazingly happy time, coming up against hedonism but never burning out, always keeping an almost innocence about them. This goes with the bursting color of the flowers and skies and food and sweet dogs and flocks of pigeons you also photograph. And how there are so many images of industrial landscapes, beaten up or abandoned, but always with a deeper detail noted, like a whimsical slash of graffiti or trade names like HARDENED or DARLING engraved onto padlocks and fire hydrants. It’s like the hardship or wear and tear of life is present, and there’s all this incredible affirming exuberance enveloping it.

Its weird, cause when I started out I don’t think that was the case. My sense of color was always pretty gregarious, which I think I got from being in love with Nan Goldin and William Eggleston. When I was younger I wanted to be living in this romantic world of demise, like a rock and roll suicide. But it just turns out I’m not. I’m just very . . .  I’m not that rebellious. And the thing that attracts me to life are the things that get you through the darkness. Because of course the darkness will show up no matter what. But I think the thing that interests me is people walk through it. People just keep walking through, putting one foot in front of the other, and I love that. And I feel that no matter how broke we get or how hungry we get or how heartbroken we get or how many people leave us, especially in my community of chosen family and actual family, people just have the instinct to reach for something beautiful.

You started a photography business with your same-sex lover, Ginger Robinson, called Robinberg Photography.

Yeah, we’ve been in business since 2007. And our almost done website is live right now at www.robinbergphotography.com. We do portraits for people, we’ve been doing editorial stuff, like people have asked us to go and shoot things for them in an editorial fashion. Ginger is working on an ongoing project about the south that’s pretty amazing. And also people have used our existent work, like the image that went on the cover of Ali’s book (Ali Liebegott’s novel, The IHOP Papers). People have purchased existing images for various media.


I got to have my portrait taken by the Robinbergs. They stashed me half-naked in a friend’s really nice bathtub and dumped it full of books, so its like I’m bathing in Eileen Myles and Charles Bukowski and The Yellow Wallpaper. It was really fun to lay around while the circled me, Seinberg clicking her digital camera while Ginger backed it up with black and white film. They trade off. They’ll be showing their work together at the RADAR reading series at the San Francisco Public Library on November 10th.

In the van, Sarah Adams offers people cash prizes for the spotting of wildlife, beginning with a nickel for an antelope and going all the way up to $500 for a bear, which she is confident we will never see. She is also offering twenty-five cents for the first actual cowboy spotting, defined by a man wearing cowboy hat and boots, with his shirt tucked in and a big belt buckle. Seinberg affirms that yes, the photo of Sarah whipping her t-shirt around her head will feature in this evening’s slide show. Sarah’s t-shirt reads MONASTICS in Sharpie, promoting a sport she came up with that involves lots of meditating. Seinberg lands on an Antony and the Johnsons song for the night’s opening theme, realizes though very pretty the tune is perhaps a tad too funereal, and switches over to buoyant Le Tigre. She snaps her laptop shut and dials up her same-sex lover on her cell, watching the infinite prairie roll by outside the van windows. Dude, she says, America is so pretty.

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