May 25, 2010

Conversation with Zachary Royer Scholz

Zachary Royer Scholz is one of the interesting young artists-who-write who have emerged on the local art scene in the past two or three years and who have added a great deal of optimism for folks like me. I was lucky enough to start to know Zach this year when he participated in my class on Art and the Invisible for SFMOMA’s Pickpocket Almanack, curated by Joseph del Pesco. After the last class a couple of weeks ago, Zach and I began a little exchange via e-mail about the ideas that the little group discussed that night. It had been a very warm, serious, open discussion that left everyone energized. It fulfilled, I suspect, the intention of del Pesco and Dominic Willsdon in launching the program—i.e., the initiation of processes that can lead to the creation of intellectual community. So it seems appropriate, in that spirit, at the end of my initial blogging period here, to share with the readers some of the work that my class did, and to offer the thoughts of Zach, who I think will be doing great work for the community in the years to come.

ZRS: I really enjoyed the Pickpocket course you put together.  The nature of these things seems to be that none of the events ever entirely fit the projected thread that links them, but still somehow work.  Your course, in mass, made amorphous, unexpected sense. Learning about swimming bats, urban bird populations, and the long history of Jews in China, were all fascinating in their own right, but together they sketched an expanded vision of the world, whose idiosyncratic quirkiness was fascinating exactly because it wasn’t controlled and was at times not what you even expected.

I liked the premise of the book you assigned (The City and The City, by China Miéville).  It was interesting how quickly in our discussion it became clear that, as strange as it seems to have one city layered on top of another, this actually occurs everywhere.  I talked about my own experience of this, living in the Mission, and others recounted similar experiences, but since that discussion I have become increasingly interested in the ways that this occurs without us realizing it is there.

I am reminded of a piece by the Danish artist Jens Haaning called “Turkish Jokes” which broadcasts jokes in Turkish over a loudspeaker in a square in central Oslo. Residents of the neighborhood who knew Turkish (there are many Turkish immigrants in Oslo) could be heard laughing at the recording. The piece created heightened visibility within the community of Turkish speakers, but more tellingly, made that community externally visible to the other residents of Oslo.

We can usually recognize our own, but we don’t always recognize when other people belong to a group that we don’t, particularly when there might be reasons they don’t want us to know. It is hard to know who is an IV drug user unless you have been one yourself or worked in a clinic or at a needle exchange.  The hackneyed term “gaydar” encapsulates the extrasensory nature of this kind of learned visibility, but its militaristic allusion wrongly positions it as the ability to detect difference, rather than sense similarity.

It is clear that there are communities, terrains, whole ecosystems that exist around us that we don’t see because we both don’t know how to see them and aren’t paying attention.  Who hasn’t had the experience of learning something new, a word perhaps, and suddenly finding it everywhere?  It is like it wasn’t there before and now it is, like it just popped into existence the moment we learned it, and in a sense it did.

Some years ago I was talking to [the late] Larry Sultan about his friend Jon Rubin’s recently born child. Larry described the birth, not as the creation of a new individual, but rather the creation of a new version of the world. I loved this image of a new world being born.  In a way we each do inhabit our own world built out of our particular experience and biased by our imperfect understanding.  Because of this, we are in a sense blind to what we don’t know.

There’s a hokey saying that “when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.”  Maybe in truth, if you only have a hammer you can only see nails…

RP: My wife and I were watching the great Foyle’s War on TV Sunday night and had a City-in-the-City moment. The archetypal British house servant in 1946 sniffs proudly when prodded by the detective about whether she noticed anything odd going on: “we are taught not to see or hear what the family
does or says.”

Your Turks in Oslo story reminded me of an experience I had in Jerusalem. I met a guy whose unimaginable job was to negotiate the disputes among the dozens of different ethnic groups so as to keep the peace, on the small scale. For instance, Jews were throwing things at another ethnic group’s funeral processions through the streets, which were apparently loud and taking place on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath. Your basic insoluble, no right nor wrong side of an issue. But the story that I always remember is that a new church was put up across the street from a Jewish institution, and they erected a large crucifix on the top, facing the Jewish place. The Jews were really irate and a mini-crisis ensued. After much negotiation, this guy was really worried when he had a miraculous breakthrough. He got the church to agree to rotate the cross 90 degrees. All the Jews had to look at was a vertical line.

ZRS: Depictions of English servants in literature as well as on the stage and screen are fascinating. In period pieces in particular, servants invariably know the real scoop better than their masters. Their employers exhibit a blindness toward their knowledge that seems to stem from either an ignorant sense of superiority or a distaste for consulting inferiors. British servants seem to consider it their duty to feign ignorance not just because it is “proper” but in order to maintain continued access and employment. It is invariably a situation with rich potential, whether seriously probed, as in the movie Gosford Park, or  hilariously poked at, as in P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories. As a kid, I remember watching the British TV adaptations of Wodehouse’s stories with Hugh Laurie as the empty-headed, jovial Bertie Wooster, and Stephen Fry as Jeeves, his improbably knowledgeable and talented manservant. As a result, anytime I watch Hugh Laurie, even in the TV show House where he is quite dour and does an American accent, I expect him to break into a foppish nonsensical rhapsody about something inane like the relative merits of his mashie and niblick golf clubs.

Your crucifix story is great. It reminds me of a photographic body of work by a young photographer whose name eludes me. His images depict banal landscapes—open swaths of grass, bordered by stretches of unremarkable trees. In the center of each image is a tall vertical sculpture of rusted metal planted solidly and incongruously in the ground. Some stand upright, some angle slightly away from plumb.  Though reminiscent of works by Richard Serra or even Constantin Brancusi, these curious minimalist monuments are simply roadside billboards photographed from the side. There is a certain ah-ha satisfaction to figuring out what they are, but wonderfully the images become even more beautiful and interesting once you know the secret.  They suggest foreign terrains and alternative meanings that are accessible if one simply steps off the proscribed path and views things from a slightly different angle.

RP: Of course what we are fed in art is probably a highly sanitized version of the class relations and sexual politics of actual British households of a hundred years ago. However, if we discuss it as a world unto itself, an art form and world with no connection to a reality outside itself, it is great fun. Yes, Gosford Park was just an amazing movie, and those Laurie/Fry Jeeves TV shows were brilliant.  I am old enough to have actually loved the Upstairs/Downstairs series, though I didn’t catch it until reruns. The question I come away with Zach, is what kind of kid were you, watching obscure British social satire? I mean, were you going to museums looking for Hogarth? In my ongoing quest to understand where artists come from, I’m curious if this was totally on your own or did you find a teacher or parent pointing out this stuff to you?
Back to the topic: if invisibility is largely a highly complex form of social control or social adjustment, on the one hand, a human sociopolitical construct, and on the other a hard-wired form of brain efficiency and an essential part of how the universe is organized, where does art fit in? Is art the monkey wrench in those systems? Like the flaw in the matrix when you briefly see the computer code in the walls?

ZRS: I was never really into Hogarth…I watched obscure British social satire as a kid, because of my parents. For most of my childhood my parents only let my brothers and me watch public television because they believed network television was detrimental. The restriction was partly preventative, but was also intended to expose us to a richer cultural spectrum. The plan was relatively successful, but we also got pretty good at breaking into the television cabinet and watching while my parents were away.

Ironically, while they were strongly opposed to the pornographic violence and commercialism on commercial TV, they were simultaneously willing to expose us, as kids, to programs whose content was rather adult. This not only included the subtle adult content of satires like Wooster & Jeeves and Fawlty Towers, but also the more overt adult content in dramas and mysteries. I watched PBS’s Masterpiece Theater and Mystery with them from as early as I can remember, and while stuff was sometimes a little scary, and elements were at times over my head, it is amazing to remember how enthralled I was at a very early age. There are programs I don’t remember well, but many including The Flame Trees of Theka (’82), Traffik (’89), the Inspector Morse mysteries (’89), and Prime Suspect (’92), left significant impressions, as did rather random elements like Edward Gorey’s wonderfully macabre intro animation for Mystery.

My parents also started taking us to live theater very young. We attended not only innumerable high-school productions of everything from Scapino to Death of a Salesman, but also professional productions at the Studio Theater, Arena Stage, and the Folger Shakespeare Theater.  (Growing up in Washington DC had two distinct advantages: lots of live theater, and free museums.) It could be that my parents took us with them to keep us from covertly watching television while they were away, but I think they also wanted us to be there. Now that I am soon to become a parent myself, I sense that it is also likely that they simply wanted to go and didn’t want to deal with getting a sitter, and so took us along as soon as we were old enough to not be disruptive.

Whatever the motivation I am glad that they did, though I am not sure that my brothers would agree.  Out of the three of us, I think I took to it the most. Having to make sense of difficult content “well beyond my years,” was not only enriching, but I think helped make me a more curious person. I think that we fundamentally underestimate children’s capacity. Kids are little sponges and they understand much more than we realize. Toddlers apparently cry in large part because they have stuff they want to tell their parents, but can’t.  They “‘know” the words, but can’t form them because their mouths, tongues, and lips haven’t developed enough. Parents are now starting to have them use sign language instead. Similarly, when I watched Andre Braugher in Othello as a child, I couldn’t accurately articulate the complex motivations behind Iago’s jealous hatred, but I completely understood them.

This is not to say that kids understand everything.  There are things that are invisible to them, innuendos they don’t pick up on, and areas of experience that they lack. I remember watching a production of Romeo and Juliet in my twenties and for the first time being fascinated by the complex relationship between Capulet and his wife. Through most of the play it is implied that Lady Capulet is having an affair with her nephew Tybalt. By the end of the play Tybalt is dead and the Capulets have resolved to reconcile. The loving protestations and drastic actions of Romeo and Juliet seem ridiculous compared to their mature portrait of love tempered by compromise. Who knows, years from now I might find the forbearance of Lady Capulet toward her somewhat doddering and lecherousness husband the most resonant part of the play.

Children also see much of the world that has become invisible to us as we have aged. They haven’t yet learned how to operate within the efficient paths of habit and social proscription that shield so much of the world from us. To answer your question of where art fits in, I think in a way art is there to make us a little like children again. I know this idea sounds totally hokey, but I think there is an inherent aspect of wonder at the heart of art that is fundamentally childlike. Art isn’t, however, child’s play; it isn’t there to simply create wonder, nor merely there to produce a nostalgic connection to a time when the world was new.  I think that, as you suggested, art is a “monkey wrench in those systems” that make so much of the world invisible. But rather than put us back in an unintelligible absorptive childlike state, we retain our ability to read the code. Seeing like a child but understanding as an adult we can not only see the structures we inhabit, but read them, understand them, and perhaps then make them better…more humane?

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