Monday, November 10, 2014

A STUFFED CROW, A SOCK MONKEY, AND A BABY DOLL WALK INTO THE WOODS...


Tony Millionaire's Maakies comic strip has been running for 20 years now, chronicling the debauched, depressed, repugnant, bleak, diseased adventures of Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby. Maakies is murky and not for the feint of heart, but it's also hilarious and smart--an equal to Calvin and Hobbes for how lovingly drawn and intelligently written it is. The knife of Tony Millionaire's mind might be rusty and filthy, but it's also scalpel-sharp.

Even if Millionaire's sense of humour and despair isn't your cup of booze, his woodcutting-like pen and ink prowess is impossible to deny. If you're not directly familiar with his work, surely you've encountered his portraiture somewhere or another. He has an antiquated sensibility, is drawn to old Victorian houses and ships in bottles and ornate glass door knobs. This slightly arcane, seemingly proper visual sensibility worked and still works in consistently interesting opposition to the crudity and cruelty of the Maakies reality it depicts.


At first blush a Maakies spin-off, Millionaire introduced Sock Monkey in 2001. Drinky and Gabby ostensibly appear, though rarefied and plush versions of those ne're-do-wells, the "toys" of kind, young Ann-Louise, who lives in a roomy Victorian home based on Millionaire's grandparents'. Though still a grump, Mr. Crow is a far cry from the drunken self-annihilator Drinky, and, aside from the hat and the simianness, Gabby shares little in common with his vile Maakies counterpart. Really, Sock Monkey is worlds apart from Maakies. "Sock Monkey is me trying to rise above all that bullshit," Millionaire has said of his departure, "to be more poetic, looking at the bright side, remembering the things that used to delight me as a child." 


Many of Gabby and Mr. Crow's--with their baby doll friend Inches's--adventures take place indoors, where they interact elaborately with the commonplace details of the old home. The prismatic light cast by the glass door knob, the old grandfather clock in the hallway, the model ships in the study. The discovery of the chandelier in the foyer elicits Gabby's purple wonder: "Zounds! A castle hanging int he clouds!! A succulent starry place!! Crystalline halls, sparkling corridors! Hmm... Dare I traipse through heave's constellated wilderness?" Their world is animated--as they themselves are--as it might be by an imaginative child passing time in a many-roomed, many-detailed house.

The Sock Monkey adventures are sweet, filled to the meniscus with the senses and sensations of being little. The art, the quaintness of detail, and the diction suggests classic children's books, stories of how large the world gets when put under the microscope of idle wonder. Whether of not it's suitable for children depends on whether or not you're willing to accept that your child is smarter and weirder than you maybe give them credit for. Really, the worst that might happen is your squirt begins to say things like Zounds and Gadzooks or take an interest in scrimshaw.

Into the Deep Woods arrives on the heels of a beautiful Treasury of the 11 Sock Monkey books, and is a departure from the past decade of visual storytelling. Millionaire has teamed up with Matt Danner, who chums around with the Disney and Pixar folks, to create a long-form prose adventure. 

This new story is something of an origin story, where we find out how the toys were enlivened and how they found their way to Ann-Louise. Millionaire's art is consistent throughout, but it rides shotgun to the story. This may to a bit of a letdown to readers who come to the book out of an all encompassing, Maakies loving love for Millionaire. But for those who who are thoroughly charmed by Sock Monkey for Sock Monkey's sake, Into the Deep Woods is a worthy addition to the story. Find Ann-Louise gone, worried she's been taken by the beastly Amarok, they set out on an adventure--"Forge ahead!" becomes the toys' motto--through the woods, under the water, into the air, where they encounter sea monsters, bear inventors, and harpies, and always just narrowly duck the Amarok.

Of all the Sock Monkey books, Into the Deep Woods gets the closet to being best suited for kids. Millionaire's eccentricities are still present and sturdy, but the addition of Danner goes a ways to making the story more inclusive, opened it up to younger readers. Maakies loving, older readers can still get into it to, but they'll probably have to go in on their hands and knees.

- Andrew



Saturday, November 1, 2014

INSIDE IS FUNNY THINGS


"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. When I have failed miserably, that, too, was on the shoulders of giants--giant fuckups, that is."

                       - Sir Issac Newton (from "Famous Quotations--Unabridged")


Even if you've never heard of Bob Odenkirk, I'd say it's likely that you've seen him before. Maybe you're a die hard Mr. Show fan, or maybe a How I Met Your Mother fan, or a Breaking Bad fan. Odenkirk is the often schmucky, often be-suited, half-witted character, wearing the suit--you figure--to try and distract people from how inept, or half-ept he is. Odenkirk, like Dave Foley on The Kids in the Hall, owes much to the vaudevillian straight man. He'd be a stuffed shirt, if his shirt weren't so rumpled.

Many of the pieces in A Load of Hooey are shot from that schlubby hip: inept politicians, unprepared orators, convocation speakers who become increasingly obsessed with the future porn careers of many of the graduates. The content is all in the title: this is a load of hooey. Poppycock and twaddle and flimshaw. But honed, sharp versions of all that nonsense.

Comedian books are on the rise, but many of them err on the side of biography. Bossy Pants, or Yes Please or Zombie Spaceship Wasteland--even Odenkirk's most visible comedy partner, David Cross, keeps most to personal opinion in his book I Drink For A Reason. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it relies on your familiarity with that comedian as a personality. Odenkirk--who began his writing career on Saturday Night Live in the mid-80s, was able to flex his weirder muscles on Mr. Show and I think might be the only source of structure conscience on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!--keeps entirely to set pieces, skits, conceptual monologue. It's a writer's book; a character actor's book. "This is stuff I wrote in between writing TV pilots and movies no one made," is how he describes the book on a recent Nerdist podcast. "Sometimes I'd send them into the New Yorker, but often times I wouldn't, because honestly a lot of the pieces are too crude for the New Yorker."

A Load of Hooey is much more in line with the randomness of 70s classics like Side Effects or Without Feathers or Cruel Shoes--and I'd even argue that there are hints of Leacock's Literary Lapses or Nonsense Novels in all of these comedic grab bags. Without those contexts, Odenkirk's load might feel a bit half-baked, hurried. It's a book of characters and ideas that you wouldn't want to last more than a few pages. Like the use of "hooey" in the title, the approach may be a bit antiquated now that comedians are putting out full fledged self-help books. But Odenkirk knows what he's doing. Whether or not you enjoy this load of hooey relies on whether or not you know what Odenkirk's doing.

- Andrew

Q&A: SALEEMA NAWAZ


Every year the Writers’ Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize is awarded ‘to a new and developing writer of distinction for a short story published in a Canadian literary publication’. Prior to the Prize three finalists are announced and a diverse anthology of notable stories is selected by three acclaimed jurors. The Journey Prize Stories 26 (McClelland & Stewart) was released on October 7th. This year’s finalists are Tyler Keevil for “Sealskin”, Lori McNulty for “Monsoon Season”, and Clea Young for “Juvenile”. The winner will be announced on November 4.

I asked juror and Journey Prize 20 winner Saleema Nawaz (Mother Superior & Bone and Bread) to give us a hint about what goes on behind the lauded book.

- Brad de Roo, who almost neglected to mention that he’s first read many of Canada’s many celebrated short fiction writers, like Lee Henderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Neil Smith, Doretta Lau, Anna Leventhal, and Saleema Nawaz in Journey’s bustling pages.

Can you talk a little about the process of selecting this year's anthology?

All the jury members have several months with the stories. I read all the stories several times and made detailed notes. The others, I’m sure, did the same. Then I submitted a longlist, which was compiled by McClelland & Stewart along with the longlists of the other jurors and sent out to each of us. Altogether, this gave us a list of around 30 stories – around a third of the total number of stories that had been submitted and read.

Once we had each been sent that list, we went back and re-read all of those stories, including our own initial selections. I know I did a lot of careful evaluating and reassessing at this stage, and my own sense of the relative merits of the pieces definitely shifted and evolved as I spent more time with them.

A number of our choices overlapped, but we didn’t find out which ones until several weeks later when we got together. It was only at that point that it was revealed which juror(s) had selected each story. 

How much discussion was there between the jury, which this year also included Craig Davidson and Steven Beattie?

There was a full day of discussion between the jury members. We went methodically through the list of 30 stories, spending as much time as necessary in order to achieve consensus – even if the consensus was that we were not all in agreement and needed to return to it later. Generally, one of the jurors who had included a story on the longlist began by discussing that story’s merits and the conversation would go on from there.

We all tried to be open about our preferences and blind spots (as much as we were aware of them, I suppose!), and it was a really productive and interesting deliberation. I think we did each engage in a little bit of strategizing and horse-trading (e.g. it would make sense to let go of a favourite that the other two didn’t like nearly as much, in order to make a stronger case for another that might have more traction), but what I liked most about the process was that it was truly collaborative, respectful, and non-combative. I fully support all of the stories we ended up selecting, and I think the other jurors would say the same thing.

I think it is also worth mentioning that the process was completely anonymous until all the decisions had been made. The system is even more stringent than I had guessed, as I thought we might find out who the authors were once we were all assembled to discuss our longlist. But we had no idea who had written the stories or which journals had published them until afterwards.

Was the process of sequencing stories at all comparable to how you assembled your own collection, Mother Superior? Or does the flow of the anthology take a backseat to selecting the right stories?

For the Journey anthology, I can definitely say the flow took a backseat to the selection. The selection process took most of the day, and the sequencing came at the end and it happened quite quickly. I actually don’t remember very much about the sequencing decisions except for a basic desire to space out the funnier pieces.

For Mother Superior, there were fewer stories to contend with. I placed the novellas last because it felt most natural, due to their length, and the title story first, for similar conventional reasons. As for the ones in the middle, I’m afraid no longer have any memory of what factors may have come into play!
 

Besides, the Journey Prize Anthology, where's the best place to find Canadian stories these days?

If you take a look at the Table of Contents of the Journey anthology, it will give you a good idea of some of the excellent journals you should be reading: The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, etc.

Occasionally, I've seen literary prizes described as devaluing individual artistic expression by putting it in competition? Do you see any truth in this criticism? If not, why are prizes important?

I think prizes celebrate, not devalue, artistic expression. But it’s true that sometimes a jury is forced to compare apples and oranges. Depending on who wins, maybe the oranges or the apples will feel devalued that year. But overall, I think the dissatisfaction with prizes comes from the premium placed upon them in the culture. If you’re a writer, it’s easy to feel as though everything hinges upon your novel being shortlisted for the Giller. And given how hard it can be to get the public to notice a book in the first place, it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling that way.

The sad truth is that there are many worthy titles that come and go without ever managing to attract public attention. That being said, I don’t think eliminating prizes is the answer. Prizes put much needed funding in the pockets of writers and bring welcome attention to their books. I’m all for celebrating the hard work of writers – it’s important in such a solitary vocation in which one can rarely expect very much in the way of external rewards.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

CYNISISM WAS MY WHISKY, AND I'D HAD A FEW


In my house growing up there was a room just off the foyer with a TV in it and a door that locked. It was in there that I watched Kids in the Hall--am I wrong remembering it aired on Monday nights? 

I watched with the door locked, of course. I can't recall being specifically forbidden to watch the show, but I certainly remember thinking it was a half-hour my parents wouldn't be thrilled that I was gobbling like I was. It was the only place on TV--that I knew about--where people could say fuck. As a verb no less. And it's likely that I heard fag here for the first time, too--though used casually, lispingly, by Scott Thompson's Buddy Cole. The show was weird and debauched, but also transgressive and educational in a sort of important way. At nine years old, I was explaining to my friends, who had been calling all the Kids gay, that only Scott was; there were nuances to these things. The humour wasn't derogatory, but it wasn't precious either. Like with The Simpsons, everyone was equal because everyone was strange and terrible--the white male a bit more repugnant and buffoonish than the rest. I guess I just assume that kids who grew up watching the Kids came out smart and sensitive to how absurd all humanity was.

Not that anyone was forcing me to choose, but Bruce was my favourite Kid. (It had maybe been only a year or so since I'd been into the Ninja Turtles, of whom Raph' had been my favourite.) Bruce was jockey-sized, fidgety, and a bit effete in a blue collar way. He was the abstract one; the one who would probably get mad at you if you hadn't seen Eraserhead. I'm sure it was more the tone and cadence of his delivery--pronounced, but lilting--that I was drawn to than his basement apartment worldview, which was a little over my head at nine. 


Brucio--as he affectionately called himself--put out an album called Shame-Based Man in 1995. I would have been about twelve years old at the time, and I duly memorized and internalized those bits. I don't really remember what sort of person I was before that album--judging from photos, I smiled a lot--but however I was before, I wasn't the same after I heard Shame-Based Man. Bruce McCulloch was my Jack Kerouac, my The Doors. I can't be sure if I adopted Brucio's view of the world's weird woe before I had my own opinion of it, my own experience in it--the same way the pop punk of the time introduced tweens to anger before they actually felt angry--or whether he just described it to me ahead of time, so I'd know it when I saw it.

 

Brucio's was a world of futons, crashed Corollas, and hangovers; of housewives, drunk dads, and jean jackets; of drinking as much as your drunk dad, but differentiating yourself by not drinking just rye; of lonely, lost people who are about fifteen years too old to be sleeping on futons. Brucio's Brucey cadence was as important as the writing, but the writing was also so good, so sharp, and as I acclimated to his pronounced, emphatic delivery, I found and came to seriously appreciate the rich vein of sadness in it all, the indefatigable bleakness of his purview. Observations like, "Life is sad when you wear sweat pants and a raincoat" or, "Our love is like Santa Claus. The only ones who still believe in it are small children who don't know how the world really works" really started to hit home. It was just so true, you know?

It's odd to think that I'm about the age now that Brucio was at the time of Shame-Based Man. That album is sort of Brucio in amber to me. In the years after Kids in the Hall dissolved and resolved, Bruce--in my eyes--never did anything as good as that album, or anything that matched the stride of his sketch and monologue work. Movies like Superstar and Stealing Harvard and Dog Park were a let down. But I was a kid. What did I know? It never occurred to me that Brucio needed to work, that Brucio was maybe selling the best stuff ever that no one wanted to buy. And so I come to Let's Start a Riot as the sort of guy it sounds like Bruce was, or played up that he was, when I loved him most: wry and odd, identifying on most days with Bruce's brilliant line from "Vigil", a monologue about Kurt Cobain's suicide, "Cynicism was my whiskey, and I'd had a few."


That cynical sprite with the over-sized flannel and waistline of a nine year old is in his 50s now, married with two children--one of whom apparently serves him drinks. The Brucio wit is still present and--though it's a bit puffier and probably doesn't ride a bike much anymore--still sharp, the observations troubling and true. For instance: "Wearing pyjamas in public. It's one of those things that you feel in your heart may be wrong, but you aren't sure why. Like masturbating in front of your dog." If you're a Brucio fan, you'll notice more than a few instances of recycled material--see: "Vigil" and "The Beautiful Day You Beat Up Your Dad"--but otherwise, the book is composed of vignette-sized ruminations on having a family and not exactly having a real job, on Brucio's fractured childhood, on his moves towards and away from Kids in the Hall, on his coming to grips with the fact that he's sometimes a disaster, and figuring out how come.

The kid that memorized Shame-Based Man, who would often perform "Doors Fan" to himself with no shortage of brio if the album wasn't handy, would probably be let down by Let's Start a Riot. The cynicism here feels like more an affection than a lifestyle. But the sort-of-man that that Brucio boy became is starting to see the unsustainability of that lifestyle. A realization that Brucio himself made just a few years beyond where I am now, which he documents--bare with me--almost touchingly in Let's Start a Riot. It's not that Brucio has become lachrymose and simple; he's just become... Sober's not the word I'm looking for. Let's say he's become self-aware.

In a perfectly Brucio piece about tolerating a Radiohead concert for the sake of a comely nurse, Brucio--who's just on the verge, and maybe hanging over the lip of being too old for this--is unwittingly fed anonymous drugs and taken to a rave by said nurse. When the nurse abandons Brucio to talk DJing with the DJ, he's left to ramble at some straight edge tree planters: "I don't trust myself. I'm going to have myself followed." "Sleep is remembrance. Breath is forgiveness." "I've always thought that the love I feel has trouble leaving my body." "Who cheers up the cheerleaders?"

Up all night, abandoned by his nurse, Brucio puts in a call to his agent in Toronto. "Did you know that sometimes the love I feel has trouble leaving my body?" The agent responds matter-of-factly: "Yes. Everyone knows that about you..."

Maybe that's all that's changed. Though a little stumbly and not always on point, Let's Start a Riot eventually figures out it's a story of Brucio trying to have less trouble letting the love he feels leave his body. And there's a surprising amount of love that makes it out in the book, considering how wee he is.

Cynisism no longer seems to be Brucio's whisky. Cocktails are apparently now his whisky. Let's Start a Riot is not the book that I imagined twenty years ago that Brucio would write, and thank god for that. It augurs well for me. 

- Andrew

Sunday, October 19, 2014

THE CHEAPENING OF THE COMICS


For such a beloved guy, we don't have much of Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson. Because he doesn't wave from Calvin floats in parades, or do convention signings next to cardboard cut-outs of Hobbes, the guy's been dubbed a recluse. Thomas Pynchon, a fella equipped with Watterson's dual interest in and suspicion of the world--albeit peeped at through a very different lens--famously balked at the mantle of reclusiveness, believing that "'recluse' is a code word generated by journalists, meaning Doesn't like to talk to reporters.'" So we're not flush with details of Watterson's life and thanks to his disinterest in butt-sized loads of money, we don't have Calvin and Hobbes-shaped vitamins--or lunch boxes or bed sheets or prophylactics--to help us better internalize those characters we love. All we have is the work Watterson did. Work that is, according to comic artist Wendy Ashbubble in Lee Henderson's new novel, "on a whole other level of goodness."
 
Watterson has, however, stepped out from behind his strip to share his unfiltered thoughts and feelings on a few occasions. In October 1988, Watterson delivered a speech at the Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University. In the address, titled "The Cheapening of the Comics," Watterson extols the virtues of his favourite strips--Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat. "These three strips showed me the incredible possibilities of the cartoon medium, and I continue to find them inspiring," he says. "These strips are just three of my personal favorites, but they give us some idea of how good comics can be. They argue powerfully that comics can be vehicles for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression."

In his address, Watterson doesn't mention any contemporary cartoons. No Garfield, or Doonesbury, or Cathy, or Bloom County--some of the most popular strips at the time. "Amazingly," he says, "much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium's history." In the alternate reality that The Road Narrows As You Go takes place in, I wonder if Watterson would have also not mentioned Wendy Ashbubble's daily strip Strays

Watterson pops up a few times in The Road Narrows as You Go, along with the likes of Art Speigleman, Charles "Sparky" Schultz, and various other comics heavies; briefly he's drawn into orbit around No Manors, "a five-storey art deco flophouse" that stands out amongst the other "punk squats, hippie communes, and satanic covens in the Bay Area." The book opens with the passing of Hick Elmdale, No Manor's primary resident and notorious ghost artist for Walt Disney strips and all around respected cornerstone of West Coast comics. "Two paid rent at No Manors," recalls the We that narrates, "both comic strip artists. One was dead, and the other was not home. No one knew where to find Wendy Ashbubble. The name wasn't familiar to us, and neither was her comic strip, Strays, but this is her story."


Maybe sired by Ronald Reagan, definitely raised in Victoria, Wendy reinvents herself in San Francisco, claiming to be from Cleveland. She's the creator of Strays, a daily about the animals inhabiting the vacant lot adjacent to No Manors. As Hick is passing, Wendy's meeting with her editor, Gabby Scavalda, ready to shutter her strip, which hasn't taken off like she'd like. Wendy instead inks a deal with Frank Fleecen, an up-and-coming bonds trader who's fond of her work and wants to help Strays achieve a Peanuts-like success. Strip ubiquity is achieved, of course, by getting it in as many papers and attaching it to as many products as possible.

Watterson breaks down the relationships: "The comics are a collaborative effort," he says, "on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all have common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art."

While about a great many things--repressed memory, Satanism, sailing stones, etc.--Henderson's follow up to the award-winning The Man Game is most consistently about that "rocky marriage." Syndicated comics make for a great lens through which to watch business and art cavort. Commercial by design and by ambition, the daily strip--at it's best--is a nuanced balance of the personal and the universal. Watterson's lauded strips struck their own wonderful balance, and I'd argue that Watterson's up there with them. Of course, he was one of the few artists working in that field that didn't subject his subject to licensing.

"There's punk-looking comics," says Biz Aziz, well-known drag queen and underground comic memoirist, about Calvin and Hobbes, "and there's punk-acting comics, and that right there is both." 

"Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing," Watterson says, getting increasingly unforgiving in his address. "Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is... Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required, and having so many cooks in the kitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in. Once a lot of money and jobs are riding on the status quo, it gets harder to push the experiments and new directions that keep a strip vital. Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealing innocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted when they use those qualities to peddle products."

Business will almost always alter art, but very rarely does art alter business. In the trickle down heyday of The Gipper's America, no corner was left unsplashed by business. Every manner of art maker passes through the front door of No Manors--under the Old Testament motto "Be not forgetful to welcome strangers, for in this way some have entertained angels unawares--all strata of cartoonists, zine makers, performance artists, fine and conceptual artists. And every bit of art can be profited from, whether it's a strip in the newspaper or rubbings of mysterious desert phenomena in a gallery and or a hard-to-find zine anthologized by a major publisher. As Strays becomes as popular as Fleecen promised--with balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade--as the characters become increasingly associated with products that have nothing to do with their story, Wendy likewise has less and less to do with the strip and--as Watterson predicts--she makes assistants out of a few of strays in No Manors.

"I try to give readers the best strip I'm capable of doing," says Watterson. "I look at cartoons as an art, as a form of personal expression. That's why I don't hire assistants, why I write and draw every line myself, why I draw and paint special art for each of my books, and why I refuse to dilute or corrupt the strip's message with merchandising."

Peppered throughout the novel are Strays strips (illustrated by Henderson's, whose style has improved since The Man Game) and, if we're to believe that the work is a personal expression, we can locate Wendy in the art the same way we can locate Watterson. But as Wendy's assistants--the We who narrate--exert more and more influence, it becomes harder to confidently route her out. The Road Narrows As You Go is ostensibly about Wendy Ashbubble, but if Wendy's not telling her own story, as she's not writing and drawing her own cartoon. Singular identity drips away, and what was once personal becomes public, collective and impersonal.

Calvin and Hobbes, which ran its last strip on December 31, 1995, is now considered the last great comic strip, the last in a line that includes those classics Watterson valorized. The Road Narrows As You Go documents both the heyday and the twilight of the syndicated strip. The business altered the art the point that the art became a kind of business.


What exactly The Road Narrows As You Go actually means as a title is sort of tricky. In some ways, it might suggest that the further you travel down a path, commit to decisions and relationships, the more your options dwindle--as Wendy is increasingly hemmed in by the moves she makes--making it harder to turn back. With the parameters that Watterson lays down, the choices are few once your strip gets big. You either sell out, or you sell nothing. He may look down his nose at those artists who let their work become a puppet for larger forces, but he is also one of the few artists--and certainly the last of his ilk-- who was good enough at what he did, and doing it at the right time, that he could stick to his guns.

But I also kept thinking about the traditional comic strip frame, how the action and story travels from left to right in a 2D foreground. Any path leading into the distant background--to a world beyond the day-to-day hijinks--winnows towards the vanishing point, and any character who takes that path is walking away from the static frame. And as the character moves away, the art of them becomes more basic, less detailed, until they're just an outline, until they're just a dot, until they're just undrawable.

And here's where Henderson is successful in a Watterson-type way. As Watterson did over the progression of his strip, The Road Narrows As You Go realizes its frame and manages to break out of it, escaping the flat foreground and going along with his characters down roads, into backgrounds, in the end taking away the roads all together. The characters can leap into a limitless blankness, becoming fully themselves. Like Watterson's famous final strip, Henderson ends his story with a beginning.



- Andrew

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Q&A: DAVID BALZER

I sat down over the underused internet with David Balzer, author of Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else (Coach House Books) to discuss everything from utopia to Tumblr to salons des refuses. Balzer, an art critic and short fiction author here analyzes many of the social forces and personalities of the art-world via the increasingly cited and enacted phenomenon of curation. Curationism aptly reassesses popularity, novelty, profitability, referentiality, and influence (etc) as mystifying measures of artistic vitality; while illustrating how we, like curators, present artworks as performative pieces integral to our creative identities (whether we create such works or not).

- Brad de Roo, who once won the Grade 8 Art Award on the meekly nationalistic strength of watercoloured Gretzkys, pastel tall-ships, and baked-clay loons, is brushing up on Art.

Your book offers concisely extensive genealogies, etymologies, hermeneutics, and biographies of the ever evolving concept of curation from classical history through the Renaissance to art and culture today. Could you provide the uninitiated reader with a heuristically salient definition of curation’s aims and qualities?


The central argument of my book is that the Western curator, from Roman times to the contemporary Tumblr user, lends value to things, and thus performs this value (and this act) in a way that is hyper-conscious of an audience. The thing to which value is lent as well as the thing performed changes over time. Now, I argue, curating has turned in on itself, and the thing being curated is also the thing that curates. This defines "curationism": a circular performance of the value of the self, the corporation, the cultural institution, that cannot, in my opinion, be sustained.

You consistently cite the ‘twilight of the avant-garde’ while explaining the increasing reach of curational modes. From your description, I get the impression that, while more and more ‘artwork’ is being created, we have entered a sort of post-structural black-hole swirling with wormholes of hyper-referentiality, nostalgia porn (as you put it), obsessive collecting/documentation, and solipsistic fragmentation. Does this sort of bleak account hold true to you?

I'm obviously not the first person to suggest the death of the avant-garde, something I'm all for. It's so exciting. I acknowledge that my book might come off as bleak to some, but only in the sense that I am articulating the end of a certain way of looking at art—at not only understanding it, but also packaging it, codifying it. We are all used to this model, and that's why it might seem scary to contemplate it not being there anymore. I don't wish for the avant-garde to be rehabilitated; that's completely unnecessary and missing the point. The whole idea of the avant-garde—in the sense of it being experimental, renegade, the pulse of the young, a threat to the establishment—is antiquated and must go.

I'm jumping ahead to your next questions, but the avant-garde way of reading culture—in terms of those who oppose dominant modes also being the ones in charge of challenging and even reinventing them—has proven highly flawed. In the 1990s, the end of the avant-garde's 20th-century grand tour, we spoke of "co-opting": when grunge went mainstream, when Madonna stole voguing from the Harlem queers and turned it into one of the biggest pop songs of all time. The avant-garde quickly, arguably inherently, presented itself as a territory for pillaging, for those with money to exploit. Its insouciance is its vulnerability. This is something Warhol understood well.

Imagine digital culture really facilitating the so-called cutting-edge as always present, immediate—as available to everyone. Imagine a time in which the idea of "shocking" becomes obsolete; in which subcultures are no longer parsed into performative, codified camps; in which cultural history, even physical age, exists radically in the present and future, not as a sort of compartmentalized curio but as a real, always-alive thing. This pluralism, even confusion, would, in my opinion, be the best thing that's happened to culture in a long time. The alternative is the black hole you suggest. Regardless, we are in a time of great noise. Of course I can't predict what will happen. I can only tell you what I hope for.

Throughout Curationism you link the concept of the avant-garde with commercialism and how the avant-garde’s constant focus on innovation and technology further associates it with corporate forces. Is our current hyper mix of corporate interest, cut-throat innovation, and technological homogenization representative of an underlying anti-democratic streak? Is there a democratic aesthetic escape if rich dealers, artists, curators, and institutions continually control the means of production and reproduction? Do the attendant moves towards increasingly dematerialized expressions of art (performance, relational etc) and technology (internet, social media etc) combined with a global alienation from the origins of the objects of work (not knowing who makes things, how they are made, while politically celebrating and intimately claiming these very things) spell a sort of anti-ecological creative doom?

This is a huge, daunting question. I can't answer it fully. I will say I don't think there's necessarily a proportional move towards dematerialized art as the internet dematerializes... some things. Corporate interest facilitates many cultural enterprises, and one of the points of my book is that it always has, and that the art world for many reasons seems to blanch at acknowledging this, and that this has probably made things worse. In her great book Artificial Hells Claire Bishop cites philosopher Jacques Ranciere in terms of acknowledging that perhaps a return to aesthetics vis-a-vis the social or political is what is needed. Does socially and politically engaged work really always have to exist outside material, "spectacle," to be vital? These are things I find fascinating, in terms of imagining how cultural-value inflation might be addressed and even corrected. Certainly the art world could not have, yet perhaps should have, predicted the dangerous precedent set by the readymade and by dematerialization, in which banal or ostensibly nonexistent things became fetishized and thus unprecedentedly expensive (and indeed spectacular) despite, or rather because of, their origins in avant-garde-cum-philosophical conviction. If you wanted to, you could make direct connections here to the subprime mortgage crisis.

I couldn’t help but notice how much certain art exhibitions, pieces, titles, and tropes within Curationism sound like descriptions of our current digital world, especially in light of the resurgent themes of apocalypse and disaster which seem to dominate a lot of current culture narratives (recession, global warming, animal extinction, renewed ancient wars) etc. Names or concepts like ‘Utopia Station’; ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’; ‘the Lobby Gallery’; ‘art islands’; ‘artificial wonderland’; and ‘Xanadu mansions’ sound like they could be Borgesian stories about the age of the Internet. What potential does digital technology, from the internet to the internet of things, offer for art-making, art-presenting, art-critiquing? What kinds of work would need to go into getting better values out of such technology? Could the internet be a radical salon des refuses rather than an overflowing cabinet of censured curiosities?

The internet could be so many things that it isn't, to the point where it seems almost silly or antiquated to talk about what the internet actually is or could be. It is clear we are underusing the internet, just as we underuse our brains, our libraries, our museums. We have always underused storehouses of knowledge, often after battling for access to them. I would add that all of the names you cite are of course utopian, and that an idea central to my book is that curators are utopian thinkers. Like architects (who are in many senses their allies), curators are in charge of materializing and performing ideas; they are ambassadors for "projects." Of course history teaches us that utopia inevitably curdles into dystopia; the only earnest utopian thinkers are totalitarians. Although, as you say, we live in a time obsessed with dystopian narratives like The Hunger Games, our understanding of dystopia is fairly limited. There are a lot of dystopias in existence that are fascinating. The internet, with its frivolity, under- (and over-!)use and corporate policing, is one of them. It is full of possibility and extremely dangerous at the same time.

In the later third of your book you speak of curatorial studies in the context of university education, comparing them to creative writing degrees and MFAs, which are often seen as expensively ineffective means of honing a vocation. Is your book a sort of corrective to a pedagogical standard? Should Curationism be taught in schools alongside other evolutionary accounts of art criticism?

Haha, well, uh, it would be great for sales. Actually one of the points of my section on curatorial-studies programs (and contemporary humanities departments in general) is that the pedagogical standard is institutional critique. Like the curator, corporation and contemporary gallery or museum, academia does not shun structural criticism but rather invites it, as a way of remystifying by demystifying, of making themselves seem available to audiences/clients and ultimately of reifying their cultural capital. There are many more renegade or corrective texts than mine that have been taught in universities for decades. And yet here we are, with humanities academe in its current crisis.

I recently interviewed the music critic Carl Wilson. Certain elements of his empathizing critical project seem to resonate with an attitude of even-handednes that grounds your book. Carl said: ‘I guess part of the point is that there is no such thing as a "right" assessment in pop culture, or even in culture generally - that our diversity of perceptions is a good thing, and that respecting each other's affections is more productive than attacking them”. Do you relate to the critical stances he suggests? 


I love Carl's book, have been influenced by it and think it's important, particularly as a meditation on what taste is. The movement it has become associated with, however, "Poptimism," is not my favourite. I find it curationist actually, as it replaces the cultural teams we were on in the 90s with a very performative and pretentiously cultivated view of popular music, in which it appears as if everything is OK to like for the indie-affiliated music listener, when it fact only certain things are, and then herd mentality and old avant-garde understandings of trend-setting sets in. (Beyoncé's surprise album drop last December typified this for me.) I think Carl's book is kinder and more open than mine. But I wanted to tell a specific story about a main paradigm in the art world. I could have written a book about curators who are doing great work, but that wasn't what I wanted to do.

While describing the proliferation of the phenomenon of curation into our day to day private (if this once very publicized term is even still accurate?) lives - from Soundcloud playlists to Twitter to fashion to weddings to bookstore blog interviews, you write: ‘Gathering things, connecting them, sharing them with others in a way that positions one as a taste-making host: sounds like fun doesn’t it?’ Do you think a drive to curate is an impulse of human nature or, perhaps, just a difficult to avoid byproduct of cultural creation? In other words, how deterministic is curation?

Curating has definitely allowed a lot more people than ever before to feel creative. That's not a bad thing. It can be empowering—after all, I argue that curating is the impartation and performance of value, and if the thing at its centre is you, well, it makes you feel great. But feeling creative is not being creative. Curating clothes, parties, social circles... the bourgeoisie has always done this. A hyper-awareness of curating leads to problems: first, to an over-valuing and over-thinking of these gestures (such as the new social network Ello, which snottily prompts you to separate your contacts into "friends" and "noise"—aren't they often both?); second to a distraction away from the thing being curated, which is should be the real subject of interest. Curating now so often takes the place of engagement. In a way curationism (not curating) is the ultimate gambit of the person who wants to be famous for being famous.

You requested to shadow a curator in action while writing this book, but were turned down. If you were given carte blanche pre-approval what collections, exhibitions, biennials, and museums would you have view in curation?

It would have been so eye-opening to go behind-the-scenes at any major art-world event. I mean, I'd have to pick the big ones, Venice and Documenta: being a fly on the wall there as they devise and set up and micromanage their team would just be the most fascinating thing, maybe because it would be the most boring thing. I have worked for or know people who work for large cultural institutions in Toronto, but to spend a few months at the MoMA in New York, and witness how that machine is driven, would also have been a needful exposure to that on the largest scale. What I'm particularly interested in of course is how audience, or rather a notion of audience, would inform everything they do.

Lastly, you conclude Curationism, with an evocation of ‘stillness’ and ‘quiet contemplation’ as essential modes for your personal understanding of art. Positively echoing my previous question, are there places where these modes of experience can be reliably found (collections, museums etc)? Do any curators, paradoxically, achieve such tranquil constructions?

Fantastic curatorial work is being done all over the place, all over the world. It does get covered in major art magazines but often it is not the curators who are the focus; it is the art, the artists, the exhibition, etc. Non–star curators have hard jobs; these are the majority of curators. They have delicate and frustrating relationships with the bureaucratic institutions for whom they work; they work under oppressively small budgets; many are underpaid; they have little time to devote to professional development inside office hours and so are constantly working and liasing. Putting an exhibition together is tough. The curator should be there for the art and ideas, because it is not a glamorous job. I'm not saying they shouldn't get credit, but when the curator becomes the main focus, and furthermore when a curatorial mode becomes the focus of art-making, actual things and actual concepts get pushed aside—the very things that facilitate curation in the first place. The best curators create that context of stillness in an exhibition, letting the art, in all its multiplicities, mysteries and even confusions, speak for itself.


Monday, October 6, 2014

A MONARCH WHO RULES OVER ALL THAT HE SINGS


In 2001, Will Oldham was the first and only guest on an IFC pilot that never got picked up, Tripping with Caveh. The premise: indie filmmaker Caveh Zahedi takes some manner of mind-monkeying drug with a celebrity or person of interest; they trip. There's your show. This sole episode is a bit of a disaster. Oldham and Zahedi snarf chocolate-covered mushrooms with the idea that they'll cavort and capitulate around the grounds of director Richard Linklater's Austin estate, but Zahedi has a rotten trip. Oldham tries to hang out and comfort him, but mostly just wants to ride go-karts. At the end of the day/show, after he's fled from some bees in only his underwear, Oldham plays a few songs off his then new album Joya for an audience of Zahedi, who's barely holding it together, and Zahedi's girlfriend, who is clearly in love with Oldham.

But even if Zahedi hadn't sunk into the couch cushions of his own miserable introspection, I don't think the trip would have gone that well. Things get off on a bad foot when Zahedi gushes to Oldham how much his music means to him. "I love your music," he says. "So I love you." Oldham, who has released precious few albums under his own name, is having none of it. "I don't think that's right," he replies, after shaking his head and sighing. "I'm not the person people love when they love the music," he explains. "Not at all."

He just writes and plays some songs, he goes on, and if you get anything out of those songs, good for you--just don't drag him into the experience. Oldham points at some trees edging the field, and asks Zahedi if he'd praise the trees for being beautiful when all they're doing is just standing there. It's all downhill from there.

Oldham has never seemed totally comfortable being personally associated with his music, or personally associated with a listener's experience with his music. His releases throughout the 90s were attributed to some variation of the Palace moniker, and since the new millennium he's performed behind the hillbilly death's head mask of Bonnie "Prince" Billy--a combination of Bonnie Prince Charlie and William "Billy the Kid" Bonney. At the time, it might have seemed like Oldham was just partaking in some indie rock cheekiness--the same way those Pavement boys never properly identified themselves in their album credits--but as time went on, the fudged attribution matured into statement about the rift between person and performer. Ostensibly, Will Oldham was the guy writing the songs and Bonnie was the performer of them.

2004 saw the release of Sings Greatest Palace Music, a covers/tribute album by Bonnie to Palace. This followed what many consider to be three of the most important albums of Oldham's career, if not of contemporary American music: I See a Darkness, Ease Down the Road, and Master and Everyone. In their moody frailty, their delicate bawdiness--talking both writing and execution--that troika was a reasonable extension of the work Oldham had done as Palace. But Bonnie's 2004 interpretations of those classic Palace songs were robust and confident; well-played and well-produced; a complete 180 in terms of sensibility. An eccentric for sure, Oldham had left fans scratching their heads for a decade, but this Palace Greatest move left some fans, those for whom the sonic and performative aesthetic were seemingly as important as the songs themselves, scratching their heads until they were bald as Bonnie. Contrast and compare "New Partner," first from 1995's Viva Last Blues, then from Oldham's 2004 "sell out" album:





The question/condemnation that reigned among dissenters was, Why did these Palace songs need re-doing? Weren't they perfect to begin with? Was it Oldham, as Bonnie, declaring a split from his out-of-tune, broken-voiced days? Or was it just a sorta weird guy doing a sorta weird thing?


Though he's well-established as alt-country's weirdo half-uncle, and fairly well respected by critics, Oldham has never really fished in the mainstream. The closest he's ever come--other than appearing as a cop in R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet epic, as a gorilla trainer in Jackass 3D, and co-star, along with Zach Galifianakis, in Kanye West's alternate "Can't Tell Me Nothing" video--is when Johnny Cash covered "I See a Darkness" from that titular album.

Rick Rubin fostered a final hurrah for the venerable Cash by setting before him an American songbook that had both traditional, classic, and contemporary selections. Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails was a big deal, and he brought a weight to that song that completely recontextualized Trent Reznor's angst. His covering Will Oldham was not such a big deal. But while Cash's American Recordings project felt like it had jogged in from the outfield, it was simply a return to the type of album-making that reigned supreme when Cash was pink cheekedly starting out.




In music, the idea of the Artist is relatively new--capital-A Artist suggesting that a song is performed by the same person who wrote it, with the creation and execution being fundamentally braided. We may get a little ways blaming Bob Dylan--one of the more visible poet/players--for this, who authored a few songs on Cash's Orange Blossom Special. Of course, Dylan--née Robert Zimmerman--too, has long tugged at the leash between who he is and what he sings. Since the 60s, it's become increasingly important for us that that connection is firm. We think a little less of performers who don't write their own songs, hold in high regard those Beyoncés that do. 

Pretty much gone are the days when everyone and their dad took a swing at "House of the Rising Sun" or "Unchained Melody" on their album. We can name the Animals, and The Righteous Brothers (though, for my money, Willie Nelson's "Unchained" is the best version out there), but trivia night would be dashed if most people had to come up with the writers of those hits.

All of this is to say that our ideas about what a song is have changed considerably since the Baby Boom. And more interestingly than any other artist right now, Will Oldham's relationship with his own catalog, and his relationship with Bonnie "Prince" Billy--who Oldham often speaks of as a separate person--bothers those notions. In its Nashville-ization,Sings Greatest, more than anything, exposed the strength of Oldham's writing. You could remove these songs from their initial context, and they'd stand up. They weren't shivering baby birds whose mother wouldn't go near them after they'd had another stink on them.


Since that first covers album, Bonnie's released about an album a year, some of which--especially 2009's Beware--maintain the slick robustness of Sings Greatest, some of which--like Wonder Show of the World or Wolfroy Goes to Town--maintain the quieter oddness of his earlier work.

2011's Wolfroy was one of Bonnie's most focused albums since 2003's Master and Everyone. Since Wolfroy, he's put four albums: Last year, Oldham executed a sort of guerrilla release, dropping off a self-titled independent album--Oldham's been stabled with Drag City and Domino Records for almost two decades--to stores by hand. The other three releases have been cover albums. 2012's What the Brother's Sang was all Everly Brothers, and the other two are reinterpritations of Oldham's own catalog. 

2011's EP Now Here's My Plan scooped up some scattered Bonnie corkers from earlier in the decade, most notably a revivification of his seemingly untouchable "I See a Darkness." The result was a jaunty dirge, more a celebration than a lamentation now. More than Cash did, Bonnie infused that nearly fifteen year old Oldham chestnut with different meaning, different life, shoring up the adaptability of his songwriting.


With Now Here's My Plan, there was a few year's distance between iterations at least, a different temporal vista from which to view the work. But Bonnie's new album, Singer's Grave A Sea of Tongues, takes another look at the three year old Wolfroy material. That dust has barely had a chance to settle before Bonnie kicks it all up again.

Wolfroy is maybe most remarkable for its sustained solemnity. In subject matter, it comes closet to the mournful The Letting Go; in sound, closest to Master and Everyone. The Wolfroy songs that appear on Singer's Grave are reperformed with a rich energy that hasn't really appeared beyond Bonnie live albums--more specifically, 2009's live collaboration with The Pickett Line, Funtown Comedown. That material didn't need to be returned to, but--as importantly--it could be returned to. Though the songs are ostensibly the same, Wolfroy and Singer's Grave are very different albums. Each equally worth our time.

Though it's a fact known to a small group of listeners, Will Oldham is maybe one of the most important, reliable songwriters of the past two decades. But so far only a few iterations of the Palace boys and Bonnie "Prince" Billy have tackled his songbook. Are you hearing Will Oldham bare his soul when Bonnie "Prince" Billy sings "Today was another day full of dread, but I never said I was afraid. Because dread and fear should not be confused: by dread I'm inspired, by fear I'm amused?" Maybe as much as you're hearing Hy Zaret bare his soul when he wrote "Lonely rivers flow to the sea, into the open arms of the sea" or Robert Hazard when he wrote, "When the working day is done, girls just wanna have fun." More often than not, meaning lives in the interpretation. A song is only as good as the performer bringing it to life. And, as great a songwriter as Will Oldham might be, it's Bonnie "Prince" Billy, in different moods and with different bands, who interprets and animates the material. Bonnie has become, as Oldham writes in "So Far and Here We Are" (or, if you're listening to Wolfroy, "New Whaling"), "a monarch who rules over all that he sings."

There's no easy answer to where the love really lies with music, whether it's in the text--authored, in the this case, by Will Oldham--or in the text's execution--here's Bonnie--or in how we interact with that relationship, how we make it our own. Whatever love's pinpoint in this triangle, Oldham-as-Bonnie-as-maybe-Oldham-again, more than any other artist-and-peformer, simplifies the locating of love by complicating the hell out of it.

- Andrew

PS For a sorta completely different take on Singer's Grave, do check out Vish Khanna's recent interview with Will Oldham.