Joyland

Toronto |

Let's Make the Void a Better Place

by Malcolm Sutton

edited by Kathryn Mockler

F had already turned a quarter of his apartment into the gallery he called

We Left the Warm Stable and Entered the Latex Void.

This title somehow came out of something I had said when we were among friends. I later added:

We cleft the norms, able, indentured the lame-ass boy,

and

The guest deforms Babel, anent Ur, the late asteroid.

 

F – did it begin with him? We started a project (a term that Jacob Wren recently praised for its terminal nature). We started from a book of 1001 architectural features F had come across but that I never saw.

(But did imagine. It is easy to imagine a book with isolated pencil drawings of 1001 architectural features—gables, imbrications, sconces, steps, etc.)

We also began from the Xanadu of Citizen Kane, which had its inspirational home in newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s overflowing fantasyland in Florida.

We thought exaggerated or frankensteined buildings could embody both political and ridiculous strivings. But I would misrepresent our early thoughts to say political and ridiculous and to add nothing else. At least I would disappoint our earlier selves in characterizing them so narrowly. Let’s say we were taken in by these materializations of expansive desire, and were willing to follow them to see where they would lead.

I was enamored by the idea of working with F on a project.

We called the project 1001 Xanadus.

Because our cities were five hours removed, we began by mail. I sent F vignettes in the mail. I hoped they would entertain him. It was a starting point. He sent me postcard-sized watercolors of houses and other shelters and invented constructions. Soon after we began, he paid a trip to New Brunswick, where he painted a series of buildings, some made from combining parts of houses and other functional structures. Some starkly suburban, some somewhat gothic.

There was a miniature quality to our beginnings. My paragraph-long vignettes were the same size as his paintings.

One of the watercolors showed a sign cursively spelling “Josephine,” seemingly in celebration of a Josephine, across the top of a two-storey building. I don’t remember where Josephine came from. F must have seen the sign while he was driving around the rural roads of NB. I think he told me at one point. My memory for sources and intentions is not crystal clear. More like a dark corner in which things are lost. Or a bright, empty corner, if you prefer, in which things never were.

I responded with:

Yet long before he knew her, when he was a child, his parents had driven him along this unchanging county road thousands of times, and it had always been there, the blue name. Now as he passed under it, a second sign came into view, above an entrance: Tan & Do, in cursive white neon, like a teacher’s handwriting from another era. A salon. He would get a trim and ask the hairdresser if she knew something about the sign. The woman at the desk accommodated him after his short wait with the lifestyle magazines. Afterwards, outside the Tan & Do, he edged along the building so that the blue name remained high above him and illegible. The unbroken string of questions the young hairdresser had asked, to which he had returned vague, impolite answers, he still could not penetrate. The brush cut he’d insisted on, and residual ultraviolet rays from the discount tan she’d insisted on—these were, he would realize, given time, other forms of distraction, of running a hopeless distance alongside the given.

When we published it in an online journal, as a pairing of image and story, he swapped out his original watercolor in favor of a rectangle of intense even blue, produced straight from the computer. I don’t know how he felt about the first round of watercolors. He quickly drifted in his approach.

The journal asked for photos of F and I. F was completely opposed to this. Eventually he gave me the option of sending either a picture of another FL found in a Google image search (middle-aged FL, clean cut, perhaps working in an industrial park office—how much can you really tell from a photo?), or an image of a painting of King François the First (bearded and regal, 16th century). I sent the latter.

 

In my mind there were different eras penetrating the present. In one era Buckminster Fuller built domes, and others, including hippies followed his lead. In the same era Habitat 67 was built. People still live in those windy building blocks of the Fleuve. Later the CN Tower came along. The CN Tower walked in to express an ideology much narrower than the Fuller Dome. I think we were interested in buildings that suggested a way of social life that could never be produced by a building alone. Of course utopian in some instances. And modernist in their megalomaniacy. But there was always something more beyond this interest in oversized architectural feats.

 

Though we didn’t discuss it, we shared aesthetic sensibilities but undoubtedly diverged on many as well. I think we wanted the divergences to screw with our own sensibilities. There was overlap, a large overlap, but when you are making highly detailed decisions, every nuance carries.

F has a delighted approach in his screwing with expectations and sensibilities. Even, or especially, with his own.

We talked a lot about strategies.

Much later I was asked to answer a few interview questions for a blog. The central point that I expressed was that visual art is read differently from fiction writing. It is impossible to take fiction writing seriously from the perspective of postconceptual art:

MB: How does the collaboration affect your work individually?

MS: I can only speak for myself. The most apparent part is that you know you will have an audience, of at least one, and you know who that audience is. F and I are involved in disciplines that seem very separated—writing and visual art—and it is easy to become aware that the conventions of one discipline, say writing, might appear naive or antiquated or ineffectual in another discipline (visual art). Likewise the conventions of art might appear strange to writing. So knowledge of strategies of the other discipline and of how things might be read through that discipline's lens seriously affects how you construct and edit your work. (Many times it feels like the impulse of one discipline is antithetical to the other.) So when I collaborate with an artist, I'm aware that writing conventions look different to art (and particularly postconceptual art, which has its own fairly distinct investment in textual conventions). The center of how I think about writing has shifted because of this difficult and complex context. But mostly I'm trying to have fun with my collaborator.

MB: I get excited about readings in galleries. Do you get excited about readings in galleries?

MS: …

Reading this now, I still agree with the point that so much depends on conventions of a certain medium. A work becomes neutered when placed in a different context. Conceptual writing (the new one) is usually meaningless in a gallery because its strength is in relationship to lyric poetry, not to art. Likewise art, when placed in a book, often becomes illustration or document.

 

A and I were living on the top floor of a house on Euclid Ave., owned by a kind Portuguese woman. It was 2009ish.

One day a package arrived. F had sent a full bottle of beer wrapped in a couple dozen grocery bags. There were really so many grocery bags. I took pictures as I unwrapped it, not knowing what would be in the center. Toward the center the bags were damp. They smelled a little. Somehow beer had leaked from between the sealed cap and the mouth of the bottle. I could see from the plain red cap (a distinct red with a touch of brown) that it was originally a Tremblay. The label, however, read “The Latex Void.” This arrival reminded me of the Lacanian model of the subject, with the Latex Void beer at the center of the layered shopping bags. I’d been reading Zizek for my thesis and had become too interested in voids and abysses for my own good or the good of my writing. F later sent me an article on voids and abysses, an article that distinguished between voids and abysses, authored by Cioran, as though to straighten me out.

 

F visited A and me, and as a research excursion we went to Casa Loma. The $20 entrance fee was a lot for both of us. We watched the historical videos presented in a small room decorated by photos of the man and his associates. We climbed stairs to the rafters at the top. We looked out the windows for the view of the city to the south. The estate made little impression on us. We thought that the Casa Loma man might be like Citizen Kane, and the hilltop castle built for his wife like Xanadu. There was really very little there. We felt ripped off, and I lost my toque in one room. As we were leaving F took a photo of a painting of the castle, which we agreed was the nicest part of it. Now I feel that the building should be transformed into a housing co-op. Why not?

 

One of the vignettes described an idea that F had talked about. It was read at an art event that I couldn’t attend. Jacob, mentioned above, read it:

We are told that we involuntarily block out the point of trauma, banish it altogether from time, and that it remains irretrievable even by persistent trials with an analyst. Yet I remember it all, looking for food late one night, my friend taking me to an alley. We stopped there and he leaned against the wall. When through this pause he had my attention, he moved his hand to reveal a hole carved in the bricks large enough for a golf ball to roll through. He gestured that I look inside. As I stooped to put my eye to it, the image of a bustling late-night restaurant flashed before my mind. Waiters and waitresses clad in leather and fun fur and a clientele of overweight and over-suited couples. A scene that over the course of a meal would become carnal, the staff lap dancing for the clientele, giving them massages, unzipping the tailored pants and mouthing the members, and women receiving attention, petting and kissing, to all areas. The fantasies vanished when I discovered the hole to be less perfectly round than it had seemed at first. Inside was a dim glow from a portrait in the dark. An ashen, defeated man, an Orson Welles. My friend nudged me aside, then cupped his hands to the hole and yelled for a maki special for two. Though there was no response, he assured me that someone had heard and that this was indeed the Sushi Hole. I thought I’d have another look at the portrait inside. The Orson Welles man now resembled James Cotton, then shifted to Toshiro Mifune, and then Matti Pellonpää. Digital, I thought. But the resemblances were somehow acted, I thought afterwards. It was then that I was blinded as someone hastily sent out both sets of chopsticks. As though for punishment of that fantasy scene, which an outsider might have interpreted as weak. Now I tell everyone my right eye has seen more.

 

I wrote another vignette about F’s whisky club, which he ran from a space in a warehouse, a few floors up. In the vignette I sent a minotaur looking for the whisky club. The minotaur had to find a key to get in, and this particular key was on a string that dangled out the window, scantly visible in the dark. I don’t think F liked this story because of Greek mythology. At least I understood this even though F never said it directly. It was understandable. There were enough composite half-human half-monsters in indie rock drawings not to mention work by younger artists. It was like a mental block. Becoming animal had become trendy and hollow.

But more, a passage from Jacques Roubaud had lodged in my brain. It was about the terrible use of surrealism in the present. While unsuccessfully searching for this passage, I came across another one where he remonstrates against the vulgar use of the word surreal (strange, otherworldly, wacky) which has nothing to do with the beautiful and complex amour fou of André Breton. Roubaud’s writing confirmed my own feelings that I fought against: that faux-surrealism is kind of an easy, moreover ineffectual, mode. My minotaur was a vulgar visitor from the ancient past and well as from modernism. Some things just do not work in the present, especially in our present so lulled by a particular fixation on reality.

 

We applied for more than one grant, which forced us to better define what our collaboration was about. Abstract ideas and references floated around us. The more we worked on the project the more it spread out, the more it ran away from us and hid in bushes. Our themes shifted. F lost interest in the watercolors. He built tentative things from paper and took pictures of them set up on his desk. We worked on the applications apart and together. It might have appeared as though we were writing about different projects.

 

A and I got married so that I could more easily follow her to Chicago where she would do her Masters. I bought new pants ($30, Zara, hounds tooth) and a new shirt ($40, ink blue stripes on white, also Zara). The jacket (Tiger of Sweden, made in Malaysia) was given to me, and the tie came from the Goodwill (the only tie I’ve ever found that matches this subtle but problem jacket). A found a stiff cotton dress that looked like a soviet uniform, perhaps what a hospital worker or border official would wear. At our ceremony the humanist stumbled over the ceremonial and legal words, and sweat stood on his forehead. Later, in the backyard, my father gave a speech that paused and then continued, then paused and continued on. He spoke about my boyhood and adolescence. It’s what’s mentioned more than anything of that afternoon. That a parent remembers the times they are with you but don’t know about all the other things should not come as a surprise.

 

Then F arranged for a performance/installation at a gallery in his city. I had just moved to Chicago a week before.

I flew to Montréal and stayed with him.

We painted part of the gallery “Havana Brown.”

We showed the audience, from a hand-held laptop, a YouTube clip of a cigar roller in Cuba. We read a line from Citizen Kane:

“Girls delightful in Cuba could send you prose poems about scenery but don’t feel right spending your money.”

We tacked a number of photos to the wall: an image of a pyramid-hotel in North Korea; a group photo of Bill Clinton with Kim Jong Il and others seated sternly in suits, one row standing behind them, the backdrop of an oceanic wave hiding what of the building might have been visible. F made a log cabin from a number of cigars.

American Apparel had a central display of Sharpie colors from which we understood Sharpies to have become cool in a certain way. We inserted an uncapped Sharpie into a hole in the wall, tip pointing outward, and attempted to write on a large piece of Plexiglas by moving the Plexiglas against the tip of the Sharpie. F extracted potatoes from a block of clay. Those were our shitty dice. They were also one representation of our poème de terre aesthetica. Toward the end we hung a cream-colored American Apparel T-shirt from the Sharpie, to see how the ink would bleed into a T-shirt. Not far, it turned out. There was more than this.

Our friends watched us perform. They were kind to us. We talked afterward, bottles in hand, standing around the gallery. Our mail project had become a complicated performance running about half an hour, the residue of which stayed in the gallery as an installation. Residue was a word we used, as many do.

F has a magician’s touch when it comes to gestures.

I’m a fan of gestures: they don’t try to encompass anything, they don’t have to add up to anything.

It became difficult to work by mail now. Moreover, it seemed like our work needed a destination. We had talked about a book form, and the difficulty of designing a book that would encompass the forms our ideas were taking. But it was the gallery that ended up being the destination. And we would now work in intense bursts, in the same place, when a show was imminent.

There is so much not being said here, though I honestly feel I’m not trying to conceal my thoughts and feelings. I’ve just shared this writing with F, and I wonder what he will think of it. I am nervous about it. I’d like to publish it, but I feel I need F’s consent. That I’m not saying some things is partly from failure of memory, partly in interests of brevity, but also, most importantly, partly from the nebulousness of it all: that somehow we managed to create a space in which emotional states were as uncertain or tenuous as the connections we were making between this and that phenomenon.

 

F had a residency in Gatineau and invited me to work on a performance. It was just over a year after our first performance. I was teaching a class in Ottawa but living in Montréal, in a room that came with broken glass, a mattress on the floor, a view of Jean Coutu.

A was still in Chicago, living below the California blue-line stop, taking classes in performance art.

I write this as if there are very few people around, as if there were only F, A, JW, and myself. There were of course many.

I met F in Gatineau and we began working on the Gatineau Xantos.

Our project fell into Google searching connections between Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev and Silvio Berlusconi. The 2014 winter Olympics to take place the area where Putin had his dacha, North Korea, multimillion dollar yachts, etc.

F told me about an artist who was taking newspaper articles on political figures and replacing their names with the pronouns he and she. This seemed like such a smart and simple solution to something we were interested in.

One morning we took the industrial bridge over the rapids and past the National War Museum to the Lebreton Flats. Walks through Ottawa give a feeling of desolation. Like many cities it is largely grey. We went up the hill then down the hill to a place called Café Giovanni. A longer walk than I remembered, and we both had hangover headaches and desperately needed coffee. I feel responsible in these situations in which I take the role as the guide. The guide should reach a destination sooner. A guide must always show confidence in his decision. A guide can so easily disappoint. But still, a guide is just a guide, not the thing being guided through.

I knew of a record shop in Hintonburg where we could pick up a cheap turntable for the performance. An album there drew our attention: Who Do We Think We Are by Deep Purple. According to one article, Medvedev’s favorite band was Deep Purple.

We shared carrying the turntable and had sandwiches at an Italian lunch place. The main story in the newspaper that was sitting by our table was a cycling death. Why should I include this detail, and not how good the sandwich was? I remember both details. And yet I remember so little in some way. Though I would say of this Ottawa time with F I remember more than I usually remember, I still remember so little. I could write so much more about it though.

When you write in plain language you expect for meaning to emerge on its own, as a sheer reality of its own, because you, the author, have chosen exactly what details to write, and therefore … voilà! meaning.

Back in Gatineau we prepared the photos and writing for the performance. The writing kept growing. F wrote verse in French and English.

Photos of Medvedev and Putin in the Guardian online set us in motion. A series showed Medvedev crouched by his new stereo system.

Uncovering, or unearthing it,
Carving it out,
A Daniel Hertz preamplifier, model M6 1
Which “brings a new level of transparency to the audio world”
—“Yet there's nothing special about it. You can find something cooler and cheaper in Russia and, most crucially, with a superior sound.”

A turntable, model SP Avid Acutus
On which “Mandrake Root”
The track most likely inaugurating the needle
According to a comment in the Guardian
Not from the album
Who Do We Think We Are
but from the debut,
Shades of Deep Purple.

 

The newspaper articles that we found often needed nothing added to them, no commentary, not doctoring. They spoke for themselves. As did the photos: Putin in a wetsuit having located in the depths a Grecian urn; Putin shirtless, horseback, pausing in craggy, cinematic Siberia; Putin tagging the ear of an anaesthetized white tiger; Putin and Mededev superficially examining the tension of their badminton rackets; together, again toasting glasses of milk across a broad dining-room table; Medvedev leaning across the dinner table slicing a large loaf of rye with Putin; Putin breaking sticks across his knee for a camp fire; elsewhere manning a combine harvester; with Medvedev turtlenecked at the chalet; sharing a ski lift bench; conferring on their skidoos; standing in white sweaters, inside, Medvedev on the phone while he waits; Putin communing with dolphins; focused, throwing clay on the wheel; fly fishing; butterfly stroking; riding a three-wheel motorcycle with a gang of bikers; Putin gazing beyond all common horizons from the bow of his yacht; Putin, Medvedev and Berlusconi, three amigos sharing a private jet with young blondes.

(Around this time a photo of our own prime minister was going around: he in a crew-neck sweater, posed with his kitten.)

In our performance that night in Gatineau we read verse in French and English, alternating, as well as appropriations from the Guardian and Wikipedia. More gestures. A few that had evolved from earlier gestures.

I will only describe one: F worked a vessel of clay around a pack of uncapped Sharpies so that they stood firmly tip-end up. We draped a white T-shirt (this time from Giant Tiger) over the tips. The T-shirt was already soaked in vodka from a staged spill at the start of the performance. The ink, as it slowly bled out, formed an intense tie-dye pattern of black, green, red, brown, yellow that grew, to our delight, into the shape of a skull.

A random occurrence occasionally lacks subtlety. We would have been embarrassed to plan for a skull, but as an accident it was beautiful. And skulls are often thematically appropriate.

 

F left Gatineau very early, in the hollow of the night. I was sleeping on a cot near the foot of his bed. He’d planned to walk 10 minutes to a taxi stand or bus stop to get a lift to the bus station in Ottawa, which I found out later to be an impossibility. Soon after he left I rose, unable to sleep and also eager to depart—one feels this way when one is left alone, and done with a place—and encountered the landscape that he must also have encountered, perhaps a landscape that felt more unchanging than any other and that evoked more than anything else the image of an unpopulated purgatory. The world depthless and dark brown-orange, available only in burning sodium. Rain was part wind, or wind was part rain, rendering my already crippled umbrella into a piece of garbage flapping at the sky. A car spun its wheels over and over again on the gravel shoulder, across the canal. The oversize concrete and brick government buildings through which F would have made his way and which I now had to negotiate, affirmed the feeling: not tragic and not entirely comic either, but absurd. I was abandoned to middle sensations: apprehensiveness, uncertainty, coldness, waiting for what comes next. I knew the way out.

 

F reviewed video footage of our performance. Perhaps I over-exaggerate in my impression of what he had said, but he said it was illegible. We couldn’t bring text and visuals together in a way that was audience friendly. Anyone who wasn’t reading about international politics wouldn’t get the references. The work became instantly dated because of the news items we used. It really was illegibility that was the issue. Our best audience was each other. (Perhaps our only audience!)

Things were up in the air. I believe it was F’s suggestion, but I was thinking the same thing. It was becoming inevitable, though we didn’t speak about it. We were producing work that was too complicated and had too many real-world references. When we met to discuss the project our themes kept shifting beyond our grasp. It became A Thasunod and one Xnaadus. We wanted it to address real politics, or at least something political, without being direct or didactic but didn’t know how to do this. Real politics speaks for itself. You can appropriate text or photos and claim authorship of them and present them in literary or art venues, as the conceptual poets are doing, but reproducing symptoms by re-presenting them … We can all read the internet for what it reveals. We were unable to build a telescope (or perhaps fish-eye lens) that would draw things into focus.

Ending our project we were liberated. I think we were both liberated. Collaborating is like living with a second person in your brain.

In the new year I moved back to Toronto. I defended my PhD and could not find work. F did residencies here and abroad.

A returned to Canada, and we moved into her mother’s basement where, among other things, we wrote cover letters and tried to use our connections. There was a period when I didn’t see F for over a year.

 

A later Xanadu vignette:

A folding chair, an enormous parasol over top, furniture improvised for the occasion, for us, making the surrounding landscape seem both artificial and part of his intention, as if we lived in a world in which the slightest touch could cause mass unreality. He’s set up a gate, nothing more than a white string draped at waist height from one aluminum pole to another, the poles planted at either edge of a gravel path. I feel hurt by the gesture, though we’d talked about it beforehand. There is resistance in this string which we hadn't discussed. He would contest my natural tendency to look for something unknown. He is an artist, after all. Witnesses this time, my handful of students whose parents were kind enough to pay for them, having read the information I sent to the school, which included a description of this hike, our goal to build a structure out of “found materials,”—to sleep in—in a truly barren landscape, to learn about working together, to pen reflections on how they acted and how others acted towards them, how they may act differently in the future, thoughts to eventually read out loud to each other, to become aware of themselves and fellows as ethical creatures, I’d written. Why involve these kids, who are now shuffling around, now throwing objects at a diseased tree where I'd told them to wait? He explains his find of a string emerging from a crack in the earth. I just found it, a string emerging from a crack in the earth. I stare at its unlikeliness. At its impedance. With a shout he welcomes my class at the gates, arms open as always, even when, as in other of his work, a playful fuck-you aura hangs in the air. Perhaps not fuck you but fuck the things that you surround yourself with or that you stand on. The long grey sky extends beyond the string gate, as do the stone shelves on which the students will place their packs, and the found materials needed by us, which I hope are there, whatever they are. He offers coffee and produces several rounds from a pot on a propane stove. We socialize. When a moment of stillness comes which he indeed has created, he strikes a match, cupping it against the world and lights the white string. The string blackens under the flame, under our rapt gazes, turns to ash in one spot and drops away in either direction. His hands go up magician-like, calm and controlled, and he speaks only with this expression that would dispel all doubts. All yours, he says, tossing back his hand to the land behind him. The students go ahead. Then he says, hand on my back, voice lowered, that I will gentrify these lands merely by seeking something more in them than what is there. How am I to respond? I tell him I had better catch up with the students, and I go.