Sigrid Nunez, a New York–based writer, has published six novels. Here, she talks about her latest book, Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag, in which she looks back on her years living with Sontag and her son, David Rieff, in the 1970s. On April 14, Nunez will discuss the book with Phillip Lopate at the powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, and on April 28, a reading will be held at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble. Sempre Susan is published by Atlas & Co.
THIS BOOK ISN’T A BIOGRAPHY or a critical study. It’s a memoir about a person who had a great influence on me at a particular time in my life under rather unusual circumstances. I first met Susan in 1976, soon after her first bout with cancer. She had a huge pile of unanswered letters to get through, and she wanted someone to sit at her desk and type while she dictated. I happened to live near her apartment at 106th Street and Riverside Drive, and I’d also worked at the New York Review of Books, whose editors in fact recommended me to her. The job lasted just a few days, but by then I’d met Susan’s son, David, who was living with her at the time. We started dating, and I ended up moving in with them.
People were always fascinated by Susan. The essays that made her a rising star in the 1960s were totally original and stylish and daring. And she had such a wide range of interests: literature, film, dance, opera, politics. She had a wonderful look, tall and darkly beautiful, and a lovely, alluring voice. If she enjoyed being famous, I think it was mostly because it enabled her to be part of so many different worlds, and her dream had always been “to do everything.”
But I know there were times when it got to be too much for her. She told me how, at the height of her first wave of celebrity, after “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” went, as we’d say today, viral, she taped a sign to the telephone saying NO, to get herself to stop accepting every single invitation. Also, although many people saw her as glamorous, she didn’t really try to cultivate that image. For the most part, she didn’t care about how she looked. She didn’t wear makeup, and she usually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.
She was a feminist––you could say that, by example, she was a super-feminist. But she was also very critical of women, who she thought would never be liberated until they behaved more like men. She didn’t understand, for example, why women insisted on carrying purses. Why did women burden themselves? Men didn’t do that! And at her first dinner party at her publisher’s house, where the custom was for male and female guests to repair to separate rooms after dessert, Susan went with the men. Why hadn’t the other women thought of that? But when feminists complained about women being so underrepresented in the arts, she was unsympathetic. As she put it, “Art is not an equal-opportunity employer.”
Maybe partly because we were both women, I spent more time talking with Susan than I did with David. Sharing the same household turned out to be a terrible idea, but long after I’d moved out, Susan continued to be a major influence. She was a natural mentor. She was forever giving me reading lists. She took me to see The Marriage of Figaro for the first time, and to the New York Film Festival, which I don’t think I knew anything about back then. That’s an important part of this book: looking back to a time when I was young and ignorant and lucky enough to be learning from this brilliant, magnetic woman who seemed to know everything.
Of course, I couldn’t have written this book while Susan was alive. It’s a memoir about people and times that are gone. It’s all about loss, and about how things have changed. Just think about a book like Against Interpretation now: How would such a book survive in our literary marketplace? Is it even conceivable that those essays could make their author a rock star?
Joianne Bittle is a painter who lives and works in Long Island City, New York. Here she discusses her first “Portable Landscape,” a diorama she made for a recent exhibition at Eugene Binder Gallery in Marfa, Texas. The piece has traveled to New York for her solo show “No Man’s Land” at Churner and Churner, which opens on March 24.
PRESERVING MASS EXTINCTION is the first diorama installation that I consider my own work. I’ve made dioramas for the Natural History Museum and in commercial settings for years. But I like to think of this one as the first in a series of “Portable Landscapes.”
The scene is the Permian Basin, millions of years ago, before the dinosaurs. The creatures are all soft-bodied mollusks, which are surrounded by these amazing fossils—I have a bunch in the studio that I collected in the desert. The end of the Permian period was marked by the largest mass extinction that the world has ever known. Something like 98 percent of species became extinct. There are some species that did continue: They grew legs and moved on land and adapted. Scorpions came from trilobites; they left the sea at one point and, as things dried up, they held on.
About a year ago when I first thought about doing this project, I had just finished a big commercial diorama that I was able to direct on my own. At the time, I had been showing work in Marfa and loved the landscape and the geology there. Almost no one understands the history of the environment down in that area. If you know that the whole region was under water during the Paleozoic Era and then you see the landscape today, the hills and the quality of the earth make a lot more sense. My original intent was to make the connection for people who are in the area, whether they are looking at art or not. So I decided to go back in time and create this underwater scene.
Physically, the diorama is in a trailer with wheels. Everyone has a trailer in Texas. People are always dragging stuff around to town in them. I think the one in the piece is a tack trailer, for supplies, as I don’t think you could actually fit a horse in there. It has a kind of spaceship look to it that I really like.
The new series of paintings I’m working on is of moon men. Astronauts are cowboys in space, pioneers in a new environment. These astronauts come after a series of jackrabbits that are also part of the show. Now I am reading all these books about NASA and all the failures of the space program and things like the portable life support suits. It’s all part of a very extended timeline that connects these moments of uncertainty, of not knowing what comes next.
David Horvitz has made books, photographs, posters, and websites, which have been exhibited and shared internationally. His collaboration with poet Zach Houston and writer Ed Steck for the exhibition “As Yet Untitled: Artists & Writers in Collaboration” at SF Camerawork is on view until April 23, and will be published as a forthcoming book by Publication Studio. A volume of Horvitz’s 2009 Tumblr site was recently produced by Mark Batty Publisher as Everything That Can Happen in a Day.
I’VE TRAVELED SINCE I GRADUATED FROM HIGH SCHOOL, and somehow that’s contributed to my suspicion that it’s actually become my work. When I was growing up this tendency to move around seemed to be related to a sense of restlessness or boredom. But now it is more about movements, routes, and channels of distribution. Though there is still the sense of wonder that is always there.
In January, I finished a road trip up the entire California coast, from Mexico to Oregon, by traveling on Highway 1. The trip was for in an exhibition at SF Camerawork. Pretty much the entire coastline of the state is public property, and even if there’s private property on it, the high-tide line to the ocean is public, so there has to be access points to every beach. I took seemingly incidental self-portraits in those public spaces, and then uploaded the images onto each beach’s Wikipedia article. I wanted the pictures to circulate and become public domain, that is, to act as the visual metadata for these specific geographic sites. The entire series of work, titled “Public Access,” is online now, and there’s this kind of omnipresence to that. But on the other hand, I’m traveling and there’s a play between these remote locations, even though it all still leads back to the Internet. I’m on these amazing remote beaches, there’s no one there, and I had to hike two miles to get there. But then it goes up on this online space, where everyone’s connected. Everyone’s there, and you’re not, but you are.
People who consider themselves Wikipedia editors started taking the images down because they noticed that I was in all of them. They started tracking my IP address from San Diego to San Francisco, and the photos got pulled off or re-cropped so I was no longer in them. It became a debate amongst the Wikipedia editors if this was right or wrong; some thought it was a joke—that I was trying to trick them—and others didn’t care since I was obviously unidentifiable. I wasn’t violating any rules. I have documentation of all of the comments, and it’s fascinating. The threads don’t attack me, but instead they are all about trying to figure out if it’s morally right for Wikipedia, or if it was some kind of vandalism.
Later, I learned about the term “sock puppet.” It refers to the different user names used by one person. I used different IP addresses and user names from San Francisco to Oregon until someone figured out that all these “users” were editing in the same style. They somehow found an outlet to SF Camerawork and there was a moment where they questioned if the images were actually in the public domain since the gallery was doing the show. Then they found out it was my exhibition, and they wondered, “maybe David Horvitz isn’t allowing this?” But then one user deleted all the photos in ten minutes, and then I was blocked from Wikipedia altogether.
The entire project was then “repackaged” for Rhizome to now include the comments by the editors, and the documentation of the photographs’ deletion. So the project had various iterations, which was essentially what my original intent was––to create images that potentially would be sourced and re-sourced.
It’s sad because Pelican State Beach is the northernmost beach in California, and it only has such a skimpy article with no images, and they took my photographs down. Come on. I went to that beach. I took that photo.
Left: View of “Opticks,” 2010. Right: Liz Wendelbo, Opticks XIX – Sets & Lights, 2010, still from a film in 16 mm, 3 minutes.
Liz Wendelbo is an artist who primarily works in film and photography. With Sean McBride she also plays in the Minimal Wave band Xeno & Oaklander. Wendelbo has recently shown her films at the New Museum and Microscope Gallery in New York, and she has a selection of pieces on view at Agnčs B./Galerie du Jour in Paris as part of a group show titled “Musique plastique,” which explores connections between art and music. The exhibition is on view until April 2.
THE WORK I AM SHOWING at Galerie du Jour debuted last November at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, and it takes as a departure point Isaac Newton’s book Opticks . It was a singular gesture on Newton’s part that inspired me: One day he simply held a glass prism up to the sun. The sun refracted through it and a full spectrum of color appeared on the wall of the room. I was attracted to the fantasy of what Newton’s room felt like at that precise moment––its furniture, the angle of the sun, the ambient sounds coming in through his window; I wanted to reenact his experiment for myself. Especially since it was so hard to comprehend his writings.
In the 1800s, physicist J. C. Maxwell attempted to make the first color photograph based on Newton’s color theory, and his efforts further inspired me to stage these reenactments in my studio, and using simple means. My reenactments for the series “Opticks” were done by hand with media that I know well: 16-mm film, Polaroids, and paper. Through doing these experiments over and over and by using my own tools, I began to understand more surprising things about Newton’s singular gesture. While making the series, I noticed that fetishism plays an important part in the process: The gear used to make the work becomes the subject of the work.
My films emphasize a direct and “live” approach to the filming process. I used a film camera registration test chart as the singular visual image in these works. Color and lighting effects are created through a process of superimposition, whereby I rewind the film inside the camera and expose again what I’ve just shot. This creates layers of images, sometimes as many as four in one scene. Other technical limitations and aspects affect the outcome: stopping and starting the camera, which exposes the film, results in flash frames––a moment of bright white or yellow. The grain and trembling of the film are also important to me. The works are shot with a vintage 16-mm H-16 Bolex camera from 1955. I am captivated by the fetishistic appeal of the gear––the camera, the film, the backdrop, and the lights.
All of my activities are informed by a punk sensibility. One of my other main projects is the band Xeno & Oaklander, a project that aesthetically parallels my art in many ways. We play minimal electronic music and use analog synths and record our music in our home studio in Brooklyn. Using analog musical gear comes with its fragilities, its shifts, its limitations, and its obsessions. Again, it’s gear fetishism.
Cory Arcangel, Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat The Champ), 2011, fourteen video game consoles and fourteen video projections, dimensions variable. Installation view.
Cory Arcangel’s latest work, Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat The Champ), 2011, is a video installation featuring fourteen bowling video games made between the 1970s and the 2000s. Each game is rigged to roll only gutter balls and plays in scoreless loops. The video installation is a co-commission between the Barbican Art Gallery in London and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Here, the artist discusses his thoughts on video games, social media, and his latest Web-based projects. The Barbican exhibition is on view until May 22; the Whitney show opens on May 26.
WHEN I WAS A KID, I didn’t have a Nintendo. So I’d go over to my friend’s house, because he had one, and I’d just sit for hours and watch him play The Legend of Zelda. I never liked playing video games very much––still don’t––but found watching them so boring that somehow it became infinitely fascinating to me. And if you really want to know, this is where the inspiration for Various Self Playing Bowling Games comes from.
The work is a video installation of multiple bowling video games, and each has been hacked or modified to only roll gutter balls. As you walk into the Barbican you see the games projected next to one another in a long row. The projections are big—like Bruce Nauman big. The first versions you see are the earliest bowling games, and as you walk along the games get newer and newer until pretty much the present day. At the Barbican there are fourteen games in total.
I chose bowling because it was the most ridiculous and awkward virtual experience I could think of. Think about it: You are sitting in front of your TV and there is this little virtual avatar made out of polygons throwing virtual bowling balls. It’s a great metaphor for all the different ways that life is spun around technology. And in Various Self Playing Bowling Games it’s humiliating—what’s more humiliating than throwing a gutter ball?—but a bit funny at the same time. It mixes all these things together and the result is this kind of despotic sadness tinged with a bizarre, weirdly endurance-related humor.
A lot of my work uses humor to express a suspicion of technology. A recent performance piece that is a good example is called Working on My Novel. It’s simply a Twitter search for the phrase “working on my novel.” When you search that phrase on Twitter you get all these people talking about how they’re working on their novel. The joke is of course that if you’re twittering about how you’re working on your novel, you’re probably not working on your novel! I love these situations.
Another, and probably one of my favorites of the newer works, is titled Sorry I Haven’t Posted. It’s a blog that reposts people’s blog posts where they apologize for not blogging. They all include the phrase “sorry I haven’t posted.” I sift through about fifty a day to pick only the best ones. They are often equal parts sad and inspiring.
These situations are of endless interest to me because they amplify the contradictions that are on the rise as technology becomes an increasing part of our lives. I’m not immune to any of this either. I spend a lot of time on computers––all of my time actually––and of course my work is primarily digital. But that said, I don’t really approve of any of it. It’s a love/hate thing, I guess.
Various Self Playing Bowling Games is part of a series I have been working on for a few years, and I still have some ideas left. For example, I could have a self-playing fishing video game. I like the idea of a guy who can never catch a fish, who just stands out on a boat forever, or a football game where the player gets sacked over and over again into eternity. There are so many possibilities, and all of these endless scenarios that could play out forever.
Since the mid-1980s, the Spanish, Geneva-based dancer, choreographer, and artist Maria Ribot has been creating works that humorously merge video and performance art. Her 2009 piece Llámame Mariachi (Call Me Mariachi) will be performed during the Swiss Dance Days at the Dampfzentrale in Bern, Switzerland, on March 5 and 6.
IT’S VERY DIFFICULT to summarize the two parts of Llámame Mariachi. But let’s try: The first part is a twenty-five-minute video titled mariachi n°17 that consists of a single take. It’s shot by the dancers––Marie-Caroline Hominal, Delphine Rosay, and myself––with a handheld camera; the camera is passed from one performer to another, and so the piece becomes a physical and sensorial exploration of the point of view of the body dancing. The video was shot over six weeks in the Salle Caecilia, a proscenium theater where you can work in both the stage space and the auditorium, at La Comédie de Genčve. The set is mostly built from material found on site; but mirrors have been added, and also a collection of large-scale architectural photographs by Miguel de Guzmán, showing a new theater
under construction. The lights and photography by Daniel Demont are remarkable. Daniel is one of my oldest collaborators. This piece was a huge challenge because of the constant, fast changes of focus, the close ups and wide shots, and the coordination with the choreography. In all, this demanded more than eighty lighting changes. In the video, the camera explores the perspectives in the photographs, generating a confusion between the real set and the space in the pictures. The “17” in the piece’s title refers to the shooting process: The single take that I’ve used was the last, seventeenth take, which we shot just hours before we had to vacate the set.
The second part is a live, onstage performance in which the three dancers move in slow motion, read from books, and make funny improvised asides, foregrounding a pseudoanalytic and intellectual experience of live performance and the status of spectators and interpreters. Both parts pervert and question perception––of the space in the video and of the weight of time (historical, cultural, and performative) in the live part.
The inspiration for the video section came first. It derives from ideas that go back to my early camera explorations a decade ago, and that I’ve been working on ever since. The point of the handheld camera is to humanize the apparatus: When you watch the video, you’re thinking about the hand (or the body in this case) behind the camera, not the machinery. The single take is the best way to stay close to the experience of live performance when you’re working with video.
But the camera work also intensifies the video’s quality of perpetual motion. I edited the music with my collaborator Clive Jenkins from a selection of pieces by atom™, a fantastic musician who can work with any music—from Bach to pop or Latin. In the edit we avoided any kind of repetition; we were listening for themes with a quality of flow, that kept on going and going.
That’s also the quality I went for in the video extracts. As the camera travels through the set, it comes upon video monitors screening film clips; we watch for a moment and then move on. The clips come from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake, and Sam Raimi’s 1985 Crimewave, and they all have a kind of paranoid quality where everything’s in motion. But there are other cinematic inspirations behind the work—for instance, the wonderful last dance in Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002); or Zbigniew Rybczynski’s 1987 video Steps; or the fantastic scene in Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (1968) where the shot ends with the camera diving into a swimming pool.
The second half of Llámame Mariachi, the live part, is essential, because, unlike the video, it keeps on changing. So far, we’ve performed it in three languages. Elements of it rely on the texts that we read from the books, but the improvised asides are the complicated part. Sometimes, although they are unscripted, they’ll seem fake. There is always something to redo, to change, and for me that's the crucial part. Everything in life that interests me keeps on changing.