Issue 27: Zig Zag Wanderer
On changing course
I have a running joke with my friend David. He’s British, like me, and used to live in New York. We frequently get asked the same question: “are you here these days? Or are you there?” That is, are you living in London or New York? (Where the adverb points depends on whether it’s a Londoner or a New Yorker asking.) “Are you here?” David will say to me, out of the blue. “I thought you were there,” I’ll reply. “Really? I heard you were still here.” “So, are you there now?” “Or are you here, but just visiting there?” And so on. The question has turned existential. Are you here? Do you exist?
One evening a few weeks ago, as I was coming out of the cinema, I ran into a man I’d known for many years through the art world. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time. Pandemic, divergent paths. “Are you still here?” he asked. He may simply, politely, have meant New York—we were doing the awkward dance of small talk—but a note in his voice made it sound like something else. There are people who monitor changes in local professional hierarchies with the vigilance of stock market prognosticators. “Are you still here?” is a question of value and visibility. Are you still an investment opportunity?
There’s a line in the song ‘I Found a Reason’ by The Velvet Underground that goes “Oh I do believe, if you don’t like things you leave, for some place you’ve never been before.” Make your own scene. Or, to quote Frank O’Hara, “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.” I enjoy thinking about people who change course in life, who refuse to answer to “are you here?” because they take it to mean “do you belong?” (My next book has something to do with this topic.) Reasons to change direction, to stop, vanish, include: accidents, disillusion, migration, burnout, age, the zeitgeist, crime, money, ethics, health, fear, parenthood, family, love, war, boredom, hunger, mischief, caprice. Not wanting to say “I am this” and have to contort yourself into poses that meet expectations and expert criteria. Or not being allowed to say “I am this.” Juan Rulfo, on being asked why he didn’t write anything for thirty years after the publication of his landmark surrealist novel Pedro Páramo in 1955, said, “it was because my Uncle Celerino died and it was he who told me the stories.” Rosemary Tonks—whose 1968 comic novel The Bloater was reissued last year after spending decades out-of-print—disappeared following a religious conversion and a breakdown. A varied life is not always a sign that someone’s had options and, as the artist David Wojnarowicz put it, “it is no accident that every guidebook in every conceivable language contains the translated phrase: do you have a room with a better view?”
The other day I went to a talk given by Audrey Golden, at The Colloquium for Unpopular Culture, about her new book I Thought I Heard You Speak: Women at Factory Records. It’s an oral history that rewrites the story of the legendary Manchester label, Factory, home of Joy Division, New Order, and other deities of post-punk. The book highlights the crucial and—you guessed it—invisible role that women played in running Factory and its nightclub offshoot, The Haçienda. (Of the many remarkable people she spoke about—Golden interviewed over 80 women for the book—I was fascinated to hear about Yasmine Lakhaney, a trained psychiatric nurse, martial arts expert, a person of strong religious faith, and the first woman to work as a bouncer in the UK. “Yasmine was lovely and kind,” said Alison Agboola, a colleague from The Haçienda, “and she also had this core of steel.”) Golden explained that a number of the women she spoke to subsequently left the music industry after the collapse of the label to pursue careers in other fields. Factory Records did not come to define their lives in the way that it did for the label’s male founders and musicians closely tied to its myths. It was just one chapter in a varied life.
This week I saw an announcement for a discussion at The Whitney Museum of American Art, in connection with Josh Kline’s exhibition ‘Project for a New American Century.’ The talk is titled ‘Beyond Art: Artists Making Movies,’ and asks the question why artists who work with the moving image are trying to work “outside of the art world” and get into the film and television industries. The answers will be both obvious (money, ambition) and complex (reach, disillusion, idealism, among other reasons). But it’s that language of locatability and positioning again: “beyond,” “outside.” There, not here. Working from a room with a better view.
A vocabulary of commitment is often used to describe creative people. “So-and-so is committed to a lifelong dialogue with painting.” “Such-and-such is dedicated to a re-examination of the novel.” Of course, these qualities make for good art. (But now I think of Gulley Jimson, the monstrous artist in Joyce Carey’s 1944 comic novel The Horse’s Mouth, who can’t walk down the street without imagining it as an epic history painting. He is possessed by a demonic, exhausting monomania.) Experience accretes only slowly and it takes practice, application, and years of getting it wrong, then right, then horribly wrong, then a little better again, to make work that’s meaningful. And even after all that, the twilight years of a career might yet reduce to a glimmer, unable to match earlier glories, despite continual, daily devotion to the work. But can these virtuous qualities of fidelity, when they become professionalized—fetishized, even—shut a person off from other parts of life? Art is a faith-based system but it’s not a closed religious order.
Breaking those holy vows of commitment—pushing back against the assumption that making art for a living must make you happy, or at least scratch a profound itch—is one reason why mythic reputations bloom in the gaps left by the disappearing artist. There’s Lee Lozano, for instance, who made a conceptual art work called General Strike Piece in 1969—a refusal to observe professional art obligations—then another called Dropout Piece, which she followed through on and completely disappeared. (According to art historian Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, whether or not Dropout is even a work is hard to say.) Agnes Martin left the city for the desert. Charlotte Posenenske renounced sculpture to retrain as a sociologist. Cady Noland refused to show her art for decades. There’s a line of hers that I like. It’s from a text written to accompany an exhibition early in her career. She makes a list of narrative situations, which among other items includes “a plane trip” and “a ride on a highway between exits.” To the word “meal” she adds a footnote: “If you find the inclusion of “meal” insupportable on a list of narratives, try walking out in the middle of your next dinner date without an explanation.”
The other day I read a piece by Brian Boucher in The New York Times about the artist Darren Bader. He’s just announced that he is looking to sell his two-decade art career, name rights and everything, to the highest bidder. Boucher quotes Bader saying that “the project”—a word suggesting something finite, temporary—“makes fun of this codified notion: When did the term “art practice” even start? […] It was just one of those semi-serendipitous ideas. I think it might have been when thinking about dentists selling their practice.”
Bader says he’s not planning a disappearing act, and the project will be forever tied to him, even if his legal abdication enables another person’s visibility. (Or not: a buyer who wants to make art under the Bader brand has no guarantee of being taken seriously by the galleries and patrons who supported the original.) Enrique Vila-Matas, in Bartleby & Co.—a brilliant meditation on writers who have said “no”—observes that the author Robert Walser “knew that writing that one cannot write is also writing.” Art is geared to being found, and the irony of works about refusals, vanishings, and oversights is that they depend on, even grow, the author’s own visibility. The gongs of prestige don’t always go to those who deserve them.
Visibility is a struggle for countless artists. Too many deserve recognition that will never arrive in their lifetimes. In the early decades of the 21st century, bright floodlights have been turned on the past. This has been the era of the late-career artist who finally receives their dues after years of obscure toil, unjustly ignored because of circumstance, systemic ignorance, or sheer bad luck. Of the lost novel rediscovered and repackaged as a cult classic. Of tape reels found mouldering in a dusty loft and hailed as a forgotten masterpiece of country & western krautrock jazz. We should be happy for the artist who gets overdue recognition. (You never know what turns your own life and career will take.) But even though it seems as if, these days, no good deed goes un-reissued and noble battles are being fought against cultural amnesia, someone, somewhere is always being forgotten. Perhaps that is how it should be. Jorge Luis Borges ends his short story ‘Funes, His Memory’—about a man, Funes, cursed with the power to remember everything—with the line: “Ireneo Funes died in 1889 of pulmonary congestion.”
American musician Connie Converse never released an album, but a home recording of her performing was made in 1954 by the cartoonist Gene Deitch. Those tapes surfaced almost sixty years later, in 2010, as the album How Sad, How Lovely. She’s now the subject of To Anyone Who Ever Asks, a new biography by Howard Fishman. During the 1950s, Converse lived in Greenwich Village, painting and writing music. She composed beautiful songs, literary and idiosyncratic, somewhere between folk, country, and the Great American Songbook canon. (The refrain to her song ‘Honeybee’ eerily prefigures The Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale,’ as if the melody had been played, then drifted through the downtown Manhattan air for ten years, hanging near radio receivers, blowing through subway grates and over tenement rooftops, waiting to be netted.) In the 1960s she embarked on a ‘Statistical Study of 1000 Melodies’, an attempt to make a scientific study of what makes a good song. (Fishman writes that she was “essentially doing by hand, ear and an early computer what programmers a half-century later would do on platforms like Pandora and Spotify.”) She wrote poetry and fiction, then later helped to organize anti-war and racial justice protests in Michigan. Eventually she developed a serious interest in studying conflict resolution. One of her innovations from this period of her life was ’Modular Dialog,’ a participatory game designed to model social and political confrontation.
In 1974 she vanished, leaving no trace other than a handful of contradictory clues and a mystery which Fishman, even after years of investigation, cannot solve. “How many more Connie Converses are there out there,” he writes, “marginalized talents waiting to be heard; artists and thinkers lacking the emotional tools, the encouragement, the self-esteem, the community, needed to thrive? And what price to do we pay […] by continuing to use fame, wealth, property, and power as out primary metrics for success?” Or, in other words, by continuing to use visibility, locatability. Insisting on asking the question, “are you here, or are you there?”
Marcel Duchamp, in the 1920s, declared he was giving up art to concentrate on chess, but he carried on making art in private. For a variety of reasons, personal, religious, cultural, certain kinds of artworks are meant to remain unseen, or only shared among a select community. Sometimes I walk past a house and, being a nosy sort, I look up at the windows and notice a painting hanging on the wall, or a ceramic on the windowsill, and wonder if the resident of the house made it. Do they do it for themselves or do they hope to show it in public? (There’s a practical reason artists put their work in public: to make a living.) I occasionally draw and paint, but it’s strictly for myself. A private activity. Does that make it a hobby, or a serious, if small, part of my creative life? Where’s the line? Some people closely identify with art as their job and their core being. They may or may not be the ones for whom art offers a helpful process, perhaps affords a hinterland, or allows them to access to a state of mind that they need for personal reasons. A part of their identity they prefer, or need, to remain hidden from view.
Artists, like anyone else, need a break. Time out from the studio. Time to spend gathering experiences, observations, material for an as-yet-unknown phase further down the road. Tending to life. Making some money. They might discover that art is just one town they will pass through. It takes a back seat. Other people only arrive there later in life. Here I think of my brother Karl. You might have read about him in my book Limbo. He has, among other things, been a mechanic, served in the Royal Navy, sailed boats across oceans, designed racing car body parts, and worked in materials engineering. Now in middle age, Karl has recently discovered that he has a considerable talent for voice acting. As he says in Limbo, “change is good. That’s what catches most people out. It’s not that I’m not afraid of change, I’m just less afraid of it than most. There’s never an end.”
—Speaking of privacy, Grace Jones, Private Life, from Australian television in 1980.
—The other day I was listening to an old episode of artist Aaron Angell’s excellent show on NTS Radio when I heard a curiosity called For Your Future Entertainment. The tracklist said it was by Clive Oxford. I wrote to Aaron to ask more. He told me that Clive was a projectionist at the Ritzy Cinema in London during the 1980s, running the midnight movie slot, and that he made this 7-inch to play during the intermissions. For Your Future Entertainment was an instrumental, and this, Fading Star, is the flipside, which features a cinephile eulogy by Clive, deadpan, yet full of the melancholy of fandom.
—For the last couple of years, my friend, the artist Anthony Discenza, has been running an artist residency and project space called lower_cavity. It’s located in a vast industrial building in Holyoke, Western Massachusetts. Currently lower_cavity is showing work by André Magaña and Carly Mandel, two projects by March 2023 resident Gregory Kalliche, and I Mist, a project by Philip Hinge for the CHAMBER exhibition series.
—Following the news that Kenneth Anger has, aged 96, crossed the Styx into the underworld, you may enjoy this BBC Arena documentary from 1991.
—Some rabbit hole led me to this clip from Videowave, a public access TV show starting in New York in 1982. The original music has been replaced with muzak, and the effect is… interesting. “These things are quite hot, so might wanna sit back and relax!” as they say at The Museum of Modern Art.
On the topic of words, there is a wormhole in the English language that allows art to travel to all kinds of places. You can see it in the phrase “the art of”—the art of cooking, the art of diplomacy, the art of motorcycle maintenance. The word ‘sport’ performs a similar role. I once saw a sign for a firm of solicitors which said they practiced “The Art of Law.” We know what the phrase is getting at—shorthand for advanced expertise and experience—but it has the subtle effect of putting art at the top of the tree. If you practice the art of something or other, then you’re not only a specialist, you’re answering a higher calling. I wonder what would happen if we used terms from other art forms? The cooking of law. The drama of motorcycle maintenance.
In 1970 the late John Baldessari famously burned all his early paintings and called the gesture The Cremation Project. It might be a professional coup for the young curator or record label owner to discover an artist’s juvenilia and bring it into the public eye, but what of the artist’s right to disavow a body of work?