Splace, 2010

Adam Raymont: A Splace in Berlin

Splace was an eleven part series of experimental art exhibitions in Berlin during the Summer of 2010. The shows each took place for one night only in the Fernseherturm pavilion, a unique space located at the base of the television tower in Alexanderplatz. Organized by Magdalena Magiera, Antje Majewski, Dirk Peuker, and Juliane Solmsdorf, Splace allowed an international group of artists  the freedom to experiment and exhibit work outside of a standard gallery context.

Due to the television tower’s unusual architecture and complex history, the location proved to be an attractive yet equally challenging venue. Though the artists each created individual shows, they were also participants in the whole- each creating or installing work in the same unusual environment. The threads that ran through the series were evident in the way the artists responded to the space itself, whether by using the location as inspiration or directly interacting with the architecture and its environment. The Basso Bar was a recurring part of the series. They designed a mobile ‘pop-up’’ bar which unfolded from an art shipping crate. Members of the Berlin artist collective, Basso, manned the bar at every opening, helping to create an informal social environment to compliment the vernissage each week. The hand-made bar at Splace also stood in contrast to the neighboring franchise café’s with their branded prefab décor.

The project began when Majewski and Peuker, who teach at Weissensee Hochschule fur Kunst, were invited by the current owners of the pavilion to use a commercial space in the base of the tower for student exhibitions while it stood unoccupied. When summer came they enlisted  Magiera and Solmsdorf to develop a broader project., “I had already been thinking about finding a place to hold a series of exhibitions” Majeswki  said, “a place for artists to make work that is immaterial or conceptual or fleeting… “. Majewski had thought of calling the project Blind Spot, “…coming from the place where the nerve of the eye meets the background of the eye; the only part of the eye not sensitive to light. The Fernseherturm is a transmitter of information… it’s one of the main knots of traffic in the city and yet it’s still so unknown.” Majewski had hoped to teach a course on Berlin Alexanderplatz. The course, in her words, was to be about, “The relationship of art to the city in general, and our relationship to our past, which is also a blind spot in [contemporary German] art. If you take Poland, for example, artists there talk about Polish history all the time. In Germany it seems that the past doesn’t appear in art. Here no one seems to be interested the fact that this city was divided 20 years ago. It doesn’t appear- it’s like a blind spot.”

Although Alexanderplatz is not known as one of Berlin’s cultural hotspots, it is still the historical center of the fractured city and a prime example of the unfinished quality one finds here. Berlin is a work in progress and the landscape of Alexanderplatz reflects the confused remains of its dreams, destruction, restoration, division and re-unification. The architecture surrounding the train station, for example, spans a century of the city’s history– two dense, closely set buildings designed by Peter Behrens in 1929 as part of a plan for a ‘big city plaza’ stand apart from later Soviet era buildings in the outlying plaza; leftover landmarks like the Haus der Lehrers and Haus der Reisen, with their classic 60’s modern design and striking Social Realist friezes and murals. Beyond them, rows of former East German housing blocks in various states of decay stretching out towards the stately Karl-Marx-Allee. Today Alexanderplatz feels more like a series of compromises, or settlement, rather any unified development. Recently, several prefab movie theaters and shopping malls have been built in the plaza, adding to the visible time-line. There is no easy place to rest the eye, with the exception of the famous television tower, the Fernseherturm, perhaps the most recognizable structure in Berlin.

When it was built, the television tower was a key part of the German Democratic Republic’s effort to rebuild Alexanderplatz as the center of East Berlin. Under the direction of Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the Socialist Unity Party which governed East Germany at the time, the construction of the tower began in 1964. The design was intended to symbolize the GDR’s strength and modernity and it also, probably not coincidentally, imposed on views from the West. In the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, the tower has become a more welcoming symbol of Berlin, figuring prominently in the city’s skyline and commonly found as a graphic on souvenirs.

Having access to this unique location for the summer, the organizers of Splace invited artists to use the empty commercial space in the base of this iconic landmark, a structure which sits like a modernist crab beneath the shaft of the tower itself. At the time, this large, open room, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto Alexanderplatz, had been left completely raw, with cement floor, load bearing columns, and unfinished walls exposing the core structure. The architecture of the room continues the angles and sweeping lines of the retro-futuristic exterior. The ceiling is an accordion-like series of folded planes broken by ventilation shafts and pipes which follow the irregular path of necessity rather than design. The raw condition of the space provided an intriguing setting, but in typical Berlin DIY spirit, the artists had to supply any extra lighting beyond the bare minimum available and work around the limited utilities, even having to bring water up in buckets from the fountain in the park below. The solid cement flooring tiles became a recurring raw material for the different artists as they were transformed and repositioned, turned into stages and stairs and other uses from one show to the next.

Some artists explicitly included the television tower in their work, like the first show by Jim Skuldt. Skuldt flew a customized, remote-controlled model airplane fitted with a camera up to the top of the tower, sending a live video feed of the birds-eye view of the plaza and observation deck down to a small monitor in the space below, thus evoking political protest flights of the past involving small planes flying over Soviet lines.

In one of the larger group shows at Splace, artist Yusuf Eitman presented a live performance and video of his interaction with the architecture. Wrapped in bright knit layers like an exaggerated 80’s aerobics instructor, he stretched and danced irreverently around the pavillion, mocking the tower’s imposing shape.

Taking an allegorical approach with her installation, Juliane Solmsdorf used a Xenon spotlight taken from an East German tank as both a light source and sculptural element: the bright beam of white light acted as a fallen tower across the floor, illuminating the assemblage of other found objects, including a poetic description of the dome as metal tea-eggs, slowly turning in the middle of the room.

Several other exhibitions explored the relationship between history and mythology. Ulrike Kuschel referenced the story of “St. Walter” which was the ironic moniker given to Walter Ulbricht because of the unintended cross that appears at the top of the Fernseherturm as the sun reflects off of the faceted dome, The tower was rendered less potent as a symbol of Socialist omnipotence by the cross, also known as “The Pope’s Revenge”. Kuschel created an audio guide telling a story of “St. Walter” and depicted him as an ironic icon, drawn in a Social Realist style on catholic prayer cards. Continuing with a similar sense of narrative in “It All Belongs to You”  Joanna Warsza used a selection of art sources and found media to address facts and urban legends about the Fernseherturm, presenting a silent “time-based lecture” which referred to the loss of 30 minutes when the rotation of the revolving restaurant at the top of the tower was sped up from one revolution an hour to two in 1989.

Dealing further with the architectural history of Berlin, Johannes Paul Raether presented a provocative case for rebuilding Hitler’s Reichkanslei by following the logic of the current debate over restoring historical sites from Berlin’s past, like the controversial proposed reconstruction of the Schloss on Unter den Linden. Raether’s presentation pointed out the importance of the Reichskanslei to Berlin’s history and it’s influence on architecture in the city, showing that it was the Reichskanslei that set the standard height, or ‘Traufhöhe’,  and proportions for buildings which are still used as the standards for building in Berlin today.

The Filmprogramm at Splace was an evening dedicated to the screening  of short films and video revolving around the theme of location and space. Curated by  Bettina Nürnberg and Dirk Peuker, the films ranged from Mattias Müller’s reworking of archival footage showing the construction of architect Oskar Niemeier’s sprawling, futuristic vision of Brasilia, built around the same time as the Fernseherturm and echoing it’s architecture, to Karl Kels’ black and white meditation on a Hippopotamus habitat at a zoo. In it, Kels cut from alternating views of workers earnestly cleaning and painting the enclosure to the animals living in it with savage disregard for their newly white-washed surroundings.

The otherworldly, cinematic quality of the space was accentuated by several of the artists on other evenings as well. Hendrick Weber’s site-specific sound installation, for example, consisted of water dripping from the air-conditioning ducts along the ceiling into bowls filled with charcoal, a material that was once the main source of heating in Berlin. The sound was amplified, and in the darkness, the piece became an ambient soundtrack for the rain-soaked city glittering through the plate glass windows, texturing the distance between outside and in and expanding the industrial feeling of the room.

In “A Tribute to Cass Elliot”, Delia Gonzalez and Jaro Straub collaborated by pairing projections of Straub’s melancholic, black and white photographs of an ageing hotel in California with Gonzalez and a guest performing “Mamma” Cass Elliot songs. Gonzalez says the music evokes a particular combination of psychedelic pop with darker visions of decaying glamour specific to Hollywood in the late 60’s, a time when the early film stars were first seen aging, losing that soft-focus haze of immortality. The dark, cinematic atmosphere this created seemed like a Weimar-era cabaret mixed with Karaoke as if envisioned by Fassbinder or David Lynch.

With their show “Freisler”, Antje Majewska and Agnieszka Polska’s fantasy was an homage to the Polish conceptual artist Pawel Freisler, referencing an enigmatic metal egg that Freisler once used as an object of departure. Furthering the story of Freisler’s  earlier work, Majewski and Polska imagined the space as a garden, constructing a story around the location using paintings, video, sculpture and performance. Freisler, making the kind of conceptual work that inspired Splace to begin with, was an early practitioner of Actions, immaterial art, and conceptual art as a form of political and cultural critique, rejecting what he perceived as the materialism of art and freeing it from institutional and physical boundaries.

The Splace series ended with Dirk Peuker and Amy Patton’s show titled “Fade to Black”, an exhibition which featured a minimal reordering of the room and spare, dramatic lighting, bringing much of the attention back to the original space as an artificial, theatrical set-piece. Patton’s wall-drawing incorporated a hand-written excerpt of text from a pulp novel lit by an empty  16 mm film projector. The deconstructed condition of the space was echoed in Peuker’s silkscreen prints depicting details of a deserted Asian pavilion in the outskirts of Berlin, with traces of ornament and decorative objects left behind in the otherwise forgotten space.

As with most of the exhibits at Splace, there was an attention to the history, both real and imagined, of places, drawing a connection between the individual and collective memory of spaces we inhabit and how memory itself can be viewed as a kind of place.

Splace existed as a DIY laboratory below the tower of the Fernseherturm, where art in its many forms took on special roles. Photography became a way of recording temporary structural interventions on the space, like evidence of creative vandalism. Drawings and paintings became further marks in concert with the sheetrock on the huge unpainted  walls. The space was like an avant-garde stage for performances and site-specific installations. And the architecture added another dimension to projected images and films. There was a give and take between the room as it stood and the artists’ efforts to engage it in dynamic dialogue, like retrofitting the soul of the raw space – but , by extension, also the soul of the tower. In a space that, in GDR times, was used as a television studio and again as a state sanctioned gallery, these playful and often absurd happenings gave new life to the dormant space and added another chapter to the tower’s multi-layered history.

Participating Artists include (in chronological order):

Jim Skuldt

Luis Berrios-Negron

Juliane Solmsdorf

Hendrick Weber

Delia Gonzalez, Jaro Straub

Leopold Kessler

Olaf Nicolai

Bettina Nuurnberg & Dirk Peuker

Matthias Müller

Salla Tykkä

Karl Kels

Mathilde Rosier

Agnieszka Polska

Antje Majewski

Yusuf Eitman

Thomas Kilpper

Thomas Nösler

Johannes Paul Raether

Joanna Warsza

Lena Inken Schaefer

Ulrike Kuschel

Thomas Bayrle

Dani Jakob

Sunah Choi

Amy Patton

Dirk Peuker

Special guests: Momus, Adam Raymont

For more information, see the project blog at: (<a href=“http://www.splace.blog.de“>http://www.splace.blog.de


Keith Gessen & Margarita Shalina

Russia, the Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The fear of an opaque future makes us long for what has already passed, when in actuality it’s as the song goes – ‚there were never any good old days‘. For the majority of the twentieth century, the Soviet punitive response to dissenting written opinion was exclusion from The Union of Writers, exile, imprisonment, execution, confinement to a psychiatric ward, or systematic manipulative erosion. Times have changed and these days journalists who draw attention to the dark and delicate underbelly of the Russian power structure are murdered outright. This is acutely evident in the killings of Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov.

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya on October 7, 2006 was met by icy silence from her president, Vladimir Putin. It was his birthday. When he finally commented three days later, he said „the level of her influence on political life in Russia was utterly insignificant.“ This made perfect sense – the best way to censor the legacy of your toughest critic is by minimizing the relevance of her work. Indeed, Politkovskaya did not seem to have any direct effect on Russian political life. Politics under Putin was, and is, closed. The Putin method of governing glows with the aura of Soviet redux and seemingly functions as a cabala for the initiated. During his administration, this muscular style was a reaction to the violent turbulence of the 1990s – an attempt to graft order onto chaos.

Paul Klebnikov understood power. He understood how easily it could become interwoven with strains of violence and corruption. In his book, ‚Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism‘, Klebnikov describes, step-by-step the failed transition from the communist economic structure based on state ownership to the unbelievably violent feeding frenzy of perestroika. Perestroika metamorphosed into a bloody pseudo-capitalist kleptocracy during the 1990s, and the looting of Soviet industry was at its core – a war over control and ownership fueled by greed, intimidation and blood.

Perestroika, Russian for reconstruction, was virgin soil. The initial vision was a transition toward an idyllic vestige of freedom. Russia strove for an ideal that it has since systematically failed to reach. That the economy would have to change along with the government was an afterthought. Across the board, all the rules were being rewritten. Klebnikov’s knowledge of perestroika era economics earned him the first editorship of the newly established Russian Forbes Magazine. In 2004, he published a list: ‚The 100 Richest Russians‘. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the dethroned oligarch and former CEO of the now state-owned Yukos Oil Company, topped the list. Klebnikov went on to publish a second book still only available in Russian – ‚Conversations with a Barbarian: Interviews with a Chechen Field Commander on Banditry and Islam‘. The barbarian referred to is Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev, the prominent Chechen warlord. Paul Klebnikov was murdered on July 9, 2004.

To try and better understand these crimes against Russian journalists, I spoke with writer, translator and n+1 editor Keith Gessen. At the time, Gessen had been living in Moscow for over a year and had just covered the Politkovskaya murder trial for the New Yorker. “Politkovskaya and Klebnikov both had a very personal style,” he told me, “An aggrieved style. Something traditional for Russian journalists”. Making reference to a conversation with a veteran reporter who covered the Politkovskaya trial for a relatively mainstream Russian newspaper, Gessen recalled the veteran’s opinions: “Her writing was personally insulting to them [the Chechens]. She felt it was not enough to just report the facts”. And about Klebnikov, he added: “He did not write like a business journalist”.

Contrasting the trials of their alleged killers, Gessen said: “In the Politkovskaya trial, it was obvious that those guys were not guilty of the things they were accused of. Family and lawyers at the end had come to the conclusion that they were not guilty. But the Klebnikov case was different. The Klebnikov case – the guys on trial were guilty. The jury may have been intimidated or bought. It wasn’t clear who ordered them to do it, but there wasn’t a lot of doubt it was them”.

Klebnikov was of Russian decent but a citizen of the United States who worked for a prominent, muscular, mainstream periodical accustomed to interacting with power brokers, and Forbes has since been unwilling to forget the loss of one of its own. Around the time of the fifth year anniversary of Klebnikov’s murder, I asked Gessen whether he had heard that the U.S. Department of Justice was going to be working with Russia on the case. He was mildly surprised but hopeful. “Certain governments are not very cooperative with Russia. For example, the English, who think Russian courts are rigged. For a while, European countries were not extraditing to Russia because Russia had the death penalty.” Russia has not executed anyone since 1996 and has had a moratorium on capital punishment since 2007. In our conversation, Gessen also touched upon the growing émigré community of nefarious Russians now living in London including Boris Berezovsky, the focal point of Klebnikov’s Godfather of the Kremlin.

But who is responsible for the murder of Anna Politkovskaya? “The government is involved in a weird way,” says Gessen. “It’s hard to tell in what way exactly. The line between government and non-government is pretty blurry. Eventually, I think, these things will come out but you need a new regime.” I asked if he really believed that a new regime would tell the truth. Gessen hesitated, sheepishly laughed and uttered a drawn out “yes.” His intonation was that of someone shaking their head from side to side in negation. He went on to cite the example of Georgiy Gongadze, a Ukrainian journalist kidnapped and beheaded in 2000. The president of the Ukraine at the time was Leonid Kuchma. “Kuchma was heard saying ‘Can’t someone take care of this problem?’ Recently, they arrested a retired general. Even though this guy was a former general – they finally got him.” Meaning: it had been necessary for Viktor Yushchenko to become president of the Ukraine for the truth to come out and reform to take place. In 2004, Yushchenko defeated the Kuchma backed Viktor Yanukovych. Massive voting fraud helped to ignite a series of bloodless protests and strikes now known as the Orange Revolution.

On July 14, 2009, Novaya Gazeta reported that human rights activist Natalya Estemirova had been kidnapped from her home in Grozny and forced into a white car bearing the license plate ВАЗ-2107. The newspaper reported this information and posted it online hours after her disappearance but before her body had been discovered. She had been working on the cause of kidnapping in Chechnya, a profit driven industry reminiscent of Italian and German revolutionary faction kidnappings of the 1970s but on a much less glamorous, microeconomic scale. Estemirova headed the Grozny division of the venerable human rights organization Memorial. Estemirova was also Politkovskaya’s personal friend. Following Politkovskaya’s death, Estemirova was the first recipient of the Anna Politkovskaya Prize established by RAW in WAR/Reach All Women in War. On the morning of July 15, 2009 Estemirova’s body was found in Ingushetia. Memorial has publicly blamed Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow supported Chechen president of the decimated region, for Estemirova’s death.

In and around Russia today, some speak of change under the Medvedev administration. But there is also talk that Medvedev’s governing is just a continuation of Putin’s policy. Is this just ‘business as usual’ for Russia? “Medvedev gives speeches where he doesn’t threaten to cut people’s balls off – which is nice,” Gessen told me. “His reaction was already better than Putin’s was to Politkovskaya. He [Medvedev] accepted that this is a major scandal.” “Kadyrov’s reaction also is an improvement in a way. He says he’s suing Memorial for defamation. This is also something: Usually when he’s asked about someone’s murder, Kadyrov just smiles.”

Both present and past, the question of how expendable people are is one that has haunted Russia. Anna Politkovskaya wrote for Novaya Gazeta, perhaps the last vestige of free discourse in Russian media. It is a periodical that has lost a disproportionately large number of journalists and its lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, to seemingly professional assassination. Politkovskaya’s strength and brilliance lay with her Akhmatova-esque loyalty to the common citizen. She recognized that common people were perceived by the government as expendable masses, people of no consequence, and she criticized Putin accordingly.

“The killing of Politkovskaya is something people are aware of,” says Gessen. “It’s rare enough for someone to be killed for her beliefs, or what she wrote out of those beliefs. Most people get killed [in Russia] because they’re in a business dispute – this is the ordinary way to be killed. Or for your apartment. In the 1990s you could be killed for money, even if you didn’t have money. Russians still think all killings are business-related, where in the West we are quick to blame the government. But both points of view are right: The Russian government has become part government, part mobster.”

That seems bleak. As an average Russian citizen, how is one supposed to understand this? Gessen responds, “In the 90s everyone around you – every Russian citizen – was getting killed. Now there is stability. Now people who get killed are prominent. Politkovskaya was prominent. The elite are conscious about losing certain things, like losing the Ukraine. They hate Yushchenko. The nation’s been much reduced, to half its population. They’re nostalgic for the communitarian ethos. Much of what the Soviets were doing was keeping the standards of living in the west hidden. Nobody wants to go back to wearing funny clothes and not knowing what people in Paris are wearing.” This is an intensely ironic observation. Where the Russian citizen is aware of what the Parisians are wearing thanks to the media, that same media minimizes the murder of journalists and human rights workers, arguably offering a two dimensional perspective on the Chechen crisis. Gessen thinks that longer historical processes are eventually going to improve things despite the best efforts of the Russian government. “There are objective forces of modernity in Russia – well, the internet. It’s harder for the government to control information. Of course, TV in Russia is becoming like FoxNews was during the Bush administration, except it’s on every channel, and run by the government.” An observation which harkens back to Vlad Listyev whose murder Klebnikov had written about and essentially accused Berezovsky of committing. Listyev, an astute television producer and host of televised discussion forums in Russia during the 1990s, made a play at privatizing and controlling the only national television station in Russia – Channel One. He suspended all advertising on the station and was subsequently murdered.

Should anyone want to look into the face of a dead man walking, it’s available on the internet: The last episode Listyev ever filmed of his talk show Час Пик/Rush Hour shows him wishing all his viewers a happy first of March (1995) and all the hope in the world, then saying “…because as we all know, hope dies last.” He was found shot dead in the stairway of his building that night. After his murder in 1995, the only television station to broadcast nationally, across 11 time zones, became state owned.

Media isn‘t everything, and a nation’s subconscious is often best revealed through its art and culture. As the Soviet state crumbled, for example, Igor Letov and Grazhdanskaya Oborona wrote the quintessential punk anthem of the time. The dirge ‚Everything is Going According to Plan‘ gave voice to the despair, bitterness and disillusionment of the Russian citizen experiencing the privations and mess that was perestroika. “I bought a journal about Korea – It’s good there too. They’ve got Tovarish Kim Il-Sung. They’ve got exactly what we do. I’m positive they’ve got exactly the same. And everything is going according to plan.”

North Korean journals in Russia during the time that Letov refers to are fascinating in their uniformity to Soviet and Chinese propaganda. They depict smiling happy children as hopeful symbols of the communist future lined up in rows performing in celebratory assemblage. They show a sprawling untouched landscape, lush and green. And of course, they depict the benevolent father leader in all his cult of personality glory, Kim Il-Sung. These journals are perversely beautiful in the way that only something produced by the government of a closed society can be. Letov was right – it probably is and was just as good in North Korea as it was in the collapsing Soviet Union of the 1980s and perestroika of the 1990s. By default, he was drawing attention to the media. During Soviet times, there was Pravda, “a journal about Korea,” and Samizdat. These were the sources of news for the Russian citizen. If the state has a good solid hold on the media in general, then was Anna Politkovskaya perceived to be a thwarter of propaganda by her government? Both Chechen wars were on near media lockdown and it seems that no one, from the expert to the layman, has a clear understanding of what exactly is happening in Chechnya even now. Klebnikov refers to the first Chechen war as some kind of business deal gone wrong. The Russian citizen would tell you – people of the mountains have been fighting amongst themselves for as long as anyone can remember. In actuality, Russia has been playing at imperialism in the Caucasus for as long as anyone can remember and a prolific number of romanticized accounts exist in the writings of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Lermontov and others. None of these responses are satisfying.

As Russia was overconfident and anticipated a quick and decisive victory, the first Chechen war was better chronicled internationally. The reality of the conflict is perhaps most accurately recorded in Anthony Suau’s 1995 photojournalism of the ravaged Grozny. Here, one finds stark high-contrast black and white photographs of a decimated, razed city that resembles Warsaw at the end of the Second World War. Wounded soldiers, dead soldiers, survivors with mad eyes fighting over the distribution of supplies while desperately clutching the bars of what appears to be a relief truck. An elderly woman showing the passport photos of her two dead sons. An elderly man searching a mass grave and finding the body of his son whose face had been eaten away by dogs. A mass grave. These images are available to the Russian citizen on the internet if he or she knows where and how to look, just as they’re chronicled in Anna Politkovskaya’s articles and books, in the collective knowledge of Natalya Estemirova’s Memorial, and in Paul Klebnikov’s writings. You won’t find any of this, however, on the nightly Russian news.

Article and Interview by Margarita Shalina, 2010.


Andrei Codrescu & Andrea Hiott

Geography is Destiny

Two notes before reading: This interview was mostly conducted in virtual space. Also, be aware that Andrei Codrescu uses the term „herm“ instead of „his“ or „her“ to evoke an all-encompassing gender intimacy when speaking about unspecified individuals. Herm is not a typo.

Pulse: Your writing, and your public persona as a poet and writer and radio personality, has often been linked to specific places: Romania, Boston, New Orleans, Zurich… How deeply do you think these ties to geography have affected your work?

Andrei Codrescu: Geography is destiny, anatomy, and evolution, to put it mildly. I was born in the medieval Transylvanian-Romanian hilly town of Sibiu, surrounded by Carpathian peaks, so I wrote mysterious craggy poems with snow on the tips of end-lines. The geography dictated poetry to the skinny (sort of craggy) adolescent who renamed himself „Steiu,“ meaning „crag“ in Romanian, in order to melt into the landscape. The communist era was threaded through by certain mountainous clichés, one of which was the requirement to be a „pine.“ The national poet of communism was one Ion Brad (John Pine) whom we hated but understood, geographically and politically. I never became a „pine,“ but „crag“ was close enough, suggesting (to my mind at least) a certain dangerous ambiguity: yes, we rise high to the „yawning heights“ of communism (as Alexander Zinoviev called them), but we also impale you, reader, like Dracula and fascism (which was well represented in Sibiu by the nationalist poet Octavian Goga, who as a minister of state in the 1930s passed a slew of antisemitic laws intended to eliminate Jews, i.e, me, from the landscape.) My hometown Sibiu was a multilingual, multireligious town of dour people who rang their church bells at different hours in order to cause insomnia in their hated neighbors: the protestant Germans rang in the vespers maddeningly slow, the Catholic Hungarians boomed martially thirty minutes later, and the Orthodox Romanians rang them all the time to sound like bleating copper sheep. My mother, who was agnostic, stuffed our ears with wadded cotton. At school we sang the „Internationale“ every morning. For all that, it was a quiet crumbling city filled with mute ghosts who specialized in twilight and autumn. I had an intimate idyll with the city, and a distant but sentimental relation to the mountains. Mostly, I cried and felt proud, which is what my birth town did since its inception in 1100 or so CE. Living there for eighteen years made me morose, craggy, cruel, filled with demonic joy, and very good at listening to tiny gasps. The rest of my geographies did their job too: San Francisco made me watery and brisk, Sonoma County made me cry wine, Baltimore made me proud to be an American because of the mighty erect phallus of George Washington on horseback in Peabody Square, and New Orleans made me first fat, then decadent, then skinny again. Should I go on?

Maybe on another matter. Ok? You often praise the writers Twain, Cervantes, Gombrowicz, Marquez. Regardless of what country they lived in or wrote about, all these writers speak sensually of their geographies, both literally and fictionally. Do you think a place and a writer create each other as imaginative presences? Does that have anything to do with why you like these writers?

I like Twain because he‘s deep and funny, Cervantes because he‘s free and funny, and Gombrowicz because he upholds the sanctity of childishness (and he‘s funny). There are others, but they are too numerous, so let me just point to this crowd of scriveners having an orgy in this swimming pool in Hell, and say: „I like‘em all! They are funny!“ Like I said, the place makes the writer, but the writer, of course, makes the place feel more „at home“ by expressing things the place tells herm. The most interesting places, with the most varied history, are composed of layers of feedback between what they fed the animals (er, writers) and the stuff the beasts spewed back. A really great place, like Venice, Italy, is a palimpsest of spews of the greatest specificity. In a literal sense, flesh is shaped by place, place puts culture into the flesh, and the flesh gives place sensual, fleshy features. A new place is a new lover: the first sensation is immersion, then not knowing where one starts and the other begins. Most post-adolescent writers bring with them the places they lived in and add them to their new places, exactly like lovers bringing their amorous experiences to a new person. Mark Twain, for instance, was preoccupied in his childhood by Time, a notion he found in Missouri caves, which are perfect representations of Slow-Time and Fast-Time, and he dragged it to the West and the East: to each new place he brought his Time jokes, and like a good 19th century thinker, he made the places he lived in more modern, more intellectual, more… timely. He had a stopwatch and was fascinated by speed. Cervantes ended the chivalric novel‘s dominion in Spain and closed the door to Moorish baroque: he invented Europe because that‘s where he found himself in the 16th century. Europe back then was a place that needed to end one history and start another (expansion, the New World) and Cervantes took dictation. Gombrowicz was a Pole-Argentine or Argentine- Pole and he took some mighty strange instructions from the surroundings, the main one being that Exile is itself a place, a 20th century place that „real“ geographies must make room for.

And how does all this physical movement affect one’s sensual world, do you think? Is there something about movement that opens up a new inner space?

Think of lovemaking: movement is all. Or dance. Or speech. Or eating. Humans move in physical space and make objects through movement. If I wink at you I make an elliptical rocking shape. If I come up from behind and bite your ear I can make a propeller spin or an apple fall (or I might make you reach for your gun). Since movement is such an effective creator of material objects I try not to move much: I type with one finger and I stare straight ahead. Try to budge me. Space is a web: anything moves, everything changes. And everything moves, like Heraklitus said, so make as many funny faces as you like, or none at all.

In your work about New Orleans, you discuss the German immigrant writer Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein. His writing is built out of the sooty, sultry contradictions of New Orleans. I wonder if he needed the city to make him a writer. Could he have written such affecting pieces had he not changed countries? Could you?

No, me and the Baron could not have written what we did if we‘d stayed nailed to our birth space. We would have been still great, but unknown. And we‘d still have been „outsiders,“ because you have to be an outsider to write. Only outsiders are foolish enough to take dictation from the environment; they believe that observation and literacy improves the wobbly thing inside them. The wobbly thing is the feeling that one doesn‘t belong. The real secret, though, is that nobody belongs, whether they are natives or not. After expulsion from paradise all humans are in exile. You can be a Colonel Sanders chicken, born, raised and fried in one quarter of a square foot and you‘ll still be an outsider. The thing we call reality is a holding tank for people who must worry about belonging — it‘s a worrier prison. Don‘t worry people! You‘ll soon be fried and eaten. A few of us are writers, hence double-alienated, but happier (because we are busy).

If it‘s true that many of us go through life feeling like we don’t belong, how might digression (geographical and otherwise) be our way of trying to forget, or to escape, that feeling?

Bad news: there are no digressions. Everything is connected in the whole darn ball of yarn: start pulling at any end and you‘ll get to the same place. On the other hand, most normal people dislike digression because they have to lose themselves to follow you. The surest way to drive your dear ones crazy is to digress. In private, it‘s an offense. In public it‘s „art“, „performance“.

The internet feels as though it was built for digression. But it also proves your point: everything is connected; we move from link to link. Has the internet changed the writer’s relationship to geography? Has this “new place” changed the role of the storyteller?

Six books it took me to answer these questions!

I know. But…in short? Are there regional writers and regional poets when it comes to the virtual world?

In short, the internet liquefied physical borders faster than they were already doing on their own. For all that, there are only regional writers. There are no „internet writers“, like there used to be „paperback writers“. Every tweet comes from somewhere, and that „somewhere“ goes into the „somewhere“ where you‘re reading it in. You read Nietzsche in the Ozarks for a while, let‘s say, then you get up and sweep the leaves from your porch for a longer while. Place wins on time spent every time, unless you‘re demented enough to put out your eyes on screens longer than you sweep. We are in a state of „transitional regionalism“, a place where regions are instantly transmitted to other regions, but they don‘t universalize them, they only make them more provincial, by framing them with the local. Like I said, six books! Amazon.com. Now that‘s a Weird place! To wit, „virtual space“ is just another place, like a house on a street in Columbus, Ohio. If you get up from your computer you can go out and forget all about the virtual place. If you tell stories about the internet from Columbus, Ohio, you‘re an Ohio internetist (tho it might pay better to be an internist); if you tell stories about a fried-chicken incident that could‘ve been in a Sherwood Anderson novel, you‘re a double-regionalist: an internetist in a place. Like the founder of VR said to me in Seattle in 1997: „At least reality has a competitor now!“ He was being hopeful. VR won‘t keep you out of the VA (hospital), to coin a saw.

But what happens to modernism then? Can there be modernism without the big literal city?

There is no more „modernism,“ or its better sibling, „the avantgarde.“ Those revolutions ended in Restoration in 1978: the monarchies (of boredom) came back then, psychology snuck back inside people, institutions reshaped people, money was everything again. (As opposed to other currencies such as youth, poetry, love, feathers, and murder). „Diversity“ is just a word for hiding the crime of increasing monocultures, growing like mold since 1978. Fun ideas are created in free interplay by people with big eyes and insatiable appetites who feel like laughing whenever anybody says something, anything. It‘s true that city neighborhoods full of bohemes and wannabe bohemes are more inspiring when you‘re young and poor. Those places exist mostly in the imagination now: no sooner do artists funkify a hood, the developers move in. Though there is some hope now, thanks to the financial meltdown, that places may rust back for a while and we can breathe freely, ah, ah. Unemployment is good for art too, necessary actually. Give us about 20% unemployment and we will rise again!

Big cities require diverse people to find a way to live in close proximity; opposing ideas often end up walking side by side. In an internet age, what happens to that kind of contradiction and paradox?

It‘s not diversity or cities that create contradictions: everything does. You have to make a bigger effort to accommodate seemingly opposed ideas in New York, for instance, because New York is aggravating every second. Your landlord and your temperament will never see eye to eye. The violent anarchist and the pacifist next door, both of whom you‘re sleeping with, are trying to present their cases as irreconcilable, but the intellectual standoff dissolves because your body bridges them. As long as you have a body, ideas can clash all they want, they won‘t harm you. It helps to have a young healthy body. The body is currency, creativity, and insurance: the better you know that, the better your works. The common usage of the word „creativity“ these days is „marketing.“ How you see the world and what you make is all terrific, but you have to be really creative to make others see you the same way.

Does that mean first being skeptical of both the anarchist and the pacifist, and then finally accepting and loving them both?

The only way to stop doubting is to develop selective forgetting. Alzheimer‘s is a disease, and it‘s sad, but you don‘t need a disease to reap the benefits of forgetting. Listen to me: take a deep breath, close your eyes, and on the count of ten repeat ten times: My brain will automatically erase the bad, the boring, and the ugly. My brain will automatically… Now open your eyes and drunk-text.

Maybe it’s possible to be playful and honest without also being drunk, or maybe being playful and honest is itself a way of being drunk. Is it one way or the other: play Judge, or Just play?

We have to play. So we‘re silly. So what? We are artists. We don‘t have good taste, we‘re too busy for that. If you have to judge make it final. If hypnosis doesn‘t work, moving out might. To paraphrase and quote my master Ted Berrigan, there are only two solutions: „suicide and murder// but that‘s dumb!“ Moving out (and on) is better.

Is moving really always better though? In New Orleans Mon Amour, you write about how old cities soothe and ease the pain of living because they are places with histories; it’s comforting to know others have lived and stayed there before you. And yet, one hardly recognizes the history and depth of one’s place until one has left it. Can travel be less a matter of finding new places and more a matter of really seeing what is right in front of one, of being still?

Both are true: you appreciate a place after you leave it, and you can train yourself to appreciate it while you‘re in it (though it‘s harder). The Mysteries of Paris by Eugene Sue was the first novel to discover the exotic at home; Sue was too poor to travel so he found the magic where he lived.

In that sense, are languages ways of traveling too, of entering a new geography?

Yes, but like I said before, it‘s better done in bed.

Florida and Louisiana, 2010.


Wayne Kostenbaum: Imaginary Places

Imaginary Places

Article and interview by Anna Rohleder, 2011.

Even in a brief conversation with Wayne Koestenbaum, it becomes apparent that his interests are broad-ranging, from Sigmund Freud to film stars, 1960s American pop-culture icons to European Expressionist poetry, opera recordings to billboard advertising. His work also spans (and occasionally combines) fiction and non-fiction, as well as prose and poetry. Of his books, The Queen‘s Throat: Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, an investigation into the affinity of gay men for opera, and Hotel Theory, a novel set in a hotel juxtaposed with an extended essay about hotels, are among the best-known. He is also involved in the visual arts. He taught on the faculty of the Yale University School of Art and has contributed art journalism and criticism to magazines such as Art Forum and Art in America as well as general-interest publications such as Vanity Fair and Vogue. He is a poet, novelist and professor of English at the City University of New York.

Pulse: There is a Matisse show about to go up at MOMA („Radical Reinvention“), and one of the recurring motifs in his work is the artist‘s studio, which is both an artificial and necessary space. I was trying to think of a counterpart to the artist‘s studio for a writer. Is it possible to do creative work in an office?

Wayne Koestenbaum: I have. I started writing poetry at an office job. I worked as a typist, and while I was at work, when no one was looking, I‘d write poems on index cards, or sometimes on the back of one of those „While You Were Out“ message pads. The size of the index card was the poetic form, and the duration of time would be the amount of time stolen. This goes back to Certeau‘s idea of „la perruqe“ („the wig“), which I talk about in my book Hotel Theory – stealing time from the boss and using it for my own purposes. There was a permission for me that being surreptitious allowed. I could not have authorized myself to write a poem at home: it would have been too much of an abyss. By being at the office job — which was a job I had no sympathy with — there was a sense of being off duty from myself.

I tend to write in different genres out of that same impulse to find an incognito. Poetry is the free space outside the writing I‘m supposed to do. In terms of writing environments in general, this café for example (Café Le Grainne, New York) used to be quieter and less bustling. There was something more lax about it, and I could lose myself. Now it‘s become louder and busier.

There‘s more regulation.

If we extend that idea to mental landscapes, do you think that the synapses of the brain may reflect or mirror the paths we take through a familiar place, so that we always encounter the same thoughts at the same points of topography?

I like to ask myself, „Where is that emotion (or memory, or fantasy)“ when I feel it. „Where is it located?“ And I‘ve begun to feel split between a palpable self and a nimbus or thought bubble or haze that‘s located somewhere behind my eyes and above my nose but which is not material. I am vaguely coincident with my body as I move through the world but there‘s a split second of delay.

We‘re trained to think of our emotions as embodied, in the chest or in the shoulders, but what if it‘s not that specific? What if it‘s all just hovering? If your thoughts are not in your head, maybe they are somewhere outside waiting for you.

I think all of us have had the experience of moving through an environment in the wake of an emotional event, and feeling that resonate in the landscape, that everything actually looks and feels different as a result.

Well, I don‘t have that many romantic or nostalgic memories of places. But I once stayed in Venice for a month and I used to take a nap in the afternoons listening to Luigi Nono. The recordings I was listening to would go in and out of audibility, and I had the windows open, so these characteristic Venetian sounds would come in at the same time, which for me made up an idealized soundscape. Nono himself lived in Venice, so he composed to the same sounds I was hearing, and I was completing the mystery by returning to Venice with his music. Similarly, I recently took a book of 20th century German literature on a trip to Germany. And I think being in Berlin while reading Brecht for the first time made his poetry make more sense to me.

This then leads you into the field of ethnopoetics. What does it mean to mark an environment, or make a map of a place? Think of the medieval arts of memory, which encompassed not only maps of topography but also the music of the spheres.

That makes me think of the Austrian fin-de-siecle poetGeorg Trakl, who died very young – in the first year of WWI – of a drug overdose , and who in fact had been a drug addict since he was a child. He describes an entire synesthetic universe where the landscape itself makes music, and even colors ring or chime…

I am fascinated by imagining the world of the German or Austrian child at the turn of the 20th century. Take Freud‘s case of Little Hans, for example. What possibilities were there for a four year-old boy in the Vienna of 1900? Leaving Freud‘s formulations aside, what were the emotional possibilities? Little Hans had such an unfettered curiosity. He was encouraged so much by his father and by Freud. It seems quite idyllic, like the antidote to Michael Haneke‘s vision of childhood [in a film like The White Ribbon]. And you know, later in life Little Hans actually became a major opera director. He worked for the Met for over 30 years.

I try to imagine childhood in other historical times. Imagine a particularly dreary time to be born, so for example, what if you‘re a woman who‘s not from one of the upper classes born in rural Austria, 1805? What is your emotional environment? When does it dawn on you that it‘s a blighted time – if, in fact, it ever occurs to you? Like the photographs of August Sanders. You look into the faces and try to imagine what their sense of expectation and possibility was in relation to what the environment allowed.

I saw the film „Babies“ recently, which deals with this question of environments across cultures, and allows one to study the unmarked face of an infant, the degrees of boldness or shyness. I was very excited by the audacity of the African boy – this phallic narcissism – his extreme confidence of his place in the universe, in contrast to the more cosseted child in California, who seems to be somewhat at sea. In the African scene, there‘s so little of what we consider to be stimulating: this little boy is sitting with women who are not really dressed, and he is just playing in dirt. Meanwhile, in California, the American baby is in a bedroom full of toys, the kid seems confused, because it‘s just glutted with codes.

I‘m convinced the next great leap in technology is going to be a means of dynamically „forgetting“ data, because we‘re coming to the limits of what we can do with storage. Even in terms of the electricity to power all the data centers needed to „remember“ the information we generate, never mind figure out what to do with all of it.

I saw a billboard the other day for a company that said it could shred and/or store your documents, and it really struck me that there is this dual relationship between storage and shredding. I‘ve come to the point in my life where I‘ve starting thinking about the placement of an „archive.“ I imagine it as a very comforting space to be in, if you had a whole room in a house full of personal papers and books – even old books of mine that have gotten brown and look depressing now, because I remember when they were first published, and they seemed so permanent, like they‘d be around forever, but now they seem like trash – and I‘ve started to understand why publishers pulp books. It always seemed like a sacrilege before but now I can feel the distance even on my own bookshelf between what‘s worth keeping and what isn‘t.

A lot of what I tend to do is try to find internal and external environments that allow me to concentrate, because most environments I find myself in make it difficult. It‘s not just a matter of finding the right coffee shop. There is a need to forget a little, to clear space and pay attention. We have no night anymore, no moment of silence between yesterday and today. This perpetual awakeness without the interruption of sleep is just terrifying.

There is also a dimension to this that concerns an inattention to ceremony. I had noticed I was sliding into writing rather than preparing for writing as an act. Over the years I‘ve accumulated several manual typewriters, and lately I‘ve begun typing on colored construction paper when I use my pink typewriter. I choose the color and put the paper in, choosing to begin deliberately.

I used to think in terms of performance, of the higher stakes that an audience brings, but now I think it has more to do with issues of attentiveness, concentration and deliberation. Attentiveness doesn‘t depend on performing.

In our world of constant interruptions and fragmented attention, it‘s almost as though you have to choose your own form of autism to filter some of the stimulation.

[Austrian poet] Trakl is a good form of autism, because he has a limited vocabulary and a limited body of work. I was reading him while I was on jury duty recently – immersing myself in an entire body of work was my chosen autism.

I made another decision to limit the field and only read poetry this summer. I will only be taking my messages from people who have worked on themselves and their language – who have edited and isolated. There‘s no pandering though there‘s plenty of bad faith… Reading poetry means I‘ll always feel at home in my reading.


Bradley Wester: Interstice

The In-Between Place of Contemporary Art and Politics

When I arrived in New York from New Orleans in 1978 to become an artist, the city was emerging from a very dark time. New York nearly went bankrupt. Manufacturing had mostly left the city, opening up vast amounts of cheap industrial real estate to artists. One of these areas became known as Soho, which was at that time a scary place after dark. New York was dirty, dangerous, and cheap. As Soho quickly became too expensive for some of us, we began to populate the East Village and Lower East Side. My classic East Village walkup on East 10th near Avenue A, with the bathtub in the kitchen, was $115 per month. Artists met cruising each other on the streets and we created our own scenes in bars, clubs, and storefronts. Performance Art was having its heyday, an indicator of just how much the work was about ideas and community rather than commerce. This lasted until the Wall Street and concurrent New York art-world booms of the late ‘80’s, a time when some argue the ‘Art Star’ was born and New York’s bohemia died. Even without the rose-colored glasses—I was mugged, robbed and attacked numerous times, and we all suffered the tragic and painful losses due to AIDS—it was still an exciting time to be an artist in New York. The downtown slate was blank.

These days it’s filled in. When the latest financial crisis hit in 2008, the initial spin was that the crisis would supply the New York art world with what it was sorely lacking—the space for new ideas. Comparisons were made to the 70’s and 80’s. There may be around a ten percent unemployment rate in the U.S. today but we New York artists still must juggle two or three jobs to maintain our work, studios, apartments, and wardrobes. Our artistic community is reduced to a place for networking where introductions are contacts for career advancement. And still our voices are barely heard above the commercial cacophony. New Yorkers are carrying on as though there were no crisis at all. I have frankly never seen this level of extravagant construction and consumption in the thirty years I’ve lived here.

Granted, this jaundiced view of New York is mine only on bad days. And I am loath to admit that it may have been for nostalgic reasons that I first wanted to go to Berlin. I had often heard that Berlin today is like New York was in the 70’s and early 80’s, sans the danger. And to some extent this is still true. Berlin’s slate may no longer be completely blank, but there is considerable space left. Berlin occupies the theoretical, philosophical, political and ideological space between east and west, which translates into potential, into the cultural space of in-between. Berlin is all about occupying unoccupied spaces—the abstract ones just mentioned, and the real empty cheap ones like those in New York in the ‘70’s, where new experiments happened on the site of those that failed. My real interest in Berlin is in understanding to what extent contemporary art participates in these experiments and/or to what extent it is a casualty.

As art movements go, the term ‘contemporary’ might refer to all and none. Unlike the modern project, whose mission it was to reinvent traditional forms and belief structures no longer viable in a post enlightenment, newly industrialized (western) world, contemporary art acts as a catch-all for a variety of ‘anything goes’ made in the ‘here and now’. Yet it is not simply a designation for all art made in the present. While anything from the most traditional to the most experimental of materials, forms, processes and projects can constitute contemporary art; it is its discursive and socio relational connection to the present that constitutes its contemporaneity and the extent to which it is taken seriously. At the same time, another characteristic or condition of our contemporary present is that it is dis-connected in so far as it is post-oppositional. Our present is not connected to what it opposes, at least not in the way east-west opposition delineated by communism defined modernism’s utopian present.

Now is a time of no clear sides, which along with technology has rendered our global culture borderless, nomadic, all over the place. Like the post-feminist woman, contemporary art must now be all things. So contemporary art is now. But it is also post: post-oppositional, post-Cold War, post Marxist, post-modern, post-academy, post-colonial, post-identity, post-feminist. What kind of now is contingent on being after? And what is its relationship to the future?

Nowhere is this borderless, post-oppositional now-ness embodied more than in Berlin, where the gap left by a lack of conflict is as palpable and visible as the yet undeveloped real estate that once housed modernism’s greatest symbol of division, the Berlin Wall. And it is the propensity of this space to be filled that is attracting all the action there. Berlin’s post-oppositional now in no way means that the action in Berlin excludes critical dissent, quite the contrary. In the short twenty years since the failure of communism when the whole of Berlin was united under the banner of democratic capitalism and its promises, Berliners have witnessed 9/11 and the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. While Germany’s economy rages on as the strongest in the European Union, Berlin itself continues to struggle economically and to experience repercussions from reunification’s radical shift in its society, a society largely subsidized by what many German citizens collectively dub the ‘Berlin Tax’. This contributes to political tensions within the country, but adds to the allure of Berlin’s marginality and its experimental moment—artists, poets, and philosophers on the dole—creating a space for the valid critique of the systems that
were meant to save them.

One meets artists and writers in Berlin today who really are “In Search of the[ir] Postcapitalist Self” and who look critically at our new ‘post-Fordist’ economy predicated on ‘immaterial labor’ where ideas are sold as opposed to material objects using factory labor. This is a marketing, design, branding, consulting, finance, information and communication service economy that is computer reliant. To fuel the post-Fordist economy, immaterial workers sell us ever-changing ideas about ourselves resulting in our endless pursuit of products that go out of fashion long before their usefulness, while much of the manufacturing or material labor for these products is outsourced to places like India and China. The process appears to benefit both sides of the global economic coin, but there are, at the very least, serious environmental, therefore economic, consequences.

Designing things with planned or built-in obsolescence uses an inordinate amount of natural resources and end up as mountains of toxic waste. Today’s economy is dependent on our dependency on ever-new things and our greed-over-entitlement impulse. We must desire more than we need and choose what we do need from a surplus of options all designed to match our ‘lifestyle’. Lifestyle itself is commoditized. This lopsided production strategy seems destined to falter.

Berlin’s history and present economic conditions make it naturally skeptical of this new order. No wonder that in such an environment of skepticism a once vigorous oppositional left has reemerged as an intrinsic community of ‘cultural producers’ with neo-Marxist tendencies. Members of cultural communities from other places and with similar tendencies go there to meet, creating global communities with overlapping purpose—a defining role for Berlin. In this sense, perhaps the defining role for contemporary art is as the solitary ambassador of social change. If we look at the big international biennials and exhibitions today, contemporary art is again political and in service of change; it’s now responsible for what the larger socialist utopian project failed to do. In the aftermath of so many failed or post systems, this is a heavy burden. Consequently Berlin, contemporary art, and culture itself, is under continual and intense scrutiny.

Take the term ‘Cultural Tourism’, for example. It’s pejorative use implies a worthy debate; just how much do these large exhibitions, like the recent Berlin Biennial, evolve out of a vital need to communicate the socially and politically engaged ideas of artists and curators, or the contradictory need to revitalize a city’s commercial viability? A biennial promises the cachet of membership in a select club of cities sophisticated enough to participate in the avant-garde conversation. This brings an exclusive stratum of tourism, and business, to a city like Berlin, now branded to be at the cultural fore. The ‘culturalization of the economy’ or the ‘economization of culture’ might produce the perfect immaterial commodity to be bought and sold by ambitious curators and urban planners, but it takes away art’s most emancipatory characteristic, its autonomy. What is interesting about this critique and others like it is that it comes from within the cultural community itself, who is in part culpable. If we as cultural producers are the sole heirs of the left’s mission for social change, then it makes sense we inherit the left’s unsparing self-criticism.
Living in Berlin for three months this past summer, during the time of the Biennial, I began to wonder if I was complicit in this cynical neo-liberal economics of culture. Was I contributing to Berlin’s gentrification by perhaps paying more for rent than Berlin artists could afford? It bothered me that I considered this (unsparing self-criticism), that I might be doing something wrong by living in Berlin. Of course I was a Cultural Tourist, and yes I was a member of an elite global audience that large international exhibitions catered to. Nevertheless, I concluded that I was in Berlin because I belonged there.

Site Berlin localizes and externalizes for the rest of the world our most monstrous and schizophrenic impulses, and, since the fall of the wall, our chance for redemption. We are all implicated and we are all responsible in some way for what comes next, and for not forgetting what came before. In this way, we are all citizens of Berlin, of the gap. That this international gathering place is affordable compared to other European cities contributes to its rich diversity. Its alternative scenes are possible because artists, poets, philosophers, curators, and other cultural workers, who are more often than not well educated and broke, populate it from far and wide. This is why I spent the summer in Berlin, and why I will return.

Bradley Wester is a New York visual artist working in a hybrid medium that combines painting, sculpture, digital imaging and installation. For the past ten years Wester has worked on a project where he lives and works in three disparate but geographically symmetrical cultures, ultimately resulting in three connected bodies of work. He has exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions across the U.S. and in Europe including most recently at Margalef & Gipponi Gallery in Antwerp Belgium. Awards include: Specialist Fulbright Fellowship to Kyoto Japan, two MacDowell Fellowships, Pollock-Krasner Grantee, and twice published in New American Paintings. Wester’s Visiting Artist credits include: CalArts in Los Angeles, Sint Lucas Antwerpen Belgium, Kyoto University of Art & Design, The American Academy in Rome, and a recent three-year Visiting Artist full-time faculty position at Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota FL. Wester has also designed theatre sets for Off-Broadway, and in Los Angeles for writer/director Eve Ensler, producers Mike Nichols, Fox Television, The Promenade Theatre-NY, LaMama-NY, Music Theatre Group-NY, and The Court Theatre-LA. His work was seen in a recent Adam Sandler film. He performed in a Robert Wilson production at New York’s Lincoln Center, and created his own performance/theatre works at venues such as The Kitchen Center and PS1 in New York.



Derrick Jensen & Andrea Hiott: End of Civilization

In the recent documentary A Crude Awakening, it is said that the United States of America was once “the Saudi Arabia of the world” when it came to oil production: in other words, much of the world once purchased its oil from the States. Now those vast resources have been depleted. Many other places around the world have also peaked. In Baku, Azerbaijan, miles of machine carcasses clutter the landscape – oil from here once powered the Allies (especially the Russians) towards defeating Germany in World War Two, and now the well is dry. Less than sixty years ago, the British found oil in the North Sea. According to Colin Campbell, an oil geologist and consultant to the world’s top oil companies, Britain will become a net importer of oil within the year, and its oil will be used up by 2020.

It’s easy to roll your eyes and ignore this trend. With all the noise being generated around ‚the end of oil‘, perhaps it is difficult to listen deeply to what‘s being said. The views sound extreme to some. The end of oil feels like a conspiracy theory. Even so, everyone admits that our current way of life is based on oil. We require oil to create all our plastics, fertilizers, tires, and computers; oil is also the primary energy behind our transportation. And oil is not a renewable resource.

Does running out of oil mean disaster? Is the end of oil also the end of civilization? Can we change and find new ways of thinking about energy? Author and environmentalist Derrick Jensen doesn’t think we can, at least not quickly. He believes the current culture is irremediable, and that it will be (and must be) destroyed. According to Jensen, we have treated our earth the same way a rapist treats his victim. And we have to deal with those who have hurt our world the same way we would deal with a man who has committed a particular act of violence.

Pulse: How do you define violence?

Derrick Jensen: The definition of violence that I like the most is ‘any act that causes harm to another’ and the reason I like that definition is because it demystifies the word and shows it to be what it is, which is a part of everyday life. Every time I defecate I kill zillions of bacteria. When I eat, it doesn’t matter whether I’m eating a carrot or a piece of chicken, I’m still doing violence to another.

Are you saying violence is natural?

On that level, violence is natural. It’s inevitable. We all feed each other. Eventually I’m going to feed the worms and the soil. It’s a big, beautiful circle. So the question becomes: what sort of violence do you find acceptable or unacceptable? Most of us under most circumstances see doing violence to a carrot as morally acceptable. And I think most of us under most circumstances see doing violence to a human being as not morally acceptable. And yet, even then, there’s a lot that doesn’t get counted as violence. An example I often give is: What do the movies Doctor Zhivago, Straw Dogs, On the Waterfront – and I could name so many others – all have in common?

Scenes of rape? I’ve heard you say that before.

That’s exactly it. Except it’s even worse. Each of those films has a rape scene where by the end of the scene, the woman is putting her arms around the man.

Rape that supposedly becomes something intimate?

Right. A pornographic rape fantasy. So my point is, from the perspective of those screenwriters and actors, that kind of violence is clearly acceptable because they’re turning it into an intimate act. In that same sense, judging by their actions, clearly there are also members of this culture who perceive the violence of destroying the planet as acceptable.

Do you think members of culture consciously accept these things, or is it something else?

There’s a great line by Combs which says “Unquestioned assumptions are the real authorities of any culture.” A Canadian lumberman once said “When I look at trees, I see dollar bills.” Another explorer of the American northwest, upon seeing the great waterfalls there, said “I determined that I would possess them.” I say in The Culture of Make Believe that any hatred felt long enough no longer feels like hatred, it feels like economics or philosophy or something else. There are things we don’t question, and so we think they are true.

Nietzsche said that there is nothing more resistant to correction than self-deception. Still, isn‘t there something to be said for a radical kind of honesty, for seeking internal clarity? Can such work lead to an awareness that affects the way one sees?

I think that’s really important; I just don’t think everyone is capable of it. I don’t think if you put BP former CEO Tony Hayward on the coast, he’d get all jazzed about the beauty of it. I think he’d see the money to be made. When the Europeans arrived in North America, they saw what the indigenous people called home and worshipped, and saw it as a savage wilderness that needed to be tamed. It’s a matter of how you perceive.

Are you saying there are simply different kinds of people? The people who want to destroy the environment, and those who see the beauty of it and care for it?

I don’t know. In my different books, I’ve explored different answers to that question. In A Language Older Than Words, I talk about how most members of this culture are suffering from what Judith Herman called ‘complex post-traumatic stress disorder’: They’ve been so traumatized that they’re no longer capable of being in a relationship or conceptualizing what a relationship means. In the The Culture of Make Believe, I wrote about how this culture systematically rewards competition rather than cooperation, and how such a system leads to sociological atrocities. Then in Endgame I wrote about how if your culture is based on the importation of resources then it’s going to lead inevitably to atrocities. I’ve got a book coming out this spring where I explore an idea that Jack Forbes (an American Indian) raises in his work: He believes this problem is a spiritual illness with a physical vector. He talks about members of the dominant culture having a spiritual illness that causes them to become cannibals; they have to consume the souls of others in order to survive. The members of dominant culture are zombies, and they don’t see that the dominant culture is killing the planet. Very sober people are writing very sober articles about this, and still the response is to continue promoting capitalism. I’ve written fifteen books about this and I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

Does that mean you are resigned to this destruction? Do you believe it is impossible to change people’s minds?

Realizing we can’t change the minds of those who are destroying the planet doesn’t mean we are resigned to what they do. What that means is that we are going to use different tactics.

And what would be the goal of those tactics?

To stop those who are destroying the planet, using any means necessary. How do you stop Ted Bundy? How do you stop a rabid dog? How do you stop a sociopath? You don’t stop them by appealing to them. Lundy Bancroft wrote about the only way to stop an abuser is to give them no other choice. You can’t appeal to their best interests because the abusers are gaining tangible benefits from their abuse. You can’t change a capitalist because they’re benefiting from the system; they’re getting hot showers and gold-plated toilets. You stop them by stopping them, and that means going to any means necessary, because the world is at stake.

To do this, do you think civilization has to end, that it has to be brought down, that it will end through catastrophe?

Well it’s not that I think this. I mean, that’s like saying that I think if you jump off a cliff, you’re going to fall to the ground. Our modern way of life is by definition unsustainable. It’s based on oil, and oil will run out. Anybody who thinks we can go on as we are is engaging in magical thinking. (go read Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over if you want an in-depth explanation of this). So to directly answer your question, yes, it will crash.

What comes afterwards then? Humans are curious. Curiosity leads to things like innovation and infrastructure and what we now call ‘civilization’, the civilization you say must fall.

Are you saying that the Tolowa, the indigenous people who lived on the land here in California where I live now, weren’t curious?


Then how were they able to live here for 12,500 years without doing what the dominant culture today has done?

I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to understand. I can only learn another option if I can understand that option.

My point is that it is extremely dangerous and racist to believe that curiosity leads to technological innovation of the sort that this culture now has because that implies that people like the Tolowa or the Dakota were too stupid to invent backhoes.

I don’t think that follows. I am trying to get at the fact that if civilization falls, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the people who created that civilization, or that all the ideas that have come out of that civilization, are suddenly gone. They’re still here. We’ll still here. I’m just wondering how we learn another way. How do we not repeat what we’ve done?

We can’t repeat it. There will never be another oil age because the reserves of oil will be gone. This is a one time blow out. Same thing happened with bronze: There will never be another bronze age. There will never be another iron age. There will never be another age of tall ships because they’ve cut down all the old growth forests that were necessary to build them. There were once runs of salmon twelve miles long that lasted for 28 days. Those are gone. The point is: the only way you can build up these modern cultures is by being extremely wasteful and destroying your landbase. The Fertile Crescent is no longer fertile. The Sahara Desert was once the bread basket of Rome. We’ve been destroying the landbase as we’ve created this modern culture. We’re using it up.

If you want to know what happens when a patriarchal culture collapses, look at the Democratic Republic of Congo (where women are being brutally raped in large numbers). As civilizations collapse, women are going to bear the brunt of this and it’s no use pretending that won’t be the case. What we need to do is to prepare for that crash. I love the line by Andrea Dworkin: “My prayer for women of the twenty-first century is harden your hearts and learn to kill.” What that means to me is that women need to learn self-defense and they need to learn it now. The time to learn self-defense is not when someone is breaking down your door.

Peggy Reeves Sanday did a cross-cultural study of rape asking why some cultures are high rape and why some are low rape. A lot of the markers she found are things you’d expect: a higher militarized culture is probably going to be higher rape, for example; a culture that treats children better is probably going to be lower rape, and so on. But there was one marker that was very interesting and a little bit unexpected, which is that if the culture has a history of ecological dislocation in its previous four or five hundred years, that could be a marker for high rape. What that says to me is that when a culture is stressed, men often take it out on women through rape and other forms of violence. Another thing that says to me – and this has to do with civilization coming down – is that it takes four or five hundred years for a culture to recover from trauma, so ten to fifteen generations. When people ask will there ever be sustainable cultures again? I would say it would take a good four or five hundred years for such cultures to develop locally once the dominant culture is gone.

So to get back to your original question, yes, when civilization crashes, the people who were assholes before are still going to be assholes afterwards, but those people will no longer have the power to control and kill the entire planet.

Won’t people still try to create order? To create civilization? Can freedom and order exist together, in this sense?

I don’t think that having freedom implies a lack of order. Part of the problem with living in this incredibly oppressive culture, is that because this hierarchy is oppressive we assume that all hierarchy is oppressive, and that’s not the case. It’s ok to have hierarchies that are based on experience, and they don’t imply a lack of freedom. If you go to a new place, you go to Costa Rica, and you want to go walking, and you know someone who has lived there their whole life and knows all the walking trails and can tell you what is or is not a good hike, what is or is not dangerous, then you still have the freedom to take the route they say is uninteresting or dangerous, but that doesn’t alter the fact that their experience makes them a leader in that specific and fluid sense. Order or hierarchy does not necessarily imply domination.

When it’s on an intimate basis, someone you trust, that’s one thing. But when it comes to large groups of people, to society and politics for example, how do we deal with it? How did indigenous people deal with it?

That’s a great point, because it’s not something that just happens magically. The Indians of the Columbia River had very specific hard-headed treaties that they would carry out with each other having to do with who could take how many salmon, to make sure that the salmon would survive, and that they could all eat. And if one group took too many salmon, the other group would either complain or if that didn’t work they would raid them. I was talking to a Dakota friend of mine about what the Dakota would do if someone took too many buffalo. That would burn their teepee, destroy their weapons. There would be consequences.

And did everyone agree on that somehow? Was it democratic? Or were there a few powerful people who enforced it?

Different cultures would come up with different methods. Anyone in any culture can sometimes end up hating others in that same species or culture, and there are different ways of dealing with that. There are rituals where people would enter trance states through dancing and that would bring people in the community back together. The Inuit, who would be stuck together inside all winter, had some sex games they would play to break up the monotony and to help people get along. Different peoples would have different means, to use a phrase that has been co-opted by the US government, of finding ‘checks and balances’. They would also often have means of being sure wealth was transferred from rich to poor because that would make everybody in the community secure. They would have gift exchanges, or other means for making sure power remained fluid.

In small groups, this works. It becomes more difficult with larger groups.

You’re right, they are small. I’ve seen sociological studies that suggest that it’s not really possible to have a functioning democracy with groups larger than 120 or 140 people.

It’s almost like the larger the group, the less personal it is and the less accountability there can be.

Absolutely. There’s no face-to-face interaction. There’s no community. You don’t need a police force when there’s a small group because if somebody does something horrible, then everybody goes ‘what the hell did you do that for, you jerk’ It becomes much more obvious that any one person’s act of theft or violence or stealing fish or whatever hurts the whole; it becomes much more obvious that it is not in anyone’s self-interest to allow such things to occur.

I see. So, in large social groups – nations or businesses, for example – it becomes very difficult for individuals to make the connections between cause and effect. Accountability becomes more ambiguous. Still, it seems self-deceptive to imagine that we can go backwards and live wholly as indigenous people have. But we can learn that there is something valuable in cultivating a “small group” way of thinking, can‘t we? Perhaps there is a way to have smaller groups within the larger whole, if that makes sense.

People have to learn that. And it will take a lot of time. But people have to learn that, or they won’t survive. It’s not going to happen in two years, it’s not going to happen in two generations. It’s going to take a lot of time to excrete all this terrible trauma. It’s going to take time for us to deal with all this violence we’ve generated.

In the beginning of this discussion, you defined violence as ‘any act that does harm to another’. In supporting that definition, it could seem you are generalizing. But in fact, aren’t you calling for people to look deeper? To be able to cope with more nuance?

Yes, exactly. I was being interviewed by a pacifist a few years ago and I said something like I told you at first, that we can mostly all agree that it is acceptable to do violence against a carrot but that it is not acceptable to do violence against a human being. And his response was ‘so are you saying that there’s no difference between committing an act of violence against a carrot and committing an act of violence against a human being?’ and I was like ‘did you even fucking listen to what I just said?’

But I can understand why he said that. Many cultures teach one to think like that, to NOT make space for nuance. There are supposed to be all-inclusive objective rules that apply to everything. We think it’s a contradiction if we say that violence is okay in one case and not okay in another.

I think that’s absolutely right. And it’s part of the problem with literacy, because as soon as something is written down, then it’s considered wholly true in all cases. Rarely is any statement wholly applicable in all cases.

Maybe our next real evolutionary leap is one of being able to see more clearly, which means being able to handle paradox and nuance in our daily life. In that sense, William Blake talks about paradise being Now, already here but something we haven’t yet learned to see. Would you agree with that idea?

This answer’s not going to surprise you, but I think it depends. I think the whole ‘live in the present’ thing is really important sometimes, but sometimes it really pisses me off. I mean, how do you live in the Now if in your now you are being sexually assaulted? I don’t think that’s paradise. And I don’t think that pigs living on factory farms are living in heaven. I think that’s hell. I think the people in Guantanamo are in hell. I think right now I’m living in heaven. I’m having a nice phone conversation, looking at beautiful trees, I have a great dog here with me… So I think it’s circumstantial. When I’m standing in line at the airport to go through security, I don’t think that’s heaven. People have asked me over the years, do you meditate? And I always think: I live in a forest, I don’t have to meditate.

Every moment can be a meditation, in that sense.

Yes, exactly. But if I were in a traffic jam, we’d have a different discussion. I was actually stuck in a traffic jam a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles, late to get to the airport, and I was really tense. I could have used meditation or someone to whisper in my ear –

This too shall pass…. But I guess when Blake wrote about paradise, he was using the word in a wider sense: we on the planet have paradise if we choose to see it and if we DO all see it, the stressful traffic jam experience would probably not exist as such–

People wouldn’t allow paradise to be paved over. The system would change completely.


Well, if that’s what Blake was saying, I totally agree.

interview by phone, 2011.



Sholeh Wolpe: On Forough Farrokzad

Sensual Visitation

Pulse: You were born in Iran and lived in Trinidad and England as a child. Today, you are a presence in the creative world of the United States, especially in California where you live for the majority of your time. How has all of this movement affected your work and your sense of self?

Wolpe: When I was a teenager, my mother used to say: when you are out of the house, your behavior, dress, manner of speaking and everything else you do reflect on your family. I took this to mean that if I did not conform, I could single-handedly ruin my family’s reputation. Therefore from a very young age, the idea of not belonging was very attractive to me. It stemmed from wanting to rebel, but also take charge of my own destiny.

However, not until I was sent to Trinidad and later to boarding school in England did I truly understand that belonging is not always a matter of choice. “Otherness” could be imposed because you don’t have the ‘right’ skin color, eyes, or don’t pray to this god or that deity. In Trinidad, I physically stood out. In England, at the boarding school I attended, I was the girl with the weird accent, or the one with wild brown curly hair who came from a place where everyone has an oil well in their backyard. These were the days of the Shah, and most people didn’t really know exactly where Iran was located.

As I gradually came to understand the complexities of belonging, I took comfort and pleasure in my “otherness.” I learned the art of fluidity. It allows me to be connected with different languages, people, neighborhoods and cultures, while maintaining my sense of “otherness”, which is a key ingredient in the force that defines my own creative life. I’ve found a sense of liberation in standing on the outside because I can choose to be who I want to be; it’s helped me to look inward, and consequently I’ve found that the inward journey is much more real and meaningful than anything else.

Have people in the United States become more aware of Iran in the years since you moved there? If so, how has literature played a role in that change?

In 1979, fifty-two American citizens were held hostage in Iran for 444 days. That’s when Iran became visible to many here in the United States. Before then, most people I met could not even locate Iran on the map, and if they could, they didn’t know what language we spoke, let alone anything about our culture, history or literature.

Unfortunately, because of the hostage crisis, the information people at the time got from the media about Iran was not flattering. However, over the past twenty years, Iranians living in diaspora – particularly those like myself who saddle both cultures and languages – have been not only writing, but also translating literature from Iran, giving the American public the opportunity to look at our country through a different lens.

Literature is a bridge that can span the chasm between cultures and countries. I edited the 2010 Iran issue of the Atlanta Review and it immediately became the journal’s bestselling edition. That indicates to me that people are interested in Iran itself beyond the picture presented by the current regime, and trust the poets to give them an accurate view of that.

You’re known for your writing and art, but also for translating the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad from Persian to English. Translators must work intimately with languages, and think deeply about their relation to place. Do you feel “at home” in any one language? Does your sense of a place change depending on which language you use to describe it?

I am intimately connected with the music of my native language. It affects the music of my own poetry in English. In fact, in trying to learn another language, I first try to hear its music. Recently I gave a reading with the Chinese poet, Yang Lian at the Semana Poetica festival in United States. Later, over a drink, he explained to me the hidden music behind every Chinese character, and how that music changes the meaning of words. That is something I intuitively understand and connect with.

Perhaps that’s why I find translating poetry pleasurable. It isn’t just about conveying meaning, rather the challenge is the transference of the music of one language to another.

Much of Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetry centers on very feminine themes. Are these same feminine themes central to your own life and work? Is this part of what drew you to Farrokhzad’s work?

I am a woman and obviously I am very concerned about human rights violations against women — not just in Iran, but anywhere in the world, including such things as domestic violence here in the United States. It is my belief that women must learn to repudiate the unjust standards they are taught by the societies they live in, and empower themselves with a sense of self – demanding justice and equality of rights – and envision for themselves and their daughters a better life than the one imposed on them by male-dominated societies. More often than not, our mothers themselves are victims of oppression which they often demurely accept and in turn impose on their own daughters, while treating their sons as betters, teaching them a sense of entitlement withheld from girls. We have to break that cycle. I come from an educated class of professional women and even among these there are those who seem to believe that there are a limited number of good professional or artistic positions to be had by women in our society. They fight over these “positions”, adopting masculine sensibilities to survive. I don’t think there’s much of a question that we still live in a world dominated and too often defined by men, however, I believe that women need to break out of this competitive mode, and, in particular, be supportive of one another. If we are to truly achieve equality and change the unjust standards imposed on us, women must unite and achieve it collectively.

As to my interest in Forugh Farrokhzad… it has always been on two levels: as a ground-breaking, gifted modern poet, and as a courageous woman who did not allow the taunting of an unforgiving, morally rigid culture stop her from what she felt she needed to do to tear down the barriers of taboo and inequality. She is arguably the first women in the modern history of Iran to write poems purely from the perspective of a woman – sexually, mentally and emotionally. In her poem “Sin” she writes about sleeping with a man to whom she is not married, drinking wine, and finding both acts quite pleasurable. The question isn’t whether she is morally right or wrong. The core issue is that she wrote at a time when she was not free to express herself the way men had been doing for centuries: she was called a whore and her poetry was perceived as scandalous.

However, Farrokhzad was dedicated to her art, and her sense of “otherness” in her own society did not deter her from freely expressing herself as a woman. She was a brilliant poet, and very much a pioneer in the modernist poetry movement. She died at the age of thirty-two in a tragic car accident. By the time of her death, she was one of the most well-known and beloved poets in Iran. Today, she is an icon whose grave is always adorned with flowers.

I spent two years translating forty-one of her poems doing my best as a poet to recreate the music of her work in English without compromising the meaning. To me, translating poetry is a grave responsibility. I didn’t want her poems to end up as corpses in translation, rather I hoped to present living, breathing poems in English, as they are in Persian. Farrokhzad deserves to be read and appreciated internationally.

Your work is often very intimate and sensual, as is the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad. Do you imagine this sensuality as a place that one must discover? Is it part of our “natural state”, something we can always access if we search?

When I write, I connect to a bottomless well within myself– so deep that at some point I transcend myself. By that, I mean we are ultimately connected to one another and to an invisible world, accessible through a tireless, incessant searching that begins by going inward and eventually leads to what is no longer ourselves, but a collective self. Therefore, in my opinion, our “natural state” is more complex than we realize. It hides nothing. It is accessible. But, at the same time, it needs to be reached for, and that reaching is a journey that can take one a life time.

Farrokhzad was speaking of natural feelings and inspirations, and yet she was considered a dissident in her society and time by some. An artist’s inner search at times requires questioning basic systems or traditions that govern their lives. Is there a way in which this inner search is dangerous? Can one go too far with such things?

“Going too far” always begs the question: For whom?

Berthold Brecht in his poem To Posterity writes:

Ah, what an age it is

when to speak of trees is almost a crime.

Everything is relative. I can’t say what exactly going “too far” is. Poets and artists dig deep within themselves, travel that endless inner landscape towards interconnectedness and beyond. And they chronicle their journey. And when religious or governmental authorities don’t like a particular chronicle, they move to censor or suppress it which in the end has the opposite effect of giving it prominence and credence.

In a sense, to connect with nature, and with our natural selves and each other, is a matter of being authentic. How do you see this idea of being true to oneself and one’s community, especially when it comes to finding ways to better our lives or make a positive change in our world?

The currency of the poet is truth. And truth is highly subjective. It manifests itself in different forms and textures. The function of the poet, in my opinion, is offering one or more perspectives to view the same “truth”. A good poet does that in an authentic, skillful way that goes right to the heart. This is the poet’s gift to humanity. Does that contribute to bettering the world? Absolutely.


Aleksander Hemon & Michelle Standley

Fractured Enviornments

His first two works, Nowhere Man (2004) and The Question of Bruno (2001), were well-received. The Lazarus Project (2008) and James Woods’ admiring review of it in The New Yorker established Hemon’s reputation, significantly raising his literary profile in the United States. A native of Sarajevo, Aleksandar Hemon came to English relatively late in life. Stranded in the United States by the outbreak of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Hemon began to write in English within a few years of his arrival. Less than a decade later he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (2003) and a MacCarthur “Genius Grant” (2004). I met Hemon some months ago in New York, when he was in town promoting the collection he recently edited, Best European Fiction 2010, for Dalkey Archive Press. Over syrup-drenched French toast and coffee in a mid-town hotel restaurant, Hemon and I had a free-ranging conversation about some of the key themes of his work, and about his frustration with critics who assume every fictional character is an autobiographical reference. We also paused a moment to enjoy a little punk rock. What follows is a reflection on the theme to which our conversation kept returning: displacement.

Our conversation begins with a minor dispute. Hemon corrects me when I suggest that his writing is preoccupied with exile. Not exile, he says, but “displacement” is the proper word to describe the main characters of his novels, Joseph Pronek in Nowhere Man and Vladimir Brik in The Lazarus Project, characters far from their former homes in Yugoslavia who must confront the inevitable identity issues that arise as they forge new lives in the United States. Exile, Hemon says, implies a noble separation from the plebes and more suitably describes modernists like James Joyce, or one of Joyce’s main inspirations, the mythical figure of Ulysses. A quick glance at the Oxford English dictionary suggests that Hemon—the non-native English speaker!—is perhaps correct. Exile is “the state of being banned from one’s native country” or “a person who lives away from their native country, either by choice or compulsion.” The definition for “displacement,” by contrast, is more neutral, broader, and, I must concede, more accurately describes the rootless, unanchored state of many of Hemon’s characters. It is a word that perhaps also better describes the state of our contemporary world. Displacement, according to Oxford, is:

1. the moving of something from its place of origin

Where is the movie theater? When Hemon returned to Bosnia for the first time after the war he searched in vain for the theater and movie posters that had been such well-known parts of his youth and Sarajevo’s topography. He had a sense of the uncanny as he walked the streets of his hometown. Everything was eerily familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It was the late 1990s and a great deal had transpired since Hemon’s school and university years in Sarajevo, and his young adulthood in the United States. Hemon had left home in 1992 to participate in a cultural exchange program in Chicago. It was supposed to be an extended, but temporary, stay. A few months after his arrival war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. Hemon decided to remain in the U.S. When the war finally ended, he returned for a visit in 1997. It was not the same place he had left. Sniper bullets, bombing, and the accompanying fires, had dramatically altered the Sarajevo of his youth. With so many pieces of the urban environment gone, Hemon’s “place of origin” had ceased to exist.

2. the enforced departure of people from their home, typically because of war or persecution

Hemon’s characters, like Hemon himself, are part of the millions who have been displaced by one of the great hallmarks of the twentieth century: war. The end phases of the three great wars of the twentieth century, the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War have all been marked by mass migration. At the close of World War I, hundreds of thousands of Russians, Greeks, Poles, Armenians and Germans were either forced from their homes or fled in fear of revolution or retaliatory violence. Adding to this spontaneous movement was the population transfers between Greece and Turkey, who exchanged their respective minority populations. The numbers involved are staggering. According to historian Mark Mazower, 1.2 million Greeks and half a million Turks had to leave their places of origin and “return” to their “national homes.” Even more dramatically, the end of World War II saw the movement of millions of refugees in the closing phase of the war: Hundreds of thousands of Germans, freed prisoners of war, Jews and other former concentration camp inmates, accused collaborators, and Greeks, Poles, Czechs, and Yugoslavs who had been transferred by the Nazis to work in Nazi-occupied factories and were now trying to get back home. Mazower estimates that between 1938 and 1945 there were over forty-six million people on the move in East Central Europe alone. After the war over 11 million people were officially classified as Displaced Persons, or DP. The last years of the Cold War and the first years of the twentieth century have likewise seen a remarkable increase in the number of migrants. According to the United Nations, quoted in a recent article in The New York Times, the number of migrants worldwide has increased by 37 percent in the past two decades. Most of these migrants are moving to more industrialized parts of the globe. In the past two decades the number of migrants in North America has increased 80 percent, in Europe 41 percent. If you add tourists and travelers to this number, a group known as “temporary migrants”, then the planet appears to be a mass of moving bodies. (According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, there were 806 .8 million tourist arrivals worldwide in 2005.) Unlike the displacement created by World Wars I and II, today’s permanent and temporary migrants are not only fleeing war and persecution, they are also fleeing the economic and psychic pains of modernization in search of jobs or a better way of life.

3. the amount by which a thing is moved from its normal position

When placed in water, an object, like a boat, forces a portion of the water to move from its “normal position,” to another place amidst the seemingly endless sea. War and modernization cut a similar path, plowing their way through the sea of human and animal life, destroying the natural and manmade habitats that stand in the way of their ever-receding destinations. Ruthless and dispassionate, bombs and wrecking cranes displace people, mountains, flora and fauna with reckless abandon. Military and modernization campaigns create a class of peoples known as the “displaced,” who lodged from their “normal position,” must either find a new home, or perish in the rubble. It is possible to measure how much water is displaced by a submerged, or partially submerged, object. But how does one measure the amount by which a displaced person is moved from her or his “normal position” when the damages of war and the drive to modernize force them from their natural habitats? Geographic distance reveals very little about the perceived distance between one’s place of birth and one’s new home. To get to zero, to establish a baseline of stability, a foundation solid enough to be worthy of the label “home,” requires a great deal of effort and, as the case may be, a great deal of self-reinvention. In the new setting, or environment, the narratives of self that formerly made sense no longer apply. Through characters like Pronek and Brik, and the fascinating Szmura in the short story, “Szmura’s Room” in Love and Obstacles, Hemon’s fiction explores this issue of the pains and pleasures of attempting to reinvent oneself. Even as Pronek wanders the streets of Chicago imagining himself inhabiting different roles in increasingly fantastic scenarios, he keeps bumping into the headline, “Bombs in Grozny,” implicitly reminding him that he is not only far from home but that home is no longer a stable, physical space to which he can return. Identity, Hemon tells me, is hard to reinvent. It’s a confusing process to try and reassemble yourself. Take Pronek again. In his new home, Pronek keeps changing his identity, trying on numerous hats— Greenpeace canvasser, English as a Second Language instructor, private investigator. But such willed self-invention begins to take a psychic toll on Pronek until finally erupting in a sensationally physical and violent display of his pent up frustration. (I am not Pronek, Hemon reassured me, contrary to what some reviewers have suggested. Pronek, he added, is an exploration of possibilities.)

4. psychoanalysis: the unconscious transfer of an intense emotion from its original object to another one

One possible response to the destruction of home is to transfer one’s attachment to another object and to latch onto new, seemingly stable, narratives: to nationalism or religion. In the face of the crumbling foundation of the Yugoslav state some Yugoslavs turned to their ethnic community and to the dream of finally establishing a homogenized nation-state. On the occasion of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic— the former president of the Serbian Democratic Party, a hard-line nationalist organization, wanted for inciting Bosnian Serbs to murder thousands of Bosnian Muslims— Hemon penned an op-ed piece for the New York Times. Karadzic, Hemon writes was “a prosaic nobody…a mediocre psychiatrist, a minor poet and a petty embezzler before the war” who sought greatness by linking himself to the Serbian nationalist movement. Wellacquainted with Serbian epic poetry, Karadzic cast himself in the role of “the hero in an epic poem that would be sung by a distant future generation.” If the account of a Belgrade newspaper is to be believed, even while in hiding, Karadzic couldn’t resist publicly reciting one such poem in which “he himself featured as the main hero, performing epic feats of extermination.” Karadzic is only one man, albeit a particularly vile specimen, but there have also been many others who, unable to find their footing in the ordinary world of anonymity, have transferred their ego onto the nation, attaching themselves to a glorious national destiny. After all, Hemon notes, a stable physical environment also provides a stable psychological environment. If you grow up in a stable society, without rupture, and with a sense of continuity in terms of infrastructure, you have a physical sense that the walls won’t crumble. But something happens when what was once a safe street is no longer a safe street, no longer safe because there might be snipers. In the face of such instability some become war criminals. Why? I ask Hemon. Why, do some people turn to violence and nationalism? Whereas others do not? Is it random? Well, Hemon speculates, part of it can be explained by the fact that once you cross the line you keep going that way. In the face of a constant, daily sense of displacement, when the stable network of people is torn asunder, it’s hard to turn back. One of his long time friends surprised him with his volte face turn to Serbian nationalism: This is partly, Hemon reflects, because in times of catastrophe what seems a stable identity can fall apart. In the context of a literal, physical destruction— and the values linked to home—ethics may also become fluid. In other words, lacking the continuity of the physical space that constituted home, all continuities are torn asunder. In the case of Hemon’s childhood friend, the state of fragility that accompanied the disintegration of the known environment pushed him to turn to the nationalist project of creating a unified Serbian nation-state. His friend, Hemon says, ultimately couldn’t distinguish his own narrative from the national one.

But what, I wonder aloud, prevented Hemon from falling apart or from turning to nationalism? It’s a constant negotiation, Hemon explains, between the state and other narratives. Still, I press him, how did you land on your feet, avoid schizophrenia? I landed on English, he answers. In Europe the native tongue is axiomatic. English didn’t displace Bosnian Serbo-Croation. It did provide me with a sort of anchor, though.

All Roads Lead Home?

Hemon’s prose offers an appealing mixture of serious introspection interspersed with moments of banal absurdity. Rambling, alcoholic priests, intensively sincere but naïve young environmental activists, violent poets, and megalomaniacal macho outsiders, his insecure but sympathetic antiheroes, blunder and stumble their way through America, inspiring self-reflection. Part of the drive to read fiction is to overcome a sense of isolation, to discover connections with people and places with whom we otherwise would never come into contact. When I read Hemon in particular, I am always tempted to weave my own story into his novels and short stories, finding points of identification with his fictional creations. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that during our conversation, when Hemon begins describing his return home to Sarajevo, my thoughts immediately turn to my own return home after a period of extended absence. Unlike Hemon, I reflect, when I returned home to Southern California for a visit in the late 1990s, I wasn’t looking for the movie theater. The Mann Six Theaters, though it had grown to the Mann Ten, was still there. (It has since closed.) But where, I wanted to know, had the kale and cornfields gone? The rows of Tapaia Brothers corn and the sickly sweet, slightly putrid stench of kale were endemic to my memories of my desert home in the far reaches of Los Angeles County. When I left for the first time in 1992 it was to study in Hawaii. I never lived there again, instead moving ever further away to such places as Provo (Utah), Athens (Georgia), New York, Seoul, Seattle, Prague, and Berlin. During my studies and travels abroad my hometown underwent an intensive campaign of urbanization and gentrification. Local civic authorities courted developers and wealthy white professionals, resulting in the decimation of nearly all of the elements that made home familiar. In the place of the corn and kale fields, a large, groomed park and baseball diamond now stood, with the aspirational name of “Central Park.” Newly planted trees and strip malls lined the former dust-and-tumble-weed main road, Bouquet Canyon Road. Scores of SUVs clogged Bouquet’s once quiet two-lanes, which now led not only to the freeway entrance but to a recently opened, and very successful, mall with an indoor carousel over which hung a mural of orange groves populated by smiling white and brown faces, wearing beatific expressions of joy to match their Sunday best.

In my case, the destruction of the physical environment that constituted home and its swift replacement with new structures, made my attempt at self-reinvention possible, or even conceivable. The absence of continuity is part of what made my self-reinvention possible. Other ruptures also severed my ties to home and my childhood self. My mother’s untimely death when I was on the cusp of puberty and my entire family’s eventual abandonment of the religion of my childhood—Mormonism— for reasons intellectual and personal, all found their metaphoric extension in the sudden and dramatic transformation of my hometown. The destruction of the known, however, pushed me to explore new narratives and to reconstruct the ones of my past. In other words, with the environment that created me torn asunder by bulldozers and death, I was in a sense freed up to reconstruct my personal narrative, my links to larger ones, and to indulge the myth that I could ex nihilo create and follow my own path. Even though I was born in California, I abandoned my hometown, my Mormon roots, and my national identity, and sought to reestablish myself in connection with a cosmopolitan elite, the wandering bourgeoisie, in search of experience and cultural capital. I studied and scrubbed toilets in Hawaii, cleaned houses and sold books in Seattle, taught English in Asia, backpacked in Europe, volunteered in France and Italy, studied Czech and babysat in Prague, learned German, conducted research, and gave birth in Berlin… The wheel of self-reinvention, and the drive to move, went on and on.

The wheels of self-reinvention can spin too fast, though. With the accelerated pace of moving in my early thirties and the complete exhaustion of my financial resources, things began to move so fast for me that they felt out of control. The birth of my son and a gradual but firm embrace of motherhood finally anchored me to one place. Pragmatism supplanted the fanciful. The stark reality that I was my son’s sole economic provider and source of stability killed my wanderlust and averted my gaze from dreams of artistic and intellectual greatness. My life became defined by the more earth bound, immediate goal of ensuring that my son had, quite literally, a place to call home. If there is a reason I misunderstood Hemon as preoccupied with exile, not displacement, perhaps that’s because I projected my own experience onto his work. It was me, not Hemon’s characters, who had adopted the state of exile as a lifestyle, who had unconsciously sought to become a part of the noble class of great intellectuals and writers who had distanced themselves from their places of birth, and countries of origin. In my naïve snobbery, I identified Americans as plebes from whom I wanted to separate myself. Thus, instead of recognizing the actual gulf that separated myself from Hemon’s fictional creations, who did not choose to escape, but were forced to leave home by war or persecution, I read Hemon’s work with a superficial eagerness to find links of identification The ongoing, internal, exchange with Hemon and his characters reminds one that home is more than a merely imagined space. It is also a physical reality. Over the course of the past century the relentless pace of war and modernization have permanently altered the physical environment, amplifying the separation between the past and present, between the longed for home and the reality of displacement. The resulting environmental damage goes beyond endangered animals, carbon footprints, and oil spills. It extends to the psychic level, creating a new community of the rudderless in search of a home to which they can never return.

Our conversation coming to an end— Hemon has already missed the first showing of the movie to which he had hoped to take his family—Hemon gamely turns to me. Oh, you’ve got to hear this song, he says, handing me his Ipod. (Hemon is known for writing with punk rock playing in the background.) I put the earphone up to my ear and hear—of all things!— the British band Gang of Four shouting, “At home he feels like a tourist…” I’ve listened to the song many times since. I still don’t know what the lyrics mean. Yet, every time I play it I end up shouting along with the chorus, singing in unison with my imagined cohort—with Hemon, with Pronek, Brik, and Joyce—“at home I feel like a tourist.” Perhaps you might like to crack open a novel by Hemon and sing along too. Standley is a writer, academic, and mother based in Brooklyn, New York. Her essays and reviews about Berlin, mass tourism, and contemporary art have appeared in such publications as Artdish, Left History, and in edited volumes published by Berghahn Books and Ashgate Press.

marilynne robinson by kelly ruth winter

Marilynne Robinson: Sense of Home

Interview and article by Jason Green.

Photo: Kelly Ruth Winter

Home is the focal point in each of Marilynne Robinson’s novels. In Housekeeping (1981), the old family home in Fingerbone provides refuge for the orphaned sisters Ruth and Lucille and their eccentric Aunt Sylvie, a space where their imaginations and creativity, their oddness and individuality, can flourish. Outside the home, the wilderness that surrounds the town, with its seductive lake and sheltering forests, provides Ruth and Lucille with further space apart from the confining routines of the town to roam and wander and explore—requisites for the inner transformation their adolescent souls long to fulfill.

In Gilead (2004), named after the fictional Iowa town of the setting, the preacher John Ames’s house is his life’s sanctuary and true church, the place where, through writing a lifetime of sermons, the drama of his inner life has been carried out. It is the place that harbored his dark years of loneliness and the place where, in old age, he discovers the joys of family love and devotion. The sanctuary of the house in Gilead’s companion novel, Home (2008), is unsettled with the Prodigal Son Jack’s return: the home becomes the theater of spiritual struggle between Jack, his younger sister, Glory, and their frail, dying father Robert Boughton. While the first novel focuses on Ames’s house and the second on Boughton’s, the action in each depends on both homes. The dual homes are the twin poles between which the characters—and the imagination itself—moves. They are binaries of concentrated human interaction each deeply implicated in the other: Ames, as Jack’s godfather and namesake, must confront the Prodigal Son in the course of his own spiritual battle, and Jack’s quest for atonement and reconciliation leads him to Ames’s home for guidance.

The prominence of the physical house in the action of all three novels creates an aura of solitude that enhances the deep inwardness of the characters. The real home in Robinson’s novels can be found here, in the discovery of an enduring spiritual truth in the course of daily life. This truth hovers on the surface of our experience but it often takes devoted efforts of memory or imagination to reveal it. During the long letter to his young son that comprises the form of Gilead, John Ames writes, “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. [. . .] I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect (91).” Begun in order to record what, as a result of his failing heart, he will never be able to say in person, Ames’s letter comes to record, beyond this, his efforts to return to the spiritual center of life in his life’s final days, to salvage visions from long ago as much as from the quickly vanishing present. Ruth’s return, in Housekeeping, to her ancestral house in Fingerbone; Glory and Jack’s return, in the two Iowa novels, to their childhood home in Gilead: each is a figure of the same search for the enduring home at the center of experience.

Pulse: All of your novels are set in small remote towns. Characters make excursions beyond these towns, but the center of the drama and the majority of the actions take place within a narrow circumference of imaginative space. How important was the choice of setting for you?

Robinson: The town in Housekeeping is in the Far West, just west of the Rockies. Though the novel is not autobiographical, the town is modeled, in terms of topography, on the town where I was born. I chose that terrain, that sense of a thinly populated place in a great wilderness, because it was something I knew well, something outside the world that seemed to me to be conventionally represented in fiction at the time I wrote the book. The choice of setting was very liberating for me because I felt that I was eluding convention. No one had written about the place before. I had it all to myself.

There’s a tradition of American writers firmly rooted in a specific place, finding sustenance throughout their careers in their own little patch of the country, discovering in the narrow and limited environments of their experience stories that acquire universal appeal and significance. Do you think of yourself as a regional writer?

This is such a big country–I suppose the opposite of a „specific place“ would be New York or Los Angeles? Both notoriously specific places, of course. By comparison with European countries, whose economic, political and cultural centers are also their major population centers, the life of the United States is centered around a considerable number of regional capitals, no one of them so definitively American as to seem un“specific“–as Paris or London might seem definitively French or British, and therefore not regional despite their particular histories, populations, accents, etc. It is hard for me to imagine writing about anything except a limited environment, no matter where a fiction is set. This is a long way of saying that all writing is regional, and that this is not different in America, simply more apparent because of a broadly dispersed cultural life. In more specific response to your question, the regions invoked in Housekeeping and then the two Gilead novels are very different from each other historically, culturally, demographically. Though I love Iowa, I am not really a Midwesterner–instead a student and observer of the place. In theory I could choose yet another region to write about.

Memory plays a powerful, creative role in your novels: collective regional or family memory as much as personal, private memory. Do you think of writing as a kind of remembering? What role does memory play for you during the writing process?

A discipline of mine when I am writing is to try to remember what things are like–the idiom refers to the fact that experience is conveyed through simile, metaphor. This is true of memories of dreams and emotions as well as of places and objects. It is more useful to me to recall things than to see or feel them directly. My memory is a better judge of what is essential about them.

In each of your novels the action revolves around characters who transgress traditional boundaries of ordinary living. What is the attraction of the outcast for the literary imagination? The one who transgresses?

People who seem to define themselves, even by reacting against the definitions offered to them by family and culture, allow another look at what a person is essentially. Goods and attainments whose value is clear and socially established obscure individuality. This is no criticism of civil life, which I think I admire more than most people do. It is just an acknowledgment that there is an outcast in anyone, perhaps the element that is otherwise known as the soul.

It seems novels are often built out of the materials of story traditions—for example, religious, historical, literary, or folkloric traditions. While dependent on traditions and shaped by influence, the nature of a novel is to tell a story that’s never been told in a style that’s wholly unique and original. Can you comment on these conflicting pressures for yourself as a novelist as they are played out in your work, for instance in the way the prodigal son narrative was instrumental in the creation of Jack?

In fact, the stories, here the Prodigal Son, emerge for me within my fiction, rather than my choosing to base a fiction on them. Of course I become aware of this as it happens, and my thinking is influenced by this more primary narrative I find in conversation with the one I’m writing. In this quite natural sense the fiction becomes a meditation on a story that is rooted in my imagination. One hears often about the influence of the Bible on literature, and I think it has been strong and persisting because in the churches these stories are told and reflected on so often over the course of years that they become an intrinsic part of one’s thought.

Gilead and Home explore the ways history affects small towns and the private lives of individuals. The theme appears in various guises in your characters, from the trauma of the Civil War on John Ames’s grandfather to how Civil Rights turmoil broadcast on the television—drama that seems to be happening far away—has direct bearing on Jack Boughton’s secret marriage with a black woman. What role did researching history play in your conception of these novels?

History really had everything to do with them. When I came to Iowa, never having lived in the Middle West, I started reading the history of the place, just to be able to feel located there. I found that it had a wonderful early history, very important to the country as a whole, especially for its part in the movement to abolish slavery. I did the history for its own sake, but when the figure of John Ames came to my mind all the history settled around him and set him on that landscape. The town of Gilead is based on Tabor, Iowa, in the southwest corner of the state, hundreds of miles from where I live. I spent about two hours there one day to see what the river and woods and the hills looked like–it was once a famous settlement, and I knew about it from old books.

An Emerson line that appears in various forms throughout his writing is expressed this way in Representative Men: “[T]he experience of poetic creativeness [. . .] is not found in staying at home, nor yet in traveling, but in transitions from one to the other.” Your novels are shaped around such moments of departure and arrival. How have moments of transition oriented or energized your work?

I wrote Housekeeping in Seattle, France and Massachusetts–at a great distance in every case from the place where the book is set. I wrote Gilead and Home still aware that Iowa was an adopted home for me. I have always felt at a remove from the place where I lived. Although I was born in Sandpoint, Idaho I spent my childhood in other towns and came there to visit my grandparents for summers and holidays. It was home to my family, not really to me, though their feelings about it and the stories I heard made it seem to epitomize home. So I have reasons for my own interest in arriving and leaving, for being at a remove. I know other writers also deal with these things, so I suppose it is in some way a universal human experience that I understand in terms particular to myself.

In Gilead, Ames tells a story about a horse’s head sticking up out of the center of a dirt road. In Housekeeping, Ruth and Lucille shake old books by the spine sending flowers raining down to the floor. Your novels are full of extraordinary and peculiar imagery such as this. What’s the relationship between strangeness and beauty? Between eccentricity and the literary imagination?

Poe has an excellent essay on the relationship of the strange to the beautiful. I accept the fact of their privileged relationship though I am not sure I can explain it. I think it may be that the strange requires a freshness of attention. Too much of the conventionally beautiful disappears in a haze of familiarity. William James has an essay that begins, imagine a newborn mind. Imagine that all this mind can perceive is the flame of a candle. The idea of perception without context or interpretation makes a sense of the beauty of perception itself come flooding back–the strange draws on other resources than beauty alone can do. It makes the mind singular and active.

Do you agree with Joseph Conrad’s view that the writer’s task is get the reader to hear, to feel, but above all, to see? Is the visual sense paramount in your pursuits as a writer?

Yes, I agree. Even when I am teaching nonfiction (this summer I gave a seminar for practicing theologians, to help them improve their writing) I tell the students always to keep something before the reader’s eyes. (Which means their own eyes, too, of course.) This is not an illusion that can in fact always be sustained. But the attempt to sustain it is a very good discipline, not least because it reminds the writer that ideally she or he is creating experience for another consciousness.

Your character Jack Boughton brings his hands up to cover his eyes whenever he feels threatened or vulnerable in a conversation. The drama of Jack’s fate is played out in that one gesture, his longing to hide himself from the world and his predisposition to loneliness and exile. Is characterization like this an intuitive discovery? What comes first, Jack or the gesture?

It is always hard to say which comes first. In one way fiction is a sort of metaphysical thought experiment–within its world, all we know are what the philosophers called “attributes.” But in fiction there can be assumed to be no substances whose attributes these are. The writer has to persuade the reader that he or she knows the fictional world in a way that resembles the real world at least well enough to sustain the suspension of disbelief. Ideally, the writer succeeds in making reality seem more acutely perceived within the fiction than it is in the phenomenal world. All the arts play on the capacities of the mind, its richness of association, its generosity of attention. All I really meant to say is that you, writer or reader, know characters through attributes, not otherwise, and a sense of the fictional person as presence is the crucial thing.

In your most recent book, Absence of Mind, you write, “Why does catastrophe occur? What are its implications?” Catastrophe and its implications: each of your novels can be read as providing a new variation on this theme. In each novel, catastrophe is at the origins of the family’s history: in Housekeeping, the “spectacular derailment” that ends Ruth’s grandfather’s life and the watery suicide that ends her mother’s; in Gilead and Home, the disasters of History, through the terrible violence of war, provide the originating catastrophe whose aftershocks continue across the generations; another catastrophe important to the plot of Gilead and featured in the plot of Home, is Jack’s youthful liaison with a poor uneducated girl that results in the death of a young child. As a novelist, what is your fascination with catastrophe and its implications, and why does this one theme seem so inexhaustible and essential to understanding the human story?

I’m afraid catastrophe is a thing to which we are highly vulnerable, and toward which we are very much inclined. So to exclude it would be an evasion. Then, too, it disrupts habit and order and comfortable assumptions, and throws people back on themselves, making them think long and hard about things that otherwise might seem to them stable and unquestionable. And it prompts them to look for the sources of disaster in what before might have seemed innocuous. Catastrophes large and small (and by definition they resist being understood in relative terms) open all questions and restore an awareness that all answers are tentative at very best.

In each of your novels, sacred space is created that provides sanctuary for the characters and shelters their loneliness. The obvious example is the physical house, the stage of family drama and the scene of housekeeping, those daily mundane rituals—cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, taking meals—that your books prize as nourishing experience. But there are other spaces as well: the attic where Ames writes his sermons; the hayloft out in the barn where Jack goes for solitude. Would you say that these private sacred spaces are a figure of what literature is—or can be: nourishment to individualized, experience-centered spirituality?

Yes. I think this can be said about the arts in general. Arts in the broadest sense of the word. Everything that is a cell of memory, everything that is meant to be humanly communicative, however candidly, even of oneself to oneself. I subscribe heartily to the view that human beings are the crowning wonder of the universe, and that this is true of them one by one, each as a unique intelligence and perceiver. So ideally each one of them would find and create sacred space, if not private in every case at least expressive of a singular experience-centered spirituality, to borrow your phrase.

Glory from Home, and Aunt Sylvie from Housekeeping, are both woman who return to the small towns and houses where they grew up following years spent out in the world trying to forge new lives—attempts that fall short. For both women, their trials in love have ended in disappointment, and their return home seems motivated by the desire to distance themselves from heartache and find healing. As different as your recent novels are from your first novel, there are elements like this that unite them. Do you think of certain themes as native to your imagination, as themes that will always fascinate you?

In fact I try not to repeat myself, even to the point of resisting the idea that there are themes that fascinate me. Then, when I have written another book, I see themes recurring. For practical reasons I remain in a state of denial. Therefore my answer to your question is: Definitely no (and apparently yes).

Interview conducted August, 2010.


Michael Klare & Stone Gossard


Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard in discussion with author Michael Klare, 2008.

Stone Gossard: I read your book ”Blood and Oil” about three months ago and I thought it was amazing – really uh – riveting-

Michael Klare: Well that’s certainly the first time anyone’s used that word but-

No, really. These are interesting topics you’re writing about– especially if you’re someone whose trying to see oil in a different way. Your book consolidates this overwhelming amount of information into something that makes some crucial points about oil consumption and its relation to the decisions the US has made in the past few years.

Well, thank you.

So I’m just going to jump right in and start asking you some questions if that’s ok. Buckminster Fuller-

What’s that?

Buckminster Fuller, from what I understand of him, was the first person who talked about an expanded view of economics in terms of viewing the world as an entire interdependent system, one which must include the quality of the environment in its economic ledger if it’s going to flourish and survive. That was a pretty remarkable idea for me: to think that economics, something that before had always been rather separate and academic, could actually be a way of improving the living environmental system as well. With this sort of reasoning, it’s possible to think of economics and the environment as being in a relationship, and this opens up the possibility that economics might become a positive force in the health of the planet. Do you think this same sort of reasoning might provide the impetus that finally makes us look in a direction other than oil?

You know my sense is that two things are going on. On one hand, there’s the engine of economics and growth that’s been the driving force of world affairs since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And implicit in that is unlimited growth and progress, that this growth would proceed forever and that man’s ingenuity would lead to ever new and more efficient ways of producing more things and more wealth. That’s the basis of all the ideologies of the past centuries: from capitalism to socialism, they all rest on the notion of perpetual growth. But now things are taking another direction and we’re coming into collision with a different reality, the reality that there may be finite physical realities to what humanity can do on this planet that we inhabit. Its no longer clear that growth, as we understand it to mean ever higher levels of consumption, is possible to be sustained if we reach the limits of planetary carrying capacity.

Now here’s where we get the debate that is currently taking place in the world: on one hand, there are those people who say that human ingenuity will find solutions to the impasse that we face with the existing resource pool, that we’ll invent new sources of energy to allow us to continue growing. There are people who believe in these very visionary ideas such as harnessing the energy of the sun, or micro waving energy from space down to earth, or drawing on the geothermal powers of the inner planet and so on. And then there are other people who say that there is a physics to our universe that places limits on what mankind can do and that all of these visionary ideas require a investment in resources and materials that we simply don’t have. The laws of physics may not permit a lot of these ideas to come to fruition; therefore, in this view, we must learn to accommodate ourselves to natural limits of what’s possible. That means growth has to come through conservation and new ways of doing things, not through endlessly expanding consumption.

I guess this idea of taking a more holistic view of the world in terms of the economics of the environment falls more on the optimistic side – believing that human ingenuity will prevail. I think I tend to lean that way, to think that there is a route where humans can continue to grow and expand while at the same time finding ways to appreciate and cooperate with nature rather than ignore it –

Well it’s more than just ‘ignore’- it’s to invade and plunder nature.


Yeah well I believe, and maybe we agree on this, that its not a matter of some new technological solution but of a new mental solution, a new spiritual solution that will be required, that people learn to live in a very different way on the planet, and behave differently –

Yes, exactly –

– and that’s the challenge, that’s the mountain we have to climb.

As a scholar and historian, how do you see the role of spiritual intuition in your work? How do you balance out your position as both a historian and an advocate? Do you find that both of those things are part of your writing and thinking process?

Good question. I’m becoming more aware of this as I do my research. I came out of the peace movement of the sixties and seventies, so my interest has always been in how to convert violence and conflict into something peaceful and productive. That’s what led me to the issue of resources because I’ve come to believe that the competitive pursuit of resources is the main source of conflict in the world, both historically and in the present, and that it’s getting worst. So I see addressing resource issues as essential to finding ways of peaceful cohabitation on this planet. So yes, the more I learn about resources and the planet, the more I see that there is a deeper, spiritual or conscious factor that has to come into play. If we’re going to cohabitate on this planet, all nine billion of us that are expected to be here by 2050 or so, without endless bloodshed, then we have to learn new ways of social and personal interaction and behavior. There’s no getting around that.

Well I think the exciting part of studying history is being able to look deeper and find new connections and patterns that were maybe never thought of before. This is what I think you do so well in ”Blood and Oil”. In America, we tend to just blindly take our oil consumption for granted without actually realizing its prominent position in our lives. Americans tend to go along with the program. They don’t really want to be told that part of going to war was about oil. Do you think that the US and its cooperation with the new Iraqi government has the potential to actually buy us more time in terms of oil?

Not in this decade. I think it was a monumental miscalculation on the part of the administration. It’s conceivable that in the next decade it might make a difference, but that’s only a speculation. It certainly won’t help now. I don’t think that George Bush really grasps the multiple dimensions of foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. I think he was sold a bill of goods by the neoconservatives which promised that not only would the US invasion of Iraq lead to democracy but it also would bring a lot of oil.

To me it seems that the most powerful reason for us to be in Iraq, at least from the administration’s point of view, is to be sure that for the next fifty years we have a military presence surrounding an oil field that may supply a large percentage of the world’s oil.

Yes, well, I think there was a lot of assumptions made in the White House about the success of US intervention bringing all of these good things, and its clear from the record that those who were pushing this intervention silenced the professionals in the government who were warning them that there were real risks and that things might not work out the way they wanted. So only the rosy optimistic views prevailed, and they made a monumental miscalculation. They didn’t grasp the magnitude of communal antagonisms within Iraq. They didn’t take into account that toppling this authoritarian regime would lead to enormous fighting among different factions for everything, including oil. And the recent elections have only accelerated rather than reduced that process.

Right now its chaos, and oil companies are not going to invest the billions of dollars – it’s estimated that it will take ten billion dollars just to get Iraq back to where it was before the war- You mean just in terms of oil infrastructure?

Yeah. And people aren’t going to invest that when first of all their people aren’t safe, and when secondly, they don’t even know who is going to run the government or what the laws will be because no one can tell them that. So it’s a mess.

Can we talk about China?


There’s a lot of interesting things about China in your book and China seems to be on everyone’s minds these days. Is the US ignoring China in ways that might make a crucial difference to our future in terms of the way the US interacts with the rest of the world?

There’s so many dimensions to that question that I don’t think I can do them justice. There’s this whole trade relationship and I’m not an economist so there are ways in which I can’t quite grasp the implications of some things like that they hold a very sizable chunk of our national debt as you know. So the question is whether or not China and the US have become economically interdependent to the point where we each have a vested interest in propping up the other? Or are our interests so mutually irreconcilable that conflict is inevitable? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t that anyone knows the answer to that question at this point.

But you can look at growth in China and you can say here’s their pace of growth and here’s how much oil they’ve been using and you can think about Taiwan and see that that’s a volatile issue-

If you think that our interests are irreconcilable, then you start looking at the flash points. Taiwan is a flash point, but so is oil. And I do write about that and I do worry about that because the Chinese have their eyes on the same pools of oil that we rely on – which is mainly the Middle East and Africa and Central Asia. And they’re very aggressively pursuing access to those pools of oil. That has an economic consequence of driving up prices, which we’re all aware of, but it could also have a security consequence. Namely, that the Chinese are often forging alliances with regimes that may be unfriendly to the United States. So that enters into a security dilemma where the Chinese are becoming more and more reliant on Iran and therefore are predisposed to prop up the existing regime in Iran with weapons. And that has us deeply worried. So if you think that we’re eventually going to go to war with China, and there are many people who think that, then this is a very worrisome sign and it calls for very aggressive actions to try to put roadblocks in their way in the Middle East. On the other hand, if you think that ultimately we have no choice but to cooperate then that leads to a different option, one which I favor, and that is to cooperate with China in creating energy-saving strategies so they don’t become so dependent. But we have to do the same thing.

I agree. But if there is that sort of fear in the think tank world of Washington, is that enough of a motivating factor to begin changing an administration so entrenched in the oil business? Is this development with China the beginnings of something that is compelling enough to get a US government to address energy issues in a brand new way?

Well if one is intelligent enough, then the answer is yes. There’s good reason to proceed in this way. But I don’t think that’s what the Bush administration is doing. They’re being driven by their own secular parochial interests, their ties to the oil industry – and not just to specific companies but to big oil in general-

The mindset of big oil –

Yes, the mindset of big oil, well-said. And that prevents them form behaving in a way that I think would be in America’s best long term interest. They’re sacrificing our future for their present benefits. And I think that young people in this country are going to pay a very high price for this current trend of greed and selfishness.

On that note, is there anything you’ve discovered or read lately that’s inspired you towards some new way of looking at these issues and problems?

Well where I’m at here in Massachusetts is very close to what was once the 19th century Shaker movement. So my mind’s been wandering lately to their way of life. I studied them briefly when I was younger, but now I’m slowly coming to think that they were on to something. I think people mostly know of the Shakers today because of the beauty and elegance of their furniture and handicrafts, but that beauty derives from the fact that they believed in simplicity and in using no more resources than you absolutely needed to achieve a certain purpose. Everything they did was utilitarian and simple, but it was also elegant and beautiful. And that was driven by a philosophy that was communitarian and pacifistic, one of putting a very small footprint on nature yet having a rewarding spiritual life. And they were extremely successful, despite all the reasons for being skeptical about them.

But they were maligned for sure.

They were maligned, but they were also very popular. But my emphasis on the Shakers is in thinking in terms of how we are going to have to live in the future in the sense of having to learn with less. This to me is the all time challenge we face. We’re told every single day on television that the way to be happier is to have more. Bigger. More. Consume more. And that’s self-destructive behavior. But telling people they have to have less because if they don’t they’re going to be punished just isn’t going to work.

They have to believe that it’s cooler. Less is the way to go. It’s Zen.

Yes, and also just to have the realization that greater happiness could come from this way of thinking about life. The elegance and beauty of the Shaker’s way of life is an example of what I mean. This physical reality of choosing to live with less and not finding that a sacrifice or deprivation but actually something attractive and appealing. That’s the point I want to make.


Elizabeth Royte: Petrucibles and a Paradigm Shift

Interview, Brooklyn, 2008, by Andrea Hiott.

Royte is the author of „The Tapir‘s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest“, „Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash“, and „Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It“

Pulse: You’ve been writing about the environment for quite a few years now. Do you think the way people think about their trash has changed? Are we really becoming more aware?

Elizabeth Royte: Many people do pay much more attention to it now. It’s new for us to think about our waste at all. One reason for this is because trash itself has changed so much. A hundred years ago, our garbage was either organic products like food scraps – things that could be given to animals or used as fertilizer – or it was inorganic substances, like ash, that came from cooking and heating our homes. That changed in the 1950s with the consumer boom and mass production, when we started to have what they call “product waste” or “single- use disposables,” things that can be toxic when burned or buried. As we’ve become more aware of the possible afterlife of our stuff – whether it’s polluting the air or the water or the soil – some people have started watching and measuring their waste. I’ve heard of people keeping it in their garages or basements for a year, just to see how much waste they generate, or people going a year without buying plastic. People are coming at it from the policy level too, trying to restructure the ways we deal with garbage as communities, making manufacturers more responsible for their products. Local governments are realizing that they subsidize waste by paying to haul it to landfills, and that they’ll pay again if the landfill leaks or the incinerator causes pollutants to be released in the air.

As your work points out, any big change has to be a collective effort. Your books Garbage Land and Bottlemania feel like quests, as though you and the readers are going on a mission for the truth together. Did you think of them this way as you were writing them?

I did think of the garbage book that way. I had the idea of going on this journey, of following my garbage. While paddling in the Gowanus Canal, I began to see all the different streams of waste dumped there, and I realized that the canal was a microcosm of the larger world of waste. I decided to follow each stream to its final resting place. That gave me the narrative line.

Your books make me very aware of everything I use and come into contact with: I go to get a coffee and I wonder where the sugar packet is going to go, or what will happen to the little wooden stick I’m using to stir in the sugar. By bringing our attention to these everyday moments, your books inspire mindfulness. And yet that mindfulness seems to take longer to seep into the bigger picture. How is it that we continue to sanction things such as mountaintop mining even as the consequences are clear? Is it inertia? Laziness?

I think it’s a matter of there being powerful lobbyists in the industry. And also a lack of awareness and confidence; there’s the feeling that we are not powerful enough to stop it. It’s a no-brainer when you explain it to someone (someone who isn’t making vast amounts of money from the practice) on a personal level, when you tell him or her we’re destroying streams and polluting our drinking water. When people really understand these things, they react viscerally. It’s always the personal repercussions that are the first lever of change. It’s talking to people about the air their children breathe or the water they drink. When it’s somewhat removed from their daily experience, something like mountaintop mining or declining polar bear populations, people don’t seem to connect enough to get motivated.

It often takes one extreme to get to the other.

Right. I’m afraid we need high energy prices to get people to change how they live.

It does seem to be happening though, doesn’t it? Hasn’t some sort of shift occurred in the past years?

I do think it’s happening, and I think that’s because it’s hitting people in their pocketbooks. You could show them pictures of dying polar bears all day but the change will only really happen when they drive up to the gas pump and can no longer afford to fill their tank. It’s the same with bottled water: many people are giving it up, not for environmental reasons but because they can no longer afford it.

It all comes down to money. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if we realize that money is a sign of where our attention is going. In that sense, has your own attention changed since you began writing about environmental issues? Did you also experience a change once these things were made personal?

Since writing these books, I do think more often now about where the things I’m using come from. When I thought of the natural world before, I was thinking of the world without us, and now I think about it with us in it. I see it as more integrated. My interests have mirrored the environmental movement in that they’ve shifted to more of an urban focus rather than focusing on remote creatures or far away places in the world. But the way I live hasn’t changed that much. I’ve never been a big consumer. Living in a small apartment in the city sets up a lower-impact lifestyle. As much as I would love to have outdoor space and be surrounded by nature, I don’t see myself in the foreseeable future moving to a place where I would have to rely on a car, for instance, or where I would no longer be sharing my walls and heat with neighbors, as we do here in Brooklyn, or where I didn’t get my food from a co-op.

I want to talk about the word “organic” – is there any way in which all materials could eventually be broken down and regurgitated? Even plastics?

William McDonough, in Cradle to Cradle, talks about a future in which consumables, things like containers and furniture and goods not meant to last forever, are made from biological nutrients – plant-based materials — that can be composted at the end of their useful life. Chemists are working on new kinds of plastics made from plants that will easily compost (unlike the current generation of corn plastic, which can take months to break down in a backyard compost bin). In Garbage Land, I explain that plastic made from oil doesn’t really biodegrade; it photo-degrades into much tinier pieces that will be around for a very long time. These tiny pieces end up in waterways, where they’re taken up by plankton and move up the food chain to fish and birds.

What if we banned plastic and we all became vegetarians?

I don’t think we can ban plastic. It’s too useful. And even if we did, we would use more fossil fuel hauling around glass and driving heavier cars. Plastic is too important in terms of medical equipment and the role it plays in health care to think of banning it.

So it’s a necessary negative?

Well, maybe not in its current form. I have great hope that green chemists and engineers will come up with an easily compostable bio-based material that doesn’t take vast quantities of fossil fuel to grow. But even though I see the value of plastic today, I still think we can use a whole lot less of it. So much of it is just fulfilling our desire for something quick and easy and affordable and disposable. That’s the stuff that we have a choice about. And it’s a pretty easy choice if we think about it clearly.

So what we really need is a shift in what is important to us, a shift of values.

Yes. Definitely. A paradigm shift.

But it isn’t about “saving” anything so much as about finding a more efficient process for changing it.

Well this word “saving” is tricky because it sounds like we’re trying to get back to some perfect condition, but what is it we are trying to go back to? Of course there is the idea of keeping resources in place, like keeping the water clean or keeping old-growth trees in our forests. That makes sense. But as far as going back to some perfect state, I don’t know what that would look like, not with our current population.

What is your feeling about balance and abundance? Do you think on a global scale we actually have everything we need and that if we could only figure out a way to balance it both physically and mentally, then it would work?

I think we would need negative population growth for that. People say there is enough water on the planet to serve our needs now, but it’s not always in the right place at the right time and it’s just a matter of apportioning it. But even so, if we continue to expand as we are, those resources are not going to be enough.

How does having a deeper understanding of these issues contribute to changing them?

Understanding is the key. No one will change just by hearing a slogan like “Save the Earth”. Hearing such things too often can even make them meaningless. The real change comes when you make a personal connection and see and feel what your lifestyle is doing to the planet. For instance, I interviewed a world-champion snowboarder once, a teenager who was really excited because she had just won a big SUV as a prize in competition. We were supposed to photograph her snowboarding but the snow never came and the story was killed. I know you can’t directly link the lack of snow to global warming, but the change in plans did give us a chance to have a conversation about how competitive snowboarding, this activity that was so important to her and made her so happy, was dependent on certain weather patterns, and that how we live could actually cause those patterns to change. I was trying to talk to her at the level that was most real for her. I could see she was thinking about it; I could see that she was starting to connect it all. For someone like her to come out and say “I don’t want this gas-guzzling, emission-spewing SUV” would have made a big difference – a lot of kids really looked up to her. But at that time, having a kickass SUV was the ultimate thing.

And it was for me when I was 16 too. I mean, it wasn’t something I dreamed about. But it was cool in my small little world of friends to have an SUV and I didn’t think about it outside of that. I didn’t even know there was another way to think about it. I guess that’s another reason why understanding and awareness is so important. It’s like we’re all just doing the best we can with whatever information we have at that time.

Right. Which is why it is so important to me to write about these issues, and why it’s also important to have all these other ways of introducing people to new ideas, having people that these young people pay attention to – whether it’s musicians or moviestars or whomever – be aware of these issues too and present them in a real way to their admirers, their fans, whatever.

Maybe it has to become something trendy and cool if it’s ever going to work.

Just like what is happening now with water bottles. It’s become trendy not to use water bottles these days. You’re suddenly aware of how you look on the street when you’re carrying a disposable water bottle.

It seems these moods pervade culture before people are aware of them: sometimes we start doing something or acting in a certain way even before we’ve thought about why we’re doing that.

People have studied why people change their behavior and peer pressure is always a top reason. Social scientists did a study in hotels: they put out the little signs that said, “We use a lot of laundry detergent and water to wash these towels. If you want to keep your towel for the next day, please let us know by hanging it up after use.” And then they made another sign that said, “Four out of five people at this hotel chose not to wash their towels everyday.” And of course it was this latter message that was more effective: people were less likely to have their towels washed everyday if they knew most other guests were doing the same thing.

So we’re all looking to each other to figure out what’s “right” and “wrong” and at the same time we’re all creating what’s “right” and “wrong” together. Maybe that’s why there are always emotions like shame and guilt and outrage tied to environmental issues. Writing Garbage Land, did you start to feel this way about your trash?

I did come to see my garbage as a kind of failure after a while. After really spending time with these ideas and realizing how many trees were saved by recycling paper or how much mining was avoided by these small actions, I came to think of everything I threw out as a sign of failure, because I hadn’t avoided the packaging or product in the first place, or I’d failed to find another use for it. Putting any kind of food in the garbage now kills me because I know it’s a biological material that has a higher use; I know it could be composted and returned to the earth as fertilizer, and I also know that it’s going to generate methane when it’s buried in the landfill.

One thing your books do is point out how interconnected we all are. Your writing even seems to hint that realizing this interconnection, not only between people but between products as well, might be the best path to an answer. Not only because it leads us to think of the world in a different way, but also because these associations can open up new ways to proceed. Is this a valid interpretation of your work?

When I wrote the garbage book, I thought it was a simple matter of following things downstream, tracking them once we had used them and let them go. But I learned that what goes on downstream is only the tip of the iceberg, environmentally speaking: there’s far more going on upstream that has a huge impact too, in terms of the actual manufacturing of all these things we consume. It’s not as simple as looking at a metal can or a plastic bottle and tracking it through the waste and recycling systems; you also have to think about where the raw materials for that object came from and how they were moved around through the manufacturing process and then transported to end users. Looking at it this way, you see that the real value of recycling, or being aware of what you buy and throw away, is much broader than it at first seems.

Because you can’t change downstream without changing upstream too?

Right. I think connecting people with this idea is what makes the biggest difference, realizing that when they use a ceramic cup instead of a paper cup, for instance, the effect is a lot bigger than just keeping some paper from the landfill. It’s about avoiding the production of that paper cup in the first place. Part of the buying process should be knowing where that product came from and where it will eventually go. Some people want labels on products that tell you how much recycled content is in it, or how many trees were saved. In England, they’re already putting food miles on labels, showing how far it has traveled. It’s a bit controversial. Maybe we should also have a way of showing how much waste making a particular product generated, or how much energy was consumed, and that would give you a much bigger picture of its true impact.

It sounds like a similar mentality to the one we are all getting so used to because of the internet, the way you can move from link to link indefinitely, hopefully learning as you go.

If people could trace their products that way, if they did know the whole story of where their products came from and went, they might think twice about buying as much as they do.

We would have to find a way to give products a better story.

That would mean changing our expectations, and changing the way we make things.

Maybe we can. It does seem like we’re ready for a shift, or that a shift is coming whether we‘re ready or not.

Yes, it’s certainly an important moment in history. It might just take a while before we understand exactly why.