Creative Writing MFA class, University of Guelph, 2020
My work as an artist begins with fear. Fear is the motor. Working is a way of negotiating the feeling, the terror I feel when I have to leave my apartment universe.
I didn’t want to come today, but my friend Kyo asked so how could I say no? I didn’t want to come and pretend to be a person, to show up as someone who passes for white, when white people have stood too often at the front of rooms like this, and every other room we can get our hands on.
I experience fear as a defensive position, it creates a picture that looks like this: I’m in here, and everything else is out there. And between those two places there should be some large stone castle walls, and a few moats, and fields of barbed wire and space most of all.
Because of the building codes here they said I couldn’t build a wall, so I had to create different kinds of walls, different kinds of defenses.
This (hold up piece of paper) is my wall, it’s my first line of defense. The only way I could get through that door is to have this with me. This means that no matter what else I might seem to be speaking about, I am also speaking about fear.
But I’m very fortunate, privileged even, because my main response to fear is overworking, and as I don’t need to tell you, in our neo-liberal, hyper-capitalist world, overworking is a prime virtue. So even though it’s an addiction, people praise you for it, they think of you as a good person, a virtuous person. You might have noticed that it’s rare to get praised for eating disorders, or heroin addiction, or gambling.
Like all addictions, fear and overwork live in my body, certain muscle groups are tight, certain enzyme flows are blocked, there are parts of my body that are numb, I can’t feel them at all. It is also emotional, fear creates separation from people, and this separation is the root experience of my depression. And as I already mentioned fear and overworking are cultural. My fear is physical, emotional and cultural, but it doesn’t belong entirely to me.
You remember that moment in Twin Peaks Season Three when Diane is in the FBI office, driven by the bad Cooper, reaching into her purse for a gun to shoot her interrogators and she says, “I’m not me.” That was a pure and precious moment of identification for me. I’m not me. Yes, exactly.
My parents were immigrants. My mother came from Indonesia where she experienced years of Japanese occupation and hunger and witnessed so much killing. All of the Indonesian men, including her father, were rounded up and put into prison. A few weeks later soldiers rounded up all the women and kids and marched them into the local high schools. They sat there all day, hungry and pissing and shitting and thirsty and waiting to be shot. At the end of the day they were mysteriously released, and when they returned to their homes everything there was stolen or broken. Every window, every pot, every piece of cutlery, every picture and every picture frame.
How can you stop something from happening, from replaying itself like a record in a broken juke box, if it never happened to you?
My father was also from Indonesia, then called the Dutch East Indies, and he was a kid visiting Holland for the first time when the Nazis invaded. His father was put in a concentration camp, and my dad starved for four years, dreading the moment when German soldiers showed up at the school picking up boys for forced labour.
These traumas, which I never saw, are the most important events in my life. They were passed along to me in many ways, for instance, biologically, via DNA. DNA is created when a woman’s genes and man’s genes are spliced together. Biologists assure us that DNA is a collage. Parts of our ancestors – the nose of a great aunt, the shoulders of a grandfather – are passed along. But also: bad kidneys, the likelihood of breast cancer, soft femur bones. But also: a tendency towards anxiety, a nervous disposition, a cheerful easy-going acceptance of things as they are. My body, my emotions and my culture, are part of a living collage. My deepest feelings and instincts are entirely my own, and not my own.
For twenty years I worked with film, the great silvery fetish material. I wound it through the camera and then through editing machines, sometimes processing it myself in my bathroom, I cut into its gelatinous surfaces, I scratched and scarred and buried it. But slowly all the movie labs died, and I began my second life as a digital artist.
When I made films I struggled to make every picture. I was never very good with machines, the processes were awkward, the possibility for error was everywhere. Films are like painting, you begin with nothing and then you make a mark, you gather a picture, it makes a ghost impression on celluloid. At last, at least, you have a beginning.
But the digital artist does not begin with a blank. The digital artist begins with every image. Of course it was possible to copy images onto film, but the process was slow and clumsy. Think of the difference between setting up a vinyl record factory, and downloading a digital file. Digital files are made to be copied. And of course nearly everything has been filmed, or will be filmed soon. This archive that contains every picture, waits at the starting line of every video. It seems I had left the film world of production, and entered the video world of post-production.
In the tiny field of artist’s movies that I work in, there was a heroic period, during the 1960s, when all the “great work” was made, by the iconic artists. They didn’t just make all the most important movies, they wrote the books, or had books written about them, they were shown in every classroom, they defined the field. Everything that was made after them was an aftermath, a footnote. We had come too late, the heroes had already built the monuments and the cities the monuments lived in, what was left for us was to polish the statues.
So when I began my second life as a digital artist I knew two things: that my most important experiences were not my own, and that I worked in a field where my efforts were framed by my audio-visual parents. I had already been eaten by my parents.
But there was one more lesson I needed to learn. In the late 1980s I became HIV positive. You get infected by sharing blood, by taking part in an act of mutual collage, when the virus that is hosted in another person’s blood enters your body, and begins to copy itself, using cells from your immune system as a new home. There was no cure and no treatment, everybody who got it died, it was just a question of when. Most doctors in the city didn’t even want you to step into their waiting rooms. There was a culture of fear around people who were infected, and I think I understood that, because fear was the only thing I understood.
Now one of the interesting things about being positive is that it’s not like getting a cold or a flu. It’s a sickness, but unlike most sicknesses, which as Susan Sontag wrote, gives you a passport to another world, this sickness wasn’t going to end. Like it or not, it was part of me, you could say, it was even a central part of me. I started to learn more about my body, this was the lesson. Do you know what dry weight is? If your body has no water in it, that’s the dry weight of your body. The dry weight of your body is ten percent bacteria. That bacteria is busy living and replicating and rubbing its cells against other cells and dying, and this bacteria is, in the most literal sense, you. It’s who you are.
A quick side note. My friend Bryan is a doctor who developed a special surgical skill, it’s technical, it has to do with harvesting organs, so he spends his day in what they call the operating theatre with humans who have been opened up. He says that when you look inside a person: everyone is beautiful. Even a very old person, we dry up as we get old, but even when you’re old your organs and ligaments and bones – they look so beautiful. Isn’t that a consolation? Just wanted to let you know. Anyways.
It took me a long time to understand, to embody the understanding, that my body was a collage of parts. That the bacteria, the virus, the enzymes and adrenal fluids, were all central to my experience – my emotional, psychological and physical experience – but they didn’t come from me, they didn’t begin here. So it became harder to stay inside my walls, because it turned out there were holes everywhere, and no matter how much I hid away, the holes always found me. I was part of this world, meaning: I was part of this collage. I was post-production.
When I was a digital artist I started making work about AIDS. And of course I started using what movie artists ironically name “found footage.” Found footage is anything that you haven’t shot yourself. Now the great heroes had already established what kind of found footage was OK to use – educational movies, newsreels, it should be obscure, made a long time ago, non-commercial.
But I finally had something my great mothers and fathers didn’t have. I was dying, and I didn’t give a shit. I wasn’t trying to create a reputation, I knew that my most important ideas had already been thought by others, that my body was inhabited by others, so I could throw the doors of my work open. I would allow my pictures to be infected by pictures made by others. I would reframe, I would create new arrangements – how else was I going to make a picture of this illness which was at once me and not me?
And of course I was concerned that I shouldn’t be reduced to this illness, that I wasn’t going to make a movie that would simply proclaim over and over again: I am HIV positive. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it: Let’s try to avoid the danger of a single story. I didn’t want to make a portrait, as the painters would say, that would show someone who was HIV positive period. I wanted to make a portrait of a someone, and part of that portrait would be the virus. It would have to be a meal with many courses, though because I lack money, it would have to be short and sweet at the same time. In other words, it had to be a collage, I would make a home for the impure, the sentimental, the banal, I needed to make a picture of what was inside and outside my body. And I would do this, in part, by stealing other people’s pictures. Maybe even other people’s sounds, bits of their stories.
**show Frank’s Cock
In the world of copying, which we are all a part of, you’re never beginning, you’re only starting again. Let’s start again by stealing some words you’ve just read, by Cynthia Cruz.
“The collage re-enacts the fracture, the breaking. The piecing back together of the shards is a kind of practice at learning how to speak again. A person made speechless from trauma, her words shocked out of her, can begin to speak, to find a voice, by choosing the bits of magazine pictures or Youtube clips that are placed in front of her. It’s a re-enactment that is also rehabilitation. Like the work done in hospitals where anorexics or depressives, both too often speechless, sit around a table together pasting together collages, stitching together bits of forgotten media.”
Perhaps I could add this about trauma from my own experience. Trauma is the thing in the body that doesn’t move. Everything in the body is moving, you can feel your breath, your heartbeat, the small cells that are busy being born and dying, the growth of your hair. But most of us have been cut at a certain moment, we’ve endured beatings, or the face that was our whole world turned away or was inaccessible to us, and this produced a wound that will not heal. When it is triggered, when someone in the present turns their face away like that, then the superhighway of your trauma sends you right back to that place. When I am triggered I am four years old again. I time travel. That’s why it’s pointless to try to reason with me in this state, because I’m just four years old and reasons don’t matter.
Actually the body is always travelling in time. One of the great joys of being a filmmaker is that I can change speeds while I’m working. I make portraits, so I’m drawn to people’s faces – and what I can do in what we used to call “the editing room” which has now shrunk to the size of my computer, is that I can change the speed of a face, I can slow it down – my video camera creates 24 separate frames every second, and I can review each one. And what it shows is that the faces around me are constantly turning into past versions of ourselves – oh that’s me when I was a teenager, oh that’s me when I was nine years old. And of course the face also turns into future versions of ourselves. The face is memorial and prophecy.
I’m not saying that we are remembering a past version of ourselves, but that we become that person, even for a micro-second. Just like when we’re triggered, we’re not remembering, we’re becoming, our bodies are back in that moment. We slip back into that skin. It’s my belief that the body is made of memory, and the memories are up close and personal, the memories live in the body, and we become them. Our bodies are inhabited by many other bodies, small and large, broken and strong, young and old, that are cohabiting in a crowd scene, these relations constantly shifting as one and then another becomes more prominent.
The illusion, the fantasy, is that we’re one person because we have one body. This is the classic formulation by Lacan, right? In the mirror stage the kid, who experiences themselves as a riot of moment-to-moment sensations, pulls all that shit together when they can see their own body as if they were somebody else. We look at the stranger in the mirror as if they were someone else, and that becomes the origin of “me,” of my identity.
But when you start to look closely, or better: to feel closely, to feel your feelings, you can’t help noticing that the body is time travelling all the time, and alongside these time travels it is changing size – it’s large and it’s small. When I am afraid my body is… can someone tell me? Is it large or small? Have you ever seen a cat that’s afraid? Do you know what they do? Look at me, I’m as big as a building motherfucker, don’t you mess with me. And why do you need to present as being bigger? Because the cat is afraid, and fear makes you feel small. Why do we need a pride parade? Because there’s so much shame.
Fear is in the inhale. Can you feel that? You inhale… and you get smaller. And the exhale – the exhale is anger. Anger is the other side of fear. What? What did you say to me?
Shame is in the inhale, and pride is the exhale. But no one would come for a shame parade. Well wait, this is Toronto, there would probably be a few hundred of us there, but it wouldn’t be declared a civic holiday, the prime minister wouldn’t attend, even though he should.
The body is travelling in time, and it is constantly changing sizes. The body is a collage of different times and different sizes. You know the cliché about how just before you’re going to die the whole of your life flashes in front of your eyes, in other words, at the very end of your life you gain a new superpower, which is to travel in time. But I think we were born with that superpower, because it allows us to survive trauma. Trauma is time travel, and it lives in the body, often in very specific places in the body.
Have you ever had this happen to you? Your best friend calls you up – hey are you busy, I need to talk to you. You get together and they lay down this tough encounter. Their partner cheated on them, their boss treats them unfairly, their teenage son won’t get out of bed. As they speak I can feel my body jump into their body, like in the expression “I feel you.” You know this? I feel you. I’m not listening out here, at a distance, I’m inside my friend, I express my care, my love for my friend, by stepping into them. We might name this empathy, the gesture of empathy, or simply: listening. This is what it means to listen. Of course I’m not feeling literally exactly what they’re feeling. I’m feeling some of what they’re feeling, and it’s strained through my own experience, it’s reframed by my own experience. I don’t become someone else, but I’m not just myself either. I’m part of an interface, I’m part of an interbeing. I am entering their body and they are entering my body. Listening means opening, doesn’t it? You look at the ears and they’re always open. There are no ear lids, sorry. When we listen we’re part of the soundspace, you can’t get away from it, you’re always immersed in it. Soaked in sound. Soaked in someone else’s experience, someone else’s memories which are becoming your memories. Soaked in collage.
Marcus Boon: “Copying was an important aspect of the visual arts until the 18th century, when the rise of originality and authenticity as aesthetic values, and the rise of various forms of intellectual-property law, retrospectively transformed the copier into a forger, and the multiplicity of similars and imitators into fakes.”
In the 18th century the question of copying, of collage, is reframed, ideologically reframed, according to the new needs of a new capitalist ruling class who have their own ideas about identity. Identity is not only bloodlines and royal families, I am my own person, self-made, an original. And when you look through this new frame of ideas, centuries of how copying was understood and practiced was thrown away, now copying is bad, it’s negative. Here’s Marcus Boon again: “Where copying persisted it was relegated to the applied arts or to folk arts, until the postmodern period, where the pervasiveness of copying in industrial societies was recognized.” By the postmodern period he is referring of course to today, right now.
Kate Zambreno: I am drawn to the idea of a collection, also of assemblage and collage. I think that was part of a drive of the writing of [Screen Tests], the sense of drift and accumulation.
I make artist’s movies, which in the literary world is a bit like poetry. My natural inclination is to make poems so difficult that only I can understand them, so my method is about creating a counter balance, a counter weight, which will turn these motion pictures into user-friendly interfaces with soft handles and plain language. This means that I am sometimes allowed to show them to non-specialists. Imagine an audience of people who have never heard a poem before, but now they’re sitting and listening to your poem. Because I come from an oral culture, artists are expected to stand up and face the music after the show. In our neo-liberal world, which has been framed by corporations, they will ask why I haven’t received permission from corporations to use these pictures. Invariably someone will say: You stole that shit. You’re not a real artist. And then: why do you keep stealing everyone else’s stuff?
I usually answer by speaking about language. “This” “word” for instance. I didn’t make up the word “this” or “word.” I’m not saying them for the first time. If I spoke to you using words that I had invented, no one would understand me. Language is something that I steal, I borrow, I absorb, I embody. The body of language is also my body. It’s not static – as we’ve already spoken about, everything in the body is moving, except for trauma. I inherit this language, so what I might call “me” or “myself” is the act of arranging words. Although usually I’m too lazy. I just cop another lick, I say “24-7” or “hi, how are you?” or even “I love you.” I allow someone else’s sentences to flow out of my mouth. I am stealing, and collaging all the time. The act of arrangement is what I do with language, it’s a question of relationships, of collage relationships. This is the way I usually interface with other humans, who are busy throwing their stolen word arrangements right back at me.
Marcus Boon: “We all wore similar clothes, yet we all brought some individuality to how we wore them, even though they were copies. Style is a way of copying, a way of imitating, and it is this way which can be said to be original.” In other words, the way we show our originality is the way we copy. The way we use language, for instance. The way we arrange our words, the way we arrange our clothes. It’s a question of style, or as they like to say in university, it’s a question of voice.
Here’s a couple more sentences by Marcus Boon. He’s so smart I don’t understand a word he says, but that doesn’t stop me from believing in it. I offer it to you as a picture, an image to consider, to float in the air between us.
…most of what we call history is arguably the history of appropriation, and the history of one group stealing from another group and claiming those people’s bodies, minds, properties, lands, or cultures as their own.
…global capital is itself nothing other than institutionalized and legitimated appropriation on a vast scale
Marcus Boon: “But localized folk collectives, such as street vendors in Southeast Asia, or users of file share programs around the world, already inhabit a vastly expanded public domain which is enacted in systems of exchange.”
The author, the authority, the writer, the one who spends so much of their time alone, and then projects this solitary time inside pages – it’s a question of being inside, isn’t it, when you’re with a book you’re inside those lonely hours. The delicious loneliness of a book, as opposed to the cold loneliness of an internet spree, where you’ve been everywhere and nowhere. What does it mean to be an author at this moment, how might you participate in what Boon calls “systems of exchange?” How can each of us touch the forbidden places in ourselves – for me it’s the fear – and make it move, to transform it, convert it, alter it in some way, any way, and share those transformations with others so we can be inspired, so we can learn from each other, so we can do the deep and necessary work of facing what is most difficult, even impossible to face. And then to turn to those places in our streets, our communities and beyond, which also need this tender listening, these attentions. Could literature, could the act of writing, be a way of granting attention? Another form of listening?
A final riff from Marcus Boon, forgive me.
“What the Internet offers us is not so much new forms of economy, production, and exchange (although the open-source movement has certainly made efforts in those directions), but the opportunity to render visible once more the instability of all the terms and structures which hold together existing intellectual-property regimes, and to point to the madness of modern, capitalist framings of property.
To see the world, the self, and the community as montage, and to live the consequences of that vision with openness, without assigning it to a particular domain of human activity – this is the freedom toward which we are headed.”