Last week New York met two powerhouse week-long event series: Independent Booksellers Week NYC and PERFORMA 09; pedestrian interests and chores distracted me from both and, come Monday, I realized I had not seen any of the previous week's abundant excitements. I'd love to hear the impressions anyone has had of either of these events; in the meantime I will continue to berate myself for neglecting its copious curiosities.
I did manage to do some asynchronous things of note, however, and hopefully these things may prove interesting enough to others that they may be taken as helpful suggestions or worthy of comment.
Bourriaud and Bleckner
At the beginning of the week I picked up two books from Williamsburg's Spoonbill & Sugartown, which offers a largely unpredictable array of art books and art and literary theory texts, along with a more predictable stable of used and unused fiction. These two books, Ross Bleckner's collection Examined Life: Writings 1972-2007 and Nicolas Bourriaud's essay Postproduction, helped me through much of the week, prodding me along with variously poignant and profound insights, ones that both seemed to clarify indistinct and confused thought-processes I've been trying to work my way through and offered opportunity for the fun brand of vehement disagreement that considered analysis offers at its frustrating best. Bleckner's work is a somewhat ungainly hodge-podge of essays, journal entries, interviews, and catalogue excerpts. I knew nothing of Bleckner before reading this, and the book left me to imagine him as a much different painter than subsequent Google searches and the like have suggested he is. This text marks him as something of a more patient, considered, and thoughtful product of the '80s "painting revival": much of his work displays an unabashed excitement about what was then considered alternately an out-dated medium and a substance-less, trendy one, an excitement about its potential for articulating a certain sincerity of emotion that he had found to be missing in much modern art. What is ultimately most tragic about this is that his art itself – the artistic product of his intellectualization – shows little of his intent; it seems precisely of its time and of its trend, its emotional associative elements apparent only upon dual consideration with his writings. I am going to give his work more time and thought; this text makes it seem distinctly deserving of this, even if his paintings are not particularly convincing evocations of his deliberations.
Bourriaud's work is spiritually related to Bleckner's, if quite distinct in method, quality of thought, and intentions. It is an examination of the art world's increasing artistic isolation, its deference to and consideration of – very generally speaking – primarily itself. I bought this text in response to an argument I'd had with a friend, in which we both reached a tentative, facile détente with the agreement that art is defined more by criticism than anything more inherent to itself, and that these inherencies often become swayed and perverted by the criticism that variously aligns them with other artists' work or artistic trends; very often, new artists then pursue these alignments precisely because they seem the dominant concerns and methods of expression of the time. Bourriaud's work is often quite excitingly provocative, but it bears the willing opacity that defines much lesser criticism of the past half-century; it also bears a trait – one hilariously and beautifully dismantled, if a bit myopically, by Alan Sokal, of the "Sokal Affair," and Jean Bricmont in their assault on post-modernist theoretical terminology, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science – with such tiresome thinkers as Baudrillard in its over-reliance on hermetically-sealed terms that are, perhaps intentionally, impenetrable outside the context of their author's intentions. When an "uncool" writer like Malcolm Gladwell does this, he becomes the ready source of ridicule; when "cool" writers like Bourriaud do this, no one pays it any mind. That said, this was still better than the vast majority of contemporary texts on aesthetics – considerably better than anything else I've read by Bourriaud – and provided ample opportunity for reflective debate with myself and the text.
This past week I became more acquainted with two new exciting literary endeavors, both of which I will write about in greater detail and therefore want to only mention briefly here. The first is the literary journal Birkensnake; it is far and away the best new journal I have ever come across, and it may be – I don't know why I'm unwilling to commit to this – the best singular journal currently publishing fiction. It has a unique integrity that distinguishes it from most other fiction publishers; only NOON comes to mind as a journal similarly marked as a unique work defined by its founders' variegated but ineffably cohesive literary interests, although the similarities between the two end more or less there. It has published two issues thus far – the third is on the way, I believe – and they both feature terrific cover art by Chemlawn.
The other new, exhilarating literary find that has sent me off into reverent fantasies over the past week or so is The Underground Library; it is a wonderful idea quite brilliantly realized: essentially, the central concern is one of "returning" – the thrust should be atemporal, but the Internet has a certain power that makes nearly anything that existed prior to its present state seem somehow quaint and antiquated – to a focus on the integrity of the art object, here disseminated in the form of in-house hand-bound books composed of original new works in a variety of media.
The theatre can be a dreadful place to see plays. Melissa James Gibson is one of the few contemporary playwrights who comes to mind as someone actively pursuing the inherent relation between the text of a play and its theatricality; she does this not in the outré manner of, say, The Ontological-Hysteric Theater, or of other theatre groups who equate theatricality with the verve of in-your-face physicality. Rather, she explores its more nuanced essentials in concert with deeper explorations of how words affect, pervert, reassert, and rebuff our emotional states. Her new play, This, exemplifies this movingly. While the play has more than enough set pieces, gags, and one-liners to keep distracted audiences rapt, it unfolds steadily and subtly into a consideration of the sundry manners in which death, love, obsession – all those primal emotions that puncture the defensive veneer of her characters' conversation – affect the more mundane aspects of our lives; it concludes with a beautifully articulated, almost essayistic soliloquy on, among other things, the reverence of death and its survivors.