Books In Conversation
Theres No Place Like Time, or The Art of Trash Diaries, Curiosity Cabinets, & Determined Noticing
LANCE and ANDI OLSEN in conversation with Renée E. DAoust
This interview with Lance and Andi Olsen took place in Berlin over the course of two visits. The first was at the Literaturhaus Café, an elegant gathering place for writers and publishers on Kurfürstendamm, the second at the Café Cinema, a funky dive (wallpaper from another era still peeling) in the former East near Hackescher Markt. Drinking huge cups of Milchkaffee, we agreed one can never imbibe too much caffeine or talk too much about art, literature, and ideas. The only English spoken was our own (though Andi and Lance ordered for me in German).
Andi’s artwork has been exhibited across the U.S. and Europe. Lance is the author of more than twenty books of and about innovative fiction. From 2015 – 2016, he was a DAAD Artist-in-Berlin fellow. In 2013, he was a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.
What follows celebrates Lance’s time as a DAAD Artist-in-Berlin and the artistic collaborations between Andi and him, especially There’s No Place Like Time—what they call “a novel you can walk through.” There’s No Place Like Time takes the form of a real retrospective of a fictional video artist, Alana Olsen, curated by her fictional daughter, Aila, an art critic and conceptual artist living in the German capital. This multimodal installation opened at Greenhouse Berlin in November 2015. Over the course of the next year it will appear in several U.S. galleries and then again in Berlin next spring at Momentum Gallery in the Kunstquartier Bethanien. Andi created Alana’s videos and Lance various texts, including the faux catalogue (available from &NOW Books) about the faux video artist.
Renée E. D’Aoust (Rail): On the way to the Literaturhaus Café, I almost tripped over a “Stumbling Stone”—and you, Lance, explained these bronze plaques (Berlin artist Gunter Demnig’s project) have been placed into sidewalks in front of homes or businesses where Jews, gays, Communists, intellectuals, and others were taken away to their deaths during the Holocaust. We passed several and bent to trace the names with our fingertips. Lance—you mentioned this is a city of ubiquitous history. Your novels have frequently explored and disturbed how the past changes as it is reimagined. I’m thinking of your Head in Flames and Nietzsche’s Kisses, but this idea certainly applies to your latest, Theories of Forgetting, too. Would you speak about the way that living in Berlin for the past year has impacted, and perhaps even reinvigorated, this impulse?
Lance Olsen: Walking the streets of this city I always feel like a time traveler. Look up here, and you see the scars of machine-gun fire and grenade shrapnel from the final battle of the Second World War scarring the facades of the building on Museum Island. Look down there, and you see the double row of bricks set in the street to mark where the Wall stood for nearly thirty years. You can wander the ruins of the NSA’s spy stations on the Teufelsberg—the appropriately named Devil’s Mountain—a manmade hill built over the twenty years following the War from 98,000,000 cubic yards of rubble that once upon a time was this metropolis, or sit in a café like this that lives in another period and place that is also this period and place.
If one pays attention, one soon sees and feels that Berlin is unlike other any other urban area. It consciously wears its gorgeous and grim histories in plain sight, both to remember and atone, and, in more complicated and conflicted ways, to draw tourist dollars.
I’ve been interested in what you’re talking about—let’s call it the problematization of pastness—since at least around 2000, when I began working on Girl Imagined by Chance, a novel about a couple in the Northwest who invents a child by faking various texts (images plucked from the web, family tales written about what never happened) in order to appease their distant relatives and friends in a pro-population-proliferation world. That idea has followed me all the way through Theories of Forgetting, a book, in part, about a pandemic called The Frost whose symptoms are an increased sense of coldness and memory loss. Alana Olsen, the novel’s protagonist, a video artist, falls prey to the disease. Both her husband and daughter spend their sections in the Theories trying to figure out what they really knew about her. Alana Olsen subsequently left the page and expanded into There’s No Place Like Time, the (as you say, fake) retrospective of her work exhibited in galleries here and back in the States.
Living in Berlin, then, could be said to be not so much a discovery of that problematization as an intensification of it—of the thought that history is always already with us, yet, too, always already a subcategory of fiction which is usually written by the winners, by those in control of a culture’s power dynamics who write, un-write, edit, and intentionally re-direct historical narratives for their own ends—something we all do, as well, at a personal level in order to make sense of bewilderments called our lives.
Rail: When we last spoke, at AWP in Minneapolis, you talked about designing and creating a walk-in book, Andi. I interpreted that to mean a full-size walk-in artist’s book—something big, maybe something along the lines of Chris Burden’s Metropolis. But There’s No Place Like Time is both more and less abstract than that. It exists as a large three-dimensional space rather than as some more conventional notion of an artist’s book. I’m really curious how you manage to create a “novel” that exists in such a tactile way. At the gallery exhibit here in Berlin, attendees didn’t necessarily know that they were even seeing works created by an imagined artist, did they?
Andi Olsen: If you read Lance’s Theories of Forgetting, you will discover a URL buried in a footnote. Type that into your computer, and you’ll be taken to the last film Alana Olsen made, which is also called Theories of Forgetting. It’s obsessed with Robert Smithson’s earthwork, Spiral Jetty, which exists on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, about a two-hour drive from Salt Lake City, where Alana purportedly lived. I used photos and clips of Spiral Jetty’s changing conditions (by hour, by day, by season) as a kind of analogue both for the temporal wear of the thing itself, which is slowly sinking into the sand around it, and for Alana’s mental and physical deterioration. Superimposed over those images is a narration of a passage from the novel. The passage is recited twice, the second time as an erasure of the first. In other words, the text both wastes away and regenerates itself through an elimination of words that reveals a completely new and different narrative below the initial one.
Anyway, one day Lance and I began to imagine other ways the trade paperback novel Theories of Forgetting could spill out of its binding, and we came up with this retrospective of Alana’s work—the series of films, the catalogue, the various plaques by means of which the viewer/listener/reader is invited to infer a character, a life, a way of being in the world. Initially I thought about a full-sized walk-in art book, but soon realized the limitations of scaling the dimensions to, say, six feet by two. This couldn’t provide nearly enough room for someone to enter and experience an immersive fictional world—the sort of world one experiences while losing oneself in a novel.
Whether or not someone attending the exhibit realizes Alana is fictional depends on how much he/she is paying attention. There are lots of clues. All one has to do is be a good reader. But even if a person doesn’t notice, I’m not sure that’s a real issue. At the end of the day every reading of a text is by nature a misreading. Leaving the gallery thinking Alana Olsen was a flesh-and-blood person may be quite a compliment for Lance and me, proving that fictional characters can live full lives in our world. And of course the very idea of misreading suggests another way of thinking about Lance’s ideas concerning the problematization of the past. To remember history is invariably to forget it.
Rail: In “33 Tweets on the Nature of Possibility,” the closing remarks for the Banff Centre conference “In(ter)ventions—Literary Practice at the Edge,” you, Lance, share the following: “When we say: We are teaching innovative writing, we really mean: We are re-learning strategies for reading & understanding.” In what ways does Theories of Forgetting enact new strategies for reading and understanding?
Lance: Three narratives make up Theories of Forgetting. The first, as I say, involves Alana, the experimental video artist completing a short about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The second involves her husband’s slow dispersal, for want of a better word, across Europe and Jordan in the wake of Alana’s untimely death. And the third involves the marginalia added to his section of the novel by his daughter, Aila (that unreal curator of There’s No Place Like Time), who discovers a manuscript her father sometime after his disappearance.
The first of those narratives runs across the “top” of each page from “front” to “back” of Theories. The second runs “upside down” across the “bottom” of each page from “back” to “front.” The daughter’s appears in blue script (the exact color of the Great Salt Lake, by the way, on a sunny day) around and sometimes over and through the second. To begin to read the novel, then, is to have to make a number of decisions about what reading is and how it is. So Theories wants to make reading into an event, an energetic interaction and interrogation between text and reader. It wants to make us conscious again of the extraordinarily physical act of reading and ask how that practice might different from the seemingly similar one a person may have undertaken, say, thirty years ago, or eighty, and why.
One of the answers, I think, has to do with the ever-increasing digitization of our environment, the continuing allure of deferred desire and distraction called Facebook, email, web surfing, texting, gaming, television, etc. that demands ceaseless (and often useless) hyper-attention. We live in a culture of skimming, a world of attention-deficit machines. The book in general, and the novel in particular—and the experimental novel in particular—can serve to remind us both of that and of what deep attention feels like.
Too, Theories wants to remind us that we don’t have to take Bill Gates’s advice (influenced as it is by 400 years of print technologies) about what a page is and how it should work. When we open a Word file, we are presented with a series of assumptions about how margins, fonts, headings, and so forth should function. These assumptions are so deeply wired in us that we’ve forgotten to see them, let alone question them. One of the things I was interested in while working on Theories—and of course, on There’s No Place Like Time—was to explore the materiality of the “page:” not only to write a narrative, but to build a book that in the end asks what the word “page” means, what it can mean.
At the moment of the book’s relentless disembodiment in our culture via Kindles and iPads and other screens, I wanted to ask: What, precisely, makes the book bookish? What can a book do that other media can’t? And, naturally, what can other media do that a book can’t?
Rail: Five of the videos for Alana’s retrospective can be viewed online at the website of the Berlin gallery called Zweifel & Zweifel (zweifelundzweifel.org) which, appropriately, doesn’t actually exist. Andi, you’re explicitly using imagination as a force in Alana’s videos, yet these are always historically “accurate.” I mean, you don’t put something in one of Alana’s videos that would not have been possible at the time she (you) created it. Nor do you use techniques that would not have been historically available for her. Time features prominently in those videos. For instance, in Where the Smiling Ends we see various tourists at the instant after their photographs have been snapped at various sites around Italy, how their heads drop, their smiles fade, each returning once again from the public to the private. Does an artist’s intentionality (I hesitate to say “authenticity”) in creating the work set a viewer’s imagination free?
Andi: I guess I would question that concept of “authenticity,” wonder if such a notion were ever possible. Certainly it’s deeply problematic in today’s culture, with its addiction to mediation and re-mediation. Alana and I just try to find an interesting corner of our world that re-presents it to us in a way that allows us to see it afresh and, if really lucky, maybe even for the first time. I don’t know about Alana, but the act of creating the videos for me is crazily intentional. I spend months on each one. Lance sometimes teases me, saying I’m a pixel-by-pixel artist. I’m not completely sure what you mean by setting an imagination “free,” but I do hope to invite viewers/listeners/readers to interact with the possibility space of There’s No Place Like Time in subjective ways that might help open some doors for them as the project has opened some doors for us.
At the end of the day, I’m a deep believer in the experimental writer Ronald Sukenick’s observation: “If you don’t use your imagination someone else will use it for you.”
Rail: Lance, during your time as a Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2013, you wrote a memoir called [[ there. ]], and your character Alana (via Andi) made a video by the same name. As you know, I was super upset that you refer to [[ there. ]] as a “trash diary,” because I can’t separate my admiration for your memoir from the idea that you might think it was a big black plastic bag full of garbage. Last year, I took a writing workshop with Melanie Rae Thon, your colleague at University of Utah, who suggested we keep “books of wonder” as diaries. It struck me that you use the term “trash diary” in much the same way that Melanie Rae Thon uses her term. And Andi: at your suggestion, I visited Berlin’s Wunderkammer Olbricht which reestablishes the practice of maintaining a “cabinet of curiosities.” In all three cases, it seems like the practice of collecting objects welcomes all aspects of our lives as opportunities for art-making. How does a “trash diary” or a “Cabinet of Wonders” create possibility spaces in your creative process, particularly with respect to your most recent work?
Andi: I think of Lance’s and my collaborative process—not only through this installation, but over the course of the last three decades and more—as a variety of a Cabinet of Wonders in the sense that we’ve always got two imaginations riffing off each other, sparking ideas and opportunities that neither of us would have conceived on our own. The result is always something that surprises both of us.
Our culture tends to make the notion of collaboration invisible at best, suspect at worst, especially when it comes to the written arts. But it’s clear the old saw about creators working in brilliant isolation is a Romantic myth and, of course, not completely a Romantic myth—simultaneously. After all, all artists are in continuous collaboration with the people who designed the technologies with which they’re working, be it pencils or video equipment or editing programs. We’re all swimming among all the texts that comprise the genre we’re working in, all the books we’ve ever read, all the paintings we’ve ever seen, all the pieces of music we’ve ever heard—not to mention with myriad gallery directors, editors, designers, sales people, reviewers, teachers, students, lay readers across space and time, and, yes, interviewers.
But whether we’re talking about collaborating with a partner, or the world at large, or with other pieces of art, whether we’re talking about proceeding consciously or unconsciously, it’s always one plus one equals a fairy-tale seven.
Lance: Absolutely. While the metaphors of trash, curiosity cabinets, and books of wonder seem to connote very different engagements with our lives, they share a couple important traits and encouragements. First, they suggest lived experience comes to us more as collage, bright flecks, than linear narrative with a beginning, a muddle, and an end, and that we should therefore explore the prospects inherent in the former, both existentially and structurally, while trying to un-learn received notions of narrativity. After all, why would we think telling the world the way it was told in the twentieth century, or the twelfth, would satisfy our sense of what it is to be alive? Second—and this question follows from the first—they ask us: How can we write the contemporary without simply rewriting the past? Finally, they propose by their very presence that if we pay greater attention to our surroundings, to our engagements with other works of art and thought, we will discover that every day provides us with countless magic acts.
For me, that may be the most important lesson: the life of the artist is in the end all about a festival of determined noticing that opens up to her or him ways of thinking about thinking, feeling about feeling, navigating and narrating through a richly examined existence.
Rail: You both consistently work in diligent and purposeful ways on the forefront of thought and culture. I want to thank you for that, for making space for novels we walk through, for reimagining literature as a space for corporeality, for curious visual art-making that records scars and twists popular culture, and most especially for opening your arms to those of us who might otherwise stumble around lost and loose in the capitalistic muck of contemporary amnesia.