by Margaux Williamson
1. Remembering what a brilliant idea feels like – Occupy Wall Street
It was a simple and brilliant idea – that people could “occupy” a space in addition to protesting it, that the power and action could be contained and directed inward to make something new, rather than all thrown at an opponent (where it often just falls uselessly at their feet).
It made me think of something that the physicist Lee Smolin wrote in his 2006 book The Trouble with Physics. In the book he attempts to untangle the genuinely revolutionary ideas in contemporary physics from the ones that might be time-consuming dead-ends. To begin this untangling – and to help identify the promising theories from the dead-end ones – he looks for the commonality and rules that past genuinely revolutionary scientific ideas share. Some of the rules, for instance, involved simplicity, uniqueness, immediate impact on other related problems and, also, that once you truly understand the genuinely brilliant scientific idea, you can’t (for the life of you) see the world in the old way again.
Coming from the arts, where words like “genius” are flung around just as often in hopeful declarations as in certainty, and where the term avant-garde more often than not describes a genre from the past rather than anything new (or involves an isolated “newness” that doesn’t in the least impact anything else), I had been very attracted to thinking that truly brilliant ideas have a natural order to them and clearly identifiable nature. Because this natural order seemed so comforting when I first read it, I had wanted to apply it (however unwisely) to everything. Though I simultaneously thought that such rules could never apply to something genius like the civil rights movement where the struggle is so long and complicated and where it can take forever to invert people’s world view.
But seeing the simplicity and brilliance of this protest shift on Wall Street made me remember to be more humble in my thinking of what is a truly brilliant idea – that of course in a movement hoping to get somewhere new, a lot of genuinely revolutionary ideas, thinking and actions are essential along the way. Maybe it is just easy to forget all of the brilliance because the better the ideas are, the more quickly they become obvious to everyone – as though they had never been invented or discovered in the first place.
I remember awhile ago at a talking tour I had given for Ryan Trecartin’s work at the Power Plant Gallery here in Toronto, I had been asked by someone in the audience (who was skeptical of the brilliance of Trecartin’s work) if the work would still be important in 100 years. I had said – I hope not! I said, I hope it’s such useful work for understanding our time that we’ll completely absorb it into culture and forget that what this artist knew and could express was ever separate from what we knew and what we could express. I said that’s probably why I never thought Picasso was so special – his work probably actually worked, it probably impacted and was absorbed by culture by the time I came around. At which point I was like, duh.
2. Music videos – Beyoncé and The Beastie Boys change things
Beyoncé’s song Run the World (Girls) has given me at least two solid waves of power goosebumps. In the beginning of the song Beyoncé authoritatively sings Girls! we run this motha ___ (yeah!). To me, it sounded like the censors had taken the fucker out of mothafucker and that She is singing Girls! we run this mothafucking (world). You hear this suggested adjective while simultaneously also hearing that it was only ever motha – motha the noun, that the Girls are running the motha (the world). Motha (in a second) suddenly becomes more powerful and crazy than motherfucker ever was or could be. Mothafucker has always been a real challenge – it has such weight. But here Beyoncé brilliantly and effortlessly handed the sinister and seductive weight over to something both more ominous and familiar. Re-appropriation at it’s best. Also (and as usual) the dancing is amazing.
Before watching the 2011 30 minute video written and directed by Adam Yauch Fight For Your Right (Revisited) Full Length (the sequel the Beastie Boys‘ 1987 music video (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) ) I watched the original 1987 music video first. I was surprised at how incredibly slow the original felt. It made me think that things in 1987 must have been ever slower than the video since I had remembered the video as being very exciting. The new one – inexplicably filled with famous actors and comedians – is weighty and strangely fast-feeling for it’s 30 minute length and heavy use of slow motion. The video takes the original premise (of reckless partiers) and simply makes it more real. A more reality-based representation of destruction and stupidity turns out to be incredibly captivating and frightening. After 30 mintues, it is hard to know where the time went but you want to watch it again – this also happens to be the gist of the narrative. More movies from Adam Yauch!
*It is worth watching to the end credits – Seth Rogen walking down the street in slow motion as the credits role is somehow better than any cartoon I have ever seen.
3. THE CLOCK, a 24 hour movie in real time constructed by Christian Marclay
Congratulations to Christian Marclay for making a great piece of art that would even move and intellectually simulate aliens with superior minds who might be shamefully ignorant of our small and complicated art world. This 24 hour movie is comprised of clips, taken from a million different movies, that all feature some indication of the actual time. The clips from these other time/spaces correspond exactly to the real time of the audience watching.
If you haven’t seen it, Zadie Smith wrote a beautiful piece on it here, and Jerry Saltz here. It is simple and big and makes you think of the strangeness of time. You can see a little piece of it on Youtube, though for instance, this clip has the thoughtful request: In order to respect the concept of Christian Marclay’s work, spectators are kindly requested to play this video at 4 pm, local time. If time is passed, please wait for tomorrow or another day same time. Thank you. I hope Marclay puts this work on a 24-hour-moving website soon. This one shouldn’t be hoarded by real space. The aliens need to see this.
4. The Hunger Games - the trilogy by Suzanne Collins
This was recommended to me this year by a lot of tough 12 year old boys. The scenario doesn’t sound exactly promising -”Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television” – but the young adult books are very serious and very pleasurable. The story is about how a revolution begins. In the book, the main instigators for revolution are a tough teenage girl with a bow and arrow, a cool-headed adult fashion designer and a sensitive son-of-a-baker who paints. Of course me and the 12 year old boys loved it.
5. Thank you for television – True Blood and Whale Wars
I was housebound for a good part of 2011 with health problems which led me to watch a lot of television which led me to want to write a letter to the makers of True Blood and thank them – except then I remembered I wasn’t 11 years old. (The houseboundness accounts for my heavy-on-pop-culture list this year). I started watching True Blood after being compelled by a perplexing video that Snoop Dogg (who often shows up in various seemingly random screens around the screen world – maybe to tell us that those screens are real, or that he is real, or simply to help identify that the screens we see him in are from the time of now).
The best thing about True Blood (based on the books by Charlaine Harris and created for television by Alan Ball) is the full insertion of these fantasy characters – vampires, faeries, werewolves – into a reality-based narrative where vampires have to fight for equal rights and where werewolves haven’t yet come out of the closet. This is the only way I can enjoy fantasy, when it is firmly but campily tied to the ground. It is funny when a vampire never lies about being a vampire. The second best thing about the show is that it is more emotionally intelligent than usual, with bad vampires and good vampires, bad Christians and good Christians. The bad vampires often become good and vice versa. And like life, it is the rule that the best (or at least most tolerable) characters occasionally partake in some healthy self-hatred.
I would alternate between this show and Animal Planet’s Whale Wars which my friend Steve Kado had brought over. It’s a documentary television show about environmental pirates battling Japanese whaling ships in order to try and save the whales. If you are also sick, I highly recommend watching these shows together – a near real-life (and dream) simulation.
Best single episode of television this year – the Louis episode where he goes to Afghanistan
In this episode of the show Louis, Louis C.K. travels to Afghanistan to perform his comedy act for the American troops. But while there he finds himself to be (for all narratively practical reasons and with the help of an American cheerleader, a group of Afghan locals and a duckling) suddenly a real clown, with actual white face paint, with everyone around him laughing. It was a brilliant shift for what a contemporary comedian can be – far from (but logically connected to) the standard boring shock-talk of cable comedy specials. Thank you Louis C.K. for making everyone laugh and for trying to end a small piece of the violence with some good self-humiliation.
Speaking of learning how to see oneself as both good and bad, Lars Von Trier seemed to have opened up like a flower this year to mixed results. He was banned from France’s Cannes Film Festival after a misstep at a press conference. It involved Von Trier’s half hearted and confused attempt to make jokes while also maybe trying to say that it might be just as useful for the world to occasionally identify with a monster as it is to identify with a victim. He was inarticulately crossing into dangerous terrain for the delicate people of earth for sure, but getting banned suddenly made France (or at least the Cannes Film Festival) seem like a television show for children.
In a funny way, it was as though Von Trier was being more confused and open himself – less in wry attack mode and more just trying to survive and communicate. Or maybe it was that this feeling was very apparent in his latest feature – Melancholia. Often, the stories for his movies involve a darkly funny punch line with the generosity and depth of his vision reserved for the politics of his structural and aesthetic choices – embedded in every inch of his works.
But in Melancholia the story is more searching and seems more like a story he needs to tell himself than he needs to tell to others. This makes Melancholia feel like one of his deepest works – or at least certainly the most generous. What we need to tell ourselves is often more complicated than what we think the world needs to hear. And the story doesn’t suffer for this searching – the small but piercing details that connect together a story here resonate deeper – they are the kind of details from our own lives that we grasp together and attempt to make stories out of. When the main character Justine (Kristen Dunst) says passionately and convincingly – in a conversation she is having with her sister regarding her wishful certainty that the evil world will end – “I know things”, we feel both in the heart of the only possible meaning one could find in life and also completely lost. It is the attempt at stories that is heartbreaking here – the paradox of making meaning while telling a story of meaninglessness. One of the nicest things that a human could do.
7. Biography & autobiographies big and small
I read a lot of these books this year. They all seemed to fall into one of two categories – feeling very claustrophobic and depressingly small or feeling very big – even when the facts of the lives presented didn’t seem very different. The most fun big-feeling one was John Water’s book Shock Value that my friend Lynn Crosbie gave me. I somehow had never read this before even though I love him. The healthy, generous, positive and curious mind evident in this book is a good reminder of where a lot of great art comes from. It’s hilarious to hear him describe how great everyone was during his Mondo Trasho days, from the local priest to the owner’s of the hair salon he accidentally flooded in a film shoot. Clearly, he is a very easy man to get along with.
Sempre Susan, a short and pleasurable book about Susan Sontag written by Sigrid Nunez, also fell into the bigger category – even though I came to it because it was being passed around gleefully on a summer cottage trip after its original owner described it as a high-class gossipy People magazine article. And though this description was true, the book also is also simple and quiet and good with lots of room to move around in and take things in. The space it allowed me made me think of Sarah Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay a beautiful memoir detailing a prolonged illness the author suffered. The two books are similar mainly in that both writers were writing about something they were so entwined in without bothering to mention in any great detail their own fraught feelings or inner turmoil, even as their presence was right there next to you the whole time. The resulting powerful intimacy of both books reminds us that for finding love, excessive emotional transparency might not be the way, but you do probably have to get naked.
8. Movie directors waving their hands in front of the camera
I saw Moussa Touré’s Poussieres de ville in a program of short works curated by Jean-Marie Teno called Reframing Africa 1: Representation or Reality?. In Touré’s movie, we first see young boys wake up in odd positions in various stalls at an empty market. The work is immediately playful and visually compelling which makes it a bit hard to tell off the bat if it is a fiction or a documentary exactly. As the work progresses, questions start to come from behind the camera, asking the boys more specific questions regarding their homelessness. Near the end of this 52 minute work, hands emerge to offer clothes and new backpacks. And then, with even more presence but also more uncertainty, the hands deliver the kids each to separate relations who may or may not look after them. I am very sympathetic to this solution – you do the best you can with the information you have before you.
Documentary movie-making can have some pretty crazy and uptight rules. It was great to see a director allow themselves to be a logical human participant in relation to the complicated subject matter before them, and to react in the best way they knew how – rather than a director who thinks that their objective distance is useful (or even possible). In Poussieres de ville, high-minded silliness was abandoned for deceptively simple thoughtfulness.
Werner Herzog’s engagement with subject came out too in his recent Into the Abyss; A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life . He introduces himself to a young prisoner on death row before he begins an interview with him. Herzog says to the young man (in essence): I am sympathetic to your situation, I feel for you and your situation – and that doesn’t mean that I have to like you, but I am sympathetic.
This scene made me think of an art movie I had coincidentally watched the day before with my friend Amy Lam at University of Toronto’s Justina M. Barnicke Gallery. It was a work from Dutch artist Renzo Martens called Enjoy Poverty. Enjoy Poverty is comprised of footage from Martens time spent in the Congo. His intentionally simplistic and painfully committed approach – that involved his desire and attempt to help people in poverty by getting them to consider their poverty as a commodity to sell – was conceptually smart and tight. But unfortunately, the director’s character feels like all cruel fiction (to prove a point) and the world he is engaging with that feels like all fact. So as you see him engage with yet another poor local, saying something intentionally naive and stinging (he is committed!) it very often looks like the local is doing their best not to cry. I am guessing we (the audience) were supposed to feel like villains alongside the director, but we feel like the victims too.
I love art that engages with the reality of the world and that uses persona, specifically the persona of the director, to create a story. Even better, sometimes, if the director generously plays the villain. But I always think it’s most interesting when there is fact and fiction mixed together in a persona – it is always much less like a cartoon and always more strange. Watching Enjoy Poverty made me think of a Hollywood comedy that I really understood, Tropic Thunder – specifically a scene where one of the actors playing another actor talks to one of the other actors while they are doing some acting in the jungle. The wiser actor tells the other actor (in regards to winning Oscars), “Everybody knows you never go full retard man. .. never go full retard. You don’t buy that? Go ask Sean Penn 2001, I Am Sam, remember? Went full retard. Went home empty handed.”
Herzog is an expert at being comfortable with (or intrigued by) his subjects’ discomfort on film – and with his booming voice coming from behind the camera, he often doesn’t see so far off from a villain. But in this scene where he introduces himself to the young man, you see the complications and bravery involved in being a real human – even one who is playing.
Apart from all that, Into the Abyss is also deceptively simple and full of enormous depth. Part of its success (apart from the incredible storytelling craft evident in the way the questions were asked and how the editing was done) is in the equal time that Herzog gives to everyone involved in the execution: a sister of one of the murder victims, a brother of the other, the accused murderer’s collaborator, the collaborator’s wife, the minister at the prison, the executioner, etc. The suffering of the executioner was particularly eye opening. The story that emerges from these subjects (especially in relation to the various generations involved) hints at something old and sinister and alive – something even more chilling the calm facade of one psychopath.
Helen DeWitt’s novel feels like a Kafka fable written by a friendly can-do American from the future who filled it, using a confident steady-hand, with insane pornography, solid jokes and an optimistic (or chilling) matter-of-factness about dealing with people not as they should be, but as they are. I wish this book was small enough to allow for teenagers to keep it in their back pockets. DeWitt received a lot of accolades for her first novel “The Last Samarui”, but the deceptively simple and strangely clear Lightning Rods is, in my opinion, the real masterpiece.
Instead of the desert, in this Planet of the Apes, we have the lush and moist San Francisco. That, right off the bat, makes this Planet of the Apes infinitely more watchable. Also the more ape-like and less human-like apes, makes it infinitely less creepy. But the strange and exciting this about this movie, apart from the AWESOMENESS THAT ONE DESIRES FROM A GREAT HOLLYWOOD MOVIE, is that it’s less a metaphor for human rights than it is actually about animal rights. Sitting in the audience at the multiplex, it seemed suddenly like the first Hollywood blockbuster I had ever seen that dealt seriously with animal rights. These monkeys represented monkeys! It can take awhile, but eventually you’ll get a crazy story right.
11. Songs and paintings
I came across the book 1000 paintings while I was staying at my friends Jean and Mic’s place in Thunder Bay (the book had been a gift). I hadn’t seen anyone in a few weeks and somehow, as a leisure activity, I had a great time looking at every single painting in sequence. This painting from Maruyama Ōkyo was my favourite. True Blood television enriched my love for Neko Case’s song Wish I was the Moon. It does what most good songs do – makes your bad feelings seem useful. And Efrim Menuck’s album Plays “High Gospel”, which first caught me with the beautiful song I Am No Longer a Motherless Child, proved to be good company when I went back to work making paintings – a good album if you need to get to a deeper place fast – and are too tired to go alone.
ALSO *My boyfriend Misha Glouberman and my best friend Sheila Heti wrote a great book called The Chairs Are Where the People Go – that I am perhaps too close to to add to my year end list, but luckily The New Yorker added it to theirs.