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On the Genre of “In Conversation”: David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, Authors at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Sept. 19, 2012

(Picture swiped from Hazlitt.)

by Carl Wilson

There were some high points to the staged discussion this week in Toronto between musician/much-else David Byrne and author/Internet activist Cory Doctorow, on the occasion of Byrne’s tour for his terrific-sounding book How Music Works. But they didn’t stop the feeling that this conversation shouldn’t have taken place in this form  at all.

For example, Byrne recounted a conversation with his 22-year-old daughter about copyright, in which he said that under current rules his work would go on supporting her financially long after he was ­dead, and that he thought this was kind of a bad thing, both for the art (which would not join the public domain as it should) and (he implied) for her own autonomy. Sorry, honey!

For his part, Doctorow passionately made a case that the business model that evolved in the 20th century for musical cover versions – the original creators can’t prevent anyone from covering their songs as long as they’re paid a royalty – should in fact be a model for how all copyright, especially online, works. He elegantly argued that music as a human practice long predates the existence of commercial markets for it, and that the only sane way to develop systems of regulation is to make them true to the spirit of the historical norms that surround it, such as that anyone ought to be able to sing any song, in public, and that any reasonable definition of public in the 21st century includes, for example, YouTube.

But there were assymetries in their conversational style that made for an uncomfortable evening, and not in a particularly enlightening way. Byrne is an artist whose social awkwardness (although much mellowed by age) is part of his essential makeup, as is his logical but lateral thinking, and his kind of savant-ish gift for deriving abstract proposition from experience via free-associative rumination. (It’s how he finds himself a city, picks a building that he wants to live in – it’s over there – water flowing underground, into the blue again.) And while he’s a very savvy user of technology for someone of his generation, I don’t think he has immensely much to tell us about the Internet that any intelligent person who’s been paying attention doesn’t also know.

Doctorow, meanwhile, is a professional opinion-giver, a whip-smart advocate for strong positions on contemporary technology and society. Where Byrne conversates a bit like a chickadee lighting from twig to palm with a beakful of seed, Doctorow expounds like an eloquent atheist preacher at the digital pulpit.

Guess which one took up most of the verbal space? Not the person most of the audience was there to hear. As I joked afterwards, when a lot of the audience heard the publicity for a conversation between David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, they heard, “David Byrne and Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah.” (Insert Peanuts teacher voice/Far Side “Ginger” cartoon here.)

That’s no slight against Doctorow. The situation did him the greater disservice, making much of the audience turn against him, frustrated they weren’t hearing more from the better-known personality (at least in the demographic that is likely to attend a $25-ticketed literary conversation). No one was going to hold it against David Byrne.

Much beyond the specific miscasting of these two as conversational partners for an audience (I’m sure as conversational partners on their own they’d have a great time), there are general lessons here.

A while ago, I was very kindly brought out to Portland to do a presentation about my work to a university audience. Even more kindly, the organizers thought that since I’d come all that way, we should put on another public event in town. Who else should be on the bill? Portland has a lot of interesting personalities, and to my surprise after some casting about, Frank Black (aka Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis of the Pixies) agreed to participate.

Come that night, even though the themes of our conversation were organized around my book, of course most people who came to the show were there to see Frank Black (in the Q&A they kept trying to get him to sing songs). I was the “Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah” on that bill. The only real option for the relatively obscure critic-author on stage with the famous musician was to fall into the role of his interviewer. Charles was extremely gracious and I really enjoyed the experience on many levels, but ultimately, as an event purportedly about my book, it didn’t make much sense.

Let’s derive a few rules of thumb from these stories. (I’m indebted to post-show conversation partners, Misha Glouberman, Chris Frey, Rebecca Payne, Emily Keeler and Charles Yao.) They may even apply to life beyond staged events.

a) When two people are going to be “in conversation,” in public, they ideally should be about equally familiar to the audience. Or something about the situation might mean that they each attract half a crowd, to whom one is familiar and the other is obscure and vice-versa, and your goal might be to introduce these two publics to one another.

b) The subject matter should be something in which they’re both fluent, though hopefully from different angles. (It also should be neither unhelpfully general nor smotheringly specific. A pointed question is a good starting point. The Harbourfront event’s question was “Wassup Internet?” Enough said.)

c) When that’s not possible or desirable for some reason, don’t play the less-well-known person for a patsy. The simplest thing might be to say upfront that they’re interviewing the better-known person. Bonus points: A very good trick can be to have the better-known person be billed as interviewing the less-known person. This can bestow a glow of generosity to the whole proceeding.

d) If that’s not what you want, there is a solution: a moderator, who relieves the speakers of visible responsibility (and blame) for guiding the conversation. A good moderator will help keep the share of time in balance. A really good moderator can also lend shape to a conversation that might otherwise ramble on endless tangents. A great moderator can do all that while seeming invisible.

e) If all else fails, you can alleviate a great many sins by bringing the audience into the conversation. At heart why should a question-and-answer period be so much shorter than the period speakers spend deciding the subject matter? The crowd is often much more dynamic. Obviously, again, a moderator needs to keep the Q&A on track, but I’d be as happy to go to a show that was all Q&A and zero meandering speaker as vice-versa.

In fact, the nicest moment the whole night was when a very young man came up and asked Byrne if he could repeat the name of the song he’d said he heard as a young man himself, whose sound “let him know there was something else out there.” Byrne paused for a moment, confused, and then answered, “Oh, you mean by the Byrds?” I think so, the young man said. And then very carefully copied in pen on his notepad, syllable by syllable, echoing Byrne’s answer out loud: “Mis-ter… Tam … bour… ine… Man?” In case we needed reminding that you can never assume worlds overlap. (People laughed, but it was just amazingly sweet.)

Ultimately, any form of entertainment that solely consists of somebody or somebodies speaking, if they are not just telling jokes, is dicey. It is only so much fun to listen to people talk and not to talk back, unless it’s very lively and engaging. There are a million ways for it to go wrong and the only way for it to go right is for someone to think through, carefully and conscientiously, “Just what is this going to be like?” Otherwise it is dubious that it should be done at all.

And this is worth talking about right now because these kinds of staged conversations and lectures and such have retaken a central place in our culture – the decline of print and rise of the digital-virtual somehow combining to generate a keener hunger for physical presence and non-fiction discourse than previously in my lifetime, like a return to the days of the chalk talk and Mark Twain. And, as it was then, it’s becoming one of the few ways writers can make a living. If that’s how it’s going to be, it should itself be a kind of art, not an afterthought.

PS: If you’re interested in this general subject, this series of video chats between Misha Glouberman and speakers’ agent David Lavin might be worth watching.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, events, lectures, music

Tuesday Musics: “All Women Are Bitches,” Fifth Column, 1992

by Carl Wilson

All excited to go see Kevin Hegge’s documentary He Said Boom (that’s a great interview about it) on Toronto queercore/riotgrrrl-goddamnothers Fifth Column tonight in Hot Docs in Toronto. Was looking for the mid-8os zine/7″ flavour, but didn’t feel satisfied, and this is the better visual, but finally went for the hit.

(Tuesday Musics will get less nostalgic someday, promise.)

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Vagabond (1985) – written and directed by Agnès Varda

by Margaux Williamson

(My friend Amy Lam asked if I wanted to go see this at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto. I had seen it before, but only once on my television. We ran into our friend Jon Davies in the theatre and sat next to him. After the movie Jon told us that this particular Vagabond screening had a no-popcorn-allowed policy. Amy and I were pretty surprised by this information though we hadn’t wanted any popcorn.)


Vagabond is about a young female drifter named Mona who lives mostly in a tent that she carries on her back, having abandoned the accepted needs, requirements and rules of polite society. Vagabond could also easily be described as a movie about filmmaker Agnès Varda’s curiosity with a young female drifter. It is one of Varda’s first movies to combine a documentary approach with fictional content – an interest that eventually drew her out of the “French New Wave Legend” category and into the “Influential Contemporary Genius” category.

The movie begins with Mona’s dead body lying in the cold landscape of a French vineyard. Varda tells us, from behind the camera, that this young woman seemed to have come from nowhere and that now she is gone without anyone coming to claim her body. Varda tells us that she wants to know what her story was – as best as it can be understood. She says she wants to gather information from the people who came across Mona in her drifting in order to find Mona’s story.

And so we start again – with the living Mona coming out of the water. The movie follows the rest of her actions and her interactions (and the testaments of those who interacted with her) until her death. It all takes place in the south of France. Some of the interview subjects offer their judgments of Mona and reveal their prejudices – others express admiration and curiosity. These reactions may not be surprising, but it is compelling that most of the admiration and curiosity comes from the women, old and young. Many of the performers are non-actors. Perhaps it is because Varda is so adapt at directing “play” that the performances from the non-actors fit in so seamlessly with the “actors” and with the loose and direct style of the whole movie. There is a real sense that everyone is “at play” at telling an incredibly serious story.

The characters include Mona’s employers for a short time, lovers for a brief moment, hitched rides that end quickly, and casual companions who are easily lost. These characters end up circling each other, too, at different times and places. It starts to look like a small world with cause and effect. We see a community being created through Mona even as she holds herself away from it. These intricately webbed interactions seem a little bit more fairy tale than realistic but we understand this fairy tale is based on evidence from the real world. Along with Varda, we are telling ourselves a story about Mona too. It is often challenging avoiding the human tendency to make stories – to make order out of random interactions. This movie does not repress the urge to connect the dots. It is the movie’s primary pleasure.

In the narrative hunt to learn who Mona is, we start to see a map of the south of France as traced by Mona – the rich people, the labourers, the small towns, the vineyard landscapes. Mona doesn’t let anyone (not even the audience) into her thoughts and feelings. We feel grateful for this, grateful for this expanse of land outside human neurosis.

We feel grateful too that Varda is more curious about Mona than pitying. Maybe it’s because Mona wants no help, represses nothing and desires little that there is a notable lack of tension around her. Her brutal honesty and lack of social discretion and generosity do her no favours – we see her get kicked out early from a ride because she insults the driver’s car, unprompted. But we also know that she wasn’t really going anywhere anyway so it made no difference that she got kicked out. Her lack of repression combined with her lack of need creates a palatable absence of social anxiety – at least for Mona and for us in the audience who may be inclined to feel sorry for her.

The original French title for this movie translates as “with no roof and no law”. Unfortunately, living without rules comes with its own joyless burden. Boredom trails Mona’s lack of social anxiety like a disease. It is boring to not need anything – to not give anything. We only see Mona’s desire ignited, and boredom lifted, on the rare occasions that she drifts by a radio and hears rock n’ roll.

Like the differing opinions of Mona help by the characters she comes across, the audiences will have a million different opinions about Vagabond. For me, it made me think that too much freedom from society can feel less like rock n’roll and a lot more like a muddy, boring entropy.

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Filed under margaux williamson, movies

B2TW’s 100,000th Word Party: Guests Announced!

Last month, we announced an overdue launch party for B2TW. It’s happening on March 23, at Double Double Land; $5 will get you in the door. And now we can reveal the interesting locals who’ll be meeting for the first time onstage:

Ryan Kamstra and Alex Lukashevsky will talk about writing songs not like a man.

Jon McCurley and Michael McManus will talk about acting.

Shary Boyle and Jordan Tannahill will talk about fantasy lands (on Earth or elsewhere).

All this plus drinks, chatting, dancing (courtesy of DJ Daniel Vila) and five-minute choreographic lessons from Amelia Ehrhardt. (Topics, lines and motives of conversation are up to you.) Chris will be the host, but what will our 100,000th word be? Come and find out!

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, events, margaux williamson

The Bands that Don’t Reform, by Antony Harding and Darren Hayman

by Carl Wilson

Hefner, in their salad days, with singer Darren Hayman at left, drummer Ant Harding second from right.

I’m beavering away on my lecture for next week’s 2011 Pop Conference in Los Angeles, where both Chris and I will be presenting among tons of other prominent nerdz. I’ll be schematizing the various ways artists have violated or repositioned the “fourth wall” in their music and how that may or may not relate to reality TV, creative nonfiction and other recent phenomena. I’m not sure if this example is going to fit into the talk (it’s a bit slight) but it tickled me to stumble across it.

Darren Hayman (last seen on B2TW posting a song a day in January) has just put up a single that he recorded with his ex-Hefner bandmate Antony Harding a couple of years ago, “The Bands that Don’t Reform.” The meta-reflexive-whatchamacallit of the project is evident in the title, of course: Here are two members of a band that’s not reforming nevertheless semi-reuniting,  and flirting with the subject in an era when many groups of their ’90s vintage such as Pavement and the Pixies were getting back out on the road to finally get a payday proportionate to their reputations.

But the wink gets more strobe-like in velocity on the very pretty song itself, which turns out to be the story of a couple in the throes of disillusion: “Something here ain’t right/ I loved you at first sight, so why don’t I love you tonight?” They run down all the traits that are driving them apart and reach out in desperation (“tired of getting no sleep”) to “count the things we both believe,” of which there seems to be only one: “We love the bands that don’t reform.”

It could read as a pretty thin joke about a couple of those aforementioned nerdz realizing that they only have their petty music-fanatic dogma left in common, but there’s a second, more bittersweet layer: If they don’t think even the relatively minor business of a rock band trying to reunite has any hope of a good result, then why are they trying to glue together a couple of split-up hearts?

These scenarios seem to melt into each other as the song goes on; many details involve driving from place to place and having mishaps (though also seeing beautiful scenery) like a band on tour. As they explain elsewhere, the love story is a camouflage: The song is about how “they were both crazy when they were in Hefner,” and aren’t crazy anymore, and so won’t ever take the chance of starting that project up again.

Which is another mirror-within-a-mirror: In the song, they’re the audience not wanting their favourite bands’ selfish profit- or glory-seeking to spoil memories of things past; but behind the half-opened fourth wall, they’re musicians with private reasons not to reunite though their fans persist in wanting them to.

Although they don’t say reunite; they say reform, with its other meaning of  shedding bad old habits, becoming a healthier, more law-abiding citizen, not crazy anymore. So the song whispers under its breath, “You don’t want us back like that, anyway, reconstituted as some bland grownup working unit. You want us crazy.”

As Bill Hicks once put it, “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! ‘Mommy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble on his nose.’ Shut up and listen to him play!”

On the other hand,  Bill Hicks is dead, and while it was cancer not the drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, it may be his own reform came too late. Besides, Hefner were never exactly the trashing-hotel-room types; they were the critics’-darlings-who-look-and-sound-like-critics kinda band.

So this song sees both sides, tells its ambiguous story with a loping, lullaby-like lilt rather than a Hicks-like roar. They still play from their hearts; those hearts are just calmer, and heavier, now, and they play them as they lay, and let sleeping bands lie, in both senses of the word, as we ought to expect by this point.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop – a movie by Banksy, starring Thierry Guetta

by Margaux Williamson

(I rented this movie recently and didn’t watch it. Then I saw it lying on my friend Carl Wilson’s coffee table and asked to take it home. I managed to not watch it again but did pay some more overdue movie money. More recently, I ended up watching it one night as it came through my television from the internet while I sat on my bed with three friends. We all liked it more than we thought we would. I think. )


We start out in Exit through the Gift Shop with a lot of amateurish, rough and beautiful video footage. It has supposedly been shot by the star of the movie, a mustachioed and side-burned Frenchman living in California. The Frenchman is named Thierry. He is obsessed first with videotaping everything in his daily life and then with taping famous street artists at work. His obsession does not come with discipline but the years of it has lead to a hoard of unwatched videotapes, the casual neglect of his wife and children, and an introduction to the elusive British artist Banksy. Banksy is an artist who works anonymously and has an unconfirmed identity. In the movie we meet him but do not see his face.

Banksy (the more disciplined and purposeful obsessive) encourages Thierry to make a movie out of the videotapes. Thierry comes up with an old-fashioned avant-garde mess. After Banksy see the video, he encourages Thierry to leave the tapes with him and let him see what he could do with them. He encourages Thierry to take a break and maybe have an art show. As Thierry initiates a giant art show of his creation under the name Mr. Brainwash, Banksy makes Exit through the Gift Shop.

Exit through the Gift Shop is presented as a documentary. We see bits of Thierry’s sweet private life as shot by him. We are told stories about the narrative by Thierry and Banksy and also by the American street artist Shepard Fairey. We watch the pretty remarkable collected footage of street artists in action. When Banksy takes over the movie, we watch Thierry try to be an artist, to put his tag over other artists work, to put on his art show. We watch the public line up and buy his work.

I have read one movie critic who saw Exit through the Gift Shop as a straight up documentary and another, as a complete hoax. My default viewing position for most movies involves being comfortable being “a sucker” who is often mesmerized by story and flashing lights, as well as taking pleasure in my subjective position that often has no access (or admittedly, curiosity) about the “authentic” origin or intention of the work that I’m watching.

What helps even more in the case of Exit through the Gift Shop is that in all conceivable possibilities for how this movie was made, it is pretty easy to see that someone with a talented and thoughtful hand was making the most of their resources.

Imagine if the movie began with a room full of videotapes with the creator explaining that they had gathered hundreds of hours of footage of street art, shot by a mess of street-artist and their friends, and was now going to try to make something that the world should see.

Sometimes a lie wastes our time less and gives us more. Even if the movie is 100 percent true, Banksy’s nudging of Thierry to create an art show and leave him with the footage is a construction. A way of making art in the world from real things in the world. Pretty similar to what Banksy got himself famous for.

In Exit through the Gift Shop, we see a room full of videotapes, shot by one man, a man obsessed but, unfortunately, also overwhelmed. Here we demand order or crave it. Please, we think, make some sense of this man’s obsession. Free the disciplined artists caught by this fool.

I should mention that this fool has true gifts. In one scene as he sits in a backyard, looking at the camera and grasping for words to explain the feelings he had when he met Banksy for the first time – the performance is beautiful. Whether he is an actual street-art obsessive fan, or an amiable friend improvising, or France’s great actor – he nailed it.

The movie is accessible, clear, humorous, thought-provoking and entertaining. Or, to say it another way as one critic did, nothing new! But that is the wonderful thing about some great art – especially great street art. Communicating pain, politics and playfulness with clarity, lightness and charm should never be discounted as old-hat. It is always the hardest trick.

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Filed under margaux williamson, movies, visual art

How Should a Person Be, Teenager Hamlet and Don’t Go to School: MFA, Oct. 14, 2010

by Carl Wilson

Tonight, in a couple of hours, three of my closest friends are holding a launch party for the results of their three respective long-term projects, a novel and a movie and an album.

They all examine the relationship of life to art, using the people and places right around them as their subjects and sources. (It’s less obvious with the album, but we tend to forget that almost always when a band plays, we’re listening to a set of dynamic relationships in space; the “community band” element of Tomboyfriend emphasizes that.) They also served as each others’ characters and aides-de-camp.

The launch party takes place in a bar basically across the street from the apartment where I lived in the years they worked on their projects. And that seems apt. I was a participant too: I played a plump, pasty-skinned, city-slickened swamp ghost in the play-within-the-movie, the “ex-husband” around the peripheries of the action of the novel, and the music critic doing what he can do for friends-within-a-band. But mostly I was in another room, at middle distance, framed by a window, finishing my own project, my own book about art and life, which likewise involved them, though mostly less visibly. I almost wish I hadn’t finished it so long ago so I could be launching it tonight too. Instead, I marked the occasion by moving out of that apartment.

There are many tests and lessons involved in being a close part but not a collaborator in other people’s projects. Some have to do with ego, with the way the bubble can envelop you in warm inclusion but then pop you out into chilly dispossession. It’s good for the metabolism to get used to the coming-and-going.

More importantly it’s really educational to be sampled – that is, to be reproduced, in snippets, to be recontextualized and rewritten, to meet a blurry third-gen doppleganger who sounds more like someone else. Most of us aren’t 1970s funk musicians so we’re probably more accustomed to being on the other side. We may be accustomed to being linked or quoted in social media, but being sampled is a more intense sense of self-displacement. To adapt to your life being sampled may be a 21st-century necessity.

That it’s a little harder than you expect gives you sympathy for some of those older artists who take the copyright issue so much more personally than the scope of the financial issues involved. There’s the nightmare vision of being disassembled and reassembled atom by atom in a Star Trek transporter, but put back together in an utterly wrong order. (See also Cronenberg’s The Fly.) Or the subtler nightmare of being reassembled perfectly and yet no longer being “right.” Yet it is also deeply meditative, allowing oneself to be copied, mistranslated: When you think, “Wait, that’s no longer myself,” the next natural step is to wonder whether it was yourself to begin with and whether there is such an animal as yourself or whether you would recognize it if you met it.

So sweetly intoxicating to dare to think not, especially when a crowd of people are daring it with you (out of bravado, perhaps, too proud to be the one to say no, but it doesn’t really matter why, only that you did). It’s becoming the done thing, perhaps, in commercial and fame-economy culture to look at reality as a liquid commodity, worth more in exchange than in savings. But when what you’re buying with it is a dispersal rather than a magnification of self, it seems different enough to matter, which may be as far away from a dominant paradigm as one is usually able to get. Anyway I’m going to let me be proud of us, tonight.

My friends have themed their event as a kind of senior prom for their collective auto-didactic artists’ post-grad education (their autonomous “MFA”), but I think of it like a wedding, perhaps because I also think of all their projects as love stories. (Any launch is like one’s wedding anyway – you are obliged to talk to every person there, you mostly miss the actual party, and you’re completely exhausted by the end.) So I’ve composed a brief epithalamium for the occasion – in places, since fair isn’t fair, reappropriating lines from their works and others. Here’s to being foxy in one another’s henhouses.

From an Extra in the Movie,
Novel and Album of Your Lives

By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame
That I don’t have to participate in. It’s the real guilty
Pleasure – like sex with animals: Licking Crisco
Off a gibbon’s tongue. Consent doesn’t equal silence,
But you can’t make an omerta without breaking legs,
As Aunt Jemima said to Jimmy Hoffa at the Inferno Disco
Roller Rink between choruses of “Bad Girls.”

Both their mothers were out at the pro-capitalist marches,
And they needed new ideological parasols
But didn’t have the language, or the polkadots.
When buttons came in, about 1650, private life was
Completely transformed. The purpose was
To leave them
unbuttoned. Leave more
To be abandoned without visible support by the imagination.

I know you only made it with me to help you
Make it without me. And it looks suspiciously
Like we made it out alive, but that might just be Art.
(Ho ho, did any actor ever have a better name than
Art Carney? It’s all the barnumanbaileying ballyhoo
Of the old commedia long con, in one pow
Straight to the moon, where love is just a word.)

If you’re not better off than dead here, where they all
Speak Esperanto underneath the ground,
You can’t make it anywhere. It’s up to you, new yore,
To be the first generation to swear off posterity
And disappear
Down the block, red-rain slatternly with all your
Fire-engine cherries on, three emergencies to go
Unanswered but arm in arm in arm.

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