Tag Archives: avant-garde

Tea with Chris: ‘Is Your Hate Pure?’

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Thursday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Margaux: Uugh. James Cameron, director of faux-moral movies, buys a lot of land in another country. This seems so real-wrong. Are people really still allowed to buy land?

A video of how your environment can affect you!

This is such a weirdly entertaining article on the Occupy Wall Street Summer Camp by Alan Feuer.  When there is not an intoxicating swell of action, patience and humour prove nourishing .

The teenagers of the Torontonians and the art company Mammalian Diving Reflex (with Darren O’Donnell in the mix) are having a sleepover at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel on the night of August 10th. The event is called Dare Night: Lockdown, sleepover with one eye open – An all-night horrifying sleepover dare-filled lockdown night. These aren’t the boring old-fashioned art days where the artists on stage challenge the bourgeois audience with difficult ideas about how culture should be and send that audience home so they can think about that. These are the new days, when the artists simply change all the rules for one night (or in this case 17 hours) and the audience job is to endure a new world. I can assure you, as someone who sometimes hesitates to “participate” in art, other than probably being completely delighted, you’d also probably be completely safe here. Sort of. Maybe. Begins August 10 at 7 pm, ends August 11, 12:00pm (17 HORRIFYING HOURS!). Free.

“This is the way the world ends” – A thoughtful article from Terrence Rafferty on the new crop of unheroic apocalyptic movies. My favourite: “Humanity is about to expire, but this time it’s personal.”

Carl: I don’t know why but my teacup is overflowing this week.

This account of the “increasingly bizarre and beyond logic” trial of the Pussy Riot art-activists in Moscow is at once entertaining and appalling. Another perspective on the case comes from Natalie Zina Walschots, who writes about other cases of prosecution of heavy-metal musicians who “stand in the sacred heart of things and scream.”

Here is Jacob Wren doing his own screaming as he generously blogs his novel in progress, Rich and Poor. The kinds of issues Jacob likes to masticate – class, violence, money, art, complicity – are also the meat of this conversation between art critic Martha Buskirk and Alexis Clements of the “Hyperallergic” website, titled “Art’s Corrosive Success.” And another angle on the art world’s insular economy comes from Allx Rule and David Levine in this satirical attack on “International Art English.”

Two great foes of corrosive success (whatever other corrosions they succumbed to) died in the past week or so, Gore Vidal and Alexander Cockburn. Neither produced a masterpiece, except for their lives. Vidal, that terrible-wonderful patrician-queen walking paradox, is being feted everywhere. But Cockburn, who was a columnist for The Nation when I worked there (Vidal also had a long association with the magazine), is less widely remembered today. My favourite comment about him this week came from a friend: “He was the real Christopher Hitchens” – that is, the fearless and unkowtowing political critic and scourge that Hitchens set himself up to be but too often let down (as his former friend Cockburn lamented). Michael Tomasky’s appreciation is ambivalent but does get at what was important about Alex; his former editor (and a former mentor of mine) JoAnn Wypijewski’s more personal tribute gets at what was beautiful about him:

“Is your hate pure?” he would ask a new Nation intern, one eyebrow raised, in merriment or inquisition the intern was unsure. It was a startling question, but then this was—it still is—a startling time. For what the ancients called avarice and iniquity Alex’s hate was pure, and across the years no writer had a deadlier sting against the cruelties and dangerous illusions, the corruptions of empire. But, oh, how much more he was the sum of all he loved.

So let us celebrate our surviving scourges: Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury nailed one of the most neglected scandals of the current U.S. election season, vote-suppression legislation, with his historically acute series this month, “Jimmy Crow’s Comeback Tour.” And few have been paying heed while Canadian doctors stand up against similarly prejudicial bullshit on our side of the border, the Harper government’s cutoff of health care services to refugee applicants.

All right, enough. Now I have to go decide whether to make snack chips out of prosciutto or kale. Maybe I’ll mix them up together. Like a pussy riot! Like a pussy galore!

Chris: Terrible-wonderful patrician-queen and a gourmand-vulture too. When news of Vidal’s death emerged the first thing I thought of was Suddenly, Last Summer, the gloriously overwrought melodrama he worked on with frenemy Tennessee Williams (who once said of Vidal and Truman Capote, sounded both appalled and impressed, that “you would think they were running neck-and-neck for some fabulous gold prize”). Being a member of the cohort that learned about queerness from John Waters’ Simpsons cameo, this was the second thing: “Friends? Ha! These are my only friends: Grown-up nerds like Gore Vidal. And even he’s kissed more boys than I ever will.”

Dan Bejar explains a fair number of Dan Bejar songs: “I always loved music, but listening to rock seemed kind of gauche. It was not something that a human actually does; it was like some other world. The idea of it seemed very exotic.”

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

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

“A Can-Can on the Tightrope of Logic” (Notes on Eccentrism)

by Chris Randle

Most of the radical modernist ideas circulating in 1920s Russia, whether Alexandra Kollontai’s Soviet feminism or extreme forms of artistic abstraction, were snuffed out scant years later by Stalinist repressions. Eccentrism wilted from lack of interest. I came across the short-lived movement’s hyperactive manifesto last week. In the introduction to that republished edition, translator Marek Pytel writes that its original 1922 printing was limited to 1000 copies; many were destroyed in a house fire. The Eccentrists did find some temporary popularity, or at least notoriety: Pytel describes them “disrupting the performances of ‘academic’ theatres with whistles, rattles and catcalls…they astounded guest speakers rash enough to mention the words ‘sentiment’ or ’emotion’ by smashing every stick of furniture in the place.” Punk rock?

The basic Eccentrist thesis was that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton represented the truest avant-garde yet seen. Slapstick’s physical impossibilities were a model for political aspiration. I imagine this got a lot of contemporary reactions akin to the early gnostic sect which believed that Cain was Christianity’s real martyr. One member of “the Factory of the Eccentric Actor” (FEKS) wrote: “life requires art that is hyperbolically crude, stupendous, nerve-wracking, openly utilitarian, mechanically-precise, momentary, rapid.” They openly urged “Americanization” of the theatre. The implication was that the masses will be their own vanguard, artistic or otherwise.

The central Eccentric text can be maddening reading – its authors were all young men (a couple still teenagers), and even by manifesto standards their rhetoric sometimes overheats. At one point they declare: “THE 200 VOLUMES OF GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM DO NOT OFFER THE EXPRESSIVITY OF ONE SOLE CIRCUS POSTER!!!” There are several citations of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a like-minded Italian Futurist whose aesthetic fixation on speed, violence and machinery soon led him to stridently support Mussolini. Not long after the FEKS manifesto was published, Marinetti argued that “imposition of [Italian empire] will be an act of faith-force, a defiant youthful improvisation, a work of art miraculously blossoming.”

But the Eccentrists didn’t turn totalitarian, perhaps because they were too playful for that. Their theoretical writings are remarkably sly and self-mocking; they charm rather than bellow. A typical  slogan says: “Charlie’s bum is more precious to us than Eleonora Duse!” They exalted roller skates over ballet pumps, and declared themselves the children of jazz bands, slang, torch singers, cinema, dance crazes and cheap pulp thrillers – might as well throw Marx and Coca-Cola in too. They once distributed their manifesto by randomly tossing it from a moving car. They’re very easy to like.

Although that original Eccentrist document had little immediate influence, several of its main authors continued experimenting with these ideas in the nascent Soviet film industry. Most of their ’20s productions are lost, and I haven’t watched any of the survivors. But I know that affection for mass culture became a broader intellectual trend over the period. Socialist utopias were explored in literally hundreds of SF novels and “Red Pinkerton” detective thrillers (lone Soviet blockbuster Aelita, Queen of Mars posited extraterrestrial revolution amidst Constructivist sets). Shostakovich wrote the score for one Eccentric-directed picture. Eisenstein shook hands with Mickey Mouse. You could place all this near the beginning of a narrative about shifting notions of cultural taste, one extending onwards to Warhol and camp and music-critic “poptimism.”

If that story doesn’t quite have a happy ending, at least it’s a fruitfully confusing one. Whereas the Soviet experiment congealed into a lethal bureaucracy, for art and so much else, after one chaotic decade. You can see it coming onscreen. From what I’ve read, the Eccentrists’ later films were identifiably Marxist, but in tense, ambivalent and even subversive ways that would soon be absolutely verboten. In 1927 director Abram Room, who knew the Eccentrics Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, made Bed and Sofa. It’s about a revolutionary young menage-a-trois who try to love one another as communists before realizing they can’t. The USSR’s film industry devolved into grotesque spectacles like 1949’s The Fall of Berlin, a WWII epic I stared at for three hours in a class last year; in one scene Stalin tells the lovelorn hero “don’t be afraid of poetry.”

There’s a DC Comics outfit called the Doom Patrol, a trashy superhero team that the Eccentrists probably would’ve dug. Each member was a freakish misfit, maimed, traumatized or alienated from society during the same event that gave them bizarre powers. The characters were relaunched multiple times until a new creative team took over in the late ’80s and infected the series with psychedelia, conspiracism and copious Burroughs.

Their new arch-foes were the Brotherhood of Dada, supervillains with a grudge against “consensus reality,” whose totally irrational schemes included transforming Paris into a giant artwork and mounting a surreal presidential campaign via the lysergic resonance of Albert Hofmann’s bicycle. The Brotherhood’s creator has said that he felt forced to kill them off when they became more popular than his ostensible heroes. I mention all this because it sounds like the logic that Stalin applied to actual artistic eccentrics. In 1949 Leonid Trauberg was fired as director of the studio Lenfilm. His offense? Being “a leader of cosmopolitanism.”

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Towering Tongue

by Chris Randle

Last month in this space, Carl wondered what it means to be avant-garde, still. One idea of it hinges on identifiable harshness, dissonance, “difficulty,” even alienation: a dance to metal machine music. Must the new always shock? Maybe it can be gently instructional instead. Misha Glouberman (best known as the cleverly flustered host of local lecture series Trampoline Hall) has been testing just that with a loose, long-running series called Terrible Noises for Beautiful People. These events typically involve amateur non-musicians improvising vocal sounds together, in structures that range from John Zorn’s Cobra game to ones of Misha’s own design. This week’s noisemaking was a rehearsal of sorts for upcoming performances at a vertiginous art-edifice called the Sound Tower. (“If you’re afraid of heights, as I am, 80 feet is tall.”) Whether straight jazz or the uncategorizable, I’d listened to a lot of music employing improvisation without knowing much about the theory of it. I still don’t. My first time as a non-spectator was all practice, mortifying and then finally elating.

Misha is bearish yet friendly, in the manner of a slightly absentminded professor. His introduction sounded a bit like the opening of an old-school role-playing game: “Imagine you’ve come to a tower.” It worked a bit like one, too. Again and again he sketched out the course of an exercise before gradually removing its guide rails. Our initial task was to wander around the room improvising “angry” sounds and motions – fine by me for several reasons, like how I’d woken up that morning to find my bathroom door nailed shut. At first Misha rang a bell to pause and restart our gesticulations, but his influence slowly faded until we were improvising moments of stasis by mass consensus too. Once he raised the instrument, froze, and lowered it with a stage scowl.

A string of “fighting forms,” formal outlines for free-flowing arguments, grew increasingly complex as we barked at each other. (“Everybody’s a genius improviser when they’re fighting.”) We paired off at random, one person “conducting” their partner’s sounds with motions that no professional would ever use. The experimentation culminated in an unorthodox orchestra. Everyone arranged themselves into a descending spiral (or an ascending one, depending on your vantage point); Misha sent various noises rippling through it, but on the way they were modulated in pitch, loudness and length until they became unrecognizable. I heard an unusually intense variation on those fake “forest soundscapes” dominated by hisses and shushes. I listened with eyes shut while participants strained to make the fastest and briefest sounds possible, as if they were demented beboppers. I balanced on a chair and joined the concentric choir in mutilating vowels, droning “I-I-I-I” and “U-U-U-U” like a skipping John Ashbery audiobook.

Was this avant-garde? It certainly felt uncomfortable at first, which is one way of answering “yes.” Compulsively slapping yourself or babbling wordless nonsense is what movie lunatics do. As the evening wound on, though, the universal humiliation had an ice-smashing effect. It was a mixed crowd, which fit the neighbourhood, and the bulk of that crowd was affable middle-aged people in sandals who looked like they might have signed up on a whim. Describing the event to our overseer, one lady said “you’re in both places at once,” simultaneously spectator and performer. I think that’s more radical than any of us realized at the time. The mercurial cacophony reminds me of what one character says about glossolalia in The Invisibles: “Everyone hears what they need to hear. The unconscious speaking directly to the unconscious. What kind of world might we make where such a language would be the common tongue?” But we never climbed very far up that tower and away from more practical matters. When I left an hour early, Misha was fielding ideas for a quieter “VOWEL” sign.

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Filed under chris randle, events, music, other

Tuli Kupferberg: For Nothing’s Sake

by Carl Wilson

This weekend, I watched the Spanish not-so-gloriously defeat the Dutch in the World Cup, and figured that would be about that: Unlike the Italians, Portuguese, Brazilians, Italians, Koreans and other past contenders, whose victories bring masses of revelers into the streets of Toronto honking horns and waving flags, there isn’t to my knowledge an especially big Spanish-expatriate community here. So I bicycled down to the Kensington Market area to attend a panel discussion about the “avant-garde” (“old school and new school”). But when I arrived in the neighbourhood I found pandemonium had broken out and there were hundreds on foot and wheels jamming the streets with Spanish flags.  It seemed anyone who spoke a Romance language had decided this win was fairly theirs to celebrate.

I watched for a little while, especially blown away by the fact that there was a stopped streetcar that had a crowd of some 40 people dancing high atop it, blowing vuvuzelas, rocking the vehicle on its tracks.

Then I went into the back of a bar, where for some reason in what was billed as kind of an open-discussion forum, the lights were dimmed to nearly black, there was a group of people on stage giving (very intelligent) semi-formal presentations, and the matter at stake was the survival of the “radical gesture.” This seemed like a strange juxtaposition. I wanted to shout, “Um, guys, there are people outside dancing on top of a streetcar!”

Not that I mistake a soccer party for a radical gesture – as others pointed out, shutting down several city blocks for a sports party is just dandy with authorities, but doing so to protest an international financial summit makes you a criminal. But such communal outpourings certainly can approach poetry, while the debate that bogged down in that dark back room about “difficulty” versus “accessibility” (as if, among other things, accessibility is not difficult) seemed only to get further away from poetry as it progressed. The participants weren’t to blame; it’s just such a hard question to frame in the present moment, or maybe a hard one to refrain from framing.

Yesterday, poet-singer Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs died, which was kind of a reminder of an idea of the avant-garde that didn’t measure itself by “difficulty” or even “innovation” (and not that all self-identified avant-gardists do now), though challenge was certainly involved. It seems the sensibility was that you are experimenting or innovating when you change the stakes, and only secondarily the form or material.

My friend Erella tells me that she knew Kupferberg in New York years ago and remembers him selling his newsprint poetry zines – the pricing structure was something like $9.99 for one, and 79 cents for two.

This other avant-garde might have been marked by sloppiness or lack of rigor at times. But then there are other definitions of rigor: The song above was recorded not long ago when Kupferberg was already housebound and blinded by a series of strokes and other illnesses (he was 86). The rest of the Fugs laid down tracks in a studio to support his home-recorded vocals. Kupferberg probably did all this – along with his regular YouTube video posts – because he understood himself to be a bohemian, an existential label, instead perhaps of being a member of the avant-garde, more a matter of aesthetic affiliation.

It doesn’t seem viable to call yourself a bohemian now, among other reasons because anticonformity has been adapted as a dominant capitalist value. (Although Tupferberg seems to have felt being foolish or clownish in that identification was better than the alternative – he’d always prefer to be on top of the streetcar.) But looking at yourself in that mirror you can see some barred doors in shadows behind your back, and wonder if they lead to a room where we could propose talking about avant-garde poetry and it wouldn’t break down into a factional fracas about criticism – which seemed more like a fight over whose fault it was that we were sitting in a cold dark place and not out playing in the sunlight of victory, however purloined.

Below is one of the Fugs’ more beloved early songs, which I won’t try to connect to all the above. It’s based on a popular Yiddish folk song about eating potatoes, day after day after day. The Fugs changed “potatoes” to “nothing,” and I’m not sure, Toto, that it’s about eating anymore. Not bad, as radical gestures go.

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David Antin’s “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde” (1981/1993), 2010 Scream festival edition

by Carl Wilson

I was having one of those swamp-thing weekends where you start crying in all the wrong places and to all the wrong people, and I needed a therapy. Not the sort to solve problems but the sort in which you invent an imaginative diversion machine to feed them into, to help you stop thinking explicitly about them, and hope that they return to you in some more intelligible form. Evolution might have invented dreaming for this purpose but there was no way I could sleep.

The first imaginative diversion machine consisted of sitting in a bar full of people watching Spain and Paraguay play soccer; then a gallery show (Michah Lexier’s playfully arid numbers-game group show A to B); then a movie and some wine at Margaux’s. These were effective but only till waking Sunday morning in much the same state as I had Saturday morning, so I had to invent something better.

That better thing turned out to be to sit, pace, stroll and stride around a park with MP3s of talk-pieces by David Antin on my headphones. I had downloaded them because in a couple of days I would be introducing Antin at an event in the Scream Literary Festival in Toronto and wanted to get in tune with his work, which I’d known only passingly.

They were, that is, an obligation. It’s been a while since I was reminded so intensely how when it comes to art what seemed like obligation can become the greatest pleasure. (I’m reminded of the reverse all too frequently.)

The talk I listened to was broadly about time and memory, the way that without memory there is no time – without a past, no future. And then the question of what information the past consists in. Walking around the park I was thinking about my own past and future, my eyes on other people having their summer weekend, my ears full of a recording of what was once a spontaneous event, a decade ago in a gallery somewhere, as Antin improvises his talks in response to the place and situation within which they take place, like site-specific art works. (To what degree they are spontaneous and how much they contain preconceived structures and set pieces I’m less sure – as is often the case with, say, jazz musicians. I am content not to knock too hard against the girders of the illusion.)

In listening I was both in the park and out of it. I was inside Antin’s story about his mother-in-law gradually forgetting an amazing story about her own youth due to Alzheimer’s, which made my woes feel far away, and yet I was also within the range of frisbees zooming over my head and couples necking on picnic blankets. His remembering was my forgetting, his mother-in-law’s forgetting was my remembering. This was site-specific too, though perhaps the site was some third place neither in the recording nor the park. Perhaps with someone absent.

I don’t think listening to music or a reading of a novel on my headphones would have had the same effect. Antin’s talks are conversational, so much so that they don’t feel one-way, even as they skip through his own recalled conversations with other artists or suddenly discourse on how Pythagoras would have calculated the value of pi with polygons and circles (and Antin, a scientist by training, specifies what kinds of polygons and circles) drawn in the sand, as that was all the material available to him, until an invading Senecan soldier trampled through his diagram. (This, he says, is the kind of way most of us interact with war who aren’t sent to fight it or in the place the soldiers are sent – it’s an absurdity that messes up our better intentions. The same could be said of emotional crises but I suppose probably shouldn’t?)

He’s been doing these talk-pieces since the late 1960s, initially in response to frustration with the canned feeling of reading written pieces aloud, then gradually as (I think) a project that builds and builds upon itself, as at the beginning of many talks he discusses what happened when he gave another talk, so they become a chattering common commentary, a talmudic meditation on Antin’s own speaking mind, think-talking. It’s experimental in the scientific sense as much as the artistic one: What happens if we now put the Antin in this environment? What phenomena can he observe himself observing? It’s a much more sophisticated version than most of the others of the reality games that are so common to art practice now, from “relational aesthetics” to what David Shields calls “reality hunger,” and it involves a lot fewer silly trappings than most, only the faith to follow Antin as he figures out where he’s going.

Because they’re such an exploration of the condition of being present (time/space), recordings and publications of his work have to be understood as subject to severe conditions of irony, which then carry over to the live performances, of course, and so his life is like ours.

On Tuesday night I did my best to introduce him and sound poet Steve McCaffery despite the fact that doing things with my voice felt pinched and artificial by comparison. He gave a generous talk on this year’s Scream theme of “agent provocateurs” (and/or the tradition (?) of the avant-garde), framing it in terms of the police repression that happened around the G20, and the kind of abstract and untrue economic “logic” that prevails in conversational spaces like the G20, and contrasting it to the narrative (which is misinterpreted as illogic) of dreams. And how Freud got things wrong because he understood classical story and not narrative. And the way that it matters more to animals what they look like to each other than what they look like to us.

He ended with a celebratory nod to the “energy” of the Scream asking this question about what meaning or use remains to the idea of an “avant-garde.” The theme was inspired by his 1981 talk-piece “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde” – long out of print except, he advised me to say “drolly” in my introduction, in French – and which the Scream made available in its own reprint. That talk comes round to an assertion that if being avant-garde is anything it means to respond to the present, not to be somewhere ahead of it, intimating along the way that this might make the whole history of the concept kind of ridiculous. He forbore from suggesting that we at the Scream were ridiculous, therefore, to be discussing it still, 29 years after he gave that talk. I felt masochistically let down that he wasn’t tougher on us.

But I also wondered, never having seen him speak, about the twisting, knotting motion he continually made with his fingers, this man in his late 70s whom I’d come in the past couple of days to think of as a model for how to do something with your mouth and your mind that makes you not ridiculous, not inadvertently wrecking things with imprecision and passivity. I wondered if it was a tic of long standing, and so a sweet one, or a sign of a health condition, and so a sad one. Perhaps he was being nicer to himself than he used to be, which may not be avant-garde but is human and so perhaps it is avant-garde, as it is to tell someone your dreams and for their attention to drift away while you are telling the dream, even if you are, say, a surrealist.

You can’t expect your imaginative diversion machine to be someone else’s imaginative diversion machine, though we always try. Too often it might be the main thing we do with one another. (If this entry is too much like me telling you my dreams, I’ll understand if you stopped reading it.)

On his way off stage to much applause, after thanking me very kindly for my introduction, he rounded a corner and kicked over the glass of beer sitting beside my chair, sending Tankhouse Ale spreading all across the stained-wood floor of Toronto’s gothic, comically anglophilic Arts & Letters Club. (In the talk, at one of the tougher points, he referred to such unnecessarily ornate buildings where literary meetings are held as “machines for not thinking.”)

I’d seen it coming but hadn’t spoken in time (the only place you can speak), and I apologized for that, and he didn’t quite acknowledge it, but stepped gingerly forward, saying, “Just one of those days.”

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