Posting has been light because I’m nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I’ll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I’m thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I’m not sure how close I’ll be to the Internet. I’m excited about this vacation (we’ll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it’ll be a much needed break from school, but also because there’s no place I’d rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales – and by “exotic” I mean simply “not home.” For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy’s Binx Bolling is trying to keep “despair” at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven’t even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I’ll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I’ve been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I’m going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher’s publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I’m also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky’s account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I’m also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book’s premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it’s even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as “summer reading,” but I’ll just be happy that it’s summer and that my only obligation is to read.
On the eve of the release of the final Harry Potter, I offer Millions readers a few brief intuitions – alas, grounded more in literary convention than in second sight – about the events to come in The Deathly Hallows.My chief intuition, based largely on the over-determined association of Dumbledore with the phoenix throughout the series, is that everyone’s favorite headmaster is not dead (X-Men, anyone?). Recall that Harry “thinks he sees” a phoenix emerge from the smoke of Dumbledore’s funeral pyre. Based on this intuition, I also maintain that Snape is not, in fact, a Death Eater, and that he and Dumbledore staged a fake murder with Harry as witness. This will allow Snape to become more deeply embedded in Voldemort’s ranks. Dumbledore’s wisdom would be too seriously undermined if Snape really and truly betrayed him. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of this particular tea-leaf vision, more must emerge about how Snape gained Dumbledore’s trust. This will be one of the central revelations of the new book.Of lesser intuitions:R.A.B., the initials on the note found in the locket that was supposed to be a horcrux, belong to Sirius’ brother, Regulus Black, whom we have heard vaguely was a follower of Voldemort and then attempted to leave the ranks of the Death Eaters, only to be killed by them for his betrayal. This may mean that Slytherin’s locket is concealed somewhere in the Black family house that Sirius left to Harry.As to whether Hogwarts will remain open during this seventh year with Harry, I suspect that it will remain open in some capacity – if only as a larger and better fortified headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix and their allies.I hope that, in the less than illustrious cooking-sherry-drinking tradition of Professor Trelawney, I am wrong about all of these things. I think The Deathly Hallows would be a better book for it.
Amazon made a splash last week in unveiling its mp3 store. With this effort, Amazon is going head to head with Apple and its popular iTunes music store. iTunes has more songs on offer and is familiar to millions of iPod owners, but Amazon aims to bring people aboard by offering DRM-free songs with a more flexible pricing scheme. Amazon’s DRM-free mp3s can be transferred to as many devices you want, while iTunes songs are more limited.This is no doubt of interest to many music fans, but I was curious to see if Amazon would extend its expertise in more literary realms to this new audio offering. So far the selection of “spoken word” content is fairly limited – it can be found under the “Miscellaneous” heading. Amid quite a bit of comedy, however, there are some gems here and there for those that enjoy the occasional audio book, though you won’t be finding any bestsellers here. Among the intriguing items I spotted, are some historical, literary and cultural artifacts:The Ultimate Orson Welles (including the famous War of the Worlds radio hoaxSpeaking Personally… by Aldous HuxleyChe Guevara SpeaksFour Inaugural Addresses by Franklin D. Roosevelt; See also: The Best Of The Speeches (1960 – 1963) by John F. Kennedy; Campaign ’56: Sounds of an Election YearThe Lenny Bruce Originals, Volume 2Allen Ginsberg (including a track called “First Party At Ken Keasey’s“; See also: HowlAnthology of American Literature by Neal Pollack & Pine Valley CosmonautsBritish War Broadcasting 1938-45 (Pt 1); See also: Dunkirk & The Battle Of France & Flanders 1939-40Buckminster Fuller Speaks His Mind (a six-disk set); See also: Fuller’s The Clock is Stopping: The Human ScenarioCasablanca – The 1943 Radio Production starring Humphrey BogartThe Daemon Lover and the Lottery by Shirley JacksonDionysus by Jim MorrisonThe Exciting History of the Alaska Gold RushFuturism And Dada Reviewed 1912-1959Good Morning, Vietnam (not the movie)The Great Carl Sandburg: Songs of AmericaThe Historic Second Declaration of Havana: Feb. 4, 1962 by Fidel CastroLots more in there too.
Adam Langer has an entertaining essay at The Book Standard which is full of discarded titles for classic books and films. But the fact is that Thomas Wolfe’s original title O, Lost doesn’t have quite the same ring as Look Homeward, Angel, nor does Margaret Mitchell’s Fontenoy Hall, which became Gone with the Wind. If F. Scott Fitzgerald had gone with Trimalchio in West Egg, one of his working titles for The Great Gatsby, God knows what we’d have studied in high school.In the essay, Langer also reveals that his next book is tentatively titled The Washington Story.
“My name is Marina Abramović and I think I’m an artist,” were the first words the performance artist spoke at a post-show panel last week, two days after the conclusion of her eleven-week performance, The Artist Is Present, at the Museum of Modern Art. I observed the artist twice during this time, once in March and again in April. The only visible differences were her sitting partners and the color of her dress, the first floor-length in blue and the second identical, in red. The colors were selected to aid her endurance: blue to calm, red to invigorate, and in May she wore white for purification. Although I had watched Abramović sit for hours (though not face to face) I’d never heard her speak. In fact, I’d barely seen her move. The way she held her pose with her shiny face gazing forward, she resembled a wax figure from Madame Toussads. Abramović sat quietly with strength, but when she finally spoke, she spoke with command–her husky voice issuing words in an Eastern European accent.
“Anger,” she claimed, was a driving force for staging the re-performances of her work. She listed the mass media, the fashion and design industries, theater, and MTV as culprits who have re-appropriated images and performances from her oeuvre without giving attribution. She would like to lend order to re-performances of performance art, something she also emphasized with her re-performances in Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005. She acknowledges that re-performed pieces inevitably change, but likens these adjustments to new interpretations of Beckett or Mozart. Abramović added that she won’t allow re-performances that endanger the performers’ lives–such as one piece that involved a pistol and bullet. Still, she dismisses her own, prior self-endangerment with brio: “It was the seventies. I was crazy.”
Abramović’s The Artist is Present played on similar restraints to those in her MoMA performance in the 1980s. Nightsea Crossing consisted of 22 performances in 19 locations where Abramović and her partner Ulay sat facing each other motionless seven hours a day for days on end. Of the powers one gains through stilling oneself in this way, Abramović has commented: “Kafka said in one of his stories, ‘Just sit at a table and do nothing and the whole world will be revealed in front of you.’” Which is exactly what happened with The Artist Is Present, and not only on a metaphorical level. The world came to Abramović. Over two-and-a-half months, 1,545 people sat across from her (while even more waited for the chance) and over 700,000 museum-goers witnessed her atrium performance. Who knows how many more observed from the virtual world as the performance was streamed online. Celebrities sat. Many people cried. Other performance artists co-opted her performance. At the Wednesday evening panel, the exhibition’s curator, Klaus Biesenbach, admitted that when he first envisioned Abramović’s performance, he thought the second seat would often remain empty. He seemed pleased to be wrong.
Also in attendance Wednesday evening were the thirty-six performers who re-performed Abramović’s five pieces within the exhibition. It was revealed that several of the performers had fainted the first day, unaccustomed to the duration and the physical demands of the performances. Marco Anelli, the photographer who sat behind Abramović and took portraits of each sitter’s face, was present. As was Paco Blancas, a makeup artist whose visage resembles Edgar Allan Poe. Paco sat across from Abramović twenty-one times during her performance–more than anyone else–and commemorated the experience by having the number 21 tattooed on his arm. Another woman in the audience said she was overseas when the exhibition started. She began watching Abramović’s performance over the internet, and it quickly turned into an obsession.
Why this sudden obsession with Abramović? Yes, there were nude performances. And Abramović, the artist, was present. But that alone doesn’t offer much of an explanation. Abramović’s re-performances in Seven Easy Pieces garnered less attention even though the pieces were more sensational. Consider her re-performance of Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, where museum-goers listened while Abramović masturbated under the stage and related her fantasies about the observers above her over a loudspeaker. Her re-performance of her own Lips of Thomas involved cutting a pentagram into her stomach with a razor blade and then lying naked on a cross of ice.
The Artist Is Present was on camera. It was interactive and online. Abramović has spoken many times about how her duration pieces have the capacity transform both herself and the viewer. But I also wonder if the interactive and ever-changing nature of the piece influenced the popularity of the performance, which by the end had become a media phenomenon. Gauging the endurance of each sitter was like sport. As my friends and I observed from the sidelines, we speculated how long each person would last. Catherine Lacey at HTMLGiant compared Abramović ’s performance to Zen meditation. There was a competitive and a meditative side, but was there also a gimmick? We the museum-goers were invited to participate in a work of art greater than ourselves, where we became creative subjects as well as voyeurs. Is the overwhelming response to this participatory performance much different than our attraction to reality TV, to YouTube, to monitoring status updates on Facebook? Did The Artist Is Present also respond to a cultural habituation to the constant update? To our narcissism? Abramović said that as she stared into her sitting partners’ eyes she acted as a mirror so that they could look inside themselves.
Or was Abramović’s act of sitting for more than 700 hours and sacrificing sleep each night (waking every 45 minutes to rehydrate) in order to share herself and her art with her audience an act of tremendous benevolence and generosity? I would say both. Abramović called the experience the most profound of her life. She claims, “My spirit is different.” And perhaps that is enough.
[Image credit: Jim Kuhn]