“..for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.”
~ Walter Benjamin, Unpacking My Library
April 20th was Record Store Day, an international day created in 2007, by a group of independent record store owners to promote vinyl recordings. Early that morning across the country, people lined up in front of small independent record stores to purchase and celebrate the survival and unique qualities of vinyl recordings. Limited edition albums from Van Dyke Parks, The Band, Half Japanese and over 200 other artists were released that day – with similar hard-to-find recordings released once each year on Recordstore day.
[photo above: lines forming early at Underground Sounds in Ann Arbor, photo by David Brenner, annarbor.com]
Excitement and buzz surrounds these small edition recordings, all simultaneously issued on the third Saturday of April. People discuss the selections and blog about them months ahead. Old blockbuster LPs, never released, unusual oddities and dozens of limited edition 7″ recordings come out for eager waiting fans. Forget about Christmas, this is the busiest day of the year for many indie record stores, who begin stashing rare goodies for months in advance all adding to feed the record store mania.
“Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music. His legacy is tremendous,” Young said. “But when he went home, he listened to vinyl (albums).” -Neil Young [ source: Christian Science Monitor]
Real music lovers, audiophiles and anyone passionate about music, have long known the fact that vinyl recordings are superior in tonal quality to CDs or mp3 files, which use compression to digitize the sound. Compression lops off the highs and lows, reduces depth and equalizes tones resulting in a blander dull sound quality. The beauty of liner notes, gatefold designs and the artwork that comes with a 12″ format is also unsurpassed by the weaker CD or MP3 format. The advantage to the compressed formats (as with pdf files for books) are cheapness and portability. “In 2008 more people purchased vinyl records then in the past 20 years” and the numbers are increasing every year. [source: The Vinyl Revival and the Resurrection of Sound] All praises to the indie record shops. They’ve amassed a giant grass roots effort, that is well organized and working on a huge scale. A new generation has now discovered the pleasures of warm acoustic listening. Long may vinyl spin.
Perhaps bookstores could take a page from the playbook of record stores. Could publishers and bookstores combine a strategy to create a parallel day of international book mania ? What would a bookstore day look like? The prospect of early morning line ups for limited book releases, readings, signings, artist designed book bags, food, art and events — would be an inspring sight. The last time people lined up early for books was during the Harry Potter releases, which were spontaneous grass-roots events. Imagine a day that could create “book fever” on a grand scale – how fun and positive that would be.
In some ways, indie bookstores seem even better poised and organized to bring off a day of book celebration, than record stores selling esoteric vinyl. They both have survived similar experiences, especially in their handeling of the digital gulch. Nobody seems to be talking about the huge piracy issues involved with music or books much anymore. Like the pirating of music and video in torrents, entire hi-jacked libraries of 2500 pdf- e-books are now offered for free and take only a couple hours to download. Music and bookstores both deal with a huge variety of selections, taste and styles -they act as gathering posts for discussion, learning and disseminating culture. Bookstores have regional groups, newsletters, the ABA and other support systems at their disposal, great resources that they could rally together on a day for books. Perhaps vinyl music collectors are a more passionate and dedicated breed of collector than book readers and maybe the pressure from online retailers and piracy issues forced record stores into become more agile and better retailers. Record store Day has helped bring attention to the stores and the products they offer.
World Book Night, is an active charity of free book giving. It arrived in the States last year. Every April 23rd, a network of thousands of volunteers from around the world, have given their time in a selfless effort to spread the joy of books. WBN is a growing concern and there are many testimonials about it changing lives and effecting people strongly, but as a solution for readers finding their way back to bookstores, I’m not sure its effective or even meant to accomplish that.
Giving away books (a highly personal item, not unlike records) randomly to people on the street without regard to their reading habits or personal preferences, is like spinning a roulette wheel. The giver is familiar with the book and can try and give the recipient an idea about its content – but in most cases that’s an unlikely scenerio. Sometimes a random act of kindness is given without much thought or concern for its outcome. People will pick up almost any free sample handed to them on the street – but the process of choosing a book or record (especially when you are using your own money) is a highly personal one, needing thought and effort put into it. Can you imagine if people gave out top 40 records on the streets as charity to “non-music lovers” or “light listeners”- what would the effect be? I believe most of those recordings would end up in the garbage or un-listened to.
Book Crossing is another recent effort at random book giving that tracks each book with a code, you can then follow online where your book has travelled to, and see what comments a reader has left. It’s like a public lending library for vacationers, similar to the anarchistic Little Free Library system. These are all great ideas and serve to get a limited number of books into the hands of people that might have a hard time finding books. What might be useful, or added to all these systems of free giving is the foundation of a Bookstore day, a celebration of book culture tailored to and targeted for readers of all ages and especially to book collectors -a day that could only happen if a number of bookstores desire and act on it, just as the record stores did. Tying the day to romance and gift-giving as its done in Barcelona will only add to the day’s mystique and popularity.
The personal choice of one’s reading material is something done more effectively inside a bookstore or library in private. The act of browsing is a physical, visual and intellectual art, one that needs to be experienced and practiced. Art galleries, museums, libraries, music and bookstores all offer that experience at little or no cost. Browsing is now regarded as an online activity between a persons digital browser and his cell phone or computer. In his essay The Painter and Modern Life, poet Charles Baudelaire put forth the idea of the flâneur as someone strolling down the street, wasting time but still engaged with life, actively looking. The strolling person can wander freely and linger on his way, aware and in contact with their physical surroundings, engaged in thinking, an endangered act these days. Browsing slows life down and gives the mind breathing room. It allows chance encounters and discoveries to happen, and you begin to find out who you are as a person.
Many days now exist that celebrate book culture. World Book Night, which began in the UK is now spreading rapidly. WBN has usurped St. Jordi Day , a booksellers holiday that began in Barcelona in 1927. On April 23rd, droves of people wander through the streets of Barcelona, searching out bookstores and bookstalls to purchase books. It is a holiday for browsing and gift-giving. In its original intention, La Diada de Sant Jordi is comparable to St. Valentines day. It combines books and flowers into a highly personal and meaningful contact between friends, lovers and loved ones. This day of books makes people feel good, emotionally connected and stirs the economy in Barcelona, having a direct positive effect on readers, booksellers and publishers.
[photo above: crowded book browsers and book stalls in Barcelona on April 23rd]
San Jordi day was created by a bookseller that wanted to inspire passion into book giving. He chose April 23rd because it was the death anniversary of both Shakespeare and Cervantes in 1616, and the feast day of Saint George. In the Detroit area, Núria (a native of Barcelona) and Elie, are both wine merchants and committed art advocates who have started “The Society of Saint Jordi” several years ago through which they produce The Day of Books and Roses festival held at the Ferndale Public Library. They bring together books, authors, musicians, food and wine as a continuation of this wonderful tradition.
World Book Night has taken the booksellers holiday (April 23rd) and practically removed the bookseller from it. WBN selects the books from a panel of librarians and booksellers and is able to give them away because they are donated by publishers and the authors forego any royalties on WBN books. The system uses bookstores as drop off points and distribution centers for the thousands of hand-to-hand givers. WBN hopes these book giveaways will change lives and create new readers, giving non-book buyers and “light readers” a taste of contemporary classics. I’m hopeful that many life-changing events can occur and applaud any charity directed at the poor and needy, especially among those unable to afford or get in touch with books. If the intention of WBN is to create lifetime readers, then why not aim their resources and efforts at very young, or impoverished children — they are really the ones on the front lines of literacy and picture books would be much easier, lighter and practical to print and distribute. Putting books in the hands of children will help them create their own libraries and may help improve the future of the book.
World Book Day is an international celebration sponsored by UNESCO but seems most heavily organized in the British Isles. On that day, children are given tokens or vouchers for pre-selected free titles available at any bookstore, or the child can use the tokens to get a discount off any new book at a bookstore. This is one of the largest book and reading stimulus programs in the world, and offers “big celebrations of reading with millions and millions of vouchers for free books going out to kids.”– while bringing children into bookstores, the vouchers also allow for freedom of selection, an important element in supporting and creating readers for life.
International Children’s Book Day is April 2nd (the birthday of Hans Christian Anderson) and also celebrates books and reading for children. Their Children in Crisis program, “provides support for children whose lives have been disrupted through war, civil disorder or natural disaster.” This group is based in Switzerland and seems to be running on limited resources. I’d love to support any program that empowers children (or adults) by allowing them to choose their own books -and to find them inside of bookstores. If a token works in the UK, why not adopt that here?
Perhaps Bookstore Day – or the promise of a global San Jordi day will come to pass when booksellers feel it imperative to make it happen. Authors and publishers could create special works that celebrate the book – and we’d have a one day party to announce and spread this conspiracy of book mania. Working in a bookstore is a liminal position, an uneasy balancing act. Attacks happen from all directions. Publisher’s can seem both supportive and threatening -while the looming specter of a paperless, book free world appears both possible and dismal. We remain here to try and postpone the book-replacing e-readers in our Fahrenheit 451 world as long as possible.By keeping book culture alive and prosperous inside bookstores, we can all take part in slowing down their advance. Just as the premature death of vinyl records was called too soon and reversed by Recordstore day, so might a similar reversal and appreciation of book culture be accomplished by a united bookstore day celebration.
“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” -Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”, 1931
“There are a good many roads here,” observed the shaggy man… “Seems to me a person could go ‘most anywhere from this place.” - Frank Baum, The Road to Oz, 1909
In the mid 1980s, Theresa was a precocious teenager and frequent customer at Book Beat. She was a part-time student, speed-reading through Balzac, Victor Hugo, Henry James and Baudelaire. She read the symbolist poets in French, hung out at the goth clubs and was known as Tracy then. She worked as a hostess/greeter in a swanky Italian restaurant, a cataloger at John King’s bookstore and clerk at the main Detroit Library. She mentioned how she once roller-skated down the vast maze of book aisles in the library’s cavernous basement after hours.
“Did I ever mention that since the age of ten I have been able to quote the whole of “Annabel Lee”? A minor peccadillo, but its mine… I’ve always wanted to have a flaw or vice that was tragic and glamorous like the ether-soaked hankie to the nose.” –T.D., Letter 1990
[left: illustration by Harry Clarke from Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe, 1923]
Poe’s gloomy ode made lasting connections… as smart-alecky ten-year-olds we memorized the same trancelike poem and shared a streak of fatalism, dream-struck by Poe’s dark eerie crypt, where lost souls drifted eternally among the demonic forces in the world.
The echoing “tomb by the sounding sea” illuminates a hidden truth in the space where events beyond reality take shape. Many believe Annabel Lee was about Poe’s dead wife Virginia, as it expressed his profound grief and anger – and was written just after her passing. The poet lost in despair, was on a nocturnal journey, following the specter of his spiritual love. Poe’s vivid dreamworld worked its way into another reality, casting its shadow across the art and literature of the 19th and 20th century.
Poe is often the first view children have into the psyche of the damaged adult world. Contemplating his dark dreams connects directly to the innocent heart and soul -and the creation of new worlds, where a child dreamer or future storyteller may discover new vistas, alternate journeys in the pages of a book.
It was “to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities” – that Poe dedicated his grand philosophical work Eureka, a dense prophetic prose poem he considered his greatest work. Poe’s amateur cosmology prophesied the scientific nature and invention of the universe, and its metaphysical influence through Baudelaire and Mallarmé, wove itself throughout French symbolism and surrealism. Theresa was the godchild of French symbolism and cartoon goth America. She placed her faith in dreams and the author’s command of language.
* * * MAD IN FRANCE, MAD IN FRANCE she once hand-stamped on the back of a postcard, “I want to go to the New School in New York and study poetry:
DEMI-MONDAINES (Like Edie) COME IN EVERY SIZE
THEY’RE REALLY MONSTERS IN DISGUISE…
I was doing a window of table settings and the dishes were “Made in France.” I loved the misspelling. (Above) FOU EN LES ETATS-UNIS” – Tracy, 12/09/1989
“literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.” –Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author
Tracy once described a strange event that occurred in Paris, something other-worldly -a reality based hallucination or vision that came to her while standing on the Bridge Mirabeau. She always seemed cautious and skeptical of anything that smacked of the supernatural, eastern mysticism or the occult, but she explained in detail how a wave of love, an emanation or spirit seemed to transport her through time as centuries flashed in front of her eyes while standing frozen on this historic bridge. There she floated in cosmic time, causing a loss of identity and physical self. She searched through the rows of poetry at the bookstore and pulled out Apollinaire’s famous poem:
Later inspired by the poem and Tracy’s vision, I recorded a music version in 1994 with the acid-folk group Monster Island: bridge mirabeau – she would also inspire several other songs released on the Ecstatic/Yod album “From the Michigan Floor”.
* * *
Tracy grew up in Lapeer Michigan, a quiet Midwest Irish-Catholic city surrounded by open spaces, rolling verdant hills and natural beauty. Lapeer lies about an hour north of Detroit and was once a flourishing lumber town founded in 1833.
[Photo left: Pix theater, Lapeer]
The Duncan family home was situated in lush farmland a couple miles from the center of town. It required long idyllic walks or rocky bicycle rides through dirt roads to reach the nearest neighbor, the corner drugstore or high school, miles away. Lapeer was a countryside foil for daydreams and fantasy -fortunate roots that Theresa would draw from. Many of her fondest moments were spent at the downtown library, where she found books to be another road to freedom and adventures.
The downtown library was renamed the Marguerite de Angeli library in 1981 after Lapeer’s most famous resident, a children’s writer/illustrator born in 1889. de Angeli and the entire town, including the Duncan family was present at the rededication ceremony that coincided with Lapeer’s Sesquicentennial, a huge event in this small town.
de Angeli was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1950 for The Door in the Wall. Her books often focused on common working class people, the forgotten and those overlooked in life. At her Newbery Medal acceptance speech de Angeli said, “It is really true, as we used to tell our children, “When you come to a stone wall, if you look far enough, you will find a door in it.” One of the best doors I know is the help of Librarians. I don’t know what I would do without them.”
As a child Theresa began to read the dictionary front-to-back, over and over, memorizing meanings and spellings – a daily routine encouraged by her maternal Grandmother, a retired artist-teacher she loved dearly and shared a strong magical bond with. From that relationship sprang her love of language. Words are a powerful tool, a celebration of all that was indefinable and mysterious within life. In language she found empowerment and the door to new realities.
* * *
“…what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection.” – Walter Benjamin, Unpacking My Library
[illustrated left: The Black Sun Press version of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Marie Laurencin]
We shared our thoughts on reading and I made suggestions for books she’d enjoy. We discussed Stéphane Mallarmé’s poems for his dead son, A Tomb for Anatole, the works of Artaud, Breton’s Nadja, the river poetry of Jim Harrison, the Paris expats, the grim stories of Angela Carter, off-beat young adult fiction and various novels by Stefan Zweig and Pierre Klossowski. She loved the wickedly funny and urbane Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbhom –his only novel, a satire of a femme fatale who kills off her suitors one by one.
Tracy had a sweet-spot for the gothics; Perfume by Patrick Suskind, and the short illustrated oddities of Edward Gorey. She recognized Kathy Acker’s stolen plotline from Akutagwa’s Hellscreen, ( a story we both loved) and brought it to my attention.
She’d often burst out laughing, suddenly and loudly while reading –a wonderful habit, interrupting the lunchtime crowd at the local diner. In between cigarettes and grilled cheese sandwiches, Tracy would be howling her way through John Fante’sMy Dog Stupid and Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse, devoured by laughter, as the lunch patrons glumly watched on. There were often calls or visits to the diner to yank her out of her lunchtime reading and return to work.
* * *
Book collector, publisher and eccentric poet Harry Crosby’s diary, Shadows of the Sun, was perhaps the first hardcover first edition she bought. That was followed by Geoffrey Wolff’s superb biography; Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby. This set off a spurt of interest in roaring twenties Paris.Tracy was a disciple of the Sun herself, perfecting and dreaming of the ultimate tan she’d collect one day in California.
In his last notebook entry on December 9, 1929, Crosby wrote, “One is not in love unless one desires to die with one’s beloved.” Crosby once came to Detroit, checking into the Book Cadillac hotel to enact a double suicide pact. A day later on December 10th, Harry and his mistress Josephine would be dead by their own hands. That tragic romanticism was elixir for Theresa.
Duncan interiorized the wild party literati or “Lost Generation” –characterized in Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises, featuring the unstoppable Bret Lady Ashley, “his most enduring siren”, an attractive force of revolutionary female sexuality that exploded on the page. Bret was an uncommon beauty weaving spells of violence and seduction – a life later channeled by Ava Gardner in the film version.
“Thus there is in the life of the collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” -Walter Benjamin, Unpacking My Library
Benjamin’s Unpacking My Library, was an outline of clues and passageways to the mind’s interior. The library as labyrinth and keyboard, as a kind of living playable entity, would absorb Theresa throughout her life. She could never part with a book or be away from her library for long periods and in her spare time, searched out philosophy and antique children’s books. Her library was a source of pride and being away from it for long, invoked anxiety and depression. Her life was dependent on a deep immersion in literature that only another mad bibliophile can imagine.
Theresa’s own Moveable Feast, was a long 1920s phase that included the biography of Sylvia Beach and her expatriate bookstore Shakespeare and Company, Published in Paris and Women of the Left Bank . She was enthralled with vintage Paris and that led to other works on or about; Kay Bole, Djuna Barnes, Janet Flanner, Nora Joyce, Isadora Duncan, Nancy Cunard, Mina Loy, Lee Miller and Caresse Crosby – a secret lodge of radical women modernists. Actress Louise Brooks was another inspiring rebel –her independent spirit and spark-like intelligence was captured in her autobiography Lulu in Hollywood.
Theresa was employed at Book Beat in 1988, when she was nineteen and worked for almost a year. In her application when asked, “What book would you recommend for a boy’s Bar Mitzvah gift,” her answer was, “a subscription to Playboy”… Her art interests ranged from antiquarian illustration to Art Nouveau, surrealism, dada, photographs, the fairytale illustrations of Harry Clarke, Arthur Rackham, J.J. Grandville, Edmund Dulac, Aubery Beardsley and Frank Baum’s Oz series.
“Photography conflates the notions of the “beautiful” and the “interesting.” It’s a way of aestheticizing the whole world.”
Duncan followed the small photo exhibits in our backroom gallery -a time when we showed work by photographers Madame D’Ora, and Baron Adolph de Meyer, art deco spiritualist Frantisik Drtikol, Bernice Abbott, Camerawork pictorialism, James Van Der Zee’s Harlem portraits, Warhol Factory Photos by Billy Name and stills from the silent Hollywood era. When she came back to visit, she’d browse through boxes of old photographs. “When I become rich I’ll buy them all!” she’d say. Photos are surreal, a mystery of distilled traces from the past, that hold their subjects forever beautiful. Each photo can act as container of compacted energy, of memory condensed. Photography seduced Theresa and filled her with wonder, a kind of instant déjà vu knowledge, it was history by osmosis, a romance for the eyes. She loved the flappers, models and bizarrely dressed dancing showgirls from the Ziegfeld follies. Like the Madeline in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, photographs held some fleeting essence, transporting as perfume.
* * *
“In the cult remembrance of dead or absent loved ones, the cult value of the image finds its last refuge. In the fleeting expression of the human face the aura beckons from early photography for the last time. This is what gives them their melancholy and incomparable beauty.”–Walter Benjamin, Selected Writing Volume Four, p. 238
[ photo; Frantisek Drtikol's "Wave or Dark Waves,” 1925]
Theresa soaked up images from art books, postcards and ephemera; gazing on antiques, valentines, scrapbooks, and small bits of advertising – later reconstructing her personal blog as a museum or theater of the mind. Her visual intelligence was born complete years before, but suddenly became public on her website Wit of the Staircase. She presented culture as a looking-glass world, in window boxes that recall artist Joseph Cornell’s romantic reveries, poems created from fragments collaged, the past as a fairytale seen through shadow boxes.
Theresa’s tiny Oak Park bedroom was a half mile from work. She transformed it into a wunderkammer, a miniature museum decorated floor to ceiling with small art cards and magazine clippings; a collection of 19th and 20th century sensibilities, a kaleidoscopic of artists, photos, poets and writers, a wall of dreams, where past and future collided together. It felt like a large version of Cornell box. Her make-up tables and mirrors were plastered with more images, perfume bottles, books and lipstick tubes. Under a window hung prisms throwing rainbow darts around the room.
She once asked what I thought Rimbaud meant by the line “FOR THIS IS THE ASSASSIN’S HOUR” from the poem The Drunken Morning. I didn’t have an answer -but wrote a song describing the memory of her room and the drunken violence of Rimbaud’s poem; the assassin’s hour
Photographer Francesca Woodman’s first monograph was published by Wellesley College in 1986. Theresa read a review I wrote about the book and was attracted to Woodman, a rare photographic prodigy that ended her life in suicide at the age of 22. Woodman’s self-portraits were metaphors of discovery, sexuality, performance, death, ruins and identity – some were striking adaptions from Alice in Wonderland. Woodman created mysterious and surreal inventions -angelic diaphanous imagery inspired by literature that spoke in sympathy to Duncan’s own visual language.
[photo: Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1975]
* * *
Theresa watched and studied classic noir films. She’d spout off long passages from forgotten B-movies, reciting tough-as-nails Barbara Stanwyck patter. Noir films were a passion and escape –hard-core lessons on American grit and survival. There was comedic genius in these impromptu performances. Noir is about murder, light, shadow, love and revenge, where the leading man is nearly always destroyed by the classic femme fatale woman –irresistible beauties that seduce and destroy the men they encounter. Theresa was the opposite of a femme fatale (although a true scholar of the genre). She understood that noir was also about dark humor, camp, reversing the script and a culture of bad clichés.
In 1989, Warhol superstar Ultra Violet came to Book Beat to sign her autobiography Famous for Fifteen Minutes. Tracy stood by Ultra, chaperoning the visit. Warhol was the king of misfits, and his legacy was at its height. Snippets of video show them both, a couple of old girlfriends chatting away, sharing fashion tips, wearing the identical brand lipstick. “Hey, that’s MY brand you’re wearing! Wait here I’ll show you!” Tracy runs off-screen to get her plastic purse and flaming red gloss… Lipstick was her favorite accessory, worn thick, shiny and deeply scarlet, a costume signature mask with some obscure meaning I always thought was more comedic (a la Lucille Ball) then sexy. She’d loose the gloppy shades in later years, becoming more light and subtle with makeup.
Theresa was model tall and thin with large brown eyes and long arms -she often referred to as “chimpanzee-like.” Her hands smoothly tapered were neat and nun-like. She walked quickly with a hip-hop bounce, a loose irregular up-beat step, slightly off-balance, clownish, on the verge of falling off some invisible highwire. She’d enter a room with loud steps, a combination of grace and klutz. Her laughter came quickly, infectious, slightly masculine and mischievous.
Her style was a conglomerate of damaged fashion and street-punk kitsch; Catholic school-girl outfits, dirty sneakers and farmer overalls, combat boots and hot pants– an assemblage of the soft and hard. She had two coats; a musty second-hand faux leopard-skin fur that reeked of musk perfume and a scrappy black leather bomber jacket “borrowed” from a boyfriend.
“Hi Dear – I just got back from an extended tropical vacation. We stayed in the “Apocalypse Now” bungalow with bamboo walls and floors and mosquito netting over the bed. Now I’m really brown with white hair like a Leni Reifenstahl photo. “Charlie doesn’t get much R&R, a bowl of rat meat, a plate of cold rice.”- Theresa 2/28/1997
Perfume, Crime & musical deafness
In his autobiography, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, ( From A to B and Back Again), Warhol said, “…another way to take up more space is with perfume… Of the five senses, smell has the closest thing to the full power of the past. Smell really is transporting. Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting are just not as powerful as smelling if you want your whole being to go back for a second to something. Usually I don’t want to, but by having smells stopped up in bottles, I can be in control and can only smell the smells I want to, when I want to, to get the memories I’m in the mood to have. Just for a second. The good thing about a smell-memory is that the feeling of being transported stops the instant you stop smelling, so there are no aftereffects. It’s a neat way to reminisce. ”
Theresa’s perfume interest may’ve came from reading Warhol -as one of the great archivists, he collected rare perfumes and experimented with olfactory memory. Particular aromas are strong reminders of the past -an ability called the Proust phenomenon. Perfume and its ability to raise memory connect Duncan to Warhol’s biographical approach to the world. They both had a serious interest in fame, glamour and the artificial mechanisms tied to film, photographic stills, archiving and glossy magazines. Warhol manager Billy Name exhibited his Warhol factory photos and film stills at Book Beat around the time of Tracy’s employment. We silver-foiled the ceiling together and blasted VU at the opening.
“The French perfumers,” he says, intently. “There were people of great class among them, but the industry basically was just a bunch of
kids from Grasse, which means typical Côte d’Azur, which means a bunch of criminals. I was talking to a perfumer raised in Grasse once, she said, ‘Either you became a perfumer or you stole motorcycles’.”–TD June /22/2005
Perfume is an ephemeral art like music or film – abstract, formless, emotional and molecular -difficult to describe. Anna McCoy a respected artisan perfumer and perfume blogger called Duncan’s perfume reviews, “incredibly deep, sometimes twisted, always brilliant and to be respected, even if you did not agree with her.” Duncan’s attraction to perfumes was as intellectual as it was sensual. Thinking and writing on Perfume was a way to connect with her poetic nature, to fuse with a metaphysical “vaporous reality.”
“Hello from the banks of the Mississippi. I went to Oxford and saw Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s house. We snuck into the grounds after midnight. It was very dark with bright moonlight and millions of stars. I kissed on his grave and drank bourbon.” – Theresa, postcard, October 17, 1994
* * *
Theresa’s zany humor reminded me of Lucille Ball, the dizzy redhead queen of comedy and a successful (on her own terms) star who was beautiful, mercurial and hilarious. Lucy created her slapstick style using exaggerated larger-then-life silent era gestures. Tracy too was a prankster and part-time goofball – not always on time or dependable, but always fun to be around.
Her last day at work was worthy of a Lucy episode. After a night of too much party, she went into the backroom office and vomited on my desk. That was her final scene at the bookstore.
She was sent home and later I hand delivered her last check. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t think its working out…” It was comedic but at the same time she couldn’t stop crying. In a few days she called to thank me and said she needed to move on, perhaps to Ann Arbor and finish school. Later she’d always say, “I wear my pink slips proudly like a badge of honor!”
La De Da Da Dum: Where’s My Fucking CD?
I am singing along with the new music you sent me…
I am flying back to New York until mid-March on Monday and I will listen to it on the plane through headphones. It’s so sunny and warm here in LA I’m not looking forward to freezing my ass off in the nine feet of snow that just fell over NYC. How’s my little dog going to walk through that shit? She’s only six inches high. – TD, 2/21/2003
We usually agreed on art, movies and books but rarely music. It was like a dropped circuit. Each holiday since the late 1980s we’d trade mix tapes or CDs – a holiday tradition that began at Book Beat to share favorite soundtracks we’d play in the store during the past year. Theresa would respond with Steely Dan tracks (her all-time favorite), Morrissey, Bruce Springsteen, the Kinks, Nirvana and White Stripes, the indie alterna-rock hit parade. Her musical taste was flat, MOR, mainstream. She didn’t think about music too much. It just drifted over her life from Jeremy and other contacts, with rarely much thought put into it, which came as a surprise. I’ve since grown to accept and even appreciate some of her choices, but mostly she favored a kind of dullish mediocre pop music –but why settle for that when there’s so much creativity and richness out there?
Theresa knew I was a Dylan fan and once called me up after discovering Bob’s born-again phase (ugh) –“whaddya think?” she’d ask, “do you know anything about it? I can’t stop listening to this.” She particularly liked Dylan’s Where Are You Tonight? And wanted help decoding the lyrics:
The truth was obscure,
too profound and too pure,
to live it you have to explode.
In that last hour of need, we entirely agreed,
sacrifice was the code of the road.
–Bob Dylan, Where Are You Tonight?
“I used to hate these albums, but Jeremy has loved them since he was a little boy. I think there is something Gnostic, very odd, very beautiful about the writing now. I think Bob Dylan’s Christianity is the equal opposite of Beck’s recent rather dark religious conversion”.– TD 9/05/2004
The White Stripes were Theresa’s heroes –chic pop-blues performers, garage-rockers of the moment, and almost every mix would have one or two of their songs on it. They represented the best of her generation – and there was sweetness and loyalty in that devotion to her hometown favorites. Popular music may’ve been her way to really connect and understand mainstream trends. Her all time fave band was Steely Dan (named after a strap-on dildo in the beat classic Naked Lunch) -a 70s light, pseudo jazz-rock band that put out seven overly produced studio albums, cranking out pop-hits like Hey Nineteen, Do It Again,Reelin’ in the Years and Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. The band resembled the Muppets with interchangeable members, making radio pop-schmaltz with cryptic stoner lyrics in the manner of the Eagles, crooning about “Hotel California… oh, what a lovely place.” Sometimes I think she may’ve been slightly tone deaf, joking or just lazy about listening habits – music was a sore spot. Rarely were her sound mixes tolerable for long, except the last CD she sent around mid-October in 2006, and Steely Dan was not on it.
Her last mix arrived around Halloween, close to her birthday and she asked for feedback: “I wanted to test it out on you early,” she said. I always thought she was bulk mailing them to friends for the holidays but that wasn’t the case. This was a sad coded mix, filled with songs of lost love, gloom and despair, and I dug it. The selection conveyed a sudden maturity and a sadness that echoed through that holiday season, tainted by greed, blood, and that wasteful Iraqi war. Medieval standards by Sufjan Stevens were mixed with southern blues and that great Fall song; HEY! Luciani(based on a play Mark Smith wrote on the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978). Then came a beautiful acoustic-folk rendition of the Yeah,Yeah,Yeah’s “Our Time”:
I may be dead honey
But I was left with my eyes
And underneath sugar
Well I’ve been sunk by your lies
And my heart baby
Is cold and blue
We’re two of a kind lately
Both me and you
- excerpt from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Our Time
Other depressing songs sank in: Guided By Voices Mushroom Art – “Living without you is difficult, but our dead dreams await…”. A growing emptiness builds up: ”close my eyes and shut the door, I can’t seem to get up off the floor, nothing really matters any more…” (Its Different, Face on the Floor) -all full of sarcasm, ennui and irony, foils for the holiday I thought, good stuff. I lifted several tracks and was impressed by the mix and told her so, but then I didn’t stop to think about it much, until soon after her death. It began to feel like a code for something else going on, a cry for help or escape -and the last song was Big Star’s melancholic “Nightime.”
“please don’t say a word, get me out of here, get me out of here. I hate it here… dancing in your eyes and fell through the skies…”
“The journey, the path, the legacy, following dreamz, going home.” -Ibn
The Juju Spirit radiates throughout the works of Detroit artist Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts. Hearts, arrows, crosses and hoodoo symbols from West Africa; Yoruba, Bantu, Mali and Dogon culture, clash and frame layered, over-painted portraits of Ornette Coleman, James Brown, Malcolm X, Faruq Z. Bey, Rosa Parks and many others.
Revolution, community and the daily beat of life are Ibn’s subjects. Smashed cans, food wrappers, fragments of urban waste and cultural leftovers overlap side-by-side on large irregular shaped support material made from scraps of cardboard and sheets of found vinyl. Covered in a thick polyurethane gloss, the collages glow with historic and spiritual qualities -bathed in memory, thinking quilts of our time. They move and pulse in rhythmic dance, ablaze with color, depth and energy.
“urban folk culture iz the continuation of the past/future w/improvisation used az the key life-force to survival..” -Ibn
Since the mid 1960s, 70-year-old Ibn has produced art under many names and collectives including; The Black Graphics International, Ogun Urban Monumentz, African Burial Groundz, Kcalb Gniw Spirit, Ogun Ritual Altars, Ogun Monument Warriorz, Incarnationz, and Tributes to the African Ethoz. His works celebrate Juneteenth day, Nelson Mandala, Mumia Abu Jamal, African pride and Jazz. They speak on behalf of political prisoners, the repressed and unrepresented.
Ibn has toured the country reciting poetry with jazz great Henry Grimes and performed in numerous one-off band ensembles known simply as “Band Unit #10”. His art has been displayed on city streets as well as galleries in Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Senegal, Birkina Faso, Abidjan/Ivory Coast, Kingston Jamaica, and Brazil. Ibn is a citizen of the Pan-African, Sun Ra Omniverse; an Afro-futurist practicing his art on the outer edges of Western tradition -faraway from what Ibn has called the thick mire of fetish materialism.
“for the essence of r own soulz, for freedom’z call, for this struggle for an egalitarian society, for thiz iz the call…. the meaning of it all.” -Ibn
Ibn’s portrait-collages are heroic graffiti-flags –memorial billboards and ‘tombstones’ of justice, emblazoned with an African/urban aesthetic. His ancestor series are referred to as “burial groundz” and “urban monumentz” – time-machine artworks that are the descendants and extensions of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. These politicized urban assemblages are opposed to mass conformity and packaged pop. Ibn’s raw art-brutish artworks are saturated with voudon references and elements of erasure, gestural markings and deep rubbing reliefs that bring to mind the surrealist frottage’s of Max Ernst, the controlled collage of Robert Rauchenberg and the lyrical madness of Willem de Kooning.
Ibn developed his own subterranean codes and markings, related to hobo writing, railroad graffiti, astrological charts, and African hieroglyph patterns. These complex marks, mixed with multiple layered and improvised blocks of color, create sonic fields of free-jazz like dimensions. Ibn has made improvisation alive in collage, with multitudes of styles, messages and secret experiments that seem in progress, unfinished.
Ibn is a respected elder in the African-American arts scene. His quiet yet intense public presence in Detroit was the litmus test when anything of cultural/spiritual importance occurred. He methodically documented countless concerts, lectures and events, his video camera a constant companion. He’s kept alive an enthusiasm for life and ritual, a thirst for knowledge, authenticity and the pure expression of joy, freedom and innocence.
“taking back the righteouz voice of r elderz and the voice of the children shall be heard, taking back the meaning of the black/bluez, giving life to the spirit ” –Ibn
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Vision in a Cornfield / Ogun Urban Monumentz
One night in the late 1990s, while assisting on Cameron Jamie’s Spookhouse film, Mike Kelley and I heard a loud rumble coming from a cornfield near Fowlerville, Michigan. We followed the sound until we came across a solitary low-rider complete with fuzzy dice and without occupants. The auto was sitting among the cornstalks, glowing in deep purple from lights underneath and throbbing from an unholy noise coming from the trunk. We saw the car and rattling sound as ‘alien’ installation art.
We discussed animating automobiles; giving them exaggerated robotic motion, humping, life-sized toys, filtering damaged DAM sounds. We thought of sharing our sound sample libraries with other artists, especially techno musicians, and having the mutated ’transformer’ autos converse and dance to the new mixes. The DAM sample project was long on our minds since the bulk of them were stored on floppy discs and other vanishing formats that needed preservation.
Later, I recalled Ibn’s automobile project of the mid-1990s; Afro-futurist shrines dedicated to ancestors he called Urban Monumentz. These were West African Orisha altars; sites of transformation and musical ritual, artfully designed and spiritually charged. Ibn connected African religion to the streets, re-imagining and framing one of our most valued consumer objects with the warrior divinity Ogun.
In the 80s and 90s, scrap metal was cheap and Detroit was littered with countless rusted-out automobiles. Ibn neutralized these post-consumer rejects and signs of blight, into objects of rare beauty and poetry through ceremonial purification. Through the spirit of Ogun, the African god of iron and metal (also the god of thunder, war, revolution and slave revolts) Ibn and his collective, delivered the dead metallic hulks back into the community as something beautiful from the earth. The Kclab Gniw Spirit group, acted as shamanic warriors, consecrating their altars in the name of departed souls, revolutionary leaders, jazz musicians and artists.
Kelley agreed this would make an interesting collaboration between our collectives. I spoke with Ibn in 2002 about creating a joint installation based on his abandoned auto project. At one meeting, Ibn shared photographs and a catalog of his automobile shrines and we thought it could happen, yet the complexity of the project and Kelley’s busy schedule made it impossible at the time.
“the ceremonies of r own integration of theory and practice in musik/dance/art/ poetry/ the drama that we call the ritual…” -Ibn
Ibn suffered a massive stroke while delivering a eulogy at a friend’s funeral in 2008. That left him partially paralyzed and with limited verbal skills. He now lives in a nursing home, bound to a wheel chair and in physical therapy. Since Kelley’s death in January of this year, the project looked impossible to ever complete.
While discussing a MOCAD journal project with Rebecca Mazzei, (a box project with roots in Afro-futurism) I mentioned the installation and cornfield vision. Mazzei believed we could make it happen and ready by the fall. We then met with artist M. Saffell Gardner, a friend and member of the Kcalb Gniw Spirit collective , who agreed to manage the installation on behalf of Ibn and act as co-curator for the project.
Apetechnology, a Detroit collective of metal hackers formed out of Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratory, was a logical source to transform the cars into motion. I noticed the group several years ago at the Maker’s Faire at Greenfield Village, and thought a collaboration at some point would be inevitable. We met at their aptly named “Destroy Compound” – where the group gave us a tour of their demolition factory and demonstrated their wild robotic hacking strategies. The group agreed to help mutate, animate and wire the automobiles for sound, a key part to realizing the complete project.
Samples from Destroy All Monsters began to be recently saved and digitized thanks to the efforts of Scott Benzel and the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Due to time and legal limitations, the samples were unable to be distributed in time to other sound artists. Instead, I structured the samples into small layered “song groups” that played in random sequences through the cars. These were mixed with solo recordings of Jim Shaw from his 8 CD box set and “Swamp Gas” poetry read by Mike Kelley. The samples were further manipulated by random pitch changes and selection through a computer program developed by Leith Campbell at Apetechnology.
In the spring, Saffell and I met with Ibn and his brother Nehemiah at the nursing home to discuss the project and show him sketches of the proposed layout. Ibn’s speech was difficult, but he was positive with the idea and said, “not to worry about it.” Saffell then met with artist musician Lester Lashley, another Kcalb Gniw Spirit/ Ogun member based in Chicago (who is also a founding member of the AACM) . Lashley also agreed to also help with the Monumentz construction.
The combined efforts of several collectives were gathered to produce this epic multilevel display, and MOCAD was majorly supportive and helpful. It seems fitting to be happening in Detroit during the departure year of both Faruq Z. Bey and Mike Kelley. Its been a slowly evolving project, organically coming together across the years, as if directed almost by psychic or ancestral forces.
A group of large painting/collages by Ibn were recently rescued by Saffell and the staff of MOCAD. These will also be on display, courtesy of Ibn and his wife Gloria. A related Afro-futurist themed journal titled “Box” will be assembled in time for the opening. Box will have loosely assembled contributions from a diverse group of artists and musicians, and will be available for purchase from MOCAD and Book Beat. Besides holding an LP called “Spirit Songz” with half a side by Sun ra and the other by Ibn, the Box will contain artworks by many local artists including; Leni Sinclair, Gary Grimshaw, Saffell, Ibn, Gilda Snowden and many others.
Vision in a Cornfield/ Urban Monumentz opens at MOCAD Sept 7 at 7 pm and runs through Dec 30, 2012.
“we keep on keepin’ on… refusing to quit/ refusing to die young, that’z the trick resonating from thiz journey/ the vivid memoriez of their pathz/ the ancestorz legacy speaking inside ur being of their endurance az they followed dreamz that shaped r collective singular earring dangling from the next generations ear l o b e z” –Ibn
all quotes from The Path, by Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts, Black Graphics International, Detroit/Michigan/ USNA, all photographs of Ibn’s artwork (shown in detail) were taken at MOCAD on 6/11/2012, photo of Ibn courtesy of Saffell Gardner.
A Strange Necessity: Rebecca West, James Joyce & the artistic impulse
Why does Art matter? What is this strange necessity?
…the closer you try to approach the facts through history, the deeper you sink into fiction. The greater the care with which you explain a fact, the more nonsensical a fable you fish out of chaos. – Halldór Laxness, Under the Glacier
In her book length essay The Strange Necessity, philosopher-author Rebecca West observed how the creative act can be thought of as a completely holistic and natural force in the world. In the act of creating, the artist becomes a part of nature, at one with it, fused and connected to the natural world. West’s metaphor of the natural artist is ; “determined and exclusive as the tree’s intention of becoming a tree, and by passing all his material through his imagination and there experiencing it, he achieves the same identity with what he makes as the growing tree does.”[i]
Strange Necessity claims the actions of an artist, in the process of creation, comes out of a biological necessity, an unstoppable urge bound up with natural primal desires. The artist can never be in total control of the process of creating, but is only fulfilling a natural process bound up within life. The necessity that West explored can also be simplified as the “spiritual impulse”, an intuitive connection with a higher realm, beyond thought or emotion that resides in the creative act. West further identifies a fundamental unity between all art and experience. The creation of artwork is an act of engagement with life, a process that’s transcendent, connected with a spiritual purpose.
The Strange Necessity is a moving portrait on the motivations of an artist. In her concluding chapters, West shifts to the exaltation and spiritual function a work of art performs on the individual. It is a relationship to art that borders on the sexual: “I have…this crystalline concentration of glory, this deep and serene and intense emotion that I feel before the greatest works of art… It overflows the confines of the mind and becomes an important physical event…Is this exaltation the orgasm, as it were, of the artistic instinct, stimulated to its height by a work of art…”[ii]
This spiritual and orgasmic manifestation of art is noted in the sublime landscapes of Frederic Church and J.M.W. Turner, the firework abstractions of Kandinsky, the musical genius of J.S. Bach and Mozart and the of writings of Melville, Poe and Joyce; works that commune with the soul on a metaphysical landscape. This pull toward the spiritual sublime and orgasmic was fundamental to modernism especially the 20th century impulse of improvisation found in of jazz, rock n roll, film and writing -the same attributes and release of the divine mind found within West’s exaltation of the orgasm.
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West used the example of a single day of city life to investigate the novel as a creative act and the moving effect of art on her own life. An intensive study of Joyce’s Ulysses takes place inside a single day of West’s life within her home in the city of Paris. This doubling of art and life was itself at the very center of Ulysses, which also takes place in a single ordinary day in the life of James Joyce. This entwined reflection of art and life between Paris and Dublin is like a movie inside a movie, a hallway of infinite mirrors between art and life the authors walk us through.
Joyce never made public his notice of West’s criticism, however he wrote a scathing but cloaked put-down parody of Strange Necessity within his novel Finnegan’s Wake. West takes the example of Joyce as a motivating pendulum in all the arts. The passage of a spiritual or natural transformation from one artist to the next often occurs between written and visual worlds. That improvised and spontaneous fractured time within Joyce can also be seen reflected in cubist paintings, comic books, a Bach concerto and jazz riffs.
The way art is expressed through society, the way it’s supported, taught, encouraged and critiqued, is often based on the relationship between artist and patron and the political mechanics of the time. During times of wealth and industry (the Renaissance is the most obvious example), this relationship can be developed fruitfully and become a concentrated force.
The relationship of funding and material support in the arts is illustrated in Ezra Pound’s comment that, “Great art does not depend on the support of riches, but without such aid it will be individual, separate, and spasmodic: it will not group and become a great period… a great age is brought about only with the aid of wealth, because a great age means the deliberate fostering of genius, the gathering-in and grouping and encouragement of artists.”[iii] This careful balance and support of the arts is often shaken and disposed of in times of great social upheaval and despair, yet this “strange necessity” is present in all eras, and should be viewed as a constant interior force.
The forces of spirit which effect and drive the arts, is a theme often overlooked and diminished. From the nineteenth century “art reform” to contemporary theorists, metaphysical and spiritual influences continue to be downplayed or ignored. The opening of early nineteenth century America to its vast resources and its “manifest destiny” has been a clear source of our nation’s spiritual tensions and troubles. The drive forever onward instead of inward creates uneasiness and an emphasis on earthbound desires. Conditions of genocide, war, racial divisions and destruction of land and resources can only be reconciled or balanced by spiritual solutions or the transformation of consciousness –conditions that are universal in the art process.
West declared America itself as part of a political necessity; a country of belief and action balanced on a life or death situation. America evolved into existence because of the necessity for freedom, an idea constantly tested and often betrayed by many of America’s leaders. The America founded on the seeds of spiritual freedom and that served as a beacon for other nations has vanished, swallowed by its own greed and widening girth. That noble idea of spiritual freedom has been replaced by a slide into a cesspool of selfishness and technocratic rule. Many artists today are forced into wretched contracts with galleries and create on the same competitive field as Wall Street brokers.
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The idea of spirituality as unbounded space, without restraint, serves the arts and the areas in which art flourishes. New York City came close in the 1930s and 40s as a site where the arts could expand without boundaries. During the development of the ashcan and abstract expressionist schools, modernism rooted deeply there, at least a modernism outside of European influence. It occurred again in the early 1980s with the growth of street art, no-wave and hip-hop. That heroic past has been documented and mythologized, yet, the story of cheap rents, artist garrets and a pioneering spirit is not exclusive and is one we return to again and again, in many sites around the globe.
We see in Detroit now, the same signs, opportunities and conditions as a feral laboratory for the arts. The conditions of unbounded freedom that existed before have returned amid the chaos and “forest clearing” weight of industrial blight and neglect. Small clusters of artistic groups, creative pockets, communal and urban pioneers seem to be sprouting like weeds through the concrete, a city on the verge.
The history of art practice in Detroit has always been connected within small groups of people united in a struggle against outside pressures and lowly political-industrial forces. Surrounded by mighty industrial goliaths (many of them in the process of fading away), art practice became isolated within small radical iconoclastic groups; The Detroit Society for Arts and Crafts in 1906, The Artists Workshop in 1964, Trans-Love Energies in 1967, and the Cass Corridor Movement of the late 60s and 70s were all disparate signs, politicized art movements and protests against society, industry, corrupt education, war or greed, yet too quickly overshadowed and swallowed by mainstream forces. The liquidation of those movements forced many individuals into either larger cities where growth was possible, into further isolation or into the mainstream.
To understand that “lost history” is the process of understanding ourselves as a cultural movement within a larger cultural and spiritual world. Regaining balance and refueling our energies can occur only through spiritual transformation, an inward healing solution. The past is key to understanding the strange necessity of our present condition and for laying the foundations of lasting plans into the future.
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Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them. –David Hume, Essays Moral and Political, 1742
The Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) remained unpopular and mostly unread until the mid-twentieth century. His idea on beauty was that it existed as fragmented perceptions in the mind. That the mysteries and beauty we seek in art are always “impressions of the mind” –the thoughts and feelings we carry within us through comparisons of experience. Hume said, “power and necessity… are… qualities of perceptions, not of objects… felt by the soul and not perceived externally in bodies”[iv] That fragmented-self idea was later embraced and radicalized by Gilles Deluze and the poststructuralists. We are all parts of a greater whole and the process of art is nothing less then the universe being itself and seeing itself.
The eternal return is woven through the fragmented-mind and its removal of the object of our passion. The feedback loop where art, action and mind are one.
[i] Rebecca West, The Strange Necessity (Doubleday, New York, 1928) p.7