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Features / November 14, 2014

Notes on the Art of Writing—and Rewriting

Recently, artists gathered in a Montreal gallery to make a famously bleak book "a little bit happier"—now, Jacob Wren and Saelan Twerdy chat about the edit.

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is one of the great, unfinished works of 20th-century literature. Throughout his short life (he died in 1935 at age 47), Pessoa employed at least 70 fictive personas that he called “heteronyms” as vehicles to pursue wildly divergent styles of writing. These personalities included world travellers, uncultured peasants, and conservative academics. The Book of Disquiet, however, is credited to a “semi-heteronym”: Bernardo Soares, a reclusive, melancholy Lisbon accountant who seemingly differs from Pessoa only in name. Written in fragments over the course of his career and only published for the first time in 1982, the book is a “factless autobiography,” a glum but deeply poetic meandering in which Pessoa anatomizes every species of doubt, failure, and sorrow.

Late last month, members of the Montreal-based performance art collective PME-ART staged an eight-day project in Concordia University’s Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery titled Adventures can be found anywhere, même dans la mélancolie. During the gallery’s open hours, they sat at a table and rewrote The Book of Disquiet page by page, altering it as they saw fit, with the semi-serious goal of making it “a little bit happier.” Throughout the project’s run, their pages were displayed on custom-built shelves as well as projected on the gallery walls. Since the exhibition closed, their new book has effectively ceased to exist: they have no plans to publish it and would prefer for it to remain, like the original, incomplete. As they wrote in the brochure for the exhibit, “When nothing is finished, everything remains possible.”

Here, PME-ART co-artistic director Jacob Wren answers questions about the space between art and literature, about modes of reading and spectatorship, and about happiness.

Saelan Twerdy: What came first, the idea of a project like this or your interest in The Book of Disquiet?

Jacob Wren: I think this project, like much of our work, has multiple starting points. Two early questions strike me as worth mentioning here: How to put performance into the gallery in an ongoing way? And how to put literature into the gallery? Another question might be, why bother doing either of these things?

As a writer, it often occurs to me that literature consists mainly of the books we continue to read long after their authors are dead. What I write today is not yet literature, but might some day become it. This leads towards an overly respectful, overly canonized conception of literature. (Also one very much in conflict with the notion of “contemporary” art.) And I prefer something a bit more mischievous. So I thought: one way to put literature into the gallery is to resist this canonization, to respect literature in some greater sense by treating it with playful disrespect.

The experience of performing in a gallery (during normal gallery hours) is quite noticeably one of never knowing when there will be spectators. Therefore we were looking for an activity, a modality of performance, that would be equally alive whether anyone was watching it or not.

ST: On PME-ART’s website, the collective is listed as yourself, co-artistic director Sylvie Lachance, and administrative director Richard Ducharme, though I know you often work with other collaborators. On this occasion, though, neither Sylvie or Richard were among the performers. Why is that? Also, how were the participants chosen? Did you rehearse?

JW: Sylvie and Richard were completely involved in this project. However, they never perform. Sometimes I wonder what the best way might be to explain just exactly what PME-ART is. I somehow know what it is, because I’ve been doing it now for over 15 years, but when I explain it I’m never certain that I’m managing to convey its most important aspects.

PME-ART is a structure that makes performances, and sometimes other kinds of work, for different contexts. Sylvie, Richard and I work together in the office organizing the projects and tours. For each project, we pull together a group of people who work together collaboratively for a certain period of time, usually over five years. So, yes, for Adventures can be found anywhere, même dans la mélancolie we (Claudia Fancello, Marie Claire Forté, Nadège Grebmeier Forget, Adam Kinner, Ashlea Watkin and myself) spent about six months reading and rewriting Pessoa together before we reached our table in the middle of the gallery.

I think it’s important for us in PME-ART that we emphasize the collaborative nature of the work. Though I generally conceive of the projects at the very beginning, by the time they reach fruition they have changed and been reinvented so much through the collaborative process. Since many of our recent projects take place in and around music, one might use the metaphor of a band: the song is never the same song once the band has had their way with it.

ST: What I find most compelling about this project is how unresolved it is. It’s both an art project and a literary project, but also not quite either. So it’s unclear how best to approach and appreciate it, as a reader or as a spectator. As both a novelist and a performance artist, I imagine this is something you’ve thought about a lot. What do you find productive about the space between contemporary art and literature?

JW: The Book of Disquiet is an unfinished book, and in many ways our project is a kind of meditation on what it means to leave something unfinished. Pessoa spent his entire writing life with very few readers. In this sense, his writing was an end in itself, though he also felt fairly confident that his work would attain posthumous fame.

I wonder if our project might be seen in a similar sense: we are doing something in clear view, anyone can come to the gallery and watch us doing it, but in another way it is an almost secret activity, an end in itself. On the level of performance this interests me a great deal. This kind of integrity—almost a form of grace—in performing not for the spectator but for yourself. I believe there is a specific kind of pleasure in watching someone doing something real, something they are honestly attempting to pull off.

In terms of the space between contemporary art and literature, there is so much that could be said. In one way I’m simply interested when things are put together that don’t necessarily fit, what happens then. I do think that the boundaries between all disciplines should be considerably more fluid. So often breakthroughs occur when developments from one discipline are brought to bear on another field.

ST: I’m fascinated by the idea of a writing project that demands this intensive investment of time and togetherness, but only for a limited duration, after which the writing kind of evaporates. Obviously this heightened focus on the moment of co-presence is very common in performance art, but it’s almost the opposite of the typical reading or writing experience. Is this somehow pitched against the distracted condition of contemporary reading, in which books might exist more to be stockpiled and Instagrammed than actually read, or browser tabs opened ad infinitum, always saved for later?

JW: What first attracted me to performance was its ephemerality, its transience. At that time I believed that at a performance you had to pay complete attention right fucking now because it was never going to happen again, or at least not in that precise way. I wanted this ephemerality to be an intensity, a particular form of liveness or authenticity.

That was a long time ago, and now I’m more suspicious of these terms. I suspect that, in our experience of performance, it often becomes almost a form of mechanical reproduction or representation. Watching a performance might be some sort of machine for turning something live into something else.

Nonetheless, putting this project in a gallery has to be understood along these lines. The gallery is a space that focuses attention on a given object or activity. With our project, every time a page was finished, it was done. That page will never be rewritten again. I can’t imagine ever publishing our “rewritten monster book of disquiet” because, for me, this work isn’t about writing in any traditional sense. It’s more about a real-time activity that is collaborative, personal and on display.

ST: Do you think your rewriting did, in fact, produce a happier text, or one “energized with a certain charge of the present moment”? To what extent did you find that the text was altered at all? Did you ever find that just rewriting the text as it originally appeared—like Borges’s Pierre Menard or Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet—was adequate satisfaction, or enough to make it contemporary?

JW: There were so many approaches we took to rewriting each page. And, yes, I really do think we managed to make the book a little bit happier and considerably more of the present moment. It was a process that continuously reinvented itself. Sometimes we did simply copy out the page, or a section of the page, and this act of transcription significantly changed it. Or we copied it out making only small changes. Sometimes these small changes, altering only a few words, in fact did the most to make the page a little bit happier. I think this could almost be seen as a life lesson: at times you need to make only the smallest change in order to achieve the greatest result. But only at times, since with other pages we changed practically every word. It was this flow of constant reinvention, both completely futile and often energizing, that gave the project its strangeness. We had techniques and a few basic rules, but for the most part you could do whatever you wanted, and yet whatever you did resulted in little more than one more page on the shelf. This mix of freedom and futility relates very much to the tone and struggle of Pessoa.

ST: It’s tempting to speculate that the primary audience for this performance could only be the performers themselves—no one else is going to have such an immersive experience of the text you produced together. This is something that’s often said about collaborative or dialogic projects, whether as praise or criticism. It also relates to your stated aim (however tongue-in-cheek) of making Pessoa’s book “a little bit happier.” If there is a therapeutic aspect to the project, it seems that the performers are the ones who stand to gain the most from it. Are you okay with that?

JW: The idea of making Pessoa “a little bit happier” most likely begins in my own considerable neurosis. I love reading The Book of Disquiet but often find doing so completely depressing, so depressing that I have to put the book down and not pick it up again for weeks, or even months. Might there be another Pessoa I would love reading even more? Could we collaboratively create this Pessoa? What does it mean to give ourselves permission to do so? If Pessoa had edited The Book of Disquiet himself, I have an unverifiable feeling that he would have edited out some of the relentless bleakness, not because it was bleak, but simply because it was repetitive.

I have to admit that I’m not overly enthusiastic about the idea that “the primary audience for this performance could only be the performers themselves.” I’m more interested in a gallery-goer who is open enough, curious enough, to experience the thematic resonances in an exhibition that requires a certain degree of time and commitment, that is partially hidden and needs to be gradually uncovered.

On the other hand, the notion that the primary experience of any work of art is had by the artist him- or herself must have some truth to it. It is one thing to look at a painting by Picasso, but how could that possibly compare to the experience of being Picasso and actually painting it?

ST: In a larger sense, do you feel that art ought to be therapeutic? You raise this question in your own text when you write, “At times, in artistic works, there is a kind of reverse psychology effect; extremely sad works can make you feel happy and vice versa.” From reading your books, I don’t get the impression that you see the purpose of art as merely a lightening of the mood. I think most of us hope that the pleasure we get from artistic works is also good for us in a deeper sense, that it makes us better people. Of course, evil people can also be committed aesthetes. So, at the risk of asking you a ridiculous question, what do you think art is good for?

JW: I think “art as therapy” is potentially as consequent a way of considering art as any other. How we understand art today seems to me to be more and more of an open question. One thing I’m definitely against is the idea that bleaker works of art are somehow more profound than happier ones. Of course the world is filled to the brim with violently negative things and heartbreaking injustice, but that doesn’t make the negative or the violent into any kind of truth. Joy can be equally truthful, both as an experience and as a mode of thinking. (However, I say this as someone who has basically never experienced joy.) I think art is a bit like sports, food or war: something that will always exist. It’s only a question of what we choose to do with it at any given time.

It is certainly possible to focus on the sociological aspects of art: What are the trends? Why does it seem that so many young people want to be artists today? Why are there so many biennales? Etc.? But I prefer to focus on art as a question of desire: what do we want to do so much that it feels almost as if we have no choice, and what occurs within and throughout the process of doing it? I think art often has to do with a certain attention to detail (even if the result is sloppiness or chaos) and a certain intensity of care given to the matter at hand. This is from the vantage point of the artist.

From the vantage of the viewer I think that, over the course of a lifetime, finding certain works that are important to you is a way of questioning what one finds important, of learning a little bit more about it in the process, often in ways that reveal an underlying complexity. Also, hopefully, a way of sharing it. If I love the films of the Norwegian artist Lene Berg (which I do), and I meet someone else who also loves her films, already we have something to talk about, a place to start our conversation, a conversation in which we have no idea where it will lead. Maybe we love Berg’s films for completely different reasons.

I don’t think any of this is therapeutic in the sense that it “makes you better,” but I was never interested in that kind of therapy anyway. These are all simply possibilities for generating questions and insights about ourselves, each other and the world. But now I sound like some sort of fucking hippie, which in the modality of contemporary art must be a fate worse than death.

ST: Further to that last question, do you think art and literature offer different rewards? Or is it that the reward you’re after doesn’t properly belong to either sphere?

JW: The main difference I find myself wondering about has to do with time, with a difference in how much time one commits to the task. If I read a book, it might take me days, weeks or even months. People often whip through an exhibition so quickly I find it surreal (though at times I also do so). I remember sitting in a room at Kunst-Werke in Berlin and watching a documentary about Bourdieu for five hours without even realizing the time had passed. Afterwards, I was amazed not only by the pleasure of the film, but by my own realization that I hardly ever spend more than thirty minutes or an hour in any given exhibition.

It’s true we spent eight days doing Adventures can be found anywhere, même dans la mélancolie, and if someone had decided to spend three or four entire days with us they would have had a considerably different experience. I also think of books that I’ve picked up and put down so many times before I was ready for them. There were many attempts to read them over many years until one day the time was right and they became some of the most important books in my life. This is a completely different time frame, a different sense of time. Maybe it is like a work in a museum that you go back to look at again and again.

Your suggestion that the rewards we’re after don’t properly belong to either art or literature very much resonates with me. In general, I feel I’m always searching for something that doesn’t yet, and perhaps can never, completely exist. I’m searching for breakthroughs, if one is still allowed to think in such romantic terms. At the given juncture of any breakthrough one momentarily feels there is no precedent. It is only later that one might see how everything fits (or doesn’t fit) into various histories and narratives. In my life I’ve had so many amazing experiences with every kind of art, and yet I still hope there can be something else, something unexpected, something that doesn’t fit anywhere, something that might still change the world.

This exchange has been edited and condensed.

Saelan Twerdy

Saelan Twerdy is a Montreal-based writer, editor and PhD candidate in Art History at McGill University. He is a contributing editor at Momus and the managing editor of RACAR, the official journal of the Universities Art Association of Canada.