The situation felt primal, imminently violent; distant epigenetic memories of war and bloodlust shivered in my veins. Turn the music off, I shouted, the lyrics are misogynistic. The truth was, there was no time to even consider what they might have been about in any larger sense; the music was sudden-onslaught deafening, terms for female genitals were thundering throughout a public space occupied mostly by excited, electrified young men: to be a woman in this scenario was to feel under threat in a way that was simple and visceral.
Read an essay on cultural assimilation in Europe, the appropriation of American Black subculture by minorities, and gaps in understanding on Three Quarks Daily.
This past spring, I found myself sitting, masked, at a wooden desk among a scattering of scientific researchers at the Museo Galileo in Florence. Next to me was a thick reference book on the history of astronomical instruments and a smaller work on the sundials and other measuring devices built into the churches of Florence to mark the cyclical turning points of cosmic time. The gnomon of Santa Maria del Fiore, for instance, consisted of a bronzina, a small hole set into the lantern ninety meters above that acted as a camera oscura and projected an image of the sun onto the cathedral floor far below. At noon on the day of the solstice, the solar disc superimposed itself perfectly onto a round marble slab, not quite a yard in diameter, situated along the inlaid meridian. I studied the explanations of astronomical quadrants and astrolabes and the armilla equinoziale,the armillary sphere of Santa Maria Novella, made up of two conjoined iron rings mounted on the façade that told the time of day and year based on the position of their elliptical shadow, when all at once it occurred to me that I’d wanted to write about something else altogether, about a person I occasionally encountered, a phantom living somewhere inside me: the young woman who’d decided not to leave, not to move to Berlin after all, to rip up the letter of acceptance to the art academy she received all those years ago and to stay put, in New York. Alive somewhere, in some other iteration of being, was a parallel existence in an alternative universe, one of the infinite spheres of possibility in which I’d decided differently and become a different woman.
Not long before this, a friend in Graz had told me that she’d been born on American soil and so, theoretically at least, was an American citizen. She’d never lived there, however, and this was her ghost, her own parallel existence. In July of 1950, her parents had sailed from Bremerhaven to New York on the United States Army Transport W.G. Haan, a ship of displaced persons that had been reacquired by the Navy and enlisted in the Military Sea Transportation Service. Their intention was to emigrate; they’d applied for their visas, all their papers were in order, and yet they were refused entry and caught in limbo for more than a year before being sent back to Europe. My friend was born in this limbo, on Ellis Island.
The first time she’d decided to research the ship manifests and to see what information she could find about her parents’ voyage and subsequent internment, she stumbled, one might say improbably, on a photograph of her mother, taken aboard the ship, posted online by the Immigration History Research Center Archives of the University of Minnesota Libraries. It was part of a series a Latvian passenger named Uģis Skrastiņš had taken to document his trip after leaving a displaced persons camp in Meersbeck, Germany, before eventually resettling in Minneapolis. The collection held a total of 87 photographs recording trains arriving, passengers disembarking, and people standing in line on a dock, waiting to board with manila tags attached to the buttons of their coats, blankets strapped to the suitcases resting on the pavement next to them. People crowded the ship’s deck, near-silhouettes against the churning, metallic-looking water below; crew members handled ropes as thick as their arms, with heavy black smoke curling upwards from another ship’s funnel behind them, and everywhere the latticework of huge metal cranes ready to haul up cargo. Again and again, I came back to the photograph of my friend’s mother. She was smiling, her eyes were downcast, and she seemed to be unaware that she was being photographed; her smile was private, reserved for my friend’s father, the man in the foreground with his back turned to us and his head slightly tilted, also smiling. It was July, and while the ocean air must have had a nip to it, as the people in the photograph were wearing coats, my friend’s mother was wearing hers open. She was two weeks pregnant with my friend; presumably, she didn’t yet know this. Her hair was in place, as was her husband’s: the day was not particularly windy, and two women seated in the background, one of them with a kerchief tied under her chin, seemed to be enjoying the sea air.
When I got off the train yesterday at Santa Maria Novella, I was convinced that I remembered the way; I knew that I needed to take the 36 or 37 bus, but the stop I recalled turned out to be the Capolinea, the end of the line where I disembarked two years ago, over an hour early for my train departing Florence—upon which, to kill time, I wandered around the neighborhood of San Marco, lugging my suitcase behind me in the early-morning serenity of the still-deserted streets. I remember wondering if this mysterious new epidemic would remain confined to its various pockets of outbreak, when all at once, as I turned the corner onto Via Nazionale, the brightly lit letters of Hotel Corona stopped me in my tracks.
As with my arrival in Florence two years ago, it took me some time to find the bus stop, just enough for a vague sense of anxiety to set in. I was traveling by choice, I had an invitation and a room to stay in, and yet the news images of people fleeing first the advance of Russian troops on the Donbas and then everywhere else superimposed themselves onto the bustling Florentine streets: people abandoning their cars and possessions after running out of gas in thirty-mile-long traffic jams headed west for the border checkpoints; men pulled out of queues by Ukrainian soldiers and forced to bid goodbye to their families and join the armed resistance. Children with bunny ears on their woolen caps alarmed and wailing, their faces turned away or pressed to the foggy windows of buses and trains, their mothers unable to console them. Women carrying toddlers in snowsuits and diaper bags and lugging suitcases behind them, bracing for hours on foot in the freezing cold to reach a border or train station even as students and other people from non-white countries are turned back from the checkpoints and often beaten. People hauling cats and dogs on their backs, their children in tow, most of them too exhausted or too numbly focused on surviving the next minutes and hours to cry. The sight of their shock and their uprootedness slices into the marrow and fuels my own temporary lack of orientation, my struggle to conserve the last six percent battery power on my cell phone. I backtrack several times, perspiring and unable to properly concentrate, knowing all the while that I am headed to warmth and safety, to privilege. It eventually occurs to me that I can check Google Maps, and I finally find the bus stop, ashamed at my lack of resourcefulness, at my porosity and empathy that help no one.
I’d like to draw your attention to the second part of an interview Ally Klein did with me that’s just gone up at Three Quarks Daily. We talk about my new novel, Like Lips, Like Skins, the German edition of which (Kreisläufe, meaning circuits, circulations, circles) was published a few months ago by Literaturverlag Droschl, this time with a focus on the presence and function of art in the book:
After years of writing (and finally publishing), I finally felt secure enough to go a step further in my second novel. I began describing the artmaking process, and eventually imported some of my actual art into the work in order to see what form it might take there. I was also interested in seeing how much of the original artwork can’t, in the end, be captured in words. What remains of art in its description? When you narrate it, but can’t actually see anything? Are you merely describing the intentions behind the work, are you describing an idea or the work’s appearance? Are you creating something completely new? To my surprise, I discovered that it was suddenly much more about the fictional character I ascribed a particular work to, in this case Felice—it shifted the focus to her psychology. How did she arrive at this type of art, what does it have to do with her life? What does her art say about her as a character? A completely new narrative coalesced around the description, one that’s pretty far removed from the original impulses that led to the actual work the writing is based on. I’m driven by the idea of bringing contemporary art a little closer to readers not normally all that familiar with it. This is a work of literature, after all, and not aesthetic theory. And so the concepts are somewhat simplified, and even if some of the passages are still pretty abstract, I hope the human connection comes across easily enough. Because the art in this book is only one component in a larger work that addresses many other themes: family, trauma, parents, children, getting older.
When, in Like Lips, Like Skins, I lend this work [the installation Through the Bullethole]to the protagonist, she automatically becomes associated with the mental state the work suggests—this slightly crazy, obsessive gaze through a bullet hole, this necessarily limited view of the world—it all becomes far more psychological in the book, and Felice is equated with her work much, I might add, in the way that I’m often equated with my protagonist. There’s this (I hope) hilarious scene in which the work is hanging on the walls of a gallery and Felice tries to explain the photographs to her mother, sister, and the mother’s neighbor, who they’ve brought along for some reason. All of a sudden there’s this 1:1 thing happening, it’s assumed that she’s the subject of the work in a way that never actually happened to me with the original installation—at the time I made the work, the question of authorship was never confused with the idea of a journal or diary, with a confessional gesture. It was understood to be a formal conceit. The work’s inner logic was clear, and the installation cohered in a larger way that allowed the ideas feeding it to breathe, to grow into a sort of organism. When I imported a description of this work into my book, I had to learn what it could do and what it couldn’t do. It certainly wasn’t about selling the reader on conceptual art. I simply wondered what would be left of a work as complex as this after reducing it to words—and what I could make it say about my characters.
The first chapter of the German edition Kreisläufe appeared in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; English-language excerpts have appeared in Trafika Europe,Statorec, and Zyzzyva. The German version of Part One of this interview appeared in issue 234 of manuskripte, the English version here on Three Quarks Daily. For Part Two, Ally Klein corresponded with the author over the course of several weeks via email; the above is an edited version of a talk the two gave in Berlin on December 11, 2021 at Lettrétage.
For English-language rights to Like Lips, Like Skins, please contact Soumeya Roberts of HG Literary, New York.
I’d like to draw your attention to an interview Ally Klein did with me that’s just gone up at Three Quarks Daily. We talk about my new novel, Like Lips, Like Skins, the German edition of which (Kreisläufe, meaning circuits, circulations, circles) was published a few months ago by Literaturverlag Droschl: the strange-seeming discrepancy in titles, which gets to the heart of what the novel is about, the book’s approach to visual imagery and artmaking, and some of its main themes.
One of these themes is trauma:
The moment a traumatic experience occurs, certain regions of the brain, for instance the frontal lobes, are effectively switched off, while other, older parts of the brain—the regions responsible for the organism’s survival—take over. It’s similar with flashbacks: because our understanding of time lies in the neocortex, we experience a threat from the past as immediate, as though it were happening in the here and now. Cognitive thinking as well as language and memory formation also freeze up; in other words, all of a sudden there’s this huge blind spot ballooning outwards. The senses of a person experiencing a flashback become flooded, they fail to understand that they’re not in danger, they can barely find an explanation for their affective state and physical reactions and afterwards, confused and disoriented, they remember very little.
Another theme is autofiction:
Writing in the first-person singular means that you can’t analyze a character on a meta-level or from a distance, you have to make them do things, dream, talk, think. This establishes a closer link to the reader. I gave Felice certain elements from my life, I gave her Staten Island and Berlin and some of my art—to an extent, I even lent her my own late parents. This can be misleading, of course, and it can mean that people confuse the character with the author. However, if you start reading the book in an “autofictional” manner, you’d have to become skeptical at the very latest with the character of Micha. I’ve been living in Berlin for 37 years and wanted to write about my adopted home. It was clear to me that my view of Germany would be perceived as that of an outsider, a foreigner, even if I’ve spent my entire adult life here. And so I designed a fictional character to speak in my stead; over time it became increasingly clear to me that this person had to come from the East. Micha was a vehicle for me to lend a face to some of my own observations on a divided Germany and German Reunification. I live between these two cultures, I have both an inside and an outside view of the two countries. As a former inmate in a GDR juvenile detention facility who never really gained a foothold in the West, Micha is also caught between cultures. He’s stuck in this dilemma, but as a German he has the authority to articulate his thoughts about this country. And so suddenly, the figure of Felice could become his counterpart and take on the role of the somewhat clueless American. This is where an attentive reader would have to notice that the first-person narrator can’t be autofictional—because Micha and his observations are of course the author’s thoughts, statements, and hypotheses. In other words: Micha, c’est moi.
The first chapter of Kreisläufe was published in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; English-language excerpts have appeared in Trafika Europe, StatORec, and Zyzzyva. The interview has also just appeared in German in issue 234 of manuskripte.
Read an in-depth conversation with artists Simon Lee and Eve Sussman, online in my Artists’ Conversations series at 3 Quarks Daily:
“The guys in Dubai’s Old Market were being oppressed for less than minimum wage, they were worker immigrants from Bangladesh that lived in a work camp and sent their wages home to support their families; the construction site that Eve and I originally fantasized about producing Stalkerpooh on became luxury apartments in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; the deceits of powerful people—their spoken words—became our script; we built a useless factory that circulated water for no reason.”
“I know of no love that exists with moderation, at least on my side. The older I get, the busier I am, and the more engrossing my social life becomes, the warier I grow of submitting to the powerlessness of being in a love affair in which the heart is truly engaged. There’s a Kenneth Koch poem posted on the wall behind my computer that explains why. It says, ‘You want a social life, with friends/ A passionate love life and as well/ To work hard every day. What’s true/ Is of these three you may have two.’ When love comes in the door, my work and social life seem to fly out the window. Yet every now and then… even though I know how disruptive it is, I succumb, and all balance is lost.”
I talked to Liesl Schillinger to celebrate the publication of the Strange Attractors anthology with UMass Press—you can read the full conversation here.
And come to the reading at McNally Jackson in Williamsburg, Brooklyn:
An image is described: a photograph cut out of the newspaper in which a raging crowd is in the act of plundering a millionaire’s home. In the foreground, an oil painting is held aloft by several people: it’s the portrait of the millionaire. The photo was taken in the 1990s, when ethnic Chinese businessmen living in Indonesia were rumored to have caused the economic crisis of the time and suddenly found themselves in danger. The narrator describes the photograph in painstaking detail; she literally reconstructs the photograph in words. What is the mental image that results from this description, and what relationship does it bear to the original photograph? It’s about the description of an image of an image here: a text about the printed photograph of a portrait painted on canvas of a man who has fled for his life only moments before—an oil painting that was destroyed seconds after the picture was taken.
Joy Amina Garnettis an Egyptian American artist and writer living in New York. Her work, which spans creative writing, painting, installation art, and social media-based projects, reflects how past, present, and future narratives can co-exist through ‘the archive’ in its various forms. She has been working on a memoir and several other projects around the life and work of her late grandfather, the Egyptian Romantic poet and bee scientist A.Z. Abushady (1892–1955).
Joy Garnett: “Growing up, his ghost was all around me, the stuff of fairy tales, but I didn’t have a real sense of him as a person. My mother and aunt put him on a pedestal—their father, the famous Egyptian poet and doctor. Much literary criticism has been written about his poetry, so I spent years reading and absorbing as much as I could while trying to put together a more intimate and complex picture of him. As an undergraduate, I studied classical and spoken Arabic, and recently I took a series of hands-on beekeeping classes.”
David Krippendorff: Without wanting to sound naive, first and foremost I hope that my work has a strong emotional impact. Every initial idea I ever had for a piece always started with an emotional reaction to something, be it a film or a piece of music. Throughout the process, I then conceptualize it and parse out the various political subtexts and interpretive layers. I do think that all art is political, but I am also a great believer that art should be more visceral. We live in times in which nobody trusts their feelings anymore; our society is becoming increasingly cerebral. I think this is a very dangerous trend, because remaining in touch with one’s feelings is also the first step toward empathy. When we’re detached, it becomes much easier to turn a blind eye to injustice; we fail to see the humanity in a homeless person we pass by on the street. I strongly believe that the role of art should be to help people get in touch with their feelings. To me, this becomes political, and it’s the only way that it can have an impact and make a change. We have enough “interesting” art, but how often does somebody go to a show and say: “That was really moving,” or “That was beautiful”?
“Letting You in on a Secret is a work that reflects on this very depletion of language and mass imagery, a work that proposes and articulates new and surprising ways to recalibrate our perception, to shake ourselves and our stunned senses awake. DeLuccia’s formal reference to Dada provides us with an important clue to the work’s subtly subversive nature: in citing a movement that would presage and then endure the advent of fascism, mass extermination, and world war, she is pointing to the necessity of encoding explosive cultural commentary in humor and visually appealing imagery, of going underground with it, as it were—both to protect one’s powers of perception and to counter the effects of the spellbinding that numbs us to the dangers facing us.”
A conversation with Patricia Thornley published on 3QuarksDaily
From November 17, Patricia Thornley’s work The Western, part of her series THIS IS US, is on view as part of the group exhibition “Empathy” at Smack Mellon Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. The project is the latest in a seven-year series of installation and single-channel video works consisting of interviews and performances. Previous videos of the series are An American in Bavaria (2011), Don’t Cry for Me(2013), and Sang Real (2015). As a whole, THIS IS US formulates multiple parallel inquiries into the collaborative fantasies Americans enact through popular media. In the current political climate, as the escalation of social and economic forces impacting millions of lives is cast into increasingly sharp relief, these fantasies take on new urgency and, in many cases, a new absurdity.
The Western’s cast of characters consists of these Civil War-era archetypes: Indian Scout, Beast of Burden, Frontiersman, Savage, Deserter, Justice, and Drifter. The work is conceived as a two-part installation in which the cinematic trope of the Western is used as a framework for inquiring into the American psyche. In the exhibition space, a projected “movie” is installed opposite a wall of screens playing a series of interviews with the seven participating characters.
Andrea Scrima: Patricia, a few years ago I conducted an interview with you about a previous work of yours, Sang Real (2015), for the online poetry magazine Lute & Drum. Now, with The Western, the overall structure of THIS IS US is coming more and more clearly into focus. The last time we spoke at length about your series was a year and a half before the last presidential election. How have recent changes on the political landscape affected your approach to the themes in your work?
Patricia Thornley: From the beginning in the THIS IS US series, one of the questions I asked in my interviews with the people who featured in the individual videos was “how do you feel about being an American?” Historically, there’s always been a certain political disconnect at play with Americans, due to less armed conflict on our own soil and a certain comfort level.
I didn’t ask this question because I was trying to be instructive, but because one of the most important aspects of my work is to observe opposing and conflicting states of consciousness and to create situations that attempt a kind of uncommon reconciliation of these states. So in terms of what has changed I would say that what I was perceiving as a state of unconsciousness (pre-Trump) has been pushed to the surface by outrage and fear.
“The novel oscillates between mediated reflection, immediate perceptual state, and, later on, madness. This stage of perception does entirely without any sort of explanation. It’s about immediacy. The self is fully within it, there’s no help from without, no visible motive to reconstruct reflection a posteriori. That’s how it is with our perception. To my mind, when it comes to language, things start to get interesting. We trust reflection and reason so much more. Pure perception is trusted less, but insanity is never trusted. In the novel, we have an unreliable narrator telling the story after it’s already occurred. You might assume that the events were reflected upon and are now related through this conscious filter. But that’s not the case. Only in madness can you see what’s actually going on. The body itself speaks, unfiltered, directly. It’s a huge, profound immediacy that we can’t rationally grasp. It’s another language, like the language of dreams. You want to decode it, but there’s no code. In the novel, it presents as a primordial language, as opposed to a verbal one: a language of images that exerts its effect directly. It just does this, and the reader has to surrender to it to get any closer.”