I was reminded, as I viewed Ode to Every Thing, that in the Old Testament, the Genesis story describes how Adam was fashioned from the dust of the earth, and that his first task was to give everything a name. Naming, it seems, is humanity’s most essential impulse.
Language is a virus – William Burroughs
In Ode, the collecting and naming of things is a soothing antidote to emptiness, an innoculation against the constant press and urge of the abyss. When the bomb morphs into a fuel tank, its not the object that is transformed, only the language and the people it encapsulates.
Danger and fear, safety and sustenance, is it all just in our heads? What is anxiety’s native tongue? What language does refuge speak?
Without names, things are merely anxious objects. Names make stories possible, which like flaming torches keep the darkness at bay.
Dust Off is also about childhood and innocence, but the pursuits of ecstasy chronicled in this trinity of stories puzzle at the notion of mortality and eternity through an utterly different lens.
If Ode parallels where it all began (as in, “In the Beginning …”), where all was promise and pure potential, then Dust Off situates itself as the other paired bookend, a postmodern parable or reminder of the perils that ensue when we eat from the Tree of Knowledge. According to Genesis, the loss of innocence leads to certain death, and the narrator’s voice in Dust Off reverberates with implicit (or it is complicit?) confirmation of this ancient cautionary tale.
How is it that these two works can be simultaneously so eerie and so beautiful, so saturated with fear and alarm, so soothing and somnolent?
I believe the answer lies in the hybridity of these ‘texts’, as they point to nascent new forms made possible by electronic media and networks. In today’s world of screen-based communication and communities, what is a text? And when storytellers begin to push beyond the technologies of ink and paper, what does it mean to be an author?
There is probably no one better positioned to explore these questions than Eula Biss and John Bresland. Biss has established herself as an admired poet and essayist whose writing is celebrated for its lyrical beauty and intellectual precision. Bresland has masterfully pioneered what he calls the video essay, a form that re-envisions the traditional written essay and argues for understanding video as our culture’s most powerful and prevalent form of contemporary rhetoric.
These two pieces provide compelling evidence, a proof of concept if you will, that video can be concurrently alluring and seductive, cerebral and rhetorical. They offer a persuasive counterpoint to the spread and sprawl of the Youtube/Facebook wasteland, with its buffet of stupid pet tricks and various other flavors of narcotic distraction and navel gazing.
The work of Biss and Bresland points to the evolution of the word literary in a world of new technological affordances. They are part revolution and rupture, with equal measure of tradition-bound savvy and reverence for their literary antecedents. Most importantly, these artists adhere to the very old notion that literature (and art and culture) is anchored by ideas that matter.
Their work also provides a fascinating meditation on collaboration, all of the messiness and magic that can ensue when two creative people meld their separate sensibilities and voices into one. Biss and Bresland very graciously agreed to discuss some of those complications with me in the exchange below. It is lively, frank, and intimate, providing a glimpse into the process behind two artists whose work and lives are deeply intertwined.
Light Sensitive: Are there any ways in which you each feel that you see yourself in the other person’s individual work? What are the commonalities between you in terms of creative interests, concerns, topics, motifs, how you frame your ideas, work habits? Distinct differences?
Eula Biss: One of the great surprises of my life has been discovering that John is a poet. Thirteen years ago, when we first started reading each other’s work, I was under the impression that I was a poet and John was an anti-poet, entirely opposed to poetry. I began to suspect that I had been wrong about this when I watched the rough cut of “Zero Station”. It was dense, intricate, highly dependent on association, and visually rich but so textually spare as to demand quite a bit of interpretation on the part of the viewer — in other words, it operated very much like a poem. Like a poem, it invited multiple viewings. And now John has made an even more explicit foray into poetry with his adaptation of David Trinidad’s Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera. Meanwhile, I’m writing work that strikes some readers as less lyric and less obviously inflected by poetry than my early work. Are we becoming each other, or are we becoming ourselves? Probably neither and both. And John’s engagement with poetry is not inconsistent with anti-poetry, in the tradition of Nicanor Parra. Over this past decade of close conversation, the distinction between what is shared and what is not shared between us has become increasingly hard for me to make. But John’s sensibility and visual aesthetic and relationship to language are all so distinct that his work always feels fundamentally strange to me, in the best way. That’s part of the thrill of the encounter. As a person, he’s still strange to me, too, but in a way that is now deeply familiar.
I think it is in collaboration that the nature of art is revealed. – Steve Lacy
John Bresland: One of the many reasons I’m not a poet, and can never be a poet—no matter how much I pine for it, because let’s face it, what kid growing up in Calumet City, Illinois doesn’t want to be a poet?—is that I lack the robust sensorium one requires to detect the less “lyrical” bent to Eula’s recent writings. If anything, I would argue that her sentences carry a more subtle tune these days, and tend to be coiled more tightly—and deliver a harder punch. I would say, too—and it’s occurring to me now that I sound defensive, but probably I’m just being offensive—is that her writing might be seen as less lyrical these days because she has something to say. When you have something to say, when you express your convictions with clarity and control, nobody outside the academy cares about the form, or whether it’s lyrical of whether, like, there’s white spaces between the paragraphs. Jesus Christ.
EB: Ha! One can certainly have something to say in poetry, but it’s true that I didn’t privilege overt lyricism in my most recent book. It was a concern, but it wasn’t the most urgent pressure on the work. Maybe we’re both anti-poets, in the end? There’s a commonality!
JB: Maybe so! But I wasn’t bagging on poetry. I was bagging on essayists—the beautiful ones who obsess over form at the expense of a potent confrontation with their subject.
Can you talk about how these collaborations began? Where did the idea of working together come from?
JB: For as long as we’ve been together, we’ve worked together. In graduate school, when we first met, back when we were still lean and mean, we talked about co-authoring an essay about porn – though we never got around to making it. Several years later, after the birth of our son, when neither of us was getting much writing done, a Chicago-based journal by the name of Requited asked if I had any new video work. I didn’t. But it seemed easier to manage a new project — between feedings, between trips to the pediatrician — if Eula and I were to team up, share the work, and author a video essay together.
The ability and desire to transform the mundane materials at hand that we both bring into the collaboration well beyond the sum total of the parts – to birth a new baby neither of us could claim single parentage of. – Gary Lucas
EB: In retrospect it seems to me like we needed to establish ourselves somewhat in our solo work before collaborating. Maybe not. But I remember feeling ready to be jostled out of my groove as a writer when the idea of working on “Ode” came up. And my desire for that kind of jostling has really only increased since then. I’m hoping for my next book project to be built on some sort of collaboration. John has already collaborated widely, with musicians and writers and visual artists.
What is the ‘division of labor’, what is the flow of your process like?
JB: For “Ode” Eula had a pretty clear idea of what she wanted to write. And she had a loose idea of the kinds of images we might use. I remember her calling out the imagery sort of casually, as if she were ordering small plates at dinner: “Can you shoot some toy planes… the rubber ducky… and maybe something else?” I ended up shooting a three-part series of images, which turned out to be the triptych you see in the finished version, more or less. Eula wrote the text to those images, sometimes while watching them onscreen, sometimes after.
Politeness is the poison of collaboration. – Edwin Land
EB: Ha! I don’t remember ordering the small plates, and I definitely didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to write, but I do remember watching John shoot the footage and thinking, “This is not what I had in mind.” He was on the floor with his camera and a mess of toys and lit candles and I thought the shot looked absurd. But the rough footage he gave me was so beautiful and mesmerizing that I just watched it over and over. By the time I started writing, I felt that many of my decisions as a writer, decisions about tone and timing and structure, had already been made by the footage. For that reason, the writing came very easily.
JB: We reversed roles for “Dust Off”. I wrote the text first, before any images were captured or even considered, then Eula dreamed up the image sequences. We also auditioned a number of actors to perform the voiceover. This turned out to be harder than I expected. I thought Gail Shapiro, whose voice you ultimately hear, did a beautiful job of it. A friend of mine, a poet, described her voice as an icepick.
EB: I was very relieved not to be voicing “Dust Off” — performing the voice-over for “Ode” was by far the hardest part of the project for me and resulted in a long afternoon of cussing and tears and sibilant “s” sounds…. I think John and I referred to my role in “Dust Off” as art direction — I dreamed up images and shots, but I didn’t shoot the footage. So, I would have an image in my mind and I would describe it to John but inevitably the resulting footage would not look how I had imagined it. This was almost always a pleasant surprise. Most memorably, I thought John was nuts when he took his camera out into a January thunderstorm to shoot a tree on the shore of the lake. (I had asked for a tree, but not in a thunderstorm!) I brought him an umbrella for his camera (he has a history of destroying cameras in the rain), but I didn’t understand why he would choose lightning as his lighting until I saw the footage, which is incredibly eerie and beautiful and solves, with its dynamic sky, some of the problems posed by a static shot of a tree.
JB: All in all, these two projects came together pretty quickly, with less fussing about than our own individual projects would normally invite. I wish I could tell you why. Maybe one reason has to do with the tendency to tread more lightly on somebody else’s material. Had I written the text to “Ode to Every Thing” for example, rather than Eula, every sentence would be negotiable—right up until the final cut. And of course when you monkey with the text, you’ve got to monkey with the corresponding visual element, and then the soundscape has to be adjusted, and so on. Editing media, with its attendant elements, is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, a change in one side affecting all other aspects. As I recall, the only change I asked for in Eula’s text was to cut the line that read: “Part of me suspected that it was not the boy who made the velveteen rabbit real, but the rabbit that made the boy real.” She refused! And she was right to refuse.
EB: You also suggested that I cut the word “corporeal” because it’s hard for me to pronounce. I replaced it with the word “physical,” which felt slightly less accurate in my mind, but much more natural in my mouth. John is so good at writing for speech, writing for the ear, but that’s harder for me. I’ve learned that many of my prose habits don’t work well out loud. That’s probably the most significant formal pressure on the voice-over, other than length — the challenge to compose a text that doesn’t feel overly composed.
JB: I don’t know. I’ve never been sure of that edit. Physical. It feels slightly imperfect in my mind, too. Maybe you should have won that battle as well.
Has collaborating altered any of your ideas about creativity and authorship?
EB: John and I have gone back and forth a bit arguing about who really wrote “Ode.” I had the distinct feeling, as I was putting the words on the page, that the essay was already written — I was just transcribing it. I’ve never done any translation work, but I would compare the experience of writing “Ode” to what I imagine translation would feel like. The translator has a role in authorship, no doubt, but so many of the components of the work are already in place.
JB: She makes it sound so easy. I can tell you that today, when I look at that video, I think of it as one hundred percent Eula’s. While I remember shooting the sequences, and remember her looking at me sideways when I shot the toys and the candles, it’s nonetheless all her doing. Maybe this phenomenon is like those New Yorker cartoons that have no captions, just an image, and people write in to the magazine with their own captions. Well, the words matter most. In the end, if the joke is funny, if it works, it’s because of the words.
The fun for me in collaboration is, one, working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven. – Lin-Manuel Miranda
EB: Oh, no way — it is totally not like a New Yorker cartoon! And actually John has always been fairly insistent on this in discussing video essays — the images are not subservient to the words, they are not illustrations, they are not the punch line, they are their own form of meaning making. And what I’m trying to say is that quite a bit of the meaning of the work, the emotional coloration, had already been made by the visuals by the time I wrote the words. Yes, the words bring those broad emotional gestures into finer focus and words are where we tend to turn our attention when we’re looking for meaning making but, John, I don’t even believe that you believe yourself on this one!
These pieces are composed of a trinity of elements: words, visuals, audio (music, other sources). Can you say a bit about how you compose and collage these elements? Do the words come first? How do you settle upon imagery and audio? Is your process highly planned, mostly intuitive, sort of improvised…?
JB: Probably the words should come first. That would seem like the more efficient course if commercial films are any guide. But over the past decade I’ve had a hand in making about a dozen videos, and pretty much every one has originated from a different kind of media element. “Zero Station” began as a song by Deerhoof, which the band allowed me to remix, and which shaped both the text and the visuals of the whole project. “Les Cruel Shoes” began as a video clip, which grew into an essay. Other projects began, by turns, as a paragraph from a DeLillo novel, as a clip from the Oprah Show, as a painting by Hans Holbein, as a book of haiku, as voicemail messages from my mother. Every project I’ve been involved with, I think, was born of some different form of media. Which wasn’t deliberate; it just turned out that way. What all these works have in common, though, is that at some point there is an author doing what authors have always done: sitting alone in a room and trying to work shit out on the page. To answer your question directly, improvisation is a big part of the process of making these videos, the act of making use of whatever comes your way, as Virginia Woolf more or less said. Of course she was talking about writing, but so am I.
Do you consider your audience ‘readers’ or ‘viewers’?
JB: I think generally my sympathies lie with the more active of those two ventures. Maybe this is a romantic view, but I think of the reader as someone bent slightly forward into a work, filling it out with her own imagination, effectively co-writing it. Books leave room for that. Words leave room for that. As do good films like Kubrick’s 2001, or that recent horror flick, It Follows, which I loved, so full of sequences that are evocative and suggestive rather than definitive and exhaustive. Bad films, on the other hand, have no use for the viewer’s imagination because everything is supplied onscreen, not unlike television commercials, and they are similarly oppressive.
Every reading of a book is a collaboration between the reader and the writer who are making the story up together. – John Green
What I think I’m trying to say is that the distinction between those two terms, reader and viewer, which are keyed to the consumption of two different forms of art, doesn’t really matter, because at their best, they’re both describing the essential act of decoding – decoding language, decoding spatial relationships, and extracting meaning from all of those elements. One of my favorite writers, ever, is Pauline Kael. I think of her as the ultimate film viewer because she was also one of the great, hungry film readers.
EB: The distinction that seems more essential to me is the distinction between a reader and a consumer. Coming to art as a consumer, rather than a viewer or a reader or an experiencer, can degrade your relationship with the work. John’s mention of commercials is a reminder that personal essay sometimes gets misapprehended as a commercial for the self, when the impulse behind personal essay is not the Facebook impulse to self aggrandize but the essentially essayistic impulse to self examine.
What research went into creating these two pieces?
JB: Less than usual. With “Dust Off,” I did some rudimentary stuff — such as looking into causes of death in cases of chemical inhalation, but this was more akin to fact-checking than actual research, which, in happy instances, can propel an essay forward. Mainly, these two essays drew from memory. While making “Ode,” Eula and I were still very much immersed in the venture of raising a newborn, so I’d say that the primary mode of research in that case was lived experience — though since’s Eula’s the one who wrote the text, I should probably ask her.
EB: Yes, most of our research was located in the proliferation of plastic that came with parenthood. I was thinking about materiality in new ways, and because it was a difficult birth I was also thinking about mortality and physicality in new ways. Both of us were, I think. I re-read The Velveteen Rabbit, and I also fact-checked John’s assurance that the bomb on the model WWII biplane hanging over our son’s crib was actually a fuel tank.
videos: © copyright 2016 Eula Biss & John Bresland. No use without permission. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
words: © copyright 2016 Joseph Squier. No use without permission.