A. The Death Instinct and the Life Instinct:
The Death Instinct: separation, individuality, Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow oneâ€™s own path to deathâ€”do your own thing, dynamic, change.
The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.
â€“ Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!
Publications discussed here (an asterisk means it came out less than 365 days ago):
- Let It Sink by Jim Joyce (victimsofmathematics at gmail, 2013)*
- Filmme Fatales Issue 1, ed. Brodie Lancaster (filmmefatales.com, 2013)*
- Cha-Ching! by Ali Liebegott (City Lights/Sister Spit, 2013)*
- Collisions by Brendan Monroe (brendanmonroe.com, ??)
- Life Form by AmÃ©lie Nothomb, trans. Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2013)*
- Rumspringa by Tom Schachtman (North Point, 2006)
Right now Iâ€™m taking a class with some paintersâ€”mostly we read, and talkâ€”and the other day, we were talking about endings. For painters, Iâ€™m learning endings mean say, photography, and intubated paint, and Rodchenko. Iâ€™m a writer so I started thinking about Samuel Beckett, the Independent Press Association, Kathy Ackerâ€™s parrots and pirates, her red/read. But more generally, meditating to â€œThis body will be a corpse,â€ and to be fair that really just used to crack me up. It is very hard for ex-Sad Teenage Girls like myself to meditate to that, because for so long we were like â€œYes I know, hurry up already.â€
Endings can be cliffs or phoenixes or Frankensteins and anyway, like Sarah Kane says, â€œthe only response is to live with as much humanity, humor, and freedom as you can.â€ Because you know, my friends arenâ€™t going to stop painting. Iâ€™m not going to stop writing. (I donâ€™t mean this in a straightedge sense, I mean it like writingâ€™s what I do. Itâ€™s how I work.)
So then my class talked about what happens around the endings, or despite them. We looked at Sanfranchriskoâ€™s pictures of the dust under the Brancusis at MoMAâ€”the dust thatâ€™s just collected, the fly eyes and the pieces of skinâ€”and after that, my teachers showed us some pictures of Mierle Laderman Ukeles. In one, sheâ€™s just lying in the street, hugging the curb like a parenthesis, and in another sheâ€™s shaking hands with one of 8,500 city sanitation workers.
Ukeles is 73, and for over forty years now sheâ€™s been Artist in Residence for New York Cityâ€™s Sanitation Department. She practices â€œMaintenance Artâ€, and sure, at first I wondered if that was actually a gross kind of slummingâ€”or a bleeding heart kinda situation, which is sometimes worse. Next, as Iâ€™ve cleaned my share of homes and public spaces for money, I wondered if graduate school was somehow morphing my brain. Who am I kidding, reading about maintenance in a textbook? But then I got over myself, because people: Ukeles is rad.
In 2009, Bartholomew Ryan interviewed her for Art In America, and she talked about 1968, when she had her first baby. â€œAnd when people would meet me pushing my baby carriage,â€ Ukeles said, â€œthey didnâ€™t have any questions to ask me. They didnâ€™t say, â€˜How is it, to create life? How can you describe this amazing thing?â€™ These werenâ€™t really questions. It was like I was mute, there was no language.â€™
â€œThe trajectory was: make something new, always move forward. Capitalism is like that. The people who were taking care and keeping the wheels of society turning were mute, and I didnâ€™t like it!â€ So Ukeles wrote a manifesto for Maintenance Art, which sheâ€™s still practicing. Her projects focus on involving everyoneâ€”â€œeveryone!â€â€”in community dialogue, long-term projects, and ecological sustainability. Maintenance, Ukeles told Ryan, â€œis trying to listen to the hum of living. A feeling of being alive, breath to breath.â€
Not to be woo-woo, but thatâ€™s what I want this column to be aboutâ€”the hum. I mean, yes of course I am going to review books, and art books. (If you would like me to review yours, or someone elseâ€™s, please let me know: mairead dot case at gmail.com). But I am going to review them as objects in timeâ€”for example, Collisions, which I write about below, was sent by a friend who found it on tour, and Rumspringa came out in 2006 but I just read itâ€”I am going to write about these books as objects in time, and I am going to write about them as a writer, editor, student, and teacher who wants to get better at these jobs, and be in this community her whole life.
I want this column to be about maintenance, because endings get so much press right nowâ€”education is increasingly privatized and teachers are undervalued, slow media is undervalued, pedagogy and art practice and criticism are going weirdo Cerebrus on usâ€”and instead of getting ever-crabbier or just throwing in the towel, I want to talk about how weâ€™re living. How weâ€™re taking care, how weâ€™re keeping the wheels turning. How weâ€™re supporting ourselves long-haul. (Why books? I spend most of my time in libraries and classrooms, and reading, so books seem like a good place to start.)
MAINTENANCE will focus on reviewing new publications, but thereâ€™ll always be older ones in the mix. Again, if thereâ€™s something youâ€™d like me to cover, please be in touch: mairead dot case at gmail.com. Hi!
Let It Sink by Jim Joyce
Let It Sink is a zine by Jim Joyce, who grew up here in Chicago and now teaches high school English. I read the sample edition. Itâ€™s a four-story short with Sam the Sham lyrics on the back, made for â€œgiving to riff-raff on the bus or in bars or libraries.â€ (Jim gave this to me after his class visited the library where I work, and also he used to live above the hot dog stand on my street.)
Let It Sink is clearly made by someone who reads zines as well as writes them, which is totally the way to go. It has a co-opted Art Shay photo of a person jumping in a trainyard, irregularly-cut pages, and a sweet, complicated border running around all the text. Jimâ€™s voice is loud and sure, and there are run-ons and typos but who cares. I admire him for finishing something else while teaching high school classes, which Lord knows makes me so tired some nights I can barely make eggs for dinner, let alone write.
In my favorite story, Jim talks about other Joyces he knows, including James the novelist but also “John, James, Ed, Tom, Ed, Tom, James, Tom; all our Chicago names jingling around from 22nd Street to 127th.” I readÂ Let It SinkÂ front to back on my commute one morning, happily, and if you’d like to do the same, email me your mailing address. First dibs gets it!
Filmme Fatales Issue 1, ed. Brodie Lancaster
Filmme Fatales is a magazine (no barcode, but a logo, a gorgeous heavyweight color cover, and a glossy center spread) about film and feminism, edited by Brodie Lancaster of Melbourne, Australia. The introduction shouts out to characters in their â€œpost-college, pre-career funk,â€ women who love Lena Dunham but know she canâ€™t speak for everyone. Lancaster founded Filmme Fatales in response to that, and while thereâ€™s a lot to love here I was also frustrated by how â€œeveryoneâ€ seems to mean cisgendered, straight-but-queer-friendly white women (with the exception of Jonah D. Ansell, whose She-Ra essay is printed in the very back).
But then I paused, as while of course itâ€™s OK to wish, itâ€™s not always OK to impose. The contributors to Filmme Fatales do a brave, beautiful job looking at where it seems theyâ€™re from (the centerfold is Kiki Dunst, dreamy beween diamonds and cake: â€œWe get it. Weddings suckâ€; so good!), and props to Lancaster for publishing her own writing too, both a thinkpiece about watching sexual violence in film and a charming valentine to one of her heroines, the actress Mae Whitman. Her heart here is clear. My favorite piece was Lauren Vadnjalâ€™s essay about Kristen Stewartâ€™s Marylou, in the upcoming On The Road movie. While I donâ€™t agree with all Vadnjalâ€™s romanticisms, her focus and passion helped my gut get past the lack of female pronouns in that book and consider the story for real, for probably the first time in fifteen years.
Cha-Ching! by Ali Liebegott
Cha-Ching! is Ali Liebegottâ€™s third book, and one of the first from Sister Spitâ€™s City Lights imprint. Itâ€™s a love story about a girlâ€”say the press releases; also, Liebegottâ€™s character is named Theo and identifies as a sirmaâ€™amsirâ€”in her twenties in 90s Brooklyn. As the book starts, Theo drives suddenly but directly from San Francisco to New York, with a rescue dog named Carey Grant, a renewed commitment to sobriety, money won gambling, and a chest tattoo that was supposed to be a dagger but looks more like a penis. Theo is so hungry, and hungry, and makes some really truly terrible decisions, all while winning the readerâ€™s love and support for real. I loved Theo like I loved Craig Finnâ€™s Holly and Charlemagne, and two-thirds of the way through, when Liebegott flips from Theoâ€™s thoughts to the thoughts of Marisol, a girl Theoâ€™s dating, the book got bigger than its protagonist and I teared up on the bus. I really admire how clearly Liebegott writes about sex, money, and need, and how her characters have their hearts on their sleeves even still.
Collisions by Brendan MonroeÂ
My friend Mattilda is on a tour for her book, The End of San Francisco, and she found this zine in Los Angeles and sent it to me. Itâ€™s all black, white, and gray, with no words except for Brendanâ€™s contact info on the back in silver script. Thereâ€™s a tension between the bleak contrasts of that look and the looping, multiplying graphicsâ€”an explosion on each page. Some look like Spirographs or math problems, others like dandelion seeds blowing away. When I looked at Monroeâ€™s website I realized these were drawings of particles colliding at light speed, after data from the Large Hadron Collider at SERN, in Switzerland, which made me love them twice. This zine is gorgeous, and I want to keep it on my bookshelf for a very long time.
Life Form by AmÃ©lie Nothomb, trans. Alison Anderson
Two of my favorite women writing in French today are Annie Ernaux (whose book The PossessionÂ is my ur-breakup diary) and AmÃ©lie Nothomb. Nothomb, the daughter of Belgian diplomats, lived the first five years of her life in Japan and loved it dearly, so much so that she wrote The Character of Rainâ€”an autobiographical novel about a three-year-old Belgian girl in Japan, who sees her life in water and tubes. Her books are hilarious, powerful, and full-hearted. They almost always have her face on them tooâ€”big eyes, dark and stormy hairâ€”so whenever I see a new one at the bookstore it feels like bumping into a friend.
Nothombâ€™s latest, Life Form, which is also her nineteenth, really starts when she opens a letter from Melvin Mapple, a fan and American soldier fighting in Iraq. Mapple loves Nothombâ€™s weird writing so thinks sheâ€™d get him, and eventually he tells her he has a serious problem with food. He has eaten so much he can barely fit into his XXXXL uniform anymore. To cope, Mapple names his fat Scheherazade, and at night heâ€™s not lonely because he imagines sheâ€™s hugging him. Nothomb is both touched and grossed out, and she writes him back, and they start corresponding regularly. I read this book in a night at the bar, over a hamburger, and admired it as a novel within Nothombâ€™s oeuvre, a novel in letters, and a look at this war through someone elseâ€™s eyes.
Rumspringa by Tom SchachtmanÂ
A couple weeks ago, after a day of writing I baggied a sandwich, ate dinner waiting for the bus, and rode into the Loop to see Spring Breakers. I hustled to the early show because it meant I could wander into After-Words Books afterwards, let myself buy one before the store closed. I picked Rumspringa, Schachtmanâ€™s book about sixteen-year-old Amish teenagers, and the period of time when theyâ€™re allowed to experiment with drugs, sex, cars, and school as a way of discerning whether or not theyâ€™re truly meant for the Amish life, permanently. It seemed a good compliment to the movie. The lady who sold it to me said sheâ€™d read two chapters in advance, back before it came out, and liked them.
The scope of the book is really stunningâ€”case study after case study, in context but without English judgment soâ€”it seems to meâ€”you could read the book if you knew nothing about rumspringa, or if you knew everything but wanted to talk about it. (Schachtman directed a documentary about rumspringa, too.) We meet Johnny, who falls in hard fast love with major league baseball, Faron Y., who was frightened by falling stars at eleven and ran away from home when he was fourteen; we meet eldest daughters, an â€œAmish drug ringâ€, and Amish parents trying to support their childrenâ€™s discernment as faithfully as they possibly can. I stayed up reading The New Inquiryâ€™s Spring Breakers insert and this bookâ€™s first several chapters, then had strange dreams about hot green bikinis and electricity-free farms.