Fillip 8 — Fall 2008

Art about Life Is Better than Art about Art
Emily Vey Duke

In the summer of 2005, writer, theatre director, and filmmaker Jacob Wren and I engaged in an experiment. For a period of several months, we would set times during which we would attempt to communicate telepathically. One of us would try to send, the other would try to receive.

It was, as most of my experiments with the world behind the veil have been, a spectacular failure. Sometimes the receiver reported having felt a certain energy very strongly only to learn that such an energy bore no similarity whatsoever to that which the sender was directing outward. At one point we became confused and discovered that we had both been trying to catch and no one was pitching, so to speak. Other times we found tiny areas of overlap only to see them dissolve on closer inspection:

“Mauve? You sent mauve? Because I was totally seeing a sort of reddish purple! Wow, that’s amazing!”

“No, sorry—taupe. I said I was sending taupe.”


“Yeah, taupe....”

“Hmmm. Well, was it a sort of purpley taupe?”

In 2007, Wren published a conceptually ambitious little book called Families Are Formed Through Copulation. Split into four parts, Wren’s book engages a range of ideas, including but not limited to child-bearing and rearing, love, mental illness, American foreign policy, and taste. Upon reading Families Are Formed Through Copulation, I wondered if perhaps Wren and I could’ve inadvertently thrown some paranormal breaker during our 2005 experiments—like the ones that got thrown in The Shaggy Dog or Freaky Friday—or if we could’ve opened up a line for the transmission of psychic data much better than the one we intended to open with our crude attempts at sending colours and simple phrases.

Families Are Formed Through Copulation comprises a series of monologues and dialogues that are acerbic, lachrymose, haunted. The first one, performed around the world in 2005, is called “Yes, of course it’s true we become our parents, but with differences. We cannot choose not to become our parents but perhaps we can choose what those differences might be.” It’s the most resolved part of the work in terms of voice and theme. It left me feeling that I understood both who was speaking to me and why. As a whole, Wren’s book posits pathology as a form of political radicalism. It is optimistic insofar as it makes a certain type of reader—one who is similarly acerbic, lachrymose, and haunted to the narrator/subject/author of the book—feel not alone. I am that type of reader.

Who cares about the relationship between contemporary visual art and contemporary theatre? Hardly anyone, and most people who do care probably live in Northern Europe, where life is easy enough to leave citizens with plenty of time to worry about things that have only very minor repercussions. People do care about family, insanity, and the bloody clusterfuck we call American foreign policy. Lots of people in lots of places. Me, for instance. Wren, too. Also the people descended from those slaughtered in Panama when Bush 1.0 invaded to smoke Noriega out of his hole.

If I were to make it my goal, I could write persuasively about why Wren’s book belongs in the world of contemporary art rather than contemporary theatre. I could equally persuasively argue the reverse, or that it would function best as literature. But I don’t want to. I don’t want to because I don’t care.

Fortunately, Wren doesn’t appear to care either, or at least he cares more about other things. His book sidesteps any discussion of the conventions of his media (and truly, the feet of his practice stand astride many). I won’t say this is done deftly. The work is precise in its artlessness. It’s a wreck, like its narrator, and rather than deftness it aims at something like integrity. It aims at truth, which is frequently ugly and depressing.

Some examples of the depressing ugliness we witness as truth: a kindhearted neighbour has stomach cancer, which may or may not have been precipitated by her exposure to the environmental toxins that abound in Upstate New York. Little children are used as bargaining chips by parents whose first goal is to hurt one another. My cleverest students are bulimic and/or tell me they expect never to be happy. Rape is used around the world as a tactic—tactically—in dormitories and conflict zones and so on. There is addiction. That prick in Austria kept his daughter in captivity and bred her like a dog, then took away her puppies. Things really are that fucked up.

That is what Wren has chosen to write this book about—not those things explicitly, but implicitly yes, those things—and I am glad, because it makes me feel less desperately alone to know that other people are as distraught and confounded and ashamed as I. Ashamed because of my avaricious refusal to renounce and my slothful refusal to act. Ashamed because I have so much and have never developed my capacity to enjoy it.

And sometimes I believe this is the only truly good quality we possess as a species, the fountainhead of our redemption: our enormous capacity for guilt—our abundance of sorriness. Of this, Wren writes:

I cry all the time now. And contemplate suicide, the only true answer....If I do manage to get up and make it into the shower, I can’t get out of the shower and spend hours there being beaten by the scalding hot water until my overweight and out-of-shape body is nothing but a shriveled and wrinkled scrap of defeated posture and quiet, half-resigned exhaustion.

The book is flawed. It should’ve been more rigorously edited. It reads too much like Wren’s journal at times, and my support for the narrator/character/author was disrupted by irritation with his whiny, self-pitying tone. This disruption was not a result of my inability to identify with his complaints. Quite the contrary. It was a function of the distaste I feel for myself when I complain about similar things in a similar way. If I were to write a book, I would sincerely hope my editor would see her way to be crueler. I would rather despise her than have my readers feel one iota of dismissive irritation. This critique holds true across disciplinary boundaries but is keenest with self-reflexive text. It’s why I cannot tolerate those enormous text-paintings by Sean Landers, and it’s what kept me on the fence about Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000).

My biggest frustration with Families Are Formed Through Copulation was the decision to include the final chapter, “There Is a Special Place in Hell Reserved for People Who Listen to the Wrong Kind of Music.” After three acerbic, important chapters, Wren tosses in a bit about how it’s alienating when people younger than oneself start to listen to the music one held dear, how that can leave one feeling over the hill, not with-it. This is a reductive description, and I would be the last person to claim that the culture of cool, of with-it-ness, is less than tyrannical, but Wren’s work here does not stand up to the nuanced studies of radical paranoia, critiques of the procreative impulse, and descriptions of familial madness that came in earlier chapters. Certainly the relationship between taste and identity is worth exploring. Carl Wilson has done so brilliantly in his book Let’s Talk About Love. Unfortunately, Wren’s exploration of the same ideas feels tacked on and trivializes the earlier segments of the book.

Wren’s take on our current conflict in the Middle East, however, could be seen as oddly cavalier—dilettantish even. His narrator is squirrelly and sometimes feels inconsequential, but this is where I think the depth of the work lies. Wren, the author, weaves in and out of his nameless narrator. Sometimes the two become indistinguishable. Other times the narrator stands out in high relief through the ridiculous nature of his assertions. This fluidity allows Wren to say and mean two things at once. Namely, it allows him to say both that “Things are so fucked up in this world that it makes us despondent unto madness. This madness is a kind of weapon against the establishment,” and that “We are crazed by our obsessive ax-grinding. Look at my narrator. He is just another fallible fellow who is driven over the edge into uselessness by this quality.” This ability to say two things at once, to acknowledge that both things are true, is tremendous, perhaps essential when talking about politics, or love, or family, or paranoid psychosis. Wren’s ability to do so is what makes his book important and moving, despite its indelicacies, indulgences, and other flaws.

About the Author

Emily Vey Duke has worked in collaboration with her partner, Cooper Battersby, since 1994. They work in printed matter, sculpture, new media, curation, sound, and primarily single-channel video. Their work has been exhibited in galleries and at festivals in North and South America, Asia, and throughout Europe. Duke has previously worked as artistic director at the Khyber Centre for the Arts in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is currently the program coordinator for the new Transmedia Program at Syracuse University. Duke and Battersby are represented by Jessica Bradley Art and Projects, Toronto.

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