The Creative Subject
a conversation with cover artist Aaron Angelo
Open Letters: A still from Face (triptych) is our cover image this month, an uncanny post-cubist piece, post- in that its both a diagram and a mirror, uncanny because it unsettles our idea of scale: lashes impersonate forests eyes reveal themselves as nostrils, lips look like wounds, Is it your own face? And how did you prepare for the shots (How long did you pose for the shots? Did you film one dimension? And did you moisturize?
Aaron Angello: I like the way you describe the piece! And I’m glad you thought of scale. This piece is a still from a video I made. Each of the parts, each of the little rectangles, is a HD video. I used a microscope camera and filmed a few seconds of a half inch of my face (yes it is my face). I ended up with about 140 videos that I looped and arranged in such a way the whole face is represented. You mentioned its cubist quality. I noticed that too, although it happened more by accident than by design. The camera followed the contours of the face, or in other words, it was looking at the face from several diverse perspectives. Once the image is flattened, the effect that Braque and Picasso were going for, that of presenting several different points of view (or points in time) simultaneously, is more or less achieved.
So why a self-portrait? I was about to say it’s because I’m so vane, as a joke, but in fact vanity is an important part of it. Artists and writers are in some sense always presenting themselves in their work, whether it’s Cindy Sherman posing in her own photographs or Kenneth Goldsmith appropriating and recontextualizing The New York Times. Once the artist’s work is made available to the public the artist him or herself is subject to public scrutiny. We often find ourselves, as viewers, readers, audience, asking what kind of person would make this or that kind of work. The idea of removing the creative subject from any work of art is a bit silly to me. Anyway, I’m one of those artists/poets who likes to hide out, to try to disappear from my work. This piece was in a sense an attempt to engage with that aspect of my personality. So your question “Did you moisturize?” is actually a fascinating question. And the answer is no. I also didn’t shave, I had chapped lips — I made this on one of those days when I wouldn’t want someone looking at me at all, let alone under a microscope. But I felt that if I am to acknowledge my subjective presence in everything I do, I need to recognize the shudder-inducing fact that I am deeply flawed, physically and otherwise. I wanted to show the ugly.
OL: In The Portico Shaking you conflate found super 8 footage with bits of text, writing “the effect, I hope, is that the viewer (reader) creates her/his own narrative.” Yet I find when I’m exposed to this or any number of disjunctive pieces, I’m perfectly happy to let the experience — the words and images — just wash over me, evoking this or that stray thought or emotion, perhaps even creating the structure of inspiration, but rarely do these elements, for me, cohere into a anything I’d call narrative. Are these just two descriptions of the same sensation or are we talking about different experiences? Do you personally encounter narrative in disjunctivism, or is there a more abstracted quality to your experience?
Aaron: Narrative, I would argue, is just a sequence of events. At least that’s what the reader/viewer is given. The reader/viewer makes the story. In life, we do this all the time. We take fragments of information – I saw this woman in the morning with what appeared to be her husband and children, and later that night I saw her in a restaurant holding the hand of a different man. Those are two fragments of information that share a character but nothing else. However, in my mind, I’m narrating an elaborate story of love and deception and betrayal. We are beings who narrate – we make sense of the world through the utilization of stories. Some stories make it easer on the reader/viewer by providing more information, by providing familiar clues, and/or by adhering to preexisting narrative structures, but the making of meaning is still, in large part, up to the reader/viewer. One of the great things that disjunction can do is highlight this fact. The Language poets really pointed this out to us in the seventies and eighties; they showed us the political value of shifting power from the author (authority) to the reader, of allowing the reader to realize her/his own power with regard to the making of meaning, the production of truth. That’s not to say that your experience of reading or watching disjunctive work is not a valid one, but it’s your way of making sense of both piece and of the world in which the piece exists. Other people have read/watched this piece and come away with a various stories, many of them about unsolved murders — always with a different murderer.
What I did in this Portico is assemble fragments of found footage, and then manipulate the footage in a way that replicates filmic “clues.” I slowed some footage down, I affected the pace and rhythm at which the text was presented, and I created a sound design that I hoped would trigger the reader/viewer’s sense of story.
OL: Your description of how we create narrative is fascinating and, because you mention poetry as well, I think of how narrative is constructed in your Brother poems. They operate that way almost like a detective story: a major character using the objects and the stray feelings around him to try to construct a meaning, or a message, or as you say a narrative from what is evidently his life, trying to conclude who he is in the space between emails, There are obvious possibilities for autobiography in this approach — if something from your own life fits, you can use it — but how does the process change when it is a collaboration? In your video-and-poetry piece with Michele Battiste, A Commons, Once, you created a video based on her poem. In what sense did her own fractured narrative (man carries a wounded dog) direct your exploration. There’s a dog in your video, but there’s also a stuttering journey (as Michele’s poem stutters) down a mountain road, past images evoking a wounded landscape. Can you describe the process of that collaboration?
Aaron: Yeah. An really great online journal contacted Michele and asked her if she wanted to contribute something – it’s a site called onandonscreen.net. It presents collaborations between poets and video/filmmakers. She knows my work and asked if I’d like to do something with her. She wrote “A Commons, Once” specifically for the project. It is inspired by a strip mine in central Colorado that is really devastating — mountains plowed down, piles of gold ore piled hundreds of feet high soaked in cyanide — it’s a mess. The mine is just outside of a little town in which I grew up, so I feel strongly about it. Michele gave me the poem – and it’s a poem I think beautifully and subtly engages the subject without being heavy-handed or preachy. So I took footage of the actual mine and the surrounding areas – mostly found footage – and tried to arrange it in such a way as to create an emotional analogue to Michele’s piece. So the stuttering movement down the road from the mine to the town is intended to create a feeling of discomfort. And then I allowed the imagery in the poem to influence the choices I was making in the video, which is kind of dangerous. I didn’t want to make something that felt obvious or derivative. I think what I did do worked pretty well because i only allowed her images to gesture toward mine – she mentions the dog, and I put a dog and a child playing in the snow. I might be the same dog, it might not. But it does, I hope, make one think of one’s own life, one’s history. That overlayed with actual footage of the mine should do something for the viewer – at least that’s my hope. I also used a lot of degraded film to create textures and gesture towards the way the mine itself degrades the land.
So, I really enjoyed the process of collaboration – in fact I always do. A friend of mine recently compared collaboration to Cage’s chance operation, and I think it’s a good analogy. I can do my work all day, and I’ll probably not be surprised at what results. But when I involve another person, who knows what will happen?
OL: Speaking of collaboration, what impresses me so much about Waiting (after Ted Berrigan) are the sonic qualities of the piece. In addition to video art, and poetry, you are also a sound artist. The bubbling, hissing, moaning sounds that accompany Waiting make eerie the filmed balcony, make ominous the hovering bough, and make ironic the word “revery,” pale against the almost silverplate sheen of the image. In what ways did the tone that Berrigan evoked in his poem inspire the literal tones you’ve created to accompany the video? And in what way is the process of collaboration different when–as with Berrigan–it is less likely that viewers and readers will encounter both works of art at the same time?
Aaron: Berrigan sometimes presents the reader with a blank page, upon which a single word is printed. In his collection A Certain Slant of Sunlight, there is a page with the single word “revery” right in the middle. I love this. It’s contextualized by the poems around it, but I find it incredibly powerful by itself – a meditation on a single word, on its referent, on its phonetic quality, on its graphic quality. And what a word – revery! It’s such a poetic moment for me in that book. That was the inspiration for Waiting.
Well, before answering your question, I went back to my collected Berrigan, and realized that there is also a poem called “Waiting” which I may have read at some point in the past, but I certainly didn’t think of it consciously when I made the piece. It seems oddly appropriate to the piece though:
Up inside the walls of air listen
A sound of footsteps in the spaces out there
In the frightening purple weather
And hazy lights who’s color night decomposes.
It’s kind of uncanny. I think this speaks to what we were talking about earlier – about the way the reader/viewer makes meaning (or narrative). Likely the person viewing Waiting will not have a copy Berrigan with them, and they will experience the word “revery” emerging out of the the white sky. Hopefully the viewer/reader has some kind of affective reaction to that. My intention with the piece was to present that word, isolated, as Berrigan did in A Certain Slant of Sunlight, but with the old film image, slow and dreamlike, and the sound design you mentioned. Like Portico, I wanted to present those disparate elements so that the reader can make his or her own sense out of it. But, I did after all include “after Ted Berrigan” in the title, and of course, anyone with enough interest in the piece will look it up and likely find the poem “Revery.” And that’s absolutely fine by me. After going back and looking at that poem (which is wonderful – “Leaving no footprints, leaving danger behind / The head being out of line has fallen. I still want / everything that’s mine.”) I feel I actually understand my piece a little bit better.
Aaron Angello is a poet, artist and musician who spends most of his time in Denver. He has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Colorado Boulder where he is currently pursuing his PhD in weird literature.