The piece of writing to the right started its life as an experiment; an extension of a deepening interest in editing-as-art-practice. In recent work, I’ve been using editing as a framework to shape the construction of paintings and texts: drafting, reworking, extracting, replacing, obscuring, cutting and pasting. I’ve had a hunch that the processes involved in bringing a painting to a point where it is ready for an audience-other-than-myself are the same as those involved in deciding when a draft text is ready for an audience-other-than-myself. Along the way, I’ve realised that editing also offers an approach to think about subjectivity and identity; a framework for reflecting on the micro and macro choices that a person makes as they shift and evolve the persona(s) they present to the world as their true self.
At first I used the notion of editing to contemplate the mythologising of dictators and other political baddies—a vehicle to process troubling incidents from my time working in international peacebuilding, where frankly many of the most celebrated peacemakers seemed as ethically dubious as the anointed baddies. As traumatic work memories receded and made room for more intellectual obsessions, I honed in on editing as a way of thinking about the aliases that evil-people-on-the-run construct, as they choose new occupations and clothing and hobbies and star signs to form a less-apparently-evil self.
When my young son arrived on the scene, upturning my own micro and macro choices, and introducing me to the zen of Peppa Pig, I spent some of the late night nursing marathons reflecting on gendered roles. I struck up a friendship with a writer post-gender-reassignment-surgery and she allowed me to edit her published texts and draft screenplays and our private conversations to form a new semi-fictional work (Essential Makeup Repairs) that traced some of the choices made, and adjustments required, to present as She instead of He. My friend was not happy with the final draft; she worried that it cast her as pathetically superficial, that focusing on flowing skirts and a new hairstyle and a favourite perfume rendered her lived heartache and gut-wrenching decisions as mere fashion choices. She requested that I make the castration scene more explicit, that I use the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’, that I describe the operation with brute precision. Her reaction illustrated the power and problematic of editing. Rearranging language can alter a work to a radical degree, but it can also do so in less perceptible ways, subtle enough to appear innocuous, but insidious enough to shift the tone, manipulating a viewer’s experience and exerting an influence over interpretation.
An artist who I admired asked me to write about a recent work: she said she was open to a catalogue essay, a review, anything. I watched her performing roles in a series of videos, referencing ideas of femaleness and making art that leads to (and I supposed, was derived from) emotional exposure. She wore costumes to signal each character, but there were moments when I was confused as to whether she was acting (adopting temporary traits and preoccupations) or re-enacting (channelling emotions implicated in scenarios drawn from her own life). This ambiguity provoked me to extrapolate and reflect on the slippage between the edited reality that any artist conveys through their work, and the broader context from which that work emanates as the artist goes about life: falling in or out of love; celebrating odd triumphs; overcoming disappointments; dealing with dysfunctional relationships; growing older and thinner/fatter/balder/more conservative/less conservative/more content/more depressed; and continually processing and reconstructing their identity (explicitly or abstractly) through making and showing work. I had the idea of developing an approach to reviewing that would edit together consideration of a specific work, details from the history of the artist’s practice, and a narrative of daily events and thought processes that had shaped production of the work. I am often troubled by reviews that presume an authoritative air as they enforce a reductive dissection of an artist’s practice; reviews that insist on a singular reading of an artwork—and sometimes condemn an artist to a career spent trying to escape lazy repetition of that singular reading by subsequent writers. My vision, instead, was to craft a semi-fictional short story that would amplify the imaginative discourse surrounding an artist’s practice, by embedding and extending the poetic observations or critiques stirred by a specific work: a review in literary guise.
The artist who had invited me to write about her video work was receptive to my plan. She supplied me with transcripts of her performances and enthusiastically responded via email to intrusive questions about her daily habits. She described the leather of her wallet, the weeds in her front yard, and the denim preferences of significant ex-lovers. I asked incessantly about clothing and shoes and jewellery and make-up; I wanted to create a bridge between the theatrical costumes and props of her performative space and those that populated her extracurricular world. She wrote effusively, with attention to absurdity and grace. She told stories of outfits worn and objects treasured–by her and by others close to her—in childhood, at times of death and grief, within dreams of unrequited infatuations, and during brief but spiritually notable consummated affairs. The shifting power dynamics that the artist had alluded to in her video monologues reappeared within her emailed texts, with generous detail and enviable comedic timing. I devised pseudonyms to protect identities and, regretfully ignoring some of the most affecting passages1, edited together nouns and verbs and adjectives to build a convincing plot with narrative ebb and flow.
But as our project progressed, it dawned on the artist that the self-exposure that she had embraced within her video works could, when elaborated in text form, compromise the privacy of people who had been mentioned obtusely within the work, or people who had been unwittingly significant in bringing the work into being. (Beware of throwaway comments that might come back to bite!) She feared that pseudonyms would not be adequate; that descriptions of real-life stage sets and props (titles of books on a coffee table, the odd habits of pets) could betray specific identities. We had frantic discussions about editing out certain characters, but as pronouns and dialogues and actions were progressively removed, the story fell apart. With our publication deadline looming, I devised a tentative compromise. The story would run, but with all possibly incriminating details redacted2. The redacted words would retain a presence, metamorphosing into visual blocks to materialise the editing decisions. As I sat at my computer blacking out phrases, it dawned on me that the resulting text was actually perfectly reflective of the video works I had endeavoured to review. I remembered watching the performances and being distracted by long pauses punctuating the monologues, when the artist would wring her hands or look off camera. I had wondered then if the breaks were intentional, or if the artist had momentarily forgotten her lines, or if perhaps the pauses signalled a passage of time when someone other than the artist would ordinarily have been talking – absent characters who had been consciously edited out of the scene.
REORDERING THE COSMOS
but the zucchini got a strange fungus and died,
They fancied they looked like cheap 80s businesswomen.
She has noticed that she feels less judged wearing mid-heel, brown leather boots
Satisfied, she clatters onto an empty tram, her mind busy and her mood uplifted.
fashioned a protective sheath from sticky tape,
She is grumpy and her toes are cold. she watches a house across the road being demolished and shivers,
He wears double denim and looks like a model from a 1970s jeans campaign.
The frame is cropped too close to see any details of the space where the performance was recorded,
There are conversational fragments And there are digressions
She sees this project as testing her boundaries as an artist, allowing more of herself to be seen in her work,
She stops halfway through the task
[To be continued]
- I had decided early on that I would use transcripts of the videos, and my recollected reactions to the works when exhibited, to shape construction of the short story. Over the course of the project, the artist wrote many, many texts, elaborating on scattered memories and dreams sparked by our conversations. Some of the texts were especially compelling writing, but described scenes that were not closely connected to specific issues, events, or people referenced in the video monologues. It seemed gratuitous to draw on that material as I crafted the short story, so I encouraged the artist to publish those texts separately, and restrained my raw editing material to only those fragments of writing that connected directly to the video performances. [↩]
- The artist has agreed with publishing the two texts, although with serious reservations. Certainly, the compromise position was not one that either of us was fully happy with. In particular, the artist requested that additional redactions be made to this meta-preface; edits that I ultimately (mostly) declined to make, as I felt they would cause this reflective text to implode as well. And for my part, I had obviously hoped that more of the original short story would be able to be published, and that the artist would be willing to be credited in some way for her contributions to this project (both to acknowledge her and to allow more expansive conversation about the critical issues that her work has raised, including the ethics of exposure). None-the-less, I wish to express my sincere gratitude to the artist that she was willing to persevere in bringing some sort of constructive resolution to the project. [↩]