On 'Both Sides and the Center'

A review of the festival, part two

Amina Cain (l) and Teresa Carmody. Photos by Harold Abramowitz.

Both Sides and the Center

Both Sides and The Center

at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House

West Hollywood, CA, August 19-21, 2011

Andrea Quaid in conversation with Amina Cain and Teresa Carmody about curation, collaboration, and their recent project, Both Sides and The Center, at the Schindler House in Los Angeles.

Andrea Quaid: Amina and Teresa, you both have extensive experience as curators with events ranging from reading series to large-scale festivals. Amina co-curated (with Jen Karmin) the Red Rover Series and When Does It or You Begin? (Memory as Innovation), a writing, performance, and video festival. Last summer, Amina co-curated (again, with Jen Karmin), Unnatural Acts, an installation and performance for Les Figues Press’s Not Content. Teresa, in addition to many, smaller events, from a monthly salon, to literary garden parties, to house readings and lectures, co-curated The Smell Reading Series, Mommy, Mommy!, and Not Content at Hollywood’s LACE gallery. Most recently, you came together to work on a three-day experimental literary festival at the Schindler House. What was the genesis of Both Sides and The Center?

Amina Cain: Teresa and I both knew we wanted to work on something together and she approached me with the thought of curating an event (or events) at the Schindler House. I had never been to the house, but was excited about the idea. When I finally saw it, I knew instantly it would be an amazing setting for a literary festival. In the house, because of the way inside and outside spaces are in relationship to each other, and because of the way the rest of the house was designed, there are all of these opportunities for different kinds of watching and listening. What you can see through glass, you might not be able to hear. What you can hear, you might not be able to see if it is taking place on the roof (in one of the sleeping baskets), or in the nursery (with walls that don’t go all the way up to the ceiling). The house allowed us to think of questions around closeness and distance, the public versus private, and voyeurism, and how these things might lend themselves to literary performance. And then we went from there.

Teresa Carmody: I think the ideas behind Both Sides were also influenced by Not Content at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in Hollywood. That project explored the way language functioned in public and private spheres, but it happened within the context of a public art gallery/space located on Hollywood Blvd. LACE is box-like, big, an obvious gallery space with store-front windows; it is surrounded by restaurants and stores, selling wigs, shoes, lingerie and more. Alternatively, the MAK Center Schindler House is on a residential street; you can’t see the house from the street, and even though the building is now a gallery, it’s a house turned-into-a-gallery. I was interested in seeing how these ideas of public/private, or interior/exterior, would read differently within a more intimate space.

Quaid: What were your intentions for the project?

Cain: I think more than anything I wanted to explore what the relationship might be between writing, performance, and the setting of a house — the Schindler House in particular. One of the ideas I felt most attached to was “house as stage,” and the house did become a stage, one on which the audience moved, continuously, from one room to another, getting as close to or distant from the performances or installations as they wanted. From the dark lawn, one could listen to the phonograph music coming from Jen Hofer and Myriam Moscona’s performance in the Chase studio. One could see people sitting in the nursery looking at Amarnath Ravva’s time-lapse photography of night skies on the floor. One could talk with Anna Joy Springer while alone in a bathroom, without being able to see her. One could gather on a sloped lawn to watch through large windows Bhanu Kapil’s “knife ballet,” her red-fabric form moving on a butcher table. One could gaze at Michael du Plessis, bound and gagged, while he could not gaze back, and later one could listen to him give a personal reading in the very same spot.

Carmody: I was also interested in exploring subjectivity, and the way narrative structure informs experience. So at the Friday group reading, for example, the audience sat together, within the same space and time, thus participating in a “group” experience. The performances on Saturday, however, were structured so every person would obviously have an individual experience, depending on when they arrived, how long they stayed, etc. Yet it’s interesting to note that the stories and feedback I received regarding both nights were remarkably similar (and overwhelmingly positive). Perhaps this is because I was one of the curators, and people didn’t want to air critical comments in my direction. Or perhaps this is a phenomenon of Los Angeles, where there is plenty of space for the unsaid to go unspoken.

On Sunday, we had a small salon with additional members of the literary and art community, which we recorded and which was also bilingual, thanks to the services of interpreters John Pluecker and Eva Cisneros. We were using interpretation equipment (graciously offered by Jen Hofer), and I found the material fact of this equipment to be significant. I could put in my earpiece and hear our conversation in Spanish, and not understand. Alternatively, I could listen in English and have the illusion of understanding.

Strangely enough, one of my most startling realizations from the salon was the fact that I had encountered the whole weekend through language. The artist Simon Leung was talking about Bhanu Kapil’s Saturday performance, and he said that as it continued, the language fell away as the visual became, for him, increasingly important. I had quite a different experience; as the reading repeated, the language became increasingly significant, I could see the language’s structure as a matrix, and I was caught in a sticky web of sound.

Carmody: What were you anticipating from the weekend? Were your expectations realized?

Quaid: I went into the event interested to see how the guest writers would work with a set of themes (as previously listed: public versus private, proximity, the house as a stage), expressed differently through the various approaches they were asked to take — from Friday’s more traditional reading, to Saturday’s installations and performances, to Sunday’s conversation-as-performance. I found this aspect of the curatorial vision the most compelling: the same writer/performer asked to present work in thematically linked but distinct modes of representation, which resulted in dynamic individual projects and a successful event overall. As a listener/viewer, the invitation to inhabit the space and immerse myself in the event, in an extended, experiential engagement with others, produced a more unexpected effect. I had a heighted awareness of my own embodied presence, particularly during Saturday’s installations and performances. Amina commented on the continual movement through the house, which I not only observed but experienced. I became aware of my own constant movement through the rooms, the yards, from one performance to another and back again. Amanda Ackerman pointed out that the chairs from Friday’s reading were gone. So, intentional or not, the lack of chairs kept one’s body moving and moving again through the space, to the work, back to the work, into conversations and experiences with others that might not have occurred if one could opt out, as they say, for a small, often solitary, rest. Looking back, I think how the festival encouraged experiences of shared, communal space and ideas very much realized Schindler’s intentions for the house.

Cain: This is a question that I heard several people ask each other over the course of the weekend and that I was endlessly curious about as well. Could you live in the Schindler House? What do you think it would be like?

Quaid: I love the concept of the house as a live and work space with studios, common areas, and kitchen to be shared with others. It is particularly appealing as a home that counters the lone couple or single-family model. To envision myself living in the house requires that I suspend time and imagine it both then and now. For example, in 1922, I could retire to a sleeping basket each night, on the roof, open to the sky, but it is more difficult to picture that today on King’s Road in West Hollywood. As a practical matter, I felt myself adapt to the structure of the house the longer I was there. At first, the low ceilings were startling. However, in terms of the floor plan, I could easily live in the space with its concrete floors, angular architecture, beautiful outdoor “rooms,” and natural light — though I would have to wear flats, always.

Quaid: Please talk about the collaboration process between the two of you.

Cain: The process feels fairly simple, basic. We pass ideas back and forth, we pass the work back and forth, we talk. I enjoy it immensely. In addition to our collaboration on Both Sides and The Center, Teresa and I are writing something together. I like being able to work in these different forms with someone, though perhaps they are not so different, as they both have to do with how literature might manifest itself, whether physically emerging into a space, or on a piece of paper.

Carmody: I’ll chime in and say: Yes! It’s been a remarkably unfettered collaboration.

Quaid: To what extent did you, as curators, work in collaboration with the guest writers?

Cain: Though we provided the guest writers with questions and ideas we wanted them to consider (about proximity, public versus private, the performance of domesticity, voyeurism, house as stage), the end result was left up to them. As a curator and organizer, part of my process of working with others is to let go of my expectations of what will happen and experience what materializes just as the audience will.

Carmody: How did the curation for this event compare to curation of other festivals and events you’ve done?

Cain: Well, I worked with you for one thing. As Andrea mentioned above, all the rest of my curatorial endeavors have happened with Jennifer Karmin, and in Chicago, though I have also had the chance to work with Anna Joy Springer, while helping her organize the 2011 &Now Festival of New Writing which took place at UC-San Diego this autumn. All of these experiences have been good ones and I have felt very grateful for them. One thing I have been happy for in Los Angeles and certainly in curating an event with you, Teresa, is that there is less of a divide between poetry and prose or fiction, or even other kinds of writing. I never felt that divide with Jen, who is a poet, and in fact we like that we are rooted in different areas, but sometimes in Chicago and beyond, I’ve felt myself come up against that limit. Teresa, I don’t think we once talked about categories when thinking about the participants and their work. I like that.

Cain: What about for you?

Carmody: The level of concentration felt different. We had more time to plan (than I’ve had for other projects), even as the event existed within a more concentrated period. The engagement between the participants felt more intense too. It seems really important for artists and writers to be in conversation right now. Writing is becoming increasingly visual as the book object becomes just that — an intentional object. So writers have a lot to learn from artists. And many artists are using language and/or narrative strategies in their work, and this is where they can learn from writers.

On a more prosaic but still important level, this was the first event I curated that was funded. We received a grant from the city of West Hollywood, which meant we could invite people from out of town and cover their travel costs. It was very exciting to write invitations that included the promise of at least some financial support!

Quaid: How does your work as a curator connect (or not) to your writing life?

Cain: For me there’s a very big connection. At a certain point I realized that I like to create environments so that things can then happen within them. Setting is very important in my stories, and it’s important within my curatorial endeavors as well. This is why the Schindler House was such an exciting space in which to organize a literary festival. For me, it felt like the set of a play.

Carmody: As a writer, I like it when I find myself in unfamiliar territory. As a curator, I like to create these “unfamiliar” opportunities for other writers.

Quaid: And finally, what current curatorial projects are you at work on?

Cain: I’m going to take a break from curating. I love doing it, but I miss writing. I have the feeling I will tuck myself away this winter for a period of hibernation. I will, however, continue on with The Empty Globe, a reading/performance/film and video series I started last spring. The events will happen a little less frequently than they did during the summer, only four to six times a year, and when I have the opportunity I’d like to think more about what other kind/s of relationship/s the series might have to writing and art and the performance of them. This thinking will be part of my hibernation.

Carmody: I see publishing — and design — as a kind of curation, and of course I’m continuing with Les Figues. We’re finishing up the 2011 TrenchArt series now, with work by Frances Richard, Myriam Moscona and Jen Hofer, Doug Nufer, Alex Forman, and Renee Petropoulos. The 2012 series is coming soon (featuring Melissa Buzzeo, Matias Viegener, Kim Rosenfield, Michael du Plessis, Klaus Killisch, and Mark Rutkoski). I’m also working with the Metabolic Studio on a book about land use issues at the Veteran’s Association of West Los Angeles, and of course, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women.

Quaid: Thank you Amina and Teresa!