Mike Hoolboom is a Canadian independent experimental filmmaker
TO: <Kilby Smith-McGregor>
In 1933 Artaud was asked to give a lecture at the Sorbonne. He didn’t talk about the plague, he crawled between people’s seats, rolled on the floor, exhibited his boils. The audience didn’t know what to do. Most of them left, laughing too loudly. When they were all gone, Artaud dusted himself off and told Anaïs Nin, who’d attended his performance, “Let’s have a drink. These people don’t realize that they are already dead.”
When I read the art gossip Sylvère dishes so winningly about Artaud, I want to throw myself into the body of the tortured artist. I want the boils, the crawling and rolling, and the abject state that is the shadow of every exhibitionism. If I didn’t feel so small, I wouldn’t need to appear so large. Beneath the fantasy of all that suffering is the pay off of a name worth having, a name that is only the beginning; the prelude to further intoxications (in this case with a renowned feminist diarist and pornographer). But I have to admit, as I open again to this unwanted encounter with Artaud, that I am more likely to be found in the audience, as one of the dead. The question the artist suggests is already a haunting. How do you know that you’re already dead?
A few days ago I met up with my cousin Janeer. I hadn’t seen her in four decades, but she looked strangely familiar, a photograph come to life. But in place of the teenaged eyes that opened wide whenever a Guess Who song rang out of the radio, there is a wizened determination. This face says: we can’t afford to stop now. We stepped into the fantasy cafeteria of a building shaped like an eye, Amsterdam’s film museum. She swung us into a waiting table that overlooked the river, and told me about her beloved partner, the source of all happiness, until his cancer arrived and swept it all away. How do you go on after the end has come? She had just spent the day tending her ailing mother, and it’s clear that her years of service have only made her stronger. She takes my hand in her masculine hand, the one modelled after her executive boss dad (the absent one, the bronzed smiler, overachiever, and lover of Beethoven’s late quartets). “I’m so glad to be here with you.” Her face shines with ordinary conviction. I want to turn it into a powder I can put behind my ears. The ghost of Artaud reminds me of an exercise he called The Impossible Task. What task is worth doing if it’s not impossible? Each person is given a slip of paper and asked to scribble out an activity that can’t be accomplished. Eat the walls. Open the windows with your mind. After an exchange of papers everyone is asked to go to work, newly aimed at the unachievable.
What task is worth doing if it’s not impossible?
I have spent many years in the twilight hours between life and death. Sometimes you jump off a cliff, sometimes the cliff jumps off of you. It’s been hard to resist the invitation of my dead friends to join them, for instance. My cousin nods with understanding, but I wonder if we’re hearing the same music. The scene Artaud describes, that he returns to again and again, is a scene of performance. And this performance refuses to leave behind the feeling that it’s all too much, that we are failing, and I don’t know more than you do. Instead of an identification with excellence (isn’t that what our culture likes to put at the front of the room? The beautiful-mind-and-body museum?), here Artaud invites an identification with the not-so-excellent. Please accept my invitation to the boil-exhibition party. The crawling-between-the-seats party. The witness-my-shame party. What if we didn’t know what to do with each other, and didn’t have to smother our not-knowing with cultural distractions or weather gossip? How can we start eating the wall?
TO: <Mike Hoolboom>
I knew I would want to end here—in dialogue with you, Artaud, and impossibility. To end this series on writing the body with an opening of sorts, an opening wide enough to hold mortality, art-making, and the in-between.
In the Bookforum interview with Lotringer, Andrew Hultkrans cites Artaud as having written in his notebooks, “I’m not sick. I’m conscious.” Which I love. There’s something there about a particular, vital, edge of living (or at least living-as-creative-act) that has to do with a performance of mortality—the able-to-die, the dying-always-already—as definition-giving and meaning-making. One version of this performance is the extremity of Artaud’s boil-exhibition-crawling-between-the-seats-witness-my-shame party, as you brilliantly put it. That’s one encounter with enacting (via failing to enact) the Impossible Task. But in equating ordinary conviction—the real possibility of being glad to be here, holding hands across a table—in a survivor and caretaker, to the Impossible Task, a counter-vision presents itself. Is cousin Janeer not, in her way, eating the wall? The Impossible Task also seems the only Task, no? Banal, extreme: living. What is consciousness if not consciousness of mortality. I’m not sure how we come to know we’re already dead. Singly? Scattered? In small cabals? Kneeling before caskets; naked people; paintings? Vomiting blood into toilets? Listening to late quartets? But I think that an earned knowledge of it, if or when it comes, is—if not the opening of a window with your mind—the opening of your mind to a window.
Thank you for this,
Mike Hoolboom’s films have been recognized with numerous international awards and retrospectives. He is also an essayist, most recently collaborating on You Only Live Twice: Sex, Death and Transition (Coach House, 2016), with Chase Joynt. Kilby Smith-McGregor’s first book of poetry is Kids in Triage (Wolsak & Wynn, 2016); she is the curator of this month’s Town Crier. As a graphic designer she often works with Mike, and wanted to engage his thoughts on writing the body—this is part of that thread of correspondence.