in Writing

“It’s a glorious game”

A debate over the accessibility of the 2018 Man Booker Award winner, Milkman by Anna Burns, has caused The Guardian‘s Sam Leith to defend “difficult” works of literature, giving a lot of terrific examples and arguments in favour of the phenomenon. That perception of literature that breaks with popular concepts of “readability” is found across different art forms; I also find the article resonant, both of elements in my recent thesis, and of my own art practice. In the following I will go off on several tangents from the Guardian article, drawing parallels across art forms and … sports? In Leith’s paraphrase of Man Booker chair Kwame Anthony Appiah:

ease of consumption isn’t the main criterion by which literary value should be assessed. We like to see sportsmen and women doing difficult things.

I’d add that reading or watching a demanding work of art pulls you as a spectator into that exercise of overcoming, or even co-creation, challenging you to interpret and contextualise it in an effort to lock eyes and minds with the artist.  The act of bending your mind to match or approximate the shape of an artwork is often a reward in itself, like the physical pleasure of a workout.

Although the term “ergodic literature” goes unmentioned in the article,  the works in question do approach the criterion that “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”, posed by Espen Aarseth who coined the term in his 1997 book Cybertext. In a different but no less poignant perspective, author Nicola Barker is quoted as saying that

I see fiction as being divided into two categories. Work that confirms and celebrates and panders and work that confounds and perplexes and challenges.

This, too, reflects Aarseth’s ideas that “there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial”. That would well describe the greater mass of entertainment-tinged works of art (literature, film, comics, &c) that we consume on a daily basis, and which in their recognisable structures facilitate that consumption.  We are moderately thrilled by horror movies because even as the masked killer sneaks up on his would-be victim, we know from previous films of the genre that she will make it eventually; the thrill is in the small variations on the familiar. However, works and writers that challenge the reader, Barker continues:

are trying to understand and engage with ideas, emotions and a world that aren’t straightforward or coherent or manageable. […] Sometimes we need to try and describe the indescribable.

That last sentence in particular strikes a note with me, as an artist working in abstraction, often abandoning linear narrative as a consequence. It is commonly implied that abstract expressionism emerged from the second World war, artists turning away from figurative painting at a loss to ably express their latent anxieties and trauma. A similar notion is found in Barker’s statement, though the indescribable in question need not be on the scale of industrial warfare or systematic genocide.

Putting into word or image that for which there is no description, word and image deteriorate in the attempt, their corrosion eating away in turn at the artist’s certainty in established processes and conventions. Incoherence seeps into ordered art from a chaotic world. My 2015 book, When the Last Story is Told, poses an illustration of that dilemma, imagining narrative as a finite, exhausted resource, and the ruined scaffolding of the comics page draped only with torn paper, white-out and ink textures. It would be pretentious to say that I premeditated the work then and there as a visualisation of grappling with complex circumstance. I did feel the playing field open up to me as the rule book of genre and cultural connotation fell away, though.

The relatively new phenomenon of abstract comics suffers the double ignominy of adhering neither to the visual or genre conventions culturally expected of the comics form proper. One fine artist flipped through When the Last Story is Told, bewildered, before attempting a joke, pointing to a random page: “Is this the car chase?” A comics fan, browsing the book at a festival, pressed his fist into his solar plexus, telling me that “It hurts me all the way in here that you call this a comic.” One doesn’t deviate from the public perception of art without some scorn.

In his article, Leith proposes that “literary fiction” be considered a genre unto itself, citing its formal exercises as a generic trait equal to the femme fatale of noir thrillers, or bug-eyed monsters of science fiction. Genres are certainly sets of cultural tropes and familiar structures that enable digestion of the work, and genre work, to some degree, is a patchwork of well-known elements lifted whole cloth from previous sources, some dating back to ur-myths. In contrast, I’d say that  “literary fiction”, or “fine art” for that matter, is often that which does not rely on those accustomed motifs and stories, but instead requires the audience to take active part in its unfolding.  This is not a distinction between good or bad, high or low art, but on the level of engagement required.

The difficulty of these (medium-trivial effort) ergodic works, then, is in their lack of pandering to cliché, in their position outside of genre. They may toy with those elements, but in the end they are a game of form rather than of tropes, and that game takes its toll on the reader. At the same point in time that people gamify their daily chores and tasks at work, ie., assimilate them to a familiar structure of game narrative with “level-up”rewards and achievement badges, works of art that play by their own, original rules are found difficult or even impenetrable. Again, the key is in the ability of the audience to identify the structural rules of the game, a cognitive ability that relies largely on previous experience – and with it, recognition.

Coincidentally, games are intrinsic also to Aarseth’s concept of “cybertext”, a subset of ergodic texts that largely span the multi-threaded narratives of early computer games like “dungeon crawlers”, first made possible by basic hypertext technologies. More literally than the co-creative deciphering of a challenging artwork, the reader/player has full agency in those interactive texts (soon after transposed into the visual domain). Although authored by game designers as thoroughly as any writer would a novel, the player’s path through the game text inevitably leaves the rest of it unexplored, invisible, nonexistent.

The concept, at least ostensibly disengaged from the fictional realm, can aptly be applied to our current online environment, as pervasive into the physical world as it is. The playbook of the internet cybertext, however, is vaguer than the established structures would have us believe. In the face of complex world news narratives, it is soothingly convenient to resort to more facile, “alternative” but familiar structures that confirm and comfort.

In that sense, we are all living in Nicola Barker’s “world that [isn’t] straightforward or coherent or manageable”. Our shared means of understanding it, our structural narrative framework as we have been fed it through blockbuster or paperback genre fare, is insufficient to adequately describe it. We can not rest assured that the killer will disappear by the end of the film, vanquished, into the waters of the lake. What is certain is that our player avatar will not respawn at the latest save point.

Sure, there are other available narratives that might equip us to engage differently, perhaps even more resourcefully with the world. Ergodic literature and, by association, the merely “challenging” books mentioned in the Guardian article, allow us to rewire our brains to even briefly think and see the world through a different framework. The brain may not grow in size with effort like muscles do, but it does in complexity; through acquisition of knowledge, new neurological connections are created, allowing new avenues of problem solving.

There is much to be gained from the mental investment of engaging meaningfully with non-genre art works that break away from stagnant convention. They expose audiences not only to new perspectives but also to new ways of considering the world. They may open up the playing field by questioning established structures (both narrative and social). If only they weren’t so difficult.

Marked

I just learned that the movie director John Waters made a series of photos while shooting his film Pecker, depicting only the floor marks instructing the actors where to stand. A spurious web search only gave the above result (link below), but even that is pretty damn amazing. John Waters, ‘Mark #10’, 1998, Sprüth Magers…

Good company

Successes and shortcomings by Haverholm (haverholm.com)
I don’t know how to announce a new scholarly paper. Somehow I sense that a thesis that constitutes six months’ work should be presented with less boast and pomp than I would a five minute drawing or an hour-long performance. My Master’s thesis, Uncomics – reconsidering the comics form throug...

Tangential to the subject of my Master’s thesis, The Comics Grid recently published an article by Ernesto Priego and Peter Wilkins, ‘The Question Concerning Comics as Technology: Gestell and Grid’. I’m not in the habit of posting about every interesting article on TCG (there are only so many hours in the day, and you’d be better served just subscribing to their news feed) but I’m flattered to see a page from my own When the last story is told used to illustrate the article. So you know the authors went deep in their research!

Thanks also to Jonah Sack for the heads up!

Successes and shortcomings

I don't know how to announce a new scholarly paper. Somehow I sense that a thesis that constitutes six months' work should be presented with less boast and pomp than I would a five minute drawing or an hour-long performance.My Master's thesis, Uncomics – reconsidering the comics form through the prism of its experimental periphery,…

Here’s a thought about “something you can make pictures in your mind with”

I always have a backlog of 8-10 episodes from Erik Davis' Expanding Minds podcast waiting for me to listen to them. They are wide ranging, cross-disciplinary conversations about art, music, "technoculture", and contemporary spirituality, and I find them as rewarding to engage with as they are demanding of the listener's attention. Most recently I sat…

Remembering Cav

Back in the early 2000s I was drawing and self-publishing my graphic novel one chapter at a time in little photocopied magazines; I sent small batches out to comics shops in Denmark but I had next to no idea if people outside of my closest circles read it. Then an email landed in my inbox one day, from an enthusiastic animator in training — a reader, and another aspiring artist to boot! He was very excited by the comic and shared links to his own current comics work, a dark fantasy that shared some themes with my own, not least a fascination with Mike Mignola. That was the first of less than a handful of fan letters I have ever received, and my first contact with Cav Bøgelund.

Soon we were exchanging emails on a weekly basis, swapping links to favourite comics and artists and critiquing each others’ latest drawings and pages. Cav’s work was exciting, funky and darkly humorous, and I didn’t really see why he was interested in my scribbles. At one point I was going on an infrequent visit to Copenhagen to see some other comics artists that I had been introduced to by common friends, and I invited Cav along. Geographically, I was in the middle of nowhere at the time, but Cav was almost as far from Copenhagen as you can be in Denmark. Somehow, complete strangers to each other with no idea how the other looked, we managed to meet on the train there, and we clicked pretty fast — after all, we had been mailing back and forth for months.

The day in Copenhagen was a blast, we met with Danish comics artists Thomas Thorhauge and Jan Solheim for coffee and chatted away until we country mice realized we had to catch the last train back. Cav was looking at several hours of train ride and waiting to change connections, leaving him only a few hours of sleep before getting to school in the morning, but his excitement of the trip kept him talking non-stop until I got off midway at my station. I won’t take credit for introducing Cav to the Danish comics scene, but I hope I sped up the process by some small margin.

Eventually, both he and I moved to Copenhagen, I tried to balance finishing my book with menial work and he was accepted into the Danish Film School’s animation director department. Both of us were busy with our daily tasks, but being in the same city meant we hung out a great deal more than we could before. During those years, Cav was one of my best friends, a respected colleague, and just an altogether inspiration to be around. His work seemed to come to him easier than mine did to me, there was a playfulness and richness of ideas both in his drawings and in his company that made both so instantly appealing.

My graphic novel went through a couple of potential publishers before landing at the right one, and in one of those not-quite-there incarnations of it, the editors suggested that we include a gallery of other artists’ “tributes” or interpretations of my work in the back of the book. I wasn’t a hundred per cent convinced, but in the end we talked ten-fifteen fellow artists into contributing. Having Cav in there among some of Denmark’s finest comics artists was a no-brainer — even if those would all make my drawings look like a mess — he knew my work better than anyone, and it warmed me that he wanted to be part of it.

In the end, that publisher folded before printing a single book, and none of the gallery drawings made it into the final version of my book published by Brun Blomst, and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve just sat on the interpretations since then. Cav presented me with his original artwork, though, and it has hung on my wall until very recently when it had faded so much that I had to move it away from daylight. When my book finally came out at the Komiks.dk festival of 2006, Cav’s second book was out already, and we had some amazing after parties with our peers and friends. In memory of that, Cav’s rendition of my characters — I believe for the first time:

The following years Cav and I would still meet and hang out but having graduated as an animation director, he would be consumed for weeks and months at a time in projects that took quite a bit more out of him than drawing comics. We had a short-lived role playing party going. I did a lot of moving, myself, and in several ways. First I moved geographically with my family to Sweden — it was literally just twenty minutes’ train ride away from Copenhagen but the mental distance is much longer. Secondly, I quit Facebook which, obviously, cut a lot of bonds to people.

Thirdly, I orbited away from traditional comics as I realized I didn’t have another “proper” graphic novel in me and wanted to push my own limits to unexplored territory. Distance, work and shifting alignments of interests made us drift away from each other. While I was busy rejecting the comics I grew up with, Cav gleefully threw himself into making a nostalgic superhero slug fest of a book — as a pastime, I think, between film projects.

It never came to a head between us, our friendship just fizzled out — something I have regretted since then. He was always there, though, popping up on the comics radar: Around this time, with his natural, infectious enthusiasm for anything comics, he became the go-to guy for the primary national Danish TV channel, appearing whenever they needed an inside perspective. His live drawing sessions, either as a participant or an engaged ring master, were must-sees at comics festivals and similar events. He even briefly dated Denmark’s first real-life superhero, or did I dream that? Either way, it was surreal to watch from the side.

These last couple of years we were barely in touch, though I got word about his doings and work from shared friends: new relationships, new film projects, etc. We were hammering away at each our careers, not intersecting anymore. I would look him up on Twitter occasionally, making sure that he was doing his part. Then, this morning when I woke up, a single sentence text message from my brother was waiting for me: “Have you heard about Cav?” I guess I knew it right away, and those other shared friends soon confirmed that he had passed away Sunday morning. He would have been 40 this year.

He was a blessed artist, a talented director, and within five minutes of meeting him he would be your favourite person. For a few important years, he was one of my most respected colleagues, and I like to think that I was his friend. After we drifted apart, I thought that we would meet up someday to catch up and reminisce about those bright days and nights in our late twenties when we could do anything. I was too late in making that call, or sending that email. Rest in peace old friend.