In An I

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Published by Sidebrow Books P.O. Box 86921 Portland, OR 97286 Š2015 by Popahna Brandes All rights reserved Cover art by Hyuro Cover & book design by Jason Snyder ISBN: 1-940090-02-4 ISBN-13: 978-1-940090-02-3 first edition


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In An I P O PA H N A B R A N D E S

sidebrow books • 2 0 1 5 • portla nd & san francisco


A woman works in a room of a house. She sits at a table, which belonged to the woman who worked in the room before her. Taking a break, she draws an outline of her hand resting on her notebook. There are sheets of marked-up paper everywhere. I am in this picture. I make columns and circles, lists and arrows, numbers and sentences. The woman is not restrained by anything other than her choices. She may cook or leave or read. And while another activity might be considered an interruption — the preparation of toast and eggs, for example — it is also a frame to conclude a sentence. When she feels the need for stimulation, I take a walk. Outside, it changes every hour. The woman does laundry, regularly, and with energy. It aids in resolving the issues on paper. To separate the items, to assess the temperature at which they are best washed, and then to hang the articles on the lines between the metal pole and the tree, making the necessary modifications and assigning a hierarchy based on how much line they require — this is the kind of arrangement and procedure from which I take pleasure. And because it rains often, she must be ready to retrieve everything at any time. Aside from these routines, the woman is at the table most of the day. A still life. Many other people work on this type of sorting and attending. She is not singular in her pursuit but she is solitary in the enactment. It began with a letter. The woman turned the letter over. The return address was my own. The handwriting was my own. It was both familiar and unknown. And inside she found one short sentence on the page: “Document and change by writing.” She held the letter for a few minutes, and then a week, waiting to see what would arise: trepidation, curiosity, refusal, desire. She acted as


if she were deliberating and then, abruptly, she accepted the assignment. As soon as the woman resolved to take up the charge, I felt animated. And we understood immediately that there was no turning back; that there would be consequences if we did not attend to the call. I am surprised by the amount of time it’s taking to fulfill this task, but the woman has encouragement from others who say that it will soon be complete, which she chooses to believe, and so she continues. They remind her that once I accepted the letter, she was bound to write — to work — until finished or definitively unwilling to proceed further. She has done her best to arrange my activities around this; each morning I pick up the papers, and begin again: arranging, phrasing, disrupting, finding a lyrical logic. How does this puzzle fit together? More importantly, how does this puzzle come apart? If I have the picture, what are its pieces? Words always come and go — aspect, “to see, to catch sight of ” — aspicere, specere, “specter, apparition, shade.” I accept that I am stapling myself to a substance that begins as matter and then, in its half-life, becomes a memory and another book to be written.



In which I meet Ila

I. “In the inner life, time takes the place of space. With time we are altered, and, if as we change we keep our gaze directed towards the same thing, in the end illusions are scattered and the real becomes visible. This is on condition that the attention be a looking and not an attachment.” — Simone Weil

And the city closest to the town of Kast is Jostvelde, and in the heart of that city — bound on two sides by copses of large deciduous trees, on its third side by a gloomy animal park where the congregation of loud and proprietary geese guard the several pigs huddled by the keeper’s house, and on the last side by a school for marching bands, which itself is flanked by several wooden houses selling soup, cheese, and coffee, respectively — is The English Speaking Cultural Experimentation Society of the Lowlands, a state-sponsored “laboratory” where work goes on night and day. In this society’s building there are rooms that are called studios; there are researchers that are called participants; there are experiments that are described as life praxes. Thirteen participants are accepted into the society. They remain for indefinite periods of time, no less than a year, and generally not longer than seven years. Both the funders and the researchers prefer to disclose as little as possible about their experiments, or rather, more precisely, they prefer not to know the intended outcomes. They have no fixed result in mind. Process is what matters, is the sanctified material. And the way in which they reveal that they are working, that they are progressing, is by displaying various objects and thought formulae, in a systematically indeterminate manner, within the corridors — the corridors being the main spaces where participants interact and exhibitions, intended or not, take place. These wide, window-lined 5

hallways form the interior of the entire building, which consists of four wings for housing the participants, who live and work in cellular studios that line the exterior of the building, affording them each with a view onto the outside world. The transparent corridors form a square that surrounds what, up until forty years prior, had been a central swimming pool and is currently filled with silt, three printing presses, a book-binding apparatus, bed frames, tables, several dozen chairs for schoolchildren, many bicycles, and a mound the size of a tomb made entirely of books, pulping and sprouting a haze of delicate lady’s thumb and tough knots of horseweed. The pool-fill gives the impression of a sculptural, practical arrangement of happenstance disarray, in order to create a comfortable smoking area. All activity within the pool garden can be seen at all times from every vantage point within the first two levels of the tall corridors. The same can be said of the corridors themselves. Only parts of the top floor, the third, and the stairwells are not visible. This is where participants might disappear from view, if they happen to be alone when ascending or descending. It is also where many of the participants choose to exercise, running up and down when they think they are alone. Returning to their studios, participants enter through replicated steel doors, which are painted snow gray in contrast with the lake gray and granite gray number 19 found respectively on the walls and floors. There are seven luminous grays used within the rooms, and three muted shades in the corridors and stairwells. These shades contrast most during the rare days when there is full sun. Portholes grace each room’s door, placed higher than the average person’s height. At night, these portholes create a pattern of varying degrees of artificial light, resembling a mechanical communication device. As for the formulae, the participants put their data onto paper, print it, and peg it to the corridor walls. Objects are placed on platforms that resemble wooden stumps and are spaced in a grid in the corridor, and this — the amount of space speaking or silencing, surrounding the arrangement of


a mass on display — is often the most important factor, an acknowledgement of the relationship between actuality and potential. Objects placed on stumps and formulae on paper pinned to the wall are left un-authored. The experimenting participant is not understood as overseeing this presentation. The presentation of progress stands on its own. Its relevance is measured by what it evokes for the individual viewer. The tenuous or obvious ties to what has preceded the experiment are assumed. It is this implicit discourse that makes the laboratory an entity. Money ensues when a dynamic flow of hermetic dialogue exists. And when the money comes, the experiments continue.


II. In October of 1999 I spent ten days at The English Speaking Cultural Experimentation Society of the Lowlands, unofficially known as the ESCESL or, as it was pronounced, Esscessle. It was unusual to have someone stay for such a short period of time. Had I been giving lectures or been a friend of a participant, there would have been a precedent. My official capacity there was guest observer. I had no outline or project to speak of beyond noting what I encountered. This was fine with the council that approved my visit. The council, or board, as it is sometimes called, also acts as part of the government of the town of Jostvelde. They preferred that I have no agenda. In fact, in the application paperwork it explicitly states that one is not to know what one is going to find out during their stay at the ESCESL. I suggested that I observe the participants and was given the green light. I suggested that I make a book using whatever I found that I liked, as the basis. The room I was assigned was a temporary one. I made a false start with the transcriber. “You have to begin somewhere,” he said to me, when we first met. He was smoking in the old pool. “And use whatever you end up with, as long as it’s interesting.” “What makes something interesting?” I asked. “A good question,” he said, “albeit unanswerable.” He was not sure of his recordings or his writings. He knew only that he “must work as assiduously and as completely as possible,” as he would say to me, at various times. And in many respects he did. At the few events that I attended — there were events every other day, which only a portion of the participants would attend at a time — I found him in the back corner of the room, and depending on the event, with a recording device or a


slim notebook and pen balanced on his knee. He invited me to his room on several occasions. I peered at the notebooks, at any loose pages lying on his desk, and his crabbed and stiff handwriting, making out mostly incomplete sentences and words such as: uhh, ahem, ahh, hmm, mmm — a plethora of dashes and ellipses — and a fair amount of capitalization or exclamation points, as if to indicate the voice of an impassioned, if not necessarily coherent, speaker. I found the transcriber engaging, in part because I knew he could talk endlessly, allowing me to relax. He was always sorting through a philosophical dilemma having to do with his project. His face would fill up with imaginary scenarios and I’d watch the potential theater play out. On Sunday I made my way to his cell, tired from the cold of the social and physical climate. When he opened the door he was guzzling a bottle of black currant soda. I plunked down on a dirty couch. For the first time I noticed that his studio was crowded with empty glass bottles: on the windowsills, on the table, on the desk, under the chair, under the sink, a bevy lined up, waiting for entry to the garbage bin. As he worried through his project’s condition, working it to its drastic end, I focused on the markings of the carbonated fruit foam visible in each liter bottle. I tried to interrupt. “Those crimson-purple traces — ” I said, but he immediately re-interrupted: “That which represents the projection of a curve or surface on a plane or the intersection of a curve or surface with a plane.” “ — are like tree rings,” I continued, “delicate, and seemingly erratic.” “But this is because we don’t know how to read them,” he replied. We both looked around silently. I’d noted, and he corroborated, that all of the books off of the shelves, piled seemingly everywhere the bottles were not, were published works. His unpublished books were held by a tall set of shelves that lined the walls. He treated his books both carelessly and with the utmost attention: they collected dust and were used as coasters or paperweights or simply forgotten in a corner, but when he sat down to


open one, he washed his hands beforehand and he barely cracked the spine. It became a precious specimen. “And if we are describing time with language, it’s obviously inclusive. Syntax is a trace. Clauses create static, but they are movable. Recently, a forensic scientist told me that he doesn’t consider death an end, but rather a pivotal moment, important because of what it changes, not because of what it terminates. Death, in this context, is an axis, a moment to chart when different hosts and bacterial elements shift, proportionally change.” I closed my eyes for a moment. When I woke up a while later, I said: “Would you say that your living space is intentionally designed by your actions?” He was busy writing something down. For example, I thought, I notice a lot of socks lying around, some unmatched, and all of them in tightly curled balls. I wanted to say something like this. I wanted to tell him that during my nap I had seen an index card with Ila’s name on it. From now on, it would be all about Ila. I thought that if I could point out an unpleasant or slovenly habit as if it were an interesting and intentional experiment, we would both feel better. It was a way of adjusting my attention without stating my waning interest. But he didn’t take the bait, only turned his head sideways. I said I’d see him later. After all, these were just experiments, and mine an observation, at that.


III. And then there was Ila, whose project was the least clear of anyone’s. Participants spent much of their day outside in the town or meeting with other people, working, whereas Ila, aside from her daily walk, was almost always in her room and did very little of anything that anyone was aware of. The other participants were curious. How did she spend her hours? Why didn’t she complain of her problems on the rare occasions she crossed their paths? From what participants had gleaned, she was not in much contact with the world outside the ESCESL. She had piles of notebooks, a makeshift kitchen; and a small trembling of finches, un-caged, that came and went through her often open windows. As all the proposals were printed and pinned to the entryway ledger near the custodian’s closet, anyone could see what participants’ initial proposals entailed. Ila’s had to do with a series of portrayals. “A portrayal,” the transcriber had said, “as you very well know, could mean a lot of things. Will the information be visual, textual, numeric, theoretical? Will it be dramatic?” The ESCESL had accepted her, funded her each year that she reapplied, and what she told me after we’d met was that, in fact, despite the time passing, and although she added more people, she was getting nowhere. “Adding portrayals, getting nowhere,” she said, repeating herself. Ila had been at the ESCESL for close to three years when I met her. Our first exchange took place during her morning walk, which I observed and made a point of interrupting, as if by chance. The clouds were low and the field was full of long, dead grass. I asked her the time and she turned on me, her frame blocking the wind.


“I could care less,” she said, which I found awkward, as I hadn’t asked her what she thought of time. I noticed then that one of her eyes was green and the other brown, or black, I wasn’t certain. That was our only exchange until a few nights later I decided to knock on her door to ask her if I could borrow a book. “A book?” she said, indicating the mostly empty room behind her, putting her hands on her hips. I left, embarrassed again. On the third interaction I simply asked if I might interview her. “Of course,” she said. And so, unsure of why I was doing what I was doing, and unsure of what it would amount to, but for some reason, quite curious about Ila, I began conversations in which I asked questions and took notes. I also went through the sheaf of folders she gave me after our first meeting; papers and notebooks that included dated and undated entries, dreams, images, letters, portrayals. “A selection of my own,” she said.


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