The Last Book kindles creation-fires of a new kind; it marks the birth of the technological illuminated manuscript. With texts by Mary Gaitskill, drawings by Davina Semo, videos by Leslie Thornton, and sound by Greg Landau, this hybrid folio demands to be man-handled with care, to be rewound and fast-forwarded, to be read and touched. This jeweled and inlaid vellum reveals the book as fetish, book as master controlling and prescribing our movements, book as monster: it inaugurates a novel reading ritual--part riot, part cutting-arcane. The book at last dead? Long Live the Last Book!
-Gabriela Jauregui, author of Controlled Decay
The Last Book: This Ain't Your Grandson's Kindle
For this project, the haudenschildGarage, Spare Parts produced an homage to “the book” in the age of the conquest of the Kindle. Steve Fagin wished to resuscitate the magnificence of the illuminated manuscript as the world turned toward darkness. Perhaps electronic technology could be used, not to leave the book on the dustbin of history, but to reconstitute a forgotten past where words and images danced in each other’s arms.
To this end the haudenschildGarage produced and constructed a one of a kind book that included text, drawings, moving images and sounds. Its construction in the medieval, supersized tradition consisted of three illuminated folios each eighteen and a half inches high, thirteen inches wide and three inches deep.
To make this more than a dirge for the dead, a proper Joycian Wake, we incorporated into our project the live and kicking writing skills of Mary Gaitskill (Two Girls Fat and Thin), the macabre visual lyricism of Leslie Thornton (Peggy and Fred in Hell) and YouTube, the MySpace-with-a-twist drawings of Davina Semo, the retro-futurist music mix of Greg Landau, and as the piece de resistance, Shanghai’s notorious and ever so talented bad girl author Mian Mian as one of our performers with Monica Jovanovich and the Kindle. This bouillabaisse was concocted by Steve Fagin.
On April 26, 2009 The Last Book was performed at the Schindler House, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles.
Last Book participants include Eloisa Haudenschild (producer and line producer), Monica Jovanovich (stage manager), John DeMerritt (book binding), Joel Swanson (graphic design), Tad Linfesty (easel and book fabrication), Jim Nisbet (book fabrication), William Brent and Marco Llanos (electronics/technical coordination), Hsiufang Chen and Kate Wall (printing), Alastair Johnston, Teddy Cruz, and Alan Rosenblum (consultants), and Patricia Montoya (video assistant). The Last Book performance photography by Yvonne Venegas and video documentation by Merve Kayan.
The haudenschildGarage wishes to thank Kimberli Meyer, Director of the MAK Center.
Kimberli Meyer, Director of the MAK Center, on The Last Book
Reading aloud to a group of people is an intimate act, which is why readings are among my favorite activities at the Schindler House. The landmark modernist House and Studio (R.M. Schindler, 1921-22) was designed for precisely such kinds of events, and has hosted many avant-garde performances over the decades. The Schindler House embodies architecture as both idea and living organism. For the Last Book reading, a rowdy tale and the human voice activated the space as intimate, artistic, and social.
Experiment was present in the Last Book production, evidenced in part by the project’s ability to generate a fork in the road. Direction was established and planned, then reevaluated and changed just before performance time. In the publicized plan, the text was to have been read aloud in its entirety by Mian Mian. Language differences constituted more of a barrier than imagined, so the book’s three acts were read by three separate readers: Mian Mian first, followed by Monica Jovanovich, then finally a Kindle.
The Mary Gaitskill text is a delightful mean girls story - kind of disturbing, kind of sexy, definitely compelling. Hearing and seeing Mian Mian read it was both a pleasure and a tease. The story’s text has a seductive quality that draws in its audience, and Mian Mian is a performer of rare grace, intelligence, and beauty. Yet her public wrestling with the spoken language disrupted the means of seduction, illuminating the separation between the sound of a word, the speaking of a word, and the meaning of a word.
If Mian Mian had continued reading all three acts, the performance would have evolved into a kind of endurance test of limits for performer and audience alike. Instead, Monica Jovanovich and a robot, the Kindle, filled in, and Gaitskill’s words traveled through different bodies. The three variations in reading voices again served to highlight the separation between the sound of a word, the speaking of a word, and the meaning of a word.
It’s nice to be privy to an artistic fork in the road. Forks offer an opportunity to visualize and consider two distinct trajectories: the one that happened and the one that didn’t. The spontaneity of the change of direction in the reading of the Last Book at the Schindler House, combined with the intimacy of the event, made for a truly engaging afternoon. It was yet another instance of the convergence of a historical modernist ideal with contemporary urges to question and stage. The spirit of the Schindler House couldn’t have wished for more.
About Kimberli Meyer https://www.pcah.us/people/kimberli_meyer
Mian Mian, Shanghai-based author, on her The Last Book Performance
Only a Mirror Can Dream of a Mirror or Only a Mirror Dreams of…
We would like to thank Mian Mian for both honoring us with her first ever English language reading, her reading of The Last Book at the Schindler House on April 26, 2009, and this first English language writing effort for our documentation of The Last Book project.
—Eloisa Haudenschild & Steve Fagin, haudenschildGarage, Spare Parts
When I first read about the idea of Last Book project and the project invited me to be the reader…I was doing a concert at a place UFOs had once appeared…the light was too bright so I had to wear sunglasses all the time…I liked the concept of the project…it was simple but covered quite a few not simple questions ... and ... the most interesting part for me was to work with Eloisa and Steve these two such different producers but both so super real, creative open minded people. They are full of love and both of them never stopped being a boy and a girl, but at the same time also being professional - serious and very well organized ... and ... one of them speaks with Chicago accent, very loudly. For the art world they are too clean. They speak that kind of language that simply comes from the future with sunflower love and super talent. For me art is more about the moments…mostly about those super tender moments when those super intense "things" meet together ... it is the shape of the joy, the questions, the possibility of love ...
But how can I be an English reader? I did not finish high school…I never read an English book…I never read my own book in English when I do promotions all over the world…my English education came mostly at bars, nightclubs in Shanghai when I was young…so how can I read this impossible Mary Gaitskill text? I think this is one of the reasons why the project invited me…they wanted to watch. I’m thinking about the Kindle now (I’m in Beijing) to think of the Kindle is just like thinking about a criminal who has escaped from prison or a serial killer living in a strange small town with a strange voice…middle sex…mostly a woman but if you think he is a boy or man that is more scary still…anyway…the Kindle is a perfect fiction…it’s a mirror of our fears…but the Kindle helped me, a lot…every morning at 6 o’clock I got up and started my day by listening to the Kindle read Mary Gaitskill’s impossible to read text…the writing of the text is very intense. I never understood the writing because there were so many new and difficult words for me. So I tried to catch the chance and energy of the story by just studying those Mary Gaitskill words…although I had no idea what she wrote I eventually found a perfect way to feel her writing I listened to it breathe. I sensed Mary Gaitskill is a great writer who tries very hard to be a great writer…she is not a mirror but a broken glass…most of time she is cutting herself…thinking about this made me love her so much…but I never would want to be a writer like her…to wish to be like her would be like dancing with a vampire.
In fact, this is first time I’ve done a book reading in English and my reading is a perfect mirror between the Kindle and Mary Gaitskill’s text, I was being lured into a broken glass. But the Kindle is something more still. It is even more surreal than the plastic fantastic city, Shanghai…the Kindle is thought to be the future…it’s not a future I will return to. And Mary Gaitskill? I imagine she does not care about the future, otherwise, she would not write this way, I guess?
When I arrived in LA, at the Schindler House, the place of the reading, it felt to me like the place that must have had the first communist meeting in LA…it’s like I saw some tall man walk around the house as in old times and communist women dancing. I liked the director of the house…she is like a mirror…
But I was sooo distracted, worrying about my English as I rehearsed for the reading of Mary Gaitskill’s text…I should have not worried sooo much because it’s all about the moment, the performance, when all dances together…but I’m a real Shanghai girl…most of them are superficial…we always want to be the winner when we go to bed with the boy we really love we never be really relax and be really cool…
In this Last Book project there were moments, during different steps of the project that felt like pure art for me…but they were very private…those days staying at Eloisa’s home and seeing the members of the Haudenschild family, seeing how they live together, how they give their love at every moment to each other…it’s really special…it made me less scared of the Kindle, every morning at 6 o’clock when I started to study those words…and every morning at 9 when I saw Monica who always made me think about David Lynch movie.
In closing, give all my love to everybody who worked on the project and those who came to the event…it’s midnight in Beijing where I sit…I know after writing this I will disappear from the mirror…slowly…with Chicago accent that I learned from a genius…
After this project…I will finally be able to be a communist dancer…a tall man's lover (I was not able to have sex with tall man)…a great S&M writer (it’s about how two people trust each other)…I will make an unbroken mirror become a lesbian mirror, one who does not show us our vanity…marry an Argentine revolutionary leader and finally speak English with a Chicago accent…I just love it sooo much…
…one thousand ideas to be tender…this is The Last Book project made for me.
- Mian Mian
When I finished the project and was at the airport in LA on my way back to Shanghai the plane had problems…so we had to stay in LA overnight, at a small hotel…where I went to a McDonalds at midnight…
About Mian Mian
One of the most important writers from China's new generation, Mian Mian has lived up to her reputation as China's best bad girl novelist. She drew wide attention from the literati starting at the age of 17 when she became the first Chinese writer to ever describe a drug related life. Her characteristic flavor of "cruel youth" and her serious attitude towards self-reflection quickly attracted a large following of young readers. Her novels have been translated into 15 different languages and published worldwide. Candy, Mian Mian's magnum opus, an underground best seller, is regarded as the most remarkable adolescent literature in China. In April 2000, the government officially banned her book and subsequently the rest of her books. However by this time, hundreds of thousands of pirated copies had already been circulated. Mian Mian's literature had exerted tremendous influence on the Chinese X and Y generations. She has become a cultural icon for a generation of Chinese youth who value the authenticity and honesty of her portrayal of the future of the new Shanghai. In 2009 she published her new novel, Panda Sex, in China and France, soon to be published in English.
Bill Horrigan, Media Director of the Wexner Center, on The Last Book
Twenty years ago this summer, in advance of the Wexner Center’s official opening later that fall, plans were put into play for the production of a book intended to document in part its inaugural programs in exhibitions, media arts, and performing arts. That book, Breakthroughs: Avant-Garde Artists in Europe and America, 1950-1990 (Rizzoli, 1991) remains the most ambitious catalogue the Wexner has to date produced, casting a backward glance over the post-war artistic landscape as well as looking forward at and beyond the contemporary moment. For the media arts program, one form that took was commissioning a handful of artists to produce “Projects” for the printed page – five film/video producers being given carte blanche to fill four blank pages any way they chose to. Of course, in identifying these five producers, we wanted to favor those whose work was as interested in printed words and still images as much as the moving image of the film screen or video monitor. One of those artists was Steve Fagin, a San Diego-based video producer of inimitable sensibility, careering compulsively between post-Freudian theory and Borscht Belt shtick, a global fellow-traveler as much as a non-deracinated son of Chicago’s west side. For Breakthroughs, Fagin produced Casanova’s Homecoming, subtitled, “The most imaginable film in the world; in fact the only film I couldn’t make would be The Son of Shoah.” Consisting of frame enlargements from Journey into Fear (Norman Foster, 1943), Strange Cargo (Frank Borzage, 1940), and La signora di tutti (Max Ophuls, 1934), along with his commentary on these images taped on cards alongside them (“Hollywood is like a kosher butcher. Only those cuts above the waist are suitable for public consumption [the lower half of the anatomy is unceremoniously devoured]”), Fagin’s project purported to be pre-production material for an intended feature, in the event unrealized. Subsequently, Fagin would in the 1990s continue to produce long and short video works of singular precision, making several visiting artist presentations here as well as having working residencies in our Art & Technology studio.
Cross-fade twenty years forward, to West Hollywood, late in the afternoon on the last Sunday in April, and a crowd has gathered on the carpet-sized lawn of the MAK Center Schindler House, the still-breathtaking 1922 experiment in modernist domestic architecture by the Vienna born-Rudolph Schindler and now operated as an event space by the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, Vienna. The gathering was on the occasion of the premiere “performance” of Fagin’s latest project, The Last Book, the event itself structured into three “acts”: from 4 to 5 p.m., “Cocktails,” from 5 to 6 p.m., ‘Performance,” and from 6 – 7 p.m., “Book Private Viewing.”
Officially, the event was a production of the haudenschildGarage, a shape-shifting entity formed in 2003 by the prescient and engaged impresario Eloisa Haudenschild, the president of inSite (which commissions and presents cultural interventions within the border region of San Diego and Tijuana) and a catalytic collector and supporter of contemporary Chinese and Latin American art. Fundamentally sui generis, one of the haudenschildGarage’s endeavors is to reconceive what in the 19th century had been the salon and in the 20th the alternative art space. Under the haudenschildGarage umbrella, Haudenschild and Fagin forged the haudenschildGarage Spare Parts initiative in 2006, a three-year cycle of projects intended to encourage “the juxtaposition of the crucial, the trivial, and the arcane.” Earlier embodiments of the haudenschildGarage Spare Parts mandate include 2008’s A Crime Has Many Stories, a day-long exquisite corpse-styled extravaganza taking place throughout Buenos Aires and involving a wide range of younger and older visual artists, writers, and musicians, not to mention the residents of the various neighborhoods through which the events moved, with the effect being one of literally “performing” the continuities and disruptions across a spectrum of Argentine culture. Another project catalyzed by the haudenschildGarage Spare Parts remains ongoing: Decolonizing Architecture, their collaboration with London-based architect and theorist Eyal Weizman and Bethlehem-based architects Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, a multi-vectored inquiry into a West Bank settlement near Ramallah, envisioning its possible post-evacuation future as a Palestinian public space; this project was included in the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale but continues to evolve.
Hence the lineage of The Last Book, not repeating closely either of the first two hG, Spare Parts productions, but congealing more exactly into a one of a kind convocation, alternately or simultaneously a performance, a reading, a controlled party, a reunion, an architectural tour, and a product launch.
Mainly drawn from various art and academic scenes in Los Angeles and San Diego, the hundred or so attendees (including former Wexner curator Melodie Calvert and such former Wexner visiting artists as Adrienne Jenik, Rita Gonzalez, and Jordan Crandall) socialized outside during the first act, where it became clear that most of us had only the vaguest idea of what we were in for, other than being told that at five o’clock we were to gather inside, in the alarmingly small main room opening onto the lawn. Consulting the programs we were handed upon entry, we learned that the performance itself was in three parts, each featuring a different excerpt from Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin, who’d given her consent for her texts to be part of the performance. Once inside, literally shoulder to shoulder, the audience was greeted by Fagin, in compère mode (think the Peter Ustinov character in Ophuls’s 1955 Lola Montes), explaining the order of the evening, centered on the readings of three separate books
The launched product was precisely the trilogy of three large hand-made books, each one containing one of the Gaitskill texts, and physically rendered as illuminated folios about eighteen inches high, thirteen inches wide, and three inches deep. Each in turn placed on a low pedestal in the center of the room, with the Garage’s managing director, Monica Jovanovich, doing the honors as page-turner, the books bore the burden of sustaining the resonance once inhering within medieval illuminated manuscripts, pre-industrial artisanal objects in which sacred formal texts intermingled with often riotously colored imagery. But here, Gaitskill’s words, given in calligraphic form, shared page space with drawings by mixed-media artist Davina Semo, and with small, GPS-scaled flat screens upon which played a variety of moving images, six segments from Leslie Thornton’s epochal Peggy and Fred Go to Hell film serial, and a sampling of six YouTube appropriations (Greg Landau’s retrofuturist music mix upping the ante).
In effect, a triangulation was set in motion among the sacredness of the book to the quasi-abject secularity of Gaitskill’s and Thornton’s flesh-bound girls to the banality of random electronic imagery now having supplanted text itself as the default collective communicative channel. A comparable declension was carried out in the three successive oral reciters of the texts: the first live performance by Shanghai’s incomparable “bad girl novelist” Mian Mian (whose writings were officially banned in 2000 and whose latest novel, Panda Sex, is forthcoming in English; all things – about a million of them -- being otherwise equal, Mian Mian and Mary Gaitskill inhabit a certain same continuity of souls, alongside Thornton’s timelessly spectral figures of Peggy and Fred), who narrated with, as Fagin described it, “a halting relation” to spoken English; the second by the Garage’s Jovanovich, more neutrally but with a veneer of professionalism; and the third, via the entirely disembodied circuitry of a Kindle, held by Fagin as “it” recited/emitted Gaitskill’s final words, Kindle the very emblem of the post-book moment to come.
The event’s third act, “Book Private Viewing,” took place in an even smaller adjacent space, where we could examine the curious volumes up close, with Jovanovich carefully opening up with pages to reveal the concealed mechanics of the moving imagery, this concluding gesture suggesting the moment within liturgical gatherings (Jewish and Christian, at any rate, certainly) after the book has been “performed,” its text having been exercised as the book resumes its status as uniquely spectacular (secular? divine?) fetish object. As one of modernism’s touchstone dwellings, the Schindler House was the most congenial space imaginable to witness The Last Book’s descent, a structure aspiring to transcendence through the material and the proportions of the mundane.
Beyond that, it struck me as a remarkably light-touched advancement of the haudenschildGarage’s agenda-free agenda, other than the one to make real (and social) the insight evinced by its founder, Eloisa Haudenschild, that one way to support the art of today is to act on the belief that all the elements should be put in place and then be encouraged to collide.
- Bill Horrigan
Bill Horrigan has been the director of the Media Arts program at the Wexner Center for the Arts, at The Ohio State University in Columbus, since 1989.
About the Participants
Steve Fagin http://visarts.ucsd.edu/faculty/steve-fagin
Mary Gaitskill https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Gaitskill
Mian Mian https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mian_Mian
Greg Landau http://www.greglandau.com/
Leslie Thornton https://vivo.brown.edu/display/
Yvonne Venegas http://yvonnevenegas.com/
Davina Semo http://davinasemo.net/
Monica Jovanovich https://www.linkedin.com/in/monica-jovanovich-kelley-2a97b627/