The Last MFA Essay I Ever Will Write

The lowland of online discourse – that virtual Benelux where bloggers, essayists, and opinion writers grope for fragments of attention – has been flooded with essays weighing the worth of writing degrees; particularly the Master of Fine Arts degree. Discussion tends to hit its annual zenith around September as magazines such as Poets & Writers release their annual rankings and thousands of fledgling authors begin preparing applications.

A DOSE OF BILE

When I heard the Federal Bureau of Investigation might have figured out the identity of seventies skyjacker D.B. Cooper I was really upset. Who among us hasn’t felt a smidge of sympathy for the outlaw? Well into my thirties, having finally completed my education and finding myself without short-term goals to strive for, a swelling waistline, and an unremarkable life unspooling before me, I can’t help but feel attracted to a life fueled by passion and brightened with sparks of decisive action, like leaping out the back of a Boeing 727 into a lightning storm.

The Thirty-Third Internet Connection in New Delhi

Tandy Acoustic

I never had a problem with Alaskan Senator Ted Steven’s oft-mocked remark about the Internet being a series of tubes. I saw it with my own eyes (metaphorically speaking) as a teenager growing up in New Delhi. The Internet was a feed of information that trickled in drip by drip, slowly increasing as we switched our faucets and eventually tapped into the municipal supply. My father was a foreign correspondent, which meant he had to send stories back home to be published. When we left “on assignment” to India he was issued with a bag of sophisticated telecommunications equipment. We plugged it in and became early adopters.

Writing for Machines

Writers are anxious about the Internet and all things electronic, as we worry these newfangled ways of entertaining ourselves might someday obviate our own work. The solution, perhaps, lies in understanding and adapting to this new medium. Consuming enough that we can master its complexities and render appealingly intelligent confections for our readers. But who are these readers? Are they different online than they are in print? Some of them aren’t even human. There is a new form of reader browsing the Internet. For this is no longer just the age of mechanical reproduction; we now have to contend with mechanical readers as well. [LINK]

The Orange and the Grey…

From ArtNet - image by David Zwirner Gallery

During the summer I will be posting chunks of research for a series of articles I would like to write, a series of long narrative essays about the New York art world since Andy Warhol’s death. Rather than attempting to catalogue the entire history I will zero in on a few key moments, try to describe them in as much, and as realistic detail as possible and then unpack why these moments are important. The first is about relational aesthetics and Rikrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (1992) Free . Relational aesthetics bother me, and I don’t quite understand why, so my first stab at this will attempt to unravel where this discomfort comes from.

Here’s a skeleton of an article I’m writing…

* When Dinner Tore Art from the Walls *

SoHo has since molted and shed all but a few select morsels of grime, but in 1992, five years after Andy Warhol had died, the old manufacturers’ cast iron pillars looked as if they were about to topple, needle-drug-users still nodded off in the alleyways, and there were real live artists living and working in the lofts above. Galleries too. But the art on display in those was wanting for something vital. (TKTK quote) Money was one of the reasons why. Prices had soared during the 1980s. Various crazes had swollen and crested bringing with them a glut of mediocre imitators; and then the market collapsed, (tktk proof) wiping out the small timers and scaring the established. By 1992 prices had yet to recover. (tktk somethign about art prices being X fraction of what they used to betktk) But there was more than a lack of money haunting New York’s art scene. It was bleaker and darker and more dangerous than that. Andy [Warhol] was dead. Basqiat died a few months later. Keith Haring had died in 1990. AIDS was devastating New York’s gay community ; artists were murdering one another (TKTK art murders club murders race riots); violent crime levels were peaking and everything, everyone in the community was obsessed with money, gloom and death – and it seemed like all the art work reflected this.

((examples of said art work – Peter Halley, Kiki Smith, hard edged geometric abstraction and weird relationships with the human body – like bottles of aids blood; also something about the Brits – Damien Hirst et al were all graduating Goldsmith’s around then))

On a Thursday afternoon gallery crawlers snaking their way through SoHo’s 89 Greene Street caught a whiff of something strange but… rich, complex and delicious. (TKTK quote) As they made their way around the tight columns on the xx floor toward the 303 Gallery they saw, not a white walled gallery but a small Asian man stirring a tureen of bubbling yellow curry and rice steaming in large pots, and the gallery itself was… nothing, just filled with garbage bins and filling cabinets and people clutching TKTKTTK and swallowing chunks of warm, nutritious curry. Strangest of all, this warm, nutritious food was free. They were ladling out to anyone who wanted any…

((interview with attendees))

From here I would like to talk to people who attended the dinners – i.e. was the food any good, what was the scene around it, how special of a moment was it…

Then I will talk about what the work means:

(analysis of the work then – what it meant in 1992)

-an inversion of an art gallery, back office stuff items pushed forward into the gallery space, back office converted into a makeshift galley which served Thai food

-meaning nutrition etc. moved forward again… against the idea of body as an abstraction or the abstract relationship with the body that abstract art has

-the food was free, anyone could sit at the same table as the artist… hierarchies destroyed, the marketplace pushed away

-mocking Andy Warhol’s factory, mimicking Gordon Matta-Clark

-the creation of community, the dinner as a communal thing creating a community

After talking about what the work meant then, I’d try to ground it with a little historical context:

(historical context))


(Photo courtesy of Sergio Calleja)

-long history of intervening in the body – Yves Klien once handed out cocktails laced with methylene blue, a chemical which dyed gallery-goers pee blue

how Rirkrit staged the project again and again, altering things slightly, hiring surrogates, playing with racial and social dynamics

– the 2007 recreation of the project

((then my sort of spin on what relational aesthetics has done))

– the naïve painting that followed (e.g. his ex-wife Elizabeth Peyton who painted faux teenage rock stars etc)

-how relational aesthetics was corrupted by/contributed to the institutionalization of art

– identity politics in art

-how it hurt abstraction

End on a dinner scene of some sort

Imagining an Expat Aesthetic

I was born beside Sigmund Freud’s London townhome, and spent the next eighteen years ferried between Europe and Asia. Nominally American, it was not until I was seventeen-years-old that I could actually call the U.S. home, and even then I was so jangled from the shock of moving from India to a mountainous midwestern state, that I felt as if I had arrived from another planet. This was more than mere discomfort, I was so confused and unsure of who I was and what my role was meant to be I lost the ability to speak for months.

White Whaling circa 2011… (Assignment for Prof. Shelley Jackson)

Whaling Implements made by Blacksmiths - from Capelinks.com

[You are encouraged to listen to the NUMBER STATION soundtrack below while you read this, for atmospherics]

Call me McGirk.

Call me McGirk. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and read the wordy part of the world…

My sincere apologies to Melville.

After a semester traversing a series of literary seas within seas, prying at the “unsayable, the unspeakable, the unknowable, the unattainable” silences within a series of difficult texts, the greatest white whale of all [writing] has yet to feel our [critical] harpoons. That most unknown known remains – the reader. The mysterious diaphane, the field thrown up between the author, text, and reader. What on earth goes through a reader’s mind while he or she takes in a string of words? It is our good fortune that a suite of cutting edge automated ‘readers’ are coming closer and closer to providing an answer.

As you navigate the Internet, the Internet – which is to say certain entities using the Internet – navigate you. This isn’t a benign process. They want to learn as much about you as possible so that they can snag your attention; diverting your time into loops of advertisements and possibly even push you through a point-of-sale and taking your money directly. They do this by gleaning information about you. Where you go, what you search for, what type of computer you are using…. Websites leave small tracking codes on your computer called cookies, and each of these transmits data back to homebase. By visiting this site I have already captured your IP address, and can tell which keywords you used to find this site, what type of computer you used, where you are located and a couple of other data-points.

The data I’ve collected is a crude simulacrum of you; an inscription of your desires for an instant (or obligations, as is the case for my only guaranteed reader ). These simulacra have a purpose. Electronic texts can be altered according to the whims of their readers. All writers crave attention. Electronic texts, through their intelligent operators, are aware of their readers, and can quickly respond to being read. By understanding the wants of their readers, operators can better shape content to serve readers’ needs. There are even advanced analytics packages that will automatically generate ‘content’ for users in response to what they ‘perceive’ readers as wanting (in fact this is a multi-billion dollar a year business, or it was until Google tweaked its search results to waterdown these serar)
However, as is the case with traditional pen and ink reader-response, our analytics are incomplete – and at times totally flawed.

Keywords (also known as index terms) are among the most interesting and valuable traces left by users. Most users most often first come across a site by searching for a specific term on a search engine. With this site, jamesmcgirk.com, about 53% of users are directed by a search engine (33% are referred by another site, and the rest come directly). My users mostly come looking for “James McGirk,” “mfa personal statement example,” “maine coon,” and a plethora of business and espionage related-terms I listed to attract interesting visitors. (More on this below) An entire industry has sprung up to interpret these keywords, and another to optimize content online so it can be better read by search engines (this is called Search Engine Optimization). Using search terms as a crude model for a visitor’s mind, weird simulacra have been created. Content is generated automatically at the discretion of computer programs. There are even companies assigning stories to human beings based on the suggestions of algorithims. When you hear the term content farms, that’s what’s going on.

As in the simulacra in Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, these replications of desire are incomplete. It would take an infinite amount of data (and a correspondingly infinite amount of time to collect this data) to accurately model a human being’s wants and desires. But machines are getting closer and closer.

Content can be thought of as a diversion, as a product designed to leach time from the consumer. A moment of communication between man and machine. A relationship. Ideally this will be a symbiotic relationship – a user will discover an article that is pertinent to his or her interests or finds a link to a product or service that somehow fits into his or her personal narrative. But this is rare. Mostly these diversions are a nuisance, at times completely parasitical. To the point where some even launch malware to seize control of your terminal and force your attention on it. But most are more subtle than that. Perhaps the most sophisticated technique is gamification; in effect snarling a user in addictive gameplay, the way casinos try to dazzle their consumers until they’re too numb to do anything other than play.

Literary forms are beginning to emerge in response to automated reading systems, searches, and other more prosaic but no less important technological developments such as archives and instant data retrieval. Online, an age somewhat akin to the pamphlet-strewn amateurism of the 18th Century America is in bloom. The most exotic forms can be found on the Internet’s wild fringe, in its anonymous and pseudo-anonymous chat sites. Here there is a frantic economy of monikers, memes and spoofed identities. In online forums such as the all-text Autoadmit.com and the semi-anonymous Somethingawful users compete to create the catchiest, most innovative forms – most often an evolution of an earlier idea, name or other fragment of an idea. The best innovators become famous within their tiny little spheres. Other fora (or is it forums?) are completely anonymous – the most famous of these being the notorious 4chan/b ‘Random’ board, [NOTE: extremely non-safe for work] – where the only recognition earned is the sheer longevity of a creation. The best of memes were once charted on the Encyclopedia Dramatica. (This is a mirror site, the original was recently closed down after pressure from the Australian government, among other more mundane reasons.) But now there is no reason at all to create but sheer artisitc thrill. Although ‘board lore’ has developed a concept somewhat akin to ‘duende‘ – a dark, nihlistic form of amusement known as ‘lulz.’

The next evolution of the online literary form – which one hopes will eventually lead to the hypertext equivalent of MOBY DICK, which became a sort of bellweather of American long-format literary fiction – could well come from manipulating these mysterious semantic mechanicals. They offer the opportunity to make writing dangerous again. With the proper keywords, information is taken up into automatic readers belonging to some very interesting entities, to the point where there can be real world consequences. As a way of experimenting with this form I have created a series of posts with keywords that I imagine might appeal to some of the more peculiar gleaners out trolling for information. Among these posts are lists of oil rigs, information about espionage, a fake consulting company specializing in complex shipping orders in the Arabian Ocean (mostly deleted), electronic warfare, and other ‘edible’ keywords. The visitors I’ve received include: hedge funds, multinational banking concerns, the department of defense, oil companies, environmental organizations, the Pakistani government, the Kuwaiti government, the Iranian government, the Russian government, an unacknowledged US military facility, a few mysterious hits from ‘Cabin John, Maryland’ (a park across the river from CIA), Mi5, Mi6, but sadly I have yet to influence any. To my knowledge, all that I’ve managed to do is intensify the feeling that I’m being watched when I type online.

AFTER THE INTERNET WAS SHUT OFF

A year and decade after the turn of the century, things looked dire in the United States of America, but not that dire: the economy was stagnant after an exuberant but lopsided decade of prosperity, job opportunities for graduates and social climbers had dwindled to a few openings changing bedpans for the large, parasitic over-class of aging boomers, and the gleam of enthusiasm following Barack Obama’s presidency had faded quickly. But the fact that *that* and a few years of hardship was all it took for open revolt among the most highly educated, entitled generation of Americans ever to be born would have been quite unimaginable at the time. That the change they got was not at all what they were expecting is one of the great ironies of our age.

Third Semester Takeaways

  • Drafting means printing out a story, marking it up and rewriting it. The ‘artistic’ process takes root in the reinscription.
  • The above makes writing seem even more excruciating a process.
  • Publishing fiction seems as daunting and frustrating an obstacle as certain other adolescent yes/no binaries were in high school. No doubt in retrospect the angst surrounding it will seem just as wasteful and silly.
  • Solutions to any prose problem can be found in other texts.
  • Reading is as much a process and a ‘search’ as writing is. Output can only be as good as input.
  • One may ignore the mandates of others within ones text, including the MSWord grammar check.
  • James Wood is probably right about free-indirect.
  • Critiquing work properly involves re-re-reading and marking up (i.e. similar to the drafting process).
  • SPARK GAPS AND CIRCUITS: PROBING THE HOLES IN FICTION

    Black hole


    Writers are risk-averse. Necessarily so, because writing is really a sort of willful blindness, each sentence depending on all the ones preceding it, the way digging a tunnel depends on each shovel scoop. Experimentation is potentially catastrophic (or worse, embarrassing)… [LINK]