Staking an Uncertain Claim:
October 2015 - July 2016
The following is a summary and brief-sorry-not-really attempt at quasi-quantifying a shaky, thick and sticky endeavour initiated in October 2015 and brought to an ambiguous close in June or maybe July 2016.
The project was apprehensively titled Janet’s Frame, not in as much as it’s sole concern was with the New Zealand author Janet Frame - although a vast proportion of the research material and subsequent responses were influenced by her work and life and in particular the posthumously published novel Towards Another Summer - rather, its aim was to build a frame within which to expand and contract upon notions of foreign-ness and resident-ness amongst the active and passive acts of semi-autobiographical fiction and non-fiction.
The active act I refer to here can be taken as the literal writing-of. The passive act I refer to here can be taken as the literal reading-of. Yet, there are points of arrival and departure amongst the interstices of the active and passive acts vis-a-vis the occupation of reader and writer.
The passive act of writing in secret, the active act of publishing or performing; the passive act of reading, the active act of interpreting.
Within The Frame - I was and still am - specifically interested in works of literature within which a trace of the author as restless (auto)biographer predetermines the setting, the scene and the sentiment of the invention, see: On Keeping a Notebook and Why I Write, Joan Didion.
The biography of the self and of others, of situations noted, see: I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be A Little More Comfortable, Lydia Davis; translations of the world we reside in and the worlds we visit, see: How To Be An Other Woman; the places we are displaced, what we see through new eyes, as tourists, as anxious, wide-eyed children, see: Ruthy and Edie, Grace Paley.
Another name for the project was Sitting on the Front Steps Drinking and Spreading, taken from the short story Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill. In the scene from which this alternative title derives the protagonist, a runaway from California living in Vancouver is following up a babysitting job. Upon approaching the building, she describes ‘a family of foreigners sitting on the front steps, drinking and spreading their lives out for anyone to see’
The protagonist, who is not native of the city, experiences this group of people ‘others’, as the displaced. She designates them as a family, yet she knows nothing of their relation to one another. In this instance, she places herself on the platform of resident, judge, assigner of knowledge, author of the situation. Yet, the physical presence of those who she deems foreign in that moment are themselves inhabiting that poise of residence that Elise seeks - they allow their presence to be spread, to sprawl, to be public, to occupy space, to be placed. It is Elise, really, who is the foreigner, stumbling upon the situ of this group of people, a tourist in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. The image adeptly describes my thoughts on the relationship between the reader and the author, and the ever shifting boundary between visitor and host.
Yet, I clung on to Janet and her Frame, despite my apprehension around the publicising, naming and claiming of the project. This particular anxiety around exposure is rooted in an unshakable habit towards unfulfilled intentions.
The initial impetus for the project was formed while listening to an episode of The New Yorker Fiction Podcast - well, that’s not quite right, the listening precluded the project, perhaps April 2015 - ish, it had been sat in the background for a while. I couldn’t say why or how it came to the fore when it did. In the podcast, the artist, writer and filmmaker Miranda July reads Frame’s story Prizes. In Prizes, Frame writes of a childhood seeking accolades, her feelings of pride, the bruising of ego that comes with persistent competition and, if we were to interpret - the systems of oppression bolstered upon the young (and old, let’s not forget). I felt antagonistic towards the woman visitor. Who was she to order me not to make buttonholes for the Flower Show?
As with every New Yorker Fiction Podcast, after the recital, the reciter and Deborah Treisman - with her soul soothing voice - converse about the text, the author, and their interpretations of what, why, how and so on. In July’s analysis, she also discusses the film An Angel at My Table, based on Frame’s three volume autobiography To The Is-land; An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City.
Upon learning about the film, I decided I must watch it. It would be my initial act of research. I would also, by matter of duty towards she whose life I was about to stake some kind of claim in, read the three books, and as many of Frame’s stories as I could.
Confession #1: I did not watch the film in it’s entirety until early June 2016
Confession #2: I did not read To The Is-land; An Angel at my Table; or The Envoy from Mirror City. I did, however read Towards Another Summer
Confessionary exposure re: confession #1: In April 2016, before watching the film, having not read volume one, two or three of her autobiography, I staged a play. In the play, the protagonist decides to travel following an unexpected inheritance; in Spain she falls in love with a boy, perhaps her first love; due to travel on to the next place, she asks if he will go with her, he rejects her, it was just a fling. In An Angel at my Table and so in Janet Frame’s life, she also travels, also falls in love with a boy in some luscious medditeranean setting, also finds herself heartbroken - although I think it was she who rejected him in that instance. Don’t quote me on that though. I hoped that nobody in the crowd of six at the staging of the play - the play that I insisted had not a whole lot directly to do with Janet - would have noticed my unintentional deception.
Confessionary redemption re: confession #2: Having been more concerned with the autobiography-less-travelled, the one deemed too personal to publish during her lifetime, the one that so painstakingly analyses Frame’s internal world and external posture, I can find some comfort in maybe even outdoing the original service I had promised to the project. And, in many ways, rest easy in the fact that my key text was not one directly autobiographical, but a fantasy of the auto-bio; one wrapped up in an indiscernible fiction.
And so, as for apprehensions about titling, despite my less-than-spotless record in Frame, I continued to grasp the name Janet’s Frame sometimes succeeding it with a (t.b.c) when speaking publicly about the project, since I could not escape it’s short hand nature in private. Despite any attempts at self-soothing - hoping that my misnomers in not-watching-soon-enough; not-studying-deeply-enough; deriving; claiming; exploiting; not truly knowing, might lend themselves to staking this fraudulent claim on her name as complimentary to the wider concerns of the endeavour - there is something perverse in the act of continually making such an obtusely-recified-fraudulence public.
A cheap pun, a quick trick, and so it goes, I built a structure, some walls to house, somewhere to project, protect, impose, intrude, propose and suppose.
The breadth of research and acts of reaction within The Frame traverse a scale of the non-fictional - the actual spilling of personal experience; the roman-á-clef - the delicately shrouded and mythologised; personal experience as a signifying; chain; and the pure fiction - pure invention.
The idea of a semi-fiction is an act of manipulating the fabric of everyday life towards uncovering new meanings, potentials, posing questions; appeasing the things we thought we could never forget for the sake of telling a tale.
Many of my outpourings into The Frame, were merely responsive to form. I did not, specifically, at any given point, construct, perform or publish anything as specifically confessional, personal, or autobiographical, rather, each piece could be seen as a patchwork of experience, and flexing of style.
Allan Gurganus on Paley: She kept scraps of paper in her apron pocket and she worked in the main room of her house and when her nieces and nephews came to visit, she made sure it was a squeaking door that would urge interruptions so that she could put the slip of paper back into her pocket, when Grace worked it was like a Kurt Schwitters collage, she would have restaurant bills and she would write the story a sentence at a time and attach one piece to another.
Often, proposing an outlook; a new definition, a jelly etymology; Performing the imposition; Improvising the interpretation; Balancing the harmony of self-truth and the infrastructure we inhabit.
Frame, on invention and intention: the writer works within the limitations or framework of her personality, although the outlook and the view over the territory of time and space and human endeavour is endless
Moving, always moving. Literally, The Frame, had wheels, at one point.
Tracing, always tracing. Elise in Because; Janet, always; Layla; Faith; Jean.
The text Immigrating, 1975 by visual artist Martha Rosler has been taped to my studio wall since October 2013 (this is an estimated recount, I remember it was winter, I remember I was in my third year of art school, I remember I was photocopying masses of disparate sources trying to make some sense of my interests, and find a way to make something to call my own.) It's moved with me, all this time - there have been seven such studio walls - until finally the dog-eared photocopy was embalmed in sticky back plastic within the installation I presented for the ambiguous close of the project in June 2016.
Serendipitously, in May 2016, at which point I had already decided to embalm this text in a sprawling mass of others and I was all but done with making decisions about preservation, I attended a Chris Kraus lecture. She was reading from, and discussing her upcoming book on the life of Kathy Acker, and - I can’t remember in what context, I foolishly don’t note take, really, ever - at some point she referred exactly to the specific movements of Martha Rosler as illustrated in Immigrating. I had been thinking about it a lot in that present and felt a gracious aligning of meaning and purpose.
Although I populated The Frame with Janet; Mary; Joan; Lorrie; Grace and Lydia, Chris had her cameo, she taught me about the Roman-á-Clef, something to do with Parataxis (unmastered); the epistolary. She irrigated new fields, Agonised, abject entries. Also passages that attempt to untangle, to philosophise our communication (Kate Zambreno, Notes on a New Tenderness, Animal Shelter) and perpetuated the habit of following traces and lineages of lives lived through fictioning.
Didion welcomed Doris Lessing ‘For more than twenty years now she has been registering, in a torrent of fiction that increasingly seems conceived in a stubborn rage against the very idea of fiction, every tremor along her emotional fault system, every slippage in her self -education.’ and so I begin the duty of Reading from a Distance.
In the end, I took the wheels off, I rooted it in space, I made conjunctions, of sorts, I embalmed all those quotes, the side steps, the divergences, made carbon copies. And I found a way to make something to call my own. An episodical novella, full of jelly etymologies, posturing, anxious communication, stasis, movement, layers and arrangements of the scraps of the far, the recent and the future pasts. The author exposes herself swaddled in the cloths of a mythologised structure through which she can pass freely, undetected, a shadow, a haunting. She performs a text, fraudulent, epistolary, gilded and lily-livered all of it’s own.
Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore: But the rest I’d typed up. To gild the lily-livered, as my dad sometimes said, I was wearing what the department stores called “a career jacket,” and perhaps the women like the professionalism of that.
The project took place during a nine month residency at Many Studios, Glasgow, and was supported by a Glasgow Life Visual Arts and Crafts Award.