Sometimes I run out of ammunition (by which I mean fresh ideas and approaches, not real ammo) and I have to reload. And in the arsenal of the arts writer, one of the best ways to do that is readily at hand and usually inexpensive, if not downright free. The lecture or presentation. Reading can also do the trick, but this weekend I sought three different lectures to help me out.
It’s hard to capture the intricacies of a lecture, and I’m not even going to try here. I’m just going to ransack my notes for the best stuff I heard.
Paul Pfeiffer, Portland State University: This year, Portland State’s department of architecture started an architecture lecture series, which I’d missed out on entirely, and so I was determined to catch the last one, by Paul Pfeiffer.
Pfeiffer is not an architect — he’s an artist and these days, mostly a video artist, though his approach to video has a lot to do with sculpture. In fact, he wants his videos and installations to play as sculpture or paintings in museums, not occupy the usual space of cinema — the dark room. And frequently he employs them in installations, which sometimes include dioramas or models, and he “appropriates” previously existing films. One of his major installations was built around a video of the 1966 World Cup championship game between Germany and England, with the tinny soundtrack augmented in 17 channels by a chorus of more than 1,000 voices who reproduced the sounds of the game. Except all the players but one were removed from the video: We watch him run around and occasionally fall to the ground for no reason. The same installation included a video of the building and then abandonment of a wasp’s nest; it takes three months to watch. Bring a sandwich.
So no, Pfeiffer isn’t making The Avengers. He IS investigating space and time in interesting ways, though, and in the piece above, maybe the unproductive ways humans engage each other socially (in a competition, for example), especially compared to wasps.
For the Sydney Olympics, he asked the architects of the Olympic stadium to design a stadium that would seat 1 million fans, then had a scale model of their design built in the Philippines, where he often works these days. It’s scary.
We watched a bunch of his videos with a bit of explanation from Pfeiffer attached to each, though no attempt to explain their “meanings,” which we had to guess at, I suppose, though most were pretty pessimistic about our condition. But then that’s the message we’re getting from artists these days, by and large.
Anthony Doerr, Little Church: Portland State (which is the thread running through these lectures) and the Portland-based literary magazine Tin House recently became partners in a writers-in-residence program (the first writer is Amy Stewart), and their partnership included co-sponsoring a visit from Anthony Doerr. Doerr dropped in on a class devoted to his work run by Charles D’Ambrosio (an excellent writer in his own right), and then read from a new novel and submitted to an interrogation by D’Ambrosio at a public event.
When editors make up those lists of “Top Writers Under 40” these days, they often include Doerr. His most recent collection of stories is Memory Wall: Stories, a mind-bending group of narratives, not “experimental” really, but wide-ranging in their locations and ideas.
In person, he’s trim, medium height and shaven headed, with an expressive face, penetrating eyes and a ready smile. See? You go to lecture by a fiction writer and you start describing everybody!
He read a piece of his novel, seven years in the making (he said he’d published two different books since he started as a form of procrastination), All the Light We Cannot See, which plunged us for a moment into the life of Werner, a German orphan, with a fascination for radio and a love for his sister, who comes of age during the rise of Hitler. The piece we heard sounded entirely plausible, cleanly written, inventive, forward moving. So, sure, Mr. Doerr, go ahead and finish that bad boy so we can read the rest!
The Q&A with D’Ambrosio lasted close to two hours. This is too long, of course, just because the human brain can only pay attention for so long. But it was a nice plunge into the world of contemporary fiction writing. I realized two obvious things. The first is simply that some people, like both Doerr and D’Ambrosio, say, swim constantly in the stories and techniques of fiction, thinking about them and collecting them and coming to conclusions about them, about Alice Munro, say, or Raymond Carver or Cormac McCarthy. About the latter Doerr marvelled, “I watched him convey bits of emotion inside me with exterior descriptions,” citing McCarthy’s knack for writing from an objective point of view in such a way that he engages the personal. The second obvious point: Doerr has to make a living (“pay the mortgage”), and he can’t afford to go down a long path on a story that collapses at the end. At some point, Doerr has to make practical decisions.
Doerr explained why his work isn’t ironic (“I’m too reverent to pull it off”), the importance of science in his work (one of his stories started with a study of hibernating animals), how he likes his fiction to roam the world instead of staying inside one small town or even one small kitchen, and how a Montessori exercise about relative time (which reinforced what a tiny sliver of the stuff humans have been present for in the history of the planet) affected his stories.
I especially liked what he had to say about the importance of research, because I talk about the same thing in my arts writing workshops. First, he said, “If you get stuck, read some non-fiction,” by which he meant simply that the world fiction writers create has to be plausible and specific. And second, to think of individual bits of information as tea leaves from which eventually a cup of tea must be created; in other words, don’t fall in love with your research.
I could go on, but maybe you get the idea: Something like Doerr and D’Ambrosio’s conversation can really get you thinking.
Brandon Lanius, Shattuck Hall, PSU: The students in the architecture department at PSU were delivering their thesis presentations this weekend, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a concern of mine. But one of the students, Brandon Lanius, was working on a project of great interest to me, portable performing spaces, as Karen O’Donnell Stein, who works in the department, knew from stories I’ve written for Oregon ArtsWatch. So, I dropped in on his presentation, which was pretty serious business with architecture faculty and other students on hand to see what he’d come up with.
Lanius instantly made it clear why portable space could be important to Portland: When you look at a map of theaters in the city, you’ll find few on the East Side, dwindling to none past 82nd Avenue. If we are serious about delivering theater (or dance, music, visual arts) experiences more widely to diverse audiences, we have to figure out how to bring the experiences to them, not expect them to cross the borders, literal and figurative, to the downtown venues.
I liked how Lanius understood the potential importance of the arts to a commercial district and to building the social capital of a community. And he reminded me of the importance of drawing attention to the theater with large signage — crucial along the major arterials of the auto-centric neighborhoods he hopes to entertain.
Lanius worked with Artists Repertory Theatre to figure out the technical demands of the theater, and he devised a theater and kit of parts that could be constructed (theoretically, anyway) in a couple of weeks by community volunteers. Cool! The assembled architects were a little dubious about some elements of the scheme (the curvature of the barrel roof of the structure seemed to be problematic, so was the number of parts), but Lanius had thought through a lot, and I learned quite a bit listening to his presentation.
How we go about building social capital — simply put, the good will and cohesion that makes collaboration of all sorts possible, from a neighborhood parade to democracy itself — is absolutely critical to our ideas about hot to make Portland a metro area of successful neighborhoods. And when it came down to it, all three lectures I attended were concerned with that, directly or not.