BooksWeekend

The Work of Fiction in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Alexandra Chasin’s “Brief”

by Michael Leong on March 17, 2013

PrintAlexandra Chasin’s Brief, an innovative narrative in the form of an iPad app, is “Exhibit A” in the case that the novel is finding exciting new ways to reinvent itself after the digital turn. Brief, the first novel-app of its kind, would make a rich and wonderful addition to any syllabus or reading list on appropriation, experimental fiction, new media literature, visual studies, violence and representation, or text and image, and I hope in these “brief” paragraphs to adumbrate some of the reason why.

The text portion of Brief, which can be read like a conventional e-book, is an extended monologue in the voice of a leftist art vandal whose “nom-de-plume-de-guerre” is “Inqui, the Destroyer.” We eventually learn that Inqui’s offense is “a copy-cat crime of appreciation and appropriation of, an homage to Tony Shafrazi, when he tagged Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece [Guernica] with ‘KILL LIES ALL.’” (When asked to promise never to do it again, Shafrazi told the judge that “it would be crazy to repeat an act like that… [b]ecause it had been done.”)

As much expository and discursive as it is narrative, Inqui’s monologue presents to a judge an intricate defense of temporary insanity — an attempt, both entertaining and serious, to deflect any sense of responsibility. Inqui’s legal rationale, in a way, taps into the very mythology enshrouding Guernica and teases out why — for certain political and polemical stakes — we might de-emphasize individual action to highlight larger mechanisms of historical causality: according to a well-circulated (and likely apocryphal) anecdote, when asked if he “did” the picture, Picasso replied to the questioning Gestapo officer, “No, you did.”

Felix Gmelin, Kill Lies All After Pablo Picasso (1937) and Tony Shafrazi (1974) (1996). (Image via Saatchi Gallery)

Felix Gmelin, “Kill Lies All After Pablo Picasso (1937) and Tony Shafrazi (1974)” (1996) (image via Saatchi Gallery)

Just as Picasso cleverly shifts the credit, Inqui conveniently shifts the blame; for Inqui, the real vandal is history, and Inqui accordingly puts the early 1960s — an era of the Cold War and civil rights, of the rise of television and anti-colonial insurrection, of Dick Clark and pop art — on trial.  Born on January 30, 1961, Inqui insists, “We were determined to express…[the zeitgeist] ontogenetically.” Chasin often parallels the retrojective narration of Inqui’s ontogeny with the geopolitical foment of the 60s through the humorous use of a paratactic running style: “On False Labor Day, in the midst of misleading contractions, my mother crocheted three doilies telling herself she would wait until her water broke to call the obstetrician, and Patrice Lumumba was assassinated.” And again: “I lost 10 ounces, I gained 12, and the first U.S. Polaris submarine arrived at Holy Loch.”

In an illuminating 3 Quarks Daily interview with Elatia Harris, Chasin explains, “The initial impetus for writing Brief was to experiment with an anti-psychoanalytic account of individual personality and action. I wanted to extend, in the direction of absurdum, the proposition that we under-value historical and cultural forces as determinants of behavior.”

In Brief, Inqui indexes such “historical and cultural forces” through a bevy of citations — from, on the one hand, texts which thicken our synchronic sense of 1961 (Robert Frost’s inaugural poem “Dedication,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Newton Minow’s “Television and the Public Interest” speech) and, on the other, quotes which point to a diachronic tradition of art vandalism (Valentine Contrel on Ingres’ The Sistine Chapel, Mary Richardson on Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, Laszlo Toth on Michelangelo’s Pietà).

The informational density of the novel, its formidable constellations of data, is couched within and counterbalanced by the narrator’s witty rhetorical pyrotechnics — Inqui is no stranger to such tropes as paronomasia, anacoluthon, and chiasmus — and this makes for a read that is both instructive and enjoyable. To put it another way, Chasin has brought together in a compelling way the craft of collage with the art of argumentation.

It might be productive to consider the collaged nature of Chasin’s Brief, its “scissors and paste” approach, from the perspective of David Shields’ Reality Hunger (2010), a manifesto which takes as its starting point “a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media … who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.” In the middle of Brief, for example, we can find these two “chunks of reality,” a typescript of Frost’s “Dedication” superimposed upon a vintage photograph of the Hilltop Steakhouse (which the parents of Inqui’s friend, Winnie, are supposed to own):

Chasin-Brief1

The character Frank, Winnie’s father, is, in fact, modeled after the actual founder of the Hilltop, the “Frank Giuffrida” advertised in the sign above — an example of how Chasin performs what Shields calls “the lure and blur of the real.”

Yet what makes Brief particularly interesting is that its appropriated “chunks of reality” that are image-based can be reconfigured through readerly interaction, and this interactivity constitutes the “novel” aspect of Chasin’s novel. As the reader advances from page to page, the app (programmed by Scott Peterman) randomly selects images from an archive of over 700 cut, manipulated, and detourned items and then wraps the text around them. Shaking the iPad will create a new and unique combination of images in relation to the text onscreen. There is, according to Brief’s front matter, only a 1 in 340,068,392 chance that the same screen will appear twice. Dipping into Brief then is like stepping into a quasi-Heraclitean stream.

Let us examine one screen out of 340,068,392, one from the very beginning of the novel, so that we can more clearly understand the poetics of Brief’s digital mise-en-page:

Chasin-Brief2

The two shreds of images come from — of course — Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and Alice Neel’s Frank O’Hara (1961).  We could say a lot about how the first mutilated image points backward to Picasso (and his famous statement that “a picture is a sum of destructions” — a statement which, in fact, Inqui later cites without attribution) and how it proleptically points forward to Inqui’s own copycat crime indebted to Shafrazi or how it introduces the issue of Chasin’s own “virtual vandalism.”

We could also say a lot about how the half-image of O’Hara’s face from Neel’s portrait serendipitously bifurcates the very phrase “the face of the family portrait,” how it constitutes a kind of visual pun on the word “defacement,” how O’Hara’s fragmented presence in the novel adds to what Inqui is calling “the big picture” of the ’60s (O’Hara worked on and off at MoMA in different capacities from 1951 to 1966). But for purposes of this piece, I want to focus on how the two images productively expose, at the very onset, the polysemy of the nineteenth word of the text: representation.

Both images are representations but not in the sense that Inqui is invoking here. “I have requested an oral argument because I’d like to try, if I may, to explain why my representation and I have chosen this defense, uncommon though it is, and why I would take issue with the psychiatrists’ findings.” The difference between juridico-political representation and aesthetic representation, between “proxy” and “portrait,” as Gayatri Spivak has famously reminded us, can be seen in the German words Darstellung and Vertretung (both mean “representation”), and many of the issues surrounding art vandalism in Brief stem from the ways in which one sense of representation is imbricated with the other.

Many of the art vandals that Inqui invokes strike out at canonical representations because they feel that those representations (in the sense of Darstellung) are unfairly serving or standing for restricted and privileged constituencies (in the sense of Vertretung). “It is a shame to see so much money invested in dead things like those at the Louvre collections,” says Contrel, who slashed Ingres’ The Sistine Chapel with a pair of scissors in 1907, “when so many poor devils like myself starve because they cannot find work.” Robert Arthur Cambridge, who shot at a Leonardo da Vinci drawing in the National Gallery in 1987, said, “the relevance in my action can be seen in the comparison between the great achievements of mankind contained in the National Gallery, and the scene of degradation and decay as witnessed under the railway arches at Charing Cross.”

So when Inqui says in paragraph five, “we believe in the astonishing world-changing power of representation” (emphasis mine), we feel the full force of the term’s significations. In “The Surplus Value of Images,” W.J.T. Mitchell says something of related interest: “Use-values may keep us alive and nourished, but it is the surplus value of images that makes history, creates revolutions, migrations, and wars.” It is a quotation that I suspect Inqui might have appropriated while preparing for trial.

Mitchell, in a provocative attempt “to rethink hypervalued, overestimated (and therefore despised and worthless) images,” argues that we should “reconsider the role of totemism alongside fetishism and idolatry as a distinct form of the surplus value of images.” What if we understood the image not as commodity fetish (Rothko’s Black and Maroon, which was recently vandalized last fall, is worth around 50 million pounds) nor as an idol to be worshipped or, alternately, smashed (Inqui reports that before Josef Kleer attacked Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV, “he noticed the reverential postures of his fellow visitors, which reminded him of the worshippers of the golden calf”) but as a totem instead?

If love is the province of the idol and desire is the province of the fetish then friendship is the province of the totem — so goes Mitchell’s logic. “Totemism,” he says, “allows the image to assume a social, conversational, and dialectical relationship with the beholder, the way a doll or a stuffed animal does with children.” Images, in this view, are like toys to be played with (perhaps to be altered, cut, or customized), and like D.W. Winnicott’s transitional objects, they are to be “neither forgotten nor mourned” when they go—when, for example, with the shake of an iPad, they disappear only to be replaced by new ones in different configurations.

In a Hyperallergic article on the recent defacement of the Rothko, Chasin says:

No matter what you may think of art vandalism, no thinking person can imagine that a painting valued at over 50 million pounds derives its value from anything to do with the art itself. Its value is a function of pure commodity fetishism…Any act that implies a critique of this system makes a good point, though we may disagree about the value of the different modes of making that point.

One might make this point by spray-painting a Picasso; another by writing a novel.

Alexandra Chasin’s Brief (Jaded Ibis Press, 2012) is available from iTunes.

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  • JosephYoung

    nice write up–i’m intrigued.

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