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Tavi Gevinson’s Exquisite Cadaver

Tavi Gevinson & Jonah Ansell discuss Cadaver with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago's Erika
Tavi Gevinson & Jonah Ansell discuss “Cadaver” with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Erika Hanner (photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — Tavi Gevinson took the ACT exam the same day she took the stage at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Edlis Neeson Theater, joining old family friend and LA-based filmmaker Jonah Ansell to discuss their latest collaboration, “Cadaver.” In this animated short film, Ansell and Gevinson marry a playful macabre — think Edward Gorey, Tim Burton — with the voice of Tavi, a mature, old-souled 17-year-old girl. The event felt more like a family affair than anything, with Ansell and Gevinson often bringing up subject matter linked to Oak Park, where they both grew up.

In the bittersweet short film — narrated by Gevinson, who stars alongside Academy Award–winner Kathy Bates and Christopher Lloyd — a young medical student is about to cut open a human cadaver when she realizes that this body was once a living, breathing being. What was this old man’s life like, she wondered. And what would happen to his heart when she cut his chest, ripping it out for the sake of science?

Film still from Cadaver
Film still from “Cadaver” (2012)

The premise of “Cadaver” was inspired by a real-world event that happened to Ansell, when his brother, who was in medical school, had this exact moment as he cut open a cadaver. He called Jonah and told him about it, inspired and confused. These are the experiences that spark creative magic. Artsy brother that he is, Ansell wrote a poem about it, as many writers do when inspired by such fleeting moments.

The poem ultimately revealed itself as a nugget for a short film that Ansell asked Gevinson to collaborate on. He refers to her as “the powerful editor that she is,” situating her creative role within the realm of adult responsibility, a paradox typifying Tavi’s career.

The short film was illustrated by Seattle-based 2D animator and artist Carina Simmon, and was drawn in permanent marker scratches and lines, giving it a rough, not-so-delicate feel despite the theme of love that carries throughout.

Gevinson narrates the film, reciting rhyming, limerick-esque lines like “this morning he was in a freezer, now I’m chatting up this geezer,” as she travels with the cadaver-come-to-life, carrying his heart in a jar at her side. Together they intrude upon the home he once shared with his wife, where they discover a tragic secret, but by the end the story reveals a bittersweet ending, fairytale-like in a creepy way — more Grimm than Disney, no princess tropes here.

“This was a love story—we wanted it to have some teeth, but not be too sappy,” said Ansell.

Film still from "Cadaver" (2012)
Film still from “Cadaver” (2012)

Gevinson first met Ansell when they were kids, through family friends in suburban Oak Park, where she lives and attends Oak Park and River Forest High School. She is currently a junior; next year she will start seriously thinking about college.

The filmmaker has been a “big brother” figure to Gevinson since the early days of her Style Rookie blog. In fact, when she first started writing, she noted that only Ansell and one other adult were allowed access to her nascent fashion musings. She trusted that they would not share the link, despite the fact that the blog was freely viewable by the public on the internet. Ansell admitted onstage that he did show the blog to one of Gevinson’s teachers at school. This was before the then-11-year-old’s blog gained global prominence.

Ansell, now based in Los Angeles, explained to the audience the differences between the Midwest and his West Coast home, where somehow parking garages will do things like charge you more money to park and act like they’re doing you a favor. For Ansell, working on this film was just another example of the types of things that you can do in Chicago but can’t quite make happen in the celebrity-obsessed City of Angels.

The conversation shifted away from the film, its drawings already fading from audience memories, and on to Tavi. She sat perfectly poised in a black, square-shaped leather chair between Jonah and the moderator, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Director of Education Erika Hanner.

Inevitably, every audience member wanted to hear more about Rookie magazine, the publication that sent Gevinson into internet and real-world celebrity.

“I work from my bedroom, laptop-in-bed style,” she explained. “Once a week I video chat with my editor. I also have a Facebook group for all of the Rookie magazine writers.”

For Gevinson, the virtual-newsroom difficulties that plague writers who work online are familiar.

“The most tedious part of working this way is I have to write these emails and such [to my writers] rather than sitting at a table with people,” she says.

Pic of Tavi, from tumblr
Tavi Gevinson (image via tumblr)

In this way, Tavi is very much a teen girl running an online magazine, which departs from the younger-feeling, at times emotionally explosive and predominantly unedited teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic, which serves as an important and powerful loudspeaker for young girls but comes with the consequence-fraught URL/IRL relationship. These are aspects that seem less prevalent in Gevinson’s work, which has inspired people from adults to teenage girls the world over, and is less focused on the online and performative aspect of identity.

“Maybe I should be more compassionate to my teenage self . . . ” mused Ansell, as he recounted his awkward teenage years in juxtaposition with the way Tavi is able to “own” her weirdness, something he laments not being able to do as a boy.

The accomplished LA-based writer and film director of jams productions said that when he was growing up, he tried as hard as possible to “fit in” with the rest of the guys, playing baseball and keeping his artsy tendencies at bay. Though we live in a misogynistic world that forces young girls to figure out questions about the male gaze, sexualized bodies, and gender performance at an early age, it’s not all hearts and butterflies for boys, either. But truly, the teenager years are hard ones no matter who you are or what your gender is.

Gevinson also mused about how Rookie magazine wouldn’t exist without the internet — and how that induces a real “inferiority complex” for the outspoken young woman. But then again, that’s the way community, stories, and ideas grow today — through the web. The days of producing photocopied zines a la the 90s riot grrrl movement are long gone, but that doesn’t mean those ideologies don’t continue to influence Gevinson. She noted that she has a stack of Sassy that she’s still meaning to read, and also reads Jane and xoJane.com on occasion.

Gevinson began blogging at the age of 11, and now, at 17, runs an online publication with a wide readership — comprising both those who are biologically adolescent and those who connect with a teen-girl aesthetic and sentiment. And so, on top of going to school, taking the ACTs, and getting ready for college, she manages to be a role model of sorts for teenage girls, standing in stark opposition to the mediated images and commodification of the young girl as described in Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for Theory of the Young-Girl. 

As Gevinson gets ready for college, she questions what will happen to Rookie, which at this point is a business, and “not some weird blog I write at night when I am bored,” she noted. It’s still an age-specific publication — by teenagers, for teenagers, even though not all of the contributors are literally between the ages of 13–19 — and garners quite a lot of support and loyalty from readers.

Gevinson will depart from her teenagedom in a few years, entering into that murky territory of the early-to-mid 20s, which either hinges on departing from adolescence and “growing up,” taking on adult responsibilities and relationships, or embracing the fluid identity of the young-girl.

The future is unclear. In the meantime, all eyes are on young Tavi Gevinson, who carries herself with a grace, dignity, and knowingness that only comes from one who has an old soul and a young heart . . . cut from an old man’s cadaver, carried in a jar as it beats.

Tavi Gevinson and Jonah Ansell, “Cadaver” (2013)

Film Screening and Talk: “Cadaver” with Tavi Gevinson and Jonah Ansell took place on April 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (220 E Chicago Ave, Chicago, Illinois).

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