The hip, youngish art/lit throng attending Tuesday’s launch party for Soft Targetsa new “handheld journal of poetry, artwork, criticism, short fiction, found images, sound, and other ephemera”was surely feeling softer than usual due to the evening’s exceedingly swampy weather, which Soft Targets contributor and coeditrix Rachel Kushner called “velveteen,” but I call viscous. Like her beau Jason Smith, the de facto “intellectual godfather” of the journal, however, Kushner lives in LA, where inorganic swamp gas (and its attendant street-corner puddles of urban “milk”) is an option, not a feature. All I know is that I was not alone in conducting my own personal wet T-shirt contest before the first reader approached the mic.
The Paula Cooper Gallery offered ample space for the lively audience, but inadequate air conditioning, lending the affair an earthy funk. Even the generous supply of chilled Chardonnay and Bud couldn’t stanch the generalized effluvia, so after half an hour of air kisses and slick handshakes, the sweaty crowdincluding author Lynne Tillman, avant-turntablist Christian Marclay, musicians/publishers Damon & Naomi, hepcat literary agent Chris Calhoun, Times columnist Bob Morris, and former Spinane Rebecca Gatesseated themselves on the floor to let the readers wash over them.
First up are the two DansDaniel Feinberg and Dan Hoythe young superbrights who constitute the Soft Targets “Front Office.” One of them is poetry Dan, responsible for the high verse quotient of the journal; the other is art/theory Dan, who was a student of Smith’s at Occidental College. After offering some celebratory comments, they thank Smith for his inspiration, mentoring, and, most important, his ability to rein in their impulse toward creating “a conflation of Teen Beat and Soldier of Fortune.” Second is Smith himself, a charming, affable Florida native who studied under Derrida and is too boyishly fresh faced to come off as the intellectual godfather of anything. Nevertheless, he’s got theory chops, and his introductory remarks cheekily work the vaguely paramilitary vibe of Soft Targetsphrases like “pattern of flight,” “mode of retreat,” “new geometry of hostility,” and “taken from behind” drift by as the crowd collectively melts on the floor, fight/flight instincts thoroughly deactivated by the heat.
Smith leaves the mic to rousing applause, but not before introducing Kushner, his co-conspirator in Soft Targets’ “Office of Special Plans.” (Note: The real Office of Special Plans was a short-lived Pentagon “shadow CIA” run by former undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith, and was partly responsible for the “slam dunk” case for the existence of WMDs in Iraq. In general, if the word special appears on any government body or document, it likely denotes some type of sleazy, illegal black op.) Kushner reads her short story “The Tale of Rachel K,” which, despite its eponymous title, seems to take place sometime just after WWII. It is lovely and odd, with frequent descriptions of baroque, outmoded lingerie, but perhaps a stitch too long for this particular evening at the Paula Cooper Steam Baths.
Next up is Damon Krukowski, poet, publisher (Exact Change), and musician (Galaxie 500, Damon & Naomi), who reads a moving prose poem that questions the legitimacy of the creative act and jibes nicely with Smith’s failure/retreat metaphors. Its length is just right. Krukowski then introduces the diminutive, ultrastylish professor-poet-critic Wayne Koestenbaum, formerly known during his professorial stint at Yale as the Prince (Purple, not Tudor) of academia. Tricked out in a hot-pink oxford shirt, impeccably white pants, and matching two-tone sneakers, Koestenbaum reads from a work in progress called Hotel Theory, a split-column book: one column a theoretical meditation on hotel rooms; the other a cheeky novel, starring Lana Turner and Liberace, among others, centered on the fictional Hotel Women in LA. A potentially disastrous formula, to be sure, but like all of Koestenbaum’s work, it gracefully balances hard-won philosophical concepts with a genuinely funny camp wit. Also, Koestenbaum doesn’t seem to sweat. I’m doubly impressed.
The sound/video presentation by teleseen was unfairly abandoned by most of the crowd as they quickly flowed outside in search of fresh air. A loose, postgame dinner party convened at the sprawling, convivial Markt, a Meatpacking District Belgian eatery. Over mussels and margaritas I met longtime Artforum contributors Lisa Liebmann and Brooks Adams and chatted with Smith and Kushner about Soft Targets, Echo Park, Marxism, and electoral politics. They possess that effortless blend of hipness and high theory particular to California cities and university towns. Soft Targets is similarly impressive, substantial, and wide-ranging. Let’s hope they don’t take their “failure fetishism” too far and succumb to an aesthetics of disappearance.