PRINT November 1999


Frances Stark

Frances Stark is an artist and writer who lives in Los Angeles. Her work is on view in LA at Marc Foxx (through November 13) and China Art Objects (Nov. 11-Nov. 26). She is the author, most recently, of The Architect & the Housewife (Bookworks, London).


    “Without taking sides with either the Now or the Then in matters of taste, as one usually does when faced with such a juxtaposition, he felt his mind abandoned by both sides without an instant’s hesitation, and saw in it only the great demonstration of a problem that is at bottom a moral problem. He could not doubt that the transience of what is regarded as style, culture, the will of the time, or the spirit of an era, for which it is admired, was a moral weakness.” ROBERT MUSIL, THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES (Vintage International, 1996).


    My mother seriously engaged with the Norton family’s 1996 Christmas gift. Each year the collectors send out a multiple edition to members of their (apparently) large holiday mailing list. “OBLIQUE STRATEGIES” is a deck of cards adapted from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas,” revised by Peter Norton and designed by Pae White. During a recent visit, my mom discovered the cards and, unprompted, began sorting them into six small piles on my couch. Weird. She informed me that each pile corresponded to one of the “Six Basic Essence Laws: expansion, concentration, freedom, order, identity, and interaction.” It turns out my mother’s been reading the same books as Eno.


    This year the BASEL ART FAIR fell between a dental convention and a trade show for chemists. I only know this because I happened to be staying in a Swiss hotel located between the site of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and the place where Nietzsche wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra. It’s always nice to consider what things fall between.

  4. WWW. WM3.ORG

    You may have heard of the WM3 “witch trial” from the 1996 HBO documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.” This website is dedicated to freeing the WM3, three West Memphis, Arkansas teens (now adults) convicted of killing three eight-year-olds despite the lack of physical evidence linking them to the supposedly satanic and ritualistic crime. Damien Echols, a nascently charismatic iconoclast, was deemed the mastermind, probably thanks to his heavy-metal bookishness. When I saw the documentary three years ago, I became enamored of Echols as he defended a series of red underlines in a book on witchcraft he bought for five cents at a library sale, as well a journal entry copying a damning quote from Shakespeare. Now he’s a seasoned death-row inmate, sentenced to die by lethal injection. Unbelievable.


    “The classic word association game” lures you and your friends into the negative space of your vocabulary. The object, of course, is to prompt your partner to say the password by providing a single word clue. You don’t need to buy the game to play, but the vinyl password-decoding envelopes are attractive and portable. I keep the game handy and wind up playing more often than I care to admit.


    I'd been hired to teach a class called “Theory as Practice,” and I began discussing my problems with another writer. She suggested that I take a look at a 1958 essay by William Gass that compares William “Varieties of Religious Experience” James to his novelist brother, Henry. Gass pits theory against practice and suggests that “though William [theory] was the superior thinker, Henry [practice] had the superior thought.” While the essay itself is a bit lopsided, the mere juxtaposition of moral philosophizing with fiction writing is provocative. “The more [the moral philosopher] struggles to understand, appreciate, and rise, the more instead he misses, debases, and destroys.” A fitting caution for a teacher.


    As part of an exhibition at the LA County Museum, artist STEPHEN PRINA delivered a semi-lengthy yet somehow succinct preface to a certain song explaining how, early on in his musical career, his band performed at a place some of the local professors would frequent. After one of these performances, the band told him excitedly that John Cage had been in the audience. Then he announced to us, “This is the song” he performed that night and segued into Carole King’s “It’s Too Late.” Tears were actually shed, and not just by me.


    I first met this Ukranian transplant from Winnipeg when he invited the entire class of graduate students into his studio for some free art. I’d never before witnessed such frenzied looking and rampant admiration in a school setting. I went home with a stack of free collages—debris glue-gunned into weird figures rife with sentiment. My latest acquisition cost $40 and features one anthropomorphic concoction saying “I love you” to another, whose reply reads “That’s where the similarities between us end.”


    For an hour a week, one can relish the eloquent disembodied voice of the philosopher who popularized Zen Buddhism. He’s fond of mentioning Wittgenstein, and he lets out these weirdly naughty laughs that one rarely comes across in print.

  10. OUR DUMB CENTURY (Three Rivers Press, 1997)

    The Onion’s collection of faux newspaper items has been on the “New York Times Bestseller List” for I don’t know how long. Even so, it’s a superhysterically funny parody of front-page stories—a satisfying blend of criticism and cuss words that comes very close to saying: Fuck the system.