Thank you for writing to me so often, you are revealing yourself to me in the only way you can
Laura Edbrook reflects on the reading and discussion group 'Sick Sick Sick: The Books of Ornery Women' co-run with Emma Balkind and presented by MAP between autumn 2013 and autumn 2014. 'Sick Sick Sick' was an open reading project based online and at the CCA, Glasgow and examined a radical or 'bludgeoned' subjectivity of female writers
‘She will never be able to build a house. She hops herself up on crazy
arrogance at intervals and wanders around in the woods chopping down
everything that looks like a tree […] When she comes near to making a
clearing, it looks too much to her like all the other clearings she’s ever
seen, so she fills it up with rubbish and debris and is ashamed to even
speak of it afterwards. Driven, ordered, organised from without, she is a
very useful individual—but her dominant idea and goal is freedom
without responsibility, which is like gold without metal, spring without
water, youth without age, one of those maddening, coo-coo mirages of
wild riches which make her a typical product of our generation. She is
by no means lazy, yet when she chops down a tree she calls it work—
whether it is in the clearing or not. She makes no distinction between
‘work’ and mere sweat—less in the last few years since she has had
arbitrarily to be led or driven.’ (Fitzgerald, c.1896-1940)
In a symposium during Plastic Words,  a six-week series of public events hosted by Raven Row, London between December 2014 and January 2015, Chris Kraus introduced her current writing project, a critical biography of Kathy Acker (1947-97), entitled The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: A 20th-Century Fable.  The premise for the Plastic Words project was said to ‘[mine] the contested space between contemporary literature and art,’ (Raven Row, 2015) and in the introduction to Kraus’ reading it is articulated that her writing practice was ‘born of the art world but its ever-expanding sphere of influence now also takes in the literary world’, claiming for ‘a generation of emerging writers increasingly acknowledging the impact of her work on their own’ (Raven Row, 2015). (The same too can be easily claimed for recent abundant recoveries of Kathy Acker’s work, a large degree of which Kraus can be said to be responsible for). This swelling sphere is evidenced by a recent review published in The New Yorker.
Having silently disparaged Chris Kraus’ work since her first novel, I Love Dick 1997, The New Yorker published This Female Consciousness: On Chris Kraus, a review by Leslie Jamison chronicling Kraus’ career and ‘bright map of presence’ (Jamison, 2015). In considering the proposed ‘contested space between contemporary art and literature,’ it seems crucial to think about the context and structures such writing is written out from and what might be written in. Raven Row lists these structures to include: ‘the institutions which both foster contemporary practice and canonsise historical practice; the organisations which commission these writings and produce and disseminate them; and the markets, networks and communities within which these writings are circulated and critiqued’ (Raven Row, 2015). And the context? How might narratives of radical subjectivity, of friendship, wildness, love and desire transform our relationships to the institutions of history and culture? When communities of practice and resistance form, what changes might be brought about?
I didn’t attend the evening with Chris Kraus. Instead I listened to the event on SoundCloud while clearing and padding a pathway on my desk for an intended day of writing—another writer eagerly ‘acknowledging the impact of [Kraus’] work on [my] own’, among books and words of others which shuttle on and off-platform: cyclical utterings; fervent acquaintings, un-acquaintings and reacquaintings. ‘Words marry more words,’ writes Kate Zambreno. This communal discourse—relational and associative—of explicit conversations between object and subject, identifies a structure for new subjective writing. It can be identified as a radical post-critical position predicated on the sensual, on the use of one’s own life as material and in the exchange between writer and reader, the author openly ever-extending beyond expressing herself.
At the time of writing, to 2,321 followers, Katherine Angel, author of Unmastered: A Desire Most Difficult to Tell, tweeted, ‘I sometimes think [the] act of buying books, which I may not immediately read, functions as [a] way of gathering allies around me, gathering my people’ (Angel, 2015). One hundred and fifteen characters which echo Kathy Acker’s disavowal, ‘I was unspeakable so I ran into the language of others’ (Acker, 1997, p.80) and support Foucault’s theories of the constructed self. In his essay, 'Self Writing', he suggests, 'reading and writing must not be dissociated; one ought to 'have alternative recourse' to these two pursuits and ‘blend one with the other' (Foucault, 1997, p.216). At Raven Row, Kraus says, ‘so little exists in the private shell of the self. Writing is essentially cannibalistic. To write something you need to go out and find things and bring them back. A process of hunting and gathering’ (Kraus, 2015).
Emma Balkind and I had been doing the same. Having been friends for some years (introduced via the structures of a posited professional creative practice: both laboriously interning for the same gallery), we’d been reading the same books, aligning with the same allies, and, looking at the speculative potential of gathering others doing the same, we decided to organise a reading project. Our intention was for the group to be small, invited; to be a communal space for exchange and possible consciousness. We issued an open call to forecast interest and guide the shape of the series. Our concerns were already happening.
A salient municipal engagement of Scotland’s creative community in art writing practices and impassioned attention to potential transformational forms of female subjectivity,  was reflected in the popularity of the Sick Sick Sick project; the original small invited group soon became an open session bringing together at times up to thirty readers. Evident was the same ‘gathering of urgencies, errancies [and] overflowing critiques’ (Robertson, 2013, p.11) identified by Lisa Robertson when reflecting upon Montréal’s 1988 reading group Theory, A Sunday.
Between November 2013 and November 2014, the group met bi-monthly at the CCA under the title, Sick Sick Sick: The Books of Ornery Women and read seven books. In the first, Heroines by Kate Zambreno, the author gives the group its moniker—she writes, ‘the little voices that wormed through to whisper in one’s ear: Sick Sick Sick’ (Zambreno, 2012, p.209). A sickness akin to Chris Kraus’ identified 'bludgeoned' ‘I’ in an interview in Rhizome:
‘Narrative hinges on subjectivity, and we’re accustomed to a certain
kind of subjectivity. It’s usually very refined: an incredibly solipsistic
‘I’ that knows how to talk about itself in relation to a limited culture.
Grammar, composition, the art world, the intellectual world: it’s the
upper-middle class Western ‘I’. So how to describe a subjectivity
that’s been bludgeoned to the point of nonexistence?
(Bianconi & Kraus, 2012)
Keen for the project to develop its own logic, for the reader to be priority and become a collaborative writer of the programme, Emma and I decided not to script the series; we refrained from leading the sessions and set them out for all to respond to in real time; proposing the next book to be read following discussion of its precursor.
A curriculum and a testing ground; we were looking to create, and be active in, a reciprocal and meaningful connection between writer and reader. We formatted the project to mimic the discursive logic, or dismantled logics, within which such reading and writing is produced. The new fractured ways of receiving and disseminating emotional knowledge, voices of language which is embodied, lead us to shape the project by way of intersecting platforms: the Sick Sick Sick discourse assembled from a reading group that met in person, a commissioned series of responsive reading events and online website, blog and twitter spaces to include contributions from distant readers and authors. We would periodically learn of people independently following Sick Sick Sick too—the project slowly guising as a public syllabus. The group was, still is, galvanising. A communal solidarity across reader and writer that forged international mutual discourse across the Twittersphere and lead to one reader to empathetically cry, ‘I HATE DICK’ (Session Two, 2014). ‘Solitude and being together,’ writes Lisa Robertson, ‘are not contradictory states. Collectivity does not negate singularity, but compliments or even enables it’ (Robertson, 2013, p.16).
Our seven books positioned Chris Kraus’ Semiotext(e) series Native Agents and Active Agents as primary and as a locus to think through new Alt-Lit texts and recuperate precursor texts. Our introduction took a quote by Kraus in an interview with Elizabeth Gumport for an N+1 article, 'Female Trouble'. She says:
‘I think that ‘privacy’ is to contemporary female art what ‘obscenity’ was
to male art and literature of the 1960s. The willingness of someone to
use her life as primary material is still deeply disturbing, and even more
so if she views her own experience at some remove. There is no problem
with female confession providing it is made within a repentant
therapeutic narrative. But to examine things coolly, to thrust experience
out of one’s own brain and put it on the table, is still too
confrontational.’ (Kraus, 2012)
With the generous support of MIT Press and other publishers, we went on to read: Heroines, 2012, by Kate Zambreno; a critical memoir charting the medicalisation, institutionalisation and excess of the ‘mad wives of Modernism,’ surveyed amidst her own experiences of maginalisation as someone, and as a writer, who is a wife versus someone who is wifed. ‘There is no master narrative nor realist perspective to provide a background of social and historical facts,’ (Acker, 1996) wrote Acker in Pussy, King of the Pirates; I Love Dick, 1997, Chris Kraus’ seminal reportage of her pursuit of cultural theorist Dick Hebdige; Unmastered: A Desire Most Difficult to Tell, 2012, by Katherine Angel and The Gender of Sound, 1992, by Anne Carson, both works picking at the semantics of the female voice and suggesting that the words we choose shape the message we tell (Katherine Angel quotes Susan Sontag, ‘My mother,’ she says ‘improved her manners by losing her appetite.’ Sontag in Angel, 2012, p.98); Testo Junkie, 2013, Beatriz Preciado’s embodied account of the medicalisation of gender; The Suiciders by Travis Jeppesen, 2013, in which he writes, ‘Once you learn how to love, you will also learn how to mutilate it’ (Jeppesen, 2013); Love Dog, 2013, by Masha Tupitsyn, a love story initially written as a multi-media blog; and Literal Madness: Three Novels, 1989, by literary looter and pillager Kathy Acker.
What was always a priority was for the project to expand out of the text. With the support of Second Run distributers and Chris Kraus we screened Daisies, 1966, a Czech neo-surrealist film following Marie I and Marie II’s revolt against prescribed norms, written and directed by Vĕra Chytilová and Gravity & Grace, 1996, Kraus’ acclaimed last film. We were also delighted to commission readings by Kate Zambreno, which we aired on MAP online, and to invite Katherine Angel to Glasgow to present a co-developed production of Unmastered/Remastered, an unabridged reading of Unmastered in collaboration with London-based theatre group The Blackburn Company. The event was performed in the CCA theatre to an audience beyond the reading group.
‘Her dominant idea and goal is freedom without responsibility,’ writes F. Scott Fitzgerald. She is defined as one who presents herself with ‘crazy arrogance,’ depositing fey sentimentality, ‘debris,’ instead of the artful or refined. ‘A typical product of our generation.’ Fitzgerald’s judgment of women’s writing was recorded over half a century ago, at the height of modernism, and such judgments persist: still, writings of apparent exposure or confession are read as narcissistic, myopic and needy, especially when presented by a woman.
As Leslie Jamison describes, ‘any trace of the self can become a kind of shameful stink, the whiff of some failure of imagination or, worse yet, self-pity or self-aggrandisement’ (Jamison, 2015). ‘She chops down a tree [and] calls it work—whether it is in the clearing or not,’ Fitzgerald writes. The use of one’s own body is so often dismissed as an act of chopping down a tree miles from the clearing. ‘What do we flee when we retreat into metaphor?’ (Jamison, 2014, p.123) asks Jamison in The Empathy Exams (an ally not on the Sick Sick Sick reading list but certainly well placed). An answer might be that we seek to fell trees within the clearing, because to expose ourselves beyond this space is still seen, as Kraus outlines, ‘as deeply disturbing’ or as Kate Zambreno writes in Heroines, as ‘dangerous and indulgent’ (Zambreno, 2012, p.235).
Yet, what is true of this generation, this community, is that there is little distinction to be made between work and sweat. Our work and sweat, our lives and labour, our voices and those of others, creep in and live among the domains of one another. Masha Tupitsyn’s Love Dog is fractured and plural in its communication: a love story narrated across a cyberspace of blog posts, hacked YouTube clips and quotations, it confronts what we recognise as ‘work’ within the compositions of immaterial labour. How do we know where the boundary of the clearing is any longer? ‘Life is not personal’, (Kraus, 2015) Chris Kraus reminds us when she quotes Deleuze. What is apparent is that there is no such thing as an owned selfhood, it is instead sharing and generated, ‘[a] dialogue, a communication’, writes Zambreno about her digital community, ‘the internet. So intimate. These writings are the shudderings of the ego and lamenting the wound. We blubber and ooze. Texts that are raw and vulnerable, bodily and excessive’ (Zambreno, 2012, p.286). ‘If women have failed to make ‘universal’ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal’ says Kraus in conversation with Elizabeth Gumport, ‘why not universalise the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of art?’ (Kraus, 2012) As the contentious tree clearance becomes less and less defined, there’s hope that the personal can become universalised in its radical occupation and dissolution of the binary domains of exposure vs. concealment; public vs. private; context vs. structure.
Laura Edbrook the co-editor of MAP
This text was originally presented at the Northeastern Modern Lanuage Association Convention 2015, Toronto, Ontario as part of the panel 'Art Writing and Conversational Theory: Proximity and Praxis'.
Sick Sick Sick was generously supported by all of the readers and online contributors; Katherine Angel; Chris Kraus; Masha Tupitsyn; Kate Zambreno; The Blackburn Company; CCA, Glasgow; Second Run Distribution and publishers including MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; The Feminist Press, New York and Penny-Ante Editions, Los Angeles.
[Title] 'Thank you for writing to me so often, you are revelaing yourself in the only way you can', Michel Foucault on letter writing (Foucault, 1997).
 Plastic Words, 13 December 2014 – 30 January 2015, Raven Row, London. Organised by John Douglas Millar, David Musgrave, Luke Skrebowski, Natasha Soobramien and Luke Williams. A six week series of public events reflecting ‘on the possible overlaps, parallels, tangents and interferences between some of today’s most adventurous forms of writing and art making.’ Raven Row, 2015.
 The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: A 20th-Century Fable, Chris Kraus reading, 14 January 2015, Raven Row, London
 Selected examples include; Machine Room, Georgia Horgan at Collective gallery, Edinburgh, 14 February – 19 April; VH-16-22-7-12-3-22-5 Dreams of Machines, Victor & Hester at Transmission, Glasgow 31 March - 25 April 2015; Till the stars turn cold, curated by Kyla McDonald and Laura McLean-Ferris, Glasgow Sculpture Studios, 24 January – 14 March 2015, and the publication launch of You are of vital importance, by Glasgow-based artist and writer Sarah Tripp, at the CCA, Glasgow.