War and humanity’s conscience were on trial during a recent shock poetry event held at REDCAT in Los Angeles. This event was hosted by the new independent press X Artists Books and REDCAT. The night left the listener with one word in their head: bastards. These figures from history, except God of course, were bastards.
The performance poetry was from the text The Words Of Others: Conversations Between God and A Few Men And Between A Few Men And A Few Men And God by anti-war Argentinian artist León Ferrari (Buenos Aires, 1920 – 2013). In Spanish the performance is titled Palabras ajenas.
“Ferrari created the work by cutting and assembling texts and quotations from various sources, including news agencies, history books, the Bible, and speeches,” said REDCAT of the work.
This reading was the first ever entire performance of the original 1967 dramatic script, which was an uninterrupted cast of 30 that lasted roughly seven hours. There were two previous partial readings, one in 1968 and the other in 1972.
The table of readers took on various roles, never staying in the same role and always moving about the stage in different seats. Some of the cast of characters were: Press; Historians; Hitler; Goebbles; LBJ; God; Pope Paul IV; The Bible; Nazis; Witnesses; US Administration; McNamara, among others. All total there were 180 different characters. This added to the feelings of chaos and anger of the text, those same feelings war conjures.
The entire reading felt like hearing the book We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch, a book about the Rwanda genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus. Tonight's performance was just as graphic, emotional, disgusting, gross and shocking. Much like the Rwanda book, tonight the listener needed frequent breaks to digest the overwhelming amount of violence spoken. In the Rwanda book, one read of the Hutus splitting open the pregnant bellies of the Tutsi women. In tonight’s performance, we heard such stories as stillborn Vietnam children coming into this world with their heads crushed. Shocking. The listener needed to take breaks in the lobby to recuperate before going back in to start again.
This dramatic script opens windows in your mind to the truth of history, even though the writers of the original texts weren’t always truthful. The sequence of women who wanted to have sex with Hitler, by his account, was disgusting and very hard to endure as a female audience member, feminist or not. Ewww, just ewww. The Vietnam War body count sequence was extremely difficult to listen to as the reports of the time came to life. The interlacing of Hitler’s WWII texts with reports from the Vietnam War was very effective, quite provocative. Even the readers playing Historians had their backs to the audience as they read. This was something of a metaphor for the times in which the writers were to record history for posterity. They didn't always have our backs as a human race and record accurately.
The juxtaposition of the text from the Bible of God’s instructions to build a temple with that of the press reports from the Vietnam War felt creepy. “The economy will never turn down while LBJ remains in office,” proclaimed the Press reader quoting text from the time. “I will send my fear before thee,” proclaimed the God reader.
There were multiple moments when the listener was overwhelmed by the powerful interplay of the military industrial complex with that of its human cost. Many people took breathers, filtering in and out of the performance because of this emotional toll on the psyche.
There was an exhibition associated with the performance poetry. It contained some of the resources used for the text compilation. It included an old Life Magazine with a photo of a Vietnamese man on the cover with tape over his mouth and eyes next to a photo of an American soldier with a bandaged head, the book he Nuremberg Trials and various Newsweek Magazines from the sixties with headlines such as How To Fight The War In Vietnam. Even these texts were provocative as they included some Third Reich books.
X Artists Books is a new independent press established in 2017 by Artist Alexandra Grant, actor and writer Keanu Reeves, designer Jessica Fleischmann and editor Florence Grant. The founders state in their initial press release, "X is a connector, a multiplier, a kiss, a proxy. X is a signature, a mark for uncharted territory, the core of infinity."
X Artists Books plans on releasing four books this year which the small independent press states, "demonstrates the range of our interests as well as our core commitments to emotional courage, intellectual rigor, and aesthetic and material integrity." The four books planned for release are The Artists' Prison, High Winds, The Words Of Others and Zus.
“X Artists' Books was an idea that was born out of a real need I had to publish The Artists' Prison in time for a show I'd helped arrange for the illustrator of that book, Eve Wood,” said Grant in an interview. “I first approached my sister, Florence Grant, a professional book editor, and then Jessica Fleischmann, with whom I'd just published a book called Interior Forest. I spoke to Keanu Reeves about the idea as we had worked together on two artist books, Ode To Happiness and Shadows. It immediately became a ‘we’ are starting a publishing company. Each of us had a book to publish and a role, whether editorial or visual, all our talents ‘fit’ together. We are focused on making artists' books, unusual, interdisciplinary, creative, collaborative books that fall under no clear rubric other than that they are the blueprint for an imaginary world. High Winds, for example, is written by a playwright, Sylvan Oswald, made into a visual world by a graphic designer, Jessica Fleischmann, that I dream will become an opera. The story is told from the perspective of a trans-male character who can't sleep because of hot flashes from testosterone. It's also a Western, and a story about two brothers and cave spelunking. High Winds could become an opera, a series of scarves, and a perfume. But it's also an intimate, haptic experience of a small beautiful book.”
Zus is by French photographer Benoît Fougeirol. This book "explores the harsh paradoxes of the marginalized suburban zones of Paris, reflecting on their stubborn vitality and their dereliction—and the failures of collective imagination that they represent," states X Artists Books. "The publication of Zus, which includes an essay by Jean-Christophe Bailly, will coincide with the appearance of Fougeirol’s work in a major exhibition of photography exploring the changing landscapes of France at the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, opening October 24, 2017."
The Words Of Others can be pre-ordered through X Artists Books here: https://www.xartistsbooks.com/books/palabras-ajenas-the-words-of-others
The Artists' Prison can be purchased through X Artists Books here: https://www.xartistsbooks.com/books/the-artists-prison
High Winds can be purchased through X Artists Books here: https://www.xartistsbooks.com/books/high-winds
Zus can be pre-ordered through X Artists Books here: https://www.xartistsbooks.com/books/zus
Today's readers included: Edgar Arceneaux, Camila Ascencio, Rafael López Barrantes, Samantha Bartow, Nao Bustamante, José Luis Blondet, Ashlyn Delaire, Carlo Figlio, Jessica Fleischmann, Andrea Fraser, Charles Gaines, Alexandra Grant, Jen Hofer, Ashley Hunt, Rett Keeter, Daniel Lavery, Mireya Lucio, Michael Ned Holte, Roberto Martin, Fernando Mitre, Paige McGhee, Alyxaundrea Munson, Silke Otto-Knapp, Mac Rasmus, Christopher Rivas, Juan Rivera, Connie Samaras, Hannah Trujillo and Kristin Wetenkamp.
The dramatic script text was edited by Ruth Estévez, Miguel A. López, and Agustín Diez Fischer and has been translated by Jen Hofer, Román Luján, and Tupac Cruz. The editors were also the curators of the exhibition centered on this important work by Ferrari.