Moyra Davey, Hemlock Forest, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 41 minutes 15 seconds.

Two years ago, artist Moyra Davey and writer Maggie Nelson were asked to commence a wide-ranging conversation over email for a book project that never came to light. This summer, I invited them to revisit their conversation. What follows is the second of a two-part feature. To read their introductions and part one click here. —Lauren O’Neill-Butler

MAGGIE NELSON: First of all, if we want to talk about things that make us feel ashamed, I’m very ashamed that the above exchange took place in March 2015, and now it’s the end of October 2015. So sorry, and onward!

I haven’t read the Barthes quotation you mention but from what you say here, I am quite interested in it. Not so much in what lies outside language, but rather the idea that “something is fascinating, you want to talk about it, but you can’t, precisely because it’s fascinating.” This seems to me the basic seed to all writing projects—a seed that makes them, perhaps, more paradoxical than photography, because in photography you can follow fascinations without having to talk about them in words.

When you say, fascination as a defining principle of the medium, is it something he locates in the photographer, or in the medium itself?

Moyra Davey: It’s a fascination for actual photographs. The interview predates Camera Lucida by a few years, it was done in 1977. Perhaps Barthes evolved ‘fascination’ into the punctum as a solution to his problem of not being able to articulate the former.

MN: In any case, your desire not to talk about photography in the abstract seems a wise one to me.

I also want to tell you that I’m traveling right now and I brought with me on the plane the package of your books which you sent, including your essay and photograph collection Long Life Cool White, and I read them all happily and hungrily.

MD: Thank you!

MN: Re: the piece you included in the package, “Mothers,” I was happy to be turned on to Mary Gaitskill’s “Gattino.” And I really like the unusual gathering of artists you have here. It makes me want to look anew at Frances Stark, and find the Xavier Dolan film. Mostly though—and maybe here’s my own “make it more personal” request—I couldn’t help but wonder about the maternal transgressions you refer to, re: your parenting of B. You say “I blew it with B., my one and only.” As it seems so clear to me that you didn’t blow it, I can’t help but wonder what you think your transgressions were . . .

MD: I wish I could have been a more patient, calmer, happier person when B. was small. I see women with their tiny babies enveloped in a love cocoon, and I never had that because B. had colic and screamed for three months. It was hair-raising, and kind of set the tone for the next four years. I always think about Margaret Meade’s question, something to the effect of: “Does the sunny, happy baby produce the happy mother, or is it the other way around.” And of course you can substitute happy for ‘cranky’ and ask the question the same way, and that’s where I dwell on my flaws and wonder what I might have done differently. I love the way you write about caring for your kids in The Argonauts, it is so full of tenderness and pleasure. You marvel at the routine tasks, like folding tiny socks.

MN: Yeah, well, maybe my cranky / failed mom memoir is yet to come! (Or maybe I’ll leave it to my kids to dwell on my flaws in public . . . as someone who has repeatedly raked my mom over the coals in print, and as someone who also reads tons of student work of this nature, I now know that this is one of, if not the most common subsets of the autobiographical genre . . . i.e. Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do,” etc.)

I was also interested in your writing about reading, in your essay “Notes on Photography & Accident.” Especially in your description of reading as “a literal ingestion, a bulimic gobbling up of words as if they were fast food.” I feel embarrassed when people treat me like a big reader, as I actually feel ashamed of how little I actually read, or how poorly I read. I don’t know if this is a result of the Internet like everyone says or if it has more to do with this “bulimic gobbling up of words,” the selective gusto of reading as a writer, “looking for what you need.” When I was in PhD school I often imagined there could be a kind of IV drip of books, because I needed to read more than I had time to read—I didn’t know how to, say, ingest all of The Last of the Mohicans in a day, or a week, so I started fantasizing other ways to get it in my head, my body. I forgot, or never realized, how to savor. I just crammed it in.

MD: People think I read a lot too, but it’s getting to be less and less. Recently I had to give a talk and a seminar at Rutgers, so I re-read a bunch of my stuff in preparation, and I watched some of the videos. I’ve grown weary by how much I quote and how much I rely on reading to write. I love how you put it: “looking for what you need,” and the excitement that arises when you find the right thing. But I feel more and more self-conscious. In the thing I’m writing now for my next video, I’m trying to refer, for example, to Godard and Barthes, without using their names. That’s how desperate I am to change things up!

MN: I say all this in confusion, because I’ve also spent a lot of time reading poetry, which is supposed to be read “slowly,” so I presume somewhere I know how to read in a different fashion. But I worry. I wonder whether your reading style has changed over time, the physical phenomenology of it.

MD: It has changed. For one thing, I read too much on screens, and it kills my eyes. I’m a bit stuck at the moment with this new project—it’s for Norway, so I re-read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Scandinavian letters, and that was pure pleasure for the way she writes about the natural world. She was in a terrible state of depression, and the landscape rescued her, at least for a time. But I am also writing about my son, and I find that SO difficult and uncomfortable, writing about missing him. I feel like I don’t have the right to write about the privileged ritual of a young adult leaving home for college, when some people have permanently lost their children. I could read Winnicott, but some part of me is in rebellion. My friend, Jennifer Montgomery said: look and listen instead. So I’ve been listening to Chantal Akerman, and I can’t get enough of her. I am utterly smitten. You can watch a ton of interviews, panels, artist talks, and she is warm, flirtatious—she has that raspy, smoker’s voice—she is also tough, fearless, honest. Talk about bulimia and rabbit holes, I will lose myself to her for hours. She is my greatest inspiration at the moment.

MN: I guess I’m partly interested in this because I’m fascinated by how your work seems very of the present, very in the present, while also performing a dedication to slowness, an attention to dust, to B sides, to physicality, to acts of physical lost-and-found ness, to archives, etc., which some people don’t associate with the so-called digital age, something hot, rushing, dematerialized, sleek (though the abjection of precarity and the reminder of the intense physical costs of the so-called virtual are, I think, gaining in attention as of late, as in, for example, some bad & weird weather). But I don’t feel nostalgia in your work, I feel presence. I also feel recognition: I know those rooms, those book backs, those dust bunnies, that fridge. (I really, really like your writing about the fridge!)

MD: You also write about the domestic and the mundane, and there is such a quality of lightness and a gentle, cajoling humor to the way you do it. It’s a poetic voice embedded in a prose writing style. We can feel you taking real pleasure in the rituals of food, drink, hanging out with little kids, being with Harry, and then pleasure again as you shape the experiences into writing.

MN: Speaking of those spaces, I had a dream last night, here in an oppressive conference center in Flagstaff, Arizona, that I was back in a perfect East Village apartment which I’d lived in my whole life: a diminutive studio, arched tin ceilings painted light turquoise, bathtub in kitchen covered by a board, Patti Smith had lived there once, there were scrawlings all over the ceiling, some of which were mine. It was all part-Nan Goldin, part-Larry Clark, part-Moyra Davey. And I realize now I invented this dreamspace after immersing myself in your books all day. And it feels so strange to me, to know this space as foundational, a kind of recurring foundation in my unconscious, but to live now in Los Angeles, with nothing resembling it whatsoever. As if one’s foundation were a dream. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful that my formative years were all lived without the internet.

MD: I was just reading something by Joan Didion, about the utter confusion of what is home: the West Coast, where she grew up, or New York where she ended up. Your dream apartment sounds pretty appealing. Early Goldin, Clark, and Patti Smith are still touchstones for me. Maybe part of the fatigue (and potential bulimia) of the internet comes from knowing that everything is available to us at the touch of a finger. It’s all there to read instantaneously, or it can be on your doorstep in two days.

MN: Speaking of Patti Smith, I’m on a plane to NYC right now, and I just finished her new book M Train, have you read it? I adored Just Kids, but I have to admit, about this next one, I’m kind of baffled by it—baffled by her profoundly non-twenty-first century psychology, her true capacity to drift in what seems to be a magic, or at least talismanic space, created in part by a deep romantic attachment to objects and writers. I mean, the whole book is kind of structured around her need to bring these stones from a prison that Genet hoped to be imprisoned at (but never was) to his grave. There are a lot of other pilgrimages in the pages as well. But she even makes taking the train to Rockaway or going to a 7-11 to get a large coffee and a donut sound infused with magic. I guess I thought of you because of your own connection to Genet, and to a kind of slowed-down, object-oriented, somewhat romantic relation to other writers, but also because of Patti Smith’s strong relationship to photography. The book contains her photographs, mostly taken of these talismanic objects or places; besides her obsession with coffee, the book seems to be working out an obsession with taking photos. I have to confess to you, the whole thing left me kind of cold, which made me wonder whether I was in some ways depressed, or deadened. I mean, I used to be very romantically attached to certain objects and figures; my book Bluets was an homage to that modality. It is a means of feeling very alive, a means of feeling as though the world is interesting enough to photograph. I don’t feel able to access that space right now. I’m not sure if it’s because of the digital age, my more or less completely American existence, my totally ungenerous suspicion of the politics of Smith’s infatuations, or what. At the very least it made me question how far I’ve come from certain magical states of mind, and wonder if I’m missing anything right now, and if so, what. Because I don’t really miss my more adolescent infatuations with writers or objects; in some ways I feel kind of Zen about the fleetingness of time these days, like I’m just watching my life (by which I might mean, my son’s childhood) go by, and along for that ride, without needing to pick up any stones or document it all in too mannered a fashion. Anyway, curious to know it you’ve looked at the book, what you think.

MD: I’ve not yet read M Train. I was tempted to pick it up recently, but I’m trying to stay on track with reading related to a new video I’ve been writing and now shooting. From a superficial take, M Train feels decidedly old school in its approach. I will definitely look closer as I know it relates to my conundrum with contemporary photography.

“Feeling as though the world is interesting enough to photograph” as you put it, is at the heart of things. Looking at contemporary work by artists who are one, two generations younger than me, I have the sense that many have given up on the ‘world’ and the practice of rendering it via an image. Why bother, it’s all been done to death. Many are opting to make images of images in another round of ‘pictures generation’ appropriation, minus the political critique (in many cases). I can totally relate to an ennui of images, given that we are inundated by them at every turn. It is a real dilemma because I am baffled/perplexed/bored by the highly abstract, photo-shopped appropriations, yet I know the alternative, the romantic, unfettered approach is just as untenable. Photography for its own sake is tough. When it gets linked to writing, performance, even other objects, is when it becomes more viable and interesting to me. Re the ‘magical state of mind’ in relation to reading and writing: in my opinion it grows out of pain, fear, anxiety. A few years back I wrote a text called “Index Cards.” I was in physical pain, weird stuff was happening to my body, I had just moved to Paris for a year with my son and was witnessing his trajectory through the rigid, unforgiving French school system and reliving bad memories of my own French elementary school. “Index Cards” rounds up Benjamin on Hashish, Jane Bowles’s letters, Kafka’s notebooks and diaries and I forget what else, but it was almost as though I was constructing a talismanic cocoon to stave off fear. When I read that text now it brings back the anxiety of the moment, but also the intense investment I had in these writers, and probably the “magical” belief that I’d be saved by them.

Moyra Davey, Fifty Minutes, 2006, video, color, sound, 50 minutes.

MN: That’s really interesting, to think of that magical state of mind as coming out of pain, whereas I was assuming that depression might bar one access to it. I think I’ve always understood turning to texts with the hope that they would save me; it’s objects and landscape I’ve had more trouble with (which makes sense, I guess, for a writer). That difference was something I was trying to work out in Bluets. I guess it’s why I still think of it as a book about beauty.

I was really interested to hear your thoughts on psychoanalysis, in the video transcript “Fifty Minutes,” where you’re looking in on your analysis from the outside, as it were—like, you tell us of your fidelity to the rule of having to speak unspeakable things, but for the most part you don’t tell us what those unspeakable things were. I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about the fate of “free association” in this moment, which some think of as decidedly “post-psychoanalysis”—I just saw my friend Wayne Koestenbaum do an amazing piano performance the other day, which seemed a kind of retro, or very of the present, I don’t know, homage to free association. It seemed no accident that a lot of what he riffed on while playing had to do with the twentieth century, its history of horrors.

MD: There are so many unspeakable things that will probably remain so. Part of the reason I think so much about getting them out, is that the writers I admire are the ones who find a way to do it, to take something taboo or shameful and “make a thing out of it” as Tilda Swinton said apropos of Derek Jarman when he embraced his illness and mortality and made Blue. I have the impression you yourself can write about anything. I think it has to do with really knowing yourself, and not being rancorous. Again, Chantal Akerman comes to mind: she was warm and generous, but she would also speak her mind on a dime if the situation called for it. When you have generosity towards others self-love is possible, or is it vice-versa?

MN: You know, not to repeat myself, but I find myself not thinking very much about taboo or shame these days. If I do, I’m a little more prone to thinking about the relationship of white people to abjection—like, what forms of abjection does whiteness create and depend upon for power; how does a white obsession with abjection serve as a means for white folks to access the abjection that is forced upon other bodies, namely brown bodies, poor bodies. There are parts of this bridge-making that seem worthwhile and powerful to me, and parts that seem really loaded and ugly and damaging. I think all this is partly why I have a harder time getting TOO excited about the notion of Knausgaard writing about his shit in the New York Times as a big transgression (though I may like it for other reasons). The shit of the lauded white guy isn’t the same as other people’s shit. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it, like I say, for other reasons (I grew up loving Bukowski’s beer shits, too). But it’s important to remember that these gestures circulate in a context. Maybe this brings me back to Patti Smith—whom I adore, of course—and her beloved Beats, and Artaud, and Paul Bowles, and Rimbaud, and Genet, to some extent—all these white guys who were looking for some kind of magic or freedom or gravity or eros or danger in non-Western cultures, thinking European or American culture having foreclosed certain possibilities. I was transfixed by many of these figures in my youth—a lot of it THROUGH figures like Smith, who led me to many of them—but having grown up, it just doesn’t play for me anymore in any simple fashion.

MD: I’m not a-political, but when I read, I don’t make political choices. I follow my nose, I read what interests me, what will feed me, I “read to write,” as per Barthes, mostly. So that can take me anywhere. I’m very seduced by happenstance and dérive as a way to not feel totally overwhelmed by choice, more so now than ever as my reading has, by necessity, slowed down. I of course take your point about the shame of white privilege. I feel it. If they were not already, our eyes are being opened daily to institutionalized racism. It’s a fast and furious outpouring, and the rage is palpable. In terms of literature everyone has their threshold—my sister in law, a very smart, principled, feminist abstract painter has been reading Céline her whole life, because it feeds her in some elemental way. But to me he’s repugnant and I’ll probably never read his books.

Below is a passage from one of the Knausgaard novels that sums up what I’m looking for when I read: “The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?”

He could easily be referring to one of your books . . .

Those are some morning thoughts! I know we’ve got to get back to photography soon. But to break my long silence, here you go.

MN: “What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person.” This is complicated, as it posits the author as the gazer, rather than the viewer. I’ll think on this.



Hey Maggie, I finished M Train a couple of days ago, I too read it in the skies on my way to and from Montreal. I wasn’t expecting to like it, from some reviews I’d read, and from your perplexed account, I imagined it would be abstract and in the ‘babble’ mode of some of her earlier poetry. It definitely has a magical, through-the-looking-glass quality. The idea of the portal-transport to other worlds and spaces is a big fixture of the narrative, and the whole episode about the explorer-club, I totally didn’t get. I pretty much glided over those chapters. But what I did appreciate, and frankly found seductive, were the mundane details of her life, and the portrait she draws of simplicity and being unfettered by the usual baggage we all carry, her ability to pick up and leave with nothing but a few t-shirts and a notebook; her addiction to ritual; her addiction to coffee (not at all snobby, she’ll drink anything, even the most rot-gut), and finally, the way she writes about losing things, all the objects that seem to slip through her grip. She does a very Hervé Guibert thing in that she compensates for the loss by recreating the object through writing, a process I find profoundly comforting.

Even though I’m sure she’s giving us a very edited version of what must be a complicated life, I—being someone who can’t leave the house without a minimum 24-hours rounding up of pills and potions and soul-searching over which camera to bring—was awed by the sense of freedom she conveys in relation to her movements and displacements over continents.

I had to remind myself several times that I was reading the same Patti Smith who did Horses, an album I’ve listened to countless times over many years and connects me to an utterly formative moment in my life. To this day that music gives me chills, and maybe because of it I’m willing to give Patti Smith a pass on many things I might otherwise have less patience for. As for her use of photographs in the book, they have a vaguely Sebaldian quality. None of them feel particularly iconic, but are there in the service of the narrative. They are unpretentious, like the 7-11 coffee.

Ever since I read these words of yours a few weeks ago: “I’m just watching my life (by which I might mean, my son’s childhood) go by, and along for that ride, without needing to pick up any stones or document it all in too mannered a fashion,” I’ve not been able to get them out of my head. You conjure such an image of pure ‘being,’ a state, an idea that continues to fascinate and elude me (‘Being’ and ‘non-being’ as per Woolf, from her essay “A Sketch Of The Past”). I’ve been writing about this idea again for the new video, this time in relation to Chantal Akerman

Those are my thoughts for now, Maggie, all over the map, I know, and most unfinished.

To be continued…as usual.


We Belong


J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, Sense8, 2015–. GIF from a TV show on Netflix. Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton).

PRIDE MONTH 2017 was momentous, and contentious, for reasons big and small. June’s Facebook pages were littered with rainbow “pride” emoticons, and I used mine for everything. At the same time, a debate about the rainbow flag’s ability to represent its varied constituencies swept through comments, asking if Gilbert Baker’s 1978 creation had become co-opted as a corporate logo, needful of additional black and brown stripes to better address those banded together under the LGBTQIA banner. Often unspoken but nevertheless felt was the shared posttraumatic stress of knowing that a year before, the largest single-shooter mass murder in American history had taken place in a Latino gay bar in Orlando, Florida. Trump, who used “the specter of Orlando” to support his xenophobic presidential campaign, presided over a White House which, unlike its predecessor, made no official mention of Pride Month, even as our popularity made Stonewall’s remembrance a legit semi-holiday, with sponsorship from T-Mobile.

And then there was the saga of Sense8 (2015–). Before I could click on the rainbow-colored button for season two of the sci-fi soap opera, I was alerted to the show’s cancelation, announced by Netflix on June 1, the first day of Pride Month, an irony noted by its outraged queer fanbase, who immediately leapt into action, with, among other social-media agitations, a petition. Quoting Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), the transgender lesbian hacktivist protagonist, Sense8 fans tweeted, “I am also a we.”

That we, it seemed, had not included enough Is. Actor Brian J. Smith, who plays Will Gorski, a midwestern cop psychically linked to Nomi and six others around the world, explained: “The show would have continued if only the viewership justified the expense,” which was rumored to be around eleven million dollars an episode. The producers responded on Tumblr: “[w]e wish we could #BringBackSense8 for you… [w]e’ve thought long and hard here at Netflix to try to make it work but unfortunately we can’t… [h]ope you’ll stay close with your cluster around the world.”

Another utopian project, failed. Or so it seemed. Because a group was getting organized, under the collective identity @Global_Cluster, channeling its energies into a coordinated campaign that included a schedule of daily actions, tweeting, emailing, and even calling (on the phone!) Netflix CEO Reed Hastings as well as AmazonVideo, the Emmys, and E! Online. Explicit in their critique was the fan-feeling that Netflix neglected to promote Sense8 in the first place, and that this was the result of an implicit bias against the show, whose principal subject is intersectionality and minority representation. After a sustained effort, on June 29, Netflix announced (with the hashtag #WeAreTheGlobalCluster) a two-hour special planned for 2018, promising to wrap up the series, which had been left in the middle of a cliffhanger. “By myself there was nothing I could do,” wrote cocreator Lana Wachowski in a letter posted on Twitter. “But just as the characters in our show discover that they are not alone, I too have learned that I am not alone. I am also a we.”

One half of the sibling filmmaking duo The Wachowskis, best known for The Matrix (1999), Lana Wachowski has long been a “we.” Sense8, an extended meditation on we-ness created by the Wachowskis and collaborator J. Michael Straczynski, tells the story of the psycellium, a psychic internet populated by Homo Sensorium, a species of nonsingular subjects divided into “clusters” of eight people.

While most television is built on interwoven character arcs, Sense8’s characters are woven into one another, and in representing this slippage among identities, the Wachowskis developed a filmic language motivated by the episodic nature of television. With meticulous camerawork and painstaking continuity, the filmmakers stitched together performers on location across the world, without using CG animation or green screen. Lana Wachowski came out as trans in 2012; her sister Lilly Wachowski took time off to focus on her own transition, in 2016. In both content and form, Sense8 makes transitions—across borders and bodies—the special effect, offering a trans experience for the viewer.

Wu Tsang and Fred Moten, We hold where study, 2017, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 18 minutes 56 seconds. Installation view, Kunsthalle Münster. Boychild and Ligia Lewis.

One could trace a queer genealogy for the productive conflation of identities through use of transitions in experimental film, from Jack Smith’s gender- and body-blurring Flaming Creatures (1963) to The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (Marie Losier, 2011), a feature-length montage exploring the subjects’ Pandrogeny Project, a recombination of selves into a third entity. Like the Wachowskis, Wu Tsang is a filmmaker who identifies as trans who also employs the transition as a site of cathexis. Tsang has often used science fiction as a method for exploration, as in her ongoing project A Day in the Life of Bliss, set in a dystopian near-future, in which an underground, gender-and-race nonconforming pop star (played by Boychild) emerges into higher consciousness when she discovers she has two hearts. In Tsang’s recent video installation We hold where study, 2017, two channels are projected side by side with an overlapping area in the center. On the right, an LED-lit warehouse serves as location for a duet by Ligia Lewis and Jonathan Gonzalez, while the left depicts another movement piece performed by Boychild and Josh Johnson in a grassy field as the sky turns from day to night. In the center, where the two channels meet, colors, places, and bodies merge, the transitional space becoming an entanglement.

Sense8’s protagonist is also an “entanglement,” a phrase uttered in psychometric flashback by Angelica (Daryl Hannah), the ecologist “mother” of the cluster. While precedent for Sense8 can be found in Octavia E. Butler’s Mind of My Mind (1977), in which a psychic family combines mental powers to topple their oppressive patriarch, the term “entanglement” is here borrowed from quantum physics, explored at length in Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007): “[A]n entanglement can be understood as a generalization of a superposition of more than one particle,” she writes, noting that entanglements “make connections between entities that do not appear to be proximate in space and time.”

Artist A. K. Burns, in a recent panel at the New Museum, proposed the term Quantum Feminism to consider how “an understanding of bodies as sensory systems can be a starting point for discussions around ethics and ‘entangled relations of difference.’ ” In Sense8, the cluster’s members are entangled in a shared sensory system, their minds superposed particles at a distance. Nomi, holed up in a hideout with her lover Amanita (Freema Agyeman), appears to be talking to herself when discussing strategy with two members of her cluster, Riley (Tuppence Middleton) in London, and Kala (Tina Desai) in Mumbai. Sun (Doona Bae), a corporate executive and expert martial artist framed for embezzlement by her brother and held in a Korean prison, comes to the rescue when members of her cluster find themselves in danger, taking over their body and beating up bad guys. When someone attempts a hit on Sun, we see all eight characters, in their own locations, gasping for breath, intercut with shots of them swinging from the noose: Their entanglement is a source of vulnerability as well as strength. Entanglement is further complicated when Berlin-based criminal Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), on his way to a clandestine meeting with a sinister sensate from another cluster, appears skulking in the background, distracting the members of his cluster as he tries to go unnoticed. Entanglement means Wolfgang can never be alone: What follows is a sixteen-person fight scene whose choreography is diffracted across the globe.

J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, Sense8, 2015–. Still from a TV show on Netflix.

Diffraction, Barad writes, “can serve as a useful counterpoint to reflection: both are optical phenomena, but whereas the metaphor of reflection reflects the themes of mirroring and sameness, diffraction is marked by patterns of difference.” The Wachowskis follow this mode in their editing, when, in an over-the-shoulder shot, Will and Riley see each other’s faces in a mirror. And when Mexican film star Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is confronted on the red carpet by a reporter inquiring about his closeted past, his clustermate Capheus (Toby Onwumere) is questioned in Kenya by another reporter about his idolization of 1980s action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose likeness is painted on the matutu he drives. In both cases, the reporters imply that the difference between actor and acted makes identification impossible: Gay people cannot represent straight people; a person of one race cannot be surrogate for another. Triggered by this normative protocol, the cluster flashes back, in montage, to moments of sex, violence, and other shared intimacies. As each character appears at the microphone, in Lito’s and Capheus’s places, their voices echo, “Am I what you see, or what I have seen?” The confused reporters say they are just trying to understand. Lito and Capheus answer simultaneously, “You are not trying to understand anything because labels are the opposite of understanding.” “Labels” are a form of representation reflecting sameness. Like the rainbow flag motif, Sense8’s cluster is a pattern constituted by a spectrum of differences.

Lana Wachowski came out as transgender during promotion for Cloud Atlas (2012), an earlier experiment in depicting trans-identity. Like Sense8, Cloud Atlas was a sprawling fantasy with a diverse ensemble: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Ben Wishaw, and Doona Bae portrayed an array of genders and ethnicities across an interconnected multiverse. Cloud Atlas was compromised by the film’s use of makeup and digital effects to signify race; perhaps more significant than the ambitious film itself was the fact that an out transwoman was the codirector of a one-hundred-million-dollar science-fiction blockbuster.

The intersectionality intended in Cloud Atlas found more satisfying form in Sense8, whose global ambitions are palpable from the credit sequence, spanning the production’s locations: Berlin, Chicago, London, Mexico City, Mumbai, Nairobi, San Francisco, and Seoul. Opening with time-lapse shots of monuments intercut with animals, nature, folk dancers, public art and street vendors, the documentarylike footage is queerly punctuated: a bearded couple with pierced tongues licking an ice-cream cone; a handmade, rainbow-striped sign reads kindness is sexy. A choir vocalizes ominously over this overblown multicultural spectacle, flying dangerously close to the twin fires of appropriation and stereotype, landing on a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Like San Francisco itself, the cluster is ensnared in the economies and technologies of late capitalism: Kala and Capheus contend with a multinational pharmaceutical company that produces AIDS medication; Nomi stages the death of her data body to nullify the digital traces of her illegal activities; Will, “woke” by his rebirth into sensacity, is rejected by fellow cops when he confronts institutional racism; Lito frets about his value as an international commodity when his action-star career is threatened by leaked pictures of him with his boyfriend; and Icelandic DJ Riley spins EDM, the ubiquitous soundtrack of neoliberal globalism, at massive raves. A shadowy NGO, the Biologic Preservation Organization, stalks the cluster. Like a posthuman International Monetary Fund, BPO was founded with the intention of helping sensates use their powers for the greater good, but, embroiled in its own institutional struggles, instead uses its resources to control sensates’ ability to connect with one another. BPO lobotomizes dissident sensates, concerned their telepathic empathy could make them resistant to the world order’s governing bodies.

J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, Sense8, 2015–. GIF from a TV show on Netflix.

Hardt and Negri’s “alternative to the global political body of capital,” the multitude comprises “productive flesh” emerging “from the queer politics of ACT-UP and Queer Nation to the globalization demonstrations at Seattle and Genoa.” These movements appear “monstrous” to traditional political hierarchies on the left, as “bodies become blended” across space. Resistant to essentialism, informed by queer activism, the multitude’s complex identity politics find embodiment in Sense8’s cluster through scenes of group sex: Lito, naked in Mexico, appears over Will, doing a bench press in Chicago, kissing him; Wolfgang is joined in the sauna by astral forms of Nomi, Lito, and Will, a huddle of steamy, muscular shoulders, as Kala looks on. Lito and Nomi are, in the actual world of the story, in their own apartments, fucking their same-sex partners, Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) and Amanita, who are themselves drawn into the ménage as nondiegetic bodies join them in their beds. The script sets up these characters with attention to their sexual orientations, but now the camera shows these positions as mutable in this liminal realm of the psycellium, where sexual fantasy is sex act.

The sex scenes in Sense8 are a manifesto for the flesh of the multitude, a site of political potential compounded with boundless sexual pleasure. The show’s revolutionary sex positivity stands in stark contrast to HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011–) and Westworld (2016–), which routinely punish LGBT characters with brutal deaths, use same-sex frisson as a prelude to violence, rape women to further the plot, and stage orgies as lurid backdrops populated with nameless extras. FX’s series Legion (2017–), an X-Men spinoff created by Noah Hawley, shares with Sense8 an interest in depicting a permeable psyche, using stylish art direction and nonlinear structures to create an innovative psychedelic storytelling to depict its eponymous “reality bender,” David Haller (Dan Stevens). Legion’s supporting cast of outlandish mutants dislocate identity: A man travels peoples’ memories, a woman swaps bodies with a touch, a white man and Native American woman share a body, a shapeshifting psychic parasite lives in David’s mind. While both Legion and Sense8 use telepathy to explore intersubjectivity, the Legion of the title refers specifically to David’s legion of superpowers, not his cadre of superfriends. He is the chosen one, his status as a straight white male hero set awkwardly against the villains, who just happen to be gay. For all its flash and cleverness, Legion refuses the radicality that animates Sense8. This is the distinction between the character and the cluster, or, to willfully overstate my case, via Hardt and Negri, the empire and multitude.

J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, Sense8, 2015–. GIF from a TV show on Netflix.

Like Hardt and Negri’s multitude, Sense8 is indebted to queer politics, framed with a consideration of the impact of AIDS. In the first episode, when Nomi and Amanita attend an interpretive dance set to a soundtrack of testimonials about the AIDS crisis, Nomi’s psychic abilities manifest, her nonbiological sensate mother Angelica’s apparition joining on stage. Like sex, the psycellium is a locus of potential danger that can be managed, through consent, and pharmaceuticals: In season two, a black pill blocking sensate powers is introduced. A kind of psychic PreP, the pill’s value is immediately recognized by the cluster, who make their own generic version to protect themselves from BPO, the drug’s manufacturers. Without the blocker, their only safeguard against unwanted psychic intrusion is the use of opiates, and Will, stalked by a BPO upper-management type, spends much of the second season in a drug-induced stupor. With the black pill, Will regains control of his life, much like Capheus’s mother, her vitality restored by access to HIV meds.

In writing about Sense8, I have been talking with a cluster of friends who also watched the show, among them Tsang, Malik Gaines, Vishal Jugdeo, Jeanne Liotta, Tavia Nyong’o, Martine Syms, and Matt Wolf. Although we all regretted its cancelation, we also admitted to our own ambivalences. Syms noted you could be crying one second, cringing the next, and wondered if the show’ insistence on ethics is also what made it, at times, so corny. Wolf sees the philosophical notion of an identity constituted by multiplicity as both very deep and kinda cheesy. Nyong’o clocked the uneven treatment of the characters, particularly those shot on locations in non-Western countries, especially regarding depictions of sexuality. Gaines pointed to inconsistencies: If sensates don’t need language, why are they talking to each other all the time, in English? And for a show built on a premise of empathy, Liotta pointed out, there was sure a high body count of faceless security guards. Jugdeo pointed out that the Wachowskis’ P.L.U.R.-inflected taste—epitomized in the global montage of the cluster singing along to 4 Non Blonde’s “What’s Up?” (1992)—is anachronistically ’90s. Tsang hadn’t yet watched season two, but felt a transperson directing a multimillion dollar sci-fi show starring a trans actor playing a trans character (Jamie Clayton’s Nomi) was obviously awesome. And while I often wondered at the environmental footprint of a work shot around the world, we all agreed that whatever the reasons, Sense8’s failure was a troubling sign. The Wachowskis’ vision may have been unsustainable from a production standpoint, but in this moment of fracturing coalitions on the left and rising nationalist xenophobia everywhere else, its abrupt end felt as much about a rejection of intersectionality.

Which brings us back to Pride. In season one, Nomi, riding in San Francisco Pride with Dykes on Bikes, has a seizure that leads to her psychic connection with her cluster, setting the plot in motion. In season two, Lito, despite fears it will end his career, accepts an invitation to Săo Paulo Pride, appearing on-stage before an enormous crowd, the actor’s image multiplied on giant screens. As his boyfriend Hernando, beard painted rainbow, looks on tearfully, Lito confesses, “All of my life I have had to pretend to be something I wasn’t, and to become what I wanted to become I couldn’t be what I am… I am a gay man! Why did I have to be so afraid to say that? Because I know that people are afraid of people that are different from them.” As he speaks, Lito’s cluster—people that are different from him—join the Brazilian revelers, dancing ecstatically to anthemic electronica. The sequence ends with Lito, in rainbow speedo, trust-falling into the massive crowd. Yes, Pride is contested: In some contexts it’s too radical, in others, too normative, but the ethical position of Sense8 begins with the self-determination it symbolically enacts. For the sake of the collective, Sense8 suggests, one must accept, and care for, one’s self. But the work does not end there: To also be a we, that I must confront its fear of other Is. This isn’t a popular sentiment right now, but in the moment of “Peak TV,” we can at least celebrate the activities of minoritarian viewers as they agitate for their entanglements to be diffracted, like Lito at Pride, across a multitude of screens.

Alexandro Segade is an artist based in New York.

Sense8 seasons one and two are currently available for streaming on Netflix.

Yours, Truly


Moyra Davey, Les Goddesses, 2011, HD video, color, sound, 61 minutes.

Two years ago, artist Moyra Davey and writer Maggie Nelson were asked to commence a wide-ranging conversation over email for a book project that never came to light. This summer, I invited them to revisit their conversation. What follows is the first of a two-part feature. —Lauren O’Neill-Butler

MAGGIE NELSON: This conversation is something of a time capsule, which is just now seeing the light of day. In 2014, Moyra Davey and I were asked if we’d like to be in conversation for a publication about photography called Entanglements, edited by Arthur Ou and Shannon Ebner. I was excited about the opportunity—Moyra and I had never met, nor was I exceedingly familiar with her work, but I knew enough to understand why Shannon and Arthur thought our pairing might be rich. We have so many influences, obsessions, impulses, in common. Over the course of the next year, I watched all Moyra’s movies (or at least the ones she sent me on Vimeo!), read her essays, and developed a deep admiration of her as an artist, thinker, writer, and person. Her work is steeped in literature and theory without being deformed by contemporary iterations of such; my literary work is steeped in art and aesthetic questions; in some ways, we’re working the same angle, though I don’t spend any time with a camera. We traded lengthy questions and answers over email over the course of 2015, and then met a couple of times in New York City. In 2016, we learned that the Entanglements project had died; our conversation was then set adrift in the ether. In 2017, Lauren O’Neill-Butler at Artforum had the lovely idea of resurrecting it there.

A lot has happened since Moyra and I first talked—the entire horrifying 2016 election season; the even more horrifying election of Donald Trump; a busy time for both Moyra and me professionally; the further growing up of our children; and more. In any case, we’re very glad to have the chance to publish the results of what, for us, was a delightful and meaningful meeting of the mind and heart, which I hope will continue.

Moyra Davey: I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I learned Maggie had agreed to do this conversation. I’d read Bluets and The Argonauts and had twice heard Maggie read in New York. I was a fan. Entanglements was ostensibly to have been about photography, and I did try to steer the dialogue in that direction, and Maggie was willing, but somehow that topic never got off the ground. We were too easily derailed by the joint passions Maggie mentions above.

This conversation does feel like a time-capsule: since we left off The Argonauts climbed the charts; the Chantal Akerman research I discuss became Hemlock Forest, a book and a video. I finished the Knausgaard series, got derailed by Elena Ferrante, and most recently found myself on an Eileen Myles jag in the course of which I read the Myles chapter in Maggie’s book Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions. And of course the unimaginable happened in November and continues to be a daily poison, but still I wonder what Maggie is reading/writing now and I eagerly await what comes next.

MD: I got hooked on Karl Ove Knausgaard, because my friend, Jill Schoolman, publishes him and the books arrived on my doorstep. I read Volumes 1 & 2 of My Struggle, and will start Volume 3 soon. He’s a bit of an unlikely fit in the sense that I don’t usually read such long books, but the genre, auto-fiction, is something I’ve been drawn to for a long time. KOK wrote explicitly about shame in an article for New York Times Magazine, about how in Norway you’re raised to never call attention to yourself, to never think you are better or more important than anyone else, etc. And so for him, everything he writes is a shameful act, yet he is also driven to do it. There is so much writing generated you wonder how he can live his life.

In a second NYT article (just out two weeks ago, and he’s on the cover of the mag), ostensibly a kind of travel narrative to describe Viking remains in North America, he writes about taking a giant shit in a hotel room in Newfoundland, clogging the toilet and twice sticking his hand down the hole to try and unplug. Seems kind of like a fuck you to the NYT’s conceit for the article…I loved it. He stayed so true to himself, even in this journalistic genre, and I wonder if the Times has ever published anything like it.

I grew up in a culture of shame and guilt in Catholic Quebec. I have a lot of shame around money, especially, but also around some of the unseemly “calling attention to self” that Knausgaard writes about. I always deal with it in the videos and in my writing, but daintily. I have this fantasy of a vehicle that would hold an outpouring of all the shame and guilt (a “pathography”—Paul Thek’s term), but know it will probably never happen. I was in analysis for almost six years and barely scratched the surface. I am anal and repressed!

Enough about me. Shame came up in relation to you because you seem free of shame. Your writing has a quality of openness, ease, generosity. It flows, it’s the opposite of retentive. You can talk about anal sex, which I know a lot of men will talk/write about, but far less common for a woman to do so. The question I would have asked you when you read in NYC (at NYU?) is: Do you ever have a sense of shame, do you censor yourself, do you edit out certain things from your writing that you consider too far out there? Do you leave in things you feel uneasy about because you want to risk something? Do you agree with Orwell who said: “You can’t trust an autobiography unless it reveals something shameful?” Maybe these are question you’ve dealt with a lot, and don’t want to keep rehashing, and if so, that’s fine.

MN: I’m really interested in your notion of your videos as dealing “daintily” with “calling attention to the self.” I wouldn’t use the word “daintily”! I think what you’re doing, especially in Les Goddesses, is so much more deft, and in its own way, bold, rather than dainty. By filming yourself walking around your house and talking about literature and theory and your family, you’re giving us this remarkably generous self-portrait—of what you think about most, what you read, your own artistic journey, and perhaps, most of all, your body and voice moving through space in the most banal but also intimate and compelling of ways. I became obsessed with the moments at which you pulled up your jeans from time to time, for example! Your posture, your voice, all these elements that one can’t really control, felt very central to me. I just loved it.

I read the 2012 New Yorker piece on Les Goddesses, and while I was glad that it was so positive and in many ways astute, I felt annoyed by the way it felt the need to compliment your great video by setting it up as superior to the straw man of the “narcissistic tell-all.” The critic writes: “By the end of the video, you’ve learned that Davey has multiple sclerosis and has a young son named Barney, who hates art museums. But it’s hard to discern how well you know her. She provides these facts off-handedly and there’s a sense that she’s leaving out as much, if not more, than she includes. There’s a naturalism to this approach that makes Les Goddesses appealing in a way that tell-all memoirs are not. Memoirs so often beg the question, Why would you want to tell me all this?”

Besides mainstream celebrity memoirs or other genres in which artistry need not apply, I really don’t know where all these “narcissistic tell-alls” are, not to mention the fact that there can literally be no such thing as a “tell-all.” All autobiographical presentations are curated—with more or less care, surely, but still. Personally, I never think to myself while reading, “Why would you want to tell me all this?” That question seems to me to speak volumes about the reader/critic more than the writer. What I hear in that question is the baseline assumption that the writer should not be telling you all this, unless proven otherwise—that there’s shame in the telling, and the critic’s job is to wake the artist or writer up to the shame she/he may have missed. At the far end of this logic lies the virulent idea that we’re better off with less speech, less telling, less expression; nearly every nasty review of a work of autobiography I’ve read contains this latent or manifest wish that the writer/artist would just shut up. Maybe this is just journalistic laziness, but it bugs the hell out of me.

Maybe it’s clear by now that I don’t really think of my writing in a matrix about shame and exposure and revelation, etc. That’s not really the tradition of writing that interests me the most. It’s a moralistic cul de sac that impedes the capacity to discuss other things. I’m not naďve enough to think one can escape what Foucault called the logic of a confessing society. But I do think it’s worthwhile to use our critical and creative imaginations to make or take in work without shoving it in those boxes, whether in an attempt to laud or denigrate it.

For those reasons and more, I’m very glad if I seem free of shame to you! I mean, on the one hand, how silly and frightening and probably impossible—a human free of shame! But on the other, it’s true that I just don’t feel a lot of shame these days. Or, rather, I don’t feel shame around certain subjects that seemingly make others tense. (I’ve also spent most of my adult life surrounded by artists and writers whose work and company make mine feel decidedly prude, in comparison.) Often I have the experience that I’m hoarding shame around something that registers as a zero for others. Like in Bluets, I felt really ashamed to write about alcohol—much more than about being horny or heartbroken. But no one has ever asked me about that, which tells me something. It also might be a clue as to the nature of shame itself—it can be so private, and as often as not, met with a shrug by others.

To answer your more specific questions—of course I edit things out from my writing, but usually they are things that I worry might hurt other people, not things that I’m worried about saying about myself. Probably I do leave in things I’m uneasy with for the reasons you say, about taking risks, but luckily, by the time a book is coming out (which takes about a year, after you’ve made the last changes), I’ve made my peace with it, and the uneasiness factor has faded. That may explain the shameless quality you’re noting—it’s really more that I’ve made my peace.

I’ve read three volumes of My Struggle now and I love them. I completely understand and agree with everyone who has noted that women writing about stuffing their toddlers into their shoes and strollers would and do get a completely different treatment, and there’s no doubt that a lot of the frisson of the writing comes from internal and external expectations about masculinity rubbing up against this insistent, often very boring cataloguing of his days, without any Ulysses-like mythos or heroism. But I find the sheer immensity of the project conceptually fascinating, and I too have enjoyed the frank discourse on shame in his work. A lot of the work I love becomes shameless as it delves headlong into shame, and I would put My Struggle in that category. (Importantly, I’ve also read that he personally never thought of the project as “about male shame,” as a reporter once put it to him; for reasons I’ve already gone into, I completely relate to this disavowal. The writing has already alchemized shame and transcended it, so it often seems like it’s the reader who wants to pin the writer back to that incipient state.)

MD: I guess if Knausgaard can write so “shamelessly” about taking a giant shit, it makes you wonder what could he not write about. My friend, Alison Strayer, and I have debated whether he is truly exposing his shame. She doesn’t buy it, finds him a bit disingenuous; in the two books I’ve read, the only place I can really locate the shame is in his drunkenness, which you mention too, apropos of Bluets. I will mention one other conversation on the topic of Knausgaard and shame: my partner, Jason Simon, put forth Teju Cole as an example of someone who truly exposes his shame, as in the shocking revelation that he, or his character (in Open City), may have raped a woman when they were both students. This may be a special case, since until that moment, the novel has read as something closely derived from life—the narrator is a psychiatrist who eases pain, takes long walks, writes about the birds in his neighborhood and histories of social injustice embedded in the city. The confrontation from the woman pivots the structure and throws into doubt any assumptions the reader might have made about genre (auto-fiction?) and veracity.

On Christina Crosby’s panel (at Barnard), which centered on her memoir about her paralysis, A Body, Undone, her partner, Janet, said that in the memoir she is sometimes Janet, and sometimes not, the character ‘Janet.’ When I perform the narrations for my videos I try to dissociate in the hopes that the figure on screen will be read as ‘me’ and ‘not me.’ And because I quote a lot, I’ve even resorted to small fibs/distortions, such as making an unsavory anecdote of my own appear as though it might have been written by Kafka.

When I saw you in NY, you mentioned, perhaps half-jokingly that your genre is “auto-theory,” and then on the panel, I think you said certain readers hungered for you to “make it more personal.” To my dismay I’ve had people say similar things to me. I always thought the literary bits were what made my confessions palatable—they were my cover for the darker stuff I wanted to write. Borges recounts that in his long history of lecturing he found audiences drawn much more to the concrete than the abstract, and he kind of sums it up by saying: “People long for confessions and I have no reason to deny them mine.” In my view you strike a perfect balance between the intimate and the theoretical. But as per Borges I utterly savor and retain your passages such as caring for and playing with a small child in a way that is utterly devoid of rancor and boredom; Harry’s last night with his dying mother, the love and strength he brings to this moment of passage, followed by the no-holds-barred account of you giving birth to Iggy—it is all pretty transformative stuff, and super-generous to the reader. And into all of this you weave radical politics, theory, critique, and you are not shy about calling people out, expressing strong opinion.

I don’t mean to curtail this particular discussion on shame and auto-fiction-theory (we can circle back to it), but since Shannon and Arthur have titled their book Photography and Its Entanglements, I thought to introduce an idea I heard Barthes talk about in an interview (a few years before Camera Lucida was published), a propos of photography, where he asserts that for him, ‘fascination’ is the defining principle of the medium. He sets it up in a kind of drastic way, marginalizing ‘art photography’ (“devoid of interest, it wants to compete with painting”), and journalism, which he says can be very beautiful but entails a separate philosophy.

He says any ontology of photography revolves around fascination, which by (his) definition makes it “outside language.” He calls it a tautological problem: something is fascinating, you want to talk about it, but you can’t, precisely because it’s fascinating (this is my attempt at parsing his tautology). I’m paraphrasing and quoting here, I’ve listened to the recording multiple times (I can probably send you the audio file in French, if you like). It’s an audacious claim, and I really relate to it! I find it so freeing. I almost never want to talk about photography in the abstract, I always found the historical debates quite boring and pointless (e.g. “can it be art if a machine made it?”), and I have a suspicion that the current fixation on the transition from analog to digital is just a new spin on some of the old arguments (pictorialism v straight; appropriation v documentary etc).

I know you are into Barthes, wondering what you think of this ‘fascination’ idea, which seems to me distinct from his notion of the punctum.

To read part two of Moyra Davey and Maggie Nelson's conversation click here.

The Kartlis Deda. Photo: Ariana Reines.

I WAS IN Gloucester, Massachusetts in June, finishing a book in the house where T.S. Eliot spent his childhood summers. I hadn’t been particularly in the mood to worship the dean of modernism, but rereading Four Quartets, especially after eating one or two psilocybin mushrooms, was arresting. You should try it.

I was researching the Yezidi religion for the penultimate section of my book. I kept circling around the 2014 massacre and mass enslavement of women by ISIS that took place on and around Mount Sinjar, because that was the time peacocks started showing up in my life, and because I’d met a random Army chemist in a bar in Albuquerque who had been there. Yezidi worship centers on the sun and a peacock angel, from what I understand. Even though the sun shows up in the world every day, its cultures & the forms under which it is and has been worshipped are surprisingly various. I’ve never been particularly attracted to peacocks, though David Rattray has a poem called “Mr. Peacock” that will give you shivers. Peacocks just started coming into my life, and because A SAND BOOK is as much about desertification as the idea of infinity, I just accepted that I’d follow those birds wherever they led me. Like the lurid rainbow slick on the surface of spilt oil, or the iridescent wings of a crow—there are infinities that hide in plain sight. I’ve been using this book to figure out out how to accept the impenetrable but also how to break it open.

In July I taught poetry in Tbilisi, a shimmering blonde city full of wine, casinos, flushed apricots, and handsome people with dark hair and red lips and high cheekbones. Georgia is a sovereign nation, but Georgians will tell you about a “creeping occupation” by Russian troops and Russian culture always there at the edge of their consciousness, their country. Stalin was a Georgian. The national epic is called The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. It was written by Shota Rustaveli in the twelfth century and it extols, among other things, the virtues of Georgia’s legendary female King Tamar. Yes, female king. High on a hill over Tbilisi stands the Kartlis Deda, a gigantic metal statue of a buxom crowned woman wielding a very big sword. I was told that the prehistoric Caucasus was matriarchal. “Caucasian” is very strange, a nauseating euphemism. Incidentally Jews have continuously inhabited Georgia for centuries. The country remains deeply multicultural and pluralistic, boasting many ethnic groups & a mosque, a synagogue, & Eastern Orthodox cathedral all in the same neighborhood.

Tbilisi is also home to a Yezidi temple, modeled on the sacred shrine at Lalish in Northern Iraq. It opened in 2014, on land gifted by the Georgian government. When I visited, I brought a gift of an oyster shell from the T.S. Eliot house back yard. I’m pretty sure I’ve read somewhere in my Yezidi books that the planet was created as a pearl that then broke into four pieces.

I didn’t sleep much in Tbilisi. My workshop was way overenrolled, I had a lot of astrology sessions booked, my lover was at a writing residency on Pacific Standard Time with a severe case of poison oak, and I was on 24-hour duty air traffic controlling my schizophrenic mom’s newfound homelessness. It was sunny and hot every day. They had me in the Boris Pasternak room. I slept every three days or so, took a lot of cold showers, did a lot of Kundalini yoga at dawn. The best catcall I got in Tblisi was from an MMA fighter: “I bet you do a lot of squats.” I don’t but I was tired enough to take it as a complement.

Next week I’m going to Norway for a festival and the Norwegian premiere of TELEPHONE, a play of mine from 2009. TELEPHONE was inspired by Avital Ronell’s masterpiece The Telephone Book. I resisted publishing the play for years because I was so focused on exploring durational performance and writing new books—it made me feel kind of superstitious even to think of putting out something I considered “finished.” But this fall the play will be published by Wonder and I’m actually excited about it. The Norwegian translation comes out this month too. It is so profoundly about audition—“spiritual audition,” to borrow Ronell’s phrase—and the entire third act takes place in near-darkness. I’ve always wanted to make opera, radio plays, and performances that happen in the dark. TELEPHONE let me do all of that.

While I was writing it I still had a flip phone. I only got my first Blackberry in 2009, from a boyfriend, and I couldn’t have managed the Guggenheim performance of a TELEPHONE spinoff without it. I loved writing poems with that Blackberry. Loved the buttons. The smooth surface of the iPhone used to freak me out. But now I know how much fun it is to fall in love over text—I think everyone does. The effortless interiority of it. I want to update the third act of TELEPHONE for our era, now that all the other technologies—video and still photography, the entire news media, all of social media, and of course old-fashioned, intimate text—have fully collapsed into it. It used to terrify me that I’ve probably touched my phone more than I’ve touched all the people in my life ever. I’m not sure why I’m no longer terrified by this fact.

Ariana Reines

Ariana Reines is a poet & playwright. She astrologizes at