In 2005 author Kris Saknussemm released a book called Zanesville, a thick whirlwind of hyper-intellectual science fiction that seemed to purposefully defy categorization. He was heralded by the literary press at the time, who were perhaps under the impression that they’d found the next David Foster Wallace. In retrospect, it might have been more appropriate to place Zanesville on the leading edge of a twenty-first century literary trend called “bizarro”, which is best exemplified by the young and prolific Carlton Mellick III whose first novel, Satan Burger, was also published in 2005. The bizarro novelists have plied their trade with a nothing-is-sacred approach which has given the world such titles as I Knocked Up Satan’s Daughter, Ass Goblins of Auschwitz, Like Porno For Psychos and The Baby Jesus Butt Plug. Kris Saknussemm’s latest book, Sea Monkeys, has turned away from the fantasy landscapes of the uber-strange to focus instead on his childhood days in the San Francisco Bay Area of the 1960s. The significance of this turnabout shouldn’t be lost on those who understand the malleability of the past and its ability to directly affect the present and the future. If in the beginning there was the Word, then in the end there will be only the Final Word. And if it feels sometimes like you’ve been living inside someone else’s script, forced to play a part that’s not your own, you’re not alone.
Kris helped kick off a rare and wonderful weekend of transgressive creativity in the valley when he visited The Las Vegas Writers Group bearing a message of literary freedom and profitability made possible by the internet and modern technology. He even came prepared with a multi-media presentation for the group, which he no doubt intended to use in order to highlight the importance of breaking into the internet and out of the unfriendly New York publishing houses. Unfortunately, he had to deliver this message in front of a conspicuously blank projection screen, his plans foiled by The Las Vegas Writers Group’s inability to set up a functioning projector. It was clear from the get-go that his message of technologic sophistication would be going over a lot of heads. But Kris had some very practical advice to offer the group, namely that they stood a much better chance of making money by turning their backs on the establishment, selling e-books, and promoting themselves to online reviewers who are more likely to be sympathetic and appreciative of what they do.
Kris also suggested that they incorporate other creative talents into their writing process, or borrow the talents of their musical and artistic friends. But even Kris Saknussemm may not have had in mind author Sarah Tressler, who visited The Crazy Horse III the following night for the Las Vegas leg of her strip club book tour. Fired from her gig as a society page journalist at the Houston Chronicle after they learned she’d been moonlighting as an exotic dancer, Sarah decided to write a book about her stripping experiences. The result, The Diary of an Angry Stripper, is a small compendium of useful knowledge for both the working stripper and the strip club client, with self-explanatory chapter headings like ’10 Things You Should Know Before Dating a Stripper’ and ‘The Weird Ones and Their Bizarre Fetishes’. But what makes her different from “bizarros” like Saknussemm and Mellick is not the subject matter of her book, which is sufficiently seedy and strange, but the fact that she’s created a practical guide for people who want a little help making sense out of an insane world rather than the chance to get lost in a world that’s even more insane than this one.
Now, searching for an author inside The Crazy Horse III flesh melee is a little strange, even a little creepy, and none of the girls working the floor even had a clue who she was, except for one or two who’d heard some vague rumors. But all of them, whether authentically or professionally, seemed very interested in her story. And what at first seemed like just another oddball curiosity turned out to be quite an education. Bifurcating her income stream by combining exotic dance skills with a master’s degree from NYU’s graduate school of journalism, Sarah Tressler was living proof that our assumptions about strippers and writers are inexact: what makes the two professions incompatible is our presumption that writing is an elevated art while stripping is a degraded one. In actuality, selling books and lap dances simultaneously is one of the most interesting and original combinations the post-modern world has to offer, and Sarah was far more charming and personable than any stripper really has to be in order to stay gainfully employed. And smart women are sexy. That is, unless you happen to be too busy hiding your own low self esteem (or sexual orientation) to notice.
Outdated assumptions about creativity were also challenged on July 21st at Henderson’s Pop Up Art House, where performance artist Jevijoe Vitug organized the London Biennale in Nevada 2012: 7 Colors 7 Artists. Seven different performance artworks were assembled in the Pop Up and its adjoining storefronts, organized according to the different colors of the rainbow. For his part, Vitug chose to represent the color yellow. He did this by whipping out his wiener, aiming his bladder content into a cup, and then drinking it. Now, there are compelling theories about the health benefits of drinking one’s own urine, but watching someone actually do it didn’t seem like a convincingly meaningful artistic experience. Nonetheless, Jevijoe’s solemnity and earnestness made the act ritualistic, if not touching. Sharing the main gallery space with Jevijoe was Matthew Couper, who painted little pictures of gold and little pictures of poop while dressed in a customized monkey suit. Vitug and Couper presented the most successful of the performance pieces that night, probably because they were the least thematically ambitious and the most proficiently enacted. The others weren’t knocking any socks off with their technical finesse, but if these were growing pains they were the best ones our valley has had in quite a while.
The most recent explosion of performance artwork occurred in the 1960s and early 70s, when rebellious trailblazers like Vito Acconci, Marina Abramović, Carollee Schneemann, Chris Burden and the Viennese Actionists started incorporating masturbation, self-mutilation and livid physicality into their performances. Many of them were motivated by the shocking atrocities of war (much like the Dadaists, Surrealists and Absurdists before them), but they were also challenging the arbitrarily self-enforced limits of cultural experience. Unfortunately, war and commercialism have again won the day, despite their best efforts. Celebrated performance artist Marina Abramović seemed to encapsulate the situation with her 2010 piece called The Artist is Present, in which she sat on a chair behind a table and allowed visitors to take turns sitting on a chair opposite her for indefinite staring contests. While maintaining the awkwardness and open-ended nature of good performance art, The Artist Is Present reminded us of how we got into this sticky predicament in the first place. Anything can happen and probably will after the characters in a story sit face to face with their author. If the author is to maintain control of her story, she must in some way cripple the characters in it. Otherwise, they’re liable to establish their own identities and wander off the page. So, maybe it’s time we start challenging our cultural assumptions once again, before we reach the inevitable bloody climax of this shitty novel we’ve all been forced to be a part of.
Bottom photos (clockwise from top left): J K Russ & Mz Mina Kahn (Blue), Brent Holmes & Yasmina Chavez (Violet), Noelle Garcia (Red), Eri King (Orange), Darren Johnson & Toshie McSwain (Indigo)
ArtsVegas: Covering Las Vegas Art and culture since 2009.