Adam and I began our collaboration 15 years ago in the production room of a mass-market magazine—such rooms have long been places where artists get paid for physically assembling the product and, not so ancillarily, start friendships around the work they do both in and away from the office. When we met, Adam had recently begun making paintings using stock photographs, which art directors of magazines and other publications use when they need depictions of people going about the business of living—working at the office, playing Frisbee, having a picnic, etc.—and I was writing short stories based on TV advertisements. Neither of us wanted simply to critique our source materials’ artificial construction of what sociologist Harvey Sacks called “doing being ordinary”; rather, we both wanted to preserve their emotional pull, and reinstate the intimacy and idiosyncrasy that had been drained from the images in the process of their mass production and dissemination.
Our first joint venture was a performance at Four Walls in Brooklyn, which Adam had cofounded; this consisted of me reciting a short story while Adam presented a slide show of stock photos that commented on the words, sometimes by working against them—i.e., Adam selected images based on my story. We promised each other that next time, I would generate stories based on the images. Seconds is the keeping of that promise. Our goal is for the stories not merely to illustrate the paintings, nor vice versa, but for each piece to amplify an audience’s experience of its cohort.
They had made out. Who does that anymore, at breakfast? He’d been seated at the table when she walked toward him from the counter with a coffee cup in each hand, about to ask him a question, or rather, her walking toward him with the sunlight behind her, elbows at her sides, coffee cups out toward him in almost a please-sir-may-I-have-some-more posture was the question, but Please, sir, may I have some more? was not the question, the question was “Mine’s decaf, so don’t even start,” and someone who didn’t know them might have thought she was angry.
She sat, the sun in the window at her back, her hand inches from his on the table, sunlight in among the small hairs on her wrist. He, not she, seemed to be experiencing morning-time physiological anomalies, an outer-body experience, as someone had called it last night on TV, else how explain his ability to see each speck of dust in motion in the slanted column of light above the pile of her dark hair, each loose strand of hair, each freckle in the left eye, each deviation of the eyeliner from its nearly perfect path?
“Hello?” she said, to indicate he hadn’t heard a word she’d said, and then they were kissing.
Time passed between them, and whoever had made the numbers on the digital clock in their kitchen the same color as the blood in their arteries must have been striving for a correspondence that would make life seem more like a painting than it was. They rushed out the door. On the sidewalk he said, anxiously, “What will you do today?”
“Exchange the rubies in your mother’s safety deposit box for cocaine and spend the morning getting high in the park. You gonna keep at me like this for the next seven and a half months?”
She kissed him, they parted, and late that night, he sat in the waiting area of the emergency room. That there was even an old and dog-eared golf magazine to flip through in a place like this was a modest consolation against the loud TV, tuned to one of those talk shows on which people yell at one another in thrilled indignation, a portal from the world of the sick to the world of the damned. Didn’t anyone with proper authority see that only golf tournaments should be broadcast here? He had no feel for golf itself but found the soft speech of the men and the color of the fairways and putting greens slowed his heart and narcotized his mind, which must have needed it, since he wasn’t ordinarily the type to want to strangle the yellers on TV, and not to strangle but to make feel ashamed the whining toddler to his left, whom he envied on behalf of someone he had never met and now would never meet.
The meanness of the satirical essay you wrote hit me yesterday like a baseball on the chin. Those Sundays we lay curled up in each other on your hard futon kissing and discussing Marx eventually gave me serious lower back problems but at the time I was having like these day-long orgasms in my brain. You said, “Satire will be an important tool for the revolution,” and maybe it will but it also can be a place for someone to hide from the intensity of any real feelings he may have and also to transmute them into a very painful projectile to be hurled at the person he has them about.
It felt so good to be able to unburden myself to you re my inner conflict over my job at the ad agency, so then to see it lampooned yesterday on your blog in what was basically a “humorous” open breakup letter to me—“I’m hoping my $10 million campaign for the US Army is offset by the fact that I buy only free-range organic granola”—made me feel, well, I don’t know, what does Marx say about how it feels to be betrayed by someone you lay naked next to for a cumulative total of fourteen months of your life, someone whom you let pull your hair—hard!—during sex because it gave him so much pleasure even though it really hurt you although you sort of liked it but only because of the obviously intense pleasure he was deriving?
Also, do you think those cool hand-printed signs in the window of your bicycle shop aren’t advertising?
After I read your thing I had a lot to say and even if you thought you knew what I was going to say and didn’t want to hear it from yet another person, it wasn’t fair to not let me say it, and the beautiful mixtape you gave me didn’t make up for that because if I’ve gained any knowledge from my time with you it’s that beauty is one thing and fairness another.
You said, “The distinction between the public and the private is a distinction internal to bourgeois law.” So you keep posting those satires of me on your blog from the back of that little storefront where you work and sleep, and I’ll climb up to the roof deck of my nice apartment building and advertise to the world till I’m hoarse that I loved you.
“What percentage of the annual revenue of the worldwide plastic bag industry do you think comes from illegal narcotics trafficking?” He was supposed to have said something witty and mildly insulting to the marijuana dealer who had asked him that and who was his new friend’s best friend. “About the same percentage of your mother’s body that her fat ass is,” probably, he thought, would have sufficed, had he thought of it before this moment and delivered it with the correct tone and body language, but he knew now, walking home alone stoned along the narrow path through the woods as darkness grew across the sky from east to west, that a person who wondered later how he might have delivered it with the correct tone and body language was not likely ever to be able to summon those things when they were called for. Instead, he’d waited for the next opportunity to insult his new friend’s friend in a way that would signal he was relaxed and funny and tough and mature and adequate, and though that opportunity did not come, he at one point said, “Okay, Cousin It,” in response to a remark by this guy that had no banter in it—“Man, I’m tired,” or something—only because the guy had been brushing his long blond hair out in front of his face. The guy, who evidently was familiar with the surrealistic TV show featuring the “Cousin It” character who was completely covered by strands of blond hair that grew from his head and ran the full length of his body, gave him the finger with his hair still down in front of his face, a gesture delivered with the supercasualness the insult it was a response to lacked, but not a friendly casualness, more of the Who is this idiot you brought with you to pick up your weed? kind.
In the park, at the mall, in school, at his job, even on the line at the supermarket he had seen the way pairs or groups of guys behaved who were good friends, who reveled in one another’s company, whose lives were made unequivocally better by the existence of the friendship, but who betrayed no sign of making a big deal out of any of it. Those moments went by too fast for him to fully take them in though. He wished there were a movie or TV show that was all about two new friends, one slightly older, confident, popular, happy—who knew how to live without having to think about it—and the other younger and almost paralytically self-conscious. If it existed, he would stop at the DVD store in the mall at the edge of the woods, buy it, take it home, and spend the night watching it to figure out how anyone would prevent such a friendship from going sour before it even really got started.
—Adam Simon’s most recent exhibition was at Pocket Utopia in Brooklyn last March. He founded and codirected the exhibition space and artists’ forum Four Walls and, more recently, the Fine Art Adoption Network (as part of Art in General’s New Commissions program).
—Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels Jamestown, The Sleeping Father, and Nothing Is Terrible. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, The Los Angeles Times, Art on Paper, and elsewhere.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Lieberman Foundation.