The filmmaker on painting, portraits, and process.
Filmmaker Leslie Thornton is a contemporary of visionary image-makers such as Chris Marker, Chantal Akerman, Michael Snow, and Harun Farocki. The poetic breadth and conceptual depth of Thornton’s work—which bridges the gap between video and cinema—express a commitment to the vulnerabilities and complexities of the human condition, the guiding thread in her work. I imagine a rope pinned to the trees at different points in a dark forest, something to hang onto while moving through the dark cinema sky.
Thornton spent her early teens living in rural New York with her family. It was there that she was first exposed to experimental film through screenings of contemporary works that a minister of a local Unitarian Church put on every Sunday. When she went to college at the State University of New York at Buffalo, she studied under some prominent figures in Structural Film, such as Hollis Frampton, Stan Brakhage, Peter Kubelka, and Paul Sharits. Thornton made her first 16mm film X-TRACTS—the beginning of an extensive body of work—while in graduate school in the 1970s at the Hartford Art School. The artist is currently a professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, and also teaches film at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. This summer, she collaborated with students on a film involving athleticism and trampolines, which was somewhat inspired by Werner Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of The Woodcarver Steiner (1974) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Phantoms of Nabua (2009).
The following conversation with Leslie Thornton and her partner, artist and scholar Thomas Zummer (who teaches Theory at the European Graduate School), took place at a coffee/tea bar in the tiny town of Saas-Fee in the German-Swiss Alps, where the EGS is located.
Feliz Lucia Molina I was watching some of your films on UbuWeb and I was wondering about X-TRACTS, the first film you made. I’m curious about the stuttering, the hesitations and hiccups that happen through language and sound paired with the cuts.
Leslie Thornton I made that film when I was in school as a graduate student. Up until then I was painting which was my life when I was a young teenager. But I was painting in a way that was reductive. It was during a period of Minimalism moving into Conceptualism.
I was doing what one did when working within the art realm (it was a period we call Modernist) and there was a strong sense that everything one did was in dialogue with other works. If you weren’t in New York, you tried to keep in touch through journals, if not actually going to see the work. And in the dialogue that I was caught up in, it felt honest making a painting disappear. So I was using grids—not as severe or austere as Agnes Martin, but I was aware of her work. The paintings were moving towards white but there was some kind of grid that kept being laid down and re-established, obscured, and then re-established. I also had a lot of color and the color was gestural, seeping out of the seams between these rectilinear surfaces of white so it felt like there was a touch of Expressionism. That’s what I was talking about in painting.
FLM In X-TRACTS, there’s this element of the personal. Was there a trace of the personal in the paintings?
LT No, I wouldn’t say that about the paintings I was doing. It wasn’t any more true of my paintings than anybody else’s at the time. These were more conceptual problems. But I felt I was painting myself into a corner. When I decided to go to grad school I arrived as a painter and within a month, that was over. I had extensive background in the study or witnessing of experimental film. I had transferred to State University of New York at Buffalo for two years and it happened that all of these great filmmakers—the people who were the early sages of American avant-garde cinema—were conducting the classes. They were teaching aesthetics classes.
FLM Did you know that sages of Structural Film were working and living in Buffalo?
LT I did know because I was already interested in experimental film by the time I was fifteen. It just so happened that in Schenectady, NY—which was a horrible place where I had an unhappy life for four years as a teenager—one fun thing to do was to go on Sunday afternoons to the Unitarian Church where the minister was showing experimental films.
FLM That’s really bizarre that a minister was showing those films.
LT I was too young to even realize what his background was, but the Unitarian Church at the time had the reputation of being very liberal and not so church-like. So the hip kids in high school—
FLM —were going to church and watching cool films.
LT Yeah, that’s what we did. So I had an awareness of it when I went to Buffalo, NY, where I had an extraordinary experience with a brilliant teacher and great painter, Seymour Drumlevitch. At the same time, I was taking all these aesthetics courses that were all taught by men. They were “geniuses” and were told they were geniuses and told us they were geniuses and just presented their work without engaging the students. So it was intense.
There was a lot of money available through the arts. It was a state university, but was chosen by Governor Rockefeller, who poured money into the arts. So it was the state art school at the time. So I thought, This is just like what I read about Black Mountain College. It wasn’t just filmmakers; it was theater, and a lot of writers, poets, and experimental music events. There was a great exhibition while I was there at the Albright Knox Museum that was entirely given over to experimental music. The musical pieces were objects; they weren’t just sounds at all. It was about the way sounds were generated; the places they came from—this was all a part of the exhibition. It was an extraordinary hothouse situation in the cold snowy city of Buffalo.
FLM Did you shoot X-TRACTS in Buffalo?
LT No. I wasn’t making film at all. But when I went to grad school [at the Hartford Art School] I met somebody there who was a British student, a sculptor, who had also started making films, and we just clicked and very soon we started making this film together, X-TRACTS.
The Hartford Art School was at the time considered the conceptual art school in the country. X-TRACTS came out of my history with painting and my greatest attraction was to do films that were identified as “structural-materialist.” So, how could I do this? My painting was analytical but also gestural. I had to translate what I understood already through painting into this new medium that included time and imagery from the world. So we decided to do something that was very simple—just focus on one person. We didn’t think of it as portrait; the person is just a kind of vehicle that we could move around and record. We developed a score ahead of time, a patterning of sound and image in units of six moving from lengths of a maximum of three seconds to a quarter second incrementally over the course of the film, which developed a rhythm and then we did a kind of counterpoint relation between the sound and image in terms of duration. I was very interested in linguistics at the time and so this was what led to being able to imagine taking speech and fragmenting it to other units that were elemental units of speech consisting of phonemes and morphemes which would not have content beyond sound.
So we took a journal that I kept in high school and college. It was embarrassing to look at, because at that age you think you know a lot and you don’t know anything. I wanted to get rid of it but the way I could get rid of it and keep something at the same time was to use the text for the film. So I read from it and we physically cut up the recording, because at that time you put sound on strips of magazine stock that was exactly the same size as 16mm film, that had sprocket holes, and you edited the film and the sound together on a Steenbeck. We didn’t listen to any of the sound. We just cut it according to our pattern and put stacks of short and middle and long pieces of the image together with the sound. So we edited without looking, going by the score. And we really didn’t change anything. And there was the film.
FLM I’m curious about the translation process. Do you feel like it was a pairing or insertion of some kind?
LT It was just a way to begin. I began with something that was like a grid, which was a score based on time and relations between two different elements—the variety of syncopations there could be between an image and sound.
FLM In terms of duration, what about the gaps and hesitations between sound and image that create a disjunction between senses?
LT We didn’t cut in silence except maybe between the sections of six we put a little pause. But that was just natural—I mean, my speech is hesitant if you noticed. And it was more hesitant then than now. So that was just the absence of speech within speech.
FLM X-TRACTS feels as though we are given an impression of the internal rhythm of your thinking or something like that.
LT The curious thing is that that became the case after the fact. We really had this cool attitude towards what we were doing. And there is a point where I say one phrase that comes out—and it’s arbitrary that it happened to stay together—and it’s, “of necessity, I become an instrument.” It was from the notes I was making in my notebook about this piece that we were going to develop and so we really didn’t see the more emotional and portrait-like quality of the piece at the time. And I don’t think other people did either. In fact, one extraordinary thing about living with X-TRACTS all these years is that when it was produced, I couldn’t understand what was being said even though I knew what had been said. There are only a couple of points where you could hear words or put words back together. I remember I was able to hear the broken word “signi . . . ficant,” to put it back together.
FLM Almost like a cut-up poem.
LT Right, but we weren’t thinking that.
FLM The cool attitude of it (because there are some moments like the cigarette and spinning around and hair throwing everywhere and walking down the long snowy road) doesn’t feel at all off-putting. It still feels like even though that cool factor is there, there’s a real investigation going on.
LT When I say cool, I mean disinterested, distanced. We shot all around the house—filming things I would do. I would smoke a cigarette. I would go for a walk. It was staged, but it was also stuff that was just common. One of the other factors was how the camera would relate to the subject, for instance, in terms of camera-movement or subject-movement. So for one section, for instance, we’d say the figure always had to be moving away from the camera. In another section the camera had to zoom in.
FLM Right, especially in the parts of repetition and zooming-in on the gesture of closing a curtain. So it almost feels like repetition might not totally be the point because there’s also this inching closer, which feels more like a visceral movement.
LT And we were thinking of it as just a kind of taxonomy of ways the camera and the subject would be in relation to each other and if you look closely at the zoom-in in the bathroom where I’m closing the curtain, you can see I’m holding a stopwatch to time it. And then some of the other shots were longer, were more colloquial and then cut-up, where I’m walking or the dog comes in. Another variable was the light.
FLM Was there a purpose in repeating six units in relation to inflections of speech pattern in X-TRACTS?
LT We used identical units of time but we just placed the timing so that there was no point where quarter seconds of image line up with quarter seconds of sound. There was no great significance to the choice of three seconds maximum. Though I did want to get to the units of phonemes and morphemes. So maybe we tested that a bit, I don’t remember.
FLM So you were using phonemes and morphemes in the language abstracted from your journal to syncopate units of time in the film?
LT Yeah, like how short the cuts would have to be—short enough to isolate just a letter or two letters. I don’t know if we just lucked out or if we tested that. At least I definitely wanted to reduce or break speech into these units. I was starting to say that the thing that was quite extraordinary was that when we made the film we thought it was very fast and couldn’t understand what was being said until we got to the three second sections, and nobody else could either. And in fact, teachers didn’t like the film at all. One person who was maybe the most philosophical of the faculty just said it was “too much.” (laughter) But ten years later, our perception had changed and we could hear and other people could hear what was being said and the film slowed down and now there’s no problem.
FLM Strange to think the experience of time (through film) was different even while viewing—its weird that it took ten years for it to soak in.
LT No, no, it’s not that. It’s probably that media, or our perceptual apparatus was speeding up and speeding up and speeding up and still is speeding up. I don’t know if we’ll explode at some point. But it’s speeding up. We do move much faster today.
FLM Right, that’s what I mean in that it takes time for it to seem like it’s slowed down. Because our perception has sped up and now we’re able to grasp what couldn’t have been grasped at the initial time of making the film.
LT Right, but that wasn’t the point because we wanted the thing to be what it was when we made it. And in a way it became something else—like more “personal” when it wasn’t just this sped up montage of sounds and images. Because the human mind — at least in media cultures—we are just processing differently now. When I realized this, I felt, “oh, this is a basis for scientific study. Is anybody doing anything over periods of time such as ten years, measuring what we perceive with the same objects?”
FLM The way perception changes over time due to technology—that perception evolves in symbiosis with the apparatuses—
LT When you make a film in the old analog world, it’s a slow process. When you go out with a digital camera today it’s not a slow process.
FLM Do you feel that way about the process of painting—that there’s immediacy in painting that is different in film?
LT I didn’t think of time in relation to painting. The only time I thought about it was, How long does it take for this painting to dry? (laughter)
FLM Or the feeling of time in a brush-stroke versus cutting film?
LT I dropped thinking of what I had been doing with painting once I started the process of making film. I didn’t draw comparisons though I probably could now, if I thought about it. I did start painting again for a while, not long ago, and it is slow, it’s like gardening—appreciating being able to slow down.
The painting I have done recently is more representational and that partly does come from my long history of work with people in the world of media. But I’m not “going back” to painting. It’s actually more of a hobby. I’m more concerned with photography and thinking about photography in relation to the moving image.
FLM Like in your recent film Photography Is Easy?
LT Well, I was thinking about the technology of digital photography versus what I did know of an analog practice in film, and being put-off by the abundance factor. And on the other hand, there’s a great liberty in the technology: we don’t spend a fortune, you can work even more impulsively than ever and study things, observe, witness, with the digital. So the fact that I’m making these pieces that are ten or twelve-minute long shots, completely static, maybe shooting as many of these as one would shoot many still photographs, and then choosing one in which something stands out—this significant one that I would share, that I would call a piece of work. I am bemused by this; that I’ve started doing this, making pieces that are ten minute long static shots.
FLM You said you like to choose or focus on one image. What leads you to choose that image?
LT What I look for is something that occurs that I’m not controlling that has a salient presence. It can be behaviors that seem somewhat odd. When people are at a great distance you can’t hear what they’re saying but you watch the pattern of movement of their bodies and you say, “I don’t understand.”
FLM You allow a peculiar distance to the subject. For instance, in Peggy and Fred In Hell, you let the children be themselves and “act” as they are. So this distance—what is it that you try or not try to reveal about the subject?
LT You mean in Peggy and Fred In Hell?
FLM In any of your films that have actors or people on camera, like in The Last Time I Saw Ron or Howard.
LT Well, The Last Time I Saw Ron is different—the footage is very formal. It was shot to be projected in the theater for four months as part of a play in Brussels. Ron was the lead and co-director but then he passed away shortly after the project was finished. It was only presented, I think, for three nights, but it had been scheduled for a long run in Europe and then it stopped at his death. The whole piece was about his death. It was about dying and the isolation of dying and then he died. So that’s a different kind of piece. It’s a memorial to him.
But with the other work, I just have an attraction to the unexpected or off-kilter or quirkiness in speech and gesture. I find pleasure in that and so working with children, maybe you could see this happen all the time in life and be amused. Recording Peggy and Fred In Hell was something else because they were playing to the camera and I had to make sure they weren’t playing to me. I had to use tricks that directors use working with grown-up actors as well. I’d say to the boy, “you could direct the next scene, you’re in charge.”
FLM It’s apparent that you were treating and directing the children in Peggy and Fred as though they were grown-ups.
LT Yes, in a way I was, by seeming to give them responsibility, but really it was a game. For instance, I could tell them both that they were directing the next scene. And then there was a bit of a tussle with their impatience, especially from her towards him when she had been told that she was in charge even though he was also told he was in charge. They’d end up doing things with this kind of instruction and it went beyond just play of children. I came to understand that what they were doing was acting as if they were “actors”—what they understood their job to be because they were in a movie.
FLM So were you also playing with their awareness of being watched?
LT Well, yeah, that became essential. When they were younger, they weren’t as much in charge and so my camera was voyeuristic while they’re sitting around having a tea party or whatever. And also, the girl (whose name is Janis) would do these poses and I was so attracted to her because I thought she was very beautiful—the odd physiognomy—and she just moved that way. You know, she was lanky and she had a tendency to stop and think and it looked like she had many different thoughts, many different expressions would come over her face, which I caught a few times on film and I just thought they were exquisite moments because it was no one thing, one gesture or expression. So I was just generally looking, and with Howard as well. A lot of my work has started when I met a person and felt turned on by them somehow. So to be turned on by them meant that they didn’t read in the same way most of us read while walking down the street and taking care of business—something about them. And so that was the case with the children and Howard.
FLM How did you find the children to play Peggy and Fred In Hell?
LT I moved into a new apartment in San Francisco and they were the upstairs neighbors and they saw me moving in and came to help. There was a fence around the property and suddenly these two little heads popped up and it was just love at first sight for me. And then they started helping me move and they saw my equipment and so right then, that first day, they wanted to record—they saw my tape recorder and they wanted to be recorded. We sat down on the front steps and we recorded some stories, which I used in the film on that very first day. And I knew I had to work with them. I had already planned this project working with adults and it was going to be about technology exceeding the scale of mankind and the iconic technological product was the atom bomb—that that was the shifting point of who or what’s in charge.
FLM Do you want to talk about Let Me Count The Ways and how this film corresponds to what you’re saying about the atom bomb? After we watched it, I approached you and said that what struck me was the speeding up of scientific text and also the ethical decision to not empathize too readily with the other side, instead taking on the position of telling the story from the side of that event that you were familiar with.
LT The “American” side, and that is something you were thinking partly because someone in the audience asked me why I didn’t give a voice to the perspective of the Japanese—that was a fair question. I think a problem in the piece—and I’m not worried about it as a problem and I think as we move further away from WW II (in the ongoing series), it’ll read as less of a problem for the audience—is that I don’t delve into anything very far. So to cover Los Alamos and the delivery of the bomb and also a testimony of a survivor in the course of four minutes—I could be involved and do research and make a documentary that was an hour long about just that, but that’s not the work I’m doing. The work in the end will only be this: it will function more in being condensed, as poetry is condensed. So it has echoes and puns and a kind of poetic rhetoric of condensed, suggestive work that the viewer has to expand.
FLM It seemed that part of the intent was for there to be an undefined relation between the image of Hitler and the poetic sequences referring to the atom bomb. The still photographs of Hitler captured him in his speech rehearsal sessions with his acting coach, crafting his performance of a speech. Someone in the audience wondered if there was any direct connection between the photographs of Hitler and your father, who was essential in the development of the atom bomb.
LT (laughter) On some level, I mean, if you want to go there, yes. It was so far from the point. If you want to say all soldiers of WW II or of history—
FLM —are echoes of Hitler—
LT —that would be pretty silly. They were men involved in a war, but the scale of their involvement—
FLM But this tactic in trying to confront power, in trying to confront its source by looking at the body and face of power in these still photographs of Hitler—
LT I was so struck by the fact that these photographs and the quote from Goebbels are from the 1920s, and that somebody in class was saying that nobody knew what was going to happen and I said, “Well, that’s not entirely true.” They did have a plan and Hitler had already written Mein Kampf at that point and he was getting financial support from businessmen who weren’t necessarily Nazis yet and a lot of them ended up being killed by him—who were supporting him—and they saw in him a mechanism to recover the economy in the country, that he would be the agent. He was a puppet to these men because of his charismatic performance.
FLM His figure functioned as an open channel or vessel where all this power could be poured into.
LT I don’t know, people thought they were using him but he was way past that. It was very convenient for him that they decided to use him.
FLM You also mentioned at some point that you developed an obsessive curiosity about evil.
LT I was just saying that I’ve read a lot, even obsessively, about WW II and about Hitler and Stalin in particular because I don’t know evil. I’m looking for it. I’d like to be able to say to myself definitively, “This is evil.” Now I know I can say personally that some people are evil. But when you’re reading a good history that’s presenting a vast landscape, you look at this and say, “At what point did this person become evil, what was the crucial turning point? And was he evil when he was twenty-five and trying to look like a big shot with the other people supporting him behind the scenes?”
You could make a film using archival footage of him only playing with dogs and show it to someone who doesn’t know the history and they would think, “Wow, what a nice animal lover and look how he is with children.” Then he had a lot of guys helping him out that might’ve been more diabolical and so this machine came together. I can’t say much with authority about this at all. I can just say I’ve had a fascination with the complexity of history. That’s it. And then a kind of focus on evil with a big question mark—like, was Osama Bin Laden evil? I don’t know. But let’s not go there. It’s too complicated right now for this conversation.
FLM The title Let Me Count The Ways feels like a pull of daisy petals: “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me . . .”
LT Well, it was because it started out with my father. But the “How do I love thee” gets dropped in my mind past that first episode. The question “How do I love thee?” is significant in the first episode because I’m showing something that’s filled with an ambivalence and accentuated by the voice which isn’t translated—the voice of the exhausted Japanese woman who was a witness to the Hiroshima bomb. Seeing the young men running around having a good time on their break or being the soldiers that they were, preparing to deliver this weapon, doing their job—
FLM So it’s also capturing this, I don’t want to say, innocence, but—
LT I didn’t say, “I love thee” but “How do I love thee?” How can I love you and—I do love you but how, how is that possible?
FLM Right, the part about the group of soldiers watching the dancer almost felt like there was this crystal clear expanse of naïveté or innocence and yet it felt as though there were no basis for judgment.
LT Yeah, well years after the atomic bomb was dropped after the testing, for instance, somebody sent me a link to a film (documentary footage) and commentary about five men who volunteered to stand beneath a bomb that was being detonated to demonstrate its safety. It was detonated in the air. It was during the testing period of bigger hydrogen bombs and there was one occasion in which five men volunteered to stand at ground zero beneath the bomb. They all lived and most of them lived into their seventies or eighties. Pretty strange, huh? They were demonstrating that it didn’t necessarily produce instant death for humans and they weren’t so aware of the long-term effects of radioactivity. The real irony—or it’s not really irony—is that most of those men lived a long time and it might be that the radioactive material was blown out beyond them by the force of the bomb. It’s possible that they were in an umbrella safety zone without even knowing it.
FLM In retrospect, unbelievable events in history seem totally fictionalized. For instance, the voice of the American woman living in Hiroshima who gave a testimony of the aftermath immediately after the bomb was dropped. The tone of her voice is desensitized and radically optimistic in that “no Americans or Westerners were directly affected.”
LT Well the woman is just bizarre. She lived in Japan for twenty-something years but she certainly saw herself as different. She wasn’t integrated into the society she lived in so you can’t see her as an authority.
FLM I just meant that it seems totally—
LT —fictionalized. Yes, after any event, after any great event. My film Adynata used to have this subtitle that I dropped: Murder is not a story. I was thinking about how when such a thing as a murder occurs, there’s that initial moment in which a person is killed by another, gone, but what we do is to turn this blunt event into a narrative. So there’s this physical reality and then all we can do is analyze it kind of scientifically for criminal purposes. But also we explain it in narrative terms. Like with these slaughters that have happened in the US—recent ones—the guy in Colorado, for instance. When you see the headlines the first day after the event—I know that what I’m looking for is an explanation. Who is this person and why did he do this? Often there’s no answer that day. And then you read the next day and the next day and maybe you’re less interested in the fact that another person died from the wounds than finding out why this happened. What went wrong, who was this person? I have a desire for some kind of explanation and I need some kind of closure to separate the event from myself because until you are told, “Oh, well he was high on a mix of this and that drug," or, “He was paranoid schizophrenic,” or something, then anything’s possible at any time so you need to contain the potential of this catastrophe with a narrative. That is what I am doing, to some extent, in the series Let Me Count The Ways. It offers no closure, just a continuing progression of digressions —it’s as if there are many closures.
FLM Right, or variations of paths towards closure.
LT Well, just because something ends doesn’t mean there’s closure. WWI ended but there was no closure for the Germans.
FLM It’s a split, creating more openings—
LT Right, and a good example of no closure is the position the Germans were left in after WWI, essentially producing a Hitler and WW II. And right now we live in a time (in terms of warfare) with different ideologies, interests, when terrorism becomes a political and military strategy. There’s just no closure and there won’t be any! This is it. Now we live in a world in which we know there’s no closure. There’s no treaty. You can’t write one. There can’t be a treaty signed. Nobody’s thinking about it— this symbolic piece of paper.
FLM It’s as if the awareness of no closure exceeds the symbolic. There’s too much awareness of the hopelessness of a symbolic treaty. News headlines of current events are now making me wonder how you go about titling your films.
LT Yeah, I just—sometimes when I have to come up with a title I start writing a whole lot of horrible things down. Tom’s making a face [Tom Zummer, who is present during the interview] because he collects them. So I have many horrible titles that I don’t use, but then almost always, the title I end up using comes, I trip across it. I just suddenly know and it can happen when I open a book to an arbitrary page and my gaze falls on a fragment of a sentence and then I realize, oh yes, this is the title. There’s serendipity to it. But a title does give a lot of direction to a reading and I think in my own case because I want the field I’m moving through to be so open as I work, its good that I don’t have a title because that would limit my—I think it would focus me in a way that’s not productive, like I’m trying to prove this theorem…
FLM Right, because the anxiety of titles can function as pre-determined or pre-destined markers for a piece of developing work that needs a lot of space. It pulls the work towards an idealization of what it should be.
FLM There’s one more thing I’d like to ask, if you’d like to pick one: ghosts, Jennifer, Where Are You?, your obsession with Isabelle Eberhart, or Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of Sculptor Steiner.
LT Why were you thinking about ghosts or what do you associate that with?
FLM Well, I don’t know what I mean by ghosts, just that, say, if you noticed any in your films after the fact—
Thomas Zummer May I? With Jennifer, there’s the ghostly presence of the disembodied voice. Because it’s repeated, it is a voice returning from elsewhere. There are multiple layers—of address, sexuality, meaning, threat—in the return of that voice, which never properly links to Jennifer even though we apprehend this voice only in close proximity to her image, like an unexpectedly close whisper. Also, when the figure of a man appears upside down and in reverse, there’s a dislocation in that one image is black & white and the other in color. It is also found footage—a cinematic fragment from elsewhere takes up residence in the presence of Jennifer and yet it has that haunting presence of a direct command or interrogation. Precisely, Jennifer, Where Are You? is both command and interrogation and in a sense is, for me, the ghostly nature of a particular kind of haunting, and the attempt towards a possession. What happens is that in Jennifer, Where Are You? Leslie induces a kind of release of the possibility of that containment or capture of Jennifer.
LT I do think that when I finish a work I don’t own it anymore and it just is in the world and circulates and whatever it does or doesn’t do, I take responsibility for it, but it’s not mine. My ego isn’t attached. So it’s a bit strange. It’s even a bit like giving birth, I suppose, you could make that analogy. In terms of ghosts as a metaphor, I would say—I’ve already mentioned what happened with X-TRACTS and how it changed. You can make something and you let go of it when you think it’s OK, it’s full, it’s doing what it needs to do. You’ve had an interesting trip along the way and then forget about it and then have occasion to see it again, ten or twenty years later, or even one year later. And it’s like a stranger and a friend. It’s both.
I guess there’s a ghost in it because there’s a ghost of your own intimacy, once upon a time, with this work. That’s in there and that is what is so surprising to re-encounter. I always find with the works that I think have longevity and continue to not read as nostalgic—I say, “How could that have been in me?” I don’t know. You marvel because you always feel much smaller than this thing. It’s almost magical because it flows through you, but really it’s just that it was hard work and there was a risk that you needed in this period to produce a work—you needed it to grow and grow and grow and grow. And then when you take it all in at once—like somewhat of a stranger, an old friend has changed—that’s when you say, “Well, I couldn’t have done this, how is it possible, how could I have known? I’m not that good, I’m not that smart.” But it’s because of the investment of so much over a period of time. So it does exceed. If it’s good work, it exceeds the maker.
Feliz Lucia Molina holds an MFA from the Literary Arts Program at Brown and is a PhD candidate at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. This past summer, she collaborated with Ben Segal and Brett Zehner on a forthcoming collective epistolary novel The Wes Letters at The Mustarinda House in Finland.