Four Essays on the Occasion of the Robert Lee Spotlight


First Essay: On Reluctant Authors

One makes a work of art. How is the maker to know when the making is finished? There are, of course, the apparatuses of reception: if a work can be exhibited, purchased, distributed, reviewed, it must be finished. The decisive moment, the moment when the work passes from a virtual unfinished state to an actual finished one, the moment in which the work is given over to itself and, perhaps, the public (for a work may be finished and never see the light of day, but it must always be given over to itself) is the moment when the work is — literally or figuratively — signed. The maker's signature marks the work as something separate from the maker while at the time establishing a lineage. It is this lineage that is the basis for any claims of authorial control or moral ownership of the work in question.

Take for example Kierkegaard's concern with authorship, the signature and finitude. Kierkegaard has a pile of manuscripts in front of him. He initially determines "to lay everything aside I had finished writing," and then decides "that it might be unjustifiable to let these writings just lie there." The manuscripts call to be given over to themselves. They call to be published.

"I desperately needed to make a decision; it had been a frightful strain to have those manuscripts lying there and every single day to think of publishing them, while correcting a word here or there."

Kierkegaard relents, and expects that one day he will sign his own name, but will, for the time being, maintain his practice of employing various pseudonyms.

"Just as the Guadalquibir River at some places plunges underground and then comes out again, so I must now plunge into pseudonymity, but I also understand now how I will emerge again under my own name."

He had employed pseudonyms in the past, but these newer pseudonyms were transparent: one could look through them to the "real" signature below. Anonymity was not retained. Authorship not disavowed, but merely put at a remove, acknowledged as fiction, an authorial construction.

"It is absolutely right — a pseudonym had to be used. When the demands of ideality are presented at their maximum, then one must take extreme care not to be confused with them oneself, as if he himself were the ideal. Protestations could be used to avoid this. But the only sure way is this redoubling. This difference from the earlier pseudonyms is simply but essentially this, that I do not retract the whole thing humourously but identify myself as the one who is striving."


Second Essay: On Robert Lee

To critique the work of friends is tedious, and Robert Lee is a friend. But careful descriptions are always welcome. Trouble is, I have to write this at the same time Robert is putting together (making or remaking) the videos for his screening. Nothing exists for me to describe. Nothing of his video or performance work, that is. We still have the writing: a half dozen or so beautiful texts published in various books and catalogues. These texts — spare, dense, generous, elegant — along with the writing of Jeanne Randolph, are criticism as a collegial enterprise, parallel to art-making.

In his performances, awkwardness, the quality of awkwardness, was plastic for Lee, a physical material: he worked it and worked with it. He was often a particular kind of clown, the inept stand-up, overwhelmed by self-consciousness, glued to the spot with mortification. But this clown was less appalled by the realization (when faced with an audience) that his material was thin and his delivery clumsy than with the realization that an unseen, transparently unself-conscious existence just wasn't in the cards for him. I almost said that the audience was a catalyst for the performer's mortification, but this would imply that we were unchanged, which was certainly not the case. The awkwardness, the mortification — which was beyond simple embarrassment — was reciprocal and, for many, extremely pleasurable.

Performance is happy to be ephemeral. It is foremost among its positive attributes: you had to be there. There is something more traumatic about the destruction (disappearance or loss) of works of art that have, presumably, posterity as a distinguishing feature. Lee pulled his videos from institutional distribution (V/Tape) and then slowly tapered personal distribution. (Of course, there is very little material difference between having a tape in or out of distribution — the likely audience is about the same in either case.) Eventually, so as to not have to deal with requests (that is, to not have to refuse them) Lee simply became uncontactable. If pressed on the matter, he would say that the video work no longer existed, or that it was unfinished and could not be exhibited in an unfinished state. It seems to me that the work is, according to the terms Lee has set for his project, constitutionally unfinishable; he will not sign it and give it over without the appendage of some Kierkegaardian authorial fiction. (Let's hope he's come up with a good one!)

The artists one wishes to hear from most are often the most reluctant to give anything to us; the mediocrities have no qualms flooding the world with their mumbles and farts. I wish I could remember Lee's video work better. I saw all of them in the day, many of them multiple times. I even appeared in one. (It was a blow job scene in a public washroom. Lee asked to cast my boyfriend, but I opted for B. as I had a crush on him.) It always seemed to me Lee was working on a higher level than anyone else in town. While I was plugging away on three or four fronts, some with a kind of precision, others with a ham-fisted hacking, he seemed to be working eight or nine with an effortless finesse.

Robert Lee is at once central and peripheral to the Toronto arts community of my generation, like a god who is not dead, but possibly absent, ambivalently present. But even (or especially) gods should be held in check. Artists should have limited moral rights over their work: too often they have done the wrong thing, too often they have destroyed it. I have nothing against a big bonfire, but anything interesting enough that the maker is troubled over its existence is worth keeping around. (Of course, it should not have been so easy for Lee to eradicate his important body of work. It should have been collected and archived. But there was, and remains, no institution in the country that has a serious collection of media art.)


Third Essay: On Humour and the Aphorism

Alcohol had a curious effect on the C—: after a period of excitement, they would fall into a gloomy silence, then begin sobbing. Two of the less intoxicated men would take the weeping individual by the arms and walk him up and down, whispering words of consolation and affection, until he decided to vomit. Then all three would return to their places and the drinking bout would continue.
— Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques


Two bags of vomit are walking down the street. As they pass a certain corner, one of the bags of vomit begins to weep. "Why are you weeping?" one bag of vomit asks his weeping friend, who replies: "This is the place I was first brought up."


A humorist is a moralist disguised as a scientist, something like an anatomist who practices dissection with the sole object of filling us with disgust; so that humour, in the restricted sense . . . is really a transposition from the moral to the scientific.

— Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic


The world hardens into aphorism. Crystalline, impenetrable, but encompassing something soft and almost living — without bounds, no desire exactly but a yearning in every direction, undulations and cross-undulations, not protoplasm but a walking bag of vomit.



Fourth Essay: On Unfinishedness

As we move about within our mental and historical framework, we take along with us all the positions we've already occupied, and all those we will occupy. We are everywhere at one and the same time; we are a crowd surging forward abreast, and constantly recapitulating the whole series of previous stages. For we live in several worlds, each truer than the one it encloses, and itself false in relation to the one which encompasses it. The truth lies in a progressive dilating of the meaning, but in reverse order up to the point at which it explodes.

— Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques