Human like the rest of us

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A conversation with Marcel van den Berg
by Tom van Imschoot

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Upon contacting Marcel van den Berg so as to conduct an interview regarding our shared interest in the topic of fascination, Marcel immediately proposed to have our ‘correspondence’ integrated in the process of producing the work on B.S. Johnson he planned to present at falkeandcharlotte. This was very much in tune with my own wish to avoid the traditional interview situation in which the interviewee is asked to clarify his or her work ‘after the fact’ of making it, as if there is a ‘truth’ that awaits the logic of a series of questions addressed behind the work to the one who created it in order for the work to be revealed as ‘a true work’ at all.

If any questions were to be asked at all, I thought, it should be those Marcel finds himself questioned by in front of his work and to which his very work (or the product resulting from it) is therefore only a particular answer that urges him to immediately undo it again (‘after the fact’) and to reformulate it in yet another work. In order to make myself acquainted with the questions governing his work, I thus asked Marcel to show me some of his previous work. Without really saying so, he politely refused this request, however, and for good reason: in consequence of his wish to integrate our conversation as a part of the process he was going through in creatively trying to voice his fascination for the writings of B.S. Johnson, he suggested to make use as explicitly as possible of our (relative) anonymity vis-à-vis one another. I found this particularly challenging, since my own current research project focuses on the question whether and how the experience of fascination can be made intersubjective through artistic means. Our (relative) anonymity, or our being not acquainted with each other’s work, provided both of us with an interesting testing ground, in other words, for discovering and discussing how fascination actually functions in our work, or how we try to cope with the question its experience poses to us.

The result is an open-ended conversation in which the traditional speech situation of the interview got subverted from the outset, because Marcel started to ask me questions in response to mine or because my responses became the very source of the questions Marcel wanted to ask (to) himself. The only restriction I kept in mind during this process was that my own answers did have to refer to the B.S. Johnson-related material Marcel confronted me with, so as not to diverge too far from the artistic work he presents for falkeandcharlotte’s project at Dolores. I believe our conversation can therefore truly be considered as a discursive intervention that was ‘part of the process’.

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Marcel van den Berg: Just a few weeks before he committed suicide, Bryan made a film for HTV Wales ‘Fat Man On A Beach’, revisiting his favourite beach Port Ceiriad and talking directly about anything that come into his head. Poems, anecdotes, corny jokes, visual gags, rants of every de-scription. He quite obviously took the opportunity, in some parts of the film, to share his belief that ‘telling stories is telling lies’ and that life consisted purely of chaos. Despite one or two (truly dreadful) dirty jokes and a handful of surreally clever sight gags, ‘Fat Man On A Beach’ seems as much possessed by death as anything in Johnson’s work. There’s for instance the long, horrible story about a motorcyclist being thrown from his bike and landing on a wire fence which cuts his body ‘like a cheese cutter cutting through cheese’. What fascinates me most is that, while telling this story, there is a point where Bryan loses his thread and starts talking about how ‘cheese comes in packages’, so ‘we never see the cutting process’ and he ads, feelingly, ‘Thank God’. Suddenly, it seems he has no access to metaphor: he talks about cheese, not the human body... fascinating.

Having seen this particular fragment many, many times, I can’t help but think that Bryan is actually talking about himself. In my opinion, it very painfully displays the actual disintegration of Bryan Johnson. To quote him: “Some things can only be said indirectly. One can only reflect the truth of what they were.” Although I do somehow feel that the story of the motorcyclist, at least for me, is crucial in understanding Johnson, I am still really struggling to see its meaning, how it can mean something.

Tom, can you maybe shed your light on this particular matter? How do you deal with this kind of confusion in your work? I feel that I sometimes have to kill my fascination, because it blinds me.

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Tom Van Imschoot: If I am to shed a light on what blinds you, I cannot begin but by stressing that it is foremost your blindness which allows me to open up any insight at all, both vis-à-vis the way B.S. Johnson’s story works and the fascinating effect it has on you. Upon reading (and rereading) your account of it, I (quite slowly) came to realize, as a matter of fact, that its very complexity is due to the fact that your experience of fascination actually reflects the experience of fascination B.S. Johnson’s story(-telling) is testifying to, while at the same time performing it. I do not intend to say with this, for clarity’s sake, that your fascination is blocking my view upon what happens in B.S. Johnson’s story(-telling) – for that would entail that you’re merely transferring your blindness upon me. To the contrary, it is exactly your fascination which makes me see the experience of fascination at hand in B.S. Johnson’s ‘Fat Man on a Beach’, and its relation to story-telling and autobiography. As such, your version of the story is already testifying (in my opinion) to fascination’s potential as a source of cultural ‘resonance’, and therefore as a strategy for artistic research, resonating something which it cannot identify.

Your attempt at bestowing meaning upon the fascinating event in B.S. Johnson’s story(-telling), appears to me as a double attempt at identification: in trying to identify the relationship between B.S. Johnson and his story through significant topics such as his imminent suicide, his view on storytelling as a way of lying to mask life’s chaos and his artistic preoccupation with death, you also appear to identify between B.S. Johnson’s storytelling and yourself (as I ‘judge’ from your calling him ‘Bryan’ and the idea that your fascination should be ‘killed’). It is precisely the impossibility of this attempt at identification, however, or your ‘blindness’ as to how it can mean something, which is most meaningful vis-à-vis the experience of fascination, I believe, since your attempt at identification creates a communicatory framework that allows the object of your fascination to become present (in its very absence) to me. Indeed, its impossibility mirrors (reflects, or ‘doubles’, so to speak) the event of Johnson’s losing his thread while telling his story about the motorcyclist, his lack of access to metaphor, as you poignantly say – ‘metaphor’ being the method to transfer meaning upon something through implicit identification.

I believe all this makes clear that the object of your fascination, the experience to which B.S. Johnson succumbs, is not really semantic. It is, more precisely, imaginary. It has to do with the experience of an image that is not under any control, but instead inciting distraction, causing the one who tries to grasp it from a distance (for example by crossing it via the metaphor of ‘cheese’) to be all of a sudden grasped by that ‘distance’ itself, as Maurice Blanchot would say, lost at sea, moving in a direction in which your ‘goal’ all of a sudden appears as the point where you finally are completely at a loss (of words, for instance), a point you can only reach through experiencing your own death and which is therefore, strictly speaking, unreachable (‘thank god’), though it turns the one who tries to reach it into a storyteller. I believe it is something of this fatal dynamic you are sensing in the fragment you chose to recount to me, Marcel, especially when you state that ‘it displays the actual disintegration of Bryan Johnson’. I do not know to what extent this actual disintegration could be ‘identified’ to his imminent suicide, however – and, to be honest, I think this does not really matter, nor is it really of our business.I was particularly intrigued, however, with the bodily dimension of the imaginary experience B.S. Johnson undergoes, since I think there is a tight relation between the corporeal and the imaginary in the experience of fascination. This relation is far from clear to me, however, so maybe you can tell me whether and, if so, how this is a relevant issue in both your thinking and the practical production of your work. Could that be a clue to understanding why we sometimes feel that a text or an image (in it) really ‘touches’ us?

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Marcel van den Berg: How fortunate, dear Tom, or strange, this coincidence, I mean: your last question. Yes, I agree with you, especially with Bryan in mind, that there is a tight, and relevant, and fascinating relation between the corporeal and the imaginary... and, yes, I am deeply touched by this association... however, in this specific case, my explanation of the meaning of this relationship might be quite different than yours, at least... ehm...

Let me put it this way: the relation between the corporeal and the imaginary is a relevant issue, for me, funny enough, at this moment in time... but normally it doesn’t play a very big role in my work, at least, it does not conceptually, it does play a role practically. The way we both deal with the issue of the corporeal and the imaginary will without doubt be quite different in our works as artists... I don’t know actually... I would like to know... please, Tom, tell me how it plays a role in your work. I will try to explain why, right now, I feel that the corporeal and the imaginary should both be relevant in my work about Bryan. Just a few days ago I started again rereading – call it speed-reading this time – Johnson’s work, looking for clues or ideas to put in my work.

I noticed that Bryan becomes particularly dark, bitter, comfortless, hauntingly honest and at the same time very, very compassionate when he writes about the human body (he thought of his own body as being ‘gross’, by the way). I remember him quoting William Burroughs at Port Ceiriad in ‘Fat Man On A Beach’: “The human body as a soft machine”. The human body as a soft machine... I kept that in mind, and, very recently, stumbled upon some interesting bits in his poetry and prose. At this moment I don’t quite know how to translate this ‘element’, this piece of information in my sculpture, but I feel that it is relevant, especially now you brought the issue up in your last question... hmm, I will be working on it in the next couple of days.

Here are some of those fragments that I found.

“(...) Just in the few weeks since we had last seen him he was grosssly altered, distressingly, his face was shrunken, lost much of its flabbiness, rotundness, the skin was now tighter so that it was shocking, yes, to recognize him, now, from what he had been, then. This diminution made features stand out more, which were not that noticeable before, his eyes stood out, stared, fixed you, I slip into the second person, in defence, stared for longer moments than you wanted, than I did want, yes. And his teeth, I never remember seeing Tony’s teeth before, they were there, of course, in that fleshy mouth, but now the mouth was not fleshy, the flesh was gone, not gone, but taunted, disfigured, and the teeth were there, their roots showing, the ones at the sides, molars, incisors, gaps visible between them which were unexpected, not that any were missing, as I remember, but there were gaps between, perhaps the gums were shrinking, too, withdrawing, perhaps it was affecting the gums, that the teeth should appear so unnaturally, I do not know, but it was affecting him everywhere, I seemed to think, now, from the way he looked, his skin was too yellow, where it had been white before, a pallid, unhealthy color, then, when he was healthy, now it was in jaundice, I imagine, the kidneys affected, is it, I don’t know, or the liver, how little I know about medicine, the body, anything, ah.”

(The Unfortunates, 1969 – note: As you probably know, Bryan was absolutely devastated by the death of his friend Tony Tillenghast. ‘The Unfortunates’ was based on the idea of randomness, because that is the nature of cancer.)

“(...) In the ember days of my last free summer,
here I lie, outside, myself, watching
the gross body eating a poor curry:
satisfied at what I have done, scared of what
I have to do in my last free winter.*”

Poems (Constable, 1964, Johnson’s first published collection)

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Tom Van Imschoot: By way of responding, Marcel, I would like to start of with saying that I was arrested by the way you started to ‘stammer’ when trying to explain the way in which the relation between the corporeal and the imaginary is relevant for your work, ‘at this moment in time’. It sounds as if I quite coincidentally touched upon an ‘element’ that is still difficult to pin down for you, and of which I think that it should probably not been ‘pinned down’ at all, discursively speaking, in order for you to be able to ‘translate’ it effectively into your work. As for me I think that I currently deal in a specific manner with the relation between the body and the image in both my theoretical and artistic work. Generally speaking I am interested in the way the body intrudes as a disruptive force during the process of autofictionalization, looking for the point where its ‘disappearance’ due to the processes of abstraction we live by all of a sudden appears as ‘an image of this disappearance’ that sweeps me of my feet and drags me along a life of its own, an impersonal life in which there is nothing but touch (and touch being nothing but imaginary). I know this sounds fairly theoretical, but I believe it is intimately linked with my interest in theatre and dance, both as a performer and as a writer. What I am looking for there, as far I am able (or willing) to explain it, has to do with an experience of the body as being open to an alterity that I cannot contain in the image I make of myself though it is only through this very image that any contact (or relational) with this alterity can be established at all. I like people to get lost in their words and their standard expressions in the play I am writing right at this moment for precisely this reason. It is their bodies which grotesquely intrude in the images they want to create of themselves for the others, their bodies opening up possibilities of (imaginary) community, or ‘being in touch (without really touching)’.

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Marcel van den Berg: Dear Tom,

There were these lizards, at the zoo, lizards
In a sort of glass-fronted cage, prison
And they fed these lizards with big locusts
The lizards were about twelve inches long
And the locusts were about two inches
The locusts couldn’t get away, of course
They had no defence against being killed
The only thing a locust could do was
To make itself an awkward thing to eat
By sticking out its arms and legs and wings
To make itself an awkward thing to kill
So shall I: I have to die, but by God
I’m not going to pretend I like it.
I shall make myself so bloody awkward!


Ah, you, in point of fact, did – and I don’t know if it really was coincidence, or not; I hope it was – touch upon a very important, and very delicate element in my current study on B.S. Johnson. And because it is so relevant, regardless of its complexity, it actually needed to be pinned down. I am therefore quite happy that this coincidence occurred. Coincidences are always extremely helpful, I believe; they show you the truth or facts of a situation, at least... if you’re lucky enough to recognize them. So, thank you for so timely bringing up the subject.

And, how to summarize, it is always hazardous, the relation between the (obstreperous) reality of the body and the fictionalization of the self is a truly compelling one. I immediately understand why you are fascinated by this; it is a fundamentally unpleasant, but truly inescapable human trap.But back to Bryan again: you know, what (only recently) became very clear to me is that Johnson is not so much enthralled with ‘death’ as a fact and at present, you know, the act of dying as if it was existing or occurring now. In my opinion, Bryan was much more interested in, and at the same time extremely uneasy with, the act of failing: the failing of the body, the failing of the mind, and even the failing of love. The slow and painful process of decay, decline and weakening…: he most fiercily detested it, was disgusted by it... but most of all he was afraid of it; he was absolutely out of his mind terrified by it. He was more afraid of that, than of death itself.

And this, the irrevocable and complete fear of failing, is what I find most devastating, very recognisable, and therefore most fascinating about Bryan Johnson.

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Tentoonstelling: falkandcharlotte: Simon Bedwell / Marcel van den Berg, Ellen de Bruijne Projects (Dolores), Amsterdam (2006-2007). Kunstenaar: Marcel van den Berg. Tekst: Tom van Imschoot. Met dank aan Falke Pisano en Charlotte Moth.