Fountain: A Discussion
In the new, Winter Issue of The Lonely Crowd, we published an extraordinary, multi-layered photo essay by Susan MaierMoul entitled Fountain. Here the writer Eamonn Sheehy discusses Fountain with MaierMoul, as well as his own forthcoming work, Summer in the City State.
Eamonn Sheehy: I first came across the work of Susan MaierMoul when her short story ‘Pleasure’ shot into first place at the Sean Ó Faoláin short story competition in 2014. The words were dense and jagged, bringing the reader with brute immediacy into a scene of unrestrained, heaving realism. I bit through chunks of rich taunt text, the nuts and bolts of her uncompromising language, which pulled me headlong across a narrative of hot coals. I was hooked by the cold reality of it all. No reams of paragraphs in dressage; just the deep affecting art of story.
Her recent work, Fountain, is just as uncompromising. It is a conceptual work of mixed narrative forms; photography, resonant quotation, habitat, human rights, history. New York, specifically downtown Manhattan where Susan lives, occupies the pages of Fountain.
Eamonn: Washington Square Park is iconic across the world, surrounded by a cast of equally strong identities such as Chinatown, Times Square, Broadway and Harlem. I have seen it through holiday snaps and on the big screen. Fountain is a restoration of an identity whitewashed from Washington Square Park’s history – its role as a security gauntlet of “half-freed” slaves in 1645.
Susan MaierMoul: When I read your manuscript for Summer in the City State I immediately keyed into that similarity in the narratives we’re working with— the white use of brown bodies and land as a buffer. Your description of Ceuta as a frontier between Europe and Africa has the same sense of dehumanizing people, of human beings treated as convenient.
Eamonn: You’ve told me Fountain evolved as you worked. Was the slave history of that area of the city your starting place?
Susan: Initially with Fountain, I wanted to ask whether the European avant-garde of the past century could be made relevant for contemporary practice. Duchamp’s Fountain, among other things, destabilized a comfortable idea of what was proper to art as a conductive material or interface for meaning. Today of course, it’s instability that’s taken for granted, so I wonder about that. As I began to shape the work, the park signs were one of the found narrative structures I knew I wanted to incorporate. When my research led me to the information about “the Negroes’ Farms” the dexterity with which various sources submerged the details absolutely put it into the center of the question.
You subvert the narrative structure you use for your work, too. It tacks itself out as adventure story, but it’s definitely not “travel writing.” There’s no slickness, no effort to edit out uncomfortable moments or contradictions. Where are you coming from with your approach?
Eamonn: I used to travel for fun and music years back, 10-15 years ago. I ran a record label and worked with bands across Europe/Eastern Europe and the Balkans. This subculture involvement — DIY punk scenes, activism and such — led me into volunteer work which led me to working with street children in Russia. This is one of the first pieces I felt compelled to write and is on my website (migratetothefringe.com) — the street children of Perm. From there I started writing with more of a social awareness.
Susan: You’re a very independent and confident traveller. Did you grow up with it?
Eamonn: I come from a background of recession. So travel would not be common among my family. The only travel in my youth was usually done by uncles and neighbours leaving on long haul bus journeys for manual work on building sites across the United Kingdom. So no one in my family travels much even today. I guess I am unusual in my choice of destinations in contrast to people around me. I just have more scope like many other curious types. I don’t see the point in closing down options for some abstract reason based around outdated representations or stereotyped gossip. Did you grow up around a lot of art?
Susan: No no. I grew up in Pennsylvania farmland and my parents were mill workers. I was their despair when I went to college! I was seventeen my freshman year. An art class went into the city to study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was my first time in New York and I didn’t sleep for days afterward. Did you find you had a moment that moved you in the direction you’ve taken?
Eamonn: I travelled for a slice of new experience to begin with. But it was when I began to travel on my own that I had more time to process places and people around me. I flew to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania on my own, and immediately felt I had dived into the deep end. It helps to submerge yourself in very different cultures. It pushed me to be more self aware.
Susan: I think the original experience of immersive disorientation is a North Star, it can tell you where you are when you’re feeling your way into the work or developing approaches.
Eamonn: Tell me more about your approach to this project. Fountain is self-contained, like a booklet in layers. Like your website, it’s sort of familiar, but then it isn’t, or it doesn’t work the way it seems like it might. In your artist statement you call it a “re-purposed narrative form.” What are your interests, as a writer and artist, how did they lead you to working this way, creating this kind of work?
Susan: I’m interested in forms, techniques and materials in a very contemporary sense. When I use light leaks or grain in an image, for example, I’m not compelled by nostalgia or analog processes, I think the image arrives with intrinsic possibilities that respond to development in a particular way that’s available to work with. I’m not interested in the 20th century, although like a lot of us, I’m interested in when the 21st century began, in coming forward from that place rather than from the end of something.
Eamonn: Do you think of investigating history as a kind of purpose, then?
Susan: No, I think of history as a category error. In the 19th century Western culture had a kind of summarizing romance to it — we’ve figured everything out, we just have to work out the last few laws of nature and fill in a few details. The in the 20th century everybody’s heads blew up and it was oh my god we don’t know anything, and a different romance became the dominant narrative. I think the 21st century is already showing itself to be of a character less invested in these polarized hysterical all-in positions. We’re less seduced by science, we recognize the tiresomeness of irony and futility. I’m an artist, not a historian. I’m compelled by working in polyphony and meters that don’t match up, don’t ever synchronize yet share a beginning and ending that announce the interference of a narrative form. For me history is a substance rather than something bodyless; in my work it can undergo elemental and structural change but I avoid the teleology of transformation, especially in the sense of transcendence.
Eamonn: In regard to the development of an image, why do the images look the way they do in Fountain? They’re right on the edge of seeming to be photographs.
Susan: I spoke with a lot of New Yorkers as I was working on Fountain. Not one of them knew anything about the racism and slave history of Washington Square Park, though a few had heard stories about there being hangings or burials there at some point. When I told the particular moment of history I was using for the work, people tended to look off into space, saying Oh I never heard that, you know, like why do you want to go there, almost as though suggesting it couldn’t be true, or as though they couldn’t even hold on to the idea, so divergent are the actual events from the tourist gloss. This, of course, isn’t unique. Narrative is written by what is left out, and that simplification is also the very nature of abstraction. So in working with the images I wanted to abstract them to a degree, to the point where they were clean, appealing graphics, where the detail did not distract or obscure the sense of frictionless apprehension of “what is going on” in the image. Whenever we write fiction, this is one of the main strictures of editing – to include what matters to the shape you want the reader to perceive in your work, and to cut everything that inhibits that. Even when your fictional purpose is to mislead, there’s an art and a discipline to having it “happen” for the reader. In the end, as engaging as the images are, they’re also uneasy, what I call uncanny.
Eamonn: I have the same experience when it comes to events and history, and the contemporary identity of locations. The divergence you speak of, I find widespread. Most people cannot engage with such histories of deep violation explored in Fountain. Is it a subconscious barrier to block the unfamiliar? Or the intentional framing of history? I’m not sure. I have met people who glaze over at the mention of recent events in Kosovo or the demographic-altering atrocities of Eastern Bosnia. I think the foreign history or place is something very difficult for a lot of people to grasp. I very much want to show how the past is for the most part, in the past. And identities of cities and places do change and grow. Despite how the media of today display it, identity of place is not a frozen element. I am trying to push this ‘foreign’, ‘unknown’ element to the fore in my writing. To bring the detail into the narrative, and hopefully generate some semblance of empathy with places, its people and their histories.
Susan: Yes. I’m not interested in unfurling a narrative that supersedes other narratives, I’m interested in complexity, listening to complexity.
Eamonn: Why did you choose that typeface for the history sentences? Why such tiny print? Was it the limitation of the page?
Susan: It’s not about the page size, although, when John commissioned it, I definitely began the piece by writing a brief for myself that included constraints concerned with the condition of reproduction of the work. The font size of the history text is meant to make you work at it, to make you squint if necessary and to pry up that easy passive relationship to story, authority, and “facts”. It’s playing with the notion of “fine print” the way say, pharmaceutical companies or legal contracts do, wherein you can be presented with information yet makes it difficult to get the important details without active reading.
Michael Taussig writes about ethnographic field work that “most of what anthropologists hear from their so-called ‘informants’ are stories, but the anthropologists don’t recognize them as stories. And they’re very quick to translate them and reduce them into information, through talking to people as ‘informants.’” Taussig asserts the two, stories and information, have nothing to do with each other per se. So what I want is for there to be a tension that isn’t resolved between the fine print and the artists’s statements and the images. The history wraps up with two sea journeys: a woman enslaved by George Washington sailing to freedom, and Kieft shipwrecked, dying on the Welsh coast. The tone of history is “matter of fact” but that voice is situated in and complicated by its incorporation in a polyphonic work.
Do you have an agenda or purpose? What do you want your work to do? What do you hope people will take away from your writing about places and your journeys?
Eamonn: Nowadays destinations for me are a mental shakeup. We live in a planet of so many realities. If I can leave the space I live within and drop into another reality, then I will. Witnessing the chaos of life while standing at a crossroads in West Beirut. Pushed between the sweat and adrenaline, amid overblown speakers in a Vilnius punk squat. Speaking with the solvent-high street kids on the streets of Siberia. There is a sensory aspect to all of this. As well as the want to understand other realities and tell the story of people on the fringe. That jolt — I’m looking to try and grasp and pack it into my paragraphs. It’s liberation from the European life I live in. I don’t believe we are meant to live a life in monotone. I write against it.
Susan MaierMoul is a writer and photographer based in New York. She won the 2014 Sean O’Faolin Short Story Prize for her story, ‘Pleasure’. http://maiermoul.com/
Eamonn Sheehy writes stories exploring the connections between human rights, travel and culture. He lives in a small village on the Cork coast along the South of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. His nonfiction work ‘Summer In The City State ~ Ceuta To Tangier Through Fortress Europe’ will be published in 2016. http://migratetothefringe.com/
Fountain is published in the Winter issue of The Lonely Crowd, which can be purchased here.
Copyright © Susan MaierMoul & Eamonn Sheehy, 2015. Image from ‘Fountain’ © Susan MaierMoul, 2015.