Hearsay (2010)

This year’s version of Hearsay, an ongoing project collecting hearsay I’ve heard from the previous year.

Interview with NYFA

Last week, the New York Foundations for the Arts published an interview with me as part of their “Meet a NYFA Artist” series. (I was a video fellow last year.) Thought I might reproduce the interview here:

Please tell us what are you working on and what’s coming up for you.

There are usually several things going on at once, but the biggest thing I’m finishing up is a project I shot in Paris last fall called, Paris Syndrome. It’s a video about Japanese travelers in France. I read an article in The Guardian a few years ago about how Japanese travelers allegedly have a great amount of difficulty when travelling in France. There are all kinds of mental health problems, from depression, to paranoia, nervous breakdowns etc. A Japanese psychiatrist living in Paris called it “Paris Syndrome.” I found the article fascinating, but the whole thing seemed little hard to believe. So I was able to go to Paris this year and interview some French and Japanese psychiatrists about it. I’ve got all this footage and I’m currently trying make sense of it all.

What is your biggest influence or inspiration right now?

I get hung up on weird things, which makes answering questions like this really hard. I just wrote something about a book the RAND corporation published in 1955 called, A Million Random Digits with 100000 Normal Deviates. It’s just that: a 600-page book of random numbers. It’s as thick as the Brooklyn Yellow Pages. It’s like a work of conceptual art, only stranger. Something like that can keep me going for weeks.

Do you collect anything?

I collect books. Nothing special – not like rare books or anything. Paperbacks, science fiction, art book, computer books, whatever. I buy them compulsively. It’s a little bit of problem, actually. I also assemble things for my work. I’ve been collecting factoids for a project called Hearsay. One I just wrote down is, “New York is the most diverse city in the world.” Everyone in New York says that, but then someone in London told me, “London is the most diverse city in the world.” So both go in the collection. In the end they’re all presented in a video slideshow. No debate. I believe anything.

How do you start on a project?

It’s really hard to say. I find the best projects aren’t premeditated. If I just start working on something, I know it’s going to turn out well. If I’m forcing myself to start something, it’s a bad sign. Actually, finishing things is the hard part. I think Sam Shepard said something like, “Beginnings are easy. Endings are impossible.” Maybe he didn’t say that, but I like it anyway.

What is an indulgence for you?

Other than interviews? Late-night champagne and oysters in Paris with friends.

What is one technology that you’d like to see developed?

A cheap electric car.

Is there anything that you’d like to see addressed more adequately by artists’ service and funding organizations? If so, how might this issue be addressed?

Health care. It’s way beyond the scope of artists’ organization, though. It’s a national crisis. Health care shouldn’t be “affordable.” It should be free.

What role has the Fellowship played in your life?

It helped me live for a few months as I transitioned back to New York after spending the summer and fall shooting my project abroad. Without it I would have been lost.

What is your workspace like?

A large desk, small MacBook, too many hard drives, chairs. The books are all over the place: a study of the Tunguska incident, a biography of Charles Ponzi, a couple books on the history of tourism, a collection John Cage writings, a Robert Smithson catalog. Occasionally there’s a drawing on a table or wall or the floor. To my left there is a wall of clippings: a group of stills from Warner Brothers cartoons, an image of Antonioni talking to his actors while shooting Zabriskie Point, a bunch of cryptic scribblings that say things like “stage fright” and “inconsistency.” I put the scribblings up there when I get an idea, and then I instantly forget what I originally meant. It took me a while to realize the forgetting part was probably the point.

Opening: A Series of Coincidences

I’m showing Hearsay in “A Series of Coincidences,” a group exhibition curated Regine Basha opening this Saturday (Feb 21) at Cabinet’s new exhibition space. Stop by if you get a chance. Details follow.

A Series of Coincidences
Sat, February 21, 6pm – 9pm
Cabinet, 300 Nevins Street, Brooklyn (map)

FREE. No RSVP necessary.

Organized by Regine Basha


Serkan Ozkaya: Installation
Daniel Bozhkov: Object
John Menick: Video
Dario Robleto: Text

6-7 pm: conversation with Serkan Ozkaya and Daniel Bozhkov
7-9 pm: hobnobbing, conversation, and drinks

Opening 1/15: “Paper Exhibition” at Artists Space

Plot pointsJohn Menick. Plot Points, 2009. Graphite on paper. 18″ x 24″.

Paper Exhibition,” a group exhibition curated by Raimundas Malašauskas, is opening on January 15, 7 pm, at Artists Space (38 Greene Street). I have a couple of new works in the show — Hearsay and Plot Points. From the press release:

What does the line between reality and fiction look like? Can an exhibition be a life-sized paper model of itself? Whose name didn’t make the press release? And if it sounds good on paper, where is the paper? These enigmatic questions locate Paper Exhibition at the periphery of the known—between paper architecture and new pages of old books. The exhibition renders the open space of the gallery as a labyrinth of folds, holes and gaps through which an exchange between the literal and the literary can happen…

The exhibition includes works and performances, in order of disappearance, by: Julieta Aranda / Olivier Babin / Fia Backström / Judith Braun / Alex Cecchetti / Mariana Castillo Deball / Dexter Sinister / Gintaras Didziapetris / Jonah Freeman / Aurelien Froment / Dora Garcia / Mario Garcia Torres / Mark Geffriaud / Loris Gréaud / Morten Norbye Halvorsen / Will Holder / Pierre Leguillon / Gabriel Lester / Marcos Lutyens / Benoit Maire / Nicholas Matranga / John Menick / Melvin Moti / Trong Gia Nguyen / Job Piston / Pratchaya Phinthong / Conny Purtill / Adam Putnam / Amy Robinson / Joe Scanlan / Gareth Spor / Donelle Woolford / Joe Zane

Exhibition at Tulips & Roses in Vilnius Opening on 10/10/08

I’ll be in Vilnius this weekend for the opening of my solo exhibition at Tulips & Roses. The show runs through October 30, 2008. I’m showing a selection of videos from the last six years or so, including two videos from Mirage Terminal Dead Air and Let’s Throw the Furniture in the Fire — as well as Hearsay, The Secret Life of Things, and The Disappearance. I’ll be at the opening this Friday to give an artist’s talk. An interview with the gallery follows:

Tulips & Roses: It seems difficult to categorize your work. You make films which in one way or another use other films (or cinematography itself) as material. You seem to be an observer who turns into an intruder – someone who lives simultaneously on both sides of the screen. Or maybe you are a missing detective? Have you read J. L. Borges’ Death and the Compass?

John Menick: I’ll probably have a lot of trouble answering the Borges thing because I haven’t read his work in years. I don’t consider him to be much of an influence. (I like his work a lot, but there’s a difference between admiration and influence.) Then again, I feel he’s unavoidable for most artists and writers, and probably influenced everyone in a way, even soap opera writers and library designers. What’s said about him is true enough: he somehow prefigured our own condition. And he did it despite being someone who definitely did not hang on a cultural cutting edge. He was a lonely librarian in Buenos Aires and he seemed better at predicting cultural paradoxes than sci-fi writers with resumes from NASA. I’m not sure how he did that. I guess it shows that lots of reading can make up for a lack of experience. That probably sounds Borgesian too.

One thing that always struck me about Borges’ stories is how he was able to write stories as a reader. He’s the reader’s reader. He’s also strongest when writing in paraliterary forms, like essays or fake reviews or historical fragments. The videos I make aren’t about books per se, but films, cinephilia. My work, at least the videos, often begins from the standpoint of a certain kind of cinephilia. It’s film criticism by other means. That’s probably what you mean by an “observer that turns into an intruder.” Viewers, for me, aren’t passive receivers of information. They’re constantly transforming what they see into their own material. Even if we agree on that, the viewer-author relation is not easy to define. If it were, I would probably be doing something else.

(By the way, Borges was also a film reviewer for a while. He wrote a hilarious review of King Kong. He hated it. Find it if you can. He’s probably the only person I know of who hated King Kong.)

What is a McGuffin?

Here’s the literal and pedantic answer: the McGuffin is the object in the film everyone talks about and desires, but only really exists to get the action moving. “Secret documents” is a classic example from spy films. Hitchcock coined the term.

I think you’re asking about it because the missing man in The Disappearance is sort of a McGuffin, but I’m employing it to other ends in the video. Unlike a traditional narrative scriptwriter, I don’t have any need to move a plot forward. For me, the McGuffin is a productive distraction. I’m really good at distracting myself — I should be working on project A, but I end up doing project B as a way of avoiding project A. This seems to be a similar operation. Making meaning becomes a massive detour. I need that journey for whatever obscure reason.

Have you noticed the man who followed you the whole day a few days ago?

I wonder how surprised any of us would be to find out we’re being followed. Most of our online transactions are archived and data mined. Our credit histories, at least in the US, define us. Most major cities are blanketed with public and private security cameras. (Insert favorite near-totalitarian surveillance example here.) What’s interesting is that we feel fairly comfortable being watched. We’re willing to fork over a certain part of our lives for a certain amount of something, whether it’s security or free shipping. I don’t think that many people avoid using Google because Google tracks our searches. Credit cards aren’t going away either. So why not be followed for a whole day? It’s a lot more personal than data mining. It’s almost flattering.

Do you have to break a watch to experience time?

I stopped wearing a watch about ten years ago. I forgot when it was exactly, but I remember why: I found I was looking at my watch on the subway and worrying about when I was going to get to my destination. It was absurd. I couldn’t move any faster than the train, and if I’m late, I’m late. So what do I need the watch for? It’s just a terrible anxiety machine. So I threw it out. I worked in an office then so I sat in front of at least two or three clocks. At home I had several clocks too. You can’t get away from them. Why strap one to your arm?

The funny part is I’m incredibly punctual – even without a watch. I don’t think watches and clocks have anything to do with an experience of time. They’re training devices. Wear one long enough and it still makes itself known. I’m afraid it takes a lot more than breaking one to kill the terrible master.

I was trying to do some research about the supposed fact that Nietzsche was using a typewriter for his last writings. Apparently, his sister bought him a Malling-Hansen Writing ball typewriter in 1882. He used this peculiar machine (which resembles human brain to me) with his eyes shut, because of his near blindness. He was never completely satisfied with it though – nobody knows why. Maybe it was the fact that this machine could only type in uppercase, maybe it was the uncomfortable architecture of it. Supposedly there is also a letter in which Nietzsche wrote to a friend: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”. I wonder if he wrote this by hand. The downside of all of this is that I am not sure now what my question for you is…

I like the Nietzsche factoid in Hearsay because some writers seem like longhand writers (Dickens, Proust), and others seem solid keyboard writers (Burroughs, Gaddis). It’s an idiotic game because it’s nearly impossible to divide up writers this way, but I don’t think anyone would think of Nietzsche as pounding out pages on a typewriter.

Like just about all of us, I write on a computer. I rarely write longhand. My handwriting is horrible. Every so often I think about working on my handwriting – sort of like going back to grade school. I’ve heard about people that willfully change their handwriting. They just decide one day to change they way they write. Or maybe they switch hands: go from being a lefty to a righty. People like that fascinate me. I wish I could do it. I think these people who change their handwriting believe it will change their thinking and therefore it will change them on a deeper level. Kind of like the belief that smiling will make you happy or those criminologists who thought they could identify a person through their handwriting. Handwriting seems to be a dying form of technology, actually. It doesn’t seem that useful anymore except for making lists and writing checks.

Make your own “Hearsay”

When I started writing Hearsay, I decided I would use my own hearsay. Given the simultaneously personal and impersonal nature of the pseudo-knowledge, I realized that anyone could make his or her own version of what I was doing. So here are some guidelines, which I hesitate to call “rules”:

1) Use only your own hearsay. No fair padding your list with your friends’ factoids.
2) It’s preferable that you don’t remember who told you the story.
3) If you do remember who told you, then it’s preferable that it was related to you verbally.
4) If you read the hearsay, the story should be secondhand (e.g. a quote in a paper).
5) Stories from experts or source publications are discouraged.
6) None of the hearsay should be personal.
7) Knowingly passing on disinformation is not allowed.

See the work for examples.

Some advice: don’t try writing all the pieces of hearsay at once. These things have to be collected over several weeks or months. Don’t commit to producing it in any kind of time frame. Hearsay has a speed of its own.

PS. Hearsay has also worked it’s way over to YouTube.

Notes on Hearsay

The following is an excerpt from an essay on a new project, Hearsay.

“Yes, they knew one another,” I said. It was throwaway information, one of those strange stories recalled in the space between two bits of talk.

“Samuel Beckett drove André the Giant to school when he, André, was a kid.”

I went on to tell my friend that Beckett lived part of the time in the same town as the pre-gigantic André. I didn’t remember the town’s name. I was never sure why Beckett drove him to school (bullies?) or what they talked about (wrestling?) or where the little André sat (shotgun?), but I was sure the two of them shared a ride to an educational institution at least once.

A few months passed. Then, one afternoon, we spoke on the phone again.

“Where did you hear that story about André the Giant and Sam Beckett?” He asked me.

“Um, I’m not sure. Why?”

“Because I’ve been telling people about it, and the other day someone didn’t believe it. To tell you the truth, neither do I.”

I paused a moment and tried to remember back to when I heard about it.

“I’m pretty sure it was the Samuel Beckett biography I read recently. Let me check.”

I put down the phone and found my copy of Damned to Fame, the gargantuan Beckett biography by James R. Knowlson I had read a few months earlier. I scanned the index looking for “André the Giant.” No listing. I looked under the wrestler’s real name, André Roussimoff. It should have been there, right between the entry for “Roussillon ” and “Routledge,” but it wasn’t.

I picked up the phone.

“I can’t find it,” I said. “I have no idea where I heard about it, but I could have sworn it was true. In fact, I still think it’s true.”

We finished our conversation. The next step, as it is for everyone with a computer, was Google. A search for “Andre the Giant Beckett” brought up Mr. Roussimoff’s Wikipedia entry. There, buried at the end of the thousand-plus-word entry, which devoted no fewer than six full paragraphs to André’s feud with Hulk Hogan, was the following:

Actor Cary Elwes explains in his video diary of The Princess Bride that Samuel Beckett was a neighbor of the Roussimoff family while living in France. The Nobel Laureate would sometimes drive André to school.

Perhaps it still reads this, or something similar to this. Or maybe someone changed the writer to André Malraux. I have no idea. All I know is that I was embarrassed.

I called back my friend.

“Listen, I’m not exactly sure where I read that story about – you know – but, um, everything points to Wikipedia.”

“You mean the Beckett entry?”

“Yeah, and, uh, the André the Giant entry,” which I hastened to add I had never read before in my life. I also had never read the Beckett entry, which mentioned the school factoid as well. Hearing the DVD commentary was also impossible. I hadn’t seen The Princess Bride since it came out in 1987.

We hung up. I looked online a little more trying to assuage my failing ego. More Web sites mentioned the same near-fact, but always credited the same Wikipedia entry I had never read in the first place.

Where did I learn this?

The André and Samuel factoid was unimportant. It’s barely a conversational amusement. But, for me, it brought up an entire category of knowledge containing things that are not impossible, but not quite known either. These are stories we actually believe, but cannot, and do not, bother to verify. It is a type of knowledge, perhaps a pseudo-knowledge, sitting somewhere between rumor, bias, research, erudition and fantasy.


John Menick is an artist and writer.
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