Adventures in Self-Voyeurism
Death of Art
(C&R Press, 2016)
When Robert Rauschenberg abraded the surface of a de Kooning drawing in 1953, he did more than create a new art form. He demonstrated that art’s greatest affirmation could reside in the negation of surface. Poet, memoirist, and essayist Chris Campanioni adapts the dialectic for the age of the smartphone. For him, it’s not about the A/B binary of original object and subverted result; Campanioni brings Situationism to the party, generating texts with performative constraints that are often obscured as the writer erases his path to the final product.
Death of Art is Campanioni’s fourth book in less than three years. Published by C&R Press in October, it follows a collection of poetry and two novels that explore media, fashion, tourism, and terrorism. Death of Art offers a synthesis of the previous work, both in its performative stance and its mix of poetry, fiction, and memoirist essay. Fans of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and Warhol’s Diaries will enjoy the pop culture references and wry insider sensibility it brings to fashion shoots, commercials, and other mediated rituals of intimacy. Readers of Andrew Durbin’s Mature Themes (Nightboat) and the recently augmented edition of Lynne Tillman’s Madame Realism (Semiotext(e)/Native Agents) will recognize the consumerist desire for self-transformation through objects.
The book is framed by an untitled prose opening and almost thirty pages of a section entitled “Scenes Deleted After the Release.” The eleven sections between also finger the edge of the screen—sometimes in nervous gesture—others with gleeful affirmation of the fictive. “Half of life is pretending. The other half is pretending,” Campanioni writes in the front matter, both as a spoiler and a tutorial: everything to come should be regarded with a fluidity reserved for film, music, and the other kinetic arts. Campanioni resists the fixity of self; as performer, he passes from situation to situation, from one role to another. With a fondness for 90210 and Foucault, he is Frank O’Hara traveling the hyper-connected contemporary landscape via iPhone—spawning, recording, discarding speculative versions of himself.
In “To Love and Die in L.A. (Cut It Out),” Campanioni hires a stranger off Craigslist to remove his face from every print ad in which he's appeared the past eight years. The stated objective is “The Death of Art,” an imagined project that gives the book its title. Its real goal is engaging the stranger in a dialogue about identity with the constructed self Campanioni has prepared for the occasion. In “Screen Play,” this back-story is erased, leaving a poetic frame that asks the reader to provide the emotional architecture Campanioni has removed:
the time of day for listening to jazz and
opening the windows to see
Don’t be a stranger!
touching, it almost made me
for only five pesos too, or if you put on your best smile and ask
Campanioni borrows from Mad Libs and text-based video games, achieving a surface that combines the mystical urbanism of Paul Blackburn with the Conceptual edge of Jackson Mac Low. In “50 First Dates (a Tinder Story),” he turns the premise of a 2004 romantic comedy into a seventeen-page story-film told in Twitter-length fragments that also delight and surprise:
Turtles, I say.
Because turtles are the opposite of the Internet.
There are no fixed subjects. Only dynamic relationships.
I try to keep reminding myself. I have it written on a post-it that’s slapped on my laptop.
Occasionally, we make eye contact.
As the book progresses, Campanioni remains in motion. He is in bars, on planes, on subways. He carries his Situationism between cities, between countries, between periods in his life without rest or regard for boundaries. Motion is the constant in this breathless book that dares the reader to keep up. The closest Campanioni gets to a resting pose are the poems that appear in each section, between the numerous prose performances that anchor the collection. The poems offer a different kind of performance. They are the book’s soliloquies, featuring Campanioni speaking directly into the camera. Such is the mood—and the emotional stakes—of “Can’t you tell”:
& on Sunday we rest
& then I am
Careful to make this
Something I might
Out loud even
In private I suck
The minutes dry
Or try to fixing
You in my gaze
The poem registers as excerpted text messages that simulate the alienation of digital natives. Its appropriation is reminiscent of Krystal Languell (Gray Market, 1916 Press) and Ben Fama (Fantasy, Ugly Duckling Presse). Campanioni speaks sotto voce to give play to the idea that the words are the actual voice of the author, the one behind all the book’s nonstop antics. “Can’t you tell” succeeds—as do many of the poems—because it can be read both ways: as traditional poetic effusion, and as assemblage posing as traditional poetic effusion. Other poems, like “Overheard at a party,” play with the same duality while questioning why the authenticity of the words themselves shouldn't be sufficient:
Problems with being broke
Or better than that, broken
& by better I mean worse
& by worse I mean haunted
You keep hanging on
Or hanging around
Never for a minute
Really is the difference?
Campanioni’s questioning pervades every performance. “So to begin” is a story that teases inquiry into the writer’s bilingual childhood. Miniaturized descriptions of character and place are interrupted by criticism of the proceedings as imagined films and stage performances. The criticism can seem forced, but its falsity frees the author to be vulnerable about the disjointed background that was the prequel to a disjointed adult life as fashion model, teacher, and writer: “We lived our days as if they were scenes in a musical; we danced & continued to sing. Sometimes in Spanish or English but most often in a language made up by my father.”
Campanioni’s love of performative artifice accumulates throughout the book, giving the writing the glitchy surface of an early Ryan Trecartin video. While Campanioni’s work lacks the media artist’s love of lime-green face paint, it compensates with rapid cuts, odd camera angles, and an endless string of new selves—each holding a pair of scissors or other tool for deletion. He is at his most disruptive in “coming soon! (in three parts),” a poem whose thick, looping surface suggests a tagged-up 1980s NYC subway train:
sharks, kind people
pay to see
on the front of the fun
the big drop, the hanging static
bumper cars, horses held
in place & sated
The disturbance often borders on instability, with the author’s rejection of stasis expressed in the book’s rejection of itself as object. Death of Art doubles as an experimental film with alternate endings, a transcription of performance pieces, the starting point of a book Campanioni expects the reader to create through erasure. “Death of Art,” the book’s titular piece, appears on the last page (before the supplemental “Deleted Scenes”)—as an in situ erasure of “Death of the Artist,” a poem from ten pages prior that is presented as a prompt for the reader to take on the role of Campanioni:
Death of Art offers an overstuffed, bravura alternative to the tight eighty pages of most contemporary collections. Campanioni is convincing as the hero whose performance brings surprise and joy back to Conceptual writing. He is even better when he fails. Failure doesn’t happen often, but when it does it gives Death of Art the warmth of shed blood. It reminds the reader that Campanioni isn’t playing at being clever; he is erasing himself to locate the sublime. As he writes of his first failure in “To Love and Die in L.A. (Cut It Out)”: “I was hoping for some revelation. Something I could use. Something that uses me.”