10 October - 30 October 2008


Tulips & Roses is glad to present an exhibition of John Menick's films.

Questions for John Menick

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?

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.