I sat down outside of Scratch Bakery on Orange Street on a sunny Saturday with Chris Vitiello. The street was abuzz with people who had just finished a downtown 5k, the Bull City Run. Scratch was terrific, I had the grits and kimchi bowl topped with a sunny-side up egg. It was a glorious combination of contradictory and complimentary flavors.
Chris and I spent some time catching up and soaking in the joyous atmosphere of good company, good food, and a lively downtown Durham. We have been talking about art, Durham, and more, on and off the airwaves for years.
Chris has recently taken a job with NC State Libraries. It involves cool assignments like meeting with and writing about Durham cultural treasure and NC State alum Phil Freelon, when the nationally renowned architect donated his papers to the library system.
Vitiello also still finds time to write for the Indy Week.
But the reason he and I got together was to discuss his recent win at the 21C Museum Hotel’s “Pitch Night”. One of the many benefits of having a national player in the art scene like the 21C in Durham is what they bring to town.
Pitch Nights are held in six artistic capitals across the country. The winners head to the annual “Art Prize” Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The midwestern gathering garners more than 500,000 visitors over two and a half weeks. Now in its ninth year, it continues to grow and expand. In 2016 “Art Prize” had 1,453 works created by artists from 40 states and 44 countries were exhibited in 170 venues. Prizes in excess of $400,000 were doled out to the artists by the non-profit festival.
This is no small coup for our friend, Chris Vitiello.
Vitiello’s win at the 21C over other tremendous talents like Warren Hicks means he will be installing his piece, “Language is Asleep” for the entire duration of the festival in the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
I asked Chris about this piece as we sipped our coffee and watched people stroll by on the cobbled Orange Street that will soon see its own world-class art installation as part of the Click Photography Festival.
Vitiello told me that “Language is Asleep” was birthed as part of director Jaybird O’Berski of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s “This Is Not a Novel”. Staged in the mostly abandoned (at the time) Lakewood Shopping Plaza, O’Berski’s vision had audience members listening to Bill Floyd’s audio play, which is an adaptation of writer David Markson’s later works, an effort to deconstruct the form of the novel, whilst strolling through various art installations.
Vitiello says O’berski gave participants near total freedom with their installations. Vitiello had been envisioning “Language is Asleep” for some time.
A prequel disclosure, Vitiello has an alter ego, the Poetry Fox, as whom he wears a life size fox costume and dispenses live on the spot poetry to audiences that prompt him with a word or a sentence. Vitiello has been performing as the Poetry Fox for years with great success. People love his live poetry.
Vitiello told Technician last Summer: “The great thing about the practice of the Poetry Fox as opposed to normal poetic practice is you have your audience right in front of you,” Vitiello said. “It is a warm-blooded human being, a single solitary individual and you just pick up a feel from them. I write directly to them; it’s a time, and person, specific artwork that’s made in that moment.”
Under O’berski’s mantle for “This is Not a Novel” Vitiello says he wanted to riff on that theme, snoozing in a chair as audience members walked by for most of the performance only to wake briefly, write a few words on a page, rip it out, discard, and fall back asleep.
The Language is asleep. Vitiello is the language. But mostly faux sleeping in chair through hours of performance time didn’t prove engaging enough for him.
He has adapted his performance for his “Pitch Night” win and what will happen in Grand Rapids. His eyes are still closed. He is still writing one sentence or just a few poetic words. But he will keep writing for hours on end. Page after page. In used dictionaries. Where with each micro poem, he will rip out and discard a page of dictionary. He is no longer sitting still always. There is some somnambulism.
Vitiello says it lands in a different place than his Poetry Fox persona. For hours on end he will be acting and writing without the filter of costume. Writing hour after hour (as he practices) he reports it becomes trance like. He reaches a deeper state of flow (sounds like good meditative work). He is able to write things he would be unable to conceive otherwise. Page after page torn from the dictionaries surround him.
He says the language is exhausted. “Look at what passes for public discourse right now. A lot of shouts, a lot of tweets, press conferences ended abruptly in a fit of denials, protests that can’t untangle their mixed messages, fake news passing as real news and real news attacked as fake.
It has exhausted language, it’s cashed-out. Language is too tired to carry meaning back and forth between us. Therefore, like any exhausted thing, it needs to sleep—and especially to dream. Language needs to dream about its own possibility and potential, in order to awaken replenished, so we can actually use it to communicate again.
So, what I’m proposing to do is turn a Grand Rapids Art Museum gallery into a ritual dream chamber, put language to sleep in it and let it dream, and then wake language up so that it works again.”
Language is too tired to carry meaning from one person to another anymore. We end up with syntactic nonsense. Slogans. Covfefe.
Full disclosure says Vitiello is a friend, a Clarion Content contributor, as Mayoral Candidate Steve Schewel put it, a Durham cultural treasure.
But I disagree that the Language is asleep.
It smacks of elitism to me. It is the argument of those who say, “Kids today don’t know grammar. Look at how they speak and write. They can’t use the language properly.”
This stale thinking belies the reality on the ground. Kids use “idc” for “I don’t care” and “idk” for “I don’t know” in texting not because they are lazy or dislike language, but rather because they want to be able to say even more, express even more in a less space, say more faster, so they can say the next thing.
To resist is both foolish and futile. It reminds me of the French language commission in the 1950’s and 1960’s trying to stop American words like computer, refrigerator, and microwave from polluting their beautiful language. The French were applying the same logic for why their colonialist dreams in Algeria, Chad, and Vietnam should be allowed to continue. Because “we have always done it this way” has tons of social power.
The debate over language is not meaningless. It is at the core of a multitude of other debates.1
This premise that the language is asleep and must be awoken falls right in line with Markson’s idea that the novel is dead. The form is exhausted or corrupted. It is the defeatist perspective of Charles Ives’s classic music, whose works exuded the baneful idea that classical music was finished.
It is rooted in the same line of thinking that said Elvis’s hip shaking was going to corrupt (all of) the youth (completely). I would argue it is the same logic that said the repeating rifle was going to wipe out Western civilization.
The common place misconception, whether culturally or technologically, is to view one’s own era in hyperbolic terms. This is the worst.2 Time’s linearity behooves human nature to do this. We can’t go backward. Not even a little. There is no eternal return. This puts a presumptive emphasis on the now.
A few decades back, surely, nuclear bombs, and the prospect of global thermonuclear annihilation seemed like this is the worst at the height of the Cold War. But all that had to do was ease off and Global Warming became the apocalyptic vision of what was now set to wipe us out. (This is the worst.)
The Language is asleep?
It is the nihilism of Beckett’s Godot. The cynicism of John Barth.
As Stephen King puts it in On Writing, “…a good deal of literary criticism serves only to reinforce a caste system which is as old as the intellectual snobbery which nurtured it…”
I love Chris Vitiello as a friend. I am personally thrilled for him. (And he is no snob.)
I am excited for what it means for his artistic profile. I am thrilled for Durham to be sending such a tremendously gifted wordsmith and thinker to such a huge festival.
This is all true despite my disagreement with his thesis.
Vitiello says he already has a 100 dictionaries, but he is looking for 100 more. His car is filled with stacks of them. The Durham Library Book Sale provided him early access. The local used bookstores have been culled.
The performance will be a physical test of endurance, too. 7,000 to 8,000 visitors a day, six to eight hours a day, with a week of installation before it goes up. There will be some video component of Vitiello performing the poetry, writing with the Sharpie, ripping the page out of the dictionary that will be installed to be present for the moments he isn’t, bathroom and food breaks, etc.
Congratulations to our friend, Chris Vitiello!
As for the rest of us , it is our civic and social duty to work hard to assure we don’t fail the language and each other.
1 The Clinton campaign was imbued with same vibe of intellectual elitism, shot through with strains of “the kids are morons.” Ala…Surely this Bernie thing can’t be for real. Surely, those of us who have been part of the elite power structure for years know better. The condescension the Millennials face regularly is rooted in this debate about language. These kids grew up with Amazon and iTunes, they’re vacuous, empty, we must reawaken language to save them. (I say, nah. The Millennials, they’re woke. We must engage and destroy the corrupt crony capitalism that imprisons kids and adults alike.)
2 The superlative by definition can only apply to one thing.