Norman Klein’s & Margo Bistis’ recently released media novel The Imaginary 20th Century comically exposes what stands between our present and the ever-occluded future. Described on a recent LA Review of Books podcast as “a narrative engine wunder-roman,” the novel began as a curatorial project and media art installation on the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. In a world increasingly curated by algorithms and Facebook likes, Klein & Bistis’ novel/essays take us back to the years when the future dominated the public imagination: 1893-1925. The story orbits around the heroine Carrie & the four suitors who want to possess her; and her powerful, manipulative uncle. The story is accompanied by an interactive archive of over 2,000 historical images and films.
Thus, Carrie’s archival tale, filled with evasions and contradictions, functions as a psychogeographical diagnostic that for readers, operates as a kind of short-circuit – a comic tale potentially snapping many millennials out of their wi-fi induced social media malaise. The gentle injunction: We must get beyond our fantasmatic, unambiguous visions of the future. As Klein often says, we must slow down our vision in order to move faster. No surprise, then, that this project moves as fast as you want, or excavates as far as you choose to go. Indeed, without a well-researched sourcebook like The Imaginary 20th Century, our premonitions and prognostications will likely be clouded by too much nostalgia, or false imaginaries.
Before the release of ZKM’s paperback edition of The Imaginary 20th Century book, the couple team kindly invited Entropy to their home in Los Angeles for a conversation about their new work and the current sociopolitical deadlocks of the world at large. With over six hours of resulting audio, the following interview has been abbreviated. Photo and video documentation was provided by Gina Clark Jelinski.
Gina Clark Jelinski: Norman, what was your approach to transforming the archival material into fiction?
Norman Klein: Archives are constructions by their very nature, but they are carefully detailed, highly selective, very political but filled with secret histories. That was enough to drive a story about seduction and espionage. I wanted to get as close to the era as I humanly could. For instance, say, you’re on a train and you get off. In those days, how did you get off the train? It must’ve happened a lot. In other words, what was the verb for getting off the train? . . . I spent days looking for it. And I finally found it.
Robbie Hansen: The verb for getting off a train?
Norman Klein: Yes, to alight. Using that verb you understand that you have to be a little light on your feet: the exhaust and the steam could be very unpleasant. Often the steel steps didn’t quite reach the ground. If it did, it’d spark and set everything on fire. So, that means you have to be alight. And then it turns out that that verb was used for the automobile industry for a time when they thought all cars were like trains. So, you could “alight” from a car all the way through the 1920s. And then the word disappeared. . . . The language used in the novel had to feel comfortable in the characters’ skins, so they can lie better. I like the idea of characters being comfortable in their skins. It had to fit the literary evidence; it’s very carefully researched in that way.
Gina Clark Jelinski: [Flipping to a page in The Imaginary 20th Century] I was struck by your descriptions: “Her tanned gloves made of stretched dog skin.”
Norman Klein: It had to be a language that sounded like you were living there, not detached; but, I also had to make the tone look like I was still researching from it. So, the tone and the mood of the POV had to be worked carefully, and especially the metaphors. At the same time, I had to invent facts. A lot of people in Germany thought that some of the things in the novel must be true. When I mentioned the “wunder-roman,” everyone said “Aha!”
Robbie Hansen: What’s a wunder-roman?
Norman Klein: It was a 19th-century device that ran on a water wheel that generated a kind of novel.
Maxi Kim: What does that mean?
Norman Klein: Nothing. [laughter] I just made it up. . . . The idea is that there was once a media form of novel similar to a wunderkammer [cabinet of curiosities] but telling a story. . . . Most Germans thought it was true. The Science and Craft Movement? There was no Science and Craft Movement. It was the Arts and Craft Movement. . . . So, I decided in the novel to keep the fact-fiction tension very close, very tight. One rule is that you must deliver a surgical feeling, so the reader gets the irony about archives and facts and delusional facts instantly, like a mental picture. If you don’t do it that way, it doesn’t quite work.
Robbie Hansen: So the reader feels like she’s on an expedition, a journey into the spaces between fact and fiction?
Norman Klein: Yeah, it’s like an expedition that didn’t happen because it did. The future can only be told in reverse.
Gina Clark Jelinski: I loved that line.
Norman Klein: It’s the opening of the story. “The future can only be told in reverse” is part of the premise of the story. . . . And the story had to echo the images. Once you start exploring them, it’s quite a journey. It has a lot of spaces in between, and you’ve never entered a world like you’ve entered this one. Margo curated the archive, choreographed the chapters and image clusters to get to the final form. So that you’ll be able to feel the echoes as you go through it. And it’s strange because at first you’re clicking and then you’re mesmerized.
Robbie Hansen: Who developed the sound compositions for the interactive tale?
Margo Bistis: We collaborated with artists from CalArts: Kari Rae Seekins and Aaron Drake proposed the sound collage. They gathered archival sounds, and they did most of the scores for the twelve chapters; and then the last one was done by Raphael Arar. Lewis Keller and Justin Asher did the voiceovers recordings.
Maxi Kim: What was the sound design process like? Did they collect a bunch of sounds and have you pick and choose?
Margo Bistis: No, we mostly talked with them about the story, the mood of the different chapters. Norman had written some of the text, but mainly they [Seekins and Drake] went off of the imagery. At the time we didn’t have our final interface, and Nick Lu (the map illustrator) hadn’t even begun his maps.
Robbie Hansen: What was your initial thinking behind the compositions?
Margo Bistis: To have the sound and the voiceovers drive the exploration. And to avoid melodrama and nostalgia, anything that sounded like music for a movie based on a period novel. No Ragtime score. But of course that involved finding fresh ways of doing sound work that has narrative drive, that isn’t ambient noise.
Maxi Kim: Yes, the sounds add so much to the images.
Gina Clark Jelinski: Do you think you’d ever do a theatrical performance piece?
Norman Klein: Yes, we have done live multimedia presentations and performances, with the images as an accompaniment to my voiceovers. I explain to audiences that there was an archive set up in 1917 by Harry Brown, for his niece. . . . 2,200 images survived the tearing down of his estate about twelve years ago. But the archive was in 300 or 400 boxes, and we had to make sense of it. We didn’t have the machinery that he had – the wunder-roman. . . . but we’re left with this story and the voice over is pretty much the story as he left it. So, my voice stands in for the story. But the story is rather fractured. And it’s clear that it has other meanings. You wonder since he was so involved in business espionage, whether buried inside this object is something other than just the story of Carrie misadventures. She has four men she selects to seduce her, but does that make sense? That four men would follow her to Los Angeles? That doesn’t really make sense. It’s an unmotivated act. So, clearly something else must’ve happened. In the novel we find out that all four men work for Harry.
Robbie Hansen: So, it’s a set-up, a cover-up?
Norman Klein: Well, it’s not simply that because she selected these men. We find out later that she wasn’t so dementedly uninvolved in the business either. The print novel seems to disagree with the online tale. Now, the secrecies, the ironies, get more layered. Someone has been having us on, but why? What was at stake?. . . . In the online tale Carrie goes through many clinical depressions. In the print novel, we discover that these depressions may have been a cover, that she was in fact deeply involved in the espionage activities, the family business, run by her uncle. When Carrie would go through one of her depressions, sometimes she was running as a courier for the Morgan cartel, for example. Yes, she was taking sexual risks with those men; however, all the men also worked for her uncle in some way. So, part of the purpose of the archive must be that espionage is a form of seduction, and seduction a form of espionage. For some reason something must’ve happened in 1917 that made her uncle determined to build an archive about her comic disasters. What lay behind all this?
Gina Clark Jelinski: How did you decide what belonged in the archive?
Norman Klein: We had a rule when we set up the archive. There were three of us then, and the rule was if anyone found an image nostalgic, no one was allowed to argue – it’s out. So, with thousands of images, we had this rule: any doubts – out. How do you make sure it has no nostalgia? What are your standards? We gathered images from across the visual media of the period from 1893 to 1925, being careful to exclude art nouveau and the fine arts. Surprisingly, in the popular magazines, the humor journals and illustrated newspapers, there was almost nothing about cinema. And that proved significant.
Gina Clark Jelinski: Because that’s when it all started. . . .
Norman Klein: Yes, then I thought: Oh my god, we’ve recovered a lost history. The movies were popular, but they didn’t fundamentally change the patterns of life and culture until later… So, obviously there is a history of media and technology that has been partially buried. Before 1910, it was a world where there were no assembly lines yet, but there were factories. A world where you had trains coming in, but no fully integrated subway systems,. . . where there were movies but print media dominated. . . . If we could deliver the archaeological facts of that world, the fiction would be twice as powerful.
Gina Clark Jelinski: Yes, the depth of the research really shines through. Relatedly, I wanted to ask Margo about the essay “The Centripetal City” and its relationship to the research and project in general. Why did you decide to write academically about certain of the images in the archive?
Margo Bistis: We’re both historians by training, so our intention for the essay section was that it should expand out into scholarship. Norman mentioned the point about cinema, but there were other directions that interested me, like the centripetal city depicted in urban cartoons. We decided that the essays should echo the novel and the archive, enhance both, and I can imagine more essays by other writers on other topics. As I say in the opening essay “Curating Carrie’s Archive,” the essays excavate some of the collection’s trails and threads. So, there isn’t anything exhaustive about the nonfiction part of the book. It’s just the discoveries that interested us until we got exhausted. [laughter]
Norman Klein: We could’ve turned this into a three-volume historical archaeology of the modernist era that no one has ever seen. We have so much unique detail.
Robbie Hansen: That’s what we were talking about on the drive over here. In the archive there seemed to be so much more to be talked about. . . .
Margo Bistis: Threads and trails. [laughter] You’re all invited. I think the wunder-roman has some qualities of a total art work, but it isn’t Wagner’s Ring. And it isn’t an endless multiplicity, a postmodern rhizome either. It’s something else.
Norman Klein: Isn’t work always supposed to inspire more possibilities?
Robbie Hansen: We were just talking about this the other day – just about how a solo book on the character of Harry would be interesting, especially how he erases crimes.
Norman Klein: I was thinking of making the title, Harry Exposed. [laughter]
Robbie Hansen: Is that an older Harry? [laughter]
Norman Klein: It’ll be based on all these cheap crime movies made in the 30s. . . . I’ve been watching hundreds of these old movies from the 30s. I’ve seen maybe 200 by now, they’re very rare and odd. …We were also thinking about maybe just taking the third tier [of the novel] which is much more subject-oriented and build it in space. Have someone make a special engine for it. So, those are the ones that have occurred to us thus far. . . . We’re trying to figure out what to do next. What would be the next fun thing? What team of people should we gather?
Margo Bistis: Yeah, we talk a lot about what else would be fun to do with Tier 3. It’s where Carrie’s archive sprawls, just tumbles out. It’s where the moody immersion into the past takes the form of lost worlds, expeditions, wars, dense cities, startling comforts and technological affordances for the many, dream worlds and automated utopias.
Maxi Kim: How did you come up with the card design as part of the interface? As you say in your book, cards were very important at the turn of the century. . . . Cards were the thing.
Margo Bistis: We realized that something more like a grid was better than a collage-type assemblage. We wanted a very intuitive design, and something that was extremely simple to operate, that a person in 1900 would be able to operate. And yes, from top to bottom, the entertainment and business culture at the turn of century was very much about cards. The first census machines of the 1890s used punch cards. Blanka and Jeff Earhart did the interface design, and they came up with the scattered pile of movable cards. You can dig around the pile, open the images, zoom in for visual details. You can listen to the voiceovers, or just listen to the music. It’s a skeletal narrative, with chapter synopses appearing as map captions.
Robbie Hansen: Have you always been interested in the turn-of-the-century for your work?
Margo Bistis: It’s my era. I’m a specialist in 19th and 20th European history. I did my Ph.D. dissertation on the French philosopher Henri Bergson
Maxi Kim: I smiled when I saw those photos of the crowded Bergson lectures in The Imaginary 20th Century. He really was the Zizek of his day?
Margo Bistis: Yes, he was the Zizek, the Derrida, the world’s most famous philosopher of 1914. In those days they called them popular or public philosophers—celebrities were actors, singers, people from the stage. The public sphere was different then.
Robbie Hansen: How has your teaching career influenced your thinking on art making?
Margo Bistis: It’s been terrific to work with young artists and musicians on this project, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so had I not been on the faculty at Art Center and CalArts. Besides the collaborations, there are urgent questions about what you call the social media malaise, what a critical aesthetic can possibly be in a world of such exaggerated instantaneity. Young people are given a certain message, and I think it is an unethical one. There’s no room to grow a practice. Everyone knows that career pressures are intense. But I have some students at Art Center who are fed up with it; they’re tired of throwing as much spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Maxi Kim: I also think it’s really unethical. I think a lot of mainstream artists assume that all an audience wants is entertainment for sixteen-year olds, and I don’t think that’s true at all.
Norman Klein: I was told by various artists, curators, architects that “we don’t do the fact-fiction thing anymore. We now deal with fact-fact.” But of course, that is an oversimplification. Our political dilemma grows, yes, but our crisis with political fiction on the Internet, has grown as well.
Gina Clark Jelinski: But what is fact-fact? What’s that distinction between fact and fiction? Fiction can very often become fact. Can’t someone’s experience be factual?
Norman Klein: Yes, if you have a therapist who cures you in some special way and you feel better in all respects: Your life is better, your sex is better, your complexion is better, your job opportunities are better. And then someone one day tells you, “Oh, did you hear about Dr. Freedman? He was arrested. He was a complete fraud.” And then you think, I don’t understand. Am I supposed to get pimples again? Am I supposed to work at Walmart again? His “fraud” strategy, his clinical imaginary version of me actually helped me. So, it’s tricky.
Maxi Kim: Although once you find out that he was a “fraud,” maybe you will start getting pimples again.
Norman Klein: Yes, part of it is an issue of confidence. I’m reminded of how they keep finding new versions of the universe. And every time that I look at the metaphor that they’re using, whether it’s a string or a bowl or a pretzel, it always looks like something that goes with breakfast. I imagine these physicists sitting there, drinking their eleventh cup of coffee that morning and trying to make sense of it. Eating a pretzel or having a cinnamon bun. And looking at the cinnamon bun and seeing how it spins around. “Honey, I think I’ve got the answer. Now I can work out this equation.” But if it works why not? We’re very aware that it’s possible to have unlikely, seemingly fictional strategies actually work. But more then that, after 1980 or so, when you dissolve that vertical world, the level of blind faith above fact becomes tremendous. . . .
Robbie Hansen: Also, it’s less traumatic to believe in a fiction. Beyond fact and fiction, how did you come up with the final form for The Imaginary 20th Century?
Norman Klein: For decades, I have been interested in third forms of storytelling, and the their unique place in the history of literature. For this project, I went back to a 16th and 17th century form of storytelling called the rogue’s tale in England. In Spain it was called picaresque. . . . And eventually became a model used in British literature in the 18th century by writers like Henry Fielding, Laurence Stern, etc. And then you see it get lost in the 19th century. Then the modernists love it again. In fact, Ulysses is a picaresque.
Gina Clark Jelinski: What are the qualities that make a picaresque novel?
Norman Klein: It’s a comic survival epic about a world that will always get worse every week. The one thing that you can count on is that wherever that road was, it’ll look worse next week. Whatever the options are, you will have one less next week. So, how do you condition yourself to progress in reverse? As in Huckleberry Finn, and hundreds of modern and postmodern novels: There’s so much of this. It was clear to me that the picaresque form was the right one for this archival tale. Like an internet data field, picaresque is highly elliptical, uses a lot of data and information,; often you don’t meet characters, . . . and the subplots are filled with chance interventions. You can even see in Dickens’ first novel The Pickwick Papers a play on words. Then he wrote Oliver Twist, with melodramatic realism at its core, but he still couldn’t resist using picaresque swindlers throughout. . . . Many writers rediscover the picaresque. But it’s a much more evolved form than I had realized. And it also comes out of feudalistic pluralism in early modern Europe. That makes for a useful echo.
Robbie Hansen: Do you think the picaresque speaks to our current political problems?
Norman Klein: Well, I think in our culture we no longer believe in progress. . . . In our politics, we like being reprehended. And we feel entropically that nothing can get done.. Trump is a picaresque character. The Trump people are his marks; they don’t want to believe that he’s a billionaire who doesn’t give a shit about their existence. He even says so. . . . Yet they believe that he’s a man of promise. To do what? What’s he going to do? Make the Pentagon go condo? We can expect more like him in our picaresque future.
Norman Klein is the author of the award-winning media novel Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986 (2003). A novelist, media and urban historian, his other works include The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory; 7 Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon; The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects; Freud in Coney Island and Other Tales; and the forthcoming book A History of the Present: The Dismantling of the American Psyche. He teaches at California Institute of the Arts.
Margo Bistis is a cultural historian and curator. She has published essays on philosophical modernism, caricature and urban culture, and is the author of a forthcoming book, Fanfare for Bergson’s Ideas: Popular Enlightenment Culture in the Age of Mass Literacy. She teaches at Art Center College of Design.
Gina Clark Jelinski is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, archivist & writer. Her experimental studies playfully illuminate the unapologetic exploration of the human and animal sciences. You can learn more about her work at gcerenberg.com.
Robbie Hansen is a multimedia artist and composer residing in Sunland, Ca. Under a few monikers (Vitamin Wig C, Urinesia), Hansen has featured numerous experimental albums and short films on BBC, Dublab.com and Kchung Radio. He recently contributed music to various experimental labels in London and America (Cheat Sheet, Lo Recordings, Dublab).