In pre-tumblr days, Arielle Gavin kept a long Word document of artists she liked on her computer, each page acting as a dedication to a different artist. She inserted images under each name, basically creating an image blog on her desktop. The summer after twelfth grade she decided to start a blog, naming it Dragonaut after a song by the ‘90s stoner metal band Sleep. The blog first acted as an index of artists and artworks, then became a repository for her writing.
Last spring she gradually posted an edited version of her BFA thesis entitled Honesty Competitions. Her project is concerned with sincerity as a “structure of feeling” and how it figures in film, literature, politics and art. Topics covered include: Bas Jan Ader, Romantic Conceptualism, Wes Anderson, New Sincerity, and Jaakko Pallasvuo. The project is truly an earnest attempt at writing about feelings, a very difficult task. Arielle isn’t making value judgements - claiming what is and isn’t sincere - but delving into the mechanisms behind the conferring (and denying) of these attributes.
I thought Valentines Day would be a good day to talk about feelings. In celebration, Arielle set out cinnamon hearts and Hello Kitty candies in her attic apartment on Toronto’s Grace Street. It made perfect sense to me that Arielle wanted to do the interview in her pink room, the bedroom, with a stuffed strawberry by our sides. We talked about some of the issues brought up in Honesty Competitions, and how she thinks through the idea of sincerity.
SM: Can you describe how you came to be interested in sincerity?
AG: I didn’t sit down one day and say ‘Okay, I’m going to write a paper on sincerity!’ I tried to settle on a thesis topic by thinking of things that I liked and things that bothered me... Mainly things I couldn’t stop thinking about for whatever reason. People always write about Bas Jan Ader, whose performances are the starting point of my paper, in terms of sincerity and irony. It’s the same with Wes Anderson and some of the other people I ended up writing about. I also liked how ridiculous it was as a topic. The idea of writing about ‘sincerity’ seems kind of weird and stupid...
SM: Well, you say in your paper that the problem of writing about sincerity is the ‘problem of language and its limits.’ You also say ‘The moment I write about sincerity, I begin to sound insincere’.
AG: Yes, I wrote that... [laughs].
Every so often there will be this think piece in the New York Times that’s like ‘We need to stop with the trucker hats and ironic trumpet playing.’ But people don’t wear trucker hats. And I think it was trombones actually, in that article ‘How to Live Without Irony.’ Trombones! I mean... It’s well-intentioned writing, but it’s kind of misguided. I’m trying to avoid the word ‘hipster’ because it’s a deeply embarrassing word, and I don’t use it in my own writing, but you know the kind of articles I mean. The little illustrations of ‘hipsters’ in skinny jeans and retro t-shirts. Though it wasn’t my main goal, I wanted to correct this tendency.
SM: Almost updating it?
AG: You could say that. Those articles usually close with the suggestion that we ‘go back’ to being sincere. But sincerity is always proposed as this category located outside of time, outside of politics. This seems at odds with the trucker hat issue - the criticism that it’s classist and racist to romanticize or trivialize the culture of another social group. This claim is entirely true, and it’s something that often passes by people who should know better... But the exhortation to abandon ironic distance in favor of, say, unabashed nostalgia is troubling. Sincerity isn’t automatically a good thing. You can sincerely believe that it’s good to eat cake for every meal, but that doesn’t make it true. And of course people sincerely believe in far worse things than eating too many sweets...
Looking back, Svetlana Boym’s book ‘The Future of Nostalgia’ has been very important. I first encountered it during undergrad, but I recently revisited it and it really made sense to me. What I’m really interested in, I guess, are the politics surrounding affect.
SM: Why the title Honesty Competitions?
AG: Two summers ago, I went to a screening of short films by Kazik Radwanski. I’m usually inclined to leave out names in situations like these, but Kazik has already heard my thoughts, so I guess I’ve got nothing to lose. I think the programme lasted an hour, and at different points during that hour I was convinced that his films were humanist, anti-humanist, sentimental, condescending. Like for five minutes I’d think ‘The characters are treated in a sympathetic but unpatronizing way, this is good,’ followed by fifteen minutes of ‘Why does this director think he’s a zany anthropologist’ and feeling irritated. And I remember thinking, ‘These are like Dardenne brothers films if the Dardenne brothers were more into fashion.’ And I still kind of think that. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, or if it’s even helpful to think of things in these terms.
During the q&a, this woman put up her hand and said something that I liked. I don’t even remember what she said, but it was earnest and intelligent. She was close in age to me, and I’d probably want to be her friend in a different situation. But at the time, I felt angry and jealous, and threatened, or something. It’s hard to explain the feeling. It was like she’d proved to everyone that she was sensitive and clever, and that she could think intelligently about feelings. I felt this insane competitive thing, like being smart and sensitive was this ongoing contest, and it being a contest, only one person could be the victor. Things hardly ever happen this way for me, but the words ‘honesty competitions’ popped into my head, and I carried them around with me until I could put them to good use. I think the name captures the conflicted thoughts I was having, and the fact that those thoughts concerned feelings. But these thoughts, some of them at least, are actually just petty, like feeling absurdly competitive whenever I see a girl with a Paris Review totebag. And the idea of an honesty competition is absurd. Honesty is cast as spontaneous and unaffected and redemptive, while a competition has strictures and animosity and clear outcomes. But I’m not just trying to be clever or novel by combining two opposing concepts. I really do feel like I engage in honesty competitions sometimes. And people really do invoke irony and sincerity at the same time. They’re rarely brought up independently of each other.
SM: When do you feel the most sincere?
AG: [sighs]. I feel like I’m going through that thing where you’re kind of young and in university and you just read the communist manifesto and you’re like ‘I don’t know anymore...’ [laughs]. I won’t say that I don’t believe in sincerity, but I will say it is a thing that we project onto other people and things. It is also something that we perform. But that’s obvious I suppose... I mean the way ‘femininity’ or ‘true love’ or ‘sincerity’ doesn’t exist as an essential, unchangeable form.
To sort-of answer your question, I’m most conscious of sincerity when I’m writing. I don’t think that I, or anyone else for that matter, ever stops what they’re doing to think ‘Hey, I’m so sincere right now.’ But when I write, I’m directly confronted with those questions. Like we discussed earlier, it’s inherent to the process of writing. You write down an idea and your words run away from you. I’ll often have an idea in my head, then when I finish writing, my words read as the opposite of what was in my head. I read something that I’ve phrased poorly and mistake it for my actual opinion. In short, writing is difficult and confusing. Asides from when it’s not. But when you’re actually writing about sincerity and irony, it’s maddening. To write the way I think, to say what I mean - that’s the oldest definition of sincerity. It’s hard to do this with words, but you have to use words, because otherwise you would never talk to anyone.
SM: In your paper you mention briefly what sincerity may look like, can you elaborate on some of those ideas?
AG: Well, since sincerity is a projection, it doesn’t necessarily look like anything. Maybe it’s a transparent Photoshop layer. But there are images associated with sincerity, containers we tend to project sincerity onto. So in its own way, it’s become an aesthetic category. And when I say ‘aesthetic category,’ it’s really indebted to Siannge Ngai. She writes about cuteness and zaniness and things like that as joint aesthetic-moral-consumer categories. The best example I can think of is the way Urban Outfitters window displays look like Wes Anderson films, and vice versa. Anderson has this contradictory controlled childishness that applies both to the look of his films and the interior lives of his characters. The aesthetic is sort of prep school, New England, J.D. Salinger... If J.D. Salinger wrote cynical children’s novels.
SM: A little bit of nostalgia...
AG: Yes, nostalgia, like ‘Oh my god, imagine if you lived in Nantucket in the ‘60s and everywhere you looked people were wearing peter pan collars!’ ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ reminded me of ‘Peanuts,’ and Charlie Brown Christmas music plays throughout ‘The Royal Tenenbaums.’ Like half the time Margot is on-screen. ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ has a lot of pink, and pink means children, girls, unserious women, all things unserious... like my room! I love it but sometimes I feel like I have the dream room of a five year-old [Arielle laughs].
SM: What is New Sincerity? Is New Sincerity something that happens when irony and sincerity merge together?
AG: I think the idea behind the New Sincerity is that irony is always concommitant with sincerity. Or that thinking about them this way is unavoidable. This means that nothing is entirely ironic nor entirely sincere, and that we shouldn't worry about things being one or the other. Which could potentially be a good thing... The New Sincerity is one of those things that makes me think 'This is either the best thing ever or the worst thing ever.' I often feel the latter regarding the New Sincerity. There's a lot of fluffy rhetoric surrounding it. I remember when I first heard about it, I thought it was really stupid. This was in 2006, when Jesse Thorn posted a New Sincerity 'manifesto' online. I had this one friend from school who would lend me issues of McSweeney's and take the train downtown with me to see 'The Squid and the Whale,' which is really cute actually... Anyway, he was into the Sound of Young America and followed it pretty closely. He called me one day, probably around the time the manifesto was published, and went on and on about this New Sincerity thing. I don't think I said anything to my friend but I remember feeling like the whole thing was so stupid! Like, why did we need a newer version of sincerity? Where did the old one go?
It has so much to do with expressive idioms and the way they pass in and out of style. It's like that example given by Umberto Eco. The man wants to say to the woman 'I love you madly,' but he ends up saying 'As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.' It's not necessarily less sincere, since he does love her madly. I feel like 'earnest' is a better word than 'sincere.'
[At this moment, Arielle’s phone beeps. She apologises but sees that it’s from her mother and apologises again to answer it.]
AG: Like in Jaakko Pallasvuo's work, he's using self-reflexivity, which is like irony but not necessarily the same thing, to talk about things that just can't be stated plainly. Like the way he never appears in his videos even though they're all about the artist's subjectivity. Or he'll write a first-person statement and get someone else to read it, because suddenly autobiography is not making the same truth-claims. This is the hope at least.
Gestures like these, which can come across as irritating or didactic, come from a place of necessity. Irony doesn't necessarily mean sarcasm or uncritical detachment. Irony can be a response to caring too much - knowing that you're deeply invested in something that's seemingly impossible to reconcile or represent. This will probably come across as a sound bite but... I'm interested in the kind of 'irony' that is a critical form of sincerity.
SM: And now that it’s been almost a year since you wrote it, how do you feel? Are you working on something else on this topic?
A: It's weird to do this interview now. The paper is in the past, but only in the recent past. This means it's no longer new but not old enough to properly be part of my past. It's in purgatory, like reading your diary of six months ago. The main emotions I feel regarding the paper at this moment are embarrassment and disinterest! I'm sure it will pass eventually.
I haven't written explicitly about sincerity or irony in a while, but my writing continues to circle around ideas of sensibility, tone, and affect. One of the last things I wrote was a lexicon of cuteness drawing from Sianne Ngai. I discussed aestheticized powerlessness, smallness, teacup Pomeranians, miniature unedible food, Will Cotton's photographs of Elle Fanning with cake, Lily van der Stokker... Things like that. I'm reading Carol Mavor and trying to say something significant about the Dante Gabriel Rossetti drawing 'Mrs. Morris and the Wombat.' I'm dying to sit down and properly read Ann Cvetkovich's 'Depression' and Kate Zambreno's 'Heroines.' That's where I'm at right now.
SM: Your paper mostly used male artists and writers to talk about sincerity. Could you name some women whose work engages with the New Sincerity?
AG: It's hard to name any 'New Sincerity artists' regardless of gender. One, because it's not a genre or medium one can exactly work in. You can work in sculpture or work in wax, but you can't work 'in' New Sincerity. I feel that many of the artists who work with the theme would be embarrassed to say 'New Sincerity' in an artist statement or interview, and for good reason. It's a weird term, like 'digital native.' Actually, 'digital native' is far worse. But I would never align myself with the New Sincerity.
You brought up a good point, though. Art can be dismissed for being too feminine, or too sentimental, or both. There's a difference between Bas Jan Ader crying on camera and Laurel Nakadate crying on camera. The repertoire of available images - of men crying versus women crying - is so different. Crying in particular is such a gendered behaviour. So to answer your question, the best example I can think of is Ann Hirsch's 2012 performance 'Just some girl crying in a corner.' She describes it on her website as 'Documentation photos of performance in which I cried in the Stadium gallery for an hour during the opening.' It hardly needs explanation.