Wondering about Wandering — Maud Casey and Sal Randolph at Proteus Gowanus (with A Public Space)
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Stepping into Proteus Gowanus is a bit like stepping through a fictional, temporal portal into a Dickensian curiosity shop. The walls and shelves are adorned with feather-filled test tubes, rocks, kites, maps–all manner of delightful, odd ephemera. Birds of Brooklyn twitter in the background, lending the space a bucolic feel. Events and exhibitions at Proteus Gowanus are organized around a yearlong theme, and for 2011–12, the theme was Migrations. So it was the ideal setting for last night’s talk/reading, “Wondering about Wandering,” a collaboration between the good folk at Proteus Gowanus and A Public Space.
1. Paper sculpture. 2. Exquisite kites. 3. Curiosities.
1. Melanie Parker of A Public Space; artist Sal Randolph; poet, professor and moderator Jeff Dolven. 2. Maud Casey and Sal Randolph are introduced.
Maud Casey began by reading an excerpt from “A Stubborn Desire,” her essay about Albert Dadas, a gas-fitter from Bordeaux who spent much of the late 19th century wandering Europe in a trance-like state — sometimes up to 70 kilometers a day. In Russia, he was mistaken for a wanted nihilist (!) and imprisoned. Dadas’ doctor diagnosed him with fugueur (from the Latin), “an odd combination of fugere (to flee) and fugare (to chase)”. “If diagnoses are a variety of story,” writes Casey, “then the doctor offered him, among other things, a narrative for his pain. Here, Albert, a story just for you.”
Traveling fugue — the uncontrollable compulsion to wander — consequently became something of a phenomenon in Europe. “For twelve years, [there was] a rash of men with homes and families and employment who wandered away, who walked off the stage of their lives, for reasons mysterious even — especially? — to themselves.” When they “awoke” at their final destination, they had no idea how they had arrived there.
1. Serious enquiry. 2. Soundtrack by Birds of Brooklyn.
Next, Sal Randolph read excerpts from The Bureau of Unknown Destinations, a project which she developed during her winter residency at Proteus Gowanus. The Bureau offered “temporary displacements to members of the public seeking to experiment with their psychogeographic impulses.” (Otherwise known as: ADVENTURE.) Randolph distributed free Psychogeographic Destination Kits to hundreds of participants. Enclosed therein: a ticket to a surprise destination, guidelines for wandering and wondering, and a small notebook in which to record one’s observations. The aim: to move through space according to one’s thoughts and feelings, without seeking a particular outcome or experience.
The result was a myriad of charming recorded observations: “Ticket given away because unexpected gifts prompt action.” “Smokeshop. Half-erection. Needing to pee.” “Abstaining from purpose for a time.” “A nice feeling of fondness and affection towards my last three boyfriends.”
I was surprised and delighted to hear the words of my friend Jacob Baskin read aloud by Randolph (I didn’t know he’d participated in the project): “Manhasset is an anagram for Shamestan, which should totally be the name of Long Island if it ever secedes from the U.S.” And these thoughts from APS’s Melanie Jane Parker, “I could’ve sworn everyone was looking at me funny, like they knew I was a visitor.” “Being in motion towards an unknown end… That’s just the whole of life, no matter where you are.”
The readings were followed by a fascinating discussion, facilitated by Jeff Dolven (who I’m pretty sure knows the entire canon of English literature off by heart, but is very modest about it). Converation was wide-ranging, touching on everything from Romance literature, to the banality and ennui of modern travel, to the politics of medical diagnoses. I was struck throughout by the synonymousness of the words “wandering” and “wondering”: they seemed to be used interchangeably by the speakers and the audience members, and I found myself confusing their meanings in a way that was pleasingly disorienting. Kind of like what happens when you repeat the same word over and over and over again, until its meaning becomes arbitrary.
I left the reading feeling inspired, desirous of some Aimless Wondering/Wandering Time. So I scheduled some into my calendar for next week. The irony of scheduled nothing time is not lost on me, but I’m looking forward to it.
— Elissa Goldstein was born and raised in Melbourne. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College and is the Online Editor of Electric Literature. You can find her here.