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Behind the Scenes of an Infinite Jest-Inspired Art Show

When novelist David Foster Wallace died in September of 2008, the world pretty much went apeshit. Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote about him, citing a lawyer-loving therapist-avoiding affair. Time called his demise the Death of a Genius. And around university campuses across the world, sophomore dudes wondered just how, without being able to introduce them to this brand-new underground author known as DFW, they were going to impress the freshmen girls. By now, Wallace is a meme and his biggest and arguably best-loved novel Infinite Jest: A Novel a trope, to the point that an MFA student at Columbia has just put together a show based on something so inside-baseball as the complete filmography of James O. Incandenza, father of tennis prodigy Hal, Wild Turkey guzzler, and suicide-by-microwave victim.

A Failed Entertainment opens today at the LeRoy Neiman Gallery at Columbia University. Organized by Sam Ekwurtzel, the show encompasses twenty-two films, sculptures, and paintings loosely inspired by the entirely fictional but somehow necessarily believable — as the rest of the mind-blowing, earth-shattering, world-changing novel — was. Eva Hagberg spoke to Sam about Wallace, fishing boats, and the particular magic of Infinite Jest.

Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators, Colin McMullan 2009

What was the impetus for the show?

I read the novel a couple of times in the last few years, in periods where I had a lot of time on my hands. I saw some similarities or affinities in my own work as a visual arts student to this filmography.

I’d been considering attempting to realize some of these films on my own, and at some point I was making sort of props from the sculptural props from the novel. And then this opportunity to do a show at the campus came up, so I spoke to some friends and some artists and proposed to show to some different artists, and there was interest. I invited about forty different artists to submit work and there are twenty-two artists in the show now.

For the most part, people whose work I knew previously and sent them and this filmography, and kind of let people run with that. The results vary widely in terms of production value, and fidelity to the text.

Not everyone had read the whole novel.

The Medusa Vs. The Odalisque, Jess Segall 2009

What led you to reading it in the first place?

I had a conversation with a video professor of mine, he was kind of singing the praises of the filmography, and saying someone needed to make these films. I worked as a commercial fisherman, so I spent my summers on a boat with long long stretches of time, reading. So that gave me a lot of time to opportunity to spend a lot of time with the novel.

Various Small Flames, William Santen 2009

What did you think of it?

I become very, very invested in it. I guess my own interests going into it were in the history of structuralist film and video. A lot of these works in the filmography are parodies of existing sixties and seventies structural film works, so I’d kind of seen those connections.

Zero Gravity Tea Ceremony, Tim Lawless 2009

Let’s talk about the show! What are some pieces that you’re most excited about?

Definitely the tea ceremony, the very small fires, and an attempt at sort of cutting room floor scraps of Infinite Jest, the film, itself. There’s an attempt at Found Dramas, Cage I, which is a parody of a shampoo commercial. Baby pictures of famous dictators, people attempting to play Eschaton. And then there are a couple of paintings. One is the one that’s on the announcement — a painting of the Sierpinski Triangle, which David Foster Wallace referred to. He said that the structure of the novel was based on the Sierpsinski Gasket, this sort of structural triangles-within-triangles, and if you were to sort of magnify that structure, it would infinitely reproduce itself. The novel has this sort of leaping structure of narratives within narratives, so at any point, you can pick up the novel and start at any point, and the story will sort of repeat itself if you read it as a loop.

So all of the films in the show are for the most part short loops, maybe five to ten minute films. All of the films are played from a column of twenty-three VCRs sending out twenty-three video signals that go into a switcher and output into a large monitor and projector. So the audience is able to change what they’re seeing by turning it up. It’s sort of like an old analog television. You know how there’s that knob, you change the channel, you can still turn it infinitely so it loops on itself.

The AV system was my role in this — I provided a framework for showing these videos. And I used VCRs to locate the technology in 1996. I guess it was an attempt to give the visitors to the show the same kind of agency that readers of the novel have, in term of being able to jump around.

Installation shot, featuring paintings by Van Hanos and Tracy Molis

What’s your hope for the show? What do you want people to get out of it?

I’m hoping for it to function as a proposal for maybe a more fully-realized exhibition in the future. I would have liked to have done an open call, but I  didn’t really anticipate the response that the show received.

I think that’s largely the result of being in New York and at Columbia — there’s such a large readership here of David Foster Wallace.

Why do you think people are so obsessed with this book to the point of recognizing the phrase A Failed Entertainment?

That’s what the desire to realize the show comes from. Something I’m concerned about is that everyone has their ideal notions of how these films should look — anyone who comes up with a project like this deals with fidelity. And I think, honestly, that the title of the show and the poster for the show is maybe a more complete work than the show itself. Because the poster sort of allows for the possibility of these films being realized. And then people can make the leap and project on their own what their interpretations might be.

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