the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Posts Tagged ‘humor

Elf Girl: A Hilarious Memoir by Art Star Reverend Jen

with 3 comments

“Our mission: . . . humiliate ourselves in the name of art.”

The joy I felt while reading Reverend Jen’s memoir, Elf Girl, can not be expressed in words. Instead, it should be expressed by devoting one’s life to performance art — dignity forsaken, shame stricken from the lexicon. One should stock up on foam core, cardboard, dollar store instruments, hot glue guns, and whatever else it takes to live a life by Rev Jen’s example. This would be the appropriate response after reading Elf Girl. A lesser, although still respectable, response would be to fall absolutely in love with this woman, a woman who played a formative role in shaping the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 90s.

Elf Girl begins with Jen’s stint as a Christmas elf at Bloomingdale’s. As a longtime fan of elves, often considering herself one, Jen, disappointed by the department store’s idea of what the fantastical creature would wear (“Dresses!”), counteracted the inauthenticity with her own beloved elf ears, which, oddly enough, did not go over well with the management. This incident offers shades of what’s to come: fierce individualism and unintentional anti-social behavior, all at the expense of self-preservation.

Throughout the book you get the sense that Jen isn’t merely “doing” performance art, she is performance art, as if outrageous and absurd are Jen’s default modes.

At an early age Jen was a creative force, starting with her elementary school endeavor, Jen Magazine. Taking her art seriously even then, she recruited classmates to serve on the editorial team. At 15 she was accepted to a free art program. Under the instruction of “the most maniacal art teacher in the western hemisphere,” who taught his students to “sacrifice sleep, sanity, and any semblance of a normal life,” she learned “that being an artist wasn’t a way to coast through life. It required discipline.”

When she later left her hometown in Maryland for the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, living in a Salvation Army run residency on Gramercy Park South, she teamed up with her newfound friend Julia and formed Pop Rox, a band outfitted with a $2 toy guitar and snow-leopard-print unitards. At first they played covers of Guns-n-Roses, Metallica, and Alice Cooper but soon moved onto originals, which included one about their love for Woolworth’s, an inexpensive department store. They played to captive audiences of art students — locking their fellow classmates in a room — and crashed parties where they soldiered on through the jeers.

You would think that at SVA, an art school based in New York City, a quirky girl like Jen would at least be embraced by, if not hoisted on the shoulders of, fellow students. However, Jen was shunned by both the student body and the faculty. Eventually, however, Jen found her place and began to make a name for herself on the Lower East Side.

It was there that she came into contact with open mic nights; in particular, one run by an actor and producer known as “Faceboy”. Together, in the mid 90s, they formed a tongue-in-cheek group called the Art Stars, a term first coined by Andy Warhol. There are thirteen steps to becoming an Art Star, all listed and explained in Elf Girl. Just a few, to give you an idea, are:

1. Eliminate Hobbies: Everything an Art Star does should be done with obsessive/compulsive zeal. . .

3. Avoid self-improvement: . . . Self-improvement is for people with time on their hands, and Art Stars have no time on their hands.

6. Only take jobs that offer no room for advancement: The last thing you want is to get roped into a job that will prohibit you from staying out until four in the morning five nights a week. . .

One of the main components of being an Art Star is aversion to competition. Four years out of art school and turned off by all forms of art criticism, Jen was horrified that artists and performers, would willingly subject themselves to the spectacle of judgement. In direct reaction to an ongoing poetry slam at the time, the Anti-Slam was born — a place where performers could go on stage without leaving with a number pinned to their act.

Around the same time, John Ennis, the director of Toolz of the New School, a show that aired on the cable access station Manhattan Neighborhood Network, contacted Jen to see if he could borrow her elf costume for their Christmas special. Just before filming he asked if she wanted to be in the episode; and so began Jen’s televised career in sketch comedy. Nearly every episode, whether Jen showed up at NYU orientation as a student forced into prostitute in order to pay her tuition or at FAO Schwarz as Doo-Doo, the hard-drinking Teletubby forced into exile, ended with someone threatening to call the cops.

As someone who enjoys quirky social history, especially when it’s about New York City, I found the chapters involving Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral years some of the most interesting. Not only were they hilarious, as he often butted heads with local artists, they served as a reminder of the political climate during that time. In 1994, when Giuliani first assumed the role of mayor of New York City, I wasn’t yet old enough to understand the implications his tactics had on artists in the area. I do, however, remember that he ramped up the police presence as part of an aggressive campaign against crime. Before Giuliani my parents warned me against walking east of 1st avenue while later, in my 20s, I was getting overpriced, chic haircuts on Avenue C. However, it is disputable whether Giuliani had much to do with this decline in violence or whether the city had been part of a coinciding nationwide trend.

One of the more notable offenses was when Giuliani, in 1999, threatened to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum if they went ahead with an exhibition featuring controversial British artists. I won’t ruin Jen’s stories for you but one I can’t help mentioning took place in response to Giuliani’s enforcement of the cabaret laws as part of his “quality of life” campaign. The previously unenforced law, one that prohibits dancing in bars and clubs when the owner doesn’t have the proper license, led to a two day closing of friend Robert Prichard’s club, Surf Reality, the home of Faceboy’s open mic. Swiftly, Prichard and Jen formed the Dance Liberation Front and organized a guerrilla-style, agitprop protest: a conga line down Houston Street to Tompkins Square Park on Avenue A. The action, which Jen eloquently called it “social commentary disguised as comedy,” brought hundreds out onto the streets and received write-ups in local newspapers.

Since the start of her time in New York, many of Jen’s cohorts have moved to Los Angeles, but Jen remains a fixture of the Lower East Side, hosting her Anti-Slam every last Wednesday of the month at the Bowery Poetry Club and co-running the Art Star Scene Studios, an independent film production company, and writing a regular column for Artnet. New York is a better place for retaining this elfin wonder and once you read Elf Girl, you’ll think so, too.

::[Links]::
Buy Elf Girl at IndieBound
Reverend Jen’s website
Bowery Poetry Club
Diary of an Art Star column at Artnet.com
Jen’s Troll Museum Reviewed in The Village Voice
An interview with friend John Ennis (with photos)
Toolz of the New School videos

Advertisements

Written by Gabrielle

January 24, 2012 at 6:37 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , , , ,

On the Shelf: Fangirl About Town

with one comment

Largehearted Lit at WORD
Last Sunday at WORD in Greenpoint, Largehearted Boy hosted his monthly Largehearted Lit series where every month he brings together two authors and a musician to bring fuse his two loves: words and music.

September’s theme, as each reading has a theme, was the modern golden age of young adult fiction. Brooklyn writers Libba Bray and Steve Brezenoff, came out to read their work and discuss music. Steve read from his book The Absolute Value of -1, a coming-of-age love story, and his latest, Brooklyn Burning, “a love letter to Brooklyn, a love letter to music booming from the basement, and most of all, a love letter to every kind of love (but especially the punk rock kind).”

Alicia Jo Rabins, a classically trained violinist of Girls in Trouble, along with bassist Aaron Hartman, played an incredible short set of songs based on stories of women in the Old Testament. They were at once highly original, dark, and whimsical. You can find their music on their Myspace page.

Libba, author of Going Bovine and most recently Beauty Queens, read an original humor essay, an “aural biography,” about growing up in rural Texas, using music as an escape, and the role bands played in the relationship between her and her brother throughout the years. She then ended the night by serenading the crowd with Tom Petty’s American Girl.

As if the authors and music wasn’t enough, Kiesha, “The Brooklyn Baker,” provided amazing cupcakes.

The McSweeney’s Crew at McNally Jackson
John Warner, who was, up until recently, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, celebrated the release of his latest novel, The Funny Man, with McSweeney’s writers Ben Greenman, Teddy Wayne, and Sarah Walker at McNally Jackson in SoHo.

Ben Greenman read his hilariously cynical piece called “Blurbs,” a piece comprised entirely of blurbs. For anyone in the book publishing business, anything related to it, or an astute reader, this is an amazingly entertaining exercise. It appeared in his short story collection, Superbad: Stories and Pieces. You can read through his McSweeney’s archive here.

Sara Walker writes an advice column for McSweeney’s called “Sarah Walker Shows You How”. That night she read “How to Cure a Hangover,” a funny piece that may or may not help if have a hangover. She also read the first piece she published in McSweeney’s, “When Dakota Fanning Travels to Spain for a Junior Semester Abroad, She Will Take Full Advantage of the Experience”, a bitingly funny sketch about what Dakota Fanning will do while studying in Spain, which was accepted by John when he was the editor. Her full archive can be found here.

Teddy Wayne is, at that time of this post, the most frequent contributor to McSweeney’s online. He’s also the author of author of Kapitoil, a novel about a young man who comes to New York from Qatar and creates a computer program named Kapitoil that predicts oil futures, earning his company record profits. Soon he begins to question its moral implications.

Teddy read his article from McSweeney’s, “Listmania!: Other Books Useful (or Not), for Americans to Read, Beyond William Blum’s Rogue State, by Osama B. L.,” which was a satricial look at the Amazon bestseller list through the eyes of the notorious terrorist. Some of the suggested books include: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, and The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger. You can read his other articles at McSweeney’s.

John closed the night by reading from his new novel which is (surprise, surprise) a satirical look at the comedic novel. A meta-fiction as only a McSweeney’s author can do. Here’s a bit of a description from IndieBound:

The funny man is a middling comic in an unnamed city. By day he takes care of his infant son, by night he performs in small clubs, sandwiched between other aspiring comics. His wife waits tables to support the family. It doesn’t sound like much, but they’re happy, more or less. Until the day he comes up with it. His thing. His gimmick. And everything changes. He’s a headliner, and the venues get bigger fast. Pretty soon it’s Hollywood and a starring role in a blockbuster, all thanks to the gimmick.

What’s on the shelf?

As someone who is perpetually early, even when trying to be late, I wind up with a lot of time to peruse the shelves of bookstores while waiting for readings to begin. Here’s what I came across this week:

The Stranger: The Labyrinth of Echo—Book One by Max Frei
The cover on this one grabbed it. The textured surface, the brown tones with the creepy typeface, and the great illustration that makes you want to know what’s going on with the boy in the picture. It’s billed as “part fantasy, part horror, part philosophy”.

Nobody Move: A Novel by Denis Johnson
I loved the pulpy artwork on the cover of this one and when I read on the back of the book that it was noir, I was sold. Denis Johnson has been getting a ton of attention among the literary crowd, giving him the air of “a safe bet”.

From IndieBound:

Jimmy Luntz is an innocent man, more or less. He’s just leaving a barbershop chorus contest in Bakersfield, California, thinking about placing a few bets at the track, when he gets picked up by a thug named Gambol and his life takes a calamitous turn. Turns out Jimmy owes Gambol’s boss significant money, and Gambol’s been known to do serious harm to his charges. Soon enough a gun comes out, and Jimmy’s on the run. While in hiding he meets up with a vengeful, often-drunk bombshell named Anita, and the two of them go on the lam together, attracting every kind of trouble.

Pirate Palooza by Erik Craddock
It’s never too early to introduce kids to the wonder of comic books. They show young readers that books can be a lot of fun and in the process maybe inspire them to create their own visual stories. My five-year-old nephew loved the graphic novel B.C. Mambo I picked up for him a few months ago. With his birthday coming up and his unwavering obsession with pirates, Pirate Palooza seemed like the perfect gift.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
I’ve been meaning to read this classic science fiction novel for a while. Heinlein is a staple of the space-based scifi novel and Stranger is possibly his best-known work.

A description:

Stranger in a Strange Land, winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth’s cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mention de facto owner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love. He founds his own church, preaching free love and disseminating the psychic talents taught him by the Martians. Ultimately, he confronts the fate reserved for all messiahs.

What’s on your shelf?

Written by Gabrielle

October 6, 2011 at 5:55 am

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

with 3 comments

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first aired on the BBC in 1978 as a 12-episode radio series. A year later it was published in book form and fleshed out into a 6-part “trilogy”. Since its inception it’s been billed as a comedic space novel, often featured on lists of “top sci-fi books”, and found in bookstores on the science fiction shelves. With all of this in mind, it might come as a surprise that British author Douglas Adams never set out to write within the genre but claimed he had little choice after blowing up Earth in the first episode.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with Arthur Dent, a 30-year-old human, waking at 8am to find bulldozers outside his house. The city council had sent a demolition crew to make way for a bypass road right where his house stands. The back-and-forth banter between Dent and the foreman, satirizing government bureaucracy, reads like a British comedy, which makes sense once you learn that Adams wrote for the cult TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

After lying down in front of the bulldozer, Dent’s best friend, Ford Perfect, who, other than his choice of name, is an inconspicuous visitor from Betelgeuse, shows up urging Arthur to join him at the bar for a few pints. His big news can’t wait—after all, they only have 12 minutes until the Earth explodes.

Lucky for Arthur, Ford is a roving researcher for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an immense travel guide to the universe. At the last moment he sticks out his thumb and gets them both a ride aboard the Vogon ship hovering overhead. The Vogons are a disagreeable alien race whose purpose for their visit, in a twisted coincidence, is to destroy Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Aside from the pleasure of reading a novel that makes you laugh in that snorty sort of way, I found a heady appeal to The Hitchhiker’s Guide in its technological prescience. In interviews as early as 1987 Adams showed himself to be a heavy computer user, stating a preference for Macs over PCs. At one point he mentioned owning five, going on six, simultaneously and that he’d taught himself enough BASIC to create a 3D crossword puzzle.

Still, even with this information it was stunning to witness the foreshadowing of what could be imagined as today’s e-book or tablet. Adams writes:

The contents of Ford Prefect’s satchel were quite interesting in fact and would have made any Earth physicist’s eyes pop out of his head, which is why he always concealed them by keeping a couple of dogeared scripts for plays he pretended he was auditioning for stuffed in the top. Beside the Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic and the scripts he had on Electronic Thumb—a short squat black rod, smooth and matt with a couple of flat switches and dials at one end; he also had a device that looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million “pages” could be summoned at a moment’s notice. It looked insanely complicated, and this was one of the reasons why the snug plastic cover it fitted into had the words DON’T PANIC printed on it in large friendly letters. The other reason was that this device was in fact that most remarkable of all books ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.

Improbable encounters, close calls, and colorful characters—such as Marvin the depressed robot—make up the bulk of this thoroughly amusing book. While I can’t speak to the rest of the series, if you’re looking for pure entertainment The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will do the trick.

::[Link]::
Buy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at IndieBound

Written by Gabrielle

October 4, 2011 at 5:42 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: