PICA's lecture series continues this week with a talk by photographer Justine Kurland and writer Jon Raymond. The two recently collaborated on a book project, Old Joy, which marries narrative text and visual art. The story's subtle insights into male communication are combined with Kurland's wonderful photographs of naked men and women climbing trees, holding babies and walking dogs through forest landscapes. In a series of e-mails, Raymond talked to the Mercury about the book, a movie adaptation and Portland's "dark hippie" masculinity.
How did this collaboration between you, Justine, and Artspace Books come about?
Let's see. Justine was asked to do a book with Artspace, a press that matches artists and writers for book projects, because the publisher is a big fan of hers. And then I guess it became her duty to find a writer to collaborate with. It was my good luck that we have a mutual friend who kind of brokered the match. He introduced us and then I showed Justine a chapter of the novel I'd just finished and even though the text got garbled in transmission and came out as sentence fragments she somehow intuited we should work together. It was all very good luck on my part. I'd admired Justine's work for years, since her Spirit West book at least, and she had the kindness to open the back door for me.
And so what happened next?
I wrote a story pretty quickly that Justine didn't like that much and once that was done we kind of got down to work. One thing I've always responded to in her work is the peculiarly American spirituality it participates in--this vaguely Biblical quality mixed with a really pronounced animism. Her landscapes could be a Garden of Eden or a Romantic "wilderness of the soul." Her naked figures could be Old Testament heroes, or transcendentalists, or hippies. Who knows? It turns out we're both big fans of William Blake, too. So I figured a good accompaniment should have these kinds of resonances. I ended up doing what I think of as a kind of contemporary Cain and Abel story. A Cain and Abel story in reverse, maybe. I showed her a few drafts and she came back with very smart editorial opinions and it took shape.
And now Old Joy is going to be turned into a feature film, right?
Yeah. Kelly Reichardt, a really talented filmmaker in New York, is planning to shoot a movie version this summer in Portland. Which is super exciting. There's a really interesting cast coming together. And a great [director of photography] named Peter Sillen is shooting it. So I can't wait to see what happens.
It's great that it will be shot in Portland, given that the story is so tied to the city and the surrounding natural landscapes (even the characters seemed very Portland to me). Was the city just a familiar setting to draw from, or was there a more abstract idea of Portland that influenced the work?
Part of it was certainly convenience. Just knowing the geography. But there was something more than that, too. I was interested in exploring a certain Portland-style masculinity in the story, and pushing these really evolved guys who hug each other and talk about their feelings into an uncomfortable place. It's funny to see how different people respond to them, actually. Some assume a really pronounced homoerotic thing is going on, and others don't see that at all. Which to me is an ambiguity that seems special to the Northwest. We have this great, nancy-boy masculinity we've fashioned, over generations now, with all its own set of postures and predispositions. The hippies started it and riot grrrl totally finished the job, you might say. But then, every once in awhile, this rejection of traditional masculine ideals ends up reproducing the exact same competitions and dominations it was trying to put behind in the first place. Instead of competing about fucking girls and climbing trees, though, it becomes about the depths of one's sensitivity and psychedelic out-there-ness. That's something I'm interested in: "The Dark Hippie," as my friend Betsy calls it.