A bureaucracy of one
An edgy lecture series, radical trading cards and the mystery of J.S. Van Buskirk
J.S. Van Buskirk does not want to talk about her day job. She does not want to talk about her brain tumor. And she surely doesn't want to talk about irony.
What she wants is for the audience at Info Demo #3, her bi-monthly lecture series held at ArtSpot gallery, to sit down and stop talking.
"I now call Info Demo #3 to order," Van Buskirk announces, ringing a small bell and shushing curious onlookers who've turned out for the event. Those who haven't been to one before have no idea what they're in for, and her website (www.jsassociate.com) doesn't do much to shed light on the question. Even the presenters aren't sure what to expect.
And that ambiguity is by design. Van Buskirk believes strongly in learning by experience. She strives to cultivate a culture of anonymity around herself and her art. Not that anonymous means exclusive. Dressed in a plain gray Gap sweater and standard issue jeans, Van Buskirk doesn't look like a vivacious new voice on Atlanta's underground arts scene — not enough piercings and no cooler-than-thou attitude. Rather, with her short brunette boy's cut and measured enunciation, you might mistake her for a second-grade teacher or the elementary school's square but lovable librarian.
But by organizing these bi-monthly Info Demos, lectures that are grouped around common and admittedly random themes ("How to Talk to Small Children," "It's Bound to End in Tears"), Van Buskirk's preferred anonymity can't last.
What you need to know about J.S. Van Buskirk is this: She is, appropriately, a hometown girl made good. She grew up here, went away to college, but returned for law school. By day, she toils as a junior associate at a downtown law firm. She calls herself a writer, though her art increasingly doesn't fit squarely into any one discipline. Her aesthetic overall is informed by her experience running an offbeat website; like a true Internetizen, she likes things somewhat mysterious, grassroots and a bit unpolished. Though her site is built around a strict faux-corporate architecture, with section names like "Office of Small Objects" and "Bureau for Public Assembly," it gives only glimpses of its creator and focuses instead on promoting her own artistic philosophy.
And yes, there's the whole messy business of the brain tumor, the alarm clock that went off her third year of law school and made her get busy with her writing. But J.S. Van Buskirk doesn't want to talk about that, not really. Instead, she's got a fascinating theory about charcoal briquettes, or maybe you'd rather discuss the pitfalls of nostalgia. After all, life's too short to live in the past.
br>?Bureau for Public Assembly
The past took center stage at Info Demo #3, held on a brutally cold Thursday night in mid-January. An enthusiastic crowd of around 20 shuffled into the hard-to-find ArtSpot gallery in the Old Fourth Ward to hear three presenters riff on a common theme: "How to Get That Old Timey Feeling."
Visual artist Kevin Hoth took the high-tech route, giving a PowerPoint presentation on getting a colonic lavage. For Hoth, "old timey" meant cleansing his body of toxins, and his probing personal narrative was paired with obscure and often hilarious stock photography. By comparison, Chris Stevens' show-and-tell segment was decidedly low-tech; he demonstrated how an Edison Standard Cylinder Player works and commented on the dawn of recorded music.
Van Buskirk, the organizer and emcee, gave the evening's most moving performance, reading a personal essay on why "old timey" was actually an impossible feeling to nail down. Though the topics of her talk — from time travel to the bad fake-nostalgic decor of old Wendy's restaurants — seemed unilaterally nerdy in scope, she ushered the audience to an unexpected point of poignancy. "That old timey feeling is the time when you understood things," she said. "The old timey feeling is hope. You shouldn't have to buy a hamburger to get that."
While the idea of listening to a series of lectures on obscure topics may sound about as enjoyable as, well, a colonic lavage, the Info Demo lecture series is Atlanta's first taste of a new artistic trend. Similar events held in New York and Toronto regularly draw standing-room-only crowds. The lecture, once the stuff of long-winded academics and slack-jawed undergrads, suddenly is attracting an engaged, energetic artistic subclass hungry for new forms of diversion.
Van Buskirk started the Info Demo series last September, after reading about similar events in New York. There, author John Hodgman has been hosting the Little Gray Books Lecture series in the trendy Galapagos art space for the past two years. The lecture topics sound quaint, even antique: "How to Redistribute Wealth and Joy," "How and When to Tell a Lie," and the classic, "How Can We Possibly Go On?"
But these lectures are not intended as ironic deadpans or even, necessarily, to be funny at all. They're straightforward recitals — spoken word but less spastic, performance art without the flake. Hodgman tends to favor up-and-coming writers for his productions and keeps the audience engaged with games and contests.
Although Van Buskirk has never actually attended one of the Little Gray Books lectures, she modeled her Info Demos on the series, inviting seemingly random folks to speak on predetermined topics.
"John Hodgman knows a lot of famous authors that I don't, but I'm amazed at myself at how accurate I'm doing it. I'm doing sort of the 'MacGyver' version of the Little Gray Books," she says.
But why lectures?
"People are tired of experts and polish, perhaps," says Sheila Heti, organizer of Trampoline Hall, a similar lecture series in Toronto. "We've sold out every show since the beginning."
Heti took Trampoline Hall on the road last fall, pairing the lectures with the tour for her new book The Middle Stories, published by McSweeney's, a subversive, new-school literary outlet helmed by author Dave Eggers.
The tour rolled through Eyedrum in late November, and local presenters included Van Buskirk, who gave a short talk on the design of parking decks (a topic she knew nothing about before agreeing to perform). The experience was an eye-opener.
"It made me realize how much I love getting in front of people," she says. While the first two Info Demos featured a panel of guests, Van Buskirk became a presenter herself for Info Demo #3.
Going into the Demos, participants don't get much of a preview of what's to come.
"I wasn't sure what I expected, which is part of the allure of the event as far as J.S. is concerned, and it worked on me," says Chris Stevens. "She doesn't give much information on what's exactly going to happen, and I like that element of surprise. It also gives the presenters freedom to decide what the event is."
What the event isn't is ironic. In fact, Van Buskirk hates that term. Instead, the Info Demos have a certain earnestness, a unique understated vitality that can be infectious.
"I don't want to be ironic," she says. "I don't want to be smarter than the audience. I don't want to laugh at anyone. I want to take genuine delight in all existence and all humanity."
And that concept may be exactly why these lectures have taken off in other cities. Though Van Buskirk suggests that the Trampoline Hall lectures can be a bit more cosmopolitan (read: elitist), she believes there's a bigger trend going on here. She mimics Heti's sentiment that folks are tired of the processed, antiseptic type of entertainment found in our reality TV-obsessed world. Her lectures are, by design, anti-corporate and unpredictable.
"I'm really sick of product," she says. "I'm tired of things having to be official, of having to be approved for my consumption by the New York Times."
The first Info Demo focused on the theme "How to Talk to Small Children." Kevin Hoth, wearing a salt-and-pepper gray wig and a business suit, gave another of his signature PowerPoint presentations, speaking on the topic of children as a professor from the fictional MIT Small Being Research Lab. Another presenter, Lila King, offered an audio montage that sampled George Dubya and clips from kids' TV shows.
"J.S. Van Buskirk is a perfect host and organizer," says Hoth. "She's quirky, quippy and cute. And she's a lawyer. I love the idea of having a completely innocuous day job and then doing something really oddly far-out and creative on the side."
br>?Office of Small Objects
If the name J.S. Van Buskirk seems a bit unwieldy, that's because it's actually a pseudonym. It's a variation on the name her parents had planned for her — if she'd been born a boy. She's reluctant to give her real name and readily admits she cherishes the anonymity and gender neutrality that her stage name allows, especially when she's using it online.
Though she'd been an avid writer and reader her whole life and even had some poetry published during college, Van Buskirk's writing was merely a pastime until her third year of law school. Then one day, while sitting in class, she had a seizure. Within a couple of weeks she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. "It was about the size of a Silly Putty egg," she says, pointing to the almost invisible scar on her right temple.
Though she doesn't like to talk about it, and luckily never had to undergo chemotherapy or radiation, Van Buskirk speaks of the experience as life-changing. "I got extremely motivated to do these things, because you're not going to wake up and find that you've magically become the person you'd always hoped to," she says. "I decided to feel OK about dying, and you really can. And then you have a lot fewer worries."
After graduation, Van Buskirk began pouring more energy into her website. Its first incarnation focused mainly on a somewhat hard-to-digest but endlessly intriguing concept that the writer calls OPOYUL~ (pronounced "poyle," rhymes with "oil.") But she freezes up when asked to explain her thesis. The best way to describe the concept is by metaphor, she says.
"You know when you're looking into water and you see a rock and you reach for it. If you close your eyes, the rock wouldn't be where you reached your hand. It's a great big analogy. You have something in your mind and you want to convey it. You send it out but it gets bent, it gets refracted," she says.
"The best way to convey it is to cause awareness of OPOYUL~ indirectly. Which is what the cards are for," she says, referring to the dozen or so homemade trading cards spread out on the table in front of us. The cards are Van Buskirk's own creation, each containing typed instructions intended to make the user aware of OPOYUL~ in everyday life. The tasks range from the mundane ("Do not laugh immediately when moved to do so," one says) while others suggest outside assignments, from reading Euripides to watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Others, mysteriously, just feature images of charcoal briquettes.
The connection to OPOYUL~ can seem pretty tenuous on some of the cards. "Believe everything once," says one, while another just asks, "Get it?" Whether you get it or not, the cards serve as potent little thought-provokers, Zen koans by way of Fleer.
Van Buskirk first got the idea to create the cards after reading about Art*o*mats, old cigarette vending machines refurbished by North Carolina artist Clark Whittington. These novel concession devices dispense tiny parcels of original art roughly the size and shape of a box of smokes.
About 40 Art*o*mats have been placed in galleries, nightclubs and restaurants all over the country. Unfortunately, Atlanta is not currently home to one, but Van Buskirk is trying to change that. Her OPOYUL~ cards are now available in Art*o*mats, as well as at her Info Demos.
But the cards are not Van Buskirk's top priority these days. Instead, she's focused on her current website and putting together more Info Demos.
This fervor for organizing events started last year, when she decided she wanted to try and make things happen in Atlanta that she wanted to see herself.
"If you have literature readings here," she says, "it's Terry Kay, or it's an Oprah writer. That's the only kind of thing that you get."
Van Buskirk went through a phase when she was addicted to McSweeney's output, which fueled in her a sense that anything is possible.
"Finally I just said 'screw it,' they just all got together and started this thing, so why don't I start my own?"
She began trying to bring author Neal Pollack (another McSweeney's author) to town. The event ultimately didn't happen; Pollack's book tour was postponed due to his wife's pregnancy. But the energy Van Buskirk put into the planning showed her just how feasible organizing a literary event could be.
br>?It's Bound to End in Tears?
Calling the Info Demos "literary" is a bit of a misnomer, because the lectures have a real sense of theater about them. While the presenters may have never been on a stage before, the events convey an ethereal, catch-it-now-before-it's-gone quality. Van Buskirk calls it art developed without a marketing team — homemade fun from a local source. It's a logical leap, given the writer's emphasis on things Web-related, which favors offbeat creations not overly concerned with perfection or permanence.
Van Buskirk doesn't think the term "performance art" really fits this lecture vogue either. Sure, it's a performance, but minus some of the trite connotations of that term.
No matter what you call it, it remains to be seen if Van Buskirk can catch lightning in a bottle in a city like Atlanta. Attendance at each of the three events so far have increased slightly, and the organizer says she's hearing more word-of-mouth momentum. The events are free, at the insistence of ArtSpot gallery owner Ann-Marie M. Downs, but that price tag can't last if the crowds do start to swell.
For her part, Van Buskirk remains gloriously unconcerned about finances.
"I have absolutely no interest in making money off the stuff that I do," she says. "And I know in a way that makes people think it's not for real, or not serious."
Instead, Van Buskirk is more concerned with building a following and fostering a richer alternative arts scene in the city. It's about creating a mind shift in a city with spotty support for its cultural health.
"People compare us to New York or L.A., saying, 'What do they have that we don't have?'" she says. "Well, they've got the same stuff, just more. We've got a pretty big population. There's a lot of people who could be going to more events, if we had more happening."
Chris Stevens is optimistic about the future of the lectures. A few months ago, he was convinced that nothing interesting ever happens in Atlanta. But recently, events like the Info Demos have helped change his mind.
"I think a lot of people would get into the Info Demos, and the more people that attend, the more potential presenters there will be," he says. "So if she can attract a critical mass, it could take on a life of its own. I think Atlantans wait until they hear that something is really great before they'll go to it. They need to just get out and risk blowing an hour, because it could be really cool after all. And the people are infinitely cooler than people hanging out in bars."