PP on Katherine Rochester
Katherine is a very talented arts writer we met while living in Philadelphia. We’ve been fortunate to have been covered by her—both in reviews and features. Arts writing is undervalued and we’re glad there are writers like Katherine that contribute greatly to their communities. Katherine received her B.A. from Grinnell College in 2006, and MA from Bryn Mawr College 2012, where she is now a 2016 PhD candidate. After graduating Grinell, Katherine worked in the Education department at the Walker Art Center for two years, first as an intern and then as a Fellow. From 2008 – 2010 Katherine worked as the Program Manager at The Soap Factory, a contemporary art space in Minneapolis, where she curated a number of exhibitions including three film festivals and a festival of performance art. After a summer spent working as a curatorial intern on the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Katherine is now a curatorial research assistant to Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. Katherine has a weekly arts column in the Philadelphia Weekly and is a frequent contributor to Artforum.com, Art in America, and Title Magazine.
From Katherine Rochester
Below is a recent interview with Adrienne Celt about the concept of the unfinished in art versus writing:
Unfinished: A Conversation about Evolution in Art and Writing
Katherine Rochester: You’re a writer, which got me thinking about how different your concept of finished and unfinished work must be: I’m assuming that once something’s published, that’s it. Finished. No further elaboration. However, there are plenty of examples in visual art, where a work might be finished at one point (for an exhibition) but then expanded upon later and shown in a slightly or drastically different iteration. Do you think this is an accurate differentiation between the written and the visual? How does a sequel or the series complicate this notion of the unfinished I’ve just described for the writer?
Adrienne Celt: On one level I think you’re right, but on another level, definitely not. Most writers I know never feel completely finished with a piece - it’s more like the story/book/what have you is a Mayan pyramid, and with each draft you struggle up onto a new plateau. For a while you feel done, but once you’ve rested up and gotten your bearings, you realize the top is still a long way up.
Obviously, once you’re submitting work for publication you want it to be as complete as it can possibly be. But the only way to gauge whether a piece of writing is finished is your own gut instincts. Does it cohere? Does the language sing? Can you do anything else to tweak or hone it? Your sense of these things changes over time. I never submit a piece of work I feel is unfinished, but that doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to revise my writing with an editor, and different editors will want different things - they’ll contribute different perspectives, which will in turn shift my perspective. Since all readers - editors or not - are ultimately collaborating with the writer in bringing a piece of work to life, in some sense it’s never done.
For more practical examples: there are many instances of unfinished or fragmented writing being published (Sappho’s poetry, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King), so you can see that publication is not the final arbiter of a piece’s form. Also, some writers publish stories that later become novels - that’s another fairly radical post-publication transformation. And finally, I will submit that I once sat next to an author at a reading, who was preparing to stand up and speak. She had her novel in her lap - a published, hardcover book - and a pencil in her hand, and was crossing out lines, redirecting phrases - totally copy-editing right there on the spot, to form an ostensibly finished piece of writing into something that better matched her internal vision of what it should be.
So, short answer? It’s all about perception. The public will always view an exhibited piece of art or published piece of writing as finished, because why wouldn’t they? It’s being presented to them in the form they associate with completion and accomplishment. But the artist knows better.
KR: Is working on something unfinished exciting or terrifying for you? Is there a point at which something passes from being “just started” to “unfinished” or even “abandoned”? Is there more romance at one stage or another?
AC: I swing pretty radically between what I prefer working on - something really new and raw, or something better fleshed out and girded. When I start a new story, there’s a thrill of discovery that’s very keen - you’re tumbling from one sentence to the next, trying to get a foothold in this new world/voice/etc. But revision is also important work - your first vertiginous effort is almost never going to result in a finished product. To respect your own ideas you have to be willing to hit your head against them for a while, scrutinize your structure and phrasing and be honest with yourself about whether they are conveying what you want them to. So in some ways revision is more uncomfortable than new work, because you have to be willing to destroy things you like. But it can also be reassuring, because you can see more clearly where you’re going.
KR: The designation “unfinished” seems to cause a lot more controversy in the world of literature than it does in the world of art. Take, for example, Nabokov and the heated discussion over whether or not his wife and son had the right/duty to publish his unfinished work. Compare that to Jason Rhoades’ work, which is essentially one giant, ever morphing sculpture. I’m working on a show of his now at the ICA Philadelphia and everyone seems excited that we’re doing it. No major questions about how these pieces might have naturally evolved in a subsequent exhibition such as ours (in other words, no debate about the fact that in a way, we’re showing unfinished or frozen works). And that’s not perfectly fine. Why do you think publication is still considered more final or decisive than exhibition? Is the world of literature and writing less fluid than that of art?
AC: This is a really interesting comparison to me, because I’m definitely one of the people who took issue with the publication of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura (and in fact I never bought a copy or looked at one, because I still find the whole thing ridiculous). I don’t know a great deal about Jason Rhoades’s work, but maybe the issue here is the curation of a body of work vs. a single unfinished work - I don’t have a problem with an archivist putting together an exhibition of Nabokov’s papers, or a book that looks at segments of all his writing in order to achieve some new coherent perspective on it. But the book that was published had its own, unattained intent, and all the publication did was showcase it.
So another issue, then, is intent: Nabokov was well known for exerting extraordinary control over his writing, and for knowing what a finished work was supposed to look like. My impression has always been that to him, publishing an unfinished novel was uninteresting and a little tawdry, like publishing his dirty underwear. You could look at it, but why would you? And The Original of Laura was categorically unfinished - he asked his wife to burn it. That was his deathbed request. I don’t have the same problem with David Foster Wallace’s editor putting together a version of The Pale King for publication, because DFW (to my knowledge) never explicitly asked anyone not to, and that book was a great deal more complete than The Original of Laura was at the time of Nabokov’s death.
Does that say anything about the essential nature of publication versus exhibition? I’m not sure. As I said in answer to a previous question, I don’t think publication does necessarily make a final statement about what a piece of work is supposed to be. But the relationship between the form & function of a book/novel is very intimate, so its difficult to escape the fact that publication seems to imply finality to the public.
Katherine Rochester on Adrienne Celt
Adrienne and I met during orientation at Grinnell College. We’ve been best friends ever since. Adrienne is a writer who also draws a cartoon column that features animals in philosophical discussions. Adrienne has been thinking about the concept of the unfinished and wanted to submit an unfinished drawing that she’s developing for her column.
From Adrienne Celt