Please enable JavaScript

On the difficulty of lists

On the difficulty of lists

April 28, 2016

Eleanor Zeichner

Separating Hydrogen From Air: A Primer is a discursive project for Next Wave Festival 2016. Writer Eleanor Zeichner surveyed the festival artists on their favourite books, movies, songs and artworks, as well as asking them about their practices and how they’d like to be remembered. The findings are collected in a publication (available at all Next Wave venues) and a website. A selection of the favourites are available to browse at the Separating Hydrogen From Air Reading Room in the foyer of Arts House. This is a mix of some of Next Wave Festival 2016 artists’ favourite songs, as nominated in the survey.

If I have learned anything from asking people to list their five favourite things, it’s that this is a very intimate question. These things – songs, books, movies, artworks – are not cultural products in a vacuum, they are objects invested with the emotional significance of lived experience. They speak to identity, sexuality, race, religion, politics, childhood, self-worth, family, romance, tragedy. I feel almost voyeuristic to have asked. It’s as though I have asked them to describe their love affairs, their political convictions, their family history. In a way, I have.

Many of the Next Wave artists I surveyed for this project talked about the path by which they came across their favourite things as being serendipitous or even fateful. This is love at first sight. There is no process of testing or elimination, there is only a swoon, a flash of recognition, a surrender. Others describe how they encountered their now favourite works as assigned texts for university, a revelation that unlocked a whole new understanding of their practices and purposes. For some they came by way of recommendation from friends, family, partners – shared objects that enhance or shorthand relationships with loved ones (past and present).

These are shared cultural objects, yet their affect on us is deeply personal. I knew all this, yet I was surprised to find the same favourites turn up in different surveys: Lauryn Hill’s album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is much loved, as are the novels of Haruki Murakami. Books about devious, obsessive love affairs feature prominently: Chris Kraus’s fictocritical memoir/novel I Love Dick is adored, as is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I wasn’t surprised to see many favourite books and music that catalyse, diagnose, manifest or represent political dissent, racial injustice, sexual revolution or cultural upheaval: from The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon, to What is Property? by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, to The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker, as well as music from Black Arm Band, Bob Marley, Queen Latifah to Die Antwoord. It’s impossible to isolate any one theme or category for this cacophony of loved things, only the singular nature of each person’s affection, and the collective value of communal adoration. These lists accumulate only with the passage of time.

There was also a note of discomfort in the concept of ‘favourite’, and some of those surveyed resisted listing their selected cultural objects in any particular order or questioned the premise entirely. As someone whose own top five is also in constant realignment, I empathise. How can five things represent everything you value in a work of art? And do you want those things to be held against your name in print? I’ve personally never been able to answer these questions well at all (some embarrassing disavowals spring to mind), and so I have only admiration to the artists who generously gave their time and thoughts to my nosiness.

So here goes, my top 5 books this week (in no particular order…)

Bluets, Maggie Nelson
Monkey Grip, Helen Garner
Speedboat, Renata Adler
Self-Help, Lorrie Moore
Dept of Speculation, Jenny Offill

But this doesn’t even begin to take in the whole constellation of my favourite books (what about Eileen Myles, Janet Frame, Roxane Gay, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Chris Kraus, Janet Malcolm, Rebecca Solnit, Zadie Smith, Margaret Drabble! I cry; or any of the dead white guys: Marcel Proust, DFW, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Frank O’Hara!), and I haven’t even started on movies and music and anything else, not to mention the things that exist out in the universe I haven’t seen yet or haven’t yet been made!

A list of a person’s favourite things tell you a lot and also not very much about that person: what they might’ve been feeling when they wrote them down, for sure, but by the time you the reader clap eyes on the list the person may well have moved on. They’ve read or seen or heard new things, met someone new, felt a shift in the season, had a change of heart. That’s why I think they make such a great time capsule – not because they are eternal but because they are mutable. They sketch a trajectory, capturing a glimpse of a person before the tides carry them along to their next shore. As Umberto Eco said, in an interview with Der Spiegel, upon the publication of his 2009 book The Infinity of Lists, “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible.”Umberto Eco, interview with Susanne Beyer and Lothar Gorris, Der Spiegel, 11 November 2009. Accessed 17 April.

Track listing

Queen Latifah, ‘U.N.I.T.Y’
Lauryn Hill, ‘Doo wop that thing’
Kanye West, ‘Black Skinhead’
Mariah Carey, ‘One & Only’
Arcade Fire, ‘Rebellion (Lies)’
Animal Collective, ‘Grass’
Bernard Parmegiani, ‘L’alcool Tue’
Delilah Derbyshire, ‘Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO’
Die Antwoord, ‘Fatty Boom Boom’
Jamie xx, ‘Girl’
Somei Satoh, ‘Birds in Warped Time II’
Machinefabriek, ‘Vergezichten 1’
Young Charlatans, ‘Shivers’
Paul Simon, ‘Diamonds on the soles of her shoes’
Frightened Rabbit, ‘A Winter of Mixed Drinks’
Bart Willoughby, ‘We have Survived’
Bob Marley, ‘Is This Love’ (Montmartre Remix)
Roy Orbison, ‘Blue Angel’
Throbbing Gristle, ‘Discipline’
Sasha Go Hard, ‘Today’
Pharmakon, ‘Crawling on Bruised Knees’
Gloria Ann Taylor, ‘Love is a Hurting Thing’
Songs: Ohia, ‘Farewell Transmission’
Sade, ‘Love is stronger than pride’
Rihanna, ‘We found love’