Friday, April 29, 2011

David Lester's The Listener: of Nazis, artists, activists and elections

Mecca Normal guitarist, writer, and graphic designer David Lester has a new book out, a rather unusual graphic novel called The Listener, which interweaves two stories: that of a fictional artist, Louise Shearing, who leaves Vancouver after an activist, inspired by her work, falls to his death while in the process of hanging a banner from the Woodwards' W; and that of a historical story she encounters while travelling in Europe, dealing with the Lippe elections in Germany - elections that played an important, but not well-remembered, role in Hitler's rise to power. As Lester has acknowledged himself, the book reads like a film - one that raises questions about art, political engagement, and the consequences of remaining inactive. I found it quite a compelling, honest, and provocative read, with highly cinematic illustrations done in a combination of pen and ink, watercolour, and acrylics. I spoke with David Lester about it in early April.

Allan: So was the genesis of The Listener in the story of the Lippe elections? ...because there's also this quest for meaning in art that Louise is on. Which came first?

David: Well, I have a lifelong interest in art and politics, and so it's inevitable that that's a concern that I would want to write about - the mixing of art and politics, and the pros and cons of that. But to start with, it was really the story of the Lippe election, which is sort of uncovering a piece of obscure hidden history. Considering all the stuff that's been written about the Third Reich and Hitler and Nazism, how can it possibly be that there's a story that hasn't been written, that there is no book on, no source for? I couldn't believe that I'd come across something like that - though I know that in Germany there is a book about it, in the actual state, because the city archivist told me there was. But... yeah, the Lippe election came first; then I thought, well, I don't want it to just be a history book, I want it to encompass why the past is important to the present and why the present is important to the future. I wanted to draw those links, and I thought - if I had a modern story wrapped around it, I could make those connections, and it wouldn't just be a moment in time.

Allan: So where did your interest in the Lippe story come from?

David: I first came across it in reading a book about Hitler's rise to power, and I'd never heard of the story before. In the book that I read, it was mentioned in passing that the Lippe elections were somewhat pivotal in how Hitler got to be named Chancellor. And so I was intrigued by this story, and I looked into it more and more, and I started to find bits and pieces in a whole number of history books; but no one went into it in huge detail. So I had to piece these things together, in order to form a picture. And then I discovered speeches that were made during that time, that election, and the more I researched how it came to be that Hitler was named Chancellor, the more I realized that this was a really significant election, and pivotal for the Nazi party and Hitler to achieve success. They had continuously risen in the polls, since 1928, and then their support decreased - so it was a crucial moment, only two months before this election in Lippe. And I thought - I'd never heard of this election, it's never come up, and yet it seems fundamental to Hitler's fortunes.

Allan: A lot of the story, as you tell it, turns around this newspaper plate that's prepared, outing the Nazis and what they're doing, that is never used. Was that entirely fictional? Was that a device you came up with...? The book in part deals with the failure of activism, art, or journalism, so the story of that plate seems to really tie in themes in the novel...

David: It's made up to a degree, but it's all based around a true piece of writing. What I discovered was that the party leader did write this article that was to go in the newspaper, with the title that you see in my book. I could find no other reference to it in the world; and it was pulled mysteriously by the party leader, who had written it. Whether the plates were made is a fiction, perhaps, on my part, but the piece of writing and the headline is true. I just built an idea around it, because I liked the idea of a metal plate, of the permanence of a metal plate. A lot of the book is past and present; there's a motif of people doing the same action in the 1930's as they do today, so the plate was for comparison. We still use metal plates now, but it's definitely an old fashioned way of doing things, everything is digital now...

Allan: And the characters of Rudolf and Marie are also fictional?

David: Yes, they are.

Allan: Is Louise inspired by anyone in particular?

David: She's inspired by - I like a lot of the Weimar era artists, like George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Käthe Kollwitz. And so in some ways, they're all kind of an inspiration, as a political artist.

Allan: And the idea of an activist dying, in connection with the Woodward's W... is there any particular reference point for that? David: Well, it's all fiction, but I wanted to give it a local connection, to where the artwork was being created. I thought that that was important. And I looked at the Vancouver skyline, and - we have the mountains, but as far as the city skyline, we don't really have anything that compelling, until you see that the W is there - it's actually the most distinctive part of the skyline we have. And as a kid, my parents and I would go shopping there for groceries, and all our birthday cakes came from Woodwards. So I have a real personal relationship with Woodwards, as a place that my family would go to. And also, it is a symbol of development in the downtown eastside, and I thought it was incredibly relevant - especially with SFU putting itself there, as a place of learning and knowledge; how does that fit into the general area? So I thought, of all the spots in Vancouver, the W represents a hotspot of what's going on in the city. Also, where activism in the past has occurred, including the Gastown riot and the fight for the Safe Injection site. I thought it tied in with the whole idea of art and politics.

Allan: It does, but the story of the acivist's death also creates a question of complicity, of the role of the artist in society, since Louise is accused at times of inspiring this Cambodian doctor, Vann, in an act that results in his death. She seems to leave Vancouver in a state of guilt. So it creates an interesting question of the role of the artist in society, and what the artist is to be held responsible for - through their actions or inactions. Though one thing I was unclear on is exactly how this man is inspired by Louise's sculpture, in such a way that she could be held responsible...
David: I mean, the connection is that Louise made a sculpture about the French anarchist Louise Michel, and we know that France colonized Cambodia - and so there's that whole French influence there, which Vann would be aware of. That's why it would be of interest to him, but also Louise Michel's reference to fighting, to fighting oppressive situations, in essence. I don't go into a great deal of detail about that, but I don't think, in many cases, when people are inspired by art or a quotation or such, that it takes much more than that. So I thought, "I'm not going into great detail to explain what he saw in the sculpture," because quantifying that and defining that isn't always easy to do. And I myself have been inspired many times just by posters - I look at posters from the Weimar era, or those done by Ben Shahn in the '30's and '40's, and anti-war posters from the '60's and so on... I guess I was trying to say that there's something about art that we can't always quantify, as to how people act based on what they've seen. For some people, seeing Che Guevara stretched out in death is a powerful image, of somebody who attempted to do something. Again, I would find it difficult to say exactly what that influence is, but it may just be a motivation to do what you think is right. As simple as that.
Allan: I discovered that, looking through your pictorial bio, that I knew more of your work than I realized. You did a DOA cover, for example. And you did some work for the Vancouver anarchist paper The Open Road, back in the 1980's. I was wondering, there was a poster in one issue that I still have lodged in my brain, with the slogan, "Fuck work before it fucks you." That wasn't yours, by any chance, was it?

David: No, I can't take credit for that one. It's a good one. Allan: Yeah, I remember it well ...So if we could talk a bit about your own history with activism, I don't see it mentioned very often that you're the brother of (DOA manager, vintage Georgia Straight writer, and Yippie activist) Ken Lester... If we could talk about your relationship with him for a bit...

David: My brother was a great inspiration to me when I was growing up, because we lived in a household where generally the closest thing to a book was a TV Guide, and my brother had a massive amount of books that he stored at our house, a whole wallful of them. And it would be poetry, fiction, non-fiction, political books, and I had access to these; it was a great opening to the world, to see these books, and I think it profoundly affected how my future turned out - including dipping into his record collection, which showed me people who were not on the radio at that time. He had the MC5, and Phil Ochs, and the Grateful Dead and et cetera. And that defined how I came to proceed in life, I think. I realized that there was a world out there that wasn't reflected back in popular culture. And so that's why I've chosen this sort of path. Ken was an inspiration in that way.

Allan: Was his radicalism also an inspiration?

David: Well, you know, his radicalism in the form of access to radical books and underground newspapers... He worked for the Georgia Straight, so he would often bring home newspapers from across North America and Europe that they had received there, and I got to look at them. So my whole interest in graphic design was started there as well, and of newspapers - a love of the newspaper and newspaper design. It was really pivotal, and I don't know where I would be without those influences.

Allan: About cinema - you mention in the book Orson Welles and Fritz Lang. Do you want to talk about any cinematic influences, or antecedents, on The Listener or in general.

David: I think German expressionism - a lot of the silent films, produced in the Weimar years - were an inspiration. And Fritz Lang was one of them. And film noir, and Hitchcock, and Orson Welles - those are all influences, all their black and white films were things that influenced how I did the book.

Allan: You'd mentioned that The Listener works in ways similar to a movie, and that it can be read in one sitting. You'd commented that that was possible - and I pretty much did exactly that last night, so it can be done.

David: Yeah, that was the intention, but - I always take more time on these things; I can only read so much! ...even though it's mostly pictures.

Allan: One particular page that delighted me, in a way that I can't explain, is the panels where Louise is flexing her feet. Those are really inspired. I've never seen - like, people do that all the time, it's a very nice, natural human moment, but I've never seen it in film, I've never seen it in art. Where did that come from?

David: I like stretchin' my feet, I guess! I guess I think feet are quite expressive. And I haven't seen anybody else do it in quite that way, but I do think they have a great sort of movement to them, and I realized when I started to look at feet that you can do a lot of different poses with how a foot can move! I'd never thought of it before, I sort of stumbled upon it. And also, it's an example of something I tried to do a number of times, in the book: you have people talking, and I wanted to show something else, which is a cinematic thing you see often, where the conversation is taking place, but in fact you're looking somewhere else. I tried to do that a number of times in the book, and I wish I'd done more of it. That was one of those instances.

Allan: It's a potent moment. So. The fact that the book is coming out just prior to a Canadian election - do you want to speak at all about the Canadian election, and your feelings about where Canada is now? David: Well, one of the things about the book is that it's talking about spin doctoring and media manipulation, and that seems to me what elections are like every single time. They're really not about ideas, they're very uninspired, and the politicians seem to live in a universe that is all about image and not about thought or actually doing anything. And there's a hopelessness to it all. So - my book is a cautionary tale about a number of things, and one of them is elections and the idea of having a great deal of skepticism towards elections and how they're handled. Are they really the best way of doing things, in terms of social progress? They can be, I'm sure, and they have been in the past, at times, but clearly we're in a malaise right now, deeper than ever, where it's all about opinion polls and, sorta doing nothing - not really getting to the essence of what people need in a society. It's so sickening, basically, it's painful - a huge waste of energy.

Allan: Well, I think of it as a wonderful opportunity to vote Harper out, but I fear that he's going to end up with a majority. His media campain is so aggressive that it seems almost unstoppable. It's really frightening. David: Yeah. Well, in my book, I've had some people say to me, "Hitler doesn't seem that bad! You see him on the campaign trail, he sounds reasonable, some of these things he's saying." And I did that purposely, because some of the things that Hitler and the Nazis said were actually about things that people wanted solutions to - unemployment, a calming down of the monetary system and a calming down of the violence that was occuring throughout Germany, because of the various paramilitary groups. So Hitler deliberately toned things down, to get votes, and to appear somewhat moderate to the general population. And I wanted to get that across, because I think the same thing is true of Harper, and to a lesser extent the others who are running, in that there is a blandness to it all that is really meant to pull the wool over people's eyes. We can look at all sorts of elections like that - things haven't really changed in the last 80 years, in terms of how campaigns are run. And that was another point that I was trying to get across. Hitler did a campaign that if it was done today, it would seem fine. And the things that he says, if you applied it to what Harper might say, it would sound reasonable. I'm not saying all of it - but there's a lot of bread and butter type issues. So there's a parallel there. David Lester's The Listener is published by Arbeiter Ring Publishing. Watch this blog for more news on a Vancouver release party for The Listener.

1 comment:

Jean Smith said...

Here’s an interview with author and illustrator David Lester on UMFM, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, June 2011.

“A dense and fiercely intelligent work that asks important questions about art, history, and the responsibility of the individual, all in a lyrical and stirring tone.” — Publishers Weekly (New York)