Letters to the Pacific and Fictional Replies

letters to

Letters to the Pacific, Reading-screening performance, Reading by Aaron Peck, Film Collage by Dominic Osterreid, Adam Harrison in Huguenot House, dOCUMENTA (13) Maybe Education and Public Programs, 2012. Photo by Malin Bernalt. This text is published in the book series ‘Mental Space’ edited by Elmas Deniz in collaboration with İstanbul based art magazine, ‘Sanat Dünyamız’ (March-April 2013). 


Didem Yazıcı



Fictional Questions on an Encounter at a Chinese Restaurant, Walking on Wire and Writing a Letter

Could writing letters be the exact opposite of acrobatics? Could you cultivate the balance and the agility that you have dictated over your body from one end to the other in your hands and mind too? What occurs to you while you are writing a letter, walking on wire or drinking green tea at a Chinese restaurant in the middle of a park? What are the differences between writing at a table chosen for you on the left corner of a restaurant and writing at your usual desk? While you are writing, how further can you set yourself aside and be the person or the city you are writing about? Would you interpret the architecture, the history and the urban planning in line with quotidian, political and economic values? Train, hotel room, mountain top, garden, park, restaurant, café, city center, country… how much would you care where the wire is tightened, where the letter is written, which table you are sitting at? What would you do if you saw your favorite writer at the neighboring table when you get weary strolling through an exhibition in the park on a summer day and walk into a restaurant, which you come across on your way? (That table on the far left corner at that Chinese restaurant.) Would borders, beliefs and identity crystallize when you explicate the city where you live in your letters that you penned like a diary and when you quote misunderstood lyrics? Forget the questions Pacific, read the letters.[1]

Letters to the Pacific

In his essayIf You Build it, They Will Come,” reprinted in his book Letters to the Pacific (2010), writer Aaron Peck reminds us of the reason why Giorgio Agamben did not accept the teaching position at New York University. Agamben likens the procedure of scanning thumbs and documenting prints for entering the USA with a visa, which has been in force since January 2004, to biopolitical tattooing at the Nazi concentration camps and therefore invalidates his entry. Approximately two years after Agamben’s text in which he announced his decision was published in Le Monde, Aaron Peck starts to write a series of letters from New York where he probably gave his fingerprints, like all of us who enter the USA on a visa. These letters that novelist and art critic Peck wrote in random intervals in 2006-2007 from New York where he was living for his doctoral art history research are not solely a series of letters; they also operate as an artistic medium—reproduced as a diary, a discussion platform, a literary exercise.

As much as Pacific, representing a fictional character, marks a geographical area, it defines the writers’ acquaintances and friends who are living or used to live on the Pacific coast of North America, or happened to pass by somehow. While these letters were e-mailed by the writer during one year to approximately 30 people who didn’t see the others’ names and addresses (bcc), even the writer didn’t know that these letters would later be collected in a book or reproduced in different formats. I can picture Aaron Peck during the days he wrote the letters, wandering, step by step, through the cafés of New York, Staten Island, New Jersey, Harlem[AP1] , and parks with his messy hair, his swift gaze as if he could change his mind momentarily and his determined maturity. As Peck, who was interested in speaking about urban and architecture discussions, constructs a literary language in these letters, he also presents a reading that evaluates New York in terms of contemporary and historical urbanism.

While reading these letters when you don’t know to whom they were addressed, a feeling of half guilt half pleasure invades like you are reading sneakily the read mails of a hacked email account or reading the letters one by one secretly that, you know, were not written to you but have their envelops already unsealed. These letters could have been the notebook or the logbook of an explorer, however, sending his notes as letters to a group of acquaintances, Peck somehow announces that he wants to share these texts and experiences with certain people and open his thoughts to discussion. In the letters that begin with Dear Pacific, geographical imagination is not a casual metaphor; it is the herald of a fundamental approach that infiltrates all of the texts. The explanation of these letters ending with Send my love to the East River in an atlas and their reading as a whole can bear different nuances. [AP2] A spatial cognition that embraces the reader is at stake in the entire book. “One must deal with life, and the subway presents life in countless ways.”[2] The letters tell the bustle of traveling from one station to the other on the subway line, which strikes off the city from one end to the other, and the bizarre experiences of being a tourist, a temporary resident or a citizen of a city. Speaking about the empty glass vitrines encountered on a visit to the American Museum of Natural History or telling how and by whom the shaman’s funerary pole was sold to the Museum in 1892, these texts bear the traces of a genuine curiosity and a certain anxiety.

I’d Like to Complicate These Myths a Little; It’s My Skeptical Nature

Pacific—the fictional character in these letters that were penned as if soliloquizing—is like a mirror into which Peck reflects his thoughts. Underlining Dear Pacific in each instance, at times with the intent of a lover, and sometimes with the skepticism of a scientist, he undertakes the ideas and the feelings that the days passing in New York, the streets he strolled, the places he’d been to evoked and triggered ideas and emotions as if it was of no consideration from where and how the mirror would reflect them. He explains being in the middle of New York with one paragraph like smooth curves of a stripped jacked. “So, what is it, dear Pacific? And what is it about your politics? More than a mixed city, New York is a separate city where differences cross paths marginally public spaces; where people don’t so much connect as brush against each other, warm acquaintances, trading business cards or insults, where artifice, the layers upon layers of subway tracks, are as much archeological as they are contemporary; where restaurants turn over more quickly than outer-borough trains move. In the middle of observation, I’d like to complicate these myths a little; it’s my skeptical nature.”[3]

What Can I Love About This City The Way I Love You?

Since I consider the metaphor of Pacific as the main emphasis that corresponds to the letters, my text continues speaking about this term. An almost eerie characteristic of the letters is the fact that we never know who Pacific is/are. This ambiguity ascribes an uneasy feeling to the book. Each written letter, in fact, engenders a right of reply; however we, those who read the book, feel imperfect for we might never know those responses. This state of the right of reply, which we are in whether by accident or design, contains the possibility of writing open or non-public letters to the writer that doesn’t necessarily imply replying to them one by one. However, weren’t these letters already written as an exercise of communicating thoughts and questions? He might have received multiple replies to letters sent to some friends, regardless of the idea of compiling them as a book. We might never know this, but we can obtain some hints.

First Reply and An Autopoietic[4] Process

After Matthew Stadler (Publication Studio/ Jank Editions) tells Peck about his desire to publish the letters written in that one year as a book three or four years after the last letters was sent in 2007, Letters to the Pacific begins to evolve into a responsive work, including different materials and artists in the process. Upon Stadler’s proposal, the process of turning the letters into a book begins. At that very point, Peck’s drive to initiate secretly a dialog (that may or may not be apparent in his writing of the letters) reveals itself. These letters, although discreetly sent as bcc, were indeed always open to responses and bear the potential to develop a context for artistic discussions. Following the idea of collecting the letters into a book, Peck invites his Dusseldorf-based artist friend Adam Harrison to join in the process. Adam invites Dominic Osterreid, a mutual friend of Peck, whom he knows from the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. Adam and Dominic turn the texts into a kind of reciprocal communication tool. The artists first put the letters to be published in the book in chronological order based on the dates they were written and, like the pages of a calendar, reserve a single page for each day. 243 black-and-white photographs that Adam and Dominic have selected are placed on the pages of the days when no letter was written: parachutes landing on the ocean, cargo vessels, an astronaut walking on the moon, landscape paintings of the 19th century, film frames… Thus the book, with its half textual/half imagery content, becomes a blend that both repels and completes each other. Far from belonging to a bookshelf, Letters to the Pacific evolves into an artwork that contains various stories and references. This intermingled process of making letters into a book and the book into an artist edition designed with images offers a multilayered experience. Following its publication, this work that includes different artists in time is gradually produced anew in the format of film screening and reading performance. This process, with involvement of new works as sequential interventions, additions and responses, functions as an artistic experience that produces itself. Literally meaning “self-creation” in Ancient Greek, autopoiesis is a term that was introduced in 1970s by biologist Humberto Maturana to define the biological systems, such as cells, that can reproduce themselves. I believe this concept denotes the performance resulting from Letters to the Pacific, a collective processual work that creates itself, in the best way possible. The works that organically create and complete each other offer an egalitarian and simultaneous experience of works by different artists that highlights neither the text nor the images.   

From the Chinese restaurant to the Huguenot House: the Performance of Letters to the Pacific at dOCUMENTA (13)

dOCUMENTA (13) presented an interwoven program in which the exhibition and public programs did not have clear borders and, as a result, the public programs proved to be a significant part of the experience of the exhibition. Chorality, On Retreat: A Writers’ Residency program for which eight poets and fiction writers were invited at different times to write at a desk at the Mongolian-Chinese restaurant Dschingis Khan in the Auepark, where the majority of the exhibition took place, hosted Aaron Peck, the author of Letters to the Pacific (2010) and The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (2008) during the summer of 2012. Based on the possibility of the encounter of exhibition visitors and restaurant goers and the experience of living and writing in an unexpected place, this program brought with it the planned or spontaneous performances of the writers. In the course of the year that I worked in The Maybe Education and Public Programs of dOCUMENTA (13), my colleague Lucia Pietriousti and I established a close dialog with all of the writers and organized their schedules in Kassel as well as the events they performed. In this process, setting up a relationship that was based on spending time together, having conversations, discussing, and listening to each other, beyond the usual artist-curator/project assistant connection, and having this relationship shape the program, turned this open-ended program to a more experimental and self-flowing process. Arriving right after the first guest, poet-artist Etel Adnan, Peck spent the first two weeks of July in Kassel seeing the exhibition, giving talks in the public program and writing at the Chinese restaurant. Peck was writing his novel, The Bad Arts, when he was invited to the program, hence the table reserved for the writer on the far left corner of Dschingis Khan, with the occasional overwhelming smell of the food, the instrumental music of the 90s reminiscent of elevator or on-hold phone music and the décor with a giant plastic tree, prepared a quite fictional and colorful basis for the author to continue his novel. In walking distance to the works by artists such as Gareth Moore and Brian Jungen, the restaurant was an open but also semi-secret place where the audience gathered, whether they explicitly tracked the location of the writers on the exhibition map or walked in the restaurant randomly or took a break for some green tea. Despite the fact that Peck didn’t enjoy the food very much, he savored spending time in the restaurant, the experimental nature of the residency program, the attention of old German couples with little English visiting the restaurant, seeing the exhibition and talking about the works. Apart from the time spent at the restaurant, the writer participated in various public programs of dOCUMENTA (13) at which his attendance had been planned in advance: The Black Box talks he participated in with Gareth Moore, Reader’s Circle: 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts—half-an-hour reading program right in the front or in the entrance of Fredericianum, Poetry Readings taking place every Friday night at 11pm that presented a performative sphere besides poetry, Peck’s own talk—“That Sound Should Have Been Our Title: Ekphrasis and The Novel.” In the midst of this busy program, during a conversation with the author, we started to talk about his book, Letters to the Pacific, and the performance: the layered process of the work, writing the book and how it turned into a performance… Although it was a few days before the writer’s residency would be over, with a spontaneous decision, we decided to organize this performance on the last day of his residency. The Huguenot House, where a project by another dOCUMENTA (13) participant Theaster Gates, crossed our minds as a possible venue. This lively space that brought the disused building back to life, held concerts, events and workshops, exhibited works, had meals cooked in its kitchen and students staying in its tiny rooms was open everyone. Knowing that Adam and Dominic were arriving in Kassel in a few days, Aaron excepting my offer to organize an event on the last day of his writer’s residency. The performance of Letters to the Pacific took place in a dim and tiny room of the Huguenot House in attendance of 15-20 people.

Adam Harrison and Dominic Osterreid used excerpts from the films by John Baldessari, Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman, Marcel Broodthaers, James Benning, Sabine Dusend, Hollis Frampton, Woody Allen and Michael Haneke to intervene on the days when no letter was written by showing these film collages, just like pages in the book for the days in which they had included the images. The performance begins with Peck reading the letters one by one. On the days without letters, films are screened until the next letter. The performance is, somehow, the recreation and the animation of the book in various media, creating an artistic conversation. After watching the performance, I realized that I had forgotten the story of the writing of the letters, turning them into the book with images, then into the performance and the film collages or maybe I hadn’t known it entirely, or this chronological past didn’t matter at all, because in this process, which material came first was of no importance. The relation of the letters, the book, the images and the film has an intrinsic organic nature. During the performance, it is trivial whether the text was written for the films or the films were chosen for the text. As the stark voice of Peck filled the dark air of the dimmed projection room, the images and the text create a mingling conversation. In this autopoietic process, Aaron’s letters and Adam and Dominic’s film collage turning the text into image establish an artistic conversation on traveling, being on the ocean, and crossing the borders where different materials make love

[1] Note to reader: After you read, forget the questions Pacific. Imagine handling a book, then, as if whispering, the author softly reading you the entire book, in a dim room where films are screened intermittently by your side while he is reading. Then you can explore how traveling to a city, staying there, writing and text can be reproduced through artistic responses.

[2] Aaron Peck, Letters to the Pacific, Portland, Publication Studio, 2010, p. 11

[3] Aaron Peck, Letters To The Pacific, Portland, Publication Studio, 2010, p. 137

[4] Derives from Autopoiesis that literally means “self-creation.” (Translators note)

 [AP1]The nightmarkets were in Vancouver, not New York!

 [AP2]The translation here doesn’t work. Unsure what the sentence is trying to say,


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