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The Impossibilists: The Avant-Garde in Portland

E. J. Carter

December 2, 2016

The Impossibilists

Near the end of Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, Jack Levitt runs into a pool-hall gambler he knew in Oregon:

“How’s old Portland?”

“Terrible. I haven’t been back in a long time. They closed the Rialto, tore down Ben Fenne’s building, shut up the card-rooms for poker action, everything. They got a lady mayor up there a few years ago came in and really cleaned house. Man, what a gas. She calls in all the cops and tells them, ‘Boys, I know what’s shaking; I know the location of every gambling club, brothel, after-hours joint in town. Tomorrow I want them closed and the operators on their way out of town. Get it?’. . . . So the cops, they go to the Scotchman—you remember him?—and tell him, ‘Jesus, this broad is serious!’ and he thinks about it for a minute and then says, ‘Okay, that’s all she wrote.’ Closed up shop and moved back to Aberdeen. So the whole town is tighter than a tick.”

Levitt’s friend is referring to Dorothy McCullough Lee, whose crusade against gambling and prostitution won her nicknames like No Sin Lee and Dottie-Do-Good. During her term as mayor from 1949 to 1952, she shut down slot machines and punchboards, fought drag shows and homosexuality, and granted as few liquor license renewals as possible. The brothels survived, but she cleared downtown Portland of streetwalkers.

Lee’s campaign to “enforce the law” wasn’t just an assault on petty crime or the syndicates that backed it. It can also be seen as an early wave of gentrification, an attempt by Portland bluebloods to stamp out the city’s bohemian subculture. Portland had long been divided between the moneyed west hills and the rough working-class waterfront. Lee’s reforms were a first shot in the long-running battle between the forces of order and disorder, those who preferred a quiet middle-class town, and those seeking the transgressive life of intoxication, rebellion, and art.

Many urban histories feature sharp conflicts between the bohemian and the bourgeois, and most cities retain a nostalgia for those non-conforming districts erased by gentrification. The appeal of San Francisco and New York is partly built on the ruins of a vanished class of starving artists. In Portland, though, the city’s antinomian character seems to have grown stronger as its bohemia disappeared. Literary and cultural representations of the seedy side of Portland distilled an identity that persisted even as the social spaces producing it went away.

Lee’s reforms received a mixed reception, and she lost her bid for reelection. But over the next twenty years the city implemented elements of Robert Moses’s Portland Improvement plan, intensifying the assault on bohemia. The mania for urban renewal in the 1950s led to the demolition of low-income neighborhoods and destroyed South Portland. The city condemned the artists’ enclave known as “The Village” in 1963. The I-405 corridor wrapped a noose around downtown, and Tom McCall Waterfront Park replaced the old dockyards. Lower-class residents were pushed north of Burnside Blvd., only to see revitalization catch up with them there, too.

By then a new ethic of urban renewal, based on Mumford-Jacobs ideas of diversity and mixed-use spaces, had overcome the old clearance-type planning. But the effect on the poor was the same. Living spaces in downtown Portland and its fringes dwindled. Urban squalor gave way to boutiques, antique shops, and fine dining. Downtown Portland eliminated 1,700 housing units between 1970 and 1978. The city was becoming, in Carl Abbott’s phrase, “Ramona Quimby’s Portland”: progressive in its politics, traditional in its urban identity, homogenous in class and ethnicity. “Kids walk to school and the branch library; neighborhood movie theaters show double features suitable for families; hardware stores, groceries, and florist shops still line old commercial streets.”

Meanwhile, skid row shrunk ever further. The sense of besiegement is captured in Walt Curtis’s 1977 novella Mala Noche, which depicts Sixth Avenue north of Burnside as both a haven of authentic life and a marginal wasteland. Curtis’s narrator works at Demetri’s grocery, in a neighborhood filled with “babbling derelicts with snot running down their noses, belligerent street lacks and bombed-out-of-their-minds Native Americans, loggers on a toot, pimps, runaway girls, pregnant and battered women, dying veterans, old Chinese pale as parchment, petty criminals, embittered working class white men with chips on their shoulders, alcoholic hookers on the make, and weirdo perverts.” It’s a place where there might be hope for the hopeless, but even they are losing their final refuge. When the Immigration Service starts deporting Latinos, there’s no place else to go. Hardened criminals replace the merely transgressive: “Later, the jackrollers and the pimps, the heroin and cocaine dealers would erase the last traces of innocence.”

***

In response to these changes in its urban character, Portland saw the rise of a literary and cultural avant-garde that thumbed its nose at the city’s gathering prosperity. Darker and angrier than the beatniks or hippies, the new avant-garde drew on international artistic currents to articulate the spirit of revolt. Near the center of the ’70s avant-garde in Portland was a performance poetry troupe called the Impossibilists. Founded by Tom Cassidy and Mark Sargent, the Impossibilists published manifestos—mingling poetry, prose, satire, and graphic art—for a period of more than ten years. They also staged live shows, readings, and events. Their manifestos featured writers and artists like Curtis and Katherine Dunn, and later figures from outside Portland like Subwaxin Haddock and Blaster Al Ackerman. Though circulation never exceeded a few hundred copies, their literary activities—and their forceful assertion of an avant-garde ethos—helped shape Portland’s cultural identity.

The Imps took their name from a line in Marinetti’s first Futurist Manifesto (1909): “Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the impossible?” The Futurists, like subsequent avant-gardes, hoped to overcome alienation and reconcile art with ordinary life. There was nothing mystical about Marinetti’s view of the impossible; it was simply the future, the set of things it was assumed could not be done. “We already live in the absolute,” he wrote, “because we have created omnipresent speed.” The Imps drew on other influences in the historical avant-garde, including Dadaists and surrealists (Cassidy named his cat Tzara and signed letters “Bob Desnos,” after the poet and radio personality), but the idea of breaking with the past to integrate art with life was fundamental.

Cassidy and Sargent met at Mount Angel College, where they were part of the renowned art program in the school’s last years. Sargent was born in Olympia and came to Oregon in 1969. Cassidy grew up in New Jersey and first studied in Georgia. His early roots were in mail or correspondence art, a neo-avant-garde movement to build networks of artists outside their traditional institutions (museums, publishers, universities). Sharing sketches and poems through the mail was a way to bridge the gap between art and the everyday, while undermining the capitalist market.

At Mount Angel Cassidy took the moniker Spaceangel (later he would switch to Musicmaster) and partnered with Kay Hockett in staging “Space Shows.” Hockett was a graphic artist and instructor at Mount Angel who would contribute to the Impossibilist manifestos under the name Rhoda Mappo. In October 1972 they coordinated a “Dada Spectacular” featuring Dana (Ace Space) Atchley’s Reflections from the Road, which Cassidy described as a “32,000 mile neoplasmic binge of Ace’s peripatetic mind.” The show also featured banana-themed visual and cinematic art, an acid bar mitzvah band, and Lowell Darling, who conferred his “Master of Finds Art” degrees on people, dogs, and watermelons.

After Mount Angel, Sargent lived briefly in California before moving to Portland. Cassidy managed Snuffy’s Arcadium at 21st and Lovejoy, then opened his own junkshop arcade, Keep ’Em Flying, at 510 NW 21st Ave. Early one morning in the spring of 1975, Sargent slipped the opening page of the first Imps manifesto under Keep ’Em Flying’s front door. The manifesto began with a series of slogans articulating the group’s core values: urbanism (“IMPOSSIBILISTS REVERE THE PATTERN OF ASPHALT”); poverty (“IMPOSSIBILISTS ARE COSMICLY [sic] INDIGENT”); contempt for politics (“IMPOSSIBILISTS BELIEVE CAPITALISM THE CAUSE OF MOST ASS ITCH, SOCIALISM THE CAUSE OF EXCESS SCALP FLAKE”); anarchism (“IMPOSSIBILISTS SEE REVOLT AS AN ACT OF CELEBRATION WITHOUT END”); and, above all, absurdist and often crude humor (“IMPOSSIBILISTS BELCH OVER TALL BUILDINGS”).

The manifesto by this time enjoyed a long history as an apparatus for social change. The first manifestos were public declarations by heads of state, but in the 19th century they were used to call for revolution, either romantic (the prefaces of Wordsworth and Shelley) or socialist (Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Marx). The turbulence of the 1960s generated vast numbers of manifestos, some aesthetic, some political, many a blend of the two. From the Provos in Holland to the Motherfuckers in New York, much of the counterculture tried to articulate the principles that grounded rebellion. For these groups the manifesto was not only meant to clarify a philosophy; it was itself a creative act, a blueprint to perfect the world.

The Imps took part in this ephemeralization of the manifesto. It was partly a comic gesture: calling each publication a manifesto made it not just another collection of art and poetry, but a statement of first principles, no matter how irreverent or unsystematic. There was no longer a clear distinction between theory and practice. This evacuated the manifesto’s political content (the Imps cared more about comedy than politics) and reflected their views on time (valuing the present over the past or future) and language (which they saw as a barrier to experience). What makes a manifesto a manifesto, they suggest, is its immediacy. It may be a hackneyed and outworn form, teetering on the brink of irrelevance, but then again it could be the means to overcome the pervasive alienation of the time.

***

From the outset the Imps hoped to marshal attention toward the present moment. Animal Trust (Sargent) wrote in the first issue: “Now is IMPOSSIBLE and therefore worthy of all our energy.” He described a stagnant world in which time has frozen, the present mortgaged to a past or future. “Movement in this time has condensed and solidified.” We call large unmoving homes “mobile” and prefer to ride exercycles. Nothing ever really happens: experience is “something remembered.” “Consciousness and happening caught in a time lag, we take the past and project it into the future. Never mind the present, never mind this moment...”

A lot of American art in the ’60s and ’70s displayed this longing for immediacy. As Susan Sontag wrote in Against Interpretation, “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art . . . . Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” For the Impossibilists, the main impediment to experience was language itself. The clearest statement of their position came from Sargent in The Impossibilist Manifesto #4:

With the first word from the mouth the conceptualization of man began and verbal symbolism was left by the wayside clutching its throat gasping for breath . . . . Nearly all modern poetry has succeeded in doing is making the concept more interesting for an elite few . . . . Music, dance, and arts such as sculpture and painting . . . can be experienced as opposed to thought about, though we usually destroy the experience with the intellect. Poetry must begin the long march, the pilgrimage to the holy land of pure sound . . . . The breath is being rediscovered, song and chant acting as bellows for the fire left smoldering for centuries . . . . With this as our tool we can take poetry back/forward towards tribal reaction, common communal experience and the universal symbols! PRISONERS OF THE WORD COME OUT, YOU HAVE ALL BEEN POISONED.

The idea was to recapture the materiality of language—sound and breath, products of the body and not the mind. Sargent here contrasts two forms of representation: one points to a bloodless realm of concepts, where words refer only to other linguistic units; the other, “symbolism,” is grounded in experience. A symbol should be part of the world. The Imps hoped to return to a state of primordial mythic expression, recreating the conditions prior to conceptual representation, before the fall into language and consciousness. Chanting and repetition, along with other experimental uses of language (stream of consciousness, malapropism, disjointed syntax, nonsense) were elements in this strategic anti-representationalism.

The Imps used language to outline the limits of meaning. In Impossibilist Manifesto #6 Cassidy says, “The words that you know and I don’t know & the words that I know and you don’t know, together make a greytone, crosshatch, and sly dusk.” Communication is inhibited; words cancel each other out and leave us stuck in a private language. Similarly, in issue #14:

the meaning
you say the more actually you mean
the actually you say meaning
the more meaning you say
you have
and our voices
boxes they say
gagging on keys
are an identifiable theme
from a movie they think.

In response to this degraded condition of language, the Impossibilists offered poems, stories, reflections, fake ads, quizzes, and graphics—fragments of crystallized experience that implicitly critiqued the alienated reality of the complacent middle classes. The Imps were responding to an urban life defined, according to Walter Benjamin, by the reception of shocks. Benjamin thought the daily assault of incongruous juxtapositions on the central nervous system makes it hard to have coherent experiences. We sift through a surfeit of information, decode a baffling diversity of stimuli, and try to retain our individuality amid indifferent crowds. A writer like Baudelaire is sensitive to these shocks. His poetry is composed of them, but it also dissolves them. The same might be said of the Impossibilists.

Absurdist, disorienting, yet resonant elements of humor are probably the primary effect of the Impossibilists’ writings. Their 11th issue included a “Multiphasic Personality Inventory,” designed to probe the reader’s neuroses and “recommend appropriate therapies, hobbies and means of restraint.” The Inventory, also known as the “Are-You-Fit-To-Be-A-Subscriber?” issue, contained 200 true/false statements. Some are self-effacing: “Waitresses ignore me”; “My saliva doesn’t make postage stamps stick.” Others are political, in an ironic, disaffected way: “Hunger is nature’s way of punishing those who don’t believe in capitalism,” or “Rock and folk song lyrics are written by politicians to make us believe we’re revolutionaries.” Several register hostility to others or paranoia; some detail excessive drinking. There’s a lot of vague understatement: “Hitler was out of line.” “If I were President, things would be a lot different.” “I don’t know what’s gotten into me.”

The overall impression is one of numbness. To Sontag, this was a key element in avant-garde comedy. In her essay on “Happenings,” she traced the use of violence and horror in art as a way to shock the audience. The reaction to those shocks is often marked by deadpan automatism:

…this art form [the happening] which is designed to stir the modern audience from its cozy emotional anesthesia operates with images of anesthetized persons, acting in a kind of slow-motion disjunction with each other, and gives us an image of action characterized above all by ceremoniousness and ineffectuality . . . . In the heart of comedy, there is emotional anesthesia. What permits us to laugh at painful and grotesque events is that we observe that the people to whom these events happen are really underreacting.

Emotional anesthesia is exactly what the Multiphasic Personality Inventory tests: the subject, exhausted by the pressure of urbanity, underreacts to shock. The discontents of post-industrial capitalism—the fragile status of the artist, the injunction to perform dull, demeaning labor, an urban landscape marked by rising costs and a vanishing bohemia—added to the burden. Much of the Imps’ work relied on this sort of comic underreaction to modernity.

Sometimes humor is a veneer that barely conceals a more pervasive trauma, or rage. Katherine Dunn’s poems, which started to appear in the 14th issue, are saturated in violence. “The Murder Moment” describes the “bull orangutan” in a woman’s skull as she’s about to smash her victim with a hammer. Killing is the only way to quell the horror of this inner voice:

Things are smaller every day than they were before;
Dwindling, impaled on spires,
Stuck there when the water recedes.
String horse of the Baron Von Munchausen,
Black apes from the chimneys of Paris,
& all the eaten babies of a gray age,
Are heaped in the rain spouts
Waving anniversary cards with the dictators home town
Depicted in wet green.

The instant of action is here linked with a global history of pain, as if the burdens of the entire world weigh on the woman’s mind. Objects are stranded on spires as relics of this age of suffering, not fully obliterated by the flood. References to horror stories (in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” an orangutan stuffs a corpse up a chimney) and comedies (the Baron von Munchausen stitches up his horse with branches after it is cut in half by a portcullis) show the complicity of the genres—and the way the two elements intertwine in the Imps’ own writings.

In these texts, the Impossibilists employed nonsense, comedy, and rudeness to ridicule the bourgeois deferment of gratification. They preached the enjoyment of the elusive present moment. Their sketches mingled anger and humor, scorn and simplicity, ennui and rage, to jolt the middle class from its lethargy.

But “The Murder Moment” suggests that the Imps’ exaltation of immediacy is more complex than it might appear. The “moment” of Dunn’s title is linked in the imagination to an expansive series of times and places. Slowing down the instant of killing embeds it in the temporal continuum. It is transformed from a brutal shock to a full (or fuller) experience. The same could be said for any of the Impossibilist texts cited here. Each one isolates shards of modern life, registered by hapless individuals who are mostly inefficient in their responses and gestures. They are overwhelmed by shock and caught in the perpetual presence of chronological time, where one unrelated moment follows another. But the slow-motion action of these characters, their comedic automatism, buffers the shock effect, slows down time, and transforms isolated fragments into genuine experiences. They ground consciousness in the body and events in the temporal flux, so they are connected, not merely passing. In this way, these works breach the gap between art and life and (fleetingly) overcome alienation. That at least seems to be the intent of the Imps’ literary experiments.

***

Entering the 1980s, the Impossibilist manifestos appeared less regularly and featured more conventional pieces. The core membership scattered. Cassidy moved to Minnesota in 1980, where he married, had a child, and did freelance graphic design work. Sargent moved to Greece in 1990. Well before the final issue in 1986, The Impossibilist ceased to be a Portland publication, with contributors to later issues hailing from around the country.

In the process many of the Imps regularized their lifestyles. It was harder to maintain an itinerant employment status in the materialist ’80s. When Dunn asked Cassidy about his long-term ambitions, he replied, “Dunno; along lines of ‘as-is’ but in better economic light, meaning hardworking jobless living off fat o’ the freeland sprawl…” But within a few years he was publications director of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association and mocking his own capitulation to capitalist realities: “my new poems are dynamite—corporate poetries; Curb Appeal in a Soft Market; Surviving an IRS Audit; Lease-Bank Arrangements; Running a Successful Condo Association Board Meeting.”

The work of other Imps moved in a more salable direction too. Sargent financed his life in Greece by managing a real estate portfolio. Dunn told one correspondent that her new novel (Geek Love) “promises, or at least hints [at], down right entertainment.” Jay Rothbell, an Imps contributor who in the ’70s ran a Dial-a-Poem service in Portland, abandoned poetry after her marriage to the science fiction writer Robert Sheckley and started work on a horror novel. When Cassidy settled down in Minnesota she wrote to Dunn, “Surprising to think of Cassidy in a job w/ real money—of course he deserves it, but…I never knew he liked money.”

The decline and embourgeoisement of the Impossibilists coincided with an international debate about the future of the avant-garde. Critics said the movement was exhausted. Radical art had been absorbed by the market. Artists could no longer claim to offer a wholesale social critique when so many works commanded large sums. They were also more likely now to seek a home in the academy and in museums. What began, according to Peter Bürger, as a rejection of the institutions of art had been co-opted by them.

The withering of the avant-garde also had something to do with its audience. Changing moral and aesthetic values meant it was harder to generate shock. Violence, eroticism, and blasphemy lost their edge when they were on display in every cineplex. The boundaries of art shifted too, opening to influences from mass culture. Once the wall between art and life, high and popular culture, had been breached, it was hard to distinguish the work of art from the ordinary commodity.

Not everyone, though, was willing to consign the avant-garde to the historical dustbin. Paul Mann says the idea of the avant-garde’s death provides a ground for new innovation. All radical art is eventually absorbed into the mainstream, but we’ve reached a point where that recuperation happens almost immediately. The avant-garde is confined to a critique of the discursive economy through which art is produced, reviewed, exhibited, appraised, analyzed, and gossiped about. It has become, in Walter Adamson’s term, “immanent”: no longer able to stand outside the system and call for wholesale revolution, the avant-garde can only reform it from within. It undermines consumer society and the institutions of art through the very mechanisms it hopes to subvert.

***

One sign of the growing immanence of the avant-garde is the disappearance of bohemian spaces. Bohemia was never identical with the avant-garde, but radical art often blossomed in its midst. The two shared a devotion to revolt, a hostility to tradition, and a desire to reinvent the world through new forms of experience. Postwar urban planning in many of the world’s great cities displaced bohemian strongholds and forced avant-gardes to assimilate or disappear.

Yet the bohemian and the bourgeois also need each other. Avant-garde cultural products often, within a generation or less, are transformed into commodities. A few years after the surrealists’ fierce rejection of French modernism, their poetry and images were being used in commercials. The path from poetic outlaw to substantial citizen (Rimbaud’s, for instance) has been frequently re-trod. Middle-class society has come to depend on the image of bohemia as an outlet for its more primal instincts.

This dynamic is prominent in many of Portland’s cultural products since the 1980s. The dominant tradition in Oregon literature was a pastoral one, but works with an urban focus portrayed a city divided in two, with a decided preference for the Impossibilists’ Portland over Ramona Quimby’s. In the early films of Gus van Sant, marginal characters struggle with the forces of order. The films revolve around the antipodes of the police against the junkies in Drugstore Cowboy, the hustlers against the political elite in My Own Private Idaho, and street kids against everyone else in Mala Noche.

In Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love the theme is repeated in the opposition between norms and freaks. There are parallels in Geek Love between the various groups of freaks and the avant-garde. Arty in particular thinks of himself as a true artist, who through performance, showmanship, and self-cultivation has made himself something far more than the standard freak (who was just born that way). Similarly the cult of Arturism requires adherents to turn themselves into a work of art—special and unique—by removing body parts. It’s a way of overcoming alienation through membership in a group, though a tragic tension between this desire for community and the longing for uniqueness prevents full inclusion.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club too is a protest against the petty humiliations of bourgeois life. Participation in Fight Club is a way to stop being scared, to reaffirm masculinity, but as Fight Club gives way to Project Mayhem, the aim goes back to the Futurist desire to escape the past: “We wanted to blast the world free of history.” Men imbued with the spirit of revolt, who once might have sought out bohemia, are now forced underground. Hiding behind their servile jobs and masks, they resist commodity culture from within. Theirs too is an immanent avant-garde. The complaints they lodge against consumerism and work are similar to those of the Impossibilists, but they replace the slow motion ineffectuality of the Imps’ characters with terrorism.

Each of these iconic Portland works offers a spirited defense of the bohemian. They compose a civic identity that is gritty, eccentric, and rebellious—one that is still with us today. But they also portray the dissolution of those elements. Van Sant’s films are saturated in nostalgia for a lost time. Walt loses Johnny. Scott Favor abandons Mike and Bob for his girlfriend, father, and a return to the upper crust. Oly’s sad life anonymously marking her mother and daughter is a far cry from the glories of the Binewski carnival. Palahniuk’s narrator winds up in a psycho ward.

The bohemian element in these works is finally overwhelmed. Disorder has been absorbed by the mainstream; marginality itself has become elusive, even impossible. It has to be imagined, in works of art and media. In these books and films the seedy underworld becomes a trope indulged by consumers, a way to release fantasies of chaos and transgression in a relatively undisruptive way.

As a result, Portland has become a bourgeois city with a bohemian identity. Despite gentrification, slower than in San Francisco and Seattle but no less inexorable, its character has been fixed through this cultural fantasy. The process was already at work in the 1970s, when the Impossibilists used mail networks to build a community devoted to avant-garde art and protest. Even then the scope of bohemia was shrinking. Today it is virtually gone.

—————

E.J. Carter works in the library at Lewis & Clark College. His essays have appeared in Central European History and RBM.