I'm a writer and visual artist in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

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Recent Posts (page 1 of 13)

Creative Nonfiction Fellowship with Newfoundland Quarterly

Newfoundland Quarterly has kindly selected me as their first Creative Nonfiction Fellow. Over the next ten months, as part of this project, I’ll be writing my way through the magazine’s extensive archives (founded in 1901, NQ is the second-oldest magazine in Canada). I’m super excited about this! Here’s an introductory article I wrote, and another about a codfish-gobbling robot from the 1920s.

I’ll be blogging about this project on Medium, and on the new NQ website.

Interview with PRISM International

PRISM International Fall 2016

My essay Comfort Zone was shortlisted for PRISM International‘s 2015 Creative Nonfiction Contest, and was printed in the Fall 2016 issue. PRISM Prose Editor Christopher Evans interviewed me about videogames, systems and stories, and books that have maps in them.

Plopped into a platform-strewn obstacle course, haunted forest, or asteroid field, I would ransack every nook and cranny as if looting a couch for lost coins. I was a relentless adventurer, and one of the thrills of the 8-bit games I grew up with was that it was possible to exhaustively plunder those worlds. Even years before the internet wound its way to my small town, I could be reasonably certain that I had picked every pocket of the little planets that fit inside those plastic cartridges. There were fictional cities I knew more intimately than my own neighbourhood.

A Good Name For A Ship

Originally published in Boat Shoes as part of Eastern Edge Gallery‘s HOLD FAST Festival.

Allison Graves (editor of Boat Shoes) reads her work from the deck of The Wandering Pavilion.

Allison Graves (editor of Boat Shoes) reads her work from the deck of The Wandering Pavilion.

The Wandering Pavilion wishes it could sail. It is designed to travel. Like a ship, it has sturdy beams, a wooden deck, and a fondness for taut lines and triangles. Its fabric walls embrace the wind like mainsails. Today, docked in the parking lot outside Eastern Edge, it is even draped with signal flags. The flags say You should keep closer to me. The Pavilion gazes out over the water and hopes for a response from the ocean. It regrets the harbour fence.

The Wandering Pavilion wants the Atlantic, but it will settle for shoes. Waves of shoes wash over it, leaving scuffs and scratches. Its deck could use a good swab. Today it is cloudy and the Pavilion hopes for a shower, because rain is the closest it gets to ocean, and because when it rains people take cover under its canopy. The Pavilion likes feeling useful, keeping busy. It has made itself a stage, a shelter, a stall, a cinema. Today, as part of Hold Fast, it is a soapbox and a soundbooth. Someone deejays and someone paints faces. People take turns speaking, and then an artist performs, knotting ropes around themselves and dangling from a hook. The Pavilion beams.

With its two halves, the Wandering Pavilion is perhaps more like a flotilla than a ship, adopting different formations depending on its mission. And it is fleeting in other ways, rarely lingering in one place. It might not sail, but it is easily dismantled and shipped across the city. It’s especially drawn to parks and parking lots, spaces that people pass through, spaces where it might find passengers. Spaces that it can shape into places, into destinations. What the Pavilion does best is make room: for conversations, for collaborations, for interactions that wouldn’t otherwise occur. It is a vessel that brings people together. What is wants most is for you to come aboard.

Bloomsday in Dublin

Originally published in WANL‘s Word newsletter, Summer 2016.

Bloomsday in Dublin

It’s June 16, Bloomsday, and Dublin feels underwater. Low blue clouds undulate like the surface of a pond seen from below. Ha’penny Bridge arches across the river like the spine of a whale, its white bones picked clean by swarms of tourists and their cameras. I move more slowly than the river. A single drop of rain dabs the back of my neck.

Yesterday evening, when the sun cracked through, the city took a joyous breath. The shadow of the Millennium Bridge slanted sharply into the Liffey, the shadows of pedestrians crossing it seeming to slip beneath the green water. I watched a man on a ladder spraywash a bus shelter, sunlight transforming the water into honey that oozed a long puddle into the street. Every cobblestone was suddenly covered in gold leaf. But overnight all the colour drained away, and the morning light is dilute and dim.

You could spend the day in Dublin and not realize it was Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s something you seek out, although you might spot a few people in costume, men donning black-banded boaters and women in Edwardian finery and feathers. There are various walking tours, lectures, breakfasts and pub crawls, even a Bloomsday Cruise. Many excursions set out from the Martello tower in Sandycove, site of the novel’s famous opening scene, which is now James Joyce Tower and Museum. But I haven’t booked anything, preferring to ramble around the city on my own. Twelve years ago, on this exact date in June, I visited the city for the first time. I remember passages from Ulysses in blue chalk on the pavement, dissolved a little by rain. I remember a busker serenading the Joyce statue just off O’Connell. I remember asking someone what Bloomsday was.

Today, wandering around Trinity College, I recall stumbling through the first few episodes of Ulysses, so thick with idiom and allusion, with almost abstract description, with words that aren’t in any dictionary. I remember the heaviness of the tome in my hands. It contained so much, but I didn’t know how to communicate with it. It was like holding a human brain.

I only really enjoyed Ulysses when I read it aloud. Like an overcast sky, its dense pages diminish the visual, but enliven other senses. As my tongue tapped its way through unfamiliar territory and inventive language, the book entered my head through backchannels. I started to relish the strangeness of it, the saltiness of its words, the way Joyce’s liquid sentences lapped against my ear: He climbed over the sedge and eely oarweeds and sat on a stool of rock, resting his ashplant in a grike. Even so, I didn’t finish the book. I have strolled through Ulysses, but I haven’t lived there. I have a tourist’s impression of it. I think of it as a place.

In a bookshop called Hodges Figgis, I overhear two French women ask a clerk which Joyce book to read first. He wards them off Finnegans Wake, explaining its inscrutability, reading the first sentence to demonstrate: riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. He recommends Dubliners.

“You have to read it like music,” advises David Norris, an Irish activist and senator, Joyce scholar, and one of the readers at the Bloomsday performances at Meeting House Square. He begins with the passage of Ulysses that introduces the day’s namesake: Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. An opera singer performs “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly,” a song Joyce composed for Finnegans Wake, followed by a reading by the American ambassador to Ireland. The performances continue all afternoon, and Ulysses comes alive in the interplay of voices and music, the juxtaposition of different scenes from the book, and in Joyce’s sumptuous descriptions of food and drink.

After the readings, I put my camera away and try to take in Dublin through my ears, nose, toes. Temple Bar is a labyrinth of sound and smell, with guitar and Guinness spilling out of every doorway. There are bottlecaps between the cobblestones, and bronze sculptures cold to the touch. In St. Stephen’s Green, I linger on the stone bridge for a while, listening to the ruckus as a couple tosses entire slices of bread into a frenzy of pigeons. A group of younger people walk past and I overhear one ask her friends a riddle: what is a chest full of gold but has no lid and no hinges? I walk away before she gives an answer.

Brickwork

Houses tumbling into the sea, houses washing up on shore. In the exhibition, the two projection pieces will float in the centre of the room. It feels as if the show needs something else to anchor it, something planted firmly in the physical world. I imagined finding an artifact that had been eroded by the water, something that had once been part of a building. A chunk of rounded brick or wood I could suspend from the ceiling, to visually echo the virtual falling houses. I asked a few friends where to look, and someone suggested Ferryland.

day-74-ferryland

Another friend kindly offered to drive me to Ferryland, where we soon found ourselves on a beach dotted with red bricks, too many to count. They seemed lost and out of place against the grey stones. A student working at the nearby interpretive centre said she thought the bricks had come from renovations to the church up the hill, or when they demolished an old school. Someone else told me they had been used as ballast in British ships. In the walled garden beside the interpretive centre, a few salvaged bricks had been incorporated into the whimsical cobblestone paths.

day-74-garden

A brick is designed to fit in a hand. The worn clay of the beach bricks was almost warm to the touch, but dry and abrasive. Collecting them felt a bit like berrypicking, the ripe red and orange blobs clinging demurely to bits of mortar. Some of the ones I picked up had a gold glassy surface, as if the combination of sand, salt water and sun had somehow glazed them over time. The bricks near the water were oblong like beachstones, many having lost their rectangular shape entirely, and a few yellow ones had crumbled to almost nothing. Others further up the beach were still sharp-cornered, and clearly stamped with the name “PELLEY”.

I had hoped to find a large rounded cluster of bricks, but found myself intrigued by the way the individual broken bricks resembled houses, the rectangular impressions suggesting little doors. I wandered down the beach, gathering an armful while on the lookout for bigger specimens. I waded out into the waves to drag up a half-buried cluster, and found several others in a pile of fill below the roadway overlooking the water. Reaching the far end of the beach, I discovered a large block of about 30 bricks all attached, about the width of a chimney. It was too heavy to lift, and probably too big to fit in the trunk. I carried the roundest of the brick clusters back to the car, along with about twenty of the broken half-bricks.

day-74-bricks

A few mornings later, reading Robert Mellin’s wonderful Newfoundland Modern: Architecture in the Smallwood Years, I stumbled upon the history of the Pelley bricks:

Local brick was known to be of poor quality. […] In the late 1950s, Malcolm Pelley wrote many letters to Premier Smallwood, pleading for government funding to support the construction of a tunnel kiln to fire face brick. Once built, the kiln never worked as promised, and the quality of the brick was poor. In a letter to Smallwood dated 12 July 1962, Pelley wrote: “I have had over 75 years experience in brick manufacture and can assure you these bricks will last truly as long as the South Side Hills.” […] It soon became apparent that there were problems with Pelley bricks. Architect William MacCallum told me that the brick on exterior cladding of the Nurses’ Residence had to be painted not long after construction, since the brick was absorbing too much water.

So the bricks were manufactured locally, and not particularly well. They’re not really very old, but are already falling apart, clay eagerly returning to earth. I’d set out to find a relic of the way things used to be built, some evidence of a lasting architectural presence or authenticity. But the Ferryland bricks turned out to be more like the big new houses: not really designed with this landscape in mind, not really built to last. A pale imitation of elsewhere, a dream half-realized.

day-74-beach

In Ferryland, in the little tea room by the beach, we had pea soup strong enough to stand a spoon in. Driving back through Bay Bulls, a curve in the road offered a clearer view of the new constructions. There they were, huge houses crouching in their craters of bare earth. A fusillade of beige, yellow-brown and bruised red, torn out of the pine-clad hills, like bombs going off.

Moss and misunderstanding

I have not been unhappy for ten thousand years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.

—Leonard Cohen, from I Have Not Lingered In European Monasteries

A House By The Water

Some days I stare at a screen and some days I stare at the sea. I’m spending most afternoons programming A House By The Water, a digital projection of houses falling into the ocean, as part of an artist residency at The Rooms. I’m programming in Processing, which is pretty old-fashioned as far as computer graphics go – no fancy lighting engines or physics libraries. The computer talks in rectangles. I’ve written a program that draws houses out of boxes. Each box has a roof, which is eight rectangles and two triangles and a texture. Each box has a chimney. Some of the boxes have windows and doors. The boxes don’t know each other exist, so each house is full of vestigial chimneys that don’t reach the roof, and falling houses pass through each other like ghosts. I spend an entire evening failing to calculate shadows.

The computer talks in rectangles, but it breathes in loops. Loops are its essence. A rectangle is a loop if you untangle it enough (one, two, three, four sides). I write loops for stacking boxes into houses, loops for the choppy vector mesh that simulates the water’s surface, loops for the effect of gravity on a falling house, loops to control the translucency of shadows. Each loop is a set of instructions that repeats itself, slightly differently each time. Some iterations are faster than others. I spend hours rewriting code and the scene looks almost exactly the same as before, but the movement is smoother, or I can generate more houses at once without affecting the framerate.

The work so far, although it does not contain language, is very textual: I’ve made a video of little house-shaped points of light washing up on a shore, and the lights read almost as letters, the house shapes suggesting something different when singular or clustered. Similarly, the projection of falling houses is composed out of code, a kind of language. Making the art is mostly an act of writing.

So the computer and I communicate, often misunderstanding each other. I accidentally instruct it to draw the 2D background in the same three-dimensional space as the houses, and the scene collapses like a theatrical backdrop, houses tumbling into an empty grey aether. Or I forget to erase between frames and each house is drawn again and again as it rotates, spinning into itself like a ball of yarn.

A House By The Water (glitch)

On the weekends I get my eyes away from the machine. It’s been a soft summer, the city muzzled by clouds, more fog than I remember from last year. Frost warnings in July. I have been photographing moss, and I want to know more about moss, perhaps even grow some in the studio. A couple of friends have a moss garden, and invite me to visit. They’ve taken a worn-out corner of the backyard and reupholstered it in different mosses collected around St. John’s. The garden is a dappled tapestry of colour and texture, with dozens of different varieties: stubbled pool-table baize, spiky tufts tinged in orange, sturdy toothbrush-like bristles. A few rusty patches. The mosses they’ve found in the city seem to thrive, while others, collected from rocks higher up on the Southside Hills, don’t seem to like living downtown.

After the garden, we go moss collecting. In the part of the park furthest from the city, landscaped paths narrow into threadbare trails between trees. The ground is soft and damp, and the grass gives way to shrubs and bog. On either side of the trail, rocks and roots are lush with moss. We find a good-sized patch of the species that seems to do best in the backyard, a riot of tiny leaves in enthusiastic chartreuse. It’s like tearing up carpet. You just kind of lift the edge and slide your hand under, and it all comes up in a clump. We fill a garbage bag with miniature islands.

Moss collecting

What I like about moss is that it is unnoticeable. It keeps a low profile, doesn’t draw attention to itself. Moss is a squatter, colonizing any overlooked surface. It thrives in the in-between places, the damp pockets, the shadows. It lurks behind trees. It’s given up frivolities like roots, flowers, seeds. At the same time, it has a humble hospitality. It offers a seat, a place to think. It obliges visitors but isn’t much of a conversationalist, doesn’t know what to say besides hello. It mumbles a bit, repeats itself softly, likes to mull things over. It’s a welcome mat gone feral.

We walk home through the drizzle. My mind is amorphous, making connections that don’t make any sense. I think: maybe moss is a kind of software. A series of instructions on how to generate more moss. A fuzzy green code, writing itself into the world. Maybe I’m just an interface between the moss and the screen. I breathe and walk in loops: one, two, three, four. My body follows unknowable instructions, cleans and repairs itself. I’m not sure how, but I think I’ve learned something about how to calculate shadows. On Monday, back in the studio, I will have so much to tell the computer.

Content ©  2019 Matthew Hollett. RSS