No, You Cannot Have the Whole Truth: A Conversation with Ali Silverstein

November 15, 2019   •   By David Shook

Banner image: Installation View, The Fantastical Reconstruction of the Epine GY7, MoCA Tucson


IN CONJUNCTION WITH her exhibition The Fantastical Reconstruction of the Epine GY7, on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson from October 5 through December 29, 2019, Mexico Citybased publisher Gato Negro will publish Ali Silverstein’s Redactions/Rubbings, a two-part book composed of just what its title suggests. Redactions compiles the redacted transcripts of over 50 tapes made by the author herself during the period immediately following the unexpected death of her boyfriend in 2009; Rubbings catalogs the rusted remains of the Epine GY7, a British fishing trawler that crashed off the coast of Iceland’s Dritvik Beach in 1948, as they were captured by Silverstein and friends who made rubbings on canvas in 2017. Over the course of the summer, the two of us corresponded by email and over the phone to discuss how the two projects were both, in her words “attempts to document and record the material evidence and make sense of it by giving it a new form,” paying special attention to the authorial processes behind Redactions.


DAVID SHOOK: I’m interested in your impulse, even in a time of extreme emotional distress, to document what was happening in your everyday life after the sudden death of your boyfriend, in 2009. Did you feel in the moment like you would need this audiovisual record to later make sense of what was happening?

ALI SILVERSTEIN: Even though death is the most natural thing, when it happens to someone young, and suddenly, it feels like nature has somehow inverted itself. It felt sickening, and incomprehensible. All I wanted to do was slow down, be quiet, try to feel the last — what would I even call them? — the last whispers of him while I still might. The place he’d left his toothbrush and the pile of his pajamas by the side of the bed, the page his book was open to — I wanted to study these and not touch them — evidence in a way, of his last gestures.

But at a time like that, everything also moves very quickly. His parents were both dead and his sisters lived in Toledo, Ohio, and I’d never met them. So I had to plan a funeral and decide what to do with his body and all while trying to wrap my head — my stomach too — around the totally insane idea that he was, suddenly, over one otherwise normal night of sleep, gone forever.

One of the things that really bewildered me was the physics of it: that my love for him could still be there, even when the object of that love was gone. How could that be? How could love exist without its object? For that matter, how could his smell still exist? I wasn’t eating anything; I couldn’t eat. And I think it was more that I couldn’t swallow the truth of what had happened, his disappearance. The body and mind just can’t absorb it, take it in.

What I’m trying to say I guess is that the questions and the confusion were so overwhelming, and yet I felt that this time was really special, wild, and fleeting, and I needed to preserve it. So to answer your question — yes, I very consciously, with necessity, even, used the camera as my eyes and ears for a future time. Very simply, the thought was: I can’t make sense of this now, and everything is moving so quickly; I will document it so that later I can go through it slowly, at my leisure, turning over each piece in the light.

How did you decide what to film? Reading the Redactions it seems like you must have been doing so consistently, perhaps even meticulously. What did you decide was worth filming?

I filmed for about a year — all kinds of things, rather indiscriminately: my thoughts about him, and how they were changing, my fears about whether starting a new relationship would somehow erase my memory of him, dreams, confusion, the distressing communication with his sisters about his ashes and all that mess that happens when someone dies, the horrible moment his ex-girlfriend told me they’d been seeing each other in the few weeks before he died …

I took his ashes to Toledo, Ohio; Lincoln, New Mexico (where Billy the Kid was from); Iceland (which he fell in love with when we took a road trip there together); and a mountain lake in New Mexico, and on those trips I asked psychics and preachers and tarot card readers to tell me what they think happens when people die. I filmed his possessions and I interviewed his friends. Everything, yes, recording, recording.

That’s a lot, and a very wide range of content. How many tapes did you wind up recording?

Around 50, though not all of them made it into Redactions.

What did you do with the recordings once you had them?

When I was ready to start watching what I’d filmed, I made this transcript as I watched. It’s both dry observation and subjective reaction. I noted good shots, bad shots, shots when things are overexposed, when the sound isn’t good, when I think something is funny or important. I translated the video into text. The next step was making handwritten notes on the text, then highlighters of various colors, then I began to cut it up …

Is it fair to call what you’ve done a sort of curation of your memory of that experience?

Uf, I mean, this is sort of embarrassing. What I mean is, my desperation to make the whole thing (life?!) make sense. I can see so clearly in the transcript how hard I was trying to stuff it all — all the pieces of information — into a story, into a meaning I could live with. This happened because and so that When we gather evidence or observe the world, we record the who, when, what, where, but then it’s up to us to calculate or theorize or deduce or invent or dream the why. Even the thing with his ex-girlfriend. I couldn’t live with that unless I made it make sense. Otherwise it contradicted too violently the foundation of my experience of him and our relationship. That one took some work! I cringe a bit when I read the transcript now or watch the tapes, how hard I tried to put those pieces together in a way that I could integrate.

Don’t be embarrassed! I think that the search for those narratives is an essential part of the human experience, of how we survive. And while that’s how you got started, your editing of the text in some ways turns that on its head, laying bare the narrative artifice of the stories we tell ourselves and others about our life experience. Right?

By editing, I think you mean the redactions that I later made to the transcript. These, I think, are primarily a response to my initial, slightly pathetic effort to make sense of it all. The film I made from the tapes, called Afterglow, was beautiful in many ways (thanks mostly to my brilliant editor Herbert Sveinbjörnsson) but ultimately (in my opinion) fails because I tried too hard to stuff and squeeze all of the pieces into a neat narrative. I try too hard to make a point, via editing and a tight Hollywood-romance-meets-essay structure. The redactions break it all up again. I wanted to turn it back into fragments, leaving the transcript unaltered (no rearranging to suit my argument), but to infuse it again with mystery, to give it space again. So architecturally, sculpturally, the redactions create that space, and in essence they reflect the condition we are all in, all of the time — that of incomplete information.

The shipwreck landscape inspired this. In a sense, this redacted text borrows its form from the shipwreck — fragments of evidence, fundamentally incomplete, with space around them to meander — like I used to do with my dad when I was little, collecting shells on the beach. I’d like readers to be able to pick up the ones they like, and connect them to other ones, creating their own constellations of form and meaning. I don’t want to be such a tyrant, in other words. Now I’m just like, here, feel free to walk around this landscape.

That’s a very elegant metaphor. I love the idea that each reader can comb the beach for the shells that catch their eye. Do you mean for the idea of not being a tyrant to apply equally to your own experience of the textual landscape? Is that possible?

I mean that I don’t want to force the pieces I find into a narrative or conclusion that serves me, and then present this narrative or conclusion to a reader or viewer as an argument. Which doesn’t mean that I can’t make beautiful things with bits and pieces — or that I can’t continue to arrange and rearrange them. But I want to leave some space, I don’t want to suck all the air out of it. I want to allow for multiple stories. In college, I studied religion, but I’m not religious; in other words, I like all the forms — however austere or baroque — of people trying to make meaning. I think this is possible, if only by continuing to be open. In other words, it’s not like I can’t make a form from pieces of canvas in my studio and call it a finished work. But I’m also aware that this is only a moment, a snapshot, in a continuity of creative action.

What does it mean to leave the redactions in the manuscript as blackedout text, almost like a redacted government memo, rather than just erasing the text entirely? Are these black lines an acknowledgment of the information we keep from ourselves, simply the detritus of less meaningful everyday experience, or the traces of self-knowledge that underpins the public-facing narrative you’ve developed? 

First of all, yes — I can’t ignore living in the time of the Mueller Report and Fake News and that our sources for “news” are for-profit entertainment channels that are blatantly biased and survive by creating drama and anger. Perhaps to some extent it has always been true but it feels more blatant now that the whole, un-tampered-with truth is unavailable to us. I wanted to connect this text, which is about struggling to make sense of one personal experience, to the larger common political experience. Redactions are a symbol of unequivocal denial: no, you cannot have the whole truth.

After working with the text for a while, I began to remove the black redaction lines and replace them with space, as if the text had been whited-out rather than covered with a black marker. Ultimately, this felt more positive; rather than aggressive denial, space is created for a reader to wander through and draw connections, have their own thoughts. Something is still missing, but now those missing pieces are spaces to breathe and be. We didn’t want to lose the shapes of those redactions entirely (in themselves there is a beauty to them; they create an Agnes Martin–like experience of quiet, withholding but evocative horizon-rhythms) so we blew them up into abstract forms that punctuate the text.

Did that process resonate with any of the strategies or techniques that you employ in your practice?

I use obscuration and partial concealment in my paintings as well to create the experience of wanting more, of flirtation, desire, intrigue, and denial. I leave some canvas pieces as flaps, glued from the top but not totally stuck down so that it’s possible to see underneath, but of course you can’t touch an artwork! Other times I cut fringes so that the thing behind can be partially seen, as if through a veil. And other times I stick a collaged piece of canvas all the way flat on top of something else, obscuring it entirely. I think this experience of wanting to see and understand everything about the human condition, and knowing that we can only ever have fragments of evidence seen through limited perspectives really teases me. Even in relationships knowing that as intimate as you are with someone, there are vast spaces you don’t know.

One of the things that I love about this project is that it doesn’t seem like you initially conceived of it as a book. When did you realize that it might be a book, and a book unto itself?

In a sense, this was a found text. The video footage was never meant to be a film, per se, and the transcription of the tapes was certainly never meant to be anything but a utilitarian record or reference. I love repurposing found documents — a 70-year-old shipwreck, for example — and messing with them enough so that they sit differently in the light.

Ten years ago, I compiled that transcript as a record of what I was seeing as I watched, for the first time, the footage I’d shot. It was about a year after Cole had died, and I’d been on this journey, and I’d been recording everything with terrible sound and not caring at all what I looked like, and this was a record of my seeing what I’d gathered. It was an archaeological process; I’d finished the digging and was laying out the fragments I’d found to start to label and assess and conclude. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, actually. The moment I could begin to try to make sense of the whole thing. This is that documentation.

When the transcript is still linked in a utilitarian way to the video — for example as a useful aid to my editor at the time — it’s not so strange. But now, 10 years later, as a found text not connected to any video, it has a peculiar quality that struck me as almost funny, like a discarded exoskeleton or the skin of a snake, and it reminded me of the strangeness of the shipwreck, and I began to think, what if I presented this text like the shipwreck, like a beach on an island, with fragments of this old, mysterious thing emerging from the sand.

Book as shipwreck — I love it. Are there other writers you’ve looked to as models, or with whom you feel in conversation?

Frankly, no, not specifically. I wasn’t thinking of this as literary, or as “writing,” even, just as I wasn’t thinking of “film” when I was filming everything after Cole died. I haven’t “written” it, I’ve just altered it. But of course I have to take responsibility for the altering. I’ve made choices there.

I’ve always loved fragments in writing — writers’ journals with fragments in them, books I can read by opening to any page in any order and consuming a morsel. Fragments are evocative and full of potential, but one has to be careful in using them because they can just be lazy and unfinished. This text allowed me to use fragments because they are part of a full text meant for something else. I’ve gone all the way to the end and then erased my way backward to create space for new possibilities.

This is a far-fetched comparison, but somehow, in an inspirational way, in spirit only, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves comes to mind, or at least the impression I still have of the experience of reading it, many years later, which is of a kaleidoscope of perspectives, of inner and outer worlds, of the myriad levels of reality that are going on at any one time, even in the simplest moments with friends, and how it is only through the impossible, god-like position Woolf puts us in as readers that we are ever able to have even a glimpse of all of those levels. And yet, despite these many-petaled flowers, despite the supernatural access to multiple characters’ inner thoughts, the text still somehow feels redacted, and makes clear how even-more-redacted each of the character’s experience is.

I don’t think that’s farfetched. That “kaleidoscope of perspectives,” the many layers of meaning making — that’s all there in Redactions, too. In fact, I suspect that VW herself might second your beautiful phrase from earlier, which to me so perfectly sums up both Rubbings/Redactions and the exhibition in Tucson: “No, you cannot have the whole truth.”


David Shook is a poet and translator partly based in Los Angeles, where he founded Phoneme Media, a nonprofit publishing house for literature in translation.