In Index Cards, a new collection of essays by the artist and writer Moyra Davey, the city is often close, as if just on the other side of a thin apartment wall. There’s the hum of the subway and the cicadas of Parisian cemeteries, a recovering New York and its gap-toothed skyline. Sprinkled around the text are crumbs of famous thinkers’ travel diaries, taking me, the stranded reader, on a trip through time and space.
“Sprinkled around the text are crumbs of famous thinkers’ travel diaries, taking me, the stranded reader, on a trip through time and space.”
Index cards, the stationery that Moyra Davey named her book after, can be arranged and rearranged, shuffled and paired. Less intimidating than an empty white page, they have the potential to hold loose, unfinished thoughts. They are travel friendly, easily slipped between the pages of a book, waiting to quickly catch an idea. Spread out on the floor, they can offer perspective.
“The title is an oblique reference to index cards used by my son when he briefly attended French school in 2009. The French are really big on them and Barthes is famous for using them,” writes Moyra Davey in an email.
Note-taking as an activity has a central position in Index Cards and Roland Barthes, the French thinker and writer, known for his theories about everything from fashion to semiotics to love, is one of many referenced voices in Index Cards. In the book, Moyra practices a sort of index card thinking, where her own ideas mingle with others. Authors and filmmakers such as Natalia Ginzburg, Susan Sontag, Jane Bowles, Walter Benjamin and Chantal Akerman are standing shoulder to shoulder, offering assistance from afar in explorations in a spectrum of subjects: art, nostalgia, memory, silence, the sky…
During his life, Jean Genet, another French author frequently referenced in the book, spent a lot of time in and out of prison. In his cell, he wrote in secret what would become the 1943 novel The Lady of the Flowers on pieces of brown paper intended for the prisoners to make bags out of. When the notes were discovered and destroyed by a warden, Genet wrote down the story a second time.
In Index Cards, cultural analysis is braided with diary, and themes are explored in what appears to be the pace of a thought. An idea from the present travels through time and space and Moyra often, in her own words, “forges connections 200 years apart”. A process resembling testing a sound in different acoustics.
It makes sense that Moyra’s writing is rebellious in form. Through her long career, the artist, born in Toronto in 1958, has made a habit of bringing together different mediums, with her tool of choice being a three-tined pitchfork of photography, video and writing.
“Several of the essays are centered on cities: Fifty Minutes came about because I wanted to write about NYC post 9/11, but I ended up writing more about my analysis, which had just ended. I wrote about the city in relation to my lengthy travel to and from my shrink’s office on the Upper East Side, which was in some ways a mask for my complicated and ambivalent feelings towards the analysis itself.”
In the book, we accompany her to her appointments with Dr. Y. She takes the L train from Brooklyn to Union Square and then the 6 to 86th Street. After a move to Hoboken, the trip swells to one hour and fifteen minutes one way. She goes four to five times a week. For Moyra, the subway here acts as more than a mere means of transportation: it’s a Petri dish for ideas. Her 2011 photography series Subway writers, which came about after she started noticing and photographing fellow travellers armed with pen and paper in communal transport, is proof that she is not alone in using trains as a kind of office. Occupied with their crosswords and manuscripts, Moyra’s camera could sweep by unnoticed.
“The cemetery is a manifestation, but not the only example, of how cities can hold on to parallel timelines, to be discovered by the flaneur or the returning traveller.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, in Paris, visitors of the Montparnasse cemetery were putting their used metro tickets on famous tombs as if they were flowers. Moyra, seeing Baudelaire’s grave sprinkled with the tiny stamped travel cards, was intrigued by the local ritual. “It’s a token of passage, a way of saying: ‘I’ve travelled. I’ve come here to pay my respects.’ People sometimes write little notes on the tickets, too,” she told The Guardian. The resulting cemetery project My Necropolis, which turned into a photo series as well as a film, revolved around the Paris cemeteries and a quote by Walter Benjamin and touched upon themes such as memory, grief and loss.
The cemetery is a manifestation, but not the only example, of how cities can hold on to parallel timelines, to be discovered by the flaneur or the returning traveller.
Certain places, and cities in particular, linger throughout your writing. Were these themes—geography, travelling and place—something you thought specifically about when writing your essays?
“Cities definitely inspire me, and Paris in particular, where I spent ten months in 2008—2009, brought back a surfeit of memories from when I briefly lived there at age eighteen.”
It was in Paris, in 2009, that Moyra started a recurring series of folding up her photographic prints and mailing them straight to the gallery in the U.S., where the marks from the postal system would become a part of the final exhibited artwork, a visual trace of the journey getting there.
“My partner built this place over twenty years, and it is really something to be grateful for at the moment.”
I catch Moyra Davey at a time when she is not in a city. The book, containing a subtle echo of 9/11, as it turns out, was to be published in another crisis. The pandemic, unfolding at the time of this interview, has conquered cities, minds and many bodies. It has stopped us mid-motion. Moyra, on her end, is quarantined in Sullivan County, a mountainous area once housing the 1969 Woodstock Festival, ninety minutes north-west of New York City.
“We are surrounded by wooded land owned by the Boy Scouts of America, and since they have a good neighbour policy we can hike its many trails,” she writes. “My partner built this place over twenty years, and it is really something to be grateful for at the moment.”
Do you feel like you’re connected to the city in these times or are you looking at it from a distance?
“Not being in N.Y.C. is a bit unreal. I’ve lost touch a bit, and maybe even have cabin-fever and have unwittingly said things to friends in the city that are tone-deaf, and that I’m regretful for.”
“It’s a great line by Woolf, and it is always my goal to be working on something because that’s when I’m happiest, but there are times, like now, when it comes in fits and starts, and it can be miserable.”
In your book you quote Virginia Woolf, stating that one “ought to work—never to take one’s eyes from one’s work, and then if death should interrupt, well, it is merely that one must get up and leave one’s stitching—one won’t have wasted a thought on death”. Are you able to follow her lead and focus on work right now?
“It’s a great line by Woolf, and it is always my goal to be working on something because that’s when I’m happiest, but there are times, like now, when it comes in fits and starts, and it can be miserable. Honestly, I’m only scratching out a few lines a day, but I am reading a lot and shooting some test scenes, actually around horses and in the woods. It’s interesting, your point about cities [in my work], because maybe this will be a work totally shot in a rural setting.”
“There’s a pleasure in being a little rough with this book, and the roughness seems endorsed because several times Moyra herself mentions cutting novels in half to carry them on the subway.”
In Index Cards, the presence of the author, the slivers offered from her life and creative processes, seems to emphasise the subjectivity of reading and interpreting information. During a second, mid-pandemic read of Index Cards, for me, another text was unveiled. Parts mentioning isolation, nostalgia and solitude are now underlined. Genet’s descriptions of his time in prison as a sort of happy and creative period, a parenthesis of time, I turned it into a personal pep-talk.
“Reading with a pen & notebook”, another Virginia Woolf strategy that appears and recurs through Moyra’s writing, is hard not to adopt. Dog-ears, underlinings, post-its, exclamation marks and the occasional ice cream stain… before Index Cards was even officially released, my copy seemed to have already lived a long life.
There’s a pleasure in being a little rough with this book, and the roughness seems endorsed because several times Moyra herself mentions cutting novels in half to carry them on the subway. Her writing as well, in its fragmented associative form, seems to allow for ideas to be messy and loose.
“Some texts are more fragmented than others, and some are more laboured than others, but indeed I am always looking for connections and ways of putting disparate fragments in conversation with each other such that new meanings arise.”
The process does hold some resemblance to psychotherapy, one of the threads in Fifty Minutes. In the same essay, Moyra describes waking up in the morning in a time following 9/11, turning to the window and looking out. She would examine the skyline to see if the Empire State Building was still standing. For many New Yorkers, 9/11 chopped up the timeline, unveiled a Before and an After, with a crater in the middle.
There was no escaping it, in my pandemic re-read of Moyra’s book, passages where the 2001 attacks loomed, drew nearer. Perhaps crises, like infatuations, are ephemeral to the extent that a part of their scope is only fully accessible when we are inside one. For a moment, distance, created by time or geography, shrinks.
“Nostalgia, as well as travel, is one of the subjects meditated on in Index Cards, and perhaps one whose meaning is changed and amplified during these times, when the present demands of us both our attendance and our most creative escapist strategies.”
Nostalgia, as well as travel, is one of the subjects meditated on in Index Cards, and perhaps one whose meaning is changed and amplified during these times, when the present demands of us both our attendance and our most creative escapist strategies. Plans, carved into calendars, are replaced with pencilled-in dreams. Even a recent past, innocent and suddenly somewhat unrealistic in appearance, is graced with a filter of nostalgia.
I catch myself thinking, surely there must exist a Greek or German word for the position many of us have found ourselves during this time: longing for a city while being inside of it.
On the topic of nostalgia in a crisis, Vivian Gornick, one of the writers Moyra turns to, describes in the essay “Reading in an age of uncertainty”, a post-9/11 world where nostalgia no longer gives comfort. To see the past, one has to look over the wound, which in turn reminds us of the instability brought forth by catastrophe and the fact “that historical continuity and the promise of a future are no longer things we can take for granted”.
Now, when it has been almost twenty years since the attacks in New York, when Moyra Davey wakes up in the morning, she no longer scrutinises the skyline.
“Far from demanding a solemn, studious scanning of well-behaving sentences, Index Cards encourages the reader to get distracted, to take notes, to pick up an idea and continue it in the margins.”
Are there threads in your book, such as nostalgia, that seem different to you now in 2020?
“This moment is a bit like the loss of nostalgia that Vivian Gornick writes about. For me there is a barely submerged mourning that gets repressed and continually reasserts itself. The difference now of course is that the scale of the devastation is so much more massive and far-reaching.”
One of the places in which Gornick found comfort post-9/11 was in reading and particular solace was offered by the stoic voices by authors such as Natalia Ginzburg, Anna Akhmatova and Elizabeth Bowen. In the time of crisis, according to Gornick, they were able to observe their cities with eyes unclouded by nostalgia.
Moyra Davey’s new book has the potential to sit on a comfort shelf too. For those of us struggling to get through novels right now, whose minds stray, this book can be a companion. Far from demanding a solemn, studious scanning of well-behaving sentences, Index Cards encourages the reader to get distracted, to take notes, to pick up an idea and continue it in the margins. No need to worry where that thought is going.
In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
In Issue No. 3 we meet Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, Berlin-based musician Nils Frahm, and Moroccan-British artist Hassan Hajjaj. We descend to the ocean’s floor with Japan’s Ama divers, muse over the Bengali renaissance and applaud the detailing of India’s uniforms. And we try our hand at some treasured Italian recipes, visit one of Hong Kong’s homes up high, master the etiquette of the Japanese onsen and learn about the architecture of Iraq’s mudhifs.
In Issue No. 4 we meet Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, Indigenous Australian Elders Uncle Bob Smith and Aunty Caroline Bradshaw, and Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad. We peer inside the Parisian ateliers Lesage and Lemarié, muse over the iconic lines of European chair design and celebrate the colourful woodblock prints of Japanese artist Awazu Kiyoshi. And we venture along Morocco’s Honey Highway, get lost in the markets of Oaxaca and discover the favours of Ghana.
In Issue No. 5 we travel to the mountains with Etel Adnan, along coastlines wherever waves roll in, and then all over the world through the photographic archive of Lindsay James Stanger. We celebrate hair braiding in South Africa, Salasacan weaving techniques in Ecuador, Vedic jewellery traditions and the new sound of Ukraine. We meet artist Cassi Namoda, choreographer Yang Liping and lace-maker Mark Klauber. And we visit a bakery in Tel Aviv, discover the joys of making arak, and spend a summer stretching mozzarella in Italy.