ON THE NIGHT OF JULY 10, 2007 I RECEIVED THE CALL THAT ALL PARENTS DREAD…MY DAUGHTER THERESA DUNCAN, gifted writer, game designer and filmmaker, HAD DIED IN NEW YORK, 600 MILES AND THOUSANDs OF DOUBTS, WHAT-IFS AND FEELINGS OF LOSS, GRIEF AND GUILT AWAY. SHE WAS 40 YEARS OLD.
OVER THE NEXT FEW WEEKS THE STORY OF A PERSON THAT I DID NOT KNOW OR RECOGNIZE BEGAN TO EMERGE IN THE PRESS AND BLOGS AND THE NARRATIVE OF HER LIFE WAS LARGELY FORGED BY PEOPLE WHO DID NOT KNOW HER OR WHO MADE THEIR NAME WITH A SENSATIONALIST STORY WITH LITTLE REGARD FOR THE TRUTH OR THE CONSEQUENCES TO THERESA'S GRIEVING FAMILY AND FRIENDS, WITH DEVASTATING EFFECT.
FIVE YEARS AFTER HER DEATH I WILL TELL THE STORY OF THERESA AS I KNEW HER, AN INCREDIBLY INTELLIGENT, WITTY, TALENTED, DETERMINED AND COMPLEX PERSON, LARGER THAN LIFE, FLAWED AS WE ALL ARE, WITH UNLIMITED COURAGE AND MOXIE WHO ENRICHED THE LIVES OF MANY WITH HER HUMOUR, INTELLECTUAL INSIGHT AND GENEROUS SPIRIT.
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…”Kate Moss, the unmoved mover, sparks desire and leaves a vast blank expanse for the limitless excitement that blooms and mushrooms. A cloud within a cloud within a cloud never interrupted by borders or particulars, like an ability to speak Latin, or a mate who lasts past checkout time at Claridges.”
…Theresa was best known as a screenwriter, but as the editor of a literary magazine, I encouraged her to write prose. From dipping into this delightfully eclectic well of thought, reviews, and tips I recognized an extraordinary mind, a tremendous talent and a prodigious analyst of culture.
…All I do know, the hard way, is that the artists and writers who come up with extraordinary answers are often deeply and terribly haunted by the questions that prompt them, and you can never second guess what it is to be haunted by ideas, by angels or demons or history or visions, by reality or imagination. Maybe I’ll think up a better response later. We live by our wits. Right now the only thing I can think of is to thank Theresa and Jeremy for their work, their friendship and goodwill and to hope that somehow, somewhere the answers come to them and the pattern is complete and that for such beautiful dreamers it isn’t too late. Their dreams are still in this world.
“1975: D.A. Pennebaker insulted my work. He had justification but it shook me up. After 1975 I tried to eliminate narration from our documentaries… When we did this in our news reports on NBC it was revolutionary.”
A talk by Lia Gangitano (Director of Participant Inc.)
Chop Suey is “a little like Alice in Wonderland as performed by the B-52s for NPR.” - Entertainment Weekly (1995)
The world of the Bugg Sisters, two young girls from small-town middle America, becomes radically destabilized after eating too much exotic food. What follows in Theresa Duncan’s landmark video game, Chop Suey, is a frenetic, immersive and visionary exploration experienced through two young protagonists who wholly embody the notion that there is nothing quite so empowering as the discovery of a new world.
“Chop Suey”, a talk by Lia Gangitano, Director of Participant Inc., will highlight the work of artist, animator, and critic Theresa Duncan (1966-2007), with a special focus on her 1995 experimental narrative video game, “Chop Suey”, a work created in collaboration with David Sedaris and members of the band Fugazi. In addition to video games, Duncan also made the animated film, A HISTORY OF GLAMOUR, with her boyfriend Jeremy Blake. The film was included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial.
DANCE OF THE LOONEY SPOONS Director: Stan Vanderbeek (USA, 1959, 5 min, 16mm)
An animated and live action fantasy, the loop de loops of ten spoons, forks and tableware … a parable in the shape of a soup spoon … conceived as a children’s film.
THERESA DUNCAN(1966 – 2007) was a writer, filmmaker, and computer-game creator who became known in the 1990s for developing graphic adventure games for girls. Duncan produced three CD-ROM computer games: Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero. The games were designed to be alternatives to a traditionally male-dominated field. They are story-based and as such revolve around search and discovery. Chop Suey, created with Monica Gesue, was named “1995 CD-ROM of the Year” by Entertainment Weekly. She wrote and directed an animated film, The History of Glamour, which was selected for the 2000 Whitney Biennial. The film details the semi-autobiographical journey of a young woman from a small town to the glamour of New York; she ultimately rejects it all to return home to pursue her writing career. Duncan’s essays and film and literary criticism were published in Artforum, Slate, Salon, and Bald Ego. At the time of her death, Duncan was working on the film Nick’s Trip with her longtime boyfriend Jeremy Blake.
STAN VANDERBEEK (1927 – 1984) studied at Cooper Union and Black Mountain College, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Cooper Union in 1972. An advocate of the application of a utopian fusion of art and technology, he began making films in 1955. In the 1960s, he produced theatrical, multimedia pieces and computer animation, often working in collaboration with Bell Telephone Laboratories. In the 1970s, he constructed a “Movie Drome” in Stony Point, New York, which was an audiovisual laboratory for the projection of film, dance, magic theater, sound and other visual effects. His multimedia experiments included movie murals, projection systems, planetarium events and the exploration of early computer graphics and image-processing systems. Among his numerous awards are grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts; and an American Film Institute Independent Filmmaker Award. He was artist-in-residence at WGBH and the University of South Florida, and professor of art at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. His work was the subject of retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. (Adapted from EAI)
LIA GANGITANO founded PARTICIPANT INC in 2001. It is a not-for-profit art space on the Lower East Side of New York, presenting exhibitions by Virgil Marti, Charles Atlas, Kathe Burkhart, Michel Auder, and Renée Green, among others. As former curator of Thread Waxing Space, NY, her exhibitions, screenings, and performances include Spectacular Optical (1998), Luther Price: Imitation of Life (1999), The Life Casts of Cynthia Plaster Caster: 1968-2000 (2000), Børre Sæthre: Module for Mood (2000) and Sigalit Landau (2001). She is editor of Dead Flowers (2010) and the forthcoming anthology, The Alternative to What? Thread Waxing Space and the ’90s. As an associate curator, she co-curated Dress Codes (1993) and Boston School (1995) for The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and edited the publications New Histories (with Steven Nelson, ICA Boston, 1997) and Boston School (ICA Boston, 1995). She has contributed to publications including TRANS>arts.cultures.media, The Sharpest Point: Animation at the End of Cinema, Lovett/Codagnone, Whitney Biennial 2006-Day for Night, and 2012 Whitney Biennial. She has also served as a Curatorial Advisor for P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, a MoMA Affiliate, with exhibitions including Lutz Bacher, My Secret Life (2009).
Flaherty NYC at Anthology Film Archives: 32 Second Ave. (@2nd St.) Tickets on sale at the box office day of screening.
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Leo Dratfield EndowmentWilliam H. Donner FoundationFlaherty Fellowship Sponsors:Kate Cashel Fund of The Community Foundation for the Greater Capital RegionPaul Ronder EndowmentSol Worth EndowmentWyncote Foundation
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In 1995 Theresa left a job editing reports at the World Bank in Washington D.C. to work at Magnet Interactive in Georgetown. While there she and a coworker, Monica Gesue, pitched a story about two young Midwestern girls and their eccentric Aunt Vera as a video game; their successful collaboration resulted in Chop Suey. Theresa wrote the narrative and Monica created the images. The team also included Ian Svenonius from the D.C. band Nation of Ulysses to do animation, members of the band Fugazi who did the score and David Sedaris as narrator. Chop Suey went on to win the Entertainment Weekly award for best video game and several other honors.
The clip from Chop Suey above was done by Jenn Frank and is one of five that can be found on the Youtube link below.
"…I had this idea pent up inside me when I was 15 that I wouldn’t be Roberta Williams, I wouldn’t be Jane Jensen, someday I could fashion myself into a Theresa Duncan, and make unbelievably edgy punkass art games, every one a love letter to my own younger self and to the things I had loved and to the things that, in my own childhood, I’d missed out on.”
Image:Theresa’s contract with producers This or That, copies of the script for Alice Underground and the “look book” that Theresa’s created to promote her vision of Alice Underground to investors; excerpts from the “look book” that juxtapose dialogue from the script with images she felt represented the essence of her vision.
"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."
—-Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely
Image: By Joshua Jordan from an article in PAPERMAG
In the days leading up to Theresa’s funeral in Michigan, Jeremy was active in the preparations from New York via telephone and email. He selected the quote above to be included in the memorial pamphlet and he asked that Theresa be remembered for her “warrior spirit”. He had planned to drive to Michigan with friends but at the time of the service he was missing and wouldn’t be found for several more days.
“In the film, the main character is looking for an identity, and glamour becomes for her a potent form of self-expression. She finds it very liberating, because she’s from a small town. But by the end of the story, glamour becomes limiting, then imprisoning, so she becomes a writer, chooses grammar over glamour.”
Alice Underground was not Theresa’s first film. This clip was taken from Theresa’s animated film The History of Glamour. The History of Glamour, is an hour-long, music-based animated film, it aired at The New York Video Festival, The Women Make Waves International Women’s Film Festival, The Rotterdam International Film Festival, The Montreal Film Festival, the Channel Hopping Festival in Austria and was selected for inclusion in The Whitney Biennial 2000. Glamour also aired on Channel 4 in the UK, on Canal + in France, and in Japan.A french fashion company packaged the film and the three video games with a designer t-shirt showing an image of Charles Valentine the protagonist of the film.
Writer and Director Theresa Duncan; Art Director Jeremy Blake; Art work by Jeremy Blake and Karen Kilimnick; animation by Eric Dyer. The film was made through Theresa’s production company Rhinestone Publishing. Theresa grew up on Valentine road in Lapeer, Michigan.
"I wandered away into our town’s library and its world-encompassing books and urbane fashion magazines and this place served as the map room for the long voyage away I was planning. I still have a great swelling of the heart, a feeling of enormous possibility when I am talking about or in the presence of books. Like bottles of wine stored in the collector’s cellar, or perfumes corked up in some kook’s every cupboard (hello!) every spine in the library’s spectrum was a sort of spell, every tale an enticement, each page a doorway into a possible new world, every letter a clue toward the creation of a new self."
Image: One of several bookcases in Theresa and Jeremy’s apartment in New York. When the books arrived in Michigan they took up three bookcase walls and are tucked in cupboards and stored under the bed. Notice her surfboard leaning against the bookcase on the left…a remnant of their time in L.A.
Theresa left Detroit on a train to D.C. with $80.00 in her pocket, wearing black and white polka dot tights, a mini skirt and Eiffel Tower earrings that swung in synchrony with her blonde hair when she moved her head.All of her belongings were stuffed into a mailbag that she dragged behind her.She never looked back through her big hazel eyes, literally or figuratively, to wave goodbye or to waiver in her decision. This was all by design, to leave small town, industrial America for the creative life in the big city where she knew she belonged. Her journey would lead, in a few short years, to three award winning cd roms, a film accepted at the Whitney Biennial, essays published in elite journals, screenplays, tv shows, D.C., N,Y., L.A.; and in 2007 to her death by suicide; a week later her lover, partner and cherished companion of 12 years, artist Jeremy Blake, walked into the water of Rockaway Beach, leaving a note behind.
Theresa was tall, blonde and strikingly beautiful, but more than that, she was a self-taught scholar, intimidating in her wide-ranging intellect, witty, sarcastic, hard working and determined to succeed, a feminist in red lipstick and designer shoes. She loved words, and was an inspired writer and cultural critic. In her innovative blog Wit of the Staircase, written in her living room surrounded by books and art, she ruminated on philosophy, film, art, politics, music, literary works, fashion, perfume, and life; she developed a large and devoted following that she referred to as the “Children of the Staircase”.The entries to Wit, in retrospect, seem increasingly troubled in the weeks before her death, with the final post a quote by Reynolds Price
"A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens—second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths."
To share Theresa’s story I have compiled the best of the essays from Wit of the Staircase, her published works, journal entries, excerpts from her screenplays, and other works in progress.I will also included cartoons that her lover and partner and innovative artist Jeremy Blake sketched to make her laugh, photographs and images from her cds and film. Her life and work were a seamless and colorful collage. No one can speak for Theresa or tell her story as completely as she has already done, and it is her story in words and images that I will post over the next few weeks.
The clip above is from The History of Glamour which was selected for 2000 Whitney Biennial, illustrated by Jeremy Blake and Karen Kilimnik.
A special thanks to Theresa’s long time friends Wilbur King for clips from his film Charlotte Goes Swimming and Raymond Doherty for editing the clips into this memorial film. This film was shown at a memorial for Theresa in New York, December 2007.
Theresa’s second award winning video game was titled Smarty…Mimi Smartypants was Theresa’s alter ego. Smarty’s humor, intelligence, insatiable curiosity and the ability to make the “everyday” seem magical are in fact Theresa projected onto the screen.
The clip above was taken from an 16mm film version that Theresa used when promoting her game to distributors.
“…in Smarty Aunt Olive and Smarty go to the dime store-and this is something that I remember specifically from my own life, being seven years old and being given a dollar every Saturday for my allowance and getting to pick out whatever I wanted. That dollar was so empowering, and the dime store was the caves of Ali Baba, because I could buy yarn or goldfish or this Blue Waltz perfume that they used to sell for ninety-nine cents.”
“Ms. Duncan says she bases many characters on herself (Mimi’s voice is hers speeded up electronically) and on her own whimsical grandmother, Margaret Lundgren, an art teacher with an antic sense of humor. Ms. Duncan recalls the day her grandmother spilled coffee on her blouse, then painted flowers on it to disguise the stain.”
"I left New York and the corner of Broome and Wooster for work with a Hollywood studio in the weeks after September 11th, 2001. I brought all my books and records and a wicked respiratory infection from the "safe" air downtown. Years later sitting on Venice Beach I heard Phil Ochs sing, "New York City has exploded and it crashed upon my head…I guess I’ll have to fly, it’s worth a try. But I’ll send you a tape from California." Can you hear it now?"
—Theresa Duncan from essay below.
"Who’s that coming down the road? He looks a lot like me," the narrator of the song "Tape From California" asks, encountering himself on one of L.A.’s broad daylit thoroughfares. Perhaps this uncanny meeting takes place on the Venice Boardwalk, where I write these words from my boyfriend’s newly relocated art studio, or on the Sunset Strip, notoriously twice as lurid at midday as any urban back alley at three a.m. "He crawled around inside himself, now he’s crawling after me," this singer continues, creeping me out, hooking me with this Brian Wilson-meets-Edgar Allan Poe jive.
The narrator of “Tape From California” greets his own Golden State sidewalk mirage warily, calling his double “a singer from the shadows of my soul, a sailor from the sea.” He tries to move past him, but his copy (or is he the original? It’s hard to tell where he ends and “I” begin) rambles on, right on: “In the corner of the night/ he handed me his waterpipe/ His eyes were searching deep inside my head/ Here’s what he said: ‘Sorry I can’t stop and talk now/I’m in kind of a hurry anyhow /But I’ll send you a tape from California’.’”
This tape from California describes so many flickering selves, so many misguiding lights, it’s like an L.A. ignus fatus—a California fool’s fire. California has many kinds of light, but it has even more tricks of the light—he, him, me, it. How many licks anyway till you get to the center of this shadow self, which is part white light and part sticky black street tar?
The voice laid down on tape and dispatched from California seems a literal manifestation of the diabolical doppelganger that California encourages the rest of the world to release. Teenage runaways, folk singers from New York, Okies and famous alcoholic novelists alike are greeted by the voice from California that lies dormant in the head in Ohio but melts and thaws in our sun and emanates auditory waves like the optical ones that rise from the sidewalk heat. Get off the bus at the Greyhound station, or put your seat tray up in First Class and prepare for landing, and soon this voice in the head will be your voice in the head.
Like Vegas, the rest of the world comes here to do things they would never, ever do at home. But in Las Vegas the bad behavior ends when the chips run out, whereas in Los Angeles, which has a weird sort of time that passes and passes under the same small silver sun that rises and falls like endless round dimes dropped into pay phones (payment for messages left on answering machine tapes back home) the days drop like fruit from the trees, they stay on the ground, ripening or rotting.
All these tapes from California, secondary recordings for loved ones or friends or strangers, all these duplicated voices and images from the entertainment industry, voices long dead or long gone from home, ricochet through airwaves, are elicited from record grooves, emitted from sprocket holes, heard through the occult interference of an old cassette’s staticky hiss. I left New York and the corner of Broome and Wooster for work with a Hollywood studio in the weeks after September 11th, 2001. I brought all my books and records and a wicked respiratory infection from the “safe” air downtown. Years later sitting on Venice Beach I heard Phil Ochs sing, “New York City has exploded and it crashed upon my head…I guess I’ll have to fly, it’s worth a try. But I’ll send you a tape from California.” Can you hear it now?
“…Here are some photos of me working in my house in Venice and at the Paramount lot on Melrose with my teen male lead Brady Corbet from Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” and my teen female lead Alexis Dziena from Jim Jarmush’s “Broken Flowers” then I’m walking on the Paramount lot with my producers Anthony Bregman and Anne Carey and my casting director Jeannie McCarthy; the two gorgeous teen blondes are Keith Richard’s daughters Theodora and Alexandra. Young people are so much better than us…”
—Email from Theresa
In February 12, 2006, a table read for Alice Underground was hosted at Paramount Studios with the actors, studio executives (Paramount and Nickelodeon), producers (This or That) and investors (Odd Lot). The table read went well and there was a great deal of optimism among those present that the picture would be filmed in New York in the summer with a 15 million dollar budget.
Images: Photos attached to email from Theresa from the table read for Alice Underground, February 2006.