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The Production Front, an arts collective invented by writer Sheila Heti and painter Margaux Williamson – “so they could do things with other artists and call it one thing,” – is set to release a troika of linked projects under the banner of MFA this fall. The trilogy includes Heti’s new novel, How Should A Person Be?, Williamson’s feature-length video Teenager Hamlet, and the debut album from Tomboyfriend (led by musician and poet/author Ryan Kamstra), Don’t Go To School. The three pieces could stand alone perfectly well as distinct and self-contained works, but they work even better together, as the content and production of all three are intricately bound together through the meaning of friendship and the blurry boundaries between reality and fiction.
Heti’s novel is fiction, however it’s told in the first person by a character named Sheila, whose life and art have seemingly come to a standstill after her marriage ends and the play she’s trying to write is going nowhere. To discover where she’s gone astray, why she seems to want all the wrong things and can’t even get them, she embarks on a sort of experiment using her friends as guinea pigs to tease out the secrets of human existence: how to be an artist in an era where the greatest art form is the blowjob, and how to be a person when you don’t really have any clue how a person should be.
In addition to the more conventional spots of prose, the novel is also composed partly of transcripts of conversation that the real Sheila Heti had with her real-life friends (including her friends Marguax and Ryan). But by the time these discussions make their way into the novel, they can’t really be said to be “real” anymore; torn from their native context and sewn in somewhere new, they end up inevitably meaning something different than they once did. This is part of the conundrum being worked out, that question of how to be an artist and still be engaged in the world as a real person with real friends and a real life at the same time.
“I think when people feel that things are urgent and imminent – like issues with the economy and the environment – literature can feel like a frill. Chraracters (as opposed to real people) can seem like trivial things to engage with,” says Heti. “So it might be smart to compose a work of literature that employs the techniques of philosophy (where the philosopher is the “I”) and journalism (where no people are made up). People are tricked into dealing with characters! As I tricked myself!”
That same tension and ambiguity about the boundary between the authentic and the artificial, and searching for meaning through the testimony of friends, are at work in Teenager Hamlet. The film shows, in a documentary-like style, Margaux Williamson’s search for a way to break through the apparent insignificance of life in general, and the artist’s life in particular.
Just like Heti does in How Should A Person Be?, Williamson looks to her friends and fellow artists and the creative power they have at their disposal to attempt to find some answers. In the film, she learns of a singles party for art-types at a permanently-docked ship at the harbour, and figures this would be a great place to recruit people to be in her movie. With a series of screen-tests, she selects a few whom she thinks might be able to teach her something.
“Some of the people on the boat talked a lot about injustice and their own impotence,” she narrates. “We called these people The Hamlets. Other people on the boat were preoccupied with beauty, and the power of beauty. We called these people The Ophelias.”
Much of the film is dedicated to “interviews” with these various Hamlets and Ophelias, with many of the interviews conducted, of course, by Williamson ‘s best friend Heti (in a blonde wig and big sunglasses, which Williamson had her wear “to remind the subjects that they were being recorded and not to betray themselves too much”).
How Should A Person Be? and Teenager Hamlet share a lot of common ground, aside from both featuring many of the same people. They are both about themselves, and about being about themselves. The Tomboyfriend album occupies this same space. Aside from featuring performances by people who are in both Teenager Hamlet and How Should A Person Be? (including Ryan Kamstra himself), the album’s very existence is owed, in part, to his friends and The Production Front who started a campaign to sell tracks in advance of the release and tickets to a fancy dinner, all to pay for the mix of the album.
Much the way Teenager Hamlet highlights the distinction between actors and aktors, Don’t Go To School is open about being performed by mostly non-musicians. According to Kamstra: “Long before there was an album, Tomboyfriend began as the stubs of 12 songs that in theory anyone could play. I was very conscious about writing songs that were diverse enough to be interesting but relied on chord patterns that anyone, with a little experience and a few basic chords in their possession, could contribute to. It was a conscious effort to collaborate with Toronto at large, performer/artists both amateur and more seasoned – a concept based on a lot of ideas that were floating around our community at the time, and a concerted effort on my part to recreate the conditions for a musical entity that was not merely aesthetic but a living social fact.”
And that’s fundamentally the essence of the MFA concept: more than their characters or circumstances together they represent a reification of a social existence that permeates us all in an almost holistic way but which is really only now coming to be acknowledged in art. At a time when Western civilization refuses to admit the philosophical value of non-facts, and where most of the popular music, film, and writing celebrates its own shallowness and disposability (where our cultural heroes are blowjob artists, for example), The Production Front has managed to deliver three complete artworks across three distinct yet mutually dependent media, presenting a multidimensional snapshot of our contemporary reality that is also thoroughly engaging and a genuine pleasure.
A joint launch party will be held in Toronto on Oct. 14 at 8 pm at Stone’s Place at 1255 Queen Street West. Sheila Heti will read from her book, Tomboyfriend will play a set, and a clip from Teenager Hamlet will be screened.