“Believer” at PEN World Voices Fest: Vladmaster Vladimir’s Viewmasters


A Cal Arts student, drawn to the Viewmaster portion of the “Believer” event on Saturday night, part of the PEN World Voices Festival, set up his thousands of dollars of digital gadgetry in the front row of the New School, drawing attention from emcee Todd Barry. In the midst of his opening monologue Barry improvised a series of goofs around the student, who mentioned he had once found a Viewmaster with attached audio in an antique store. “Lower your voice,” Barry ommanded.  “Don’t face the audience. Don’t get all presentational.”  Barry was introduced by “Believer” editor Heidi Julavits (an NBCC member) with the keyword “he was the one who played the bongoes on Flight of the Conchord.”

Noting the disconnect between “a light-hearted entertainment and a constant reminder of imprisoned Chinese writers,” Barry riffed a lot on chairs (the empty chair on the stage representing the imprisoned Tibetan writer, the empty chairs in the theater a “constant reminder of the 300 people who didn’t show up tonight…”) He poked fun at the New School for having one toilet for 500 people and generally got the folks in the auditorium (which did gradually fill up) loose enought to follow directions on how to view Vladmaster Vladimir’s Viewmaster disk series “Actaeon at home.”

Vladimir, who hails from Oregon, popped onstage to instruct the Viewmaster novices (most of the audience), then sprinted offstage when she realized she’d forgotten to grab her sample disk set. Meanwhile, PEN volunteers fanned out to distribute envelopes with four disks each (“Insert one at a time with the asterisks at the top and facing you”). Very Believer—-informal, low key, relaxed. San Francisco transplanted to the West Village.

Vladimir gave quick instructions—one sound gave the cue to click to the next frame; a toy piano interlude was the signal to change disks—which were reinforced by an authoritative male voice explaining same on the soundtrack. Audience, obedient, clicked steadily through the images (loud clicks; audience members all with Viewmasters at faces, several photographers in the front taking images of these strange hybrids). Not to give the plot away, but this particular Viewmaster narrative concerned a writer in his studio, deer, guns, trains, typewriters, erotic moments with a plaster goddess, a gun aimed at the viewer….like that. The opening lines to the Viewmaster series were the beginning of the writer’s letter to a friend. Just what editors tell blocked writers to do: Imagine you’re writing a letter to a friend…or yr editor. Tom Wolfe’s seminal Esquire essay, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” started out that way. But I digress.

The Viewmaster story’s frame was “…the most horrifying nightmare.”: Just what the masterful New School creative writing teachers tell students NOT to do.

But silliness was the point. A counterpoint to a panel by Scandinavian authors Kristin Omarsdottir, Halfdan Freihow, Jo Nesbo, and Christian Jungersen. Listening to this group raised the question, Why don’t Americans know more about Scandinavian authors (who read more American lit than many Europeans)? A mystery.

In between, a musical interlude by John Wesley Harding, novelist under his real name, Wesley Stace, and performer with everyone from Springsteen to Lou Reed, with novelist Rick Moody singing along and singing lead. Most of those who follow Rick M’s polymorphic activities know he has a thing for radio, he performs with the Wingdale Community Singers—he sings as well as writes (well, not as well, frankly, but well enough).

Meanwhile, Vladimir needed the Viewmasters back, ditto handmade disks. She had some $1500 invested in the Viewmasters alone…..PEN volunteers to the rescue, once again, retrieving it all, and the Viewmaster tent folded.