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Feature Mon Aug 06 2012

Economics, Childhood Therapy Sessions, and Ghosts with Lady Adventurer Anne Elizabeth Moore

hiphopapsara.jpgAnne Elizabeth Moore, local writer, critic, and comics maker took some time to discuss her new book Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present, out August 28 under Green Lantern Press. Moore is well known for her book Cambodian Grrrrl: Self Publishing in Phnom Penh, a journalistic account of Moore's experience teaching self-publishing techniques to the first generation of university women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She's also the creator of the Adventure School for Ladies, which she bills as an experimental graduate program in which students explore gender politics, cultural production, and related social divisions with the "top ladylike scholars in the field of adventure studies." Don't be fooled, the program is open to anybody regardless of gender identification.

Hip Hop Apsara features a different type of documentation alongside the text Moore is so adept in writing; photography. The collection offers a portrait of life in Phnom Pehn after dark, primarily focusing on the dance scene, which she says captures the developing middle class in action. The essays that accompany those images grapple with notions of public and private space, mourning and remembering the past, and economic uncertainty.

Moore spoke with me about her new book as it was inspired by Cambodian Grrrl, her little known life as a photographer, and a bit about her experience with publishing houses large and small. Moore also addressed her fascination with economics and sociological study as the foundation of many of her projects, plus her propensity to make a Project out of anything that moves. This book she says is an exercise in stepping away from that, of letting the subject matter speak.

The format of your new book is unusual as it joins imagery of Phnom Penh and essays. I say unusual because it strikes me that neither element is necessarily more important than the other. How did you approach structuring the book given the duality of the mediums? Did being a comics artist influence this choice?

A lot of people don't know that I trained as a photographer -- a darkroom printer, actually -- although by the time I got my BFA I had been writing and publishing for years. And I actually had started adding text to images and printing these massive photographic prints in a series, until someone said, what an expensive way to make a book! And I was like oh, yeah, there's this other thing that I do better than this that is less time consuming and annoying than photography. Then my camera got stolen and I basically didn't get another one until I started spending time in Cambodia after 2007.

The point is: I think photographically anyway, and I write in response to images, I just usually don't make the images, or I don't make the images public. And that -- well, for one, I'm not really a comics artist, I'm a comics critic but I use the medium of comics to communicate this criticism -- but I'm good with comics because I think image and text can be equally important. Without being overly reliant on each other.

Putting the book together was pretty fun for that reason, too. Going in I had this very hard sense of, you know: it must be chronological! It must convey fact! There will be footnotes! Like a journalist, right? But as I started to construct a logic purely from the visuals, I got to tell a different kind of story. And that's really where the essay came in. It was a way of responding to the last five years I've been spending time and thinking about this amazing place without having to report or convey details. It feels really important, and I think in a way it gives a much better sense of what's so amazing about this place -- but also about people -- than anything more journalistic I've done.

From Cambodian Grrrl and the Adventure School for Ladies, it's clear that you're quite concerned with empowering women via the craft of writing. Does this factor into Hip Hop Apsara at all?

Letting Hip Hop Apsara be dictated by images was a way of letting go of concerns like that. It's really just a pure book in this way that it's a big thick object with pages that have things on them that happened. It wasn't like, THE HIP HOP APSARA PROJECT, which is unusual for me. I didn't establish the situation in which it occurred and I didn't do anything to the images, I just photographed stuff that happened. Most things I do are projects and in fact I have friends that will say to me, "Oh, I was working on this food project this morning," and it seems all natural and everything until you realize, most people just call that a "meal."

The last set of images, though, are based on a tour I went on in the Kandal province on Christmas Day with the Messenger Band, which is a group of current and former garment factory workers who tour the country singing political songs about the garment industry, sex worker's rights, poverty among farmers, and related issues that emerge from the unchecked development in Cambodia. I wrote about the tour. They're amazing women--some of the most brilliant organizers and thinkers I've met, in the world. And certainly, I would never have been able to spend time with them if I hadn't been working directly around young women's media and labor justice issues.

How did you decide to incorporate both photography and essays? Was there something you thought couldn't be entirely captured by one without the other?

In this case the photographs came first. The essays grew out of them, were just this catch-all way of trying to explain what was happening in the images without didacticism. I think they're some of the most beautiful and powerful things I've ever written and I really like them. But they're both, like, bookends to this other thing I'm trying to get at, which is this notion of ghosts. That something can have recently been somewhere but still have an impact. It can be gone, but even more present than when it was there. A lot of people died in Cambodia, from American bombings, from the Khmer Rouge, and now, from starvation and poverty and violence. But you can't write about ghosts in a straightforward way, because people will think you're crazy, and you can't photograph ghosts because YOU CAN'T, THEY'RE GHOSTS but you can sort of use them as a way of getting at something else, describe their function, what impact they have.

It's funny because I had this person in my life I really cared about, and we separated for a while, and then were in contact again. And while we were in contact, I was writing these essays, and of course I was trying to write them about this place that's really far away in the world that I love, but I was also writing in a very literal and descriptive way about how important this person is to me, and how even more present they felt when they were gone. As I was writing it, I sort of knew that we would part ways again, and we did. And so when I read those essays I'm completely overcome with this very raw emotion of predictive loss, of knowing in advance the contours of this important thing I was going to lose. It's not, it can't be, the same as any of the losses I describe in the essays themselves, but I think that hollowness in the chest is the same, and maybe, if that can be scaled up to the 1.7 to 2.2 million people that died under the Khmer Rouge, and a couple hundred thousand more that died in the American bombings, then maybe we can start to understand why it would be so important to go out dancing when you can, just because you're alive.

Adventure School for Ladies was based, at least in part, on the fact that male and female comic artists are treated differently in the field. I understand that you arrived at this conclusion not just from experience but also by conducting interviews and surveys. How often do sociological practice make its way into your craft? Why does this method appeal to you, or work particularly well for you?

I've worked in comics for like a decade. It's not the most masculine environment I've ever worked in, for sure -- I did some auto mechanic work for awhile and worked in comedy -- but it's really obvious to anyone who has ever engaged with comics at all that it is a place just rife with weird notions about gender, both on and off the page. Which is surprising: it's a very, very low tech medium, which combines illustration and writing -- neither of which are particularly gendered. But comics is. So, a number of years ago, I just let my curiosity start getting the best of me, you know, asking people: what's this like for you? Why did you say that? Or, Why did you stop working on this? The conversations started amassing, and then the research, and all of the sudden you have "data" and then you want more "data" and then you want to share it with people and it's very addictive, figuring out on your own how stuff works. And then you have to name it: Ladydrawers. So now we have, I don't know, maybe 75 people all over the US who've worked directly with us on some project or another, another 750 who are really excited about what we do,

Realizing how deeply social the acquisition of knowledge is, and how infectious, came gradually for me, I think. If I had known that, in fact, the easiest way to accomplish something early on would be asking a bunch of people what interests them about the world and how they thought we should get more information about it, I'd have done it long ago. But that really was the way the Adventure School for Ladies came about, which is my experimental graduate school. For people who can act ladylike and are interested in pursuing adventure scholarship. It started in 2009, and the first one was just open-ended. The second one was the comics intensive and then, if we get the funding to do it, the third one will be held in South Dakota, not too far where I was born. We'll mostly be looking at race and cultural production.

Some of my collaborators are doing a big fundraising campaign to put out a book of all this research, by the way -- of course in comics form. It's here, and it'll be gorgeous. As well as shocking and hilarious! Honestly, they do amazing work.

And, I mean, what's important to remember about publishing is: it is the establishment of a reading public, a group of individuals with common discursive interests. But I work a little bit ahead of the curve, so sometimes I have to bring folks along at an earlier point. Set that reading public up before there's even a book, maybe -- most of the time -- get their help in making it.

You mentioned that you've had experience being published by large and small presses. Can you talk a bit about how the process differs from finding the publisher to actually publishing the physical product?

Well, it's all the same process; it's just a question of how many other people are in on it, and what you get out of their participation. I like people, for sure, so I like working with publishers and I'm even starting to like working with publicists, and of course reviewers and critics are my people. If I didn't like people, I would only ever sit in my room and write horrible screeds about their ridiculousness and then I would self-publish them and develop a devoted readership of eight people who were just as hateful as I was. Or maybe I would write poetry, I don't know. But what I do get tired of is rejection for reasons that have nothing to do with merit, that are based solely on commerce. And right now, that's the book-publishing world, in a nutshell. It's pretty hard to be around. I think even the people who do it full time are tired of it.

Does your fascination with economics, Cambodian and otherwise, factor into Hip Hop Apsara?

Well, economics is resource allocation, although calling it economics and then telling women it involves a lot of math and is a science and they could never understand it is a really great way to make sure they don't get interested in it. But once, I was seeing this therapist with my mom -- the therapist was this amazing woman, 4'11", we were her only US clients and when she wasn't working with us she would fly back to work with sex workers in South America. And my mom was not excited about some behavior of mine, or something, and it came down to that, like, I spent too long looking through every cupboard, pantry shelf, and fridge and freezer rack in the kitchen before I knew what kind of sandwich I wanted. This therapist was like, of course! Because you're an artist! But in my mind, I was realizing, no. I'm sort of an economist. I'm just interested in what's there, what's been used, what could be used, what's available, when it will be available and what the maximum deliciousness potential of these various things when brought together in various combinations might be.

Anyway, in Cambodia, for a long time there weren't banks, and women were charged with taking care of the family wealth in gold they wore as jewelry. And in a way they sort of became the moneylenders, the economists. If someone in the village was in need, they would go to see one of the women, a moneylender, and she would lend out some money at exorbitant rates of course, because that's smart.

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