REVIEW Somewhere along a Los Angeles freeway, a couple have a tense conversation about hamburgers. In Southwick, Mass., three women allow their hair to be braided together, and a Houston resident writes the eventful story of her life in a day. In a bedroom in Sydney, Australia, the dress a young woman wore the day she lost her virginity is laid out on the floor, along with the shoes that, she notes, stayed on for the duration. A sign goes up in a patch of parkland near Penn State detailing the markings and habits that distinguish the common raven from the American crow.
The pages of Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More are filled with such earnest explanations, recorded interactions, humble creative feats, and scraps from memory or fantasy or some complicated combination all of them compiled from the thousands of audio, visual, and textual contributions to Fletcher and July’s Web site of the same name. Begun in 2002, the project was launched with the goal of offering concrete creative inspiration to any and all comers in the form of detailed assignments: to make an encouraging banner or an educational public plaque, to start a lecture series or compose the saddest song, to write down a recent argument or make a neighborhood field recording, to spend time with a dying person or heal oneself.
"Assignments" suggests a classroom exercise, and as the title implies, education in various guises is one aspect of the project; another is the goal of simply freeing participants to be artful. As Fletcher and July note in the introduction, "Sometimes it seems like the moment we let go of trying to be original, we actually feel something new which was the whole point of being artists in the first place."
As word of the project has spread in unpredictable patterns via clusters of participants and viewers drawn in over time, LTLYM has put art-making inspiration, instruction, and encouragement in the hands of a sizable, indeterminate, dominolike scattering of humans across the globe. The result here is a succession of works that provoke the viewer to unpredictable reactions as the pages turn. A sound might begin somewhere between a snicker and a giggle, as when one flips to the back to see a re-created poster of Jack Nicholson baring his teeth in The Shining from the teenage years of Jack McCalla of Farmville, Va., but it’s likely to resolve into a capitulatory sigh over a press release written by Toronto resident Emily Holton that announces to selected media outlets her late-night gastric troubles and uncertainties about love’s power to last.
Some of the tasks result in the merely adorable or the gently nostalgic, like the high quotient of bright-eyed household pets found amid the dust bunnies during "Assignment 50: Take a flash photo under your bed," or the series of old book covers from "Assignment 45: Reread your favorite book from fifth grade," which turns up A Wrinkle in Time, Pet Sematary, and Amazing Secrets of the Psychic World and does offer the quiet pleasure of noting experiential connections with formerly young and faraway strangers. Similarly, the encouraging banners of Assignment 63 run the risk of slogans everywhere but who knows what would happen if, on one of those demoralizing, head-in-gas-oven sort of days, one rounded a corner and came face-to-face with "You Have a Spine!" or "Death Is Not the End."
The past is a minefield and thus ripe for artistic endeavor, and here the weight of memory brings a charge to mundane objects like those clothes laid flat on the floor. So does the weight of regret, as in "Assignment 53: Give advice to yourself in the past," which provokes Wendy in North Carolina to tell her 15- and 16-year-old iterations, "Please eat. You are not ‘fat.’"
This and other conversations produce some of the most poignant and painful and pleasurable moments such as Assignment 52’s "phone call you wish you could have," which produces two siblings catching up across the mortal coil barrier and a mutual coming-out and profession of love between friends, punctuated by phrases that progress from "Hey, wuddup fool?" to "Fine! I’m gay!" to "I love you too much to hate you." The insubstantial nature of the person on the other end of the line is affecting, whether they’re beyond the grave or simply unlikely to answer.
As was Fletcher and July’s hope, their project offers the humbling, heart-expanding experience of recognizing that the globe is dotted with original and inventive humans, busy thinking and suffering and wondering about love and making work that turns the world into a more recognizable and yet more startling place when it’s seen. *
LEARNING TO LOVE YOU MORE
By Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July
160 pages, $19.95 paper