The Van-Fidelian Discourse

illustration by A. H. Tuset

A while back I was trying to reinvent myself as an independent journalist and cultural critic. I was looking for interesting subcultures to write stories about. A girlfriend of mine at the time was a good lead. Though she worked in HR for a financial services company, she had a hobby, which was also decently-earning side-gig, I found ready to exploit. 

She was a celebrity impersonator. Her celebrity at the time was Courtney Love, mid-90-s era. She’d also do Sarah Pallin, a big name in those years.

So when she talked about the local Montreal Imperssonator’s Ball, I begged her to bring me along. She pulled some strings and I got in. I would go as Jonathan Franzen, and was told I’d have to walk around all night with a copy of Karl Krauss’s Last Days of Mankind. I asked if this wasn’t more of a costume than an impersonation, for which I was quickly told to zip it mister or else

The party really was an actual ball, in the chandelier’d reception hall of the Hôtel Montesquieu, with black-tie wait staff carrying silver trays of tartare endive scoops and a quintet playing stripped down Glenn Miller numbers. We’re all there. The Obamas (eight Barracks and six Michelles) were generously scattered about. Also present were good numbers of Al Pacini and Ellen DeGeneri. 

I wandered away from my girlfriend’s tedious conversation with some of her colleagues. Naturally I went for the bar. I sided up at one end and waited. And just like in a movie, I saw him at the opposite end looking at me.

At first I thought, is there really another Jonathan Franzen impersonator here? White guy with glasses and that urban tweedy style. Bookish. Self-consciously out of place. I thought, so he’s looking at me thinking the same thing: Oh no, is that Krauss he’s schlepping along? Amateur.

But he actually looked away, disinterestedly, in a manner which made me retroactively question whether he was actually looking at me, past me, or through me.

And I realized, no. The moment of misrecognition is mine. That’s not a Franzen impersonator at all. In fact, it’s not an impersonator. It’s the artist Van Fidel.

Van Fidel was the Montreal-born, now slowly, increasingly NYC-and-beyond-based “net artist.” I know Van’s work well, living in Montreal. I’ve been to a few events where he’s spoken and many more openings and parties where he’s spoken of. I’ve even briefly met Van. Twice, actually. Though obviously for him it was a new encounter both times. The thing is, I’ve thought on occasion of writing about Fidel and net art. There hasn’t been a lot of good criticism about it yet and it could have been a chance to hitch my name to a budding scene. And it did overlap with many of my own interests. The gray zone between high art and prank, performance and spectatorship. 

It was curious, him being here. Alone, it seemed too. So I approached. I said, Hey, it’s Van, right? We met before, at the Galerie 4-Mur in Griffintown, how ya doin?

Except, he said, he was flattered, but he was in fact a Van Fidel impersonator whose real name was Leopold Kinch and he was from Dundee, Scotland.   

I didn’t believe it. First of all, Scotland? He sounded like a nasal North-Eastern Ashkenaz, and I should know. And second, he really looked like Fidel. The glasses and sport jacket were perfect, but those alone couldn’t have convinced me this much.

Poldy, as he liked to be called, wanted to prove he wasn’t Van Fidel. So he took out his phone to show me pictures of himself out of character. There he was rigging a dinghy somewhere by a lake. But that could have been Fidel in a short red bathing suit, lanky pale body. There was one of him at the bedside of an old person in a hospital, smiling, holding out a small cake with a candle on it for the patient. But that could have been Fidel with those glasses, that little brown tufty mustache. There he was with a bunch of friends in matching bowling uniforms, behind them one sees posters on the wall with cyrillic writing. But that could have been Fidel.

Then he showed me older pictures. To prove the evolution of this one human in its unique upbringing leading up to this moment. It seemed he had one photo saved on his phone representing every two or three years of his life. I admit, when each individual photo was considered uniquely by its position to the ones preceding and succeeding it, that connection seemed plausible. But I still doubt, even today (and here’s the whole point) that the young 12-year old Leopold Kinch was the same mid-30s Van Fidel impersonator standing before me.

But we took to talking and drinking and after some time I let him bring me back to the subject of impersonators. I grew interested, and asked if I could do an interview with him, then and there. We left the ball and went to a 24-hour Greek diner and ordered coffees and burgers. 

I never finished writing the piece. What I have here are fragments of the interview I typed up the next day off my notes from that night. Seems I’ve also added some personal comments. Whether these were also from my notes, or something I came up with the next day while typing, I cannot remember. The original notes from that night are gone. 

One more thing before we proceed. I have come to realize something that may have helped me greatly over the years had I realized this before the night at the ball and then at the diner. I suspect here many are thinking I am going to say that the real question is not about with whom I was speaking. But rather, something about presentation and representation or simulation and simulacra or the slippery discourse of truth-production and the artificiality of meaning and coding which art, and especially net art, and more so especially with net artists themselves, both mystify and commodify.

No. The real question is this: Why the fuck did I get myself involved in this thing? 

***

13.11.2010 – 22:13. L’Orphée Dîner, downtown Montreal

Interview with Van Fidel impersonator, Leopold Kinch

Me: Why Van Fidel? I mean, he’s not really a celebratory like everyone else at that party is impersonating?

LK: I see you’ve written ‘LK’ for my parts. Can you change that to ‘VF’?

VF: I believe in my own celebrity. Likewise, I don’t fully believe in all those other celebrities. I don’t believe in them the way their impersonators are supposed to believe in them. You see, they

Not sure if “they” refers to celebrities or the other celebrity impersonators, never got this cleared up.

VF: (cont’d) depend on the misrecognition of normal people. And remember, normal people hardly believe in themselves. This whole thing would fall apart if they gained any self consciousness. Especially in the face of celebrity. Have you seen their faces?

Me: OK, let’s back this up. When did you start working as an impersonator? I do assume you do this for paying gigs?

He’s making exaggerated eye rolls, gripping the edge of the table, rocking himself back and forth, and maybe, quietly moaning?

VF: You’re boring me.

Me: I’m sorry, is this part of the act? Is this how you do Van Fidel?

VF: Van Fidel is a nobody. Don’t you see? He’s some kid who grew up in some town

This town, Montreal I guess, where I too grew up, and where we’re sitting right now.

VF: (cont’d) and chose to study art and studied it at some semi-well-known art school and did some stuff and got some recognition and he works and he gets something for his work, don’t you see? Van Fidel’s biggest critics, those who’d love to humiliate him, would say, his is the art of just showing up. As if, millions of possibilities are bouncing around a finite space colliding here and there like Brownian particles and at one instant enough converge on some lucky point and pow

He does slow motion explosion movements with his hands and mouth for a very long time, like maybe a whole minute.

VF: (cont’d) There you are.

Me: Wherever you go…

LK: There I am!

Me: Because… he’s not there, to be you, first?

VF: Can you take that whole part out please?

Burgers come. He shuts up as the server sets them. Then after he’s taken a huge bite, and with a full mouth, he goes on:

VF: And that’s partly the essence of my art.

I keep finding myself forgetting I’m sitting with an impersonator. He’s so familiar. 

VF: If I show up at a celebrity impersonators ball, and I’m not recognized by the other guests, what do you think they’ll be wondering? Who am I? Why am I here? No, our crowd isn’t interested in those things. They’ll have to assume I’m somebody worth knowing. And in not knowing, well, that’s a crack of insecurity right through their structure of familiar knowledge. Because their lives as impersonators depend on a certain self negation to begin with. So, who is the subject supposed to know? How is one personality, or one persona, really locked into one body in space and time. Zigzagging across, colliding with, and repelling and being repelled by others… Celebrities are ideas, rumors. Their superficial codes we can adapt and discard as we go about our attempts to be relevant to a few people here and there, make ourselves familiar, in a way that’s easy to consume, hopefully, in this miserable life of ours. How’s your burger?

Me: This does sound like a very Van-Fidelian discourse.

It did. I was beginning to suspect that I was being used. Also, at this point, I was starting to feel woozy, as if I had taken some drugs unknowingly. Now he’s doing air batons with french fries as if conducting an orchestra in his head. I do believe he’s humming something classical, maybe the beginning of Bach’s flute sonata in E minor.

Me: So, how did you become interested in Van Fidel?

He stops abruptly. Takes out his phone and texts. Looks around the diner impatiently. Throws some cash on the table, a gesture from the movies. Gets up and leaves, throwing up two Nixonian peace signs backwards to the limpid diner crowd. 

***

How my girlfriend found me is a blur. I remember the news going over the car radio. Something about a demonstration, a protest, being planned.

While I was working on the piece in the following days, my girlfriend left me. And my dog died. And I lost my job. And I had gotten back some troubling results from the doctor. I had been put in, what you may call, a “state.”

And yet I hardly noticed these things falling down all around me. As if too many blows made each problem seem that much less pressing, that less real. All the confusion just propelled me deeper into note-making for the article — my ticket into the scene, to make a name for myself. Was it about Fidel? The art of impersonation? The business of artifice? We’re us critics all pawns for some meta performance piece?

That’s when I got a cease and desist letter. Several pages long. Not from Fidel personally, but from a downtown firm repping a high-end gallery that was set to show some of his upcoming work. Lots of legalese, but as far as I can tell, the argument was such: I had a small but pernicious reputation for fabricating salacious stories of respected artists, some of them arguably a bit eccentric which only added gasoline to the rumorous fires of misinformation of celebrity scandal. Lots of money was at stake (this I surmised from between the lines), and that any publication about the artist in question was to be considered as causing direct injurious loss of revenue for the gallery and its very respectful(ly) secretive patrons.

All this for who, at the time, was just a local Montreal artist just beginning to enjoy the scraps of recognition around NYC’s art market. Hardly a Christo or Hirst. Also, the allegations of my reputation? I had not even begun to build a reputation. Why the nerve…

With no job, girlfriend, or much of any kind of personal life, I decided to become obsessed. Now, I know most people would leap up at me and say, you cannot make a conscious decision to become obsessed about something. It’s like a possession, a curse, it takes hold of you. Well, to those people, I say, just watch me.

Then I noticed, tucked between the dense and officious pages of the C&D letter: A smaller, more worn piece of paper, with frayed crease lines cutting across its midsection, as if someone had been folding and carrying this precious document around with them in their wallet, behind a selection of mismatched identity cards, for god knows how long.

It was a press release. Van Fidel was having an upcoming showing for a new public installation piece. I took this as some sort of invite.

***

It was a frigid late Autumn day. The show was just at the edge of the village, by Ste Catherine under the Jacque Cartier bridge, near the tent encampments barely housing the city’s superfluous peoples. 

When I got to the site, I panicked, thinking I was late, because what I saw was this: A crowd, maybe 50 or 60 people, gathered and clamoring in a chaotic circle, the center of which must have been Fidel’s installation. Though the crowd wasn’t huge, they were tightly packed and aggressively shoving one another, like a circular mosh pit. Except most people were holding out their phones, hoping to snap a photo or some video of the attraction in the middle of that human mess.

Whatever was in the middle of the crowd couldn’t have been too large. It clearly wasn’t taller than the average height of the amateur paparazzi. 

Not knowing how long this would last, I pushed ahead and started shouldering myself through the people. There seemed to be about four or five layers between the outer rim of the crowd and the center. 

As I advanced, I got a clearer picture of what was happening closer to the center. Guards, private security guards, standing opposite the crowd and constantly pushing back those who reached the inner layer. Like brownian motion, as viewed from above. Nobody remained in one position, everyone bouncing off each other, but with a general magnetic pull towards the middle, where whoever got too close got pushed back into the surrounding heave. 

As I reached halfway from the outer rim to the middle, I started to feel more pressure from behind. As if more and more people were joining us, the circle growing. I tried to look behind me but the pushing was too intense to move in any way against the crowd, even just to crane one’s neck and see what’s going on behind one’s back. So I resumed trying to make my way inward, which the general current of the crowding bodies helped along.

I noticed everyone around me, most seeming young, wearing all black, with tattoos and piercings and wild punk hair as if this all had been designed after some stereotype of 1970s NYC skidrow punk collection of images. 

And they were getting violent. Sun rays cut off a green glass bottle piece raised high.

Then I’m face to face with one of the guards. Now I can’t tell if it’s a private security firm. Maybe the police, riot police, the army, the national guard. One of them elbows a protester standing beside me right in the nose, hard, the cartilage crack, and here’s a squirt of blood in my eye. The shouting growing every second, excited fanfare to shrieks and screams of pain and terror. Truncheons and tear gas come out. Behind me the heat of flames erupts and smelling singed clothing, rubber, poison and maybe soon after, meat. 

At this point I lose all sense of where I was coming from and where I’m going. No longer a center nor periphery. The helicopters overhead shoot blinding spotlights at the crowd, then covering me in total whiteout, then the soft distant blow felt for an awful instant across the back of my head, then the black heavy hum.

***

I wasn’t at all scared when I got to prison. I thought I would have been. Except when I arrived everyone was giving me such friendly looks. Guards, prisoners. These we’re familiar looks. Nothing suggestive. Just like, if I were a factory worker, and I’d just returned to work after some mysterious absence, and everyone was happy to see me, but also incredibly curious, but not bordering on suspicious, and yet all too polite to mention anything.

I was in a holding cell. Alone, Then came the loud clang of the keys. The guard said, Let’s go, like a buddy. We started side by side down the main corridor, and he said, Back again Mr Kinch? I tried saying something, but a coughing fit came over the word. He laughed and slapped me on the back good-naturedly. 

The waiting room was like a giant tiled shower space. Benches lined the light blue tiled walls. White tiled floors. Two huge prison doors opposite each other. I came in from the right door and was waiting for the left door to open. No idea what this was a waiting room for. The right door opened: the wrong door. Another prisoner was shown in, carrying a book, that familiar cover of The Corrections. He saw me and beamed. Hey Poldy, miss this place too much? He came and sat right beside me. I noticed what looked like Neo-Nazi tattoos. Or maybe they were Antifa. Smelt musty like the homeless, with a hint of something chemical. Put his hand on my thigh.

The left door opened: the right door. It was my caseworker gesturing to me. A blonde respectable woman who looks like she might have had a wild past as a grunge rocker or riot grrrl or adult film star. I got up. From back on the bench, Hey Poldy, see you in the yard yeah? His bony fingers tapping loudly on the cover of the novel on his lap.

False personation. Criminal impersonation. Identity theft. Misdemeanors and crimes and afronts. Leopold Kinch is not a genius. Calling it an art performance won’t cut it this time. Immersive experience or whatever. Your failure was to make this all about yourself. You should have proceeded from the beginning to force this misinterpretation onto as many people as possible. Nobody can get away with this stuff unless they already have something, fame, money, great looks, an idea that everybody else can’t get out of their heads. And you, thinking that a story, as you set out to write one down, will magically turn into a real life adventure, geesh...

My girlfriend, dressed in early-90s peak Courtney Love, is driving us home.  

“Van Fidel called for you while you were out”

“Did he leave a message?”

“He said, to ask you what motivated you to get involved with all of this in the first place.”

“Did he leave a number, somewhere to reach him?”

“No, he started humming some tune, maybe Bach, and then I heard him put the phone down and walk away. A few seconds later someone picked up the phone and hung it up. I could still hear the humming in the distance.”

“Oh,” I said. We drove in silence. Then, “are you sure it was Van Fidel?”

That’s when we saw the roadblocks up ahead. The uniformed and heavily-armed guard. The obsidian Humvee motorcade. And beyond them, massed and marching, the Future, black-clad and rootless, a crowd poisoned on false realities, terrible and true. 

And all around us the lights, cameras and labor of an absurdly large and non-unionized film and TV production crew, gearing up for another day’s work.

— Michael Zunenshine is a Montreal-based project that produces writing and other mediated instances hijacking cultural lines of flight (some of which leak onto IG: RealityTVDinner).