Castañeda and the conquistadors

Short story 'Bully Buck' commissioned by the artist Steven Hull and illustrated by the artist Soo Kim as part of the amazing Ab Ovo project.I was just invited to write a new short story for a performance by the US artist Steven Hull at Glow Santa Monica — an ‘all-night cultural experience featuring original commissions by artists that re-imagine Santa Monica Beach as a playground for thoughtful and participatory artworks.’ Glow is this Saturday, 28 September. It only happens once every three years, and previous festivals have included commissions by a wide range of artists including Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot and Usman Haque.

I’ve worked with Steven Hull a few times before. The first time was when I contributed a story to his brilliant Ab Ovo (2006) for which twenty artists sat the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). The resulting reports were given to twenty writers to use as the basis for a character in a story for children or young people, and the resulting stories were given to another twenty visual artists to illustrate; a kind of collaborative relay. My own short story ‘Bully Buck’ was beautifully illustrated by artist Soo Kim. Ab Ovo existed as a book, a website (not currently operational) and a touring exhibition.


Ab Ovo was a brilliant project to be involved in, and Steven is a great collaborator, so when he emailed this summer, enclosing this sketch (left), to ask if I was interested in writing something for Glow, I didn’t need to think about it for too long, especially as the piece would also include a specially commissioned piece of music/sound by Gibby Haynes, of Butthole Surfers.

Steven’s email said that he was looking for a ‘surrealist’ short story about a stage filled with large sculptures of puppeteers holding marionettes. The puppeteers, he suggested, could be clowns or knights…

I had already been mulling over a short fiction that included a Californian beach scene, so Steven’s request was just the provocation that I needed — ‘How about conquistadors?’ I thought — although, in the event my story, which is presented as a piece of Carlos Castañeda apocrypha, is more psychedelic than surrealist. Also, a simple lesson learned during the testing of Missorts (my GPS-triggered soundwork for Bristol) was that when writing or editing a story that will be listened to in the location where it is set, one doesn’t need to include much description of setting, as this is already visible to the listener. The application of that lesson here would be that if a stage was already physically present, I wouldn’t need to mention it.

Here is the blurb for the new work, which is entitled A Puppet Show:

Steven Hull will create a rotating stage featuring a marionette show based on the short story ‘A Fragment from the Lives of the Conquistadors’ by Tony White. The stage, situated behind the historic arbor in Crescent Bay Park, will display Hull’s sculptures of conquistadors whose hands detach and become the animated marionettes. There will be several performances throughout the night featuring puppeteer Alex Evans, Eric de la Cruz and their marionettes, with musical accompaniment by Anna Huff and Petra and Tanya Haden. The sculptures will be accentuated with light works by Marilyn Lowey and a sound piece by Gibby Haynes.  An illustrated storybook and flags by Tami Demaree will be produced to commemorate the event.

A Puppet Show will be performed at 8:00pm, 9:00pm and 10:00pm, this Saturday evening, behind the arbor in Crescent Bay Park (number 1 on the map below). I will post some images as soon as I get them.


Here are the opening few lines of my story:

Carlos Castañeda once told this parable about the Conquistador Hernán Cortés. He didn’t write it down, so you won’t find it in any of his books or among his papers, but in any case I heard that Castañeda once spoke of a legend about Cortés, one that he in turn perhaps had heard from his own teacher, don Juan Matus. The legend tells that late in his life – but before his final fall from grace – Cortés and his closest allies, maybe his generals and one or two of their mistresses or companions, stopped on the beach in what is now Santa Monica and stayed here for a short time…

To find out more you’ll have to go to Glow Santa Monica this coming Saturday, or wait for the planned publication of story and audio. More news on that as and when.


Glow Santa Monica, Santa Monica Beach, 28 September 2013, 7pm to 3am. Plan your Glow here!

Also (until 12 Oct), Steven Hull at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Bergamot Station, B4, Santa Monica, CA 90404