GUEST INTERVIEW : TAVI GEVINSON WITH DAVID HILDEBRAND WILSON
The Museum of Jurassic Technology looks like a humble little storefront on a street in Culver City, California. Upon entering, however, you find yourself in a maze of oddities — a row of microscopes on mosaics made of butterfly-wing scales, a hall of flower X-rays, tiny sculptures displayed literally in the eyes of needles (the sculptor timed his carvings by his heartbeat). At first it feels like being transported to another world, until you see what a loving representation it is of the wonders of our own. You might suspect some of the displays are made-up, or that footnotes, names, and the plaques and pamphlets sitting in the gift shop are fictionalized, until you come to love the ways in which the museum inspires that very act of questioning. Lawrence Weschler wrote in his 1995 book about this place, “It’s that very shimmer, the capacity for such delicious confusion, Wilson sometimes seems to suggest, that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human.”
If you are among our devoted readership then you know that Tavi Gevinson of Rookie Magazine is a friend and collaborator. Here, she guest interviews David Hildebrand Wilson, the founder of the MoJT, in honor of her stint at Ace Portland during PDX Fashion Week and our upcoming annual Content installations November 9 on the second floor. Tavi will be in town on a book tour to promote Rookie’s second publication, Rookie Yearbook Two, with Reading Frenzy at the Q Center November 8. Read on, get misty-eyed, and remember to leave your house this week for both of these events.
How would you explain or describe the museum to someone who’s never heard of it?
I think typically what we say is that we’re a small museum of natural history, history of science, history of art, and then everything else that comes along. We’re inspired by older museums — 200, 300 years ago, a museum wasn’t a museum of a particular thing, it was a museum of everything. We don’t think all museums should be that, but we think there’s a place for that kind of museum, kind of an encyclopedic museum.
Would you say then that there’s anything in particular that unifies everything you have on display?
There are definitely underlying, unifying principles to what we do, but sometimes they’re kind of hard to discern, or hard to define. We have a motto, which you actually almost never see in the museum, but it’s “Un translatio nature,” which means “nature as metaphor.” That doesn’t really sum things up so much, but it actually is meaningful to us, because the kinds of things we like to put in the museum tend to be either natural phenomena or man-made — which, you know, there’s no real distinction between what’s man-made and what’s natural, because humankind is pretty natural as far as I can tell. We find ourselves gravitating toward material and phenomena that have meaning in and of themselves, and that also suggest other levels of meaning — kind of radiating spheres of meaning.
It’s interesting what you said about the line between man-made and the natural world being sort of blurry. To many people — and I always kind of thought this until I went to your museum — science and art are mutually exclusive. Some say it’s science’s job to tell humans that we’re not important and art’s job to declare that we are. How do you make them work together?
Essentially it goes back to a 17th-century or even earlier designation of artificialia and naturalia — what is artificial and what’s natural. It’s kind of an act of hubris or pride, I think, that things that are made by humankind are in some way out of the natural order. We’re certainly, absolutely, profoundly part of the great glittering chain of being. I mean, look at birds’ nests — are they artificilia or are they naturalia? A bird makes this gorgeous nest, and that’s considered a natural artifact — so why is that different for humans?
Tavi Gevinson is starting to become just Tavi — like Cher. She could be a Bob and would still be THE Bob. She’s just insanely special, and we were head over heels honored to collaborate again with Tavi and her team at Rookie for Fashion Week this year to celebrate Rookie’s one year anniversary and the launch of their new book, Rookie Yearbook One, at Ace Hotel New York. Bob took some time out of her creative hurricane to talk to us about what Rookie means to her, trying to relax and what the future holds.
You’re living an unconventional life for a teenager — absorbing and experiencing stuff way beyond the confines of what high school can offer. If you were to invent a Rookie school, what would the curriculum be like? How do you think elements of that could be imbued into normal, every day high schools to change the lives of teenage girls, boys and everyone else?
I’m not comfortable even theorizing about How to Change the Schools of America, but Freaks and Geeks and Daniel Clowes’ work each blessed me with a sense of appreciation for human misery, and that outlook certainly changed what I get out of my school experience. Also, one of my teachers once told a story about his dad taking him shopping at Wal-Mart when everyone else in his school wore Ralph Lauren polos. He was horrified by the prospect of someone from his school seeing him there and him feeling embarrassed, but realized that in order for one of his peers to see him at Wal-Mart, they, too, would have to be at Wal-Mart. High school is terrible but learning is good and people are interesting and we’re all in Wal-Mart together.
Rookie has had a couple of articles that mention transgender, gay, lesbian and queer folks, but not a huge amount of content. The magazine is “for teenage girls” — does this ever feel clunky or ill-fitting when you think about reaching a trans, queer or gender variant audience of young people?
We’re always looking to expand the definitions of what girls can do and be, and looking for readers to share their stories through Rookie as well, so while our first year has meant a lot of figuring out who our audience is and what they would like to see from us, it doesn’t feel clunky at all to welcome all kinds of people into Rookie. Supporting girls also means sometimes questioning what it means to be a girl (or a boy), and we’ll keep on doing that.
How do you make time to daydream, create, space out and do nothing/everything with such an insane schedule? A lot of people don’t have to learn that skill until they’re much older, and most of us still struggle to figure it out, present company included. Do you think “success” ever takes a toll on your creative life or your psyche?
For each day I have different time units, like Hugh Grant in About a Boy: school, Rookie, friends, relaxing, my own creative projects, etc. I usually have to sacrifice at least one of these units on a regular school day. I’ve learned that I prefer the stress of trying to do everything I want, to the stress of wondering if I should do everything I want. I’ve also learned that it’s better to just do things all the time than sit around and think about how much shit I have to do and what to do next.
I asked S.E. Hinton a similar question when I interviewed her for Lula, not about her schedule specifically, but about the downsides of success in general. She said simply that success didn’t feel like as big a burden as no success would feel. My life is very stressful, but a lot of it comes from expectations I have for myself. I don’t feel like I got talked into anything or signed up for something I didn’t know I couldn’t handle. The fact that I even get to do all this and people will look at it is an extreme privilege, so it’s stressful, but I’m not complaining. I don’t really feel like my “success” takes a toll on my creative life or my psyche because all the projects I do that technically make me successful are my creative life and psyche — they’re creative outlets and places for me to express myself.
Tell us about some of your hopes and dreams for Rookie in year two.
I always want us to be bigger and better and all of that stuff, but it’s too scary to delve into the details right now.
Photograph of Tavi by Emily Berl for The New York Times