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Campsick: Julian Bleecker Reports from Alec Soth’s Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers

By Julian Bleecker

An artist, photographer, researcher at Nokia’s Advanced Design Studio, and cofounder of the Near Future Laboratory, Julian Bleecker found himself in Minneapolis in an entirely different role this month: that of camper. He shares his experiences at the Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers, hosted by photographer Alec Soth and his team at Little Brown Mushroom in and around Minneapolis July 9–13, 2013.


To give a measure of what a Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers is, let me describe some of its awkward moments.

  1. Unspecified expectations, except whatever happens, it will be shared at a public slideshow on the last day.

  2. No packing list. Usually, when I went to summer camp as a young tot, there were checklists of bug spray, 12 changes of underwear, swim trunks, swim goggles, toiletries, sleeping bag, wash cloth, pajamas, sun hat, etc.

  3. No agenda, except to show up on July 9 at the offices of Little Brown Mushroom around 9:30 or 10.

  4. Suburban excursion in a stout RV. That just sorta happened. Spontaneously.

  5. Itchy, scratchy mosquito bites in spite of semi-legal, high-test, under-the-counter mosquito repellent.

  6. Late-night slideshows. (Think of it as a modern variant of the campfire story telling hour.)

  7. A surprise birthday cake.

  8. A dance.

  9. Campsick. It’s like homesick, but for camp. Specifically, an aching in the belly, like you’ve finished a great summer at camp and must immediately make plans to stay in touch and meet again. As soon as possible. Like something happened you didn’t want to stop, but you had to because it was too expensive to change flights and stay another day or two.

That was the Little Brown Mushroom Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers, a project that brought together 15 eager campers from all over the map. Camp, as Soth described it to me, “evokes campfires and canoes, but the definition is actually quite flexible. ‘Camp’ simply means a summertime gathering that lacks the formal and institutionalized aura of school.” For Soth, the hope was “to just create a context in which people can make art happen.”

But that context, as camp’s name suggests, is decidedly awkward. That’s fitting for a group like Little Brown Mushroom. There is not the pretension that one might expect from a studio attached to an artist’s name. It would’ve been clear to anyone who knew of LBM—either through its blog, their books, or Soth’s work—that camp would not be supplicating students learning from the great master. First of all, Soth is self-admittedly awkward in front of people, so he would not be holding forth in the style of the self-indulgent artist. We’d be working among each other, campers and counselors on equal footing. It was activity-time camp, nearly 14 hours every day. We’d be defining the activities. Exuberant, exhausting, difficult, strange, get-your-game-face-on kinds of activities.

Day One

Speed dating. Two minutes a couple. “Hello. Here I am. This is what I do. Tell me about what you do.” Ding. Next. Have lunch. Pair up for a story-finding excursion based on who has transportation. Find a story somewhere out there in the Twin Cities. Be back in time to do a slideshow of your story at 7 pm.

K?

K.

Day One Slideshow: Watch, laugh, share, clap, talk, discuss, eat pizza, have surprise birthday cake, drink working-folk lager until 11. You begin to get a sense of the individual styles of story telling. Some are familiar—successions of images that convey a neighborhood in a photo-documentary way. Or images that are like squinting at someone’s dream that make your heart do funny things.

Great day!

See you tomorrow.

Day Two

It’s group project day. Only we don’t have a group project. We spend a bit of time spinning wheels trying to find a good story to start us on our way There’s talk of specific subject matter to start the group off. Working with Talking Heads song lyrics. Twisting the state motto into “a thing” that can be a creative start: “Are there 10,000 things we can go after?” Pick a word from the dictionary? “Infiltrate Target. Infiltrate the skyways.” None of it seems right. It feels contrived. Nothing makes eyes widen. No one’s doing a happy dance. No one’s saddling up.

Then it comes: a forest. A contested forest. Make something in the woods—something’s bound to happen. Plus, we can take Soth’s RV.

Done.

Start with a place rather than a riddle. It’s so brilliant for its obviousness for a Summer Camp. Some of us struggle with the adventure. Finding a story in the forest? Where? Fellow camper Jim Reed becomes our muse. He explains that he’ll station himself in various hideaways in the forest, challenging us to find him. Brad Zeller has donned a ghillie suit that Delaney Allen happens to have in his truck. Delaney drove from Portland. He drove from Portland with a ghillie suit in his truck. There’s a moment where I realize Brad and I are going to vie to wear the ghillie suit, but I concede quietly. I’d rather find a story than be the subject of one. At least today. The ghillie suit becomes the muse for a bit, and some of us wonder if Jim, in the woods with a cache of beers, will be okay.

A couple of teenagers appear out of the woods and it feels like we’re in an episode of Lost and another friendly faction has shown up. The teens become our muse for awhile, getting their portraits done in front of the 7x10-foot limb-and-leaf backdrop we’ve built in the woods.

I wonder again about Jim. Brad tells me he’s tooting a whistle, so we should be able to find him. Our ersatz encampment disperses as people slink off to find stories. After an hour or so, a few of us go off and find Jim overlooking an expansive, groomed field. He’s impassive. Sitting cross-legged with a beer bottle at hand, sunglasses, either looking at the field or meditating, eyes-closed. It’s hard to tell.

I have no idea what’s going on, or what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.

And now, back at our encampment there are four of us quietly sitting, thinking, drawing, talking. Out of nowhere, Jim’s lying on the ground in front of the limb-and-leaf backdrop. He’s perfectly still. Is it overdone performance, or is he my muse for the day? I decide, game-face on, he’ll be my muse. Most people have left to find stories in the neighborhood surrounding the park. Some have driven to other parts of town.

The hard part is finding a story in that. You have to, though. Day Two slideshow is at 7 pm. That’s just a couple hours from now.

This is the day that I realize I need to be inspired by the constraints that exist at camp. There are constraints of time, obviously. Cooking out a slideshow from a day of conversations, excursions, light reading, trundling in RVs, following fellow campers in the woods. All this means I have to hold my ideas lightly, not make things too precious, keeping my nose up for any whiff of a story to find and tell.

Today, I’ve become sensitized to what Soth refers to as “humble epics.” Big, powerful things, perhaps in modest, carefully constructed, simple, compact, $18 or cheaper packages.

That’s a kind of storytelling that feels quite modern in a sense. The overwrought image and text story is not what will come out of camp. There are no Taschen-sized epics to be done here, at least for me. I find that liberating. As I quickly refine and hone and edit my forest slideshow, I consider LBM’s obsession with audaciously democratizing the pricing of their publications at $18. I think about Target, the Twin Cities mega-mega that I can imagine goes to nutso ends to whittle pricing by fractions of pennies to make them the no-brainer store. Soth mentions an LBM book that they couldn’t get cheaper than $24, and you can physically see the disappointment at the price-point in his shoulders. Soth would make a great Target buyer. You know, in case this whole photography thing doesn’t work out.

The inexpensive, accessible, humble, epic, image+text LBM books come with an inherent simplicity in production, packaging, and design that is an aesthetic in its own right. Accessible, humble epics are a thing of note, especially within the world that Soth could circulate. He’s a Minnesotan first, Magnum photographer second. Beautiful, seductive, tangible $18 stories-in-books are not a gimmick. Free camp isn’t a gimmick. I can see the earnestness in his explanation of the non-tuition camp. He wants it open. He doesn’t want to turn away someone who could not afford to attend because of a fee. He doesn’t want LBM to be big business.

And only now do I realize that we’re learning how to tell stories. I’ve never mentioned it and stifled the thought in my own head, but we’ve not had formal discussions about photography. At the end of Day Two, during the slideshow, I resolve the suspicion I’ve had since shortly before I arrived: this is not a photography camp, despite being in a photography studio. That thought relaxes me. No one’s geeking out on gear. There is scant feedback on technical elements of image-making or storytelling. We’re free to find stories. Of course, that’s liberating and debilitating at the same time. We’re not told what to do. We’re only told that “whatever you do, whatever story you want to tell at the public slideshow on Saturday, it mustn’t take more than five minutes to tell.”

Day Three

Bookmaking Day, although we don’t make books. We talk about books and their making and unmaking. Some campers wonder why we’re doing a slideshow rather than a book as a final deliverable. A book is easier to keep and share and show again and again. We have a nice, long discussion in the morning facilitated by Alec and designer and art director Hans Seeger. We talk about the materiality and tangibility of books. Their preciousness. The contrast in books designed too earnestly, and books devoid of design that are merely containers for famous photographs by famous photographers. We talked about the great glissade of books after 1986 when computers performed their radical democratization of visual design and publishing. And I wondered how short-form composition and networked dissemination frameworks like Twitter, Instagram, and Vine would do similar things. I wonder aloud to camp if the modern image+text story as we know it now—the things in Soth’s studio library—are for doddering “old” folks like us? I want to talk about the modern, modern image+text story? Is Adam Goldberg’s Vine feed tomorrow’s Willliam Eggleston, or perhaps Cindy Sherman? The comparison may sound idiotic. I once thought that instantly sharing one’s thoughts in 140 characters was idiotic and self-indulgent. I once thought #selfies were idiotic. Then the Arab Spring happened, facilitated in part by 140 characters and what protesters could share in a single image.

The bookmaking-day discussions turn into a list of books to get and a note to consider getting another bookshelf at home. That’s fine. Having a library of books—the material sort—is validated by LBM’s amazing collection. It’s the morning-quiet-time gathering place we all meander through as our coffee takes hold. There’s a quiet reverence to the library in the mornings as campers peruse the stacks, heads cocked to the side to read titles. I find my first photo book in the B’s [Hello, Skater Girl, 2012] and feel suddenly embarrassed at its earnest naivete. I wish I had been to camp and learned what I am learning at camp before I made that.

LBM is a publisher of stories, so one might think camp would do a book as a final outcome. But that brings along complexity and time and money, and you begin to obsess over the operational details of producing such a thing. The slideshow. It has a tradition. It’s familial. It’s familiar. It’s something that can be condensed into a short amount of time. It has history.

There’s a bit of anxiety on Day Three. Today, we pitch our personal projects—the projects we will work on for bits and pieces of Day Four and Day Five for Evening Five’s public slideshow at The Soap Factory. Hans and Alec and Brad encourage us to pitch like we’re in the movie The Player. Short, sharp explications. You know the syntax: “Empire Strikes Back meets The Shining, but with heart. Brad Pitt’s signed on.”

Etc.

Tara [Wray]’s pitch drops my jaw. Her husband’s just called. He had a nightmare. He’d robbed a bank and was never going to see his family again. I think of Gosling’s character in The Place Beyond the Pines. Wanting security for one’s family and being left with nothing but to become a desperado. Tara’s got her project about financial insecurity. She’s going to find would-be bank robbers and learn the trade. Become a bank teller and do the “new journalism” thing. Maybe. We’ll see. Plenty to go on there. Not much time.

Some of the other pitches go a bit loopy. There’s some anxiety. Diana [Rangel] is going to walk down East Lake Street and talk to people. I think: shrug. There’s not a whole lot of locked-in clarity. Some sound rambling. The LBM camp counselors’ reactions vary. There’s lots of encouragement to find a story, one that people will want to hear in five minutes or less. I feel a bit anxious about Saturday. No one is back-slapping. It doesn’t feel like this is a sure-thing. “Trust the creative potential in people” is what I am thinking. “Trust yourself—you’ll find a story.”

I pitch stories about stalking, both sides, and perhaps finishing the story from Day One. Three little stories. I like the challenge of doing a kind of triptych. I don’t like that I have only a little bit of time to produce.

Day Three ends just after 9 pm.

Day Four

The day starts with the now-regular library browsing and quick rounds of ping-pong. Campers and counselors are waiting for their morning iced coffees and rockstar drinks to take hold. This morning we have some visiting artists who are here to share their work and open up conversations about storytelling with images and text.

I feel anxious for lunchtime, which means time to work on our personal projects. The plan is to take Soth’s RV to Taco Bell, another whimsical wacky excursion consistent with the nature of camp. Me and my car-share crew opt to splinter off from the main group, the logic being that we can find an even faster lunch than traditional fast food and then be on our way to doing our projects.

I have some deep anxiety about how I’m going to tell my stories. Already I’ve whittled things down to two True Stories—one about being stalked, the other about stalking, but I’ll need to find some material around town. At the same time, I’m driving Wenxin around helping her find her story. I have to consciously tell myself that it will all be fine, no matter what. The day goes very long. Wenxin [Zhang] needs photography of a waterfall late at night. By the time I get back to the apartment I can’t work any more. It feels precisely like a near-to-last night at camp when you feel confident enough in the routines of things that you can sneak out of your cabin and stay up way past curfew even though you know you’ll be wrecked the following day.

Day Four is slideshow day. I’m wrecked. I wake up way later than I wanted. I’ve gotten as far as having a rough idea of what I’ll do. I’ve got way too much material to go—most of it longish video interviews that I should go through. No time, though. My slideshow will be a mix of image, motion, and text. I’m being ambitious: keep each story under 30 seconds; “micro-fiction” and “flash fiction” are the keywords I think about. A radical form of storytelling. I’m using camp to work through a better understanding of the prevailing short-form, sub-minute storytelling tools Vine and Instagram. I see these as the modernization of the novella. I know, I know. I can make the arguments in my head as to why this is idiotic. I’m going to be an idiot for now and see what happens.

Soth, in his 52 Popsicles project on his LBM blog indirectly assigned the novella Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. It is shutteringly evocative, telling the entire life’s story of its protagonist in just over 100 pages. The book stuck with me and wouldn’t shake loose. I still stop in my tracks with wonderment at Johnson’s success at creating something so compact with so much evocative effect.

I think about “bookmaking” day’s discussion of Darin Mickey’s Stuff I Gotta Remember Not To Forget and his image story about his father’s odd, Cohen-esque life as a salesman of storage space in underground vaults. In 27 images, Mickey tells a remarkable, humorous, heartfelt story about his father. And I think of Soth’s image of a strikingly pale Indonesian girl he stumbles upon, photographs for The Auckland Project, loses the photograph and then spends the rest of his time struggling to find a story, struggling to find an image that moves him. He finds “missing cat” posters, bird road kill, and pale models. Just hours before he leaves Auckland, he stumbles upon Diandra, the pale Indonesian girl, sitting delicately on a low wall, watching the tiniest bird.

These count as powerful stories in my mind and from what I’ve been learning at camp. I’m thinking about “humble epics,” creative constraints. And how to get done in the next four hours.

Back at the studio, it’s quiet crunch time. Most are done. I am so not done. My headphones become a visual cue that I’m in Do-Not-Disturb mode. Soth is patiently waiting to get everyone’s work. I soon realize that, now, he’s patiently waiting to get only my work, but we have to go to The Soap Factory, so it’s one of those “laptop open” drives.

It’ll all be fine.

All the campers are there in their Sunday-go-to-meeting finest. No more shorts and t-shirts. The Soap Factory is humming: chairs are being set up, there’s the clank and clink of booze and beer bottles, the slideshow projector beam is being adjusted.

Brad’s become DJ. He’s doing that headphone-shoulder-shrug as he cues up some vinyl.

The slideshow I put together stands on its own. I won’t have to talk to it except to introduce myself so I feel that, effectively, I’m done. All that’s left is to knock back a bit of liquid courage and do a dress rehearsal.

The rehearsal is wobbily. Tara’s nervous and flubs through her presentation. It takes 20 minutes—four times the maximum presentation time—to sort out technical stuff, the rhythm of her slideshow and precisely what she’s going to say. The timing is way off on mine. I’ll need to quickly re-edit before things start in 30 minutes. I feel like it’s one of those moments when you realize you’re going to slam at speed into the car in front of you. You know it’s going to happen no matter what you do, and all you can say to yourself is, “Are you kidding me? This is how it’s going down?”

Finally, too soon… it’s time.

It’s a remarkable thing.

Tara positively nails her slideshow. She’s got the audience agape, laughing, applauding. She fucking nails it, and we’re all looking around at each other, smiling, shaking our heads at each other, eyes wide, as if to say, “Can you believe this?” She hits it out of the park, and now all we have to do is high-five her as she beams her beamy smile and trots back to home base. She’s set us all up, properly.

For tonight, we’re the most confident Socially Awkward Storytellers in all Minnesota.

Until the dance. But by then, it doesn’t matter. We just dance.

“Is Adam Goldberg’s Vine feed tomorrow’s Willliam Eggleston, or perhaps Cindy Sherman? The comparison may sound idiotic.”

Alec Soth at the Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Carrie Thompson of the LBM staff

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Lunch at LBM headquarters

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Alec Soth’s RV

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Brad Zellar in a ghillie suit, with Alec Soth

Photo: Julian Bleecker

“Teenagers appear out of the woods and it feels like we’re in an episode of Lost…”

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Aboard the RV

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Set loose in the contested forest

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Camper Jeff Barnett-Winsby

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Misha Soth gets a lift

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Morning library ritual at Alec Soth’s St. Paul studio

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Prep for Slideshow Day

Photo: Julian Bleecker

End-of-camp selfie

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Diana Rangel and Wenxin Zhang at The Soap Factory

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Alec Soth, Diandra, from The Auckland Project, 2009

Slideshow Day at The Soap Factory

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Slideshow Day at The Soap Factory

Photo: Julian Bleecker

Finale: A Socially Awkward Camp Dance

Photo: Julian Bleecker