Artist Fiona Alison Duncan Turns Reading into a Social Practice

Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi

Photography by D'Angello Lovell Williams


To be hard to read is to be impenetrable, not fully forthcoming. Fiona Alison Duncan is antithetical to this. In fact, she almost needs to be. How come? Well, Duncan is the progenitor of Hard to Read, a lit series that decidedly makes space for a host of personalities atypical of such bookish events—dancers, nutritionists, porn stars, actors, musicians, journalists, models. For the many gracing Hard to Read, it’s safe to say writer is not their chief calling card, in that each participant dons varying hats. Ultimately, this panoply of professions—some more public than others—demands a selfless vulnerability, a giving over of self that isn’t contrived to mislead. Instead, for Duncan, negotiating who shows up at Hard to Read is less about parading the best foot forward than it is about willingly performing—offering— multiple selves, faults and all, to say nothing of that trailing leg.

I would say Duncan sets the tone for all this candor. She launched Hard to Read in October 2016, on a psychedelic-informed whim to escape the silo that can be Los Angeles. But, for Duncan, to want (escape) is to give, and wanting out of this isolation required her to give a little. Hence, Hard to Read began, in a way, as an act of benevolence (and atonement if we consider Duncan’s loneliness as a grievance of sorts) for an LA operating at a maddening pace—a supermodernity overrun with events upon events that still feels empty.

Duncan turned to The Standard Hotels in LA as a container for said acts, with the majority of events alternating between the hotel’s Downtown and Hollywood locations. That hotels are often deemed non- places—transient spaces of solitude, identity-loss and role-playing— makes Duncan’s choice, on the surface, all the more vanguardist. Which, perhaps, begs the question: Can fleeting pleasures remedy lonesome subjectivities? But that’s hardly the rub here. Clocking at more than 40 events at the Standard and 12 at allied institutions (e.g., Eckhaus Latta’s retail shop), Hard to Read is far from short-lived, with the event making itself at home in varied places. Earlier this year, the program went rogue, with Duncan adding programming in galleries, community centers, malls, and gardens throughout 2019.

Now a staple fixture, Duncan’s endeavor has, without doubt, brought an (un)expected edge unto itself and the very non-place of The Standard Hotel. There’s the time, not even a year in, when the plangent sounds of all-femme punk four-piece Fuck U Pay Us tore into the rafters of the lobby to the chagrin of the management. The show went on, as did Duncan’s lit series. And while the hubris of manifestos is becoming increasingly passé and impotent, the “Xenomaskuline Manifesto” delivered by trans- masculine performance artist Cade felt less manifesto than memoir. There was no assured, chauvinistic tenor to it, something all-too- common in avant-garde manifestos of the last century. Instead, Cade details how he’s not a man, but performing a “historical attitude known as masculinity,” one chock full of the familiar failings of patriarchy.

This incantation from Cade circles back to Duncan, a multi- hyphenate who, in all sincerity, prefers to fall (back), which is to say lean on others as she experiments with ways to convene. “This series has taught me a lot about appreciating people who have some investment in actual relationship and collaboration,” Duncan reflects. But even in these moments of camaraderie, tensions arise. While Duncan admits she “can be very conflict averse” in our tête-à-tête over tea, the above happenings—i.e., Fuck U Pay Us, Cade—suggest an agonism at play. Later on, Duncan retreats just so, stating “you can’t have a narrative without conflict.” Precisely. Going off of Hard to Read, I would say, then, that Duncan is acutely aware that working out conflicts is a relation rich with occasional misgivings. That is, we can gather and still feel apart, sequestered in thoughts all our own.

Moments like this find Duncan acknowledging that she “can’t know everything,” an insight that welcomes other forms of exchange, experimentation. Take Ready-to-read: a “diffusion line” of books that Duncan thematically pairs with the high fashion-seasonal calendar and presents out of Eckhaus Latta’s retail store. Or Pillow Talk: the sister series to Hard to Read that delves more deeply into sex, love and communication. Originally held at the Penthouse Suite of The Standard, Downtown LA, Pillow Talk is more interactive, employing far greater crosstalk relative to Hard to Read’s somewhat strict reader-audience divide. Duncan considers Hard to Read as “simply demonstrative… scratching the surface,” while Pillow Talk allows for “unpacking” ideas. As evidence, we can think of Hard to Read as asyndetonic, with Pillow Talk emerging as this conjunctive glue, that in-between where sense is fleshed out. This year, Pillow Talk is also going rogue; yet still taking place in intimate spaces, like hotel rooms, and even domestic venues.

Duncan has “aspirations of Hard to Read being a publication.” Can it sustain that verve though? My guess is Duncan isn’t too worried about such things; periodicals she’s drawn to are ones that flourish long after they’re over, like a cult following. That Duncan has hit those heights now bodes well for Hard to Read, Ready-to-read, Pillow Talk, and the many other iterations that spawn from this selfless talent.