Claire Buss + Hannah Kingsley-Ma
I met Claire my sophomore year of college. She lived in the same ramshackle farmhouse on a haunted prairie at the edge of campus the year before I did, and as a result the two of us became friends. She was always starting stuff—joining bands, running the college radio station, creating a zine that involved most of our friends. The zine was called “The Miracle Suit,” and it was so much fun to make. Late at night we would take over two basement printers in the library and print a tower of copies that we would pass out the next day in the cafeteria. She had this way of getting everyone involved that seemed effortless. It was a collaborative effort but it also carried her clear sense of ambition and taste—her droll sense of humor, her emotional precision, her keen appetite for straight-faced absurdity.
Long after we graduated the two of us continued to write emails to one another. Claire writes great emails. They are shapely, and funny, and I like that we are both performing a little for one another—writing in a way that we know the other will like. Since graduating college, Claire’s been working as a filmmaker in Seattle. She’s also the creator and host of a participatory, live game show called The Future is Zero. It started as a project Claire and her best friend Kat hatched in their living room. Since then it has expanded to the Northwest Film Forum, and is wholly elaborate. I had the chance to see it a couple of months back and was blown away by it. It was so joyful and deranged and assuredly made. When Claire’s on stage she’s not Claire Buss. She’s CLAY BUFF. Clay Buff wears the same gold sequined minidress and shouts things like JUICE HER UP. Contestants have to do things like guess YouTube trends to draw “teen blood” from an idling teenager, hooked up to a fake IV (whoever gets the most blood wins), or search through a pile of Amazon boxes to search for the elusive “golden employer paid health insurance card.” I struck up our email correspondence again to ask her about how she makes the show. —Hannah
Claire: This is a great excuse to get back into our email habit. I was curious and looked through some old correspondences with you and saw an email exchange between us from 2011 and I start the email with “dear kingslut.” 2011 was a…different time.
The Future is Zero is a surreal, satirical game show in Seattle that features artists from different disciplines competing against each other in a series of challenges in front of a live studio audience. It’s been called “Double Dare for depressed people.” It’s a mix of physical games and bizarre trivia about feeling like the world is ending, set in a kind of PeeWee’s Playhouse dreamworld. We built a 10 foot tall, 170 pound television for our most recent show and it played animations over the contestants’ heads. We were all really worried that it would accidentally fall and crush someone and damn, what a crazy way that would be to die.
I started the project four years ago in my living room here in Seattle as a kind of DIY art experiment, and we’d invite local bands to come on, and we lined the halls of the house with this red felt to make it feel like a set. It was a serious fire hazard and the most fun. I made the show after watching a ton of old game shows during a really wet winter. I love the retro-futuristic set design on some of those older shows and some of the game formats and ideas are so bonkers and feel really innovative to me.
Hannah: My experience of going to your show was that I felt really taken care of. That’s kind of my favorite experience of art, where you are immersed in something weird and dynamic but also are quickly assured that this thing is going to be really good, and well-made, and meant to be experienced by people. There seems to be a really masterful combination of breathless ambition and thoughtfulness in the work that you make—thoughtfulness in terms of taste, and humor, and how the whole thing is going to function as a whole. And it’s kind of crazy because there are all these moving parts in the game show! Do you have a set of aesthetic principles you try and follow when dreaming this crazy thing up? What are the instincts you’ve developed that help guide you, in terms of making things that you know are good but also are reasonable for the for the kind of production work you do?
Claire: I’m glad you felt taken care of at the show you attended. Making sure the audience is having a good time is the most important thing to me. Like, a stranger decided to leave their house and buy a ticket to see your thing, when they could have been at home watching television, or eating yogurt, or whatever it is people with free time do. You can’t take it for granted that people want to see your art, so you owe it to them to be ambitious and put your whole self into it and make it good.
Kat and I have gradually built the sensibility of the show and refined it over the past several years, so at this point I feel like we know what we like and what we think is funny. An important thing to me is intention even when we’re doing a bit that is aggressively stupid. I don’t like things that are weird just for weird sake, or like some Burning Man shit. I want everything we do to have a reason for being there. Some of the more outlandish things we’ve done include: trapping our contestants in a micro-studio built live on stage, an elaborate flashback narrative that involved a 1950s set sitting on top of our regular set, a high school drumline surprising the audience with a very long digression, a too-long ode to Las Vegas, and unleashing a wet dog to run through the audience.
Hannah: I feel like the definitive quality of a gameshow is audience participation. How did you know you wanted to make participatory art? And is there something you get from involving the audience that you think is lost on the rest of us, who present whatever we are making to a faceless crowd and then walk away from it?
Claire: I feel like I came to the audience participation element because I was playing in a bunch of bands at the time and my life kind of revolved around going to and playing shows. I was dating the lead singer in my band and he used to kind of lose his shit on stage in this really electric, unhinged way, and I always envied that. Women aren’t encouraged to do that! Hosting the show was my way of being able to lose my shit on stage in a really cathartic way, but also in a way that invites people in and allows them to empathize with these feelings of despair that we focus on in the show. You don’t have to be some genius artist to feel like you’re going insane. Being alive right now is the act of feeling fucking insane everyday.
Hannah: It’s really interesting to me that you talk about the show as a way of mirroring a kind of collective insanity, because the show itself is so produced—like wonderfully, and expertly so, which is to say it feels really in control. I wonder if this balance is the sweet spot, it’s the role of silliness. You’re twisting the edges of reality but winking and saying: We know what we’re doing! We’re doing it on purpose! Because I am not sure I would like it if I was watching something and someone just went totally unhinged without that wink. I think that would make me uncomfortable. But also I am not that fun, have no interest in traveling to outer space, and today while getting my flu shot asked the nurse practitioner to look at my ear because it “felt red” so maybe that’s just a ME thing.
Claire: That production value is all Kat, to be honest. I feel like I bring a lot of the ideas and energy to this thing, but Kat and the rest of the production team actually bring it to life and make it look good and professional. After working with teams of people in general while making films, you learn to keep each other accountable for high production value and really going for it. It’s hard for me to imagine making something totally by myself anymore. When you’re alone, you have no one to tell you when a joke is stale, or that you can try harder at something, or to give you the encouragement to keep going. I’ve written scripts about things that are very personal to me, but by abstracting it and involving a team, it allows some necessary distance and morphs into this collective work.
Do you feel like the performative aspect of the literary world gives you a similar sense of catharsis? That to me is what makes me feel sane these days. An expression of what’s going on inside seeping to the outside.
Hannah: I feel like recently with my writing, the kind of performance I’m trying to enact is a plain vulnerability. I love autofiction, whatever that word means. And I love funny writing that intertwines humor with sadness and where all the lines have the resonance of a joke. And so I’ve just been trying to write these embarrassing stories that pull from some kind of observed incidence in my life and leave in the bits that make me cringe. And maybe that’s the other side of the coin to getting on stage and saying FUCK IT!! and losing your shit. I feel like there is this gendered aspect to it. Like I should be convincing the men I want to impress that I exclusively think about Knausgaard. But I don’t feel like I should be out here proving it to you that I’m smart for you to assume that I’m not vapid. I used to worry that writing about certain things would undermine my authority, do nothing to Advance the Cause of Women in the Eyes of Literary Men. But the thing I’m really interested in writing about is the differing textures of intimacy, between sisters and romantic partners and close friends. And I don’t really care if it alienates male readers who find it trivial. I’m getting my MFA right now and I feel like all the men are like: I gotta right something that feels HONEST and aims to capture the TRUTH and I’m just not about that. My sense of scale is different, and I’m pushing up against that right now in school.
It’s still a persona I enact though. It’s not really me, it’s a version of me. And you have a version of you in this show, this crazy alter-ego CLAY BUFF.
Claire: I guess the Clay Buff version of me is a little more showy and egomaniacal. The alter ego thing just started a way for me to distance myself from the reality of actually being on stage doing these ridiculous things. Now that I’m less embarrassed by it all, the persona is a useful way to think about performance of identity. We’re all doing it all the time anyway, so an alter ego doesn’t seem that outlandish anymore.