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The World Is Bound With Secret Knots

An interview with David Hildebrand Wilson.

Problem solved. I’m sorry about that.

[Laughs] Do you live in Chicago?

I live in a suburb just outside, Oak Park.

So what do you? Is this your full-time occupation, doing Rookie?

I mean, I’m 16 and I go to high school, but yeah, I mostly work on Rookie.

Is there an economic reality to it?

[Laughs] Unfortunately, yes!

There are so many different economies in the world. What we think of as money is just one of many. There are all these different kinds of rewards.

What have you found to be most rewarding about your work?

It’s just, like, inexplicably rewarding on all fronts. I think ultimately the payment comes from watching people experience the museum. It’s wonderful to go in and kind of discreetly be in the space with people as they experience the museum. That’s the primary reward.

Have there been any particularly memorable reactions?

An infinite number. I mean, yesterday I was up in the space-dog room [a room full of painted portraits of all the dogs who have ever been to outer space] and we just, as of this weekend, started to run in our theater a film that we made over the last couple of weeks. A few of us at the museum went to Central Asia, to Turkmenistan, to Pakistan, and very wonderful places quite far away, and shot a film, which we cut together far more quickly than normal. I was out lighting the lamp under Laika, and a middle-aged woman came out [of the theater] and said, “Sir, I just wanted to say that that film spoke to me in a way that I absolutely needed to hear right now.” And you could tell it had an important effect, it communicated in some way something—and you could see this in her eyes—something that she really needed to hear. There was something in there that had true meaning for her, and I think that kind of thing is just exactly what you do all the work for.

How often do people recognize you, as you’re trying to discreetly roam around? Did that change after the book?

The book didn’t have that much of an effect. We actually didn’t love the book. We love the writer, Ren Weschler—he’s a wonderful human being and he’s gotten to be a really good friend, and whenever he’s in Los Angeles he stays in the adjoined trailer. He first wrote about the museum for a magazine article, in Harper’s, and we thought, This’ll be gone in a month. This too shall pass. And then a month or two later he phoned me and said, “Wonderful news—we’ve got a book deal!” And my thought was, What do you mean, “we”? [Laughs] There were certain things about his approach to our work that we felt were limiting, rather than expanding. But that was a long time ago, a decade ago or more. And it’s been fine—it’s just one in a great many events that have happened in our history. And not so many people actually read the book. We see about 25,000 people a year here, and I think five percent or three percent of them have ever heard of the book. So it didn’t really change things so much.

I was also curious about the display of Ricky Jay’s decaying dice. Of all the things you could get from a magician to show in a museum, why did you choose decaying dice?

I think that’s a good example, in a way, of the kind of material that appeals to us. We had always wanted to have a gem and mineral hall, like, you know, they have at the Field Museum that glorious gem and mineral hall—or the Museum of Natural History in New York. But we would probably never be able to collect enough in the way of gems and minerals to be truly significant. But then somehow this little hall [where all the dice are displayed], with the way that it’s lit, looks just like a gem and mineral hall. We love that. So that’s one level on which the dice are appealing to us. Another level is that there’s a metaphorical overtone. Dice imply luck, so that exhibit is sometimes called “Rotten Luck,” because, you know, decaying dice—there’s kind of a play on words there. Many of those dice are loaded dice that con artists use to gain wealth unfairly, and there’s something about that that appealed to us, too. And then there’s the poetry of the decaying aspect of the dice, and decaying luck—because all things pass, and knowing that and holding that in mind, which is hard for people of the age that you’re mostly talking to, ’cause when you’re at that age everything seems to be in front of you, and possibilities seem limitless. But I think it’s also really important for people, even at that age, to understand that none of this is forever—which is maybe part of what happened to me when I was that age.

In a strange way I think that’s a very comforting thought. Probably because just daily interactions give me so much embarrassment.

Yeah, and anxiety. To have that longer view, where you understand that all of this is impermanent, can be comforting. Liberating, actually. Anecdotes are great, so I’ll tell you an anecdote. Just last night I was listening to the music of a person named Gurdjieff—do you know who he is?


Gurdjieff was a philosopher at the turn of the century through the mid-20th century. Well, he was primarily a philosopher, but I recently learned that he also wrote music. Someone gave us a recording of some beautiful harmonium music that he wrote, and we’ve been listening to that. And that got me to go back and read about him—I had read about him before, but I wanted to refresh my memory. And—I wish I could find this quote and read it to you—he was saying essentially the same thing, that one of the most important things that he could offer was…wait, I found it. This is what he wants people to know: “Every one of those unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as of the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests.” So he’s saying the same thing, which is the same as saying “memento mori”—you know, “remember death.” There’s really a lot to that. To hold death close to you at all times is the thing that can give meaning to life. How did we get started talking about this? [Laughs]

I don’t know, but it’s great. Oh, we were talking about the dice.

Exactly. And things going away.


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  • jenaimarley November 22nd, 2012 3:19 PM


  • noqa November 22nd, 2012 3:37 PM

    This i beautiful.

  • cascadia November 22nd, 2012 3:57 PM

    this is exactly what i need right now, thank you

  • Ben November 22nd, 2012 4:17 PM

    yeah it’s weird how people separate nature from artificial because man-made things are created with matter from nature we are not creating things from nothing and we are animals and animals are nature so it being made by us doesn’t really make it un-natural. this is a really beautiful piece thank you.

  • karastarr32 November 22nd, 2012 4:47 PM

    New hero.

  • cassiethetiger November 22nd, 2012 5:00 PM

    Oh, this was so interesting and intriguing, I’d never heard of him before.

    (And he sounds so lovely and so helpful and urrrrrgh as a wannabe journo he sounds like the perfect interviewee!)

    And I fall a little more in love with Tavi every time I read something she’s written.

  • kcreads November 22nd, 2012 5:28 PM

    “Everything in life comes down to, essentially, self and not self.” This piece was stunningly beautiful and truthful. Thanks, Tavi.

  • shelley November 22nd, 2012 5:53 PM

    This is so perfect.

  • litchick November 22nd, 2012 7:08 PM

    This interview is great- I found it intriguing as well as inspiring.

  • Anna F. November 22nd, 2012 7:23 PM

    “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.” is a really lovely line and I haven’t even gotten to the interview yet.

  • vanessaishere November 22nd, 2012 9:18 PM

    this is such a wonderful interview… you have great questions, and Wilson’s answers are so inspiring and truthful. i’d really like to visit the museum.

  • Terra November 22nd, 2012 9:26 PM

    “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?”

    This is perfect?

  • Ladymia69 November 22nd, 2012 9:27 PM

    Tavi, I found it very comforting to find out that you, as such an incredibly vital and prismatic person, has difficulty with encroaching pessimism and negativity. I think you deal with it beautifully. As a creative and sensitive girl who, at 33, is still trying to figure out how to live with this, it helps to see other women thriving despite it. Cheers.

    And thanks for a wonderfully thought-provoking interview. Keep up the outstanding work. I eat it up every day.

    • Tavi November 23rd, 2012 11:39 AM

      Yeah, it’s strange how little those feelings have to do with your actual circumstances, with reality, etc. Thanks for this comment!

  • tellyawhat November 22nd, 2012 9:35 PM

    I love the MJT. The perfect mix of wonder, joy and humor. What a sweet interview!

    Tavi– you should read The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector.

  • caro nation November 22nd, 2012 11:15 PM

    Tavi, this is going to sound sort of….. condescending? which doesn’t make sense since I’m younger than you are, but you’ve become such a beautiful writer. You do a lot of stuff really well, but when I read something you’ve written, its like I can see and hear you saying it, like all the components of your public persona/oeuvre work in perfect harmony so the reader feels completely locked inside your mindset while reading. It’s kinda awesome. Like, watching you interview these brilliant, idiosyncratic people, you seem totally at home. You and your interviewees all have a vision that doesn’t come across in a succinct description but is so enthralling when it’s read/watched/heard/experienced. On your blog, the way you can catalog things; I use the phrase “aesthetically cataloging” to describe what I do to people now, it’s so perfect.


  • baratully November 23rd, 2012 2:20 AM

    “[Do you ever feel like ... there is a shortage of things worth marveling at?] Completely the opposite. I have never even had that thought. That thought has never formulated in my mind.”
    new hero! i think it’s ridiculous when people AREN’T in awe of the universe. there’s just so much to be fascinated by and to learn about. our world is wondrous.

  • zhajean November 23rd, 2012 3:15 AM

    this is very insightful.

    oh I love Rookie :)


  • Julia November 23rd, 2012 4:06 AM

    This guy is my new hero! It was so, so weird how much this spoke me. ♥

  • emine November 23rd, 2012 3:19 PM


  • enthusiastictruckdriver November 23rd, 2012 4:02 PM

    Tavi, reading about your experiences as a teenager is probably the most comforting thing ever. I mean, a huge part of the crappy side of teenagerhood is that feeling of isolation you described—of course, I’m aware that I’m not the only teenager in the world who feels these things, but It’s hard to remember that when I’m caught up in all these confusing and strange feelings that I didn’t even know existed. And then suddenly I read something you wrote, and it sounds like something I’m currently experiencing, and it feels like I’m not entirely alone in this. I don’t mean this in a “Celebrities take out their trash too!” kind of way, but it’s so wonderful to realize that—apart from being inspired by your successes and joys—I can also find solace in the documentation of your journey through teenagerhood. Thank you so much for this!

  • dandelions November 23rd, 2012 5:23 PM

    “… here just kind of came to me an opening of my mind and my understanding. It was inexplicable, but it gave a level of meaning to my understanding of life that I had never had previously.”

    This is beautiful, when I read this I felt so strange, so magical, I don’t know… those words are like that perfect moments you need to feel great, to understand that there is more over there, inside us..

  • boyfights November 24th, 2012 9:18 AM

    Never heard of this place before, it sounds incredible. Thank you again, Rookie!


  • Kasey November 24th, 2012 5:05 PM

    I was walking through the subway when I was in NYC this week, and I saw this quote on the wall along the lines of “The unnatural — that too, is natural.” and it fit right into this piece. love it. (:

  • chloegrey November 25th, 2012 2:32 PM

    I’m so glad I now know of one more person in the world who has so much wisdom and magical thinking and everything i can’t even describe why this is like a kindred-spirit article to me…
    But I have always loved strange and ordinary objects and the ponders they make us ponder, and I REALLY want to visit this museum now, and maybe start a museum or take care of one someday. I love love love museums. And this sort of reminded me of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum from back in the day, and also of the Museum of Innocence – here’s a link if that works: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/04/30/arts/design/20120430PAMUK.html?ref=orhanpamuk

  • chloegrey November 25th, 2012 2:34 PM

    oh and also – I really like how all these interviews are less like questions popping off one after the other, and more like a conversation. It sounds, Tavi, like you really want to learn about the interview-ee’s thoughts and life experience, etc., and I think that makes a huge difference!

  • Hedwig November 26th, 2012 9:26 AM


  • cancercowboy November 26th, 2012 3:11 PM

    quite a philosophical conversation. he’s a smart man. ironically, for me these moments of sensing the continuum of being, the interconnectivity, interdependence, wholeness of it, are also the moments when the fragility of it all becomes (sometimes painfully) obvious.

  • amelia November 26th, 2012 6:40 PM

    This is my favorite museum in Los Angeles. Thank you for your gift to the world Mr David Hildebrand Wilson, sincerely. I go to your rooftop garden in my mind when I can’t sleep, and your microscopic butterfly scale paintings are the stuff my dreams are made from.

    Much Obliged, sir,
    and thank you Tavi for this fantastic interview


  • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 26th, 2013 3:34 PM

    Everything here so perfect and amazing ♥ (and I really, really like that quote about even “unnatural” things being natural – I had never thought about things that way, and now I am enlightened, so yay!)