INTERVIEW: Claire Donato

 

 

Earlier this month, Meghan O’Rourke explored the contemporary trend of American authors writing about their own deaths (typically when faced with the slow progression of a fatal disease) as a reality-entertainment driven literary realism. O’Rourke wondered at the “surprise” that “writers express . . . that their minds really are housed in bodies” and the “strangely fictive” quality of a work that anticipates the death of the author who will not be able to write her own ending.

A recent “lyrical novel,” that grapples with the unimaginable reality of death in paradoxically surreal terms, written by Tarpaulin Sky Press newcomer Claire Donato (still very much among the living) is Burial. The work is a stripped down, sterling aesthetic rendering of both grief and death, totally uncontaminated by sentimentality and yet no less visceral. Vomit, weeping and decay are stark happenings in the meditations of the book, in which, essentially, the narrator arrives at a hotel, which she conflates with the morgue where her father’s body is resting, and prepares for his burial. In this awkward landscape where a mind in mourning wanders, the characters are gaunt with anonymous identifiers like “Groundskeeper” and “The Voice”, and sentences are compared to necklaces that strangle. What’s most uncomfortable and rather breathtaking, however, is Donato’s ability to maintain an excruciating clarity of thought while teetering between prose and poetry, consciousness and death, self and other, thought and silence, grief and object, mind and body. 


Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas.

 

Burial is a chapter book of prose-poetry, which is an enthusiastic, mercurial, ill-defined genre, often perceived as difficult. It seems to me that Burial operates on an intuitive plot as well as extremely precise logic that is seldom present outside of prose poetry. How would you characterize prose-poetry as a distinct genre (perhaps it’s not distinct at all)?

I imagine the ‘prose poetry’ label is where we put sentences that don’t behave the way we expect them to. In my mind, prose-poetry is not a distinct genre; rather, it is a classification readers may or may not bring to the text, perhaps as a received idea, personal boundary, or heedful reaction.

On its surface, Burial does not necessarily fulfill expectations of traditional American fiction. By traditional, I am referring to popular fiction dependent upon plot, character, and so forth; however, this category—like prose poetry—is general and broad, and I try to avoid general and broad categories in my writing, as in my life. Burial engages and distorts conventions of fiction, and as I wrote the book, I read widely. In particular, I took in a lot of contemporary and historic international fiction. Much of the literature I read destabilizes the boundary between prose and poetry. Nathalie Sarraute, one of the authors to whom I turned, once said “there is no border, no separation, between poetry and prose.” Perhaps there exists a spectrum of extraordinary language, and this spectrum is contingent upon each reader’s linguistic adventurousness or threshold of abstraction.  Maybe we simply need to rethink what we believe to be “poetic,” or what we believe to be “prose.” Or, maybe it is all dark matter.

Further, I find it useful to think of genre as a type of performance, wherein the author ‘puts on’ a genre in the same way one puts on a wig. But I was not consciously attempting to perform prose poetry when I wrote Burial. In the end, its mode of meaning-making makes more sense to me than so-called straightforward prose.

In terms of the first-hand experience of the text, the reader is basically asked to straddle two worlds simultaneously – the narrator is in a morgue and the morgue is a hotel, and the narrator checks into the morgue to grieve, suspended in a death that is not her own. It’s sort of a metaphor that gets wrapped around itself – a gesture that is repeated throughout the book. It’s interesting because as humans our minds do occupy this shadow world of death when we wonder about our own and witness that of others. What was the process of generating this prose-poetic work that straddles planes?

Burial’s world came about organically. The more I wrote the book, the more I felt as if its text possessed agency, and the more I recognized the text’s agency, the more my body was a vessel where its language could take root and become what it ended up being. This counteracts the traditional notion that the author’s mind is some grand source where language finds its origins. I was possessed by Burial, as in a fugue; its language was (and is) bigger than ‘I.’ This is not to say the process of generating the book was so free-flowing that it did not involve work. It involved a lot of work, hours of reading, writing, and research. Apart from these activities, my process entailed a lot of looping about on my feet in a fugue. I walked and ran loops around parks; I rode trains back and forth, back and forth. I wrote and rode. I memorized passages and repeated them to myself ad nauseam. (I still repeat these passages to myself, much in the same way one repeats melodies in one’s mind.) My process did not include storyboards or outlines; I began with language as material. Here, I hesitate to say ‘I began with language as material in the same way a painter begins with paint as material,’ because what if the painter begins with a concept? I began by generating prose-poetry that meditated on objects—morgues, caskets, flowers, and fish—that later became recurring leitmotifs in the narrator’s world. She (the narrator) grew out of these objects, first as an ‘I,’ then as an absent first-person speaker—or should I say listener?—when I edited away the first-person.

In sum, Burial’s world expanded outward as its narrator—both present and in absentia—took shape in language. Within her language, my material, I located the book’s concept (a woman grieving the loss of her father checks into a hotel she conflates with the morgue where his body is being kept . . . ). There existed a period of time where a draft of the manuscript was at rest. And then I picked it up again, retyped it all and addressed its defects. These defects were, of course, subjective: In ways, I aspire to create defective texts. 

Or, conversely: Language as paint, paint not necessarily as equivalent to words. Concept preceding or not preceding text. Burial as a peripatetic process, a contrapuntal composition.

The work is both macabre and deeply philosophical, operating by a series of simple questions horrifying in their magnitude. Early on, the narrator asks, “What does it mean to be dead?”  I’m curious to know more about your interest in writing so closely to the subject of death in this way that performs the painful mental struggle with mortality.

What’s not interesting about death? There is no greater mystery! I’ve always been interested in writing about topics unfamiliar to me, instead of ascribing to the writing workshop cliché of “writing what [I] know.” Paradoxially, death is both unfamiliar to me (insofar as I am alive) and immediate: I am going to die, and people I love will die, and this inevitability is a tremendous site of anxiety and preoccupation. As a human being, I simultaneously dread and desire to understand death; as a writer, I explore it as a subject, and it becomes a living thing, an organism that reflects life.

A poignant moment I thought was the opening of the chapter titled, “Question,” in which the question is posed: “Must crisis enter the heart? Or might the heart open its gates, spill open its contents and reveal itself as wholly self-contained, split apart by death . . . ”  So there’s a choice between crisis (death?) entering the heart and the heart as its own crisis, which is to ask how do crisis and the heart relate.  What are the crises that contemporary literature is responding to?

The answers to this question depend on the contemporary literature to which we are referring. The answers also depend on which contemporaries we consider. In the literature I craft, I am interested in writing toward essential questions: How to live? How to die? What is death? Why are we here? I am also interested in investigating how we negotiate our own subjective perceptions with a supposed objective reality, or how to see the seeing; how to transcribe the body’s peculiar physical sensations, defenses, questions, ways of indicating, and so forth; how to step outside of these patterns; how to play; how to empathize; how to work within and beyond discomforting spaces; how to imagine a world without myself in it. I am not sure these preoccupations of mine are crises. Presently, the crisis for me is to read or write, and how to survive.

There’s a dialogue about love that occurs between a male Voice and the female narrator, who is often commenting on the bodiliness / objectness of her environment, even choosing the cold factness of the body over abstraction. It’s a striking and tricky way to work with an original female perspective that embodies both voice and gaze, by putting such a voice in conversation with other voices. How was the voice and perspective of this book shaped?

Burial did not occur in a vacuum. Its voice and perspective were shaped via sensory processing, as in reading, watching, listening, touching, and taste. While working on it, I ingested so many books, records, films, and long-form television shows. I turned and returned to visual art. I watched dance performances. I went for long runs and did yoga. I had conversations with co-investigators, mentors, and friends—notably, I took decompression walks with my neighbor who was studying for the LSAT. I worked as an amanuensis while writing the book, and the process of transcription influenced my writing in ways I do not fully understand. As I edited the book’s final drafts, I turned to my bones. All of these things helped me perceive more clearly.

Those interested in specific examples can check out Burial’s acknowledgements, where I include a partial list of sources that inspired the text. Even that list, in fact, was inspired by someone else—my friend Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi suggested I create it.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a second novel (entitled Noël), multiple poems, and a theoretical performance called SPECIAL AMERICA, which I collaborate on with Jeff T. Johnson, and which is my favorite art to make.

Photo by Bill Hayward, courtesy of Claire Donato.

INTERVIEW: Okay Mountain

 

“Corner Store,” Pulse Miami, 2009

The collaborative group in contemporary art practice is really an old thing all dressed as new, and rechristened—rock star style. In some ways, the medieval guild was the long lived precursor where a group of artisans—let’s say stone workers, grouped together to work on a project—let’s say a cathedral, and the work of the group became apotheosis of a lifelong achievement, if that . . . There was security and anonymity. This practice segued into the school of the Master, when young artists apprenticed for a master often completing his works or filling massive amounts of it, perhaps specializing in drapery or some other eccentricity, and sometimes even moving onto studios of their own. Security and a little less anonymity. As the twentieth century rolled along groups had manifestos and full fledged memberships—Think the Dadaists and the Surrealists, much less the Fluxists or the Situationalists. More security more group celebrity. In terms of contemporary art practices in the 80’s and 90’s we would often see collaborative teams of two people—Fischli & Weiss, Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, Doug and Mike Starn, Pruitt & Early, Jane and Louise Wilson . . . or an artist working in tandem with a group like Tim Rollins and KOS. More security less anonymity. And then larger groups started to emerge like The Art Guys, Art Club 2000, The Royal Art Lodge or Bernadette Corporation. Group security group anonymity. The 21st century iteration of group effort exists in many forms and shows up in many venues from the recent shows like the “Ungovernables”, and “Younger Than Jesus” and is almost de rigeur . . . in terms of galleries on the Lower East Side or following the pop-up model, curatorial collaboration is widespread from Reena Spaulings, Lucie Fontaine, and 47 Canal to the ever present Bruce High Quality Foundation. In Austin, Texas, another group has emerged: Okay Mountain. Like other collaboratives Okay Mountain reaches across curatorial and market boundaries creating a new space for their work, practice, audience, and collaboration. A team of ten guys, we caught up with them recently and the interview that follows is the zingmagazine scout shout out.

Interview by Devon Dikeou

Where did the name Okay Mountain come from . . . As an editor, I am intrigued with style guides/copy editing, so . . . How did you reconcile “Okay” vs “OK” Mountain . . .

When we dissolved our two smaller spaces (Camp Fig and Fresh Up Club) in 2005 we knew that the new venture would have to have its own identity so we needed a new name. About a half dozen of the guys met up one evening to make a decision, where I think we met for at least three hours, mulling back and forth over different ideas. I think we all liked a name that alluded to a physical place (Forest, Mountain, River etc) and Okay Mountain was a name that no one hated. What also appealed to us was the idea of this huge, mighty form . . . but just an okay version of that. A tinge of self-deprecation, but ultimately a mountain is still a mountain, even if it is sort of dinky. The second runner up was ‘Boosterz’ which was supposed to sound like a sucky sports bar. It was a lively debate, but ultimately the right choice was made.

Truthfully, I don’t think that the “OK” vs “Okay” debate ever even came up. We all envisioned the wording as “Okay” without even discussing it, which is a rarity. It’s not too often that we’re all on the same page about anything without numerous conversations and debates. 

Give us a little bit about your historic and artistic etymology . . . You were all students at University of Texas . . . Who did you study with . . . Mel Ziegler . . . Right?  He was part of the collaborative team of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler . . . Are there any collaborative inspirational voices that you learned from be it Ericson and Ziegler or other collabortives . . .

Obviously, there are a lot of us, and so the story of our forming has many threads. It is true that about half of us attended the University of Texas, though not all at the same time. It is also true that several of us were inspired by Mel’s tutelage, but more importantly, Mel rented out his studio to us so that we could form Okay Mountain, and then later sold that building so that we, like his little eaglets had to fly on our own. Once, in lieu of better entertainment, we burned a couch to cinders in our yard, then, in fear of Mel’s judgement, we crudely buried the scorched remains.  But Mel figured it out and left us a note of avuncular reproach in which he addressed us as the Okay-Mountain-bad-boys, and signed himself the daddy-type-landlord. I think that is how both parties conceive of our relationship still.

That said, we definitely were not modeling ourselves after Mel and Kate’s collaboration, nor any other collectives. We opened Okay Mountain as a contemporary art gallery in 2006 with no plan of collaborating. We’re still called an alternative space but our plan was to be a totally-legit, mainstream operation that showed the type of art that we liked and was otherwise unseen in the region. We really agonized over getting the drywall and lighting in good shape, and we had a lot of experience by then because Okay Mountain was a hybrid of two separate galleries that various Mountaineers had founded and run in the previous few years and for one reason or another had outgrown.

The unsexy minutiae of gallery operations meant we were together often. We were trying to be egalitarian about everything from curating to lawn-mowing, and during all gatherings we’d pass around a sketchbook for the fun of it. That began our series of 7x7 (inch) collaborative drawings, which we’d sell out of our back room to help cover the rent. They sold well and from those we were asked to do our first show, as a collective, which we had never imagined hitherto. That was about two years after we opened as a gallery and although we can’t even claim the idea of forming as a collective, we quickly grew to enjoy the possibilities and began in earnest to make work together. If there is anything unique about our collective model, it is that we were not drawn together by a shared political or aesthetic ideology. In fact, we generally disagree about all-things-art. We do, however, enjoy spending time together and somehow art is the sphere that brought us together.

This brings to mind the Surrealist game, Exquisite Corpse, which is very much in the spirit of your zingmagazine project soon to appear in issue 23 . . . Please detail the process for your zing project entitled, “Family Tree” . . .

Family Tree is the most recent iteration of a long line of Okay Mountain drawing games. These games started as a way to kill time while working gallery hours and during weekly meetings. We continued the practice for years.  Whether that be at bars, in airports, on planes, in a car during a long road trip, or in an hotel rooms, anytime a lot of us are together we played drawing games. For years we played a game called “What Kills What”.  Someone makes a drawing and then the next person has to make a drawing that kills/renders moot/cancels out the first, then the drawing is passed and this goes on endlessly. I imagine each and every member’s sketchbook is chock full of past “What Kills Whats”. While traveling for projects, one of our members decided to morph the game into “What Makes What”, essentially mating two things together to make an offspring. After a few runs of the game it was aptly titled, “Family Tree”, as it lays out a genealogy of sorts. When approached to participate in zing 23, we decided to extend to game to create a drawing project exclusively for print. In designing the layout of the project, it was important that the game grew in complexity as the viewer flipped pages, to capitalize on what was so fun about playing the game in the first place—watching objects slowly become absolutely absurd and seeing how your friends riffed on each other’s content. We emailed a few different possible growth patterns and blueprints to one another, voted and then started drawing. One member took the directorial position and orchestrated the entire project, deciding the pairs, making mock-ups, and passing out assignments to members. Six batch assignments were handed out and completed over the course of a month and a half. After all of the content had been generated, the line drawings were compiled into large Photoshop files, which were layed out, colored, cleaned up, and sent to print.

 

“Wheel,” 2011

It is also interesting that each of you have your own art practices . . . how do each of you juggle each of your individual careers with the ideas, goals, and practicalities of the group . . .

Balancing our individual careers with the trajectory and obligations of the collective can be as challenging as it is rewarding. There have been times when the collective has shows lined up in pretty quick succession, enough that is is hard to decompress and reactivate our individual practices. Working in a group that is under one banner is not the easiest thing in that regard. Your personal practice flies out the window in service of a common concept or formal undertaking; sometimes your role is as a general at the center of an idea, other times you are left sanding a log outside in 20 degree weather. The flip side of this coin is that everyday you enter the studio you are being challenged, educated, and enriched by your fellow collective members. It’s a complete experience, best of times/worst of times in the most literal sense. 

I first saw your work at the Pulse Fair in Miami 2010 . . . you showed a Food Cart, I believe it was called “Benefit Plate” . . . which is funny because Austin seems like it is the center of the Food Truck culture . . . But I feel I first started reading and hearing about your work after “Corner Store” (which was exhibited at Pulse 2009 in Austin’s Arthouse’s booth) . . . when did your work as a collaborative first receive national exposure . . .

As it is with others, our success started locally and spread from there. We were given a show by Jade Walker at the Creative Research Laboratory in Austin (“It’s Going to Be Everything”, January 2008) and that started the process of our group thinking about doing a show that was a combination of our art efforts, which had been very loose, organic, and informal up to that point, and started us down the path of exploring the different ways we could collaborate. From that, we were offered a show later in the year at Paragraph Gallery in Kansas City, which allowed us to use some of our favorite aspects of the CRL show and add a few other elements. It was Sue Graze and Elizabeth Dunbar at Arthouse who gave us a chance to make an international splash at Pulse Miami in 2009, and we were ready. Instead of taking a shotgun approach to filling the gallery space like we had done with the first two collaborative shows, we created an all-encompassing idea in the “Corner Store” and filled it with all of the ideas we could generate within it. That loose, fun structure, combined with the winking subtext of the art fair as a fine art convenience store for the wealthy, was a big hit with everyone attending—we won the Pulse Prize and People’s Choice awards, and all of sudden we had to filter through a ton of offers from gallerists and institutions. 

When I visited the studio you all were working on a kind of “Big Wheel”, titled “Ultrasonic VI” that was shown at Mark Moore in LA. Wheels like “Ultrasonic VI” conjure everything from Pat Sajak and Cake Walks, to “The Price Is Right”. How do you see the viewer in terms of participation . . . or for that matter, the viewer in terms of relational aesthetics . . .

Our works do tend to invoke a collective approach to enjoyment, which is related to some of the ideas behind relational aesthetics. But for us participation is not simply an end goal that we work backwards from. Nevertheless, often times participation becomes integral to the execution of our ideas. In other words, our work does not necessarily require direct viewer interaction, but it can; and different projects result in different levels of viewer participation. Some projects are explicitly open to more than “looking,” and some (like the wheel) are ambiguous in regard to viewer interaction. The wheel does move, which was very important to us, but it is a little uncertain whether you should spin it, or even if it does spin. The wheel is more a promise of interaction and as a result sets up a dilemma in the gallery space, creating some tension around the art object, the audience’s role, and even the gallery’s ability to navigate this ambiguity.

Regardless of how hands-on audience participation ends up being, we are always very conscious of how we hold the viewer’s attention, what we give people to focus on. And we generally side with maximal engagement, making works that we know will be readable by a variety of viewers and different types of audiences. I think we have a specific kind of respect for our viewers that manifests into a lot of tangible and visible effort. Ultimately, we cherish opportunities to present objects and ideas to the public and work accordingly.  

One aspect about the collective related to audience considerations is the group’s large number. As we brainstorm or make a work, we tend to act as an audience. Because each of us requires unique (and sometimes similar) things from a project in order to be satisfied, we gravitate towards an egalitarian horizon, which translates into a kind of de-facto politics or ideology of heterogeneity. That may sound a little heady, but it is one way to try and understand our relationship to each other and to our audiences.

A while ago at Austin Museum of Art’s Laguna Gloria (AMOA and Arthouse have since merged) you were among a group of artists that were chosen to design a hole for a Miniature Golf installation . . . Your hole is entitled “School Night” . . . What did you take into consideration, what were your models, Augusta or Austin’s world famous Peter Pan MiniGolf . . .

It was really nice to be invited to participate in this. Miniature Golf and similar attractions are a subject we were already very interested in as a group and so we tried to look at it as a pretext to make an artwork that we would have made regardless of an overlapping purpose. Once that was established, we focused on what we found interesting about mini golf locations like Austin’s Peter Pan MiniGolf in the first place, as it exists in culture, rather than what might be interesting about an artist’s take on designing a golf hole in a museum setting. We were interested in how those kinds of places can evoke a transitional state of growing up. A time that involves jumping fences and lobbing empty bottles, before being able to officially join the nightlife of the twenty-one and older ranks. We’re happy with it as an artwork and look forward to showing it where it can be seen in a context with our other work. 

Indeed, it looks as if the golf hole has made it way into another work . . . “Long Plays”. What’s your view of recycling ideas or pieces . . .

“School Night” was shown recently in our solo exhibition “Long Plays” at Mark Moore Gallery in LA. We were happy to show that work amongst other bodies of work in order to properly contextualize it. When seemingly disparate bodies of our work are exhibited in one space the viewer has an opportunity to follow the threads and see larger patterns in our thinking. Okay Mountain is happy to recycle ideas and works, as long as we are not being redundant. Each time we brainstorm on a new project we gravitate towards subjects we have touched on in the past. Inevitably, we see these subjects in a new light or make a new connection to them within our practice. Certain subjects have consistently resonated deeply with the group as a whole. Our artistic identity was formed in the explorations of these notions and those explorations will continue to grow and compound one another.

Finally, I am interested not just in the collaborative aspect of your practice as a group, but how that practice extends from being a dealer/gallery to an artists’ collaborative—the give, take of the viewer, the context, the artist, the collector. Can you please elucidate on these multifarious relationships . . . and Okay Mountain’s various hats . . .

In a certain sense, I think Okay Mountain’s multifarious relationships are central to organization’s vitality. Because each of the members wear so many hats, I think each of us gain greater perspective of our activities, as well as one another. When we started Okay Mountain, we were just a group of artists that wanted to be around art that excited us. In order to run the gallery each of us had to acquire certain skill sets ranging from roof tarring to public speaking. It has always been our model to trade off and give somebody else an opportunity to try something new—whether it be cleaning the bathroom, curating an exhibition, or working closely with a collector. This is not just an idealogical, egalitarian thing either—it has to function this way or everything would fall apart. This practice extends into the collective, as well. Each collective project has been quite different from the previous projects because we want/need to try new things. The group is composed of individuals with diverse interests and backgrounds and in order to keep ourselves excited and focused we have to challenge ourselves. Over the years we have realized that whether we are doing studio visits, working in our personal studios, managing our rental studios, or working on projects with the collective, each and every one of these activities impact and influence one another . . . which is a good thing.

 

Okay Mountain is: Carlos Rosales-Silva, Josh Rios, Justin Goldwater, Ryan Hennessee, Nathan Green, Peat Duggins, Michael Sieben, Sterling Allen, Tim Brown . . . each question is answered by a different member. There are nine questions and nine Mountaineers, more group security and group anonymity . . .

Photos courtesy of Okay Mountain.

 

INTERVIEW: Graham Fagen

Zingmagazine 23 contributor, Graham Fagen has a mind akin to a tornado: one idea seemingly starts to spiral and picks up other disparate ideas until a cyclone of items such as Jamaican reggae, Auld Lang Syne, Scottish identity, and the 18th century slave economy is barreling out as a (no doubt, unusual) series of songs. Fagen’s recent film The Making of Us, part reality TV and part scripted metafiction, will be shown later this month at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. His forthcoming project in issue 23 features a sort of smorgasbord of his work ranging from a photograph of a  “pish balloon” (just as gross as it sounds, and, which was, it should be further noted, plagiarized in a YouTube documentary) to ship blueprints to stills from his film. 

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

The Making of Us is a film that explores that threshold between fiction and reality by making the process a part of the narrative and the audience a part of the cast.  It's not too far from reality TV. Why do you think the interrogation of reality is currently a popular subject of art and film?

Maybe it is so popular because the boundaries of reality are so blurred today by TV shows and Internet living? Just like the blurred boundaries of the concept of truth! The Making of Us developed from an interest in the way that we, as viewers, look at the arts, i.e., theatre you sit down for a known period of time and in an art gallery you stay for as long as you want. Theatre director Graham Eatough and I clashed these two together in an earlier project called Killing Time and it was interesting to see an audience work at finding their place in the work. For The Making of Us we wondered about other influences that could be added to such a scenario, such as a film crew.

In your piece, Natural Anarchy, there is an order in the color pattern of the lettering and language itself is a kind of order. Do you think humans can achieve actual anarchy? Would we want to?

Yes, I’ve used primary colors. We didn’t invent these colors; their matter of factness was discovered by us. They function, do a job, without us controlling or arranging them. The same is true for all natural order. I love this fact. And I love the ambiguity of Natural Anarchy and how people interpret the work. Viewers seem to split between being worried and looking for an explanation or relaxed, smiling at the thought. It does seem to divide viewers like that.

I’ve no idea if humans could achieve actual anarchy! Some might want to but the situation reminds me of the Groucho Marx quote “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”.

What is the significance of exploring culture via art?  Why not explore culture scientifically or statistically instead?

Culture is, of course, explored scientifically and statistically. This work will result in facts and figures that are usually used to direct and demonstrate a need for a political direction.

I’m interested in the things are hard to give exact meaning to, the territories of nuance, paradox, subtlety, contrast, vagary, etc. I’m interested in a position that is hard to pin down or describe. Something between categories. For me that is my understanding of the complexities of culture and it is also the way that I understand my reasons for making art.

Do you do collaborations regularly?

Yes, I’ve done some collaborations. The collaboration work I’ve done with the theater director is maybe the most prominent work I’ve done in that retrospect. The other one that’s very obvious is that I worked with a music producer named Adrian Sherwood. I approached Adrian to work with me to see if he’d be interested in reworking at old Robert Burns song. Burns lived in Ayrshire in Scotland where I went to school in the late 1700s. He was going to leave Scotland to go work in Jamaica and he was going to work on a sugar cane plantation as what polite society would call a “bookkeeper,” but what in actual fact was a slave overseer on a plantation. When you left, you never had enough money to come back, so the community that you left considered you as dead and gone. So he decided that he would self-publish a book of his songs and poems to leave as a memento. So he did this and he heard rumors that a printer in Edinburgh wanted to reprint the poems and he canceled his sailing to Jamaica from the west coast of Scotland to travel to the east coast where he booked another passage to Jamaica, which he would take if the rumors of the publisher weren’t true. The rumors about the publisher were true, so he stayed in Scotland despite having booked a few passages to go to Jamaica and it was his book of poetry that kept him here. Four years before he died, he wrote a poem called “The Slave’s Lament” and because I grew up in Ayrshire where Burns lived, at school each January on the anniversary of his birth, we had to recite by heart his poetry to the class.

Away from school, I was making my own music, and I sort of caught the tail end of the punk movement and along with the punk movement came Jamaican reggae so I was buying a lot of Jamaican reggae records and I guess I wondered out of idle curiosity during my teenager years why at school, what was being taught as my cultural heritage was kind of meaningless to me, but yet the cultural polar opposite, Jamaican reggae, meant so much more to me than what my cultural heritage was according to school. I had a chance to research Burn’s father and that’s when I discovered that he booked these passages to live and work in Jamaica and that finding helped me make some bridges with that idle curiosity that I had. 

So I approached Adrian Sherwood who works in London with a lot of Jamaican reggae artists and performers to see if he’d be interested in working with me to remake a new version of Robert Burn’s “The Slave’s Lament,” but with reggae performers.  That was a great process, I really enjoyed that one.  It was creative in that Adrian was into the idea and we talked a lot about the songs and the kind of feel I wanted the songs to have, and he would recommend people that he’d worked with that could help us achieve the sound and feel we wanted the song to have, and then you let them do what they need to do in order to achieve the song.

In an interview you said that your process is “an inquiry into cultural formers.”  What are “cultural formers”?

There’s a sculpture that I made not long after I graduated from my master’s course and the sculpture’s called “Former and Form.” It’s a really simple sculpture.  It’s pieces of wood that are held together with G-clamps and into the pieces of wood I poured some concrete and when the concrete was set I took out the cast and set it next to it. So it was a very simple sculpture and the size of the concrete was about the size of a house brick that’s very common in the UK. The more I worked on projects, the more I realized how important this sculpture was because this sculpture felt like a thinking model. What I was interested in about the sculpture was that I could show a form or a shape, but I could also show the mechanisms that were required in order for that shape to exist. In order for that shape to exist, I had to have some concept or some idea of what shape the mold had to be. So it was a cause and effect relationship.

When people started asking me what my work was about, I tried to find the shorter way to explain the complexities, and that’s when this concept that was becoming clearer to me from that earlier sculpture about “cultural formers” and things that shape our cultures and the way that we behave and then the way that we shape the culture, so the two-way relationship that’s there as well. The thing that was really important to me about that as an artist was the understanding when I started being invited to do other projects.  One project in particular, I was invited to be what in this country is called the “official war artist.”  I was asked by the Imperial War Museum to be the war artist for Kosovo and that’s where my knowledge of what I was trying to do as an artist became really important because not only was I able to understand a reason for examining my own culture, but I realized that comprehension was actually really important and it can help you understand other people’s cultures and find relationships to help understand what the differences are. So when I went to Kosovo to understand somebody else’s culture, for me, it was so interesting, because their culture had basically been destroyed. The work that I tried to do there was address cultural breakdown or cultural shifts of knowledge and logic that makes a culture hold together. 

I’m curious about what you mean when you call a sculpture “a thinking model.”  Can you explain that?

When I was making it, I was making a concept that I had that was quite simple in a formal sense and when I made it, it had a life and it was exhibited.  It was for the Arts Council’s collection, so it had its own life, but its relationship with me is still the conceptual one.  For me, that sculpture explains the complexities of what a cultural former is, or the way that I’ve been using that term “cultural former.” 

How does art interact with the breakdown or development of culture?

When I came back from my time in Kosovo and made the exhibition for the museum, it was interesting because it was a question that especially journalists, maybe no so much art critics, but journalists would ask about, like, that must really have changed you? There were lots of questions about what value and what’s the use of making art about this sort of subject.  There’s a lot of literary theory you could talk about the relationship to, maybe, genre, but for me what was important about my work was that real life theory. So for example, having been to Kosovo and trying to make an art work that would maybe try in a small way to address the complexities of war and conflict was very important and it was important that that work was exhibited in a museum that hopefully people came to see and try to understand through the artwork a different position or a different route to what war and conflict is.  So you’re not experiencing it through the medium of a newspaper or a television or from a politician or from a UN official, it was a more paradoxical introduction through the medium of art.  Paradoxical because it’s a simple way to access a very complex situation. That subject of “cultural formers” is very real in terms of a subject area that’s real and that’s what key in priorities for me when I’m making the work as an artist. 

How does art differ from media?

The difference would mainly be the way that you see the subject matter in that you make a conscious decision to go to an art gallery or to a museum.  Then once you’re there there are preconceptions about the way that you as a viewer would behave or react or interact with objects, or the formality of the construct you’re seeing within these places. That’s a very difference relationship to receiving media in the privacy of your own home. It’s public, for a start. 

That’s maybe one of the reasons I started to become interested in working with a theater director – thinking about the notions about how we perceive art and how we receive art depending on the place that we’re in. If you go to a theater, you’re quite prepared to sit in a comfortable seat for an hour and a half and watch something and kind of believe the fiction that’s being presented to you, but if you go to an art gallery it’s very easy to go out and think, “I just don’t like this at all” or “This is aesthetically doesn’t engage me so I’m just going to walk out.”  Or you may do the opposite and you may be really engaged and spend a long time there.  That question of differences in media is about the ways that you receive them and the associated notions of different media. 

Does art take in history and culture and shape our perception of it, or is art on the other side of that fence and shaped by history and culture?

I think art sits on both sides, certainly in the ways that I’ve received it and perceived it, and the way that I have worked with it. I would like to think that I’ve worked on both of those points. I was about to say on both sides of that fence, but maybe that’s the first thing, maybe it’s not a fence, it’s more fluid than that. There’s a lot of debate in the UK about is art political or where is the political art or where is the political art going. For me, the art that I enjoy and the art that I think is important is the art that can be both of these places that you talk about.  It’s art that will not just provoke, but can also offer opportunity to reflect and use art history as well. 

I think we live in a kind of a cynical time – on the brink of environmental disasters and constant wars.  It seems to me that so many contemporary artists and writers and thinkers are engaged with this sort of darkness as a way to try to engage with the world.  But then what is art’s role in this world?

That’s quite a description of “the darkness.”  It reminds me of a documentary I just saw in which a young journalist was interviewing the Sex Pistols when they had just started and at that time in Britain there really was darkness because a lot of the power stations were working three-day weeks and four days of the week you could be in a power cut situation and there were lots of cuts and garbage men were refusing to pick up garbage.  I remember seeing my very first rat, which I thought was a rabbit because the rats were so large.  Going back to the point of the darkness, there was a young journalist interviewing the Sex Pistols for a news channel and you could tell the young journalist was quite a liberal guy and you could tell he was really excited about what the Pistols were doing and the fact they were raging against this sense of cultural and societal breakdown. So he’s got his microphone and he’s interviewing Johnny Rotten and he said, “Johnny, we’re a country on its knees and you’re coming along and rallying against political authority. What are you going to do about that?” And he passed the microphone over to Johnny Rotten and Johnny Rotten just said, “We’re gonna make it worse.” Which I thought was a fantastic answer and for me it’s quite an important answer in relationship to what you’re talking about. Because I think the other thing that’s really important is that artists and intellectuals of course have always been part of a more liberal stream, but they’re always part of the bigger majority as well and I guess that’s where those limitations on what kind of influence you can have on these kind of political powers. 

What’s interesting about the kind of “darkness” – and these are your words, Rachel, not my words. The thing about the darkness that is Rachel’s is that slowly you start to find out about the mechanisms that control the way that we work politically and how we do business. The banking crisis and things like that, you start to find out the truth about the mechanics of how governments are influenced not necessarily by voters, but much more influenced by oil firms, banking industries, people like that. 

So it’s a good point that “darkness” is my word. The body of your work that I’ve seen – there’s a grittiness to it and a humor to it, but it’s not consistently dark.  How would you characterize the era that we’re living in and facing as artists and thinkers?

I think we need to stay extremely positive about it. I think we need to be cheeky about it.  That cheekiness is maybe the most important thing. By “cheeky” I mean that we don’t become afraid to say what we truly feel we need to say and we say it in whatever way we think is the best way to say it. 

 

 

 

INTERVIEW: JM Ledgard

In JM Ledgard’s Submergence, James More is a British spy who was captured by Somalian jihadists and spends most of the novel in a shack and eventually in a cage shitting himself and meditating on the soul and utopia as you do. Danny Flinders is an acclaimed scientist who specializes in deep ocean trenches and is something of a sensualist who revels in the object world, drinking Australian wine and smoking cigarettes “in the French way.” As Danny prepares to go on a deep-sea dive and James is slowly whittled away by the torments and amateurish decisions of his captors, both reminisce on a brief if otherworldly love affair they had at a French hotel on the Atlantic during Christmas. The plot arc, which foregoes suspense and operates via a sort of lyrical seduction, goes the only way it could: sadly. 

Submergence is nothing if not heady – brutal as well as beautiful. It has been quite awhile since I’ve gotten that “hit by a bus” feeling from a work of literature and the rainy afternoon in March when I finished Submergence on the subway, I had to go about the rest of my day more deliberately. It’s the sort of the book that changes the texture of chocolate and the look of puddles. The work is modular and favors establishing layers of meaning through fragments and twisting metaphors, and much of the prose is to be chewed on. The novel explores the frightening questions of human existence, namely, what the hell are we doing to our planet through war and more crucially environmental degradation that is reaching apocalyptic proportions. Below even this, though, there is also a rather darker attempt to chart human loneliness, that emptiness that appreciates beauty and wants to understand truth and develops profound connections with others. As it becomes clearer and clearer what the fate of James and Danny will be, one gets the sense that perhaps if Danny goes down deep enough into the pitch-black oceanic trenches, and if James goes far out enough into the Somalian deserts, they will eventually fall through a black hole or cosmic furrow and happen upon each other. 

JM Ledgard was born in the Shetland Islands. He is a political and war correspondent for the Economist and a thinker on risk and technology in emerging economies. He lives and works in Africa.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas 

Can you tell me about some of your experiences as a foreign correspondent that informed Submergence?

The first thing is my undergraduate degree rather bizarrely was in medieval Islamic history so I have this whole very positive understanding of Islam . . . the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and of course a lot of great Islamic thinkers. So that was the first thing. Then there were certainly the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which I reported a bit on and then some of the wars in the former Soviet Republics and then the Kosovo War, and all of these wars were involved in Islam in some way. Of course what blew everything out of the water was 9/11 here in New York, and after that I got sent by my newspaper to be an Afghanistan terrorism correspondent. Then, again, in Africa, I think probably because of my experience after 9/11, I continued on this tracking and writing a lot about al-Qaeda and jihadist groups, and was very taken with Somalia as a country and traveled there as much as I could even though it was quite dangerous. Several times I was very lucky to get access to jihadist commanders on the ground, some of them al-Qaeda guys, and that was really very quite interesting. 

I had a really wonderful, bizarre episode where I went to the Comores Islands near Madagascar. I think the third most wanted man in the United States was a guy called Fazul Mohammed who was from the Comores and he was the guy who blew up the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. I just felt really interested in this particular guy and tracked him around and followed where he’d been and then I got to go and meet his wife, his sister, his children, his mother, and that experience is slightly fictionalized in Submergence. So these are real people, but obviously in the book I’m much more interested in the ideas than an exact personal narrative. 

Though there’s an interesting story about one of these al-Qaeda guys I met that was very bizarre. It was like something I might have written in my novel. I went to southern Somalia and there was an al-Qaeda commander, a tough guy, a Somalian, not a foreigner – the foreigners are really scary, you don’t want to meet one of those guys because they’ll just kill you. The Somalia guys are tough, but they can talk to you a bit. Anyway this guy was in a compound and he’s sitting there and he had a dik-dik, one of those dwarf antelopes. Very cute little animal, but they’re very shy in the bush. You walk along and they’re just gone. But here was this commander with this little pet and it’s very rare to see such a tough guy with a little dik-dik as a pet and he told me this story. I don’t know if it’s true, but it was just a great story, which is that he had been marching through the bush with his men and they were hungry and they found a dik-dik so they killed it and they praised Allah and they had food for dinner, and as they were butchering it, the fawn was alive inside the dead mother, and so they took it and it became a kind of mascot for them. Something about the fact of being monstrous is not enough to dehumanize you completely. There is always something these guys have, but then they’re terrible and some of them are sociopaths. 

In an interview with The Paris Review’s Philip Gourevitch you describe Submergence as a “planetary novel that seeks to alter the reader’s perception of earth.”  How does fiction interact with cultural and individual perception?

Not enough, in my opinion. I think my view has always been it’s better to be slightly off, but really have a go at saying something profound. We’re born out in this unknown, it doesn’t matter what your religious persuasion is, this is as much as we know that we’re born into the world and we die in the unknown and we’re suspended in this few years of consciousness, and it seems to me the most amazing and profound thing is to try to make sense of that. I got depressed last night when I was at a book talk in Brooklyn and the lady who was interviewing me, all she wanted to talk about was terrorism.  I just thought terrorism is not the big thing.  The big thing is our planet and the biosphere and the perception of time and space that makes our human experience much more profound when we reflect on it.

When I think about planetary writing, there are two things I want to talk about.  One is that mystery element, which is cosmic, which really is strange.  You can look at anything and in the right eye it becomes quite magical and fantastical. But then there’s another side, which is one where I’ll get in more trouble in the states, which is basically that literature is a really profound calling. Literary fiction like great art can really influence people’s perception of who they are and what they think in a small way, and I find, particularly in the states, a lot of misery fiction. It’s beautifully crafted, much better than I would ever write, but it’s going nowhere, it’s middle class families working out middle class angst. I don’t see enough writers out there who say, Holy moly, we’re losing like 50% of the biodiversity of species. We’ve had this incredible revolution of technology and science, and we’re going to see another one in the next 10 or 20 years, and people are going to be super connected in ways they’ve never been connected before. One of the points I made in Submergence is about incredibly primitive chemosynthetic life at the bottom of the ocean, which looks really stupid, but that life has been there for three billion years and we’ve not been around for very long. I would really like to see more fiction that is tackling these really big themes even if you kind of trip over your shoelaces a bit.

I will know in five years time if my novel was a success if you are like stuck on the subway or skiing in Colorado and you just have a flash, a moment where you think consciously about the ocean or the desert or a suicide bomber or whatever it is. I want to leave a kind of residue, a false memory, a sense. Obviously it’s not character-driven fiction. The characters are secondary to these much bigger themes.

Exposure and discourse about environmental issues are waning.  For example, The New York Times canceled its green blog earlier this year. 

There is an absence of environmental coverage in media.  To me this is madness.  I won’t speak for musicians or anyone else, but I do know about literature and I do feel that a lot of great writers are missing the ball . . . though it’s a difficult balance because you don’t want to manipulate the reader in stupid ways. 

I became a novelist when I was younger because I read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and I thought, Wow, this was written in the mid-19th century and it’s still speaking to profound, relevant truths and about changing society in the way that we deal with power structures. So I think we need to see more of that.  I won’t say all literature has to be crusading and serious, but there are some writers that are letting themselves down by not having a go at these things. Literature is making itself irrelevant basically and people are going to go to other mediums and forms like video art or whatever it is where they’re going to find those challenges and questions and emotions that they need to process this incredibly fast-changing world.

In a smaller way, a lot of my novel is about oceans. It’s still amazing to me that 90% of our living space is in the ocean and we just don’t spend any money on it, we don’t think about it.  We’re not even capable of thinking about it mostly because it’s quite dark, quite cold, there’s a high pressure, and you realize that actually we’re not these sort of Star Trek universe-conquering species. We’re actually designed for a very thin habitat and we have this relationship with light, with gravity. 

Your writing style has been criticized as too intellectual or as a heavy prose-style, and I’m curious about your choice to favor beauty and complexity over simplicity and superficiality. 

First of all, I don’t mind if even a majority of readers don’t like the novel or don’t get it.  I think anyone who really likes a very traditional narrative arc where you have characters who find catharsis . . . they’re not really going to like my fiction. Also, people who read really fast are probably not going to like it. The one thing I can say about this book even though it’s really short is that probably it should be read really slowly, three or four pages a day. On the whole, it’s like when you have a very high-cocoa content dark chocolate. You just write what you want to write and really go for it. People just have their artistic paths to travel. 

One way you deal with modulating this heavy subject matter and dense prose is by working in fragments, which actually turn out to be basically meditations in a way.  In the novel, there’s a lot of sitting around and thinking that the characters do. 

Again, I can see how this could irritate a particular kind of reader. Naturally you’re trying to put the novel together, but you’re in Somalia and then jump to the Greenland Sea. For me it was really important to build up these layers and hope by the end there was some connection between these incredibly weird, disparate worlds. I think very carefully about what I put in and especially what I take out. It’s a very short book, but it could have been like 600-pages.  I took out so much two ways. One way was that I cut out lots of sections that I’ve already written, and two, I pared down all these passages. One thing I’ve gotten working for The Economist is how you relay the maximum possible information in the shortest possible space.  Obviously, I’m trying to convey completely different thoughts and emotions in the novel.  The fragmentary style, I’m just very interested in kaleidoscopic effect, visually and also cinematically and especially emotionally and intellectually.  It’s confusing what exactly everything all adds up to, but it puts you in a different space. 

Something that concerns me as a writer is how technology is shortening our attention spans and how this could kill the novel. 

One thing I was really struck by, a few years ago, I read the letters of President John Adams to his wife. He used to incredibly write two or three page letters to her every day while he was away. What was extraordinary about these letters in the late 18th-century were these long loops of thoughts that don’t resolve immediately and you’re not actually sure where the trajectory is until you get two pages along and then eventually it curlicues to the end. I think we are in danger of losing the capacity to in and of ourselves create these longer loops of thought, and some people are probably even losing the capacity to read these longer loops of thought. Not entirely, you know. It’s possible that people can push back, but of course we have to realize that all other things being equal, and even if these writers who I would like to stop writing about Park Slope and soccer moms, even if they actually start writing Melville-like work, the space for literature is much smaller. All our devices and all the ways we perceive with music and film and gaming and travel.  Literature had it really good for a long time and it’s never going to be quite as big as it was.

One theme of this novel is disaster and the political and natural crises that the world is on the brink of. Both Danny and James spend a lot of time dealing with questions about where humanity is going and it doesn’t look so good.

It’s a very dark novel, this one, and I don’t make any apologies for that. Strangely, the one lesson I learned living in Africa the last decade is that pessimism is a redundant quality, if it is a quality at all. There is inquiry and it can be very dark inquiry, really pushing you to the abyssal, but the great privilege of the human condition is that we have still the next day to think about the way we conduct ourselves collectively. 

Look at the fossil fuel situation that we have at the moment. I’ve known from these negotiations I do with big companies and looking at oil, coal, natural gas, car companies . . . there is a lot of money on the wrong side of the table. It’s kind of banal and I don’t think it’s the best film in the world, but I always come back to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I remember from the film this cartoon image of the planet on one side of the scale and gold on the other, and everybody in the cinema laughed when they saw that because it seemed so absurd. Why, how can we value money over the planet, but actually nothing has moved from that cartoon, it’s basically that stupid. I mean, the planet is going to be fine, nothing is going to happen to life on the earth. The question is how many species, including our own, have to be annihilated before we are sort of vomited off. But I don’t think it’s actually certain at all. We have a tremendous capacity as a species to self-correct, but at the moment we’re not on a good path because we’re not concentrating on the right things. We’re very much like an autistic termite colony where someone like these mad Chechen brothers in Boston poke it with appalling consequences and then the termite colony goes completely crazy. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a severe reaction to terrorism, but I am saying that we should have at least an equal reaction to the decimation of the planet we’re living on and our ability to survive and particularly the ability of other species to survive. It’s very worrisome to me that we end up with purely anthropomorphic species and that when a species for one reason or another finds it difficult to cohabit with humans we expunge them. I do feel like the future generations, maybe even close future generations, will look at us like, My god, for a bunch of new Chevrolets, you managed to oversee a mass destruction. That is a clear and present danger, and I’m very happy to think in dark terms, but I’m not so interested in fatalistic terms. 

There is a great deal of beauty in the novel – especially coming out of the brief love affair between James and Danny in a rather surreal, wintry landscape.  Why did you choose to hang these dark questions on this very intense romance?

Well, as I say, we have to get up and live our lives. The really amazing thing about the human condition is that despite this cosmic mystery, whether it’s watching a baseball game or having sex or being in a strong relationship or seeing a relationship break apart, getting old, the actual fabric of our lives are colossal to us and they are of never-ending, immense consequence in these completely irresolvable ways. For example, James is there in captivity and he is trying to hold onto his humanity and mostly he’s holding on through strong emotions. For Danny, she is almost a hard woman, she is certainly heroic to me and she sacrificed a lot of warmth and empathy for the path that she chose. It is possible and it is wonderful to have those profound connections.

I thought about how trauma is perhaps related to empathy and how we’re motivated to reach outside of ourselves. A reading that I had of the book was as a series of dark meditations draped over a love story, which is perhaps a way that we’re disturbed by our existence.

That’s a very perceptive point. You might be onto something there. That’s harder for me to talk about. It almost hits too intimate really. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book, but I don’t really know whether it’s going to be fiction or non-fiction. It’s really on that cusp. What I realized in my first two books is that reality and lyrical reality are very closely knit for me, they’re almost zipped together. To be honest, it probably doesn’t matter that much which side of the line we fall on. Except maybe in America because in America the reader demands to know what the truth is, which I’ve never really understood. Some of it is set in Africa. I never show anyone anything I write or talk about it until I know that it’s literally 90% done. It will be building on some of the themes we talked about in Submergence and looking to the future.

 

INTERVIEW: Walter Robinson

 

 

"Those are from Backpage, do you know what that is," Walter Robinson points to a painting of a young woman in her underwear hamming toward the viewer. It is an undeniable "selfie" -- almost surreal to see rendered in opaque brushstrokes rather than pixelated washed-out photography from a smartphone. In his studio, the man who is still revered as a commentator on the art world, long time editor at the former Artnet, is explaining to me in his studio in Long Island City, where he gets material for his paintings. The ear buds from his iPod on which he listens to audio books are dangling from his pocket and he is sucking on a caramel candy. The studio is decked in hamburgers and more women from Backpage as well as women in pajamas from a Macy's catalogue. At the other end of the room there are paintings of people kissing -- the same love story playing out between a small-waisted woman in a dress and a broad shouldered man on canvas after canvas. Fast food, sex, -- even romantic love -- these are the depictions of desire that we, as Americans, are hit with over and over, day in and day out, so often that we forget we're seeing them, and for some reason, there is something consoling about these images in paint, something both reassuring and petrifying about their emptiness. 

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas 

Were you always an artist, or was it a chosen path?

Oh, everything was ass backwards for me. I became an artist sort of by default. I remember being popular in kindergarten because I could draw high noon showdowns. That’s probably where it started, but it’s been a long apprenticeship for me.  I’m a slow learner.

I was always interested in art. In college instead of studying I took art classes as "electives." I did reviews for Art in America when I got out of college and began writing the magazine's newsletter. I moved to Tribeca in 1973 and later moved to SoHo. With a couple of friends I published my own art magazine. By 1979 I was working with Collaborative Projects, an artist's group, and I became part of the East Village scene in 1982.

I showed my paintings regularly from 1980 to 1986, and then I pretty much stopped exhibiting. I became a single father, and focused on the writing career. I worked as news editor at Art in America, and founded Artnet Magazine in 1996.  I worked there for 16 years and we built up something that people liked and was pretty valuable.

In 2008, Helene Winer, my dealer from the ‘80s, suggested that I do a show of the ‘80s paintings that I still had. It was fairly successful and suddenly I had this nest egg.  So I rented a studio. Before then I’d been working in my apartment, but to be a professional artist, you really have to stay focused and work at it. You have to be some sort of a player, be part of the community, part of the scene. Social connections are an important part of success in the art world. So in 2008 I rented a studio in Long Island City and picked up where I left off. When Artnet magazine was shut down in June 2012, I was able to become a full-time painter.

It’s fun being a critic. You get to talk about a whole lot of things, and you try to be out in front of everything important. You’re like an explorer in a new world, everything you write about you claim for yourself. As an editor, you are the center of the art world. Is New York the center of the art world? Berlin? London? No, it’s my consciousness that’s the center, as I processed all the information and put it out there for my readers. As a writer you have a soapbox, and if you do a daily magazine like I did, you get to say something every day. That’s exciting, and very energizing. Working for a monthly magazine was more like moving through molasses.

For an artist, it’s completely different. You talk about a single thing, yourself, and you get to care about one thing, yourself. As an artist, you don’t get to present yourself every day. You present yourself when you have an exhibition or when you show a work. Typically that happens much less frequently. Plus, the process is more private.

Now that I’m an artist, I don’t have to care about anything. I’m much freer. I can consume art world news at my leisure or ignore it. I sympathize with all my friends who write art news, because they all compete -- and don’t seem to realize how little their readers care. I was the same way! 

Do you think that art press matters in any capacity?

Well, yes art press matters, it matters a lot. Artists want two things. They want to sell, and they want to be called great -- and that’s where the press comes in. Jack Goldstein, who died in 2003 but is having a show this month at the Jewish Museum, made me realize that back in the ‘80s. I had expressed admiration at his success, but he button-holed me and said something like, “Write that I’m the greatest artist.” Even an artist who has great success still wants more.

What do you think of the spectators of the art world?

You mean the audience? It’s interesting to think about the audience. There are the collectors, who are a part of the audience, who have authority because they have money. It’s a mixed blessing, and an old story -- are you loved for yourself, or for your cash? I used to say that dealers exist so that artists don’t have to talk to collectors.

When I was a critic, the audience was my readership and one of my primary concerns. At the same time, the notion of spectatorship is amorphous, and hard to define. Museums are packed with people who come to participate in the spectacle of art and culture. They go to be enlightened and to delve the mysteries and to see if they can get culture. We still love it, even if it seems so . . . old fashioned.   

 

What do you read of contemporary fiction?

I don’t do that much reading. I get audio books and listen to them and go to the gym.

I’m a fan of genre fiction, it sort of fits in with my painting. Writers like Elmore Leonard and Chester Himes – fantastic.  Martin Amis’ Money, I couldn’t even listen to. The Pregnant Widow, that was one I thought was pretty good. Jane Austen Northanger Abbey, loved that – that was great. John Banville The Infinities, couldn’t listen to that – that was horrible. Donald Barthelme The Dead Father was a bore.

Oh, I loved The Dead Father when I read it.

I don’t even know what it’s about. There’s a character that is called “the dead father” – and you know, speaking as a father, I object to that right away. The thing is, to me, that sort of artifice seems stupid. You know, I was born in 1950. I’m old, I’m cranky, I’m not impressed with this kind of literary high jinks. The art world has its own nonsense, of course, but that stuff I like! I’m a 19th-century painter -- Manet is a favorite -- but I also love Duchampian gestures. My favorite work in the New Museum’s “Younger than Jesus” was the banana peel that the South American artist Adriana Lara had a guard toss of the floor each day. And when Dan Colen had his show at Gagosian Gallery in 2010, he took a plywood skateboard half-pipe and flipped it upside-down, making a kind of sculpture that didn’t really seem to be very sculptural. Then I thought, that’s just what skaters do, flip upside-down in the air, so the thing suddenly had a sort of sense. Is that the same as having a book with a “dead father” as a character?

The poet Robert Cunningham reviewed your show at Dorian Grey, “Indulgences,” for zingmagazine, and he commented on the strange materiality of the subjects of the paintings, so it’s interesting to hear you talk about literature because Robert brought Virginia Woolf into his analysis of your work.

Really? Because I listened to To The Lighthouse and I liked that very much. It’s got this auditory space where time collapses and you’re not sure where the narrator is. I tried to listen to Mrs. Dalloway and couldn’t do it. Some books are not suitable for listening. You have to focus too much on following the narrative, and I find my thoughts drifting off, and suddenly I have no idea what I’ve been listening to. I have the same problem with reading books. I’m reading and I’m reading and then before I know it I’m doing something else.

Basically, in his review of your show, Robert brought up Woolf’s interest in every day objects and how these items can become a whole experience for Woolf, and compared your work to Woolf in the sense that in your paintings a hamburger isn’t just a hamburger, it’s a whole complicated experience and an object of aesthetic consideration, and this way that when viewing the paintings, these representation of hamburgers, you become very aesthetically aware of a hamburger and you notice other things that you don’t necessarily notice when you simply consume a hamburger.

Far out. Like what? Factory farming? That’s a good observation actually and very nice. What I noticed is that if you have something like a painting of a cheeseburger, a viewer can dismiss it, because everybody knows all about cheeseburgers, or a viewer can love it, because they have their own personal feelings and attachments to the idea of a cheeseburger. I gives a glimpse of something about the esthetic reaction, about looking and judging.

Somehow this idea of the familiar dovetails with my feelings about imagination -- sometimes I feel like I don’t have any. Making it my goal as an artist to going out in search of something new feels forced and phony. So I like to take what’s there, what’s a cliché. It feels more honest. It’s like saying you can’t fire me, I quit. I suppose there’s a sadness in the retreat to the familiar. But it’s also like a comedy, and I’m more interested in that. At least I think I am. I’ve just always hated the radical masquerade, pretending to be somehow radical, pretending to find some new way of doing things because. The art world loves that, but I know I’m not radical. That’s one reason why I paint the way I do. It’s supposed to be an illustrative style that is straightforward. It’s a denial of magic. Of course art does have real magic, some of it. A lot of artists are able to create that magic naturally, create that magic out of their subjectivity. Think of some of the great painters like Lisa Yuskavage and Dana Schutz – their individual styles seem to just come forth naturally. It doesn’t seem to be about artifice or effort. It’s about authenticity and the only way I can be authentic is to have no imagination.

 

I’m interested in what you mean when you say ‘magic.’ Can you elaborate?

I was thinking about this just the other day when I was looking at this Ashley Bickerton work -- it was a great kind of image of an island welcome with Ashley and three wahines, made with astonishing technique, and surrounded by an elaborate custom-made frame -- and it just seemed so wonderful, it just seemed literally incredible. My impulse was to try to drain the magic out of it and make it sensible and one way to do that was to imagine that he didn’t make it himself and had craftsmen do the ornate frames, which may or may not be true. I asked the dealer and she didn’t know. But I had this slightly twisted wish to drain the magic out of it and make it all seem rational and instrumental. Other people see the thing and they hate it, it seems vulgar and garish and they just don’t like it. Ashley is of course our very own contemporary version of Gauguin.

The two guys who run Dorian Grey Gallery, Christopher Pusey and Luis Accorsi, they came and visited my studio two months before the show and we talked a little bit and Luis wanted to call it “Cheeseburgers and Chicks” because I have a lot of paintings of women and I have a lot of paintings of cheeseburgers. I was uncomfortable as coming out about “chicks.” So I suggested “Cheeseburgers and Charms” and Luis, who is a real joker, came back with “Chickburgers.”  Christopher then says that nobody buys erotica -- the “chicks” were these paintings of “giantesses,” images of naked women from below, as if they’re standing over and dominating the viewer -- and   came back with the idea of “Indulgences.” 

My first reaction was negative, because that’s an advertising campaign for Hershey’s. Then I realized for Catholics the notion of an “indulgence” is a sin you can redeem with good works, and I thought it would fit very well with commodity culture that all these indulgence the media spectacle offers to us that come with their own implicit forgiveness. You are forgiven for indulging in a McDonald’s cheeseburger. There’s sin and forgiveness within this show. A lot of the imagery is taken directly from ads the corporations are using to sell the stuff, so it’s already been designed by an ad agency, photographed by anonymous professional photographers, and generally engineered for maximum appeal to the consumer. Back in 1985 I had the show at Metro Pictures of pharmaceutical products and medicines, the idea being that a painting of a bottle of Excedrine will piggyback on a viewers’ desires to treat their headaches. Also, they target a specific corporate collection market, which is especially amusing. Metro actually managed to sell my big painting of a bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby oil to Johnson & Johnson.

The Dorian Grey show ended up having a lot of paintings of food in it, brownies and cookies and pancakes and stuff like that. Very humble, very common subjects for art, like a hot dog. It’s supposed to be funny, perhaps a little funnier than when Wayne Thiebaud did it. Thiebaud is a “god” and that’s one reason why my painting is called “Hot Dog Goes to Heaven.”  

Several of the images come right off the box of the product. I just find it irresistible, and I’ve yet to have anyone actually notice. Strange, the image is impossibly common and yet still unidentifiable. I also love the idea that with pancake mix, it starts out as powder in a box and then somehow magically ends up as pancakes with butter and syrup and raspberries. Gotta love that, the transformation. It’s a throwback to something from my youth, Tang, that powdered orange drink that was made for the astronauts. It’s very space age. 

Is the show also about today, as in, what it is that our culture wants now – I mean, these works signal something just by what the constraints of the project point to, right?

I don’t know. I don’t have any strong feelings about commodity culture. I’m certainly not about telling people what to eat, though I don’t eat any of this stuff these days, though I like to say that when I was younger I denied myself nothing, certainly not cheeseburgers. Our culture is certainly obsessed with that kind of thing, if that’s what you mean. It seems like a distraction, doesn’t it.

Are our base desires of any interest as a subject for art? They’re common. Why is that interesting? Why are pancakes interesting? Why is a cheeseburger interesting? For me it’s all about desire, and all about authenticity, but I also realize that art is an empty vessel that we fill with meaning.

Do we want art to be interesting? Is that a function of art?

Sometimes I think art isn’t serious enough. I think it should be more serious. I have an argument I like to make that art should be more polemical, and should specifically strive to participate in partisan politics -- notably by attacking the Republicans. Shepard Fairey did a great thing in 2008 with his “Obama Hope” poster, but it seems now almost as if it were an accident, since for his next show he went back to dorm-room poster subjects, like pictures of Jimi Hendrix of Jean-Michel Basquiat. What I’d like to see now from the art world are artworks that target the Republican leadership, people like John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell, who really are criminals.

I’m curious about this difference between depictions of desire in advertising and depictions of desire in fine art.

It’s like I’m a sell out, huh. I always used to say to my dealers, “Tell me what to do to be a success, I’ll do it.”  But they don’t tell me because they don’t know.

What were you asking? What’s the difference? I don’t know. There isn’t one.

So why not be someone working in advertising?

You mean be the commercial artist? I don’t know. You can only do what you can do, so obviously, whatever talents it takes to be a commercial artist, I don’t have.  I have the talents of a fine artist. If I had the talents of a commercial artist, I’d be a commercial artist. As a painter, the question is always, what is your subject, what are you going to paint, and I don’t know where all these other painters get their ideas from, but this is where I get my ideas.

Early on I was interested in the idea of being straightforward and not pretending you’re some kind of visionary or something. It’s stupid. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What are you working on now? Another show?

Oh, I have some things in the works. I’ll have a picture or two in this group show that the painter Tom Burckhardt is organizing for Tibor de Nagy this June, it’s about a building at 404 East 14th Street that Larry Rivers owned and that was party central for artists like Kusama and Claes Oldenburg in the 1960s. The show includes stuff by the French neo-Dadaist Jean Dupuy, who organized shows there in the ‘70s, and artists like Fred Wilson and Tom, and his wife Kathy Butterly, who live there now. And me, I lived there in the 1990s.

But I have two series of figure paintings that I’m anxious to work on and show. One is based on Macy’s fashion advertising images, and images from Land’s End and even Bergdorf’s. Fashion ads are a separate language, everyone knows that, but I like especially the very middle-brow ones, where the clothes that the models are selling are very square, and the images have sexuality but it’s fairly low-key. The models smile out at you. It’s amusing I think to have a painting that selling something like, say, pajamas.

The second series is based on ads from Backpage, where young women offer “body rubs” or services as “escorts.” These also have their own language, which has developed indigenously, so to speak. It’s a language of solicitation, and one of uncertain legality. So the images both disclose and hide -- the women show their bodies and disguise their identity with sunglasses, for instance, or by cropping, which is fabulous, since that’s a technique that dates back to Degas. Or the pictures are of other people altogether. The imagery is about seeing, showing, selling, and transferring all that to contemporary painting in today’s art-market-driven art world has fascinating results.

INTERVIEW: Stephen Petronio & Janine Antoni

 

 

 

The depiction of resurrection is inherently one of spectacle whether violent or rapturous, but perhaps none yet have captured the multifaceted cross-cultural substance of the story wherein the soul returns to the body. Choreographer, Stephen Petronio and performance artist, Janine Antoni, along with collaborators Son Lux, Francisco Núñez, H. Petal, and Ken Tabachnick, will attempt to bring such an ambitious vision to the stage of The Joyce Theater this week in a pastiche that includes Petronio’s all but body-breaking movements and Antoni’s sharp, visceral conceptual sensibilities. The complex -- and demanding -- arrangement will feature Antoni suspended on a helicopter stretcher in meditation above the audience before and during the dance performance. Hung around her figure will be some 25 milagros, replicas of her skin and bones that are posed in positions and gestures Petronio’s dancers will take. The dance performance itself will present symbol of regeneration as well as glimpses of resurrection narrative, sultry, tortured compositions to American slave hymns as well as fracturing juxtapositions.

Most striking about the undertaking, however, is the uncanny weave of the phoenix with Lazarus, Catholicism with Eastern meditation, the visual plane with the emotional that culminates in a highly orchestrated synaesthesia of earthly human faculties. The audience experience becomes a sort of out of body episode in the collective consciousness of the theater space, a resuscitation to one’s awareness of what any individual reality – the life that happens somewhere between a birth we don’t recall and a death we can’t comprehend – is. 

Like Lazarus Did opens April 30th at The Joyce Theater. 

Choreographed by Stephen Petronio

Performance by Janine Antoni

Music composition by Son Lux

Music performed by The Young People’s Choir of New York City under the direction of Francisco Núñez (April 30th and May 1st only)

Costume Design by H. Petal

Lighting Design by Ken Tabachnick

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Why are you meditating on a helicopter stretcher?

JA:  I was thinking about what objects in the world are for the supine body and I came to the stretcher. When I found the helicopter stretcher I realized it was perfect because it is also used to lift the body. Even further, I think of my body in this work as representing the middle ground between life and death so the stretcher becomes an appropriate metaphor for this state.

It makes me think of illness or injury.

SP: Or rescue.

JA: But also that moment when you are faced with your mortality, which I

think is important.

How does meditation relate to your practice as an artist?

JA: It’s interesting that I probably came to meditation through my making practice before I was taught formally. A lot of my work is repetitive so I spend a significant amount of time in the studio doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve been meditating formally for the past 15 years and I will definitely draw on that practice in this performance.

And, Stephen, in an interview with Time Out New York in 2011, you actually compare dance to meditation. Can you speak about your process and how your work relates to meditation?

SP: All my work is made through an improvisational state. I go into a state of “something,” which is altered and from that place there is an intuitive flow of movement that comes out of my body and that is a meditation. I practiced formal meditation when I was younger and various kinds of sitting, but I don’t do that anymore. Stillness is not my specialty, but I realized that everyday I go from the state of a normal human being who’s got physical and emotional needs and is whiny and is cold, hot, grumpy or happy, and I go into the studio and that falls away in the process of warming up into the choreographic state, which for me is a meditative state and so I try to mine that state. Whatever comes up in my body in that moment I try to bring back, like wrangling wild animals, for the audience to see. It’s harder for them to see the mental or spiritual or emotional state you get into … some people can, some people can’t, but you can always see the form. So just the like helicopter stretcher has a lot of deep meanings behind it, it’s still just a stretcher, and the forms that you see on the stage are formally crafted in what I consider an interesting way, but there’s a lot of mental states that linger behind them if you are able to perceive them.

It sounds like for both of you there’s this interesting take on mind/ body duality, though it’s not necessarily so strict, and the mind and body get mixed up.

SP: I will say my art making is not a meditative practice. I slip into meditative states in the process of creating and the audience can slip into any state they want or they can while they’re watching, but I’m not a spiritual disciplinarian, I’m an artist who’s making art and Janine will tell you nothing about me is strict except for the fact that I’m rigorous. I will look at a structure and use it for my own means and I won’t let it complete itself for the sake of completing itself. I’ll use it for whatever means I need it, so I’m very mercurial in that way.

JA: I’m waiting for that duality to slip away and it happens most to me when

I’m making art. It’s when I’m most embodied and I’m thinking through my body. But there is definitely a moment to step away and take on the position of the viewer. This is when a more critical thinking mind takes over. For me the creative process is about stepping back and forth between these two states.

SP: When I’m moving in practice, as a choreographer, I’ve trained myself to watch myself when I’m in that intuitive state because that’s the only way that I can bring stuff back. Do you struggle with that?

JA: Well I’m trying to go in, in, in, in, in, in, in, but in my movement practice, which is not performative, there’s the teacher who is the witness. So they take care of the outside for me and create a kind of safe space for me to go that far in.

SP: For me it’s always a very tricky balance of letting go of me, Stephen

Petronio, who I am and what think about myself as an art-maker or a person or a husband or a lover, slipping away from that into a state of surrender, but also being able to assimilate information and watch it on some level.

JA: What’s funny is that when you make a discovery by going so deep in, you immediately step out to try to see it.

SP: You have to catch it.

JA: You have to catch it, and to do so I have to do it again. “What was that that just happened to me?” and so I do it again and again in order to know it.

 

 

 

Is artistic practice an alternative to or akin to spiritual practice?

JA: That’s a big thing to claim.

SP: I don’t want to make that claim, but I do want to say that part of the reason I’m attracted to the theme of resurrection as a fallen Catholic, is because when I was conceiving this piece I was sitting at my father’s funeral in the church where I went to parochial school, this church was built in the

60s, and it was 2012 when my father passed away, and on the altar, was this guy talking about my father’s rapture, how joyous that my father would be back and we can’t wait for that. It just hit me when I was listening to these songs, it just hit me that that is the thing that every spiritual practice has marketed – redemption. It’s intangible and un-provable. What a great product. I’m not going to say that my dancing is a spiritual practice, but it has made me a much more enlightened person.

JA: I wasn’t going to the use the word “enlightened,” but I was going to say that art makes me live with more integrity or at least at a deeper level. It makes me more alive and to be making is to locate myself in the world.  Are those spiritual concerns? And then there’s the question of why are we here and what’s going to happen to us. Spirituality tries to answer those questions and so does art. I could also say that I make in order to feel connected to others. That’s probably what motivates me the most. Dare I say that it makes me a more loving person.

And the project is actually dealing with a lot of cross-cultural references. Lazarus comes from the Bible, but we’re also talking about meditation.

SP: The idea is rising above. Coming out of the body and regeneration and rebirth. Every culture has a story about regeneration from phoenix to Lazarus to reincarnation. I would say that my interest is that process of dying and being reborn.

JA: And that comes up in different forms throughout the piece.

SP: The phoenix is crucial at one point. Formally, I use retrograde and accumulation to move through simple physical states over and over again just for the experience of seeing the same material coming back and coming back and how your perception changes when you stay with something that’s limited over and over again. But, musically, the whole piece really was inspired by a songbook of American slaves from the mid-1800’s, previously only passed by oral tradition. My composer Son Lux (aka Ryan Lott) brought it to me and I was just really moved by the faith of the most oppressed people using this music to get out of their body for a promise that was elusive. It just really hit me how elevated those songs were and the people who were singing them were the most tortured people on the planet, but they got into this most beatific, elevated state through these songs and I really was struck by that.

Is this the first time you two have worked together?

JA: Yes.

SP: In this life.

JA: We realized right away that we have a lot of affinities because of our fallen Catholic status.

SP: An age range.

JA: A certain point in our creative trajectory.

SP: I wanted to work with the Janine because I knew she was working with her body and that would be the most unlikely thing I would ever collaborate with because I am all about knowing my language and my world and claiming that world. It’s taken me 25, 30 years to make that mark and make it be identifiable, and then I was like, “Well, now what?” Janine is working with her body in a very different way. I was interested in Janine because I thought she could crack my bell basically and let some light in.

JA: And I’m looking for the same thing. That’s where my most recent interest in dance come from. It has opened up a new world for me. I came to it through moving myself and I found that it inspired my art practice and gave me access to unconscious information.  Usually I sit in the studio and wait for lightening to strike. I have learned that through my moving body, I can dislodge content that is somehow stored in my body. When I discovered this I was little disturbed because I didn’t want to go to the studio any more I just wanted to dance. I thought, I have to integrate this? So I laid a dance floor in my studio and started to move around my unfinished work. At that point things started to merge. Then Stephen magically arrived.

 

 

 

What’s interesting to me is that the production sounds so very constructed and considered right down to fractions of movement, but boundaries are also breaking down, even with the performance beginning in the street and being brought into the theater. You’re both performers and I’m curious what, to your minds, is the boundary between reality and performance?

JA: I feel like you have a body and you already know in your body what it would be like to stay still for two hours and that puts you immediately in a place of empathy, so I don’t think I’m doing anything so spectacular up there. I’m just committing to stillness for that time and I feel like I’m being still for the audience or even with them. I hope they will feel connected to my still body. That is reality. If you want to think of me symbolically, then you can go from there.

SP: Some people think that way and some people don’t really.

JA: But I think the reality of the body brings it back to something very basic. I think in a way, with the dancers too, they’re moving for us. When they jump, when they elevate, we feel it.

SP: You go up.

JA: Even if you can’t do it physically.

SP: Or you notice how down you are, which I hear a lot from people. I want to disagree with Janine in a way because I don’t think people really understand what it’s like to be still for two hours. They could understand the idea of it, but who could be still for two hours? I would be very hard pressed.

I would have to work up to that for months and months and months to be able to be still for two hours. But I also hear from people who come to the shows, “Oh my god, I’m just exhausted watching the dancers.” What they’re exhausted by is focusing and they’re exhausted by the shifts in energy I’m giving them.

JA: I think when you watch the dancers do what they do, when you get up to walk out of the theater, you walk away differently. You’re not doing what they’re doing, but you experience your body differently.

SP: I always see people out on the street trying to do it too. That’s always really fun.

What comes next with this piece?

JA: The piece is going to take different forms.

SP: The piece was conceived not for a proscenium space. It was moved into a proscenium space for various reasons. I’m thinking of this as a series of editions that started in a ballroom where there were only about a hundred people sitting around it and Janine wasn’t in it, but we were already talking about working together. It was a very intimate experience. Having four sides, everything was an action instead of an image. When you put something on stage it becomes an objective image because actions are framed and they’re far away. This is this edition. Then we’re moving down into St. Paul’s Chapel by the Trade Center at the end of June through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council so again it will have more than one side.

All photos by Sarah Silver, courtesy of Stephen Petronio Company. 

INTERVIEW: Billy Jacobs

 

Stone-Tape Theory, Oil on linen, 2012

Billy Jacobs is an astute fellow, with razor-sharp opinions on music (and many other things). A Velvet Underground devotee, Bowie freak, rock ’n’ roll junkie. Billy is also a painter whose work I’d buy if I had the money. His paintings are the essence of desire – attractive yet elusive. I visited Billy at his studio on Wooster Street in Soho to attempt to speak about painting after staring at a computer screen all day. Here are the results.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

Last visit you had paintings on the wall of governmental conspiracy figures, Manson girls, and Area 51. What initiated these interests?

I have always been a sucker for esoteric and sensationalistic topics of 20th century history. My interest in these topics developed by hearing passing references in films or music when I was younger, and I would need to seek out the story. I always had a hard time accepting that these people or events were real, and so I would become transfixed by their images, which act as a kind of documentation or evidence of their existence. Why did I then feel the need to paint them? I am not sure if I can answer that beyond saying it was a compulsion and felt very logical. Maybe I wanted others to become as fascinated with these topics as I was?

 

What's your favorite conspiracy? 

I'll go with a classic: the JFK assassination. I began "researching" it when I was about twelve, and was intrigued by the cognitive dissonance surrounding the event. The majority of people do not believe the official story, yet they still have a hard time accepting a conspiracy theory. Recognizing that dissonance at that age definitely warped my view of the authoritative voice of history. My mistrust was exacerbated by the availability of so much evidence and documentation, especially photographic. This still is pretty unique to the JFK assassination: you can actually see photographs of the alleged participants, and learn about their biographies, and theorize motives. It stands in stark contrast to many other conspiracies where the participants are just faceless government organizations and the motives are vague "national security" It was probably my introduction to abstraction as well. I would pour over the high contrast black and white photos, in which researchers would claim that a fuzzy white mass definitively proved that there was a second gunman or whatever. A conspiracy I love in terms bizarreness, is anything to do with Reptilians. I do not claim to be an expert on this conspiracy, but the gist is that there are Reptile-like humanoids that inhabit our leaders. There are two schools of thought on the Reptilian motives: one that they are in collusion with the classic Gray Aliens, and trying to enslave humans, or that the Reptilians are in conflict with Gray Aliens, who are benevolent creatures watching over us. I am so intrigued that for some people these theories are the logical way to understand the world.

 

Lately, you've been engaged with the idea of landscape, but unlike your "bird's eye view" paintings, these are divorced from subject. What happened?

Most of the aerial paintings were of Area 51, a secret military base in Nevada. By making multiple paintings of the same subject, the process became more about exploring abstraction than just rendering a specific image. I realized that I wanted paintings that were more visually abstract, and had vaguer and more mysterious subject matter. I began painting Egyptian ruins because I know very little about their historical or cultural specifics, but have always found them visually fascinating. Ironically, about six months after I began the paintings, the revolution in Egypt occurred. It was an interesting reminder that you cannot ever escape the social/political implications of a subject matter.

After painting fairly realistic landscapes of the ruins, I became more focused on the structures themselves. I began collaging my source material, forming new structures. I was focusing on rendering these new, unreal structures, instead of just depicting a vista with a sense of space. This rebuilding simultaneously allowed for me to push the abstraction of the painting and disrupt conventions of the landscape genre, to an even greater degree than the aerial paintings.

 

I see Egyptian ruins as almost metaphorical to your the development of your painting. Could you be more specific about why Egyptian ruins fascinate you? 

Ancient Egyptian ruins are a loaded, yet not pointed, subject matter. They embody ideas of the past, specifically bygone civilizations, mankind's physical creations, etc., but they also imply the present because they exist today. In fact, a lot of my source material are images by Francis Frith, the 19th Century photographer. Today, his black and white prints feel almost as distant as the ruins themselves. I am sure there is a Colonialization critique to make about Frith's work, as he mined another culture for his work. I do not know or care about his intentions, though. I initially chose his photographs purely for visual reasons, but I like that using them inherently comments on the tendency for any era to assess past eras. However, I do not identify with Frith any more than I do with the Egyptians who made these structures. Rather, I find both cultures equally exotic because of the distance that time creates.

 

Something we didn't discuss at your studio was titles - which, looking at your website, seem important. Are they important?

We probably did not discuss them because they are not really part of my process. I keep a list of potential titles and, when I am finishing up a body of work, I will impulsively assign titles to specific paintings. It is not completely free association, but it is usually a snap judgment. The phrases mostly come from songs, films, etc. and perhaps are paying homage to my artistic inspirations. I can understand why a lot of other artists leave their work untitled, but that always disappoints me. Since the viewer usually will read the title after seeing the work, it seems like such a great opportunity to create another level of tension by confirming or denying the tone, subject matter, or attitude of the work. However, I do choose series or exhibition titles with much more care, as they will often be an introduction to the work.

 

You brought up lying a lot in our discussion. What is it with painting and lying?

A good friend of mine has often described painting as "a lie," so that is often on my mind. Even non-representational or conceptual painting usually has an optical or illusionistic space or aspect, which for me, is the quintessential trait of a painting. This illusion, or lie, or fantasy is the perfect complement to historical subjectivity. History is an agreed upon, somewhat inaccurate, and essentially fantasized narrative. That idea gets compounded with alternative histories: conspiracy theories, forgotten histories, myths, and other revisions. Our inability to accurately grasp events is perfectly manifested in a painting's abstraction.

 

Can you explain the term "paintingland"?

The title of my first career retrospective?
 
 

INTERVIEW: Patricia Cronin

 


                                         image of “Boys” courtesy of Patricia Cronin 

In February this year, the New Museum opened the much discussed and ambiguously criticized exhibit, “NYC 1993: Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” a show featuring dozens of artists from the era of Gen-X and the culture wars, blue nail polish and grunge. Twenty years ago, one of those artists, Patricia Cronin, was just beginning her career with a Polaroid photograph series controversial for the portrayal of frank eroticism from a woman’s perspective, and alternative sexuality including same-sex twosomes and moresomes back in the day of the AIDS crisis and don’t-ask-don’t-tell. 

On a rainy afternoon this March, Cronin toured me through her studio to talk about the work she made in that moment of America that was pre-iPhone, pre-9/11, and pre-Google, but post-Roe vs. Wade, post-Reagan, post-Cold War. She discussed, as well, her current work as a scholar resurrecting the legacy of the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who was renowned in her day, though she’s now lost to the selective memory of history. 

Cronin took a self-made career path that today seems almost impossible for most of the current 20-something creative set. Her studio with huge vertical windows and high ceilings on that rare quiet Brooklyn street emits an atmosphere of sanctuary. The space is occupied by bodies that are both sexy and – as Cronin will say herself, specifically of the Dante series, – heartbreaking. There are life-size macabre male figures writhing off their canvasses, a small pair of paper angel wings thrashing and fluttering in a current of air from the heater, and there are tables of Polaroids featuring the most intriguingly carnal acts. The fleshiness of Cronin’s paintings and photographs results in work that is less depiction and more impression, that is, the viewer does not passively view, but becomes implicated. It’s work that’s as uncomfortable as seductive, as witty as visceral, and while Cronin’s work decidedly reflects a lively engagement with the world that bore it, there are also deep strokes that touch upon the more intense themes –and anxieties and absences— of art and history.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

So, tell me about the Polaroid pieces “Boys” and “Girls”, which are in the “NYC 1993: Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star” exhibit at the New Museum now, right?

Well, in 1992 (and it’s still the same today), you could not see the full expression of female sexuality reflected in the culture. So my friend, artist Ellen Canter and I thought we would do something about it and started going to artist studios and putting this show together. It was called, “Coming to Power: 25 Years of Sexually X-plicit Art By Women” and we chose the artists, picked the pieces and pitched it to a lot of venues. David Zwirner presented it in 1993 and it included Louise Bourgeois, Yoko Ono, Marilyn Minter, Alice Neel, Carolee Schneemann, and Cindy Sherman, among others.

And this was your first big exhibition, the one that really put you into the game?

Yes. Actually, I was always kind of surprised no other gallerists ever picked up on these. It’s great that younger curators are interested in them. There’s politics, sexuality, my three girlfriends at the time and Madonna! [points to Polaroid in “Girls”, in which a cardboard cutout of Madonna is visible]. The Madonna image was a life-size marketing display cardboard cutout promoting her infamous Sex book and the film Body of Evidence. A friend of mine worked at a video store and I asked her if I could have it as soon as the store was done with it. I took it home on the subway and put her in my bed and that was it.

Yes!

Which was really fun.

You can’t turn down a life-size cutout of Madonna. Tell me a little bit about the process of the Polaroids. They look very candid. How orchestrated were they?

They’re not orchestrated at all. It’s not set-up photography. The curator, Sandra Firmin, has written about them and contextualized them as being made during the Culture Wars and in relationship to Robert Mapplethorpe and Catherine Opie, but without the distance or the safety of a studio shot. These are taken within the frenzy of participation. There’s something really at stake in these photographs. I’m a really good student of art history, art theory, and performance art of the 80s and 90s. It’s when I came up in the art world. I saw art moving away from these ideas and I wanted to test them. I was really interested in power and representation, feminism, and the gaze, but as a lived experience.  Not just about how art history problematized the gaze in terms of allegory, but how I am a woman, I was there, I took those photos, and now you are me as the viewer. It’s the seeing eye being imbricated. It is an index of a feminist narrative. Not THE feminist narrative, just A feminist narrative that just happens to be MINE. 

One thing about these works is that they interrogate that boundary between another industry that is short on female gaze, which is pornography, and what is the difference between porn and art. Was that a question for you?

Oh yes, most sexually explicitly imagery, whether it’s pornography or art or that blurry space in between is basically produced by men for men. Back in ’93 everything was so politicized. There was a recession, scapegoats were needed, and many people in non-hegemonically normative bodies were demonized to consolidate the conservative electoral base. AIDS was an epidemic, research barely existed and politicians wouldn’t say the word. Abortion rights were at the front line, how to control women, very little has changed. That we’re still living in the culture wars is frightening. Along with other feminist activists, I was arrested for closing down the Holland Tunnel when the Supreme Court Casey decision came out. There were very few boundaries between the bedroom and the streets. Between ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), WHAM (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization), and WAC (Women’s Action Coalition) and other political activist groups that everyone I knew was participating in, and what you were doing in your bedroom or with your friends, there was no barrier, no walls. It was all the same thing, and that’s what I think you can really see in this work. 

That’s what I found interesting about them – there’s this confrontational sexuality, but there are elements of aesthetics that are at work and there is an eye that is tracing beauty, but it’s also all so unapologetically political and there’s this way that there’s almost no boundaries. 

But they’re not abject. I know 50 Shades of Grey is a very popular book this year, and I just want to say – this is no 50 Shades of Grey. I don’t understand women choosing abjection. I just don’t get it. Well, I understand there’s a lot of money in it, whichever way you do it, in your professional life or in your personal life. That’s how the culture encourages and rewards women. My work is all about female agency. Which doesn’t exclude a sense of humor, by the way. In the “Boys” piece, which is much more about S&M than the other, there are a couple of fun moments. I’ve got ‘safe sex practices’ that are hysterically funny like boiling your dildos so that they’re sanitized.

Was that a thing in the 90s?

Yes, everything had to be very clean and if you participated in any S&M activities. Everything had to be washed in hydrogen peroxide. So cleansing is actually part of it. But also, the images with the TV set – it’s Bush Headquarters, which is obviously a double-entendre, but it’s also actually George Herbert Walker Bush (with Barbara next to him) conceding to William Jefferson Clinton on election night in November 1992. Dan Quayle is in another image.

Ohhhhh.

A Clinton Administration was what a lot of us were hoping for, because the political climate had been so oppressive under Bush and Reagan. And in the midst of a recession, no artist was risking a financially lucrative art career if they actually had the courage to speak the truth. I think that’s what my images do. Now, many people are less inclined. But there was something about back then that was incredibly liberating you could actually just tell your truth. And then someone would have the equal courage to put it up on their walls. Hopefully, people will become more interested in that kind of direct communication again.

One thing I was thinking about is that there is a sense of beauty as defined by the female gaze here. I don’t want to canonize the female gaze, but I am curious from your perspective, what are characteristics of the female gaze?

I can’t get into a debate about Lacan, Mulvey and Foucault; all I can tell you about is my female gaze. And within these S&M performances in the “Boys” piece, they were the exact opposite of everything else I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. In this relationship, women are in total control and it is a vantage point that most people don’t see in male/female relationships. I took these images from that very rare subject position and I found it incredibly powerful. 


I mean, there’s an awareness of power. That’s what I notice about these, there’s very much an awareness of where power is and it’s not exploitive, it’s not abject as you say, but these [images] are very much aware of power.

The same is true with the “Girls” piece; I’m forcing the viewer to assume my visual subject position, to assume a lesbian body. That’s a very specific female gaze!

So how present do you think the female gaze is now, compared to when these were made?

I don’t think it’s very present at all. But I like movies from the 40s when women were smart, fast-talking, and [snaps fingers three times] . . . savvy and sassy, you know what I mean. Oh, but I just saw Kathy Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and I thought it was very much from a feminist perspective and a great film. It has stayed with me. The solemnity of the narrative is told with arresting visuals. She should have won the Oscar for Best Director. Can you believe she’s the only woman to ever win it? This is 2013. And I thought the art world was bad. And, I really identified with the lead character.

Where does your interest in the body come from?

Being raised Irish Catholic in New England, I’m hardwired this way, and I’m simply obsessed. There’s the natural world of the body, flesh and bone, blood and tears, and there’s the unnatural world beyond, and you’re trained to believe in both of them. I also think it’s where my passion for social justice comes from. 

One thing that I think about as a female writer is have times changed. I mean, things are different, but it’s all still there, so have we just remixed it in a way that’s appropriate to us?

There’s so much resistance to female agency and authority. This might officially be a “timeless” theme. I wouldn’t say it’s demoralizing, but it is unbelievably depressing.

One thing I think about as a woman and a writer and as someone who follows art, is when I see or read work by women, I feel like part of the problem in engaging in political subject matter is that you risk being reactionary and not a voice that’s at the table. And I see your work as politically in-your-face, though I don’t see it as reactionary. It’s carving a place for itself. 

Let’s start with everything is political. Then, of course my work is politically motivated, too. But I think the reason it doesn’t feel reactionary is because I’m always looking for a trifeckta; the right image or form for a very specific content and matching that up with just the perfect material. So it’s really conceptual, and engaging and satisfying to look at. If you take away any one third of this equation, the work should fail completely. Sometimes the work takes the form of a three-ton Neo-classical marble statue and sometimes it’s writing a catalogue raisonné and other times it’s figurative, expressive paintings, all to address my specific political content. I mean, I’m obsessed with the body and what it’s like to inhabit one. How we succeed and how we fail as human beings. Whose body has value, who gets to decide, what that feels like when other people decide the value of your body and what the cultural repercussions are of constantly being ascribed a certain political status. I’m really glad you see these works as not being reactionary. I just think it’s the artist’s job to tell you what’s it like to be “me” right now. 

And one way to do that is to look back at history, like I did with my interest, a trilogy really, in Harriet Hosmer, the first professional female sculptor.  First there were the watercolors of her Neo-classical marble statues, then Harriet Hosmer: Lost and Found, A Catalogue Raisonné that I wrote and now the last part – The Zenobia Scandal: A Meditation on Male Jealousy, published by the forthcoming issue of zing. 

One thing that stuck out to me about the Zenobia project was a quote from Joy Kasson, which was, “Hoping for popular approval, Hosmer did not defy her audience’s expectations about woman’s nature, but she did try to propose a different perspective on the captivity theme.” Do you think compromise is something that is necessary in some way?

It’s so interesting. Kasson is talking about “Zenobia in Chains,” an over life-size marble statue of Queen Zenobia, the Ruler of Palmyra (modern day Syria). I don’t think she compromised with “Zenobia” at all actually, because when Hosmer picked Zenobia as a subject, all of her male counterparts, including writers, sculptors and painters, chose Cleopatra. And we all know what happens to Cleopatra. She commits suicide instead of being captured by the Roman Army. Zenobia, after her husband was assassinated, rules for seven years in proxy for her son, conquers Egypt and most of Asia Minor. It was astounding what she was able to do in the 3rd century. She was educated in philosophy and mathematics, and was a brilliant military strategist. Eventually she was defeated by Emperor Aurelian, but doesn’t commit suicide, and they march her through the streets of Rome in gold chains as a war trophy. But the dignity and the solemnity with which Hosmer portrays Zenobia somberly moving forward is amazing, instead of Cleopatra on her deathbed. I mean, Zenobia talks the Emperor out of killing her and ends up getting remarried, has five more children and lives out her days in Tripoli outside of Rome as a diplomat – it’s unbelievable. Hosmer chose Zenobia as a subject when all the men are choosing Cleopatra – that’s how they saw women.  Hosmer chose to depict a strong woman ruler at a moment of potential humiliation but through her own agency persists, perseveres and prospers. This subject choice is intentional. So no, I don’t think that was compromising.

It’s an ambiguous piece. I’ve looked at [photographs of “Zenobia in Chains”] over and over this week, and I can read it so many different ways. There’s ways to read it as an objectification, a subjugation of women, and there’s even that very cynical idea that she has more value as a queen. 

Yes, you can certainly read it as ‘we won, the enemy Queen is our war trophy.’

Right, it’s not just any woman in chains, it’s a woman with more ‘value’ in chains. And there’s the reading of the woman with dignity even in humiliation, and I think humiliation is such a huge cultural force with women. We even see it with pop icons. We love to see a beautiful woman fall apart in media. I’m thinking like, Britney Spears going down.

I think the culture at large loves heaping huge rewards on women who can’t handle it. It feels almost premeditated in a sadistic way.

Right, and then it’s sort of a public spectacle. 

Oh yeah, because it’s demoralizing to other women or at least a warning to others, don’t try to compete in the big leagues.

One thing that really interested me about the project is that Harriet Hosmer’s story is sort of this female revenge narrative in a way. You discuss in the introduction the issue of  “eradication from history,” so I love this idea of resurrecting someone or something. 

I diplomatically call my Hosmer Catalogue Raisonné an “institutional critique.”  It’s not DJango Unchained. It’s more about justice than revenge. There’s a dearth of scholarship on important female artists and when I realized how famous Hosmer was in her time, how critically acclaimed, winning all the major commissions and exhibiting in all the international expositions (like our biennales) and that she didn’t have a catalogue raisonné? I decided to make one for her. In my research for the catalogue raisonné, I discovered this whole scandal instigated by jealous male sculptors. My discovery of this scandal happened at the exact same time as something very similar was happening to me: an ugly vendetta by jealous people I had considered close friends. Not unlike Hosmer, it was also a bitter unsuccessful old white man. While I was trying to figure out how and why Harriet Hosmer got erased from history, I learned from what was happening to me exactly how people try to wipe you out: destroy your reputation, damage you financially so you just disappear. Thankfully, the next year, I won the Rome Prize and was living at the American Academy in Rome. I was already working on Hosmer’s catalogue raisonné, and the more I read about her Zenobia scandal, I thought, wow, this is a really good story. It’s not right for the catalogue raisonné but I should do something with this because this still happens to women and so many women I know. Since all the characters involved, whether it was Henry James or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, were major figures in the arts, I realized, I didn’t need to write this narrative.  I just let them speak in their own words, friends and foes alike. So I sequenced their quotes to chronicle this event and Hosmer’s clever response that also really resonated with me.  It was a great creative vehicle to exorcise everything I’d been going through. Isn’t that what artists do?

For those of us who are educated in our areas of expertise, but don’t have lots of money, what seems implied in your project of Hosmer as well as Zenobia, and an idea that I really like, is that maybe we can rewrite the canon.  

I would love that. Nothing would make me happier.

INTERVIEW: LAIRD HUNT

 

 

Through the patch-work of voices rasping from the most notorious era of American history, Laird Hunt s most recent novel, Kind One (Coffee House Press, 2012), depicts the ordinary, excruciating lives of three women in antebellum America.  Though minimalist in approach compared to previous works by Hunt, Kind One operates via a series of trompe l’oeils, that is, if you are lulled by the steady round sung by Ginny, Zinnia, and Cleome as they embrace and beat, soothe and scar one another, you may not notice that slowly, slowly you have been saturated with countless other stories – an infant who drowned, a secret walk in the woods, a purple string extended between a shack and a well like an artery, an uncomfortable afternoon with one’s own stunned ruminations about the humiliation of American history.  The exploration of power struggles fought at close range is the engine of the text, and characters no sooner become pliable and plain, a cozy surrogate from which a reader might comfortably take a seat, before they implicate themselves in a more difficult, bruising human dance of cruelty and friendship. 

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Of all your work I’ve read, Kind One operates the mostly closely to realism, although I would argue that if realism is the convincing illusion of reality, Kind One is the convincing creation of a work of realism. The intentional materiality of narrative and language both induces a dream and calls attention to the work as a creative act. Like other novels of yours, Kind One calls into question the nature – and reliability – of reality as a phenomenon itself. Can you tell me about this choice to write a novel that appears to be more realistic than your past works? Were there particular writers that influenced this choice? 

I’ve been listening to Roscoe Holcomb sing today, in fact he is singing in my headphones as I type. I was trying to imagine parsing whether what he was doing was a kind of realism – in fact I can barely understand what he is singing most of the time and who knows what the sound of a banjo, his banjo means (both aspects of what he does certainly, of course, signify). It is certainly real. It’s coming through my headphones.  But it seems to me real in much the way the coffee in my mug is real and not at all in the way a novel written in the realist manner is typically experienced as representing/counterfeiting the real. I’ve always aspired to something like Holcomb rather than something like Dickens, if that makes sense.  This isn’t to say that some of my work doesn’t make use of realist devices and approaches. Kind One certainly does. But I like to think I will have lost whatever more or less serious game it is I’m playing if I ever begin, in a fundamental way, to imagine I’m working towards or away from a set of group think conventions (and group think happens across the aesthetic spectrum). In this context I could cite as influential work as diverse as Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and Akhmatova’s Testimony and Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian.

Violence isn’t censored much in Kind One and that narrators are indeed quite frank in their recount of events. The use of language, however, tends to avoid clinical descriptions. Ginny says her husband “comes in at her morning and evening” to describe six years of a routine of incidents that includes both consensual sex and marital rape. Alcofibras is “fitted for drapes” when he is whipped to death. Rather than concealing the violence, I thought this understated diction was frustratingly distant and therefore powerful as a mode of description for the content. Why did you choose to depict violence primarily in these voices as opposed to an authorial voice? 

It’s certainly the case today that you can sit on the bus or in a restaurant or almost anywhere you can conceive of and listen to someone speak in outrageous detail into a cellphone about the injuries suffered by someone’s cousin in a car accident or a fight over a parking spot or about the colonoscopy that someone has undergone as a result of the natural deleterious processes of aging, and that a whole array of television programs and movies exist seemingly with the single goal of laying out with great precision the results of trauma on the human body, actual or imagined.  All of this is aided and abetted by the internet, which can serve up the specifics of horror suffered by those who cohabit our planet at the touch of a link. I’m not sure though that any of us speak to ourselves in this way, not to our deeper selves, not to the parts of us that are really listening to what we have to say. What is the shorthand of the soul? Kind One proposes itself as a kind of whispering, the voices pitched between speech and writing. A whisper can chill. A quiet remark can annihilate. And sometimes it is all that can be managed. All that we are up for saying.  Frederick Douglass speaks of the “blood-stained gateway” that led into the institution of slavery. He meant the whip. He is far from being afraid of specifics but he also makes use of this kind of chilling, potent, experience-based metaphor. In Kind One, Zinnia “tells” Prosper what was done to her by Ginny by holding his hand up to her scar. Sometimes all we can do is point. 

One way that Kind One produces an illusion of realism without actually utilizing the traditional techniques of realism to the letter is via a relapse of imagery – the baths, the key, the purple string, the well, the silent coupe, the daisies, the pigs. It’s rather songlike in that way and there’s a definite nod to poetry at work here and the patterning of motif is elaborate. Bizarrely, this is also the mechanism of propulsion taking precedence (I suspect) over plot. What is your process for conjuring a narrative with direction and energy?

One of the particular challenges of first person narration is that plotting finds itself doubled. First the person speaking needs to decide how he/she is going to tell the story, how it is going to be arranged, plotted, then the writer needs to do this. One could argue that this is of course all part of the same authorial gesture, but in the case of Kind One, which has multiple first-person narrators, I found it very much worked this way. Ginny needed to decide what she was going to say and see what she could say, as did Zinnia and the others, and when they had all finished I needed to go in and rearrange the narrative furniture, paying close attention to what was distinct in what they had to say and what overlapped. Patterning — and you’re right that there is a fairly complex system of reprise and echo at work throughout the book — is much more interesting to my mind than putting into play some sort of received mechanism used to create the illusion of a causal universe. The patterning has to be complex and unpredictable, or verge on the unpredictable, and it may well be the variety of pattern that is only fully apprehended afterward even if it is felt throughout. I think there is great propulsion to be gained by working with both blatant repetition (pigs, pigs, pigs!) and a subtler, much subtler system of reprise (kind, nice, gentle, demon, fury).

When Barthes calls literature a tissue of quotations he is also calling it a tissue of repetition and reprise. We don’t need Barthes to tune into the dominant that reprise represents in life on and off the page. All you have to do is live among others to hear yourself and them say the same or practically the same thing about some reasonably small number of things over and over and that is life. Far from finding this numbing, I hear (and see: our gestures repeat and reprise themselves too after all) great energy and power accruing in this mechanism of resaying that plays itself out over the course of our lives. Spells and chants and words of power are powerful exactly because they insist, they say again, they confirm: which we all do all the time without necessarily thinking of it in this way. In this context, withholding, delay, echo and return are powerful tools for exploring the potential as well as kinetic energy of a work and the language that manifests that work. To organize the constituent elements of books (which is another way of saying to “plot” them) with this in mind strikes me as completely reasonable.

The features of the inner human life that are examined most frequently in your work are madness and memory. Another crucial quality to the relapse of imagery – and I suspect, the propulsive energy it invokes and rides – is the exploration of the process of recollection. How does narrative relate to memory?

It is overlapping to the point of being identical. Still, there is that gap, that small difference between narrative and memory, that keeps them distinct. I remain powerfully drawn to the exploration of that gap. It feels to me like a planet or planetoid object that (like Pluto) that for so long was sensed but not seen.

Like prior novels, Kind One is written in a series of fragments. A narrative arc is intact (or rather mostly, but broken in choice ways to create space for haunting absences) and the plot deals with time as linear. On the one hand, I’ve always read your use of the fragment as a form of subtle play with the fragmented nature of memory. On the other hand, I often wonder if writers who work in the fragment are responding intuitively or intentionally to the impact of technology on attention span. William S. Burroughs correctly predicted that the television would supersede the book as the most popular form of narrative art and new technology has irrevocably changed the publishing industry in the last five years alone. What is the future of written narrative, in your opinion?  Do you think that the use of the fragment is a way to appeal to the preferred (and trained) modes of modern consciousness without losing artistic sophistication? 

I’ve been very interested in and heartened by the explosion in very recent years of book arts, in some cases as a very conscious rebuttal to the shifts being enacted in the world of books by the cigarette-like spread of technology that shows all the signs of being produced not to empower but to ensnare. New Directions is among the higher profile places that have moved aggressively and with great success to celebrate the technology of the printed book. I’m thinking of work like Nox by Anne Carson or the Untouchables by B.S. Johnson, but also the lovely edition of Microscripts by Robert Walser and the very handsome, magenta-stamped edition of essays by Roberto Bolaño. The graphic novelist Chris Ware just published his own book in a box, which is essentially a collection of gorgeous fragments. He wanted to make and disseminate something that could not be reproduced digitally (his drawings often feature parents spacing out with iPads in their hands as children play nearby). 

There are also projects like the magazine Birkensnake, co-edited by Brown and Denver graduate Joanna Ruocco, that exist to move from eye to hand to hand to eye and could never be experienced in all their wild papers and materials and unusual inks with an Android or iPhone. I don’t at all want to give the impression that I’m a Luddite.  I’ve been interested since the short-lived early Rocket Readers in the possibilities of electronic reading experiences. And it is quite possible that I have been stitching shards all these years as a kind of response to and affirmation of the visual experience of reading little chunks at a time of Waiting for Godot on my Palm Pilot in 1997 or so. But my writerly sense of self is still dominated by the exigencies of post-scroll pre-smartphone reading technologies and I’ll likely keep principally attending to them, both consciously and not, as I continue to work on my central preoccupations: memory and narrative and fiction and prose.

The subject matter of Kind One explores race and gender in antebellum America and as far as I am aware, this is the only novel you’ve written that primarily takes the perspective of women. Additionally, the novel spends a significant amount of time in the perspective of a woman of color. The portrayal of the main characters is not objectifying, degrading, self-congratulatory, or facile – though there is a remarkable shared stoicism to their voices. As a white male author who began his career at the height of identity politics in America, what was the impetus to take the perspective of the other? What challenges did you face in your process in writing these voices and characters?

I recently found myself in conversation with the excellent writer and editor Kate Bernheimer, who made the comment, about Kind One, that it must have been really hard to write.  Which it was. And how much harder, of course, infinitely harder, must it have been to live these things that the novel evokes. Peter Warshall, an early mentor, whom I served as a teaching assistant at the Kerouac School in Boulder, reserved the highest place in his vision of things literary for those novels that took on the most complicated quandaries and deepest moral dilemmas and most difficult situations. He spoke of Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom among a good number of other books. 

I think of this because for a number of years I felt like some of the greatest writing challenges that an American might usefully take up were cordoned off for me. It was the mid 1990s and I was expressly told by my peers in writing school that I must not, under any circumstances, write the other. That if I did this I would be perpetuating a violence that was very real and very much ongoing. Plus as a straight white male I could never convincingly enter the head of someone who was unlike me. It would be a joke. A violent one. I am nothing if not attentive to the concerns and feelings of others and for years I took this injunction as an opportunity to avoid a fearful trespass. Also, somewhere along the line, most probably upon the publication of Beloved by Toni Morrison, it came to seem as though slavery was something only writers of color could legitimately address, in the way that the Holocaust seemed a subject that only survivors and their descendants had the right to take up and wrestle with in all its awful, heart-wrecking depth. 

No doubt the work of W.G. Sebald, who as a gentile and son of a Nazi soldier wrote at length and compellingly about the Holocaust and its after-effects in Germany, put into my mind the idea that I might take up or try to take up the subject of antebellum chattel slavery and its legacy, which after all still sits dead center in the national psyche, and with so much still to be considered. In that context, I remember a comment made in passing by Tony Horowitz, that there remained so many, many unexplored stories about the Civil War, its antecedents and aftermath, and that too had an energizing effect on me.  More than anything else though it was the voice of Ginny Lancaster which came spilling one day off the tip of my pen, and the other voices it gave birth to, that called me to this work. And maybe, thank God, I had aged out of being afraid of offending the vocal members of my workshops who were still and are still (in my mind) telling me not to do this and that. 

The novel is very aware of power in human relationships and moreover intimate power is unstable. There’s also a bit of a mockery of constructed power roles at work (for example, when the main character though barren must be referred to by the black slaves as ‘mother’ per the rules of her tyrannical husband). It occurred to me while reading Kind One that ceding or taking power is often an intellectual act – something that requires a certain amount of deliberation even in the face of coercion and pure force – as humans, as primates, we’re always very aware of power. I suspect that one of the great misunderstandings of oppression are the internal calculations of both the oppressor and the oppressed. Internal language, which is best accessed and portrayed via literature, is possibly the most effective way to portray the long-term, conscientious, internal processes of oppression artistically.  How does one go about exploring and then depicting the inner lives and reckonings of an oppressor and of someone who is oppressed?

This is lovely in that it speaks its own answer even as it formulates its question.  There is self and then there is awareness of self and we all have both even when we are shackled, even when we snuggled down by choice in a cold frame by an outhouse. An editor at a major publishing house who has now gone on to edit a famous literary magazine read the central narrative of Kind One (Ginny’s tale), which for a long time was the whole book, and commented that he could not believe in this poor, rural woman’s voice. It does quite a lot of work this poor, rural woman’s voice, and perhaps it seemed to him that it did too much. All the voices in the book are set to work and to speak complexity in their different ways. Attention to the shallow and deep parts of the pocket both, to borrow a bit from Ginny, seems crucial in this. I imagined Ginny as simpler and more complex than it was reasonable for her to be. I imagined all the characters in the novel in this way. Their voices are pushed past reasonableness, towards reticence, towards hyperbole. As the subject of slavery required that they be. There could be no easy middle ground. Just as there could be no clear conclusion. They were and are in a vortex.

In that vein, the image of masculinity in Kind One is complicated. The novel in fact begins with a short vignette from the perspective of a farmer who is digging a well. The portrayal of this character depicts a rich inner life including the expression of emotions and self-awareness about the delivery or withholding of violence (particularly in regards to his wife and child).  This gentler depiction of masculinity is counterpoised to the brutality of other straight, white, male characters in the text and thus there is the implication that the qualities of violence, domination, and cruelty are not intrinsic to male identity. If depictions of the other, particularly when beheld by the gaze of privilege, must shift, must the image of privilege (in the example of Kind One, masculinity, whiteness), shift as well? 

If writing, if literature, has work to do, and I believe it does, it is in this domain. 

Though primarily realistic, there are flights of surrealism, which are frequently in response to trauma. Zinnia and Cleome teach Ginny about the escape of the mind, which she is already very amenable to from her love of books.  Alcofibras is called upon to deliver oral stories. And when Ginny is imprisoned and near death, she experiences flights of the mind. Thus, imagination is held in direct contrast to trauma in Kind One. What is the role of imagination in the contemporary mind (a mind inundated with technologies and mass marketing, a mind frequently confronted by the trauma of war and poverty warped by the often false sense of distance)?

Even as I make reference above to the challenges facing American writers, I do not fool myself even for a minute that the corporate advertising-driven gadget nightmare we are building for ourselves is any more urgent, or rather anywhere near as urgent, as the nightmares of illness and poverty and environmental devastation and war that so many people on the planet are facing. The endless cavalcade of apocalypse books and shows remind us here in the west that we are always only a meteor or virus or nuclear weapon away from a return to the “old ways”, to lives that are “nasty, brutish and short” to borrow a bit from Leviathan. Too many people are already and still living with seemingly incommensurable challenges, like how to find a drink of water that hasn’t been polluted beyond hope of recovery, and while I would never presume to suggest what would be most helpful or useful in these contexts (which also play out here, daily, in the richest nation in history), I do know that every one of us can and does imagine, and that it is the imagination and the closely related faculty of dreaming, whether controlled by fear or joy or desperation or tech-enabled passivity, that can and does still allow us to be both here and elsewhere simultaneously. And that is something.

Similarly, the role of parable is crucial to Kind One, though unlike traditional parables, the lessons of Kind One are often ambiguous in their final statements and more seemingly invested in creating an emotional or psychological texture. Most striking of these is the parable of the skulls with flames who hunt all the other animals out of jealousy, as told by Cleome.  This story doesn’t offer a lesson in the sense of prescriptive advice and rather endows the real world with both magic and evil.  What is your interest in parable?  I can’t help but think about how children’s stories are often allegorical, so – were you told parables as a child that have perhaps influenced your sense of narrative?

If you have read the Palm-Wine Drinkard by the late Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola you will recognize the skulls, though his are up to different things than Cleome’s. Almost since I started writing I have been interested exactly in the textures as you describe them on offer in fables and folk tales. As often as not the ones I have been exposed to are non-Western in origin and they move in different ways and with different rhythms than we are accustomed to encountering in the works, say, of the Grimm brothers or Hans Christian Anderson. The stories my characters tend to tell or that exercise their imaginations are like parables or fairy tales with their moralizing ends broken off. Tutuola’s stories within stories tend to function this way.  I was never much interested as a kid in the moral conclusions in Aesop’s or LaFontaine’s fables, but the worlds they evoked burned new pathways in my brain. Those new pathways had the curious virtue of leading me straight into spaces that felt very, very old.

What forthcoming works do we have to look forward to?

I am working on a collection of autobiographical essay-stories that admit fiction to varying degrees. I’m thinking of borrowing and adapting the subtitle of the short novel I just co-translated from the French. The book, by Arno Bertina, is called Brando, My Solitude, a biographical hypothesis. So I might call this book, Runner, a hypothetical memoir. I’m working on other books too, at least one of which is a novel, told from a woman’s perspective, set in the 19th century.

INTERVIEW: Paul Ramírez Jonas

 

 

 

Getting free books and drinks rocks especially if you're a creative type hauling 16 tons getting another day older and deeper in debt, but what about free art?

Last weekend, Heliopolis in Greenpoint opened a new exhibit, "Witness My Hand," by Paul Ramírez Jonas where one can take a photocopy home for the effort only of pushing a button. The photocopier that replicates/creates reams of the work is the pedestal in the installation and Ramírez Jonas refers to the items on the photocopier as a “sculpture” calling into question what exactly among artist, viewer, photocopier, original and photocopy is the actual objet d'art.

The experience of the exhibit is a bit like going on a vacation: you arrive at the compact, bright gallery space, realize that the rules are a bit different because omfg you get to touch stuff, anxiously watch other visitors make photocopies first and then perhaps as the adventurous type choose to play along and make your own photocopy. You study your acquisition a bit over your glass of wine in a plastic cup before folding it away into your coat. It's only later at a bar when you reach for your wallet or perhaps when you're rifling through your pockets looking for your cell phone that your fingers stumble upon the paper again, and you remember there is art on your person. You have this memento and by virtue of where/how you acquired it, you're not exactly sure what to do with it. Does one frame it? Tuck it in a box of miscellanea? Hide it in a jewelry chest among earrings and other trinkets?  Throw it away (gah)? 

This disorientation of where art is located, in which art is neither literally out of reach, nor truly owned by the audience, teases out anxious questions around the art economy. What is the real value of an art object (and in the damaged world economy what is the value of any object)? Who determines the worth of a work of art? Who owns art? Perhaps least asked, but most crucially, how is art distributed?

Along those lines, the title of the exhibit refers to the occupation of notary (one who bears witness to originality). It would be a reach to interpret "Witness My Hand" as a direct statement on the increasing controversy (and yet dubious legality) of copyright violations from illegal online file sharing. Yet a packed opening reception surrounding a photocopier – nearly a beast of an antique – that visitors use to self-serve pieces of art as from a candy dispenser, does imply the freedom of information/technology activism's take on the Bacchanalian spirit.

Ramírez Jonas's particular iteration on the subject of art business and art spaces, of which, it should be noted, much has been said that ranges from the impressive to the foolish since Warhol, is successful significantly because the work is sincere, playful and thoughtful rather than cynical, snarky or final. Most of all, "Witness My Hand" comments on art without being exclusively about art economy, nodding just as heartily at the basic joy of engaging with whatever happens to be on the pedestal. Can this variety of joy be commodified? At "Witness My Hand" art isn't actually free, but it is a sly gift, that is, should you choose to reach out and take one. 

"Witness My Hand" is on view at Heliopolis through March 24th.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Is part of your interest in creating paper copies of a sculpture about comparing 3-D and 2-D compositions?

Not at all. My interests is not so much in me making copies as the viewer making copies. How is the art of looking different or similar to making copies, in fact to making. I am not claiming that they are the same or different, I am merely trying to create a situation where the viewer becomes an engaged part of the public. The choice to make, or not to make, a copy is what I hope will establish a relationship between the public and the sculpture. In fact I am interested in conjugating the word public: to make public, to publish. That is what both a pedestal and a copier do for the original, they publish it, they make it public.

In the conceptualization of this piece, how important is audience reaction and how do you anticipate audience reaction?

In the 90s and into the 00s I made worked that kept flip flopping between works that were predicated on participating and looking. When I achieved participation I always feared I had only accomplished some form of entertainment; and when I relied on the more Apollonian mode of viewership, the work seemed too distant. For the past few years I have settled for a kind of potential participation. In these situations the public can participate; but the artworks can function with you or without you. I want the choice to be important, to be felt. I want a threshold, however small, to be crossed by the viewer – and always – I want the option for the public to rescind their participation.

I believe that was your daughter at the opening with you? From what I know of you work, it occurred to me that there's a playfulness that possibly engages the perspective of a child. How does your daughter react to your work?

She is very critical. Most kids are. If I see my daughter's eyes, or her friends, glaze over and loose interest in what I am working on . . . I know I am in trouble.

The title "Witness My Hand" suggests that neither the pedestal (copier), sculpture (book), or photocopies are the artwork, but rather it is the audience observing the interactions of these elements. In some ways, the art object of your piece at the Dikeou Collection, "His Truth Goes Marching On" is in actuality the song that can be played and the different ways it's played by different viewers, rather than the (quite beautiful) chandelier of glass bottles itself. What, to your mind, is an art object?

That's an easy one! I would have to place myself squarely in the camp that the art is in the relation between you, me, and the object between us. Borges said it best:

The fact is that poetry is not the books in the library, not the books in Emerson’s magic chamber. Poetry is the encounter of the reader with the book, the discovery of the book.[i]

[i] Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights (New York: New Directions Books, 1984), 80.

How was the content for the sculpture that would be photocopied chosen? What is its significance?

The bust of Psyche was selected in a rather straightforward way. I simply looked at what was available. I thought that supply and demand would reveal what busts and what statues remain aesthetically and culturally significant to us as a culture. I hoped that whatever high quality reproductions are for sale will actually reveal this. So while I would have loved a bust of Piero Manzoni or Che Guevara, I instead had to choose between Psyche, Freud, Mozart, The head of Pericles, Michael Jackson, Ronald Reagan, Obama, etc. I inserted a clock in the concealed hollowness of the bust so the copy would not only show you the only part of the "sculpture-in-the-round" that we never get to see, but also the present time.

The second object is a statue of an open upside down book. In some ways it is very simple: it is what it is. It is also an inversion of one of my favorite kind of headstones at the cemetery: the open book.

A photocopier seems almost archaic with the technological revolution of the last five years alone. The reference to the origin of "notary" and the mention of copy centers in the press release suggests that you are, as an artist, observing an arc of technology especially in regards to how we relate to art. How do technology and art interact?

I seem to have a strange ability to become attracted to technology just as it is about to die. I am working with admission tickets just as they are becoming hard to find. However, the way we interact with technology is such that even the most up to date gadget will be nostalgic and outmoded within a few years. With the copier I had the initial instinct to use a 1963 Xerox, the first desktop plain-paper copier, I have no idea how many hundreds of thousands were made . . . I could not find a single one for sale. In fact I only found a handful in museums. My apologies, I am totally nerding out on you! I don't really have an answer to your question. Art and technology are part of our culture and they are inseparable from each other. I just like to note that we take great care in preserving our art history, but our technological history is almost disposable . . . the first web page ever online, for example, was lost years ago. Someone should have made a copy.