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. 





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.


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.


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.




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.


INTERVIEW: Jene Highstein

"Mix & Match: Watercolors from Cape Breton" spread from zing #23


From primordial human-scale concrete and cast sculpture made in various abandoned buildings in 1970s downtown New York, to Japanese brushes and watercolor on a remote coastal island, Jene Highstein's career has spanned decades, locations, and mediums. Most recently, the Cape Breton Drawings, which introduced color to his notoriously black palette. Moving from the terrestrial to the atmospheric, these works bring the viewer to the "magical landscapes" of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The Cape Breton Drawings are currently hanging in a solo exhibition at ArtHelix in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The drawings will also be featured in "Mix & Match: Watercolors from Cape Breton" in zing #23. In person, the man is a witty visionary, sharp of thought and full of personality—first hand experience of what this generation was about: achieving greatness, and having a great time doing so.

Interview by Brandon Johnson


What is the significance of Cape Breton to you personally?

My mother’s family is from Wilmington, NC and I spent my childhood summers on a beautiful white sand beach on the Atlantic. That experience was very moving. We would go to the beach early in the morning and spend all day in the sun swimming in the ocean and fishing off of a long wooden, and later, steel pier, which jutted far out into the Atlantic. We caught a myriad of fishy creatures, which we brought home for supper.

Meanwhile many of my friends had bought property in Cape Breton in the late 1960s, but I had never visited.  Among them are my cousin, Philip Glass, and friends Bob Moskowitz and Hermine Ford, Joan Jonas, Rudy Wirlitzer, and Lynn Davis along with many others.

In 2002, on a lark, I took my son Jesse with me to have a look and fell in love with the place.  It is very much like the NC experience in that the beaches are quiet, family-type places with few people, but the main difference is the remoteness and wildness of the landscape. The weather is relentlessly changeable, coming from one of four directions in turn so that in one hour the light changes dramatically. The color of the sky, sea, clouds; the fog rolling in and out, the rain coming and going all make for an amazing display of light and color and intensity of sun. 


The Black Splash Drawings from 2007 (especially "Gesture (Nature)” and "Atmosphere") seem to be precursors to the Cape Breton drawings. What initiated the Black Splash Drawings?

I have mixed my own black watercolors for many years but used them on traditional etching and other fine art papers. In about 2004 I began to experiment with what we call rice paper and the Chinese call Yuan paper. These are very different materials with extremely different reactions to the water element in the watercolors. Being in Cape Breton, so divorced from the NY art world and its taboos AND being a sculptor with no real inhibitions as to style and the history of painting, I was freed from all those constraints. I had used Chinese brushes for many years and am comfortable with their extreme sensitivity and ability to convey complex emotional charges. I began to use a kind of splash technique and was intrigued by it. That's how it began to dawn on me that that technique could work. Over time I was able to become freer and freer with it and continue to do so.


What brought you to watercolor?

In the 1970s I used dry pastels for my black. In the 1980s I switched to black chalks, but by the 1990s I began to mix my own watercolors from bone black pigment which gave me the most dense velvety black that has become the basis of all my two dimensional works.


You have described your earlier sculptural work as not being based on natural forms but evolving in relation to nature, carrying natural associations. Can this also be said about the watercolors?

Yes, I suppose so. The watercolors came about from the intense saturation of my visual world when I went on long walks with friends in the remote areas of Cape Breton. These experiences were also reinforced by exploring the local beaches and bogs, which turn up equally unexpected encounters. The resulting watercolors are not so much impressions of these experiences but perhaps meditations on them.


Many of the pairings have horizontal lines dividing them - are these horizons?

The works are evolving. The more recent ones have a more defined reference to sea, sky, land and water but it's a fluid transition because one’s experience of these areas is very fluid since they are constantly shifting, making it difficult to say which color or atmosphere would be associated with which…


What role does perception play in this series?

That's an interesting question. In traditional Chinese landscape painting, as I understand it, the artist goes to the site and spends time there but doesn't make any work. They return to their studios and indirectly interpret what that have experienced. Also, there may be elements of poetry or other language-based parts of the story, not to mention all the seals and comments of the subsequent viewers of the works.

My approach is also indirect in that I set up a studio in the dinning room of our house and began to work there with no particular plan. The work evolved every day on its own without too much intention on my part. It has become increasingly complex and dense in color, but I don't think it has become more specific in reference to nature. My friend Hermine Ford looked at them and said, "I see, these are looking down, these are looking straight ahead and these are looking up."


Your project in zing #23 features sections of the Cape Breton drawings paired with one another - 4/5 one drawing and 1/5 the other - "mixed & matched" so to speak. Can you explain the thought behind this format?

"Mix and Match" seemed a good way to present a complex subject in a simple way. There is now a large body of the Cape Breton Watercolors, which span the simplest to the most complex ideas so I thought that I would scan through a lot of the images and see if somehow they could be paired into two sets of 4/5-1/5 images on facing pages, which would make sense. I'm happy with the results.


INTERVIEW: Fabian Barba


Photo by Dieter Hartwig


Fabian Barba was born in Quito in 1982. He began studying modern dance at the age of 12 in Ecuador. From 2004 to 2008 he studied at PARTS school for Professional Training in Contemporary Dance in Brussels, where he works and resides today. Recently, he was invited to perform his solo work A Mary Wigman Dance at MoMA in conjunction with the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910 - 1925.

Interview by Josh T. Franco


We met in the context of the collective Modernity / Coloniality / Decoloniality (MCD). The particular occasion was a two-week Summer course convened by Walter Mignolo in Middelburg, Netherlands. You were searching for company in thinking about particular questions you had of your discipline, dance, that you had not yet found. Did you find what you were looking for in Middelburg?

During the last three or four years I’ve been trying to make sense of my experience as a dancer who first trained in Quito (Ecuador) and then continued studying dance and working as a dancer in Brussels (Belgium.) In a way I see myself as someone who, through training, came to belong to two different dance traditions, two dance traditions that are not completely foreign to each other but that have established very complex and puzzling relations or non-relations.

During the summer course special attention was dedicated to the question of “decolonizing aesthetics,” a conversation that put into my horizon questions I had not even considered and that I could suddenly discuss with artists coming from different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds. To be immersed in that dialogue was an extremely exciting experience that I haven’t finished assimilating; a very disturbing experience as well, because it further upset the already shaken ground I was and am standing on.

And yet, it was not only finding a common interpretive frame for thinking about different though related experiences that produced my disturbing excitement. It was also the sensation that my personal experience and the personal experiences of the people I met were placed first. We were talking theory, but only because in different ways we need that theory to make sense of our disparate yet related stories.

When I met María Lugones, I met a person first, a person whose voice was present later that summer when I read her Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes, a book that I’m sure won’t leave my thinking untouched. When I met you and you told me the story of Marfita, I was just amazed because even though our life experiences are quite distinct, I could somehow recognize in your story something like my dislocation working in Brussels, trying to make sense of two different and seemingly unrelated worlds. Then I also remember talking with Rolando Vazquez in María’s hotel room, telling him about my struggles to establish a relation with past and history that wouldn’t deny my former experience as a dancer in Quito, and he saying with his kind smile “so funny, I’ve been writing about it for a while now and here you come with this,” then of course I got to read what he was writing and that brought into my practice a perspective I haven’t been managed to articulate, a perspective that carries the kindness of his smile, a kindness that dissolves the discomfort that often accompanies the word “colonialism” when it appears in conversation with my colleagues in Brussels. Then there’s also the sensation of understanding something of the political commitment of Walter and his project of decolonizing epistemology, a political project that involves him fully as a person.
So yes, I think I found the company I was looking for. A very warm company. And yet a very disturbing company for the questions it raised. For example, what does it imply to “decolonize aesthetics”? We certainly didn’t have the time to get to the bottom of that.


On February 1 of this year, you performed your work A Mary Wigman Dance Evening as part of MoMA’s ongoing series, Performing Histories: Live Artworks Examining the Past. You were invited to perform in conjunction with the exhibition Inventing Abstraction: 1910 – 1925. Can you describe this piece, and give some history of Mary Wigman herself?

Mary Wigman is an important figure in the history of dance. She is recognized as a main character in the development and consolidation of Ausdruckstanz or “dance of expression.” She started to create her dances in the mid 1910’s and continued working all the way into the early 1960s, passing through the Weimar period, WWI, the interwar period, the rise of Nazism, WWII and the years after 1945.

I will just briefly point out that at the beginning of her career she engaged in an artistic practice that sought to strongly challenge the predominant values of the bourgeois society from where she came. In many aspects what she did must have been shocking: an adult woman (she was almost thirty at the time of her first public performance), single (maybe engaged in a love relationship with another woman), seeking a career of her own, doing dances that lacked gracefulness and that sometimes were performed even without musical accompaniment… She didn’t have it easy the first years. However, from the early 1920s on, she gained recognition and an important place within the dance field in Germany. In 1930 she made the first of her three tours through the United States, where she was received as “The Goddess of Dance,” a real diva whose work seemed revolutionary while enjoying wide popular acclaim. From 1933 she continued working in Germany under the bureaucratic and ideological machinery of the National Socialist party. Her personal stand in relation to nazi policy is a heated subject of discussion. For now, I will only note that a clear change in her artistic production can be noticed – how much of it meant resistance or accomodation to the regime is to be analyzed calmly. You can find a very exhaustive and compelling study of Wigman’s work in Susan Manning’s book Ecstasy and the Demon: The Dances of Mary Wigman. For my work I focused on the first tour of Mary Wigman in the United States. Her performances resembled a music concert, something like an MTV unplugged. The evening was composed of about nine solo dances, each of them had a length ranging from three to seven minutes. Each dance had a different costume, there were two live musicians accompanying the dance. Some audience members would know Wigman’s dances as we might know a pop song, and they would ask to the theatre to include this or that dance into the program, which they did.

A Mary Wigman Dance Evening is a theatrical proposition to imagine how one of those evenings might have been like. I learned three of her solos from video and I re-created the six other dances of Wigman’s recital with the help of archival material (photos, texts, music scores…) I also studied principles of movement developed by Wigman with three of her former students who worked with her in Berlin in the ’60’s.


I am thinking about your performance in the context of the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925. Based on our conversations this summer and since, the history of abstraction seems like only half of the story in your thinking about A Mary Wigman Dance Evening. Your other, primary concerns have to do with your particular appropriation of her work in the 21st century, as a male-identified body from Quito, Ecuador, who has lived in Brussels for significant portion of his adult life as a dancer. And all this specificity is perhaps at odds with the premise of the exhibition. How do you see your concerns in relation with the history of abstraction?

Reading texts on decoloniality and post-colonial theory, I became familiar with the critique of un-embodied, abstract Reason and Knowledge. That is, the detachment or abstraction of the thinking subject from the situation s/he studies, as if s/he was placed in a privileged a-temporal, out-of-space point of view.

As far as I know, Wigman and her contemporaries referred to the work they did as pure, abstract dances. At first, that sounded as nonsense to me. To my understanding and sensibility, those dances were anything but abstract. Through my education I had come to recognize abstraction in Merce Cunningham or in Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A. Wigman dances had too much emotion, too much of a pretense for transcendental meaning for me to grant them the status of abstract dances. However, later I came to understand that abstraction for Wigman meant that her dances, or most of them, tried to do without recourse to narrative: there was no story-telling, no pantomime, no identifiable characters. This is how I now understand Wigman’s understanding of abstraction.

At the same time, Wigman was doing a new German dance (Ausdruckstanz). However abstract she claimed her dances to be, they were supposed to express a way of feeling of the German Folk, a Teutonic German Soul, a belonging to a German Soil. There was a strong nationalism in Wigman’s work from the 20’s on that I think doesn’t give much room for the kind of abstraction of the detached, disembodied ‘thinker.’ (This kind of nationalism of Wigman’s early work shouldn’t be immediately conflated with the nationalism of the nazi regime. A great majority of modern dance practiced in different European countries and in the United States was unmistakably nationalistic, including Martha Graham’s work who later forcefully participated in a boycott of a dance festival sponsored by Goebbel’s ministry.)

Certainly, my work focuses strongly in the relation between a dance practice and the cultural context in which it is produced. In a way, contemporary dance could be understood to be a very abstract artistic practice, detached from any specific location. Even if it tells a story or depicts characters, contemporary dance might be understood as a “universal language” as if thanks to its independency from spoken language, everyone could access it. If contemporary dance would be indeed a universal language, it wouldn’t be attached to a region nor to a community of practitioners nor to a specific history; everyone could do it, everybody could join either as a dancer or as a spectator. And this is not false: anyone can join, but at the price of inscribing oneself into a specific dance tradition. A dance tradition that is historically and geographically specific. Contemporary dance is not a universal practice, though it might pretend it is.

Or, there are several traditions of contemporary dance. When I was in Quito, I was doing something we used to call contemporary dance and then I decided to go to Brussels to improve my contemporary dance technique; I thought I would learn to kick my legs higher, that kind of thing. However, through my technical education in Brussels, I noticed later, I inscribed myself into a different dance tradition than the one of which I was a part in Quito. Through learning to use my body differently, I also learned to think of my body differently, and also to think differently about the role of the dancer and of the definition of dance itself. I didn’t improve my contemporary dance technique in the abstract; I became part of a different dance tradition, a very concrete one.

It’s the relation between these different dance traditions that interest me, dance traditions that are practiced in very specific cultural contexts. They’re not artistic practices that dance freely in the air, nor that are despotically rooted to a nationalistic soil.


You have spoken repeatedly about the relationship of time and place playing out in the fields of Modern and contemporary dance; how work from non-European, non-metropolitan companies is often relegated to an elsewhere time. You have been struck by comments like “that’s so 80’s” from prominent dance critics in regard to some of this work. Johannes Fabian called this the “denial of coevalness,” when geo-politics are articulated temporally, relegating a group or activity to a primitive status. It’s a way of maintaining legacies of coloniality to the benefit of those in old power centers. But you have argued that if we look to the specificity of experience and production in these sites instead of reading them through the terms of these centers--so that they appear merely dated--we might arrive at very different conclusions and possibilities. What might we achieve through such an examination, specifically?

I want to make something clear. When I talk about contemporary dance I refer to a specific kind of dance: artistic dance that is created for the theater (as institution and/or physical space). Thus, the epithet contemporary (which I write in italics) names a kind of dance which has to be differentiated from the adjective “contemporary” when this refers to the belonging or occurring of something in the present situation. So contemporary dance (without italics) could be any kind of dance practiced in the present situation: ballroom dances, street dances, etc. The curious thing is that contemporary dance, at least nominally, claims the present for itself excluding from it other kinds of dances. To my understanding, contemporary dance not only says that it belongs to the present, but that the present belongs to it; contemporary dance places itself in the ‘now,’ it colonizes the ‘now.’ Nominally, modern dance wouldn’t be contemporary, and it risks being placed as part of an overcome past.

Modern dance in Quito is not the same as contemporary dance in Brussels. The kind of modern dance I practiced in Quito could be accurately described as modern dance in that its technical, aesthetic and ideological premises filiate it to other modern dance traditions as they have emerged in different parts of the planet. To say that the dance I practiced in Quito is modern is not a problem by itself. The problem is when the contemporaneity of modern dance is denied. The main problem with this, is that if modern dance in Quito is an anachronism, then the only thing left for it to do is to “catch up” to the present exemplified in the work created in the centers. This thinking parallels this sentence by Marx quoted in Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: “[the] country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” This would annihilate the capacity of dancers in Quito to define their own artistic project, subjugating their practice to the assimilation of a project designed elsewhere: coloniality at its purest!

Something important I haven’t made clear this far: I became interested in Wigman’s work when I was in Brussels because in a way it referred me to the kind of dance I used to practice in Quito (mainly due to the central place given to emotion and intensity in both dance traditions: Ausdruckstanz and modern dance in Quito). The problem that appeared from the start is that I set an equivalence between a dance tradition that belonged to the past (the 30’s in Germany) with a dance tradition that belonged to a place outside the boundaries of Europe and the United States (Ecuador in 2000). It was as if traveling outside of those metropolitan centers meant traveling back in time!

The master narrative of dance—before it starts to be critically rewritten in the early 80s by dance historians—said that in the beginning there was ballet. Then early in the 20th century early modern dance appeared in opposition to ballet, with dancers like Ruth St Denis, Laban, Wigman and Graham. Then starting in the early 60’s, Cunnhingham and the dancers of the Judson Church in New York propulsed the post-modern dance (in clear opposition to modern dance) that gave place to the effusion of contemporary dance.

Although this almost caricatural presentation of the master narrative of dance history can easily make me target of harsh criticism, I think that that master narrative, however contested, remains operative in a surreptitious manner. It is this historicist, stagist account of dance history that creates the conditions of possibility to say that modern dance is not contemporary, an anachronism because modern dance came before contemporary dance, and in historicist thinking we’re faced with a sequential logic instead of an additive one: contemporary dance has to displace modern dance, they cannot exist at the same time – thus the denial of coevalness operating in the fight for the ‘true present’ in dance history.

When I started working on A Mary Wigman Dance Evening, I related the kind of modern dance I used to practice in Quito to a tradition that was not recognized as a living dance tradition in 2000 – as far as I know, there’s no one actually practicing Ausdruckstanz in the way it was practiced from the mid 10’s until circa 1965. In that sense, the shortcoming of my thinking was that I related modern dance in Quito not only to a past dance tradition (exemplified in the work of Wigman in the 30’s in Germany), but also to a dance tradition that lacked vitality.
However, even if Ausdruckstanz couldn’t be considered a living dance tradition in 2000, it did influence enormously the development of different traditions of modern dance, which maintain a living practice that is not relegated to the past even if they are very aware of their genealogy. Thus, when I was considering the filiation between Ausdruckstanz and modern dance in Quito, I could have focused not only on this genealogy, but also in the relations that modern dance in Quito could establish with other contemporaneous modern dance traditions as they’re practiced in different parts of the planet. Examining the specificity of modern dance in Quito doesn’t mean to deny its filiation to Ausdruckstanz nor to isolate it as if it has come out of a vacuum, it can allow instead to recognize its autonomy and capacity for agency in relation to different living modern dance traditions as places that are presently inhabited by dance practitioners that need not, should not, be relegated to an archaic, objectified, detached past.


I am frequently struck by your use of the phrase “embody dance” in regard to dancers you hold in high regard. To the untrained, it seems redundant. Is dance not always embodied?

I usually talk about the embodiment of images, ideas and ideals when referring to the kind of dancing exemplified in the body and practice of a dancer I appreciate. I like to stress the embodiment of ideas and ideals to make clear that these do not exist only in abstract thinking and language, but that they have an existence and a way of transmission that passes through the body.

The dances of Wigman were at first foreign to my body; they existed in videos, photos, textual accounts and exercises I had never practiced. Much of their work is done through verbal language. My approach was the bodily re-enactment of those dances that didn’t exist in the traditional archives. To embody those dances meant to inscribe them in my body, to host them, to give them a bodily existence.