INTERVIEW: Natalie Goodnow

 

Eagle Woman Poems, Co-Lab Project Space, July 2011

Photo by Alberto Jimenez

Natalie Goodnow is a nationally recognized teatrista, teaching artist, and cultural activist from Austin, Texas. She performs, directs, and writes; she's been practicing some combination of these forms for seventeen years, and began teaching about and through them 8 years ago. She specializes in the creation of original works of performance, as a solo artist and also in collaboration with other performers and writers, both youth and adults.  Goodnow explores the relationships between people and places, in terms of relationships to community, to the Earth, and to our own bodies. Her work asks tricky questions, and probes tough contradictions. Natalie's solo play "Mud Offerings" is the 2011 winner of the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award, and has been presented nationally at festivals and conferences in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., and throughout Texas.  She is an Artistic Associate of Theatre Action Project and a member of The Austin Project.  See her website and/or blog for more: www.nataliegoodnow.com, makinggoodnow.blogspot.com

Interview by Josh T Franco


Your work brings up questions of tradition in contemporary settings. But even stating it like that, I’ve already fallen into one of the traps I think you’re trying to avoid: tradition isn’t “back there”, but neither is it the same today, for most, as it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand for that matter. I should say the traditions I’m talking about are both pre-colonial indigenous American ones and post-colonial Catholic ones. And in your work, all of them are radically questioned through Chicana and Women of Color feminist frameworks. At the same time, there’s clearly a deep reverence. But what exactly is the nature of this reverence, as it is far from typical?

Hmmm... ok.  Well.  I’ve been thinking about what it means to be indigenous.  And what indigeneity means, or could mean.  And although one response might be to reproduce everything that was a thousand years ago, in the here and now, or to try to do so (because of course it isn’t quite possible to really reproduce what was, nor would we necessarily want to), I’d like to try another definition of indigeneity on for size.  Let’s say it’s this: to live in relationship with the land, in the here and now.  That means that, as a Chicana in central Texas, although I believe that the lessons of the Mexica (what the Aztec called themselves) are incredibly important, it’s a little silly for me to really and truly try and apply them directly to my life, without any critical examinations or alterations.  And this is partly because there are lots of ways in which the Mexica society was just as flawed as any other (patriarchal, militaristic, imperialistic), and also because the Mexica weren’t really living in relationship with the land that I’m at now.  They were nearby, if we consider this on a global scale, but still not quite here.  

However, all that being said (and I think this is where I start to actually answer your question), I still think that there is wisdom in tradition.  Especially in the traditions of folks who, at one point in time, knew how to live with the land.  We don’t know how to do that now.  I’m not sure I even really need to explain why...  The “go green” movement is so huge... “Avatar” was such a hit... it’s in the zeitgeist.  Something has to change.  The way we’re treating the earth isn’t working. It’s not working at all.  And yet, in our histories, we find peoples and communities who were better at this than we are now.  And it’s not just about reducing/reusing/recycling... it’s about the way we treat each other, the way we talk to one another... we create systems that abuse and misuse the Earth’s resources when we feel entitled, when we believe we have no obligation to share what we have.  

So, I take the things that I’ve learned with my contact with indigenous spiritual traditions seriously; reciprocity - no one should take without also giving.  And, it sounds so simple, but, sharing - you don’t show up to an event with a bag full of snacks, or a thermos full of tea, and not offer some to everyone, even if all you’ve got is a little bit.  And, you don’t assume that you have the right to speak whenever you want, whatever you want, or even to know whatever you want, whenever you want.  You must ask permission.  You must acknowledge the knowledge of those who have come before you.  That all may seem very distinct from “environmental” concerns, but I don’t think it is.  Our elders have been here.  They know how to live in harmony with all that has also been here.  I think if we had all adopted, or, remembered to honor these sorts of values a long time ago, we wouldn’t be in the pickle we’re in now.  And, all that being said, let me just acknowledge out loud/in print, that everything I’ve just said is very hard to do, and I struggle with it constantly in my everyday life.

 

Seeing past the “go green” mentality to a systematic overhaul of the ways we engage one another; this is really interesting. It brings to mind a couple of things: one, Alice Waters and the slow food movement in general. It prioritizes caring for the earth, and even caring for peoples’ bodies, but a repeated criticism from Women of Color is that it does not take into consideration contemporary conditions, especially for mostly person of color sections of the population that are poor, have no access to land to grow their own food, and much less the time or energy to spare after working minimum wage jobs all day. Like I said, your response brings up a couple of questions for me, but what do you think of this one first? Perhaps you thought through this, or can, through Eagle Woman Poems, your recent performance at Co-Lab in Austin?

Yep, yep, yep.  The system is so, so broken.  The communities whose ancestors were guardians of this knowledge, of how to live in relationship with the land, are often the ones most devastated by the rupturing of such relationships, and least capable of doing much about it.  I’m talking about, for instance, the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica who once knew how to grow corn, squash, and beans all in one field, in the milpa.  Indulge me while I talk about this a bit - I think it’s just so amazing.  These plants complement each other; the corn stalks provide a trellis for bean vines, their leaves provide shade for the squash, and while each takes certain nutrients for the soil, its companions give those back, so that there were fields in which this mixture of crops was cultivated continuously for thousands of years, without ever laying fallow or needing to be fertilized.  What’s more, eaten in combination, these three crops provide all the nutrients a human body needs for a complete and healthy meal.  Brilliant!  

Yet, here and now, the descendants of these very same people find themselves, like you said, with little access to land to grow their own food, and even less time and energy to spare to do so.  There’s a line in Eagle Woman Poems that this reminds me of... “How can I clean up an oil spill when there are dishes in the sink?”  A lot of that piece comes from the frustrations and contradictions of trying to live in relationship with the land in a world order that doesn’t quite allow it.  

So, we’ve got to change the system.  Change it completely.  I think some answers can be found in collective action; does any one working class family have access to enough land to grown all their own food?  Or time to do so?  Perhaps not.  But what if many were to work together to tend a community garden?  And then cook together?  There are oppressed communities across the globe trying such solutions on for size.  As an artist (and as a teaching artist), I’m also inspired by Una Chaudhuri, a pioneer in the field of Ecocriticism:

“[I]f one thing has become clear from a century of ecological thought and effort, it is that the earth cannot now be saved by half-measures, by tinkering and puttering and fiddling around with rules and regulations and practices and customs; whether we like it or not, the ecological crisis is a crisis of values.  Ecological victory will require a transvaluation so profound as to be nearly unimaginable at present.  And in this the arts and humanities - including the theater - must play a role.”#


That’s where I see my performance work living.  In this transvaluation.  A remaking of the old cultural symbols and stories and yes, values, towards something new.  Something new which draws upon the forgotten wisdom of the past, but is refashioned to function in the here and now.  In Eagle Woman Poems, for instance, I’m confronting not only the systems we’ve inherited, but its values as well.

 

So the stakes in your work are particular, and particularly high. The way you present your own work--it’s tough to call you an artist. Or simply artist, I mean. And I wonder about how you consider art; is it functional? A tool? Necessary? Could you do what you want to do in the world any other way? Obviously, these questions have been hashed over by many, but what do you think? For instance, do you take to the term “cultural worker”? How important is naming your activity anyway? I’m also thinking about your performance of Muntu at Space12, with the invited Austin city council members. Maybe you can respond to these questions by talking about that work, the East Side, Space12, and so on.

I do believe that art is absolutely necessary.  I also believe that thinking of art as only functional, only a tool, is a trap, though.  And it’s a trap that I’ve fallen into myself.  When I first became politicized, I wanted, needed to see that theatre could DO things, make things happen.  I needed the link between art and action to be explicit and concrete. Muntu, and the accompanying exhibit, “Muntu: Reflections in East Austin,” came from that place.  I was figuring a lot of things out.  I was finding my voice as a solo playwright (this was the first piece I wrote all on my own, not ensemble-based or devised), discovering/developing my processes as a solo performer, and also learning how to fund, produce, and market/publicize my own work out in the “real” world!  On top of all that, I was figuring out where all my ideas about community engaged art, etc., fit in to the puzzle.

So, what I ended up doing was writing this solo play (I’d have called it autoethnographic if I’d known that term/genre, then) about the lessons that trees had taught me, or, the lessons that looking at trees in a mindful way had taught me.  And these lessons had a lot to do with Austin, about my relationships with different communities in Austin, so I performed the piece in as many of those different communities in the city as I could, doing a mini-tour with musicians Travis Jeffords and Josh Casiano (Travis composed some brilliant music/instrumentation for cello and percussion that accompanied the play), mostly over the course of about 12 weeks.  Which I learned is really not very long!  

At each performance, I asked the audience to respond by writing or drawing their own muntu stories (Muntu is a Kikongo word that means both tree and person - I don’t know a lot about East African culture, but I found this insight inspiring).  The mini-tour culminated in a multimedia exhibit called Muntu: Reflections in East Austin, held at community center Space12.  My play mentions East Austin specifically, so it made sense that the exhibit was held at a community center in East Austin, too.  Space12 was a brand new community center at the time, with a mission very similar to mine in that piece, to bring diverse communities together in shared conversation/reflection.  

The exhibit consisted of a display of my audiences’ responses to Muntu, plus portraits of East Austin residents old and new (East Austin is a historically poor community of people of color, now facing massive waves of gentrification) by photographer Rama Tiru, plus imaginatively decorated tree sculptures by students in Theatre Action Project’s afterschool classes, mostly from East Austin as well, plus a bit of information contextualizing the exhibit - about the neighborhood’s past and present.  Whoo!  How on earth did I get that all together?!  

At the opening, I performed, and Rama spoke; on another evening, my fellow exhibit organizers and I invited PODER, an organization of grassroots organizers, to host their City Council Candidates’ Forum at Space12 as part of the exhibit.

My goal in the exhibit was to bring together as many folks as possible from Austin’s diverse communities together in reflection upon, and hopefully conversation about, the issues that my play addressed, and to do so in multiple ways.  I hoped that the issues affecting East Austin, discussed in the candidates’ forum, might take on greater potency if this conversation took place amidst the names, faces, and stories of the neighborhood.

All in all, this was a successful experiment.  We had a wonderful turnout at the exhibit, and to this day I still love looking at the photos of city council members leaning in to peer at Rama’s photography, of the beautiful and thoughtful audience responses I received to the piece, and of the playful exhibit I curated, which turned out quite nicely considering I had never done anything quite like that before... but I was a wreck!  It was an awful lot of work to coordinate all that, and to find the energy it took to perform... and forget writing!  My creation of new work came to an absolute standstill, and I wasn’t very happy.

I’ve slowed down a bit since then, giving myself more time to both create and produce/tour my work.  This is funny considering that this is the exact same advice I was giving to myself within the text of Muntu... slow down, slow down, slow down...  Also, as I continued working, I found my drive to engage communities in direct conversation through art was satisfied more and more through my work as a teaching artist (in that work, my classes often culminate in some sort of service-learning project with the youth; one of my favorites is documented here), so my solo work became more about just trying to piece together some really interesting words and moments.  

Though it was fun to bring together so many different kinds of reflection and conversation in one place, I realized I could also ease up a bit and just trust the universe to provide my audiences some spaces like that, too; I didn’t have to do it all.  I could contribute my little bit and then send the people on their way to let what they experienced with me bounce around against their many other experiences, and trust that, if I’ve done my job, they will go home talking about what I’ve shared with them.  If I’ve really done my job, they won’t be able to help it!

And I’m kind of a busybody.  I’m pretty good at organizing and coordinating, and sometimes gravitate towards that kind of work as an escape from my creative writing when the writing gets tough.  I crave the satisfaction of checking off items on to-do lists, so it’s easy for me to create items to-do just so I can check them off, rather than revising that rough draft, or telling that story that’s too scary to think about.

All that is to say that yes, art is necessary.  And it can be functional, it can be a tool to get us talking explicitly about matters of direct and practical importance, but that’s not the only reason it’s necessary.  

Art is how we shape the story of who we are.  Sometimes that’s a bigger, slower conversation than who to vote for in the City Council election tomorrow, and that’s ok.  Those “who are we, who will we become” questions are important, and I want to participate in formulating some answers.  I see it as part of my mission as an artist, my responsibility, even.  In that sense, I guess I am a cultural worker, though I’ve tended to use the word “cultural activist” to reflect my political commitments.  (That’s a term I first heard from Adelina Anthony; thank you, Adelina!)  I’m not too stressed about the label, though.  If somebody wanted to call me a cultural worker, that’d make a lot of sense and I wouldn’t really mind.

Perhaps most importantly, though, art is sacred.  The activism can and is indeed achieved in other ways... but that sacred something that speaks directly to the heart of our humanity, that’s what art provides.  And that is necessary.

 

 

Josh T Franco is a graduate student in Art History at Binghamton University.  He writes on contemporary Chican@ art, art of the 1960's, and the possibilities of decolonial aesthetics.

INTERVIEW: Lucky DeBellevue

 

 

Lucky DeBellevue is a Louisiana-born, New York-based artist most well known for his voluminous yet delicate, textured sculptures made of colored chenille stems (aka pipe-cleaners).  Lucky has exhibited widely, including many one-person shows – most recently at John Tevis Gallery in Paris. Lately, Lucky has been focused on 2-D work, such as his collaboration with John Armleder for DISPATCH.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

We just published a project of yours titled Collaboration in the new issue of zing, #22.  It’s one of the most printophilic projects of the bunch – xerox, collage, black-and-white, hand-cut, typewritten – all the qualities of a low-budget ‘zine.  Do you have a history of ‘zine-making or is this your first go in the aesthetic? 

I definitely wanted to reference zine making, but it was my first actual go at it. However, I have been planning to make a zine named “Choicez” for many, many years. I always had the cover mapped out in my mind, a sad hand-drawn font, a photo of a woman with a pitchfork I found in a book entitled “Weavings you can Wear”, but I never got around to actually making it. Now we live in a world of blogs, maybe I will finally make it that way, but I love zines, so maybe both? Probably never happen. 

 

As you say in your curator’s note, the project involves a reinterpretation of documents from a scrapbook made by women prisoners convicted for murder in the South.  You mix in images of your own work with newspaper articles letters, and forms to create a “forced collaboration.”  Do you feel that there is a degree of affiliation with your work and the documents from the prisoners’ scrapbook or is it a more happenstance juxtaposition?

A little of both. I wanted it to be kind of absurd. After all, this was a record of these peoples’ lives in this amazing scrapbook, and I was being kind of a vampire, just plopping my work on top of it. So there is a bit of subtext about how one’s life can be used for someone else’s purposes, bringing attention to themselves by association. I also identify somewhat with their marginalized status. What could be more outsider than being a lesbian cop killer in the South in the 1970s? I still want to believe somewhat in the outdated romantic idea of the artist as outsider, so that is part of it too.

 

Your work, Otter, was recently installed at the Dikeou Collection in Denver.  It is a large, teepee-esque sculpture made of your signature material, chenille stems.  What first attracted you to this material and why have you continued to use it?

At first, I thought it was a kind of dumb joke. I was at a point when I wanted to clear my head and start from zero as far as my practice. I was thinking of the pop artists and how Lichtenstein drew from comic strips as a platform to explore other things. So I went with something that was very basic and memorable to me as a child, something I assume others had used in their arts and crafts classes as children or had some kind of experience with.

I don’t use chenille stems exclusively as a medium anymore. In the last few years my process has opened up to include other mediums. I still make some work with them, and use them in printing methods, but it isn’t quite as central to what I make as it once was. 

 

You explained to us previously that otter was gay slang – something along the lines of bear. How does the title relate to the piece?  Is sexual identity important to your work on the whole?

Originally this piece was in a show at the Whitney Philip Morris, and the titles of the works in the context of that show were important. But usually my work is untitled. I was interested in what goes on underneath the facade of appearances. The setting of the show was a public space attached to a corporate office, and I wanted the titles to reflect either the machinations of power through alluding to historical figures who grasped for it, or by using coded references that categorize interests within a particular community. So in this exhibition the titles functioned as objects kind of hiding in plain sight.

I was going for the trope of a sub-set within a set, and Otter refers to a kind of body type in the gay bear community, not the hairy/stocky/chubby/football player build that many of the bears fetishize, but a thinner body type that is either hairy and/or is self identified as being part of that community. Anyway, this sculpture entitled Otter is phallic-like, fuzzy, and becomes thinner as it rises in space. I wanted there to be some humor in the title, and the color gets hotter as it rises. While I think we should own what we are, I’m not so into being reductive about it. So usually I want titles to be more suggestive if there is one. I like that quote by Kierkegaard: "To define me is to negate me."

 

In your artist statement, you say you consider Otter sort of as a drawing in 3-D due to its linear quality and gradations of color.  Is this your approach to sculpture – through lines?

Mostly I was just thinking of using materials I hadn’t used before, just exploring. Initially I wanted to create a “thing” in the most economical way, so most of the earlier works were more minimalist, then became progressively more layered as my interests evolved. Part of it was a decision to make objects that were more porous and textured, not just flat massive surfaces that signified strength and stability. 

 

What’s on your horizon?

In December I am in an exhibition entitled “December” curated by Howie Chen at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery in New York. The artists in the exhibition runs the gamut from me, to Jean Dubuffet, to David Hammons, so I am looking forward to seeing what kind of dialogue is created with all of the different artists in the show.

 

INTERVIEW: Jeffrey Hargrave

 

Nobody drops into the zing office out of the blue anymore.  The late, great Dan Asher used to, but no one since.  Except Jeffrey Hargrave.  I first met Jeffrey when one day he randomly buzzed.  Expecting the mailman or UPS, I must have looked disconcerted because as he walked up the stairs he announced he was just stopping by to pick up a couple copies of zing #21 (in which he has a project).  Since then Jeffrey will stop by occasionally, when least expected, to grab some magazines.  But isn’t that what a magazine office is supposed to be?  People moving in and out, a center for thought, discussion, debate, and sharing?  That’s beside the point.  Jeffrey Hargrave is an African-American artist from Salisbury, North Carolina.  Now based in New York, Hargave deals with representations of African-Americans, often putting them in the context of art history, remaking works by artists such as Matisse to include black figures, with stereotypical imagery.  He currently has an exhibition, “Know Meaning,” up at The Phatory in the East Village.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

Hi Jeffrey.  Good to see you earlier.  We’re going to make this ZINGCHAT quick since your show closes on Saturday.  The title of the show is Know Meaning and the work is pleasingly expressionistic yet deals in the imagery of racist stereotypes.  What are you trying to say with these paintings?

That racism is alive and well, and although humorous, the paintings, drawings and video have an element of the macabre; which is interesting in itself because these Jim Crow-era images were used to degrade African-Americans, but there was a level of vaudeville comedy apparent in the illustrations.


Your first video piece is included.  It’s of you singing a Lil Kim song.  What song is this and what about it attracted you?

I love this rap because of its brazen use of sexuality and materialism.  Kinda like a Warhol reinterpreted into a rap.

 

All of this work is concerned with representation – racist Jim Crow representations of African-Americans, Lil Kim representing herself as a powerful black female (which is then put in your context as a gay black male).  Why is representation important to you?

That's a very good question.  Representation is very important to Lil Kim, African Americans, and myself as a gay black man. Society judges a person by what they represent and put out into the world.  Lil Kim is a black woman talking about her sexual organs.  She's my hero.  As a black gay man rapping the words of a black woman, I'm appealing to everyone: gay/straight, male/female.  As a man having sex with another man, I'm both the husband and the wife.  In all relationships gay/straight, male/female, one is dominate while the other submissive.

 

Your paintings are visually similar to examples of folk or naïve art.  Is this a conscious choice or just your personal style?

Both.  I am very inspired by naive and folk art.  I also love children’s drawings and I'm influenced by them much the same way Debuffet and Twombly were.  Drawing at its most simplistic and honest nature.

 

Paintings by your mentor, James Donaldson, are included in the show.  How has he influenced your work?

He is constantly reminding me that the sky is the limit in regards to your life and artistic endeavors.  He also showed me that nothing is impossible when it comes to art and following your heart.

 

Are there any other artists that have especially influenced you?

There are too many to name, but I will list a few: Gabriel Shuldiner, Noa Charuvi, Shirin Neshat, James Donaldson, Bruce Nauman, Robert Ryman, Cordy Ryman, Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, Bill Traylor, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly, and Walt Disney.

 

Interesting that you mention Walt Disney.  At the gallery, you brought up the banned Disney cartoon, Little Black Sambo.  What kind of influence did Disney have on you?

There weren't too many characters of color in Disney movies and if there were they were usually singing songs with animated animals about how great life was or swinging from vines in the jungle.  I was always glued to the TV whenever a Disney movie came on.  My fav was The Sword in the Stone.  The Disney charisma reached out to all.  I have always been into the science of magic.  Merlin was my own personal Houdini.  But Walt was the greatest magician of all, and his magic was the ability to reach us all.  That’s what I strive for in my own work.

 

What else are you interested in besides painting?

I love theater, modern dance, classical music, and hip-hop.

 

Cool!  Thanks Jeffrey!

 

 

INTERVIEW: Harrison Haynes

Untitled (Drum Rug), 2010, archival pigment print, 62 x 39 inches, installation view

 

Harrison Haynes is a North Carolina-based visual artist, drummer for Les Savy Fav, and contributor to zing #19.  Raised in the rural outskirts of North Carolina Piedmont, he grew up among “DIY redneck-hippies: welders and carpenters that listened to ZZ Top and burned big vanilla scented candles in their outhouses” who “hosted demolition derbies, volleyball parties, big oyster roasts every fall, and homemade fireworks displays on the Fourth of July.”  After spending time in Providence and New York, Haynes returned to North Carolina and cofounded with his wife, Chloe Seymore, the now-closed Branch Gallery in Durham, NC.  He is currently enrolled in the Bard College MFA program.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

My entry point for your work is your watercolor series in zingmagazine #19.  These have a very homey, Southern feel.  Vignettes of Southern life – trucks, woods, beards, wood paneling.  I really enjoyed the TV piece – it creates that quintessential TV light in a memory of warm brown furniture.  Where are these scenes from?

The watercolors are based on my own snapshots. Mostly pictures I took up until about high school. I started using a camera at an early age, like 5 or 6. My dad gave me one of those 110mm little black rectangles. Later he gave me an SX-70 Polaroid Land Camera. It was primarily a social activity for me. I documented the schoolyard, trips I went on and had friends pose. I enjoyed the social aspect of taking pictures. The product, the prints and the sharing or subsequent display of those images, was secondary or even non-existent for me until much later. I wasn't sure what to do with all the shiny pieces of paper once they got picked up from the pharmacy*. (*Isn't the drug-store/amateur photography connection a funny anachronism?) While I was always interested in art, I never identified as a Photographer. I carried the photos around in cardboard boxes and looked at them from time to time. Later on in art school I studied painting. It never occurred to me to use the pictures as subject matter. I drew some imaginary line between the kind of photos I had been taking and what I regarded as 'Art'. But I still had the boxes sitting around and continued to take pictures in the same way, now with a point and shoot 35mm. After finishing at RISD I was living back in North Carolina. I was sharing a house with my best friend since childhood, living next to the exact expanse of woods that we used to run around in as kids. He was working at the Center for Documentary Studies/Doubletake Magazine. Through him and the resource of the CDS, I got exposed to a whole new set of artists, people that hadn't been on my radar at RISD; photographers like William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Mitch Epstein, Thomas Roma and William Christenberry. Naturally, I started to reassess the snapshot, the everyday, banality and the validity of those notions in art, the role they played in my own artistic sensibility. At the time I was working for a married couple that were comic book artists. They had hired me as an assistant colorist. Their process back then (another anachronism) was to fill-in xeroxed copies of the inked pages using watercolor. Then a digital colorist would translate those mockups for print. I had to adapt to a very utilitarian technique with the watercolor and in that way I became quite good at it. I discovered the more nuanced procedures through mistakes. The subtlety that's achievable with watercolor lends itself nicely to transitions of light and shadow, gradual chromatic shifts, a certain evenness of surface. Those were the characteristics that lead me to view it as an appropriate medium for translating the snapshots. There was also a connection in the substrate: paper to paper. The thing started as pretty simple way to carry the photographic images into another state, to see what they meant, to me, to others, having gone through that shift. I selected a dozen or so photos based on impulses not quite articulated at the time. In retrospect I think I gravitated toward pictures that had a certain openness where familiarity could be a point of departure into something more ambiguous. In executing the watercolors I set out to reproduce the images to the best of my ability. But there's a push and pull between reproduction and materiality, the border between photo-realism and more direct applications. Like that blob of moisture on the edge of TV screen in the piece you referenced above. I might have said, 'Ah Fuck!' when my overloaded brush hit the paper there. But that blur contributes to autonomy in the piece. The Southernness wasn't really something that I considered until I had moved to NYC. I realized that I was making something about where I was from, about North Carolina, about the post-hippie scene I had grown up in there. Perhaps the 500 miles allowed a productive kind of cerebral distance. I started thinking about my childhood and the kind of places and people I was around and again I was struck by this idea that there was a good amount of compelling subject matter sitting right under my nose. I wrote a short blurb for the bio section of that zingmagazine which indicates some of those ideas.

 

Lately it seems like you’re focusing more on collage and photography.  In the Disruptive Patterns series you retain some of the Southern subject matter mentioned above, but frame them as clusters of photographed objects or in uncanny, borderline surrealistic, juxtaposition.  Was there a point of transition from painting to this type of work, or have you always worked in multiple mediums?

The transition was the impulse to deal with those same photographs head-on. I had been skirting around the actual photos, working FROM them in a variety of ways. It felt like it was time to physically address them. The first time I cut into one of the prints there was a great relinquishment of preciousness. I just started hacking them all up with scissors, hundreds of photos, culling individual objects and areas from within each photo for later use. I made big piles of the bits and then sorted them according to size, theme, color, light source, etc. I have permanent callouses on my knuckles from all the scissor-use. It wasn't an abandonment of painting, but it was the beginning of an acknowledgment that I can work in multiple mediums at the same time. I think this move also paralleled an impulse to eschew overtly personal subject matter, to move towards a more open or fragmented narrative. Also at this time, I started more actively engaging in photography as a tool for the gleaning of images that would later appear in the collages. I'm also a drummer in a band that travels a lot. For about 5 years I took a Canon Demi 35mm half-frame camera with me on countless tours and shot landscapes, found objects, highways, people, cars, incidental things, peripheral things. I so wasn't interested in documenting the rock 'n roll part of it.

 

In other series, you introduce more layers, complicating the idea of photography and collage further.  One of my favorites is Featuring, where you create these text-based, geometric objects using a section of printed material and a mirrored corner, forming 3D situations from 2D objects.  Where did the idea for this series come from?

In 2009 I was accepted into the Bard College MFA program and I set out to tackle photography more deliberately. Featuring is a series I did in between my first and second year at Bard (I'll finish up at Bard next summer, 2012). They're at the intersection of a few things going on in my head at the time. I was thinking about collage, but looking for ways to execute it sculpturally, or as a still life, and then to make a photograph of that so that the photo would be the final work. I saw the Czech Photographic Avant-Garde exhibition at the Phillips Collection in DC that year and it really floored me. I got excited by the idea that a photo could be a document of another work, even something ephemeral, so that the photo becomes the thing, becomes autonomous. I'm getting another dose of this notion today (almost 80 years after the fact. Ha!) reading Walter Benjamin's 'Little History of Photography'. He's describing the academy's initial reluctance to accept photography as art at the exact same time that photography was beginning to supplant art-viewership through the universal acceptance of graphic reproduction: art-as-photography vs. photography-as-art. Anyway, at the time of this work, I was looking at a lot of records, LPs. Along with 6 other artists, I had been asked to curate a crate of 20 albums for the exhibition, 'The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl'. I was digging through my own collection and spending lots of time online looking for specific albums whose cover art used mirror images, refraction or reflections. I had also used mirrors as still-life elements in an earlier series of photographs. The source material here are those little promotional emblems you'd see on album covers in the 60's and 70's indicating the hit songs included on that LP or some other message of advertisement. I photographed them and then manipulated the images by placing those photos at the intersection of two mirrors creating a cyclical pattern.

 

In your series Practice Space, you’re incorporating another major part of your creative output - music and its ephemera.  Prints of these ephemera – rugs, cymbals, foam - are remade as trompe-l’oeil objects. This exposes a sculptural side of photography – prints acting as an installation of relics.  Can you explain how you arrived here?

Practice Space deals with the objects that are found in a band's rehearsal space. I started delving into the arbitrarily rigid dichotomy between music and art in my life, how divergently I regarded the two practices despite their obvious overlap and mutual influence. I had been in bands as long as I had been making visual art but I wore the hats separately, and seldom identified with one pursuit while in the midst of another. At Bard I was immersed in an interdisciplinary environment and so I began to think about ways to remove the divide. The cymbal occurred to me as an object that I had a very functional but in-depth relationship with. Taking a picture of it and then cutting it out removed it from its everyday context and I suddenly saw it in a very formal way and that was really exciting. Other objects followed: the rug that lies under the drum set, the convoluted foam that gets stapled to the wall to deaden sound. There's an additional play with materiality and even sculpture in the cockeyed analog between the new cut out photo and its parent. The new 'rug', a 40" x 50" archival inkjet print, flopped around just as unwieldily as an actual carpet. For a long while, without a good place to store it, it was slumped over a chair in my studio and was regarded by visitors as an actual rug pending further scrutiny. Tromp-l'oeil was not my first intention although it was an inarguable result. I was more interested in an object that passed through many states of being and had returned as a cockeyed version of itself.

 

You are in an upcoming exhibition at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts called Here based on the role of “place” in art that contests the idea of regionalism. What will you be showing? And in a broader sense, how does North Carolina influence your work? 

For the PAFA show I'll be focusing on a performance work called LRLL RLRR that I started doing in 2008 in which another drummer and I play the same drum beat in unison for 74 minutes. I'm also producing a two-channel video based on the performance which will exhibited for the first time. The performance grew out of the same impulse that lead to Practice Space, drawing on my experience as a musician as subject matter for visual art. But here it's more direct. Each time I've staged the piece it's in cooperation with another drummer, someone from whichever city we're in. So for the PAFA show my collaborator will be a Philadelphian. The collaborative aspect is indicative of the communities that I've come to be a part of through touring. During the mid 1980's, when I was first discovering underground music culture, regionalism was intrinsic. Every city had a scene and group of bands that sprung out of that. On show flyers, each band's name was followed by a parenthetical indication of where they were from. Certain areas had certain sounds, aesthetics. By the time I was playing in a band and touring nationally, regionalism and categorization had begun to dissipate. Bands were bound less by aural similarity and more by an overall DIY methodology. Now of course it's all upside-down.

 

What are you working on now? Anything to look forward to?

Right now I am really focusing on expanding the LRLL RLRR project for the PAFA show. I shot the video footage last week and now will begin the editing process. It's a new medium for me. The considerations and procedures are related to photography but the chronology of the process is so different. I'm used to photographing inanimate objects and this was dealing with moving, human subjects, so there were all sorts of new imperatives. Time becomes crucial since you can't expect people to sit in under the lights forever and ever. Plus I was dealing with sound recording, mic placement, etc. It's all very energizing, actually.

Also, as an object accompaniment to the video, and to future performances of LRLL RLRR, I'm publishing the musical score: over 2000 measures of the same drum beat written out as notation along with a mirrored accompaniment to indicate the two drum sets. It's a ridiculous kind of 'drawing' of the performance that people can take home with them.

Something to look forward to is this: my band, Les Savy Fav, along with the bands Battles and Caribou, are curating an entire weekend of programming at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the UK in December. Each Band gets a full day/night to stock with music, DJs, films, whatever. It's a pretty huge honor, to the point where we've sort of done like a Dungeons & Dragons-type fantasy game about in the past. But the selection process ended up being a lot harder than we thought. Not everyone we wanted was available, or alive. And we had some unexpected obstructions of consensus (turns out not all of us were into getting Kris Kross back together). One thing we were pretty quick to agree on was a desire to get Archers of Loaf to play. They had started playing shows again recently and so it ended up being possible. I've been delving back into all their LPs lately and I'm still entranced by their singular mannerism: odd chords, odd structures, odd lyrics that somehow coalesce to form rock music that is often very relatable. I saw them play last week here in NC and they were harnessing the same unselfconscious, ecstatic energy that the songs were first born out of. And they played the most obscure songs with as much fervor as the sing-alongs. Although with the show taking place in the bull's eye of their first wave, every song was a sing-along, a somewhat distracting thing if you happened to be standing next to someone with a loud, bad singing voice.

Anyway, here's the link that tells about ATP: http://www.atpfestival.com/events/nightmare2011/lineup.php

Other than that the future is revolving, counterclockwise, hurricane-like, around my last year at Bard MFA, next summer. I'll be concentrating on my thesis, the actual work and the written part, over the next 9 months. LRLL RLRR along with other work happening now, and some nascent ideas, will funnel into the project, probably get puréed a few times, then congealed, sliced and served up. I have a show at UNC-Greensboro in January where I'll be able to look at how some of these things can relate in one space.

 

INTERVIEW: Kelly Richardson

 

LEVIATHAN, 2011, three-channel high definition video, 20 minute loop.

Originally commissioned by Artpace, San Antonio

 

In the aftermath of a week with both a hurricane and an earthquake on the East Coast of US, and year in which, Japan has been devastated by an earthquake, a tsunami, and its Nuclear aftermath, and with a year of the most devastating oil spill in history, Kelly Richardson’s work has the relevancy and chilly methodology to wreak havoc on the otherwise still perceptions of her subject matter. She embraces a 19th century axiom—“The Apocalyptic Sublime”, with the precision that George Lucas first explored in his “THX 1138” or the clever tautology of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”. Her work captures fear, anxiety, resolution, beauty, mystery, omnipotence, awe, and desolation people feel in the presence of the unknown both in nature and in life. I had the pleasure of sharing a residency with Kelly Richardson at Artpace in San Antonio, curated by Heather Pesanti, and was initiated into the weird and luxurious sensation her video installations evoke. And now I have begun to look at the world through some different viewfinders, and like with all good art, wine, hallucinogens, or sex—after experiencing it—the world seems a little different, a little more fragile, and yet, a little more epic. What follows is our emailed Q&A, or “Come on Irene [Sic]”.

Interview by Devon Dikeou

 

Terra Nullius, landscape work not touched by humans would seem to have a strange relationship to you and your work. You live in the UK—the ultimate non Terra Nullius landscape—it has been centuries being sullied, sculpted, terrorized, or tamed. And yet you try to find landscapes that might have any or all of these qualities in both hidden and obvious ways, and then you digitally create some effect—in effect a super Terra Nullius. Can you speak about this . . .

I’d say it’s increasingly true that the work focuses more and more on locations without signs of human interference. Occasionally, there are works which use manmade structures of some kind, but many of the ideas dictate using the Terra Nullius landscape. Most often, unplanned indicators of civilization inform the work in ways which don’t support what I’m after. If elements of sullied landscapes are present in anything I make, it’s deliberate; either it has been inserted digitally or selectively left in the shot to support the idea.

While majestic and beautiful, the work should also have an eerie, if not terrifying quality. If they function properly, the viewers feel consumed by the landscape, losing themselves in the work. If there are signs of a tamed landscape, the threat of the un-urbanised wild isn’t present which prevents fear of the potentially unknown.  

 

Let’s talk about what Woody Allen calls, “Your early funny work”, and your early work is really funny, literally. Like the “Ferman Drive”, or “The Sequel”, much less the “Wagons Roll” . . . Humor, what are the advantages and disadvantages . . .

I used humor in the past as a way of inviting people into the work. From there I was hoping they would unpack it and end up feeling all sorts of other, often conflicting sensations. At some point though, I guess it was 2006, I decided that humor was far too specific. I’ve always tried to make ambiguous works where the viewer is unsure how to feel about it; it may be beautiful but at the same time unnerving (as above) and while humor is a great entry point, it ran of the risk of overshadowing what I was really after, the conflation of numerous ideas and interests which inspire a kind of contemporary sublime.

 

 

The Erudition, 2010, three-channel high definition video, 20 minute loop

 

This movement that you introduced me to, the “Apocalyptic Sublime”, pretty much sums up Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime, “fearful joy”. But it really has some fascinating history and amazing relation to your work. Will you say something in relation to this.

The manifestation of apocalyptic art and its popularity came about during a period of domestic unrest, foreign wars and quite significantly–as it pertains to its relation to my work–anxieties towards major societal and environmental upheaval caused by the birth of the Industrial Revolution, which came to fruition around the same time. During the 18th century, interest in the Apocalyptic Sublime was expressed through what would have been ‘popular culture’ for the time: writing, poetry and art. Similarly, with widespread predictions of impending environmental meltdown as a direct result of the Industrial Revolution, during the last decade we’ve witnessed a return to imagery and stories depicting the Apocalypse with the film industry producing an unprecedented 50+ films illustrating various apocalyptic themes, many of which contain scenes which use similar techniques used by the painters in the 18th century to inspire the sublime.  

Artists who were associated with the Apocalyptic Sublime envisioned catastrophic outcomes of this era, looking forward to what may be a result of the Industrial Revolution.  We’re now sitting on the other side, facing its effect on the planet and ourselves. By way of the film industry, the Apocalyptic Sublime, or at least the popularity for consuming imagery depicting a catastrophe-ravaged planet has returned, almost certainly reflecting a like, collective anxiety towards a very uncertain future. My work plays into this, along with a number of other ideas and influences.

 

Ok the Creature From the Black Lagoon . . . it looooms in “Leviathan”. What is your worst nightmare?

I’ll share two actual nightmares that I’ve had which were equally terrifying. The first depicted the end of the world by way of an electrical storm. I was on a space station of some description, with the perfect vantage point to witness our planet being zapped with a wild web of blue electrical currents. The second, along a similar vein, involved the sun which ‘didn’t rise’. It was surprisingly peaceful and calm for a world which understood that it had hours left to live.

 

The Group of Seven. This is a hugely influential Canadian art group from the 1920s created what I imagine is a pretty hard body of work to deal with for a Contemporary Canadian artist working in what is seemingly the “landscape” genre. But you reference them quite naturally, or as a juxtaposition, unnaturally. Give us a clue into your thoughts on this . . .

As a Canadian artist it’s impossible to make work using landscapes without being part of that history. One of the interesting objectives of the Group of Seven was to showcase the beauty of the rugged, untamed Canadian landscape. I feel like I’m approaching things from the other side, after landscape–where I’m fabricating the wild, in a sense, to create a sensation of the sublime, which from my perspective has largely disappeared from the natural world. While I’m representing beautiful vistas like the Group of Seven, I’m also incorporating ideas about our experience and understanding of our highly mediated world where fact and fiction are barely decipherable and how we can no longer view landscape without being aware of how much we’ve drastically altered it, both physically and digitally.  

 

Exiles of the Shattered Star, 2006, single channel high definition video, 30 minute loop

 

As a youngster from Colorado, of course I was privy to some of the most absolutely exquisite views in nature. In fact, one of those views, that of the Maroon Bells is perhaps one of the most downloaded screen savers in the world. So in fact, most people’s view of the famed mountain landscape is not a natural experience of the mountains, but a virtual one, that appears onscreen when activity on a computer has ceased. And according to Baudrillard “Simulacra” in a way means that the virtual experience at least equals, maybe excels, and perhaps exceeds the actual human experience. Do you think of your work as a critique of this or do you embrace it as a way of creating landscape terroristically, with our only tool left, digital manipulation?

I embrace digital manipulation as a tool to allude to the multiple, hybridized and seemingly un-navigable “realities” we now exist in. It’s not so much of a critique as it is acceptance. This is the world we live in; now what?

 

Which brings me to my last question. Often times when you make a piece, there is some type of Pilgrimage involved, like the Pilgrimage described in Michael Kimmelman’s Accidental Masterpiece chapter, “The Art of the Pilgrimage” in which the meaning of the Pilgrimage from Colmar to Marfa is elucidated upon. For you, traveling to places like Uncertain, Texas is just the beginning. You share the Pilgrimage with the viewer—a generous move as opposed artists whose work a viewer must/need to physically travel to, to see/view—like Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”, Di Maria’s “Lighting Field”, or Judd’s “100 Aluminum Boxes”. How do you feel about bringing the Pilgrimage to the viewer as opposed to requiring the viewers’ dedication of time and effort in order to see the artwork/landscape in actuality. . .

That’s an interesting question. Most of the time I seem to be messing with pristine views which physically, I would never want to mess with. Working digitally also means that I can create impossible or improbable scenarios. I couldn’t transform the Lake District in England with raining meteorites, I don’t have the means of installing a vast field of holographic trees and with the most recent piece commissioned by Artpace, Leviathan, the phosphorescent life form in the water doesn’t exist.

Also, by removing location and all of the information associated with it which grounds perspective and understanding means that I can bring viewers into unfamiliar territory. I can transport people to another time, into possible futures or the distant past. In contrast to these strange, alternate spaces, I can ultimately make visible our current environment with some measure of hindsight.

 

Kelly Richardson’s work is currently on view in ‘The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality and the Moving Image’, Part 1: Dreams at Caixaforum, Barcelona, curated and organised by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (through September 4, 2011) and ‘Videosphere: A New Generation’ at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (through October 9, 2011). Please visit her website at www.kellyrichardson.net for further information on her work and upcoming exhibitions.

 

INTERVIEW: William E. Jones

Still from Tearoom, 16 mm film transferred to video, color, silent, 56 minutes, 1962/2007

 

William E Jones was born and raised in Ohio, but is now one of LA’s leading independent filmmakers. I recently caught up with him about his highly emotive body of work, which predominantly deals with the deconstruction of artifice and façade in found footage; this has included gay pornography from post-Soviet states (The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography), homophobic police training footage (Tearoom), and Cold War propaganda (Berlin Flash Frames). He recently exhibited in The Sculpture Center in Queens, and his work has otherwise been shown at museums and film festivals worldwide – including the Musée de Louvre, MoMA, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Sundance Film Festival, and was the subject of a retrospective at Tate Modern.

Interview by Ashitha Nagesh

 

Just to begin, I’d like to say that I really love your work; it’s striking, without being explicit. Could you tell us a bit about your influences? What is your particular attraction to old war footage and gay pornography, two things that wouldn’t necessarily usually go together?

In the present era, war and pornography have more in common than may at first appear to be the case.  US military personnel in the current theaters of war spend enormous amounts of time in isolated places where fraternization is very unlikely.  Watching porn is a major pastime, and as the notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib revealed, there is some production of porn going on, too.

Since 1973, the US armed forces have not resorted to conscription, which, while scary for individual men during the Vietnam War, had the virtue of bringing together a range of classes in one social unit.  Now the military is perceived as a vehicle of upward mobility for working class people, a perception that often proves to be illusory, or at best, immensely risky.  This bitter reality seems to trouble those governing the United States (or at least their most hawkish elements) very little.  They behave as though American working people are expendable, though perhaps not as expendable as the foreigners they are sent to bomb.

I suppose there was a time when pornography offered the promise of becoming a star, which is its own peculiar type of upward mobility.  With the recent rise of bareback and amateur porn, and the virtual collapse of profitability of the adult video industry, pornography has become the realm of disposable people.  Their bodies entertain us fleetingly; their fates generally do not concern us.

 

The act of repetition simultaneously fetishises and desensitizes the material for the viewer, and this can be seen in Film Montages (for Peter Roehr), and in Industry. What drew you to repetition? Do you feel that the act of repetition makes the non-explicit footage somehow explicit, in the Freudian sense of uncanny?

Strict repetition is a strategy almost alien to the cinema.  It is absolutely fundamental to music (without it, there would be no rhythm) and rather common in modern art (as in Warhol, minimalism), yet seeing exactly the same thing over and over would never happen in a narrative film, which, we must acknowledge, is the dominant form of cinema.  Peter Roehr appeals to me because he took up repetition with complete consistency, and applied it to his movies without moderating it or “cheating.”  This bracing disregard for the rules of how to make a movie, at the risk of engaging in a kind of sadism, suggests one of the ways that film and art are still distinct as media.  Filmmakers care that their works are watchable, because if spectators don’t stay in the theater for their movies, they won’t get to make any more of them.  Artists tend to take a position of indifference on this question.  Few have seen Empire in its entirety, but this hasn’t harmed Warhol’s status as an artist; it may actually have enhanced it.

 

This idea is especially poignant in your work The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography – given that it seems to be about something far more personal than new capitalism and the commodification of sex. In fact, what I took from The Fall… was that it was particularly haunting, not only because of its recent cultural relevance, but because it evokes that feeling of strangeness, of finding one’s way in a completely new environment, navigating the unknown and being taken advantage of – which I think are feelings that most people can, at least partially, relate to. So, I found it interesting how this work was so personal, whilst also speaking of a wider political context. What was your thought process whilst working on this film?

From my own personal point of view, one poignant aspect of The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography was that I had no money when I made it.  I consider the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe the most important political event of our lifetimes.  At the time it happened, I was living thousands of miles away and was not capable of recording anything directly.  Yet the transformation of the way people lived was so profound that evidence was everywhere (as it still is, I would argue).  It was just a matter of me finding this evidence and placing it in the proper context.  Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to realize that I needed to look no further than the neighborhood video store.

Despite the efforts of a century of narrative cinema to make us believe otherwise, individuals rarely make history.  We generally experience historical change as dislocation and confusion.  This is the pathos of modernity: no matter how smart or secure we feel ourselves to be, our consciousness has trouble reckoning with new forms of domination and the latest crimes committed by managers of capital.  At certain moments, the rules of the game are laid bare.  I think The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography contains a few of them.

 

In your recent work, Eyelines, you present found film footage of advertisements from the 60s and 70s and compile them, in order to distort and confuse the original intention of the images. The footage has naturally faded to various shades of red, and your contribution to this is mostly in the act of compilation. Similarly, when discussing Tearoom you have said that you ‘didn’t want to obscure the actions of the police by imposing your own decisions on the material’; how do you explain this move towards less-appropriated and more found footage?

Eyelines dismantles one of the fundamental figures of narrative filmmaking (a holdover from figurative painting), the eyeline, by looping very brief shots and alternating them in intervals so quick that the effect is stroboscopic.  The work is reminiscent of the “structural” avant-garde films that analyzed the formal aspects of cinema, often at a microscopic level.  Eyelines also has a mathematical, or perhaps musical, structure, as many of my works do, though this is rarely obvious.  Every single permutation, that is to say every combination of individual frames, is exhausted over the course of Eyelines’ 1 hour and 51 minute length.  Though the frames are not altered at all, I wouldn’t exactly call Eyelines a “found footage film.”  For one thing, the total length of the source material is only approximately 30 seconds.  The visual effects are achieved through montage, and as the piece plays out, the multitude of combinations invite spectators’ eyes to play tricks on them.

           

I had the pleasure of seeing Berlin Flash Frames at The Sculpture Center’s (NYC) recent exhibition ‘Time Again’. At the beginning of the film, the images are fast and obscure, before eventually slowing down to show more clearly the collapse of the actors’ and civilians’ assumed ‘camera face’ identities. What interests you about this? Why did you choose a slow revelation over an immediate one?

Immediate revelations are better suited to billboards and abstract paintings than to moving image works, which must unfold in time and have the possibility of justifying their duration.

 

There’s also a theme of disguise and acting, and the undoing of this, in your works that is prominent in The Fall…, Berlin Flash Frames, and even Tearoom. You seem to be fascinated by this idea of letting one’s guard down, captured in accidental footage of people caught in deeply intimate, unstaged and personal moments – it was therefore fitting to see you refer to Tearoom as ‘an historical artifact’. So, in light of this and of your work with old wartime footage, such as with Berlin Flash Frames and War Planes, is the preservation and, perhaps, redefinition of history important to you? How do you view the relationship between documentary and propaganda - what in particular draws you to working with, and the deconstructing of, docustyle propaganda film footage, such as Berlin Flash Frames or Tearoom?

Propaganda films exploit the rhetoric of traditional documentary forms in order to commit a fraud.  Documentary is not a style, but an ethical position the person representing takes toward the represented.  In propaganda, ethics are of little concern.

The original material of Berlin Flash Frames interests me because it exhibits a diversity of approaches to filmmaking.  Outright falsification employing actors on sets exists side by side with surveillance footage of the construction of the Berlin Wall, and there are other sequences that appear to be documentary footage, though they are not exactly that.  An actor from the fictional scenes circulates among crowds of people waiting in line at government offices in West Berlin.  Most of them were aware that they were being filmed, but there wasn’t much they could do about it, besides looking away (which preserved their anonymity) or looking directly into the camera (which ruined the take).  I can extrapolate from this footage that every resident of West Berlin was a (willing or unwilling) extra in one giant Cold War movie.

Tearoom presents a different range of contradictions.  The police force of Mansfield, Ohio (and the vigilantes that supported them) deemed it necessary to record surveillance footage of men having sex in the center of their city.  The film was not shot automatically by a machine alone.  A police officer had to stand for hours in a closet behind a two-way mirror watching men go in and out of a public toilet.  He chose what to shoot: he turned the camera on and off, and within certain physical restrictions, he moved the camera.  What was intended as an “objective” document of deviant sexual activity has come to seem transparently subjective.  When an attractive young man enters the space, the camera moves frenetically, as though it cannot get enough of him.  In the early 1960s, public opinion held the men in the film to be perverts and those who commissioned, shot, and used the film as evidence in court to be fine, upstanding citizens.  Today, spectators are likely to form another opinion.  Tearoom allows an audience to reflect upon this historical transformation.

 

INTERVIEW: J. Parker Valentine

Untitled with Paperweights, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable

 

J Parker Valentine's work whispers: but her whispers exude cackles of thunder. Installations made of drawings negotiate a special place between the practices of both traditional works on paper and works of installation and object making. And in doing so they challenge the way these practices support and reinforce each other. The "drawings" are unrolled, cover one another, lean, are attached and weighed down, rest on other objects including tables—walls themselves are surfaces to be reckoned with, and drawings are even regenerated from other projects. These drawings in situ create assemblages of much larger presences that envelope, engross, charge, and frequent the space they inhabit—installing themselves in and around the viewer and the space. This flurry of quiet activity challenges gravity, loudly announcing a different language while demurely allowing for a different voice. We exchanged emails. . . Here is what transpired.

Interview by Devon Dikeou

 

Frank Stella’s On Painting makes a case that his “literal painting” is “pictorial”—that the physicality of the work has little to do with anything but the sum of its “pictorial” existence. Whether these aims are achieved in his work or not, I think it a useful way to approach your work. You make drawings that “literally” invade the realms of sculpture and installation, even performance. Will you speak about this . . .

I do see what he’s claiming as one way to perceive something. I’m also working in this intersection between physical form and image. For me it is often between drawn lines and the physical linear forms created by simple planar structures—for example the curve or bend in a piece of paper, or the angle of a panel. However, I’m trying to bring attention to the opposite of his case—that the physicality can’t be ignored, and a sculptural experience can and often does coincide with an image-based one. In my work, the three-dimensionality typically arises out of the process of making the drawings, more than as a point to be made.

 

Speaking of performance, one thing I find most interesting in your work is what you don’t show, the drawings that are hidden, the installations that seem interrupted, the gestures the viewer has to guess at, and those edited and not shown. How does this kind of perfomative improvisation process come about, studio to exhibition?

In the same way that frames are edited out of a film, some of my drawings are hidden. The difference is—you can see that I am hiding something from you—this is a sculptural property that creates a performative relationship between us. In the same way that I use erasure in my drawings to create an image, the blatant covering of an image with another creates yet another image. There is a recurrent push and pull of additive and subtractive processes.

The end product is often a palimpsest that reveals the evidence of time and action. Everything is improvised because the structure is based on discovery.

 

Untitled, 2010, metal, graphite, chalk, MDF

 

The materials themselves are often mined from previous works of yours and/or are recycled. This practice in turn creates a funny Nietzschian “eternal recurrence” in your work, each work exists as part of several works, both past and future. Will you speak about recurrence, eternal or otherwise, and the use of recycling as a strategy and a medium . . .

As I approach an art object as a problem, there are often many potential solutions to resolve that problem. If the artist has anything, it is the authority to make a decision on the resolution/non-resolution of a work. I am very interested in the poignancy of this decision.

When something leaves my hands, it’s finished and it’s frozen in time in its determined orientation, but if it has not yet left, I can continue to look for alternative solutions. This can be by combining it with something else. This might give the work an unfinished character—an openness to resolve, hence my interest in abstraction, which by nature, is open.

As I work on drawings, I photograph them. I collect these images in a folder on my laptop whether the works are finished or not. There is no apparent organization to this—something might be photographed once or many times in it’s process and nothing is labeled. There is really no delineation between separate works, there is no “right way up,” and the hierarchy is obscured between “good” and “bad.” This is not to say that I don’t choose particular successful drawings out of many to exhibit, but looking back at these photos and seeing how they relate from one to the next helps me to learn what a successful drawing might be.

I’m A-OK with fate. There is nothing precious with how I treat my objects. If my cat bites into a sculpture, fantastic. I often travel with a tube of rolled drawings. The edges do not stay clean, they don’t lay flat, the drawings have rubbed off onto each other and this is usually how I display them.

 

The way Mondrian used black & white as color—because of the sharp juxtaposition to the primary colors in his compositions—or how Impressionist palette was based on the juxtaposition of one color playing off the presence of another—is useful to think about in relation to your use of color. You use the intrinsic materials’ colors and juxtapose slight differences and nuances between and among them to create and achieve similar color connections/juxtapositions. What is the role or how do they, materials and color assemble, create, and dance through your compositions/installations?

Limiting myself to the intrinsic colors of materials allows for less “work” and thus more immediacy.

In certain ways, I think about image and color along the same lines. For example a found image of, say, a sunset, is similar to found piece of yellow fabric in the way that I do not need to draw or recreate that sunset or paint the color yellow, because they already exist. For me, drawing is not about recreating something, it is about finding something. The use of a particular image or color would most likely be due to the fact that I found it (or photographed it myself), kept it around me for a while, re-looking at it over time, and finding an importance in it, and thus a juxtaposition most likely to something I have drawn.

I’m very attracted to color brown of the mdf panels I use and the richness of graphite against it. Graphite is reflective and depending on the light or from what angle you look at a panel, it can look black against the brown, or silver and hard to see. The dichotomy between image and material is one of many in my work—the archetype being that I constantly look for form, while at the same time avoiding it.

 

It is as if you undertake drawing, and its intrinsic limits, and screw with all the Big Wigs that began to screw with drawing in the first place. Serra, Twombly, Tuttle make drawings by way of their final product, be it sculpture, painting, or installation, and in doing so, dismantle our traditional notion of what drawing holds. You make drawing scenarios—sculptures, installations—that use the implicit practices that drawing encompasses. At the same time you negate the essential rules associated with drawing and in the process create a new definition of drawing by way of installation and sculpture. Please give us your thoughts about this . . .

Yes, I think I do make drawing scenarios. In art school, I had no real interest in any prescribed issues, so I decided to create my own. I found that I needed constraints to work off of, and I found these in the intrinsic limits of drawing and drawing materials. Also, I have a strong interest in time-based media but wasn’t content solely dealing with the consistent technical problems of film and video and looked for more basic materials that could allow me to explore a shifting image with more flexibility.

My drawings naturally moved into the realm of sculpture when I started drawing on MDF panels. The panels had to be constantly moved around, cut down, and stacked particularly for a lack of space. The activity was physical and so were the materials. There is a sculptural property to the way I make the drawings (adding and subtracting), to the drawn images themselves, and furthermore in the presentation of them.

 

 
Untitled, 2010, detail of installation view, Supportico Lopez, Berlin

 

The use of found objects, like the paper weights in your work (Untitled with Paperweights) at AMOA . . . they both function literally holding down drawings and visually becoming reflective mirror orbs, compounding the space and the visual and literal implications by their presence. Luis Barragan, the Mexican architect, used mirrored orbs in a similar way. What are the architectonics of your installations and especially the found objects, like the orbs?

My structures are set up to create intersections and associations between drawings. Their relation to the architecture of the room is primarily one of support, but also to create an active viewer that necessarily has to move to see things.

The reflective mirrored paperweights acted in the same way a body of water might act in a landscape, expanding and manipulating the visual space and drawn environment. But I also chose to use them for the contrast between the near perfect reflective forms and the povera-type materials.

 

You also use gravity to express the architectonics, in the way you lean an MDF Board against a wall (Untitled 2010) or balance drawings on work horses (Untitled with Paperweights 2011). Can you speak about the role of gravity in your work?

I use gravity as an intrinsic material, like others that you mention earlier. It always works perfectly, its symmetrical. It’s the glue of our world. 

 

What’s on the horizon?

Right now I’m working on a book of drawings in collaboration with Peep-Hole Milan to be published by Mousse Publishing, and a solo show next spring at Lisa Cooley.

 

INTERVIEW: Diana Shpungin

1664 Sundays, Diana Shpungin, 2011

photograph by Etienne Frossard

 

Diana Shpungin was born in Riga, Latvia, in what was then the Soviet Union, but has since lived in Moscow, Vienna, Rome and New York City, her current location. I caught up with her about her latest exhibition, (Untitled) Portrait of Dad (Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, May 22 – July 3 2011) – a show that was simultaneously a memorial to her deceased father, and a wider, metaphysical exploration of death.

Interview by Ashitha Nagesh

 

The title of your recent exhibition, (Untitled) Portrait of Dad, refers unambiguously to the portraiture work of the late Félix González-Torres. How strong would you say his influence has been upon your work?

Yes indeed, the reference was a consciously direct one to one of my favorite works, Félix González-Torres’s “Untitled (Portrait of Dad)”. I changed the placement of the parenthesis, shifting the emphasis to read “(Untitled) Portrait of Dad”. The titles of the specific works in the exhibition are all so very particular that I wanted the overarching title of the show to be more general and open ended, but also making my admiration for González-Torres known. The title, as general as it is, encompassed everything I wanted to say and reference.

The show of course is influenced by the work, life, death and “after death” of my father, but I also look at it as a respectful nod to the life and work of González-Torres. While my father had a profound influence on me personally, González-Torres had a profound affect on how I look at and approach artmaking. In a way, this show was the first time I allowed myself to really explore that correlation so directly.

I have always been an enthusiast of minimalism but González-Torres took it to a new place and fused it with the personal. He was able, with a small thoughtful gesture and with seemingly flawless decision-making, to key into a sublime something so powerful and significant. An artwork (an inanimate object) that is able to communicate a gesture that resonates with myself and so many others. His work is both personal and political, but it does not scream at you, it speaks softly, it can engage you deeply if you give it the time. It is in the subtlety of the poetic gesture where I think the strength in his work lies and brings out an empathetic quality in me that few works have before or since. It is that elusive feeling I am after with my works, that sensation, that intangible something...

This quote by Félix González-Torres has always resonated with me, and I often cite it when I asked why I am an artist, I especially like the “good purpose” part:

"Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that's why I made works of art. "  Félix González-Torres

 

Your entire body of works, from your earlier video piece from the end of the earth to bring you my love to your most recent pieces in (Untitled), seem to be preoccupied with time and the inevitable limitations of it. González-Torres once said, “Time is something that scares me…”. How would you describe your own relationship with time? Is it something that scares or inspires you? Or both?

I am not absolutely sure if “time scares me.” Existence sometimes confuses me, but perhaps that is a comparable thing? Time is necessary, time is a given and time is enigmatic, that much I know.

But I also think time is relevant, sometimes events seem to go by so fast, other times they last what seems to be forever. I suppose when we fear something time creeps up on us more quickly. The notion of time being both so ambiguous and finite is definitely scary (especially if you think about it for too long). I think whenever you are surrounded by illness and the possibility of death; time is certainly at its scariest. This perhaps in varied ways González-Torres and I have in common.

The limitations of time stem in our great desire yet failed ability to pause and control it at our whim.  I certainly have not found a way to pause time yet (other than in my work) so perhaps that is one reason why I make art and in that sense time inspires me. The work is the only place where I can at least metaphorically fuck with time. Whether that be by conceptual reference, physical process or merging time and space as video can so often poignantly do.

   

Your pieces explore the relationship between time and distance –focusing both on the finite and infinite aspects of both. In from the end of the earth to bring you my love, distance is a tangible, measurable thing – ‘the end of the earth’ being a physical place on the map – whilst time seems to be on a constant loop, sunrise – sunset – sunrise – sunset, and so on, all over the world. In contrast, your more recent works seem to invert this; I Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping and A Fixed Space Reserved for the Haunting, for example, highlight the limited nature of our time, along with the immeasurable possibilities of space – metaphysically speaking. What influenced this inversion? Was there a change in perspective for you?

Absolutely, the work surely encompasses time and space in varied ways; concrete physical remoteness, emotional detachment, and the intangible metaphysical void. There was no change in perspective or specific inversion between the pieces - more specifically the methods used relate to the specific conceptual content and subjects tackled within each of the works. Both are about types of longing and intangibilities, loss vs. love, the dead vs. the living etc...

From an ongoing series entitled “The Geographic Fates”, the dual channel video work “From The End Of The Earth To Bring You My Love” is about communication, human relationships, love, desire and the enormity of what we know and experience. I wanted to take the conventionally beautiful symbol of the sunset/sunrise and find a kind of truth in it. Two people being in two precise points, as far away as achievable from one another on earth, would still be able to communicate by ways of our natural world without the interference of technology - a sort of grand, yet simple gesture if you will.

The works in “(Untitled) Portrait of Dad” also relate to time and distance but in this instance examining ideas of death, mourning and memory. The intangibility of death is often explained by means of religion in various cultures and death is often depicted in war films or in the media as remote and impersonal, in horror films as gloomy, morose or campy. I wanted to explore this without delving into the specificity of religion, or focusing on the cold, morbid or stereotypically “dark” depictions we are familiar with and I did not want to avoid the known reality of death, glazing it over to make myself or the viewer comfortable. Instead I utilized personal familiarity, cultural mores and taboos, with a dash of the supernatural and superstitious.

The sculpture “I Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping” relates to a phrase my father spoke to me on many occasions, however I chose the phrase for the work because in an ironic manner it speaks of our inability to speak ill of the dead due to cultural appropriateness. When you are “sleeping” (or dead) I especially love you - a life is glamorized, we speak only of the good times, obituaries and eulogies seldom contain a disapproving word. We often have a selective memory of those we lose.

I am interested in what encompasses our “known” time on earth. And with the understanding that I probably will not find out more than the average human, my work is counter-productively trying to attain this knowledge anyway.

 

I found 1664 Sundays very interesting; it highlights the relative shortness, and the limitations of our shared experiences. Considering the personal nature of the subject, how did you feel whilst constructing this work?

The title “1664 Sundays” refers to the amount of Sundays my father and I lived in common, from my date of birth to his death. When I calculated the days, it certainly seemed like an alarmingly short amount of time.  So yes, by summing it up in a succinct figure, the lack of time we have alive and/or together with another person is relatively limited, are days literally numbered. Our experiences with people can be fleeting. The memory is all that can be sustained, although that can be fractured, selective or relatively hazy.

In “1664 Sundays” the viewers receiving of the recipe bag and taking of potatoes referenced González-Torres piles and stacks. With González-Torres it is like taking from the body itself, with “1664 Sundays” the potato pile references more of a burial mound, but of living things that keep growing and have the possibility of survival. The pile becomes a memorial to a story, a shared overlap of time and experience and a particular place in history. And if one so chooses they can take the potatoes home with them and cook my father’s recipe - again counter-productively reliving an experience in a secluded intangible way. The work always maintains this peculiar condition of longing.

 

1664 Sundays both reduces this shared experience of time to something mundane and everyday, and simultaneously invests this ordinary object (the potato) with a deeply personal significance. In a way, it is attempting to physically represent something that goes beyond human visualization – time spent with loved ones. What does the potato signify for you? Is it a purely personal symbol of your father’s potato recipe and potato-selling on the USSR black market, or is it a wider comment on Soviet culture and its own subsequent death?

Much of my work can have varied layered, cyclical, dualistic and serendipitous connotations. I love how one object can hold several meanings, some even contradictory, some seemingly non-connected but actually linked by way of an odd coincidence or fate if you will. In this case, the personal, the art historical and the politically and geographically historical.

That being said, the potato is emblematic of a number of functions. The potato was a bonding symbol between my father and I, by way of his potato recipe he cooked for me both as a child and when I would visit him as an adult. It was the only thing I would eat that he prepared, and it was how we found common ground.

The potato also relates to my father’s story-telling (a dying act in itself) of the “old country” and of his trading fifteen tons of potatoes for his first car, a Soviet made Volga. The potato behaves as an icon of that time period of black market culture, my father used the potato akin to currency, the story indicative of a time and place far away, only directly familiar to a relative few left among the living.

And lastly, the potato had strong significance in not just Soviet times, but to this day in Russian (and much of Eastern European) culture. A diet staple often referred to as “second bread”, it has sustained many people during grain shortages in very difficult times. 

Being born in a country under Soviet Rule, it was difficult to grasp the enormity of what that life was like then because of my young age. My family immigrated to the United States when I was about four years old so my memories are really based in my fathers story telling, family albums and old books we had around the home. The linkage of ideas goes through a type of hand me down translation. Again, it took me utilizing the potato recipe (a very personal ordinary thing) to get down to the inherent political significance in that common food source.

 

Could you explain the meaning of the chair in A Fixed Space Reserved for the Haunting? Does it have personal significance, or a wider symbolism?

I really consider my work to have both personal significance and a wider symbolism. Of course much of my work comes from deeply personal themes, but these themes are also very universal. I translate my experiences visually by finding formal elements and signifiers that may have more open ended and relatable content to others.

Regarding the personal, I am really interested in what we as a culture or society deem to be “personal” or even “too personal”. I always find it hard to really delve into a subject unless it becomes real and tangible for me. For example, I, as many, could easily glaze over and become numb to the convention within media, like the monotonous repetition of a newscast, a tragedy summed up in a CNN news crawl for example. Until a story is told in a personal empathetic way it is hard to grasp the reality of a situation.

Regarding the sculpture “A Fixed Space Reserved For The Haunting”, my father was a physician and would repair items around the home with the means of his profession, --domestic objects like chairs, tables, lamps, rugs, walls and also trees in the garden.

This chair is left empty and with one leg broken signifying the lack of repair due a person’s loss. So the chair is not repaired or “fixed” as the title suggests, but rather “fixed” in space awaiting an implausible return. The chair no longer functions for the living - one would fall if they sat down and would be stained by the graphite pencil which is methodically hand coated over the entire surface. The use of graphite pencil in my work functions a bit like a ghost in itself, an impermanent medium, the prospect of erasure always evident.

Importantly, the sculpture and the title stem from one of many family superstitions of having a guest or loved one sit briefly in a chair before departing a home so they will surely return safely again. My father had me do this whenever I would visit his house. After doing some recent research I found the superstition has gone through many varied/morphed versions, but all are rooted in Eastern European culture from Pre-Christian times.

 

In A Fixed Space…, by blanking out the personal details from the obituaries you generalize death, which seems to contradict the rest of the exhibition, which is a very personal and specific exploration of grief. Was this your intention? Could you tell us a bit more about why you chose to do this?

Yes, underneath the chair sits a stack of New York Times obituaries with pertinent information methodically censored; -all names, dates, places etc. have been blacked out, the stack wrapped akin to a cast relating to my fathers methods in medicine. The stack although formally looks like it might be holding up the chair, is not upon closer inspection (another way of suggesting longing through the formal tension).

With the partial concealment of the obituaries, what you end up getting is this very generic, humdrum commemoration that can apply to almost anyone. Once more, yes the show is rooted in the personal, but it all speaks of the cultural ways we do or do not handle death. The chair in A Fixed Space Reserved For The Haunting” was metaphorically made for my father, but it could certainly be related to anyone whom has passed.

Much like “I Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping”, another aspect of A Fixed Space Reserved For The Haunting” is the notion of selective memory (or maybe just selective public sharing) when it comes to death and separation. It was worthy of noting that in all of the many hundreds if not thousands of obituaries I read, not a one had a negative word to say about any of the deceased. As a whole, I was not interested in presenting an all-out sentimental memorial of my father with this exhibition, rather simply using my experience with his death as the catalyst to getting a minute bit closer to understanding what it is that mortality and memory really is and how it functions.

INTERVIEW: Sara Veglahn


 

Sara Veglahn is the author of Another Random Heart (Letter Machine Editions, 2009), Closed Histories (Noemi Press, 2008), and Falling Forward (Braincase, 2003). She has taught creative writing and literature at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the University of Denver, and Naropa University, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. 

 

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

In a couple of your works, I’ve noticed the recurrent theme of drowning and I think when I saw you read at Burnt Toast in Boulder a couple years ago, you mentioned something about the narrator of a prose you were working on being obsessed with “deep water.”  It seems water is frequently mesmerizing, but dangerous when it appears in your proses.  Given the ghostly selves that haunt the words, I can’t help but think of Narcissus.  But the narrators also aren’t self-obsessive; if anything they’re masochistic, absenting, breathy - sort of like if Narcissus and Echo had had water obsessed phantom children together.  How does water relate to subjectivity as this tension occurs in your work?  Why the obsession with drowning?

My obsession with drowning and deep water and rivers is borne directly out of my experience growing up near the upper Mississippi River—a dangerous, swirling, mysterious, muddy place that was always claiming people. The frequency of people falling into the river and drowning, and the rather nonplussed attitude of everyone about it (“oh, someone drowned…well, anyway…”) was always so strange and troubling to me. Plus, there was the added element of my own lack of swimming skills and a very early experience in a swimming pool where I had to be rescued by the lifeguard. And I am obsessed with rivers—that river in particular, but all rivers, too. They move, They have a place to go, they don’t have a choice, they’re traversed. You have to know how to read a river in order to stay out of trouble on a boat. Currents and the way the weeds flow and wing dams and so much that’s hidden. There are people who know that part of the river as well as they know their own family—and they do use the term “read” but I suspect they may not think of it as analogus to language or fiction. It’s all very real. Especially if you end up stuck on a sandbar in a storm. On a more metaphorical and psychological level, I suppose the obsession with water, and the element of danger that is inherent in a deep, muddy river, is related to the unknown, uncertainty, all that’s hidden, and how we make sense of the unknown.

 

One thing that I find extremely pleasurable about reading your work is how nice the paragraphs always look on the page.  They’re given all this breathing room.  They’re like slices of charm cake.  They contain these constellations of disparate things : peacocks, zoos, swimming pools, maps, ladies.  How do paragraphs operate for you?  I would say your prose feels like it goes sentence to sentence, but it’s the field of the paragraph I always remember afterward.  

My unit of composition is definitely the sentence, but I’m glad to know my paragraphs offer a completeness.

 

You’ve done some collaborations with poets and I may be mistaken, but I believe your focus was poetry at Amherst, where you did your MFA.  Why the switch to prose at DU?  It’s always sort of a silly question, but one I am forever intrigued by because it doesn’t really have an answer that can be universally applied.  What’s the difference, for you, between poetry and prose?  

Yes, I did focus on poetry at UMass—and though I did make my attempts with lineation, the majority of the poetry I wrote during that time was prose poetry. So I was always working with and interested in the sentence. Studying and writing poetry gave me a good training in the use of juxtaposition and understatement and image and musicality, something I may have been reluctant to try in fiction had I not had the experience of working with all of those elements when making poems. For a long time I avoided prose and narrative because I thought I couldn’t do it. I only realized I could when it became clear that it didn’t have to resemble something else, and it could (and probably should) look different than, say, a New Yorker story.

Because of my background in the poetic realm, my work tends to often be classified as poetry, although I don’t think of it as such. I’m often asked to defend why what I write is fiction (‘what makes this fiction?’ many have asked me, often with a tone of ire).  And while there are certainly fundamental differences between poetry and prose, I think the focus on genre tends to limit one’s reading of a work. It can be dangerous, too, to declare something fiction or nonfiction or poetry—if it doesn’t adhere to the traditional tenets of the genres, then readers tend to dismiss it as weird or difficult. And then, of course, there’s the “experimental” label, which can also be a limiting description—especially as “experiment” implies something unfinished or tossed off, something that certainly can’t or shouldn’t be taken seriously. Yet, it’s the most convenient and encompassing term—a sort of short hand—so I understand why it’s used. But it does ghettoize the work, diminishes it in way. It seems odd to me that a lot of readers resist the idea that a text arrives at the form it needs. I suppose it’s the fear of the unfamiliar. I’m not sure the other arts have this conundrum or difficulty. Perhaps it’s because the material is language as opposed to paint or notes or light. I suppose language is hard to separate as a material because we also use it to survive in the world.

 

There’s a lot of musicality to the prose.  It’s not eccentric rhythmically; but the words echo against each other, the placement of syllables seems deliberate.  The thoughts don’t always transition in content, but almost always flow euphonically.  Do you have any background in music?  What sort of music do you listen to and does it impact how you play with language?

I do have a background in music, albeit a limited one. Even though I studied classical music throughout my early schooling and also briefly in college, I never felt I could become good at it. But it did give me a technical background into rhythm and, I think, maybe, how one might approach simultaneity via language (an impossible task, but one I keep trying to accomplish anyway). I think I may always be subconsciously trying to evoke the kind of fleeting emotion that only music can provide—it’s so fleeting, but it’s also so imbedded (for example, I almost always wake up with a song or melody in my head). And I love all kinds of music—classical and punk and opera and old country and and strange sound collages. I tend to listen to a lot of different things, but I also can be obsessive and will listen to a particular album or song over and over. But I need complete silence to write. I am too easily distracted by melody and lyrics.

 

There’s a razor-sharp clarity to your work.  I notice that the texture in your proses seem to do some things that are very much major aspects of realism genre and just as often, things that are the total inverse of realism.  For example, like realism, there’s this extreme precision at work; and unlike realism, there’s no attempt to be naturalistic or fulfill expectations about representation.  Where do these worlds you write come from?  Are they dreamt?  Meditated?  Whispered?  Listened into?  Do you know them before you write them?  

I never know the world before it arrives. Some are dreamed, I know, but they get transformed in the telling and in the combining, so I can’t say I lift them directly from something known, so to speak. That said, dream logic is very important and I privilege the way a remarkable event in a dream is experienced as commonplace—every thing makes sense in a dream while we’re dreaming it—it’s only upon thinking about it or telling someone else where it becomes strange, unreal, and, also, it’s when we begin to forget it. I think I’m always trying to work with that element of fleetingness and the many versions of reality we all create, dreamed or not.

 

So much of your work is about dreaming or dying or dreaming after dying and about a state of consciousness that is transfixed, absorbent, mid-reverie.  But the prose does the opposite to me when I read : it keeps me aware that I am reading.  Every word is so important.  The gaps between the sentences are like precipices between thoughts.  My consciousness has to stay focused.  So there’s this exciting tension there of watching a dream unfold while having to keep one’s mind en pointe.  Where would you place the state of consciousness that is reading?  It’s not really like watching a movie, though prose narrative and film are frequently compared.  Do you think of reading as being hypnotized?  As dreaming?  

To me, reading and writing are so similar—there’s a level of action and agency involved with both. But reading, of course, is more something that one takes in, where writing, I think, is something that one gives out. The pulling together of ideas and images, though seems quite similar on both sides.

 

The temporality of your works is always very strange.  It’s atemporal work, I think.  Or rather, there is temporality, but it’s over and gone in a fragment of a sentence.  Whole histories happen in a few words.  Things disappear.  There’s vanishing points and things following a longing into the distance.  Then it takes whole stretches of a paragraph to look through a window, to follow the flight of a wreaking ball.  But there’s always a voice that is leftover that keeps interrogating, describing, cataloguing.  There’s both this posture of repose and yet, when I really follow things, there is the suggestion of a terrifying idea of how the universe is arranged.  What is your fascination with disappearance?  

I suppose this fascination with disappearance is related, again, to the river and deep water, but also to the way in which everyone’s existence is so tenuous. The cataloguing and interrogative elements are a way to keep track, to claim space, to say, “I was here.” And time is just strange! An hour can seem like a minute or like an entire day, depending. All of this is quite terrifying to me, and I think, again, the element of organizing and keeping a space for small things that might not seem important helps to assuage the horror of the chaos of life (which I realize sounds a bit dramatic…).

 

What other work from you do we have to look forward to?

I recently finished a novel, The Mayflies, which has had the privilege of being excerpted in some wonderful journals. And I’m currently working on a new novel, The Ladies. While not a sequel per se, it is a related book as The Ladies were characters in the previous novel. There have also been some excerpts of this work in progress published in some wonderful places as well.

 

Read an excerpt from Sara’s The Ladies here: http://www.zingmagazine.com/VeglahnTheLadiesExcerpt.pdf

 

INTERVIEW: Joanna Howard

 

 

Joanna Howard is the author of On the Winding Stair (Boa editions, 2009) and In the Colorless Round, a chapbook with artwork by Rikki Ducornet (Noemi Press).  Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, Chicago Review, Unsaid, Quarterly West, American Letters & Commentary, Fourteen Hills, Western Humanities Review, Salt Hill, Tarpaulin Sky and elsewhere.  Her stories have been anthologized in PP/FF: An Anthology, Writing Online, and New Standards: The First Decade of Fiction at Fourteen Hills.  She has also co-translated, with Brian Evenson, Walls by Marcel Cohen (Black Square, 2009) and, with Nick Bredie, also co-translated Cows by Frederic Boyer (Noemi, forthcoming 2011). She lives in Providence and teaches at Brown University.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

A fair amount of your book, On the Winding Stair, is absorbed by a world of ghosts that overlays and is not-totally-invisible to the living world.  Like a transparency placed on a picture.  First things first: do you actually believe in ghosts and have you ever had experiences with specters and haunted houses?

I do believe in ghosts, but they fail to appear to me.  I am seeking the ones I know, but they just won’t give me the time of day.  Much like how the person you like the most ignores you to the bitter end.  I’m much more likely to haunt than be haunted, and to wonder if I’m being seen.  Also, I believe in ghosts in the way someone who is out of your life returns in another guise, or how someone who is literally dead seems to be replicated in another person who is living, in their mannerisms and gestures, even sometimes in their way of dress.  These are the most powerful encounters I’ve had with ghosts, especially since the living individual does not know he is being inhabited.  So it is like a private secret. 

 

I try to avoid what gets said on the backs of books, no matter how exciting because I want an unadulterated experience of a book.  In this case, I failed because I very much like the three authors who had nice things to say on the back of your book.  Gary Lutz comments on your tendency toward ghosts and says something about how your characters sort themselves between "the haunters and the haunted."  I think this is keen for a number of reasons, one of which, is that "the haunters and the haunted" describes a border, or ravine separating realities in many of the stories.  What or where is the border for you between a reader's imagination and the text?

Because narrative clarity is so tenuous in my work, the reader’s imagination is pretty vital to sort out things like progression, movement, even things that probably should be pretty straight-forward such as character or location.  I often think that my characters are wandering in a shifting landscape, one that is recognizable if the reader is familiar with it, but which is also dissolving in a mist.  I spend a lot of time thinking about projection, how much of our lives we spend trying to make some meaningful narrative of connection out of the very few details the people around us are willing to give up.  I can create an elaborate fantasy out of very little information, so it is perhaps not surprising that my fiction ends up asking the same of a reader.

 

A big part of the pleasure of On the Winding Stair for me is how object-heavy these stories are and how unusual (and often outdated as technologies) objects that appear are.  There's a hurdy-gurdy, a tartan blanket, an Irish mail handcar, a caravan, doubloons, a mussel trestle, a cloissonne earring in the shape of a fish, vaudeville stage acts, pyracantha, epaulets, a poster bed veil, scrims, olive linen, a cider ruin, a pink mutt, a gourd helmet and something spectacularly called a, "misery salad."  In these rich worlds, there's a stark relation to absence and poverty -- evoked in addition to ghosts -- captives, bastards and "pale, hungry girls."  There's also a damagedness, ruined beaches, suicidal Spanish gypsies.  The combined imagery makes me contemplate the beauty of decay and disintegration.  Are these tensions a comment or meditation on beauty for you?  

I think I am often obsessed with an object which I see as distinct in its genre, much as I like a character who is both a type and an absolute aberration of said type.  In the absence of an understanding of what constitutes identity, one substitutes the material details of identity: we are marked by our material trappings in so many ways.  To instill objects (or even locations) with this much burden is begging for disappointment, as objects are inevitably lost, damaged or ruined, and so these objects invoke a kind of anxiety.  To fixate on a type, a boxer for instance—as in the piece I am currently working on—creates a similar problem for inevitably he can’t remain totally as such (injuries are inevitable, boxers retire young), and because I am romantic, I like to dwell as much on the former thing, the former boxer.  His damage is his aberration and distinction, in this case, and it calls so much critical attention to his origins. 

 

In addition to the beauty of ruin and decadence, I can't ignore the possibility of a social commentary that particularly reminds me of Virginia Woolf's association in A Room of One's Own with poverty and nourishment to the imagination (or lack thereof).  In a world and an economy where most of us have to spend most of our time working (and one's attention in what time for entertainment is leftover is often drawn to TV or the web), what time is there for reading?  I admit, that's bit dramatic of me.  But, there have been periods of my life in which I didn't have time to read or if I did, I was too exhausted to focus my attention.  To ask the question more broadly: this collection seems concerned with how imagination survives in impoverishment, so how does imagination survive in a world that doesn't value imagination for imagination's sake (and instead prefers imagination applied to productivity, technological ingenuity, etc...)?

This issue is of genuine concern to me, and I think it comes literally from growing up poor and filling in for material lack with imagination of material decadence, hence the obsession in my work with baroque décor and artisanal niceties. I think imagination is rarely valued for anyone other than children because it is seen as impractical or naïve, but I don’t feel this way.  Perhaps because I tend toward cynicism and misanthropy, I use imagination to combat these things and to draw myself back into positive contact with individuals.  These days if someone tells me I have a great imagination, I assume that they are raising one eyebrow.  Imagination is connected with magical thinking and psychological projection, two things that breed awkwardness in a cocktail conversation. Beyond this, imagination is attached to enthusiasm, which is doubly awkward. For all that we dismiss things that don’t earn us money, at this cultural moment, I think the fear of having an awkward moment is much more damaging.

 

Just as this collection is fascinated by the object world, it is also fascinated by technology (though old technology, rather than new), I think.  I think too of, "The Dynamo and the Virgin," and the world's fascination with technology at the World Exhibition in Paris, 1900.  Our (real) world is one that is perpetually fascinated by technology.  And while I would most definitely not classify this work "steampunk" because it's not (exactly) science fiction, I would suggest it grapples with a fascination with the old/vintage/antiqued and the development of technologies.  How do you think the material object of "the book" will or will not change in response to technology?  Is the book soon to be antiquated?  

I am so tremendously flattered to have anything in my book labeled steampunk, I can barely focus on the question.  I love obsolete technologies, for the same reason that I like former objects, and former character types.  The book to me is always already antique, in the way that commercials are as well, because the marketing is worked into the design as artifact.  Often, it seeks to trigger a past moment, and sell through nostalgia.  I become nostalgic for the Old Spice commercials from the 70’s, and lo and behold, someone is already producing new retro versions of these before I even recognize the desire.  Right now, there are so many book presses using retro comic or cartoon imagery, nostalgic photography, and antiqued fonts; these books are designed to look antique because it triggers our desire to own the object that is like the object from our past.  It’s hard for me to imagine a movement entirely away from the book object, because there will always be those among us, no matter how reliant we become on the current technologies, who will still fetishize objects and want to possess them as such. 

 

It seems to me too that your worlds are only possible because they're literary -- could only exist as fictions constructed of bizarre and beautiful vocabularies, although they don't physically and logically operate too far from the margins of what we might identify as reality.  There are creatures of dubious existence like mermaids and ghosts, and paradoxical, ethereal events occur.  But none of these details are "absurd" in the sense that these fictional worlds are unstable.  To the contrary, they seem to develop an immediate internal logic and are rather disciplined in staying true to whatever that internal logic may be.  There's a dream at work, but I am continually made aware that it is language and not experience.  How important to you is it that the reader is made aware of the fact that he or she is reading, or made aware of the materiality of language?

Again, this is quite a conscious desire for me.  I do believe that as writers we have chosen our medium, which is language, and should get to know it in its fluidity, its elasticity.  The idea that I would try to create something in language that could be done better in film or in a visual artwork is nutz to me, although I have so many students that are going for that sort of thing. “I’m trying to write this like Frank Miller’s Sin City” they say, and they may get the flavor of the text of that work, but they fail to realize that the images of the model text were vital.  I think it is fine to say I want to make something that has the effect of a graphic novel, but in language, especially if you intend to see just how to make the language do the work of image in its own right, but even that it is strange to me.  I’ve just always been interested in the texture of the medium I’ve chosen.

 

I can never predict where a story in On the Winding Stair will end up and after reading the entire collection the stories are couched in my mind kaleidoscopically: I can't keep them distinct, they form and reform in different patterns in my memory and I can't locate their beginnings and endings, only their twists and tangibilities, because these stories of yours wind.  Some of them seem to be able to keep going infinitely and others stop abruptly.  In your writing process, how do you know when to "stop," that is, how do you know when a story has arrived at an "ending"?  What, exactly, for you, is an "ending"?

Finding an ending is the most difficult part of the writing process.  For me, at this point, two things dictate endings: culmination of image, or dissipation of obsessive thought.  It’s intuitive and always comes from the language. Bottom line, if I have been working with an image across a piece and it starts to feel sufficiently layered or labored, I feel I am coming to the end of something.  Or, if I have had an obsessive idea or thought across the text, and it is starting to ease up, I feel I am coming to the end of something.  For instance, I have an end line in which is a girl is described as “severed and refitted.”  When I thought of this language, I was obsessed with it, and I wanted to find a narrative that explained to me why a girl would seem first severed, then refitted.  When I had the story in mind, I worked toward the end line.  Often, these obsessions of language recur later when I’m working on a new piece, and I might realize that I needed to go further in something that I’d already completed, but I am not one to go back and rework old love affairs. 

 

Not unlike the overarching story structures, your sentences wind in a disturbing way.  From the first story, "Light Carried on Air Moves Less,": "In the center of that plain, where parched pasture grass muled, low and reedy, and sucked the humid thickness from the air till it was pinched and light and porous, a loose-ended portion of train track sat on its chalky rock pile, plank ribbed, veined with dark steel rails."  Like the warped dichotomy haunter / haunted, it seems the relationship between subject and object is mostly intact, but disturbed some.  Passive objects are active (and even a bit aggressive, even if beautiful -- the grass that sucks the air until it pinches), and subjects are sort of fragile, as if the train tracks are dependent and subservient to the rock pile that holds them up.  What is your interest in the form of sentences?

Again, this is as much intuitive as anything.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how to say something without really saying it, like trying to phrase a request to someone in which their acceptance is inevitable because it is worked into the assumptions of the language of the request, and because ultimately, I really want them to do what I want them to do.  Manipulation through the medium of language.  In a story like the one described above, I just wanted to overemphasize how languid and still everything was, and yet how much desire was present even in the inanimate objects, the desire to possess. 

 

There's a romance as well as a sense of nostalgia or grief (and even danger?) to the epigraph that gives the name to the collection: "On the winding stair / your dress rustles. / Candle burning quietly / In the dark room--- / A silver hand / snuffs it out" (Georg Trakl, translated by Keith Waldrop).  Trakl himself -- disturbed, Bohemian, tragic, youthful -- would not be out of place in the work.  Did you write the collection with the Trakl poem in mind, or did you discover it later as a possible title?  Given that your sentences seem to slip into the edges of poetry, how influenced or not were you by working with Trakl's (or Keith's?) structures?

I was hugely influenced by Trakl, especially the way a single line of his poems would often contain an entire narrative, with rich gothic elements, asylumns and castles, and these poems inevitably lead to despair and grief.  I am a hopeless romantic.  I was seeking a title for the collection, and kept striking out.  At the time, fortunately, Keith Waldrop gave me some of his Trakl translations knowing I was a fan (of his and of Trakl).  I had read an earlier version of this epigraph poem which had been translated to say “on the spiral staircase”.  Of course, when I saw what Keith had done with it, I realized there was something so sophisticated and yet clear, the stair becomes active rather than the passive recipient of a common descriptor, and suddenly it said everything I wanted to say in the book.

 

What forthcoming works do we have to look forward to?

I’m working with an artist called Chemlawn to do something for the Kidney Press, an artist’s book in limited edition.  Chemlawn does the artwork for Birkensnake magazine, and she is phenomenal, very, very strange, so I am excited to be working with her. That text is about my fixation with boxing and/or a visit to a refuge for exotic birds.  I’m also trying to finish a novel, about a female filmmaker and her stable of strange actors. 

 

Read Joanna’s Assemblage here: http://www.zingmagazine.com/joannahoward.pdf