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:


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:


INTERVIEW: Jeronimus van Pelt and Daan Samson

Jantine Wijnja
curator and artist
Amsterdam, NL

Some time back photographer Jeronimus van Pelt contacted us about a project he was doing with welfare artist Daan Samson featuring women working in the artworld framed within a sexualized context. The photographic series features eight female curators, theorists, artists, critics, museum directors, and others who agreed to participate, working with stylist Margreeth Olsthoorn to stage the scenes.  "Art Babes" debuts today as part of Torch Gallery’s booth at Art Rotterdam 2011.

Interview by Brandon Johnson


How did your collaboration come about?

Jeronimus van Pelt: A few years ago, I visited Daan Samson's exhibition entitled “Showing One's Colours” in TENT, the Rotterdam art centre. Almost excusing my enthusiasm, I mailed him that his work made me feel cheerful. I felt a kind of ‘direction’ in his otherwise unsettling art projects. The self-proclaimed art celebrity turned out to be surprisingly simple to approach. Almost immediately he was prepared to make an appointment in a museum in my hometown of The Hague. In the museum restaurant we ate cheese croquets with toast.

Daan Samson: There, in that restaurant, I met a photographer with an artist’s soul. Jeronimus showed me portraits of top civil servants, patricians, close friends and ministers. His shots were all characterized by splendid, sophisticated lighting. He talked comprehensively about the way in which, during his shoots, he establishes contact with the personalities in front of his camera. His stories and photos do indeed show that he manages to ‘disarm’ people.

Jeronimus: After a while, Daan raised the concept of the Art Babes. He invited me to collaborate on a photographic series within which we would give professional artistic women the opportunity to immortalize themselves as ‘sexy creatures’.


How exactly did you select your subjects?

Daan: What followed was an extensive search through the realms of emancipated art fields. We approached attractive artistic women at vernissages and art receptions. We sought models in all layers of our domain. I looked not only for artists and influential exhibition-makers, but also for vital art restorers, reviewers, and even cloakroom girls in museums. Websites such as Facebook are also very suitable channels to check photos and backgrounds. Correspondence with the potential Babes was often followed by a meeting with the artistic women in question. We spoke about sexuality, liberation, looks and lingerie.

Jeronimus: Daan regularly sent me profiles of artistic women who had agreed to give a glimpse of their most sexy side. After that I, too, sought contact with the Art Babes. Within this kind of photo project, it is important that the model and the photographer manage to get on the same wavelength before the photo shoot. I wanted to hear the voices of all the participants, in order to gauge the way in which they approached the theme.

Daan: Jeronimus is a person who relies on emotions. During the project I observed that he wished to reach some sort of communal trance. For example, in the preparatory discussions he tests the degree to which a kind of energy could be released during the shoots. During those discussions, he promotes a situation that structures this eventual trance.


Did you have to approach many women to find participants, or were your candidates generally open to the idea?

Daan: We live in confusing times. Concepts such as ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ seem to have become unstuck. As a result, the self-image that women have has also undergone a paradigm shift. Therefore it was not very difficult to find participants. To the Art Babes, our request probably just came at the right moment. Often the artistic girls had to admit, albeit coyly, that they found it quite flattering to be seen purely and simply as a sexy chick. Other women indicated that they were furious after reading the very first e-mail. Nevertheless, they too wished to participate, even if it was only to come to terms, once and for all, with the feminism of their youth. 

Jeronimus: The Art Babe concept gives provocative commentary on our times. To me personally, it was not a goal to supply a specific male view of the concepts of sexuality and beauty. I often spoke with the models about a kind of softness that we could reveal. This softness has little to do with eroticism, it is more about a sort of energy – the softness of female energy. Recently I read an interview with the singer Antony Hegarty and I was rather impressed. I would like to explore with him, in a photographic context, what he calls the ‘softness of the cross-gender principle’. It is not clear whether Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa with the aid of a male or female model. I experience a deep source of inspiration in this idea.

Daan: Nevertheless, the Art Babe photo series has a certain macho character. We show influential artistic women within the context of sexist role models. And it is fine that present-day women apparently have the spirit to display some of those traits now and again.  

Jeronimus: Sexual clichés versus 'lipstick feminism'... it is a curious and interesting mix of impossibilities.


Is this a reaction to what can sometimes be a dogmatic intellectual insistence on political correctness, especially in the world of contemporary art?

Daan: Yes, I believe so. The masks can be dropped now, even within the world of the arts. The concept of ‘shame’ is now only for those who are actually ashamed.

Jeronimus: Both Daan and I are post-hippie children. Perhaps the Art Babe project is also a personal means of reflecting upon the feminism with which we were raised in the seventies. 

Daan: And our fathers and mothers can be proud of us. We have created, with love, an attractive environment in which the Art Babes could break out of their culture-driven straitjacket. Stripped of intellectually representative expectations, the girls could emerge as seductive sex kittens. 

Jeronimus: Women liberators … that is what we are.

Daan: Hahaha. Princess Máxima Zorreguieta will be delighted to hear that. Didn’t you make a portrait of her recently?


I’m enjoying the settings of the portraits – particularly those that suggest the artworld – Jantine surrounded by cocktails littered about at an opening, Anne sitting on crates presumably containing works of art, Eva among foam and bubble wrap in a storage setting.  It’s disconcerting to see these banal work scenes become sexualized. How were these scenes selected?

Jeronimus: After pioneering work with the first two photos, we reached the conclusion that we did not want to offer true anecdotes. The energy that I like to experience in a photo is released when you offer a model the comfort of leaning upon both the fictional and the real. 

Daan: With our photos we expose the true ambitions within the art scene. We allow dreamed aspirations to run wild in front of the camera. In the choice of locations and ambiences, we occasionally pounded hard on the loud pedal. And the women showed themselves to be seemingly at their ease within our décor of top hotels, smooth vodka and tasteful lofts. Fashion guru Margreeth Olsthoorn dressed all the Art Babes in creations of international fashion designers, such as Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan and Veronique Branquinho.

Jeronimus: Whereas I seek the power of a photo in a kind of immaterial intensity, Daan is more initiated into the world of luxury and comfort. Within his artistic calling, he pleads for a revaluation of the material. In contrast to many other artists he will not sneer at earthly possessions. 


These photographs are like pin-ups to art dealers – a fantasy specific to the industry. Who is the audience for this work?

Daan: First of all, photo-lovers will be delighted by such marvellous images. Jeronimus has shot amazingly refined pictures. And the more general art collectors will also be astonished, not only by the scintillating photos but also by the Art Babes we have liberated. And finally, the less involved citizen is also welcome. We realize that there is a gap between the artworld and society. However, with this photo series we offer a hand of friendship. The most seductive Art Babes are presented on a platter.


On view at Art Rotterdam February 10-13, 2011

INTERVIEW: Nils Folke Anderson


With a foundation in painting, Nils Folke Anderson now works in large-scale sculpture.  His most recent works feature repeated interlocking geometric pieces that can be shifted into different formations and left to pose like the kids game of “statues.”  At first glance, it’s Sol LeWitt meeting minimalist sculpture.  But looking a bit harder, Anderson is going the opposite way on the same road, doing the two-finger wave as they pass.  I visited Nils Folke Anderson’s expansive Sunset Park warehouse studio on a wet September Tuesday.  Across the hall from Marian Spore, and with a view onto New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty vague in the fog, it was well worth the shlep from Bushwick.  The studio itself contained a large iron sculpture of interlocking bent rectangles with more yet-to-be-assembled pieces stacked on the floor, their scaled models lined up in a row.  After a quick survey of these works, we headed up a floor to a smaller studio to discuss his work.  Afterwards, we went looking for avocado milkshakes while talking trash about Blockbuster only to end up with a Vietnamese feast in Sunset Park Chinatown.  Not bad at all.

Interview by Brandon Johnson


Let’s start at the foundation of what informs your sculpture: the concept of “reciprocal linkage.”  Can you explain it in your own words along with its importance to your work?

I borrowed the term reciprocal linkage from internet terminology, where it's used to describe how multiple websites are linked to each other.

In my work reciprocal linkage is the term I use to describe a basic principle of interrelation, in which a number of elements that are essentially empty frames all link through one another.  Together they create a dynamic, formless unity in which each individual element bears the same relation to the whole as any of the other elements. 

Because all of the frame elements are made alike (same dimensions, material, etc.), a situation is created in which they are totally interchangeable, but also confined by this specific kind of linkage.  I work in the openness of this space, interacting with a reciprocally linked object until I arrive at a stopping point, in which the elements make an interdependent stasis, all leaning on one another to form a configuration.  


When we spoke at your studio, you related this concept to complex relational systems like economics, politics, with each piece affecting the great whole so as to shape the entirety.  I like the idea of how this formation is alive in a way, and then reaches a point when you leave it to pose.  This is a departure from more rational systems, like algorithms, used to create work.  As the artist, you are directly involved in the aesthetic decision of how the piece will be arranged.  How would you compare your sculptural work to someone like Sol LeWitt and why have you chosen to take the positioning away from either chance or systematic rationality and literally into your own hands?

Sol LeWitt's means were logical and rational, but the results are also poetic and humorous and beautiful.  I admire how his work manages to be rigorous and light at the same time. 

In my work I am interested in a direct, tactile engagement, the kind of subjective, physical, and psychological engagement that LeWitt in some ways rejected.  When I am configuring a reciprocally linked sculpture, I move it until it stands up on its own.  Along the way there are things it will and will not do, depending on its size, material, shape, location, etc.  The sculpture has a specific character, and the interaction that occurs engages an immediate, physical intelligence.  The moment of resolution happens in an instant-- everything is in play, and a moment later everything snaps into place and I am released.  The sculpture and myself are separated.  I assess the result and decide whether or not to reengage. 

I am interested by the density of concerns that come into play at that moment, by the challenge of making the right decision when there is no right decision to be made.


That is the conundrum – when to let go.  Especially when there is “no right decision to be made.”  Instead of logic, physics – gravity and friction – plays a role in determining the final form, among the density of concerns.  We talked about this having a more ab-ex attitude.  You said instead of repetition like LeWitt, there is “recursion.”  How does this term fit in?

Recursion occurs when a thing is in relation to itself.  It is the basic mechanism of deconstruction-- that in placing the self-same in relation to itself something radically different might precipitate.  Through recursion a novel face can arise from what had seemed stable and well understood. 

In the case of reciprocal linkage, an indeterminate, liquid character emerges from what are completely self-equivalent square frames, simply by the act of joining them together according to a particular organizing principle.  

Robert Smithson wrote a great piece contrasting "liquid" and "crystalline" thought, in which he advises the reader suffering from a liquid mind to make a mud pool and watch it segment as it dries. But I'm interested in the whole event he describes, the muck and the cracked polygons of dry clay, and what occurs along the way.  I'm pursuing a continuum that absorbs it all.


You mentioned the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark as a primary influence.  How does she fit into the picture?

Lygia Clark made a body of work called Bichos in the early 60's, which she built by hinging together metal plates.  These sculptures are meant to be manipulated by the viewer into various forms.  "Bicho" means beast, or animal, or bug, and the basic proposition is to create a tactile/visual dialogue between a person and this object, an object that-- through the interaction-- takes on a kind of internal life based on the nature of its construction.  There's a tension between the will of the object and the will of the person touching it, and a decision to be made regarding when and why and how to disengage.  

These sculptures also continuously empty themselves-- they are the opposite of a palimpsest, because there's no trace of what forms they have previously taken.  Every movement simultaneously creates a new form and destroys the prior form. 

I once recreated a Bicho, in steel rather than aluminum, and I was struck by the conundrum of the stopping point that this work presents.  I still am.


I find it interesting for a painter to move into sculpture.  How did you decide to begin working in sculpture?  How would you say your background in painting has influenced your sculpture practice?

I've built things all my life, and because my art making was oriented towards painting for a long time, I had the benefit of making objects without thinking about them as artworks.  I taught carpentry, built mud houses, worked in construction, made my own furniture, never thinking about art exactly.  I'm making steel sculpture now, but my education in steel came from helping my brother build domination equipment for S&M dungeons.  Later I worked in the wood shop of a framer and found a book on Japanese joinery and immersed myself in that world.  All of this was a respite from art, and I developed a facility with materials and structure along the way that is now central to my art.

It was my engagement with color that provided the bridge between painting and sculpture, specifically the understanding of color as something that has three dimensions (light/dark value, hue and saturation).  Color interaction happens within a three dimensional color space, it happens densely and all at once, and something analogous happens in reciprocal linkage.

I made the jump from painting to sculpture because I sensed that possibility.  I had also recently become a father, and the tactility and vividness of holding this little living being gave an urgency to this transition to sculpture.  It was a good moment for change.

Going back to Lygia Clark, she was bothered by the non-presence of the backside of paintings.  She folded that empty space into her Bichos.  She didn't eliminate that void, but rather turned it into an active element of the work.  That image-- of contemplating the reverse side of the painting-- also instigated me towards sculpture.


Wow, so your sculpture truly has a solid foundation in craft too.  The S&M thing is quite funny considering Robert Morris’s famed poster in all the gear, but also something I would never have guessed you had done.  At the studio I got a sense of the reciprocal linkage emerging, with your Peter Halley-like paintings demonstrating a degree of inter-linkage already.  The transition to sculpture seemed quite natural, especially now that I’ve learned your experience in building and craft.  Good deal.  So, what do you have coming up we can look forward to?  I know you just opened a group show at Nathan A. Bernstein & Co. (sorry I didn’t make it – had tickets for Peewee on Broadway).  Tell me more about this and other upcoming projects / events.

I'm working on several outdoor sculptures, including my first permanent public commission.  And I'm painting again, after a hiatus of several years, preparing for a show next year that will have both painting and sculpture.

The show at Nathan Bernstein is a group show of light art, with Dan Flavin, Keith Sonnier, Anthony McCall, Jenny Holzer, among others, beautifully curated by Nicole Berry.  I have a reciprocally linked neon piece in it, my first neon sculpture with multiple colors.  The neon sculptures have these discrete elements in them, like my other linked work, but with one continuous electrical series running through them, and one continuous field of light. 



SLEEPIES are a Brooklyn nice-kid-freak-punk three-piece composed of: “Josh (bum/bum/bum/croon), Max (bang/boom/bat/bat/yell), and Thomas (plunk/jangle/jangle/bark).”  They semi-recently put out a self-titled full length LP (available here) and have been thrashing it up all over town.  On top of that, they are three nice guys, cool cats, and interesting fellows.

Interview by Brandon Johnson


So, I know all three of you, Thomas and Max through separate sources, and Josh through the two of you, but tell me how you met, and how did SLEEPIES form?

Max: Thomas was one of the first people I met at NYU; he was my neighbor, and I believe we started talking because he was wearing a Blood Brothers t-shirt and it turned out we were both from the Bay Area. I met Josh through a friend from class, Rachel Coleman, who now books shows under the name Pop Jew and won a reality TV competition in her spare time – she’s really quite something!

Anyway, the three of us tried to do two bands before Sleepies, one of which was a dance band – it was 2003, everyone was doing it! – and the other was more lo-fi indie stuff.  As they say: the third time’s the charm.


Who are your biggest influences musically and non-musically?   

Max: Even musicians tend to influence me in both musical and non-musical ways, so I’ll go with the old reliables, in the order in which they became significant to me: Green Day, Nirvana, Bikini Kill, Billy Bragg, Hickey.

Outside of music, I reserve most of my admiration for Donna Haraway and Valerie Solanas.

Josh: I’ll follow Max’s lead and also list them chronologically: Nirvana ,Weezer, Pixies, Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney, Wipers. In general, I’m drawn to simplicity. A perfectly executed pop song is surprisingly difficult to put together and I value that a great deal but it’s also nice to be weirded out once and a while.

I don’t know really know about non musical influences other than my friends. I learn way more from them than I do from anybody famous.

Thomas: Josh and Max pretty much covered all the really crucial stuff, but I'll add The Urinals, The Feelies and Young Marble Giants. Recently I've been all about Beck's album One Foot in the Grave and The Gun Club's Fire of Love. One thing that I love about our band is that we all grew up on the same foundation of bands (Green Day, Nirvana, Weezer, etc...), but our tastes diverge in a lot of idiosyncratic ways that I think really help our songwriting.


Your new self titled LP, SLEEPIES, is available in both a 200 copy, hand-screened version and as a digital download.  Who made the art for the album?

Max: The art was pilfered from the plaque designed by Carl and Linda Salzman Sagan to accompany the Pioneer space shuttle and indicate to any alien life what we were about as a species.  I first saw it last spring in a course reader for a class I was teaching, where queer theorist Michael Warner presented it as an example of American society’s pervasive heteronormativity – and it is, all respect to Carl Sagan, unfortunate that the picture he wanted to paint of human life on Earth was heterosexual, white, able-bodied and hairless.  In a bit of serendipity, we played a show at Brooklyn house-show venue Dead Herring a few weeks later only to find the same image pasted to their bathroom door.

Josh: I’ve always found it particularly appropriate considering we feel like aliens most of the time. 

Thomas: Ditto


With digitalilty entering the field of book and magazine publishing, things are getting more polarized – on one end the limited edition, object-oriented collectibles and on the other de-materialized forms purely for readership.  But I guess this has been going on in the recording industry for a while.  Care to comment on how the new LP fits into this scenario?  Will someone be filthy rich down the line if they buy one of the 200 print records now and sell it on Ebay in 20 years?

Max: I certainly hope not!  I was always made uneasy by vinyl fetishists.  To be straightforward, the LP/digital download scenario was merely a way to split the difference between what we all grew up with (i.e. buying physical LPs and CDs) and the reality of how people primarily find out about bands these days (via 1s and 0s, in the ether-cloud).  Given my nonchalance here, it may seem somewhat hypocritical that the LPs are individually numbered.  That to me, though, has more to do with preserving something amateurish about the whole operation – that we did this ourselves, in the most expedient way possible!  That said, if anyone wants to re-release it as 2 one-sided 180 gram LPs in a gatefold sleeve, call us.

Josh: While I’m still totally thrilled that anybody would listen to our music in any format, I also wanted to give people a reason to buy the physical copy. It was really important to us to make something that we felt was special so we spent a month in my living room screen printing the jackets, designing the insert, stamping the LPs, etc while watching the entirety of our modest DVD collection Hand numbering the records was a small badge of accomplishment for doing it completely on our own and I think it’s really cool that we get to share that with anybody who buys the record. It doesn’t really matter to me how much money it ever makes (but that also doesn’t mean I’d be apposed to 2 one-sided 180 gram LPs, either).

Thomas: Hand made objects are so rare in our lives these days, so I think it's really meaningful when people take the time to make something themselves. I think anyone who buys records --- especially people who buy albums from small local bands that will never become collectors items --- appreciate having something handmade, and really value having a relationship to the music they own that goes beyond a 99 cent download or 2 gigs of records they found on Captain Crawl.  It's great that we have our music available online, but it's also kinda cool that acquiring a physical copy requires some sort of interaction with us: you're either coming up to talk after a show, or emailing us personally about getting a copy. One amazing thing about a small-ish music scene is that it creates these mini economies that work on a very human, person to person scale. Just like in the olden times!!


What do you like about New York, music scene and otherwise, and what do you hate about it?

Max: I like that every touring band comes through here, and I like that there’s a shit-ton of DIY, all-ages spaces.  I could do without the city’s overarching aesthetic sensibility.  It always seemed to me to be an a priori truth that the best music comes – unless you’re Bruce Springsteen or the Birthday Party – from the tension between anthemic, fist-pumping shit and weirdo experimentation (see: Hickey, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, The Raincoats, et. al.).  New York, for all its hundreds of thousands of earnest and well-intentioned band-things, almost exclusively deals in one or the other side of that equation: you either get retread indie-pop/rock gestures, or insufferable yelping with occasional electronic farts.  Only a few bands/artists seem interested in aiming for that sweet spot.

Josh: The signal to noise ratio here is pretty bad. There are a million bands, a million places to see live music, and a whole slue of bullshit hierarchies which make it really difficult to get anyone to listen to you. However, despite the countless awful shows we’ve played to empty rooms in some of the lamest bars in New York, we’ve also met some amazingly wonderful people and played the sorts of shows that I dreamed about playing when I first got into punk rock.  With all the nonsense that we have to endure being in bands in New York, the weirdos all seem to find each other and the result is really fun. It’s nice to fall in love with bands not because we “fit together” but because we are genuinely excited about what they are doing. I’d always prefer to see a show with bands that share the same enthusiasm rather than simply sharing the same reverb pedal. 

Thomas: I'm always really inspired by all the people who are doing DIY projects to help create a welcoming music/art community in Brooklyn. In a city with so much red tape and so much indifference, it's  cool so many people are dedicated to do things on their own terms. DBA, Showpaper, Dead Herring, Market Hotel, Famous Accountants Gallery in Bushwick and Newtown Radio are just a few examples.

What do I hate? I hate that the Charleston no longer serves free pizza, and that the $1.25 place on the corner of North 7th and Bedford charges $2.00 for their slices after 8pm Fri-Sun. For the record: that pizza is balls and barely worth the $1.25 to begin with. 

In general, Brooklyn is pretty great. Most of my gripes have to do with pizza.


I happen to know a couple of you have other things happening on the side.  Care to speak about art, philosophy, etc. and how that fits in with your music?

Max: You have outed me as a philosophy PhD student, which I understand is truly one of the most despicable things a person can be.  But let me try to persuade you!  I became interested in philosophy, I think, because I was so in love with and fascinated by punk rock that I wanted to understand it, that I felt like I needed to read about questions of collectivity and oppositional subculture.  While my interests now trend towards the more arid – what, no one wants to talk about the transcendental unity of apperception? – I try to keep all of this in mind.  Hell, Bikini Kill is a huge reason I ended up pursuing feminist philosophy as my primary field of study!

I tend not to overthink the influence of my academic work on punk or music in general, because that generally only leads to blowhards making grandiose proclamations about how their atonal improvised noise band is a perfect example of Deleuzian deterritorialization.  These people are, I think self-evidently, clowns and charlatans, and are not to be trusted.  I will say that my continued involvement in punk has kept alive an appreciation for its utter ridiculousness – which people forget at the risk of succumbing to a fate worse than crust bands.  I see a lot of that same ridiculousness in the academic study of philosophy – seriously, we’re getting professional training to teach people about this nonsense? – and it helps me not take myself, I think, too seriously.

Josh: I used to do a lot of drawing but became disenchanted with it after studying animation in college (you think you like drawing until you draw 1000 nearly identical pictures for 2 minutes of footage that still looks like shit). Helping make our LPs, shirts, flyers, etc. has let me continue to make art in a way in which I can really enjoy it again as well as try out new techniques. If not for our first run of t-shirts, I wouldn’t know how to screen print. Next I’m going to think of a band related reason to learn voodoo.

Thomas: I also have a bit of a background in visual art, so things like album covers and t-shirts are always things we think a lot about.  I think because of our backgrounds and other interests we're a very self aware band. Not like we're self-conscious or are trying to please a particular group, but in the sense that we always spend a lot of time thinking about how things will come across and how they will be read. Ultimately, we're a punk band,  so the most important thing for us is playing music that is fun to play and not taking anything too seriously.  But, there is definitely a very analytic side to our writing process that is probably a product of sitting through too many critiques and lectures about "isms."


Post links of your favorite YouTube videos below.


The Best Band Ever:

Rex Ryan, Sleepies Head Coach:




INTERVIEW: Serge Onnen

still from Break, 2004 at the Dikeou Collection


Serge Onnen is a French/Dutch artist, trumpeter in the band Oorbeek, and longtime friend of zingmagazine.  He has had a project in #17 of utopian trees, a zingbook of face drawings titled Volume O, and video work and wallpaper in the Dikeou Collection.  Serge’s new book coming out with J & L Press is called Drawings on Hands.  He will also be in the upcoming issue of zing, #22.

Interview by Brandon Johnson


Your new book, Drawings on Hands, is very obviously about the drawing of hands in their various positions and actions.  Can you tell me more about it?

Each of the books has a very simple starting point: heads, horizon, writing, and now hands. This book is more or less 50% found, unknown drawings and 50% artists’ material. The goal is each time to make an intelligent book about something simple without the use of text. I want the viewer of the book to wander around, without too much distraction.  There's very little information in the books.  So when I pick something as general as drawings of hands, I first have to make all sorts of categories: tarot, sign language, manuals, religion, medical, magic-tricks, etc, etc. And of course collecting the artists’ material. I research all fields until I find drawings that are interesting and not too obvious.  The collecting and shifting takes a long time.  Stacks of hand drawings become smaller and smaller.  I start making connections, story lines, jokes.  It's all very precise.  There's something anonymous in the design, a stack of paper with an elastic cord around it. And also many of the drawings I pick have this anonymous quality that manuals have.  But at the same time, drawing is a very expressive medium, so that remains, even if it's a blown up lousy jpg.

I didn’t realize you had done all these thematic books in the same way.  I was familiar with the heads book as we published it along with zingmagazine #16, but haven’t seen the horizon or writing books.  In fact, there are a few hands that appear in the heads book.  It seems to be a mark of distinction – a level of achievement – to be able to draw hands well.  As an artist who does a lot of drawing, what is your particular interest in hands?

There's a website that comes with each issue, check them out:

But it's really all about the books and their design.  Drawings on paper, not drawings on screens.  I personally think feet are harder to draw, but it's true that I draw lots of hands. But I don't really notice it anymore.  Your hands are always there.  Available.  It's the part of your body you have the most eye contact with.  They are very flexible, more so than a face.  You can put every expression you want in a hand and it will still keep a certain anonymity, gender is irrelevant.  And of course the idea of “hand made”.  I like art to be made by a human; that's a very powerful aspect of art-making to me.   But, it's never about “hands,” I guess.  Nor in my book or my work.  I find hand studies as a topic boring.


On the back cover of the book, you have a description:

A left hand draws a self-portrait on a sheet of paper. The hand leaves the room. Another hand picks up the drawing and looks at it. "Why can't I do this?" This is an extremely jealous hand, and he crushes the drawing. Then he walks toward a hand mirror, opens himself and pushes very hard against his cold reflection. He takes a few steps back and stares at the print made by his heat until it slowly vanishes.

So, are you saying it’s more about the actions of the hands and their expressive quality and less about the drawing process of the hand itself?  Is it the manipulation of the hand rather than the depiction?

Yes, just drawings of hands won't do. Everybody knows how that book will look.  I guess I'm not so interested in amazingly well drawn hands.  Two of my favorite drawings in the book are of the Japanese tegata drawings. This is an old Japanese tradition where sumo wrestlers ink the palm of their hand to make prints and then give these to their fans.  There is one 18th-century drawing where a sumo wrestler makes such a print. It's still in use today and these prints are collectible.  I've been trying to get one.  A human print as an artifact.  Not as a piece of evidence as it means in western culture - very different to the Hollywood Blvd tradition of hands in the pavement (wonder where that idea comes from, because when I think about actors, their hands are not the first thing that comes to my mind…).  But there are also some drawings from an old manual for magicians; Yes! Here the hands are real actors.


Actually, that’s funny you bring up the Hollywood handprints.  Devon [Dikeou, artist and editor of zingmagazine] did a piece called Norma Taldmadge’s Chinese Theatre based on the origin of that tradition.  The actress Norma Talmadge accidentally stepped onto wet concrete in front of Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, starting the tradition.

But moving forward, you have a project in the upcoming issue of zingmagazine called “Insurance Value Drawings” featuring catastrophic collisions of insurable objects – a grand piano dropped onto a crushed palette of iMacs – along with cost of the products destroyed.  Where did the idea for this series come from? 

So, the handprints started as an accident?  Well, you could say the insurance value drawings started like that too; when you have a show in an institution or museum you’re always asked about the insurance value of the work and that is always something much lower than the market value.  So, art has many different prices; as destroyed, so to speak, “dead;” or as “art”, so to speak, eternal.  In the past, I’ve had pieces that were not sold and I wished had been destroyed.  I destroy work constantly without ever getting paid.

It's another value dilemma. Like everything in our world.  There's not one thing that can't be priced - this idea is still puzzling to me.  But there is also something else; with the goods in the drawings (most items are on pallets), I also thought of the meanings these objects have; so when you drop a Steinway on a pallet of iMacs you will not only get a great sound, but also some kind of conflict, revenge; old vs. new (well, the iMac is old today, but was quite new when the drawing was made! so that's also interesting, the meaning has shifted). Also, the long tradition of dropping grand pianos in art and slapstick.  I like objects destroying each other.  A fallen tree on a car, fallen book-shelves, stuff like that.  It's melancholic—it’s not the violence of hurting.  Each insurance drawing is also a composition: a motorcycle & olive oil, a motorcycle & Nespresso, telescope & M&M's, lingerie & crude oil.  In that way it's not a real accident—they're sketches for beautiful swindles.  There are a lot of musical instruments among the insurance drawings.  Music & violence is a good match.  Guitars also have this powerful meaning when crashed, but when it's crashing into cans of Nivea for Men, it becomes as ridiculous as most rock and roll bands that will smash a guitar nowadays. The Gretsch guitars vs. Jack Daniel's is more the idea of two delicate brands.  You can crash as many Fender Stratocasters as you like but don't dare touch the Gretsch!  Two brands that play with “classic rock” & “good taste and connoisseurship” and being “exclusive.”  And all that crap.  I'm not saying these aren't good products, that's not my point.  Originality has nothing to do with exclusivity. But all these brands try to make you believe it's the same thing.  They will only gain originality when damaged. Oh, something very funny happened with the motorcycle & Nespresso drawing; a few months after I made that drawing, George Clooney got into a motorcycle accident! In Europe he is Mr. Nespresso.


You mention the lack of violence in objects destroying each other.  There’s a similar theme of crashing and smashing in your video piece at the Dikeou Collection called Break in which two hands slap together to smash things, like a beer mug.  In your statement for this piece, you say that violence in animation doesn’t hurt.  Is the fictional aspect of drawing important to you?  Does is provide a sort of outlet for violence in the world?

In that animation two hands crash objects against each other but are gentle to each other.  I think I always had a fictional attitude toward drawing; as I child I made sounds while drawing and the characters had voices.  Very often they were fighting, that's true.  When I draw I need to get inside the world I'm creating.  Then I can try to rule it and believe it's good or not.  It hasn't chanced so much, only the worlds I draw have changed.  So when I started to work with animation and studied its history, I noticed how violent it has always been. In an animation you can transform anything.  Violence is, of course, transformation.  Animation always plays with these ideas.  It means something else and that is always interesting. You just take that violence for granted, even if it's not funny.  It's fun to drop a anvil on someone's head in an animation, but in a movie that will become a splatter scene.  I don't enjoy violence in movies. But I do in music, drawing, etc.


On the other hand, your project in zingmagazine #17, “Sanitary Park,” looks at a “place where everything is clean and perfect.  A man-made park where no human is allowed.”  There are drawings of trees, interconnected page to page, with ends that are amputated stumps.  They are abstract, organic, a “pure environment.”  This is in stark contrast with the messing smashing and crashing of “Insurance Value Drawings” and Break.  Can you tell me how this project relates to the rest of your work?

Holland, where I live most of the time, is totally man made, as you may know. It's the 17th-century's Dubai.  All the work I did about 10 years ago for "Sanitary Park," around a hundred drawings and a show in Holland's biggest hospital, was about creating a park out of drawings. A safe and secure zone; like one finds also in a bathroom or hospital.  These places must be very clean, sterile.  Industrial and organic.  Places where one thinks it's safe to take off ones clothes.  The zing drawings are the extreme version of that idea, amputated, no humans allowed. It's also a lot about the idea in the urban brain that nature is pure.  That is the way it's being represented: "purity is a invention of the police" like one of my heroes Roland Topor said.  I need to go back to the work I did before Sanitary Park to explain how one thing leads to another.  Those drawings were “heavy bags.”  People in and with bags.  You never know if they're vagabonds, hikers, homeless people, refugees.  Leaving things behind and going into the wild voluntarily or non-voluntarily.  The romantic and the dramatic version hand-in-hand.  So, there's often a 'better world' fantasy in my work I guess, playing with those ideas of rejecting society or being rejected by it.  The violence only came in when I started to work with animation.  But always object-related violence and also always repetitive, rhythmical, in the drawings, animations and also in a wallpaper I designed.  I did a wallpaper where champagne-glasses are being toasted very cheerfully and violently.  I call that “violent choreography.”  It's a composition, like the insurance drawings.  I like objects that have something dangerous and something human in them.  Like a fork is a little hand-prosthesis.  Or a pair of scissors that looks in many ways like eyes: they blink, have two eyes, and will always keep their elegance.  Beautiful.


It’s great to hear about your past work in zing and how it relates to your body of work as a whole.  Besides your upcoming project in zingmagazine #22 and Drawings on Hands, is there anything else coming up that you’d like to mention?

Yes, you develop and change ideas over the years and it's good to reconnect with it using language.  I can recommend to any zingchat readers going upstate to DIA:Beacon by  train, get out of the train in Peekskill and check out my kaleidoscope sculpture “monetariumplanetrarium” on the waterfront, part of the Hudson Valley Art Centre. It's a piece I'm real proud of!

INTERVIEW: James Belflower

 Hand-written manuscript of Commuter

James Belflower is the author of Commuter (Instance Press) and And Also a Fountain, (NeOpepper Press) a collaborative echap with Anne Heide and J. Michael Martinez. Commuter was recently voted 2009’s “Best Book Length Long Poem/Sequence” by ColdFront magazine. His work appears, or is forthcoming in: EOAGH, Denver Quarterly, Apostrophe Cast & Greatcoat among others. He curates, a website dedicated to the gifting & exchange of poetry resources.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas


ZING: Your collection, Commuter is a poetry of urban disaster, or more specifically, the detonation of a terrorist bomb – essentially, the poetry of an event.  What do you think is the influence of 9/11 and the “War on Terrorism” and methods of contemporary warfare on language?  On art’s concerns with consciousness?  Do you think violence changes how we shape our questions about beauty?

James Belflower: I like your description of Commuter as “a poetry of an event.” I wonder if it might be even more accurate to describe it as a poetry of event. In this case, the event is the dissolution, dislocation and withdrawal—coexistent with the rethinking, rewriting and (re)witnessing of a rapidly changing sense of what constitutes relation and to a broader extent, community. Commuter attempts to (as you suggest below in some cases “aggressively”), enact an event of discourse and relation in this intersection. A discourse that resists the logic that results in the community of death created by and around suicide bombing.

I think this logic is very common though, and in many instances a symptom of the practice of poetry of witness (and arguably of poetry in general). So, the other primary concern was refusing this thinking. In many cases poetry of witness, and especially poetry of secondary witness, presumes to be a vehicle for the unspeakable, the testimony of those who are silenced. Yet, this logic is a means to an end, almost always that end is the “project,” the communion with another, the making meaning out of what I believe is ultimately utterly meaningless: death. In instrumentalizing another’s death, a text entertains a conception of community similar to that of suicide bombing, both constituted on the value of another’s death: the justification, defense, and potential of death. In one case metaphoric, in another martyrdom.

These logic systems center an understanding of communal structures in an originary essentialist past that only needs to be reconstituted through fusion with another for success. They suggest community as a product. As such, these systems no longer contain the possibility for the “eventness” necessitated by the limit(s) that a community is. Expanding on Maurice Blanchot, Jean Luc-Nancy calls it an “unworking” of community. I’ll quote him so I don’t botch it too badly, “that community, in its infinite resistance to everything that would bring it to completion signifies an irrepressible political exigency, and that this exigency in its turn demands something of ‘literature,’ the inscription of our infinite resistance.”

To make a long answer longer, but hopefully to answer your question, this exigency and “infinite resistance” must reshape our questions about beauty. In the pressurized space of a tradition that attempts to situate the beautiful (especially in poetry of witness) on an “authentic” subjectivity, the space for a rearticulation of beauty, much less of trauma is very limited. I personally have a very fraught relationship to beauty, in many cases finding it to be a default aesthetic mode for much poetic witness: when the trauma gets tough, the trauma turns beautiful. It seems that poetry of witness generally doesn’t interrogate the implications of beautifying atrocity very often, usually relying instead on an empathetic response that has strong affinities with the sentimental tradition. This understanding of beauty is unable to account for the unnerving experience of such works as Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, Charlotte Delbo’s trilogy Auschwitz and After, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Rachel Zolf’s The Neighbour Procedure or Vanessa Place’s, The Guilt Project, much less the events that these texts strive to express.

So a main question for me became, how to think/write with the full awareness of my own complicity in all of these issues, what Nancy calls a “literary communism.” I like the emphasis he places on the idea of offering texts to communication, a certain manner of sharing that the text enters. What is important to this idea is abandonment. In offering something, you abandon it at the same time. Commuter seeks to populate this limit. In some sense this extends to a certain description of thinking as care for another: the offering/abandonment of a text in/as an uncrossable threshold, where the text becomes, not exactly a common ground, but a meeting place nonetheless. And the process of the work changes then, it commutes, (especially in the sense of a traveler, and the alteration of a period of imprisonment) a discourse as part of a communal formation: it is preoccupied with the unending travel(er) of/on communication.


ZING: The Prologue locates us in the chaos, panic and fragmentation of a destroyed urban space.  There are people “combing hospitals,” architecture goes rickety, time is being counted and noted – these elements of a walk through the city, architecture, and time are all hallmarks of surrealism and the New York schools of poetry.  How influenced are you by surrealist poets and/or NY school poets?  

JB: Well, you caught me; I do absolutely love Frank O’Hara. That being said, my concern about reading the book as surrealist would be surrealism's emphasis on irrationality, or nonrationality that seem like a less than rigorous response to the horrors that took place in reality, and their eventness in Commuter. As I mentioned above, emulating purely rational thinking also doesn’t seem to be the answer. Perhaps there are alternatives?

As I think your question indicates, surrealist logic on one level could account for Commuter in some ways, and they both use similar techniques. It is, in a certain sense about someone shooting a revolver into a crowd. However, in response to the seeming irrationality, or dream like quality of the events there is a care for the reader and victim, an attempt to come alongside, to meet him or her in the event(s) of witnessing writing/trauma that is ongoing.

This question comes to a head in the work on page 73 where I insist that these events were not hallucinations and ask the reader to write paragraphs containing certain words having to do with dream narrative and such.

My other concern was a refusal of the solipsistic and ironic positions that preoccupy much of the pseudo-surrealist poetry that has been very popular for awhile now.

It may be a more helpful framework to consider these themes through the context of the Situationist International, specifically their ideas of psychogeography and the dérive. Debord’s description of the dérive is a very accurate description of Commuter: “a technique of rapid passages through varied ambiences.”


ZING: The work slips between what sounds like journalistic reporting and broken, breathy poetry.  What is the relationship between poetry and “reporting” on the world?

JB: “Breathy,” hmm… I can see where you could say that. I was thinking more of an out-of-breathness, rather than breathy poetry, since you mention its brokenness also. I was reading Kenneth Patchen’s Panels for the Walls of Heaven recently and was struck by his long, long, extended and barreling lines that forced the reader to alter his/her breathing. It was as if Patchen’s thought accumulated at a different speed than the readers breathing rhythm. As a result, I could no longer breath where I wanted to. This became integral to the project because, for me, the extension, or overextension of the breath mimicked the incommunicability of many of the traumatic events in the work. Altering your breathing pattern causes you to become immediately conscious of it. As awareness of breathing enters thought, it becomes irregular: how many times have you tripped over your breathing the moment you thought about it? In some sense, this is comparable to the way that you become conscious of another person. There is a sensing of patterns, which at the same time, disrupts those patterns. He/she has been there all the time but an alteration on your part causes you to listen differently. I think the differences you've pointed to speak to this very well. It is about the passage between very different conversations, in this case poetry and reporting, that (like the breath) only interrupt our awareness when they are disrupted. Considering their proximity on the page, it becomes necessary to continue that interruption/passage, rather than end its relationship.

M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! is an amazing example of this (dis)embodiment, showing the limits of the breath. She splits words across the page, but maintains a narrative, so that as you’re reading, your sense-making is completely at odds with your breathing and is spaced very differently than you’re accustomed to. It’s a wonderful technique and complicates a simplistic embodiment of the work.


ZING: Given that this work places a heavy emphasis on the materiality of the page as well as how the work is performed/experienced, where/when do you locate the event of poetry itself?  

JB: Primarily in interruption and failure. I think poetry has the capacity to interrupt first its own mythologies/ideologies and to a broader extent, the mythologies/ideologies that govern much language usage and thinking today.

I view Commuter first and foremost as a process, but this process is one of perpetual interruption: of itself, of events, of thought process, of reader expectation and writing. In this case, it is an interruption of a signifying practice that locates the possibility of the representation of trauma through language, especially one based on an “empathetic” stance that attempts to understand the other through a recognition of similar experience: you’re human, I’m human, therefore I understand what you’re going through.

However, something I consistently grapple with is how to relate motile process to what seems to be the utter stasis of death. Is there relation of a different sort here, and if so, how can one write this relation? In some sense, it returns to the question of community. If our access to the other is through death, then what manner of access is this?

As far as failure is concerned the book purposely foregrounds its failure to “represent” trauma and all its effects through language. However, it is this failure, or the continuous contention with this failure, that generates and supports the community I’m suggesting and places a large responsibility on the reader as a member of this community. To be more specific, the book’s response to atrocity is to precisely fail to reconcile it metaphorically or otherwise, (and therefore reduce) a certain usage of trauma by language: a (re)production of trauma through a certain logic of expression. I’m always hesitant to suggest that trauma can be cast into (a) language, or should be for that matter, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be written.

The book practices a thinking that envisions witnessing as an awareness of singular events in contact, not in communion: whether these events are love, atrocity or anything in between. In some sense a thinking in contradictions, rather than through them. I don’t mean to suggest that relation isn’t happening but it is a relation supported only by this incessant “communication.” And this communication is in the form of an interruption of the assumption that we are fully sharing, to the point of knowing, another’s experience. In some sense it is a contact with the limit that is/is not another’s singularity. This is why I keep insisting on the importance of the reader to Commuter. He/she is vital to the social process that is the work. The reader is the 3rd “witness.” In that sense, if a reader is contacted, perhaps the work fails very differently!


ZING: After the Prologue – which sounds more journalistic than poetic – Commuter opens with a poem that is essentially instructions for constructing a bomb, and thus the poem becomes not the event but the ignition of an event.  There are many things I could say about the idea of a poem-as-detonator but I’d like to start with a metaphysical question about the relationship between events and language: to your mind, does language call events and organized chaos into being or into our awareness of being?  Or is language simply a naming system to describe what already is?  Is this tension a major concern of your poetry?

JB: I love your distinction between the poem as event and the poem as ignition of an event. I think that this difference is very important for Commuter.

The short answer is yes; this tension is a major concern. I would have to say that I think language names, or more precisely delimits—the unnamable, or for language in general the first order, or to use a risky word, the unconscious. For me, language exposes a threshold. It (de)limits, or chalks communication. In Commuter the relational abundance of “it” speaks to your question. As I’m sure you noticed “it” refers to and can be substituted for any number of referents, signs/signifiers. “It” is a person, a helicopter, a currency etc. So this “name” at once, “calls” events into occurrence and at the same time serves as a threshold, or chalk line, albeit a loose (and in this case jarred loose) one, for event(s). These aren’t necessarily traumatic events but trauma usually communicates these limits more clearly than other discourses. But here is the challenge: part of the project was to activate, or as you put it, ignite this abundance, to write in a way that precisely emphasized the potential of the word, prior to its manifestation as a threshold. What I was in part, trying to touch upon was what Deleuze calls “order-words.” Words that relate to and ignite implicit presuppositions in the reader. In some sense, this confronted the impossibility of communicating my own, and another’s mortality through this precise failure to situate, or name, in the sense of commune with, understand, or essentialize identities within the poem. The radically provisional quality of these order words, whether they are more associated with discourses of trauma, another person, a lover, or quotidian life, also abundantly “name” various other events for the author, victim and reader. This abundance necessitates similar event of the crises of naming on the part of the reader.

MacLow’s idea of “controlled hysteria” is important here also. He mentions the features of this hysteria as barely controlled emotional outbursts, sometimes appearing aggressive or angry. What is most important to Commuter though is his last feature, suspense. In an analogy to the order word, the reader senses that this outburst is almost uncontrollable, it appears at its limit of containment, it’s suspended, or as we said above, it delimits the event. Interestingly enough he calls it a very “theatrical” experience.


ZING: The language of Commuter is both expressive of empathy for those who are victims of terrorism and is highly descriptive of violence – balancing both extremes while managing to produce quite beautiful phrasing.  When writing Commuter, did you have ethical concerns about working the event of trauma into the texture of poetic beauty? 

JB: I’m hoping that this question is in part answered by your question about rethinking beauty. But to expand on it more, yes, absolutely I have ethical concerns. One of the biggest challenges for me is the risk and implications involved in secondary witnessing. Although I’m as unsure as I am convinced that it is necessary, it is an incredibly provisional practice. One idea that bothered me was that in the context of witnessing, received semiotic use becomes especially problematic in the representation of another. That is the reason for many of the crossed out words, which also equate this problematic mythology/ideology of beauty with the equally problematic mythology/ideology associated with the romanticization of the femme fatale.

I’ll return to this idea of infinite resistance also. As far as an ethics of this text is concerned, I would argue that this resistance translates to the reader through the author. First in the reader’s experience of the author’s fragmentary responses, and secondly in his initial inclination (and the author’s) to combine or fuse these events. Both of these events are results of a reader’s reading habits, especially combined with the expectations of poetry that deals with atrocity. So this infinite resistance begins in the text and continues into the reader, who as a 3rd party, is asked to participate in the writing of the text itself. Though the reader’s relationship to the text changes, the suspension of his/her ability to connect or link events in the text becomes the primary mode of relation within the text. Sometimes forcefully, the reader is asked to share, to communicate (in) this suspension, to both found and be complicit in this “community.” He or she is asked to be unsuitable to “witness” the author’s inability to witness/commune with these events, to come alongside him and to distribute these events in an unsuitable semantic system.


ZING: In addition to gaps in the page, gaps between words, partially erased words, lines stricken-through, there is a brokenness or disjoint or strangeness between how subjects and objects relate in the post-bomb language of Commuter.  For example, on page 60 are the lines, “clearer to / frame you / behind the reason / I fisted a door?”  I’m not sure whether “fisted a door” is just an odd , condensed way to say something synonymous along the lines of, “I put my fist through a door,” as an expression of violence or anger, or whether it’s intended to reference the extreme sexual practice of “fisting” (which would be surrealist – essentially, sadomasochistic sex with architecture – which is sort of incredible as imagery of terrorism).  I interpret that it is the double-entendre that is important here as shards of phrasing and syntax reform to make a new, odd, off-ish sense of each other.  Why does the fragmentary, disoriented (but still precise) language of trauma belong in the realm of poetry for you?  

JB: I think it’s Kristeva who says it and her description applies very well here. She says that process as practice is always an extreme moment. Language is/as a form of violence… Blanchot even suggests that it is a form of terrorism. I’m not sure these are answers to your questions but I think they provide a framework for the phrase you excerpted. I’ll also have to refer to the interruption, or disruption we talked about earlier.

I like your reading of this very much and yes, as a short answer it is about that odd-offish sense. Part of the strangeness of this figuration comes from thinking of the practice of poetry of witness as a masochistic act, understood as very different from a sadomasochistic one. I’m working on a paper now that analogizes the process of poetry of witness with a masochistic relationship: it relies on a certain power dynamic between pain and/or trauma to the author: specifically on the generally expunged element of desire combined with the illusion of the (author’s) powerlessness, in the aesthetization of traumatic events. But this recognition of the power structures in a masochistic relation also provides great potential for rethinking identity formation, community and sexual politics.


ZING: The work is aggressive, most obviously in the directions to the performer that are scattered through the pages.  I admit I felt even a bit uncomfortable when I encountered the list of immediate family and close friends on page 40 with the footnote instructing the reader to cross-out those names and replace with others.  How much is this about subjecting the reader to a kind of objectification or about making the reader complicit in the activity of the poetry?     

JB: I’m so excited you felt uncomfortable! What a huge compliment! I also hoping that you felt invited, to be a part of the text, to perform it. I would say it is both of these things: complicity, which we discussed beforehand, extends to the author as well as the performer. I’ve called them the reader in this interview but you bring up the very important distinction Commuter makes: that of the “performer” as reader. At a very basic level I think this contributes to both the feelings of aggressivity and complicity you noticed, since a reader is not usually accustomed to thinking of the public connotations of him/herself performing a text, in both public and private.

I think to a degree a feeling of objectification is a helpful response to the piece and may indicate the tension within an artwork that Adorno speaks to. However, though objectification may initially be a part of it, I would hope that the extensive questions and invitations to perform, both sustain and recombinate this feeling of objectification with others. Part of that feeling as you said earlier, is that subject/object distinctions seemed to be rather difficult to pinpoint. Agamben in Remnants of Auschwitz discusses the etymology of the word witness and describes one definition as a figure in the position of a 3rd party, someone who for other reasons than trauma, also cannot bear witness. This is where the possibility of secondary or proxy witness appears although it is a highly unstable position.

The juxtapositional quality of the text places the reader in this third position. So, in effect, the reader “witnesses” or dérives the process of both secondary and firsthand witnessing. So to feel uncomfortable here, I think, is a very warranted initial response. Hopefully, as the book encourages relation (as you’ve pointed to), it also initiates other involvement on the part of the reader, namely the ethical tension that their rotating position of witness, secondary witness and objectified other, elicits. Since these positions do not tend toward reconciliation within or outside of the work the reader must persistently contend with them all.

Blazer’s comment about making the poem into “a necessary function of the real, not something added to it” is very important for this involvement.


ZING: When I saw you read at the Dikeou Collection a couple summers ago, you used a white noise machine in the background of your reading.  Does poetic language ride the white noise?  Or rise out of the white noise?  Or, as a poet, do you listen into the white noise?           

JB: I love drone/noise music, Spaceman 3, Noveller, Skullflower, E.A.R., Kites, Steve Roach, William Basinski, etc. For that project, tentatively titled The Poster of Contour, or 0, (Zero comma) I am experimenting with noise, or more specifically drone, as a platform for the performance of the piece. The work takes vacuums/vacuuming/vacuity and fluid dynamics as primary themes and so the idea of a droned tone as a vacuum, or fluidity allows for a certain affirmative quality to the historically abhorred natural “vacuum.” The idea in part stems from Berio’s Oboe Sequenza. What amazed me about the piece was the droned B that, as the piece progressed, and the oboe counterpointed against the drone, it began to both collapse the piece into an imaginary horizontal line that extended out from its source, and yet at the same time, it filled the room to the point of almost a visual throbbing. It seemed that a vacuum of sorts was created, but one that was fully empty. The oboe counterpoint became a sort of supplement, to this absence, like the language of the poem around a certain immaterial space. Many of Varese’s pieces have a similar visual/auditory effect on me. I guess it is similar to Scriabin’s synesthesia. Is there a specific name for that? The sequenza is fantastic, especially performed live.

In answer to your question, I think it’s both; language both rides and rises out of noise. It’s information theory at it’s most basic, noise coexists with language, music etc. For that performance, I also “listened into” the noise: the tone that droned through the piece was my normal speaking voice, which happens to be approximately an F#. I tried to keep that pitch for many of the sections dealing with vacuums.


ZING: What forthcoming projects do we have to look forward to?

JB: At this point, I have two main projects I’m working on, besides my dissertation. One, Friend of Mies Van der Rohe rethinks Heidegger’s concept of dwelling through Philip Johnson’s Glass House. The other, tentatively titled The Posture of Contour, or 0, (Zero Comma) explores those strange registers between the performance qualities of a lecture, a poem and conversation in a David Antin style. There are some wonderful expectations to be disrupted in the contrasts of these genres. 

INTERVIEW: Is it Art or Fart?

"Christo" from IS IT ART OR FART? blog


Anonymously authored blog-to-book Is is Art or Fart? features snapshots of everyday objects that, in the eyes of the authors, resemble works by contemporary artists.  Nobody is safe, even their recognized forefather – Duchamp (posted Sept. 8, 2010).  Is it Art or Fart? sends up contemporary art – or does it?

Interview by Brandon Johnson


In the prologue to Is it Art of Fart, “fart” is described as “coincidental moments in everyday life that, when isolated and named by artist, bear uncanny resemblance to art seen in museums and galleries around the globe.  Why is it called “fart”?

Art has aura. Farts, as we like to call them, do not. From certain angles or upon first glance, farts might appear auric—but this false or temporary aura quickly dissipates like a passing gas.


Lifted from Wikipedia: In parapsychology and many forms of spiritual practice, an aura is a field of subtle, luminous radiation supposedly surrounding a person or object (like the halo or aureola in religious art). The depiction of such an aura often connotes a person of particular power or holiness.”  What do you mean by “aura”?  Is art “holy”?  Is fart “profane? (Side-note “In Iran the aura is known as farr or ‘glory’”)

Yes, art objects are often treated and revered as special, valuable, holy objects.  This is a property of Art that the Roman Catholic Church, the forces of Modernism, and the Contemporary Art Market have all, at different points in Western Art History, desired and worked to uphold.  Fart is not art.  It’s not profane, nor is it pagan; It is simply a part of regular, everyday, pedestrian life.


I was trying to figure out how this book fits into the grand scheme.  At first I thought along the lines of artists as brands, a somewhat cynical/critical approach, but didn’t really see that edge after a second look.  Now, I’ve decided it’s more linguistic – a rhyming of objects.  The photographed images rhyme with the work they are being identified with in the same way as “fart” rhymes with “art”.  What do you think of this theory?

Well, certainly rhyming has something to do with pop music—and pop music is readily accessible and gaseous ether that circulates through contemporary urban life. What we mean to say is that the book is about art-in-popular-life. We are truly indebted to the enduring power of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades—those dramatic gestures that bridged the gap between art and everyday life.


Are there special Duchampian glasses one can wear to gain “fart” vision?

No, not really. Recognizing farts is an uncontrollable phenomenon. It just happens.


Does this book “stick it to” the art world?

There are so many art worlds. The book likely stinks to some of them.


Have any artists voiced offense at this book?

Actually, a few very well-known artists have mentioned their disappointment over not being included!





Laird Hunt’s fiction is some of the best stuff around.  Weird, lyrical, mysterious, funny, gritty, and more, it’s the type of work that makes you want to devote your life to literature.  His fourth book, Ray of the Star (Coffee House Press 2009), follows in the line of his previous brilliant noiresque novels The Exquisite and The Impossibly , but also integrates the haunting memory-based emotional depth found in Indiana, Indiana Ray of the Star follows grief-addled Harry Tichborne in a vacant escape from an unnamed family tragedy to a European city on the sea very much like Barcelona.  His life proceeds to delve into a series of strange events involving a large yellow papier mache submarine, talking shoes, a silver painted love-interest, lectures on death by ghosts, and a trio of sinister old men called the Connoisseurs as the mood of the novel sways from interminable grief to light slapstick, dense mystery to vague horror.  As a former student of Laird’s at the University of Denver, I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to interview him.

Interview by Brandon Johnson


ZING: Your new novel, Ray of the Star, again falls on the side of noir.  What draws you to this genre?

Laird Hunt: I actually wrote it thinking I was more involved with ghosts and ghost stories than noir, but I certainly know what you mean.  Maybe what I’m interested in in the kind of off-noir or noiresque that I’ve practiced over the years is the possibility of genre blending.  Noir in this case (and maybe in the case of The Impossibly) blended with the fantastic.  If you agree with Brian McHale and others that detective stories and spy novels are epistemological beasts, in which knowing – both what and how we know -- is key, and that fantasy and science fiction are ontological animals, in which being rather than knowing gets center stage, then an effective blending of the two genres results in the kind of knowing/being combine that might, it seems to me, actually rhyme with the universe as we experience (rather than tend to represent) it.


ZING: Each chapter consists of a single sentence.  What made you decide to use this constraint?

LH: Friedrich Dürrenmatt uses this constraint in his novel The Assignment.  I came across it and was interested in how energetically he applied his mechanism and in how appropriate it was for the murder mystery he was developing.  I put his book down after a few chapters (sentences) and filed the device away.  Then I had this thought of writing about someone trapped in almost inconceivable grief.  Ordinary length sentences didn’t seem long enough.  I needed the sentence to be longer, but not languorous, not ambling, agglutinative things.  So I thought again of Dürrenmatt and brought what I remembered of the way he made his long sentences rush to the work I was envisaging.  Being stuck in long sentences, one after the other, is a nightmare.  Harry is like some underwater swimmer who can only come up for breath momentarily for fear that bullets or arrows will hit him.


ZING: This novel deals with trauma and making sense of death.  Senor Rubinski’s explanation of “drippings” reminded me of Flann O’Brien characterization of death in The Third Policeman as absurdity explained rationally.  Do you feel that there is a certain absurdity to conceptualizing death that can be exemplified in literature?

LH: This makes me think of the image of the semiotic square – that nifty diagram that proposes that when we assert something (white) we invoke its opposite (black), but also all the things it isn’t (not white) and all the things its opposite isn’t (not black).  So that when I wrote “knowing/being” above, “not knowing/not being” came into the room.  Writing is rather mediocre at describing or representing death but I think it can be extraordinarily powerful in evoking it.  Or, to borrow the word you use above, exemplifying it.  We’re just starting to tackle the concept of dark matter in science.  I think writers have been working with it for centuries.


ZING: Not to choose favorites, but my favorites were the Connoisseurs.  They were menacing yet funny.  I had a laugh reading various labels placed on them by reviewers such as “wise-ass noir goons” by James Gibbons in Bookforum.  Could you share your feelings on them?

LH: Ah, yes, those guys.  I had tremendous fun trying to keep them under control as I wrote because of course they want everything, all of it.  Why, they kept seeming to ask, is this Harry’s story at all: tell our story: make us the center of it: etc.  They were so insistent, in fact, that after having been two for a long time, they became three.  Three points to the infinite better than two, it seems to me.  Perhaps in the way that, as Borges liked to say, 1001 (nights) points at the infinite better than 1000.  They were definitely a handful.  You don’t want to try to argue with them.  Or, for that matter, have them emerging from your head.


ZING: Something I’ve noticed in more than one of your novels is the presence of food.  Characters eat and what they eat is particular and described; in the case of Ray of the Star, large amounts of sparkling water and various sea-born delicacies.  Why all the eating?

LH: This really started with The Impossibly.  My first impulse in answering this is that my younger self was doing something more or less unconscious with all those comestibles that Hemingway describes in his stories and novels (once upon a time I read them all).  Warping and troubling that desire, as he somewhere described it, to make the world seem more real in fiction than it seems outside of it (I’m currently seeing one of his famous glasses of beer, sitting next to a pretzel and sweating in the dim light of an inn in Europe somewhere).  Maybe there is something to that.  I’m not at all a “foodie” in the popular sense of it.  To be honest I’m a little grossed out by food culture.  And of course my characters eat odd foods (octopus porridge) or obsess over minor details (the glaze on a pastry) or relatively banal ones.  But we’re all slung between one meal and the next.  Food is the thing, isn’t it?  I know my cats think so.


ZING: Each of the three sections of the novel includes a quote: I: “Now you must learn how to last”; II. “The past, since it does not exist, is hard to erase.  Tears and the gnashing of teeth.”; III. “In the places / only the dead dream, I will look for our reflections.” Can you disclose the sources of these quotes?  Care to release further thoughts on them?

LH: The quote sources are cited on the copyright page.  You will, I think, recognize at least one of the names: Bin Ramke.  And may have run across Christina Mengert during your time at DU.  Perec wrote the first one.  I wanted to have it both ways with these epigraphs – to have text from elsewhere brought into the mix, but also to have a disconnect between attribution and the language I was borrowing.  Put otherwise, I didn’t want people to completely leave the dream of the book as it was unfolding – to turn their thoughts both to the substance of the quote and to its author.  At the same time I wanted to point people toward important writers (hence the attribution on the copyright page).


Ray of the Star was recently made a finalist for the Pen USA Literary Award for Fiction.  Hunt has more books on the horizon: his first book, The Paris Stories, will be reissued by Marick Press in the Fall, Counterpath Press will be publishing his translation of Oliver Rohe’s Terrain Vague under the title Vacant Lot, and Actes Sud will be releasing The Exquisite in France.  Bon appetit.