Wednesday, September 29, 2010

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-bomb 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 in 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 if shards of phrasing and syntax are re-coming together 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.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

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.

INTERVIEW: Joshua Saunders with Josh T. Franco

Pocket Gucci

Joshua Saunders is an Austin-based artist who works largely with the paper detritus of everyday life from today and recent decades. He also creates poignant assemblage sculptures from everyday ephemera. Josh T Franco splits his time between New York and Texas. He is a Chican@ artist and Art History PhD student currently working on a collaborative project with Saunders and artist Alison Kuo scheduled to show at Co-Lab in Austin Fall 2011. This interview follows the opening of Saunders’ solo show, Wizard Sleeve, at BiRDHOUSE in Austin.

Interview with Joshua Saunders, by Josh T Franco, 7/27/10, remote by Skype

Josh T. Franco: Where did the title of the show, Wizard Sleeve, come from?

Joshua Saunders: “Wizard sleeve” is like a slang term for a vagina that’s aged. It kind of becomes baggy. One of my friends when I was younger, this older guy named Steve, would always say it. You know like a joking thing, he would always call people “wizard sleeves” or whatever, and I never really knew what it was, then he told me and I thought it was really funny. I knew not a lot of people would know what it was, so it would be a funny title, and what with the Gucci thing as the title piece…

F: Yeah, totally…but it’s the “cliché” piece too. I watched so many people at the show respond—like one guy thought it was gold paint. He was like “It’s really beautiful. It’s gold paint.” He thought it was ironic and cool enough being gold paint. I said “No, that’s his semen” and he got really disgusted.

S: [Laughs] I know, one guy was like “Man that ‘cliché’ piece just makes me mad.”

F: [Laughs] Did he know it was semen when he said that?

S: Yeah, he said “I’m mad about it…I’m just mad.” So I said, “That’s awesome!”

F: [Laughs] That IS awesome! Really funny.

That whole front room. I’ve thought about it, and it was the craziest set up - with the cliché piece and the pocket Gucci - because you walk in and you see pocket Gucci, and it seems to be the wildest thing in the room. Then you look at the cliché, you realize what the material is, and all of a sudden the pocket Gucci becomes pretty tame because it’s just plastic. Then you’re like ‘Oh fuck, this thing’s crazy’. Did you put thought into the placement?

S: Definitely. I wanted the pocket Gucci to be right in the front because it was on the poster, and it’s been one of the strongest digital images I’ve had all year. So it’s circulated a lot more than the other stuff…

F: …and it’s on eBay, so....

S: And what?

F: It’s on eBay, so more people have probably seen it than you know of…

S: I tried to sell it on eBay. I tried to get Soulja Boy to buy it. So, I’ve been using it quite a bit. Not literally, but…

I liked backing that with the cliché piece, because I figured most people wouldn’t get the cliché piece right away, but I think it’s like you were saying: it’s even more aggressive, whatever that really means. But it would take the prize for probably being the most shocking thing in there. Even though the context in which I made the piece is not necessarily to be shocking, but kind of to be a conversation about ‘shocking work’ in a way, and it being a cliché or not.

F: We all think we’re kind of “over” the idea of ‘representation-and-not-representation’, that distinction, but obviously we’re not. Because when you realized that that’s not representing semen, it is semen, obviously everyone has a reaction. So there’s definitely a lot more there to talk about.

S: [Laughs] I judged it for a really long time, and that’s why I made that piece. I made a different one called “Ode to Joy,” which we talked about last time you were around. I don’t know, those are just reactions to me thinking that people using semen was easy, and didn’t really warrant the reaction in a way. There really isn’t much to it obviously. It’s like all people can produce semen and put it on any type of substrate. It was the easiest piece to make in the whole show. But I knew it would probably garner the biggest reaction. I made it because I’m having a conversation with myself in a way about what I think is okay to do and not do, and what is a cliché, and what using clichés means in your work.

F: Yeah, do you remember the piece a few years ago that caused all the controversy; it’s a Virgin Mary image and then he slung shit all over the piece? It was on exhibit, I think it traveled quite a bit too.

S: I know that piece, but I don’t know the artist’s name.

F: Me either, but you think after that, using semen would be cliché. But in your show, already on its own it’s not cliché, and then pairing it with pocket Gucci--I think that’s the brilliance of your stuff. Now we can talk about pornography. If I were sitting with anyone else about to have a conversation about pornography, I’d be rolling my eyes…

S: [Laughs] Definitely.

F: …but you’ve given us this new way to look at porn, which…who knew that existed?

S: I like to approach pornography in a “fun” way I suppose? My acculturation process has made me feel like I shouldn’t deal with pornography, and I shouldn’t watch pornography, and all that. So, it’s like, I don’t know, part of my growth into adulthood. But I’ve realized that it’s totally fine to make things out of it, or to make jokes about it, or whatever. I like it; I think pornography’s such a strong material because it’s so basic. But people get so riled up about it. To me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it’s the most fundamental part of being a human, and it’s such a funny-looking exploitive medium anyways. There’s so much to take from it! My favorite thing is to use it in different ways; to take things out of it.

F: I’m actually at my parent’s kitchen table right now, so talking about porn is really awesome to do right here! You said that “Hand Censored Swank Extreme” you decided kind of last minute to put that in?

S: Yeah.

F: I was looking at it with the glove—I kept my glove as a keepsake—and I realized it’s got all those fun aspects, and it’s really cool with the show. But then I realized you also accidentally created some, like, ultra porn! I was flipping the page, and I flipped over the page, and there’s this woman with her ass in the air, and something you had cut out on the other side had made like a space in a large chunk of her ass, but it had left the outline of it intact so you see her ass in the air, her whole midsection, then there’s the hole. And on the other side behind it shows a hand in a grabbing position so it looks like it’s grabbing her vulva or something! Like her internal sex organs! It’s like “holy shit,” you know.

S: [Laughing] That’s why I like that so much! That’s why that project happened. It’s because I was using that to build other things. I wasn’t trying to empty it out at first. I was just cutting pieces out of that to make other things out of, you know what I mean? Taking and then using. But then once I had done it enough it started to make weird things like that happen. And that’s when I was like “Wow, I’m so excited about just the emptying now.” And then it became the focus of the piece, not the taking away.

F: It was brilliant. You know I loved the idea when I heard it. I didn’t realize what kind of shit would really happen when I actually looked through it.

S: Honestly, that piece was finished like a day before the exhibition opened, because I still had to work on that a lot right before. But that’s one of my favorite things for sure. I’m probably going to scan every one of those pages and create a book out of that just to reproduce it in entirety, and not to change anything, not add pages or anything, but just scan the whole thing and make an editioned book out of it. I think that would be really cool.

F: Yeah, that’s really smart. I want to go back to pocket Gucci.

S: Okay.

F: I think we’ve skirted around this conversation before, but we’ve never been in a “serious” venue, such as this interview [BOTH LAUGH] to talk. So pocket Gucci; I work with a philosopher, Maria Lugones, who’s responsible for this idea of the ‘coloniality of gender’ and so I saw pocket Gucci, and immediately the collusion of historically constructed race and global market capitalism all at once get sort of swatted at, like backslapped, and that’s really interesting. All the sort of sources where I think about that, and the people I think about that with, and the legacy I know of that through, are all women of color thinkers, or queer folk, so we have to talk about identity. How did you end up doing this?

S: I just felt like every single element of it was loaded from the exact moment that I realized that I could make it. You know what I mean?

From the color indicated on the box, I mean, it’s obviously totally charged. The fact that I realized, ‘Man, maybe I could put a sex toy in there and it would fit properly’, and then I went and got it and realized it fit so perfectly and then the actual one I found…just as I created it, it was like every moment got better. It has commentary on the biggest issues, period. I mean race, gender, sexuality, marketing…things that kind of control the world in a way and in the form of this funny anti-product.

I have an idea and then I wonder if it’ll work. And when it started to work, it’s just like my pleasure levels went through the roof. It started to like work like that. Then I realized, wow, this thing is super charged.

F: I’ve been familiar with it for a few months, and I’ve shown it to people I work with. It’s sparked some really good conversations. I don’t think people are done talking about it. I’m not done writing about it.

S: It’s kind of been funny since I made it too, because its been a source of really interesting family dynamic stuff. Recently I got some pages in Cantanker magazine in Austin, and one of them is pocket Gucci. My family thinks that I’m doing whatever and no one’s like “You’re really an artist, and we’re happy about that.” They’re more like “If you would get busy doing something pretty soon that’s going to get you a career and be more on a path to normality, we’d be really happy”, but now I’m starting to get a little bit going in terms of people seeing my work. So I told them “Hey I got all these pages in this magazine” and they were so excited, but my mom asked me, first question, ‘Well, what images are in the magazine?’ and I had to say, because she’s seen it, “Pocket Gucci, and some of the other stuff”. My grandfather’s older and really conservative, and he really wanted a copy. My mom asked me to take razor blades and remove my own work from the magazine before sending it, and I just think that’s so funny.

F: [Laughing] I agree. You know, its so funny that you say that because I’ve had similar experiences with papers that I’ve really been proud of or had published…I’ve shown my mom first, and then she told me that if I wanted to show my dad I had to edit out “some things”.

It’s just like I hear this shit, and I live in New York now. We definitely have a different vibe growing up in Texas. This just totally points to that. I wanted to ask you about being an artist in Texas, and the shows at BiRDHOUSE. It’s all changed – Texas is crazy now.

S: Well, Austin, I mean, I don’t think I could live anywhere but Austin, really.

F: I know. I’ve been in West Texas for three months and I’m going insane.

S: I haven’t traveled all over Texas too hard, but I do get the feeling from the people I hang out with, which, randomly, is a lot of people from West Texas, that it just doesn’t seem to have the level of acceptance.

F: But I love that you’re here, I come back a ridiculous amount and all my research and work is here…I like that we’re staying. I think that’s what’s different about our generation. We’re staying in Texas, as ridiculous as it is sometimes.

S: There’s something like really amazing Texas too. You know I moved here, and I had never even been here. There’s some kind of like push-pull feeling about this place. Like it’s too hot, it’s trying to kill you at all times in the summer. It is weirdly conservative, yet there are these pockets of really driven amazing art folks and musicians and other stuff happening. I think it is an interesting diverse group and that’s really attractive. Colorado is similar but everybody’s really outdoorsy, and fitness oriented, and they seem more liberal and whatnot. And that’s kind of boring in a way.

F: That’s what I’ve found around New York, like in Vermont and New Hampshire; it’s there, but there’s not an edge to it.

S: It seems like people are slightly less distorted, but they’re like slightly less exciting in a way. I kind of like the false cowboy in Texas that drives a giant truck and then actually doesn’t do manual labor, but has major pride in being a Texan good boy, you know? I like the juxtaposition between real and unreal here. The psychology of pride in the past. I guess I have a hard time finding words, but there is something crazy and kind of magical about Texas and its whole quagmire.

F: The project we’re about to do with Alison has to do with all of this, at least a large part of it.

S: That’s a great example. Just that town, is like exactly like that. Marfa. High art meets middle-of-nowhere Texas.

F: But there are other things in Wizard Sleeve. We’ve talked about dots before, and I’m still thinking. I use a lot of dots in my drawings; I spend hours just going like this [DOT-MAKING GESTURE] with a pen, so they always stick when I notice them. A lot of people were looking at “East of Eden” and the flowers really stuck out. Some people thought they were lollipops. Then I was looking at your past stuff—in “Girl on Paintchip Mountain,” the whole skyscape is dots, “Hand Ladder” has dots in the hand. “Hand Ladder” is interesting; in “East of Eden” the dots are flowers, it’s pretty clear, and in “Girl,” they’re stars; there’s definite representation going on. But in “Hand Ladder” the dots are really ambiguous. Did you have something in mind when you did that?

S: They’re just like some type of energy or something leaving that hand. I just thought that they looked beautiful; like it was releasing little dots of color. They’re so useful because they’re so ambiguous, but they’re so beautiful, especially when you cluster them.

F: Like in “Girl,” the way they get more dense around the bottom.

S: It’s really fun to use dots too. Because you don’t have to think as you draw and do dots endlessly.

And that’s part of why I like making things that have a lot of small particles to them that take forever to do. That’s when I really get to stop thinking and spend hours doing monotonous tasks, which I actually find really relieving about art. Or about my art making process.

There are no gestural brush strokes, or things that can change the whole trajectory of the piece. I’ll leave stuff like that sometimes until I need two days of just dotting things in a row, or something. So, I have this large number of hours. It’s great.

F: I know there are sections in my drawings where there are going to be dots, and sometimes I come to them, then save them. And if I know I have something coming the next day that’s going to stress me out, I’ll think ‘I’ll do these after that’ because it’ll feel really great.

S: It’s almost like a mental massage for me. I mean, I have a lot of anxiety and I feel like I spin a lot in my own thought process. And that can become really overwhelming. And just doing dots is great. It’s not using drugs or anything else to turn that off. It’s just using a meditative monotonous task. Those trees too, in “East of Eden”—you know, first, creating all the triangles and the tree parts, and then having to deal with them all and arrange them in size and put them all in. Same kind of thing. It’s just stupid amounts of time.

F: The biggest surprise to me in the show was the roach traps. I had no idea you were doing those. I actually didn’t know what they were at first. I saw the roaches—it’s that thing again, about the difference between representation and not. Like with the semen. I saw the roaches, and I saw what you were doing, juxtaposing them with the images. But I didn’t realize they were actual roach traps until my friend pointed it out. And it changed everything, again.

S: In a way it’s self-revealing. I’ve lived in some really shitty situations in the last couple of years that have had some pretty serious roach infestations. We lived at this place a little bit down the road from here last year, and we just had this really bad roach problem. It was there when we got there, and it got worse. I tried to combat it quite a bit. Having a roach infestation is not like the raddest thing to have to deal with. I feel like people slightly want to judge you too, like ‘Oh my god, you live in filth. Look at this problem you have.’ Which in some ways is probably half true. I definitely know with myself I could probably tighten up around the edges a little bit, but at the same time, it’s also part of Texas in a way. I had a lot of those traps. I was always amazed at the mother being caught and birthing like thirty or fifty babies only to die immediately. It’s got that mother-cradling-child-in-the-ash-of-Vesuvius kind of feel to it. Like a haunting entire-dead-family image. I had these things, and I thought, ‘Well what am I going to do?’. I didn’t just want to throw them away, which would obviously be the logical thing to do, to remove them from the house. Put babies in there, and it would create a really interesting aesthetic.

F: It definitely did. There are so many layers to that story you just told. It’s the same sort of juxtapositions we’ll deal with when we do the Marfa project. This high art in weird places—you’re on the East Side of Austin, which has experienced this crazy development. Roaches are “part of” low-income housing, or “trashiness.” But then you put it in BiRDHOUSE—and I don’t know if you remember, but you made this anxious comment that night at the show about these people in “fancy clothing” [Both laugh]…and all those layers are there. Like the roach traps. You made them art, which is fantastic.

S: I think making art is sometimes just like showing internal parts of your life, that you’re not really supposed to. You know you’re going to be judged by it and have a certain comfort about it, like ‘Hey, that’s fine.’ I’ve really worked hard this year—well, ‘worked’ is probably the wrong way to describe it—but I’ve allowed myself to stop filtering some of the things I want to make as much. Like not telling myself ‘No, don’t do that’.

If I have the idea to put babies in despicable looking roach traps, I’ll just allow myself to do that. Whatever it says about me, I’m not as concerned with. I just don’t want to stop my process. I want to use whatever materials I fee like. I want to go out on a limb and make clichés, even if they’re bad or if people aren’t accepting of them, or don’t like them, or I don’t like them once they’re done. I like to allow myself to do whatever I want now because I think that will help me to grow. Also, I like self-revealing stuff, probably from spending so much time in that psychological high school for behavioral problem children. I mean I learned a lot about the more you reveal giving you a lot of strength in a weird way, to have a lot of your dysfunctional parts on the outside of you. The roaches are just an obvious aesthetic representation of some of the dysfunction that is in my own life. And that’s strong, that’s strong in art. That’s what I look for. When I go and look at people’s work and stuff I like to see a kind of window into people, and the more willing they are to open that window, often times the more the art will do it for me.

F: It’s like the men’s nipples exhibit that lives in theory in our heads. It’s about asking people to put out their anxieties about race and their bodies, and living in male bodies.

So this shift that you just described, this not filtering yourself; does this have anything to do with your new opinion of Dash Snow’s work? Because the first time we met, we talked about Ryan Trecartin, and we also talked about Dash Snow. We were on opposite sides of the fence about the polaroids. The collages we agreed on, but the polaroids you were not a fan of, and I was. Earlier this summer, you said you had changed your opinion about that, and I don’t remember if we talked about “Nest”.

S: I don’t know what happened. I think I just spent more time looking at the work. In some ways, to be completely honest, I think that maybe I was slightly…I almost want to say jealous, of some of that work, because it was pretty aggressive and good. Some of those situations just seemed pretty intense. I don’t know what my issue was originally, but I spent a lot more time looking especially at the Dash Snow work, and I think it’s really strong. I was always interested in the collage stuff. I looked at the collage stuff more and more and I think the collage stuff is really the strongest. But the more I really loved the collage stuff, the more I realized that I loved the other parts of the work too. In a way, I guess the same reason I made the cliché piece, I felt like some of it was all a huge cliché. You know, you’re young and beautiful, and you’re from New York, and you’re a social prince of a major art scene in a capital of fine art in the world and obviously you take polaroids of people taking cocaine off other peoples’ dicks. I guess I didn’t want to react to it in the way I ended up reacting to it. At first, I wanted to be like ‘No, that doesn’t work on me’ because it’s so obvious. But in a way, I think I’ve realized it’s not obvious. It’s like, that was what that dude chose to do, and the images are really strong, and you can’t take that away from them. I had to become acquainted with my own reaction. Obviously, I overreact pretty hard. I’ll have an opinion way before I’ve allowed myself to process things. Which is my own problem or whatever. You ever get a first impression and run your mouth right away and then think about it, and think ‘oh god.’? That’s why I’m saying now. I like the work because I don’t have to pretend like my first opinion is where I stand. I was wrong at first. I actually do like the work, and I think it’s really strong. And the Ryan Trecartin stuff; it’s been the same reaction from beginning to now. I just think that stuff’s like a tornado of different elements that just rocked my world.

F: I found out that Ryan Trecartin was born in Texas, also. I don’t know how long he lived here, but yeah, Webster, TX, I think. It’s fun to look at an artist, and after a show, see what other artists come to mind when you sit and think about it. I was sitting and thinking about “Wizard Sleeve,” and Dash Snow and Ryan Trecartin came to mind because we had talked about them, but also there’s a lot of it in the materials; this sexy, kind of hip stuff. Then I was thinking about Kara Walker. Do you know who she is?

S: No.

F: She came to mind because she did these large, life sized silhouette narratives, sort of in the round…

S: Oh, I think I’ve seen them.

F: You’ve probably seen them. Everybody else I thought of first was part of that New York, downtown scene. I thought ‘Why does Kara Walker keep coming to mind?’ I watched her Art:21 episode, and this goes back to what we were talking about with pocket Gucci. First of all, there are all these dismembered body parts. Trecartin does the same thing with distorting body parts. Matthew Ronay, I also looked at. He did really funny things with penises and bleeding anuses and plastic sculptures, a few years ago. So, Walker does dismembered body parts too, but she does them in silhouette on the wall. They have to do with these historical fiction-y sort of slave narratives. She said this: ‘What does Black stand for in White America, and what does White stand for in Black America?” That adds this whole other layer to bodies. Bodies are a part of your work obviously. Part of Matthew Ronay’s, part of Trecartin’s, part of Snow’s, in a big way, and she adds this other layer to it. We all share not a common experience, but this inhabitation of the body. I always find things coming back to it, you know, pornography…and this is a really bad way to ask a question. I don’t know what the question is right now, but, bodies, it was nice to get out of one circle of artists and think of another dealing with them, dismembering them, and reformulating them, sort of connecting artists across different realms.

S: It feels like there have been different moments within art that are happening simultaneously now, and earlier, in different phases. Some people approach the body in kind of a celebratory way where they want to show it for its ‘raw beauty’ and whatnot. And really, there’s so much form drawing and so many representations of the body as a kind of beautiful vessel on earth, but then there is obviously a whole flipside where people like to distort it. It is really a fundamental thing; you have to deal with your own body and your interpretation of everyone’s bodies around you. So, it’s loaded.

I just happen to not be on the beautifying the body side of things. That doesn’t mean I can’t see beauty or whatever, but it’s not really what my work’s about. I like making freaky things look beautiful.

F: It took me a while to think about this, but I was looking at pocket Gucci yesterday and only just thought of Judy Chicago, and cunt art in general. Maybe it was because that’s just too obvious, but it also might have been my own shit, because you’re a man, not a woman.

S: Yeah, even talking about it is kind of weird. One thing I like about making work is that I don’t even have to really be a part of it. I mean, I am a major part of it, but I don’t have to represent it. Obviously I’m at my own opening, trying not to drink too much, but other than that I don’t really have to participate in the work. The work can leave me, and people can draw their reactions, but they don’t have to know I’m a straight white 29-year-old dude. I don’t even have to participate in that; a lot of people can have different ideas about who the person who made this was and what their opinions on this or that are. I feel like I really don’t have to do that in a way. I make stuff like jokes. I like joking. My father is very humor-oriented and I’ve taken a lot of humor-based social abuse in my upbringing. So, I feel like I’m really, really comfortable with a lot of parts of myself: what I am, what type of sex I’m into, what color I am, how rich or poor I am…I’m really comfortable with all that, so I really like to make commentary on it, and not have to do it in a circle at a party where people visually and audibly react to me. I like to make physical representations of the jokes that I think are interesting. And maybe it’s not totally a joke. It doesn’t have a punch-line; it’s more like a gate to a conversation that a person can have with themselves or others. So it isn’t a joke.

F: All those anxieties. Like the guy who thought it was gold paint and loved it, then found out it was semen and almost retched. Your comfort level in artmaking brings out this conversation with himself; like what kind of sex he’s into, what he can tolerate seeing outside of his body. You know, this is a guy that has probably never touched his own semen or something…goes right in the toilet and never talks about it.

S: [Laughing] Yeah, it goes into Kleenexes and that’s it.

Which is fine, that’s great. In fact, that type of reaction is what I’m kind of wanting, in a way. If a person’s more comfortable about it, I think in a lot of ways, it doesn’t carry much power with them, because they’re probably like ‘Oh, well that’s clever.’ But a person that’s kind of got issues, as I would call them—I’m sure they would say that I have issues, you know? But that reaction, that’s exciting. Like the guy who’s like ‘That just makes me mad.’ I showed that “Ode to Joy” piece at this show called Texas Crude at Co-Lab, and this other guy was like ‘That is just so, so wrong.’

The cliché piece is different—when I made “Ode to Joy”, I just came onto a panel, a watercolor panel, once. It was almost like I was playing a game with myself: “This is something you kind of judge, why don’t you just do it.” Then I did it, and thought, “This is funny, I’m going to do this for a while.” So then I kept doing it, and it was lying around in my house and some people saw it and I would either claim what it was to people or not, depending on who they were and what my mood was. But that was really different than the cliché piece. The cliché piece is stenciled, and so I painted that with semen, rather than came onto something. So, there was some planning involved with that. I used Helvetica because I think Helvetica is the most traditional. I was really worried when I made it because it started to bleed. You can see that little cloud under, where it did seep at the beginning. But then the actual film held, and made the letters pronounced, which I was so happy about. I liked the people’s reactions. I liked the approach - I’m really anal about my artwork anyway, so the same way I approached cutting out trees endlessly, is the same way I made that stencil piece. I tried to be as on point about it as I could. I thought about it a lot; “How am I going to create a Helvetica version of cliché and literally have it be close to as perfect as I can make it with semen?” you know what I mean? So the first piece is kind of like daring myself to come on stuff and see how I feel about it, and the second piece is, “Well, you’ve done that, and what other more advanced ways can you use your own semen?”

F: First of all, I love that you said “playing a game with yourself” with a straight face.

S: [Laughing] It is a game.

F: I guess I knew it was Helvetica, but didn’t think about it. Then I read the title on the sheet, and ‘Helvetica’ is part of the title, so it finally got me to watch that Helvetica documentary that came out a couple of years ago.

S: Oh, I haven’t seen that.

F: It’s been in my Netflix queue, and I had tickets to the opening in Austin, but in my head I was just thinking “I don’t want to go watch a documentary about a font.” So, I didn’t go to the showing, and I didn’t watch it for the last few months. But this morning I thought, “Well now I have an interesting thing to think about when I watch this.”

S: Actually, there’s this one other funny thing, on the topic of the semen pieces. This one guy at that show, he asked me “Well, do you, uh, did you masturbate every time that you came onto the panel?” And I was like, “What do you think that I did!? Like I brought this 9x12 board into my sex life?” Man, that would be fifteen times, or a million times crazier to me…bringing my work into my actual sexual life? I mean, I suppose masturbating kind of is my sexual life, but it’s not like I brought this thing in with other people at all times for a year! And have to explain it to a lover?: “Oh yeah, I’m working really hard on this piece…” I guess with the dude, masturbation was still kind of taboo to him or something.

F: You’d probably have to give your partners a commission too, or something.

S: [Laughs] Yeah. This is funny. I loved that question. That was one of my favorite questions. “Did you masturbate on this?” Yeah. Yes I did.