To his many students, Nericcio is best known as the director of the cultural studies graduate program known as MALAS (the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences) at San Diego State University–the program, known as the “MA in Curiosity” is an interdisciplinary studies program open to undergraduates with degrees in all majors. Additionally, he serves as a Professor of English and Comparative Literature and a member of the faculties in the department of Chicana/o Studies (CCS) and the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS).
Some of his works include his 1998 illustrated exposé on Speedy Gonzales, “Autopsy of a Rat: Odd, Sundry Parables of Freddy Lopez, Speedy Gonzales, and Other Chicano/Latino Marionettes Prancing about Our First World Visual Emporium.” Nericcio’s primary ongoing critical work is an illustrated history of Mexican and Latina/o stereotypes, Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the “Mexican” In America.
Nericcio is presently putting the finishing touches on EYEGIENE for UT Press.
AGITPROP: I thought I’d get your interview started off by asking you to expand on the program you teach in and your professional focus.
BILL NERICCIO: I am always out of focus, confused, on the march–that’s my obscure answer just to start things off. I teach in various guises at SDSU–I am an English professor, to begin, but I usually end up teaching lower and upper-division classes that are a mish-mash of 20th and 21st century cultural studies–novels, movies, critical theory, photography, oil painting, theatre, the web…. you name it, I teach it. The only rule of thumb for me when it comes to what is “literature” is that it somehow conveys a story. From gossip on the street, salacious hieroglyphs in the men’s room, advertising on the side of a bus, anything is fair game. My official title these days in (and it’s a mouthful) Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Chicana/o Studies, & Latin American Studies–but I also serve as Director for a Cultural Studies MA program called MALAS–The Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences; and I work as an Editor for San Diego State University Press. Too many sombreros for this profe!
AGITPROP: So let’s turn to the topic of Chicano lit since that is one of your primary topics of expertise. I’m reading Homer’s Odyssey right now and am interested in how contemporary chicano authors who address the migrant experience construct their crossing narratives. Is there any connection, conscious or otherwise, between Chicano lit and the epic tradition of the Greeks?
BILL NERICCIO: “Cuando lleguemos, cuando lleguemos / When we arrive, when we arrive”…. the words, pulled out Tomas Rivera’s y no se lo tragó la tierra might have come from the mouth of Odysseus, on his epic return journey to Ithaca, to his olive-tree bed with besieged Penelope. But the words from Rivera’s cacophonous, chaotic novel–really a treasure trove of migrant narrative shards–are a haunting elegy. He goes on, the truth of is we’re tired of arriving, that we “never arrive”.
Rivera’s words signal the ambivalence of the migrant worker’s life–like and totally unlike Kerouac’s On the Road, it is a journey fraught with danger, filled with change and alienation. Odysseus knew all about the changes that migration bring, even for the hero. While Homer’s hero is more Don Draper than suffering undocumented migrant, Odysseus does share with our sojourners of the Americas an intimate knowledge of the costs and benefits of becoming diasporic, becoming other. It’s funny, I am the end results of Mexican and Sicilian sojourns, with crossings of the Rio Grande and encounters with Ellis Island firmly tattooed on my skin and imprinted on my psyche. Perhaps that’s why I teach Ulysses by Joyce, The Pillow Book by Greenaway, Flirt by Hal Hartley, The Century of Wind by Galeano, and City of Night by John Rechy–all are tales of displacement and knowing (and self-knowing).
AGITPROP: Can you tell me a little more about Rivera’s novel? Who is the main character? WHere is she or he from and what sets him/her off on the epic journey?
BILL NERICCIO: The unnamed itinerant protagonist of Rivera’s singular project is a sojourner, a traveler, a seer, sufferer. He is an invisible boy, to riff off of Ellison’s singularly inspirational novel, and he’s a little bit crazy. Or, better said, Rivera’s child ends up mad, under a house, waving at imaginary doppelgängers hanging out in palm trees as a result of his experiences and synapse/soul scarring witnessings. It is an avant garde novel, told with multiple voices and radical POV shifts; but the anecdotes are drawn from recent history with unattended migrant children burning to death and others shot for needing water. The novel speaks to the extremes of the Mexican American/Chicano experience in the United States and, at the same time, embodies the postmodern aesthetics of late 20th century fiction.
AGITPROP: This is a fascinating and reminds me of the story of Martin Ramirez. Ramirez was a young Mexican who fought in the Mexican revolution and was traumatized by his experiences. After the conflict ended he wandered across the US/ Mexico border and wound up in an asylum where it was discovered he had artistic talent. Benefactors provided him with simple art materials and he went on to lead a creative but institutionalized life drawing and painting. Not all odysseys end well and when they don’t, at least in the cases of Rivera’s fictional protagonist and Martin Ramirez, the subject seems more suited to the role of the artist instead of the hero. Do you have any thoughts on this reflection?
BILL NERICCIO: I love that you bring up Ramirez–I have always wanted to write about his work. You can see in his illustrations this ambivalence toward odyssey, towards travel in general: with movement, consequence, change, transformation, but with the danger that this dis-placement bring danger/violence or, as in his case, “asylum” (both meanings of course: safety, for the displaced refugee, but also, incarceration within the walls of a policed asylum). You can see this tension unfold in his drawings–two here are to the point:
Here in the first, the train tracks between beckoning tunnels promise no exit, no egress, almost, no movement, the lines of the mountains leaving the spectator in a Escher-like stasis.
In this possible self-portrait, Ramirez, or someone like him, sits at a drawing table–is he dreaming of the train, of movement, of escape, of diaspora, or does he contain it on the page, in a drawing, in art.
You’ve got me thinking now of the cost of diasporic transmogrification–how the ‘skin’ that is left behind carries the trace of an unrecoupable soul.
AGITPROP: When I see the word transmogrification I always associate it with the most excruciating images. It’s a very powerful idea when placed in relation to the human body. I’m reminded of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or the photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin. It’s profoundly sad.
BILL NERICCIO: Transmogrification always raises the ante. You’ve got transformation, right. And transformation squared is metamorphosis. And metamorphosis cubed might be Transubstantiation (as a recovering Catholic, I have to go there). But all of them pale in comparision to transmogrification, a monster of a word. Joel-Peter Witkin’s uncanny tableau disturb to the point that I sometimes gasp–their marriage of photography, set-design, performance, and more are disturbingly wicked. These days, when I write or think about transmogrification, I am either teaching works like William Burroughs Junky, the Velvet Underground, Neuromancer, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Lydia Yuknavich’s Chronology of Water–works where narcotics are the focus, and substance-propelled metamorphoses are the name of the game.
In contemporary art, Tara McPherson, an avatar for Pop Surrealism, comes to mind first–most obviously in works like “Trapped in the Narcissus Gaze”, but perhaps more hauntingly in pieces like “Dark Matter Witch.” I think, also, of your work, especially the Coatlique piece(s) and the work of Raul Gonzalez III. In “Benito” (produced with Elaine Bay), we experience a radical transmogrification of an iconic Mexican figure (left)–the late great Benito Juarez. A fixture in school rooms across Mexico, he is reborn and de-faced (literally) in Gonzalez and Bay’s iteration:
The transmogrification is radical and 21st century–the face is effaced, obscured, over-written… it’s still Benito Juarez and it is not. In lieu of face, we see a tag, a street tag, graffiti. A quick study might suggest some sort of statement about Mexico, it’s history, politics, etc. But I think more is afoot here–some sort of attempt on the part of the artists to update a ubiquitous cultural commodity and radically re-imagine it displaced in various ways (and frames)….
AGITPROP: Can you tell us about what you are working on these days?
BILL NERICCIO: The biggest ongoing project is the traveling Mextasy exhibition. Mextasy is a gallery version of my book Tex[t]-Mex . The next exhibition is at Adrian College, Adrian, Michigan this August and I will be traveling out there in early September for a lecture and closing celebration/party as well. After that, the horizon is hazy, but it may be traveling to Oregon later in the year and then on to Oberlin College in 2014.
As far as publications are concerned, I am busy revising and editing (and designing to a certain extent) my follow-up book to Tex[t]-Mex entitled Eyegiene: Permutations of Subjectivity in the Televisual Age of Sex and Race (also with the University of Texas Press). Like Tex[t]-Mex, Eyegiene focuses (pardon the pun) on issues of representation, but here the gaze is not so much targeted at Mexican and Latina/o representation. You can get a taste of the book here. After that, I think I will turn to Technosexualities (a work originally developed as a graduate seminar and undergraduate class here at SDSU) before moving on to shorter critical works on Salma Hayek and Gilbert Hernandez.
When I am not writing or designing (I do most of the webmastering and cover design for SDSU Press and Hyperbole Books), I am running a Masters Program in Cultural Studies called MALAS for SDSU. We recently celebrated the program’s silver anniversary and I love the freedom I have to curate intellectual madness there–my students come from all over the planet and the country, all with different majors and backgrounds.
AGITPROP: Thank you Bill, for talking with us!
BILL NERICCIO:Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat with you and your readers!]]>
Michael Maas is a Fallbrook-based painter. Over the past 15 years he’s shown extensively in Southern California, most recently at L2Kontemporary in Chinatown. He has another show this month at Bunny Gunner in Pomona.
Maas is best known for his Alhambra series, over 200 paintings which deploy a common abstract motif — a synthesis of jigsaw puzzle and Islamic art — in sizes ranging from 12 inches to 12 feet.
Beside its ability to scale, what’s notable about the Alhambra series is its restless visual energy, the result of a complex game of trompe l’oeil:
— In color, geometry, and repetition the motif draws deeply on Islamic art: in particular, mosaic.
— The forms are often heavily modeled, which depending on the viewing distance can yield visual readings ranging from flat (induced by the optical buzz of the repetitive patterning) to sculptural relief (reinforced by the allusion to mosaic) to alarmingly biomorphic (due to their occasional resemblance to human limbs).
— Most subtle and intriguing of all, across the entire series large to small, the depth depicted by the modeling never exceeds the actual thickness of the physical painting, which supercharges the sculptural reading by never violating the integrity of whatever the 3-D analog of the picture plane is. The result is not just paintings depicting sculpture, but paintings trying to be sculpture.
The Alhambra series has been variously described as “biomorphic abstraction” or (per the series name) “Moorish”. Why not come right out and call it “Islamic”?
The paintings leading up to Alhambra — especially the Summer series and Winter series — had very strong biomorphic elements which carried over into Alhambra, and which are especially noticeable to people familiar with my earlier work. I do think many of the Alhambras could fit right into a show of Islamic art (any invitations?).
I like the idea of doing this, not just for being a loaded move in a post-9/11 world, but also for saluting Islam’s historic contributions to world culture: in art, in computing.
If you make a Venn diagram of the world’s religions, I like to think of my paintings at their best as falling into that one place where all the circles intersect, being just as Islamic as Buddhist as Christian as…
Did you appropriate the Alhambra motif from a historical work? Or is it your own?
It wasn’t until I had done a dozen or so of the Alhambras that I started being asked about the connection, if any, to Islamic art. At that point I didn’t know what people meant so I started getting books on Islamic art, tile work, and architecture. I immediately felt an affinity for it, and it wasn’t until that time that I came up with the idea of calling them “Alhambra”. Since then I’ve incorporated specific motifs into some of my paintings, such as the geometric background in Alhambra #96. I’ve also incorporated some of the ancient ceramic tile glaze colors used in Islamic tile work into the color combinations of my paintings.
One of the mysteries in visual art is the wide range in generativity of specific visual ideas: some yield a single work before exhaustion; others entire shows; and others still entire careers. 200 paintings in, how’s Alhambra holding up for you?
I feel like there is still a lot more to do. Some of them are composed of just a few simple shapes, maybe against a plain background. But I just completed one with over 1400 little flat shapes aligned in columns, which look like 13 stripes from a distance, but 47 stripes up close. I’m very excited about doing more of these, and couldn’t have anticipated them a couple years ago.
Another mystery: the effect of scale. Some artist’s styles seem wholly immune to it, while others suffer dire fates when pushed too large or small. What led you to explore scale?
I don’t think it was until after I started working big that I came across an interview with Mark Rothko which put it into words for me, but I’d intuitively realized that viewing a large painting can be a more intimate experience than viewing a small one. With a small painting you’re outside looking in, but a large painting which takes up your field of vision can surround you and take you into it. While my large pieces do different things when viewed from different distances, I do mean for them to be viewed from up close too.
You’ve done work outside Alhambra — how does it relate?
Between 1979 and 1997 I did a couple hundred paintings in a tight realistic style — landscapes, seascapes, sports, portraits, botanicals — and there is certainly something that work has in common with my “mature” work. Since July 1997, when I started the Summer series, most of the 500 or so paintings I’ve done relate to each other on one level or another. Some refer back to previous ones, or incorporate earlier elements or themes. While my intention is always to make each painting able to stand on its own, I’m nevertheless conscious of how the individual pieces make up something bigger. I’ve been able to do exhibits where I presented a whole gallery of interrelated pieces as a single integrated work, and that’s really what I like best.
Any last words?
In 1996 my wife Carmen encouraged me to walk away from a six-figure income in the financial services industry and become a full-time artist, in order to “do something worthwhile” with my life (her words). Ever since then, I basically just work every day whether I know what to do or not, and somehow one thing leads to another and things get done. I don’t try too hard to understand it.
Alhambra #151, 20″x40″, acrylic on wood panel, 2011
Koren has been a publisher of interesting books about design and aesthetics since the 1980s but what makes this book compelling is the insight with which he looks back on his singular experiences withWET. There is much to learn here for creative minds beginning on their path of growth and development. As honestly as possible, he has tried to evaluate the decisions he made along the way in an ethical light, whether they be aesthetic decisions, business decisions, or decisions made in relations with staff, friends and partners. The result is a book that is as critical of its author as it is beautiful to hold–filled with thoughts, ideas and images that will stay with the reader long after the book has been laid down.
Illustration: Back and front cover design by Emilia Burchiellaro and Leonard Koren.
As a young UCLA architecture student, Leonard Koren became obsessed with the physically built environment of the bath, including the rituals that support it and the truths that give bathing its metaphysical reality. “Every bathroom,” writes Koren, “no matter how crude or sophisticated, comes equipped with all elements of a primal poetry. Water and/or steam, hot, cold and in between. Nakedness. Quietude. Illumination.”
Illustration: Bathing cap people photographs by Guy Webster. Design and Art Direction by Elizabeth Freeman. From WET July/August 1978.
A fluid publication of creative visual production, critical thinking and intersecting obsessions, WET developed organically from Koren’s individual efforts into an experimental collaboration among his ephemeral community of friends and artists living in Venice Beach, California. Before starting WET Koren had no prior publishing experience, but was blessed with a daring approach, a strong sense of aesthetics influenced by Japanese culture, his architectural studies and his love of photography. Under his guidance, WET the Magazine of Gourmet Bathing became a legitimate expression of hip beach culture. It gave voice to a kind of bohemianized water-course way that had taken hold among Venice Beach’s most creative minds. At its best, WET offered its readers a self-aware and watery hedonism (and some cases skepticism) based on the myriad possibilities of bathing as a metaphor.
Illustration: Contents pages designed by Leonard Koren.
Marshall McLuhan famously noted the similarities between taking a bath and reading a newspaper – both being relaxing interludes given to randomness and reflection. Browsing through the pages of Making WET invokes the essence of WET Magazine’s original appeal through playful design characterized by the non-linear approach implied in McLuhan’s observation. It is a story told predominantly through a stream of images: photos, drawings and illustrations of all kinds, while the element of language floats through the book like bubbles clustered on the surface of a visual bath.
Koren has described himself as someone who makes books “not intended for electronic devices,” and Making WET has a distinct hand-made quality. As e-books have have become more popular, the physical characteristics of paper and the tangible experience of holding a book have gained traction among a discerning community of artists, writers and designers dedicated to preserving the bookmaking tradition.
Illustration: “Concerning the Metaphysical Nature of Cigarettes” by Sharon Hennessey. Photo by Larry Williams. Design by Roy Gyongy. From WET November/December 1979.
WET’s editorial slant was always an exercise in the balance of many cultural influences and contradictions. Koren defines his vision with succinct clarity in a chapter titled “Gourmet Bathing: A Long Overdue Introduction.” He writes, “In a state that is the capital of the monetary, the capital of the self–the inventoried and reconceived self, the disguised and decorated self, the conceptual fun self–the only season is Open Season. On Columbus or Sunset or the Venice boardwalk, the shifting cast of vacancy–faced rock punks, S&M tragedian, cowboys, lumberjacks, vestigial hippies, and attentive trend collectors, there is an unsortable repetoire of styles and counter-styles. There is such camp drollery here, such androgyny, such runaway eclecticism, that there emerges a ruling aesthetic of Whatever Works–whatever evokes the almost terminal dislocation of this long intermission in history; the feeling of having no particular place, time or person to be.”
Illustration: Covers. November/December 1979 with Sissy Spacek. Photography and illustration by Lisa Powers and Taki Ono. Typography, design and art direction by Roy Gyongy. Cover and back cover, March/April 1981. Collage and design by Bob Zoell. Art Direction by Leonard Koren.
WET covers consistently presented strong and unforgettable statements. Koren did not shy away from intellectually challenging or controversial material. The image of the copulating pigs that appeared on the March/April 1981 issue is visually unforgettable but caused great anxiety among the ad sales team who feared it would make their job more difficult. By this time, WET was beginning to penetrate the mainstream so it was sold inside a brown paper wrapper to avoid giving offense at the supermarket checkout line.
Much of the WET’s iconic identity stemmed from its remarkable logo which passed through several iterations before settling on the final version shown above. Using sheets of Letraset rub-on type, Koren mocked up multiple versions. “I liked the rendition in the all-uppercase Kabel font best,” Koren writes. “Then I tweaked it a little. The W, fashioned out of two Vs, had a defiant energy similar to a swastika–but without the horrible associations. The E was frisky. The middle tine was cut off at a 45 degree angle; it felt sexy in a reductive sort of way. (I thought it was the typographical equivalent of a sly erection.) The T possessed a magnificent solidity. Together, all three characters conveyed a distinctive Teutonic strength, toughness, and linearity–the exact opposite of the soft, fluid suggestions of ‘wet.’ ”
Illustration: Max Palevsky and Leonard underwater in Malibu “sealing the deal” to secure capital investment for the magazine. Photograph by Guy Webster.
Making WET sometimes reads as a morality play on the limits of sustaining a community based on common creative goals. Koren traces the changes in his personality and his relationships with his friends and collaborators as WET became more successful. The pressure to generate advertising dollars gradually forced him out of his role as creative director and into the role of business manager. The creative side of the magazine was being left more and more often to others. The final chapters describe how WET’s essence inevitably began to dry up. By the end of its run there was “…a profound existential crisis looming. WET had evolved out of an art-making impulse: a spontaneous response to a need for a particular kind of artistic expression. For the first four and a half years, making the magazine was intensely engaging, both creatively and intellectually. But now the learning curve had flattened out. The once vibrant WET project had metamorphosed into a marketing exercise.” Koren decided to fold the magazine soon after, choosing to go out while the magazine was still on top and to prevent a painfully drawn out decline. Six months after closing the magazine Koren packed all his belongings into his VW Rabbit and moved to San Francisco to begin a new life.]]>
His new book, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams features thirty-two pungent essays covering a range of topics such as Madonna’s big toe, the link between zombies and white supremacists, the selling of Nazism and the cultural appropriations of Lady Gaga and Jack Chick.
In the introduction to his book Dery invokes as his talisman André Breton’s epitaph, “I seek the gold of time” . Dery explains that Breton refers to “the ineffable mysteries of lost time, of time passing, of things to come” which recalls Dogen Zenji’s description of time as lending a “resplendent brightness” to all phenomena. Dery would reject any comparison to religious thought (Dogen was a thirteenth century Zen Buddhist monk), but because Dery himself searches for gold in the most unlikely of temporal and spatial places the intersection of these two ideas makes an intriguing entry point into the complex matrix of his thought and writing.
I walk out onto the desert floor in the middle of a bright April afternoon. I stand still in the sun, fully exposed, surrounded on all sides by cactus, sand and rocks. I feel the heat all around. I close my eyes long enough for my thoughts to stop their tossing and turning. Gradually, new sensations begin to impress themselves on my senses. I hear the wind. I hear the buzzing of flies and the drone of faraway traffic.
Time passes. After ten minutes in a state of suspension I open my eyes. I am confronted with a stark wavering prickly electric green thing shooting up out of the desert floor. Ten minutes ago it was an ocotillo tree but now all I see is its indescribably glittering essence. In an instant I am vomited beyond the boundaries of language. Beyond the “flaming wind-hairs of thought” where time turns to gold and everything becomes rich and strange. This other shore is where Mark Dery’s writing will take you. Where no thoughts are too alien, to bizarre or too bad to be turned to gold.
AGITPROP: In the introduction to your new book, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, Bruce Sterling calls you a “botanist of the counter-culture” who samples the Kool-Aid carefully but never fails to spit at the end. What are the origins of your thirst for sipping the dregs of human thought-juice?
MARK DERY: I’m not sure the subcultural margins are synonymous with society’s dregs, but that may be my punctilious Inner Felix Unger talking. As a cultural critic, I’m drawn to subcultural ethnography in the Dick Hebdige mode, or what David Brooks called “comic sociology,” although my variation on that theme is more of a black-comedic sociology. (And when I say Brooks, I mean the David Brooks of Bobos in Paradise, not the Neo-Tory Neuroscientist who offers moral homilies from inside the Beltway, via the New York Times [ Dery is referring to different aspects of a single author, David brooks] . I liked Brooks better when he was a conservative comedian, taking the piss out of lactose-intolerant, cruelty-free yuppies, as opposed to Brooks the self-appointed morality wonk.) I’m drawn to cultural extremes—fringe thought, perverse practices, Manson-approved sociopathologies, consumer culture at its most bodaciously depraved, Bizarro-World Web memes—partly because they’re the strange attractors in our chaos culture, so to speak. In the sciences of chaos and complexity, it’s when systems are far from equilibrium that things get interesting. Not necessarily good, mind you, but inarguably fascinating. They mark the gnarly edge, as the chaos theorist (and Phil Dickian SF novelist) Rudy Rucker would say, where one state transitions suddenly into another.
My fascination with edgy phenomena also has a lot to do, I suspect, with having grown up hard by the U.S.-Mexican border, in 1970s Chula Vista—on the edge of America, in two senses: California is “where we run out of continent” in the Westward-migration sense, as Joan Didion famously observed, and San Diego—one of the most hysterically Anglo, impregnably Republican border cities in our fair Republic—is where white America draws a line in the sand between Nixon Country and that Disneyland of donkey-show depravity, Tijuana. (At least, that’s how it loomed in the gabacho unconscious of my day.) Border consciousness is edge consciousness, and even in the circle-the-wagons all-white Chula Vista suburbs of my ’70s youth, there was a percolating fear that America’s Finest City would be sucked into the libidinal attractor of Tijuana or, inversely, be overrun by the brown hordes presumably massing on the other side of the border (for which the much-feared killer bees were a tabloid metaphor), switchblades and shopping bags at the ready.
But my interest in extreme cultural phenomena has equally to do with the fact that they hyperbolize America—caricature it, melodramatize it, push the envelope of the depravity, the sociopathy, the sheer weirdness hiding in plain sight until there’s no way to avoid it. Through exaggeration, they make the subliminal liminal and, ultimately, push it into mainstream consciousness. As I say in the book’s introduction, I believe in the theory of American exceptionalism, just not as my dear friends in the Tea Party and neo-con thinktanks understand it. America is exceptional, which is to say profoundly weird: it reeks to heaven of flat-earth fundamentalism (which makes us the laughingstock of Europe, where most well-educated urbanites view religion with embarrassment); it seethes with glittery-eyed Neighborhood Watch paranoia; it incarcerates and executes more of its own citizens than any other supposedly civilized nation; it elevates radically deregulated capitalism to a state religion; it criminalizes a ridiculous drug like cannabis yet allows the whackjob survivalist fringe to conceal and carry guns in bars; I could go on. It’s gothic, it’s grotesque, it’s over the top, it’s got TruckNutz dangling from its undercarriage, it thinks Obama is a Muslim and the moon landing was faked and 9/11 was an inside job and Darwin is a rotting heap of secular-humanist hooey and anthropogenic warming is a conspiracy theory foisted on us by the Sierra Club. How can you not love this place?
My cultural criticism patrols the borders of the American unconscious because America is extreme, and the only way to understand it is to venture as far as you can, out onto its wild edge, because that’s where the purest expressions of American dread and dreams live.
AGITPROP: Arguably the most hyberbolic legacy of the twentieth century belongs to Adolf Hitler. Your book has two essays dedicated to the appropriation of his image and the impact American advertising had on Nazi propaganda. Can you delve into your findings?
MARK DERY: The essays in question, “The Triumph of the Shill: Fascist Branding” and “Endtime for Hitler: On the Downfall Parodies and the Inglourious Return of Der Fuhrer,” look at the Nazis—specifically, Hitler and Goebbels—as pioneers of branding and marketing, fiendishly artful in their use of design and the media to manufacture mass consent through misinformation, disinformation, and potent myths conjured up out of the fog of fear and hatred hanging over the German unconscious. I was struck by the Nazis’ appropriation of market-tested tricks of the P.R. trade, employed by early public-relations Svengalis such as Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Goebbels, especially, was a careful student of American advertising and public relations, which had taken the lessons of Freudian—and Pavlovian—psychology to heart. With a little help from Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl, he stage-managed the dream life of the Third Reich, dramatizing the virulent prejudices and half-baked theories that resulted, ultimately, in a Germany-shaped smoking hole in the map of Europe, not to mention the incineration of at least six million people.
Hitler, a failed painter and architect, emerges from the horrors of the 20th century as an Architect of Doom who dreamed the nightmare of Germany’s Gotterdammerung into awful reality and a Murder Artist on a genocidal scale. In using the term “artist,” I’m not mythologizing Hitler, and certainly am not applauding him. I mean, simply, that fascism (as Walter Benjamin argued) represented the aestheticization of politics—with unspeakably horrific results. Hitler’s dream was the dream of an antiseptic, genocidal utopia, a Wagnerian Germania populated by the kitschy Aryans in Nazi propaganda and purged of all ugliness, which is to say the troglodytic “subhumans” who teemed in Hitler’s anxious unconscious. It’s the Bayreuth-opera fantasy of a daydreaming sociopath who failed as an artist but managed to turn all of Europe into the stage for his dreams…and nightmares. And he did so through an unprecedented and, it must be admitted, virtuosic use of propaganda, stagecraft, and a bizarre theatrical talent that to the 21st-century eye looks laughable in newsreels but in its day whipped crowds into a mass orgy of adulation (for the Fuhrer) and ecstatic loathing (for the Other).
Not for nothing did David Bowie call Hitler the first rock star, a penetrating observation that earned him a fusillade of flak but was nonetheless dead-on. Hitler lavished endless thought on the insignias, banners, uniforms, movies, and above all architecture of the Third Reich, and branders and marketers and advertisers ever since have nursed a secret awe, even envy, for the Nazi branding machine. I mean, are Disney’s mouse ears, the McDonald’s golden arches, or the Apple logo as universally recognized as the swastika? Do any of them carry its third-rail jolt of fascinated horror (or is it horrified fascination)? The techniques perfected by Hitler and his henchmen are still used, albeit more subtly, by branders and marketers and advertisers. Long after the “thousand-year Reich” was reduced to rubble, the original mustachioed “Mad Man” continues to cast a swastika-shaped shadow over Madison Avenue, not to mention our political campaigns, reality TV, right-wing radio, and of course the attacking heads on Fox News.
AGITPROP: Two things…First, Hitler’s early life as a failed artist certainly adds a sickening twist to the origins of his need for control. How much should we rely on it as an explanation for his animosity toward the so-called degenerate artists of the Weimar period and marginal members of society in general?
Second, You seem to have a fascination with the intersection of conservative, even reactionary thought, and art. Your essay “The Prophet Margin: Jack Chick’s Comic-Book Apocalypse” is about the evangelical comic book artist Jack Chick. His “tracts” (pocket-sized comic books for the non-believers) were a staple in the Bible Belt churches of North Carolina where I grew up. Can we draw a direct line between him and the likes of Cotton Mather, or is Chick sui generis?
MARK DERY: I wouldn’t want to reduce Hitler’s moral depravity and psychopathology to an operatic tantrum over the fact that his hand-painted postcards didn’t go viral. I’m more inclined to the argument that sees him as an ectoplasmic manifestation of the uglier aspects of the German cultural psyche, at that historical moment. This isn’t to absolve him of personal responsibility, or to deny his unique evil. But Hitler gave shape to a toxic cloud of economic anxiety, bred-in-the-bone bigotry, right-wing fears of the Red Menace, and pervasive resentment over the punitive reparations demanded of Germany, after WWI, by the Treaty of Versailles. But this is the stuff of another argument. Interested readers will want to dig deep into Ron Rosenbaum’s masterful Explaining Hitler, which looks at the contesting theories about who Hitler was, and why he was.
As for my interest in conservative, even right-wing strains in American society, especially when they bubble up in the form of cultural expression, well, I believe in sleeping with the enemy. Meaning: I like to know what dark dreams trouble the sleep of the Michael Savage-Tea Party-survivalist-Alex Jones fusion-paranoia fringe, the better to understand our national id.
As well, I’m interested in art that’s marginalized by the transnational art economy and the curatorial and critical apparatuses that legitimate that economy. No less than the “lowbrow surrealism” showcased in magazines like Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose or the fan-culture illustrations featured on DeviantArt.com or the sorts of “happy mutant” neo-retro art spotlighted on Boing Boing, the evangelical tracts of Jack Chick can be seen as a form of pop art produced and distributed outside conventional channels of art production, consumption, and critique. I should italicize the point that I’m not necessarily interested in the aesthetic merits of any of the stuff I’ve mentioned, but rather its implicit (and largely unintended) critique of the highbrow artworld and the conspiracy of curatorial and critical opinion that underwrites the market value of certain forms of commodified expression, and not others. Why Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks, and not vernacular taxidermy? Why Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” (which I happen to think is brilliant, by the way), and not some of the fan-culture mash-ups on YouTube? But this isn’t just some Duchampian dialectical move on my part. I’m equally interested in Chick as a mutant cartoonist, appropriating the commercial mass-culture form of the comic book and turning it into a vector of transmission for his virulently hateful strain of evangelical Christianity. At the same time, as you point out, Chick sits not only within the historical continuum of popular media but specifically within the tradition of Christian media, whose earliest forms include the evangelical tract, and which has now appropriated the look and feel of godless consumer culture to produce its own looking-glass world of Christian pop culture, including a defanged, evangelical-friendly take on teen culture replete with heavy metal bands, Lollapalooza-style rock festivals, movies, YA fiction, and the like. What fascinates me about Chick, and about evangelical America’s canny use of the media tropes of consumer culture, is the weird spin they put on this notion of semiotic guerrilla warfare. Critical theorists are enamored of the cultural dynamic exemplified by Situationist and punk detournement, anti-consumerist collage music by bands like Negativland, and politicized appropriation artists like Banksy, all of whom rip off and repurpose, to politically subversive or social-satirical ends, the signs, symbols, and narratives of official power or consumer culture. But by hijacking mass-media forms like the comic book or pop-culture genres like heavy metal and the YA novel, Chick and the rest of the religious right remind us that two can play this game. The irony is delicious.]]>
scott b. davis has earned a national reputation for his night photography. The San Diego Museum of Art is currently exhibiting a survey of his work from the past decade. And a show of recent work opens in March at jdc Fine Art.
A recent profile of davis in the Summerset Review offers a wonderfully detailed account of his process in the field. But it didn’t address what has intrigued me most about his work: namely, the material properties of the work itself. Ordinarily this isn’t something one is concerned with when viewing a photograph. But in davis’s case the material properties of the work seem to embody its content in interesting ways.
Your work is noted for its use of platinum printing. What are the specific properties of this process, and how does it suit your subject matter?
platinum printing is a 19th century photographic process, closely related to traditional printmaking in terms of technical expertise and the choice of materials at one’s disposal. it was heralded by turn of the century photographers, and considered by alfred stieglitz to be “the prince of all media”. it earned this distinction for an ability to render exquisite tones, but also because it was kept as a kind of ‘private reserve’ by master printmakers for their finest work. photographers historically used the process to capitalize on nuanced, delicate tones in their images. as a 21st century artist i’m interested in exploring ideas untouched by previous generations of photographers. night photography, first and foremost, is an act of discovery and one that invites a keen sense of perception. platinum printing, simply put, most closely replicates the experience of how i see at night. the combination of the two opens a minimalist dialog i find important.
What about the choice of paper? In describing your work the New York Times noted how the “grainy, velvety quality makes them seem almost painterly.” As a viewer I’m fascinated by this textural quality—which is strongest in the areas of “pure” dark that frame the imagery—but I’m unable to determine whether the texture is a product of the paper, or the process.
the texture you see is platinum. it is the process drawing you in to a physical experience. i don’t say this to be facetious, more so to reference the fact that platinum prints appear three dimensional when compared to other photographic process (anaglyphs notwithstanding). in essence the physical work of a platinum print is painterly—it is applied as a wash, really—since every print is hand coated one at a time using a brush. the pure dark areas you refer to are the ones i’m most concerned with, the negative space that defines each image and challenges viewers perception. both the paper and the process are idiosyncratic from a maker’s standpoint… they are victim to heat, humidity, age, and a half dozen other things that would plague the average photographer/printmaker. what i’m left with, and what you see, is a unique print that holds its own surface quality, which is, of course, part of the image itself.
Related to the previous question—the work in the SDMA show exhibits significant variation in the visual homogeneity of the dark skies that frame your landscapes. For me this is where the complexity set in, as I realized the texture of the sky was potentially due not just to paper or process, but to the very source imagery itself: the low lumpiness of a coastal marine layer, or the silken purity of a desert night sky. And yet some of your desert images appear to have low clouds overhead! Why?
simply put, they might. but what you’re responding to is an edge i’m consciously working with every time i exhibit the work. viewers bring their own connection to visual art, this much is a given. by taking the medium to its physical and literal limit (printing pure black), the work takes on its own physical life, responding to light as much as anything else. it’s a wonderful oxymoron, though it can be a bit vexing for my work as an artist, i’ll admit. to create a tally of our conversation, we’re up to one nuanced photographic process, an artist exploring the limits of that process, the state of the physical environment the work was made in, the lighting the prints are shown under, and the viewers own capacity to look carefully. the latter being one of my primary motivations… to have people engage with the work as a physical object.
The source imagery in your night work seems lit entirely by dusk or human light. Since you’ve worked in the desert, you know moonlight. Can you use it? Or is there some formal reason why it doesn’t appear in your work?
photographers can use moonlight with great success, but for me it’s something of a gimmick. when i was a kid our neighbor had one of those framed posters with a black and white image in it. the image showed boats on the chesapeake bay by moonlight, but it was clearly a daytime shot made to look like the night. it was obvious to me then, but is a good analogy to your question. if you accept the fact moonlight tells us about a world we already know (one that kind of looks like the day but with deeper shadows, less color, and a little more mystery) then i’m not much interested in it. i’m most interested in looking at what we can’t see and what we choose to not look at, then figuring out a way to make others take note. while i’ve worked a lot in the desert at night, it is more often than not that human light defines each image, and increasingly images made in urban environments. it is this intersection that has, above all else, defined my work. working at night—moonlight or otherwise—was a starting place to expand a view of vernacular landscapes and in the process engage with the act of looking.
The typical lighting in a museum or gallery seems antithetical to what you’re trying to achieve—when this work gets exhibited, do you specify any nonstandard lighting requirements?
not really. i’ve found there’s a magic light level that makes the work pop, probably around 7 foot-candles. too much light kills the experience of negative space, too little light doesn’t allow the prints to glow as they should.
Edison to Kodachrome to Vegas: bright light is deeply embedded in the American psyche. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the foremost apostles of darkness are a Japanese writer (Junichiro Tanizaki) and a Hungarian film director (Bela Tarr). Have either of them influenced your work in any way? Do you have an affinity for theirs?
i’ve only scratched the surface of each artist, and i’ll be honest in saying they haven’t influenced me directly… which isn’t to say they’re not vastly influential! it may appear a strange practice from the outside but i often work in a kind of artistic celibacy. early in my career i found i was drawn to emulate the work of other artists i admired, consciously or unconsciously. once i tapped into a language that felt like my own it freed me in a way, and allowed me to focus more on the work itself and less looking for inspiration from beyond. it was a bit like sand through an hourglass… as i concentrated more and more on what i was doing it eventually opened an entirely new world for me. today, when i look at the work of bela tarr, joan didion, eric orr (the list could go on) it’s an enriching experience to ‘see’ and engage with other, wonderful dialogs i was never aware of.
Any last words?
turn off the computer. there’s a big world to discover.
The murals of Chicano Park tell the vibrant history of Barrio Logan and the Chicano community in San Diego. Born in 1970, as the result of a non-violent grassroots land takeover, Chicano Park officially became an Historical Site in 1980 and in 1987 the murals were recognized as public art. Over the years there have been several restoration projects funded by public sources to restore the murals to their original status as ageing and vandalism have taken a toll.
Chicano Park has grown an international reputation as the largest collection of outdoor murals in the world. Today, the Park is frequently promoted by the city as a part of its diverse and colorful cultural heritage. Tourists from around the globe visit San Diego to glimpse the impressive large scale murals painted on the pylons of the Coronado Bridge. But it was not always so.
Strategically located near the waterfront, Barrio Logan has suffered encroachment after encroachment by the military, Anglo-American businesses and autocratic city officials. In 1963, the construction of Interstate 5 bisected the neighborhood, pushing out families and business under the shield of eminent domain. In an act of appeasement the city promised that the land beneath the bridge could be preserved for a park, instead the city reversed course and attempted to build a Highway Patrol Station.
In April 1970, Barrio Logan rose up immediately and decisively, blocking the bulldozers with their bodies, occupying the land and forcing a halt to construction. Leaders organized and beat back city hall, forcing the transfer of the land to the community. By 1973 artists Salvador Torres and Victor Ochoa provided the artistic vision and leadership to make the murals a reality.
Given the enormity of the task and the cultural importance of the Park, I asked Todd to share some of his photos and talk about his experiences.
AGITPROP: Currently you are documenting the restoration of murals in Chicano Park. How did you get involved with this project?
TODD STANDS: My involvement with the Chicano Park Mural restoration project started in June of this year. It was the beginning of a year-long Cal Trans project that will include the restoration of 18 murals on the pillars under the Coronado Bridge. Five murals were begun in June and the other thirteen were scheduled for later in the year or the first half of 2012. I helped restore Michael Schnorr’s mural titled “Undocumented Workers”. I formed relationships with all the artists that were working at that time and was given access to the work in progress. When I could break from painting I often photographed the other four artists and their crews. When “Undocumented Workers” was completed I felt an affinity to the park and the project so I continued to photograph the artists as they completed the first set of murals.
The second set of murals included some of the artists from the first set but several were unknown to me. My connection to the project and the relationships I had developed, opened doors for me to have access to the new artists and their mural’s restoration. It seemed to be a natural path for me to follow.
AGITPROP: Can you please tell us about some of the artists whose work you’ve been documenting?
Whenever possible, the murals are being restored by the original artists that painted them in the 1970’s and 80’s. I mentioned my work with Michael Schnorr. Also included in the first set were Victor Ochoa, Felipe Adame, Guillermo Rosete, Carlos Lopez and Norma Montoya. The second set of artists are based around the Sacramento area Esteban Villa, Juanishi Orozco, Jose Montoya. All of these artists have continued to be very influential in the Chicano movement throughout their careers.
Each artists has very different techniques from watercolor to oil paint and even airbrush.. Their skills have been honed over thirty years of art making. They have worked as traditional muralists or even as commercial billboard painters. It is inspiring and educational to spend long hours photographing and watching these masters of mural painting.
AGITPROP: What are the challenges of documenting such large scale work?
The main challenge is access. I needed insurance to be able to be on the scaffolding and lifts. There is very limited space to back up and move around. I need to stay out of people’s way. I’m trying to show the artists in their working environment so I have worked mainly with very wide angle lenses.
AGITPROP: Is there anything you’d like to say about this project as it relates to your own career?
I feel privileged to have been able to paint in Chicano Park. As a mural artist it is humbling to be part of such a great collection of history and to be included in the impressive roster of artists that have worked there.
AGITPROP: Have you thought about what you will do with these images one the documentation is complete?
At this time I do not have a plan for the photographic work I am doing. Now is it the time to make the images while the work is being done. I think it will find it’s significance in the future.
AGITPROP: When will the restoration be complete?
TODD STANDS: No opening event is planned as of yet.. there is the annual Chicano Park Day celebration in april.. it will be around the time that most of the murals are done… they should be officially done by June if i remember correctly.
AGITPROP: Thanks for talking to us and letting us publish your photos!]]>
~ Water, steam, air, and mud—and the energy to heat them—are precious resources to be cherished and conserved.
~ Cleanliness is next to impossible (but keep trying anyway).
~ Nakedness is almost always an excellent idea.
~ In addition to all its other charms, bathing is an accommodating metaphor.
Full of youthful ambition, and desiring to become a part of the gourmet bathing revolution, I wrote Leonard a letter in 1981 and convinced him to let me be his design intern that summer. I was psyched. When I arrived in Venice, California with my t-square and x-acto blade in hand (in the days before desktop publishing), Leonard told me this was to be WET’s final publication. Like Billy Preston jamming with the Beatles on their last album, there was something bittersweet about having a part in WET’s swan song but I embraced every moment.
“WET never took itself all that seriously,” said Leonard. “To paraphrase one of its contributors, WET was a parody of all enthusiasms, or more accurately, a parody of all enthusiasms taken a bit too far. WET’s most endearing quality was its wholehearted embrace of the absurd. Each and every issue wrestled mightily with seriously silly propositions: Workable Extremist Thinking. Waste Everything Twice. We Eat Tuna . . . Take your pick.”
Leonard’s post WET career has gone on to include an eclectic array of gigs directing Japanese music videos, being a popular culture commentator and most steadily as publisher of fifteen beautifully crafted books related to design and aesthetics. Some of the titles are; Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994) and Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean?: Ten Definitions (2010). His current project is Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. It will be published this coming mid-March, 2012 and will feature selected layouts and covers from each of the issues as well as a narrative of the more interesting episodes and personalities along the way to making WET.
AGITPROP: What is your current job description?
LEONARD KOREN: A guy trying to make a living by producing and publishing books. That is, books made of paper, not books intended for electronic devices. My book subjects are primarily design and aesthetics related—though I hope to move a bit into ethics also.
AGITPROP: Do you mean the ethics of design or are you referring to ethics in a larger social context such as justice, courage, temperance and so on?
LEONARD KOREN: The domains of design and aesthetics, in and of themselves, really don’t have much to do with notions of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” in the moral sense. In fact “stealing,” as in incorporating someone else’s ideas into your work, is almost institutionalized as a “best practice” in fields relating to design and aesthetics.
No one involved in the fields of design or aesthetics is necessarily bound to a particular moral code. By “move a bit into ethics” I really mean I want to bind myself more strongly to a personal code of right and wrong behavior in terms of what I produce and its effect on the larger community.
AGITPROP: Can you expand on this?
LEONARD KOREN: When I make an artistic decision, I try to consider how the ramifications will play out down the line, say 50 years or more. I try to keep in mind “do no evil,” but not as a corporate marketing slogan, as a personal credo. Frankly, I’m not always successful. It’s hard to account for all of life’s unintended consequences.
AGITPROP: In December 1980 you published the Fire Issue of WET. The cover photo was of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, emolating himself as a protest to issues related to the Vietnam War. Would you please comment on the ethics of publishing that image?
LEONARD KOREN: A number of creators associated with WET felt the image was in very bad taste—almost sacrilegious. I disagreed. Someone gave their life to make a very visual anti-war “statement.” The more that image is reproduced the better, I thought. If WET was making fun of the burning Buddhist, that would be a different story. But we weren’t. I think it was a quite sobering cover.
AGITPROP: I think it was Mallarmé who said, “Everything exists to end up in a book.” (Or maybe a magazine!) You’ve published fifteen books. What is it about books that has created such strong devotion in you?
LEONARD KOREN: I like the physical qualities: the kinds of paper, the tactility, the “objectness.” I also like that you can stare at an open page for as long as you like, without glare, and really get into an image. I also like the totemic aspects of the book as a thing: just possessing a book, without even reading it, confers some kind of value.
AGITPROP: Digital books are revolutionizing the publishing industry. Any thoughts on how this change from tactility to intangibility will affect the consciousness of tomorrow’s readers?
LEONARD KOREN: I’m not sure how readers’ consciousness will evolve. The future for critical, thoughtful consideration of information inflows doesn’t seem too promising though.
AGITPROP: What is essential for you to be able to do your work?
LEONARD KOREN: Reasonably good health, time, and a little (physical) space for a desk and chair.
AGITPROP: Speaking of space, you recently moved from a city to the country. How’s that working out?
LEONARD KOREN: I don’t miss the city, if that’s what you mean. I do like the quiet and beauty of the country.
AGITPROP: You’ve been in cities so long I was curious to know if you have noticed a shift in your focus and/or interests.
LEONARD KOREN: When in cities I find my concerns tend to be more reactive to the things around me; “responsive” is a more positive term. In the country, undisturbed by the noisier world outside, I tend to focus more on the perennial, existential thoughts that occupy my mind.
AGITPROP: How important is empathy for what you do?
LEONARD KOREN: Not much.
AGITPROP: So are your design solutions based on your own preferences or do you try and imagine a universal end user?
LEONARD KOREN: I try to satisfy what I imagine to be that universal part of myself that requires (1) clarity, (2) a sensual charge, and (3) some degree of novelty.
AGITPROP: During the 70s and 80s there was clearly a moment when Japanese culture was important to your development. Can you describe your first conscious encounter with it?
LEONARD KOREN: My mother was interested in the Japanese sense of order and beauty for as long as I can remember. I think she thought the Japanese aesthetic sensibility was smart, cool and, of course, beautiful.
At one point she had a Japanese carpenter build some furniture for my brother and my bedrooms. (Which I still have to this day). Then she instituted a rule that we had to take our shoes off at the entrance to our house, which made sense because we lived in the hills on a dirt road. . . . When I was around 16 or 17, my stepfather returned from a trip to Japan with a few books about Japanese architecture and design. I was fascinated by the concepts of asymmetry, refined rusticity, warm minimalism, et al, therein. I asked my mother if I could build a “Japanese tea house” on her property. She agreed and I set to work scavenging materials from the neighborhood. I designed as I built. I applied my interpretations of the photographs I studied whenever I needed to make a decision.
By the end of my teens I had moved on and was no longer consciously interested in things, or design systems, Japanese.
AGITPROP: Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing is your most recent book and it will be published in mid-March 2012. It’s the true story of how you created WET Magazine (1976-1981) and opened up a dialogue around the idea of “gourmet bathing” while pushing a pretty radical design aesthetic. Can you please describe the milieu WET was born out of and why it was important?
LEONARD KOREN: WET was born in Venice, California. I fell into Venice by accident. I grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles and Venice beckoned from high school on as a place of special freedoms. The Venice I lived in and knew was a community of artists and like-minded creators. Most of the artist/creators were open to having me come by their studios and hang out. I was able to study the degree of seriousness, both artistic and commercial, necessary to “make it” as an artist/creator. I learned that you had better make “success” happen yourself, because that is the only way it is going to happen, if at all. I also learned that each artist must create their own unique way if they want to have something of value to offer the world outside their heads. In sum: My time in Venice provided a metaphorical kick in the butt. And the permissiveness of the Venice culture allowed me to seriously pursue my silly work—making WET—and not feel like a complete idiot.
AGITPROP: Well, the idea of gourmet bathing certainly is a very silly and slippery idea in a perverse kind of way. What kinds of thinking and or activities were you hoping to encompass with it?
LEONARD KOREN: I wasn’t thinking out very far. I simply liked the semantic frisson of the conjoined “gourmet” and “bathing.” The term seemed to connote a kind of sensuous absurdity. I was, of course, interested in bathing as a source of artistic imagery. But I also knew that in the realm of art, any abstract notion can take on a solid existence if you plug away at it long enough, which is what I had hoped to do with the notion of gourmet bathing. Exactly how that would manifest, I didn’t know. That’s where putting one foot in front of the next, and not thinking too deeply about the consequences, comes into the picture. That is, start making something and the next step/s to take begin to reveal themselves.
AGITPROP: Anyone who remembers WET remembers that it was as mental as it was visual. What would you say was WET Magazine’s influence on the collective unconscious at the height of its influence?
LEONARD KOREN: I was too close to the enterprise to assess its influence. I do know that lots of art directors, designers, and many artists in the US and Japan were very into the magazine. I doubt if magazines like Ray Gun and Beach Culture would have emerged in the form they did if there wasn’t the prior example of WET. Also, there were some pretty high profile WET alumni, like Matt Groening who went on to co-create the The Simpsons TV show. And graphically, WET was once of the incubators for the style then known as “New Wave,” and later as “Postmodern.” Ultimately all of WET’s graphic and editorial innovations seemed to be absorbed into our visual culture. . . So to answer your question, I really don’t know how far or deep WET influenced the “collective unconscious.” If you have any insights into this question I’d really like to know.
AGITPROP: I discovered WET while I was an art director for a college humor magazine. It became my design bible. I think that was in 1979.I do remember that WET seemed to come along in that moment just before Postmodern style and New Wave came sharply into focus. My earliest impression of a Postmodern look was that it was about visual references to Classicism floating against a deconstructed grid! People were really having a field day with all the prefab graphics you could get on Letraset sheets and that fostered a kind of a collage aesthetic. Then when I did my internship at WET in the summer of 1981, I recall Matt Groening hanging around the office. He was doing Life in Hell and other comics. His visual style was humorous but primitive. His slightly misanthropic personality added a contrasting note to most of the other staffers I met. Wippo was another great character who really embodied the energy of the New Wave musical moment. Gary Panter’s work was also a revelation to me and referenced Japanese culture a lot, too. WET was not iconoclastic like punk. It always seemed to be more about bringing what was hidden into the open rather than destroying what was already in plain site.
LEONARD KOREN: Thanks for the snapshot!
AGITPROP: With so many talented people hanging around and contributing what did your experience with WET teach you about the value of collaboration?
LEONARD KOREN: I learned that people at a certain stage of their creative careers crave an opportunity to create, and a visible venue to show off their creations. In such circumstances they will work for free. I learned to honor and respect these contributions. I had fun as an art and creative director. I also learned that I need long stretches of solitude, away from these creators, so I can consolidate my own thinking and let my intuition come to the fore. In other words, I like collaborative environments and situations, but I need an equal amount of time away from them to recoup my energy and direction.
AGITPROP: Is there a connection for you between intuition and the conscious cultivation of a spiritual dimension of life?
LEONARD KOREN: I don’t understand exactly what you mean by the term “spiritual.” If you mean a non-rational poetic perception of the invisible underlying mechanisms of reality/realities, then yes, there is a connection between intuition and the spiritual dimension of my life. But I don’t consciously cultivate it.
AGITPROP: For me cultivating a spiritual dimension means being in a place that’s apart from the domain of ideas, words and logical thinking; a place where the mind can recognize itself again. Was gourmet bathing ever intended to fill that role?
LEONARD KOREN: Yes and no. Gourmet bathing was intended to engage your mind, to force it into an encounter with absurdity, so that you could no longer take your thinking or your ideas so damn seriously. Of course, it is easier to make such observations in retrospect. There wasn’t such a vigorously coherent agenda for gourmet bathing at the time I was publishing WET.
AGITPROP: How did you come around to the idea of making Making WET?
LEONARD KOREN: To make a book about the process of making WET was an impulse that has reoccurred to me about four or five times since the magazine’s demise. What was different this time, that is, why I finally made the book this time, are three factors. One, I have a young son, and I am an old guy. I wanted to impart some of the lessons I’ve learned about art, life, and business to my kid in a light, easy-to-digest manner. He won’t even know the book is for him, but it will give him some resonant clues about where he came from and how his DNA predecessor responded when confronted with certain circumstances. Secondly, the last couple of books I’ve made have been rather heady, veering toward the non-sensual. I wanted to get back to the sensual, the visual, the visceral, and Making WET allowed me to do that. Thirdly, I got an email out of the blue from an Italian bathroom fixture manufacturer abut a year ago asking if I would consider starting up WET again. I politely said no, but it made me realize that maybe the circle of culture had come around again and a dose of WET—this time in book form—was in order.
AGITPROP: Is there WETness after death?
LEONARD KOREN: Who knows?
Leonard Koren on the web
Leonard Koren’s books can be found on Amazon.com
A recent New York Times profile of Leonard Koren]]>
Susan Myrland‘s career is difficult to put into a box. Her resume includes stints with both for-profit and non-profit organizations. She has done TV production, interactive video communications, internet and management consulting and has her own consulting firm, Silvergate. The most recent chapter in her career was marked by her completion of a Museum Studies class she took at San Diego’s Mesa College taught by Alessandra Moctezuma. Myrland may be one of Moctezuma’s most high profile disciples, having gone on to curate and organize this year’s Art San Diego’s Art Lab project, an at large series of events that brought the community together under the umbrella of creative collaboration. It’s an understatement to say she is continually searching for the next big challenge that will test her experience and expand her knowledge of the world. After taking a couple months off from the recently completed Art San Diego 2011, Myrland was ready to look back on her experience and offer her opinions on the state of culture and capital in San Diego.
Can you begin by giving a sense of the scope of the Art Labs? How many artists were working in how many venues across the city? How long was the process of curating from beginning to end?
The process began last fall when the Art San Diego team met to debrief about the 2010 Fair. Last year’s Art Labs were a combination of exhibitions that were already underway, like MCASD’s Viva La Revolución, and events planned specifically for Art SD weekend, like the block parties and art walks held in Barrio Logan and East Village. Ann Berchtold, Executive Director of Art SD, wanted to expand the latter and asked if I would curate. We exchanged ideas over the holidays, and things really got rolling in January and February as we developed the Request for Proposals. In the spring I spent a lot of time building relationships, going to shows and meeting new artists. That was one of the high points for me. We have a lot of good people here.
By the time of the Fair there were 18 sites from North Park to Tijuana, with some locations hosting multiple projects. Approximately 250 artists, curators and volunteers were involved. It grew organically as artists recruited their friends and mentors. You often hear “there’s so much going on in San Diego that the public doesn’t know about” — and that desire to show who we are helped drive the growth. Plus it was summertime and it was a fun thing to do.
What was your mandate for the Art Labs as it was handed down to you from the organizers of Art SD? Was the model based on an existing fair?
There was no mandate other than the Art Labs should activate the urban space and showcase local art. As a starting point for discussion Ann sent me a link to Art Basel Miami Beach’s Art Public project. They staged nine installations near the Convention Center intended to “interrupt the daily routine of passersby in poetic and surprising ways.” I’m sure they worked well in Miami but the idea of doing only nine projects didn’t appeal to me. San Diego is spread out and fragmented. Our region is composed of many distinct nodes, whether you’re talking about our political system, economic base, art scene, geography or habitat. I felt that our Art Labs needed to show this diversity, and it was important to do it on a big scale.
The theme of the Art Labs was for each lab to have a response to the identity of San Diego, why was this chosen and do you think it was a successful theme and why? Why not?
I chose it for several reasons. First, it picked up where MCASD’s Here Not There left off. On a panel at last year’s Fair, MCASD curator Lucia Sanroman said, “San Diego is defined by what it is not, and a place defined by what it is not is constantly slipping towards ambiguity.” This contributes to our well-established second city syndrome. If we are not L.A. and we are not Tijuana, what are we? The Art Labs presented the perfect opportunity to outline the space and let local artists fill it.
It was successful because it motivated artists to respond and put to rest the stereotype that we are bland and conservative. None of the Art Labs were in-your-face controversial but some had a quietly witty, subversive streak while others were simply unusual for our city.
The theme also helped draw media attention, and that was part of Art SD’s end of the bargain with the Art Labs. The local media really got it right – especially Voice of San Diego, CityBeat, KPBS and the U-T. They understood that this was a rich, complicated story with lots of different aspects, and they did their best to cover it all.
Where the theme was less successful was that, in order to get the big picture of “what San Diego is,” you had to see all the Art Labs. You had to experience the high-tech skill and social commentary of Xavier Leonard’s With These Hands… the messages about binational cooperation and complexity that were built into Twins in Twain… the delicate beauty of Stephanie Bedwell’s sculpture, Firmly Afloat, referencing coastal geography and her ties to the community… the SoCal imagery of Anna Stump and Ted Meyer’s Exploding Tattoo… the ambivalence about our Navy heritage that Andrew Oslovar tackled in XO has the Conn… the subtle conceptualism of Claire Zitzow’s And Forth… the audacious, ballsy, “swing for the fences” experience that was Space 4 Art Cubed… and many more. Several of the events required being at a specific place at a specific time. If you missed it, you missed the message. The Art Labs structure became a metaphor for our art scene with the same strengths and weaknesses. We continue to grow and spread and become more diverse, and it’s hard to get your arms around it all.
How was the traffic flow between Art SD and the satellite events? How well did the audiences overlap?
Not surprisingly, the Art Labs at the Hilton saw the most foot traffic, with (In)Visible Project getting about 3,000 – 4,000 visitors. (In)Visible was sited between the Indigo Ballroom where the commercial galleries were located, and an exterior terrace used for donor receptions. In other words, we placed the homeless people right in the path of VIPs headed for the bar. I was afraid that the message might come across as heavy-handed but Bear Guerra’s portraits and Jessica Jollett and Rebecca Rauber’s audio interviews were so captivating that they easily drew you in.
At the other extreme, Twins in Twain had hardly any foot traffic, which broke my heart because it was a wonderful concept and a beautiful, minimalist installation. A lot of people worked very hard on that Art Lab. When Casa Familiar submitted their proposal, we discussed the issue of getting visitors to San Ysidro – but we all still believed that they would draw a larger crowd than they did. (Ed. note: They are selling the t-shirts online. You can buy them here. )
Besides location, another major factor that determined attendance was the program catalog. We went to press in June but several of the Art Labs didn’t take shape until August. As a result, critical information wasn’t in there – like the addition of the multimedia aspects at Art Produce and the start/end time of performances at Agitprop and the airport. Plus we had to scale back from last year’s catalog that had three pages for the Art Labs, including photos and a map. This year we had one page without photos, no map, and a very short description that was two months old. We tried to compensate by highlighting a few events elsewhere in the catalog and promoting the Art Labs website. The Union-Trib generously donated space in Night & Day to run an updated schedule and they brought 3000 copies to the Hilton. But for folks walking into the Fair and getting their first exposure to Art SD, that catalog is their bible.
So attendance varied, with sites reporting 50, 100, 300, 1000 visitors. Several things have to fall into place in order to get people to climb out of their comfort zones and go to a new event: a compelling photo and description, the time of day, what else is scheduled, distance, traffic, and parking. The Padres games made parking difficult for East Village and Hilton events, and might have deterred tourists from leaving the hotel and driving through the Gaslamp.
As for overlap between audiences, there’s no way to know. That would require surveying a representative sample at all the sites and we didn’t have the resources to do any substantive evaluation.
I have heard there was an issue with some of the exhibitors who criticized the Art Labs for drawing crowds away from the hotel and suppressing sales. Is that true? And if so how does one reconcile these two competing interests?
I wasn’t involved with the commercial side this year so I can’t speak firsthand, but what I heard is that the dealers had strong sales. It seems unlikely that anyone who visited the Fair decided not to buy something because they got distracted by one of the Art Labs. Miami’s example shows that it’s definitely possible to have simultaneous events in multiple locations — in fact, it helps brand the city as an arts destination. That’s part of the maturation of San Diego’s art scene. Rather than scaling back out of fear of competition, let’s focus on growing the audience, broadening awareness of all the events taking place, and creating an environment of arts and culture supporters.
Were you able to deliver everything you promised in terms of logistical support to the participants of the Art Labs?
Yes. Art SD’s commitment was to promote the Art Labs as a key part of the Fair and Arts Month. In the RFP (request for proposal), we said that artists who were confirmed by July would be featured by name in the program catalog and on the website. When the list of artists grew to more than 100, this posed a problem for the catalog. We had to choose between giving more room for a description of the Art Lab and mentioning people by name. We decided to stick with what we’d promised but it could have gone either way. We used the website to give more detail, and reinforced the Art Labs through the Art SD Facebook page, Twitter feed, multiple email blasts to 8,000 subscribers, and radio/television/print/online editorial coverage. We also promoted the Art Labs in advertising placed in San Diego Magazine, Art Ltd., Art in America, The Art Newspaper, and others. The only place where we were unable to include the Art Labs was an iPhone app developed by an outside company.
This year’s Art Labs were fueled by enthusiasm on the part of the artists but no funding was offered to them. How do you sustain such a high level of participation in the future based on this model?
There will always be artists who want to exhibit in exchange for exposure, but it’s unlikely to get the quantity and quality of people we had this year. However Art SD isn’t intended to be a volunteer-driven organization. Relying entirely on volunteers isn’t sustainable. Art SD is a for-profit that isn’t making money yet due to the economy, the time needed to establish a reputation, the nature of the San Diego market, and as of this year, a competing fair. Ann Berchtold and Julie Schraeger, the Managing Director, are still paying for many of the expenses out of their pockets. They can’t continue to do that so they’re rethinking the business model and looking for ways to create revenue.
Let’s say they find a corporate sponsor, private foundation, or government agency to underwrite the Labs. The question then becomes “what are the implications of getting paid?” A funder has the right to put restrictions on what gets created. This year artists had free rein to do whatever they wanted as long as they could make the case that it related to San Diego’s identity. They were free to explore whatever avenues called to them and make it as simple or complicated as they desired. They were free to change their minds at the last minute (and some did). I think that helped contribute to the enthusiasm – but at the end of the day we all have to earn a living. The point is, there will be benefits and drawbacks to any approach, and this is still a very young venture that is attempting to figure out what will work. That’s the ethos of Art SD: experiment, take risks, try a lot of things.
Will you be returning next year? If not, what valuable lessons did you learn that you’d like to pass on to your successor?
Although I had a great time, I won’t be returning. I want to move on to bigger challenges. I’m not sure how many of the lessons from this year will apply, as next year’s Fair and Labs will probably look very different. But in general, the tips I’d give to the community are:
1) Simpler schedule with fewer events = greater attendance. Complicated schedule with more events = less attendance.
Duh, right? It’s so easy to see in hindsight but when we were accepting proposals back in April, our expectations were skewed by the 2010 Barrio Logan Block Party which drew 1000 attendees and several collectors. This year we learned the magic formula. To get the most attendance, be located within 1-2 miles of the Fair + have little or no competition + employ extensive, repeated promotion by the site as well as Art SD + a clear, consistent concept that can be explained in a few words + a compelling description and photo. Any deviation from that and headcount starts to drop off.
2) Ignore #1.
Too much focus on attendance and luring collectors makes the Art Labs just like the commercial galleries inside the Hilton. In the months leading up to Labor Day Weekend, people buzzed about the excitement of working with their colleagues and feeling part of something that was big, creative, wide-open and artist-driven. We started to link those nodes together, see the commonalities, learn our landscape, try out new skills, and make an authentic statement about our city. To me, that is the success of the Art Labs, and I was proud to be part of it.]]>
David White: Can you give a brief summary of the overall ideas and strategies behind your work? Can you also describe the concepts and history of your current show at Agitprop?
Tim Schwartz: My intention with this work is to engage with the space of the archive, specifically the archive’s transition into digital. Digital is different. The form is something that is quite new in terms of human history, and yet it has been adopted incredibly fast. It is clear that everything will one day be digital, including our collective history and the artifacts that document that history. It is this shift into a digital history that I am interested in. Each of the pieces at Agitprop investigate this shift in a slightly different manner, but each tries to play with the current lost space in-between physical artifacts and their new digital surrogates.
DW: In your investigation of different archives, what typically happens to the originals, and/or what do you think will happen to the originals in the long term?
TS: So let me be clear that archivists are a good lot; they’re trying to save artifacts for the future. Of the places I visited, none of them were throwing out or physically destroying objects because they had been digitized. In general I would say that it is too early to trust digital archiving and most of the archivists realize this. Of course, there are some “famous” instances or perceived instances of libraries deaccessioning newspapers after the first wave of microfilming. This was all discussed in the book “Double Fold” by Nicholson Baker. His book is quite one sided and unfair, but hey, it’s a good read. There are reactions to the book published by various archivists, the main one can be found here (http://www.archivists.org/news/doublefold.asp) on the Society of American Archivist’s web page. This is a really fantastic battle, fighting tooth and nail, and its archivists and writers, so it’s even better. In general, the longevity of archives worries me, from the basic case that everyone thinks digital solves everything. Money that goes towards hot new digital tools will continue and the money that goes to physical archiving and conservation will dry up. This doesn’t stand well for physical archives.
DW: It seems that once all of these archived materials become digitized, it creates a problem in terms of software obsolescence, and the rapid pace in which this takes place. Will we be able to read all of these archives in 15 years?
TS: Sustainability right? It’s scary. How long do you think Microsoft will support the Word Document version 1.0, not too much longer I assume. So this in general brings up the idea that we must all be shepards of our own digital archives. Let me compare the amount of work and time associated with being able to see photos from your great-grandfather. He had to basically put a shoebox of the photos in the attic and as long as the attic didn’t burn down, you would get them and be able to see them. Now, for you to make sure your great-grandchild gets your images is another story. You need to save them in formats that will be readable when he gets them, or every five years convert them to a new format. They can be saved on a DVD or some sort of offline system, but they must be checked and copied every few years, because we don’t have a long-term digital storage medium. You can put the images into the “cloud”, but then you are entrusting the longevity of your archive to one company, particularly a company that has not been around for over20 years! So the bottom line is, it’s really hard, scary and confusing to keep digital archives, especially personal ones. I would say who the hell knows and make it a priority to not loose your data. Sorry to be a skeptic of digital technologies, but this is really complicated stuff, and no one knows what should really be done, everyone is just trying out different things. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just put it in a shoebox?
DW: Does this change the role of the Archivist as a distributor of information? If so, how?
TS: I think this is the perfect moment of archivists to reexamine their role in society and how they are going to fix these new problems. But I don’t have any answers.
DW: A large portion of your work is about data visualization and/or the transference of digital information into physical representations of that information. Why is this important to you? Why is this a necessary thing to translate into a work of art, as opposed to, say, just turning that information into good graphic representations?
TS: We are constantly engaging with digital information (or information in general), and currently it is almost all delivered or consumed through a digital device (think screens!). I am trying to remove that mediating device and let people experience the content through other older forms (holding a book in your hand or watching a needle tick off). Hopefully by pushing what could be digital information back into older forms, it not only enables a deeper understanding of the information, but enables reflection of the digital.
DW: What is it about “holding a book in your hand” that is significant in terms of communicating information? How does touching the object, in this example, enable a deeper understanding of that material that is contained within it? I’m typing this on a Mac and, to a certain degree, it’s a pleasurable experience.
TS: I think in this case I’m talking about levels of mediation. We as humans started with language, then signs, then the written word. The written, or shall I say printed word, lasted for thousands of years. This was the technology and mode of communicating information that moved the world forward. Knowledge could be shared, stored, and saved over generations. So about twenty years ago we get a new mode for communicating knowledge, digital information. Very quickly, many layers of mediation were added between an individual and the knowledge they were trying to understand. So at this point in history the physical written word has a huge history and a lot of implications built into the physicality of its presence. We know how to engage with this type of information and now these older forms hold a nostalgic value for us, because they have physicality. As an artist I can use this melancholic feeling for the lost artifact as a way to encourage contemplation.
DW: Within the context of the relationship between Science and Art, there is a lot of current talk about artists being potential “interpreters” of highly specialized scientific information for the public. One criticism of this stance is that Art itself is a highly specialized field in its own right and that it should not be viewed as simply a mediary field. How do you see your work in relation to these differing points of view?
TS: Art is it’s own field, but it allows for many different forms and research under its umbrella. My work is conceptual and research based, but because my ideas take the form of objects or representations, not journal articles or formal scientific studies, I consider my work closer to the Art world, but my research practice comes out of a scientific practice. I should be clear here that I believe there is much to be gained by Art that adopts scientific techniques and actually produces scientific research, rather than just works that visualize or artistically represent scientific techniques. In the last ten years “collaboration” has become a huge buzz-word for the science and art communities. Instead of pushing individuals from different backgrounds together, I think it is more important to place inspired individuals that have excelled in one area in another discipline to build upon their knowledge in new ways. Collaboration must develop naturally, not be forced.
DW: “Collaboration” does get thrown around very readily these days. How would you define the extent of your collaborations, if any? Would you consider one of the Archivists or Librarians you encountered on your travels around the country a “collaborator”? This a question that I frequently think about: How do you define the boundary between collaborator, participant, and assistant?
TS: I think my own definition of collaborator is pretty liberal, but that’s why I’m not writing a grant. I would definitely consider everyone that I engaged in conversation during my trip and presently you (David White) to be a collaborator. Now would I put you on a grant, I’m not sure:)
Rhonda Trotter: In “Inner City Blues” the poem “This Evening…”, where did that come from?
Gil Scott-Heron: A brother named Mark Essex, from Kansas – I believe – a navy gunner, sharpshooter, came back from Vietnam. The only thing he knew how to do was kill people. He couldn’t get a job, and his reaction to that was to more or less demonstrate how prolific he had been at what he’d been taught to do. And it was attributed in several instances to the Black Liberation Army. It seemed very appropriate at the time that we did the poem – back in 72-73, during the Nixon administration – it seemed to be a comment on what was happening to our veterans since most veterans were out at that time. A lot of confusion, a lot of questions about what this society was turning our young folks into.
RT: Would you in any way describe yourself as part of a community of musicians who are working in a similar way, and who are these people?
GSH: Well, I know that a lot of artist that I’m familiar with do benefits and community programs of the sort that we do … But you find out when you go out to play that there are a lot of folks everywhere who spend a good deal of time doing things like that if they are concerned about it. It’s just that what I’m describing, a lot of artists don’t get into those sorts of programs because they’re generally so poorly done, from the point of view of having it together, having the advertising together, having the sound and lights and things that go into producing a concert and these people are very rarely familiar with that. And you risk not only not making anything for the organization, but at times not even covering the expenses that you put up to get there. That’s happened to us on several occasions working for different social organizations. You just have to be qualified or be prepared to reach into your own pocket to cover whatever it is that can’t be covered by the organization, and then you feel like you really didn’t make any sort of point that you were trying to make: you didn’t help the organization, you didn’t pay your fellows, you didn’t even get the groceries together. So I feel that a lot of artists are reluctant to get involved in those kinds of things because they know it’s going to be risky just in terms of having the basic requirements.
RT: More than any other artist/musician I think you exemplify the fact of Black folks in terms of how we deal with the situation in our art forms as being revolutionary. Can you briefly speak to that in terms of art-for-art’s-sake – the art and music that keeps us in our current situation, versus revolutionary art, music and poetry. The other thing is related to Amiri Baraka and the recent harassment he’s had in New York.
GSH: I don’t see any independent position that I’m in; it’s rather inter-dependent. It hooks up with a tradition that is thousands of years old, the great tradition; the tradition of the artist, at least literally, dates back to the 1780s in this country with Phyllis Wheatley, and Martin Delaney to W.E.B. du Bois and Paul Robeson. I would say if you are familiar with our history and the history of our art and literature that you see a clear cut pattern of people wanting to contribute, not only artistically, but in some practical purpose, for the benefits of the community. Paul Robeson once said that the artist has the responsibility to either help liberate the community or further oppress it. And I think that when Eldridge Cleaver wrote it down it was interpreted as his, but there’s a history of people saying things of that nature and meaning it. And what I do is in that tradition, in that mode. I don’t suspect that in many instances the artists who are dedicated in that fashion to the progress of that community are as well protected by the community as might be necessary. I think that not only what happened to Baraka recently, but the way the Philadelphia police fell on sister Sonia Sanchez and tore her house up looking for drugs. I think that down in Philadelphia is a pretty good indication of the vulnerable position most people, artists included, are in when they do things that can be interpreted as not necessarily anti-white but pro-Black in this country. Oftentimes, the way it seems to be is that our artists in particular point themselves out as spokesmen for a certain constituency in a community, and thereby place themselves in that vulnerable position.
B-Movie, Gil Scott-Heron
But the truth is that in this country you here you’re more likely to be harassed, hurt, or killed if you’re a minister speaking about progress for Black people than if you are a sure enough revolutionary. They’ve shot and killed more preachers than they have revolutionaries. You see Martin Luther King is dead and Huey Newton is not. And Malcolm X is dead and Bobby Seale is not. And Vernon Jordan was shot. The thing that revolutionaries, or even people who want to claim they’re revolutionaries, often forget is that it doesn’t make no difference what kind of wardrobe you wear, and if you speak up about Black people doing better you just risked your life. And there are folks out there who will take it. I think the only answer to that kind of thing is more artists doing that sort of thing so that it’s not so easy to identify which one or which two you can do something to to slow down a movement, or to slow down some sort of progress. I think that the more people who speak out, and say things and take stands on positions that will better our community, the better off each and every other individual artist or otherwise, will be.
RT: You keep mentioning and referring to the fact that it’s difficult to get information and accurate information about Black people and other Third World people, both history and current events, and yet in your poetry and your music you always seem to be right on time with what turns out to be revealed by the time your music hits the record stands.
GSH: Strange, isn’t it?
RT: Do you have any comments on your sources of information?
GSH: I do research. You know, a lot of folks are so busy trying to get their groceries together that they don’t have time to do research. I have time. Maybe that’s the main difference. In other words you can have a poem like “B-Movie” and sum up thirty conversations that people have had on the subject, but I wrote it down, and other people didn’t. When we were doing the “Angel Dust” thing we got information from the National Institute of Drug Abuse because we knew that if we went out and said something about angel dust people were going to ask questions about it and we wanted to be sure we had all the information to deal with it when those questions came up. So it’s all a question of being as prepared as possible out front, so that if you are going to deal with information it’ll be correct. A lot of people won’t check it out but some people will.
RT: There was some controversy about “Angel Dust” and some stations decided not to play it in that they mistakenly or intentionally said that it was promoting the use of drugs instead of decrying their use. I found that whole controversy very strange. What was your perception of it?
GSH: Well, see, it’s the difference between hearing something and listening to it. We got jumped on a couple times in Buffalo and Miami; they were taking it off the stations saying some preachers had petitioned that it be taken off the station the same week that Reverend Jesse Jackson sent us a proclamation for thanking us for doing it. I think a whole lot of stuff gets by people – I could name half a dozen groups that do songs that are openly supportive of experimentation with drugs, nobody ever said anything to them. I find it not just strange but almost ridiculous that people could take a song like the one I was doing and interpret it is corroding anything. Folks have the feeling that oftentimes if you don’t talk about something it will go away. Angel dust won’t go away. Somefolks who were smoking it were going away. I think that music is for the young folks in general; a whole lot of old hardheads who were going around talking about how it was promoting smoking it, they didn’t smoke it. They didn’t know anybody who did. So far as they were concerned it was out there somewhere. But it was right in their churches, in their community, right on their block, and in many instances tight in their house. And the young folks appreciated us for speaking on it more than they appreciated them for trying to act like it didn’t exist. So I try not to take people who haven’t really thought out what they’re doing too seriously. I try not to let them get in the way of what I feel I need to do.
RT: So you did not interpret it as a move by those in power to discredit you such that “Angel Dust” and future songs you make won’t be played?
GSH: I don‘t think people in power have the potential to do anything like that to me. I feel as though as long as our music is available, folks are going to hear it. We’ve been here twelve years. And a lot of people who have not tried to do the things that we do are no longer in the music business. They’re driving taxis and washing dishes. So we understand what the difference is between what we understand and what the community understands about what we’re doing because they have supported us long enough for me to stay out here, while other people who are doing other things have not. A lot of people have trouble pinning down what it is we do and how. But we don’t have any trouble with that. As long as that’s their problem, it’s their problem.
*Negative Dialectics By Theodor Adorno
Suhrkamp Verlag © 1970 Frankfurt am Main
Original text is copyright © 1997 by Suhrkamp Verlag.