doverstreetmarket.com “Knee-buckling Zen-television spiritual worm holes” Art Critic Jerry Saltz
Chinatown, Los Angeles is an area close to downtown that has a long history of arts-related activities. Some of the most renegade art galleries in the history of the city have started there on Chung King Road, and it still plays host to the studios of many important artists. The most recent addition to the Chinatown family calls itself KCHUNG and it is a pirate radio station with a broadcast capacity of around 500-1000 feet. Even though the reach could be considered small by radio standards, the station has managed to attract some of Los Angeles’ most interesting talents. Artists, musicians, writers and impresarios galore frequently stop by KCHUNG to produce unique shows. The following interview with two of the founders, Luke Fischbeck and Solomon Bothwell, explains everything. By the end of this you better be building a transmitter of your own! Interview by Clark Rayburn / Images courtesy Kchung Radio
ANP: What inspired you to start a pirate radio station? Luke Fischbeck: It is a volcano of inspirations. New reasons for doing this keep popping up. From the beginning there’s been, on the one hand, the curiosity to know how radio actually works! To learn by doing…and on the other hand, the excitement of bringing together a community, something that is made by many people for many people. As an outlet or a venue for things people are making: music, talk shows, call-in dialogue, interviews, news on the street, or whatever. It only gets better and stronger as a wider range of interests is added and each contributor brings their own set of inspirations. As for myself, I used to have a late-night punk rock show on a college radio station from 2 to 5 AM. Many of the people calling in requests were listening from within a nearby prison and had been tuning in for almost twenty years while incarcerated! It’s a huge thing to understand that not everyone has access to the internet. Not everyone has mobility and yet pretty much everyone anywhere can listen to the radio. Although it was a coincidence that we set up our transmitter in Chinatown just a few blocks away from Twin Towers, the world’s largest jail, it’s been an inspiring consideration as I work to make this a strong platform for all of the strangers in our range. Solomon Bothwell: Well, KCHUNG isn’t always pirate. Depending on the circumstance we operate inside or outside the confines of FCC regulations. But as far as inspiration, I have always loved tuning around the broadcast and ham bands looking for signals. It’s really fun to sit outside at night, spin the dial, and find someone from another continent talking about who knows what. I also used to DJ and help the engineers at KDVS in Davis and I have always liked tinkering with electronics. When I moved back down to Los Angeles I thought to myself, “Why I can’t I build a radio station?” So I put together a transmitter kit and talked to Luke and Harsh about the idea and before we knew it we were getting show proposals from tons of people. ANP: Are there any particular stations from the past that have influenced this project? SB: For me it is not so much about radio stations so much as it is the idea of radio. The history of radio is full tinkerers, experimenters, and people who just want to get their
voice heard. When radio was a new medium nobody knew what was possible. Anyone could come up with some new oscillator circuit or method of modulation and revolutionize the field. It was all very utopian. LF: I grew up in Philadelphia at a time when it seemed like there was a different “free radio” station on every block, mostly associated with squats or collective houses run by the Rastas or the Punks. I learned a great deal by overhearing something that appealed to me, coming from a mysterious source, compelling me to find out more. Specific stations in the world I am thankful to have learned about include Londonbased jungle and hardcore stations including Kool FM, Rush FM, also Radio Alice [a focal point for the Autonomia movement in Italy in the late 1970s], Free Radio Berkeley (a great resource for learning how to start your own radio station), and Free 103.9 in New York… to name a few. Free radio is about compulsive sharing, it seems. Established stations exist partly to inspire other stations to start! ANP: I find it inspiring that in this world of so many internet-streaming only stations, you still choose to broadcast with an antenna as well. Why did you decide to add this element? Why is it important to the project? SB: KCHUNG is and always will be about radio broadcasting. LF: This is a discussion we return to often, especially with many contributors sending broadcast material in from outside of the listening range. At the moment we broadcast only in the air, using the internet for archiving and discussion. It’s not necessarily a matter of preferring small-scale, we’re simply excited to be directly modulating the airwaves, instead of using so many intermediaries. We take the internet, and the sense of social ubiquity it gives us, for granted… radio is a way of seeing these connections in a real and immediate way, having a little more insight into how they are built. Besides, there are so many amazing internet radio stations that are already doing their job perfectly, we might not be adding anything valuable to that world. ANP: Is there a curatorial vision to the programming that ends up on KCHUNG? SB: We use a community radio model where there are very few curatorial restrictions and the voice of the community defines the voice of the station. There are a few people who are in charge of the station, but our role is more of caretakers. If anyone else wanted to step up and do what we do, they would be welcomed in. LF: People follow their affinities, mostly. Solomon has been doing an amazing amount of research into how to build the equipment needed for broadcasting; Harsh Patel has been the sole contributor to the design aesthetic of the station. Other than that, we put out an open call for submissions and people who have the interest and the energy are given a venue to do what they like. ANP: Why do you think radio is still a valuable public service? SB: Nothing comes close to it as far as distributing information on a local scale really fast. Local stations can also become geographically specific focal points for cultural production. LF: It can go through walls! I think that in addition to the localized aspect there’s a time-element to it that is for some reason missing from the internet. Dead air wants to be filled, and that desire is a strong motivating force. ANP: What have been the best and worst parts of running a radio station thus far? SB: The best is when I drop the technical issues and look around at what we have done. The worst is when I can’t drop the technical issues. ANP: Do you have plans to extend the range of your broadcast? SB: This is a question that comes up often. People want to know our wattage or our range, and how much bigger we want to go. Broadcast power is an issue for all radio stations but it really is a context-dependent issue. In the ham radio world we talk about the right amount of power being the least amount you need to do the job. The technical requirements for KCHUNG are not static. If we are doing a broadcast party on Chung King Road then we may have enough power as a legal Part 15 station to do the job. If we are trying to run a 24/7 broadcast schedule that covers an area like Chinatown, then we are going to need a little more. LF: We’ll always be experimenting with different transmitters and amplifiers to see what works best. My sympathies are divided between pursuing a legal low-power broadcast license that would allow us to be on the air full time, and wanting to try something like a spark-gap transmitter, in which we transmit for only the shortest of moments, but interrupt all radio transmissions in LA. One possible solution is a syndication co-op, where we, as a group, each operate our own small transmitters around the city, syndicating the same content. We’re also continuing our style of bringing a transmitter and antenna around to different locations. We’ve set up temporary broadcast spots at Ooga Booga, Human Resources, New Atlantis Enterprises, The Anarchist Bookfair, The Public School, and next month we’ll put an antenna on top of LACMA to reach the west side! I think there’s something really nice about being able to see everyone who is tuning in when there’s only a one block range, but there’s also something amazing about a signal strong enough that it goes places we could never intend. www.kchungradio.org
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Interview by Nora Atapol Images courtesy Forrest Martin
Portland, Oregon is known for many different things, but we’ve recently been turned on to a new magazine from up there that has a particular slant that is really quite unique. Death: A Magazine for the Enthusiast and Non-Enthusiast Alike is the brainchild of one Forrest Martin, and as you can probably guess from the title, the content centers on the greatest mystery of life. The first time we checked out an issue we were very pleasantly surprised. Not just by the fact that someone would have the guts to put out a magazine about Death, but that they also chose to release it in such a stylish way. The layout feels like a cross between an avant-garde design rag and a great literary magazine. The subject of death is always re-packaged some how in a thematic form to allow for not only creativity, but also a new way of looking at the unknown. As an aside, the magazine is also available through a nice online interface where anyone can read any issue in its entirety for free. Luciano Foglia created the Death Magazine splash page. It’s an experience that will certainly take you down a rabbit hole if you spend a little time figuring it out. Could there be a better way to tick away the time until we all get off this planet? ANP: Why did you choose to produce a magazine about Death? Forrest Martin: Well, the bones of it originated as an idea offered by my friend Nathan Cearley about seven years ago. I made up a cover for the project but it never happened. Two years ago I asked him if he’d
mind me running with it, and recycled that cover. He’s written two essays for Death so far. The other side includes lifelong chronic obsessions with my own mortality. I say my own, which is significant. I wasn’t concerned with other people dying, just me. I think that’s common though. We are selfish animals born into a universe made for us. But shortly after my Grandmother Eloise died I began to think, “if she could do it so could I!” It must not be so insane if she and EVERYONE I WOULD EVER KNOW OR HAD EVER HEARD OF would do it, or had done it. Huh. Perhaps it’s not the unnatural punishment I’d come to think of it as...and it’d be great to collect other people’s perspectives after an exhausting lifetime of pondering all the different angles of just one. ANP: It’s actually really surprising that there hasn’t been a magazine on this subject before. Were there any publications that inspired you? FM: Subject-wise, no. But structurally, the Sun inspired me to include a theme within each issue that would host shorter-form essays about, say, strangers, superstition or sex. Issue #4’s will be “animals.” I respond to the part of a magazine that accommodates short attention spans. It’s the same with the “Talk of the Town” in the beginning of the New Yorker, or any page of People Magazine. It becomes the gateway into exploring the rest of the issue. I think people need something bite size in the beginning, so they won’t knowingly commit to something that may waste their time. The art serves that function, too. There
is a need to start small to build trust with a readership, especially with a publication this low profile. Of course, then the content needs to do the sticky work on its own. ANP: Your take on the subject seems to be a bit different that one would expect. You tend to be somewhat abstract in the way you talk about death. Why is this? FM: Thanks for saying this. It’s my intention to curate the topic in a non-obvious way, because death is so incredibly weighted down in darkness and cliché. In fact, it is the great mystery of our lives, and not even Stephen Hawking can explain it to us through his auto-tuner. If he could, we wouldn’t believe him. This mystery is part of the origin of its darkness, but it is also what makes it a house of literal wonder, and nothing in this world can demystify that. If there can be more funny and beautiful and non-poignant representations of death then we are doing it some justice. In terms of being abstract with it, I find that it helps to reframe what it is. That is, as an end of something. What’s next? What is involved in that particular ending? One of my favorite quotes on this topic is included beneath the table of contents in issue #3. It’s by Kenneth Patchen, “There are so many little dyings that it doesn’t matter which of them is death.” ANP: The design of the magazine is also quite unorthodox. One would expect to find lots of blood and guts in a magazine like yours. How did you develop your design approach? FM: The design started out with a rather
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academic look to it…on the cover, especially. That was a bit of a holdover from Nathan’s hand, or what I imagined he wanted. Pared down, small serifed print, not too much vying for your attention on any given page. Probably I was trying to make it feel legitimate, while sneaking in some modern design experiments that would make me happy. Needless to say, they’ve evolved, and this next issue will veer from that style a bit more. Along the same lines as your last question, I look for images or artists that have a non-traditional comment to offer on fleetingness while keeping in mind that I would like to put out something that doesn’t repel people. Because, contrary to some assumptions, the goal is to get it seen and read. To attract! I work in advertising and I’m aware that a magazine about death has a steep climb ahead, being A) a magazine and B) about death. To date there has never been a photo of a gravestone or a raven in Death: A magazine for the enthusiast and nonenthusiast alike. ANP: Who would you define as your target audience? FM: Hipsters. For sure. www.deathmag.com
The San Fernando Valley, north of the Los Angeles Basin and home to nearly 2 million people, is traditionally the butt of many jokes by the more “sophisticated” urban Angelenos. As a child growing up in the Valley, I remember my parents taking me to Zuma Beach to beat the brutal summer heat and being greeted in the parking lot by “Vals Go Home” graffiti. This was my first taste of the regional stigma about what was, to me at the time, a wonderland and a home. In my later teens, I left that home to make my way in the Big City (every young person’s dream), and spent the better part of two decades doing just that. However, in recent years, I have found myself returning to my old stomping grounds. A meal here and there, and a chance to cruise down the old SFV drags, I find a familiar comfort in the seemingly unchanged sights and sounds. I have also wondered what my life might have looked like there as a youth if there’d been a spot closer to home that nurtured all ages’ creativity. The good news for the young people of the Valley now is that has become a reality with the opening of Take Off. Take Off was opened by two SFV loyalists, Jordan Espino and Luis Castillo, this year in the heart of an industrial neighborhood in Van Nuys. Of the 40 separate communities that make up the San Fernando Valley, Van Nuys is very close to the epicenter. With its sprawling boulevards and endless single story ranch homes, Van Nuys is now the unlikely home to the coolest store/venue/free space that most in LA proper will never know about, let alone venture out to. Curated with a ton of local independent music, zines and art books, and clothes that they design, screen print and dye themselves, the shop is well stocked with oddball finery. Take Off also features a PA system, and has been hosting after hours shows and events, with much more planned for the future. I sat down to talk with Jordan Espino and Luis Castillo about why they started Take Off, and where they hope to go with it. interview and photographs By Cali thornhill deWITT
Cali: Hi Guys! Did you both grow up here in Van Nuys? How old are you? Luis: I was born and raised in the Valley. I’m 22 years old. Jordan: I’m 21. I was born in the Valley, but moved around a lot. I lived in Atwater Village until I was in 6th grade, then my family decided to move again, this time back to the Valley. Van Nuys has been my home now for almost 8 years. Cali: Describe Van Nuys. Luis: It’s a really awesome place to live. The best part is the billions of spots that are super skate friendly. I’ve been skating for almost six years now and the accessibility to skate from Van Nuys to Hollywood to downtown and back has continued to amaze me every time I make the trip. Jordan: Van Nuys is a really cool city. It’s really small so you see a lot of people you went to school with like at every corner. Kids out here are really into partying and Tommy’s Burgers. There’s a lot of backyard parties and great Mexican food and thrift stores! If I could describe VN in two words it would probably be “bitter sweet.” Cali: You are both heavily involved in operations at The Smell—booking and playing shows and doing whatever generally needs to be done—and you were band mates in Ima Fucking Gymnist, and you currently play together in Protect Me. What about your experience with these things made you want to open Take Off? Jordan: Everything about those experiences made us want to start Take Off. When we first started playing shows at The Smell, it was awesome! It totally opened our minds to art, music and the pure drive for something you love. When we started booking more shows and playing more, we became friends with a lot of rad people that showed us that “anything is possible” and pushed us to follow our guts and do what we want to. Luis: No bands ever come to Van Nuys either, so that was a big drive for us. We’ve been really lucky to see awesome shows thanks to The Smell. We just wanted to have rad shows down the street for kids that couldn’t bus it to downtown LA on a school night or even weekend! Cali: Were there any places that you’d consider an inspiration to opening Take Off? Both: OOGA BOOGA Luis: Yeah, Ooga Booga, The Smell, Headline, all those rad places were super influential in the way we perceived music, art, and opening a space! Cali: I think it’s so radical that you guys are doing this in Van Nuys. Are the local kids receptive to what you are doing? Jordan: So far all the kids are really into it and are supporting the spot. Luis: We’re by a high school so a lot of the kids stop by after school. They are all really into studded anything. Cali: You chose a very out-of-the-way and untraditional locale, in the middle of an industrial block. Hopefully that keeps the cops off your radar. Jordan: Well, Take Off is kind of a home base to a lot of the stuff Luis and I do. It’s mainly our practice space. We later decided to open a store because of all the space we had! It’s around the corner from my house so that was a main reason why we got it. Luis: Yeah, it’s cool because recently we’ve been having little shows, and bands have been practicing here so it seems like even though the spot is in a weird industrial area, it kinda fits. Also we can just make noise and no one will complain. Cali: Yeah man, noise-making freedom is crucial. Tell me what you hope to achieve with Take Off. Luis: We mainly want people to feel like there’s a space that they can come and practice at without someone criticizing them, or come to a show and not worry about drunk backyard gangsters. A nice little store you can come to and buy stuff you can’t buy at the mall. An alternative to staying in because nothing’s happening. Jordan: We want kids out here to be excited about music and art and life the way we are and we want new and old friends to come hang and make Van Nuys worth coming to for touring bands.
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James Rains: So, the Holster is a performance, right? Gary Fogelson: Well sort of. The Holster has been a few things over the years: first it was a website where we archived scans of zines we were making and sharing with each other, then it was nothing for a couple years, then it became a publishing project where we’d put out zines that we—me, Phil, Sone—were making, or our friends were making. We’d print 50 or 100 copies and have them for sale on our website and at a few stores. The pressures of publishing never really vibed with us though—having to worry about distribution and sales and promotion and all the things that a decent publisher will do to be able to pay for the books they make and get them into the hands of like-minded people. Soner Ön: I feel it was the intimacy a simple zine provided that gave us such an interest, and still does today. Becoming full-on publishers never worked for us because it’s not entirely in our nature. We just like to make zines, and because we loved them so much as things, we loved sharing them as well. The early version of the website was great for that. Seeing the scans of the physical zines onscreen with their staples, the texture if the paper was as close as we could get to sharing actual copies. GF: In 2009 we were invited to participate in the “First Annual NYC Zine Fest”—which never actually happened again—but we didn’t have any zines to sell because all the copies of the few titles we had produced were gone. We had a lot of people in mind who were making work we had always wanted to publish, but didn’t have the time or resources to print and bind it all before the fair, so print on demand seemed like a good idea. Our Demand and Supply project was born out of this need. We set up our printing equipment—a black and white laser printer, paper cutter, bone folder, and stapler—at the fair, put out sample copies of each zine, and printed and bound any orders as they were made. Each one was designed at the same trim-size and page count so they could be efficiently produced on the spot. The New York Art Book Fair was a few months after and we did the project again, adding a few new artists to the list. At that point it started to feel like a performance. People would come up to watch what was happening or ask questions and end up learning about the process. It probably also helped us sell zines. People weren’t just buying a 16 page black and white booklet but a documentation of the performed process of creating it. Also, as a nod to traditional publishing we limited the edition of each zine to 50 copies, but pledged to only print a copy when an order was placed. Phil Lubliner: We continued to fulfill the editions on our website as a way to reach a wider, global audience that hadn’t attended the fairs. Obviously, the performance aspect was lost quite a bit, so we attempt to fix that by shooting a photo of us making each order and printing it over the shipping receipts. SÖ: It’s interesting to me hearing it labeled as a “performance,” since it was really just being at work. But, with the assembly line of the three of us—one printing, one stapling and folding, and another trimming and editioning the zine—it had a sort of symphony to it. Or maybe we were just making zines. Either way it was a fun experience and I think it made us more approachable at the fairs. There wasn’t as much mystery to us and what was behind our products, it was all very up front and honest. Also, as Gary stated, people would learn about the process and the simplicity behind it, and if that made them go home and make a zine of their own, then that’s pretty great. PL: To go along with the transparency theme of the project, all zines were sold for just $3. That price was established simply to cover our paper, toner and fair table costs. The participating artists received a small artist proof edition as their compensation.
JR: What is Primetime? GF: Two years ago our friends Ryan Waller and Scarlett Boulting were looking for a studio in Brooklyn and they found a small street-level space with incredibly cheap rent. They decided not to take it as a studio, but it seemed like a good opportunity to create a venue that could fulfill those conversations where you get excited about something with your friends and say “if only we had a space to do...”. We named the space Primetime and have hosted a steady stream of shows and events over the past two years and plan on keeping it going into the future. PL: The space itself is quite charming in the fact that it really isn’t in a state to be a functional gallery. There is no store window, just a small security window in the door. The neighborhood is great, but not necessarily one where you’d find this kind of contemporary art space. It’s on an unassuming side street across from a gas station/Dunkin Donuts. The 150 square feet, or whatever it is, becomes a curious restriction for participants to work with. Basically, the space is just that, a space. It has a name and a Facebook page, but we try to avoid giving it more of a definition than that. GF: Through Primetime, Ryan Waller and Phil and I began collaborating more and talking about the kind of work we really wanted to make. We’re currently in the process of joining together with a fourth designer and friend, Vance Wellenstein, to form a design studio called Other Means. Phil and I will be folding our design practice from the past 3.5 years into this, and we’re also ending the Holster so we can focus more on self-initiated and commissioned projects that don’t need to respond to the pressures of self-publishing. Soner is focusing on his art and making books and zines of his own. We recently worked together on a publication that collects 32 paintings from his series of modified “Richie Rich” comics. SÖ: It was truly a great experience and a very happy one to be able to put out zines by the range of artists we had. I now am focusing my attention to teaching the youth to make zines through library foundations. I’ve worked with 7-10 year olds before and I am currently in talks with a program to teach incarcerated teens zinemaking, as well as self-publishing projects of my own. http://www.theholster.com/ http://p-r-i-m-e-t-i-m-e.com/ http://soneron.com/ http://fogelson-lubliner.com/
interview By James Rains / Images courtesy THE HOLSTER AND PRIMETIME
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interview and photogrAPHs by Nora Atapol Summertime is wonderful in Portland, Oregon. The rain has stopped and all the trees are in full bloom. So when I got notice that the fantastic artist Chris Johanson was going to host a music festival last August I immediately booked a ticket to attend. Not only was the lineup incredible, including the likes of Lucky Dragons, Dragging an Ox Through Water, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, Jackie-O Motherfucker, Stephen Malkmus and more, but also the theme of the festival was like none I had ever seen. It was to be a quiet festival. I had already heard some of the backstory on this concept. I knew Chris Johanson was diagnosed with a terrible case of tinnitus a few years back, which drastically hindered his ability to go see live music. Having played in bands his whole life this was of course a bitter pill to swallow. So, instead of allowing that to get him down, he decided to book a festival of music that was at a low enough volume that he could listen to it. The promise of quietness aside, as soon as I arrived at the venue I knew this event was going to be different in many ways. First off, it was held at Disjecta, an underground performance and exhibition space in Portland’s northeast neighborhood. The interior of the venue had been meticulously directed by Johanson into a stunning installation that included multi-fabric pillows arranged on the floor throughout, all interwoven with what seemed to be hundreds of thrift store table lamps with different colored bulbs in them. The overall sensation of the space felt like something between an Allen Kaprow performance and a jumble sale. There were signs taped to the walls throughout with slogans saying things like “Quiet Please” and “Let’s Keep It Quiet.” What followed was a weekend of music in which each of the performers meticulously performed distinct sets based on the quiet theme, each one special and unique to the festival. As anyone who goes to shows often knows, this doesn’t happen every day. There was a distinct consensus in the room throughout the entire weekend that we were all witnessing something very special. However, if you’re reading this and feeling like you somehow missed out, rumor is that this will become an annual event. So look out for it next summer. We sat down with Chris Johanson to find out a bit more about why he chose to create this singular event.
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Nora Atapol: How did the idea come about to create a quiet music festival? Chris Johanson: I love music and seeing it live is such an inspiring experience. But not so much when you have tinnitus and the show is loud. So I found myself unable to feel comfortable in the experience of playing in bands and seeing them live since this pronounced tinnitus thing started. But when life gives you lemons sometimes you have to make lemonade. Even if you don’t like lemonade, you have to come up with recipe that you can hang with. So now I play in a quiet band called Sun Foot and put on this annual festival. It is a celebration of the beauty and spiritual importance of music in life without the loudness. There are nice organizations up in Portland and I do this event at Disjecta, which is really one of the great community oriented spaces up in the Northwest. NA: How did you choose the performers? Were you conscious of asking musicians whose music would work in a softer context? CJ: I chose people who I thought would be conscious of the spirit of the situation. There is a lot of room in quiet music to make an emotional stir. Especially when you set up the dynamic where everyone knows that there is absolutely no talking during the performances. We were happily surprised with everyone’s cooperation. There were a lot of people there each night. It made for a magical togetherness. I heard that from a lot of people.
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NA: What were some of the standout performances for you? CJ: Dragging an Ox Through Water blew everyone’s mind. Usually playing solo, it was really vibrant to see Brian play with a violinist, horns, drums, some type of squeezebox and all at this really enjoyable volume level. It was so soulful. All the people up there were on. NA: You put a lot of thought into the design of the space. What were your inspirations for the lamps and pillows? CJ: Yes. The idea was for the space to have a real casual feel that would be made up of things that we could get for free or very cheap. We got everything from garage sales, thrift stores and free from out in front of people’s houses. In that way it had this incredible new life for things that were previously unwanted. The lamps, pillows, and carpets that we ended up with gradually leveled off into the late seventies to mid eighties. I hope not too many people got sucked into a childhood vortex from color and pattern memory. I think everyone felt good about it. It was a nice calm dimly lit space with comfortable places to mellow out in. Lots of people fell asleep throughout the evening. NA: What would you say was the most incredible thing about watching music in this environment? CJ: The most incredible thing was the gentle respect for the art form of quiet music that peacefully enveloped the room. There were lots of smiles and the community of artists grew. It really was a fantastic event. I am getting the bill together for next year now. Right on and be well humans.
The first time I recall hearing about Crass was from someone’s older brother’s best mate (the usual); and they explained Crass records had tons of swearing, and to be honest this was all we really cared about back then, aged 12. It was 1985, and swearing anywhere was still pretty shocking and had some sort of impact upon upsetting Mums and Dads. The record was Best Before, the Crass compilation released in 1984, and it doesn’t really have very many expletives in it at all compared to what you might get away with in 2011; the c-word a few times and a wealthy spattering of f-words was enough to keep our attention, so I like to think whoever waded in with their recommendation used this is as a pretense to wean us off our then-regular dose of knucklehead heavy metal with some abrasively astute punk, polemic spoken word and seditious politics. It certainly opened up doors as far as punk went—without realizing, I’d listened to politically charged bands like Discharge, Conflict and Dead Kennedys way before I heard the Sex Pistols or The Clash, who sounded tame in comparison. It also contributed to a deeper understanding of the BBC’s “Six O’Clock News” and the images of the many strikes, demos and Polaris missiles during Thatcher’s Britain. This was a time when Britain was subject to massive discontent, nuclear proliferation, unemployment and homelessness on the rise, and an increasingly aggressive police presence. The news had then regularly featured the Women’s Peace Camp protesting against the presence of nuclear weapons at the Greenham Common base, and the miner’s strikes were just gathering pace [Crass’ final gig was a benefit for striking miners in Wales]. In the pre-Internet world, it was difficult to uncover information about anti-war groups like CND and Animal Liberation Front, environmental issues, feminism, and even being vegetarian; Crass helped spread the requisite knowledge about these alternatives. These messages resonated way after the band split in 1984 (the sell-by date they had always made clear would be the year they quit); even at my level, as a result of the impact of Best Before, several of the friends I had then later went on to join anti-vivisection groups and traveling communities. The same year, 1985, the Battle of the Beanfield happened: a traveling community known as The Convoy were attacked by the police on their way to Stonehenge (which then had an exclusion zone around it, ordered by English Heritage, which banned anyone getting near the stones) for the summer solstice; a brutally violent episode ensued. One of my friend’s dads was among the police who had been involved in the incident, and he had come back gleefully, with a bag full of enamel star badges they’d “confiscated” as trophies from The Convoy. Mainly because of the education I’d received from Best Before, I’d refused the offer of a “hippy” badge; little more than a minor revolt, I know, though it caused a right scene, and a fallout between our two families. At the time I had no idea one of the founding members of Crass, Penny Rimbaud, had been instrumental in setting up the mid-70s Stonehenge Free Festivals with Wally Hope. Their friendship and Wally’s later death [Penny has always claimed Wally was murdered by the state while in a mental hospital following an arrest for possession of LSD] were extremely influential in the mood that would eventually birth Crass in 1977. Crass were so much more than a band, and more than just punk, more than just anarcho-punk—they used every musical and visual outlet in their reach to become a powerful force for change. Crass are quite simply defined by their own statement: “There is no authority but yourself.” Their political message was one of hope, perhaps to weaken the links in the chains of Rousseau’s famous statement: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” It was through Penny’s own re-birth, and his rejection of his former life and his birth name Jeremy Ratter, that he found the realization there could be an alternative to the social confines of family, state, religion, and work. Through his own discovery that you could make a change, it would seem he wanted to offer this as optimism to any who would listen. Crass were contentious and contradictory; they held aloft an anarchy flag alongside a peace symbol at their shows. They wanted to radically smash the patriarchal authority of the state, though at heart their intentions were pacifist. They did not want to tell you how to live your life, they didn’t know the answers—they simply wanted you to question how you lived your life, and then work the rest out for yourself. This all resounded from a farmhouse Penny had found just past Epping Forest outside London; it became known as Dial House, an open-house community for anyone who chose to reside there. Penny’s long time friend and creative partner Gee Vaucher moved in; together they produced music and performance as Exit, and she would be vital to defining Crass’ potent visual identity. Together they had built the foundation for the fire. The young Steve Ignorant turned up in ’77 (while Gee was working in NY as a political artist) and lit the torch paper, and with the added impact of Joy De Vivre, Eve Libertine, Phil Free and Pete Wright, the Crass fire was ablaze like a hurled petrol bomb. It’s difficult to explain the experience of visiting Dial House in September 2010 without it all sounding very trite; but it’s an enriching and inspiring place. Surrounded by rolling fields, the area abounds with extremely positive energy. Maybe this had more to do with the welcoming and inclusive nature of Gee, Penny, and Steve, but it certainly felt like the creative shelter offered within the four Dial House walls has created an enchanting aura around the area. With all of this in place, each of the members began to fulfill their function as part of the influence of Crass, whether as guitarist, artist, filmmaker, anarchist, or simply big mouth. Crass became an anathema for the UK government; their actions were discussed in Parliament, while their records were confiscated from record stores under the Obscene Publications Act. The statements and questions raised during the active years of Crass had a massive impact, especially around destabilizing the foundations of what they then termed “rampant capitalism.” They were directly involved in the Stop The City demos with London Greenpeace. This day-long blockade of London’s financial center brought the city to a standstill, and was a precursor to anti-globalization demos like the worldwide May Day protests. The ripple effect of Stop The City is still felt even now: the current Tory Government under PM David Cameron (who has been dubbed “Son of Thatcher”) has come under fire for excessively cutting public spending too rapidly; only in March of this year the recently formed protest group UK Uncut staged sit-ins in banks and High Street retailers as an action against massive tax avoidance in the UK. From trade unions to students and nurses, the country has not been so active in a long while and the following declaration from Crass has never seemed more pertinent: “Who do they think they’re fooling: You?”
text and interview By Jeremy AbbotT / photoGRAPHY tyrone lebon artwork courtesy toby mott / mott collection
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Going back to your origins, where were you born? I was born in Northwood in West London. I’ve never been there, well I obviously was born there, but I’ve never been there. In 1943, when I think bombs were still dropping. But I don’t remember anything about that. But I was re-born here [Dial House], when I changed my name and became the person I wanted to be, rather than the person church, family and state wanted me to be. I feel that’s where I started my life when I was about 33/34. All the rest before that, I know all the anecdotes of it—they’re not things that particularly involve me, because I feel I’ve left them behind. I’m my own person, and my own personality grown out of that. What had you been doing up until that point? Well very quickly, I was thrown out of two public schools. Noble ability to be expelled from two. I was sent into the business world by my old man, basically as a sales man for a textiles company, which was ridiculous and I just used to spend a lot of time being very, very drunk, which was the only thing to do. Managed to get into art school, studied, once out of art school I then taught for about four or five years. Didn’t like the politics there, the way the students were treated. I was the same age as them almost; why should I have any better knowledge than them? Became very disillusioned with that. Managed to get myself sort of expelled from that. It was half me resigning, half me being encouraged to resign. From then on I’ve just lived by the day really, that’s been my interest really: how do you survive with as little as possible. Did you wake up and have an epiphany and realize “I can change my life, and live my life however I want to”? I always knew you could, I didn’t know how you could. I knew you could from really early on in my life, which was why I kept getting thrown out of places. In my eyes I see it as being a rebel. I didn’t know how in the real sense you managed, how you actually did it. I was still Jeremy, and I was still my parents’ son and affected by various indoctrinations, whether they were religious, social or political, the state or church. I didn’t know how you got out of it. I just knew that it wasn’t right, and it wasn’t for me. I just felt like a shadow, and I caused a lot of nuisance because I just didn’t get it, I didn’t know what was going on. It came out of intelligence; this led to my expulsion from school; it wasn’t because I was an idiot—I was asking the wrong questions, and the wrong questions are usually the right ones. When did this all begin to actually happen? It wasn’t really until 1977, when I started writing something called Christ’s Reality Asylum, that I really had the courage to start ripping myself apart, looking at my own prejudices, looking at my own belief structures and saying this is what’s holding me in place, holding me down as a potential free spirit, which we all are. It was a sort of catharsis really; I went through this deconstruction and rejection of false belief. Because I now believe all belief is false, in itself it’s a contradiction to say I believe that, but I do believe that, and believe it in a self-rejecting way. That process led to various things, including emptying the litter bin of my brain and also recreating myself. Part of that was giving myself a new name; I was no longer my father’s or mother’s son. I was my own son—I’d given birth to myself
and my own version of my self, and it’s with Penny that I’ve lived with myself ever since. Do you still relate to your life before being re-born as Penny Rimbaud? In terms of anecdotes, I know what happened up until that point. It can be very easily paralleled to the existential leap. I think I took that existential leap prior to the catharsis, which actually enabled me to get down to business. The existential leap was quite simply when I was writing the book about Wally Hope, who was the guy whom I co-founded the Stonehenge festivals with—who I believe in my view was murdered by the state. I was writing a book about that, and there was a section I couldn’t honestly write, which was about birth. And I asked Eve, who was a friend
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of mine at the time, to come over and talk to me about what birth meant, because she’d actually done it. What I realized as she was talking was the impossible gulf; I would never ever feel that. She described bit-by-bit every part of the process. Her emotions, her pain, everything—it was beautiful, but I knew I would never understand because I would never feel that. Then I realized I could never understand or feel anything that anyone could bring to me. All I could understand is what I could understand of it; in other words I could only further my own understanding. Never ever would I understand what they were talking about—it would only be my own interpretation. And that was catharsis in itself. Up until that point I’d felt a connection, and that connection was severed. Suddenly she became an absolutely separate being and I became a separate being. She was more definable because I could see her, and I can’t see myself, but I felt as though I was falling off a cliff edge, and I did fall of a cliff edge into a vacuum of not belonging, having no belonging and no presence. It was out of that, that I started growing, and probably months later, I had the physical latch into that, and then the cerebral, mental psychic latch into this catharsis. How did Dial House fit into the existential leap? Well, I found Dial House in the late ’60s; during that period from arriving at Dial House I was still teaching and living here with two other fellow lecturers from the art school. After about three or four years, at the art school and here, I started thinking this is not what I want, this isn’t life as I want it to be. I was becoming professional and I was being asked to make the compromises that any sort of employment asks; the more professional it becomes, the more the actual strictures are. I didn’t like the fact that one couldn’t actually be a human being, one had to be a super-human being within the consensual sense. You had to be “sir,” not your own name in those days—you had to separate from the students, and I was the only male lecturer at the art school who wasn’t a letcherer. They all tried to screw the young art students, and I thought that was wrong and ridiculous, and I thought it was obscene. Yet I was vilified for saying “No, I refuse to accept the role as an authority. I will share my experience as an artist and a human being with the students as they will share theirs’ with me; that’s the experience I want. I will not accept one of being authority.” And that just led to endless problems, because I was thereby undermining, apparently, the authority of the rest of the staff, whose main interest seemed to be fucking students. So we were at odds. So I left. I thought, “This is no good.” I came back here to Dial House, and over the weeks that followed I just thought, “This isn’t right, these two guys are still teaching there and there’s a gulf between us already,” and I just had this idea I was going to strip everything away in the house. It was sort of like: strip the world, strip your home, strip your self. I said to them, “Look I don’t want to live like this anymore, I don’t like this separate cupboards business, I don’t like us having rotas on the wall—it’s not human, it’s fucking machine-like. This is how I want to be, I want to take the locks off the doors, I want to get rid of all these personal possessions, I just want to say: ‘This is a place anyone can be.’” They said they weren’t into that, so they left and I got rid of all of the junk. I had a weekend where I just said, “Come and take whatever you want” to everyone. And masses of people turned up and walked off with stuff, which was great and what I wanted. They left some stuff I wanted which was one book by Plato, which largely I kept because, well I know he’s an historic philosopher, but because it had beautiful artwork on the cover, and was a really gorgeous book and I couldn’t part with it, and a bed and a table, and that was it, everything else went. So I had an empty house, took off the locks and just got on with what I was still painting, in the hope something would happen. Nothing seemed to happen, and I ran out of money pretty quickly and started working on the farm doing potato picking and that, and one day I was in the field near the village and this young lad came up to me and said: “Are you Jerry?” which was what I was known as then, and then asked: “Have you got a place to stay?” And I said: “How do you know about it?” I’d never said anything to anyone, so he came in as the first resident, and he stayed for a few months, and that just kept on happening, and that became a way of life, and a lovely way of life. We did lots of creative things, made films, did music, nice things to do, did gardening, made bread, and that was all great, and I thought, “This is the answer, this is what everyone should do.” I wasn’t about to go and tell them that, I was just happy to be doing it myself and it seemed to work. It was really beautiful. Part of the no locks on the door was also no locks on the mind. It wasn’t for me, all I’ve done was create an umbrella to come here and do what the fuck they like, I’m not gonna argue, and I’m not gonna get involved in arguments unless I’m asked, but I’m not gonna become the guru of Dial House. I did become that a bit, and knocked that on the head, hard. It seemed wonderful, and it was happening man! And then Wally turned up in your life. Yes, he was a sort of radical hippy, and he wanted to do Stonehenge [Free Festival, 1974], and we helped organize it from here, because he didn’t have a better base to go to, and it’s also a nice place to work. Then that all went bad—he got arrested, got murdered; I got very upset about the fact someone so innocent and beautiful should be crucified like that and then started writing a book about it. I became very dark, very despairing, very depressed about all this stuff I started coming up with in my investigation of his treatment, and this led to me investigating other people’s treatment in psychiatric hospitals and jails. And realizing this world is a very unpleasant place to be. Anyway I wrote the book, suffered various death threats and constant visits from the police, and loss of inhabitants because no one wanted to be around anymore. The place had become imbued with this sickly despondency, and I eventually lost my courage and burnt the entire papers for the book. I saved all the stuff which was owned by
other people, bag loads and bag loads of letters, documents about psychiatric treatment. I thought, “I can’t keep this fucking together anymore.” I was on my own and becoming really quite frightened because there were people out there to shut me up, if not silence me completely. It was only two years since Wally had been eliminated, and I didn’t really want to go down the same path. I burnt the lot and didn’t really quite know what to do next. What was next, was the experience we talked about earlier, when I was writing the book I’d had that experience which created the existential leap. Following from there, the catharsis had occurred with Bron [Eve] which had enabled me to go there. When did Steve Ignorant appear? The catharsis had occurred by the time Steve had arrived. He turned up in ’77, and I was on my own here, and then this delightful pretty young boy walked through the door. I’d known him from before—he was one of the guys who used to hang around here when there were more people around the place. He was well pissed off with life, and I was well pissed most of the time, because I was so unhappy, and we really hit it off, and Crass grew out of that really. I’d created a little heaven, a paradise, a utopia or what I thought was here, and that had been questioned and challenged enormously by my friendship with Wally and the death of Wally. And I wasn’t about to see that be crushed again, and I knew we were vulnerable, so the opportunity to actually say the same things in a different way were what Steve and myself came up with in a way. His natural working class anger and alienation. You can’t belong if you’re part of the working class, because you know you haven’t got there, you can only belong if you’re middle-upper-upper, and upper-upperupper. All the rest is just detritus which will be used as the state chooses, which is actually the case for all of us, regardless of where we come from. There’s certainly that anger of the street, and alienation of the street, which Steve brought into my life. I’d seen the same thing with Gee, when we were at art school together; she was from a pretty poor, working class background. She didn’t have that anger—she could really see her way out through her creativity, and that’s an outsider in her own class, and she had to cope with that. Whereas Steve was much more embroiled within it, and together we’d both struggled out of our own class inhibitions. And that was Crass. Through those years, there’s been a great deal of disappointment amongst such positivity; with Crass it seemed like a very forceful, positive curve once you’d met the people who would move that forward. How did you feel
when you realized that new platform that would allow you to make others think about their own lives, and question whether they could make the same changes maybe you had? Well, I think all of those things are wrapped up. I found that in teaching, there’s no greater learning than to teach. You’re given all of these things to look at in other people’s creativity that you learn about your own creativity; why you don’t and why you do. In a way that was the process with Crass: we didn’t ask the questions, we were just doing it. It was the other people who’d come up and say, “What do you mean by…?” And we’d think, “Fucking hell, what do we mean by that?” And I’d have to work that one out. It was our aphorisms being questioned. That’s why one does aphorisms—you knock out a clever one-liner for someone else to come along and say, “What the fuck do you mean by that?” Really we were hoisting ourselves by our own petard all the time. I’ve always loved one-liners, it’s great for exactly that reason—they’re like cartoon essays; and so we’d do something for one reason, but other people would bring in a hundred and fifty reasons as to why we might have done it. We never hung up an anarchy banner because we wanted to say we were anarchists, for example—we put it up because we wanted to say fuck off to the left and the right. We didn’t want people coming into our playground with their political ideology, or in my terms, political hatred. That came from the left as much as it did from the right, so how do you get rid of these fuckers—well you put up an anarchy banner. That’s just saying, “Fuck off, we’re not interested in your politics.” Then all of a sudden you have a lot of playground anarchists coming along into our playground, which isn’t an anything and they say, “Where are the bombs, man? We want to start lobbing them.” So we thought, “Oh fucking hell, is that what anarchy is?” Shit, well we better put up a peace symbol, that’ll show ’em. So you create anarchy and peace, and everyone says, “Well how can you have anarchy and peace. Anarchy’s such and such…” All the time, there’s this strange thing growing, all of its own accord, and not at all for the same reason you thought you might be doing it, and that’s the great beauty of life. We think we know what we’re talking about, but it’s like Chinese whispers. I’ll say this, and you’ll understand that, well that’s how it becomes. There’s nothing solid in there—there can’t be, there never has been, and never will be. Going back to what you were saying about teaching, as Crass you were spreading those messages, while also making other people raise up and
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question their own way of life, whose responses then challenged your original ideals. When I wrote Yes Sir, which talks about the passive observer, well who was number one passive observer? I was. That’s how I was able to write that. I couldn’t write about passive observers if I wasn’t one myself. Obviously it’s a self-critique; anything is in that sense—if you write about something you are engaged in it and know it. I never have been interested in promoting anything; I don’t think I’m ready to start promoting anything. I could ask the questions, and I could try and dissolve my own illusions, and I’m very happy to have them further dissolved by anyone else. I don’t think, generally speaking, Crass promoted anything, apart from simply trying to undermine, or help people question things which otherwise are regarded as being fundamental, even to the degree being regarded as being natural, like weddings and things like that, which are considered to be a natural way of behaving. If people want to do that, it’s their business, but don’t tell me it’s natural. One-toone relationships are not natural, they happen to be how most people in the West live their lives; look at the rest of the world, and you’ll realise a lot of people don’t. It’s not natural, it’s just a human and social condition. That awful expression: “that’s human nature.” Because a large amount of Western culture is based on Western greed, so people will say greed is human nature. It’s absolute nonsense—it certainly is not human nature; it happens to be the conditions under which we live almost force people to live in that way. I mean, someone like Thatcher through her idea that there is no such thing as society, even further forced people to be greedy. If society isn’t going to protect you, you have to protect yourself. How do you do that? You put up big fences, you build a castle, and you drive an automobile that’s like a fucking tank and that’s how you protect yourself. It’s understandable, I think it’s a loathsome way of living, but I understand how people end up in that camp. But don’t tell me it’s human nature, because it isn’t. Do you think Crass did a great deal to subvert many expected societal norms like the influence of the church, like marriage, starting a family? On a lot of fronts, I think the tea leaves were already in the pot, all we did was pour on boiling water, and produce tea, in a palatable way. I think we asked a lot of unpalatable questions, which people responded to in a very positive way. One of these was simply, “Why? Why should I go to work? Why should I marry? Why should I eat meat? Why?” Not saying “don’t,” just ask why you’re doing it first and then worry about it. And I think that did
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have a very profound effect. I don’t think that something like the road protests, reclaim the streets, that wing, would have been the same. I’m sure it might have happened, but certainly we created a template, or were part of a body of people who were creating a template. We were probably within in the music world, but certainly not within the cultural forces. I think we laid a template for a new form of feminism. We moved feminism out of the middle class, and into a far more working class—or street level is a better term. I’m using those class definitions, but I prefer to refer to it as street rather than armchair level. If you looked at our audiences of the day, they were almost exclusively working class, with the occasional splattering of students. We probably contributed to the fact that you can now buy decent vegetarian food in Tesco for example; I don’t see that as the greatest success in the world, but I do see from that, that it is very possible for 10 people with resolve to affect a culture. Do you think that as Crass you have had enough recognition for how much you affected culture? I think that is something which has actually not been acknowledged strongly enough, and one of the reasons it hasn’t, is that if everyone believed in that potential, the revolution would be over. And it’s simply that, therefore the most dangerous thing they could talk about and acknowledge is the effect that people like us have had. There’s a very wonderful book called Strike the Father Dead, by John Wain, who was one of the Angry Young Men, and that is about a completely unknown phenomena of World War II, that is the underground that existed during that period in most of the big cities, particularly in London, a lock-up culture of pacifists, dissenters, criminals, musicians, people who actually didn’t buy into it. It’s a piece of history which has never been properly studied. Much of British jazz had its root in American servicemen stationed in Britain going to London on the weekends, and amongst them black players, and so suddenly you had black jazzers playing in lock-up clubs in London amongst other dissenters. From that came the whole trad thing: Kenny Colyer, Chris Barber. That was one of the prime roots, and it also is the root of the political connection; trad jazz was the soundtrack to early CND, to the whole first revolt against the whole enlightenment program. It’s all hand-in-hand—you can’t separate one bit from another, and neither can you say there’s any starting point. All Crass did was come in at a particular moment, when the energy levels were just right, and hit the right button. We didn’t need anything, didn’t need global advertising, or radio play, or anything. That’s like a prairie fire—you can’t stop it. The record sales we were making were ludicrous. Anywhere
by thinking essentially that it didn’t quite work in the way I’d liked. I wanted to change the world. And my own moral imperative—and I don’t mean social moral when I say that—was what do I do now? I was back to the drawing board, and that in itself was far more intellectual pressure on me than Crass had ever been. Crass as body of people working together, knocking it out, almost without ever really thinking about it, which isn’t to say it didn’t take a great deal of thought, but it had a platform, it was gonna happen whatever. Suddenly I was in a world where it wasn’t necessarily gonna happen. I could send my books off to publishers, but they’d get sent back in. Before, I had this outlet. Crass was just part of the same journey that started when I was born, but became more intense when I was reborn as Penny, and hasn’t ended, and won’t end until I stop breathing, because I don’t know any other way. I’m not interested in personal comfort—I like to be warm, I like to eat, I like to smoke, but really that’s not my interest. My interest is in new ideas; Crass was that, everything I do is that. Exit was that, making this house was that. How can I fuck up the idea of the nuclear family? I know, I’ll take the locks off the door. I won’t get into relationships, which demand that sort of intimacy that can’t allow someone else in. That’s the principle. Naked openness. Exactly. I’m doing a book now called Who Am I to Say So? Or 120 Views of the Body. Basically I have a notebook, and to me the notebook is the naked, pure expression of my ideas. It’s a notebook which is almost full now, and has been my notebook for the last five years, which has been a very intense period of we went people would follow because we were hitting the right button. We weren’t doing it alone—we had been informed through our reading, through our listening, through our dialogue, through our engagement. We’d been prepared. Nothing comes by accident. Did you ever realize when you started Crass that this would be achievable? Oh no. Neither expectations or interest. At that point, we saw ourselves as an anonymous block, which was part of a far bigger anonymous block. I didn’t know the difference between audience and band, apart from that for half an hour we’d get on stage, and then we’d get back off of it, and then someone else would get on stage. There was no separateness in the early stuff. The separateness first became evident at a time when the peace movement had been at the most powerful it’s ever been, which was the early ’80s. It was huge—there was really this sense that at last we’re gonna do it. And the Falklands war kicked in, and suddenly we were on our own, and no one dared come forward. We did come forward and got a right beating as a result, and the whole thing lost its humour at that point. We were no longer mucking about having fun and saying what we wanted to say. We were still saying what we wanted to say, only we weren’t having much fun. It was inevitable; that was the beginning of the end. We were going to stop in ’84 anyway supposedly, but that guaranteed that we did. You were saying earlier you rejected the possibility of becoming a guru-like figure. Did the weight of responsibility ever become a burden? There was a heavy responsibility. There was a time when we were planning this massive march from Sellafield, criss-crossing the country down to Westminster, calling at all the nuclear plants, taking a couple of months. There was terrific interest—it would seem as though thousands of people would have been on the march. We had seen at Stop The City that the young and inexperienced were the ones that got walloped. I mean I was never nobbled—I was too experienced at street activity to get caught. Day four of the great march we’re in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors utterly unprotected,
my life, through relationship changes, through my change in my relationship with here [Dial House]. So I thought I’ll just do that as a book, and then Gee bought me the camera this morning, and I’m going to take 120 pictures of my naked body, so I’m presenting my naked mind, and my naked body. The book will just be all these one-liners, half a poem, a quick idea I wrote down, with all these close-up pictures of my dick, or my tit, or my nose—120 of them. And that comes with no effort. I’m making my own life a work of art in the purest way I can, short of just standing in front of someone and saying, “I’m a work of art, do what you want.” It’s probably the most extreme statement of that fluidity or openness. My life has been, I’ve realized, nothing more than the things which stop me feeling and seeing, removing the inhibitions, which prevent me from being close. Conflict is just diabolical imagination. You feel very bound into Dial House, like it’s very much a part of you. It’s my greatest commitment, I’ve put more time and energy into this as an intellectual idea than I have even into my own personal relationships. This is my prime relationship. I only live here about half of the time now—my current partner lives in Wales—but that doesn’t alter my commitment to here one iota. My commitment requires that it can operate whether I’m here or not. That is the nature of it. If it falls down when I’m not here, that’s what happens. If I’m here and I notice a tile needs fixing, then I fix it. I expect others to do it, but if they don’t see it, they don’t do it. I’m not going to tell people to do something, because I’ve never benefitted from being told anything. I’ve benefitted greatly by sharing experience, sharing love and the natural form of respect that comes from that. I’ve been told that by my parents, I’ve been told that by school, I’ve been told that by a politician, but I don’t actually listen when I’m being told. If anything, that is what I’ve tried to offer as my vision: there is no authority but yourself. No one else fucking knows. I’ve got a form of cancer at the moment, but I’m not going to be told anything about it, I’ll find out about it by experiencing it and making my own decisions about it. What I’m not going to be told is I’m going to be dead in two and a half minutes, or twenty eight years, or anything else. I’ll decide what I’m going to do and take responsibility
1,000/2,000 people and the helicopters would come over—and it happened
for that. I might take responsibility for going along and having a great lump of
at Stonehenge—first to let you know, and if you didn’t take that message, then
my hand cut out, but at the same time I might not. If in the time it takes to get
the Beanfields situation would happen. Don’t listen to the messages and they’ll
the information I drop down, then tough—at least I’ve done my own life and I
just up the pressure, and upping the pressure as happened at the Beanfields,
won’t be persuaded into any other form of action.
which was absolute violence, and it could have gone further than that, and
Do you feel like you found some level of peace and happiness in
would do if need be. And suddenly we thought, “No we couldn’t do that, and
your own life?
put the good health of hundreds if not thousands of people at risk like that.”
On the deepest level absolutely. An absolute sense of warmth and beauty. I do,
With that sort of role is the responsibility it creates—what can we do? If we’d
I feel an extraordinary sense of, for want of a better word, love. Loved by, and
woken up one morning and decided firearms were the only way forward and
loved in life and that won’t stop when I’m not living because it’s not love in
publicly announced that, then I guarantee there would have been a fucking
the personal form. I do believe that, and I feel blessed in that I’ve at least been
large number of people looking for a luger that evening. Then you start
able to realize that bit. I can experience it through moments of meditation,
tempering your own thinking; towards the end of Crass I was really doubting
maybe when I’m weeding the path, when I’m making bread, and that’s where
a lot of the pacifist theory that we’d been putting forward before. Realizing I
I came from and there’s where I’ll return to, a sense of peace, a deep peace,
can’t do this in the framework of Crass, I can do this within the framework of
and I won’t know anything about it. I don’t have any belief in reincarnation—I
myself as an individual because I can take responsibility personally for it, but
know that energy cannot be destroyed… it simply turns into another form.
as a body certainly I can’t, and equally as a body, several members of the band
Making false hopes or false premises out of that, like heaven, is nonsense. This
thoroughly objected to the way my thinking was going. And strangely it’s those
is heaven for me, Sartre said hell is other people, and that’s true. There’s no
same people who thoroughly object to what we’ve done with re-mastering the
conflict with the natural events of the world beyond human ideas. I don’t have
records. They’re not just objecting to the re-masters, but objecting to the whole
conflict with other human beings, I only have conflict with some of their ideas,
thing that was unresolved at the time that existed within the band. That’s the
and they’re meaningless, so I haven’t actually got any conflict.
only thing I can think might be the case, because I can’t see why anyone would object to what we’ve done re-mastering the records on an artistic level. It had to be deeper than that. There were divisions in the band in the last two years about how we should go forward. Did you feel relieved when Crass finally finished? I didn’t really notice, because I was here, some of them had left, or some of them were going to leave. Frankly I didn’t notice it start, it was probably a little bit more noticeable when it finished. But I still had a load of stuff to finish in
So you’re a lifeboat man these days.
the studio for two more years; I carried on with projects we’d started in the day
Yes, crew member number 9, Sea Palling Independent Lifeboat. On call 24
and I was still very engaged in keeping the label running, which was just an
hours, 7 days a week. We train every Thursday evening. And every Sunday.
extension of the band. I was also very engaged in finding new ways of saying
How did you end up getting into that?
the same things or saying new things. The same things were always new things
Well, I’d moved into the village and when I did the Shepherd’s Bush Empire
for us. So I didn’t really notice the difference. Certainly some of the pressure
gigs, I wanted some of the money to go to a benefit obviously. I thought,
was taken off, but that was immediately replaced in my own intellectual life
“Where shall I send it,” so I thought, “I’ll donate it to the local lifeboat, because
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of guitar.” And before I can stop Pen, he goes, “Well, why don’t you join in then.” You know we couldn’t have a good looking bloke like Paul Simonon, we had a balding, aging hippy!! Was there a plan behind what Crass could be in the early days? We were just doing it for a laugh to begin with, and then I think we all got fed up of being so drunk on stage that we couldn’t remember what we were doing. I distinctly remember Pen saying, “Look we’re writing these really good songs, they’ve got really good words in them, why don’t we play them properly, because it’s a waste of time otherwise.” I agreed. So
it serves everybody, it does a good thing, and I can also see where the money goes.” And it was really good because they bought new lifejackets with it. Then I went down there to give them the check, they said come out on the boat and see what we do. So I did, and they chucked me in the water, pulled me out and all that sort of thing. They said, “Why don’t you come down and join?” I didn’t want to say I’d do it, and not be able to commit to it; I thought it was a rigid thing, where you have to go and stand out on parade before you start, but if you can only give ten minutes, and sweep the floor and make the coffee, then that’s what you do—it’s totally voluntary. Then five months down the line I started learning about the boat and the equipment. Then five months later I was out on the boat and now I’m crew member number 9. You can’t have ever imagined you’d end up doing that? I never ever thought I’d end up in the middle of the North Sea on a lifeboat plucking someone out of the water who couldn’t get back to shore. It’s really, really odd. It can be really terrifying. But we all look out for each other. So what did you actually want to be when you were younger? I think, when I was about five, I think I always used to say a soldier. Then later on it was a missionary, helping poor people in hot countries. And then later on I didn’t give a fuck. [laughs] So when did you first meet Penny and Gee? That was when I was 13, 1973. That happened because my brother said he was living here at the time, but he wasn’t, he was bumming a bed for the night and overstayed his welcome as usual, and he brought me over to visit. He just said it was this amazing house, where you can play piano if you want to, or cook a meal, it’s got a big garden and it’s in the middle of the country. So I came over, and fell in love with the place straight away. I thought when I first met Penny and Gee, and there were other people living here as well, I thought they were insane, because they didn’t have a telly. I mean what kind of idiot don’t have a telly? You’ve got to be weird haven’t ya? You don’t eat meat? What? But I kept coming back, I played truant from school and came over, and pestered them I suppose, I must’ve been a real nuisance. I really liked the way that, for the first time, I was able to talk to adults, and I used to write poetry and prose, and they actually encouraged me, rather than tell me not to be silly. Let me use a typewriter too. It had the ribbon with the red and the black. And you could suddenly go into red, and be oooh artsy. And did you have any interest in music? No, not playing it or anything. I’d been listening to the radio and playing records and that, but I never imagined I’d be the lead singer of a band. No training, nothing like that. So when did you realize you wanted to give that a go? I didn’t know I could do it. But I went to go see The Clash in Bristol, and at the end of it, there were people going, “fuck off,” and all the rest of it. And Joe Strummer just said, “Well if you think you can do better, start your own band.” And I thought that’s a good idea. I was living in Bristol at the time, so I went back to Dagenham with the idea of forming a punk band with my old drinking buddies, but they’d all got girlfriends or were married, and weren’t interested. So I came over to Dial House—dunno why—walked in and Penny was living on his own at the time. I said, “Where is everybody?” And he said, “They’ve all moved on. What are you up to?” I said, “I’m gonna start a punk band.” I didn’t have any idea about how I was gonna do it, or who’d be in it. Pen went, “I’ll play drums for you if you like.” Then a week later, I wrote some little ditties down, and a week later we were in that room over there banging it out. Then other people drifted through, and they joined as well. I said to Pen, “This is good but what about guitars?” Pen just said, “Oh we don’t need them, we’ll just do drums and vocals.” And then one day this bloke turned up, Steve Herman. Steve Herman was an old acquaintance of Pen—he was a middle aged balding hippy with a beard, and not my idea of who I wanted in the band at all. And so he goes, “What are you up to now Pen?” So Pen goes, “We’re starting a punk band.” And Steve Herman goes, “Well I play a bit
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we eased off the boozing—still had drinks beforehand, we just didn’t get pissed. And when Feeding came out, that’s when it started to really take direction. Whatever happened, happened. No grand design or anything like that. How did it feel when people started following and listening to what you had to say? Well for me it was really weird, because who am I? I’m just a spotty little oik from Dagenham screaming down a microphone. Then all of a sudden, there were people who wanted to talk to me. Then I got a bit scared, because suddenly I had to start justifying what I was singing about. I couldn’t just rattle it off like a parrot; I had to start thinking about what I was singing. Certainly some of Pen’s songs I had to ask him about. I sort of knew, but I needed it explained in case someone asked me. You get the flattery thing and you think, people think I’m great. And then you realize its punk rock and it’s not about gods and masters anymore, and you’ve got to be a mate. And that was okay. But weird. Still is, when people come up to me, and say, “Can I just thank you for changing my life.” What do you say to that? I usually just say, “Buy me a beer and we’ll call it quits.” But then I understand why people say it, because if I was to meet Barry Hines who wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, or my favorite actor, Albert Finney, I’d say exactly the same thing. And how about the weight of responsibility when Crass began to influence people to get involved and be reactionary? I always found that pretty hard, because if we were saying those things and there was a demo, then I had to fucking go. And sometimes, you just don’t wanna, do you? That happened quite a lot. To go on demos in those days, because it was Thatcher’s Britain, they were pretty heavy things to go to. There was that attitude then that if you didn’t get arrested, then you didn’t have a good day. It’s funny because back then you didn’t have the Internet or mobile phones, video cameras were like suitcases. Things we were talking about then like CND or Nuclear War, a lot of young people that came to see us had never heard of these things. But nowadays, it’s just like, “Yeah Steve, I Googled that last night.” People know it. The information is already there now. And do you still feel like you have that responsibility? Well, back then you had to be questioning what you were doing every step. It was funny, a couple of weeks ago, because me and Penny had to go to Blackpool for that Punk Rebellion Festival. And you know there’s all punks walking around and everyone knows we’re Steve Ignorant and Penny Rimbaud. And Pen wanted to go for a coffee, and we looked around and were like, “We can’t go to Starbucks for Christ’s sake, we’ll get lynched!” I think we ended up going to Costa Coffee, and we hid all the way round the back behind the till so no one could see us! What were you reacting against back in Crass? I was reacting against all those years of living in Dagenham. All those years at school, which I thought was a complete and utter waste of time, and which is why I had to play truant so much. And I learnt far more about life playing truant than I did at school. At the school I went to, if you passed the Eleven Plus that meant you were gonna be the foreman at the Ford factory. If you didn’t pass, you were gonna be working under the foreman at the factory. If you were a girl you were gonna be a hairdresser, secretary or behind the till in a supermarket. I was being channeled toward something like that, while I was coming here reading books, or Mick Duffield the film maker would turn up with a Fellini film on Super-8, which I didn’t understand at the time, but I knew it was interesting. I’d go back to Dagenham and try to talk to people about it, and of course no one knew what I was going on about. To be doing that, you were a bit of a wanker. I’d mention Walt Whitman, and you’d just hear: “All poets are bent, which means you’re bent.” Oh. All of that drudgery and grey, don’t rock the boat. It was that kind of mentality which made me think, “Fuck all that, and I’m gonna do and say what I want, and fuck ya!” Do you feel lucky that you were able to find an escape route? Yeah. Absolutely. I like to think that if I hadn’t found this place, I’d have found some way out. I think 90 percent of me knows if it hadn’t been for me meeting people here, or the people I met through punk rock, then I would have ended up living in Gidea Park with a wife and three kids, in a semi-detached with a car, 9 – 5 job. Which ain’t a bad thing, because loads of people do it, it just weren’t for me. But I’d have done it. I knew I didn’t want to do it. Like Gee, were you quite relieved when Crass finished? Yeah. I know we all say it. We didn’t even know it was going to be the last gig, and we had just played in Wales. We were driving down the road and Andy Palmer just said: “I want to leave the band.” I think it was me and someone else who also said, “I was thinking about jacking it in as well.” I think everyone was like, “Ahhh, finally someone’s actually done it.” I think everyone was glad someone else had said it. I was glad I wouldn’t get a dodgy stomach anymore too, because I get nervous when I go on stage.
Do you really get stage fright? No one ever believes me but yeah. I’ve got these gigs coming up, and when I did Derby last year, and I’m standing on the side of the stage about to go on, and this bloke goes, “Is there anything you need Steve?” And I just said, “A bucket.” Because when I come off, that’s when I throw up. It’s relief. I’m terrible. I really shit myself. It was a relief I didn’t have to do that. Four weeks later I was at a gig, and someone asked me when are Crass playing next, and I had to explain that we’d finished. Then I realized I’m that bloke who used to be the front man for Crass, I’m not Steve Ignorant of Crass. The next thing I did, I was on the bus, going down Islington or something like that. I saw these punk rockers with mohicans, and I was still wearing the raggedy black stuff, and I thought, “I really don’t wanna look like this no more.” So I got off the bus, and bought a pair of peg trousers, and a bowling shirt, and combed my hair in a side parting, and that was a real relief.
I thought I’d start off with your life history. Oh dear. I came from the same place as Steve. Dagenham. Shoved out of London during the war, away from the river. And you work with anything to do with Fords, which is what Dagenham’s about. The whole place was built around Ford. My mother didn’t work then. After the war she was looking after the children. My mother had four children.
And then as you grew up as a teenager, what path did you take. Well, it was all dictated by art really. I left school at fifteen and got into art school in Barking and pursued all that! What was your early artwork like? Did it resemble your later style? I think so in a funny way. I can only remember a few things. I don’t have anything from very-very early. I just remember going in for a Brooke Bond art competition and I did a ban the bomb picture, set in a cave. I did Christ holding a ban the bomb sign! [laughs] And it was all done in green. I got disqualified because we weren’t allowed to have any writing. [laughs] I wish I had that picture, because it was such a strange little picture. People sitting around a table like the last supper, very crude of course, all in green, I don’t know why it was green. Christ in the middle. It’d be worth a lot of money now! [laughs] I did win something once, though. I won a book—an art book, which I was very pleased about, which I seem to have lost. I do have another art book I won at school. A real gem. I still have it; it was beautiful, a beautiful book on Leonardo Da Vinci. Quite small. I’d never seen anything like it about an artist, and I thought I wanna be one of them. So at art college, were you involved in any scenes back then? Art college? Nah. I wasn’t involved in any scenes. Absolutely 100 percent art. The only scene I got involved in was keeping the college open late at night and being able to go into the art department at weekends. This is ’61 – ’65, so it was very alive with demands coming from art students especially. Out on the streets. Picking up on that I thought art wasn’t 9 – 4—it should be there all the time, and be open all the time. I was quite proud of myself getting them to open late and at the weekend! I loved it. I just went in and worked. I didn’t see it as political, I just wanted to work. I was still living at home with my Mum and Dad; I had my own bedroom by then, because my brother had left. I worked up there, but I got into etching and all sorts of things so I needed to go to college all the time. It was a great atmosphere. I probably missed a lot of what was going on. Drugs started to come in gradually, but I was too busy. I just spent most of my time in the life room getting models to dress up. I used to put them in boxes or tape them up. [laughs] Do you still have any of those? Yeah I do actually. I’ve got one of a friend I put in a box. I put stripes of black tape across the box and she sat in it. And I cut her body up to pieces. It was amazing. It was really nice. Did music ever play a part? It didn’t really. It never has. Not in the sense that I play anything. I’ve tinkered on the piano. I just taught myself how to do very simple things. Every time we get a piano here it just goes out of tune in two minutes. It’s too damp. I just got more and more involved just listening really. Getting vinyl. The Beatles, obviously. But I loved classical, then started to get into some jazz. It’s a language really isn’t it? When I first heard jazz I hated it. I still don’t get on with jazz that’s off the wall. I still find that really hard. But, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, wooah. They’re great. It broadened my horizons. Obviously the band started and punk came along. Somebody brought the Sex Pistols record over here, and I put it on, and I thought it was fantastic. Before Johnny Rotten, it was just dross, total and utter dross. I thought it was great. It was raw. I thought he really meant it and got inspired by it. Weren’t you in New York around this time, too? I went to New York for a couple of years to work and live. Penny was on his own and Iggs [Steve Ignorant] turned up and they got together and started mucking about. Of course Pen was ringing all the time: “Steve’s turned up, we’ve done this, we done that.” Then the following week it’s, “Somebody else has turned up, they’re playing guitar.” Gradually it turned into something, and they did their first gig and then it sounded quite serious, so I said, “Why don’t I set up some gigs here. I’ll pay for it.” I was doing a lot of work and getting well paid, so I could start the newspaper International Anthem and I liked to spend it on projects. I’m not into buying stuff. I put it all into the newspaper, and then I paid for them all to come over, and I said, “You’ve got to earn the money and get yourselves back, I’ll pay half.” So they did. They worked away and sold a lot of stuff. I set up a tour in New York. I didn’t want them to do CBGBs or Max’s, all that stuff, I wanted them to do alternative places so they did the Puerto Rican Centre and the Polish Club. I think Rock Bottom was the only place they played that was a real club. It must have been exciting to see them play for the first time Oh yeah. It was great. I loved it. I mean, me and Pen had always done Exit, so we’d played together and done music through that. And then the music went and me and Pen were just performing situation pieces with no music, in fact. We’d always worked together. It was great. Of course then they went back, and my work was getting more and more off kilter with what was acceptable to the publishers, so I thought it was time to go. You were pushing the boundaries. Yeah, I was pushing it a bit much, because I was seen as a political artist, I was given very juicy things to do. And I had to alter one once; it was a thing about President Carter’s brother who was just a bit of a twat really making money from his brother. I put a bit of my irony into it, and they said, “We cannot print that, you better take it out.” I can’t actually remember what I took out now. But I took it out and I didn’t feel very good about it, and I said to myself, “No, I’m not gonna do that again.” The next time it happened I didn’t have to take it out, they just said, “We cannot use that at all!” [laughs] It was about gay bashing, there’d been a couple of guys killed in Central Park with baseball bats. It was quite a heavy number. It was an illustration, I’ve still got it actually, and it does feel heavy. It’s not brazen, it’s just uncomfortable. I thought, “Now it’s time to go.” This was all for New York Magazine? No, lots of others—Rolling Stone—did lots for New York Magazine definitely, The New York Times, Crawdaddy, Ebony, and another, I can’t remember, oh High Times. That’s actually what paid for Crass to come over. It was a double page spread about famous people who had created masterpieces on drugs; it went from Walt Disney on peyote to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. I had to do a portrait of all these people in one room. They paid a lot of money for that. Still got that one actually. Were you a big part of punk in New York? Yeah, well I lived around the corner from CBGBs, and I was around there at every
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opportunity. I could sneak in for nothing. I got to know people. It was great, it was the height of Patti Smith, The Ramones, oh everybody. It was really exciting. Did you want to get back and get involved with what was going on back home? I got to experience it before I left actually; the Pistols had started before I left. By the time I got back, obviously they were not bringing the goods to the table as far as I was concerned. We carried the banner that there was a future if you were prepared to demand and take it. I do think punk wouldn’t have gone beyond the crap punk books you get now if we hadn’t pushed it into something else. I think everybody in the band were 100 percent giving—they never ever gave half measures on stage, or off it. I was really proud of the people back then. When did you first meet Steve? When he was 13 years old. He came here [Dial House] with his brother. His brother had started coming here. He was hanging out with a bunch of kids in Ongar, the next village down, and he turned up one night with his brother. A very polite little boy. He thought we were all loonies, but kept coming back and it blossomed from there really. And when did you meet Penny? At art school in ’61/’62. We’ve worked together quite a long time really. When did you both first come to Dial House? I think it was about ’67 when we were looking. Both of us wanted to move out to the country. I was very much into being independent. We both found it together though. How did you find it? Well, no one really wanted cottages. Nobody wanted a cottage in the country. Within about two years, people started coming back out again. They were advertised in the local papers—you could just take your pick, and we picked this one. We looked at a couple of others, but picked this one because of its remoteness. Then I found one, I didn’t want to move in here, I wanted to get my own. I got one just about two miles away. It belonged to the Co-op. It was a big Georgian house, and I had half of it. That lasted a couple of years, and then we got fed up carting hoovers and mowers backwards and forwards, so I moved into Dial House. Were you involved in the vision of it becoming a community? It was really Pen’s vision. Pen does a lot of things, I don’t fully understand at the beginning, and I trust him implicitly, and I go along, and eventually I think, “I can see it now,” and then I contribute in my way. Some things he starts to go off, and I say, “You’re on your own there. I’m not getting involved in that one. You can forget it!” But very rarely on a creative level—we can battle it out, it’s never about egos, it’s about the things on the table. We can have some quite raw discussions, and it’s great—it’s not about character assassination, we’re just trying to do the best with the ideas we’ve got; so it always worked in some way. In the interim since Crass, he’s been doing more of his writing, and I’ve been concentrating on what I’m doing, and we come together on certain projects. If I do a big show, I want Pen coming in, I want him to perform and complement it, and push it a bit harder. When you first saw Crass, did you know how you wanted to create a multimedia identity around them? Yeah I think so; it was a natural extension really. I was interested in the moving image, and Mick Duffield was a local kid here, who had always been working on Super-8 films. We all knew how you could say it, and realized at that period in time, it wasn’t enough to just recite poetry. It is now, it’s very strong now. In the 50s and 60s and the beats and jazz it was strong. But it had kind’ve gone out of the window with the youth here. It wasn’t enough; it was music. I think Pete knew how to play his guitar, Phil had some inkling, Andy had none, Pen could do a good drum roll. So we said, “Okay, we’ll put our actions where our mouth is and see what happens.” I started making videos, because video came out—we couldn’t afford to experiment with Super-8—so I thought I’d have a go at collaging movie like I collaged still. We used the irony of TV, too, and we’d always have a TV switched on, on stage, with Coronation Street playing or adverts running. Or Mick would have a loop film running, and I had the two stacks with TVs showing what I’d done. It was very powerful visually. Very intimidating. Was collaging something you’d always done? No, I hadn’t done it until I went to New York. It became a necessity. They always wanted a painting. They loved the painting. I did a lot of fine painting and they became ridiculous, because they always wanted it tomorrow. I just couldn’t do it all in time, so I started mixing collage with painting, and then shifted onto pure collage. I loved it. I love it now. Are you constantly buying magazines and newspapers so you have material to work with? No, I never buy anything. I might see something in a charity shop. Recently I’ve been using websites; I wanted the symbol for Homeland Security in America, so I just went up and got it, printed it out. My patience for looking, going up to the library, finding the right book, is limited now. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, and I know I haven’t got a lot of time left! [laughs] It always seemed like you had a very powerful message behind all of the Crass artwork you did. I don’t know really. I don’t think it was really about a message. It was about how to develop seeing or looking. A lot of the collages never had anything that people didn’t know the look of, it’s just they never saw it combined like that, which made it say something else. So I suppose that it was trying to get people to look when they’re out on the street; they don’t
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see the irony. You know like a used condom lying under an advert about birth control, whatever it is, people don’t see the irony of what’s right in front of them. I suppose it’s just getting people to recognize the lies that have been told, and how it is there every time you go outside your house, or inside your house. The way people live too, I’ve seen people in rooms with no lampshades and a bare bulb, and they have no idea what that does to their head, why it makes you irritable, I really believe that. It’s uncaring, it’s hard, it’s ruthless. Or a red plastic settee, and they wonder why they’re aggravated. People don’t understand the power of color and light and shapes. I suppose most of my work is about that, it’s about the conditions, or a way of relating, that it’s in your power to change your anger, not only in the way you live in a sense of visuals and aesthetics, but in the way you eat, and how you can’t keep pointing your finger and blaming society. A lot of that you can help yourself with, and take the pressure off, taking away the irritable nature of some instant foods. Give yourself space to think, “I can change something within my life, within myself, how I look at things.” I’m not really concerned about the picture. Unless it comes from the individual in their own awareness, it’s never gonna change and be sustained, never will. Somebody can play a pipe and people will follow the revolution, but fuck it, it doesn’t last five minutes. You’ve not undermined anything; what you might be saying might be great, but it has no use unless people can really have the space to embrace it and extend upon it. I think Crass got into that position in the end where people saw us as messiahs, and asked us, “What shall we do next?” I didn’t want that position—none of us did—and luckily we put a stop on it in ’84. Was that a big pressure then? Some of the people couldn’t run with it, got stultified by it and were relying upon us to tell them what next? Where do we go now? You want people to think for themselves. I love it when you put an idea out there; people get inspired and start to run with it, within the same moral structure or the same sensitivities to people and the world we live in. Maybe down a totally different road, watching people go and create a project you want to be involved in. Almost like you were sowing seeds. I suppose so. But it wasn’t consciously doing that. A lot of us in the band were much older. Iggs was the youngest in the band, but some of us were ten or fifteen years older, and had been through a lot of other stuff. We’d come from another world, from parents who had survived the war, or not survived the war mentally, or carried a lot of guilt. I think that makes a lot difference to how you approach and receive information. The premise of Crass was about sharing. This is what we’ve been through, you might find some similarity there, strike a chord, we were making comments about feminism, about war, all the obvious fucking shit, that everyone goes through. We didn’t have an answer, we were just offering some insight into how we understood it, not saying it’s right, but this is what we’re picking up and we wanted to share that. Not ram it down your throat. I don’t think we ever did that. We offered possibilities. Within that black framework, there was always hope in my pictures. I never left that out.
Text and PORTRAIT by Aaron Rose Film Stills courtesy of CineMarfa and the Filmmakers
Earlier this year I received a random email from the artist Christopher Wool. It was an announcement for a film festival called CineMarfa that was to take place in Marfa, Texas. Of course, Marfa is well known as an art mecca of the western United States. Being home to the both the Chinati Foundation and the estate of Donald Judd, annual pilgrimages to the town by art lovers are well documented. However, I had never heard of it being a place associated with film. I was intrigued, and when I opened the email I was not disappointed. It seems that the announcement I had just received was for the debut year of the festival, which had been organized very quickly and pretty much on the fly by David Hollander and Wool. The focus of this year’s festival was No Wave Cinema, a genre born out of the DIY aesthetic and social upheaval of the late 1970s. Back in 1993, Christopher Wool curated a retrospective of these films called Hell Is You that was originally screened at The New Cinema in New York. Unfortunately, I missed that screening, but I’ve had the poster for the event hanging on my wall for almost a decade. Needless to say I was excited by this. The next thing I knew I was on a plane to Marfa, with a film geek’s eyes and a reporter’s pencil in hand. The programming for CineMarfa was better than any festival line-up I had possibly ever seen in my life and when I arrived I saw that the screenings were to be held in an old adobe building just out of downtown. This was going to be good. The festival opened with a rare screening of Andy Warhol’s notorious late-60s film Lonesome Cowboys. If you have never seen this film I highly recommend it. The day then went on to feature a rare public screening of Glen O’Brien’s TV Party series, with a rare, in-person appearance by Mr. O’Brien. Later we saw a screening of Celine Danhier’s new feature documentary Blank City. Blank City is the first documentary to weave together an oral history of the No Wave Cinema movement. The film includes interviews with acclaimed directors Jim Jarmusch and John Waters, actor-writer-director Steve Buscemi, Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Thurston Moore, Richard Kern as well as Amos Poe, James Nares, Eric Mitchell, Susan Seidelman, Charlie Ahearn and Nick Zedd. Also, the soundtrack includes Patti Smith,
Television, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Contortions, Sonic Youth, and many more. Sound good? Well it is…Celine did a wonderful job with the movie and I highly suggest checking it out. It’s still screening throughout 2011, as I understand. The first night capped off with two films: Scotch Tape and Flaming Creatures, both by Jack Smith. After a night out we all crawled back to the cinema the next morning for round two. If day one of CineMarfa seemed incredible, the second day was even more amazing. It started out with two very rare films by James Nares. Before this I had only known Nares as a painter, but his film work is quite important as well. The films shown included Rome ’78, which stars Lydia Lunch and Patti Astor, John Lurie, James Chance, and David McDermott, followed by No Japs at My Funeral, a gripping documentary about Northern Ireland, and then my personal favorite, Pendulum, a 16mm masterpiece shot in an alleyway in New York City. The film is a beautifully hypnotic meditation as a wrecking ball essentially swings back and forth between two fire escapes. I know this sounds incredibly boring, but that is far from the case—Pendulum might rate as one of my favorite films of the festival. Two other films showed this day Ulrike Ottinger, a female filmmaker from Germany that I had never heard of. Her first film, Ticket of No Return, tells a comic story of alienation set amidst the backdrop of late-70s Berlin. Her other film, Madam X: An Absolute Ruler is a semi-psychedelic pirate story. This film was also shot in Berlin and includes a cast of characters worthy of the greatest Bowie/Eno tracks from the period. The icing on the cake was a rare 16mm screening of Larry Clark’s film, Tulsa. If you haven’t heard about this film, Clark recently unearthed the footage that he took in 1968 while shooting the photographs for his seminal book of the same title. The hour-long film was shown without sound, and basically features beautifully shot footage of Clark’s friends from the time going about their daily rituals, which basically consist of smoking, shooting up, and having sex. I can’t begin to tell you how intense it was to sit in a theatre and watch this in complete silence, the only sounds being the coughs of the audience and the freight trains that roll through Marfa every hour. It was
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not to be forgotten. The final day saw a rare screening of Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers, followed by an outdoor screening that evening of the classic teen alienation flick, Over the Edge. The most fantastic thing about the festival, besides the amazing selection of films, was that it was so new that not many people even knew about it! When I arrived there were maybe only 50 people in town for it. As a result I got the chance to hang out with some of my artistic and cinematic heroes face to face in a very relaxed setting. Rumor has it that CineMarfa will happen again in May 2012, and I can guarantee you that word has been spreading. I suggest your reserve your tickets early. The following interview with festival directors David Hollander and Christopher Wool was conducted in Marfa after a full day of screenings. ANP: How did you guys get together to organize this festival? David Hollander: Well I had been working on the previous film festival here in Marfa. It was called the Marfa Film Festival. I had been programming and projecting and we brought some really cool things to that event. So when we found out that the Marfa Film Festival was no longer, Wool and myself and some other people came together and said, “We need to do this!” But we needed to do it with a focus and a vision that was clear. Wool had programmed a comprehensive survey of No Wave Cinema at Printed Matter in New York about 15 years ago, and he wanted to do a survey here of James Nares’ work. That seemed to be a good fit for what we were talking about. Christopher Wool: Actually, that was something that James and I were already planning and it was going to be a Chinati project anyway. We had it tentatively scheduled for this spring. So when David had the idea for the festival, even though we had previously discussed the Nares project and the bigger No Wave Cinema project, it was by chance that Chinati was going to show James Nares’ films at just the same time that the former film festival announced they were closing. ANP: So that was the point in which you guys combined forces? CW: Yeah. That was the beginning of our discussions about programming.
DH: Both Christopher and I share a passion for artist-made films. Especially if it’s historical or archival material that rarely gets screened. There are very few places that screen the kind of work that we’re interested in showing. Also, often times when they do show, they’re pretty poorly attended. We realized that there isn’t really a sort of locus of energy around this kind of film. ANP: I can’t think of a single festival in America that does this kind of programming. CW: Not even festivals! There’s nowhere. We just thought even though things like Netflix and YouTube have become so enormous, there are still some very, very, important films that you can’t see. Jack Smith being one of them. Bruce Connor is another. DH: Also Jordan Belson. You know Jordan Belson has taken his films out of distribution for many years now. He’s gone on record as saying the reason why is because he couldn’t control the quality of his audiences. But I love Jordan Belson’s work and I would love to screen it and I’m looking forward to screening them in future CineMarfa festivals. CW: The “New Cinema” that I was a part of in the 1980s, that specific part of the No Wave film thing in particular, none of that is available now. Not by artist choice anyway. It could be available. It’s the same with quite a few of the things we’ve shown this time. You can get ahold of Lonesome Cowboys, but you have to go through the museums. They’re not impossible to see, but it’s certainly not easy. DH: It’s worth noting too that for the show that Christopher organized 15 years ago, he was actively involved in restoring a lot of that work. Some of that stuff has ended up here. The James Nares work in particular. He’s also worked on Eric Mitchell’s films. This is also something that needs to happen with a lot of this work. It needs to be saved from oblivion. CW: Anthology Film Archives is doing that for James Nares now. DH: Yes, and there are other organizations that do it, but it’s very difficult. CW: Nares’ Super 8 films are particularly difficult because the masters were spliced directly. There was no print made. DH: So we’re interested in historical work, archival work, as well as interesting contemporary work that never gets to be screened outside of the museum or gallery context. There is a lot of work that is being made right now by artists and it’s
utterly restricted to the museums and galleries. ANP: That’s what was so nice about watching Larry Clark’s Tulsa the other day. You have a totally different experience of that film in a theatre than in the gallery. DH: Completely! So that interest in both the old and the new is definitely something that we’re going to continue to do here. CW: I should note that this year was thrown together really quickly. It was really kind of impromptu. DH: We started working on this January 1st. ANP: How did it all come together? CW: Basically I had dinner in New York one night with Larry Clark, Glen O’Brien and Richard Prince and by the end of the evening Glen and Larry were part of the festival. I didn’t even go into dinner thinking I was going to invite either of those guys. But we did want Larry to show Tulsa, because again, it’s something that has not been shown in the theatre. DH: It doesn’t even have distribution right now. But it’s funny because there was someone here at the festival that’s interested in doing that. That’s another angle that we would like to develop. The precedent was already set. Two years ago I brought a film to the Marfa Film Festival a film that I had been trying to get on DVD for about 15 years. The film is called 80 Blocks from Tiffanys. It was in essence a world premiere. That film had never really been screened. As I understand, it might have been screened once in 1979, but even that was unclear. But our festival was instrumental in making the DVD happen. By extension, I came to the understanding that in the future this festival could really operate as a kind of archival film market. It could be a place where people can come and see things that otherwise are not being distributed, and make connections to distribute them. ANP: I’m so surprised that there isn’t someone doing that already! You would think that it would be very important. DH: I know! Did you see Blank City? It’s got a lot of information in it. Celine was here for the festival and she was saying that a large amount of the films that were featured in her documentary have never been available. That film was actually done remarkably well. People have been writing about it and loving it. It’s funny that that stuff has been ignored so continuously and with such vehemence! I find that kind of interesting. She mentioned, though, that as the result of her
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film there are people interested in trying to re-release some of the material. ANP: Maybe as a box set? That would be really nice. CW: I would love to do the New Cinema part of all that, which was just this one specific group that showed in this one year, but I’m not a producer. Plus there are a couple of difficult situations. DH: There always are! You know another reason why some of these films never get seen is because the artists themselves don’t want them to be seen. While I’m willing to respect that, I’m only willing up to a point. You know things like Ulrike Ottinger. The Ottinger films are really very rarely screened…at least in this country. So films like that are the kinds of material that we’ll continue to bring to light. Then of course the definition of artist-made film is pretty broad. Films like Over the Edge and The Warriors are films that have been a big influence. We heard Larry Clark say it here, that those films resonated with certain people. CW: They’re both showing outdoors where it’s potentially a much bigger audience. Also, they’re films that really rounded out the program. They’re bigger movies, but about the same issues. DH: We are already lining up programming for May 2012. It looks like we’re going to have a lot of really cool films. Louis Black was here and it was amazing to watch him. Not only was he completely floored by the programming, every time he spoke publicly he wanted to talk about Over the Edge. ANP: Well that’s such an important film. DH: Next year we’re thinking about showing Anthony McCall’s “The Solid Light Series” which are screen-less films that actually form three-dimensional objects in space. We’re also excited about The Exiles. It’s a film about Native Americans living in Bunker Hill in Los Angeles. We’re also speaking with Thomas Beard of Light Industry. CW: To put a film festival together in four months is kind of ridiculous, but in the spirit of No Wave cinema we also did it on close to a zero budget. All the screenings are free here. We’re just supported by whatever donations we could pull together this year. DH: Next year we’re planning something more elaborate. We are planning for a full week of films. We’re also opening for submissions on June 1st. www.cinemarfa.org
Each and every generation produces creative people who are very specific to their times. However, usually only a handful of them end up making any kind of major impact. This is not to say that everyone is not important in his or her own contribution. We all have a role to play in the development of a generational aesthetic. It’s just that certain personalities, for various reasons, seem to rise above the fray. If we are talking about the current generation of filmmakers then Gaspar Noé is certainly one such talent. This is particularly notable because he not has a distinctly unique vision, but also is one of the most controversial directors of the last 20 years. Much has been written about Noé and to established film-buffs maybe this isn’t such a unique article. However by placing Noé’s works within the context of art and general culture I feel we can learn quite a bit. Not just because of his pioneering visual and storytelling spirit, but because he is not afraid to push buttons that many artists (in all mediums) refuse to touch. Gaspar Noé’s films have featured characters such as under-age drug dealers, strippers, grifters, pimps and a pedophilic butcher. Some may say he’s just in this for shock value, but if you really watch his films with open eyes and an open heart, it becomes very obvious that he is actually quite a tender filmmaker. He shows us the troubled sides of life only so we can appreciate the beautiful sides. A young film buff as a youth in Buenos Aires, he eventually moved to France and began his career. After a series of short films he released his first film, Carne, in 1991. The film, a tale of a horse butcher who takes revenge on a man he mistakenly believes to have raped his autistic daughter, opens with a scene showing a horse being killed and butchered. The film not only marks the first time Noé incorporated on-screen text warnings, epigrams, and graphics into the narrative, but also his first collaboration with actor Philippe Nahon, who has appeared in many of Noé’s subsequent features. Carne also includes a number of shock elements such as gunshot sound effects and rapid, almost epileptic, editing that would become major characteristics of his future style.
Carne was followed by Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone) in 1998. Ironically both films follow a butcher as protagonist. I Stand Alone tells the story of a man managing to survive at society’s lower rungs only to have his life unravel hopelessly in a moment of enraged misunderstanding. The butcher (played by Philippe Nahon) speaks to the audience continually in voice-over, revealing an intense, reflective intellect and a self-awareness that intensifies rather than relieves his despair. The climax of the film, a combination of suicidal thoughts and incestuous feelings for his daughter, exposes a decidedly pointless view on life, yet Noé still manages to infuse this character with a realness that lets one identify with him, rather than feel disdain. Noé’s third feature film, Irréversible , sealed his notoriety as a challenging new director. A classic rape and revenge story, the narrative is told completely in reverse and the film’s unprecedented nine-minute rape scene has become the stuff of movie legend. His films are punishing narratives of brutality, misanthropy, and sexual violence, all delivered with an undeniable technical brilliance. Noé’s primary stock in trade is that he practically dares viewers to stay in their seats. However, those who have the curiosity (and courage!) to do so will experience some of the most genuinely challenging, provocative cinema in the world today. His films work on your mind as well as your nerves and are delivered with a true compassion for and understanding of not only the darkness in all of us, but also our endless capacity for compassion. Enter the Void  is Noé’s most recent completed feature. The film is a protracted, extravagant cinematic experiment. Running two and a half hours, the film has been described as a “subjective phantasmagoria” and features a protagonist who dies within the first 20 minutes, and then spends the remainder of the film as a disembodied ghost. The story follows an American brother and sister, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and Linda (Paz De La Huerta), who are reunited in Tokyo. Oscar works as a low-level drug dealer and she as a budding stripper. The film begins literally inside Oscar’s head, registering
Interview by Aaron Rose / Portrait by Terry Richardson
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each blink of his eyes as a momentary black screen. We experience first hand the DMT trip he’s on, which Noé depicts as an almost five-minutelong series of unfolding, expanding brilliantly colored spirals, fractals and delicate tendrils. After a drug deal goes bad, Oscar finds himself dead on the floor of a nightclub bathroom. However, the fact of this death doesn’t change the film’s point of view; it merely shifts the camera’s position. Rather than viewing the world from inside Oscar’s head, we now have a new perspective. The memories of Oscar’s life unfold with the camera hovering behind him, giving the film a fantastic voyeuristic quality. Suddenly we’re peeking over his shoulder in order to see what’s happening. Shot almost entirely hand-held in the neon wilderness of Tokyo’s sex districts, mostly at night, Enter the Void is a whirlwind of a film. Like the work of an abstract painter, the edit crawls with computer-animated sequences and multiple flashes of pure white… at one point the screen even goes black for a full minute. The cameras fly high above the city streets, utilizing techniques never before seen in which we glide over rooftops for literally blocks at a time. Sometimes Tokyo even resembles a lit-up toy town as the camera slinks along the ceilings of strip clubs where everything takes on a blacklight fluorescent day-glow hue. Like his earlier films, Enter the Void uses innovative rhythmic shooting techniques, strobing visuals, complex soundscapes, and ambitious CGI to create a truly hypnotic atmosphere. Psychedelic drug trips, explicit sex, intense violence and even a graphic abortion sequence are intertwined with abstract montages of color and light. The film plays more like a work of contemporary art then a classic film narrative. Enter the Void borders on experimental film, but all tricks aside, the film is an astonishingly original exploration of life, death and sexuality. Noé’s primary purpose is to untether the audience from reality. There is much to be learned by looking deeply and allowing ourselves to free-float in that darkness. These films offer us that chance. So, while these films are shrouded in controversy and are perhaps too much for some people to handle, I take that as a reflection on the audiences and not the artist.
Rumor has it that Noé is in talks to direct The Golden Suicides, a screenplay by Brett Easton Ellis. The film is based on the true story of the double suicide of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, popular New York artists who, for reasons unknown, became increasingly paranoid that the US government and the church of Scientology were conspiring against them. One can only imagine what Noé would do with this script if this project were to come to fruition. Let’s hope. Aaron Rose: Do you remember the first film you saw when you were a kid? Gaspar Noé: The first film I really remember watching was in New York because my parents were living there at the time. It was Jason and the Argonauts. The main things I remember from that movie were the skeletons fighting in the Greek temple. That’s probably my oldest memory of watching a movie on TV or whatever. AR: At what point did you realize that you wanted to be a filmmaker? Was there any sort of “Aha!” moment where you understood that this would be your path in life? GN: There wasn’t really a distinct moment actually. The movie that moved me the most or maybe shocked me the most in my life—a film that maybe could have triggered something inside of me that said, “Maybe I want to be a part of something like this and create a world like this” was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw it when I was 10 years old. I was fascinated by that movie and I asked my parents to take me to see it again and again. This was also because that film was possibly my first drug trip or hallucination or whatever. When I was young I actually thought that I would become a comic book artist and not a filmmaker. But towards the age of 16, I started to understand that being a comic book artist is a very lonely experience. Studying cinema, on the other hand, you meet interesting people, pretty girls, etc., so I decided that I would try to get into film school and that’s what happened.
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Japanese promotional book for Carne, 1991 Film stills from Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone), 1998 (opposite) Film stills from Irréversible, 2002
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Gaspar Noe on the set of Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone), 1997 (opposite) Film stills of title sequence from Enter The Void, 2009
AR: Aside from the people you meet, what is it about the medium of film that you love so much? Why did you choose film over, say, being a painter or playing music? GN: Well when I was five my parents moved back to Buenos Aires and I stayed there until the age of 12. There was a dictatorship in Argentina at the time. My father was very leftist and he had to escape from the country. I stayed in Buenos Aires for like nine months after with my mother. My best friend’s grandfather and uncle were the ticket sellers at two of the main cinemas in Buenos Aires. Not only that, but they also knew all of the ticket sellers at the other theatres! We could go see movies for free every day! Even if we were too young to see the film, the ticket guys would sneak us in. So I was watching at least one movie a day for almost a year. That period in Argentina was so funny. I would just watch movies! Movies! Movies! Also, my father had a friend who was working at the Argentine Cinematheque so I would always go there. It was just two blocks away from my house. Then, at the age of 13, when I came to France, there were cinemas everywhere and my parents were also two big film buffs so I would go see movies with them or go alone. Oh, and back to your earlier question, another movie that maybe triggered me to become a film director was Eraserhead. I saw that when I was 15 or 16. AR: That’s actually quite young to see a film like that! GN: Uh huh. I would also drag my schoolmates to see it. I saw that film maybe 10 times. AR: So you went to film school… GN: Yes. I went to a film school called Lumiére, which is actually a film school for cinematographers. To get in you had to take a kind of exam that was mostly technical questions. It was for people who want to become camera operators or cinematographers. I got in at the age of 17 and I got out at 19 and pretty much just started working. AR: You began your career making primarily short films, correct? GN: Yes. I did my first one when I was in film school. Then I made another one when I got out. You know, once you do your first short and people congratulate you for it, then you say to yourself, “Well I must be doing the right thing,” so you want that experience again and again. AR: Did you see a signature visual style developing early on in these first films? GN: Well the first short film that I did was called Tintarella di Luna. It was very inspired by the short films of Pasolini. The second short that I did was sort of sleazy. It was about a guy raping a girl with a relentless voiceover of him explaining to himself why it was good for the girl to get fucked by her boss. Maybe that one was starting to get close to Irreversible. It was funny and phony of course, but it was also controversial. AR: Wow, so you were actually exploring these themes pretty early in your career? GN: Yes. AR: How much of your stories would you consider autobiographical? GN: That’s hard to say. Of all the films I’ve made, my last, Enter the Void, was probably the most autobiographical. Of course I’ve never been killed for dealing drugs, but once I was put in a similar situation where I was throwing marijuana in a toilet while the cops were knocking at
the door. At the time I thought that was the end of my life. But luckily all of the grass went into the toilet. But that was when I was very young. I was 18 or 19, the same age as the main character in the film. I mean, you can see my obsessions from my movies. I identify with the controversial of course. The only character from my films that I could really identify with in some ways would be the butcher in I Stand Alone. Although I’m not a butcher and I’m not a racist or stuff like that, I can relate to some thoughts that he has about mankind in general. In terms of Enter the Void, it’s weird, but some say the main character is useless—he’s just a stupid kid dealing drugs—but I was the same kind of kid when I was that age. AR: So you drew a lot on your experiences as a youth when developing that character? GN: Yeah, you know and on the lives of the kind of party kids that I hung out with at that time. In some ways the characters in that movie could have been characters in the movie Kids. You know, party people who like drugs and who like sex. AR: They’re classic street kids. GN: Exactly. The street party kids. Actually it’s weird because when you go to Japan there are so many of these junkies there and they think they are in Disneyworld and that everything is permitted—but the laws against drugs in Japan are actually very hardcore. When these young kids get busted they finally find themselves in prison for a long time. Also you can go to prison in Japan from them just testing your pee. They can take you to the police station and test your pee and if it comes to show that you’ve done coke or marijuana or speed or whatever they’ll send you to prison for six months! My advice to kids from Paris or New York would be that before going to Japan you should clean your body before you even go to the airport. It’s so easy to just drink sake or to drink vodka there. Why would you risk getting locked up? Actually, when we shot Enter the Void in Tokyo I made everybody on the crew promise me that they would not do drugs. Not even marijuana. AR: That’s funny because I’ve heard crazy rumors about how wild that shoot was. GN: No! No one was high! We were high on vodka. You know if there had been a problem with one of the main actors or with me or with anybody on the crew the insurance would not have covered the damage. The movie would have had to be stopped. I didn’t want to put my producers in a situation where a stupid joint would stop the whole movie. It was a big budget. I knew for me this would not be a problem, but I had to trust all of my actors and main members of the crew. I had to let them know that it was very dangerous. AR: That’s interesting because the hallucinogenic experience plays heavily into the narrative of Enter the Void, but psychedelics aren’t really talked about much these days. Is this based on a personal fascination you have with psychedelics? GN: If you go to New York now it’s all about champagne and vodka and coke. Like that’s the only drug left or something. To me though, psychedelics are far more interesting. They can teach you things about yourself. They can teach you things about life just because they open your perceptions to other perspectives. You can suddenly have a very whole perception of your friends or your family or a certain situation. They can be very helpful. Sometimes you can have a very messy, trippy perception of the people
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around you that is hard to speak of in words, but this is essential. At the end all of those different perceptions are actually realities. There’s a funny sentence in the film Videodrome. I don’t know the quote exactly but it’s something like, “There’s no reality besides your own perception of reality.” You should check it out because they say it a few times in the film. The basic idea is that if you perceive something then that is the real reality of what you’re seeing. AR: That idea goes back to the foundations of all kinds of spiritual teachings. GN: Yes! Actually I just did an interview with this guy Daniel Pinchbeck. He wrote a book called Breaking Open the Head. That book is amazing! He was not a hallucinogenic drug or plant user, but he decided that he would try them all and describe his experiences in this book. In the beginning it’s fun and by the end he’s having bad trips. The book describes all of those experiences in a very accurate way. I told him when it comes to DMT, which is a trip that lasts 15 minutes, that his description of a DMT trip is the best one I’ve ever read. AR: I actually find it interesting that you were schooled in cinematography because it seems like unconventional cinematography is such a staple of your films. Why do you choose to shoot the way you do? How do you think it aids the story? GN: I disagree! When it comes to the shooting I think I’m actually quite conventional. It’s my approach that is kind of conceptual. I keep on repeating the same gimmicks. They are gimmicks that you would usually see for only one or two shots in a movie, but you can also extend them to become a whole part of the film. Like when I have the camera flying above the main characters. You’ve seen this in movies by Brian De Palma or Lars von Trier but they usually use it for just one moment inside one scene. But you can also decide that you are going to make that call to use that principal for an hour and a half. The only difference is the length of the shot. Also, showing a rape scene is not unusual in movies, but having a single camera shooting a woman getting raped for eight or nine minutes becomes unconventional. But it’s really just the length that makes the difference, not so much the image. AR: Interesting! So for you it’s not so much about being unconventional with your image, it is more about playing with time. GN: Yeah. For example, the P.O.V. shot at the beginning of Enter the Void. It’s both unconventional and conventional. There have been many movies with a long shot like this at the beginning. For example, the opening scene of Strange Days or there was a music video called Smack My Bitch Up. You see this in many movies, but it’s hard for most directors to film like this. They use it for one moment in one scene and then they’re happy to get rid of that principle because it’s very hard to manage for a long time. AR: But you’re certainly not afraid to do it. GN: No! I did it for the first 20 or 30 minutes of my movie! But this was needed. We needed to be in the head of the character. You could maybe compare it to the movie that Schnabel did [Diving Bell and the Butterfly], maybe there are more blinks in my film… it’s more realistic when he is watching himself in front of the mirror, but I didn’t invent that kind of thing. AR: How much of your shooting is pre-planned and how much do you improvise on set?
GN: The concept is always pre-planned, but where I’m going to put the camera is usually figured out on the day of the shoot. For example, for all the flashbacks in my last movie I knew that I wanted to put the camera behind the back of the main character. So I knew that I would always be behind him, but whether it was on the right or on the left of the frame was something I would decide on the set. Also if she’s going to be sitting or walking… once you have the characters on the set then you decide what’s the best way to shoot it. I haven’t storyboarded any movie since my first short film. However, I did have to do a storyboard just for the car crash scene in Enter the Void because it was comprised of many different layers on a green screen. So in that case we had to know exactly what was going on with the different layers. But in general I really do enjoy deciding where the camera is going to be at the very last moment. AR: Do you try a lot of different set-ups or do you just figure it out and go? GN: Usually, once I’m on the set I try to find the right positions for the main characters and then we discuss what the dialogue is going to be. Then I enjoy shooting kind of immediately so people can get excited. Usually the first two or three takes are useless, but you just do them so people get excited. I prefer this to rehearsing without the camera. Some people complain that I’m not an actual director and it’s true that I’m more obsessed with the camera than the acting. I don’t come from a theatre background. I don’t act myself. Even if I went to a school that was meant for cinematographers I knew that I wanted to direct. But still I’m more obsessed with the image than the performance. AR: Have you ever had an actor refuse to do a scene because of the content? GN: At the end of I Stand Alone, the main actor who is playing the incestuous father was kind of personally upset about kissing his pretend daughter because he actually had a daughter of the same age. He ended up doing it, but maybe he was thinking, “What is my daughter going to think of this scene?” Also, for Irreversible I suggested to the actors the idea that there be a love scene at the end… a scene where they are kissing and fucking. I thought it would be nice to show the other side of what sex can be. You know to show that sex can be a power game, but it can also be an expression of
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love. But the actors didn’t want to do it—mainly because they were so famous and they didn’t want to over expose their intimacy. Both of the actors had some stalkers in Paris and they said that if they did this love scene they might have even more stalkers. At the end I don’t feel that anything is missing because of not having that scene, but it could have been an additional level at the end of Irreversible. AR: I understand your logic completely! GN: Yeah, but they went so far with the rest of the movie I couldn’t have complained. I could only understand them. AR: I saw that you are credited as cinematographer Enter the Void. Did you actually shoot some of that film yourself? GN: I operated the camera, but the cinematographer did all of the lighting. For example when Oscar, the main character, is running and the camera is following him, my cinematographer is much stronger than me so he shot that. I would say maybe 10 percent of the time he was also operating the camera. AR: Do you edit your films yourself? GN: Yeah, I edit them. I enjoy it. I do hire editors to work with me as co-editors but I would say I’m very obsessive about the editing and I enjoy the moment. I actually enjoy editing much more than writing. Even though the movie is really made while you’re writing it, maybe because I’m so obsessed with the image that in the editing… that’s when you really make the film. You are putting images together and then you put in the sound… I don’t know… you control things. When you’re on the set you don’t control anything! You’re just making things happen, so everything’s out of control, but when you’re in the editing process you’re finally there with your material and you think of all the things you can do to make it look perfect. AR: You know people always talk about the controversy in your films and to me I don’t consider your work controversial. I think your work makes a lot of sense. GN: I know! People are shocked by things that they should not be shocked by! I mean, a rape in a movie is shocking to some because they might know somebody who has experienced it, so maybe seeing it on the screen is shocking, but it’s also part of life. We are so much more used to seeing people
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(below & opposite) Film stills from Enter The Void, 2009
getting killed in movies but rapes actually happen much more often than killings. Abortions happen much more often than killings too. I don’t think there is anything in my movies that is offensive for people who have seen Fassbinder’s movies or Pasolini’s movies or Sam Peckinpah’s movies or Todd Solondz’ movies. You’re just trying to do a movie that portrays some dramatic aspects of life. There was only ever one point where I thought maybe I was going too far and this was not something that was even on screen. There was one particular voiceover by the butcher in I Stand Alone. After he goes to see a porn movie he comes back to his home where his pregnant wife is waiting for him. He gives this whole speech about the relationships between kids and their parents. How you only love your parents when they give you money and the moment they stop giving you money or your mother stops giving you milk you just want to put them in a closet and hope they die. I thought that voiceover was just part of the main character, but I was really worried that people would consider that my own perception of what family was. Because I have a very wonderful father that I love, and I have a very wonderful mother that I love. This was just a very dark vision of family. I felt at that instance that I was on some kind of edge but my parents didn’t take it personally. AR: Do you ever have the fear that all the perceived controversy in your films would scare potential audiences away? GN: Yeah, but when you scare some people, other people come just because of that. You know if you want to do a psychological horror movie you better be willing to scare people. If some people scream then certainly other people around will come to see what’s going on. They will go to the theatre to see why the other people are screaming. AR: I would love to ask you about the opening title sequence in Enter the Void. It’s one of the most fantastic and original openings to a film that I’ve ever seen. I’m curious about how you conceived of this and what went into developing the idea. GN: You know the movie was actually originally shown in Cannes as an unfinished version. The final film with the finished soundtrack and titles wasn’t shown until Sundance in January of 2010. When the film was shown as the unfinished version some people were complaining about the length of the movie so I slightly reduced it. I took five minutes out of it. I always knew that I wanted to put all of the credits at the very beginning, so because of the length I tried to make the fastest credits ever. I also thought it was an interesting way to link it to the end of Irreversible because there is a strobe light at the end of that film. So I thought, “Oh I’ll start this one with strobing letters.” I know this guy who is a commercial director who also makes music videos and he works creating logos for record sleeves and things like that. So I asked him if he would make me like three logos for each name. So then we started having fun with that and adding more effects to the main characters and it was fun! It was many nights of work, working with the typography, and I was having fun editing it all together. You know what really made the
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difference was the music by LFO. It really enhances the strobing names. AR: I’ve never seen anything like it in a film. GN: Yeah. Did you see the video that Kanye West did for his last song? AR: No, but I’ve heard he ripped you off. GN: He even copied the way we put Japanese names after the names. Unfortunately for him, the images don’t work with the music he put under them. AR: Are there any of your contemporaries in the film world that you feel a kinship with? GN: Yeah, but when people ask me that I often think of how when I was a kid I was always waiting for the next James Bond or when I reached a certain age I was always like, “When will the new John Carpenter or Brian De Palma be coming out?” You know? I would say that nowadays I always wonder who is going to be the next Lars von Trier. He’s so playful. He’s trying to reinvent a new game for each movie. The funny thing about Lars von Trier is that you’re always surprised because he’s constantly heading to a new place. Of the American movies that I’ve seen the most lately I would say I liked Palindromes the best. AR: That’s interesting. I loved that film as well, but so many just didn’t like it! GN: The fact that the main character is changing all the time just blew my mind. I’ve seen that film probably eight times. AR: What projects are you working on now? GN: I want to do an erotic movie about love. I’ve had a few projects proposed to me lately but I honestly don’t know what I’m going to be shooting next. I want my next project to be small. The last one was so heavy emotionally and financially for me. In terms of Hollywood movies it was low budget but it was a big budget for me. The whole production was kind of risky so I had a lot of pressure on me. I was editing Enter the Void for a year and a half. Now I want to do a project that will be easy to shoot and easy to edit. I want it to be a love story because I believe that my perception of sex and love is not on screen yet. I want to make a movie that will be very sentimental and sexual. I have a long treatment now. I want to film sex as I’ve experienced it, which I haven’t seen accurately represented in erotic or pornographic films. Actually, I have not seen one movie to this day that portrays what sex and love are about for me.
Interview by brendan fowler / images courtesy THE ARTIST UNLESS NOTED
K8 Hardy is an artist—an “artist’s artist”—and for a lot of the time that we’ve known her, she’s been an artist’s artist who mostly worked with other artists. In fact, for much of the 2000s she worked almost exclusively in collaborative contexts with Wynne Greenwood, Ulrike Müller, and as a founding member of the radical feminist arts journal/edition LTTR. But she started out as an author of wild and fairly widely-seen experimental videos, and these days she has mostly returned to the space of sole authorship, presenting bold solo shows at New York’s Reena Spaulings Fine Art, Munich’s Galerie Sonja Junkers and Paris’ Galerie Balice Hertling, all since late 2009. In exciting turns of late we find her creating photographs that work somewhat like sculptures, and sculptures that watch the photographs; as well as performances of New Paintings. Hardy is working on her own terms, making her own worlds, but always making the point of inviting us to join her. There is a door, she has opened it, we’re going in.
Position Series, Form #14, 2010 C-Print, 30x20 in Courtesy Reena Spaulings Fine Art
Brendan Fowler: So, to an art audience it might seem as though you’ve sort of “arrived at photography.” By this I mean that, while you’ve been showing various sorts of work—videos, performances, artist books, art journals, etc.—in public for several years now, you’ve had three major solo shows in the last year, all of which mainly consisted of photographs. K8 Hardy: Perhaps I have “arrived at photography.” I don’t know for sure yet. I do think it’s really working for me right now as a medium. But then, so was video before I got tired of it. And performance, too. I don’t know if I am going to stick strictly with photography. My mediums are not prioritized. Plus each photo show also had a sculptural element, too—those heads. BF: Yes, that’s true—the heads, the sculptures—I’m sorry. These shows in late 2009 and early 2011, at Reena Spaulings, Sonja Junkers Galerie, Balice Hertling, those were your three biggest solo shows to date, right? KH: Yes, they were the biggest. I’m not sure if landing on photography is the reason I am having these shows or if it’s more the time I’ve put in to my practice. Is it timing or the photography? I’m very psyched to be having solo shows. It’s great and it’s scary, too. The pressure gets high. The production changes. You know, I don’t make work and think about where it goes in a gallery at the same time, but now it’s starting to creep in to my practice. BF: It can be hard to keep out. But we can say that, to your history, more significant than the fact that these shows involved mainly photos is that you were making this work independently, as opposed to engaging or authoring with a collaborative. KH: Yeah. BF: And the photos—I’m sorry I keep just saying “photos.” KH: No, totally, you can say “photos,” because it’s hard for me to call the head things “sculptures.” And, yes, this work is not a collaboration. I sorta made the heads to be my own audience at the gallery and another dimension to the photos. Like, sometimes they are really freaky looking but have the same wig on in the photo so it’s like they escaped from the print. Know what I mean? BF: Oh really? KH: Yeah, I kinda think about them as my posse, too. BF: Yes, they definitely complicate, or expand, the room. KH: And they change all the time. When I take them back to my studio I’m like, “Well, let’s take off our clothes and get dressed for next time.” Still playing with my dolls! Yeah, they expand the room and the number of gazes. That sounds very awkward, “gazes.” BF: But gazes are kind of awkward. KH: I’m gazes. BF: Are specific heads associated with specific photos? Are they separate pieces? KH: They are separate. I mean, depending on the installation, they change. I guess sometimes I do associate one head with one photo, but I’ve never made that one piece. If I could, I would make the whole show one piece, because for me it’s not about one photo being particularly good or interesting in the show. BF: So with the photos, they are coming out of the fashion works, your way oversized zine/artist book, Fashionfashion, in a way, right? KH: Yeah, totally they are a progression from Fashionfashion. People really liked that zine so much and I thought maybe I should really look closer at what I’m doing in the zine. And that’s how the most recent body of work came about. I call these new photos the Position Series. I just keep building up this body of work with no goal line set. Maybe I will finish it soon or maybe I will do it for the rest of my life. But I don’t think I will stop taking photos of myself anytime soon—or as I think of them, photos using me. BF: The style of picture making is ostensibly the same, right? But the presentation, the framed image versus the saddle stitched book—no matter how oversized it is— affects the read so, so much. KH: Yes, the choice of presentation has a huge effect. It’s shocking. There are similarities to the photos, but I think they are very different. BF: Were you thinking of those differences when you decided to push these framed images, this presentation? KH: The zine was really mostly focused on fashion, and my new photos just have fashion as one of the elements. Looking at the zine, I
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was just like, “What is compelling here, and how can I make a new and sharper focus on that?” Because when I first made that zine, I was in the Whitney [Museum of American Art Independent Study] Program and I wanted to do something fun to balance the weight of all the heavy theory I was considering. I didn’t really even think of it as an art project! BF: Ah! Maybe that looseness is something that people responded to? They felt that radiating from it? KH: Yeah, I think so. The pleasure and the play, and that’s in the new work too, so yeah it really is about having fun with some big ideas and not letting them restrict your movement/work. Or just trusting yourself. BF: It is brave work. KH: I have to say it’s really rad to be able to have fun with my work, to get excited about shit I make. I mean, that’s a bit embarrassing. BF: Not everyone does, and we probably all know what it is like to not have fun with our work. KH: Yes, please. I have tortured myself with my work, but sometimes now I’m like, “Ohmygod this photo I made is amazing and I just crack myself up!” BF: I do think, though, that the attitude is part of the reception of the work, the energy goes all the way through. Could one read in that you spent the last however many years being tortured by your work and we are seeing it now somewhat as a function of this new feeling of freedom and joy? KH: That’s really good insight, Brendan. I definitely think so—plus I think working collaboratively freed me up to enjoy what I was making because it didn’t all come down on my shoulders alone. And it was a gift I was able to carry over into my personal practice. So yes it is a new feeling and excitement. I think it’s a confidence too. BF: And you know what they say, “It’s not a race.” KH: It’s not a race. BF: Thinking about Fashionfashion and the new photos, your work with Wynne Greenwood and some of the video and certainly the performances, these all are sort of character studies in a way, right? KH: I don’t know, Brendan. I get asked that a lot and I don’t think they are. For me it’s a bit more about the surface. I’m not hypothesizing on a certain type of person. Maybe it’s about possibility? BF: Certainly that open space is one of the most wonderful spaces that art affords; this work enjoys that space, the fact of that space. KH: Yes, completely. And it’s so nice that it is a space for me to figure out different nuances and implications. To do something and still be thinking about what exactly it is. Like, is it a character study? I don’t think so, but I don’t know what it is if it is not that. If that made sense, I don’t know. BF: It does make sense. I was about to say a similar thing. It is powerful for an audience to have that space to figure, as well, and I think that that freedom is part of what people respond to, that confidence to pose a question sometimes, rather than always answering a question. KH: I like to say that for me being an artist is about being a part of the dialogue, having a conversation in different contexts. BF: Yes. And I think it’s complicated, though—the good kind of complicated—this issue of character study and keeping it open. In some ways the work would maybe really have more of a kinship, functionally, with someone like Isa Genzkin, as opposed to Cindy Sherman. I mean, a character study can be a question, but these are like questions that use the idea of character as just one small element, one pigment. KH: I totally agree. I mean, everyone brings up Cindy Sherman, and I’m fine with that, but sometimes I think my photographs are really abstract. It sounds crazy, but I do! That’s just the metaphor I think about! BF: The pigment? KH: Fashion is one of the pigments of my paint board, my palette! [laughs] And character study is a pigment too, but the outlines are not clear. BF: Yes. And the characters. Are “fashion” and “character” two separate colors on your palette or sort of different hues of the same color?
KH: Two different colors that can be mixed. [laughs] But it’s easier for me to talk about this work in this way—abstracted through painting metaphor—than the regular tools we have to talk about photography or female self-portraiture. BF: I can see the Cindy Sherman thing coming up, but I was sure that it is not where you are starting from. KH: I think more than anything, I am mining—why do we use these colonizing metaphors?—pop culture. BF: Pop culture, yes, this abstraction of Pop culture! So, thinking about character studies, abstraction, specificity, a rejection of specificity, your writing is also a significant facet of your artistic output, and while it often reads as something like a very direct call to arms, you frequently employ certain more open, experimental pacings. You switch things up in your writing—is this coming from similar impulses to those fueling your image making? KH: That’s a good question. Email is a nice medium because it has a casual feel since it’s almost ephemeral and not committed to hard print. And performing and editing video, figuring out what to say, is a type of writing. My impulse is to use every little space that I am given to make my work. BF: We have all of these venues, these outlets. KH: I agree; it is amazing to have so many venues. I mean, we have them if we take advantage of them and we have them if we are aware that we have them. It’s important for me to be aware that every little space can be made into a decision. A decision can be made into opportunities. BF: When you started making the photos, was the photogramming you do a step from your physical relationship to the projection screen in your performances? Like, your shadow, etc.? KH: The photgrams started with objects that could have theoretically been in the photo, then literally added on top, like a bow or sunglasses. Then I started using my body. I think it’s similar to the heads, to add another way of looking at the photograph. It adds a performative element too, because it’s actually my body making that outline. BF: I was watching a video of one of your performances and in the flattened space of the computer, the way you were positioned with your arms up—maybe because it was the same body as in the photos—really rhymed with some of your photos. KH: I can sort of picture it, but I don’t know if I had that kind of intention or awareness. I’ve never related the two, but, yes, it totally makes sense! I did use my shadow a lot in that performance you are referencing, but I never considered much the resulting image. BF: And your photographs, you are actually printing them, making marks yourself. KH: Yes, I print them myself. I don’t fetishize the process—it’s just what I know. And I like the extra time spent with the image. I’m sorta cusp digital/analog you know? BF: Me, too. I have been shooting 35 mm but scanning the negs and making a million inkjet prints. Did you study photo/darkroom in high school/college? KH: I took a B&W photo class at Austin Community College, but no, I didn’t study it. I studied film theory and video art on the side of my official feminist studies, and took a Super 8 class along the way. I guess the prints are kinda like hand processing film. BF: In college?
KH: I studied some video production in college—with Elisabeth Subrin, actually—but I had a grant to do an internship with Miranda July in 1998 and so I also got one at the Northwest Film Center, where I took a Super 8 class. I was really hungry. BF: “Young and hungry,” that is more productive than “studied photo in high school.” KH: Exactly. BF: You grew up with punk, with riot grrrl? KH: More with a punk/metal/hard-core kinda scene, but I self-declared as a riot grrrl in Fort Worth. There was no riot grrrl scene there, but I made zines and mailed them around in that network. BF: That was the best part, if you can say there was a best part—the network of zines and all. When you went to work with Miranda, was that in Olympia? KH: Portland, Oregon. BF: There was a big scene there then. KH: Oh, yeah, totally. A big dyke, punk, and music scene. It was so much fun. I would screen my work before bands and stuff. I think I might have caused a bit of trouble in Portland. BF: I hope you did! (I think I know you did) Had you lived only in Fort Worth up until that? KH: No, I had been going to Smith [College] in Massachusetts for two years. BF: Was Smith like “yes!” and then Portland like, “YESS!!”? KH: Totally. It was really fun and intense. The school gave us money to scheme up internships for the summer. I loved Smith. It was such an amazing education. I studied my ass off to get out of Fort Worth. BF: And from there to New York? KH: Yep. BF: So, that community in Portland, the national/international queer/punk/experimental/film/art community, it was the extended web of that community that you really connected with there and from which your collaborations with LTTR and Wynne Greenwood and others sprang, right? KH: Yes totally. That’s the trajectory, with a pit stop in San Francisco, as every good gay does, where I worked at Artists’ Television Access. I just love that name: “Television Access.” BF: It is a wonderful name. Sort of quaint now, sadly, right? Or becoming quaint? KH: Yeah, it makes me wonder what we need to collectively pool together to get access to now. BF: The internet is maybe too open already? You’ve been chatting since 1999! KH: [laughs] Not that much. Although, I got into chat roulette for a while. BF: Whoa, what was that like?—I just sounded fucking square. KH: Really weird and fun and interesting. BF: How did you approach it? KH: I liked to put on a pair of sunglasses first and get started. Sometimes people would just reject you—they see you and decide if they want to chat or not. So if they thought you looked lame they would reject you because they were the cool kids. And there were people masturbating, too, which you would just have to reject. The worst was 10 year-old boys asking you to show your tits, but once Travis Boyer and I had a dance party with a bunch of boys in Russia or
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something! So it was amazing too. And then once I got to chat with three really gay kids in their parent’s basement in Alaska that was silly and inspiring, and once a long chat with a cop in the Midwest. That was really intense. Also girls would reject you because you were another female and they were too straight to even consider a chat. It was good when I was really sick and couldn’t leave the house. I’m not really that web savvy, but every now and then I find some portals that I want to explore. BF: What about the cop? KH: Well, it was wild because the only other way we would have talked was if he was arresting me. BF: Fully! KH: And so we just opened up and he told me about arresting a young lesbian and asked me a lot of questions about being gay, told me about cop stuff and he was actually very compassionate and really interested in my ideas. BF: Was he in the U.S.? KH: Yeah, he was in the Midwest, Minnesota or something. He was surprised I was actually talking to him. We were about the same age, too. BF: Would it be sad when you would end a chat? Did you ever keep in touch with anyone? KH: No, I didn’t keep in touch with anyone, and the cop got upset when I was ending the chat, but that’s the beauty of chat roulette: anonymity. I mean, I only had like a handful of substantial conversations. BF: Were you a part of the Chainsaw Message Board? KH: Totally did the Chainsaw Message Board. That thing was awesome. BF: That was humongous, right? KH: I wish we could have something like that on the internet again, and not weird corporate social networks. BF: I think it’ll happen. I think it must happen somewhere, right? Or it will again. KH: I hope Donna [Dresch] archived that message board. What a document! BF: It was a totally underground, actually DIY, pre-“Social Network” actual social network. KH: For sure. BF: Is it down, now? Does it still exist?
(above, clockwise from top left) Fashionfashion #1 cover, 2003 Quarter page color copy zine Fashionfashion #4 cover, 2006 Quarter page color copy zine Fashionfashion #4 toothbrush spread, 2006, Quarter page color copy zine
(opposite, from left) Position Series #13, 2009 C-print, 30x20 in Courtesy Reena Spaulings Fine Art Position Series #25, 2009 C-print, 30x20 in Courtesy Reena Spaulings Fine Art
KH: Yeah, it’s been down for a while. She took it down because it got so dramatic for some people. That anonymous thing can be very cruel. Trolls. BF: I hope she did archive it! I was not on it but I remember going to the library with JD [Samson] in college so she could check it. It seems like it would get pretty raw, as much as it was awesome. KH: I think it was the beginning of testing these boundaries of anonymity. BF: So the message board is gone, but in your opinion what is the condition of that community today? KH: There is a lot of continuity here in New York City that is fucking rad, people that are musicians, writers, and artists. This is where, for me, I contextualize my work as part of a conversation. It’s not from grinding away alone and perfecting a craft. BF: For this community, would you say that, rather than like 10 years ago when underground music was more the sort of grounding element/departure point— for example, Chainsaw Records was an independent record label first, before it was the host of the message board for a larger community—now maybe “Art” is that thing? KH: So yeah, I do think it’s art now—for me. I’m not sure if that’s age-related or the digital shift. Probably both. But wait! Let me be clear that this “conversation” is not reliant on any particular anchor in a culture or authenticity. I need to throw light on this. It’s important for me to state that my experiences come a lot from the privileges I’ve had in my life, but don’t validate what I’m doing now. BF: By “privileges” do you mean proximity, time/place, allowing you to participate in various communities? KH: Yes, that’s what I mean and I think education is part of it, too. BF: That’s important to acknowledge, especially when assembling and presenting a history. KH: Yeah, it’s important not to mythologize, too. BF: Absolutely. It’s crazy to hear about people’s stories, like NY in the 80s, like, are you serious? KH: I agree completely. BF: I recently read one of my favorite things ever; it blew my mind—kind of made me mad, but really psyched—to hear Patti Smith say that she was only pretending to smoke in order put out an image. Fuck! KH: That’s funny! It’s kinda hard to believe but it makes sense. She was playing with realness… maybe. BF: That is so fucked!!! How many people started smoking because she did look so good with a cigarette? KH: I’m sure a ton of women did to try to look tough like her. Wow. Smoking is kinda sexy looking, too—but not smelling. Luckily I never smoked. I’m proud of that. BF: Have you read that? I read it in a great interview that Chris Bollen did with her in Interview, but I guess she says it in her book, which I haven’t read yet. KH: I have to read that book! BF: I bet it is a really fun read. But speaking of mythologizing, I mean, I don’t know, I haven’t read it, and I wasn’t there, but — KH: Exactly! Because it’s a fine line, and because at a certain point being involved and making shit is relevant and becomes important. BF: It is the point of being anywhere, right? As well, speaking of genre, medium specificity—and I think this is sort of obvious, but also worth saying—the thing about art is that it is “anything goes.” Within a given medium or field, music world, fiction writing world, etc., you can aspire to work within or to redefine— “I’m reinventing the song”—but within art you can make a band, a record, a book, a movie, a performance, a painting, a picture, a conversation about any of these. “Art” is the most open category. To identify as artist, it gives you the most room—it’s like anything goes. Kind of a great endgame, although I think “endgame” might have sort of a negative ring. It is maybe the ultimate benefit of the post-modern condition. KH: Art is very amazing in that way to me. I felt so liberated when I finally figured out this was what I could do to express myself. I had no idea it was out there. I was like, “Yes! I don’t have to learn to play the guitar anymore!” I think our view of art is maybe a mix with subculture? We are lucky for that. I get confused why it’s not like that for all artists and I think it’s this mixture that makes it so rad—subculture is such a dated word! It’s so 90s. BF: Looking around, I know that it can be taken as an advantaged view, but certainly it is an entry point that is readily available, right? KH: Completely. And it’s that thing again of using every little space, of taking advantage of a chance. BF: I mean, it’s like, you spend all this time figuring out how to make a movie, or a record or zines, how to stage a “show,” book a tour, how to create a network because it’s just what you do. And then you come to the “art world” with that stuff, and it’s a lot less impossible seeming. You know how to make things happen—you’re not just this weak crazy artist at the mercy of dealers and curators. Then the dealers and curators can be your friends because your power exchange is more equal. KH: Exactly, exactly! Yeah, we are really lucky to have these skills and experience in total participation. It denotes a different kind of motivation or drive, right? BF: Yes we are. I think about that performance you did, was it last fall? I wasn’t there for it, but it sounded and looked amazing. It wound up happening at Reena Spaulings and getting covered on ArtForum’s site and other places, but I know you were going to stage that thing either way, even if it was in a random basement. KH: Yeah, that’s the thing: that drive comes from the experience of putting shows on or whatever, having had goals of just getting people together. I just needed to make the performance happen so when I put the ad out there was an 800 number, like raves had, to call for the location because I didn’t actually have one yet. That performance was New Paintings. I had a trompe l’oeil body painting of a t-shirt and jeans. Is that drive different or an advantage? BF: I don’t think that it means the drive itself is different. I’m speaking more to a position of empowerment through experience. With respect to that performance in particular, you knew how to stage it regardless of context, right? KH: Yes, absolutely. I was actually looking for an empty storefront but that turned out to be too expensive. Reena Spaulings stepped in at the last minute to host the performance. I had two body guards and I just stood in the gallery. They guarded the “painting,” and people looked at me or took a photo with me. BF: It seems like the turnout and reception was great. KH: I was really pleased with how it went. I had no idea what to expect and I had no idea what exactly I would do with myself. I thought maybe I would be able to mill around in the crowd and casually chat as if nothing was happening, but that was impossible. BF: It was packed, right? KH: Yes it was! BF: So, I was thinking about your performances and possibility, the openness of your pictures, installations, and how the performances are set up to facilitate that openness, too. You’re inviting people in to the pictorial space, sort of quite literally, right? KH: Yes, it’s a kind of participatory space of engagement, I hope. And then there is the other space, behind the trompe l’oeil door that is the photograph that is a proposal for a portal. It’s where I am saying that there is another possibility, things can be different. And when we see each other there is a confluence of factors that are shaping our perspective and therefore, our vision.
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Positions Series, Form #19, 2010 C-print w/ photogram, 30x20 in Courtesy Reena Spaulings Fine Art Position Series #59, 2011 C-print, 30x20 in Courtesy Galerie Balice Hertling (opposite) Position Series #52, 2011 C-print w/ photogram, 30x20 in Courtesy Galerie Balice Hertling
BF: When we see each other at an event—the performance— in person? KH: Either. In an image or in person. BF: So, the performance is exploring all that’s possible, literally, in a direct engagement, and a photograph is maximizing all that is possible past that “door,” like in another world. KH: Well, I hope so. BF: Yes. I’m thinking about what I saw of New Paintings. It seems like it was functioning much like your pictures. KH: I guess that’s how I see the photographs themselves, as a type of object performance. BF: Was New Paintings on some levels about extending the conversation of your current work into other pockets, like, even the idea of “painting,” which is so crazily loaded. KH: Yes, it was about an extension of possibilities of reading and context. And the title is a few things, one of them is to turn the title itself into a performance, into a proposition, and another is about status and reception. So for me the title and the ad especially were the beginning of the performance. BF: Part of it, just the suggestion that you, K8 Hardy, the artist, the persona, were now engaging with “capital P” Painting, right? Like, this in and of itself is a gesture. Or rather that this in and of itself is a gesture? KH: Yeah, engaging with Painting, but self-advancing to a level where I have already produced such a body of work that the newness is worth special attention. BF: Yes! KH: And it’s funny because the title really did rumple the feathers of a few painters I know! BF: That alone means you were doing something right, then, right? Did anyone stay mad? KH: Not that I know of. I mean once they realized I didn’t actually show real paintings, I think the title was OK. But for a while I was considering making paintings. BF: The idea of “career” as a narrative is really something great to get to explore. And doing that performance you got to address that “plot shift” without having to write a whole new book. KH: Yeah, I thought, why don’t I just go ahead and advance myself and have my New Paintings show ASAP? BF: So efficient! KH: Ha! It’s a plot shift. It probably would have been more of one if I actually did make paintings, though. I think that would have upset some people. But I digress! That performance was so much fun. I thought I could walk in naked and all painted with a T-shirt and jeans really casually, but I just couldn’t stop smiling. BF: But that’s why it was such a great move. If we are thinking of these gestures as “moves” (strategies), I guess the real question is if you felt like you actually needed to make “actual paintings,” but with this you were able to make an “actual painting” and conflate the support of that with all of these lineages of performance, quote a bunch of things, control the punch line in so far as there was one, and still direct your narrative in a new direction. So efficient.
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KH: Thanks, Brendan. It’s sometimes hard to measure the impact of a performance. After a week or two, people started to reveal to me that it actually did take them awhile to realize I had no clothes on. The trick worked! I was so surprised, but see, no one told me right away. BF: Perfect! Who did the painting? I mean, who did you have apply the paint? I know you “signed” it yourself. KH: A professional makeup artist named Chantel Miller did the painting. Yes, I hired someone to make my paintings. BF: Even better! One more lineage to engage. KH: She was really good, wow. I was actually not sure when we started that day if it would even work or look real or anything. BF: Had she done trompe l’oeil clothes before? KH: She had. Apparently it’s very popular for gross business parties to have a naked woman standing there with their logo emblazoned on their body. BF: Fuck. KH: So there is a lot of work to be had in this area! They don’t usually put it in their portfolio, though. [laughs] BF: I’m sure working with you was a welcome change of pace. KH: I hope so. I also hired two female bodyguards to protect the painting and that was a change of pace for them for sure! BF: What kind of context do they usually do? KH: Supposedly they do personal detail, you know, for celebrities and stuff. BF: I guess they are usually supposed to seem more behind the scenes, kind of, right? KH: Yeah I did put them on display more than I thought I would. But I wanted people to think about labor and the hierarchy of bodies when they were looking at me. BF: And what a complicated aspect of their usual jobs, right, the role of signifier they play? Both as signifier of status, “I hire someone to guard me,” but also of threat, “if you get near me, this person will hurt you.” KH: And to consider hierarchies of race. To acknowledge that “framework,” if you will. Yes for sure. It’s very loaded. And also they are supposed to be invisible you know? So, again, it’s about looking and just how that’s never innocent. BF: Did they enjoy the change of pace as much as Chantel did? KH: I think they had a good time. I met them beforehand and told them exactly what I was doing and tried to describe my projection of what this art performance and scene would be like. They weren’t actors though, so it was hard to get them to take protecting the painting seriously! [laughs] BF: But I think that this is a worthy example of a non-exploitative use of someone’s hired labor to contextualize an idea simultaneous to the fact that they were hired to actually perform a service, they really were delineating space, creating your path, right? KH: Yes, they were definitely delineating my space and their space too. It was a social statement for sure. I do hope it wasn’t exploitative, but it was a bit off task to their assignment because they became a spectacle too. I wasn’t sure how much it would happen or not, but it happens with celebrities and paparazzi, so I hope it wasn’t too much for them. I thought there would be more movement in the crowd, but everyone circled and just looked at me so we ended up standing in one place. Sometimes I wonder if I should have hired actors, but I wouldn’t
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The Process is Power conference caught my attention because it addresses two important issues for me: 1.Process as a foreign/other language frequently spoken by Lesbians but not limited to this Tribe. 2.Process as a name for working used in relation to Artists. These are topics I am currently investigating in my new work, “Notes on Lying”. What motivates me? I am an artist and an outsider, both simultaneously and distinctively, so a total of 3. I studied various fruits in my education, each one sliced or deconstructed an/other way, an endless amount of variations- but not quite infinity. Yet, when confronted with “Process” I tend to let go. As I release this grip or interpolation, there creates a void, open spaces, never able to be filled or closed, The Gap. And so I stand empty-handed before myself, and before my reader. But I’m convinced this situation needn’t remain so. I think if we stretch the limits, we might find some wonderful tools for regarding Process. In a theoretical world, there are as many ways to view a situation as there are ways of viewers. For this reason, I will use simply my own, sketch it briefly and then illustrate some results. I don’t pretend to present any ground-breaking or revolutionary ideas in this text, just to shift my point of view.
The focus on “Process” by which meaning has been achieved inherently reveals feminist concerns. Inherently you may ask why? Inheritance is a patriarchal mode of moving power that distinctly and forthrightly excludes women, if we use that word woman classify that which is outside heteronormative patterns. Here I assert that again, my concern is not much with what has been said or made or produced. I postulate a different strategy, a risk, for the inscription of Process. If to speak is to act and I say perform, perhaps performance is a form of lying?
I think of my basic gesture as the American middle finger flying in the air of defiance. We’re supposed to be rebels anyways. I will name the specificity of my stance. Two able-bodied legs on the ground in the United States of America, foreign soil.
It’s easy to obsess over the little things, scrape off the top layer of eye shadow your sister’s friend gave you from her stash of samplers at the department store where they both work. She’s a make up artist. It’s another kind of great artist. I look at the scraped up dirty little pads of packed powder and wonder if the germs from all the rich ladies, because it is a nice department store, I wonder if they could seep all the way to the bottom, totally saturate the rectangle of color. No matter, I’ll let my immune system work it out.
It’s scary how activist terms can get co-opted to the point of innocuous. Yet still I am part separatist and have no problem with making statements about Men. Oh Power. No problem at all. Bold statements regarding the still dominant sex, but oh how those women dream- that’s behind us. It’s oh so embarrassing for straight people. Ha ha ha. Must we really bring that up? Let’s just party and have a good time. Tickle tickle he he. Me and my girlfriends are liberated. Stereotypes can’t contain the people within them. It’s violent. So take me on my own terms, or lay yours out so that I can see them. Take a position. I’m wary of silent terms, unspoken, invisible ground.
Should we decide what to do together? I’m stuck in a pattern. I want to continue. I want clarity. The emotions are muddled. I have a deep commitment. I have conceptual questions. I want to check out.
I don’t always want to be an artist. Part of it to me is about carrying around a heavy load of ideas and an intense drive to write about them. By writing I mean making art. By writing, I like to imply the gesture of my hand so may I also call it painting? Is it controlled? Is it messy? Is it queer as a two-dollar bill?
(below and bottom left) Position Series Triptych, 2011 C-prints w/ photogram and marker (3) 30x20 in Courtesy Balice Hertling
Persona is a reaction to Patriarchy. As everyone searches for their true self, they use the fake one they have. Authenticity is slippery. Mimicry is the tenet of femininity.
I’m still not fitting in. I’m a collision. You know what I mean?
Objects are less important than process. Process will never earn a dime. As related in point #2, (O)ther Tribes, have a whole foreign language of process. Communication and dialogue create friction, a small warmness. Lying is done with language, writing, and also the space between words. Gaping holes of nothing, caverns of emptiness, the liminality of abject unknown. A preferred space to occupy, like a country. Let us not forget power.
Politics are intrinsic here, activating questions and thoughts in the world we live in today; all wars considered. It’s a load of dirty clothes for most in the United States. However, I wear dirty clothes every day. Cleaning, putting away the mess, taking the visibility out of mess, making mess invisible, belongs to the privileged. Visibility now marches into the room, on the paper.
So who owns what and why? Who claims to own the unknown thing that dares not bare its name? If one had to live in a closet, lying out of necessity, does the closet ever leave the room?
It’s so rude when an acquaintance maybe friend says, “I’m going out with my girlfriends tonight, me and my girlfriend, I just love all my girlfriends, and I really need to have girlfriends.” This gendered friendship keeps slapping me in the face with their hallowed placement. Now every time I here a sex signifier I become suspect. I feel like there must be something conservative lurking around it. And these days you can guarantee if something is called a Women’s group, it’s usually for conservative means.
Fluidity, fragmentation, and pleasure are associated with the metaphorical ground breaking. The nascent intellectual current is conceptualism, a modality that creates a structure with hierarchies, it’s symbols and signs. It gives process a rigorous, “one, two” and then falls to the floor. So it’s not what I’m looking at, it’s not the finality, but the backwards unfolding. When I say backwards, I do invoke a form of linearity, but don’t limit it within actual directions.
(opposite, top) Live Performance at Reena Spaulings Fine Art. Photo: Ian Pai © K8 Hardy
Some respond RIGHT ON SISTER, I am feeling you. Others are confused thinking she’s asking me to look at her and look away at the same time. Another is literal and she says fuck you too, I say.
It’s time to look over all my notes and find some more meaning. I need to keep adding meaning, searching. I make no apologies. I want everything to be clear to myself, not to you. And coffee. Why does it have to be so bad for you? Is it? Everything is bad. All the artists are sober tea drinkers eating lots of greens and staying in shape. No more drugs, studios are a tight business ship! We’re part of the elite now. It’s part of the battle to convince them at least. The money. I’m flipping pages. I’m looking at old super 8 movies. Animals I filmed at the zoo, incessantly walking back and forth, pacing in the cage, back and forth and back and forth in black and white. It’s kinda hard to watch. I think about Guantanamo. I think about this upcoming election and I get freaked out. The elephants are out of focus. The footage from France with the topless girls on the beach makes you want to question your participation in perversity, that’s the United States at work in your mind. My jeans are dirty. The special black jeans from Trash & Vaudeville where the punks have been making the same cut of jeans since the real deal. The ass has ripped so many times, just came back from the tailor at the dry cleaners, and I feel like I am walking around with a diaper on. It’s weird but my ass still looks good in them. I wish I could afford new clothes. Some avant-garde designer with the freakiest weird shit, who knows if they even sell it to stores even. How we are doing is more important than why we are doing. Is it? I feel a soft breeze from the trees outside my window. I’m upstate as they call it. I still believe in the male gaze. Seems like everyone has given up on that. Different ideas. I’d like to dress up as each of my friends and take their portrait, a portrait of me, an homage. Maybe I’ll do it but I wonder if it’s worth it. The underwear were merely a symbol for the body. The location of the most disgusting form of abjection. I chose the underwear for the location. I buy used underwear. Everyone says they don’t do it. I mean, I check the crotch and make sure it’s not stained, and only if they are like really cool or interesting. And of course I wash them before I wear them. A friend lost my favorite pair of crotch-less panties while performing in the Miss L.E.S. Pageant. Can’t blame her for that. I got them from a Saver’s in Springfield. Now used crotch-less panties no worries. They were lowcut black lace from the 70s, hot. I like to carry around my twenty-something half finished notebooks and journals. I want to finish them because I don’t want to waste the paper. I wish I was an eco-terrorist, but I try to get close. So I try to carry around them with me wherever I go if it is a significant amount of time. I have little ones and regular too. At a certain point a journal will become so time specific that I can’t possibly add to it. Then I will tear out the unused pages and recycle them, making lists and notes and whatnot. I’m so jealous of those hyper organized people. They probably keep their lists in their journals and never fall behind deadlines. The fancy ones are nice. I can’t afford them all the time, but then who cares. If they get too precious yr fucked because the pages’ value combat the value of your words. You see someone with those pristine perfect notebooks, perhaps in black leather? You wonder, what kind of ideas are going into that special notebook? Probably ones that are continuing to make that person richer. I digress, but details like that are always on my mind. I’m not jealous, just aware. Details, like I was saying. Signifiers as others properly note. I hate looking at my email everyday. I can’t control it with my strategic sense of timing. Everything is about timing to me. I take it very, very seriously. I look cute today and I would like to go somewhere and be appreciated for it. Guess I’d like to go thrift shopping or somewhere
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public or something in a cruising zone but my money is so tight I can’t even afford that, much less the cab I would need home. I suppose most people could resolve that problem on the Internet, a blog or whatever. I need immediacy, human contact, and human feelings. I need to feel desired. I’m really pushing it now in a total new over the edge way. Credit cards are maxed out, no more savings. It’s weird to identify with what the politicians are saying, like hey that’s me. No Health insurance, no nothing, broke. hahaha. Borrowed some cash from a friend. Never done that before. Big fucking sigh. I’m freaking out about food but I still continue to look glamorous and that is so confusing. No not the looking part, that’s confusing to other people, it’s the press and the notoriety for me. I’m not supposed to complain about that. It’s just alienating when you’re broke. And I’m an elitist, and educated, total cultural elitist. I like wearing blush because no one expects it anymore. I haven’t given up yet on being a musician either. I just haven’t found the right opportunity. Downwardly mobile they used to say and still some may say about me. It doesn’t stick though anymore. My generation can’t expect to do better than their parents, like our parents could. So there is a downward shift and then slap on being an artist, slap on fighting to be an artist, and downward the finances go. Maybe I’m just in shock cuz I was raised middle class. Isn’t that so embarrassing for some people? Yet they don’t know what it’s like to have nothing to lose. I wonder how much my not boring life is worth. It sure is fetishized. Glamour. Is that what it costs? It feels like poetic vindication to all the boring straight people out perhaps. They’ve got the Internet, TV, and magazines but not the people. Is that mean? I really don’t want to sound mean but then I’m afraid I couldn’t write anything down at all. I’d like to just walk around and let my tits accidentally fall out of my shirt, or hang out. I’m an exhibitionist so it gets me off. Ask an old crotch and she still may say it’s an offense against women. I’d like to offend men and women simultaneously. I’d like to do a performance with an amp so I could get so loud. I have so many fucking ideas like an idiot high school boy with a boner and a guitar. Timing again. It’s weird when someone gives you flowers. Every time my dad fucked up or made me mad I would get flowers. It’s like the offense of making a girl cry, not an apology. I couldn’t help myself but flowers make it all better. Now I like getting flowers. Maybe it’s the city or the person sending them has better taste than carnations. I keep wanting to write about fucking and make it really dirty and nasty. Nasty hard fucking. But I’m back to eye shadow. The powder ones scrubbed up nicely with a dry mascara brush but how do I clean the creamy ones? I like to spray myself with perfume before I go to bed. Roll in it. Especially the ones I don’t wear out anymore, like CK1. I was 16 going to gay clubs in Dallas by myself. It was hot. That smell permeated the whole fucking club and that whole time period. You couldn’t turn around without smelling it. I would bring an apple to the Village Station, the three story-12 room mega dance floor gay club, and dance for hours on end. I was exhilarated. Just dancing, no drinks. The thrill of gay movement and being on a floor without being ogled or mauled by men was beyond any free space I had ever known. It was mostly men there. A separate room and bar, of course, for the drag queen shows. I was transfixed, the only white girl with bleach blonde hair in the corner. I like to work collectively. I don’t know what kind of artist to call myself these days. So I say that I’m a painter and use all the metaphors for the stroke of a brush on canvas, colors, lines, vision, fields and planes. It’s my canvas, an endless field of dimensions. I opened up somewhere along the line. It’s not tight, quick, controlled and constrained because that was my insecure gesture. It occupies time. I’m like, watch this. I believe in expression and affect. I need it. I feel subservient to the politically righteous conceptual artists of my peers. They frame themselves in such a safe way, who could argue? If you did, if you dare to disagree, then you disagree with the politics. Sometimes I feel like that is what is put on the line, challenge me and my feminist work and that means you are ignorant and patriarchal. And I don’t know what they risked. I guess I want that. I want to feel a little passion. I want to put up a high school art show. I’m not a minimalist. I want to make a mobile, can’t decide out of what. “I pledge allegiance to shit” is what my Born Against t-shirt said in high school. A soldier saluting a coffin. I got sent home one day for wearing it. Maybe I can find it on eBay. I almost got up to do just that as I wrote it. I’m horny but I don’t feel like doing anything about it. It’s the end of my period. My flower pharmacy panties are ragged out. I have a thing for pharmacy panties. Especially if I am in a foreign country. I want to touch the average woman. In Austria they had thongs at the pharmacy, could you imagine? Here they call the condom section family planning. We have a language problem in this country. It barely gets hot up here and that makes me homesick, though by now I don’t know if home could be used properly in that world. I guess there is a forever argument regarding that one and formative years. I’m probably too old by most magazine standards to walk around with my ass hanging out of my pants like this, but I guess that’s the beauty of it. I keep having to battle my personality aka performance against my work. It’s like S says about how people decide to take things seriously or not. By now I’m not going out of my way to suntan in order to keep my skin looking nice. I’m concerned about wrinkles. I have deep dream fantasies of places to call home. Houses on the beach left with the past inhabitants possessions including a closet of vintage clothes. Every one of these places unfolds and becomes an endless maze of undiscovered bedrooms and closets. Our parents all expected us to do better than they themselves, only this time the American dream didn’t work that way. None of us expect to do better, doing as in money having. Although we all hope for it. It leaves us in this hole of expectations without work. Not that I can compare myself too much, if I did have the same values, I would be doing “better” most likely. So here you are an artist and what do you have to hold on to?
(preceeding spread) Position Series #51, 2011 C-Print, 30x20 in Courtesy Balice Hertling Installation views To All the G&#%$! I’ve Loved Before at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 2009, Courtesy Reena Spaulings Fine Art (opposite) Position Series #56, 2011 C-Print, 30x20 in Courtesy Balice Hertling
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want to cast the role. I just called their agency and asked for two female guards. Anyways, it’s a little weird that I thought I could just mingle around for the duration. BF: That’s the great thing about performances, though: you have this idea about an artwork, how it’s going to turn out, and rather than a gallery wall demonstrating to you it’s different than you thought, it’s a whole room full of people. I’m thinking about your performances in terms of the act of gathering these groups of people, and then the idea you mentioned earlier of your sculptures functioning as your “posse” in exhibition contexts. You appreciate the group dynamic. KH: Yeah, I mean performance is really so very live. You have to make the work right then and there, no matter what you have planned. You react to the audience and that’s part of the work. I like the reasons we come together into one space. That kind of interaction is important to me. The engagement. I see galleries as meeting spaces and less as museums or sacred space to hang art. And luckily Reena Spaulings is conducive to that. Perhaps if I showed at a stuffy gallery I wouldn’t feel that a performance would be as dynamic, for the group—by that I mean that some spaces are too controlling, and when people gather in that space, they don’t feel as free. Maybe that sounds cheesy, but I mean that location is important. BF: Yes, it is. That gallery is really a very special space in this world, especially this art world. KH: And I am not so sure that performance art can just be casually imported into some pristine blue-chip gallery or museum without having that silencing effect on the work. The thing I do like about performing is that it’s so critical to the location. I didn’t know this at first, and I had some real flops! I’m sure you know what I mean, especially from BARR. BF: Absolutely, yes, it is true. But what’s fun is that that’s something to find out later, if even necessarily at all. KH: But you have to do it to figure it out. BF: Oh yes, big time! That’s one of my favorite things about performance, what it affords you as an artist, as a person, in terms of locating yourself, locating your surroundings, contexts. KH: It’s kinda crazy because you would think if someone gave you the space, you could just do your thing. But there are really so many other factors. BF: Well, I think an exciting thing there is getting to problem solve. It’s like playing a game where the rules, the parameters, are always shifting a little. When you’re working on projects alone, say instudio work, you don’t always have those external shifts to respond to. Those shifts can really provide you with ideas, opportunities that you could never invent for yourself. KH: The fun thing is problem-solving, and that the decisions you make are part of the performance. That it gets put on the line right there in front of everyone. It’s a very vulnerable thing to do, but also incredibly empowering. BF: It’s totally one of those rewarding, scary, thrill things, jumping off the rocks, etc. I wanted to make sure to get this one other, very important aspect into our dialog, especially to this end of the solitary/group dynamic: your sister appears in many of your photographs, almost interchangeably with you. KH: Ha, yes, she does!
Position Series #15, 2009 C-Print, 30x20 in Courtesy Reena Spaulings Fine Art (opposite) Position Series Diptych (excerpt), 2011 C-print w/ photogram, (1 of 2) 30x20 in Courtesy Balice Hertling
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BF: You two are not twins, but you do look similar, as sisters often do. KH: We look a lot alike, and for me it’s the same as using myself. BF: What do you think it’s like for her? KH: Part of the reason that I use myself in the Position Series is because it’s about control in representation. If I don’t know someone who is in front of my lens, they turn into an “other” and the photo will objectify that person. I know my sister so I don’t feel that I am doing that. The knowing is personal, social, societal, and more. BF: She is like an extension of your body, to where you can be on both sides of the camera at once. KH: And she has a great time posing for me. In fact, she has really improved over the years. She used to not be able to keep a straight face in front of the camera and now she is posing it up! BF: Incredibly useful. KH: Yeah, she’s an extension and she is the same context. So for me that works for the photos. BF: It answers some of the great problems of picture making, both technical, conceptual, and technically conceptually technical. [laughs] KH: And it’s much easier for me to photograph myself when it isn’t me! BF: I’m sure it is! Wait, what is your sister’s name? Is it right to say? KH: Her name is Halie. And yes, she is very proud to be in the photos. BF: Halie Hardy? KH: Halie Hardy Corning. BF: Does she have an art practice otherwise, does she make other work? KH: She does not have an art practice. But she briefly ran a gallery in Fort Worth with her ex. BF: So she’s not an outsider to these conversations she’s participating in. Were you two close growing up? KH: She is not involved in the art world, but she gets it. BF: That’s probably an ideal vantage point from which to engage. KH: We weren’t that close growing up. She was my mean old big sister. BF: Now she loves doing this stuff with her sister. KH: She loves it. Sometimes I shoot her because she schedules the shoot! BF: Oh, wow. So, how hard was it to get her to participate at the start? KH: It was easy to get her to dress up but it was hard for her to actually be in front of the camera. Now it just depends on how much time she has for me. I just shot her last weekend and she is seven months pregnant, so that was really fun. BF: K8 Hardy as pregnant model. KH: Yep. I have a feeling it’s going to be more difficult with a little one around. But we’ll see. BF: Well, maybe you’re going to gain a third “you.” KH: You know, sometimes people have seen my work and asked me about my friends that I shoot. It’s nice because I think my sister really throws off the obvious repetition. BF: I must admit that in a few instances I have been confused at first, and I feel like “I know what I’m looking at.” KH: Yeah! It works.
The summer of 2011 marked a great loss in our creative community. Fumihiro Hayashi (aka Charlie Brown) passed away last July in Tokyo. For those who were lucky enough to know him, he was a constant supporter of all things artistic and innovative. His wonderful magazine Dune offered many of today’s greatest creative minds their first exposure in Japan. Dune was primarily a fashion magazine, but the way Charlie pulled different cultures together has yet to be matched by any publication since. In between fashion editorials that coupled some of the industry’s most innovative photographers and designers, the magazine also printed articles on skateboarding, graffiti, music, and award-winning photojournalism. Names like Terry Richardson, Rita Ackermann, Sofia Coppola, Mark Gonzales, Barry McGee, Harmony Korine, Mario Sorrenti, Mike Mills and legions more published some of their first works in Dune. All this was sewn together with a graphic style that was as exciting then as it is today. In honor of Charlie’s passing, and as a tribute to a great editor, champion and friend, we have decided to present you with a selection of some of our favorite spreads from past issues of Dune magazine.
Interview by Aaron Rose Portrait by MIKE PISCITELLI
I always find it incredible the way life works. No matter how much planning anyone does, there always seems to be some other divine order at work. It’s really useless to try to predict things. I first met Willo Perron through my friend Ingrid Allen as he was interested in getting involved in education. I had been running this kind of punk rock art school for teens and we met up to speak about possibly collaborating. He was introduced to me as Kanye West’s creative director. At the time I didn’t know any of his backstory. To me, he was just this dude who works with rock stars. Well fast-forward a few years and we did end up collaborating, and in the process I was also lucky enough to learn his story. A good amount of it is in the interview you are about to read. In the interest of wetting your whistle a bit, I’ll give you the brief rundown. At age fourteen Willo started promoting clubs with his friends in his native Montreal. During the first streetwear boom, he began designing clothes, which led to a series of retail clothing and record shops in the city. This led to a stint as creative director of Rawkus Records at the peak of their hiphop innovation. Next, through another twist of fate, he was hired to design the retail launch of all the American Apparel shops…then to a stint at Apple working on the preliminary design of the Apple Store retail initiative. After that, Willo was introduced to Kanye West backstage at a concert in Koala Lumpur. He began working closely with Kanye, first on clothing then eventually collaborating on album cover art and live show design. This led to working with other acts on graphics, videos and tour design including Lady Gaga, Drake, M.I.A., Rhianna, Alexander McQueen, and more. So that’s the short resume. The world is full of creative people like Willo Perron. However, many times these personalities exist exclusively behind the scenes, never getting much attention and maybe they like it that way? I can tell you that convincing Willo to do this interview wasn’t easy. However I personally feel that these kinds of creative careers are most certainly worth reporting. There is valuable information and knowledge in all kinds of creativity and in hearing the stories of how those careers happened. However the most interesting thing about Willo Perron is not necessarily that fact that he has been a part of some of the most influential creative projects from the last 20 years. That part is cool, but what’s more incredible is the very funny and twisted path that it took him to get there. Artists give many different kinds of gifts to this world. There is a good lesson here in having faith in the chaos, doing your best, letting the wind take you where it will.
Kanye West, 808’s and Heartbreaks album cover, 2008. A limited edition version was also produced in which street-artist Kaws drew hands that ripped the heart in half. Never produced mock-up for the Kanye West single, Power. The same type was used on the final record, but with a different George Condo image. The font was borrowed from a Salvador Dali book that served as inspiration for the record.
Aaron Rose: What was the first thing you made that you remember putting out into the world? Willo Perron: It was probably designing club flyers. As a teenager I used to promote clubs and do events in Montreal. I would put the entire packages together…Book the DJ, design the flyers and oversee the look of the venue etc. Putting on the club or promoting the nights was just my means for creating these entire environments. From a pretty young age I was hanging out in clubs. I was fascinated by club culture and the music. People used to really dress up to go out. I was kind of the weird kid in school and so all this seemed normal to me. The club world had it’s own hierarchy and social structure, whether it was the DJ, the door person or the most flamboyant regulars. People would be in their persona and wouldn’t break character. It wasn’t about who had the most money or who could afford to buy bottles. It was about who was the most interesting personalities were. AR: How did you segue from doing clubs to doing stuff for streetwear brands? WP: Montreal was really an electronic music driven city back then. As young kids we would go to underground clubs and they were mostly house music clubs. But it really didn’t have an impact on the kids from my generation. I was really into rap and punk rock. House was still a derivative from disco. It didn’t seem aggressive enough. When the Rave scene emerged from Europe, we went from house clubs wearing Jean Paul Gautier or Boy London to wearing almost exclusively streetwear. Actually, streetwear didn’t really exist then, it was mostly California skate and surf brands. Even those weren’t clothing lines but tee’s and caps. I grew up skateboarding so a lot of those early California skate brands were already on my radar, like Stussy, Jimmy’z, Vision Street Wear and so on. But I was weird because, at that time, I was both into fashion and street wear at the same time. I would spend my time bouncing around between punk clubs to house clubs to hip hop shows. AR: That’s funny because it wasn’t for many years after that kids started doing that. WP: Yeah I was weird. I bounced around a lot, I was just really curious about subculture. When rave kicked in, my friends and I started throwing
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parties, we were only 16 or 17. We spent every free minute we could trekking down to NYC. The scene there was just starting to really explode. This was the era when Frankie Bones was doing parties in Brooklyn, Limelight was packed with club kids. Patricia Fields had a store in a basement on 8th street. Liquid Sky would eventually open. You could really feel that it was the beginning of something new. We would buy a bunch of records and clothes, party like crazy, then head back home. When the retail stores in Montreal started to want to carry street wear, they would come to us and ask what brands they should carry. AR: So eventually you started to design things yourself? WP: You really couldn’t refer to it as design because back then I was just taking existing garments or workwear garments and adding graphics. It wasn’t very involved. What’s funny is that there were really only a handful of people making streetwear back then. The demand was much bigger than the amount of companies producing it. I think a lot of those companies were really unprepared for what happened when the floodgates opened. So we went from promoting clubs to making clothes. This was mainly because we couldn’t find the things we liked. Also, you have to remember, this was all pre-internet. You actually had to go to London or NY to know about what the coolest shit was….let alone buy it. AR: Did that transition you into retail? WP: I designed streetwear for a few years, but the clothes that I wanted to make were too complex and expensive then the people I was working with wanted to make. So I got a bit disenchanted with the whole process. I was still really involved with music and clubs. I had two radio shows at the time both on the college stations. We played almost exclusively indie rap - a lot of Rawkus and Fat Beats era records. I was still promoting shows at night. I decided to leave the clothing and instead opened a record shop. AR: What was it called? WP: Science. The reason for the name was because there use to be language law in Quebec. Everything had to be in French, so we found a name that was the same spelling in English and French. The shop was a mostly indie vinyl record shop. The space was too big for a record shop. We spaced out singular pieces of vinyl along the walls. It looked more like an art gallery
(above, left to right, top to bottom) A-Trak in the Montreal subway. This became part of a collage used for the cover of an Obscure Disorder single.
Good Foot, a sneaker store owned and designed by Perron in 2006. The idea behind the interior was that if Tony Montana owned a sneaker store, this is how would it look. The place used to be a 100 year-old bakery and the floor is original from that business.
Audio Research recording artists Obscure Disorder. Montreal, 2004. The second iteration of Perron’s Science Records. Montreal, 2006. Stussy retail stores in Vancouver and Toronto. The interior of the Toronto store has a super minimalist approach. The glass box was designed to display the limited edition product. The first American Apparel retail store. Designed by Willo Perron in 2003. Museum framers built all the plexi boxes with reflective bases, however they were very short lived in their usefulness.
Willo Perron, Fabrizio Viti, head designer for Louis Vuitton footwear and Kanye West while working on West’s footwear collaboration for Louis Vuitton. Photo taken in the Louis Vuitton offices in Paris, 2008. (opposite) Kanye West, European festival stage, 2009. The concept for this stage was taken from images Perron found of “faceted” architecture. There is a slit that opens up in the center of the structure where a video screen is revealed.
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than a record shop. We had to do something with all this space and decided to bring in audio components - meaning turntables and mixers. We knew this kid who worked for one of the big audio companies and asked him to come in and do the shop with us. AR: So it was kind of like a DJ supply headquarters? WP: Yeah, It was the only place to buy all those things in Montreal. My dad is a musician and there were always Moog keyboards at our house. In fact my brother’s middle name is Moog. No Joke. When the audio store came into play, the company Moog had been defunct at least 10-15 years at that point. So we called the audio components shop “Moog” as a sort of homage. This was right in the days when people were starting to go digging for old gear and nobody had remanufactured anything. Around the same time Grand Royal (a magazine done by the Beastie Boys) had done an issue on Moog. AR: You guys were right on the cusp… WP: I guess so, my partner has every single Moog piece ever manufactured… and we got them at the time for almost nothing! People would show up at the store and sell them to us for very little or just drop gear off to us and say, “Do you guys want this?” Like it had just been gathering dust in someone’s garage. Now we had a record shop with this great audio store inside it. AR: How did you guys design the shop? WP: This was actually my brother and I’s first interior project, if you want to call it that. The store looked much better then your classic record/audio store. The packaging for the shop was always really well done, all our flyers looked great. It wasn’t one of those places where it was a bunch of record bins covered in stickers. We custom built all of the furniture, which was maybe wasted on my customer, but everything was really cohesive. So the store became kind of a hang out for the local music scene. A-Trak was getting started, his brother Dave One and I, would sit around and fantasize about putting out records. AR: So wait, how old were you when all this was happening? WP: Maybe 21 or 22? Dave was just a kid! He was like 17, and A-Trak was like 13. Dave had already been recording demos with local hip-hop acts. So we partnered up with Suroosh from Vice. Vice were still based in Canada at that time, and both Dave and I wrote hip-hop articles for them. A-Trak was part of a group called Obscure Disorder. We went into the studio with our own money and decided to do a 500-copy run of this record. While the record was being pressed, A-Trak was on the DMC (world DJ championships) circuit and he winds up winning! All of a sudden we were sitting on this record featuring A-Trak, and everything kind of fell into place! AR: What was the label called? WP: Audio Research. So we had all these things going on. Record shop, radio shows, club nights and now the label. Right in the middle of this I get a call from Damon Way from DC Shoes. I met him at trade shows when I was still doing clothes. He asked what I was up to and wanted me to come meet the crew and talk about maybe coming on board as a head designer for Dub and Droors. This was right when they had merged with Steve Rocco and World Industries. So I flew out and it wasn’t really an interview. It was more like they had already made their decision. It was a pretty surreal moment.
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AR: Was the meeting at the World Industries warehouse? WP: Yeah it was at the World Industries headquarters in El Segundo. I walk in and it was all of these guys who I grew up watching in skate videos there. Rodney Mullen was sitting at a desk working away. JT was the art director. It was a crazy place! I didn’t really know LA back then and spent all my time in the South Bay when I was in town. I grew up in an east coast city and all of a sudden I was spending most of my time in this suburban cultural vacuum. I really hated LA at the time; it was void of anything really interesting. AR: I would agree with that. WP: Yeah, LA really hit its low point from the end of the 80’s till the mid1990s. I was probably there when it was pretty shit. AR: Was all the stuff you were doing in Montreal still going? WP: Yeah, I had been multi-tasking. My partner was taking care of the record shop. Eventually, I got back and set up a design office. One day by fluke, Jarret who owns Rawkus Records contacted me. Acquaintances suggested he call me to show him around Montreal. We got along brilliantly and a few months later they hired me. AR: What were you doing for Rawkus? WP: I was the creative director. I worked on everything there. From album packaging to video treatments to photo shoots. It was a great place to be…Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Big L, Cool G Rap, DITC. It was crazy, messy and a lot of fun. AR: Was Rawkus your first serious entre into the music business besides the record store and your indie label? WP: Yes and no. That’s not really how the current incarnation of my career exists, but that was the first time I was working for a real label. We did such a wide spectrum of stuff. It was kind of an incredible experience AR: Man, your career is so ADD!! WP: Haha… At this point I was flying back and forth between New York and Montreal every week. I decided to open up a few more stores. I opened up a little clothing store there called Eskimo. Then I partnered up with this other guy that had established retail shops and then ended up having four stores instantaneously. AR: So when did you get involved with American Apparel? WP: In 2003 Dov Chaney from American Apparel showed up at my shop. He’s from Montreal too. His family lives there and I had known him for a while. He liked the shop and soon after, my brother and I end up designing American Apparel showrooms. My retail stores moved a lot of American Apparel tees and eventually, we opened an annex selling exclusively American Apparel product. AR: So that was the first American Apparel store? WP: Yeah, that was the very first one. Simultaneously Dov had one of his buddies working on another one in New York on Broadway near Astor Place. From then on I ended up on a three-year adventure just cranking out American Apparel stores as quickly as possible. I was literally opening two stores a month!! AR: Was the design of the original shops pretty much what set the template for all the other shops that have opened around the world since?
Kanye West, artist collaborations (2008-2010). The top images are of Marco Brambilla’s original collages for the Power video from 2010. The video was originally supposed to be a full-length movie. The image below is from a record launch event that that was produced as a collaboration with artist Vanessa Beecroft in 2008. The piece was titled VBKW and was staged for the release of 808’s and Heartbreaks. The performance consisted of 50 women in the shape of a heart. It was staged at night in an empty car dealership in Los Angeles.
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WP: Not at all. The first store was very minimal. The visual presentation was our focus. My retail businesses were a different model because we sold fewer pieces at a much higher price point. American Apparel was a totally different story. We would have hundreds of customers every day. We found that the up keep to our minimal visual design was not practical for an American Apparel model. We had to re-assess the design pretty quickly. There was this amazing bus station on Montreal with all this exposed HVAC. It looked like the Pompidou Centre, so we just started powder coating everything, trying to make them look like Hi-Tech. We figured out that we could buy slat-board and pegboard and pipe and flange pretty much everywhere in the world! It’s all the same. AR: So the design was totally modular. WP: The stores were modular out of necessity. All the stores are a bit different, but the whole aesthetic for that entire retail project was developed between four people. We basically developed, built, designed and staffed around a hundred stores! The first two years we were totally nuts. By year three I got really burnt out…I had to stop. AR: So don’t tell me, you went on to do something else again? WP: Well, all of my stores in Montreal had become American Apparel stores and I sold the audio/record shop and was basically free to move on. I had one American Apparel store to finish in Atlanta and when I was just about to go do that I got a call from Apple. They wanted me to come work on their retail stores. It was super gratifying getting that call. I was really excited to work for a company that was really detail and design oriented. I imagined myself working around a table with super geniuses, designing the most perfect-machined aluminum piece to hold up a stair. AR: So they wanted you to help design the Apple stores? WP: They called me to work on what they were calling experimental retail. AR: I could see that being so many people’s dream job!! WP: Apple is a really great company and an easy place to get comfortable. But when I got there… it was just another office job. Apple moves at a very calculated pace. It was extremely precautious and slow. You have to remember; I just came from the exact opposite of this. Eventually, I realized that I needed and liked to take more risk and enjoyed pushing the status quo. In the end, I think I had too much of an opinion to fit in. AR: Was that a prevailing attitude at Apple? WP: It’s hyper PC. Basically the industrial design group and the engineering group are two departments at Apple that are given a lot of power. They essentially create the product. I got pulled into the design department and worked in design and packaging. This isn’t a slander on Apple. It’s a great innovative brand. There are a lot of really talented people there…but a lot of talented people who weren’t getting pushed very hard. I went from getting pushed to my absolute limit with American Apparel to coming into work everyday at Apple and sitting at my desk and basically googling nonsense for about four hours, then maybe I would go get a snack, then Google some more shit, then maybe sign onto a meeting...then Google some more shit and then go home. That was my average day! I was like, “Man, I’d rather be poor and die than do this for the next fifteen years.” I really thought we were going to change the world. But the whole thing deflated me quickly. AR: Did you end up working on the retail spaces? WP: A little bit. We did a test store in Palo Alto and one in Japan, but you know I wasn’t digging it. It wasn’t my speed at all. To make a long story short I was there about six months and I just said to myself, “OK, I’m good.” I walked out of the office and called my dad that evening. He said, “Your brother and I are going to Cambodia.” My dad fancies himself an amateur archeologist and wanted to go to Ankor Wat. So I grabbed a bunch of stuff, left my apartment, and flew to Bangkok to meet them. I wound up cruising around Asia for six months. I really had no plan. I was just bumming around, going to weird places, just hanging out by myself for days. It wasn’t one of those, “I’m going to find myself” trips, but it ended up being very insightful in a strange way. One of the things I wanted to do was go to this surf spot in Bali and a few other loose things, but most days I would just wake up in the morning and get on a bus or a train to some random location. It was a total shift. Especially being in my thirties. I’m happy I wasn’t younger where I would have ended up with an OM tattoo or something and I’m happy that it wasn’t a midlife crisis. It was a good time and it really threw my life into a twist. AR: I can’t imagine how different that must have been from a desk job at Apple. WP: Completely. So towards the end of the trip, I started to get myself back into the mindset of having to go back to civilization eventually. I ended up in Koala Lampur for the formula one races. It was the first ever Malaysian Grand Prix. I got pit passes. It was like 400 degrees there, and within the first 30 minutes I lost my earplugs. I sweated every ounce of fluid from my body. So I
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thought, “So much for my attempt to wrap up my trip with some fancy Monaco shit.” I got the fuck out of there! When I went back to my hotel, there was an ad on TV for a Kanye West concert. He was performing In Koala Lampur the next day. A-Trak was my buddy from back in the record store days and he had since become Kanye’s DJ. So I hit him up. I got to see the very last show of the Late Registration tour. I was introduced to Kanye back stage. He already knew some of my work in the Rawkus days and after talking for a bit, Kanye wanted to keep in touch to talk about potentially doing some retail shops. AR: Again a totally random event… WP: Totally random…but at the same time it all sort of makes sense. It was a great ending to a long trip. I had been all through Asia, and seen all kind of things, from surf towns to big cities. My final stop was Shanghai where I was visiting a close friend. When I finally checked my emails, I received a bunch of messages from Kanye’s people asking me if I could come to Tokyo. I thought, “Why not?” I wasn’t doing anything important. I jumped on the plane the next day, leaving half my shit in Shanghai. I showed up and they were shooting the video for Stronger. To tell you the truth there wasn’t that much attention paid to the fact that I was there. So after the first day I thought… I’m gonna go. Then that night, Kanye and I ended up having a long conversation. We had a lot of similar ideas and tastes. From there I went on to being involved in pretty much every creative conversation Kanye was having. AR: So it ended up growing to be a project much beyond retail… WP: The retail/clothing didn’t even materialize. There’s a lot of work that went into it, but in the end, never happened. We did a ton of other shit from album packaging to performances to tours. At first I was kind of a creative consultant, not really designing stuff. Then it turned into really building and designing things together. I mean, there’s such a barrage of things that happen to people in that position. One day there’s a photo shoot, the next day it s a video, performances and its clothes and furniture and people and everything. There’s just a ton of shit going down on a daily basis. There was tremendous amount of work. AR: The other day you were talking about designing the cover for “808 and Heartbreaks”, there’s a funny story behind that right? WP: Yeah, I think you brought up Tokyu Hands? AR: Exactly. For the readers that don’t know, Tokyu Hands is this do-it-yourself superstore in the heart of Shibuya, Tokyo. WP: Well during the Graduation record we spent a lot of time in Tokyo. One day I walked into Kanye’s hotel room and he said, “We need to get the album packaging for 808’s done tonight!” I was like, “What? OK. Let me see what I can come up with”. I had already done all this preliminary work on the design. I made a perfect 808 drum machine in the shape of a heart, and we were just going to drop it and break it, but I didn’t have any of that in Tokyo and I don’t think Kanye was hype on the idea. So I went to Tokyu Hands and bought everything in that store that was heart shaped. I went back to my hotel and started fucking around and taking photos. So the deflated balloon that ended up on the cover was exactly that. It was a deflated balloon that I shot on my bed in my hotel room! At this point it was 5AM and I had been shooting photos all night. I email him the photos and went to sleep. About an hour later, he calls me up and goes “I love it!” I asked, “Which one?” He said, “The deflated balloon! Let’s do it.” So I drag my ass out of bed and go to his room. We put some type on it and by the next day it was on I-tunes. There have been a lot of those kinds of moments. You’d be surprised how so much of this shit in our world gets made that way. Really iconic shit that happens really last minute… AR: I hear that so much! The most amazing and culturally important stuff just made overnight without thinking. It’s a good lesson. WP: Yeah, that whole 808’s record was hyper sincere. I think that record will be viewed as really important in the future. What’s funny is that when I first heard it I didn’t even like it. He had me listen to rough mixes of Love Lockdown and Heartless and I was like, “I don’t know!” You sure that’s the single?” It was the same with Lady Gaga. When I first started working with Gaga I was like, “I don’t know man…what is this record?” AR: So from your background in retail and clothing design what was the biggest jump for you to start designing performances and tours? WP: Most people who do live tours or TV come from lighting or choreography and don’t necessarily come from a stage design background. Most people have known and seen each other come up the ranks. For that reason the barrier of entry into this field is complicated and insular...and also the reason why a lot of the big acts look the same. Artists use the same people and ideas over and over again. My entry into this world is not conventional. A lot of my contemporaries are more technical based and I focus more on culture. I focus in the changing tide of culture…not on the latest gear available.
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(left and opposite) Lady Gaga, images from the Monsterball tour (2009). Each act tells the cycle of life from an aquatic cell atomic space that celebrates non-vertebrae ocean creatures eventually ending with a post-apocalyptic vision. All the videos were shot with Nick Knight in London over two days. The gyroscopic orb was based on a hat and dress that Gaga owns, but it was so hard to get her into the orb dress that in a few seconds between acts that Perron ended up making the giant orb that she stands in on stage. (below) Lady Gaga at the Royal Variety (2009), a show that the Queen of England puts on every year. The piano was meant to be a tribute to Louise Bourgeois with a heavy nod top Tim Burton. The piano is actually a big piece of painted Styrofoam with a keyboard placed in inside. (opposite, far left) The original storyboards for the Monsterball tour (2009).
AR: What was your first stage design? WP: I did a bunch of one-off shows with Kanye. I was one of the voices on the “Glow In The Dark” tour. That was technically the first tour I worked on, but there were so many people involved in that. Spike Jonze was there for a minute and the Daft Punk dudes would come in and do some shit. There were a lot of voices. It was a big melting pot. Around that time, I had also met Gaga. She was just getting going so I helped her with a couple of little projects. Eventually we planned a big tour with Gaga and Kanye together. I designed that tour through and through. Sequenced, storyboarded and everything AR: Was this for both acts? WP: Yes, I was doing creative direction for both. Unfortunately that tour fell apart. But Gaga’s career was really taking off and she had to go on tour to support the record. So she asked me to do her solo. I designed the tour, which ended up being “Monsterball.” AR: Can you talk a little bit about your process in putting together a tour like this? WP: I like to put a narrative to things, even if it doesn’t come through in the end. So I always start with a storyboard. For Monsterball we decided that we were going to tell the story of the inception to the destruction of mankind. So it all started with these amoebic shapes then vertebrates then intervertebrates, then aquatic life, then creepy forest creatures into a man versus industrial story. There was this one really vulgar animalistic one. Then we would go into a sort of an apocalyptic thing then into something like a space rebirth. There were about a dozen acts in the show. Each act was really defined. The idea was to do this hyper clean show rather than doing the typical thing with a bunch of band gear and trussing. The concept was that it was this singular box where all of the lighting and action would come from, but it just looked like a picture frame when the show started. More and more action would then evolve out of this thing. I wanted it to be like a perfect square and everything happened within this perfect square. So I literally pulled a ton of references, attached them to every act, and then storyboarded the show in sequence. I pulled reference imagery for each act and worked closely with Nicola Formicetti and Zaldi on costumes. We then developed the costumes and went to London to build the video content of the tour with Nick Knight and Ruth Hogben. I brought all my boards to London and set them up in Nick’s studio and gave him the narrative. Nick’s amazing! He gets exactly how I work. My work is meant to inspire people. We’re telling an act-based story and so each act has to be crazy in it’s own moment. He would pick up on small details and come up with all this incredible shit. Then we went back to LA and set everything up on a soundstage and started cracking away. Monsterball was an incredible opportunity to learn a craft. The first tour I ever worked on was Kanye West’s “Glow In The Dark” and the first tour that I creative directed was Lady Gaga’s “Monsterball!” When I really think about it, it’s totally crazy. AR: There was no coming up through the ranks for you! WP: Yeah, but in my defense I have almost twenty years experience in the design world. AR: Well it makes sense that if you take all the different elements of your career thus far including retail design, the record business, clothing design and blend it all up - a stage show kind of makes a lot of sense. WP: Yeah. It’s about being able to tell the whole story. You want to design a culture. I don’t really agree with making stuff look cute for the sake of looking cute. I always ask myself, “Why does this exist?” What’s the story we are trying to tell? I mean cute objects just wind up in landfills eventually. Who the fuck cares about it? AR: So you feel that whatever you create has to have some kind of message? WP: Yeah, but I’m not on some high and mighty righteous shit right where I’m saying my stuff needs to absolutely have a reason. I think you have to start going in the direction of having a reason. I would love to be able to design and engineer a tour from the ground up so that the nuts and bolts and the efficiencies and the environmental
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impact, and everything else has an absolute reason for being there. But these are gifts that you’re given with trust based on the longevity of your career. Now I’m just making cute shit and trying to do that with a message. Maybe it will be in people’s memories for the rest of their lives? You know, versus designing a really cool toothbrush that nobody gives a shit about. Hopefully the eventuality of the result of my whole design career is less based on aesthetics and more based on the culture and the reason behind it. Or else long term you just end making pink asymmetrical couches just because you can. AR: But that wouldn’t make sense for you… WP: No. But I think it’s just an evolution. My career is still under twenty years old; it’s just starting to have a conscience. As a human I’ve had a conscience for a really long time, but to tell you the truth, my career just left its parents basement and has just figured out how to pay its own rent. The long term goal is to nurture each project from end to end and to be responsible for how its made, where its made, how it goes up, how it goes down, you know where it winds up once it’s done…everything! Maybe I can design a tour that’s a great set, but can then be donated as a park for kids. That would have to be a conversation that we would have to have at the very beginning of the design process. So you know I’m creeping up to that level of responsibility in my work. But right now I’m still earning people’s trust. I still work in a client based business. I’m not an artist. I’m a designer…and I really am a designer! When people say “creative” this or “creative” that - in truth, I’m really just a designer-a problem solver with aesthetic taste and awareness of collective conscientious. I envy people that can just take the pragmatic out of the creativity and just sit around and emote. You know? I’m such a pragmatist that there’s always logistics attached. I need problems to solve. I work better that way. Problems don’t stress me out.
(clockwise, from top)) OVO Fest, Toronto (2011). Drake puts on this show annually as a way to give back to his hometown. The concept was to create a very simple structure then using video mapping, Perron created screens that go up and down within it. Bono and The Edge, finale for American Idol (2010). Perron was called a week before the show and asked to create some sort of Spiderman themed stage. There were actors running around in Spiderman outfits doing pirouettes during the performance. Rihanna on the MTV European Music Awards, Madrid, 2010. Performance is based on a Pina Bausch performance. Meant to be a fantasy princess concept that eventually rotates rotated into something completely different.
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Katherine Bernhardt makes gigantic, wild paintings. I had been seeing them for years and years and years, and at first I didn’t love them. Then, a few years ago, I started to notice that I liked them. I think it was right around the time she first started showing her paintings of Swatch Watches, which are, like most of her paintings, large and very, very physical in spite of their relatively flat application of paint. Standing in front of them, they are like a very specific aspect of time coming to swallow you whole. Suddenly I realized that I love her paintings, the girls, the watches, the rugs—all of them. I had never heard her speak about the work before, so in discussing these paintings I thought it made sense to start from the beginning.
Interview by brendan fowler / Portrait by Phil grauer / images courtesy canada gallery
Brendan Fowler: Katherine, where did you grow up and when did you start making art? When did you know you were going to be a painter? Katherine Bernhardt: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I started making art when I was about two years old. I always made drawings at the kitchen table with my mom, and then I started painting seriously in high school where I made my first oil painting and also worked with acrylics and watercolors. I never actually “knew” exactly when I thought I would “become” a painter—I just always was making stuff. I set up a studio in my bedroom and worked on my desk. BF: What kinds of things were you painting as a kid? KB: As a kid I drew my fantasy of what California was like, so lots of palm trees, and the sun, and waves. Then I made a series of paintings of Capoeira dancers from Brazil, and after that I made tons of watercolors of huge flower petals. I also took a painting class at the St. Louis Art Museum, where we made paintings of still-lifes and paintings of the actual museum interior. BF: Have you painted pretty consistently since then? I’m imagining that there was a point at which you realized that art was a bigger part of your life than it was for most others, right? KB: I have painted pretty consistently since high school. I
did notice that art was more important to me than a lot of other people in my class. They were really into their calculus homework, and studying for SATs and stuff like that. I was more into studying different cultures and fantasizing about getting out of St. Louis and going to Brazil and Morocco, and Portugal, and then at night making art in my bedroom. BF: That’s really interesting, because I feel like your work now—the work we know you from—has such strong ties with ideas of escape or adventure. We have to get back to that. Did you go to art school when you graduated high school? KB: After high school I took the year off to go to Brazil as an exchange student. I was supposed to go for a year, but ended coming back like a month later. I was in a really crazy mind set at the time, and just had to get back to St. Louis to be with my good-for-nothing boyfriend. So that year, I got into lots of trouble—arrested several times, slept in abandoned apartments, didn’t go home for days on end, no calls to my family to tell them I was OK. Just wild, hanging out in The Loop—The Loop is the cool part of town—we would sit on “the wall” all day and hang out and walk around and stuff like that. I was even filmed on America’s Most Wanted—during a drive back from Chicago with my b.f., we were pulled over for being an interracial couple, and hand cuffed, arrested, searched, the
Missoni Bikini Sass and Bide, 2006 Acrylic on canvas 48x60 in (opposite) Bamako, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 60x48 in
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car was stripped and we were filmed. Nothing was found in the car. And the show never aired. [laughs] My parents checked me into a mental ward and tried to make me reform. As a last resort to save my life, my parents said, as a last chance, that I could go to an art school summer program, and try it out, and if I passed the summer, they would help me with college. Or else I would work at the grocery store the rest of my life and it was over. So I decided to go to art school. I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. BF: At that point did you realize you were taking art as an occupation? KB: Taking art as an occupation was always a given with me, there was no other option. No one would hire me, anyway, at any job I applied for, so art was the only thing to do. Doing anything else in the world seems pointless to me. BF: Real talk! How was art school? Did it feel more like freedom or the army? Or something else? KB: Art school was OK. I was really quiet and to myself and had maybe one friend. I didn’t learn anything there, really—the classes were all, like, “do whatever you want.” The advanced painting program was good, though, and we had good critiques. But in general the school was very laid back and didn’t care if you came to class or not, really. I did enjoy seeing the Georgia O’Keefe paintings hanging in the museums, and I
was really into Impressionism there. I thought Impressionism was current art. There were like three galleries in Chicago at the time. Beret International was one of them, and I did an internship there. It was the first time I actually saw contemporary art. It was the first time I saw a Laura Owens painting. That blew my mind. BF: Did you go to New York right after school? KB: I went to grad school directly after finishing SAIC. Moved to NYC and started School of Visual Arts. Moving to New York, I finally felt like I was in reality. I finally fit in and started to talk, and open up and make friends. BF: What year did you move? KB: I moved to NYC in 1998. BF: Do you remember how your paintings looked in school or after you moved? Whether it’s a face or a watch or a rug, your paintings are so immediately recognizable as yours, I’m wondering how your style developed? KB: My paintings from the Art Institute were definitely “my” paintings as well—they were portraits of E. T., portraits of Nike and Adidas shoes. And paintings of rap lyrics. They were messy, as well—lots of paint and free and open, lots of color. At SVA I continued to paint E. T., and also lots of set up still lives, and returned to the California theme for a while, and was experimenting a lot. BF: How long did it take for you to start showing after school? KB: During SVA I decided to do an internship at Team Gallery. A former teacher of mine, Michael St. John, who was showing there at the time, suggested it to me. I didn’t work there for long, but I learned a lot there. One day out of the blue I decided to send slides to Team. José Freire called me back and started coming to do studio visits with me at SVA. By the time I was to graduate, I had a show planned with the gallery. They came and took my paintings straight out of the SVA building to the gallery. BF: And this was early 2000s, right? How’d the show go? KB: Yeah, it was 2000. The show went well. Jerry Saltz wrote a huge review in The Village Voice.
BF: Did you have more shows at Team? When did you start painting the models? How did those paintings begin? KB: Yes, I had several more shows with Team, solo and group shows. I worked with Team for about six years. I started making the paintings of models pretty much right after graduating from grad school. It just kind of happened. I had always been obsessed with magazines and models, so it was the next natural thing to do. Take the magazines and images from the magazines and appropriate them. I was also using lots of fashion symbols/logos in the work as well, like the L/V logo or any of the logos that are popular. That relates to what I’m doing now, with the Moroccan carpet paintings. Painting the symbols that are represented in the designs. I have also painted my apartment with Moroccan symbols. BF: Your apartment looks fantastic! I want to get back to the paintings of models, but first I had this thought, which is that you first fell for painting as a means of escape—thinking about you painting California and Brazil when you were growing up in St. Louis—but now that you’re an adult and have found agency in your life, painting has become not so much a means of escape as a means of transformation: you’re not fantasizing about other places, you are creating other places. I guess that it’s still in the realm of harnessing fantasy, what do you think? KB: Yes, fantasy is still a major part of my work. Fantasizing about other places and actually going there, researching the place and coming back and “recreating” it in a way. I had first been to Morocco when I was 15. The place never left my mind. I was only there for two days, camping and visiting the souk in Tétouan, but the impression that the place left on me was remarkable. I had never been to such a different, dramatic, “exotic” place like that ever in my life. Everything was new and exciting and strange. So, until November 2009, like 20 years later, I had been fantasizing about my trip there when I was 15, reading and rereading all the Paul Bowles books, and watching The Sheltering Sky, over and over. I finally returned. It was as interesting as I remembered, if not more so. That’s when I got really into the rugs and textiles.
Rivers and Pathways, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 96x72 in Fall/Winter 1983, GB103, 2009 Acrylic and spray paint on canvas 96x72 in (opposite) Nomads and Tents in the Atlas Mountains, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 96x72 in
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Lite Blue, 2009 Acrylic and spray paint on canvas 96x72 in (opposite) Tintarella, 2009 Acrylic on spray paint on canvas 96x72 in
BF: And you brought back a bunch of rugs, as well, right? When did you start making the paintings of rugs? KB: Yeah, I have been collecting the rugs. I go all over to get really amazing rugs, to nomads in tents, to cave people, to shops in Fez, and specialty rug stores all over Morocco. We also get invited to peoples’ houses and buy rugs directly from the weavers. I started making the rug paintings like a year ago. I’ve started a rug importing business as well. BF: Wow. Is the rug business functioning as an aspect of your art practice, or is it its own thing? I’m sure it’s at least gaining you greater access to source material, right? KB: Yes, everything in my life is tightly woven together, [laughs] and to quote Gauguin, “Oh, you painters who ask for a technique of color—study carpets and there you will find all knowledge.” BF: I was wondering if or how you think of the rug paintings as functioning in an abstract painting conversation? Surely they are representational works— they are paintings of rugs—but of course they could be viewed also as “pattern paintings,” which have a certain advantage in that they can exist as abstract and representational paintings simultaneously. KB: The rug paintings definitely function as abstract paintings as well as representational paintings. They are definitely related to pattern and design movements, you are correct! BF: I thought there was some of that in your thinking. Did this feel like a breakthrough to be able to access these domains, or was this present for you in your earlier works, too? You seem pretty free with your painting in general. KB: Yeah, just the next natural thing that came along and happened. The Swatch paintings felt more like a breakthrough for me than the Moroccan carpet paintings. The Swatch paintings were totally freeing and so much fun to make, and just different from the models. BF: I was just about to ask about those paintings. KB: All my work is based on childhood fantasies basically. Swatch Watch, when I was growing up, was serious design to me. All the designs blew my mind, and me and my friends would go to the mall on the weekends to check out all the new designs. We would wear like two or three Swatches at a time. I also collected the ads that Swatch came out with in the magazines. So making the Swatch paintings was fun and making them giant and enlarging them was ridiculous and good. BF: I love those watch paintings, too, and I think that one of my favorite aspects is the fact that they are in part about documenting time, whether real or fictionalized. How would you decide what time the watches in the paintings would read? KB: Yes, the paintings are about time, and they are kind of figures as well. They are like huge belly paintings. I wrote a small essay about the work [see sidebar]. I never decided the time of the paintings, it is all exact copies from whatever photo I had of them that I found. But I did discover that 10:10 is the most popular time—I guess it just looks good on a watch. BF: And what about the paintings of the models, how did those begin? You were doing E.T. and sneakers before that, right? KB: The model paintings started out of being obsessed with models, and then deciding to make paintings of models. Most of my work is about obsession. I figured, “I should paint what I love.” I’ve always had favorite models since I was little and looking at Elle magazine. BF: Do your favorite models change with the new crop every year or so, or do you tend to hold on to faves even when they aren’t so visible anymore? KB: The models change with whoever I like at the time. Right now it’s pretty much Rihanna. The red hair is just amazing. All the paintings that I just sent for my show in Dubai are all red heads. Lily Cole, Rihanna, [Evan] Rachel Wood. I was thinking about [Botticelli’s] Birth of Venus, and her amazing orange red hair. BF: So your turnover with the subject matter is pretty intuitive—fast—it is changing as your feelings change?
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“ this is presumably your first Dog of the Day”? Yoga. Finding your center. the navel. the navel of the earth. Delphi, the navel of the world. Oracles. finding your navel, and your supersoul. finding your joy. twisting and stretching, and breathing, and holding a position. releasing tension, anger, energy, sadness, finding that peaceful place. the center. having started to take yoga a few months ago, i have found that my art work, the swatch watch paintings, are directly related to this center, this navel, this mystical search for the center. the area in the painting where the hands and the second hand meet is the navel. the circular dimension of the face of the watch is also a center. literally drawing the center. creating a circle, exactly related to my body. my armlength in a total circle that draws the center of the face. also the body of the swatch is a belly of the earth. the womb. the body, legs and arms, and the core. core body strength. breathing in and out while painting a circle on the canvas. a meditation in time. the area in the painting that is the arms of the watch meet the face creates a Butt like shape. two buttox touching. a rounded butt 4 times on the canvas. not to mention the 80’s vibe and color of the watches chosen here. Pink and grey, yellow and gray. blue and grey. white and gray and pink, and red. keith harring, kiki Picasso, Not Vital, sam francis, yoko ono, original designs. simplicity of design, brite vibrant colors, oversized super swatch wall clocks. collector aspect. collectable. buying “Lots” of swatches on eBay. visiting the swatch store in manhattan. remembering wearing 4 or 5 watches on my arm at once in junior high school. Going to Dillards on the weekend with my friends to look at the swatch counter. ooohhh and ahhhah ing at the counter. memorizing the names of the watches. CAlifati, pinstripe, hang twelve, la luna di Capri, pink betty, compu-tech, pink flamingo, squiggles, osirus, Horus, Breakdance, . singing a made up song on the way home from school. “the natives are restless bora bora , tropical treasure bora bora”. the bora bora collection. Waipitu. essaouria, mogador, Raffles. the concept of time.Living. tick tock, not enough time in the day, rushing, calming down, speeding up, organizing, taking time out of the day, not wasting time,aging, inner time, internal time, personal time, private time.The death of Michael jackson. swatch watch is a pop phenonmenom. and i Heart swatch.
(from top, left to right) Azilal Totem, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 36x36 in
Valley of the Roses, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 60x48 in
(opposite, left to right)) Chloe Sevigny, 2006 Acrylic on canvas 60x48 in
Algerian Tribal Weaving Painting, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 96x120 in
African Tribal Dance, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 60x48 in
Spiders, Fields, Tattoos and Rivers, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 60x48 in
Hdida Diamonds, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 60x48 in
Tents and anti Evil Eyes, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 60x48 in
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KB: Yes, it’s all intuitive. I make the paintings pretty fast as well. There are several layers of paint on the paintings, but basically I make the painting all at once in one day. BF: So there will be paintings under the paintings? KB: So there are several layers to a painting. That’s what makes it rich, with good color, and brightness. BF: Do you have the final painting in mind, or do you start working on an image, covering it over a few times before the canvas is done? KB: Yes, there is always a specific painting in mind that I work on. I layer two or three coats of brown paint, then two or three coats of skin tone, then a couple coats of the clothes, and then the face and the details later on. It’s acrylic paint, so it dries fast. BF: When you are doing these layers, say the clothes for example, are you trying different versions until you find the ones that you’re happy with? KB: All the model images and paintings are based directly from photos from magazines—I don’t make any part of it up. I may edit and omit certain details, but the costume and colors and most everything is based directly from the image from the magazine. BF: How did your connection with Canada Gallery begin? KB: I met Canada through Brendan Cass and Brian Belott, they introduced me to them. Brendan Cass organized a show called “New York’s Finest,” and he included me in the show; that’s how I became aware of Canada. I remember Brendan was always going to Canada and hanging out there, and that the vibe there was really relaxed and chill and the directors were nice. One day out of the blue, after I had left Team, I emailed Canada and asked them to come to my studio and if they would be interested in doing a show with me. BF: When did you leave Team and have the Canada people come over to your studio? It was pretty early on in their gallery, right? KB: I was with Team for about six years, so I guess I left in 2005/2006. I called the Canada people like two weeks later after leaving Team. I think Canada had already been around for several years at that point. They had been located on lower Broadway in the basement of Leo Koenig for a while, then had moved to Chrystie Street after the 9/11 attack. BF: It seems like you and Canada have really found home with each other. I can’t picture you anywhere else, or them without you. KB: Totally. BF: Was your last show at Canada, Tombouctou 52 Jours, the first time that you painted the walls as well, or addressed the space as an installation? KB: Yes, it’s the first time I painted the entire gallery and made it into a total environment for my work. Paintings on top of murals with rugs in piles on the floor with poufs on top of them and rug books to read and a hookah to smoke with henna on my hands. This is also what my home is like. BF: But you weren’t sitting there every day with the henna and the hookah! KB: No, I was not there every day smoking hookah! [laughs] We installed the carpets the last week of the show, actually. It was kind of an experiment and I loved how it complemented the show. BF: Did you smoke people out with the hookah? KB: Yeah, we all smoked hookah. BF: Do you imagine doing more shows with the rugs and wall murals— full environments? The Canada booth at The Armory earlier this month had a bunch of your rugs, right?
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KB: The last show that I had, in Copenhagen in November, I also made a “total” environment. I painted the walls and brought over the carpets and poofs, and hung the work on top of the wall paintings as well. At The Armory Fair, at the Canada booth, we had lots of carpets there. They complimented the Xylor Jane, and Joanna Malinowska, and I also had a painting hanging there as well. BF: And you’re about to have a baby, right? Aren’t you due like any day now? KB: Yeah, the baby is due April 6th, but can come at any time now. I’ve been sleeping a lot and going to doctor’s appointments. BF: Wow! Congrats in advance, although I’ll send more along as things progress! What’s the status of your rug business? Should we be looking out to buy rugs from you somewhere in particular? KB: Yes, the rug business exists. There is a website called www.magicflyingcarpets. com, but the best thing to do is to contact me and come over and look at the rugs in person. BF: Just looking at the website now, it reads like you talking about the rugs, very passionate, a great reverence! KB: The first time I went to Morocco I was 15. I was an exchange student living in Portugal with a host sister that wanted to take me there. We decided to take our camping equipment there and go camping. We took the ferry over from Spain and went through Ceuta to Tetouan. We took a grand taxi with five other people into the town. We went to the ancient medina in Tetouan and looked at all the stuff in the bazaar, and had all the sensory overload experiences that you can have. I remember we ate a tagine for lunch and some fresh oranges. I remember going into a restroom there, looking into a mirror and realizing how pale I was. And then at the camp site that night being attacked by thousands of ants. We were only there for about two days, but it was a super intense two days. I didn’t get to go back for 20 years; I created a fantasy in my mind of what Morocco was. A friend of mine joined the Peace Corps and was located in Valley of the Roses in Kelat M’Gouna. I decided that was a perfect opportunity to go back and check it out again. So I went back November of 2008, and have been back about five times since. I have traveled all over Morocco and the Western Sahara. And the obsession with carpets came on really fast. The color combinations, and the shagginess, and the amazing designs are just totally random and refreshing to look at. It’s hard not to collect the carpets. The thing about Morocco that is so awesome is that everything is still handmade and hand built and hand painted. All store signs are hand painted, and people still have master skills to build things like furniture and architectural details, people weave and still do embroidery, and haven’t lost any of their traditional ways of life, really. BF: Would you say that art in Morocco is more of a practical matter in the ways that decoration functions? KB: Yes, definitely, it’s more like art is everywhere, and integrated into everyone’s life there. Although, the carpets [there] function as paintings. I’ve heard them called “fallen paintings.” I like that idea. Fallen meaning that they are no longer on the walls, they are on the floor. BF: With the website you are building community with the artists there whose wares you are selling on your site, right? KB: I decided to start the website and business so that I could help with my friend’s Peace Corps mission. She was developing small business for weavers in her village and I wanted to help by setting up a business and a place to sell their work. Also, it is a way to be able to personally collect carpets and also make some money on the side. And thirdly, it’s a good job for my fiancé when he immigrates here. He sells carpets in Morocco, that’s how I met him.
Insofar as it is an understood phenomenon that vanguard experimental electronic music often informs popular culture, the mass owes a great deal to Markus Popp. One could argue that the lessmass who have been following his output over the last 19 years, released primarily as Oval, owes even more to Popp, but I make the first point just to acknowledge that many, many people who have never heard of Markus Popp have heard Markus Popp. The fact that he is not more widely acknowledged likely has to do with the fact that his genuine yearning to make raw emotional music, which he sees as “pop” in the literal popular/pop culture sense, is tempered by the incredibly rigorous ideological parameters through which he produces, as well as the fact that his take on pop music often sounds so literally raw. Popp’s first releases from the very early 1990s onwards—music of sounds sourced largely from the errors produced by defaced compact disks—were an attempt at drawing emotion from the very machines and existent music which we relied on to soundtrack, punctuate, and index our lives. His results, successful on their own stringent terms and those of the loyal fan base he created, had perhaps their biggest impact via a burgeoning moment—usually referred to as “glitch”—in the global electronic music underground circa the early 2000s (nearly a decade after Popp began releasing Oval music). And even though these ideas that Oval was processing back then do not feel so radical anymore, as they have in fact absorbed into the palette of much popular music, the early Oval records still feel relevant, fresh, and distinct today—much more so than much of the music which he undoubtedly informed along the way. Yet, in 2001, Popp went into a long hiding of sorts, quietly working out a total rewrite of how it is that Oval makes music. Popp re-emerged to the world in 2010 with a new “live” sound on two EPs and a double LP, hours and hours of truly new music for the world to digest. This updated Oval sounded much like the old Oval, and yet simultaneously completely different—the inevitable product of one person’s relentlessly singular vision reforming itself in total solitude over the course of a decade. This dialog was conducted in the spring of 2011 and deals exclusively with Oval. There is no talk at all of any of Popp’s other collaborative works, such as his group Microstoria (with Mouse On Mars’ Jan St. Werner), or So, his collaboration with the singer Eriko Toyada. True to form, Popp felt that he could not do justice to either project within a few statements, so any discussion of those projects would have to wait for their own dedicated interviews.
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Brendan Fowler: I’ve been following your music since your first release in the US, Systemisch, and have observed that the discussion around Oval deals so much with the technologies that you have used to create it— surely this is important and something which I want to discuss here as well—and yet the music itself is emotional and rich in ways that I would say transcend its origins in the machines. I’m thinking that a good place to start would be in the beginning: wondering if you sought out/ made machines to see what they could do, or if you sought out/made machines that could help you to make what you envisioned? Markus Popp: In fact, I was struggling with this “technology vs. creativity” complex all along—and still have not managed to disentangle it entirely to this day. Meanwhile, I’m pretty convinced that it is most productive to simply accept the seemingly perpetual coupling of these two aspects: subjective, “personal” creativity vs. navigating implemented features. Right from the beginning, establishing a profile for Oval felt like traversing a minefield: almost inevitably having to deal with music technology in order to “deal with the now” and inject certain personal and, above all else, emotional qualities into my music without resorting to old “musician”-type solutions. In fact—albeit on a much higher level of definition and with, quite literally, 1000 times the processing power at my disposal—I am dealing with the same basic dilemma today: music technology is affordable and ubiquitous, but the actual musical outcome is to a very high degree defined on an entirely different plane in order to actually trigger an emotional response, while at the same time being defined by the framework of the very music technology that enables us to question it. I guess I would call this the meta element which is embedded in my tracks: finding an elegant solution to a struggle with music technology that would not exist without music technology in the first place. In the early days, I tried to resolve this dilemma by taking the “post authorship” route: I based my songs on extracted fragments of almost arbitrary, already existing musics/CDs—a route that essentially lead to the kind of “electronic music, but not” gesture Oval initially became known for.
BF: So you were taking advantage of the wealth of recordings in this world, using other people’s prior engagements with instruments as your source material. To back up a step, what about the machines that you were using to process that pre-existing material? MP: Those machines rather found me instead of me seeking out or reinventing machines by myself. Besides, what could have meant “music machines” in 1993 to me, anyway? Not much more than choosing sampling over using synthesizers and then arranging those samples which I had extracted from almost arbitrary CDs via my trusty SONY consumer CD player and crafting them into “unlikely” songs. Or, in other words, I was assembling (what I regarded as) proper songs out of the most unlikely building blocks. I guess it is pretty tough to challenge “capital-M” music as a whole when you are a student with an Atari ST, some entry-level hi-fi gear and no contacts into the music world whatsoever. The “using other people’s prior engagements with instruments as your source material” part was merely a direct consequence of me instinctively knowing that sonically, this hot new electronic music gear delivered in fact pretty poor emulations of traditional instruments. Especially the synthesizers were tame emulations of the wealth of timbre and nuance offered by traditional acoustic instruments. What I had in mind was music that would transcend its electronic roots/character—I could not play any “real” instruments at that time. I was after an atmosphere that would minimize the risk of being quickly outdated by all the new technological developments down the line. Also, “sound,” one of the main big fascinations of synthesizer culture, was always very low on my priority list. I am a low tech/minimal guy. For me, as a listener, a piano solo had always been a good enough base for a superb musical experience. What might also have factored in is that I was never too much into electronic music, and especially not to an extent that I would choose to follow an “electronica” formula (setup-wise as well as in terms of attitude or lifestyle) for my own tracks. If any, my relation to any kind of music culture was that of an observer—I wanted to innovate (and to an extent, irritate) rather than to help optimize old concepts.
BF: So, what were you using? Eventually you made your own software, Ovalprocess, right? MP: Of course the mid-90s were fundamentally different times from the world of today: regarding (affordable) electronic music technology, the mid90s were pre-waveform editing, pre-graphical user interface, pre-software emulation, in some areas even pre-software, period. Everything had to happen on a substantially lower level of definition, integration, connectivity and complexity. So how did Oval get started—technically and, if you will, ideologically? What was Oval about? Protest? Strategy? Novelty? Playing devil’s advocate? Happy accidents? Or was the early Oval stuff engaged with music after all? At the time, I chose to describe my music as “mainly based on observations.” And those observations were suggesting that if I would go about producing music according to the conventions of the good old “Music“ with a capital M, that would mean to skip the relevant questions. Getting started with electronic music was not without problems in itself. Yes, it did feel a bit more “contemporary” than being in a band, but it felt awkward for a whole set of other reasons. On one hand, those tools did offer genuinely new possibilities to a certain extent. That said, it was clear that any typical, “by the numbers” use of this gear would lead to something far less convincing than any half-decent song by an indie band. I also remained skeptical because this “new electronic music explosion” happening all around me seemed to be at least partly based on the implosion of the criteria for its evaluation. It was all about productivity and releasing as many records as possible. I had the feeling that much electronica of the time was not revolutionary at all, but instead taking advantage of very traditional musical conventions (the author, the stage, the live concert, etc). And yet, digital music production was here to stay: the new status quo. And I simply felt obliged to at least point to what I saw as the problematic factors in this emerging electronic music game, which essentially is— and this took me years to realize—just another flavor of show business. BF: You were a student when Oval began, right? I was curious to ask if you had other parallel
Interview by brendan fowler / Portraits by ELIZABETH SKADDEN / ALL OTHER images courtesy OVAL UNLESS NOTED
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careers, and wondering more so in terms of what they may be and if they inform your work with music? MP: No other ventures, side-projects or professions. Time and time again people have asked me at different stages of my career if I was actually able to live off what I was doing, which always struck me as a somewhat superfluous question. I guess I just never thought about any alternatives. I might even be pretty good at all sorts of other things, but, honestly, I had never made any serious plans for anything else than music. I did insist on making this music at least unique, though—and then making it part of video games or film soundtracks. BF: I have always been struck that a track from your record 94 Diskont was used to break Lars Von Triers’ Dogme 95 rule of no overdubbed music—or even sound—in Harmony Korine’s Dogme 95 certified film, Julien Donkey Boy. Yours was not the only music added to this film in post-production—in fact, many say that in this film Harmony seemed to really relish in breaking the voluntary-to-begin-with rules of Dogme 95 as often as he chose to adhered to them. Were you aware of this when you were contacted to license your music to the project? MP: Not at all. Wow, that even sounds a bit controversial. Hmm, I am looking up “Dogme95” up on Wikipedia as we speak. Also, I haven’t even seen Julien Donkey Boy to this day, which must come across as really odd and even impolite, I know. BF: Somehow I’m not surprised [laughs]. But I want to get back to Oval’s origin and in particular, sampling as a strategy. Of course, by this point sampling had already been happening for over 30 years, and yet, even for all of the various and highly innovative uses of samples between James Tenney’s “Collage #1 (Blue Suede)” in 1961 and the staggering innovations that had occurred already within hip-hop and various dance musics, your approach still felt like a revelation with regards to the manipulation of a previously “completed” source material. MP: Long story short: the musical landscape (in terms of productivity as well as product) had undergone fundamental changes through electronic music equipment having become commonplace from the late 1980s. But, I never liked the quantized/sequenced character of “MIDI-music,” nor was I interested in
any genre-bending explorations of the “experimental electronic” kind. To me, Oval should always be “organic” and come across as “pop”—admittedly, I was asking for some slight readjustments on the listener’s end. At the beginning of my career, none of the avenues into making music were appealing to me. So eventually, I decided to give the “meta” route a try. A typical “edgy” Oval interview quote from that era would be something like: “the best part about music is that it is already there.” All I wanted to be held responsible for, like, 20 years down the line, was a (next-level) reimagining of already existing musics, as opposed to being an actual composer who could fall into all sorts of traps I was sure I did not even see being set up at that time. Back then, I was subscribed to that idea of the dawn of the “multimedia” age, where “content creators” would rule and where making music would soon be a mere introductory-level course to media authoring on a larger scale. I actually remember using the term “late age of audio” a lot at the time. Ultimately, the original, now-vintage “Oval sound” ended up mainly consisting of re-composed fragments of (what once was) other people’s music not because I was all about anti-music, but because this was the only option to approach (electronic) music non-traditionally and still render the outcome genuinely emotional/ musical—but more in the sense of “innovative” than “experimental.” BF: And the CDs themselves were all defaced or somehow marred, is this right? You were not just sampling them, you were sampling in moments as they were malfunctioning? MP: Exactly. Exploring the sonic and rhythmical scope of those irregular CD fragments was the main building block—not because they would give Oval a programmatic edge, but because this “random access” approach to arbitrary other musics added an element of overall unpredictability to the musical outcome that none of the typical sampler/synthesizer-based setups of the time could offer. Also, those CD skips were great shorthand for the Oval approach in general, which in reality was a bit more complex than that. The “CD sabotage” thing conveyed a sort of “hands-on” atmosphere that everybody could relate to. BF: So most of the material was sourced from CDs, but some of it was played on the Korg Wavestation, was that a keyboard? MP: Yes, I was always into “band”-type music played
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by real people, so synthesizer architectures represented an area I did not want to be caught spending too much time in. I felt that using synthesizers would make me too much of a “MIDI guy,” so the only element I was actively trying to get out of synthesizers pretty much came down to subsonic bass. Accordingly, my use of the Wavestation A/D was literally dialing in a preset based on the “DEEP WAV” waveform building block—which, possibly due to error on the side of the manufacturer, was much louder than any of the other built-in ROM waves—and making sure to press two neighboring keys on the master keyboard in order to get two asynchronously oscillating sine waves. The Waldorf Microwave I was an entirely different story, though. In one word: that unit was a pretty good “anti-synthesizer.” It offered everything your generic VCA-VCO-VCF–based architecture did not want you to know about—or at least you could make your results sound that way. Using the Microwave I felt like exploring the blind spots of the synthesizer paradigm itself by sculpting “remnants of sound.” Programming via the tiny 2x40-character LCD display was a chore, but there was always something new to be found on the way. My ’90s studio setup consisted of a cheapo SONY CD player, a Yamaha TX16W 12-bit sampler, a Waldorf Microwave I Wavetable Synth, the KORG Wavestation A/D and some rack mount ROLAND 16-channel keyboard mixer. All the sequencing was done on Cubase, running on an ATARI 1040 STE (1MB) connected to that famous, tiny 12” monochrome monitor. Oh, and there was a borrowed GRUNDIG 9009 DAT machine for “mastering.” Once an SPL Vitalizer for that master was borrowed, but all it did was add a sharp hiss to everything. BF: Was this your setup until you created Ovalprocess? MP: Yes, pretty much. There were a few hardware upgrades, but structurally, my setup stayed the same until 2000 or so. The Yamaha sampler was soon replaced by much more capable machines with astronomical amounts of features & RAM compared to what I started with. I also switched from the Atari to a Mac. But we were still in the pre-“desktop audio” era—while samples being recorded, then edited entirely (graphically, no less) on a single machine was still the privilege of either prohibitively expensive dedicated Digidesign soundcards or early hard disk recording systems aimed at mastering studios. So I stuck with doing all my sampling/editing on external hardware
(below and opposite) Ovalprocess terminals and interface details
samplers—and I was still holding on to the Microwave I. Only a few tracks produced with this greatly enhanced setup were actually released,almost all being one-track contributions for label compilations. By 1999/2000, though, I had entered desktop audio for real: all sampling, editing, processing and arranging of the sounds was moved to the software-only domain (SoundMaker became my go-to app, a fantastic piece of software). Gradually, this new, all-digital setup (the CDs I sampled from were still physical discs, though) evolved into a somewhat hi-tech setup: I even bought a KYMA system (but never really used it). Also, I had started working on the Ovalprocess project: a piece of “oval-style” music software, running on custom-built, futuristic, “info-terminal”-esque “sound tables.” It was the logical next step: to render a piece of software my statement. Plus, it was the practical realization of that “intervention into simulation” I had been talking about for years. BF: Wait, could you explain what you mean by “intervention into simulation”? MP: From the beginning of the “onscreen music production” era it was clear that things would never be the same again: musical practice and the definition of (electronic) music itself was about to change. With the increasing popularity of software sequencers, editors and—a few years later down the line—virtual instruments and effects, music turned into “music after simulation.” The premise of this user interface–driven revolution was introducing new ways to create, perform, and even listen to music—potentially rewriting the book with every piece of software or software update. Music was partly in the hands of the software creators and at times, things felt like a collective beta test (it pretty much still does today). And that—my thinking at the time—could not be good, right? In those days, it was all about “being a programmer vs. being programmed,” and something like a “digital lifestyle” sounded more like a threat than anything anyone would ever like to be part of. Back to Ovalprocess. The project was supposed to demonstrate how my music is first and foremost process, not a product, by putting the process (and the musical result) into the hands of the audience. The name “process” was chosen to pay tribute to the fact that music (production) today is bound to software, hence procedural, and evolving alongside software, for better or worse.
The interactive, Ovalprocess-based interactive sound objects represented my personal take on “audio installation” and “organized sound.” I always liked that they claimed a space in the real world, as opposed to merely being a download-only software. Back then, it was crucial to me to look beyond audio-only and traditional live concerts. Also, these terminals were a nice comment on the obsolescence of a beginning and an end in music. BF: You and I first met in 2000 when I invited you to exhibit Ovalprocess at Alleged Gallery in New York. Someone at Other Music told me that you had made this beautiful, interactive architectural object that housed your software and that you were looking to display it in art contexts. Ovalprocess was shown in our project space for one month, people came to play with it and the response was great. Other than at Alleged, was it mainly shown in galleries? How many other times was that console presented? MP: Yes, I vividly remember that space in New York. The terminals (there were 3 different designs, each loaded with a different sound set) were shown about 20 times all over the world in various contexts ranging from museums and art spaces to various branches of the Goethe Institute—as well as several art/music festivals— and the very first terminal was part of an interactive musical theme park run by SONY right underneath the Potsdam Square in Berlin for a year or so. BF: As an art object, a hybrid sculpture/ software interface and ultimately the central factor of an installation that totally transformed sound, light and space, it was radical. I’m wondering how you would describe it to anyone who was never able to experience it first hand. MP: The software part of Ovalprocess was a basically a player/sequencer, something like a sketch for an alternative workflow in (my own) music, a framework for “musical DIY,” meant to be suitable for all audiences. The application featured a self-explanatory, iconic, color-coded interface including an attract mode while unattended. The user interface design avoided standard metaphors from the “pro audio” world (tracks, fader, mixer etc) and there were no pull-down menus, modal dialogs etc—everything happened in a single window. The software was supposed to be simple, intuitive and self-explanatory (including built-in help overlays)—it was easy to get started with, yet it allowed for complex user creations.
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BF: By the time you had made Ovalprocess you had already established yourself in the international independent experimental music landscape—you were releasing records and touring the world. Your music was in demand, you were firmly in the position where people work to get to as an artist, an author, someone who releases records and is hired to perform. Then you were seeking to allow your audience to author your music for themselves as needed, very much complicating your role as provider of this music, if not defeating the role all together. MP: I wanted to not any longer only entertain, but involve the audience. I also preferred designing for an active user, instead of playing music at a consumer. In addition to that, I wanted to go beyond the age-old question about who is actually creating: the artist or the software? Or at least find a different answer: I wanted to make the old “features vs. bugs” game my own game. The main lesson learned from designing software was that designing usability was a great change after years of “artistic expression.” Also, the proverbial “easeof-use” on the user’s end is in reality pretty hard to achieve. I also liked the “zero margin for ambiguity” aspect: white papers & tech specs are not art. Especially working on the terminal hardware with so many people from various (often totally new, non-music-related) areas was a lesson for me on so many levels: design, ergonomics, functionality etc. My takeaway: Ovalprocess was a first step beyond “just music” for me, even when a lot of energy went into pretty mundane things like concealing limitations and rebranding them as “features.” BF: You mentioned collaboration with regards to the software design, and I wanted to ask you who you have worked with on the visuals associated with Oval over the years, both the record packages and the software design. Has it mainly been a few consistent people, or many? MP: Most of my EP and album cover designs since the late 1990s (including many of the Japan-exclusive editions of those albums) as well as the Ovalprocess and ovalDNA graphical user interfaces were all done by Cologne-based graphic designer extraordinaire Frieda Luczak. Over the years, we have established our very own flavor of a (remote) dialog that is all about productively misunderstanding each other—ending up with a result that both exceeds our individual
expectations and still makes us want to improve when the next project comes around—which is great. BF: And what became of Ovalprocess? At one point there was talk of you releasing it as software and “retiring” from Oval. It was never released as software, right? But you did release a record called Ovalprocess. MP: I am not entirely sure about that “retirement” aspect, but, sure, Ovalprocess at the time seemed to contain all the necessary ingredients of a final wrapup-type statement. Today, I am convinced that the most promising way to change people’s perception of music mainly happens through more and—yes, I said it—better music. Innovating music from within holds a huge potential to evolve the entire framework. That said, however, it needs to be pointed out that today, I have a much larger musical vocabulary than I ever cared to possess in the 1990s. So, regarding the actual options I had at the time, Ovalprocess was the right thing to do, an appropriate attempt at pushing at least my own envelope. The software part having been download-only is not a problem for me: I regard the interactivity of the Ovalprocess sound terminals, claiming a space in the real world, as the greater achievement. Also, ovalDNA, the spiritual successor to Ovalprocess, will deliver pretty much all aspects that Ovalprocess might have skipped. BF: So Ovalprocess was never released as software, but you are planning to release something called OvalDNA? MP: OvalDNA will in some ways be the fulfillment of the promise made by Ovalprocess. It will be the elusive final part in the trilogy, if you will. It consists of several components: a 20+ track audio CD (lots of “lost tracks” and some rare and/or Japan-exclusive bonus tracks), a large selection of my original track files from all work phases on a DVD-ROM as well as a software based on the original concept of the Ovalprocess application (this one will in fact be downloadable software), as well as all sorts of documentary and bonus materials (video documentary, liner notes etc). The project is pretty far along and I am aiming at an early 2012 release. BF: You ended nearly a 10-year hiatus from releasing records in 2010 with the Oh EP, followed shortly thereafter with the ringtone EP, a free download, and the O double LP; after such a long quiet spell, suddenly there
was so much new Oval music. As well, it should be mentioned that while all three records certainly sounded like you made them, they also sounded somehow completely like a new project, and in many instances almost like they were played by a live band. Was all of this time spent working out a new style of production? MP: Or so it seems. Of course I did not want to return with an “Oval v1.5,” an iteration of old concepts, but I was aiming at a complete reboot in every way. I wanted to change EVERYTHING: new OS, new tools, new skills, new approach. O was meant as a first, tentative answer to the challenges of this new “hyper-real era” of music production, where the software emulation of the physical instrument appears just as functionally “authentic,” but surpasses its physical counterpart, which it was modeled after in terms of sonic spectrum, versatility and control options. Therefore, O uses a new approach to playing technique (lots of that) and DSP wizardry (because there is none). Most importantly however, O represents a decisive shift in perspective: by merging virtual and real instruments being played, triggered and recorded, O establishes a convincing acoustic illusion, a trompe l’oeil of sorts, rendering old distinctions like “programmed vs. played” or “acoustic vs. electronic” pretty much obsolete. And yet, O tries to establish a unique, instantly recognizable “Oval signature sound” all over again. BF: In literal terms, how are you making this new music? MP: Picture me in between a selection of instruments, both real and software-based, plus even more real-time controllers of all kinds, experimenting, practicing—trying to turn Oval from a lean-forward to a lean-back experience without sacrificing any of my past achievements—and without being plain bad at writing songs. In practice, the production of O(h) was all very hands-on, essentially about ending up with the best possible take. You know, that one recording that is worth waiting for, the one that can capture and convey this certain sophistication beyond all this technology involved. This time, it was crucial to me to generate these phrases myself, make them happen exactly in this way with my own hands, and make them appear magically effortless. In contrast, all this disruption of music and music technology from a perpetual
“outsider’s perspective”—like in the Systemisch days— only gets you this far. However, having real-time, manual access to your process does not mean that I was necessarily working any faster. All phrases and motifs have been actually triggered “as is”—they are not montages. But still, there was a lot of decision-making involved in attaining that organic, playful atmosphere I was after. In the end, I decided to capture these riffs on the fly— like shooting painstakingly staged Polaroids—at the expense of having to record everything all over again in case a take had gone the wrong way. Going this extra mile also meant adjusting my role from “music coordinator” to “composer” and recording my own improvisations. The main motifs are pretty much recorded live (of course in multitrack). Still, it was an open question as to which musical direction to take from there—that was the hardest part. Suddenly, my music was happening in front of that huge backdrop called “music legacy.” And that’s not just legacy in the sense of “musical genres over time,” there’s also this vast history of recording, mixing and music production which I had barely been in touch with thus far. BF: The Oh and ringtone EPs were released just months before the O LP, should one take them as steps leading up to O? MP: My first results after starting the “new Oval” work phase were those short, minimal vignettes, which became the free ringtone EPs later. These tracks were the hardest to do of the entire 120-track batch (that later became Oh, O, the bonus tracks and ringtone EPs), due to all the R&D that went into those sessions. Also, I was still busy adjusting all sorts of elements in the playing technique and the recording part. For me, those ringtone-tracks already contained everything my new music should be all about: the precision, the high definition, the level of detail, the organic atmosphere, the emotional impact. Then I decided to take this basic configuration further and I added the electronic sounds as well as the drumming, which was a huge project in itself. With these additional elements, I was able to evolve the miniatures into various track types, each type with its own characteristics. But essentially they all evolved from the initial basic concept: to deliver music that is “electronic, but not,” “programmed” just as much as it is “played” and meta just as much as it is genuinely “musical.”
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Oval live performing in Lisbon, Portugal, 2010 Photos: Rui Minderico
BF: I’m wondering what that time was like between Pre/Commers—the last record of the sort of “old Oval”—and the ringtone EP? I’m imagining that it took a while to even arrive at the starting point for the new direction. How was that time for you? This refiguring phase is something that is so rightfully associated with the experience of being an artist, or of doing much creative work. Whether manifesting as a crash, or a brief stepping away to breath or think, or a time to totally switch gears, this is often a notable time in people’s creative lives. Could you describe a little bit what was going on for you in terms of your process in those years? MP: In fact, there was no crash, no reset, not even a hiatus. I was continuously working on stuff and there was a lot of prototyping—but the results were just not there yet, and this went on for years. Most of that time I spent with first listening to instruments and trying to figure out how to make them work for me, and then go about developing the skill set to actually pull it off. And even though I consider myself only at the very beginning of this development, there was this “I got something to prove” type of enthusiasm again. After Oh and O were done I was like, “if I get away with what I have done here, all sorts of cool stuff could happen next.” And this is pretty much where I am today. And then there was the technical side of course—not in terms of playing technique, but in the form of hardware/software. On one hand, so much had conveniently changed around me while I was experimenting in my studio—the list of new things to try out was practically writing itself. On the other hand, there are only very few elements that I could envision to add or improve upon, considering those tons and tons of musical content already out there. BF: Not so much in our conversation here, but sometimes in reading about the new work, I have gotten the sense that you see its pop potential as something designed for a greater audience. How did you see audience before, and how do you see it now, both in terms of who is being addressed, and how they are being addressed? MP: My audience was always this black box—it had to be. Today, I might have a much more precise idea about who is out there—for example, via my Facebook
analytics—but I consider Oval first and foremost a dialog between me and my music. And yet, the motto of O was “He only changed everything.” Consequently, this new sound needed not only to appeal to people who were already familiar with my music, but to everybody else who had never heard of Oval, right? Granted, I might have made it a bit easier to get to the “musical” parts this time, but delivering this music is not so much about whether to make (or not to make) concessions to whom, but it is about me coming up with a convincing answer to questions like: “Why sound?” I tried to make O musical enough to lock any listener into an intense staring contest, and meta enough to keep the experts guessing as to what is actually going on here. Example: the miniature-type tracks on O’s second CD sound effortlessly organic & playful, as if any musician could almost simply sit down and start playing a cover version. But these accessible themes are pretty tricky at closer inspection. Granted, if I had to describe my approach as either “pro” or “punk,” I’ll definitely side with punk. With “musician” vs. “anti-musician” it’s not as simple anymore. Ironically—and this might sound odd, coming from someone who never appeared to care much about any musical legacy whatsoever—until O I had never felt that I had enough to bring to the table as a musician, mind you. Still, I would not go as far as saying that Oval tracks were, say, non-traditional out of sheer respect for music—but I definitely wasn’t an anti-musician either. BF: For your live performances are you lugging around a stage’s worth of instruments now? How is your live show these days? MP: No, promoters and venues still firmly place me in the “carry-on-luggage” category of performers. Therefore, I still do my shows on a laptop—plus additional controllers and fader boxes—which might change in case budgets or capacity would increase in the future. That said, however, I will always make sure to deliver the most interesting show on a musical level, regardless of visual aspects. If I would play an instrument live on stage almost all of the electronic parts would effectively have to be playback, which would have me falling tragically behind the surprise element built into my current Ableton Live-based set. Just because a performer looks more like a musician on stage doesn’t automatically render live sets a more exciting musical experience.
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BF: And so what is next? Aside from ovalDNA, which sounds like more of a retrospective of the past, are there more records planned to further this new phase, or should we expect the next version of Oval in the near future? MP: The audio part of ovalDNA is more a “lost tracks” thing, as it mainly features previously unreleased material as well as some rare tracks from compilations or bonus tracks for the Japanese versions of some Oval albums. Beyond that, I have another format in the works, which consists of stuff I have recorded since the release of O. And as to “new new” material, all I can say is that I am working on stuff, not completely sure where this will take me. One thing is certain, though: no more several years-long hiatus! BF: One thing that I was thinking would come up in our dialog here but hasn’t really yet is the idea of a community. In many ways your practice seems to stand alone, but you were once very much associated with the Glitch thing, what with Mille Plateaux and their Clicks and Cuts compilations and all. I was wondering what your take on that was, and if there are other artists with whom you feel a connection, musical or otherwise? MP: Even if there would have been any connection to other Mille Plateaux-artists (which there wasn’t), that stuff is simply too long ago to be relevant today. I’m signed to Thrill Jockey since 1995, I believe. And I have not talked to MP since 1996. Oval has never been part of any scene and never will be, I guess. BF: I understand your disinterest in my framing, and I apologize. I am, however, curious to know where you locate yourself within a lineage of music, or preferably in that part of the Venn diagram where the lineages of experimental, pop, electronic, academic, et al. musics overlap. Perhaps your discomforts with associations or genres say it all? MP: It’s not that I refuse by principle to appear in any kind of frame—it’s just that there really isn’t a whole lot to frame, I guess. Plus, I never approached all this thinking in musical genres. Instead, the sets in my Venn diagram could be something like “computer literacy,” “suburban wasteland,” and “nonconformism,” and their intersection could read “Oval.” For someone starting out with desktop audio today, the sets in that Venn diagram would probably be something like “warez,” “social networks,” and “ADD.”
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Finally reading Sara Marcus’ long researched, and recently released book, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, I was struck as much by its description of the American political climate at large, circa the late 80s-early 90s, as I was the description of the movement the book set out to document. The story of Riot Grrrl is an important one, and Marcus does both her subject and her readers, whom I think she hopes to inspire as much as anything, a great service. As such, part of telling the story of the Riot Girrrl movement is, of course, telling of the converging contexts from which it emerged, and although I came of age in these times, too, this book served to clarify many chronologies, political and artistic (insofar as a separation is possible), which the distancing lenses of time have blurred for me: in 1991 America finished the first Gulf War; the first George Bush was still in office; Bikini Kill still hadn’t released a full album, however, it was officially “The Year Punk Broke,” thanks to Nirvana’s Nevermind, which was released that year. In 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey nearly overturned Roe v. Wade—I think I blocked that one out. Because the book is done right, written into it is a great deal of space dealing with the larger narrative of the time which birthed her subject. This made me think about ANPQuarterly, and the act of putting together a magazine, and the fact that while we are telling all these stories in every issue, we are not always that clear on dates and timelines. It could be said that by definition a magazine, however in-depth the interviews are or however many timely signifiers it contains within, is not a book about a historical movement. A magazine is not a book, and it is important for the many reasons that it is not a book (ephemerality, seriality, accessibility, circulation, etc.). But that said, we could probably do better. It is a funny thing, making this magazine, and in many ways the idea of making magazines in general: when stories are told in the present, or relative present, often we forget to locate exactly when is the present. You’re seeing this letter at the very end of this issue, after long stories from painters, filmmakers, horses, sound artists, artists and artists’ artists; each story a story we felt was very worth sharing with you, and we truly relish the opportunity to do just that. We think that these stories are worth sharing right now and we think they will still be worth sharing 10 or 20 years from now, maybe even more so—if there is still even paper—after those lenses of time have twisted a little bit more, as they do. So just to contextualize a little bit, in case you are trying to locate where we were at the time in which we are wrapping this issue, the end of October 2011: the Conficker computer worm has not yet “activated” in a massive strike to take down the world, or at least not that we know, but the hacker group, Anonymous, are vowing to take down Facebook on Nov. 5th; Muammar Gaddafi was just killed by rebel fighters in Libya; it is commonly stated that America is “in the worst financial climate since the Great Depression” and so #Occupy Wall Street is in its fifth week and has inspired similar Occupy demonstrations in over 70 US cities and 900 international cities; President Obama has just announced that after nine years, the current US occupation of Iraq will end December 31, 2011. Hello there. Thank you for picking up this copy of ANPQuarterly Ed Templeton
ANPQuarterly Volume 2/Number 6 Publisher PM Tenore Editors Aaron Rose Edward Templeton Brendan Fowler Art Director Casey Holland
Contributing Photographers Terry Richardson, Tyrone Lebon, Mike Piscitelli, Elizabeth Skadden, Cali Thornhill deWitt and Phil Grauer Special thank you to: Meghan Casey, Toby Mott, Fru Tholstrup, Cody Allen, Marlene Marino and Ami Sioux ANPQuarterly is published four times a year by RVCA Corp © 2011 RVCA (All rights reserved). Printed November, 2011 on Crumple Street in Gardena, California. Reproduction in whole or in part is strictly prohibited by law. Opinions expressed in articles are those of the authors. All rights reserved on entire contents unless otherwise noted. Artists, photographers and writers retain copyright to their work. Every effort has been made to reach copyright holders or their representatives. We will be pleased to correct any mistakes or omissions in our next issue. ANPQuarterly™ is a Registered Trademark
Contributing Writers Jeremy Abbott Cali Thornhill deWitt James Rains Nora Atapol Clark Rayburn
(front cover) Gaspar Noé, 2011 Photograph by Terry Richardson (back cover) Markus Popp/Oval, Skotodesk, 2009 Installed in Gallery Adamski, Berlin
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Artist Network Program Quarterly ANP Quarterly is an arts magazine published by RVCA that focuses on a broader sense of art and community....