Chris Kraus in conversation with Denise Frimer
Chris Kraus is the author of the novels I Love Dick, Aliens & Anorexia, and a collection of essays about the Los Angeles art world, Video Green. Her forthcoming novel is Torpor. Consistently controversial, her writing has been variously received: true confession or strategic cultural intervention? She has written on art, poetics and theory for academic anthologies, online ‘zines and art magazines. The founding editor of Semiotexte’s Native Agents series, she has collaborated with Jean Baudrillard, organized a conference on Simone Weil, and written introductions to Barnes & Nobles editions of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
What do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment, Chris?
Being able to continue working as an artist. When you’re in your 20s, everyone’s an artist … but you notice a certain attrition that occurs along the way. When I was 25, the burning question was ‘Will I still be doing this when I’m 40?’
When did you make the move to New York?
I came to New York when I was 21, which was in 1978. I’d left New Zealand to do political theater in London, but when that didn’t work out, I went to New York. In New Zealand I’d been a newspaper reporter, but I really wanted to be an artist. More specifically, I wanted to be a theater artist. So I saved my money. I wanted to go to New York and study with my heroes, The Performance Group, Mabou Mines. So I did that. I arrived in New York, and eventually I did meet these people and work with them.
Where did you live when you were there?
All over the place. First in Tribeca, in this kind of orphaned office building where some of the old mom and pop jewelry dealers from Long Island had started to retire and move out. Artists pretended to rent these spaces as office and moved in. You couldn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom, there were still lots of businesses there, and at night the artists would come out in the hallways with buckets, carrying water from the toilets up and down the stairs. The power went off after business hours. It was like, living on an Amish farm in the middle of Manhattan. And then I lived in the East Village for a long time.
Who else were you meeting and working with?
I met the poet Jeff Wright on a temp office job and through Jeff, I met all the people who gathered around the St. Marks Poetry Project at that time. There was this incredible scene gathering around the Poetry Project, people who’d come from other cities to be around poets like Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, and Bernadette Mayer. Meanwhile I was studying theater, thinking I’d be an actress. Or a ‘performer,’ as they said at the time. My friend Liza Martin met the artist Louise Bourgeois in the lobby at MOMA and we became very involved with her. She directed one of our plays, I ran errands for her.
I lived in the same neighborhood as the poets. I was as poor as the poets. I went to all of the readings and went out with the poets – who saw me as this frivolous ‘actress-y’ girl, though I really didn’t have much in common with the theater types. But I really absorbed by osmosis a lot of the poet's rhetoric, the poet's way of seeing the world. So that when I finally started writing just before I turned 40, some of my old poet friends said to me, You know Chris, you may not have written anything during those years, but you were actually writing. And then – New York in 1978 wasn’t just that. It was the tail end of punk, CBGB's, Max’s Kansas City, and also the start of a change in the art market from classical minimalism, into much shorter, more market-based fashions and fads.
These people who you mention, were they large influences on your career?
I didn’t really see myself having a ‘career’ … very few people did. The word “careerist” was used as an insult. ‘Careers in poetry’? Isn’t that oxymoronic? The city was cheap, the aesthetic was poverty. I only had to temp one day a month to cover my rent … it was possible, then, to live in this bubble of being a permanent student … pursuing your interests, going from one interesting thing to the next.
Was New York really the centre of the art world?
Denise, I wasn’t really aware of there being an art world in any international sense. There were just all these artists – the minimalists, the figurative painters, there were even a few old Dadaists and Surrealists hanging around. John Cage played chess with Marcel Duchamp. Djuna Barnes lived in a small bed-sit apartment on Charles Street. The really earthquake events, at least as I saw it, were CoLab’s Real Estate Show and Times Square Shows, and Fashion Moda’s graffiti art shows in the South Bronx. It was a declaration of war on the old guard. Though paradoxically, these shows also led to a much more amped up, radically escalated art market.
You made a film called Gravity and Grace – when did you become a filmmaker?
I became a filmmaker because after awhile Ruth Maleczech, who was my acting teacher, said: You’re not an actress. You think like a filmmaker, you should make films. She told me to look at the Michael Snow movie called Wavelength. So since I was Ruth’s dog and did whatever she said, I went down to the Anthology Film Archives the next day, found Jonas Mekas and paid him $25 to TAKE the film out of the vault and project it. I sat there alone watching Wavelength. And it changed my life.
How was that?
Nothing happened! It was a film full of phenomenological jokes about time. Until then, I’d been terribly literal. The film opened things up to the point where construction itself was the point … the idea that a film might be this sublime object, made of the junk drawn from everyday life that could somehow float all by itself. In this sense, film was a cipher for mind … an idea very much shared by the poets.
Did you ever go to film school?
Of course not. I never paid Ruth to teach me, but when she needed money I went out passing bad checks. It was more of a feudal system, allegiances, and fealties, between young and old artists. Of course when I finally made Gravity & Grace, a narrative feature, I realized a little instruction might not have been such a bad thing. Umm, what is a storyboard? I’m not a very visual person, never understood how visual people think. I still don’t. (laughs)
You were always a writer, but when was the pivotal moment when you realized that you had become a writer?
It was when I started writing those crazy letters to Dick. It was only later I realized that I was actually writing a book. The letters were just obsessional writing … in the first four weeks, I wrote him 200 pages. After that, I started to realize the obsession was really with writing, not him. I’d just come off of three years of working on Gravity & Grace, which turned out a fiasco. I completely bottomed out because the film went nowhere. I was in debt, I’d been living in bags between three different countries, and then every significant festival turned down the film. Rather than spend the next year touring D-List alternative venues, I thought – I’ll just put this thing into the vault and not show it. That’ll be pure, a magnificent gesture. The film would never pay for itself. If a commercial distributor doesn't pick up a feature film, there’s really no place for it to go.
I was at an incredibly low point in my life, I was 38, and I saw no future. I’d been living in this kind of traditional monogamous marriage with Sylvere. So when we had dinner with Dick and he flirted with me, I saw a door open and just walked right through it. I’d become a drone to a film and couldn’t remember desire.
Dick was kind of an intellectual rock & roll cowboy, and this made him a very, um, problematized object of desire, as the academics say. He was the same kind of cowboy I’d fallen in love with, and been rejected by, since I was 12. Still I saw him as the most perfect repository of comprehension, which is mostly what happens when you’re falling in love. So the letters came out, and kept coming. Dick represented the world I’d sought access to since my teens, and I realized there was a great deal to say about this. Why did there seem to be no place in this world for a woman, unless that place was sexualized? As the younger wife of a well-known art world intellectual, I’d become completely invisible. I wrote to Dick about the patriarchal myth of privacy, the paintings of RB Kitaj, the work of artist Hannah Wilke, Jennifer Harbury’s heroic efforts to expose the Guatemalan military’s murder of civilians, rural poverty in the Southern Adirondacks. Dick never wrote me back. In that sense, he was the perfect listener.
Chris, let’s talk about your writing, your style, the framework that you have set – your writing style is brilliantly analytic and autobiographical, but your writing has been considered controversial, notably with your novels: I love Dick and Video Green; and recently your work has been referenced in Canadian Art magazine as “confessional”. How do you feel about this?
“Confessional” of what? Personal confessions? There’s a great line from a book we published by Deleuze: Life is not personal. The word ‘confessional’ is not a good descriptor of my work. We were talking about the New York School poets – they were the ones who pioneered this use of this “I,” an active “I” that’s turned out onto the world. “I” in this case isn’t the point – That would be memoir. The story of “I.” And mostly I hate that – everything else becomes merely a backdrop to the teller’s personal development. It’s an utterly false, uninteresting view.
Writing I Love Dick, I understood that women have been denied all access to the a-personal. Look – the “I” in Celine’s Journey to the End of Night – it’s an “I” that’s scabrous and hilarious and personally revealing. But is Journey read as a confession? No, it’s one of the great books of the 20th century. It’s an idea I picked up later on, writing Aliens & Anorexia – chronicling the career of the philosopher Simone Weil through the reception of her writings. She was a crazy modernist like Artaud, Celine, Bataille, but as a female her “I” has been pathologized – she can’t get fucked, she’s manipulative and anorexic, she’s ugly and she dresses badly – her “I” was never read as universal and transparent. That, to me, points towards this great disgust with female-ness. As if a revelatory female self cannot be anything but compromised and murky. It’s a very Catholic word, “confession.”
I have no idea why my books should be considered controversial. It’s a very puritanical place, the art world. I mean, c’mon: where else but the contemporary art world would the fact of a woman staging an affair with her husband’s colleague be considered controversial? Look at Choderlos de Laclos and Marivaux … things have shut down quite a bit since the 18th century. The artist Andrea Fraser recently went through a similar fabricated controversy with her elegant and witty piece, Untitled. Remember it? She invited a collector to have sex with her in a hotel and videotaped their encounter. It was a “piece” he purchased for, I think, $20,000. There’s a Zen wit to this, but the familiar controversy raged around her: was she an exhibitionist? A narcissist? A slut? Did she look too good without her clothes to be a feminist? Not good enough to be a porn star?
Fiction – does it exist in your writing?
It’s all fiction. As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection – why this and not that? If we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick up on your eyes and how they set on your face instead of what’s outside of the window? And what do I think when I look at your eyes, what does this moment make me remember? What we select from all this – all these digressions – that’s the process of fictionalization, that’s what we create. As soon as something gets written down, it’s no longer “true,” because there are always 100 other things that are equally “true.” And then everything changes as soon as something gets written down.
There is no absolute truth.
It’s too defining and permanent when it becomes something on paper?
Well, it’s too defining and permanent to be really “true” – things are constantly shifting. There’s a whole tradition that believes writing is more an active transcription than sheer invention. The writer Kathy Acker talked about this, William Burroughs, the Beats … the French Symbolists believed the essence of writing was about knowing what to leave out. Willa Cather imported this idea to the American frontier. Like Flaubert, she didn’t make very much up – with these writers, the invention lies in how reality is composed, not in its source. And this idea goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. Do you think the Troubadour Poets were making things up? They invented nothing, it was all true. The art occurred in the act of the poem, what they were doing – seducing and pleasing the lady, impressing the court. The poems were written in the first person, predicated not by some essential idea of the ‘self’, but by the demands placed on the self at that moment – to woo, to compete. It’s a performance idea – the self appears only through an action. Catullus wrote in the first person too, ancient Rome. It’s the same kind of thing.
How is the fiction important to the art criticism in your writing?
Ficto-criticism is kind of a cheesy word that I use to pitch classes at art schools. It’s not my favorite way to describe it.
Are you an art critic?
Yeah, by default. I started writing about art when I wrote I Love Dick. I admired Dick’s art criticism, and wanted to show him I could write art criticism too. The whole book was a troubadour poem – an effort to engage and seduce him. Since Dick was interested in art, I made myself be interested in art too, so I’d have something to talk about with him. (Laughs)
So that’s how I started looking at art. Writing to Dick, I discovered the best way of looking at art was to sit down in front of the work and write down whatever you see. Later when I started doing studio visits at art schools, I realized it was a pretty similar thing. What the writer can do is give words to something visual. To try and articulate whatever stories you see going on behind the work. To me, writing art criticism is about being the best possible audience – giving an active, accurate read-out of one’s own experience of viewing the work.
In Video Green you based your stories on subjective interpretations to speak about the LA art world.
Well yes … the pieces do read like stories, and of course they’re subjective. We’ve gotten so used to the authoritarian, institutional voice in art criticism. But who else but an “I” is ever viewing a work? At that time, I was keeping a diary, and talking and looking at art was a big part of my life. I taught at an art school, all my friends and associates were artists, art students, ex-students, and teachers of art. I couldn’t really separate the experience of looking at art from the larger experience of being in LA, or the rest of my daily life. So all that came into it. This approach doesn’t seem very original. It’s just a natural way of seeing art.
Is your writing style gender specific or, is it meant to target mostly female readers?
No more than anyone else. We’re all gendered, one way or the other, or others. I think what’s gender-specific is the often very peculiar response to my work. This idea, once again, that a straight female “I” can only be narcissistic, confidential, confessional. The art critic Bruce Hainley begins a brilliant discussion of Andy Warhol with the line, “I’ve always liked sucking cock.” It’s a great opening line. But so prone to misreading. If a straight woman says it, people automatically say, Why is she doing this? To debase herself? To grab attention? What really fucks with everyone’s heads is when women, gay men, combine graphic first-person sex stuff with quote-unquote objective, analytic cultural thought. There’s a deep pity and horror of female sexuality behind this, as if it’s this mushy botanical subordinate thing at total variance with the dynamic integrity, the “masculinity” of analytical thought. Didn’t Foucault once say he couldn’t imagine S/M play between male Doms and female submissives? He found that power dynamic too close to real life. The straight woman presumably having no power at all to exchange … Acker played this trick all the time in her texts, it was her greatest curve ball, jump-cutting from a synopsis of Wittgenstgein to, I’m sucking his cock. In I Love Dick, I consciously set out to see if I could say “cunt” and “Kierkegaard” in the same sentence. And I did it, it drives people crazy. Female intellectuals of the more professional sort have always been quite circumspect, never bringing any sign of their physical being into the text.
In your most recent novel, Torpor, you choose to write in the third person. What does this represent for you?
Torpor is so much more personal than the other two books. In it, I write about survivor experience – a thing I know very well from having lived with Sylvere, who was a hidden child in France during the Second World War. How that kind of trauma affects the person himself, and everyone else they are close to – the contamination effect. Jerome, in the book, refuses to have a child with his younger wife Sylvie, so they get involved in the dubious quest of adopting a Romanian orphan. Sylvie just wants everyone to be happy. She is the classic enabler, thinks she can ‘cure’ Jerome of this misery. I wanted to take something very painful and close, and deal with it at some distance – turn the two people into a couple of clowns. I found I could be much more truthful, writing in the third person, because the subject’s approached at some distance. The book takes place more than a decade ago, in 1991 – the dawn of the New World Order, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the last days of New York’s underground. Dealing with this at some distance felt more accurate, more like the truth. The real Sylvere Lotringer today isn’t Jerome, and the story is told by “old” Sylvie, who’s no longer remotely like her young self at all.
Unlike the other two novels, Torpor isn’t written in real-time. Instead I play lots of games using tense. I realized there was a special tense – in French, it’s called the future anterior – that’s unique to trauma. Instead of the simple past, “was,” you say, “it would have been” – it’s like the past and the future combined. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s a tense that implicitly tells you the present and future are always defined and held back by the past. This is precisely what happens with trauma. It’s what happens in the two character’s lives.
What was the psychological and emotional reality to this for you?
Oh, the psychological reality of it, of Jerome’s experience … it’s like, that’s the way it is, I can feel it…it’s very strong…
Readers will identify with it I’m sure, myself included.
Oh great, I’m so pleased. The book is also a lot about being 35 – Sylvie’s age in the book – this time of tremendous pressure to have it all figured out, when nobody really has it all figured out. You think: everyone else seems to have gotten it together, why haven’t I? By the time you turn 40 you’ve just given up, you know you’ll never figure it out. All those perfect lives turn out to be not so perfect, so you realize your own life will just have to do.
Failures are successful after all…
Yes, that’s the happy part of the story. I can become successful, and I can buy my own shoes. But on the downside, there’s no world anymore. The cultural world that Sylvie wanted so desperately to appear in has disappeared, it doesn’t exist any more. The art world mirrors the larger one, rather than presents an alternative to it. Everything’s much more exchangeable. In Georges Perec’s Les Choses, the two characters (coincidentally named Jerome and Sylvie) finally accept full-time jobs that will allow them to acquire some of the “things” they crave. They sit down to lunch in a first-class railway car. But the meal, they find, “will be quite tasteless.”
— Los Angeles, April 21, 2005
Denise Frimer is a writer on contemporary art and culture based in Toronto.