Since the 1990s Rebecca Solnit has authored a river of non-fiction at the fertile intersections of environmentalism, political activism, art criticism, and memoir. From Savage Dreams (1994) to the recent The Faraway Nearby (2013), her concerns explore the psychological, social, and political realities of “space” and our representations of it. One of our few contemporary public intellectuals, she has been an outspoken critic of the gentrification of San Francisco where she lives. Looking every bit a cowgirl Alice-in-Wonderland she met with the Rail’s Jarrett Earnest at her home in the Mission to discuss journalistic conventions of the “self,” photography, and metaphors of “place.”
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): When did you become involved with the San Francisco art scene?
Rebecca Solnit: As a kid I was as visual as I was literary—when I was little and decided I wanted to “do books” that meant drawing as well as writing. The writing surged forward and left the drawing in the dust—I don’t draw well for one thing. When I was in graduate school I got a research position at SFMOMA, for some reason I’ve never completely fathomed. The elegant ladies in pearls and pumps who hired me hired a punk in a man’s suit with a rockabilly haircut, but somehow they saw something in me and immediately gave me a lot more latitude than the other work-study students from Berkeley. When I got out of grad school I was hired at ARTWEEK, which was a magazine that mostly did what the Internet does now: gives a lot of listings and data and access and a bit of community too. It was great training—I’m always so grateful that my start was in the visual arts because even now it feels like if you do an MFA in literature the questions that are asked have such a narrow scope compared to what we still call “visual art,” which is really a form of creative investigation where you can do public art about toxic waste, or engage at-risk communities, or turn your body into a contested site, or diddle around with paint in the studio, or anything in between. “Visual art” is a place where ontological and metaphysical questions are being asked. Postmodernism was really in its heyday when I was coming of age, posing questions like: What does it mean to make art? What is it for? How is it received? What assumptions are behind our representations of landscape? Or women? It was valuable training in asking foundational questions, so I had a sense that almost anything was possible. Specifically, as you know, I did my thesis on Wallace Berman who was then almost unknown.
Rail: How did you encounter Berman’s work?
Solnit: That was actually a very magical thing at SFMOMA. They had a Berman hanging on the third floor of the old War Memorial building (in the Civic Center, where they were housed until 1995). I looked at it and it was just amazing—it was one of the Verifax pieces of a hand holding a transistor radio, or rather a grid of that image. As you know, on the screens magical things would appear: dogs and lions, supernovas, nude women, mystical emblems, and everything else. I was 21 when I started that job—I was just so young and naive and I thought, this is a major work of art by a major artist. I’ll go get a book on him. I didn’t understand how much the production of books in that moment was tied to the production of major sales in the New York market, which Berman never had. My degree is in journalism, not art history (though I took a wonderful art history class with Kristine Stiles). When it was time to come up with a thesis subject I thought of Wallace Berman—a dead man who’s never given an interview. How good of a journalistic subject is that! I interviewed everyone around him—Shirley Berman, Dean Stockwell, Joan Brown, George Herms, and all these other people—and as I got a better picture of that world I saw that a wonderful milieu existed, this sort of underground avant-garde on the West Coast that had not been documented.
When I managed to get out of the ARTWEEK job and out of the next job and onto unemployment—the poor young person’s grant program—I asked: What is it I want to do? I had assumed I was just going to work as an editor or at a museum, and just write on the side. Girls are not told to be overwhelmingly ambitious, which I think is very good for girls because it’s hard to get from here to the top of the universe, but it’s not hard to get from here to the end of the block. So you do that, you do the next thing and then the thing after that, compared to these young men who think they are going to write the Great American Novel and are not interested in all the things in between. I was doing reviews and then features, a little more ambitious each time, until I did the book. It was originally called Swinging in Shadows, but Lawrence Ferlinghetti strong-armed me into changing the title to Secret Exhibition, about six California artists in Berman’s circle.
Something that has been important to me since is seeing how the bohemia of the 1950s and ’60s was underwritten by incredibly cheap housing and the ability of many middle-class white people to live off the fat of the land without working very hard—people in the ’60s felt like they could hardly fuck up. I know two people who in the 1970s were wanted fugitives and are now retired professors with pensions, which you couldn’t get now no matter what, let alone as a wanted fugitive with your face on FBI posters. I feel like I also learned, particularly from Wallace Berman, that before you make art you have to have a culture in which to make art—which he understood very deeply. He is recognized for the art he made but he is not so recognized for the culture he made: publishing Semina magazine, participating in the Ferus Gallery and then the little gallery in the Larkspur mudflats, introducing and encouraging people. He wasn’t exactly a mentor, (which sounds avuncular), wasn’t exactly a muse (which always seems like a beautiful young lady, possibly without clothes), but he was a catalyst for people to make culture. Everyone was also making culture by being good audiences for each other and good friends and good community members.
That was important for me because growing up on the West Coast we were also told that culture and civilization happened elsewhere and that we didn’t really have any. New York was so unbearably patronizing. Hilton Kramer calling West Coast art “Dude Ranch Dada” or Edmund Wilson’s sweeping statements about the shallowness of California as making sure we knew our place. Secret exhibition in particular introduced me to West Coast culture; it is about understanding what it means to be a Californian, and developing a strong cultural identity. It also gave me my first deep grounding in San Francisco, where I had lived for several years by the time I started working on Secret Exhibition. But just because you live in a place doesn’t mean you really know where you are, and that book was the beginning of me really starting to know where I was.
Rail: It’s very clear that with Savage Dreams you first achieved the hybrid voice you are known for. Were you maintaining writing practices—journalism, criticism, memoir—that were being kept separate before that time?
Solnit: Yes, that is exactly where it happened. I was trained as a journalist so I developed a tough journalistic voice, and I was separately trained as a critic. It’s interesting that postmodernism wanted to undermine, dismantle, and substitute something better than the singular authoritative voice, but that it mostly gave us was manifestos followed quickly by reversions to exactly that voice of objective authority. I thought that speaking personally was one way of addressing that: that there is no such thing as speaking from neutrality in journalism, that the most honest and accountable thing you can do is to establish exactly who is speaking and from what experience. I have a historical mind and have always thought that you understand things by understanding what brought them into being. All of these things came together rather magically after a few years of going to the Nevada nuclear test site, which was this place where tremendous forces converged: the history of the making of the atom bomb, the Cold War, nuclear physics, Western Shoshone activism, white attitudes toward the desert, civil disobedience with anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. It was so complex you couldn’t have told it in a linear, objective way, so I had to find a way to let the threads tangle and weave, that also left room for reverie and digression—which is why I always say the Nevada Test Site taught me how to write. So in Savage Dreams I found a way to bring together my journalistic, critical, and finally lyrical voices (as a way of making wilder leaps of connection) that suddenly all appeared to be the one voice able to describe this complex situation.
Rail: As I went back and read your books in chronological order I saw that the way the work moves is not in a linear progression, but rather like a constellation, that the books could be interestingly recombined by seeing them in relation to each other, rather than as discrete objects.
Solnit: It’s interesting because there are books that are really far apart from each other but there are a lot of relationships between them, and some of them are secret. Hope in the Dark (2004) and A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005) appeared more or less at the same time. There was a moment after I produced both of them where I thought, “How schizophrenic, I produced this very hopeful, positive book about public history and also this very melancholy subjective personal book.” Then I realized that both of them are about coming to terms with uncertainty as a profound, positive, and enchanting force in our lives. They are actually both sides of the same coin. A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) is a very public book about everything but me—disasters in five major cities and peripheral stuff about human nature and chaos. The Faraway Nearby is covering the same ground from a very personal position, asking questions about empathy, and what we owe and give each other. A Paradise Built in Hell is about how terribly false beliefs about human behavior can warp the unfolding of a disaster. The Faraway Nearby is in part the micro story of how my mother had many pernicious stories that poisoned our relationship. There are books that are directly related: both River of Shadows (2003)and A Field Guide to Getting Lost are offshoots of Wanderlust (2000); one investigating disembodiment and acceleration in technology, the other about what it means to wander and get lost.
Rail: One of the things I appreciate about your writing is that it deals with a very complex knot between the experience of the work of art, how we internalize it, and how that affects our experience of the world. How do you see works of art relating to our lives and vice versa?
Solnit: There is a very wonderful thing that someone in Fluxus once said: Some distinctions are very important to make and some are very important not to make. Certainly when I was growing up people loved categories, binaries, and separations: life and art, art and nature, nature and culture. One of the reasons that walking has been such a key subject for me is that walking is a meandering thread that can move through anything—literally, bodily—just as reveries allow you to connect things as we actually experience them. One of the examples I always use is that when you talk with your best friend you talk about love and politics and the future and recipes. The way we’ve been taught to write is as though those things have nothing to do with each other, but in fact they remind us of each other—that is how our minds work. Our minds don’t run on highways, they run on those little trails in the underbrush. What is that funny line in marriage vows?
Rail: What God has joined let no man put asunder.
Solnit: That’s good for a marriage, but it’s great as an aesthetic dictum. So if you are wearing plastic handcuffs and you’re there because you care about the fate of the earth, you can see that the sunset is really beautiful but you’re also thinking about your personal life, these are not separate things. Works of art are like friends, they are part of the conversation I am in, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of people whose work is very important to me. My ideas and inspirations are completely interwoven with my daily activities and thoughts. The best and worst thing about the kind of work I do is that it is completely inseparable from my life. The best part is doing what I deeply care about all the time, and the worst part is that I never get home from work, and it’s never done, and it follows me everywhere.
Rail: How do you see the relationship of your public and private self? What experiences do you publish and what do you not?
Solnit: The Faraway Nearby I absolutely knew I wanted to write. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to publish it, but I did. I trust readers because reading takes place in a magic and sacred solitude where people are their best and deepest selves. My fear was of the interviewers who are kind of creepy and whose failure of imagination frames all life stories in terms of: Did you get your goods? Did you have a bourgeois lifestyle with all the right accoutrements? Was it happy? It was funny that—for a book that is about my mother who got married to a successful man and had four kids and was deeply unhappy—often in interviews there was still an assumption that all women must do exactly that to be happy. It’s as if there is no other template. It’s a very reductive picture of the self that excludes any sense of being a citizen or having a soul, two conditions that might give you bigger, broader, deeper needs and desires and identities. And that has driven a lot of how I’ve led my life and what I’ve written about.
So much of my work is about getting out of the house. I want a bigger world for all of us and I feel like I live in that big world. There is such deep satisfaction in good political work, in, for example, the solidarity and collaboration in Occupy Wall Street early on. I’ve seen that joy in civic moments and disasters—it’s what’s at the very heart of A Paradise Built in Hell. There is nothing quite like it and it goes almost unnamed, unrecognized, and unclaimed in this country because of this personalism that says everything you are and want and need is in your private home and private life. Hell no, it is also in the streets, it’s in political solidarity, it’s in feeling you have a meaningful life because you are contributing to the hope and possibility of the world. I want that for everyone, and I feel that part of my job as a writer is to define what a life can include broadly and deeply.
Rail: Do you think literature is important for cultivating a capacity for empathy?
Solnit: I’m hanging out with a doctor who doesn’t read much right now but his work as a doctor is deeply empathic, and that is partly why he is good at what he does. There are some absolutely awful people who read great novels and have no empathy. There’s this interesting new argument for literature as being like a vitamin that is good for you. I think some people get there that way, but there is also direct spiritual practice. For instance Buddhism is about being fully aware, of both yourself and others’ suffering, and that works better than Proust and its intention is a lot more direct. There are many roads, literature is one, but certainly not the only one. Now we talk about compassion as though it’s treasure—look I’m so full of compassion—we are a culture of accumulation. I’d rather ask, “What is your compassion doing?” Good doctors do it for a living. Is it in the purpose of your work? Is it in how you relate to people around you?
Rail: How has the way you write about art changed?
Solnit: Well, the main ways it has changed is that I don’t write about it very much any more. From my 20s into my early 30s there was a decade where I was very active as an art critic. This was wonderful training, because a review is a very coherent essay: you have to describe, analyze, and conclude—all those basic things that an English essay should do. I learned so much from that. Then there was a point when I realized I was more interested in the subject matter itself, say landscapes rather than a photographer’s interpretation of the landscape. I don’t write on art except as it becomes part of a larger story. Something no one has commented on in the The Faraway Nearby is how many artists are in there: Roni Horn, Olafur Eliasson, Ana Teresa Fernandez, Elin Hansdottir, etc.
Rail: I actually wanted to ask you about Roni Horn. I recently did an interview with her for the Rail and there were many things I find sympathetic about your work. The most obvious is the engagement with landscape, but I really want to talk about metaphors and the ways in which we engage with objects. She oscillates between rejecting and embracing metaphor, and you seem to explore the realities of metaphor, which was disfavored in theoretical discourse.
Solnit: Oh, let’s have unmediated experiences ha ha ha ha ha. My policies are instead: Let’s be conscious and strategic about our mediations since they will be there. I love metaphor a fair amount, and love that the word means, among other things, transportation in Greek, where the Athens public transit system is literally the Metaphor. Metaphor is something I learned a lot about from Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison who were doing really remarkable work in a conceptual vein—they thought very deeply in terms of metaphor. If a river is a sewer, what does that do to how we see the river and its possibilities, as opposed to a river as an artery? They of course learned a lot from Mark Johnson and George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By, which was a really formative document for me long before he became a liberal pundit. There is the wonderful term “frozen metaphor” for things that are so embedded in the culture we forget that they are metaphors, so how do we thaw them out to make them live again, so we can re-think them, reject them, re-organize them?
In a sense I think my more recent work is more about story than metaphor. What is your story? Is it that people are basically savage and in the face of disaster revert to social Darwinism and competition? Or is it what the evidence actually suggests, that human beings are a cooperative and generous species in those moments? What are the consequences of the stories we tell? When do stories damage, inhibit, imprison us? People tend to talk about stories as though they’re all wonderful. Well how about the stories of racial inferiority or ones in which women aren’t as good as men? Actually, I don’t love stories. I love some stories, and I do my best to take others apart.
Rail: Something that seems interesting and tricky, and perhaps doesn’t relate intuitively, but talking about a story circumnavigates a discussion around aesthetics, in the same way photography has been used to talk about the “subject” of the photograph rather than the aesthetic choices of the image making. What draws you to photography as a medium?
Solnit: I feel a great affinity for photographers and I was told gently early on that I wasn’t good at interpreting paintings and I never had a real affinity for them. You have to get into the cult of painting, both the craft of it and the lineage of it, neither of which interest me very much. Photography and non-fiction feel very close because, as you say, there is a very direct relationship to subject matter, which was taken in earlier eras as meaning they weren’t creative. There is a tremendous responsibility that goes with that. As a photographer I know if I take a photograph of you and I make it public, people will expect it to be true. If I Photoshop it so that you look like you are snorting coke, I know that will impact what people will believe, the historical record, and your life. Therefore I have tremendous creative possibility but I also have tremendous creative responsibility. When that responsibility is seen as confinement it bugs me—when people who are supposed to be doing non-fiction tweak the facts I feel that is a creative failure. You do not have to make shit up or misrepresent what happened to tell a fantastic story that has literary form. You just have to be good at it, be good at your job and let the constraints give you a more interesting solution. Constraint is often read like the word compromise, but there is a way of compromising that is like collaborating, finding common ground, where you serve truth and vision both, and those feed rather than sap each other.
Rail: What did you discover, both about landscape and the photographic process, through your collaborative projects with photographers?
Solnit: The most extensive and rewarding collaborations have been with Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe. Mark is a consummate collaborator—he’s got a very fierce public persona, and so it took a little while to discover that he absolutely prizes collaboration as a means of navigation. It was such a wonderful thing to experience. It’s funny because I’ve seen a lot of people who appear to be touchy feely feminists, who are actually incredibly difficult to work with and not necessarily going to meet you halfway.
It was really exciting working on Yosemite in Time (2005), the first collaboration I did with them. It started from talking to Mark when I was writing on Muybridge, because he’s not only the most interesting person to talk about Muybridge with, but he’s also someone who has thought deeply about 19th-century landscape photography and re-photographed a lot of it. He and Byron have literally stood where those guys have stood, and understood the technical decisions they’ve made in situ, which gives you information nothing else can. We learned funny things about Ansel Adams for example, who photographed virgin wilderness from the roadside all the time. There was one point when I was talking to Mark about the excitement of being in Yosemite, and he said that is interesting, but not really photographic. I realized that what limits photography for me is that if you can’t see it, you can’t show it. It made me really happy to be a writer.
If you do a photo book on Yosemite and you are re-photographing, you better get there at the right time of year and day of the original, when the shadows are in the right places. This makes you have an extended involvement with these landscapes and images. While the guys would be busy calculating angles and tweaking bellows to get the same distortion as in Carlton Watkins’s 1860s view, I would be looking. It becalmed me in a wonderful way. One of the threads of that book then became the question of what it means to see something. As we sat still in those places no one ever goes anymore, I began to question how people’s experiences are being manipulated. How when you move through the world or through a museum you are being forced through, in the way fashionable restaurants have strategies to turn over their tables rapidly so you don’t have a three hour philosophical dinner. Being still, you really get to know a place. You see the light change, the animal life come and go, you have time to think about it and ask questions. One of the aspects of going back to Victorians like Muybridge had to do with speed and slowness, and what means to look in a Victorian timeframe. People would look at a painting for an hour, or a view for a morning. What happens in the present, where everything is driven by endless grazing, a snacking way of moving?
Rail: I listened to a talk you gave with an aside about the social space of movie theaters, and what I liked is that you point to how we learn from each other in oblique ways. That in fact we learn very nuanced ways of reading texts from the peripheral awareness of everyone else’s reactions. It made me wonder about the experience of museums and the possibilities of looking at art in those spaces.
Solnit: A gallery architecturally is a space you don’t settle in, and museums come along later and are designed to keep you moving. I’ve noticed that people move through museums at the speed their feet and bodies desire, rather than their imaginations. If you put sofas or chairs there, people will stop. Actually, there was a wonderful conversation we had in Kristine Stiles’s class back then about how long it takes to look at an Andy Warhol. Is it as long as a Rembrandt? How long does it take to see something, and how is that experience structured? What are the differences between looking and seeing? It’s sad because I don’t think artists make work to be looked at for 30 seconds, but that is what a lot of them get.
Rail: Even though you write about representations of spaces, you deal mainly with landscapes and rarely architecture, Why?
Solnit: With cities I’m more interested in public spaces and streets, which have been important for my work on democracy and the way that democracy requires us to co-exist in public, so I’m more concerned with the space between the buildings than the buildings themselves. One of the ways I feel close to visual artists is that I don’t really have a field of expertise. I was once asked in a very scary way at an academic party: “What is your area of expertise?” I was taken aback, and so I said, “I’m a professional amateur,” meaning the grounding is in writing and the training is in journalism, but with that you can run anywhere and do anything.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.