AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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PHILOSOPHER-ARTIST INTERVIEW: SCOTT WALDEN

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Autoportrait, Scott Walden

Philosopher and Artist Scott Walden interviewed by Alex King for AFB

Scott Walden’s research focuses on the intersection between the philosophies of art, mind and language, with an emphasis on photography. These philosophical interests inform his photographic practice, which has been recognized by multiple grants and the 2007 Duke and Duchess of York Prize in Photography from the Canada Council for the Arts. As Associate Professor at Nassau Community College he is a 2016 recipient of the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. Walden divides his time between New York and Newfoundland.

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ARTIST INTERVIEW: LAUREN KALMAN

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Artist Lauren Kalman interviewed by Alex King for AFB

Lauren Kalman is a visual artist based in Detroit and an assistant professor at Wayne State University. Her practice is invested in contemporary craft, video, photography and performance. Kalman’s work has been featured in exhibitions at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Museum of Contemporary Craft, Cranbrook Art Museum, Contemporary Art Museum Houston, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Mint Museum, and the World Art Museum in Beijing, among others. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and the Detroit Institute of Art. She currently has a solo show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, running through March 15, 2017, as part of their MAD POV series; as well as an installation at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, PA, running through February 12, 2017.

[Ed. warning: this interview contains some nudity, may be NSFW]

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Interview with artist Jörg Reckhenrich

Chalk board drawing, series Film Stills, “Appropriation” (2016)

Jörg Reckhenrich, interviewed by Alex King

Jörg is a Berlin-based artist. With an understanding of art – shaping the social space – he takes the creative principles to the world of organizations. Art, he believes, can open our eyes to understand that we are not moving forward to a goal, we are at the goal and changed with it.

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Interview with Philosopher and Musician Annelies Monseré

Annelies Monseré interviewed by Alex King for AFB

Annelies Monseré is a post-doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and a musician. Her philosophical work focuses on definitions of art. Her PhD thesis investigated the metaphilosophical assumptions underlying the project of defining art. Currently, she is working on the implementation of a normative approach to defining art, an approach she defended in her thesis. Annelies has been a recording and performing artist since 2000. Her music has often been described as minimal, dark and experimental. She has put out two LP’s and many EP’s. A third record is to be released soon. Moreover, she has collaborated with other musicians, most notably Jessica Bailiff, and she is currently playing her music with a band. For more, visit Annelies’ Bandcamp Page.

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Interview with Comic Artist Jeffrey Brown

Photo by Jill Liebhaber

Jeffrey Brown was born in 1975 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While earning his studio MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Brown abandoned painting and began drawing comics with his first autobiographical book Clumsy in 2001. Since then, he’s drawn nearly two dozen books for publishers including TopShelf, Chronicle Books, Simon & Schuster, and Scholastic. Brown has also directed an animated video for the band Death Cab For Cutie,  had his work featured on NPR’s ‘This American Life,’ and co-wrote the screenplay of the film Save The Date. His book Darth Vader and Son was a NYTimes #1 bestseller, and its sequels Vader’s Little Princess, Goodnight Darth Vader, and Darth Vader and Friends, along with his middle grade series Jedi Academy, were also NYTimes bestsellers. His art has been shown at galleries in New York,  Los Angeles, Paris, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Now teaching comics at SAIC, he lives in Chicago with his wife Jennifer and two sons. 


AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: A rather significant portion of what many would consider to be the best comics of the last 25 years have been (broadly construed) autobiographical. 

  • Chester Brown, Paying For It 
  • Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, & Frank Stack, Our Cancer Year
  • Eddie Campbell, Grafitti Kitchen 
  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis 
  • David B., Epileptic
  • Art Spiegelman, Maus 
  • Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
  • Craig Thompson, Blankets
  • Jeffrey Brown, Clumsy 

 

Do you find there to be something unique about the medium of comics that lends itself to autobiographical narrative—especially when compared to its purely textual or purely pictorial kin? 
 
 
JEFFREY BROWN: I think with comics, the author’s voice can become pervasive throughout the form in a way that can’t be repeated in almost any other form. The style of drawing in comics can be as much an element of voice as handwriting, and the nature of self-depiction – coupled with the ability of comics to use exaggeration within a realistic depiction – can give comics a sense of emotional immediacy that creates a sense of physical manifestation of the author’s interior life. For readers, the effect of reading an autobiographical comic can be one of intense closeness to the author, breaking down the separation that naturally comes with interpreting a work of art. This is also helped by the tendency of these autobiographical comics to be the work of a single creator who is not only writing the story, but drawing, lettering, coloring, and even completing the production and design of the book. Contrast that, for example, with film where there are so many people involved you’ll rarely, if ever, see something as a finished piece that could be classified as autobiographical.
 
 
AFB: Of course, few of these autobiographical works would strike anyone as being especially challenging or innovative with respect to either narrative and depictive/stylistic convention or to the comic medium itself. Do you find there to be something about the nature of autobiography that might discourage comic artists from undertaking substantial departures from standard narrative and depictive conventions?
 
 
JB: Personally, I try to not worry about whether I’m following conventions or being formally innovative, in comics specifically or even within art in general. I think that experimentation for the sake of experimentation can lead to interesting work, but the best work is that which focuses on the ideas it attempts to express, and letting the form be defined by that, rather than vice versa. I also think there isn’t enough perspective on comics or autobiographical comics to determine exactly where things will fall – simply not enough time has passed to know what will be considered innovative or conventional, and the history of what follows these works will shed more light on them. That is, any of these works alone may be completely conventional, but within a continuity of works, some may be important parts of chronologically later work that is deemed innovative by whatever standards are used. That said, I don’t know how much innovation or stylistically challenging any work in any medium is currently, certainly nothing that isn’t overlooked or marginalized, except maybe the comics of Chris Ware. I also would argue that Maus is innovative, and Justin Green’s Binky Brown is another autobiographical book that at the time was challenging within the comics medium and in terms of autobiographical work. As an artist, my interest has always been first aligned with content, and I would rather rely on current conventions to get the most effective expression of my ideas than concentrate on coming up with new formal innovations. 
 
 
AFB: What do you consider to be the limits, aims, and obligations of autobiography to be for your own work and how might these be (best) served by the scratchy, minimal style and heavily fragmented narrative most evident within your earlier works?
 
JB: The limit, as with any autobiography, is viewpoint. Unless you want to make it into something that’s not autobiography, it’ll always be the author’s own viewpoint, even if they try to tell the story from someone else’s viewpoint. With my autobiographical comics, I’ve tried to present things almost as documentary, by removing things like narration and interior thoughts, but it’s still very much my story, or at least, part of my story as told by me. I don’t think there are any obligations, necessarily, but I try to be sincere in my work. I try to present life as flawed and everyday moments as important, and the scratchy, seemingly unedited style of those early autobiographical books is something that signals the reader that the story is something personal and vulnerable, which is an emotional entry point for them to let their own guard down. As for fragmentation, one thing I was interested in was memory, specifically how our memories reconstruct events to give meaning. The story of boy meets girls in reality may be chronologically boy meets girl, boy dates girl, boy and girl fight, girl leaves boy. That isn’t how someone remembers a relationship, though, instead it comes in bits and pieces, remixed by the brain so that one event connects across time and space to another event that, on the surface, is completely unrelated, but within the context of what those events mean to the person, and how those experiences achieve and maintain significance, these events need to be reordered to properly reflect the truth of the boy meets girl story for that person. I also like the idea of a narrative being constructed as much by the reader putting these parts together as they read, so that missing details are sometimes inferred, or even informed by the reader’s own history and personality.
 
 
 
AFB: While the literary world has certainly taken notice of comics (e.g., Watchmen routinely ranks amongst the top 100 novels), the world of fine art has shown comparatively little interest in comics—and perhaps unsurprisingly there are comparatively few comics with characteristically fine-art miens (e.g., Gary Panter’s Dal Tokyo, Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli’s The Puma Blues). How has the artworld reception of comics changed since you began your career a decade ago?
 
JB: There’s definitely was more interest, though it’s perhaps a backwards entry – it’s the art world coming around to realize that people are interested in comics, and so attempting to capitalize on that, rather than the art world having made some judgment about the aesthetic value of comics that the general population will then catch up to. So the art world is a little behind, much in the way that rock and roll or hip-hop were not taken seriously at first as musical genres. When I was attending The School of the Art institute of Chicago, there were only a handful of other people making comics in the whole school, and now I’m one of a dozen faculty teaching comics classes, and the classes are consistently full. I think where comics fit in the art world is something else that will be detrmined over time, so it’s hard to say where it is now, where it’s going, where it should be. Which is why I always return to the basic premise of what am I trying to express, and am I doing that effectively. Whether Clumsy is in a comic shop, a bookstore, or in a gallery is secondary to the question of whether someone looking at and reading it is engaged in a meaningful aesthetic experience. If they’re not getting any benefit on some intellectual or emotional level, then it doesn’t really matter what definitions are assigned to the work, or where the work is categorized.
 
 
AFB: On the view that contemporary fine art aims to maximize (rewarding) public meaning, understandably one might find the traditionally and comparatively strict and overt intentional aspects (both narrative and figurative) of comics to be excessively limiting. When it comes to work meaning, do you take your relationship with the audience to be more conversational (i.e., the artist intends her work to communicate such-and-such meaning to the audience, which if properly informed, should be able to read that intended meaning off of that work) or merely facilitative (i.e., the artist intends to provide the audience a broadly interpretable work facilitative of multiple rewarding meanings, intended or otherwise)? 
 
JB: I try to make work that is more broadly interpretable, and judging from the response to my autobiographical work, I think I’ve been somewhat successful. The range of responses seems to vary according to individual tastes, personalities, and experiences. With my book Clumsy, I’ve heard people say I make myself out to be the hero and I’ve heard others say Theresa is the hero. What’s important to me about the book isn’t my story – it’s not about what happened to me, it’s about relationships and how they are in real life, not fairy tales and not tragedies but something both completely mundane and yet world ending, something beautiful and worthwhile even when they tear you apart. It’s also not just that I want people to get that, though, but I want them to think about their own relationships and lives, to reflect, to find their own meanings and clarify their own understanding of the world. It was meant as a criticism, I think, but one reviewer talked about how my most recent autobiographical book A Matter Of Life raised more questions than it provided answers, but that’s exactly what I wanted it to do. For me, creating art is also an attempt to understand the world better, and part of that understanding comes from the response of the audience to it, and their interpretations. 
 
 
AFB: Do you find that you differ in this regard from that of your fellow comic artists (e.g., the perhaps aptly titled Conversation #2 shows you and James Kochalka to occupy very different art-theoretical space). 
 
JB: I’m not sure, as I think most cartoonists tend to either not think about these things, or at least, not talk about them. I think there’s a wide range of views, and it’s probably wildly inconsistent, though I think there’s more and more artists who are well informed about what art-theoretical spaces they want their work to live in. I think there are a good number of artists whose ideas would line up fairly close to mine. 
 
 
AFB: Given your extensive background in painting, and recent foray into film, having co-written the screenplay for the film Save the Date (2012), do you see the comic medium as aligning more with the Literary Arts rather than the Visual Arts or existing somewhere in between (and in that sense perhaps not wholly unlike screenwriting)? 
 
JB: When I think about comics, good writing can often overcome bad artwork, but great artwork rarely compensates well for bad writing. On the other hand, the art and writing are so interdependent I don’t know that it’s enough for me to fully endorse it as more literary. I really think it is its own thing, and even phrasing it as existing ‘between’ may be misleading. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as existing outside both visual and literary arts. For me, my interest in other mediums is once again a return to the focus on ideas – Save The Date is a film because it’s a story I either couldn’t or didn’t want to make as a comic, and there were emotional moments that could be shown on screen in a way that couldn’t be repeated in comics. At the same time, I’ve only become less and less interested in the idea of adapting Clumsy into any other form such as film.
 
 
AFB: Ultimately, what if any personal or philosophical importance do you assign to the admission of your own work into the world of fine art? For example, A Matter of Life (2013) has been called “hilarious” and “profound” and a “joy to read” but is that enough (i.e., does answering the further question as to its art status tells us something (non-trivial) about the work)? 
 
JB: If the goal of the artist is to communicate ideas to people, and the inclusion of comics in galleries or museums, or seeing graphic novels receive higher literary esteem, can bring the work to a wider audience, I feel that is important. Categories change, the importance of this or that designation changes, and so it’s something that I don’t feel is of huge philosophical importance to the artist, unless that artist is specifically interested in those questions of definition. Personally, though, the reception of my work is something that becomes rewarding and encouraging, even inspiring, and would be important if only for the impact it has on how proud it makes my parents.
 
 
AFB: Some criticized Clumsy (2003) as being too darling and overly sensitive. You answered back with the devastatingly biting reply: Be A Man (2005), in which you recreate seminal scenes from Clumsy that replace you with your hyper-masculine dude-bro doppelganger. Be a Man is a possible Clumsy, retold from the imagined perspective of a possible Jeffrey Brown, namely one who is a ultra-macho, insensitive oaf. Understood that way, Be a Man strikes me as being in a meaningful sense no less revelatory than Clumsy. It also hints as other possible retellings: Clumsy retold from the (as imagined by Jeffrey Brown) perspective of Theresa, Unlikely from the (as imagined by Jeffrey Brown) perspective of Allisyn, AEIOU from the (as imagined by Jeffrey Brown) perspective of Sophia. Just like Be a Man, such retellings might plausibly thought to remain at least obliquely autobiographical in nature, and in some cases involve no more or less distortion of time and memory than their more straightfowardly autobiographical counterparts.
 
JB: At its base, Be A Man is really just a joke – the title comes from an actual line in a review telling me that I needed to just “be a man”. This was really interesting to me on multiple levels. First, that there was a lot of response to Clumsy that was not about criticism of the book, but of the characters in the book, to the point where the only thing they were commenting on was my character, when really all the book shows is one particular period of my life, and really a limited view of myself as a person, and although the book used my life to construct its story, my life wasn’t really the point. Second, the idea of what a “man” is or should be seemed like a very silly thing to be talking about with absolutely zero indication of what they actually meant, any supporting evidence as to why their viewpoint was valid, or why their particular idea of manhood was better than any other idea of it (and better how – better to continue the spread of their socio-political ideals over those of someone else? better for the survival of the human species?). After I wrote Be A Man I realized there were a couple things in the book that I had done at one point or another. Clearly, if I could think those things, they’re part of me on some level, no matter how civilized I manage to be, or how much I’m able to suppress those thoughts in favor of more socially acceptable ones. 
 
 
AFB: Do you think there to be a moral dimension to autobiography, especially with respect to the portrayal of those whose lives intertwine with your own? 
 
JB: I don’t think it’s inherent to the medium – exposing someone else’s story (or secrets) isn’t inherently immoral, and doesn’t necessarily make the author a jerk. That said, I have a host of self-imposed rules when I work with autobiography. I try to not make anyone else look any worse than I do – I really try to show that I’m just as, if not more, flawed. There are certain things that I won’t right about out of respect, although where crossing that line occurs changes from person to person, I suppose. I very much avoid ever writing something for another purpose – trying to win a girl back, trying to apologize through a story, trying to assassinate someone’s character just because I was angry, or to intentionally hurt feelings with something I write about, or more accurately, how I write it.. I try to write things in a way that the people I’m writing about understand that in the end, the work isn’t about them, or ‘us’, but about relationships and young love and life, and hopefully I’m not sacrificing their stories too much or that the potential benefit to a wide audience seeing these comics outweighs any hurt I may have caused.
 
 
AFB: How might this moral dimension of autobiography potentially conflict with its artistic dimension (both more generally and specifically with respect to your own work)?
 
JB: It’s a fine line to walk, trying to put everything in that the story needs without stepping over a line that could destroy someone emotionally, especially someone I cared so much about. I try not to compromise, but there are certainly times I could’ve included things that would change a reader’s view of someone in the autobiographical comics. Whenever it’s something I start to feel I might regret later, or something that would feel really wrong, I question how necessary it is, what purpose does it serve, is there another way to get the idea across. It’s not an exact science. It’s a lot of time just thinking about things, and trying my best to be fair to everyone involved.
 

 

AFB: Your parody work, especially Bighead and The Incredible Change Bots, skewers to hilarious effect those superhero comics and toy-shilling cartoons many of us devoured in our youth by sending up their exceedingly tired and hacky tropes with an impressive (and surprising) level of sophistication. For these works, what do you take your relationship with the audience to be? That is, in order for an audience to fully/properly appreciate either Bighead or The Incredible Change Bots must that audience stand in much the same nostalgic/realistic relationship to the source material as do you?
 

 

 
JB: I like my comics to work at multiple levels; I think with the Change-Bots books there are a lot of specific jokes or extras that add to the reading experience if you grew up watching the Transformers cartoons, but you don’t need those to appreciate them, or to find them funny. In the same way, there’s a decent amount of innuendos or more adult jokes that kids won’t necessarily get the subtext of, but can still find funny on the surface. I think the nostalgic relationship helps me in making those books, because there’s a familiarity and fondness that allows for a close reimagining without resorting too much to cliché or obvious, easy jokes. So hopefully if the reader has the same relationship to the source material they’ll get more out of it, but it’s not a requirement for a reader to enjoy them.
 
 
AFB: Does the notion of a proper or target audience play a role for your parody work in a way it might not for your autobiographical work, especially given the radical tonal shifts between them: e.g., Bighead (2004) follows Clumsy (2002) & Unlikely (2003), Incredible Change Bots (2007) follows AEIOU or Any Easy Intimacy (2005) & Every Girl is the End of the World for Me (2006)? 
 
JB: I think it’s important to consider audience, and it’s even okay to have an ideal audience in mind, but I’m very wary of the limits that come with a target audience. I prefer to make the work fit my vision and then let it find its audience, or figure out the audience as I develop things. In a way I’m ultimately just writing for myself, and I’ve just been lucky that these books have struck various chords with readers the way they have. It’s also an ongoing process, the more books I write, and the more I see how people respond to them, and the wider the audience they reach, the better sense I have for who will be reading things I’m working on and how they’ll respond. As for tonal shifts, I think they seem more radical than they are in reality. The autobiographical comics are much goofier than the heartbreak subject matter leads people to read them as, and there are plenty of emotional moments packed away in the robot stories, that would fit right in the autobiographical comics with just a little reworking. Like taking away the robots.
 
AFB: What about for your recent best-selling work set in the Star Wars universe: Darth Vader and Son (2012), Vader’s Little Princess (2013), Goodnight Darth Vader (2014), Darth Vader and Friends (2015)?
 
JB: I think the Star Wars books – both the Vader series and my middle grade Jedi Academy series – are actually a pretty integrated combination of my more humorous parodies and my autobiographical comics. Aside from the fact that I grew up with Star Wars, Vader and Son is basically about my life as a parent of a four year old. Luke is even drawn just like I draw my son Oscar, except Luke gets the 1970’s haircut. Likewise, Jedi Academy borrows directly from my middle school years, both in general emotional terms of being awkward, and in specific events. The Jedi Academy series is specifically targeted toward readers ages 8-12, but I write it pretty much the same as I write any of my autobiographical comics, and the only difference (aside from the Star Wars aspect) is changing the language for that age group, and occasionally removing a concept that might be a little advanced for kids, or something they wouldn’t appreciate, though it might be within their understanding. I did have a fairly specific audience in mind when I wrote my first Star Wars book, Darth Vader and Son – people like me who had grown up with Star Wars and were now having kids of their own. I still tried to make it not so specific, so that parents could still enjoy it even if they weren’t Star Wars fans, and if you were a Star Wars fan you didn’t have to be a parent to enjoy it, and if you were a really hardcore Star Wars fan, there’d be lots of little jokes and things that would add even more to the reading. That worked well, and the one thing I didn’t anticipate for audience was how much kids have liked the books. I did also try to make the books kid-friendly, so there’s no joke that’s too adult and it’s naturally visually appealing, but I don’t think I could have reached a wider audience with the Vader books if I tried. 

 

AFB: Finally, in the last 10 years or so, comics have received increasing amounts of philosophical attention, most recently in the Roy T. Cook & Aaron Meskin volume The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). There is of course a sense in which being a target of philosophical enquiry validates the artistic merit of the medium. However, some might see this validation as coming with price, signaling the end of the medium, artists, and the practices therein being driven by an organically developed and fully internalized theory of comics and the beginning of the medium, artists, and their practices instead being shaped by a synthetic, externalized, and fine-art modeled theory of comics imported by philosophers (analogous to having the significance of your city-state validated by its being sacked by the Visigoths). How do you, and how do you think other comic artists, view increased scrutiny by Philosophers of Art?

Personally, I’m not worried at all, although I do feel like some cartoonists may be a little bothered, as if removal of low-brow status and DIY ethos will somehow dilute and ultimately negate the potential of comics to be truly expressive. At the same time, I don’t think most artists, myself included, feel that our work needs any kind of validation to be considered successful. I certainly have never felt that I needed mainstream culture to accept geekdom to justify my love of Star Wars, and the fact that Star Wars can be co-opted by such a wide range of people, companies, and products doesn’t adversely affect my love for the movies. So as a cartoonist, I don’t feel that increased philosophical attention to the medium should necessarily have any negative effect on the creation, as my focus will remain pointed at the ideas I want to express and finding the best way to communicate those ideas. Even if I feel like, at this point in time, the framework for the criticism of comics is something that is maybe being applied to the work rather than becoming a structure upon which new comics work can be built in interesting or different ways, I think overall that the more people looking at comics, and the wider variety of viewpoints, experiences, and agendas people are bringing to their readings of comics, the better off comics will be. Ultimately, if comics are going to continue to move past their basic origin as  fluff entertainment (or, if not origin, the common perception for the majority of the medium’s existence), they will need people like philosophers taking a closer look at their mechanics and nature. 




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Interview with Visual Artist Rachel Hecker

 
Rachel Hecker is a visual artist and an Associate Professor of painting at the University of Houston School of Art. Her conceptually based projects, from contemporary portraits of Jesus to levitating bottles of Xanax, have been included in numerous group and solo exhibitions in museums, galleries, and alternative spaces throughout the US. She’s received many awards, among them Art League Houston’s 2013 Texas Artist of the Year.

**Interview by Alex King**
 
 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Your work has a lot of visual affinities with Pop Art, especially with figures like Andy Warhol or Claes Oldenburg, but your aims seem very different. What do you see as the most important differences between their aims and yours?
 
RACHEL HECKER: My art lineage is definitely Pop Art.  I was taken to museums as a child, and I remember seeing Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans at a young age, and for the first time was able to associate art with things that were relevant to my life, and part of life’s vernacular.  
Pop Art emerged as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, and in this way it was as much focused on the art world of the 50’s and 60’s as anything else. It challenged hierarchies and rattled the watchtower, freeing up ideas of content and production, and contained an inborn irreverence that I really appreciate.  It democratized art in certain ways, but it also idealized subject matter.  I am much more interested in temporality.
Much of my work is located in the mundane fields of popular and material culture, where I think we live (socially and culturally). I use the languages of pop art as a form of dialect to construct a critique of those fields, or at least to poke at them.  In this way, I veer from the neutrality of Pop Art and towards something that is embedded with questions. With the Jesus paintings, for example, I tried to imagine what a contemporary western devotional painting of Jesus might look like, so I culled images from the fashion, music and film industries.  My feeling is that western devotion is located in these secular fields, and if we were to recognize Jesus at all it could only be through those filters. This builds critique into the proposition. 
 
Jesus # 2, David Gilmour, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 34”
 
AFB: The distinction between painting and sculpture can look pretty arbitrary sometimes. Paintings exist in three dimensions, rough paint and canvases jut out from flat surfaces, and so on. You are constantly exploring and questioning this distinction. At the end of the day, do you think there’s something important that nonetheless separates the two forms, or do you prefer to think of it as a merely notational difference?
 
RH: I recognize the authority of painting, its rich history and unbroken currency, its status as commodity, and often riff off of that as a kind of sidebar. Sculpture isn’t as polite as painting. It requires kinesthetic engagement and encroaches space. It has to be approached and reckoned with in different ways than painting. There are constraints and strengths implicit to each. I see them as available strategies.
 
Floating Zanax, 2013, pill bottle, magnet, electromagnet, wood, 44”x11”x11”
 
AFB: While we’re on this topic, I want to ask about your “paintings that do something” series and your kinetic art. Do you think of them as a further step in blurring the boundary between painting and sculpture, or just a way of making more apparent the physicality and motion that’s already present in all painting? 
 
RH: Paint dries, and it locks in moments of being with a thing. What’s left is a sequence of movements over time, fossilized and frozen.  Painting records motion and physicality, and asserts it’s own physicality as an object. But a painting is essentially inert – its motion belongs to memory and a corresponding nostalgia. I get uncomfortable with that nostalgia, and worry endlessly about paintings’ inertness.   
I always want more from a painting, or from my paintings. I want painting to defy its own inertia. I recognize this wish as being completely nutty, but it is there. I painted a portrait of my brother and it took me several months to get it right, and when I finished it I sat back and thought that it needed to be “enlivened” in some way, and the next day I implanted false eyelashes in the portrait as a way to “save” it. That didn’t help much. But the impulse to give painting an agency that it innately can’t possess is a constant concern. That led me to optical work like the variation of the Hermann Grid where there is palpable phenomena, or anamorphic images, or the QR code painting where the image is imbedded with another image that is only decipherable on a smart phone. The kinetic work and the Jesus paintings are an extension of this desire for agency. 
 
 
QR Code Painting, (from paintings that do something), 2010, acrylic on canvas, 60”x60”, (download free QR code reader app for smartphone to view this painting)
 
 
AFB: In other venues, you’ve talked about how you make your art as an “open-eyed meditation,” and said that “slow painting is like turning beads on a rosary.” Your paintings obviously take incredible technical skill. Why is it important that your art be created in this way, rather than by a team or mechanically reproduced? What do you think the relationship is, in general, between art and technical skill?
 
RH: There is something poignant about trying to make something perfectly, and knowing that failure is implicit.  Everything that I do in the studio focuses me on the process of making, and while I am with the work, my attention can’t waver far. I don’t find that there are many things that require that kind of intensity, and with it that sense of presence. In this way I associate my studio practice to meditation – a state of intense alertness. I could make the text work more expeditiously and more perfectly with vinyl stencils, but I don’t think that it would have heart, and I would forfeit my time with it, which is not something that I am willing to surrender. Skill, attention to craft, and caring for a thing are qualities that give back to the maker. I wonder what is gained if this is lost. 
 
 
 Table # 17, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 32”x42”
 
AFB: Do you think these are qualities that give something to the audience as well?
 
RH: If someone carefully looks at the work they will notice foible, and that is a foundational condition of being human. In the graphic work, for example, no two “E’s” are ever painted the same way, despite my effort. It is in these fissures that I think we recognize our interconnectedness. The representational work is photo based, but I use photography to slow-down the reading of an image by remaking it with paint. This is antithetical to the way many painters use photography, which is often to expedite image making and reception. I think that there is something counter-intuitively and counter-culturally useful to slowing down the reading of any image, and to slowing down generally. This is one of paintings foundational strengths.   
AFB: You’ve also said that you reproduce paper detritus to achieve unselfconsciousness and unintentionality. There is something paradoxical, though, in the attempt to avoid self-conscious choice of subject matter: you’re still picking certain papers over others, picking papers rather than other castoffs, etc. To what extent do you think you’ve succeeded in achieving unselfconsciousness? To what extent do you think such a thing is possible?
 
RH: I am incapable of making a gestural mark, and for the most part it is impossible for me to intentionally make any visual thing that lacks self-consciousness. When I first really noticed my grocery shopping lists, I recognized that they contained unselfconsciousness as content and as form. They didn’t have any reason to be in the world except as transactional objects – things that mediated between thought and action. In this way, they innately lacked visual awareness – it wasn’t a condition of their form. As I collected the lists and notes, I noticed that they also contained a kind of poetry, and forensic evidence of how I lived in the world, and seemed more candid than anything else that I could offer. And yes, I did make selections of what to paint and what not to paint, and those decisions were based on diversity. I wanted them to be the same but different from each other. The collection was diverse because I have the propensity to write on scraps of things and odds and ends, and I wanted the work to reflect that. 
 
 
 Marina business card, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 26″x46″
 
AFB: And one final big-picture question: Why do you think artistic unselfconsciousness is a valuable thing to aim for?
RH: To be self-conscious is to be “ill at ease”. It suggests a constant weighing and measuring, and is at best an anxious and reactive relationship to people, places, things and circumstances.  Unselfconsciousness is aspirational, and I think only experienced when ideas of past and future are suspended. In those moments there is a kind of lockstep with time, and very little reason for violence to self or to the world or others. That I identified this condition only in my grocery shopping lists is a good indication of my level of attainment, but it’s good to have goals!
 
 
Finger Statue (detail), 2013, coated EPS foam and acrylic, 65”x17”x15”, with Pixel Skull, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 78”x 60”


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Interview with Tibetan Artist Rabkar Wangchuk

 
 
Rabkar Wangchuk is a Tibetan artist, thangka painter, and sculptor. Born and raised in the Tibetan exile community in India, he is currently based in Queens, New York. At the age of seven, he was admitted to the Gyudme Tantric Monastery in south India where he began twenty years of training in various types of Tibetan art. During those twenty years, he mastered and pursued perfection in woodcarving, butter sculptures and, sand mandala (for which he was awarded an appreciation certificate from the Gyudme Tantric University). He also served as the head of the art section of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Art (TIPA) in Dharamsala, India.
His work has been exhibited in various venues throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States. Recently, he exhibited his unique arts at the Trace Foundation and Queens Museum in New York City. He will have work on display at Transcending Tibet, opening in New York, March 12–April 12, 2015 organized by the Trace Foundation.
 
 
**Rabkar Wangchuk is interviewed by Alex King (Buffalo) with help from Nic Bommarito (NYU/Buffalo)**
 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: How important do you think it is to understand your art that someone understand, to any degree, the history of Tibetan art? Buddhist religion and philosophy? Your own personal history?
RABKAR WANGCHUK: Growing up, I was trained as a traditional thangka painter. Later, I did one thangka show in Paris, people saw the work and they said, “Oh that’s very good!” and that was it. I’d have to explain everything for them to understand and be interested. So I realized there was a big difference, even though we were the same. I’m Tibetan; they’re French. But first, we have to connect as human beings.
 
 
Shortly afterward, a friend (who’s also a contemporary artist) encouraged me to pursue contemporary art. I wasn’t sure how to do that, but he said, “Here are some acrylic paints, here’s a canvas, just do something.” So I painted a monk flying in the sky, and said, “Is this contemporary art?” He said yes, and so I started to see what it was about – no rules, just painting what comes from inside. After that, my art became much more successful.
As an artist, my responsibility is to connect people. I am a professional thangka painter, but we are in the modern world. I can’t stay insulated and paint these remote things. If I do that, people just stay isolated from each other. In this world, you have to blend cultures – every culture is very important. So I keep a part of Tibetan art, but make it modern. That way, people who don’t know Tibetan art, but they recognize, for example, that this is the Terminator or a taxi, have a way into the art.
 
 
Preserving culture is only my secondary goal. My main goal is to connect people. Once you’re connected, then it makes sense to preserve the culture. I’m not actually that into the political side of things. People suffer in many different ways: some lose their loved ones, some lose their country, some lose their jobs, and art is a way of easing that and connecting us to each other. We live together in a bigger world; if we fix those big problems, then Tibet’s problems will be solved, too. If we connect lots of people, then those people will help. It’s not just something you can fix by staying isolated but patriotic.
 
AFB: You are classically trained in different Tibetan art forms: thangka painting, woodcarvings, butter sculptures, and sand mandalas. How do you experience creating these traditional artworks as different from creating your own works?
RW: Oh yeah, it’s very different! When I paint a thangka, there are lots of boundaries and rules. There’s a huge difference when I paint contemporary art. There’s so much freedom. You understand that, you live in a free country! To be honest, there’s more truth. You can paint how you feel: I want a flower here or a cloud there. When you have this kind of freedom, it’s easier to make a connection between people. We’re all human and we all share the same sorts of feelings, so when I can paint those feelings, I can more fully connect to people.
 
AFB: Traditional thangka painting, as well as religious art in general, has didactic, ritual, and inspirational purposes. Thangkas, for example, may aim to teach viewers about certain religious figures, deities, or cosmology, be important ritual parts of meditation practices, as well as inspire viewers to enlightenment. To what extent do you see your art as embodying these aims? Do you see some of these as more important than others?
 
 
RW: Well, thangkas aren’t inspirational at all. It’s just like, you paint two thangkas for this person’s funeral or something. But the art I do is inspirational. I don’t want to teach people things. If they want to learn something about Tibet, the art forms, religion, philosophy, or anything, that’s good. But the main goal is to make people feel something, and to help us connect to each other and realize that we’re all the same deep down.
 
AFB: Your art juxtaposes traditional styles with very contemporary content, often including images of pop culture and technology alongside traditional imagery. What do you think is important about harnessing traditional religious motifs and styles to depict contemporary life?
RW: By using traditional styles and themes, I keep some of my own identity. But pop culture and technology have very different purposes for me.
 
 
In this society, there’s very advanced technology. And I think sometimes there’s a real loss that happens. People lose their humanity. I try to wake people up with the message that – you’re a human, not a robot.
I’ve already said some about pop culture. Basically, pop culture is a way for us to understand each other. It’s a way to connect people and understand others’ feelings. So I use and celebrate pop culture in my art.
 
 
AFB: Traditional sand-painted mandalas are importantly transient. They’re meticulously crafted, then brushed away into the river. This is meant as a statement about the impermanence of not only things we create, but of all things. Do you think it is important to keep this transience in mind when creating and viewing your art?
RW: So to give you an idea, I did a 3’ sand mandala in 2006, at the University of Michigan, with my brother who is a monk. It took us one week together. He did the rituals while I helped, and afterward we emptied it into the nearby lake.
 
Everybody knows that everything is impermanent. But we forget it, we lose it, because of enjoyment or distraction. But you can still make your life meaningful, despite impermanence and death. I try to make my life meaningful through my art.
And of course I get attached to my art, and I want it to survive. But I have to survive! So I have to let it go, and I try not to get attached to anything. But it’s interesting – if you don’t get attached, you can’t create something beautiful. You can’t create good art. But you have to keep a balance between being attached enough to create something and not getting too attached that you can’t let go or let it be destroyed.
 
 
AFB: Your work is clearly very skillful and very beautiful. Nowadays, though, the artworld seems to regard beauty somewhat skeptically. Do you think the visual beauty of your work is important to understanding it?
Artists have to be very different from each other. It’s not enough to be skillful. But yes, beauty is very important, in two ways.
First, beauty is for attracting. When people initially look at something beautiful, they say, “Wow, that is nice!” That is the most important first moment. Then they come closer and want to know more. Only then can you get people to care about the meaning.
Shakespeare wrote, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.” This is how I think of it. Beauty isn’t important to understanding the art; beauty is not for the mind. It’s the art itself that connects to the mind. But beauty is important for the initial attraction. It’s the same with people. When you see someone beautiful, you’re attracted, and once you spend time with someone and talk to them, then you can connect to their mind.
 
 

Second, in Buddhism, creating beautiful things is like making an offering. People are always suffering and angry, and if they see something beautiful, that eases their suffering and calms them down, even if just a little bit. In the monastery, you’re always praying for all sentient beings to be happy and all that, but here, I actually create more happiness by creating beautiful things.


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INTERVIEW WITH PHILOSOPHER-POET RACHAEL BRIGGS

Rachael Briggs is a philosopher and a poet. She has been a Research Fellow at the Australian National University and at Griffith University since 2012. She has published widely on issues in metaphysics, epistemology, and decision theory. Her poetry has also been published many venues, but you can get a lot of it in one place in her book, Free Logic, which won the 2012 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for emerging poets in Queensland and was shortlisted for the 2014 Queensland Literary Award in the poetry category.

Rachael Briggs is interviewed by Alex King (SUNY Buffalo).

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Both philosophy and poetry can be formally and technically demanding. Do you think that there are parallels between the approaches of formal epistemology and decision theory on the one hand and poetry on the other? In particular, formalizing philosophy aims at increasing clarity. To what extent do you think this is successful? And what do you think is the aim of technically demanding poetry?

RACHAEL BRIGGS: I do think formalizing philosophy increases clarity. It’s easy to get a grip on a sentence in a formal language, because there are algorithms for testing whether it’s grammatical, whether it’s valid, and whether it follows from a given set of premises. (Incidentally, there are also algorithms for testing whether a poem obeys formal rules. Consider these two gorgeous twitter bots: anagramatron, which trawls for tweets that are anagrams of each other, and pentametron, which trawls for pairs of tweets that form rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter.)

But in formal philosophy, the added clarity comes with risks.  Suppose I want to ask a philosophical question about a real situation: whether a vague cloud is indeterminately the same thing as a precise collection of water droplets, or whether I can reasonably prefer allocating something indivisible based on a coin flip over giving it to my favorite person, or whether Shakespeare’s plays might never have existed.  You can translate each of those questions into a formal language that forces a “no” answer.  But then you have to worry about whether the original question has survived the translation.  Maybe you achieved clarity only by changing the subject.

I don’t think that either the risks or the benefits are the same for formal poetry. The point of technical demands in poetry is often beauty, rather than clarity.  Rhyme and meter caress the ear; good use of white space draws the eye; Oulipan lipograms dazzle the mind with their cleverness.  These constraints are not really about content, but about mode of presentation.  If anything, they present impediments to clarity, since there are fewer ways to get a message across beautifully than to get the same message across full stop.

Some kinds of technically demanding poetry do use constraints that are tied to their content.  The choice of constraint can carry meaning—two good examples are Warsan Shire’s “Backwards”, which uses a symmetric form to convey the idea of reversing time, and Harry Giles’ “The Following Content is Acceptable”, which signals that it is a sarcastic takedown of the recent UK anti-pornography bill by “censoring” the text of the a blog post about the bill.  A formal constraint can also signal connection to a larger genre or tradition—Agha Shahid Ali’s English-language ghazals are self-consciously connected to a tradition that runs through Arabic, Farsi, and a wide variety of other languages.

The form that’s probably closest to formal philosophy (in both its strengths and its weaknesses) is the sonnet, whose rules include constraints on logical structure.  Stereotypical sonnets include a volta—a change in perspective—between the first eight lines and the last six.  (Some Shakespearean sonnets cram the volta in between the first twelve lines and the final couplet, but it’s still there.)  The rhymes in a stereotypical sonnet also mark out divisions of meaning: groups of lines that are connected by rhyme are about the same subject matter.  Translating a thought into sonnet form can be a way of clarifying it, like translating an argument into premise-conclusion form.  But not every thought is naturally sonnet-shaped.

AFB: In addition to writing poetry, you do a fair number of poetry performances. What do you think is the relationship between the written poem and the spoken one(s)?

RACHAEL BRIGGS: Great question.  If I write down a poem and then perform a very similar poem (consisting of the same words in the same sequence), how many works of art did I create?  Is there just one thing, the poem, which can be conveyed in different ways?  Or are there two things, the written poem and the spoken poem?  Or are there more than two things: the poem as performed for a drunk slam audience; the poem as performed for a sober audience at a Sunday community event; the poem as bungled by a nervous performer; the first draft of the poem scrawled in a notebook; the final draft of the poem published in a journal…?

I think the right response is ontological promiscuity.  There’s at least one universal, instantiated by some ink scrawls and some speeches, that deserves to be called “the poem”.  Actually, there are many such universals: some that are instantiated by translations of the original draft into other languages, and some that are not; some that are instantiated by multiple drafts, and some that are not.  There are also plenty of universals that are instantiated just by ink scrawls that deserve to be called “the written poem” and plenty universals that are instantiated just by speeches that deserve to be called “the spoken poem”.  And many of them are aesthetically interesting.

AFB: While we’re talking about text and performance, I wonder what you think about the relationship between written philosophy and performed philosophy, whether it’s class lectures or research talks. Do you think it’s similar in any way, or completely different?

RACHAEL BRIGGS: I think the two kinds of performance are very similar.  They require similar skills from me: voice projection, eye contact, a certain amount of memory work, rehearsing efficiently, thinking carefully through the reasons for what I’m saying.  They have similar benefits: I think better when I know that I’ll have to present things for an audience.  And they feel similar: it makes me really nervous to stand in front of a room full  of people and talk, but I also love being able to gauge people’s responses in real time.  It’s too bad that there’s no poetry analogue of a philosophy Q&A; I think my favorite thing about philosophy talks is getting to do a little jam session at the end, where new philosophy is created.

AFB: Do you have particular processes you go through when you write philosophy or poetry? To what extent do you experience the writing process differently for each?

RACHAEL BRIGGS: With philosophy papers, I need more discussion and planning before sitting down to write; I make more outlines; and I go through a lot more drafts.  I edit poems too, but unlike papers, most of them come out either close to done, or unfixable.  My editing process for poetry is influenced by writing a lot of philosophy—it’s very much about trying to formulate specific problems with the poem, and then generating repair strategies.

One thing that’s similar to me across genres is the value of criticism.  In poetry and philosophy, I find it hard to gauge the quality of what I’ve written unless I’m able to bounce it off another human being.  Philosophy has given me a lot of practice at accepting criticism, which is a skill that carries over to poetry.

AFB: You have some visual poetry, too, which is an interesting manifestation of the technical nature of poetry, as well as of the power of the poem as a written object rather than a performed one. What do you think is valuable about visual poetry?

RACHAEL BRIGGS: The flippant answer: it looks cool.

The less flippant answer: in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, it can convey content that can’t easily be conveyed in other ways.  Consider some examples:

Forsythia, by Mary Ellen Solt, conveys not just the general idea of a forsythia bloom, but a very specific forsythia shape. That shape is impossible to convey using the sense of hearing alone (though touch might work—I think the poem would retain much of its interest if translated into braille.)

London by Elliot L. Armitage, includes a schematic map of London. There’s a sense in which the poem gives the same information in two different formats: a verbal description, and a picture. But picture makes the information feel immediate in a a way that the text alone is unlikely to do.

The webcomic A Softer World has so much in common with visual poetry that I’m going to use it for an example, even though its genre is officially “webcomic”.  Consider comic #33.

The image here is central to the joke: it conveys that the speaker is a cat, and that he or she is wearing a particular, rather eerie facial expression.  Even if you could get this information across in some other format, it would be hard to do it without spoiling the humor.

Although visual poetry has special capabilities, visual poems can be translated into non-visual formats.  (I think my ontological promiscuity helps with understanding what’s going on here.  There exist both a durable artwork that survives the translation, and a fragile artwork that does not.)  I’ve seen poets accomplish this kind of translation at festivals: a.rawlings uses pauses, strange noises, and gibberish to capture the typographic strangeness of her poems, while Shane Rhodes projects images of words behind himself as he’s reading.  So I don’t think visual poetry is separate from other genres of poetry; rather, I think visual elements are among the many valuable tools in a poet’s toolkit.

AFB: Sometimes, non-poetry takes advantage of these techniques, too. This is true of some prose fiction (Danielewski’s House of Leaves) and some non-fiction (e.g., The Talmud, Derrida’s Glas, and D’Agata’s The Lifespan of a Fact). Do you think there is anything to be gained by using these techniques in non-fiction or philosophical writing?

RACHAEL BRIGGS: Absolutely!  One technique that’s common to your examples is the extensive and creative use of footnotes or other annotations. That seems like an especially promising tool for philosophy. Writing a traditional philosophical essay involves a lot of cutting out digressive passages and simplifying murky issues (for me, anyway).  Extensive footnotes could allow the reader and writer to explore more side roads, away from the main path of an argument.

But to play devil’s advocate for a moment, here’s an objection to the use of poetic techniques in philosophy: they would make philosophical writing less accessible.  Glas is a pretty obscure book.  The techniques of visual poetry pose special problems, since they are unlikely to be helpful to blind philosophers.  Gabriele Contessa argues that philosophy’s stylistic expectations already disadvantage non-native English speakers; if philosophers started to demand poetic levels of lyricism, this would make things even worse.

However, I don’t think that the objection succeeds. We don’t know that conventional methods are optimized for clarity—plenty of conventional essays manage to be both ugly and obscure.  Experimenting with poetic techniques can be done in a pretty low-risk way; unlike badly-constructed vehicles, badly-constructed essay drafts rarely kill people. Contessa makes a good case that difficult poetic techniques shouldn’t be required in philosophical writing, and I agree with him. Still, poetic techniques are permissible, and might be useful for creating worthwhile philosophy.


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Interview with Conceptual Artist Simon Morris

Darren Hudson Hick & Simon Morris
 
Though he seems to spend most of his time playing with cats, Darren Hudson Hick is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University, where his research focuses on the ontology of art, philosophical problems in intellectual property law, and related issues. He is the author of Introducing Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Continuum, 2012). For more on Darren, go to www.typetoken.com

Simon Morris (b.1968) is a conceptual writer and teacher. He is a Reader in Fine Art at the University of Teesside in the UK. His work appears in the form of exhibitions, publications, installations, films, actions and texts which all revolve around the form of the book and often involve collaborations with people from the fields of art, creative technology, literature and psychoanalysis. In 2002, he founded the publishing imprint information as material. He is the author of numerous experimental books, including; Bibliomania (1998); The Royal Road to the Unconscious (2003); Re-Writing Freud (2005); Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head (2010); and Pigeon Reader (2012). He is an occasional curator and a regular lecturer on contemporary art and also directed the documentary films sucking on words: Kenneth Goldsmith (2007) and making nothing happen: Pavel Büchler (2010). Further information can be found here: www.informationasmaterial.org
 
 

DARREN HUDSON HICK: About a year ago, I published my article, “Ontology and the Challenge of Literary Appropriation” (JAAC 71(2), 155-165), focused on Simon Morris’s book, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head. As I explain in the article, Morris is what’s called a “conceptual writer,” effectively a literary appropriation artist. When the article went to press, I sent a copy to Kenneth Goldsmith, another conceptual writer, who wrote the introduction for Morris’s book, and who I quote from in the article. Goldsmith in turn sent the article on to Morris. A few weeks later, a package arrived at my door from Morris containing a selection of his other recent “bookworks”.  I’ve been chatting with Morris on and off for the past year about literary appropriation. Earlier this year, Christy Mag Uidhir suggested I interview Morris for Aesthetics for Birds, and Morris cheerfully agreed.

 

DARREN HUDSON HICK: What is “conceptual writing”?
 
SIMON MORRIS: Conceptual writing is a fusion or a (con)fusion of art and literature. Conceptual writing’s significance is in establishing new modes of production for literary works and different ways of reading.
 
This type of activity is what my co-editor, Nick Thurston at Information as Material has referred to as a conceptualist reading performance
 
I think Thurston’s collaging of these three distinct terms may be a useful way for understanding how artists are approaching literature.
 
The American artist Mark Dion has commented on how the artist has a different relation to theory from the academic or the scientist. The artist is not trying to establish some law or rule based on reason. Quite the opposite, he or she explores the potential of the irrational…he or she celebrates the nonsensical. Dion reflects:
 
Artists are not interested in illustrating theories as much as they may be in testing them. This is why artists may choose to ignore contradictions in a text or choose to explode those contradictions. The art work may be the lab experiment which attempts equally as hard to disprove as prove a point. (Mark Dion, ‘Field Work and the Natural History Museum’, The Optic of Walter Benjamin, ed. Alex Coles, Vol. 3 of  de-, dis-, ex-[(London: Black Dog , 1999] 38-57: 39.)
 
In Thurston’s compound descriptor the first term conceptualist relates to our intention that the concept is privileged in the making of the work…as Sol Le Witt would maintain in his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art which appeared in 1967:  The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. But not just in the making of the work but in the engagement with the work as well…in its subsequent reading or thinking about. 
 
The reading takes into account a sensitivity to the act of reading which can be read as an aesthetic experience in and of itself. Reading is usually a private act but these performed readings are always intended as public works…they are consciously made to be shared. It’s important to understand its reproducibility and its performativity are built in to its mode of production.
 
Making a reading act on the understanding that what you are going to present will be an artwork.
And the performance in the physicality of the engagement with extant material, the existing words of others. A violation occurs in relation to the source material that may involve a re-writing, a re-reading or a miss-reading of the source material. 
 
Conceptual writing has seen the development of new forms of art through conceptualist reading performances. This method grafts the aesthetic legacy of Conceptual Art on to various notions of writing (from literary composition to data management) in order to produce materially-specific poems as artworks that have in some way re-read a found object. This is an art of reading things differently. It starts from a premise proved by the impossibility of making purely conceptual art: that art is always aesthetical and conceptual. To that it couples an obsession with language as both material signifier and social activity. In doing so it establishes a mode of making art that asks: What could we write if reading could be a materially productive act of making art? How might a certain kind of reading-as-making problematise the understandings of authorship, production and reproduction ensconced in our cultural industries? Works of conceptual writing celebrate reading differently as a praxis of exploring the elsewhere of what languages and their users can mean and do. Conceptual writers are committed to working collaboratively and against all-too-certain counter-productive divisions between contemporary art and contemporary literature.

 
 
 
DHH: What are “bookworks”?
 
SM: “Bookworks” was a term first used by Clive Phillpot, one of the world’s leading authorities on artist’s books. I believe he used the term to separate traditional books (what I would call ‘information carriers’) from artworks that use the form of the book to convey an idea, in much the same way a more traditional artist might use paint on canvas or a block of marble and a hammer & chisel to express their ideas.
 
DHH: Your bookwork, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head is essentially a page-reversed but otherwise word-for-word retyping of the Original Scroll Edition of Kerouac’s On the Road. As the title suggests, your impetus for writing GIJKH was to get a sense of what it was like to be Kerouac typing those words. Now, because I’m a completist, I bought a copy of your book. But if GIJKH isn’t an “information carrier,” is there any point in my reading it? 
 
SM: No, I wouldn’t recommend that you read GIJKH in the traditional manner. If you want to read On the Road I would recommend you go out and buy Jack Kerouac’s book. But, on the other hand if you want to engage with an artwork that considers issues of identity, authorship and ownership then I would recommend mine. But I still see no reason for you to read my edition. My works necessitate a different form of engagement, you need to learn to read differently. Information as material turns readers into thinkers. These works are meant to be thought about which, as the New York poet Rob Fitterman has commented, means they require a ‘thinkership’ rather than a ‘readership’. 
 
One is a work of literature and the other one is a work of art. The text found in the two works may be virtually indistinguishable, but the meaning is totally different. I like that—that two works can look virtually identical but have completely different meanings. Richard Prince’s appropriation of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in 2011 also made the distinction between art and literature very clearly. Penguin books brought out a deluxe facsimile edition of JD Salinger’s first edition of Catcher in the Rye and were selling it for $32 a-pop. Richard Prince appropriates this version, making an identical facsimile edition, save for swapping his name for that of Salinger’s and charging $64 a copy on the basis that art is worth twice as much as literature. He also offers a signed edition of his work for around $59,000 which is what a signed first edition of Salinger’s work would cost you in auction. Prince’s appropriation in 2011 of the hardback first edition of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was referred to as a sculptural edition and in the disclaimer in the front, it clearly states that this is art rather than literature. It was a dead-ringer through and through for Salinger’s text—not a word was changed—with the exception that the following disclaimer was added to the colophon page: “This is an artwork by Richard Prince. Any similarity to a book is coincidental and not intended by the artist.” The colophon concluded with: © Richard Prince.
 
 
 
DHH: In his introduction to GIJKH, Kenneth Goldsmith suggests, “Morris has only had a handful of commenters/passengers, curiously, none of them have been Kerouac’s estate or his business representatives calling foul play for freely republishing a very lucrative artwork. Morris’ work, then, is an anomaly—not a pirated edition worth legally pursuing—and as such, becoming functionless and aestheticized, it can only be a work of art.” Goldsmith seems to put the issue aside, but do you have any worries about the Kerouac estate coming after you for copyright infringement?
 
SM: I guess it comes down to two basic questions:
1. Financially, is it worth suing me? Do I have any assets? Richard Prince made this quite clear in his recent court case testimony for the Patrick Cariou vs Richard Prince case (from which a selection of papers from the court case were wittily appropriated by Greg Allen and produced print-on-demand. It includes the longest known interview with Richard Prince). In his affidavit, Prince states: “When I started out, no one was paying any attention to me. Who would have been concerned by a guy who appropriated an image from an ad? What purpose would it serve to sue me? [my italics] I was living in an apartment – in the East Village, where the rent was $75 a month. My job earned me $100. I had enough left to eat, drink, and buy supplies to paint. But if, unfortunately, I were to be sued today, I would call upon a law firm.”
 
2. Is it possible to sue me? Because it would probably come down to a very tricky philosophical argument over the distinction between art and literature (one where you might be called as an expert witness, Darren). If it functions completely differently to Kerouac’s literary work and isn’t even meant to be read, does it actually represent any kind of economic threat to his estate?
 
 
DHH: More generally, what role do you see copyright having in the arts? 
 
Because life is short and transitory and because I believe in sharing and collaborating to push things forward, I think all music, art, literature, scientific and academic papers should be as free as possible from copyright restrictions (shareware). For this reason, I think Creative Commons offers a much more intelligent solution to copyright for the arts. As their Licence states: “You are free to share or remix this work but should always attribute the work in the manner specified by the author.”
 
We all learn from what already exists in the world so to put restrictions on how things can be remixed seems very counter-productive. For example, as the celebrated American author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain recounts:
 
“Oliver Wendell Holmes…was…the first great literary man I ever stole any thing from—and that is how I came to write to him and he to me. When my first book was new, a friend of mine said to me, “The dedication is very neat.” Yes, I said, I thought it was. My friend said, “I always admired it, even before I saw it in The Innocents Abroad.” 
I naturally said, “What do you mean? Where did you ever see it before?” 
“Well, I saw it first some years ago as Doctor Holmes’s dedication to his Songs in Many Keys.” 
…Well, of course, I wrote to Dr. Holmes and told him I hadn’t meant to steal, and he wrote back and said in the kindest way that it was all right and no harm done; and added that he believed we all unconsciously worked over ideas gathered in reading and hearing, imagining they were original with ourselves.”
 
(Anecdote taken from a footnote in Oliver Sachs’ essay, ‘Speak, Memory’, which can be found online here)
 


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INTERVIEW WITH OUP EDITOR & INDIE-ROCK LEGEND PETER MOMTCHILOFF

Peter Momtchiloff has been philosophy editor at Oxford University Press since 1993. He studied classics at Oxford. He has played guitar in many bands, including Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, and currently the Would-be-goods and Les Clochards.

Peter Momtchiloff interviewed by Christy Mag Uidhir

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Most philosophers know you as the Senior Commissioning Editor for Philosophy at Oxford University Press but I suspect are unfamiliar with your rock star status. Would you mind giving the readers a brief history of your illustrious career as an indie-pop guitar icon, founding member of twee-pop legends Talulah Gosh & Heavenly?

PETER MOMTCHILOFF: I started playing in bands in 1978, on the fringes of the punk rock world.The first band I was in which made records and toured was Talulah Gosh, which started in 1986 and lasted a couple of years. The basis of our music was the bringing-together of our two main influences, 1960s girl groups and the Ramones. We weren’t the only ones doing that, but we happened to be in quite early on a style which proved to have a lot of durability.

AFB: Heavenly’s sound, at least to my inexpertly trained ear, underwent a pretty noticeable shift from its debut album Heavenly vs. Satan (1991) to its final album Operation Heavenly (1996) [—with the shift as I see it occurring precisely at the 1993 7” release of the “Atta Girl”—]. How did you see the band’s music and songwriting as changing during that time? To what extent might it have been influenced by the larger Brit Pop movement?

Heavenly (photo by Alison Wonderland)

PETER MOMTCHILOFF: You are right to identify a shift. When Heavenly started, in 1989, our aesthetic was guitar pop, which we saw as consciously in opposition to the prevailing guy-rock movements of the time, which were (a) grunge and (b) dance rock a la Stone Roses/Happy Mondays. But in the early 1990s a more forceful woman-focused alternative to guy-rock took shape, in the form of Riot Grrrl. Heavenly’s US record label was K Records, one of the centres for this movement, and when we toured in the USA in the early 1990s we met and played with Bratmobile and other riot grrrl acts, and found them kindred spirits. This reawakened our punk rock tendencies, which had been to the fore in our previous band Talulah Gosh, and so our music became noisier from our 1993 releases till we finished in 1996.

We did not feel a similar alignment with Brit Pop, which was a laddish and often sexist cultural movement. But we did have musical sympathy with some of the groups involved (Blur and Elastica perhaps) and in recent years we have jokingly referred to our last (and favourite) LP, Operation Heavenly, as ‘our Brit Pop record’.

AFB: What have you recently been up to musically?

PETER MOMTCHILOFF: For about fifteen years I have been playing in the suave and reclusive Would-be-goods.  And usually a couple of other bands as well (Les Clochards).

Would-be-goods (photo by Pavla Kopecna)

Les Clochards (photo by Natasha Neville)

AFB: When you look back over your impressive music career, how do you see your own guitar work as evolving over time?

PETER MOMTCHILOFF: I have been in more than a dozen bands, in very different styles of music, so I have had to learn different ways to contribute. The electric guitar is both a rhythm and a lead instrument, and is easy to make loud, so a guitarist can easily push himself to the fore in a group if he wants to. I think I have learned to be more attentive to what else is going on: not to get in the way of the vocals or whatever else might deserve the listener’s attention. I am also gradually learning to play in time – always a struggle for guitar players. I should have learnt sooner, given that I started out as a bass player.

In terms of guitar style, I have often ventured into noisy territory, in keeping with the punk rock tendencies of several of my bands, but have always found myself pulled back to my home territory of late 50s/early 60s twang. My early guitar idol was Wilko Johnson of Dr Feelgood, but for 25 years or more my pole star has been Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs, who played on most of the great Stax hits of the 1960s.

AFB: Do you think in Britain as compared to in the States musical movements and genres have a greater tendency to be associated with larger cultural movements? To what extent do you think such tight associations have an effect on the music (expression, creativity, appreciation, etc.)?

PETER MOMTCHILOFF: I think the key difference between UK and US musical culture, at least between the 1960s and the 1990s (after which I lost track), has been to do with the ease of nationwide communication in Britain. Most of the radio and TV programs that we listened to and watched, most of the print media that we read, were national. Anything new and interesting could very swiftly find a nationwide constituency. And many of the people with influence in the media and the industry had considerable freedom to champion their own tastes, rather than being required to be sensitive to an existing market – after all, that market was liable to be fickle, because of the swiftness with which tastes could change.

And so the downside was that success tended to be short-lived. Most successful UK acts in the last century just quit or faded into oblivion, rather than slogging around the circuit forever on the back of ancient hits.  Actually I don’t think that’s a downside.

I think the same is true of youth culture more generally.  It comes and goes swiftly in Britain. Certainly when I was young the way one dressed was expected to correlate in some way with the music one liked. My impression is that the connections are not so strong now, but I could well be wrong.

AFB: As Senior Editor for Philosophy at Oxford University Press, what if anything about a book proposal—apart from its philosophical content—strikes you as being a decent indicator of its chances of success or failure? Have you ever been genuinely surprised that certain books you thought would do well did poorly and vice versa?

PETER MOMTCHILOFF: I am fairly sure that the strongest contributory factor in the success of an academic philosophy book is the extent of prior philosophical interaction with the author’s work, or better still with the author directly, on the part of philosophers working in the area. So get out there and interact!  I don’t think the topic in itself will make a book sell. Nor, I’m afraid, quality on its own.


AFB: While I have little doubt about my own talent/ability for philosophy, I’m also equally certain that I’m utter shit as a writer. How do you think philosophers compare to other academics as writers?

PETER MOMTCHILOFF: Of course a lot of philosophy is hard work to read. But one thing which I tell my colleagues about philosophers is that they generally have reasons for saying what they say the way they say it rather than some other way. Philosophers’ writing tends to be considered, which is better than unconsidered (even Wordsworth said that a true poet is not only “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility” but has also “thought long and deeply”).

I can easily think of philosophers whose writing I like. Just from our own times, the following come to mind: Quine, Davidson, David Lewis, Annette Baier, Judy Thomson, Peter van Inwagen, Galen Strawson, Mark Wilson, Trenton Merricks, John Doris.

AFB: What things can philosophers do to make your life as Senior Editor easier?

PETER MOMTCHILOFF: Short is good. And for my tastes, you should minimize time discussing your contemporaries’ work. I realize that there are pressures in the other direction.