On Second Thought…March 15, 2016
In September 2015, Royal NoneSuch Gallery (RNG) hosted my solo exhibition, First Thought Worst Thought, which included the forty books I composed between 2011 and 2014, all published by Gauss PDF (and available online), and a number of accompanying multimedia works. First Thought Worst Thought danced a fine line between literature and visual art, placing works that were initially intended as writing into an art gallery. When Brandon Brown and Matt Sussman invited me to contribute something about my work in the context of “the strange relationship between artists and poets in the Bay Area,” I knew I wanted to talk with Zoë Taleporos, a co-director of RNG who acted as the lead curator of the show. Along with her work at RNG, Zoë has curated for many Bay Area arts organizations including Pro Arts, Headlands Center for the Arts, Real Time & Space, and Queen’s Nails Projects. This public conversation is the first opportunity Zoë and I have had since the show to reflect on what we discovered by installing literature into an art gallery, while thinking more openly about the ways that art and writing interact, intersect, and, sometimes, are the same thing. —Tom Comitta
Zoë Taleporos: I’ve thought a lot about your exhibition since it came and went at Royal NoneSuch and am excited to have a platform to discuss the questions it generated, while examining some of the challenges we faced while putting it together. I guess I’ll start with asking you the basic question of why you were interested in showing your work in the format of an “art exhibition” in the first place. What were you hoping to accomplish by contextualizing your work in that way?
Tom Comitta: After publishing the forty books as print-on-demand paperbacks and downloadable PDFs, it seemed the books also needed to live together as physical objects. I set out to design a space for folks to move from book to book at their own pace. Since there aren’t really any literary contexts equipped to support the breadth of media or the duration that an exhibition offers, it made sense to reach out to a gallery. In this space, the forty books could stand beside videos, prints, and other multimedia works that open up the books to more complex readings. One of the forty books, the soUNDtext User’s Manual was even put to use in the exhibition, acting as the literal user’s manual to the interactive computer program that we installed. Ultimately, showing this work in an exhibition was really just a way to make a space for multimedia forms of writing to come together and form relations between each other. And the effects were unexpected. For example, poet Suzanne Stein called the show “sculptural.” I’m still curious about what this means for the work.
I recall in some of our conversations, Zoë, you were skeptical that folks would actually read or even pick up and open the books. We worked hard to make an inviting space that would allow this to happen, but it seemed that the gallery space in your experience had not been a place for contemplation or reading. Did this show alter your expectations or bring up any new thoughts about this? I’m also curious about your and RNG’s approach to this show. Why were you interested in putting on an exhibition like this? Was there something you were hoping to say about art? Or writing? Or reading?
ZT: I’m not sure we went into the project with anything specific we wanted to say about writing or reading, or even art for that matter. This was a completely new approach to an exhibition for us, and we were game to see what would come of it. I’ve seen poetry readings and writers performing in art venues, as well as text-based visual art. But exhibiting poetry as an art object and thinking about the line that distinguishes the two seemed like an interesting and challenging exhibition premise to explore.
You’re right that I was skeptical about engaging people in the work because, in my experience, people just don’t read in galleries. Wall text is skimmed for a minute at best. Same with press releases. So when the work takes the form of forty paperbacks, I wasn’t sure how comfortable people were going to be taking the time to understand the work. Getting people to go beyond first glance is always a challenge regardless of the type of work you show, but I imagined it would be especially difficult with your show that was so text dependent. Often the aids that we offer in a gallery take the form of written didactics. So when you have a show where you’re asking people to read a lot, giving them more things to read to understand the work didn’t seem like a good idea. I was happy to see that people did interact with the work quite a lot, but it is hard to gauge how successful we were in conveying the full breadth of your practice. And ultimately my experience of this exhibit was as a curatorial exercise.
We talked a lot about what type of environment would best invite people to engage with the work, and I think our initial inspirations were kind of wacky but useful nonetheless—Christian Science reading rooms and Masterpiece Theatre sets were among the first examples of reading spaces we discussed. In the end, we went with a fairly minimalist approach that integrated the forty paperbacks with your other work—video, vinyl installation, interactive computer software, etc.—and I believe this was essential to engaging the viewer. Knowing that you arrived at the final installation through an iterative and editorial process, perhaps you could describe how you designed the show and worked in the gallery space to implement it.
TC: I first developed the show in a tiny cottage studio that I occupied while cat-sitting at a friend’s house last summer. I’d never had a studio before, always working in my apartment, cafés or seven-hour Megabus rides, so this was my first opportunity to map things out “off the page” or screen. I found the move from page space to room space to be quite fluid, transposing what I’d learned about spatial distribution from collaging text and images in books and applying it to objects in a larger 3-D environment. When I entered Royal NoneSuch Gallery, I was especially interested in the street-facing windows. I saw them as an opportunity to create a 24/7 installation, extending the hours of the show, which was officially open six hours per week. I first thought a page from my book ◯ would be appropriate for the windows, since, when blown up, the ovals would mimic the sizes and shapes of the heads of passersby. But after I realized the difficulty of favoring a single section of the book, I decided to create a triptych out of the three chapters of my book point line shape (seen above).
One element of the show we’ve yet to talk about is NaNoWriNi (National Novel Writing Night), the novel writing workshop that took place as the show’s programming. I’m sure many of us wondered who, if anyone, would show up to write, design, and publish a 180+ page narrative in under three hours, but we had a pretty good turnout. As a curator and also a writer that night, what were your impressions of that event? How was it to write a novel? And to do it in an art space?
ZT: The NaNoWriNi event was interesting in that it allowed for people to sort of step into your shoes and utilize some of the techniques you employ in your work, which naturally allowed for a greater understanding of the exhibition. I would say that most of the people who attended the event were coming from a visual arts background (could be wrong about that), so it was fun to see the process of “writing” a novel stretched beyond a traditional approach. And personally I felt the experience was an investigation into forms, associations, improvisation, and collaboration—which doesn’t stray from other types of art making. So to answer your question about how it was to write a novel in an art space, it actually felt quite normal and appropriate.
While we are on the subject of context, I’m also interested in how the show at RNG differed from or informed subsequent instances where you worked in a visual arts context—your show at Kala Art Institute and your residency at Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC). And I know you have an upcoming residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, in Omaha. Do you see your work evolving into that of a visual arts practice based on the contexts in which you are now creating and showing it?
TC: The RNG show was something of a motor that sped up a lot of thinking/feeling about my identity as a writer/artist, which has been on my mind for a while. It seems kind of silly and incomplete to say I have morphed into an artist, but, at the same time, I haven’t had a poetry reading or publication in almost a year and have none scheduled for the foreseeable future. As you brought up, I’ve been operating primarily in art contexts. Why is this?
One answer might be that I’m not as legible anymore as a “poet” to many poets and curators of poetry. After one prominent Bay Area poet and publisher saw my ◯ book, he informed me that I am not a poet. This was strange to me because that book drew heavily from methods and ideas that I learned from Concrete Poetry. Of course, he meant that I’m not a writer of “verse poetry,” or lineated poetry typed in 12-point Times New Roman on 8 1/2"-by-11" paper—the norm of the poetry workshop and the publishing world. But “poetry” encapsulates verse poetry, visual poetry, slam poetry, code poetry, sound poetry, and many other kinds of poetry. These different forms of poetry, which are alive and well and have many practitioners, question the stability of what folks usually think of as poetry. If one acknowledges verse poetry as only one of many poetries, then the poetry sections in bookstores and libraries become incredibly incomplete.
Even with this climate, I don’t see myself running from poetry, but expanding the scope of what I do and finding contexts that meet the needs of my projects. I seem to be all over the map: at the moment, there are like five novels I want to write, a karaoke video that’s halfway done, a sound poetry opera in the works with the Minneapolis-based dance group Fire Drill, a pile of handwritten poems I want to organize into a book, an app that I’m about to release with Bay Area artist George Pfau, and an in-progress optical illusion newspaper. Is this an art or writing practice, or am I just obsessed with language and communication? As I’m writing this, I’m remembering a Laurie Anderson commencement speech in which she says that, to deter any complications, she simply labels herself a “multimedia artist.” Maybe I’m a multimedia writer.
ZT: I like your reference to all the types of poetry that question the stability of what defines a poem; there certainly are artists and artworks dealing with language that challenge what we identify as visual art. Anthony Discenza is probably the best example of a local visual artist that is really stretching the idea of language and methods of representation in his work. This in-between area where things become more hybrid or fluid is exciting to me, but I actually don’t see a whole lot of it being presented in art spaces in the Bay Area. Perhaps it is happening somewhere and I’m just not aware of it (and if that’s the case, I’d love to know!). But there usually tends to be a fairly distinct separation of the disciplines in terms of the “poetry scene” and the “art scene.” Attempts to bridge the two don’t seem to result in much cross-pollination of the audiences and mediums themselves. There appears to be a lot of potential to blur the dividing line between art, poetry, and other forms to where you’re not really sure what you are experiencing anymore and you have to grapple with the instinct to label things. And while there are some current examples of art spaces that host readings or other types of programs that attempt to bring poetry/writing and art together, the disciplines and audiences always seem to exist side by side and don’t feel as integrated as they could be. The desire to merge these worlds and disciplines is not a particularly new idea, and there has been a lot of precedent for it in the Bay Area and elsewhere. Your knowledge of this is pretty extensive, so perhaps you could share some past examples and talk about if/where this type of work is taking place currently?
TC: Yeah, there is definitely a lot of precedent here. I’ve wondered for years: why is there not a sustained vocabulary and support for this kind of work? These interdisciplinary questions have been asked and answered and then forgotten generation after generation. I’m reminded most of one particular group: of the artists and writers who revolved around Fluxus as well as Dick Higgins’ books on intermedia art and pattern poetry. They developed a vocabulary for and produced a mountain of this kind of work. And many other artists and poets in the 1960s and 1970s blurred these lines and operated in a truly intermedia space where specific disciplines were undetectable or beside the point. It’s easy to point to the majority of academic institutions, publishers, journalists, museums, and galleries as perpetuators of the divide between disciplines—it’s their job to define and compartmentalize culture. It could also be a careerist impulse that drives folks to select a single discipline. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that even if there is a vocabulary for interdisciplinary work and an immense amount of precedent, people will always think it’s weird or quickly label it an established discipline. It seems easier to call all this stuff art.
Some of my favorite contemporary visual art/writing crossover works come from Karl Holmqvist, Sophia Le Fraga, Francesca Capone, and Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford. In the Bay Area, there’s especially exciting the work being done at the intersections of writing and performance: Jai Arun Ravine, Suzanne Stein, J. Gordon Faylor, Juba Kalamka, Brittany Billmeyer-Finn, The Third Thing (Ivy Johnson and Kate Robinson), and the people revolving around Timeless, Infinite Light (Emji Spero, Joel Gregory and Zoe Tuck) are a few poet/performers who come to mind. I think an important thing to note in this part of the conversation is that it’s not about being interdisciplinary. It’s that these folks have an expanded toolkit and an expanded knowledge of different media that enables them to produce meanings/readings that would be impossible without this toolkit and material language. Personally, when I became a writer, I thought it was my job to learn writing in the same manner I assumed a painter learns to paint: get to know the materials, even make the paint, canvas, and other supplies yourself. Since my medium was language, it seemed my job was to dig as deep as I could into the visual and aural possibilities of language and the material possibilities of the book and other reading technologies. I would love to hear how the folks I mentioned above came to expand their toolkits themselves. I’m sure their approaches are all quite different.
I should add that my geographical perspective is surely influencing my ideas on interdisciplinary work—all of this thought has been produced while “growing up” as a writer in the Bay Area for the past seven years. This spring I’m moving to LA. I’m sure the change of location will open up a lot of new thinking and making. I’m also curious to see how my Bay Area findings relate to this new place.
ZT: Sigh. I’m just thinking about losing another artist (or whatever we are calling you now) to LA. I also see visual arts people in the Bay Area invested in expanding the conversation across the poetry/art world line. Margaret Tedesco has long been a champion of this type of work, and her shows at [ 2nd Floor Projects ] often incorporate readings and chapbooks. There have been artworks, readings, and programming coming out of City Limits, Et al., and the Lab that bridge the two worlds well. And I’ve noticed a trend of artists/galleries using poems or other forms or creative writing as the press release for their show. Or refusing to do a press release entirely, which is also a statement on the relationship between writing and art. Within these examples, I do think it is curious that the crossovers aren’t weirder looking or more experimental in terms of format. With the show at RNG, we did a lot of work to have it read like an art exhibit, as opposed to a bookstore or other type of space, as a way to signify to people that the books were also art objects and to distinguish it from other spaces where art and books coexist, like Adobe Books. And while I think it was effective, it was a very straightforward approach. In hindsight, I wonder what would have happened if we had employed a different methodology that was more surprising or unrecognizable in some way? What that would have looked like, I don’t know. Perhaps your time at the Bemis, where you will have a ton of space, will provide an opportunity to explore this some?
TC: My current plan for the Bemis is to complete this novel that I’ve been developing for four years—quite the opposite of the speed-writing we talked about earlier. Since last June, I’ve collected 1,000 pages of nature descriptions from over fifty novels. By the time I get to Bemis, I hope to have 1,500 so I can start collaging the descriptions into one long nature novel. Relevant to our interdisciplinary conversation, the novel is inspired by Kota Ezawa’s animation City of Nature (2011). In Kota’s video, rotoscoped mountains of Brokeback Mountain cut to rotoscoped mountains from other movies; the river of Fitzcarraldo flows into the river of Deliverance, which flows into the sea of Jaws; and so on. My book stages a similar technique with novels. You might read it as a novelization or adaptation of Kota’s video, although my collage methods have drifted pretty far from the original inspiration at this point. To date, I’ve written three studies, researched the histories of the novel, taken four animation classes at BAVC, which have oddly really helped me to think about collaging text, and am almost ready to write.
I don’t know what to expect in LA—have only been to a few readings at the Poetic Research Bureau and a few museum shows, so my scope is limited. One strange thing that I’ve realized while packing and simultaneously having this conversation with you is this seven-year pattern: Fourteen years ago, I was a teenager who couldn’t find a place to read poetry in my hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania, so I picked up instruments and added music and sounds to my words. Seven years ago I lost motivation for writing music and moved to the Bay Area to become a poet (so cliché, I know). Now, I’m moving to LA and leaning in all kinds of directions. Seven years from now maybe I’ll finally be a real poet.