Staged Intimacy: A conversation between Kevin Killian and Margaret TedescoMay 19, 2016
We thought it best to end where we started this series of reflections by and collaborations between Bay Area visual artists and poets: with a conversation. “Conversation,” though, feels like insufficient shorthand for the meeting of minds and hearts that occurs in the following exchange between Kevin Killian and Margaret Tedesco. Legends in their own right, Killian and Tedesco have long been catalytic forces in the Bay Area’s art and writing scenes. In many ways this issue wouldn’t be possible without them (indeed, it takes its title from a roaming event series Tedesco curated in the ‘90s). Whether through exhibitions or on stage; in print, across magazines, photographs and catalogues; or out at parties and social functions, Tedesco and Killian are always bringing artists and poets –or countless others – together as collaborators or agents of possibility. If ‘Moving Target’ opened with an exploratory discussion which touched on the sympathies and differences between the poetry and art worlds, their overlaps and failures and refusals to overlap, then Killian and Tedesco’s joint account generously and necessarily grounds those fissures and concordances in real time and space, in a lived history of creation and connection that is both individual and shared. And that is its own kind of magic. — Brandon Brown and Matt Sussman
“Never wait for yourself” —Paul Éluard & Benjamin Péret
Margaret Tedesco: How to begin, Kevin? Is it fair to say the two of us take pleasure in connection, staging destinations and conversations across disciplines, or across generations? Or that we are drawn to experimentation and collaboration, enjoying the process and, of course, fun? Sustaining trust is a key element—oh, as is mixing in some failure for excitement.
Kevin Killian: I like your attention to the possibility of failure, because the thing that distinguishes Bay Area writing and art from other parts of the country is here we have, historically speaking, permission to screw up on a grand scale. My favorite artists and writers all went down blind alleys with abandon. Painters like Jay DeFeo, like Bruce Conner, would work with impermeable materials—hang it on the wall and leave it. Not having a market allowed people to work using extravagant and excessive ways that would not do in a place in which people paid for their art—and poetry.
MT: The Bay Area began with the 1970s model of the artist-run space, which lent itself to the defiance of the market. For instance, at the late New Langton Arts, our exhibitions were mainly newly commissioned work. We hadn’t a clue what the artist was going to produce exactly, as they gave us a proposal, and there was always the element of surprise by the time the work hit the floor, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Nonprofits are not about pleasing the market, although by the time I was enmeshed with Langton, funding dictated the programming, which affected the work and became problematic.
KK: How did they stay in business?
MT: Annual auctions and fundraising, such as we see today, to cover operational costs—keeping the doors open, i.e., rent and staff positions.
KK: How long have you been running your project space, and did you have the concept from the beginning that the writer would be billed equally to your artists?
MT: I’m beginning my ninth year. In my archive room I pulled out an early edition you wrote titled “I Think You’re Great,” written in tandem with artists David Hatcher, Mitzi Pederson, and Wayne Smith for the show I guest-curated at Queens Nails Annex in 2006 titled OverUnderSidewaysDown, before [2nd floor projects] was established. Kevin, you were the first writer I invited. It was the moment I realized I was attempting to enact an unusual model in the arts—the writer as artist. Your work in New Narrative was perfect to initiate this moment. Along with the writing you also recorded for Wayne Smith’s CD I Think You’re Great—you did spoken Tai Chi postures for the track “Cloud Hands.”
To date, I have posed this model to the community at large. When I commission the writer to be part of the show here at [2nd floor projects] for an edition, they are in the show as an artist, and not to serve the work on the walls. Currently I have published fifty-five newly commissioned writings, so there’s a book on the horizon, an anthology. And I have entered as a regular in the book fair circuit. I adore “the fairs.”
KK: You have made a very conscious and public choice to combine poetry with art in commissioning so many poets to write essays in the format of your in-house designed and printed chapbooks or broadsheets, many in poetic form. You’ve engaged some of the best poets from around the world, including Eileen Myles, Susan Gevirtz, Cedar Sigo, Bill Berkson, Frances Richard, Steve Dickison, Suzanne Stein, literally dozens more. That must appeal to you quite a bit?
MT: Yes. As the sole curator and gallerist, I pair the exhibitions. I enjoy chance pairing and what may occur in the conversation—the surprise element, as many of the artists don’t know one another, which is exciting. I keep lists of names, and many times in the middle of the night out of sleep, I find the combination! I have no clue until the artists and the manuscript arrive in the space if the combination is in conversation…and I find pleasure in this.
KK: That’s the San Francisco way. Just let it come together. What’s the worst that could happen?
MT: Exactly, get a bad review? This goes back to my training as a dancer/choreographer in the 1980s. The first thing you learn and encounter in this practice is you’re not the lone artist. Yes, you’re dancing in your own body, and within your own faculties of what you can and cannot achieve, but other people are there to help you through some of that, teach you how to become more facile in your body (hopefully). The first item necessary is negotiating and navigating space with other bodies in a room. So begins collaboration.
The moments you step into that room and either put your hand on a ballet barre or stand in a group to go across the floor, one needs to consider how to organize the body to cross the floor with five other people. Am I going to fall all over them? Is there enough space for me to fully use my body within the formation, etc.? All these points of reference are very important spatially at the onset in addressing your surroundings. Thus collaboration is organic and key in the development of my practice.
KK: You had your own dance company, didn’t you?
MT: I had a two-person dance company—myself and another woman for seven years. While we worked together we also had a roving venue called Art Who? Dance What! where we programmed sound, performance, and dance artists for a few years.
Speaking of collaboration, how do you work with others in the San Francisco Poets Theater? Do you come with a structure? Do you introduce an outline to your collaborators? I was there when Karla Milosevich came to you with the idea of doing a play set in the world of “modern dance” [Dance World Gym, 2011].
KK: I’m just really a facilitator in these cases, and that’s what’s exciting. Dodie [Bellamy] sometimes chides me for wielding too heavy a hand in my collaborations, for no matter whom I’m writing with, she says, the plays all sort of sound like me: all melodrama and Charles Ludlam style of farce—heavy on the sex transgression and the satire of modern life. I do like working with people, often artists, who have never written anything at all. The ironic thing is that so many are actually exquisite writers. It just kills me! I couldn’t draw a stick figure, and even though an artist is like, “I’m so nervous! I’m writing my first short story!” And it’s just marvelous.
MT: Your Poets Theater work reminds me of the style of the Kuchar brothers.
KK: Yes, it’s not just Ludlam but the Kuchars.
MT: Like the Kuchars—even when the brothers work in the school with the students at the San Francisco Art Institute and the scripts are written with the students, but at the end of the day the style is definitely the melodrama, the Douglas Sirk style is always in there no matter what, especially when George was here. Mike has shifted that a bit more toward his own style with the students.
KK: It’s a question of casting. The people I work with, acting together sometimes upward of twenty-five times over many years, I can write for their specific skills. I’ve used trained actors, but I gravitate toward people whose are known for something else, they’re poets, they’re artists, sometimes quiet and withdrawn people, like the late Leslie Scalapino, for when we gave her a part and asked her to go crazy on it, she did it like nobody else. Or reserved artists like the great Mary Gaitskill, when we did our play CUT, my Hitchcock play, she played the present-day “Tippi” Hedren, haunted by her experience with Hitchcock. And people watching it actually thought Gaitskill was having a breakdown right on the stage.
MT: How young were you when you began to follow your own course? We both grew up Catholics—I don’t know if you went to Catholic school.
KK: Yeah, I sure did.
MT: I went as well, and I was already rebelling as a young kid.
KK: It makes you rebel, the church. A lot of artists are Catholic, like Mapplethorpe. I didn’t even really know I was rebelling, I don’t think, until I moved here to San Francisco. I was in a PhD program, halfway through my dissertation, living rent-free in my sister’s apartment in the Mission.
MT: That was in 1980?
KK: It was a beautiful time to be here, though the city was lingering in the shadow of the Milk assassination, the Jonestown tragedy, the trials of Patty Hearst: everything was like, “What?” You didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow, but at the same time you could feel hopeful. AIDS was then very much in the future, so we walked in a different, freer world. I said, “No, I’m not going to be a professor. I’m going to be a great diva! I’ll be a creative artist and I’ll finish my novel. You know, I’ll abandon the academy, I’ll write poems, I’ll write librettos, and do whatever I want.” I had no focus until I moved here and I stopped by Small Press Traffic, the little bookstore on Twenty-Fourth Street. The shop offered free writing workshops led by Bob Glück in which you could learn New Narrative.
What was your idea of San Francisco, Margaret?
MT: Before arriving in 1988, I was working as an artist in the schools through my dance/choreographer practice. I somehow knew I was going to transition out of dance because I was walking over the line into performance art using other modes of address that were not as dancerly, perhaps more approaching the pedestrian style of Judson Church. I had performed as a formal dancer. I took ballet classes, studied, had technique, but I was more interested in experimental forms that were text based or used film—I incorporated other forms into what I was making. I was ready to come here. One afternoon I was having a tea with a friend in Southern California and I said, “When I get to San Francisco…”
KK: It seemed like San Francisco was the top place for performance art in the 1980s? It must have been one of them.
MT: Definitely. High Performance magazine was covering what was happening on the West Coast. I made many trips up, and to L.A., to see work I was reading and keeping track of. New York had its kind of performance scene, and the West Coast had a completely different style. One highlight when I arrived was Ann Hatch’s new space and residency house, Capp Street Projects, opening with the inaugural exhibition by artist Ann Hamilton, Privations and Excesses. I had already known Hamilton for five years and performed in duration for many of her works over the years; thus upon arrival I met the Bay Area arts scene immediately.
KK: So what happened at this tea you were mentioning?
MT: So I asked my friend about taking Tai Chi here. She said you must go to Inner Research Institute where Martin Inn teaches. When I arrived here in 1988 I began my practice in Tai Chi. I had been given a subscription gift of Kathleen Fraser’s publication HOW(ever) in Southern California. I read it for a few years, getting to know the many women poets we currently share as colleagues and friends. I ended up collaborating from Southern California with poet Lori Lubeski.
KK: Lori Lubeski and I were both cast in a play that Carla Harryman and Tom Mandel wrote, called Fist of the Colossus, for the original, Language Poetry–oriented version of the San Francisco Poets Theater.
MT: So I phoned Lori Lubeski out of the blue, and I said I’ve been reading your work in this publication that I receive called HOW(ever). I would like to use your text to create a sound-score collage and use your title attractions cf: distractions, after your book. She gave me permission and said, “If you ever come to SoCal, I’d love for you to see it.” Eventually I moved here [San Francisco]. And she was living here when I first arrived, so we met, but she never got to see the work. Oh, and back to Tai Chi: the first class I walked into, the poet Susan Gevirtz and some of the other women poets I had been reading were taking classes there.
KK: Who were also editors at HOW(ever).
MT: Yes! Thus began going to readings by Norma Cole, Bob Glück, various others at Small Press Traffic. Later I took a class with Rodrigo Toscano when Dodie was running Small Press Traffic at its third location, at New College. I was writing, mostly stories and some prose, and, of course, Rodrigo wasn’t teaching a fiction class, but it was good to be in the atmosphere of listening to other forms of language. I had been reading many of the poets from here in Southern California—so when I arrived suddenly the writers who’d been in my periphery became part of my daily life. Poet Susan Gevirtz and I began talking and collaborating; she wrote a play for Poets Theater and I was the sole actor.
KK: Were you shy in your youth?
MT: Shy! I never spoke in front of anyone until I was nineteen years old. I grew up in a home that spoke broken English, and I was very fearful of how people would perceive my articulation of the English language. Performance opened my mouth—first my texts were recorded as abstracted sound scores, and slowly I incorporated my own voice live.
I was invited to participate as a curatorial board member at New Langton Arts and remained for seven years [1999-2006] as an artist-curator, and many possibilities began happening. All galleries, or so it seemed, employed similar divisions: a literary program, a music program, and a visual art program. Artificial divisions— to my mind it was all art. But you know, operations factioned it off, which had a lot to do with nonprofit funding; the funders dictated these divisions. At New Langton Arts, you will recall, everything that was “visual art” was upstairs, and everything else showed downstairs, in the small black box theatre. This was not an easy discussion to negotiate at that point with Susan Miller, director at the time.
KK: You and I had different impressions then of the relation between poetry and art. When I came here I did not see the connection working as I had in New York, where I had seen a lot of collaboration between poets and painters. I just didn’t see that happening very much.
MT: Are you speaking about the New York School?
KK: Yes, but also the New York downtown artists and writers of different stripes. Here in San Francisco, groups seemed very distinct. One who went to many poetry readings might only rarely see any artists in the crowd. At an art opening one might never see any writers except for the Kenneth Baker–type people who had to write the reviews. But like every art scene, the one here depended on writers to serve as its tugboats. My reference is to the late James Schuyler’s claim that poets—well those who work at art writing—are the tugboats that bring in the ocean liners safe into the dock.
MT: As you entered into the first few Poets Theater plays, did you immediately have artists participating in the group?
KK: Yes; well, not right away; it wasn’t easy. Yet you make San Francisco seem like a much more integrated world from your perspective as a performance artist and choreographer.
MT: Yes. Around 1999 Nao Bustamante, who was one of the performance curators at New Langton Arts, invited me to be a curator in tandem with her. Most of the artists we brought in were from New Genres, SFAI performance scene, so the Bob Linders, the Mads Lynnerups, and the Ella Tidemans had opportunities there to show their work.
KK: Unclassifiable work. One of the things, I imagine, that dance instills in one is that feeling of its unrepeatability and that once it’s over it’s over.
MT: Yes, it’s ephemeral. Was it through your New Narrative activity where you began becoming more of an art writer?
KK: I credit a few key figures. For one thing, yes, in the New Narrative you had Bob Glück, who was always involved with art and artists. You go to his little cottage; it’s like a beautifully curated museum show, gorgeous in every way. When Dodie and I had a big apartment on California Street, back in the 1980s, I remember, Eileen [Myles] came to stay with us. She looked around in amazement. “What’s the deal, you have posters up on these walls like you’re in college! Why don’t you have pictures up here, you have all this space?” I said, “Well, you know, we’re just scraping by as is.” She said, “You think I have money? I don’t, but I still have wonderful art.” So we followed her ways, in this as in most other avenues of expression
I have been friends with the dealer Jack Hanley since we were both boys together. We reconnected when he opened his gallery at 41 Grant Avenue. Through him I met Karen Kilimnik, Jack Pierson, Maureen Gallace, Edwin Wurm, so many.
Another important connection between poetry and art, for me and Dodie, was our friendship with the novelist Dennis Cooper, who was so much a center of the art scene in L.A. Through him we met everybody, from Vija Celmins to Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon, and Cathy Opie, Frances Stark and Mike Kelley. I borrowed Dennis’s eye as a lens from which to look at artwork. Looking at Vince Fecteau’s work, for example, through Dennis’s eyes, I saw things in it that I couldn’t see by myself.
Also Nayland Blake had much to do with sharpening our interest in visual art. He has an extraordinary knowledge of all the arts, and his antennae about it, and his mind, are always connecting every branch of art, from writing to tech, even. He was the first person that I knew who had an e-mail address! It was so early that his e-mail was something like firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nayland saw all these ways in which you could productively move art and politics together. That was a revelation, one that made me more interested in visual art. Certainly, the AIDS crisis rhymed with that, and perhaps accelerated the taste of the moment for identity politics in art. All of a sudden things that had been downplayed, thought of as retrousse, were now vital, chic, necessary. Multiculturalism, for example. Abstraction and conceptualism were, for the moment, put on the back burner. It was a strange time in San Francisco, as you remember, just for those reasons.
MT: When I moved here in 1988 new galleries were springing up, such as the fabulous Artspace.
KK: Did you ever go to Mincher Wilcox?
KK: It was in the same building as the Berggruen Gallery, but different as chalk and cheese from the blue-chip, stately Berggruen. Two women ran this gallery. In this space where they showed Brett Reichman, they showed Tony Greene, they showed Nayland. I met Kathy Acker there; I met Scott Hewicker, still an undergraduate at SFAI and the cutest boy in town.
MT: Do you remember the year about?
KK: 1992, maybe? You know that picture of Dodie and me on our shelf at my apartment, and we’re standing in front of the backdrop of a Sears Roebuck child’s bedroom with a fancy baby’s crib? That’s Nayland’s work, a show of multiples at Mincher Wilcox, posing patrons in front of this banal backdrop. For me that was one of the signal galleries of the time. After that, in my memory, things flow outward into a mélange of political actions, marching in the street, ACT UP demos, and the so-called war against culture.
MT: Yes, the NEA Four, with Holly Hughes and Tim Miller and all of those fab artists pushing back on censorship.
KK: There was great esprit de corps among us. There had to be, for so many were dying tragically and needlessly. Amy Scholder had a beautiful reading series at the Lab.
MT: When I first arrived I decided I’m going to do food service to earn money, so I could go out every night to witness the scene. The first week here I went out almost every night to the Castro Theatre, art openings, readings—and every night of the week I ran into Glen Helfand.
KK: That’s right.
MT: And on the very seventh night I walked up to him and I said, “We have to stop meeting like this. My name is Margaret, I just moved here,” And that’s how I met Glen. It was really funny.
KK: I’m sure I met him in some similar way.
MT: Did you ever know David Gere, Richard Gere’s brother who lived here? He wrote the book How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS and ran a great series in the 1990s called Talking Dance at Margaret Jenkins dance studio. He brought in really great choreographers and artists who used spoken word on stage in their dances, or did autobiographical work—good stuff. You knew Rick Darnell’s High Risk Group? That was fantastic dancing, all around ACT UP. And Joe Goode and Tim Miller’s use of text in their work. So dance brought me to the many artists who used language in their work, be it very abstractly as sound score, or live voice—all forms of language were used in dance at a certain period. It was on the horizon….
In my own little world I was making these chance operation type dances where I was cutting photos out of newspapers and magazines, collecting postcards—expressionistic, gestural, everything from a ballplayer pitching ball to the horror story of accident, people looking aghast and horrified, war images and shopping. I had all categories of photos I collected and archived. I would take them into the studio along with art books and texts: poetry and prose. I was doing a version of cut-ups, taking bits and creating movement out of them for dances. My collaborator Laurie would go into her corner and take a set of the images and texts to create her own dance and I would compose mine, then we would meet to put the solos together to form a duet. I worked with a composer making sound scores—all collaborative. And, funny, we found later we were doing a variation of the infamous Remy Charlip’s Air Mail Dances, though I wouldn’t find that out until much later, when Remy left New York and relocated here and we became good friends. Laurie and I had the opportunity to perform one of the Air Mail Dances in early 1990s. Parts of my practice felt akin to Remy’s. I have so many wonderful stories about dear Remy Charlip.
Anyway, Kevin, you and Dodie were involved with Kiki around this time as I recall.
KK: Kiki was a tiny art gallery on Fourteenth Street, next to Red Dora’s Bearded Lady cafe, and the two spaces shared a back garden. Kiki was the brainchild of the late Rick Jacobsen, who when told he had AIDS quit his old job and decided to open a gallery that would show whatever caught his eye. It ran for only fifteen months in 1992–1994, but, yes, it became the center of everything for us. Like your space here, it was an art gallery in which writing and poetry was treated and valued with as much care as the work on the walls. Rick Jacobsen, who died in 1997 [LINK: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Rick-Jacobsen-3133957.php ], presented two of my plays, Life after Prince and Three on a Match, and gave first or early shows to Vince Fecteau, Chris Johanson, Catherine Opie, many, many more.
MT: You were turning to art writing during that time?
KK: Maybe I was starting to get out of that tiny mindset of writer and become more of a citizen of the world, even our little world of San Francisco.
MT: I don’t think our world is small here exactly. Well, the current San Francisco certainly has helped that feeling of smallness from the numbers of artists and queers we lost in these bubbles, but the San Francisco as we knew it—I never found regional. People have always come and gone here regularly. We have an influx of input here. I know it’s not a twenty-four-hour cosmopolitan city, but it has a nice European feel—that’s why I always stayed. I almost moved to New York on numerous occasions but didn’t. It wasn’t that I feared being swallowed up—it was about containment. I enjoy walking across the whole city in an evening and being surrounded by nature.
KK: But yeah, you know, you’re Margaret Tedesco and you’re like a big fish in a little pond. I’m speaking frankly, there’s that pleasure aspect of that.
MT: Yes, of knowing your community.
KK: I remember another Damascene moment that happened right in this room, Margaret! It was the opening of your show with the artist Luke Butler, and you had the Boulder-based poet Bhanu Kapil write in conjunction with his work—such a brilliant match because it was counterintuitive to a certain extent. Like, what were you thinking? And yet when she came to the opening and saw the paintings in person, she was in love with his work and decided to purchase one.
MT: Yes, she did buy one!
KK: Good for her!
MT: She was standing across the room fixed on Luke’s gorgeous painting of Spock holding his pricked finger, bleeding on a yellow rose bush—and she slowly turned to me and quietly said, “I’ve never bought a piece of art before. I’ll have that one.” It was amazing how transfixed she was in that moment. She wrote a fantastic piece, and they’ve become friends since.
KK: That’s so emblematic of the thing we’re talking about, of the meeting of art and poetry.
MT: Exactly. I find you creating this as well. I think that we’re both interested in a kind of dissonance—the dissonance of pairing people that you can’t quite figure out why they’re together, like some of the writers I invite. Your mention of Bhanu and Luke is a great example. The writings become a kind of architecture after the shows closed—an echo. They hold the space of the show and carry forward. To be honest, Kevin, each time I receive the manuscript, I read it out loud and usually weep, because it’s an incredible gift—some have expressed their delight in detouring from their usual approach. You have been extremely generous with me for the public use of your writing for Bruno Fazzolari’s show—(reading your work aloud within my artist talks), this work illustrates a way in which I think about [2nd floor projects] and what has occurred here over time. We walk through the universe of Kevin Killian. Your meanderings through Fred Astaire dancing up the wall and across Bruno’s fifteen “Lost Paintings,” Dodie first seeing a tooth? Perhaps, but no, a fire in the painting—a fire resembling the movie you both watched the night before—all of these things described in this essay—to the final Bowie line…“and it was cold, and it rained, so I felt like an actor.” It’s hard to articulate this in the best way, but a facile excursion of unfolding…something particular about this essay—the blossoming effect it has on me.
KK: I think that after reading some of the other editions you put out, Dodie and I were like, “We could have just actually written anything. Why did we bother writing about the art itself?” But I think it was actually just falling in love with that work for each of us that we had to make it the subject.
MT: And you own the painting by Bruno described, which is so lovely. That’s such a great painting.
KK: And Dodie owns the Tariq Alvi artwork on the cover of her newest book!
MT: It’s been phenomenal what the writers have contributed—you know, Bill Berkson wrote a poem, “For the Heart of the Second Floor.” He was funny when I invited him into the show with artists Nina Zurier, Susan Martin, and Ishan Clemenco. He could not wrap his head around the three artists in the show together, so we used a line in Bill’s poem for the show’s title: “Unlikely Arrival.” It baffled him until he saw the show. That is my joy, to watch the room perform and trust that something is going to happen. And, yes, I do have a curatorial vision, but it doesn’t take the upper hand. First is intuition. I see something energetically; I see that a conversation can take place, and dissonance is probably the most exciting part of it—that it might not work, that it might fail.
KK: I think it’s because of the tutelary sphere San Francisco is magical. People laugh at the idea, but there is magic that’s happening here. It’s built into the earth. It emerged from the Ohlone culture and the way the landscape is formed. God knows how, but it’s survived dozens of cruel depredations, generations of horror and theft. But generations of black and white magicians have laid out the landscape here in this city. So compared to the writing and the art in San Francisco, other places, brilliant as they are, are missing something, a connection to the divine or whatever.