A Human Mind Bomb

Travis Nichols on Greenpeace’s New Reggie Watts Campaign

Droughts, superstorms, floods, resource wars, and a hellacious buffet of other climate disasters.

Have you noticed that we’re currently dying miserably?

It’s hard not to feel like our fossil-fuel-loving corporate overlords are winning the battle for the future handily.  It’s also hard not to feel like joining the march, signing the petition, or waving the banner isn’t going to do anything to stop our slide toward the inevitable dystopian nightmare sponsored by the Koch Brothers and Exxon.

I think this is especially true for artists, writers, and musicians—people who spend their time interrogating language, visual patterns, and sounds. It can be hard to coordinate when your brain is full of chaos. And it often feels like “the movement” values the work of artists, writers, and musicians in the exact same way corporations value it—as a resource to be mined.

This is depressing.

But we’re not going to win if we keep playing on the corporate overlords’ gameboard. Which is why I love these Reggie Watts videos:

The environmental movement is currently in a curious moment. Climate activists are doing massive work every day to hold the effects of climate change at bay and those responsible accountable—and yet it still feels that corporations like Shell, Duke Energy, and Amazon are making everything worse. I think we make it too easy on them when we only play by the established rules of activism—when we keep “serious” work in a box far away from our “playful” work.  Obviously, direct actions take courage, and we desperately need them (in Ferguson right now, for example), but we need to know what else we can do, too. Corporations have had forty-plus years of practice handling activist tactics and they have seasoned response teams who know what to do when they rear their gnarly heads. Corporate PR disinforms and proceeds as planned.

So what freaks them out in a way that short circuits their defenses?


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"A kind of friction in the midst of frictionlessness."


Felix Bernstein in Conversation with Vanessa Place

I first met Vanessa Place a year ago, when I performed alongside her and Cecilia Corrigan at a reading. The grouping couldn’t be odder: Corrigan started the evening out, playing a bubbly femme David Letterman with Place and me as her guests. Then I came on cloaked in black, and perversely sang along to a collection of strange YouTube videos that projected behind me. And finally Place dryly read from The Scum Manifesto, changing the words “woman” to “man.” After the show, I went over to Place, offering an eager compliment for her brilliant, fastidious study of criminal law, The Guilt Project. In response she seemed indifferent, superior, and cold—as sinister as her mythic press photos: Conceptual poetry’s dark woman, Vanessa Place CEO, never smiles in pictures, dresses sleekly in black, and speaks only in Lacanian riddles.

Place is, without a doubt, dark: her magnum opus Statement of Facts is made up of appropriated material from the kind of rape cases for which she serves as a defense attorney. This work was controversial both with critics and sensitive audience members, who walked out during performances. Corrigan must have gotten the same vibes as I did: soon after that night we both published critiques of Place’s work. Many critiques of Place dismiss her instantly, finding her appropriation tactics to be point blank: hostile, sexist, racist, classist, or masculinist. But Corrigan and I were both intrigued by Place as a powerful and complex innovator, whose breadth comes with interesting and generative flaws. Many works that we pass over as morally acceptable and progressive never have us thinking a thing, but Place forces even her sharpest critics to think, and forces all of us to wrestle with our complicity with negative social values. We are too quick, on the left, to think ourselves free from oppressive systems (i.e., capitalism, patriarchy, rape culture, the prison industrial complex, coterie, name dropping, social climbing, media whoring) and Place won’t let us off so easy.

Even as, in my Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, I critically spar with many of the proclamations she and Fitterman espouse in Notes on Conceptual Poetry, I do it not merely with that old proverbial “love” or wide-eyed reverence or coterie-building friendliness but, more crucially than any of that, with respect for an ingenious provocative mind. Which is why Place and I decided to take what started as a private Facebook chat into another agora, one which could also prompt another kind of phobia.

—Felix Bernstein


FELIX BERNSTEIN: I’ve always had a campy fascination with your presence, though I’ve had many serious critical reservations. However, your rabble-rousing Facebook antics sweetened the cup. When you appropriate self-promotional statuses by poets you no longer implicate merely the lyric subject or the naïve consumer of poetry but you implicate all your “friends.” We are all implicated, (as the community that pretends to transcend community or be non-normative): the point being (as with the logo that runs across your face on one of your memes): “I Am Social Capital.”


FB: And such status appropriations make us all (in the “poetry community”) squirm a bit. Because here we all are, using Facebook as a self-promotional vehicle: and nothing gets more “likes” than a nice promotion.

VP: Yes.

FB: A problem I had with your work when I first encountered it was the repetitions of tropes that had become stale art world clichés that triggered the popular October journal 1980s debates: “is the neo-avant-garde as important as the first avant-garde?” However, aesthetically, your repetitions become eerier over time. You become sort of like Marlene Dietrich: statuesque and unrelenting. 

VP: Yes. This is rather fun. 

FB: The self-consciously statuesque is the absolute opposite of what I grew up with: a father whose topsy turvy postmodern play would hardly admit that it could congeal into any sort of authoritative persona. And yet it was the withholding of the statuesque, the law, the phallus, which was so torturous. So I find perhaps more than just aesthetic delight watching you live as a statue. I find it psychosexually comforting, because it is seems to be what I was never given: A father who admits to being the father. Of course, this is problematic: any of the feminist critiques of Lacan can be applied to your practice (it continually reinscribes the law and the master in a supposedly generous gesture but in the end becomes a foil for incomprehensible tyrants to dominate without any checks or balances). However, one critique that I have leveled against you that does not stick is that your work is overly proscriptive and dogmatic. When in fact, you of all the conceptual poets, are the least likely to produce a “school of followers.” In fact you make that nearly impossible. You have none of the persuasive sweetness of Kenneth Goldsmith. You seem like a dark alien in the poetry world. And I still think that despite the validity of the claims that there is nothing “punk” or even idiosyncratic about institutional critique, you are the bizarre case in which, somehow, you always seem to stand-alone, as this weird dark alienating enigma that remains even after you are toppled over through critique and thrown out as “trendy role model.” In other words, you are so passé that you should simply vanish. But the more passé you grow the more towering becomes your inferno (the more inches it gains, as you would say).


VP: Well, at least I’m consistently lesser and redundant, and certainly appreciate the confirmation of my lack of “persuasive sweetness.” That would be a horror. And it’s doubtless true that our current complaint is against the postmodern rather than the modern. We’ve got no problems with the modern—why should we? After all, who doesn’t secretly adore a grand narrative, especially about ourselves? Otherwise, what would be the point of “liking” anything? And still the thing that remains is what one could term the Real, which is immune to proscription. I am never proscriptive. Critical, yes, but never proscriptive. And so, why are the two of us on Facebook?  

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What Would Twitter Do?


In the final installment of What Would Twitter Do?—where I talk to some of my favorite people on Twitter about their tweeting philosophies and practices—I interview Kenneth Goldsmith. Kenny is the creator of the avant-garde encyclopaedic archive project, UbuWeb. He is also the author of a book of essays called Uncreative Writing and many experimental books, including one in which he transcribed every word he said in an entire week, Soliloquy, and another in which he wrote out an entire day’s New York Times. He also created the project  Printing Out the Internet for which he invited people around the world to help him do just that; he collected over 10 tonnes of paper from 20,000 contributors. He is the editor of a collection of interviews with Andy Warhol, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and is the first poet laureate at MoMA. We spoke this morning over gchat.

Sheila Heti

SHEILA HETI: You said that if any artist could make a work of art as great as Twitter… Well, not exactly that, but can you tell me if you think of Twitter as art?

KENNETH GOLDSMITH: Twitter is not art. But it inspires me in the way that art used to inspire me. Art used to make me see the world differently, think about things in a new way—it rarely does that for me anymore, but technology does that for me on a daily basis. Rather like the feeling when I first saw a Dan Flavin fluorescent tube. It made me rethink the entire world. It’s Twitter’s combination of simplicity and complexity that is astonishing in the same way that minimalist sculpture was inspiring and enlightening.

SH: How do you think of your own work differently since being inspired by Twitter?

KG: I’ve begun writing more compactly. I now favor the slogan and eschew the paragraph. I’ve traced this change during the ten years that I’ve been working on my rewriting of Benjamin’s “Arcades Project.” When I first began, I was doing a Benjamin-like grabbing of long paragraphs—pages and pages of passages. Now, after five years on Twitter, I’m taking snippets, headlines, slogans, and almost never paragraphs. It’s had a tremendous impact on my writing in general.

SH: Is it because you actually enjoy reading more aphoristic-like things now, or because it feels more current?

KG: Short attention span is the new avant-garde. Everyone complains that we can no longer intake huge chunks of text. I find that a reason to celebrate. It’s something that has deep roots in modernism, stretching from the Futurists’ use of typography to Pound’s use of ideograms to concrete poetry. David Markson feels particularly relevant now. Twitter is the revenge of modernism.

SH: But that makes me think that some artists will soon start writing impossibly long and unfragmented things, because Twitter is a corporate place, and the slogan is a very corporate technique.

KG: Back in the 80s, artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer taught us that the corporate slogan was, by simply moving it from one context to another, ripe for détournement and could easily be used against itself. Twitter lends itself to this sort of misuse. But to answer your question about the return to longer forms, I wonder if Knausgaard would’ve written the same books today had been using Twitter. It wasn’t around when he was writing those books. Those books were written during the age of the blog, with its big verbiage. The landscape has completely changed today.

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Episode 26: You’re the Man

Neko Case, whose musical career spans over two decades, brings the listener on a journey of the music that has shaped her, from the time she was a child listening to “Taking Care of Business” by Bachman Turner Overdrive until now, listening to “People Have the Power” by Patti Smith. Over the years she’s listened to 80s hardcore, country, gospel, and punk, all of which have contributed to her unique sound. CONTAINS ADULT LANGUAGE.

Listen here.

See more about The Believer’s (weekly!) podcast, The Organist.