Artist Books / Artist's Novels is an ongoing inquiry by Stephanie La Cava that looks at the intersection between visual art and literature. Each entry is a conversation with an artist or writer whose books defy genre expectations and exist outside of the traditional form.
Stephanie LaCava in Conversation with Paul Chan
It’s astounding that not more attention has been paid to the phenomenon of “artist’s novels,” a messy genre of fiction written by artists known for their visual and conceptual work. Henry Darger, Yayoi Kusama and Francis Picabia all wrote fiction. The latter, known primarily for his paintings wrote an autobiographical novel in 1924 entitled Caravanserail, which was reissued in 2013 in its original French. Picabia seems an appropriate grandfather for a new generation of artists interested in the creation and distribution of words.
Darger’s novel The Story of the Vivian Girls inspired artist Paul Chan’s 2002 animation (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization. Two years prior, he debuted his project entitled Alternumerics, a series of fonts made of sentence partials that transform typed text to read differently from its inputted meaning. While Chan’s work often plays with media and language, there are also direct references to writers and works. In 2007, along with the Creative Time organization, he staged Waiting for Godot on the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans. In 2009, his animation Sade for Sade’s Sake debuted and he produced another set of fonts based on the Marquis de Sade’s writings. His publishing venture Badlands Unlimited happened in a self imposed hiatus from art making in 2010. This independent house has become known for its innovative artist-authored ebooks, New Lovers series and hard copy books by writers like Calvin Tomkins and Hans Ulrich Olbrist.
STEPHANIE LACAVA: I would love to start in the year you took off to create Badlands. Was establishing the house an art world gesture?
PAUL CHAN: No. It’s not a gesture at all. It’s a business.
SLC: Do you think there’s more of a refusal in the art world to admit any labor was required?
PC: I think the act of refusal is in truth a kind of work. Ask any woman who’s had to turn down men’s advances whether saying no is work.
SLC: How does this bring up questions of authenticity and also a sort of satirical self consciousness in the work?
PC: The self is ……………..^v^
⋱ ⋮ ⋰
… ◯ …¨. ︵
¨︵¸︵( ░░ )︵.︵.︵…………..^v^
(´░░░░░░ ‘) ░ most authentic ░░’ )
…… …………………… when it is ………….(˛. *˛)
(˛˛ Split = Reflection )
SLC: Were you interested in making sure the reader has to live with the work for at least a little while due to the protracted engagement of the act of reading or were you more interested in a different means of distribution, of a new “archive,” or neither?
PC: Another way to think about this is that different means of distribution and production creates the grounding for another kind of attention and focus for what is being made and distributed. It is not an either/or, but rather a dialectic.
SLC: Protracted engagement is eschewed in a gallery visit or performance. Were you conscious of playing with this when you decided to create Badlands?
PC: It is difficult to say whether I was conscious at all when I created Badlands.
SLC: Did you ever feel that literature was where you could best play out some of your concerns or is it that these concerns were about the art world, therefore another place was required?
PC: My only concerns with Badlands are how we’re going to lose money and waste time on our own terms. And we’re not in the business of literature. We’re in the business of publishing. When Broodthaers started his Museum of Modern Art, Eagles department, his only concern, as far as I can tell, was to keep his museum going, and not whether he was reaching the right world or audience.
SLC: Do you have an affinity or interest in the work of writers and auteurs like Stéphane Mallarmé or Alain Robbe-Grillet or is there someone else in that camp of innovative narrative who inspires you?
PC: Those guys are cool. I would add Bernhard and Jelinek. Don’t forget Eddie Murphy.
SLC: Henry Darger: I don’t think it’s widely known that he wrote an artist’s novel and yet this was an early reference in your work. How did you discover this?
PC: Like everyone else I suppose: I read it.
SLC: How his influence play into your own creation?
______00000+.*`,+.*`,+. The hunger
____00 The mercy 0+.*`,+.*`,+.
,+.*`, The merciful +.*`,+.
________$_,+.*`,+ in nature.
SLC: Samuel Beckett is another one. He’s the classic renegade first championed by Barney Rosset. I feel you’re a kind of natural heir to so much of this story.
PC: There is nothing to say about Beckett that would illuminate him more than his own letters, which Cambridge is currently publishing, in four large volumes no less. As for Rosset, I have a great admiration for him. And my relationship to Rosset is in part connected to law. Badlands’ lawyer is actually one of Rosset’s old lawyers. Also Rosset pioneered the idea that to sell books, one has to be sued and sued constantly. It’s a great business model for a publisher.
SLC: As an artist, writer and publisher, what would be your definition of an “artist novel?”
PC: 5” X 8”, softcover with color endpaper art, and retails for $12.95, with an e-book edition for $4.99.
Stephanie LaCava is an author and journalist living in New York City. Her writing has appeared online and in magazines such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, Artforum, The Paris Review, Vogue and Tin House. In 2013, LaCava was a judge alongside Lidia Yuknavitch and Maggie Nelson for the Creative Nonfiction category of the PEN American Center’s Literary Awards.
Images Courtesy of Badlands Unimited.