A Thing Remade: A Conversation with Paul Chan

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burningkindlepointone.gif (2011)

The launch of artist Paul Chan’s publishing company, Badlands Unlimited, in 2010 could have been mistaken for a career non sequitur. His foray into book publishing felt at once completely futile and deliciously subversive—anachronistic in form, and yet prescient in its embrace of technology as a means of interrogating (and thereby furthering) that form. Given the perilous economic prospects for artists and publishers alike, why not simply take matters into one’s own hands? As an online distribution platform for works written by Chan and others, Badlands Unlimited does just that.

In profiling the outfit for a recent issue of Frieze magazine (Off the Page, May, 2010) I realized that I had been watching this seemingly new venture develop for many years: Chan’s personal website, National Philistine, has served as the digital analog to his practice for well over a decade, a fact that many aren’t aware of by his estimation. (“Sometimes I even forget that I have a website,” he said, when asked about the longevity of his domain, which has been active since 1999.) The following conversation attempts to articulate some of that history, while indulging in a few detours along the way, as a means of suggesting iterative possibilities for publishing on the web—and beyond.  


Sarah Hromack: I downloaded my first file from National Philistine—an animated GIF of Dick Cheney’s bruised and bloodied bobble head—not so long after the United States’ first invasion of Iraq. You had released a series of GIFs of major political players in the then-nascent war (Cheney, Ashcroft, Condi); they were made for a video you were working on at the time, RE: The_Operation. As moving images, their blinking was at once dead serious and totally hilarious. Was this the first time you released a digital file that related to a larger project? Why did you decide to do so?

Paul Chan: Because I could. I was making this video and it felt natural to release elements from the work, that somehow they make themselves known outside the bounds of the video. In light of Wikileaks, you can think of it as the practice of “leaking” the work beyond the field of its own composition. The web has, for me at least, been an utter distraction from the daily practice of living and working, except in this aspect. Leaked and illegal files, illicit substances, questionable practices, are the true breath and flesh of the web. If it isn’t leaked or wasn’t smuggled out or in some way, I’m not that interested. I also like the idea that whatever I make is always incomplete. And that somehow, by releasing the files online, the forms can become materials for someone else to complete something else.

Weatherman.gif, gif based on scene from RE:The_Operation (2004)

SH: Well then! How do you feel about the way anonymity complicates online interactions? While our ability to adapt different, other identities online has enabled political dissidents to function with relative immunity, some (I’m thinking of Jaron Lanier’s recent writings here, in particular) have argued that it has, in the context of so-called “hive” behavior, also brought out the deepest, darkest aspects of human nature. 

PC: If Socrates was alive today, do you think he would change his advice from “know thyself” to “show thyself?” I imagine he would. For him, it was only right that once you knew yourself, you would present yourself to others—at the agora, at the public baths, at that drunken dinner party—in a manner consistent with the insights gained from persistently asking yourself the most fundamental questions about who you are and what you want. Socrates believed that in showing oneself, you were always already responsible for knowing oneself. But everybody knows this is not the case now. In fact, the opposite rings true: the less you know about yourself, the more free you feel about showing yourself. Isn’t this self-evident today? What is beautifully ironic about all this is that it is also very difficult today to be anonymous. The web has evolved into a platform where the distribution of goods, services, and information depends upon knowing who is who and what is what. So not only are sites and services constantly tracking your identity online, making it virtually impossible without eternally vigilance to remain unaccountable, but there is no real interest in being anonymous anyways. Being a part of the web today, feeling like one belongs there, means among other things, being oneself online. So the fear that Lanier and others have about how online anonymity brings out the worst in us seems so old fashioned because the web has evolved to a place where it works best now when one wants to be someone: themselves. The irony is that this desire to be oneself online (and not just anyone, like being anonymous for example) has not made online (or offline) life any better. The opposite in fact: being anonymous doesn’t bring out the darkest, deepest human behavior today; the longing to be recognized by a first and last name does.

SH: I’m referring to a specific kind of “groupthink” here, one that dominates certain corners of the web—the so-called hacker groups (Anonymous, LulzSec) that have brought various entities, corporate and otherwise, to their knees through collective action while remaining publicly faceless. Even those groups who function collectively while maintaining individual online identities are generally still considered (and criticized) as a collective body.

PC: On the other hand, there are many examples, like the Arab spring protests, and even the recent London riots, where collective actions were enabled mostly by people who were themselves online; organizing, agitating, informing, etc. I’m not saying that being oneself online is better or worse than being anonymous. But I am saying that the power of the fantasy of becoming anyone or no one online is simply not so desirable anymore. And besides, being oneself and belonging to a collective body are not mutually exclusive.

SH: In your essay The Unthinkable Community, published in e-flux in 2010, you take issue with the way technology alters human communication and relationships. Can you talk a little bit more about that here?

PC: It is less an issue for me and more of an attempt to describe, as a user and as a maker, what I think everybody already knows: online experiences are now dominated by layers of technology that facilitate our reach into the world. These layers enable us to expand our social presence and develop our intellectual, political, economic, and sexual potentials.  As we render ourselves online, these layers of technology collect the data we generate to sell ourselves back to us—in the form of products and services, which in turn shape our experiences in the world on and off the screen. What we transmit online is being collected and mined like a natural resource, like oil or coal, and this changes the nature of how we communicate to others and belong to something more than ourselves. I wanted to think about how this emerging process affects our relationship to among other things, art.

SH: I’ve always found your project My Private Alexandria endearing in its quirkiness—it’s a sixteen-plus hour-long series of classic texts read by you, fumblings and mis-pronunciations kept thoroughly intact in the recordings, which are situated on your website. I’ve always seen it as a project that considers (and challenges—and maybe even pokes a bit of fun at) standard academic methodologies, and so I’m curious about the relationship between written and spoken word, digital distribution, and intellectual ownership. Have you ever had anyone object to your one-man audio library?

PC: I get cease and desist orders every once and a while. But I’ve never taken down anything down. And I wouldn’t call the texts in Alexandria classic. One of the reasons why I chose those texts was precisely because they weren’t canonical and some very difficult to find online. It might be different today, with aaarg.org and Google Books. But in 2006 (a mere five years ago), it was almost impossible to find a free version of Anna Freud’s essays. And I was fairly certain no publishing company was going to turn Robert Walser’s short stories into audiobooks. So I wanted to record them, and reread them anew. And by using the gaffes, breaths, pauses, and mistakes in reading the texts as elements to composed with rather than deleted, the pieces became less than recordings and more of something else.

SH: During your solo show at the New Museum in 2008, the 7 Lights, videos of your works began popping up on YouTube as visitors seemed compelled to both interact with and capture the vast fields of shifting light projected throughout the galleries. The website for the exhibition features fairly thorough video documentation of the works, which are all sold as numbered editions. I feel like institutions still generally resist placing works online in this manner—even though it differs so obviously from an in-gallery installation—for fear that doing so will somehow supersede or more likely, subvert its market value by limiting the sense of exclusivity around the work. Have you ever encountered this concern? If so, how have you negotiated with it?

PC: I negotiated it by releasing the source files of those works on the New Museum website and National Philistine. The digital drawings and Flash files that comprised the animated the works were posted online for anyone to download and work with. I was surprised they let me do that, but maybe it was because no one outside of me and the web designer at the time knew it was happening. The interesting thing was that for one reason or another file size was an issue: the zipped files had to be smaller than a certain size to make the download manageable. This meant that not all the files were released, just the essential ones that made the works possible. So I ended up making what I call a special DVD and released it on my own. It collects all the drawings, projections, and writings that make up the 7 Lights. But the DVD also holds the complete set of files for the making of the Lights. The DVD was my first stab at publishing.

cursor.gif, Phantom Ranch (2000)

SH: The files are “Easter eggs,” in essence; if I manage to find them, I could functionally recreate the works that have been sold as editioned artworks on the open market—in theory, at least. Such is the fear!

PC: Yes, you could conceivably recreate the works using the files. And yes, you could try to sell the work on the open market. But Sarah, you and I both know that it takes more than a work to sell than the work. And besides, there is no such thing as an open market.  What I like most about releasing the files is that it shows that the source is not the thing about the work that matters. What I also like is what I said earlier: the idea that the files hold the potential to incomplete themselves, to become raw material for someone else, for something else.

SH: You’ve managed to maintain a very specific visual tone across your digital projects—from the GIFs, which reference your earliest animation works, to the series of fonts you designed for Mac and Windows and released for free download on National Philistine—that references a much earlier moment in web development. The experience can be admittedly awkward, yet it feels deliberate as such. Can you speak about the choices you’ve made around technology and design in developing Badlands Unlimited?

PC: It’s consistent because I do it. I have help, but mostly it’s me spending time doing it. How things look and feel are consistent with what I’m able to do, which is to say, not much. But then, it doesn’t take much tech to make something worth thinking about. Both Philistine and Badlands are basically HTML/CSS—I don’t use Wordpress, or Blogger, or whatever. If there was an easier or more decentralized way to deal with e-commerce on Badlands besides Paypal, or Yahoo and Google Checkout systems, I would do it. Like I said, there is no such thing as an open market. Bitcoins is an option—maybe even an answer. Or at least something like it.

SH: Some of e-books you have published and distributed through Badlands Unlimited have truly pushed the boundaries of the form—especially in terms of images, which are featured prominently (if not primarily) in most of the publications. Can you speak here about the broader role of the image in electronic books and publications?

PC: I don’t know if there are broader implications for the image in my e-books and publications beyond the idea that I treat the image in a way that pleases me. There are ways to work with an image within the form of a book, whether it is physical or digital,  that are more interesting, or more rhythmic, or more disharmonious. There are also ways to treat an image like text and vice versa (the fonts I’ve made, for instance). And with e-books, it is possible to use audio and video elements as if they were texts. None of this is new. Early interactive works and hypertext pieces online and on CD-ROMs attest to this. What is novel is how e-books as a form enables me to continue playing with these aesthetic modes as a way to expand the notion of reading—not as something we do to gain knowledge, but as an experience we engage in to produce for ourselves a particular form of attention and focus that is unique to the act of reading itself.

SH: I’m interested in the way your e-books function visually on and across various platforms. The iPad version of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide is one of the more stunning electronic publications I’ve seen—the embedded video documentation of the 2009 production of Beckett’s seminal play you staged in New Orleans really complicates the reading experience in a good way.  The Essential and Incomplete Sade for Sade’s Sake, however, makes a visual argument for the Kindle; largely comprised of black-and-white drawings, those images render much more elegantly on that particular screen surface, in my opinion.  Can you speak about the challenges and opportunities various platforms present for digital bookmaking?

PC: It’s not simply a matter of making books on each of the different platforms, it’s also dealing with how a physical book becomes an e-book in the first place. Most of our books are e-books, but some exists as physical books too. So in general there is a lot of work figuring out how the experience of reading translates from one form to another. The Godot book was very difficult to translate from the hard cover book to an e-book, primarily because that book is so physical. The Sade book too was made first as a limited soft-cover book with a specific dimension, weight, and kind of paper in mind. We read with more than our eyes. The question, then, becomes, how this reading experience translates into a file. Someday I wish that different e-books hold different “weights”, so that when you load an e-book into your e-reader, the device physically feels heavier. Until that happens,  I have use other means. With the Sade book, the images were made to take advantage of the peculiar crispness of the Kindle screen. The problem is that since you can also read Kindle books on a color LCD e-reader like an iPad via the Kindle app,  the Sade book loses its particular feel because it simply doesn’t look as good on a backlit non e-ink screen. Different platforms have different technical standards, which means you either conform to those standards or can’t distribute through them. This is fine: whatever they reject we distribute through our own site.

SH: I know that you’ve gone a couple of rounds with the Apple Store, which has accepted some, but not all of Badlands Unlimited’s publications. I am tempted to craft a question filled with words like “power” and “hegemony,” but instead I’ll simply ask: What did you learn from being rejected by Apple? Do you have any idea why certain projects were nixed, while others were not? 

PC: What I learned is what I already knew: there is no open market.

SH: Let’s talk about the future: Tell me about the project you’re working on with Yvonne Ranier.  Are there any other upcoming projects we should know about? 

PC: Badland’s next book is Poems by Yvonne Rainer. It’s a collection of never before published poetry by Rainer, who started writing them in the late 70s. I’m thrilled that we are publishing them, because I consider Yvonne one of the America’s greatest living artists. One can read in the poems echoes of her dances and films, in how they use rhythm and motion to conjure moments of daily life into something else, something more. Badlands will premiere the limited paperback at this year’s NY Art Book Fair at PS1. The e-book is already available on Apple and Amazon. The Apple version also has audio recordings of Yvonne reading five of her poems and an interview I did with Yvonne talking about her process as a poet and artist. In the winter we’ll publish a collection of essays by Saddam Hussein. He wrote them in the 70s, before he became the president of Iraq. They are perverse and fascinating to say the least, because they are about democracy. We’ll also put out more experimental erotica by Jean Paaulhan, a great young writer.  Other books are in the pipeline for the Spring and beyond.

SH: Has the publishing process change your relationship to collaborative practice? I know that you’ve collaborated with many people over the course of your career as an artist and organizer, even though you have talked about being “allergic” to working with people. In other words: what is it like to work with the ghost of Saddam Hussein?

PC: Difficult and pleasurable. We barely understand each other. But this is what makes collaborations worthwhile.  A word misheard is a thing remade.