Social Practices: An Interview with Chris Kraus




COMPRISED OF WORKS written over the last 13 years, Chris Kraus’s new collection Social Practices offers an opportunity to reflect upon the place of contemporary art writing. From essays, diary entries, and musings, to interviews, obituaries, and even a failed fellowship proposal to run a store in Minnesota, each piece eloquently and with ease takes the reader on a journey through the art world and through Kraus’s specific approach to writing about and within it. Threading these eclectic writings together is the strange but wonderful Los Angeles art scene — as it existed when Kraus first arrived in California and its residual presence today. Throughout the book, Kraus introduces readers to a wide variety of artists across a breadth of media, timeframes, and locales.

What is distinctive about Kraus’s collection is how her writing practice incorporates a form of narrative that is sumptuous yet critical and succinct, such as in “Sparkle Girl (Julie Becker) November 29 1972–April 8 2016” and “What I Couldn’t Write,” the latter of which experiments with the form of the obituary. In her introduction, Kraus notes, “For a while, the art world fashion seemed to be to drape an artist’s work in any kind of text so long as it did not explicitly discuss the work. […] The only difference between these pieces and traditional art criticism was that they were written more to the work than about it.” Below their surfaces, Kraus uses an interpretative lens to write through and around art, as if reimagining what art writing can be. 

There is a gentle tumbling, unromanticized, yet serene way that Kraus depicts people and places in the pages of Social Practices. The pieces in the collection are nostalgic yet critical, playful yet sophisticated in their tenor, enjoying taking liberties with the art of writing. Social Practices is inherently a critical work yet also a book that encourages writers to diverge from the conventional writing path.

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MAEVE HANNA: In your introduction to Social Practices, you speak about art writing as a form of exploration of one’s own ideas — like extensions of diary entries. Do you think this continues to be the case? Is there still space for the personal within art writing?

CHRIS KRAUS: I think visual artists still welcome parallel texts — writings or stories that are prompted by looking at art — but they don’t necessarily explicate it in an art-historical or critical way. Adulatory adjectives and comparisons to critical theory can be really tiresome. The science fiction writer Mark von Schlegell once wrote an entire novel in lieu of a catalog for a museum show in France.

Los Angeles plays a central role in this book. As you state, L.A. was a kind of second chance for the people who moved there, in the way they approached it in a conceptual manner.

The city has changed a lot. The long survey piece, “A Walk around the Neighborhood,” written in 2005 about, basically, my friends, feels so historical now. It is hard to believe we were all so optimistic and gleeful about doing whatever we wanted, at such a late date. Some of the later pieces reflect how things are in L.A. more currently.

You mention that the entries in the collection are “stories” rather than “texts.” Is this a way of differentiating this kind of art writing as a form of social practice? How do you see social practice as a movement or form in contemporary art in relation to the art scene in Los Angeles? 

I see them as stories, because I am veering from a literal discussion of the work to tell stories. A lot of these stories came from my notebook. They were ideas for actual stories or parts of novels that were eventually either written or abandoned. I thought I was getting away with something, including them in commissioned texts, but then it turned out they spoke to the artwork at hand pretty uncannily. The writer Maria Fusco walks a very thin line in her work between fiction and criticism. There is a short story she did during a residency in Portugal that is part ghost story, part architectural history, and part critique. The piece was written through grief, and I think that is really the deciding factor between a journalistic or literary text — does it pass through the writer? Lynne Tillman’s Madame Realism columns, begun in the 1980s for Art in America, are ur-texts for this kind of writing. Before her, there was Jill Johnston, and more recently, people like Bruce Hainley, Mark von Schlegell, Quinn Latimer — all writers writing about art in a writerly way.

Regarding social practice — the title of my book is tongue in cheek. Otis College has an MFA program now in L.A. where you can get a degree in “social practice,” but that kind of institutional altruism doesn’t interest me much. The work of the people and projects I write about in the book came about in a more spontaneous, disorganized way — a group of friends working seriously in a small city that isn’t part of the international grid. I found it very inspiring, that through their seriousness, they could invest their work with importance. Their location no longer seemed isolate or punitive, it was more like the right place to be.

Interesting. I understand your idea of the “small city” as the microcosm of Los Angeles at a certain time; would you expand on your idea of the psycho-geographic chart of the moment and how it speaks to L.A. as a changing place?

The Situationist idea of psycho-geography was always deeply appealing to me, even before I’d heard of the Situationist International. There is nothing more appealing than exploring the contours of a new city or foreign place, and Los Angeles — especially the sleepier L.A., before 2005 — lends itself to psycho-geography perfectly. The city is vast, you can live here two decades and still be discovering new neighborhoods, places, and groups. And even now, not everything has been homogenized by capital yet.

That is quite interesting, especially since L.A. is not really considered a walking city. Do you still see Los Angeles as a microcosmic scene of American life and art in the way that you mention it was in the 1990s when it started to truly flourish?

People always thought of L.A. as representing the future. The future is probably someplace else now, but I have always seen the art world as a microcosm of the larger world: the fashions, the intrigues, the hatreds, and the fads.

In your discussion of Norman Klein’s views of the Los Angeles, your idea of an emotional collective confusion is quite provocative. Do you feel this emotional consciousness in the city yourself? 

That is a really beautiful image: Norman Klein is one of the greatest historians and interpreters of Los Angeles. I think he was talking about displacement and immigration, the general instability of everything. I have definitely picked up an emotional consciousness, especially during the years when I was single and newly arrived, which makes you open to everything.

It is interesting to hear about your experience of reading and editing work for the Native Agents series and how this contributed to how you learned to write — could you speak to this in more depth?

I started the Native Agents series for Semiotext(e) in 1990, but I didn’t start writing for another five or six years. The books that we published are imprinted on me. I knew them almost by heart. I remember typing the manuscripts for Eileen Myles’s Not Me and Erje Ayden’s Sadness at Leaving onto the computer myself. I knew parts of Eileen’s book by heart. Whatever ability I have to be conversational and direct in my writing, I learned from Eileen. David Rattray’s How I Became One of the Invisible was a huge influence, too. David was writing the book during the last year or two of his life, and often he would call me and talk for an hour or more on the phone — long monologues that turned out to be first drafts of some of the pieces in the book. These people’s sensibilities were so strong, and they kind of inhabited me.

You speak directly to Lucie Stahl’s complex use of language in “A History of Destabilization,” as a trigger, as an associative process, and as a landslide. Do you think this is reflective of a Los Angeles mentality toward the use of language, metaphor, and diction?

Lucie Stahl is a German-born Viennese artist who lived for a while in L.A. The way she described her use of language in her work had a lot to do with speaking English as a second language, and living here so temporarily. She was never quite sure what the references were behind phrases, or if she was using them right. This led her to question everything — the most banal commonplaces that we would take for granted became sites of interrogation for her. I found that idea really interesting.

In “Ambition, Humility, Happiness,” the way you describe and approach language, such as in your description of the Hedi El Kholti books, resembles what could be a blueprint for a writing class. By dissecting these books, you and El Kholti offer a way into them that is otherwise unseen and provides access to the undercurrent of the books, the true guts of the books. 

That was a great project to do. I guess we are deep readers, because books are important to us. When I teach writing, the classes always include a lot of reading, and I try to encourage people to “read like a writer,” figuring out what the writer’s agenda is, and how the text works. It is not unlike art writing.

What advice would you give to emerging writers, especially in a climate when few publishing opportunities are apparent?

I think you have to create the opportunities for yourself. It is not realistic to expect anyone to continue writing in a vacuum. You need people to see and react to your work. So you can start small, with whatever outlets are available to you, or you can join up with friends and publish yourself. In a sense, I’m a self-published writer. All of my full-length books were published by Semiotext(e). At first it was embarrassing, but I realize now it’s been a real advantage, being able to figure things out in dialogue with people I trust and respect, and not having to take advice that feels wrong.

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Maeve Hanna is a writer based in Treaty 7 territory (Calgary, Alberta, Canada).


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