The Center Is Not the Center: An Interview with Chris Kraus
By Sophie T. LvoffFebruary 23, 2019
I spoke with Chris Kraus via Skype. We talked about theory, Semiotext(e), and how the lives of artists have changed.
SOPHIE T. LVOFF: What brought you to French theory?
CHRIS KRAUS: Well, largely through Semiotext(e). I wouldn’t have been aware of French theory were it not for Semiotext(e). Before I met Sylvère, I was living in New York, where the journal was circulating. Everyone read it, and there were the pieces by Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard, Foucault. That was my first exposure to French theory, and — especially in combination with the music, art, and club life that Semiotext(e) covered, it seemed very exciting and glamorous, on point. Sylvère published Baudrillard in 1983 when he began the Foreign Agents series of books, and that was sensational. Baudrillard became my favorite in that constellation of thinkers.
And why did you gravitate more toward Baudrillard at the time?
Because he was so funny, and right! He seemed more hardcore than the rest. I felt an affinity with him. Maybe he was more of an artist? The importance of Deleuze and Guattari’s work is indisputable, but compared to Baudrillard, it seemed a little distant, effete — not something that touched by life. But Baudrillard’s description of simulated reality? It was like: Yes, exactly! I just loved it. And then Sylvère and Baudrillard were friends, so I got to spend time with him in Paris and New York. He was such a great spirit. Someone who didn’t take himself seriously, which can’t be said of many of the French. That’s not a great French quality, self-humor.
Can you discuss your experience of the origins or the history of Semiotext(e)? Granted that you arrived in New York and the magazine already existed and they had already had the first conference.
The magazine began in 1974 at Columbia, edited by Sylvère, with his partner Susie Flato and a group of their graduate student and faculty friends. But I only discovered those issues later. The issues I saw began with Schizo-Culture, and included Polysexuality, Autonomia, The German Issue, and Oasis. These issues circulated around lower Manhattan, and they seemed wildly exciting in the way they brought together high and low. And they were professionally produced, they didn’t look like amateur zines. The effect was of holding something that felt elegant, glamorous, and true. The core group that produced those issues included Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Oblowitz, who were both already making films.
So when did you first get involved?
Not until 1990. By then I’d been living with Sylvère for about six years and watched him start the Foreign Agents books. He gave up the magazine format in 1982 because everyone from the original group had moved on, and could no longer be counted on to work on something for months without pay. People had their own lives and careers. The books, he could do independently. He began with Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Foucault, and they worked brilliantly. They hit the same sweet spot in the early ’80s as the magazine did years before. Baudrillard became an avatar of the art world.
All this time I was trying to make films. Sylvère’s work with Semiotext(e) didn’t have much to do with me. I worked at the Poetry Project in the mid-1980s, and most of my friends came from there. I wondered why the larger world idolized French theory, and yet failed to see that people like Eileen Myles, Ann Rower, and David Rattray were intellectual giants. Their work seemed as complex and profound to me as anything in French theory. And yet, within the art world, they were treated as negligible then. Their careers were small, local, and marginal — very much limited to the poetry world in the East Village. It didn’t even travel further downtown! It was an aesthetic of poverty that only the poets liked.
I thought, how great it would be if Semiotext(e) could publish them. Aesthetically and existentially, their work seemed more radical than French theory itself — kind of a manifestation of the theories of subjectivity in Deleuze and Guattari. Sylvère agreed, and we decided to call the new series Native Agents, mirroring Foreign Agents. We published Cookie Mueller, Ann Rower, Eileen Myles, Lynne Tillman, Barbara Barg, Kathy Acker, and David Rattray in the first round.
The idea was for the series to never be exclusively female, or first-person, or anything. Keep it more open, without the baggage of second-wave feminism, which had become mediatized into something middle class and generic. I didn’t want to be dogmatic. As literary texts, a lot of French theory seemed so programmatic. Expounding how people should live. That litany about the “body without organs”? So somber and pious. The Native Agents writings were more open, and they didn’t take themselves so seriously.
Yeah, and more fun. It made the intellectual adventure seem like fun. So that was the beginning of Native Agents.
Did you feel like this was a community, a movement of people working together or exchanging, writing? Did you feel energy around this group and through the publishing, did it feed into people working together?
That came later. The last thing any of these New York writers wanted was to be described as a group! But I think the series cohered as a kind of statement. Or maybe it seems that way now, in retrospect.
The community around Semiotext(e) didn’t form until later, when Sylvère and I moved to L.A. and Hedi El Kholti joined us as a co-editor. He explicitly brought the values of friendship, independence, mutual respect, and cooperation to the endeavor. At that point, in 2004, the focus of Native Agents changed. We were still going to have a fiction series with Semiotext(e), and it was never going to publish domestic dramas set in Brooklyn or the Upper West Side, but the original, post–New York school idea had run its course. The series became more international. Like the earlier books, the fiction we’ve published since then is definitely narrative, and personal, but it ranges farther afield. We’ve published books by Abdellah Taïa, Lodovico Pignatti Morano, Natasha Stagg, Mark von Schlegell, Henri Lefebvre, Veronica Gonzalez Peña, Hervé Guibert, Marie Darrieussecq. There’s an affinity between these books that’s hard to put into words, but very powerful. In the last 15 years, Semiotext(e) has become more professional and international, with an international community of readers and writers.
Hedi founded the journal Animal Shelter partly to host that community. So many people would write reviews, make translations, proofread, and edit, help in so many ways — people who, like us, are writers, but we can’t publish all of these books! That would bring us to about 40 titles a year. But we did want to bring together and share the work. To a large extent, Animal Shelter became a home for not just the writers we publish, but for the community around Semiotext(e).
You moved to Los Angeles in 2001 and you never came back to New York after that, is that right?
Actually, I moved in 1995, and I never came back. The first thing I did in L.A. was the Chance Event. Have you heard about that?
Sylvère and I had been coming out to L.A. for a few summers, to teach at Richard Hertz’s program at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. We liked driving around. That first summer, when I came out to stay, we were driving around in the desert, staying at these surreal casinos dropped into the middle of nowhere with luxurious rooms for a $20 a night. We started tripping about Baudrillard. You know, like, wouldn’t it be great if Baudrillard could perform at one of these places? We came up with the idea of staging a Baudrillard conference at a casino, and Sylvère talked Baudrillard into doing it. Richard Hertz somehow got ArtCenter to pay for it, and I spent my first nine months in Los Angeles organizing the Chance Event. It became a big three-day festival, with Baudrillard dressed in a gold lamé jacket, performing his lounge song “Motel Suicide,” backed up by Mike Kelley’s band. We had DJ Spooky, Allucquère Rosanne Stone, and Diane di Prima. And an art show. It was a huge thing and 500 people came to it, from the West Coast, Canada, New York, and Europe, and it was one of the turning points that established Los Angeles as a new center, an antagonist of New York in terms of centrality. This process had already begun. Our move to L.A. was perfectly timed. The city was starting to attract more people, but it was still sleepy and quiet and cheap. For more than a decade, it became the perfect place to focus and work, and to take something we’d started in New York and build it out further. Although not in that conscious a way. Semiotext(e) has just followed the course of our lives. I’d say that Semiotext(e) is more of a life project than a professional project. As we moved to L.A. and our world started to expand, so did Semiotext(e).
Where did the event take place?
It was at Whiskey Pete’s Casino, on the California-Nevada state line, in a tiny little town at the edge of the Mojave Desert. That was a fantastic thing. I mean it was the best way of launching Semiotext(e) on the West Coast. We basically took over the whole casino for a three-day weekend.
It sounds like a wedding.
Yeah, but better. Everything ran late, and on the second day, Baudrillard’s lecture, the main event, didn’t begin until two in the morning. By then everyone was drunk, high, and exhausted, and you had 300 people lying on the floor of a theater, listening to him describe high theory in a really thick French accent, with a six-piece band playing behind him. No one understood a thing! It was amazing.
I’m constantly dealing with this question of where to live and who lives where. You had this really beautiful way of describing this question in the beginning of the Kelly Lake Store book, where you talk about the people who live “somewhere” and the people who live “nowhere.” Where do you think this breakdown occurs of who lives where?
Sadly, for your generation, only those with inherited wealth can live in a metropolitan center in any kind of long-term, permanent way. Even Los Angeles, where we thought it would never happen, has become another corporate cultural center like New York, London, Paris, Berlin. Another hive of media production, a capital. No one could buy an apartment in these cities now on anything like a normal salary. A friend who’s moved here for a tenured professor job can barely afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment on his salary. Only people with family money are able to move here now in any permanent way, and that really changes the city. And it means it keeps people on the move. I think that’s one factor that leads to our nomadism.
Also, because the art-world has so many nodes and these nodes are all connected, if you hope to support yourself at all, you have to keep moving between these nodes that offer different forms of support. You have this kind of mandarin class of impoverished mandarins, of artistic nomads, and then you have the people with wealth who can kind of buy into the cities, and then you have people living in poverty at the edges of the cities, who will never move because most people can’t move around all the time. They have families. Other people’s families are the organizational heart of their lives in the way that art is for us. So, to expect that people just pick up and leave the place where their aunts and uncles and grandparents live is so insensitive, because it goes against —
Everything people believed in.
Everything. It goes against all that’s important to them.
What happened with the Kelly Lake store? And have you been back?
Well, it never happened! The project was rejected before it ever went to the panel. If it had been funded, I would have done it. I mean, the Guggenheim grant proposal I wrote was partly tongue-in-cheek. I never expected it to be funded. It would’ve been another project like the Chance Event.
I go back there every summer. Last year, my partner moved there from L.A. He’d had enough. He’s a psychologist, and working now at an addiction treatment center close to our house, called Lakeplace Resort. I’m probably going to teach a writing workshop there.
How has teaching been part of your practice or your work? How do you enjoy teaching more — in a smaller workshop situation or maybe something like at this rehab facility?
Oh, I think that you can make something happen anywhere. For a while I was teaching independently in L.A. I was kind of broke for a little while around 2014. I didn’t have a job at the time per se, and I thought, oh, I can teach. So I put a post up on Facebook and the first 14 people who signed up, that was the class. We met in an art gallery. I did that twice and those were wonderful, wonderful teaching experiences. It was completely informal, and the students just PayPal’d me their tuition. But it was just as serious as teaching in a graduate program. I’ve taught a little in prisons, and that was very powerful. And I’ve been teaching again at ArtCenter. Teaching has always been the place where I meet future friends. Some of Sylvère’s ex-grad students have become lifelong friends of both of us. It becomes your world.
Because teaching allows for an intimacy that doesn’t happen in real life in other ways. It’s the kind of intimacy that people look to romantic relationships for.
I wanted to talk to you about the working conditions and labor of artists. I’m now a part of this post-grad program where my classmates and I live together and work together. We’re always “on-call” as artists. Artists are making more of an effort to talk about this. Do you feel like artists have more rights than before, or do you feel like institutions are more aware of artists' working conditions?
Oh, no. No, institutions are not.
There are some.
I don’t think any. I have never had the experience that you’re talking about of being on such a long-term residency where all those boundaries are blurred. It’s always important for me to sort of run away and have my own little place to hide. I don’t know if I could take it. I think I’d become unhinged without a degree of privacy, to regroup on a regular basis.
But as far as institutions respecting the needs and rights of artists, no, not at all! There are ever more artists, which makes them ever more exploitable. There was that group called W.A.G.E. advocating for minimum payments, and you know, yeah that’s good, but it’s purely symbolic. So what if the institution has to pay you $250 when you show up to give a talk? It doesn’t make your life as an artist any more sustainable in the long run. Really, it’s nominal. Everything still operates within a system of fame and prestige, even more so. Only five percent of artists will be able to have financially sustainable careers. I always knew I’d never be able to support myself as a writer, so I have a day job.
In 2018, Lvoff published an artist book entitled The Panama City Papers, a book she wrote while riding on the back of a motorcycle. She also recently had a solo exhibition about Concorde, the super-sonic airplane.
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