In her new book Dark Pool Party, the artist Hannah Black writes: “Accurate mimesis is a European obsession, which isn’t to say it’s bad but only that it could be dispensed with.” Like her video “My Bodies,” where black women sing that phrase over a montage of genericized white men, these texts read the world against itself, to dig out from the wreckage that capitalism and colonialism have made. “Celebrity Death Match” frames her journals as an issue of US Weekly: “Just before Rihanna came to collect me it occurred to me that I wanted to fall in love with her.” Elsewhere she describes the mental sorting that reduces each passerby to “M, F, unknown, or baby,” and asks: “Are we having a good time? Are we having the right kind of bad time?” The punchlines are all like that—funny, queasy. “She goes on to the next line and the next,” Hannah says of Hannah, “hoping every time to discover new material, to barricade, against hostile elements, the collective practice of living.”
I met Hannah several years ago, outside a long tunnel of a bar in Chinatown. She was talking about Carla Lonzi’s anti-dialectical pamphlet Let’s Spit on Hegel, but I remember even more the rapid and circular way she spoke, returning her thoughts to the top of the log flume for another ride. In person or in print, she has a fluidly intuitive sense of timing. Right after she left, a man came by with a dead rat, carrying it like the mourners bearing a funeral bier. We didn’t meet any of those while discussing Dark Pool Party in the same neighbourhood recently, but at some point mid-conversation I looked up towards the trees framing the park and noticed a squirrel watching us curiously.
Hazlitt: I’ve been wondering, were you always a writer as well as an artist? Do they feel like disparate things to you, or…
Hannah Black: I sometimes get defensive about there being a strong distinction between those two things, and in that position of defensiveness I might try to say there’s been some collapse of distinctions, or a sense that everything’s ended up in the trashcan of contemporary art. I think you can make an argument that lots of different forms of cultural practice have ended up being under the umbrella of contemporary art. Also, the Master’s that I did at Goldsmiths [College]—it was called “Art Writing,” but the intention was looking at writing as a mode of art practice, as if it were called Art Painting or Art Sculpture or something. But that meant that we spent most of the discussions just talking about what that would mean, which was a bit weird, because people are already doing that. There are artists who work in text or writing, or even produce novels. So I think just in terms of actually existing people, we do blur those distinctions quite a lot, but in practice people do seem to find it a little bit dissonant. I don’t write many art reviews, because I don’t really enjoy it that much, but that does feel like a weird conflict of interest. The idea that you’re at the same time asserting yourself as someone who’s in a position of knowledge, analyzing someone else’s work, and then still trying to be open towards the uncertainties of making your own work. That does feel a bit weird sometimes.
And then the third thing is just in terms of my character and how I am in the world, not to be too categorical about it, but I feel much more like I have all the neuroses and habits of mind that a writer has, and I don’t know if I have the distinctive pattern of being that people associate with an artist. That is again a romantic and slightly outdated model, because there has been a change in art where now it’s not so much about being this super-talented maker, there’s now a lot of artists who aren’t working with the hand or working through their own meticulous practices of image production or object production. You could say that idea is just an outmoded concept, but then I do relate more to writers. I read interviews with writers and I know what they’re talking about. It doesn’t mean to say that I’m not someone who can do that in an art context, but I think the thread through what I do is a struggle with writing.
I have an almost superstitious idea that you only get really good at something when you’re fully cognizant of the problems that it contains, and you’re in touch with your failure, not in the sense of a deliberate failure or modernist grand failure or whatever, but just in the sense that at your utmost extension, with everything you can give to something, it will still somehow fail to be adequate to reality or experience. I find that problem really interesting. And also autobiographically, I’ve been writing since I was—I mean, I literally don’t remember when I wasn’t writing. I have early memories of looking at the scrolling copyright texts on some animated movie I was watching in the morning when my parents were still in bed, and being like, Oh, if you can read you can write, this revelation. I don’t know if it’s even true, but I was completely seized by this idea that I could do both, going into my parents’ room like, “Guess what!” And them being like, “Whatever, we don’t care.” [both laugh]
A story that I love to tell about myself—it’s probably in a previous interview—you know that awful thing where you find yourself really charming, which is probably when you should be most suspicious of yourself? But my favourite toy as a child for several years was this magnetic alphabet set.
Fisher-Price fridge letters. I treated them like dolls, they all had different personalities and they would have arguments or date each other, they had this really intricate social life. And I was gratified recently, because there was a piece about people who report having synesthesia, and there’s a strong correlation between people’s letter-color associations and the Fisher-Price alphabet set. Which is weird, because—I think there was an early-2000s thing where people really liked to say they were synesthetic. It was a fashionable characteristic to have. And I’d always be like, “No, I have this strong association between letters and colours, but it’s only because of the Fisher-Price magnetic alphabet.”
In a lot of ways, when I look back on my very long relationship with writing and I realize how much of it was almost like this cheesy idea that you have to do 10,000 hours of something to be a craftsperson, to be good at it … I feel like, growing up, I had all the phases of trying to write like various different people, all the worst possible things you can think of. All the very bro-y phases, like my Kerouac phase, my Pynchon phase, all those phases. Then you get a certain sensitivity, and even glibness from that. It’s possible one day that I’ll have that suddenly with video or whatever, but—most of what I do has writing in it in some way, or is based on writing or has some relationship to writing. One of the things I like about art is that I’m writing with my left hand, or I’m doing something a little beyond my capabilities. I like that feeling.
One of the problems I have with writing—a nice problem, but also kind of a problem—is that it comes really easily, so sometimes I have to find ways to challenge how easy it is. It wouldn’t be easy for me to write a novel, but I can churn out a thousand words of whatever and it’ll be nice sentences. And I’m very suspicious of nice sentences, so I’m always like,Oh no, I have to be less good on a sentence-by-sentence basis. That’s like a John Updike thing, it’s so annoying. No one cares that it’s a nice sentence.
I obsessively revise sometimes. And I liked what you said about failure, because I definitely know a bunch of writers, including myself, who will write something and then immediately think it’s bad. That you wish you’d never written it, or that a lot of it should be taken out. Whereas I don’t know a lot of artists who will make a sculpture or a video piece and then say, “Oh, this is garbage. It should not exist in the world.”
Really? Oh my God, I feel like that about everything I do. I feel like everything shouldn’t exist. I think the way I manage is that I try to think of everything as disposable. I have no interest in posterity. I don’t remember what context it was in, but I saw Eileen Myles saying that writing’s a way for people to use you or be in relation to you after you’re dead. And I was just like, What a disgusting idea. Firstly, you have no idea, thankfully. Let’s at least leave that to the future. It could be that someone finds the email archive of some 52-year-old woman from wherever and that becomes the great text of 2350. You can write for whatever imaginary audience you want, and maybe there’s some fantasy of audience that expresses, but I don’t like the idea of posterity. I like the idea that everything will just go away. Someone was telling me recently—there was some issue with the New Inquiry website [where Hannah has published various pieces], and they were like, “maybe you should archive everything,” but I kind of like the idea it will just disappear. That was for then, now it’s gone [both laugh]. Why should I care?
But that is different with art objects, and one of the reasons I find that quite a heavy process. I do occasionally make objects, but it’s weird, because the idea of durability is so tied to that—everything’s about value, and has to perform all of the functions that value does, one of which is just duration across time while remaining the same. So even if you’re not doing that, you’re somehow still in relation to this problem of the artwork and value. I’m interested in that problem in terms of analyzing capitalism, but in terms of the actual process of making things, it’s not something I find massively activating. Fred Moten has a really nice thing about that, he contextualises the idea of commodification in the history of slavery. He says that as a Black person he’s speaking as someone who has been marked with the commodity form, on the level of subjectivity.
I don’t particularly like my writing, it’s not what I would’ve picked. The way I write has developed over time, it’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be a novelist at one point. I’d love to be one of these more research-based writers who produces very lucid texts about some historical situation, but apparently I can’t do that either. The only time I do anything good is when I’m very close to my own experience, and I’m not thrilled about that. I’d love to be cleaner. I envy the cleanliness of work that’s either more ironic or more intellectual … I think it’s fine to have misgivings about what you do. I remember saying to a guy I was dating in college once, “I would never date myself.” And he was like, “Well, you don’t have to!” It was very relieving [both laugh]. You don’t have to date yourself, you know?
It was funny because I was really skeptical of self-love for a long time—I had a character say a line in this thing I wrote ages ago, something like, “love is supposed to be directed outwards, like envy.” You can’t have self-envy and you can’t have self-love. But then because of recent experiences I have come to understand that most of what makes all relationships go well is some kind of foundational comfort with yourself, or okayness in yourself, that gives you more freedom of movement. And maybe there’s lots of different ways to refer to that, and one of them could be self-love.
I noticed that all of the pieces in Dark Pool Party were originally performed in front of an audience. How did that influence the way you composed them, as opposed to prose alone?
I feel like they’ve all emerged from my social and living context; they weren’t originally conceived as pieces of writing to be published and read. And yeah, the process is so different writing something for your voice. They did need some editing, because I know that I can read my own work well [out loud], I can cover up for problems more easily. One of the ways I manage my ambivalence is that I take almost any request for work as a pretext to write a new thing. And often it was in situations where no one wanted me to do that or thought that that would be a good idea [laughs]. The first place where I performed “Celebrity Death Match,” which was at this reading in this bar next to Mathew Gallery in Berlin organized by Bianca Heuser—I was really late, I was trying to work on something all day, like, oh my God, I have nothing, and then I was like, maybe I’ll use these parts of my diary, and obviously had to massively rewrite them and change them around. Then I turned up half an hour late and was like, “Sorry, I’ve just written a thing!” Which is also a bit swaggery and punk or whatever, and sometimes friends of mine who are much more methodical and take much longer to write things like that, I think they find it—maybe not annoying, but like, [sarcastically] “that’s nice for you.”
I spend a lot of time doing nothing to have this frenzy of activity. I don’t have a lot of issues around [writer’s] block that some people seem to have, because I’m like, “Oh, apparently it’ll take me three days of doing nothing to write this thing.” And then the actual writing will be a few hours. That’s how I do almost everything, I’m alright with that. But then I’m also not doing things which need a lot of planning or structure. None of those texts are very structured, so it’s kind of alright to just write and then go back later and make sure they’re not completely terrible.
I was talking with somebody about how you have these really great punchlines in there—when you’re like, “one small step for a wound, one giant leap for woundkind.” Or, “I wanted to say that hating yourself for hating yourself was femme, but anyone can do it.” [both laugh] How long have you kept a diary for?
It’s really on-and-off. I mainly write it on planes and trains and things, and/or in really intense emotional processing phases. I’ve kept it on-and-off since my teens, but it’s just in a [Microsoft] Word document. I have one Word document that ran for several years that ends, when I first moved to New York, with: “I don’t want to feel like this anymore.” I was trying to do a fast, and I was like, “Oh, actually I’m sick of this,” and then the diary ended. Because that was a phase in my life, and I’m just so embarrassed by that version of myself, I think I just wanted to lock it off in a separate document and then start again, which is a bit of a fantasy, obviously one carries on being just as much of a dick in different ways. It’s definitely improved over time, but I remember years ago trying to work out from an old diary when I’d started a job, because I was putting together a CV, and couldn’t find any references to any work I was doing. I had three jobs at that point, but if you read the diary you’d be like, “Oh, this is a woman of leisure who spends all her time contemplating her feelings.”
I really like that Anna Karenina thing where—I’m always thinking about my happiness and my unhappiness. I guess that’s everybody, but I don’t really have any other interests. When people are like, “here are my research interests,” I’m like, “oh, that’s amazing, you have research interests that aren’t your feelings.” I try to find solace in the idea that that’s a consistent thing: You could be in the midst of a war and you’d probably still be sad if someone broke up with you. It’s something that seems to be amazingly resistant to other life developments.
Was there a logic or a system to how you assigned the names in “Celebrity Death Match”?
Oh, someone else asked me that. It was really random. I was actually—I have a cute screenshot of this—I was talking to two friends, and they were both making suggestions. Because once I decided to replace the names with celebrity names then I couldn’t think of any celebrities, my mind went blank. I was just like, “Tell me some celebrities!” And yeah, there’s no relationship between them and the actual people. In fact, it’s kind of ludicrous, if I could put the two people side-by-side you’d think that was really strange.
I love how you refer to the actual Tom Cruise at the end, it’s like a god suddenly appearing. And you describe a film set where nobody is allowed to look at him. Do you ever think of celebrities in that way? I sometimes find myself—not praying to them or thinking of them as a soap opera, like the Greek pantheon, but more like … animism? Like they just represent certain things.
I was queuing in Duane Reade, and there were three different celebrity gossip magazines, and they all had Gwen Stefani on the cover, and one said: “Gwen Stefani’s tragic miscarriage, her husband might leave her, very sad.” The other one said: “The secret of Hollywood’s most romantic love story, Gwen and Blake will tell all!” There was another variation on what was going on with her. They all had that really amazing thing [celebrity magazines] do where people take pictures of [celebrities] all the time, and there’s pictures of them with various kinds of facial expressions, which could be either “just sneezed” or “sad” or “thoughtful,” this entire pantheon of facial expressions, like a stock-image database. You can just find one that’s like Jennifer Aniston looking a bit sad, and then it’s like “Jennifer Aniston’s tragic life,” and then in another one she looks like she might be really happy, and it’s “Jennifer Aniston thrilled by whatever recent development.” In that way celebrities perform so many functions.
I think one of the primary things that celebrity and also TV does is this sense of pain-free gossip, or non-toxic gossip. It’s a sort of semi-fictional social world you can share with someone but without it being hostile to anyone you actually know. One of my favourite tweets that I ever wrote is: “I often think to myself, ‘What would Rihanna do?’ And the answer is always ‘be a totally different person.’” [both laugh] I find celebrities interesting as these archetypal figures, and they carry a lot of projections, they’re in this really strange position. They carry a lot of emotional content on other people’s behalf. A bit like the joke in Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher, where she’s like, “I’m retaining water for Whitney Houston.” Whitney Houston is retaining sadness for everyone. But I don’t have this personal—I find that really interesting with someone like Hilton Als, I’m like, “Oh, you actually really like these celebrities, you would be excited to meet them.”
I do sometimes have this thought process like, Would I actually get on with Rihanna? Oh, I hope so, we’d get high together and maybe she would tolerate that I go on these weird rambling speeches and maybe she would find that charming. That’s really hypothetical—I think actually if I met Rihanna I’d mainly be like, “Oh, cool, I can tell my friends.”
There’s that line from the new Rihanna album where she’s like, “Nobody texts me in a crisis,” and a lot of people said, “Oh, this song is so vulnerable.” But I feel like you could also read it another way, like, “Why am I not one of the gods for whom mortals leave their prayers in the temple?”
Yeah. I work a lot with celebrities as figures in my videos, and I sometimes try to pass it off as a kind of fan relationship, but it’s really not. An example of this is, I was really into The Pinkprint, like I listened to it non-stop for about six months, but I listened to it literally one song at a time. So at some point, I think I was three months in, this friend was like, “Oh, I really like this song,” and I was like, “I’m not up to that yet!” I was really horrified [laughs]. And then I felt like I was just submitting myself to the album, so there was this point where I stopped skipping “Anaconda” when it would come on. I’m ready to accept “Anaconda” as part of the majesty of this album, because what that song means is “I can do whatever I like,” which is cool in what’s basically a breakup album.
I’m interested in the ways that [celebrities] are archetypes, but maybe differently from gods, they can change their significance. I did this video about Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie which just goes back and forth between their faces, Team Aniston and Team Jolie, and they almost switch positions, so there was the phase that maybe no one even remembers now, where Angelina Jolie was this crazy incest-loving blood-drinking—
—the vials of blood.
Vials of blood, possibly having a sexual relationship with her brother [laughs]. “I have crazy sex with lizards!” That was her thing, and then she became this earth-mother figure and adopted everyone. And then previously Jennifer Aniston was this girl next door, this ordinary girl, unthreateningly pretty, whatever. And then she became this weird lonely-cougar kind of person, there were these strenuous attempts to cast her as being very unhappy, even though she seemed fine? Like, “JENNIFER ANISTON BARREN AT 42 YEARS OLD,” and they have a picture of her with a very attractive young man, and you’re like, she really seems okay, but she made a sad face once last week [laughs].
I was really struck by the way you chopped up “I Will Always Love You” [in a video she made], because that song is famous or infamous for its colossal melisma, where she’s drawing out each syllable. It made me think of—do you know Total Freedom, the DJ? I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him DJ, but he’ll often take, like, Aaliyah and put shattering glass or screams over it, really abrasive shit. But then he’ll also do a beautiful remix of “Rock the Boat” or “Kiss from a Rose.”
I think the thing that’s amazing in pop is—everyone says this, but it’s ecstatic and sad at the same time. It somehow balances all possible feelings. It offers you this image where there’s no contradiction. All your contradictory feelings are handed back to you as this beautiful bauble. Actually, they were all just facets of the same disco ball! It’s fine! And every kind of messy, trashy, difficult experience can be remade as song, and dignified by that, which I think is, as we were discussing before you turned on the recorder, a bad way to navigate your actual emotional life. I have a long-term secret ambition that I probably will never do, which is to produce a flow chart or app that would tell you—because there’s a pop song for every possible relationship condition, and it would be cool to have a thing that asks, “Have you recently broken up with someone, yes/no?” And then it would say “here’s the song for your exact situation,” but you’d have to check how people wanted to relate to that. Are you feeling like wallowing, do you want to move on from that, whatever.
I actually had a really similar idea—well, a set of pop charts that wouldn’t be based on sales but emotions. Like, how many people listened to this song when they were sad this week, or angry at somebody? I was also just listening to all of the songs that you used in “My Bodies,” they’re so good. I hadn’t heard Mariah’s “Touch My Body” in a year or two, probably. I love that part at the beginning where she goes oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah [both laugh]. But I kept thinking of “Body Party,” because—it’s the most prominent song in your video, but it’s also poignant in a way that not all of them are. Even before or aside from the whole Ciara-and-Future thing that eventually happened. The way that she says “I’m doing this little dance for you”?
[giggling] It’s so cute, I can’t even stand it! I’m just smiling thinking about that song. There’s an amazing remix of it, I think it might be a Total Freedom remix.
[singing] “I’m having so much fun with you.” On a whim earlier today I actually searched for the phrase “body party” with “people you follow” on Twitter, just to see what happened, and there was a tweet by Total Freedom where he said: “Once I heard a DJ playing ‘Body Party’ at some kind of memorial celebration in a cemetery.”
Wow, that’s amazing. I’d have to check this, but I think it’s the only one in the video that’s “your body” and not “my body.”
And a lot of those songs—men in pop music rarely talk about their own bodies like that.
Yeah, that’s so true! It’s a man’s body that’s her party … I feel like—there’s a James Baldwin quote that I could find, but to paraphrase it, “The people I grew up with had orgasms all the time, and they still chopped each other up with razors on Saturday night.” There seems to be some specific pathology—white, Protestant, I don’t know which specific culture to attach it to—that’s been generalized, and I don’t think is general? Like, the idea that if you could just be more sexually free that could produce some kind of general liberation. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, I think sex can offer moments or experiences of freedom and joy, but that’s not the only condition that—I mean, sex does everything, it can also be boring or bad or painful.
I did this podcast ages ago, it was supposed to be responding to I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, and I made a “funny joke,” but now I’m very serious about this—it’s not that we have to end or abolish heterosexuality but that we have to begin it. Its conditions have yet to occur [both laugh]. Up until now, we haven’t really had the correct conditions for actual heterosexuality. And in a song like “Body Party” … you’re right, it is super interesting that it’s such a weird thing for a woman to say to a man, in a way. Ciara’s super normatively beautiful, very high-femme or whatever, and for her to be like “your body is my party” is kind of crazy. It’s not the mainstream relation that you’re supposed to have between a man and a woman, it’s supposed to be the other way around. And it’s just so full of pleasure, it’s such a pleasure song. I love this slight little thing her voice does when she’s like, “You’ve got me so excited.” She actually sounds like she’s sexually excited, which is kind of amazing, to convey that in a vocal performance without it being super cheesy or over-the-top. It’s quite restrained as a song, as well.
Yeah, the structure of it, it’s like she’s endlessly descending onto somebody, like the inverse of “I Feel Love,”where Donna Summer’s rising into the heavens.
Yeah, that’s almost like she’s beyond sex, like she’s just become some amorphous being. I think “Body Party” is also much more accurate to my actual experience of things, because one of the funny lines in there is when she’s like, “Baby put your phone down, you should turn it off.” Ciara is trying to have sex with you and you are looking at your phone, what is wrong with you? But of course even very pretty and amazing people will still have people being annoying to them sometimes. Nothing’s a free pass. I had this phase where I was like, “Oh my God, straight men don’t like having sex.” It’s a fun one-liner, it’s not entirely true, but there’s definitely—as a young woman, you’re told that you should beware of men’s sexual enthusiasms, but I think so much of men’s sexuality is funneled off into power-plays or upholding some weird social structures.
I think I mentioned this in one of the texts in Dark Pool Party, in “Atlantis,” something like, “my activity as an artist has almost as many credit operations on it as a straight man’s sexual desire.” Like, that a straight man’s sexual desire is having to do quite a lot, socially. It’s a pretext for so much horrible shit, or even just boring shit. “Look at this array of very similar-looking people, that is what straight men find sexy!” And you’re like, “Really? That seems extraordinary, but okay, fine [laughs].” There is this way that straight men sometimes seem underwhelmed or less fascinated by sex than queer people, or even straight women.
I noticed that Dark Pool Party has this running theme of disassociation—not even always necessarily in a bad way, it seems more ambivalent sometimes. Like, when you’re talking about the self as a character. Or instead of saying, “I want to make this person love me,” the standard romantic-obsession narrative, you’re like, “How can I make myself love this person?” There’s this other line about the feeling of not being able to read yourself. All of that seemed connected to me.
Sometimes when I wake up from a nap or I’ve just woken up in the morning, I’ll have this really weird feeling of, I don’t understand why I’m any of the things that I am. And I don’t understand how I’m placed in relation to them. I was brought up with a not-particularly-coherent sense that I had some sort of relation of duty or responsibility or at least memory, respect, for these long histories that I was in. On my mum’s side of the family, her mum was a Holocaust survivor, there was the Jewish experience in Europe, and then my dad’s family’s from Jamaica, and there’s the vast historical outrage of transatlantic slavery. Especially as a child, it’s very hard to understand what that has to do with you. It would be constant references to both of those things as having this intense explanatory power, almost everything could be related back to these long histories … Gender also has some traditional or historical aspects to its reproduction, in a way you’re a woman or a man in relation to the histories of being a woman or a man. Even if you reject them, you have to reference them or deal with them somehow.
It does feel like all these weird lines of code, and I don’t know much about DNA, but I like the idea that it’s like a randomly remixed alphabet set. The idea that when a baby is born, here’s your material, what are you going to do with it? Not that I’m saying everyone should do this, but for me it’s interesting to take myself as, like, here’s the stuff I have. I have this flesh, and it’s been organized in a particular way to do with social forms like race and gender and class. It’s like having some kind of Geiger counter to measure radioactivity, but I have my being as an instrument to measure what’s going on with all that stuff right now. That also means that I have this slightly abstracted relation to myself sometimes, and probably for reasons that are just about being a fuck-up or whatever, but I sometimes find it hard to take myself that seriously. It’s not so much that I feel like I’m performing, but I feel like everything could’ve been different.
I really like the idea in Walter Benjamin, this idea that things at any moment could become different, and things could’ve been different at any moment. And sometimes when I think about the grand historical narratives that I was talking about, it’s just crazy. Like, I don’t understand why any of that happened. Obviously there’s a set of reasons you can pull out, oh, this was a requirement of capitalist accumulation at that point that meant that slavery happened, but it’s also completely crazy. Maybe “crazy” is the wrong word. It feels so illogical and so random, and then has such intense effects. Like that bit in the Ta-Nehisi Coates book [Between the World and Me] where he says, in this letter to his son, “It’s not like all the people who had a horrible time in slavery were building up to you now having a good life.” They lived and died in that condition, nothing can be done for those people.
So I think there’s a weirdness about taking some position of responsibility towards history, which, I don’t even know what it means, but it somehow opens you out to this particular kind of … oversensitivity to the world? I have to carry the fact that things worked out very badly for people for reasons completely beyond their control … I think sometimes I annoy friends or people I’m dating, because I’m always interested in these long histories. I love hearing about people’s grandparents or great-grandparents, and it’s incredible sometimes. You’re like, “How are you here, now?”
What you were saying before reminded me of how in Dark Pool Party you describe apocalypse as being the texture of civilization. There’s this part in The Devil Finds Work where James Baldwin is talking about Lawrence of Arabia, speaking of the English with a withering form of pity: “It would seem this island people need endless corroboration of their worth, and their tragedy has been their compulsion to make the world their mirror.”
Baldwin’s amazing, and sometimes when I think about him it’s like—he does this incredible “I’m being very reasonable” tone, he makes these citadels of reasonable argument and excellent prose. If anything’s going to emerge from reasonable argument and excellent prose, I feel like Baldwin would’ve already done it. It’s a bit like looking at the early Soviet graphic design, you’re like, if graphic design could’ve changed the world, this would’ve changed the world. That’s a good thing to think about if you get too into your prose powers, to be like, “What about Baldwin?” Although I suppose he still—those conditions are still unfolding, and things are changing, maybe. There’s an interesting gesture of re-specifying the colonial centre, which has been this empty place, and I guess it’s also something that’s happened with whiteness in general, this attention to how whiteness operates as a weird kind of veil, or nullifies anything that might have previously been specific within those identity positions.
A lot of the hardcore Marxists would argue that it’s kind of random that capitalism emerges in Western Europe, that there’s no particular reason for that, it could’ve happened anywhere. But then you’re just talking about a parallel universe. Given that it did emerge there, it’s interesting to think about what the particularities of that place are. And what’s interesting about England is that it has a really early process of proletarianization. Just schematically, you have the enclosures, this conversion of communally held agricultural land into sheep farming or other kinds of value-producing land, people get removed from what we now maybe think of as an indigenous relation to land. If you think of indigeneity as a specific relation to a specific place, that gets broken really early in English history, and then you get the Industrial Revolution, and this now-rootless proletarianized peasantry are now corralled into cities and factories. And those are the people who are actually enacting the colonial project, those are the people who turn up in Australia or Africa or wherever.
There’s also the bourgeois class of colonial administrators, but a lot of people who’re doing the footwork of that violence, the daily work of that violence, are a group who themselves have been through an intensely violent process of proletarianization. I really like that about [Silvia] Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, how convincingly she plaits together these multiple stories. And it might be a reason, but obviously it’s not an excuse, it’s not to exonerate that. And although there was a break with England there’s still ways that America is manifesting that project, or at least the Western European colonial project continues in lots of different places to this day. I was just thinking, when we had this break—I had this very intense Marx-reading phase, because I’d had this crisis point with writing, like, “Oh, this is terrible, I don’t want to do this,” I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was this era of intense student protests in London, and I’d just started studying again, I hadn’t really been reading or studying for quite a while. And then it was like, Wow, there’s this whole world of theory and there’s stuff happening. It was really exciting. And I felt really full, like, now I have something to say, I have a position.
At that point I was not that interested in discussing race and gender, and then had the inevitable disappointment that you have, especially as a woman of colour in those scenes. I’m being asked to subscribe to an analysis that is strangely blind to obvious everyday facts of my existence. The strangeness of a lot of theoretical positions that I still appreciate for the rigor of their analysis of capitalism is—they have an ambition to make a total social theory that doesn’t include race and gender, or only includes them as peripheral effects.
There is a kind of crass politics of identity, which is maybe what some of those guys mean when they talk about identity politics, this idea that if you just have diversity and inclusion then everything will be great. Obviously that’s not true, but I think most people who are paying attention to race and gender and sexuality are doing it in a way that’s actually interesting, like, they’re fully aware that they’re also talking about a system involving class and value and accumulation and all those things. You end up with these weird paper tigers: “These people don’t even know that race and gender exist!” “Well, these people don’t even understand what class is!”
I do still have this guilt reflex, where I’m like, oh God, I’ve just ended up as this weird kind of memoirist. I just do strange deconstructed memoir. And this isn’t exactly what I intended to happen, but somehow I feel like that’s just the vantage point from which I feel able to do an analysis. I don’t want to do a PhD and sit in a library for five years, or all the things you might have to do to get to a point where you can start from the intellect. But then I really like that Nietzsche idea of all philosophy is autobiography, that seems true.
Yeah, that seems true to me. When those guys say things like that, I’m just like… You know that Angela Davis literally wrote a book called Women, Race & Class, right?
Yeah. But it’s funny, because often those people do know about Angela Davis, and they’ll trot her out like, “Look, we do care about Black women!” But they don’t seem very interested in the people who’re explicitly continuing that work. And there are massive aesthetic differences. Definitely in terms of the London communist scene, there’s this whole aesthetic which is like, everyone outdoes each other in how sensitive to suffering and misery they are. There’s all these boys in their twenties who read Adorno and do this emo thing online: “I’m very sad about everything that’s happening.” You’re like, wow, it really is incredible that you’re apparently the most miserable [both laugh]. What I try to avoid is the idea that suffering is either a measure of authenticity or a measure of social domination or oppression. The ways that people are immiserated don’t mean that every aspect of their life is constant trials and tribulations they never quite overcome.
I am susceptible to a kind of emo position where there’s some idea that I’m suffering in the correct way. Really, no one cares [laughs]. Broadly no one cares, obviously your friends care if they love you and they’re sad that you’re sad—I feel like there’s this weird Christian model where suffering is on the side of suffering. “Christ died for your sins, you have to suffer because people have suffered.” The way that you show solidarity is that you suffer … The idea that joy can be on the side of suffering, that you can offer up your pleasure and joy as this defiant relation to some of the historical heaviness I was talking about earlier, it took me a while to get to that point. And I think when I’m talking about happiness, it’s not in this self-help, classically American sense of—well, maybe it is the classically American sense of the pursuit of happiness, not so much the pursuit of happiness as being alive to its possibility? It’s always fleeting, it takes you by surprise, I think that’s part of why love is interesting to think about, because it has all these elements of chance.
It’s more like happiness pursues you.
Right, yeah, yeah. And just try to be ready when you hear its footsteps behind you. Don’t Mace it [both laugh]. Because sometimes you do! You’re like, “Ahhhh, I’m too surprised, I’ve fucked it all up!”
I love in the book how you don’t make travel sound glamorous or quirky—it’s more like this process that sweeps you up inside of it. Airport terminals or train stations, they remind me of playing Sonic the Hedgehog as a kid, these disorienting and astonishing environments that accelerate your body through them. And I noticed that, in photos of your first solo show that happened recently in London, there were pieces actually named after airports.
Oh, they were named after airlines.
Right, airlines, airlines. So I was wondering, do you have a fascination with those kinds of spaces?
This is funny, actually, I think it’s strongly marked in the book in a way I didn’t realize, partly because, like I was saying earlier, I write a lot when I’m traveling. Because I get stressed out easily, I have ADHD and anxiety issues, I feel very overwhelmed, and one of the things that I like about traveling is that you tend to have several hours at a stretch where you don’t have to be doing anything. You’re automatically doing something, which is traveling, so then you can kind of do whatever you like inside that experience. Aria Dean, who—we did a Q&A at the LA Art Book Fair—she brought that up and asked if it was related to this idea of fugitivity from [Fred] Moten … There is this feeling of, this constant attempt at escape that never really gets anywhere, but you need to keep trying. That’s the only way you’re gonna stay alive, is to keep grasping for this impossible thing. I think how I put it in “City Built at Night” is, there must be somewhere to install this escape.
I have this desire to show the workings, and I was watching Donald Trump speaking the other day, and I think that’s part of his appeal, he makes this gesture that I want to call Brechtian but that might be claiming too much for it [Chris laughs]. He tells you how much money he’s spending, he tells you how they’re planning the campaign, he tells you about the polls all the time. He’s somehow reduced politics to just its mechanisms. He’s divested it of its remaining content, apart from being super racist. Although he’s about as racist as most of the other candidates, more verbally racist, perhaps. Just to compare myself to Donald Trump, which is really weird—I like this gesture of revealing the conditions and talking about the polls or whatever, and I think one of the weird things about [Dark Pool Party], and why I sometimes feel weird when people are like “congratulations, you’ve written a book,” is because I feel like all my writing happens so interstitially and so weirdly, and it must be some way I manage the anxiety of writing.
One of the things I say to friends who complain about writer’s block is: “You’re just scared of writing something bad.” Why don’t you give yourself the real problem, which is that you’ll write something and it might not be that good [laughs]? Which is unfair, because there’s lots of different ways to have the same problem—I write a lot of shit, and have to go back and change things, and have written some things I think are awful, but I think I manage that by doing everything as if it’s not really happening? I have friends who are really into the idea of the artist as a worker, and I’m not into that. I feel like I can’t work if I tell myself it’s work. The way I work is, it has to be either after the deadline or I’m supposed to be doing something else, but I kind of cheat on my official task for the day by doing another thing that’s also something I have to do.
I feel like this weird traveling salesman, sometimes, the way I make money—often the reason I’m traveling is because someone’s been like, “Oh, we’ll pay you 400 euros if you come and do this here.” Both the origin of the text and the journey on which I’m producing texts is something that I’m doing because I need to make money. Obviously there’s much harder ways to make money, and I have to say I feel lucky, because I understand that I am lucky, statistically. But it’s not always fun. I used to love airports, like when I was a kid, one of the family outings that my dad would take us on, we’d go to Manchester Airport and watch planes take off and land. I hadn’t been on a plane many times, and it just seemed like this amazing world of people coming and going. This was pre-9/11, when you could actually go and look at that and not be accused of being a terrorist, and not have to go through security screening, so you’d be quite close to where they were taking off and landing, it was magical. The displays with all the cities on it, and this romance of all the different cities in the world, because there’s this secret affinity between cities more than the countries they’re in.
Like some of them are secretly making out. I feel like one of the most depressing things about being a businessman, aside from all the other things that you do as a businessman, is that literally flying through the air becomes mundane for you.
It’s not beautiful or terrifying anymore, it’s just something you do every week for your job.
Yeah, and that has been—”sad” is putting it strongly, obviously it’s a luxury problem, but there was one point last year where I was going on two or three trips a month, and I was actually exhausted, I was very stressed-out and anxious. I sometimes have this moment where I feel like I’ve basically become, yeah, a traveling salesman, or some kind of solo entrepreneur, and that wasn’t really what I meant to happen. I wanted to escape, I wanted to not have a proper job. I don’t know what the various desires were that went into going to art school, but they definitely weren’t to do with becoming some kind of weird businessperson. I’m glad it doesn’t come across as totally romanticizing, but I do still think there’s some magic power of evoking cities, and I think that’s really present in American culture, American cities especially have this supercharged atmosphere around them. There’s this litany of street names, they’re in songs, there’s movies named after them.
Which is one of the places that history becomes concrete, often I say that one of the manifestations of colonial violence is London, what London looks like. Central London or Paris. That’s what they did with the money. Heavy, solid stone. And the approach into London through Heathrow—normally I do the cheaper airline, and that’s like, Stansted [Airport], but I flew into Heathrow the other day, and it’s just this massive, solid city. This bendy river and heavy slabs of buildings set down next to it. And you’re like, “Wow, this really looks like what it is, a super-violent imperial centre that’s asserting itself over you.”
Like when they’re flying into the Death Star in Star Wars.
Yeah, totally! It’s exactly like that. The past couple of years I’ve been traveling a lot, that’s obviously come out in my work. And I get very sentimental when I’m traveling sometimes as well, when you’re like, “I’m having all these feelings about where I’ve just been and where I’m going to.” When I left London to go to New York for a year, I was really emotional on the plane, I was crying a lot, and then I watched this very moving documentary about dogs and cried a lot about the dogs and how much people love their dogs and how much the dogs love the people. Then I was telling people this story when I had just arrived in New York and was having a lot of small-talk conversations, because I didn’t really know anyone here, and a lot of them were like, “Oh, I cry on planes all the time.” And I like the idea that if you look up and see a plane going past it’s just full of people crying, that’s been a really sustaining idea. Everyone’s crying in the sky, but often from happiness.
I don’t know if this kind of thing has been democratized enough that I don’t just sound like the Weeknd, where I’m like, “Oh, I’m having sex with too many women in too many fabulous apartments, I’m very alienated.” From a very small amount of being in public, you start to get glimpses of why people go completely fucking crazy when they’re actually famous, when they’re going on world tours or whatever. It’s maddening. It’s a totally unstable existence, and that’s just having a 0.00001% experience of what it might be like to be Nicki Minaj. It probably is fun because you’re like, “Oh, I have a yacht, but…” [both laugh]
There’s also the thing about people having sex on an airplane, which, I can’t imagine—I know it does, but I can’t picture it as something that actually happens.
A friend of mine who’s like a sexual hero has had sex several times on planes. She’s just amazing, she’s like a sex athlete … I had a phase of, not masturbating in public but like, a “fun places to masturbate!” kind of thing. And you can definitely do that on planes, because they give you blankets, they dim the lights, the conditions are perfect [both laugh].