Paul Chan’s peculiar blend of the literary and the political, the age-old and the cutting-edge, the religious and the erotic has been everywhere lately, from Pittsburgh (the Carnegie International) to Brazil (Utopia Station, curated by Molly Nesbit, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Hans Ulrich Obrist) with multiple sightings in New York and Europe. Still, in some ways he remains hidden: he doesn’t allow himself to be photographed, because he values his privacy and his rights as a committed political activist in a nation hostile to dissent. Chan’s dual identity as artist and activist—he aims to keep the two poles separate so as to, in his words, “keep his allegiances clear”—is just one example of the resolution of opposites that characterizes his life and work. Chan is Hong Kong born and Nebraska bred, and his work is predicated on the idea that space for something new can be created by juxtaposing opposites: his drawings and doublesided video projections evince an equal pull to Adorno and to über-outsider Henry Darger, to the Bible and to Sade, to Beckett and to hip-hop, and while Chan remains faithful to old-fashioned charcoal drawing, he enjoys a simultaneous love affair with digital rendering and manipulation.
When I walked into Chan’s studio in April, we listened to a few minutes of the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC, which, on the occasion of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, had invited Salman Rushdie (president of PEN), Antonio Muñoz Molina, and Ha Jin to respond to the somewhat disingenuous query “Does writing change anything?” The question, applied to art, had come up when I had seen Chan speak on a panel at the MoMA in February, and the answer proved, of course, elusive. As we sat in Chan’s studio two months later, we heard Rushdie note that literature can give people imaginative access to worlds and characters that newspaper, radio, and TV do not illuminate. Then Molina observed that reading and writing are liberating; by reading you are “suspending the reality you are living in.” Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hear Ha Jin’s response, because I interrupted with my first question to Chan.
Nell McClister These two very different concepts resonate in your own work. To create a world through art that can allow people to learn something about the world is to invite engagement. To create this fiction as something to escape into would seem to invite disengagement.
Paul Chan Are they really so different? Doesn’t honest learning require a leap that disengages what we know and engages us in what we don’t? And doesn’t this leap call for a kind of escape from ourselves? Isn’t escape actually a kind of radical engagement? Bertolt Brecht’s work engaged us, pushed us into a corner, by estranging us from ourselves and what we experience. It was pleasurable too. I’m not a Brechtian, but am empathetic to his purpose. Let’s call it the task of empathetic estrangement. Or how about, the work of transforming the relationship between a subject and an object that is neither human nor divine. To imagine this relationship outside a particular entertainment culture now is almost impossible. What we understand as the things that should be valorized as human or transcendent are so overwhelmingly determined for us. For instance, our idea of justice doesn’t come from constitutions or laws but from the movie Braveheart. I read somewhere that that was Saddam Hussein’s favorite movie. But I can also imagine it being George Bush’s favorite movie. I’m sure the scriptwriter had a whole litany of things in mind: the power of the individual, the power of sacrifice, the courage of courage. These things are very worth looking at, but there’s a way in which you can picture something that reduces its possibilities and another way that complicates, or expands it.
NM You tend to identify an opposed pair—violence and joy, say, or utopia and apocalypse—and hold them up together. You do this not only in terms of the content of your work, but also the form: you use both the new media of digital video and computer animation and the age-old techniques of drawing, and you project your video pieces on double-sided screens. In this way I would say that your work complicates the picture. Another obvious opposition is your dual life as an artist and also a committed activist. In fact, you started out in photojournalism.
PC I was doing some writing too. But journalism wasn’t free enough, so I went to art school. But I still didn’t know where I fit in, so I did what I knew, which was writing stories in the school newspaper about teachers who were getting drunk on the job and student labor organizing. At the time, the mid-’90s, the AFL-CIO was doing college recruitment, and big labor unions were going to colleges and universities talking about how they should organize. It was thrilling. It all culminated with the UPS strike in 1997 in Chicago with Ron Carey, the Teamster president. Here’s a guy who came up from the rank and file of the Teamsters, who was forced into confronting a company that refused to negotiate with the workers on a new contract. 185,000 workers walked off the job, and UPS blinked. They broke the company and got a new contract. I lived close to a UPS processing center on the South Side of Chicago, and we’d bring them donuts. It was a great moment. Then of course Carey was booted; after the strike the Teamster hierarchy voted in the son of Jimmy Hoffa as president, even though Carey had just led this insane victory, and even though everyone knew Hoffa Jr. was shady. One of the lessons you learn is that changing things often means losing your job or getting jailed, or worse.
NM You witnessed a moment that was a throwback to the ’60s, to the ultimately failed attempt to create a social utopia. And you witnessed that less than a decade ago. That’s pretty amazing, and it seems to have a lot to do with what you’re doing now.
PC The philosopher Alain Badiou just wrote a book on Saint Paul, trying to redescribe Christianity as a radical and secular philosophical project that commits itself to an event that changes you, an event that you can neither control nor predict. And the idea of truth is how faithful you are to this initial event. One of his examples is love. You can never control or predict who you fall in love with, but once you’re there, the job of love is to be faithful to the initial encounter. Not to fetishize it, but to create a path from which you, over time, leave this event behind without ever forgetting it, using it as a way to gauge a whole host of things. Another example for him was May ’68. It was a watershed moment that didn’t change the world but changed him. Your ethical and philosophical path as you leave that initial event is called truth, he says. Not axiomatic, not Aristotelian: you can’t write it down. It’s a process of transformation, which sounds reductively like a self-help tape, but this frees up a lot of things about what it means to be truthful. I’m sure I don’t understand it fully. In any case, it’s thrilling and sad how history washes over us. No one lives like Thoreau now—except Ted Kaczynski, and he went insane. To be human is to be awash in history, I suppose.
NM Surely it’s more radical today than it could have been in the past.
PC Yeah, with mass media and mass communication we’re constantly connected with the present and the past. I call it the terrible connectedness, the burden of connectedness.
NM Because there’s a responsibility that goes along with it.
PC Yeah, the responsibility of being a good star in the constellation of the past, of people. But in order to protect ourselves from the burden of connectedness we become desensitized. Godard teaches us that that’s only one way of handling it. Another is to take a breath, step back and let it wash over you, and focus on being sensitive to the things that blip up. Like a radio that finely tunes into the frequencies that float around us. It’s a good way of living, and it’s a good way of making work.
NM Things that blip up being things you can do something about?
PC Things that blip up for me are the things that rile me up into such an agitated state it’s almost traumatic. I mean, when I fall in love it’s sort of traumatic. I don’t know what to do, I’m nervous, I can’t make anything. Art work is like that, like a controlled form of trauma. You talked about opposites before; I try to hold them at bay, because it creates a space where I don’t know what I’m thinking. It’s not like automatic writing; it’s a sense of needing to create a space for the kind of not-knowingness that holds the promise of something to come.
NM You have to hold the opposites together in order to live with them, but to investigate you have to hold them apart. You can analyze from that space, but you can’t live there, which goes back to the idea of art as escape.
PC Why do you disapprove of escape?
NM It’s a form of pleasant paralysis, self-imposed. To leave the world behind doesn’t do anybody any good except as a diversion.
PC I think reality is overrated. Fantasizing and escaping is a kind of self-cure we administer to ourselves, a tool for self-preservation in the face of the things we cannot bear. At the moment I’m reading Psychopathia Sexualis, by Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Before Sade, this book came out. It’s case histories of this doctor Krafft-Ebing’s patients. And what you realize is yeah, they are perverts, masochists, and sadists. But fundamentally what they’re dealing with is a kind of self-cure. How we try to help ourselves to bear the burden of living is one of the most interesting, subtle, and moving projects anyone will ever know.
NM Well, one person’s escape can be constructive for others. But surely artists, people in the art world, have a social responsibility. You still live in a world, and you have it pretty good. You have some kind of responsibility to not escape fully, to help illuminate the world, to show alternatives.
PC This idea of social responsibility is a question that will never fully be answered, because we don’t know what it means to be social, and we have no way of talking about responsibility outside of a Judeo-Christian idea that has been, among other things, the intellectual fuel for illegitimate wars. Derrida writes about this in The Gift of Death. Our understanding of our legal world from Europe to here is thoroughly religionized, to the point that we don’t even think about it. We live in a country that supposedly has a separation of church and state, but the very idea of justice, the very idea of the law comes from a very long religious tradition. It’s morphed, but within its DNA the idea of an eye for an eye is still there. Very biblical stuff. Derrida talks about a politics to come, and a friendship to come, that reframes how we think about law and justice, ideas of responsibility, outside of a religious framework.
NM History is steeped in religion, of course, and we’re, as you say, awash in history. The question is, how do you escape that? It’s like trying to get out of the Kantian space/time framework.
PC This is the 21st fucking century. Who knew, when we were sitting there watching the stupid New Year’s ball coming down in 2000, that we would still have to think about religion? But those of us who live in cities will never learn: despite industrialization, despite cultural and philosophical modernism and postmodernism, religion continues to be not only an institutional framework but a mode of possibility for those whom modernism left behind. Today Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds and almost cannot even be considered a Western religion anymore, given the concentration of converted Christians in Africa and Asia. Latin America has a long history of Christianity. Here in the US, of course, some of the most vocal political voices are religious-based organizations. You saw that in a perverse way in the election last year. We thought the red states fucked us as a country, but in fact what happened is a sort of strange class revenge. I do think, though, that the backlash is coming. It’s not only the state that originally wanted the separation of church and state, but also the church. For my most recent video, which was shot back in Nebraska, the preachers I spoke to talked about how any Christianity that sleeps with state power can’t rightly be called Christianity. Christianity with state power is not a religion.
NM Did you find that that’s a widespread idea in the Bible Belt?
PC I think it’s growing. They were giddy at seeing Christian values being used in the federal agenda, but now they see it’s become debased and hard to reconcile, given the numerous contradictions. I talked to anti-abortion mothers who can’t believe that this anti-abortion administration is pro-war. There is a definite religious backlash within America.
NM What’s your piece called?
PC It’s called Now Promise, Now Threat. I did it right after the election. I had too many friends who said they wanted to bomb the red states. But my family lives in a red state. And I knew fundamentally that the situation was much more complicated. Clinton didn’t do much for the red states; the poor are still poor. It’s an interesting, convoluted line that connects religion and state power and how people live. So I went back and made a tape. The red state/blue state thing reduced the complexity of what was happening. I refuse to believe that the red states are unredeemable, but now we have to deal with what happened. And it’s good, because it opens up a lot of things. I think it’s very interesting and wonderful.
PC I believe Adorno when he writes that what we understand as Western art began as cultic objects for institutional religion. And this strange and perverse stain of art continues to haunt what we make, this idea that art is a bookmark for something we can’t see, hear, touch, feel, or actually think about. It gives us a possibility of remembering that we don’t rule the universe and that there’s something out there called the unknown that we must stare at and constantly grapple with. So religion has always been a part of the framework of art, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Along with an immoral-illegal-imperialist war abroad, our country right now is steeped in a religio-politio-cultural civil war. And this civil war forces art to confront again certain ideas about itself that perhaps it couldn’t or refused to during times of peace. And it’s wonderful.
NM Political artists have tried to create objects that defy that kind of mystique, to create bookmarks for the known rather than the unknown. Let’s talk about the fact that political art is having a bit of a crisis.
PC It’s always having a crisis. It wouldn’t be political art if it wasn’t in crisis.
NM Fair enough. But it had a heyday and then its forms were appropriated, and it became difficult to see how to make political art without it being hackneyed.
NM Your work has to be seen in light of your activism. It is very intellectual, but it’s also very aesthetically developed. It uses digital video and animation; new applications for computer software—forms of new media that are promising for political work. I’m wondering where you see yourself in the legacy of political art and how you see it developing.
PC There are two questions there. The first question is the legacy of political art and the trajectory of it. The simple answer is—I’m in loyal opposition to it. The second question is, How do I see myself in relation to that legacy, that tradition? . . . How do I answer this without being cliché? (long pause)
NM Surely you’ve answered this question before.
PC Yeah, but it always feels like the first time . . . . I believe in the project of participatory politics. Without collective social power things won’t change. But I also believe in—I’m fanatical, frankly, about what art means for the future. And I see them as oppositional forces. Collective social power needs the language of politics, which means, among other things, that people need to consolidate identities, to provide answers, to create a social cohesion that would give them the power and the responsibility of a bloc of people to move things, destroy things, to make things happen. Whereas my art is nothing if not the dispersion of power. To never consolidate. To always disperse. And so, in a way, the political project and the art project are sometimes in opposition. Which isn’t bad. You know, we tell ourselves fictions all the time, to be productive. I tell myself that I’m smart and handsome so that I can walk down the street without drooping my shoulders. And, whether or not it is true that politics and art are separate, it’s very productive for me to imagine that they are, so that my allegiances are clear and I can work productively at both without reducing one to the other. In the trajectory of what’s been called political art in America and around the world, there have been various alliances and ideologies at work. One of my jobs is to diversify whatever political art is. I can’t really talk about the forms and the trajectory of success and failure because, frankly, I’m just not an expert on it. For me there is no way of judging whether or not political art is successful because of how many people it makes space for. That’s not the point.
NM The Russian Constructivists, actually the Productivists, had the idea that they would create objects that were transparent in form, and they would function as symbols or templates that would activate the proletarian, who would then carry out the revolution. The artists would be catalysts. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.
PC It reminds me of an opposite analogy: Prague Spring, May 1968. The Czech communist leaders loosened cultural restrictions and gave more freedom of speech to its citizens, and Stalin thought that was way too much. So the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. And for eight months the citizens mounted a civil resistance campaign. One of the most moving and interesting things they did was they painted all the street signs white and took off all the numbers on the houses, so the Russians didn’t know where they were or where to find resistance organizers. For eight months they were lost. What a way to stop an invading army, a real grassroots weapon of mass confusion. And, in a way, what you’re asking is, What kind of objects or actions would perpetuate a collapse that would make new things happen? And is that the purview of art? The simple answer is, maybe not. If you think, like Badiou, that it’s the event that creates the truth, what we consider to be political art—or more generally resistance, using the imagination to circumvent the usual discourses of power to create new ones—is invariably connected to a place, a space, and time. I don’t think any artist would have imagined in ’68 that one of the ways to stop an invading army was to paint the street signs white. It was the heat of the time and the space that created the necessity for creative resistance. I was speaking at the New School recently, and one of the things I talked about was the codification of codes within progressive media, that if someone quotes Chomsky one more time in a newsletter or pamphlet, or if I see another picture of a raised fist or someone with a bandanna, I’m going to vomit. One of the reasons people recycle these codes is that they are connecting to a tradition, and they think that tradition is transcendent, that these symbols give them power because they’re connecting with a tradition of revolution in power, when in fact they’re feeding off the dead. They’re not paying attention to what’s happening in the moment, right now. It’s like being in a family. Being in a family empowers us, protects us, but being in a family limits us. You have to escape in order to grow. Political art, among other things, is a form of social and aesthetic transgression that needs to constantly grow. It doesn’t mean that it has to ignore or destroy the family it was from, but it can’t covet and fetishize its own tradition and language if it is to become something that gives us new hopes and possibilities.
NM Let’s get back to your work for a second. Your double-sided video projection My Birds . . . Trash . . . The Future brings together Biggie Smalls and Pasolini in a world inflected with Goya, Beckett, the Bible, and the contemporary presence of suicide bombers. There are many strands woven together in that piece. Where did it come from?
PC I’m enraged that we have to think about faith in the 21st century. I’m fascinated and confused by it. I just keep saying, We’re in the 21st century. Marx thought in the 19th century that factories would be the new churches, and that industrialization would secularize the world. Now we realize that it’s a secular world, but only for a few people. A lot of people got left behind. And they’ve returned. Return of the repressed, in a way. It scares me, and it moves me. I had to find a way of articulating all those things: the idea of being a citizen of the 21st century, which sounds completely pompous; the confusion and anxiety that comes with trying to feel a kind of faith in the 21st century. Actually, it all started with my trip to Baghdad, where people wouldn’t talk to me sincerely unless I told them I was religious. The idea was if I didn’t have a religion, my words were not connected to a higher order that would punish me if I didn’t speak the truth.
NM So they didn’t want to talk to you about Christianity or religion; they just wanted to know that you were worth talking to.
PC Religion provided a passport for an honest exchange. Even if we didn’t agree, at least I was speaking a particular form of truth. It’s beyond fascinating. It’s a survival instinct and a kind of thinking that I hadn’t thought about in a long, long time.
NM It must be nice to believe in that kind of guarantee of truth.
PC Yeah, it must be. But that kind of thinking reduces our ability to communicate, because it reduces communication down to words, and we all know that we communicate in more than words. The reduction to the linguistic as the only form of communication is a real debasement that came with the emergence of a tyranny of communicative technologies.
NM In your video Baghdad in No Particular Order, there is very little dialogue.
PC Yeah, I kept the words to a minimum. I didn’t want to make anti-war pornography or war pornography. You realize that in both of those, from CNN to documentaries, there are always voice-overs telling you what you are seeing onscreen. Always.
NM Why “pornography” and not “propaganda”?
PC I think it is pornographic. It’s very voyeuristic, almost sexual. Well, not almost. It is sexual, whether it’s the victimization of Iraqis or the portrayal of them as fundamentalist barbarians. We watch because there’s a perverse pleasure in it. Maybe there’s understanding, but that’s secondary. Watching pornography commits you to a kind of division of power and a guarantee of roles between a subject and an object. Empathy is not in the cards. And understanding is not empathy.
NM You made that with the group Voices in the Wilderness. Are the others also artists?
PC No. They’re all hardcore anti-nuclear, anti-war, Catholic worker types, based in Chicago. The group was founded in 1996, around a kitchen table.
NM Everything good happens around the kitchen table. Your activism is primarily collaborative or collective. Have you collaborated in your artwork?
PC I have tried it, and I hated it. In a strange way, working alone helps me value my body because my body becomes the limit and the horizon of what I can and cannot do. It’s a cross between being very stupid and stubborn and holding on to the idea of being human. My body is the process and horizon by which things happen. Almost like performance art.
PC But I am completely surrounded by and intrigued by and reliant on machines, so going back to drawing helps. Going back to drawing doesn’t mean that I go back to the premodern, but somehow I go back through the machines to draw, not like a machine, but with the ethic of a machine; through a prism of having gone post-machine. I still don’t know what that means, but that’s how you have to do it. I’m not going to regress things. I’m not Darger. But I can ask, What if Darger had a G5, and an MFA, and were still alive?
NM Can you really compare yourself to Darger?
PC He’s dead. Can he really be offended?
NM But is it fair to the legacy of his work, to the idea of this very poor and self-taught man working in complete isolation?
PC I’m sure it’s unfair to those who have a stake in controlling the legacy of Darger. But that’s unfair to us. Discourse builds around dead things all the time, and this discourse thinks that it’s doing the essential purpose of maintaining tradition. But culture develops by mutating tradition, making it new again. To imagine Darger as an outsider artist doesn’t feed anyone anything; that only feeds publishers and museum bookshops. It’s much more free, and it makes him much more relevant for the future to imagine him as a political philosopher, kind of a French utopian socialist, and to reinvent his drawings not as hallucinations of someone lonely and desperate but as scenes from a philosophy of utopian socialism on the wane.
NM How wary are you of nostalgia?
PC How wary am I of nostalgia? How wary are you of nostalgia? (laughter)
NM It’s a loaded place to go, the idealized past. Again, it goes back to the idea of escape.
PC I was schooled recently on the etymology of nostalgia, which is homesickness. Nostro means “home,” apparently, in Latin. I grew up in Hong Kong. Hong Kong citizen’s are the first postmodern subjects. We’re born split, Chinese and British. Two passports; two languages, maybe three; a strange amalgamation of Eastern and Western. People who have split homes tend to not long for home; the very idea of home seems strange. Hélène Cixous wrote this beautiful line: I’m perfectly at home, nowhere. As a Jew who lived in a poor Arab district of Algeria, and being French during the Algerian war, she has an acute sense of what it means to be displaced, even at home. It makes sense to me. So I’m not wary of nostalgia, because it seems irrelevant to me.
NM Do you have a longing for something that you didn’t have?
PC Yeah. I have a lot of longings. (laughter) What an intimate question!
NM Do you think that art has a special power to throw you up against the contradictions in the world by being poetic or allusive, by bypassing language?
PC That’s three questions. I’m counting. You realize that your one question is invariably more than one. It’s like one of those ICBM warheads. It’s one missile and the warhead opens and there are four smaller missiles inside. (laughter) I’m going to call this the Reagan strategy to asking questions.
NM Are you avoiding the question?
PC No. Being poetic and allusive are only two strategies in a menagerie of strategies and methods for art to estrange us from ourselves so we can imagine things outside of us, which is the first step toward empathy, and to learn that we’re not Masters of the Universe. There are so many other strategies. Kafka’s quote about his own work is relevant here. He says that his stories should work like an ice ax breaking the frozen sea within us. Because we have to survive, we preserve ourselves, freeze ourselves, and his stories are a way to break us loose again. It is a brutal exercise in hope.
—Nell McClister is senior editor of BOMB.