Magpies, comics, paradoxes, and the spirit of disruption.
Leaps—the kind that ask you to embrace the sense in nonsense, to surrender, to let go of what you might expect in favor of what you might discover. There are few other artists and writers capable of the extraordinary leaps Danielle Dutton and Richard Kraft make both in their respective works and in their collaboration Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera. In this book, Kraft reassembles a Cold War-era comic book about a Polish spy infiltrating the Nazis, densely layering each collaged page with material from Amar Chitra Katha comics of Hindu mythology, Jimmy Swaggart’s Old and New Testament stories, the English football annual Scorcher, and various images from art history, encyclopedias, and so forth. Frames are broken. Time collapses. The world is in flux. Dutton meanwhile, with masterly command, renders this ever-mutating world into language. Her sixteen “interpolations” punctuate Here Comes Kitty, and they are marvels of nimbleness and imagination. Here collision and juxtaposition may very well be more revealing than logical causation.
Danielle Dutton Where are you right now?
Richard Kraft I’m in my studio, downstairs. It’s the nicest I’ve ever had, pretty big, quite palatial by my standards.
DD Is it underground or ...?
RK No, it looks out to the east, to the San Gabriel Mountains, with the city in the foreground. I’ve loved living in Los Angeles—it’s been fourteen years—but I’m ready for another move. I would love to live on the East Coast again, or even go back to Europe for a while.
DD I know you’re from England. How did you come to live in America?
RK I’ve moved around a lot actually. I lived in New York for five years and went to school there, then went back to England. I went to Ann Arbor for two years for graduate school, then moved to the Pacific Northwest. I like being a foreigner, particularly here in Los Angeles. I regularly look up and think, Wow, how did I end up here? It’s so alien. The landscape is completely different, so dry. You drive almost everywhere. It feels improbable to me. And I really like that sense of being on another planet somehow. I think it enables me to see both the place where I live and the one I’m from with fresh eyes.
DD I always feel, in Los Angeles, like dinosaurs might crawl out of the hills. Since I was little I’ve been obsessed with the La Brea Tar Pits. So what made you want to leave England?
RK I’m not even sure I knew I wanted to leave England. I just wanted to study art and photography, and my dad suggested I go to New York. This was in the early 1980s. At that time there were not many photography programs in England, and it was also very difficult there. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Unemployment was high, the miners went on an epic strike, and the decade began and ended with huge riots. It was amazing to be eighteen years old and living in New York City. It was a great time to be there, but also weird. It was the beginning of AIDS.
DD And you came to study photography? Do you think of yourself as a photographer?
RK Not really.
DD Did you for a while?
RK I did, definitely. That was my way in, and it opened doors to many other things. I still teach photography, so I feel really connected to it, but over time it’s become part of my wider practice. I use it primarily as a way of collecting.
DD Collecting ideas?
RK Ideas, things. I think a lot of my work is rooted in things I collect that can be organized into taxonomies and then recontextualized. Here Comes Kitty is filled with them. So photography, for me, is a way of collecting the world really directly because it demands that one look at things in a very focused way.
DD I was just looking at your Tube Portraits. Did those people have any idea you were taking their picture?
RK No, they didn’t. I was actually taking video footage of them, so those are stills. I just had a camera in my lap.
DD It absolutely feels like collecting pieces of the world. Collecting people. It’s kind of creepy.
RK It’s funny, I was just back in London and thought, Oh, I should do some more of that ... but then I couldn’t. I was very aware of how intrusive it felt. In the past I didn’t care because I wanted the images so badly. I would go to class on the tube as a teenager. I was expelled from school and for a while had individual lessons scattered in various parts of the city. I often feel my real education was wandering around London, so I wanted to make those images because it was a way to solidify my memories. I would ride the tube and that’s what I saw. It was a bit like collecting a piece of my youth, and I really felt like I had to do it.
DD It makes sense to think about your work in terms of collecting, how collecting is not just about accumulation but variation. I wonder: do your influences change from project to project or is there’s a clear constant?
RK Does it look like they’ve changed?
DD I feel like I see something about you or your aesthetic in all of your work, but there’s also such diversity from project to project. Someone I talk about a lot in my classes is Gerhard Richter. When I first started at the School of the Art Institute there was a Richter retrospective, and I naively wandered in there, knowing nothing about him, and I was pretty sure as I moved to the second or third room that I’d accidentally wandered out. I was sure these other rooms couldn’t possibly belong to the same person. I became so interested in him then, in how he worked, in the idea of an artist who could change so radically. I’ve been interested in that ever since—immersing yourself in a project or a way of working for a while and then moving on, as opposed to the idea of “finding your voice.”
RK I always loved something John Cage said, which was: Don’t just do one thing, do so many things that they won’t know what you’re going to do next.
DD Georges Perec said his ambition was to write every kind of book possible. He had an enthusiasm for projects. That’s what I mean about collecting being about both accumulation and variation—that particular kind of enthusiasm.
RK Yes, and that makes me think of Fernando Pessoa, who said that no artist should have just one personality, and that the goal of the writer should be to write in numerous genres, with as many contradictions and discrepancies as possible. It’s so counter to what we’re taught. I don’t really understand why there’s such a strong emphasis on developing a single, easily identifiable voice. Maybe it’s a market thing?
DD Maybe also a predisposition. I mean, pick up any book by Sebald, turn to any page, and you know exactly whose hands you’re in. And I love that. I love his work. I’m just also interested in this other way of doing things, and I got the sense, looking at your work, that you are too.
RK Definitely. I’ve had countless influences. I’m reading an interview Brian Eno did with his daughter. He talks about his early work and involvement with Roxy Music, how he feels this represented the antithesis of the Romantic idea of the artist who has a singular vision. He contrasts himself with Van Gogh, who, he says, painted the way he did because it was what his vision demanded. Eno claims he was never like that. He saw all these different things that he liked and took a piece of this and a piece of that. I think I’ve always worked in a similar way.
DD Like a magpie.
RK Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.
DD I’m always looking for the shiny thing I’m compelled to pick up and play with.
RK So where do you take from and how do you find the things you take?
DD Well, visual art has always been one of the main places I go. I was just looking at some of Agnes Martin’s writings and got super fired up. Often when I read the writings of visual artists or writing about visual art I feel the need to go write. Whereas when I read writers writing about writing I often just feel defeated or freaked out.
RK Why, do you think?
DD I’m not sure. Maybe I don’t identify with what they seem to admire, so I feel wrong or out of step.
RK Agnes Martin’s writings are amazing, I agree with you there. But what really happens as you read them? How does what you’ve read manifest in what you write?
DD Well, I’m reading this essay about how her paintings are “about” nothing, yet when you look at them there’s an obvious beauty and a kind of performance happening—something happens to you as you look at them. I read that and look at her work and I feel that performance and I think, yes, that’s exactly what I want to do, exactly what I want to make happen with language.
RK I’m curious about how or where you begin. Writing is something of a mystery to me. So, for example, with the interpolations you wrote for Here Comes Kitty, they are both of the world and not. Does that make any sense?
DD It does. I just read On the Road this week for the first time. Has everyone read that book but me? They must have.
RK I read it a long time ago.
DD What took me so long? You know, I taught at Naropa for six years in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and many of my students were sort of oriented toward the Beats. I just wasn’t that familiar with their work, but because the students were already pointed in that direction my impulse as a teacher was to point them in other directions. I think I wound up actually resisting the work myself. Anyway, there was a line where the narrator says, basically, “I have nothing to offer the world but my own confusion,” and I instantly saw myself in that. It can be true of me trying to articulate my work—I’m apt to agree with one statement and then turn around and agree with a contradictory statement—but it also gets at what much of my work has been trying to do. Confusion might actually be something I offer. Of course, a piece can’t be disorienting if it’s not also grounded somehow, and that’s what I’m always working toward—grounding the work enough to make it pleasurable and to give it that seductive feeling of a narrative unfolding, but then beyond that, exploding it and messing around. I guess maybe that’s an answer to your question?
RK That’s a brilliant answer, actually, and it makes total sense to me because I feel exactly the same way. It brings to mind Italo Calvino’s essay on multiplicity and his predilection for convergences. I love the idea of the novel or artwork as a network of connections, often of seemingly unrelated things. We often can’t make rational sense out of the disparate, apparently random things we encounter in the world, but we accept them.
DD As an experience.
RK I’m most enthralled when my experience of an artwork or piece of music or writing is as rich and unpredictable and full of paradoxes as life itself. I think this comes back to why I like living outside of England. It’s because things are foreign and don’t quite make sense, because unfamiliar things collide in really interesting ways.
DD I like that. My work too is often more interested in collision or juxtaposition than, say, logical causation.
RK My wife Lisa and I were talking about your work the other day. She described you as a miniaturist. It’s a bit like looking at an Indian miniature painting, which might only be six by four inches but contains a whole universe. In your writing things are densely woven, and they spiral so the piece opens up as you read; it expands. The interpolations are like that. They’re not long, but they explode outwards. I think you used that word earlier.
DD Yeah, I was trying to get my pieces to speak to the energy of your pieces, which are also dense and just exploding with information, including color as information. I felt like for them to stand there alongside your collages they had to be equally colorful and dense. I needed to figure out how to do that in language. But wait, I’ve been wanting to ask how you first came across the Kapitan Kloss comic book.
RK Lisa was living in Berlin and found it somewhere, just one issue. There are twenty in total. She hung onto it for years, then one day she said, “Here, you might be interested in this.”
DD Were you a comic reader as a kid?
RK I liked them but they weren’t an obsession. I loved Tintin, and when I was really quite young I would buy football comics. I don’t think they exist anymore, but when I was growing up in England it was a huge thing.
DD Who was your team?
RK Well, unfortunately, it’s not in the past tense. My team is Arsenal, which is a London team. In my family it’s a little bit like religion, passed down from my father.
DD I was once engaged to an Englishman, and when you said “unfortunately” I thought you were going to say some other team, not Arsenal, because unfortunately for him, he was handed down the Huddersfield Town Terriers.
RK That is unfortunate!
DD But we were talking about Kapitan Kloss.
RK I guess what draws me in particular to Kapitan Kloss is the opportunity it presents. It’s a comic representation of a critically important piece of history—the Nazis and WWII—but it’s pared down, distilled, and it has a dot pattern. It’s about the world and of the world. When I interfere with it, I’m altering something of the world itself. That’s something really interesting to me and unites a lot of the different projects I do. The performance piece I’m working on for next year, with sandwich boards, is very much about that. That’s directly using the world itself as material in a collage. I’m going to have one hundred walkers fanning out all over West Hollywood, each wearing a sandwich board with a unique image on front and back.
DD They’re very funny, these sandwich boards.
RK Definitely, humor is part of it, but I hope they’re also subversive in other ways, particularly in their rejection of a single meaning or truth. I often walk around thinking, What if? and concoct outrageous things to say and do that I would never actually say or do, then I imagine what kind of responses that would provoke. Much of my work begins with what if? With Here Comes Kitty it was: what if the Nazis say things they’d never say?—like “I am a big girl! I sing! I sing!”—and that becomes the framework into which other voices can be woven, so they all live in close proximity and hopefully hum with a new kind of energy.
DD I love those constant outbursts in the collages. I cheerfully mined them for the interpolations. You know, I’d been so curious about what had drawn you to Kloss and it’s interesting to learn that it sort of found you. You’re Jewish, right?
RK I am.
DD And there’s this dark backdrop of Jewishness to the Kloss, and meanwhile you’ve collaged in all this wonderful Indian imagery, and—if I’m remembering right—you’re an Indian Jew.
RK I am.
DD That’s fascinating to me, as a stock Eastern European Jew.
RK Yeah, there are very few Jews left in India now. In Calcutta, where my family is from, there are only about a dozen still living there. The taxonomies in Here Comes Kitty aren’t random. They’re things that in some way are important to me, many of them drawing on aspects of my childhood—thus, the Indian imagery, the appropriated photographs of rallies in Germany and singing choirboys. In fact, even the children’s writing, the words written in a child’s hand, those are things Lisa gave me—that’s her childhood writing.
DD The work has this personal language embedded in it, but I don’t think a reader has to have access that at all.
RK I really hope that’s the case. I want the collages to be a space in which to wander—and for me wandering is conjoined with wonder—and make discoveries. I guess this comes back to what we talked about earlier, the ability to surrender. When I first read S P R A W L, for instance, I quickly realized that I would have to surrender to what I don’t know. Here’s another great Cage thing: the reason he loved Finnegans Wake so much is that he felt he couldn’t get to the end, that every time he read it he would find new things. Once he fully understood something, he lost interest. And S P R A W L is always full of surprises. Each time I revisit, it’s a different book. It makes me wonder if the book has changed or me, but really it’s just so rich that I keep finding new things. So I think that question of surrender is important, and for some reason, certainly with artworks, people sometimes struggle with that. Do you think it’s the same for writing?
DD Oh, sure, maybe especially with fiction. But people surprise me, whether they’re strangers or students or my own family members, and maybe I’d unfairly thought they wouldn’t be able to surrender like that. I do think I prepare myself for people to be resistant to my writing, just because I’ve confronted that, with people not knowing what to say.
RK Well, what do they say?
DD Oh, sometimes they just don’t say anything, which can be uncomfortable, and which I tend to interpret as dislike, rightly or wrongly. But it’s lovely when someone surprises you. Okay, I’m going to change the subject again. When we first talked about doing this project, I hadn’t seen any of the Kapitan Kloss stuff, and you said you wanted us to work in the mode of Cage and Cunningham for a while, not seeing what the other was doing. I haven’t really worked collaboratively before, but I know you have and wanted to ask you about it. I thought your suggestion was in the spirit of disruption or anarchy. We could call it something softer, like chance, but to me it felt like disruption was what you were after, that disruption has something to do with collage itself.
RK Well, I think collage is a great way to do it because you often work with material collected from so many different places, bringing together unrelated things. But it’s also an instinct I have. I think it’s also a very English thing. The English are known for being very upstanding—decorum is important, and good manners—but the flip side of that is a really irreverent sensibility that wants to turn everything on its head. Anarchy feels truer to me. Not to say that it’s true with a capital T, but it’s truer to me as a kind of representation of the world, when unexpected things collide. And collaboration is definitely a way of facilitating that. So, yes, I collaborated for seven years with my friend Joe Biel. I think one of the really interesting things—and maybe it was one of the reasons we ultimately went back to working independently—was that the pieces were really neither one of us, but rather an amalgam. There was always this wonderful moment of looking at a finished piece and thinking, Wow, where did that come from? I still want that feeling, and I suspect you would say the same.
DD Maybe I feel a bit like I’m always collaborating, just not with someone who was collaborating back. With S P R A W L, I was responding to Laura Letinsky’s photographs, and with my first book, each piece is in response to some other work, whether a poem or a film or—
RK “Jane Eyre” is the first story in your first book, right?
DD Yeah, I rewrote the novel in five pages. It was my favorite growing up.
RK What else did you love?
DD I really loved trees.
RK Okay, I was just making sure this wasn’t a book or something I didn’t know about.
DD And I read Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew. I loved Michael Jackson. My favorite movie was Labyrinth, with David Bowie as the goblin king. When my husband saw that, when I forced him to watch it shortly after we were married, he said, “Wow, this explains so much.” Oh, and Flowers in the Attic. I was basically a girl-child of the 1980s. But Jane Eyre was so far and away my favorite book that it’s hard to think of others.
RK Why Jane Eyre in particular?
DD I just felt so completely like I was Jane. I’m a sucker for that story, the admirable young woman and the seemingly roguish older man. Such a cliché! But I think that was partly why I wrote my story. I’d read the novel at least ten times before I went to college, then I didn’t read it again until after I’d done an MFA. I didn’t think of myself as a writer before this. I didn’t major in English or take creative writing classes. Then I did the MFA, and the summer after I was just waitressing and wondering what to do. I read Jane Eyre again, and this time it struck me as so funny, both the book itself and the effect it had on me. So there’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to my Jane—because really she is so bossy in her own little way—but it’s also me making fun of myself, how utterly I was swept into Bronte’s story again and again, and also sort of delighting in that, in being a reader so deeply in love.
Actually, this leads me into a last question about Kapitan Kloss. I wondered to what extent you were playing with the narrative of that comic book itself, that particular story, and whether you felt like you were twisting it or subverting it or disregarding it. Were you interested in questions of causality or sequence, or were you using the material of Kloss in some other way?
RK It’s complicated. I think the original narrative is the structure on which everything else hangs. It’s broken now, but it’s also visible for the most part. I certainly wanted to disrupt and subvert it, but also to acknowledge that even though it’s a comic book with a very particular story, it takes place during a war in which millions of people died. So one of the challenges was to find a way to include that, the horror, the insanity—and at the same time try and add all these other themes, to create something that’s simultaneously cacophonous and joyous.
Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera is forthcoming from Siglio. Richard Kraft and Danielle Dutton will be in conversation with poet and critic Albert Mobilio on February 12, 2015 at Printed Matter.