The Politics of Rot: Alex Tatarsky Interviewed by Rachel James

Clowns, compost, and decomposition.

Alex Tartarsky performing behind glass with the letter O on it. They stand among plywood sheets with works crudely inscribed on them. Their head is thwon back with an expression of agony on their face with arms extended palms up covered in red paint.

Alex Tatarsky performing SIGN FELT: Nothing to Show at FringeArts, 2020. Photo by Emily Pratt.

You might think it was Alex Tatarsky who said, “Each tree has its own personality,” but it was actually Jacques Lecoq, the famous French mime in whose lineage Tatarsky walks. A few years ago, I picked Tatarsky up from a rural bus stop to drive them to a performance. When I pulled into the gas station, I found them sitting on their guitar case, no bag, wearing all the clothes they brought for the trip. Layers and layers of fabric draped over them: pants, a skirt, multiple shirts, a long coat, and a hat. Donning the patchwork dress of a mythic bouffon, they sat on the outskirts of town working out their next clown show, which seemed to have already started. (Did the last one ever end?) Artist, poet, absurd ranter, and avid lover of trees, clowns, and dirt, Tatarsky is this season’s curatorial fellow at the Poetry Project in New York City. ROT TALKS, their experimental lecture series, runs from April 30 to June 25, 2021. Framed as a decomposition class for the end times, the series invites poets and artists to speak on the poetics of rot. Participants include Cecilia Vicuña, Tracie Morris, manuel arturo abreu, Precious Okoyomon, Sparrow, and many more.

—Rachel James

Rachel James What are you doing?

Alex Tatarsky I’m watching my dirt through the window.

RJWhat are you looking for in the dirt?

ATI’m looking to see if it’s ready.

RJLately you have been sounding like a spiritual zealot about something, and that thing is compost.

AT Well, dirt has a god particle, you know, the “di” of dios and divine, which is just entirely speculative etymology, but I feel comfortable with that. I do feel really addicted to composting; it is like a worshipful relationship to touching decay.

RJIn the world of compost, even maggots—who have the worst reputation—can be useful. And I think of you as an artist who expertly works with whatever you have at your disposal, even if it’s just language.

ATI love you reframing what I’ve seen as an overreliance on what is already around me. I have an endlessly self-deprecating inner monologue which goes: “Oh my god. I have no ideas! All I can do is respond to ‘what is.’ I cannot come up with anything!”

RJCan you tell me more about your worshipful relationship to decay? 

ATIn terms of language, it is about the revelations that are possible in falling apart. Revelation being the meaning of apocalypse, to uncover. I’m thinking of the word as a body that is disintegrating. The world is really written into existence with words. If we want to decompose, so to speak, or compost certain aspects of our reality, that is a mystical practice that can happen at the level of the word. To rewrite through decomposing. 

Torso-up shot of Alex Tatarsky wearing clown attire and makeup behind a window, peeling off vinyl lettering that says "ay. Why." with a razor blade.

Photo by Shane Riley.

RJ I have always been astounded by the way you use language as a materiality. Can you show me this process of decomposition?

ATI’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between the words clown and clod.

RJThe name Claude?

ATNo, clod! Dirt clod, baby! There is an internal connection between clown and clod, a “low”ness inside both of them, a being-of-the-earthness, a falling-to-the-groundness. I feel ground down after this year. And I want to allow—and there “low” is again inside “allow”—I hope that we can allow ourselves to be low, to rest, to lie down. A winter of rest down in the ground. Inside down is another piece of lowness which is the “ow.” This is also something I want to allow, to be there in the “ow” long enough for it to be healing. And in the very center of clod and clown is that “o” which is also at the center of rot. This revelatory “o,” this opening which is also a hole. And if you extend the “o” in rot, you get root, which is the root of everything! 

RJThat pretty much sums it up. Interview over! 

ATRoot for rot! Hip, hip, hooray! Rooted in rot!

RJSo you are watching the earth right now, changing from winter to spring?

ATRight before you called, I was asking myself, “How am I feeling after spending the day in the dirt?” I was noticing that my main feeling was one of embarrassment. Before things grow, it looks like nothing is happening. I thought of the neighbors and how the garden looks barren and uncared for. I thought, “I should run to the garden store and buy a bunch of seedlings and plant them so people can tell that something is going on.” My god, what a thing to think. Just trust the earth to go at its own pace and trust myself and trust others. Things are happening below the surface that are not yet visible. To allow things time to grow, we need to be comfortable with that.

RJThe impulse to illustrate that something is happening feels very connected to your work. I am thinking of your ongoing, lifelong project Sign Felt. The show centers around a young boy who wants desperately to be a theater artist but is too depressed to make anything. Where are you on this everlasting continuum of failure? 

ATI made a commitment at the ripe old age of twenty-four to adapt this very long novel by Goethe—actually an unfinished draft for a novel—called Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission for the rest of my life. The twenty-four-hour premier will be from my deathbed, and then I’ll promptly die, which is an unbeatable finale. Every few years I continue the adaptation, in the role of Wilhelm Meister. I’m thinking about my own construction of self through the prism of this young, white German boy and where the inherited narratives of what it means to be a successful artist and member of society reside in me. The comedy at the heart of it all is that Wilhelm is too self-loathing to ever make anything. There is an amazing scene where he has worked day in and day out on a play, and opening night comes. A hush falls over the crowd, then nothing happens. The audience starts to get restless, and suddenly it dawns on Wilhelm: “Oh, my god. I never actually made the play.” This horror of never being able to make something or never being able to show others that you made something of yourself. So it is extremely astute of you to bring that show into the conversation. Rather than this drive to produce that is killing us, staying with the appearance of nothing feels so important, because that is where repair happens, hopefully. Or, maybe, necessarily. 

A close-up performance shot of Alex Tatarsky with their back turned to the camera. They sit among sheets of plywood with words crudely inscribed on them, facing a keyboard embedded in the wood, with a mirror behind it. Wearing a tutu, they use a cloth to erase words that are inscribed on the mirror.

Alex Tatarsky performing in SIGN FELT: Nothing to Show at FringeArts, 2020. Photo by Sam Taffel.

RJYou once called the logic of the clown an “antidote to despair and a model for someone who keeps trying despite repeated failure.” Could you say more about the logic of the clown and of the clod? 

ATThe essence of it is something you mentioned earlier: using the materials at hand. Noticing and working with the magic of transformation is another way of relating to nothing and why I find mime in the expanded field an incredibly rich metaphor. Mimes work with nothing as the material, as sculptural and speculative fodder. Even if there’s nothing onstage, just a clown looking at an audience and watching the audience watch the clown, that itself is so much. It is often too much! It’s all already there. 

RJIs this act of seeing and mirroring back “what is” an inherently subversive aspect of clowning? I’m thinking of the jester telling the king news no one else can. 

ATThere is no fourth wall for the clown. The clown responds to what is actually happening in the room. And really seeing “what is” challenges the status quo, which attempts to ignore or conceal. So, yes, mirroring back can be a radical and potentially dangerous act. If we really see our world as predicated on the destruction of the earth, on the exploitation of the land and of the people and other creatures on it, how could we go on like this? Not every clown performance is “about” environmental destruction and racialized capitalism, but the practice of noticing challenges the ways we are taught not to notice. 

Abrons October 2019 Photos By Daniel Terna High Res Co0 A3195

Shanzhai Lyric, AIL PALACES ARETEMPORARY HALACES: AIL PALACES ARETEMPORARY HALACES: A Shanzhai Lyric, Abrons Arts Center, 2019. Photo by Daniel Terna.

RJNow I’m thinking about Shanzhai Lyric and your work with counterfeit language. How you borrow words from one economy and place them into a different critical field, mirroring back the functions of global capitalism. Does this thread make sense?

AT All threads, when followed, lead somewhere! Ming Lin, my collaborator, and I have been collecting, celebrating, and philosophizing the experimental language that often appears on counterfeit garments, mostly coming out of China, a phenomenon we call shanzhai lyrics. Shanzhai means counterfeit, bootleg, knockoff, replica. But the word “shanzhai” translates literally to shan (mountain) and zhai (hamlet). Shanzhai references this hamlet on the edge of empire where robbers live in a Robin Hood fashion, redistributing goods to those on the edges. So the insides of the world, I mean word, world-word, demonstrate the liberatory or redistributive potential of shanzhai to rethink authorship and property. But also, the language itself on shanzhai garments is the most incredible poetry. It feels to us like one long poem unscrolling across many bodies, commenting on the circumstances of its coming into existence.

RJOne of my favorite shanzhai lyrics is AIL PALACES ARETEMPORARY HALACES. Which leads us back to compost. 

ATYes! Palaces should and do crumble. AIL PALACES. Amazing. ALL with an I in it becomes AIL. The ailment of the I. But if you just take out the I, it’s ALL again. Ha-ha-ha-laces. Palaces of laughter. The clown in the king’s court maybe helps it crumble. The richest dirt is crumbly. I think the clown holds this belief, too, in the possibility of a shared and crumbling land and language. And so does the clod. What is a clod if not a coming together of pieces? A mass!

RJ Can you tell me about your next gig? The experimental lecture series ROT TALKS begins soon. It’s happening in a graveyard on the lawn of the Poetry Project, which feels very apropos. 

ATI basically invited my dream team of rotten thinkers, intuitively clustered around their relationship to decay. In April, the series is on rust and plastics. So, for instance, the textile artist Cassandra Mayela dyes fabrics with rusted metal, and the poet Basie Allen told me that rust is how metal learns to die. Then I learned from Rolando Politi, who makes incredible trash-worship sculptures in the community gardens in Loisaida where I grew up, that metal rots in water and looks like a desert sunset, but plastic rots in sun and explodes into tiny particles. And the artist Kenya (Robinson) says that “privilege is plastic.” So I’m mulling that over at a material level. Meanwhile, the poet Sparrow says that if you win twelve million dollars, you’ll hide it, but if you get a free pizza, you’ll share it with everyone. That, to me, is rot poetics and compost ethics. It’s about the pleasure of ripping things apart and sharing the goods. Kenya demonstrates with her etymological tarot how this dynamic lives in the word “communication” itself, from co-moin, literally together-moving. Compost shares this root—“com”—and what I’m learning from compost is that coming together actually relies on structures falling apart so as to distribute out the nutrients. And that’s just in April!

Then, May is mushrooms, this vast underground network of fungi sometimes called by nerds the Wood Wide Web. Mycologist William Padilla-Brown and poet-artists manuel arturo abreu, Cecilia Vicuña, and Tracie Morris weave with the Word Wide Web, decomposing language to coax out the cacophony in a single sound.

June is about Dirt. Candace Thompson and Precious Okoyomon both grapple with invasive plants as sculptural and conceptual material that hold the histories of the land, and mayfield brooks improvises with the weight of decaying matter. Narendra Haynes makes styrofoam sculptures that are eaten by mealworms. They leave pathways or inscriptions as they munch, but my favorite part is the sound they make while eating. It’s like a strange and gentle rainfall.

RJYou’re talking about compost and decomposition in both language and material; and, in a way, we’ve landed on the politics of land itself.

ATThe root of environmental destruction is white supremacy. Or, as Kenya (Robinson) clarifies, not white supremacy but rather the subjugation of non-white people and more precisely of Black people. Compost work must also be the work of reparations. Going back to language and transformation, manuel arturo abreu talks about the word “alchemy” from the Arabic “al-kimiyafrom the original word for Egypt, “Kemet,” which literally means “Black Land.” Dark earth is the richest. The banks of the Nile were so fertile because of the flooding that washed silt onto the shore, blurring the boundary between earth and water. Alchemy is about this transformation of elements: true state change. The Egyptians were divine composters. Cleopatra worshipped earthworms! A practice of compost is necessarily a practice of devotion to black land, al-kimiya. Alchemizing what is. Rot poetics is about breaking down the word-world by helping it or letting it rot. Rot poetics lays the ground for something else to emerge.

Alex Tatarsky is this season’s curatorial fellow at the Poetry Project. ROT TALKS, their experimental lecture series, runs from April 30 to June 25. 

Rachel James is a poet and artist living in New York City.

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