Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Disruption and distribution are at the center of James Hoff’s work. He makes use of any media to best articulate a project or idea, and interrogates technology, politics, and surface only to mangle, reconfigure, break apart, and re-contextualize the subject. Hoff engages with painting in his Virus and Syndrome series, serves as editor and publisher at Primary Information (a press devoted to publishing artists’ books and reprinting out-of-print editions, co-run with Miriam Katzeff), writes, lectures, and composes a variety of music-related projects. He collapses the terms artist, editor, and writer until the distinctions between them seem meaningless.
This past spring, I met with James at the studio we share to talk about some of his current activities, which I’m fortunate enough to watch unfold in real time. Supplies, notes, texts, and sketches pile up until a concept is thoroughly researched. A piece then takes form quickly and precisely, with a meticulous attention to detail that produces striking results. James’s work is intuitive, at times humorous, and always approached with an unrelenting aggressive energy. This interview, with James explaining, clarifying, and re-clarifying, speaks to his idiosyncratic process.
Eli Keszler I wanted to ask you about the virus paintings, and compare them specifically to your How Wheeling Feels When the Ground Walks Away—an LP released by PAN in 2011 and a Performa commission at Artists Space in 2009. Both the installation and the album take recordings from riots as their starting point. Is there a connection between this work and the virus paintings? A riot could be viewed as a physical virus, and a computer virus could be viewed as a digital riot. Both break down a system and attempt to tear down an order. Is this disruption process at the root of these pieces for you?
James Hoff I hadn’t really thought about the riot works and virus works crossing over in this way before. They definitely both profile moments of disruption and connect my interest in digital ephemera to larger political themes. How Wheeling Feels grew out of a digital collection of audience-recorded concert and sports riots that I had culled. At the time, I was interested in how an archive could be turned inside out, and could go from functioning as a bureaucratic record to taking a more animated position addressing global concerns in real time—or at least in a shorter time frame than an archive would normally allow. It came about from two different things: one was hearing the infamous Black Sabbath riot bootleg from 1980, and the other was hearing that Franco recruited soldiers for his secret police out of soccer stadiums in Spain. I was obsessed with the overlap and how that cultural fervor could be harnessed into a political force. In large part, the project was trying to locate that breaking point.
EK Almost as if locating aggression, or searching for rioters, were the ultimate purpose of a concert or soccer game. Hostility is inherent in camaraderie, especially in mass activity at this scale. I can’t think of a better place to recruit people with the right temperament for defending a state.
JH Yes, completely. The idea of the performance for Performa was to create a setting in which people could attend a concert and scratch the surface of that experience in order to witness the potential of what lies underneath. As you know, the audience riot runs throughout music history, though most of the riots I composed from were more recent: a Dead Prez riot at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA; The British Invasion riot in San Bernardino; the Metallica/Guns ‘n’ Roses riot in Montreal; etcetera.
EK Is there something about the sound of a riot that’s particularly interesting to you? In all these different places a riot would have completely different sounds, of course, each reflecting the culture around the musical event. I mean, there are a million ways you could realize this piece and different types of riot documentation. What is it about audio?
JH That’s a good question. I never thought about doing it another way. At the time, I had just come off of playing a lot of music, so I came to it through the audio channel. There has been a lot of representational work around riots (video, painting, etcetera), but there is something special about the sound of a crowd run amok. Mostly, I was interested in this noise. It makes for good compositional source material; it tells a story, creates a scene.
EK For sure, it’s a very physical and visceral listen, and the fact that it’s not visual makes it more confrontational and startling. Your pieces’ origins are conceptual or language-based, but it’s hard to imagine them existing in any other forms other than their end results. When you decide to make a painting or an audio piece—and you run the full gamut of mediums—it works, and it has an inevitability to it. In other words, your work is highly material oriented, but in a very singular way. Does the intangibility of what makes a piece effective in its physical form appeal to you? Do you like to leave things open and have a strain of irrationality run through your projects?
JH Yes, that’s what makes it fun. I always leave room for subjective formal and material decisions. Rationality has its place in the process, but part of being an artist is being able to throw the rules out. For me, when a work is done, it must be able to function as an object or composition outside of the conceptual premise from which it was hatched.
I don’t want the work’s reception necessarily hinged on “getting it.”
EK Yeah. For me, a work has to be able to function on its own in the first place. The material needs to speak for itself in order to bring a viewer into the work. I like a piece to connect on an intuitive level. Then, when you find out the motivation or meaning behind it, you can have a more personal and psychological experience—not just conceptual.
Do you want your work to interact with a larger audience, or are you okay with situating it within an art-world context? It seems to cross over into different cultural areas, like visual art, underground music, poetry, publishing, and so on.
JH I would be psyched if the work could be appreciated by anyone on the street. Music in general has the ability to travel to unlikely places, reaching an unsuspected, sort of accidental reception. In particular, I think my new LP, Blaster (PAN), has the potential to reach those outside of the art world. It was composed with beats from 808 drum-machine samples that have been infected with computer viruses and is more dance oriented. My hope is that people will move to or connect with it, as you sum up perfectly, on an intuitive level.
EK You might hate me for saying this, but there is a strong pop aesthetic to a lot of your projects. They’re like images that might go viral, or techno music, or earworms and pop music, as in your painting Hey Hey (2013). And you use 808 beats and sounds that are so prevalent everywhere today. There’s nothing that feels compromised in what you’re doing, but at the same time, through your interest in populist systems, digital networks, and stadium events, you’re questioning your relationship to popular culture and the mass public.
JH I don’t hate that at all. My newer work definitely draws from everyday phenomena inside the background noise of pop culture: computer viruses, ear-worms, and syndromes. All of these are illnesses, broadly speaking. Viruses, like art, need a host, preferably a popular one. A lot of the newer paintings borrow from abstract painting, which defaults to pop. You can go into—
EK —hotels, for instance.
JH Or thrift stores, say, in the smallest town in Utah, and probably find abstract paintings that aren’t so dissimilar from works hanging in galleries here.
EK Abstraction symbolizes Art.
JH It does, but also complacency—it’s a placeholder. I tend to think of abstract painting as a kind of culture-bound illness. One wonders if it can still be politicized, still be emotionally charged.
EK With the virus paintings you’re infecting jpegs, pngs, tiffs, and other file types with specific viruses—like the Stuxnet that infected Iran’s computer system and eventually everyone’s computer worldwide—to produce these very striking so-called abstract paintings. You’re looking at computer culture, the politics of viruses, and code as a type of language—which can infect for productive means—as a form of distribution.
JH Yeah, my interest in distribution models as well as the virus’s built-in visual potential is what originally brought me to the computer virus. Like traditional illnesses, computer viruses travel through networks of communication or trade, meaning that they can be mapped and rendered graphically across set geographies. Much of my project in the last few years has centered on taking these immaterial actors that reside within cultural networks as a starting point, attempting to reverse-engineer forms of expression or communication from them. I borrow from the historical vernacular of abstraction to render the work as abstract paintings. It allows me to talk about viruses using the language of painting rather than the technical jargon of computer programming or the hyperbole of mass media. In this way, abstraction functions as a lens, an interface.
The virus paintings, in particular, begin with the digital image of a monochromatic surface, which is then infected with a virus or malware using software on my laptop. Depending on which type of file I use and how I infect it, I can control the type of image that is produced—it can range from an obvious glitch painting and neo-geo forms, to color field and traditional abstract expressionism. These images are then transferred to aluminum or canvas.
EK This project makes me think about the marketing and technical language that we use around computers. Words like delete, burn, eject, trash, hard drive all have an aggressive or combative tone to them. Now companies like Apple and Google have shifted the language to terms like cloud, share, network. There’s an interest in a softer, more humanized and communal image of computers. Our relationship with technology has changed so quickly. A lot of art that deals with the Internet directly is more ironic and has a comedic sense to it; it looks at the ridiculous advertising images generated algorithmically and at the narcissism encouraged by social networks. What you’re working on takes a more pessimistic or contrarian position on computer culture and communication. Would you agree with that?
JH Not sure about pessimistic or contrarian. The work definitely deconstructs certain phenomena inside of networked computers, but I don’t mean to pass judgment against them, or even viruses, for that matter. I’m interested in the Internet as a delivery system: how it affects traditional modes of communication and distribution. A few years back I felt the need to try and to reconcile my creative process with the language of code, which is touching everything these days. It’s to the point where I don’t even know if you could say that this table right here (knocking on table) doesn’t have code underneath it. It has crossed over, in some way. I felt I needed to find a place, or to somehow reconcile traditional creative forms, inside of a world that’s—
EK —filled with code?
JH Exactly. However, getting back to pessimism, popular culture seems to switch rapidly between celebrating the computer as a utopian prince and decrying it as the harbinger of all things evil. Today, there is a cottage industry built around dismissing technology as bad, which I might feel inclined to engage in if it didn’t always end up at George Orwell’s 1984. Talk about a virus!
EK Do you think that your connection to poetry, publishing, and co-running Primary Information has created a “typeset” visual sense in your work? It seems that no matter what your project is, it always has a very crisp quality. It registers as a unit, as one image, and has a clean line and surface to it, as text also tends to have. Does the clarity in your work come from your background in writing and publishing?
JH I’m not sure that one leads to the other, but there’s definitely a relationship there. I tend toward a balanced formalism in the studio, but it’s instinctive. A lot of this clarity might come from my interest in systems, which I think of as rather clean and precise.
EK You’ve talked to me before about code as being language, and to me, the Virus paintings are language applied to image—code applied to image—and not just language applied to language. Do you see the viruses as texts?
JH Whether or not they’re text depends on how you are viewing them, in real life or from a screen. The work is derived from manipulating language; you could say the same thing about certain types of poetry. I would definitely categorize the actual viruses as text, as writing, though whether or not you could describe (or code) them as literature is another story. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of programming languages that people are using to write code, and a great deal of the media we consume is now dependent on this type of writing to be read, heard, seen, etcetera. As an artist, I’m curious as to why we’re still only concerned with the surface—that resultant image—when now, more than ever, there is so much going on underneath. This approach allows me to work across all media that is distributed or consumed through a digital platform. Kind of like Dick Higgins’s theories of intermedia, which I’ve always been drawn to, though I guess I would call my approach undermedia.
EK More and more, we are able to work underneath media’s surface to produce content. That’s the nature of HTML, which is edited by non-programmers all the time, and now it’s easier than ever to work “under the hood” of media— whether it’s the constant access to editing video and audio, Instagram, or automated image and text generators. Everyone is producing mediated images all the time. Do you feel that this will be a guiding principle for what’s next in your work and for other artists as well?
JH Back in 2007 or 2008, Danny Snelson and I did a lot of work around the default editorial practice infused in this type of everyday media consumption. Endless Nameless was sort of our magnum opus—for that project we spent a year or two collecting and archiving as much “avant-garde” material (films, books, lectures, music, etcetera) as we could find through listservs and torrent sites. We culled some 4TB worth and then painstakingly reorganized/archived it according to publisher. Incidentally, did you ever notice that in most online file directories the publisher gets left out? We then bought used hard drives off Craigslist and did the same to the porn, video games, and Hollywood movies that they contained, before curating exhibitions of all this material onto each drive and selling them for ninety-nine cents a gig. Danny is still doing some amazing things around the database and the archive.
There seem to be more and more artists working underneath digital media and I think that, as we move forward, the number will only grow. I’d like to see more work that somehow combines traditional modes, like painting, with this digital realm. I’m interested in some of the problems it provokes and I like that the fit is an uncomfortable one, for those who come to it through painting, and a boring one, for those who come to it through the digital realm. Despite that, can we move beyond the dominating approaches of the moment, such as algorithmic compositional strategies and pixelated representation? I wonder if we can arrive at a new approach, beyond the formal hangover of painting and the out-of-breath declarations of a “new digital age.”
EK Do you see a contradiction in our connection with analog mediums and their content; for example, pressing digital music corrupted through digital means onto a record? Or do you see the record as a necessary evil in distribution? Or is there something about …
EK What? It’s a good question.
JH It’s a great question, but your lead-in implies that records are bad.
EK No, no, I love records.
JH But you called them a necessary evil.
EK No, I’m asking, are they a necessary evil? I’m just wondering, for digital music, are records necessary? And why engage with a record, in your case? Is vinyl the legitimizing media form now?
JH It could be.
EK Is that important? You seem to be very open for a work to take any form, and put a lot of care in these decisions. An LP is a distinct decision. Your infected iPhone ringtone project, I Just Called to Say ILOVEYOU (2013), which takes the standard Apple ringtones and mutates them with the ILOVEYOU virus, for example, would be misplaced on vinyl. You chose to release it on the Internet.
JH I find questions of distribution at the heart of almost everything, from politics and human rights to the most basic consumer goods. My interest is in trying to figure out ways in which various distribution systems or sites for distribution (such as the sonic space occupied by a cell-phone ring) can become actors in the creative process. This is what brought me to the computer virus, the earworm, the syndrome, and a very long time ago, the artist book.
Having said that, I’m not immune to the romance of media. The vinyl record and printed book will always hold a special place for me. They’re like gateway drugs, they cast a spell. For the Blaster record, like the cell phone works, I was interested in ways in which the Virus works could mutate and spread socially. The model of the scratch record, which possesses its own utility and economy, seemed like good place to start. So if, as I said earlier, the first side of the record is an “album” that I made from infected basic 808 drum machine samples, the second side is a scratch record for DJs. Because of this second side, the album needed to take on a physical form, so that it could function inside of this other model. Otherwise, I have no bias toward digital releases.
EK You’re from Indiana, right?
JH I am from Indiana.
EK Where in Indiana?
JH I’m from this small town called Butler.
EK So how did you end up doing this?
JH It’s an old-school case of “young person feels culturally deprived, then moves to New York City and goes overboard.” It’s real made-for-TV-movie material, though I’d probably have to overcome a personal vice to really pull in the ratings.
EK Knowing you, I’d say that’s true. What did you study in school?
JH Political theory and economics.
EK Do you feel like it’s beneficial coming from outside of art education, in your case?
JH Yeah, totally. I spent years just trying to undo my formal education.
EK Even with what you learned in political theory?
JH At least the critical biases. It isn’t without its frustrations, of course, but I’m constantly trying to embrace things I don’t know how to do, like making dance music, for instance. You know, taking on new approaches because it allows a certain—
EK —I don’t remember the name of it, but the piece with the brass …
JH Oh yeah, the earworms piece, Stuck Song Syndrome, which I wrote during my Issue Project Room residency in 2013.
EK If you don’t know how to do things in the first place, then doing something new isn’t really scary. (laughter)
JH It’s not really scary; it allows for the potential for something good and fun to come out of it because you’re not—
EK —latching onto anything.
JH And there’s no built-in framework.
EK Stuck Song Syndrome incorporates the variable of live performers and is designed for a more classical performance. Does that element of the piece interest you at all? Does performance play a part in what you’re doing?
JH No, but …
EK The Syndrome paintings have a kind of actionist gestural quality to them.
JH That work is attempting to spread syndromes. Both the brass pieces and the Syndrome paintings function as distribution sites, one for earworms like the song “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight” and the other for syndromes such as the Stuck Song Syndrome, Social Media Fatigue Syndrome, Photographing the Ruins of Detroit Syndrome, Shrinking Penis Syndrome, etcetera. There is a performance aspect, but the acting agent or the performer, if you will, is the syndrome or earworm.
EK Almost all the formats you work with have a performance history attached to them, even if they’re a little removed. Music, of course, but poetry also has a performative component, and the gestures in painting abstractions show your connection and disconnection to performance.
JH Yeah, well, that performance is generated through and dictated by the flow of information—it acts as the score. But the idea of performing on a guitar, that’s always a little awkward for me. Then I have to think about how to stand or, rather, how to pose. It’s hard to dance around with a guitar without thinking about someone else who’s done it before. Far from being liberating, this sort of thing just makes me self-conscious.
JH So, then you’re, in a way, just miming a sort of tradition, if you will, which is fine. I mean, when I go to shows—
EK —well, if you’re doing that, you need to at least know what you’re miming and go from there.
JH I think that whole thing is just ridiculous, even if I’m completely romanced by it as a fan. But what about you as a drummer? I guess you’re off the hook since your hands and legs are moving constantly and you’re sitting. You’re pretty much left with facial expressions.
EK People are on my case about those expressions all the time! Drumming has its own drama too, and its own stigmas and clichés attached to it. Part of the challenge is how to confront them in some way, since they are built into it. For me that came from balancing installation with performance, and looking at it from the outside in. Having one foot in and one foot out is crucial. Maybe that is a connection between our work: we both try to look at forms from the outside and find ways to work from another angle.
You approach all of these different projects as a kind of disrupter, from outside or underneath, as you described earlier. You intervene through disruption. You disrupt painting through the syndromes, you disrupt music through viruses, you—
JH —I’m a serial disrupter.
EK Yeah, that’s what I wrote down. That seems to be your approach, you know?
JH I totally disagree.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.