I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
I met Jimmie Durham the day after the opening of his retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in February of 2009. At that time I was working on a project entitled An Inquiry on Chaos , a series of conversations, workshops, and artist collaborations envisioned as an architecture of documents and a collective essay. The presence of Jimmie Durham in the project seemed imperative, given that throughout the years his artmaking has been guided, with a sort of erratic obstinacy, by an unnamed chaotic principle.
Durham’s artistic research, as he has sometimes stated, resides in the idea that something happens “away from language.” This may add some extra relevance to his words, as if they were the threshold of that irreducible gap. In many of his performances—a good deal of which he has documented on video—stones seem to be the medium, or rather, the tool, for the restoration of a formless, scattered reality. His sculptures, made out of animal skulls, recycled PVC pipes decorated with feathers, tortured furniture, and, of course, found stones (to name just a few of their varied components), are iconic fragments of a continuous ritual of disbelief merging with everyday life in search of a skeptical enchantment. Degraded readymades evoking global wastelands; object-poems adorned with capricious inscriptions, tags, and scars; spurious shrines or pieces of shrines as totems of a nomadic self constitute, in sum,meaningful garbage, sometimes even charged with talismanic power. Durham—a stateless activist born in a Cherokee community in Washington, Arkansas, in 1940—abandoned his activity as a leader of the American Indian Movement in the late 1970s, yet an important political remnant pervades his art. His ars poetica could be thought of as a now careful, now blind policy of laissez-faire—or anarchy—applied to found materials. He once expressed his credo with a triad: “against architecture, against narration, against structure.”
On that morning in February, I crossed the museum hall and saw, presiding over the exhibition’s entrance, the intimidating volume of an airplane smashed by a huge rock. The piece was theatrical, as the stone seemed almost inevitably fake. It was like an epigraph, a quote from his own declaration of principles. I had seen the entire show the day before, along with a brief performance during which Durham threw a cobblestone at a glass showcase. Betraying the laws of ordinary physics, the cobblestone—allegedly taken from the house of the medieval French poet, wanderer, and thief François Villon—broke the glass neither the first nor the second time it was thrown. It rather acted like a die, stubbornly hitting the improbable number, and Durham seemed to enjoy the process. That failure, I thought, was a perfect starting point for a discussion on interruption and improbability.
Durham and I talked over breakfast at the museum’s café. His speech was slow and broken somehow; he used an often twisted English grammar that had a mix of distance and camaraderie. Just as his writing, his speech was subtle and elusive and yet, at the same time, had a stone-brutal aversion to euphemism. It does not seem coincidental that in the last months Durham has refused to give interviews, taking a break from public speech and letting the works exist by themselves.
Releasing this interview now seems as timely as ever. During the nearly three years it has remained unpublished, I have seen new works and exhibitions by Durham across the globe, including a massive contribution to the project Dominó Caníbal in Murcia, Spain; his intervention at the 29th Biennial of São Paulo; and, more recently, his solo show at The Artist’s Institute in New York. The latter will be running through January 15, 2012, presenting one work at a time. Dedicated to reflecting on Durham’s work for six months, and foreshadowing his participation in Documenta 13, this show began with the series of videosCollected Stones (2002) which document operations using handheld stones, massive rocks, and pebbles, and whose results included the destruction of a TV set and the famous fridge-torture session. Think ripple effect—all of these events will certainly keep us thinking of Jimmie Durham and his bumpy, saturated silence.
Manuel Cirauqui So, tell me about your relationship to chaos. I suspect you must be dealing with this concept quite regularly, as it seems to occur often in your works. In many of them, you provoke things to get out of, say, the peaceful path of their becoming—in other words, you trigger an entropic process which entails a loss of form (I don’t want to call it destruction). It is as if you prompted or negotiated the passing of things toward a chaotic state: the showcase that breaks, the toy boat that sinks, and also the sudden, almost spontaneous association of tools, materials, props, clothes, etcetera, to make new objects. Do you deal with chaos as a working principle?
Jimmie Durham You think that I do, but I never think of chaos, except that I read mathematical theory. I’m reading math all the time because I’ve got no concept of math. And I’m just trying to understand it a little bit, but it doesn’t work. I like interruptions, of any kind, especially from my own life, because we have such a tendency—something stronger than a tendency, actually—to do the same things all the time. (Pauses as chairs are moved noisily in the background.) Kierkegaard wrote about repetition as the greatest human good, because it was close to holiness. Yet to me it is so strange that I do the same thing over and over, that I take the same route to the grocery store or when I walk home—it’s intolerable. I want interruptions, I want things to be different all the time.
MC Something similar happens to me: quite often I leave my place and maybe 30 steps away I realize I forgot something—a notebook, let’s say. So I go back home, take the notebook, and then I reproduce exactly the same movements: close the door, go down the stairs, head to the subway. I say to myself that there has just been some sort of parenthesis in time. Things rewind for a moment and then replay again. Repetition as a time failure … And if I have to go back a second time because I forgot something else, then I start worrying. My whole life could just be a big lapse like that.
JD But I don’t think interruptions are related to chaos. Interruptions are related neither to chaos nor whatever the opposite of chaos is—I don’t know what it is.
MC There are laws for chaos, but I have an intuitive aversion to all the theories positing chaos as “dissimulated order.”
JD Yeah, people can do anything with math. If you’re good at math you can make a mathematical formula for anything.
MC There must be a certain spatial configuration, some stability in space that makes you repeat the same movements over and over–
JD Certainly in the city. Buildings don’t change much. You must stop with the red light; you must walk down the same streets every day. In the forest, something will be different every day, and you have to be careful.
MC Some time ago I read something you said about the relationship between architecture and belief: the repetitiveness of the urban landscape creates the belief that the world is stable.
JD Exactly. And it dictates to us—the city tells us how to be; our work in the city tells us how we should be. From every physical and every mental point of view, we are made by our architecture. It’s very strange. We should not agree with it.
MC Yeah, but architecture is very difficult to counter, or even to attack. It’s not a body scale. See what happens if you try to kick the Arc de Triomphe.
JD (laughter) I have a plan for bad buildings.
MC I want to hear it.
JD I want to arrest all bad buildings and send them to Caracas. It’s the city of bad buildings. It could be the Disneyland of bad architecture–
MC Or of abandoned architecture?
JD Or of abandoned architecture.
MC Caracas has some of the most remarkable examples of sinister architecture, with the famous Helicoide—an expression of modernist corporate utopianism that became the dreaded political police’s headquarters—at the core. So, going back to performative entropy—how do you deal with disorder as an ordinary agent? For instance, in your museum performance the other day, you threw a paving stone from François Villon’s house against the showcase. The glass, inexplicably, rejected the impact–
JD It didn’t do what I wanted it to.
MC Yeah. You accepted that the situation suddenly turned real just by not having developed as expected, as if the stone were saying, Hey, I’m here; I’m not an actor. And the glass refusing to break.
JD Yeah, It was perfect, wasn’t it? (Coughs.) I have a bad cold today.
MC These situations constantly occur in your work, even if you don’t provoke them consciously.
JD And I’m always happy about it. Even if I interrupt myself, I’m also happy about it, because then I feel alive. That is when I am smart, when I have presence of mind. It is so difficult to have presence of mind, because the mind is in all the pasts … It’s in the future and the past, but never at this exact moment.
MC I have to ask you something. Imagine that someone working at a museum office finds a book of yours on one of the dusty shelves where old exhibition catalogs are stocked. It’s just stocked there forever, a dead archive, and this person decides to take that book, to save it from that dead stock and bring it back to life—
JD To steal the book?
MC More or less. I would prefer to say “in order to change its location.” As the book’s spiritual father, would you approve of that? This person would definitely feel better if you’d say it’s all right; that would take out the bad karma from his action.
JD I wouldn’t say it is all right, but I wouldn’t call the cops either.
MC Okay. Thank you anyway. Speaking about esoteric things, I am quite surprised to see how much European museums publicize your Cherokee descent, as if one should look at your works with some sort of ethnographic interest. How do you feel about that?
JD It’s a kind of curse. It comes from the Hollywood idea of Indians, and loving Indians because of Hollywood. Nobody says “black artist David Hammons” or “French artist Pierre Huyghe”–
MC Or rather, “white artist Pierre Huyghe.”
JD It sets up a barrier; it doesn’t open doors, it closes doors. Everyone is infected by Hollywood, and everyone thinks they know all about Indians from Hollywood. You get the craziest things. Like, okay, I’m very afraid of heights; I can’t stand on a chair without trembling. And then someone says, “But I thought Indians were good with heights!” What an absurd statement. Every Indian in the world would be good with heights? Miraculous people! We should be studied …
MC Someone becomes dangerous when he or she can’t be labeled.
JD I have that problem with art. Art is a fake category—I don’t know what we are talking about when we say art.
MC I’m going to tell you an anecdote and would like to hear what you think about it. Many years ago I was working a couple nights a week at the desk of a weird hostel in Paris. I stayed there for the night, drank beer with the clients, and talked to the girls. I met this Native American who insisted on buying beers for us, one after the other. He came from a tribe in Colorado that is well known for their skills with horses. He was very skillful at that too, and he had worked in a circus for years before he started working for Disneyland Paris. By the time I met him he was jobless and having a pretty good time traveling and getting drunk. He proposed that we do business together: he had contacts that could get us into Disneyland Paris for free, so we could bring people in from the hostel and split the benefits. Damn! Can you imagine? Upon my first encounter with a Native American I was invited to do illegal business in Disneyland! I think I had the genuine postmodern experience.
JD When I lived in Geneva, a long, long time ago, I had two Swiss friends. Everyone else was from Africa or South America—they were there to be in school, or they were exiled, or they worked for the United Nations. Many of them used to stay in my apartment, since I had a spare room and a big living room. I had two friends from Zimbabwe—which was still Rhodesia in those days. One of them was a beautiful man whose name was Wilson. He would dress in a white suit with a white hat. He would come in with a bunch of people to any restaurant and pretend it was his birthday and that he was a movie star. All of us would eat great amounts of good food and wine, and then we’d leave. Wilson would say to the waiters, “My people will talk to you tomorrow.” And all the waiters smiled; they were very happy …
MC Well, I guess the flows of migration, the various contemporary forms of exile, have put us all in the same boat. No one seems to match the script of his or her origins. Inevitably, people mistake where we come from with who we are. I wonder how you evolved, politically and artistically, within this framework of erased/fetishized origins and simulacra?
JD For those of us who were from some sort of “outside” situation, there never was very much modernism to begin with. It didn’t get to us as American black people or Indian or whatever. It was certainly not in the arts, in literature, in poetry, or any of the stuff we would do among ourselves. You might have your own kind of modernism and maybe it’s a modernism that will do for a few years, but it is not what we might call the Western modernism either.
MC What do you mean, “will do for a few years”?
JD You might arrive at some intellectual progress, but people who have been colonized don’t get postcolonial, they get fucked up; it’s not the same thing as so-called postcolonialism.
MC But what, in that specific shift of the decolonized subject, makes you still talk about a certain modernism?
JD A modernist artist would always have an agenda for something close to human progress through art. I don’t think we have any definition of postmodern except that it’s not that.
MC I would disagree if someone took your work to be postmodern. For me, it is paramodern; it happens just outside of that frame.
JD I could agree with that.
MC Did your earlier experiences in political theater groups or your first performances at the Adept center in Houston during the 1960s address this cultural question in any way?
JD I started my art life in theater. My hero was Augusto Boal. People in my group were mostly black, and we worked very closely with Teatro Campesino, who were Chicanos. Our primary idea was politically organizing the community; educating people about their rights with the idea of liberating ourselves at the same time.
MC Liberate yourselves from what exactly?
JD From stupid daily oppression. I had a friend in New York who died not so long ago; she was a black doctor in Harlem. She said, “Every time I come home from work it’s like bad dogs have been coming after me all day.” So I had the ideal of theater as political act. When I see theater in London or in New York, it’s a dead act. If you go past the theater—and I’m sure this is true for everyone—you see that still picture out on the billboard. It’s people pretending to be doing something. It looks like death, like, “Stay away from this place; it’s a dead place.” They’re doing the same things that they’ve been doing year after year, and you go to see them knowing what you are going to see. It’s like going to a movie and pretending to be scared. Strange, isn’t it? That you pay money to pretend to be scared. I guess that’s why I stopped doing any theatrical stuff. I still do performances in order to interrupt myself.
MC Do you mean that you realized all those performances you were participating in, which aimed to politically educate and inspire people, just wouldn’t work in that sense? I think your activity during those years has not really been documented or analyzed.
JD We did some good things in the ’60s, but then at one point I left—I went to Geneva. The situation had changed: a lot of people got killed; the FBI was bothering everybody. It got too heavy.
MC Were you treated like a subversive?
JD I always was. I don’t want to talk about the old days too much, but in the ’70s, when we had the American Indian Movement, we lost more than 300 members of the movement. They were murdered by the FBI, by the police, the Bureau for Indian Affairs police … This would be comparable to, say, murdering 100,000 Black Panthers. If you took all the Indians in the United States, we’d get lost in the Greek section of Queens. There are not that many of us, and certainly not in our stupid little movement.
MC Whatever happened, social amnesia makes it worse. Do you think there is a record of this disaster, even if it were as a purely oral narration in the Indian community at present?
JD It still persists, but it’s changed, because the US has changed. So, all oppressed people are geniuses and say, Don’t fuck me up; I can do it myself! And now we have all these idiotic casinos, and we kind of bought Hollywood’s spiritualism … I’m gonna interrupt myself; here is a different story: we fought, all during the ’60s and ’70s, for the rehabilitation of Indians in prison, because we had the highest number of people in prison by population. And we had many good artists, and most of our good artists had always been in prison because most of us had been in prison. When the Republicans got back into office they privatized the prisons. Now there are prison companies that run prisons, and you’re not allowed to have any art materials in prison anymore; you’re not allowed to rehabilitate. So the only thing that you can do is have “religious freedom.” We bought this Hollywood idea about our own spiritualism, and we are becoming religious fanatics in the most idiotic sense of American spiritualism. This has nothing to do with our own history, only with Hollywood’s history of us. So you get out of prison and you are even more stupid than you wanted to be. Humans are crazy animals.
MC Which brings us back to chaos. Isn’t your art practice a way of allowing yourself to be crazy, to fight that stupidity by means of the absurd?
JD If I could do work that was both crazy and intellectual, I would be happy.
MC What would that be like?
JD My mentor is Italo Calvino. When I read him, I feel so energized. I never read a lesson; I am not taught anything. My brain gets a little freer than it intended to. It’s the same thing when I listen to the great symphonies of Beethoven. I know the Sixth Symphony very well. Listening with my eyes closed, a passage happens the way my internal music knows it should happen. It’s so beautiful—you feel musically smarter than you intended to be. Arne Naess just died—he was a Norwegian philosopher. I almost met him two years ago, but didn’t have the courage to go up and say, “Hello, Mr. Naess.” He spoke about the intellectual meaning of the arts, which is away from language. Language isn’t all—it only says it is. It’s difficult to say that in France, because the French have this idea that the plastic arts must be explainable by language; that they must be an illustration of linguistic phenomena. This all comes from cathedral building. If there is any difference between me and European artists, it’s that they swallowed architecture. They swallowed it from all these laws and all these artistic manifestations of laws.
MC You spoke once about “making illegal combinations with rejected objects.” I keep wondering about the word illegal.
JD Is that me? (laughter) There is this beautiful phrase: I think it’s Julio Cortázar’s—I read it in the ’60s. He was talking about jealousy and his love affairs, and wrote, “Jealousy is the law, and I’m against the law.” If you break the law, then you lose, because they get you. So being against their laws is better than breaking them—you can do things against the law, constantly, and avoid arrest. And it’s an intellectual delight to do that. It’s much better to steal a book than to buy a book.
Manuel Cirauqui is a writer and independent curator. He has developed various editorial projects in collaboration with artists, and his writing has appeared in magazines such as Frieze, LAPIZ, Kaleidoscope, and 20/27, among many others. His archival project An Inquiry on Chaos, conceived as a collective essay, will be presented online during the spring of 2012.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.