The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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When I first met K8 Hardy we were both wearing used fur. Hers was a bouffanty white-rabbit collar, mine was semi-hideous leopard-print cow-hair boots. The artist Oscar Tuazon and his wife, Dorothée Perret, editor of the blog Paris, LA , introduced us. It was obvious K8 thought my boyfriend was lame. Charisma and open confrontation are so relaxing, especially when they come from a good, imaginative place. It’s nice to know where you stand. I told K8 I’d do anything she wanted. She said she wanted the Kiehl’s conditioner I’d just been given for my birthday. (I was broke, of course; Oscar and Dorothée know all I need is expensive emollients to feel rich and well loved.) I told K8 to hold out her hand and I squirted about an inch of thick white stuff into it, the best I could do for jizzing. After a few drinks, I realized I’d known her artwork for years and got really excited.
I think of the range of K8 Hardy’s work as totemic. The objects, outfits, and assemblages she fashions blend elements of the ancestral, the urban, the fucked-up, the uncool, and the gorgeous in Frankensteinian mashups that exert enduring magnetism. There is something uncanny in garments—the way they preserve sometimes exquisite, sometimes nauseating essences of gender and class and race and time and place; the ways they help people to camouflage and to distinguish themselves. There is so much sorrow and hope in clothes, all the pathos and grandeur of an Emma Bovary. Every thrift store garment is a kind of ghost story, and K8 Hardy’s work involves dwelling with ghosts, making them fuck with each other, and then exorcising them. What she does in assembling all manner of identity disjecta membra into costumes and personae becomes a kind of fuel gathering for the catharsis of her blistering, shamanic performances. “Persona is a reaction to patriarchy,” K8 writes.
The essence of fashion might be optimism, a malleability that makes it possible for misery and ugliness to be transubstantiated, for the traces of a shit social order to be rocked the same way tawdry bling or bland rags can be finessed into an air of fascinating dignity by the right person. Maybe fashion is a kind of “pure affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything,” to borrow a line from John Ashbery. An optimism that’s empty and, therefore, eternal. It’s the obvious pleasure Hardy takes in making her work and also the upward surge of world tatters magically fused to become new horizons of habitable imagination that account for the massive, revolutionary joy in everything she touches and transmutes.
Ariana Reines So, K8 and I are eating eggs and we’re staring at each other nervously.
K8 Hardy Yeah, I’m just thinking about making up a bunch of lies to tell you … It’s really early in the morning.
AR It’s a perfectly legitimate hour for the honest people.
KH Okay, not that early. (laughter) I don’t have any planned questions for you.
AR You don’t have to ask me anything; I’m interviewing you. Plus, you cooked the eggs. All right. Do you find that your relation to technology, in particular social media, has inflected your art practice? Do you resist social media or are you attracted to them?
KH I’m very attracted to them, but I mostly resist them. It’s media I could dive into and go completely crazy on. I definitely feel like I am always containing my desire to overshare. I just don’t trust it—the access feels weird and unsafe.
AR This strange combination of intimacy and extroversion is your work’s power. In contrast with the Internet’s extreme openness, there’s a self-selecting privacy to making a zine on paper. I’m thinking of the limited circulation of your classic Fashionfashion zine from the ’90s, for example, or Frank Peter John Dick, your gorgeous new book of collages—if I had my way it’d be distributed to every teenager in existence as suicide prevention propaganda.
KH Thank you. When I made my first zine, LTTR, there weren’t blogs everywhere, so it didn’t seem like its production was about privacy at all. I haven’t made a zine in years. I do currently feel inhibited on social media. I could tell you why I want to protect myself, but I don’t want it in print. That sounds a little bit paranoid, but—
AR I have a similar feeling. Wait, I just interrupted you. We’re both scorpios, which means we are both private to the point of paranoia and extremely extroverted. A huge part of your photographs’ power comes from the polarity between a performative intensity and something mysterious and secret that seems to be the origin of it all.
KH Yeah, maybe so. Part of the power of the photographs is about control, about deciding exactly when to reveal something. I have a tendency to open myself up and reveal myself in my work. You know, you’re a writer, so you’re sharing yourself with people in your writing. It’s a generous act and sometimes you have to protect yourself.
AR Technologically there are multiple ways to exteriorize what you’ve made. But then, according to Paul Virilio, the more devices we have, the more prostheses, the more our bodies become immobilized. I go through phases of feeling utterly paralyzed by all of the ways that I could turn whatever’s passing through me into a transmittable—if immaterial—thing.
KH Hmm, yes. Prostheses and defecation.
AR Sorry, I’m still absorbing the caffeine and getting over my hangover … I imagine some kind of existence with the Internet that’d be like Jason Rhoades’s Black Pussy show. Did you ever see it?
KH A TV show?
AR No, an art show.
KH That’s stupid! This is like, “The Morning Brain.” A TV show called Black Pussy!
AR Yeah. (laughter) The Rhoades installation was this giant cavern with what seemed a lifetime’s worth of flotsam. It was wildly inclusive and yet obsessively specific and arranged, blasting taste and chaos in this total archive fever. Your work blends theoretical confrontation with a hilarious mashup of totems, taboos, and fleeting ultradork directness. It always feels so fresh and immediate to me. Even the work from ten years ago.
KH I feel hesitant on the Internet because of the archiving. And also because of the contracts on Twitter or Facebook—they own everything you put up there. They have the right to license it, which freaks me out. Back when you could first Google people, I had a photo in a group show and this guy came with his digital camera, took a picture of my print on the wall, and posted it on the Internet. And he wouldn’t take it down. It was shocking! I would have neverput that photo on the web. I felt so violated; it’s still one of the first images that comes up if you Google my name. That has shaped what I’ve put up and how I’ve shared with people.
AR I can relate. There’s a poem I wrote in high school that this library put up. I begged them to take it down, but this vicious librarian wrote back saying that I was trying to distort the public record. But who does the record serve? I guess the idea of a document’s authority is worth getting over, but—
KH Yeah. It’s part of the reason that I don’t perform anymore.
AR Really? That’s heartbreaking to me.
KH It’s not the only reason, though. I want performance to be a place where I can experiment. I remember performing a few years ago and looking out into a sea of cell phones in the air. I felt so disconnected. There’s a video of me drunk, singing karaoke terribly, and other shit like that online that I don’t even know who put up. It’s kind of hard for me to deal with.
Performing is cathartic to me; I do things that are outside of my control. I like that and the audience likes that. I think it’s something I have that’s special, in a way. So what freaks me out is that I don’t know exactly what I’ll do, in a state of performativity, to take it to the next level. I just haven’t figured out how to negotiate that because staying tame doesn’t interest me much.
AR I didn’t realize that you don’t perform anymore.
KH I’ve always thought that there could be a resolution. I could do something more controlled, for instance. Or find a framework that makes me comfortable. Did I tell you I’m producing a runway show for the Whitney Biennial?
AR That’s great. You’d told me that you wanted to do it.
KH Yeah. I’m not in it; I’m doing it with real models. So that’s a way to do performance.
AR Would you perform in a space that didn’t allow any recording?
KH Maybe, but it’s not fair to ask people to not take video on their cell phones. In fact, when people ask it of me, I want to do it. I’m just like, “That’s fucked up. I should be able to take photos or whatever!” (laughter) But as I said, Internet sharing isn’t the only reason I’ve stopped performing.
AR Can you describe it?
KH Well, I started to feel like an art clown. Some people might consider performance art pure entertainment. The requests got really bizarre—to show up one afternoon and perform in a tiny cage of an art installation and be filmed while doing it, for instance. Just for the coolness of it or for some fake economy of favors. Never for a fee. Performance art takes up so much attention that it can turn into a cloud of spectacle and take away from other work. It’s a balancing act. That coupled with health reasons made me press the pause button, or maybe stop completely. Though probably not, I like the attention too much. The problem is that when I performed, I would go so crazy that I’d make myself really sick, sometimes for like two weeks. It all culminated in a big mess.
AR Was there one event that you knew was the last one?
KH No, I did little performances here and there, trying to suss the issues out, but it never felt right.
AR Funny. I had planned to ask you what you get out of performance versus what it’s meant to do for the audience.
KH I have to figure out how not to expend myself like that. I understand that it’s not always an either-or thing. Sometimes when I performed it would become almost shamanic. The whole room would catch fire. It was great, but exhausting. I don’t feel there is a place to feel safe and experiment or push your own boundaries like that.
AR Yeah, there’s a relation to time that’s disturbed by the aggressive documentation of performance art. There can be a real shamanic aspect to what happens in space, but detaching the element of time in order to document the event can do real violence to the performer.
KH Wynne Greenwood and I had a project called New Report; it was a live performance but conceptually made for the camera. It was a great structure to perform in because we had our own cameras and therefore controlled the true document, or so it was perceived. That was our framework. We were delivering utopian feminist news reports, and the viewer was watching that interaction.
AR That’s the whole format of the news; I mean, it necessarily includes the camera. So much has been written about the camera’s commodifying way of apprehending experience. When the camera’s not a part of the formal structure or the ethos of the piece itself, documentation can take something away from you as you perform—especially when it’s not just documentation but spectators removing themselves from real presence by letting their iPhones do the watching.
KH Yeah, but I guess we just have to get over it. I’m actually not a freak about being photographed by other people. On the other hand, there is a problem with the male gaze and power and framing, but if we freeze then we don’t open up new possibilities.
I am interested in mediums for what they each have to offer. I feel like I should make something specifically for the Internet, not just post scans of prints that were installed at my last show. Those prints were made for you to walk up to and look at. An important part of the works in the Position Series is how they are installed; you have to be in a room seeing all the photos at once. You can’t look at one photo in the series and not see a very different one in your field of vision. In a way, that project is about the space between the photos, so how can that translate to the web? I’m just not motivated to resolve that problem because I’d rather make something new.
But, you see, I’m so angsty because I do love all these opportunities to blog and write and stuff. I don’t use my Twitter much because I go back and read my posts and go, What the fuck was that about? It’s petty, weird, and insignificant. Maybe my next step is to not look at anything after I put it up.
AR I tweeted about being late coming to meet you this morning. (laughter)
KH Honestly, I could let myself go and become one of those “tragedy tweeters,” where it’s one every ten minutes. It’s like writing a story, you know?
AR Sometimes it’s beautiful, though. Elizabeth Taylor’s tweets—did you ever look at them? She was a tweeter before she died. She was an utter lady even in her tweets.
KH Oh, wow. That’s the thing, it could be great but … I sound so conservative! This is like a therapy session for my Internet issues. I need to control myself—
AR There seems to be confusion lately between mere documentation and the more complex procedure of artmaking. Great artworks are a prism held up to the culture—you can see all kinds of truths through them. Social truths, political truths. As artists we’re often very interested in tracking our own reactions. Now there is a kind of meta-life that has invaded everyone and not always in a wonderful way. Even “regular” people navel-gaze to the point of toxicity. On bad Internet weather days it doesn’t seem like some beautiful democratizing Fluxus dream of everything being art and everyone being artists. It’s more like the Internet is a toilet flushing infinite variegations of misery. But on good days everybody and everything appears to be a raw and uncut genius.
KH I agree. It’s confusing sometimes. Don’t you remember when it was definitely video art if someone recorded themselves processing to the video camera? Now every kid does it on their YouTube channel. It’s fascinating. I used to make video art like that and it was cathartic and useful—but I had nowhere near an audience. There is a new kind of exhibitionism and self-revelation happening.
AR There’s this crisis of observation going on.
KH Well, is it about editing? The emphasis has shifted because we’re so exposed to things that are unedited. So does it seem like no one is actually noticing significant moments or ideas? Is everything without urgency? I’m personally interested in assertive editing decisions because by narrowing things down, by making such a singular selection, the gesture becomes bold. And perhaps that gesture is also about withholding. It’s a Scorpio thing too, you know, the control. Does that make sense?
AR Yeah. As an example of the boundary and framing—editing is a part of it—I’m like making a line of salt on the table.
KH This makes me feel like my table’s really dirty. Is that salt or cocaine?
AR Salt, I think. So, in Vodou, in order to enter into communication with the spirits, you have to ask for Legba to open the gate for you.
KH Who’s Legba?
AR The spirit who guards the gate to the divine. You sing to him, you ask him politely to let you pass through the gate. Part of the priest’s job is to work carefully with the boundary between the sacred space of worship and everything else—not only because spirit possession is extremely taxing on the human body. It is the priest’s job to mediate between the divine and the congregation, both to make sure the spirits are happy and the people are safe, but also to make a clear boundary between the sacred space of ceremony and the rest of the world. So, in your case, if you make something for a certain medium, then it’s intended to be consumed in that space that you created for it. Removed from its context, its power can become dispersed, or even backfire. You’ve said that you can enter shamanic/ecstatic states without premeditation—so part of what’s inhibiting about performance might be that you need to be safe to enter that state if it happens, but the circumstances don’t always make that safety possible.
KH Interesting that you bring up Vodou. The last performance work I made was with the sound artist and musician Stefan Tcherepnin. It was called Bare Life and happened at Reena Spaulings in 2007. It was definitely the most shamanic, freak-out performance. I wanted to take it all the way, push my limits, and explore how far I could express myself through body movement, costume, and voice. It was pretty free-form—I danced, sang, and improvised my way through the performance without having any real or technical experience doing any of those things. I just wanted to use these forms of expression and let go of anything holding me back. Stefan was playing the Serge synthesizer so loud that there was no way anyone could whisper. We lost track of time; everyone in the room was completely enveloped in the experience. Afterward I was beyond depleted, just so spent; I was recovering from it for months. It was difficult for me to understand why. I was at Bard a few months later, and Margaret de Wys, a sound artist who goes to the southern hemisphere to participate in shamanic rituals, told me that my performance might have let evil spirits enter me. I’m sure what she said was more nuanced than that, but it struck me as very real.
AR Well, you can get sick after “good spirits” possess you too. There are techniques for mediumship for this precise reason. A part of me is hoping that you’ll learn ways to care for yourself so you won’t completely stop performing. Anyway, I’m curious, what would a just society look like to you?
KH I have to ask you that because I’ve never thought about it.
AR But you’re such a political artist. What about your work with WAGE (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), militating and organizing for pay equity and proper artists’ fees? And what about the way your performances begin as what can seem like flirtatious, subversive confrontations of absurd gender, identity, and class constructs, but escalate to become full-blown healing extravaganzas dissolving social boundaries? You don’t think about a just society?
KH I think about it, but I don’t imagine utopia.
AR I feel a schism between the role of the artist in a corrupt society and the space of the sacred for healing and catharsis and whatnot.
KH God, you must hate so much of the shit in Chelsea. (laughter)
AR I would love to hate it, but it’s so much less than that. It’s like looking at the Ikea catalogue. I mean, how do you feel about most of the shit in Chelsea?
KH Fucking bored. And I think, God, am I an asshole? Yes, I’m an asshole. (laughter) It’s my work to put something on the line, no matter what I’m making.
AR What inspires you? It doesn’t have to be art.
KH I love reading fiction and poetry. I’ve been reading the Bolaño book you recommended.
AR 2666? What do you think?
KH Yes. The kidnappings and murders are difficult to get through. I grew up in Texas when that stuff was happening, and it was intense. It’s a great point that he’s making, by repeating ad nauseam these little stories of how each woman was murdered. It takes you into the cruelty of it. I’m just trying to get through it as a reader; it must be similar to how people in reality were just trying to get through it, taking in the information but dealing with it at arm’s length, never getting too involved in any of those women’s murders.
AR What in your teenage years made you come to New York?
KH I wanted to get out of Texas and studied my ass off in high school. I got really high SAT scores. I was a straight-A student—actually, A-plus. I was weird and punkish, but I also maintained this other school life. I thought it was my only way out of there. I always was a voracious reader and was soaking everything up. I took a US-history class when I was 16 and read A People’s History of the United States alongside it. I was always searching for the other story because in the culture that I’m from people don’t talk about what is actually happening. They just sweep it under the rug and it can be very alienating, especially when part of you feels under the rug. So I read every book I could find that had any kind of radical or humane point of view. I grew up Christian and the teachings and actions of the Christians around me just didn’t add up. I was sometimes devastated at the hypocrisies they espoused.
I never talk much about this. At 15, I was going to a Bible study group at this woman’s house. I remember walking in one day and seeing that the freaking Christmas tree was wrapped in American flags. I was like, That’s it! I’m done.
AR (laughter) Have you found what you were looking for in New York?
KH I think so. I mean, it’s not exactly what I was looking for, the frenetic pace. I never thought I’d end up in New York.
AR Where did you think you’d end up?
KH In Austin or somewhere warm and slow. Even when I graduated from Smith I moved to San Francisco. But what I really wanted in my life was the activity, the community, the people exchanging ideas and conversations. And that was happening here. So I only lasted about six months in San Francisco.
AR We saw each other at Occupy Wall Street a bunch, when the weather was nice. I’m curious what your feelings are about Occupy.
KH It made me happy. I loved the generous spirit of it, the people’s mic, the organization of the talks and everything. People were actually listening. That blew my mind; a lot of times people are just going on diatribes at political meetings. For change to start to happen, people have to learn how to listen to each other. And there was something sacred about the chanting too. The call and response was church-like, religious, like nothing I had ever been to—it was very exciting. And it wasn’t didactic, just radical listening.
AR It’s winter. The space of Occupy is not there anymore, though actions and meetings are still happening all over the city. There’s almost an exilic melancholy without Zucotti—there really was, as Cornel West put it, “a sweet spirit” in that place.
KH I love Cornel West. In New York, especially, we don’t have a location, that one cabaret or nightclub where everyone goes, where there’s always going to be something happening. Everything is so dispersed. So that was part of it too. You could go and probably run into someone you cared about.
AR So true. Not that I completely hate New York, but there is this kind of atomized specificity about everything all the time that makes me want to puke. So I’m wondering, if you’re not performing … Obviously the Whitney is a huge thing that’s coming up; the fashion show must take a lot of preparation.
KH I haven’t started that yet! The runway show is going to be in May. I do have work in the show too. I’m still resolving it, though I feel like it should already be figured out, but I don’t work that way. It’s a leap for me, and it makes me nervous and excited. It deals directly with commercialism: I’m shooting a shoe campaign, sort of. It’s weird!
AR How do you see the work you’re preparing right now existing in space?
KH You know, this is a challenge for me. I usually just take the space that I get and then try to work it out. I don’t have any kind of ultimate space in mind. Some artists can preimagine a perfect receptive space and build walls or infiltrate the public sphere. Maybe I’m not interested in making an experience when I focus on object-based work. The runway show, being time based, is a little different. I guess the most important aspect of the space of my work is that it’s accessible to the public.
AR What are your plans for the fashion show?
KH I’m excited to work with the actual form of a runway show—using real models, a proper runway, lighting. Tilda, stop that! My cat’s tearing apart the couch.
AR I wonder what her frustration is.
KH It’s how cats sharpen their nails. She only has one front leg, so she really has to keep it in gear. Anyway, the fashion show is not about a presentation of a style or a line of clothes. I’m more interested in what I can do with the actual form, to screw it up and have us look differently at this very common visual presentation of bodies. So my challenge in the next few months is to work it out aesthetically. At the same time, I’m not going to work it out too much because I think it’s going to be more interesting if there is a level of improvisation happening. Runway shows have such overarticulated aesthetics; they’re so prethought out that something gets lost. Of course there’s going to be political commentary—just doing a runway show will take care of that! It’s up to me to make it critical and provocative.
AR I go back and forth with fashion, and sometimes I just want to be plain. I feel stupid about rarely feeling feminine enough, but ignoring fashion is just an excuse to get treated like shit on the street. It’s a function of living in New York City. Do you ever feel that way?
KH Yeah, totally. My runway show won’t really be about fashion in the way we think about it as an industry. It will be about signs, and it will be about class. It will be about the decisions we don’t think we are making. You think that just because you’re wearing jeans and a T-shirt, you didn’t make decisions about fashion that have meaning, that aren’t a social or political sign? There are no non-decisions. It’s about passive acceptance and awareness.
AR K8, what’s most interesting to me in what you do with fashion is way beyond decisiveness. The overdetermined intentionality of fashion choices are celebrated everywhere, now more than ever, with all the fashion blogs. What becomes boring to me about fashion, even when it’s exquisite, is that it seems to be trying to clobber you over the head with its decisiveness. Any unimaginative hack can make a decision and serve it slavishly—it’s the model of goal-oriented competition that America is constantly selling. But there is so much magic in the way you mix symbols, class signifiers, high and low elements. It’s a perfect combination of premeditation and total in-the-moment improvisatory genius. What comes across most forcefully in the way you use garments is this incredible humor, this intense joy and pleasure that seems less about, “Well, I’ve calculated my outfit to express just the right amount of irony”—
KH Yeah, it’s weird to be engaging fashion. I always looked at magazines and fashion spreads and thought, But there’s something else. There’s something okay and less fraught.
AR Have you chosen the models yet?
KH No, but I’m working with Ed Brachfeld, a runway producer, and I’ll be casting models from modeling agencies. Part of me is interested in having boring blandness in the casting. But I can’t say exactly what the models are going to look like yet. That’s been the hardest part about developing the project, not knowing exactly what it will look like. Especially because that’s usually the starting point for runway shows.
AR I could see it being completely fascinating for you to improvise a fashion show based on the models you cast.
KH Part of the performance is me entering this role.
AR As K8?
KH Yeah, as going toe-to-toe with the fashion world. Oscar Tuazon is designing the runway. It’s this amazing two-story steel-and-glass structure. Models have to climb up and down it.
AR How did collaborating with Oscar happen?
KH I was looking at his work and the spaces he constructs and listening to him talk about how his installations control movement and the interaction of bodies. We talked a little bit about fashion and designers also. So I just planted the idea of him building the runway. I thought it could be rad. Plus, I’m not very spatial—I thought he could take it to another level. So Oscar and I came together about doing the catwalk.
AR And how is it?
KH He hasn’t constructed it yet, but it’s modular. The modules are a sculpture, but when the fashion show happens, they’ll go into the performance room and will be reassembled differently to become a runway.
AR I’m thinking about the rhetoric of catwalk and runway. Runway for airplanes and catwalk for whores. There’s Frank O’Hara’s book Standing Still and Walking in New York about gay cruising. In fashion shows, walking is the whole thing.
KH I know. I wonder what it’s going to look like to have the girls go up and down stairs!
AR So you’re only casting female models.
KH Well, perceptively female. (laughter)
Books by Ariana Reines include Mercury, Coeur de Lion, and The Cow. Her Obie-winning play Telephone was produced by The Foundry Theater in 2009. Her work has been featured in performance across the US and in Europe, including the Hammer Museum, Works and Process at the Guggenheim, dive bars, galleries, bookstores, and universities. Reines’s translation of Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl is forthcoming this spring from Semiotext(e).
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.