When following an agenda or thesis of some kind — in this case, my steady and probing look at hybridity — one often tries to fit multiple practices under one umbrella: there is a desire to keep everything neat and tidy, in order, I suppose, to embolden an intuition with evidence, to make that intuition feel reasonable, and therefore true. Theoretical exercises might resemble murder investigations in that way — one wants to find proof beyond the shadow of doubt. At least, that’s what I find I do, and in this particular case it’s amusing, because my original inquiry is centered on an unstable concept. Hybridity is intentionally resistent to categorical thinking. The minute categories are defined, the hybrid wants to transgress and muddle and undermine the categorical thought it inhabits. Thus, I take some deep pleasure in printing the following transcript. It shows how I began to get too comfortable with what “hybridity” might mean, and thus how I began to apply it, suddenly and smoothly, to anything. The following transcript marks a failure in that attempt. It is not so simple, (as I had originally and perhaps hastily presumed) to call Vanessa Place’s practice a hybrid one: yes, she is both an esteemed lawyer and experimental poet. Yes, her legal work — the plethora of accrued documents — has become, literally, her poetry. And with these two yes’s, combined with my own experience of her performance — during which she read, word for a word, a trial transcript — I imagined she was combining two worlds. I thought I could convince her to talk about her work in those terms, under my umbrella. Instead, Place calls attention to the slippery nature of words; meaning falls slick through our grasp like sand, ever sensitive to context just as it is always capable of transformation. In fact, words, like people, like bodies and chairs: are fickle, multifacted, both present and out of reach. Vanessa Place has published many books, including Dies: A Sentence (2006), La Medusa (Fiction Collective 2, 2008), Notes on Conceptualisms, co-authored with Robert Fitterman (Ugly Duckling Press, 2009), and The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and Law (2010). In addition to her own poetry and legal practice, she is also the co-director of a magnificent, experimental poetry press called Les Figues.
Caroline Picard: In some ways, it seems like you lead a double life as a criminal appelate lawyer and literary force. These two occupations could require a split in your mind, but you have managed to integrate them: How did this possibility first occur to you?
Vanessa Place: It was more a matter of capitulating to the inevitable; one learns not to avoid the trap, but to walk into the trap and see if it can be trapped.
CP: Are traps generally trappable? Do they have inherent weakness (by virtue of being traps)? Or are those weaknesses a result of the expectations we impose upon ourselves? (For instance that one must choose to be one thing or another).
VP: Traps are always trappable. The trick is to want the trap: see Brer Rabbit. The other trick is to have no expectations.
CP: How is the poet most often trapped? How does this compare to traps in witness testimony?
VP: Both fall for the truth-trap.
CP: Is language itself a trap?
VP: Wittgenstein said so. If so, it is the unavoidable trap. As is meaning (though there is no difference in this).
CP: When I saw you read here in Chicago you read a transcription of a domestic assault trial as poetry. Would you consider that transcription a hybrid text? Does the hybridity rely on the performance/context? Or does it exist just as well in a court of law?
VP: It exists simultaneously as a legal document and as a poem. It’s not a matter of hybridity, but of transubstantiation. In other words, words only exist in context, in whatever language game in which they happen to be deployed. Content is context.
CP: Can the human body be similarly transubstantiated? Are texts and bodies synonymous? This would make us like chameleons, in some way…
VP: Not chameleon because the chameleon remains chameleonish. That is to say, it alters not when it alteration finds. Texts, like bodies, are capable of complete metamorphosis
CP: How is it possible to communicate meaning if meaning is always contextualized (and therefore, I presume, relative to each subject)?
VP: Subjects are always sobjects, amalgams of subjects and objects. Consider whether it is possible that we are meeting at the point of our mutual thingness rather than our mutual selfness.
CP: Is it possible that mutual thingness is an experience held in common by all things — living and nonliving alike? Would a text’s thingness be equivalent to a chair’s thingness?
CP: How much does your performance of the material influence that context? When I saw you read, for instance, it was as if each word was given the same treatment and weight, as though you removed the emotive passion of the spoken words.
VP: Performance is another context, thus creating another piece. Similarly, one performance context, such as a reading in a gallery, creates a different piece than the same performance occupying another context.
CP: Where does the animation come from? Is there anything especially remarkable about words said via breath vs. words written on the page, or on the ground, or letters scattered on a refrigerator?
VP: Not remarkable. They are different creatures, however. In other words, you tell me.
CP: Does something essential about that “found” manuscript transform when it is recontextualized by a poetry reading? Or maybe, more generally, what happens? (For my part, I remember being astonished both by the horrific violence you were relaying, what was nonetheless paired with a simultaneous experience of beauty — the beauty of language, for instance, the beauty of a vernacular and the beauty of appropriation, even the visceral experience of horror).
VP: What happens depends on the receiver of the text — all of the things you describe are absolutely true — for you. Another person might be blinded to any potential for beauty, another, aroused by the violence. There is nothing essential in the text itself: the text is dead. The context, on the other hand, remains quite animated.
CP: Is violence a necessary tool for animation? Or, more generally, what does violence do? What is its function?
VP: It insists on.
CP: How can an impersonal force contain insistence in all its manifestations?
VP: Think of shame.
CP: Does violence have a mutual thingness?
CP: How does violence impact a given page? Does the trauma it inflicts reoccur each time that page is read? Would that somehow be equivalent to someone who, in retelling the story of his or her violence, reenacts the incident in some way?
VP: Pages are people too. Like pages, they flip, depending on who they turn to.
CP: I have a friend who went to law school initially because he said he wanted to learn more about human language and (in his words) “the scaffold of reason.” How do you feel your relationship with language has changed with regards to your legal background?
VP: You assume it has changed.
This is how it has changed.
I came across an article by Martin Patrick, Restlessness and Reception: Transforming Art Criticism in the Age of the Blogosphere, that discusses at length the role of art criticism today and — unlike most pieces I read about the state of the world — ends on a seemingly hopeful note. It thought I could post something about it here because I find I’m often thinking about the web-context and what it means as a medium. I don’t especially feel like I have a handle on how best to exercise its talents, but I like chewing on the idea periodically, no doubt in hope of some Eureka! moment. “The web becomes a tool for ‘housing’ certain materials, indeed a virtual archive, or in Andre Malraux’s famous phrase a ‘museum without walls’ but then it is more important to ask how can newer arrangements, actions, conversations be created on the basis of these contextual settings” (Patrick).
I’ve seen a dramatic shift in Chicago’s critical dialogue. When I first moved here about seven years ago all anyone could talk about was the death of the New Art Examiner. Its demise added salt to the already throbbing (and ever hysterical) wound of Chicago’s second city syndrome. The Midwestern art market was not even capable of supporting a magazine that represented its interests and the rest of the country was disinterested in the activities of its midriff. While I’m likely misremembering the past (again, I’d just come to Chicago and did not yet understand its nuances), it seemed like that pang of insecurity propelled a number of other projects forward, as they insisted on creating modes of dissemination and representation. When I came here NAE had been out of commission for two years and its lament was continuous for the following four. Now, there’s an amazing vitality located largely on-line with artslant, art21, BadatSports (though I suppose B@S would resist the art criticism label standing somewhere between Vice and Cabinate) and many others. The mechanics of this phenomena are reflected in Patrick’s piece, as he points to the once-professional potential of The Critic (even in so far as it possesses archetypal potential); now much of the critical dialogue is activated and sustained by amateurs. Even those who are paid rarely expect a living wage and at best peddle together a variety of wages. “The blog—apart from the vast amount underwritten directly by corporate sponsorship—is most often an amateur/volunteer’s virtual space involving a greater probability of being generated and launched quickly, randomly, even haphazardly, and with more chance of rapidly ensuing back-and-forth discussions, responses, dialogue than a traditionally formatted journal, magazine or newspaper can generally allow.” That’s not to say the article is all positive.
This model of free labor is quite attractive to corporations. Additionally there some very real suggestions that the bite has been taken out of critical remarks (for instance, Mad Men’s ironic appropriation of the past that nevertheless collapses into a complicit reprise of old hierarchies, or how response to the Yes Mens’ NYTimes prank neutered the fake newspaper’s very serious critique message.) These aspects are also endemic to an Internet age, where we can constantly rewrite history. Then of course there’s the Internet’s shady origin story: “The origins of the Internet itself derive from the American attempt to establish a communications system in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack under the aegis of the the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) a wing of the Department of Defense, or ARPAnet[work]” (Patrick). Additionally the web facilitates a kind of sloppiness. (At this time I would like to retroactively apologize for my typos. If you want to be my editor without pay, give me a holler). But beyond slights of hand, on-line appropriation is fast, constant and cheap — it’s so easy, for instance, that images, text and ideas are borrowed, spliced, reiterated, misrepresented and so on and so forth. While on the one hand the frontier-like openness of this space, a space not yet settled and defined, is exciting; it lacks a codified rigor. It is still experimental and malleable and capable of much more. The question then remains: How to exhaust its potential as a response vehicle for cultural production? How do we embrace its shortcomings with its strengths? And does it truly challenge canonical ideas of art historicism?
“The internet offers a seemingly open public space that is simultaneously private, solipsistic, restricted. Within this reconfigured environment the digital archive acts as a kind of indirect critical mechanism and virtual repertory house for essential material to be potentially drawn upon by interested parties. That is to say, the accessibility lent to previously arcane and unusual avant-gardist phenomena goes a long way towards setting a tone for the integration of the wildly eccentric and experimental practices that are too long overlooked rather than solely the widely accepted canonical material which is in turn overexposed and despite its merits altogether lifeless. Thus the existence of new sites such as Kenneth Goldsmiths’ www.ubu.com facilitates the permissive and promiscuous notion of having experimental strands of poetry, prose, music, film and visual culture inhabit a treasure hunt/database ready to scavenged and relived via the use of mp3 files, YouTube-style streaming video, text files and so on means that Hollis Frampton, Marcel Broodthaers, Luigi Russolo and many more are incrementally closer to becoming household names” (Patrick).