Lisa Radon eludes traditional definitions. Occasionally a geologist, previously a critic, and perpetually a poet, she dabbles in all manner of creative work from performance art to small-batch publishing. Driven by research and aided by collaboration, Radon’s projects are buoyed by a multitude of voices that, knowingly or otherwise, are ushered into her game. Much of her work can be conceived as a playground—or temporary autonomous zone—in which she spins circles around the structures of language and ideas, drawing liquid connections between word, image, and concept to insightful and poetic ends.
I first became acquainted with Radon during her 2012 Resource Room Residency at Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, (PICA). She orchestrated a talk that invoked Emerson’s essay Circles, quoting: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.” (1841) Radon continued to articulate that our understanding of the world can be conceived as an ever-expanding set of concentric circles, always reaching out and beyond, informed by individual experience as well as by collective formations of society and culture. Her recently launched journal, EIGHTS, brings Circles into tangible form. Conceived as an “exhibition space on the page,” the publication assembles the works of artists and writers who explore, challenge, and upend traditional semiotic structures. Reinforcing Emerson’s assertion that, “the universe is fluid and volatile,” this initial volume of EIGHTS includes works by Alison Knowles, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Shannon Ebner, artists and writers who navigate the space between text and image, transforming the publication into a veritable Hunting the Snark for the concrete poet.
I spoke to Lisa Radon following the release of the first issue of EIGHTS in Portland, Oregon.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: Thumbing through EIGHTS, I was struck by it resistance to traditional categorizations. I was simultaneously reading and seeing—experiencing visual art and poetry—in a format that intersects exhibition and literary mag. This slipperiness seems conceptually crucial to the project, and I’m curious: how was EIGHTS conceived and formalized?
Lisa Radon: I have for some time been interested in the möbius strip of reading and writing, where reading is a kind of writing and writing is a kind of reading. And I imagine EIGHTS as being exhibition space on the page for writings-as-readings at the intersection of this möbius strip with visual art. So there are concrete poems, works of conceptual writing by artists and poets, works of conceptual art, and writings by artists. This is a beautiful field to consider. And I like the conversations these works can have with one another.
SMP: How has the knot become a significant allusion?
LR: You’re referring to the logo, which is a mathematical knot, the figure-eight knot. I like that it’s a prime knot, for one thing. But more importantly, the idea of the knot, an ordinary, non-mathematical knot, is significant to this project specifically, and more generally to my work, because it is the place where points in a line that would never touch one another, do touch. New frictions.
SMP: I’ve heard you reference Dick Higgins’s conception of art as a liminal zone—or horizon—that is in essence a meeting place for commingling and overlap. How did the legacy of Higgins and other Fluxus artists inform EIGHTS?
LR: Oh, interesting, well I know that’s a part of my own thinking, but I don’t think of EIGHTS as being particularly Fluxus influenced, although Higgins certainly made conceptual writings. It’s just an aspect of the whole. That said, Alison Knowles’ House of Dust is in Issue One. It is an early example of an artist collaborating with a computer to make a writing. Essentially it is an automated (FORTRAN-generated) reading as a writing.
SMP: I’m hoping you can illuminate a bit about the curatorial process. How were the works selected and arranged?
LR: Considerations included giving primacy to works that function as both readings and writings. Works that expand the notions of “writing” (see works by David Abel and Shannon Ebner) and reading (Sydney S. Kim’s piece is a thermal reading of the covers of a selection of books of poems) are important. Incorporating works in English by artists for whom it is a second language was interesting as a way of raising questions about translation broadly. Including works by influential artists and poets like Ian Hamilton Finlay, Bernadette Mayer, and Clark Coolidge sets the groundwork for EIGHTS’ conversation.
SMP: While reading/viewing many of the pieces in EIGHTS, I found myself examining them almost analytically—looking for a cypher or code—all the while being aware of the visual and aural resonance. In a way, each work operates as a stand-alone game with its own internal logic. In my mind, the project became a collection of these magic circles and, I guess my question tends toward the relationship the pieces have to each other: what is the conversation you envision these works to have? Why bind them into a coherent volume versus displaying them in an exhibition format, through online infrastructure, or releasing them in individual volumes?
LR: Most of these works have a preexisting relationship with the page. And even in the case of those that don’t, their inclusion lets me think about what language does differently on a page rather than say, on a wall or in the air. Specifically, in a book, there is the magical thing of images on facing pages touching one another. Like a knot. I love the book as a form. And it’s the word’s natural home. Plus, it can move so nicely in the world.
SMP: I agree: the page allows language to play differently than language spoken aloud, but at what point does visual poetry generate meaning versus operating as a page-bound pun?
LR: That’s funny. I don’t think you would ask this question of an abstract painting. And I think it’s funny that we ask it of a concrete use of language, or any non-ordinary deployment of language. Concrete or visual poetry as well as myriad other non-expressive ways of using language (operational, fragmented, repetitive) may make meaning in collaboration with the viewer (every reading is a writing, she says again), but their relationships to meaning are different. The words in one of these pieces are not used as mere tools, the way you and I are using words in this most banal of ways, to simply say what needs saying. They’re used in ways that expand and complicate their relationships to one another and to the whole, which results in complicating our relationship to language and its use. I think this is an enormously productive zone both for making meaning and refusing or confounding it.
In 1954 Eugen Gomringer wrote this on concrete poems:
“The constellation is the simplest possible kind of configuration in poetry which has for its basic unit the word, it encloses a group of words as if it were drawing stars together to form a cluster.
The constellation is an arrangement, and at the same time a play-area of fixed dimensions.
The constellation is ordered by the poet. He determines the play-area, the field or force and suggests its possibilities. The reader, the new reader, grasps the idea of play, and joins in.
In the constellation something is brought into the world. It is a reality in itself and not a poem about something or other. The constellation is an invitation.”
SMP: That’s lovely. It perfectly illustrates the relationship between lived experience and imagination and the potential for experimentation within even the most elemental structures. I want to learn a bit more about what you have in mind for the following editions in the EIGHTS series, but I’m also really curious about the work you’re doing with Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, which, like the constellation or white page, are conceived as spaces to prototype new ways of being. Can you speak to this new project in the works?
LR: EIGHTS will be published annually. Contributions for Issue No. Two will include work by Madeline Gins and Buzz Spector.
The TAZ project is a book I am making called Prototyping Eutopias. And boy, even though I’ve been working on it for some time, I can barely talk about it. It is probably a poem, a manual, a history, a call, a horizon, a magic object. I originally conceived of it as a re-writing of the TAZ that would excise its war language, an enhancement of it to include considerations of the ethics of care and esoteric practices. Then Vaneigem came in and Retallack and Kropotkin, and on and on. I’m mostly researching opals and invisibility.
SMP: Interesting. I’ve always found the TAZ message contradictory to the media. Not to delve too deeply into this next project, but it seems to me that EIGHTS already exists as a simultaneous counterpoint and affirmation of Bey’s discourse. You can respond, but I was hoping to segue into your interest in words and things. Can you tell me how the web-based “supplemental” components came about?
LR: Sure. The supplements on the website can and will be anything from armature for thinking and process documentation to theory and talismanic object. I wanted a strict separation between the work and work about the work, so any theory will be on the website not on the white walls of the book. It is also true that in the two years it took to make the first issue, there was a necessity to embed a handful of images and objects as talismans.
SMP: Any words or objects that have your interest at the moment?
LR: The number eight as vertical lemniscate as möbius strip. Rocks. Knots. Lemons, always. Not to drift too far off topic here, but they are powerful objects. And barnacles. Barnacles make a clicking noise at low tide which is super sci-fi. They’re blind as adults.
EIGHTS is published annually and is available by subscription. 8eights8.com
Lisa Radon has exhibited at Hedreen Gallery, LxWxH, White Box, Car Hole, Worksound, and galleryHOMELAND. Her recent residency at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art resulted in a lecture and a publication entitled A Reading (2012, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art). Other recent publications include: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place (2013), The Book of Knots (2013, c_L), Sentences on Sentences on Paragraphs on Paragraphs (2011, Publication Studio). lisaradon.com
Edie Fake: I think a couple of things happen in a couple of different ways. First off, drawing a tattoo for someone is sort of like finding the perfect gift for someone you barely know. Part of a perfect gift is that it is entirely wanted and sort of surprising and I think it also has to have a little personal flair, some indication of who the giver is and why they would choose to give such a thing. So just the drawing/planning itself is already a lot more collaborative than just thinking about what you’d draw on your own. Then, you start tattooing someone and it’s a whole other thing. It’s a blood ritual and it’s craftsmanship and it’s fun and painful and casual too. I was only tattooing for a couple of years, but when I was working on someone there was this whole new process of understanding each line drawn, and also an understanding of why this tattoo was going to fit the person getting it. I think I was looking at the stuff I was tattooing like it was different sorts of heraldry. The person wearing the tattoo is a huge part of what the drawing becomes, both physically and energetically. That’s the biggest difference throughout the process. With drawings on paper I usually am pushing out a drawing with my own vision, and then it can have a really singular presentation. Tattoos temper your own version of how things should be with someone else’s ideas and I really love it because it can really push the way you draw into some strange places trying to figure out the common ground where “what someone wants” meets “what you want to give to them.” I’m not tattooing now, but I miss it a lot and I miss the way it pushed my drawings. I’m starting to casually put my feelers out for another apprenticeship here in Chicago.
EF: I’m not sure if my thoughts are organized enough to bring up anything worthy of being a philosophy! I do identify as a transsexual and I do think a lot about the expansiveness of language, the importance of self-definition and how that all relates to complicating gender and sexuality. Collapsing and expanding meaning of words and images can work towards a wild and playful vision of sex positivity as well; that’s what I strive for in drawings.
Multiple meanings are critical – I really think that’s what keeps visual, verbal and physical language alive, the way that new interpretations will always be added to the heap. I make a lot of work based on innuendo and word play. Coded meanings and visual decadence can provide a place where drawings can snap into something that complicates gender and implies new systems. For me, it’s impossible to articulate queerness in a direct and definitive way because it doesn’t exist like that – it’s much better pieced together through a drawing with many things happening, the interplay of different codes, sly language tricks, a collision of symbols, because all these things together gets more toward the idea of a border-less, boundless queer gestalt.
CP: Do you believe in a Utopia? (not necessarily something to implement, but something to work towards?)
EF: I don’t believe in some true, universal, obtainable utopia, or any kind of unified vision for a utopia, at all. However, I have experienced periods in my life I would definitely call “utopic” where I’ve felt amazing energetic kinship to those around me, or even just to myself… I should add, these were not periods that were free of problems or hardships, but they were times of feeling deeply connected to what I was doing and how I was living. Constantly scheming and trying to help others with their schemes.
I think the world is shitty and hard, really lovely things always fall apart, pain, violence, heartache and futility reign supreme. Flying in the face of that, a utopia notion in my head can push me forward, and encourage me to try to create good energy and critical work. Utopia as a constant push to conjure up how things could be better, and then the working your ideas into realities.
CP: In some way I was thinking about the utopia question because of the on-line project A Gay Utopia. I was wondering if you could talk a little about that–how did the project get started? What was it like developing work for an on-line and shared context?
EF: Before the Gay Utopia Online Symposium, I felt like the term was floating in the air a lot, especially the air over Chicago. In my experience, it was being used as sort of a rallying cry, to envision working for each other, creating networks, sharing resources, and helping each other build the things we wanted to see in the world. When I went on tour with Lee Relvas in 2006 she delivered this brilliant soapbox speech as part of our performance that culminated with asking the audience “Are you ready for a Gay Utopia?” Well, the answer to that was yes.
I’m unsure of how the Online Symposium started, but that project was the brainchild of Noah Berlatsky and Bert Stabler. It’s a wild grouping of folks that they brought together, and I’m really proud of the work I did for the project. There’s a wide range of how people approached the work there, and I think I approached it as someone who feels like “Gay Utopia” is a concept that nourishes me and is integral to how I see the cycles of my life tumble out. The Gay Utopia shares a lot with the Temporary Autonomous Zone and I am really invested in both of those, so I wanted to create a comic that reflected falling down that rabbit hole. When I settled on a long scroll down drawing, I also decided that the most important thing for me to show in the images was the close combination of destruction and ecstasy, love and fury going hand-in-hand, fueling each other. That’s a big part of my lived experience.
CP: I was thinking about tattooing again, and your description of its gift-quality. It made me think too about how you describe community and connectedness as being somehow central to those moments of utopic experience. In many cultures, it feels like tattoos have ritualistic significance–it’s a sign given at the coming of age, for instance, or after some epic experience. I was wondering if you feel like tattoos have a ritualistic resonance in your experience and what that might be?
CP: I was also reading that you do some performance work as well–can you talk a little bit about that? And maybe what it is like to physically embody something, (vs. describing it 2-dimensionally).
EF: I do occasionally do performance work. To me it seems much more like conducting a public experiment, whereas displaying a finished drawing is like showing off the answer to a long series of problems. Performances are so dependent on your openness and the openness of the audience and they hinge on both the clarity of your purpose and also your ability to convey that purpose in a non-didactic way. It’s usually a medium I use when I have a cluster of ideas floating around my head. To perform effectively – it is so hard! For me, performing is maybe the hardest, so I try to listen to my heart about it and know when I’ve got something cooking, and if I’m not really feeling it knowing to throw in the towel and forget it, I’ll just do some drawings, which I always have ideas and methods for.
Go here for more glimpses of Edie’s work.