A spy in the fight club of love—Joanna Howard on epistolary fiction, cage-fighting, and her new book.
I was hooked, gaffed, netted (many seafaring verbs come to mind) by Joanna Howard’s writing when I first read her chapbook, In the Colorless Round, a collection of short tales published in 2006 and faced opposite sketches by Rikki Ducornet. It’s rare for me to feel so absolutely submerged in language, even as a gossamer-thin, high-test narrative line pulls me forward. Then I fell in love with the specters, sailors, waifs, ingénues, and matinee idols who populate Howard’s fiction collection, On the Winding Stair (Boa Editions 2009), a book that pressurizes recognizable genre tropes until a morphogenetic change occurs and figures never before encountered begin to haunt the language.
Howard’s new book, Foreign Correspondent, just released by Counterpath, is a different kind of stunner. The architectural sentences that characterize her earlier work are certainly here, but the world they create is ultra-modern; here the decadence is the decadence of late capitalism, and keen attention to objects becomes a vexed commentary on the allure of the commodity-form. This novel incorporates multiple modes of address as reporter Johnnie James attempts to make authentic connections through various correspondence, reaching toward others in language and in life, and discovering always the distance inherent in desire. It’s a remarkable book—a series of ironized, slyly hilarious glosses on twenty-first-century American culture and a poignant and philosophical investigation of human relations like love, longing, and the potential for violence or tenderness when bodies finally touch.
I corresponded with Howard about how she composed Foreign Correspondent, about her narrative strategies, and about her obsessions, which include film, philosophy, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Joanna Ruocco I was struck by the way the fragments—conversations, letters, dispatches, ripostes—accrete to give this book the impression of a journey, even though they aren’t arranged in strict chronological order. And, also, not very much happens! Johnnie James goes on assignments, communicates with her friend (another Johni), interacts with the philosopher Alphonso, goes to jiu-jitsu class, and begins and more-or-less ends a letter-writing campaign to a cage-fighter from her hometown who responds infrequently and then not at all. Yet somehow I felt the peaks and troughs of intensity that I experience when I read a more conventional, plot-driven novel. For me, this is achieved through the way that correspondence itself becomes the book’s subject. There’s a playful style here that veers between “high” and “low” registers. It’s pleasurable and surprising to turn a page and find pop culture in the clinch with philosophical musings on other-directed subjectivity. I wonder how you conceived of this project and how you began to organize the material. What was the seed of this book? Did you think about creating narrative tension and discharge as you arranged the pieces? Johnnie James occasions all of this language. In what way is she a character for you?
Joanna Howard The book really began to come together around the form and the figure. At a certain point in my life it seemed like all my friends were elsewhere, and our significant exchanges had to either come via correspondence or not at all. It’s a real test to see how long you can sustain a relationship with only your words, and I’ve often felt that those who are particularly skilled at the explosive, evocative, and engaging letter have the best chance of keeping these tenuous relationships working. The pandering, proffering pleas and promises run right alongside the mundane reports and de rigeur formalities. Receiving a letter from another person where style was not only being carefully considered but deployed with great art is just as exciting as the construction of language pyrotechnics in your next reposte! I began to chastise myself for pouring all my creative energy into regular letters to a few individuals. So I turned my attention to the form itself and what was so attractive and beguiling to me about that form, and also the way in which it opened up a longing that was never being filled.
Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read a poem by William Brewer.
Your idea was to go to sleep with your head
resting on a portrait of your self so that
by some osmosis or unconscious process
like memorization professed by actors
keen to master their lines by dreaming with a loop-
track of their play pumped directly at their ears
you’d thereby awaken assured of who you are.
Or what you keep breathing yourself into being
which has become a matter of debate
Painter (and Psychedelic Furs frontman) Richard Butler on Warhol, passing ‘the bedroom test” and why his daughter is his muse.
For music fans of a certain age, the band the Psychedelic Furs conjures up images of a poetic insouciance backed up by an acerbic edge. A lot of its personality came from the front man, singer and lyricist Richard Butler. With a voice by turns raspy and romantic and a penchant for the telling line, Butler shaped an identity for the band that persists today, as the group continues to perform after more than thirty years. But like many famous rockers, from Keith Richards and Roger Waters to Tupac Shakur and Lady Gaga, Butler began making music in art school, and art was a passion that never went away. He studied art in the 1970s at the Epsom School of Art and Design in Surrey, England and, influenced by Andy Warhol’s work, concentrated on printmaking. Initial success with the band demanded that his interest in art take a back seat for more than a decade, but he resumed painting in the 1990s and intensified his work after his daughter, Maggie Mozart Butler, was born in 1997. She has become his primary subject. In two recent exhibitions in New York at the Chelsea gallery Freight and Volume (2011 and 2013), Butler has demonstrated a fascination for the portrait, an almost classical restraint in rendering, and a willingness to bend expectations with unsettling motifs, from false noses to rubber Mickey Mouse ears. Butler is that very rare individual who has managed to excel in music and in art. During the run of his most recent exhibition, ahatfulofrain, I asked him about his unusual career and its connections.
Lyle Rexer In the mid-1970s you were just leaving art school. I had spent a year at Oxford at about that time, and I well remember my visits to London, how much they clashed with my wild expectations of “Mods and Rockers.” In reality, England—and London especially—was still a post-war world, with coins for the gas and war widows with their candles in Westminster Abbey. And it was so drab. What was England like for you at that time, when you were just beginning to make music and make art?
Richard Butler It was changing dramatically. Art school was typically hippies when I started. Then the New York Dolls came along, and David Bowie and Roxy Music, and it was a sea change into Glam Rock. I cut my hair and shaved my eyebrows. . .
Paper Clip is a weekly compilation of online articles, artifacts and other—old, new, and sometimes BOMB-related.
Lara Mimosa Montes looks back to another era and reappraises her own with Koestenbaum’s My 1980s and Other Essays.
“For half the decade I lived in New York City, and yet I didn’t go to a single Andy Warhol opening,” writes Warhol biographer Wayne Koestenbaum in his new book My 1980s & Other Essays. A prolific poet and cultural critic, he invites us here to reconsider that era, as well as the private raptures of writing and of writing autobiographically. Placing himself at the periphery, the book begins with a confession—the embarrassing, perhaps commonly omitted admission that the author wasn’t even really there. But who was? Who among those living in the ‘80s was ever totally there? Moreover, who has survived to speak of it? Among the Warhol superstars, not many. Among those who contracted HIV when it was still referred to as GRID in the early years of the epidemic, even less. Given the recent retrospective group exhibitions in New York concerned with the confluence of art and HIV/AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s, such as the New Museum’s “NYC 1993” or the Whitney’s “I, YOU, WE,” Koestenbaum’s book feels tailor-made for these deeply introspective times.
Filmmaker Penny Lane on divisive personalities, collateral consequences, and the question of Nixon’s presidency as aberration in her new film, Our Nixon.
When Richard Nixon’s three closest companions, John Erlichman, H.R. Haldeman, and Dwight Chapin (three names that now live in infamy) began to film Super 8 home movies in the White House, they were young and idealistic, intensely devoted to their new jobs. They had, of course, no inkling that a few years later they would be in prison. These three carefully committed to film the Apollo moon landing, a historic visit to China, and many more day-to-day events—until the Watergate scandal broke. Their footage is not all what we might expect; Ehrlichman, for example, was especially fond of filming hummingbirds. The men filmed because they hoped and believed Nixon’s presidency would change the world, assuming they would wish to remember those moments, to treasure them.
Our Nixon, the first feature documentary from director Penny Lane, sifts through the thousands of hours of forgotten home movies shot by Nixon’s top aides during his presidency. Lane re-contextualizes the footage, filed away for 40 years since being seized by the FBI, and interweaves it with period news clips, excerpts from Nixon audiotapes, and pop cultural touchstones from the era. What emerges is a unique portrait of the 37th presidency, a reign that has long since wrought intrigue and outrage, and boasts the sole presidential resignation from office in United States history.
The film offers an unusually nuanced sketch of Nixon and his associates, leaving the audience to consider contradictory fragments of history and draw their own conclusions. I spoke with Lane about the new light Our Nixon sheds on the Watergate scandal, and on the complexity of the man behind it.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Why Nixon? Were you interested in his story because of its legacy, or because you thought people didn’t know the whole story? What new things, if any, does the footage in this film reveal?
Penny Lane Why not Nixon! It isn’t that I had some sort of burning desire to make a Richard Nixon film. I was not obsessed with him, and I didn’t even know more about him than the average person who went to college. But these home movies surfaced and they did something that was kind of hard to explain initially, that was different and surprising. It didn’t change the way I felt about Nixon, but it added a layer of something new. Something confusing and mysterious. Brian Frye (my co-producer) and I felt that right away. It sounds sort of banal to say, “The revelation is that these guys were human beings.” That is the revelation, but it’s hard to explain or pitch that without watching the film.
Two excerpts from performance artist Amber Hawk Swanson’s work surrounding Amber Doll, a life-like sex doll commissioned in her likeness. Amber and Doll enjoyed a six-year long romantic relationship and artistic collaboration. They disrupted wedding receptions, roller-skating rinks, football tailgating parties, theme parks, and adult industry conventions. In the resulting series, Amber Doll Project (2006-11) ideas surrounding agency and objectification are questioned, as are ideas about the success or failure of negotiating power through one’s own participation in a cultural narrative that declares women as objects.
In 2011, Hawk Swanson transformed Amber Doll’s body into a replica of the bull orca Tilikum, who lives in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando and has been involved in the deaths of three people. Now that Amber Doll has been transformed from female to whale, Amber Hawk Swanson is commissioning five more Amber Dolls in her current likeness. By studying the Google analytics from her website, as well as the IP addresses of people who have emailed her over the years, Hawk Swanson will determine the countries where the most “interesting interest” has come from. She’ll then take applications from people in the five countries that she determines should receive dolls and choose five “winners” who will own Amber Doll for a year.
Three years ago, two artists walked into the woods.
I wake up sometime around 5 AM in Oakland, California, in a tiny bedroom stuffed with colorful paintings and arcane cultural bric-a-brac. I am in a small compartment in a labyrinthine beehive of a dwelling that houses not only an absent artist’s lifetime of work but also his professional grade woodshop, his printing press, his library, and his computer command center—the whole thing being hollowed out of an abandoned factory space. The sheer resourcefulness of its absent owner makes me feel inadequate, even though I can’t say the stylish abstract paintings appeal to me and, to boot, I find the notion of an artist decorating his house with his own work a bit risky. I believe in hiding from my art.
I’ve been here for about twenty-seven hours, preparing with my friend David Brody for our eight-day hike into the wilderness. Dave doesn’t belong here either, strictly speaking. He swapped places with the artist for a month to give his family a taste of the West Coast. I don’t like the word hike. It’s too recreational for the epic journey I would like to think we are about to embark on. I don’t much like the word epic either, but it will have to do as shorthand for the tangled feelings of exhilaration and dread I bring to this enterprise. I cannot contemplate walking in the wilderness for eight days without imagining an entire roster of possible fatal, varyingly absurd, and unlikely scenarios that might befall me. People do die all the time on hikes, but their deaths are unremarkable; laughable, really. Death by heatstroke, death by heart attack, death by bug bite, death by allergic reaction.
Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello, along with sound engineer and musician Paul Geluso, discuss their installation The Spaces Contained in Each for The New York Electronic Art Festival at Governor’s Island.