Where Art Belongs
Art needs words. Catalogue essays, reviews, books, artist talks, words to explain and expose and extend the object or concept. One of the more influential writers on contemporary art made a brief return visit to Auckland last month to read from her latest collection of essays, Where Art Belongs.
So how did Chris Kraus become someone the art world reads? Kraus was born in New York but grew up in New Zealand. She started working in journalism at Wellington's Evening Post and the Sunday Star aged 17 in the mid-70s before heading back to her birthplace to become an artist and film-maker.
"It was tough. I was very much coming back as a New Zealander and, most importantly, I hadn't gone to school with these people in New York, because where you have gone to college becomes a very important part of the social milieu that you move into in your adult life. But it was New York, it was the late 70s and early 80s and it was still possible to use the city as your MFA [Master of Fine Arts] programme and make your way by meeting other artists. I sought out all the people who were my idols from a distance in New Zealand.
"There was a kind of fandom you had in a small isolated country where culture becomes such a lifeline to the outside world, so it was thrilling to go to New York and actually go to talks, go to performances and meet these people who had been so legendary.
"Then you discover these legendary performers sometimes have only 20 people in the room."
For a while, she became an assistant to artist Louise Bourgeois, who died last year at 98. "She was amazing. She was formidable. I met Louise Bourgeois about the time she was turning 65, when most people are starting to pack it in, but she saw herself as just starting.
"She wasn't that well known and she was strategising about how she was going to become well known and did it brilliantly. Being photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe in the penis coat, this old woman with this latex sexual organ garment, she really played every card right and it was so amazing to witness that, the early stages of her career.
"It didn't make sense to me until years later what she was doing."
Where Art Belongs was published by Semiotext(e), an imprint best known as the first American publisher of French thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard and Felix Guattari, which Kraus has been part of since 1990. She believes a sense of being outsiders gives Semiotext(e) its edge.
"None of us is completely American so that makes us better able to function within American culture because we have some distance from it," Kraus says.
Semiotext(e) was started by Sylvere Lotringer in 1974 shortly after he moved from France to teach at Columbia University in New York. Initially a conventional academic journal about semiotics, the study of signs, it was changed by Lotringer's exposure to New York's downtown clubs and art scene.
"He organised a conference at Columbia inviting luminaries from both worlds. Foucault was there, Guattari was there, Kate Millet was there, John Cage was there, people from the art world and the activist world in the United States meeting with the luminaries of French theory and it was a real food fight.
"People talked about it for years after and the Schizo Culture issue came out of the energy of that event, where artists of the lower Manhattan scene of that time were put alongside critical texts by Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari, that was a radical thing."
Semiotext(e) eventually switched from being a magazine to publishing then-unknown writers such as Baudrillard. A biographer of Deleuze and Guattari describes Lotringer as the "ferryman", bringing French theory to an American readership. "At the time, none of their people were being published by university presses. These little black books would fit into the pocket of a black leather jacket and everybody read them.
"I joined Semotext(e) in 1990 and I was living with Sylvere and I was appalled they had not published any women, though the books were so hot and so cool. Sylvere didn't want to publish any woman theorists because he thought [of] the French women, they're so psychoanalytic. So I said, 'how about you publish American women writers?' I was working at the St Marks Poetry Project so I knew a lot of writers.
"We did them with colour covers and called them Native Agents and that kind of ran its course. By the end of the 90s, I was publishing other people, a different generation of female first-person anti-memoir writing. And then Hedi [El Kholti] joined us and kind of opened up a further channel, Hedi being gay and Moroccan, and he brought in a whole other way of republishing some classic gay texts."
Semotexte(e)'s latest series is Interventions, which gave it a surprise best seller. The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee was written by a French collective who ended up being labelled the Tarnac Nine after they were arrested on terrorism charges for cutting the power on a commuter rail line.
"We published it in a way looking out the side of our eyes thinking it's such anarchist kitsch, but it was a huge hit and we realised later it really did fall right in a certain moment.
"Glen Beck denounced it three times on Fox News. He called it the most evil book in America and he kept saying, 'you owe it to yourself to read this book.' Every time that happened, it would go to No 1 on non-fiction Amazon. People who bought this book also bought Sarah Palin and Glen Beck. So it was a hit of the religious right."
Kraus' first foray into creative writing, 1997's I Love Dick, also caused a scandal. "I didn't expect that. I misjudged how conservative the art world really is. It's a chronicle of my experience in real life having an infatuation with a critical theorist, Dick H, and writing him love letters, which Sylvere, my husband at the time, collaborated with. We kind of did a Madame Bovary and fell in love with him together in a way and then it just went further and further and further to the point where I moved out of the apartment and moved to the country alone and started writing to Dick and there were some real life encounters with Dick and, eventually, by the end of the book the Dear Dick fades away completely and I'm just writing.
"It turns out to be an adventure in writing and realising that you need an addressee, so after I Love Dick came out I became a kind of motivational speaker for young women and for people wanting to write because it just kind of clicked."
Kraus came to art writing with a clean slate, having never studied art history nor any of the other conventional entry points. "After I published my first book, I happened to be teaching at an art school in California which had a very hot MFA programme, so people assumed I knew something about art and I would be invited to write about art and talk about art and do these studio visits with MFA students. I didn't really know the language so the best way I knew to lead off on was a more journalistic vein, just sort of talk about what I saw in the work, talk about the experience of viewing the work, and to talk about maybe the story outside the work, that always interested me.
"I started to enter the art world more as an anthropologist than a complete 100 per cent participant."
Kraus reconnected with New Zealand when she returned in the early 1990s to make a film funded by Creative New Zealand, Gravity and Grace, and she has maintained those links with art circles here.
* Elam Art School is showing Gravity and Grace at 6pm on Monday at the Design Theatrette in the School of Architecture, 22 Symonds St.
Published NZ Herald November 5, 2011