Artists

The Art of Cunning: Paul Chan on Erotica, Ancient Greek, and His New Work

The cover for God I Don't Even Know Your Name, a Badlands new release. COURTESY BADLANDS

The cover for God I Don’t Even Know Your Name, a Badlands new release.

COURTESY BADLANDS

Yesterday, Paul Chan opened his show at the Guggenheim Museum, “Nonprojections for New Lovers,” which follows his winning the museum’s Hugo Boss Prize. Best known for his work involving projections and shadows, his staging of Waiting for Godot in a post-Katrina New Orleans, and his fonts for the Marquis de Sade (which debuted at the 2009 Venice Biennale), Chan has lately been working on projects involving books. His “Volumes,” painted book covers, were presented at the Schaulager museum in Basel, Switzerland last year, and his imprint, Badlands Unlimited (which operates out of his studio on Mondays and Tuesdays), has just expanded into erotica with its “New Lovers” series. The Guggenheim will host a reading and discussion on March 10 with the authors of the first three books in the series, We Love Lucy, How To Train Your Virgin, and God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name. On Wednesday, Chan met me in the Guggenheim boardroom to discuss smut.

ARTnews: What made you want to get into erotica?

Paul Chan: I think I wanted to do it for a long time. One of the models for Badlands was Olympia Press. Olympia Press published some of the greatest writers of the 20th century that we know—Nabokov, Burroughs, Henry Miller, Beckett—and they did it through, among other things, also publishing smut, by publishing erotica that people wanted to buy. That’s in part how they funded their operation.

Now I don’t have pretenses of discovering the next Nabokov or Beckett, but I was interested in whether or not I could make a go of publishing erotica, so I can then fund more experimental works that maybe only two people will download. I think within our world of contemporary art there’s such a spectrum of interesting people making art as a book, artists who might be interested in doing writing that may not fit in an essay form, and I need resources to do it. Because I don’t get grants, it’s really me funding the thing and me trying to make it work with my crew, Mica, Ian, and Matthew. And so the impetus has been there for a long time, it just so happens that now I had some time, after Schaulager, and we thought why don’t we make a go of it and so here we are, launching the first three of the books.

I’m surprised to hear you say that you think these might be–this is a for-profit venture? These are meant to make money? Because We Love Lucy, it’s pretty straightforward porn, I actually appreciate the sort of lack of story. But How to Train Your Virgin is so surreal. It’s not exactly a one-handed read, right?

I don’t know. The nice thing about what we do is we have no idea what we’re doing. And so we learned in the process of publishing these books what we’re actually doing. Just because you say, ‘Oh, I’m going to publish erotica’ doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. And I’m very open about the fact that we have no idea what we’re doing. But we thought we’d give it a go. And so we started reaching out to friends and friends of friends to see if people might be interested, to see if artists, curators, writers, critics might be interested in writing erotic fiction. Sooner or later people started getting into it and sending us submissions and we went through a process where we picked the ones that we liked the most, and then they wrote it and we went through an editing process. But this whole process is about learning what people are reading, what people are willing to write, and what ideas of sexuality exist today, whether or not it has widespread appeal.

But I’ll tell you it was a shitload of fun to edit and publish and we hope it makes an impact, not only for the reading public in contemporary art but for the wider audience. Because I think the time is right for something like this.

Can you talk about your own ideas for envisioning this project, when it comes to other erotica? I imagine 50 Shades of Grey wasn’t an influence, but was Sade? Or any erotica you saw as an inspiration, at Olympia or elsewhere?

I think Olympia’s certainly one of them. Also I think one of the greatest pieces of artwork in the 20th century was The Story of O. And the story is just as interesting and intense as the back story behind it—it was written as a dare, basically. And you can tell. You can tell it was written on a dare. And I like that idea.

In many ways “New Lovers” is like a dare. We dared ourselves to publish new erotic fiction and do it in a way we find at least interesting. So there’s The Story of O. Sade is certainly there, but I have to say anyone who finds Sade really erotic, I wouldn’t want to be in bed with.

Right, it’s just, ‘Then he did this, then he did this, then he did this.’

It’s just not my kind of sex, you know what I mean? I’m not sure it’s anyone’s—well, it’s the kind of sex you imagine when you’re in prison. He wrote it in prison, to escape being in prison, so he needed the repetition and the rhythm to give him a means of escape from his plight and I completely understand that. But do I want to read it to get turned on? It’s unlikely.

But I think within my work in general, ideas of sexuality have always come up. You can’t help it really. We’re human beings. We’re, among other things, sexual beings. And it’s been nice to explore those ideas within the platform of publishing, working with others like writers and editors to understand what an interesting, erotic, or sexual, pleasurable narrative might be.

What would you say your most sexual project has been, prior to this one?

The fonts. The Sade Fonts. I think the fonts exemplify something about language and erotica that I have yet to capture in other forms. It’s rhythm and repetition. In your normal everyday language when you say “yes” or “no” it means something. But when you say “no, no, no” or “yes, yes, yes” over and over again, the rhythm changes the meaning of the words and it’s the rhythm that matters. I think the fonts exemplify that.

How do the books tie into the show here?

We’re all artists, basically, so we’re always thinking about how the book actually works as a thing. So we had to figure out, with We Love Lucy, depending on the length of the book, we had to have a certain number of pages. We had to figure out the precise Pantone purple and we had to figure out the weight of the debossing. So what the show shows is the prototypes of those books, to figure out what exactly the physicality of these things are going to be, from breaking down how thick a chapter is to figuring out ‘Is this font too bold?’ So it’s like dummies, basically. It’ll show dummies of how these books came about. We re-wrapped Semiotext(e) books with these covers to figure out the width and stuff.

Why is the physicality of the book so important? You sell these as ebooks too right?

You’ve known us for a long time, you’ve known us as ebook publishers, but I think even as ebook publishers we understand that reading is a full-bodied experience. One of the only reasons, perhaps the only reason ebooks took off was that we had these devices called the Kindle and the iPad that echoed—didn’t mimic but echoed—the feeling of holding an ebook just enough so that you could feel that you’re reading an actual book even though it was a screen and they weren’t actual pages. The very fact that you can pick up this device and hold it as if it was a book fired off enough imaginative energy in someone to feel like they’re reading a book and that tells me as an artist that the physical aspects of ebook reading is very much there, as much there as an actual book. It’s the physicality of the book, it’s never just about the words. It’s not only about the words, it’s about the size of the paper, the feel of the paper, who gave us that book, the tattered covers. All this contributes to an exemplary reading experience and we also know how bad experiences can be. Maybe the light is too low and you can’t read it. Maybe the margins are too small, so you can’t read it. Maybe the font is too small for the book. A badly paginated book like a badly paginated magazine article, it stops you from actually getting into it so the aesthetics of it is something we constantly think about.

Let’s talk more about how you came to publish these three books as the first ones, and there’s going to be more in the series?

Sure, we’re publishing three, possibly four, in the fall. We’re getting ready for three in the spring. We hope to do at least 26 of them and make an encyclopedia of “New Lovers.”

In different colors?

No, all purple, just like Olympia’s. They were all green, with just text. I think they’re beautiful.

When the pitches came in what made you say, ‘We want to publish this one over the others?’ This gay love triangle [We Love Lucy], or, I guess it’s not really a love triangle because it’s all good…

You know what our editor said about We Love Lucy? We work with an editor and I asked her, ‘So what did you think of Lucy?’ And she said, ‘Oh! Fucking on every page.’ I wasn’t sure if she said that in a good way or a bad way but I’ll take it for what it is.

What else do these have in common that made you say we want to do these over the other pitches?

The second page. So how we did it was we put out a call and said, ‘Hey we’re interested in publishing erotic fiction. If you’re interested, send us a pitch.’ Which is just: tell us what your story is and then send us a sample chapter, like 2,000 words.

And we started getting them, more and more later on, and it was the second-page test. Publishing for us is a Halloween costume, we do it on Mondays and Tuesdays. And we’re certainly not erotic-fiction editors, but I trust our sensibilities as artists to know what’s interesting, to know what keeps us focused and attentive on the page or on the screen or whatever, and it was interesting as we were all reading them. It was a collective editing process—me, Matthew, Mica, and Ian. We kinda understood pretty quickly what held our attention. If we kept turning the page, we were with it. And, again, we don’t read erotic fiction, none of us did—I barely have time to read menus at this point—but we read them and you can kinda tell pretty quickly what was a story that captured attention, who was writing it to please themselves, and especially the ones who were writing it who weren’t pleasing themselves. There’s nothing worse to read than a sad sex scene, you know what I mean? And you can tell, after a couple paragraphs, if it’s going to be sad. If something’s being worked out psychoanalytically that may not be something that you want to be a part of. So it was just the second-page test. if we kept turning the page and read the finished assembled chapter, we thought we’d talk about it, and at the end of the day these three were the ones that we wanted to publish first. They passed the second-page test.

Since we’ve been talking about making books, I wanted to talk about your show at Schaulager. We talked a little bit about it at the MoMA PS1 book fair but remind me again, how many years were you at work on those pieces?

Four and a half. It wasn’t secret, as much as I was just doing it and no one was asking. It’s nice, in New York if you’re not constantly trying to grab attention, you can pretty much slip out of existence, and it’s pretty great. So after Venice I just sort of kept quiet. I didn’t return emails as much, I stopped taking opportunities to show and I kinda disappeared for a little bit. It was nothing short of breathtakingly wonderful.

How did you find the books you worked with?

Oh, the paintings? Well, you know, where do you find used books? The Strand. Sidewalks. Trash. Friends give you old books. It’s incredible what’s been published. Shocking actually. Patrick McMullan makes incredible hardcover books. You know Patrick McMullan? They’re incredible.

Of his photos? These are coffee table books?

More or less. They’re like paparazzi shots. I’ve taken many Patrick McMullan books apart.

Did he give them to you?

Oh no. Go to the Strand, find Patrick McMullan, 1987, 1986. You can see how parties age over time.

Romance novels are in general the domain of women, and the first three “New Lovers” were written by female authors. Did you make a conscious choice to publish women?

We ended up publishing all women and I think we’ll continue it. Editorially speaking, the women authors who submitted the manuscripts, submitted the sample chapters, we were more interested in. Because they in general tended to talk about and characterize sex in a relational way, and I don’t mean by relational like husband and wife or boyfriend-girlfriend, or girlfriend-girlfriend. I mean that they saw sex as interdependent on so many other elements for it to be actually sex. And I understand that idea, and I believe in that idea—that in many ways sex is only sex when it’s really not about sex. And this idea of how sex is a knotting point for so many other things. I mean we can take it in many directions, from Lacanian, to literary to philosophical, but at the end of the day it’s simply more pleasing to read. Stories about people getting it on, getting turned on, are only pleasurable insofar as that element of sexuality seeps through into other elements of the story telling, and not just about the act itself. And it tended to be that women, female authors, are better adept at describing and getting to the core of that idea. And it’s more pleasing to read.

To return to your four-and-a-half year silence. Why did you end it?

I had the show in Basel.

Right, then, I suppose, this show. But you could have gone back to it, going undercover.

Maybe times have changed. I think it was time to change again. I think after the Schaulager show, this came up, and to tell you the truth an exhibition was the last thing I had on my mind after doing the Schaulager show. But I was pleased and honored and humbled to get the award, and then when I saw the space I realized, ‘Oh I see what I can do here,’ so I think the works in the exhibition are really a dance between the work that I’d been doing since Schaulager and what this space can accommodate, given what I’m doing now.

Can you talk at all about what you’re doing now?

There’s a set of works called nonprojections that showed at the Schaulager. These are projectors electrically connected to shoes—what I call live shoes—that have electricity in them. They’re literally powered by these shoes and I’m showing prototypes of “New Lovers,” and then there’s this new piece that I’m—what can I say? I’m very curious to know how it’ll work. It involves air and fabric and movement.

It’s performative?

In a manner of speaking.

The nonprojections, when I read about them—is that turning away from your old work, the shadow work?

I don’t think it’s turning away. We just live in a different time. When I was doing animation in 2003, 2004, the kinds of images that I was creating and the kinds of movements I was choreographing onscreen and in animations and projections, I loved them. I loved looking at them, they held my attention. But I think times have changed. Our life has changed, our live with images have changed. I think our lives in 2002, 2003 were not so surrounded by moving images, or screens for that matter. Now, today, you have a screen in your pocket that can show you all manner of images. Sides of buildings are being lit up. Times Square is just an incredible moving image installation, en mass.

The times have changed. And our ability to reconcile and understand this change, while making something that will hold our attention is key, to me anyways. I don’t know about anyone else. So I wouldn’t say it’s turning away from old work. I think it’s a different outlook, based on how we live today, which at the end of the day is perhaps the only way we can live, right? Day to day.

Are there any books we should keep an eye out for, from Badlands?

Sure. We’re going to have three or four more “New Lovers” in the fall, and we’re also going to publish Plato. We’re doing a new translation of one of Plato’s early dialogues, Hippias Minor. The book is going to be called Hippias Minor, or: The Art of Cunning. And it’s a new translation by a wonderful and renowned ancient text scholar named Sarah Ruden and an essay by a Cambridge classicist named Richard Fletcher.

I don’t know that dialogue, what’s it about?

Socrates tries to argue with Hippias, claiming that the man who tells the truth is morally no more superior than the man who lies and then he goes through all these contradictory moral claims. For a century—I’d say at least a century perhaps longer—philosophers and scholars have understood it as a quixotic dialogue at best. It’s an earlier dialogue, so maybe he’s just getting his feet wet in philosophy, maybe no one knows what he’s talking about.

Because it’s weird. Plato’s one of the great moral philosophers of the West, why is he making Socrates say the person who tells the truth is no more morally superior than a person who lies well? And it revolves around the idea of lying.

What’s interesting about translation is if you put a different patina on the word, if you translate the word differently, maybe something will come up. So what I realized with my other classicist friends was that the translation of the word lying doesn’t have to emphasize the idea of deception, it can emphasize something else, because the original Greek word for lying, for the translated word of lying was polutropos. Polutropos can mean lying, but like all ancient Greek words it can have a range of meanings and one of them may be not “lying” but “cunning” and, in cunning, this idea of polutropos expands and includes what we could conceive of as the creative act and perhaps creativity in general.

So what we’re doing is retranslating it, making a whole new translation, focusing on the idea of not lying but translating the word polutropos as cunning and what one realizes is it’s possible to read the whole dialogue as not about lying but about creativity and cunning—what it means to really have a creative act, which may involve deception but perhaps involve ways of thinking about things where new choices come up because you are imaginative enough and cunning enough to see them.

It’s a completely ridiculous project because I’m no Greek scholar. We have no right doing it, but we’re still doing it.

You’re someone who I know loves Duchamp. To what extent is cunning and hidden meaning important to your practice?

At Schaulager, that show—I think this is something that wasn’t talked about a lot because I didn’t really publicize it, but I was there three and a half months to install, in Basel. While I was there, I taught at the University of Basel. So from February to April, while I was installing, I was teaching an art history course and the art history course I taught was essentially about Greek history, and art, and cunning. The lectures were called “Odysseus as artist,” and I gave two very long—too long, probably—lectures, and then I did workshops. And part of the reason I did that was because, you know, Nietzsche taught at the University of Basel. Now Nietzsche, whatever you may think about him as a philosopher, he was a formidable philologist, he knew his Greek, and in many ways his understanding of art is really colored and dominated by his understanding of Greek history and philosophy—and of course Wagner, though everyone knows Wagner’s a complete asshole. He fell in and out of love with Wagner and changed his relationship to art that way, and so when I was in Basel I decided to look into the Greek stuff some more.

Once I found out that Nietzsche taught at Basel, I thought: Well, why don’t I look into it, just the opportunity? Because if I had to focus on installing the whole time and planning a show, I’d go crazy. But four and a half years was just enough time to get myself in trouble in terms of Greek history and philosophy, and I gave these lectures. I think I’ll present them in New York at some point, but it weighs on my mind, in a pleasing way. Kind of like a nice, comforter weighs on your head when you sleep.

The extent to which an artist has to cache his meaning?

The idea of cunning. In 2012 there was a new translation of The Odyssey by a poet and writer named Stephen Mitchell, and he translates polutropos as cunning. Polutropos is a word that Homer uses to describe Odysseus in The Odyssey. But, again, there are many ways to describe polutropos. Lying, deceptive, crafty. Stephen Mitchell is a poet, he uses “cunning.” And I think to me—it’s not like I read The Odyssey a lot, who the fuck reads The Odyssey a lot, you know what i mean?—but you put that word in there, and the patina changes. Odysseus becomes not a warrior king trying to get home, but the ways in which he carries himself, tries to cheat the gods and men to try and get home imparts a creative spirit that I understand as what I’m attracted to as an artist, towards other artists and other works of art.

Odysseus, in trying to get home, is using his sense of reason to imaginatively figure out what he can and cannot get away with and give himself choices where none are evidently given. And I don’t know how else to describe the creative act, no matter what the medium is. I found it incredibly interesting. And I spent more than my fair share of time trying to unpack this idea. One manifestation is going to be this Hippias Minor book. Another will be this set of essays that I’ll deliver one day in New York. But this idea of polutropos, it infuses everything at this point. Even the erotic fiction. We have no right to publish these things. Who the fuck are we? But we’re doing it anyway. And we’re trying to do it in a manner we can live with, and in ways where choices are not evident or given, but we make those choices anyways, by hook or by crook. And I don’t know how else to do it.

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