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Blurring the distinctions between memoir, fiction, theory and confessional, the writing of Chris Kraus is always a dexterous balance. Her first novel, I Love Dick was penned in the wake of an abandoned filmmaking career as a psycho-sexual exorcism of a life on the art world sidelines. In the years that followed, a near-rabid cult fan base has grown around the author’s introspective and wry prose (further novels include Aliens and Anorexia and Torpor) and Kraus had become a staple of the Southern California art scene, contributing to the monograph LA Art Land and publishing two collections of writings on art Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness and Where Art Belongs. Her recently published fourth novel, Summer of Hate, steers startlingly clear of the gallery, instead confronting a very different system of white cubes: the United States penal system. It is a tumultuous departure for the writer, who recently spoke with me about the book, her involvement with publishing imprint Semiotext(e), and a recent foray into curatorial practice.
I think one of the first, and most striking things that I noticed while reading Summer of Hate is the way in which you dither between different genres. You start with the pulpy S&M part of the book, and the thriller which comes in its wake. Then there’s the absurdity in dealing with the prison system and all of its bureaucracies. How did you decide to play on these different kinds of genres? Was it hard to bring them together?
The styles came from the characters, but the hardest part was getting Catt out of LA to begin the rest of the story. She’s about to give all her money away to someone she met on a BDSM dating website. Why would anyone do this? It seemed hard to believe. But when I started trying to write it, the story clicked in to a genre suspense form. She’s in a delirium at the start of the book, running away. She thinks she’s being pursued. The reader might sense that this is delusional thinking, but at the same time – the killer could show up at any minute. Catt is completely tripping.
When she leaves LA for New Mexico, the pulse slows way down. She enters “real life,” she meets Paul Garcia. Still, the story moves straight ahead, in a line, like a thriller. No flashing back. But even writing about Paul, I felt this credibility problem. Like, would people accept that someone who’s been drinking and drugging for 20 years, in and out of prison and jail, with very little self-consciousness, is really a good, well-meaning guy? In Summer of Hate, Paul and Catt are as extreme and contradictory as people we know in real life. But fiction is rarely like that. In books, people are more consistent! Weirdly, one of the writing models I used for the Paul parts of the book was John Cheever’s Bullet Park. Nailles, the good guy, is being plotted against by Hammer, the bad guy, but Hammer himself is fleeing a dark cafard… a gloomy depressive haze that transforms the person into an agent of fate. Paul’s police troubles were like that. Police troubles compounded by being intermittently homeless and broke, having to catch a Greyhound bus to these endless court dates, and then sleep overnight in the park – these endless and insurmountable difficulties, circumstantial for anyone in that situation – to the point where just to get through a day is a black comedy.
Right? And we as the “culturati” kind of sympathize with this, but from the outside. But once you bring it down to the level getting up before dawn to catch the fucking bus that takes 13 hours to travel a few hundred miles – and you’ve got just 20 bucks – the sheer physicality of moving around, from place to place – Conveying the physical, as well the psychic, situation of that, was my strategy in that part of the book.
And that comes into conflict with the Catt character and what drives her from place to place to place, creating these hierarchies, pitting one situation against the other – which becomes the very conflict of the book, in a way. Catt’s internal conflict – how one character is in fundamental conflict with the other, in their lifestyles, in everything. There almost is no empathy between the two of them, even though they’ve fallen in love. Did you consider how readers would show empathy toward the Catt character, as well as the Paul character? I almost feel – it’s interesting you bring up the difficulty of empathizing with Paul – because I almost feel that it’s trickier to empathize with Catt.
She’s driven by a different kind of anxiety and despair than his. Yet Catt’s mental space is so poisoned by the atmosphere in the world at that time. I wanted to capture the feeling of anyone’s daily life within the paramilitary atmosphere of the Bush years, 05 – 06. American flags everywhere you look, terror alerts, the preemptive arrests and detention of whole groups of people moving further and further off the radar until they no longer appear, or become the last item of news. The feeling of constant surveillance, a Noah’s Ark of repression with different demographic groups singled out and rounded up. Immigrants, dry-wallers, cab drivers, attorneys, artists who aren’t all that well known – It was very hard for me to wake up to that every day. I was writing art essays, doing my job, but the concerns of high culture in circulation then had nothing to do with what was going on in the world. And this was very disturbing to me. To just continue what I was doing felt very collusive and weird. But you couldn’t talk about it.
Hedi [El Kholti, co-editor of Semiotext(e)] and I used to talk about the films playing around at that time.
That were coming out of that ethos?
Yeah, the “new sadism,” a very cynical enterprise. Saw 1 was concurrent with Abu Ghraib. And then, Saw 2 and 3 came out during the trials. Together with Hostel, of course -
That subjective strain was one of the things that struck me, too. Obviously, I Love Dick is a very autobiographical novel. To what extent have you phased that penchant for autobiography out of your writing, because this is very much presented as a novel. In the first book you employ the actual names of those involved in the situation, the third book there was extra-textual referencing, where you played on Les Choses, changing the characters slightly. How do you see Summer of Hate existing in the autobiographical arc of your body of work?
They’re all novels that come from life, in different ways. But the first two books were written in real time. With Torpor, the third, that changed. It was written in the third person, in the past tense. Torpor was much more personal than the first two books. And it centered around historical memory. Jerome and Sylvie, the couple in the book, are going to post-revolutionary Romania to grab a white orphan, but he’s haunted by memories as a child survivor of the holocaust. Meanwhile, the wall has come down and it’s the new Europe. A surfeit of memory in the past, the absence of any historical memory in the present.
Or, perhaps, immediate history. The Bush years are behind us now, thankfully, but how long did it take you to develop the novel?
I wrote a series of related non-fiction pieces in 05-06, but began to work on the novel in 2008. By then, the Bush years were over and I was dealing with a slightly distant past. Really, a closer historical period than we usually see dealt with in fiction.
Sure. And did the novel change much over the years in which you developed it, like the ways in which you thought you would approach the subject matter? It is just very interesting, the shift from the tone of that first chapter, which was published years in advance online. And you have the title, Summer of Hate, which is so very evocative in relation to Catt’s initial plight and the dangers that life may be throwing her way at that moment in the narrative. It was surprising to find that the book develops into a very different kind of story than I was anticipating, as a reader.
Catt isn’t really the main character. But it’s easier – I mean, she’s more like the typical reader – to draw people into the story via her world. Weird as her situation is, as an urban professional, she’s the one to whom people can more quickly relate.
And expect, really.
Yeah, so her dilemma acts as the hook.
What texts were you looking at when you were developing Summer of Hate? I know you said earlier that you were looking at a lot of genre fiction for the opening chapter. But, again, your first book came out of your collaborative relationships with the writers and theorists around you, at the time. Does that continue to this day and did it influence the style of Summer of Hate?
Oh definitely! I guess this time I was looking more at dead writers, rather than at contemporaries. Chester Himes, who wrote both literary fiction and crime genre books, was a huge influence. He’d been incarcerated for seven years during his youth. In fact, it was in prison that he began to write. His work was just butchered during his lifetime. A black man, writing about race, in the mid 20th century, and just brilliant, full of uncensored rage. And then Patricia Highsmith, of course.
Oh yeah? I thought I caught a whiff of Highsmith in there. She’s always great to turn to.
Yeah! She does money, envy and crime so well. I feel very close to the work of writers like Eileen Myles and Ariana Reines, although I don’t specifically mention their work in this book.
It did strike me, with this particular book, too, that it contains the least amount of art writing [of your novels]. Probably, like you said, because this is a Paul book, not a Catt book. But I wonder if that was really intentional.
Truly. I was like, “Fuck the art world!” It’s such a narrow bandwidth of experience, full of people who are totally sheltered from what’s going on in the larger world.
This coming from the person who just published a book bearing the broad title, Where Art Belongs…
Right. [laughs] And that’s a very hopeful book.
Art criticism, theory and literature were so bound together in your first two books, which used artists like Paul Thek and Hannah Wilke and philosopher Simone Weil as narrative metaphors or ciphers. But since you’ve been writing books like Where Art Belongs and Video Green, which are specifically “art books,” do you feel more comfortable making a book like Summer of Hate? Like, since you have the art books, then you can have free reign to be more… I guess, literary, with your novels. Does that allow you to write the books that you want to write, outside of the art context?
Yeah. Now that I have more of a career on the art writing circuit, I have the chance to write about art in a more focused way, in journals and books. My writing about art has changed since I Love Dick … a little more gravitas, or theoretical …
Even between Video Green and Where Art Belongs…
Well, there’s a big jump [there]. I’m getting older but the kids all stay the same age. The essays in Where Art Belongs are more discursive, trying to understand cultural politics in the big picture, rather than just offer my own experience viewing a work.
Taking out the art parts leaves me freer in writing fiction. I’m thinking, maybe my next book will feature a serial killer – did you see how the ending of Summer of Hate leaves the door open to that? [laughs]
That sounds very exciting. And that approach seems to reflect, in some ways, your experience forming Native Agents. Can you talk a little about that, giving voice to people who are not necessarily writing in the space that Semiotext(e) was developed from, but are still writing very vital and exciting novels. I know that something of a cult has sprung up around that series, especially in the beginning, where suddenly there was a literary platform for Cookie Mueller, Ann Rower, or—
Michelle Tea! I mean it really became the girl books.
Well, not just girls! But yeah, what drove you to develop that series?
When I started living with Sylvere [Lotringer, founder of Semiotexte], he and Jim Fleming of Autonomedia had just started the black, Foreign Agents theory books. Starting in 1982, they published Baudrillard, Foucault, Virillio, Deleuze and Guattari in these compact little volumes that became very fetishistic, fashionable objects – French theory Brut, designed to fit into the front pocket of a black leather jacket.
They were like little theory bombs.
Right, and there were these theory boys following Sylvere. They were so fetishistic.
I lived in the East Village and my friends were more people from around the Poetry Project – Ann Rower, Eileen [Myles], and I wondered why their work wasn’t getting the same cultural currency that the French theory was. From there, I began to extrapolate. Maybe their writing was an enactment of the theories of subjectivity found in French theory? And I thought, “How cool would it be to publish Cookie Mueller, Baudrillard, Eileen Myles, Foucault, side by side?”
Absolutely! And I’m also happy to see with the new Interventions series that you’re going back to the small format. It was a trademark, but I think it was great that when Native Agents came out, it was in these vibrant 90s colors that were like an antidote to the little black book.
Can you share some of the stories that came out of assembling that series? I mean, there must be a book alone on working with Cookie.
Oh yeah! We all did a tour together in 1992 in Germany and I think everyone has written about it differently. Kathy Acker wrote about it in My Mother: Demonology, Ann wrote about it, I believe Lynne [Tillman] wrote about it too. Really everyone except Richard Hell, who was kind of semi-checked-out for most of the tour.
When I moved out to California, the series continued. Eileen introduced me to Michelle [Tea] and it was obvious that Michelle’s work had to come out, and we wanted to be part of it. So we started a new round of books – we did Romy Ashby and Deren Ludd and a few others. But when Hedi joined Semiotext(e) at a co-editor in 2004, he brought in new interests. He had an interest in archival materials from Europe in the 1960s and 70s that included what we came to describe as ‘non-privatized sexuality’ – mostly gay, but not exclusively. For example, Hedi acquired the Little Black Book of Grisiledis Real, a cultural activist and life-long prostitute who described herself as an “anarchist whore.” Hedi introduced the work of Tony Duvert. Duvert’s The Good Sex, which we published in 2006, was the perfect rejoinder to assimilationist politics. And he brought in Abdellah Taia, and edited Pierre Guyotat. At this point, the three of us work on the list equally, while maintaining the separate imprints.
It seems like Semiotext(e) has been producing more lush catalogues lately, the Fred Halsted book coming on the heels of the beautiful Wojnarowicz book, which was an amazing and aesthetic document. Do you see Semiotext(e) doing more art books – monograph-like books?
There is also the one on Penny Arcade. And the upcoming Bruce Hainley’s monograph on Sturtevant, Under the Sign of [sic] will certainly be lavishly illustrated. You know, they’re a lot of work. Utopie just about killed Hedi. Everything in French had to be translated and re-spaced exactly into cartoon balloons, or inside complicated collages. But we might do another. I mean the William E. Jones book was really important, there was never any doubt we’d do that. At the moment, we’re a little more focused on the Interventions, which now includes fiction like Jarett Kobek’s ATTA. We have a novella coming from Ludovico Pignatti, about a straight guy who develops an obsession with a rich, older man. Queer theorist and philosopher Didier Eribon’s Return to Reims a deeply personal social study about class and sexuality. And Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, a brilliant deconstruction of the male-modernist canon, will come out this month.
You’ve also been involved, recently, with curating – we just saw one another at Artists Space earlier this year for your show Radical Localism: Art, Video and Culture from Pueblo Nuevo’s Mexicali Rose. As with Summer of Hate, your presentation of those artists worked to provide a deeper context for international contemporary art. Can you talk a little bit about how you found those artists and what drew you to provide that particularly “art world” platform?
The Radical Localism show was so exciting. I met Marco Vera, the founder of Mexicali Rose, in 2010 when I was researching the “Tiny Creatures” story for Where Art Belongs. These Echo Park artists had gone down there to put up a show, and I was sort of retracing their steps. But when I got there, I was just blown away by what Marco and his friends were doing. They’re all in their early 30s, bilingual, they could all be in NY or LA if they wanted to. But instead they’ve decided to do their work there. It’s a gallery, a media center, a radio station. And such a party environment, it’s so social. So I kept going back – with the pretext of writing about them. I was there for Dino Dinco and Julio Torres’ “Todos Somos Putos” (We Are All Faggots) which was really interesting. Dino lives in LA, Julio lives in Mexicali. They met online – not a hookup, you know, more of a Myspace-days art hookup, and they decided to work together. So they did this gay-themed show in Mexicali, which on the one hand is an incredibly Catholic and homophobic environment, and yet – as Julio’s work showed – there is a huge gay scene there, that straight, macho guys famously participate in. Julio is a Mexicali artist, but the assertions of the show – it was completely anti-assimilationist – were part of a more international dialogue. So when I was asked if I wanted to guest curate something in New York, I thought, how cool would it be to bring the Mexicali artists here?
One of the things I’ve noticed, traveling around and looking at art in all of the centers, is how dislocated everyone is. None of the artists really live in their countries anymore and, and the most common subject of work is psychic and physical dislocation. So how interesting is it to run into people who don’t do that? The Mexicali artists have chosen not to be here because they see a greater possibility for them to do something there instead, even though it is off the grid and they don’t have as much access to gallery representation. They see the benefits really outweighing the negatives.
And what was their response, having the work go from the local context to – did it just go to Artists Space or… you did something with them in LA too, didn’t you?
Not in LA. I mean, they’ve been to LA for other things, in other ways, but they just went to Berlin – Artists Space took them to Berlin.
And how did they respond to these different contexts? How do you feel that the work changed being position in, like, Artists Space?
It hasn’t changed; I’m waiting for them to become big careerist assholes, but… it hasn’t happened yet! [laughs] Marco Vera and [muralist] Fernando Corona are sophisticated people, they’ve traveled around but it was very great for them to start showing their work in these other contexts. Ironically, you know, they’ve never been invited to show in Mexico City, even though they live in Mexicali. It was only after being in New York that they were invited to Mexico City.
That’s the way it always works, doesn’t it? You have to go away to come home.