interview

Sarà il caos — It Will Be Chaos, Exclusive Interview with the Filmmakers

Sarà il caos — It Will Be Chaos, Exclusive Interview with the Filmmakers

Partners in life and in filmmaking, Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo, have always made documentaries that would spread awareness on social justice, human rights, the environment, and the arts. Their most recent work, It Will Be Chaos (Sarà il caos) is an HBO documentary, in Association with Film2, that depicts how life in the South of Italy is thrown into disarray as refugees arrive by the thousands.

Interview of Susan Sherman by Bonny Finberg

SUSAN SHERMAN

INTERVIEWED BY BONNY FINBERG BF: Why do you think so many activists become less directly involved in political activism as they get older? Some, like Tom Hayden have entered mainstream politics, others have maintained a revolutionary stance in response to politics and the world at large, but many have retreated from the front lines. Where are they? What are they doing?

SS: I don’t think it’s true many have become less directly involved. Maybe a handful of the more famous activists, and that might not even be true. We just don’t hear about them. I was at a memorial recently for Grace Paley that was held by the War Resister’s League and the Women’s Pentagon Action and it was full of people who were active in the Sixties, many even before, and are still struggling for social justice in many areas from mainstream politics to the anti-war movement to local struggles for fair housing. Much of the really important struggle takes place on a local level and that is just not “sexy” enough for the media to report. Also there has obviously been a concerted effort after the Sixties not to cover progressive politics or activity.

BF: How do you see your own activism manifested in your life now?

SS: In a number of ways. Through my writing, teaching, working with our union—we are affiliated with the UAW—at Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College, both part of The New School, and through social justice work both community and nation based at Middle Church, a wonderfully diverse socially progressive community. And of course any demonstration that comes up, although that is harder for me now because of an injury which makes it difficult for me to walk.

BF: What issues are pivotal for you at this time? What about China and Tibet, for example? What do you see as the most important things relentless and passionate young activists should be putting their energy into? Do you see any indications that there is a youth movement? Is it a healthy one? Considering the state of things in the world at present, what do you think is necessary to create an atmosphere that will encourage more radical activism today—How much worse does it have to get? Or is it a case of depleted energies and catastrophe/issue fatigue?

SS: We hardly have to create an atmosphere that will encourage more radical activism given the situation in Iraq and the economic, environmental and social problems surrounding us today. I think that activism is all around us. Yes, it’s important to support Tibet, of course, but we have issues here at home that are vital—hurricane Katrina, survivors of which are still suffering and are scattered all over the US, the devastation in the Midwest, and the ever present issues of HIV/AIDS, sexism, racism, homophobia, economic injustice. As well as the myriad issues around immigration. Globalism is an overriding concern if these other issues are to be adequately addressed. There are all kinds of indications that a healthy youth movement is alive and well—and a healthy older movement too. The Obama campaign regardless of the nuances was built to a large extent on the need young people feel for greater social equity, for a life that has more meaning than just the number of objects you can acquire. We were lucky in a way in the Fifties and Sixties because products were not so slick and compelling and advertising was not so insidious and widespread. On the other hand while it is still in our hands we can use technology like the internet—just look at the influence of blogs, Youtube, organizations like Move On. I think people should put their energy into whatever issues move, excite, touch them most. I would recommend magazines like Colorlines, which focus on young people of color and the struggles they are engaged in at the present if you want to know what is happening now. BF: What direction does Cuba seem to be headed in from your point of view and how do you assess the “success” of the revolution?

SS: Again another very complex issue that would take a lot more than a simple answer to even begin to do justice to. When I was in Cuba in the Sixties—my last trip was in 1992—the Cubans liked to say that the rebellion succeeded in 1959 but that the revolution was an on-going process. I think we have a tendency here to think of things still in terms of beginning, middle, end instead of accepting the fact that all struggle is a process and a hugely complex one at that and ongoing. For specific information, analysis of the situation in Cuba I highly recommend a book by Margaret Randall, who figures prominently in my memoir, which will be published by Rutgers University Fall 2008 titled To Change the World: My Years in Cuba. Margaret lived in Cuba for ten years during the revolution’s formative period and has much more information and analysis about the situation then and now.

BF: Can you talk about Marcuse and Hegel’s ideas on individual choice and self-determination based on reason and rational thought— what kind of forces they were for you and those around you, in trying to build a world based on these principles rather than accepting the forces and facts of life as “the way things are,” etc?

SS: I’m not sure how much Marcuse and Hegel were on people’s minds that were struggling to fight against the many threads of repression and violence in the Sixties, particularly in the United States—which I think is the period you were referring to in this question. The catalyst would be found more in the energy and idealism of the Civil Rights Movement. The recognition that underneath the surface there were layers and layers of injustice that had to be addressed. Young people joined others already engaged in struggle who felt that two cars in every garage was not the motivation that moved them, the future they looked forward to. Marcuse’s book, The One Dimensional Man, was important because it laid out the vacuousness and emptiness of the period. Marx, particularly early Marx and Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his incorporation of Hegel (turned on his head) into his theory of historical determinism were more widely read and discussed, particularly in respect to the resolution of contradiction—the old thesis, antithesis, synthesis, negation of negation! A more pertinent question today I think—not putting down the gentlemen you name—would be the growth of media and advertising and its subliminal appeal to emotional needs that extend from the smallest parts of our lives—the toothpaste we buy—to electing our most important officials. BF: Can you talk about the sources of memory for this book? You mention the destroyed correspondence and pictures necessitated by the need to protect people from government surveillance?

SS: We actually never took many photos in the Sixties because we never knew how they would be used and I did destroy a great deal of my correspondence in the middle Seventies when women from the women’s movement were being targeted by the grand juries. That is a whole other story. Fortunately I kept letters from Margaret Randall who I had an extensive correspondence with during the Sixties. I actually had to go to the NYU library to get my corresponding letters to her—my letters are archived there with in El Corno Emplumado collection. I had some essays and articles, which were published at the time, from which I could get valuable specifics about my trips to England and Cuba. I did some research. But for the most part relying on my memory wasn’t really a problem since the incidents in the book for the most part were highlights of those years I wasn’t likely to forget!

BF: What do you feel was left out of this book that in, retrospect, you wish you’d included? SS: I would have liked to have taken the book to at least 1975 to include the women’s and gay liberation movements, a trip to Chile, the end of the Vietnam War and in 1975 a very important summer session at Sagaris, a feminist institute where I served on the faculty. But I felt that, as it was, there was a lot of information packed into one book. Who knows maybe some day I’ll write America’s Child Part Two! To repeat what I wrote in the last chapter of the book I feel what we call the Sixties really extended from the late Fifties until 1975 and that in actuality that period, even if extended, has to be viewed within a continuum of struggle in the United States. It cannot be compartmentalized. BF: Yes, I completely agree. I think books such as yours can serve as inspiration and hope for each generation of activists that come along to continue the struggle. I hope America’s Child Part Two is on your front burner.

WITH FRANCIS POWELL in PARIS and... ELSEWHERE by NINA ZIVANCEVIC

artist

Francis Powell comes from England (he always says jokingly “he's neither Scottish nor Irish, but simply plain English”)- however, for the last ten years or so he's been residing in Paris on a permanent basis. He has made a name for himself as a brilliant musician and a composer of electronic music, known as 'DJ WISE' and meanwhile he has been painting beautiful, sort of 'Art Nouveau- Klimt meets Aboriginal Art' paintings, all coupled with printed samples of his own creative writing and steady journalism. He often says that he belongs to a certain eclectic British tradition of visual artists who often turned musicians and then turned something else.

Interview With Shirin Neshat in Paris by Nina Zivancevic

Shirin Neshat is one of the leading contemporary artists in the world. She was born in 1957 in Iran. In 1974 she moved to the United States where studied art at the University of Berkeley. The Islamic revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeiny had introduced many changes into the Persian society which fell under the yoke of the Fundamentalists. All the liberties were restricted, the moral rigour was imposed and the condition of women worsened. It was only in 1990 that Shirin Neshat was able to return to her native ground- what really shocked there was the dramatic evolution of the situation of women. A recipient of many international awards, she began a series of photos called Unveiling in 1993. For these self-portraits, she wore the chador and exposed only body parts (eyes, hands, feet) which women are allowed to reveal in public according to the Islamic Law. Neshat wrote on the surfaces of the photographs, covering the exposed parts of the female bodies with Farsi script. Soonafter, in 1997 she began her video creations while continuing with her photography. Primarily inspired by the great Persian tradition and culture, Neshat shows the foresmost interest for the universal approach to concepts of society, identity, asylum, refuge and utopia.In her recent work which we were lucky to see at “Jerome Denoirmont” gallery in Paris this past spring, Neshat took a more cinematographic approach to her work – the bold metaphorical imagery of her early films and videos has given way to a more narrative approach bringing in the current dialectics of the binary oppositions such as man/woman, east/west, and oppressor/oppressed. Her recent work has drawn its inspiration from Women Without Men, a novel by the Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur which describes the lives of 5 Iranian women who lived through the history of the CIA's regime in Iran, supported by the Pahlavi royal family. Through the exploit of the themes which she had already explored in photography and video, Neshat gave us her reinterpretation of the Parsipur's novel in a double-sided project which encompases cinema and art. There is a feature film, shot in Morocco, due to be released in 2008 along with 5 videos depicting the lives of these five women during the summer of 1953. As her name in Persian means “sweet” and cultured, we were not surprised to find her answers open and responsive to the media while interviewing her at Gallery Denoirmont in Paris last spring. Question: Shirin, are you a feminist, in the largest sense of that word? Yes and No. Yes, because I’ve devoted my entire body of work to the subjects relating to women. I believe in the female power in emotional, intellectual and biological terms. No, because I’ve always fallen shy of claiming to be ‘feminist’ because at least in my culture, it has a very concrete meaning, seemingly someone who is involved in an organized movement, something that I don’t belong to and have no interest in.

QUESTION: What idea made you create 5 videos dealing with Persian women such as Mahdokht, Zarin, Munis and Faezeh? When I began to re-adapt the novel of “Women Without Men” written by Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur, into a feature length film, which essentially evolved around 5 female characters; I knew that I would develop an art component of this project. I quickly became interested in making a series of short videos that related to each one of the five female characters. I was very interested in how in a museum or gallery setting the audience could walk from room to room, visiting each women and at the end, they could put the story together. The audience in a way becomes the editor of the film, in the way that they could put the puzzle together. This approach indeed was very different than a film made for a theatre setting where the audience is quite passive seated and the narrative is linear. So at the end I managed to make the five installations and have just finished the feature too.

Question: You left your original country a long time ago. How do you relate to the images of these women now, when the Persian reality is so far away from you. How do you connect? This film of course takes place in 1953 before I was born, so it does not directly reflect the life that I experienced in Iran. But of course each woman in one way or another symbolically embodies obsessions, issues and problems that has continued to this date to haunt Iranian women, whether stemming from religion, political reality, sexual taboos.

Question: What made you draw, make photography, create art in your life to begin with? Do you remember your earliest stages of interest? Art has been a wonderful escape from the banality of everyday life and more so a way to find a meaningful engagement with life and people around me. My life since active as an artist has been an exciting one, not always easy but wonderfully full and adventurous. Also, for me making art is a way to face my own emotions and anxieties. I consider my first serious attempt in art began in 1993 with the “Women of Allah” series, a group of work that brought me back to my home country, if not geographically, spiritually and emotionally.

Question: I almost called you "female Jean Luc Godard"...What draws you towards film and video as medium, and - do you prefer that medium to painting, sculpture ? And if yes, why so? I’m very touched by what you say! Of course I don’t believe I deserve it! I developed a love affair with the moving image back in 1993, with my first video attempt for a small gallery show at Franklin Furnace. There is strong potential of poetics in this medium that I don’t believe is as tangible through mediums of painting and sculpture. At least I found myself right at home with video and film.

Question: What are its advantages and what are the limitations of these media (such as video, film) for you? For one thing with film and video, an artist can incorporate elements of photography, painting and sculpture by the way she or he visually constructs the picture. More so, with film one can be a story teller, and can experiment with music, sound, choreography, performance, and more. As for myself, making videos and films have become an incredibly challenging and ambitious creative experiences. The limitations are that the process is often tedious and complex as it takes a lot of preparation and organization, so it’s not as spontaneous as medium like painting, where you can simply pick up your brush and paint. Furthermore, once you begin to experiment with the language of cinema, one has no choice but to gain the tools, by studying its tools, and history.

Question: How do you chose your subject and themes in your work? Do you search for them or they come to you? It changes from time to time, but most often my ideas are inspired by literature that I read by various authors. Otherwise, there are times that I become obsessed with certain themes, often existential ones which eventually find their way into my art.

Question: Given the fact that your subject is often political (social commentary etc), Would you call yourself an "engagé"? I am not sure exactly how you use this term, but if I understand it right, the question is how engaged I feel in relation to the socio- political subjects of my work. The answer would be that, I feel extremely connected to all the topics that I depict, as they are all topics that have and continue to effect my personal life. Sometimes I see myself as an activist, not the type who marches into the streets but one that is constantly preoccupied by political issues and is quietly confronting them by engaging in the community.

Question: A committed artist or just a human being who observes injustice? How do you see your work? I see my art as a vehicle for dialogue and this is something I take very seriously. The subversive nature of my art is often my form of objection against any social and political injustice, in particular in relation to my own country. Of course, I can’t help but express myself not in the form of propaganda but in the form of poetry and aesthetic.

Question: What's the situation like in the American contemporary art scene? Closed, open? How do you see your own place in it? America is usually qualified as ‘melting pot’ so it’s the best place for a ‘nomadic’ artist like myself. I do however feel that I live in my own bubble in the way that I don’t follow any particular models, groups or trends. Also my subject matters (in a healthy matter) tend to pull me away from the what I consider the ‘glossy’ art world and closer to reality of everyday life. Question: What's your experience with the Iranian contemporary art scene? Are you familiar with it and are there any outstanding artists, in you view? I’m very happy to say that I’m extremely active with the Iranian community particularly with the artists and filmmakers. I regularly try to educate myself in what’s going on culturally inside and outside of Iran and there are always fascinating talents around. Next week, a show will open at the Asia Society in New York that I’ve curated with another Iranian artist Nicky Nodjoumi. This is a very powerful show of an older Iranian artist, political satirist, Ardeshir Mohassess who was once a legend in Iran, but sadly neglected for decades due to illness. I take great pride in being involved with such magnificent event.

Question: You covered your recent photographs of men and women with letters, writing. What role does literature and writing in general have for you and your work? Literature and words are suggestive of emotional and intellectual minds of the writers that deeply inspire me. Having been obsessed with Iranian female writers, in a way, I feel my visual work are embodiments of these ladies’ strong expressions. In earlier work for example I often used poetry by Forough Farokhzad, a heroic figure in Iran, a writer of enormous talent and imagination. Later, for the past five years for example, I’ve been devoting my time to the novel of “Women Without Men” by Shahrnush Parsipour whose imagination is equally extraordinary and beautiful. So literature for me is food for thought and inspiration

sn-faezehamir-khan.jpg
Faezeh & Amir Khan 2008 Ink on C-print mounted on aluminium 223.5 x 178 cm / 88 x 70 in. © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris
by_lina_bertucci_2006.jpg
Shirin Neshat Copyright Linda Bertucci, 2006 Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York

Interview of French artist Anne Van der Linden by Nina Zivancevic

Anne Van der Linden
Anne Van der Linden comes from a wealthy middle-class French family who allowed her at an early age to launch into an artistic adventure which he has never returned from afterwards. She was born in England, in 1959, but she was raised in France. She started drawing in the stream of conscioussness manner age seventeen, only to trasfer her interest to other genres while studying at the French Academy of Beaux-Arts. Perhaps it was this negative experience of the art school that prompted her to work all alone in her studio. She understood that the joy of contemplation and a challenging emotion could also serve the language of figuration and that these could be equally expressed through an expressionist drawing. Her drawings thus became at the same time serious and reminiscent of those ancient echtings of Dürer and Bosch and also critically charged and merciless somewhat like those caricatures of Otto Dix and Max Beckmann.The artist's drawings challenge those 'dangerous' or socially (un)acceptable topics-- she often asks a question whether all our relationships, including the family, sexual and the ones at work - are just a simple exercise of power ? The artist always answers this question in a brave and humorous manner as she reaches for the heritage of her great predecessors, notably authors such as de Sade, Bataille and Frida Kahlo who, in their turn, refused any given socal norms that stood in their way of being creative. The drawings of Van der Linden's are more than provocative- they are often ladden with the 'erotic' symbols as exemplified by the beautiful females resembling the top models placed on the torture table of the Great Inquisitor who, in splashing their sex with boiling oil represents, perhaps, common reason and consciousness. There are also in there the fallen angels who descend from Bosch's inferno and who devour penises in the red houses of Amsterdam and Antwerp.The constant themes of the artist's obsession are the following: the terror of racism, neocolonisation, consumerism and an overall industrialization of the society staggering both under the social regulations and family norms as well as under an influx of the pseudo-scientific and technological consciousness. And in an ancient expressionist manner her drawings also criticize the sanctum of motherhood, as they are critical of the Virgin and the Saint and of our new Holy father who hides a knife, an animal and a telephone in his pants instead of the penis. We could surely say that the girl who makes love to a phone receiver evokes more a naif symbolism of the neo-technocrat world than that she leads us to the erotic connotation of Van der Linden's image.

The artist complains that despite the fact that "all that she has always wanted to do is to be a painter" she gets sollicited by the publishers only as an illustrator. This is mainly due to her painfully precise analyses of the contemporary society, that is her drawings which often decorate the texts that are serious textual analyses of such. She treasures that painterly approach to color and the painter's material which often does not reveal itself to draughtsmen. Van der Linden had been visiting for some time psychiatric wards- an experience which left an impact on her; after such an experience she conceived the painting "Total peeling" on which a patient tries to peel off her own skin and flesh. In a certain way, the whole oeuvre of Van der Linden's enters the category of "peeling off'' of the conscious as the paintings evoke the reality peeled off and penetrated to the bone. Her palette is very heavy and sombre resemling a bit Diego Rivera's, although her overall sensibility belongs to the European art history.

The artist has also got involved in theater (through 1990s), performance and film, earlier with her legendary partner Costes. Her short films such as the "Ironing" and the "Well", 1999,treat cruel subjects: the problem of an alcoholic mother and life of a cleaning lady who gets literaly ironed by her boss. And although these films are both committed and heavy just like the artist's very painting they are also capable of keeping our attention on them- the phenomenon which surpasses many a contemporary artist and his work these days. If we were to ask about the number of Van der Linden's group or solo shows in the world we would learn that such number is big; and if we wanted to inquire about the importance or a scope of the places where she showed her work we would also learn that it has been very present in many prestigious places in the world. However, when we start thinking of the artist's work, this particular thing is not something that we begin to think of. The important thing is that her art approves of thinking, so to speak, and at the moment when she flashes her art like a gun or a glove , to the face of the spectator, he takes a good look at it- and starts thinking about it.

Her work is to be seen most recently at Les Singuliers Gallery in Paris.

Amour by Anne Van der Lindencyclabominable

1. Question: What made you draw and paint in your life to begin with? Do you remember your earliest stages of interest?

Anne Van der Linden: As a child I had access to art books and art pieces as my mother managed a small art gallery in Paris - she sold contemporary prints. My first drawing experiments happened in the 70's. At that time everybody smoked pot and I did the same for a while, so in that sort of context I started drawing the improvisations, free association figures, objects and shapes, all of which were very distant from the academic type of artwork, meaning that they appeared very spontaneous. Then I went to art school and lost that manner, but in a way I kept the "free association" mood until now.

2. Question: I called you a sort of "female Durer"...What draws you towards drawing and etching as medium, and do you prefer that medium to oil painting ?

Anne Van der Linden: In the beginning drawings and etchings were the skeleton on which I had built my painting skill (isn't that a classic one?!), that was the place where the idea materialized, nothing more or less than that. Then a friend suggested that I just show my drawings as he thought them very good, and I followed his advice. However, the truth is that I still prefer painting (mix of oil and acrylic) to any other tehnique. Painting is really the cult object for me...maybe because the painting material makes the object look like a corpse, as it smells, shines, and appearing sometimes repulsive and at some other times attractive, it is more ambiguous, and interchanging according to lightning etc...

3. Question: What are its advantages and what are the limitations of that medium?

Anne Van der Linden: Drawing is easy to be reproduced, you hardly get bad surprises, also you can draw everywhere, you don't need much room. Drawing is the place of research, and by using the line you try to bring out ideas, and you can throw away the sheet if you are not satisfied with the result, thing that you cannot do so easly with painting, because it is so sticky and wet it becomes quickly fused and saturated with color. Plus, you don't want to run through the canvas too quickly because of the high price of the material! But drawing -the way I conceive it - is a very austere technique, I sit at my table for hours and sometimes I get hand cramps. Also it can take me quite a long time to fill the blank space and « kill » the paper sheet, unlike the medium of painting where you use a few brush strokes and that's it, the space of the canvas is conquered in no time- it becomes my space!

4. Question: How do you chose your subject , your themes in painting? Do you search for them or do they come to you?

Anne Van der Linden: It comes from varied sources, some images come from what I saw and that particular experince then influenced and inspired me to paint it, or also, there are ideas which I am not fully aware of and which come to me from the 'back room' of my mind... Most of the time things appear to my mind as set choreographies, and then the action becomes more precise from one study to another. The idea develops simultaneously with the shape, and after a few aborted attempts at legitimate existence it reaches the state of harmony, I mean I experience it as such when the image starts "talking" to me. Sometimes I take over the subject from one image to another, developing the so called 'small variations' of the original version.

5. Question: Given the fact that your subject is often political (social commentary etc), Would you call yourself an « engage »? A committed artist of a sort? How do you see your work in a larger context?

Anne Van der Linden: My art talks about mankind and doesn't avoid any aspect of humanity, I use obscenity, violence, sexuality and all our orifices as means of expression, and automatically that makes a committed artist out of me, as I have to account for the choices I make. A Feminist? It is a questionable tag for me to get- sometimes I can adopt a feminine point of view and explore some subjects that have been unexplored because they belong specifically to women's domain of work. Sometimes these are themes which women have not dealt with much until now, so it is interesting to use certain paths to explore them. But in general my position as an artist is the one of "transgender", meaning being beyond sexual determination, just like an animal is,so that I could feel more free in such an operating space. Also I happened to be rejected by so-called feminists, who thought that I was presenting a degrading image of women. I thought that their opinion was so unfair and boring! Such a mental sclerosis!

6. Question: What's the situation like in French contemporary scene? Closed or open? Likable, or rather dislikable?

Anne Van der Linden: Well, viewing things from my personal experience, the French scene is quite shy, at the same time full of the inferiority complex and conservative, always looking up to foreign countries art scene and deciding what is good in art or not, and the result of such a process is disastrous as we all know. Also the institutions have been adamant for decades that their rôle con sisted in promoting the old conceptual art, and all of us painters sculptors etc...could just go and die elsewhere. However, on the other hand, here in France I can make and broadcast pieces of art that could easily put me in trouble if I 'd shown them in other parts of the world. That lack of censorship here IS good!

7. Question: What's your experience with film, video? Do you like working with that media?

Anne Van der Linden: I have made 3 short films some years ago (2000-2001), and I used to develop and extend the themes of my paintings into film, in order to make them move into action, and this sort of experience was interesting. What I mean is that these films were close to performances, with a more material, everyday life aspect to them than my painterly images had before. But the filming of these images hasn't been an easy process- Ii had conflicts with the technicians I was working with and this problem has been blocking me and my filming process eversince.

Interview with DJ B-Roc

I first met Ben Ruttner (DJ B-Roc) through my sister at our high school in New Hampshire. He was a freshman who wore big t-shirts and sold mix tapes out of his backpack. At the time he was the only DJ in our school. He was also probably the only serious entrepreneur. (All the drug dealers I knew smoked way more than they sold, and everybody else mostly just worked at a bagel shop or hung around the parking lot at the video store.) From his personal mix tape circuit, to packed talent shows, to being a junior DMC finalist, Ben had way more hustle then your average 14 year old dude. He’s 21 now, and living in New York City. The hustle hasn’t stopped, and the music has only gotten better. B-Roc is like Rick Rubin and Russell Simons all at once, a gifted music maker with a mind for the business that I know must go way beyond his years. If in 20 years we’re all downloading Chinese Reggae to an invisible chip in our third ears, I bet B-Roc will have something to do with it.

You just opened up a studio in Chinatown, right?

Yeah. It’s exciting, man. “Heavy Roc Music.” I’m in here every day, and the place is fully operational now [...]

Interview with Jessica Hagedorn

Interview with Jessica Hagedorn

(via email)

Nizhen Hsieh

8/8/04

Introduction

 

      Jessica Hagedorn

 

 

Jessica Hagedorn is a widely acclaimed novelist, poet, playwright and screenwriter, as well as a National Book Award nominee. Born in 1949 and raised in the Philippines, she moved from Manila with her family to San Francisco as a teenager. It was in the late 70s when the San Francisco artistic scene began to plateau that she moved to New York to seek an artistic jolt in perspective. She is the author of three novels, Dream Jungle, The Gangster of Love, Dogeaters and of \Danger and Beauty, a collection of selected poetry and short fiction. She also wrote the theatrical adaptation of Dogeaters}. She is the editor of the first and second \work{Charlie Chan is Dead}, both anthologies of contemporary Asian-American literature. Ishmael Reed has described her as a "vanguard artist," a writer at the forefront crossing not just the boundaries of culture and race but of artistic mediums as well.

 

In Dream Jungle, you manipulate the linearity of colonial conquest by rendering history and space, tools we use to locate ourselves with, monumentally ambiguous. Moreover, in the updated anthology of Charlie Chan is Dead II,} it is also emphasised that being "at home in the world" is no longer a comfortable reclamation of cultural heritage as it is expected traditionally. The possibility of choice has now entered a new phase, the competitive necessity of choice. In other words, being "at home" in these times brings with it discomfort and confusion on an individual level. How do you think our definition of identity has changed since the turn of the 20th Century up till now?}

 

You answered your own question in the introductory commentary above ... when you state that "being at home in the world is no longer a comfortable reclamation of cultural heritage as it is expected traditionally ... " As you can see from many of the stories in the new Charlie Chan 2 anthology, being in the world can be both beautiful and unsettling. I don't think it's an either/or situation, ever. I think it's always a balancing act.

How do you think it shifted particularly after 9/11?}

 

Well, it's become even more complicated and messy. For example  --  what does it mean to be an American and a New Yorker at this point in time? Does it mean I am pro-Bush, or anti-Bush? Does it mean I am part of the liberal elite, that I applaud Michael Moore's documentaries? And so on, and so on. But life, as we know, is full of murk and moral ambiguities. 9/11 forced us all to think about gray areas.

 

In talking about Asian-American representation, there is always the underlying danger of obsessing over a politically correct cultural conception. How do you think we can change that rigid viewpoint?}

 

"Correctness" and rigidity in anything are attitudes which have never interested me. Life is not simple, and people can't be boxed into being either heroes or villains. I don't know how you can change a reader's rigid mode of thinking, but you can certainly challenge it by continuing to present art and literature that is provocative, nuanced, surprising, more complex and profound than perhaps they are used to encountering. Hopefully, their eyes open up to a whole new world of possibilities. Humor is essential. And a sense of irony.

 

 From a cross-cultural perspective, how do you think these issues concerning identity have helped contemporary fiction evolve to what it is now, as you say "beautiful and unsettling?"}

 

I don't know what issues concerning identity have helped contemporary fiction evolve to what it is now. All I know is that the range of voices that are being heard and published is a lot more diverse than when I was coming up. Finally, we are reading all sorts of stories being written by different kinds of writers! American publishers, who can be very myopic about this, are realizing that there is, indeed, a broad audience for our work.

 

 

{What are some of the non-fictional and fictional contemporary books you are currently reading? }

 

I have just finished Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin," a brilliant, moving, and hugely entertaining novel. Am skimming through Dale Peck's "Hatchet Jobs," a collection of his literary criticisms. Some of his essays are right on target and very funny.  I have also read Han Ong's latest novel, "The Disinherited," which is wonderful.

 

{In your experience with Asian-American Writers' Workshop and Basement Workshop, who were some of the writers you encountered that were exceptionally inspiring? And why?}

 

Both Basement Workshop in NYC and Kearney Street Workshop in San Francisco were important to my growing up as a poet and fiction writer. I met a wonderful community of writers such as Shawn Wong, Oscar Penaranda, Serafin and Lou Syquia, Al Robles, Geraldine Kudaka, Russell Leong, Kitti Tsui and many others in the Bay Area; at Basement, I met Fay Chiang, Richard Oyama, and a slew of actors, dancers, musicians and choreographers like Teddy Yoshikami, Jason Hwang. Tzi Ma, and visual artists like John Woo. At Asian-American Writers' Workshop, I have encountered some of the best and the brightest young Asian-American writers, poets and playwrights who are working today. Folks like Quang Bao, Derek Nguyen, Christian Langworthy, Meera Nair, Monique Truong, Timothy Liu, Philip Huang, Joel Tan, Gina Apostol, Bino Realuyo ... And we can't forget writers from Hawaii like RZ Linmark, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Darrell Lum, Marie Hara, Cathy Song, Wing Tek Lum, and Eric Chock, just to name a few. My goodness, I could go on and on. It's inspiring because the community has grown and matured, and I think we are in an exciting place in time.

{Are there any specific foreign writers that especially appeal to you, particularly those who write about the neo-colonial experience?}

 

I am looking forward to reading the Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, ... I love Garcia Marquez, Manuel Puig, Arundhati Roy, J.M. Coetzee, Cabrera Infante, early Rushdie ... my list of favorites is quite long.

 

{What is your perspective on your own post-colonial experience?}

 

I don't think that's for me to ponder. But I wonder if it's possible for me to write a novel that is entirely set in the U.S. and deals with the aftermath of 9/11. How post-colonial is that?

 

{What other mediums of art such as dance and musical performances, plays, photography/video installations and art exhibits have influenced your approach to writing?}

 

Music is very influential to my writing, as are theater and film. I love writing dialogue, and I think a lot of my writing is visual and very cinematic.

 

{Why has music been so influential? What particular genre of music and which musicians? }

 

From the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Sly Stone, Prince, Bjork, Macy Gray, The Roots, and what is going on today. The music of the world.

 

{What plays have you seen recently? }

 

A contemporary adaptation of "Antigone" with an Asian-American cast, and excerpts from a new play by Tony Kushner with Laura Bush as its main character, called "Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy."

 

{Who are a few of your favourite film directors?}

 

Pedro Almodovar is god. I love the Godard of "Weekend" and "Breathless," Wong Kar-Wai, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann. American film noir from the 40s and 50s. Also Alfonso Cuaron and the guy who directed "Amores Perros"  --  I believe his last name is Inarritu.

 

{You describe your writing as being both aesthetically "visual" and "cinematic." What is your purpose? Is it to provoke a more immediate and visceral response in the reader?  }

 

Probably. But I don't give it much thought. It just happens.

 

{Where did the idea for \work{Dream Jungle} come from?}

 

From an actual historical event which occurred in 1971. A so-called "Stone Age" tribe was discovered in the Philippine rain forest by a man named Manda Elizalde. Then, of course, there was the filming of "Apocalypse Now."

 

{Being of mixed parentage where you describe your roots as being "dubious," hybridity has always been one of the essential aspects of your art, how has that also influenced your writing? }

 

Hybridity keeps me from being rigid about most things. It has taught me to appreciate the contradictions in the world and in my life. I scavenge from the best.

 

{Why do you think it is important to utilize other mediums of art to express oneself?}

 

It opens you up to different ways of expression and the endless possibilities of creation.

 

{Do you ever consider returning to the Philippines, to impart the tools and skills you have learned here in America in crafting your art, back to the community  (specifically the youth), so that they may learn how to empower themselves through artistic expression?}

 

Your question makes me cringe. If people want to invite me back to share my experiences or writing skills, then fine ... I'm happy to share what I know. But the thought of going back on my own, to "impart the tools and skills" that I "have learned here in America" (as you put it) seems somewhat condescending. I try to resist that kind of missionary zeal.

 

{Let me rephrase the question. Having moved to the U.S. from the Philippines as a teenager and having acquired a cross-cultural artistic experience as a result of that transition, do you ever return to the Philippines to conduct writing workshops for young aspiring writers over there as you have done here? }

 

I've done readings and informal talks, but I haven't yet been invited to conduct a writing workshop.

 

{Name one comfort and one discomfort. (Explain.)}

 

Comfort: food. Food as cultural memory, food as sensory pleasure.

 

Discomfort: money. Never having enough. Anxiety.

 

{Do you think all this has bridged or deepened your own identity conflict? }

 

I have no idea.

 

{Has becoming a mother changed the way you express your cultural attitude? }

 

Becoming a mother has helped make me a tougher, stronger writer. Everything matters. Time is precious.

 

{Is there anything else you would like to add? }

 

Nope.

 

Mahmoud Darwish: Palestine's Poet of Exile

"Absent, I come to the home of the absent," the leading Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, writes. No other poet captures the Palestinian consciousness and collective memory the way he does. At sixty-one, whether he is giving a reading in Paris or Palestine, he draws crowds of thousands, from government officials to schoolteachers, taxi drivers to students. In his latest collection, Judarieh (Mural), the poet finds himself in between love and death, wondering which of the two will conquer. "After the stranger's night, who am I?"

Frank Gonzales of "Manito"

Frank Gonzales, otherwise known as"Frankie G.," heats up a seat at the House of Tribes Theatre, a small black box on the Lower East Side of New York City. With a quiet confidence and intense gaze that could melt Alaska, he sits inside the red theatre seat in a black jumpsuit and sneakers, donning a chiseled jaw, gracious humility, and the smoldering eyes of a rising star.

Looking Behind the Vision Festival

On June 13, when the doors of the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts open for Vision Festival XI, Arts for Art -- the organization that organizes and presents the annual jazz fest -- will also be opening the door to the adoration and criticism they've faced every year for a decade. The praise and complaints are largely for the same thing, namely for hosting hours and hours of high energy jazz. Horns blaring, basses booming and drums being beaten, it's a tradition carried on for some forty years, in the wake of the great John Coltrane.

Interview with Ayana V. Jackson and Marco Villalobos

African by Legacy, Mexican by Birth. And we started it in 2003. But actually the discussion comes back to the day that Marco and I met, when, in a conversation, we started talking about Afro-Mexico. I had studied race relation in Latin America and the Caribbean, and that's where I learned about the African presence in Mexico, and the fact that there were still communities.