srijeda, 26. studenoga 2014.

Paul Chan - Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Charles Fourier and Henry Darger)

Paul Chan je monumentalni art-trickster. Od spajanja Dargera i Fouriera do izdavanja neobičnih, i artističkih e-knjiga (Badlands Unlimited).

Paul Chan by Mark Alice Durant

Paul Chan, detail from Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.

I met Paul Chan in 1999 when I began teaching at the Milton Avery Graduate School for the Arts at Bard College.  I know this sounds like hyperbole but when I walked into his studio for the first time, I felt like I was stepping into the future of art.   Not in any weird messianic way, just in the complex, subtle, inventive and accessible manner that his work was mapping its own territory. There was something about his unrelenting focus, his generosity that manifested in his articulate embrace of ideas from all over the cultural spectrum and his ability to laugh easily at everything, including himself (For example, if you click on the ‘complete profile’ link on his website National Philistine, you are taken to the obituary for a doctor who shared his name). But most of all, Paul’s work gave me shivers.
He achieved almost instant recognition when he exhibited Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization in 2002.  Happiness…. is an 18 minute animated loop projected on a floating screen shaped and textured like a torn scroll.  Since then, Chan has exhibited his work at the Venice Biennale, the Whitney Biennial, Documenta, The Serpentine Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum.  In 2007, Chan collaborated with the Classical Theater of Harlem and Creative Time to produce a site-specific outdoor presentation of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot in New Orleans. In 2010, Chan founded Badlands Unlimited, a press devoted to publishing artist writings and writings about art in both paper and digital forms.
This conversation took place at Chan’s Brooklyn Navy yard studio on January 14, 2014.

MAD: When you were in the grad program at Bard, you were already working on Happiness…, in fact you worked on it your entire time there.
PC: That’s right
MAD: Was it difficult to work on such a long-term project in a grad program when there is pressure to resolve things, to move on and be productive?  Did you know it was going to be such a consuming project when you started it?
PC:  I didn’t expect anything out of it. I just needed something to hold my attention. I was doing other things while I was in grad school, but Happiness… was the one that held my attention the most, so I kept doing it.  The form changed over time, through exposure and conversations with others in the program.
MAD: What was the starting point for Happiness…? Was it a particular image or idea?
PC:  It was a question. What is Henry Darger?  I went to school in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute and at that time during the mid 1990s, outsider art was in the air. I was exposed to Darger, Bill Traylor, and Howard Finster. Lee Godie used to sell her work on the steps outside of the Art Institute.  I was in the film / video program and intellectually it was so far away from the outsider art I was drawn to. Maybe it was attractive precisely because it was so far away from what I was doing at the time. I couldn’t make sense of him or his work. The more I looked at the work the more I asked ‘What is going on here?’  I didn’t know what I was looking at and that was the beginning.
Paul Chan, detail from Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.

MAD: That reminds me of something you said a year or two ago in a talk in Hong Kong that the power of art, for you is when you cannot make sense of something, when it is outside the realm of what you know.  There is something about Henry Darger’s work that is beyond some level of comprehension. The Vivian Girls for example, who are in Darger’s work of course, and in Happiness…, they are forever young, hermaphroditic, exuberant and perverse, loving and fierce.  They are so familiar, partly because Darger traced from commercial images as a source of his pictures, but their behavior is so other, so unexpected in terms of human interaction.
PC:  Strangeness and attraction, flipsides of the same coin.  As I hear you describe the Vivian Girls it make me think that those are all the things that we wish we could be.  They embody the plenipotentiary. Darger imagined them having all the potential a human being ought to possess in order to be fully human. And that is very compelling and perverse.  This also why Charles Fourier came into the picture. Fourier became the prism through which I began to understand Henry Darger. Fourier was not a perverse outsider artist but a political philosopher and for me Darger’s world is a manifestation of what Fourier wrote about.  Fourier enlarged the notion of self to encompass not only political and social aspirations but sensuous ones as well. Fourier is the only philosopher I am aware of who philosophizes using desserts as metaphors. He spoke endlessly about tarts and pies. Why would a philosopher use tarts as a metaphor for thinking about political and social progress? It makes perfect sense if you are trying to enlarge the self as an emblem of society.
MAD: Another compelling thing is that this utopia envisioned by Darger, Fourier and yourself is not all sanitized, maddeningly altruistic and ultimately boring, like some Christian vision of heaven or communistic paradise of egalitarianism, there is room for darker, more idiosyncratic manifestations of happiness. I think surprise is really important.
PC: This is true; it’s part of the pleasure of life and maybe one of the few pleasures of art.  On the other hand, I want to speak up for those sanitized and boring utopias.  Plato’s Republic may be one of the boring utopias. But I respect it insofar as I understand Plato’s history. Particular life experiences shaped how he wrote it. Now, I don’t want to reduce everything to biography, but life experiences matter.  The fact that he was betrayed and enslaved by a tyrant before he wrote the Republic says a lot about what he thought we needed to know so we don’t end up in the same situation as he. I imagine the rigidity of something like the Republic speaks to a kind of philosophical vigilance Plato felt was essential to what he was writing against.
Paul Chan, detail from Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.

MAD:  You have probably been asked this too many times but you were working on Happiness… when September 11 happened. I could be wrong but I remember that Happiness… already had catastrophe in it before 9/11, is that true?
PC: It is.
MAD: So what happened? Did it change your attitude toward what you thought you were doing with that piece?
PC: I literally changed the piece. I made it more extreme, more sex, more violence, more of everything.
MAD: There is a sequence toward the end of Happiness… Before it loops back to the beginning, that shows an old cemetery as gravestones, plinths, broken monuments, and cenotaphs rise in the air.  It is such an unforgettable image, and in later works you also image objects and bodies falling and rising into the sky.  I am reminded of a story that Maya Deren told about a short sequence in her first film Meshes of the Afternoon, in which she moves across the room from the dining table to the chair where her sleeping self is resting.  We see a quick 5 or 6 shot sequence of her foot moving through varied landscapes, a field, a beach, a sidewalk, a carpeted floor.  She said that when she saw this sequence projected, she saw the future of her work, that quick succession of images traversing these topographies opened her eyes to how succinctly film could shape the relationship between time, motion and space.  And I am wondering if that sequence in Happiness… had a similar resonance for you in terms of your future work?
PC: I think the echoes of the floating reverberate in what I have done after Happiness… but I would say it is less what was in the work and more how I made it. It was the first long-term project that I did when I felt like the time wasn’t wasted. I made Happiness… because I needed to pay attention to something worth paying attention to. And I discovered that in order for me to find pleasure in the attentiveness I had to do it over a long time. It took around three years.
Godot in New Orleans, for example, didn’t take as long as Happiness… but it took two years and I was all in, especially when I moved to New Orleans.  So it’s not about the particulars of the work but about the time spent.  The commonality between the works is that it takes a long time to get to that place where I can really pay attention to what it is I am doing.
Or Badlands, which I started in 2010. I knew it would take 5 to 10 years for it to be something.  We are four years into it and I feel like I am just beginning to understand what it is we are doing, but in the process I have given myself the space to be attentive to it.  It’s a luxury to be able to give yourself that time and space.
MAD:  That’s the bubble we can create for ourselves when we are totally devoted to a task, it’s not literally outside of time but our experience of time is so different from our conventional experience of time.
PC: It’s as close to eternity we get: the perpetual present.
MAD: Last question about Happiness…, Really.  The same summer we met, in 1999, two films, Kubrick’s last Eyes Wide Shut and South Park the Movie, were released. I saw them both at the Red Hook Theater and I had a kind of epiphany….
PC: That Happiness... was the bastard child of Kubrick and South Park (Laughter)
MAD: Well, maybe something like that.  I realized that the ‘auteur’ moment had passed. I mean, growing up, I had been a devotee of Kubrick and any number of other auteurs of the cinema, Truffaut, Goddard, Fassbinder, Wertmuller, Herzog, Bertolucci. Eyes Wide Shut seemed so clunky, so strenuous in its attempt at depth. But South Park, with its inexhaustible rapid-fire sarcasm and rudimentary animation, got to complex and provocative issues with such economy.  I thought that there was something about animation that offered surprisingly, although maybe not for you, a way forward.
Paul Chan, detail from My Birds……trash…..the future, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.
Paul Chan, detail from My Birds……trash…..the future, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.

PC: It was a way forward. One of the frameworks for making Happiness… was banner ads. Early on the web, what was most exciting for me was all the banner ads.  I think what was powerful about South Park when you saw it was that a form that had no esthetic or intellectual ambition was raised.  The impoverishment of that animation was raised beyond what was expected. At one point with Happiness…, I thought I was making an 18-minute banner ad. When I started Badlands people hated e-books and asked me why I would waste my time doing that.  And to me that’s exactly what I should be doing precisely because of that attitude, no one expects anything from an e-book, at least nothing good.
A similar thing happened with Godot, across the board people tried to talk me out of going there and doing the project, for all sorts of reasons. I wasn’t from New Orleans; I wasn’t black, or white, for that matter.  I don’t know the culture or politics of New Orleans, I am not a Beckett scholar, I am not a theater person, the objections were legion.  But I am the kind of person that when I hear things like that I think I am on the right track.
MAD: It’s not so much about being contrarian necessarily, right? I think when people react to things that way what one is often encountering is a boundary. Some limit of what is acceptable or permissible.  Boundaries need to be examined and tested if for no other reason than to determine whether they are useful, necessary or even harmful or limiting.  Pay attention to your resistance I always tell my students.
PC: And for someone like me going toward that resistance is pleasurable.
Paul Chan, detail from Re: The Operation, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.

MAD:  Sometimes your work takes on history with a small ‘h’ or a capital ‘H’.  I think of the relationship between Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. I mean, they were as intimate, I suppose, as a couple can get. Married twice, had very similar politics, and circle of friends. But their approach to representing history was very different.  For Diego it was always history with a capital H – the big canvas, the epic sweep, cast of thousands. For Frida it was ‘history happens here, to this body’, even the scale of her images is intimate, personal.  I like the way your work goes back and forth from the particular such as Baghdad in No Particular Order or the video you made of the American political prisoner Lynne Stewart to the meta-narratives like Happiness… or My Birds…. trash….. the future, or even the 7 Lights.
PC: This is just common sense to me, we understand history, whatever that may be, through the very practical presence of people. And when you say little ‘h’, what I hear is ‘people’.  We don’t understand history unless it’s sedimented in people.  T.S. Eliot said ‘A lifetime burns in every moment’.  We are time capsules whether we like it or not.  And in my experience I’ve understood politics insofar as it relates to living people. So the Lynne Stewart piece is about her but she is not just her, insofar as a self is only oneself when it is enlarged in some way. And she certainly enlarged herself through her political work and experiences as a lawyer. Our ability to be sensitive to the time capsule quality of people is what gives us the potential of seeing them anew. Or perhaps just seeing them at all.
Paul Chan, detail from The 7 Lights, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.
Paul Chan, detail from The 7 Lights, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.

MAD: In your essay for The 7 Lights catalog you observe that despite a 110-year history, film is still essentially experienced as a window.  Photography has similar limitations in that no matter how one tries to disrupt the image, there is always this unshakable anchor in time.  In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes makes a distinction between film and photography by stating that because film can never be ‘still’, it can never be pensive or contemplative because the image is always being replaced by the next image.
I wanted to ask you about the loop, the film loop, which you use often in your work and I know you have addressed in in some of your writing.  It’s an interesting device for many reasons, including that it undermines narrative closure. But relevant to this discussion, it seems that potentially the loop can create a contemplative environment.
PC: I agree but to me contemplation is not still but rhythmic.  The time of attention that we were just talking about doesn’t feel still to me, it’s rhythmic.  That’s why I might listen to one song over and over again in the studio while I’m working, it could be for 16 hours but I don’t experience it as repetition, but rhythm. The loop to me is the most generic form by which that rhythm appears. So I don’t think of Happiness… as an 18-minute loop but as a rhythm that has peaks and valleys, it just goes. It creates enough oscillation so I can experience time.  I think all of my moving image pieces tend to work that way.
MAD: In the 7 Lights you taken the texture and most of the color out and reduced representation to silhouettes.  That reduction might be problematic in the sense that the work could be read as a semiotic play of signs emptied of their specificity. But what is so magical about 7 Lights is that despite this reduction there is a deep feeling of individuality. For example, a silhouette of a cell phone or a body floats upward as seen through a window frame, and instead of referring to some generic cell phone or person, I don’t know how you achieved this but I am struck by how utterly specific they are and therefore all the more emotionally communicative.
PC: Right, it’s not ‘a’ cell phone, but ‘that’ cell phone.  The supernatural is the natural precisely rendered, right? And I was certainly thinking about that when I was making the 7 Lights.  I realized that that cell phone floating up had to be a Motorola Razor and it had to flip open at a certain speed for it to feel like it’s popping open. I like to think that level of attentiveness manifests itself in the form and whether or not you know the difference you feel the attentiveness embedded in the form.
Paul Chan, detail from Waiting for Godot, New Orleans (Robert Lynn Green Sr.), courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.
Paul Chan, detail from Waiting for Godot, New Orleans (J. Kyle Manzay and Wendell Pierce), courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.

MAD: While I did not see Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, I did see the sets and ephemera installed at the Museum of Modern Art. Instead of artfully or well-crafted objects you used generic Home Depot materials such as blue tarps, foam core, twine, and again, these materials seem to generate an intensity that belies their humbleness.  Did you help install that piece at MoMA?
PC:  I planned every square inch of it.
MAD:  I recently saw a show of Chris Marker’s photographs at MIT and I was thinking about you in relation to Marker.  Your works are not similar in any stylistic way but there are some resonances there. First of all, La Jetee is unique in the history of cinema, one would think others would try to copy it, especially because it is so technically simple, but it resists because despite its apparent simplicity it is too idiosyncratic.  Happiness…… is like that too; it has a strange, hypnotic, power, despite its superficial simplicity, like the rudimentary animation.  There are thematic parallels as well, the catastrophe, the feeling of being loosed in history, and although La Jetee is a narrative, it has its own loop-like quality.  Both La Jetee and Happiness… are unapproachable, I don’t mean inaccessible, I mean they resist imitation.
PC: I wanted it to be unapproachable. From the way I installed it, high in the room, to the small scale and low resolution of the figures.  As perverse and pleasurable as I hope it is, there is a Platonic quality about it.  Your inability to get close to it was my way of acknowledging that no matter powerful and potent we might think Darger’s work is, he was still a particular man and perhaps a particularly tragic man who tried to transform whatever it was he was going through into these forms that we are still baffled by today. He essentially made an escape plan for one. I don’t know if Happiness... resists imitation. What I do know is that my particular need to be attentive shaped how I made it. And the more particular and individuated the need is, the more singular the making becomes.  I have tried to escape this world as much as possible through frameworks of attentiveness.  This may be the most generically political aspect about me. I know this is the world we have and that we are not going anywhere.  Heidegger was wrong: no god is going to save us. We are on our own, we have been marooned here. So what are we going to do?
MAD: One has to make a choice, I think much of great art provokes that feeling for me, I’m not sure I ever do actually make a choice, but in that moment of communion I feel like I am choosing to go with the transformative power that art can embody.
PC: To take up the cause of what it means to be creative or cunning, which is to give yourself a choice where there are none given.  I think there is very little separating the notions of creativity and cunning.  The works that I pay attention to are the ones that remind me of that. Chris Marker for instance. When I first saw his stuff, I never knew you could combine history, moving images, critique, poetry, sex, eroticism and old fashion hardcore political thinking. I never realized it was possible to do that until he did and I saw it. I am baffled to this day.
MAD:  You proposed something like this in a talk / debate in Hong Kong last year. The debate used the language of the Occupy Movement; I think the issue was whether contemporary art excluded the 99%. There were two people speaking to each side of the debate including Joseph Kosuth.  You did something that was rather cunning, you didn’t avoid the issue so much as to reframe it by making the extraordinary claim that great art excluded 100% of the people.  By this you sidestepped the simplistic binary of exclusion and exclusion and instead pointed to the impoverishment of our imaginations.  Your point was that great art enlarges our sense of the possible so that we find it harder to accept the world we are living in.
PC: Within the framework of that debate and with what we live with here in New York, what constitutes contemporary art tends not to be about those transformative experiences, but rather about the openings, collections, auctions; contemporary art as a cipher for what constitutes the good life.  But we know in the history of philosophy that there are many claims for what the good life is and perhaps the political work is to make other claims.  To simply accept the proposition, as it exists that contemporary art is a cipher of the good life as expressed in luxury and material wealth is short sighted.  It may be true. But it’s not the truth.
Paul Chan, detail from Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization, courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery.

Paul Chan
12 April - 19 October 2014
Paul Chan, Untitled (after St. Caravaggio), 2003-2006, digital video projection (color, silent), 2'58'', Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, gift of the president, 2012, on permanent loan to the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, © Paul Chan, photo: Jean Vong. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York
Paul Chan, Untitled (after St. Caravaggio), 2003-2006, digital video projection (color, silent), 2'58'', Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, gift of the president, 2012, on permanent loan to the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, © Paul Chan, photo: Jean Vong. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York
Paul Chan, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000-2003, digital video projection (color, sound), 17'20'', The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fractional and promised gift of David Teiger © Paul Chan, photo: Paul Chan. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York
Paul Chan, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000-2003, digital video projection (color, sound), 17'20'', The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fractional and promised gift of David Teiger © Paul Chan, photo: Paul Chan. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York
chan_1c_happiness_l 2.jpg
Paul Chan, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000-2003, digital video projection (color, sound), 17'20'', The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fractional and promised gift of David Teiger © Paul Chan, photo: Paul Chan. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York
Paul Chan, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000-2003, digital video projection (color, sound), 17'20'', The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fractional and promised gift of David Teiger © Paul Chan, photo: Paul Chan. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York
For six months, Schaulager is presenting the art of Paul Chan, born in Hong Kong and based in New York. It is the most extensive exhibition ever of work by this artist, just 40 years old, who has already created a wide-ranging oeuvre that reveals him to be one of the most inventive and multifaceted practitioners in contemporary art. His studies of current political and social issues, as well as the great and timeless concerns of history, literature, and philosophy, are incorporated into his art with lighthearted verve.
Paul Chan is prototypical of his generation, exploiting the potential of the World Wide Web and its information overkill to excess, redesigning it and establishing links with goal-oriented, unbridled enthusiasm. He is as versed in making videos and installations, in drawing and painting, as he is in writing and lecturing. A closer look at this seemingly disjointed, rampant, and bewildering oeuvre proves it to be consistent, unswerving, and profound. It is our pleasure to invite you to enter into Chan’s exciting universe and discover his exceptional art.
Schaulager’s invitation to mount an exhibition has been an opportunity for Chan to review what he has done so far and to move ahead with his work. In the architectural setting devised specifically for the exhibition, he has playfully arranged existing and new works to create an ingenious display of exceptional impact. You, as viewers, will no doubt be instantly struck by the immediate effect of the works in space. It is your turn to decide how much you wish to invest in the countless issues and questions addressed by the artist. If you embark on this journey of discovery, you will experience and understand things differently, things initially perceived as beautiful and yet disturbing, deeply moving yet alien or even shocking.
A “challenging” exhibition? Yes, and one full of unexpected twists and turns that will inspire you to take your time and come back for another look. That is why the admission ticket is valid for three visits. The accompanying program of events, including tours and lectures, offers visitors the opportunity to enhance their appreciation of Paul Chan’s oeuvre even more. On September 12/13 a symposium will take place in the auditorium. It is open to the public and will give further insights into the exhibition and Paul Chan’s work.


Paul Chan by Nell McClister

Paul Chan, Now Promise Now Threat, 2004, single-channel video, 32 minutes. All images courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery, New York.
Paul Chan’s peculiar blend of the literary and the political, the age-old and the cutting-edge, the religious and the erotic has been everywhere lately, from Pittsburgh (the Carnegie International) to Brazil ( Utopia Station , curated by Molly Nesbit, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Hans Ulrich Obrist) with multiple sightings in New York and Europe. Still, in some ways he remains hidden: he doesn’t allow himself to be photographed, because he values his privacy and his rights as a committed political activist in a nation hostile to dissent. Chan’s dual identity as artist and activist—he aims to keep the two poles separate so as to, in his words, “keep his allegiances clear”—is just one example of the resolution of opposites that characterizes his life and work. Chan is Hong Kong born and Nebraska bred, and his work is predicated on the idea that space for something new can be created by juxtaposing opposites: his drawings and doublesided video projections evince an equal pull to Adorno and to über-outsider Henry Darger, to the Bible and to Sade, to Beckett and to hip-hop, and while Chan remains faithful to old-fashioned charcoal drawing, he enjoys a simultaneous love affair with digital rendering and manipulation.
When I walked into Chan’s studio in April, we listened to a few minutes of the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC, which, on the occasion of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, had invited Salman Rushdie (president of PEN), Antonio Muñoz Molina, and Ha Jin to respond to the somewhat disingenuous query “Does writing change anything?” The question, applied to art, had come up when I had seen Chan speak on a panel at the MoMA in February, and the answer proved, of course, elusive. As we sat in Chan’s studio two months later, we heard Rushdie note that literature can give people imaginative access to worlds and characters that newspaper, radio, and TV do not illuminate. Then Molina observed that reading and writing are liberating; by reading you are “suspending the reality you are living in.” Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hear Ha Jin’s response, because I interrupted with my first question to Chan.
Nell McClister These two very different concepts resonate in your own work. To create a world through art that can allow people to learn something about the world is to invite engagement. To create this fiction as something to escape into would seem to invite disengagement.
Paul Chan Are they really so different? Doesn’t honest learning require a leap that disengages what we know and engages us in what we don’t? And doesn’t this leap call for a kind of escape from ourselves? Isn’t escape actually a kind of radical engagement? Bertolt Brecht’s work engaged us, pushed us into a corner, by estranging us from ourselves and what we experience. It was pleasurable too. I’m not a Brechtian, but am empathetic to his purpose. Let’s call it the task of empathetic estrangement. Or how about, the work of transforming the relationship between a subject and an object that is neither human nor divine. To imagine this relationship outside a particular entertainment culture now is almost impossible. What we understand as the things that should be valorized as human or transcendent are so overwhelmingly determined for us. For instance, our idea of justice doesn’t come from constitutions or laws but from the movie Braveheart. I read somewhere that that was Saddam Hussein’s favorite movie. But I can also imagine it being George Bush’s favorite movie. I’m sure the scriptwriter had a whole litany of things in mind: the power of the individual, the power of sacrifice, the courage of courage. These things are very worth looking at, but there’s a way in which you can picture something that reduces its possibilities and another way that complicates, or expands it.
NM You tend to identify an opposed pair—violence and joy, say, or utopia and apocalypse—and hold them up together. You do this not only in terms of the content of your work, but also the form: you use both the new media of digital video and computer animation and the age-old techniques of drawing, and you project your video pieces on double-sided screens. In this way I would say that your work complicates the picture. Another obvious opposition is your dual life as an artist and also a committed activist. In fact, you started out in photojournalism.
PC I was doing some writing too. But journalism wasn’t free enough, so I went to art school. But I still didn’t know where I fit in, so I did what I knew, which was writing stories in the school newspaper about teachers who were getting drunk on the job and student labor organizing. At the time, the mid-’90s, the AFL-CIO was doing college recruitment, and big labor unions were going to colleges and universities talking about how they should organize. It was thrilling. It all culminated with the UPS strike in 1997 in Chicago with Ron Carey, the Teamster president. Here’s a guy who came up from the rank and file of the Teamsters, who was forced into confronting a company that refused to negotiate with the workers on a new contract. 185,000 workers walked off the job, and UPS blinked. They broke the company and got a new contract. I lived close to a UPS processing center on the South Side of Chicago, and we’d bring them donuts. It was a great moment. Then of course Carey was booted; after the strike the Teamster hierarchy voted in the son of Jimmy Hoffa as president, even though Carey had just led this insane victory, and even though everyone knew Hoffa Jr. was shady. One of the lessons you learn is that changing things often means losing your job or getting jailed, or worse.
NM You witnessed a moment that was a throwback to the ’60s, to the ultimately failed attempt to create a social utopia. And you witnessed that less than a decade ago. That’s pretty amazing, and it seems to have a lot to do with what you’re doing now.
PC The philosopher Alain Badiou just wrote a book on Saint Paul, trying to redescribe Christianity as a radical and secular philosophical project that commits itself to an event that changes you, an event that you can neither control nor predict. And the idea of truth is how faithful you are to this initial event. One of his examples is love. You can never control or predict who you fall in love with, but once you’re there, the job of love is to be faithful to the initial encounter. Not to fetishize it, but to create a path from which you, over time, leave this event behind without ever forgetting it, using it as a way to gauge a whole host of things. Another example for him was May ’68. It was a watershed moment that didn’t change the world but changed him. Your ethical and philosophical path as you leave that initial event is called truth, he says. Not axiomatic, not Aristotelian: you can’t write it down. It’s a process of transformation, which sounds reductively like a self-help tape, but this frees up a lot of things about what it means to be truthful. I’m sure I don’t understand it fully. In any case, it’s thrilling and sad how history washes over us. No one lives like Thoreau now—except Ted Kaczynski, and he went insane. To be human is to be awash in history, I suppose.

Paul Chan, Now Promise Now Threat, 2004, single-channel video, 32 minutes.
NM Surely it’s more radical today than it could have been in the past.
PC Yeah, with mass media and mass communication we’re constantly connected with the present and the past. I call it the terrible connectedness, the burden of connectedness.
NM Because there’s a responsibility that goes along with it.
PC Yeah, the responsibility of being a good star in the constellation of the past, of people. But in order to protect ourselves from the burden of connectedness we become desensitized. Godard teaches us that that’s only one way of handling it. Another is to take a breath, step back and let it wash over you, and focus on being sensitive to the things that blip up. Like a radio that finely tunes into the frequencies that float around us. It’s a good way of living, and it’s a good way of making work.
NM Things that blip up being things you can do something about?
PC Things that blip up for me are the things that rile me up into such an agitated state it’s almost traumatic. I mean, when I fall in love it’s sort of traumatic. I don’t know what to do, I’m nervous, I can’t make anything. Art work is like that, like a controlled form of trauma. You talked about opposites before; I try to hold them at bay, because it creates a space where I don’t know what I’m thinking. It’s not like automatic writing; it’s a sense of needing to create a space for the kind of not-knowingness that holds the promise of something to come.
NM You have to hold the opposites together in order to live with them, but to investigate you have to hold them apart. You can analyze from that space, but you can’t live there, which goes back to the idea of art as escape.
PC Why do you disapprove of escape?
NM It’s a form of pleasant paralysis, self-imposed. To leave the world behind doesn’t do anybody any good except as a diversion.
PC I think reality is overrated. Fantasizing and escaping is a kind of self-cure we administer to ourselves, a tool for self-preservation in the face of the things we cannot bear. At the moment I’m reading Psychopathia Sexualis, by Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Before Sade, this book came out. It’s case histories of this doctor Krafft-Ebing’s patients. And what you realize is yeah, they are perverts, masochists, and sadists. But fundamentally what they’re dealing with is a kind of self-cure. How we try to help ourselves to bear the burden of living is one of the most interesting, subtle, and moving projects anyone will ever know.
NM Well, one person’s escape can be constructive for others. But surely artists, people in the art world, have a social responsibility. You still live in a world, and you have it pretty good. You have some kind of responsibility to not escape fully, to help illuminate the world, to show alternatives.
PC This idea of social responsibility is a question that will never fully be answered, because we don’t know what it means to be social, and we have no way of talking about responsibility outside of a Judeo-Christian idea that has been, among other things, the intellectual fuel for illegitimate wars. Derrida writes about this in The Gift of Death. Our understanding of our legal world from Europe to here is thoroughly religionized, to the point that we don’t even think about it. We live in a country that supposedly has a separation of church and state, but the very idea of justice, the very idea of the law comes from a very long religious tradition. It’s morphed, but within its DNA the idea of an eye for an eye is still there. Very biblical stuff. Derrida talks about a politics to come, and a friendship to come, that reframes how we think about law and justice, ideas of responsibility, outside of a religious framework.

Paul Chan, still from Baghdad in No Particular Order, 2003, 57 minutes.
NM History is steeped in religion, of course, and we’re, as you say, awash in history. The question is, how do you escape that? It’s like trying to get out of the Kantian space/time framework.
PC This is the 21st fucking century. Who knew, when we were sitting there watching the stupid New Year’s ball coming down in 2000, that we would still have to think about religion? But those of us who live in cities will never learn: despite industrialization, despite cultural and philosophical modernism and postmodernism, religion continues to be not only an institutional framework but a mode of possibility for those whom modernism left behind. Today Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds and almost cannot even be considered a Western religion anymore, given the concentration of converted Christians in Africa and Asia. Latin America has a long history of Christianity. Here in the US, of course, some of the most vocal political voices are religious-based organizations. You saw that in a perverse way in the election last year. We thought the red states fucked us as a country, but in fact what happened is a sort of strange class revenge. I do think, though, that the backlash is coming. It’s not only the state that originally wanted the separation of church and state, but also the church. For my most recent video, which was shot back in Nebraska, the preachers I spoke to talked about how any Christianity that sleeps with state power can’t rightly be called Christianity. Christianity with state power is not a religion.
NM Did you find that that’s a widespread idea in the Bible Belt?
PC I think it’s growing. They were giddy at seeing Christian values being used in the federal agenda, but now they see it’s become debased and hard to reconcile, given the numerous contradictions. I talked to anti-abortion mothers who can’t believe that this anti-abortion administration is pro-war. There is a definite religious backlash within America.
NM What’s your piece called?
PC It’s called Now Promise, Now Threat. I did it right after the election. I had too many friends who said they wanted to bomb the red states. But my family lives in a red state. And I knew fundamentally that the situation was much more complicated. Clinton didn’t do much for the red states; the poor are still poor. It’s an interesting, convoluted line that connects religion and state power and how people live. So I went back and made a tape. The red state/blue state thing reduced the complexity of what was happening. I refuse to believe that the red states are unredeemable, but now we have to deal with what happened. And it’s good, because it opens up a lot of things. I think it’s very interesting and wonderful.
NM Wonderful?
PC I believe Adorno when he writes that what we understand as Western art began as cultic objects for institutional religion. And this strange and perverse stain of art continues to haunt what we make, this idea that art is a bookmark for something we can’t see, hear, touch, feel, or actually think about. It gives us a possibility of remembering that we don’t rule the universe and that there’s something out there called the unknown that we must stare at and constantly grapple with. So religion has always been a part of the framework of art, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Along with an immoral-illegal-imperialist war abroad, our country right now is steeped in a religio-politio-cultural civil war. And this civil war forces art to confront again certain ideas about itself that perhaps it couldn’t or refused to during times of peace. And it’s wonderful.

Paul Chan, still from Baghdad in No Particular Order, 2003, 57 minutes.
NM Political artists have tried to create objects that defy that kind of mystique, to create bookmarks for the known rather than the unknown. Let’s talk about the fact that political art is having a bit of a crisis.
PC It’s always having a crisis. It wouldn’t be political art if it wasn’t in crisis.
NM Fair enough. But it had a heyday and then its forms were appropriated, and it became difficult to see how to make political art without it being hackneyed.
PC Okay.
NM Your work has to be seen in light of your activism. It is very intellectual, but it’s also very aesthetically developed. It uses digital video and animation; new applications for computer software—forms of new media that are promising for political work. I’m wondering where you see yourself in the legacy of political art and how you see it developing.
PC There are two questions there. The first question is the legacy of political art and the trajectory of it. The simple answer is—I’m in loyal opposition to it. The second question is, How do I see myself in relation to that legacy, that tradition? . . . How do I answer this without being cliché? (long pause)

Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000 - 2003, DVD, mini PC, installation instructions, sparkle vellum screen and equipment specifications.
NM Surely you’ve answered this question before.
PC Yeah, but it always feels like the first time . . . . I believe in the project of participatory politics. Without collective social power things won’t change. But I also believe in—I’m fanatical, frankly, about what art means for the future. And I see them as oppositional forces. Collective social power needs the language of politics, which means, among other things, that people need to consolidate identities, to provide answers, to create a social cohesion that would give them the power and the responsibility of a bloc of people to move things, destroy things, to make things happen. Whereas my art is nothing if not the dispersion of power. To never consolidate. To always disperse. And so, in a way, the political project and the art project are sometimes in opposition. Which isn’t bad. You know, we tell ourselves fictions all the time, to be productive. I tell myself that I’m smart and handsome so that I can walk down the street without drooping my shoulders. And, whether or not it is true that politics and art are separate, it’s very productive for me to imagine that they are, so that my allegiances are clear and I can work productively at both without reducing one to the other. In the trajectory of what’s been called political art in America and around the world, there have been various alliances and ideologies at work. One of my jobs is to diversify whatever political art is. I can’t really talk about the forms and the trajectory of success and failure because, frankly, I’m just not an expert on it. For me there is no way of judging whether or not political art is successful because of how many people it makes space for. That’s not the point.
NM The Russian Constructivists, actually the Productivists, had the idea that they would create objects that were transparent in form, and they would function as symbols or templates that would activate the proletarian, who would then carry out the revolution. The artists would be catalysts. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.
PC It reminds me of an opposite analogy: Prague Spring, May 1968. The Czech communist leaders loosened cultural restrictions and gave more freedom of speech to its citizens, and Stalin thought that was way too much. So the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. And for eight months the citizens mounted a civil resistance campaign. One of the most moving and interesting things they did was they painted all the street signs white and took off all the numbers on the houses, so the Russians didn’t know where they were or where to find resistance organizers. For eight months they were lost. What a way to stop an invading army, a real grassroots weapon of mass confusion. And, in a way, what you’re asking is, What kind of objects or actions would perpetuate a collapse that would make new things happen? And is that the purview of art? The simple answer is, maybe not. If you think, like Badiou, that it’s the event that creates the truth, what we consider to be political art—or more generally resistance, using the imagination to circumvent the usual discourses of power to create new ones—is invariably connected to a place, a space, and time. I don’t think any artist would have imagined in ’68 that one of the ways to stop an invading army was to paint the street signs white. It was the heat of the time and the space that created the necessity for creative resistance. I was speaking at the New School recently, and one of the things I talked about was the codification of codes within progressive media, that if someone quotes Chomsky one more time in a newsletter or pamphlet, or if I see another picture of a raised fist or someone with a bandanna, I’m going to vomit. One of the reasons people recycle these codes is that they are connecting to a tradition, and they think that tradition is transcendent, that these symbols give them power because they’re connecting with a tradition of revolution in power, when in fact they’re feeding off the dead. They’re not paying attention to what’s happening in the moment, right now. It’s like being in a family. Being in a family empowers us, protects us, but being in a family limits us. You have to escape in order to grow. Political art, among other things, is a form of social and aesthetic transgression that needs to constantly grow. It doesn’t mean that it has to ignore or destroy the family it was from, but it can’t covet and fetishize its own tradition and language if it is to become something that gives us new hopes and possibilities.

Paul Chan, still from Baghdad in No Particular Order, 2003, 57 minutes.
NM Let’s get back to your work for a second. Your double-sided video projection My Birds . . . Trash . . . The Future brings together Biggie Smalls and Pasolini in a world inflected with Goya, Beckett, the Bible, and the contemporary presence of suicide bombers. There are many strands woven together in that piece. Where did it come from?
PC I’m enraged that we have to think about faith in the 21st century. I’m fascinated and confused by it. I just keep saying, We’re in the 21st century. Marx thought in the 19th century that factories would be the new churches, and that industrialization would secularize the world. Now we realize that it’s a secular world, but only for a few people. A lot of people got left behind. And they’ve returned. Return of the repressed, in a way. It scares me, and it moves me. I had to find a way of articulating all those things: the idea of being a citizen of the 21st century, which sounds completely pompous; the confusion and anxiety that comes with trying to feel a kind of faith in the 21st century. Actually, it all started with my trip to Baghdad, where people wouldn’t talk to me sincerely unless I told them I was religious. The idea was if I didn’t have a religion, my words were not connected to a higher order that would punish me if I didn’t speak the truth.
NM So they didn’t want to talk to you about Christianity or religion; they just wanted to know that you were worth talking to.
PC Religion provided a passport for an honest exchange. Even if we didn’t agree, at least I was speaking a particular form of truth. It’s beyond fascinating. It’s a survival instinct and a kind of thinking that I hadn’t thought about in a long, long time.
NM It must be nice to believe in that kind of guarantee of truth.
PC Yeah, it must be. But that kind of thinking reduces our ability to communicate, because it reduces communication down to words, and we all know that we communicate in more than words. The reduction to the linguistic as the only form of communication is a real debasement that came with the emergence of a tyranny of communicative technologies.
NM In your video Baghdad in No Particular Order, there is very little dialogue.
PC Yeah, I kept the words to a minimum. I didn’t want to make anti-war pornography or war pornography. You realize that in both of those, from CNN to documentaries, there are always voice-overs telling you what you are seeing onscreen. Always.
NM Why “pornography” and not “propaganda”?
PC I think it is pornographic. It’s very voyeuristic, almost sexual. Well, not almost. It is sexual, whether it’s the victimization of Iraqis or the portrayal of them as fundamentalist barbarians. We watch because there’s a perverse pleasure in it. Maybe there’s understanding, but that’s secondary. Watching pornography commits you to a kind of division of power and a guarantee of roles between a subject and an object. Empathy is not in the cards. And understanding is not empathy.

Detail from The eagle, the vulture . . . Leviticus 11: 13-19, 2004, 21 charcoal on paper drawings, 23½ x 18" each.
NM You made that with the group Voices in the Wilderness. Are the others also artists?
PC No. They’re all hardcore anti-nuclear, anti-war, Catholic worker types, based in Chicago. The group was founded in 1996, around a kitchen table.
NM Everything good happens around the kitchen table. Your activism is primarily collaborative or collective. Have you collaborated in your artwork?
PC I have tried it, and I hated it. In a strange way, working alone helps me value my body because my body becomes the limit and the horizon of what I can and cannot do. It’s a cross between being very stupid and stubborn and holding on to the idea of being human. My body is the process and horizon by which things happen. Almost like performance art.
NM Yeah.
PC But I am completely surrounded by and intrigued by and reliant on machines, so going back to drawing helps. Going back to drawing doesn’t mean that I go back to the premodern, but somehow I go back through the machines to draw, not like a machine, but with the ethic of a machine; through a prism of having gone post-machine. I still don’t know what that means, but that’s how you have to do it. I’m not going to regress things. I’m not Darger. But I can ask, What if Darger had a G5, and an MFA, and were still alive?
NM Can you really compare yourself to Darger?
PC He’s dead. Can he really be offended?
NM But is it fair to the legacy of his work, to the idea of this very poor and self-taught man working in complete isolation?
PC I’m sure it’s unfair to those who have a stake in controlling the legacy of Darger. But that’s unfair to us. Discourse builds around dead things all the time, and this discourse thinks that it’s doing the essential purpose of maintaining tradition. But culture develops by mutating tradition, making it new again. To imagine Darger as an outsider artist doesn’t feed anyone anything; that only feeds publishers and museum bookshops. It’s much more free, and it makes him much more relevant for the future to imagine him as a political philosopher, kind of a French utopian socialist, and to reinvent his drawings not as hallucinations of someone lonely and desperate but as scenes from a philosophy of utopian socialism on the wane.

Paul Chan, My Birds . . . Trash . . . The Future, 2004, two-channel digital projection installation.
NM How wary are you of nostalgia?
PC How wary am I of nostalgia? How wary are you of nostalgia? (laughter)
NM It’s a loaded place to go, the idealized past. Again, it goes back to the idea of escape.
PC I was schooled recently on the etymology of nostalgia, which is homesickness. Nostro means “home,” apparently, in Latin. I grew up in Hong Kong. Hong Kong citizen’s are the first postmodern subjects. We’re born split, Chinese and British. Two passports; two languages, maybe three; a strange amalgamation of Eastern and Western. People who have split homes tend to not long for home; the very idea of home seems strange. Hélène Cixous wrote this beautiful line: I’m perfectly at home, nowhere. As a Jew who lived in a poor Arab district of Algeria, and being French during the Algerian war, she has an acute sense of what it means to be displaced, even at home. It makes sense to me. So I’m not wary of nostalgia, because it seems irrelevant to me.
NM Do you have a longing for something that you didn’t have?
PC Yeah. I have a lot of longings. (laughter) What an intimate question!
NM Do you think that art has a special power to throw you up against the contradictions in the world by being poetic or allusive, by bypassing language?
PC That’s three questions. I’m counting. You realize that your one question is invariably more than one. It’s like one of those ICBM warheads. It’s one missile and the warhead opens and there are four smaller missiles inside. (laughter) I’m going to call this the Reagan strategy to asking questions.
NM Are you avoiding the question?
PC No. Being poetic and allusive are only two strategies in a menagerie of strategies and methods for art to estrange us from ourselves so we can imagine things outside of us, which is the first step toward empathy, and to learn that we’re not Masters of the Universe. There are so many other strategies. Kafka’s quote about his own work is relevant here. He says that his stories should work like an ice ax breaking the frozen sea within us. Because we have to survive, we preserve ourselves, freeze ourselves, and his stories are a way to break us loose again. It is a brutal exercise in hope.
 —Nell McClister

For artist, all politics is focal

Chan makes statements with haunting, humorous images

''Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Charles Fourier and Henry Darger)'' is an animated video by Paul Chan. 
''Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Charles Fourier and Henry Darger)'' is an animated video by Paul Chan.

By Sebastian Smee 
CAMBRIDGE - Things go up, things go down, and things go around in the works of 35-year-old Paul Chan, one of the most feted artists of his generation. Nothing really gets brighter.
PAUL CHAN: Three Easy Pieces At: Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, through Jan. 4. 617-495-3251,
Chan's show "Three Easy Pieces" at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts is, at first glance, a desultory affair in an unsympathetic setting. It consists of a moving light projection on the floor, a digitally animated video, and a documentary style travelogue from Baghdad.
Call me blinkered, but I missed two of the pieces the first time I went. I returned twice, but on no occasion was there more than one other person in attendance.
It's a shame, because Chan's work - though it may unsettle and frustrate interpretation - suggests a thoughtfulness about the relationship between art and politics that is extremely engaging, and not infrequently funny.
Chan has a website,, which functions as an online venue for his artistic productions and talks. The most recent image he has posted is a borrowed engraving showing a Marquis de Sade-style orgy, with the words "HOW TO ORGANIZE A WAVE OF PROSPERITY" emblazoned across it. The horizontal strike-through - a favored motif in Chan's titles - suggests either a canceled or opposite meaning: Copulating our way to poverty, then? Why not?
Chan is a darling of the academic left, not just because he is politically engaged but because, in talks and interviews, he is fond of quoting celebrated thinkers of the left, from Theodor Adorno and Maurice Blanchot to H??l??ne Cixous and Charles Fourier.
If this tempts you to dismiss him as a precocious undergraduate churning out predictable agitprop, my advice is, think again. Chan is an artist who is politically engaged as a citizen, but also aware that art's grasp of politics is fragile, relative to the scale and momentousness of political realities.
His major achievement to date is a series of works called "The 7 Lights" - digital animations of light and shadow projected onto walls and floors. Unfortunately, only one of the seven, "5th Light," is presented here, and in scale and placement (a dead corner of the Carpenter's concrete, foyer-like space) it is made to seem unprepossessing.
But give it your attention and it becomes entrancing. Like the other works in the series, it shows black shapes in crisp silhouette floating up or falling down through a lozenge of light. The animation loops for 14 minutes before beginning again, but not before the shapes have disappeared and the light changes from white to blue through yellow, pink, and purple.
The effect is poetically mute, as only shadows can be. The rising shapes appear random and resemble torn paper or the silhouettes of guns and bags (occasionally, they splinter). The falling shapes are humans and call to mind the terrible scenes of office workers jumping from the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
But Chan has no designs on our emotions. We do not feel him trying to direct our sympathies. Rather, we find ourselves beguiled by a sense of being at one remove, as if we were in Plato's cave looking at shadow play. Which way is up? Which way is down? What is this ambiguous dance of shapes, both haunting and harmless, endlessly looping?
Something about the elemental simplicity of the work's ingredients - light and shadow, falling and rising - gives them the aura of child's play in a frighteningly sobered-up world.
The earliest of the three works at the Carpenter is an animated video projected onto both sides of a long, horizontal screen suspended from the ceiling near the middle of the room. It's called, rather cumbersomely, "Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Charles Fourier and Henry Darger)," and its bright colors and crowded, improbable scenes contrast with its low-tech, cartoonlike appearance.
A narrative is being recounted here, and it leads us from a vision of Arcadia to scenes of Apocalypse, including orgies of sex and violence, and back again. The piece is crowded with art-history and political references, from Goya's "Disasters of War" to the Surrealist Hans Bellmer's mutant dolls, and perhaps even to Jake and Dinos Chapman's more recent appropriations of both.
But the recurring appearance of schoolgirls running and cartwheeling through the landscape is meant to recall Darger, the outsider artist whose fantastical drawings revolve around the so-called Vivian girls - seven sisters who assist a rebellion against a regime of child slavery.
Chan's video culminates in explicit sexual scenes, but they are mechanical and formulaic rather than shocking. The video is pervaded by the sense of an incoherent, disturbing relationship between dream and reality.
If it fails as a work of art, it's because Chan is trying to do too much: too many references, too many allusions, too many big ideas. But that doesn't mean it's without interest, and a lot of the video's themes and motifs (guns, figures that spin, objects untethered from humans) foreshadow those that crop up in later works.
The third work at the Carpenter is the result of a trip Chan took to Baghdad on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. He was part of the Iraq Peace Team, which went with the aim of preventing the invasion.
Originally intending to make a film for a broad audience that would help mobilize opinion against the war, Chan ended up making a one-hour film called "Baghdad in No Particular Order" that feels tentative and inchoate rather than edifying or imploring.
At times, it's immensely affecting, never more so than during scenes showing a man listening to an Arabic rendition of the Whitney Houston hit "I Will Always Love You" as he drives through the desert.
"I really love this song," says the driver, tears welling up in his eyes. And as the camera provides footage of the desert and close-ups of trucks carrying thousands of gallons of oil, subtitles provide lyrics like "We both know that I'm not what you need," "I hope he will treat you kind," and "But above all this, I wish you love."
The ironies feel genuinely agonizing, rather than cheap. It's all too real - the sincerity behind these kitschy, pop-induced emotions, the oil, the desert, this man and his beaten-up truck, all of it on the eve of a shattering war.
The film drifts, deliberately, but the many moments of tenderness, absurdity, and beauty more than make up for the longueurs. Best of all, Chan avoids didacticism.
Footage of a girl showing off an album filled with pictures of American pop stars is followed by scenes at a pro-Saddam Hussein rally, where women wave rifles and chant crazy slogans ("Hey thunder! Saddam is your son!")
We also see - for no particular reason, but with emotionally piercing results - a caged monkey asleep, a series of blurred and ghostly faces, a vulnerable young man singing onstage before an audience of men, and a young street vendor selling books whose pages flap in the wind.
The film ends with a quote from Cixous, which beautifully captures the spirit of the film, and of the best of Chan's work: "It is very nearly the end. It is very nearly life."
- Sebastian Smee

AFTER A SERIES of increasingly high-profile solo exhibitions between 2003 and 2009, Paul Chan took a hiatus of sorts from the world of gallery and museum exhibitions to focus instead on writing and on his publishing imprint, Badlands Unlimited. This summer, Chan emphatically returned to public view with an exhibition that—despite its understated subtitle, “Selected Works”—looked and felt very much like a full-dress midcareer retrospective. Installed in twenty-four discrete spaces spread across Schaulager’s two main floors, and accompanied by an ambitious screening program of single-channel videos, “Selected Works” left few stones unturned. Putting on view nearly every significant piece the artist has created between 2000 and the present, the exhibition provided a welcome—if overdue—opportunity to take stock of Chan’s restless, protean oeuvre.
The overhead view of more recent sculptures and installations in Schaulager’s immense atrium notwithstanding, the show opened with the body of work that brought Chan to broad attention a decade ago. The first major piece viewers encountered was the extra-wide-format digital video Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000–2003. Projected on both sides of a screen that hung in the center of the gallery, Chan’s work pre-sents the unlikely mash-up of the famously reclusive Chicago “outsider” artist and the nineteenth-century French social theorist, set to a sound track of Jay-Z and Bach. Packed with pop-cultural references yet strangely unmoored from any specific time and place, the looped video, with its perpetually oscillating visions of paradise and apocalypse, has lost none of its weird, hallucinatory power in the decade since it was first exhibited. The same is true of My birds . . . trash . . . the future, 2004. Created after the US-led invasion of Iraq and around the time of George W. Bush’s reelection, My birds trades Happiness’s verdant landscape for a barren wasteland dominated by an enormous dead tree populated by the so-called baleful fowl described in the book of Leviticus. Despite a sound track, cast of characters, and accumulation of cultural references that ground the piece firmly in the time of its production, My birds—like its most obvious reference points, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Goya’s Disasters of War—manages to comment on but also transcend its immediate historical context. In part because it was already so palpably lo-fi even when it was first shown, and in part due to its high degree of formal experimentation, Chan’s particular form of digital rendering in these works remains visually unique and surprisingly undated. If anything, its associations with the look of early video games and cartoons such as South Park have become less prominent over the years. Although tucked away in a cul-de-sac gallery, My birds confirmed its status as among the most powerful and enduring works (by any artist) of that era.
Looking back, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Chan’s remarkable “preretirement” career overlaps almost exactly with the eight years of the second Bush administration. The mood of Chan’s works from this period—from the ambivalence of Happiness and the growing sense of unease, even dread, of My birds and “The 7 Lights,” 2005–2007, through the righteous anger of his site-specific theatrical production Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007—reflects an increasing frustration with the injustices of the world and the apparent impotence of both art and politics to effect any meaningful change. This frustration is, I think, the crux of Sade for Sade’s sake, 2009, the artist’s last major project before his voluntary hiatus. In an excerpt from Chan’s 2010 artist’s book The essential and incomplete Sade for Sade’s sake, reprinted in the excellent volume of the artist’s collected writings published on the occasion of the exhibition, Chan reminds us that while “today we remember [Sade] mainly as a pornographer and a libertine philosopher . . . Sade’s masterpiece, The 120 Days of Sodom, is a novel about war profiteers.” Apart from the clear references to Abu Ghraib and other horrific acts of abuse and humiliation presumably carried out in secret military prisons around the world, the most striking aspect of Sade for Sade’s sake is how unerotic, ungenerative, and even boring the scenes it depicts are. Bodies—or, rather, schematic silhouettes of bodies—endlessly sucking and fucking, coupling and uncoupling. No release, no liberation, just unceasing repetition.
One area in which Chan has remained consistently engagé is in his publishing projects. Among the many recent publications on view was On Democracy by Saddam Hussein. Published by Badlands Unlimited in 2012, this remarkable book contains three speeches delivered by Hussein in the late 1970s while the erstwhile Iraqi dictator was the country’s vice president, along with new essays and a selection of Chan’s drawings and collages. As Chan has suggested, there is a wonderful perversity to the project. By taking the writings of this notoriously undemocratic historical figure as a point of departure for a reflection on the nature of democracy today, the book asks its reader to mentally hold in suspension at least two, if not more, incommensurate ideological systems. In so doing, it poses important questions, about not only the political history of Iraq but also the blind spots and internal contradictions that haunt all experiments in democratic government, including our own.
Several of the drawings that punctuate On Democracy were also on view in Basel. Untitled, 2006, presents an aerial view of two buildings, the concentric rings of landscaped parkland visible between them. It is a composition that recalls at once the early-twentieth-century photographic experiments of Aleksandr Rodchenko or László Moholy-Nagy and the all too familiar contemporary view from the camera eye of a military drone. Hung beside it, The question of democracy is an extremely complicated one, 2005, depicts a youthful Hussein, dressed in classic revolutionary style in beret and epaulets, the drawing’s neutral background interrupted by a diagonal field of white, akin to an errant Suprematist redaction mark. Like the book in which they appear, these drawings subtly highlight a productive tension between past and present, between utopian visions and their subversion and co-optation in the service of power.
THE EXHIBITION presented the physical divide between the building’s two levels as analogous to the philosophical or spiritual separation between heaven and earth, or, as Daniel Birnbaum, citing Chan, suggests in his essay for the exhibition catalogue, between the atemporal, “other-worldly” space of Platonic speculation above and the bluntly factual, insistently material world of everyday temporality below. As the works in the show demonstrate, however, the metaphoric membrane between these two spheres is perhaps a bit more porous (surely Waiting for Godot in New Orleans and Sade for Sade’s sake can each be understood as operating in both registers), and the physical policing of its border meant that the portion of the show on the upper floor was crowded into a warren of too-small spaces that did few favors for the impressive works they contained. (The haunting beauty of the “Lights” undoubtedly suffered the most in this regard.) By contrast, the newer and more “visually meager” (to borrow Birnbaum’s description) works on the lower level struggled to fill the vast spaces they occupied.
Despite their contemporaneousness with the momentous, and sometimes maddeningly familiar, events of recent years—the Arab Spring, the escalating civil war in Syria, Citizens United, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, and climatological disasters around the globe, to name only a few—the most recent artworks in the exhibition were surprisingly wan, lifeless affairs. The “Arguments,” 2012–, variously sized accumulations of concrete-filled shoes interconnected by electrical cords, stood as inert illustrations of networks and flows of communication and power. Another new series, “Nonprojections,” 2013–, added one or more video projectors to these elements with more interesting, if not necessarily “satisfying,” results. In these works, the projectors are clearly “on”—one can see the glow of their bulbs and indicator lights, hear the sound of their cooling fans—but no discernible image is present. Even the “blank” white rectangle of a historical precursor such as Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film, 1962–64, is withheld, as the projector’s beam is negated by the brightly lit space and conspicuous lack of anything resembling a screen. Only by looking directly into the projector’s lens can one make out the barely perceptible hint of an image. In their double refusal of both image and screen, the “Nonprojections” stand in stark contrast to the visual and aural density of Happiness and My birds as well as to the spatial expansiveness of the“Lights.”
Asked recently about the differing motivations behind his writing and his art, Chan stated, “I am not at all sure what I achieve in my writing. I am pretty sure nothing much is achieved in the art.” Indeed, Chan’s newest works literalize a sense of impotence, even resignation, regarding art’s transformative potential. As artworks, the “Nonprojections” are almost willfully unsuccessful. Like Bartleby, or the Occupy movement for whom Melville’s scrivener became such an important symbol, these works stage what amounts to an aesthetic strike. Despite the viewer’s frustration, perhaps such a move is not entirely unjustified. In a world where anything and everything—from the smartphones in our pockets to the sides of entire buildings—can be transformed into a conduit for a seemingly infinite flow of visual content, the “Nonprojections” stubbornly refuse to comply. And so, as their nonfunctioning apparatuses whir away in futility like the technological mirrors of the anonymous bodies in Sade for Sade’s sake, the image itself is reduced—at least for now—to the faintest flickering of memory.
Jacob Proctor is curator of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, where he is also a lecturer in the division of the humanities.

Paul Chan’s Sade for Sade’s Sake

Paul Chan, Sade for Sade's Sake, 2009 via vvork
Paul Chan, Sade for Sade
Visitors to Paul Chan’s Sade for Sade’s Sake, the artist’s second solo show at Greene Naftali (on view October 22-December 5) may recognize his latest projected work as a continuation of his exploration of light and shadow in the vein of the 2005-2007 7 Lights. The enormous 5 hour, 45 minute projection at the center of the show features digitally-rendered figures and forms inhabiting a richly-colored, shifting ambient space reminiscent of the projections exhibited in 2007 and 2008 at the Serpentine Gallery and New Museum. Like the Lights, which shared the museum floor with black and white studies and music scores, Sade shares the exhibition space with black and white works on paper. However the obvious connections to Chan’s earlier work end there. In contradistinction to his subtle, if haunting, 7 Lights, Sade for Sade’s Sake is jarring in its explicit sexuality. Visitors entering the gallery will get a hint of this licentious aesthetic as they walk past a small room of Chan’s line drawings (more on these soon) to make their way to the projected work. But whatever minor acclimatization these drawings offer, the effect of the projected bodies in Chan’s Sade is still arresting. Nearly life-size shadow figures stretch across the gallery’s back wall convulsing and gyrating in a state of orgiastic trance. The gamut of sexual encounter and style is depicted—masturbation, oral sex, bondage, straight sex, gay sex, three-ways, four-ways, rear entry, reverse cowgirl, and what looks it might be pedophilia. However at no point in the course of the projection is it clear if these bodies are engaged in a celebration of sexual liberation or a torturous sexual assault. Their movement oscillates between rhythmic thrusting and psychotic convulsion as they appear standing, sitting, suspended from the ceiling, kneeling on the floor, writhing in groups and shuddering alone.
Paul Chan, Sade for Sade's Sake, 2009 via Vogue
Paul Chan, Sade for Sade

Sade for Sade’s Sake is projected onto the gallery’s entire north wall, a large rectangular surface broken by radiators, columns, and painted-over windows. In combination, the projected images and architectural elements suggest an interior space similar to a prison cell or dungeon. Appropriate, of course, because this new body of work takes the writing of the Marquis de Sade as its starting point, in particular 120 Days of Sodom (for reference the 7 Lights were loosely based on the 7 days of creation in the Judeo-Christian tradition). For Chan as for de Sade the prison cell and the sex dungeon are one and the same. A simultaneous critique and celebration of libertine sexuality is imminently readable in the work, as images of what could be sexual indulgence or violence, transgression or punishment, repeatedly form and dissolve. But despite its explicit and jarring sexual content, Sade for Sade’s Sake is an extremely slow, contemplative work. Like the 7 Lights, it does not allow an instantaneous viewing—a fact underscored by the nearly 6 hours it takes for the full arc of the projection to unfold. Throughout this time blocks of shadow and light, like opaque windows, appear in the space of the figures. They change color and slide, slowly, across the wall, offering a steady visual reprieve from the figures’ erratic movements. Toward the end of the video cycle the shadow bodies begin to break down. Still thrusting and convulsing, they start to disintegrate, flickering into their smallest recognizable parts—arms, legs, torsos, penises. Now voided of both the violent and the erotic, these constituent parts act like sexual graphemes, the basic elements of a visual language in which images of both depraved sexual violence and overwhelming carnal ecstasy can be written.
Paul Chan, The Body of Oh Romans (truetype font), 2008 via angel flores jr
Paul Chan, The Body of Oh Romans (truetype font), 2008 via

The linguistic qualities of these disembodied parts are reflected in the gallery’s third room, where rectangular, human-high ink drawings of alphabets and sexually explicit phrases are propped against the walls. These towering ink works, which seem at first like sketches for a perverted ABC book or a Sadian Rosetta stone, are in fact translations of a series of fonts that Chan has made available on his website. Each of these graphic font tables is fixed to a pair of men’s or women’s shoes, and standing in the small exhibition space as tall as the gallery visitors, they appear like a language embodied. The lexical tables surround a single computer keyboard for which the regular keys have been replaced by miniature grave markers. A USB cord runs from the keyboard to a computer in the gallery’s front office, hinting that the keyboard could be used to transmit coded, erotic messages to the gallery staff. Unfortunately the keyboard is not actually connected, and the usb cable is more of a conceptual devise. In order to test Chan’s fonts, visitors must use the more orthodox keyboard plugged into the designated computer in the gallery’s front office.
Finally, the last major element in Chan’s show is a series of black ink line drawings. Like the rest of Sade, most of these works on paper are sexually explicit. They depict figures engaged in various sex acts or naked and striking revealing poses. In concert with the slow, almost graceful blocks from the projections, the elegant black lines of these drawings offer a foil to the jarring sexual imagery they depict. Moving from one drawing to the next the lines start to expand over the paper, taking over completely in some cases, and giving the effect of a wholly abstract, almost Brice Marden-esque composition. The line drawings, again, like the projection they accompany, navigate the divide between the erotic and the violent, however in their case this oscillation is perhaps more overtly political. The limp bodies Chan draws piled on top of each other bear a striking resemblance to the American soldiers’ souvenir photographs taken at Abu Ghraib. Likewise, Chan’s contorted, naked figures seem to be posed in “stress positions” reminiscent of the torture techniques used at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In this way the lines that shift between figurative and abstract also shift from aesthetic to political. It’s a line that Chan navigates gracefully throughout his work, and can be found again in the 21 fonts he developed as part of Sade.
Paul Chan, Sarah Jessica Parker, 2009 via national philistine
Paul Chan, Sarah Jessica Parker, 2009 via

A visit to Chan’s website, which I recommend doing before visiting the show, reveals that not all of the fonts are composed in the voice of Sade’s characters. Though some have titles like Oh Justine and Oh Bishop X, obvious references to Sade’s work, others, like Junior George and Oh Monica, hint at characters from our recent political past. The Clinton/Lewinsky sex acts described in detail in the Star report and the piles of naked bodies in the Abu Ghraib prison photos are written here in the language of Sade. But more than that, Chan’s reduction of sexual excess and violence to basic units of written and visual language runs parallel to the sexual indulgence and violence that constitute the basic elements of contemporary American political/cultural discourse. The shorthand terms “Lewinsky” and “Abu Ghraib” point to the abstraction that high profile cases of sexual indulgence or violence undergo as they become the subtext of the political everyday. In turn, the nightly news broadcasts and family dinner conversations composed in this sexually-loaded shorthand become explicit, indulgent, and violent in their own right. This Sade-itization of the banal is reiterated one last time in Sade in the salacious monologues that the gallery staff will endure daily for the duration of the show. Benign greetings like “hi there” will be translated to “yes yes oh god oh shit yes yes yes hit that yes” (in Oh Juliette), as visitors test out Chan’s fonts on the gallery office computer.
Sade for Sade’s Sake
is a significant moment in Paul Chan’s work to date and a considerable follow up to his much-loved Lights. Despite whatever distinctions Chan draws between his political and artistic interventions, Sade offers a complex, endlessly shifting engagement with the erotic and the violent, the banal and the political, the figurative and the abstract. That being said, the political moment that seems most proper to this work has expired—this is no longer the era of Lewinsky-gate or W’s administration. Today the stakes of “sexual transgression” and mediation in the public sphere are more firmly rooted in questions of gay marriage and the legal status of consensual sexual relationships. Given the recent failures of state-level gay marriage referenda, I wonder how, if at all, the line that Chan’s Sade navigates has shifted. Certainly Chan’s interest here lies in the intersection of legal systems, language systems, and sexual practice. These terms collide in the gay marriage debate, which is of course not absent from Chan’s show, but is certainly a more subtle character than Abu Ghraib or Monica Lewinsky.


Sade for Sade’s Sake

This artist book, designed by Chan, brings together for the first time drawings, writings, and fonts he created for Sade for Sade’s sake, his monumental project that premiered at the 2009 Venice Biennale.
This unique media rich ebook includes video clips and never before seen drawings and images. It also features writings by Chan that explores the main ideas behind his project.
Using the work of the philosopher Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) as a departure point, Sade for Sade’s sake is a five-hour-and-forty-five-minute video projection as well as a constellation of other works that together evoke the spirit of Sade’s radical critique of freedom and reason for the 21st century.

Paul Chan's monumental projection Sade for Sade's Sake takes the work of the notorious pornographer and philosopher, the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), as a departure point for a nearly six-hour-long rhythmic study of bodily ecstasy and bodily repetition. Chan brilliantly renders the foremost quality of Sade's pornography--its fanatical appetite not just for the identifying of sexual possibilities, but for their enumeration and classification--as a rhythmic play of silhouetted bodies that fragment into parts, recombine and atomize, in a mechanized copulation poised between manic repetition and wild abandon. This artist's book brings together for the first time the drawings, writings, notes and fonts created during the production of Sade for Sade's Sake. It elaborates the full scope and thoughtfulness of the projection as a fascinating treatment of sex and eroticism, compulsion and joy, the social body and the sexual body.

This unique media rich eBook Edition of Sade for Sade's Sake features includes video clips and never before seen drawings and images. It also features writings by Chan that explore the main ideas behind his project.Using the work of the philosopher Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) as a departure point, Sade for Sade’s Sake is a five-hour-and-forty-five-minute video projection as well as a constellation of other works that together evoke the spirit of Sade’s radical critique of freedom and reason for the 21st century.


Paul Chan: Selected Writings 2000 – 2014

“The artist’s essays betray an engagement with philosophy of a depth rarely seen in the domain of art—perhaps never seen, on this level, before.” —George Baker, from the introduction.

“Chan is not an artist who also writes; he’s an artist and a writer. He brings to ideas the same rigor, obsession, and imagination he applies to his art.” — Alan Gilbert, Bomb magazine.

The work of Paul Chan (b. 1973) has charted a course in contemporary art as unpredictable and wide-ranging as the thinking that grounds his practice. Paul Chan: Selected Writings 2000–2014 collects the critical essays and artists texts that first appeared in Artforum, October, Texte zur Kunst, and Frieze, among other publications, as well as never before published speeches and language-based works. From the comedy of artistic freedom in Duchamp to the contradictions that bind aesthetics and politics, Chan’s writings revel in the paradoxes that make the experience of art both vexing and pleasurable. He lays bare the ideas and personalities that motivate his work by reflecting on artists as diverse as Henry Darger, Chris Marker, Sigmar Polke, and Paul Sharits. He grapples with writers and thinkers who have played decisive roles in his practice, including Theodor W. Adorno, Samuel Beckett, and Marquis De Sade. Along the way, Chan forges an understanding of the role of art in a host of broader social and political arenas beyond galleries and museums, where the potential of art is tested and renewed. Edited by George Baker and Eric Banks with Isabel Friedli and Martina Venanzoni, with an introduction by Baker. Published by Laurenz Foundation, Schualager and Badlands Unlimited


New New Testament

Like all great art, the artist’s book reflects its medium, the book. Boetti’s “indication of source” is one of many great works of this genre. Paul Chan has added another one to the list. — Hans Ulrich Obrist

New New Testament documents Paul Chan’s monumental project Volumes, a series of over one thousand paintings made out of dismantled book covers and the texts that complement each painting. A selection of Volumes premiered at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany in 2012, but New New Testament is the first time all the paintings have been united in a single book. Each painting evokes how books and works of art—both considered objects of knowledge in the past—now exist in our digitally interconnected world chiefly as objects of search. The texts that accompany each painting are composed with bewildering combinations of phrases and lexical mark that reflect how historical distinctions between art, media, and celebrity culture are rapidly dissolving. Part King James Bible, Wittgenstein, and TMZ, each text embodies the spirit of this emerging dissolution. New New Testament is co-published by Laurenz Foundation, Schaulager, and Badlands on the occasion of the exhibition Paul Chan: Selected Works at Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland. With a foreward by Maja Oeri and an essay by art critic and historian Sven Lütticken.
Due to the length and unique nature of New New Testament, the ebook edition is divided into 8 individual publications. The links below are for each individual ebook on Apple and Amazon.

Phaedrus Pron

“Using his brilliant cache of dirty/sexy fonts, Paul Chan transforms Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’ from a discussion of love and rhetoric into a wet, hot, pleading, begging, humping, squirting, moaning fuckfest between Socrates and the young Phaedrus.”– Fleshbot

Published as a limited paperback and an unlimited ebook, Paul Chan’s Phaedrus Pron recasts Plato’s legendary dialogue on art, erotic love, and madness as unyielding sexual prose that stretches the limits of intelligibility and sense.
“Written” by typesetting the original text with computer fonts created by Chan that transform the conventional alphabet into an array of erotic idiolects, Phaedrus Pron unfolds as a relentless exchange of erotic verse between a philosopher and a young man in search of rhyme and reason.
Works of art in themselves, the fonts extend the possibilities of writing by rewriting what is written with a simple change of font in your computer: from Times new roman to…Phaedrus Pron.



In Holiday, a young girl who loses her way in the world ends up inhabiting some place even stranger. Published on a stone slab approximately 3′ x 1′ x 2″ and as an e-book, Holiday falls somewhere within the tradition that produced Gilgamesh, the Rosetta Stone, and The Ten Commandments: engimatic texts written by authors of dubious origins and published in stone for questionable purposes. Badlands is proud to take up this tradition and to continue our mission of making “books in an expanded field.”


Waiting for Godot in New Orleans

“Spellbinding” — Artforum 

“An unforgettable example of ephemeral public art.” – The Nation 

“An art project that had everything, or at least a lot: objects, words, images, ideas, emotions, discourse, actions, lessons, beauty, politics, criticality and generosity.” – The New York Times

“The most moving and meaningful ‘Godot’ we are ever likely to see.” – The Times-Picayune, New Orleans

In November 2007, artist Paul Chan collaborated with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and New York public arts group Creative Time to mount free performances of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot on the streets of New Orleans. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians were still waiting for help to recover and rebuild. Godot rang with fierce immediacy, and thousands attended the play, which starred New Orleans native and television star Wendell Pierce (HBO’s The Wire).

Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide, publishes for the first time the research materials, photographs, drawings, writings, and documents produced and gathered during the making of this multifaceted project, which included the free outdoor performances; theater workshops, educational seminars, conversations, and dinners; a Shadow Fund; and a short film.

Reflecting how the project was organized, the book is divided into eight chapters: Remember, Picture, Relate, Organize, Appear, Play, Film, Reflect. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide is designed to introduce the key ideas, strategies, and histories that motivated the making of the project, in order to create an imaginative roadmap of how public art can respond to and reflect upon what it means to be a public today. It also features new essays and interviews from thinkers, writers, activists, artists, and community members involved in the project.
This enhanced ebook edition includes new audio compositions by Chan that accompanied the premiere of the Waiting for Godot in New Orleans archive at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in June 2010.

Paul Chan: 7 Lights

Paul Chan: 7 Lights.

Published by Walther König, Köln
Text by Massimiliano Gioni, Kitty Scott.

The American artist Paul Chan has gained international acclaim for his video work, drawings and installations that blend a novel drafting aesthetic with philosophical reflections on politics, religion, sex and life. This beautifully produced monograph, published on the occasion of Chan’s highly anticipated one-person exhibition at New York’s recently unveiled New Museum of Contemporary Art, presents the first significant overview of his work. Spanning from the late 1990s through today, it is named for Chan’s most recent project, The 7 Lights (2005-07), a series of large-scale digital projections and drawings that “hallucinate” the Seven Days of Creation.

Paul Chan: The Shadow and Her Wanda

Paul Chan: The Shadow and Her Wanda.

Published by Walther König, Köln

This artist’s book for children, commissioned by London’s renowned Serpentine Gallery on the occasion of Chan’s 2007 one-person exhibition there, will be equally delightful to smart, imaginative children and any parent with a even a passing interest in Western philosophy. With words, drawings and cheeky, smart footnotes (citing such diverse sources as Goethe, Nietzsche, Hegel and Google) by Chan, it tells the story of a young girl who is afraid of the night until her shadow shows her how the world can be transformed in the dark. Innovative and engaging--but not at all uptight--this sophisticated children’s book introduces ideas about language, art and contemporary culture with a lighthearted touch that keeps you flipping through the pages again and again.

Paul Chan: 2000 Words

Paul Chan: 2000 Words

Published by Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art
Edited by Karen Marta, Massimiliano Gioni. Text by Stephen Squibb.

The varied practice of Paul Chan (born 1973) includes paintings, drawings, video animations and font design, as well as critical writing. The characters in his works are animated beings, jerking and stuttering as they are violently thrust into the clumsy reel--or "real"--of history. Chan explores the intellectual and sexual animus that courses through our collective language and consciousness, drawing on sources as varied as the King James Bible, Marquis de Sade and Samuel Beckett. Part of the 2000 Words series, conceived and commissioned by Massimiliano Gioni, and published by the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, 2000 Words: Paul Chan presents the entirety of the artist's works in the Dakis Joannou Collection and includes an essay by Stephen Squibb that reveals the solitary image and its uncanny animation in Chan's work.


Sarah Hromack writes a feature in Frieze about Badlands Unlimited.

A question of form lies at the heart of the current critical interest in electronic book publishing. The Internet, coupled with a rapid influx of electronic readers and tablets – the Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad, Barnes & Noble Nook – is perceived to pose a threat to an industry reliant on paper. No one mistakes a Kindle for a codex any more than they might an iPad for a canvas – that much is clear. Yet the impact of electronic publishing on the book itself is becoming increasingly relevant to the art world, where the recent advent of art e-book publishing has posed an entirely new set of challenges – technical, philosophical, political and otherwise – to the artist’s book.
In the autumn of 2010, artist Paul Chan launched a publishing venture, Badlands Unlimited, out of his Brooklyn studio as a means of negotiating the rapidly shifting relationship between physical and virtual methods of book production. Aided by a cohort of designers and developers, Chan has since published a small catalogue of books, DVDs and artist-designed ephemera, rendered in both digital and print forms. ‘We make books in the expanded field’, claims the company’s website, a deceptively simple mission statement that belies the implications of re-calibrating an entire process – and by proxy, the history of a genre – in order to broach the digital divide.
E-book publishing complicates the interplay between the image and virtual page; the limitations imposed by code and hardware alone necessitate a somewhat radical re-thinking of that relationship. For an image-heavy e-book to retain its visual legibility across platforms, its author must consider the image in service of the electronically produced book and not the other way around. Hallmarks of a well laid-out publication – a strong correlation between text and image; a sense of visual rhythm; considered choices in typeface, paper stock, printing and binding methods – are impossible to replicate in some cases, and in others elusive at best. Whereas the printed book bears its maker’s mark more readily, the e-book places a comparatively stringent set of limitations on the endeavour from the outset; software and hardware developers dictate the platforms and products that publishers have to negotiate with during the production process.
Badlands Unlimited’s growing catalogue of e-publications confronts these visual and textual challenges in various forms, some of which are more successful than others. Stunning among them is the digital version of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide (print edition, 2010; digital edition, 2011) the definitive account of Chan’s 2007 production of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play, a collaboration with the Classical Theater of Harlem and Creative Time that introduced a much larger programme of educational workshops, conversations, dinners and funding to the devastated neighbourhoods of New Orleans. The printed book, a 338-page compendium of research materials related to the project, resembles an academic textbook in size and heft. Artforum art director Chad Kloepfer, a longtime graphic designer at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, who recently established a studio in New York, designed both the print and digital versions; the digital edition was his first foray into e-book design. Kloepfer’s spare, information-driven graphic sensibility suited the digital guide, which bears a strong visual resemblance to the printed version. However, retaining a one-to-one ratio between the print reading experience and the digital environment is a complicated if not outright impossible endeavour, as e-readers allow users to alter certain aspects of a book’s layout (by manually adjusting its typeface and size, for instance, through the device’s settings). Although initially discomforted by this, Kloepfer was able to programme a structure for the book that was flexible enough to maintain the visual feel of the print edition.
Images, however, proved tricky to position within the layout, requiring Kloepfer to reconsider the direct relationship between image and text on the printed page. Photographs, maps, documents and other images are rendered splendidly as the backlit glow of the iPad screen fills them with a luminosity that the printed page can’t approximate. Embedded audio files, another form of digital enhancement on the iPad version, begin to make Waiting for Godot… feel less like a publication and more like a tangible representation of the event it shows. Equally remarkable is the video documentation of Sade for Sade’s Sake, Chan’s video projection which premiered at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, which is embedded in the iPad version of the The Essential and Incomplete Sade for Sade’s Sake (2010), a collection of project-related ephemera and black and white drawings otherwise free of colour.
Stumbling upon audio or video files during a reading experience, while novel, is also foreign to the task at hand, which begs the question of whether e-books aren’t actually something else entirely. Publications such as Mans in the Mirror (in 3D) (2010), a three-dimensional e-book billed as a collection of images based loosely on Henri Michaux’s 1956 book Miserable Miracle, play up the sense of mimetic awkwardness that characterizes certain aspects of the e-reading experience. Mans in the Mirror requires its reader to wear 3D glasses in order to achieve the desired visual effect, which is blurry, at best. Unlined Notebook (2010), another absurdist offering, is a series of blank, rule-lined pages.
As technical and conceptual proving grounds, these smaller, more esoteric projects effectively point to future, unknown possibilities for e-book publishing. It is useful, in this nascent stage of coalescence for art books and digital publishing processes, to recall how advances in electronic typesetting and printing technologies in the 1960s helped expand artist-driven book production, enabling small galleries and individuals to independently produce and distribute publications on a larger scale. In 1970s New York, then newly established Franklin Furnace Archives, Inc. and Printed Matter became cornerstones for all book-related activities. Chan sees Badlands Unlimited as a continuation of the city’s long independent publishing tradition, citing a sense of camaraderie with other young, local presses including Primary Information and 38th Street Press, with whom he will collaborate on both print and digital projects in the near future.
If anything, the advent of art e-book publishing will test the strength of the community that has historically supported artists’ publishing efforts, requiring a new willingness to engage with emerging technologies and their channels of distribution. This is, perhaps, Badlands Unlimited’s more easily overlooked contribution to the future of digital publishing: The Essential and Incomplete Sade… and Waiting for Godot… are distributed through the Apple iBooks store, along with Amazon and Badlands Unlimited’s own website. Mans in the Mirror, however, has been rejected by Apple three times for unknown reasons; Phaedrus Pron (2010), which is typeset in a computer font designed by Chan to render text (here, Plato’s Phaedrus) into distinctly X-rated erotic verse, passed muster on the first go.
By publishing e-books whose content deliberately tests the boundaries of major distributors – and by developing self-sustaining alternatives to their systems – Badlands Unlimited is forcing several lines of inquiry: who decides what constitutes an art object or a book, when art and digital publishing meet? What is an exhibition catalogue or an artist’s e-book – or rather, what could they be – when materially bound to a physical format rife with implications, commercial and otherwise? Art e-book publishing invites institutions and artists alike to imagine a new and different future for these forms while reconsidering their historical and ideological positions. Clearly, that future is now.
- Sarah Hromack Frieze

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED the work of Paul Chan in 2006, when I happened to see one of his video installations in the cavernous former factory space of Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. Chan’s piece, drawn with a deceptive crudeness and colored in bright hues, was a computer animation with the wonderful sinewy title Happiness (finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization — after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier (2003). The video manages to transpose the characters and palette of Darger’s 15,145-page outsider-art magnum opus onto a scene that draws upon the ideas of the 19th century utopianist and philosopher Charles Fourier — somehow it coheres. Within Chan’s visionary world, Darger’s Vivian Girls embark on a series of strange adventures: they prance through fields of flowers, defecate on tables during a gluttonous banquet (pay attention during this scene and the viewer will hear a strangely baroque Casio version of Jay-Z’s song “Big Pimpin’”), graphically engage in every manner of orgiastic practice, endure war and torture, and finally, they enact revenge on their adult oppressors.
The piece ignited Chan’s career in the art world a decade ago. Since that time, he has embarked upon many projects that incorporate a wide span of aesthetic and political concerns. Baghdad in No Particular Order (2003), a wandering documentary in a similar vein as Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, chronicles the time that Chan spent in sanction-crippled Iraq with the activist group Voices in the Wilderness. Another animated video installation, My Birds … trash … the future (2004), places Biggie Smalls and Pier Paolo Pasolini (murder victims, both) within a war-ravaged setting that is equal parts Leviticus, Goya, and Godot. As part of a group functioning under the umbrella name of The Friends of William Blake, in 2004 Chan helped design The People’s Guide to the Republican National Convention, which was released into the world as 25,000 foldable maps of New York City with information geared specifically towards visiting protestors (locating practical resources as well as the addresses of key RNC sponsors and war profiteers).
In 2007, Chan staged a series of acclaimed outdoor performances of Waiting for Godot in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly sections of post-Katrina New Orleans. The 7 Lights (2005–2007), Chan’s solo show at the New Museum in 2008, was centered around a series of floor-projected light installations that investigated Biblical accounts of the apocalypse by illustrating both levitating material-cultural detritus and 9/11’s falling bodies. And in 2009, he showed Sade for Sade’s Sake, an elaborate multidisciplinary take on Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom that had at its focal point a nearly six-hour projection of silhouetted figures entwined in a variety of sexual scenarios with ample amounts of perversion, humiliation, and domination.        
But in his keynote address at the 2012 New York Art Book Fair, Chan claimed that after such a frenzied period of activity, he had decided to stop working. He’d declined fresh offers to exhibit and didn’t make new pieces. Citing other figures who have simply “stopped” as inspiration — workers going on strike, Marcel Duchamp (who famously quit the art world, though not art-making, at the height of his success to dedicate himself to chess), Yvonne Rainer (who decided to become a filmmaker after many years of groundbreaking work as a choreographer), and Samuel Beckett (who wrote Waiting for Godot as a something of a vacation from the grueling work of writing his great trilogy of novels) — Chan said he had wanted to begin something in an entirely different mode. This, it turns out, was his origin story for Badlands Unlimited, the publishing project he started in 2010.
Chan’s press’ motto is, “We make books in an expanded field.” It’s both a nod to Rosalind Krauss’s landmark essay on sculpture and a statement of curatorial breadth. The past two years have seen Badlands publish titles in a wide variety of genres: the first English translation of Saddam Hussein’s early speeches on democracy accompanied by Chan’s fabric collages and charcoal portraits, a thin gem of collected poems from Yvonne Rainer, a translation of Plato’s Phaedrus via a series of invented “fonts” that alter the text’s original words into a string of shifting homoerotic found poems.
What’s perhaps most radical about Badlands Unlimited, though, is that Chan has decided to focus heavily on publishing ebooks, with paper books being somewhat secondary in the enterprise. While the notion of artist-as-publisher isn’t an entirely new concept, and the digital arts as we know them now are traceable to at least the 1960s, the idea of the artist-as-digital-publisher surely seems crass, if not sacrilegious, to many in the art world, where printed multiples and artist’s books can fetch absurdly high prices in a market that often favors the limited edition fetish object. The worlds of the ebook buyer and the art world spectator have not necessarily overlapped, until now.
Of course, this kind of resistance to new technology has been repeated many times before. In his talk, Chan mentioned that during his non-work incubation period, he spent time researching the history of the book as a form. During the Renaissance, he noted, the printed book that Gutenberg was easing into the textual landscape was considered deeply untrustworthy in comparison to the handwritten manuscripts that were the most widespread way of transmitting words to a reader at the time. (For a fairly screwed take on this history, see Chan’s ebook Wht is a Book?) Is the current resistance to ebooks much different than that initial resistance to bound printed books, once suspect and now commonplace?
The possibilities of this relatively new medium are only one aspect of what makes Badlands such an interesting operation. As a publishing outfit, they are blurring the distinctions between art press, curatorial experiment and publishing industry gambit, while putting out a series of works that are strange enough individually, but seem even stranger when grouped together under the same moniker. This testifies not only to Chan’s diverse leanings as a reader (he coined it “reckless reading” in Calvin Tomkins’s 2008 New Yorker profile of him) but also his possible ambition to recategorize Badlands Unlimited more as a form of extended assemblage than a mere publishing project.
Before deciding to take a look through the bulk of titles that Badlands has released over the past two years, I had never read an ebook. Plenty of skimming and browsing time is killed on a computer screen, but when it comes to reading, as in actually focusing on a text or image — as in doing more than mere glassy-eyed scrolling — the bound paper object is the ideal for me. Nevertheless, with an iPad borrowed from a friend, I set about exploring the newly expanded field that Badlands is charting in the digital realm.
The first thing I looked at was Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide, one of the earliest Badlands titles, which was released in both paper and e-forms. The book documents the thinking, planning, and inspirations leading up to the 2007 Beckett productions that Chan staged both on a desolate street intersection and in the front yard of an abandoned house in New Orleans within the close aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The play — produced along with the public arts organization Creative Time, the Classical Theatre of Harlem and many New Orleans–based artists, activists, nonprofits, high schools and universities — was a hugely ambitious project and it is fascinating to see the different channels of preparation that led into it.
Much like The Essential and Incomplete Sade for Sade’s Sake — the first Badlands title and, essentially, an extended exhibition catalog for Chan’s show from 2009 — this book’s chief aim is to document the research and ephemera from the production. One difference is that Waiting for Godot in New Orleans features extensive amounts of writing alongside the visual documentation. There are theoretical essays on Beckett from Alain Badiou, Susan Sontag, and Terry Eagleton, as well as texts by Chan and many of the principle organizers, and interviews with a handful of New Orleans natives involved with realizing the play. There are numerous photographs of the rehearsals and community meetings leading up to the production, dozens of scans of lists, sketches, and posters.
Even though the content within this ebook doesn’t achieve much in terms of pushing the boundaries of the medium, it acts as a supplement to the other edition, adding elements that perhaps didn’t make the initial editorial cut for the print version. The ebook has some multimedia components — there are several audio clips lodged within the text at various points — but there seems to be a dynamism lacking in how it works within a digital layout. The book, regardless of its different medium, still reads like a book.
However, the other Badlands ebooks I was able to peruse did point to how the field of art book publishing could become expanded; each title underscored how the digital format could possibly fulfill different aesthetic purposes. It is through these later ebooks — messy, genreless, playful, and bizarre as they are — that Badlands is changing the nature of arts publishing. These titles, which are only available on ereaders, are experimental in the truest sense and could only work with the format at hand — either because their legibility wouldn’t necessarily translate to the kind of serial reading/viewing experience that a paper book provides or because the essentially unsellable perversity of ideas contained within the pages would make the financial risk too great.
Chan has noted that the economic aspect of publishing ebooks, the cheapness inherent to the production end of the medium, was one of the motivating factors for delving into the format. Within the context of operating a traditional publishing house, even on the level of a small press, thousands of dollars need to be funneled into production and distribution. With an ebook, the formatting is done digitally and then can be distributed as a download almost instantly, both at no real cost.
In many ways, the cheapness and immediacy of art ebooks echoes the early history of artists’ books. In 1914, when Vasily Kamensky’s letterpress printed his ferro-concrete poems on discarded floral wallpaper, it was certainly an aesthetic choice, but it was a gesture of intentional thrift as well, one that has been repeated numerous times within the history of artists’ books in the 20th century. Alongside the development of book arts as a craft, there has been the desire to use the form of the book as a cheaper mode of disseminating work that would otherwise be sold only at a gallery. Ed Ruscha’s conceptual book works from the early 1960s demonstrated that low-cost materials and common printing methods could be used to create large editions, without the whiff of rarity or exclusivity, for a wider general audience. This history could be extended on to include poetry mimeographs, punk zines, and a wide span of pre-Internet underground culture.
The Wht Is series that Chan made in the earlier stages of Badlands plays into this history. Each title ostensibly tackles a different quandary: Wht Is Nature?, Wht is a n Occupation?, Wht is Lawlessness?, Wht is a Berlusconi?, Wht is Wu Tang?, Wht is a Kardashian? But perhaps it goes without saying that none of the books really venture to answer any of these questions directly. Instead, each is a set of found book pages (textbooks, atlases, indexes) overprinted with text from various unattributed sources (Kant, Erica Jong), and screenshots of various Internet memes scattered throughout. The series straddles the split dilemma between art world rarity and wide, democratic distribution by having it both ways: each was originally made in an edition of one (sold in the $300 to $500 ballpark), with two artist proofs, but also made available as free scanned PDF downloads from the Badlands site. They are at once material and ultra-rare, digital and infinitely distributable. The books aren’t at all readable, as they are primarily dense tangles of overlaid words and images, and they aren’t necessarily groundbreaking aesthetic wonders to behold, but they’re excellent as a kind of art-market hoax: produced for next to nothing with found materials, then sold for a relatively high price, then reduced back to a freely available scale. In a similar tone, Badlands recently published a short story of Chan’s by engraving it onto a 3-foot-tall stone tablet, made legitimate with an actual ISBN number. It is available in an edition of one in the most material of possible forms or as an endlessly circulated two-page ebook.
Another aspect of digital publishing that Badlands seems to be emphasizing is the potential archival nature inherent to the medium. Take, for instance, the experimental Made in USA magazine from the collaborative Bernadette Corporation, which Badlands reissued last fall. One of the more recent role-models for the kind of contemporary art-publishing that Badlands is now doing, the Bernadette Corporation channeled their crossmedia work into a short-lived, three-issue magazine at the turn of the millennium. Merging the worlds of fashion and art, while slyly satirizing both, the magazine incorporated the design specs of a glossy rag with the feel of a Xeroxed zine. (The issue I looked at had writing from Chris Kraus and Stéphane Mallarmé, art from Jutta Koether and Rita Ackermann, a variety of interviews and essays, and many ads from fashion designers and galleries dispersed throughout.)
If you happened to be around the Lower East Side in the late 1990s, Made in USA was an influential, though highly ephemeral, periodical. If you weren’t there, you probably haven’t seen it. In reproducing these three issues, Badlands is permanently extending the publication’s life by making it widely available beyond its early origins. What was once hyperlocalized and rather limited has now become infinitely accessible. While it could be argued that some of the aura from the original is lost in the translation to digital, it’s probably preferable to the fate of Made in USA remaining only talked about or never discovered, for those who were outside of the sphere of the original moment. As with the Wht Is series, the translation of these works into ebooks is making what would otherwise have an air of precious scarcity into a endlessly reproduced work, both cheap to produce and cheap to purchase.
The other three of the Badlands ebooks that I examined are playful with the potential of the e-format. They are experimental in that they seem to genuinely be figuring out how to work with the continuity and repetition of the pages, the design and layout of spreads and the amount of logical sense that is supposedly needed within the container of a book.
Mans in the Mirror, like a large portion of the Badlands catalog, resides in the world of trickster surrealism. Supposedly created while under the effects of mescaline, it was intended as something of an homage to the book Miserable Miracle by the poet and painter Henri Michaux, which was itself a chronicle of the writer’s transformed consciousness through the use of the same drug. This Badlands edition also claims to be the first-ever 3D ebook. (As I didn’t have any 3D glasses at my disposal, I couldn’t verify the claim.) If this is what the merging of digital art and hallucinogenics looks like, it appears as a glowing psychedelic nightmare. X-ray tinged naked bodies, scribbled line drawings, calligraphic drawings in the style of Michaux, and chopped portraits are all blurred in the familiar stereoscopic blues and reds of 3D visuals.
Rachel Harrison’s The Help, A Companion Guide is an auxiliary, behind-the-scenes take on her 2012 solo show of sculptures at the Greene Naftali Gallery in New York. The work takes its title from the visible maintenance entrance to Marcel Ducahmp’s final, room-sized installation Étant donnés. Similarly, within this ebook, Harrison is dealing with the art handlers and gallery workers that assisted in setting up the exhibition of her work, people that are usually ignored and underacknowledged. The ebook consists of screenshot Google searches on Picasso, drawings of Amy Winehouse, and detailed photographic spreads of her sculptures being moved, unpacked, assembled, shifted, cleaned, and prepared. What is the thread connecting Picasso, Winehouse, and art handlers? Perhaps only Harrison herself knows. The Help reads both as a quickly assembled scrapbook documenting the long process of Harrison’s work reaching the public, as well as a window into an artist’s mind outside of her studio. Like some of the other Badlands ebooks, it is doubtful that it would be published in any other form, but as a one-off record it’s an appealing experiment.
Having the special distinction of being the first ebook to be reviewed in the pages of Artforum, Net artist Petra Cortright’s HELL­_TREE is possibly the strangest book in a catalog that is replete with strangeness. Unlike any of the other Badlands books, physical or digital, HELL­_TREE may not even be easily categorized as a book, at least as we are familiar with the form. Gone are page breaks, pictorial spreads, and any real sense of recto and verso. In their place is a jumbled mesh of schizophrenic desktop detritus. A sculptor or painter’s studio is fairly easy to imagine for most people, but what does an Internet artist’s studio look like? It would be HELL­_TREE.
If it’s possible to show simultaneous events on a page, this might be the finest example. As a layered series of screenshots throughout the span of a few days, spread across each turn of the e-page, Cortright’s desktop is a garble of notes to herself, to-do-lists, project ideas, emoticons, half-way poetry, diary entries, unfinished emails, assorted images grabbed from the corners of the Internet, random words strung together and letters strung into nonwords. It’s complete chaos. Yet, it truly does have the effect of being a snapshot of a working artist’s studio at a given moment. Are we looking at works in progress or are these the works themselves, already where they are intended to be? How can this book be evaluated? Is it readable? Is it beautiful? Is it good, by any measure? I would venture that most people might resoundingly answer “No” to each question. Nobody can deny, though, that it is unlike any other artist’s book in existence. As Bruce Sterling wrote in his Artforum review: “Reading the book is like finding a lost, sticker-covered iPad, whose owner left its screen bewitched with hairy stains from her fur-lined Meret Oppenheim coffee cup.”
The last of the Badlands books that I wanted to check out was the anthology How to Download a Boyfriend, which is being touted as the first group exhibition to take the form of an interactive ebook. It has the work of 50 artists, as well as a series of quizzes that promise to “test readers with funny, probing, or simply absurd questions about love and longing in the 21st century.” I was looking forward to taking it all in. Yet every time that I would click on the link that should have let me purchase the book on iTunes, a window popped up: “Your request could not be completed. The item you’ve requested is not currently available in the U.S. store.” After some light investigating, I found out that Apple had some issues with the content, apparently concerning nudity in the book, and temporarily retracted it from their stock.
Could this point to a kink in the limitless potential of ebooks, for artists or otherwise? It seems as though having the distribution concentrated through the channels of only a few powerful companies could be seriously problematic to the longevity of the medium. The fact that anything not suiting Apple’s chaste whims could be eliminated from their stock is a form of censorship that is never really seen in small-presses within the physical realm. However, on the other side of this coin, Hurricane Sandy recently destroyed large portions of artworks and art books in New York City. Included in this were many great entities like the nonprofit Printed Matter that lost around 9,000 books from water damage, as well as the publisher Primary Information and other outlets for first-rate artists’ books and works-on-paper multiples, their stocks thoroughly flooded and soaked through. Perhaps this points to the need for both ends of the spectrum: the physical for a design to hold in hand when the electrical grid fails as well as the digital, for the archival preservation of works that can weather the rising tides.
Matthew Erickson

Paul Chan on the "Golden Age" of Art Publishing

Paul Chan on the "Golden Age" of Art Publishing
The artist Paul Chan appearing to descend into a fiery pit in Frankfurt        
In early 2009, at what seemed to be the height of his notable career, Paul Chan called it quits. Thirty-six-years old at the time, the artist had come to acclaim for his lyrical installation 7 Lights, an overhead light projection of figures and objects falling as if from a great height (summoning poignant recollections of those who plummeted from the World Trade Center) that debuted at London's Serpentine Gallery in London in 2007. The same year, Chan—a conceptualist who had earned his MFA in film and new media at Bard—eulogized another tragedy with his Waiting for Godot, a re-staging of Samuel Beckett's existential masterpiece in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward that drew upon a cast of locals whose lives had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The works made Chan the darling of critics.
Why did he give up making art? "Real beginnings demand real ends," the artist said at the time. "The world is big, and I can do a lot of different things." So, while his work continued to circulate in group exhibitions, Chan started a publishing press called Badlands Unlimited in 2010—which earned some notoriety in 2012 when it published On Democracy, a collection of Saddam Hussein's fascinatingly deluded speeches on the subjectand this spring it released two books of his own writings, New New Testament and Selected Writings 2000 - 2014. But it turns out the end of Chan's art career was not so final after all—this April, he's also making a comeback with his first major show since 2008, at Basel's Schaulager art space (April 11 – October 19). 
To learn about the change of heart behind Chan's new exhibition, we spoke with the artist via email about his transition into publishing, the quiet continuation of creating "book paintings" throughout his retirement, and his hobby of inventing computer fonts. Some of his answers, as you will see, come in the form of what appear to be neo-Hieroglyphic pictograms.
Could you tell me about your upcoming show at the Schaulager?
It's an exhibition of new and never-before-seen work, together with old work from the past 15 years. It also involves my books from my press Badlands Unlimited, which were co-published by Schaulager and the Laurenz Foundation: New New Testament and Selected Writings 2000 - 2014.
Among the sculptures, drawings, light installations, and animations in the show will be Volumes, the 2012 series of more than 1,000 paintings made out of deconstructed and painted book covers. Why did you start incorporating books into your art?
There are so many reasons. The one that seems most right today is that it was something I've never done before. It evolved painting by painting, like any other work I suppose. They were done on weekends and nights, after office hours at Badlands.  
Volumes, (detail), 2012Paul Chan's Volumes (2012)
You announced your retirement in 2008. Since then, you've been writing and publishing books. Does the label "artist" matter to you today?
……………Does the interested ……………………..,-” ever obey the law? ”¯””-,………………… When one is interested,…………….,~”……….Ä
…………………………,~”…………,..Ä it is because interest is useful enough to be beautiful.………………………,-“………………….|
…………….…… . . .“-~“ . . ¯¯¯¯¯””~-,
……………|………Beauty is in fact what is useful enough to us to be an extension of who we
happen to be. ..| .,-“……………………/..|……….………/………… ……………|………………..Ä . . . ._ .. . . . . . . “-,„„„-”……………|..……………..”-, . .(..”~,————~”
………….,~” . ¯”~,……………….¯”~~-”,-Ä………….,-“-,”~, . .”-,
…The ……………../…………………….……|
… law, ……………./…………………..,„_„…|
… written before this discovery, has power over only those who have not found anything useful enough to be beautiful, and vice versa. ……………,-,-~-,-~’,
……………../……………….,-“ ( . . o)_º)
……………./………………./. . . . . . . . . . . . . ,-~“~,
……………|………………..| . . . . . . . . . . . . /::::::::Ä
……………|………………..| . . . . . . . . . . . . |:::::::::l
. . “-, ”-, . There is a place
where this does not apply..……………/……
………..Ä,,-“,~”……/…..,-“ . .”-,…………..’-,.”-,……..) . . . .”-,,-
………….’-,……..(,–,.,-“ . . . . |…………….”-,”-,,(“-~”-,””~~~”
…………….¯”””¯,-“, .), . . . . ,-“……………….”-,Ä,.”..,-“
………………….’-, .”.,“-,_„„~”……………………”.”-,”
…………………………¯”~/ . . . . . .)……………,”-~’,
………………………..…./ . . . . . . |–„„„„„„–,~””¯ . .

In 2010, you started a publishing press, which has published Yvonne Rainer’s poems and Saddam Hussein’s essays. Why did you establish Badlands Unlimited? 
I need something to do. And I've wanted to run a press for some time. Also, for the last couple of years, New York has seen a kind of golden age of independent publishing, with artists, designers, even gallery directors getting in on the action. Primary Information, Dexter Sinister, Karma, I can go on. It almost reminds me of another golden age, when independent film and video came of a certain age in the late ’60s and began to expand in ways there were unpredictable and full of vitality.

Who do you publish the books for?I don't know who the books are for. I just publish them.

Then what's the idea behind the press?
Song,                  >            teach i
                  t and teach i
                  t well,                  >            until
                  t becomes nobody’s property,                  >           or at the least something one wishes to leave on the ground,                  >            for someone
else to find,              >         and puzzle over,            >        as you had,     >     over why i                          t existed at all.
In addition to your essays, you include in Selected Writings a body of work called Alternumerics, which explores the gap between language and meaning with invented computer fonts. It is very playful and collapses language and visual communication. What do you achieve in your writing that you can’t through your art, and visa versa?
I am not at all sure what I achieve in my writing. I am pretty sure nothing much is achieved in the art. So there is definitely that difference. If I were to think about this more, it would probably lead me to the idea that the act of writing creates the illusion of a peculiar kind of clarity in thinking that I'm never looking for in making work.
Paul Chan The body of Oh young Augustine (truetype font), 2009Paul Chan's The body of Oh Young Augustine (truetype font) (2009)
In an interview you did about making Alternumerics, you said you “wanted language to work only for me and no one else.” Do you care if your art binds people together in meaningful associations and communities?No. But I'm happy if it does.
In an essay, you wrote that art is “like the perfect crime or a bad dream" in that "it is not apparent at all how the elements come together. Yet they nevertheless do, through composition, sometimes by chance, so that it appears as if it were a thing.”  Your writing also contains unexpected, delightful collisions between disparate elements. You quote Britney Spears, the Bible, and Jacques Lacan over the course of a single essay. You write elsewhere: “Any system that reduces a world is tragic.” Can you talk about disarray and non-order in your writing?
Well, first, the tables that I tend to write on get messier the more I write. I write longhand for the first draft of anything, so there are scrapes of paper with illegible handwriting all over. Also dirty plates, old hats, empty Fedex envelopes, pens, socks. I don't know why. It's how thinking happens I suppose—by gathering what is simply available around us at any given time.
1st Light, 2005Paul Chan's 1st Light (2005), part of his 7 Lights installation
What are you currently reading ?I just read about a young man who had sex with a Hot Pocket and then posted a Vine about it. Vine then kicked him off Vine?

What are you looking at ?o
\\ ooooo
~\\\ oooo oooo
~~~\\\ oooo oooo
++~~~\\\ oooo oooo
:+++~~~\\\ oooo oooo
:::+++~~~\\\ oooo ----- oooo
Brandi Glanville oooo @@@@- obviously lacks the sensibility
needed to recognize that a genuine experience of art is not possible without a memory or longing for ______
_natural beauty.


Activism and animation, Henry Darger and the 'War on Terror'
Once the inevitability of Bush’s march on Iraq became clear, the Chicago-based group Voices in the Wilderness arranged for artists and journalists to go to Baghdad and document the destruction. Paul Chan spent two months there and came home with video journals and hundreds of photographs of local residents. In the lead-up to the pre-war protests Chan and a few collaborators chose 30 of these anonymous portraits and posted thousands of copies around Manhattan, each image captioned simply with the date it was made and the word ‘Baghdad’.
The project’s power lay in its similarity to the ‘Missing Persons’ flyers that papered the walls of New York like ad hoc memorials in the days following 11 September. A slide-show Chan made using his Baghdad pictures documented the common humanity of these people, on whose homes the US government was about to wreak havoc. Whether it is useful to call these projects art is beside the point, although Chan does try to distinguish between his work as an activist and an artist. What he perceives as the relative impotence of contemporary art, regardless of the political resonance of some of his pieces, seems to render art-making impossible as an end in itself. The fact that the economics of the market afford certain political and ironic opportunities, however, is not lost on Chan. When an Iraqi family he met in Baghdad was looking to escape the chaos, he sold some art works to raise funds for their trip: prints of The People’s Guide to the Republican National Convention, a map he and some like-minded associates calling themselves the Friends of William Blake had designed and distributed to protesters attending New York’s Republican National Convention rally. In addition to listing conveniently located toilets, the detailed tourist map-cum-agitator’s-guide included useful facts such as the addresses of local Republican Party corporate sponsors, the headquarters of assorted multinationals, the hotels of the various delegations, and legal services.
Chan’s gallery-based work focuses on video, though his début at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York last autumn also included a wall of charcoal drawings, and a sculpture of a toy pistol that concealed a speaker in the barrel’s tip. (To hear the faint sound, viewers pointed the gun at their heads.) His website,, hosts portions of his video work with online components of certain projects. Visitors familiar with his 2002 video Re: The Operation, for example – an allusion to the infamously contrived G.I. ‘letters home’ actually written by members of the Bush administration – can also download desktop portrait icons of key administration operatives maimed by their own ‘War on Terror’.
His two most powerful pieces are digital animation projections structured around Utopian desires and dystopic fantasies but depicted in a mode of apocalyptic Pop realism. Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization – After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier (1999–2003) pulls together imagery culled from the janitor’s escapist little girl epics and the French Utopian socialist’s evolutionary chartings of the future flows of civilized happiness and bedlam. The girls frolic across a beautifully drawn landscape, eating flowers, defecating, having sex and being tortured by soldiers before they achieve ultimate victory in the battle against their oppressors.
My Birds… Trash… The Future (2004) features Pier Paolo Pasolini and Biggie Smalls (both murder victims) set in a lonely landscape amid suicide bombers, birds from the book of Leviticus being shot by hunters, and camera-snapping tourists in yellow Hummers. Both pieces feature richly evocative sound-tracks – bird-song, wind gusts, car alarms and mobile phones – but their repetition, pacing and juxtaposition against the jerky faux primitivism of Chan’s South Park-meets-early-Nintendo style of digital rendering is disquieting. The slow-paced action of My Birds centres on a bleak tree that recalls both Godot and Goya, whose respective Absurdist waiting game and disasters of war fit all too well with our contemporary anxieties.
What makes My Birds a pointed grotesquerie of contemporary American life is the contrast between its lack of emotional texture and the violence it depicts. As in the video games Chan’s graphics mimic, his protagonists act without a hint of pain or desire. If it was all a game, you could stop playing; but in a terribly familiar way the lunacy seems locked on autopilot.
The aesthetician Elaine Scarry noted that imagination helps provoke action, albeit on a smaller scale than what a dream demands: if you imagine Utopia, help build a country; if you imagine a city, build a house; if you imagine a house, make a brick. Paul Chan’s activism suggests that if you imagine a more tolerant and self-aware society, you might first immerse yourself in the one your own is poised to annihilate. But it is Chan’s creativity that suggests that, if what you imagine is freedom, you make art. - Peter Eleey

Paul Chan: What Art Is and Where it Belongs

Interview with Paul Chan by Alina Viola Grumiller
"Hope of Escape"
  Paul Chan might be my lover, which makes me inclined to say great things about him. But he is also an artist who engages me on levels of desire beyond copulation. His art is rich with questions about our present, telling us about utopian futures from the past that we have neglected to consider. "Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization", started off as an online animation project. But ultimately it took the form of an installation. It reinterprets the drawings of the artist Henry Darger and the writings of Utopian socialist Charles Fourier, exploring Western concepts of Utopia and the struggle by which we create a fair, pleasurable and self-sustaining society. The friction "Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization" creates embodies his affinity for social and aesthetic juxtapositions. It is an escape, and ultimately a critique of the world we live in, pushing us to re-think the structures of our language that have formed our thinking of it. 
 Besides creating visions for a possible world, he has also visited a world that ceased to exist in the "real" one we live in: Iraq. Paul was a member of the Iraq Peace Team, living in Baghdad from December 2002 until January 2003, documenting the story of our administration's unspeakable drive for war and the people caught in its path. 
 Susan Sontag writes in her new book Regarding The Pain of Others, that "Compassion is an unstable emotion, it needs to be translated into action, or it withers". Going to Iraq seems to be contradictory to his escapism in "Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization". However, isn't it through contradiction, that things and ideas become unhinged? And doesn't his work in politics push the questions he asks in his art?

Front views of “Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civillization”

Alina Viola Grumiller:   Why do you choose to work in new media?

Paul Chan:   Partly out of necessity and partly out of chance. I certainly didn't choose it. It chose me because the time in which I studied dictated certain techniques of art-making and in the mid-nineties the Internet became an exciting thing. I certainly didn't start with the Internet stuff. Actually in school I didn't do any artwork at all. I did journalism and labor organizing at the Art Institute of Chicago.

It was not until after school that I started dabbling in new media and seriously considered video as a medium to make work with. But that was because I didn't want to paint or draw. Performance was there but I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to work with other people. So it was almost a matter of deduction. "What don't I like to do?" The more you ask that, the clearer the answer became not by choice, but by deduction.

Closeup of scene from“Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civillization”

AVG:   You do a lot of political/activist work. You went to Iraq with the Iraq Peace Team (a campaign of the Chicago based activist group Voices in the Wilderness) and you are the "director" of National Philistine, an online political-aesthetic-think-tank. How do you negotiate your political work and your art?

PC:   I try not to mix art and politics. I have certain political needs and so I fulfill them by doing political work. I have media skills. I know how to edit video and make web-sites, I know certain principles of design and aesthetics, and these skills become useful in campaigning and organizing, or propagating information.

Art is completely different, as it must be. I'm not looking to spread information or organize ideas and people when I make art. Politics demand the force of speech to articulate answers to present questions. Art demands a kind of speechlessness that gives space to pose new questions for possible futures.

Closeup of scene from “Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civillization”

AVG:   Looking back these past months, a lot of people have described themselves as "utterly speechless". The aftershock of 9/11, the war on Afghanistan, the war on Iraq. No articulation of speech or order of language seems to be able to represent this chain of disasters. How does your work offer an alternative to – let's say – traumatic experiences pressed on us every day by the numerous media outlets? And do you actually consider media to be a traumatic experience?

PC:   Media is not traumatic per se. There is no such thing within the DNA of media – whether its mass media or independent media – that determines it to be traumatic. It is a particular ideology that drives the media that makes it traumatic because it perpetuates certain modes of consumption and reception. Pace Biggie Smalls (AKA the Notorious B.I.G., the slain rapper), politics is always already about money, power, and respect. Media becomes traumatic when it perpetuates this closed circuit without hope of escape, closure, or system crash.

Iraq street snapshot, January 2003 by Paul Chan

AVG:   Philosopher Slavoj Zizek says in his book The Fragile Absolute: "[When] we are confronted with an image of that deep horror which underlies our well-ordered surface, we should never forget that the images of this horrible vortex are ultimately a lure, a trap to make us forget where the true horror lies."

How do you/we know horror without being horrified?
How do you/we know trauma without being traumatized?

PC:   I don't know.

What has been traumatizing in my life?

Oh well that's easy, it's a recognition of repetition. I mean, trauma is the recurrence of something that one wants to revisit without really knowing the cause of the effect of the repetition. You just see the repetition. SARS coverage becomes traumatic. It repeats but within the same cycle of cause and effect and it not only seems "natural", there is no stopping it, even though you realize that there are certain answers and questions that could be aired to stop the cycle. That's the first step in transforming trauma: through the recognition of repetition. And the non-variants of that repetition, that it literally becomes repeated as opposed to varied. Which is the pattern of understanding, I suppose.

AVG:   As we have been talking about trauma, disaster – The question for me becomes, what do we do with the feelings that have been aroused? New things emerge, in order to resolve a tension within the old things that in fact were already present that were only in a "Gestalt" of a longing.

If I say, a New World demands a new language, do you think that we can recruit media for this task?

PC:   No. Maybe. No.

There is no media without people and so people first. It doesn't matter what media it is, actually. New media formalizes the inexplicable connections between people, things and places. It is appropriate for our times because within the form of new media, we see how terribly interconnected we all are.

New media combines film, video, speech, text, and design in a sort of hybrid that in and of itself does not sew seeds of possibility for something different or something new. I mean, we are still playing with the stuff we have always known, so it's simply symptomatic of the interconnection we have, but that does not give it more of a possibility of transforming what we see around us.

AVG:   Has your journey to Iraq changed your work? Has it given you a new language for politics or art?

PC:   Iraq made me more extreme. The trip and the work were a multi-angular phenomenon. I can't use everything that I felt and thought in my artwork because it doesn't translate well. It doesn't translate well because number one, it distorts the original conception of what that experience was and number two, if I decided to distort it, it may not resonate as fully as I want them to in artwork – as contradictions, paradoxes, etc. There are no answers in art; in fact there are no ideas even. So how do you transform experience into non-ideas, or how do you make ideas collide and collapse in art becomes the essential question?

A new language is essential, but a new language is new because no one recognizes it, ergo, you can't use it. It can only be a bookmark for something we haven't thought of – but can't be useful and so it can't be political because anything that is political must be useful. Politics is about answers to present questions. Art is about questions; questions that we don't even know how to ask yet. It's clear that radical change, radical political change comes from ideas that are already in the air, using a language we already know, and that it is through either distortion, chance, or luck that things pop up, and of course human agency.

Martin Luther King JR's ideas were not radical; they were only radical in terms of how they colluded with action and history. So action becomes the aesthetic horizon from which politics enter into the world.

The people I went to Iraq with, their ideas were neither new nor necessarily radical: since there have been wars there have been anti-war protesters. But what they did was radical. They went to Iraq and believed – hope against hope – that they could be a radical part of a new constellation of people all over the world that stops a war.

AVG:   Is this possible with the new collective language of the Internet? Is this language, through its global reach and ambition, the foundation of a new form of participatory discourse? And do you think this discourse leads to new and liberating forms of politics?

PC:   No.


Don't get me wrong. I think the Internet is wonderful. There is no way people could have organized the way they did without the Internet. But the more connected we are, the heavier everything becomes. This movement is in fact a double movement. First, it is liberating because global electronic communication allows us to organize and communicate anywhere and everywhere at an instant. But second, it is also traumatizing, since there is no escaping this electronic boulder on our shoulders, this burden, and this implicit responsibility of stopping the tragedies, the barbarisms, and the tyrannies that happen throughout the world because we are now inextricably connected to them. It is a double movement and it immobilizes us. We are more immobilized than we were before. I think the trick is to not necessarily go beyond these two movements but to somehow make them work with each other and for each other in a sort of micro-movement. You can't escape either of them anymore. We have to somehow acknowledge the trauma of knowledge in order to transform it into a kind of ignorance that becomes action.

AVG:   Your piece, "Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization", takes into account the very crushed utopian hopes of two people who were themselves crushed by history. In a way, you've resuscitated their utopias. So what's so great about utopias?

PC:   It's great because it's a proxy that stands in lieu of absolute freedom, which is both liberating and frightening. And to imagine what this looks like is, in the end, an exercise in hope. "Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization", is essentially three people, two dead and one alive who get together and talk about what utopia would look like and then as they talk they realize they don't agree and everything falls apart. Building and destroying utopian ideas become the process of play from which "Happiness..." comes out of.

AVG:   What I really like about your work is that it shows the possibilities for disagreements/disorders that lead to a productive end. So, maybe traumatic experiences allow us to reset our lines. Is this an important way for new ideas to come politically and artistically?

PC:   I think it's important to remember where these lines are being drawn; within the philosophical, economic, and social parameters of art, as opposed to politics, and this sort of freedom is exhilarating but impotent. Again, to mix. This is where we get into trouble. To mistake the freedom in art for the freedom and liberation in politics is to be disingenuous about both. The freedom in art translates as pure impotence in politics and the freedom of politics means among other things the destruction of art.

To mistake art making as a form of political work I think is fine, but in the end does a disservice to art. It doesn't mean that artists can't be political activists or that art can't have a political resonance. It simply means that we must be aware of the power and the impotence that is the social and historical fabric of contemporary art.    
© Alina Viola Grumiller, 2003 

A Thing Remade: A Conversation with Paul Chan

Sarah Hromack                                                                                                                    

burningkindlepointone.gif (2011)
The launch of artist Paul Chan’s publishing company, Badlands Unlimited, in 2010 could have been mistaken for a career non sequitur. His foray into book publishing felt at once completely futile and deliciously subversive—anachronistic in form, and yet prescient in its embrace of technology as a means of interrogating (and thereby furthering) that form. Given the perilous economic prospects for artists and publishers alike, why not simply take matters into one’s own hands? As an online distribution platform for works written by Chan and others, Badlands Unlimited does just that.
In profiling the outfit for a recent issue of Frieze magazine (Off the Page, May, 2010) I realized that I had been watching this seemingly new venture develop for many years: Chan’s personal website, National Philistine, has served as the digital analog to his practice for well over a decade, a fact that many aren’t aware of by his estimation. (“Sometimes I even forget that I have a website,” he said, when asked about the longevity of his domain, which has been active since 1999.) The following conversation attempts to articulate some of that history, while indulging in a few detours along the way, as a means of suggesting iterative possibilities for publishing on the web—and beyond.  

Sarah Hromack: I downloaded my first file from National Philistine—an animated GIF of Dick Cheney’s bruised and bloodied bobble head—not so long after the United States’ first invasion of Iraq. You had released a series of GIFs of major political players in the then-nascent war (Cheney, Ashcroft, Condi); they were made for a video you were working on at the time, RE: The_Operation. As moving images, their blinking was at once dead serious and totally hilarious. Was this the first time you released a digital file that related to a larger project? Why did you decide to do so?
Paul Chan: Because I could. I was making this video and it felt natural to release elements from the work, that somehow they make themselves known outside the bounds of the video. In light of Wikileaks, you can think of it as the practice of “leaking” the work beyond the field of its own composition. The web has, for me at least, been an utter distraction from the daily practice of living and working, except in this aspect. Leaked and illegal files, illicit substances, questionable practices, are the true breath and flesh of the web. If it isn’t leaked or wasn’t smuggled out or in some way, I’m not that interested. I also like the idea that whatever I make is always incomplete. And that somehow, by releasing the files online, the forms can become materials for someone else to complete something else.

Weatherman.gif, gif based on scene from RE:The_Operation (2004)
SH: Well then! How do you feel about the way anonymity complicates online interactions? While our ability to adapt different, other identities online has enabled political dissidents to function with relative immunity, some (I’m thinking of Jaron Lanier’s recent writings here, in particular) have argued that it has, in the context of so-called “hive” behavior, also brought out the deepest, darkest aspects of human nature. 
PC: If Socrates was alive today, do you think he would change his advice from “know thyself” to “show thyself?” I imagine he would. For him, it was only right that once you knew yourself, you would present yourself to others—at the agora, at the public baths, at that drunken dinner party—in a manner consistent with the insights gained from persistently asking yourself the most fundamental questions about who you are and what you want. Socrates believed that in showing oneself, you were always already responsible for knowing oneself. But everybody knows this is not the case now. In fact, the opposite rings true: the less you know about yourself, the more free you feel about showing yourself. Isn’t this self-evident today? What is beautifully ironic about all this is that it is also very difficult today to be anonymous. The web has evolved into a platform where the distribution of goods, services, and information depends upon knowing who is who and what is what. So not only are sites and services constantly tracking your identity online, making it virtually impossible without eternally vigilance to remain unaccountable, but there is no real interest in being anonymous anyways. Being a part of the web today, feeling like one belongs there, means among other things, being oneself online. So the fear that Lanier and others have about how online anonymity brings out the worst in us seems so old fashioned because the web has evolved to a place where it works best now when one wants to be someone: themselves. The irony is that this desire to be oneself online (and not just anyone, like being anonymous for example) has not made online (or offline) life any better. The opposite in fact: being anonymous doesn’t bring out the darkest, deepest human behavior today; the longing to be recognized by a first and last name does.
SH: I’m referring to a specific kind of “groupthink” here, one that dominates certain corners of the web—the so-called hacker groups (Anonymous, LulzSec) that have brought various entities, corporate and otherwise, to their knees through collective action while remaining publicly faceless. Even those groups who function collectively while maintaining individual online identities are generally still considered (and criticized) as a collective body.
PC: On the other hand, there are many examples, like the Arab spring protests, and even the recent London riots, where collective actions were enabled mostly by people who were themselves online; organizing, agitating, informing, etc. I’m not saying that being oneself online is better or worse than being anonymous. But I am saying that the power of the fantasy of becoming anyone or no one online is simply not so desirable anymore. And besides, being oneself and belonging to a collective body are not mutually exclusive.
SH: In your essay The Unthinkable Community, published in e-flux in 2010, you take issue with the way technology alters human communication and relationships. Can you talk a little bit more about that here?
PC: It is less an issue for me and more of an attempt to describe, as a user and as a maker, what I think everybody already knows: online experiences are now dominated by layers of technology that facilitate our reach into the world. These layers enable us to expand our social presence and develop our intellectual, political, economic, and sexual potentials.  As we render ourselves online, these layers of technology collect the data we generate to sell ourselves back to us—in the form of products and services, which in turn shape our experiences in the world on and off the screen. What we transmit online is being collected and mined like a natural resource, like oil or coal, and this changes the nature of how we communicate to others and belong to something more than ourselves. I wanted to think about how this emerging process affects our relationship to among other things, art.
SH: I’ve always found your project My Private Alexandria endearing in its quirkiness—it’s a sixteen-plus hour-long series of classic texts read by you, fumblings and mis-pronunciations kept thoroughly intact in the recordings, which are situated on your website. I’ve always seen it as a project that considers (and challenges—and maybe even pokes a bit of fun at) standard academic methodologies, and so I’m curious about the relationship between written and spoken word, digital distribution, and intellectual ownership. Have you ever had anyone object to your one-man audio library?
PC: I get cease and desist orders every once and a while. But I’ve never taken down anything down. And I wouldn’t call the texts in Alexandria classic. One of the reasons why I chose those texts was precisely because they weren’t canonical and some very difficult to find online. It might be different today, with and Google Books. But in 2006 (a mere five years ago), it was almost impossible to find a free version of Anna Freud’s essays. And I was fairly certain no publishing company was going to turn Robert Walser’s short stories into audiobooks. So I wanted to record them, and reread them anew. And by using the gaffes, breaths, pauses, and mistakes in reading the texts as elements to composed with rather than deleted, the pieces became less than recordings and more of something else.
SH: During your solo show at the New Museum in 2008, the 7 Lights, videos of your works began popping up on YouTube as visitors seemed compelled to both interact with and capture the vast fields of shifting light projected throughout the galleries. The website for the exhibition features fairly thorough video documentation of the works, which are all sold as numbered editions. I feel like institutions still generally resist placing works online in this manner—even though it differs so obviously from an in-gallery installation—for fear that doing so will somehow supersede or more likely, subvert its market value by limiting the sense of exclusivity around the work. Have you ever encountered this concern? If so, how have you negotiated with it?
PC: I negotiated it by releasing the source files of those works on the New Museum website and National Philistine. The digital drawings and Flash files that comprised the animated the works were posted online for anyone to download and work with. I was surprised they let me do that, but maybe it was because no one outside of me and the web designer at the time knew it was happening. The interesting thing was that for one reason or another file size was an issue: the zipped files had to be smaller than a certain size to make the download manageable. This meant that not all the files were released, just the essential ones that made the works possible. So I ended up making what I call a special DVD and released it on my own. It collects all the drawings, projections, and writings that make up the 7 Lights. But the DVD also holds the complete set of files for the making of the Lights. The DVD was my first stab at publishing.

cursor.gif, Phantom Ranch (2000)
SH: The files are “Easter eggs,” in essence; if I manage to find them, I could functionally recreate the works that have been sold as editioned artworks on the open market—in theory, at least. Such is the fear!
PC: Yes, you could conceivably recreate the works using the files. And yes, you could try to sell the work on the open market. But Sarah, you and I both know that it takes more than a work to sell than the work. And besides, there is no such thing as an open market.  What I like most about releasing the files is that it shows that the source is not the thing about the work that matters. What I also like is what I said earlier: the idea that the files hold the potential to incomplete themselves, to become raw material for someone else, for something else.
SH: You’ve managed to maintain a very specific visual tone across your digital projects—from the GIFs, which reference your earliest animation works, to the series of fonts you designed for Mac and Windows and released for free download on National Philistine—that references a much earlier moment in web development. The experience can be admittedly awkward, yet it feels deliberate as such. Can you speak about the choices you’ve made around technology and design in developing Badlands Unlimited?
PC: It’s consistent because I do it. I have help, but mostly it’s me spending time doing it. How things look and feel are consistent with what I’m able to do, which is to say, not much. But then, it doesn’t take much tech to make something worth thinking about. Both Philistine and Badlands are basically HTML/CSS—I don’t use Wordpress, or Blogger, or whatever. If there was an easier or more decentralized way to deal with e-commerce on Badlands besides Paypal, or Yahoo and Google Checkout systems, I would do it. Like I said, there is no such thing as an open market. Bitcoins is an option—maybe even an answer. Or at least something like it.
SH: Some of e-books you have published and distributed through Badlands Unlimited have truly pushed the boundaries of the form—especially in terms of images, which are featured prominently (if not primarily) in most of the publications. Can you speak here about the broader role of the image in electronic books and publications?
PC: I don’t know if there are broader implications for the image in my e-books and publications beyond the idea that I treat the image in a way that pleases me. There are ways to work with an image within the form of a book, whether it is physical or digital,  that are more interesting, or more rhythmic, or more disharmonious. There are also ways to treat an image like text and vice versa (the fonts I’ve made, for instance). And with e-books, it is possible to use audio and video elements as if they were texts. None of this is new. Early interactive works and hypertext pieces online and on CD-ROMs attest to this. What is novel is how e-books as a form enables me to continue playing with these aesthetic modes as a way to expand the notion of reading—not as something we do to gain knowledge, but as an experience we engage in to produce for ourselves a particular form of attention and focus that is unique to the act of reading itself.
SH: I’m interested in the way your e-books function visually on and across various platforms. The iPad version of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide is one of the more stunning electronic publications I’ve seen—the embedded video documentation of the 2009 production of Beckett’s seminal play you staged in New Orleans really complicates the reading experience in a good way.  The Essential and Incomplete Sade for Sade’s Sake, however, makes a visual argument for the Kindle; largely comprised of black-and-white drawings, those images render much more elegantly on that particular screen surface, in my opinion.  Can you speak about the challenges and opportunities various platforms present for digital bookmaking?
PC: It’s not simply a matter of making books on each of the different platforms, it’s also dealing with how a physical book becomes an e-book in the first place. Most of our books are e-books, but some exists as physical books too. So in general there is a lot of work figuring out how the experience of reading translates from one form to another. The Godot book was very difficult to translate from the hard cover book to an e-book, primarily because that book is so physical. The Sade book too was made first as a limited soft-cover book with a specific dimension, weight, and kind of paper in mind. We read with more than our eyes. The question, then, becomes, how this reading experience translates into a file. Someday I wish that different e-books hold different “weights”, so that when you load an e-book into your e-reader, the device physically feels heavier. Until that happens,  I have use other means. With the Sade book, the images were made to take advantage of the peculiar crispness of the Kindle screen. The problem is that since you can also read Kindle books on a color LCD e-reader like an iPad via the Kindle app,  the Sade book loses its particular feel because it simply doesn’t look as good on a backlit non e-ink screen. Different platforms have different technical standards, which means you either conform to those standards or can’t distribute through them. This is fine: whatever they reject we distribute through our own site.
SH: I know that you’ve gone a couple of rounds with the Apple Store, which has accepted some, but not all of Badlands Unlimited’s publications. I am tempted to craft a question filled with words like “power” and “hegemony,” but instead I’ll simply ask: What did you learn from being rejected by Apple? Do you have any idea why certain projects were nixed, while others were not? 
PC: What I learned is what I already knew: there is no open market.
SH: Let’s talk about the future: Tell me about the project you’re working on with Yvonne Ranier.  Are there any other upcoming projects we should know about? 
PC: Badland’s next book is Poems by Yvonne Rainer. It’s a collection of never before published poetry by Rainer, who started writing them in the late 70s. I’m thrilled that we are publishing them, because I consider Yvonne one of the America’s greatest living artists. One can read in the poems echoes of her dances and films, in how they use rhythm and motion to conjure moments of daily life into something else, something more. Badlands will premiere the limited paperback at this year’s NY Art Book Fair at PS1. The e-book is already available on Apple and Amazon. The Apple version also has audio recordings of Yvonne reading five of her poems and an interview I did with Yvonne talking about her process as a poet and artist. In the winter we’ll publish a collection of essays by Saddam Hussein. He wrote them in the 70s, before he became the president of Iraq. They are perverse and fascinating to say the least, because they are about democracy. We’ll also put out more experimental erotica by Jean Paaulhan, a great young writer.  Other books are in the pipeline for the Spring and beyond.
SH: Has the publishing process change your relationship to collaborative practice? I know that you’ve collaborated with many people over the course of your career as an artist and organizer, even though you have talked about being “allergic” to working with people. In other words: what is it like to work with the ghost of Saddam Hussein?
PC: Difficult and pleasurable. We barely understand each other. But this is what makes collaborations worthwhile.  A word misheard is a thing remade.

Interview by Shana Gallagher Lindsay

. . .
paul chan, 5th light, 2006, installation view
photo by martin runeborg

Paul Chan was born in Hong Kong (1973) and raised in Nebraska. He received his BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and his MFA in film/video/new media from Bard College (2002). His work in various media oscillates between the delicate and the monumental, the subtle and the provocative, connecting complex ideas to today’s mass-media-disseminated material and cunningly deploying both traditional and newer techniques to re-imagine older notions.

Following graduate school, Chan produced a suite of three videos (Re: The Operation, 27 min., 2002; Baghdad in no Particular Order, 51 min., 2003; Now Promise Now Threat, 33 min. 2005) that at once articulate and blur distinctions (e.g., friend vs. foe) that we commonly use to position ourselves in the social sphere. Subsequently, The 7 Lights (2005-08), arguably Chan’s first major art-world success, challenges the common Western linkage of knowledge and creation to clarity (vs. darkness). The mesmerizing video features shadowy objects and figures that float or fall through a zone that insinuates a shaft of light from a window, and alludes at once to Biblical accounts of creation and destruction, Plato’s cave, and Alberti’s Renaissance window.
Seemingly finding a more rebellious source of inspiration, Chan came out with several sexually-infused works, including Sade for Sade’s Sake, which premiered at the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009). The projection animates monumental silhouetted figures that alternately assemble in orgiastic frenzy and shatter through devices like syncopation and abstract formal arrangement, then disappear. Re-conceiving an otherwise non-sexual cultural terrain as a field charged with ecstasy and desire, Chan wrote Phaderus Pron (2008), a dialogue inspired by Plato’s Phaedrus, wherein the guidelines of a platonic master/student relationship are blissfully defied. Chan’s term, pron, is borrowed from “pr0n,” a masking-word devised to disguise Internet searches for pornography. Appropriating at the other end of the cultural spectrum from Plato and yet violating similar “laws,” Chan re-scripts a Law And Order episode with suggestive subtitles in the Mother of All Episodes (2009, 45 min. loop). Connected to the Sade project, Chan created fonts that compel users to generate a transgressive text. Working well beyond the traditional boundaries of many visual artists, Chan helped to organize a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot in post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005. He has written insightfully on topics as seemingly disparate as Emanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin, the lyrics of the Insane Clown Posse, and the current economic recession.

Shana Gallagher Lindsay: Paul, I’d like to start with a fairly basic question about your well-known work, The 7 Lights (2005-2008) To what degree was the specific imagery of the projections meaningful?

PAUL CHAN: I suppose it is the degree to which one is willing to spend time with it.

paul chan, 5th light, 2006, installation view
photo by jason mandella

Lindsay: Descriptions of the work, such as that accompanying its exhibition at the New Museum (New York, 2006) liken it to the Biblical seven days of creation, and seven lights are also mentioned in the Book of Revelations. What kind of a hold does religion have on your thought?

CHAN: A surprising one. It’s surprising given that we’re now living in 2011. I didn’t think that at the beginning of the 21st century, religion would have such a hold on our social imagination. I just heard Obama’s speech last night in Arizona [the memorial for the Tucson shooting victims], and I was so struck by what was said. Two of the people that spoke were from his Administration: Eric Holder, the Attorney General, and Janet Napolitano, who is Homeland Security Director and who used to be the governor of Arizona. And as our top civil servants, they basically spoke only through the Bible. Napolitano quoted from the Old Testament, and Holder quoted from Paul, in Corinthians. They didn’t say anything else. They just quoted scripture. The implication is that religion, and Christianity in this country in particular, is the only social balm that offers any kind of solace for something like what happened in Arizona. But, we know that’s not true.

Lindsay: So it seems.

CHAN: Or let’s say it like this. Progress would be an image of immanent consolation. In any case, I think anyone who is even remotely interested in the present tense can’t help but see the hold religion has, here and there.

Lindsay: So, perhaps more after 9/11 than before?

CHAN: Here is an interesting parallel. It was only after going to Iraq before the 2003 occupation that I realized this. Historically, Iraq wasn’t a religious country. Whatever one may think of Saddam Hussein, his ambition was to create the first modern and secular Arab state, one that was neither beholden to Western colonial powers nor Muslim fundamentalists. It was only after the First Gulf War in 1990 that it became weaponized with a kind of institutional Islam, because Hussein used it as a way to mend the social fabric of the country after his country was decimated. And, so, the parallel between the social fabric ripping in Iraq, and then political orders using religion to try to mend it, in a way, parallels, I think, what is happening here.

Lindsay: It’s a galvanizing factor.

CHAN: Yeah, and, you know, I think the dreams of modernity are still there, but the idea that social, economic, and maybe even aesthetic progress can come from a kind of, well, immanence, as opposed to transcendence, I think, seems to be an anachronism today. It’s sad but true. Maybe it’s not sad—it’s obviously not sad for the people who believe, because it’s just prophecy, I suppose.

Lindsay: You have been critical of certain social media. [Paul Chan, “The Unthinkable Community,” e-flux Journal]. You have likewise criticized recent video and new media art, and the manner of their presentation in galleries and museums. Would you elaborate on your critique?

CHAN: I can. Someday. And it will be incisive and illuminating.

paul chan, 3rd light, 2006, idigital video projection, table, 14:00

Lindsay: What are distinctions between your work in new media, and that of which you, perhaps, don’t approve?

CHAN: I approve of all the work. I just don’t want to be around any of it.

Lindsay: Do you think there’s a kind of crescendo in culture now, a sort of urgency to be “of one’s time,” that is problematic? You went to school for new media, right?

CHAN: I studied film and video. New media was just in the air.

Lindsay: So, was there a kind of critical view of it there, or was everyone pretty much gung ho?

CHAN: I think that at the time that I went to school, new media was different from what we know of it now. In, say, 2000-2001, new media was really about the Web. Online manifestations held the promise for a kind of interactivity that was mediated by programming or different formal expressions. This mediation no longer exists. Somehow there is no longer mediation. New media has transformed into the promise of social media. And so, connections have themselves become forms of expression.

Lindsay: So, you engage various media in your works: .gif format animations, projected videos, installations. Does media bear much of the meaning in your work? Is the medium at all the message?

CHAN: I don’t know how to answer that except that it is something that I use.

paul chan, happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization (after henry darger and charles fourier) (still), 2000-2003, mini pc, installation instructions, sparkle vellum screen and equipment specifications

Lindsay:: And, if you were using a flip book, or something, for the Darger work that you did [Happiness (finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization—after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier, projected digital animation, color, 17 min., 2000-2003], would it have a similar resonance?

CHAN: I don’t know. When I do work, I have a flash of an idea or thought in my mind, and then I sit on it for a couple days, a couple weeks, months, or a couple of years. And if the thought sticks around, then I realize that it has the potential of being more than a thought, and that it should become something more than mindfulness. Essence becomes appearance. And how it appears, then, is the way something transforms from a thought into a thing, and then into something else. And so, I don’t care actually whether the thing is a flip book or a video or a projection. It only matters what this thought which becomes a thing can change both in the process to become something wholly other.

Lindsay: Some of your videos are long projections.

CHAN: Is that a compliment?

Lindsay: You could say that your art makes time for itself and demands the viewers’ time. Would you discuss your interest in time? I know you have discussed it in various contexts.

CHAN: Sure. First, I feel like I don’t have any… And I don’t know if this right, but it seems to me that one way to not feel like this is to make time.

Lindsay: We can produce it.

CHAN: Yes. When I make work, the pleasure of the making comes from how this work holds me in its time. One makes time as much as one makes work. And it seems to me that this is important because time is also what we spend to make a being of ourselves. I am constantly at a loss as to how to make more of it.

Lindsay: Do you think your kind of art heightens one’s awareness of time spent?

CHAN: Some people have said I have wasted their time. And sometimes, in my less successful works, I have wasted my own.

Lindsay: You seem to understand your role as something of a catalyst. Am I correct in this assessment?

CHAN: Who said that?

Lindsay: I just see that.

CHAN: Really? I guess I’d have to deny it.

Lindsay: Really?

CHAN: Catalyst for what?

Lindsay: Well, maybe forging communities rather than networking.

CHAN: It’s hard to tell the difference these days.

paul chan and christopher mcelroen, waiting for godot, 2007
creative time, new york and the classical theater of harlem

Lindsay: Is it? How about in your work Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, your work with students and artists down there?— it seems that this was an important aspect of the project for you—people coming together and then taking off from that point.

CHAN: There were many aspects to that project. What I appreciate most about the experience was that they were all equidistant in import to what happened.

Lindsay: I have another question about that particular work. I was reminded of Robert Smithson’s sites/non-sites and Hans Haacke’s politicized installations when I saw your recent installation at The Museum of Modern Art of objects and ephemera from the New Orleans project. Are you inspired by these artists? And why is this kind of documentary presentation important? Why not just show the video of the performance?

CHAN: I’m interested in Smithson. Seeing his retrospective, I was surprised at how Christian his works fundamentally were. We know of his earthworks. I didn’t know his paintings. At first, it seemed jarring to see the paintings and then the earthworks. But then the more you expose yourself to them, the more you see the continuity of what is happening— especially the idea of redemption. I think that showing the video is the surest way of lying. I think video today has the feeling of it being it. And it’s not it.

Lindsay: “It” meaning what it’s all about, the meaning of it.

CHAN: I don’t think the props would do it either. I think the important thing is to remind people that whatever you show, this isn’t it. I think that’s as close as it gets.

Lindsay: There’s always something else.

CHAN: As close as it gets.

Lindsay: It’s always an approximation.

CHAN: Yes.

Lindsay: The issue of sacrifice has come up in your comments and writings. For instance, in your talk, “Spirit of the Recession,” a privileged class unjustifiably exacts sacrifice from the underclass. You have discussed the displacement of religion onto secular behavior. Are there any particular texts that have inspired your thinking in this direction?

CHAN: Our mutual friend, Bob Hullot-Kentor, of course. There are definitely others. I just guest edited an issue of e-flux Journal with an art historian and critic from the Netherlands, Sven Lütticken. It’s about the rise of right-wing populism in the US and Europe. And I write about how in this country, when things go wrong, people feel like someone has to pay. And that’s as succinct as it gets. Someone has to pay. This is the impulse to sacrifice, right? But, strangely, it’s never the people who fucked it up in the first place; it’s always someone else. And I think this impulse is not modern; but it’s also not eternal. I think thinking through what it actually means is one thing; and then finding forms that would articulate it in a way that is illuminating—finding ways to illuminate it from within would be useful.

Lindsay: What is it that you value in the sexual content of your recent work?

CHAN: What I value most is how it made sex for me the truer image of sex than before, which is, that it is not sex. It is entangled in such a way that it renewed a particular image of it for me. The idea of the Sade project has been in my mind for a while, and I finally took the time to do it, and in doing it, renewed a particular image of sex that, I think, is as complex and contradictory as it ought to be.

paul chan, sade for sade's sake, 2009, digital projection, 5 hours, 45 minutes looped

Lindsay: And how would you describe your relationship as artist with the viewer or reader—because there are the Pron texts [such as Composition as Explanation Pron where you transfigure a seminal text by Gertrude Stein as a pornographic monologue]—at the time the sexually-charged content is consumed by the viewer/reader?

CHAN: I don’t know. That brings to mind an image of me doing some sort of focus group experiment, where I’m behind a one-way mirror, watching people reading it. From the sales of the books online, I would say there are no readers. And, if there were, they’re not telling me what it’s like to read it. I did do a public reading of Pron, though. And it was both tedious and pleasurable.

Lindsay: Well, your voice changes that. I listened to that reading. The way you read it gave it more harmony.

CHAN: Well, thank you. But, I would like to think that, if one were to have a quiet day—let’s say, riding on New Jersey Transit—and you were to start reading it aloud, one would find that the only way to make sense of it would be to make it rhythmic. Perhaps sense is nothing but rhythm? What was interesting about doing the book, and about doing Sade [Sade for Sade’s Sake, 5h, 45min. video projection, fonts, drawings, installation, 2010], was the insight that pornography and poetry both use rhythm to be more than what they are. In the work of some, this is clear. Sade, for instance, or Sappho. So, what I wanted to do with the fonts that I made, which is the “vocabulary” for the novel, was to distill the idea of rhythm-as-sex. That was the interesting compositional challenge—what happens when you charge words and phrases that are not sensical, but not nonsensical, with this compositional rhythm.

Lindsay: And there it would seem that the medium is important, as you [the artist] can control rhythm [in animation] or [with the fonts] you can give some control to a user.

paul chan, the body of oh ho_darlin (truetype font), 2008, ink on paper and mixed media

CHAN: More and less. In the case of the fonts, they reduce your ability to communicate at the same time that they give you the chance to type what I imagine you want to say anyway.

Lindsay: You seem to have transformed the idea of the archive with your website, National Philistine. You have vivified it, so it is no longer a “tomb” with “relics,” where art historians go to excavate, but rather, a forum, in which—particularly due to your readings of other people’s texts—the dead and the living connect, virtually. To what extent are your art and your archive the same? Or are they separate in your mind?

CHAN: They’re not the same but they’re not separate. I put stuff online when I have time and when I feel like it. I put stuff online that is sometimes half finished, that is, in a way, incomplete. And I like it that way. It’s a cross between a half-forgotten folder, a trashcan, and a compost heap.

And, to me, it keeps a particular notion of new media alive: the idea of giving stuff away. I think this is actually the one of the most interesting notions we have now. We live in a time when scarcity may not be what gives something value. Like musicians, who give away whole albums for free in order to continue working and living, we’re seeing that scarcity does not create value as much as it used to.

Lindsay: A kind of potlatch.

CHAN: I suppose. Being someone who came up at a time when the Web was just flowering, I had the experience of just making stuff and putting it up, and I see this as a continuation of that kind of spirit. Now, it doesn’t mean that you have to be puritanical about it. It doesn’t mean that you should give away everything; there should be some distinctions to be made. But then the question is: What are those distinctions? I think that’s constantly negotiated, and negotiable. I finally just downloaded the Girl Talk album, and it’s great. And you know, I started an e-book press, and I want to sell e-books…

Lindsay: Badlands Unlimited?

CHAN: Yeah, but, all the books I read are free, and are illegal e-books. And I don’t even go to see movies any more, I just download them off of BitTorrent, and that’s just the way it is. And it’s great. I always had this idea that there should be a law that if something is really popular—lets say if 50,000 or 100,000 people like it enough—that, by law, it should be free.

Lindsay: You once stated that successful art is that which is memorable. What do you hope will be memorable about your work?

CHAN: I said that?

Lindsay: Yeah.

CHAN: Where was it?

Lindsay: An interview [with Beth Capper in F Newsmagazine] where you were discussing other unnamed people’s collages, bricollages, and you said that what made some stand out from others was that they were memorable. So, I was wondering what you want to be memorable about your work.

CHAN: A difficult question…

Lindsay: Difficult because its too broad?

CHAN: No. Because it puts me in a position of telling other people what they ought to take away from the work. And so, maybe the best thing to say is: I hope that what people remember about the work is, at the least, is that it is not it. Whatever it is, it is not it.

Chan, Paul and Sven Lütticken. e-flux Journal []
Hullot-Kentor, Robert. “Origin Is the Goal,” in Things Beyond Resemblence: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2006), 1–22.

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