The conversation below is the first in a series of interviews with the three members of the editorial collective information as material: Nick Thurston, Craig Dworkin, and Simon Morris. The series will explore the work of each of these three men both inside and outside of that particular collaborative framework. It is meant in part as a an exploration on the nature of collaboration itself, and as a meditation on the relationship between the individual artist and the artist acting collectively.
I first met Nick Thurston this February in Rochester, New York, where he was giving a talk to a classroom of undergraduate students at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The students had just finished reading Thurston’s recently release book Of the Subcontract.
Sofi Thanhauser: When I heard you present at RIT I was struck in particular by your intonation, by the way you seemed to be stringing a complex argument together using a logic that was partly sung. Later, when I read your piece Status_Anxieties (Some notes on Of the Subcontract) in The Journal of Conceptual Criticism, the little arrows threaded through the first part of the text reminded me of that musicality. It seems to me as though there is a consistent gesture in your work towards extralinguistic content; a harmonic playing under or through the expository prose that acts as an argument against taking meaning to be something hermetically sealed within words or sentences. Am I making too much of the way you talk?
Nick Thurston: Not at all. The opposite, in fact. In a sense, you’re my dream reader. I write in the hope that somebody will try to read the arrows or the font or whatever other extralinguistic qualities I put into play. All the writing I do orbits around a few, quite specific interests, which we’ll probably talk about later. But what’s maybe more relevant to your question is the fact that the style of my writing (if that’s not too aged an idea to talk about) is similarly anchored by a few obsessions that are elaborated with differing degrees of intensity by the different forms of writing I do, from the poetic to the journalistic: I’m interested in intensity and density, in precision and concision, and as such my style tends to manifest in poems that have an unusual degree of economy, are typographically-specific, lend themselves to multi-linear simultaneous readings, perform like echo chambers for the reverberations of particular things I’ve read or want to re-open, often perversely mix allegory and literalism, and always work towards wholes even though they often appear to be fragments or fragmentary. Thinking towards the other end of the spectrum, to the essayistic prose writing, with your bind of argument and song in mind, my style of “talking” is probably a tangle of nature and nurture. The only thing I’m at all formally trained to be is a philosopher, yet one of the things I learned through my training is that I would, at best, make a mediocre philosopher. The temper of my imagination is better suited to artistry, which can be a strength or weakness depending on how it gets channeled. All bar the most conventionally academic of my work is, I would say, para-scholarly, whereby the quality I take you to be referring to as “song” opens up and speculatively extends those unsung or more systematic qualities vested in “thought-out” writing. I’m not interested in camouflaging or compensating for a lack of one type of quality with an over-emphasis on the other, but I’m interested in what happens when the two are allowed to put an unusual degree of pressure on one-another and are coaxed into doing something different as a consequence.
ST: As the enormous amount of money present in the contemporary art market gives power and status disproportionately to certain visual artists, can the impetus behind the conceptual writing movement be construed partly as an attempt to absorb glamour, or status, or institutional support, through an alignment with conceptual art rather than (literally) poor old poetry? In turn can writing offer a “pure” home for conceptual art because of the unlikelihood that there will ever be great quantities of money involved? Or perhaps the relationship between poverty and purity is a kind of false equivalence, in this context?
NT: Well, maybe the second part of my answer above gives some reason for the observation in the second and final thirds of your comment. My blanket response to you first and second sub-questions would be, “not really”, and I don’t mean to be evasive in saying so. The hunch guiding your third sub-question is right: it’s a false dichotomy, and the very idea (let alone promise) of fidelity is misleading here. Firstly, it’s neither my place nor want to speak for a Historical movement. Secondly, I’m less interested in interpretations that try to stabilise this recently intensified (though certainly not new) approach to writing as anything like a movement and am more interested in longer broader genealogies of conceptualist cultural praxis—but I’m not a historian and respect the obligations of those who are. Thirdly, whilst my preferred point of view invites a generalisable (even generalist) notion of conceptualism-as-such that could be exercised within any art form, I’m firmly of the opinion that language is more fundamentally conceptual than any other symbolic material so for conceptualists the language arts offer a tenser relation between field-approach-material-experience than any other art form. Fourthly, there can be lots of reasons why a person works in or depends upon a certain cultural industry, and in my experience those reasons are more often practical and circumstantial than they are ideal. Fifthly (that’s a slithery sound!), just because you work in or depend upon one cultural industry it doesn’t necessarily follow that the work you do or make has to be made for that category or read on its terms, and I’ve long said that I work from inside the cultural category of contemporary art on to the outside of the category of literature—taking “cultural category” to name the epistemology and complex of institutions and actors plus their criticisms that somehow represents each art form in the world. Sixthly (I can’t even say that!)—and this a purely personal point—I’m interested in that particular movement (from inside art on to the outside of literature) bi-directionally: In one direction, it involves a subjective transversal that cuts through certain historical boundaries between the plastic arts and the other arts which I think are shaky or even senseless, without doing anything silly like pretending to collapse all of the arts into one amorphous “contemporary” culture. And in the other direction, it allows me to be around the weird and wonderful literatures that I actually care about without having to really worry too much about the boring swollen mainstream core of the literary industrial complex. For me (and this isn’t a “seventhly”, more a “sixthly.b”) that particular movement, which cuts in one direction and links in the other, allows me to write with an unusual degree of attention to the technical and material aspects of the act and text, to foreground the socio-conceptual potential of public language, and to choreograph situations for reading differently that encourage different kinds of literary and extra-literary reading experiences. I write, and support the writing of, the things I do because I want to read them.
ST: You write in Status_Anxieties about the text of the piece of conceptualist writing acting as a “static core” for the larger conceptualist performance, a “metastage for problematization.” I wonder if there is a degree to which you see not only your conceptualist writing projects but all of your public acts in this way . I know you have written about the word “public” in the context of a relationship between publish and perform, and maybe that’s partly what I am asking you to elaborate on here, but I’m also curious to what extent yours is a more or less perpetual, lived and total project?
NT: I just synthesised a characterisation of what I am as: a reader. Similarly, I could synthesise a characterisation of what I do as: publishing. I think it’s apt because it stretches the “territory” of the creative act, of composition, beyond the singular if privileged stage of composition-as-writing and allows you to take authorial responsibility for processually re-composing the (unstable) form-content relation that constitutes “my writing” along the whole chain of production-reproduction. I think this can be interesting because what actually determines the thing you ask your readers to read is the intersection of all those people, processes, resources and workflows we vaguely blur under the category of “publishing”. That’s why I say that this one, admittedly privileged face of that whole process— the publication—is just the static core of something much bigger. The publication is the imago of publishing if publishing is “the work”. Now, I’m not advocating any kind of not-writing; I’m advocating an idea of writing at full stretch. One of the heretofore reliable things that my model forsakes— which composition-as-writing keeps clear—or, more fully said, my model problematises—is where exactly “the work” begins and ends in such work. As best I can figure, the answer to that question is different for every project, which only adds to the complication of stepping back and trying to objectively identify the outlines of each work.
I think that kind of analysis can be done on this kind of work, but I’m not sure if anyone will ever have the patience or willing to do it. So, in my case for example, whether or not I see these various overlapping acts of publishing as a “perpetual” life project, I get your point about it looking, bled-through as it all is, like an image of a spluttering gesamtkunstwerk. For what it’s worth, I generally enjoy losing sight of those outlines myself. It stops me from turning in circles of meta-precision and meta-concision, plus it’s the subplot to my comment about writing poems as wholes that may appear fragmentary at the top of this interview. “The work” of developing the praxis pulls like a tide under the intensity and density of individual works, sometimes with them sometimes against them.
ST: You told the students at RIT that teaching was the part of your CV you are the most proud of. Is this just a line you use on students? Is it true? Either way, can you say more about the relationship between your teaching practice and your writing and publishing practices?
NT: Yes, it’s true. I think it’s fair to say that all artists (writers, painters, dancers, whatever) are narcissists. One of the key early-career hurdles (which I suspect comes back around throughout your career, as the eternal return of the same, to be jumped again yet differently) is to figure out for yourself how you’re going make that narcissism productive rather than destructive. If you have much of a social conscience then your subjective answer needs to work across the practical, economic, ethical and imaginative levels as they mix in your way of living. Practically, I get a huge amount of pleasure and new questions thrown at me by spending time with my students and thinking with them about their work. Economically, I’m never going to make a living from just doing the things I most enjoy doing. Ethically speaking, I’m a socialist. Creatively, I’ve always worked collaboratively, most consistently as part of the editorial collective Information As Material since 2006. And across all of those levels, I care more than I should about helping to keep open un- or under-determined areas in our lifeworld for doing, thinking, writing, making and reading differently. I’m demanding as a teacher. That’s partly because of who I am and how I work, but it’s also because I teach from a couple of points of principle: 1) I’ll always take my students and their work seriously; 2) I don’t think it’s my place to tell my students what to think or make — it’s their job to create the future of our shared culture, and it’s my job to give them some controlled exposure to things that I think have the best chance of helping them to create the most interesting future possible; and 3) what matters more than them or me individually is the cultural field that we’ve chosen to be part of. Higher education is far from perfect as an industry but I have the license to let my “research” lead my teaching and, frankly, it’s much better than having a “proper” job.
ST: With regards to this idea that language is fundamentally conceptual: something funny happened while I was reading your book, Reading the Remove of Literature. The word instantiate kept coming up and I got curious about its relationship to the word substantiate so I looked it up on my smartphone, which was to hand (a proximity that is a reality of my reading practice if not one I’m proud of). The online dictionary definition for instantiate included the phrase to support, and I think it was because of this that an advertisement popped up for the website chinamoonbay.com, and specifically for a product offered on that site called the “Adjustable Plastic Paver Tile Support System,” which is a suite of plastic columns that can be used as structural supports for building decks or terraces. The whole chain of events seemed oddly like a Nick Thurston project to me, perhaps simply because you address and work with the weird logic(s) of the internet. Anyways, given that words themselves at one point or another emerged from the concrete world, the internet’s power to re-concretize almost seems like an act of reverse engineering. Is this relationship between words and matter anything like what you mean when you call language “fundamentally conceptual,” or is it something else entirely? Also, can you speak to the way the internet informs your understanding of language and what you want to do with it, or vice versa?
NT: What a funny chain of connections?! The way that algorithms re-sign a set of links between instances of text and user-behaviour to aggregate then estimate patterns of interest, which connect known words to non-fixed new meanings or definitional instances, can be really funny in a ‘pataphysical sort of way. Rightly or wrongly, I get nervous about poetic modes that are resigned to that comedy, be it via the Internet or chance operations or whatever — it’s a fun oblique strategy but quickly slips into to a tragi-comic, relativist mess. Plus, the arts aren’t pushing those extremes anywhere near as far as Network-native inventions like cryptocurrency or search engines. Stven Zultanski’s book-length poem Agony is one great example of how playing with the fixeds and variables in data comparison can be brilliantly exercised, but it depends on trying to find voice (or even, voices) in the process of composition and through the information. Similarly, key to any answer I can give to either of your questions is a simple commitment: I’m interested in trying to say something.
To your first question I would aver that, in a macro sense, languages rely to a higher degree than any other symbolic system on conceptually-led connections between their material forms, their structural logics and their power or potential within their communities of use. There’s no such thing as a non-conceptual language, plus with a language like English that inherent conceptuality is greater in the textual forms than spoken forms of the language because of the added abstractions that the former demands. Accepting that macro situation, I’m interested in the micro details of this one language’s most abstract form, of writing. I’m interested in the granular tensions of specific events of writing, and I’m interested in straining those tensions or conceptually-led connections (between material form/s, structural logic/s and power or potential, and the overlapping histories of all those dynamics) to extents and ends that most people who use this same language need not care about, conceptually, because their language functions for them: they see through it rather than see it, which is perfectly reasonable (the world would be awful if everyone just wrote poetry).
The Internet and everything that word serves as a shorthand for are together a hugely important aspect of how we’re all engaging with language now. I don’t want to duck your second question, but I tried my best to point to some of the horizons that I think the Internet is pushing for all forms of writing, to which literature has to imagine responses if it’s to stake claim to being “contmeporary”, in this online feature essay for The White Review. I’m not sure I can abbreviate my curiosity any better at the moment. Maybe the following doublet does a better job of that:
I co-wrote it in 2013 with an American poet called Kim Rosenfield. It was printed as a bookmark with three creases and so four panels. As the little red markers on the print face indicate, there were simple slot joins at either end of card’s length. Anyone could slip them together to create a free-standing paper structure with the doublet looping infinitely around its inside walls. The limitlessness of that loop would be my best answer to your question. I’ll put a copy in the post to you.
ST: One of the things I responded to most in Reading the Remove of Literature was the discussion of solitude, and the relation between the writer’s solitude and the writer’s work (which is kind of funny because the book itself invites a reader into one of the most solitary space-someone’s else’s reading experience). Being, as you say, a writer who often works collaboratively, what are your thoughts today about solitude and writing?
NT: Amongst other things, the advent of silent reading in the Middle Ages normalised a mentlaistic kind of privacy at the heart of standard reading experiences, at the expense of communal speaking and listening and against tendencies to mishear or to feel reading experiences. It deepened the interior pull of reading, for the sake of clarity and control, to the point where reading became a form of interior immersion and a retreat from or suppressor of contingency. I’m not decrying any of those changes, but my 2.5 years of work on Reading the Remove of Literature were driven by questions that my reading experience of Maurice Blanchot’s book L’Espace litteraire (or more specifically, my photocopy of the English translation) generated or garnered, which cumulatively made me wonder, What if that interiority could be inverted and the experience of silent reading could be made intelligible as an act of writing through the linguistic and non-linguistic markers of inscription?
Exactly this, the subjectivity of the reading experience, makes it hard to talk about in general terms, so I don’t want to drift into weak truth claims. But, it seems to me that standard writing and reading experiences both induce us into a confusing kind of solitude because when we’re all alone with language and the media via which it’s recorded we are with everyone in our community and no one at the same time. That kind of solitude is all the more confusing when our media are as unstable as the rest of everyday life and the language we’re left alone with is fluid. That’s a powerful kind of solitude — potentially awesome and potentially terrifying, connective yet isolating at the same time. My own choices about working collaboratively are part-political and part-personal. On both levels, I want to be moved and changed by other people, and I try to work in ways that stay open to that want. I’m also gregarious but introverted and quite anxious, so I prefer to do things with other people.
ST: Through hearing you speak about Of the Subcontract, and from reading Status_Anxieties I understand the process that generated the poems included in Of the Subcontract. What I don’t know about, however, is the editorial process that determined the order in which the poems appeared, and the sections into which they were divided. This seemed to me to be not a component of the work that was subcontracted, and an important part of the book. Can you speak a little bit about that process?
NT: Good point and good question. The number before the title of each poem is the amount in US$ that I paid for that poem, beginning at 0.01 or 1cent. These were fixed-fee jobs, so workers chose to take on the task at that level of pay regardless of the quantity of work they did or the time it took them. Conversely, too, the amount was determined before I could have any idea of what the work returned would be. The 100 poems in the book are ordered according to cost-of-production based on what I paid for each, as a unit of labour, from 1cent to $1. The first three of the four section titles are each direct quotations from straplines used by Amazon to promote the Mechanical Turk service, describing what the ideal “Turker” will be and do for “Requesters”: “Artificial Artificial Intelligence”; “Benefits of On Demand, Elastic Staffing”; and “Data Cleansing, Normalization and Dedupliciation”. The fourth section title is a more distant echo: “Bellows, Reeds, Levers; A Throat, A Nasal Cavity, A Mouth of India Rubber” is a list of the main component parts in the first ever working voice synthesiser. The first phrase names the backend mechanisms and the second phrase names the anthropomorphic rationale of the synthesiser’s frontend. Many versions of that machine were tried and tested by an Austro-Hungarian engineer called Wolfgang von Kempelen. The specific configuration described by my section title is reported to have mustered some basic German vowel sounds. However, von Kempelen is best remembered for a fake automaton that he built to win a argument in 1769 and which could play match-winning games of chess, colloquially know as the Mechanical Turk. A life-size wooden doll sat behind a wooden cabinet full of levers and inspection doors, all of which were a spectacular illusion cloaking a small tray in the base of the cabinet that different human dwarves were paid to sit in to operate the machine unbeknownst to the audience. It was “artificial artificial intelligence” and it’s the precedent called up by Amazon’s blunt metaphorics. The frontispiece and end plate in my book are attempts, drawn around 1783, to illustrate how von Kempellen’s “autuomaton” worked from the front and back views but arranged in my book in the reverse order—seen back-to-front, as it were. Sticking with the engineering lingo, as I say in the article you mention, as best I understand Of the Subcontract, I think it functions as a book like a black box, the transfer characteristics of which are opaque or even concealed. Hence, I guess, your question.
ST: There is so much emotion and confession in the subcontracted poems that make up Of the Subcontract. They are about war, abuse, lost love. I don’t know if this book is meant to be read start to finish, but because of a sort of crudeness or stubbornness that’s how I read it, and reading it in that way, I experienced the emotiveness of the poems, situated within the polished conceptual apparatus of the book itself, as being sort of like watching people scream behind a layer of glass. Did you anticipate this emotional pitch? Did the fact that so many of the contracted workers for the project wrote about, on some level, their suffering, lend a new layer to the project in your eyes? More broadly speaking, do you think there is a place for emotions in conceptual work? Do you think there an implicit or explicit threat of losing face somehow when engaging with the emotional?
NT: First rule of reading differently: There are no right or wrong ways to read, there are just potential differences between the intended way of reading and the actual way of reading. At the risk of being mechanistic, when the provider’s intentions tally with the reader’s wants the literacy conventions at play are effective and reinforced. But, as I know you know, when the two disagree things get interesting in ways that can be purely dysfunctional or potentially differently functional. The latter can be incredibly powerful, as when an underpaid worker registered on a de-humanising labour pooling service decides to put their heart and soul into a supposed “data normalization Human Intelligence Task” and speaks for themself as some-one/-thing who/that they’re not.
As a dataset, the poems returned for Of the Subcontract make for too small and peculiar a sample to draw any conclusions from that could tell us anything robust about the community of Turkers in general, I think, even though they’re highly suggestive. I really didn’t know what to expect when setting the HITs but, like you, I was surprised by the force and constancy of sad or uncomfortable feelings projected through the poems. Maybe it was precisely the power of speaking anonymously that drew this relatively un- or under-guarded confessionalism into play. I really don’t know, but it made my feelings about the flattened or synthetic “I” that the book coheres all the more conflictual. In answer to your final two questions, my best guess is that emotions are at play in everything we do because they’re a constitutive part of our being human. All too often a caricature of conceptualist writing can mislead people to think that the use of oblique or objective processes is also some kind of de-humanising rejection of subjectivity. It’s not, or at least it needn’t be. The best conceptualist work uses objectivity to nuance subjectivity not to negate it. There’s absolutely space for subjective emotionality in conceptualist writing, there just aren’t given forms to express or event translate it. It’s the classic problem of difference between the specific and the general: it can’t be “my feeling” and represented as such without it also becoming every my’s feeling. This problem is at the heart of the synthetic “I” created and explicitly subjugated (rather than denied or concealed) by Of the Subcontract. It’s a book by real people whose capacity for imagination, expression and work are rendered as a form of artificial artificial intelligence by the system they chose to operate within, a system that my project exploits. Without knowing what the content would be, I always knew that it would be a book about how people speak for themselves in an age of hyper-objectification.
ST: Can you tell me how Information as Material/your involvement with Information as Material came about? The origin story, if you will? I will be asking others about this too so don’t feel that you have to create The Account.
NT: Sure. Information as material is a strange name, a kind of non-name. It does the job of both naming a self-publishing imprint based in England— one that has editioned books, chapbooks, pocketbooks, films, digital files and educational material since 2002—and naming the editorial collective behind those publishing activities, of which I’m one-third along with English artist Simon Morris and American poet-critic Craig Dworkin. However, when the three words in our name, “information as material”, are being written we always ask that they be treated like case insensitive plain type, as if those words together formed a common noun rather than a proper name. In a very small (and maybe silly) way that kind of linguistic complication and any conceptual confusion it invites perform the kind of disruption that we have shared interest in: We write, and support the writing of, poetic performances that return to and re-read texts that are already in the world, in an effort to find new literary potential in them and to problematise the current status of those texts in the world. Under the rubric of co-editing, the three of us collaborate by writing together, by curating and making exhibitions, by organising writing residencies, by teaching, and by supporting authors with similar interests to self-publish under our umbrella. I’ve said before that information as material is a kind of umbrella under which we try to keep open a space in the cultural industries of literature and art for highly unusual and often extra-literary forms of experimental writing to be self-published and contextualised.
Craig and I both joined the team around 2005/6. There’s a long list of abstract or “critical” shared concerns, but we’re basically all obsessed with reading and the speculative possibilities of reading differently. To my mind, we explore that obsession by making and supporting the kinds of things we’d like to read, because we want to read them and because when we started (and there are direct roots in book-related artworks by Simon Morris from 1998-2001) no one else was putting these sorts of things out —certainly not with the kind of aesthetic and editorial ambition we think they deserve. Our set-up is intentionally un-organised because the collective itself is a collaborative art work or form of art working to us: the collective is a speculative project through which we’ve honed a mode of publishing as praxis.
ST: I remember that when we briefly spoke in Rochester, you were starting to explain why letterpress equipment is harder to come by in England than in America. Can you finish that thought?
NT: This is largely to do with space (or rather, the lack thereof), the de-skilling and re-skilling that have taken place in arts education, and the difficulties that the British print industry has with competing in a global marketplace. It’s a sad fact that letterpress printing is practically obsolete. Then again, maybe that’s exactly why it’s interesting now to people like you and I.
The second, e-book edition of Nick Thurston’s Of the Subcontract was published by Coach House Books (Toronto) this month. His guest-edited special issue of the peer-reviewed Open Access journal Amodern will be published later this spring; and his collection of selected writings by the expatriate Czech artist Pavel Büchler, Somebody’s Got To Do It, will be published this fall. Current and upcoming exhibitions include ‘Conceptual Poetics’ at the National Poetry Library, Southbank Centre (London, May-July 2016), ‘The Economy is Spinning’ at Onomatopee (Eindhoven, June-July 2016) and ‘Reading As Art’ at Bury City Museum & Gallery (August-October 2016). Nick joined the faculty of the University of Leeds in 2012 and is currently Visiting Research Fellow in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia).
Sofi Thanhauser is a writer and artist. She received her MFA from the University of Wyoming in Laramie.