Charles Gute works with text as a primary material both as a conceptual artist and as a freelance editor of art books. These separate activities—studio practice and day job—unexpectedly overlapped when Gute hit upon the idea of taking corrected publisher’s proofs and stripping out all content except for his own corrections and proofreader’s notations. Re-framed as line drawings, these abstract constellations of words and symbols resonate with their original subject matter in unpredictable and sometimes humorous ways. Featuring more than fifty of these “automatic” drawings, Gute’s book Revisions and Queries, published by The Ice Plant, is a sort of “art book about art books” that provides an amusing glimpse behind the scenes of both the art and publishing worlds. Another of Gute’s projects, The HUO Drawings, was inspired by found misspellings of the curator/interviewer’s name—mistakes that he subsequently rendered as ink-on-paper drawings. Based in New York, Charles Gute works with Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, and Jason Rulnick, Inc., New York.
Avi Davis: This will be an interview about art generated (largely) by interviews. So we’re operating with the ghosts of a lot of interviews looking over our shoulders. Did you ever feel like this was a commentary on the interview form?
Charles Gute: Not specifically, because in addition to using interviews as source material, I also use essays, artist statements, bios—basically any text that might be part of an art publication. But I think I have a sense of what you’re getting at. When you read an interview in print, there’s this illusion that you, the reader, are a ghost listening to a seamless dialogue happening in real time. When in fact an interview like the one we are having now is something that is stitched together and mediated by yet another ghostly presence—an editor. It’s the invisible hand of the editor that I’m interested in exposing—this series of gestures that by their nature are supposed to remain unseen, since their whole purpose is to make the delivery of content to the reader as transparent and unencumbered as possible. In some ways it reminds me of a Joseph Beuys performance I once read about, where he organized a panel discussion, but clamped all the speaker’s hands to the tabletop. As the participants spoke, it was Beuys—mute throughout—who performed everyone’s hand gestures.
AD: That’s an interesting image. I guess what I was trying to suggest is that sometimes each drawing feels like an interview with an interview—that the art is interviewing (or interrogating or commenting on) the interview that generated it. Another thing I noticed is that the drawings based on interviews—spoken words—tend to be more jumbled and organic in appearance than the drawings based on essays or artist’s statements—written words—which tend to have more space and look almost architectural. This may simply be caused by the nature of interviews, which aren’t very thought-out, but I was wondering if you had noticed the same thing.
CG: Honestly, I think it’s even more arbitrary than that. I think it has less to do with the original format of the text—interview, essay, etc.—and has more to do with the editorial intervention (or lack thereof) that the text has undergone before I receive it. In the case of an interview, for example, this often has to be transcribed from an audio recording. Maybe the original interview was in a different language. So it may have been transcribed by one person, then translated by someone else; that’s two people involved. Then it arrives at the editor’s desk, whose job it is to make sure everything makes sense, is punctuated correctly, flows logically and grammatically…there’s a whole range of aesthetic and mechanical issues to address. Now, if those three people have done their jobs extremely well, the manuscript should be very clean and require almost no further intervention by the time it reaches me as proofreader. Of course, that’s rarely true, which is good because otherwise I wouldn’t get much work. There are always details that need attention. Publishers can sometimes be slightly in denial about this. Occasionally a publisher will approach me with a manuscript that they claim needs only a very perfunctory proofread, when in fact it needs something more like a heavy copyedit. In a case like that—if I take the job at all—I’ll deliver back to the publisher a manuscript that’s been very heavily notated. It is true that in the case of the interview format, since it often passes through more hands, there’s a lot more that can go wrong. There was one very large book of interviews that I worked on—more than 1000 pages—that, because of the scope and time frame of the project, different sections had been worked on by a few different successive editors, which introduced inconsistencies. On the other hand, I worked on a large collection of essays by a single author—a very good writer working with a very good editor—that was so clean I barely had to touch it. My point is, if you recontextualize a page of notations from that book, it’s going to look very minimal, which is going to have a very different resonance than a page that’s dense with editorial notations, which may be that way simply because the preceding editor or transcriber or translator didn’t do a very thorough job.
Recently a commissioning editor at a high-profile art publisher—an editor who is aware of the Revisions and Queries project and had seen some finished drawings based on a book he’d previously hired me to work on—was a little defensive on this subject. It seems these drawings were of the ‘densely notated’ variety, and he felt that this reflected back on his publishing house—in other words, it betrayed the fact that the book that the drawing was derived from had been especially fucked up before I worked on it. He was good natured about it, but this is one of the reasons why I don’t disclose the specific book (and by extension the specific publisher) that a given drawing is derived from.
AD: The only real text in this book—your commentary in the back—is hidden. Was this a deliberate attempt to mirror the nature of the art (where the “true text” is hidden/invisible)?
CG: It’s funny you should ask that, because the placement of the essay was a point of contention between the publisher and me—although I’m now very happy with the final result. The publisher, The Ice Plant, does very elegant, very austere art books with little or no text in them, preferring to let the artwork speak for itself. Nonetheless, I felt like this particular body of work needed some kind of statement from the artist, to provide contextual clues and give some explanation of how these cryptic diagrams were created. So initially I talked the publisher into letting me write an introduction to the book. Then, as the book came together, the publisher urged me—in keeping with their vision of a largely text-free book—to make the text shorter and shorter, and to consider moving the essay to the back of the book, making it function as an afterword instead of an introduction. In the end I came to see that this was a successful strategy, because the reader is allowed to enter the work and come to his or her own conclusions without being given much interpretive guidance. Different readers bring radically different interpretations to the drawings. Meanwhile there’s this text in the back that explains some of my ideas, and also gives a few pertinent details about how the drawings were created. Some readers have told me that they went through the book, then read the essay, then felt compelled to go back to the beginning of the book and start looking at the images again in a different way. Anyway, to answer your question, I don’t know that the text in the back is “hidden” so much as it is sort of “deferred” so that the reader can find their own way into the work.
AD: How have people’s interpretations differed? Do you have any particularly interesting examples?
CG: People have thought they looked like: dance-step illustrations, football-play diagrams, circuit board diagrams, concrete poetry, aleatoric music scores, weather charts…
AD: You mentioned that the symbols (circles and squiggly lines and arrows) that appear in the works are from the latest version of the copyediting software that you use, but that symbols generated in earlier versions of the software looked much cruder, possibly more like drawings. So here again we have a doubling of the process of refinement, or smoothing out, that generated the work in the first place. Why did you choose not to use these earlier, more drawing-like symbols in the artwork?
CG: I don’t know that the earlier notations are more drawing-like. With this project I’ve always been mainly interested in the gestural hand of the editor/artist, as opposed to any competing evidence that the process has been rendered on a computer. And the thing is, although the basic copyeditor’s symbols I use have remained fairly uniform, to my eye the more recent software delivers a result that looks more immediate, less mediated by the computer. I think it’s mainly a matter of resolution. The earlier versions of Acrobat had something akin to a crude paintbox tool that could be used to mark up a document. So although you might make a fluid line with the mouse—say, a loop to indicate that some bit of text should be deleted—this would be translated to the computer screen as a very jagged, 8-bit-looking, highly digitized line. That might be fine for communicating editorial decisions to a publisher, but when you reframe those lines for aesthetic consideration, the viewer starts to ask why they look that way—why so “computerized”? It’s the later iterations of Acrobat that are able to translate a more direct sense of free-form gesture to the computer screen.
AD: In the statement at the back of the book, you say that your ultimate decision about whether these pieces are compelling felt very subjective, “especially relative to [your] usual art practice.” What makes this work more subjective?
CG: My work has been described as “conceptual.” I’m not sure that’s true, and certainly the term is more than a little problematic. But it can be useful relative to this question. One of the reasons artists began to look toward more “conceptual” ways of working in the late 1960s was to find ways to avoid the subjectivities inherent in traditional fine art practice—expressionist painting being a paradigm for that subjectivity. Artists looked for a more analytic mode of working, in which artistic decisions were not based on subjective feelings or impulses. As Sol LeWitt suggested, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”
The marks that I make on a publisher’s manuscript are all entirely in the service of necessary editorial corrections. They are not arbitrary. And when I reframe those marks as art, I don’t alter them in any way. Yet when those notations are then rendered relatively abstract by stripping out the original content, what’s left becomes open to very subjective interpretation. If you have two different pages of such notations, you can start to ask questions like: Is one art and the other not? Or, if they are both art, is one “better”? These are subjective decisions, based on arbitrary notions of composition, color, resonance, humor… When I sat down with the publisher to put this book together, all these matters of taste came into play. Meanwhile, I like to think that my work is not guided by such ambiguous criteria—that the success of a given work is determined by how well the form of the work articulates the idea. But of course that’s a deluded goal, as no art is purely logical or empirical.
AD: Right, the goal of conceptual art would be to unite seamlessly the form and the idea, because the idea itself generates the form automatically. While your pieces don’t try to achieve this kind of automatic-ness, they still aim toward a unity of form and idea. Can you say what the idea of the work is?
CG: There are two main ideas. The first is perhaps more formal, being a sort of “what if” proposition: What if I take a publisher’s manuscript that I’ve notated as a proofreader and strip out the original content? Is what remains art? Does it become drawing? How does it function? Like a lot of art since Duchamp, it’s an investigation into what constitutes art. And really, I don’t think the Revisions and Queries drawings are much of a challenge to our collective definition of art in the 21st century! Still, that’s probably how I would frame the primary idea in its simplest form.
The other main idea/proposition has more to do with my location—or maybe dual location—within the big constellation of the art world. I am an artist with a day job as an editor of art publications. Those are typically two different, discrete roles. What happens if those two roles overlap, even collide? For me it raises questions about labor and the infrastructure necessary to make art at a certain scale. I don’t mean scale literally (although literal scale can be a component of what I’m talking about). I mean more generally an artist’s penetration into the public imagination. A high-profile artist typically requires a whole support network of people working directly in the service of that artist’s vision: studio assistants, fabricators, publishers, editors, gallerists, publicists, archivists, etc. There’s a sort of food chain. As a lowly proofreader of a text about, say, Damien Hirst, I’d say that puts me at the very lowest end of a very big food chain. Still, I’m making a very concrete and not insubstantial contribution to the reception of Hirst’s work. Well, what happens if I reframe that contribution as a work of art in itself? It can get sticky. How does the artist react? Or the publisher of the text? There is some sense of transgression or impropriety.
AD: My question of how this work is more subjective remains. In your “Hans Ulrich Obrist” series, your process also combined automatic and arbitrary (or aesthetic?) elements. You collected misspellings of Obrist’s name, which were generated by other people (the automatic part), and then hand-drew a whole series of these misspellings, in different fonts and styles (the arbitrary or personal part). Do you think that project and Revisions and Queries are similar in that respect?
CG: No, you’re right; in the end it’s all subjective. This is the big fallacy of conceptual art—that it’s somehow less subjective than other approaches to art making. Sol LeWitt knew this very well. In addition to the thing about the idea as a machine, he also wrote that “conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” About The HUO Drawings, the main thing I think they have in common with Revisions and Queries is they also articulate that food-chain effect I was just talking about. Except in this case the top of the food chain is not an artist but a curator. That’s a somewhat recent development—the curator as artist/celebrity in his or her own right.
AD: I feel like this collection could be called “The Copyeditor’s Revenge.” Especially a piece like “Marina Abramovic Timeline,” on page 74, where the words BYE-BYE, REFUSING, DREAMING, WE DECIDE, WE DECIDE, sound threatening or hostile toward the original text. Thoughts?
CG: That’s funny. All those words are derived from the original text. My reiterations of those words in the margins were only to call attention to little mechanical problems, like the need for a hyphen in “bye-bye,” or to correct non-parallel verb tense. All very banal editor’s concerns. Believe me, the copyeditor is always on the author’s side!
AD: I don’t mean that you feel any personal hostility toward the author. Of course, the copyeditor’s job, during the act of copyediting, is to bring out the best in the text. To do otherwise—that is, to subvert the copyediting process—might be called copyeditor’s sabotage. But I’m talking about the drawings, which are created through an action you perform on the text after you’re done copyediting it. And look at that action: it asserts the importance of the copyeditor’s work (which is always invisible in the final version of a text) by erasing the “real” text. It’s a kind of role reversal. But it goes beyond that because while copyeditors’ marks are conventionally seen as having no “content,” these drawings raise the copyeditor’s marks to the level of “art,” while the original “content,” now erased, remains merely an “interview,” or a “timeline.” This action transforms the copyeditor’s remarks into a sort of a higher form of content by erasing the original content. That’s what I mean when I say—somewhat jokingly—that the drawings exist in a hostile relationship to the texts that generated them. I thought the words in “Marina Abramovic Timeline” simply amplified that relationship.
This actually relates to a question about how you chose to title the pieces. On the one hand, it makes sense that you would simply give the name of each original text to its respective drawing, so that the marks made on “Gabriel Orozco Interview” are themselves given the title “Gabriel Orozco Interview” after you turn them into an art piece. Titling the drawing this way provides the simplest reference to the text from which it is derived, and also provides the best “clue” to your methods, since the drawings can present a bit of a mystery on first viewing. It’s a pragmatic solution to those problems. But on the other hand, it’s ironic because of course the final piece of art, now called “Gabriel Orozco Interview,” is exactly not “Gabriel Orozco Interview.” It’s not even an interview. So the title is co-opted and subverted.
CG: I agree—which also supports your interpretation of them as “interviews of interviews.”