Kristen Gallagher and Chris Alexander live in New York City, where they are writers, poetry curators, and co-editors of Truck Books (truckbooks.org). In 2011, they published two new books. Alexander’s Panda documents the fan culture and promotional apparatus surrounding the film Kung Fu Panda; Gallagher’s We Are Here is a transcription-based project compiling indexical and deictic language recorded during hikes and other outings. Both are professors at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, where they teach creative writing, English literature, and composition. This interview was conducted outdoors, in Long Island City, Queens and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on March 15, 2012 and was transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Christopher Schmidt: We’re looking at pictures of cats on Instagram and talking about cuteness. Let’s start the interview. I was going to interview Kristen first, but maybe we should start with Chris—
Kristen Gallagher: Cuteness is Chris’ project.
Chris Alexander: Yeah, very much so.
CS: Chris, let’s begin by discussing the cuteness of your subject—the panda—and how its cuteness fits in with conceptual writing. I’m thinking of Sianne Ngai’s article, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.”
CA: You know, this is really funny. I had only read her essay on Stuplimity [“Stuplimity: Shock and Boredom in Twentieth-Century Aesthetics”] when I was at Buffalo, and I had not been following her subsequent work. And then recently I started reading that cuteness essay, and it’s startlingly proximate. It’s kind of disturbingly proximate to what I’ve been doing.
CS: In this essay Ngai says that we’ve looked at the aesthetic categories of the sublime, the beautiful, the ugly—
CA: The grand, canonical categories.
CS: But she asks, what about the aesthetic categories more relevant to commodity culture? Like cuteness, zaniness—I can’t remember some of the other ones.
KG: There are three categories in the upcoming book. It’s cute, zany—
CS: —interesting might be the third one.
CA: She’s looking at these minor taste concepts that emerge out of consumer culture and at works that diminish the line between art and commercial merchandise. So Murakami and Nara, but a handful of writers too. I’m really attracted to that as a project, obviously even before I had seen her writing about it. But there were some specific things in the article which I felt were really very useful for me and reminded me of certain issues in Panda. Like, for example, one thing that I really responded to there was when she was talking about [Gertrude] Stein not engaging in negative critique. Which I feel is something that is very important to me at the moment, in the wake of Language poetry. Since the early nineties in particular, American poetry has been sort of reflexively caught up in this moment of negative critique. It’s an assumed thing that you’re engaging in a spirit of critical distance and a kind of Marxist-inflected scrutiny.
Whereas in this project what I was wanting to do was occupy this space of—I was thinking I could learn just as much about these commercial processes by attempting to enter into them in spirit, instead of standing apart from them and critiquing them. In some ways what the book really tries to do is become an extension of the Kung Fu Panda franchise in a way. It’s sort of an archeology of the franchise, but it’s also an illicit entry into the franchise. A Kung Fu Panda knockoff, like the poetry edition.
CS: An example of this is at the end of the book you have a little list of “related materials” and then a link. And the little iPhone-glyph—the QR code—takes you to Lulu.com where there’s other material available for download. So you’re sort of appropriating the film spectacle model and then franchising your own book in a similar way.
CA: That’s right. Unfortunately, right after I put the book out, Lulu changed the whole structure of how you buy books on their site, so that link isn’t functional anymore. I have to revise the book. Fancy that. Another aspect of the project is that it’s an ongoing project. It’s not just the book. There are other derivative books that I’m working on that I’m just going to put out on Lulu cheaply, in short ephemeral editions. And while I was doing the project, for, like, a year and a half, I ran this Tumblr that circulated descriptions of the title character from Kung Fu Panda and images from this massive archive of panda images that I had put together.
KG: That was actually just a great source of discovery about how the conceptual writing we’re doing interfaces differently with the world than the way more conventional poetry does. Because the Tumblr ended up being followed by a huge number of teenage girls in Indonesia, people who are not poets but are interfacing with the project through other interests.
CA: Teenage girls were my primary followers for that Tumblr. Teenage, Indonesian girls who really loved it. Some of whom I had a little bit of incidental contact with through the Tumblr interface. A few poetry people followed it but mostly it was these teenage girls who loved pandas and loved Kung Fu Panda.
CS: What were you posting there besides pictures?
CA: It was images of pandas, panda-related art and commercial products. I accumulated this really massive database of all kinds of panda images, things directly related to the Kung Fu Panda franchise, things that were spin-offs, things that seemed, in the moment, to be pulled into the franchise just because people were in this frenzy for panda-marked goods. Images of actual pandas, and also some very weird liminal stuff.
And then every sentence of the book, or most of the sentences in the book, were circulated through the Tumblr, too. The bulk of it was actually text, textual descriptions of the title character taken from fan sites, movie reviews, comment threads and so forth.
CS: Are any of those sentences written by you or is the language all appropriated?
CA: Oh no, I didn’t write any of them. What I did was, my intervention was to standardize the form of the sentence to “A panda who…” Obviously, not everybody was using that syntax. Although the reason I chose that as a form was that such a great number of people were saying, like, “the movie is about a panda who…” And so I just adopted that syntax and standardized it.
CS: That in turn becomes the beautiful, almost Steinian opening to the book. [“A panda that has been lightly trained in the martial arts. // A panda who works in a noodle restaurant owned by his goose father.…A sloppy, overweight but loveable panda who dreams to be a kung fu master one day …”] Later on, the book seems less artfully composed, but the beginning reads like you’re parsing a grammar.
CA: Absolutely. The first section of the book is predominantly, although not exclusively, run through that syntax as a way of evening out and flattening the language. The project as a whole you can probably think of as an attempt to diagram the panda as an object as desire, and the networks that produce the panda as an object of desire. But at the same time, it’s like an archeology of fandom. It’s an exploration of the way that feelings, affects, postures, and attitudes that constitute fandom are not separate from the production process. The fans are part of the production process. Even though the fans are also, themselves, produced by the process.
I wanted, in that first section especially, to really focus on the fans and the kinds of interpretive frameworks they were bringing to it, but also these crazy, raw expressions of emotion around the panda—there’s a tremendous amount of that.
And to catch the traces of the technologies, the communications technologies, that were producing these utterances. So there’s a lot of Twitter and Facebook marked as such, and stuff that’s clearly from comment threads on YouTube and other video hosting sites. I left some of the traces of the context so those communications technologies themselves are pulled into the book, because they’re part of the network, too.
CS: How did you differentiate between, say, the fandom around the Kung Fu Panda versus the Eastern (or even Western) devotion to the actual panda as a kind of cute, endangered animal—which itself constitutes a history of fetishization?
CA: One of the reasons why the book grew to be so messy is because I came to discover is that this kind of network is so heterogeneous and so continuously incomplete that it’s really, deeply unsystematizable. And the boundaries of the network become really unclear at points. Where to cut the network is a serious problem.
For instance, when I’m dealing with products in the franchise and derivative products and pirated products, as I mentioned before, there’s a certain moment, at the height of the frenzy around this movie where people are so hungry for products that seem to have anything to do with—anything with a damn panda on it gets pulled into the franchise, whether it was originally designed to be or not. Obviously, there are canonical products like a Po doll or a plastic weapon that’s put out by Hasbro in connection with the DreamWorks franchise. But then a step away from that is a Guangdong Province knockoff of a Kung Fu Panda plushy that kind of looks like a mutant panda that they just put a headband on to make vaguely kung fu-like.
And then a step away from that maybe is just a t-shirt or a book with actual pictures of a panda in a zoo, which people are thrilled to get hold of because it’s enough to remind their kids of the movie. As the franchise, as the network that produces these things gathers momentum and begins to bleed out, it becomes impossible to decide what’s in and what’s out.
There are lots of people who got involved in the movie simply because they loved pandas. There are lots of people who started to really love pandas because they were involved with the movie. And while there are distinctions, mostly I think in terms of how fans of the movie tended to identify with the title character, or to read the contents of religious faith or national ideology—those were two surprisingly big ones—into the Panda. As opposed to people who are real panda enthusiasts. They tend to just be attracted to cuteness or a certain kind of fetish concept of endangered-ness and vulnerability.
While there is some overlap between those two sets of feelings, they are not exactly the same.
CS: The activity you’re describing is very time-based. You’re tracking the launching of this entertainment juggernaut that takes over the media landscape and the gravity of it absorbs related artifacts. But only for a limited period of time, after which it disperses those artifacts back.
KG: Then it’s time to make a sequel. Kung Fu Panda 2! It literally came out right when the book came out.
CA: It’s all about time. It’s about the time of media, and also about the time of emergence and stabilization of a network like this, that makes a franchise and a stable fandom, which now exists, right? So, yes, absolutely, it’s about that time.
And the reason the book came out right around the release of the sequel is because I was timing the book to do that. But also because as soon as this became big enough I knew there would be a sequel, and I therefore had time to pursue the project.
Because initially this was a short-term engagement. But it ended up being a two-and-a-half year project. The reason that it could be a two-and-a-half year project is because I could see, OK, well, there’s obviously going to be a sequel. In fact, I can’t remember his name, but the CEO of DreamWorks came out right out and said, right away, there may be as many as five or six films coming out of this. So I was like, cool.
I have absolutely no interest in maintaining critical distance in part because I’m also a fan, in a way. I don’t know if I’m really, specifically, a fan of Kung Fu Panda but I am a fan of cuteness, and fandom itself holds a certain fascination for me.
CS: I know you didn’t see the movie.
CA: I’ve never seen the movie.
CS: So why did you pick this particular cuteness to follow?
CA: It was, actually, to go back to your comments about time, it was about time. All I was looking for at the beginning of this project was a certain kind of sensation, a certain feeling-tone. I wanted something that was very plastic, very empty, almost oppressively cheerful. Oppressively isn’t really the right way to say it. Aggressively. Aggressively cheerful. And this is what arrived.
CS: This might be a good place to transition to Kristen’s project. Kristen, I have a lot of questions I want to ask you about the “empty” indexical language in We Are Here. If Chris’s book tracks a time-based phenomenon, yours is very much about the rhetoric of place—the language we use to express where we are, and what kind of work that language does or doesn’t do. Are you critical of this language? What was the impulse that led to your assembling the book in its current form?
KG: When I first moved here, I was having a very similar experience to what Chris is talking about. Having been in Buffalo, where the criticality of poetry is so deeply entrenched—that critique of objects, critique of capital, critique of various kinds of spectacle and societal problems, done through a particular kind of cut up, disrupted syntax, fragmented mechanism—and coming up through poetry of the nineties, everyone had been doing that for so long, many still are, but I was feeling like there isn’t really anything more that can be done with that. It’s become the new normal.
CA: Canonical disjunction.
KG: Yeah, that’s right. So, feeling completely bored by that, combined with the kind of stultifying daily life of adjuncting at CUNY with five classes of 28 students, I just wasn’t getting much done.
Then somebody asked me to write an essay on beauty and I really had nothing to offer. On so many levels. I don’t think it was interesting to me, the Kantian philosophical question, and I just wasn’t having any experience of beauty in my daily life. So not knowing what to do about beauty, I just went out with recording equipment, like we’re doing right now, thinking that I would capture something by going to beautiful places and then transcribing and seeing what happens.
What emerged was this wonderful language of self-orientation and map reading. I hadn’t noticed it in the experience of being at the places, but once I heard it I realized this must be happening all the time. What’s really wonderful about this project is that it showed me how when you record something, when you have that technological intervention, you find out that nothing you thought was happening was happening.
CS: The actual language is so different from the intention behind it.
KG: And the place where you were has nothing to do with anything being said—nothing that we’re saying is about anything being beautiful, or references where we are. I also thought we were having all these pleasant conversations and I was bonding with the various people I was out with, but a lot of times there was tension. Which way are we going? Do you know what we’re doing?
There’s a way in which you think you remember what happened, but then listening back to it, this is the language that kept reemerging over and over and over. And I didn’t even know that we were spending so much time using it.
CS: Which led you to highlight and focus on this deictic language of pointing and locating, as the title of the book suggests. How did you decide that transcribing this language would be the constraint for the book?
KG: The very first time I hit something like this is that so that is that so this is that, I just loved it. This is like a deictic pile-up that points to nothing. It’s so amazing. Not only is it something I’ve never seen highlighted before, but it’s got to be everywhere. And I hadn’t seen it revealed. When you take this language out of the place and the actual map, or the actual GPS or compass, you just have that language and it could point to anything.
CS: Can you talk about how the recording apparatus was part of your procedure? Why was it important that this project be generated through recording and not “creatively” invented?
KG: To break out Lacan now, or rather Freidrich Kittler’s Lacan—[self-deprecating laugh]—tape recording gives you a kind of access to the functioning of the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary. You imagine yourself using language in a particular way, and being in the world in a particular way, and what the technological recording puts you in contact with is something, according to Kittler, akin to a confrontation with the Real—like, no, that’s really what you’re doing—and this experience makes you realize how much all experience is wrapped up in the Imaginary. That’s actually what’s happening. Lacanians often hate this idea of Kittler’s because it’s not quite what Lacan meant by the Real, but what Kittler’s doing is using Lacan’s framework to describe what recording technology makes available and I think there’s something to it.
The other thing that was really remarkable that couldn’t quite make it into the book was that everywhere I went, even if we went two hours outside the city to hike in nature: there were often helicopters. The one thread of continuity, besides this orientation language, is that there are helicopters everywhere.
I did not hear them. I barely ever heard them in my actual experience. I think we filter them out. But they were everywhere. There were so many helicopters in the recordings, I couldn’t believe it.
CS: Something you said a little bit earlier resonates with what I saw as one subtext of the book. You were talking about leaving Buffalo and leaving that Language-poetry–influenced approach and then coming here to New York City. And because so much of the book’s language is about location, it struck me that it might be a kind of allegory of attempting to locate yourself within foreign aesthetic territory. Or within a new conceptual poetry community.
KG: You know, a couple of people have asked me that. I wasn’t thinking about that at all. What I primarily thought about, even more than Language–poetry criticality, another thing that’s really dominant in Buffalo, is the Olsonian poetics of place.
I wasn’t out to get it, or to attack it or anything, but this emerging language really struck me as this complete evacuation of place. Because if you read the book, you never know where you are. There are some proper names, but they could be anywhere. There are highway numbers, but they don’t tell you too much. So there was this evacuation of place. I took a certain kind of pleasure in that. Because I spent so much time trying to study Buffalo as a space and a place, through a post-Olsonian poetics, that a lot of what I was writing there was actually much more in that vein. And then when I got to New York and I realized, oh, everybody’s doing these Olson/Howe, research-y, close-up-look-at-a-certain-location poems. It’s another brand that’s been kind of exhausted—even if people do it well. So when this different kind of language emerged I was like, oh, this is such a delightful, happy accident that this is the opposite of that.
CA: It’s like the antidote to that.
KG: It’s the converse, the inverse, the negative—but not in terms of negative critique, it’s just the photo negative of it.
CS: Taking up this distinction between the negative and negative critique, I wonder if you could say more about how your projects are not negative critiques. Because I feel that there are ways that both your projects could be construed as—even in the way you are discussing them now—as critical of the panda spectacle, or critical of an Olsonian poetics of place, if only by choosing to observe place differently.
CA: In that Ngai article [“The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde”], she says this really nice thing about Stein. That Stein tried to find a way to engage positivity that wasn’t affirmation. Obviously, in my project I’m not simply a fan, otherwise I wouldn’t write this book. I would just have a lot of paraphernalia in my room.
KG: Which he doesn’t want. People keep giving him pandas.
CA: People do give me panda stuff.
KG: He’s making jokes now about eating panda pancakes or panda hamburgers, trying to push against that.
CA: Maybe because I’m an artist, I have a perverse relationship to the fandom and the franchise. I can’t actually collapse myself into it, because that’s not my desire. I want the whole network, not the character or the collectibles. It’s like Takashi Murakami says: I don’t have the otaku gene.
In that sense, my position is not identical to the thing I’m looking at, and the attempt to merge with the fandom and the franchise is quixotic. It’s in that impossible gesture that you get something that looks like criticality. But I’m not shaking my head at the commodity form. I’m not trying to decry the role of commercial production processes in subject formation. I’m interested in it. I’m trying to explore it and describe it and feel it.
KG: I think a lot of conceptualism is exactly like that. It’s really just bringing as large a sample as you can, maybe for archival purposes, as if the raw materials for a research project of sorts, or a large sample of language use for a reader to sort through on their own. Rather than having an author get in there and get critical on your behalf, to guide the reader to see what’s wrong with something, what they are supposed to think, or even in some cases to get critical of the reader for engaging in some aspect of culture or in Chris’s case a kind of corporate fan culture. I think the post–language-poetry mode would be a little something like, in very cut-up language, shame on you for shopping. And I think that’s not really an option anymore. We’re not in that world anymore.
CS: We live in consumer culture. There is no outside of it.
KG: There is no outside. And so this is a different way to look at the situation and it is, I think, maybe closer to Situationism, truthfully. That you just play with the actual paradigm that you’re given. And people can, of course, read it and do what they want with it. It’s available for critique if somebody wants to do that. But it’s really about just looking at the situation.
CS: The way you’re describing the possibilities for reception reminds me of the notion that reading is a collaborative practice. I want to ask more about the collaborative aspects of We Are Here. The language in the book isn’t all yours, is it?
KG: No. Oh no. There’s a section called “Fellow Travelers” and it lists all these names of people, and they’re all the people that are in there.
CS: The form is very different from the classical conception of lyric: an individual voice speaking to itself in private. All the writing in We Are Here is communally composed. I don’t know if you thought of this book as collaborative, but one possible motivation behind collaboration is you have immediate readers, you have people who are interested in your work because you are including them in it. I’m curious what the reception of the book has been among these “Fellow Travelers” whose language you used.
KG: It’s interesting—I hadn’t thought of it as collaboration setting out, it was really just the discovery of the language that was interesting. And it just required going out with other people. Who do you do that with? Your friends, your family. That’s who you end up going out and around with. Colleagues going for drinks after work.
So in a funny way it just ends up involving particular people in my life who I do have various kinds of friendship and community with. I wasn’t thinking about writing it for them but it’s interesting, after it was published, when they see themselves in the book, they all do have a funny look that comes over their face, which is a really delightful look. I really love it. They all kind of—they get a kind of really happy, not a gleefully happy, but a slightly wide-eyed stare and partial smile. I think they’re really excited that they’re a part of it. But for the most part, people have been interested in the language, the discovery, not themselves. No one has asked me which part was their’s, though a few people claim to always be able to recognize Matvei.
CS: You’re able to capture this through tape-recording technology. But there’s another way that technology enters the project as a collaborator—and actually as a character—which is GPS technology. That’s the “she” in the book, correct?
KG: Yeah, right. Sometimes it’s “they” and sometimes it’s “she.” It’s always in cars; it’s usually with parents, oddly enough. The audio recording technologies allow us to see ourselves having conversations with these other technologies. I think if my father saw himself arguing with the GPS he might feel—he would realize that he’s doing that.
CS: He doesn’t realize that he’s having a relationship with an artificial intelligence.
KG: Right. The way that he calls it “they” and my mom calls it “she” says something about the way they perceive the world. He’s more of a paranoid personality and she’s a warm, friendly personality. And the voice of the GPS is almost always female, so that’s why she’s calling it “she.” But they are projecting things onto this machine. My mom trusts the robot. My father does not trust it. He wants it on all the time, but he argues with it and second-guesses it. That is something a lot of people laugh at when I give readings, because I think we all experience those kinds of things. The recording of those conversations gives you a chance to stand back and really see that happening.
CA: It’s a good observation that media and technology enter the project at several different levels. There are the technologies that we are actually using to orient ourselves, the old technologies, like paper maps or posted placard maps. Newer technologies, like GPS. But on another level there’s the recording technology to enable the refractory aspect of the project. And the way that it is able to hint at what Kittler calls “the noise of the real.”
Then there’s the technology of the book, or the medium of the book, also. Because these don’t just exist as recordings, or even transcriptions of recordings. They exist in a book, which gives them a specific—a book is a specific kind of furniture. And it’s a designed environment and you have to contend with that designed environment as a reader. And so you get this thing that’s very common in conceptualism, a certain kind of alienating force from the accumulation of this specific kind of text. Or the textualization of the specific kind of language that’s concretized in the form of the book.
When I designed the book, of course, I tried to do things that fit the project, so I tried to make the space inside the book as homogenous as possible. There are no page numbers so that the design of the book is, hopefully, reinforcing the experience of the text to a certain degree.
CS: That’s raises a question that reoccurs in conceptual writing, which is, should conceptual writing be read closely? Is the book meant to be read at all, or is it just meant to be thought?
KG: I kind of think both of our books are—I think they should be read, I really do. And not just in an egoistic way like I want readers. I think the language should be encountered. We both don’t agree with Kenny [Kenneth Goldsmith] on that. But then again, I think Kenny likes to say provocative, extreme things, right?
CA: Intelligently provocative. Although the boring thing is—
KG: The boring thing is true. And we’re not afraid of it.
CA: Because lots of interesting art is boring.
KG: Exactly. It’s an old problem.
CA: I think Kenny is really right [about boredom]. There’s a specific kind of boredom that’s an active affect of the present. It’s not the absence of anything happening, it’s just a kind of…happening.
KG: The way that you’re on the Internet for hours and you hate it and yet you’re doing it and you can’t stop.
CA: It keeps you going on a level plateau that is neither engagement nor non-engagement.
KG: But we just fundamentally disagree with the reading thing. We think reading [Goldsmith’s] The Weather cover to cover is interesting and just puts you in this very different space, you get into this whole other kind of head space. Tan Lin talks more about reading in the way that we think of reading. That it’s—you’re in an environment and it’s more of an ambient experience of language. You might not pay attention for a while, you may fade in and out. It’s like watching a Tarkovsky movie in extreme slow motion or something. Things will be revealed but you’ll also probably zone out for a minute. And that’s OK.
CS: Is there a particular ambience that you have in mind when you’re writing? Is it predictable? And are you able to read the ambience of your own work?
KG: I don’t know. That’s a good question. Because I haven’t sat down and read it cover to cover. While I was editing it to finalize the book I wasn’t reading it in an ambient way. And because I remember so well having listened to each event that became the text. I now always remember who’s talking and I remember the circumstances when I’m reading it. My memories have become what I heard in the recordings, paired with some visual memories of place. So I don’t have enough distance maybe. But I think everyone else, because all those markers are actually not in the text, other people are able to encounter the language much more closely and get lost in it. But I don’t know if I can read my book in an ambient way. But I can read Chris’s in an ambient way, even though I was intimately involved in the whole process.
CA: I also think that there is a moment in the time of writing that happens for all writers where you’re absorbed in it, but that’s because you’re not really you. You’re a part of this thing that is coming together. There is no subject–object distance. But after a time, after the project comes together, it becomes an alien object.
In that sense, at a certain point you can begin to experience it as a kind of ambience. There were moments when I was working on Panda when I was obviously really entrenched in the work, and not separate from the work at all. But there were also moments, and those moments—and this has become an overriding tone—of just being an observer of the work myself. Because it’s not something that’s coming from me, it’s material that I have to deal with.
Even in the composition of it, a lot of times it’s more like making a spreadsheet than like writing a poem. And nobody’s absorbed in a spreadsheet.
Christopher Schmidt is an editor of The Conversant.