No one likes a talking cunt.

Tessa Laird on Chris Kraus’s Video Green

Video Green is Chris Kraus’s latest book, and this time, it’s not a novel but a collection of essays. Many of these will be familiar to anyone who read Artext magazine. Published under the heading “Torpor”, Chris’s regular column provided relief from the more straight-laced art writing. But because of the word limit and the art magazine environs, Torpor was a little like a pussy without claws. As anyone who has read Chris’s novels will know, the writing builds over time, like the brise soleil “breeze blocks” she eulogises in the essay “Surface Streets.” The stories stack up on each other; they reflect ideas/ patterns of light across each other. And yes, just like the breeze blocks, the stories are even a little repetitious and cheap, which is what I’ve come to expect from Chris, and it’s just the way I like her.

I should probably say right away that I’m in the acknowledgements for Video Green, and as such, everything you are about to read is hopelessly biased.

Here’s how I justify nepotism – you don’t promote your friends, you make friends with the artists you like. In Chris’s case, I wrote about (“proselytised”) her first novel I Love Dick in the magazine LOG Illustrated, which I used to edit. This was back in 1999, just before I travelled to Los Angeles, where our friend-in-common Giovanni Intra introduced me to Chris. From then on, I was on Chris’s list of would-be artists and writers, a motley group she saves from starvation by periodically throwing odd jobs our way, from editing copy to writing reviews she hasn’t got time for, to renovating houses (along with a flotsam of migrant workers). When I came to Los Angeles to live in 2000, Chris put me to work, mostly sorting files and occasionally scrubbing floors, until I found employment with a I remember a particularly surreal day with a couple of Hondurans, who were tickled that this Anglo girl was scrubbing the windows, and insisted on lifting me off every chair or table I perched on, lest I fall and smash my dainty white face.

In my 1999 paean to I Love Dick, I had written, “Imagine the end of all ‘objectivity.’ Imagine if every newspaper article and every theoretical text was written in the first person. What chaos that might cause and yet how much narrower that might actually make the chasm between signifier and signified.” I had decided that owning your opinion was the way to world peace. This was before I had heard of Bill O’Reilly.

Talking about s/m in Video Green, Chris debunks what I had hoped for in the first person revolution, which I was convinced I Love Dick was going to spark:

S/m radically preempts romantic love because it is a practice of it.

To see this fact as cold or cynical is as naïve as thinking writing ought to be ‘original’ or that speaking in the first person necessarily connotes any kind of truth, sincerity.(p 103)

Despite this apparent cynicism, much of Video Green is about subjectivity:

“Writing in the LA Times in 1996, critic David Pagel dismissed two decades of West Indian-born artist/filmmaker Isaac Julien’s work (…) ‘This conservative exhibition,’ Pagel wrote, ‘contends that the social group the artist belongs to is more important than the work he makes… Art as self-expression went out in the 1950s.’” Pagel’s dis stands out like dog’s balls, given Julien’s current art world stature, and the huge amount of pivotal work that has been made, before and since 1996, around issues of race, sexuality, and subjectivity. It seems that most of Chris’s stories champion an artist or writer who, like her, are somehow engaged in the process of baring their soul publicly.

In “Pay Attention” graduate student Jennifer Schlosberg is vilified by her supervisors, including Charlie Ray and Chris Burden, for making work that is completely autobiographical, “something like Remembrance of Things Past, if Proust had spent his time at an American junior high school.” School mates all say “How could she?” and Burden categorically states: “Artists have to do their own work. Art should not be based on social interactions.”(p 60)

Of course, this story reads as a parable of Chris’s own experience with I Love Dick, which Artforum’s David Rimanelli famously, fastidiously said, was less written than “secreted.” It’s just like Chris says, “No one likes a talking cunt.” (p 159)

I realise that the only other writing that has had to vie for ascendancy with Video Green by my bedside, has been Alphonso Lingis’s – books like Trust, Abuses, and Dangerous Emotions. What’s so seductive about Lingis, apart from the exotic locales that he insists on writing from and through, is the fact that he uses the first person and the second person, suturing the reader with a sense of intimacy that is ultimately false, but as compelling as drugs or sex. I realised that after reading three books by Lingis, I still had no idea who this “I” was, and perhaps it was better that I didn’t know. For, now that I know Chris, I’m much more sceptical about the nature of the “I” that narrates her stories.

Anyone who has met Chris in person will find it hard to reconcile the excessively shy, birdlike person, with the s/m maven that frequently surfaces in her stories. I don’t know much about s/m, and at the risk of sounding merely prudish, I confess that I find a lot of what Chris describes as genuinely worrisome. I remember sighing and shaking my head while reading “Panda Porn” in Artext, about “Jeigh the New Age Dom”: “For five days he’d been ejaculating against the surface of my face in a Mexican hotel…” (p 159) In Chris’s Torpor column, art and artists always seemed like an afterthought, the icing on a cake built of grimy socio-political realities mixed with Chris’s own sexual exploits. Chris’s penchant for public disclosure felt like a form of writers’ Tourettes Syndrome. I started to wonder if the talk-show model, from Oprah to Jerry Springer, was the great new American form, and Chris was creating the literary equivalent. It was uncomfortable, but it was supposed to be. And it was certainly more interesting than most other art writing, which set out to discuss art only within the context of its own involuted histories, never in relation to the world.

After reading I Love Dick, I wrote, “Chris learns that to seek and control certain debasing circumstances can lead to a higher psychical state, becoming its own kind of liberation.” But, in reading Video Green, I catch myself wondering if Chris goes through with these debasing scenarios simply to gather material for writing.

In a phone conversation, Chris embarrasses me by saying I have read the book all wrong if I think it’s about s/m. It is, of course, about LA, about the effect of spatio-temporal relations on emotional interactions. According to Chris, involvement in s/m was a specific response to her moving to LA, the only way to deal with the mind-numbing blankness, or something. I told her my own response was very different – I just wanted to hug everybody – to charity fuck every single sad American male that I met. I wanted an end to pain in this painful place.

Despite the s/m, there are passages in which I feel that someone has looked into my brain and Xeroxed it, so that I feel guilty not only of nepotism in reviewing this book, but also of narcissism. I don’t know if this means that Chris is prescient, that she encapsulates the zeitgeist, (please insert your own boardroom jargon here), or that she and I and a few others are riding a disco ball of mutual flattery, but I read most of Video Green with a chorus of Right Ons and Totallys ringing in my head. A creased envelope wedged between the pages is covered in a scramble of page numbers, with exhortations to copy whole swathes of quotes.

I think, there’s a good idea for a review – simply do a ‘remix’ – copy 3,000 words of my favourite quotes, and publish. How postmodern.

But Chris is just so disgustingly quotable. For, although many of these truths are self-evident, no one I know is saying them quite like Chris. No one else is as pithy, as brave, as loveably foolhardy.

How did she get to this point? Of caring so much and not at all? Somehow, Chris, the self-described “5’5” quite thin jewish ashkenazy rodent features streaky hair ex punk rocker from NY,” winds up being the only person with the smarts and the guts to debunk the mythologising that’s been mummifying the LA artscene in marketing jism for at least the last five years.

Perhaps it’s because she’s from New York, because she’s too old to be “discovered,” because she has a background in theory (well, she is married to Columbia philosophy professor Sylvere Lotringer), because she is independently wealthy, that she is able to articulate what the rest of us only dimly suspect, as we dutifully hug our warm Budweisers to our carefully studied “casual” torsos, at yet another hopeful/ cynical Los Angeles art opening?

Chris is merciless about the institution that employed her part-time for several years, The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Chris calls the MFA programme “a two year hazing process” which is “essential to the development of value in the by-nature-elusive parameters of neoconceptual art. Without it, who would know which cibachrome photos of urban signage, which videotapes of socks tossing around a dryer, which neominimalist monochrome paintings are negligible and which are destined to be art?”(p 24)

Chris at the crits: “Faced with roomfuls of acrylic paintings of computer chips and monochromes, she learned to cultivate a dreamy vacant stare. She learned to free-associate and verbalize nonsequitors, and finally drop the names of first-wave minimalists with a slight inflection upwards at the end, as if the names themselves were challenges or questions. “Robert Ryman, Donald Judd?” She had the vaguest sense who these artists actually were.” (p 91) Oh Chris, I know, I know!

It’s interesting in this passage how Chris has slipped in to the third person when (presumably) describing herself, and I wonder if this practice of seeing oneself at a remove shares something with s/m? Again, I think of Lingis and his unknowable intimacy; the personal is political, but utterly mutable.

And nowhere is this mutability more evident than in “Chris’s” relationship to money. When Chris told me that the collected highlights of Semiotext(e)’s incendiary tracts was going to be called Hatred of Capitalism, I had to giggle, because I was working for Chris for $10 an hour, ostensibly as an editor, but my duties always devolved into trying to help Chris get her sprawling empire of houses under control. At the time, I was unemployed and car-less and sharing a studio apartment with my husband. I had just arrived from New Zealand, and so saw American lifestyles in high relief, casting long shadows of contradiction. Everyone I met complained bitterly about everything while actually having more than just about anyone I’d ever met before. (Being perched here at the end of the globe, it’s easy to pretend that as New Zealanders we’re not involved, not responsible, but vilifying Capitalism while enjoying its fruits is a game that we are all implicated in).

Almost obscured by the art and sex in Chris’s books, is the true love of her life, real estate. In Video Green, we’re introduced for the first time to Chris’s alternative to Sylvere, a man called David Farrar, who is a bow-tie wearing real estate lawyer. He’s a major philanthropist, campaigning for housing for the homeless, and the more Chris tells us about David’s important projects, the more insipid the Art Center videos of lawn sprinklers seem. Yet philanthropy must necessarily come from a position of privilege, and Chris plays a coquettish game with Marxist terminologies. She descries the bureaucratization of art: “L.A. artists rightly saw themselves as trained professionals: like doctors, lawyers and other lapdogs of the ruling class, they referred to what went on inside their studios as their ‘practice.’” (p 122) But she doesn’t like it when one of her houses is trashed by “the vegans and their seven household animals.”(p 31)

Chris has properties on both coasts, and sees everything through a renovator’s rosy specs. Talking to a friend in Hudson Falls, upstate New York, she suggests “there could be money to be made by fixing up the town’s once-glorious Georgian brick colonials.” Her friend simply replies: “You can’t sell a pizza with artichoke hearts here.” (p 30)

Some pages later, she bemoans her s/m partner’s disapproval of her hairstyle “I’d had the hair done in LA; it cost $300.” (p 40) When I first read this, I had been cutting my own hair with a rusty razor comb for three years, so it seemed like unparalleled decadence to me. My friend Gwynneth Porter defended Chris by reminding me that we have a complicated relationship with capital – railing against it, and then responding to our conditioning programmatically, predictably. Gwyn’s most recent “bone of contention”, while struggling with, as she put it, the eternal libido-deleting work/money problem, was a pair of $700 shoes. I wanted to say to Gwyn that I couldn’t imagine such a wanton act of consumerism, until I remembered the $600 hypo-allergenic comforter I bought when my naturopath (privileged? Moi?) told me I was allergic to dust mites. My husband likes to remind me of this whenever I query his gadget lust.

Like I say, we are all cogs in the machine, or bricks in the wall, or infomercials on late night TV – implicated in the very fabric of the problem. It makes no sense to pick on someone like Chris, to try and “out” her as a landlord when I’d doubtless buy property if I was able.

Chris talks about the McArthur Park area she lives in when she’s in LA. She says “Like many artists, I’ve become a connoisseur of gentrification.” (p 145) She talks about selling up, and moving on, and I wince, because in spite of having the first decent job in my life, I can’t afford to buy the house I grew up in, in Grey Lynn, Aotearoa, because of the fuckwits with bmws moving in all around me. But, if it hadn’t been for families like mine moving in here in the early 1980s, ironically, I might have been able to afford to live here today. It was white artists and liberals who slowly squeezed out the Polynesian families from their turquoise painted villas with hibiscus bushes in the front yards and taro plants in the back. We paved the way for the gourmet delis and fine coffee shops, which we surreptitiously patronise, while bemoaning the fate of the neighbourhood.

Chris explains that because of the size of LA, gentrification isn’t instant, that multiple layers of privilege and ethnicity manage to exist simultaneously on the grid. Not far from Chris’s house in McArthur Park is a packaging shop called Flores Express, which sends parcels to Central America. The storefront features a selection of photos, and Chris thinks this is the best art she has seen in ages – photographs of the recipients of these packages standing next to their precious cargo. The photos “are taken by the driver as a proof that the carton has successfully reached its destination. Because in many of these places, the recipients don’t have access to a phone.” (p 150) I think that this is the most poignant moment in the book, and I also think about my $600 comforter and Chris’s $300 hairdo, and I think that that’s probably what these people would spend their money on if they were in our ($700) shoes.

Aside from art, money and sex, a recurring theme in Video Green is death. For a book that ostensibly “examines the explosion of late 1990s art produced by high profile graduate programs that catapulted Los Angeles into the epicenter of the international art world,” there is a hell of a lot of airtime devoted to dead artists from the East Coast.

“Posthumous Lives” is about Penny Arcade, who looks after Jack Smith’s artwork and ashes (she was/is his “death mother”). Arcade says: “We’re all afraid of death. But ever since I was very young, I had this idea that your death is always with you. It’s not something that shows up at the end of your life. We walk with our death, and when I’ve carried somebody’s death with him, that’s a very special collaboration, because it’s conceptually holding the idea of death and letting it expand. Death is a screen for your life to be projected onto in its entirety. It’s very rich, like the plushest velvet.” (67-68)

In contrast, in Los Angeles, “the dead are missing from the landscape.”(p 103) Which reminds me of something I just read in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee:

California Indians were as gentle as the climate in which they lived. The Spaniards gave them names, established missions for them, converted and debauched them. Tribal organizations were undeveloped among the California Indians; each village had its leaders, but there were no great war chiefs among these unwarlike people. After the discovery of gold in 1848, white men from all over the world poured into California by the thousands, taking what they wanted from the submissive Indians, debasing those whom the Spaniards had not already debased, and then systematically exterminating whole populations now long forgotten. No one remembers the Chilulas, Chimarikos, Urebures, Nipewais, Alonas, or a hundred other bands whose bones have been sealed under a million miles of freeways, parking lots, and slabs of tract housing. (P 220)

Chris is a master of emotional manipulation. It takes me a long time to twig to her technique, but I think it has something to do with radical juxtaposition, high-key contrast which casts a bilious, unforgiving light on the messed up and fascinating world we inhabit.

“Let’s call the whole thing off” juxtaposes an Art Center video of fashionable youth jumping on a trampoline with war torn Bosnia. Kraus describes the video as “a fragment of the Benneton dream.”(p 51) Bosnia makes, of course, a dramatic foil to this LA void, elsewhere described as an “empty screen of white sky days” containing “No information, stimulation. No digression. No references, associations, promises (...) And this is freedom.” (p 85) Driving on the freeway, Chris refers to the Spearmint Rhino billboard as having achieved a state of “pornographic blankness,” (p 159) which seems, in retrospect, a perfect summation both of LA, and of the kind of art being produced in the grad programs she so wickedly deconstructs.

There is nothing “blank” about Bosnia; Bosnia is full of the visceral incongruities of shit, cigarettes, and berries. Yet, paradoxically, the art Chris visits at the Yugoslavian Cultural Center in Paris is depressingly generic, and “it strikes me as hilariously perverse that Belgrade artists are now appropriating Western murk, where murk is used like Valium: a little something to take the edge off things and make them ‘art.’”(p 55)

In “Art Collection,” William Bronk (1918 – 1999), a poet and artist from Hudson Falls becomes the ‘antidote’ both to the vacuous world of LA art and its apotheosis by Dave Hickey et al. Bronk is an underrepresented regional hero, a person with rich networks of friends, all equally talented, all equally obscure. Chris taps this vein because it appeals to her sense of justice. It also has the effect of making the LA art world seem just that much more shallow by comparison.

Hickey could almost be Kraus’s evil twin, because he pushes his new right agenda with “readable, original and compelling” criticism. “No mere academic drudge” Hickey mixes up “beaux-art aestheticism, 19th century romanticism, car culture, Vegas showgirls and punk rock.”(p 18) Chris’s own mix is feminism, French theory, s/m, sentimentality and punk rock.

Her insistence on building narrative through a series of paradoxes – of anecdotes that cancel each other out, is both intriguing and confusing. I can’t decide if it’s ying yang or schizophrenic, fair and balanced or flip-flopping.

This is the way Chris puts it: “…the empty space of ambiguity, (…) is completely different from the messy space of contradiction. ‘Ambiguity,’ wrote Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza, seeing it all 200 years ago, ‘is the kingdom of the night.’”(p 17) Because Chris’s world is so full of messy contradiction, reading her writing is like being on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride – it’s a train wreck of the guilty pleasure and self-loathing one experiences at Disneyland, alongside the compulsory joy. Chris becomes a barometer for the entire American mood, the “nation divided” and other such post-election platitudes, which ask us to simultaneously panic, and do nothing at all. When I asked her response to the election result she said “I’m going to keep my head down.” The Kingdom of Night descends…