In 1974, twenty-six-year-old writer Kathy Acker met poet and musician Alan Sondheim through a mutual friend in New York. Acker, visiting from San Francisco, went to Sondheim’s home for dinner. They spent twelve hours talking, “mainly about certain gestural and mental similarities we had both noticed that existed between us,” said Acker.
Back in San Francisco, she wrote to Sondheim proposing a collaboration: she wanted them to get to know one another, to explore intimacy as a conceptual project, to establish “complicated feedback relations.” Three weeks later, Acker was back in New York filming a series of scenes in Sondheim’s downtown loft that would become the fifty-four-minute black-and-white video Blue Tape.
As Chris Kraus describes it in her new biography of Acker, Blue Tape enacts a highly charged psycho-sexual drama. If Sondheim thinks they’re making a sex tape, Acker wants to explore her desire and her early memories. She wants Sondheim to play the role of her father. Sondheim protests: “You put things in a control situation so much of the time.” He tells her: “It’s very hard to know what are decisions about myself or what have been decided for me.”
A power struggle plays out. Between monologues, they bicker. Sondheim reads aloud from his philosophical work General Structure of the World. Then he massages Acker’s vulva. “You’re a very powerful person at this point,” he tells her. “And God knows, if you’re powerful now, what you’re gonna be like in a couple of years…. You’re gonna burn people. You’re gonna kill people, baby, you really are.” The piece ends with Sondheim struggling to deliver a coherent discourse while Acker gives him a blow job. It’s as if Acker’s enacting an alien takeover or daemonic possession of a host situation: a raid on the logical-philosophical masculine realm.
Kraus’s biography, After Kathy Acker, depicts Acker’s life and work as an assault on established systems of meaning. Acker had a private-school childhood on the Upper East Side and studied classics at Brandeis and UC San Diego. She did a brief stint in a Times Square sex show, which she wrote about for the rest of her life. Tattooed, pierced, buzzed, and bleached, Acker looked like a biker chick and worked like a subsistence farmer, turning out at least one book every two years over the course of two decades.
She worked by invading a host text—Dickens, Cervantes, Propertius, Pauline Réage’s The Story of O. Recording and editing, she inserted herself into the texts, feeding a fractured or plural identity through a first-person point of view. Kraus shows her debt to Black Mountain poet David Antin, who encouraged his students at UCSD to pirate material from the library stacks.
Kraus places Acker in the context of New York’s downtown scene during the late 1970s and 80s, where the cut-and-paste spirit of Dada prevailed in its social relations as in its modes of artistic production. Kraus, who lived in the East Village during that time, has mapped the territory of their shared influences in her previous books. Four novels, including her bestselling I Love Dick, and two books of cultural criticism outline the avant-garde lineage she shared with Acker, along with mutual friends and at least one lover (French theorist and downtown cult figure Sylvère Lotringer, Acker’s lover before he married Kraus).
“Endless meshes incest,” as Acker once put it.
In a body of work that combines elements of her own biography with theory, fiction, and satire, Kraus makes a powerful argument for the role of the personal in a critical imagination or shared ethics. But here, she elides her proximity to Acker. Why doesn’t Kraus tell us she’s writing about her former husband’s former lover? Does it matter who sleeps with whom? The flow of influence always follows desire—but this story isn’t a love triangle. (If it were, think of the Q&A: “What does Sylvère think of your book?”)
Some biographers hold their subjects accountable to history—Janet Malcolm’s Gertrude and Alice, for instance—and some hold themselves accountable to their subjects, like Robert D. Richardson, tackling nineteenth-century reading lists. Kraus holds Acker accountable not to her old lovers or friends—those she spurned or ditched, those whose boyfriends she stole—but to her own desire. Kraus measures Acker’s life and work against the special status she sought: Great Writer as Countercultural Hero. “Until she achieved it,” writes Kraus, “no woman had.”
I spoke with Kraus in New York on the day after she appeared at McNally Jackson Books in SoHo to a standing-room-only crowd. She was in town from LA, where she is co-editor, with Lotringer and Hedi El Kholti, of the influential press Semiotext(e), and founding editor of its Native Agents imprint.
–Nicole Miller for Guernica
Guernica: How did you first discover Kathy Acker’s work?
Chris Kraus: In the late 1970s, I was living in the East Village on Second Avenue in a squalid pit. I was studying acting, and I wasn’t really involved in the literary world. I supported myself by topless dancing—or maybe by that time I was doing temp office work. It couldn’t have been more depressing. At that time, the small press editions of Kathy’s work were circulating, like I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac! Imagining, published by Traveler’s Digest, and the TVRT Press edition of The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula. When I read those books, it was like her voice was coming from my brain. I loved it.
Guernica: Recently, I heard someone who knew Acker talk about how radical it was at that time for her to write bluntly about her own sexual experience—how she paved the way for people like Madonna and Lady Gaga by using her sexuality as material in her work. Do you see this as Acker’s cultural legacy?
Chris Kraus: Kathy wasn’t the first woman to use sex in her work! Sex has been everywhere since forever. What was so singular about her work was the directness of her address. It was the immediacy of her voice and the feeling that someone was sitting by your side late at night telling you their secrets. That is very rare.
Guernica: Reading Acker’s work as an acting student, did you see the performative quality of her writing?
Chris Kraus: I guess I didn’t see that at the time. I had a very unsophisticated and primary response. I saw the work as truth. Of course, all these years later, knowing more as a writer and studying her work in more depth, I can see that it’s not truth at all—or it’s truth within a highly constructed frame.
Guernica: When Kathy was writing The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, she was driven by a desire to “crack up the old identity god,” she wrote in a letter to a friend. “So I copy texts (get rid of style, expressionism in writing) and become the people of the texts…very real openings in the mind have been reached.” It was a way of making herself “schizophrenic,” she said. In your novels, you’ve described schizophrenia as a state of heightened awareness. Schizophrenia offers a language for the empathic channeling of others’ experience, a way to access multiplicity or otherness.
Chris Kraus: Yes. Kathy was definitely using writing as a technology to access other ways of being. When she was working on Black Tarantula, she was writing all the time, to the point of graphomania. She was keeping multiple notebooks. Everything that she did in her life was focused toward what she was going to write. And the “plagiarism”—the use of appropriated texts, where she would insert herself into the narrative, changing a “she” to an “I”—was a way to experiment with a color wheel of personalities that she could move around. It was absolutely brilliant.
The problem she was trying to solve was how to write a narrative work without a central narrator or protagonist. In a way, I realize now, it’s a little bit like how I saw making a film when I was working as a filmmaker. To me, the narrative presence was in the editing. That’s where I existed. The editor was the auteur. In a sense, Kathy was doing the same thing with text in Black Tarantula. She was discovering this color wheel of personalities, and her role as a writer was as the presence or force outside the text that transmits to the reader invisibly.
Guernica: Acker was a very visible presence in popular culture during the 1980s and early 90s. In your biography, you write about the way she cultivated her public persona through her self-mythologizing and physical presence. But two years before she died, she wrote in an email to McKenzie Wark: “Perhaps the sacred has something to do not with immanence but with disappearance. (Even with rejection.)”
Chris Kraus: That’s very startling and telling, because her whole life was such a struggle to appear, in as large and as public a way as possible.
Guernica: Are there moments or strategies in your own life as a writer that were about making yourself visible?
Chris Kraus: Well, what was I Love Dick, if not a massive effort to appear? I think I even have a line in that book—or maybe it’s in an art essay—“Disappearance never struck me as a very interesting subject. It’s always so much harder to appear.”
Guernica: What was it about the process of writing that novel that allowed you to become visible?
Chris Kraus: I was out of New York, and that was helpful. I went upstate, and halfway through the process, I got an invitation to teach in LA. That was my chance to leave, and I took it. New York had been very difficult for me. It’s possible to get mired in a place and your own history in that place: you get bogged down in what people have said or what you think they’ve said about you; every social event is loaded with invisible voices and judges looking over your shoulder—completely self-inflicted, of course, but nevertheless. New York was like that for me, so I removed myself from it. None of the novel was written here. Nobody was listening, nobody was watching. What I was doing didn’t matter, and yet there was the intensity of the sexual crush in the narrative to drive the work. That perfect combination motored me through the book and carried me into the next one.
Guernica: You often write about artists who are working against the mainstream or away from the center. In Aliens & Anorexia, for example, you write about Paul Thek, who made provocative, influential sculptures in the 1960s and then for a time stopped making art for the market. He spent his later years making paintings that nobody wanted, bagging groceries, and broke. I’m interested in how “failure” can be strategic or productive or open up new creative territory.
Chris Kraus: There are a couple of ways to look at it. There’s someone who has a big career then walks offstage, like Paul Thek, who exited New York for Europe and returned to find himself shut out of the 1980s New York art world, or Cady Noland, who consciously retreated from the art world after her last show in 1999. Some people have that centrality and make the decision to leave it. Then there are others who are aware of the discourses in the art world but choose to remain local. They don’t move to an international city or pursue a career in that arena, but continue to make art. That’s something that I’ve been writing about in the last several years.
In my monograph Kelly Lake Store & Lost Properties, I wrote about a community media center and gallery in the Mexican border city Mexicali. The center was founded by Marco Vera, an inspired writer and filmmaker, who left LA in 2007 to return to his family home in Mexicali. He took over his uncle’s house, where smugglers were squatting, and turned it into a grassroots community art organization called Mexicali Rose. It became a magnet for people on both sides of the border, and a wonderful scene has evolved there. The Mexican people who work there all grew up on the border. They’ve been to art school. They know American culture very well—better than some of us know it. They also understand the stakes in the international contemporary art world, so they’re not outsiders. At the same time, they’re very grounded where they are.
Together with Marco Vera and curator Richard Birkett, I organized an exhibition at Artists Space in New York called Radical Localism. In Mexico, muralism is an important part of the artistic vocabulary, and it has a very different place than it does in the US. Here, you see mainly commercial signage and dead slick graphic works, or murals that are incredibly narrative and littered with too much content—bad political art. But in Mexicali, all kinds of artists work with mural art. For the show, we tried to bring the spirit of Mexicali Rose into this huge space in SoHo. We exhibited a mural made by Fernando Corona within the gallery, as well as a digital-photo print of a gorgeous mural done in Mexicali using bits of glass and recycled materials. It was funded by the city and executed by forty municipal workers who all got time off from their jobs to work on the mural. This was at a time when the art world was rabbiting on about community and social practice—and it seemed so false, in a high art, institutional context. In Mexicali, the social practice of art existed in a completely authentic and unselfconscious way. It was very exciting to be around people who took themselves and their work seriously without the conventional system of validation—the MFA programs and gallery system.
Guernica: In New York, you could never develop public space without a design competition.
Chris Kraus: I think it’s easier in smaller cities.
Guernica: I’m curious about the dialogue between contemporary art and literature—particularly in Acker’s work. I’m thinking of her strategy of serializing her early work and distributing it through a mailing list borrowed from the artist Eleanor Antin. And she experimented with various modes of production, including a rock opera with the band the Mekons.
Chris Kraus: Both of those strategies, of course, were compensatory. She would’ve much preferred to have a commercial publisher at that point, just as Eleanor Antin would’ve preferred to have a good gallery. She didn’t, so she mailed her work out to six hundred people. And later in her life, when Kathy was performing her work onstage, she was still trying to find her way back to the literary world. I think a writer will always long to have their work presented as literature, because that’s what it is. When that becomes impossible because the literary world is so narrow and disallowing of other forms, the writer has to find other arenas. If Kathy didn’t have to find a compensatory arena, she wouldn’t have done that beautiful work with the Mekons. She wouldn’t have done a graphic novel or started experimenting with CD-ROMs. The writer’s compensation gives birth to a great thing, and these explorations might’ve been even more fruitful, had she lived longer. I think writers always want to be taken seriously as writers, but it’s not always possible. There’s a difference between persistence and banging your head against the same wall a hundred times. Sometimes it’s better to look away from the wall and see what else might be available that’s easier.
Guernica: In your art criticism, you’ve noted a shift in the art world to importing practices that used to live elsewhere: teaching, translation, archival work, literature. How do you understand this shift?
Chris Kraus: Ask anyone who makes a full-length movie that’s shown in the art world if they’d rather have a career as a film director or as an artist. Invariably, they’d rather be known as a film director, because that’s what they are. But there’s not really a system of independent distribution anymore that allows for that, and so the art world has kind of become all-enveloping. It’s absorbed all of these disciplines that don’t have a home anymore. It’s the same with social practices like translation and even pedagogy. People want to pursue them with great seriousness, but they’re very debased practices in the culture. What could be more pathetic than to be a schoolteacher?
Guernica: You teach!
Chris Kraus: Yes, but at college and graduate school! That’s very different than teaching elementary or high school. But in the context of “pedagogy” within the art world, teaching is given a seriousness and intent and a glamour that it doesn’t have anymore.
Guernica: Acker was looking for institutional validation, but she was also looking for true community. She wore a path between the east coast and the west, between the US and London, looking for a place that would recognize and welcome her.
Chris Kraus: She had a very paradoxical sense of community. On the one hand, she longed for community. On the other hand, she wasn’t the best communard. In 1980, she moved to Seattle, which was a small city with a very tight community of artists who had histories with one another and supported each other’s work. They were all very welcoming to her, and the first thing she did was sleep with everybody’s boyfriend. In her letters and emails, she often talked about her desire to find a community or even a permanent partner. Yet, all of her actions seemed to foreclose that possibility. But she’s not alone in that. Everyone is paradoxical. There are all these forces acting at the same time, and what we say we want is not always what we’re moving toward in our lives. We just don’t routinely put each other under the microscope the way you do when you’re writing a biography. As I was working on the book, I would look at the choices she made, and I’d think, How could you do that? That’s not in your self-interest. But then I realized that maybe, in the end, it was in her self-interest, because her goal was not to have a happy domestic life. Her goal was to continue producing as a writer. Her writing fed on conflict and chaos and drama. She found stability and boredom unproductive. Maybe that would’ve changed had she lived longer, but that was her process until the end of her life. You can’t fault her for seeking out the conditions that fed her.
Guernica: In your own work, there seems to be a tension between the desire for community or connection and the limits of the individual trapped in a body.
Chris Kraus: Certainly that’s a way of looking at Simone Weil, who I wrote about in my novel Aliens & Anorexia. For most of her life, Weil had headaches and a lot of physical suffering—and yet, in the midst of her illness, she led an incredibly ambitious, active, prolific life. Part of her vision, of course, had to do with community. She was an activist; she was in and out of the Communist party. She was to the left of even the communists and the trade union movement, because they didn’t represent the unemployed. All of her work sprang from a great love. She was using all her will to turn her attention outward to the larger social landscape, despite her own physical isolation.
Guernica: For Acker, the body was a portal—a means by which to access language. I’m thinking about her practice of writing while masturbating.
Chris Kraus: Acker was so explicitly dealing with the body and so consciously using it as a conduit. She was definitely in that modernist loop of Bataille and Laure and later Pierre Guyotat, who experimented with the body as a channel. Guyotat’s early work was written while masturbating.
Guernica: Do you see a link between writing and eroticism?
Chris Kraus: Not especially. There’s very little sex in my work. But writing can be a highly charged, receptive, often meditative state.
Guernica: In your novels Aliens & Anorexia and Summer of Hate, you write about BDSM as a high form of theater, like commedia dell’arte. The actor can choose a character, the way the writer can select from the color wheel of personalities.
Chris Kraus: S/M became an interest when I first moved to LA in 1995. At the time, I was living alone, though Sylvère and I remained married. I wasn’t looking for another terminal relationship that would end in domestic life, but the mores of LA at that time seemed very conservative. The only way of having a sexual relationship was within a narrative, dating context. Straight people have never done sexual friendships that well. The BDSM community was a place for straight people to pursue sexual relationships that were less vapid than casual bar sex, but didn’t necessarily lead to a happily-ever-after. These relationships were circumscribed by clear boundaries, and I liked that about it immediately. I also liked the theatricality of BDSM—that people would declare their roles, as you said. At the time that I was writing I Love Dick and immediately after, I was driven by this agenda to take all of the business that went on under the table and put it on the table, and it seemed to me that BDSM was doing that with the little rules of heterosexuality. It was externalizing all the rules of heterosexuality and making of them a game or a farce or a Grand Guignol.
Guernica: Kathy talks about that, too, in her correspondence with McKenzie Wark. She wants to establish the expectations for their affair up front, the way you do in S/M scenes—who’s top and who’s bottom.
Chris Kraus: Right! Play was a way to not continue those rules in the rest of life.
Guernica: And a way of being really present to your partner.
Chris Kraus: Definitely. That’s a huge part of it. People who are miles away from the world of BDSM mistake the cruelty for callousness. But to be a Dom, you have to really pay attention. It’s a much more loving presence than a drunken encounter in a bar. I found that a lot of people who are Doms are very crippled or absent in other parts of their life. BDSM becomes the channel where they can be intensely present, and they perfect it as an art. It’s a compensatory thing, as we talked about earlier. To be the sub and the recipient of this focused presence—what a gift.