This interview is part of a series that seeks to move queer inspiration in the present to the forefront of a conversation on what makes us want to live. Who amongst our peers makes us feel lucky to be alive here, right now, despite the particular everyday horrors of 21st century life? What of our own art couldn’t exist without our peers, those living and creating in response to our world as we live in it? I’m truly thrilled to get to interview these queer artists on these questions and more, drawing lines to connect what we make to what has been made. Nostalgia gets boring: there is so much to love for decades long past, but we’re here NOW, and until time travel becomes an option here and now is where we’ll stay. Let’s hear it for here, let’s hook-up our hearts, let’s turn each other on to what is living just next door. —Gina Abelkop
YOU MAKE ME FEEL #2: INTERVIEW WITH JACKIE WANG
Jackie Wang is the author of “Against Innocence” (Semiotex(e)), as well as the zines On Being Hard Femme, Memoirs of a Queer Hapa, The Adventures of Loneberry, and The Phallic Titty Manifesto. In her critical essays she writes about queer sexuality, race, gender, the politics of writing, mixed-race identity, prisons and police, the politics of safety and innocence, and revolutionary struggles. She is currently working on a book or two.
Tell me about one particular song/film/book/poem/piece of art (made by a peer in the last 5 years-ish) that has recently undone/inspired you. What about it was so striking to you? What in your life made you so open and receptive to this particular piece of art at that time?
I am ashamed to say—Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. I was in New York when I saw it. A man I have known (from a distance) for ten years, M, invited me and we got noodles and bubble tea before going to the film. He picked the dish for me, which was a relief since I was too emotionally agitated to make any decisions. I went out knowing that at some point during the night I had to come up with a title for an essay I had just written for the Claudius App. It was a response to Bhanu Kapil’s chapbook “Treinte Ban,” so I was thinking of girls on the floor of the world. Right before the film I sat on some park steps with M discussing co-dependent relationships. 5 or 10 minutes before the film was scheduled to start I tried to frantically come up with a title for the essay. It was the night of the blood moon. While I was wracking my brain for a title Nat Otting invited me to meet up at bar called Lone Wolf with him and Masha Tupitsyn. And then it clicked (with a little help from M): the essay was to be called LONELY WOLVES ON THE FLOOR OF THE WORLD. Much better that the tentative title the editors had assigned the untitled piece, which was something about a sloppy transference. “Imperfect Transference,” I believe was their suggestion.
To my surprise Nymphomaniac opened with a scene of a woman on the floor of the world. Joe, the film’s heroine, was on the ground in an alley covered in piss and blood, but we don’t know how or why she became a lonely woman on the floor of the world until later in the film. We find out quickly that she was an odd girl. A pervert. A little observer, as most lonely girls tend to be. Her sexual perversion was inaugurated by a mystical experience, which increased her sensory awareness to the point of existentially singularizing her. So she walks. She notices things while she walks. Ash trees, her father’s favorite. A torn photograph of an old lover.
I don’t spend much time in movie theaters and maybe that’s why my sensorium lit up. The dark space is primal or primeval a place that gives birth to primeval desires a cave where projected unrealities captivate the viewer’s mind. Watching films in the theater often has the effect of making people forget their bodies but sexy films make you feel more in your body. Sometimes the exposure is too much. I don’t want to think of all the boners in the theater during the film that night but I cannot deny the stirring of desire in myself, not necessarily at the sex. But where would I put my desire? I was looking for an object but this was desire without object. Did everyone in the theater feel a little bit self-conscious? To be publicly aroused. Actually I don’t find images of heterosexual penetrative sex erotic at all. Apparently only 1% of women my age have not had this kind of sex, which makes me a statistical anomaly. But petting, on the other hand, between any genders…maybe I can imagine whatever I want. There’s just something about two bodies making contact. Maybe I’m just lonely…
What was it that made me receptive? I don’t want to credit Lars von Trier! It could have been the blood moon. It was also the night before I had to make a decision that would determine the course of my life. What a fucking headspace, right before having to make a big decision. It’s its own kind of madness. The dizziness can create an opening. Time accelerates. Life moves in leaps. Everything was moving very fast beneath my feet and the film caught me in that moment. The smallest cinematic details were so vivid to me. When Joe was walking in the woods with her father in winter looking at the ash tree—I remembered a winter walk I had gone on with my ex-girlfriend in the woods on her mother’s berry farm. Some naughty beavers had totally rearranged the landscape and the trunks of the trees near the lake were hourglass shaped in the places where the beavers had gone to work with their teeth. A ways into the woods, there was an ancient turtle made of stone. Not too long ago I took off a turtle necklace another ex-girlfriend gave me as a gift. She stole it from an aquarium. It was the first time I took the necklace off in 5 years. (This is another example of: a leap.)
Joe’s walks reminded me of the walks I would go on when I lived outside of Glasgow, Scotland. Whenever I’d walk beneath the viaduct I always felt, as I emerged from the tall concrete arches, that I was being re-born. The film made me think about lonely women and their walks, everything they notice. The man who eats rugalach with a fork. My ex-girlfriend was particular about how people ate her rugalach. I realized that the more particular a film or a text is, the more generalizable it becomes! My ex’s favorite wasn’t the ash tree—it was the birch. But my mind wants to constellate these details anyway.
In one scene—Joe is a child drugged on a stretcher waiting for surgery and then there is a chilling image of outer space. I found it horrifying—this image of the cosmos. Imaging child-consciousness and the panic of abandonment in such a vast, empty space. I remember what I told someone a year ago, when I tried to describe my loneliness and depression. “It feels like being an astronaut abandoned in outer space—untethered.” I felt Joe’s isolation. An isolation that maybe could be called feminine but hers was less self-pitying than mine because she was able to externalize aggression rather than turning it against herself. More and more lately I feel that female aggression is a necessary antidote to the disease of guilt—a highly feminized form of guilt that prevents women from freely experiencing pleasure or getting what they want.
In the film Joe’s sexual masochism is eventually replaced by a compensatory sadism. But she has to pass through this phase of masochism first. The sadism doesn’t exactly free her and maybe she’s too sympathetic to torture others without the experiencing guilt. Or at least she can’t torture the pedophile. Their fates are too close. Like every woman seeking pleasure her psycho-sexual relationship to power is always shifting. She is either acting against another or acting against herself. She reacts against feeling weak. She weakens herself. Maybe at some point she decides that violence against another is the only thing that will save her.
It happened while she was running away. Something told her to walk up the mountain—her soul-tree was calling her and she could not resist its magnetic force. In Lars von Trier’s Depression trilogy women are always having erotic experiences in nature, communing with trees or the moon or the forest creatures on a soul-level. Oh how I loved this moment of her finding the tree! But I was not in the theater. No, the guy I had gone with to see part one forgot to invite me to see part two, so I had to download it and watch it on my tiny ass computer.
The tree was bent.
After finding her soul-tree—well, I won’t give anything away.
I feel very sad writing this because I thought I wrote a lot more here about the discovery of the tree. Did it disappear or did I merely imagine writing it? And now all I seem to be able to say is, I love the deformed tree. But I must have written it? I remember quoting Fred Moten. I remember writing that love of the bent tree is love of the swerve. Fred: “I love mispronunciation. Anyone who can’t help but deviate can pretty much tell me anything.” The tree is for all the souls that can’t help but deviate and must grow sideways.
I must have written it. I remember going to the library with notebooks full of scattered fragments about the discovery of the tree, the way it seemed to be reaching for her. The meaning of being “bent”—of failing to grow upright. Wayward trunks, wayward daughters. Did I type it up on another computer? Was I distracted because I got into an argument with M on gchat about sadomasochism and gender in Nymphomaniac? He said I was wrong to view it through a gender lens. I wanted to ask why Lars von Trier has chosen women to represent his suffering in all three of the films in his depression trilogy. Yes, I must have written more. I remember typing out: Melancholia, Anti-Christ, and Nymphomaniac. It’s not here anymore. But I must let it go.
Tell me about three of your favorite contemporary artists (writers/filmmakers/musicians/
theorists etc): what makes them one of your favorites? How did you discover their work? Did you discover additional artists/art via these people?
The zines of Vicky Lim (for their hilarious treatment of the neurotic mother-daughter dyad)
Emmanuelle Guattari, I, Little Asylum (for its insight into the radical French intelligentsia from the perspective of a child)
Valerie Mejer, Rain of the Future (for creating a language for emotion without speaking the emotion directly)
Helene Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (for helping (un)understand where I go at night: the School of Dreams)
Everything by Fred Moten. I once joked on twitter that looking up everyone Fred references in B Jenkins has been my real education. I learned about so many things through him. Mostly I discover things through people. My friends Ryan McGinnis and Dana Ward have been wonderful windows lately.
Tell me your favorite things about the loose community of artists that you’re a part of, if you’re a part of one in some way, shape or form. What is most exciting about the work you see coming out of this community? Do you make work in response to any of it? What do you wish to see coming out of this community that you feel is lacking or underrepresented?
I’m not really sure what loose community of artists I’m part of. The poetry community? The feminist blogger community? The queer literary community? The Semiotext(e) community? I started out writing zines, criticism, political theory and experimental fiction, but then was christened a poet by other poets. They have kind of become my community, though I can only tolerate being physically immersed in this world for short periods of time (it can sometimes be overwhelmingly white and hetero). Ultimately I don’t feel like I fit squarely in any single world. When I’m at the Kundiman Poetry Retreat I am an Asian American poet. When I’m at Digital Desperados I am a woman of color filmmaker. When I am with the post-political insurrectionist boys I am of the anarchist milieu. As a PhD student I will be part of the black studies and prison studies community. When I’m at the Alice Notley reading I am a poet. When I am with my NY, Bay Area, and Baltimore political crews I am a militant feminist. When I’m at Idapalooza I am a radical queer. On twitter I am a relentless chronicler of dreams. I float in and out of all these worlds. Each speaks to a different part of me. But it’s not easy to code switch this much—can I be a punk and a Harvard grad student at the same time? On the phone I tell Joohyun Kim, “I feel very fractured.”
What do you find to be the greatest challenge in discovering new art/artists in the current cultural landscape?
I am allergic to the internet, which makes it very hard for me to be a part of the literary milieu, or the world at large. I feel too porous to engage with the internet too much—it makes me totally insane. My head gets filled up with nonsense and then there’s no room to notice the sky or wonder if time lapse footage of geraniums blooming might look something like exploding fireworks. Of course the answer is probably on the internet (this is not quite what I imagined https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQYjZRuAay0), but it’s by not using the internet that the thought can exist at all. In other words, I try to maintain space inside me that is empty or isn’t wholly consumed by the input-reaction feedback loop of digital culture. Silence is my church, the library, a sacred refuge from the onslaught of stimuli that makes me feel like a shuttlecock getting tossed around in a techno-capitalist game of badminton. No, I want to extend the emotion. To sit with things. I’m not saying that everyone who uses the internet lives on the surface of things. It is precisely because I have a hard time focusing that I need such extreme conditions to go to the deep place, to feel myself real and alive and in touch with the mystery of everything swirling around me.
Some people wake up and immediately check the internet or look at their phones instead of trying to remember their dreams. This, to me, seems a great loss. There is so much wisdom in dreams. If we must use the internet as soon as we wake up the least we could do is use it as a way to remember our dreams (by tweeting them when we wake up).
With that said, everything circulates on the internet these days. The people I love put things on the internet. My friend Ryan McGinnis knows about all the cool things because he is good at the internet (good at the internet and still a fantastic reader). I should probably learn how to deal with modern life instead of avoiding it. But at the same time I must do what I need to do to protect my sacred space.
But. But. I want to know what my friends are doing! I want to read what they are writing, to know what is going on in their lives. Because I am so incompetent at modern life I have often unfairly relied on them giving me things they have made as gifts when we see each other in person. Most of the things I discover seem to actually discover me. “It fell into my lap.” Sometimes I browse certain sections at the library. If people want to mail me their stuff they can send it to: 1 Hancock St. #2, Somerville MA 02144.
How do you build and/or define your community?
Overall I feel a kinship with outcasts, lost souls, wayward daughters, feral poets, emotional misfits. Anyone who might have been sent to the school counselor as a child for defiant/anti-authoritarian personality disorder. Anyone bent, uncontrollable, excessively desirous of life. Fringe dwellers. Dream seekers. Reality breakers. The details of our interests hardly matter. What I’m talking about is a comradeship formed in non-conformity—belonging in the shared experience of displacement, of not belonging. A community of lone wolves and aliens (odd girls).
On twitter Hannah Black recently asked me, “when is the feminist commune?” Her tweet was apropos of a tweet I made about how conversations with her and my friends Joohyun and Caitlin filled me with longing for the feminist commune. When I first read her tweet I read WHEN as WHAT: what is the feminist commune? I would like to take up that question—what I mistakenly read—here.
At the feminist commune we feast and talk all night. Fast. Irreverent. Real. Smart. We do nail art divination and theorize and watch music videos on youtube and critique Lana Del Rey. A debate might break out about whether or not Lana should be allowed to come to our commune. The conversation moves with ease from the everyday to the “global.” Politics is always imagined according to a range of scales: cellular, psychological, social, economic, earthly, cosmic—even the “invisible” must be thought (what is imperceptible or not-yet-thought). Everything that is said comes from a place. Here are women who are intellectually sincere: genuinely curious and concerned with figuring shit out and not trying to prove anything. Not trying to master knowledge for the sake of mastery.
At the feminist commune there are a lot of beds and rooms for people to work in. There are books everywhere, gardens outside, herbs in the windowsills, fruit trees in the yard. The back wall is all glass so as to let sun in. There is a river behind the main house, and we are always swimming in it. If you walk north on the path that runs alongside the river there is a waterfall, on top of which sits a bent tree. There are caves nearby where some of the residents go to light candles and meditate.
Everyone is very different! The nerd of the commune is never without a book, and she has a very rich and imaginative inner life. One woman is always making herbal tinctures or recommending remedies for the residents’ respective ailments. Another is always gardening. Another is busy on her computer counter-hacking the NSA, doorway lined with powerful magnets in preparation for that fateful day when the FBI kicks in her door and seizes her hardware. Though sleep schedules sometimes diverge the women converge around the sharing of food. Conflicts get intense. Some leave. Some return. Some try to form alliances based on the exclusion of so-and-so—not everything can be worked through. Some residents have been to college, and this affects how they communicate. Some have not been to college. Some have been with cismen and still have ties to them. Others don’t. Some can’t stand not being the best all the time though they feel bad about it. Others feel too timid to talk and get quiet around the residents who are voluble and loquacious. Their weird or witty side might come out when they are talking to someone one-on-one, or a gregarious mood strikes in the form of a mysterious confidence.
We have been made by this fucked up world. And so, are flawed. But we interact in good faith. It’s hard to know why we do what we do but we are smart enough to admit when we are wrong.
There’s a lot more that could be said about the feminist commune but I will leave it at that, half-mapped. There must be something left for the imagination….
Tell me about an instance where a piece of art you’ve made directly responded to art made by your peers. How did your response engage (or not engage) with the inspiration?
One recent piece I wrote was a poetic essay titled “Lonely Wolves on the Floor of the World,” which was in conversation with Bhanu Kapil’s chapbook “Treinte Ban.” I meant to write an essay about Fred Moten, but Bhanu’s essay ended up being my point of departure. I find it difficult to create in a vacuum, so all my work tends to be in response to something, whether it’s a piece of writing, a situation, or the occasion for writing itself. Some people are more goal or object-oriented. I am much more “relation”-oriented, relational, and my process reflects that.
I will say—inspiration is a rupture I have a hard time speaking about. Instead I might substitute the sensation of looking into the sun.
You get to curate a festival of art/writing/film/music/etc. What living artists do you invite to present/perform at your festival?
Thylias Moss, Hannah Black, Coda Wei, Oki Sogumi, Bhanu Kapil, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Don Mee Choi, Kim Hyesoon, Joohyun Kim, Viszk, Penny Arcade, CAConrad, Chris Kraus, Dodie Bellamy, Vicky Lim, Christine Wertheim, Matthew Polzin, Claudia Rankine, Dana Ward, Anne Boyer, Eileen Myles, Bett Williams, CS Giscombe, Maggie Nelson, Emily Stern, Lara Weibgen, Fred Moten, Kevin Killian, Ariana Reines, Jackqueline Frost, Mike Kitchell, you, Carmen Gimenez-Smith, Lily Hoang, Richard Greenfield, Stephen Boyer, Evan Kennedy, Robbie Dewhurst, Alice Notley, Brenda Iijima, M. NourbeSe Philip, Nat Otting, Morgan Vo, Elaine Castillo, Anne Carson, Skeleton Warrior, T Clutch Fleischmann, Nathaniel Mackey, Jenny Zhang and the ghost of Sun Ra. God, I know I’m forgetting a million people!
What are currently some of your favorite venues (magazine, journals, presses, youtube channels, websites, zines, libraries, museums, collectives etc) for art? What makes these venues particularly exciting/fresh/engaging?
Though I am not very much immersed in the zine world these days, having come out of that world, having been birthed—creatively—by that world, I feel a certain allegiance to the zines and the DIY spirit in general. Zines possess a vital/urgent/immediate quality that is often absent in the realm of formalized publishing. While I was at the gym the other day I watched a video of a peppy life coach give a TED talk and in the video she said that if we don’t act on our ideas within 5 seconds of having them we will never do it. Zinsters seem to live by this philosophy in a very real way. They know that if they don’t go to print the zine NOW, the typos and the frivolity of the whole enterprise may turn into a kind of self-consciousness that ruins it. Self-publishing is a form of self-christening, a kind of “fuck you” to all gatekeepers and authority figures. Some might find that attitude infantile. I hope to stay infantile.
Please share five links to art that we can view online (website, music, video, writing, visual art, etc.)