Gary Sullivan

Alan Sondheim
Interview


Gary Sullivan:
Reading a relatively early work of yours, lists (1971), I'm struck by several things, the first being its structure, which reminds me a little of Bartok's Mikrokosmos in terms of how complexity is accrued and accommodated. Except for the fact that lists becomes self-referential in a way music can't quite so blatantly or obviously be, it seems structured more like a musical composition than, say, a philosophical treatise or artistic manifesto (both of which is what the language itself seems to me to come out of). How conscious were you, prior to beginning to actually create the piece, of its existence-as-structure? Was the structure planned in advance, or did it come as a result of a kind of consistently attended-to addenda (i.e., the list structuring itself)?

Alan Sondheim: I saw the statements in lists as a series of protocol statements; in some cases, the reverse was also seen as equally true—so that there are contradictions throughout. But I didn't see the statements as reflecting a structure, so much as the granularity of a structure—except for the structure of counting, which I took to be a fundamental epistemology of the world—and still do to some extent. In other words, counting is the beginning of science, of abstraction, of tokenization, of quantity of course.

At the point this was written, I was reading Wittgenstein (and influenced by the Tractatus) as well as philosophy of quantum mechanics; I was also starting to think about artificial intelligence. I was concerned with—not so much the structure of the world, as the relationship of that structure to consciousness—i.e., the phenomenology of perceiving structure or the symbolic. I was quite clear about this. And I was also reading things such as the Native American mythologies and texts from the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology series—mostly from the early 20th or late 19th century. These texts were taken verbatim from native speakers, and the organization of myths and stories etc. within them was very much at variance to anything else I'd read. The narratological structure—diegesis—was particulate, what we'd call "rambling," but always with background or subtextual intent. And that quite definitely led me to think about other forms of organizing a philosophical text.

This "particulateness" has stuck with me—all the way through the avatar/emanant constructions—thinking of their literal constructibility. So in terms of your question—I would say the latter—but I would say there is no "entity," no overall form—and the lists could have continued indefinitely.

GS: Were you conscious of the kinds of possible effects this piece might have on a reader? How much of this kind of thinking—or strategizing—goes on as you continue to construct texts? Are you surprised by the kinds of reactions you get to your writing, to the kinds of experiences people have of them, how they've analyzed them?

AS: No—at this point, I was more concerned about working on a series of statements that I'd find relatively true in relation to the world.

The other writing, since then—particularly the online writing—which presupposes an immediate transition—I'm aware, almost to a fault, of the reactions it will engender. Not in terms of whether someone will "like it" or not—that always surprises me (and I've discarded works that people have liked)—but in terms of the ways it constructs itself within a reading subject.

People tend to take the work towards the diaristic, autobiographical, or towards the song and the effusion, or both. I see it as much cooler, in a way, all of it relating back towards the "project" of subjectivity and virtual subjectivity I'm engaged in examining. Even in lists, which is 28 years old after all, I was concerned with this project, to the extent that I'm still looking the symbolic in relation to consciousness, even with the foreclose of material, "obdurate," reality.

Beyond this, I am surprised that people read me back into the work—to the extent that I'm considered psychotic, neurotic, out of control, shaky, and so forth. There's obviously a relationship between me and the work—it would be crazy to deny that. But it's hardly the case that the work is a "reading" of me, my personality, whatever. (I also wonder whether this aspect of the reading also problematizes the distribution of what I write—but that's another issue.) And none of these readings, I think, should really occur in a vacuum—without the consideration of the theoretical underpinnings—which I spell out explicitly, over and over again. Because all of the material talks about the phenomenology of virtuality, avatars, language, body, sexuality, programming, binary oppositions such as interior and exterior, etc. And for me this "talking" is the core of the work—not the surface angst which drives it.

GS: On Kenneth Goldsmith's UBUWEB at http://www.ubu.com/contemp/sondheim/, you have two pieces, "truth or illusion" and "run by me," both of which must be cut and pasted from the site into the reader/viewer's browser. "truth or ILLUSION" appears on the UBUWEB as something resembling "computer noise" or a series of unintelligible (to most of us) computer commands. But, when transferred into our own browser, we get:

maya mama murmur world last message to multitudes i multitudes beg you for the means and the ways i am down on my knees i am praying to nothing i am ending the end of it i am the last dawn i am the last dusk i am the meal toilet maya i am the maya mama murmur i am maya mama murmur world

beg you for bread for wine beg you for forgiveness bright-light-maya turn stone toward me turn granite toward me stone marble maya murmur world

turn death stone cold angles murmur toward world maya turn marble turn marble down

maya mama murmur world last message to multitudes i multitudes beg you for the means and the ways i am down on my knees i am praying to nothing i am ending the end of it i am the last dawn i am the last dusk i am the meal toilet maya i am the maya mama murmur i am maya mama murmur world

the effect of which is sort of like coming onto a series of mysterious hieroglyphs and having them "translated." Can you talk about (a) how this program does this and (b) the value of the experience of coming onto this piece, cutting and pasting as instructed, and suddenly having it translated into English? What were your intentions/ideas/impulses here?

AS: Ah, both of these programs work with the escape codes for ascii letters and other symbols for html. In the first, some of the letters are represented by their codes; in the second, the upper ascii codes are inserted between the mayas, illusions. So the translations work with codes into codes, implying codes all the way up and down …

There's also of course the wonder—James Ellroy and Merleau-Ponty both talk about wonder—which comes with the text emerging as readable. Of course it was text before and after as well …

In my dialup program, there are also colors in the second piece—"maya-prayer-extension" standing out—the chanting of the syllables of god, speaking the unspeakable …

GS: I remember Gerald Burns talking a lot about this kind of wonder, or "awe" I think was his word, with respect to reading. He was really into mystery writers, too. I'm seeing a kind of mini-trend among writers whose work tends more toward the philosophical than the aesthetic or personal/expressive (Stein being maybe the most famous example): a fascination with or love of mystery/crime novels. You mentioned a kind of "coolness": My favorite mystery writer, Patricia Highsmith, is the most emotionally cool I've ever read (& also the most horrifying). Why is it, do you think, that culturally, we grant the mystery writer that coolness—enough detachment to allow them to coldly calculate their characters' brutal murders—but won't grant artists like yourself the same kind of detachment? The average art-spectator is generally assumed to be more sophisticated than the average mystery reader, so what do you think accounts for the kinds of reactions you sometimes get with respect to the more "violent" or "pornographic" elements of your writing?

AS: I'm not sure how much I can devote to answering this at this time of the afternoon! But your question here is great to be honest—and I don't know. The writers I tend to love—Paretsky, Ellroy, Hiaasen—aren't cool writers at all; if anything, they can come across as overwrought—particularly Ellroy. And I think Ellroy is engaged—in My Dark Places he talks about that.

My own work tends to use my body (in the older videos and films) and name ("Jennifer, Julu, Alan, Nikuko") so it's playing off an autobiographical mode. But—maybe the comparison would be better with acting—it's taking on these identities, masquerading in a deep sense—not living them.

And I'm not sure why the audience doesn't see this—except that, at least with poetry—it goes back to framing—poetry readers, literary readers, aren't used to sifting or filtering through the material at their disposal as some sort of "evidence." (Literary critics, yes, but that's another thing.) They may take the broad face of it.

Maybe in that sense, my writing is a crime, unsolved, the clues untouched, the verdict in, against the writer …

GS: This idea of the criminal appears earlier, in Disorders of the Real (Station Hill, 1988), in "Interrogation":

Why did you go on your wild crime spree?

… lethargy …

Do you feel guilty over your terrible crimes?

… your question doesn't mean anything to me …

I must admit, I feel something like the interrogator here. Did you imagine any sort of connection between the perpetrator and yourself, the artist/author?

AS: In this certainly—"Interrogation" was also a film script or part of one for a film based in Tryon, North Carolina, that I did for the centenary of the town. But it's about empty spaces, the film, and there are long, long delays between the questions and the answers, there's a woman looking at the camera, if I remember correctly, not much else during this section. Lines criss-crossed through the landscape, maverick characters, singing the sounds of the landscape modified heavily with filters—all sorts of strangenesses … the film was 30 minutes sound, 16mm, cost around $300 altogether, but that was in the days when I could make cheap film with special equipment I had.

But I love the gaps in the narrative—

GS: There's that sense of the artist "getting away with" x, y or z, that sometimes an audience will bring to any discrete—or body of—work, as part of a whole possible sackload of prejudices, biases, filters, what-have-you. Can you talk about this, with respect to your own work, maybe addressing that anecdote you told me about the other night involving the physicist and mathematician ("I fuck reality; you're merely jacking off")? Or, this, which I found in "The Dyads" of your Internet Text:

The Slits:

"Number One Enemy
If you like white, I'll be black,
If you like black, I'll be yellow,
If you like rational, I'll be impossible.
If you like reasonable, I'll be insane.
If you like peace and flowers,
I'm going to carry knives and chains.
I'm going to be your Number One Enemy
All for the hell of it." (Palmolive, Arri Up.)

What, not psychologically speaking, but aesthetically or philosophically speaking, is this impulse about?

AS: I'm not sure I understand your question. My own biography doesn't tie in that closely to the writing; the writing I do on the other hand does tie into thinking about "reality"—there's a kind of exploration that goes on in it, philosophical, psychoanalytical, theoretical, etc.—that's critical to me. In a sense for me it's what the work is about. As far as the passage you quoted, I tend to take a viewpoint of no definitive viewpoint—that the world is far too complex to be foreclosed by theoretical approaches limiting and defining causes and effects. In this sense, I've been influenced by people like Nicole Brossard, Luce Irigaray, etc.—but I'm not sure it's so much of an influence as feeling myself, at least in some senses, a fellow-traveler. I've always seen the world in terms of thresholds and flows and non-Aristotelian logics (in other words in terms of gestural logics that appear to "reach beyond" their terms—these can be exactly defined)—once, at least, one is "above" the sub-atomic levels where particles and strings perhaps are defined discretely. The order of complexity rises rapidly as one moves up the scales of magnitudes. So my work is a discoursing through and within/without this complexity—not attempting any sort of reductive scenarios, but questioning across the board—including the notion of scenario itself.

GS: I was using "the enemy" or "outlaw" not with respect to your biography, but with respect to your position vis a vis being an artist and vis a vis an artist/audience relationship in which the artist is "getting away with" what you get away with (or attempt to), specifically: I tend to take a viewpoint of no definitive viewpoint ... though, not limiting what you do to that, of course. By "crime," I mean, I think there are, sociologically speaking, certain expectations the culture might have of the artist, and one of these, maybe an essential one, is that the artist have a definitive viewpoint. As a culture, we tend maybe to recoil from that which seemingly exists outside of some fairly well defined moral "universe"—

AS: This may apply to writing, but in the visual arts—look at Robert Morris, Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim, Marcel Duchamp—there are all sorts of models for widely-varying viewpoints within a single body of work. And that "tradition" of non-tradition carries on today as well.

GS: Something you said earlier has me wondering now about those "thresholds" you mentioned coming up against as you navigate: I know this may be reductive to do this, but what sorts of limits or thresholds have you discovered as a part of your writing process?

AS: Well, by thresholds, I was thinking of threshold logics, which are formally defined. But I also think of writing into the limit of a program—bending a program such as the "doctor" program in emacs. Of course there are no program limits—all that happens is that the program closes down or spews nonsense …

As far as limits go, I tend to push myself psychologically to the limit as well within some of the work—in the video work, I'd place myself sexually or abjectly on the line—but these are also constructs. And I'm interested in the notion of limits in general, which tend to be of the mobius strip variety, turning inversely in on themselves, to return to the opposite of the origin, only to continue back to the originary state …

GS: Can you talk about when you became involved in writing about the internet, in putting Internet Text online? You have that wonderful section online about tabletspace vs. cyberspace … when you first started working online, were you consciously thinking about doing a kind of end-run around the more traditional methods of distribution (e.g., in magazines or book publication)?

AS: I think my work is so marginal, and my personality unfortunately so "difficult" (at least it has that reputation), that the Net provides a way for me to distribute without having to worry about people misinterpreting me in real life. There are a lot of other factors as well—I've always used technology, stretched the boundaries—such as video work which plays directly with the signal (I did three stints at the Experimental Television Center and for a long time had a suite of old broadcast quality equipment here in New York), or sound work—at one point in the late 60s, Gregert Johnson and I built an early voltage-controlled synthesizer from scratch. And it's when the boundaries are explored that things get interesting, that issues of consciousness and subjectivity and dis/ comfort enter into the picture. That all fascinates me.

But the Net also allows the reception of an unknown and international galactic audience, a flow of texts and partial-texts flowing through the wires, the mesmeric feeling of writing a text online, while announcements of email and other things flow through the editor—everything alive in a way that things aren't in other text-based media. Both my video and film work, by the way, had text-overs quite often—created in all sorts of ways—so that there was often a reading that would accompany the site/sighting/citing of the images. So I wasn't thinking about doing an "end-run" as you ask, but augmenting the absence of any run at all. And I still feel deeply delegitmized, by the way, by this—as if, since my work is online, I can't really be taken seriously by other writers. I'm almost never asked to readings, conferences, etc. I was very lucky with Nottingham Trent University and Sue Thomas, to receive a virtual writer-in-residency with the trAce online writing program/community there (September 1999 – February 2000), but god forbid I should ever be asked to a conference on so-called avant-garde poetics.

GS: Well, I don't think you have a difficult personality, but I do wonder about the Net and print, or the Net vs. print, again going back to your tabletspace/cyberspace piece. How would you, though, given the chance, push the boundaries of the book, what is expected in/of such, if you were to be given the opportunity to do something (at least) the length/print run of Disorders of the Real? Has all of your activity on the Net gotten you to rethink or reconsider approaches to the book?

AS: In relation to the book—I'm not sure really how this material should be presented. If I had my way, I would have both a CD-ROM and book accompany-ing—since the former would allow me even to present some of the quick-cam/video work I've done. And there would then be multiple inputs/ outputs.

The book is something else again—I've always felt I've needed them because of their legitimizing function, their intimacy and portability, their distributions and economy. Without "books" of my work, I'm pretty much out of the reading/teaching economy of poetry and poetics, no matter how good my work is. I'm living on the outskirts here—but that's not so unusual.

A book is also a gift back to the writer—to see how the work places itself upon the page, reads itself back into her.

One technical problem is minor, that of Courier—which is the standard fixed-width font, along with Fixed System. Neither are attractive or "work" on the page that well—yet a fair number of my texts require such spacings.

What I wouldn't want—foldouts or other paraphernalia attached to the book—as if the book were insufficient. And I'm not sure which of my works would actually "go" in a book. Naively, I think everything would—provided I'd have the ability to work with the editor/designer—for example if an IRC (internet relay chat) log were reproduced—Courier could be used for the <Jennifer> *** part for example, but Times Roman would do fine for the actual dialog. But this would require a close production environment, and at the moment I can't even get a book published—the last "trade" book of my work was all the way back in 1988, eleven years ago.

GS: Here's a poem you posted to the Fiction of Philosophy List (FOP-L) this morning:

sometimes alphaaeties want nothinu more
than to sliie aeross my lovely skin
ani then there miuht ae other ways we'i uo
to oini out what we hai saii aoter we'i aeen there
settinu thinus up so say the alphaaeties
aut they miuht not have a ehanee in this wiie worli
where you know anythinu's equivalent
to whatever alphaaeties miuht ae on iemani
as io there were iemanis hump hump the letterinu
aeross my aaiomen or within the inner thiuh
or hump hump hump aeross the aaek oo leus
runninu up ani iown the aaek like your wilierness
you took my arms to while spellinu them a spell

What's the process here? How was this made?

AS: I wrote the poem about sliding alphabetics then substituted a for b; e for c; i for d; o for f; and u for g—moving just up the consonants and vowels, sliding them against one another. The poem was originally just written as a poem—

GS: You do a lot of this kind of word- and letter-substitution. What do you see as the value of this kind of play?

AS: Doing a lot less now than I did—I feel I've exhausted it pretty much.

     1. Change text to text/ure—bringing the raster-elements of writing to the foreground.
     2. Sounding, especially with vowels—breathing and body to the foreground.
     3. The magic of foreclose and exhibitionism simul-taneously—turning legibility into self-consciousness.
     4. Patterning (but rarely of interest).
     5. The wonder of other languages.

I've done almost no word substitution—that gets into game-playing for me with semantics—I always want meaning to come through—and sometimes the meaning is in the crippling of the language itself.

GS: A recent post of yours to FOP-L:

1 Writing PurlMoo Under Migraine Water
2 To: nikuko (#934)
3 Subject: Hello dark feather
4 thou dark feather gone on me.
5 thou must dislike this fallen bough of gone materials
6 nothing is written through this migraine and Screen is invisible.
7 I will call Screen, Screen, and there is no answer.
8 nothing comes and there are no arrivals or departures.
9 alas, my breasts are heavy with milk falling down upon Screen.
10 Screen raises her mouth, does Screen.
11 I am engulfed.
12 goodbye and hello desire and goodbye invisible Screen.
13 thy jagged edges, visible migraine.
14 thou art gone upon me.
15 teeth.
16 now and then I still may dream of an unsustained image.
17 imaginary Screen, come and pour upon me.
18 Screen, Screen.
19 your darling, Nikuko
20 --------------------------

Can you say a few words about this piece? Your intentions/impulses behind it?

AS: This might not be so germane. John Cayley has a project on PurlMOO (and the MOO itself might be part of the project) dealing with "myour" space as he calls it—he wants texts up there, some of which he'll never see. So I was invited to come in—this was a while ago and I didn't because I'm busy and then Miekal And encouraged me and so I went on yesterday and found myself with a migraine and wrote a piece about not being able to look at the screen … I also like the idea of anthropomorphizing the screen itself—it ceased to be flat—there were patterns on it as a result of migraine flashes—the patterns extended off it, bending the outlines as well of course. The numbering—which I added later—was put on to imitate a MOO letter editor—I also like the spacing it creates.

Milk is formless; the mouth is a substitute for the screen. It's a cry of despair in the face of desire.


Bibliography

WEBPAGE URLs (Internet Text, graphics):

http://www.anu.edu.au/english/internet_txt/

MIRROR SITE:

http://lists.village.virginia.edu/~spoons/internet_txt.html

Images are at: URL http://www.cs.unca.edu/~davidson/pix/

BOOKS:

Media Pane, forthcoming, Gordon and Breach, 2000
The Case of the Real, Potes and Poets Press, 1998 (2 chapbooks)
Jennifer, Nominative Press Collective, 1998
Being On Line, editor, Lusitania, 1997
Hole, 1994
Immobilization, Fort-Da, Atlanta, 1993
Robbed Texts, 1993
Juarez, Bruised, Digital Domain, 1993
Muck, 1993
Geography/Postmodernism/Body, 1992
Chatter Death, 1992
Incorrect: Final Fire of the Video World, 1992
Textbook on Thinking, ocalocka, 1991
Poems and Stories, 1991
Cut Desert and Confused Supplement, 1991
Disorders of the Real, Station Hill, 1988
ETR, ocalocka, 1988
In the Third World, Tasmanian School of Art, 1982
Texts, U.C. Irvine Dept. of Art, 1978
Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America, editor, Dutton, 1977
The Structure of Reality, NSCAD, 1977
Analysis of Situation, 1972
Strata, NSCAD, 1972
Resonances, for Bykert Gallery Show, NYC, 1971
Lists, Halifax, 1971
An,ode, Burning Deck Press, 1968

MUSICAL RECORDINGS

Global Report, Damaged Life, Spasm cassette, 1986
Flesh, Damaged Life, Spasm cassette, 1987
Live at Starck Club 1987, Damaged Life cassette
Lips, Damaged Life cassette, 1987
T’Other Little Tune, ESP lp, 1969, reissued ZYX CD
Ritual, ESP LP, 1968, reissued ZYX CD
The Songs, Riverboat, LP, 1967
Participant on ESP samplers 1969-70

 SELECTED RECENT FILM AND VIDEO

Quickcam videos (computer), for performance-work, 1999
Virtual Subjectivity, 1998
Net Sexuality, video, 1996, 20'
Net-Body tape, in progress, 1996-7, 10'
Warwick Conference tape, 1994, 34'
Family Loss, video, 1994, 10'
Electronic Texts, video, 1993, 3'53"
Robbed Texts, video, 1993, 90'
Fever, video, 1993, 25'
Antler, video, 1993, 10'
Geyser, video, 1993, 15'
Drug, 1993, video, 10'
Margaret, video, 1993, 10'
Postmodern Sureno, video, 1993, 57'
Planet 1 & 2, video, 1993, 43'
Border, video, 1993, 11'
Postmodern.Pobre., video, 1992, 32'
Sequestered Geography, video, 1992, 13 hrs., 3 monitor installation
Fashion, video, 1992, 17'
Cut Blind, video, 1992, 50'
Male, video, 1992, 40'
Revised Greatest Hits, video, 1992, 118'
Thought, 16mm film, 1991, 22'
God, 16mm film, 15'
Wupatki, video, 1990, 15'
Best Lovers of Numerous Others, 16mm film, 50'
Misrecognitions, 16mm film, 1990, 20'
Singular Illumination of the Body, 16mm film, 1990, 31'
Second Person Singular, 16mm film, 1990, 30'
Angelina and Sorrow, video, 1989, 13'
Sick and Violent Love, 16mm film, 1989, 45'
Debrisfilm, 16mm film, 1989, 50'
Exhibitionist, S8 film, 1989, 12'
Into the Light, 16mm film, 1988, 15'
Sleazy and the Year 3000, 1987-9, 16mm film, 50'
Nina Hagan, S8 film, 1988, 18'
Untitled Frenzy of History, 16mm film, 1984, 45'
AIR, 16mm film, 1983, 50'
Talking Cure, 16mm film, 1982, 20'
Testimony of Love and War, 16mm film, 1982, 9'
Using a Computer, I Graph, 16mm film, 1985, 50'
Some Features of US Chemical Warfare in South Vietnam, 16mm film, 1982, 30'
Films 1-37, 16mm film, 1980-2, three hours
Hollywood, 16mm film, 1981, 75'
     [Note: This does not include film before 1980 or video before 1988.]

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