Art in an Emergency: a Q&A with Olivia Laing and Emily LaBarge

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Olivia Laing was due to be in conversation with Emily LaBarge at the Bookshop on 21 April about her new essay collection Funny Weather. Although they weren’t able to meet in person in the end, never has a conversation about ‘Art in an Emergency’ felt more necessary, and so the two writers instead discussed the book virtually via the magic of the internet. Olivia writes:

This conversation was conducted over email from our respective lockdown desks over the course of a week, sometimes early in the morning, and sometimes quite late at night. It was an extreme pleasure to be in conversation with Em, who is one of the smartest and funniest people I know.

Emily LaBarge: Let’s start with the epigraphs that open the book, from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling and Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick – two figures who recur throughout in different ways. I read them as setting a kind of hopeful agenda and also perhaps a call to arms. The subtitle of the book is Art in an Emergency – but the quotations invoked here, and their writers, carefully place a specific emphasis not only on the ameliorative or radical power of art in general, but on the importance of its beholder as an active, engaged thinker. Was this something you were thinking about in putting this collection together?

Olivia Laing: I wanted to make plain from the very beginning the stance that the book was taking, both in terms of the agenda behind the artworks considered and my approach as a critic and reader. I picked those two American women as a kind of antidote to a dominant tone in English book culture that I really loathe, which is concerned in a very unexamined way with ‘is this good’, without necessarily examining the kind of received ideas that go into generating that notion of ‘good’ (see also ‘a good read’). I find that question pretty boring. What I’m much more interested in is what animates the work. What was the artist trying to do, what problem were they solving, how does it exist inside the framework of their life and their experience of the world? What urgency or emergency, in short, does it arise out of, or into?

I think the other thing that’s very frowned upon in literary criticism here is to express pleasure or delight. It’s seen as somehow unserious or trivial. Nope, says Sedgwick. It’s just as vital, just as ambitious to approach an artwork with the aim of discovering sustenance, or to take pleasure in the process of reading or looking. And as you say in your question, that is absolutely an active process for the reader herself. Art is not a magic bullet, and it hasn’t failed because it can’t accomplish political change directly. It’s a tool with which to think. It’s part of what creates our framework of emotional, intellectual and political possibilities. But that takes energy, ingenuity, imagination on the reader’s side too. It’s why reading is so rewarding. It’s not – at all – a passive process.

As for Chris Kraus, I loved the way that quote – ‘Oh Dick, deep down I feel you’re utopian too’ – spoke back to Sedgwick and to all those ponderous Dicks of the world. Why choose to make art small, safe, tame, careful, when it’s electrifying? Why mibble about ranking authors or summarising plots when the point is that you’ve just been given a new vision of the world, with all its horrors and possibilities?

EL: Joy and pleasure, but also collaboration, are some of the big themes of the book. Collaboration as love, collaboration as possibility (as in the kind of Oh Dick, imagine not being alone in your critical/visual theory, acting upon the world, rather than being acted upon or with): collaboration as difference, or even as devotion. How do we collaborate with our subjects? But also, how do we collaborate in our writing via the forms that we choose? How do we, in criticism or essay writing, find the most appropriate or even equivalent mode to best describe and understand the work, and to share it with others?

There is the question also of... Englishness! A particular kind of ‘Englishness’ as perhaps strictured or nostalgic (not in a good way). You mention the culture of criticism here, its hang-ups and pitfalls. In your essays on Maggie Nelson and Chris Kraus, you are pointed about how these writers have not been published in the UK until recently – long after mainstream success in the US. In a lot of the essays, New York City looms large, as a place of experiment, wildness, the subversive, kinds of ‘freedom’ (even as the struggle continues). Can you say something about this? And how place relates to not only the production but the reception and criticism of art and literature in the dominant culture?

OL: I was thinking last night, of course Dick actually is a critic, and I Love Dick among all its other guises is an attempt to write a different kind of criticism to Dick’s academic version: a criticism that is much more embodied, and which revels in the many ways that art, politics, life, the body are entangled. I’m definitely an aficionado of that kind of mess, to paraphrase Frank O’Hara. And to loop straight into your other question, I think the English find that mess deeply distasteful. I’ve been reading a lot of Woolf lately, the diaries and Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light, a critic I love. Her book is brilliant because it draws out the ways in which Woolf was at war with Englishness – its snobbery, jingoism, pettiness, emotional coldness and cruelty, deeply inbuilt misogyny, as well as a sort of thinness and bloodlessness – while also being hopelessly implicated in it, especially in her relations with the working class, and particularly the servants who worked for her.

I think I always came at that kind of Englishness slant. To grow up in a gay family, with an Irish mother, was always to feel foreign and alien. I was a child in the era of Section 28, when it was against the law to teach about homosexuality in schools, and specifically as a ‘pretended family relationship’. To be one of those state-designated pretended families, especially during the AIDS crisis, was to see from the beginning that Englishness relied on delegitimising and excluding otherness. I knew from a very early age in which camp my flag was planted. It’s funny: a reviewer said the other day they couldn’t understand what emergency Hockney was responding to. If you can’t see that growing up in a state that will imprison you for the act of love might constitute an emergency, or that Hockney’s radiant, wide-open, light-filled scenes might represent what’s glimpsed beyond the closet door, then yes, I suppose his paintings might seem trivial to you.

The context matters. The life of the body making the picture or the novel matters, even when, as with Woolf, it’s immensely important for the artist to be able to make something as a way of leaving the body behind, and entering the fluid, unencumbered realm of the mind. You can deal with the work of art on both these levels, taking it seriously as an aesthetic object in its own right and looking at how it exists and operates in a real person’s real, specific life, both historically and psychologically. I’m greedy, I can’t imagine not wanting to get at it from all those angles. Isn’t that part of the pleasure: the sheer plenitude of ways of reading?

As for New York, for me it was a way of escaping a parochial culture that in some funny way hates seriousness and yet needs a glaze of professionalism over everything. I love the New York School poets (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Joe Brainard, Eileen Myles) because they upend that dynamic. You can talk very casually, but it’s also possible to get to grips with a much wilder emotional landscape. You can be frank, without losing altogether the English knack for irony, the ability to say two things at once.

EL: It’s interesting what you say about having grown up feeling like an outsider – this is something many of your subjects also identify with, or have ascribed to them. But I also read your work very much as a reaching out, trying to ‘only connect’, maybe – not to understand or contain something, but to experience it, and also to turn around and offer it (or your reading of it) to someone else, too. There’s an intimacy to this, as well as a vulnerability. I wonder if you can say something about how you negotiate this in your work?

Following on from that, it feels to me that you are at once reticent and generous about the personal. The anecdote, for instance, feeds into a lot of your essays, a hinge between subjects, just like the different versions of ‘I’ you employ – which is a kind of voice, but not always identifiable as a particular individual. On the other hand, portraiture is a big theme, the specific life and its particulars, and this collection of people you amass and carefully draw, as well as draw together. There’s something interesting here about subjectivity, the subjective, the subject, subjecthood: How much to give, how much to withhold? Where does the self fit in, and how do we understand our duty to those we write about? What do we come right out and say, or what do we rather imply – thinking of what you say of O’Keefe and her desire to ‘convey emotion without confessing it directly’?

OL: I think there’s definitely an element in this book of assembling a tribe or community, even a family. It feels reparative to me as a reader both to do that and to welcome other readers in. It’s probably best summed up in the essay ‘You Are Welcome’, which describes a show by the New York artist Marc Hundley, which was nominally of his screenprints but also included a handmade bench. I really vibe with that impulse. I want there to be an element in criticism of hanging out, and I think you’re right that the intimacy of that is very vulnerable. It’s a risk to reach out, to want connection, to take things seriously, to mind. It’s a risk, bottom line, to be hopeful rather than cynical. I think the artists I’m most drawn to continually take that risk, even if – maybe because – they’ve been very damaged in their own personal lives. People like Wojnarowicz or Peter Hujar or Agnes Martin, who were notably tricky or testy in their private relationships, yet overwhelmingly generous in the work they make, and the kind of things they hoped that work could do, from counteracting isolation to opening up reservoirs of joy.

As for memoir, I feel extremely ambivalent about it. I love the physical details of people’s lives, I love diaries, but I hate the note of solipsism. What I like is the ‘I' as a doorway to somewhere else, which I think is what O’Keeffe is getting at in that quote. It feels important to me to cop to what are often very intense investments, to explain my interest, or to share equivalent intimacies, but I’m not so interested in me per se as in the ongoing, endlessly fascinating dynamic between self and world. Since I am a self, I’m available as a resource and a set of specific circumstances, atmospheres and experiences, but I want to explore other people’s perspectives too. This comes back to greed, and to a kind of desire for fluidity. Isn’t this another pleasure of reading, that it lets you shuck or shed the self and inhabit someone else’s instead?

EL: How do you think about how you identify with, or as you say, ‘inhabit’ your subjects? What are the difficulties and the risks, but also the pleasures? There’s also an important if potentially obvious question about why it’s a risk to reach out, to be hopeful, to take things seriously. The risk of being rejected, hurt, misunderstood? In some cases, depending on the context, of literally being punished? Is this also a kind of existential human thing – a sort of fort/da – we want, we cannot have – we hide, we reveal, we need, we are afraid? Or is it about the different cultures and societies we live in, their prohibitions and cruelties? And in this sense, is art both practical, as in useful to address or brook these fears; but also palliative for the maker – the potential to write or paint, if not live in, that utopian place?

In many of the essays there is a sort of searching for the sublime – both in the subjects you write about, but also in what you’re looking for in the work that grabs you and won’t let go. Your subjects seem to be looking for that secret, hidden thing: a new language, a new visual world, a new set of relationships. Some of this is explicitly political and social, but maybe there’s also something sort of essential about it, something fundamental and interior?

OL: Yes, Sarah Lucas says that very nicely: the desire to go somewhere else, but you’re not quite sure where or what it is. I wonder if that’s why everyone loves David Bowie so much, because he not only went elsewhere, but kept finding new elsewheres to go to. Not just stylistically, more like getting under the surface of things, finding a way to reanimate them. I’ve been reading Burroughs in lockdown, and he can certainly do it, though God knows how. The words connect on a completely different frequency.

I really like this question about risk. I think first of all there’s a lot of fear, certainly in this culture, but perhaps more generally too, about responding to art. It’s a shibboleth. Will you get it wrong, will you expose your ignorance? In England, art is still so tied up with class. Are you permitted to participate? Speaking as a habitual mispronouncer, are you exposing a lack of culture capital? (I dropped out of university and almost everything I know comes from books, so when I speak my lack of formal education is audible in a way that it isn't when I write.) But there are more serious risks too, and I think you’re right that it’s a fort/da situation. If you admit to love, you open up the risk of a) loss and b) rejection. It’s high stakes. You’ve shown allegiance, and that’s a risk too. I do think this is what lies behind the English habit of writing reviews by obsessing over plot, as if anyone cares. It’s a way of avoiding taking an emotional position. And yes, over-emotional readings can be awful – too damp, too hot, like a feverish body – but I am adamant that there is a way to incorporate emotion into criticism. It just means being more deft, imaginative, ambitious, not less.

It’s now 19:54 and I have watched multiple versions of ‘Send in the Clowns’ while drinking wine. Judy Collins’s is the best. There’s a teetering quality to her voice that feels extremely appropriate for this very strange and alarming time. That’s the thing about art: it’s available, it’s waiting for a moment into which it can drop, the absolutely perfect thing. To do what? To convey a register of feeling that you’re experiencing but haven’t yet found a language for. Sometimes it takes you to a utopian place, but sometimes, more often maybe, it just articulates the longing to be there and the fact of being here, instead. ‘Send in the clowns/they’re already here’: what a perfect articulation of longing, lack and the absurdity of both.

EL: I’ve had ‘Starman’ stuck in my head on and off for the entire duration of the lockdown. On the day Bowie died, I was flying back from Ottawa to London, the last flight out, and in the waiting area a woman kept playing ‘Starman’ loudly from her iPad; each time it ended she turned to her husband with a look of disbelief on her face. I think at first people were surprised, by the noise (it’s not a very Canadian thing to do, and normally someone would politely ask [tell] you to be quiet), but then… no one cared. We all just sat there in this huge, brightly lit, totally impersonal area, listening happily to tinny Bowie echoing from some stranger’s iPad, the same song again and again, why not. The thing about Bowie is that there is this unabashed earnestness to him. He was unembarrassed about wanting. This is in so many of his ‘characters’, too – the early Pierrot figure, for instance. A character is useful in that sense, especially when it’s already a trope: it’s you but not you. Do you feel that you ever write with a kind of shifting persona, or do you have a different voice or individual in mind when you write certain pieces? Can pastiche be radical? Homage?

Style and form are some of the best tools to smuggle in alternative readings, particularly those that are based on intuition and affinity: the thing that cannot be pinned down, but can be evoked or reflected in a way of writing. This is a very real and different kind of intelligence, though we perhaps have fewer ways of speaking about it. In Judy Collins’s ‘Send in the Clowns,’ this might be the timbre of her voice, as you describe it – or ‘the grain of the voice’, as Barthes wrote. Do you think there’s an equivalent in writing? Can you say something about your approach to form and how it may (or may not) change, depending on what you’re writing about?

OL: I love this ‘Starman’ story. That’s what I mean – there’s the work, i.e. the song, but it’s never, ever separate from how it exists in the world, inside people’s real, material, temporal lives, and that weird interface is what fascinates me. Have you ever seen the film of Bowie at the Factory? It really inverts this story we’ve been telling about English irony and American openness. Bowie is excruciating. He comes and does a very heartfelt mime – in fact he literally mimes pulling his heart out of his chest – and poor anti-emotion Andy is truly horrified. He’s squirming! But you can feel Bowie’s antennae clicking, frantically absorbing the chilly atmosphere for later use. Does the Thin White Duke have a touch of the Warhols? I kind of think so.

As for persona, I definitely have a working Olivia Laing persona, who's fairly close but not identical to me. Melancholy and seriousness is to the fore, and it's definitely not very funny, whereas if you spend time with me in person I’m much more likely to be laughing at things than mooning over them. I think that’s what was so liberating about Crudo – by ventriloquising Kathy Acker I could be much drier, wilder, more erratic, ricocheting through moods that felt like they’d become almost forbidden in my non-fiction.

I do think too that there’s an equivalent to timbre or grain in writing. Yes! This comes up a lot in the conversation that ends Funny Weather, with the singer Joseph Keckler. When I’m telling people’s stories, it isn’t biography per se. It’s an enacted argument. That’s my mode of working, especially in non-fiction, but also in these essays. They’re about loneliness, alcohol, sexuality, and so on, and the cast of artists and works is there as a way of grounding those investigations, making them lived, real, urgent rather than abstract. Every word, image, outfit and death-bed scene is in service to that argument. It’s much more like putting together music. It’s tonal and rhythmic, and it relies on a succession of images.

There are writers who are real masters of working at this level. Jean Rhys, William Burroughs: you feel like they’re making spells with syntax, and that your own understanding comes in flashes rather than as a logical progression of thoughts. I’m not saying the thinking shouldn’t be there – it’s essential – but to me this kind of embodied thinking is much richer and more exciting, and it gives reader and writer so much more freedom to move.

EL: This point about ventriloquising Acker as liberating is so compelling: voice is a real hangover, hang-up, hangdog, isn’t it! I talk about this a lot with my students: what is ‘voice’ – what does that mean? We are people, we have preoccupations, we are stable, identifiable – but also not: we invent, we tear apart, explode on purpose, distort, unmake and remake. And things can work in reverse fashion: the language acts upon us, not just we upon it. This is something that comes up frequently in your essays: the destructive but generative power of language, if only we just pull at the loose threads, slash the paper, cut it up (like Burroughs) – a vital reminder that there is always room for reinvention. Can you say something about this within the context of Funny Weather in particular, given the various heated moments its pieces arose out of, and the new, equally viscous, frenzied world it’s entering into?

OL: This – the question of voice – is what got me doing the Acker act in the first place. I was reading the Chris Kraus biography, After Kathy Acker, and she described how Acker had been in David Antin’s class, and he really didn’t want his students to write anything confessional or in their own voice. Ick. He made them go to the library, take random books and copy them out, but insert an ‘I’ instead. So here’s Kathy, given the keys to her future voice, which allows her to impersonate Don Quixote, Toulouse Lautrec, to speak these things from the vantage point of her own body. I wanted to see what happened if I did the same thing, if I plagiarised my own life, and put it into the Kathy Acker person.

Language is so unstable, we know that, and yet people persist in creating realist novels, or writing about the world in realistic ways, as if it’s not the most artificial thing imaginable. I’m drawn to writers that disrupt that, that try and catch in their nets something that feels more ‘real’ to me, the actual texture of life as it’s lived, which is to say perpetually invaded by the past and ghosted by the future. It’s erratic and repetitive, and you can never really see or fully describe it because, as Woolf puts it, you’re a fish stuck in the stream. But language lets you capture the moment, even a moment as strange and suspended as now. I love that line of Acker’s that I quote in the book: that language was her material and what she wanted to do with it was ‘build up slums and mansions, demolish banks and half-rotten buildings, even buildings which she herself had constructed, into never-before-seen, even unseeable jewels’.

EL: Do we have a duty to pay attention, to be curious, to be alive to the world – in all our earnestness? I’m thinking of John Berger, whose work carries the sense that to look hard at culture, to practice criticism, to keep learning, is a human duty.

OL: I do think this, and I know it’s earnest, but I do believe quite firmly in duty – legacy of convent school – and in the artist’s duty, even though I think one of those duties is to question or liberate yourself from duty. For me, the artist’s duty is to bear witness. I think that’s also true of Berger, and of Guston, and of Ali Smith. But it’s bearing witness to reality, not just to small human political realms. That might be part of it, but then again it might not. Agnes Martin is absolutely emphatic that the artist’s duty is to turn away from the human realm and bear witness to spiritual reality. But I think if there isn’t some element of truth-telling, it ain’t art. There, I’m a puritan after all!

EL: As you said earlier, in the essays you’re making a series of images that link up, and each has to be the right one, in service to the whole of the subject at hand. This comes across so artlessly and with such fluidity within your work, but I know it’s difficult and time consuming: to find that perfect quotation, the detail that captures a whole essence, the punctum that gives a person away, to arrange all the facts just so. Can you say something about how you approach research, and what it means to you?

OL: Well, I’m a pretty obsessive researcher. Artlessness and fluidity is one thing, but I hate writing that’s glib and I hate it when people are lazy. I really don’t like making mistakes – I’m sure I do, but the whole thing has to be built over a very solid scaffold of facts. I read widely around the subjects and I try and use primary sources as much as possible. And to include them – to show the process of acquiring them, to expose the way in which they diverge and compete and to let the gaps between them be visible. I’m interested in showing that texture, rather than smoothing it off, and I also like letting people speak for themselves, so their own voice sings out. Agnes Martin doesn’t sound like Georgia O’Keefe and she doesn’t sound like me either, and I think including their specific voices is part of that larger process of orchestration.

EL: Final question: I want to ask about paint! There’s so much paint, colour, movement, texture in these essays, and I love that, because some people still talk about painting as if it’s old fashioned or unfashionable, even when it’s contemporary. There’s a really beautiful passage in your essay on Chantal Joffe, where you write of all the things paint can do and be, where it can go. Berger wrote about paintings with such love, too. Is this one of your preferred mediums?

OL: Oh, paint! I’m crazy for paint. I really vibe with Frank O’Hara when he says he thinks he would rather be a painter, and then tries to pretend the process of writing is sort of equivalent, but Frank: we both know that’s not true. Painting is real in a way that writing isn’t (and writing about painting or objects generally feels realer to me than writing about writing). I spend lots of time with painters, and especially with Chantal, who I sit for regularly, and it’s sensual and immediate in a way that language can never be. A painting looks back at you. It’s a vulnerable body. It’s material. A book is housed in a material form, but its true form is thought. A painting isn’t a thought, or not only. It amazes me how much writing about art refuses to attend to how it’s made, as if that’s completely irrelevant and the art object only exists as a container for ideas. And yet the how of it seems to me essential. How does it work as a painting? How first, then we can get onto why.

EL: And the last last question: What am I missing? What have I not asked?

OL: You have asked everything, dear Em. I’m a husk!

Funny Weather is published by Picador, priced £20. Signed copies are available from our Staff Picks on the London Review Book Box website.