I first met Danny Lyon in the photographers’ room at Magnum Photos. It was 1976, he was passing through and I had just joined the collective. He greeted me by saying that he had just stolen my book Carnival Strippers from a local bookstore. Danny was already a myth to me, with his immersive approach during the civil rights movement in the south. I was envious, having been too young to go myself. Then I bought The Bikeriders just as I began to do photography, but never thought I’d meet the man who took to the roads with them. He really became legendary with his powerful series on Texas prisoners Conversations with the Dead.
Eija-Liisa Ahtila and I have never met in person—I only know what she looks like thanks to YouTube—and we conducted this conversation via email over a period of about two weeks in April of 2012, her keyboard docked in Helsinki, Finland; mine, in Houston, Texas. Worlds apart in many ways, not the least of which would be landscape and climate—things that matter very much to this artist. And yet, as she reminded me in our conversation, one of her most ambitious pieces, The Annunciation, ends with a song by Townes Van Zandt, the legendary Texas singer and songwriter from just up the road in Fort Worth. “Coincidence?,” I can hear him asking in his Texas drawl, even though he died on New Year’s Day, 1997. Our paths crossed several months ago when I was contacted by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and asked to write a piece for the catalogue of a major retrospective of Eija-Liisa’s work called Parallel Worlds. She had read some of my work (What Is Posthumanism?, I think) and asked them to contact me—and that made for an invitation that was hard to resist.
John Newman and B. Wurtz
John Newman first came across my radar in a conversation I had with Richard Tuttle a few years ago. Shortly after, I was invited to curate an exhibition at White Columns, in New York City. John wrote me a letter, care of the gallery, saying that he related a lot to the exhibition—which consisted of a range of sculptures—and wondered if I might be interested in meeting with him. B. Wurtz is a mystery. When I first saw the name, I didn’t know if it belonged to a man or a woman. When I first saw the work, I assumed it was by a much younger artist. When I saw an exhibition he curated at White Columns, it was clear that he was collapsing the conventional demarcations between outsider and insider, sincerity and irony, conceptual and formal. When I asked around about him, he was thought to be an esteemed village elder of the burgeoning Lower East Side scene.
Expansive, thrilling, attuned, and fearless are all adjectives that come to mind when thinking about the work of Brian Evenson, but so do prolific, generous, thoughtful, and kind. Both on the page and as a human, Evenson is the kind of author any person could aspire to follow in the wake of; I know I have, devouring each of his books not once but multiple times as soon as I can get my hands on them. This year marks the advent of two new works in this continuum: Immobility, a novel released on the legendary sci-fi label Tor, and, this summer, Windeye, Evenson’s newest collection of short fiction, a work as psychologically taut and recursively terrifying as anything he’s produced thus far.
Wayne Koestenbaum is my dream doppelgänger, or maybe he’s the long-lost older brother I wish I had. We’re both nerdy, culture-obsessed Jewish guys with a proclivity toward dandyism who love to gossip. We met nearly a decade ago when I edited a book of Warhol interviews and was lucky enough to convince Wayne to write the postscript.
Cass McCombs and Ariel Pink
Cass McCombs’s 2011 albums, WIT’S END and Humor Risk, are the work of one of the finest singer-songwriters currently working. He draws on the history of everything implied by that mossy title—“singer-songwriter”—as well as on traditions more occult and obscured from the golden California afternoon sunshine that suffuses his music. As with most things, California or not, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface, dark things as well as light, all precisely etched into the songs by McCombs’s oracular words and trademark croon—as alien, distant, and warm as Dion’s or Merle Haggard’s.
Ralph Lemon—a duende with duende. He is a duende in the sense of that mischievous mythical creature of Spanish lore—an impish and magical provocateur. He knows that the difference between artistic disciplines is that there’s no difference between artistic disciplines. He zips audaciously through and past the dance world, onto which most people would like to staple him, into visual art—drawing, photography, video—and winds up making books. In just the last year and a half, he has toured the country with an exploration of “excessive public mourning” called How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?; exhibited 1856 Cessna Road, an installation of video and photographs based on his collaboration with the late Walter Carter, a black centenarian of Yazoo City, Mississippi, at the Studio Museum in Harlem; and presented an all-day performance installation as part of Parallels at Danspace Project, a 12-hour response to his part in a 1982 series of black choreography curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones.
In Ireland in the 1980s, when I was starting to write, there was a relationship between the Irish theater and its audience that was raw, visceral, and immediate. As new plays came—by Brian Friel, or Billy Roche, or Frank McGuinness (and later by Marina Carr, Sebastian Barry, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Enda Walsh, and Mark O’Rowe)—there was a sense of real expectation and excitement. And as older classic Irish plays were performed by a new generation of Irish actors, that excitement was also there. Two of this period’s central figures entered our spirit and transformed the country in ways both clear and mysterious: the playwright Tom Murphy, who was born in Tuam in the west of Ireland in 1935, and the director Garry Hynes, almost 20 years younger than Murphy.
In the following paragraph, lifted from the famous short story by Jorge Luis Borges “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” let’s replace “one of the state prisons” with “Yale School of Art” and “convicts” with “students.” The governor of one of the state prisons informed the inmates that in the ancient bed of a river there were a number of burial sites, and he promised freedom to anyone who made an important find. During the months preceding the excavation, the convicts were shown photographs of what they were likely to discover. The first attempt proved that hope and greed can be a hindrance; the only hrön unearthed by a week’s work with pick and shovel was a rusty wheel of later date than the start of the excavation. This was kept secret, and shortly afterwards the experiment was repeated in schools. Three managed to find next to nothing; in the fourth, whose head died in an accident at the outset, the pupils dug up—or produced—a gold mask, an archaic sword, two or three clay amphorae, and the greenish, legless trunk of a king whose breast bore an inscription that has never been deciphered [ . . . ] Curiously, hrönir of the second and third degree— hrönir derived from another hrön, hrönir derived from the hrön of a hrön –magnify the flaws of those of the first degree; fifth-degree hrönir are almost identical; those of the ninth can be confused with those of the second; those of the eleventh show a purity of line that the originals do not possess. The progression is regular, and a twelfth-degree hrön is already in a state of deterioration.