Interview with Garnet C. Butchart

© Garnet C. Butchart and Figure/Ground
Dr. Butchart was interviewed by Andrew Hines. December 19th, 2013.

Garnet C. Butchart (PhD, Massachusetts-Amherst) is Assistant Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University. He specializes in semiotics and philosophy of communication. His research has been published in leading communication journals including, Semiotica, Communication Theory, Social Semiotics, Communication Culture & Critique, The Review of Communication, and elsewhere. His research has been recognized nationally and internationally with awards from the Philosophy of Communication Division of the International Communication Association (ICA), the Semiotics and Communication Division of the National Communication Association (NCA), and the Philosophy of Communication Division of NCA. In 2013 he received the Journal Article of the Year award from the Philosophy of Communication Division of NCA. Dr. Butchart has held teaching appointments at universities in the United States and Canada. He has lectured on ethics and visual semiotics by invitation of the Jerusalem Center for Ethics in Israel. He is a Scholar (elected) of the International Communicology Institute (ICI) and a member of the Executive Board (elected) of the Semiotic Society of America (SSA). Dr. Butchart’s current research examines the ideas of community and communication in recent movements in contemporary continental philosophy. He is co-editor of Philosophy of Communication (MIT Press, 2012).

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

The choice was conscious, but I’m not sure if that which brought me to it was. I do know that taking this route was inspired initially by my undergraduate education in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. Truly exceptional communication scholars led my courses at SFU. Their lectures made a significant impression on me. So did the seminars, especially the famous course on Innis, McLuhan and Grant, led by Roman Onufrijchuck—a true intellectual. His approach to reading primary sources prepared me well for graduate school, gave me a sense of what post-graduate training would be like. I think being in Vancouver was also a factor in my career decision. Attending university in a diverse urban setting broadened the way I saw the world. But ultimately it was the literature—the ideas—that drew me in the direction of an academic career. Most of my courses in communication left me wanting more of the philosophical background: What is phenomenology? How does it relate to the study of media? What is structuralism? What is post-structuralism? And this word, “semiotics,” why is it lodged in the back of my mind? I had these questions—really, I thought about this stuff—and I wanted answers. So I applied to graduate school.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

The main lesson was: Read. Read a lot. Otherwise, writing suffers. I learned this from all of my mentors. Charles Acland taught me how to refine the scope and limits of a research topic—how to understand the broader problematic into which a research project will intervene, and to prepare for questions about why I chose this topic, why these questions, and from this point of view, rather than related topics, questions, and other points of view. During my doctoral work, my advisor, Briankle Chang had similar advice: Read widely, and also, take time. We are always short of time, aren’t we? And we must finish our degrees in a timely fashion. But the labour of reading—reading carefully—and of critical thinking also demand time. Obviously, taking time makes for high quality scholarship.

In your experience, has the role of a university professor evolved since you were a student?

Not too much, I hope. Today we hear of “flipped classrooms” and the idea that lectures are ineffective for learning. I’m not so sure. I think the basic role of the humanities professor remains consistent; namely, to question why our world appears as it does, and to imagine it differently. Bringing that into the classroom can be quite inspiring. When we teach, we hope to inspire intellectual curiosity. Part of the goal of the professor is to provide intellectual resources to help students add meaning to their lives. Another part is to provide a skill set for the job market. Personally, I think the two are bound together. Theory is a practical way to talk about the world. I don’t think this basis of a humanities-based education has changed. I am always mindful of the importance of broadening the marketplace identity of a Communication BA. The Communication graduate is haunted by the question, “What is Communication?” I try to emphasize the cultural, and not merely instrumental value of an education in Communication. I try to talk about big ideas in grounded ways, linked to issues and topics that effect students as citizens. And if I can build student confidence in speaking persuasively about the value of their time in university, then I take that as a success.

Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by a world in which attention is fractured by media and information overload?

Right now changes are happening to how we think, learn, and interact with the world. Being present in the classroom, or anywhere else, is always an exercise in mindfulness. I think attention today is, indeed, at a higher premium, in large part because of our investments in our digital devices. Our investments in these devices are real—“media are extensions of ourselves,” as McLuhan says. Smartphones are among our most vital organs. Personal media devices will arrive to the classroom not as tools of distraction, but literally as part of who we are. So I think it’s crucial to acknowledge this. Given these circumstances, I think the best strategy for teaching and learning is to be flexible and open in the digital media environment rather than rigid. I try to make learning as interactive as possible, and I invite integration of devices into the learning process. I want to learn from the knowledge my students have, and from their skill in finding content to add to the course. So I approach the classroom as an “expert co-learner,” to use Howard Rheingold’s phrase. I also try to engage students in dialogue, and not simply lecture. I ask my students to undertake group problem solving activities and to engage the course material collaboratively. I don’t want to say that the lecture model is finished. Far from it. But I do think that lectures have to be dynamic and stimulating today in order to hold attention. This is why collaborative work and dialogue can help significantly to facilitate learning. It is an exciting time in education. Inability to pay attention in class has as much to do with media and multitasking as it does with bad lectures!

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?

That was in 1964 and I think it’s still too soon to tell. I’m not sure that the authority of the university is undermined in the age of information. For example, because of the flexibilities afforded by innovations in mobile communication and interactive media, the demand for online education has increased—it makes practical sense, and it is highly profitable. Part of the demand is for certification. Because of its history, the modern university really has the advantage here—its authority is to certify. Still, I don’t think this means the university won’t have competition and won’t have to work to maintain its legitimacy. It must, and it has. Consider the whole “MOOC” phenomenon. Who knows what that will look like a year from now. But at present, those courses are wildly popular not only because of the flexible form of their delivery, but also because of the certification students can get from them. The leaders behind this movement are some of the world’s wealthiest and elite universities. But not all universities can pull this off. I’d say the university, as an institution in general, is very good at leveraging high speed computing, mobile and interactive media for promoting and maximizing profitability in its education services. And as more of the curriculum goes online, the university has the distinct advantage of profiting from a global surplus of intellectual labour. We can’t overlook that aspect. So, although I don’t see the authority of the university being threatened just yet, I do think your question gets us thinking about the quality of education, the future of the humanities, and the funding structures that traditionally support salaries. Are these under threat? I think so.

In the wake of several authors (like the philosopher Alain Badiou and the controversial psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan) you maintain that many visible things, like our speeches or the political systems we live in, are built around a “void”. This void is not just an empty space within which things move, nor can it be a sheer “nothing” if it is to produce visible effects. Avoiding the roughness of the technical jargon of metaphysics, how can this “void” be conceived?

We can add Merleau-Ponty to the names you’ve mentioned. This “void” is not a mysterious concept. I have characterized it in a number of ways, following a basic, Lacanian psychoanalytic framework. Put simply, a void is that which cannot be seen from the perspective we typically bring to a given situation. A void is that around which a situation is structured, given its order. As you point out, the void of a situation is not simply invisible, nor is it empty. Rather, the problem is that a void cannot be “seen” from the point of view that is typically brought to bear on a situation. That’s why it is a void, not something else. For example, in communication a void is not nothing, manifest, say, in silence, as with the absences within one’s speech, or in the avoidance of certain topics. A “void” in that sense is not simply a void in the possibility for communication. Rather, as Peter Fenves has said, “a void of communication is communicated whenever communication is avoided.” So, in order to recognize the significance of a void in communication (spoken, visual, or so-called non-verbal) one must shift perspective. That is, although what a person says may appear empty or meaningless in a given situation (say, in a specific conversation), the so-called void, absence, or emptiness in conversation might in fact conceal what the person wants to say and the significance of it for the kind of relation he or she wants with the other person. Whatever can be communicated cannot always be communicated clearly. Now, to shift perspective in order to recognize that which structures a situation but cannot, as such, be seen, this is no easy task—in politics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, or in conversation! It requires one to approach a situation from a perspective that may not be one’s own, which is very hard to do. And why would anyone want to do this anyway? The short answer is, to transform radically what Badiou calls the “state of affairs” of a situation. To change the order of things—here I am thinking especially about relations of exploitation, the so-called “precariate,” surplus labor, to mention a current and extremely pressing example. This would require locating that specific group or “class” as the very void on top of which a given state of affairs is structured (capitalist exploitation, dispossession, put simply), but is often overlooked. What does it look like? What are its contours? And, how do we make the conditions better? Obviously, transforming the state of a situation is not easy.

You have published articles about the notion of “truth” in documentary. Beyond the definitions that have been provided, you have argued that visual perception is the truth in a documentary. But visual perception is not immediately visible itself, so a documentary “tells the truth” about itself only if it brings visual perception into view, lingering on what you call “the situation of documentary.” What is this about? Technically, how can it be rendered? And, is this framework valid for other visual arts?

It’s a good question. I am afraid that my answer might be too simplistic. But let me reiterate what I said a moment ago because I think the answer to this question is in there somewhere. What I called “void” a moment ago is really just another name for the limits of thought; it marks that which one does not, or does not yet, know or see. A void is not nothing; it is that which, in fact, compels one to look, to think. This is the image (or sense) of the void that I have whenever I invoke it in my writings. What is it that compels us, or stirs us, to look, to think, to wonder? It is that which we do not yet know or cannot yet see. The void is that which “appears” between the visible and the invisible. It is that out of which, or across which, the invisible must appear in order to be seen. It is within this philosophical framework that I have written about documentary as an enterprise in bringing to visibility that which is not yet seen. What is documentary? I’m not sure. What does it do? Well, one thing documentary film and video does is teach us something about the world, and it does so from a point of view that the viewer may not have thought about, may not have seen. As I have argued in print, the real story about any documentary (its truth, as it were) concerns that which is not on screen, that which really cannot be seen because it is so painfully blinding—namely, the point of view from which the world on screen is depicted. This is certainly not a new idea. Not long ago, film theorists writing about this topic linked it to the problem of ideology, talked about it in terms of continuity editing, seamlessness, this sort of thing. They were talking about process, the machinery of looking that quickly disappears behind all that it gives to be seen (the assemblage of images on the screen). Movies are beautiful precisely because they draw us in; they do the work of looking for us. The perspective of the film implies the viewer. So what I have done in my research is to focus on the semiotic-phenomenological aspects of image-making, which we rarely hear about in media theory and ethics. Thinking about image making as a process that is framed, entered into, and negotiated brings us beyond largely irresolvable issues of individual morality, as well as bringing us beyond simple, sometimes trivial textual analysis, allowing us to focus instead on the relations enabled and constrained by visual media—relations of communication that we experience at a fundamentally embodied level. Basically, my goal of offering a semiotic phenomenology of looking, showing, and being seen has been to bring communication into view as a reversible relation—the idea that self-expression becomes the perception of others, an interpretation of an expression of a perception. Richard Lanigan, one of the most important philosophers of communication, has written extensively on this semiotic phenomenology of communication.

Part of your recent work is aimed to establish philosophy of communication as an independent field of inquiry. Could you give us an outline of the key issues in this area? Also, we might think about communication as a linear and internally coherent process. What is the role of conflict in communication?

Philosophy of communication as an area of inquiry has been around for nearly 40 years, shaped by the work of several communication scholars in the United States, Canada, and Europe. As I see it, philosophy of communication is concerned with communication as a problematic. It is an effort to think philosophically about some of the basic problems and issues that legitimize raising “communication” as a topic of inquiry to begin with. It puts what you call the linearity and internal coherence of communication into question as a presupposition; and it sees conflict (great example!) as a critical feature of the possibility of communication as well as community (which I will say more about in a moment). So, we never presuppose this thing, “communication.” Communication is a horizon for inquiry into topics that are fundamental to the meaning of being human. For example, philosophy of communication (or, a philosophical approach to human communication) includes basic questions of language (e.g., how is that the sounds I am making are intelligible to you? How is it that these sounds, or words—signs, which are part of semiotic systems—how do they bring structure to sense and meaning to my lived environment?); it includes key questions of media (e.g., what can the phenomenology of a given medium—a description of the conscious experience of its practices—tell us about a specific period in human culture?); philosophy of communication includes questions of consciousness (e.g., how am I aware of my lived environment? How do I become aware of my awareness of my environment? How do I experience the discourses of which I am a part?); it includes questions of difference (e.g., how are semiotic systems organized? What are the rules or codes that govern the exchange of signs?); it also includes questions of ethics (e.g., what kind of relation is established in and by way of communication? What role do other people play in my awareness of self?). These are some of the core questions. Drawing attention to them in a way that makes the contemporary study of communication crackle with life is the goal of my co-edited book, Philosophy of Communication. What we’ve tried to do in that collection is to bring together some of the most insightful and foundational works of continental philosophy that help characterize the scope of communication as a problematic, and to arrange those works in ways that may be unexpected but will, hopefully, stimulate further philosophical inquiry in our field.

What are you currently working on?

Right now I am working on a book devoted to the topic of “community” in the continental philosophical tradition. Obviously the topic of community is fundamental to the study of communication. But in the past three years, there has been a major spike in articles on community published in mainstream Communication journals, articles on the topic of building community, on online communities, on networks as communities, and so on. However, my interest is quite different. I am interested in the idea of community. What do communication scholars mean by “community”? What does the idea or concept of community add to our understanding of communication (of shared understanding, of subjectivity as intersubjectivity)? The question of community is a question of its possibility. What are the limits of community, especially today, in the collapse of communities and in the contexts of appeals to it that have gone terribly, horrifically wrong? Some answers to these questions can be found in the philosophical works by Jean Luc Nancy, Roberto Esposito, and Giorgio Agamben, to name a few. As I read these and other European scholars who share in the conversation about community, such as Peter Sloterdijk, there is an implicit philosophy (and ethics) of communication. For example, Nancy’s ontology of community is an attempt to introduce new terms for thinking about the lived condition of our co-occurrence, what he calls “being-with” and its articulation—its communication. Or take Sloterdijk’s “theory of spheres” [Bubbles, Semiotext, 2011], which I read as a radical philosophy of being together, but from the perspective of form. Sloterdijk develops an intriguing vocabulary—spheres, orbs, foam—that draws attention to the shape of our surroundings, the shape of the outside, and the phenomenon of “globe-alization.” The relevance of both projects to communication is the focus they bring to the boundaries that structure the experience of being together. As we know, a boundary (that which is included within, and at the same time, remains outside of what it contains) is the very condition of possibility for both communication and community. Sloterdijk’s “sphere-ology” and Nancy’s “being-with,” two unique philosophies of boundaries, contact, and communication, broaden our thinking about the contours of our concrete, lived situations. So the goal of my current work is to draw out and to offer a critical synthesis of these recent philosophical perspectives on community and communication.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Garnet C. Butchart and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Hines, A. (2013). “Interview with Garnet C. Butchart,” Figure/Ground. December 19th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

INCREDIBLE MACHINES Conference March 7-8, 2014

March 7-8, 2014
SFU Woodwards, Vancouver

Incredible Machines: Digitality and the Modern System of Knowledge at the Threshold of the 21st Century
Goldcorp Centre for the Arts
149 W Hastings St. Vancouver, BC

Friday March 7, 6:00-9:30 PM.
Saturday March 8: 10:00 AM – 6:30 PM.

In conjunction with Access Gallery, the independent curator Mohammad Salemy presents Incredible Machines, a conference addressing different aspects of the expanding role of networked computers and digital processes in the production of knowledge.


A spectre is haunting the space of knowledge — the spectre of telecomputation. Unlike the modern age when scientific authority and the idea of objectivity were typically embodied in concrete objects like atlases, encyclopedias, books and photographs, the materiality and credibility of human knowledge in the contemporary moment is determined to a great extent by the gathering and sharing, as well as the algorithmic processing and visualization of digital data. This new space has been materialized by the technical synthesis of mass telecommunication and mass computation, enabling a new kind of collective production of knowledge unseen in human history. Resting upon the computational promise of ever-new developments in hardware, software, and network technologies, a visually dynamic, statistically driven and object-oriented form of structural positivism has emerged as the dominant condition for the production and dissemination of knowledge.

Starting first in the natural and social sciences and later in the humanities, the ‘digital turn’ has recently begun to reshape how artists look at the world, conceive of their practices and connect with audiences. Incredible Machines probes the ramifications of knowledge production’s dependence on machines, mechanical thinking and telecomputation as well as the theoretical and practical entanglement of technological apparatuses with aesthetic theory and art practices.

Many artists, philosophers and scholars from a variety of fields agree that the widespread use of networked computers in the last two decades has forever transformed the overlapping relations between art, technology and the process of knowledge production. What is still contested however are the ways in which this shift affects the overlap between knowledge and power, or rather, how technological changes might be incorporated into an inherently political understanding of the contemporary theory of knowledge.

Keynote Speakers:
Alexander R. Galloway, Suhail Malik, Reza Negarestani
Planetary Session Moderator:
Jaleh Mansoor

Other Participants:
Benjamin H. Bratton, Clint Burnham, Michael Ferrer, Daniel Sacilotto, Benedict Singleton, Nick Srnicek, McKenzie Wark, Benjamin Woodard

Ali Ahadi, Morehshin Allahyari, Julieta Aranda, Samuel Forsythe, Kate Henderson, Gelare Khoshgozaran, Nick Land, Jason LaRiviere, Judith Rodenbeck, Brian Rogers, Nooshin Rostami, Rory Rowan, Martha Schwendener, Robin Simpson, T’ai Smith, Kate Steinmann, Jayne Wilkinson

In addition to physical attendance, those interested in participating in the conference are welcome to attend the conference online by using the following links during the events:

Incredible Machine Session I (Friday)

Incredible Machine Session II (Saturday)

Admission is free with registration:

The Incredible Machines conference marks the second phase of a multi-part curatorial project by the independent curator Mohammad Salemy, which began in September 2013 with an exhibition at Vancouver’s Access Gallery, where he is currently curator-in-residence. The exhibition, Encyclonospace Iranica, showcased works by nine Iranian artists who responded to the relationship between telecomputation and knowledge production proposed by the Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani.

Incredible Machines is generously sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts, with additional support from the University of British Columbia’s Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, Simon Fraser University [Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, the Institute for the Humanities, Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures] and the Global Center for Advanced Studies.

Press Contact:
Krista Bailie

Additional Information:
Email (
Website (
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Instagram (

Calvin O. Schrag – “The Communicative Turn in Philosophical Discourse”

Calvin O. Schrag – “The Communicative Turn in Philosophical Discourse”

Calvin O. Schrag delivered the lecture “The Communicative Turn in Philosophical Discourse” at Purdue University on Thurs. Feb. 20th, 2014, as part of Purdue University’s Illuminations lecture series.

See our 2011 interview with Professor Schrag here.

Calvin O. Schrag is the George Ade Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus of Purdue University. A graduate of Yale and Harvard, a Fulbright Scholar at Heidelberg and Oxford Universities, a Guggenheim Fellow at the University of Freiburg, and a co-founder of the international philosophical quarterly Continental Philosophy Review, he is the author of nine books, of which the most recently published are The Self After Postmodernity (1999), God as Otherwise Than Being: Toward a Semantics of the Gift (2002), and Convergence Amidst Difference: Philosophical Conversations Across National Boundaries (2004).

A. The Epistemological Turn
1. Obsession with Foundations
2. Rules and Criteriology
3. The Kantian Response
B. The Hermeneutical Turn
1. Interpretive Understanding
2. Functioning Intentionality
3. The Heideggerian Contribution
C. The Communicative Turn
1. Communication as Constitutive of Knowledge
2. Communication and the Being Question
3. A Non-Foundationalist colloquy ergo sum
D. Toward a Communicative Ethics
1. Critique of Value Theory
2. An Ethic of the Fitting Response
3. The Grammar of the Gift

“Living (Playful) Process” by Eileen Joy

“No, David Graeber, You Did Not Invent a New Law of Reality, and Yes, Barbara Ehrenreich, That Science Does Exist.”

By Eileen Joy*

1024px-Haeckel_AmphorideaThe Baffler has dedicated their current issue (no. 24) to the subject of play, and in their online blurb of the contents they announce that, in David Graeber’s contribution, “What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?”, Graeber “hopscotches over the robotic universe of contemporary science and winds up inventing a new law of reality” (that would be the “principle of ludic freedom”), and they also tell us that Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece, “A Thing or Two about a Thing or Two, a.k.a. Science,” a sort of companion to Graeber’s essay, “calls for a science that can explain why fun is fun.” The (admittedly) overly-simplified gist of both Graeber’s and Ehrenreich’s pieces is that anti-ludic rationalism has gripped the halls of Science (and more largely, the Academy) for too long and that a new appreciation of the role of creative (and non-utilitarian) volition and play, in not only human but also nonhuman life, is long overdue in the sciences and social sciences. Their more detailed arguments are intellectually supple and compelling, especially with regard to the point, with which I am in hearty agreement, that play and creative agency need to be taken more seriously, and may even be the reason that the universe exists (or, as a friend of mine Nicola Masciandaro once remarked, “whim may be the reason for anything happening at all”). But Graeber and Ehrenreich also somewhat misrepresent (and under-report) the past and present state of research and inquiry into play, which has been quite vigorous (if not always welcomed by everyone) across multiple disciplines, and therefore they also reinscribe some unfortunate barriers between different fields not only within the sciences (such as, between evolutionary biology and theoretical physics) but also between science and other disciplines (such as, between theoretical physics and philosophy of mind, or between cybernetics and poetry, and so on). They also do not seem to be aware of how many researchers in the humanities, partly under the influence of scientific theories having to do with subjects such as autopoeisis and emergence and plasticity, are quite keen on the question of play and new (not always human) forms of agential realism — the videogame theory and alien phenomenology of Ian Bogost being only one prominent recent example (and I mention him because he shares space with Graeber and Ehrenreich in this issue of The Baffler).


It goes without saying, of course, that different fields may hew to certain founding principles and methodologies that make sharp disagreements between fields about how the world works unavoidable and we should welcome such dissensus as critical to moving knowledge forward. Real beliefs and material outcomes are at stake, and I can well understand why David Graeber, an anarchist activist and one of the founding members of the Occupy movement (for which I admire him greatly, I might add), would care about the fight between neo-Darwinists who believe the universe is driven by mechanistically-determined competition and the other (more radical) evolutionary biologists who see the world as emerging from various forms of cooperation and not always self-serving altruism. But as the University, and especially its more speculative disciplines — such as those found within the humanities, but also in the more theoretical sciences — have come under severe renewed threats in recent years, it may be that the time has also come for uncovering and also fostering unlikely disciplinary collaborations and alliances that would be aimed at enabling more of that play of ideas so critical as well to moving knowledge forward. It is thus somewhat dismaying that the depictions of different academic fields in both Graeber’s and Ehrenreich’s pieces, although motivated by an admirable desire to promote the role of play in human and other existence, devolve into clichéd caricature. So, for example, for Graeber, scientists can only ever be “rationalists” who subject all of their observations to means-end calculations, and for Ehrenreich, Western science has traditionally “been on a mission to crush all forms of agency” due to its faith in “deterministic mechanisms.” While both Graeber and Ehrenreich allow that there have been cracks in this edifice of Science (with a capital “S”), the edifice somehow remains.

This subject is somewhat personal for me, as what I will call the problematic of play, enjoyment and affective intellectual life (and also the ways in which many in the Academy are unfortunately intent on drawing hard lines between so-called “intellect” and “emotion,” between “thinking” and “feeling,” between “serious” and “not-as-serious” research) has long concerned me and those who work alongside me in the BABEL Working Group (, a collective of humanists and others interested in collaborative play and experimentation across disciplines. We believe that the University serves as one of the last refuges and agoras of truly free modes of inquiry (and feeling), with a special emphasis on that “freedom” that Graeber also believes may be rooted in play and which is of no little consequence for understanding and enacting aliveness, self-consciousness, and ethical life. In general, as both Graeber’s and Ehrenreich’s pieces indicate, various forms of anti-ludic “rationalism” have long dominated scientific thinking and research, and I would add that they have even dominated more humanistic-artistic fields, such as literary and cultural studies, that you would think would be more open to playful approaches (and we can probably blame that on the various ways in which the American university initially shaped itself on some bad misunderstandings of 19th-century German Wissenschaft).

I thus admire Graeber’s and Ehrenreich’s calls for a reconsideration of the idea that the will to play might form the basis of our physical world (from electrons all the way to worms and elephants and beyond), and that play might also be the very non-mechanistic and pleasurably (if also chaotically) volitional means by which anything is possible at all. I also applaud Graeber’s insistence, especially, that ludic complexity can be extended to all levels of matter, including the atoms that make up the tables upon which we write, the ants that form colonies, the squirrels that wrestle with each other, and so on. But while Graeber and Ehrenreich credit and praise the physicists (and a few naturalists and philosophers) for being the most “receptive” to an understanding of the universe, in all of its human and non-human aspects, as inherently playful, they also lament the fact (as noted above) that researchers in scientific and social-scientific fields have for the most part been overly wedded to means-end (and other rational-mechanistic) explanations of how the universe works and therefore fail to notice other volitional and random creative forces at work in the world. As a result, they do not paint the most accurate (or fair) picture of what has been going on, with regard to what Graeber calls the “principle of ludic freedom,” in lots of fields, from evolutionary biology to ethology to psychology to theory of mind to political philosophy to cultural studies and beyond (and for much longer than just the past ten or so years).


As far back as 1891, the naturalist and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin’s who contributed important insights to evolutionary theories developing at that time, argued against the more grim “struggle for existence” picture of evolution, insisting instead that the primary impetus behind most species’ will to survive was to maximize their enjoyment of simply being alive. In the 1960s the pioneering microbiologist Lynn Margulis began formulating her endosymbiotic theories which argued for the existence of symbiotic and mutually cooperative (non-competitive) relationships at the non-cognitive cellular level, and this is also when psychologist Abraham Maslow was developing his theory of “peak experiences” in order to show how random and unpredictable moments of delirious (and non-rational) joy are conducive to (and also outcomes of) creativity and well-being. The French sociologist and surrealist Roger Caillois wrote multiple books in the 1960s exploring useless play and creativity not only in animal species but also in stones, and many ethologists from the 1970s onwards — such as David P. Barash, Barbara J. King, and Frans de Waal, among others — have explored the deep (non-calculable) emotional and creative life of animals. We have also had since the 1960s and 1970s figures such as psychobiologist and neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and biochemist Jesper Hoffmeyer who have helped to develop whole new fields — affective neurosciences and biosemiotics, respectively — that have shown the ways in which expressive, artistic, and appetitive (non-survival-driven) impulses, emotions and modes of communication shape much of human, animal and other life.

More recently, as Graeber hints at (but does not elaborate upon), there has also been a serious revival of interest in what the political philosopher Jane Bennett calls the “vibrant” and creative materialism of things, and many humanities and social science disciplines have recently been energized (with no little help from science disciplines) by a turn to the nonhuman and to critical examinations of the aliveness and agency of animals, objects, environments, and other nonhuman forces and propensities, all enmeshed with humans in what the philosopher of science Bruno Latour calls actor-networks and what philosopher of mind Andy Clark terms distributed cognition. That life may be a pleasure whose only end is more pleasure (and more life for its own sake!), and that this pleasure and the agencies that seek it might extend way beyond the human, and the important insights this state of affairs may bring to matters of ethical life, general well-being, improvements in healthcare, progressive political progress and social change, environmental stewardship, and the like have been well explored in many fields and for a long time, although with Graeber I’ll admit that there are many in the University today for whom this is an “intellectual scandal.” But it isn’t so much the faculty-researchers who are resistant to these important insights anymore, in either the humanities, social sciences, or the sciences, as it is the frighteningly increasing ranks of managerial-technocrat university administrators who increasingly want specialized fields within the University to justify their existence according to business-inspired protocols of efficiency and “strategic outcomes,” thus dangerously undermining the speculative inquiry and experimental play that has been so fundamental, historically, to the mission of the University.

It is unfortunate, then, that Graeber and Ehrenreich do not take note of much recent cross-disciplinary work that affirms and exemplifies in great detail a world that is anything but mechanistic, over-determined, and robotic, nor of work in areas such as robotics and artificial intelligence that ascribes to these entities more freedom and creativity than has previously been imagined by many. Again, the key here is not to inscribe too hard of a line between disciplines traditionally understood to not “play well” together (e.g., between computing and poetics), so that different and more progressive modes of knowing and being might become possible. The idea would be to not demand that the sciences get more humanistic or that the humanities get more scientistic, but that we somehow better recognize all of the ways in which both the sciences and the humanities have always been exemplifying each other’s insights, albeit in different landscapes and under different lights. Or to put it more poetically by way of Yeats, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” This, too, is a matter of “play” (how the humanities and sciences might better play with each other while also allowing that the other discipline has its own particular, and valuable, ways of understanding and representing a shared world), and I believe that one recent book, from which I culled much of my survey of multi-disciplinary work on play and creativity sketched above, L.O. Aranye Fradenburg’s Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts, points one important way forward in this regard (full disclosure: I am the editor and publisher of Staying Alive).

Fradenburg’s book goes to great lengths to provide a sweeping picture of the ways in which multiple disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences have long been affirming (from different routes) that it is play, and not necessity, that is the mother of invention. Fradenburg, a medievalist, psychologist, and public university advocate who teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara (where the institution of higher education has been under concerted assault for some time now), makes a compelling case in her book for new humanistic-scientific paradigms based on holistic and ecological approaches to knowledge-making rooted in the idea (exemplified in much scientific research) that “Nature always exceeds itself in its expressivity,” and therefore creative (and not always utilitarian nor self-serving) artfulness is necessary for adaptation and innovation, for forging rich and varied relationships with other minds, bodies and things, and thus for, not just surviving, but thriving in this world. Fradenuburg’s entire oeuvre, in fact, whether she is writing about medieval literature or neuroplasticity, has long been concerned with exemplifying what Graeber believes has been the overlooked insight of early naturalists such as Peter Kropotkin — that a chief aim of human and other life would appear to be engaging in excessive acts of creative expression designed to maximize sociability with others, even in the face of one’s own possible destruction for doing so.

Staying Alive is extraordinary for the ways in which it brings together evolutionary biology, ethology, psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology, medicine, cognitive studies, and literary-historical studies in order to map a profound paradigm shift that, in Fradenburg’s words, “affirms the creativity inherent in matter, for which chaos, drift, causal parity and contingency are just as significant as codes, templates and five-year-plans.”  Demonstrating how the inextricable knot of life, space, time (experience/memory), and creative self-expression — “the tight bond between living process and the arts” — is equally vital and present in cells, snails, honeybees, birds, persons, and so on, Fradenburg’s book makes a brilliant case for new and mutually sustaining relationships between the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities at a time when many university administrators would like to jettison the humanities and more speculative sciences in favor of curricula focused on engineering, math (computing), technology and the management of everything, as a result of which many universities are currently divided against themselves and free inquiry (and thus, the free range of the play of all ideas in and across all fields) is currently under attack. Fradenburg’s book offers a powerful polemic against the current managerial structure of the university, where faculty ranks are shrinking and posts for administrators are on the rise, and it also provides a rich variety of humanistic and social-scientific tools and strategies for conducting more mindfully (and pleasurably) artful lives under (or in spite of) the dark aegis of “the profound deprivation and constraint that putatively laissez-faire capitalism of the twenty-first century sort has in mind for us and our fellow creatures” — a point with which I feel certain Graeber, as the author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, would be in hearty agreement.

And thus it turns out that play is somewhat of a deadly serious matter in our present moment, and it requires all of the University’s disciplines working together to make the case that we can’t live, nor thrive, without it. This has something to do as well with crafting new forms of resistance to the transnational, neoliberal, capitalist regimes which seem hellbent on turning our dreams and other forms of creative volition into commodities in the space of a nanosecond, and where our every move is surveyed, digitized, and sold as data to whoever wants to purchase the information necessary to plot our moves in advance of our arrival at desires we no longer own. Play, for all of its pleasures and enjoyments, therefore treads in dangerous territories — we can be made slaves to play (cast as addictions) we do not invent nor own, but we can also use play as a tactical (and even hacktivist) maneuver to fight the status quo of what social theorists such as Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, and Anthony Giddens have termed our liquid, runaway, risk modernity, where the individual, in Bauman’s words, is “reshaped after the pattern of the electronic mole . . . a plug on castors, scuffling around in a desperate search for electrical sockets to plug into.” And if we don’t take up this challenge, we might just end up in the futuristic New York City of Jennifer Egan’s brilliant novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, in which babies drive the leading edge of consumer culture with specially-fitted handsets and touchscreens and audiences at rock concerts have their musical tastes and enjoyment manipulated by persons hired to pretend to be “enthusiasts” on Twitter and other social media. Or maybe that’s the world we live in now.

*Eileen A. Joy, Director
BABEL Working Group

Director, punctum books

A Conversation with Kristin Calabrese

© Kristin Calabrese and Figure/Ground
Kristin Calabrese was interviewed by Julia Schwartz by email in December, 2013 and January, 2014.

Calabrese_headshotBorn in San Francisco in 1968, Kristin Calabrese is a Los Angeles-based painter who received her MFA from UCLA in 1998.  Her paintings are imbued with multiple layers of meaning. Intentionally and intensely charged with psychological implications, the canvases eerily resonate on a subconscious level. Though in many cases Calabrese’s imagery seems at first benign, there is a troubling sense of apprehension that permeates her sense of play. Calabrese has exhibited with Gagosian, Leo Koenig, Saatchi Gallery, Susanne Vielmetter, amongst others, and is represented by Brennan & Griffin in New York. As well, her work has been included in exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum, WA, The Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA, and the San Francisco Art Institute, CA. and is included in such prestigious collections as the Neuberger Berman, Saatchi, and the Armand Hammer Museum.

Kristin, thanks so much for talking with me. Let’s just jump straight in. Can you talk about the sources for the hole paintings? Did you conceive of it as a series initially or was it a single painting that then evolved into a series/installation. Having seen them in life, they are incredibly rich as paintings, but also significant on other levels. ‘Unnerving’ as the New Yorker says. ‘Ungrounding’ as a philosopher might put it. Recently I was looking at an exchange of messages we had back in 2011, when you had written:

What I’m really trying to do is make my thoughts, feelings and emotions into something Real, something physical and unalterable, like a monument, or a stand-in for me

I think about how our paintings convey something about our state of mind or state of being, or as you put it, as a ‘stand-in’ for you; painting holes can say so much. And of course the viewer, every viewer has an experience of the work, and interpretation or relationship to the work. The hole is a thing but also an absence, and so on.

Kristin Calabrese, installation of Hole paintings

Kristin Calabrese, installation of Hole paintings

It’s so funny. I can’t help responding to what people think about my work, or at least what I think people think about my work. Part of me wants to avoid being affected. I strive to make something that speaks to something more important than where my work is situated in the tides of public opinion. The other part of me readily engages in my perception of the shifting perception of the larger art conversation. Because I often paint hyper-realistically, I started to become aware that some people (who probably aren’t painters) were getting the idea that I was unable to paint in a more painterly way – which means with big brush marks showing. It’s always a challenge to make a good painting, no matter what style of brush marks you use, but the amount of sheer painstaking perfectionism and labor involved in hyper-realism is undeniable, and for me it is much easier and faster to make a gestural painting. I usually just can’t stand most painterly paintings – more if they’re mine though, than if they’re anyone else’s. Big paint marks in realism and even abstraction sometimes contain for me a repellent grandiosity – as if they’re saying “look at my SWOOSH!” My paintings have a more practical, earnest and when painterly, honest presentation.

Kristin Calabrese pretty hole, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen or printed upholstery fabric, 2013

Kristin Calabrese pretty hole, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen or printed upholstery fabric, 2013

Unlike many of my paintings, my hole paintings are painterly. I began them because I owe some artists paintings in trades and unlike my tighter paintings which can take up to 4 months for even a very small one like “First Kiss; Homeless on Venice Beach” or it’s later incarnation, “Punk Rock Fairy Tale”, I can paint a hole painting in a time span ranging from 20 minutes to two days. The first ones I made were from pictures taken from a google search. I made about four that way. What’s cool about painting a hole in the ground is that basically it’s a black circle in the middle of the canvas with brown around it. You don’t need very much to make it a hole. I also like that it’s the illusion of a hole going into a wall which doesn’t exist and most of them appear to have a hole which is deeper than the hole the painting is hanging on.

After the first few google image based paintings, I started asking friends for hi-res pictures of holes. I had some friends who really sent me a lot of pictures – some from as far away as London and Australia. I also started painting holes from life – bought a portable outdoor easel and set up a painting kit so I can paint from looking. What I noticed in doing that is that most of the pictures had greatly altered the light, exaggerating brightness and contrast, whereas on site sometimes the lightest light would be almost as dark as the darkest dark.

The other thing about the holes is that, when arranged in a grid, the black (spots which are the holes) relate to each other, making diagonal lines consisting of black spots over the entire installation. I really love that.

I’m still making hole paintings, working on an installation that is more planned out. I’m painting all of the new ones in real life.

I really like the way you speak of the holes being ungrounded. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but it does make sense – which is thrilling. One of my favorite things about painting is that I feel my unconscious speaks to me through the images similarly to dreams so it’s really exciting when I discover something about them. It’s like decoding another language.

Yes! For me this is pretty much how I see the painting process, much like dream work or an analytic process. 

Also, concerning my proclivity toward realism –

I think realism is particularly important to me because I was raised in a dysfunctional family where all the players acted in typical dysfunctional ways. An extreme example – my Dad was physically and explosively violent towards me. Weeks, days or even minutes later, my Mom would deny that the experience had ever happened. It was like that with everything. I was constantly told that something hadn’t been said that had; something hadn’t happened that had indeed happened.

For me, painting is a concrete monument to the thoughts, ideas, and feelings that I put on the canvas. The viewer cannot say something isn’t there or true or didn’t happen because it’s right there in plain sight.

Kristin Calabrese  Art as Bandaid, 2011 oil on linen 84 x 84 inches

Kristin Calabrese Art as Bandaid, 2011 oil on linen 84 x 84 inches

The more we have talked about this especially while I’m looking at your work, the more profound that is. Art and in particular, hyper- realism is life-saving more than perfectionism and skill or technique (well, it’s that, too.)  But it’s a kind of protection against annihilation or being erased  like parents who said ‘oh that didn’t happen.’ Also, the more I get this about the work, the more moving it is. I think that’s why I ended up moved to tears at the installation in Westwood where you had done all those paintings of walls and corners. 

You’re so nice. What you say, I agree with. It’s complicated though. There are so many simultaneously complimentary and conflicting reasons for everything in the paintings.

It’s disturbing to read what you write about the paintings in the Westwood house. I have some pictures of those actually but haven’t posted them anywhere because it’s a work in progress. It’s a real treat to get to write to you because of your clear-eyed angle on things.

Why is what I said disturbing? that’s interesting. Are you saying that someone has a reaction to your work and that affects you and then there’s a ricocheting effect on your work that affects that work …? And why am I nice? 

I guess I’m saying you’re nice because you’re open and artwork moves you but also because you’re looking at my work, thinking about it, and telling me what you see. 

Oh. Got it.

Can we talk about your art education?

My early training in painting (undergrad at San Francisco Art Institute) was very formal. By formal I mean we talked about how a painting was constructed in terms of composition, paint application, flatness of the picture plane or pictorial illusion, and surface quality, but almost never about content. My paintings have always been sort of idea driven. Sometimes I start with a fully formed picture in my mind that comes in a flash; sometimes I think of some sort of conflict or situation that I want to describe – usually in a way that visually describes some sort of analogous system of relationships and then come up with an image; and sometimes I have a sentence in my head that either becomes an image or sometimes gets an image to go with it but remains a word on the canvas. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that I feel like I get understanding from the paintings, but I don’t go at them necessarily knowing what they mean, so it’s very nice that you are translating some of the images for me.

This is why I was disturbed to read that you looked at the paintings of the corners and the walls in the Westwood house and said they moved you to tears because there were so many corners and wall. When the opportunity came up to spend time painting in the dilapidated Westwood house, all I thought upon first visit was that I could paint it plein air like I was painting the holes and it would be fun. I wasn’t thinking about any heavy content. I was just thinking formally. As I was painting them it did start to become clear that I was making particular decisions. The house had a lot of original decor from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, which reminded me of the interiors of the houses I’d grown up in. I used to sit and stare at areas where patterns would line up. While choosing areas to paint in the Westwood house, I came to realize I was choosing areas  I would have stared at and played eye games with if I had lived in that house when I was a kid. It never dawned on me that there was some kind of content in the paintings relating to being cornered or up against a wall, which I did realize when I read what you wrote – which was disturbing. It made me think that all of my paintings are sad – and it’s true, they are sad, but I’m not particularly sad. I’m joyous when I have an idea for a painting to make.

I don’t go about it all thinking about the viewer all the time though. I also just paint what I want to experience in a painting as well – stuff that seems fun. I get a thrill when I figure out an image for a painting. I love it when other people love it too. My husband loves all my paintings though, so that’s helpful.

Or maybe as a kid, I was also looking at a lot of walls and corners… 

What you are saying about how you go about setting up and creating a situation for the viewer to experience your uneasy feeling dovetails with the next question about routines. 

Do you want to talk about your process and the nuts and bolts of making a painting now? I keep looking at this painting Depth of Field. 

Kristin Calabrese Depth of Field, 2013 Oil on linen 78 x 66 inches

Kristin Calabrese Depth of Field, 2013 Oil on linen 78 x 66 inches

I sort of think of that painting as a feeling of something that I call “the soul wind”. It’s a feeling – energy rushing through you. It’s actually in some ways supposed to be sort of the opposite of another painting that I made, also of flowers, called “Hold Your Breath”, but it took on a whole bunch of contortions in the making of it – exaggerations and I backed away from using real spray paint on it, rather trompe l’oeil spray paint cutting behind the flowers towards the bottom.

I also read all these fantasy books when I was maybe 8 or 9 or 10 or so by Anne McCaffrey about dragons in a mystical fantasy earth where, I can’t totally remember, but in one quest the protagonists were traveling towards the place where the land ends and maybe there’s nothing beyond it. I think of that painting like that too.

So about the formal qualities of the painting vs. the imagery – I think those are really just separate things in my mind. The formal content of the painting certainly does give the imagery weight in particular directions, but the places in my brain that think about these things are separate. Maybe that is why painting operates like dreaming for me, making a space for the images to be but not having to go after the images in a linear way – instead focusing more on the more formal aspects of how to construct a painting.

I really love Depth of Field because it is beautiful. I used mostly Williamsburg paint for the really saturated background colors and their colors are luscious! The deep pinks and oranges are just a color that can really be felt. It’s painted on super special portrait linen that I ordered special for it from NY Central Art Supply that was primed maybe three times with rabbit skin glue. The portrait linen is very smooth, but not as smooth as sanded gesso. It’s a relatively absorbent seeming surface, so you have to use a lot of paint even to get what doesn’t seem like thick paint. I paint on all types of surfaces with a lot of different kinds of brushes and paint, not just one type, so the one I painted before that was on gessoed canvas, so it’s noticeable the first few days on a new painting with a new surface. There are huge differences in how much medium the paint needs and how much paint you have to use.

For that painting, I made a still life that was 30 feet long. First I bought a bunch of flowers. Then I put them in vases until they started to rot. Then I hung them upside-down under plastic so they could dry and not smell. I wanted them to become naturally black with mold and dry straight, but unfortunately they dried brown so I had to spray-paint the flowers black. Then I set them up in vases in a line that spanned about 10 feet, ending about 15 feet in front of a wall that I set up to lean at a 45 degree angle that was painted with bands of color that was to serve as the backdrop. Because that wall is at a 45 degree angle, the sunlight from my windows that are 10 feet in the air fall on the wall and make the backdrop have lighting effects that make them sort of like a real sunset. Thinking about it now, the color saturation of that painting is a little bit like the color saturation in one of the James Turrell pieces – obliterating the viewer’s ability to see space – whether it’s shallow or flat it’s impossible to tell – the space goes on forever or doesn’t go anywhere – basically it makes the viewer unable to see. Here’s a picture of the flowers set up from the side – just ignore my bicycle and the ladder and the other stuff…

I can see a James Turrell connection not only in the color but you are immersed because of the size of the painting, not so completely enveloped as with a Turrell piece but you are in a color experience, like a memory, an embodied experience.

I also thought of James Wellings’ work, in particular the video ‘Sun Pavilion’ and the series he shot at that house- it’s so much to do with memory and emotion, and the colors and sound are completely transporting for me. That is a piece that never fails to move me.  

Also, I love your story about how much effort was involved in getting those flowers prepared. The flowers themselves took me back to my obsession with collecting dead roses in college.

One thing I want to say that comes as a surprise to me though, is that despite the vast difference in how our work looks in outcome or appearance, there are many similarities: the role of emotion, unconscious, memory and childhood, dream, situation, state of being or state of self, and especially how we get understanding from making the painting.

I still collect dead roses, have them hanging from my loft. I don’t have that many though.

There’s this piece I’ve been doing, called “Some Weirdo.” I photograph people with a small canvas sign that says “Some Weirdo.” I’ve been posting them here:

There’s a writer who writes for Hyperallergic, Alicia Eler. She came to visit me a while back. She’s going to do a piece about it. We had a phone interview earlier today. It’s funny because it’s one of my side projects that I feel a little weird (weirdo) about, but I guess it’s okay to let it out – exciting even.

I work structurally, in some ways, formally maybe. I pay attention to the structure and that makes the content. Earlier I’d said something about working from images unbidden in my mind. I also sometimes have an idea of some kind of conflict that I want to figure out how to paint about in a way that I think will make the viewer have the same kind of conflict I’m having – it’s maybe an old way of thinking now, ab ex or something, but I don’t want to illustrate something. I do want to set something up though.

Are there any colors that you think are ugly?

What you say about conflict is interesting: like you want to elicit a feeling, or maybe have a say in what a viewer feels. is that a traditional way of thinking- ie AB Ex? I have never had a sense that I could consciously control that, or of being able to manipulate the outcome (I don’t mean manipulate in a bad way).

I ask because once I got an interesting comment about a painting; someone said about a work of mine “Your painting is too contemporary; it assumes …” and then there was a set of statements attributed to the painting: “It’s too this, it’s too that.'” On the one hand it seemed excessive, attributing motive and capacity to an inanimate object. Then I thought, fantastic! That kind of power being held by a small piece of wood slathered in colored oil?   We are in an amazing profession, to upset people, to move people, to enrage or engage. Fantastic.

With regard to color: I am very color sensitive. I don’t think colors by themselves are ugly or do I? hmm.  Some I don’t respond well to, or they elicit reactions, particularly combinations of colors, or when work is all crazy with color combinations.  I’m reading Lady Painter (the Joan Mitchell biography) and I can relate to her color sensitivities and synesthesia, although I don’t think I have it necessarily.  Once at an informal crit while looking at someone’s work, I had to leave because the colors and paintings made me feel sick. 

What about you? 

I want to set up a situation that creates for me the same kind of conflict that I’m feeling.

You know how empathy is really difficult for someone who hasn’t walked in another’s shoes –

For example someone who’s never been poor wouldn’t know what it’s like to have to sell your food stamps for less than half what they’re worth because you need tampons. Someone could illustrate that with a cartoon – narrative story – or try to figure out some combination of image, paint handling, scale for a painting that might cause someone to have that same feeling like they’re experiencing it themselves. I think that’s part of how therapy works too:  if someone reads all the books and intellectually understands some dysfunctional defense mechanism, they maybe still can’t get rid of it until they have a flash of insight. It’s not exactly the same, but maybe similar.

I might be trying to manipulate an outcome, cause an uneasy feeling, make someone queasy by making the horizon line slightly askew – I use a lot of formal things, certainly scale is very important which is why a painting seen on a computer is a poor experience, better than not seeing it but not the same as it’s relationship to the body.

When I say Ab Ex, I’m saying that those guys wanted to make paintings that were an experience in themselves and not an illustration of a story.

This person who said that quote to you – I don’t know. How contemporary can painting really be? You’re not hanging a folded piece of canvas on some wood sticks like those last-year-ontology-of-painting types. Sure, modernism happened, but you make images and possibly even poke at surrealism. I feel like advertising pushes me into a corner I didn’t consent to. We are greatly affected by everything – everyone is. Painting seems pretty harmless, but somehow it does somehow seem to lend conventionality. Something on a painting could be very shocking when if it’s on TV it would be no big deal. I think that’s because painting is attributed to the voice of one artist speaking indelibly rather than some TV studio or something and when people look at a painting (that’s presence implies its author) —- people believe that paintings are honest. I think they carry that with them – the voice of an individual (not a corporation) – so there is pressure to conform or lay low within the painting – to even make the painting and have it be seen requires being vulnerable.

I think every color can be useful sometimes. I might like all of them, but it’s the context that makes it ugly. However, there was one of those fancy Arches watercolor blocks with a pink color – and even though it has the same paper as the brown covered one, and I didn’t really need a pink one – I just had to have it because it was pink!

I have a lot of reactions, but want only to address this now:  When you say “paintings are shocking when TV is not” that is both amazing and profound, and shocking in itself, that something so small (even a big painting is small) made by the hand of one person, has that power. Courbet’s painting shocks, there are other obvious ones to think of, but it’s a pretty interesting point. And it doesn’t require giant gestures- although there is that, like performance pieces. I am probably more affected by smaller gestures than grand ones. But I remember the Hans Burkhardt Viet Nam painting(s) being very moving. I have never thought of it that way before.

TV can be totally shocking, graphic, extreme example procedural forensic or Law and Order- Special victims unit all about rape and incest, but paintings communicate the thoughts and feelings of one person. Paintings carry the presence of an artist. If you’re standing in front of a Picasso, you’re standing where Picasso stood, looking at what he looked at.

Kristin Calabrese, Fear of the Poor, 2005 oil on canvas 78 x 96 inches

Kristin Calabrese, Fear of the Poor, 2005 oil on canvas 78 x 96 inches

Can you describe your rituals and routines in your studio practice? 

I get up, put on coffee, either do or don’t take a shower. If I take a shower, I then sit in front of the mirror and apply hair products. Then I go over to the painting I’m working on and work on it. Most of my paintings take between 6 and 9 months to paint, maybe 14 hours a day most days. If the phone rings I avoid it. My computer is next to my painting, so I listen to music, news, or tv shows most of the time while painting. I also do some exercises – a 7 minute work out with jumping jacks and stuff – about 4 times a day, so my legs can continue to become straight. There have been times I haven’t left the studio, not even to walk across the street, for more than 6 months. I paint sitting in a chair. I really only move my right arm, except when typing, so when I have grueling deadlines it starts to get difficult to stand up. Since I’ve started my exercises, I don’t have that problem. I have coffee and herbal tea all day and in the evening I have caffeine free diet cokes with a teeny bit of whisky in it. I like popcorn. I live in my studio – I guess that’s obvious. Often I’m a real night owl, going to bed when the sun comes up. I don’t really plan when I’ll go to bed or get up. After a while I just find myself getting ready for bed, sort of without thinking about it.

I don’t know if this is really a ritual, certainly routine. Sometimes I only look at my phone once a week. I like interacting over the computer because it feels less disruptive.

Also about the word “ritual”, I don’t see it at all as ritual. I just work like a machine, methodically. More fetishy painty type details:  when I have to mix a palette, it often takes up to 4 hours. My palettes are Reynolds freezer paper wrapped around a piece of plywood, so I can fold them up and throw them away when they’re done. I don’t go in for scraping glass or using lots of cleaning solvents, just to avoid toxicity. I mostly paint in oil – almost only, and mostly only paint, only occasionally make drawings (usually serial type drawing projects when I do). I sometimes do photo or performance projects as well and I like to string beads when I’m anxious and I’ve curated a lot of shows – mostly large painting shows.

Just before bed I wrap my palette in saran wrap and put it in the freezer so the paint will stay wet. I also wash my brushes in silicoil fluid. I also have a few oil painting secrets that I only share with people one-on-one.

Kristin Calabrese Blending In 2011 oil on canvas 96 x 48 inches

Kristin Calabrese Blending In 2011 oil on canvas 96 x 48 inches

I am fascinated by the relationship between the machine-like, methodical way that you can work and the non-machine-like way that emotion and unconscious plays a part in the way a work comes into being. How did that routine come into being? Was it like that always? Was that for a deadline; and then once that’s over, what happens then? Also, what happened to your legs?

I think Francis Bacon and Agnes Martin and Monet and many other artists whose work we know about and love worked that way. My legs are fine, but If you spend 6 months sitting in a chair and not walking more than 50 feet a few times a day, it makes your legs stiff, and super long hours like that for days on end. Actually when painting my bandaid painting that I showed with Susanne Vielmetter, I was painting for 60 hours in a row and then taking a 2-4 hour nap on the couch and then getting up and taking a shower and pretending it was morning. Working on that show, I didn’t sleep hardly at all for four months straight, other than two hour cat naps on the couch every few days – seriously, I’d paint 24 hours and maybe feel very tired at 23 hours but by hour 24 have a second wind and then keep going for another 36 hours. Yes I mean a deadline for a show. I always think I can paint a lot faster than I can, but hyperrealism takes a long time and a lot of focus, so I’m always months behind on shows. Some years I get a lot of paintings finished, but it’s usually only because I started them the year before. The show I just painted for Brennan & Griffin, I actually slept every night at least 5 hours, although that deadline was tight too. I have to do that or I really wouldn’t make enough work.

In my bathroom, I’d written on the wall something like, “Take as long as it takes to make the perfect thing.” I actually just painted my bathroom, so I can’t give you the exact quote. After I finish a show, I usually have a month or two of working a little bit differently. Sometimes I might travel for a month or so. My recent show in New York, I did pretty much jump right back into working, although the schedule is still a little loose right now – which is why I painted my bathroom. I also had drywall put on one of my walls to go the full sixteen feet of my ceiling because I’m working on the new hole painting installation that extends fourteen feet in the air. As you know, the new holes I’m painting are all painted plein air, so I’ve been staying at other peoples’ houses where there are lots of animal holes, so that’s different and pretty fun. I feel lucky that some of my work has gone in the direction of letting me go outside. Also, I just beaded a bunch of necklaces and bracelets. I’m pretty obsessed with vintage glass beads, so while I was working on my last show, I built up a pretty large collection of beads just buying a few sets of beads every day on ebay. Now that my deadline is past, I’ve spent the last few days just stringing them, which has been pretty fun.

My work isn’t all prison really though. I love painting. I’m happy when I’m painting and time goes really fast. That’s probably another reason I have to work such long hours, because the days really fly by when I’m painting. I also love not going anywhere and waking up and knowing exactly what I’m going to do.

I don’t really see a conflict in working with emotion and intuition while working like a machine. I do sort of control when I’m having lots of ideas though. If I have ideas while I’m painting, I write them on the wall. There have been times when I had too many ideas while working on one painting and ended up with a ruined mess. Most of the paintings have quite a few ideas in them simultaneously, but I usually know pretty much what I’m going to paint before I start. Sometimes I paint myself into a corner and don’t know where to go next. Then I might make drawings with cut pieces of fabric and glue – so I can’t get too fastidious – and maybe make 2 or more collages a day for a month or so to cycle through ideas fast so I can get to some ideas I like. If I start getting too precious before I start a painting, thinking it has to be the best idea ever, that can make it difficult to even make a painting. My default answer to myself when that happens is, “it’s just a painting – it doesn’t REALLY matter – it’s not like the world will end if I made a dumb painting.” Also, when I was a young girl and my Mom would take me clothes shopping, she would tell me that you really can’t tell if something is good or not until you try it on. I had teachers in undergrad who said similar things, only regarding painting. With painting, you just have to trust your instinct or that flash image in your head and just take a leap of faith.

Can you talk about your first projects/ exhibitions? And talk about a significant success? Or a noteworthy failure that was an important turning point in your career? 

If Mary Weatherford hadn’t introduced me to Dave Muller who had been curated into a group show at Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills in 1999; where he, in turn curated a small room of artists into one of his “Three Day Weekend,” shows, I would probably still be a web developer to this day.

Robert Shapazian, Larry Gagosian, and Charles Saatchi really liked my paintings. Robert Shapazian later told me that he had consulted about me with Dean Valentine, who had bought one of my paintings the year before from Brent Peterson, when he had that gallery at 6150 where the new part of ACME is now. Anyways, I was given a solo show at Gagosian, and not long after that the Saatchi gallery in London – that was a group show, but I had something like ten huge paintings in it – 8 x 8 feet and larger. I quit my web job.

Most of those paintings of mine were burned in the Saatchi fire a few years later. They had all been bought by Saatchi, so it wasn’t a financial loss, but it was sad – it was at least three years of work. Working through Gagosian, I had a few other solo shows, specifically one with Michael Janssen in Cologne and one with Leo Koenig. Mary Boone had wanted to work with me, but I was told that Gagosian would never work with me again if I worked with her.

I’d gotten a reputation for paintings of abandoned interiors with new furniture and plates and things painted in them. These for me represented my family of origin – dysfunctional in the regular alcoholic abusive dad, mother the enabler, brother the lost child and me the one that acted out alternating with the overachiever. Anyways, my childhood was terrible, manipulative, confusing, and everyone went on like everything was okay. That was the main metaphor for the abandoned building paintings – nails, burned out floors, signs of flooding, broken glass, with new bedroom slippers, a glass of wine on a table. There’s one painting I made of the corner of a bed seen through an open doorway, called Happy Birthday. I used to imagine going into my parents room while my Dad was sleeping and using one of his many guns to shoot him. That would have been the view.

Kristin Calabrese  When Life Gives You Lemons, 2003 oil on canvas 114 x 102 inches

Kristin Calabrese When Life Gives You Lemons, 2003 oil on canvas 114 x 102 inches

Anyways, I didn’t really want to paint these anymore, even though there was a pretty good demand for them. This is really ancient history now, so I feel pretty silly talking about it, but I knew how to paint them, I knew what I was exploring, I loved those paintings, but I also felt like the house imagery was a crutch, something people understood too easily and sort of an indirect way of painting my content, which was also changing. I’ve been becoming less and less interested in my family of origin over the years, which I think is healthy. Also, if I would go to a party or something, people would say to me, “How are you? Are you still painting interiors?” and that would sound to me like some sort of indictment. I didn’t want to be one of those artists who paints the same painting over and over again for years. However, doing the interiors for such a long time did make the paintings become deeper. Not changing the overt subject matter did cause me to sort of burrow into the painting and make other kinds of decisions which caused them to be richer. I’ve really always been interested in composition though, which carries phenomenological meaning – the way a large area with a small area can make you feel, how to make a painting feel like it’s tearing itself apart, other things.

To break away from those paintings that I’d been working on so long, I spent a couple months making, as many as two to four a day, to cycle through ideas fast so I would be able to find something compelling to make new work from. The resulting paintings still sold well and got reviews – actually the reviews were getting better than the scathing ones from London that said things like, who is this silly girl from California who’s trying to make big paintings and isn’t very good at it.

Then there was the Saatchi fire that burned 8 of my paintings – huge 8 x 9 and 9 x 12 foot paintings – more than three years of work. After the Saatchi fire, and after many years of painting alone in the studio for crazy hours weeks months on end, I started not wanting to finish paintings so I could keep them, not wanting to let them out of the studio. I also wanted to be around other people sometimes and not just alone in the studio. I started curating shows and became involved with the LA Art Girls. I also started making paintings where the realism became super anal. I was painting homeless people and I didn’t want them to look like clownish drunks, but real people whose shirt had been lived in for more than a year. Realism is relative. You could paint a shirt out of one thick line with two smaller lines for sleeves on it on one end of the spectrum to large brushmarks for light and shadow on a wrinkle to shirt for the mid-range realism to a shirt with dirt and sweat, holes and transparent worn areas. The most realistic kind of shirt takes a long time to paint. With the homeless individuals I was painting, out of respect for their specificity and individuality, I wanted to represent them with full texture, as a real person with a real life. In my teens and early twenties, I’d been a street kid, which is another reason the homeless people and abandoned buildings resonated with me. I loved abandoned buildings because they were places I could be me and I felt unseen and free and somehow full of life. I felt that way at night as well, when everyone else is asleep, I would feel energy, like I was at the center of a tornado.

Kristin Calabrese First Kiss, Homeless on Venice Beach, 2006 oil on canvas 20 x 16 inches

Kristin Calabrese First Kiss, Homeless on Venice Beach, 2006 oil on canvas 20 x 16 inches

So I started painting slower, still painting all the time, also curating, but always making art in some way or another. I started putting off  Gagosian – not that they were knocking that hard or anything, but when they did I would say yes you should come for a studio visit, maybe next month (or the month after)? I did that for quite some time. Then the director, Robert Shapazian got sick. First he retired; then he died. That was a couple years ago now. I was going to do something with Gagosian maybe four years ago, had been working towards a show with Sarah Watson, who took over after Robert,… Sarah’s nice enough, but I think she never really responded to my work. Still there was talk, but trying to finish paintings for them, sending some paintings to group shows, also ducking the gallery because I couldn’t paint fast enough, and the other problem of not being satisfied on the few occasions I hired an assistant – having to paint over whatever they painted, etc. So Gagosian just sort of faded away. Losing Robert Shapazian was a great loss for me, personally. Professional whatever aside, he was a very important person in my life.

When it became clear that I wouldn’t be working with Gagosian anymore I thought about what galleries I did want to work with. On the top of my list was Sister Gallery, run by Katie Brennan and Susanne Vielmetter Gallery. Sister because Katie has interesting artists – good artists, who are my peers, who’s careers she launched – and because Katie is fun to talk to and charismatic and Susanne because she also shows lots of my friends and has always been nice. Coincidentally, James Griffin, who had been Katie’s assistant for years and was in the process of becoming Katie’s business partner, suggested my work to Katie for inclusion in a group show in Chinatown. I jumped at the opportunity. At the same time, I had invited Susanne Vielmetter over who wanted to give me a solo show over the summer. Katie and James wanted to represent me and moved their gallery to New York – forming Brennan & Griffin. I had a solo show there in 2011 as well as at Susanne Vielmetter. The show in New York did a lot better than the one at Vielmetter, so I’m only working with Katie and James now – anyways, some of the whole history. Everything’s a lot more complicated than I can really write.

A very recent success is that the Armand Hammer Museum (possibly my favorite museum), acquired my painting “Surrender”. I cannot wait to see it installed!

Kristin Calabrese Surrender, 2013 Oil on linen 52 x 67 inches

Kristin Calabrese Surrender, 2013 Oil on linen 52 x 67 inches

First, congratulations on the Hammer; that’s terrific news!

That is such an intense story. People might think it would be a great problem to have- Gagosian gallery knocking at your door- and yet, you write pretty eloquently and honestly about the process of feeling trapped to a degree- “I didn’t want to be one of those artists who paints the same painting over and over again for years”- even if you were making headway in your work so it was deeper and richer. That can lead to something like ‘dead’ paintings, something we spoke about once in your studio (meaning paintings that are not coming from that authentic personal and ‘alive’ gesture).

“Dead” painting was your concept and not quite mine. Rather than looking for paintings that are not dead, I look for smart paintings or paintings that look dumb but are smart – paintings that have many layers of meaning. For example:  a mark, while just a mark, might also refer to something else. I also like paintings that ask me questions; can’t be readily identified; masquerade as something else; can’t be explained; and paintings with a composition just somehow has some sort of soul feeling, a sigh, a reaching – I think a painting can be many things at once. Some people would call these “painters’ paintings,” – I think because it takes most people the investment of actually painting to know what’s possible and want more. I want paintings that stretch my ability to understand. I guess in a way that’s almost like saying I want a painting that’s alive, because it’s communicating with me.

I did learn that art can be fickle and that losing people, paintings burning, and all sorts of feelings that I have but don’t really understand can really have an impact on my work. I always show up at the studio though, whether I’m painting only a couple inches a day or a ten-foot swath. I sometimes question my very early decision to become an artist, but I’m here now and I’m really too weird to be anything else.

I don’t know about being too weird to do anything else, but I do really get the feeling from talking with you and from visiting your studio and painting together that you really love painting. That really comes through. What are you working on now?

As far as the new work, I seem to be in a fertile period and I’m making lots of new stuff. It’s a little scary, because it feels totally different and totally new, but it’s probably not as different as it seems. I was watering my friend, the amazing Kenny Scharf’s magical garden yesterday. His place is amazing and I was alone with my thoughts. A friend of mine had emailed me about getting together and somehow it triggered an avalanche of thoughts that lead to some new ideas. There is this voice in my head (not an actual voice that I hear, but my mind’s voice) that sometimes comes, that I know will be new art. Anyways I got some sentences in my head from the voice along with a picture of some paintings. The paintings are the pictures of the feelings. They will act as the scaffold for the words. The words will be the titles. There will be four paintings.

The four paintings will be all different sizes. The 6 x 6 foot one I just put the first coat of gesso on. There will also be a 5 x 7′, a 5 x 5′ and the fourth size I haven’t figured out yet. For the paintings I will make a still life. The still life will be a piece of heavy fabric that I will dye black and then paint with wax and then iron up the dried wax onto newsprint. This will make the fabric sort of stiff and shiny – ish in a waxy sort of way. I will fold the fabric so it gets creases. The creases with be haphazard, like it was left in a heap. Then on the 4 canvasses, I will render in paint the look of the dyed, waxed, black fabric. I will flatten out the fabric so it’s the same as the picture plane and paint it in the same scale, not paint it in a heap. Although maybe I’ll paint it in a heap too.

The paintings will go in a specific order, related to the titles, because the titles have a specific order. The titles will be:

1. Don’t Look at Me

2. Just Give me Money

3. Leave Me Alone

4. But Think of Me Fondly and Don’t Leave Me Out

The entire project will also have a title, which is:  Message to My Mother (the World)

Do you want to talk at all about inspirations, influences, mentors?

Francis Bacon – his dark life and dark and disturbing radical paintings

recently – Spencer Lewis over at Edward Cella Gallery right now in a double solo show with my husband Joshua Aster

Alexandra Grant, also for the fierceness and bravery of her practice – I LOVE LOVE LOVE her “I hate myself” series and also how strange her later “I love myself” paintings read when “I LOVE MYSELF” is written huge and reflected in a rorschach.

Charles Irvin – for his work on intimacy and, well, Freudian type stuff that is also personal

Claude Monet – specifically the Chartres Cathedral paintings and snow scene plein-air paintings – wow

Yoyoi Kusama – not so much the nets, but the more recent, super strange paintings with eyeballs and fish and other strange drawings

the writings of Louise Bourgeois – strange writings about her interior life with regards to her thoughts and feelings about her family – wow again – shocking!

Vuillard for the lost in the pattern – I aspire to be a tenth as good as his best paintings.

Sol Lewitt

Lichtenstein for the way his late paintings have such spread out analytic perspective

Edgar Payne’s little books on classic landscape composition

Barnett Newman for his gorgeous, dramatic huge zips

old tv shows like “All In the Family” for the complicated politics – awesome

Sue Williams early paintings

Christopher Wool

Joan Jonas – I might  read her work wrong, but it seems like emotional areas that together form a feeling whole

Henry Taylor – the installation he did upstairs at Blum and Poe a few years ago with bottles, chairs, and I think some broom sticks – wow!

And most of all my husband, painter, Joshua Aster, whose brilliant ideas blow my mind every day.

Do you have any advice for future or emerging artists?

Stay beautiful, be shiny, try not to take things personally!

Also, everything changes, so don’t worry too much about what other people think.

Do whatever it takes to hear your own voice.

Art-wise, every idea is good if you follow it through.

The rules don’t apply to you, whatever they are, because you are an artist!

Kristin Calabrese- studio

Kristin Calabrese- studio

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kristin Calabrese and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Schwartz, J. (2014). “Interview with Kristin Calabrese,” Figure/Ground. January 1st.
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