Published twice a year, Intercourse is a compendium of readings that encompass art, science, and alternative education. Intercourse extends the conversation happening at Pioneer Works into a supplemental manual for all your inter-disciplinary needs.
We hope this idea archive and record of an evolving discussion becomes an indispensable document in your search for knowledge.
Editors are: Dustin Yellin, Joey Frank, Catherine Despont, Randy Lee Maitland
Pioneer Works Center for Arts and Innovation is dedicated to the creation, synthesis and discussion of art, science and education. Located in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the Center gathers artists, scientists and creative thinkers to collaborate outside the boundaries of traditional institutions where specialization often limits the application of ideas across disciplines. Through a community devoted to creative discourse and collaboration, Pioneer Works is a platform where ideas can manifest into their fullest expression. The Center enacts its vision for a more complex, creative and productive society through educational programming, exhibitions, publications, residencies, lectures and performances. Housed in a reclaimed former iron works factory, Pioneer Works is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
INTERCOURSE 3, your bi-annual admixture of prose, poetry, memoir, conversation and artwork, is launching November 9th. This thermal wearing, company-keeping, soul-warming winter edition is like philosophy without the jargon, Internet without the boredom, solipsism without the self, handcuffs without the cops.
Ben Lerner discusses Wallace Stevens, his newest book 10:04, and visions of the future. Astrophysicist Janna Levin and science writer James Gleick rap about time—is it a carpet or a hill and what is it like to walk through bread? Hip Hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy remembers when he first discovered kung-fu films. Poet Andrew Durbin deconstructs the “Bro.” And Adam Green talks to Weyes Blood about the scourge of likeability and normcore.
All that, plus a roundtable with Dorothea Rockburne, Ron Gorchov, and Trueman MacHenry a retrospective portfolio of the late, great, Dan Asher; improvisational music and the Civil Rights Movement; the way we bury the homeless; Paul Laffoley watching Andy Warhol’s TV; and the first video sharing collective, Radical Software. And more.
Issue 2 features essays on a hypothetical footbridge between Brooklyn and Governors Island; a high school project called Foxfire that became the inadvertent guidebook for the 70s back-to-the-land movement, and a discussion with Edward Frenkel about the true nature of mathematics. Performa’s RoseLee Goldberg and Ubuweb’s Kenny Goldsmith discuss the avant-garde and Ariel Pink talks to Animal Collective about horror and childhood. Other features include conversations with Carol Bove and Trevor Paglen, psychedelic celluloid, Ana Mendietta‘s lost earthworks, and the creative power of humiliation. There’s even new fiction from Jesse Ball.
Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers talks with Andrew Vanwyngarden of MGMT, and Sam Hayes interviews Bob Colacello. Artists Ernesto Caivano, Sara VanDerBeek, Benjamin Degen, David Brooks and Yuri Masnyj discuss the importance of friends and the varieties of art practice. Joey Frank provides Art History Astrology for Rabbits.
￼Future Is a Texture of the Present: A Conversation with Ben Lerner and Catherine Despont
William Shatner as Kirk, in a publicity photograph for the original Star Trek
Ben Lerner is an author of criticism, poetry, and fiction. His debut novel, Leaving
the Atocha Station, won the Believer Book Award and was on many year-end “best of” lists. His newest book, 10:04 reads like a meta-extension of the first. The narrator, a young(ish) white male writer/teacher living in New York, is enjoying a string of recent successes: a well-reviewed debut novel and a story published in The New Yorker, on the strength of which his agent secures him a large advance to write a second novel. Book-ended by hurricanes Irene and Sandy, 10:04 proceeds forward and backward in time as a series of encounters with persons, art, and language. But instead of describing the novel as a mechanism of its plot, it seems more apt to state the questions 10:04 elicits: how do our projections of the future affect the present? And how do we compose our reality through language?
CATHERINE DESPONT There are a lot of similari- ties between 10:04 and
your last novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Both have anxious first-person narrators working on books. In Atocha the narrator
is writing a poetry collection while on a Fulbright in Spain, and in this one the narrator is contemplating a book of fabricated letters to himself from famous interlocutors. For both narrators the projects are catalysts for self-reflection that elevate the personal to narrative and make cultural experience feel intimate. Which brings me to the way you discuss art in the book. At one point your character goes to see Christian Markley’s Clock; at another, he goes on a residency in Marfa and discusses Judd’s work; he goes to the Museum of Natural History; he analyzes Walt Whitman and various other real or semi-real art projects, and it all feels totally incorporated in the narrator's reality. It was so refreshing to find descriptions of art that seem like a natural part of thinking of the world, instead of hovering to make some conceptual point.
BEN LERNER The thing that most interests me about fiction is to think about it as a curato- rial form, where you can stage encounters with works of art. Instead of situating them in a professionalized critical discourse, you can situate them as a critic, you can situate them in these characters' lives. You can curate every aspect of the encounter. You can talk about not only all the contingences that go into a moment of viewing—what were you talking about right before you entered a museum, right before you entered the theater—but also, what are the more general psychic concerns that frame the encounter? I actually don't know a word for that kind of criticism that wouldn't be fiction. If you write diaristically, the idea is that it's merely you. And the most interest- ing moment for me about imagining other minds is imagining other minds interacting with artworks—that of echo between subject and object, which comes from a sustained moment of viewing. I still write some academic criticism, and some art criticism, but it all tends to get tipped into
a larger fictional frame so that I don’t just feel beholden to a specialized literature.
CD There was a generation of critics, like Fairfield Porter and Lionel Trilling, born at the turn of the last century, who embodied a persona-of-the-critic, who were much more comfortable making connections to a personal world view. So much of your fic- tion deals with authorial distance, couching between reality and fiction. Your narra- tors draw closely from events in your own life, but the critique made in the book of different cultural events, natural disasters, news etc. is embedded in a narrative that resists generalization. I wonder if you have any feeling for why we've lost, or resist, that older authorial posture?
BL Well, Clement Greenberg is using visual art to write a novel about all of history. It's like Hegel and Kant told through painting, and it has a kind of confidence about getting the truth right, which I don't have. And doesn't interest me, in a certain way. The great thing about art criticism, unlike literary criticism, is that people tend to write out of the white heat of the first experience. People say, “I see this thing,” as though there's this pres- ent tense nature about writing about paint- ing, even if it's artificial. Criticism tends to be about bracketing all of the noise of experience. Criticism doesn't tend to begin by saying, “This is what I passed on the street on the way to the museum,” or, “This is how I was feeling,” or, “This is what I ate.” Even the most ambitious professional criticism starts by bracketing everything that can't be easily assimilated to the moment of the encounter with the artwork. That T.J. Clark book, The Sight of Death— which I have some mixed feelings about, but which ultimately won me over—where he looked at a Poussin painting over and over again—the amazing thing about that book was that it had never been done before. No art critic had ever talked about looking at the same thing over time. Art critics tend to act like you're looking at one artwork in
a vacuum, as if every thought occurred to them in the same way, in the same moment.
Scan of Ben Lerner's book 10.04
CD Or as though the judgment of the work is passed at its first appearance.
BL [In my book] the encounters with the Judd boxes in Marfa are a good example of what I think fiction can do as a vehicle for criticism: everything external to that encounter that’s narrated in the book comes back: the narra- tor’s thinking about Whitman and being in
a residency, his thinking about Creeley, who died in Marfa, and so on. The novel is the way to work all of that into the phenomenol- ogy of the encounter with the work, and I don't know any other mode of criticism that can do that that isn't fiction.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND On some level the kind of criticism you’re describing—that doesn’t bracket the encounter with the work—has actually been around for a long time. It just isn’t professional or published in the “right” places—but it has been happening online, in UseNet groups, in geek culture and its object wasn’t Donald Judd, but Star Trek, or the X-Files.
BL Or Back To The Future. I talk about it a lot
in this novel. This way of talking about how you built a life around an artistic object,
or how it influenced your life. That's true. The non-professional criticism is more like
a novel in that way.
I watched all of Star Trek; The Next Generation when I was writing this novel. It's so great because it's this 90s fantasy about multiculturalism. Basically every time you confront an alien civilization it's like, “what's the framework that's going
to allow us to respect difference but also get along?” They are always letting Warf, the Klingon on the ship, take a personal day to go participate in Klingon rituals. There are many episodes that are organized around respecting Warf's difference while also somehow making sure he can be assimi- lated into their federation.
RLM So the question is, Captain Kirk or Captain Picard—your favorite?
BL They're just different moments for me in the empire. Kirk is about the kind of universal- ism of bravado, but a reckless, American, air force type, and Picard—he has sex with aliens, but it's about a liberal paternalism as opposed to the heady days of the 1950's. It's not about, “I'm attractive enough that I can transcend culture,” but more like,
“I'm sensitive enough that I can incorporate cultural difference into the federation.”
In the novel Star Trek is the '90s, it's Clinton, and Back to the Future is Reagan, but they're both about this idea that America is deified by its projection into this future.
There's this whole Left aesthetics thing that says, the role of art is to stretch the language so that we can conceive of the future, and sci-fi does this in this really funny, direct way where you'll have Geordie La Forge say, “Our double-inverted ion reactor has suffered a plasma fail...” It's this gibberish that you feel you can understand because it obeys the syntax of the contemporary. But it's this way of feeling yourself pulled into a future. You can nod your head at the rhythm of speech with this faith in a technological future. Like,
“This is comprehensible to me not because
I understand the specific technology, but because I understand technology will solve all of our problems.”
CD This idea of future in the book also feels like it’s about where the future of novels can go. Where what is actually “future” is a different understanding of the day-to-day, instead of descriptions of technology or whatever other details tip us off to the fact that we are inhabiting some narrative future.
BL Right; the future is something that only shows up as present, or that your experi- ence of the present is shot through with how you imagine the future. The future is a texture of the present. If you imagine that the future is endless capitalism in a way that's humane, you imagine the future as Star Trek and it influences the way that you feel about getting an MRI. And if you think that in the future there is going to be
a collapse, that it’s going to enter a kind of warlord-ism, then that changes the way you see the shop window. You measure the future in terms of the phenomenology of the present. If you live in a moment where your conception of the future is changing all the time, how does that affect your experience of the present? That's a question for novelists, and not just sci-fi novelists who are trying to imagine a future. That's a contemporary novelistic question, even
if it’s not what most novelists are addressing.
CD Bucky Fuller said all these things about how, in order to move into the future, we would have to use different words to describe the very ordinary parts of our experience. Like, why do we call the sky “up” when we know that we live on a spherical world and there is no direction? We should stop talking about the sky as “up,” and we should stop talking about what seem like tiny, inconsequential descriptions in ordinary life but actually add up to this fake reality. Buckminster's idea was that eventually our technological and scientific understanding of the universe would finally bleed into our daily consciousness and that would change the way we interacted and the way we understood each other.
BL We’ve lost this great utopian faith in the technological. I know all these people who were caught up in medical contexts in which they basically don't trust the medical discourse at all, but it's the only discourse we have. They neither have religion nor medicine. They're just like, “Well, the
doctor says this, but I don't believe it.” In my lifetime there was a faith in scientific objectivity that didn't have a limit, and now there's a sense that western medicine has one vocabulary and homeopathy is another vocabulary, and they have moments of truth and moments of falsehood, but there isn’t one overarching framework of truth.
But part of what's funny about technological dominance now is that you've got financial derivatives trading; you've got the Internet, but what makes that possible is a burning factory of Bangladeshi workers. In the 90s the idea was labor would de-materialize.
If you think about the whole Star Trek replicator thing, there's this way to make food that doesn't require a Columbian proletariat. But this idea that you can just produce the commodity without a social history—it's not just that the social history has been made to disappear, it's that it doesn't exist. It's very unclear how money
Unpublished table of contents from 10:04
CD Yes exactly. But I can see lots of writers talking about that and arriving at something different, something more like an imposed reality based on the point of view of the character, where a walk past Greenwood Cemetery is the opportunity to have a pithy observation about cemeteries that ends
up with some metaphor that relates directly back to the central narrative. In most main- stream fiction I feel like I could highlight
the places in a paragraph where a meaningful thing will be delivered to me. In the same way you hear about classes for making block- buster films, where at minute 12 you intro- duce this part of the story, and at minute 35 there's this... To me a lot of fiction feels like it's caught in a kind of projection rather than an engagement with the world.
BL Fiction is usually a very conservative way of saying that your assumptions about individual psychology are correct. You can identify with one of the characters we're presenting to you, and you can basically feel like your life is meaningfully ordered. As op- posed to fiction being a place that restores your sense of the meaning of reality as being up for grabs. I don't mean to exaggerate what fiction can do, but that's just a question of what art can do. What art can do, which may or may not have any redemptive effect at this point, is to basically say, “the mean- ing is up for grabs.” Reality is one thing and your experience of reality is shot through with an imagined futurity, and that futurity is up for grabs. Or an imagined past, and that's up for grabs. It’s a site of contestation.
CD Yeah, that's up for grabs, but I do think there's something we can say about the pres- ent that arises out of a fidelity to material,
to description, to the immediate. Sometimes I feel like giving up this idea of capital-T Truth has actually pushed us much more into
the present than at any other time, and that if we're faithful to the present we actually come closer to the thing we were trying to achieve when we were forcing our authority on the world. When you say the future is
up for grabs, to me the upside of the lack of authority is a deeper sense of intercon- nectedness. It means taking more seriously this idea of malleability, or changeable-ness in our reality. And that makes a whole other set of possibilities available to you. I feel like fiction has been sitting in this dank spot because its answer to the lack of authority is a kind of obsessive anxiety.
BL And fiction is fucking horrible. I mean most of it is so bad. It's almost interestingly bad. It's like inefficient television. It's bad in a way that’s purely affirmative. It's, like, “yes, I'm affirming the clichéd perspectives you hold on reality in order to make you feel okay about that.” One way to think about it is through the trope of likability. Likability is an interesting question because it basically reveals all these reader-ly assumptions, like,
“I want to read a book, if I like the person who is presented to me as a character, and
I want to reject a book if I don't identify.” Most fiction, mainstream fiction, still invites identification. “Think of yourself as this narrator, and feel good about thinking of yourself as this narrator who's had some struggles, but has also bounced back from challenges in order to basically be affirma- tive about the culture and the world.” The worst function of fiction is identification.
CD False transformation.
BL Transformation in which no transformation actually takes place, because the whole point is that you identify with a conventional perspective in order to feel successfully interpolated into an existent reality.
CD But then there's the whole trope of the dislikable narrator, which is kind of the same thing.
BL Well, but I feel like the antihero is more important now than it was in the 19th century in a certain way. If somebody wrote Notes from the Underground today there would be 5,000 Goodreads reviews like,
“I really tried to identify with this guy. Why is he so upset?” “I get upset sometimes...
but relax!” They experience a narrator or
a perspective in fiction with which they can't identify as a kind of threat to their own posi- tion in society. It's a dying industry, so there are all these people trying to figure out what the formula is to sell a million books. It's like,
“How do we make Sex in the City? How do make that franchise in fiction?” It makes a lot of bad fiction when people try to speak for everyone. They want to do a 21st century Dickens thing, and they want to say, “I'm going to speak on behalf of the poor kid in the street and also the wife and the husband and the grandfather.” There are all these multiple perspectives that have a Disney effect. Everyone has to be united, ultimately, by a tone.
CD I felt like 10:04 is really optimistic in the way that a lot of books aren’t, or that I've read recently. The narrator is dealing with a number of issues—a health scare, hurricane Sandy, the question of whether to have
a baby with his best friend—but he doesn’t come away with clear answers, but he also seems careful to describe things in a way that makes progress seem possible.
BL I decided in advance that this book had
to move in a zone of sincerity—or a loving inhabitation of its relative perspective—or I shouldn't write the book. There’s this desire that literature have this trans-personal pos- sibility, this capacity for wonder before the world; even if what you’re doing is necessar- ily caught up in the damaged life, you should offer something beyond stylized despair. You don't want to be somebody who just thinks maximizing profit is what's of value, but you also don't want to be somebody who makes art about the impossibility of art, and then congratulates themselves on the despair as though that’s what makes them an authentic revolutionary.
RLM The kind of wonder that you're talking about is so much work. It really is.
BL But see, that’s a good way to think about it, because part of the Left's suspicion about wonder is that it’s just this knee-jerk uncriti- cal response, when in fact wonder is often
a really critical, patiently-earned response. In a way, that's how Wittgenstein matters. Wittgenstein is so ruthless about what can be said. The Tractatus is all about the limits of what can be said or learned in this life. But the thing about that book is that it makes this argument for this vast area of experience that can't be reduced to what can be said.
CD I loved Leaving the Atocha Station, but remember feeling frustrated by a sense of pessimism. You had this fluid structure, this incredible ease moving through many different levels of time and truth and fiction, but the character's own unwilling- ness to take charge for himself seemed a little convenient. I wonder if you could talk about whether something changed for you in writing 10:04, or what your thinking was? Maybe you completely disagree.
BL No, no. You're being very gentle about it. I agree with you. But I really believe in irony. Even in an old Socratic sense that one way to pursue authenticity is through a ruthless account of all the modes of dissimulation.
I really like the kid who's the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station because he's so honest about his dishonesty that it's a kind of authenticity. But I didn't want to write another book that was that deep in one anxious head. I wanted the novel to be more choral, and more multitudinous, and to be thinking about how other voices can circu- late. When I wrote the thing that became The New Yorker story, both in the novel and in reality, I was thinking that I could write a novel about fabricating an archive, but then decided I really didn't want to write
a second novel about fraudulence.
So the novel became figuring out a way to imagine an expansion of that story in some other kind of un-ironic mode. Which isn't about foreswearing irony, but irony isn't the mode with which you can imagine getting your friend pregnant. It's not an effective mode for imagining a future.
It's an effective mode for breaking down a particular view of the future, or a particular mode of representation. There was a desire to imagine a more constructive mode—both in the vernacular sense of useful—but also in the aesthetic sense of trying to build a world. But it wasn't really a decision. I wanted to figure out a way to write from a position of all the contradictions that I experience that could be something other than ironic. They could be something other than the kind of self-congratulation that attends loathing yourself. Because that's also a kind of self- celebration, and a kind of conventional, male self-celebration at this point, where it's like, “I can prove that I'm feeling and honest by talking about how unfeeling and dishonest I am,” and that the reader should be the person who says, “actually there’s
a sweet heart under that rough exterior.”
CD A sweet heart and also, brilliant.
BL So part of that is also the Whitman nurse thing that comes up in the book—as in what is your responsibility if you're trying to imagine the future when you're dealing with a kid or the wounded? If you're Whitman, do you tell the kid that he's going to die? Or do you tell him that he's going to make
it home? And even though [the narrator] describes it as a parody of the Whitman- nurse, it's a real thing. When he's imagining himself as a parent, do you share your worst-case scenarios and your belief in the planet's fragility, or do you try to tell other kinds of stories? There's a point where [the narrator] is trying to tell a story to his nephew and he gets tripped up by his tenses. Writ small, it’s the problem of the entire novel: can fiction help imagine a way of going on, even if it’s a necessary fiction? Can fiction
be a form of care, a collaborative attempt to imagine a space for possibility? There are all these different ways in which this guy who's kind of a kid himself still, at 33, has
to imagine some relationship of care. Care for an Occupy Wall St. protestor he invites to his house, care for a kid he’s tutoring, care for the students at the college where he teaches...Do you honor a kid's statement about global warming, or do you try to make a future more imaginable to him even if it requires dissimulation? The book has no answer to that, but that's the classic war nurse thing.
CD There's the re-description of facts that are bothering a person, but there's also the description of the situation in which you acknowledge the situation. You know, and that is sort of...
BL That's an intimacy.
CD Yeah, there's an intimacy in empathy, which allows you to go where that person is going, while negotiating with a sense of reality
or adulthood, or whatever structure we find ourselves in that says, “we can only go so far because there's something on this side of the equation that we want to preserve.”
BL It's also why metaphor is so powerful. The experience of the material facts is utterly changed. It’s what good therapy is supposed to do. If you think of your interactions with your partner as a war, that's the structuring metaphor, and the therapist must help you think of it—they never do this, but they should—be able to help you think of it
as a dance. I think this is one of Lakoff ’s famous examples.
Love is this way of looking. Like when some- one you love is in a crisis because they're looking at the facts in the worst possible way, and you try to re-describe it. It's a delicate game because you have to honor the reality that they acknowledge, but you have to say,
“But there's this equally real way of organizing the facts and it tells a different story.” It's about possibility versus the foreclosure of possibility.
CD And I don't think fiction in the last twenty years has really thought about the collective that much, if at all.
BL No, fiction is about idiosyncratic individuals, supposedly. But it's also about every- one wanting to feel like an idiosyncratic individual that's basically assimilated.
CD Yeah, and that the reader’s own experience is also individual, and idiosyncratic.
BL Well, it sells, right? It's a really effective business model of being different in a way that should make you conform. The novel is a very conservative kind of televisual form in the hands of most people. But if you're a poet, right, everybody asks you, “How
do you feel about the marginalization of poetry?” As though there's no way to be
a poet when poetry's dead or whatever.” Everybody laments the death of the book, but I'm excited about the way that people who read, care about reading. It's not the default way of consuming information. Part of the marginalization I guess is lamentable, but I also feel like, “What isn't marginal that I care about?” If you imagine subtracting everything that's marginal from the world, it's just you and whatever the non-marginal is—you're in a lot of fucking trouble.
Drop Kick to the Head: or How I Came to Do an un- derground street Art exhibit in China with MC Yan. A memory, of course, in 2 parts.
By Fab 5 Freddy
1. Drop Kicks to the heads and hustlers:
In the early 70s, I spent several weeks in Barbados with family as my mom wanted me off the then mean and sweltering streets of
Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. That’s a summer I’ll never forget because the hottest thing happening for me in Barbados was going to see Kung Fu sword fighting movies. When I returned to Brooklyn the end of that summer, I had my pals captivated with tales of what I’d seen in those films. About
a year later in 1973 it happened—the Shaw Bros film, 5 Fingers Of Death was released. The Kung Fu cinema era had arrived with a drop kick to the head of millions of young moviegoers.
Back in 1970s New York City, the best place
to see Kung Fu films was on Forty Deuce, a.k.a. 42nd Street between 8th Ave and Broadway
in the Times Square area. That entire block was lined end-to-end on both sides of the street
with movie theatres showing horror, porn, Grindhouse action films and the latest Kung
Fu features. Usually, the price of admission included two to three films. That street was heaven to me, and I still miss it since it was sadly sanitized and mall-ified in the 90s under Giuliani. People would be so worked up from the nonstop Kung Fu action that if you bumped into someone leaving the theatre and got into an altercation, people would act like they had 4th degree black belts and the kicks and punches would start
The effect these films had on American pop culture was pervasive. One of the first signs
was a hit disco / funk record released in 1974 by Carl Douglas called “Kung Fu Fighting”, which perfectly captured the essence of this new cinematic genre and went on to sell 11 million records world wide making it one of the best selling singles of all time. And James Browns #1 classic in that same period “The Payback” had the unforgettable line, “I don’t know karate, but I know ka-razor.”
The 70s were simply a great time for American cinema; Cotton Comes To Harlem, Shaft, Superfly and the great Melvin Van Peebles seminal film, Sweet Sweet Backs Baaadaass Song also came out, ushering in the Blaxploitation era. These films, and dozens more, would have black men and women in leading roles, often putting a stylish platform shoe up the Man's ass. And this was unprecedented, seeing folks on the screen that looked like me, black men and women win- ning big on the screen. Along with the Kung Fu genre, which showed us a world we hadn’t seen before, people of color doing amazing things on the screen was indeed empowering considering Blacks and Asians usually played stereotyped, subservient and miniscule roles, if any at all in American cinema.
The Hip Hop Kung Fu culture formulated and grew in popularity in the mid 1970s around the same time NY street gang culture began to wane, especially the Bronx street gang beefs and dis- agreements often settled with fists, knives, sticks and sometimes guns.
Then Africa Bambaata famously dissolved the large Bronx gang, The Black Spades, he led and turned turned them into a hip hop cultural group called The Zulu Nation inspired by a film on the Zulu’s fight for independence against the British in Southern Africa in the 1950s. He encouraged any and all creative expression as opposed to the senseless violence that had claimed far too many. Charlie Ahearn and I, while putting our film Wild Style together, had discussed doing
a Kung Fu break dancing sequence that ended up being a bit too ambitious for our ultra low budget. It was clear
and obvious to us at the time that martial arts had played a key role in the development of breakdancing and the various crews that would challenge and battle each other.
Fab 5 Freddy, The Triumph of Bruce, 2012
The originators of breakdancing, like most NYC Kids back then, were big fans of Kung Fu movies and formed small crews, instead of gangs con- sisting of 5 to 10 members or more that would challenge other crews to dance-off battles similar to the way various masters of different types and styles of Kung Fu would clash in the films. The
wild acrobatic flips, floor work and foot maneu- vers of Kung Fu masters became fundamental in the development of breakdancing. As this spread rapidly through the city, it became a much cooler way of settling beefs and more importantly decid- ing who were the best dancers and hence the coolest kids in the area.
Breakdancing had in fact started to wane in NYC when we went into production of Wild Style in 1981. The Rock Steady Crew of breakers featured in the film re-ignited this form of dance as thou- sands could now see it on the screen. All this of course can be traced back to Kung Fu.
Being Underground in China
An old friend, Sean “Cavo” Dinsmore called me a couple years ago. Cavo was a part of our Downtown 500—500 because it was literally that many of us, artists, musicians, photographers and every other creative type. We’d see each other regularly at spots like, Danceteria, The Roxy, Save the Robots, art openings at the Fun Gallery, and all the other places on our cultural circuit back then. He was in a cool downtown New York ska band called the Toasters in the mid-80s. He eventually split off with a Haitian kid also in that group from Brooklyn named Lionel and they formed a rap/ska/reggae styled duo which they called Unity Two, and was signed to Warner Brothers Records.
Cavo grew restless with the New York scene and decided to start globe-trotting, eventually mak- ing his way to China. Cavo was telling me about talks he was having there with MC Yan—the true underground pioneer of Hip Hop culture in
Hong Kong and a student of moves I’ve made; and a counterpart as a cultural ground breaker. MC Yan is as an activist, rapper, painter, and also known infamously for writing graffiti on China’s Great Wall.
Being underground in China means exactly that. For any music to make it big in their mainstream of one billion plus like “Canto-pop” or “Mando- pop,” it must be government sanctioned, and you can be sure the Chinese government was not checking for the pioneering 90s rap group he’s been associated with called LMF, which stands for Lazy Mutha Fucka.
MC Yan was lamenting to Cavo that Bruce Lee has never been appropriately embraced by the Hong Kong government because he was actually born in the USA and was married to an American woman. Besides a modest statue placed on Hong Kong’s Hollywood-style walk of fame, the recognition of Bruce Lee was marginal in Yan’s eyes and Cavo said I should join the conversation and consider doing a pop up exhibit with MC Yan to celebrate Bruce Lee. We decided to do this exhibit in Hong Kong. We would both take images of Bruce Lee and incorporate them into our respective painting styles. We would call it Kung Fu Wild Style, the name of course coming from the title of Hip Hop’s first feature film that
I took part in.
In the few days leading up to the opening, MC Yan and I got to hang out. He took me to ancient Chinese temples where dozens of Kung Fu films had been shot. I was impressed by Yan’s succinct way of breaking down and explaining how China really works from his underground perspec- tive. “You see Fab, the Chinese government sees Hong Kong as the office, and mainland China as the factory.” Yan explained how the youth on China’s mainland have figured out ways around the blocking of major web portals like YouTube and Facebook and how underground blogs serve up the real-deal info on corrupt government. I was also impressed by how many young Chinese eagerly requested his autograph when we were making the rounds in Hong Kong.
Fab 5 Freddy, Triple Green Bruce Fab 5, 2012
The Kung Fu Wild Style opening was a raging success with young, hip and cool Hong Kongers out in droves for an art opening the likes of which many said had never happened in that city. When the Hong Kong police showed up, we thought for sure we were going to get shut down as a couple hundred revelers had filled the street outside the gallery getting their groove on. The police were totally dumbfounded, MC Yan
￼explained, because they’d never seen or heard of people playing music in the streets like this and they just told us to shut it all down by midnight which was exactly as we’d planned anyway.
A few weeks after our successful Kung Fu Wild Style pop up, the Art & Labor gallery in Shanghai having heard about it all reached out saying they’d love to bring the work to their space for a January exhibit. Totally unexpected and the answer was “yes.” Then, we were contacted by the folks who do the New York Asian film festival at Lincoln Center here and they expressed wanting to mount the exhibit at the Furman gallery adjacent to Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre in July of 2013 and have the exhibit open the same evening as a 40th anniversary screen- ing of Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon. Of course we agreed, and MC Yan got to visit New York City along with Cavo. I took Yan around for the Fab 5 tour of the nooks and crannies where Hip Hop was born and bred. Next stop: the Smithsonian Museum's Sackler Wing in 2015.
Everyone Likes Everyone: A Conversation with Adam Green and Natalie Mering
Musician, filmmaker, and artist Adam Green played a pivotal role in the early 2000s indie rock music scene as one half of The Moldy Peaches.
Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood, and Jackie O Motherfucker played one of her earliest shows with Adam Green’s first band mate, Kimya Dawson. Here she talks to Green about generational differences in music and culture and what the stakes are for music going forward in an increasingly self-aware and homogeneous zeitgeist.
NATALIE MERING I would like to talk to you about the difference between our music generations.
ADAM GREEN Do you think we're in a different generation? I'm 33 now.
NM I’m 26, and I do think there's a pretty big difference between Gen Y and Millennials. Kids that are six years younger than me grew up with the Internet. They don't remember grunge, or Nirvana, or anything anti- establishment. They were fed Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears—they're, like, the establishment generation.
AG I can see that. In 2001 when my old band The Moldy Peaches broke out, we thought we were very late on the grunge band- wagon. And I think that we ended up being the start of a different group. The first tour that we did of the UK, with The Strokes, was very anticipated, because The Strokes had blown huge. We were like their kid brother band. And we hit our stride in 2001. But the fact is that I went out to Washington State in 1999, looking for the ashes of the grunge scene.
NM Exactly. I moved to Portland...
AG And I came back to New York, because
I didn't find it.
NM Yeah, yeah. I moved to Portland, and it was a very similar thing. I was into K Record stuff, and Marriage Records, and the weird indie stuff that was hanging on.I played some of my first shows with Kimya Dawson. I was really into Phil Elverum, and Thanksgiving, and early Dirty Projectors. And that was why I chose to do music. In some ways it informed me, but in other ways, I found that it was not where a lot of the energy was by the time I got out there.
AG In Portland?
NM Yeah. That it had already become kind of an institution that no longer was about reaching out...
AG Yeah. I think it did sort of implode. There was room for growth, and somewhere along the line all of these different subcultures kind of fused or something...
NM Yeah, exactly...
AG There's this very powerful propaganda technique that David Berman from the Silver Jews wrote about. The trick of the propagandist is to make it really obvious for you to hate something. Now, you don't hate anything, you have to like things a little bit or a lot, and that's the only option. We used to be identified by the things that we chose not to like. But then everyone became a Belieber or something...
Joey Frank That's interesting, because there's no “not like” or “dislike” button.
NM I’ve really noticed that, too. I used to hang out with a lot of people that were into a lot of different music, and there definitely was less of a bridge between the folky people and the noise people, and the electronic pop people, and the indie rock people. And now it's just all one big, kind of watered- down soup.
AG When I first started getting into noise music when I was younger, I had some drug experiences where I felt the sounds of music as different textures, and I associated them with the look of certain kinds of lines. And I think that bridge interested me and made me think of sounds as being very fibrous. In a way, it's context—it’s a music that's pure context, whereas something like The Strokes is actually almostpure formalism in the sense that they pared down their music so that their production was just in the actual arrangement. This stuff is recorded almost dry. You can hear every single note they played, and it was presented and mixed so that it was all out there with no context. And then the noise music was all context. It's kind of funny, because formalism sometimes is never quite enough for people. And the context is a noise that people don't know what to do with. But yet, people need all these noises around them to enjoy things. The same way they need their jeans distressed, and your tables well worn, and your Cy Twombly paintings all messed up. Well, that's what made me come to the conclusion that noise is an actual spice that we pepper our lives with, you know? You just throw it on.
NM Well, harmonically, it is, because a lot of those frequencies are blown out, and you're getting extra harmonics. When everything is so distorted, you're blown out. It's like you're getting into another realm. It's the same with color. When noise really hit me, I was like, “Okay, this is an answer to rock and roll.” It's like the power of The Stooges but deconstructed to just the context. And the first thing I noticed was what was going on harmonically. And I think that richness is why so many people love analog recordings—it's why so many people like psych rock.
The Strokes are totally simple, and totally clean, but there's still a fair amount of fuzz.
AG It is true. In a way, this formalist quality is one of the really important aspects of what they communicated to people. But it's true that they have their own version of noise...
NM Did The Strokes prefigure Instagram with the effects on their voice, those filters?
AG I remember the first time I saw distressed jeans, I thought, “This is so stupid.” I was a kid, and I heard on a Kodak commercial that there was a tryout. And I went to a tryout. I was like 17 years old, and I tried out for the nerd part in a Kodak commercial. The lady who was doing the casting, she had these jeans, and the more I looked at them, I realized that they were fake faded and I remember thinking that they weren't corresponding with her legs. I was puzzled by the way they were distressed. And then
I realized that it was synthetic. I just had never seen it before. Now it’s ubiquitous.
NM It’s a capitalist ploy to take something— like a nostalgia associated with a good, worn pair of jeans, and try to manufacture that nostalgia—like a simulacra of comfor- table jeans.
AG This vintage, distressed thing ultimately results in a gray, huddled mass—the way you'd picture Warsaw or something like that. Sometimes I feel like you walk down the street in Manhattan, and people are dressed as if they live in East Germany. Why does everyone have to wear gray or Army green? Everyone's so tasteful, I guess. No one will even dress loud anymore. Like, why even ruffle feathers?
NM The new avant-garde is making your children sandwiches in the morning, and
painting trees, because the loudness has become normal, in a way. Norm Core is going on, there's also this crazy, Nicki Minaj, Katie Perry, punk–borrowing of cult symbols, and witchcraft symbols, and neon colors, and almost like Fort Thunder making it into the mainstream.
AG If I had my way, everyone would be wearing Medieval king type shit.
NM Leather belts with pockets and water bladders, and stuff like that.
AG That would be great.
NM I'm a total Renn punk. That's what I am.
AG To come back to this idea of filters, like The Strokes voice, or whatever. What are the filters? How do you modulate your voice when you sing? What are your influences? I remember one of your early albums sounded very Scott Walker-y.
NM Scott Walker, yes, I was into that. And you know, it's like the mask becomes the face, because I thought I couldn't get away with that at all, and I just was, like, singing in the shower, basically. And then I started to make up songs where I was singing like
that, and started coming up with the kind of words that a guy who was singing like that would say—at some point, you just end up becoming this sort of crooner, singer guy. I didn't think that that was an option until I started to do it, you know?
NM That's beautiful...
AG What about you?
NM Well, I sang in choirs a lot, and I was classically trained for a minute. And basically, just taking that kind of purity- honed tone and then adding color to
it, without making false color—which is something a lot of female musicians do that drives me crazy. They talk totally normal, and then they sing like this [sings] and it makes no sense.
AG Yeah, yeah. Kind of a blues thing...
NM mean, I love Eddie Vedder, so I'm not about to diss anybody that has that kind of voice. But it took me a really long time to find the resonance where I could croon. I love Scott Walker; I'm especially a huge fan of Harry Nilsson, because I feel like our voices are actually very similar. He has a high voice for a man, and I have a really low voice for a woman. Once I started singing with Harry I found that I could do soulful trills, and scat, and it didn't sound like false color. It’s just finding a way to be soulful that is your own without borrowing.
AG I think there's even more pressure with female singer-songwriters to do that Amy Winehouse-type thing.
NM Yeah. Or even just rip off Chan Marshall, Cat Power. That's huge.
AG But I guess there's this really special quality when somebody can sing in a way that they sound like a “lady,” or they sound like they're really intelligent, and I really like that as a vehicle to deliver lyrics and stuff. If you can give a sort of more cerebral voice that sounds feminine, it sounds so beautiful. I was originally really drawn to Kimya for that reason.
JF I want to switch gears and talk lyrics. For example, Adam, you claim that there's “no wrong way to fuck a girl with no legs.” Is that true?
AG Well, it's a real thing that happened to my friend. My friend told this story about how he went on a picnic with a girl and ended up having sex with her against a tree—a girl with no legs. He ended up having sex with her against a tree. And I said, there's no wrong way to fuck a girl with no legs. And then he said I should write a song about it. But that was it.
JF Did they have a fruitful relationship?
AG No. It wasn't meant to be.
NM I feel like the levels of concentration have gone down to a point where lyrics have suffered a little bit.
AG I think about this and look at people from ten years ago and feel, “Oh god, these
guys actually really had their act together.” And harking back to like the Beatnik period, where people like Jack Kerouac maybe like took acid—but also knew how to build a house before he did it? Whenever Yves Klein was tripping out, he would try to invent a new society, or whatever
it was. And I feel like people were more scholarly before they'd trip out and become “degenerates”...
NM Now it's just straight to degenerate. It's like nobody sharpened the knives.
AG Cy Twombly's art is based to some degree on his exposure to the Palmer Method
of writing. People had to do so many writing exercises, and so a lot of his aesthetics are blackboards and different types of repetitive motions like children’s calligraphy. Even with The Strokes,
for example—those guys are actually pretty refined. They were educated, some
of them, in Europe. In manner, and
in different ways they were a cultured band. They were the first band that I was exposed to that actually had their shit together to be great. You know?
JF How did you feel in relationship with The Strokes?
AG I was a bit younger than them. I was working at a clothes store, Rags-A-Gogo, and Albert came in, and we started talking. We ended up playing a show together. That's how we really met. I saw them play at this place called the The Grand Saloon, and remember looking at Albert's chords, and being like, “Holy shit, these are,
like, Chinese chords or something.” I had no idea how to play this on guitar. I was so impressed, because people usually tell you to see their band, and it always sucks.
NM I know...
AG When they started playing Mercury Lounge, they had such a crazy thing, like a hysteria element in the room.
NM Noticing that is always really exciting. As a female musician, it's always kind of strange, because I've always wanted to be a part of that hysteria. Like, I need that thing. But I think it tends to be more exclusive to masculine bands.
AG Because the guys' premise is like, “I'm coming to your town to have sex with you.”
NM Yeah. And there's something about the boy-pack energy. I was obsessed with Wolf Eyes as a teenager. I wanted so badly to
be a part of that kind of primal energy. It's hypnotizing everybody, driving them crazy, making them punch walls, and just flip out.
AG I have noticed this as a thematic thing a lot of my female friends that grew up with that as an inspiration—like some kind of male rock star idea—wanted to integrate it into their own beings. I’d like to hear you talk a little bit about that. What you could do, and what you couldn't do?
NM I think my first step was: I wanted to be the support in the band. Like, with Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth, and Kim Gordon, and all the women in the support roles. I feel that there's a level in male support and male friendships that can create that hysteria and create that pack. But in terms of just all women—women usually operate with long goals, can
be incredibly competitive, and sometimes there's less of that act to happen, for there to be an all-girl group that creates hysteria. Unless it's like – “This is Riot grrrl, and this is what we do.” You know?
AG The Riot grrrl movement is so great, though... It's actually really underrated. Bikini Kill is something that rocks as
hard as The Stooges. I'm actually having
a daughter soon, so I want to make sure that she can do anything that she wants. Finding out that I was having a daughter instantly got me obsessed with the concept of any kind of inequality that you could possibly experience, and I just want to try to eliminate from her life, you know?
NM I think the best advice, if she does become interested in something that's a predominantly masculine subject, like music, is: don't assimilate. I had two older brothers, so I was already kind of a tomboy. But I assimilated and became more masculine and adopted the way that men think just so I could be a part of the crew, and tour with their bands, and be in that zone; as opposed to seeking out,
or trying a little harder to seek out females, and trying to cultivate that kind of a sisterly pact.
AG Right. I feel like ultimately the society we want to live in is basically a feminist society. That word that has gotten a bastardized meaning, but like, basically we want to live in a feminist society.
NM There's still more things to be done. There’s been this weird stamp like, “Okay, feminism happened. It's done. Females are liberated.” And now there's also a masculinity crisis due to the amount of estrogen in the environment, and also just the role that men feel like they should play, and the lack of outlets for them to express their masculinity, you know?
AG Yeah, true, true.
NM And I think that's why there are so many school shootings and things going on.
So amidst all that, it's pretty hard to say, “Oh, there's still more work to be done for women,” when all of a sudden there is this other gender crisis happening with men simultaneously.
AG Yeah, I can see that. Definitely growing up as a guy, if you're not interested in guy stuff, it's pretty traumatic.
AG That was actually one of the subjects of a movie I made, The Wrong Ferarri. When
I was growing up, I had been called “faggot” so much in my life that I decided to appropriate it in the movie. It was like, me and my “faggot” friends from back home are now a subculture called faggots, and it's good, and we welcome the word into our lives. We reverse the psychic pain. The faggots are just like hippies, or punks, or something, and it's just our culture. And so, for a second I thought, “Oh, well, you know, it's great. Because how many guys have been called a faggot in their whole life?” You know, maybe they'd like to reverse it. I'm sure people that were gay that were called a faggot probably don't even care if somebody else takes the word. So this would be a good chance for us to just take the word. We like to be faggots. We're the faggots. And I thought it would be great—the whole East Village could be faggots by the end of the year.
JF I have to say something now that I haven't said before.
JF I once talked to you in 2003. I never
brought this up...
AG Oh, what...?
JF I saw you in Washington, D.C., at a Moldy Peaches show.
AG Oh, at the Black Cat?
JF At the Black Cat. I came up after, and you
were wearing an Elvis outfit.
JF I came up afterwards, and was like, “Oh man, the show was so good. My parents' house is nearby, do you want to come and hang out?” To have a drink or whatever, like, just to celebrate after the show.
AG Yeah, yeah?
JF And you said, “Thanks man, but I'm not a
faggot.” That's what you actually said.
AG Are you—That's what I said?
JF Yeah. And you gave me a hug. You gave me a hug, but you were like, “Thanks man, but I'm not a faggot.”
AG That's hilarious... And then ten years later I became one?
JF And ten years later, we're sitting here, I just never mentioned it, because it was such a weird story to have known from before. But after all this faggot conversation...
AG And then ten years later, I'm the king of the faggots? That's hilarious, man.
NM I never got called a faggot. But I have been called “homely.”
NM For dressing kind of masculine, and not being a hot girl, and wearing eyeliner.
JF Nobody ever shouts, “homely”...
NM No, it would be like, you know, I'm hanging out with my guy friends, and they'd be talking about some hot girl, and they'd be like, “Oh don't worry Natalie, you're cool; you're homely.”
AG Really? That's like a...
NM Not realizing it was an insult. Thinking just
AG It's kind of a five-dollar word for a little kid to call you.
AG “Homely.” I mean, you could give a kid five dollars for that.