VZSZHHZZ: Jeanne Graff and Juliana Huxtable
Jeanne Graff and Juliana Huxtable in conversation.
MY THING WITH JEANNE BEGAN AS A SERIES OF COINCIDENCES. I WAS WORKING A BASEMENT PARTY AND SHE CAME THERE ALONE. SHE SEEMED TO SEE SOMETHING LIKE WHAT I SAW IN THE AT-TIMES UNCOMFORTABLY CROWDED ROOM FILLED WITH CHIC AND CHIC-ADJACENT GAY MEN AND THEIR COMRADES. AN OPPORTUNITY TO BE ALONE. SHE HAD LIVED IN A HOUSE I IMAGINED IN A PASTORAL SOMEWHERE IN SWITZERLAND AND HAD A GRACEFUL RESTRAIN THAT SEEMED A BIT ANACHRONISTIC BUT UNSHACKLED FROM A MORALISTIC NOSTALGIA ABOUT WHAT IT MEANT OR DIDN’T MEAN IN RELATION TO WHATEVER THE ABSOLUTE WORST SYMBOLIZED RIGHT THEN. I GENERALLY FELT UNDERSTOOD AND BEYOND THAT HAD AN AFFINITY FOR BEING “THEM” TOGETHER.
THE BASEMENT HAD TRAINED ME WELL TO ENDURE REDUCTION TO MY ELEMENTARY PARTICLES. ALMOST INSTANTLY, JEANNE SEEMED A SALVE TO THE SCARS FROM BEING CUT UP, PROCESSED AS A GRAIN AND UNCOMFORTABLY CHEWED TO BE SPIT BACK OUT PERFORMATIVELY. WHICH IS TO SAY SHE SAW ME WHERE IT WAS QUITE DIFFICULT TO…SET UP AGAINST.
SHE WAS AS CHIC AS SHE WAS DE FACTO AWARE. AS A PRODUCT OF SOMETHING LIKE COMPREHENSION, ABSORBING CONTEXT AND CONTOURS AS CLUES TO A CONDITION, KNOWING THAT SUCH A THING EVADES APPROACH
SHE PROCESSED IN WRITING, WORKS THROUGH GAPS IN LANGUAGE (SEVERAL) WITH INFATUATED OBSERVATION AND GENEROCITY TO THOSE SHE BEFRIENDS. HER TEXTS CHOOSE TO “BE WHAT THEY ARE…” [AS THEIR SUBJECTS DEMAND IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER], GRAPPLE A MONSTROCITY AS A RITUAL OR RITE, ITS META-‘s FAINTLY ENNUNCIATING THEMSELVES IN NOTES FOR A CARD ACCOMPANYING A GIFT… OR ACTUALLY JUST THE CARD ITSELF.
VZSZHHZZ DOES AS IT SOUNDS TO A CERTAIN DEGREE, AN UNCOOTH ARRANGEMENT OF CONSONANTS THAT ENDS UP PRODUCING VOWEL-ADJACENT SOUNDS IN ITS MOVEMENTS. ITS MADE OF RECOGNIZABLE MEMBERS OF A LATIN ALPHABET, BUT ASKS IF SOMETHING IS BEING TRANSLATED (OR REFUSING TO BE ALLOWED TO) (OR DOESN’T WANT TO BE) (OR MUST BE). VOILÀ “VZSZHHZZ”
Juliana Huxtable: Where were you in your head when you first started writing this series of books?
Jeanne Graff: I was in Paris with a group of friends, and then they all left for holiday. I knew I had to do something new but didn’t know exactly what, and decided to spend the summer in Paris, and was really bored. I was trying to find a form for the press release of our show, and decided to simply write about the boxing lessons we just took.
JH: Had you ever written before? What was your relation to writing?
JG: I’ve been trying but was never happy about it. I was looking for a form that was simple, easy to read, and listening to what was around. It started with Stefan Tcherepnin. We were doing a record in New York with the band Solar Lice and I didn’t liked what I was doing, so the last day I thought maybe I should do lyrics for a song. It sounded like a crowd, random spoken words, and it was somehow about languages. Stefan made me sing, and I was happy. That moment I’ve heard my voice for the first time was important.
JH: A lot of the book is about relationships as they develop. In what ways did the fact that you were writing, always keeping these notes, observing, influence your friendships?
JG: Well, for a while there, I never thought I was writing a book.
JH: That’s the best way to write a book, when you don’t think you’re actually writing a book.
JG: I was writing these small texts that were for my friends, that I was self-publishing in little books and giving to them. Somehow it was a way for me to say that I was touched by them. To make them these gifts.
JH: Yes, it’s a kind of a gift. I liked the opportunity to see myself through someone else’s eyes also in terms of context and languages. Seeing me through your eyes added another layer to our friendship and our relationship.
JG: Because it’s an exchange.
JH: It was a lot about translation.
JG: I realized that you liked it, so we had this tacit agreement and I continued to write about you when we were in China. I was taking notes all the time.
JH: A lot of these books seem not overthought, easy to read. Also the size and the presentation are nice, they don’t take up that much space.
JG: I was trying to make it very simple, and the writing is also simple, to write about what I hear, what I see, but then after a while I became more conscious about what I was doing, about how things were constructed. When I did the chapter with Léonard, that’s your favourite one, with the boxes—
JH: Yes, when the boxes became a metaphor, it started to organize how I thought about the others. It was really symbolic—a system to read the other parts. A kind of unfolding.
JG: When I realized that, I thought I should try something else. I was repeating myself. Or, it’s more that it wasn’t natural anymore, because first it was you, Amy, Anne, John. Then I thought, I don’t want to be a portraitist because it’s really not what the book is about. So it became more about situations, cities, the weather. It’s composed, constructed, improvised.
JH: I love the language part.
JG: It’s always about the language because I was learning English as I was writing.
JH: And my version of English is very specific. Even native English speakers can’t understand me most of the time, so you were understanding more of what I was saying than many people.
JG: Your part is very personal.
JH: I’m very open. How do you feel about your person in the book? Self-seeing your reflection in the book? Because your presence in the book is not as explicit as other people in the book.
JG: It’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s too early to answer. It’s through my eyes and through my ears. I’d love to read it from your point of view. What is happening lately in your own writing practice?
JH: Right now I’m doing this cheesy exercise that a lot of writers recommend, where every morning you have to write three pages of whatever comes to your mind. The idea is that if you write enough, it clears your mind and opens space for you to channel these things that otherwise would be feelings, emotions that are built up in your head. I wonder if the process of writing opened you up to experiencing the subjects of the book in a different way.
JG: I work very slowly. It took me three years to write seventy pages, and every chapter, every line, I’ve read it maybe four hundred times. I listen to music—either your music, Stefan’s or whatever pop, film, classical music, which gives a rhythm to each chapter, because I’m trying to focus and not focus at the same time. That’s how I compose.
JH: When I write, it’s not methodical. I don’t have a “practice” that I do. This recent exercise has been interesting. All of my writing is generally observational. When I first started to write, it was very personal for me. What are you writing about now?
JG: Tastes, death, the weather, the fires last summer in Porto, the drivers in Athens. Now, I recognize the moments that will be interesting to write about. I’ve been trained somehow. I never know in advance, but when the moments happen, I recognize them. First it was more that I didn’t want to forget. When I met you that night, when you told me your story, I was so touched that I thought, “I’m going to write it down and give it to you.” It’s an exchange. That’s the night when we really became close friends.
All these words form the people who touch me, I know them all by heart. For example when these Athens drivers started to speak, I thought the way they were describing their situations and the city—I had to write it down and give them back to them. They were saying, “We have been sold, we are for sale, we have been sold like stones, our price changes every day, and here after this tree, after this tree, after this tree, you will see just for a while the Acropolis, it’s so old, it’s war, warm here . . .”
What are you writing about?
JH: A lot of my writing begins in a very diaristic way. I’ve always kept a diary since I was a kid, ten years old. Later, the references became not about me, but external. Writing about myself became a way to write about larger ideas.
JG: Do you hear the voices of certain people in your head? That happens to me.
JH: My father used to tell me, and I could hear his voice saying in a deterministic way, that your weight in high school is always the weight you’ll return to; you’ll never escape. Maybe what he really meant was that I was going to be a failure academically because I was bad at high school. In any case, it always terrified me. Fear of determinism. Your books are also about cities, travels, but without having the labels, without saying, “it’s about relationships, it’s about art.” It doesn’t need to announce these things but it deals with feminism, multiculturalism, all these things that I’m thinking about.
JG: It’s very precise. And you know what I think. Dire les choses sans les dire. It’s kind of strange to think that people we don’t know are going to read this book, no? I have trouble thinking about that. I don’t really like it.
JH: I know. Books are weird. What’s your editing process? For some people it’s about removing, and what’s left is the form.
JG: It really depends. I write some parts, then I leave them for months, sometimes a year, and then there is another situation that could fit, and I find a way to link them together, so it’s smooth to read. I will reread a chapter sometimes hundreds of times to know it could fit with another one. Some of them I’ve done in a day. Other times when I’m not happy about a sentence, or how the paragraphs are linked, I’ll think about it obsessively for months to find the solution. It can take months to figure out a sentence that leads to another one. One sentence leads to another one and another one.
Find here an extract of VZSZHHZZ.
Writer and curator Jeanne Graff was born in Lausanne, Switzerland and lives in New York. Her book Vzszhhzz will be published by Semiotext(e) in April 2018.
Juliana Huxtable is an American artist, writer, performer, DJ, musician, and co-founder of the New York-based nightlife project Shock Value.