|!”\(-,-) : Paul Chan

by Apsara Diquinzio


1005 book covers, painted and attached to the wall: this is the gigantic complete work Volumes, a sample of which was shown by Paul Chan at dOCUMENTA (13), whose accompanying texts will be included in one of the two volumes published for his upcoming solo show at the Schaulager. Apsara DiQuinzio met the artist to talk about this show—which besides including a vast selection of earlier works, will also feature newer “arguments” and “non-projections”—and about the artist’s publishing house, Badlands Unlimited, which releases “books in the expanded field.”


APSARA DIQUINZIO: Your exhibition at the Schaulager that opens this month in Basel is the most comprehensive gathering of your work to date. I’m curious to know how you approached the idea of doing a survey. What kind of structure (if any) underlies the exhibition?

PAUL CHAN: First I thought of

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Then this came to me:

Working _\
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/_/\ \ with junkies of
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?/ / all kinds teaches
\ \/_/\ \/_/\ \/_/ one that exercising nobility
\_of character\_\
/ ?/ / ?/ / ?/ is a nervous
?/ / ?/ endeavor measured
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as a blessed constant.

Or maybe
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The inhuman
is what is
absolutely large.
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It is a ););)
magnitude that is equal only to itself.

Or something like

The poor
The spirit
The network
The real reality

ADQ: Is that a poem, a new font, or some kind of secret code?

PC: I don’t call them anything in particular. Just writing. Do you know?

ADQ: It looks like a new kind of thought process, or language, to me, one in which symbols and words work together. I’m curious to know how this writing develops. If I were to set it in a different font would I alter the meaning of it?

PC: I write like anyone else: for clarity’s sake. Sometimes the thought demands a sentence, or a paragraph, and sometimes it calls for something else. Don’t know if changing fonts would alter the meaning. You’re welcome to try and find out.

ADQ:?Changing the font itself doesn’t seem to change it significantly, but changing the size of the font does seem to impact it somewhat compositionally. You are debuting a new body of work in the exhibition that you have been developing for some time. Can you tell me a little about it?

PC: A few bodies. There are the book works, which grew out of publishing through my press, Badlands Unlimited. This includes the complete hanging of Volumes, part of which was shown at dOCUMENTA (13), and the texts that accompany each painted work. There is also a new stone book. I began publishing on stone in 2011. Schaulager, along with the Laurenz Foundation, also agreed to co-publish two books along with the exhibition catalog. So I consider those books integral parts of the exhibition. There are these new works that I call arguments, which led to the development of a series of other works called nonprojections. The arguments and the nonprojections along with the book works constitute roughly half of the entire exhibition. This is perhaps the most exciting part for me.

ADQ:?As suggested by the books you are publishing with the show, so much of your recent work involves writing and the production (and reconfiguration) of books, including of course Badlands Unlimited. And you mention on Badlands’ website that you are interested in publishing “books in the expanded field.” What does the “expanded field” of the book look like today?

PC:?I think the Badlands catalog is representative of it. We have published e-books, paper books, zines, artist editions, books on stone. It looks, at least to me, like something neither wholly predictable nor fully determined as a program.

ADQ:?I noticed you just changed the Badlands website to a new (beta) site that reflects the ubiquity of Internet searches. It distills everything down to “the search.” And it’s true that this kind of searching is a new mode of being and acquiring knowledge: plugging something into Google (or any other search engine), and then being immediately satisfied by finding information about that thing that would have never otherwise been so readily available. It does seem to be fundamentally changing us, and yet I’m not sure it is making us more knowledgeable. We are so information hungry now, insatiable really, or maybe we take information for granted now. This new website underscores this. Who designed it? And how are websites already becoming “anachronistic”?

PC: It was a collaboration between Rumors studio and Badlands. At first I wanted the new site to look like the Berkshire Hathaway site. But we ended up with what we got. Funny how things turn out. Websites are as anachronistic as Kimye. They just are.

ADQ: Don’t laugh, but I just had to Google Kimye to find out what that is. Another search. You recently told me that you created Badlands in order to publish On Democracy by Saddam Hussein, which finally came out in 2012, nearly a decade after you first discovered the text. But it seems Badlands has become so much more than that initial inception suggests, and an important aspect of your practice. Can you tell me a little about how the idea of Badlands grew and how it operates now? And do you make trailers for every e-book, or how do you decide which book gets a trailer?

PC: I’ve wanted to publish books for quite some time. But I never had the money. In 2010, when I started Badlands, I still didn’t have enough money to do a real press, but then at the time I didn’t think I needed to, if I published only e-books. So that’s how Badlands started. I wanted to publish books written by artists and others on art but I didn’t have the money. Over time we’ve made enough (Badlands is not a nonprofit, its tax id is as a small business) to invest in paper books, stone books, limited editions, etc. But maybe most importantly, we’ve invested in people. The artists who work at Badlands, and those we publish. A book is only as good as the relations that make it worth publishing. How does Badlands operate? Our business hours are Mondays and Tuesdays, from 11am to 7pm. We don’t make trailers for every book. Like I said, we only work on Mondays and Tuesdays.

ADQ: I really like the trailers, they make me want to start reading e-books, which for some reason I still have been reluctant to do. Holiday, your new book on stone, exists as an e-book and as a physical object. Why both?

PC: Well, not everyone can afford stone books. So there is always an e-book edition of the stone book that is typically discounted up to 99.4% over what the stone book costs. On the other hand, the heft and permanence of a stone book speak for themselves, as a published object. The Greeks published stone tablets as public law books. Of course God published the Ten Commandments, which would not nearly have been so successful if it weren’t for Moses, the first great book distributor.

ADQ: What are the arguments and nonprojections you mentioned earlier that will be in the exhibition?

PC: They are what I ended up calling what I’ve been making. The arguments are largely made of electrical cords that plug into, well, anything. The nonprojections are a series of projection works that don’t essentially work as projections. I think of them as works on strike. But who knows what they really are?

ADQ: Why do you call them arguments?

PC: I was arguing with myself as I was making them, about what it was I was doing. And the more arguments I had, the more arguments I made.

ADQ: What were the arguments about?

PC: How does any thing become some thing, mostly.

ADQ: How do the nonprojections work, how are they made?

PC: Like I said, I’m not sure they work at all. But they do consist of projectors and other elements connected to them. And the projectors are on, technically: one can hear the fan cooling the projector bulb, the LED lights are on. But nothing discernable is projecting. And in order to see “something” one has to look directly into the projector lens, as if one were looking into the eye of the projector. But I’m not even sure what that something is. All I know is that today I can’t bear looking at projected images, or anything that emanates from a screen of any size. Call it screen fatigue. So no matter what the images are, no matter how interesting or vibrant or critical or spectacular, if it is in 4:3 or 16:9 or whatever, it all looks the same to me. Sound + fury = ?.

ADQ: Yes, screen fatigue, the inability to unplug, and the pervasive “electric flicker of moving images” seems to sum up our current moment in an important way. You have written about this in your essay, “On Light as Midnight and Noon” (found in your new book Selected Writings 2000-2014, being published for the exhibition). And Jonathan Crary just wrote a book about this too. Is that “fatigue” what inspired you to start painting?

PC: Painting as I understand it is a screen image par excellence. Historically I think this is true, and it certainly is today. More and more painters work primarily in the medium of jpegs. It’s liberating insofar as it is also fatiguing, for everyone, don’t you think?

ADQ: I’m not sure I understand what you mean about painting with jpegs. Are you saying that painting has become a digital medium, or is this a new form of pastiche?

PC: A medium is a means of transmission. But these means are shaped by the “ends” that they aim for. So it isn’t so much that paintings are being made by jpegs or digital technology, although this is happening, but that more and more paintings are being made with the “ends” of transmission in mind: which is a jpeg, or better yet, a meme.

ADQ: Yes, jpegs seem to be the inevitable form for everything these days. You mentioned that your monumental work Volumes (2012) will figure prominently in the exhibition. We saw a little over half of this work displayed in dOCUMENTA (13), but the entire group consists of 1005 book covers that you fastened to a wood support and then painted over, after tearing out the pages. I’m curious about quantity in relation to this work; is there any significance to the amount you made? And where did all these books come from?

PC: No significance beyond the time it took to make them: on weekends, afternoons when I wasn’t publishing anything, or whenever time availed itself. I got them from the usual places you get books: sidewalks, Costco. I got a few from your cousin Rhonda. She gave me this great book, Your Guide to Microwave Cooking.

ADQ: So what are the texts that accompany Volumes?

PC: There were texts that I started to write to accompany each of the painted works. They vary in length and everything else. And writing them helped me understand what I was doing for the Schaulager exhibition. They were the first ideas, so to speak.

ADQ: These texts are all reproduced in your new book New New Testament (the second book being published with the exhibition). They look very similar to the poem (?) with which you began this conversation. (At least my hunch is that this is a new form of poetry, but I’m still struggling with what to call it, symbolic poetry maybe?) But they are meant to go with the painted book covers, so they are contingent on physical objects as well. And yet, they are not exactly quotable texts because I wouldn’t know how to read one out loud, or reproduce the symbols and spacing. They seem to be texts that function as an image. Is there any kind of system to them?

PC:?The book Schaulager and Badlands is co-publishing, entitled New New Testament, is where the painted works and the texts come together in a unified form. They inform each other insofar as they say nothing in particular about one or the other. There is no system other than me spending time writing and painting. I suppose you could say the system is time based.

ADQ: What happened to the insides of the books in Volumes? And how did you decide which books to include in this work—were they randomly chosen, or was there an editing process involved?

PC: Is it so different, an editing process or randomly choosing them? The insides of the book: some turned into unique artist books I made that are also part of the exhibition. Books like Wht is a Kardashian? or Wht is Nature? Other pages I either kept or threw away. I don’t remember.

ADQ: That’s a good point, randomly selecting them is also a kind of editing process. I guess I meant did you know in advance that you wanted to include certain books, or did you just pick anything that you found?

PC: Again, it’s not either or. Or another way to put it is: making a work by following a principle is not something I typically care to do or find pleasing. The work should make the method, not the other way around.

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Originally published on Mousse 43 (April–May 2014)

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