Semiotext(e) is widely known as the publisher that brought French theory to America. Initially a scholarly journal founded in the early ’70s by Sylvère Lotringer and others at Columbia University, Semiotext(e)’s reach expanded into the underground and downtown scenes, creating and reflecting affinities between high theory and experimental art, literature, and performance practices. From the 1975 conference and issue on Schizo-Culture (recently re-issued in an expanded edition), which brought together Felix Guattari, Michel Foucault, R.D. Laing, and William Burroughs, to the creation of Semiotext(e) press and its cooler-than-cool back-pocket-sized Foreign Agents series, Semiotext(e) was an important actor in the ’80s art scene. The press continues to be influential and innovative, with Chris Kraus’s Native Agents imprint and the design and editorial work of current co-editor Hedi El Kholti.
As the archivist for the Fales Library’s Downtown Collection, where we house the Sylvère Lotringer Papers and Semiotext(e) Archive, I found that the press’s selection by curator Stuart Comer for this year’s Whitney Biennial made perfect sense. But some early reviews questioned the press’s inclusion, dismissing the installation as merely an archive of past publications. In fact, Semiotext(e) published 28 new booklets for the Biennial and created a contextualizing space for them to be read against a backdrop of selected archival documents, video stations playing interviews with Paul Virilio and Gilles Deleuze, and a turntable with Lotringer’s 1978 interview with Jack Smith. After visiting the room, reading many of the texts, and observing how others interacted with the space (many did, in fact, sit down to read), I contacted El Kholti to ask him more about the project.
I started by asking about Semiotext(e)’s approach to participating in the Biennial, and how the curator and editors conceived of the installation.
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Hedi El Kholti: After Stuart Comer invited us to participate as an “artist” and submit a proposal, I conferred with Chris [Kraus] and Sylvère [Lotringer] and we decided early on that we should avoid doing something other than what we usually do, meaning that we had to make publications. Documenta had done that a few years ago with their 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts series. The guiding principal to me was to create something under the sign of friendship, to make the show a tribute to this little community we inhabit.
In this spirit, we also wanted to collaborate on the installation with someone we knew. I’ve known Jason Yates for years. He went to Art Center [College of Design, Pasadena] around the same time I did, studied with Mike Kelley. Chris wrote about his work in Where Art Belongs. There is a history of Semiotext(e) collaborating with artists as book designers that stems from a desire to keep things not too compartmentalized or professionalized. Joseph Kosuth designed one of our publications; Richard Serra and Mike Kelley made posters for events. Jason did something really beautiful for us that I think very well complemented the material we were presenting. The black sculptures with stitching look kind of industrial, kind of crafty. The rope could evoke the binding of a spiral notebook, but Jason used bondage ropes so it had also a vague S&M feel to it that called to mind the Polysexuality issue of Semiotext(e) and looked very at home in the Whitney’s Breuer building.
Lisa Darms: How did you feel about being asked to participate in the Biennial? Was there a sort of logic for you in Semiotext(e)’s participation in an art survey?
HEK: I don’t know. Honestly I am not sure if a press belongs in a museum show, and it’s not my place to answer that question. However, there is a tradition of reading rooms in museums. And also, Semiotext(e) has had a strange phantom presence in the art world since its inception, and Stuart wanted to pay tribute to that. Our readership tends to be in the art world. The literary world, which is extremely conservative, seems to exclude us and rarely reviews our books.
I didn’t feel we were being absorbed by the art world by participating — that isn’t something I am particularly concerned about. We published material that in some cases we would have published otherwise. A lot of things end up in the art world because it’s the last remaining place that offers some kind of freedom and a context. Experimental film culture is an example of that, and maybe literature and poetry are next. Chris writes about this now in some of her essays — including Lost Properties, the volume she wrote for the Whitney.
LD: The fact that you refer to the tradition of the reading room really resonates with my experience of the installation. I spent over an hour and a half reading publications in the space. The experience started to feel really familiar to me — connected to the experience of being in a public reading room, which is the space I oversee in my day job. What is the significance for you in creating a situation in which people are invited to sit and read in a museum?
HEK: Yes, I love libraries, reading rooms … Even at Art Center, I think that’s where I spent most of my time. I think Stuart Comer said somewhere that he felt that the Semiotext(e) room could be a way to enter the rest of the show, that it could inform some of the other pieces in his exhibition. Or it could be a way to exit it as well — a way to articulate the experience one has in a museum. I mean, that’s why we wanted the publications to be tactile, not eBooks. That’s why we still don’t do eBooks. The rest of the installation was just a context, so people could understand, if they wanted to, what Semiotext(e) is.
LD: I was attracted by the fact that I was allowed to interact with and read the booklets — to take them off the wall and hold them. And in fact, in contrast to the rest of the Biennial, there were no guards in sight — which was funny, considering this was likely the only place where something could easily be stolen. I’m curious about why you chose the pamphlet format.
HEK: Yes, they were really afraid that people would steal them. I guess we’re all so well behaved these days. As for the “pamphlet” format — I actually hesitate to call them that. I called them publications because, even though I think of them as subtle aesthetic manifestoes, I don’t think they fit into the tradition of radical political pamphlets. We could have made a magazine, but I loved the fact that they all stood on their own in their singularity, and still there were so many mirrorings and connections I only felt afterwards, once I had read the whole series.
LD: I began to see a lot of affinities across the texts, too; for example (and this is probably just subjective, given my work as an archivist), it seems like there is a recurring preoccupation with preservation and memory’s relationship to internal or personal archives, as in Guyotat’s account of his imprisonment, when he writes:
[…] reading will be for later. First, I must bring back to memory the books I know, and magine those I have no knowledge of yet.
Or Lynne Tillman:
Think about how much of existence goes into preserving what could instantly disappear, and maybe should, like taking a photo at a wedding. Good or Bad? Which is important, the moment or the preservation?
HEK: I think there is a definite sense of melancholia in the series, and also that it really tackles the whole twentieth century, with figures like Duchamp in Maurizio Lazzarato’s text and Bataille in Sylvère Lotringer’s, the presence of World War II in Simone Weil’s … failed revolutions in Julio Cortazar’s and Gary Indiana’s, decolonization in Guyotat … It’s all there. And a vision of the future, too, with BIFO taking on Google.
Have you read Henri Lefebvre’s text? It’s an endless litany of artworks that have been lost. In a place like a museum, what is celebrated is always shadowed by what has been excluded from the canon. So I have a very ambivalent relationship to the experience.
LD: Failure or incompletion also seem like common themes. Eileen Myles writes, “My sense of being a failure at any job [is] a key to my identity as a writer.” And the themes of melancholia, loss and incompletion make me think of Jack Smith. It seems like Sylvère’s interview with Smith, which is presented in the room on a vinyl record, is a sort of key to the mini-exhibition (and I suspect to the entirety of Semiotext(e) as a project).
HEK: Yes, definitely. Jack Smith is an important figure for Semiotext(e). In that interview with Sylvère, he so clearly states all of his ideas, and they are still so incredibly potent — ideas about art, and ways of living as an artist. I love this quote from the interview:
Buying and selling is the most natural human institution: there’s nothing wrong with that … Buying and selling is the most interesting thing in the world. It should be aesthetic and everything else. But capitalism is a perversion of this. Nothing is more wonderful than a marketplace. It gives people something to do … and it can be creative. Wonderful things come from commerce … but not from capitalism. That kind of translates what we did for the Whitney.
Did you see the beautiful book that Boo-Hooray did of his ephemera? My only problem with the book is the introduction. It says:
… every consecutive look at the work of Jack Smith increases in […] Exoticism. It is difficult to explain why the art of Jack Smith is so wonderful but it is. My 12-year-old daughter says that she feels that the art is wonderful, but doesn’t know why and I agree with that. Art that went from the heart to the hand without taking a detour by the brain […]
I mean, really? One of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century, a trenchant political thinker, reduced to pretty doodles for kids.
Also, I want to say that Semiotext(e) has always been a very fragile proposition. We are not funded. We have no staff. We exist solely by the sale of our books. And, as you know, the publishing market isn’t such a great place to be these days.
LD: Your comment on the fragility of Semiotext(e) as a business brings me back to your earlier comment that the art world may be the last remaining place that offers some kind of freedom and a context. I feel like Jack Smith may have regarded a place like the Whitney as the ultimate embodiment of what he called “irrational landlordism,” but I think you’re right that the museum (like the archive or special collection library) is one of the few places that provides context anymore. Maybe this is the only remaining function of a museum …
HEK: I agree. I mean, they helped us. They were generous to us. Stuart Comer and Mamie Tinkler were very supportive. The Biennial enabled us to make all this material that will have some other life and now circulate in the culture. It was also fun to be in New York. The Whitney invited all the writers that participated in our installation to the opening and we had a really great time. This makes me think of a quote from Jean Baudrillard:
It’s no use to refuse honors, that is doing them too much of a favor. The only strategy is to make sure you never receive them in the first place.