Chris Kraus makes radical proposals for how art can be read through context and circumstances in Social Practice
While most know Chris Kraus as the author of the epistolary novel-turned-Amazon series I Love Dick, her other novels and books on art have garnered a cult following. Kraus’s books, which are often playfully adapted from her own life, are about angry women, artists whose work goes unrecognized, writers responding to patriarchal forces. In her novel Summer of Hate, Kraus describes the main character, Catt, who like herself is an art critic: “She saw no boundaries between feeling and thought, sex and philosophy, hence her writing was read almost exclusively in the art world where she attracted a small core of devoted fans, Asperger’s boys, girls who had been hospitalized for mental illness, assistant professors who would not be receiving their tenure, lap-dancers, cutters and whores.”
Catt’s fan club is much like Kraus’s and it is the same lack of division between aspects of human experience described here that makes her work so riveting. By transcending boundaries of artistic genre, she uses the messier parts of consciousness to construct works of mental and emotional weather. Before beginning her career as a writer, Kraus was a filmmaker. She made nine films between 1982 and 1995, each of which was displayed at her recent solo exhibition, In Order to Pass, at Chateau Shatto in downtown Los Angeles. Though Kraus says she resists mythologizing—more on that later—it was nevertheless compelling to look at the show as an archive of her entire career. The show provides a powerful synergy between the body of work and the artist that produced it.
Much like Kraus’s books, her films span fiction, cultural criticism, and art theory, refusing to situate themselves in any particular genre, seamlessly blending what might normally be separated into narrative, documentary, or conceptual work. “Gravity and Grace,” her only feature-length film, (named after a posthumously published compilation of texts by the French Christian mystic philosopher Simone Weil), follows two young women, Gravity and Grace, through their time in a religious cult in New Zealand. One of the girls becomes disillusioned and moves to New York to try out the art world, only to become more disillusioned and fail as an artist. Other films also feature wounded protagonists resigned to disgrace: In “Foolproof Illusion,” Kraus builds a snowman in lingerie while bemoaning a violent husband and reading the work of Antonin Artaud, the French playwright known for developing the Theatre of Cruelty.
Kraus also co-runs Semiotext(e), an independent publisher that has been significant in dispersing French critical theory in the U.S. Her latest book on art, Social Practices will be released by the press in September. In it, Kraus interrogates the genre that has come to be called “social practice,”and makes radical proposals for how art can be read through context and circumstances. All art, she suggests, is a social practice. I talked with Kraus about the Chateau Shatto exhibition, Social Practices, and the shifting classifications of novels over time.
Document—At the Chateau Shatto show, I was struck by how you dramatized the failure-narrative in each film and in the show as a whole. What is the motivation behind showing films that you have written about having been received as a failure?
Chris Kraus—I never thought they were artistic failures, and I believed in them wholeheartedly until the end. The failure was in the reception and distribution. I’m very happy that people are watching and liking the films now, all these years later. But if that happened five years after they were made, not thirty, it would have meant more in a personal way.
Document—A lot of art criticism isn’t criticism at all; it’s pithy, writerly cliche. How can you tell a fair critic or polemicist?
Chris—Maybe I don’t read enough art criticism to answer this. My favorite art critics are those who dive deep into the work and its intent.
“I try to answer questions as honestly and directly as possible, and that includes being open about how I support myself as an artist, which is one of the greatest taboos.”
Document—Did you feel you were able to articulate something new in placing the films alongside each other?
Chris—The decisions about the exhibition were all made by the gallery. I think that Liv Barrett has a deep understanding of the films, and my work overall, and her curation definitely brought something new to the work. They’ve been installed in gallery settings before, in NY and Berlin, but the Chateau exhibition had a combination of lightness and gravitas that felt totally perfect.
Document—You wrote about showing your films at a previous show in Brooklyn: “These films have nothing to do with me now. Their exhibition comes too late to feel like a vindication. Nevertheless it is a pleasure—an abstract affirmation of a practice I’m no longer involved in but will never recant . . . emotional science, the giddy revenge of the ageless un-gendered young woman.” Did you have a sense of decreation of self in making the films, or in showing them later?
Chris—I was so invested in them while I was making them, and heartbroken when they were not well-received. It’s not decoration really, it’s time—so much has happened, so many people have died, it’s like they’re artifacts of another life that’s no longer mine.
Document—Of course, I thought of Simone Weil while viewing them, because like her work, the films have a strong sense of self-denial, but also intense emotional presence. You’ve written about Weil’s “performance philosophy” — I got the sense that like her, you had to do whatever you do in your films. It’s personal and theatrical.
Chris—Yes, it’s true. If anything, they were guided by a feeling of necessity. Simone Weil wrote somewhere, “always do what will cost you the most,” and the films did, psychically, emotionally, financially. But it was such an exhilaration, that moment when I knew what the film had to be, and then all I needed to do was figure out how I could execute it.
Document—Do you have this kind of clarity in writing books as well?
Chris—Eventually, yes. But it’s harder. With films, there’s the impulse to do it, and then organizing the shoot is like planning a huge party. With a book, the party takes place alone in a room, and it goes on for a really long time.
Document—It seems impossible not to view the films without the context of your writing, which is sometimes about those films. Do you consider the mythology that they might take on when you write about them over and over?
Chris—No, I’m always seeking to demythologize things, not the other way around.
Document—How do you avoid it, as an artist?
Chris—I try to answer questions as honestly and directly as possible, and that includes being open about how I support myself as an artist, which is one of the greatest taboos. Since I don’t have a full-time teaching job, I’ve been able to support myself by owning and managing apartments in Albuquerque.
“I’ve always rebelled against that small definition of the novel as a psychological trajectory. So I like it when the novel is larger and can embrace other things.”
Document—Do you ever play with the kind of mythologies built around you by others?
Chris—Definitely. In my fourth novel, Summer of Hate, the character Catt Dunlop is kind of a pastiche, a burnt out cultural critic who’s completely cynical about what she writes, who she writes for, and what others think.
Document—When I get really interested in a writer, I read not just the complete works, but all the supplemental materials that are available: the letters, diaries, and anything else that might shed light on their life or writing practice. In your work, I love that a certain amount of this is already done. As an artist, do you set out to convey this kind of contextual accuracy?
Chris—I do that too, with writers and artists who interest me. But then when I started writing, I wasn’t thinking about that, and never do. It’s so much more basic: what is the problem in front of your face today, and how do you solve it? Each book is its own problem, and within it, there are multiple smaller ones.
Document—Does this mindset create space for experimentation?
Chris—It’s always an experiment. You’re making something that didn’t exist before.
Document—Your books show how a writer can use criticism to describe the world, and needn’t limit herself to the kind of standard psychological novel format—you’re often referred to as “genre-bending.” But lately, I’ve been thinking about how this kind of book is actually aligned with a great history: writers like Balzac did this, and it was never considered a diversion from fiction.
Chris—I totally agree. Balzac is one of the writers I read front to back, pretty much everything, and I’ve always rebelled against that small definition of the novel as a psychological trajectory. So I like it when the novel is larger and can embrace other things. And there are lots of contemporary writers who are doing this.
Document—Who are some contemporaries you admire?
Chris—I have the hugest admiration for my Semiotexte collaborators and colleagues: Hedi El Kholti, Sylvere Lotringer, Robert Dewhurst, Noura Wedell. And also the writers Natasha Stagg, Jackie Wang, Gary Indiana, Bruce Hainley. Among artists, I love Henry Taylor, and Shirley Tse’s work. Laura Parnes is a great filmmaker, so is Ruth Novaczek. And I like the musicians Jess Cornelius and Jenny Hval.
Document—I’m immersed in Social Practices, your upcoming book about the L.A. art world. Did you intend for it to pick up where Video Green left off?
Chris—Well, it’s a different thing, so many years after the fact. Video Green came out in 2004. In some ways, Social Practices is an elegy for that LA art world.
Document—You seem to assert that interesting work can and will survive, though. Where do you find it now?
Chris—All over the place. Someone like Shirley Tse has been working for years, somewhat under the wire, but her work is finally starting to emerge and she’ll represent Hong Kong in Venice in 2019.
Document—I loved this passage…“The people I visited on this short walk are only seven among thousands of artists now living in Los Angeles. Their lives make me believe that despite L.A.’s famed “isolation,” people here are creating not just the artifacts known as artworks but something much more elusive: a community of shared references, jokes, and indiscriminately wasted time that past centuries referred to as ‘culture.’” Do you think that this kind of leisure is necessary for culture to exist?
Chris—I do, and I worry about where that kind of leisure is going to be available now. It’s available for those of us who arrived in LA early enough to have our cheap houses and studios, but of course it isn’t the same, now that that freedom isn’t available to everyone.
Document—Can you talk at all about what you’ve been working on most recently?
Chris—I’m getting ready to write a long essay about the photographer Reynaldo Rivera’s beautiful body of work. Among other things, he photographed the Latino drag bars in LA of the ’80s and ’90s–a long disappeared world. Semiotexte will publish a book of his work in 2019.