I am about to interview Ariel Goldberg, one of the most serious and hard-working artists I have ever met. We are emailing each other in this interview. We are good friends. We write letters to one another. We are making a book together. (More later.) I would do anything to have the consistency of practice that she is able to keep up with her writing. This person works on art every day.
LD: You have been working in an epistolary mode in the past, writing letters to dead soldiers. I remember your performance by the Claremont post office mailbox. I felt like I had to be reverent to watch you. You were holding and caressing the letters underneath the mailbox with a faraway look in your eye.
Your photographer character, however, in more recent performances, has almost a clowning feel, as some people commented, or even aggressive! Yet I know you didn't want the character to be a clown at all. You said to me in an email or letter that you envisioned the Photographer Without a Camera to be, but rather an "expert on a subject as broad as all of photography." What goes into the sort of mood your performance moves into? Is performance always on your mind while you are writing?
AG: I am drawn to things that are impossible, confusing or absurd to me. Right now, the act of photographing and the pace of photography feels very urgent, or always has. I throw myself at big topics to obsess over and the writing is daily. My focus on it is anti-canon. Ultra mundane. It takes at least a year of marinating to then know how I will perform it. I tend to collect a lot of junk, usually thrift store stuff, I build mini-installations or sets to write the performance scripts in and then a character will sort of emerge, in a very sloppy way, from the writing. And somehow I'll do a little performance somewhere and it's a way for me to figure out how to reconcile the writing and the performance.
My work can be seen as an anti-podium poetry reading, meaning I hung out a lot around downtown New York experimental theater, so I am always thinking about how to captivate an audience like I was captivated the first time I saw Taylor Mac or Jibz Cameron. I just saw the band Moira Scar play, and they don’t break character. If the mic is fucked up they tell the tech guy fix this now while wearing a cat mask. It’s real.
The Photographer Without a Camera started doing press conferences because I built a teleprompter, sort of by accident, one day in my studio. And then this character was an aggressive yelling mess because they wanted to convey some urgency. This performance scared people, children, at the Headlands open house. I had a crisis of me not wanting to scare people but the character just going for it. They stared past people’s foreheads and asked “Do you want me to take your picture?” The kitchen staff at Headlands, who I talked about my work with everyday there, told me this piece was, “a bummer.” I didn't like this. So I'm tweaking this aspect of the character. I think I'm done amping up the wackadoodle of this character. I had multiple microphones whipping around to satire press conferences in the news. Now I'm more interested in developing the Photographer without a Camera to be more of an eccentric philosopher. I'm working on David Antin style slide lecture talk poems, in the voice of this sort of technological expert, time travelled journalist. I'm thinking now after a year of these impassioned street creature performances that The Photographer without a Camera is just going to write and respond to letters about photography instead of yell in the wind at the Golden Gate Bridge about photography. The characters in the performances become addressees of the writing in other words.
LD: So you are writing TO the characters. I get that. So, since you had a bunch of different characters embodied under this umbrella-person of Photographer Without a Camera, the phrases that you came up with were addressing all of them. (Hey reader, Ariel and I are printing these phrases into a book by setting type, and then printing onto pages of old photo magazine pages.) You have so many phrases, Ariel. You have notebooks full of all the interactions with photography. Why did they get narrowed down to such short bursts of language, like "I thought you were taking a picture of me" ? I know these choices are very specific for you. What goes into the choosing?
AG: I stick with a form, for example one-sentence captions about photographic events, then I have to figure out how to present this writing without it being a total snore. Because the truth is I write all day long so I have a lot of garbage. I’m like a pack rat of my own brain. Notebooks filled with handwriting I can’t even read. Yes, I’m invested in the handwritten. I need objects. I feel terribly overwhelmed when I have to edit. So I get help from friends if I ask nicely or. I did have a girlfriend who was an excellent editor. I feel a little screwed now. But I reread what I write over and over again. Then only the strong survive.
LD: What do you read a lot of? How, when? I know you read the newspaper, the one that is a paper object. Do you read the computer newspaper more often these days? This is a pertinent question to me when I think about writing, writers, and who writers are writing for. I, for instance, have a bookmark in every book in my house, almost. Many of the books I would call my favorites are unfinished. I write more than I read most days. Certain kinds of writing assume that the person reading has a lot of time, or can concentrate in a particular way. A lot of writing depends on undivided attention. How is this relevant to your writing/performance?
AG: I never feel like I read enough. I think of it like a hunt or surprises but it always feels magnetized to whatever I'm trying to articulate in my writing/performance. When I read current experimental poetry I think that's when the world make sense to me. I feel like the news is poetry and poetry is the news. The actual paper is a luxury I only come across in libraries or as a gift of public transit. And I sort of hate the SF Chronicle. I have a complicated relationship with the New York Times, on the other hand, which mostly involves lust and disdain. I skim online; I don't know if it's reading, it's terribly impatient. I listen to the news on the radio more. I read all sorts of commercial and art photography blogs. I write in the voices of photographers. It's sort of research for the writing which is often photographers explaining, narrating the pictures they take, the ones mostly in the news. I inundate myself with news photos. I guess this is reading. It's actually very disturbing. I don't read much fiction at all and if I do I don't finish it; I try to turn it into poetry, crack the narrative in my impulsiveness or laziness.
Right now I'm gravitating towards interpretations of art essays. Because Charity Coleman and I we are sort of writing scripts and creating this talk show Write This Down TV. I went through a pretty heavy phase of reading any documents/essays of the culture wars too, and anything I could about late 80s/90s art scenes in New York, you know when I was just a kid. I really like Printed Matter's Artist and Activist series. It's free, ask for it if you are ever buying anything there. I read old photo magazines, the ones we are printing our book on, Shutterbug, Modern Photography, I read the classified ads in the back where people are actually selling slides of girls in lingerie so you can "learn lighting." I'm imagining that I'm writing an essay called "The problem in Queer Arts Today" or it doesn't have a title yet. So I just read a book on Drag Kings. I'm also hunting for fucked up versions of the epistolary because I'm fascinated with and constantly using the forms of letter/email/text message. So I got Chris Kraus' I Love Dick in the mail. I read My Walk With Bob by Bruce Boone this summer. It was fantastic. I'm into anything interview related. The A.R.T. series and Re/Search publications. But I agree. Bookmarks all over.
LD: Ooh, that Kraus book looks so good. I just looked it up. Anyway, I was thinking about the attention span of reading in general. Your choice of performance (over "podium") makes me think that you are looking for a sharpened attentiveness to your writing while presenting in public. No room for people spacing out. They have to LOOK at your writing. I can relate to that. But then, you lean so much more toward print material, objects, the tactile. I'll have to show you this book of a bunch of letters and emails called The Septa Letters by Liz Rywelski. It's so manipulative. She writes admiring notes with her email to strangers on Septa (Philly's public transportation), and then they email her and she never writes back. There's like this giving happening from the opposite end...the person who didn't think they were being published. But who were they giving to? Anyway...I'm just interested in attention, and how it happens. Is this a question? WAIT! I know where I'm going. You wrote in a letter to me when you were lamenting how wacky the Photographer got, "what about the performance that doesn't want any attention?"
AG: I think art is very serious, or it’s why I’m here. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t fun also, or funny. I’m having fun! That’s where people get mistaken. Somehow this reminds me of when men tell you to smile. Like when I got fired from a gourmet pizzeria nine years ago because I wasn’t smiling enough. No, I’m performing--back off. Because how else will you hold people’s attention?