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A Faucet Dripping in the Room Next Door: An Interview with Tan Lin by Eric Lorberer

Tan Lin appears at the Walker Art Center on Thursday March 28 as part of the Free Verse series copresented by the Walker and Rain Taxi Review of Books.  Q: You began publishing as a poet, but your work increasingly tends to refuse traditional classifications.  How unimportant is genre for what you’re up to? It’s […]

Tan Lin appears at the Walker Art Center on Thursday March 28 as part of the Free Verse series copresented by the Walker and Rain Taxi Review of Books

Q: You began publishing as a poet, but your work increasingly tends to refuse traditional classifications.  How unimportant is genre for what you’re up to?

It’s funny. I never really wanted to write something more than once, so that makes genre an interesting concept to inhabit for awhile before departing, and of course a door is an evocative thing. Genres are time sensitive—they wear out. A menu in a restaurant wears out before the amuse bouche arrives, but a work of literature is regarded as something that takes a bit more time. But this is changing. I think works of literature should be structured more like RSS feeds or Yelp restaurant reviews, i.e. I am more interested in literature as a highly transient event rather than a timeless architectural structure, and most of my work has moved toward more diffuse forms of reading across a host of different platforms, and multiple genres, some of which are related to hardware and some to software. Literature has always been atmospheric—I just wanted to do this more literally. Likewise, genres emerge out of mediums, and mediums absorb various genres. I mean what is 7CV besides a book and what is Bibliographic Sound Track, which transpires in PowerPoint—quite a few other things are suggested. Are these two works poetry, nonfiction or a novel? What is the minimum amount of information needed to codify a reading as genre-specific? I’m just finishing up an Index to a group of photographs by Diana Kingsley. I think of the work as autobiography of photographs taken by someone else. Here is a spread:


Q: When did you start incorporating visual art into your literary work?

About 15 years ago, when I first started compiling a long prose work called Our Feelings Were Made by Hand. And then of course the PPT works and the films in Director are visual works that foreground long term, durational reading procedures or interactions. Kenny Goldsmith had me in to MoMA last week to do a reading in their galleries and I read against Donald Judd’s Untitled 1976. Language is a reflected thing surrounded by other reflected things. And of course the surface of a sculpture by Donald Judd, which was given a coat of very thin motorcycle paint, is prone to high flouresence and deterioration. I was particularly interested in the break down of nitrocellulose paints as they relate to the leakage of descriptions that is a text into a room, in this case, a conservation text (on a Judd sculpture restoration), along with a few plays by Kieran Daly and some poems by Frank Kuenstler. A poem is not much different from a faucet dripping in the room next door. Or a particular shade of paint that was a slightly different shade ten minutes or ten years ago.

Q: You’re also known for writing “ambient” fiction—were you influenced by Eno and other ambient musicians?

I was more influenced by a later generation of ambient house musics, like Pole, Oval, Apparat, Ellen Allien, Fourtet, Kruder & Dorfmeister, b. fleischmann, as well as by disco and certain kinds of electronic music, particularly Stockhausen, perhaps a bit more than Eno—though I have read Eno subsequent to developing notions of ambience in literature and it’s certainly present in the work—it’s just that I came to him a little late. But yes of course he infuses the whole project.

Q: In a similar vein, would you say your work has ties to abstract painting?

I am not so interested in abstract painting, unless you consider someone like Gerhard Richter abstract. Most artists who I have followed worked across disciplines that directly intersected with book production—Hans Peter Feldmann, Allen Ruppersberg, Joseph Strau, Christopher Williams, Michael Reidel, Broodthaers, and Pavel Buchler. But then of course I was just as interested in Hella Jongerius, Metahaven, Rem Koolhaas, Matali Crasset, and Konstatin Grcic.

Q: Your books draw on everything from actor Heath Ledger to The Joy of Cooking. Why are real world, often pop-cultural phenomena so important for you?

Because they intersect with the life of the person who happens to be writing something at the moment she is writing—and in that way they are transpiring in the writing. Usually, people try to keep this stuff out of their writing because it’s extraneous, but I think it defines writing and its contours. Writing is defined by what it is not. Whatever the writing thing is, when you focus on something and develop it as its own independent thing, well I try not to do that. I prefer a literature that is more incidental and less egotistical. You know that writing thing you do (to rephrase Whit Stilmann), don’t do it.

Q: You’re working on a book about the writings of Andy Warhol.  How’s that going?

Here is the first paragraph: it’s on the Shadows and their connection to second order cybernetics theory and disco:

Andy Warhol’s Shadows, a series of 102 paintings that Warhol completed in 1978 and first exhibited in 1979, are notable for the marriage of an abstract and somber serial painting sequence to a somewhat incongruous popular cultural format: disco. “Someone asked me if they were art and I said no. You see, the opening party had disco. I guess that makes them disco décor.”[1] Despite the seeming disparity, disco and the Shadows arose out of the same fluid cultural matrix that included the New York art and experimental film worlds, as well as the club scene, both straight and gay, of the mid- to late-70’s. Although the translation of cultural practices associated with disco into a species of low art reflects Warhol’s discomfiture as a swish artist in a non-swish art world, his interest in disco was anything but superficial or ironic. Moreover, his use of disco and its various appliances coincided with a number of crucial medial transitions in his practice—most notably from the spectacular and specular dread of (accident) photos and (botulism poisoning) newspaper headlines of his 60’s work to what Warhol deemed were new medial forms of excitement grounded in the stroboscopic, 4-on-the-floor disco parties at Studio 54, and in Warhol’s explorations of what Callie Angell has called “the conventions of television,” whose serial, always-on transmission proved influential in the development of Warhol’s “accumulative” cinema, and his quasi-derisory conception of avant garde practice.[2] As Warhol noted, like disco and unlike painting, “TV never goes off the air once it starts for the day, and I don’t either.” (P 5) Both disco and TV served as fertile staging grounds for Warhol’s probing of accumulative/durational mediums without beginning or end, and of the increasingly porous boundaries between high avant-garde production and popular culture, and thus provide a lens on Warhol’s last decade. As his chronicling of Studio 54 in Exposures (1979) and the Palladium in Andy Warhol’s Party Book (1988), as well as his on-going fantasies of a TV show called “Nothing Special” make clear, disco and TV presaged a new logic for the calibration of the New York avant garde art scene along specific medial lines, and they inaugurated a new media context for parsing the irrelevance of the high-low divide. Here the Shadows are exemplary, at once popular and mainstreamed—as well as somber, abstract and camouflaged.



[1] Warhol Shadows. (Houston: The Menil Foundation, 1987), unpaginated.

[2] On Warhol’s interest in TV, see Callie Angell, “Andy Warhol, Filmmaker,” in The Andy Warhol Museum, (New York: DAP Press, 1994), 139-140. Hereafter, AWM

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