BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Chris Kraus

Leigh Ledare’s projects in­volve in­ter­per­sonal tri­an­gu­la­tions in which the cam­era plays a cru­cial role and all par­ties, view­ers in­cluded, are im­pli­cated. Upon A.R.T. Press’s pub­li­ca­tion of a book- length di­a­logue be­tween him and Rhea Anas­tas, Ledare re­vis­its re­cent works with nov­el­ist Chris Kraus.

I first met Leigh Ledare on the 7 AM plane from Bur­bank to JFK in 2012 or 2013. He was sit­ting one row be­hind me, and since we move in sim­i­lar worlds, ei­ther I rec­og­nized him, or he rec­og­nized me. We spent the rest of the trip pass­ing notes. I didn’t know his work then, but it be­came clear that I should. I was read­ing one of the sea­son’s big books that—as I ex­plained in a note—I was am­biva­lent about, and Leigh wrote the au­thor’s name on one of the white vomit bags that jet Blue still kept on the seats of its planes. I found that pretty hi­lar­i­ous. Any in­ter­rup­tion of rou­tine pro­fes­sional life in the arts is a gift.

Later, Leigh sent me two books on his work— Pre­tend You’re Ac­tu­ally Alive (2008) and Leigh Ledare, et al. (2013)—and I saw that dis­rup­tion lies at the heart of his projects. They are wholly dis­rup­tive, not in a strictly trans­gres­sive sense—although many of his im­ages can be seen that way—but in their will­ing­ness to ex­pose the sub­tex­tual ex­change that fu­els all re­la­tion­ships. From Ledare’s no­to­ri­ous case study of his im­me­di­ate fam­ily in Pre­tend, to his ma­nip­u­la­tion of a fraught com­mis­sion from a col­lec­tor cou­ple to pho­to­graph the wife in the nude in An In­vi­ta­tion (2012), Ledare’s work piv­ots on his highly cu­rated as­sem­blage of doc­u­ments that im­pli­cate all in­volved, not least him­self. As his col­lab­o­ra­tor Ni­colás Guagnini wrote, “Nei­ther cri­tique nor utopia can be con­strued as such in this state of bit­ter lu­cid­ity . . . [Ledare’s work] con­fronts us with a mon­tage of dis­en­chant­ment and aes­thetic grat­i­fi­ca­tion that stirs deep within us, but with a thick var­nish of guilt.”

When I got home from that trip, I pinned the vomit bag onto the cork­board be­hind my desk and there it re­mains. Leigh and I met and talked again re­cently, this time face-to-face, at a friend’s Mt. Washington house in Los An­ge­les.

—Chris Kraus

CHRIS KRAUS: It seemed like no co­in­ci­dence when you sent me your DVDs in Lenny Bruce’s The Berke­ley Con­cert CD box. I see a lot of con­nec­tions be­tween you. The first is bi­o­graph­i­cal: both your moth­ers were strip­pers. Bruce hung out at her club af­ter school and even­tu­ally they put him to work em­cee­ing. He told a few jokes as part of his pat­ter, and things went on from there. Most of the early dis­course around your work cen­tered on Oedi­pal is­sues. You’re the guy “who takes porn pics of his mom.” But know­ing she was al­ready a strip­per makes the whole thing less shock­ing to me, or maybe dif­fer­ently shock­ing. It’s not like she was a le­gal sec­re­tary dress­ing up in lin­gerie for her son. Strip­ping and soft pros­ti­tu­tion were her oc­cu­pa­tions, her means of sup­port, even in late mid­dle age.

LEIGH LEDARE: That’s a funny co­in­ci­dence. I had al­ready dig­i­tized the Lenny Bruce CD and that was the only case ly­ing around. I got in­ter­ested in him when I first moved to New York in 1998 and started mak­ing pho­to­graphs. At the time I was liv­ing with Larry Clark and he in­sisted I read How to Talk Dirty and In­flu­ence Peo­ple.

CK: Wait, you were liv­ing with Larry Clark? LL: Yeah, I worked as his as­sis­tant. I was still a fresh lit­tle thing. Just then my mother had started “au­di­tion­ing” dif­fer­ent men she’d been meet­ing through the per­sonal ads and through danc­ing at a strip club, which hap­pened to be next door to the apart­ments where she and my grand­par­ents lived.

CK: Oh, that’s so trou­bled.

LL: She had just turned fifty- one. Be­cause she’d been sup­ported by my grand­mother, whose health was ail­ing, ev­ery­thing felt very pre­car­i­ous for her. My ques­tions al­ways cen­tered on how she was us­ing her sex­u­al­ity to cover all these ba­sic needs and as calls for in­ti­macy and af­fir­ma­tion, or even fi­nan­cial sup­port. Maybe in a more pro­nounced way it also man­i­fested a kind of an­tag­o­nism to­ward my grand­fa­ther, to­ward his ex­pec­ta­tions for how she should be­have as a daugh­ter and mother.

CK: Sex­u­al­ity was al­ways a part of her work, but in a more artis­tic, le­git­i­mate way. She was a child bal­le­rina and later a model. You used her Sev­en­teen mag­a­zine pro­file on the cover of your ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logue for Leigh Ledare, et al. at the WIELS Con­tem­po­rary Art Cen­tre in Brus­sels. She was a gor­geously per­fect Amer­i­can girl pro­ject­ing a clean sex­u­al­ity. What­ever drop- off oc­curred over the years is some­what with­held from the viewer. Some­how, her ca­reer and her life de­volved to a point where she had to sup­port her­self as a quasi-sex worker.

LL: As a fan­tasy space it also al­lowed her a con­text to fic­tion­al­ize her life. There’s a kind of masochis­tic theater in how she per­formed her­self and the nega­tion of the nar­row so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions placed on her.

CK: You mean the sex work it­self was a drama­ti­za­tion?

LL: My grand­fa­ther ex­pe­ri­enced my mother’s ac­tiv­i­ties one way, and my grand­mother took them another way, so they had this di­vi­sive ef­fect within their re­la­tion­ship and the fam­ily as a whole. Keep in mind that she was so­lic­it­ing me as her son to doc­u­ment these per­for­mances. Those were the terms of our re­la­tion­ship.

CK: In Pre­tend You’re Ac­tu­ally Alive, your grand­fa­ther ap­pears as an idio­syn­cratic fig­ure… kind of an am­a­teur in­tel­lec­tual.

LL: He had five mas­ters’ de­grees. He’d been a dean at Ham­line and an as­sis­tant dean at the Univer­sity of Chicago. He re­tired to home school my brother and me. He was an amaz­ing fig­ure. At ten

he had won a na­tional po­etry con­test; the prize was to live with Robert Frost. He was friends with Erv­ing Goff­man and Kurt Lewin. He be­came a Uni­tar­ian min­is­ter af­ter study­ing un­der Paul Til­lich. He’d grown up in Bridge­port, Con­necti­cut, with an al­co­holic fa­ther and a semi- lit­er­ate Pol­ish mother, and had watched his par­ents drink their way through prob­lem af­ter prob­lem.

In his sev­en­ties, he told me it’d taken him most of his life to un­der­stand that they weren’t cel­e­brat­ing mis­for­tune but in­stead ex­hibit­ing an amaz­ing per­se­ver­ance against cir­cum­stance.

CK: So your grand­fa­ther es­caped his fam­ily back­ground, but his cul­tural con­fi­dence wasn’t passed on to your mother. She fell off the track.

LL: She felt that he’d pulled the rug out from un­der her. When she was thir­teen, she moved to New York and was study­ing as an ap­pren­tice with the Jof­frey Bal­let. Then she danced with the New York City Bal­let un­der Balan­chine. At a cer­tain point, she and my grand­fa­ther had some blowout, and he re­fused to help sup­port her in New York any longer. She re­turned to Seat­tle tem­po­rar­ily, only to meet my fa­ther, who got her preg­nant. That was that. She traded her ear­lier am­bi­tions in. Later she’d trans­fer those un­ful­filled de­sires onto my brother, who was also a kind of prodigy.

CK: The sec­ond con­nec­tion be­tween your work and Lenny Bruce’s is its con­fronta­tional as­pect. Like him, you ques­tion what’s re­ally porno­graphic. The im­ages deemed by our cul­ture as “porno­graphic” are not as ob­scene as other re­al­i­ties we’d rather avoid. Your work has been in­creas­ingly ab­sorbed into the art world, but at some price. The dis­course around it tends to soften the pain and con­fu­sion that, to me, sits right on the sur­face. Your im­ages en­tail in­ter­sub­jec­tiv­ity—what im­age doesn’t? Any sit­u­a­tion in­volv­ing more than one per­son as­serts an agenda.

What’s most dis­turb­ing about the work with your mother is the dis­ap­point­ment and pain it re­veals—the un­met ex­pec­ta­tions. And she be­comes crazy. The pho­to­graphs in Pre­tend You’re Ac­tu­ally Alive of rooms crammed with boxes and clothes, the com­pul­sive hoard­ing, are even more trou­bling than the split- beaver shots of a fifty-year- old woman. Your brother was a child ge­nius who skipped high school and ended up a heroin ad­dict. Pre­tend in­cludes doc­u­men­ta­tion of credit card frauds and bank­rupt­cies—the in­evitable fall­out of ad­dic­tion and men­tal ill­ness. The larger con­di­tions be­hind these psy­chic dilem­mas are rarely men­tioned when crit­ics dis­cuss your photos and videos.

LL: I think the in­tri­ca­cies of those so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal de­tails ac­tu­ally chal­lenge a lot of art-world dis­course.

CK: Your work re­veals an Amer­i­can tragedy. But per­haps the joke’s on the viewer: the way we talk about things to avoid talk­ing about what we ac­tu­ally see… “The Em­peror’s New Clothes.”

LL: Clearly it’s more com­fort­able to pathol­o­gize an in­di­vid­ual than a so­ci­ety that one is a part of, and hence com­plicit in.

CK: Yes, it’s like Shirley Clarke’s film Por­trait of Jason (1967).

LL: Whoa! Another Clark.

CK: I wanted to re-watch it last night but couldn’t find it online. In­stead, I read the crit­i­cism. The film is usu­ally de­scribed as an “in­ti­mate por­trait,” but crit­ics leave out the fact that it’s a work of Ar­tau­dian cru­elty. Clarke holds the cam­era on Jason Hol­l­i­day and al­lows him to talk for over an hour. He was a black gay man whose real name was Aaron Payne—he wanted to be a club en­ter­tainer, but sup­ported him­self as a bell­hop. There were very few black par­tic­i­pants in the ul­tra-white, ur­bane cul­tural world of New York in the 1960s, and those who were there of­ten per­formed as court jesters. Talk­ing to Clarke, Jason runs the rou­tine of self­p­re­sen­ta­tion he must have per­formed hun­dreds of times at par­ties and open­ings. Fif­teen min­utes into the film, you see it’s a mask. And as the shot con­tin­ues, you see it slip­ping away to the point where you can ac­tu­ally feel Jason’s de­spair and panic.

You do some­thing sim­i­lar in Shoul­der (2007). The video starts with your mother ca­su­ally talk­ing about her cur­rent re­la­tion­ship. There’s no porn af­fect here; she could be a writer or artist. And then you of­fer your shoul­der for her to cry on. She does this for al­most seven min­utes. When you step out of the frame, we’re left with an or­di­nary woman who’s more emp­tied out and alone than be­fore the em­brace. She seems al­most un­bear­ably des­o­late.

LL: It ends with me ac­tu­ally ex­it­ing the room and her be­ing left to con­tem­plate what it means for me to exit. In that sense its propo­si­tion en­cap­su­lates our en­tire re­la­tion­ship. It’s also about break­ing past that guarded, sar­donic edge, that shield­ing hu­mor of hers that ac­com­pa­nies her be­gin­ning mono­logue. The arc of our en­counter pro­gresses through dif­fer­ent moods, slip­ping be­tween act­ing and real emo­tions and, at points, very clear vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

In the Shirley Clarke film, what’s in­ter­est­ing isn’t just what’s vis­i­bly re­vealed on the sur­face ver­sus what re­mains un­seen. It’s also about a kind of dou­ble register that both Hol­l­i­day and Clarke are play­ing out. It’s a ques­tion of credulity, and de­cep­tion—and of whose. Both their po­si­tions are prob­lem­atic. Like Clarke, who does not show her own face ei­ther, my non- dis­clo­sure is in pointed con­trast to the sub­ject’s un­mask­ing. Struc­turally speak­ing, I also present this asym­me­try, plac­ing it in front of the cam­era.

CK: Yes. Your work strips off the mask and in­vites us to see what is ac­tu­ally there, pro­vid­ing we’re will­ing to see it.

LL: What’s made vis­i­ble is al­ways a fa­cade, a kind of screen to pro­ject onto. That’s to say, any given im­age is un­der­writ­ten by an ecol­ogy: by struc­tures, in­ter­re­la­tions, and cir­cum­stances.

CK: It’s like per­for­mance… Watch­ing plays, I’ve al­ways felt like I’m view­ing the tip of an ice­berg. The whole history of the pro­duc­tion—the re­hearsals, the re­la­tions be­tween peo­ple, their fights and al­liances—is in­form­ing the ac­tion.

I re­mem­ber you telling David Joselit in an in­ter­view that Nan Goldin found Shoul­der ex­ploita­tive and in­au­then­tic. To me, it’s all too au­then­tic. Nan’s com­ment im­plies that your work trans­gresses some ideal equal­ity in hu­man and artis­tic re­la­tion­ships… an equal­ity that’s maybe false and im­pos­si­ble. I’ve al­ways dis­liked the idea that “healthy” re­la­tion­ships are equal. Re­la­tion­ships are never equal, but that doesn’t mean they’re ex­ploita­tive. Agree? Dis­agree?

LL: I agree en­tirely. I see Nan’s in­vest­ment in no­tions of au­then­tic­ity as a re­ac­tion to ac­cu­sa­tions of voyeurism. Stress­ing au­then­tic­ity, and couch­ing it in­side a model of self-por­trai­ture—in her in­stance, one ex­tend­ing from her­self out to the so­cial mi­lieu which she was a part of—as­sumes that ev­ery­one shares the same agenda.

It’s im­por­tant to ask: How might a per­son in one po­si­tion re­pur­pose an asym­me­try, while some­one else might uti­lize it in another way? How do these dy­nam­ics op­er­ate in­di­rectly, through tri­an­gu­la­tion, for in­stance? And how might the in­ten­tions of any given ges­ture come to mean some­thing dif­fer­ent, or be rede­fined in­side a net­worked set of re­la­tions? Agency is a prod­uct of how sub­jects at­tune them­selves to a spe­cific con­text and how, tac­ti­cally, they end up ne­go­ti­at­ing that struc­ture. Sys­tems are con­fin­ing to lesser and greater de­grees.

CK: There’s a para­graph in Re­nata Adler’s novel Pitch Dark where she says that when­ever two peo­ple talk one is al­ways the doc­tor, the other the pa­tient. But the “doc­tor” role isn’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­ploita­tive. I think the ethics re­volve more around con­scious­ness, how the im­bal­ance is used—

LL: I’d add that pos­ing con­tra­dic­tions through art func­tions as some­thing like an im­mune sys­tem—it sounds an alarm and acts as a cat­a­lyst for con­scious­ness. It seems nec­es­sary to self- im­pli­cate in or­der to ask cer­tain ques­tions.

CK: These ques­tions run through­out your Per­sonal Com­mis­sions se­ries (2008) where you tem­po­rar­ily as­sume your mother’s po­si­tion as model and de facto pros­ti­tute. For this pro­ject, you an­swered a se­ries of per­sonal ads placed by women like her who were look­ing for bene­fac­tors. In­stead of hav­ing sex or pho­tograph­ing these women, you asked them to pho­to­graph you in poses and back­drops of their own choos­ing. The meet­ings al­ways took place in their homes or apart­ments. It’s all very loaded. Who’s ex­ploit­ing whom? You’re as­sum­ing the role of the “sub­ject” but the im­ages re­veal more about them than about you. As im­ages do. These women ex­pose them­selves more nakedly through their aes­thetic choices than they would if you’d per­formed as ex­pected.

LL: I also ap­pro­pri­ated the women’s orig­i­nal per­sonal ads to ti­tle each pho­to­graph, un­der­stand­ing that the ads serve as a self- de­scrip­tion and in­scrip­tion into an econ­omy of re­la­tion­ships.

CK: The woman who de­scribed her­self as “the sharpest knife in the drawer” wasn’t ly­ing. She pho­tographed you fully clothed on a white sheet, against a white wall. No frilly du­vets, stuffed bears, or cheesy fetishes. She had your num­ber!

LL: She was a psy­chol­ogy PhD stu­dent. Rather than us­ing me to mir­ror her­self, she let the whole con­struc­tion col­lapse.

CK: ( laugh­ter) She’s the best critic of your work so far.

LL: That work in­verted the sub­ject/ ob­ject re­la­tions in Pre­tend You’re Ac­tu­ally Alive, so in­stead of pho­tograph­ing my mother, sur­ro­gates for her pho­tographed me. It pro­poses our po­si­tions as equiv­a­lent, swap­ping out a woman for a man as the sex­u­al­ized sub­ject, but, at the same time, this is re­vealed as a false equiv­a­lence, mak­ing you rec­og­nize how deeply gen­dered these asym­me­tries are.

CK: The cru­elty of am­a­teur porn lies more in the dé­cor than in sex­u­al­ity. The en­vi­ron­ment tells the whole story—the sub­ject’s aes­thetic taste, or lack of it. I mean, ev­ery­one has a body. It’s al­most al­ways about class.

LL: Yeah, and the ads be­have al­most like epi­taphs, ex­pres­sions of de­sire that op­pose the class re­al­ity of their sur­round­ings.

CK: But back to the ear­lier ques­tion of Amer­i­can tragedy... The hoard­ing pic­tures of your mother’s rooms trou­bled me more than the porn. I’ve no­ticed this kind of hoard­ing among peo­ple who lived through the Amer­i­can De­pres­sion, the Jewish holo­caust, and other trau­mas. Some­thing in your mom’s life made her a hoarder.

LL: Per­haps a past trauma, but also a trau­matic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with some­thing that just doesn’t match up. The fu­til­ity of her at­tempt to con­trol some­thing that can’t be con­trolled comes to con­trol her. In her case there’s a para­dox, in that there’s some­thing art­ful in the things she hoards. Al­most like a mu­seum cu­ra­tor, she’s com­pelled to weave sto­ries around all these ob­jects in an at­tempt to cre­ate value. And as much as need­ing to care for the ob­jects them­selves, she’s bound by need­ing to prop up those sto­ries.

CK: She sees her­self as a cu­ra­tor?

LL: Ba­si­cally, which makes me think about the dia­lec­tic be­tween the hoard and the mu­seum. I made another piece that sug­gests it too. It re­sponded to my grand­fa­ther’s gift­ing each mem­ber of our fam­ily a grave plot one Christ­mas. This was his sub­tle way of ex­press­ing con­cern over how my mother and brother were liv­ing their lives. He wanted us to ac­knowl­edge how frac­tured the fam­ily was, and he couched this in­side a re­minder of his own mor­tal­ity, and ours.

CK: The gift is never a gift.

LL: Ex­actly! And so I at­tempted to regift the plot by do­nat­ing it to the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art. The idea was for the plot to be trans­ferred as real prop­erty to the mu­seum. As an art­work en­ter­ing the col­lec­tion, the mu­seum would strip the plot of its in­tended use, en­sur­ing it would re­main un­oc­cu­pied, and pro­hibit­ing me from be­ing buried there. This would trans­form it into a kind of neg­a­tive mon­u­ment, a gap speak­ing back to the lack that pre­cip­i­tated the gift in the first place.

CK: Did they ac­cept?

LL: No. ( laugh­ter) But maybe it’s bet­ter they didn’t—it al­lows the idea to re­tain its ten­sion. The ges­ture wasn’t at all about pro­ject­ing my­self into MoMA’s col­lec­tion. It pro­posed this am­biva­lent fam­ily struc­ture as an al­le­gory for other struc­tures of val­i­da­tion, the in­clu­sions and ex­clu­sions in­her­ent in par­tic­i­pat­ing so­cially in the art world.

CK: That was a great ges­ture, and you paid for it. It took awhile af­ter that for your work to be shown in the main­stream US art world. Too ag­gres­sive…

LL: That may have been more due to the main­stream’s cau­tions to ap­pear cor­rect. The pro­ject res­onated with a work like Lee Lozano’s Dropout Piece, stag­ing a path away from un­wanted fam­ily obli­ga­tions, and against de­mands that peo­ple tried to im­pose on my own prac­tice. What peo­ple tend not to re­al­ize is that you can play with bi­og­ra­phy and the ex­pec­ta­tions around it.

CK: Yeah, I know. It took a long time for peo­ple to read my first book, I Love Dick, se­ri­ously, and I’m glad that they do

How might a per­son in one po­si­tion re­pur­pose an asym­me­try, while some­one else might uti­lize it in another way? How do these dy­nam­ics op­er­ate in­di­rectly, through tri­an­gu­la­tion, for in­stance? And how might the in­ten­tions of any given ges­ture come to mean some­thing dif­fer­ent, or be rede­fined in­side a net­worked set of re­la­tions?

now, but it’s not what I’m do­ing any­more. Peo­ple don’t re­spond very well to Dadaist pranks un­less they’re part of art history.

The cou­ple that com­mis­sioned you to take porn pho­to­graphs of the wife in An In­vi­ta­tion (2012) were too smart to fall for the power-flip staged in Per­sonal Com­mis­sions. They don’t re­veal their dé­cor or sur­round­ings at all. So in­stead, you in­vent a dé­cor by col­lag­ing each of the seven nude pic­tures of her, one taken each day over the pe­riod of a week, onto that day’s front page of the New York Times. Her self- ex­po­sure be­comes ab­surd when it’s po­si­tioned against a larger me­di­as­cape.

LL: Wow, I love think­ing of that as a dé­cor. I saw her as try­ing to map her­self over my mother, mak­ing some as­sump­tion about my de­sires. So in turn, I mapped her im­age against a con­text that, while seem­ingly at odds with her erotic life, in re­al­ity had ev­ery­thing to do with her and her hus­band’s promi­nence and prox­im­ity to pol­i­tics. Fur­ther con­tra­dic­tions re­vealed them­selves through the roles they de­sired I play, and how I nav­i­gated that, as well as their de­sires around what role art could play. My con­di­tion for us­ing these im­ages was to ob­fus­cate her iden­tity through redact­ing her face in each pho­to­graph. This sit­u­ates the piece in a space of anx­i­ety around pri­vate fan­tasies be­ing made public, which was un­canny in that a num­ber of the sto­ries in those days’ pa­pers echoed this theme: the Ru­pert Mur­doch phone-hack­ing scan­dal and the Do­minique Strauss- Khan case, for in­stance.

CK: The other great joke driv­ing the work was the way their con­tract with you be­came the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cen­ter­piece.

LL: Again, con­trol, but le­gal con­trol.

Each party sub­mits them­selves to a so­cial con­tract that con­sti­tutes a tak­ing, and giv­ing over, of rights, and, in this in­stance par­tic­u­larly, rights around rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The con­tract en­acts their con­trol, presents it, and presents it along­side their flir­ta­tion with los­ing con­trol.

So in ad­di­tion to the redacted pri­vate pho­to­graphs that are mon­taged against the his­tor­i­cal events of the news­pa­per—the An­ders Brievik mas­sacre in Nor­way, for one—a hand­writ­ten text at the bot­tom of each piece serves as a register of my sub­jec­tiv­ity within the sit­u­a­tion. I saw that as the pre­con­di­tion for them to in­stru­men­tal­ize me. You can read the piece through the per­spec­tives of each of the three ob­vi­ous par­tic­i­pants and their in­ter­sub­jec­tiv­ity, but the frame­works of the news­pa­per, the le­gal con­tract, eroti­cism, art, and pho­tog­ra­phy also all come into play.

CK: Part of the plea­sure in view­ing your work is see­ing how these games will play out. They ul­ti­mately ques­tion the en­tire setup. Talk­ing with David Joselit about Per­sonal Com­mis­sions, you men­tion your “dis­be­lief in these utopian ideas of how self- ex­pres­sion on the In­ter­net op­er­ates as de­moc­ra­tiz­ing, de­spite ob­vi­ously sub­ject­ing us to im­plicit con­tracts through which we sell and clas­sify our­selves in spite of our bet­ter in­ter­ests.”

I found that fas­ci­nat­ing. We’re never less free than when we be­lieve we’re ex­er­cis­ing our per­sonal free­dom. It re­minds me of the Tony Du­vert es­say “Tris­tan’s Folly, or The Un­de­sir­able” that Hedi El Kholti pub­lished in the cur­rent is­sue of his mag­a­zine, An­i­mal Shel­ter. Writ­ing in France in the mid-1970s, Du­vert pre­fig­ured Michel Houellebecq by a cou­ple of decades. As a gay writer, Du­vert was pas­sion­ately anti- as­sim­i­la­tion­ist. In this es­say, he quotes a let­ter to a gay mag­a­zine’s ad­vice col­umn from an ugly old guy who can’t get laid. Ev­ery­thing, he com­plains, de­pends on at­trac­tive­ness. Du­vert goes on to ex­plain how this dy­namic be­tween beauty and ug­li­ness mir­rors ev­ery­thing within the larger po­lit­i­cal econ­omy. Du­vert sees a sub- econ­omy of frag­ile de­sire where con­ven­tional ideas of at­trac­tive­ness pit me against you within the grand econ­omy of de­sire cap­i­tal. He rails against this petty com­merce of pri­vate li­bido, and con­cludes: “there­fore, sex­ual lib­er­a­tion in­side an un­changed so­ciopo­lit­i­cal sys­tem is an il­lu­sion.” This seems even truer to me when pros­ti­tu­tion is in­volved. His ideas res­onate with a num­ber of your projects.

LL: And, in this sense, the work serves as a kind of neg­a­tive di­ag­nos­tic tool, a means of point­ing to these mishaps and traps, how cer­tain ap­proaches to sex­ual lib­er­a­tion might ac­tu­ally be a false bill of goods. At the same time, as a re­sult of cer­tain re­ac­tions, the cor­po­real can fall into a kind of cul­tural blind spot, and the work also sets it­self against a de­nial of sex­ual economies. It is not pos­si­ble to an­a­lyze the com­plex­ity of all this from some safe van­tage point. I’ve al­ways dis­agreed with the as­sump­tion that be­ing a male pre­cludes me from deal­ing with tan­gled ques­tions re­lat­ing to gen­der, or from be­ing aware of fem­i­nist con­tes­ta­tions of nor­ma­tive roles, or from even iden­ti­fy­ing as a fem­i­nist.

CK: In a sense, you’re also a hoarder. You col­lect mag­a­zines, and have a huge bank of im­ages that you draw from for a lot of these projects, es­pe­cially in Dou­ble Bind (2010/2012). You’re a col­lec­tor—a hoarder of your pri­vate mu­seum.

LL: And yet the process of mak­ing that piece, of cre­at­ing a con­tainer for all that ma­te­rial, it was a way to clean. Maybe I’m more like that lit­tle catch for the drain. ( laugh­ter)

CK: There’s some­thing else you said to Joselit: “There are ways in which in­for­ma­tion be­comes more valu­able than ob­jects ex­changed. It’s al­most porno­graphic in that, through our in­for­ma­tion, we’re com­pletely de­per­son­al­ized and cir­cu­lated as com­modi­ties.” This re­ally struck me. It’s not the bod­ies

them­selves that cre­ate a porno­graphic dy­namic, but the cir­cu­la­tion of im­ages. You set up a game, but the real game al­ways cir­cles back to the viewer.

LL: Some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pens in your novel, Sum­mer of Hate. Early on, the char­ac­ter Catt trav­els to Mexico to es­cape from a man who she fears may have plans to kill her. Her in­vest­ment in role-play, while mo­ti­vated as an es­cape from the tedium of her world (and many of your read­ers’ worlds), leads her into a stress­ful sce­nario.

CK: Catt is in­volved in a BDSM game that, at least in her mind, gets a lit­tle too real. She sees it lead­ing to bank­ruptcy, dis­so­lu­tion, and pos­si­ble death.

LL: Sub­mit­ting her­self to a set of ex­pe­ri­ences can be seen as Catt’s at­tempt to ques­tion in­her­ited val­ues and to undo the scripted cer­tainty of her re­al­ity. This man has re­quested that she sign over her as­sets. This comes as a shock, but seen against the rou­tines of her life, it starts to look lib­er­at­ing.

CK: Yeah. . . when­ever some­one is tempted to act on a death wish, they’ve ob­vi­ously hit a wall in their belief sys­tem! Ev­ery­thing falls apart. The ra­tio­nales we in­vent to ex­plain our ac­tions are re­vealed as non­sen­si­cal. Mind you, the BDSM game at the front of the book is mostly a set- up. The goal was to hook the reader into a much larger game, the Amer­i­can crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

LL: Com­pletely. And against what comes later, this flir­ta­tion with com­plete sub­mis­sion reads as a priv­i­lege. One can af­ford to play out a promis­cu­ity of po­si­tions, and then back out. Catt also seems to be set up as a car­ry­over, a known theme that fol­lows out from your ear­lier work. You give the reader a space to iden­tify with, only to then dé­tourn this.

CK: Right. Catt, the au­tho­rial char­ac­ter, is not the pro­tag­o­nist. When the story moves to the South­west and the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, the whole game dou­ble helixes. You might “win” at the game, but you can never es­cape it. Which brings me back to Dou­ble Bind… ( laugh­ter)

LL: Okay.

CK: In Dou­ble Bind, you ask your ex-wife, Meghan Ledare- Fed­derly, from whom you had been sep­a­rated for five years, to par­tic­i­pate in a pro­ject that in­volved go­ing to a re­mote cabin and pho­tograph­ing her. She agreed. But then she re­mar­ried and you amended the pro­posal to in­clude her new hus­band.

LL: Ac­tu­ally, I knew when I asked her that she was en­gaged. From the out­set I’d pro­posed these two trips and the pho­to­graphs of Meghan that came out of them as a con­ver­sa­tion.

CK: So Adam Fed­derly, her new hus­band, be­came one of the play­ers. You’d go away and take photos of Meghan for four days, and then Adam would do the same.

LL: The view­ers have to hold these two re­la­tion­ships in their heads si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The to­tal­ity of the al­most 1,000 photos that were taken over the course of the two trips are ex­hib­ited, and each im­age of Meghan has to be un­der­stood as the prod­uct of one re­la­tion­ship or the other. The cam­era records and transmits in­for­ma­tion. It’s a sur­ro­gate. And as such, it’s al­ways one cou­ple ar­tic­u­lat­ing some­thing to the ab­sent third par­tic­i­pant. I or­ga­nized these pho­to­graphs into a se­ries of black- and-white dip­ty­chs that cor­re­spond to the two cou­ples: Meghan ei­ther pho­tographed by me, or by Adam. This makes up the first com­par­a­tive struc­ture. For the sec­ond com­par­a­tive struc­ture, I then com­bined these pri­vate im­ages against a col­lec­tion of roughly 6,000 tear sheets from the mass media. Again, one register be­comes an al­le­gory for the other.

CK: Yes, but why? The mo­ti­va­tions be­hind your ear­lier works are ap­par­ent. Five years af­ter your and Meghan’s sep­a­ra­tion, there must have been some ir­res­o­lu­tion that drew you into this pro­ject.

LL: I think it was a writ­ing back into the re­cep­tion of the work with my mother, into peo­ple’s de­sires for self- ex­hi­bi­tion, and their ten­den­cies to dis­tance them­selves through moral po­si­tions. My own po­si­tion was one of em­pa­thy with my mother’s needs. De­spite my own com­plex am­biva­lence around this at the time, by go­ing along with her so­lic­i­ta­tion I be­came com­plicit in her ful­fill­ment of that, but it was also a way for me

to re­frame the sit­u­a­tion. The au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal premise within Dou­ble Bind shifts this. It’s a foil against that per­mis­si­bil­ity of self- ex­po­sure. It presents a hook, as you say, but one that’s also only a fa­cade. Over­all, the piece shifts to another tem­po­ral model that’s not di­achronic or au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal at all. The cam­era in­stead is cast in the role of feed­back, record­ing the cog­ni­tive di­men­sions of these dy­namic in­ter­re­la­tions, but also ex­tend­ing those dy­nam­ics onto a ques­tion­ing of the media ma­te­ri­als.

CK: I see.

LL: In this col­laps­ing of what’s per­formed and what’s lived, there are also as­pects I can’t re­solve: my own sub­con­scious needs, or ques­tions about why they agreed to par­tic­i­pate. This con­sti­tutes a space of spec­u­la­tion. How­ever, once I pro­posed it to them, and even be­fore a sin­gle pho­to­graph had been taken, the mere idea set into mo­tion a se­ries of re­sponses: one, their get­ting mar­ried two weeks prior to Meghan’s go­ing alone with me on the first trip.

CK: Her par­tic­i­pa­tion may have been partly an ex­or­cism of you—

LL: Per­haps, but it may have also been a way for her to ne­go­ti­ate au­ton­omy in­side her new re­la­tion­ship. And we could also spec­u­late on what agenda Adam had for agree­ing to par­tic­i­pate. Each of us, from our sub­jec­tive space, is us­ing the struc­ture for some­thing, or to prob­lema­tize some­thing, to chan­nel it and re­ma­te­ri­al­ize it in some way so it can be seen.

CK: I was re­ally struck by the long shot of Meghan out­doors in the woods taken by Adam. She’s wear­ing a short white trench coat and thigh- high boots. It looks like one of the early pho­to­graphs of your mother be­fore her life fell apart. The long, glossy hair. The ex­pres­sion.

In a way, Meghan be­came im­plicit or com­plicit in your ear­lier body of work, Pre­tend. So per­haps her par­tic­i­pa­tion in Dou­ble Bind en­acts her pres­ence and exit si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

LL: When it re­ally comes down to it, at­tach­ments are ex­cep­tion­ally com­pli­cated. In Dou­ble Bind, one of the things she presents to me is a re­fusal to present her­self. But still, agree­ing to par­tic­i­pate, and ac­cept­ing the risks in­volved, sug­gests that some­thing im­por­tant was there for her. Con­trasted against her re­straint to­ward me, cer­tain mo­ments that Adam and Meghan’s pho­to­graphs cap­ture are highly sex­u­al­ized. They present a per­mis­sion to look, at the same time that his look­ing de­fines my po­si­tion as a lack of pos­ses­sion or ac­cess.

CK: It’s like what we were talk­ing about ear­lier, the way a per­for­mance is re­ally the tip of an ice­berg. The Dou­ble Bind im­ages al­lude to things that hap­pened out­side the frame, over time. Like the lines of a poem, they’re ab­stracted from a larger history.

LL: And there’s an over­in­vest­ment in credulity con­cern­ing what we can see; what we can de­ter­mine, or write, or de­fine. About how we cat­e­go­rize things. Stag­ing this com­plex­ity and that po­si­tion­al­ity: so­cial re­la­tion­ships, struc­tural re­la­tion­ships, in­di­vid­ual psy­cho­log­i­cal re­la­tion­ships, and fan­tasy re­la­tion­ships—it calls the au­thor­ity of our frame­works into ques­tion.

CK: I know but, for me, flux is a given. Mean­ing is al­ways re­la­tional; it changes ac­cord­ing to cir­cum­stances. What feels re­mark­able about your work is some­thing be­yond the sit­u­a­tions. Dou­ble Bind of­fers a se­lec­tion of in­di­vid­ual im­ages cre­ated over these two trips, each within the brack­eted space of four days. But it’s the history be­hind that brack­eted time that makes the work pos­si­ble.

I was just read­ing Colm Tóibín’s won­der­ful book on El­iz­a­beth Bishop. He de­scribes how po­etry brack­ets lan­guage in a white space and time. In this sense, he sees her work as ex­em­plary. So, you’re like the El­iz­a­beth Bishop of pornog­ra­phy.

LL: That’s a welcome com­par­i­son!

CK: In all these projects you’re turn­ing sit­u­a­tions in­side out, al­low­ing peo­ple to see their hid­den re­al­i­ties. And you can’t do that un­less you ac­knowl­edge your role as an ac­tive party. I don’t think any­one can work at that level of in­ten­sity with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing him or her­self as an ac­tive agent. Peo­ple find that re­ally dis­turb­ing.

LL: En­act­ing this, do­ing the very thing that one’s be­ing crit­i­cal of, is a dis­tinct form of bring­ing the un­seen back into the seen, of in­sist­ing that we look at these is­sues. And that in­sis­tence on the sub­jec­tive and its af­fects—sex­u­al­ity, con­fu­sion, shame, guilt, at­trac­tion, all this and more—prob­lema­tizes our ten­den­cies to dis­sim­u­late. As a per­for­mance, the work is a kind of mir­ror that works on the so­cial mi­lieu, re­flects it back to it­self.

CK: The work de­vel­ops and changes right un­der the viewer’s gaze. Peo­ple have a hard time with con­tra­dic­tion and in­con­sis­tency, even though it’s the norm. In Gary In­di­ana’s novel Re­sent­ment, the pros­e­cu­tors in the Me­nen­dez trial ar­gue that the two broth­ers who killed their par­ents could not have pos­si­bly ex­pe­ri­enced re­morse be­cause they went on a shop­ping spree within days of the mur­ders. As if guilt and con­sump­tion were some­how mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive—

LL: That’s some­thing my own up­bring­ing taught me, that these con­tra­dic­tions go hand in hand. In part I bring all this up be­cause this cul­tural mo­ment feels so deeply con­ser­va­tive.

CK: I agree, and peo­ple re­spond to it dif­fer­ently. Your work casts doubt on all of the usual ques­tions, and to me, that’s the most rad­i­cal way.

be­low: AN IN­VI­TA­TION: THURS­DAY, JULY 28, 2011; 2012; pho­tolitho­graph on archival newsprint, silkscreen, pen­cil; 91 × 48 inches. Im­ages Cour­tesy of the artist, Mitchell- Innes & Nash, New York, and Pi­lar Corrias, Lon­don. op­po­site: In­stal­la­tion view of AN IN­VI­TA­TION. Cour­tesy of the artist and Mitchell- Innes & Nash, New York.

PER­SONAL COM­MIS­SIONS: “Let the Good Times Roll. 1 Blond, 53 yrs old, cur­vey, buxom, slim, clean, pe­tite. No dis­eases or drugs. Seek­ing healthy, hon­est, re­li­able, fi­nan­cially se­cure younger man for dis­creet sen­sual fun. Ext#1084,” 2008, C- print, 20 × 14¼ inches. Cour­tesy of the artist, The BOX, Los An­ge­les, and Mitchell- Innes and Nash, New York.

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