Writer and multimedia artist Frances Stark has had a busy year. In addition to having a survey, “Intimism,” at Art Institute of Chicago and a retrospective, “UH-OH”, at the Hammer in Los Angeles — opening October 11 and remaining on view through January 24, 2016 — she resigned in protest from her teaching position at the tumultuous Roski School of Art and Design and this September snagged the 2015 Absolut Art Award. For the latter, which grants a stipend and a significant budget to complete and exhibit a new project, Stark plans to stage what she calls a hip-hop-inflected “pedagogical opera” — a term she borrowed from a letter about her work that she received from Mark Leckey — based on Mozart’s Magic Flute.
The Los Angeles–based artist’s videos and mixed-media drawings have always muddled high and low culture in a casual, highly personal manner, whether she’s presenting transcripts of erotic chats with foreign suitors whose grasp on English is often comically tenuous or collaborating with Bobby Jesus, a young man she has been mentoring, in a rather complicated way. (They joke that he came from the University of South Central, whereas Stark was teaching at the University of Spoiled Children.) Scott Indrisek met up with the artist in Stockholm, Sweden, to discuss the degradation of language and why she is no longer so exuberant about Instagram.
At the Absolut Art Award last night, Massimiliano Gioni mixed up the certificates intended for you and for Mark Godfrey, making you the winner for Art Writing, instead of Art Work. It was too perfect, considering the way words operate in your work. How do you conceive their role in how a viewer pays attention to and processes a piece, especially when the words are being read and heard at the same time?
All of the chat-generated work comes out of actual experience where English as a second language is a dominant factor. You’re looking at each other on video, but you’re not speaking, you’re typing. All the text is the way it is because you can see each other but you’re not speaking. My sense is that this intimacy gained through texting or sexting — that’s a deep focus on language. If you’re walking down the street [looking at your phone], you’re in there, you’ve got to keep your eyeballs on it. I have so much pleasure from that. And I like being a control freak [when editing the chats] into a PowerPoint, like in “Osservate, leggete con me.” You have to look or you’re going to miss it. That’s my literary side. I like to hold your hand the whole way, and reading is such a crucial part of engaging in the work.
Yet if texting has focused attention in a certain way, most people would argue that it has also degraded language.
It’s definitely not high literature. But I’m talking about the formal influence of observing a linguistic exchange and an energy exchange, a vibe you can’t put your finger on. I had issues with degraded language before I started getting into [the chat work]. I felt that, over the years, my studio visits were getting worse. The students and I were struggling with language. My vocabulary was deteriorating; nobody had a word for what they were talking about. But the groping that would happen in a one-on-one mentor situation was, in fact, its own form of communication, like saying, “You know what I mean? You know what I mean?” It may be an absence of articulate specificity, but it’s an urgent groping.
How does this work in an online chat-room setting?
First, it’s not a chat room. When I hear “chat room” I think of AOL and 10 other people. This is “Hey, you, come over here; we’re in here alone.” It’s always private, a one-on-one thing. Your attention is totally focused. But as far as this simultaneity of recognizing a deterioration of language and at the same time [putting] a tremendous new focus on language — I remember when texting became cool. I was always a letter writer. And in letters you tried to impress people, to make subtle jokes. You’d use handwritten italics to control a reaction or have an effect. Then people became less and less interested in that subtle, close reading of the simplest gestures. Now people are more expressive with that.
It’s funny that you mention letters. It’s interesting to think about your work in the context of a book like Chris Kraus’s “I Love Dick.”
I studied with Chris a little bit, and I’ve thought about that book. I think it’s brilliant and troubling, and I really identify with it. I used to be that kind of person.
When you’re online, are you actually 'you'?
I am pretty close to what I say I am. But I haven’t done the online thing for several years. I guess I really only function online on Instagram [@therealstarkiller], and that’s gotten less interesting to me as I’ve gotten more followers.
Your work is so much about words, yet you’re not on Twitter.
I think I was afraid of Twitter, and I got turned off by seeing it on CNN’s [tickertape]. Social media has become more and more despicable, somehow. I had an amazing time with Instagram, but part of that was teaching Bobby Jesus composition: What is it like to make a decision that this is a better version than that? Instagram created this experience of what it means to compose something, to read your own life and way of seeing. It was a huge thing to have that experience with Bobby. I don’t keep a written record of my life, and then I started keeping a visual record. Sex chats became an escape. Taking photos became an escape, a short cut: “I would like to write an essay, but how about a picture of that.” And for a while I was really negative and putting negative shit out there. I also can’t really be myself on Instagram, since my son and all his friends are looking at me. I’m not going to post pictures of my ass to get people to say, “You have a nice ass!” The kinds of things I was doing online before were very much behind closed doors. When I got to Instagram, I thought, “Man, this place is nasty. Keep it to yourself! I don’t want to see your tits, art student! Fuck your tits, thank you!” It just grosses me out. But I’m kind of weirdly jealous, since I was such a queen in my own little sex world and I really accomplished something for myself.
How did a piece like “My Best Thing” come about?
This is what I wanted to tell you! I’d started getting into [video chats]. It was a bad habit. Turkish guys. I would disappear. And my good friend, this designer who was working with me on my studio, he knew it. I started showing him screen grabs, funny texts, weird dick pics. I had to share with someone. And around that time, Marina Abramovic was doing “The Artist Is Present.” Someone made a Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry Tumblr. My friend said, “We have to do a Tumblr: Frances Stark Made Me Cum. I kick her fucking ass, this random, second-rate — third-rate! — performance artist. I am so far beyond what she’s doing right now.” This is how we would joke about it. Of course, we never did it, but a year later “My Best Thing” happened. So there’s that funny connection.
Marina is the godmother to the project! She’s interesting to me here because she is someone who assumes every one of her gestures has some greater meaning. Most artists, of course, assume the right to say, “This is my life, it’s important.” But do you struggle with doubt in that regard?
I feel like I’m a writer, and I put things into form. It’s not confessional. The reason it’s accessible is that it’s very carefully edited. Nothing is raw confession. Everything is formal, a construction. I’m good at editing, and that’s why people enter into the work. There’s a delight in the form, and then you either get preoccupied with the autobiographical or not. But I do struggle — not with what invests me with authority but with why am I doing it in the first place? And I think, when you step outside of an institutional context and start modeling intelligent behavior to people like Bobby, the rewards from that are just so radically different. If Bobby says to me, “I want an etymological dictionary for Christmas,” I’m like, My fucking job is done.
Some people seem to think your work, or your relationship with Bobby, is fraught in terms of race or class. But it also seems like just one person’s relationship with another person, which somehow has to signify something larger.
For us it is symbolic, or we allow it to signify a crossing of paths, because of this [idea of] the University of South Central versus the University of Spoiled Children. What does it mean to be a student of the streets? And what does it mean to be a student of USC for a whole group of 16 students who went [to the Roski School of Fine Arts] and suddenly learned something else about what the school really was? It was a crazy juncture, a radical paradigm shift in my world, and I have to think about that intersection. Suddenly I was like, I’d probably be better off teaching in prison than teaching undergrads at USC!
Do you think you could ever go back to teaching in an institution like USC?
Well, it is a luxury and very pleasurable, and quite easy to do. And there are schools that are interested, if I wanted to. But I think I’m really keen on trying to spend some time getting my studio in order and making work. And I’d also like to devise a way to teach people how to write, to read closely, a method. My graduate students would turn in their thesis proposals with sentences that didn’t have verbs. And they’re smart!
In accepting your Absolut Art Award, you said that you still had faith in art. That got me thinking that a lot of the work I most identify is often something else, like writing or music, masquerading as contemporary art.
I wouldn’t even say I believe in contemporary art, because I feel like I don’t. I believe in art with a capital A, maybe, in the old-fashioned sense — a whole spectrum, from Leonardo da Vinci to Henry Miller to Emily Dickinson, of what it means to transmit consciousness in a special, poeticized form, whatever that might be. It could be like “The Uncanny,” the show Mike Kelley curated at the Tate, using other peoples’ art to talk about his brain and a whole cultural history. Art is great! It’s really, really great. I do believe in art in the sense that it has value beyond the monetary. I’m a total romantic in that regard. Brutally. To the point of melancholy, if you want to go there. At a certain point, believing in art is also understanding that I have to stop trying to get a more comfortable position and instead make decisions about how to actually get shit out of my brain and into the world. That’s the goal.