I meet Chris Kraus on a Tuesday afternoon with the first cold snap of winter, in the ICA bookshop. This feels apt for two reasons. One, because many of the novels poking out of the shelves are her own, or the product of the Semiotext(e) publishing house she co-edits, and its jazzily designed imprint she founded in 1990, Native Agents. Two, because I actually crossed paths once before with the writer here. Promoting After Kathy Acker, her pseudo-biography on the writer last September, Kraus was due to start her talk when a girlfriend and I rushed to the loo, running late. We exited the cubicle only to bump into a petite woman with wild hair, wearing four-inch heels and a mini skirt, craning her neck around to check her face in the venue’s tiny, school dormitory-like loos. (For the uninitiated, the mirrors are unhelpfully small, and to the side of the sinks, not above them. They’re terrible, which I say with affection.) Maybe the woman applied some lipstick. We waited patiently behind her, until she swooshed past with a lightly Californian “thanks” (us, a British “sorry”). We turned to each other with a grin. “That was her, right?”
Few writers demand the kind of hushed reverence of a Golden Age movie star when they are in your midst, re-applying make-up, but Chris Kraus is one of them. This is largely thanks to the cult that has grown around her trailblazing novel I Love Dick, which found a new audience in 2012 thanks to word-of-mouth conversations and internet threads between young women, despite being originally published in 1997 to little fanfare (other than speculation as to the true identity of ‘Dick’). The novel, a pseudo-fiction in which the narrator fanatically details her obsession with an academic called Dick and how it affects and dictates her relationship with her husband Sylvère, set the blueprint for a new kind of women’s fiction: confessional, non-domestic, and unafraid to lay down the comic everyday failures of womanhood. Today, you’ll find the latest edition on Amazon, complete with millennial pink and slime green lettering for the title-joke, and a disclaimer: “I Love Dick: The cult feminist novel, now an Amazon Prime Video series starring Kevin Bacon”.
When we meet for real, Kraus is in town again for an event to discuss a new book, Social Practices. The collection, which brings together together some thirteen years of her writings on the state of contemporary art, from essays to biography to diary entries and an obituary, collectively proclaims Kraus’ perspective on the art world today, all linked by the celebration of those operating on the margins that she has become known for. In it, she discusses artists from Ryan McGinley to Julie Becker, but most passionately champions art occurring outside established capitals, spotlighting projects like the grassroots space Mexicali Rose on the US-Mexico border. As always with Kraus, she enters these works via her personal history: from her days topless dancing in NY to her role in organising the legendary Chance event in Las Vegas, where Baudrillard gave a keynote speech in a gold lamé jacket with a backing band. Just like with her novel-writing techniques, the ways we can “get at” art are boundless, Kraus seems to say. As Olivia Laing recently wrote of the writer’s influence on her own work of autofiction, Crudo, “Chris Kraus is a liberator. She makes something possible”.
It’s because Chris Kraus is so revered for young women and writers-in-process – the pathways she has opened up so passionately stuck to – that any statement from her that doesn’t feel like it speaks to us is immediately felt, and widely. In August, as the sexual assault investigation against feminist academic Avital Ronell was widely reported in the media, Kraus wrote a blog post defending her. This provoked a visceral online reaction, epitomising for some the unbridgeable gap occurring in feminism right now. In the current culture, flames of outrage move more quickly than you can put them out.
In this conversation, Kraus sheds some light on why she wrote that post. But mostly, she talks about her book: what it is saying about contemporary culture and where criticism is at right now, and how it links to her wider work at Semiotext(e), where she continues to nurture new writers (and rediscover old ones) who reignite the ways readers see the world again and again. In person, the writer is warm and quick to laugh. She evidently isn’t too keen on London, and would rather be in sunny Los Angeles, but wouldn’t we all. We ‘do the interview’ in the ICA’s grandly empty Nash rooms upstairs, huddled by the window, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace (appropriately, there’s a pot of tea).
Claire Marie Healy: Collecting these essays in one place now, was there something you wanted to express about yourself and where you’re at personally, or was it more responding to the art world as it stands?
Chris Kraus: I think it’s more about the art world now. I mean I write a ton of commissioned pieces – like most writers do – but the point wasn’t to just pull them all together into a book. It was more like culling through the commissioned pieces from between 2005 and 2018 to the ones that cohered most to these themes. I really felt like if I didn’t do the book now, two years from now it would be really dated, this moment will have passed.
CMH: How would you describe this moment?
CK: There’s this fashion in the art world, for this kind of somewhat ridiculous genre called social practice – you know where they all go out and do community work, or landscape architecture, or something. So the book is kind of you know a little nod... I mean it’s not a nod, it’s like it’s a little dig at that genre. But at the same time, there’s a lot of art projects happening outside of the main centres that somehow, even though they’re occurring outside the centres, they become central – and the people are not outsiders. They’re not marginal, they’re not provincial.
CMH: I really liked the point where someone you’re in conversation with compares Semiotext(e) to being like a collective and you say no, it’s not a collective. That really made me think of how artists, and creatives, love to ascribe themselves as a collective, when actually that suggests having some kind of concrete purpose that you’re all moving towards together – it doesn’t just mean we’re all similar kinds of people, or all in the same environment.
CK: Right. I’m looking to places where people do have geographical community that’s genuine. You can’t just show up at another city six months in and say you’re gonna do something about the community.
CMH: But you left New Zealand yourself, to pursue your dreams of becoming an artist – so you must have sympathy for these artists who move.
CK: But everyone has to leave their country now – so you can’t really say there’s a national art. I write about two New Zealand artists in the book – Kate Newby, who is known internationally, but who doesn’t live in New Zealand, she lives in Brooklyn. Tao Wells, who is not known internationally, lives in New Zealand. And that’s a curious thing, you know – the point isn’t to critique it or not critique it, but just to observe it.
CMH: Your personal histories are woven into the criticism here, from tales of topless dancing at a New York bar in your early days, to descriptions of the lives led by fellow female artists whose lives have intersected with yours. What does this do for your criticism, as opposed to novel writing?
CK: Well it’s a very strange kind of criticism. In some of the pieces I’m putting my own writing into the piece. The pieces about Lucie Stahl’s work – I include some of her writing but then I go to my diary and I grab writing of my own from my diary. In all of these cases it’s trying to stage an encounter between me and the artist in the text: I’m approaching their work and trying to enter it in some way, and so I’m using whatever means I have at my disposal that I think will work. [This is] to sort of, more than get my mind around the work, really enter the work so that I can explain it from the inside out to other people. Which is kind of what I think the critic is supposed to do, you know? Contemporary art is so daunting to people outside the art world because they’re afraid they don’t know what to think. And I think one thing that the critic does that’s important is to kind of narrate your own response to a work – part of that is always trying to get inside the intention of the artist, and often cutting through the gallery-speak… trying to find out what it really is.
CMH: There’s also this kind of crisis in criticism at the moment. Did you read Wesley Harris’ recent New York Times piece? In a nutshell he’s talking about this kind of trend of films being judged for their morality and so, if they’re morally good – they’re good.
CK: The New York Times review of Sarah Lucas’ show in New York – did you read that?
CK: I like the critic very much, but it criticised Sarah Lucas for being heterosexual and white – so now she has nothing to contribute. We go to art for the truth, just like we go to literature and movies for someone who will say the thing that you know doesn’t often get said. We go there for freedom, not for more constraints and rules. A lot of the work that I write about in the book is political but not in a very literal or doctrinaire way.
CMH: But if art is being so strongly evaluated for its moral correctness in recent times, that seems inextricable from movements like #MeToo. The Avital Ronell case seems to have divided different generations of feminists. Your blog post defending her threw you into that storm recently. Were you surprised by the strength of the response?
CK: I was very surprised by the response, but I don’t think the divide is generational. It’s more temperamental. Numerous recent ex-students of Avital’s came forward in her defence. The slogans ‘Believe the Survivor’ or ‘I Believe Women’ seem destined for backlash. NYU followed its internal process of investigating Title IX complaints against Avital. They reached a decision that seemed fair to both. The harassment charge was accepted and she was suspended for a year without pay, but the abuse charge was dismissed. What happened next seemed truly outrageous to me. The complainant, who has extensive financial and legal resources, brought a civil suit against Avital for millions of dollars. In a story arranged by his publicist, the New York Times paraphrased his legal complaint as if it were fact. This seemed grossy unfair and ill-willed. It became not something about a balance of power – to my mind, most of the power was his – but about vengeance. In Trumpian spirit, he wanted to burn her house to the ground. Unless an artist is truly evil – and evilness almost always manifests somehow in the work – I’d rather bask in their greatness than expect them to have all the same opinions and values as me.
CMH: You describe Native Agents’ founding in 1990 as like an act of vengeance in the book – “a vengeance against the status quo, and what was and was not considered important”.
CK: In the beginning when I started it my agenda was very explicitly that I wanted to publish this group of women in New York that included Cookie, Eileen Myles and Kathy Acker, whose work I felt had a commonness and needed to come out in a group to be heard more strongly. But I was finished with that by the end of the 90s. I would say it’s more international now. We’re doing Natasha Stagg’s second book (after Surveys) which is gonna be amazing. We did Dusty Pink by Jean-Jacques Schuhl, a kind of retro book from the 70s that seemed really appropriate to publish now. He was a well known cultural figure in France during that era, and the book is entirely collaged from mostly fashion magazines, but in a very coherent way.
CMH: What do these books have in common?
CK: They’re all really smart, they’re narrative but not in any formulaic way. They’re not (that) kind of hazy, dazy experimental writing that you don’t wanna read. They’re very readable, but they’re not (a) formulaic narrative either. We were certainly never gonna publish a novel about your divorce, you know? It can be really intimate, but it’s not that tiny little cocoon of New York Times bestseller fiction.
CMH: At some point you’re describing in the book that to you you saw these books, at least at one point, as tools for ways to live – like they’re kind of showing you different ways of living. It’s such a nice idea for a novel to actually be a text in that true sense: a blueprint, or a script, for living.
CK: Well they are. What else do people read for? They are all utopian books even in their extreme negativity.
CMH: Totally. It seems like how young women see themselves, and how they’re moving through the world, has changed quite significantly in the last few years. I think that’s part of the reason why we have this kind of rush of fiction – well creative nonfiction – that is very much young women writing about their interiorities. Obviously you’re looking from a position where young women must be coming up to you and saying, you know, I Love Dick changed my life. Why do you think people feel so strongly about a work like that?
CK: There used to be many more novels that would be just kind of like regular storytelling novels, and we don’t really look to novels for that anymore. Other media have taken over the job of storytelling. We have like episodic TV, there’s all of internet culture to look to. So I think people are looking more for a direct link to the writer, so that’s what some of these books do. Sheila Heti – I mean all the people that we talk about – Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood is an amazing book and the perfect successor to How should a person be?. You know, if How should a person be? is like for your twenties then Motherhood is for your thirties when you have to make that decision. She’s a woman, so it’s about female experience, but really every person has to make that decision – whether they want to be a parent.
CMH: What did writing give you that other forms didn’t and what does writing do for you now? Has it afforded you freedom?
CK: Well, independence. If you make a film you’re dependent on money and you’re dependent on 80 other people to make the film. Writing is very portable, you just need time and your computer and notebook and the place you start to fetish, you know. It’s just about you – the only third element is the place and so people can get really fetishistic about the right place to write, but really I mean it’s very doable and I continue to want to do it. Not that it’s pleasant all the time, but it’s very exciting to get hold of an idea somehow and to chase it down and to find it in the course of what you’re writing.
CMH: Is it important to you to keep moving, as a writer?
CK: I do move around a lot. Mostly it’s kind of getting yourself into a writing cocoon frame of mind and that means cutting a lot of your daily responsibilities and it’s easier to do that if you just pick up and leave.
CMH: There’s a kind of feeling of hopelessness at the moment in culture, but I didn’t find this in your writings about art in your book – though it is about the current moment as you say. Would you describe yourself as a hopeful person?
CK: I am a hopeful person, so I look for what I like and I guess I like something that has a good energy and no matter how dark has a kind of positivity somewhere at the heart of it. I mean I definitely like dark, don’t get me wrong [laughs].
CMH: What works do you always go back to – what keeps you going?
CK: George Eliot, I must’ve read Middlemarch about seven times [laughs]. Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes. I’ve been using him in classes lately, a great writer. He wrote the Harlem detective series, but he wrote about seven novels before he did that – those are amazing classic 20th-century novels. So he’s a favourite. And I just finished reading the first two out of the three books of Virginie Despentes’ trilogy Vernon Subutex. Do you know that book? I’m also rewatching Breaking Bad now.
CMH: I never watched it!
CK: It’s fantastic. Does that count?
Social Practices is out now via Semiotext(e) / MIT Press.