photo credit: JC Schlechter
Interview with Leo Daedalus
What is a polyartist and what qualifies you as such?
As an artistic pantheist, one is always hopping between the Scylla of enumeration (all these media, all these modalities) and the Charybdis of self-indulgence (Keep your woeful labels off my multitudes!). The former never satisfies what I find essential, namely the common principle animating the particulars. (As for the latter, well, no need to be more ridiculous than I already am.)
Richard Kostelanetz apparently coined the term “polyartist,” which I came across in his writings on my man John Cage. Kostelanetz appeals explicitly to the notion of nonadjacency: the writer of both prose and poetry, or the painter-sculptor, neither are, he says, polyartists, but the poet-sculptor may be. It’s also contingent on this business of excellence or mastery which in my case I’m the last to make any claims to or, finally, take an interest in. Not that I’ll pretend to be above wanting to be brilliant, but that nonsense gets in the way of working.
How has art changed the path of your life?
Art has been the constant in my life. I was raised by artists (and scientists) and there just has never been anything else. Art has been the path. I wouldn’t know how to imagine a different terrain. Of course, capital (or, to be more general, metabolism) militates that we submit to other functions in our lives, but those are for me as for most artists merely the rockslides and stray bullets along the way.
What worth do you give predestination?
I’ve tried predestination, redestination, postdestination, ante-, anti-, auntie-, sub-, trans-, hyper- and crypto-ur-destination and I have to confess that I can’t tell the difference. I tripped over a windowless monad the other day (apologies to Leibniz) and on the way down I realized with some urgency that the destination is the least interesting part of it. To paraphrase Søren K., breaking your nose disappoints, possibility never.
Photo credit: JC Schlechter
On what do you orient yourself?
The breath, and not having any idea what it means. That sounds precious, no doubt, but as a zen-inflected (oft-lapsed) meditator I’ve learned that that’s where I am, and nowhere else, so it’s a good place to start. Understanding, let alone deciding, is a provisional game.
What does Urban mean to you and what informs your motivation?
In the early aughts Anna and I were spending a great proportion of our time all but literally off the grid in little cabins. One day after a typical discussion of heading for the hills in earnest we looked at each other and agreed that we had unfinished business with society. Next stop was a house in Portland and a reengagement with the urban.
We suffer daily from the brute ugliness of the city. I’m acutely aware of that every waking hour. Some (parts of some) cities offer relative aesthetic compensations, but what keeps me in is simply the social-intellectual. I’m not finally the Agnes Martin type and my off-cultural-grid thinking, although nicely, pastorally paced, began to suffer from malnutrition.
Photo credit: Kerry Davis
Does the world need more heroes and who qualifies as such?
I doubt it. The anti-heroic is something I’m only recently thinking about, thanks to the example of some friends with developed ideas on the matter. I do like the comment Russell makes with respect to the zeal for heroic “liberty” in e.g. Byron, Fichte, Carlyle, Nietzsche: that it inevitably leads to the tyranny “of the most successful ‘hero.’” This is also why I’m skeptical of revolution.
But, I don’t think the world gets what it needs; it gets what it gets. And it will continue to get heroes. That market is bullish, as ever.
What is funny to you?
The fact of a guy walking into a bar. Not just any guy, but this guy. I identify with the bartender.
Photo credit: Kerry Davis
Who shapes culture these days and where are we heading according to Leo?
They (yes, they) did an experiment a couple of years ago in which they set up these music-based social networks as microcosms of pop culture to track the dynamics of popularity and influence and the trajectory of hits. In a nutshell, they discovered that hits are something like self-fulfilling prophecies. An arbitrary, negligible early lead seeds an accretion of influence that quickly snowballs. Emphasis on arbitrary.
This gives me a kind of taoist satisfaction. The hegemons, in whatever size and shape of pond, put their all into controlling the conversation (hey, that’s their job) and still they flail. They understand power internally in ways I never will, but they haven’t an inkling of the view from outside flatland.
I think it’s obvious we’re heading to, that is to say we are well in the tunnel of, a kind of fragmentary totalism reified by its own paradoxicality. More interesting to me is the question of how to respond as individuals and communities. I’m skeptical, as I said, of revolution (Isn’t it always finally 360º?), dismayed by reform, disgusted by retreat, and sick of railing. The only sane thing I can imagine is to create an other space, with great care for its authenticity and no thought to its “effect.” There’s that anti-heroism again.
The Late Now is what?
Well-met question! The Late Now is my offering of just such an other space.
Theoretically, it’s an imagining of an impossible world in which the deeper experience of culture afforded by thoroughgoing experimentalism and avant-gardes were the mainstream, the very spectacle of the society of the spectacle. Impossible because it is the absurd fusion of anti-commercial modalities with commercial form. Dada won the war! Fluxus took over the networks! Marcel Duchamp hosts The Tonight Show. Impossible, but that’s not to stop us from (p)reenacting it (like the Civil War, but with a laugh track).
Socially, it’s an act of inclusive ludic subversion. My hypothesis is that avant-garde and experimental doings have wider appeal than we think, on either side of the strange fence. On the one side, that entails seduction with familiar forms; on the other, loosening the mystifying grip on the false security of inaccessibility. For both, it means challenging the edifice of the important.
Personally, The Late Now is the culminating synthesis (thus far) of my aforementioned intellectual and artistic pantheism. I’m interested in interest, fascinated by other people’s hobby-horses (wave to Sterne) and by the having of points of view, of Weltanschauungen, of attitudes. The Late Now gives me free rein to indulge my voracious curiosity. That’s purely self-serving, but the theory is that it’s equally compelling to audience and participants, and so far the theory is holding up.
Practically, The Late Now is a show, or class of show, both live and ultimately broadcast via whatever channels are available, e.g. webcast. It’s billed as the thinking mammal’s live avant-variety-cabaret-talk show, with performances, interviews, and uncategorizable happenings, and it’s going to be huge, baby.
Who is hiding behind the showmanship?
Ideally, it’s a revealing. (“Show-man-ship.” Work with me here.) I’m not interested in showmanship as a cover, but as another opportunity to connect. Years ago I saw a remarkable Italian clown in the high European, suit-wearing tradition (I can’t take red noses and rainbow wigs, sorry). He said that only when you let go of your dignity can you be truly free. He was, of course, one of the most genuinely dignified human beings I’ve ever encountered. What he meant was letting go of your attachment to dignity. Nothing harder, but if you can approach it, you can connect. Note that this has nothing to do with exhibitionism or even “self-expression.” It’s about commitment, being there, being accountable.
“Low Mass” is your latest creative output; what and where is it and what motivated you to create this installation?
“Low Mass” is a deceptively simple sound and video installation. A large television sits in the middle of a darkened room, screen facing upward, like an altar, showing a very slow-changing grid of oversized “pixels.” An equally slow-moving soundtrack plays at high, immersive volume. Both are temporal dilations of the current No. 1 pop hit song and video. (This is a project that could be set up permanently, with a change of content every week.)
I was thinking (again) about the differences between commercial culture and deeper, richer forms, in this case the liturgical (though not in a way that I, personally, sharply distinguish from “high” art). One of the signal differences is the disposition of time. Commerce necessarily serves and demands ever-shorter attention spans. The experience of the sacred, or meditation, or contemplation, requires a sinking into deeper, longer time frames.
Thus “Low Mass” is an alchemical proposition: transmuting the “base” material of commercial culture into a potentially deepening, transformative, even mystical experience. I love that the piece premiered in a mall (at PLACE Gallery as part of the Experimental Film Festival (EFF) Portland 2012).
What’s your opinion about Portland as a creative hub?
Quality of life is crucial for me. I’m not one to go grind myself to martyrdom in the crucible of a more “important” city. (There’s the anti-heroic again.) I have an incredible, if tiny, intellectual community here. And I’m such a politically clueless creature that any more socially byzantine environment would be wasted on me! Will I tactfully avoid saying that most of what goes on here is provincial or at least not to my interest? (I told you I was politically clueless.) Hey, that’s ultimately true of everywhere and everywhen. I love Portland, and I believe it’s an ideal place to be working on the opening up of other spaces. Which is all tangled up in quality of life.
Photo credit: Kerry Davis
How is a disorienting experience transformative and which key experience elevated your beingness?
I’m a great champion of Cage’s admonition to “Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.” I mentioned my fascination for the attitudes people hold, and this is connected to my analysis of ideology and even basic worldview as unfortunate traps, even as the engines of tragedy. Long story short: disorientation is a salutary opportunity. Not-knowing is a loosening of the locks, an opening of the gate. Whether such opportunities are taken or abhorred is another story altogether.
For myself, the key experience was living and traveling abroad at a young age. I was a kid in Switzerland, as Swiss as one could be with American parents, which is to say somehow always provisionally so, no matter how assimilated. During that time we traveled far and wide, and I saw people everywhere getting on with completely different social and cultural ideas, each as attached to the rightness (in fact, the only-ness) of his perspective as the other was of hers, with ensuing friction. All that seriousness and knowing came out looking pretty silly to me.
What role does new media play for you as an artist and how does it infringe on your private life if there is time for one?
That big red button that would whisk me back to a pre-electronic era: I’d press it in a second. I know, I know, nostalgia is perennial and who am I kidding. But really, it’s been a long time since I felt anything other than weariness in contemplating the ever-self-revising promises and pyrrhic victories of new technologies. Ironically, my piece “Low Mass” is intended as a détournement not only of commercial culture but of technophilic culture. Ironic because of the amount of time I spent at a computer making it. My solution is part of the problem.
I aspire to transcend (new) media. That is, as a dependency in my own life. It will always remain an aspiration rather than an attainment, thanks to what inevitably pulls me in my work: The Late Now thinks it’s a TV show after all. But I’m striving to privilege what’s live and visceral and direct in my work. Luckily I don’t kid myself about philosophical consistency, so webcasts and YouTube and [whatevervision] will have their blithe part in it.
As for private life, fortunately I’m addicted to conviviality, lively conversation and too many books, so there’s always a point in the day at which I cut the power to the nefarious machines.
What and who is a thinking mammal and what is thinking good for?
The thinking mammal is rare and delightful class of creature endowed with lively curiosity and always on happy terms with its animal nature. It thinks, and thinks richly, but never succumbs to the hubris of identifying as qualitatively above the beasts. The thinking mammal repudiates pretense, yet never stumbles into reactive slovenliness.
The class of thinking mammals includes representatives of Huizinga’s Homo ludens and Aristotle’s animal ridens. By “thinking,” the thinking mammal really means a full and open, inquisitive experience: cerebral, emotional, visceral, philosophical, social, material, both tragic and comic. This kind of thinking is a crucial part of a well-balanced existence. If you are currently taking seriousness in very high doses, consult your epistemologist before engaging in this kind of mammalian thinking.
What makes you sad and what do you do about it?
The avoidable suffering and institutionalized ugliness that we inflict upon ourselves by virtue of fixed ideologies, intransigence, closed-mindedness and fear of ambiguity. That makes me sad. I try (try) to model a different approach, which means, first, that I strive to maintain a different outlook.
Art, could you live without it?
Not a chance. But the way I see it, that would be an impossibility no matter what the circumstances.
Is comedy dumbing us down or does it make life easier to consume or both?
Yes! No! Maybe! There’s this related question ably raised by the likes of Mikhail Bakhtin and Barry Sanders, etc., as to whether the comic (and laughter and the carnivalesque) represents a palliative (bread and circus) or incipient revolution. Seems to me it’s highly contingent. I just gave the first iteration of a talk on the precarious place of the comic in high culture (culture and society in general) in which the first order of business is noting the ways in which a term like comedy covers an impossibly expansive, inconsistent territory. In other words, statements about “comedy” are always going to more wrong than right.
The only real answer I can give is that for those of us interested in the comic, as in anything else, we have the choice as to how to activate that question. My modus operandi emphatically favors the incipient revolution side of things, which is always vehemently opposed to dumbing down, but not necessarily opposed to easing our lives. That too is a valuable endeavor, provided it’s understood as the ground for other possibilities.
What is the future of polyartistry and where can we find you displaying your talents next?
I’d hazard a guess that there’s a big future for polyartistry. No matter how you feel about it, technology in both its productive and disseminative capacities is making multi- or post-disciplinarity and what was called intermedia ever more the rule. That stands to reason given the increasingly multichannel character of culture. Of course, the question of quality is a whole different story.
As for myself, you’ll find me prioritizing the live, performative, and curatorial side of things, turning The Late Now into the next not-so-tiny thing, and putting myself out there as a speaker/presenter on topics of solemn import such as comedy in high places, the virtues of the absurd, and the gravitas of levitas.
If you could interview yourself which final question would you ask yourself?
Can I get you a scotch?
What knowledge did you draw from the classics?
For those of us in the Western cultural storyline, the classics are a prismatic mirror in which we glimpse ourselves interspliced with distant origins at once very familiar and astonishingly foreign. It’s a great example of the kind of salutary disorientation that I favor. The ways we find ourselves identifying and not, or wanting and not wanting to identify, are illuminating.
I have an unexamined theory that there are Iliad people and Odyssey people, and that this yields interesting information. I’ve always been an Odyssey guy, and I believe that’s telling. We can get into it over a nice Islay scotch someday.
Is the avant-garde dead and is it worth to revive?
The avant-garde — not in the sense of a specific avant-garde, obviously, but in the sense of that spirit — can’t be killed as long as there is an outer edge of culture to be challenged. More accurately, as long as there are restless, thoughtful people who take as patently absurd, not to mention despicable, the idea that it has all been done, that culture is exhausted, those people will be testing the borders, peering under monoliths, asking impossible questions and turning things inside-out. They will do so because they can’t help it. And the committed among them won’t care whether you call them avant-garde or rear-garde or National Guard, so long as you don’t call them late for dinner.
Is there still a place for the sacred and where can one find it?
The only place I was ever completely unable to access the sacred was Vegas. I take that as a personal failing.
What is the most profane thing you ever did?
I once went to a Chamber of Commerce networking event and submitted to the pressure to look as if I cared about capital. Sorry 2 tha fans.
What is the essence of James Joyce?
The essence of the pudding is in the reading. To everyone who has steered clear of Joyce for the intimidation factor, stop missing out! Jump in. The last time you had an ice cream sundae, you didn’t worry about whether or not you understood it.
Like JJ says:
see Leo's work
Low Mass — May 19–27 in Experimental Film Festival Portland 2012
Opening May 19, 5–8 PM at PLACE Gallery: 700 SW 5th Ave.
The video installation Low Mass is an aural-visual-visceral experience of uncanny surface tension between sacred and profane modes, in which commercial culture-products are repurposed as richly liturgical and even mystical vehicles.
THE LATE NOW — Live from Mother Foucault's — June 20 6–7 PM
Live and Webcast
It's the second in the series: Leo and Craig and TLN cohost Alex Reagan talk serious books none too seriously in this monthly live webcast from Mother Foucault's Bookshop.
more info about Leo Daedalus