‘There is nothing more shared than language’: Carolyn DeCarlo Interviews Gregory Kan

By and | 1 November 2018

CD: How do you find yourself allowing for freedom of expression as an artist and poet, particularly when you have set up a constraint or series of constraints for that project in advance of its creation?

GK: Unconditional freedom is an incoherent idea to me. Everything comes with constraints and conditions! Freedom and constraints go together. Another way of saying this is that constraints always both disable and enable different things on different levels. The human skeleton restricts the number of shapes your body can adopt, but it allows you to lift things and run and jump and move, and protects your organs and all kinds of other things. A house closes you off from the outside, but it allows you to have shelter, protection, warmth and privacy and different spaces in which to do different kinds of activities. Any form of organisation is essentially a set of constraints and the freedoms those constraints open up. One might object that art and poetry cannot be reduced to practical function in the same way as skeletons and houses, but they certainly do function. They certainly have and need constraints. I think ideas like ‘creativity’ and ‘art’ are often romantically associated with a notion of ‘radical freedom’, and ideas like ‘structure’, ‘constraints’ and ‘organisation’ can seem counterintuitive in that context. But everything has structure. Everything has constraints.

From another, more concrete, angle, constraints are very important to my writing process. When sitting down to write, the number of possibilities is overwhelming, sometimes paralysing. Setting up some constraints from the outset helps reduce this weight, actually frees me to write. There are so many different kinds of constraints one can play with too: thematic, conceptual, quantitative, structural, processual, material, etc. Sometimes I impose them arbitrarily and other times they are the product of conscious design. Strangely, chance itself can be a powerful constraint and driving force, like the way dice are used to progress a board game (or a decision you can’t be fucked making yourself). Further, constraints can actually take (or force) you down paths you could never anticipate or even imagine, let alone have chosen for yourself. They can take me outside myself, outside my own habits, inclinations and prejudices.

CD: Recently, you and Matilda Fraser developed a poetic spoken word text for Enjoy Gallery’s I Digress exhibit. A particular theme in your work is that of memory, and the concepts of biography and autobiography. How does collaboration serve the expression of memory in your work?

GK: This is a huge one for me and again I think I can only respond in very broad strokes. To me, writing is an externalised form of memory. Writing is a form of memory prosthesis. Digital information is yet another intensification and acceleration of this prosthetic. I’m very interested in the fact that these kinds of ‘external memory’ are also manipulable and transformable. I’m also fascinated by the ways in which we are haunted (and even controlled) by our writing and our data. Our relationship to time, to the past and the future, is also deeply entangled with our representations of the past and the future. There is also of course the implication and pathos of finitude and mortality when one talks about writing and memory. All of these aspects and problems of ‘memory’ are present whenever I write. There are so many strange loops here. I love provoking and invoking them in my writing, whether implicitly or explicitly.

CD: I find that with collaboration, it is easy to feel a sense of comprehension and understanding when working with a close friend or partner. But, as you said earlier, language is a shared and universal construct. It would be amazing to witness a poet capable of using this medium to generate collaboration on a larger scale. Would you consider engaging in collaborative work on a grand scale? What might this look like, for you, as a poet?

GK: I really would. Sometimes I get jealous of musicians because collaboration is something already pervasive and even mundane in that world. Collaboration has so much historical precedent in music that there are many developed paths and tools for musicians who would like to collaborate. However, I feel like in the writing world, collaboration is still something that isn’t taken very seriously. If you are privileged enough to participate in a writing workshop, you might get to do an exquisite corpse exercise or something with your classmates. Or maybe during poetry day, as a kind of novelty. I know that there are writers who are keen on collaboration (including yourself and Jackson Nieuwland), but I still think they constitute a minority. It’s something I think about all the time. I don’t know what it looks like yet.

I think something that would help is for people to talk not just about the fact of collaboration, but also the various processes people have experimented with in collaboration. I would love to see an archive of different collaborative writing processes.

CD: When I think about collective creativity and productive group thinking when it comes to the arts, I always return to memories of artist communes I visited in Mexico and the Caribbean as a young child. You just returned from an excursion to the Art Islands (Naoshima, Teshima, Inujima) in Japan, known for their supportive communities and enthusiasm for contemporary regional art. What was your perspective on this phenomenon? Were you there primarily to observe or participate? What was one of the best things you saw or experienced while visiting the islands?

GK: This is a difficult one. The islands me and my partner visited were incredible sites for and monuments to the contemporary fine arts. However, these places were developed and maintained by very wealthy entities, serving a relatively privileged crowd of visitors (which I include myself in of course). I’m not sure I would be able to describe those places as necessarily communal or serving local community in the way that I think you mean. While those galleries and spaces did feature Japanese artists, they often were some of the most established (for instance Yayoi Kusama, Ryue Nishizawa and Rei Naito, Tadao Ando, Yukio Mishima), accompanied by a bunch of huge international artists (for instance James Turrell, Walter De Maria, Christian Boltanski, um the Waterlilies guy). So I’m not sure it was particularly regional either. I do wish I knew more about the history of those islands, what they were like before these fancy art sites were developed, if they were experiencing the drain of the local population towards the big urban centres in Japan, whether these art institutions have been properly regenerative for the locals on the islands, how these places have assisted, directly or indirectly, lesser-established local artists etc.

Beyond the incredible works on those islands, and the islands themselves, I think one thing that impressed us was the reverence and respect the local population and local tourists seemed to have for the sites and works. I feel like in New Zealand, art is often scoffed at or ignored by the wider public. I don’t blame people in New Zealand for this attitude, but it was refreshing to encounter a different one on those islands. I don’t know, maybe the wider public in Japan hates art too, and it’s just a matter of scale. It would be interesting to do a more rigorous survey of people’s attitudes towards art in different countries. I am reluctant to generalise!

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