“How do you speak around something, to speak not for it but towards it – how do you make a language that does not stem from a language you already know?” asks Brooklyn-based artist and poet Rin Johnson whose work moves between virtual reality and sculpture. Their practice explores the (im)possibilities of re-organizing and re-orienting based on the linguistic properties of a medium, especially within the context of “surveillance, of movement and, unfortunately, the internet.”
Johnson’s new VR poetry book ‘Meet in the Corner’ via publishing-house.me (in the form of a Youtube link) is currently on show using cardboards as part of HeK‘s first exhibition dedicated solely to virtual reality, The Unframed World, which opened in Basel on January 19 and is running until March 5. The show also features work by Li Alin, Banz & Bowinkel, Fragment.In, Martha Hipley, Marc Lee, Mélodie Mousset & Naëm Baron, Rachel Rossin and Alfredo Salazar-Caro.
In addition to the current exhibition, Johnson will be moderating a panel on archiving and unlearning for Black Index Festival at New York’s Knockdown Center on February 18, as well as reading an excerpt about their grandmother from a new body of work Poor Little Rich Boy at New York’s Artist’s Space on February 21, along with Justin Allen, Diamond Stingily and Deborah Willis.
With a practice that stems in various directions, virtual reality became an attractive area for Johnson to explore to the language of objects, ideas and bodies, and a space that acts as a “a focusing point, or as a reflection point” for the artist. Johnson took some time out to answer a couple questions via email about their multi-directional practice, and the politics of “what you can name and cannot name.”
** Thinking about art, or creative practice as being at a point of crisis where the ‘new’ no longer extends to a single discipline but at an intersection of several, making it indefinable… is this something that attracted you to this VR, a cross-disciplinary approach to poetry?
Rin Johnson: For a while now all the various parts/mediums of my practice have been folding in on each other and I wanted to work in VR for a lot of the same reasons that I began to start working more readily in sculpture and with poetry. My friend Anne Cousineau explained to me the other day that my work is interested in virtual spaces of various articulations and most of the time I’m using mediums that create virtual spaces of some kind whether literally in VR, abstractly with an object, or mentally with a poem.
I like, too, the possibility of having work that is free and easy enough to watch or get access to that maintains an opaque quality. Albeit 360 video and simplistic VR are not the most accessible but maybe more than a lot of mediums that require someone to be physically present with the work.
Broadly, my first impulse putting my poems in a film-based context had something to do with Broodthaers and understanding his work through my own poetry and film based practices. Now as we’re about to release this, I also have Jesse Darling’s words in Frieze really echoing around in my head about the possibilities inherent in narrative work now: “ Film, on the other hand, is explicitly manipulative and didactic, and in the time of ‘post-truth’ politics (although in my view there has never been anything like ‘truth’) it feels like a good moment to explore the narrative form again, even if it’s all just fables and fairy tales.” A narrative makes for an interesting echo chamber; so putting these ideas in conversation with poetics seems worth noting even though that wasn’t my original intention.
** On that note, this indefinability is a running thread through this selection of poetry, going beyond race and gender into identity as a complex compound of elements, would you agree?
RJ: Totally. I think my practice really clicked for me when I had to read Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig for an interview with Beatriz Santiago Muñoz for the Miami Rail. Les Guérillères is basically about a group of women who are trying to rebuild after they’ve won a bloody battle of the sexes. There’s a part in Les Guérillères about how the language the women know how to speak is the very thing making it hard for them to rebuild. This language is in some ways dismantling them just by existing in their minds. Of course, this puts the women in a bind: how do you speak around something to speak not for it but towards it – how do you make a language that does not stem from a language you already know? How by not defining can a new signifier be crated?
** I’m particularly struck by the recorded conversation piece, where you answer ‘depends on the American.’ There seems this ambiguity, ambivalence even, towards nationhood as a concept. I’ve often wondered how different people respond to this idea of nationality, do you have any thoughts on this from your own subject position?
Well Baldwin said: “It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.” This has been my experience as a black person in the US and my ambivalence towards nationhood definitely stems from growing up black in Marin County (literally the other side of golden gate bridge) and eventually realizing how much my education, despite being very expensive and very progressive, was teaching me how to avoid seeing systemic realities that maintained within me a mindset which lead me to believe in the inferiority of myself and other people of color. So in this way I think there is a sinister nature to the way I feel about my fellow American and to the nation as a whole and as a construct. This idea of a national identity (especially in the US) feels impossible to me. It seems like most of the time the nation we all live in is capitalism, it does not have borders or morals…Not to be hyperbolic but what was that thing from the new Herzog documentary, Low and Behold, something like: most of Civilization is just 4 meals away from collapse. In the states it feels like it’s more like 2. Maybe everywhere it feels like it is more like 2. What’s a meal again? Maybe that was a hyperbolic tangent…
** With the opening poem and the excerpt we’re sharing here, I was struck by its simplicity and power, in pointing to the complexity of experience, representation and, ultimately, privilege, something I think you’ve dealt with quite honestly and directly, is there anything more you could say on this point?
RJ: Wow, thank you! I don’t know if I have so much more to say on this point just that moments like that one seem to be frequent in my life and I think they’re useful times to point to. It is not like I’m constantly having sex with white women on the canals of Venice – but it does feel like I’m running into the paradoxes of the intersections of my circumstance in really intimate and jarring ways that feel for lack of a better word quite loaded, I think naming them helps me move through and around them.
** Another thing about that presumably ‘field recorded’ element: even though it’s not necessarily ’original’ poetry, in a purist sense, instead a sort readymade poetic object that’s been removed and recontextualised… I wonder what you’re feelings are on this idea of authorship, originality and remix?
RJ: I think using something and making it feel really different from the original state it was found in is important and necessary in a lot of circumstances. I use video of all types that I didn’t make and feel nothing about it. (What’s material in a virtual space anyway?)
In my writing, sometimes, if I use a memorable thing someone else said in my work, whether it’s writing or a recording, I check in with the person or people who told it to me, sometimes I don’t do this. A lot of the time people forget or don’t notice and are surprised I remembered or cared. In this instance, though, the person speaking is the writer, Sarah M Harrison, and she was cool with it so I put it in the work. Honestly, Sarah and I use one another’s lines and language a lot, sometimes we’ll be talking and one of us will be like ‘oh, I like what you just said, that’s a good line,’ and the other will be like ‘well it’s my line!’ We work it out in the end.
Anyway, if somebody says something on the train in passing, I’ll use it. The other day, in deep rush hour, a little girl held her mother’s face on the train and said: ‘No Mama, let me whisper something in your ear’ and then she not-so-whispered, ‘you have a good voice for pain.’ That went right into one of my poems verbatim. There’s a recording of that poem, “11/11”, on my friend Diamond Stingily’s No-Wave Radio show (The Diamond Stingily Show) and it is in print in Francesca Capone’s brand new Text means Tissue from Motto, Berlin.
I digress. A little while ago, my friend Aurelia Guo tweeted something along the lines of: “being able to plagiarize is key to my health.”Aurelia and I often agree.**