Swiping Left on the Hangout: A Conversation with Felix Bernstein

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“I wonder if one person out of 8,000,000 is thinking of me.”—Frank O’Hara

 

For decades, experimental poetry, underground performance, and the art world have made for the (un)likeliest of bedfellows, even if the power imbalance becomes increasingly discomfiting. In his manifold creative practice, Felix Bernstein has traversed these intersecting spheres lustily; slicing through the various, porous borders of the cultural continent in an attempt to lay bare the psychosexual strictures on contemporary aesthetic production. In this conversation, we found ourselves continually returning to formats—from the social media feed to the personal essay to the “About Me” section of dating apps—as the pride and the pitfalls of our generation’s libidinal economy.

—Joseph Pomp 

 

Joseph Pomp: What I find compelling about your writing is that the distance between you the critic and your subjects is often fluctuating. At times, you offer very insider-y takes on certain sub-subcultures, and other times you step back and do some big-picture diagnosing.

 

Felix Bernstein: I tend to distance myself from the pool of references around me, until I get pent up and write about it. Mostly this is out of anxiety and impatience, but I think it has allowed me to link up with people who hate the artists or art institutions I’m discussing, and even with people who hate me. Sometimes this is because people like to read anything flippant: it’s clickbait. The click-baited might not be a sustained readership, but it was the most immediate readership I got. Then there are cynics playing the “game” in New York, who have competing interests with institutions or wanted to protect themselves from critique. And also some of the people I’ve critiqued get excited to be enraged—so they can seem iconoclastic on Twitter, and so on.

 

JP: Are you mourning for a pre-Internet viewing culture? In this vertiginous climate, do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?

 

FB: I’m not in mourning, at all. My optimism is that I still desire and, to a certain extent, seek out, and get surprised by, stuff. I’m not surprised by anything theoretically determined to be “better than,” i.e., less neoliberal, more queer, more mutable, more radical, more avant-garde, more relation, more anti-relational/cruel. A kind of tragic irony is that the tastemakers and people boosting artists in theory or writing listicles online don’t really believe that they can be surprised by anything anymore. They are lying; they see tastemaking as a job, or a way to inevitably promote themselves, or keep up with appearances. The same goes with those who “hate” everything, which is simply the reverse mode of taste-making. As Baudrillard had it, “Reversibility has nothing to do with reciprocity.”

 

JP: So do you think there’s a danger in continually putting the present down, especially through the lens of the past?

 

FB: Yes, but also, putting it down in favor of the future. I’m constantly asked, or seeing panels about, the future of poetry and art, film and video, and art and digital processes, as well as on the topic of millennial, gay, and queer, because people feel run down by their disciplinary bureaucracies. They think holding yet another symposium will help. The idea that suddenly queer, gay, poetry, art, film, and performance are being “commodified” depends on an ahistorical fallacy about untainted origins—it’s a very tricky question, but the answer implied is, “things are becoming more commercial, we have to come up with alternatives to mainstream, really fast,” which is a market-driven mode of thought. These symposiums feed off of the labor of outliers—the queer-art-academic-critical-party is so monotonous, it requires unpaid interns, emerging artists, and struggling students, to continually throw some idiosyncratic jouissance to the gallery or panel, and then be discarded.

 

And with all critical evaluation and comparative analysis of the present art there is the danger of what might best be called aesthetic decisionism—the sort of mythical, grand, allegorical proclamations about paradigms that Foucault made all the time. But there’s also the farce of the compulsory claim that artists today are the “new” version of past icons: “This novelist is the James Joyce (or Artaud or Schneemann, etc.) of today.” This is the Vice blurbing industry. There is also the problem of what is effectively transgressive in a suburban high school does not so much matter in the art world. Or what is replicated by the formal charisma of “Joyce” or “Schneemann” today is not the same as it was then… as when Lena Dunham writes that a radical queer poet is “that weird girl in high school who was always writing in her diary.” Often this comparison arises, since high school presents the fantasy of belonging to a clique and table, or else being different as a brand (the loner who wears hot topic; the one who critiques the hot-topic anarchist for being a poser; or the one like me, who critiques the critic of hot topic for their claims of exemption from complicity), so there is a continual inclusivity.  Chris Campanioni’s treatment of names and cliques in his writing (see The Death of Art) really tackles the ironies inherent in these problems, which are really hard to confront, because often disheartening. Extending, however ridiculously, the high school metaphor; just as the same mall has a shirt for the jock, cheerleader, hipster, and loner; so too Amazon recommends books by an “experimental artist,” “experimental cultural critic,” “experimental poet,” with indifference to micro-distinctions…. or the fact that in these worlds we all hate each other.

 

JP: Academia also sometimes engenders these types of facile, trans-historical comparisons. Do you see that a result of its territorial nature?

 

FB: I think it comes from an impulse to try to be the mythmaker—to seem as prophetic as William Blake, even though you are merely his biographer (to seem as dangerous as Jack Smith even though you are merely performing for an MFA board of esteemed critics…or perhaps, on a Bravo TV show). The myth-making poets are making ontological proclamations, but if you’re a cultural critic, you can’t really do that, but you can have a hand in changing the canon. It’s such an impotent and limited thing to be a critic in the sense that any change to the canon is going to be ephemeral, and few dissertations will sell well (if they even make it to publication). I’m confused by the desire to convert one’s niche into a Renaissance portfolio. Everyone on Tinder is a dilettante, which is the sort of sensibility that the liberal arts college produces. People aren’t satisfied with what they’re doing, or rather they always want to do more. People have a hard time accepting a vocation, or a disciplinary constraint. Hybridity, a fetish of today’s marketplace, is a way around that. But it is its own disciplinary constraint. I think I am constrained by it, for sure.

 

JP: Would you say that there’s something campy about this conception of hybridity?

 

FB: There’s something, not necessarily campy, but annoying about it. I’ve annoyed people, too, by doing similar stuff—writing critically about a museum and then performing in a museum.

 

JP: It seems like the dilettantism propagated by social media comes from those networks’ obsession with celebrity.  Everyone is striving for some glimmer of fame.

 

FB: Yes, but there’s also a striving for recognition of having good taste. I remember when “liking” Fight Club or Pulp Fiction on Facebook signified that. It was enough. I like to be alone, but in public, like going to the movies. It’s hard to really be alone on social media. Though, sometimes my YouTube videos get only 200 views but that’s not really alone. The other way in which people try to cash in on the fabrication of persona at the level of social media is to treat themselves as readymade objects. Showing up to events as a club kid is increasingly being considered art. Curators are sometimes like club promoters; they just want people to show up.

 

JP: Like Klaus Biesenbach and MoMA PS1 …

 

FB: Right, but everyone also attempts to think they are better, which they might be, but the traps are all laid out for you, no matter what, if you are a museum curator. Thanks to this particular marketplace, there are people who are recognized and are in good standing as artists who have made maybe one work. And I think it’s the MFA mentality, because sometimes people in MFA programs make one video, or write one poem, and otherwise just spend three years making sure everyone likes it. Every inch you go forward as an artist, you have to check that everyone’s okay with it. I imagine this is what it would be like to be in an overpriced kindergarten, all the ambitious prodding and observation from authority figures. Same with PhD programs, a million apologias before arriving at an appropriate, airtight thesis—“To be or not to be” becoming, “What else should I say, All apologies,” / “What else should I write, I don’t have the right,” so you have all the Kurt Cobain self-flagellation without any of the grunge and beauty.

 

On the flip side, are those who go full speed ahead, run before they can walk, which is attractive but they can “run out” of steam fast, or else get stigmatized for, paradoxically, having “too much” vision. But the inch-by-inch mode is very odd to me, as a hysteric. I need to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. I also find being critiqued in private continually until you feel you can go public, because now you are exempt from critique (you have affiliated with just the right cultural critics) is a trap. It’s like having the blurbs for your book coming from so many institutional heavyweights that one can’t really comment, without feeling like they are trespassing an institutional sanction.

 

JP: That’s the price one pays for taking a very academic approach to art making. To zoom out a bit, how much do you think academia, or a degree, matters to artists? You suggest that the contemporary, perfunctory “artist’s statement…only appears to be counter-academic,” as if there are hidden, sublimated, allegiances therein (“The Irreproachable Essay,” Texte Zur Kunst, Fall 2016).

 

FB: The artist’s statement is ubiquitous to every bureaucratic facet of the arts and humanities. Even just using Tinder, you have to prove that you can write about yourself.  Why is that valued so highly? I don’t know. People want to move away from standardized testing, and they think the most radical thing you could do is this humanistic recuperation of—the multitalented. This comes with all the dilemmas outlined in Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child. This epistemologically aware notion of the self (as cultural juggler) is something you need to display to get into college, but now you need it in the art world too. Nowadays, obviously there’s a turn against this kind of personal statement. A hip gallery won’t even have one. And that’s another reason for the turn to poetry, because people think poetry diffuses formal rigidity. This is a fantasy, and inevitably a letdown as Ben Lerner suggests in The Hatred of Poetry.

 

JP: Considering that art schools now offer MFA degrees in New Genres, which uncannily include writing, as if that is an emerging, promising ‘new’ medium, do you think the art world’s appropriation of poetry is in any way affecting poets?

 

FB: I think that the emulation of any form, as presented by a professor who is looking over your shoulder, is tricky. For instance, if you watch a crumby old tape of a Jack Smith performance you might attempt to imitate the “ephemeral” retro nature in a way that suits the pre-approved look of what you are seeing. Or you try and make something for the PS1 Book Fair that looks like an ephemeral zine. It’s always when the ephemeral is grasped that the canon is doing its work, and this is very easy to do with poetry and performance, a double take; which I think Broodthaers satirized when he turned Mallarmé into an austere art object, with the words blacked out. This is the issue now, fetishizing something for being obscure at the very moment that it’s no longer obscure, for instance, clicking fetish on Pornhub. But what happens when you receive your fetish under the label “fetish,” is you are just buying hardware, the whips and chains not the psychic danger. This is similar to what it might mean to buy an overpriced chapbook. James Franco can collect all the props, the degrees, the small press publications, but he will never appear psychically tormented. Broodthaers was very conscious of how the museum was archiving all of these things and by now it’s commonplace to critique this sort of approach. But it remains an interesting and important critique to consider the limitations of the platforms we all use. What can’t you post on Instagram (and not just porn), what can’t be consumed in that way? Even a video over one minute is hard to disseminate over apps, which trim how durational a vision can be—and it’s why people no longer have the patience to go to avant-garde films. Even the people I studied “experimental” film with don’t watch film anymore, unless pressed to do so by some sort of event or retrospective, or by peer pressure. However, this is an injunction to enjoy someone’s fetish, i.e., a screening of the B-side of a random experimental artist (when the audience doesn’t even know the A-side).

 

JP: Right, people are so overwhelmed by the onslaught of short attention-span media at this moment that they have all but abandoned their aesthetic criteria of judgment.

 

FB: The other problem is that, at the level of the gallery, to suddenly flip and show a James Benning film, forces the work to be read as interesting only by nature of its opposition to social media. It becomes the tortoise. And just another tab to scroll through, much like watching films on Ubuweb. The point being, you can walk in and out; take a picture; leave. Taking a picture of a picture is the best way to file the labor of decipherment away for later. On the other hand, taking a picture of the person taking a picture of the picture, like what we are doing now, can be a cogent way of deciphering, but has only a very transient merit—since it feeds off of the futility of its own perspectival impotence, its complicity with the act of consumption it attempts to outdo.

 

 

Joseph Pomp is a cultural critic whose writings on international film have appeared in edited volumes and publications including The Brooklyn Rail, Film Quarterly, and Senses of Cinema. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature and Critical Media Practice at Harvard University.

 

Felix Bernstein is a writer, performer, and video artist, as well as the author of Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry (Insert Blanc Press, 2015) and a collection of poems, Burn Book (Nightboat Books, 2016). His opera Bieber Bathos Elegy, in collaboration with Gabe Rubin, premiered at the Whitney Museum in January 2016. His book on contemporary queer avant-gardes, written with philosopher Kyoo Lee, is forthcoming.

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