Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Sylvère Lotringer
from the Blue issue
Pataphysics: What do you like about interviews?
Sylvère Lotringer: In an interview there’s something very strange that happens – you bring out someone and you disappear yourself as an interviewer. Interviewing is a kind of suicidal operation, because when you’re totally successful you become unnecessary. So I liked doing interviews because it was a disappearing process. When I interviewed artists I was interested in losing my French identity by becoming them. It was this process of becoming something else or becoming an artist through them by using their language to talk in a way that I couldn’t. The interviews were also a way of publishing and having a record, because I’d stopped writing academic stuff; interviews couldn’t really be credited as being part of your critical work, but they still existed in this very ambiguous realm… When I arrived in New York I was very struck talking to people like John Cage and Merce Cunningham. I discovered that they were the real thinkers in America, but they were not thinking in exactly a systematic fashion. If they were systematic their systematicity came with bits and pieces of things that wouldn’t go together for the French – a bit of Zen, a bit of natural anarchism. I was very struck by the fact that Cage was coming up with something that was very close to what French post-’68 theory had come up with, especially Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, something loose and active and anarchical, but instead of being so forbidding, he did it in much more imaginative or imagistic ways, so you could always relate to something concrete. So I tried to make myself available to American art and the New York artworld, and I hoped that by talking to them they would express in their own artistic language into some sort of theoretical statement. My idea was not to articulate it conceptually, just bring it out by putting what they were saying in the interviews together with other texts or documents on the page. I always liked it when different things enter into some sort of deliberate resonance without losing their own identity. It was a way of establishing a bridge between Europe and the States; between the conceptualization that they were developing in France, and the kind of much more energetic and experimental activity that artists had.
P: It’s interesting that correspondence on different levels. Before you arrived in America were you aware of the fact that this type of activity was going on?
SL: I wasn’t, I had no idea. It happened I guess, because I left Australia too early. I lived in Australia for one and a half years, and when I left I was heavily in debt, so the only way I could really pay off all that and be ‘clean’ so to speak, was to go to America. I had tried to stay away from America because of its involvement in Vietnam. I had been very involved with the students’ movement in Paris at the time of the Algerian war – I was the president of the Sorbonne for a while – and I didn’t especially want to go through that again. As it happened I spent May ’68 in Sydney, and that’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. So I thought I would teach in the United States for a while and then go back to France. But I got kind of caught in the academic system for about two or three years. It was then that I discovered that the American university was not really the equivalent of the French intelligentsia that I liked and had left behind. In America the academe consisted of a group of highly trained professionals, but there was practically no broad concern, no feeling that the intelligence could be applied not only to their own field but that it was like an instrument that could open up the whole society. So I basically went on functioning at Columbia University, but not much interest was invested there. In 1974 I founded Semiotext(e) and it was like growing another limb on your body – I grew a limb that was reaching out of academe and it found another world that I didn’t know. Two or three years after the magazine had started, a group of artists came up to me and they said that they were interested in what I was doing with Semiotext(e). And it was great because I immediately connected with them – it was right before Punk time. They were young American artists who were involved with the rock world, because the artworld at the time was very closed off, so they were in between the New Wave rock club world which was just starting, and the artworld which was much more codified and proper. I was living in 36th street which was about three blocks away from the Times Square Show, so it was like going next door…
Also, at the time I wasn’t aware of it but I moved with exactly the right people. One of them was Diego Cortez who was organizing the P.S.1 show of New Wave/NoWave art – I’m sure he invented the term ‘No Wave.’ Diego was like the king of the downtown world. Everywhere people were in awe, and for no reason really because he never did anything but promote himself – he was a rip-off and that’s how he lived. But he had a Pompadour like Elvis Presley – he published a book of pictures of Elvis doing service in Germany – and he adapted the kind of Andy Warhol attitude that created this star fascination. The other artist was Stephen Einz, a young Austrian who was starting the Fashion Moda gallery in the Bronx with the first graffiti art. He and Diego were somewhat attuned to the neo-expressionist sensibility in Germany and Italy. Terrorism was glamorous downtown. I was just becoming aware of the Italian Autonomist movement. Coming from different places we were meeting on similar grounds. Then there was Colab, a collective of young New York artists who organized several coups, like the Times Square Show, or the Real Estate Show. They were more political in this strange American way which seems to come with youth and the pressure of the moment, and disappears into thin air as soon as things get serious. A lot of good people were around, like Kathy Acker or Arto Lindsay, Lizzy Borden, Kathreen Bigelow, so it was very exciting and I immediately started working with them. At that point Semiotext(e) changed from being a little format academic magazine to a larger format magazine that gave artists the necessary space to work. The idea was to make something that kept changing and to go by theme, and each theme would generate everything – the kind of pieces, the kind of layout, the kind of illustrations. Also, everything was documents – it was primary stuff; I didn’t want any commentary or criticism but rather things that came as a first source. For me there was s total equivalence between a great piece of theory and a flyer found in the street. So the magazine immediately became very American, even though there was no equivalent for it in America. The idea was to treat thought as a document and connect it with other immediate, direct material.
P: Did you see the content of Semiotext(e) as being ephemeral?
SL: Initially I thought, yes, of course, it’s totally ephemeral; but my second thought was, well to manage to do something that is totally ephemeral is very difficult these days because everything is archived – we don’t know what’s high and what’s low anymore, so everything becomes like ‘culture.’ But in another sense Semiotext(e) wasn’t that ephemeral because it was conceived like an art object. What I wanted to do was something that could be read like a book, but could be felt like an art object, where everything was in some kind of tension and correspondence. It was a bit like the idea that Deleuze and Guattari had of a ‘machine’; it was a machine that could adapt itself and function differently for everyone and for different contexts. It was calling for a connection but at the same time it was closed upon itself and radiating quietly on the inside. Each theme always had to do with my relation to American culture, and the relation of American culture to other cultures – it was an object that could function both ways as some sort of bridge. The United States for me was like an advanced version of what Europe was becoming – it was like living in science fiction. Everything that the French had already thought I experienced on a daily basis. So Americans didn’t need theory, because they were living in theory. That’s where Baudrillard expressed it perfectly; they were living in some sort of space where things really had no weight anymore, especially themselves, but they were unaware of it and they had all this mythology of depth and emotions and individuality, whereas in France or in Europe you still had this tight codification that still held them together in spite of this push for post-modernity at all levels.
P: How did the idea for ‘The German Issue’ come about?
SL: ‘The German Issue’ was the end of a certain phase for me. Firstly, being Jewish, Germany has always been somewhat delicate for me to deal with, and I was fascinated with that because I was born a few months before the war, so my life has been really totally fucked up by it in a sense. I was living in hiding, using a false name and all that at a young age, so the whole period was really very ‘formative.’ ‘The German Issue’ was something very special for me because on the one hand I have all this hostility towards Germany, which is why I had refused to learn German, but on the other hand I trusted the Germans more than I did the French, because at least the Germans had taken the mask off. Even though the new generation was very different and very alien to what happened during the war, there was something there that was pretty much in the open, and I felt comfortable with that. We had this experience that we shared, but on different sides – their family didn’t go to concentration camps but mine did – so we had this thing between us. I always made sure they realized that I was Jewish, but at the same time I didn’t want to throw it in their face, because that wasn’t really my point. With Germany it wasn’t just a bridge, it was really something that I wanted to explore.
P: There was a perversity…
SL: Yes, I was playing cat and mouse with them. Each if the five parts of ‘The German Issue’ begins with a reversed negative taken from a map of Berlin, and in one case of the Eastern United States. That was a way of establishing that post-war Germany is a subsidiary of American culture, and that talking about Germany was already talking about America. But also, do you know what would happen if you’d put these five black geometric shapes together? You would see a huge, huge swastika… That’s really what the issue was about – it was a trap. But I was trying to be fair and say, look, all the elements of the old Nazi thing are still there, you can put them back together, but let’s hope they can remain separate and indistinguishable. I didn’t want to do an issue on Germany where the swastika wasn’t there, so it was there but it didn’t have to be recognized. And I think that was the key to the whole issue; there were lots of things going on and you either picked up on them or you didn’t – it was like a multi-layered semiotic system. ‘The German Issue’ was like a trajectory between Germany and America, and that’s what I like about the idea of being a foreign agent, that you have a perspective on cultures; you’re already foreign in your own culture, but you remain foreign to the culture that’s your host.
P: So the space is just within you – it’s a tight circle…
SL: Well you have to pay for this kind of abstraction from the context, but at the same time it gives you a certain power, and that’s the power of perception, which I was trying to recreate. I also realized after a while that by traveling and living all over the world I’d managed to accomplish the Jewish goal by moving around, being a nomad, and living finally as a foreigner; that’s something I was trying to avoid. When I was a kid I was in a Zionist group and I was supposed to go to a kibbutz, but when the time came, I just couldn’t do it. I discovered that I was French and I thought I could never live in another country like Israel where I could remain a foreigner. Now I live in a country where I still am a foreigner, even my accent is not American, but I didn’t specially make an effort to change that because I wanted to be a foreigner. In France being Jewish is very touchy. Curiously my name means ‘from Lorraine’ in German, but neither the French nor the Germans recognize me as my own. So I have a very obvious ambiguous relation to identity.
P: What was the origin of the cover for the ‘Polysexuality’ issue?
SL: The front cover was taken from a San Francisco gay magazine and it showed a fat guy in a leather jacket with a bare ass on a motorbike, and the motorbike is on a stand leaking oil. So if you take the picture out of the gay context it may look a little ridiculous – I mean it’s not really an object of desire, but it’s very ambiguous because it’s very glossy but at the same time it’s a little offensive; you don’t see his cock, but you see his bare ass. It becomes a very indescribable object; it becomes a public object but it’s not spectacular because people can’t understand where it’s coming from. The back cover was a death picture. I was doing all this research on death at the time and one of my friends, Michael Oblowicz, who’s now doing rock videos in Hollywood, took Rosa von Praunheim to a morgue in New York for his film Death Magazine. And Michael found this picture there. It was an evenly lit police picture showing a man in a woman’s clothes dead on a toilet seat. As it happened he had impaled himself on a huge dildo of his own making, but you couldn’t see any of that and his body was already kind of decomposing. As soon as Michael got the picture he fell into some sort of heavy depresssion until he had the idea of passing it on to François Peraldi, who was putting together the ‘Polyseuality’ issue. As soon as he sent the picture through the mail he recovered. François Peraldi is a Lacanian psychologist, so he understood exactly what the function of the picture was! We used both pictures and no-one noticed the relation between the one that was too public and the other that was too private. Within the issue there were no sexual pictures whatsoever; it was all shots of catastrophes taken from newspapers and blown up at random. The texts were pretty hot, but they were cooled off by this capital letter computer type, which made it a little bit difficult to read. So this very hot issue again, in a different fashion, was totally cooled off, formalized, and the hot thing was not in for itself but in some sort of relationship between things. We lost about $30 000 on that issue. The N.E.A. hated the issue and they never funded us again.
P: The N.E.A. had also previously funded you for the Italian issue…
SL: Yes, they had funded the layout of the Italian issue, probably because Diego knew someone there. For the Italian issue it was different; it was a very urgent plea for people who were all in jail, and so it’s a most straightforward issue. Diego did the layout, and what he did was to borrow it from a MIT book on biology – it was a rip-off. The presentation was deliberately classical, and it was ready to be used by the university, which it now is. And the content was extremely hot. It was all about terrorism, about this new form of activism, stealing goods, creating a kind of community which would be neither communism nor capitalism, but some sort of very neo-anarchistic and problematic kind of life. For this, people from the Autonomia were caught and thrown in jail, and practically all those who contributed to the issue were locked up at the time. I did the issue with Christian Marazzi, a brilliant young Italian economist whom I met in New York. I was especially trying to draw the attention of the American Left, which still believed in Eurocommunism. This was something that was very complicated for them to understand, and if they got it through the media they were fed the idea that these people were terrorists. In fact they were crushed between the terrorists and the State and they were denounced as the intellectual masterminds behind the Red Brigades. The survival of the last politically creative movement in the West was at stake, but no-one here seemed to realize that because it was too specific to Italy with all its autonomous regions and traditions. The position of the youth of Italy not being caught in jobs and creating this kind of submerged economy, and the industrial workers rebelling against communist-led trade unions was all very complicated for Americans who always want things to be very straight in political terms – even the Left. The Italian issue – which had no equivalent in Italy – became somewhat ephemeral, because it arrived too late, but it remains some sort of a memorial or tomb to a movement which disappeared without bearing a trace.
P: Did you ever have problems with Italy or the FBI?
SL: We had both. To pay for the magazine I decided to have an art sale. Unfortunately it was organized by Diego who was like a professional swindler besides being Andy Warhol. So a number of well-known downtown artists gave us pieces for an art sale that was supposed to be held at Annina Nosei’s gallery (she was at the time Jean-Michel Basquiat’s dealer). Unfortunately, Diego being quintessentially American had no idea what politics was – he liked the Italians but he liked them independently of their ideology, and he had little understanding of what the intellectual and political stakes were. Anyway, whilst he was at a party at Annina Nosei’s he started talking about this issue to the daughter of an Italian general; she immediately went to Annina and panicked her with the idea that she would never be able to go back to Italy, that she would be thrown in jail, and Annina just packed up all the paintings and sent them back to Diego and we never saw the money… Even in New York there was this paranoia about what was going on in Italy – you could be thrown in jail for years and years there without any trial. I got a little worried at the time, so I asked for my citizenship, and they turned me down. Recently I went to this Baudrillard conference in Montana and they asked me to talk about terrorism, I guess in relation to the Italian issue. They didn’t announce it too much in advance, they just had a flyer at the university, but they got a telephone call from the FBI several days before asking whether anyone would mind if someone from Washington attended the seminar. I never discovered exactly who it was but I had a feeling it was a woman from Georgia who came to videotape the conference. So the atmosphere was a little eerie… One of the translators’ father who was a big shot in an international business organization also got a call from the FBI asking if the name of the Italian translator that appeared in the Autonomia issue was related to him. So I knew there was something going on. The strange thing was that we got $10 000 from the N.E.A. at the same time for the layout of the Italian issue. But at the same time I didn’t mind at all about these inquiries because what I discovered in New York was that you have to put yourself on the line and take chances, because after all, if I were thrown out of the States I wouldn’t die, I’d start something new. It’s the same with Semiotext(e), I’d never worry if it died. I think that’s the only attitude you can have not only towards a magazine but also towards life, that you’re totally involved with it but at the same time you’re ready for it to stop at any stage. I like projects that don’t outlive their original impulse. It’s the only way to keep an idea alive. I often thought of ending Semiotext(e) but it often takes so long to come up with the next issue that people assume it’s dead, so why kill it?
P: In America, what type of audience read the Italian issue?
SL: Since it was Diego who laid out the issue, when it was released you could see all these punk rockers with shaved heads and this rough downtown crowd which basically didn’t read this kind of stuff at all, carry Semiotext(e) under their arm whenever they were going around. The issue was black and spare – it was a perfect example of American art. The pictures were very tongue-in-cheek, there was no sensationalism at all. So the audience was a mixture between the political world – which actually didn’t react too much to it – then the artworld and the punk world. It didn’t matter what audience was reading it and I didn’t worry what they were getting from it, as long as they had one way of connecting to it. If you connected to it though something strong, it didn’t matter what it was as long as you had an entry. Those who didn’t connect to it in any way were precisely those I had in mind – the academicized radicals. Telos magazine suggested that we meet and discuss the Italian issue and I invited a number of bright young Autonomists to meet them, but few Americans showed up, and all they did was pussyfoot around the ‘concept’ of terrorism. They were afraid of committing themselves, and I was pretty sore about that. Since they were all adepts of the Frankfurt School I decided to take the rug under their feet and show them what was really happening in Germany…
P: Your ideas relating to Semiotext(e) seem quite ‘hot’ compared to Baudrillard’s writing which is more often than not seen as ‘cool.’
SL: If you cool things that are already cool, there’s just no life left. It’s like the neo-Conceptualists who use Baudrillard – they’re twice cool! I like things hot, but at the same time I don’t want them to be ‘spectacular,’ in a media fashion. You can just extract your own thing and keep your little machine at a distance from the heat of the media. The media always feeds on what’s hot, like death and murders, and I was fascinated by all that because these are the ‘hot’ places where the culture can be deciphered. For years and years I worked on sex, because it was everywhere in American culture, and death, because it was nowhere to be seen, except blatantly in this spectacular media version of accidents and murders. There was some sort of denial of death but at the same time it was being made so available in a spectacular fashion that there was no experiencing it, it was all made into an image. I was dealing with that aspect in the ‘Schizo-culture’ issue, which was the first magazine to circulate images of S&M, much before they ever appeared anywhere in the States, and even before the Village Voice started using this iconography. I was always looking for material that could be lifted and displaced. Secrets are always out in the open, you just have to find where they are. At the same time I was opposing the idea of therapy and psychoanalysis and I got interested in some forms of ‘wild-therapy’ like S&M, which involves a heightened version of a relation to a therapist. I thought that S&M was a real American therapy; it was like shock treatment for Americans who had been deprived of any sort of affectivity or individuality by their culture. I was very aware of the fact that the vocal claim of Americans for being themselves comes out of a panic in front of a void, and that as Americans they’re really being trained to be empty vessels for their culture. There was something very suspicious about the fact that Americans have such a need to establish themselves as individuals, and in a sense, I’d never seen a culture as socialized – socialized to death – as American culture. People are totally exposed to the culture because there are no codes to protect them. American culture has always been something that intrigues me, and I tried to deal with it from sensitive areas like sex and death, because they’re very muddled and ambiguous.
P: They’re taboo?
SL: Yes, but the taboo is very much out in the open, so you don’t actually know what’s taboo about the taboo, and that makes it very difficult to deal with. That’s why I switched from interviewing artists to interviewing anyone that stroked my fancy. When I was in Jamaica I met this man who was in charge of a supermarket in Connecticut and he was saying things about American culture that no intellectual or artist could – he was so joyously competitive, his life was just pure competition. I had some friends who were doing videos, so I decided that I was going to turn the interviews into videos. I asked this guy if he was interested and he agreed to do it. I bought an eye-patch along and I first shot him with it on each eye. Then I projected his own blinded image on a monitor behind him and during the interview his own eye, which was very big, looked at himself talking.
P: How often was the eye-patch reversing?
SL: About every ten minutes. His image on the screen was also like a hall of mirrors because we were shooting his image on a second monitor. The whole interview happened to be about the idea of him as an American being just an image and selling his image. And he came up with something great, he said, ‘I can sell you anything,’ and I said, ‘Well, can you sell me your car?’ and he smiled and he said, ‘Of course I can sell you my car,’ and he started selling me his car. Then I asked, ‘Can you sell me yourself?’ and he suddenly stopped and thought about it and he said, ‘No, I can’t sell myself because I can only sell what I believe in.’ And that was the little piece of incredible philosophy I got from him. So after this I got into the idea of doing more video interviews. I had a loft downtown and once a month I turned it into a studio and invited people there.
The first ones I started with were mistresses, because I was teaching a class on Sacher-Masoch and de Sade, and I realized that you couldn’t just talk about it you really needed to be in contact with the tribe. So I got in touch with them the way I did with artists. I invited them downtown and I started making this video interview, but after a while I decided they were too weird for me and I couldn’t really be the interviewer, so I invited another mistress to be there, and I simply established a context in which they could speak with each other the way they would do in their own world. They’d talk about being trained in making knots for bondage, where they did it and how they’d do it. They talked like housewives talk about recipes – it was as familiar – but they were talking about very violent things, like hanging yourself or licking blood from wounds. It had this very natural quality. They were not talking to someone outside; they were talking to each other.
The second step with videos came when I taught a class on death. I got in touch with Johnny Santiago, an ex-downtown video artist who had become a police video-maker – he lived in Chinatown not far from my loft so he often dropped by to have a drink, and we talked. New York is the only place where they videotape scenes of crimes and confessions, because things disappear fast in New York and the actual trial may happen a year or so later. The police required a very neutral look since the footage was meant for a jury, so basically Johnny had to work with constraints that were as good as any artistic constraint, by which he had to establish the ‘truth.’ He was documenting crime scenes for the jury, and not for the police, so he had to take into account their reaction to the material. When you show a room full of blood you couldn’t expect people to react in a rational fashion as a jury should, but on the other hand they were used to seeing all these violent scenes through the media and film, and he had to compete with that. It’s different to see a simulation and to be confronted with something they know is a document. He had to play against the media but at the same time he had to play against making it too spectacular for them because then they would react as they did to the media, which is making it hyperreal, or they would be too shattered by it and lose their judgement. So Johnny devised a special strategy using a hand-held cinema-verité camera, and also an indirect way of approaching the violence of the scene. He would never just zoom in on something, but he would go around the room and very incidentally come to say, a knife with blood, or a dead body lying on a bed, but he would switch off and then come back to it later, so as to slowly get people involved in it and get them ready for what he called ‘the cake.’ And I discovered that he had derived that technique from horror movies, where you keep teasing people and giving them signs of what’s to come. The very shattering realization was that in order to establish the truth for a jury he had to use a technique taken from the entertainment world, from a fiction. I thought it was a very interesting spiral, a twist, where truth and its manipulation in the media were constantly intertwined.
And then something else happened. I showed this material to my girlfriend, Chris Kraus, the filmmaker, and she got the idea of using that material with the dominatrix footage to make a film. The film was all about that year in New York where I was inviting all these strange people up to my loft to talk about sex and crime. It was called How To Shoot a Crime, and like Semiotext(e), it was a disappearing act. It was really the price you paid when you lived in New York – there’s a point where you exist so much that you don’t exist for anyone, you just disappear entirely. It was also about the crime of gentrification that was beginning in New York. I lost my loft a few months later because they were turning the Fulton fishmarket into one of those fashionable malls, and they were killing the rough beauty of the area to erect this kind of fake historicity. So when I left the loft I asked Johnny to come to the loft and document it with exactly the same technique he was using to document crime scenes. This simulation tape was then used by Chris in the film as another primary document. Like Chris’ other films How To Shoot a Crime is really about the way she creates a film. She did with this material what I was doing with Semiotext(e). So it’s very much her film but at the same time I’m everywhere though the material. It was a strange collaboration.
P: You’ve also been connected with William Burroughs for a number of years…
SL: I had discovered Burroughs when I was in France in the late ’50s, but by the time I came to the States, Burroughs was already forgotten; he was part of the ’60s and like a long-gone prophet. He wasn’t re-published and no-one paid much attention to him. I wanted to approach him but he was very protected by a whole group of people who surrounded him and lived off him. So I went to his secretary, James Grauerholz, and I offered to organize an event around William Burroughs, but he thought that no-one would be interested and that it wouldn’t work. It took another year before he finally realized there was something in it, and together with John Giorno, we bought in Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg and all the Beat contacts and Patti Smith and Blondie and Frank Zappa and all my French contacts, and suddenly it bloomed into this major three-day extravaganza around William Burroughs called the Nova Convention. It was a huge event which sprouted into rock concerts, debates and theatre performances… After that Burroughs always looked at me very suspiciously. Burroughs’ great quality is that he has no illusion whatsoever, he’s totally cynical and totally paranoid, but in a creative fashion. So he was seeing me turning around him and wondering why I was doing it, because most people who do that around him either do it for money or for fame. I did it, I guess, because I wanted to be connected to him, and that’s all. So he was very suspicious of me, and I didn’t have much of a chance to see him at the time, but after all that I asked him whether he would do an interview with me and he agreed. So on the day of the interview I brought along a joint, and that did it. Suddenly he became much more open, much freer, and we had a great conversation. With Heiner Müller it was something similar – we had to drink a lot of whiskey and then things started loosening up. I always thought of Burroughs as a philosopher. He’s a philosopher-artist of the kind Nietzsche always wanted to appear as. His work is very problematic, that’s why they call it science fiction, but philosophy is science fiction, and his work is no more science fiction than Foucault’s or Deleuze’s. It’s like an interim with fiction functioning as theory and theory functioning as fiction…
…Preparing to do the ‘The German Issue’ I went to Berlin, and I stayed there for three months invited by the D.A.A.D. I was supposed to research the archives and look at the iconography of death, but I never set my foot there. I had just finished a project on Antonin Artaud. Artaud is obviously the martyr – a kind of faithless advocation – this very Christian way of chastising yourself in order to redeem the culture and recover your own body, and this was very much tied into my investigation into S&M. With that in mind, I went to France and I did an interview with Artaud’s psychiatrist, Dr Latrémolière, who gave him electroshock at the Rodez Asylum during WWII. And it was a very strange interview. He had a lot of resentment towards Artaud because there had been all these angry attacks against him since, and the controversy is still going on in France. Latrémolière never talked to anyone about it – when I met him he was 70 years old – and the interview became this incredibly rancorous discussion – he was denying Artaud any importance whatsoever as a writer or an innovator of modern theatre. Then in the middle of the interview, he started playing back an interview that he himself had made with Artaud’s sister, and our own interview became like a Chinese Box with interlocking dialogues between me and him and he and Artaud’s sister. He was pretending to be in agreement with her but he wasn’t; and I wasn’t in agreeement with him but I kept interviewing him. All this was wonderful dramatic material and Chris Kraus turned it into a play that she produced at St Mark’s Church in New York. Then it just branched out into something very strange. Within the play I played the role of Artaud, and my role, since I’m not an actor, was to be on the stage whilst someone shaved my head all through the play, so at the end of the play my hair was gone. It was a very ritualistic thing. Since I was Artaud and I was going to Germany, I connected Artaud and Germany, because Artaud wrote a very famous letter to Hitler. We had plans with Chris of making a more elaborate version of the Artaud play which is called I’m talking to Antonin Artaud about God. So since I was going to Germany I decided I was going to shoot a scene in Berlin between me as Artaud and someone who was going to play the role of Hitler, and reenact this relation between the two. I have a friend in Berlin, Peter Gente (who is publishing a series of small German books which I kind of ripped off with the Foreign Agents Series), and I asked him how you go about finding an actor in Berlin, and he said the best way would be to put an ad in this magazine called Zweiterhand. So I put an ad in the magazine saying: American filmmaker looking for an actor to play the role of Hitler; and there was no answer whatsoever. I realized that what was wrong in my ad was that I had said American filmmaker; if I’d written New York filmmaker people would have been interested. So I put another ad in Zweiterhand, and I had lots of responses from prospective Hitlers. The night before the audition I gave a performance in the Wintergarten in Berlin. I had an artist make live projections on my shaved head, and I was turning my head to the audience and saying something. There was a team of video-makers there who were taping it for German TV and I invited them to come to the audition the next day and document it, because the actors were supposed to prepare a Hitler scene for me. The day of the audition I had about a dozen young German actors who all came with little black moustaches and this became the central scene of a film that I didn’t know I was making.
For the whole summer instead of doing my archeological work on death, I reenacted my relations with Germany. I chose one of them to be Hitler, and he was a fairly politically radical guy. I liked him because he was also a fan of Artaud – he knew everything about Artaud and he was very fucked up and schizophrenic. He was a failed actor so he was very seduced by the fact that I was offering him a lead role in a film. So he accepted the role and then we started shooting this film and after a week I asked him to perform as Hitler in the streets and cafés in Berlin and in front of the Reichstag. And he went mad. He was totally uptight about the fact that his friend would think he was a fascist, and he couldn’t stop because we’d started the film already. So my relationship with him became like a sort of S&M relationship; I was pushing him into a role that he didn’t want to be. He started resisting and hitting his head against the wall, and he became incredibly hostile, and he didn’t talk to me after a while. At the same time I was transposing what was happening between him and me, and the film is all about that. My cameraman shot footage of some really violent confrontations that we had and they were integrated into the film. I never came up with a final edit of it but with this film and ‘The German Issue’ I guess I had solved my German problem and could get on to something else.
P: For a while you then became less directly involved with Semiotext(e).
SL: Yes, I thought I was finished with Semiotext(e) as if I’d used it up in relation to America but also in relation to my own obsession, which was Germany. I stopped Semiotext(e) for a while and tried to pass it onto someone else. The first team was made of mostly downtown people, and they made an issue called ‘Oasis.’ They were very secretive and competitive and they produced a kind of object that was exactly the opposite of anything I would have done, which was fine with me, except that it was thin, retentive and somewhat decorative. They wanted to do something that would surprise Semiotext(e) fans, and instead of aiming at 200 million American readers, as I do to sell 5 or 10 thousand copies, ‘Oasis’ wanted to look discrete, and it was. No-one noticed it. So I gave Semiotext(e) to another team headed by my co-editor, Jim Fleming. Jim joined me at the time of the Italian issue. He was one of the few American radicals to be interested in the Autonomia movement and in the work of Tony Negri. Since then he’s published Negri and other books in his own press, Autonomedia. So when the idea for an American issue came up, I asked Jim to put it together with Peter Wilson and Sue Ann Harkey and they did a great job. The USA issue is like an Earth Catalogue tapping on all sorts of underground networks throughout America, just the opposite of the ‘Oasis’ issue, but also pretty far from my own aesthetics which are more controlled and conceptual. Actually that’s how I’d like Semiotext(e) to grow over the next decade: an even funkier, grass-root track along the line of the USA issue, and a more formalized, cooled-off and tongue-in-cheek track of the kind I’ve been doing since the ‘Schizo-culture’ issue. The recent ‘S.F.’ issue was neither here nor there, so I decided to go back to producing Semiotext(e) and I’m now putting together the Japan issue with a group of Japanese people and few Americans, and it’s a lot of fun.
P: What happened to all the people that used to surround you in the early days? Are they still around?
SL: There was never a group; it was more like a floating tribe. The idea with Semiotext(e) was that we were never a group that met. I discovered in the first year of it that if you have a group that meets then you create this kind of group paranoia – you become the leader, they feel oppressed, other groups form, etc. For ‘The German Issue’ I had around 100 people—a team of translators, a team of artists working on the layout, writers, some of them French, since some of the pieces connected to French theory, then there were photographers, there were my friends in Berlin and all their friends working for us. As soon as we finished ‘The German Issue’ we switched to something else. In the same way that we have a switching audience, we have a switching team. I never entirely lose the team, but they become like a pool that I can always go back to and reactivate if I need to. I can always have this floating configuration recreated as a function of the project, and that’s a nomadic way of dealing with a group where you don’t have any group problems. Guattari theorized that there are two kinds of groups: the subjected group and the subjective group. The subjected group is the group that has to have a leader, a father, and they connive and they fight the father, but they benefit from him, so it’s like a fucked up kind of group where you spend all your time fighting one another, but you have a group identity. In the subjective group, which is more like the one I have in mind, you may have some people who assume more dominant functions, but they don’t dominate over the rest of the group. They are dominant because they are the ones through which the project is achieved. Semiotext(e) wasn’t just a magazine that happened to generate a number of ideas – for a long time the ideas were what Semiotext(e) was about. Each issue was in fact some sort of expression of the form of sociality that it was producing to produce itself. All this, of course, is lost and I can now try to reflect upon it, but it was a total world and everything cohered to me at some level. My relation to the team of Semiotext(e) was really the same as my relation to the different countries or the artists I was interviewing. Up to a certain point, everything that happened in Semiotext(e) was really self-reflexive; the way the group functioned was really the art. And it was also the kind of life that I wanted.