The Noir of Dubya, the blankness of suburbia and bringing Baudrillard to sing in the Nevada Desert
Novelist, filmmaker and art critic Chris Kraus has been reporting on the dark landscapes of urban America since her arrival in New York in the late 1970s coincided with the city’s downtown explosion, a scene she helped to document through experimental films like The Golden Bowl or Repression (1984/8) and How to Shoot a Crime (1986). After founding the US-focused Native Agents series for publisher Semiotext(e) in the late 80s, Kraus released her own, highly successful debut novel, the epistolary I Love Dick (1997) – an example of what the book’s narrator described as “lonely girl phenomenology”. A permanent relocation to Los Angeles in the late 90s introduced Kraus to the highly diffuse worlds of the American west, which became the subject of her critical collections, Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness (2004) and Where Art Belongs (2011). This year she released the novel Summer of Hate, in which protagonist Catt Dunlop finds herself lost in a noirish southwest of S&M killers, corporatised suburbs and Bush-era jingoism.
Dazed & Confused: I came across this wonderful quote by (French sociologist) Henri Lefebvre, which made me think of your new novel: ‘On the horizon of the modern world dawns the black sun of boredom.’ Do you consider yourself a noir writer?
Chris Kraus: In general, no. But I love reading noir, and it’s a style I was reaching towards in this novel. ‘The black sun of boredom’ describes Catt’s dilemma at the start of the book – she’s adrift in the numbness of LA’s high-art world, and aware that it doesn’t connect with the country’s otherwise paramilitary climate. Trawling BDSM sex sites, she deliriously believes someone she met online is trying to kill her. Fear catapults her out of this familiar noir-cocoon and into the story.
D&C: The book is set in 2005, at the height of George Bush Jr’s war on terrorism, when there is a nationalist fervour sweeping the country. Do you think the Bush years will provide the setting for a new kind of noir – a millennial, political noir?
Chris Kraus: Yes... and outside the US, that kind of noir has already been written. You see it in the treatment of Sergio González Rodríguez’s research on the Juarez femicides in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), and in Matteo Garrone’s great film Gomorrah (2008). A completely depersonalised form of violence. The great success of the Bush era was in obliterating any trace of subjectivity from the poor, who were its targets.
D&C: As Catt leaves LA and enters Arizona and New Mexico, she discovers a never-ending landscape of suburban malaise. Why are so few writers engaged in writing the landscape of the suburb?
Chris Kraus: As always, visual art is a few steps ahead of literary fiction. As Christopher Glazek points out, since the mortgage crash the American suburbs – former boomtowns in the Sun Belt – have become the new ‘blank’ urban spaces, the places of wildness and possibility. Literary fiction remains mostly fixed on the post-college domestic lives and career aspirations of upper-middleclass people in New York City. But Summer of Hate deals with people who were born in the Sun Belt and have no means of escape, imaginative or otherwise. They are just hollowed out. In the book, I try to capture that psychic experience, which is foreign to me.
The art world was so monochromatic and uninteresting in LA when I arrived in the mid-1990s. At that time, you either attended a name MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programme and moved on to an A-list commercial gallery or you were a loser.
D&C: You spend a lot of time writing about these landscapes – the mini-mart, McDonald’s, Walmart. And these places do become valuable in a sense...
Chris Kraus: Catt Dunlop is seeing this world through these characters’ eyes. It’s not like a hip east-coast writer doing some shtick about Walmart. This is what is real. This is the landscape.
D&C: How did your quasi-documentary How to Shoot a Crime come about?
Chris Kraus: At the time I was living with Sylvère Lotringer, who was teaching at Columbia. He’d done a series of long videotaped interviews with two dominatrices and a police videographer, George Diaz, whose job was to document crime scenes for the NYPD. The movie became a conflation of the symbolic violence of MTV-style pop S&M and the actual violence that George was documenting. Even more disturbingly, we began seeing the police videos as a form of mourning – the careful documentation of certain deaths within an otherwise wholly anonymous urban landscape. George was trained as a filmmaker, and his approach in documenting these crimes was wholly cinematic. He’d consciously begin with banal details – a kitchen counter, a grimy floor – and then track his way up towards the climax of a bloody knife or a gun. Finally he’d end with the dénouement: the corpse, or sometimes corpses.
D&C: Significant parts of Summer of Hate involve crossing the deserts between LA and New Mexico, or down into Baja. What intrigues you so much about this region – psychologically, politically, and artistically?
Chris Kraus: I personally hate the desert. It’s not where I’d choose to go. But these insta-places outside LA, like Phoenix, are completely fascinating. Since 2000, Phoenix has metastasised nearly 25 per cent to become the US’s sixth largest city. There’s a boomtown mentality that attracts many people, from washouts to sleek opportunists.
D&C: You also organised the three-day Chance Event in the Nevada desert in the mid-90s, which brought together people like DJ Spooky and Jean Baudrillard. I’ve only read about it as this legendary event. How did it come about?
Chris Kraus: Sylvère had been editing and publishing Baudrillard’s work for Semiotext(e) since the early 1980s. Baudrillard had been developing his concept of ‘the desert of the real’. His fascination with the southwest was both ironic and ingenuous, very European. Driving around Nevada, Sylvère and I thought it would be great to bring Baudrillard to a casino. And it was brilliant! He wore a gold-lamé Liberace suit and sang his lounge song ‘Motel Suicide’, backed by Mike Kelley’s pickup Chance band. It went, ‘Suicide moi... suicide moi...’ We had plenty of sideshows: the poet Diane di Prima, the theorist Allucquére Rosanne Stone, a desert walk with a Moapa Indian leader and DJ Spooky. It was a kind of new west-coast manifesto.
D&C: In Where Art Belongs and Video Green you wrote pretty unflatteringly about the LA art world of the 90s.
Chris Kraus: The art world was so monochromatic and uninteresting in LA when I arrived in the mid-1990s. At that time, you either attended a name MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programme and moved on to an A-list commercial gallery or you were a loser. That seemed strange to me, arriving from New York, where it is equally competitive but more byzantine, with multiple arenas from which new artists and work can emerge. But the art world in LA has changed. More people have moved here, and finally – inevitably – it’s become more pluralistic.
D&C: So does LA now resemble more what New York was like in the late 70s?
Chris Kraus: LA has a lot more venues these days for people doing original work. Machine Project, Human Resources LA... Some of this work takes place off the grid of the commercial art-world. But like all avant-gardes, some of it will eventually be absorbed into the mainstream. Which isn’t tragic – it just makes LA more like a normal city.
Text by Erik Morse
Photography by Luke Gilford
Summer of Hate is out now, published by Semiotext(e) / Native Agents
This interview was taken from the latest issue of Dazed & Confused