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From San Francisco to Oakland: North Korea’s Cultural Future

Chris Kraus interviewed by Maxi Kim.

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Everyone who ever had a crush on Chris Kraus develops an even bigger crush after seeing her live. My own fascination with her started when she visited the California Institute of Arts almost four years ago to read from her third novel Torpor. Set at the beginning of the end of history, Kraus’ journey across post-Communist Romania in search of the spectre of an aborted pregnancy, reminded me of my own psychogeographical journey across an imaginary, future North Korea in search of a certain innocence and a cultural zero-level, a place to begin anew – out of nothing.

She recently visited Beaubourg 268 in San Francisco to discuss the art world, her forthcoming novel Summer of Hate, and her new art book Where Art Belongs that will be out in February 2011. Chris Kraus gave this interview the morning after the Beaubourg event as I drove her from a motel in San Francisco to Oakland International Airport. In return Chris interviewed me about my recent “public interest” project with Les Figues Press at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, entitled The Principle of North Korean Charity.

At one point of the interview, we overshot our exit and the GPS navigator spent several minutes reassuring and comforting the disoriented driver and passenger.

Chris Kraus: I loved the tract you sent me awhile back about North Korea (‘Did Somebody Say North Korea?’). Since One Break, A Thousand Blows! have you been writing any more quote-unquote, fiction? And where are you at with that?

Maxi Kim: It’s funny you ask, because Mathew Timmons recently asked me to do a 10-15 page short story called ‘Break Bloom Burn’. In it, I play with your character, who is named “Kris” with a K, and “Stuart Holme” (Stewart Home). It’s probably untrue, but a part of me feels like I know the secret you or the secret Stewart because I’ve spent so much time with your books.

CK: And in fact, you do know us both.

MK: Right. And in the story, “Stuart” arrives from the UK to meet you for the first time and it turns out he has this heavy crush on you, and you both have a sort of fling in San Francisco.

CK: How embarrassing.

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MK: He comes to your reading, and you guys immediately click and start talking about Philip K. Dick and Kathy Acker. It ends kind of ambiguously.

CK: Well, I guess that means we won’t have to do that in real life! But it’s funny you mention Stewart Home … I was in London this year for a beautiful event that Maria Fusco organized at the ICA – an homage to Cosey Fanni Tutti that went on all day and into the night. And it was great – I’d never met any of these people before, but it felt like a tribal reunion. Stewart Home wasn’t there, but they all knew him. They had most of his books at the ICA store and I bought two of them and read them both on the plane ride home. Now I feel like I know him too, even though we’ve never met or even exchanged any email.

MK: Which ones did you read?

CK: The one I remember best is Tainted Love – a, quote unquote personal history that keeps splitting off into the cultural/criminal/architectural history of London during the last 400 years or so. That was great. A twisted derive, putting the “psycho” back into psychogeography …

MK: [Laughter] You guys would make a great power couple.

CK: [Sighs] Well. Perhaps you’ll introduce us some time?

MK: I thought you’d already met.

CK: No. But I read his personal history in both of the bios and found it so tragic …

MK: The fact that he had to work in a factory?

CK: No! The fact that his mother committed suicide.

MK: He never knew his mother, except for her documents –

CK: Yeah … she was a model, living this glamorous-hipster life and I guess she had Stewart raised by somebody else. Then she OD’d when he was in his teens.

MK: So the only way he knew her was, I believe, through her diaries. It’s lucky her aunt didn’t throw them away. And I think he wrote Tainted Love from that, as a source.

CK: That is so touching. I’m glad I gave you Hedi [El Kholti]‘s book [By The Time You Read This I'll Be Gone] because it speaks to the same kind of thing. Hedi didn’t have a tragedy like that in his life, but the search is the same. Growing up in Morocco during the 70s he saw the whole detritus of the European hippie movement washed up over there – and he felt that somehow their history was his, even though he’d never known it. So he became drawn to seeking out strange, obscure archival material from that time.

MK: I think that’s how some people read your work, too. Not so much as an archive – but everyone I’ve met whose read your work feels that they somehow know you on an intimate level, as if you’re speaking to them.

CK: I think that’s how it is any time you like any writer. At least, that’s how I feel. You want to be their best friend.

MK: It’s almost like an archive. When you read a Philip K Dick book, you’re not just reading a story, you’re also learning about him as a person.

CK: Totally. Biography can be such a tease. I just inhaled the Roberto Bolaño books that came out in the last couple of years, and he does this so well. The flashes of who he is behind the story are what keep you reading, for sure.

MK: I can’t really read books where there’s a sharp divide between the author and the material. Are you the same way?

CK: Yeah, I feel that. With every writer I like, there’s a transparency, even if it’s not literal. Even – or maybe especially – when the subject isn’t domestic or personal. Mark Von Schlegell‘s sci-fi books [Venusia and Mercury Station] are extremely abstract, even sometimes obtuse, but there’s so much of Mark there between the lines.

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MK: Have you ever thought of writing sci-fi?

CK: I think, as genres go, I’d gravitate more towards crime. But going back to what you said about presence – I think what makes you feel so connected with certain writers isn’t a matter of autobiographical detail, but that the emotions are real. The way some writers are able to channel themselves through the form. With Mark’s books, I feel like I’m reading his optimism. Even though the genre itself is a little discouraging – now that the future’s already here, not many people still want to read sci-fi.

MK: One thing I hate about most sci-fi is the lack of serious interest in what the art of the future might be. What the culture might be in the future, how the music would sound.

CK: That’s a fantastic project. I’ve never thought about that.

MK: What would the French theory of the future be? What are the future North Koreans going to think of, reading Chris Kraus? What’s installation art going to look like in space? Or on Mars? Or on Venus?

CK: [Laughter] Exactly! That’s such a great topic. What kind of philosophy are people going to read? Because these things just cycle through – nothing’s ever entirely new. It’s more a matter of what gets picked up from the past at each time.

MK: That’s what impressed me about Tracy Molis‘ monuments. Do you know the whole back-story behind why she created those sculptures?

CK: I saw them on your roof at Beaubourg 268 … she was talking about the nuclear waste dumps in Nevada … how they were searching around for an iconic image that would convey danger one thousand years from now. And they chose Edvard Munch! How pathetic is that?

MK: That was the premise: How do you create a monument that will keep people away a thousand years from now. It’s such a silly impossible question. But it does get you, through art, thinking about the future. Alexander Provan: “If the nuclear waste repository under construction inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain endures for a thousand years . . . it is likely to outlast our own civilization. If it endures for ten thousand years, it is likely our languages will no longer be intelligible to the humans that have replaced us. Government officials are not known for taking extraordinary measures to guarantee the well-being of people outside their constituencies, much less their millennium, but public anxiety about the project is such that the usual charge of guarding the safety of our children and grandchildren has been extended: . . . The Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management must also find a way of sending a message to whatever comes after us: stay away from Yucca Mountain.”

CK: Yes … How can there be a universal icon for fear?

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MK: So I asked Gina Clark (performance artist and co-founder of Beaubourg 268) to create North Korea-inspired video art. And I asked Robbie Hanson (artist/musician and co-founder of Beaubourg 186) to compose a future North Korean soundtrack for our exhibition at LACE [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, July 14 – Aug 04, 2010]. Do you know the whole back-story behind Krautrock? Right after the de-nazification process in Germany, certain artists were searching for music that wasn’t traditional German folk music, and they didn’t want to reproduce American pop music. Their project was to make music –

CK: – that was German but not Nazi?

MK: [Laughter] Exactly! But I think it’s misleading to call it Krautrock, because a lot of it is ambient.

CK: What did Robbie come up with for North Korea?

MK: He’s taken traditional Korean beats from folk music essentially, and running it through his synthesizer to make it sound “futuristic” in his own way.

CK: This is very exciting … I understand better now what you’re doing. But I wonder – are you concerned about finding ways to make the odd situation in North Korea resonate with larger questions about futurism, totalitarianism, isolation?

MK: That’s my main goal. I’d like people to treat North Korea as many did with New York after 9/11 … all those imaginary blueprints and plans for rebuilding the World Trade Center. And you saw the same thing after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans: all those plans about how to rebuild schools in very modern and interesting ways. And hopefully non-Koreans will contribute in creating plans –

CK: So your project is less a critique of the present regime than an attempt to imagine it as already being leveled out to ground zero. It’s already over for you – you see it more as a site of reconstruction.

MK: Exactly.

CK: What kind of future can be created by a society that’s been frozen in a nowhere land for 60 years?

MK: And it’s interesting, because there’s not much to salvage, culturally. It’s like trying to salvage what was good in the Nazi regime.

CK: When did the two Koreas split?

MK: In the mid-to-late 1940s. I think of North Korea as the Poland of East Asia. It’s stuck between super powers, it’s always gone back and forth.

CK: South Korea’s already post-boom – now they’re spending lots of money on culture and art.

MK: There are a lot of negative consequences to that economic boom … about 2 million people are addicted to online gaming. But strangely you won’t meet many South Koreans who think about North Korea at all. It’s out of sight/out of mind.

CK: You were born there. Do you speak Korean?

MK: Yes.

CK: So hypothetically you could go back and find a way to visit the North.

MK: Yes … there are a lot of interesting projects going on there. There’s a group in the South pumping classical music into the North, trying to undo the brainwashing and attract North Korean refugees to the South. It’s a very weird vibe. It’s called the DMZ, the demilitarised zone, but it’s probably the most heavily fortified place on Earth. I just hope that in my lifetime we get to talk about North Korea the way we talk about Germany now.

CK: Have you thought of setting up a cultural exchange with the University of North Korea?

MK: [Laughter] No, that’s an impossibility. The only way to get into North Korea is to be a fan of Kim Jong-il. I have so many articles on the net critiquing his regime that I think it would probably be very difficult for me – I think North Korea is one of the few places where there’s not much to salvage. It really is a dead culture. And its past is also very ambiguous. In a sense, they never moved out of pre-modernity –

CK: It’s one of the last wildernesses on earth. So you’d be starting from a very clear point.

MK: One of the things I really want to express is that we should stop this urge to paint Kim Jong-il as a Stalinist. And actually his ideology is much closer to National Socialism. There’s that kind of multi-cultural, Levinas-inspired mindset that prevents people from looking at North Korea critically. Learning from the Other., etc – I think that’s beautiful up to a point, but in the case of North Korea, I think we have to be a lot more critical.

CK: Stalinism – or communism – is the only ideology Americans know how to demonise … no one knows what it is, it’s just a synonym for the Empire of Evil.

MK: Right. North Korea has nothing to do with communism.

CK: Or with Maoism –

MK: Kim Jong-il has no interest in anything regarding the historical, intellectual legacy of communism. He has a heavy distaste for what you might call academicism, or – thought in general.

CK: You told me they’d managed to block the internet entirely in North Korea.

MK: Yes, it’s easy when you don’t have any computers! [Laughter] [Pause] What was your impression of Beaubourg 268 during your reading last night?

CK: I thought it was incredibly beautiful. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was going to be on a main street, in a storefront. But in fact it’s a beautiful town home that you’ve converted into an art space, a gallery, almost a small museum. And it works really well. The garden’s amazing – and the back house, with Tracy’s installation on top? The living room is sort of an exhibition space, and there’s one room completely devoted to being a gallery. It seems like a happy place, Max.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Maxi Kim was born in a military camp on Mt Paekdu, the tallest volcanic mountain on the East Asian peninsula. According to an ancestral inscription his birth was heralded by the spectral presence of the haiku poet Issa over the mountain’s caldera. He studied Japanese and American literature at University of California, then studied French theory at California Institute of the Arts, where he wrote his first novel One Break, A Thousand Blows!. His writing has been compared to the visual art of Richard Prince, Wallace Berman, and the films of Sofia Coppola. In 2008 he moved to London, and taught writing. He currently lives in San Francisco. Read Richard Marshall’s interview with Maxi on 3:AM here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 2nd, 2010.