Apprehending Art Vandalism: An Interview with Alexandra Chasin, Author of “Brief”

By Elatia Harris


Cover photo of Brief, snow globe and screenshots from Brief, courtesy of Jaded Ibis Press

Alexandra Chasin is a Brooklyn-based writer who turned to fiction with her acclaimed collection, Kissed By (FC2, 2007). Her new work, Brief (Jaded Ibis Press, 2012), is an app novel for the iPad — the first-ever literary novel to take the form of an app. She is an Associate Professor of Literary Studies at Lang College, The New School.

ELATIA HARRIS: Alex, chance and probability are intimately involved in the experience of reading Brief, as well as a truly embodied participation by the reader. You can turn the page, for instance, but you can't turn back to the last page you just read and flipped away from. Its words and images would not be distributed that way again for an interval that it would almost take the 10,000 year clock to reckon. This not being able to go back seems to play with the idea of the personal history of the narrator, about whom we start finding out before personhood was achieved. The narrator has an unusual take on motivation, for someone who grew up and turned art vandal — wouldn't you say?

Chasin-1ALEXANDRA CHASIN: The initial impetus for writing Brief was to experiment with an anti-psychoanalytic account of individual personality and action. I wanted to extend, in the direction of absurdum, the proposition that we under-value historical and cultural forces as determinants of behavior. What if we are more formed by those forces than by the domestic and familial forces that psychoanalysis loves so much?

EH: The narrator is certainly at pains to establish that nothing exceptional occurred at home. Just TV, playdates, the Cold War, and the occasional crewcut — that sort of thing.

AC: The narrator's birthdate is, in effect, the starting point of Brief, and its location in time — that moment of cold-war psychosis, in which televisions made their way into every household, in which pop culture began to achieve truly mass proportions and to infiltrate the bastions of high-art. The nine months prior to the narrator's birthdate and the two years after, are effectively the time of the piece, their developments linked to — shown to be determining of — the development of an art vandal.

EH: The images speak to that era. They are furiously torn up, not to mention randomized, but they're evocative.

AC: Yes, I imagined the images having an evocative relation to the text and era, and also of the atmosphere in the courtroom where the narrative is set. The images are almost all manipulated — either fragmented or composited or abstracted — to exaggerate their oblique relation to the text. Maybe there is a similar obliquity in the relation of image and text in certain books by W.G. Sebald — Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn.

EH: Being an app helps this along, of course…

AC: What the app does is constantly change the relationship of text to image, which reinforces visually a question the text raises about the radically changing status of the image in the early 1960s. The text argues that the convergence of a paranoid Cold-War psychology, the invasion of television into almost all U.S. households, and the turn from abstraction to pop and op art in the high-culture zone, would absolutely require a renegotiation of the status of the image. The operation of the app represents those historical changes in virtually every screen.

I'm always concerned with that kind of correspondence between form and content, or between content and medium. A great example is Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, in which the book's typography and formatting serve the content of the narrative, often tracing the footsteps of the protagonist.

EH: I was thinking of Danielewski as I read Brief. Well, I was thinking about Brief as I read it, but about Danielewski as well, just not as deeeply as you suggest. It had me wondering about the possible ergodic literature connection. For instance, placing extranoematic demands on the reader — gently shaking the iPad. But this isn't ludological studies, still less games. It's fiction. Experimental fiction.

Since the publication of Kissed By, in 2007, you have been known as a writer of experimental fiction. Not only Jonathan Safran Foer had words of praise for your work in Kissed By, but an Amazon reviewer, who remarked, “If you want this, then you want it bad.” As an app, Brief is a new level of experiment in fiction. I’m going to trot out a persistent complaint against experimental fiction — that it tends to be all hat and no heart. Broad-brushed, I know. Will you address that misgiving?


AC: Well, yes. I have some conflicting answers to that.

EH: You’ve had practice…

AC: Along the lines you offered: I propose that not all fiction is driven by “heart,” any more than all painting is driven by beauty. And reading can engage other faculties — conceptual issues, political conviction, formal problems, all sorts of things can drive fiction. For readers who want to engage those faculties, experimental fiction can be fun. Sometimes it's more fun to read challenging literature in conversation with other readers, or to read some criticism that puts it in context. I often tell students who are encountering theory for the first time to imagine themselves sitting on the beach — they can let the wave of text wash over them and then recede and they will be left with some residue of potential interest. Not all prose needs to be mastered one sentence at a time — sometimes residual or impressionistic effects can be very powerful.

EH: It could fly in the face of a need to classify, but you can have fun with things you don’t entirely get.

AC: You can notice how different it is to read without mastery. Meaning is not always on the surface. Meaning is not always the point. Take a more poetic approach — read for sound, for pattern, for unfamiliarity, for the occasional moments of clarity, for doubt, instability, anxiety.

EH: And the other answer?

AC: Reading is for pleasure too, and not all readers find these ways of reading pleasurable. For readers who prefer more traditional or purely heart-driven fiction, — why the heck not? And the third answer is — heart and mind are not mutually exclusive. Many of us are moved by mind.

EH: When you throw in a new technology, you have a very different experience of reading. You are reading for and with heart and mind, and as a reader with more of a body than before, too. When you gently shake the iPad as you read Brief, and as we discussed redistribute the images, the words form around them differently. This is intensely pleasurable. It answers a long-cherished wish — I wanted to shake The Golden Bowl as I read, for instance. No help for me there from Henry James. I am thinking of that wave of technology 200 years ago that enabled hugely long books to be printed and distributed. Voila the doorstopper novel. Do you feel like the app is a similarly revolutionizing gift to writers, one you cannot pass up?


AC: Historically, the literary and the technical have evolved dialectically. Literary forms do call forth technologies of reading and writing, just as changes in technology enable formal innovation. Either way, writers have a range of choices in the face of new technologies.

EH: We talked about Danielewski — who else is exploring these possibilities?

AC: Noting a rash of developments in electronic reading devices, I would expect some writers to try to reckon with apps, to enter that field of possibility. Sure enough, examples run the gamut, from children's books where the reader advances the plot through touchscreen, to the work of poet Amaranth Borsuk, whose Between Page and Screen exceeds the confines of the device altogether.

EH: Well, I remember the death of painting in the 1970s. Didn’t actually happen, but for a while there you could feel the strength of the condolences, if you were painting. What about the page in the era of the touchscreen?

AC: I would expect plenty of writers to continue to work with the page, and why not? For some, the page best realizes their vision. Just as oil paint as a medium lends itself to realism, apps lend themselves to particular literary drives. With apps, there are infinite possible relations of function to content. As with any kind of stylus and any kind of codex.

EH: Brief is a wonderful, affecting story — I don’t want to trance off on the technical, I want to talk about the story. But first, how did you sit down and decide to write it into an app novel?

AC: When I wrote Brief, I didn't even imagine it as an app. I wrote it as a straightforward text. But I am always focused on the relation between form and content, constantly looking into the ways they serve each other in any work of art. So in the case of Brief, I was initially attracted to the formal problem of incorporating nonfictional texts — historical documents — into an essentially fictional piece.

EH: This is how Newton Minow got in, almost appropriations art-style…

AC: There are places where poetry and song lyrics are highlighted as quotes — meaning, quite concretely, that they are indented or italicized in the text. But there are also documents like Newton Minow's famous “TV is a vast wasteland” speech and the text of Albert Bandura's psychological experiment known as the Bobo Doll Study, which I wanted to incorporate in less marked ways. I have always been interested in the problem of letting documents speak for themselves.

But the day I finished writing the text of Brief — the very day — I realized that I had written a novella about art and art vandalism located in a historical moment characterized by image saturation on a collective social level, and that the formal question that was really being called was more about medium than genre. In other words, I wondered why I had not once thought to include images.

EH: That sounds too powerful to do nothing about…

AC: If the idea is about the changing status of images, and how those changes affect us individually as well as collectively, I thought it would make the most sense to have a series of images whose relation to the text changed in the very course of reading. I had to be told that such a thing could be engineered, that what I was talking about was called an “app.” For the next two years, I worked very closely with a brilliant app developer, Scott Peterman, who entered into the mind of the project and designed an app that truly manifests the questions articulated in the text.


EH: I don't want to uncork the story, but — the first-person narration by someone who became an art vandal, and hopes to explain himself to a judge, is falling-down funny, with the narrator occasionally promising to be brief, and then maintaining that the narration is already brief, thank you, considering all there is to be said. Maybe it’ll result in one of those famously very light sentences art vandals used to get? Am I over-reading, or, does the theme of art vandalization in Brief speak to “app-ness” as appropriations art? Maybe a little vandalism in form-finding?

AC: I like the idea of app-ness as a form of vandalism. If app-ness itself is a slap in the face of the Literature lover, then there's one resonance with art vandalism.

EH: And there are others…

AC: If there is a resonance between Brief's thematics and its medium, it is as much in the particular function of this app as it is in app-ness more generally.

EH: For me, the special features of the app enhance the narrator’s Felix Krull vibe. Wanting you, the reader, to understand without telling you everything, acquainting you mainly with mood and imperatives. Showing you, as if emptying pockets of mind. And upping the sense of the performant. It was a little like learning Urdu, which I have not mastered, but which connoisseurs of the poetry appreciate for the elasticity of the text, with meanings hugely contingent.

Now that you have written Brief, do you understand art vandalism differently than before?

AC: I do understand art vandalism differently now. I am both more and less sympathetic. I have always been empathetic — I am the kind of person the guards start following the minute I walk in.

EH: Why? You probably look like you're there for a reason. Always a bad sign…

AC: Because I exhibit the two conflicting characteristics that can express themselves in vandalism — one, I am in thrall to the auratic art object. This is a function of my education and my concomitant subscription to Romantic and Modern high-art value systems, as well as my personal responsiveness to visuals (even those in less consecrated spaces). Two, I display a lack of piety and its concomitant sense of entitlement — some part of me feels that I should be allowed to touch that painting by Jay DeFeo, which looks like it is all about texture. I need to feel it to experience the work. Of course, everybody might feel that way, and if everybody touched the painting, it would degrade pretty quickly — that's what I tell myself to I keep myself from touching. The guards can relax, I'm under self-control.

EH: But, a real vandal? Some of them are art lovers.

AC: I believe that high-art institutions always embody the polarizations and exclusions that plague advanced capitalism, and that while they perform a kind of social service (one I appreciate greatly as a trained art lover.) Museums, galleries, auction houses, patrons, and all kinds of agents in the art market, overvalue art objects and art zones…like crazy. Art vandalism always, whatever its “message,” calls attention to that market as a market. Connoissuers and consumers freak out. Because they subscribe to very inflated values, monetary and otherwise. Values that depend on the existence and reproduction of a small elite of people with the cultural and/or financial capital to participate. Opening the museum to the public shifts these relations to some extent, but doesn't alter the high-as-against-low, inside-as-against-outside character of the art market.

The art market has looked very different in different times and places. In Europe and North America, beginning in the 1980s, the inflation factor, along with the big blockbuster shows, skewed art values intensely. Asia and the Middle East now have their share of that market as well. What's good is that art happens outside of high-art institutions too, so there's a little play. But making — and consuming — art is expensive.

I think these economic factors are so taken for granted as to be invisible to lots of people. So I always get a little frisson at non-systematic acts of art vandalism, when values are made explicit, and suddenly it's a little hard to know which is crazier — a person who would stab a canvas with a history, or the institution that had and paid tens of millions of dollars for it. That level of fetishism is really irrational. Preservation (even if it could be divested of elitism) is an important but impossible project. We can keep these things around for a while — we can use them in any number of ways — but paintings come and go. Along with painters, and writers, and our texts, in whatever media.

EH: Readers of Brief will find, among so many other things, the narrator's consideration of signal acts of art vandalism in our time. Some readers might literally remember Laszlo Toth, the geologist who took a sledgehammer to Michelangelo's Pieta in 1972. The crime was spun by the European radicals of the day (“No more masterpieces!” was one exhortation), but even the Italians could not find Laszlo Toth criminally guilty. He did two years in a psychiatric hospital.


AC: Lazlo Toth really hit the carotid artery of Western culture when he hit the Pieta. There is hardly any extant object anywhere that more efficiently codes the values of the last 2,000 years of Judeo-Christianity. Toth seemed disordered, but like many eccentrics, he hit on something when he hit on Mother Mary. Like an idiot savant, he points right to the problem of cultural values, at the same time that he shows that these auratic and/or fetishized objects do have meaning — beyond monetary value, or rather monetary value relates to cultural values — even for those of us who do not deal, curate, patronize, criticize, sculpt or paint. This is why these acts of vandalism are at all interesting. Because they are acts of cultural commentary — quite apart from whatever is in the mind of the vandals — these acts are interpretable. Like all anti-social acts, they say something about the social order.

EH: Tony Shafrazi was famously a vandal before he was a dealer. I am sure there's a story we'll never know, why going on 40 years ago what he did was able to be seen as kind of overlookable, criminally. His graffiti on Picasso's Guernica certainly got the narrator's attention. For a vandal, his subsequent history offers plenty or reassurance…


AC: I like the Tony Shafrazi case because of the non-irony of an art vandal becoming an art dealer.

EH: Um, non-irony?

AC: Why isn't that an irony? Because he's already trafficking in the art zone — he has physically, literally, already enacted his “entree” — and the act itself garners cultural capital for him. And like art vandalism, art dealing also involves adjustments to the value of art objects — both dealing and vandalism highlights the homology between inflation and deflation. And dealing, like vandalism, take place in elite art zones, reinforcing the high-cultural rule that valuation and revaluation properly take place in those zones.

EH: That's wonderful. But Mary Richardson, the suffragette who slashed The Rokeby Venus to protest the imprisonment of Mrs. Pankhurst, occupies a big place in Brief. That will always be a troubling assault. Sincere and not crazy.

AC: What I like about Mary Richardson is the feminism. Her act is more coherent than Shafrazi's – even its violence is more clearly legible in the context of Pankhurst's imprisonment and hunger strike. The Suffragettes used a number of tactics to try to further a clear, stated, and righteous political goal and Richardson's explanation makes sense too. But it's still a bit wacky to stab a painting in a museum. I like the question of what it means to stab a woman in the back — is she a woman or is she a representation of a woman, that very old old question of the relation between the two still haunts, even if the act doesn't.


EH: But, you said the guards could relax. You don't really like these acts.

AC: When I say I like these acts, what I mean is that I like interpreting them. But also, outrage fails me. Not because I think these are morally defensible acts, but because I don't think we'll be preserving our sacred cultural objects for all eternity anyway. Cultural objects and practices, like languages, like religions, like secular law, and on and on, change constantly. While I don't love all cultural change, or even most of it, I am at peace with the fact of change. I feel much less sanguine about the irreversible changes we have made to the environment. But culture – even if we could, why would we want to plunge it into the stop-bath?

Brief snow globesm

Buy the App!

Site for Alexandra Chasin

Site for Scott Peterman

Site for Jaded Ibis Press

New School page for Alexandra Chasin

Fiction Collective 2 page for Kissed By

Hyperallergic article on art vandalism, by Alexandra Chasin