Catherine Taylor


Desire and Dialectics, Drift and Densification: An Interview with Catherine Taylor

Published in jubilat, issue 36, fall 2019

Catherine Taylor is a writer, editor, and educator based in upstate New York. Together with the photographer Nicholas Muellner, she co-directs Image Text Ithaca, a low-residency MFA program at the intersection of writing and photography housed at Ithaca College. Since its first session in 2016, the program has boasted a remarkable group of teaching fellows, all hailing from a breadth of artistic practices and scholarly backgrounds. Here, for instance, are just a few of the past visiting writers: Renee Gladman, Lucy Ives, John Keene, Danielle Dutton, Tisa Bryant, Anna Moschovakis, Rosa Alcalá, and Claudia Rankine.

Catherine Taylor’s own work is characterized by the combination of image and text: archival images in Apart (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012), a hybrid work of history, personal narrative, and political theory about apartheid-era South Africa; durational video and scrolling text in “War and the Weather” (Seneca Review, 2014); and staged photographs in You, Me, and the Violence (Mad Creek Books, 2017), which uses the figure of the puppet to consider drones and remote warfare.

We spoke about these and other works in August 2019, when Taylor was kind enough to receive my visit in the midst of a writing residency in the Catskills. We walked Moonhaw Road and discussed the changing nature of attention and reading practices in relation to forms of literature that combine image and text, and new technologies of dissemination— namely, the internet. The following conversation, which has been edited, began with Taylor’s essay, “Saetas,” published on The Believer’s website in December 2018. In characteristically incisive, lyrical prose, and using both image and video, the essay tracks a passage into middle age via the zapateado and arranque, the footwork and effusion, of Flamenco.

David Richardson: Reading “Saetas” sent me back into Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text and his notion of “drift reading”— moving in and out of the text, letting your readerly mind digress. Drift has become part of our reading lives in a new way—the infrastructure of drift reading has exploded with the internet. If every instance of reading in a book is an invitation to leave the text, to think or dream off the page, reading on the internet amplifies this experience tenfold, what with the chance to look up words, ideas, to get lost down different channels of information. “Saetas” does the exquisite work of orchestrating, facilitating, managing that kind of drift reading.

There’s a densifying quality to the essay—we go from a moment of personal history from your trip to Spain, to a YouTube video, and then a definition of some aspect of Flamenco, and it feels like it supports drift reading in a benevolent way. There is a different kind of readerly attention that a form like that of “Saetas” conducts.

Catherine Taylor: I love that it densifies for you; I like that the form— which I only controlled to a certain extent because of the constraints of The Believer’s platform—doesn’t lead you out. That is, it doesn’t have links out. The videos are hosted there, you don’t get taken to some place where you get tempted to watch every other instance of Antonio Gades dancing. I spent a year doing that. Maybe two years. But you don’t need to, or maybe that’s not the best thing for an essay to do for us, to send us out like that. That’s not what I wanted this essay to do. I wanted readers to be led not from Gades to Gades, but from him to his friend, the Marxist poet Rafael Alberti and his work, him reminding us how the fascists ruled his country for a lifetime. Or from Gades’ love for Pepa Flores, not to more clips, admittedly gorgeous, of her singing, but to Alain Badiou talking about the resonance between our struggle with difference in love and our commitment to political ideas. So, I’m glad you saw both the drift and the density.

It took me a really long time to write. I wrote many different versions of it and I had a kind of vision for it that I was never able to make real, which was—I’m going to keep this on the record even though I feel sort of proprietary about it—a book where you can have the text on one side and a still image from a video on the other, and you can put your phone on the image and the video will play. Or the reader can choose not to play it. So there’d be a version of that book that has no video, which is not the same but is possible to read without a device, and you know that there is video that you might want to see at another time, or maybe right then if you have your device with you. I wrote so many grants trying to get funding to make this invention. Nobody would foot it. But maybe somebody will now? I feel like it’s not that hard!

DR: It seems totally plausible! The invention that “Saetas” made me want to make would be much harder to create.

CT: A time machine?

DR: Exactly, a fully immersive VR book that actually transported you to the past.

CT: Or a machine you strap on your body so you can actually dance like Gades, like a mechanized, Flamenco-dancing-robot-machine.

DR: Yes, reading as embodiment!

CT: What is your invention?

DR: It’s a book that would host holograms, so you would turn the page and Gades would be doing his thing, and the text would be legible beneath it. It would live on a shelf but when you would open it up, it would do the fantastic work of popping to life, with a 3-D Gades dancing over the page.

CT: I feel like I’ve been trying to make that book forever. When I was a graduate student, I taught one of the very first electronic literature courses. It was in 1994 at Duke. I taught a hypertext and digital literature class when the form was just emerging. My students were teaching me—there were several of them who were computer science students. Even back then, I really wanted a book that could move in those ways.

It’s amazing to me that there still aren’t that many really good websites for hosting image-text work, or work that includes video. I love Triple Canopy, for instance, but that’s one place. And they have a very particular take on their subject, or a very particular aesthetic. It’s just baffling to me that there aren’t twenty such places. You know, even The Believer online, which did a great job with “Saetas” due to some heroic work by their amazing editor Hayden Bennett, was stuck with some technical limits. Hayden really made it work. But it surprises me that there aren’t more places with more flexible formatting options for online image-text work.

DR: Instead we just have white space and ads.

CT: I don’t understand it. Another thing I did in the ’90s—I had a lot of weird jobs when I was younger, and one of them was I was hired by a computer scientist to basically feed him Modernist poetry that would be a kind of synecdoche for the program that he was developing, which made it seem as though you were approaching the text, and then maybe zooming through the hole in the “o” to another layer of text, etc., and my job was to provide poems that would resonate with this space. It was a great job. And it feels like just one early example of a confluence of thinking, literature, visuality, and publishing technologies.

DR: Seems like an incredible gig!

CT: I do sort of regret not going down the computer language route. My dissertation at Duke was on changes in print technology and their impact on cultural understandings of authorship. And way before that, when I was in high school and, as I remember it, the only girl in my computing class, I was in the last class where they taught Fortran, which meant that we still carried around stacks of cards and had a hole punch machine. We put rubber bands around them and put them in our backpacks. And—I often tell this story because I’m very fond of it—we would make flip movies on the backs of them. That was the most fun I had in class because our programming was so rudimentary—basically you had two giant stacks of cards that might turn a light switch on and then turn it off. But you could make these amazing animations on the reverse side of the big stacks of rubberbanded cards. So, for me, the idea of computing and language learning and image making and storytelling are all kind of contained in that moment. I feel like that was a pivotal moment for me.

DR: In graduate school, how did you come to be interested in the question of, not necessarily authorship and different means of printing, but media and electronic literature?

CT: That is a good question. Before I went to grad school, I was working as a documentary film producer at WNET in New York. I was also organizing film festivals—a friend of mine, Ed Rekosh, and I started the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, so I was pretty immersed in the world of documentary film, and in a certain type of politics focusing on human rights issues.

When I went to grad school, I was originally in a joint JD-PhD program, and I thought I would do that. However, I found that the discourse of rights, and human rights in particular, was being taken apart on the anti-colonial, Marxist literary side of my studies, but reinforced on the legal side, and those two discourses and the conversation between them was really baffling to me at that time. I didn’t really understand how to bring them together. In retrospect, I see that there were people having lots of conversations across those divides, but it wasn’t really available to me at that moment. So, I dropped the legal studies part, and I was just doing graduate study in literature with a focus on American literature, mostly 19th century at that point, when I started going to Chiapas with my husband, who had a music residency there. We spent a lot of time there in the early ’90s and got involved in the margins of the Zapatistas struggle. It was very compelling. The people who I knew who were more involved than I was were people I admired tremendously. So, I read everything about it I could get my hands on. And spent time learning from people in Chiapas. And—to finally answer your question about how I got interested in electronic writing—the Zapatistas were incredibly adept at using the emerging internet, especially in ways that foregrounded the notion of multiple authorship. I was hugely interested in this and in the ways that online writing, at that time, could undermine the connections between profit and authorship, between identity and authorship, between an individualistic society versus a collective one. So, I wrote one chapter of my dissertation on that. It ended up being the last chapter because it was the most recent, historically, but when I look back, it was the initiating piece.

DR: For me, you are describing a dream of the web that has now so thoroughly lapsed, I don’t know how to recover it. But this was a moment of hope for the internet.

CT: Yeah, it felt so amazing. And everybody said, “Oh, watch out, it’s just going to get appropriated.” Those people were right. So now I’m a little hesitant to get back into that world, but I’m also still eager to find, or learn of, or make platforms that can host the amazing imagetext work that I see being made by my students, by my friends and fellow artists and writers—work that doesn’t always find a comfortable public place to live. I think that there are some great sites doing really avant garde, technologically-oriented visual art.

DR: Like the publication Dis?

CT: Yes. But a lot of these sites are not always comfortable places for sustained text, that’s the main thing. They can be really great for visually oriented work, or work that digs deeply into AI, or other computer-inflected art, but it’s sustained text in conjunction with images that doesn’t have that many outlets.

DR: Do you still think the book is the best form for that?

CT: Yes, I think so. Also, the book really is the ultimate time travel apparatus. Which reminds me of this great thing that Alexander Kluge said in an interview with Gary Indiana, who said something like, “Mass media and cinema can take away the time people need to reflect.” And Kluge responded, “Some kill time, but some produce it. A book can do it very easily, it can transport time from the 12th century to the 19th or 20th: it’s something very utopian and very interesting.” That seems right to me, although, I couldn’t do “Saetas” as a piece in a book. It would be so diminished without the video and the sound. You need to hear it, to feel it in your body.

DR: Yes, “Saetas” wouldn’t be the same—there’s that video of the singer, I forget his name, it’s not even that he’s breaking…


CT: El Lebrijano. A god. There are so many incredible moments captured on film and video of Flamenco singers. Like El Chocolate, who—I swear—unhinges his jaw like a snake, and his mouth becomes impossibly huge, and then his jaw kind of warbles side to side, and he makes this sound that is unearthly. That you have to hear, not read about.

DR: There’s a quality of all of those, both the videos and the images, however, that do collect language. You can’t read about them, but they want the language there. For example, that moment when El Lebrijano breaks and goes into whatever emotional space he disappears to—it wants, not captioning, it’s not a didactic impulse...

CT: Some context?

DR: Well you want to say something about that. It’s so powerful, it makes you want to come around it with words—it feels like those moments collect or desire language, those little moments of punctum. Are there any image-text works that maybe do this work? Books that you are partial to?

CT: Yeah, there are a lot of books that I think reveal, if not the desire of the images for text, the desire, or need, of the artist to speak to, or with, or alongside them. For instance, my dearest colleague and comrade, Nicholas Muellner’s gorgeous and devastating photos and essays on closeted gay men in Russia and Ukraine, In Most Tides an Island. I couldn’t imagine those images without those words. And another book whose words seem pulled by the images, desired in a way that feels painfully necessary, is Robert Frank’s The Lines of My Hand, which was one of the first image-text books I encountered and which still makes me ache when I read it. It opens with these crazy eyeball images and Frank saying “If there are any answers I have lost them,” and then at the end of this totally crushing book, he writes a note to his son, who was institutionalized, saying, “Happy Birthday Pablo. What a hard life we have together. I can’t take it. Too much for me.” And the texts at the end are scrawled and scratched, with words incised into the photos. There’s one set saying goodbye to his daughter, Andrea, who died in a plane crash (“I think of Andrea every DAY”). Or just “sick of goodbyes” scrawled on mirrors that are at once vacant and full of doom.

I also love Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (War Primer) and its reappearance within Broomberg and Chanarin’s War Primer 2. And Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems; Harmony Holiday’s work; Sophie Calle’s work. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. But these all function a little differently. They are not texts made to desiring images; they work more dialectically. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely was one of the first literary books that made me really think about the function, or possible functions, of images in literature.

DR: Those fuzzy, snow-filled televisions.

CT: Those silly snow-filled televisions that are also devastating because of what they’re not showing, of what you know they’re not showing. And the way that they capture the psychological inquiries of the narrator as inseparable from the violent, racist politics of our nation.

Of course, the other image-text books I’ve been deeply drawn to are the ones we have chosen to publish at ITI (Image Text Ithaca) Press: Andre Bradley’s brilliant and heartbreaking memoir Dark Archives, whose exploration of the self as archive gets amplified by Elana Schlenker’s brilliant design choices; Carmen Winant’s explicit, frank, and feminist My Birth; Jo Ann Walters and Laura Wexler’s gorgeous, sad, and fascinating Wood River Blue Pool; John Keene and Nicholas Muellner’s funny and dear GRIND; Christine Hume and Jeff Clark’s clear-eyed and outraged Question Like A Face; and most recently, One Long Black Sentence, a set of drawings that seem to propose a kind of architecture for thought by Renee Gladman with a text by Fred Moten, which will be out in the spring of 2020, and The Poetics by writer Lucy Ives and photographer Matthew Connors, which is a strange, curious, and powerful meditation on objects, time, and narrative, and on the forms of contemporary media and politics, and how we understand them. You really have to see all of them in person to have the encounters they make possible.

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