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Lytle Shaw

in conversation with Gary Sullivan

Note: A portion of this interview originally appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter.

Gary Sullivan: Reading your work over last couple of years, I’ve noticed that, despite the impressive range of what I guess I’d call ‘formal approach,’ that a number of preoccupations do continue to make themselves manifest. The most compelling, for me, is your ongoing inquiry into what we might call ‘human geography’ — emphasis on ‘human’ (as opposed to ‘natural’ geography, very little of which ‘purely’ exists anymore). I want to start with three of your books, Low Level Bureaucratic Structures: A Novel, Principles of the Emeryville Shellmound and Cable Factory 20.
      You’ve described Low Level Bureaucratic Structures in part as an attempt to re-occupy that space wherein one ‘learns to draw’ — learns, let’s say, the bureaucracy of various kinds of representational art (figurative drawing, mapping, schematic drawings, etc.). The book is laid out in panels, very much like a comic book, with ‘primitive’ drawings of your own and pasted-in maps, photographs of architecture, etc. The language of the piece itself seems to come out, also, of a kind of consideration of the mind being shaped, fairly early on, by what I’d call the ‘given’: one line that stands out in particular for me, ‘Or trade a disturbing piece of your lunch’ ... which is funny, of course, but also really sent me back to that situation, of being a very young person, being both curious about and confronted with manifestations of the ‘bureaucratic’ or ‘adult’ world. I think one of the most palpable, disturbing early memories that I have is of my first lunch in a pre-school cafeteria, of various mostly undesirable ‘food’-stuffs, arranged in (or really slotted into) a kind of combination plate/tray.
      Moving along to Emeryville Shellmound, we get the voice of an adult, doing a kind of Olsonian or at any rate more-or-less ‘from the hip’ geographical inquiry. It ends with the paragraph:

‘As I floated in this space the horizon flipped ninety degrees and light seemed to vanish accordingly. Sheets of mullusk names spun before my eyes. Small land animals--perhaps raccoons--broke shells and extracted food; a worn club functioned as a line break between conch phrases. The mound’s depth was an archive of expanding species knowledge, a generation’s record of the name embalmed, and its height grew proportionally from there. It was in this angled position, then, that I discovered the now well known principles of mound construction that I reproduce below.’

And beneath that, of course, is a detailed technical drawing, presumably of the principles of mound construction.
      It’s an hilarious moment, and one where I’d say a kind of bureaucratic attention or focus makes itself palpably manifest: as though the book ends, on one level, in the consummation of space and bureaucracy.
      This ‘question’ is going on too long. I wanted to drag Cable Factory 20 into this first question, but probably I should just hold off here, and we can move into that after. Anyway, what I’m getting at is what we briefly talked about a couple of months ago, of how I see you constantly coming back to these two realms: space and bureaucracy. I had also wanted to drag in earlier examples of poets working with these ideas, in particular d.a.levy and Daniel Davidson — though, again, maybe we can bring them up as this goes along further. For now, I’d be particularly interested in reading what you’d have to say about space and bureaucracy, how you’re thinking about them as you put these books together, what sorts of discoveries you find yourself making about them as you continue to write ...

Lytle Shaw: You notice a parallel between the 6-panel layout of the pages in Low Level Bureaucratic Structures: A Novel and the school lunch plate. I hadn’t thought of it in such a direct way, but I like the link: both operate as givens that structure what one is forced to internalize and be transformed by — the student drawer seeks to mimic the ‘mature,’ technological forms of the grown up world (cars, airplanes, architecture) just as he swallows the grids of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and brown betty.
      This parallel also highlights at least two senses of what a bureaucratic structure might be (an intentionally vague term): first, an abstract method or formula — a procedure that’s followed in an office somewhere ... (where procedure itself is the goal); second, a literal thing — like, say, a white enamel cube by Sol LeWitt, or a six-part cartoon panel, or a plastic tray. So a conceptual and a concrete, material sense.
      At first I was attracted to calling this book a novel because I thought of a low level bureaucratic structure as an absurdly extreme opposite of narrative — the inverse of the heroic, romanticized desire one encounters in much fiction. Bureaucracy frustrates desire, channeling it into horizontal loops lacking hierarchy and consequence, dissipating energy and interest. Insignificant, low level structures do this in the most mundane way possible, so that there’s not even the drama of high stakes failed desire — say, the crash of an unsuccessful romantic liaison, or the pathos of a genius losing his powers to dog race gambling, or heroin, in the milieu of 60s Manhattan, nineteenth century Paris — or in any loaded, beautiful context. Instead, one imagines depersonalized paper processing in a temporary trailer. Vast warehouse floors of new government issue protective glass booths for national DMVs arranged in long grids. Here, though, we’re starting to get a little exciting (as the minimalists knew). But then again fiction can only work in time: for a novel to go on, something, of course, does have to block desire. So there’s this other way in which fiction can’t escape a bureaucratic component: the sending of a request, the waiting to see what will happen.
      And this way that desire is waiting in fiction — necessarily diverted and delayed — connects up with another sense that bureaucracy takes on in novels, especially the bildungsroman, the genre most about formation of subjects through education. In the classic examples, like Goethe, the bildungsroman narrative chronicles a process in which the wild, disruptive energies of youth get channeled into usable (more conservative) forms of sociality. Goethe then tries to generalize and moralize about this process, as though it should always happen. This is what’s vaguely sinister, in a corporate training video sort of way, about Wilhelm Meister (and even about parts of the autobiography) especially in their relation to the storm and stress explosions of energy and desire of Werther. The ‘voice’ in Low Level sort of came out of this problem, the omniscient instructional tone that gets filtered back onto youth, and onto one of its forms: the cartoon, a palpably visible narrative form designed, at least at times, for kids learning things adults want them to (much in the way that religious painting has done this historically). But there’s a rough split between the voice we might associate with the drawings — clunkily trying to master the objects of the world — and the voice of Mastery speaking ‘down’ to him (it’s important that this subject is a male, coming to identify with cars and fashioning his bodily bearing after kung fu masters) as he goes about his apprentice work. There’s this eager consciousness out to learn and reproduce the world and a masterful, older one telling it how to do so. But of course this pedagogical circuit gets derailed frequently, here, partly as a possibility latent in the graphic novel: the side associations and narratives that can always emerge from the emphatic particularity of drawn or copied objects. What do we make of this bad sketch of a 72 Chevy Impala? That solemn middle-part black belt demonstrating the punch block? And inasmuch as the (very poem-like) novel plays with these gaps between the images and their supposedly pedagogical commentaries, bureaucracy gets sort of held off. Kept back in the sense that bureaucracy here would mean the total triumph of Method over the particularities, the singularities, of a situation or view.
      This hooks up with the problem you notice of the researcher’s underwater reef epiphany immediately getting contained as a blurry graph at the conclusion of Principles of the Emeryville Shellmound. There’s a chapter toward the end of Walden when Thoreau, who’s been living in his shed there now for almost two years and is about to leave, awakens one night troubled by an unanswered question that’s somehow fundamental to the pond and to the his larger research project there. So he spends several days measuring the pond, very precisely, and eventually has this graphic epiphany, where he invents this Principle (very much like Poe or Goethe) that the pond, despite its radically irregular contour and almost uniform depth, is at its deepest in the exact, exact center.
      The neatness of this Principle of course rewards Thoreau’s hours (years) of empirical scrutiny — hanging out at the pond. It somehow converts all of this time spent noticing details (which god forbid he’d wasted in parallel, multiple or uncontained speculations), into an elegantly reduced System. Now I realize that scientists do make sudden breakthroughs, and I’m actually tired of a kind of bland, righteous postmodern attitude toward science in which all attempts at scientific systematicity are, a priori, oppressive constructions. And yet, I’m also in love with this problem that happens when the sciences are imported to literature (including literary criticism and theory) as a way to clean up after messy aesthetic speculation that might otherwise head off toward singularities. At the end of Principles, though, the self-contained clarity of the graph is not exactly clear — there is, instead, a disturbing proliferation of info: two sections cut through the mound with idealized geometrical diagrams superimposed; an animal list; statistics on the frequency of mound objects; two blow-ups of specimens presumably unearthed in the mound; and one blurry, word-covered pond diagram. This moment relies on some sense that we’re supposed to know about these discoveries: as if the principles were canonical within the scientific community, and the piece is a kind of memoir, like Claude Lévi Strauss recalling a trip in Peru in which he came up with one of his most famous kinship models — whose graphs anthropologists (like ourselves) had seen reproduced thousands of times.
      In the case of my book, however, it’s important that the writer is — like Goethe, or Poe, or Thoreau, or some mild mannered bureaucratic hobby scientist living in suburban California in the 60s, and performing experiments in his basement and research at the available local libraries — an amateur scientist. I’m interested in the figure of the amateur: the one who comes to science through other fields, especially writing. Though he can’t ‘claim expertise,’ he can, with faux humility, make his ‘small contributions known.’ In Goethe’s case these started taking up considerable shelf space. This sort of accounts for the amateur tone of the first part of that book, even the generic science pamphlet look, with courier font and grainy, re-xeroxed reproductions.
      Another feature I like about educational scientific writing in particular is the rhetorical problems it encounters when it wants to be practical. The moments when it addresses you as an average reader, snuggling its models up to your everyday desires and epistemological horizons: ‘Most of us are interested in the world around us.’ I think science writing invented this awkward form, intended as a ‘more democratic’ universalism (saying ‘most’ instead of ‘all’). But it conjures a weird remainder audience: the vegetal unconcerned; the others it hadn’t quite meant to evoke. I remember a teacher in high school introducing topics with ‘Now most of you may or may not have heard of this.’
      But actually, the amateur researcher in Principles has just the opposite problem. Everyone he encounters wants to operate as a scientist: joggers try to work his ear about the tidal patterns; sports fishers lure him into seeing collections of fake specimens; older librarians, totally unprompted, moralize knee-jerk eco aphorisms in his general direction. Being an aesthete with high standards of evidence and argumentation, these intrusions chap him. Which goes back to the horizontal loops characteristic of bureaucracy in a way, since what often gets idealized as ‘the archive’ — the would-be frictionless space of research leading to Knowledge — actually winds up becoming a bizarre, over-populated social space with people (including the protagonist) acting out their pathologies, and projecting them into their work.
      This place-based research — and the institutions, weirdoes, generalized frictions — it encounters, might get us toward site-specificity, and how space, more basically, relates to bureaucracy. But that would pull us toward Cable Factory 20, so I’ll cool out here for a minute.

Gary Sullivan: So let’s be pulled into Cable Factory 20 now. I have to admit, reading through the book again, I’m not quite sure what I was thinking the first time through. I can see that space is obviously a major consideration here, as is ‘specificity’ (site specificity & specificity, um, ‘in general’). But, I’m lost as to bureaucracy here — the experience of reading the book, for me this time around, seems to be more of a kind of rush than anything else. A rush of detail. (In addition of course to everything else it is — I’m just describing a visceral response.) I don’t know if you ever saw Il Postino, which was — eh — but, you know, there’s this scene I remember where the postman and Neruda are sitting on the beach and Neruda recites one of his poems and the postman says that the words of the poem ‘seem to come and go ... like the ocean.’ It’s like an Angelika Theater Lesson in mimesis or something. But, okay, I bring it up because I gotta admit, that’s basically how I was feeling reading this book. That sense of something tidal or wave-like or at the very least liquid about the book’s structure. And, in fact, that’s what I find I’m focusing on most now, is the book’s structure, how we seem to slip from here, to here, to here: ‘As we work, the puddles accumulate and sounds have the concreteness of

R ...’

And that, there, for me, is a sort of explanation of how I’m experiencing the book as a whole, if that makes sense. ‘The concreteness of water.’ The book itself, even down to its design, with the edges bleeding off into ‘elsewhere’ (thanks to the visual repros on every page), all seems in a way a project on one level designed to obliterate bureaucracy ...
      So, going to the the most ‘bureaucratic’ element of the book, the bibliography (‘Research Materials’) in the back, I’m seeing things I’d have expected (books on the Barbary Coast, a history of Oakland, someone’s meditation on the sea, and of course Smithson’s Collected Writings, etc.), and then the less likely Ponge, O’Hara and Poe. Actually, Ponge seems immediately to do with this book, especially the Pre — which is a (for me) ‘constantly becoming’ book. It’s not ever written, or its being written — you mentioned ‘method’ in your first answer — being what it is. Is that, generally, what O’Hara is doing in this bibliography? That take on O’Hara? And what about Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ ... is the connection there ‘the man who refuses to be alone’?
      Anyway. So I’m finding what is compelling to me, reading the book this time around, is method (which I think you associated earlier with bureaucracy) ... except in this book, what kept coming up for me was that I couldn’t figure out the methodology behind its construction, and I was beginning to wonder about a multiform methodology or collection of methodologies (‘curiosities’), and that’s how the book comes into being, as well as what gives it this particularly liquid quality?

Lytle Shaw: About Cable Factory 20, you mention the difficulty in figuring out the methods, and the sense that the book, both verbally and visually, is often pointing to elsewhere. Let me try to provide some context, or put the project in its ‘site.’
      I began the book in the summer of 1995, while I was driving with Emilie around the West, and reading Robert Smithson’s essays. Vancouver, Portland, Phoenix, Denver — all these cities I was seeing for the first time, and a lot of amazing landscape. As an undergraduate, I had studied architecture (and grown up with it, too, since my father taught architecture). Most of my family’s friends were architects, and so I oriented myself to the world in large part through architecture’s interpretive lenses, even its types of narration. In fact, when I began taking notes and gather xeroxes for Cable Factory 20 I purposefully did it inside one of my old notebooks from architecture school — as a slightly literal minded way to deal with the actual manifestation of that knowledge, or orientation — to recode it somehow. Though in 1995 I was beginning to get interested in a lot of site-specific poetry and art (at that point Ponge and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in particular), there was, first off, a version of site specificity you got in architecture: buildings as commentaries on their ‘contexts’ — in which context could be almost infinitely extensive: from surrounding architectural styles (a Greek-revival cornice on a bank across the street), to more abstract patterns of massing and scale, landscape features, uses to which the building would be put — to historical or vertical axes that didn’t depend on what was there now, but what had been there (the history of the site, the town, or city) and everything in between. The attempt to think about site on many of these levels at once came to underlie a kind of luminous sense of ‘process’ — first architectural, then poetic. It may also explain some of the disjunctiveness of this book, and the number of layers inside the conceptual and procedural account I’m now setting off on.
      So this gets me back to Smithson, who took this sense of site as fabricated (and not simply given) to inventive and for me very funny new levels in his writing. He was, after all, asking his essays to stand in at least partially for the experience of seeking out his pieces in rural Utah, the Yucatan, or Amarillo, Texas. So one of my immediate fascinations with him was how his essays managed to connect and suspend all of these subtexts as the relevant ‘research materials’ for a site: the hard sciences (geology in particular), acid-trip account; aesthetic treatise; science fiction; art and literary criticism; hoax; travel journal — for starters. This impossible linkage (of quotations from different genres to each other and to a ‘site’) was one sense I had in mind for a ‘cable factory,’ though the phrase also refers to the literal building that I was living in at the time, which had previously been used to build underwater cable — the kind on which, since the 1870s, telegraphs were sent to other continents.
      But the book’s tie to Smithson was also more literal, too — like, at the level of the letter. My book is actually written inside his. So that if you had a version of his essay with pages as large as the Spiral Jetty — imagine them yellow, warped, and sort of sand-stone-like — you could see mine at more or less book size. Pulling up out of one of the essay’s more hallucinatory passages, Smithson writes:

The dizzying spiral yearns for the assurance of geometry. One wants to retreat into the cool rooms of reason. But no, there was Van Gogh with his easel on some sun-baked lagoon painting ferns of the Carboniferous Period. Then the mirage folded into the burning atmosphere.

From the center of the Spiral Jetty

North                       — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
North by East               — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Northeast by North        — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
East by North               — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
East                             — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
East by South               — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Southeast by East        — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Southeast by South        — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
South by East               — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
South                      — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
South by West               — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Southwest by South        — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Southwest by West        — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
West by South               — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
West                             — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
West by North               — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Northwest by West        — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Northwest by North        — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
North by West               — Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water

This catalog seems to reference a moment in Paterson when Williams (Smithson’s childhood doctor, and an influence), carefully describes each of the items discovered at different depths during a soil sample in the town. In the movie about the Jetty, Smithson reads this ‘poem’ in a vaguely scientific drone — as though, unlike Williams, he’s emptying out or rendering equivalent all of the items from his sample, from his context. Then there’s this great scene of Smithson trying to run along the irregular rocky surface of the jetty, and looking very much like Joey Ramone — which is neither here nor there for my book — but you have to see it.
      Anyway, this described landscape — only four elements within the 360-degree spectrum — becomes the literal ‘site’ of my book. There’s one poem for each of the 20 repetitions. Each poem has ‘mud, salt crystals, rocks, water’ as an acrostic: either as the left-hand margin or as some column organizer inside. And each poem, in turn, becomes about one or several sites (primarily in the Bay Area), though also about the problem of matching language to a site more generally. Connecting the Spiral Jetty to California was something that was already latent in Smithson: he’d been interested in nineteenth century explanations of storms, strange currents and whirlpools in the Great Salt Lake which posited a huge underground waterway between the lake and the Pacific Ocean. So at one level the spiral itself was a literalization of a whirlpool emerging from this impossible underground link.
      This process of shifting scales, of turning a tiny element into a massive landscape, is also something Smithson himself talks about in his essay:

The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be. Size determines an object, but scale determines art. A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon. A room could be made to take on the immensity of the solar system. Scale depends on one’s capacity to be conscious of the actualities of perception. When one refuses to release scale from size, one is left with an object or language that appears to be certain. For me scale operates by uncertainty. To be in the scale of the Spiral Jetty is to be out of it.

Cable Factory 20 is an excessively literal reading of this idea: it’s both in the ‘The Spiral Jetty’ essay, making use of Smithson’s materials by turning his letters into the wall against which my book, as a crack, can now become the Grand Canyon — and out of it, displaced, as a kind of non-site, to 20 locations in and around the Bay Area (and even to upstate New York).
      Still, the book’s relation to ‘procedure’ is ambivalent (and this might return us to the problem of the bureaucratic). I didn’t want the formal mechanism to become so constrictive that success would depend upon the level of interest one had in the constraint as an idea. So an entire stanza or page might at times intervene between the M and the U of Mud (at other points the acrostic goes line to line). The acrostic then operates differently throughout. The shifts in form were initially just intuitive ways of dealing with the constraint — but as I became conscious of them, they began, I hoped, to tell a story of the book’s occasional frustration with operating within this constraint — banishing it in the name of a temporary expressivity, then a gradual rapprochement etc.
      Part of this shifting you notice — the pointing toward ‘elsewhere’ — is caused by moving back and forth between the immediate area (say, a cemetery in Oakland), and distant research texts. In Smithson’s idea of the non-site, a gap in the landscape — some missing rocks — suggests incompleteness. It points elsewhere to what’s absent, the rocks hauled off in a truck, say, and installed in a gallery. And in the gallery the maps hanging next to these rocks in turn point you out into the site, indicating that this fragment was taken from somewhere and directing you there. Non-sites are usually material — made out of stuff. But I think that it’s also possible to think of Smithson’s use of the idea of ‘site’ as a way to weave together all of his disparate source material — the quotes from so many different genres that I mentioned before — as another version of his site/non-site dynamic. That is, texts can be non-sites. And this produces a more active version of intertextuality, where there’s a kind of force and reciprocation between a place and a text, rather than just a vague evocation. And it was sort of the way I was thinking about reference inside the book, too: the usually ‘literary’ phenomenon of sites evoking texts or vice versa as a more material and spatial process — almost as a kind of substance, a pressure bearing down on the field ethnographer doing his ‘research.’ Not just bearing down abstractly, but hooking up with what’s actually seen.
      In terms of what is seen, the more immediate sites are in downtown Oakland (where my research confirmed that, since Stein, there’s are still hard to come by), the Berkeley and Emeryville Marinas, as well as Emeryville’s industrial and recreational parks, and neighborhood parks in St. Francis Woods in San Francisco — a residential area largely designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also did the Oakland Cemetery, another important site. The idea was to drift in my car until I was mildly fascinated. Then get out, walk around and ‘research.’ Very California. (The site-specific work I’m doing in New York does not involve cars). Once the research zones got established, I usually went back several times. To see if perceptual results could be, you know, objectively duplicated under other circumstances. So it was methodologically tight. Most of these places tended to be semi-public, multi-use, vaguely dilapidated zones ... residual and often transitional on the overall map, and, most importantly, not living up to the architectural fantasy futures sketched out for them (I liked to imagine the actual presentation drawings that were used, and sometimes discovered them). But not failing wildly, either. Just droning along. This is ‘public space’ in the East Bay. So the spatial sub-set I gravitated towards was mostly park-oid, but sometimes involved spatial leftovers behaving as parks. The sites did have these qualities in common, and they became important (to me) in time, through my interaction with them, but they weren’t chosen beforehand because of their symbolic or historical significance. There was maybe more of an exchange, or a kind of mutual conditioning, than in most site-specific work.
      Another force pulling you toward ‘elsewhere’ in the book is what I might call a geological undertow: this happens not just because the poems sometimes focus on the geological material that underlies built structures, but because geological time became a way to complicate the temporal frame of reference I was working within (primarily California of the last 200 years). Geological time introduced elements from an irreconcilably different temporal scale. And as this developed, it began to suggest the necessity of mentally visiting the sites at which I learned the little that I know about geology — those in upstate New York. As it turns out, Smithson also did one of his main projects on a salt mine in Cayuga Lake, very close to where I’m from: so he’d been interested in the same geological region. In the long run the upstate geological areas became another kind of non-site within the book. Upstate New York is interesting geologically because of its glacier-formed gorges and lakes. These areas — Watkins Glen (a gorge my brother, David, wrote a scientific pamphlet about in his early 20s — I’ve always teased him about this, but also admire it), Six Mile Creek, Cascadilla Gorge and another gorge — which was three minutes from my house — all become non-sites, or like vortexes behind, and sometimes even at the front, of the poems. Geology becomes one kind of ‘vertical’ axis. This is why we get the diagrams of the glaciers moving down from Canada.
      Which gets us to the book’s layout. There are two main types of visual material: what I think of as backdrops, and then icons which sit on top of the pages (as well as a few intermediate zones, usually associated with sediment). The idea with the backdrops was that they would continue for the length of a poem and be a ‘site’ that came from the process of writing it — their elements coming from the visual material that had played a role in the construction of the poem. As part of the ‘research’ component, while the poems were in progress, I took a lot of photos of the areas I mentioned. Once developed, I did a variety of different things with them: some sat, as prints, around my desk while I worked. More commonly, I took them to a 3 cent copy place on University Ave. and experimented with two processes.
      The first was to treat a photo as a kind of site, blowing it up and wandering within it, much as I had in may car, and on foot — strolling, within the blowup process, in search of new worlds that weren’t initially visible, now graphic and pixilated. The idea was to experiment with what wasn’t present to consciousness at the experience of the site, but which became fascinating later — often as a property of the photo. The second process was sort of the reverse: to take these graphic blow-ups and shrink them into icons (I wound up only using a few of these in the final book, but they were important to the process). Here the idea was that while icons are normally thought of as immediately recognizable visual units — comprehensible distillations of something larger — I wanted there to be a kind of neat, reduced image that, though under this same rhetorical pressure, tended to shift uncontrollable among several interpretive contexts: the 19thc building fabric, the mundane industrial building were examples of this. These are the most equivocal in their relation to the overall material. There’s also a steering wheel, a bridge tower and a cross section of cable. I wanted these to be emphatic and pseudo 4th grade ‘illustrative’ of connection and its profits (the 19thc water wheel from gold mining is a visual pun on this that takes off from the cable, which also often ‘connects’ or pins the middle poem sections to the darker image grounds against which they sit). At the beginning of each poem, the compass divided into 20 sections — with a blown-up salt crystal inside — also helps the reader orient himself (both in the book and between book and world).
      So that’s the first part of the visual component. But as I just implied, and as you can probably tell, lots of what’s in the final book is from other sources than my own photography — geology and architecture manuals, maps of the Bay Area, recent fiber optic cable catalogs, prints of early California history — as well as lots of stuff taken directly from Smithson. These links entered as precedents, intertexts, morphological parallels — visual ‘research material’ that became necessary for writing about the locations. The visual idea with this material, which was also around during the process (and which I also subjected to the same type of scale experiments described above) was that while there was no way to limit what might be part of it — i.e. how open of a set it might become (true of my own photos in a different way) — whether elements stayed depended upon whether they had affected the poem.
      In one sense, then, images take on the role they traditionally do in most books: exemplifying or literalizing the text. Still, what’s going on textually tends to be an anti-illustrative process, one in which items aren’t quite representative, or are only partly so, or are representative of too many things, or too few.
      But I wanted to actually go to the sites and experience this (the East Bay, despite the very legible effects of globalization, still being quite different from any number of other sites around the country and world). I was eager to do some kind of ‘field work,’ rather than write an armchair critique of site-specificity. So the project sort of became elaborate notes (and illustrations) on both the obsolescence of older forms of site-specificity, and the impossibility of doing such a project in the East Bay. I realized and even began to enjoy this absurdity pretty deep into the project. Now my approach to site-specificity is slightly more discursive and continuous. But that’s another kind of ‘elsewhere.’

Gary Sullivan: Which makes me think, for some reason, of Web sites ... and, I realize, given the title and the way in which the book is about ‘site-specific’ ... it’s almost weird that it completely ignores the Web. Except that I’m guessing much of it was probably written while the Web was still in its infancy ... or before you’d gotten onto the Web. Does your current approach to site-specificity include the Web? I just heard that you have put together a book for Roof of your shorter poems ... but, do you have any sense of a project beginning to take into consideration the Web? Or in some crucial way using it?

Lytle Shaw: One of the ways that Cable Factory 20 tries to consider built forms in larger contexts is by thinking about the arguments each form makes about its future — be it a shopping mall, a highway side aquatic park, or 30s moderne pre-cast concrete tile façade. This in relation to something like the actual future. Looked at, or in a sense listened to, closely, there’s a certain buzz or feedback each object produces as it clamors to situate itself in the sweep of History, at the cusp of the timeline. And of course most things miss. The net result is that all of these objects begin to operate as black holes, sucking up the experience of time and reproducing it as self-interested arguments about history. I’m not trying to suggest that history (or even time) can always exist independent of its instrumental uses. Like other peoples’, my own work is based on historical arguments too. I just want to understand a little better how these interested uses are bound up with any senses of history and time we might have — and, more directly, how they’re staring at us, seeking our attention, from each object we encounter. This is Cable Factory 20’s low-level phenomenology. Which is also a kind of anti-phenomenology, because it doesn’t allow the absorption, the bracketing of historical and subjective distractions, that’s usually basic to an encounter with things in that discourse.
      Once again, Smithson was brilliant on this (especially in ‘A Tour of the Monuments of the Passaic’). But New Jersey of the 1960s is, of course, radically different from California of the late 1990s. Whereas in New Jersey one could point to the new suburban tract homes as the primary argument about futurity, in California, this argument gets made not simply by the high tech architecture (actually there was a building slump for most of the time I lived there), but by the virtual space of the web — which came to exist in ghostly tandem with, and gradually to recode and transform, the built world. And not just stylistically: rents doubled and tripled; the demographics changed. The computer boom really made it difficult (and less interesting) to live in the Bay Area. During the late 90s in California, the web was futurity — in a very uncomplicated, boosterish way. So yeah, situating Cable Factory 20 on the web might have been a strategy for entering that debate — if it had been a debate. But at that point (maybe still), I hadn’t been able to engage the web with the kind of qualification, or distance that I thought it required. Web projects tended to get swallowed up as historical arguments about how the freedoms supposedly basic to the web would transform our lives in liberating ways.
      People will first (and perhaps only) read this interview on the web. Its audience will be larger than it would be in print medium. Publication will cost less. Space will be less of a concern. I’m pleased about all this. And I’m beginning to work more on the web. But still I have some reservations: it’s often mentioned how eagerly the most avaricious and un-liberating forces within globalization have made use of the web’s historical rhetoric. What’s less discussed is the bodily and social relation one has to the web. Without making huge claims for the bodily mobility one enjoys reading print-based media, there may be something to the relative immobility of sitting behind a screen. For one, it identifies reading too closely with the atmospheric world (the cubicle, the screen flicker, the bodily posture) that most of us are forced to work in, and thereby homogenizes experience.
      Powerbooks haven’t yet solved the problem of the reader’s body in space. It’s most comfortable to be fairly erect while reading from (and especially typing on) a powerbook, and that limits things. It’s still a much more various experience to read a printed book outside (on a train or a subway), or to sit in a chair by a window, or on a couch and not be balancing a computer screen on your lap and sort of vaguely straining your back to do so. And it’s not just the bodily ease or comfort; it’s the whole set of associations that the respective activities bring. (Though it doesn’t use the web, Swoon is a great counter-example just in terms of email, since you’ve thoroughly instrumentalized ‘the work station’ as a tool for taking pleasure in (and giving it to) another human being: there’s a new kind of absorption in someone else’s (geographically very distant) world, which happens through these fantastic and generous email descriptions of one’s own surroundings. New both because it’s happening at a rate we’ve never seen before in epistolary novels, and because this rate is affecting the developing relationship itself ... in terms of anonymity and it’s relation to digital technology, I don’t know, I think we could probably find earlier correspondences that turned erotic without the participants ever having met — so I think the question is more one of speed, and that, you know, helping the erotic momentum).
      But back to the web: in time we’ll probably learn to associate various screen layouts with something like the same level of semantic complexity we now associate with the print medium: all of the historical, social, philosophical information we get from how a book is printed, by whom, when, on what kind of paper, spacing, its thickness as a volume, its cover, the character of illustrations — all of the three as well as two dimensional aspects of print. But for now there’s a relative homogeneity to the experience of reading computer-based publications — and I’m obviously not the first to complain about this.
      These reservations about the web were more intuitive than worked out in 1995-97. Since the market crash, there may be generally better prospects for finding spaces and modes of working there that are less quickly recuperated as advertisements for unimpeded ‘freedom.’ Among other things, I’d consider doing a digital version of Cable Factory 20 for the web — though I’m still lacking some basic techno-skills. But a move toward the web is actually not what I meant in saying that my relation to site specificity was now ‘more discursive and continuous.’ I had in mind writing strategies ‘in themselves,’ though even here, our sense of what these mean has been affected by the language of the web. For instance, here’s Brian Kim Stefans distancing himself from the euphoria surrounding the potential of infinitely linked knowledge (and experience) in hypertext:

in fields that rely on syllogistic reasoning or on an aesthetically satisfying (and signifying) form, a loose net of associations does not go very far, on its own, toward valuable literary experience ... part of the hypertext author’s struggle would be to grant to each hyperlink the drama of choice that inheres in any decision regarding non-trivial activity. The apparent transparency of the link — that it promises a connection that escapes time, space, the ‘author,’ the subject — may be its greatest fault.

Though I was aware of this lurking problem (‘ Could reference just fade back into the world, so excited to be at work and pointing’) the structural makeup and level of disjunction within Cable Factory 20 might cause it to participate a bit in this euphoria of the link (which I guess would connect it to the web at a more unconscious level, though there are explicit ‘links’ — like the fiber optic cable illustrations). So I’m thinking more now about how links get framed and structured. Being a little bit more overbearing. Trying to control the experience a little more.
      One example would be a project I did with Emilie for an exhibition called ‘Parking’ in New York during the summer of 1999 (published in Shark #3). It took place in Highbridge Park, which runs along the Harlem River from about 150thmost of the way up the island. The park gets its name from the first aqueduct into New York City, which was built there in the mid-19thcentury and also served as a bridge to the Bronx. It’s still the conspicuous architectural feature of the park, though it doesn’t carry water any more. In the nineteenth century the park was a picturesque strolling site (like Central Park, also designed by Olmstead), where people launched boats from a carriage path which is now FDR drive and watched other boats along the river. All this with the aqueduct framing the scene and forming this monument to New York’s advanced technological state. Currier and Ives did a lithograph of it emphasizing its enormous scale, with tiny figures walking across the bridge. There were obviously a lot of intermediate phases, but by 1970s and 80s, the park had become the primary location for dumping stolen cars in Manhattan. Recently there’s been an effort to clean it up; re-instate it as a usable leisure zone, and the exhibition was supposed to be reflecting on this transformation. So we went and looked around. We were both interested in park sculpture: like, exactly how much you learn about exemplary civic beings from monumental sculpture — and how the sentences convey this to you. Where sculptural figures are positioned, what their postures are telling you. How they project character traits. How sculpture works at a larger architectural level to guide you through a park.
      Our project was to appropriate the aqueduct, and re-assign the civic pride associated with it to an invented, implausible author. Sort of steal its aura for a brief period. This came in part from Emilie’s previous painting project, ‘Some Ladies’: a series of imaginary painted biographies, playing on the visual language of encyclopedia pages, of women involved in heavy industry (sort of like women robber barons: an imperialist cartographer, a city planner, a railroad engineer etc.) Thus Eliza Storm, a 19thcentury hydraulics engineer. We erected a Victorian bust of her, ‘fallen’ and in disrepair, just off one of the strolling paths — in poison ivy, as it turned out — and recorded the biography (read by Lynne Tillman) so that it played in a continuous circuit, radiating out from speakers hidden inside the bust. The piece was written so that it would both work with the language of monumental civic biography and distort it enough to sort of test out how much people were willing to believe within that frame. I thought I was pushing the absurdity too far, but found almost no one willing to question it. ‘Historical research’ as a mode of art making seems so solemn and even virtuous that people are reluctant to question it at all. Which I hadn’t counted on.
      In terms of site, then, the literal ones are this park in Harlem, and the high bridge, but the larger site is the kind of biography we read or hear in a park (or museum). What the art theorists call a ‘discursive site.’ What’s more continuous about this piece in relation to Cable Factory 20 is not only the choice to write in prose, but the narrower focus: I’m not reflecting, here, on the conspicuous site-specific questions of race, on the social history of the park, its place in Harlem, Harlem’s place in Manhattan — obviously all part of the ‘site.’ These omissions could reasonably be considered limitations (from the perspective of the previous book they would be), but I wanted to engage more directly with one discourse: the relations between biographical writing and public monuments.
      Another site-specific project I’m working on is a collaboration with the artist Jimbo Blachly, where we send each other to sites in Manhattan chosen because they’re trying, architecturally, to project one into a different time (though sometimes into a different, geographically remote, space as well). So period rooms in Fraunces Tavern or the New York Historical Society; nostalgic, futuristic, or exoticized theme bars and restaurants; glassed over cracks in Lower Manhattan pavement where vague residue of seventeenth century Dutch construction is visible. That kind of thing. We want it to be like a heavily annotated encyclopedia of other time periods trapped inside contemporary architectural Manhattan. At these sites we respond both to the last event in the collaboration (I write poems, he draws), and to the site: so that our split level consciousness in some way analogizes the split that the building is trying to produce — between being there, literally, and being where it’s trying to project you. So obviously this isn’t discursive and continuous in comparison to a newspaper article — but the poems do hook themselves to recognizable features of site more consistently.
      The Lobe (which will be out from Roof in a couple of weeks) also has poems conceived site specifically. The first two, for instance, describe sequences of acts performed by a subject (elongating one’s body, billowing a stomach, inserting plastic slides in a stripped down building and pumping fruit juice) and ask you to see them as responses to actual contexts — from the oppressive business lunch world of ‘free time courtyards,’ to ambiguous post-industrial zones, construction sites and possibly eco streams and ‘overflow pools.’ These poems play with the rhetorical problem that site-specific performance artists face of actually constructing sentences that explain how what they do relates to where they do it — or, they take that problem as a jumping off spot for extreme, implausible and bizarre principles of connection. There, I’ve gotten back to the idea of the Principle. Perhaps I should break down my interview shack and hitchhike back from the pond.

August 2003  |  Jacket 23   Contents page
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