No 29.

Dennis Cooper

in conversation with Ryan Mangione

Dennis Cooper is a novelist, critic, director, blogger, and curator. Since 2005, he has split his time between Paris and Los Angeles. Cooper is perhaps best known for his landmark of experimental American fiction, The George Miles Cycle, which is comprised of Closer (1989), Frisk (1991), Try (1994), Guide (1997), and Period (2000). The Cycle is structurally complex in terms of its prose and unsparing in its depictions of violence, drug use, and abject (mostly gay) teenage sex. George Miles, Cooper’s childhood friend and one-time lover, haunts the edges of the Cycle—certain characters bare his name, while others mimic aspects of his troubled persona and boyish appearance. Miles and Cooper fell out of touch in the mid-1980s, following Cooper’s relocation to Amsterdam. Miles committed suicide in 1987; Cooper learned of his death a decade later while touring in support of the fourth Cycle instalment, Guide.

In 1989, Cooper and artist Richard Hawkins curated the show “Against Nature: A Group Show of Work by Homosexual Men,” at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. I was introduced to “Against Nature” by the writer Matias Viegener, who participated in the show, while conducting research on AIDS art for my master’s thesis. In September 2021, Cooper published his first novel in ten years, I Wished, which revisits his relationship with Miles, two decades after the official completion of the Cycle. I Wished is pronouncedly emotional and a stark contrast to Cooper’s previous writing on Miles—the Cycle’s proclivity towards graphic violence and depraved sex finds itself toned down, supplemented by extended meditations on love, altruism, and loneliness. In the interim between The George Miles Cycle and I Wished, Cooper authored the novels My Loose Thread (2002), The Sluts (2004), God Jr. (2005), and The Marbled Swarm (2011). He has also co-written and co-directed two films with Zac Farley: Like Cattle Towards Glow (2015), and Permanent Green Light (2018).

I wanted to speak to Cooper about I Wished and “Against Nature”in tandem, as they both negotiate gaps between the lived experience of loss and the desire for clarity and resolution, be it personal or political. Our conversation circles Cooper’s formal and emotional relationship to artmaking, and the various forms of cultural interference he has encountered during his career—such as the conservatism of American literature, the militancy of AIDS activism, and the pressure to conform to certain understandings of gay identity. The interview was conducted in January and February of 2022.

RM

I thought we could start by talking about reading habits. In a recent interview with Jesse Pearson of Apology, you describe yourself as a voracious reader. At the same time, you note that you often only read 40 or 50 pages of any given book. Correct me if this feels like a mischaracterization, but you seem to construct a very clear hierarchy in terms of what you look for as a reader, with structure almost totally superseding content—once you’ve internalized the rhythmic architecture of a piece, its appeal is largely exhausted.

DC

Depending on the book, but yeah.

RM

I found that detail compelling, seeing as critics tend to largely focus on the content you choose to write about, and not the structure of the books themselves.

DC

Yes.

RM

There seems to be this obsessive focus, on the part of critics, for a small set of themes which recur throughout your writing: abject sex, murder, drugs, young boys, George Miles. How do you, as a reader and as someone who’s work is read by others, square the tension between form and content? Do you start the writing process with a particular piece of subject matter in mind, or do those sorts of details come into focus after you’ve already fleshed out the structure and voice of the book?

DC

It depends. Sometimes I’ll have something that I really want to write about, and then I have to find the right way to write about it. Right now, I’m figuring out what I’m going to do next with fiction. I don’t have anything that is compelling me to write, so I’m just thinking about form. I’m thinking about what I want to do with my voice, what I liked about I Wished, how I want to get away from it.

I have this whole huge resource of stuff. I can ignore it, or I can let myself indulge in it and I’ll find something, because it’s always there. My only concern when I’m writing is how to shape that stuff. It’s there and it just comes pouring out. And then my books talk about it. They talk about it in the only way that I’m able to talk about it. When I was doing the George Miles Cycle books, for instance, I had this one area I was working with. I kept finding new ways to shape it. I had this whole structure set out in advance that I had to work within. It took me a long time to decide what exactly I wanted to write about. And then there are other books where it depends a bit more. With My Loose Thread, I really wanted to write something about the school shootings that were going on at the time. It was a reaction against the way the media was portraying the shootings, the way people were talking about them. It played into my whole thing about disrespect for young people. So, my writing process can really go either way.

RM

Could you expand a bit on what you mean by "disrespect for young people," and perhaps describe how this informed the writing process for My Loose Thread?

DC

When I was still a teenager myself and trying to be a writer, it was clear that the things my friends and I did, thought, believed, and made were being automatically undervalued and negated by our parents and most of the other adults we had to deal with. I didn't understand that at the time. It seemed irrational and authoritarian on the adults' part. It seemed hyper-capitalist: “I have money, and you kids don't, and you're dependent on my money, so I'm more important than you are.” When I got older, I started to realize that a lot of adults are threatened by things that challenge the organization of the lives they've settled on, and that they don't want to be reminded of the days when they were more ambitious and wild and wanted greater from their lives. For some reason, that discrepancy and power play became central to my work. In My Loose Thread, I decided to address that problem primarily, and, at the time, the high school shootings phenomenon was in full swing, and the anti-teenager commentary was very present—all the adults-vs-young-people rhetoric was being made very public—so it seemed like a good time to concentrate on that in my work.

RM

Do you have any specific practices for finding a structure?

DC

That’s a good question. I do a lot of experimenting that never amounts to anything. I always want to change my voice as much as possible from book to book. I try to throw out the last thing. I try a bunch of different little experiments to see how far I can push my preconceived ideas about form and structure. I’ll borrow ideas from films or music I’m listening to, or even books that I’m reading. I’ll ask myself, how can I do what they did, but with words? There’s a part of I Wished that I really like, the last section called “The Crater,” where the paramedics come in. I would like to do something more with that. At the moment, I’m thinking about how I can take what I was attempting there and do something new with it.

RM

You seem to work quite closely with biographical material at times. In I Wished, for instance, one of the main characters is also named Dennis. Much like yourself, he is a writer trying to better understand his confusing attraction to sex, death, and fantasy.

DC

In I Wished it’s all me. That’s the only book I’ve ever written like that. When I go into the Dennis stuff, it’s an attempt to distance myself, because it was an extremely emotional book to write. I had to use these devices to get a grip on it and see everything a little more clearly. I had to copy everything in that book.

RM

Absolutely. At the same time, I Wished doesn’t seem to fit into what we might commonly refer to as autofiction.

DC

Yeah. People keep referring to it as autofiction, but I was never thinking about that.

RM

Maybe this is a generalization, but autofiction, as a genre, seems to adhere to this idea that certain stories, concepts, or experiences can only be represented properly through the perspective of a particular lived position. As McKenzie Wark put it in a recent essay, “autofiction is the literature where the marked self—marks self.” While certain characters in your work share your name, or perhaps specific autobiographical details, you don’t really seem to use them as mediators for representing your lived social position. Could you talk a bit about your relationship to autobiographical writing?

DC

I’m not interested in it at all, really. I mean, I’ve used my autobiography before. I Wished is very different. It’s very personal. I use all kinds of devices to get away from my autobiography – I’m just not that interested. There’s this book I wrote called Guide that’s part of the George Miles Cycle, which is based on one of my groups of friends. It was sort of my attempt to figure out why I could like lo-fi rock and also be really interested in early techno, things like that. There are people in that book that are real people in disguise. So that might be one particular instance where I use my autobiography. But my loyalty is not to my life. Guide is really about non-fiction versus fiction – things that are written as fiction are non-fictional, things that are written as non-fiction are fictional. I would never write a memoir though. I have no interest in doing it. I see myself as a resource, I don’t think my life is interesting and I don’t think anybody is interested in it. The Sluts and God Jr. and the George Miles Cycle, there’s nothing in those books that has anything to do with my life. I lived in Amsterdam when I was writing the George Miles Cycle. I put Amsterdam in there because I felt like I had to take responsibility. It would be really sadistic if I didn’t take responsibility. I think a lot of writers start with autobiography—I’ve just never had that impulse. When I want to construct something, I want to use everything available to me and my imagination to construct it.

RM

Would it be fair to say that these small autobiographical details, like Amsterdam, are about psychological scaffolding, and not about staking some sort of ownership over an experience of pain, or over an emotional landscape?

DC

In terms of Amsterdam, I lived there for two and a half years. I started writing Frisk there and I just couldn’t imagine what happens in that book happening in the United States. Amsterdam has this aura of being some kind of drug and sex fiend fairytale—which it almost was at the time, in the’80s. That book needed to happen in a place like that. I also wanted to get away from Los Angeles. My previous work was all about Los Angeles. So, it’s a combination of what you’re saying and the particular place I was at in life. I mean, The Marbled Swarm is set here [in Paris]. I’m trying to understand where I am in France. I wanted to set it in France and deal with my not understanding the French language.

RM

That makes perfect sense. I want to follow up with the subject of fiction and non-fiction, which you raised briefly in the context of Guide. On the one hand, you write that I Wished is your attempt to set the record straight on who the real George Miles was—or at least who he was to you. At the same time, so much of I Wished displays a sort of open irreverence for factual accuracy. In one instance, you bring in the film adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as a narrative device, only to disclose that you hardly remember the plot of the film. As you put it, “I’ve decided not to fact check what I’m writing, since the movie’s less the architecture of my thoughts than their brunt.”

DC

People are constantly saying to me, “that’s not what the movie is like,” and I’m like, “I know” [laughs]. They’re like, “you want to know it’s really like?” and I’m like, “no.”

RM

Right, right. Could you expand a little bit on this interaction between aestheticization and fact, on the tension between setting the record straight on George Miles and the task of writing fiction?

DC

I had tried to write a different version of the novel, which failed. I had to abandon it and start over. That earlier version was extremely factual. It was completely dedicated to exactly what happened in chronological order. It was completely uninteresting, even to me. I thought that using extreme clarity would be a way to understand him, but it wasn’t. It did help me get the through line clear, though—I had forgotten a lot of things. As I say in the book, I never knew him because he wasn’t a real person. I mean, he was a real person who wasn’t a person. He was an artificial person, because he was so severely bipolar. He had these two warring sides that would be united through medication sometimes. So, there wasn’t anyone, there was no George. How do you represent someone like that? How do you know what they really think, if they’re not whole? I mean, sometimes he was stable enough that you could start to think, “ok, I think this is really what he thinks,” but then it would splinter again. I was trying to figure out a way to represent that in a book. In a way, the fiction is trying to represent him—it’s unreliable, but it’s very sincere. It means well. It’s a very cogent and clear reality, but the reality is suspicious. It was an attempt to represent him in an all-encompassing way, in more than just narrative, you know? It would be like this monument that could embody him.

RM

It feels like distance is a big piece of this puzzle, too. So much of your writing expresses this sense of longing for connection, whether it’s with George, or love, or a death wish. At the same time, there’s this suspicion that constantly resurfaces, this suspicion that what you’re yearning for is not the thing itself, but rather what it’s become in your imagination over time. How do you approach working with memory when you’re writing?

DC

Well, it usually isn’t an issue because I don’t care about writing about anything that’s real [laughs]. I’m more interested in being coherent than I am in saying anything that’s true. There’s a section in I Wished where I recount the night that Dennis meets George, when George is on drugs, and I take him down to the football field. That part is absolutely, completely true. I had to really try to remember every single detail, everything he said, everything I said, because I wanted there to be one section that was completely true. That section was actually a part of the earlier version of the book that I wrote—it was the only part that wasn’t horrible. Other than in I Wished, memory is not something I really think about, because I don’t really work with my autobiography.

RM

Maybe to clarify, I think what I was trying to get at with the question of memory was not so much this notion of accurately recounting autobiographical details, but more so this idea of reckoning with distance and the unreliability of memory—the question of if you can ever really know the person you are trying to represent. The longing for a moment in time, or a certain connection, mixed with this suspicion that that moment or connection might not have ever actually existed—that your sense of it might be trapped in a self-contained loop between you and your projected image of longing. For instance, I recently reread your novella Safe, which stages this type of repeated search for a character, Mark, over three sections, each of which has a different protagonist. Towards the end of Safe, the final protagonist grapples with the death of Mark—he grapples with, on the one hand, this profound sense of loss, and then, on the other, this anxiety about whether or not his loss means anything outside of his experience of it, whether it could ever extend beyond himself. He wonders if there are others, perhaps many others, who experienced Mark’s death in a more profound or universal manner.

DC

I think I do that a lot. It’s so difficult to think about, because it’s a question of how you value yourself. You know what I mean? I’m really interested in pragmatism and logic, because it seems like through that you can find a kind of objective truth. But in situations like what you’re talking about, I don’t know. Like when I was talking about George, I’d search my memory for these moment like, “ok, was that what was happening in that moment? Was that real and was he telling me or showing me something that was really important?” But then it becomes constructed. It becomes a narrative. It’s hard not to see it as a narrative—you’re looking for that moment of clarity. It’s very confusing to me. I write out of confusion. It’s hard for me to answer these questions because I start out by feeling confused and then I try to make words represent the confusion and also dispel the confusion, in some way.

This all really interests me, and I don’t have an answer to it. I want to have been important to George. I made these things and he died before he even saw them, so they were useless. And what could I have done? You know? It’s just all this stuff. He’s a great person to write about because it’s so impossible to write about him, so completely impossible. I mean, he killed himself, so what I was doing didn’t work. He killed himself, so obviously there was something about me that wasn’t enough. That’s a very rambling answer. I write out of confusion a lot, so I end up being confused sometimes.

RM

I’m tracking [laughs]. I’m fascinated by how confusion intersects with love, or with desire. I’m trying to think of other works besides I Wished where this occurs… on second thought, let’s just stick with I Wished, because I don’t know if the word “love” translates quite as well in the context of your other works.

DC

Right.

RM

In I Wished there’s this sort of direct relationship between love and disrespect, which explicitly comes about when you think about making a love object into an art object. There’s one passage where a fictitious version of James Turrell, who is talking about the Roden Crater, says, “I love and disrespect this old thing so much that I’ll devote my whole life to molding it into my greatest work.” To stick with this sense of confusion, there appears to be a push and pull between loving something so much that you want to make a monument out of it, and the fear that, in turning love into an art object, you are somehow degrading love itself.

DC

Yeah. There’s no resolution there. I want this book to find people who knew him. His brother and sister are still alive, and I’ve always wanted to talk to them. I haven’t seen them in a billion years and I had this hope that they’ll find this book, that it wouldn’t just be another one of my cult books that nobody reads. I thought that if the brother said like, “I can’t believe you did this horrible thing to George,” then it would all be ok. Or if he said, “thank you for keeping my brother’s memory alive,” I’d be like, “oh, ok” [laughs]. I know writers who are like, “I have this great vision or insight and I need to put this insight into the world so people can see my greatness.” I’m just not like that at all. I just want to throw this thing out and have it interact with other people’s imaginations and see what happens, you know? I write without having a point or statement to make. I don’t think I have any points that are of any value.

RM

I think part of this conversation about a lack of resolution, or a failure of consummation, has to do with woundedness and loss. In I Wished, as in much of your earlier work, you approach the experience of loss as a precondition for artistic creation. One aspect of loss that I find particularly compelling, especially in the context of literature, is that it seems to exist at odds with a certain prevailing sensibility around writing and art making that has taken hold over the past few decades, particularly in MFA programs. This sensibility, as I see it, orbits around the idea that art begins with a careful attention to craft and process—that good art is a matter of tightening the screws, of constantly refining your process until all that’s left is a well-polished, air-tight piece. Along the way, the role of an initial experience of loss or woundedness becomes less necessary. Whether or not we should be paranoid about the future trajectory of writing and art, there is definitely a sense that ideas like melancholia and transgression don’t have the same sort of cultural purchase that they once did in the ’80s and ’90s.

DC

If you don’t have a sob story, then they don’t respect what you do. You have to take this emotion and make it universal, you know? You have to represent it in this way so that it becomes universal. I mean, in fiction at least, no novel is going to get awards or a New York Times book review if it isn’t deeply emotional in this particular way, if it doesn’t make the reader want to cry or something. In the United States, the powers that be in fiction have always been very conservative. The writers that interest me, and that I think may interest you, have always been really outside. And of course there’s the whole MFA thing. New voices come up, and with very rare exception, they write out of that tradition, they bow to the rules of the novel that have existed forever. They might add a little pizazz or a little bit of juiciness, but they aren’t disrespectful of the novel. As you know, that isn’t so true in France [laughs]. There is serious literature here that is quite popular and totally respected, and yet also quite adventurous.

RM

Definitely. It’s hard to imagine someone like, say, Pierre Guyotat having the same sort of stature here in the States—it’s almost impossible to get a copy of Eden, Eden, Eden in America.

DC

Yeah. I mean, there are a billion books now about Kathy Acker, she’s a big thing. But she was completely marginalized, and still is, by the officialdom. And Burroughs, you know, if Burroughs hadn’t gotten famous for the obscenity trials, he wouldn’t have gotten a huge amount of support from the top either. Metafiction was kind of a moment where the mainstream allowed some of that more radical stuff. But, in general, no, it’s not a tradition in the United States. I always liked Kathy, and I still do, but besides the New Narrative people and a few others I felt pretty isolated in what I was doing there.

RM

This is obviously not a novel or profound thing to point out, but most radical American writers only get taken seriously after they’ve already been dead for a long time. I hadn’t thought to bring this up before, but what was it like to see Wrong by Diarmuid Hester, a critical biography about you? Did you read the book?

DC

[laughs] Yes, I read it. I mean, it was obviously very flattering. There are things in there that aren’t true to my understanding of myself, so that was very odd for me. At the same time, there are a lot of really good things in there. He did some very good readings of some of my work. I like surrendering power—I’m an anarchist and I like that. So, I just ceded it to him and let him do whatever he wanted. He sent me a draft of it, and I was like, you know, “I really actually wasn’t friends with Patti Smith,” or, “punk wasn’t really the thing that changed my life.” There are some things where I’m just like, where the hell did that come from? He toned it down a little bit, but it’s still his thing. It’s flattering to have someone read your work so carefully and so smartly—ultimately, it was a great experience. It was just weird for me to read because he had an approach he wanted to take, and so he fit the work into his approach. Sometimes the work doesn’t really fit. He emphasized things that worked with his argument and then, you know, barely mentioned God Jr. or something, because it didn’t fit. But that’s alright. I mean, what am I going to say?

RM

Right, you need an argument to provide the backbone for the book.

DC

Yeah, it’s legit. It’s totally legit.

RM

To expand on what you were just saying, and to bring it back to Kathy Acker in a way, I believe it was Sarah Schulman who described the proliferation of books about Kathy as being contributions to a growing “My Kathy” genre. It’s interesting, because none of these various accounts of someone like Kathy seem to correspond to a true essence of who the real Kathy was.

DC

Right.

RM

It’s almost better to think of them as tracings of the various networks through which her work has infiltrated a number of different, distinct ways of thinking and writing.

DC

Well, you trust that people are going to find the work and form their own opinion. You trust that the work is strong enough. David Wojnarowicz got turned into this Thing as well. It’s not really David, but it’s great that people are still paying attention to him. But at the same time, I knew David, and I don’t even recognize him anymore, you know?

RM

Yes! It’s funny, I was actually hoping to talk to you about exactly that—maybe now would be a good time to move into talking about the AIDS epidemic and your experience making work in that moment.The last time we spoke, you said something that really stuck with me. I’m going to paraphrase, so please correct me if this is a mischaracterization, but you said something to the effect of, the AIDS epidemic was horrible and depressing to live through, but it didn’t feel like some profound tragedy that vastly outweighed any of the other horrible things that can, and do, happen to people. Or, to put it another way, that the losses you experienced were experienced foremost as personal losses, that they didn’t feel as if they were immediately attached to some greater narrative of mass suffering and loss. I found this compelling, and this is perhaps where the legacy of someone like David Wojnarowicz comes in, because that sentiment seems to fly against the way AIDS is most commonly represented today, which is through the cipher of tragedy. There seems to be this fixation with turning figures associated with the epidemic into political martyrs, as if they were predestined to struggle against this terrible thing and die, and thus pave the way for a better future. Along the way, so much of the complexity of their actual lives and work seems to fall by the wayside—who they actually were is erased in order to serve a present-oriented narrative. Someone like David is a perfect example of this—it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have had severely mixed feelings about, say, that Whitney retrospective of his work from a few years back.

DC

I’m sure beyond mixed.

RM

Have you noticed any shifts in the way AIDS is represented in art and literature?

DC

Do people even make things about it anymore? I did this performance piece with Ishmael Houston Jones called Them in the early part of the AIDS crisis. That was about AIDS. We revived it three times and it’s been this huge success. It wasn’t when we made it, but everyone thinks it is now. At the time people hated it. It was like people felt threatened by it—there were a lot of “shut down the theater” type of responses. And now, people are like, “oh, this is so moving.” When we made it, all the performers were young, they had no experience with AIDS at all. They were all activist kids, but they had no idea what it was like, they didn’t know. Nowadays, when I hear AIDS come up, it’s mostly in comparison to COVID. I never see art about it anymore. People write novels, I guess, but they’re still set in that time. There’s non-fiction about it, certainly Sarah’s book [Schulman’s Let the Record Show].

RM

I suppose most of the contemporary examples I can think of are more mainstreamed, like TV shows and so forth.

DC

Well, it makes sense that I haven’t heard of them, because I don’t watch tv. [both laugh]

RM

Why don’t we move into talking about Against Nature directly. Could you say a bit about the show, for those who aren’t aware of it, and perhaps describe its origin as a collaboration between you, Richard Hawkins, and LACE [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions]?

DC

Yeah. It was 1989, so the height of the AIDS crisis. It was the era of ACT UP and Gran Fury and all of that. The art about AIDS in that era was very didactic, very political. Individuality and personal expression were somewhat frowned upon. It was as if we all had to become this hive mind thing. That was what Richard and I were trying to respond to. Of course, I have enormous respect for ACT UP and Gran Fury and everything, but we wanted to make different types of work—we were experiencing AIDS, and our friends were experiencing AIDS, in a completely different way. We decided to organize a show that featured gay men, but gay men making work that wasn’t explicitly impacted by the AIDS crisis—the AIDS epidemic. The work took all sorts of different approaches. Some pieces were oblique about their relationship to AIDS, and some were very blatant. All the work was centered around what was happening at that time, but not all of it was heavily impacted by AIDS. Some of it was impacted by fear, some of it was impacted by grief. So, we did this show of visual art and performance art and videos, all of this different stuff, at LACE. And it was very controversial [laughs].

RM

The variety of contributors brought together through Against Nature is truly notable. On the one end, you have recent CalArts grads like Doug Ischar and Nayland Blake, and on the other, you have punk and industrial performers like Vaginal Davis and Peter Christopherson from Coil. On top of the exhibited works, there’s also the catalog itself, which, in retrospect, reads almost as a who’s-who of that moment—it features contributions from Gary Indiana, Kevin Killian, John Greyson, and Boyd McDonald, among others. It might help to ground this conversation by bringing in Douglas Crimp’s criticism of the show. Crimp, as you know, wrote a rather famously critical response to the show, cheekily titled “Good Ol’ Bad Boys,” which was later anthologized in his essay collection Melancholia & Moralism. Could you say a little bit more about what made the show controversial, or what you took Douglas Crimp’s response to be?

DC

There was definitely a wing of the responses to Against Nature that was critical. Douglas Crimp was the biggest name, and the most intelligent person, to attack it. We did it to make something happen. We knew there was going to be controversy and, sure enough, Queer Nation did a die-in at the opening and all of this other stuff. We were just like, “geez,” you know? I mean, we’re the enemy? There were activists in the show, there were Gran Fury members in the show. There was a piece which was a computer that had data on the AIDS crisis and the government’s response, so it wasn’t like we were ignoring AIDS. We just thought, here’s a broad array of ways to deal with it, you know? The LA Weekly did this whole attack on it, and their basic thing was like, “we don’t have time for this, this is a war!” That kinda thing. It was intense, but we had a lot of support too. I was being attacked in particular because I was known a bit at that point. I was already the enemy to a lot of the activists, because I wasn’t representing gays in a positive way and I wasn’t dealing with the AIDS crisis in my work in the way that they wanted me to, or in the way that they thought everything should deal with it. It was really quite a moment.

RM

It seems like there’s this sort of tug of war over the social function of art. The “put down your paintbrushes, this is a war” sentiment seems to be rooted in a sense of dire urgency, in which clarity, speed, and sobriety become the hallmark features of socially engaged art. And, at least as it pertains to activism, those attributes are perhaps necessary—they’re the types of attitudes that win political struggles. But something seems to get jumbled when those attributes make the jump from AIDS activism to socially engaged art, period. The criteria that define an effective activist strategy are probably not the same criteria that should define socially engaged art. If I understand it right, that was part of the criticism leveled at Against Nature, yeah? That the works weren’t socially engaged, that they weren’t in conversation with the events and crises of the moment.

DC

It’s stupid. I mean, if there are 15 people carrying signs walking through the show, they’re not necessarily going to want to spend the time to look at the work and engage with it emotionally or intellectually, which is what most of the work required. That’s not social engagement. That’s what happens when people become really activistic about things. That happens now too, in a very different context. For instance, there’s this understanding that we should all be supportive of transgendered artists, but if their work isn’t about being transgender then they’re not going to receive any attention. It’s this attitude that you need to instruct us about what it’s like to be you in order to receive support, you know?

RM

Right. There’s a certain discourse around art, which doesn’t come out of the AIDS epidemic but was certainly intensified by it, that suggests that art should illuminate or inform political strategy and radical movements, that art should be politically instructive. That’s a sentiment that’s been aggressively tacked on to someone like David Wojnarowicz, for instance. He’s constantly framed as a sort of master of activist art, as if his work holds all of these hidden tools within it which, with the proper amount of digging, might help us to better understand our current political moment. It’s a strange thing to expect of art, I think.

DC

Right. David was such a deeply individualistic and personal artist. He never made that kind of work, ever.

RM

I want to stay with Against Nature for a second. Can we talk a little bit more about this schism that emerged between the show and the critical disposition of figures like Douglas Crimp? Part of Crimp’s criticism had to do with this idea that, as gay men, we—“we” being the operative word here—have a responsibility to consider how individual representations of gay life and gay experience might potentially harm a collective whole. This gets at a sort of fundamental difficulty inherent in defining something like “homosexuality” or “gay experience.” On the one hand, attempts to posit a sort of shared identity category, like Crimp’s, draw people together, creating a sort of linguistic container for their collective experience. At the same time, there’s a type of distancing effect baked into this move, too. Insisting that “we” have a shared experience also makes it much easier to identify subjective difference, because we’re working with a shared definition—while we, as gay men, ostensibly inhabit the same category, I may realize that my relationship to gay art, or understanding of gay life, looks drastically different from yours. How were you thinking about a word like homosexuality when you were curating Against Nature?

DC

Oh gosh. I mean, homosexuality provided the parameters for the show. I can’t speak for Richard, it was a very collaborative thing and he has a different take on all of this than I do. But I’ve never been interested in collective identity. I respect people who find it important, but I just don’t care. I don’t bleed by it, I’ve never found it useful, so I never think about it. My being queer is just not one of the more interesting things about me, and I don’t really care to talk about it. Except, you know, in situations where we need to band together to support the disempowered, but that’s obviously a whole other thing. I’m talking about art and personal life. In the context of Against Nature, homosexuality was like an assignment, in a weird way. It was like, “ok, we’ve found this problem and we want to counter it.” So, it was very much about being gay—we said “homosexual” on purpose, of course. I remember Richard would go visit artist studios and he would say like, “well, us fags,” or something, and there would be artists who be like, “I’m not gonna be in the show, you used the word fag.” We wanted it to be all gay men because that would give the show a kind of coherency—there was also a sister show curated a year later that was all lesbian artists. We just thought, we’re going to address this issue and, in this case, it’s about gay men, so we’re going to put only gay men in this show. But it’s really not of that much interest to me.

RM

The show wasn’t meant to be antagonistic from the jump, right?

DC

No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t intended to be aggressive. We just wanted to show that there was this other work going on too, work that had great value and that was powerful. It was just like, “here’s a space where you can see work like this.” People were looking for something to hang an argument on and Against Nature had a buzz around it, so they hung it on that. I don’t know that Douglas Crimp ever actually saw the show—I think he might have just read about it. It was like we were demeaning the activist art by contextualizing it with all of this decadent artwork, or whatever they thought it was. It was just silly.

RM

Did you have much of a relationship with the New York art world at the time?

DC

Yeah. I started writing for Artforum in 1987. I started by writing gallery reviews. So, I was heavily involved in the art world and I had curated shows and all of that.

RM

Right. I think one dimension to the conversation around Against Nature that has gone largely unaddressed is the material and cultural differences between Los Angeles and New York at the time. Part of what made ACT UP NYC so effective was their ability to create a spectacle out of activism. You could take a couple hundred people and stage a die-in in the middle of a busy Manhattan intersection, and a million people might walk by during the duration of demonstration. I don’t think you could ever find a space in LA where that could happen.

DC

It was much more difficult. There was a bit more going on in San Francisco, of course, because it’s very compact. There was a healthy ACT UP wing in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t as effective, both for the reasons that you’ve pointed out and also because the New York version was so strong and so well-known. Everything became a little brother or little sister version of ACT UP New York—I went to ACT UP meetings in New York and a couple in LA and there was no comparison. It was very LA. At ACT UP meetings in New York, people were acting insane and screaming at each other. And then the LA ones were like, “yeah, man.” It was all very mellow and about hugging each other, it’s tough.

RM

In an art world context, LA also seemed to have a very provincial relationship to New York at the time, yeah? There was a slew of conceptual art schools out here and all of that, but the cultural and material landscapes are hard to compare.

DC

Yeah, LA was really backwater in the late ’80s, which made it wonderful. It had a wonderful effect on the artists and writers, it made the scene very strong. It’s not like that anymore, of course.

RM

One more question: what are you working on now?

DC

I make films with Zac Farley, and we are at the last stages of raising money to make our next film. We’ve been waiting to make this film for 3 years. We’re almost to the point where we can do pre-production—we’re hoping to start filming in Los Angeles before the summer. That’s the most important thing to me, right now. I’m also working on another project with Zac, the writer Sabrina Tarasoff, the composer Puce Mary, and these guys in London named partytimeJPEG—we’re making a haunted house video game. It’s kind of an art project, but basically a video game. It’s a haunted house where we’re the stars and exist in the video game itself. We showed a really early version of it at the Pinault Collection here in Paris on Halloween, and now we’re getting funding to finish it. I’m very happy with it. We want to make it playable, so that it’s an actual video game, but if not, it’ll be a walkthrough that we present and tour the viewer through. I’m also trying to put together a collection of short fiction, but I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to.

RM

I lied, I have one more question. Can you talk a little bit more about your fascination with haunted houses? I always think of them as structural experiments of a sort, where different devices and tropes are arranged in order to produce certain affective and emotional responses. Do you see any parallels between the structure of haunted houses and your approach to writing?

DC

There’s a connection there, no doubt. Home haunts are what really interest me—I mean, I love all haunted houses, but home haunts are what I’m most interested in. I almost always go to LA in October and go through like 20 or 30 of them because that’s where most of them are. I made them when I was a kid in my house, so it’s a longstanding thing.

Zac’s and my new film is about a family that builds a home haunt. They’re really fascinating to me structurally, they’re like installation works or something. The form is really interesting, because it’s all about aspiration and the failure of the aspiration. People make them in their houses and usually they’re the monsters, or their kids and their neighbors are. They have a small budget to buy props and build things, so the home haunts are never, ever scary, but they want them to be scary so bad. They have this beautiful ambition to be more than what they are, and I love that sort of stuff. That’s one of my favorite things—things that aren’t, or that can’t be, what they want to be. You go through home haunts and it’s just so sincere. It’s very formal to me. Zac and I go to them together, because he’s really interested in them too. There will be people screaming, and then we’ll be over in the corner like, “oh, that was interesting, I haven’t seen anybody do that one before.” We’re studying them for their formal elements. Kind of like how I read books. They’re so amateurish, which is right up my alley. They’re one of my favorite things in the world.