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New Lovers: An Interview with Paul Chan

March 10, 2015 | by

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Paul Chan is best known as a multimedia artist, writer, and activist, but in 2010 he added publisher to his long list of achievements when he founded Badlands Unlimited, an imprint with a mission that embraced changes in the way books are created and circulated: “We make books in an expanded field.” Chan’s modest house boasts a list rich in writing and ideas. In its brief history, it’s published, among others, Calvin Tomkins’s collected interviews with Marcel Duchamp, Yvonne Rainer’s poems, Saddam Hussein’s speeches on democracy, and a monograph of curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s notes and hand-drawn diagrams.

This year, Chan and his Badlands coconspirators—Ian Cheng, Micaela Durand, and Matthew So—launched the first three titles of New Lovers, a series of erotic novels written by women for a new generation’s sexual imagination. In Lilith Wes’s We Love Lucy, a young woman throuples up with her best friend and his boyfriend; Wednesday Black’s How to Train Your Virgin tells of a queen in a colorful, fantastic realm who tries to win back the lust of her king; and in God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name, Andrea McGinty tracks a young artist’s worldwide sexual adventures after she begins using a new dating app called Bangly. In short, the books are intended to be colorfully hot reads for the thinking pervert.

I met with Chan to talk about New Lovers a few weeks ago in his airy, light-filled studio in Industry City, Brooklyn. He and his team were in the final stages of completing work for “Nonprojections for New Lovers,” Chan’s solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, organized in honor of his winning the 2014 Hugo Boss Prize. To my surprise, Chan was utterly cool and calm considering the coming storm.

Badlands Unlimited largely publishes art books. How does erotica fit into your mission?

From the very beginning, one of the models for Badlands has been Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, which was one of the craziest, most vanguard presses out there. They funded themselves selling erotica. A year and a half ago, we published a political romance inspired by Michele Bachmann by the poet Trey Sager. It was called Fires of Siberia, and we had a lot of fun doing it. So we thought, Why not explicitly use the model of Olympia Press to do a series of erotic romance books? We’ll focus on women writers, publish them as paperbacks and e-books, and see what we get.

Why focus on women writers?

They write better erotica. We read some manuscripts written by men. We didn’t like them.

What would you say is the difference between how women and men write about sex?

Women write about sex in a way that’s relational. I don’t mean relational as in relationships—more like what Lacan called a knotting point. Sex functions to “knot” together many other things, so that in a way, sex isn’t ever just about sex. Women tended to understand sex and pleasure as knotting points. Men tended to treat sex as an isolated act. In the manuscripts we ended up publishing, the sex isn’t isolated at all. It’s just one aspect of pleasure.

Funny, but that’s the way erotica and pornography are typically distinguished from one another.

Another motivation for this series is vocabulary. I believe each generation needs a new vocabulary for—and new ways to think about—sexuality. New generations can’t use older generations’ vocabularies and grammars because new situations come up. I wanted to work with newer voices, and I was curious to know how they would describe what pleases them. Issues about sexuality permeate culture today, in both its productive and destructive aspects. From the rampant sexualization of young men and women to Bill Cosby to sexual violence, to rape culture in universities—not to even speak of what’s happening on social media. And I feel like sometimes we don’t have the right words or stories to grasp what’s essential or what’s inessential about sex today—what’s worth thinking about, what’s not worth thinking about. It’s not as if I have a grasp on it, but I have a press.

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Badlands Unlimited

Since you’re a visual artist, I wonder why you chose to get at sex and the erotic via language as opposed to art—the word as opposed to the image?

Maybe I’m tired of looking at pornography. It just doesn’t cut it anymore.

I think that we as a culture are visually tapped out on porn, or at the very least we’re at some kind of tipping point.

I’m tapped out. I’m done. The drugs don’t work, but the words still do. That’s the strange thing.

What do you think that’s about?

Me getting old.

That may be, but of course you’re getting at a long-standing conversation about the usefulness of words versus images. Language evokes, images illustrate. An image remains outside of you—a thing apart—whereas a word takes root in the mind and produces …

The “inner image.”

Precisely.

I agree. At the Guggenheim, I’m showing these pieces called “nonprojections,” and in a way they touch upon this idea of the inner image. Imagine a video projector on the floor and the power cord is plugged into a shoe filled with concrete so it looks as though the shoe is powering the video projector. You can tell the projector is on because the fan is going and the lights on top of it are on, but if you look on the wall opposite, you see nothing. But if you were to look into the projector, you’d see the flickering of light and shadows on the lens, almost as if you’re looking at a person’s eyes. That’s where I’m at with images.

When I was making animations and moving image work in the early 2000s, the time was different. Today, we’re surrounded by screens of all shapes and sizes, and they’re everywhere. So maybe it’s because I’m a dinosaur and I just can’t take it anymore, but that sentiment you have about how words can evoke images more compellingly than the images themselves—that feels right to me. I’m not saying we shouldn’t make images. We should. On the other hand, I want to acknowledge this malaise, this tiredness, this … what would you call it?

Exhaustion.

This exhaustion from the polyphony of images. I can’t bear the thought of making erotica visually. On the other hand, I find that I have the energy and time to read and edit erotica. Art is what I do now to pass the time while editing erotic fiction.

NL4Is there any kind of erotica you won’t publish?

At this point, male authors. Is there anything we won’t publish, Micaela?

[Micaela Durand interjects: Sad sex stories. No one wants to read about sad sex. They have it already. Other than that, we won’t publish anything that makes us feel creeped out.]

Funny, but we got manuscripts from people who had experience writing erotica, and we turned them down.

Why?

Because the manuscripts weren’t sexy. They were well-oiled machines with no friction. We ended up liking and publishing manuscripts that were initially kind of awkward. With real sex, there’s sweat, there’s awkwardness. There’s a sort of push-and-pull, so to speak. So if the storytelling machine is too well-oiled, the book doesn’t work. It has to be a little clunky for it to be sexy.

What’s the editing process like? How do you polish a manuscript yet keep it hot and clunky?

The editorial process has just been reading sessions at my house. We get burgers and noodles and we sit there and read. We all go through a manuscript—me, Mica, Matthew, Ian—and we have some outside readers who give us feedback. We’re making up the process as we go along. Once that process is set, maybe our sensibility will change? I don’t know. But we’ll keep going until we run out of money or they throw us in debtors’ prison …

… or the world moves on from wanting to read about sex.

What a future! Full of self-driving cars and all the time in the world to not read about sex! “Self-driving cars are coming, so please stop talking about sex. We don’t want to know what pleases us.” That would be a great erotic novel—Stop Pleasing Us.

Maybe you should write that one.

Can I ask you something? In the field of literature and writing, is it true when men write sex scenes it’s called literature, and when women them it’s called erotica?

My short answer is, Yes, I think that’s true. Speaking very generally, male authors have traditionally owned the domains of literature and pornography, where women are relegated to “women’s literature” and erotica. I think of writers like Pauline Réage or Kathy Acker, women who wrote with what was perceived to be aggressive candor about desire, kink, and not just sex but fucking. They’re still considered “transgressive lit,” whereas, say, Georges Bataille or the Marquis De Sade live on as literature. I think also of Dennis Cooper, who until recently was always shelved as queer lit. There’s the unavoidable problem of heterocentricity with regard to who gets labeled what.

I was talking to a young former editor of erotic romance about distinctions between literature and erotica and the gender breakdowns, and it was interesting. It’s not something I would have thought about before because I’m not sure I know what literature is, but I’m pretty sure we’re not publishing it.

Did that young editor feel that the gender breakdowns were imposed or stemmed from differences in the ways that men and women think about sex?

Forms of inequality.

Yet you immediately noticed differences in the way men and women write about it—hence working only with female writers.

We definitely saw it in the submissions. We definitely saw the pleasure quotient go up and down. At the end of the day, if we take eroticism seriously, it permeates all aspects of our lives. It doesn’t mean we want to have sex all the time, it just means that there are forms of attraction that may not have anything to do with the sexual act. And reading those stories where sex permeates everything—where it’s woven into the fabric of the narrative, character, and plot—it’s just more fun to read.

When I read the first two books in the series, I couldn’t help but giggle at the fact that both writers had a sharp elbow for a certain type of hipster male who are repulsive to the sexually ravenous female. In We Love Lucy, the hipster is a normal, boring guy who fancies himself outré, but whom the narrator considers unfuckable. In How to Train Your Virgin, the author writes, “Ask one and he’d say (the hipster in general, mind you) that he is too clever by far to succumb to romance, passion, abandon.” What do you make of all that?

The moral of the story?

Yes.

Stop sleeping with hipster guys.

The New Lovers series has a launch party tonight at the Guggenheim Museum.

Jennifer Krasinski is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Artforum.com, The Village Voice, Art in America, BOMB, and n+1 Film Review, among other publications. She is the recipient of a 2013 Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

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